"A cogent point, well made. At least, that is what I would say if my esteemed opponent was capable of making points which were cogent or well-made. Sadly, I live in disappointment. Woe to us that this world causes such pessimism, but it seems my opponent respects you, my audience, even less than he respects common decency and morality. That can be the only reason he trots out tired rote repetitions of the intellectually bankrupt doctrines of Arkheostotle rather perform original research. Why, he was too busy as to even count the number of teeth in the human jaw! But what was he doing instead of basic verification of his hypothesis? Well, I have certain testimonies here which I believe I shall entertain you with by reading out loud in a mocking tone. Respectable ladies in the audience, such as my opponent's wife, may wish to cover their ears and observe the overhead projection instead, which will be displaying amusing yet factual sketches of his adventures with Madame 'Ka Shwing'."

Eleanore de la Vallière



The next morning, Louise, fully armoured save for her helmet, stepped neatly up to her sister's door and knocked on it. The racket from the Gauntlet made the whole rigmarole of getting changed worth it.

A decidedly tousled-looking Cattleya blearily opened the door. She smelt notably of blood, and there were red-brown speckles on her nightgown. "Mmmurgh," she managed. "Later. Tired. Sleep."

"Cattleya, it's almost lunchtime."

"Yes. Far, far too early. Wait until… two."

Louise crossed her arms. "We need to have the conversation with Princess Henrietta about you. Right now. To clear the air and so we don't have to keep on dancing around the topic."

Cattleya groaned and massaged her brow. "Give me ten minutes. Freshen up and wake up, and I'll be there. Then sleepy time again."

"I'll help you," Louise said firmly. "To prevent you from… oh, say, going straight back to bed again." She glanced into the room, with its carpet of sleeping wolves and mussed maids. "Uh… though we're taking you through to my bathroom. And if you dose off again, I'll send the minions to wash you."

"I'll be good," Cattleya said in a small voice.

It was a rather more kempt and coherent Cattleya who presented herself to the princess in the great hall. Henrietta was curled up on one of the cushioned seats, reading a book. The princess was dressed in a rather tight pale pink shift, although she had hinted –smiling as she did so – to Louise that Jessica was almost done with a more formal garment.

"Your highness," Louise said formally, helmet held under her arm, "may I present to you my sister."

"My goodness!" Cattleya said cheerfully. "Little Henrietta! Haven't you grown so much! Last time I saw you, you were all adorable and tiny and rosy-cheeked! You wanted the biggest slice of cake at my tenth birthday party! And took it! And pushed over the boy who was going to take that plate! And then took Louise's cake too!"

Louise sighed. She really should have seen this coming. She also had no memory of having her cake taken by Henrietta. Perhaps Cattleya was making it up. She wouldn't put it beyond her. Or at the very least, she was 'remembering' it as more amusing than it actually was.

Henrietta blushed. "I did? I would just like to say, I'm very sorry for that," she said quickly. "That was very rude of me indeed." She paused. "Um. Louise Françoise, I must say… your sister's eyes are glowing somewhat. A certain… oh, crimson colour?"

"Only a little bit!" Cattleya protested.

"Yes, Henrietta," Louise said. "That was why I felt I had to clear the air here."

"Ah," Henrietta said understandingly. "The way she never went to court. The paleness. The slightly morbid air around her. She's dead, no? Well, rather, undead."

"You'd guessed?"

"Well, seeing her like this let me put things together." Henrietta paused, clearly considering how to phrase what she was about to say. "She's most certainly a lich, isn't she?"

"Uh." Louise paused. "Not… quite."

"Ah! Then she's a ghoul! I have no idea what ancient curse on the de la Vallière line reawakened with her, but there rather a lot of them and I do know that cannibalism has been most regretfully prevalent among your forefathers."

"No, I…"

"Hmm. Well, I do remember that she was very musical. Is she a banshee?"

"She's a vampire!" Louise managed, as this seemed to be the only way she could get the words out.

"Hello!" Cattleya said, waving.

"Oh. Oh," Henrietta said quietly. Her face fell. "That's… uh. A thing."

"Is that a problem?" Louise asked quickly, moving over to support her friend. She took Henrietta's hand, and the other girl squeezed it back, her lips locked in a thin nervous line.

"I… I can't say I like vampires very much," Henrietta said quietly. "I was kidnapped by one when I was twelve. It was the scariest time, especially since it was only the second attempt."

"Oh, don't worry about that," Cattleya said warmly. "I hate vampires too. I try to kill them whenever I can. Each one I kill makes the world a better place and they also taste so good. I mean, really good. Like, eating vampires is better than…" she trailed off. "Um, killing them gives me the taste of revenge?"

"Do you promise not to try to drink my blood?" Henrietta said. Louise could feel her shaking slightly.

"She promises," Louise said, her voice hard, "don't you, Catt? And she also promises not to actually drink your blood, or do anything else which is like that. Right."

Cattleya pouted. "Yes! Honestly! I am not going to feed from the princess! I have animals, thank you very much! And I also have my maids who are willing volunteers, for your information! It's very hurtful when people assume that…"

Louise raised an eyebrow. "Assume that vampires are blood-drinking scary monsters?"

"Yes! I'm a very friendly and cuddly blood-drinker!"

Louise felt that Cattleya had not focussed on the correct part of the sentence, but she didn't care to argue at the moment. Especially when Henrietta was squeezing her hand quite hard, and so needed to reassure her. "Yes. She is." Louise crossed the fingers of her free hand behind her back, and then reconsidered if she really had to do that. After all, Cattleya was friendly and cuddly. She just was… uh, someone who was kind of scary when she was tearing people's heads off. "Henrietta, you just have to understand, I only found this out since I started this whole overlady business. She was attacked by Louis de la Vallière when she was ten…"

"The Bloody Duke?" Henrietta gasped.

"Yes," Louise said grimly. "He was doing it to punish my parents for daring to be Good – especially my father, for falling in love with my mother. So he went after my sister." She paused. "Well, when we went to deal with him, he actually said he was going after me, but I had my window closed and Catt didn't."

"Killing him was wonderful," Cattleya said, eyes glazing over slightly. "I never thought I'd get to do that. I got to pay him back for a decade of… of this, and it was jolly satisfying."

"Yes, we destroyed him just before last Silver Pentecost," Louise said.

"I thought vampires got better if you killed the one who bit them?" Henrietta said, frowning. "And you can let go of my hand, Louise. I… I just had a shock."

Louise blushed, and let go. "They do?" she said.

Cattleya shook her head. "It only works for a very short period," she said with a shrug, her expression turning slightly brittle. "It always works if it's done before you die, and sometimes it works if you do it before the new vampire feeds. But they couldn't kill him, and it was let me feed or starve me to re-death." She flashed a smile. "So there's no cure there. I just un-live with it. That's me, I suppose. I'm helping my little sister with this, and then I'm headed home back to Mother and Father."

Henrietta swallowed. "Well, uh," she began, "I very much appreciate your help with this, thank you."

Cattleya gave a wide grin. "Oh, it's no problem! None at all! I'm very very very glad to be helping! After all, those people in the Council are a bunch of dratted rotters! And that sugar-headed stinker, the Viscount de Wardes, didn't even wait a season after my little sister was supposedly dead to jump into the arms of another woman! That's dreadfully improper!"

Louise sighed in relief. "Well, now that we've said that, maybe we can go get Jessica and begin the planning for the…"

"No," Cattleya said firmly. "I am going back to bed, and that's that. Proper young ladies get at least eight hours sleep a night, and I went to bed at five in the morning because there were things I had to do, so my carefully planned sleep regime is already out of synch. Good… uh, lunchtime, Louise. Don't start the planning thingiemabob without me." Turning on her heel, she walked out. And then turned back again, and let out a high pitched squeal. "And it's so adorable that my little sister has started courting! And an emperor, no less!"

Louise turned red. "It's not courting! It's just… I… I just want to keep on good terms with him, because he's the emperor of Cathay!"

"Yes! Blush like that in front of him! He'll love it!"

"Bed, Catt! Sleep!"



The thing Louise noticed over lunch was that all of a sudden, the tower had acquired a human element. Even if part of the human element was a tousled half-demon eating something involving sliced root vegetables fried in oil. She wasn't alone save for the minions. And it had all happened since she had visited home, just before the Silver Pentecost.

She happily cut herself another slice of soft cheese, layering it onto bread.

She was almost certain that Jessica and Henrietta were planning something. Louise recognised Henrietta's mischief-face, and Jessica had a natural-born talent for impish grins. She was going to ignore that for now, however, because she somewhat doubted she could do anything to stop it.

"Your evilness," Gnarl said, "if you have a few moments, I have things I must clarify with you."

Louise wiped her mouth. "Go ahead," she said.

He produced a pile of documents from nowhere. "I have checked and marked these things, and there are multiple errors. Your wickedness, it is necessary for both precision and reliability within the internal workings of your dark empire. It would be advisable for you to correct these mistakes."

"Um," Louise said, with rising concern. "Yes, thank you very much, Gnarl. Just leave them on my desk and I'll get around to them, really, I will. I just have a meeting I really need to attend."

Gnarl bowed. "Certainly, your wickedness," he said, hobbling off.

Louise breathed a sigh of relief. "Quick," she said to the others. "Let's get this thing done before he can find more things to foist off on me."

"Louise Françoise," Henrietta observed, "he was right that mistakes are quite unacceptable in such things. My tutors made that eminently clear."

Louise almost said something rude about the aforementioned tutors and how she would have them thrown to the minions, but bit back the comment. She was just feeling short. Short tempered, that was. Not short in height. Even though she was the smallest human in the tower. Even in her heels. Stupid petiteness.

Louise got bored and sent some minions to go wake up her sister. Once Cattleya had shown up, still looking somewhat tired, the meeting could begin.

"Do we have an agenda?" Henrietta asked.

"Of course," Louise said. "We're trying to overthrow the Council and make them suffer. Especially Viscount Wardes. It is a very sinister agenda."

"So!" Jessica declared, clapping her hands together happily. "We need to talk about the most important thing about the planned visit to the Abyss!"

Louise nodded. "Yes. We certainly do. Have you finished making all those magical wards against poison, disease, insects, lack of air, drowning, the undead, demons, elves, fire, water, wind, earth, metal, amphibians, too much air… look, I gave you a list of everything I could think of last night. "Are you done?"

Jessica blinked. "How can you say that's the most important?" she protested. "And no, of course not; that was a pretty long list. And it'll be really expensive for those short-run wards. I hope you don't expect them to be permanent. But how is that the most important thing?"

"Emperor Lee," Louise said, glowering. "He's going to try to kill me."

"You don't know he's going to try and kill you."

Louise smiled smugly. "Yes, I know, he's not going to try and kill me, at least if you can get that protection ready. However, he most certainly will try to kill me."

Jessica looked confused.

Cattleya burst out laughing. "Oh! It's a joke based on wordplay! Oh, how very witty, little sister! Why, it's most positively whimsical!"

Louise shot her an annoyed glare. Cattleya was still not entirely in her good books. Or as Gnarl would put it, she was in her good books. Stupid evil vocabulary.

"The important thing is… clothing!" Jessica proclaimed. "Fashion! It is your job to show off that you are at the cutting edge of fashion. You should be dressed so sharply that a thousand widows will cry because you cut their husbands up into chunks of meat just by turning around!"

Henrietta raised her hand. "I don't mean to interfere," she said, "but wouldn't that be rather messy?"

"Yes," Cattleya agreed. "And very wasteful. Oooh! Unless there was some way for the armour to absorb the blood and then…"

"It was a simile!" Jessica said sulkily, crossing her arms. "You can't cut more than two or three people up with even very pointy armour."

"Actually, it was a metaphor," Louise interjected. "It would be a simile if…"

"Enough!" Jessica stroked her chin, and looked Louise up and down. "I'm thinking something… padded," she said. "Especially around the chest."

Louise nodded. "That's probably a good idea," she said. "When he tries to kill me, some extra padding under my armour will help stop bruising. Last time I got hit hard in the chest, it hurt to breathe for the next few days."

"Um," Jessica said. "No, I… uh, no. I wasn't thinking of that kind of padding." She shook her head sadly. "Lou, you know you're missing… like, half the experience of being an evil overlady. Dark gods, you're missing well over half of it! We need to get some handsome oiled up young men wearing only cravats and very short and tight leather shorts around the place!"

"Why would I want Germanians in here?" Louise said, wrinkling her nose. "Especially when, I note, they'd be dripping oil all over the place. That's messy."

Jessica sighed. "See! You are an evil overlady! You should have beefcake!"

"… why are you making cake out of beef?"

"I mean mancandy!"

Louise blanched. She had no idea why you'd want to take men and treat them as you would candied fruit, but it was probably a demonic and possibly cannibalistic thing. "I really don't think it's necessary."

"Quite right," Cattleya agreed firmly. "We have no need to have scantily clad men all over the place. They would just lower our standards, and serve no productive purpose. Not like maids." She tapped her lip. "Incidentally, little sister, we probably should get more maids. Do you know, there's dust in the corners? And cobwebs and they're asymmetrical cobwebs. It's driving me batty! They're making the rooms all squint!"

Louise sighed. "Catt, not now."

"I wonder if I could train spiders to be more symmetrical with their cobwebs?" Cattleya added.

Louise ignored her sister. "Anyway, I'm wearing my armour," she said. "With the new protective wards, of course. And, of course, you can polish it up and maybe add some nice new shiny engravings," she added, showing her willingness to compromise.

It was apparently not enough. "I could make you something wonderful and you could impress everyone and everything," Jessica all-but wailed.

"I 'could' do a lot of things," Louise said. "I'm wearing my armour. Oh! But I do need a new surcoat and cape for it. The last one is finally giving up the ghost."

"It lasted you less than a week!" Jessica said. "What happened to it?"

"Fire. Oh, and lightning. I was testing something and it got singed."

"I spelled it to be proof against that." Jessica frowned. "Well, hmm."

Louise didn't mention that the thing she had been testing was 'how much raw firepower did she need to throw at the cloth before it burned'. It turned out it was rather resilient. But not resilient enough. Louise laughed to herself in a somewhat evil fashion, and got rather strange looks from the others.

"What is so funny, Louise Françoise," Henrietta asked, looking quizzical.

"I just thought of something," Louise said, blushing. "I'm… not going not wearing armour, and that's that. Proper armour, too. If Emperor Lee can have assassins hiding under the table with… poisoned knives and things like that, and they can see bare flesh to stab me in, I'm not wearing enough."

"Well," Jessica said, "fine. I'll see if I can at least get you to try on some variants of the armour."

"Not if they make me less safe," Louise said, crossing her arms. "I'm not budging."

"Look, I could make you a lovely dress to impress him and the journaleers! One which plays to your strengths and makes you look beautiful." She sighed. "You don't need to dress up like a gorgeous, fashion-revolutionising, brilliant armoury all the time."

"There is no need to be quite so shy," Henrietta ventured. "One's looks are a thing one must use in politics."

"I'm not going to act like a hussy!" Louise said firmly. "Especially one who might get stabbed." She felt that the others weren't being quite considerate enough on that point. It was certainly important to her.

"A little bit of hussing is good for you," Jessica said, grinning.

"No, it really isn't," Louise said. "Especially when dining with Emperor Lee. This is the man who sent me a head in a box covered in explosive spells, remember? And who seems to be attracted to me mostly because I am not too 'objectively suboptimal' for his tastes." Despite herself, Louise smiled. 'Not too objectively suboptimal' wasn't the most flattering compliment she had ever had, but… okay, maybe it was up there. Which was a little sad, but she'd take what she could get.

Cattleya giggled.

"What is it, Catt?" Louise asked.

"Oh, no, it's nothing."

"No, really, what is it?"

"Well, uh." Cattleya bit her lip. "It's funny because… well, objectively suboptimal and you're… uh… um, you're still young and so you still have some growing to do and it's perfectly natural for you to be more like Mother there rather than take after Dad's side of the family and…" Cattleya trailed away, falling as quiet as the grave.

Louise was turning red.

"I'll just go find dinner!" Cattleya declared, bursting apart into a cloud of bats and flying away with indecent haste. And it was indecent haste, because she left her dress behind.

The overlady of dark evilness took a few deep breaths, stood up, and kicked the jester capering behind her in the face. Then she let the air out. "Does anyone have anything else to say along those lines?" she asked sweetly, hands on her hips.

"Nope," Jessica said hastily.

"I don't get what's so funny," said Henrietta with a perfectly straight face.

"Nothing! Nothing at all is funny!" shouted Louise, sinking down into her seat and sulking.

Jessica clapped her hands together. "So," she said, elongating the word. "Anyway! Lou! I've gone and organised some nice simple and easy interviews from only the most reputable journals – you know, the ones who always go soft on interviewees and allow you to pre-vet the questions they ask you. You know. Lackies." She gave a wicked smile, and winked at Henrietta. "And I have the questions right here, so we can start to prep the answers right now!"

"Why did you wink at Henrietta?" Louise said, refusing to be distracted.

"Well, she should go get changed now," Jessica said innocently. "Since we're going to be busy now, I thought she could get ready to show off her dress."

Jessica was never innocent. However, Louise was curious about what those two girls had been doing in Jessica's workshop. Given the minions had been bringing her coal and steel and Jessica had gone and bled Cattleya's unicorn some more, they were obviously up to something.

"Fine," she said. "So. Questions."

"Right, right. So, Polasipolitan. They're mostly going to want to talk about fashion…"

Louise could not help but pigeonhole why Jessica might have chosen them. And then fill aforementioned pigeonhole with a pigeon. Nevertheless, she paid close attention.



"Now, these guys, they're going to want to talk about spoons. No idea why. It's traditional, but-" and whatever Jessica was about to say was interrupted by a knock at the door.

"May I come in?" Henrietta asked. Only the very attentive would notice the slight quaver in her voice. "Oh… wait, no… um. Some of the… uh, minions want to play me a," there was a muttering, "oh! A fanfare. That wasn't what I heard!"

Louise frowned. She wasn't sure what Henrietta heard. She couldn't even think of a word which sounded like 'fanfare'. Unfair? Funfair? No, that wouldn't make any sense. She ascribed it to Minions, and stopped thinking about it.

The door opened, and several minions with various looted instruments swarmed through, led by Maxy. Louise wasn't sure where he had acquired the conductor's baton. It wasn't even like they had met any conductors. Certainly, it almost certainly had not originally had a shiv strapped to one end.

"Ahem!" Maxy said loudly. "A one! A two-er! A one an' a two-er and," he focussed on his fingers, "a three and more!"

The best Louise could say was that the music did not sound precisely like a tortured cat. Cats were probably higher pitched.

And then Henrietta stepped through the door.

Louise opened her mouth. Louise closed her mouth.

She tried not to stare. And failed.

Her old friend was dressed in… well, she didn't really have the words for it. It was a black dress. A little black dress. Yes, little was the right word for it. Although it technically was of a decent length, the fact that it was slit to the mid-thigh somewhat ruined that. The neckline reached the navel, it was backless, and for good measure it also bared the shoulders, meaning that among the various offences the wearer was committing were included ones against gravity. The metal armoured gloves, boots, and single spikey pauldron that Henrietta was wearing were most definitely an afterthought. And wouldn't do anything to protect her from attackers.

"What are you wearing?" Louise managed, her throat feeling dry. She wasn't sure how Henrietta wasn't blushing, but her own face had decided to take up the slack. "Wait, no. Wrong question. How are you wearing that?"

"Oh, this?" Henrietta said, resting a hand on her chest. "It's just a little number Jessica threw together from things she had lying around."

"Yeah, it was just a modest effort," Jessica agreed. "And you lot can stop playing now," she told the minions, who sulkily complied.

Louise for her part felt that any modesty the wearer of that dress had was quite clearly false.

"It was a test concept of something I planned for you, with some changes Henri suggested," Jessica added, with just a hint of impish grin. "The best thing is that I didn't have to add any fabric to adjust it! Although I did have to move some around."

"How is it even staying up?" Louise all-but wailed. She jabbed a finger at Jessica, trying not to stare at Henrietta. "What dark demonic sorcery are you using for that?"

Jessica shrugged. "Quite a bit. I mean, there was no way mere fabric would work for that. It's woven with living shadow, and of course, Cattleya was really useful in getting me the unicorn hair and pegasus blood I needed for the underweave. Your point was?"

Louise stared at Jessica. And then she stared at Henrietta and the dress, blushing. "It's… it's totally indecent! At the very least wear a mantle! Jessica, how could you be so… so impolitic as to make a princess wear that?"

"I think she just say that the princess wear it," Maxy contributed. "That how she do it."

Louise glared at him. "Minions, go stand in the corner and be quiet," she demanded. "You're not helping at all!"

"I wanted to wear it," Henrietta said, squaring her shoulders. "I'm the one who wanted the neckline. And for your information, Louise Francoise, it is positively expected that a kidnapped prince or princess be forced into unsuitable clothing. Which means I can actually choose what I want to wear in the first time in… forever! And no one will blame me because I was forced into it by the vile forces of Evil!"

"Yeah, that was totally not me," Jessica said. "I mean, apart from in the implementation stage. That was totally me, because I'm brilliant and amazing and stuff. Henri is a pleasure to work with, you know that?"

"You can't blame me for making her wear that! What will people think?"

"Uh, duh?" Jessica rolled her eyes. "That you're a… like, totally wicked and awesome evil overlady with a great eye for fashion?"

Louise desperately tried to change track. "It's useless for protecting her! It doesn't cover any of her torso, and… and it doesn't cover her identity at all."

She was the target of two stares. "It's fashion," Jessica said plainly. "It's not there to protect her. Remember, she's our prisoner?"

"Oh! No, Louise Francoise is quite right about the identity thing," Henrietta said happily. "She also made me a helmet! Let me just…" she rummaged around in the cloth bag she was holding.

"Again, another trial design for you," Jessica explained. "I realised, 'Hey, you know what? We should like, totally have themed helmets!', and so I did started making this. So we have a brand image."

"No one is getting branded!" Louise snapped.

"I didn't… oh, forget about it. But I'm totally going to further our brand, and make helmets like this for me and Catt. I already have a great design for her! It'll have this great emergency spring-loaded quick-release catch so she can bite people!"

"Don't encourage her!"

"Ta da!" Henrietta declared, her head now encased in metal. Henrietta's helmet resembled Louise's, somewhat. However, it was somewhat sleeker, with fewer spikes on top. What it lacked in top spikiness, however, it more than made up for with its elaborate stylised maw filled with iron teeth. "I am the Mouth of the Steel Maiden! I will make her proclamations! Which means you, Louise Francoise, don't have to face really big crowds. You clearly recruited me to handle such things when you kidnapped the princess."

"Man, the teeth are such a great touch," Jessica said in a self-congratulatory tone of voice.

"But what's my backstory?" Henrietta continued. "Hmm. Perhaps… perhaps I am a wicked Iberian sorceress, with the blood of demons flowing through my veins. No, no, I'm too pale to be Iberian. Hmm. Maybe… yes, I'm the representative of the secret conspiracy which works behind the throne of Tristain to manipulate things from the shadows!"

Jessica stroked her chin. "But which one?" she asked. "We don't want any of them denying that you're a member."

"Well, who do you recommend?"

Louise sunk her head into her hands and groaned. She was getting déjà vu. This was the all-too-familiar events of her childhood, where Princess Henrietta got a good idea and dragged everyone behind her, happening all over again. Only this time it was a bad idea.

Wait, no. Thinking of it, considering how many times she had been kidnapped by the wicked Arch Doom Empress Henrietta of Evilermania and locked in the Pillow Fortress of Peril, until she was rescued by the brave Sir Henrietta of Goodristain and his ferocious wolfhound which just happened to look like a puppy, this was going pretty normally.

What did her experience tell her? Well, it told her that she wasn't going to beat Henrietta at this directly. She would have to use cunning, subtlety, and the sum of her social prowess to divert her.

"You're not wearing something that indecent and that's that!" Louise said, crossing her arms. "I forbid it!"

Thinking about it harder, Louise realised that perhaps her strengths did not lie in the field of social finesse.

Henrietta squared her jaw. "Yes I am," she countered.

"No, you're not," Louise said.

"Am so! I'm disguised as an evil servant of the dark overlady!"

"Are not! I don't want an evil servant dressed like that! It's… disgraceful! Wear a mantle at least, to show you're a mage!"

Henrietta's lips started to wobble. "You… you sound like my mother," she spat.

"I am not your mother!" Louise snapped. She paused. "I'm your kidnapper! You're wearing a mantle with that and that's final!"

"But why?" Henrietta protested.

"Well, for one," Louise said triumphantly, "don't you have that birthmark over your right shoulder blade? The star-shaped one?"

Jessica checked. "Okay, she does have that," she admitted. "Fuck. Yeah, Lou's right, that's a pretty obvious thing."

Louise knew the next step. "And of course," she said to Jessica, trying to bring her on side, "I think it should be the same deep red as the surcoat of my armour. Because," she tried to remember how Jessica had put it, "because of the branding?"

"Yeah, that's actually a pretty bad point," Jessica said, nodding. "Yeah, with that nice strong red theme I can tie this in with yours and Catt's, and… yeah, that works very…"

And it was about then that five black-clad figures dropped down from the ceiling. This was a mysterious happening, especially since this meeting had been happening in one of the more low-ceilinged, comfortable rooms in the tower. There wasn't really the space for five sinister assassins to hide. Louise caught a glimpse of a green-glowing oval flickering shut, and then her mind was on other things.

"Death to the overlady!" one of the assassins yelled, swinging his wickedly sharp knife at Louise's unprotected face. Sparks flew as she managed to catch the blade on the Gauntlet and gasp out a single word. The sparks were joined by lightning which coursed up the blade and into her attacker.

Louise put her very pointy steel boot into his prone, smoking body, and then fried another one of the assassins with a fireball. "Minions!" she shouted. "Corner time is over! Kill!"

"Yaaaaaay!"

"Die foul demon!" yelled an attacker.

"I no see demons!" one of the musician minions said, confusion in its voice.

"Duh. Forgemistress," Maxy said, running his conductor's-shiv into the kidneys of the one advancing on Jessica. The man screamed like a stuck and Maxy worked the blade up. "I is thinking he got the point," he said with a tone of profound smugness.

"Lou! Help!" Jessica called out. She was holding chair and was trying to fend off her knife-wielding assailant, but the upholstery was getting very tattered and the cushion was bleeding fluff. "He's got a holy weapon! Oh, thank badness," she said, eyes widening in relief as she stared over the man's shoulder.

The assassin wasn't foolish enough to fall for that old trick, and so got jumped by three minions. And to add insult and minor injury to injury, while he was flailing around trying to dislodge the minions Jessica hit him over the head with the chair.

Where was the last one? Louise looked around wildly. Henrietta had her wand out and was looking around wildly, her heavy metal helmet grating. Jessica was beating on the downed man with her chair, while there were three attackers down, dead or dying. But where was the last one?

Behind her! He had a longer blade in one hand and a wand in the other. Louise hurled a fireball at him, but a jet of air deflected the fire and set the table ablaze. Louise began to chant a lightning spell, and then he moved. He wasn't heading for her, she realised, as he flipped over her half-prepared lightning and landed behind her.

"In nomine vacui!" he cried out. "Die, witch!"

Louise watched helplessly, her world moving in slow motion, as the knife descended towards Henrietta's lamentably unprotected chest. She saw her friend's lips moving, trying desperately to get another spell out, but her water chants all too far too l-

And then the assassin exploded in a cloud of blood.

It went everywhere.

For a brief moment, there was silence, save for the dripping. Slowly, Henrietta took off her blood-covered helmet, and let it fall to the ground. Its clank broke the hush.

Jessica let out a high-pitched shriek. "Why does this keep on happening?" she yelled, totally painted red. "First spiders, then assassins! Find cleaner ways to kill people!"

"Gnarl!" Louise snapped, balling her hands into fists. "Get in here!"

"Who the… the… the blasted wretched dratted hell were they?" Henrietta asked, before blushing. It was not immediately perceptible that she was doing so, because she was painted red with gore. "Pardon my Romalian, please," she added.

"It's down my neck! It's warm and it's trickling and… yuck yuck yuck. Urgh! You'd have to be a real sicko to bathe in blood!" Jessica moaned, and was ignored. "And my mouth was open!"

"Forget who they were! What was that?" Louise retorted, once she had the blood out of her eyes. It really stung. She supposed it made sense, because blood was salty, but understanding that didn't make it any less unpleasant.

Henrietta coughed. "Royal magic," she said in a tiny voice. Behind them, Jessica started being sick.

Louise folded her arms. "Really?" she asked, tapping her foot. "Because to me, that looked remarkably like blood magic. Normal water magic only really heals. It doesn't make people explode like that."

Henrietta gasped. "Louise Françoise," she said, "what a thing to imply! That was royal water magic!"

"Henrietta," Louise said flatly, "you made someone explode. Into a cloud of blood mist."

"Blood is mostly water," Henrietta objected. "In fact, it's actually much more water than, for example, strong alcoholic spirits. And for your information, that wasactually royal magic! I don't know any blood magic! That was just… just a normal spell you'd use to make mist from… w-w-water!"

"Blood mist," Louise said. She felt it was quite important to be clear about that.

"Normal mist which just happened to be made of blood," Henrietta countered. "I just used certain royal things I learned to cast it with a single syllable and make it more powerful!" She was shaking, Louise realised. She hadn't noticed it, probably because she'd flooded with adrenaline, but Henrietta was sagging, barely able to stand upright. "I don't know blood magic and… and now I'm covered in it and… and… and…" she took a deep breath. "I need a bath. I don't feel clean."

"Oh, Henrietta," Louise said more warmly as she moved to support her. "I am sorry for shouting at you. I just thought…"

"I've never done this before," Henrietta said weakly, over the sound of Jessica being sick again. "Killed someone, I mean. Is… there always so much blood?"

Well, no, Louise didn't say. "I felt sick the first time I hit someone with a fireball," she said out loud. "Well, a real person. Not a vampire. I just felt sick then because I nearly died. Come on, let's get you cleaned up."

"Ah!" Gnarl said, standing in the doorway. "Your wickedness, what happened?"

"Assassins," Louise said tersely. "Speaking Romalian, too, and trying to kill the 'overlady'. They were going for Henrietta. I think it was because she was wearing the helmet. They're all dead now."

Maxy shook himself dry. "Not quite!" he said happily. "This one, he are still breathing. Ish. He no have kidneys left, though."

"I see," Gnarl said, stroking his goatee. "We will need to find out how he got in. I will carry out some investigations, I believe."

"There was some kind of portal or rift," Louise said tersely.

"Very interesting," Gnarl said. "Very few magics could do that without great power. Yes, great power indeed." He clapped his hands. "Move the prisoner to the jail," he ordered the minions. "Do not let him die yet." He nodded to Louise. "I will try my upmost to find out who he was working for," he said.

"Do that," Louise said. Henrietta was clinging onto her. "For now, I need to go clean up." She squared her jaw. "Gnarl, organise a sweep of the tower to make sure no other attackers have concealed themselves. I will take a group and clear the baths myself. Because if they have messed with the hot-water supply, then their fates will be dire indeed."

"Yes," Jessica said darkly, wiping her mouth. "Very dire. Urgh. And it's in my ears."

"As you wish."

Louise pulled Henrietta into a close hug, and let her shake. "And perhaps now do you see why more clothing might be a good idea?" she asked softly. "If you're going to help me, people are going to try to kill you."

"Mmm," her friend mumbled.

She let Henrietta cling to her. This felt sort of nice. She could get used to this feeling. Vindication was so sweet.

Cattleya poked her head through the door. "I'm sorry, I just happened to be passing by and I smelt something unbelievably tast- my goodness! Louise, assassins tried to kill you and you didn't tell me? I'm hurt! I could have helped! I know you're upset with me, but it was jolly silly to…"

"I am not in the mood," Louise snapped, pulling Henrietta by the hand as she stormed out. She whirled. "And I still have these stupid talks to journaleers to do next Voidsday and Emperor Lee is going to try to kill me and…" she trailed away.

And smiled a dreadful blood-soaked smile. "Oh, goodness, goodness me," she said, managing to put previously unprecedented levels of menace in that innocuous phrase.

"You have orders, your wickedness?" Gnarl asked, tilting his head.

"Not yet," she said. "I'm going to think more in the bath. But Gnarl, find out where more goblin tribes are. I may well need some more minions at short notice."