A/N: When I was doing what was supposed to be my final revision to previous chapters, I let a truly embarrassing number of typos slip into this fic. I need to start fixing that, and hopefully will get the total number down to less than 1 in 100,000. Zero would be nice, but won't be easy. (Typos are pernicious that way.)

In any event, I've found a term that's better for 'magical creatures able to become familiars' than 'belua'. The term 'teratology' presently refers to the study of congenital abnormalities, but it has an archaic meaning of the study of fantastic creatures and monsters. It comes to us from the Greek word 'teras', meaning 'monster' or 'marvel'. So I've decided that the Halkagenian term for creatures suitable for becoming familiars, at least in the languages that Louise speaks, translate for Jason as 'teras'. Not sure what to used for the plural. Seems like 'teres' might be the proper Greek, but I don't like it. Maybe 'terasi' or terasa'.

The funny thing is, this doesn't actually matter for this chapter since the word doesn't show up here. But as I go through fixing typos and clearing up a few continuity issues in previous chapters – the spell 'Volitat' doesn't seem to get a proper introduction anywhere, and the best place for that is probably when Louise asks Mr. Colbert about overpowering the Light cantrip – that's another edit I'll be making. Fortunately, the major edits seem to be complete.

Delving And Discovery, Part I:

The next morning, after he woke, Jason just lay there, basking in the warmth of Louise sprawled out on top of him. Back to . . . well, this is only starting to be normal, but at least we don't have to worry about her coming up with new and unexpected ideas for getting laid.

. . .

Dammit, why do we have to be in a situation where we're relieved about not getting laid? It's bloody unfair, is what it is!

We're the one who chose the noble over the maid, moron. We knew this wouldn't be easy to get away with. Let's just hope that Louise is right, that her dad'll be impressed if we can build a pyramid of orc skulls to show off with. Besides, she still loves us, she isn't disgusted by the thought of touching us, and she once again managed to end up on top of us while she was sleeping. All in all, it's a better ending to the love potion disaster than we could reasonably expect.

So what's the procedure for going out questing? Guiche bought his quests, which implies an established protocol. Probably gonna be something weird, too, 'causehow can you get a functional adventuring economy, anyway?

Huh. Need to remember to take him aside and make sure he realizes that he ended the fight by taking Kirche prisoner, even if his valkyries didn't do more than keep him and Monty safe up until then.

Speaking of whom, can we trust her? Maybe, but if Lagdorian hadn't made us her parole officer, maybe not. Even with that she was still being an ass last night, so we'll have to keep an eye on her.

Gotta bring her along, though. Everyone knows you don't go adventuring without a healbot. Note to self: Make sure she's got the Line healing spells to study. Ask about potions, too. Sovereign class are probably out of the question, but anything that speeds recovery will help. And her familiar should mean better loot drops, same as Guiche's giant hairball critter.

Gotta wonder what it'll be like? Orcs and ruins, okay, got that. There's been a mention or two of ogres as well, if we recall correctly. What else is there? Some of the familiars look fairly mundane, but a lot of them don't. For that matter, we know this world has unicorns, pegasi, and gryphons, and if Tabitha's familiar is specified as a wind dragon, there could easily be earth, fire, and even water dragons. So there's plenty of beasties out there. Are any of them known hoarders of shiny things? How valuable are various components? Hell, if something like dragon scales are worth collecting, we don't necessarily have to kill anything, just find a lair or whatever and clean up the scales. Or feathers. Or even dung, if that's what's in demand.

Please don't let it be dung.

But probably a lot of orcs, seeing as how we'll be headed that way and looking for them. And orcs apparently have undead. Can't count on it only being draugr, either. Or at least you'd think that if all draugr are as nasty as King James was, the nobles would be taking care of the problem out of sheer necessity instead of ignoring it like Louise says her dad complains about. Anyway, could be some variety, there. Anywhere from slow shambling zombies to rabid PCP zombies. Maybe spirits, at that. Better check. Better be prepared, too. What are some tools-? Oh, of course. Bless you, Hugh Halligan. It shouldn't be too hard to help Mr. Colbert come up with a reasonable facsimile.

Wonder what the rules are for hunting? Don't think we want to use firearms, unless we can get new ammo cheap, but if we can get a crossbow or something, we should be able to use our battle auxilum to get some deer. And we ought to remember enough about trapping from Boy Scouts to find game trails and set some snares. Damn but it would have been helpful to bring a handbook.

May have to rely on Monty for edible plants, though. Better hope we can-

His thoughts broke off as Louise stirred, blinking sleepily as she slowly opened her eyes.

["Good morning, little mistress. Sleep well?"]

She yawned, wiped a bit of drool from the side of her mouth, and smiled dreamily. ["Good morning,"] she sent as she scooted up and kissed him. Then she pulled back abruptly. "Your mouth tastes . . . off."

Jason smiled back at her and chuckled. ["It's called morning breath, and it's why I haven't kissed you before brushing my teeth in the morning yet."]

"Oh." She reached under her pillow, pulled out her wand, cast Freshen on their mouths, and closed back in, setting her wand down and wrapping her arms around him. This time she didn't break the kiss until she had to pull back just enough to breathe. "'S's nice," she mumbled against his lips.

He reached up to cup her cheek, returning the kiss as Louise leaned into his hand. ["It is, yes. And I'm relieved beyond words that you aren't feeling sickened any more."]

She didn't respond for a while. But finally she pulled back, just far enough to lay her head on his shoulder and bury her face in his neck. ["I think Mother was trying to scare me, so I wouldn't want to-"]

["To fool around, especially with someone who'd demand more?"]

"Mm-hmm." ["You knew enough to tell Guiche what he was doing wrong and how to do it right."] Louise paused, her hands tightening around him for just a moment as she seemed to shudder. ["Was . . . was Mother . . . is it going to hurt, the first time?"]

Jason reached up to stroke her hair. ["It can, especially if the man is thoughtlessly clumsy. The thing is, every woman is different, so while I intend to be careful when the time comes, we can't say for sure."]

She didn't let go, or pull back, but she seemed to shrink a little. ["Oh. I . . . when I worried about it, thinking of Jean-Jacques, I would tell myself that we could wait for a few months after getting married. But I know you want . . . and you've been patient-! Even if it hurts . . . if it's you, there's potions, I'll let you-"]

["Louise,"] he interrupted. ["It won't be so bad as that, I promise. You can consult a medica beforehand, to make sure your maidenhead isn't too large or thick to readily admit your husband. And given time to arouse, a woman's body will prepare itself to receive her man. I told Guiche about using his mouth there because it helps, not because it was the only way for Monty to enjoy his attentions."]

She didn't respond for a moment, but finally took a deep breath. ["Then I'll refuse to take counsel of my fears."]

["And when the time come, I'll do my best to prove there was nothing to fear after all. But if we're both awake, we should get up, get dressed, and get our jogging in before breakfast."]

"Hmph," his little mistress grumbled. "What kind of mage am I becoming, training like a commoner?" But there was a smile in her voice as she rolled off him.

"The kind with an increasingly trim bottom," Jason responded with a grin, delivering a light swat to the appendage in question. "And, yes, I've paid enough attention to notice."

Louise giggled as she rolled off the bed. "I thought you stopped dressing me so you wouldn't be staring at me like a lecher anymore!"

"Eh. I'll just let you run a little bit ahead again while we're jogging."

"You-! Is that what you look at when we run?!"

He sat up and gave her a cheeky grin. "It does help the time go by. So, little mistress, are you going to face towards me when you bend over to put your culottes on, or face away from me? Either way I know I'll enjoy the view."

Her eyes widened as she looked down at the neckline of his shirt (that she'd worn as her nightgown), dipping almost low enough on her more slender frame to show petite-yet-perky cleavage. Then she blushed crimson. ["If I were facing you, you'd be able to see all the way down to – to – to everything!"]

Jason only grinned wider.

["You . . . you rake! You lecher! You-! Wait, you've always been behind me in the mornings, to help with my undergarments. You haven't seen me-"]

["Not yet."] Except their first night, when she hadn't realized he'd already woken back up while she changed. And when he'd helped with the Red Queen's Visit at the Inn, not that those memories were at all erotic. And when she'd frolicked in the stream like a forest nymph.

But if she doesn't want to remember any of that, we don't need to remind her.

Louise stared at him, red as a tomato, before finally laughing and shaking her head. "Jason, you close your eyes, and keep them shut!"

"Aw!" But he did as she requested.

"I think this time, you can run in front," his little mistress suggested, with a smirk and a glint in her eye as they arrived outside. ["I'd like to see just how well it helps to pass the time when one has something to watch."]

Jason smirked back, and started off. ["Feel free to enjoy the view, if I've shed enough weight for it to be worth enjoying. But if I happen to break wind, just remember that you asked for it."]

It was close enough to breakfast time as they finished jogging that they went straight to Mr. Colbert's suite.

But there, apparently waiting for them, was a woman that Jason vaguely recognized, probably one of the other professors. Both she and their professor looked unusually serious.

"Miss Vallière," Mr. Colbert said, quietly, gripping his staff. "please go with Madam Sousen. She will escort you to the infirmary."

Louise nodded, looking confused and perhaps a little nervous, and followed the lady professor out the door.

"You. Utter. Fool," he told Jason as soon as the other two had left, in a voice as intense as it was quiet. "We have obviously been aware of the mutual regard you and your master hold for each other, but it has also been clear that she has held the line, even in the face of what would be gross impropriety were you not her familiar. Did you think we would not discover Miss Montmorency's laboratory?"

Aw, shit! "Sir, I know it looks bad-"

"Looks bad? Say monstrous! Those potions have been forbidden since before the Romalian Empire! And for all that you're foreign, you've always seemed a man of reason. The sheer evil of what you've sought to do should have been obvious from the beginning. Yes, it looks bad."

"Right. But Louise is on her way to the infirmary to be examined, yes? Then they're going to discover that I didn't do anything. Louise is as much a virgin as she was the day I met her!"

Mr. Colbert took a deep breath, but the serious expression did not leave his face. "Jason, there are things I suspect you do not know. For example, potions typically leave traces in the body that can be discerned by careful alchemy. Maiden's Balm, for example, can be detected for as long as two months after it's been taken. Now," the professor continued in a deadly quiet tone, "would you care to revise the claim you just made?"

Jason swallowed. "They aren't going to find Maiden's Balm. They will, I suspect, find a carefully tailored antidote for the potion that has you so upset."

"So your mistress is fed a particularly powerful love potion, imprints on you, as we have already determined to our satisfaction, you take off with her to parts unknown, in the company of the one who had made the potion, and you claim it was merely to procure an antidote?"

He nodded. "I'm guessing someone was pressured to talk. Is that person okay?"

"The maid you suborned, who was caring for de Gramont's familiar? She's been sequestered for the nonce, until an appropriate penalty can be assessed."

"Siesta didn't do . . . dammit, I guess I did suborn her. She didn't say what was going on?"

"Her claims were the sort I'd expect to hear from one trying to throw all the blame on a single party. Clearly unreliable."

"Right. Okay, who's hearing Monty's confession?"

"The Headmaster, obviously. It will be up to him to determine how to go forward."

"Alright. Professor, I know it looks bad, which is why I was trying to get this fixed sub rosa. Nobody has any real reason to give me the benefit of the doubt, when the doubt has to be so enormous. So I think we need to wait for that report from the infirmary."

"If you think you can run some manner of bluff at this point-" Mr. Colbert broke off, his frown turning almost thoughtful, although his grip on his staff didn't relax. "Jason, if by the grace of Brimir you're somehow innocent of wrongdoing in this, I'll be much relieved. Because, yes, until all the evidence was uncovered I was certain that there had to be some mistake."

Oh, good, you do still want to believe in us. He nodded again. "Thank you for your faith in my good nature. Shall we wait, then, for the infirmary's report?"

The professor blinked. "We shall." He paused for a moment. "I've never known you to conceal your reactions with any particular skill. The way you're reacting, now . . . it almost gives me renewed hope. So. Let us see what verdict issues forth from the medica."

They didn't speak after that while they waited. Nor was there breakfast, which Jason found himself regretting.

But finally the other professor – Madam Sousan – returned, and she bore a bemused expression as she looked at him. "Familiar, you're to report to the Headmaster's office. Mr. Colbert, will you escort it there?"

The older man nodded. "The report?"

She shook her head. "None of us are to speak of it, unless the Headmaster decides otherwise." With that she turned and left.

As the other two left the room behind her, Jason asked in a quiet voice, "So, now what?"

Mr. Colbert gave him a neutral look, which was admittedly a good step up from the outrage of earlier. "It's a strong sign in your favor that Madam Sousan didn't feel the need to activate the malefactor's restraint placed in my suite. Beyond that, I imagine that Headmaster Osmond would like to hear your version of events."

They arrived to the Headmaster's outer office to find Louise and Guiche already waiting with Miss Longueville, both looking rather miserable.

"Thank you, Mr. Colbert," the secretary said. "Please remember that your confidentiality is required unless Headmaster Osmond tells you otherwise."

The professor nodded and left.

As soon as he was gone, Louise rushed over to Jason, hugging him tightly. ["The medica gave me the most intrusive examination I've ever had! She even plucked hairs from my . . . from down there. It was mortifying."]

"Miss Vallière," Miss Longueville said in a flat tone, "return to your seat."

The slender rosecrown flinched, nodded, and obeyed. Just then, a deep baritone roared something indistinct from the direction of the Headmaster's inner office.

"He's in fine form today," the secretary remarked dryly in response. "But then, I know for a fact that he read some of the more inane requests from Court to fan up a full temper before having Miss Montmorency sent in."

"He won't do anything too bad to her, will he?" Guiche asked anxiously.

Miss Longueville gaped at him for a moment. "If I did not know better, you little – you incredibly foolish young man – I would think she'd slipped another dose into your wine somehow. How you can be concerned for someone who would go to such depraved lengths-"

"I care for her," the blond Earth mage replied in a very small voice. "I think I might love her, even."

She gritted her teeth. "You fool. That girl is a traitor to all mages. Haven't you seen how the commoners marry their children off, women barely out of childhood auctioned off to rich old men, boys and girls who despise each other betrothed to seal family alliances, spouses murdered to make way for more advantageous matches-"

"But that's commoners!" Louise protested. "And not all of them. Besides, nobles don't do any of that."

"That's commoners when even their meager wealth is on the line," Miss Longueville agreed. Then she smiled grimly. "How much more do you think noble parents worry about good matches, especially among the landed nobility, where true wealth can be at stake?"

"But you don't force a mage to marry against his or her will," Guiche countered. "Th-That, that's blasphemous!"

"Yes, it is. And if you force someone to your bed, and they lay hold of a wand afterward, they'll demonstrate precisely how blasphemous it is through whatever violent elementari they're most practiced with." The secretary's smile thinned. "However, that only means that parents require some degree of subtlety in arranging matches."

"Subtlety?" Louise asked, suddenly sounded uneasy.

"Do you think they leave matters of such import to chance? Suitors they approve of will be allowed to present themselves in the best possible light, but unacceptable choices are quietly gotten out of the way." Miss Longueville dropped the smile in favor of a grim frown. "Sometimes lethally, if a choice is too unsuitable."

["She has a point, you know,"] Jason sent to his little mistress. ["We could have eloped by now if your parents wouldn't simply track me down and kill me for it."]

"But for all that subtle interference," the secretary continued, "there's only so much that parents can do to influence the course of courtship, especially since children old enough to marry are prone to outbursts of defiance if they think they're being manipulated."

"That just means we truly do make our own choices," Guiche protested.

"But only," Miss Longueville snarled, "if parents can't control who their children fall in love with. Do you think they've never thought how much simpler, how much easier, matters would be to settle if they slipped the right potions to the right people at the right time?"

Two sets of eyes widened.

And Jason felt suddenly weary. In Christendom, marriage required consent by the couple to take place. Doesn't mean families didn't come up with all sorts of strategies to compel that consent. Everything that she said commoners do to pervert marriage? We did that and more in medieval and renaissance times. No surprise something similar happens here. Sad, but no surprise.

"It's the family's responsibility to check for tampering, after all," the verdetress secretary was saying as she went on. "So perhaps they come to an accord with another family, nod and hint and wink, say no more, no need to inquire further, and if the potions are made well enough then by the time they wear off the happy couple are in the habits of love, and there's a child on the way besides."

"That doesn't happen, though," Guiche responded in a sick voice.

"Are you sure?"

"It doesn't!" Louise insisted. "You hear about families with childhood betrothals breaking it off all the time!"

"Yes, and it's such an embarrassment for those families, isn't it?"

"Better that than the two trying to kill each other," she countered, then suddenly paused. "But a pair of potions, slipped in at just the right time, would fix it even better, wouldn't it?" she concluded with a voice as uneasily sick as Guiche's.

The secretary nodded. "There are already families ruthless enough to place their children in circumstances to easily seduce the desired spouse and then arrange a speedy wedding before the infatuation wears off. Is a love potion so different from that?"

There was a long pause, before Louise and then Guiche each slowly shook their heads, while Jason watched on.

Honestly, this sounds like it can get even more horrifying than how we perverted consent back on Earth. At least our forms of coercion were relatively honest about being duress. But at least the attitude around here about love potions is nothing like Harry Potter-

"Fortunately, love potions are forbidden, and their use is rightly considered abominable. Now, de Gramont." Miss Longueville paused, and her expression turned downright predatory. "Why should your lover not be punished to the full extent prescribed by law?"

He blanched. "Please, no! She . . . she merely wished to secure my loyalty, that's all."

Louise winced. "And families merely wish to secure good marriages for their children, don't they?"

"Very good, Miss Vallière. Some efforts must not be made, no matter how immediately beneficial they may seem, for they bring ruin in the long run." The secretary then cocked an ear, and Jason realized the baritone shouting had quieted.

She got up, went to the door to the inner office, opened it just a little, and stuck her head through for a moment. "You should all go in now," she then said, as she went back to her desk.

The three got up, and slowly – nervously – went through to the Headmaster's office.

Headmaster Osmond sat at his own desk. Montmorency stood in front of him, looking wan, pale, and utterly wilted. Guiche rushed to her side as soon as he saw her, enveloping her in an embrace, and stared at the Headmaster pleadingly.

Osmond sighed, rubbing his forehead wearily. "Not all the pleading looks in Halkagenia could buy mercy for your lover, young de Gramont, save this: That when she was confronted with her crime, she did, in the end, seek out and prepare a true antidote to undo it.

"Nonetheless it would be inconvenient to admit both to de Gramont and de Vallière that their youngest had each been victims in such a manner."

"Then are we to forget that it all ever happened?" Louise asked, hopefully.

The Headmaster just looked at her for a long moment.

"Jason," he finally said, his gaze not leaving the tiny rosecrown, "why did you not go to a professor for aid?"

At least we've had to explain this before, so we're not fumbling around trying to organize our thoughts. "Because the first reaction of anyone, hearing about this, is to assume that I was complicit. Presumably I got cold feet and backed out when I realized just how strongly the potion was influencing her, or some such."

"Mm. I will admit, my assumption was that, even if you were not responsible for the potion, you and your master would have gone ahead and enjoyed each other's company last night."

Jason and Louise both blushed heavily. ["He thought we would have 'made love'?"] she sent.

["Or even just fooled around enough for carnal release. That would have left its own evidence, and his familiar would have smelled it out pretty easily. Fortunately, the effect of rubbing your undershirt-clad chest across my face would have been lost in the evidence left behind by your willingness before the potion was dispelled, fun as that was nonetheless."]


["And the familiar probably spent more time scouting out what Monty and Guiche were up to, since she-"]

"Interesting," Headmaster Osmond broke in. "Did you know that your expressions change when you are communing with each other?"

Jason froze. "They do?" he croaked.

"Not to any great extent, but when you are side-by-side, the turning inward at the same time is indicative."


"It is to our good fortune that my estimation was in error, that I need not inform Miss Vallière's parents that she has taken a lover: Your behavior remains chaste to a degree I would never have believed, had I not proof. The activities of de Gramont and Miss Montmorency last night and this morning are, in my experience, rather more typical."

The blond couple blushed at least as heavily as Jason and Louise had a few moments ago.

"Now, as I have already explained to Miss Montmorency, the Academy is well aware of who is providing contraband potions and nobilia, and of what kind. I find it preferable that students learn to clean up the messes caused by their follies while the stakes are still low enough to be controllable when matters become truly out of hand and those in authority must step in. But some things, love potions among them, are grounds for instant expulsion."

Montmorency shrank even further into Guiche's embrace.

"Please, no," the blond young man pleaded, as he cradled his lover protectively.

"Do you propose, de Gramont, that there be no penalty for her actions?" Osmond's voice was stern as he leaned forward, brows lowered, frowning at the two.

"No, but-"

"At a minimum, you must all be silent regarding this matter. If it is bandied about that love potions may be brewed and employed, and then their use covered up with the consent of the Academy, I shall be forced to demonstrate otherwise with severity. In addition, Miss Montmorency, your burgeoning career of providing contraband to your fellow students has officially ended. The infirmary is always in need of potioneers, so your extracurricular brewing shall take place there while you continue to attend my Academy."

She winced, but didn't protest.

Odds are, that's a sizable pay cut, Jason thought, or a notable increase in drudgery. Or likely both. She probably can't expect to do any work with private family recipes in a public lab, either. Almost poetic, in how the punishment fits the crime. At least she doesn't have to let her skills get rusty. Er, mildewed.

"Beyond that," the Headmaster said after a few moments elapsed and Montmorency stayed silent, "I am uncertain what to do with you until classes resume. It may be best to return to your family until then."

Um. This sounds like a good time to offer an alternative. "Uh, Headmaster? We actually have a related proposal."

Osmond's frown transferred over to him. "You do."

"Yes, sir. Louise, Guiche, and myself have all been training for combat. And apparently there's an increase in orc activity lately. We were thinking of getting permission to go out and try to get some real experience. Monty would be, well, we'd likely need a healer. She's a Water mage."

Headmaster Osmond stared at him for what seemed like a long time, still frowning. Finally: "You propose to keep Miss Montmorency out of trouble by going out and looking for trouble."

"Er, yes, sir. That is the gist of it."

The Headmaster pulled a pipe out from his desk, lit it with a tap of his wand, and took several deep puffs. "And you believe this to be an acceptable part of her punishment?"

"Not thinking in terms of punishment, sir. You did say that it might be best if she's gone for the rest of the summer break."

"And I purchased every quest I could find, when classes let out," Guiche broke in. "So we'll have no end of heroic tasks to perform."

Osmond considered them all for a moment, and then his eyes twinkled slightly. "You purchased quests, you say? Interesting." He raised his voice to carry. "Miss Longueville, please stop listening at the door and come join us."

The door opened and the secretary, looking sheepish at having been caught out, slipped into the room.

"Young Jason, here, has an intriguing proposal for how to keep Miss Montmorency busy until classes resume. Still, in light of the last few days, I am loathe to allow these four to wander around outside the Academy on their own. They require adult supervision, I am sure you agree."

Miss Longueville blanched. "Headmaster, I have duties here!"

"But they are greatly lessened, during the summer months, and you have already disposed of the bulk of those duties. I can handle my own correspondence for the next several weeks."


"Yes, yes, I think you will make a perfect guide and chaperone for these young ones." Headmaster Osmond grinned toothily. "I am certain you will be as solicitous of their well-being as you have been of mine.

"Now, children, if you seek to go adventuring, I assume you must have some preparations to make. Today would be an excellent day to busy yourselves in them. You may go see to that now."

As the others turned to leave, Jason stayed. "There is one more thing, Headmaster."


"The maid, Siesta. I convinced her to follow my lead. She shouldn't have to-"

"Strictly speaking, young man, she should have ignored your importuning. But I will allow that she played her part in preventing a scandal, which is no small thing."

"So no punishment for her?"

Osmond shook his head. "No need, in light of what was ultimately revealed. But once Miss Vallière has completed her education here, I think it would be best for all concerned if you take your maid with you."

Jason nodded. "I was planning on offering her a position: I think she'll make a good châtelaine, with just a bit more experience."

"It is good to see it so easily settled, then." The Headmaster pulled out his pipe again, lit it, and-

"I just realized I had a second last thing to ask, sir."

He gave Jason a dry look. "Oh?"

"It's not directly related, though. It's about the Mirror of Truth. Do the forms taken have to be human, or can they be animal forms as well?"

Osmond put the pipe back down. "Bestial forms are possible. Why do you ask?"

"Well, I'm pretty sure you've figured out how to invoke the power of the Mirror at range. So you can be someone different whenever you want."

Again the Headmaster offered a toothy grin. Suddenly in his place there sat a sultry redhead, wearing his clothes. "You could say that," she murmured huskily, running elegant fingers through silky locks.

Jason gaped for a moment, then closed his eyes and face-palmed. "Thank you for the demonstration, sir. What I wanted to know was, is there any way I could learn to do that?"

"Mmm," Headmaster Osmond purred throatily. "I'm afraid we just don't have the time, if you're about to go questing. But if you truly want some . . . private tutoring when you return, perhaps we can work something out." She finished this with a seductive chuckle.

Saints preserve us, of course the Headmaster vamps it up when he gets the opportunity. "Thank you again. By the way, certain legends among my people speak of the dragon Ancalagon, who was so large than when he was finally slain, he fell and shattered a small mountain range where his corpse landed. So I was wondering, sir: How large a form can you manage?"

The redhead seated in front of him only smiled mysteriously.

Jason nodded. "I'll take that as 'large enough'. Although speaking of big things- This is the real last thing, I promise!"

She raised her eyebrows.

"Is there any way you could duplicate and combine the magic of Butterfly and that one sword that you lent me?"

That managed to get a look of surprise out of the Headmaster. "To what end?" she asked after a moment.

"To make a big hammer that'll return when thrown. If it could be linked to me to use my vis to make it easier to move, that would be even better."

She regarded him through half-lidded eyes for a long moment. "An intriguing idea," Osmond finally allowed. "Once again, however, it would take time you do not presently have. But perhaps I might contemplate the possibility, if one day I find that I am not overly busy." Her eyes narrowed slightly. "In any event, young man, you have now had three last things, and it would be best for you to continue about your day."

Jason nodded gratefully, turned, and left.

Louise was waiting for him in the outer office. "What did you stay back for? Miss Longueville wouldn't let me listen."

He shuddered. "You probably wouldn't have wanted to, considering. Anyway, I was just sounding him out on a couple of things. Long-term, though, so they won't affect our questing. Shall we go see if Mr. Colbert will give us breakfast?"

Louise looked a little dubious, but didn't press him for details as they left.

Mr. Colbert had a substantial meal laid out and clearly waiting for them. Nonetheless he looked visibly relieved to see master and familiar arrive together, with no one accompanying them as a warden. "It's very good to see that my initial reaction was correct," he told them as they all sat down to the meal.

Louise smiled. "You believed Jason was innocent?"

"Until the evidence became seemingly damming, yes. But your examination has clearly proven him innocent of wrongdoing."

She blushed.

The professor lifted one eyebrow. "Miss Vallière?"

"When I was . . ." she trailed off, waving one hand. "I tried everything I could come up with to get him to hurry up and lie with me."

Now she wasn't the only one blushing. "Wasn't always easy-"

He broke off as Siesta rushed in. "Jason? Miss Vallière? They said the Headmaster decided I was free to resume my duties, and Mr. Colbert had breakfast waiting for us!" With that she gave him a tight hug.

Louise looked decidedly disgruntled by the display, but then her expression changed to shock as the maid then gave her a hug.

"I was so worried about you two! They found me out while I was taking care of Verthandi, and then they made me admit-" Siesta broke off, looking sick. "I didn't want to say anything, but-"

"Don't worry about it," Jason assured her. "You did what you needed to, and everything worked out so that we can all pretend the last few days never happened."

"Indeed," Mr. Colbert observed as the maid sat down and they all began eating. "And it would not be the first time that a scandal's been resolved by never speaking of it again, although I've not heard whispers of this particular sort of situation being handled amicably enough for such a solution."

"The victims not too happy when they remember being victimized?" Jason guessed. "Yeah, most people wouldn't be willing to sweep it under the rug."

"Just so, but as this has proven an exception, let it be buried in the necessary silence. While you were gone I tinkered with the shotguns a bit more, but I believe they're at the point where your field-testing may be necessary, so it seems time to set them aside and try again with the rifles."

"Normally I'd agree, sir, but there's no time for that. We'll just have to take the shotguns . . . oh, and the revolvers. Time to see if the reinforced components are enough to stand up to repeated use."

The professor gave him a slightly flat look. "Explain."

"Guiche wants to go questing this summer," Louise put in, "and Montmorency needs to be under supervision to be kept out of mischief, so we're going to be hunting orcs and seeking treasure." A look of longing came over her. "Like the camping trips Mother and Father went on with Eléonore each summer when she was home from school. Sometimes they came home hurt, but they always had the most amazing trophies. I cried for days when I went home last summer, because I didn't have a single spell I could kill orcs with."

Mr. Colbert didn't react for a moment, then gave a sad sigh. "I would have liked not to be part of sending you all into danger, but hunting orcs is a necessity, and you'll find few nobler purposes for your weapons and training. And if you are determined to seek out such peril, I must insist on sharing what advice I can."

"Of course," Jason replied. "If you didn't offer we were about to ask anyway."

"Even the advice to find a less dangerous pastime? But no, I'll not attempt to dissuade you.

"Now, you're larger than most, and you're becoming stronger and faster. But not yet strong enough to stand against orcs, save perhaps when the blessing of the archangel is upon you, and even then you're only one man. De Gramont can create a spear wall with his vernacula. Let him do so, and use the weapons you and I have developed to fight at range. But nonetheless don't neglect to carry an orcspear, and be sure the crossbar is sound. If the vernacula are defeated, it may well save your life.

"Mundane tools and humble nobilia will prove more valuable than you might think: A lumen lapideus requires someone to carry it, but it can be Empowered beforehand, and won't slowly drain your vis the way a Volitat does. When you don't know the number of orcs hidden away below you, that can matter a great deal."

Jason nodded. "Speaking of which," he said, pulling out a scrap of paper he'd written on the previous evening, "could you go through this and tell us what we'd want the most?"

Mr. Colbert took the list, then immediately snorted. "Do you anticipate hiring a small army to carry all this for you?"

"How long is it?" Louise asked. "I was trying to practice Shield while he was writing it out last night."

"Long enough to be absurd," the professor replied. "I'm not even sure what some of these are for. The iron spikes?"

"In case we need to wedge doors open, keep 'em from getting stuck?"

"Your master can't simply demolish them, in such a scenario?"

Louise blinked. "I can!" she exclaimed. "And Jason, isn't that why you said I could claim the title of Siegebreaker, a few days ago?"

"Siegebreaker?" Mr. Colbert chuckled. "Given the efficacy of your explosions, I'll allow that you'll be able to claim it as a title soon enough, given the opportunity. But styling yourself so before you've accomplished the feat will see you mocked for your presumption."

She pouted. "Then how should I style myself? I won't call myself the Zero. Zerbst may have gotten everyone at the Academy to call me that, with her heathen Easterling numbers, but I'm not giving up this chance to erase that!"

"In that case, why not style yourself as the Breaker?" the professor suggested. "That's something you'll be able to demonstrate easily enough, and then you can change it to Siegebreaker if the opportunity arrives."

"I like Breaker," Jason agreed. "Explosions are your specialty for the time being. So if the spikes are out, and I guess we don't need torches or lanterns, what would you recommend? We're going to need a cart. None of us are really used to walking everywhere, although I'd like to think that these days I could hack it if I needed to. But that means we've got plenty of room. And Guiche's valkyries can pull the cart, too, so we don't have to worry about provisioning any horses."

Mr. Colbert chuckled. "Is that how you visited Lagdorian without any beasts going missing from the stables? I have to wonder how his family will react, when they learn of this new use for their vernacula."

"Yeah, well, if they didn't want someone thinking of mundane uses for their valkyries, they should've spent less time teaching Guiche to be a courtier and more time training him to be an officer."

"He does seem to have improved, even though he's had so little time to train," Louise pointed out, "and I think I will be Louise the Breaker, at least for now. Since," she scowled, "I'm having some trouble moving from Ignite to Firebolt."

"It might be best to focus on other elementari," the professor told her, looking thoughtful. "What would be a severe burn to a human would be little more than a nuisance to one of those monsters."

"But what else can I practice?" she asked, sounding a bit anxious. "Firebolt is so simple, but I'm struggling with that even after finally grasping Ignite-"

"Flaring Impulse may serve you better," he replied. "The range isn't as long, and it'll exhaust your vis rapidly, but it is a simpler modification of Ignite than Firebolt, and the only reason I don't normally teach it is the increased vis expenditure."

Louise scowled. "And only students who struggle need an extra step from Ignite to Firebolt."

"True," Mr. Colbert acknowledged. "But Incinerating Impulse, though a Line, is cast by using the figura of Flaring Impulse twice, to create a plume that reaches further and burns hotter, enough to use against orcs. I'd be interested in seeing how quickly you can learn it."

"Do you have a text on Flaring Impulse?" she asked. "It . . . I think it might help if I know what the figura is supposed to do, even if I can't use the figura directly."

The professor nodded. "I anticipated that you might find one helpful, based on how you've learned your cantrips. Now, regarding your supplies: I approve of the rope, and you will want bags for any loot you recover, but don't forget the provisioning requirements of travel. You'll not need the horses and fodder for them that I was thinking of, but you can't count on being on the Queen's Roads, and therefore can't count on finding shelter at night. Thus you'll want camping materiel."

"Yeah." Jason scratched the back of his head. "Siesta, think you can help us out again, figuring out what we need?"

She nodded. "Do you think I could join you?" she then asked, a little hesitantly. "I didn't like being left behind this last time."

He and his little mistress looked at each other. But before they could exchange thoughts-

"In the beginning, that wouldn't be wise," Mr. Colbert stated. "It's not yet known if their questing will prove profitable, and so there's no assurance that you would be paid enough to make up lost wages."

Siesta leaned forward and opened her mouth, but then apparently thought better and sat back. "How long before they know?"

"Two weeks, perhaps." He shrugged. "Although there are no guarantees. Even an increase in orc sightings isn't proof of anything: They may be phantoms, a convenient excuse for the difficulties and failures of their supposed victims. And even if the sightings are true, the rewards for defeating them may prove less than satisfying."

"What do you mean?" Louise asked.

Mr. Colbert smiled sadly. "Those who seek your help will be most fulsome with their praise, but once their difficulties are handled you may find them rather sparing, when the time comes to open their purses and impart your promised rewards. Indeed, I'd expect that the more extravagant the promises made, the less you can trust in them. I fear that you'll need to become adept at wringing wealth from looting opportunities, and that's a field that none of you have experience in."

Aside from RPGs, and those probably don't count. So Robin and Verthandi just became even more important for financial success.

"And if you do take advantage of a worthwhile looting opportunity," the professor went on, "I'd advise caution. A prosperous band of adventurers can be accused of petty crimes, imprisoned, and then offered banishment from town in lieu of other punishment. With their valuables seized as contraband, of course."

"They would dare-!" Louise started.

"Why not?" Mr. Colbert asked, interrupting her. "Often the prizes won from orcs and brigands were originally plundered from nearby, and so the townsfolk would see it as reclaiming what was rightfully theirs to begin with."

"Okay, we need to be careful with loot. What about the caltrops?" Jason asked.

"An interesting idea, but I doubt orcs would find them to be more than a nuisance. Although I'll admit that when on occasion I was tasked with clearing orcs, I already had my Flame Snake, and was provided a stout shield-wall to shelter behind. Hopefully de Gramont's vernacula will prove sufficient to their tasks, and your firearms and spells sufficient to yours."

Yeah, hopefully. It was hard not to be nervous, contemplating going up against superhuman man-eaters. "Speaking of firearms, how'll I get more ammo for the shotguns and revolvers? Do we need to come back here every so often?"

Mr. Colbert shook his head. "Miss Vallière ought to be able to renew your firestones, even if Empower isn't the most efficient method. The shotguns and revolvers use much the same ammunition as rogues' pistols and blunderbusses, and you already know how to prepare your rounds with waxed paper and gunpowder." Then he smiled. "I'd like reports on how they perform, of course."

"Of course."

Jason stayed after breakfast to help make sure the shotguns and revolvers – two and four, respectively – were usable after their latest tweaks.

"Forgot to mention," he said as he broke down one of the revolvers and put it back together, making sure the reinforced parts functioned smoothly, "there's something else that I'd like to have, and I'm pretty sure you're the only one who can make it."

"Oh?" Mr. Colbert set down the shotgun he was working on. "And what's that?"

"Fellow by the name of Halligan came up with a tool for quickly getting into a building, for fighting fires. It's a rod, where one end has a forked claw, and the other has a wedge and a tapered pick at right angles to each other. If I can get an axe-hammer – you know, one side of the head an axe, and the other side a hammer – they even bundle together pretty well. I think they'll be useful, especially if we're trying to conserve vis."

"I can see how they would." The professor looked thoughtful. "If you'll acquire the tools, I believe I do have the spells to merge them together as you describe."

"Alright. Thanks."

"But have you given additional thought to your weapons?"

Jason blinked. "The guns?"

"Not merely those. Orcs possess far tougher hides than humans do, so you'll require a powerful blade if you find yourself facing them."

He grimaced. "And I can't count on that not happening. Right. Thing is, I've only been practicing with the staff and a little bit with the spear. Haven't even started on sword-wands, yet."

"That's true, but it may not be quite so bad as you might think," Mr. Colbert said reassuringly. "Again, orcs possess tough hides, difficult for even the strongest of warriors to cut. A thrust, however, is much more likely to pierce and draw blood, and let us be honest: If orcs draw close your only hope will be to kill them as quickly as possible. You'll need to visit Menenville for at least some of your supplies, and I would recommend finding a sturdy blade there as well. Along with a good orcspear, of course."

It wasn't until after Jason left Mr. Colbert's suite that he stopped and cursed. "Aw, hell. I'm gonna have to let Louise take me shopping again."

"Do you know what Miss Vallière wanted?" Siesta asked a little while later, sounding slightly nervous, after he found her and led her to an empty corner of the Academy.

He shook his head. "Nope. She just asked me to find you and wait for her."

"But why-" The maid then broke off, as his little mistress showed up, dragging a clearly-unhappy Montmorency behind her.

"Miss Vallière? Miss Montmorency?"

"Siesta." Louise nodded to her. "Brimir gave magic into the hands of his chosen, that all might be blessed through their sovereignty over the elements of this world."

Jason had one quizzical eyebrow up, not sure where this was going.

Siesta, on the other hand, froze.

"It is given into the hands of we who are mages to make the greater decisions of our society, but it is not the will of Brimir to gratify ourselves at the expense of those we are charged to care for." Louise stopped and took a deep breath. "Through the abuse of Brimir's gift, I have wronged you." She bowed to the maid, then straightened up and looked at Montmorency expectantly.

The blonde potioneer looked extremely reluctant, but eventually opened her own mouth. "Through the abuse of Brimir's gift, I have wronged you." Then she also bowed. "And mine was the greater part. Call upon me when you have need, that I may atone for my transgression."

With that, Montmorency turned and very quickly walked away.

There was a long moment of silence.

"What just happened?" Jason finally asked.

Siesta was still frozen, but then shook herself. "I could have been hurt, and then I could have been dismissed, because of, well-"

"Right, I got that."

"That shouldn't have occurred," Louise said. "She was an innocent bystander. So I owe her a boon for trying to kill her, and Montmorency owes her a boon for letting all that spill over onto her."

"I'm not disagreeing, but you weren't exactly thinking clearly," he replied.

"That's true," his little mistress agreed, flushing, "but that just means that most of the boon I would normally owe, Montmorency is responsible for."

"Huh. So, a lesser wish from you and a greater wish from Monty?"

Siesta nodded faintly. "I need to consider what I want."

"Uh . . . not my place to decide, but if you've got a relative who needs some sort of expensive healing, well," Jason shrugged. "Seems like the kind of boon that wouldn't be likely to backfire."

She nodded again. "I'll write home and see if anyone needs something like that."

["I'm guessing this is a tradition that most mages would rather ignore?"] he then asked his little mistress. ["Good for you for following it."]

Louise looked a bit cross. ["Any pious mage wouldn't ignore it."]

["Monty didn't look terribly happy."]

["Montmorency is-"] She paused and grimaced. ["When I found her, she'd just learned that the Academy is confiscating everything. Her stock of potions, the nobilia she uses to aid her brewing, and her reagents. All of them, including the rest of the Water Tear."]

Jason's eyes widened slightly. Making the antidote to the love potion had consumed a bit less than a third of what the lake had granted the potioneer. ["Oh. That's gotta suck for her. Um, what about the image of the ring?"]

["They didn't take that, no. And she'll have everything returned once she graduates . . . but only if she graduates, and isn't expelled."]

Siesta looked from master to familiar with a confused expression. "What's wrong?"

He looked around quickly, but nobody was nearby. "Monty isn't being arrested or expelled, for the sake of avoiding scandal," he told her quietly, "but that doesn't mean the Headmaster isn't making his displeasure known.

"In any event," Jason went on, "we need to make a list of camping supplies for adventuring, and we'll probably need to head to Menenville for at least some of them."

"I shouldn't scrounge around again so soon," she agreed. Then perked up and suddenly looked excited. "Since you're going into town, can I come with you, and pick out a few things? As my boon from Miss Vallière, I mean?"

"If that's what you wish," Louise agreed. "Jason can't ride very well and we shouldn't wait for the coach, so can you help us get another wagon? I'll pay for it . . . and we should talk to the others, too. De Gramont and Montmorency might need to make some purchases as well."

Menenville was noticeably smaller and more cramped than Bruxelles, but as they rolled through the city gates shortly after noon Jason noted that the thoroughfares were of much the same quality as what the capitol had boasted.

"Is there some place where we can park this and not have anyone run off with it?" he asked. "If we're going to be shopping, especially if we're going to split up into groups-"

"The Academy maintains a yard where we'll send purchases while we're still shopping," Guiche replied, as he directed the pair of valkeries hauling the wagon to turn down a side path. "So have no fear of thieves making off with our supplies!"

"Works for me. I guess the first thing we should get is armor, then? I think I remember maile being popular."

"Yes, but surely that would be yours to purchase on your own."

"Not if we're getting armor for everyone."

"You want all of us in armor?" Montmorency put in, sounding surprised. "We're all mages, except for you."

"Yeah, and we're going to be seeking out orcs. Guiche, it's up to you and Monty to decide for yourselves, but I'm insisting on Louise wearing enough armor to have a chance of surviving if something gets past me."

His little mistress looked briefly surprised, but then nodded. "Maile, with padding and silk felt for backing. That's what my parents wear, when they plan to go fighting. And you're right. Ideally, the four of us would stay back from the danger and let the valkyries be in front, and you'd intercept anything that got through them, but things don't always go perfectly." She frowned. "Mother says things never go perfectly in a fight, and if they seem to be it's because the enemy is tricking you."

"Armor." Montmorency scowled. "Armor's heavy."

"Not so much!" her lover told her in a clear bid to be reassuring. "As long as the backing layer is fitted properly, the extra weight is barely even noticeable. And I have a copy of a spell that'll make it so that the armor isn't hot."

"How does that work?" Jason asked.

"It's the metal," Guiche replied. "Metal heats and cools easily." He shrugged. "The theory's beyond me, but Unsweltering Armor changes how metal works with heat, so that instead of making you hotter in the heat of day, your armor will instead draw the heat out from you. And now's as good a time as any for me to learn it."

"You hadn't learned it before?" Louise asked in disbelief. "And you were planning to go questing?"

"I didn't think we'd need armor!" he protested. "A band of powerful mages . . . I truly hadn't expected everyone to leave for the summer so quickly. Dame Tabitha hasn't returned with Miss Zerbst, either."

Jason shook his head. "Alright, just an oversight. But yeah, study that one and any others that might be useful."

"I do have one that'll sharpen your weapons, if you purchase any blades," Guiche assured him. "Keenest Edge works on my Valkyrie's weapons too, when I have time to cast it."

"Good to hear. Now back to armor: How long is it going to take for us to be fitted?"

Louise shook her head. "We'll buy sheets of maile, padding, and cloth, and then fit ourselves at the Academy. That will be cheaper, and leave us more time for the rest of our shopping."

"Alright. I guess we split up, after that? Guiche and Monty in one group, Louise and Siesta with me?"

They all nodded, and headed onward.

"They've got surprisingly good roads here," Jason commented once the material for maile was purchased and taken back to the wagon. Montmorency and Guiche had gone their own way after that, and now he was walking in almost the other direction, Louise holding his right hand and Siesta (hesitantly at first) holding his left.

His little mistress nodded at his comment. "The roads are constructed by a technique passed down from the Romalian Empire. There's even a version of it that commoners can use, although that's not as good."

"Oh? How does-"

"-it work?" she finished for him, shaking her head. "You and your insatiable curiosity! Well, you start by digging ditches on either side of the new road, and use the dirt to build up the road a little so it drains better. Then you dig the bed for the road itself, and line that with curbstone blocks. At the bottom of the road bed, you lay down layers of rocks, then cover it all with sand. Finally you pour the concrete and make sure it's flat before it dries."

"And apparently you're just the right person to ask to indulge my curiosity," Jason noted with a smile.

Louise gave him a sidelong glance. "Father makes sure to attend to the roads in our demesne personally. I used to ride out with him when he needed to repair or rebuild sections of the road that had been damaged by floods."

"So he's Earth?"

She nodded. "He can do a section of road in an hour that would take a company of troops a day or more to make. And he adds all sorts of things to make the concrete better: Eldrwyrm ash, clay, horsehair, even blood. I loved to watch him, and when he finished everyone could use the rebuilt section immediately, without having to wait for it to dry." Then she sighed in fond memory. "The only bigger thing I've seen him do was when he decided to build a bridge to replace a ford after the spring flooding killed some commoners trying to cross it. That took him three days, but it's a bridge that won't ever be flooded under."

"That must be a sight to see," breathed Siesta. "Too bad we won't get to visit it."

"Why wouldn't you?" Louise asked, a bit sharply.

"Most all the students are home for the summer," the maid replied. "So the gossip about your familiar has had time to spread. If Jason entered your parents' demesne, wouldn't they have him imprisoned? And if they connected me to him, they'd do the same to me!"

"They wouldn't-!" his little mistress started to protest, then stopped. "It would be prudent if Jason was made a Chevalier before he comes within reach of my parents. But even if they were to call us to account at this very moment, I could still plead for your lives."

"If you think that would work," Siesta said, sounding dubious.

"I'm sure it would work!" Louise insisted. "Well, as long as Eléonore isn't around."

"And what if she is?" Jason asked mildly. "Especially before I have a samadh of orc skulls available to show off to your father?"

"She . . . if she visits the Academy, you'll need to hide. You could ask the Headmaster for help, though. Not many commoners can say that."

"Yeah, that's-" But then he broke off, before continuing dubiously. "I think we need to brainstorm and come up with some evasion strategies that don't rely on anyone else's good will."

"I suppose." Louise sighed. "Yes, that's probably just what we need to do. If she sees you, Jason, she won't hesitate to impale you." ["Not if she's decided you're like an unworthy suitor who won't back off."]

["And she wouldn't be wrong, by local standards."] "That's not an encouraging place to start from," he muttered. "Alright, we'll need to think about it later, since our time isn't endless today. Girls, this is my first time in Menenville. Where should we start?"

"You have your list of supplies to purchase, right?" Siesta asked, a bit hesitantly.

Jason nodded.

"Then, there's a store in town, run by a man my family knows. He served with Scarron. Did you know Scarron used to be a soldier?"

"We had a hint or two, yes."

"Well, the new peddler who comes through Tarbes doesn't sell quality wares like the old one did, but if anything, he charges more! So there are several things that my family has put off buying, even though we need them. My family didn't say it outright, but I don't think they brought in the harvest that they could have last fall, and that makes it even harder to save up and send away for what we need." Siesta finished this rush of words by pulling out a sheet of bark paper. "I've listed everything that we've had to do without. If I can purchase good tools and send them quickly, we'll be able to use them by harvest and butchering time."

"Okay." He nodded again. "Lead on."

"Thank you," she smiled, "but don't you need to go handle your own shopping? I'll be fine. Like I said, I know the shopkeeper."

Louise looked a little dubious. "You want to be all by yourself? That doesn't seem . . . but if you're sure-"

"We're at least going to escort you there," Jason interrupted. "Just to be sure the man you'll be dealing with is the one you know."

"Well, if you insist!" Siesta smiled a little more broadly, enough to dimple, shifted her grip on his hand to be a little more secure, and set off, leading them down the street.

Wait, was she fishing for an escort? Why bother? Surely she knows we'd provide one for the asking.

There was only one man in the shop, a large bearded fellow with a noticeable belly, albeit with arms that were more obviously muscled than Jason's. He was moving through the shop, carrying a load of heavy-looking tools when they arrived, and when he noticed them he smiled broadly.

"Little Siesta!" the shopkeeper boomed cheerfully, carefully setting down his load of wares before waving. "Welcome! It's always wonderful to have a visit by a Sasaki!"

He stepped over to the trio, still smiling. "And not so little, now. Are you still working at the Academy?"

Siesta nodded. "I couldn't quit now, even if I wanted to. Did you hear about how our old peddler passed away?"

"Old Daen?" The shopkeeper shook his head, the smile wiped off his face. "No, your father didn't say anything about him in his last letter. That's a shame, I'm sure Tarbes misses the old rascal."

Siesta nodded earnestly. "Especially since-" and she launched again into her tale of the new peddler and his shoddy wares.

By the end of it the shopkeeper looked quite annoyed.

"Is that so?" he rumbled, almost growling. "And your father, always with his pride, refusing to seek outside help." Then he smiled again, eyes twinkling. "Do you know, I've given an occasional thought to trying to establish a peddler's route up towards Tarbes once old Daen finally retired or passed on. M'oldest boy's happy with inheriting the shop from me, but my second 'as always had an eye for the road. Might take him up and down it a few times, see if he loves it enough to stick with it. An' if not, I can drive a wagon 'till I'm gray and bent over, just like old Daen did."

"I know the family would love to see you again," Siesta assured him with a smile. "But in the meantime, I need to make those purchases and have them sent to Father."

She turned to her companions. "You can see I'll be fine, but we're going to be haggling over prices for a while. So you should go make the rest of your purchases."

Louise nodded, then reached into her sleeve and pulled out a small bag. "If you need more to pay for everything, I'll settle up when we return."

The maid opened the bag to look in. Then her eyes widened, and she threw her arms around the shorter rosecrown. (Whose eyes also grew a bit wide at the suddenly hug, apparently still not used to commoner presumption from anyone other than her familiar.) "Thank you so much!" Siesta squealed.

"I'm just . . . I do owe you a boon. I hope it's enough."

"It will be." Siesta released Louise, smiling broadly. "Go on, I'll be just fine here."

["It is just me, or was she a little eager to get us of there?"] Jason asked as his little mistress led him towards her chosen destination.

["It wasn't just you. She came in with a noble and a foreigner, so the shopkeeper is going to want to hear about us, and she won't have to watch what she says as much if we're not there."]

["Ah. So where are you taking me, and who are you going to gossip about me with?"]

Louise snorted. ["You know I don't dare gossip about you. The more word gets around, the more danger of-"]

She paused, then took a deep breath and continued. ["Truly, we need to spend some time thinking about how to handle matters if Eléonore comes to investigate. She's always been ready to do things I don't want her to, if she thinks they're for my own good."]

["Fair enough. So to repeat the other part of my question: Where're we going?"]

["There's a second-hand shop for weapons and armor. Commissioning good blades for you would be expensive, but didn't you say that your auxilum seems to know how good a weapon is when you're holding it?"]

["Yeah, it does that. All about knowing how I can best use it, I'd guess."]

["So you can go through what the shop and see what's good for you, right?"]

["I . . . nicely thought of, little mistress."]

A smile played on her lips. ["I got the idea when I remembered rummaging through all those used-clothing venders, trying to find anything that I'd want to wear. Come on!"]

Louise led Jason down several blocks, peering at the signs carefully. "I heard about this place last year, when I was exploring Menenville for the first time," she told him, before looking at one sign doubtfully and doubling back to the previous corner. There they turned onto a much narrower street, and soon there was another turn onto a street not even wide enough for two carts to pass each other.

It also stunk, from the piles of refuse scattered about.

"We're in the slums, aren't we?"

She shrugged. "They probably can't afford to have Earth mages come and rebuild this area, so they have to make do." She looked up and pointed to a sign. "There it is! Peyman's Potions!"

"I thought we were looking for weapons?"

"We are, but it's right around the next corner from Peyman's."

And around the corner they went, to be confronted by a shop even more dilapidated then the ones on the previous street. But Louise pulled him towards it, and inside they went.

The shopkeeper was graying, likely in his late forties or early fifties, and slouched against a wall, smoking a pipe. His shop was filled with rows of shelves, each holding a profusion of gleaming weaponry.

"My lady?" The man stood up straight before bowing. "How may I serve you today? Do you require a weapon for your retainer?"

Louise nodded. "We need something big and impressive, to suit him."

"I have just the thing!" The shopkeeper smiled, bowed, and hustled into the back.

["Big and impressive?"]

["Well, a sword made for a normal-sized man wouldn't be of much use against an orc, would it?"]

When he came out, the shopkeeper was holding a very long sword in both hands. The hilt was heavily bejeweled, and the blade caught the light in a dazzling shimmer. "This, my lord, my lady, was forged by Lord Shupei, the famous Germanian swordsmith and alchemist."

Louise's eyes widened. "One of . . . his commissions have become legendary! How did you manage to acquire a Shupei blade?"

The shopkeeper shrugged, looking very smug. "It's merely one of his earlier, flawed works. Nonetheless, the sword will never need sharpening, and will cut through armor like butter."

"Oh." She sagged slightly. "Is that all?"

["Seems like enough to me,"] Jason put in. ["Especially for orc-work."]

["Yes, it'll be fine against orcs. But one of his masterpieces would be able to do so much more. And if you had a Shupei blade . . . it's one more thing that would impress Father."]

"Sadly, my lady, those lucky enough to carry his swords are rarely willing to part with them. But for a mere thousand pennyweight in gold-"

"A thousand?!" Louise interrupted, sounding horrified.

["Can't we pay that?"]

["We can. But then we might not be able to afford everything else we want."]

["Yeah, but if this is as good against orcs as you think it'll be-"]

["I know."] Louise sighed. "A thousand. Truly?"

The shopkeeper shrugged, spreading his hands. "It is a Shupei blade, if a lesser one."

"Hang on," Jason put in. "Can I see if I can even use it, first? Something that big is going to be heavy."

"As you wish," the shopkeeper replied amiably. "Let me lock the door, first, just in case."

Louise looked suddenly furious, but Jason put a hand on her shoulder. "No, no, he's right to be cautious. We're talking about a sword worth more than a good riding horse."

"Thank you for your kind understanding, my lord," the shopkeeper intoned unctuously, scurrying over to latch the entrance shut, before he handed over the gleaming blade, hilt first.

"Hmm." Jason took a few experimental swings. "The balance is definitely different from a sword-wand, but I guess that's to be expected. Hilt to tip, this thing's taller than you are, little mistress." Then: "Fear is the mind-killer. I am the bulwark against terror, and I shall know no fear."

His runes began glowing, his magic performed the instinctive evaluation for how to best use the sword in combat, and he froze.

Louise eyed him as he continued to stay still. "Jason?"

"We have a problem," he rumbled. Then he looked to the shopkeeper. "Or at least you do. I don't know who you got this sword from, but I'm afraid they cheated you out of several hundred pennyweight in gold."

"My lord!" gasped the shopkeeper in a display of outrage. "What do you mean by that!?"

"I mean the balance isn't just different, it's off. Badly off. And the blade feels like it'll crack apart with one solid blow."

The shopkeeper drew himself up and gave him a frosty look. "I assure you, even in his early years Lord Shupei's blades were masterpieces of the art! That sword will not shatter, and I'm inclined to charge-"

"Yes it will," Jason interrupted flatly. "I'm not saying anything about how talented Shupei is or was, I'm telling you that this blade is trash. As good as he is, I doubt very much that it's his work."

"How dare you-!"

"But if you're so sure, let's test it. If it cuts through armor like butter, a bar of metal shouldn't be any problem for it."

That brought the shopkeeper up short. "If you wish to test it, that's your concern. But you'll bear the financial responsibility for any damage the blade incurs through clumsy handling."

"Clumsy-!" It was finally Jason's turn to glare. "Here. You can have the sword back. We'll find somewhere else."

["What are you doing?! I don't know where else to-"]

"And now you slander me by implying that I would sell you anything but the bestURK!" The shopkeeper's outrage was choked off as Jason suddenly pinned him to the wall by the throat with the hand that wasn't holding the sword.

"Now you listen to me," he growled, ignoring the other man's attempts to break free. "If the blade was good – and by my magic I know it's not – you would not have demanded payment in the event the sword broke trying to test it. You know you were trying to cheat us, I know you were trying to cheat us, and now we all know that we know you were trying to cheat us. And you dare accuse me of slander after trying to pass off shoddy workmanship as the effort of an internationally renowned master!?"

Louise's eyes were wide as the shopkeeper tugged futilely at the hand pinning him to the wall. "Jason?" she asked carefully, drawing her wand from her sleeve. "Are you certain-?"

In response he raised the sword above his head – the shopkeeper blanched and his efforts to free himself became even more frantic – and swung it down against a helmet on a nearby stand.

The blade promptly snapped in half, the far end tumbling into the wall, where it shattered into dozens of gleaming shards.

"Yes," Jason said, slowly and deliberately. "I am certain."

Louise nodded, equally slowly. "Then let's find somewhere else to buy a sword for you. Maybe send to Bruxelles-"

"No-!" gasped the shopkeeper. "You've cost me a thousand gold-"

"I've cost you however much it costs to get a truly wretched blade, add some fake gems, and probably apply some sort of potion to make it catch the light like that."

"Montmorency might even be able to tell which potion," his little mistress added. "You can let him go now, Jason."

He glanced at her, then shrugged and let the shopkeeper go.

Who immediately fell to his knees and began gasping, drawing in deep breaths. "I'll – have – arrested – charges brought-"

"Yeah, I don't think so," Jason interrupted. "I mean, you could try. Doubt you could do more than get me lectured, maybe a small fine, but you could try." He bent over, looming menacingly at the man on the floor. "You aren't going to, though. Because if you do, you'll bring down attention to your shop and to whatever little tricks you've been using to cheat nobles who aren't mage-knights, who don't know any better when they're trying to arm their retainers." Then he straightened back up and beamed down at the furious look on the other man's face. "Why, haven't you heard? Fouquet's back, daring enough to try his hand at robbing even the Academy. And here you are, charging several pounds of gold per sword for trash. It's enough to make a man wonder, what motive could you have for making sure that the guards aren't armed with anything dangerous?"

The shopkeeper blanched. "No. No! I swear, I have nothing to do with Fouquet! I just sell weapons to fools who don't know how to tell value from dross!"

"So, because you're a cheat, that's proof you're not a thief's accomplice?" Jason scratched at the stubble on his chin that he hadn't bothered to shave off that morning. "I'd hate to try to persuade someone with that argument."

"I swear! Please, take whatever you like – for free, even, I won't charge you anything! – just don't go telling anyone!"

Louise frowned thoughtfully. "That would save us some funds, but if he only sells trash-"

"I don't!" the shopkeeper pleaded. "The plain weapons are good, they're what I sell to people who know their blades . . . I didn't know there was a spell for that!"

Jason and Louise looked at each other. Then she smiled, and held her wand loosely. "It's your 'spell'. If he has anything worth claiming, take it."

He nodded. "Alright," he replied, before turning back to the shopkeeper. "I'll see if there's anything here that I want. But you are going to close your shop here and move to another city."

"Move?" The shopkeeper looked confused.

"Yeah. Can't abide the idea of letting you stick around to cheat anyone who doesn't know better. Especially with the Academy so close, with the new students every year. Be a disservice to everyone who follows after."

"Fine," the shopkeeper said in a defeated tone, slumping over. "I'll leave. Just take what you want and be on your way."

Jason cast an eye over the shop. The weapons on display were polished and gleaming, decorated with gems and inlay, and he grasped a sword with a blade not quite three feet long. "Show me your enemies."

His runes flared. "Trash. So where are the plain weapons?"

"O-over there." The shopkeeper pointed to a corner, where a pile of weapons lay jumbled.

"Right." Jason looked at the pile, then back at the other man, then to Louise. "Cover him, in case he suddenly has what he thinks is a clever idea."

She nodded, gripping her wand firmly and focusing on the shopkeeper with narrow eyes.

Jason stepped over to the pile, looking down at it askance. "Couldn't be bothered to keep any of it clean?" he asked, looking at rusted blades and half-rotten hilts.

"It's not like any of it's worth selling," the shopkeeper grumbled behind him. "Nobles want weapons to make their guards look good. They use their magic to deal with real problems."

"Yeah, right up until someone manages to diswand– Oh, hello." He stooped down and pulled out a large dagger with two smaller blades curving out to each side. "I don't know if you're a sai or a main gauche, but if you're sound-" The runes pulsed as he set down the worthless arming sword. "Yes, I like you.

"Now, what else can I find-" He rooted around, moving aside several swords that were clearly broken, looking for-

Jason stopped, and picked up the last blade he'd move aside. It was incredibly coated in rust, and the hilt was one of the ones that was rotting away, but the two-and-a-half-foot blade was thick and leaf-shaped, and when he picked it up and concentrated on it he let out a whistle.

"How could someone neglect a sword like this!?" he demanded indignantly, swinging it through the air and stabbing at an imaginary opponent. "Even now, the balance is almost perfect."

"It's a style people used before everyone started wearing Germanian maile," the shopkeeper responded. "But it's heavier than normal, to be able to defeat maile, and that made it too heavy." He was silent for a moment. "You're almost doing me a favor if you take it off my hands."

"Well, I like it. Need to clean it up and replace the hilt, but-" Then something else caught Jason's eye. The end of a thick blade, with an odd curve-

"That can't be what it looks like," he declared, bending down and pushing other weapons aside to get down to the bottom of the pile, revealing what lay beneath. "Oh but it is," he then breathed, picking up the kukri and holding it almost reverently. "I don't know how you came to be here, my rugged Nepalese beauty, but you're coming home with me."

["Jason?"] Louise asked, sounding amused. ["Do I need to be jealous of a knife?"]

["Heh. Let's just say, this is a very nice knife. We're sure to appreciate it while adventuring."]

"Okay, I have what I want," he said to the shopkeeper. "These three. Now, seriously, move out of Menenville. And maybe think about selling honest weapons for a change."

The man gave Jason a sullen look in response. "There's no point," he said bitterly. "Armsmasters have their weapons commissioned, or are given nobilia to wield. And soldiers who want a good weapon aren't willing to pay like a noble does, trying to put on a good show."

Jason shook his head, declining to argue further, and he and his little mistress left the shop without a backwards glance.

["You walk differently with a weapon at your side,"] Louise commented as they strolled through Menenville towards their next destination.

["I do?"]

["A little like some of our soldiers, the veterans. It's not that you're relaxed, it's that you're more comfortable going armed."]

["Oh."] He glanced down at his little mistress. ["I'm not strutting like a peacock, am I?"]

She laughed. "No, no, nothing like that." ["But Mr. Colbert was right. You are the chosen of Retribution."]

["I . . . what?"]

["The way you punished that man for trying to cheat us. That was impressive."] She smiled up at him.

Jason stopped short. ["Oh. Oh, hell. I wasn't trying to punish him, but that is pretty much what happened, isn't it?"]

["If you weren't trying to punish him, what were you doing?"]

["I wanted him to leave, because he doesn't represent his wares as decorations so that guards can look flashy. He was feeding us a story about a blade that could cut through anything, but was actually going to shatter at the first serious blow. Now, what would have happened if that blow had been against the hide of an orc?"]

Louise's eyes widened. ["That . . . depending on how desperate things were, we could have all been killed if they'd broken through de Gramont's vernacula and your blade broke at the wrong moment."]

["Yeah. Gotta wonder: How many students hire a few commoners to go questing with them, equip them with the best weapons that money can buy, and then have their guards die in the first serious battle when everything breaks? Not everyone has a de Gramont to summon bronze warriors to act as a shield line in the first place, after all."]

She nodded. ["You were right. He needs to leave Menenville before he gets anyone else killed with his shoddy weapons."]

["I hope I'm right."] Jason sighed. ["Right now I kinda feel like a thief and a bully. I mean, we went in, I destroyed some of his merchandise, threw him around, and then left with what I wanted without paying."]

Louise rolled her eyes. ["You did all that, yes, but we went in planning to deal honestly with him, and he immediately tried to cheat us, in a way that could have gotten you killed even if the rest of us survived. You let him live. That's mercy enough, I think."]

Jason didn't respond for a moment. Finally: ["I'll abide by your judgment. But warn me if you think I'm abusing my auxilia, alright?"]

["I will."]

Then she grimaced, and pulled at her blouse.

"Something wrong?"

["Ever since we returned from the Inn, my brassiere has been bothering me. I'd almost gotten used to it during First Form, but I wasn't wearing one as a faerie or dressing as a commoner, and now it's as if I've had to begin all over again."] She sighed. ["It's been getting worse, anytime I'm out in the sun and sweating."]

["You sure you haven't just grown out of it?"]

Louise stopped, and turned to face him. "What do you mean?"

He raised an eyebrow. ["I mean that in the three-or-so months that I've been here, your bosom might have grown enough to make your brassiere painful to wear."]

She scowled. ["Don't make fun of me like that! You know I don't have any bosom to speak of!"]

["Yes you do. Don't you remember how your faerie costume was built to trick the eye into trying to look down your top?"]

["That was just the costume. People liked me because I looked the youngest. Besides, Jessica was the best at getting tips!"]

["Yeah, but she also had the most experience learning how to flirt."] Jason sighed again. ["Look, I think I need to demonstrate something to you. Where's a place to buy clothing?"]

["We're not too far from the boutique that caters to the Academy."]

["I'm sure that'll do just fine. Lead the way."]

["I'm looking at myself in the mirror. What's the point?"]

He rolled his eyes, since he wasn't in the dressing room with Louise and she couldn't get upset at what she couldn't see him doing. ["Look at your chest."]

[". . . I'm looking."]

["Do you see the bosom?"]

["No! Because I don't have one!"]

Jason gritted his teeth and counted to ten. ["Louise, remember when we switched bodies a couple of days ago?"]

["You . . . you don't need to bring up how shameless I was acting!"]

["I'm not– Look, let's just try that again. See if we can't slide past each other when we push at the same time."]


["Just try it? Please?"]

["Oh, very well,"] she replied crossly. ["Let's get this farce over with."] With that he felt her start to push.

He pushed back, but tried to focus on yielding to her mental pressure at the time time. Mentally leaning towards her, without opposing or blocking her.

Which resulted in a dizzying moment of vertigo.

When he opened his eyes, he found himself swaying. Or rather, he found Louise's self swaying, rocking back and forth in the mirror. He tried to balance better, steadying her body, but suddenly the vertigo was back and in another moment he found his point of view had returned to his own body.

["Jason?"] his little mistress asked, sounding slightly shocked. ["Did you . . . did we just-?"]

["Deliberately switch bodies, both of us awake and in our right minds? Yeah, for a moment. I think I'm going to be able to scout for you better, soon."]

["That felt very odd. I thought I was going to fall down."]

["As I recall, we both fell down fell down a time or two, two nights ago by the lake. We're not used to handling the balance of each other's bodies, so I guess we'll need practice."]

["Is that why you brought me here? To practice? What does that have to do with my lack of a bosom?"]

["No, that's not it. But I saw what I needed to. You're still dressed, little mistress."]

["Of course I'm still dressed. I don't have anything in here to change into!"]

["Not what I meant. You need to take off your blouse, your undershirt, and your brassiere."]

["Take off my-?"]

["Just trust me."]

["Very well."] He got the distinct impression that she was shaking her head in bewilderment.

A minute or two passed. Then:

["I'm undressed now. Do you want to try to switch again?"]


["I know you think I'm pretty without my clothes on, even if I don't have a bosom to stare at. That's what this is, right? Proof that you like to look at me?"]

Well, there's an interesting thought, even if it's not quite what we were going for. ["No, although it's nice of you to offer. I want you to look at yourself in the mirror. Tell me what you see on your chest."]

["I don't see anything. Because I don't have anything!"]

Jason very carefully did not sigh. Dammit, why can't girls trust guys when we tell them they're hot? ["Okay. Louise, I want you to bounce up and down on your feet for me."]

["What? Why?"]

["Just do it. And tell me what your chest does when you bounce up and down."]

No response for a moment. Then he heard a whoop from inside the dressing room.

["Little mistress?"]

["It wobbled! My chest wobbled! It's big enough to wobble!"]

["So you agree that you do-"]

["How long has it been like this? Why didn't you tell me I could wobble?!"]

Jason snorted. ["For one, little mistress, I've been trying not to leer at you when you undress around me. I might hope to partake of the spirit of poetry in complementing the sparkling wit of your eyes, the silken cascade of your hair, the softness of your lips, the warmth of your smile, the delicate grace of your hands – if only my translation would let poetry through! – but it ain't easy to praise a woman's breasts without sounding crass and low-minded. And once we started kissing, do you really think I'd consider it dangerous to your chastity to look at you undressed if you still only had a child's body?"]

["Oh. But you still could have told me somehow."]

["I'm pretty sure I did tell you already that you had a bosom. Remember the night after Guiche lost his duel with Mr. Colbert?"]

["You weren't really . . . I thought you were just being nice to me."]

["Yeah? Am I in the habit of saying nice things that I don't mean?"]

["No, but . . . I've never had a bosom before!"]

He chuckled. ["Part of growing up, isn't it? You didn't have one, but now you do, and it'll keep growing for a while."]

["And you aren't just being nice when you say it looks good, even though it's still small?"]

["I'll admit that I look forward to seeing them when they've finished growing. But it's been a struggle not to leer from the first day, when you didn't seem to understand that, familiar or not, you were still undressing in front of a grown man."]

["Oh."] Louise was quiet for a moment. ["I was a little nervous, but I couldn't send you away. Not if you were truly my familiar."]

["Yeah."] We counted as your familiar, not as a man, except we were always both. Awkward as hell until our composure leveled up some.

["Here, let's try to switch places again."]

["Wha-?"] But her mind was already pushing at his, so he tried to repeat his trick of mentally stepping to the side and past her, and after another moment of dizziness he was in the dressing room again.

Looking at the mirror. And she hadn't bothered to dress again yet.

He felt her cheeks heat up as he blushed. ["Little mistress?"]

["Bounce up and down a few times, so you can see it wobble too!"]

["Uh-"] Her cheeks heated up further. It was a rather alluring prospect, and she was the one who'd suggested it . . . he shifted her weight on her feet experimentally-

And promptly fell over, landing with a pained cry.

He opened his eyes, and found himself back in his own body.

["Why am I on the floor? Did you fall over?"]

["Uh, yeah. I must have overbalanced or something. Let's maybe wait for a better opportunity to practice?"]

["That's fine. It's a good thing we're in the boutique, since I need to be remeasured for my underthings. Find a seamstress and send her in here."]

Louise eventually emerged from the dressing room, looking thoughtful, as the seamstress bustled off to some other task.

"There a problem?" Jason asked her.

"No . . . well, perhaps." She sighed. "I need to have my brassieres all let out by at least two fingers. Probably my culottes, too. She said I've likely been growing all year since my fitting last summer, but slowly enough that I didn't realize it, and if I think I'll keep growing I should think about having let out by three or even four fingers."

Called it! But probably not the best time to say 'I told you so'. If there is ever a best time.

"It's going to mean another day or two before we can start questing," his little mistress went on.

"Ah." And with Monty under condemnation, every day's delay imposes on the patience of the Headmaster. "That's unfortunate, but if that's what we need to do-"

She shook her head. "Perhaps not." ["If we use some of the funds we saved when that cheating armsdealer told you to take what you wanted, I could purchase new underclothes right now, and save time that way."]

He nodded. ["Let's do that, then. Like you say, we saved some money, so we can spend a little more on clothes than we'd expected."]

It didn't take more than a few minutes to find the seamstress who'd measured Louise and explain the situation to her.

"I'd be happy enough to sell you what we have, but," she paused and smiled apologetically, "most of our smaller undergarments are bought out by new First Form students during the spring, and we haven't built up much stock for next year yet."

"Oh," Louise replied, looking like she was trying not to look upset. "There's nothing left?"

The seamstress hesitated.

Wouldn't this just be a simple yes or no? If they've got anything in our little mistress's size, won't they make more from a sale rather than a resizing?

"It's just that," her eyes turned down, "most of the students enter the Academy when they're fifteen, and-"

"And maybe I'm finally growing, but I'm still small," Louise finished, a bit crossly.

The seamstress nodded submissively. "And what we did have, was purchased by a Gallian lady several days ago. She's even smaller than you, and we had to take them in several fingers to fit her, but at least she'll be able to let them out as she begins to fill out herself."

"Blue hair?" Jason asked, and got another nod in reply. Yeah, Tabitha seems to be another late bloomer, although at fifteen she's got a year to catch up . . . wait a sec! ["Little mistress, if Tabitha's fifteen, why'd they let her summon a familiar this year?"]

She shot him a sidelong glance. ["She was a Line before she summoned her wind dragon. If I were to make an exception for anyone's age, it would be for someone that powerful."]

["Oh. Guess that makes sense."] And if she got sent out questing often enough to become a Chevalier by fourteen, then it also makes sense for her to need replacement clothing. Although, ["Have to admit I'm a bit surprised there's this much implied business for one shop, given how difficult it is to make clothes by hand."]

["They don't sew them all new,"] his little mistress told him. ["They buy Academy uniforms back as the students grow out of them, then repair or replace what's wearing out. Father says that way families don't need to worry about vulgar displays of wealth."]

Makes even more-

"Are you certain you can't wait a day?" The seamstress asked, a bit anxiously.

Louise sighed. "We'd rather not, but-"

"Well, there is something else," came the worried reply, "but I'm not . . . come with me and you can see for yourself."

Master and familiar gave each other equally puzzled looks, but they followed her into the back, and then waited until she emerged from further back with an older man – the shopkeeper – both carrying armloads of colorful fabric.

"These came in from Rub' al Khali," the seamstress said. "They're temple clothes used by some heathen sect from beyond the desert. We wouldn't think to insult you by offering them, but they might be able to substitute as underclothes until you've had a chance to get yours resized." She offered a hesitant smile. "I know they're scandalously cut, but they'd be hidden under the rest of your clothes, and the fabric is amazingly woven."

The shopkeeper stared at Jason in alarm, who suddenly realized that his jaw had dropped open.

"Sir," the older man began nervously, "we truly mean no insult to your lady. We merely thought-! We'll take them back right away, it was-"

"No, wait!" Jason interrupted. "You're fine! Everything's fine. It's just that I've a bit of experience with the land these clothes are from, and I hadn't expected to see them here. It was a surprise, that's all."

"Ah!" The shopkeeper brightened up. "Then, if you would be so kind, could you elaborate on the rituals involved? For example," he picked out a bit of white cloth with one hand and a light pink one with the other, and held them out for inspection. "These are quite plain compared to the colorful ones, so our thought has been that they were the garb for the novices, but what's the difference? Does the white symbolize a vow of chastity, or that the novice is still a maiden? Or are the pink ones used to symbolize that the novice is, ahem, unclean at the moment?"

The seamstress rolled her eyes. "I still say you'd want a darker red for a woman on her monthly. But he's right, we've all been wondering what they could possibly mean. Do the patterns of colors on the colorful ones indicate their rank, or different duties, or something else?"

"Um." It was impossible to think of what to say, as he stared at the pile of panties, bras, bikinis, and one-piece swimsuits. All clearly in the style of First World 21st Century Terra.

"He's going red!" the seamstress exclaimed to her boss. "Have you actually seen their rituals?" she asked eagerly. "Or," here she clasped her hands to her cheeks in delighted and scandalized shock, "were you allowed to participate?! How many times? Ooh, how many at once-?!"

His blush deepened. You know, just for once it'd be nice if sexy things happening around us weren't set up to be so embarrassing. Sheesh. We'd say these people need some soap operas to distract them, but honestly, given the rumors of what some of the sororities got up to-

"Jason," Louise began in a warning tone. "You'd best start explaining. Now."

He buried his head in his hands and groaned. "They're not religious garments. They're just underthings, like how you offered them here."

The response was triple looks of disbelief.

["Your braies aren't nearly as colorful!"]

But there wasn't time to respond to his little mistress. "They can't be!" insisted the seamstress. "They're far too high-quality, and the decorated ones are clearly meant to be seen."

Twin nods indicated agreement.

And the hell of it is, she's not wrong. Jason sighed. "No, you wear those so that when you're swimming, if someone happens upon you . . . well, at least you aren't naked."

"The next thing to it," the shopkeeper put with a far-off look in his eye, obviously imagining something involving women, bikinis, and water. "They'd catch the eye faster than bare skin!"

"Yeah, but how many woman don't like to decorate themselves?"

That got him a sharp look from both Louise and the seamstress, but the shopkeeper chuckled. "Some truth in that, sir."

"I still don't believe it!" the seamstress argued. "The quality of the weave is impossibly fine, and the stitches are perfectly regular!"

Ah, that. Right, there's no way that professionals wouldn't notice unusual quality in their line of work. "That's just a matter of better looms and sewing tools. And no, I'm not a haberdasher, so I don't know the secret of making those tools."

Twin looks of disappointment were the response, so Jason hastily continued: "But if they become available, I'll make sure to get in touch."

The shopkeeper nodded. "In the meantime, is it truly not an insult to offer them to noblewomen? Most who looked at them turned their noses up at how lasciviously they're cut."

Lascivious? Well, maybe by comparison with belted knee-length great-great-granny-panty culottes. But most has to mean- "Did there happen to be a tall Germanian who didn't turn up her nose?"

"A redhead?" the seamstress asked in return. "Yes, she bought everything that would fit her, just before the Academy let out for the summer."

"Z-zerbst is w-wearing t-those?!" Louise broke in, immediately brushing bright red. "A-and y-you say it's f-fine for m-me to-"

"They're light, they breath well, they're soft, they use a bit of that rubber cloth so that you don't need to buckle them on, and they'll be hidden under the rest of what you wear. If you're looking for comfort, you could do a lot worse." Jason rubbed his chin, hiding a smile. "Although I have to pity Kirche a little, if she's taken to wearing the brassieres her size. Those have a reputation for sacrificing comfort in favor of decoration, for women with larger bosoms."

"No, you don't have to pity Zerbst." His little mistress gave the pile of modern Terran underthings a final dubious look, but then sighed. "I'll try them. If they are as comfortable as he says . . ."

["Are you serious about women wearing these? This isn't just some elaborate excuse for lechery?"] Louise asked from the other side of the dressing room door.

Jason chuckled. ["Yes, I'm serious. Besides, do I need an excuse for lechery?"]

There was a pause. ["I . . . what do you mean by that?!"]

["Firstly, you could be in your full uniform and I'd still be happy to hug and kiss the living daylights out of you. If a blatant display of affection like that wouldn't force everyone to take official notice."]

["It's true that it wouldn't be safe,"] Louise agreed.

["Secondly,"] he went on, ["those first couple nights after we admitted our love for each other, you were expecting me to try to lie with you. And I got the feeling that you were telling yourself you shouldn't turn me down if – or rather when – I did. Even if you were still nervous as hell about it."]

["Jason!"] came the shocked response. But then she paused again, before continuing. ["It would have been . . . shameful. We aren't engaged, I haven't even broken off my betrothal to Captain Wardes . . ."]

["But?"] he prompted, after she trailed off.

["But it was already shameful, falling in love with my familiar. Except that you're a man, not a beast, but it still felt shameful. And Mother said . . . except I didn't want you to feel like I was rejecting you, and . . . but I am still nervous."]

Yeah, and the Disaster didn't exactly help with that. ["Still, as far as lechery goes: What if tonight, when we're alone, you put on some of your new underthings for me? To show me how they look on you."]

["I-!"] She broke off without continuing, but it wasn't hard to imagine her blush and wide eyes.

["Or what if I wanted to sneak into the ladies' bathhouse without Siesta, just you and me?"]

["If . . . ooh!"]

And this time it was as if Jason could almost feel her shiver.

Might be we can, if our mental bond is still getting stronger. Although we could get in trouble, if she realizes how much fun we have teasing her.

["Are you teasing me-"]

Oh, shit.

["-or do you . . . we're less likely to get caught in my bedroom, so if that's what you want-"] Then Louise broke off again.

He blinked. ["Is that a yes?"]

["I-"] There was another pause, but then: ["Will you help me pick out the culottes and brassiere you like the best, for tonight?"]

That rocked him back. ["Seriously? I'll be honest, I was teasing you a little. I figured you wouldn't want to, not yet."]

["It is scary to think about,"] Louise admitted, ["but it was a little scary the first time you hugged me, and I like your hugs. And even though I was upset about the potion, it was nice when we 'fooled around a bit' last night. And you said it could be even nicer with more of our clothes off. I want to see if you're right again."]

["Oh."] Okay, let's take a moment to make sure we word this right. ["I won't say anything tonight to remind you, but if you decide to do it, we will. Just tell me if you get too scared, or want to stop."]

["That sounds . . . but what if you don't want to stop?"]

["Little mistress, I'm a man and I'm in love with you. Every time I kiss you goodnight I want to press for more. But it's a miracle as it is that you still want me to hold you after the potion. I'll keep telling my lecherous impulses 'later'."]

["Oh."] There was a distinct note of relief in her mental voice, which would be a bit depressing if it weren't for the fact that sex would pretty much sign his death warrant.

Hell, making out with her while she's in nothing but modern skivvies would do the same, if the Headmaster hadn't tacitly set the line for taking official notice of our relationship at strong mutual arousal. Note to self: Check how her cleaning spells are coming along.

He waited a little longer, and then Louise spoke up again.

["Jason, do you mind if I get some of these that aren't so scanty and snug? I know they wouldn't be as, as . . . but they look a little more comfortable."]

["The point is to pick out things that you can wear comfortably,"] he reminded her. ["Showing off to me how pretty you are is just a bonus."]

["You're sure?"] Although she sounded pleased at the compliment. ["Here, look at these and make sure you don't mind them."]

She pushed at his mind again, he yielded again, there was another dizzy moment, and-

And suddenly he was staring at the panties that he was now holding in Louise's hand. That were purple. And felt like satin. And were lacy.

That were, in fact, genuine french knickers.

The kind of granny panties that could out-sexy a thong.

["Uh, Louise, these are-"]

["I know! The other ones I've been trying on are so much smaller! But even if these won't cover more than the top of my thighs, it wouldn't be nearly as embarrassing to wear them."]

["Uh . . . are there enough of them?"] Because even if they were in different colors, the vision of Louise showing off a different pair of french knickers every night . . .

["No, just two."]

Ah, well-

["The other one is red."]


["I know you'd rather see me in the ones I'm wearing now, but they feel so smooth! You don't mind too much, do you?"]

He slowly and carefully raised his little mistress's head, so he wouldn't unbalance her and fall over again, and looked in the mirror. Ah. Yes, modern conventional panties were rather snug and scanty by comparison, weren't they? They certainly weren't concealing the smooth curves of her hips and thighs – yep, more confirmation that jogging's been good for her legs – but they didn't exude the feminine sensuality of what he was holding, either. And, uh-

["Louise, you don't need to take off your bra every time you lend me your eyes in here. If anything, it's a little distracting."]

It took her a moment to respond.

["No, no-!"] And it wasn't hard to imagine her sudden blush. ["I was just having trouble with how the new brassieres latch. They're different than the ones I'm used to."]

["I see."] He choked down the impulse to laugh. ["Anyway, the lacy culottes are just fine. I'm sure they'll look great on you."]

["Oh, you don't have to say that."]

["Louise, I'm serious. They'll be very cute. In fact, if you do decide to wear them tonight, I'd like you to wear the lacy one that's red."]

["The-? You truly want me to be comfortable tonight, don't you? That's so sweet of you!"]

Again, don't laugh! We might lose balance and fall! ["Yeah, let's go with that. Oh, and try on some of the swimming suits, too. Both the one-piece and the two-piece suits."]

["B-but, the colors! They're so bold!"] she protested.

["Right, but they handle water well, so you can clean them off by jumping into a river and splashing around for a bit. Since we're going questing, having underthings that are easy to clean might prove handy."]


["In fact, if you think there are some that Monty might be able to wear, get those too. Camp hygiene's important, and I think I remember something about women having a harder time with that."]

["I know,"] Louise confirmed. ["Mother says that any noblewoman who doesn't learn Scour well enough to use on herself, to keep clean, has no business in the field."] Then, with a note of curiosity: ["How will you get Montmorency to wear them, though?"]

He started to shrug, but stopped when it almost made him fall over. ["Maybe I'll let Guiche handle that. Come on, get back into your body, we've still got other things to buy after this."]

"Are there any other purchases we need to make?" his little mistress asked, her new bundle of underthings (in a sack, so that people wouldn't see what she'd just purchased) Levitating alongside her. They'd ended up purchasing enough of them that the shopkeeper had let them have the entire pile, just to clear it all out.

(Which was fine: What they didn't use could go to Mr. Colbert for analysis. So far there hadn't been any word or sign of tech coming from the bit of elastic that had been part of the samples Jason had donated, a couple of months back.)

"Already got material for armor, and we got weapons, so-" Jason shrugged. "Except we still need to get orcspears, and we probably want to buy those new. And . . . huh."

"What is it?" Louise asked.

"Just occurred to me that Mr. Colbert wouldn't have needed to tell anyone else to buy orcspears. They'd have known, already."

His little mistress shrugged back. "If he hadn't, I would have. But what else do we need?"

"I think everything else is on the list that Siesta had. We'll check and see if there's anything her shopkeeper friend couldn't supply."

Louise looked up at the sky. "That's good. It's getting late enough that we should try to return to the Academy soon."

The town was small enough that it didn't take more than a few minutes to return to the store they'd left their friend at. There, they found her engaged in sharing a story with the shopkeeper that seemed to require waving her arms around, and was apparently interesting enough that neither noticed when they entered.

Jason cleared his throat.

"Sorry to interrupt," he said, as they stopped and turned to peer at him and Louise, "but it is getting on in the day and we've got to get back to the Academy soon."

"'Tis well enough." the shopkeeper smiled, but then gave him an appraising look. "We were just trading stories about how life has been since leaving Tarbes."

"Ah." And with that look- He did his best not to flush. We really need to figure out a way to let her down gently, without drawing official attention to our relationship with Louise. "Were you able to supply everything on the list?"

"Most, and with the coin Siesta had I was glad enough to send m'boy to fetch the rest."

"Glad to hear it." Then Jason hesitated. "I should have thought of this earlier, but is there enough left to get another wedge, claw, and pick? To have as spares?"

"Planning on working with lumber, then?"

"No, more like orc hunting. Speaking of which, we need orcspears, too."

The shopkeeper's eyebrows shot up. "I can send m'boy out again. Dangerous company you plan on keeping, Siesta."

She pouted. "No, I can't go. Not unless they're successful enough to hire me."

"Well, for your sake, I'm not sure I should wish them well. A speedy failure that sends them back to the Academy, safe and sound, would surely be best for all."

"We've got reasons to need to do it," Jason told him.

"Well, I suppose I shouldn't say no to more coin." The shopkeeper turned his head towards the rear of the shop. "Lad, get back out here!"

"We'll need a wagon like this, if we plan to haul all these supplies around," Montmorency observed as they all reunited and set back out for the Academy.

"Yeah," Jason agreed, "but the camping supplies mean we won't need to spend cash on inns every night or stick to the main roads with wayhuts. And we'll want a nice camp, especially since we're bringing the Headmaster's secretary along to supervise."

"We'll cover more ground than I'd originally thought, too," Guiche commented. "Even with the weight of our supplies." He shook his head. "I would never have stooped to use my valkyries as a substitute for a draft animal, if I hadn't been . . . easily persuaded. But it's undeniably effective, and it helps me practice my control while exercising my vis."

His girlfriend flushed at the glance he sent her. "I wasn't seeking to demean you," she muttered.

"That's enough of that!" Louise interjected sharply. "We went out to the countryside to practice together, that's all!"

"Indeed," Guiche agreed. "And I hope, my dear Monmon, that you'll find me receptive to more agreeable forms of persuasion in times to come."

This time it was definitely a blush on Montmorency's face, which only deepened as her boyfriend slipped one arm around her (his other holding the wand that directed the pair of valkyries pulling them along).

Although she didn't look in any particular hurry to veto the proffered cuddle.

Siesta's eyes danced with unspoken amusement, and Jason suppressed a sigh. Be nice if we could cuddle with Louise as well, but until 'our' maid is clued in and we find out how she's going to react, that's not an option.

And what's Miss Longueville going to consider to be over the line?

He hurried over to Mr. Colbert's lab as soon as they got back to the Academy that afternoon, carrying his weapons and the components for his Halligan tool.

"This sword is too heavy by half." The professor frowned as he examined the largest of the blades. "Especially for a leaf-blade. How did you come by it?"

Jason shrugged. "Found it used. The shopkeeper said it was made extra heavy to try to cut through modern maile, but just like you said, it ended up too heavy."

"Then why purchase such a blade?"

He shrugged again. "I thought that maybe it'd be good for getting through orc hide, plus it was cheap. My auxilum does strengthen me a bit while I'm using it, so I can hopefully still put it to good use. Plus, the balance is amazingly good, despite being so heavy."

"Mm. Did you purchase the tools you wish to combine?"

"Yeah, they're in this bag. I got two of each, so that there'd be a spare, just in case."

Mr. Colbert nodded, and they got to work.

The process didn't take long. The professor knew an elementari that made metal pliable, so forming a Halligan tool didn't require heating, hammering, or re-tempering. It was a little more involved than pushing the tools together until they were one, but not by much.

Once completed, Jason checked the quality of the finished products, and gave a satisfied nod after a brief invocation of his power. "They'll do."

"You do see them as weapons, then?"

He shrugged once more. "Against a draugr? Probably not. But if lesser undead are possible-"

"They are," Mr. Colbert confirmed. "Revenants are still fearsome, for their morale will never fail, but a sound heart and sharp steel will dispatch them readily enough."

"Which means the pick ought to do just fine, and I don't have to disarm myself while I'm using it as a tool." He gave the professor an inquiring look. "Just between you and me, sir, is this going to be a pointless excursion, or do we have a real chance to win anything?"

"That, I can't say. I have heard that some of the students who were considering questing this summer reconsidered, when news spread of plentiful orc sightings, particularly to the east. So you may have less competition than usual. On the other hand, any rival companies of questors will have had a full month to fulfill the quests that threaten the least danger and offer the greatest rewards."

Jason nodded. "We'll have to make some plans, once we've got an idea of what it's like. But speaking of plans, there's something else I need to bring up."

The professor gave him a curious look. "Oh?"

"I think I can say, without betraying a confidence, that Princess Henrietta once joked about keeping me as a guest in the palace until she'd wrung every interesting foreign notion from me," he began, with a wry smile. "And honestly, I probably wouldn't mind spending the bulk of my time working out how to reinvent machines that would normally take centuries to develop and refine." Then Jason sighed. "The problem is, those machines caused massive trouble alongside all the good they did. But we've got the near-future threat of Reconquista to deal with, so I've been focusing on pushing the development of weapons that should help Tristain defend itself from an invasion."

"How do they cause trouble?" Mr. Colbert asked. "Everything you've asked me to make seems to be something that would aid commoners, and haven't you said that all the people of your world are commoners?"

"Magic-less, anyway. The problem? Well, magic may change the ratios here in Halkagenia, but back on Terra, before we invented the machines that help with farming, there were about ten people living in the country and villages – farmers plus the various professions that supported them – for every person living in a town or city. And the machines prove to be very capable in the long run, to where more than half of the people could live in towns and cities, without needing to grow their own food or anything."

Jason grimaced. "Except that means, if we're going to try to introduce the machines quickly, people flooding into the cities in vast numbers when there isn't anywhere near the demand for labor. Because unless the commoners own the land they're farming, they'll find themselves surplus to what the nobles need, and then find themselves dismissed."

The professor slowly nodded. "And few commoners are prepared for the challenge of living like Protestants."

"Uh, yeah. That too. The thing, this is all pretty much inevitable. Even if I ignore it and somehow persuade you to stop experimenting, the fact that Germania has the tradition of machina means that they'll figure out some practical uses sooner or later. But since we know that machines end up being important, we can try to help people get ready for that. So, if you could work with a blacksmith, do you think you could figure out some simple machines that we could teach villages how to make and use? To start to get them into the habits of working with those machines?"

Mr. Colbert frowned thoughtfully. "While you're gone questing, I'll have some of my time back. At the least, I could make the attempt. I assume you're planning on spreading your spoon and fork designs thusly?"

"Yeah, but those are simple. We need something that they can pull off that has moving parts." A thought struck Jason. "A lot of villages will have kitchen dogs for turnspits, right?"

"Yes, they should."

"Well, the ice-cream mixer needs someone to supply ice . . . although Louise could maybe test villagers for Arise potential. So that's at least a possibility. But anything that would help cook that could be powered by those kitchen dogs might help. A mechanical stirrer for a big pot of stew, maybe."

"That's an idea," Mr. Colbert agreed. "Let me think on it, and I should have some possibilities once you make your first field report on the performance of the guns."

The window blew open with a sudden clatter, late that evening, and Louise touched down and stomped over to the table.

"I don't believe this!" she snarled, glaring down at the open text she'd been studying, before she'd gone up to the roof to practice.

"What's wrong?" Jason asked, looking up and panting slightly as he recovered from a set of bicycle kicks. "Is Flaring Impulse giving you more trouble than you expected?"

"No," she told him, scowling ferociously (or cutely, from his perspective). "But it's much the same as what I've been doing to push towards Searing Rebuke. Mr. Colbert must have started from this figura when he created it."

"Isn't that a good thing? Won't it be that much easier to become proficient?"

"Perhaps," she allowed, still scowling. "But even though I'm accomplishing what the spell does, if I try to focus on the figura I get more explosions!"

"Oh." That's gotta suck. Funny thing is, if this were programming it'd sound an awful lot like she only has a compiler for assembly language, while everyone else gets to use something a lot more abstract. And, hell, explosions aren't that much more helpful than your average error message. Except humans don't process in binary, so this is about instinct and focus and visualization. Can't exactly download new software.

"Figura don't seem work for you, no," he agreed. "So don't bother. But . . . you're still hoping to cast Firebolt soon, right?"

"Yes!" his little mistress snapped, her aggravation clear.

"How about you try creating fire, but then holding it in place, the way you were practicing with heat to create fire in the first place?" Jason suggested. "If you can get to where you get a big gout when you release it, you've probably found the trick of it, and then if you can push it towards a target that's pretty much Firebolt, right? Fireball too, if you can pack enough fire into one spot."

Louise frowned. "I kept getting those tiny explosions when I tried to cast Ignite that way, but . . . maybe. It's worth trying."

She Levitated back out the window, and he started his next set.

It was nearly time for bed by the time his little mistress decided to call an end to spell practice.

But then she stood there, darting nervous glances his way.

"Jason?" she finally said, rather hesitantly. "It'll be bedtime soon."

He looked up from where he was resting on his air mattress, catching his breath from his ongoing and slightly illicit efforts to tone his belly. (Or at least he still hadn't admitted that he was working on that to Mr. Colbert, in addition to doing the more practical exercises the professor had assigned.) "Yes, it will be." Then he smiled gently. "Remember, I'm not going to say anything."

"I know, but-" Louise paused and blushed. "Could you sit down at the table, turn your back, and close your eyes until I say you can look?"

He blinked. "Okay."

Of course, once at the table and with his eyes closed, there was nothing to distract him as he sat there. Thus it was not terribly difficult to match the rustles of cloth with her likely actions. And here we didn't think she'd actually do it. Guess she wants to move on from the potion as quickly as she can.

The rustling stopped for several moments, and he was debating whether he should speak up or not when she suddenly whimpered, took several steps, and there was a bit more rustling.

Huh? Were you thinking about not bothering with the new underwear, little mistress? Surely not! But then what-?

But now her light footsteps were coming towards him, and a pair of arms went around his neck from behind as Louise nipped his ear affectionately.

"You can open your eyes now," she murmured huskily, slipping around his side and into his lap.

He opened his eyes, and there she was, looking up at him hopefully . . . and wearing one of his shirts, just like she did every night now.

"I'm sorry!" his little mistress started before he could speak. "I am wearing the red culottes, but . . . I was standing there, ready to go sit on your lap, but it was too scary! So-"

"I told you that you didn't have to," he said lightly, bending down to brush his lips against hers. And doing his best not to let disappointment show.

"I wanted to!" She buried her head in his shoulder. ["It seemed so thrilling, th-thinking of . . . but when I stood there, I just couldn't!"]

"Ah." He stroked her hair soothingly. ["Like I said, if you don't want to-"]

["I do! I still do. But I'm scared, and-"] Louise pulled away slightly, but kept her face down as she lifted her collar, enough to let him get a glimpse of the bikini top she had on underneath. ["If you want to, you can-"] She broke off, blushing brilliantly. ["I'll sit here on your lap while you pull this shirt off, and I'll still have something on, at least."]

Jason sat there for a moment, continuing to stroke her hair. It was tempting, but- ["No. Not tonight. Let's just work on proving to your heart that you have nothing to fear from my love for you."]

She raised her head and gave him a searching look. Then she offered a relieved smile, reached up with both hands, and pulled his face back down to hers.

The next morning, when Louise woke up she immediately Freshened his mouth, then hers, and set about nibbling on his lips demurely until he growled and started chasing her lips with his own. But all too soon she pulled back, her face flushed, and they had to get up and begin the new day.

["Ain't complaining at all, little mistress,"] Jason told her, a silly grin tugging at the corners of his mouth as he got dressed, ["but what brought that on?"]

["I'm worried that Miss Longueville won't let us carry on like this,"] she replied, ["so we need to be ready."] She paused for a moment. ["And I know that when I feel funny because I'm kissing you, it's me and not that forsaken potion."]

["It ought to be you for all of it,"] he pointed out as the urge to grin faded. ["Potion's gone."]

["I know, but when we 'fool around' it starts to feel like I, like I need you to-"]

She broke off, trembling.

["You're afraid you've been potioned again?"] he guessed.

Louise nodded.

Damn. And we were about to ask if we could get a little grab-ass before we finished getting dressed. Not likely, not with her-

["I know you didn't give me the potion,"] she told Jason, interrupting his thoughts, ["and yesterday the medica confirmed that it was neutralized, but it doesn't feel like it when we-"]

She broke off again, looking down and letting her hair hide her eyes from him.

["A good potion feels like the real thing, according to Siesta. I guess Monty knows her business."] Then he winced. ["Except I didn't take advantage, so you never calmed down the way Guiche did. Hadn't realized that before, but I'm guessing that remembering that makes it feel like you're about to lose control again?"]

Louise nodded again, but then stepped forward and threw her arms around him and buried her face in his chest. ["I don't like feeling helpless! And I hate feeling scared when we-"]

But you can still draw comfort from us. Just as long as sexytimes don't happen. Dammit.

Although at least she didn't flinch away when he stroked her hair.

["How much does it bother you to know that I . . ."] Jason trailed off, unable to think of how to phrase it delicately enough.

She looked up and rolled her eyes at him. ["Mother did warn me about lechers, but you've proved you won't be inflamed beyond reason. At least, not without Zerbst's vile little spell!"]

He smiled crookedly at her. ["Well, one way around this would be to just go ahead and prove that we can make love without you losing yourself, if you're willing to try to push through the panic. But the Headmaster would probably find out. Besides, like you said, Miss Longueville won't let us get away with anything while we're out questing. Give it a few weeks and the memories of the potion shouldn't be quite so immediate. Hopefully."]


["Yeah, there's a theory among my people that when memories of an experience are too strong, it's better to stay busy and keep yourself distracted than to dwell on it. And if all goes well we should be plenty distracted for the next couple of months."]

Louise nodded slowly, then gripped her wand and Levitated up to brush her lips against his one final time. ["We should finish getting dressed so we can go jogging before breakfast."]

["Yeah."] Then he smiled wryly again. ["But weren't you going to try out the new panties and bras today, little mistress? See how they felt under your normal clothing?"]

["I-"] She blinked, then looked down at her state of half-dress. ["Jason, turn around so I can change again!"]

He chuckled and complied.

"Siesta, after we have breakfast could you round up Guiche, Monty, and Miss Longueville?" Jason asked, once the jogging was done and he was helping set Mr. Colbert's table. "We're all going to need to confer, see what other preparations we need to make before we set out."

"I will," the maid agreed. "And don't forget that you all need to have your armor fitted!"

"Right, that. Well, at least it's chain. Shouldn't take too long." Then he frowned. "Except we need to make sure we can adjust it on the road, if we have to."

His little mistress looked up from where she was starting her meal. "We do?"

Jason shrugged. "I think so. Mr. Colbert, can you confirm that? Louise is growing again, we found out yesterday in Menenville. And my shape is also changing, as I get rid of fat and add muscle."

The professor nodded. "If you've begun a growth spurt, Miss Vallière, you'll find that the steel ringlets of well-made maile are rather less forgiving than your usual attire." He frowned. "The Academy has nobilia to re-link the ringlets without fatiguing them, but in the field you may need to rely on Guiche de Gramont or Miss Longueville, if they know the necessary spells."

"And if they don't, we'll have to get Guiche copies to study." Wait a sec. "Assuming that's permitted? In which case, Louise should probably get a copy of Shield to work on, and . . . well, we'll want to discuss spell selection at the meeting."

"A variety of spells can be copied out onto bark paper for study," Mr. Colbert confirmed. "Those copies won't last for long, not out in the field, but possibly long enough to learn if you're diligent."

Louise nodded firmly. "I want to be able to cast Shield on Jason, too, so I'll need that variation as well."

"Then you'll not need any other spells to study," the professor told her. "Mastering the casting of Shield on others isn't easy."

She nodded again, looking quite determined. "I know how to study hard."

"That you do," her familiar agreed fondly. "Although speaking of stuff that'll fall apart out in the field, any chance I can get some local shirts? My jeans should hold up okay, but my t-shirts are too thin for heavy duty."

"I'll find something," Siesta promised him. "And should I stay for the meeting? To see if anything else needs to be scrounged up?"

Jason nodded. "Sounds like a good idea, yeah. Mr. Colbert, what about the coat you've had me wearing? Is it tough enough for adventuring?"

"It ought to be," came the reply. "When you aren't wearing your maile, it should even provide a measure of protection. Almost as well as maile, even, if Miss Montmorency knows the recipes for appropriate infusions."

["And even if your coat is torn apart, Her Highness confirmed her plan to set aside some of the wind dragon leather for you,"] Louise commented over their private link. ["So you should have some very good light armor soon enough."]

["Glad to hear it."] "How about we meet in the room I've been dining in, when I'm not eating with Mr. Colbert?" he suggested. "Should be room for all of us, and we won't be a distraction."

The professor nodded. "Remember to return here when you can. We'll want to check the shotguns and the reinforcing on the revolvers one last time before you leave."

"Will do, sir."

"We've been getting ready to adventure on very short notice," Jason began once Siesta rounded the others up and led them to 'his' dining room. He pulled out the list of gear they'd purchased the previous day. "Here's what we bought, so when I pass it around take a look and see if there's anything you can think of that we could use."

He handed the list off to Guiche, who began reading it very carefully.

"One thing that's obvious, though, is potions," he continued, nodding to Montmorency. "Before the scuffle at the lake, during the last skirmish I was in one of the enemy pulled out a potion. I'm guessing it was for healing, although when I took him out the potion fell and broke.

"Anyway, Monty, while you don't get to use your own equipment at the Academy, I don't see any reason why Louise couldn't purchase her own set for 'use while adventuring', hint hint."

Miss Longueville raised a dubious eyebrow. "I was under the impression that Miss Montmorency was not to be brewing unsupervised."

Jason shrugged. "And she won't be, here at the Academy. But the Headmaster doesn't want to be responsible for her for the rest of the summer break, and if we just copy out a stack of medical Lines for her to study we'll be wasting a lot of her supporting value in the field."

The secretary frowned thoughtfully, but then slowly nodded. "If you trust Miss Montmorency's brewing, I suppose it's not my concern if Miss Vallière chooses to be generous with her supplies."

For herself, Montmorency looked both annoyed and bemused. As if she didn't like having a commoner arrange things, but nonetheless found the outcome more favorable than she'd have expected.

"Come with me after this meeting and we'll see what I can afford," Louise told the blonde, who nodded (albeit still with a confounded expression). ["I agree that outfitting our potioneer is a good idea, but be careful about spending my money."]

["I'm trying to be."] "Speaking of your concerns, what are your expectations on this outing?" Jason then asked Miss Longueville.

The verdetress gave him a sardonic look. "That I'll hear no end of inventive reasons for young lovers to slip off by themselves for an hour or two."

He raised an eyebrow, glanced at the blond pair, and shrugged. "Seems likely enough, yeah. But specifically as regards to adventuring?"

"I've little wish to risk myself against orcs and the other hazards of the wilderness, but I'm confident that I can keep your supplies secure while you face those hazards." She paused for a moment. "And while I'm no medica, I know a few spells for broken bones."

"You've needed to know more than one?"

Miss Longueville grimaced. "Skin heals quickly enough when bruised or cut, even without magic. Bones are different, they're not meant to break. A simple broken arm or leg just needs one spell to see them mending, but many of your bones are far more delicate. And if any of your bones end up shattered you'll be grateful I learned more than merely Sano Ossum."

Jason blinked. "My apologies, that wasn't meant as criticism. This is a welcome surprise, believe me." Then he frowned. "I know we can't afford to pay Siesta to come along, but-"

"Headmaster Osmond is paying my wages," she interrupted quickly. Then she swept them all with a stern gaze. "If you wish to express gratitude, then don't force me to bear tales to him that will upset your families."

Louise flushed and nodded. A moment later, so did Montmorency.

"I-if the Headmaster is paying for you to accompany them," Siesta said hesitantly, in the awkward silence that followed, "could he be persuaded to pay for me as well?"

The secretary looked slightly surprised at the request. "I'll ask him," she promised, "but at least part of his decision to send me along is so that he can indulge himself in peace."

"You meant like cavorting with the maids?" Jason asked, rolling his eyes. "I've noticed that he enjoys taking the shape of beautiful women."

"Everyone knows that," Louise told him, rolling her eyes in turn. "I've attended the Sleipnir masquerade twice, and both times he took the form of a young woman and asked everyone to call him Osmina."

["Prince Wales told me he heard you went as one of your sisters last year. What about your first time?"]

["He's right, last year I went as Cattleya,"] she confirmed, her cheeks going pink again for a moment. ["The year before that, I went as Mother. But so many other students did too that some of them started to quarrel, and last year I think the only person who decided to look like Mother was a First Form who hadn't heard about the fight."]

Huh. And if Prince Wales had also heard about the Heavy Wind fiasco two masquerades ago, that could explain why he was willing to think that no one would take the form of Louise's mother last time. Except he ran into a fangirl enthusiast who knew the books front to back. Or maybe a fanboy-

"Not merely to enjoy himself," Miss Longueville was saying, suddenly sounding very serious. "His willingness to set aside his dignity means that he can pretend to be a maid around the students, and I've never seen any of you suspect a thing when he felt the need to observe you personally."

That had all three students wide-eyed with surprise.

Then Montmorency cursed. "The maid I've been paying off to not report my brewing! Except she's been working here for years, surely there'd have rumors about her if she's not around most of the time-"

"So probably not her, but maybe a friend she gossips with," Jason speculated. "I mean, I doubt the Headmaster has time to do a lot of chores, but if he's taken some of the head maids like Annabelle into his confidence . . . hell. Let's face it, the only thing that would make his spy network more complete is if he had some sort of spell to create clones." He paused for a moment, thinking. "Well, clones with memory transfer."

Louise looked both thoughtful and appalled. "Mother knows a spell to create clones out of Wind. She says they're good scouts because they can sprint faster than most mounts. They have to make it back to her to surrender their memories, though."

"Wind clones are rather fragile, however," Miss Longueville noted, "and fire clones are so volatile that they rarely last long before exploding, while an earth clone is noticeably heavier than a person ought to be. A well-cast Water clone, on the other hand, can fool people into thinking that it's real." She smiled thinly at the freshly shocked looks she was receiving. "The Headmaster likes to use them to avoid situations where he expects to be bored. And yes, he is very well acquainted with the servants' gossip."

["Really good thing we never left blood on your sheets,"] Jason sent to his little mistress. ["Maiden's Balm can't fix that, and I don't know what level of Scour you'd need, either."]

["It's not easy,"] she sent back. ["When I was bleeding at the Inn, and they had to wash our bedding, Jessica told me they'd have to wash the stains with cold water, then vinegar, then spirits of urine, and finally scrub it with soapstone."] She paused for a moment. ["I helped with that last, to practice Levitate."]

["That's a lot of . . . spirits of urine? What?"]

["I know! They have to ferment their piss to make something that does the job of liquid hartshorn! It's disgusting!"] Another pause. ["But it did work. And . . . will there be blood, like Mother warned?"]

["Depends on how thick your maidenhead is. Although-"]

"We shall have to be exceptionally careful regarding our conduct in the future," Montmorency finally said into the newly awkward silence, interrupting the unheard conversation between master and familiar. Then her eyes narrowed. "But why are you so willing to warn us of the Headmaster's machinations?"

"Oh, I'm merely assuring you that Headmaster Osmond has the Academy well in hand," Miss Longueville replied, her expression as sardonic as her tone was earnest. "But don't ask me to point out who his clones are; that's a secret he's managed to keep to himself."

Which was enough of a puzzle that- "I'd guess that one Femsmond is whoever runs the betting pools for the maids," Jason speculated. "She'd be in the perfect position to hear all the gossip about what the students get up to."

Siesta blinked. "You mean Anais? But she's nothing like the Headmaster!"

Wait, did our auxilum let the portmanteau get through without trouble? Huh. You'd think that'd be too close to a pun to translate well.

Guiche looked up from where he was still perusing the list. "I've heard Father say that the best agent, to scout an enemy's stronghold or forces, is the one that nobody would ever suspect." He frowned. "But to encourage the servants to such unrighteous conduct regarding the nobility-"

Montmorency rolled her eyes. "Servants gossip unless they love your family so well that they'd rather brag instead. That's just the way of the world." She took a deep breath. "And both Brimir and Lagdorian willing, I'll live to see my family prosper so."

"Brimir willing," her lover agreed. "This list seems thorough enough, or at least I haven't thought of any mundane equipment for adventuring that doesn't appear on it. Although, what's a 'halligan tool'?"

"Several tools merged into one," Jason told him. "Pairs well with an ax-hammer, and I should be able to carry 'em both on my back."

"But what's the use of it?" Monty asked, her expression a bit puzzled.

He grinned. "We're looking to fight orcs, and they know how to make undead. I have it on good authority that a Halligan tool is, and I quote, 'like, totally made for zombie fighting'. Hell, I'm the muscle, I'd better be equipped for it."

Louise glared at him. "You are not going to fight a draugr hand-to-hand!" she declared firmly. ["Not a fourth time!"]

"May not have a choice. Anyway, Guiche, I'll show you how to use it later."


"Yeah. It's not just for zombies. If we need to pry something open, that's what the hammer side of the ax-hammer is for. You'll hold the Halligan, I'll swing the hammer."

The blond looked thoughtful. "If this tool is as useful as you believe, I may wish to add it to the weapons my valkeries can be conjured with."

"You've mastered the spear and sword drills, then?"

"Er, not quite."

"Get those finished first. The Halligan is multi-function, it'll take longer to develop useful drills with it."

Guiche nodded. "But what of our spells? Three of us are mages, after all."

Louise gave him a narrow look. "Three?"

"Well, four," he conceded, "but Miss Longueville won't be accompanying us when we venture into peril. You, Monmon, and myself make three."

She looked rather surprised at the sudden validation of her status. "Oh. I . . ."

"You're enough of a threat that Dame Tabitha chose to subdue you first when we fought at the lake," Montmorency pointed out, sounding a bit cross. "Perhaps Vitriolic Rebuke is more immediately dangerous, but I'll quickly exhaust myself if I have to cast it repeatedly, and everyone's seen how you can keep casting for hours when you're practicing." She grimaced. "If I had to fight against more than a handful of soldiers with nothing more than my spells, I wouldn't stand a chance. You might, if you were lucky enough."

Louise nodded thoughtfully. "I'll be studying Shield, and perhaps Volitat as well. I can already dispatch enemies with my explosions, so defense seems wise."

"What of Firebolt and Fireball?" Guiche wanted to know.

He got a tiny frown in reply. "I'm making progress, but-"

"But not yet." The blond nodded back to her. "That's a pity. It's not seen in the dueling circuit very often, but Father says aggregate casting can prove decisive in skirmishes. They aren't countered as readily as individual spells might be, either."

"Mother and Father say the same thing," Louise agreed, "but until I'm ready, you and Montmorency-"

"I'm a potioneer!" the other girl protested. "I haven't trained for skirmishing!"

"Then perhaps you might wish to begin," Guiche suggested to his lover, smiling at her as he did. "The magicks of orcs are crude at best, but if we face one who knows simple counters . . . if you study Mire and Seep they could help me shape the ground and use my valkyries to their greatest effect. And if you can also learn Dessicate, I could practice my transmutation of mud to concrete."

An impressed look came over Louise's face, as Montmorency nodded reluctantly.

["Little mistress?"] Yet another facet of magic we don't know. And Monty's already acting annoyed. Better relay through Louise where we can.

["He wants to be able to perform the imago memoriam. That's ambitious: It's a difficult aggregate, but if it works the target is encased in concrete and unable to move. You can even leave them room to breathe, if you need to take a prisoner."]

["And once you're better with Fire you'll be able to practice these aggregates with them?"]

["Not those specific ones, they're Earth and Water, but I hope so."]

["Hey, you've got Ignite, just keep building on that. Hell, if we're talking disables and shaping the battlefield you might also want to see if you can manage something like Dazzle, if you run out of other spells to work on. Get Firebolt to work, then do it with sparks instead of fire-"]

She gave him a glance and a tiny nod, as Guiche began speaking again.

"Of course, I need to continue to practice with my valkyries," the blond said, "but if they're going to pull our cart I should study Tranquil Axis so that our journey is a smooth one."

"That's one I already know," Miss Longueville commented, "and I should be able to teach it to you quickly enough. I'd also recommend learning Unsoiled. It may be a praesta, but as an Earth mage you'll have an easier time with it that your lover or Miss Vallière would."

["There's an Earth version of Hold Person, right? Called something like Stone Grip? Does he know it? Or spells to just move dirt around so we can find buried treasure?"]

["You mean Earthen Grasp?"] his little mistress sent back. "If the orcs come at us from unexpected directions, Earthen Grasp might hold one for long enough while we deal with the others."

"I agree, that could be very useful," Guiche replied. "And I ought to be practicing spells for shaping dirt and stone, yes. I'll need them for the aggregates." He paused, then continued in a thoughtful not-quite-murmur: "We'll need to learn to perform the mud wave, and perhaps the via lubricus-"

"I'll try to find the time to study the spells for those. And I suppose I should get that list of medical Lines as well," Montmorency stated, the potioneer looking disgruntled at the necessity. "There'll be no time to ennoble Miss Vallière's new brewing equipment properly, and we certainly don't have the funds to purchase some that are already ennobled, so I won't be able to ensure we have potions on hand for every occasion."

"As long as we have a few healing potions for emergencies, we ought to be well enough off," Louise pointed out. "If you need a few hours to brew up something special, we'll just have to take the time."

["Make sure she keeps up with the schedule for Lunar Respite,"] Jason reminded her. ["We don't want a repeat of that."]

["No, we don't, but I'm sure she already knows when to brew it to keep our schedule."]

"I can keep some healing potions prepared," Montmorency agreed. "They won't be the best, and they'll spoil faster than I'd like, since I won't have time to stabilize them and I won't have properly ennobled vials to preserve them, but we'll have them. For any other potions, though, I'll have to brew as they're needed. And I won't be able to prepare more than a few doses at a time," she concluded sourly.

"As for my auxilia, along with practicing with my new weapons I'm going to see what I can learn to do with a weighted net," Jason said. "And there's a funny weapon you can throw that'll return to you if it doesn't hit anything, it's called a boomerang and if I can find wood shaped the right way I'll see if I can manage to whittle one. Plus there's something called a bolas, I played with a toy version when I was younger and it can tie up an opponent if thrown the right way. Maybe see if I can make a lasso work, too.

"Oh, and Louise: I think you've got the most experience with Mark, so you might want to figure out how to give us some protection from Hold Person. Just in case we end up fighting mages. Kirche and Tabitha both know it, so we gotta assume it's something mages routinely learn."

"I can assure you that, among the four of us, Miss Vallière does not have the most experience with Mark," Miss Longueville stated dryly. "But I can show her how to prepare protective amulets. And you three should all attempt to learn Hold Person as well. It's especially helpful for avoiding a fight, or ending one without bloodshed."

"We'll be studying more spells than if we were still in classes!" Montmorency exclaimed, starting to look more than a bit daunted.

"But hopefully to our good fortune," her lover pointed out, and she looked slightly mollified at the thought.

["Is that magic planned out, at least for now?"] Jason asked his little mistress, and when she relayed the query there were nods all around. ["Alright, we need to move on to field hygiene, and we both know a guy shouldn't be the one talking about ladies' hygiene."]

Miss Longueville grimaced as soon as the issue was raised. "I assume we all know Scour adequately. It's not pleasant to self-cast, but it will suffice for cleansing after using a latrine." Then she smiled thinly. "But I shall have to request, Miss Vallière, that you permit de Gramont to Scour your familiar's nether regions rather than attending to it yourself."

Louise blushed bright red.

"A pot de chambre isn't that bad," Jason pointed out, feeling a little impatient with have to speak through her. "Could we ennoble a field version?"

His little mistress shook her head. "It takes skill to ennoble them with such a delicate touch. We couldn't afford one."

"Oh. What about those magic dishrags? Amanda something-?"

"You mean an emunda pannus?" Montmorency asked, a bit disbelievingly. "We'll be getting one, to keep the brewing implements clean, but those are no more suited to cleaning a person than any rag a commoner might resort to."


"Jason!" Louise not-quite-snapped, before sighing. "A pannus doesn't need to be renewed with Empower, because it's a very minor nobilum. Hedge-mages could work together to ennoble one. It can pull food away from dishes, but your waste is too close to being a part of you for that. Didn't I already tell you that, once?"

"Alright." He did his best to keep his expression neutral, but- Ain't lookin' forward to letting Guiche aim his wand up our backside, but guess there ain't much choice, not if we can't find leaves that'll serve. ["If that's that, we should continue on to the subject of underthings."]

She bit her lip, looking more than a bit uncertain.

Can't blame her, given how everyone around here reacts to Terran panties, but- ["This could be important, little mistress."]

["I know."] "It's not just caring for latrines and wayhut outhouses," Louise pointed out reluctantly. "Keeping culottes clean in the field-"

"We'll need to be careful to wash them frequently," Miss Longueville agreed. "I've spent enough time in the wilderness to know not to leave my scent for every monster to sniff out."

Okay, let's keep this moving. "Yeah, about that." Jason pulled out a bag, which contained the bathing suits and underthings that hadn't quite been his little mistress' size. "I'm not sure if any of these would fit you, that secretarial mantle you wear conceals your figure well enough-"

"If it didn't the Headmaster would find it too easy to aim a pinch at me from behind," she interrupted. "Now, what are these bizarrely colorful scraps of cloth for?"

"They're bras and panties," he replied. "A lot scantier than what you're used to around here, I admit, but they don't need belts everywhere to keep them on, they're a lot lighter, the colorful ones are durable enough to use in the field, and they're literally designed to be worn while you're washing up in a river. They dry quickly, even.

"Anyway, Monty's slender enough that I'm pretty sure she can fit into these, but Kirche apparently bought out the larger sizes a few weeks back, so if your figure is matronly you might not find anything here that'll fit." He gave Siesta an apologetic look. "I know you haven't had children, but I'm afraid that you're probably full-figured enough to count."

Guiche had pulled out a bikini top and was stroking one of the cups thoughtfully. "This is nearly as smooth as silk," he murmured. "And this blue and green pattern would complement your eyes, Monmon."

Montmorency reached out for it hesitantly, feeling the fabric herself. "It seems soft, but-" She flushed and snatched her hand back. "I'm not trying on anything so, so . . . and in front of-!"

Yeah, pretty obvious that bikinis are meant to put a woman on display. "Maybe we should step outside?" Jason suggested to the blond boy, who looked a bit disappointed at his lover's initial rejection of the swimsuit top.

But Guiche nodded and followed Jason out of the room.

["Is that enough for Monty's objections?"]

The door thumped faintly.

["Now that she's convinced neither of you are peeping, yes,"] his little mistress replied. ["And Miss Longueville is going to try them as well. She's more slender than I'd realized, under her mantle."]

["Glad to hear it. Hopefully they'll be convinced."] "Well, Louise says they're trying the underthings on, now that our lecherous eyes are removed from the scene," he relayed softly.

"She'll almost seem to be wearing a wrap of jewels!" Guiche marveled. "To see her in such-!"

He then broke off and gave Jason a narrow look.

Who shrugged. "They'll be wearing it all beneath the rest of their clothing," he pointed out. "If she happens to show you what it looks like while you're off 'gathering firewood' together, that's between the two of you."

Guiche flushed a little but nodded again, now looking somewhat mollified.

A few minutes later, Louise called them back in, where they found Montmorency and Miss Longueville sporting thoughtful looks and Siesta pouting.

["You were right, she is too full-figured for even the largest ones,"] his little mistress confirmed. ["And the brassieres were too tight for Miss Longueville, but the largest 'bikini' culottes we have seem to fit her,"] she concluded, perhaps sounding a bit grumpy.

"If these hold up in the field, I'll be quite impressed," the secretary admitted. Then her eyes glinted as she glanced at the blonde Water mage. "But even if one were to fit me, I'm not sure I'd wish to wear a brassiere so colorful under a student's white blouse."

Montmorency glanced down at her chest, where a very faint blue was showing through her outer garment, and quickly pulled her mantle closed around her.

["That's why I chose the light pink 'bikini top',"] Louise confided. ["It doesn't show through at all."]

"But field clothing's thicker, right?" Jason asked. "So these should work?"

Montmorency shot him a dirty look. "If they breathe well, as you claim-" she began through gritted teeth, before breaking off and sighing. "I suppose," she conceded grumpily, "I won't complain of the lack of discomfort at the end of the day, if they so prove."

"Great! So, one last thing I've thought of: We need to discuss the division of loot."

"What's there to discuss?" the blonde asked, a little sharply. "There are three mages to divide the spoils among, since Miss Longueville will remain on her Academy wage and not join our quests."

"And that's fine, as long as we're dividing it all evenly," he replied. "Including the profits from the reagents that you harvest, and the treasure that Guiche's Verthandi is able to sniff out."

Montmorency frowned. "Why would we agree to that?" she retorted. "It's my expertise that will permit worthwhile harvesting in the first place, so-"

"But it's my auxilia that'll keep you safe to harvest them in the first place. Unless you think Guiche is ready to go solo on killing orcs with his valkyries, that is."

Guiche grimaced. "I would've bragged that I was, two weeks ago, but I fear that I'd have been sorely mistaken. Professor Colbert's instruction has been beneficial, but-" He paused and shook his head. "We're agreed that treasure that our familiars help to win us shall be divided evenly, then?"

Louise now frowned. "You don't want a share for yourself?" she asked Jason.

He shrugged. "I'll call dibs on magical weapons and armor, but this does seem the most fair. Three mages, each with a useful familiar. Three shares, divided evenly. It works for me." ["Besides, I've got another idea for making a bit of money."]

She gave him a slow nod.

"So, does anyone else have anything that should be brought up? 'Cause if not, y'all should get started on having your armor fitted and practice spells written out, while I go help Mr. Colbert with my firearms." Jason paused. "Speaking of which, Guiche: The spell to relink mail. That's another one to learn, if you haven't already. We'll all probably put on a bit of muscle this summer."

The blond nodded.

No one else seemed to have anything to bring up – although Montmorency once again looked disgruntled, perhaps at his presumption in taking charge of the meeting once more – and after a few minutes they adjourned and went their separate ways.

"Underthings for women?" Mr. Colbert uttered dubiously. "Jason, I may respect the Headmaster's knowledge but I prefer to be more circumspect when courting."

"No, no, it's not that they're for women. Remember that sample of stretchy cloth I provided, with all the other stuff?"

"Hm? Oh, yes. It apparently didn't survive being tested before it could be replicated."

Jason shook his head. "Thus nothing came of it. Well, here, feel along the edge: Do you see how flexible and stretchy the cloth is?"

The professor nodded as he carefully handled the plain white panties he was finally persuaded to pick up. "Yes. Some form of rubber? These must be quite the luxury, to use such an expensive material."

He shook his head again. "They're dirt cheap, actually, back where I'm from. We figured out how to make fake rubber and use it with clothing. Good for air-tight tubes that have to be flexible as well, if I remember correctly. You know, for steam?"

Mr. Colbert's eyebrows shot up. "I dismissed the use of rubber as too expensive, and too difficult to produce alchemically. You think this will be easier to produce?"

"It was for us, anyway. I'll leave you as many of these as you like if you want to experiment with them, enough so that hopefully you don't run out before you learn what you need, but this time I'd rather you keep the experiments private. Like the guns."

The professor gave him a neutral look. "I'm not an alchemical specialist, you know. I'll be more likely to destroy them while testing them.

"I know," Jason agreed, "so I'll leave you more than one pair to work with, but if you can manage on your own it'll be a pretty valuable discovery. And the other professors you pulled in last time decided they didn't need to compensate me for sharing what I had. I'd rather trust you to cut me in on some of the profits."


"Oh, and can I store my stuff with you again? I'm not sure when Kirche plans to return but if we're going to be gone for a while-"

"Yes, yes, that's acceptable," Mr. Colbert agreed. "In the meantime, since you're all in a hurry to be gone before the Headmaster's patience wears thin, let us complete the preparations of your revolvers and shotgun . . ."

"You will be careful, won't you?" Siesta asked anxiously the next morning, as she helped Jason settle into one of the simple, sturdy shirts she'd found for him. It was coarser than his t-shirts, but hopefully wouldn't chafe too badly.

"I'll do my best to keep everyone alive," he promised. "Including myself."

The maid gave him a dubious look, but then stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him. "Brimir guide your steps, then," she whispered, "and safely back to me."

He'd been about to return the hug, but froze instead. Shit! This isn't a good time – but there's never gonna be a good time – so what are we-

Siesta seemed to ignore how he'd stiffened, as her arms rose to his shoulders and she stood up on her tip-toes. "Jessica bragged about kissing you first," she told him, a flirty pout on her lips and an impish twinkle in her eyes. "I don't think that's fair, do you?"

Jason sighed. "I've gotta tell you the same thing I told her, though," he said as he tried to unwrap her from around him without applying too much pressure. "My fate's tangled up with Louise, and I'm not free to court and marry right now." He paused. "And I wouldn't offer anything less to someone I care about."

She drew back slightly, her pout morphing into a more sincere scowl. "I'm not offering to lie with you. Brimir keep you safe, but adventuring is dangerous, and you could die despite a thousand blessings!"

"That too, yes."

"But a kiss isn't-!"

"Isn't what?" Jason interrupted. "A promise? We both know it would be. And it's not one I have leave to make."

Siesta glared at him for a moment longer, before her face crumpled and she fled.

Dammit. That could have gone better. And love triangles aside, watching his friend run off – obviously doing her best not to cry until she was out of sight – made him feel like a complete heel.

Damn it to hell.

["What's wrong?"] Louise asked, shortly after they set out. ["The wagon isn't bumpy at all, now!"]

Which it wasn't, thanks to Miss Longueville's spell. (Guiche would be attempting Tranquil Axis under her supervision once it was time to cast again.) But that, of course, wasn't nearly enough to lift his spirits.

["I wouldn't let Siesta kiss me good-bye,"] Jason replied. ["She didn't take it well. Doesn't help that Jessica bragged to her about the good-bye kiss she gave me when we left the Inn."]

Her nostrils flared for a moment, presumably in annoyance at the memory. But then, a few moments later: ["Why didn't she come to me for permission first?"] his little mistress wondered. ["I'd feel even more jealous than I am about Jessica surprising you with that faerie kiss, but if she knows she's going to be in our household-"]

["Maybe because I haven't told her that I plan to marry you?"]

She shot him a surprised look out of the corner of her eye. ["You haven't? Why not?"]

He shrugged. ["Don't know how she'd react, and there never seemed like a good time to bring it all up. The Headmaster's turning something of a blind eye to our hopes for the future, as least as long as we behave while he's responsible for our conduct, but if anyone makes enough of a fuss he might have to take official notice. Too many ways to see all this crash and burn before I can hope to get a Germanian title, if the wrong people find out first."]

["Like Captain Wardes."]

["Yeah. And sadly, like your family."]

["That's-"] Louise broke off, her lips twisting into a tiny scowl for a moment before her eyes darted to their chaperone and her expression cleared. ["Perhaps you should have kissed her, then,"] she pointed out, although the stony glint in her eyes made it clear how little she cared for the thought. ["You wouldn't have to come bragging to me each time after, either. If you'd left her happy, she wouldn't cause trouble, and now she-"]

Jason interrupted his little mistress by shaking his head very slightly. ["You know she's not free with her favors. It'd be a promise I wouldn't intend to keep, which I wouldn't want to do to anyone, and I won't do that to a friend."]

For a moment, she was very still, before rolling her eyes at him. ["Maid or princess, you care for both and . . . you're absolutely infuriating!"]

He gave her a quizzical look in reply, with no idea how to respond further.

But then her hand sought his, gently squeezing as she leaned against him. ["I love you for it."]


["Your outlandish sense of honor. Your rough, friendly nature. The way you care even when someone tries to hurt you. Everything you are, you impossible man! I love you for it all, and thanks be to Brimir for sending you to me."]

He smiled, and gently squeezed back. ["I love you too, Louise."]

And if he wanted to grab her and kiss her deeply, if only Miss Longueville were not sitting five feet away in that same wagon? His beloved was soft and warm as she leaned against him, her hand tingled against his own in their clasp, and when she opened the summons through their bond he was once against exactly where he needed to be.

For now, as they set out in pursuit of adventure – and peril – it was enough.

A/N: The swimsuits and bikinis were purchased by Headmaster Osmond shortly before the really skeevy beach episode OVA from season 3 of the anime. Here Louise bought them first. (In the LN they didn't exist.) Note that the original swimsuits used in the episode are reasonably period-accurate to 19th century Europe. Since the presented clothing – even with the skirts made ankle-length, the panties turned into period-accurate culottes (albeit not gender-accurate, they were used by men in the 17th century), and the stockings turned into hose – is quite anachronistic and I don't want the mess of genuine 16th century noble attire, I'll probably use the 19th century beach gowns as what women normally wear to beach outings. Which makes the bikini tops and bottoms that Louise and Montmorency are using as risque as, well, the bikinis in the beach episode. Except they're wearing them as field-wear underthings, so Guiche will be the only one man who gets to see Monty in the blue-green bikini that matches her eyes.

Louise is leaving the more fragile underthings back at the Academy, since they won't be study enough for adventuring. But the bikinis are still going to be more comfortable than the thick knee-length cotton monstrosities that have to be belted into place.

Honestly, making sure that Mr. Colbert has enough of a supply, to test to destruction until he figures out how to make modern elastics, is probably going to have the most setting impact down the road. Although now that Louise has panties, I shall have to see about contriving to set up a panty raid.

New Terms: What Louise calls 'silk felt' is similar to nuno felting: Wool fibers pressed into silk gauze, creating a strong, lightweight cloth that won't stretch or shrink.

Aggregate – A basic form of spell combination, typically where a first spell is cast to create conditions that are then readily exploited by a second spell. This is non-canon, but I feel that it's a fairly obvious form of cooperative casting. Mages don't use them all the time because the utility of an aggregate has to be greater than the two mages being able to cast independently. Water and Earth aggregates tend to be the best at shaping the battlefield.

Magic items: Mjolnir – Currently only in the conceptual stage, but if Jason can get a hammer that returns when thrown and can shoot lightning he'll absolutely name it Mjolnir. He may not know much Norse mythology, since I don't want him noticing the references that canon stuck into this setting, but Thor's hammer is sufficiently part of geek pop culture that he knows the name and most well-known abilities.

Shupei blade – In canon, this was purchased by Kirche, who breasted boobily and thereby bargained the shopkeeper down to about a fifth of his original asking price. It turned out to be absolutely useless when Saito wielded it in battle, so I think I'm justified in calling this a case of deliberate fraud. In any event, since no one batted an eye at the idea of a run-down second-hand weapon shop in the slums carrying a sword that can cut through armor like butter, I figure Shupei's masterpieces have to be even more impressive. Hopefully this fic will go on long enough to encounter someone using an authentic Shupei weapon. (Note: Saito got Derflinger from this shop in canon. Some lady who can order Derf to shut up – gee, who could that possibly be? – got to him first in this story, so Jason had to root through the pile of trash for other forgotten treasures.)

New Spells: Flaring Impulse – a Dot of Fire that creates a plume of fire, using a figura that's a very simple variation of Ignite. Vis intensive.

Incinerating Impulse – a Line of Fire that is simply two Flaring Impulse figura stacked together, resulting in a longer and hotter plume.

Unsweltering Armor – makes armor not get hot despite the heat of the summer sun. Look up 'Maxwell's Demon' for the inspiration.

Keenest Edge – makes blades extra sharp, because this isn't D&D and so weapon enhancements aren't the generic +1, +2, etc.

Sano Ossum – a spell for healing broken bones, implied by Miss Longuevill – who knows several bone-mending spells – to be a basic example of such magic.

Mire – Water spell that Guiche thinks Montmorency should learn.

Seep – Water spell that Guiche thinks Montmorency should learn.

Dessicate – Water spell that Guiche thinks Montmorency should learn.

Imago memoriam – aggregate that, when performed correctly, encases the target in concrete.

Mud wave – aggregate, details unspecified

Via lubricus – aggregate, details unspecified

Tranquil Axis – Earth spell that helps cushion shocks on a cart.

Unsoiled – Praesta of Earth.