An Interlude At The Door Of Battle – Love
Unseasonal rain slashed down on the estate of the Montmorency family. Sorrowful rivulets ran from the crumbling walls and poured from the mouths of gargoyles who had lost all their features to the relentless passage of the years.
Montmorency of the Montmorencys stared out of the window, face pale. Her family's ancient wedding dress stood behind her on its stand, a white spectre haunting her waking moments. A silk mantle; little pearl-encrusted white slippers. The one thing they would never sell off. Her wedding was fast approaching, and the guests were starting to arrive at their estate. They were a sad and depleted bunch. Once, the marriage of the heiress would have been an event for all of Tristain. There would have been royal guests, ducal processions, and perhaps even the favour of the spirits.
But there would be no chance of that. Not that she wished for such things. That would be giving this… this farce more dignity than it deserved.
Her husband-to-be was down there, outside in the rain. He was a pig of a man, his mantle straining against too much flesh, his stockings like sausages, and his boots heavy clumping barges on oversized feet. A man with no reputed family and no real right to marry someone like her, but her father had approved the marriage. Because Eustache de la Grange had money and that worm of a priest had waggled it around in front of them.
Monmon's fingers dug into the curtains as she stared down at the man, twisting and throttling. She knew her duty. She just hated it. She might have been failing Father Sea, Mother River and the Rain-Child – as no doubt that brute would want a child out of her before she could do what they demanded of her – but she would not fail her closer kin.
Her eyes drifted over to the stone chapel by the water's edge. That was where her doom would come. Where she would be trapped in… in all-but-slavery for the sake of her family. But she would do it, because it was the right thing to do.
Her sister Charlotte kept knocking at the door, trying to get her to come out and play. Like a child would. She didn't understand what was going on. Not really.
She couldn't even invite her friends, because if she invited them it was certain that they'd try to stop this… this awful, awful marriage from happening. And she wanted nothing more than that, so she couldn't let them be here, 'lest her heart overwhelm her duty.
The sky wept, and Montmorency wept with it.
But it was not her sister outside the door. Abbé Étienne Guibourg was there, listening, and he heard her sobs. They lightened his heart and brought gaiety to his spirits.
These years and all the work he had put into this were all coming to fruition.
A certain group was gathered in the countryside near the capital, dressed for the inclement weather. The air was thick with conspiracy. And also with midges.
"Lord, why did you have us meet out here?" Kirche demanded, flapping her hand around her. "If you wanted us to conspire, couldn't we have done it in somewhere warm? And not filled with blood-drinking insects?"
"My friends," Guiche said, "I have called you here because I wish to propose certain deeds. Certain deeds which, in the eyes of many, would be called dishonourable. Such ill-reputed deeds that I feared we would be overheard in a tavern, even if we wore cloaks and met in a backroom. I know your natural instincts would be to reject such things – as indeed I would – but, I beg you, hear me out and…"
"Are you going to say we should crash Monmon's wedding?" Kirche demanded.
Guiche winced. "Well… yes. But I assure you…"
"Cool. We're in. I saw her husband. He's a shit."
"People should get to marry who they want," Danny agreed, the tip of his wand alight as he tried to drive away the bugs.
Tabitha didn't say anything or look up from her book, but her Gallian shrug suggested she had no reason to refuse and adequate reason to come along. And possibly – probably – kill people.
Guiche nodded solidly, lips creasing. "I'm glad I have you with me, my friends. I've been looking into what's happening with her family as best I can, and… well, it stinks. We've all done nicely from this – very nicely, really – but I can't track where her share of the treasure is going. Oh, I've made enquiries, and I know they have debts. But this much?"
Kirche flapped her hat around as she stretched. "Yeah. I mean, we were splitting things pretty equally and she's the money one. You could buy a small estate for how much we've made. They can't have that many secured debts. And Monmon's too smart to fall for the tricks of creditors."
"Unless she's not making the decisions, right?" Danny said.
"That's what I'm thinking."
Tabitha cleared her throat. "Kill 'er 'usband?" she suggested.
"Tabitha," Guiche said, sounding disappointed, "remember, we had that talk? We don't kill people just because it would be the easiest way."
"But," he continued, "there is something… off about him. He's such a pig – and I've been able to find out nothing about him. He's recently ennobled, but it's all very vague. Done through the Regency Council, through the Madame de Montespan before her… accident."
"Yeah," Kirche agreed. "It stinks." She frowned.
"What are you thinking?" Danny asked.
"Listen." Kirche ran her hands through her hair. "I have a contact on the… the other side. I'll see what she knows. Just don't ask me what I went through to find out, all right?"
Guiche reached out and grasped her hand. "You're a good friend."
"Oh, you," Kirche said, as one might address an enthusiastic puppy. It was probably not intentional, instead being force of habit. She tended to use that mode of address to eager young men a lot. She did manage to resist the urge to command Guiche to 'sit' or 'beg', though.
And on the way back home, she sent a message to an… ally.
A cloaked figure hurried through the streets of Bruxelles. This was a lower class district, close to the River Senne and the walls of the inner city. Finding what they looked for, they rapped on the door of the Charming Fairies inn.
"I'm here to meet a contact from the… lower aristocracy," Kirche whispered to the underdressed man behind the counter.
He nodded. "Do you have a reference number?" he asked.
"Oh yes. Ah. One hundred and seven." After several high profile embarrassing mix-ups with clandestine meetings between mysterious hooded figures, the Charming Fairies Inn now provided a reservation number. It was working well.
"One-oh-seven… one-oh-seven… ah, yes. Please follow Kri'stof'r… sorry, Christopher, downstairs."
Kirche pursed her lips. "Thank you," she said. "Word to the wise. The Infernal in your accent is, like, totally obvious."
"Oh, crap." The man – or as Kirche suspected, disguised incubus – rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah, my shift is nearly over. I'm just shattered." He paused. "You doing anything later?"
"I'm here on business," she said.
"Afterwards?" He looked her up and down. Nothing much was visible under her cloak, but she still got the feeling he was imagining her naked.
Kirche gave him her practiced consideration, having a considerably less demanding task for her imagination. Slim, nice sensitive eyes, and a swimmer's body. On one hand, he was a life-force devouring sex demon. On the other, she was a von Zerbst and thus basically immune to such things, and he was cute. "We'll see," she said, with a wink, before heading down.
The hidden underground room was smoky, and smelled of departed spirits – brandy, mostly, but with hints of whiskey and ectoplasm. At the tables were heroes, villains, amoral mercenaries, bandits, demons, ghosts, dragons, and robed cultists, and if you looked really closely you could tell them apart. Well, save the dragons. If you couldn't tell a dragon from the others, you were probably legally blind.
Settling down at table 107, Kirche ordered a drink and watched the barely decent server go. He could be the twin of the man upstairs, although he wore rather less. Hmm. She might linger a little longer if nothing urgent showed up. And she was definitely coming back again.
It wasn't long before another hooded and cloaked figure hurried up, drawing the curtains around the booth. There wasn't much need for a catchphrase; Kirche could recognise her half-sister on sight. When you were a von Zerbst, you got good at recognising half-siblings.
"Okay," Izah'belya whispered. "Just so we got this straight, I'm only doing this because the knowledge of how far the corruption of human society goes will drive you to, like, madness. And it's all part of a long plan to drag you down into corruption."
Kirche nodded, slipping down her hood. "Yeah. How long a plan? Hello, by the way. I got us a jug of wine."
"Hi. Oh, mega long. It's got so many steps you wouldn't believe it," Izah'belya said, pouring herself wine thankfully. "I have had a beatific day, and it isn't over yet."
"If it's so long and complicated, there's probably no way I could thwart it," Kirche said reassuringly. "It's probably a certain and inevitable step in my damnation. I'll be the Queen of Hell in no time at all if I accept your tainted gift."
That got her a flat stare from Izah'belya. "Take this seriously, would you? I'm doing you a favour here. Don't make fun of me."
Kirche flashed an apologetic grin at her demonic half-sister. "Right. Sorry. Got carried away. I meant to say, 'No, that's impossible, I know right and wrong, demon. I'm safe from your wiles'."
"That's more like it." Izah'belya slid it across the table. "Here you are." She stretched, shaking her hair out. "Urgh, this did not come at a bad time."
"Oh?" Kirche asked.
"I just got out of a… a situation in Albion, and I was spending some quality time with my cousin." She caught Kirche's raised eyebrows. "Not like that, you perv."
"I didn't say anything."
"You didn't need to. But me and her are honestly more like…" Izah'belya paused. "Well, obviously not like sisters. Even when we argue, we don't try to kill each other." She made a face, searching for words. "Friends?" she tried hesitantly. "Yeah. Maybe friends. I did ask a cute girl out, though."
"Are you judging me?"
"You're a wicked demon," Kirche said reassuringly. "You'd probably get off on my moral condemnation."
"Well, I mean, officially I should, but…"
"I'm sure you've done much worse things that I should be judging you."
"That's certainly true. But… yeah. So, I had to really rush around to dig this info up, so," she yawned. "It might not be one hundred percent accurate. But I'd certainly give it a solid, like, eighty percent or so. And you owe me for putting this work in on such short notice."
"You'll never corrupt me with your wiles, demon," Kirche said, distracted as she read the files.
Izah'belya finished her first glass of wine while Kirche read, then pulled out her slab of obsidian and started reading dark messages in burning runes evoked upon the volcanic glass.
"Well," Kirche said, exhaling. She put the papers down. "Well. Uh."
"Ha! You are shocked."
"I… am," Kirche conceded. "To think that Étienne Guibourg introduced demon-worship to the Madame de Montespan! He… this is true? This is not some kind of demon trick?"
Izah'belya smirked. "Don't you trust me?"
"Of course not, demon."
"Well, you shouldn't, but this is all true. The Madame de Montespan pledged herself to the Abyss – and the service of Athe. And with the help of that Étienne Guibourg man, she totally carried out dark rituals and on top of that bought the dark demonic brew grapath, in the form of azure crystals."
Kirche scratched at the paperwork with a fingernail. "There's a black mark covering up some of the other names of the cultists who were involved in those rituals."
"Hey," Izah'belya protested. "I wasn't going to put myself up against some of those NDAs. I had to call in some favours just to get this."
"Yeah. Yeah." Kirche met her eyes. "I do appreciate this. I really do, you know. This is almost certainly enough to get one of my friends out of a marriage she doesn't want."
Izah'belya sat back. "Let me guess. The blonde – the one who was a really bad model."
"Yeah. Got it. How'd you guess?"
"Well, I mean, I recognised the name of the family." Izah'belya shrugged. "I don't really care what happens to her, but… I mean, bad luck with it. Good luck." She flapped her hand. "I hope the situation resolves itself to your satisfaction. There's some really juicy stuff in there."
"Aww," Kirche said, grinning despite her worry. "You do care."
"Hey, keep it down," her half-sister said, glaring.
"It's… firstly, I don't care! And secondly, it's embarrassing to hear you… I don't care, I could never care, but even if I did you can't just go and say that out loud!" Izah'belya's cheeks were bright red.
Kirche was struck by a sudden and overwhelming wave of nostalgia. Poor Louise. She'd be… what, nearly nineteen now? Maybe that growth spurt she'd never had would finally have hit. What a shame.
And what did it mean that her half-sister thought sisters just tried to murder you, and wasn't used to having friends? Lord, the Abyss must be an awful place. It only reaffirmed the idea in her head that Izah'belya could be saved. All she had to do was show her that things like 'wanting platonic friends' and 'showing non-sexual affection' were fine to do when you were out of the literally hellish environs she had been raised in.
But further thoughts along those lines were impossible when the curtains twitched aside, and a hulking figure brushed through. Kirche boggled. That figure-hugging shirt in ludicrously expensive purple. That incredibly garish cravat. That moustache!
"Ah, my favourite niece! I thought I heard your voice! Give me a kiss!"
"Uncle!" Izah'belya protested, swatting at Scarron. "I'm here for secret high stakes negotiations with a hero! You're totally embarrassing me! She can't take me seriously when you're being so… so… so you!"
"Nonsense! Can't an uncle be happy to see his niece! You and Jez used to be so cute when you played together! Why don't you come around more?"
Kirche chuckled nervously. Given he wasn't her uncle, this had to be Izah'belya's uncle on her mother's side. And since her half-sister was a daughter of the Succubus Queen, she was in the presence of one of the greater powers of the Abyss. She could feel his vast and corrupt power washing over her, making her skin crawl.
"And who do we have here?" he boomed, eyes flicking over Kirche's features. "Oh my. So you found out who your father was, Izzie?"
"Uncle, please! Inside voice!"
"Oh, my dear, my little dear, the magic of this place follows my will! No one will hear us!" He turned his attention to Kirche. "Oh my! I can see the kinship!"
Kirche's hand crept towards her wand, but against a being so powerful, unprepared and without her friends she stood no chance. "I don't think we've met," she tried, looking for the exit.
"S'kareryeon, Prince of the Abyss, Master of Lies, Corrupter of Men," he said, offering his hand.
"Oh." She didn't take his hand, for fear he'd snatch her soul. Sweat beaded on her forehead.
"You two might have the same father, but if you hurt Izzie, I will come for you." Brimstone wafted from his breath as he leaned in and his eyes glowed red. "You don't want that."
Kirche's laughter was shrill and nervous. "Please, I'm not going to hurt her. Anyway, uh, foul demoness, I…" she glanced at Scarron, "I owe you one for getting this for me. And now I have to go. Right now." She left quickly, and Scarron took her place, sprawling out on the cushioned seats.
"Oh my dark gods, uncle!" Izah'belya exploded, after tugging the curtains closed. "This! Wow! I thought Jez'sika was making a big fuss about nothing when she said what you're like! But no, you really are all that! Did you have to threaten her? I can't ta… corrupt her when she's terrified of you!"
Scarron poured himself wine. "Yes, my little niece. I did. I don't want any heroes hurting you."
Izah'belya threw up her hands, pouting. "Why do you even care?"
"Well, just for one, it would make Jez sad if you died. But it would make me sad too."
He downed his cup. "No, it would. And I'll tell you why. Izah'belya, you don't take after your mother."
Izah'belya snorted at that. "She's said that before. And after meeting Kirche, I can see why. The von Zerbst blood is pretty clear when you know what you're looking for."
"Oh, oui, oui." Scarron smoothed down his moustache. "And also no. My little niece, what do you know about your aunt?"
"My… aunt?" Izah'belya straightened up, suddenly alert. "Your sister? And Mom's?"
"Our half-sister, yes."
"I don't have one. Or at least," she said carefully, "I thought I didn't."
"Well," Scarron said, "that's not a surprise, is it? Your mother is my younger sister. S'suzenne was my older sister. Your mother has always been ambitious."
"Oh." And that was everything Izah'belya needed to hear. Yes, her mother would definitely dispose of an older sister to secure her inheritance.
"You're a lot like her. Not in appearance, not exactly, but in personality. Temperament. And," Scarron smiled , and in his smile was the fall of saints, "have you ever tried walking through a binding circle?"
"I don't know what you mean." Except, damn it, that wasn't the right thing to say. It was too much of a denial. She should have said something about how it stung or something like that, because there was a fire deep in his eyes.
"Of course you don't," Scarron exclaimed, wrapping her up in a hug. "I believe you, my petit niece. But that is why I care about you. Even if you and Jez'sika are always fighting, you don't try to kill each other. You are nothing like your mother. And that is why I want you safe and I want that girl to be very scared of what I would do to her if she hurts you."
"I don't try to kill Jez because I know what you'd do to me if I did! Uncle, there are ways to interact beyond flirting and death threats!"
He gave her a knowing look. "Of course, of course."
"I saw Jez recently, actually," Izah'belya said, trying to desperately change the subject. "I… I think we made up. Kinda. Mostly." She squeaked as her uncle's hug tightened. "Can't breathe!"
"Oh! It is so malevolent to hear my daughter and my favourite niece are getting along!"
The wedding day came, and the rain had only intensified. It slashed down, bringing down visibility to nothing. Noon was as dark as twilight. Music drifted out from inside the grey church.
But certain very deliberately uninvited guests were outside, huddled under a dragon's wing. Guiche's mole snuffled around at floor level, while Kirche's salamander stayed close to Irukuwa where it was dry.
"Right," Guiche said. "Everyone knows their part in the plan? Especially you, Tabitha."
"Oui," Tabitha said.
"And what is it?"
She paused, frowning. "I enter een ze front and kill everyone."
Kirche winched, water cascading off her oilskin. "No, Tabitha, remember, that was the version of the plan we rejected. Because there are Monmon's relatives in there. And we're helping her."
Tabitha's expression showed a startling lack of comprehension as to why someone would care about their relatives all being viciously butchered.
Guiche patted her on the shoulder with a gloved hand. "Remember that talk," he suggested. "How do most people feel about their relatives?"
"Very good, Tabitha. So Monmon doesn't want them all dead."
"So you're just the backup for when things turn violent," Guiche reminded her. He would have said 'if things turn violent', but he was optimistic, not delusional.
"In that case…" Guiche pulled out a pocket mirror, and checked his appearance.
"You look fine," Kirche reassured him. For her part, she was in a stunning red ballgown. Technically the two of them hadn't been invited and were seeking to ruin the wedding, but that didn't mean they didn't have a duty as nobles to look their best. She glanced over at Danny, who was serving as their lookout, and sulking that he was their backup. "And remember what you have to do," she said.
"Yeah, I heard you. But I wanted to swing through the stained-glass windows," Danny whined.
"You can do that later."
"But I wanna do it now!"
Kirche rolled her eyes at Guiche. "Little brothers," she sighed. "Just stay where you are, Danny. You have your part to play."
"And it's important," Guiche added. "I'm trusting you to look after my familiar for this. You need to break into the house of the abbé and see what she can find. Can you do that for me?"
"Y-yes! Yes, I can!"
"Yeah. Now," Kirche passed Guiche a rope. "Time to make our appearance. We just need to show up when people ask if there are any objections. You nervous?"
Guiche flashed a smile at her. "Incredibly so."
"Don't worry. What's the worst that can happen?" Kirche paused. "Tabitha, that's a figure of speech. Don't tell us."
It is a fact well established that there is a correct time to interfere with a wedding. Indeed, it is so well established that there is a specific time when would-be interferers are meant to raise their issues, or forever hold their peace. It was thought that this would reduce the number of disruptions to the ceremony and hopefully also encourage the heroic sorts to sit down and wait for their time and maybe even check that it was the right wedding.
However, it is also well established that when trying to arrange to swing in through a stained-glass window from the exterior of a building in the rain, it is hard to tell when your cue is.
As a result, Guiche and Kirche were a good ten minutes early, and smashed through the window during the hymns. The music trailed off in general confusion, and there was a scream from the sacristan who had thoughtlessly got in the way of the flying glass.
"I object!" Guiche yelled.
This produced no small disturbance in the audience, particularly among the more traditionally inclined parts of it. The comte de Braine, who was a particularly well known arch-conservative, was most vocal among the objectors. "Oh, for goodness—" He jabbed his wand at Guiche. "Young man, you are early! We're still in the readings! Come back later!"
Guiche bit back his response, instead turning to the not-very-radiant bride. "I don't care! Monmon! I love you!"
A collective "Ooooh!" arose from the guests at the church, many of whom considered this spectacle a welcome piece of entertainment from the more boring bits of a wedding.
"Uh, what's this?" asked Eustache de la Grange, the groom.
"I don't care!" Monmon shouted back, her tormented face putting lie to her words. "I… you idiot, you shouldn't have come! I didn't send you an invite for a reason!"
"And I don't care that you don't care! You'd care if you knew how much I cared!" Guiche sucked in a breath. "This is all wrong!"
"This is my duty, you idiot!" Monmon shrieked at him, eyes welling with tears.
"This is a trap! A trap arranged by him!" Guiche whirled on the priest, who was backing away. "Because, Monmon, he's organised this all to destroy you!"
Eyes widening, the abbé made a sharp cutting motion. One of the men by the door raised his musket – only for him to feel a cold stabbing feeling in his back. It was a knife, in the hand of a Tabitha.
"Lies!" Étienne snapped over the screams. "Get these ruffians out of here!" His eyes were ablaze with the madness of a man tapdancing on a rope bridge that is on fire; the look of someone sprinting along a crumbling balcony knowing if he stops, he falls. "But this is not the matter at hand. We are here for a wedding! One arranged by the lord of these lands!"
"Yes, indeed," Montmorency's father said. "Now, can we get on with…"
Kirche's laughter rang out. "There isn't going to be a wedding today!" she told the priest. "Give it up. It's all out in the open now. You are an infernalist, and a slave to the forces of the Abyss!"
"And the reason he wanted to destroy you, Monmon, the reason he has done all these wicked things," Guiche said, "is that Étienne Guibourg is your illegitimate brother!"
The revelation was somewhat muted because much of the audience towards the back of the church was distracted by Tabitha happening to the somewhat-innocent guard, but there were still enough people paying attention to gasp dramatically.
"Henri!" gasped Monmon's stepmother.
"Father!" added Monmon, in exactly the same tone.
The man blanched, suddenly the centre of attention. "Well, uh… it's all lies, and…"
"Hah!" Kirche contributed. "Told you, Monmon! It's not just my family that has a problem with evil illegitimate—"
"Not the time," Guiche said, nudging her with his foot.
Étienne whipped his wand out from the sleeves of his long black cassock. "Take off the amulet!" he screamed at the groom. White mist wreathed him as he cast a concealment spell.
"Oh no you don't!" Monmon snapped, going for her own wand. Her eyes were alight with entirely unsurprising wrath. "I'm going to fu—"
A meaty, oversized hand came down towards her and she threw herself backwards. Eyes wide, Monmon stared up at her groom. He had always been big and stocky, with a build of a man who ate well and carried heavy loads. But now his formal dress clothes tore off his frame as he swelled up to twice a man's height. His nose had always been piggish, but now it was bestial. And his skin took on a greenish-brown hue. Red eyes glinted in a heavy-set brow; brutal tusks protruded from a heavy jawline.
"Oh Founder, he's an orc," she said, speaking for the bits of the audience who weren't already screaming and stampeding out. "I… how? How does that work? How does an orc disguise…"
"Magic," said the orc. "Oi, boss, what do I…"
"Kill them all," the priest yelled, to the sound of a collapsing wall as he made his escape.
Kirche boggled. "Wait. You tried to marry your half-sister off to an orc?" she said, screwing up her face. "Yuck! Urgh! That's just… urgh!"
Guiche cleared his throat. "You! Orc! Let us step outside and resolve this like gentlemen fighting over the hand of a lady," he said clearly. "I will have your head."
The orc chuckled. "Yeah, whatever you say, pipsqueak." It didn't show any fear. Perhaps it was too stupid.
"Monmon, Kirche?" Guiche nodded at them. "Take that priest down."
"I'm not taking him down! His guts are mine!" Monmon screamed, giving chase.
Guiche was a slim figure, overshadowed by the towering hulk of muscle and fat. "You, orc! You will die for this! To threaten Monmon's honour! The dark, vile things you would do to her poor defenceless body… like the rest of your vile kind! I will see you slain for your perverse intentions!"
"Wait!" The orc scowled. "I… perverse? What d'ya mean?"
"Your… your wickedly lewd ways will not be tolerated! No more women will serve to slake your vile lusts!"
"Huh?" The orc scratched behind his pointed ears with a sausage-like finger. "I don't wanna do that."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Look, I dunno what stories you humies tell each other, but you'd have to be a real sicko to want to do anything like that with one of you. Look at you! You ain't got muscles. You're tiny and scrawny and you're all pasty and… urgh." The pile of muscle and tusks made a gagging sound. "She's the size of a kid. You're fuckin' sick."
Guiche blinked. "Oh. I'm… I'm sorry?"
"Yeah, you should be! Talkin' 'bout me like that! I just got hired by that priest for this! I ain't marrying some tiny humie chick for real."
"You're… not?" Monmon step-mother asked from her hiding place behind the pews. "The stories of what orcs do to people they capture are… are quite lurid."
"Fuck no, lady. Yuck."
"I… oh." Guiche considered what to say next. "Well, I… I think this is a misunderstanding."
"Yeah. Honestly, bruv, I'm feeling kind of hurt. There I was, minding my own business and this little priest comes along and tells me that if I pretend to be a humie and pretend to marry this girl, I'd get to," he frowned, "sat-is-fy my hungers and slake my desires. An' I was pretty hungry an', well, he mentioned a wedding feast I'd get."
"Ah, I see." Guiche nodded. Such a shame the wicked abbé had lured this orc into his schemes. "Well, in that case, you're free to go."
The orc scratched his head. "Uh… you mean it."
"I don't see that we have any quarrel."
"That ain't normal for a humie, boss, but I ain't going to kick up a fuss. You got a von Zerbst with you."
Somehow, Guiche wasn't surprised that the infamy of the family had spread even among orcs. "She's the heir," he said.
"Yeah, I'm not gonna mess with her." The orc shrugged. "It's a shame," he admitted. "I was hoping the plan went off. I was gonna get what I wanted from it."
"What was that?" Guiche asked idly.
"Oh, I was gonna eat the bride."
Guiche froze. "What?"
"It's a wedding feast, ain't it?" the orc said affably. "Humies are as good as pork. And she's so small so she's probably really tender – and I reckon she got water elemental blood a few generations back. Elemental blood is real sweet. The priest-man asked me if I wanted to bring some buddies along to help, but I dunno what he was going on about. Like I told him, there's no way I'm sharing that meat."
Guiche frowned. He tapped his lip with his wand. "Hmm. Hmm." He nodded his head. "Mmm. I believe we now have a quarrel." His handsome face twisted into a snarl. "Come forth, my golems, and…"
The comte de Braine stood up. "Oh, no, no," he declared pompously. "That's not properly at all! We need to head over to the duelling court if a man and an orc are to fight over a woman's hand! And we need at least two certified witnesses! The precedent, dear boy, the precedent. Why, only two hundred years ago, a quite spectacular duel was fought between John IV of Albion and the orcish warlord Brognar over the hand of the orcish maiden Skullsmasher."
Monmon's stepmother's eyes narrowed. "I thought duelling was illegal?" she said. "Because right now, I feel inclined to duel my husband."
"Darling…" the man said weakly.
"Don't you 'darling' me!"
"Oh, only between people," de Braine said. "One can duel an orc all one wants."
"But not husbands?"
"Only if they're not human."
"Huh." Guiche rubbed the back of his neck. He cupped his hands around his mouth. "Excuse me! Is anyone interested in witnessing a duel?"
Outside, rain slashed down from the heavens. Lightning flashes lit up the lakeside landscape. The people fleeing the sudden appearance of the orc had run towards the Montmorency family home, but the priest had not headed that way.
Montmorency's breath rasped in her lungs. Her slippers were delicate bridal things, not for running in, but she kept up with Kirche out of sheer outrage.
"Down!" Kirche screamed, throwing herself into the mud. She slid under the water blade that came hissing towards them, making a noise like tearing silk. Monmon skidded to a halt next to an outcrop of bull rushes. She was already so filthy that the virginal white was lost under the coating of mud. The cold of the mud between her toes indicated that she'd lost the slippers somewhere.
Steam roared as Kirche tossed a pair of fireballs at the sodden boat waiting on the lakeside. It went up like a torch, raindrops hissing as they fell on the crackling inferno. Étienne Guibourg threw himself back, his escape thwarted, and whirled on the women.
"You couldn't just do what you were meant to," he shouted.
"What I was meant to?" Monmon levelled her wand at him.
"This was never your land. I am the firstborn son! Just because our dear father didn't think to get married beforehand means I get nothing?"
Kirche gestured over at Monmon. She would flank him while he was distracted. Monmon nodded back. "You sold your soul to the Abyss!" she called out, staring with hate at her half-brother. At the architect of so much of her misery.
"Ha! Not mine! One soul is much like another," Étienne retorted. He kept his wand levelled on her. "Demons don't care. They're corrupt, wicked and lazy. They're just something one can use for power. But a sanctimonious self-righteous brat like you would never know that. You and your so-called 'hero' friends."
"So-called?" Monmon had to keep him talking. "Oh, do go on. Why are we so-called, exactly? We kill orcs, dragons, animal-headed byproducts of Gallian fleshcrafters, skeletons, zombies, goblins, more orcs…" How long could she keep him distracted? "… more goblins, vampires, ghosts, werewolves, bandits, bandits led by vampires, um… wyverns…"
"Enough! You clearly don't understand a thing! A world where the order of one's birth determines inheritance doesn't deserve saving!"
She took a deep breath. "Yes, I can see why you might consider that unfair…"
"But here's the big thing." She squared her jaw. "At the point you're selling souls to the Abyss and trying to marry your half-sister to an orc, you're far past the point of 'maybe you have a point'."
"See! This is why you're complicit with the system!"
"Bull-sugar! You tried to marry me to an orc!" This was very pressing to her. "And you know what they do to people!" Her hand shook with rage, as lightning lit up his ugly expression of glee. "They eat them alive! So… so you can just fuck off with that attitude!" A little bit of her cringed at her use of profanity – but only a little bit. It was mostly drowned out by her towering fury.
"I'd have liked to have seen what the orc would have done to you," Étienne said, staring at her with his blue eyes – so like hers, why hadn't she seen it earlier? "But you know what? I think I'd rather kill you myself."
Ugly, inhuman syllables dripped from his mouth, taking form as ugly glistening oil. Monmon snapped out a water-blade cantrip, but it splashed against the tainted magic. She started to chant, knowing that it was too late and he had some kind of investment from darker powers or-
And then Kirche was there, dress torn and muddy, legs pumping, a jet of bright fire wrapped around her hand. Étienne cursed, wheeling around on her as he spoke the final word.
Light the colour of spilled oil erupted from his wand, and struck Kirche in the chest. She screamed, and went down.
"Kirche!" screamed Monmon. She was down, red hair spilling around her like blood, and that awful, evil oil-slick magic was… no! No!
"Oh, that was the von Zerbst heiress?" Étienne smiled. He was breathing deeply, and his wand hand shook. "Shit, I might even get an award from the Cabal for that. It's quite the accomplishment. I'll just need to finish you off. And then…"
"Ow," Kirche said, pulling herself to her knees. Thunder boomed overhead. Her breaths came in gasps. "Shit. That was right in my boob, you asshole. Do you know how much that hurts?"
The priest opened and closed his mouth. "Bwha?"
She braced herself on her thighs, cracking her neck. "Men! I'm gonna set your balls on fire, see how much you like that."
"How the fuckshitting fuck did you survive that?" His eyes were wide and almost bulging out of their sockets. He backed away from Kirche out of sheer terror. "That should have killed you! No human could survive a curse of pure evil like that!"
"I'm a von Zerbst," Kirche said, examining the fresh layer of mud that coated her as she clambered to her feet, massaging her chest with her free hand. "And that wasn't pure evil. Impure, maybe. Not pure. Shit, I can feel the bruise coming up."
"But… but that kills... that kills…"
"Von. Zerbst." Kirche raked her fingers through her hair irritably. "It's going to be tender for days. Do you know how much it hurts to wear a bodice when you're got a bruise on your boob? And trust me, asshole, I need the support! But a little thing like that won't stop me." She cracked her knuckles. "I'm the firstborn daughter of…"
"Firstborn legitimate daughter."
"Shut up, Monmon, I just threw myself in the way of a bolt of impure evil for you. Don't ruin this for me. And this is your bastard of a bastard half-brother who did this." She raised her wand at his head. "Now, that was your most powerful spell. And it only winded me. I might as well just kill you here and now. Oh, but good manners mean I have to offer it to Monmon. Urgh."
"This isn't your revenge!" Montmorency snapped back, tearing off her bridal mantle. "Do you know what this bastard has put me through? The hell I'm letting you take him from me!"
Kirche pulled a face, tapping her lips with her wand. Melodramatically, she turned her heel and started to walk away. "I suppose I can give this as a gift to you," she called back over her shoulder. "I mean, he did try to kill me, but it is your wedding day."
The priest was turning red. "Take me seriously, damn it!"
"Oh, I'm an amazing mage, but I'm afraid that's a little bit beyond my talents," Kirche drawled. "Monmon, he's more your size. Go ahead. With my blessing."
Montmorency's lips moved as she heard Kirche's hummed song pass into the distance. Now it was just her and her half-brother. Just the two of them by the shore of the lake. The lake where the water elemental who claimed herself as one of her – and therefore his – ancestors dwelled.
As she watched, the water of the shore was a little more active than it should have been. The waves were like hands, reaching up towards them. The spirits were watching.
The next bolt of lightning lit them both in stark contrast.
A pause. Then "Brother. There is nothing I want to do more than kill you." Her hair, utterly drenched, had lost its ringlets and hung limply. There was no mercy in her sea-blue eyes. "For what you have put me through over these years. For what you wanted done to me. For trying to marry me off to an orc. I want you dead, and there are so many ways I could do it. I'm a skilled potion-maker and healer. I could make it hurt. I could make it last.
"And so I am going to give you one chance. To surrender."
"Surrender?" Étienne's eyes were wild; his breaths came in gasps. "How stupid are you that you think I'd do that?"
Monmon didn't smile. "You might stand a chance, if the Church claims jurisdiction over you. You are a priest. They could show mercy."
He laughed bitterly. Water ran from his lank hair –the same colour as hers – down his neck to soak into his black robes. "The mercy of a lifetime of penitence. To die slowly in some far-off monastery."
"It's more than you deserve," she said, and the contempt was clear in her voice. "I want you dead, here and now. I can kill you where you stand." Her left eye twitched. "If you surrender, I'll spare your life."
"Ha!" And he laughed now, a wet, hoarse chuckle. "You know, I nearly believed you. But you oversold it. If you were so confident you could kill me, you'd do it. You're bluffing."
"Yes, you are! You have an obvious tell! I've been watching you for years, sister. When your eye has a tic, you're lying!"
Montmorency sighed, and looked down for just a heartbeat. When she looked up, she was smiling. "I gave him a chance," she said. It wasn't clear who she was talking to. Perhaps the spirits. Perhaps her father up in the chapel. "No matter what happens next, I gave him a chance."
"Patronising bitch," Étienne said, teeth gritted. Water ran down his face. "Well, stand up on the moral high ground if you like. It'll just mean you fall further."
Monmon simply smiled, the rain framing her face. "Perhaps you'll understand when demons come for their price."
He shifted, adjusting his weight on the wet ground. And then he exploded forwards in a lunge, wand aimed at her heard. "Hundred Blue Spears!" he shouted.
For a moment, the rain was as solid as a wall, angled to deflect the rain of lances away from Monmon. She slashed her wand diagonally, speaking no spell. He desperately chanted, yanking the water up from the ground up into a wall.
But there was no dart, no water-arrow to seek his life.
The wand fell from Étienne's fingers. He tried to speak, but only a breathy wheezing was heard. He touched his neck in confusion, and his fingers came away red. The scarlet spread, staining his collar and seeping into his robes.
He collapsed, spilling out his life from his cut throat. His eyes looked up, meeting his half-sister's. "How?" he mouthed.
"The rain," Montmorency said simply.
He scrabbled by the lakeside, churning up the earth. "Help… help me," he mouthed.
"No." She gazed down at him. "I offered you one chance to surrender. And I am a woman of my word. That's what you were relying on. For your whole wretched, evil scheme. That I would keep my word." A breath. Then; "So I will."
She watched as he bled out into the mud, and didn't turn away until the desperate gasps from a cut throat fell silent.
Only then she collapse to her knees and empty out her stomach. As all she had eaten today was dry bread, soon she was heaving bile.
Someone cleared her throat behind Monmon. "So. 'E is dead."
"Yes, he is, Tabitha."
Tabitha gave a one-shoulder shrug. "You knew 'e would not surrender."
"Yes," Monmon said weakly. "But I still gave him the chance. It was the right thing to do."
The other girl said nothing.
"You don't agree."
"'E could 'ave killed you."
"No. He couldn't have." She straightened up, smearing mud across her forehead as she wiped her brow. Her ringlets were entirely straight. "I don't suppose your dragon can carry me back?" She sighed. "I think I lost my slippers in the chase."
When Montmorency made her reappearance, she found Guiche was bruised, covered in dust, and his bronze Valkyries were carrying an orc head. He was being congratulated by all the onlookers and wedding attendees, and that was only reinforced when he revealed that his familiar had found that there were ludicrous amounts of stolen gold and silver hidden in the house of the now-deceased priest.
"Well, actually I found it," Danny mumbled, but it was already common knowledge that it was Guiche's achievement.
"My goodness," Monmon said faintly. Her hands balled into fists. "All right! Tabitha! No one is leaving! If they try to run away, have your dragon eat them!" She turned her attention to the onlookers. "I want to make this very clear. I believe you are honest people who are not going to try to steal away any of this illegitimately stolen wealth of my family. And because you are honest and trustworthy, I will make sure that none of you are tempted to blemish your honour."
Guiche stood beside her, tattered and dusty. "I'd just like to say that my mole can smell gold, silver, and other precious things," she said. "There's really no need to threaten people."
"I'm not threatening people…"
"I understand you've had a hard day, Monmon." He looked meaningfully over at her stepmother. "You should talk to your family. I'll handle these things."
Montmorency sighed. She… probably did.
And things went better than might have been hoped. "Trust me," her step-mother said, a flinty look in her eyes, "we are going to be having words about why he had his bastard as the family priest. They won't be very nice words. I'd be unhappy about that if it was just some fondness for an illegitimate son who he never told me about." She let out a slow breath. "This goes a long way beyond mere unhappiness."
Monmon nodded. She did love her father, but right now she wasn't feeling very well-inclined towards him. "Make him suffer," she said. "Not too much, but… 'too much' is a very relative term, isn't it?"
The older woman chuckled unpleasantly. "Yes." She patted Monmon's shoulder. "You should get changed into something dry before you catch cold. And… for what it's worth, I'm sorry that you got caught up in all of this."
She swallowed. She didn't like the woman, but, "… I think we were all played for fools," she said. "I should have stood up to father and stopped him wasting all the money. So should you. We'll… just have to change how things work going forwards."
That got her a nod. It wasn't some close relationship, but maybe it was enough.
Montmorency certainly felt more human once she had washed in warm water and changed into something dry. The hated wedding dress was soaked and stained by lake mud, and she'd torn it running. The delicate ancient family silk slippers were somewhere in a field. And the clouds were parting outside. Maybe the water spirits had wanted to make sure she had plenty of rain around to use as a weapon.
She hadn't seen any sign of Kirche, and so went to check that she was fine. The servants directed her to where they had put the von Zerbst girl, and she let herself in.
"Well, how are you…" Montmorency trailed away. It was like a sauna in here. The air was thick with steam. In the middle of the haze was Kirche, wrapped up unfittingly warmly with her feet in a bowl of water. This was the apparent source of the steam. Her salamander familiar was curled up in the corner, lightly dozing.
"Close the door and don't let the heat out!" Kirche snapped. She had dark bags under her eyes, she was pale under her tanned skin, and the spreading bruise was visible as an ugly red welt under her sweat-soaked shift.
Monmon complied, and gingerly approached Kirche, wand out. She'd never seen her look so bad. "What's the matter?"
Kirche looked up, bleary-eyed. "I got hit by a bolt of evil," she said, voice raw. Her eyes were bloodshot and despite the temperature she looked cold and clammy. "I'm suffering because of it."
"But you said…"
"Come on, Mons, I wasn't going to show weakness in front of him. My life literally depended on him not trying again," Kirche said, shivering. "I was bluffing hard. I couldn't have fought him. Yeah, we von Zerbsts can take maybe a killing spell and survive it, but I feel awful right now. I've got a splitting headache that feels like someone's driving two nails into my temples, my feet hurt so bad I can't really walk, and I'm literally hot enough to boil a kettle."
"Let me take a look," Montmorency said, reaching out to test Kirche's temperature with the back of her hand. "So, let's… ow!" She flinched back, red mark on the back of her hand.
"I told you so," Kirche croaked.
"I didn't think you meant literally literally! I thought you meant figuratively literally! How the flip are you still alive?!"
"I've always been tough. I am a von Zerbst, after all, and this is our fire fighting off the evil influence. I'll be fine."
"You… you…" Montmorency resisted the urge to bash her head into the wall. "You should have called me for help! Afterwards, I mean! Stupid proud men!"
"I'm not a…"
"Well, your father must be happy with you because you certainly act like one!" She kicked a chair. "Lord and Founder, Guiche is better at asking for help than you are! You should have called me as soon as things were over! Not hidden yourself away in this… this room you've turned into a steam-bath!"
"Aww. You do care."
"Of course I care! Don't play games! I need to treat you!"
"Well, I wasn't going to ruin your not-a-wedding day. So there," said Kirche, teeth chattering. "I'll be fine, really. Just in a bit."
"At the very least let me treat the bruise! I might not know about curses, but you won't be able to use your arm for days if someone doesn't see to that."
"Fair," Kirche said, grimacing as she tugged down the neck of her shift. "I can't really lie down without charring the wood, but…"
"It's fine," Monmon said, wand-tip already glowing blue. "Now, how… Kirche!"
"What?" She sighed in relief as the cool healing water sunk into her flesh, and the red swelling started to go down.
"Your collarbone is fractured! Were you seriously going to tough this out?"
"… no?" Kirche lied.
"You're terrible! Sit there, stay still, and I'll at least make sure everything's set up to heal right!"
The broken bone was the first thing Monmon saw to – Kirche would thank her for it later. After that, she started teasing broken blood vessels back together and drawing fluid out of the tissues. She would usually have sedated a patient for this with a sleeping potion, but one of the useful things of Kirche's stupid machismo was she didn't make a fuss during a healing. And wasn't that a thing to say, when you were treating the badly bruised breast of the most macho person you knew? She was laying deeper spells to counteract the damage that the curse was doing to Kirche's tendons when there came a knock at the door.
"Kirche?" Danny called out.
"So, I got a… wow, what did you do to yourself?"
Kirche sighed. "Close the door! Her," she nodded to Monmon, "evil half-brother used some nasty curse on me. I think it was corrupted evil-tainted water or something. It's… ow, it's hurting right now. Hit me right in the tit."
"Oh yeah, yeah, you better rest up and keep warm until it passes," Danny said, nodding wisely, as Monmon muttered about von Zerbst stupidity. "But… um. A messenger just arrived. It's from… um. From home."
Danny shook his head. "She wants us back."
"Shit." Kirche let her head fall into her hands. "I'm gonna catch hell from her when she finds out that I got hurt like this. She's going to be so passive-aggressive, you wouldn't believe."
Danny chuckled nervously. "Better you than me. She might be so worried about you I can just slip in and pretend I was home all along."
Kirche gasped as another cold water spell sunk into. She caught Monmon's eye. "I don't suppose I can seek refuge here?" she tried hopefully.
"Once you're well enough to travel, I think you need to go home," Monmon said, frowning. She could treat the tissue damage, but… the von Zerbst reaction to such curses was complicating things and was far beyond anything she had dealt with before. "Perhaps you can get Tabitha to give you a ride back home, but I think you need extended bed-rest and you probably can get the best treatment at home. I'm sure the von Zerbst estate will know the best treatments for the after-effects of surviving such spells. And maybe when you're there, you can find me some books that'll help just in case you or Danny get hurt like this again when you only have me to rely on."
"Traitor," muttered Kirche. "Just for that, I'm going to seduce any handsome cousins you have. A wedding is a good place to get laid and I want a handsome man lavishing attention on me."
"… but my cousins are all girls." There was an expression on Monmon's face like she had just had an idea, though.
"Urgh!" Kirche sagged down, groaning from the movement. "This day keeps on getting worse and worse!"
Guiche lay on his back and stared up at the whitewashed ceiling. He was smiling. Despite the bruises, despite the aches, despite the fact he had fought an orc today – he was smiling.
Dappled light shone in through the window. The rain was clearing up, and the sun shone down on Randoran Lake. The broad-leaved trees outside his window shifted in the gentle breeze, casting patterns of shadow and light.
Sure, things hadn't gone exactly as planned, but they'd gone more as planned than most of their plans as a group. Kirche had shouted at him through the door that she was fine and Danny had explained that she was just shaking off a curse. Monmon was free of a marriage she didn't want, and they'd found a lot of the money the corrupt priest had stolen. Things were good.
Sitting up, he rotated his shoulder gingerly and winced. He probably needed more of the bruise balm. It was coming up nicely, and he'd had worse, but he'd struggle to use a wand for the next few days in his right hand. Thank goodness that he was a specialist in golems and had swarmed that orc, eh?
A knock came at his door. "Who is it?"
"It's me," Montmorency said. "Just here to check on you and see if you're hurt."
"Oh, right." He winced as he grabbed for the nearest shirt. "Just give me a second to…"
She didn't care, and entered, bolting the door behind her. Her eyes were bright and almost feverish; her cheeks pink; her hair still drying. She looked strange without her ringlets.
"Excuse me, I'm just getting…"
"Oh, come on, there's nothing showing that I haven't seen before when patching you up," Monmon said. "I'm here to make sure you're not being a Kirche and pretending less hurt than you are."
Guiche chuckled, and then gasped. "No, really, I'm hurting, but I've had worse. Mostly bruises. He clipped my shoulder with a punch, but it's not broken. Just swollen."
"I'll be the judge of that. Stop trying to put a shirt on and let me see."
She was lightly dressed and still damp, wearing little more than a shift and a thin dress over the top. As she settled down next to him on the bed, she smelled of fresh perfume.
"Mmm. Yes. You've got some bruises, but they'll heal and," she tapped his arm with her wand, glowing blue, "I helped them along. Nothing as bad as blooming Kirche! She was trying to pretend that a fractured collarbone was something she could get over! Stupid von Zerbsts!"
"Um. I'm not so stupid. And thank you." He worked his shoulder. "I think the swelling is going down." Here she was, sitting so close to him. "Um. So. I… I guess you're going back out us. With us, I mean. Um."
"Yes. I'm not abandoning you," she told him. "And I still need – and like – money. Though… I think some other arrangements might need to change."
"Oh?" His heart sped up.
"Look," Monmon said, "at this point, I will be marrying who I want. Between the money Danny found which should fend off the creditors, and the fact that my father was covering up he put his bastard in charge of his affairs and he was deliberately sabotaging everything, I'm expecting nothing less."
"That's… that's amazing," Guiche said, eyes widening. "Your parents will…"
"They better," she said darkly. "After all this… this bull-sugar, I'm not marrying some fat old man unless he's very, very rich and also going to die in the next two hours."
She giggled wryly. "That was a joke. Look, there's a certain level of wealth and immediacy of death that I'd be willing to marry. Or at least… well. Um. How to put it? I would have been."
"Oh?" Butterflies flapped in his stomach, and from the pinkness of her cheeks, she was feeling no more at ease.
From a pouch at her waist, she recovered a little blue box. Opening it revealed a simple gold band.
"Guiche de Gramont, therefore," she swallowed, "will you marry me?"
He blinked. He blinked again. "Y-yes," he blurted out. The relief in her eyes made his heart leap. "But… um, shouldn't I be… the rings… you…"
That earned him a dirty look. "Guiche, you idiot, I'm not letting good rings go to waste. I had these two lying around. One of them is mine, and you killed the orc. So r-really you own it anyway."
"Oh Monmon," he said fondly. "Always thinking of money."
"Don't you 'oh Monmon' me." She swallowed, looking as nervous as he felt. "You're meant to be kissing me."
"Oh, my mistake." He wrapped his arms around her, and swept her into a kiss. It started shallow, but got much deeper.
"Wow, you went strai—" he began when they surfaced for air.
"Yes. Get used to it, my fiancé." She took off her engagement ring, and passed it to him. "Now give this to me."
"Yes, dear." He slipped it on her finger. "Oh look, it fits perfectly."
"Just as well, really. And as for the rest," she began to unfasten her dress, "we have a few hours until dinner, and I locked the door. If… um… if you want to, we can celebrate our engagement."
"Um." Guiche tried not to act too surprised and failed. She'd always been so restrained – but had that just been the fear of an unwanted marriage weighing on her? "D-do you want to?"
Well. He couldn't say that he didn't like this new Monmon.
"Well," she said, a sudden charming blush painting her bright red, "my way of thinking is, there's an awful lot of things we can do while I remain technically… um. Well, noblewomen have known about these things for a long time. And since you're my fiancé, it's basically fine. We're just… practicing for later."
Her hands were cool against his chest. Wrapping his arms around her, Guiche helped her with the rest of her dress and. "They always told us that practice makes perfect when we were back at the Academy," he said, kissing her throat as she wriggled out of her shift.
"Precisely my thought." Her hands went to cover herself, but then she paused. "D-do you… you like it?"
He grinned like a fool as he worked at the laces on his hose. "You're beautiful, Monmon."
"You say that all the girls."
"Yes. But to you, I mean it."
She sighed, glancing out the window. "Why did I have to wind up falling for someone who's so cheesy?" she said, shaking her head. "I had to have other choices."
"Well, I did kill your last fiancé in a duel," he pointed out, yanking off his hose.
"Good point. You're not an orc. Already a positive mark." The bed protested as she pushed him back, cuddling up to him and resting her head on his chest. "I mean it about… I want to marry you as a virgin," she said quietly. "I'm… I'm not ready for… I don't want children yet. Nineteen is too young."
"Me neither," he admitted. "Y-you scared?"
"Mmm. I… I didn't… what happens now?"
"I don't know." He bit his lip. "I… I flirted with a lot of girls, but… um, we never got this far." His hand gesture took in the whole 'naked in the same bed' thing. "So. Uh."
A little bit of tension she didn't know was there left her. "Oh. Um. Okay. Want to find out together?"
Nervously, Tabitha picked her way towards Guiche's bedroom. As she had been approaching it, she had heard moaning. Her greatest fear was ghosts. Was he being haunted?
Plucking up her courage, she rapped at the door. "Guiche?"
"Tabitha. Leave and come back in half an hour." It wasn't Guiche who said it, though.
"Montmorency? Eez Guiche with you?"
A pause. "Yes?" Guiche said eventually. "She's… just seeing to my wounds."
Tabitha nodded. Medical treatment was important, especially when Guiche was not a water mage. "Eet is just zat zere are many Albionese warships een ze sky." She paused. "I will come back."
She turned to go, ignoring the pounding of footsteps and the sound of things being knocked over. The door flew open, revealing a Monmon in a backwards shift and a Guiche in just a shirt. The inflammation of his shoulder had gone done considerably. Tabitha nodded approvingly. Montmorency was a fine healer.
"What?" Monmon demanded.
"Zere are many Albionese warships. Eet is an eenvasion." She gestured up at the window, and at the dark shapes that hung in the late afternoon sky, like a fleet of great birds. "Zought zat you might want to know."