This story is dedicated to Noboru Yamaguchi and the many years of work he gave to The Familiar of Zero franchise.
Rest in peace.
Louise Francoise le Blanc de la Valliere was well acquainted with failure, far more so than the average noble.
It had been following her for years.
Every time she wanted to cast a spell, it backfired in her face. Whenever she tried to emulate Cattleya's kindness towards animals or saintly patience, she would end up getting bitten, or would become enraged while trying to do something ladylike and embarrass herself completely. Her mother would always look at her with the same disappointed frown, and Eleonore would snap at her angrily, leaving her to burn with shame.
Louise was so sick and tired of the failures that she wanted little more than to just succeed at something, to completely shed the title "Louise the Zero".
As it turned out, she did manage to do so, but not as easily as she would have liked.
It started simply enough. In front of her classmates, out in one of the five courtyards of the Tristain Academy of Magic, she spoke the hallowed words of invocation—My name is Louise Francoise le Blanc de La Valliere. Pentagon of the Five Elemental Powers, bless this humble being, and make them my familiar. When she waved her wand, there was a giant explosion, and the sound of something thumping on the ground. The students gathered around swept their cloaks in front of them or ducked as clouds blanketed the field. Then, as the smoke cleared, Louise's familiar slowly became visible.
On the ground laid a woman with pink hair, the same shade as Louise's, tied off in a high ponytail. The woman was dressed in a loose, off-white robe with a matching black vest and a red inner shirt peeking out from beneath the robe. It exposed her bare legs, and was singed and burned in multiple places, or streaked with dirt. She wore sandals, and a blue sheath was stuck in the sash cinching her waist. There was a strange pink tattoo of some kind on her face—a circle on her forehead, with a curved line that went under the circle and stopped above her right eye, with a matching fang-like mark on the cheek below the same eye.
Most striking, though, was the woman's right sleeve; it was raggedy-edged, and simply lay spread out on the grass, while her left hand, gripping a burned, blood-stained sword, rubbed at her closed, scarred-over left eye. Her skin was littered with fresh cuts, bloody and charred, including a nasty burn wound on her stomach that was still bleeding violently. Her right eye glared up at Louise, the pink iris and furrowed brow communicating clear malice. Louise, though paralyzed by shock, heard the whispers from the other students around her, and her stomach churned and spun, blended with fear.
"Good job, Louise the Zero," called one of the other students, a red-haired girl with brown skin, a golden choker necklace, and a nice bust. Beside her, a lizard-like creature, the size of a squat, medium-sized dog with scale color to match her hair, flicked its tongue in and out of its mouth. "Most certainly more impressive than my cute little Flame, here. "
Louise's face flushed red, and she said, "Shut up, Kirche! It was a mistake, nothing more!"
From where he stood behind her, her teacher, the balding Mister Colbert, cleared his throat, regarding Louise's summon with as much skepticism as the others. Regardless, though, he had felt the pulse of magic; this was no trick. "Miss Valliere, complete the ritual," he said.
Louise turned to him, her petite figure making her dismay all the more tangible. "But Mister Colbert, I...this isn't right," she said. "The Summon Servant spell should not have done this! And why is she injured?"
Colbert saw the mystery woman shift her eye over to him, and mutter something in a language he'd never heard before. He could see the tension in her body, and noticed that both her one good arm and her legs were built with lean and firm muscle. Injured or not, this person could be dangerous. "I don't know. But this is the familiar you've summoned. You must complete the ritual."
Louise swallowed the knot in her throat and turned back to the woman, then quickly leaned down, inching her lips closer to the woman's own. The woman tried to clumsily kick away, but she missed, and Louise's lips pressed down without remorse. A dim light shone on the back of the woman's hand, beneath the black bracer that covered most of her forearm. The woman hissed in pain and finally kicked Louise in the leg, causing the young girl to jump back, grab her shin, and mutter a nasty wordbeneath her breath. Then, the woman shouted something unintelligible, baring bloodstained teeth and sharp canines. The students reared away from her, their faces turning very pleasant shades of green at the ferocity on her face. Louise stared in shock at her 'familiar's' feral behavior, then eyed the wounds dripping blood onto the grass and the woman's heavy breathing. "Mister Colbert!"
The balding man nodded, raising his heavy red-banded staff in his hands. He murmured a quick spell, and pointed it in the strange familiar's direction. The woman snarled and began to run forward, her eye promising nothing but murder and pain. Her speed was great, and the lack of slowness in her movement let him know that she had evaded the spell; despite himself, Colbert felt his muscle memory twitching, and he just barely managed to stop himself from casting a spell that would have scorched a nasty cone in front of him. Louise rolled out of the woman's way by sheer instinct, but when Colbert sidestepped the woman's wild swing of her sword and cast the spell again, they were the smooth, calm movements of a man that had stared worse things in the eye before and lived.
The woman bristled, then buckled as the magic washed over her, turning toward Colbert with rage in her eye. Her empty sleeve billowed, exposing darkness, and her right shoulder twitched, but then, her breathing lightened, and she tottered to the side for a moment before falling on her back. Louise, still sitting on her bottom, stared at her familiar, then back to Colbert. Colbert stared back at her.
"Mister Colbert, what in the Founder's name is going on?" she finally managed to ask.
Colbert sighed, and bent down to examine the unconscious woman's hand, pulling back the bracer to look at the runes which marked her as a familiar. His eyes widened in shock as he looked at the script, stamped on the woman's hand in a dark brown that offset her mildly pale skin, then studied the other students carefully as they murmured and whispered to each other.
"I wish I knew, Miss Valliere," he said.
A Plum and a Zero
A Familiar of Zero/Guilty Gear one-shot fanfic
Written by Zero-Sennin
When Baiken awoke from her Colbert-induced slumber, she felt as if she'd just walked through a roaring fire. Her body was feverishly warm, and her right arm and her left eye in particular were burning again, the phantom pains of a trauma well over ten years old. A shift of her right shoulder revealed that her hidden weapons were still in place, but when she reached down to the sash around her waist, she didn't find the grip of her sword. With a grunt, she sat up, feeling sluggishness in her movements but not caring. She searched the room she was in, turning and moving her head around from years of compensating for halved depth perception. From what she could tell, she'd been lying down next to a fancy bed. The floor was wooden and the walls were a pleasant tan color, and there was a dresser and two cabinets on the wall opposite hers.
A sound interrupted her, vaguely similar to a girl's voice. Baiken swiveled her eye towards the source, and saw a young girl sitting at the table in front of her. The girl appeared to be twelve or thirteen, with long, wavy pink hair, a black cloak with a pentagon-marked clasp, and a white shirt, black skirt, and black stockings with matching, sensible flats. Baiken's sword was sitting in her lap, and she stared at Baiken with some slight respect and some fear.
Memories slowly dripped back into Baiken's mind, and then her face tensed into a terrible, angry snarl as she began to recall the last place she'd been. Before she'd been spat out wherever she was, Baiken had been lying broken and bleeding on the ground, about to stand...when everything went dark.
The person responsible for the injuries she'd suffered had to pay for each and every one.
"Give that sword here, brat," Baiken said, standing up. A piece of straw fell from her hair, and she looked down, realizing that she'd been lying on a bale of hay. "Then put me back where you took me from, god damn it. I've got a score to settle with a bitch in red."
The girl frowned, and said something that Baiken didn't understand. The words reminded her vaguely of French, but not quite. Not like it mattered, though; the only languages Baiken knew were English and Japanese, and the former was only out of necessity. Growling, Baiken pointed at the sword, then made a beckoning motion. The girl tilted her head, then looked down at the weapon, and shook her head, saying something else in that strange language.
"Brat, I don't understand a damn word you're saying!" Baiken shouted. "Are you deaf or something?"
The girl scowled, said something again, and reached into her cloak. Baiken immediately tensed, getting ready to fling a hidden weapon out of her empty sleeve. However, her stance eased as the girl pointed something like a wand at her. Baiken simply arched an eyebrow as the girl spoke again, and her angry expression simply became a puzzled scowl as the wand pointed at her face trembled ever so slightly.
A small explosion filled the room shortly afterward, and Baiken found herself flat on her back. With a snarl, Baiken stumbled to her feet, then grabbed the girl by the collar and hauled her up, causing the girl to drop the sword on the ground. "What the hell are you doing?" Her right shoulder twitched, and the girl in her grasp paled as a black spiked mace popped out of Baiken's empty sleeve. "I will bash your brains in before I let you murder me!"
"Murder?" the girl replied, her voice choked. "Why would I try to murder my own familiar? Are you mad? Now put me down this instant!"
Baiken blinked and stared blankly. "...why the hell are you speaking Japanese now?"
The girl blinked as well. "Japanese?" she said, stumbling over the odd word. She didn't quite understand how a Silence spell had somehow translated all of Baiken's strange talk into actual Tristanian, but she didn't bother trying to figure it out. "What are you talking about?"
Baiken snorted and dropped the girl on the ground. The mace disappeared back into her sleeve, and she bent down, grabbing her sword before the girl could take it again. "Whatever. I ain't dealing with this." She shoved her weapon into the sash at her waist with practiced ease, and left the room. The girl immediately turned bright red, scrambled to her feet, and followed behind Baiken, muttering something about "impudent familiars".
Much to Louise's consternation, her familiar spirit was terribly quick. Louise had to gradually break into a brisk walk just to keep up with the mysterious woman, and by the she got to the bottom of the spiral staircase, her familiar had vanished entirely. Louise nearly let out a frustrated screech, but stopped when she realized that she wasn't alone in the hallway; a young man with blonde hair, a ruffled shirt, and a rose in his hand, as well as a brown-haired girl, were both there with her.
"Guiche!" Louise said to the boy, her face slightly pink. "Good timing. Have you seen my familiar anywhere?"
"That peasant you summoned?" Guiche said, sighing. He pressed a hand to his chest, which his v-cut shirt exposed in plain view. "It's bad enough I had to levitate her to the infirmary for you, but now you expect me to keep track of her?"
"Guiche, shut up and tell me which way she went!" Louise balled her hands into tiny fists. "I don't have time for your nonsense right now!"
Guiche winced, and pointed his rose down the hallway. "To answer your question, she went that way." Louise immediately set off again, her expression promising nothing but pain; after a moment, Guiche hummed thoughtfully, and said, "Miss Katie. What say we follow and see what the peasant familiar's gotten up to now?"
The brunette nodded eagerly, and followed Guiche as he walked away.
In the foyer of the hallway that led out of the dorms, Kirche and a boy were both sitting on the rim of the central fountain, staring at the door that led out to the courtyard. Louise brushed past in a whirl, such that a few nearby torches flickered unsteadily while Guiche and Katie followed. Kirche stood up and quickly matched Guiche's pace, walking alongside him. "What's going on, Guiche?" she said, ignoring her date's calls.
"Louise's familiar apparently ran off," Guiche said as they exited the foyer and stepped outside. Above them, the twin moons, red and blue, shined down, bathing the courtyard in soft light. Before he could continue speaking, though, Louise's familiar let out an angry shout. Everyone except Louise herself (who was already staring blankly at her familiar's back) locked their eyes on Louise's familiar as the woman glared up at the sky and shouted, "Where in the ever-loving FUCK did that second moon come from!?"
Guiche then turned to Kirche with a wry smile on his face. "Quite the vocabulary that one has, eh?"
A few minutes later, Louise and Baiken were back in Louise's room, sitting on opposite sides of the table. It had taken some doing, but Louise had managed to coax Baiken into coming back upstairs by promising to explain everything that had happened. Their faces were locked in near-matching scowls, though Louise was clearly more discomfited by her familiar's missing eye and generally fiercer expression.
"So, let me see if I understand you, brat," Baiken said. "I've been 'summoned' by you to this Tristain Magical Academy to act as your 'familiar' as part of some dumbass ritual that you have. And you can't reverse the spell that brought me here? Put me back on Earth where I belong?"
"That is correct," Louise replied. Frankly, she wasn't inclined to believe Baiken's stories of 'another world' called 'Earth' no matter how much the older woman tried to explain, but Louise most certainly wouldn't say that to Baiken's face. "And even if we could, I wouldn't; you are my familiar, and I can't cast the spell again, it isn't allowed. You'll just be staying in 'this world' for the rest of your life." Then, her eyes narrowed. "And I won't tell you again. My name is Louise Francoise le Blanc de la Valliere. To you, 'Master' or 'Master Louise' is acceptable."
Baiken snorted. "Whatever, brat."
Louise snarled, but Baiken's response was to pick at her ear with her pinky finger and roll her eyes. Internally, though, Baiken was nowhere near that calm. No matter how strange Louise's story was, there was no denying that on good old Earth, there was no such thing as two moons hanging in the night sky, and she had no reasonable explanation as to what the hell was going on.
The red bitch did cut me up enough to nearly kill me, Baiken thought, scowling harder. I could be imagining all of this. It's pretty realistic for a fever-induced head trip, but if that shithead Justice was able to be sealed in some other dimension, who's to say that it's impossible for me to have slipped into one somehow? Maybe after she beat me, the red bitch sealed me away...
Ignorant of Baiken's train of thought, Louise cleared her throat, causing Baiken to stare at her with clear annoyance. The woman was satisfied to see Louise shrink back in fear for a moment. "Anyway," Louise said, after taking a short breath to compose herself again, "you haven't given me your name yet. Since I gave you mine, would you mind giving me yours?"
Baiken grunted, and scratched idly at the back of her head. "I'm Baiken. Pleasure to meet you, brat."
If Louise had not already figured out that correcting Baiken was a massive waste of time, she would have said something. As it was, she simply sighed, and shook her head. "A...pleasure, indeed." Despite herself, she yawned, then stood up, pushing her chair back. "Today's been rather long, I suppose. It's time for bed."
Baiken cast her eye on the pile of straw next to Louise's bed and the thin, worn-out blanket that lay on top of it. "Well, if you think I'm sleeping on that, you'd better guess again. I want at least a pillow and a damn blanket."
Louise took off her cloak and tossed it on the bed, then began to unbutton her shirt. "You're my familiar spirit. What need do you have for more than what I've provided for you?"
The room fell deadly quiet for a moment. Then, Baiken stood up and took three slow steps towards Louise. When the girl turned around to face Baiken, she belatedly remembered that Baiken was far, far taller than she was.
"I think what we're having here," Baiken said slowly, "is a failure to communicate." With a sudden movement, Baiken smashed her forehead into Louise's, just hard enough to put a little sting into it for both of them. The girl winced, but didn't fall, as Baiken kept talking, staring directly into Louise's two eyes with her one. "Now, let me say this again. If you think I'm sleeping on that thin-ass pile of straw with that piece of shit blanket, you had better guess again." Her voice rose and hardened. "If you want to keep this up, I can just leave. I don't care what magic you assholes do or don't have. You'll still die if I cut you open while you try to stop me."
This was, of course, little more than a bluff. Even though Baiken could now understand this language and defend herself well enough on her own, she was not at her physical best. She didn't know the lay of the land well enough to go wandering around in the state she was in right now. Besides that, if she really was in some other dimension (or a dying dream, her inner pessimist said), then the bitch in red and That Man would stay out of her reach for the foreseeable future regardless of whether she left or not.
What was more important, though, was that Louise not become cognizant of this fact and use it as leverage against Baiken.
Louise's face flushed again, and her lips jammed into each other, going completely white, as she tried to ignore the pain radiating from her forehead. After a few moments of pained silence, though, she lowered her eyes from Baiken's single-eyed glare. "I'll call the servants and have a pillow and blanket brought up for you," Louise said.
Baiken straightened up, and her scowl lessened slightly. "Was that so hard?"
Louise simply rubbed her forehead with an agitated frown before she continued undressing, tossing her clothes onto the bed. She opened her cabinet and pulled out a frilled, pale-pink nightgown, which she slipped over her head. She then went to the door and stuck her head out into the hallway; she saw a maid in a black dress and white frock walking down the hall, and waved her to the door. "How can I help you, Miss Valliere?" the maid said, bowing slightly once she came into speaking range.
"I require a blanket and a pillow," Louise replied. "Quickly."
"Right away, Miss Valliere."
As the maid departed, Louise closed the door and turned to Baiken. "They'll be back with it eventually," she said. Then, her expression became slightly less annoyed. "Though your remark earlier makes me wonder...why are you staying?"
Baiken had already sat back down at the table and started staring off into space; Louise's question made her blink languidly before she looked over at her 'master'. "What?"
"Why are you staying here?" Louise said again, folding her arms. "You've already made it clear that you don't like being a familiar spirit, you've got weapons, and you said you were thinking about leaving anyway. Clearly, you've no reason, nor any plans, to take any of my orders. So why are you staying?"
"I've been traveling since before you were a speck in your father's eye, brat," Baiken said. The words she spoke next were genuine, if phrased differently to keep her real reasons hidden. "The first thing you learn on the road is that when you get a place to stay that doesn't come with any strings attached, you shut up and take the damn deal. Pretty simple logic, really. And as long as you phrase those 'orders' of yours right, I might actually be inclined to follow through. I ain't so shiftless and lazy that I won't work for room and board."
Louise's expression soured again, but she didn't say anything, instead turning to her bed. "When the maid comes with your pillow and blanket, snap your fingers to turn off the light. And since you mentioned work..." She picked up her clothing and tossed it onto the table, then very carefully crafted her next sentence. "If it isn't too much trouble, could you please fold those for me and have my new clothes prepared in the morning?"
Something bitter rose up in the back of her mouth when she phrased the order as a request, but she knew that her pride would simply have to deal with the bruising. Baiken had drawn her line in the sand, and she was the only familiar Louise was going to get, so it was better to cooperate.
To her surprise, Baiken didn't give the clothes more than a cursory glance before shrugging. "Guess I've done worse for a free night's rest. Consider it done."
Louise twitched, but took another breath. She isn't calling me brat anymore, so I suppose I've managed to offend her a little less. "Then, I shall see you in the morning. Good night." With that, she climbed into bed and turned her back to the table, facing the window where the moonlight streamed in. After a few moments, Baiken turned toward the door and reached into her robe, pulling out a thin wooden pipe. Though it was unlit and she had nothing to smoke regardless, she needed the familiarity of it bouncing around in her mouth to calm her slight agitation. As she toyed with it, she slowly, painstakingly started to fold the girl's clothing as best as she could.
The next morning, Louise awoke to find both her old and her new clothing on the edge of her pink sheets, folded neatly. Baiken, sitting on her makeshift 'bed' with her back against the wall, stood up, tilting her head from side to side with quiet grunts. "Good morning, princess," she said, looking down at Louise, who scowled slightly. "Guess I shouldn't have disturbed your beauty sleep."
"You did nothing of the sort," Louise said, trying not to sound too aggrieved. Best not to start an argument right off the bat at this time of morning. "Thank you for doing as I asked."
Baiken shrugged again. "Like I said, I've done worse for a night's rest."
Louise slid out of bed, shivering slightly as the chill of the wooden floor seeped into her small feet. For a moment, she considered asking Baiken to dress her, as well, but took one look at the woman's cross expression and decided to spare herself the trouble. Instead, she took off her gown and grabbed her shirt, slipping into the sleeves with practiced ease. "Anyway, as soon as I'm done, we're going down to get breakfast. After that, we're supposed to be spending some time to get to know each other."
Baiken grunted. She had no interest in being around Louise more than necessary, and the lack of enthusiasm in Louise's voice told all too clearly that she wasn't happy about having to try and connect with Baiken either.
The dining hall was particularly spacious, and were Baiken a more easily impressed sort, she would have taken a moment to marvel at how large the space was. As it was, though, the scent of food completely eclipsed her curiosity, and she simply walked aside Louise until they came to two empty chairs. Baiken immediately sat in one while Louise sat in the other; immediately, the girl's lips began to twitch. "This table is for nobles only," Louise said. "I made an exception by allowing you inside instead of making you wait with the other familiars, but don't think you're going to embarrass me by completely ignoring protocol!"
"I'm not sitting on the ground," Baiken said. "If you want to make me, you'll have to knock me down there, and I promise you I will make it very hard for you."
At first, it seemed like Louise was going to do just that, but Baiken's growing scowl was enough to make the girl withdraw from her familiar and turn to her own food. Their argument hadn't gone unnoticed, though, and whispers began to race up and down the table.
"Did Louise the Zero really just let her familiar sit here?"
"That peasant's so sloppy-looking. Look at that sleeve! And how indecently she's dressed!"
"Louise the Zero has zero brains, too, it looks like."
Louise began to tremble, but lowered her head, unwilling to "rectify" the situation and thus risk Baiken's wrath, nor show how she really felt about what they were saying. In contrast, Baiken's mouth twisted from a frown to a scowl. In one smooth motion she pulled her sword out of her belt, leaving it sheathed, and smacked the hilt on the table, making everyone jump. The entire table fell silent, and eventually, the other tables stopped talking as they looked to the source of the noise. Baiken, realizing that she'd gotten everyone's attention, slowly cast her gaze around the room. Then, she said, "If any of you snot-nosed brats have something to say to me, you say it to my face. Same goes for the kid. Otherwise, I'll gut you like a fish and leave your stinking carcass in the woods."
With that, she put her sword back and tucked her arm into her robe, closing her eye. Slowly, the chatter resumed, but not a single word at Louise's table was directed to, or concerned, her or Baiken. A few tables away, Kirche raised a red eyebrow and gave a sidelong glance to the girl with short-cut blue hair and semi-circular red-framed glasses sitting next to her. "Tabitha, can you believe the nerve of that woman?" Kirche said. "Even for a peasant, she's so crude and uncouth."
Tabitha simply lowered the book she was reading and gave Baiken a short glance, then lifted it back to her face, seamlessly picking up where she had stopped. "Dangerous woman," she replied. "Don't underestimate her."
Kirche frowned slightly. Tabitha rarely responded to her statements when they were together like this, less out of rudeness and more out of simply letting Kirche voice thoughts. If Tabitha ever spoke up at times like that, then she was serious. "She's a one-armed, one-eyed peasant, Tabitha. What danger could she pose to any noble here? We're all mages, aren't we?"
Rather than answer, Tabitha simply glanced over her book again, studying Baiken's frown.
Once breakfast was over, Louise and Baiken walked out to the courtyard, still keeping the silence that had been between them since the start of the meal. However, behind Louise's slight frown, she was actually deep in thought. It was clear that Baiken didn't give the slightest damn about being a good familiar to Louise. Despite that, she had gone out of the way (albeit slightly) to tell the assembled crowd to leave the both of them alone. The fact that the woman would even bother standing up for Louise at all puzzled the younger girl to no end.
After a few more paces, Louise finally managed to say, "Thank you for what you said during breakfast. Though you did make a scene, I appreciate the sentiment."
"I meant exactly what I said," Baiken replied. "If someone's got something to say to me, they say it to my face, or I cut them in half and let the animals get some food. No reason for the same logic not to apply to you." She glared at some of the students sitting on the lawn with their familiars; she had seen a few of the creatures that the students in Louise's year had summoned on the way to breakfast, and it had taken all of her willpower to keep her sword sheathed instead of cutting them all to bits. Different world or not, the damn things all looked like Gears to her, and old instinct had her chomping at the bit to kill them where they stood, sat, or floated. "Anyway, what in the hell were they calling you Louise the Zero for?"
Louise's face twitched in annoyance, but she bit back her first response and sighed. "I would rather not talk about it, if it's all right with you," she said, her voice quiet.
Baiken immediately heard the hint of loathing, and more importantly, the bitterness, in the small girl's tone, and felt an empathetic twinge in her heart, which she ignored. Quietly, she drew her pipe and put it in her mouth, then turned away to survey the other students around them. Everyone was sitting at a table or on the grass, relaxing with their familiars or just talking to one another. Despite having seen some of the oddest things Earth had to offer in the form of Gears, things like floating eyeballs and six-legged lizards still struck Baiken as being particularly odd.
It was then that Baiken spotted Guiche's elegantly coiffed hair within yelling distance—and noticed him speaking to a blonde girl with a red ribbon in her hair and nicely styled ringlets. A giant mole rested at his feet, letting Guiche stroke it while he babbled on and on to the girl. She then remembered how he had come to gawk at her the night before, and how he had been with another girl when she'd first passed him in the hallway, professing his eternal love. With a snort, she turned back toward Louise, dismissing Guiche as a simple playboy, but failed to hear someone approaching on her blind side and accidentally bumped into one of the maids, a girl with dark eyes and shoulder-length black hair.
The maid squeaked as the slice of pie she was carrying went flying up into the air along with the plate it was on. Baiken saw the plate coming straight down on her head and quickly put up her hand, catching the plate on its underside, then moved it to catch the pie as well. With a sigh, she turned to the startled maid and gave the plate back. "Idiot," Baiken said, mumbling around her pipe. "Next time, you ought to give me some warning. You came up on my blind side."
The maid blinked, then saw Baiken's scarred eye. "A-ah, yes," she said. "I'm so sorry, I didn't realize my mistake..." Then, her expression changed slightly. "Um...By any chance, are you Miss Valliere's familiar?"
Baiken groaned, and pulled her arm inside of her sleeve so that it could hang out of her robe. "Yeah, yeah," she said. "I'm just the talk of the town, aren't I?"
"If it's all right, I'd like to ask your name," the maid said. "Your statement at breakfast this morning had everyone in the kitchens talking for a while. Even though you're a peasant...you showed no fear of the nobles when they chose to insult you and Miss Valliere. Why were you not afraid?"
"It's like I told the kid," Baiken said, half-closing her eye. "I'm not going to let anyone insult me unless they're doing it to my face. It doesn't matter to me whether they're a noble or a peasant." After a moment, she remembered the other part of the maid's request. "The name's Baiken. What about you?"
The maid flushed, and bowed. "I'm Siesta. And, Miss Baiken, on behalf of the kitchen staff, I'd like to thank you for being so brave."
Baiken shook her head, whipping her ponytail around slightly. "It's not that big a deal, all right, girl? Quit thanking me so damn much just for speaking my mind."
Siesta looked crestfallen, and bowed her head. Baiken sighed and shrugged, but blinked when she noticed Katie weaving through the tables and around the students. Louise had walked some distance ahead of Baiken before realizing that her familiar wasn't following her, and whirled on her heel to stomp back over to where Baiken was watching Katie. "What are you doing?" Louise asked, her brows knit. "Don't stare, that's rude!"
Baiken ignored Louise and kept watching Katie. Eventually, Katie turned towards Baiken, and her face lit up, immediately recognizing Baiken. She came over to where Baiken, Louise, and Siesta were standing, and bowed her head hastily.
"Pardon me," Katie said to Baiken. "But have you seen Sir Guiche anywhere around here, perchance? He was the boy I was speaking to when you passed us in the hallway last night."
Baiken immediately looked over at the blonde boy, and pointed her thumb in his direction with a slightly darker scowl. "Yeah. The little asshole's over there charming some other girl."
Katie gasped and followed Baiken's gaze, then stomped over to the table. Guiche happened to idly looked in the direction she was coming from, then paled, dropping his bored, languid smile, and stood up. "What's wrong, Guiche?" his date said, standing up as well.
"Nothing, Montmorency," Guiche said, putting on a nervous smile. "I just believe that we should change venues. It seems to have gotten a little noisy over here."
But, it was too late for him. Katie had already made it to their table before Guiche or Montmorency could get away, and she was standing in front of Guiche with tears streaming down her face. "Sir Guiche, how could you! I thought...you told me that I was the only one you could ever cherish! The only rose that could bloom in the fields of your heart! And here I find you with...with another woman!"
Montmorency wasted no words, and flushed redder than a cherry at Katie's words before she slapped Guiche to the ground, splashed her glass of water into his face, and marched off. After a moment, Katie threw her bag at him and walked away as well. From where she stood, Baiken snorted, and shook her head. "Well, look at that," she said to Louise, not bothering to whisper. "For all your talk about nobles, it looks like they can be just as stupid as us peasants, hmm?"
Louise actually managed a small smile as she watched their classmates laugh scornfully at Guiche, and said, "Guiche is rather skilled at being the exception to many rules."
Though the laughter continued, Guiche could just hear Louise and Baiken, and his eyes narrowed in annoyance as he recalled just which direction the brown-haired girl had come from. His face slowly began to turn an interesting shade of reddish-purple before he stopped and composed himself, then stood, readjusting the black band that clasped his cloak to his chest. "You there! Louise the Zero and her peasant familiar! I believe you just made Miss Montmorency and Miss Katie come to an erroneous conclusion about my behavior!"
Baiken rolled her eye, and swirled her pipe around with a grunt. "You were two-timing them, you dumbass. That 'erroneous conclusion' was completely accurate."
Another round of laughter broke out as Guiche's face began to color slightly, and he pointed his rose directly at Baiken's face, his mouth set in a hard frown. "I will not let this affront stand. I challenge you to a duel!"
At first, Baiken just gave him a blank look, which Guiche met with an angry stare. This continued for a a few seconds before Baiken blinked. "Oh, you were serious. Sure, whatever you want, brat."
Guiche's face turned even redder before he took a breath and managed to make his tongue form decent words. "Meet me in the Vestri Court immediately, peasant. I will show you your place." With a swirl of his cape and a quick step, he exited, leaving an amused audience in his wake.
Baiken rolled her eye again, then turned to a pudgy blonde student in a black cloak. "Oi, brat. Which way is that Vestri place he's talking about?"
The young man chuckled and pointed. "Over there. But are you really going to fight him? You're only a peasant, you know. There's no way you can beat a noble, even one that's as stuffed up as Guiche."
"Malicorne!" Louise shouted at him. "What are you doing?!"
Baiken narrowed her eye at Louise, then at Malicorne, causing them both to flinch away from her suddenly morose expression. "I really don't see why all you brats keep putting so much stock in this whole noble bullshit. It's annoying."
"Miss Baiken, please, reconsider," a girl's voice said on her right. Recognizing it, Baiken turned and saw Siesta standing behind her, no longer holding a plate. The maid ducked her head, and continued speaking. "I don't mean to insult you, but you can't use magic like Mister Gramont can. You would be outmatched."
Baiken snorted. "Girl, I don't care about that." Her eyebrows loosened, but only just, as she put her arm back through her sleeve, took her pipe from her mouth, and put it into the folds of her robe. "Look, don't worry about me, all right? That primped-up child can't touch a damn hair on my head."
Siesta looked unconvinced, but didn't have the option to try and convince Baiken otherwise, as the pink-haired woman walked off. Louise quickly followed behind her familiar with a face that suggested that her head was about to burst from sheer rage. "What were you doing?!" Louise said, her voice a harsh whisper. "Why would you provoke Guiche like that? On top of that, going so far as to accept a duel—you have completely lost your mind!"
Baiken ignored her, heading straight for the Vestri Court. Her eye was half-open, and her sandals popped slightly as they hit the soles of her feet and then pulled away. "I just told the maid girl that I won't lose. If you're going to follow me, shut up and do it. Otherwise, get out of my way and stay there."
Why do I even bother? Louise thought. "I am coming," she said, straightening her back as she picked up her pace to walk slightly in front of Baiken. After looking to both sides, though, Louise bit her lip and glanced up at Baiken, trying to think of some way to make the woman stop what she was doing. Siesta stared at the master and the familiar for a short time before quietly bustling after them; then, behind her, a growing crowd of students followed.
By the time they got to Vestri Court, Louise and Baiken had collected a veritable sideshow. Those members of the student body that hadn't left early to go to the court were in their wake, and dispersed to form a large circle around the two combatants as Baiken walked up to Guiche. "All right, brat. You declared the duel, you set the terms."
From her position just behind Baiken, Louise paled. Guiche nodded, and flourished his rose. "It's simple. The first to yield, or die, will lose. Unless you wish to beg my forgiveness right now...?"
Rather than respond, Baiken sighed, then put her hand on her sword's handle and calmly pulled it free, brandishing it in a reverse grip. The back of her hand warmed up suddenly, and a pure light began to shine from beneath the black bracer; however, it was still light out, and so it went unnoticed in the sunlight. Though she didn't let it show on her face, Baiken could feel the warmth spread from the back of her hand and out to the rest of her body, causing the stiffness in her joints to ease significantly. I don't know why I feel so good, she thought, but that idiot brat just got unlucky. She studied her beaten sword momentarily, and frowned; the lack of luster was to be expected, as it was a well-used blade, but it seemed like the last fight had perhaps worn it out a bit more than she realized. She could still beat Guiche with it in this state, but...
"...B...Baiken," Louise said, her voice too soft to carry past the two of them. Then, she seized the fear in her heart, and crushed it, speaking louder. "As your master, I order you to stop this immediately and apologize to Guiche! This duel is entirely pointless, and what's more, it's not allowed."
Guiche lifted an eyebrow, and the corners of his mouth. "Duels between nobles are forbidden, Valliere. Unless this ratty peasant Cyclops became a noble within the last few hours without me knowing of it, there is nothing stopping me from putting her in her place."
Baiken slowly bent her knees, tensing her muscles. Louise stomped her foot, ignoring Guiche's words. "Did you not hear me, Baiken? I gave you a direct order! Apologize now!"
Without turning around, Baiken spoke, her voice laced with the barest hints of anger. "Louise. Shut up." The girl's mouth clapped shut out of shock, both at the tone of her familiar and the fact that Baiken had used her actual name for the first time. Before she could recover, though, Baiken said, "He challenged me. This isn't your problem right now. So, be quiet, step back, and watch."
Louise's brow knotted, but some part of her accepted that Baiken would not listen, so she stepped back. Paying no mind to this, Guiche nodded, and flicked his wrist. A rose petal detached from the rose in his hand and touched down on the ground. In a flash of light, a figure in greenish armor, bearing a dark spear with a white skirt, stood between Guiche and Baiken. Baiken simply arched an eyebrow, while Guiche smirked, puffing out his chest. "I am Guiche de Gramont, otherwise called Guiche the Bronze or Guiche the Brass. Therefore, this bronze Valkyrie golem will be your opponent."
Without a word from Guiche, the Valkyrie charged, and Louise reflexively stepped away. Baiken's annoyed frown grew darker, and she whipped her arm out, twisting her body to direct the slash. One heartbeat later, the Valkyrie's head was flying up into the air; in another, Baiken had spun her sword into a regular grip and swung down, cleaving the Valkyrie in half from neck to groin. The crowd, previously muttering and whispering to themselves, fell completely silent when Baiken chopped off the golem's head. At the end of the swing, Baiken was in a full crouch, and slowly got back up just as the Valkyrie's separate halves fell to the ground.
Guiche quickly flicked his rose again, a slight sweat beading along his brow. Three more petals came off, three more Valkyries appeared—and Baiken just ran forward, her hair whipping out behind her. The first Valkyrie stabbed at her feet. She sidestepped it, and pointed her empty sleeve in its direction. The black spiked mace she'd nearly used to brain Louise popped out, smashing into the Valkyrie's midsection and blasting it apart. The crowd gasped, Louise gaped, and Guiche paled. However, "the Bronze" quickly regained his bearings and pointed his rose at Baiken once again. The second and the third Valkyries immediately double-teamed the pink-haired woman from different sides while the mace slipped back inside of her sleeve.
Sighing, Baiken dodged backward and to the right, lifting her sword to parry a thrust from the one that had tried to come up on her blind side. Then, she shifted her arm, and spun around. In a great clattering noise, the spear was sliced up, and Baiken, her back turned to the disarmed Valkyrie, pointed her sword, again in a reverse grip, at the golem's stomach. A thin stream of cherry blossom petals burst out of the sword's tip, skewering the Valkyrie on the spot and knocking it over.
Baiken's right shoulder was still pointed in the other Valkyrie's direction, and before the golem could even start to thrust, a three-pronged claw flew out of the sleeve and punctured its midsection. With an angry roar, Baiken spun again, using the force to whip the Valkyrie directly at Guiche before retracting her claw. He shrieked and rolled out of the way before the Valkyrie hit him, but he was unable to get to his feet before Baiken rushed directly at him. Paralyzed by her speed and her hellish snarl, Guiche could do little more but sit flat on his ass and hold his head in fright. When Baiken got within arm's reach, she leaped up, thrusting her sword downward as if to skewer him.
A solid thunk echoed throughout Vestri Court, but it was not the sound of steel puncturing flesh. Instead, the crowd watched in awe as Baiken released her sword and let it stand in the ground next to Guiche's head. Her expression shifted back into a bored frown as she squatted over Guiche, staring down at him and resting her elbow on the top of her calf. "You gonna call it quits, or do I have to actually stab you?" she said.
Slowly, Guiche uncurled himself, revealing his face from behind his arms. He turned his head and stared at Baiken's sword for a while, then closed his blue eyes and tucked his chin in. "I yield," he said, almost choking on the words.
Baiken's response, after standing up, was to grab her sword, spin it once, and sheathe it. The runes on the back of her hand, unbeknownst to her, stopped shining, and her sudden burst of energy faded with it. However, she still felt less sluggish than she had before the duel, and allowed herself a small smirk before she put on her usual angry expression. Murmurs rippled through the crowd, but not all of the comments were what Baiken would have expected.
"'Baiken'? It's a weird name, but she's...she's pretty good..."
"How did a peasant beat a noble so easily? She's not even breathing hard!"
"Where did those weapons in her arm come from? And how was she dodging attacks from her blind side?"
Kirche's reaction in particular, though, was unusual, at least for her. She was staring at Baiken with a puzzled amazement—not the playful, predatory look she was known for, or the mildly interested look she reserved for actually serious situations, but outright shock. Tabitha had stopped reading her book and given the fight her full attention the moment Baiken had cut up the first Valkyrie, which was roughly equivalent to the flabbergasted expression Kirche had on her face.
"...I don't understand this at all," Kirche said at last. "Her temper is foul, her manners are fouler...but somehow, she moved so fluidly, so gracefully, even as crippled and unfeminine as she is. And that attack with those strange petals, was that magic? I've never heard of a peasant that can use magic!" She shook her head, and ran a hand through her red hair, sighing gustily. "What is this woman?"
Tabitha watched Louise approach Baiken and blinked once or twice, then spoke up, her own suspicions about Baiken at least partially confirmed. "Told you. She's dangerous. Like a wild animal."
Kirche gave her friend a petulant frown. "There must be a reason for it, though." She brushed a thick lock of red hair away from her eye and focused on Baiken, her gaze becoming determined. "And I intend to find out what it is."
Baiken, meanwhile, had turned to Louise, looking down at her diminutive master with the same bored expression that had been on her face since she'd forced Guiche to yield. "What do you want?"
The glower would have made Louise turn away from Baiken, normally. But this time, Louise thought, swallowing her fear again, I have to say something. She's my familiar. I am responsible for her, and if I don't lay down the law now, then I lose authority over her for good.
"...That was...amazing," Louise said at last. "I think...I think I've misunderstood you a little bit." Her expression soured into a frown, but the way she looked away from Baiken indicated that she wasn't really angry. "You're...strange, for a peasant, and even stranger as a familiar, but you're strong." She lifted her head, and stared Baiken straight in the face again. "I want us to have a proper working relationship, so I need you to cooperate with me! I don't want to have to waste time fighting with you all the time over taking orders and being polite! It doesn't do either of us any good. Is that clear?"
Baiken simply blinked, watching Louise stand in front of her with folded arms and a slightly trembling frown. The compliment that the girl had just given her was pretty honest, and even now, Louise was still meeting her eye, even though the girl was clearly fearful of the familiar that had just hacked apart a bunch of bronze Valkyries in as much time as it took to down a cup of tea. The girl's attitude was annoying, but she was being straightforward, and Baiken could appreciate that.
And, putting that aside, Baiken could easily see a younger version of herself standing in Louise's place right now.
Perhaps it was just the color of the girl's hair, or her small stature being so similar to Baiken's own so long ago. Or maybe it was because of the the way Louise had been shaking at breakfast that morning when the others had been gossiping about her. Maybe it was the way that being called "Louise the Zero" seemed to physically wound her. Maybe the way that Louise tried to hold on to her pride reminded Baiken of when the loss of her arm and eye had been fresh, and the other children in the colony had made fun of her, scorning her even as she tried to walk without noticing their barbs.
Even as she promised to make That Man pay.
For one of those reasons, and maybe all of them, Baiken felt something another twinge of empathy, and that sensation, however slight, pushed her to answer.
"Are you going to get me a real bed?" Baiken asked. A slight wind blew through the courtyard, pulling her ponytail and Louise's tresses with it.
Louise felt her stomach loosen as Baiken waited for an answer. Eventually, the girl said, "I'll inquire about it. If one can't be found, I'll make a better arrangement than the hay pile, somehow."
Baiken watched Louise a moment longer, then nodded and drew her pipe from her robe again, placing it in her mouth. "Here's how we do this. You treat me like a human being, I don't cut you up like I did those stupid tin cans. Keep pissing me off like you did before, and you'll be lucky if the worst thing I do to you is slice you to bits."
"If those are your condition, then this is mine. You listen when I ask you to do something," Louise responded, letting a little bite come into her voice. Baiken bristled slightly, but Louise continued, calming down a little. "I know I can't force you to listen to me, and even if I could, you wouldn't stand for it anyway." Her head dropped again, but after a moment, she steeled herself and raised it. "But, at the end of the day, you're my familiar, and familiars follow their masters' orders. If you flout my authority all of the time, then it reflects on both of us poorly—and I won't just give my respect constantly without getting at least a little back."
At this, Baiken groaned, but did little more than shrug, and bobbed her pipe up and down slightly with a tightening of her mouth. "Fair enough. Remember what you just said the next time you want to order me around without asking politely."
Louise stiffened, but managed to stop herself from saying something uncivil. Instead, she nodded. "Now, classes have been canceled for the day for the second year students. Is there anything in particular you'd like to do?"
"I need something to smoke in this pipe," Baiken said. "And I need to find a smithy. My sword is in bad shape—whether I fix it or buy a new one, we need to get it taken care of sooner, not later."
"Well, I may have the day off," Louise replied, folding her arms, "but we're still not allowed to leave campus. Besides that, the nurse that examined you said that you shouldn't be doing any traveling for a day or two. The Day of Void is about four days away, so by then we should be able to take a trip to Tristainia—as long as you don't get into any duels." She tossed out a sly smirk at that last remark, but even Baiken could see that it was a bit put on. "Do you think you'll be able to resist the temptation?"
"I'll manage," Baiken said, adjusting her sword in her sash. "Now let's go already. These guys have been staring at us for the last couple of minutes and it makes me want to hit one of 'em."
Louise briefly looked around at her classmates and realized that the crowd was indeed watching the two pink-haired females talk to each other, whispering between themselves the whole time. Even if the attention wasn't necessarily mocking for once, it still made Louise's stomach turn. With a frown, Louise pointed her nose up and sniffed slightly as she walked away, Baiken following leisurely in her footsteps.
In the headmaster's office of the academy, Colbert turned to a bald old man sitting behind a large wooden desk. Both of them had been watching the events of the duel via a spell that projected faraway events, cast on a nearby full-length mirror. Behind his glasses, Colbert's eyes were wide and shining in that particular way that only his experiments could cause. "Old Osmand," the teacher said, his voice starting to rise. "Did you see that? Didn't I tell you? With speed and power like that...with the very runes on her hand spelling it out! Miss Valliere's familiar must be the Gandalfr!"
"I saw it all very well; appearances aside, I'm not blind yet, Mister Colbert," Osmand replied, stroking his long, silver beard. A mildly annoyed frown crossed his face as his crinkled eyes opened slightly. "And I'm not deaf yet, either. Could you kindly lower your voice? Otherwise, I might as well have made Miss Longueville stay here instead of waiting out in the hallway."
Colbert blushed, causing the top of his head to flush as well, before he continued, visibly controlling his volume. "My research indicates that the Gandalfr is capable of using any weapon as an extension of their own body. If that's the case, then that explains why Miss Valliere summoned a human as a familiar—Gandalfr would need the dexterity and intelligence in order to maximize their power." His cheerful expression disappeared as an unpleasant fact from his research came back to mind. "But the only Gandalfr that we know of was summoned by the Founder himself. If Miss Valliere has done the same, then could that mean that she...?"
"For now, we will consider it, but don't assume that your theory is true," Osmand said, standing up and grabbing his old, gnarled staff. "More importantly, keep this conversation between us. I shudder to think of what the Palace would wish to do if they heard of this. Especially with the situation in Albion being what it is..."
Colbert sighed, and the thoughtful expression on his face gave way to a dark, almost haunted gloom. A shadow seemed to flutter across his face and eyes. "Do you think it could really get any worse, Old Osmand?"
"You know just as well as I do, Mister Colbert, that it can always, always get worse," the headmaster said. "No child should have to deal with that at a time like this."
Colbert nodded, and left the room while Osmand took an ornate silver pipe out of his robe and took a deep breath from it, blowing out a few rings of smoke.
This one-shot has actually been done for longer than Arcadia was, but I actually wrote a version where Sol is called through instead of Baiken, before stopping that version halfway through writing it and realizing that I liked the female-female dynamic between Baiken and Louise a lot better.
Something else that spurred me to publish this now was the fact that, as the dedication mentions, the author of The Familiar of Zero light novels did pass on earlier this year, in April. If I were to come back and do this as a full story, it would be solely out of respect for Mr. Yamaguchi's work and the fact that he created a setting that is so malleable in terms of plot-writing and characters that are compelling in their own small ways (more so in the light novels than the anime, if I have to be completely honest).
At the moment, I'm working on a few more one-shots for two different fandoms, one of which I might be tempted to actually extend into a short two or three-chapter work if I can control the word flow properly. They are very much archetypical in tone, but I'd like to have the experience of writing about those things just to stay loose over the summer.
Hope this one is worth enjoying, too. Till next time.