DO NOTE that this story IS NOT endorsed by the original holders of the intellectual rights or copyrights mentioned at the end of this chapter. This is a work of fanfiction based on the original work and its associated franchise, with the intent to amuse and distract its readers. There is absolute no intent to make money or otherwise deny the original copyright holders their given due. Should the original holders of the copyright be offended by my use of their rightful property, I will gladly take it down in accordance with the Terms of Service of this website. Please support the official release(s) mentioned below.
Good day or good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the tenth chapter of On The Wings Of An Eagle! Thank you for all the reviews for the last chapter; well over a hundred and twenty! When I started this, I never thought I would ever get so many for a single story, so thank you very much for the huge response. And for answering my questions on the previous chapter; the feedback helped a lot.
Also: over a thousand four hundred subscriptions, one thousand four hundred favourites, and five hundred and fifty reviews overall. Ho. Lee. Crap. You guys and gals are all awesome. I never expected any response like this, and I'm not sure I deserve it. I'll try my very best to keep entertaining and surprising you, though!
I know that it has been a very long time since this story was last updated, and that you are probably very disappointed that it took me this long to get this story back up and running again. The tenor of most reviews I got was a pretty clear hint, though I was surprised that so many of these thought that this story was dead.
Again, I'll repeat what I said in many chapters before: if I haven't marked it as 'dead', 'abandoned', 'completed', or something similar, then I'm still working on it. It may take me months to get a chapter out, but I haven't lost the enthusiasm for these stories and this community yet. This applies to all my other stories, too.
As for the various reasons why I always take ages to update: A) My studies take precedence over everything else, or I might just lose track, fail exams, and then get kicked out of uni. I don't want that to happen, and I doubt you do. B) I generally write big chapters, which require more time to finish. C) Since I want these chapters to be enjoyable for you, I generally rework them a few times before publishing. D) I work on three other published stories as well, not to mention a few other ideas bouncing inside my head that might/might not be interesting. E) I do some beta work for a few friends of mine, and I've got a large co-op project in the making. F) I have a life and obligations outside of writing these stories, meaning that I can't always write when I like. G) My internet connection is remarkably capricious.
I'll quickly address a few other things that cropped up in several reviews:
If you think you saw a reference to GB's "Hill of Swords" and G.R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" in the story, it was probably put there intentionally as a loving homage. I do enjoy both stories, even though I think they're severely flawed in some ways. That doesn't make them less enjoyable, though. I owe Mister Blessing quite a bit, considering he was the fellow who got me into fanfiction writing in the first place. They have less influence on the story than you probably think, though.
People have asked me whether I am slightly egomaniacal, especially with those walls of text at the beginning of each chapter. Honest answer? I probably am; otherwise I never would have picked up the courage to publish the stuff I write. After all, I was convinced that my writing was good enough for people to want to read it, which isn't necessarily a given. Also, the big author's notes allow me to answer questions that would get repeated ad nauseam in the review section; this way, none of us gets too annoyed with the other!
As for the long disclaimers, I consider them a bit of intellectual honesty: if the holders of the original copyrights want to get rid of these stories, I'll do it without a second though out of respect for their wishes. And they're also there for you—yes, you there!—to take a look at and encourage you to buy/read/watch the original stories my work is based on. I already had a few folks tell me they're considering buying the AC games because of 'Wings'. Nothing could make me happier!
"Altair isn't Ezio's ancestor!" Well, I'm definitely aware of that now. I'll admit that it was a bit of an epic fail—my sincere apologies. However, re-reading that scene, I still think that it works if you believe that Ezio is lying through his teeth to Louise so he can avoid explaining who Altair was back in the day. Fair warning: Ezio won't always be telling the truth to us, either!
And no, I'm not Italian. I just happen to have a good grasp of French conjugation, a dictionary at hand, and many kind strangers who help me when I ask for help with finding the right words. Big shout out to shadenight123, everyone! S/he used to help me before I dropped off the radar. Hope you're doing fine, shade; I miss our talks.
Two more things that need to be addressed first:
I recently saw that this story got recommended on TV Tropes by a few folks. Considering that this website was the one that encouraged me to start writing, I felt deliriously happy about it. So big thanks to tropers imaithebadass, Unclouded TJ, Ack Sed, and becomethemoon! I'll try to keep entertaining and surprising you all so it remains worth reading, I promise. But you have to tell me when you think I'm screwing up, too!
Second, Yoboru Yamaguchi—better known as the author of the Familiar of Zero and Strike Witches light novels—died April 4, 2012, of cancer. It's bit late coming from me, I know, but…
RIP, Yamaguchi-sensei. Your words and imagination will be missed. I certainly won't forget the worlds you created.
Please, enjoy yourself while reading this story, and whether you loathed or liked it, be kind enough to leave a review to tell me why. I hope you have as much fun reading it as I had writing it.
On The Wings Of An Eagle
Chapter IX –…The More They Stay the Same.
It was a beautiful day outside. The sky was clear, the sun was shining, and one could hear the birds roosting in the trees of the palace gardens sing happily, their trilling and crooning voices wafting through the open window.
Unfortunately, Agnès reflected, trying very hard to keep her expression neutral, that didn't take away from the fact that there was poison in the air.
"Your Highness, believe me when I say that I perfectly understand your concern," the thin man spoke, sounding and looking rather peeved. "But as much as we would like to lend aid to our friends at the Royal Academy, we cannot do much more!"
"And would you care to explain to me why, Monsieur de Silhouette?" Henrietta asked pleasantly, smiling.
"Why, because there simply is no money inside the royal coffers!" Étienne de Silhouette answered, helplessly throwing up his hands.
The man sitting opposite him—Halkeginia's High Magistrate—couldn't help but blink and stare incredulously at the Superintendent of Finances. "But how can that be?" Antoine-Louis Séguier demanded. "Trade flourished under His late Majesty's reign! The tolls to the gates of the capital alone must have been worth hundreds of thousands écus! Where has all that money disappeared to?"
De Silhouette shrugged, his expression pained. "As far as I can tell from my predecessors' ledgers, into all kinds of places! The renovation and extension of the capital's fortifications, the expansion of the armies on our borders, the redecoration of the Palace Gardens into the Gallian style, various gifts and sinecures paid out to friends and loyal servants of the royal family… Not to mention the debts we have tried to pay back to our financiers from the First Germanian Campaign!" The thin man nervously dabbled at his sweating brow with a handkerchief. "It's quite the conundrum, I have to admit…"
"Ridiculous!" the Duke of Montbazon exploded, rising to his feet. He was a large man, easily towering over everyone else sitting at the table, and his greying whiskers and goatee were quivering with rage. "Our good King Henry would never have been so reckless as to empty the treasury without finding new funds! The very notion is inconceivable!"
"Kings can be fools as much as much as anyone else," Daniel-Charles Trudaine retorted from the other side of the long table, scowling at the aging military man. "And goodness of the heart does not necessarily imply good sense in finances."
"What did you just say, you little runt!?" the Duke bellowed, rounding on him and slamming both fists into the table. "Did you just insult the memory of my king and my dear friend? To my face!? How dare you!"
"I wouldn't ever dare, altesse," the younger man answered, rolling his eyes. "All I said is that goodness doesn't have to grant you sense. The same could be said of muscle and brutishness, really," he added with a thin smile, almost like an afterthought.
Agnès stood two steps behind Henrietta's shoulder and she saw the young woman heave a sigh and close her eyes as loud squabbling and furious arguments erupted around them. Again.
They were all seated at a long oaken table inside the Cabinet Halls of the capital's royal palace. The Marshal of Halkeginia's Royal Army, the loud, brash, towering Hercule, Duke de Montbazon, had started to furiously gesticulate and hurl abuse at the far younger Daniel-Charles Trudaine, genius engineer and arrogantly proud of it.
Calm and stern Antoine-Louise Séguier, High Magistrate of the Royal Court of Justice, had risen as well, trying to soothe tempers and getting glared at by both sides for his trouble. If looks could spark fires, Agnès was sure that the judge's curled wig would have long ago been set aflame.
The thin and wispy Étienne de Silhouette, Controller-General and Superintendent of Finances, had scooted away on his seat, his eyes jumping nervously from one squabbler to the other. Nicole Potier de Novion, the Secretary of the Council, had let her face fall into her palm, grumbling unintelligibly under her breath about men's foolishness and hot-headedness.
The only one who had remained strangely calm was the man seated at the other end of the table opposite the princess herself. Wearing a cardinal's red robes and cap, he observed the scene before him over his linked hands with the look of a detached bystander on his face.
Before the Duke could loudly challenge Trudaine to a duel to satisfy some insult given or answered, the man's hands slapped down on the table, the sudden sound halting all conversation.
"Enough of this, madame et messieurs," he spoke with a faint foreign accent, sharp brown eyes roaming over the group. His tone was calm, measured, and deceptively reasonable. "Arguing like children over small slights will not help the realm. Using our time productively would be far more useful, no? And then your Queen-to-be would not have to look ashamed of those who are meant to counsel her."
All eyes turned back towards Henrietta, and they all squirmed uncomfortably when they saw the faint frown of disapproval that marred her face.
The Duke of Montbazon coughed into his fist and straightened his colourful uniform with a sharp movement. "Yes, well," he muttered, not daring to meet his suzerain's eyes as he stiffly sat back down. "My temper seems to have gotten the better of me again, Your Highness. Please forgive me."
Henrietta's eyes moved from him to Trudaine, and the younger mage grimaced and bowed his head. "And I… should have chosen my words more carefully, Your Highness. Your father was a good man. My apologies."
Oh, they were all apologizing well enough now, Agnès thought contemptuously. But it wasn't because their consciences had suddenly reminded them of their duty. It was because the man at the other end of the table had decided to intervene.
"It is good that at least one of you remembers the reason we are gathered here," Henrietta said politely. Her tone could have frozen over the thickest lake, and she tilted her head as her eyes met those of the man opposite her, genuinely smiling. "I must thank you for your dedication, Monseigneur Mazarin. I see now why my father trusted you as his Chief Minister for so long."
The cardinal bowed his head, placing a hand on top of the cross that hung around his neck. "I live to serve God, the Founder, and the realm, Your Highness. Nothing gives me greater pleasure."
Agnès bristled slightly—not at the man's words, which certainly sounded earnest, but at the ironic smile that she saw playing around the corner of his mouth. But the Musketeer bit her tongue, settling for a small scowl. Founder, how she loathed this man.
Cardinal Jules Mazarin. A born Romalian, he had arrived many years ago at the recommendation of the Holy See after having distinguished himself in one of the many wars between the Romalian city-states. He soon gained the ears of many powerful nobles in the Royal Court through his cunning, charm, and assiduousness, and his counsel was often sought in disputes.
One story was often repeated of him: one night at court, he had sat down at the gambling table, and the stack of golden écus in front of him had grown so high that it had attracted a crowd of open-mouthed and envious nobles. Henrietta's mother had seen it as well and joined the crowd, and under her eye, Mazarin bet all on his next hand. He won, and credited his luck to the Queen's presence, kissing her hand gratefully and offering her half his winnings as a gift. She accepted after his earnest entreaties.
The week afterwards, he quietly received far more than he had given, and the king named him Chief Minister of his cabinet. Cardinal Mazarin's rise to become of the most powerful men in Tristain had begun.
A gambler, my arse, Agnès thought, staring at him with narrowed eyes. He's as sly and cunning as they come.
"Monsieur de Silhouette," Mazarin spoke, sharp brown eyes peering at the man on his right as he folded his hands on the table. "Would you care to list the reasons why the realm is currently lacking funds?"
"Oh yes, certainly! Let's see…"
And just now, the nobles sitting at the table had only quieted down when he rebuked them, and even now they cared more about what he thought instead of their regent. It was obvious from the glances the mages surreptitiously shot glances at the churchman out of the corner of their eyes, how he steered the conversation into the direction he wanted with small questions, and how they all affirmed that his final decision was the most sensible one, all the while making it sound as if it was the will of the collective.
The only reason why they were listening to Henrietta at all was because Mazarin deigned to listen to what she had to say. Agnès knew this. Henrietta knew this. And worst of all, Mazarin himself knew this.
The treasurer had stopped speaking, and Henrietta considered him with a frown. "Are you telling me that we are in debt to most of the noble houses and merchant banks of Tristain because of my late father's tendency to be utterly imprudent with the realm's money?"
De Silhouette glanced nervously from princess to cardinal, swallowing audibly. "I would never say that, Your Highness! But…"
"Speak plainly, Monsieur." Henrietta entreated him gently, smiling. "No harm shall come to you because of it."
De Silhouette's thin shoulders slumped, and he looked worn and tired. "Your Highness, the money wasn't exactly wasted, per se. Your late father's building projects brought much work and many artisans into the capital, the redecorations brought much prestige and admiration to the Royal Court, and the gifts your mother and father made secured many loyal subjects to the throne."
"Let's not forget that we truly had no choice in expanding the army and spending Founder knows how much money on rebuilding our bulwark of fortresses to the north," the Duke de Montbazon grumbled, thumbing his chin and scowling. "The Germanians still hate us for throwing back their attempted invasion and counter-attacking into their territory all those years ago, and now that this half-witted fool Joseph is sitting on the Gallian throne, they are smelling blood in the water."
"So there really is no way for us to reduce our expenses?" Séguier asked hesitantly. "Perhaps disband a few of the regiments, leave a skeleton garrison behind to man the fortresses on the border?"
The duke waved it off. "Pah, impossible! Do you want a few divisions of common rabble and Landsknecht regiments led by all those Germanian bastards who lost friends and family during the war crossing the border and looting their way through our countryside? We need to show strength now more than ever!"
"Perhaps we could ask one of our neighbours for an alliance…"
"Who? Gallia? King Joseph's an insecure simpleton, from what I hear! He certainly won't be reliable."
"Well, there are always our old allies," de Silhouette suggested meekly. "Their fleet might be just the thing to discourage anyone from attacking us, no?"
"Albion has been having trouble with rebellious nobles," Nicole interrupted, adjusting her spectacles as she glanced over the sheaves of reports spread out before her. "Their air fleet and dragon companies are busy blockading the rebels' harbours, for what little it helps. The Sky King won't choose to help foreigners if the House of Tudor's position isn't secure at home."
"Typical of them, really," Trudaine muttered disdainfully. "Floating high up there on their damned island, not giving two shits about what happens down below—"
"Enough, Trudaine!" Henrietta snapped with sudden harshness, hushing all conversation. "I won't have you slander those who have stood beside my family and the realm for many centuries. Without them, Tristain would have fallen to Germania long ago, or it might have well been reduced to half of what it is today! We will honour that. Do you understand me?"
"But, Your Highness, it is well known that—"
"Do you understand me, Trudaine?" Henrietta repeated, tilting her head minutely as she glared at him with sharp blue eyes. "Or will I have to ask Agnès to escort you out of the room until you have remembered your manners?"
Agnès saw resentment flash through the young mage's eyes, but he bowed his head. "No, Your Highness. Your…" He glanced up at Agnès, scowling, "…most valiant captain will have to do nothing of the sort. I know my place well enough. Again, my apologies."
"I am sure that young Trudaine never meant to give offense, Your Highness," Mazarin intervened, sounding bored with the melodrama. He shot a flat stare at the young mage, impatiently drumming the fingers of one hand on the tabletop. "It is the privilege of the youth to be passionate about such things, after all. And the onerous duty of us elders to temper their enthusiasm into something useful."
"Your apologies are accepted, monsieur," Henrietta said curtly, rising to her feet. Everyone followed her movement, Mazarin last. "So it is obvious that we cannot decide what to do yet, since none of us have answers to the problems at hand."
"We could always ask for a loan, Your Highness," de Silhouette thought out loud as he tucked his thick ledger under his arm, and there were some murmurs of assent. "It would stave off most of our current issues."
"With the debts we already have accrued? No, that will only delay the problem. See if there are any cost-cutting measures we can implement first, and then talk to me again of loans." Henrietta raised her chin high, surveying her cabinet. "You're all dismissed, messieurs et madame. We shall meet here again tomorrow at four in the afternoon. I wish you a good day."
And with that last greeting, she walked out of the cabinet room at a brisk pace, Agnès a step behind her, leaving her advisors behind to squabble and discuss matters by themselves.
"Thank goodness that's over," Agnès muttered, cricking her neck and wincing. "One more hour listening to that drivel, and my brain would be trickling out through my ears in boredom."
Henrietta smiled—faintly, yes, but this one was genuine. Agnès had learned to tell the difference. "Do you not approve of my style of ruling, Chevalier de Rouvroy?"
Agnès shrugged as they turned a corner, a pair of Musketeers sharply presenting arms as they went past. She critically checked their posture, weapons, and uniforms, found nothing to criticize, and then walked on. "Whether I do or don't truly doesn't matter, does it? My only duty is to protect you, Your Highness. Further than that, I've never asked many questions."
"Your approval does mean a lot to me, Agnès," Henrietta said quietly. She shot her friend and protector a rueful smile. "And you might be a good liar, but I can tell when you're not telling me the whole truth. Something is bothering you."
"You're doing it again, you know."
Agnès rolled her eyes in mild exasperation, fighting to cover up a smile. "You're quite impossible for a princess, you know that?"
"So Mother tells me," Henrietta admitted with a smile, though it disappeared from her face a moment later. "Or so she used to, at least…"
"I don't trust any of them," Agnés said bluntly, hoping to distract the princess from her bedridden and mute mother. "A bunch of bootlickers and lickspittles, if you ask me."
Henrietta frowned at her in disapproval. "Agnès, you know as well as I do that I can hardly run the entire kingdom by myself. I will need advisors and good counsel to help me with things. And these nobles were my father's advisors before his death, remember?"
No, they weren't, Agnés thought, but didn't say aloud as they continued on their way through the sun-stained and extravagantly decorated corridors of the palace. They never advised your father. Mazarin did, and only when it suited him.
The king had grown weak and tired in his last few years, old injuries sustained in war sapping the strength from him, and he had made fewer and fewer appearances at court. It was well-known that Mazarin had been the one to run the day-to-day business of ruling the kingdom, that he was the one who had inducted these new advisors, and that he had always politely asked for the king's signatures on the royal decrees. The ailing man had barely bothered to read them—or so the nobles and merchants gossiped amongst themselves when they thought the guards weren't listening.
And now the king was dead. His wife might have already joined him, for all that she reacted to the world, and only Henrietta was left to rule the country, with Mazarin to help her. The young princess held the cardinal in high esteem: his erudite conversation, his eloquence, his intelligence, his piety, his sense of diplomacy… They all added up to form a figure to be respected, admired, and perhaps even feared.
Though admittedly, the many rumours floating around the capital's streets helped more with that last one.
"…You should be careful, Your Highness," Agnès finally spoke when they neared the dauphine's office. "You have many hidden enemies, and there is no better disguise than a smile and a hand offered in friendship."
"Oh, Agnès," Henrietta sighed. "I love you dearly, I do, but your paranoia is one of your least attractive traits."
"It has kept me alive, Your Highness." The Musketeer smirked mirthlessly, stretching the burn scars running across her jawline. "And I don't really think anyone is ever going to call me attractive."
Henrietta looked stricken, whirling on her with a mortified look on her face. "Oh Founder, Agnès, that's not what I meant!"
"I know it's not what you meant," Agnès answered gently, looking past her liege's worried expression to the end of the corridor. "Don't worry about it, Your Highness. Really. You have a visitor, it seems."
Henrietta's eyes followed the sharp jut of her chin, and she saw Mazarin waiting at the entrance to her office. He bowed deeply when they approached, frowning ever so slightly. "I beg pardon, Your Royal Highness, but I wonder if I might trouble you for a few more moments of your time? There are some matters that I wish to discuss in private, away from prying ears…"
"Oh, of course!" Henrietta said, shooting an apologetic look at her bodyguard. "Could you please wait outside for a moment, Agnès?"
The Musketeer grimaced. She hated leaving her princess alone with anyone, even more so if said anyone happened to be a mage. But orders were orders, and Agnés had long ago sworn to obey. She snapped the heels of her boots together, bowing. "As you wish, Your Highness."
Henrietta smiled and nodded, turning towards Mazarin. "What do you wish to discuss, Monseigneur Mazarin?"
"It is about the dismissal of the Royal Mage Guard Regiments, Your Highness. I received some letters from a few prominent families across the kingdom that expressed their concern…"
When the office's doors closed, leaving the two to discuss Founder knows what else and with no one to protect Henrietta from Mazarin's honeyed words, Agnès decided that she would have to do something about this situation. Henrietta was meant to rule the realm, not some Romalian cardinal.
But what could she do, really? Agnès spent nearly all her time in Henrietta's company. She didn't trust anyone else—not even her handpicked Musketeers—to guard her charge well enough. And though she trusted her subordinates with her life, they were to a man and woman terrible gossips, especially when the wine and ale started to flow. Rumours would spread like wildfire that Agnès, Chevalier de Rouvroy and trusted confidante to the dauphine, was up to something secretive. And she didn't know any nobles or commoners that she was absolutely certain were not in Mazarin's pocket.
Agnès blinked once, twice, thrice. Hold on just a minute.
She did know a noble like that. Young, reckless, loud, and fiery-tempered, yes, but she positively adored the princess. And wherever nobles went, their familiars followed.
Unfortunately, this one seemed every bit as reckless as his master, though he made up for that by being infinitely more experienced and dangerous. And he was a proven mage killer, no?
The beginnings of a plan trickled into Agnès' mind, slowly taking form as she stood guard outside the door.
It was a beautiful day outside. The sky was clear, the sun was shining, and for once, Louise didn't have the smell of the streets stuck in her nostrils, and the noise and clamour of the streets was dulled.
Unfortunately, she still found herself neck-deep in trouble.
"Ezio," she said slowly, staring at the empty space of the street between the two roofs. "You are completely out of your mind."
He affected a hurt expression, putting a hand over his heart. "You wound me, piccina! Those are very rude words indeed, coming from someone I care about."
"That does not make them any less true, you know." She resolutely crossed her arms. "I am not jumping that. Not now, not ever."
"Ah, but we have done nothing else these last two days except climbing, falling, rolling, and leaping, you know." He grinned at her. "And you seemed pretty confident once you got used to the heights, no? What is there to be concerned about?"
Now that was an embarrassment she didn't want to relive again. "Anyone would be concerned if they were stuck forty to fifty feet in the air without someone to catch them if they put a foot wrong!" she snapped at him, glaring. "And you haven't tried to make me jump over the entire width of a street before!"
Ezio shrugged his powerful shoulders with a chuckle, his dark eyes dancing with good humour. "In my experience, piccina, there is no better incentive to learn than honest fear and terror. Now, you will have to make that leap one of these days, no? Why not now?"
Her eyebrow twitched violently. "I'll repeat myself: because I'm not insane, and I would like to keep all my limbs whole."
"Oh, by the Founder's saggy left ballsack!" Derflinger groaned, his tinny voice high and exasperated. "We've been stuck here for half an hour already! Girlie, just jump! It's not as if it's going to kill you, right!?"
"If I miss that jump and dash myself to pieces on the street, I certainly will die, you piece of scrap!"
"…Oh yeah, I forgot. You humans are all soft and squishy like that. Bad engineering, if you ask me." The sword's quillion clattered irritably. "I'm still bored, though! What's it gonna take for you to jump, girlie? Foot massage? Another half-hour speech? A shove in the back?" He cackled. "I'd totally be volunteering for that last one if I had arms, partner!"
"Don't you even dare think about it, Ezio," Louise snapped back, holding a threatening forefinger under his nose. "I know that gleam in your eye."
"Piccina, your every word pierces my heart." Ezio chuckled, raising open palms. "I solemnly swear that I will not force you to make this jump if you do not wish to."
She lowered the finger, satisfied. "Good."
"I do believe you will soon want to, though."
She blinked up at him. "Huh? Why?"
"There they are!" a loud voice bellowed across the roofs. "Get over here; I found 'em!"
Her head snapped around to see half a dozen men and women wearing rough clothing race towards them across the rooftops, and their expressions were anything but friendly. Ezio laughed aloud, stepping back a few steps as Derflinger cackled out a row of tinny snickers. "Need I say more? Now jump!"
"I hate you both so much right now," Louise bit out. "Ezio—"
And he took a running leap from the roof, white half-cape fluttering in the air behind him and the dry roof tiles cracking like a pistol shot under his boots as he tumbled and landed. Louise thought up a few choice insults for a familiar that would so easily leave its master behind, and decided to trust him anyway.
Louise had some faith left in him, after all.
She stepped back a few steps, started to run, and leapt. The world slowed down and she felt weightless with the wind in her hair and the blood drumming loudly in her temples, and for the briefest of moments, she might have believed that she was truly flying without magic to help her.
It lasted only the instant it took for gravity to reclaim its hold on her, and she fell like a thrown stone, desperately trying to land and tumble forward like Ezio had taught her only yesterday. She succeeded barely, the dull impact of hard shingles on her shoulder knocking all the breath out of her.
A gauntleted hand reached under her shoulder and hauled her to her feet as she stumbled. "Grandioso, piccina!" Ezio laughed, his eyes dancing. "You did it!"
Her head whipped around to look behind her, and Louise saw their pursuers prepare to leap right after them. "And now what!?"
"Now we run! Correte!"
And run they did, Ezio leading the way at a ridiculously fast pace. Louise followed after him, barely keeping up as he sprinted across roof gables, shingles cracking under his feet, his step as swift as any mountain cat's.
Louise stopped thinking and just tried to keep up, shouts and bellows ringing out behind her, her thin arms and legs pumping wildly as she leapt across another street—Founder, why had she ever agreed to Ezio's insane lessons?!—and leaping up to grip a ledge of a taller roof neighbouring the one she was on, trying to haul all her weight up and across it with her fingers alone.
She heard a rough voice curse behind her and someone grabbed at her ankle. She panicked, kicking out. Her boot hit something soft and she heard a meaty crunch and a muffled curse, freeing her foot. She kept pulling herself up, scrabbling inelegantly across the ledge.
A hand clasped her forearm, hauling her to her feet, and wide, panicked reddish-brown eyes met dark ones dancing wickedly. "Having fun, piccina?"
"No, I'm not!"
"Peccato! You're good at this!" Ezio pushed her past him, deftly stepping on a pair of fingers that had clasped the edge of the roof they stood on. There was a strangled yell of pain and a dull thud as someone smacked onto the roof ten feet below.
"Do you see that cable, Louise?" he called out, pointing. Her head whipped around, and narrowing her eyes against the midday sun, she followed the cresting wave of red and dark roofs rising up until it reached its highest point in a manor's façade, a pole with a thick cable attached to it at its top. The length of rope seemed to disappear into nowhere.
"Bene! I will meet you there! Do not let anyone stop you! Go, go!"
A few weeks ago, she would have turned around to look, called out to him, questioned him, yelled at him for thinking he could leave her behind. Now she just ran, hearing the shouts and curses of unknown voices behind her.
She sprinted across the roof, tiles clacking loudly under her feet. She ran at a wall, her fingers and toes searching for nooks and crannies, scrabbling upwards as fast as she could. Her feet and hands slipped every once in a while, but adrenaline drove her upward, and she even forgot to fearfully look downward as she had just moments before.
She dimly remembered being terrified when Ezio made her climb a building's façade only two days ago. She ignored it, madly lifting herself past the last windowsill and clambering up onto the next roof. She kept running.
Six minutes later Louise had scaled the façade of the manor until she reached the very top, barely realizing how she had done it. She bent down with her sides stinging and her hands on her knees, snapping up shallow gulps of air as she tried to get her breath back. She turned to look behind her, and froze.
Ezio was racing along the route of roofs she had just taken with half a dozen thugs at his heels. He was nimbly jumping from chimney to chimney, weaving fluidly between and across obstacles, and scaling facades with the lanky grace and speed of a monkey in a tree.
And they were still catching up, spreading out as they tried to corner and box him in.
Louise drew her wand, unsure what to do, and then hesitantly aimed it at the thickest clusters of their pursuers. She briefly closed her eyes. She didn't want to hurt them or anyone else; she really didn't.
But if they were about to hurt Ezio—
"Basta, piccina!" he bellowed up at her as she began her incantation, frantically waving his arms as he ran like the devil possessed. Louise hesitated, her hand shaking from running and climbing, or so she told herself. "No killing!"
Louise halted for a moment, her eyes frantically bobbing left and right as she looked for something she could do to help her familiar as their pursuers closed in. And then she found it.
She spoke the incantation again, pointing her wand squarely at the roof below her. "Explosion!"
The chimney that Ezio had just leapt from exploded in a cloud of pulverized brick, mortar, and soot, sending Ezio's pursuers into a tumbling gaggle as they ran straight into it. Men and women hacked up their lungs as they fell to their knees and pawed at their eyes, shouting and cursing.
They were stumbling back onto their feet a few moments later, but Ezio was now far ahead of them, climbing the large manor's façade with ease. When he finally lifted himself across the ledge to reach the top, Louise saw the wide, happy grin on his face.
"Meraviglioso, Louise! That was brilliant!"
"Not as brilliant as you telling me to go someplace where they can corner us like rabbits!" she yelled back, pointing at the thugs following them with murder in their eyes. "What now?!"
"And now we jump!"
She threw an incredulous look at the cobbled square far below them. "What, to break our necks!?"
He grinned at her, and she couldn't help but think he'd gone mad once again. Ezio stepped back, still grinning. "No, like this!"
It was only now Louise realized that she stood near the cable attached to the roof. "Ezio, don't you dare—"
But he had already taken a running start, slinging an arm around her waist as he ran past her and jumped off the manor's roof into thin air. All the wind was knocked out of her, and as she hung in mid-air, weightless again, she forgot to scream.
She only started yelling and cursing incoherently at Ezio once he had managed to snag the cable on that strange hookblade of his, the two of them riding down its length faster than she even remembered flying on the back of Tabitha's dragon. He only laughed and gripped her tighter as buildings, streets, and roofs flashed by in a blur.
Louise remembered Ezio's first lesson in climbing—'When you fall, piccina, you must always soften the impact'—at the very last moment, and as soon as her feet hit roof shingles again, she tumbled forward over her shoulder.
She still managed to smack her rear end on something hard and pointy before she finally came to a stop, and promptly decided to blame Ezio for it.
She was doing that a lot lately.
Louise heard a loud, exuberant laugh behind her, and looked over her shoulder with a beady eye to see Ezio get to his feet, patting the pulverized brick dust and soot off his robes. He took a deep breath, looking content. "Well, that was fun!"
"Fun!?" she screeched at him as she got to her feet, rubbing her smarting behind with one hand and pointing accusingly with the other. "Do you have any idea how many bruises I just collected, you lunatic?!"
"More than you will collect next time you try, piccina!" he shot back cheerfully, the corners of his mouth curling up in amusement. "That is certainly worth the pain, no?"
He saw the vein near her temple pulse again, and prepared to duck when she drew her wand from her sleeve. Something stopped her from pointing it at him, however.
"That's quite impressive," a voice called out to them, its tone cheerfully clear and mocking.
A cowled figure had stepped out from behind a chimney of the roof they had landed on, leaning against the brick smokestack with casual ease. He was immediately faced with a wand pointed straight between his eyes. He merely smiled at Louise.
"I never expected that to happen, I'll admit," he mused, looking relaxed and unconcerned with the potentially deadly instrument pointed at his face. "But that just makes it more fun."
Louise's vein kept jumping at her temple, and her glare could have melted ice. "Fair warning," she informed the newcomer through gritted teeth. "I am having a rather bad day, and you're sure as hell not making it any better with those cryptic comments of yours. I already get those all the time from him. I don't need another one following me around."
The hooded stranger shrugged, his smile only growing wider. "Warning accepted, young lady."
"Perdonatemi, signore," Ezio spoke up, and his guarded tone made Louise pause. "But who might you be?"
"I'm truly insulted, Monsieur Auditore," the stranger tutted, shaking his head. "Here you go to all that trouble to find me—asking questions everywhere, breaking the bones of my trusted comrades, and trashing a renowned establishment in this fair city—and then you don't even recognize me? A shame, really."
"You know," Louise thought out loud, glaring, "I could just try to singe off an eyebrow or two. Just to see if he can give us some clear answers after that."
"You already have enough control over your spell for that, piccina?"
Ezio sounded cautiously dubious, and she shrugged. "I have absolutely no idea. No time like the present, right?"
"As much as I would enjoy being a pretty young lady's laboratory rat—"
And then suddenly his hand moved like a striking snake, snatching the wand from her fingers and carelessly twirling it in his own.
"—I'm afraid I must decline. Today, at the very least."
Louise blinked at her empty hand. The movement had been so fast that she hadn't seen it when she blinked. "…Hey!" she shouted indignantly. "Give that back!"
He just smiled at her from under his cowl, sounding mildly amused. "Oh, and how are you going to force me, ma p'tite demoiselle? Will you glare at me some more?"
"Louise, step away," Ezio cautioned her, and she heard the sharp hiss of his metal blades leaping out. "He is not alone."
Louise took a long look around her, and spotted that more and more men and women in rough, worn clothes had climbed up onto the roof, silently surrounding them in a loose circle. She saw daggers, hatchets, and knives gleam in the sun, and hurriedly stepped back towards Ezio, her hand gripping the hilt of the silver sword on her belt tightly.
"A shiny toy," the hooded stranger addressed her with a smile. "Do you know how to use it?"
"Better than you think," she shot back, trying to hide the quaver in her voice. Without a wand, she was just like any other commoner in the streets. The firm grip on the sword Ezio had given her reassured her, if only a little bit.
"I won't underestimate you, mademoiselle," the stranger told her. "I've heard rumours that one of my men was clubbed to death in the Charming Faeries Inn by a tiny little girl with blond hair. The news was surprising, to say the least. And slightly humiliating."
His head turned to face Ezio, who listened silently while occasionally flexing his fingers. "But I truly came to see you, Monsieur Auditore. You have been searching so fiercely for me—asking questions, throwing my comrades off rooftops, beating them to a pulp… And I still don't quite know why. Scarron's message told me a few things, but they made little sense. Would you care to enlighten me?"
Ezio considered him, head tilted minutely. "Are you Roberto?"
"I am he," the stranger acknowledged with a mocking little flourish of his cape. "At your service."
"I have a message for you. From Matilda."
The hooded stranger—Roberto now, apparently, Louise corrected herself—grew very still, and the men and women surrounding them exchanged quick, worried glances. "Matilda?" he asked slowly. "How do you know her?"
"She asked me for a favour," Ezio answered, his eyes not leaving Roberto and the hand holding Louise's wand. "It was to bring you this message."
"What is it?" Roberto asked animatedly, and for the first time, Louise heard something that might have resembled concern. "We'd heard rumours that she had been killed, but we didn't dare to believe them! Is she alright? Does she need help?"
Ezio reached inside his collar and brought out Fouquet's silver pendant, holding it aloft into the light. "She is beyond help," he announced solemnly. "She asked me to tell you that Matilda has finally joined her family."
Roberto's shoulders had slumped at the mere sight of the silver symbol on its chain, and Louise knew immediately that he recognized it. The men and women surrounding them had heard every word and clearly understood the meaning, and muttered curses and oaths exploded at Ezio's proclamation. A few of them drew weapons, eyeing master and familiar with angry looks as the mutters grew louder and more violent. Louise carefully drew her sword out of the scabbard an inch or two.
"Enough!" Roberto bellowed, silencing the mutters that threatened to escalate into violence. Everyone immediately fell silent, and he took a deep breath. He reached up to his hood, throwing it back.
The man it revealed had wild, dirty blond hair and a scraggly beard of the same colour running from his lower lip across his chin and along his jaw, many little scars marring his face. He had a narrow pointed face and might have well been called roguishly handsome, and as Louise watched him, she saw pale blue eyes blink once or twice with an emotion she couldn't quite recognize.
And then Roberto sighed, closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, they had adopted a cold intensity that reminded Louise eerily of Tabitha. She shivered, stepping closer to Ezio.
"I thank you for your message, Monsieur Auditore," he spoke, inclining his head. "It means a lot to me. Pray tell, how did Matilda gain your assistance?"
"She asked for it."
"And you agreed, just like that?"
Ezio shrugged. "I was in no position to refuse her. And I had no wish to." Louise glanced at him, only to see a wishful smile play on the mouth hidden under the hood. "She was a… remarkable woman, in many ways."
"…It's rare for someone to be so selfless in these troubled times," Roberto said quietly, his cold eyes watching Ezio carefully. "Many would question the truth of your words."
Ezio chuckled, shaking his head. "And they would be right to be suspicious. But what if nothing were true?"
Something in Roberto's blue eyes dimmed, and he sighed. "Then everything would be permitted."
Ezio's head snapped up to stare at Roberto. "…Where did you hear those words?"
Now it was Roberto's turn to blink in confusion. "Matilda spoke them." He pointed to the pendant dangling from Ezio's neck. "Quite often when she played with that trinket. I asked their meaning once, but she never deigned to tell me. Well, except that they were the only thing left to her by her father—the pendant and the words, that is."
Roberto gave a wistful sigh, the corners of his mouths curling in a smile. "Matilda was a woman with many secrets, I'm afraid."
Ezio grinned back. "I can imagine."
"And it's obvious you knew her," Roberto said half to himself and half out loud. "How else would you know these words that were so dear to her?"
"I am afraid I did not know her too well."
Roberto waved dismissively. "Did anyone? And you're certain she's dead?"
Ezio nodded solemnly. "Quite. I remained at her side until I was certain she would be given a decent funeral."
A funeral that had been attended by only the two of them, Colbert, and Agnès—the latter having only been there to make sure that Fouquet didn't pull a final disappearing act—and that had been nothing more than a tired monk's rehearsed phrases spoken over a simple coffin and an even simpler wooden cross inscribed with Longueville's name, one of dozens in the freshly dug cemeteries outside the gates of the Academy. It was agreed that this arrangement would be best for everyone, though Agnès had suggested exhibiting the thief's head on a pike as a warning to any others who would dare to attack the princess. Louise had been quite happy when Her Highness had vetoed that plan.
Louise shot a long look at Ezio and his perfectly straight face as he told Roberto a bamboozle of half-truths that somehow seemed to fit perfectly together, and resolved to listen very carefully next time he tried to hide something from her.
"Before she passed away, she asked me to find you," she heard Ezio continue, and his words rang with a confidence that could have only been born from truth. He held up the silver pendant again. "She said to show you this; that you would understand what it meant."
"Indeed," Roberto muttered, sadly peering at the pendant glinting in the sun. "Matilda loved that ornament, Monsieur Auditore. She never took it off, even when she slept. But she still gave it to you. If I ever needed proof of her death, that would be enough."
"And what does that mean for the two of us now?!" Louise asked sharply, her eyes jumping from the nearest thugs to Roberto and back, the hand still tightly gripping the hilt of her sword. "That's an answer to a question that concerns me more right now, I'll admit!"
Roberto blinked and laughed out loud. "It means that even if you were no friend to her in life, you still were a good companion to her until the end," Roberto announced regally, raising a hand to signal his followers to put away their weapons. He smiled thinly at Ezio and Louise, and the tension in the air dissipated like dew in the midday sun. "Friends at death's door can be better than any you've known your entire life. And any friend of Matilda's is certainly a friend of mine."
Ezio's hands relaxed, and Louise heard a faint clicking whirr of gears relax and become still as he stood up straight, smiling. "It is indeed nice to make new friends, signore Roberto. I have far too few of them in this world."
"These are troubled times," Roberto said with an easy grin that showed teeth. "Not everyone can afford to be pleasant company these days. Now, why did you come to find me, Monsieur Auditore? I doubt it was merely to say hello and pass on a message."
"Per la verità, I wanted to ask you about this symbol," Ezio said, still holding up the silver lambda dangling from his neck. "I know you said that Matilda never spoke to you of it, but do you have any clues that might lead me to its meaning?"
"Hmm," Roberto grunted, stepping closer to them and taking it in his hand, peering at it intently. Louise hastily stepped away, still not entirely trusting the man that had stolen her wand.
"…I consider myself a… connoisseur of all things valuable, Monsieur Auditore," Roberto said after a moment.
"I wonder why," Louise couldn't help but mutter, glaring at him. "Job hazard, I suppose."
Roberto flashed a grin at her. "I like you, mademoiselle. You have fire in you."
"I'd have more fire on hand if you returned my wand."
"I shall wait until I'm out of range to give it back. Smarter that way, no? But no matter where I may have gotten this knowledge, I know that this piece of jewellery is expensive. Very expensive, in fact, and quite probably very old."
Ezio frowned. "How would you know, Messere?"
"See this?" Roberto held up the pendant to the light, and the silver winked in the light. "It gleams."
Louise rolled her eyes. "Silver tends to do that."
"After a while, my little spitfire, all silver dulls. I will assume that you never had to clean the silverware at home."
"No, I didn't," Louise said haughtily, drawing herself up and lifting her nose in the air. "I had better things to do with my time."
Ezio's mouth quirked up even as he shot her a warning look, but Roberto merely shook his head in amusement. "Doing things you wouldn't usually do gains you knowledge, ma petite amie, knowledge you would never gain anywhere else. In any case, this silver probably hasn't dulled in hundreds of years."
"And why would that be?" Ezio dutifully asked.
"Because this is made of what the alchemists call l'argent éternel."
"…Everlasting silver?" Ezio repeated dubiously. "That sort of thing exists?"
Roberto let the pendant drop back to Ezio's chest, shrugging. "Apparently, one of Alchemy's greatest secrets is to find the way to create this metal. Powerful smiths can smelt and shape it, and mages are quite capable of deconstructing it to base dust. What they cannot do is create any more of it. The secret has been lost for centuries."
Ezio glanced down at Louise, who reluctantly nodded. Madame Chévreuse had often spoken of it during her lectures on the transmutation of base metals as an exception to much of Earth Magic's lore.
"…Perdonatemi, signore," Ezio spoke up. "If I wanted to find the origin of this specific pendant, where would I have to look?"
Roberto studied him carefully. "…Matilda said it was her father's," he said slowly. "She never spoke much of her family, but if it ever owned a piece of jewellery made from everlasting silver, they must have lived in great wealth."
"So that would narrow down the number of possible families down a lot," Louise muttered, her mind racing through the genealogies Mother had always insisted she learn by heart. "Perhaps one of the—"
"Not necessarily," Roberto interrupted her, and she glared at him. He smirked back. "Much wealth has changed hands these last hundred years. In the Third Germanian Campaign alone, entire dynasties fell, families were destroyed, and estates were ransacked and plundered. And that was only one war of many. Finding the original owner of this little trinket may be impossible now."
"But I must still try," Ezio said to himself, thoughtful.
"Why, exactly?" Roberto and Louise asked at the same time. She scowled at him; he winked at her. Ezio just laughed.
"Perhaps one day I shall tell you. Most likely after a few cups of wine, io presumo," he added with a grin.
"I'll take that as an invitation to see you again, Monsieur Auditore," Roberto said genially, clapping him on the back with a grin. "Now, how about—"
There was a crash of boots on tiles, and the little ring of men and women surrounding them broke apart to let through a broad-shouldered man in a leather doublet and dark trousers, a cutlass on his belt and a length of cloth wrapped around one side of his weathered face, covering up an eye. He marched towards them, and what could be seen of his expression was grim.
Roberto immediately whirled around. "Bandeau!" he called out, smiling widely. "Why, I think we may have made two new friends! Is that why you're here?"
Bandeau just scowled at him and violently shook his head, his hands beginning to dance quickly in the air and patting himself down in a rapid series of movement. Roberto's expression immediately grew serious. "Really? How many, and from where?"
The newcomer said nothing, instead shaking one fist twice and then holding up four fingers, while the other hand pointed somewhere into the city behind him.
"Hé bien, looks like we'll be entertaining company!" Roberto exclaimed, turning to face his cohort. "Tout le monde, fichez le camp! We'll see each other at the usual place tonight!"
"What's happening?" Louise asked suspiciously as Roberto's followers scattered, sprinting at full tilt across the rooftops or disappearing down into the streets as fast as they could.
"The city guards are coming to arrest us all," Roberto answered plainly. "I suppose you'll have to run as well, since they are not particularly keen on anyone breathing the same air as me."
"Not to worry, mademoiselle! You nearly escaped from me; you'll certainly be able to outrun those buffoons!" He waved at them and turned to walk away. "Have a nice day now, Monsieur Auditore!"
"Messer Roberto!" Ezio called out. "How can I find you again?"
"Just whisper in a beggar's ear, my friend!" Roberto called over his shoulder, donning his hood and grinning. "They'll know where to find me!"
"Hey, you!" Louise shrieked at him as he made it to the edge of the roof, all former fear forgotten as her rage boiled over again. "Give me back my wand!"
"Oh, this thing?" Roberto answered, the piece of wood slipping out of his sleeve and into waiting fingers. "I was thinking about keeping it, in fact! Add it to my collection!"
"Don't you dare!"
"Then catch, mademoiselle!"
And with a flick of his wrist, he hurled the wand high into the air, the piece of wood trailing point over end in a lazy arc. Louise cursed and ran after it, ignoring Ezio shouting her name behind her.
She ran after it, arms pumping. Louise kept her eyes fixed on the wand in the air, jumping and climbing across drops and roofs. If she lost track of it now, she'd quite possibly never find it again.
She jumped and stretched her arm out, palm open, and caught it before it tumbled into the street below.
It was at this moment that Louise realized that her momentum was carrying her straight over the edge of the roof into thin air and onto the street twenty feet below. Luckily, someone grabbed her trailing cloak and yanked her back just in time.
"Next time someone throws something into the air, piccina, remember to watch where your feet carry you!"
"Noted!" she squeaked out, glancing over the edge of the roof and shuddering.
"We need to leave, now!"
She shot him a glare over her shoulder, rubbing the spot at her throat where her cloak had strangled her. "Right now!?"
A musket shot cracked the air, and Louise felt something whizz past her nose. Ezio grabbed her and hurled them behind a chimney, another shot shattering red brick as they took cover from the guards shooting from two buildings over. "Si, piccina, right now! Run!"
And they did exactly that, running as fast as they could across the rooftops of the capital, hurling themselves from edge to edge high across open alleys, dancing precariously over thin roof gables, and—once their pursuers had lost track of them—clambering down a rundown building's façade into a grimy alley, breathlessly ducking into the afternoon crowds a moment later.
Louise couldn't help but think that her Mother would have highly disapproved of all this.
But somehow, as she watched the frustrated guardsmen try to find them two shops over and allowed the crowd to carry the two of them away to anonymous safety, the notion was unable to put its usual terror into her.
As they made their way through the throngs of people two hours later, Ezio grinned like the cat that got the cream. "Admit it, piccina," he taunted her under his breath. "You enjoyed all of that, non è vero?"
"I did not enjoy that at all," she hissed back, glaring at him as they entered an inn. "We could have gotten ourselves killed! Or worse, arrested!"
Ezio shot her an incredulous look. "How is that— Ah, fa niente! I truly do not want to understand what goes on in that head of yours."
"If I'd gotten arrested by the city guard, my mother would have had to come get me! Or worse, the princess would have had to intervene!" Louise sat down primly at the table, crossing her arms and haughtily lifting her chin. "It would have been an embarrassment, Ezio!"
The Florentine sank down in the chair opposite her, groaning. "Piccina, I think we need to have a few lessons on a small thing called 'priorities' one of these days…"
"Hey, I'm not the one with skewed priorities here, Monsieur Hurling-Himself-From-The-Top-Of-Freakishly-High-Buildings!"
"Now, that was a perfectly sane and safe activity—"
"Hello?" a meek voice interrupted them. Both turned to face a cautiously smiling Jessica. "Can I bring you anything to drink?"
"…A jug of wine, per favore?"
"Great idea," Louise muttered, allowing her forehead to smack onto the table. "I had to climb around suicidal heights for the entire day and the one before, I was chased around by a bunch of thieves and cutthroats across half the city, and I nearly got shot. Twice. After a day like this, I really need a drink."
Jessica blinked owlishly, and Ezio hurriedly shook his head. "Just get us the wine, mio caro. Please?"
Jessica nodded, looking unsure, but another customer hollered for her attention across the entire length of the Charming Fairies' Inn, and she quickly put on a smile and left the two of them alone.
Ezio chanced a glance over his shoulder. The inn bore no obvious sign of having recently been the site of a violent brawl: the broken chairs and tables had already been replaced or repaired, the blood on the floor mopping up and painted over when necessary, and the serving girls seemed as cheerful as ever, their smiles and laughs bright as bells.
Somehow, the fact that Scarron and his girls apparently had some experience with swabbing up blood and getting rid of bodies reassured and worried Ezio at the same time.
"So what do we do now?"
Ezio blinked, returning his attention to the tired pile of small noble girl bundled up in a hood and cloak that had just mumbled at him. "Prego?"
The hood lifted from the table, and a reddish-brown eye fixed him with a glare through a curtain of sweat-matted hair. "We found out who Roberto is; we got the message to him. Great. Except we really aren't getting any closer to the people who helped Fouquet organize the attack on the Academy."
"I would not exactly say that we have achieved nothing, though," Ezio said thoughtfully, leaning back into his seat.
"Oh, really? Enlighten me, then."
Ezio gave her a smile. "Ah, nothing substantial. Just an idle thought of mine."
Louise sat up straight, narrowing her eyes at him. "I think you're hiding something from me, Ezio."
"And what if I was?"
"Then I would say that you are being very unfair," Louise shot back, putting both her hands flat on the table and leaning across it towards him. "Considering that I stuck with you through thick and thin in all this madness, that I've gotten into so much trouble with the thinnest of reasons that I'd probably give my family a collective heart attack, and that I sincerely doubt you could have gotten this far without my help."
"Bold words, piccina," Ezio said with a quirk of his mouth as he leant forwards as well. "But what makes you think that I would have had so little success without you?"
"Remember that time when I blew up a cathedral-sized golem? You know, the one whose owner nearly strangled you to death?"
"You were only able to do that because I helped you develop your magic, piccina."
"My point exactly." Louise's expression fell slightly, and she sighed. "Look, Ezio, I don't know if you've realized this, but this thing we have here?" She waved her index finger between them. "This bond? It doesn't just go one way or the other. You help me, and I help you. We help each other. I'm sure you could have had some good luck on your own—perhaps you might have been able to kill Fouquet, perhaps you could have returned from the Forêts Obscures alone, wounded and bleeding out as you were, and perhaps you would have found Roberto sooner or later. And perhaps I would have found a way to use my magic without you helping me."
"What are you getting at, piccina?"
Louise blew out a frustrated breath, a strand of blond hair falling across her nose. "We didn't do it alone! Ezio, masters and familiars are supposed to help each other. The professors at school call it 'symbiosis.' We help each other with our successes; we share our failures and pick each other up; we help each other to reach greater heights."
"Symbiosis," Ezio repeated quietly, tasting the strange new word.
"Exactly." She abruptly leaned back, crossing her arms and looking away. "And it just won't work if you don't trust me."
Ezio considered her for a moment. "Louise, things are not that simple."
"Then explain to me why I should trust you with my life when you're not prepared to trust me with your secrets, Ezio!" she said sharply, cutting a glance at him. "Make it simple. You're good at that."
"I do trust you, Louise. With my life, and with many other things beside." He gave her a small smile. "But we only met a month or so ago. I barely know you. And I am simply not prepared to share my greatest secrets with you now."
Louise rolled her eyes, allowing her head to loll back onto the back of her chair. "You sound just like every other adult in my life. Fantastic."
"Louise," Ezio entreated her, laying down an open hand onto the top of the table. "I promise that I do not think less of you. The things I am not telling you are nothing more than… echoes of words I knew from my home. They disturb me. And explaining it all to you… It might make it more difficult for you to trust me again. And I want you to trust me, Louise."
Her mouth quirked into a small, ironic smile. "Ezio, you're my familiar. I feel I have no choice but to trust you."
"I prefer the term partners. It means we have more choice in the matter." The corner of Ezio's mouth crooked up. "If it makes you feel any better, piccina: so far, you are the only one of this world I trust to have by my side."
She flushed a bit, sitting up straight again. "That… actually does make me feel better, Ezio. Thanks."
"Io ammetto, I prefer to be by your side only because that means those wayward explosions of yours will not hit me—"
She reached out to slap his hand with a laugh, but he deftly caught her open hand, and before she could do much else, he had placed a light kiss on her knuckles.
"…When I know things for a certainty, Louise," he muttered quietly, bowing his head, "when I have more than idle speculation and whispers from my past, I will tell you the truth. Io lo giuro su il nome de mi padre, mi madre, mi fratelli e mi sorella. Io lo giuro."
He looked up after a moment, still holding the girl's small fingers in his own, and saw her looking at him with a strange expression—a tangled weave of insecurity, uncertainty, and a smidgeon of disbelieving cynicism drowned by reluctant happiness.
Louise finally smiled back at him. "Partners?"
Ezio nodded, grinning. "Partners, piccina."
"…I can come back later if I'm interrupting something, you know," a voice said drily from the side of the table.
Louise snatched her hand back immediately with a startled squeak, flushing a splotchy red. Ezio just smiled at the newcomer. "Agnès. Lovely to see you again, davvero!"
"Spare me the performance, Auditore," Agnès snapped, scowling at him from under the hood of her heavy green cloak. "I get that sort of phony pretence all day at court."
"Ah, but it truly is a pleasure to see you again, Agnès," Ezio said, his eyes dancing wickedly as he propped his chin onto his palm and grinned. "Though I would guess that this is not the sort of establishment you usually frequent, no?"
"The things you don't know about me, Auditore," Agnès retorted drily. She pulled out a chair. "Mind if I sit?"
"If I said I did, would you leave us in peace?" Louise asked, peeved.
Louise sighed, throwing up her hands. "Thought so. Then no, we don't mind at all! Make yourself at home."
"Thanks." Agnès sat herself down, peering from master to familiar and back again.
"…Théoleyre sends his regards," Ezio offered after a moment.
Agnès blinked suspiciously. "He did? He must have taken a serious blow to the head."
"Well, he never said it in those exact words," Ezio admitted freely. "But his mood seemed to brighten when he heard your name, so I assumed the sentiment was implied."
Agnès huffed out a laugh. "Heh. Old curmudgeon. Let's hope he never changes; the world would be far too boring otherwise." She shot a calculating look at Ezio. "So, did he take a look at your armour?"
"He did. His apprentice is working on it."
The Musketeer tilted her head quizzically. "Nothing else?"
"Huh. Strange." She shrugged her cloaked shoulders. "Well, that's not why I'm here."
"Then why are you here?" Louise interrupted, scowling. "I doubt it's because you enjoy our company."
"There's certainly more fun to be had in this town than having to listen to your yammering," Agnès said tartly. "But no, that's not it.
"…There was an interesting rumour floating around the barracks this evening," she continued after a moment. "It started with a rabble of thieves that was scattered across the roofs of the eastern district by a group of guards."
"Is that so?" Ezio asked politely.
"They were looking for a man we only know as 'Roberto'. A wanted criminal, you know," she added, looking intently at Louise, who suddenly seemed very interested in a knothole of the table. "The city guard has connected him to hundreds of thefts, robberies, kidnappings, even a few murders. A dangerous individual, all told, and others of his ilk seem to congregate around him. The Duke de Montbazon has threatened to publicly hang the Captain of the City Guard if he isn't caught soon."
Ezio and Louise exchanged quick glances. Suddenly, the guards' dogged persistence in searching the streets for hours made a certain sense.
"I don't particularly mind all the commotion, to be honest," Agnès continued, leaning back and crossing her arms, watching the two of them carefully. "I welcome the fact that it got the Captain off his fat arse for some exercise, for one. But there was other talk, too—about two of Roberto's accomplices, cloaked all in white, managing to give an entire company of guardsmen the slip. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
"Nothing at all," Ezio lied cheerfully.
"Uh, yes!" Louise added quickly, not meeting Agnès' hard look. "I mean no! Yes, what he said, and no, we don't know anything!"
"Monsieur et mesdames, your wine!" a voice trilled out, and Scarron appeared, dancing on light feet towards their table. He poured three clay cups of wine, handing each of them one and hesitating for a moment. "Monsieur Auditore, I certainly hope you don't take offense at my words, but—"
"Don't worry, madamigella," Ezio said brightly, raising his cup. "Our quarrel with our… mutual acquaintance seems to have been settled. I doubt he bears you any ill will."
Scarron's shoulders slumped in relief. "Oh, good. That is very good news indeed!" He smiled brightly at them all. "Eh bien, let me just tell you that we welcome you here again! As long as you don't disrupt the décor and our guests too much, of course. Call me if you need anything else, d'accord?"
And then he bustled away, exchanging a few quiet words with a worried-looking Jessica behind the counter, whose expression cleared up immediately with a relieved smile.
"So…" Agnès drawled, sniffing the wine in her cup carefully. "You really don't know anything about this business with Roberto, then?"
"I think we can add a few more lessons in dissimulation to your curriculum, piccina," Ezio muttered, bringing his own cup to his lips and grimacing. "Also, we will have to remind Scarron to be more discreet."
"This is not my fault!" Louise protested. "You were the one who punched that hooligan in the face!"
"And you were the one that taunted Roberto," Ezio reminded her. "I think we can both share the blame for this mess, no?"
"Look, I really don't care if you got into a bar fight, or whether you had a chat with that criminal scum, or whose fault is what," Agnès interrupted, rolling her eyes. "I have something more pressing to worry about."
Louise knitted her brow, frowning. "You do?"
"Surprising as it may sound, little girl, my problems don't revolve around what the world thinks of you." Agnès ran a swallow of wine around her mouth, pulling a grimace. "Scarron's had better swill. The price of supplies probably went up again."
"Oh, get to the point already!" Louise snapped angrily, slapping a hand onto the table and making the cups rattle. "The earlier you tell us, the earlier you'll be rid of our oh-so-horrible company!"
"Signorine, can we discuss this peacefully?" Ezio interrupted mildly. "And before Madamigella Scarron decides to make us leave again, if possible?"
Agnès and Louise glowered at each other, but both forced themselves to relax a moment later when Scarron threw them a questioning and worried look from the counter.
Agnès downed her cup and refilled it. "How loyal are you to Henrietta?" she asked abruptly, green eyes peering intently at Louise.
The little noble herself seemed startled. "Her Royal Highness?"
"Any other Henrietta we both know?" Agnès snarked irritably. "Yes, her! How loyal are you to her?"
"I'd lay down my life for her," Louise hissed back, glaring again.
A muscle in the Musketeer's jaw twitched, but her eyes softened somewhat. She quickly looked away. "There's one thing we have in common, then."
"What is this about, Agnès?" Ezio interjected, leaning closer and lowering his voice, letting the murmur of the inn drown out their conversation. "You seem troubled."
"Putain de merde, I am," the Musketeer muttered, and for the first time a certain worry flashed across her face. "I think someone is trying to subvert Her Highness's authority."
"Meaning that I think someone is plotting to turn Henrietta into a puppet," Agnès said quietly. "To control the kingdom through her; to subjugate it to interests not in the country's own."
Ezio frowned. "And what makes you think that, essatamente?"
Agnès downed her wine in one gulp, pulling a face. "…Ever heard of Cardinal Mazarin?"
"He used to be King Henry's Chief Minister," Louise said promptly, knitting her brow in thought. "He still advises Her Highness in that position, doesn't he?"
Ezio looked at her in expectation of more, and Louise shrugged helplessly. "I only know Mother doesn't like him, though that doesn't mean much." She laughed bitterly, shaking her head. "She approves of few people."
"There are many rumours floating around about him, though," Ezio said thoughtfully. "A foreigner, I believe? He was one of the Pope's captains and emissaries, and he apparently was taken under the wing of the Gallian minister of state when he left the Holy See. Cardinal Richelieu, I think the man's name was?" He waved his hand dismissively. "Bah, something like that. A very interesting character, some would say."
Louise raised both her eyebrows at him. "When did you have time to listen to gossip?"
He grinned at her. "You only need to prick your ears when you walk the streets, piccina. You would be surprised what you can pick up."
"You got most of it right, Auditore," Agnès interrupted, peering intently at them both. "And that connection is exactly what worries me."
"Could you elaborate, per favore?"
"Look, the country is more or less to a skint broke," Agnès bit out, glaring into her cup. "Most of it for apparently sensible reasons: fortresses, soldiers, debts from past wars, nobles refusing to pay taxes…"
"That does not sound particularly unusual, Agnès," Ezio noted, tapping his fingers idly on top of the table.
"I know, I know. The problems themselves aren't the thing worrying me. It's the solutions everyone around Her Highness has been proposing that get my goat. Pushing away old friends, becoming indebted to foreigners…"
Louise rolled her eyes. "Speak clearly, Agnès. Riddles won't get us anywhere."
"Oh, shut up," Agnès scoffed back. "I think Mazarin is plotting to make Tristain dance to his tune, to weaken it for his paymasters."
Ezio leaned forward on his elbows in sudden interest. "And who might those be, prego?"
"Could be the Pope, trying to get yet another country under his thumb for Founder-knows-what. Could be the Gallians, trying to gain more territory or concessions from a neighbouring country."
"And do you have any proof of any of this?"
Agnès glared at him. "No. But it's obvious that something is going to happen, and soon. Ever since the king died and the queen fell ill, all sorts of nobles have been flocking to the city, bringing their guards and retinue with them. Mercenaries and sellswords have entered the capital in droves, almost as if they were expecting to make a profit in the near future. Thefts, robberies, and murders have tripled, paralyzing the guards. My musketeers have had their hands full helping them, and I have barely enough of them left to guard the Royal Palace itself!
"And that's not all," she continued heatedly, glancing back and forth with narrowed eyes. "Food prices have gone up, and the citizenry's been muttering about how it's entirely the princess's fault, how young and inexperienced she is. Someone must be paying agitators to spread these rumours, because they sure as hell weren't whispering like that a few months ago! People have been leaving the city like rats fleeing the ship for months already. And Mazarin's meddling always makes sure that there's nothing Her Highness or I can do about any of it!"
"If you can't do anything with all your musketeers and influence at court, Agnès," Louise cut in, frowning, "what do you expect us to do?"
"…Look, you two are the only ones I trust to be absolutely loyal to Her Highness." She turned reluctantly to Louise. "You haven't been home in years, as far as I know, so it's unlikely that your mother has you involved in some sort of plot."
"Mother would never betray the crown!" Louise hissed back angrily.
Agnès shot her a mirthless smile. "Then she'd be more patient than most people give her credit for." She raised a hand, forestalling Louise's protests. "And in any case, it doesn't matter. You love Her Highness; that much was clear from our time in the Academy. You wouldn't betray her."
"Damn right I wouldn't," Louise muttered, a little flummoxed by the sudden praise.
"And you are her familiar," Agnès continued, shooting a calculating look at Ezio. "You're unlikely to betray your mistress's loyalties. And you are—"
"You are not answering the most important question, Agnès," Ezio interrupted firmly. "What do you expect us to do, exactly?"
Agnès scowled at him, and then drained her glass in one gulp. "I want you to get to the bottom of this. I want you to find out who is truly loyal to Her Highness, who isn't, get rid of them, and then make sure that Mazarin dances to the country's tune and not the other way around. Is that answer plain enough for you, Auditore?"
Ezio stared at her. "You want me to be your assassin."
Agnès rolled her eyes. "Don't you even dare try to pretend that you haven't done it before. I've seen the way you fight, the way you use your weapons. If you weren't a hired killer in the past, then you were just deluding yourself by calling yourself by another name."
"Why me, then?"
"Simple. The two of you are an unknown quantity. You can act without any of the other factions inside the Royal Court and within the city knowing where your allegiances lie."
Ezio abruptly stood up, shoving his chair back. "I have heard quite enough. Vieni, Louise. We are leaving."
As he made to walk past, the Musketeer's hand shot out and gripped him by the forearm. A hiss of steel sounded out, and Agnès shot him a wry look from underneath her cowl before continuing to examine the hidden blade so close to her stomach. "So you're not an assassin, hmm? I never did believe that that these things were decorative, you know."
Ezio bent low until their cowls met. "I am not going to kill someone on your say-so alone, moschettiere," he hissed. "I cannot just trust your word."
"Neither can I," Agnès retorted immediately. "And yet you're the only who can help me. The only one I have left."
"That is none of my concern." He made to free his arm, but her grip tightened.
"If something happens to Her Highness," she said quietly, "then the royal line will end without legitimate issue. The noble houses will war amongst each other for the throne, the countryside will be set aflame, and the wolves at our borders will tear apart what's left. The nobility usually has few problems to use magic in their petty little feuds in peacetime, and it only gets worse during their wars. The entire kingdom will fall into chaos. Thousands will die in the first days, hundreds of thousands in the months to come."
He stopped struggling and she dragged him close, hissing the next words into his ear. "Do you really want to be responsible for it all, Ezio? When you know you could have done something to prevent it?"
He glared at her and freed his arm from suddenly lax fingers.
And he turned around at that plaintive little voice, seeing Louise on her feet with her palms flat on the table, and she looked pale and deathly afraid, begging him with her expression alone to do something, please.
And it was then that he realized—a stark thought, that—that though he may not know this world, this country, and its ways very well, it was still the home to many people. People who lived, breathed, toiled and loved for their entire lives. Ordinary people. Men, women, husbands, wives, parents, children. Just like home.
The Assassins had always defended these people from those who would harm them. They had always championed the free will of humanity. And they would kill those who thought they could elevate themselves above the common man, to disturb their lives with impunity, and to impose their will on the unwilling, no matter what the reason.
And yet here he had been, fully prepared to walk away. All just to follow the thinnest trail of evidence from his world that might lead him nowhere and everywhere at once, a fool's errand in the making.
Louise's eyes jumped from him to Agnès and back, and Ezio realized that Agnès had indeed pierced the truth: Louise was loyal to her princess—no, her friend—and she would try to do something about it. She had no obligation to—no one would expect anything from a child thought powerless like her—but she would do it nonetheless.
The silver pendant burned sharply on his skin, and Ezio vaguely realized it was shame.
He turned back to Agnès. "We do this my way," he said in a low voice, brooking no argument. "We will investigate any lead you have. If any killing is to be done, we will be the ones to decide why, when, and how. You will hold nothing back from us, and you will help us any way you can. Once we root out those traitors of yours, we are done. Alcuna questioni?"
Agnès grimaced. "Guess I really have no choice." She reached up with one hand, grabbed him by the edge of his cloak, and tugged him down until their lips mashed together. Ezio was so surprised he couldn't move, especially when she started fumbling at his belt.
And then just as quickly she pushed him away, her expression vaguely disgusted and ill. "You have your leads, Auditore. Make the most of them. After you're done, burn it."
She got to her feet, dropping a few silver coins on the table, and Ezio quickly shook the confusion from his face. "…How do we contact you?"
"Scarron knows how to get word to me." She glared at him from underneath her hood. "Don't screw this up. You'll have more enemies here than a single rogue mage."
He smirked at her, jabbing a thumb at a suspiciously silent Louise. "Ah, but you forget that I have a mage of my own."
"I'm well aware," Agnès muttered, drawing her cloak around herself as she turned to leave. "Brimir help us all."
Ezio watched her disappear through the doors to the inn, and fell back into his seat. "Well, that was bizarre," he mused aloud, glancing sideways at Louise.
The girl's expression was an unhealthy combination of flushed, thunderstruck, and scandalized that gave her the appearance of a ripe tomato. "The nerve of that woman," she bit out, gripping the edge of the table with pale knuckles. "Who does she think she is?!"
"A clever woman," Ezio said with a grin.
Louise's head snapped around to face him, glaring. "Beg your pardon!?"
Ezio discretely removed the thin roll of paper that Agnès had covertly stuffed into his belt under the cover of their joined cloaks. "I will wager you ten écus that there is a list of names on this, piccina."
She snorted darkly, taking it off his hands and unfurling it underneath the table, away from wary eyes. "You can be sure that I'll never take another bet with you, Ezio. Your luck runs too well."
Ezio just grinned at her, saying nothing as she skimmed the list. Her expression fell more and more, until she looked back up at him with something akin to fear. "Ezio," she said quietly. "These aren't just any two-sous nobles. My mother told me about them… These are the Queen's councillors, powerful merchants, and veteran soldiers! And if any of them is a traitor to the crown… There's no way we can possibly take them on!"
He just laughed aloud, patting her shoulder. "Coraggio, piccina. There is always a way."
"Easy for you to say!" she hissed back. "There's just the two of us!"
"Two is more than enough, no?"
"'Scuse me," Derflinger spoke up from Ezio's hip, his quillion rattling in irritation. "Why am I always forgotten?"
Louise shot him a venomous look. "Because you're not a real person."
"That hurt my feelings, lass!" Derflinger cried out plaintively, before pausing to think about it. "…Well, you know, if I actually had any. But metaphysiphorical questions aside, pal, she does have a point," he addressed Ezio, the hilt gleaming darkly in the candlelight. "At the end of the day, there's only the three of us, and I don't exactly have hands! So how's this gonna work?"
Ezio laughed again, reaching his cup of wine. "Più le cose cambiano, più rimangono le stesse…"
Louise frowned at him, catching his arm. "You said that before, Ezio. Before we rode into the city. What does it even mean?"
He downed his cup in one gulp, smiling at her. "'The more things change, the more they stay the same.' Now!" he announced, decisively standing up and offering his hand to a puzzled Louise. "It seems we have much work ahead of us! Are you ready for it, piccina?"
And when she just nodded and allowed him to pull her to her feet with an annoyed huff, Derflinger making lewd comments all the way, he couldn't help but smile.
…Finally, this chapter is out and published! First thing I managed to finish in months. You have no idea how happy that makes me feel. This is very much another build-up chapter, unfortunately, but I hope you enjoyed it nonetheless.
In case any of you are interested in French Renaissance/Modern Era history, look up the names of the various characters in the council scene. You might learn something interesting indeed!
Like last time, I have a few questions that I would really appreciate you answering, if only so I can improve my writing by seeing how it impacted you—or whether it did at all. If you want to just give me your opinion both barrels at a time in free prose, though, don't let me stop you!
What are your impressions of the new characters in the council scene? What, specifically, did you think of Mazarin?
How did the chase scene flow for you? Did the mix between action and dialogue work, or was it out of place? What of the interaction between Derflinger, Ezio, and Louise?
Any comments on the new character of Roberto? Cheesy new guy, or intriguing addition to the capital city and its secrets?
What impressions do you have of Agnès's character in this chapter?
Did you think the discussion scene between the trio at the end flowed well and was believably tense, or did it just start to drag on?
Do you want me to re-introduce translations of the various foreign language snippets again, or would that just unnecessarily bloat the chapter's length?
Any and all other comments—critical and creative alike—on any other parts of the chapter are most welcome. I'll consider all of your thoughts!
The original light novels of Familiar of Zero (Zero no Tsukaima) were written by Noboru Yamaguchi (1972-2012), originally published by Media Factory in 2004, and are still ongoing after twenty volumes and a four-season anime adaptation by J.C. Staff that premiered in July 2006 and ended in March 2012.
The original video game Assassin's Creed was originally released in 2007 by Ubisoft, followed by its sequels Assassin's Creed II (2009), Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (2010), Assassin's Creed: Revelations (2011), Assassin's Creed III (2012), and Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (2013).
Again, please support the official release, and be kind enough to leave a review.