It was the 29th of June, a Friday (or whatever the local equivalent was really called) afternoon, and Jason was walking along the paths outside the Academy, where the plum trees were blossoming.

He'd exhausted his power for the day already – perhaps he was expanding his capacity, but if so the rate of growth was slow enough that he couldn't tell yet – and so he helping Louise with Levitate practice. By walking next to her while she kept them both about six inches above the dirt.

Guiche had been running drills with his valkyries, as he often did now that the experiments with firearms had begun again. But apparently he'd quit early to set up a tête-à-tête with his ex-girlfriend, because the two were approaching the cherry thicket as Jason turned 'round the corner with his little mistress.

Although given her reaction – smilingly leaning in, little touches on Guiche's arm, and so on – the blonde was seriously considering dropping the prefix.

Well, he's probably been working hard for it, if he missed her like he said. So is he going to give up on the notion of playing the field? Maybe he will. And if not, well, the fireworks should be just as entertaining as the last time.

The last time was apparently on her mind as well, for Montmorency stiffened up as she noticed the two passersby.

Not wanting to embarrass her – and his little mistress seemed too preoccupied with her Levitation practice to notice – Jason nodded to them just before they disappeared into the trees, and continued on.

Let's face it, if they're slipping off like that there's a decent chance some of the clothing's coming off or at least undone in the next few minutes. Let's not cause a scene.

Louise was still so preoccupied with getting in as much practice as she could that she didn't even notice when a knock on the door came for dinner, up in their suite a few hours later.

Given that she was in one of his shirts, and apparently it wasn't Siesta bringing dinner up (she would have just come on in), opening the door and fueling gossip maybe wasn't the best idea.

And there were options for a bit more noise. Besides, it was kinda funny to start the 1812 Overture right at the point where cannons started to fire and watch her stumble.

"You could have just nudged me," she muttered, holding out demanding hands for his help in getting back to her feet.

Jason shrugged as he heaved her up into the air, then caught his little mistress and claimed a quick kiss before setting her on her feet. "You were so wrapped up in practice that you didn't hear the knock on the door for supper. Get dressed, let's not keep the maid waiting outside."

Except there was no maid outside, Siesta or otherwise, just a pair of platters on the ground.

"There was probably something they needed all the maids for," Louise suggested. Then she smiled. "Which means we have dinner alone tonight."

"Makes sense," he agreed as he brought the platters over to the table and laid dinner out. "Is this cherry wine? Ugh, talk about too sweet."

"Don't be silly," his little mistress admonished, grabbing one of the glasses. "The sweeter the better."

"Yeah, but the sweetest thing I've had to eat since coming here has been dried fruit, aside from the ice-cream. And even that wasn't as sweet as people liked it back on Terra. And as our bodies reach final maturity in our twenties, sweet starts to lose a lot of its childhood appeal. I wonder if I could even stand half the treats I used to enjoy."

"Then you can have water, and I'll have both," Louise declared before taking a large swallow of the liquid in question. "Mmm . . . that is sweet." Then she tossed back the rest with gusto before setting down the glass.

As their eyes met, she flushed brilliantly, before giving him a goofy smile that he couldn't help but return. Then he grunted in surprise as she slipped from her chair and into his lap.

"Little mistress?"

"We're all alone tonight, Jason. Don't you love me?" she asked as she lay her head against his chest.

"Of course I do."

Her only response was a happy hum as she snuggled in close.

"Okay, I'm going to guess that this is a cherry liqueur," he said, chuckling. "Alright, little lady. But if you want me to feed you, no biting this time."

"Mm," was her only response for a moment. Then her voice suddenly turned throaty. "Maybe just a nibble or two."

He rolled his eyes, and prepared to offer up his fingers in sacrifice.

Feeding each other for dinner was rather nice, actually. Louise had limited herself to licking his fingers clean rather than biting them, which was . . . nice.

And had the side effect of heightening his amorous awareness of the proximity of her slender curves and delicate scent. Especially with her once more using the sexy voices she'd worked on developing at the Inn.

And her urgency during the making-out that followed dinner had his thought heading in dangerous directions.

She's tipsy, that's what it is, he reminded himself more than once, and then again as they were getting ready for bed. With the smile on her face, accentuated by the blush as she eyed him and played with the hem of the neckline of his shirt that was serving as her chemise-

Well, getting into bed while Louise still had her nightgown on seemed only prudent.

Better give her a scalp massage, that seems to help her get to sleep faster. Except then she demanded a foot-rub and a leg-rub, and delivered a grumpy pout when the thigh-rub was performed over her nightgown and only up to mid-thigh before skipping to her back and then up to her head again, and then finally a second head-rub was enough to put her out.

His own excitement from the evening took a bit longer to subside, as he lay there listening to her breathing, feeling her heartbeat not quite in rhythm with his own. Would have been too easy to get second base into play tonight. Maybe third even. If that was a liqueur, then we've discovered her limit. Good thing we didn't get drunk ourselves. Doubt her parents would have been willing to let us blame it on the alcohol. Need to go talk to the kitchen, make sure this doesn't happen again.

He was used to Louise cuddled up against him when he woke up. He was even used to her ending up halfway on top of him by the time he woke up, whether he was sleeping on his side or not. They were both sleeping better, so as long as no one complained he was happy to let things continue.

But this morning was different. His nightshirt was unbuttoned, Louise resting her head against the actual skin of his chest just under his chin, her breath tickling his chest hair as she lightly snored, her legs straddling his midsection-

His brain locked up for a moment as he did his very best to neither consider the requirements of the geometry of the situation, nor process the exact meaning of the data that the nerves on his belly were sending to his brain.

If there was ever a day where we need to pry Louise loose before she wakes up, that is today.

Slowly, carefully, he reached down and straightened out one of her legs, then the other. Closing them allowed him to gently, gently pull down the hem of her nightshirt to just above her knees.

With this immediate time-bomb defused, he turned his attention to figuring out how to get his nightshirt buttoned back up, but trying to pry her loose without waking her proved as difficult as always, and when he tried to see if he could slide his shirt between the two of them, her eyes shot open.

Her face was still flushed as she smiled at him. Dammit, we made sure she drank some water before bed. She shouldn't still be drunk, it's not like she has our miserable alcohol tolerance.

But while he was thinking that, she reached down to tickle him, then took advantage of his momentary distraction grab her wand from under the pillow. After that it was but a moment before his nightshirt was Levitated off him and flung across the bedroom, as she sat up and admired her handiwork.

"Uh, Louise-"

"You're furry enough to be my very own bear-rug quilt," she interrupted with a giggle, as one finger traced a circle in the hair on his chest. "We'll snuggle better if you sleep like this."

"Oh, won't we just. But-"

She cut him off by leaning over to kiss him, then started planting light, burning kisses all over his face, neck, and shoulders. "I love you," she murmured when she made her way over to one ear to nibble on it. "Love you, love you, love you forever."

"And I love you, my little mistress," Jason replied with a glance to the little mouse statue, and thank someone that it showed the absence of a furry, squeaking spy. "But playing around like this is dangerous."

"Don't care." She hummed as her hands ran down his arms in trails of cool fire. "Doesn't matter. We matter, nothing else."

"Louise, you're still intoxicated from last night. You need to-"

She kissed him again, shutting him up, and when she came up for air she grinned, holding her wand. "I win."

Then she cast Levitate, and he felt his body rising in the air. She giggled again at his dumbfounded expression, then her own expression turned naughty. "Don't need pants, either."

And, horror-struck (with perhaps some anticipation from his baser instincts), he realized that he didn't even have the leverage he'd need to twist and buck her off as she sat back up, turned around, and started fiddling with the draw-strings on his pajama bottoms.

Then he crashed back down to the bed, and, while thanking both God and Brimir that she was still working on Levitation finesse, lost no time in divesting Louise of her wand and putting her in the lightest wrestling hold that Mr. Colbert had shown him.

Washing up took twice as long, with her taking every seeming opportunity to pounce, and getting dressed for the day became an all-out war.

A war, that is, with plenty of tickling and laughing and maybe even a little groping going on, because dammit the war between the sexes was supposed to be full of fraternization with the enemy, but that all cut off when there was a knock on the door.

Naturally, that was the cue for everything to get worse.

Because when he opened the door, Siesta stood there. Her eyes widened as she took in the disheveled state of both himself and Louise . . . and then her face paled, and she threw herself out of the doorway a split second before his little mistress sent an explosion right through where the had been standing.

Diswanding Louise a second time was harder – she was deliberately evading and trying to get past him to the door, presumably to make Siesta-giblets – but his training was still more focused on the physical than hers, so he had the upper hand until she got fed up and Levitated him. Then she smirked and made for the door-

Only to flinch as he flung one of his gloves at her wand. The second his feet hit the ground he sprang for her – please, Gandalfr, let us get this right the first time – and hit a very precise spot on her head with a very precise amount of force from the lead weight in the palm of his other glove.

She had barely begun to collapse when he scooped her, limp in his arms, and let the runes fade.

The door was closed again. Prudent.

"Siesta?" he called. "If you're still out there, it's safe to come in now."

The door slowly opened, and then the maid's head cautiously leaned through. Her eyes widened again at the tableau, but she slowly came in and shut the door. "Jason?"

"What I did, I did without choice. In the name of peace and sanity." He closed his eyes in anguish. Will she be okay? Blows to the head aren't like in the movies, Hollywood and D.C. may not need to worry but the rest of us have brains we keep in our skulls- "But not in the name of Louise. Heaven forgive me."

"Anyone can choose to not use a love potion."

His eyes were already opening in surprise at the maid's tart, annoyed tone, but they shot open at the last two words.

"A what?!"

"Did she say no to you? Was her Vallière pride too much, was that it?" Siesta's voice was remarkably bitter. "If you had to have your fun, you shouldn't torment her by dragging it out. Her mind will be in a frenzy until you claim what you've stolen."

"Whoa!" He sat down in one of the chairs, still holding his unconscious mistress. "First of all, if I came to Louise and told her I needed some . . . carnal release, we'd be able to work something out. Hell, there's stuff that you don't even need Maiden's Balm to cover up. And we could probably find some of that, if we needed to."

"And if the Headmaster ordered this room searched, he wouldn't find any hidden away?" Her tone was disturbingly skeptical, and Jason flushed.

"From what I understand, there is a bottle. From her eldest sister. Believe me, that one needs to stay sealed and unused."

Siesta's expression was still highly skeptical.

"Look, when Louise wants to get up to mischief, well, let's see, hmm . . . at the end of last week she decided to drag me into the ladies' bathhouse and then try to trick me into thinking you'd both taken your towels off! Do you really think I'd need magic to get her to fool around with me?"

"You don't 'fool around' while I'm there."

He blinked. "Are you, uh, expecting me to fool around with the two of you together? This isn't one of your books, Siesta."

She sat down in the chair next to him, then reached over and lightly traced the forming bump on Louise's head, before giving him a very direct look. "So how long will it be before she wakes up, if you want privacy with a girl?"

Jason's eyes widened slightly. "I tried to hurt her as little as possible. Given how she reacted to just the sight of you . . . I need some quick answers. Like, who would want to slip her a love potion?"

Siesta look turned skeptical again.

He sighed. "Yeah, I know, I'm the prime suspect. Gonna try not to get irritated about that, 'cause I know exactly how innocent I am. So who else?"

She shrugged. "Miss Zerbst flew off several days ago with her Gallian friend. I don't know who else might be spiteful enough, who hasn't already left for the summer."

"Shit." Such an obvious possibility, too. "Okay then, let's attack it from the other end. How do I get the effect dispelled?"

"If you are innocent of wrong-doing, go to the Headmaster."

"Yeah, that sounds . . . wait." Jason paused as a horrible though occurred to him. "If he investigates everything that we've done recently, do you think that mischief like the towels or the splash-fight – you know, in a pool in the ladies' baths – counts as 'abusing my proximity to my mistress'?"

Siesta stared off into the distance for a moment, then giggled. "From what I've heard, he'd be disappointed you didn't invite him to join in."

That got a bark of laughter out of Jason. "Yeah. Does he really take female form to go bathe with the maids?"

"Does he-" Siesta's mouth dropped open before she covered it with one hand. "That sneaky old lecher!"

"I'll take that as a 'probably'. So the real question might be, how would Louise's family react to whatever report he feels necessary to send them, after the investigation?"

Siesta thought about it for a moment. "They'll have you drawn and quartered."

He winced. "That bad? Really?"

"Her father's a Duke, you know. If they think there might be a scandal because their youngest daughter is involved with a commoner? They'll definitely have you killed."

"Shit!" And that is plausible. They made their opinion pretty clear when they came just short of ordering her to find us another woman to room with. "That means I need to take care of this on the down-low. There anyone nearby who does black market potioneering? Someone we could hit up for an antidote?"

Siesta tilted her head. "You mean someone like Miss Montmorency? The young lady that de Gramont has been courting again?"

Jason blinked. "She does potions?" She did say healing wasn't her main course of study. Guess we got too used to her playing healbot to pay attention.

The maid nodded. "She's one of the ones who has a solid reputation, too. She doesn't even roll new First Form students who wouldn't know any better. And I hear she's said she'd rather have steady work than waste time on intrigue or blackmail."

"Sounds like a wise lady," he replied, nodding in approval. "I guess the next thing to do is go to Guiche, then, and get an introduction."

Moving quietly through the Academy was easier at night, but at least most of the students were gone during the summer, so there was hardly any risk of someone spotting them on the way. Which meant Jason, Louise, and Siesta were able to make it to Guiche's bedroom suite without anyone raising an alarm.

Which anyone they encountered might well have, since Louise was still unconscious and being carried in his arms.

Once there, he nodded to Siesta, then jerked his head to the door, since his arms were occupied.

"You want me to knock?" she asked, dubiously. "De Gramont is one of the boys they've been warning us to avoid for the last year."

Which was a fair point, given the boy's wandering eye. "Can you hold Louise for long enough while I talk to him? I'd rather not chance him raising an alarm out of surprise."

Siesta considered Louise. "Maybe before you showed up. But she's become more . . . solid, recently."

"Yeah, the muscle from exercise will do that." Getting her to jog regularly had been a moment of sheer genius. But muscle is heavier than fat, so she'd undoubtedly put on a bit of weight as her thighs and hips transitioned steadily from a soft nice to a willowy muscled yum! "Look, just knock and I'll take over once he opens the door."

She rolled her eyes. "He'd better stay focused on pursuing Miss Montmorency." Then she walked up to the door and knocked, while Jason stayed against the wall, out of sight unless Guiche actually came out into the hallway.

The door opened, a look of surprise crossed Siesta's face, there was a brief conversation that Jason wasn't quite close enough to hear, and the door quickly shut. She then rejoined Jason, still looking flabbergasted.

"That was Miss Montmorency at the door!" she whispered. "I can't believe . . . how did he-?"

"That must have been one hell of an apology he gave her," Jason whispered back. "I knew she was allowing him to spend time with her, but to spend the night . . . you realize you can't gossip about this, right?"

Siesta looked betrayed. "But, this is prime news! Do you know how much betting goes on below-stairs about who is sleeping with who? This just ended three different pools!"

"Really?" That's, uh- "Win anything?"

She shrugged. "Win and lose. I'll come out about twelve pence in silver ahead, I think. But only if I let the right people know!"

And with her having to send money home, like she's said, that's probably a windfall she could use. "Well, if you've got to, can you try to leave us out of it? In the meantime . . . ugh, I wanted to get Guiche on my side before I talked with Montmorency. Damn. Okay, this potion: How likely is it to wear off within the next few hours?"

Siesta got a thoughtful look. "It might. Cheap potions are like that. Do you have any idea when she took it? This morning, perhaps?"

He shook his head. "I doubt it. She's been like this since she woke up. Hell, really she's been acting like this since she drank . . . oh, hell. Since she drank the cherry wine last night."

"Jason, you just went white as a ghost. What's wrong?"

"There were two cups of wine. Whoever did this was targeting the both of us, trying to make us go at it like rabbits." Which, aside from the inevitable consequence of powerful, wizardly, utterly enraged parents out for our blood, doesn't sound like such a bad idea. Stupid consequences. "Something that would get me killed pretty damn quick, unless the effects die down afterward?"

"It depends on the potion." Siesta shrugged. "Some are supposed to be so good at feeling like real love, that after the potion wears off the victim can stay in love as if it had been real all along."

"That would still get me quickly slain. Romantic love ain't exactly rational." And surviving our courtship of Louise requires keeping it secret from everyone for a while longer. The effects on her are a little too obvious for that. "Anyway, the odds are fairly good that this one will last for more than today?"

"I don't know." She shrugged again. "But it could be."

"Right. Okay, if I were to go to the Princess, any chance she'd fix this without telling anyone?"

"I don't . . . don't you know Her Highness much better than I?"

"Huh. Yeah, I guess I do. But not enough to say how she'd react. And it seems like everyone who hears about this thinks I'm responsible." Jason grimaced. "Which I have to admit is reasonable. Wrong, but reasonable."

"So far I'm the only one-" Siesta had the grace to look a bit sheepish. "Most any woman you talk to will have her suspicions." She looked thoughtful for a moment. "What's Her Highness like?"

"Um-" How do we describe it? Ah. "You know how you and Louise have a friendship based around mischief and naughty books?"

She snickered and nodded.

"Seems to be about the same. Her Highness is happier when the two of them can relax from having to be perfect proper princesses, and apparently getting into mischief was a favorite childhood pastime."

"So Miss Vallière isn't just being nice to me for your sake." Siesta blinked a few times. "I . . . you can't ever be sure, with the nobles. I'm glad she-"

She shook herself. "Shouldn't you go knock on that door before someone comes along and finds us?"

"Uh, yeah. Probably." He'd been putting it off, because if Montmorency didn't help, he didn't really know what to do next. But every minute was some slight risk of discovery, so Jason shifted Louise until he was cradling her like a small child, walked over to the door, and knocked.

After a few seconds, the door began to open. "I thought I told the last one, we don't need-"

The blonde – who looked quite disheveled – froze as she saw him standing there.

"Montmorency? I'm sorry to trouble you at this early hour, but there's a problem with my-"

Then he had to throw himself to the side like a bat out of hell as she pulled her wand and conjured some sort of liquid in his direction, which sizzled and fizzed as it hit the other side of the corridor.

He spun back around, made sure that his shoulder sans little mistress was the one facing the door, and slammed into it with all the force that his bulk and recently acquired muscle could muster.

The door only struck Montmorency a glancing blow as it flew open inward, but that was enough to stagger her. Jason's battle-power screamed at him to secure her wand – had he even said something to trigger the runes? – so he plucked it out of her hand before she could recover enough to cast again.

Or before the door finished opening. It hit the wall with a sudden crash right after. "Monmon?" came a sleepy voice from the bed. "Wha-?"

"Shhhhh," she replied, hurrying over to the bed. "It's nothing," she said soothingly, as she stroked a forehead with blond curls. "Go back to sleep."

"Love you," Guiche told her as he drifted back off.

Montmorency then came back to the doorway. "I hope," she said quietly, "that you're willing to keep matters strictly between us."

"Well, I'm hardly thrilled about being attacked!" Jason snapped, albeit equally quietly. Her need to do violence seemed to have faded, so he let his runes fade as well. "But I do need your help."

"You would, yes." She laughed bitterly for a moment. "How did you reason it out?"

"Reason out-?" He froze as the pieces fell into place. "That was your cherry wine, last night!"

Montmorency nodded. "With the ingredients I had to use, cherry wine was the best base available."

"What. The. Hell!?" he hissed, sheer rage rising up for a moment, before he forced it down. "What did we ever do to you?"

"What did you do to me!?" she hissed back. "You ruined Guiche. Now all he cares about is his own lust!"

That gave Jason a quick coughing fit, as he tried to hold back sudden laughter. "Pretty sure," he finally whispered, "that Guiche was looking to cut a swathe through the maidens here long before I showed up."

"No, he was courting me-"

"And that other girl."

"He was serious about me!" Montmorency's voice rose slightly, but then she looked to the bed and quieted back down. "That First Form girl just caught his eye, that's all."

And de Nile is just a river in Egypt. "All right then, how how did I mess this up for you?"

"After he started training with you, he came to me with the most blasphemously absurd theory of debauchery imaginable. And he got that from you!"

Jason tilted his head. "I advised him to be honest about what he wanted." He looked over to the table. "Mind if we sit down?"

She glared at him a little, but led him to the chairs.

"Now, I also pointed out that some girls don't care as much about putting marriage before bed-sport, but that's kind of stating the obvious. I mean, Kirche von Zerbst is also Second Form, you all have classes together, even."

"He thought he could treat me like that. That after everything he'd said to me, that we could . . . and not mean anything, and just be friends, after!"

"I'm sorry. I did point out to him that, as angry as you were that morning, you weren't likely to agree to anything casual." Jason took in a deep breath as the obvious finally clicked. "But here you've gone and given him the full Monty. Which means you dosed him, just like you tried to get us."

"I-!" Montmorency paused for a moment. "He all but pledged himself to me. He had no right to betray me."

Jason gaped for a moment at the sheer chutzpah of the implication, then rolled his eyes. "Why oh why do I have the sneaking suspicion that the grownups would strongly disagree with that."

She hunched in slightly, but didn't respond.

"The thing is, though, why try to get me and Louise? It's not like anyone would be surprised if it looked like he'd sweet-talked his way back into your good graces and then your bed."

It looked like she was about to say something, but then changed her mind.

"About the only thing I can think of is that in a couple of months most of the students return and . . . oh. You didn't think he'd stay faithful without help."

This got a glare, but again no reply.

"What, were you worried that we'd notice he was too devoted to you?"

"Yesterday," she growled, "you and he could revel in the thoughts of your heathen notions of debauchery-"

If he'd been drinking anything, that would have caused a spit-take. "Uh, that's really not-"

"And today he'll be devoted to me alone," she continued, clearly not listening. "Of course you'd have noticed."

Jason sighed and shook his head. "The funny thing is, Monty, I doubt I would have. Guiche missed you a lot, these last few months."

"Then this is something he should want," Montmorency insisted. "It's dishonorable for a man to love a woman and then stray from her."

"Unless his family's rich enough that he thinks he can support a mistress or two." A thought occurred. "Have you asked him if his family's arranged a marriage for him?"

She flushed almost puce for a moment, and when she opened her mouth, no words came out for several moments.

The implication has her pissed. Good!

Finally she breathed in deep, nostrils flaring. "He isn't that rich. He has an allowance for his upkeep, not holdings or estates. So anything that will help him behave honorably is only to the good."

"Well, I am foreign," Jason said, putting in some effort to sound agreeable. "I'm sure you know best, so why don't we just go the Headmaster and get this misunderstanding cleared up."

This time she paled, and her wand-hand twitched.

"Yeah, thought so," he told her, his eyes narrowing. "Although having acid conjured in my direction was a pretty big clue."

"You shouldn't have been willing to take five steps from her bed until this evening, at the earliest. How did you avoid-?"

"I'm obviously not going to say," Jason growled. "You know, Monty, you tried to get me and Louise out of the way by dosing us, and then you tried to kill us. Do you realize you would have had to kill the maid, next?"

"The . . . oh." Her eyes widened.

"Yeah. I was actually coming here to talk to Guiche. Because I didn't know, yet." And if you didn't think out the consequences of your little tantrum, then how about you choke on this! "And the next thing you would have had to do was dispose of our bodies. And then kill anyone who noticed you doing that."

"I-" Montmorency paled again, and looked rather sick at the thought. "I didn't mean to do anything like that."

"Too. Damned. Bad. Monty. That's one of the problem with just killing people on the spot. You end up having to kill anyone who notices that you're going around murdering people. And do you know the problem with that is?"

"I swear I had no desire to butcher innocent people in the sight of Brimir!" she exclaimed faintly, sounding almost like she was going to vomit.

"Yeah, aside from that." Jason leaned in, glaring at her and holding her gaze as she shrank back in her chair. "The problem is," he told her, quietly but viciously, "under the best circumstances, where a, what, Line?, manages to somehow take down an Archmage? The problem where you win?"

He sat back, and went on in a deliberately cheery voice: "Well, by then, everyone's dead, the Academy's in ruins, and in the chaos you've lost you ha- . . . your boyfriend, your familiar, and maybe even your wand. And a plan where you lose all that is-?"

Montmorency responded by running to the toilet and being noisily sick.

He blinked, and the latest pulse of anger sank away. Huh. Maybe Jäger-style reasoning a little too much, there?

Then he leaned over to look at the blonde, who remained bowed over the toilet, retching. She looked to be taking awhile, so he shrugged, got up, went to the door, looked around for Siesta, and gestured the maid over.

"I think I can reach an accord with her," he said quietly. "But if she starts chucking more acid, I need you to run for help."

"How would she? You have her wand," the maid pointed out.

"I don't have Guiche's wand. And I'd thought Louise would be starting to stir by now. Which means I'd like to have a qualified medica check her over, and Monty's the closest we've got."

Siesta nodded, expression dubious, and took up a position to peer through the doorway and watch for violence.

Jason went back to his seat, making sure he had a view of the door, right as Montmorency emerged from worshiping at the porcelain altar of Guiche's pot de chambre. She worked her mouth a few times, chewing on nothing. "I need my wand to clean my mouth out."

"Uh-huh. Consider that an incentive to rebuild trust between us."

"Trust?!" she barked incredulously. "Trust you, who can speak so freely of . . . you're a monster!"

You dare, who-! But he took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, through flared nostrils, as he counted backwards from ten. In Latin. Decem, novem, octo, septem . . .

"Monty," Jason finally replied in a tone as bone-dry as the look he gave her, "I do not think you want to learn whose blazing finger etched the runes that are on my hand. But I am what I am, and so far that has proven to be what my mistress needs."

She squirmed, and looked away after a moment. "Do you really have to keep pretending to be her familiar? We're not in public, after all."

His eyes narrowed, and he pulled off his left glove. "Look at me, Monty."

Maybe he had activated the runes without saying anything when she'd conjured acid at him. It had been a sudden threat, and now wasn't the time to screw around. "I am the blade of my mistress."

Montmorency blinked as the runes began glowing, and Jason smiled grimly. "Either I'm a familiar, or I've foreign magic the likes of which you've never dreamed. Which thought is less troubling to you?"

She looked away again. "What do I need to do to get my wand back?" she finally asked, very quietly.

Jason nodded his head towards the unconscious girl in his arms. "I had to hit Louise to keep her from hurting someone this morning. I need you to check her, make sure she's okay."

"That's why she's still asleep?"

He raised an eyebrow at the question.

She flushed. "Guiche wouldn't stay asleep until he'd completely . . . spent himself. I was . . . I couldn't imagine . . . you wore her out and you're already awake . . ." She blushed harder with every fragment of a sentence.

"I-" Wait! She does not need to know how complicated this is. "You have no idea how long it took to get her to go to sleep last night."

And since Jason had made he'd be facing Siesta and Montmorency wouldn't, he got to see the maid clap her hands over her mouth to muffle her reaction to the implication.

The blonde shook her head. "Lucky girl," she muttered. "But I'm going to need my wand."

"I know. So here's how we do this. I'll set Louise down in this chair, then I'll stand behind you and give you back your wand. You do what you can to make sure she'll be fine, then you'll surrender your wand again."

"I'll what?!" she yelped. Then she clapped a hand over her mouth and glanced, almost fearfully, at the bed.

But Guiche didn't stir.

"Why would I want to-"

"Well, you wouldn't want to. But after the acid, I'm going to demand it."

"I-" Montmorency looked slightly sick again. "I'm not going to try to kill you, by Brimir I swear it."

"Oh, don't worry. We'll discuss all that in a little bit."

She looked, in response, like she was sucking on a lemon, but finally nodded.

"I'm going to clean my mouth out first," she said, once he was standing behind her and she had her wand back.

"Fine by me," Jason told her. But he also kept a hand ready to snatch the wand back if she started to cast anything at him.

She didn't, though, and after sighing with relief at getting the taste of vomit out of her mouth, she went to work on Louise. Which consisted of casting three spells on her, then watching anxiously for a long moment. Until finally the little rosecrown blinked, and started to come to.

And it was clear that she had just started to get her bearings when Montmorency, with a very aggrieved hunch to her shoulders, held up her wand to surrender it once more.

"No!" Louise wailed, standing up in her chair and launching herself at Jason. "Don't take her wand! You take my wand!"

"I already did that," he pointed out, stroking her back and trying to calm her down.

She responded by burying her face in his neck and getting started on what was going to be the mother of all hickeys, if he didn't get her detached at some point.

Montmorency had twisted in her seat to avoid being bowled over. Now her mouth opened, then shut, and she blushed crimson.

"Wha-?" Then a horrible suspicion overcame Jason, and he turned enough to check on Siesta.

Who was also blushing, but with a wide smile and bright eyes. And when he caught her eyes with a questioning look, she gave a definite nod.

"Oh. Take away the average noble's wand and they're helpless. Of course you people have dirty stories about that." So when did Louise ask for books where that happens, and what was she trying to find out? 'Cause let's face it, vampires are a rape-metaphor going back to Victorian Dracula, and somehow they're also considered smexy, even by women who are supposedly smarter than average. So let's not look down on the locals for their entirely predictable varieties of smut.

"I'm sure I wouldn't know what you're referring to," Montmorency said with a truly admirable attempt at lofty dismissal.

"Good," he replied. "Let's just get back to the matter at hand. Namely, fixing Louise the rest of the way."

"M'fine," she mumbled, still en-hickey-fying his neck.

"Shhhhh, you're more than fine, you're amazing," he murmured back to her. That got her to sigh happily and melt into his arms a bit more.

But Montmorency was watching, and her expression grew more dubious by the second. "She's acting like you haven't done anything!"


"She's supposed to be in love, but not . . . the crazed obsession is supposed to end once you've taken her to bed!"

"Followed, shortly thereafter, by my execution at the hands of outraged parents. Who are both landed nobles and powerful mages. If I take her to bed," and never mind that they actually were sleeping together, but only in the literal sense, "well, I'd have to be crazy."

The blonde looked slightly appalled. "She won't give up until you've given her what she wants."

"Technically, Monty, you mean until I give her what you've raped her mind into needing." That got her to wince, and he pressed his advantage. "So, to use a colorfully rustic idiom of my homeland, it's time for you to shit me out an antidote."

"I can't . . . I don't-" She broke off, swallowing, as his eyes narrowed. "Some of the reagents are . . . you aren't an apothecary, you wouldn't understand the details, but I made sure to brew a good potion! The antidote has to be just as good."

"Okay. And?"

"I'll need the best reagents I can possibly get. Robin can't find all of them in the Academy's hinterlands, either. And I don't even know if my supplier in Menenville has the right quality."

That was not good. "How long will it take to check?" Jason asked, letting his displeasure rumble into his voice.

"I . . . I can send a bird. We should get a response by mid-morning."

"You do that, then. And let's pray we get lucky."

The letter, fortunately, proved very quick to write, and Montmorency had it finished by the time Siesta returned with a bird.

They all watched the bird fly off. Aside from the sleeping blond and the enchanted rosecrown, both of whom were otherwise occupied.

This was easier when she was unconscious, Jason reflected as he firmly redirected a hand that was trying to slip under his shirt. Good thing she's manageable as long as we're giving her some attention. But we need to keep the situation under control. "I'm going to be taking Guiche's wand too, of course."

Montmorency grimaced. "Of course. He left it in his shirt," she offered, clearly trying to establish herself as cooperative.

"Thank you. Siesta?"

The maid quickly retrieved it, and brought it over to Jason.

"I'm only being-"

She started giggling.


The giggling turned into snickering.

He sighed. "Please, stop laughing!"

"But, three wands! In only one morning!"

His eyes widened, and if he hadn't had his hands full of wriggling little mistress, Jason would have face-palmed. "I already told you, this is not one of your books!"

A naughty grin spread across her face. "Not yet, but the day is still young."

He groaned. "Dammit, woman. Look, can you go get us breakfast? Discreetly?"

"All alone with three mages, having already seized their wands-"

"Siesta, quit it!" he whined.

She laughed, winked, and bounced out the door.

Jason waited until she was gone, then shook his head and turned back to Montmorency. Who was once again blushing. "So how, uh, safe is it to talk around . . ." he trailed off.

"Guiche may understand that your . . . your . . . that Miss Vallière is affected," she replied, looking rather grateful at the change of subject. "He won't believe he is, and he'll insist on believing the best of me."

"Sounds like the effect protects itself. Makes sense. And Louise?"

She shook her head. "I don't . . . no one uses these just to ignore . . . it'd be madness!"

This! IS! . . .

Naaaaaaah. "It's already illegal and immoral as hell. Probably even fattening. Back to my little mistress?"

"I don't . . . I think she'll stay focused on you, the way she is now. The way she's ignoring me."

"Okay. I guess I can handle that at least for the morning. So what are we going to tell Guiche when he wakes up? 'Cause when Siesta gets back, the food might do it."

"I-" Montmorency paused. "If I explain things to him, he'll be inclined to believe me."

"Sounds like we'd better get our story straight, then."

She looked thoughtful, and then nodded.

Jason's eyes narrowed once more. "And if you're thinking of casting me as the villain, Monty . . . let me just say that you have not seen me begin to get creative." Hell, probably all we'd have to do is tell Louise to stun 'em both. We've got the wands, after all.

Montmorency shivered, quickly nodded again, and they settled in to wait for breakfast.

And indeed, the smell of five appetizing meals, when they arrives, quickly roused the somnolent blond from his slumber.

"You sent for breakfast, Monmon?" Guiche asked, yawning as he sat up. Then, as his eyes focused, "What are you doing in my chamber, you-! Jason? Miss Vallière? What are you two doing here?"

Jason raised his eyebrows as he gave Montmorency a look.

"Someone tried to attack Miss Vallière by putting a love potion in her food," the blonde told her lover.

He gasped. "That vile fiend!"

She cringed.

Which Guiche didn't notice, as he directed a concerned look towards Louise, who continued to act obsessively affectionate towards her familiar. "Have you taken thought on who could have done it?"

Jason did his best to look clueless. "I didn't even realize why she was acting like this until this morning. My people don't have magic potions, after all. But my maid said that Monty's an expert, so we came to ask your help in going to her, and she was, uh, already here."

"You've agreed to help her?" the blond asked his lover.

She quickly nodded. "With nearly everyone gone home for the summer, we couldn't think of anyone left who might be responsible, unless someone crept in the way Fouquet did back in April."

Or whatever they really call their fourth month, Jason reflected. But it's definitely more convenient this way than trying to remember which of a dozen new names goes where in the calendar.

"That's so generous of you!" Guiche exclaimed, before he frowned. "But do they need to stay in here?"

Shit, if we're left alone with Louise . . . and Siesta's already shown as least a little willingness to try to take advantage of the situation- "Uh, breakfast has already been set out."

A pair of puppy eyes were directed pleadingly towards Montmorency.

Who looked rather conflicted. But who caught Jason's unamused expression when she glanced his way.

She shook her head. "We're waiting on a response from Menenville. Until then, if someone finds Miss Vallière in this state they might suspect her familiar, since she is fixated on him."

Guiche hung his head mournfully.

Siesta left after breakfast to deliver their excuses to Mr. Colbert and run interference, with the promise to come back as soon as she could after the reply came in. Leaving Jason the only voice of sanity in the madhouse.

There'd been a time or two in college when a roommate ought to have put a sock on the doorknob. Nonetheless the awkwardness of those mornings managed to pale in comparison to the present, since this time Jason couldn't leave and let the couple get back to their bouncy-bouncy.

Probably won't be as awkward as the day we have to meet Louise's parents, though. Hopefully we'll survive that, and hopefully we won't have to be constantly rubbing her back to keep her quiescent. Won't look good.

But finally, the messenger bird returned. Montmorency opened the letter it presented and read quickly, but about halfway through she carefully blanked her expression.

"Is that the message Jason needed?" Guiche asked. "If you can give him his answer, then we can start the day properly."

She didn't reply immediately, clearly thinking her answer over.

You know, if it weren't for the potion involved, we'd have to feel guilty for cockblocking him. Hell, if we manage to survive getting married to Louise, a private and passionate morning-after is going to be what we expect, too.

"I . . . let me get you a strengthening draught," Montmorency finally responded. He drank what she produced without a quibble, and quickly slumped over in his chair.

Jason's eyebrows shot up. "You dose him, and go to his room for a night of passionate love-making, and you bring a sleeping potion?!"

"I didn't, not for him! It was . . . some of the things you hear-" She flushed, then continued in a lower voice, almost muttering. "I wanted to be sure I could sleep afterward, no matter how much it hurt."

"Oh." Um. And how to word this delicately? "So long as the key is fit to the correct lock, and the, er, armsman isn't looking to fit a greatsword in a dagger's sheath, there shouldn't have been that much pain." And let's hope that's not a problem for us, when the time comes. We may not have an exaggerated pornstar dick, but she is a lot smaller than we are.

"No, it wasn't that bad . . ." The blonde trailed off, grimacing. "But he wouldn't fall asleep when he was done like he was supposed to!"

Jason snorted. "Falling asleep right after is when you're both a bit drunk – say at a festival – and he filled your head with sweet words in the heat of the moment, and he's just happy to have an armful of warm, pretty girl for the night." He paused, then shrugged. "Get him drunk enough and the girl doesn't have to be that pretty.

"Anyway, given that it's called a 'love' potion, last night would have felt like something special for him. Like a wedding night, even. On a special night, you try not to fall asleep for as long as you can." He shrugged again. "You know how I said Guiche missed you? He might have been like that even without the potion."

Montmorency grimaced. "I'd have prepared numbing salve if I'd known that. I healed myself before going to sleep and I'm still sore."

That got a raised eyebrow. "Sounds like you know a potion for every occasion."

"They're convenient," she retorted. "Especially when circumstances are delicate. 'Oh, I don't make that potion, but I can get in touch with someone who might.' Or, 'Oh, no, I don't need it, but I have a friend in a difficult situation.' No one really wants to know who is doing what when matters need to be kept sub rosa."

"Because that way, if one person gets caught they don't get everyone in trouble. Fair enough." Jason tilted his head. "And with that out of the way, let's talk about what's in the letter that you didn't dare talk about in front of Guiche."

She grimaced again. "I thought it best to be able to speak freely, that's all."

"Yeah, figured that. Which implies it's going to be a leetle more complicated than, 'They have what I need, delivery's on the way, this should be cleared up by nightfall.' Or am I wrong?"

Montmorency's expression went blank once more. "There may be some supply difficulties."

He raised an eyebrow and held out a hand for the letter. Reluctantly – very reluctantly – she handed it over.

Her contact had been discreet. There was no mention of love potions, merely a description of a broad range of available materials. But while Jason didn't know the standard market value of the listed reagents, the fact that many were priced in the high hundreds of écu didn't seem very encouraging.

He looked up from the letter. "As you said, I'm not an apothecary. So, how much for the antidote?"

"There's been high demand recently for the more potent reagents," Montmorency began.

"How. Much."

She winced. "Just over 4,000 écu. Double that if this is to be resolved before July begins. I . . . lack the means, and they won't give me that much on credit. Unless Miss Vallière has it?"

Twenty times what the princess gave us for the Bruxelles mission, if we don't want to have to hide our little mistress all weekend? Her tips won't even begin to cover the rest, and if she had that kind of money from her parents, why would she have been complaining in the first place about not being able to afford a horse?

On the other hand, can't hurt to ask. "Louise? Do you get any kind of allowance from your parents."

She sighed into the hickey she was building, and it wasn't until he was about to repeat the question that she responded. "A little. Don't use much."

But a little, multiplied by a year-and-a-half of living here- "So where do you keep it?"

Again the delay. "Deposit. Headmaster's secretary."

Hell and damnation. "So much for that. If I'm showing Louise in her present state to the faculty, I might as well go to the Headmaster and be done with it."

Montmorency blinked. "Why wouldn't you-" she broke off, looking thoughtful. "What is it you've done, that you wish to avoid official attention?"

"You mean aside from anyone's natural assumption that the commoner living with the young noblewoman would be the one to dose her?" Jason sighed. "Obviously I'm on thin ice with her family as it is."

The blonde's eyes narrowed. "They've allowed you to live with her all spring."

"No, Monty," he flatly denied. "They've tolerated me living with her all spring. Because I don't care what you thought, I'm really her familiar. There I was, living my life, and poof! Pulled away from everything I know to help out a complete stranger in a faraway land. I'd like to think I'm doing an okay job, but nobody asked anyone's permission before this happened. Y'know, springtime ritual. Permission not needed, when it's just an animal before being summoned. Hell, as far as I can tell Louise was as shocked as I was, to see me there."

"'As far as you can tell'?" Montmorency repeated. "Are you saying you couldn't hear what she was yelling?"

Jason shrugged. "I could hear it, just couldn't understand it. You know how familiars are supposed to know what their master wants? Well, for me that works by letting me talk in your language. But it's still an auxilum, and until she bound me I wasn't yet her familiar."

"If she wasn't acting," came the slow response, "then she was both amazed that the spell actually worked and shocked at what she'd summoned."

"Heh. Sounds about right. It wouldn't even surprise me to learn that she wanted another chance at it."

Montmorency almost looked like she wanted to laugh as well. "That is what she demanded. But she'd tried twice, on her turn, and didn't summon you until she'd tried twice more, after everyone else summoned their familiars. I . . . everyone thought it was all an act, but if it wasn't . . . Mr. Colbert instructed her to finish the ceremony. He must have been worried that she'd fail any more attempts."

"Alright, so that was the summoning ceremony. Louise's parents didn't find out until someone sent them a letter. So how much do you think they approve of me?"

"If you're truly a familiar, what does it matter if-" Her eyes widened. "Oh. Oh, Brimir."

"Yeah. And nobody waited to ask their opinion before Louise moved me in with her."

"It's best to keep your familiar around you as much as possible, especially when the bond is new," Montmorency confirmed, nodding, eyes widening even further. "It's sacrilege to interfere with the relationship between a mage and her familiar."

"And that, apparently, is the shield that's prevented Louise's parents from having me killed and telling her to try again. It does not, however, prevent the Headmaster from keeping them somewhat informed. Now, what happens when he tells them about the love potion?"

Her expression became appalled. "One of us would end up dead."

"Yeah, if not both of us. 'Drawn and quartered', I've heard, so I'd rather not take my chances unless I really have to." Jason paused and sighed. "You know what? I'm gonna let the acid slide. You knew what you'd be in for if you were discovered, so you must have been dreading each knock on the door."

"It has not been the most calm of mornings," Montmorency agreed. She took a deep breath. "You don't need to go to the Headmaster."

"That sounds like wonderful news. What are we doing?"

"If you give her what she wants-"

He snarled and stood up.

"Hear me out!" she cried desperately.

Jason glared, but sat back down. "This had better be good."

"You haven't taken advantage of the potion, but you do love her."

He did his best not to react to that.

"And she loves you," Montmorency went on. "Guiche is sure of it."

He blinked. "How does he know?"

"He says it's the way you look at each other. He is quite confident."

Oh, shit. Kirche knew because of how we reacted to her date-rape spell, but if anyone can tell just by looking- "Assuming, for the sake of argument, that's he correct. That he's not just seeing a familiar bond at work, like how I've seen him coo over his familiar. So what?"

"If you go to the Headmaster, you could die. If she loves you, that's the last thing she'd want. And if you love her, you can't do that to her. So you can't go to the Headmaster."

That seems a bit circular. But we don't want to die, that's true enough. Jason raised an eyebrow, and waited for Montmorency to continue.

"It may take weeks," she went on, "but I can secure the reagents I'd need for an antidote good enough to reverse the love potion. All you have to do is keep everything quiet until then."

"'Keep everything quiet'," he repeated flatly.

The blonde frowned. "Give her what she wants. She'll settle down, and by tomorrow she'll just be in love with you, like she was before."


She pointed at her lover. "You can see that he's fine. If she loved you last week, and she'll be in love with you next week, what's the difference?"

Jason used his free hand to rub his forehead, then grip the bridge of his nose. "Leaving aside the fact that a yes is worthless if she can't say no? How about the fact that Louise is still a virgin? And that the notion of marriage is fairly scary for her."

"You mean you haven't?" Montmorency exclaimed. "At all?!"

"Pretty sure I already said that."

"But . . . what did you do to her last night, then, to get her to sleep?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Rubbed her scalp. It's known to relax people, and it's not the first time it's helped her fall asleep quickly. Seriously, Monty, if I haven't already been gelded or executed by outraged furious parents, it should be pretty damned obvious that she's still a virgin. So far I don't like your solution very much."

The blonde bit her lip. "I can get you Maiden's Balm, once the antidote is ready. That way she won't have to worry about her reputation later."

"That's not what-" Jason winced. "Well, actually, yes. We'll absolutely need it if I go along with this plan. But that's not the point. I'm trying to hear you out, but I'm not a rapist, Monty."

Montmorency looked way. "It's not really rape, on your part," she argued. "Brimir knows you didn't do it. This is my sin to atone for."

"Uh-uh. I don't think I can agree to split that particular hair. So come up with something else, and fast." He shifted, getting ready to stand up.

She made a frustrated noise. "If you knew you were about to be in this situation, only reversed, would you give her permission to take you to bed?"

The question was sufficiently unexpected that he froze. "I-"

"And would she give you permission, if she'd known what was about to happen?"

Jason paused for a long moment. Some of the things she's said, she was expecting us to try to lie with her, and it seemed like she thought she would say yes if we tried. "That's an interesting hypothetical."

Montmorency nodded. "You mean that you'd say yes, and so would she. So, just do what you have to, and in a day or so you won't be able to tell the difference. By the time classes resume, I'll have the antidote ready, and we can all pretend that this whole mess never actually happened."


"Or," she interrupted, pressing the point, "you can go the Headmaster, and maybe leave her utterly heartbroken once you've been executed."

"I-" The hell of it is, Monty's logic may be suspect, and she's hardly disinterested, but she's making way too much sense right now. Getting Osmond involved is the nuclear option, and she may be at ground zero but we're pretty damned likely to be caught in the blast radius.

And good Lord but it's been frustrating to have to hold back with Louise. Even if it's just for a few weeks . . . and it's not our fault. We didn't do this, we're just muddling through as best we can. And we can't hide how she's acting for the rest of summer, not like this. Flat out impossible. Siesta recognized the symptoms on the spot, so everyone else would as well.

He looked down at his little mistress, happily snuggled up against his chest – just like she tended to do when they were alone together – and bent down to kiss the top of her head. She sighed happily and pressed even tighter against him. Just like how she always did.

"You can't give her a potion that'll calm her down to where Guiche is at?" Maybe we could make that work. Maybe.

Montmorency looked thoughtful, but shook her head. "That's not something people look for, with these potions. I could experiment, but it would take time. And the longer you wait, the more miserable she'll be."

Miserable? Right, fixated and frustrated. That could be- "You're saying this is the only way she'll be happy until she gets the antidote."

"I wouldn't brew anything but the best potion. She won't just be happy: It will be like Brimir's own heaven. Your love is the most important thing in the world to her."

"Really?" That got a tortured bark of laughter out of him. "No reluctance? No 'headaches'? None of the usual evasions women come up with when they don't feel like making love?"

"Of course not."

Jason nodded. Finally found the flaw in the argument. "So she'll come lie with me anytime I want."

Montmorency's expression grew wary. "That's correct. She won't be a nervous maiden anymore. Isn't that a good thing?"

"Monty, it's a prospect more tempting than I think you realize and it's too good to be true." He closed his eyes. "Heaven help me, the temptation is almost unbearable. But it would all be a lie, because however she'll feel about it after her wedding night, right now that eagerness is not Louise."

He opened his eyes back up and stood up. "So. I consider Guiche a friend, and because I don't think he'd like you to get in trouble either, out of that friendship I'll give you one more chance. Figure out how to shit me out a solution, or I go to the Headmaster right now."

Her face grew panicked. "You can't!"

"Can and will, unless you've got wandless attack magic."

Jason paused, smiling politely. Come on, you were resourceful and ruthless enough to pull this off, now do it again because we are not bluffing!

Her face didn't grow any less panicked.

"Alright. Your last chance, Monty."

"No! I-!"

He started to walk towards the door.

"It would be a forlorn hope at best!"

"What would?" Jason asked, stopping and turning.

Montmorency slumped. "The Spirit of Lake Lagdorian."

"Go on."

"My family used to have a pact with her. We would make offerings – renew waterstones for her to drain, find her reagents that she prized – and she would give us gifts in return. The right to harvest the lake unmolested, and . . . and, sometimes, the gift of her own essence."

"Which I'm guessing is a potent reagent in its own right?"

She nodded. "We call it Water's Tear, in family recipes. It's very potent, and can be . . . I can use it to awaken properties that are extraordinarily occulted. The potions I could brew . . . an antidote would almost be a waste of that potential."

"Aside from the fact that the antidote gets you out of this mess."

"Aside from that, yes," Montmorency admitted with a sour frown.

"So how do we get some?"

"I can't promise anything. The pact was broken by the foolishness of one of my great-grand-uncles, and the family has been in decline ever since. We haven't dared to approach her in almost a hundred years."

"You've proven willing to dare a lot," Jason pointed out drily. "I'd say that makes you the perfect candidate to renew that pact."

"But she's a spirit!" Montmorency protested. "Possibly even a Tempest. We don't know what she might demand for a Water Tear."

"Well, guess you'll find out. So where is this lake?"

She shook her head. "That's the other thing. It's at the Gallian border. Even on horseback it would be days to travel."

Jason snorted. "We're sneaking around, so I don't think you can count on horses. How far to walk?"

Montmorency's eyes widened in shock. "To walk? I've never walked even a twentieth the distance, not in a day. It could take weeks if we have to walk it."

Oh, right. We might be able to manage twenty miles a day or more, since Mr. Colbert knows exactly how close he can get to Training From Hell, but civilian mages don't train for any of that. So how to . . . aha! "Actually, I may have a solution for that. If Guiche is up to it."

It was more complicated than that, of course. First they had to wait for Siesta to return, because no matter what they were going to be gone for a few days and she was going to need to be able to cover for them over the weekend. Communication, at least, could be maintained by leaving Guiche's familiar Verthandi behind in the maid's care: As long as she was able to report that all was well, they stood a chance of pulling it off under everyone's collective nose.

But provisioning was equally important, since they didn't really have time to waste gathering food each day. She didn't say how she managed to find them a small cart and the supplies as quickly as she did, and Jason carefully didn't ask. If she got punished for helping them be on their way by noon, he'd just have to make it up to her.

And if Guiche wasn't entirely thrilled about setting off on a heroic quest that day, there'd been just enough time for him to get laid (if only once) before they had to clean up, get dressed, and be on their way.

One of his valkyries proved up to the task of pulling the cart, and probably at about five or six miles an hour. Faster than the carriage that had gone to Bruxelles, but there was a lot less room and the cart didn't have any magical shock absorption.

Which, despite the paved road, made for a bumpy enough ride that Jason was glad that the padding on his rear wasn't quite gone yet. Guiche was gallantly letting Montmorency ride in his lap, but the blond looked quite uncomfortable.

Eventually the valkyrie pulling them slowed down dramatically.

"Low on vis?" Jason asked.

Guiche looked embarassed, but nodded.

"Right. My turn, then. Little mistress, you're gonna need to hang on to my back for a while."

Louise pouted, but shifted around from his chest to his back as he got out of the cart and took the valkyrie's position.

"Monty, give him a head rub, see if you can get him to take a nap," Jason then suggested. "I don't know how long I'll be able to keep going, so he needs to be ready to take over again." Then: "'Not all those who wander are lost.'"

Damn but these gloves come in handy.

There was no point in ambling, and if it had been half-decent training for controlling the valkyries he could do no less. So he jogged, pulling the cart behind him, until just before he felt like he was about to run out of familiar juice and collapse.

Which was long enough for Guiche to renew his vis enough to take back the reins, as it were.

But the sun had been down for a while by the time they reached the waystation that was about half of the distance between the Academy and Lagdorian.

"And now it's too dark to cut wood for a fire," the blond grumbled as they investigated the simple huts that provided shelter for travelers. "We'll have to have cold rations."

Jason looked around. The smaller of the two moons was pretty close to full, so he could actually see fairly well. And his turn to rest had given him enough time to recover that he probably had a bit of vis to work with. "Leaving aside that all three of you ought to know Light by now, the moonlight's enough for me to see by. Give me the ax, and I'll go try to find some deadfalls."

"And how will you find your way back?" Guiche responded. "None of us know this area."

"Fair point." He swung his little mistress down to her feet.

Or tried too, as she did her best to imitate an octopus. "Wanna go with you!" she whined.

"I'm sorry, Louise, but I need you to stay here. I'm going to get some wood so we can cook dinner, and I need you to call me so I can come back to you."

She whimpered, but complied, and then looked up with teary, pleading eyes. "Hurry! Come back soon!"

"I will, I promise."

Dammit, he thought as he headed out, if it didn't mean carrying out the rape, we'd be tempted to just to get her to stop being so needy. This is not the same as her usual snuggling tendencies.

Finding a deadfall proved fairly easy, especially since his power was willing to turn back on, now that he didn't need to push himself physically. A patch of moonlight in a thicket led him to where a tree had fallen recently enough that its neighbors hadn't blotted out the sky again. A few jabs with the haft of the ax revealed a good-sized section of wood that hadn't rotted yet, and Jason quickly had a faggot large enough to cook supper with.

Supper was unleavened waybread, seasoned with herbs from a packet that Siesta had managed to swipe from the kitchen.

Thoughtful of her. You know, aside from the whole mistress issue, seems like she's good enough at logistics that she'll make someone a pretty decent châtelain if she's ever given the opportunity. Might as well be us.

If she still wants anything to do with us, after everything comes to light.

The bread toasted quickly. Once it was served, however, Louise took his loaf away, tore it up, and Levitated one of the fragments over to his mouth. And when he opened it to protest, she popped the bread right in.

"How romantic!" Guiche gushed, before rushing to copy her.

Montmorency's eyes betrayed a bit of amusement. "I'd let her, if I were you. The more you fend off her attempts at intimacy, the more determined she'll become."

Jason rolled his eyes, but nodded and started to tear up his little mistress's bread to reciprocate.

Then she reinvented the scene from Lady and the Tramp and he got to feel like an utter creep as supper became an extended kissing game.

And then it was time for bed, and Louise was all too ready to have him to herself in one of the huts.

Will the scalp rub even work again tonight? Almost didn't, last night. But didn't Monty say 'intimacy'? There's more than one way to skin a rabbit.

"Little mistress, before we bank the fire for the night, why don't I read you a bedtime story?"

She wrinkled her nose. "You have your-"

"No," Jason quickly interrupted. Don't need to reveal the phone if we don't have to. "I had a couple of books with me, when I was summoned, and I brought one of them along." For which he owed a hearty thanks to Siesta. "So come sit on my lap-"

Louise was settling in for a good snuggle almost before he could finish saying it.

A bit of movement in the corner of his eye, and he looked up to see Montmorency leading Guiche out of their hut and sitting back down by the fire. He was noticeably pouting.

"We'll go to bed soon," she assured him. "But a foreign story might be interesting."

"Yes, my darling Monmon, but-"


The pout deepened.

Jason rolled his eyes, then turned his attention to the book.

"'It was seven o'clock of a very warm evening in the Seoni hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day's rest . . .'"

". . .'"Ye choose and ye do not choose! What talk is this of choosing? By the bull that I killed, am I to stand nosing into your dog's den for my fair dues? It is I, Shere Khan, who speaks!"

"'The tiger's roar filled the cave with thunder. Mother Wolf shook herself clear of the cubs and sprang forward, her eyes, like two green moons in the darkness, facing the blazing eyes of Shere Khan.

"'"And it is I, Raksha (the demon), who answers. The man's cub is mine, Lungri – mine to me! He shall not be killed. He shall live to run with the Pack and to hunt with the Pack; and in the end, look you, hunter of little naked cubs – frog-eater – fish-killer – he shall hunt thee! Now get hence, or by the Sambhur that I killed – for I eat no starved cattle – back thou goest to thy mother, burned beast of the jungle, lamer than ever thou camest into the world! Go!"

"'Father Wolf looked on amazed. He had almost forgotten the days when he won Mother Wolf in fair fight from five other wolves, when she ran in the Pack and was not called Demon for compliment's sake. . . .'"

"'. . . And that is how Mowgli was entered into the Seoni Wolf Pack for the price of a bull and on Baloo's good word.'"

Might as well edit just a little, since this copy has the stories from before the Red Flower bit.

"'Now it is not possible to recount all the wonderful life that Mowgli led among the wolves, because if it were written out it would fill ever so many books.' But there are a few choice tales of his childhood recorded, and they shall follow hereafter."

He looked up from the page. At least some of their interest had to be from the novelty of a story they'd never heard before, but even Guiche looked like he'd been drawn into it. "I'd keep going, but we do need to get some sleep before we get back on the road tomorrow."

It was hard to tell in the flickering and fading firelight, but that might have been some disappointment of their faces. Still, the two lovers retreated to their hut soon enough, leaving Jason alone with a little mistress who'd gone completely limp, one ear pressed against his chest.

Louise roused slightly as he lay her down, but he quickly moved one hand to gently stroke through her hair and along the skin in the way she liked.

And just to help her along a bit more . . . "Lay down
Your sweet and weary head
Night is falling
You've come to journey's end . . ."

He used his best chest-rumbling croon, and by the time he'd gotten through three renditions of Annie Lennox's Into the West, his little mistress had drifted off again.

Feels damned odd, mimicking the patterns of father-daughter intimacies, but if it works we'll take it. We're halfway there, so if we can get to the lake and get started back again by nightfall tomorrow, we might be done with this disaster before the weekend is over.

Hopefully Siesta'll be able to hold out until then.

Once again Louise managed to wiggle into a position that would be very easy to take advantage of. But this time Jason jerked backwards and got himself untangled before she could wake up enough to react.

"Go take care of your business," he whispered before she could do more than stand up and eye him like a starved tiger. "Then we'll go out to the stream together."

Her eyes widened in the dim light, and she quickly stepped outside.

He took the opportunity to put on his swimsuit. 'Cause we're gonna need to clean up after, and stripping down entirely is too stupid even for us.

Then he went out to find a tree to pee against and some decent branches.

Which she eyed curiously when she found him a minute or so later. "What are those for?"

"Ever been fishing?" he responded. Let's see, sounds like the water is thataway.

Louise shook her head as she followed. "Why are we going fishing?"

"So that we've got more than just pancakes this morning."

By the pout of her face, his little mistress could think of better things to do with their time.

As a sport, fishing is capable of consuming endless quantities of cash, required to procure the best fishing rods, lines, bait, boats, booze, arm-candy, and so on.

A student trying to make his budget stretch needed nothing more than Scouting experience, the ability to whittle a bit, the willingness to muck in the dirt for bait, and an awareness of which fishing laws the locals didn't care enough to enforce. The times Jason had been between jobs in college, it had saved him from having to call his folks for financial help.

The stream didn't have any wonderful spots for fishing nearby, but they only needed enough for breakfast and leftovers for lunch, and that didn't require too many fish. And Louise was happy enough to wrap her familiar around her to 'help her hold the line steady'.

But even with her providing a bit of ice to keep them fresh, the fish had to be cleaned right away. And that was messy enough even without involving a novice.

"Tell you what," Jason said, once the business was done. "You-"

He froze as his little mistress shimmied out of her traveler's garb in about two seconds and pranced into the stream. Then she turned and grinned at him. "Come on!"

This was a bad idea even with our swimsuit on. He swallowed. And right now she's probably quite capable of following us naked to the huts if we try to run.

And yes, her hips were definitely yummy.

"Jason!" Louise snapped, folding her arms and mock-glaring. "Do I need to get my wand?"

Dammit. Okay, rinse off as fast as possible, then drag her out if we have to and cram her back into those clothes.

"Why are you only half-dressed?" Guiche asked, looking sleepily satisfied, as the two returned with the gutted and filleted fish.

Jason sighed. His face was still bright red and the blush probably wasn't going away any time soon. "I could dress myself or I could keep her dressed, but not both." Hell, even keeping the swimsuit on was next to impossible. We can't risk this a second time.

The fish, cooked on whittled skewers, went quite well with the simple bread that they had supplies for. So did "Kaa's Hunting," which was clearly the next chronologically, for Mowgli was still young and foolish enough not to value Baloo's patient efforts to teach the man-cub all that the sleepy old bear could. Which resulted in him foolishly running off with the Bandar-log, and Bagheera and Baloo were forced to seek out the aid of Kaa, the one creature that the monkeys had the wisdom to fear.

After breakfast Montmorency and Guiche disappeared in the direction of the stream, and Jason set about cuddling Louise into quiescence after packing everything up. A few minutes for the blond to get laid again, a little more time for the blonde to wash up, and the sun was still low on the eastern horizon when they were all ready to resume the journey.

Sitting in a cart, even a bumpy one, didn't exactly burn a lot of calories, so they nibbled on the leftovers from breakfast without stopping for a formal lunch. Finally, in mid-afternoon, Montmorency had Guiche halt at a crossroad.

"That's the way to the old Demesne de Montmorency," she said, pointing down a road that looked to be in serious need of repair.

Despite one leg being out of use, the village around the crossroad was bigger than everything they'd passed by so far at the other crossroads. And one of the locals, a man well into middle-age, wasted no time in approaching the group.

"Nobles, aye?" he asked, eyeing the valkyrie pulling the cart. "Here to try to deal with the lake?"

Montmorency looked like she really wanted to say something, but kept silent. So Jason decided to speak up instead. "Possibly. But we could use a local take on the situation, if you'd be willing."

"Eh, I've not seen Lagdorian since the recent troubles started."

Recent? "There's been more than one round of problems with the lake?"

"Well, that's how it all started, iddn't it? Demesne de Montmorency was a right good place to live, so my grampa always said. The Family kept rents low for those as they approved of; their fortune, y'see, was all tied up in the lake.

"Then, a little after the last Crusade, somethin' happened. They say the Family lost the lake's favor – well, they say all kinds of things, but that's the most sensible.

"Grampa said the Family tried to raise the rents, after, but the tenants thought it naught more than plain greed, an' refused. But if Lagdorian refused to keep up their fortune?" The villager shook his head. "Makes sense, grampa said. They started sending out their scions, t' seek what prizes they could, but it wasn't enough. Weren't even a generation afore the Family was kicked out by the Crown, an' some lord by the name of Vermeulen took over."

Jason glanced at Montmorency again. Her face was strained, but she nodded very slightly when she saw his questioning look.

The man sighed. "Grampa said Vermeulen's man took one look at the rents, an' threw us all out, bringin' in his own – villeins, can ye believe it? – where we'd always been free renters!"

Jason looked around. "So, at that point, everyone moved out to the crossroads? This village seems bigger than most."

"Oh, aye. Those young enough left for the cities, but them as had families, or were getting on in years? The King's Roads-" The villager winced. "Pardon, Queen's roads these days, hard to remember that sometimes. As long as we keep this stretch of road in good repair, we can scrape out a living however we please." He sighed again. "But grampa always said it weren't a patch on how things were when we could look to the Family, an' sure an' true it's a lot of hard work for little enough to live on."

"Okay, so that's the old troubles. What's been going on recently?"

The villager shrugged. "Two summers back, they say the farms by the lake failed, the crops dying all at once, as if for lack of water. Everything dried up, no matter how deep the wells were dug, nor how much the rain fell. An' to take water from Lagdorian herself became unchancy indeed: More than one villein was dragged under by the lake herself.

"Then, by spring, they say that the lake had started to rise. The fields were wet, almost flooded, but no seed planted in them would sprout. An' that was that: Two failed crops in a row is the death of any farm. Lord Vermeulen sent mages to pacify Lagdorian, but they say the lake keeps rising, a little every month." The man grimaced. "'Druther not move, but if someone doesn't calm her down, in a few years the waters might stretch from here to whatever's on the Gallian side."

Up until now, the man had kept his eyes mostly downward, but now he looked up, straight at Montmorency. "'Twas plain foolishness, not to trust the Family when they needed our support. If the newest Vermeulen gives up his claim – an' Lagdorian has never had nor love for him! – we've learned wiser since, should the Family return."

She paled, but took a deep breath. "Lagdorian has a long memory. I do not know if a hundred years is enough for her to forgive, but . . . we shall see how she feels."

The villager slowly nodded. "Our hopes go with ye', then."

The ground they stood on was so dry that it cracked open, the air was as parched as any desert, and the trees, bushes, and grass that they had passed by were all long dead.

They stood about 20 feet from the shores of Lake Lagdorian.

Out in the lake were several buildings, almost entirely submerged. The lone exception was a large stone building that rose 20 or 30 feet out of the water.

"That must be our old chateau," Montmorency said, her expression unreadable as she looked out over what was left of her family's ancestral holdings.

Jason shrugged. "Well, I don't think the current lord is getting much use out of this place."

"Then let that be our next quest!" Guiche exclaimed. "We shall prevail upon Lord Vermeulen to give up his claim to these lands to my beloved Monmon!"

"Gotta get the lake to cooperate first," Jason noted drily. "Speaking of which, how do we get its attention?"

"Robin will carry my blood to her," Montmorency replied. She bent down, and a large frog hopped out of her hands and made for the water.

"Wait, you've had that with you the whole time?" he asked. "Where?" And why didn't we think to ask about her familiar until now?

She stood back up. "Robin is very hard to notice when she isn't moving."

Jason blinked. Just camouflage, or full-scale reality filter? Either way, that'd be useful if we could copy it. "That's a nice auxilum. Figured out any others?"

"I've been working on the ones for reagents." Montmorency replied, then rolled her eyes when his curious expression failed to change. "Identifying the best reagents, the ones that most express the properties I need, and bringing them to me."

"Ah. Ideal for a potioneer."


A little while later, the frog returned, hopped up into its master's waiting hands, made another small hop and . . . seemed to blur out of existence. Jason couldn't made out where it was hiding, not at all.

His scrutiny was aborted when a splash drew his attention out to the water. A fair ways out in the lake, the water was churning, rising up on itself.

Blood of my blood, the splashing somehow resolved into. Then: Transgression. The covenant is broken.

The waters rose up higher. You TRESPASS.

Montmorency fell to her knees. "Oh, great Lagdorian, the one who broke thy covenant is dead. Have mercy, I beg thee, and grant that we may be restored to favor in thy sight."

The column of water swirled faster for a moment, the waves a chorus of alien voices, speaking in tongues never known to living mortals. Then the column slowed.


She sagged. Then she looked to Jason, and began to open her mouth.

"Uh-uh," he preempted. "Try harder."

The water swirled again. Gandálfr. You offer pledge to guarantee her atonement?

That had to be directed at him, which meant the lake could at least sense the mark the archangel had left on him. Which means we should probably respond.

"Yes. I do," he said, trying not to fidget what with how Montmorency and Guiche were now staring at him. "What do you require of her?"

At sunrise each day, I am troubled by mortals in assault. Deal with them.

"Very well. Your requirement is that the attacks are to cease?" 'Cause wanna bet that the attacks are due to the lake rising? Best not to rule out diplomacy if at all possible.

The lake paused for a moment. That is acceptable, it finally allowed.

"Very well. I shall see to it that she does as you require."

Then I shall look upon this supplication with favor." As it spoke, the column rose up again, then thinned until it was a liquid statue of Montmorency, some 20 feet tall, floating above the water, perfectly detailed . . . and entirely nude.

The blonde blushed crimson, and Jason held back a snicker or two. Only to curse as his little mistress suddenly snarled, drew her wand, and blew off the top of Lagdorian's head with an explosion.

The spirit's head quickly reformed, and its eyes narrowed as it regarded its attacker. Then a wave surged out from the shore, knocking Jason back and enveloping Louise, dragging her away from him.

"Wait!" he pleaded, his heart suddenly in his throat. "Please, don't hurt her. She's not herself!"

The spirit regarded the tiny water-bound form of his little mistress for a long moment, and he found himself holding his breath.

"You speak the truth. But I grow weary of attacks. See to it that they cease."

The wave fell away from Louise, who collapsed, unconscious. But then Jason saw her breathe in, and he let out his own breath in relief.

The spirit descended to the top of the lake, and walked towards them, shrinking as it did, until it was only about eight feet tall at the edge of the lake. It held out a hand. "Come. I will take you to where the attackers approach to trouble me."

"Uh . . . the cart, too?" It was, after all, late afternoon, and if the attacks happened in the morning-

"As you will."

So they piled into the cart, and Guiche had his valkyrie pull it out into the water, where Montmorency took Lagdorian's proffered hand.

As soon as she did, the spirit pulled them out further into the lake, whereupon it sank into the water below them. Then a glimmering swell lifted them up, cart and all, and began to move towards the far side.

After a few moments:

"Jason?" Montmorency asked, in a small voice.


"Who are you? What are you?"

You know, now is not the best time to confuse the lake with technicalities. "Be not afraid," he replied, smiling gently. Then he continued in as serene a voice as he could muster: "I am as bound by the laws of mortality as any who are born and die."

She did not look reassured, and he had to bite the inside of his lip to keep from laughing and ruining the moment.

"I will watch for the attackers at dawn," Lagdorian announced as the spirit deposited the group, cart and all, on the far shore of the lake. "You are permitted my bounty while you wait." Then the spirit dropped back into the water and was gone.

Jason looked around. This shore was just as barren and water-parched as the Tristain side had been. "I'm glad she said that, because I don't think there's anything else to drink around here. And does this mean we can go fishing for supper?"

"I'll have Robin see what the lake can provide," Montmorency replied, bending down to release her familiar again. Then she straightened up. "Please, no dissembling. What are you?"

He smiled again, this time lopsided. "I'm only human, truly. Called by Brimir to be a companion to my little mistress," here he kissed Louise on the top of her head, and even unconscious she seemed to snuggle in closer, "and marked by the Archangel with the runes I showed you. It was agony as the blazing finger of Retribution carved them into my flesh, but I've heard that Gandálfr's attentions are rarely comfortable. And I've good cause to be grateful for the power that was thereby granted."

She blinked. "But . . . on the lake-"

He chuckled. "The spirit addressed me as if I was the Archangel, and I wasn't about to deny her while she carried us across."

Jason scratched his cheek, where the stubble from not shaving that morning was starting to itch. "And I admit, it's a little disturbing to think about the fact that I don't know what lies at the end of the path that I've been set to walk. Especially since a spirit must surely see such things more clearly than we, whose perceptions are constrained by the senses of the flesh. But for now, I'm just a person. With, well, maybe a little more divine attention than anyone could feel comfortable with."

Montmorency nodded faintly, although her gaze seemed quite wary.

Oh. Duh.

"Monty. The quest appears to be going well. And if we succeed, there need be no retribution afterward."

She flinched a tiny bit. "I'm going to go see what Robin has found for us."

Guiche frowned in confusion as his lover walked to the edge of the water. He opened his mouth, but then closed it after a moment without saying anything, and hurried to join her.

Over supper, Jason read to them the next tale of Mowgli, of how there was drought in the jungle, how Hathi the Elephant declared the Water Truce, how all the civilized animals of the jungle gathered in peace to survive on what little water there was until the rains should return, and how Shere Khan insisted on the right of his Night: His one night of the year to kill Man without fear.

They went to bed early, that they might be up before dawn, although he found himself lying there, worrying. All too easy to think of what we should have asked, if we didn't have to worry about risking Lagdorian's censure. But maybe we can talk to her again tomorrow. For now, we'd better rest while we can.

So he made his breathing regular, and slowly counted, and finally slipped into slumber-

Only to jerk awake in shock as a large hand caressed his shoulder, stroking all the way down his back to mid-thigh. He was caught in the warm embrace of something at least twice as big as he was. His arms and even his bare – bare?! – legs were covered in goosebumps, and when he shook his head he could feel long hair moving in a way that felt nothing like the short haircut he maintained.

Which was enough to provoke a sudden realization.

"Oh, you clever girl," he said in, yep, Louise's soprano voice.

"Shhh. Don't wake the others," his voice – did he really sound like that? - rumbled back to him in what was probably supposed to be a soothing croon.

That sounds like a great idea, though. He opened his – er, Louise's? - mouth and screamed as loud as he could.

His own body flinched, and Jason wasted no time in scrambling her body out of his body's amorous embrace. Then he over-balanced and sprawled, trying to stand up. Lighter she might be, but Louise's center of gravity was just different from what he was used to, and her legs felt unsteady even after he carefully rose to his – er, her – feet in a second attempt. Fortunately, she seemed to be having even more trouble figuring out how to maneuver his body.

Some angelic help would come in real handy right now! Unfortunately, he didn't see anything to grab as a weapon, and Louise looked like she was finally figuring out how to stand up from prone.

Time to make some noise again. "Wake up, you two!" he yelled to Guiche and Montmorency. Then he looked around-

Ah, the wagon!

"Why are you trying to rouse them?!" his voice rumbled, sounding both rather hurt and far too close behind him. He ducked, feeling the air displace above him as she made a clumsy grab for him, and stumbled away as quickly as he dared on her unsteady feet.

"Stop running away!" his voice cried plaintively. There were two soft thumps, then, "Brimir!"

A quick look back showed that Louise had managed to fall to her – his – knees. She scowled at him. "How do you move in this body?"

"Practice," he responded before making for the wagon again. Fortunately her body was light enough that he managed to roll onto the bed of the wagon on his first try. "Monty! Are you awake yet!?"

"What in Brimir's name-?" Montmorency responded in a sleepy voice.

"Nothing's the matter!" Louise insisted. "Go back to sleep and leave us alone!"

"Belay that!" Jason snapped. "Monty, please tell me you brought a sleeping draught in your supplies!"

"I . . . one more . . . don't . . . what in Brimir's name is going on!?"

Jason rolled out of the wagon again, clutching her alchemy bag. He dodged another clumsy grab from Louise and lurched over to Montmorency. "Which one is it? Hurry!"

She looked past him in disbelief for a moment, no doubt at his body lumbering their way, then shook her head, reached in, and pulled out a vial. "This one- Hey!"

For Jason had grabbed the vial. "Enough to sleep until dawn?"

"Yes, but-"

He wasted no time in downing the contents.

There was a brief moment of disorientation, then his point of view snapped back into his own body. Louise had just finished collapsing at Montmorency's feet, and she was staring at the both of them in perplexed disbelief. Guiche's sleepier look was almost like a stunned ox.

"For the third time, Jason, what in Brimir's name is going on?!"

"Ah." He shook his head and let out a shuddering laugh. That was a little too close. "Well, you know how you can see through the eyes of your familiar, hear through their ears, have them do what you want? The universal auxilia?"

They nodded in tandem.

"Louise and I haven't been able to do that. Probably because my mind is fully self-aware, like most any human. Not enough space for two minds, see? Or at least that was my guess. Maybe the only way I could make room for her was if she made room for me.

"Looks like she decided to test that, tonight. Turns out it was pretty close." He shook his head. "Big part of why I've been able to say no to her until now because I'm bigger and stronger, so she decided to fix that. Clever girl."

Montmorency looked rather appalled. "And now what?"

"Now we sleep, and in the morning we figure out how to stop these attacks." Jason sighed. "Then it's at least one more night before we get back to the Academy, and she's been getting more and more imaginative. You may have to tie us up tomorrow night, and pray to Brimir she doesn't come up with anything else."

"Nothing else tonight?"

"No, not if that potion lasts. I'm an early riser, so I'll most likely get up first."

She nodded tiredly. "Then I bid you goodnight." There was a bit of a long-suffering expression on her face as Guiche gathered her into his embrace and eagerly kissed her, but Jason ignored that as he picked his little mistress up and carried her off to their blankets.

["You hate me!"] Louise accused, biting down hard on his shoulder the next morning.

["No, I don't. I swear, I love you!"]

["But you keep ignoring me!"] It was a good thing they could talk telepathically, 'cause she still hadn't let go.

For rather dubious values of good. She wasn't drawing blood, but when she was upset her bites hurt.

["It's not a good time or place,"] he protested. ["If all goes well, then in two days we'll be back at the Academy, in your bedroom, with your nice, soft bed. Just the two of us."]

This got her to let go. Finally. "You promise?" Unshed tears filled her eyes as she stared at him pleadingly, and he felt like an absolute heel.

"I promise. We'll get everything sorted out then."

She pressed close in as tight an embrace as she could manage.

Dammit, we'd better get this done right the first time, or we're screwed.

"Is everything sorted out?" Montmorency asked as he led Louise to where she and Guiche had already started on a cold breakfast.

"Well enough," Jason replied. He looked around. "Is it just me, or does morning fog seem wrong for land that's been sucked dry?"

I am with you, came the whisper of the lake. I shall warn when the attackers approach.

"Oh. Speaking of which, how many are there, usually?"

Two. Always two.

Well. That could be a lot worse.

Hell, Louise has been practicing her stunner. This should be a cakewalk.

The fog grew thick as the morning slowly lightened, and did not clear. Which was entirely wrong for natural fog, but the spirit evidently played by its own rules.

All they could do, then, was wait.

They come.

The whisper of the lake came shortly after the sun had fully risen, going by the glow of the impossibly thick fog surrounding them.

"Right." Jason kept his voice low. "I'm in front. Guiche, Monty, follow but not too close. Everyone be quiet, and that means no valkyries. If we can surprise them, the fight should be over in moments." He took a deep breath. "'Though we pass through raging waters, in the sea we shall not drown.'"

["What are we going to do?"] Louise asked a little bit later, as he crept through the fog.

["When I see them, I'm going to set you down, and I need you to stun them when I give the word. Can you do that?"]

She nodded against his chest. ["I'll do anything you want."]

There didn't seem to be a safe reply. And soon enough his enhanced vision caught a distant swirl, slowly advancing through the mist.

["Do you see them?"] he asked as he set his little mistress down.

She reluctantly turned to look in the same direction he was facing. ["No, not yet."]

["Alright, stay there."] Jason started to creep a bit forward and to the right, ignoring the pleading look she sent him. ["It looks like the one on the left is a lot taller than the other, so probably master and apprentice. Let me know when you can see them well enough to cast. When I tell you, stun the taller one first, and I'll try to charge the shorter one. If I can't, or if you have a clear shot, stun the shorter one as soon as the taller one goes down."]

["And then you'll come back to me?"] Louise asked plaintively.

["Yes, little mistress."] He wanted to get as close as he could before the action started-

["I see them now."]

["Roger. Take the shot."]

He could see the mist ripple as she did, and by the time the taller figure collapsed, he was already charging the smaller-

Who demonstrated that the Twenty Foot rule only gives the guy charging a fighting chance, by firing off a spell as soon as he was seen. It hit his legs, and he sprawled into the dirt, grunting.

Louise snarled, and by the time Jason got his head up, she was firing spell after spell at the smaller figure, who was darting around almost as fast as once-king James had.

["Remember, stunners only!"]

["I know!"]

"Monty!" he called out. "Got one still up. Need you to use the mist against her!"

"I don't-!"

Her alarmed retort cut off as the enemy performed a massive leap, springing over Jason before he could attempt a grapple again. By the time he whirled around, the short figure had landed close to the blond duo, and Montmorency was scrambling behind Guiche as he conjured his valkyries.

And while they were trying to recover, the enemy mage quickly cast again, and a great gust spiraled out, dispersing the mist. Revealing the short, slender personage of . . . someone cloaked and hooded, wielding a staff.

By now, the valkyries were up, but their controller's face was pinched with worry. Their foe was clearly no novice, and his failures against both Kaita and Colbert were likely weighing heavily in his mind.

But before he or his lover could be seriously threatened, Louise snarled again and let off another spell. The figure sprang to the side, and the staff it held flicked out in the split second before it landed, creating a blip of distortion in the air that raced back over to Louise. The blip unfolded into a miniature tornado as it engulfed her, spinning her around and around until she went limp and unconscious.

Can't let her do that again! "Guiche!" Jason shouted. "Send some valkyries, secure the bigger one!" Then he charged their smaller and much more troublesome foe.

The figure raised its staff as it turned to face him, but then froze, as if in dismay or shock. He didn't stop: Whatever was causing it confusion, he needed to take advantage and either get that staff or at least give the valkyries time to secure the other as a hostage.

The shorter figure took a step back and cast, something fast that blurred through the air, but he was expecting that and sprang over the spell, almost there-

Then, just as he was reaching out to seize the over-sized casting focus as he bowled the smaller figure over, it cast one final spell. At point-blank range, he couldn't dodge, and suddenly he was frozen in the same way that he'd been in Kirche's bedroom a couple of months earlier.

Except this time his momentum made him sprawl ass-over-teakettle and end up in the dirt.

Okay, Jason thought as he lay there helpless, if we get out of this in one piece, we need to figure out some throwing options. Boomerang, net, bolas, a friggin' baseball . . . we're supposed to be Louise's partner, but whoever that is, he just made our ability to call on the power of a celestial superbeing at will look a bit redundant!

Whoever he was, the short figure was now standing over him, looking down as if almost concerned for his plight-

"Lay down your staff!" Guiche called, albeit sounding halfway to panic. "I have the other. You cannot get to him before my valkyries deliver a finishing blow. Lay it down!"

The figure looked back up and around, but took only a moment to evaluation the situation before before nodding and setting its staff down on the ground.

"I believe that's Hold Person," Montmorency said, approaching warily.

The short figure backed up – without picking its staff back up – giving her space to reach Jason. She chanted a spell and tapped him with her wand, and he found himself able to move again.

"Hope that didn't use up too much vis," he said as he got to his feet. "I know Dispel uses a lot-"

"That wasn't Dispel," Montmorency contradicted. "I've been practicing to Counter Hold Person this spring."

He raised his eyebrows questioningly.

She grimaced. "Most spells that restrain you, if you have your wand out you can Dispel them. Hold Person keeps you from moving at all, so I thought it would be wise to learn to Counter it wandlessly and silently, even if I'll probably be Third Form before I'm successful."

"Oh." Jason nodded. That makes a fair bit of sense. But we need to see if Louise can Mark us an amulet, 'cause if we hadn't been able to take a prisoner we might have lost this fight.

The cloaked figured, interestingly enough, was also nodding in thoughtful approval.

He looked around. His little mistress was breathing, but she was clearly still out. As was the larger cloaked figure, surrounded by three valkyries keeping guard over it weapons ready.

"Monty, could you go make sure Louise will be fine?"

Montmorency nodded and went, and with that Jason picked up the staff and turned to the cloaked figure.

"Well, it looks like no one's hurt all that badly. So at the point we should be able to talk like rational people. You, uh, can understand us, right?"

The figure nodded. Then it pulled back its hood, revealing a face he was someone familiar with. "Well enough," came the soft reply.

"Tabitha?" He looked over at- "Is that Kirche over there?"

The azuretop nodded again.

Siesta did say that they'd left, but- "Alright. Since we're talking, what's going on?"

She hesitated for a moment, but then pointed in the direction of the lake. "The water rises. The land is parched. Lagdorian spurns all bargains. Gone feral."

"And so they sent you to deal with her?"

Tabitha nodded yet again.

Jason took in a deep breath. "Are quests like these why everyone calls you 'Dame' Tabitha? Because you're a knight errant?"

"Yes," she confirmed softly. "Chevalier."

"So they're sending out a sixteen-year-old girl to try to kill angry spirits." He shook his head. Shades of Buffy, and Mr. Colbert implied she's got experience-

"Fifteen," Tabitha corrected. "Chevalier since fourteen."

He groaned. "That does not make this any better. But the lake isn't feral, at least not all the way, 'cause Monty was able to make contact with Lagdorian. So how about we find out why it's raising the waters, eh?"

The tiny azuretop turned to stare in Montmorency's direction, as the blonde ministered to Louise. "The Vermeulen family. Preceded by de Montmorency?"

"Uh, yeah. Something about losing their title a hundred years ago?"

"Lost and scattered, yes, the Old Family," she replied. Then, speaking rather rapidly and almost under her breath. "They said none remembered the name. Did they not bother to ride around and ask?!"

Jason shrugged. "Guess not." He then tilted his head. "When you said you'd demand better information on an assignment . . . was that the voice of experience talking?"

Tabitha nodded shortly. After a moment she twitched, and looked up at him. "You do speak Gallian."

"Uh, I think Louise said she does. Which means I probably do too, yeah."

"Good. My Tristainian is less fluent."

"Oh. Is that why you're normally a bit, uh-"

"Halting? Yes." She grimaced. "I practice when I can. And have improved. Some."

"Then you're doing better then me, when it comes to languages Louise doesn't know. So shall we revive Kirche, and figure out what the lake wants?"

"Yes, thank you much," Tabitha replied, with a definite look of relief on her face. Which was accentuated when he offered her staff back.

Hell, might as well. She's definitely someone we can be rational with.

["I need your wand again,"] he told his little mistress, as Montmorency bent over Kirche.

["Why?"] she demanded, pouting.

["Because,"] Jason replied with a smoldering sidelong look, ["if I want your wand, I will take your wand."]

Her eyes widened briefly, and she handed it over eagerly. Then gave him an expectant look.

["Soon,"] he promised. Right now, we just need to make sure she doesn't blow Kirche's head off for the crime of having big tits around us or something.

The Germanian redhead groaned, Awaken having been quite successful, and various mild recovery spells helped to bring her back up to full awareness as quickly as possible.

"What happened?" she asked as she sat up. "It was so foggy we could barely see the grass at our feet, and then-"

"Lagdorian resented attack," Tabitha replied. "Recruited allies."

"Who would want to-?" Kirche broke off as she stood up and took a good look around her. "Vallière? What are you doing here?!"

Louise just glared. And buried her head in Jason's side. But kept one eye free to glare at her rival.

"She was the one who took you out while you were blundering in the mist," he observed, more than a little mockingly. "Sorry about that, Tabitha. I thought the smaller one was likely to be an apprentice or something, so we were trying neutralize the dangerous one. Got her instead."

Kirche's eyes blazed in indignation. "You wouldn't dare say that if-"

He deliberately interrupted with burst of rude laughter. "Tabitha we had to disarm before we could parley. If you become a problem, Louise can just put you down again."

["I'd need my wand back for that,"] his little mistress pointed out.

["She doesn't know I've got it. Just keep glaring at her. Pretend that you can't wait to stomp her into the dirt, while we're away from the Academy."]

["I won't be pretending."] But there was a bit of smugness in her mental voice, for Kirche was eyeing her with a bit of uncertainty.

"Anyway," Jason went on dismissively, "it sounds like Tabitha's people have a legitimate complaint, so if you want to join us, quit being petty and fall in." He paused. "Or go ahead and fight Louise until she beats it out of you. We can heal you back up a couple more times, if we have to."

The redhead's eyes blazed again . . . but then she took a deep breath and fell in beside Tabitha.

Good girl. And hopefully that'll keep you distracted enough to not notice how our little mistress is acting.

"A cursed treasure was entrusted to my care, long ago," Lagdorian stated, once more a giant nude water statue of Montmorency. "I swore to keep it from the hands of mortals. It was stolen from me recently. Now I raise the waters, until I find it and make it safe once again."

"I hate to point this out," Jason said in response, "but you don't know how far the thief has gone."

"It matters not. If I must raise the water until all the land is submerged, so be it."

He raised an eyebrow. "Could take a while."

"I am eternal. I shall not not abandon my vow, no matter how long it takes."

On hearing this, Tabitha tensed.

Shouldn't have been much she could do without her staff, but she was firing off those spells fast. Might know them well enough to cast wandlessly. Might even have a wand somewhere as a backup.

Which means she stopped fighting because she recognized us and chose to stop. But the lake makes her nervous. Bets that she's hoping we can talk her way out of this, like last time?

"I understand obligation-" Jason began.

"Yes," Lagdorian interrupted. "Gandálfr has proven true before."

Her invocation of one of Halkagenia's archangels had both Tabitha and Kirche suddenly staring at him.

"Right." He did his best to ignore them. "What if Montmorency goes out and finds the treasure for you? You called her blood of your blood, didn't you? If she's looking for it, isn't that the same as you finding it yourself?"

The spirit of the lake regarded him, obviously considering it. "Gandálfr will pledge to guarantee her again?"

The stares did not abate.

Sadly, all the walls that he could bang his head against were under the lake at the moment. "I'm willing to, yes, but will you stop pulling the water out of the land around you? Even go back to your natural boundary?"

Lagdorian nodded. "There is no longer need to flood. I will subside."

"That's good, that means no one will feel they need to attack you again. Uh, if you need to send any messages, how should we arrange that?"

The spirit stared at him. "The blood of my blood has scattered, and this one must hunt."

Jason blinked. Holy shit, is she lonely? She said the covenant was broken, but if she didn't dare trust anyone to renew it without angelic endorsement- "Do you want the blood of your blood to return?"

Lagdorian froze, the water of her avatar becoming still as ice. "Does Gandálfr pledge that as well?"

The stares from Kirche and Tabitha were now almost enough to set his clothes on fire.

"They want to return," he replied, shifting slightly so that he didn't have to see them looking at him like that. "But there are complications with, uh, law and custom." But it does sound like the local commoners aren't the only ones who wish Monty's family would come back.

"Mortal concerns are insignificant," the spirit replied severely.

"They aren't eternal, that's true."

"Yes. Insignificant."

Jason very deliberately did not sigh. "By that standard, mortals are insignificant."

"Yes. But they are the blood of my blood, and I am eternal."

He took a deep breath. Mr. Colbert said that the Left Hand governs life as well as death. And we do not want to only deal out death in judgment. "Yes, I pledge that they will return. But the lands on your shores where they dwelt in your favor?"

"What of those lands?" Lagdorian asked.

"Can you keep them parched, until the treasure is returned to you?"

The spirit frowned. "The blood of my blood will not return to harvest, this year?"

"They would want to," Jason replied, "but the mortal complications do prevent it, as insignificant as they are. But by the time your treasure is recovered, that should all be resolved."

For a long moment, there was no reply. Then: "Very well. I will wait until my treasure is returned."

"Excellent. What can you tell us about the stolen treasure?"

"It is Andvari," Lagdorian stated.

At that, Montmorency flinched.

We're gonna have to ask about that. "Good to have a name, but can you tell us what it looks like?"

"An image shall be provided to the blood of my blood."

"That'll be good to have, along with the name," Jason agreed. "What can you tell us about the thief?"

The spirit stared at him one more. "The thief was not insignificant."

And it sounds like she expects us to know what that means. So what the hell does that mean? "Alright, but did you hear any names mentioned?"

"Names are insignificant."

Right, she hasn't even called Monty by her name, just this 'blood of my blood' thing. Except- "You call me, uh-"

Lagdorian nodded. "Gandálfr is not insignificant."

"And the thief was someone else who isn't insignificant?"

The spirit nodded again.

Dammit, that's a thin enough clue to go on, but it's probably as good as we're going to get. "Alright. One last thing. The gift of your essence is . . . sorely needed."

Lagdorian regarded him silently for a moment longer. Then she turned her gaze on Montmorency. "Blood of my blood. Step forward into my waters."

The blonde paled slightly, but after a moment of hesitation she did as the spirit commanded.

The morning sun on the water seemed to shimmer exceptionally bright as her form slowly lowered into the lake. Finally, only her head was above the surface.

Then the surface seemed to surge, covering her completely, concealing her beneath ripples gleaming with far more reflected sunlight than should have been possible.

Nothing happened for several long seconds.

Then all of a sudden a wave of dazzlingly radiant water rose up and crashed down on the shore before them. It receded, leaving Montmorency standing in front of them, eyes filled with wonder. In her off-hand she held a small disk.

The sun-dappled water dripped off her, but instead of falling to the ground, the drops flew over to the tip of her wand, where they collected into a ball. In seconds, she was dry, and the ball of water, still shimmering with impossible light, was four or five inches across. She looked at it, then hurried over to the wagon, pulled out her alchemy pouch, and carefully Levitated the water into three different vials.

"Got what we needed, then?" Jason asked her, following.

She nodded, still looking dazed. "Everything and more, yes."

"Good to hear. So what's this about Andvari?"

Montmorency flinched again. "It's an evil name in my family's folklore." She held up the disk, which looked like water floating inside an impossibly thin glass. In the center the image of a gold ring floated, set with a large gem. "This will hold its shape, so we'll know it when we see it. But if the thief has used it, it might have a different waterstone set in it."

"Do you know what it can do? If there's news of someone doing that, ought to be a good lead." And we're gonna need some leads if we want to track down those tricksy hobbitses, my precious.

She nodded. "I don't have copies of that lore with me at the Academy, but I'll ask my parents to send some." Then, after hesitating: "Why did you pledge to bring my family back?"

Jason raised an eyebrow. "Are you saying they wouldn't go back?"

"Oh course not! But why?"

He shrugged. "She misses your family, the commoners miss your family, and the new lord doesn't get along with anyone. Seems like it'd be better for everyone all around." Then, smiling wryly: "But make sure you get the title back before you bring back the ring and the land becomes productive again. It should be cheaper that way."

Montmorency gave him an expressionless look for a long moment, then walked off to rejoin Guiche.

Louise was having some sort of glaring contest with Kirche as Jason rejoined the group, so he quietly went over to Tabitha.

Who was, naturally, reading a book.

"Hi," he began.

She lowered it slightly, and gave him a questioning look.

"Could I impose on you?" he asked quietly. "We need to return to the Academy as quickly as possible, the four of us. This afternoon, if we can."

Tabitha gave him another look. "Heavier," she finally said.

"Yeah, I know, five passengers-"

"And the cart."

He blinked. "Actually, if you can fly us back, I don't think we need the cart anymore." Hell, we'll just find a way to pay for it, if that becomes an issue.

She slowly nodded. "Then yes. It is possible." She then turned to Kirche. "Flame is still-"

The redhead broke off the staring contest with her rosecrown rival. "I can wait here until you return," she reassured her friend. "If you truly wish to help them out."

Tabitha nodded. "I do, yes. Nightfall, or a little before." With that, she put her fingers to her lips and let out a piercing whistle.

Jason raised an eyebrow. "Hey, why didn't either of you bring your familiars to the fight?"

She responded with a dubious look. "Why would I risk Sylphid in the fight? She has not the training, to battle monsters or spirits."

Huh. That must have been in Gallian. "Right, should have realized. That lake is dangerous, if you piss her off."

Tabitha nodded again, but whatever response she was about to make was aborted as Louise pounced on him.

["Don't you dare take her staff!"] his little mistress insisted.


["Or Zerbst! You leave her wand alone, too!"]

["Wasn't planning on taking anyone's wand but yours, Louise."]

["Then why do you keep chasing other girls!?"] she demanded, just before biting down.

It took half the flight back to the Academy before she accepted his reassurances.

It was early enough in the afternoon when Tabitha dropped them off that Montmorency had time to brew the antidote right away.

"I know exactly what I need to do to counter the love potion," she pointed out when Jason expressed relieved surprise. "I have the formula, after all. If I didn't have that, it would take longer to brew an antidote that would be certain to work." Then she pointed to the exit of the classroom that she was using as her potions lab. "But that doesn't mean I need everyone staring over my shoulder. This is going to be difficult as it is."

He gave her a long look. "Fine. But we will be testing it out before Louise has any."

Her eyes flickered towards Guiche, and she flinched. "It really isn't like your situation," she muttered. "It would be simpler to let everything alone."

"You know that's not your call to make."

She drooped a little, but didn't say anything as Jason led the other two into an adjacent room to wait. They pulled out a couple of chairs, and after sitting down he rubbed his little mistress's back and head and rumbled a lullaby until she was dosing again.

Then he sighed, looking down on her in his lap.

"What could possibly trouble you now?" Guiche asked. "The quest was a resounding success, and once we've completed our next quest my lady will have won a prize she never thought possible. Now is the time for rejoicing!"

"True enough," Jason replied. "But . . . well. I'm worried that Louise'll wonder if I had a hand in causing this whole mess."

"Surely your actions prove otherwise."

"I hope so. But . . ." He shook his head. Monty was planning on the potion lasting a long time. So it seems very unlikely that there'll be any kind of amnesia effect once it's removed. What if Louise can't stand to touch us after this, because she remembers what the potion was making her do? "I'll be happier when I hear her say it."

"Truth." Guiche smiled. But then he looked away for a minute or so, before looking back with a thoughtful frown. "How can Monmon test her antidote, before administering it to Miss Vallière?"

"There are ways, and some of them will even let me confirm that the antidote works. Nothing you need to worry about."

The blond looked like he wanted to say something else, but thought better of it, and so they waited quietly.

"But, I thought this was the antidote for Miss Vallière?" Guiche said dubiously, looking at the liquid Montmorency had given him to drink.

She gave him a sickly smile. "No, no, it's just a tonic, to ensure you don't take ill after two nights on the road."

"Oh! That's just like you, to be so thoughtful." He brought the cup to his lips, then pulled it away again. "Why are you smiling like that?"

"Like what?"

"Like your dance partner just stepped on your foot and is too much the boor to even notice." He stared at the antidote in his hand. "What is this, really?"


Bloody hell, the potion really does protect itself, even if he only subconsciously suspects what the antidote is. "Just order him to drink it. He is required to obey you, right?"

Montmorency nodded reluctantly. "Guiche, if you love me, you have to drink that."

He brought the cup to his lips again, then paused. Again. "I don't think you truly want me to."

Then he made as if to throw it away, only for Jason to reach out and pluck the cup from his hand. "Well, I have to admit that this is proof that your first potion was of the highest quality. Why don't I just hold him down and you can force it down his throat?"

The blond whirled towards Jason, one hand twitching by his wand. "And who are you, to be giving her orders all of a sudden?!"

Jason deliberately set down the antidote, then Louise – hopefully we've got long enough to get through this before she wakes up again – then stepped forward into Guiche's personal space. "I," he all-but-snarled, "am trying to free you to be the person that you choose to be. I'm not leaving you alone until you've taken the antidote. What you do after that is your problem."

"But nobody has used a love potion on me! I love my darling Monmon, just like I always have!"

"You mean except when you were out past curfew, busily seducing First Form girls who didn't know better?"

"What?! No, I would never-"

"Did you ever catch her name, Monty? I can't remember if I heard it, myself."

There was a long pause.

"Katie," Montmorency stated flatly. "Her name was Katie. She doesn't even know what her affinity is, but she's excited to be learning cantrips, and she was so thrilled that a noble – a Line, even – was falling in love with her." Another pause. "There was more, but by then she was crying so hard I couldn't understand any of it."

Guiche turned to stare at his lover, a look of horror on his face at her recital. "No, I wouldn't . . . that was just a horrible nightmare. I would never-"

"You did," Jason interrupted, catching the blond's attention again. "And then you complained because neither one wanted to have anything to do with you, afterward. After you lost the training bout, and were sitting in the cherry grove, trying your best not to cry. That was only a week ago, Guiche. Are you trying to pretend that never happened?"

"No, I . . . I was upset because I'd lost, and-"

"And because you missed Monty's company."

"Of course! I love her, I always have-"

"So why wasn't she willing to so much as talk to you all spring?"

"I don't . . . I would not betray her! That is not who I am!"

"If that's not who you are, then you have nothing to fear from the antidote. Right, Monty?"

Guiche turned his attention back to Montmorency just in time to catch the look of anguish that flashed over her face. "No, see! She doesn't want me to drink it either!"

Jason sighed. "Because she knows the difference between the potion and the man. And she knows she loves the man anyway, even if he can't quite return it."

"No, that-" Guiche slumped down, then continued in a small voice. "I don't want to betray her. I want to be better than that."

That got Montmorency to close her eyes, but not before a tear escaped to run down her right cheek.

And doesn't this just manage to be all sorts of fucked up? "Fine," Jason said, suddenly feeling very weary. "You know what? Why don't you tell yourself that? Get some paper, write it down, read it after you've taken the antidote. Decide what you really want at that point."

Guiche looked thoughtful for a long moment, and opened his mouth, but then shut it in surprise as Montmorency silently put a ballpoint pen – apparently they were starting to see wider use – and a sheet of silk paper in his hands. He sat down without a word, and began writing. After a few minutes, he broke the silence to ask her for a few more sheets.

Jason stayed back far enough so that he couldn't make out the words. Ain't really our business, whatever he's saying.

Montmorency was not quite as shy, and after her shoulders started to shake and she wiped her eyes, he concluded that he was right, that whatever her lover was writing down as the boy poured out his soul to, well, himself, it was far too private to intrude on.

It took several sheets of paper, but Guiche eventually put down the pen. He continued to stare at what he'd written, though.

"You done?" Jason finally asked. "'Cause, I've got my own version of this touching scene to get through, so if you're ready . . . ?"

"I . . . no," Guiche declared firmly. "I know what I want. I don't need to take a potion to be who I really aWK!"

The squawk was due to Jason rolling his eyes, muttering a quick 'Deus Vult!', and picking the smaller boy up. Focusing on the precise result he wanted allowed him to hold at least some of the headache of all his other combat options at bay, and soon his gloved hand had a very specific grip on Guiche's jaw, forcing the boy's mouth open and his head back.

"Now, Monty. The potion, if you would."

She picked up the cup from where he'd set it down, and took one step towards Guiche. Then she stopped.

"If I were to accidentally drop this," she said, slowly, "You'd still choose to use the other dose for Miss Vallière, wouldn't you?"

Jason gritted his teeth. "Yes. And then you'd never know if he would willingly choose to be whatever he wrote down on those papers."

Montmorency let out her breath almost quickly enough to be an exclamation rather than an exhalation.

"And I'd absolutely go to the Headmaster. I told you, I consider Guiche a friend."

Her expression turn more than a bit sour, but she nodded, brought the antidote over, poured it into the blond's mouth, and gently stroked his throat until he swallowed. "You can release him," she then said. "It will take effect very soon."

Jason nodded and let go.

Guiche immediately sprang away, rubbing his jawbone and glaring . . . only to stop all of a sudden as his expression grew very odd. "So . . . I think . . ."

Best to do a quick check. "You remember Katie?"

"Yes, I-" He glanced at Montmorency's unamused expression and flushed. "I remember. It . . . seemed like the thing to do at the time."

"Alright. Remember writing that note to yourself?"

Guiche flushed even deeper. "I-"

"I didn't read it, myself. But you might want to. See if you agree with it." Jason shrugged, then grinned lopsidedly. "See if you feel like you can trust Monty being in the same room with you."

Nobody said anything for a moment.

"I . . . missed your company greatly," Guiche finally said softly, looking at Montmorency. "If you have felt the same way . . ."

She blushed until her face was as red as his own, and did her best to look anywhere but back at him. He slowly took three steps towards her, then traced a finger across her cheek until his hand slipped around her neck, hidden by the golden ringlets that she preferred to keep her hair in.

"Welp," Jason said, "I think my presence just became unnecessary. Good night, you two." He grabbed the other dose of the antidote, then picked Louise up and headed towards her bedroom.

Getting her to take the antidote was . . .

It wasn't that she distrusted him, or was to suspicious of it to refuse to take it. It was that as soon as she realized they were alone and in her bedroom, as far as she was concerned it was time for nookie, and she wasn't listening to anything that didn't pertain.

"You need to have this before we really get started," he finally resorted to, after she paused their necking long enough to come up for air. "It's meant to help with this being your first time."

"And then you'll-?"

"After you've had it, I'll be willing to do anything you ask me to."

"Good!" With that she gulped it down as quickly as she could. "This time, no changing your m-"

She froze, much as Guiche had, and Jason took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "Welcome back, little mistress."

She sprang out of his lap as if it were on fire. "I – shameless – tried to-!" Her hands flew up to cover her mouth, and she raced to the pot de chambre, where she was noisily sick.

He winced. Guiche hadn't needed to . . . it's not about us, idiot. Stop feeling sorry for ourself and go see if there's anything we can do for her.

So he went into the bathroom, knelt down beside her, and pulled her hair out of the way so she wouldn't get any vomit in it. Then she flinched, when his hand accidentally brushed her neck.

It felt like a knife into his heart.

"Do you want me to leave?" he asked, in as neutral a tone as he could manage.

["No."] Her jaw worked, and she spat out a little more vomit. ["I have questions you need to answer."]

Yeah, she's missed some critical parts of the narrative, and who knows what else she's ignored? "Fair enough. The water in the buckets has been standing there for a couple of days, but it should still be fresh enough. Would you like a cup, to rinse out your mouth?"

She nodded, so he got her one. When she was done, she stood up, and pulled him back to the bedroom proper, over to the table. "Sit."

Jason sat down.

She opened her mouth, then closed it, and turned around so that he couldn't see her face. "Love potion?"



"The cherry wine, the night before we set out."

Louise paused. "You knew."

"Not then. I thought you were a bit tipsy, that was all. Siesta recognized the signs when she came by in the morning."

She whirled around. "It wasn't you, was it? Tell me it wasn't you!"

Jason looked her straight in the eyes. "I swear it wasn't, little mistress. By Brimir and by the God of my own people, I swear this disaster was not my doing."

Her hands clenched. "If you're lying, then-"

"If I were the sort of person to slip you a love potion, then I would not have given you the antidote. Or held back from, er. Well."

She went still for a long moment, thinking it over, then slowly nodded. "As long as it wasn't some clever plan, to-"

"To what?" He'd kept his tone calm up to now, but a note of exasperation escaped right there. ["We were in love, we were planning to marry as soon as I have enough status . . . what additional prize might I win, in this aftermath? What's worth the risk inherent in giving love potion to the daughter of a duke?"]

She nodded again, and her hands relaxed. "I can't think of anything either."

["And besides, why would I risk the comfort of your heart beating next to mine? Or can you even stand the thought of touching me, now?"]

"I-" she flushed, closed her eyes, and shook her head. ["I can't believe how wanton I was trying to be!"]

["It was only what you were forced to want. Although I do hope to prove that there's joy to be had in the marriage bed, when the time comes."]

Her eyes still closed, she flushed a bit deeper. ["Were you enjoying yourself, then?"]

["Once I knew what was going on, I felt guilty as hell, like I was taking advantage of you."]


["But to have my beloved in my arms, never wishing to leave my embrace? Forgive me if you can, Louise, but it was an . . . alluring damnation that beckoned me."]

She opened her eyes and gave him a very wry look. "Are you in control?"

He met her gaze steadily. "As I said, I'll do anything you command. If my presence now troubles you, if you need me to leave, if you need time to think, or if you want to reconsider anything . . . or if you want me to stay. I love you. Whatever I can do for you, that you ask, I will. If I must break my own heart to give you peace, then . . . so be it. I don't want to – my hope is that you still want my heart beating next to your own – but it shall be as you choose."

Her lips curved into a smile as wry as the rest of her expression. "Have I not told you before that you are not dismissed from my presence?"

His answering smile was rather more relieved. "Yes, but . . . it's a relief to hear it again."

"I just wish . . . I'm not sure what I enjoyed because of the potion, and what was . . . me."

He shrugged. "I was trying to keep to familiar-"


Jason immediately shut up.

"Just, don't push for . . . I think I need to rediscover what I'm comfortable with."

"Okay." Sounds like we're back to that first deliberate kiss. Frustrating, maybe, but we've got months before that Germanian title anyway.

"Now," Louise's voice sharpened, "who was it?"

"Ah. Well, you know Guiche's ex-girlfriend, Montmorency something-something?"

She snorted, then sobered as she made the connection. "It was her? Why?"

"Didn't trust Guiche to stay faithful if she took him back, and thought we'd notice the difference if she slipped him a potion. I think she just wanted us distracted."

"She just wanted-?!"

There was a sudden knock on the door. Jason looked to Louise, who rolled her eyes, but nodded.

When he opened the door, Guiche stood there, holding on to the hand of a reluctant-looking Montmorency. Who, we she saw Louise glaring daggers at her, tried to take a step back and yank her hand out of her lover's.

Only to stumble forward as he pulled her inside and closed the door.

Jason sighed. "And you two seemed like you were doing so well when I left you. What is it now?"

Montmorency bit her lip, eyeing the other girl as if she were a venomous serpent. (Which seemed rather wise at the moment.)

Guiche was not so constrained. "She's not making any sense! You have to talk to her!"

Jason pinched the bridge of his nose and tried not to sigh again. "Making any sense about what? And start from the beginning."

The blond nodded earnestly. "We came to an understanding. From now on, I will devote myself to her, and none other."

"Okay." Not sure we believe it, but time will tell. "And?"

"And now she won't come back to my bedchamber!"

And there it is. "Urghhh. Guiche, to be perfectly honest, I wouldn't blame Monty if she refused to so much as kiss you until you proved that you meant to hold to that understanding."

"No, no, she was eager enough to permit my kisses, it's-"

Jason held up a hand, and looked over at Montmorency. Who looked mortified, but kept her attention on Louise and didn't say anything.

"Right." This time he did sigh. "Monty, I'm not going to dispute for a moment that you have the right to keep your bed to yourself. Nonetheless, three days ago you invited Guiche to lie with you in a manner most emphatic. After that, if you're enjoying his affections but leaving his bed cold . . . it may seem like a great way to punish him, but it's also a great way to kill that 'understanding' you have."

She risked taking her gaze off of imminent doom to meet his eyes. "I thought with the antidote . . . but it's still all he thinks about!" Then she blushed. "And he's good at kissing." With that she went back to keeping an eye on Louise.

Jason thought about that. Then he thought about it some more. Then he thought about Montmorency's attitude towards her lover ever since she'd given him the first potion.

Aw, hell.

"Guiche," and he was suddenly feeling weary all over again. "Your parents – or at least a tutor – gave you the Talk about how babies are made, right?"

The blond blushed, but nodded.

"What about your brothers? Did anyone give you the other Talk?"

Guiche blinked. "The 'other' talk? What other talk?"

"Yeah. A gap of ten bloody years and they forget their brotherly duties. Shit." Guess it falls to us. "Ladies, if you'll excuse us, I need to go give him the other Talk."

The blond's expression was now extraordinarily confused.

(Montmorency just looked terrified to be left alone with her victim.)

What mattered, however, was that when Jason got to the door and reached for the handle, it locked with a noticeable click. He turned to see Louise holding her wand up.

"Little mistress-"

"No," she interrupted. "If there's something he needs to know, I want to hear it too."

Jason shook his head. "Uh-uh. This is sacred guy stuff. No girls allowed."

"If I may," Montmorency said, very quietly. Then flinched when Louise's gaze turned back on her. "I, I think I have a right to know whatever you plan to tell him. If he . . . if he and I are to . . ."

Dammit, she's . . . if anyone had clue'd her in, she could have been training him herself. "Oh, hell. Fair enough. Little mistress-"

"No! Especially if she gets to hear it!"

"But-" This time, he flushed red. "Look, you're supposed to get this from your mother – or maybe sisters – just before you get married. Not from a man." ["Not when you know I'm planning to do all this with you!"]

Her glare wasn't quite as deadly as what she'd been directing at Montmorency, but it was still entirely unamused. ["You're my familiar, so we're already breaking the rules."] "Stop stalling!"

"I . . . fine!" He turned back around so he at least wouldn't have to look at her. This was going to be mortifying as it was . . .

Each and every face in the room was now completely red, and no one was willing to look anyone else in the eye.

"Y-you . . . they . . . you expect them to actually-?" Louise was the first to speak out.

"Yes," Jason said through clenched teeth. "Obviously, you two don't have to. But I'm not joking. The key to enjoying a healthy love life is if you both enjoy it. If Monty only tolerates it for love, if she only truly enjoys it on rare occasions, it won't be too long before she's avoiding it entirely. And then he will left wondering why she turned cold, and when loving looks and shared afterglow gave way to reluctant duty. There might not be anything there in about 5 or 10 years."

"How can people let that happen?" Guiche asked, sounding bewildered as he glanced at his lover nervously. "Why wouldn't you say something, if it started being a problem for you?"

"Because I-" She broke off, and shot Jason a helpless look.

He rolled his eyes. "Because for men, even the most awkwardly fumbling first time is still pretty good. And if she pretends it was good for her too, because she's happy that he's so happy with her, then she's can't tell him later because it means she's been lying, that she thinks he's been a lousy lay the entire time. So it doesn't come out until the fight that pretty much ends the relationship." Then he shrugged. "Fortunately, we've caught it early, so you can avoid all that drama."

"But-!" Guiche protested. "I'm not . . . why did you use the potion on me if you didn't want to-?"

Louise groaned and buried her face into her hands.

Montmorency just shook her head. "I did want to. And I knew the first time might be uncomfortable. But you're in such a hurry that you finish right when it gets . . . interesting."

He looked appalled. "You think I'm boring?"

She drew back as if struck.

Dammit, having this out was supposed to prevent drama! "Hey!" Jason snapped, pounding his hand on the wall and making them jump. "No, that's not what she was saying. You know how it feels when you plant your seed?"

Guiche nodded.

"Well, women can feel that too, it's just-"

Three pairs of eyes widened.

He broke off and stared at them all in horrified shock. "Did none of you know that?"

Three heads shook in the negative.

"Argh! Okay, I'm going to assume that your parents would clue you in right before you got married. But yes. Women can. Usually. It helps her get with child, even, though it isn't required." He looked up to the ceiling in despair. "Why do you think I told you about places she might like to be touched?"

Montmorency's expression turned speculative.

Louise was shooting him shy glances before blushing anew and looking away.

Guiche just looked stunned.

And we'd be a little more sympathetic, except we're bumbling our way through giving our little mistress the 'How To Help Her Enjoy IT When You're Still A Fumbling Newb' talk. Right after she comes down off of a love potion. Little twerp can go die in a fire.

"I . . . it was so wonderful," said twerp finally got out. "And I thought you just wanted me to hold you."

"I do want you to hold me," Montmorency admitted, with her own blush. "But it did feel like there was something that didn't have time to happen."

He nodded. "You should get to feel it too. But . . . to let you do that do I really need to put my mouth-"

"Guiche," Jason interrupted between clenched teeth, "finish that sentence and I will hurt you. Yes, that is the easiest way for a lot of women. But all of it is about taking the time to help rouse her body's passions. And, hey, it's a romantic summer evening and the bathhouses ought to be empty.

"So, here's what you do: Get the hell out of Louise's room, go to the bathhouse, wash up, gently wash Monty, take care of her, then take care of her again, and again and again until she forgives you for being such a callow twit, and wash each other off one final time before going to bed and doing it all over again."

"Well, we-" the blond started. Then shut up as Montmorency deliberately went over to him, grabbed his hand, and dragged him out of the room.

She turned back to close the door and looked Jason directly in the eye for the first time since he'd started the Talk. "Thank you," she said, quietly but clearly, blushing brilliantly as the door closed.

He shook his head at the closed door. "Sheesh. I get why parents don't want to give their children manuals on licentiousness, but given how many are gonna fumble their way into each other's beds anyway, you'd think some basic knowledge would get out there."

"Mother taught me that it would hurt, if I succumbed to a lecher's blandishments, because he wouldn't care about me," Louise responded. "Even if I got with child, he still wouldn't care. But doesn't that mean that a man who loved me would-"

She winced, broke off, and shook her head.

All too easy to guess what wires are crossing. "Do you need to throw up again?"

". . . No. I don't think so."

"Okay." Jason took a deep breath. "I want you to know, that if Monty were a few years older I would have seen her crucified over this. I still will, if you want it."

She frowned. "It does seem like everything ended well for her."

"Yep. After raping your mind and trying to use me to rape your body. So I need to know how you want to respond."

Louise frown became a grimace. Then her expression turned unreadable, and she was quiet for a long moment, before asking, "Do you forgive her?"

It was his turn to frown. "I've been trying stay calm so I could work the problem. But right after I learned it was her I kept getting so angry, so quickly . . ." Jason took a deep breath. "That being said: One horrible mistake, that's what you can afford to forgive in junior officers. Or, I suppose, the adolescent. This mess was hers, but I'm not the one she hurt the most. You are. So I'm trying to be wise here, but if you want my fury instead, I'll-"

"Wait," she interrupted, shaking her head slowly. "Wasn't this all from love?"

"Love and obsession, I guess. And incredible foolishness, but hell, teenager. Par for the course."

"And you did protect my virtue."

"I did what I could," he agreed. "But you kept coming up with new ideas, and it wasn't easy. Not sure we could have lasted another night." Hell, if you'd gotten our swimsuit all the way off in the stream, it might've been over then and there.

She gave him an odd look. "You seemed to have everything under control. Nothing I came up with worked."

Jason shrugged. "I'm bigger, I'm stronger, and you seemed to think that me taking your wand away was step one in seducing you by making you helpless. Taking control of my body negated all of my advantages in protecting you from yourself. That was brilliant."

"Perhaps I can forgive her." Then Louise scowled. "Did you have to protect me quite so carefully?"

His eyes went wide open in shock. "You-?"

But she was already flushing deep red, hands clasped over her mouth.

["Can I ask where that came from?"]

["No! No questions!"]

["Uh-uh, little mistress. You had to throw up after you took the antidote. You were deeply upset, and now you're expressing regrets that I didn't take advantage. I . . . how am I supposed to figure this out?"]

She looked down and shook her head, but otherwise didn't respond.

Jason rubbed his forehead and gave the mouse statue on the windowsill a glance. ["Tell you what. I know you said you need time to sort yourself out. But if you come over here right now and kiss me, I'll take advantage of you. Just a little. Your choice."]

Her head snapped up, eyes narrowing as Louise glared at him. She pulled out her wand and stalked over to him, circling him almost like a cat cornering wounded prey. Finally she leveled her wand and cast.

He wasn't quite sure if it was an explosion or merely a very forceful Levitate, but he was still half-dazed, sprawled out on her bed where the spell had dropped him, when she pounced.

He couldn't help but chuckle, a little while later, idly rubbing her back as she snuggled against him.

"Wha'?" She mumbled into his shoulder.

"That was clever of you," he admitted, looking down at the fine linen undergown that was all she was wearing above her waist at the moment, her blouse hanging off the bed and her brassiere lying on the windowsill, where she'd tossed it as soon as she'd gotten it off. ["You're still wearing clothes, and if your parents had walked in they'd have killed me on the spot regardless."]

She raised her head just enough to smirk at him. ["I was just kissing the top of your head, where your hair swirls together. You do it to me all the time!"]

["Doubt they'd appreciate that, either."] And there'd been a definite difference, what with her smooth and translucent linen shirt sliding across his face as she'd bent over him to plant her kisses.

Louise giggled. Then shyly buried her face back in his chest. ["Do you mind if we wait to do anything like that again? I . . . part of me wanted to take my undergown off too, but . . . it wouldn't be prudent, would it?"]

["Part of me wants it all now, of course. Beyond that, I'm just glad that the potion didn't ruin this for us."]

She twitched, then looked up to meet his eyes. "Do you know what that potion made me want?"

"Is that a trick question?"

Her eyes narrowed.

"Fine, fine. Monty said it would make you feel wonderful, as long as you were with me. Which I'd say is how you ought to feel anyway, but . . . do you want to talk about it?"

"Everything seemed so-" She broke off and started again. "It made me feel like . . . like I needed you to prove you loved me and if you didn't I felt even more worthless than when I didn't have magic, and even with what you described there are these things in Siesta's books that I can't understand why anyone would do them, but if that's what you wanted . . . and it didn't matter if it was going to hurt like Mother said as long as it was you-"

She broke off, flushing, and looked down.


["It didn't make me a slut like Zerbst. I didn't care if I liked it, just whether you loved me. Even with the potion, I didn't expect it to be nice. And we just, just-"]

["Just fooled around a bit? Still enough for your parents to kill me out of hand."] And it barely counted as second base. You can get that much 'accidental' contact with a hug. Usually against an arm, granted, but-

She whimpered. ["And from what you said, it gets better!"]

["Well, like you said, wouldn't be prudent to take off more clothing. Hell, think how it might feel if I slipped my hands under your skirt to rub your calves and just kept on going this time."]

She actually moaned this time, and when she lifted her head again her eyes were just a bit glazed. "Is this how men are all the time?!"

"No, but we can get there in no time at all. You either learn to control it, or it controls you . . . and boy oh boy are there stories of what happens to guys who let it control them." ["But as fun as it is to tease you, do you mean that the potion didn't mind if I was clueless like Guiche? You were ready to, er, lie back and think of Tristain?"]

["Lie back and-"] Louise snorted. ["What kind of crazy expression is that?"]

["There was this ally, a couple of centuries back, they had some strange ideas about women only going to their marriage beds out of duty."]

She rolled her eyes. ["No, but I was ready to lie back and let you prove you loved me. Even if you were like Guiche. Or even the men in Siesta's books."]

"Instead I sat you on my lap and read to you. Did that actually help, by the way?"

His little mistress nodded. "It was . . . it was like I could drown in the story. Better than the times you read to me and Siesta. It even helped a little afterward."

"Right up until you figured out how to sock-puppet me."

She flushed. "Even with the potion, I can't believe I was ready to do that to my own-" And then she broke off with another whimper.

Jason laughed. "Well, it was clever. And it proved I do have the universal auxilia, that we can switch bodies if we need to. Now if we could figure out how to share our senses, rather than simply replace each other, we'll be up to the level that we're supposed to be at."

Louise rolled her eyes. "I think we're a bit beyond the usual level of bonding."

"Not in that specific area. Although, I'm a little curious to find out if our magic transfers with our minds, or not, or if it can be used at all when we exchange bodies."

All of a sudden, her expression could only be described as thoroughly weirded out. "Jason, you are just a little too comfortable with that notion."

He shrugged. "The story-tellers of my world have invented far more bizarre ideas. And anyway, I trust that if we borrow each other's bodies you won't, say, run off to have angry sex with Kirche."

"You! I . . . why would you even suggest something so debauched?!"

"Oh! Is this a bad time?"

They stared at each other for just a split second, then their heads whipped simultaneously to stare at the door, where Guiche and Montmorency stood looking at them.

The blond scratched his head. "They look – but they're still dressed. Er, mostly. So were you right about them?"

"I think I was." The potioneer's smile was downright evil. She pointed at the two of them as Jason sat up on the bed and Louise scrambled to get her blouse back on and buttoned. "This isn't anything to do with the potion. But a Vallière with a commoner . . . you are quite thoroughly dead."

"Any test you care to levy, she's still a virgin," he managed to respond without stammering, despite the panic-shot of adrenaline, as his little mistress stiffened beside him.

The blonde smirked. "Then her parents will just make sure to keep her that way, won't they?"

"Interesting form of gratitude you're showing," he snarled. "Should I start running now, then?"

"Oh, I am grateful." Montmorency stopped to kiss Guiche on the cheek. His smile was embarrassed, but also very smug. "Even with that quest you forced on me."

Jason gaped. "That quest is going to be for your own good, and you know it! Anyway, couldn't you have taken a little longer?"

Her smirk widened. "I'm of Water. I don't need a bathhouse to clean up. Just a little privacy."

Guiche gave his lover an exasperated look. "You said you were upset with him, but shouldn't we get to the point?"

Montmorency gave him a bit of a glare. "We were negotiating."

"No," Jason retorted, "you were issuing threats. So what are you really here for?"

She glared at her lover a bit more, then sighed. "After classes let out for the summer, Guiche used everything he'd saved from his stipends to purchase every quest and call to adventure that he could find in Menenville."

The blond nodded eagerly. "I had thoughts of recruiting a company of heroes from the students who remained at the Academy over the summer, but then Kirche and Dame Tabitha left before I could figure out how to approach them, and all the others worth recruiting were senior Third Form, except-"

"Except Louise, now that you know she's getting her magic to work. And Monty, once you patched things up with her. And, I suppose, myself." Jason nodded in comprehension. "So you had to issue threats to make sure we were willing to come along?"

Montmorency's eyes narrowed. "You barged in, threatened me, and then dragged me out on a quest. And now you're complaining when you're the one doing something disgraceful?"

"You-!" But he shut his mouth, hard, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. One terrible mistake, forgiven. Let it go. Then Jason reopened his eyes. "I trust I shan't need to again. Let the past be buried, if it please you. For the sake of adventure, if nothing else."

She smirked, opened her mouth, and-

"Wait." Louise got off the bed and marched over to the taller blonde, fists clenched. Who stepped back despite being a good head taller. "I could plead for Jason's life to my parents. He's foreign, but he's discovered his own magic. More than the Easterlings had, when they invaded! He's educated, he's clearly of sound stock, no worse than an inexprimé house, and I am not the first choice for heir. A cadet line, with my magic awry to begin with . . . it would not be impossible."

She drew close enough that she had to tilt her head back to glare up at the other girl. "But if my parents ever learn what you have done? No one, not even the Queen herself, could stop their wrath from destroying your family. No one."

She stepped back, and Montmorency closed her eyes as Louise opened her palm and lifted her hand up and back. Guiche leaned back with a wince as the tiny rosecrown swung, and they both flinched at the wave of air generated.

Then Montmorency opened her eyes in surprise, when the hand stopped not half-an-inch from her cheek.

"Do not. Do it. Again." The tiny rosecrown's voice was steady and serious as the grave. "Not me. Not your lover. Not anybody. Ever."

The blonde nodded quickly.

Louise marched back over to Jason and jumped up on him – this time he wasn't expecting it, and had to move fast to catch her – and then he stiffened in shock as she kissed him hard in front of the other two. "Now the past can bury the past," she announced, rather smugly, as she slid down.

["Think that'll take? Your warning, I mean."]

["If it doesn't, you'll just have to find someone else to send back to Lagdorian to be 'blood of her blood'."]

"Alright," he said out loud, "Now that we're all straight? I've been working on weapons with Mr. Colbert, when we aren't training. If those quests of yours involve fighting . . . I'm not just going to go around killing innocent people. But we do need to see how the new weapons work outside the lab."

"You and I could use some experience against real opponents," Guiche agreed. "Sparring is only so good. And you don't have to worry about turning to banditry. If we go in the right direction, there's been an increase in orc sightings this last year."

"Father keeps warning people," Louise commented. Then her eyes lit up. "Jason, if you truly want to impress Father – a title would be good, but orcs-"

He looked down at her quizzically. "Orcs are better than a title?"

"Orcs mean you deserve the title, at least more than the nobles who won't protect their commoners."

"Okay. I'm in." He looked around at the others. "Now's the hard part. It's not like we can slip away for the rest of the summer, not without causing everyone to come to some . . . frankly, some very justified conclusions. If not quite accurate. So.

"How do we get the adults to sign off on this?"

Guiche smiled. "Why not just ask?"

Jason blinked. "What do you mean?"

"Your maid has taken care of Verthandi just fine," the blond explained, "so we've probably avoided suspicion. If anyone asks, we'll just say we were seeing if we could fight together, and now we're ready to adventure."

"Would that work?"

Louise nodded slowly. "You do hear about students questing during the summer. We'll ask Mr. Colbert tomorrow morning."