Hello again, loyal readers. It's time for another installment. I took a bit more from the light novels than I'd like for this chapter, so I made it long as well. And since everyone's been asking for Saito to show just how strong he is, I gave into peer pressure and complied. It's only a taste of what's to come, but I hope you like it.
I don't own Familiar of Zero. If I did, it would be a lot less trite.
Louise knew that she was dreaming, but found that she didn't care. The wide ballroom she was in was hazy and pleasant, and she found herself moving comfortably to the music, just as she had while awake earlier.
Her partner was a faceless blur, and yet she undoubtedly knew him from somewhere, but who he was she couldn't recall. After gazing at his face uselessly while they danced, she looked down at herself instead.
She was wearing a white gown—the same gown she had seen in her mother's closet. The wedding dress her mother had worn, and that she had one day dreamed of being married in. So this was her wedding.
Yes. She looked down at her hands, intertwined with her partner's. She was wearing a ring. But more than that, these hands were familiar. They were big, much bigger than hers, as though she was a child clinging to a grown-up's hands. What big hands. The hands that she had always dreamed of holding.
"Hasn't today been beautiful?" her husband asked. She looked up from his hands, into the eyes of Viscount Wardes. He smiled warmly at her as they danced their first dance together. She was the Viscount's wife, now, and soon to be the mother of his children. She was the way through which the next generation would come into being, and would nurture and guide them as her parents had her.
Thinking this, she felt a stirring in her tummy, and looked down at the expanse of white silk over her skin. She felt a warm flush at the thought of new life growing there. She was to be a mother, and in a few months…
"But is that really what you want?" her partner asked gently. Louise looked up to find that she was not dancing with the Viscount, but with Saito! "Married and settled so soon, Louise?" he teased. "I never would have thought it of you. Didn't you once have ambitions? Desires and dreams for adventure and success? To make a name for yourself so great that Zero would not even be a memory?" Louise bit her lip, feeling the writhing in her stomach get stronger and more violent. Now she didn't feel warm and loving. Now she felt sick.
"You can have a baby after your adventures, master, but you can't have adventures after a baby. All things in their own time," her familiar chided. She opened her mouth—not to talk or argue, but to vomit all over her wedding dress—but someone else intervened first.
"Would you care to switch partners for this dance?" Guiche asked, stepping up beside Saito. But the boy's partner wasn't Montmorency, it was one of his Valkyries. Saito spun away, a sword appearing in his hand as he and the construct began a dance of steel and death, and Guiche stepped in immediately, guiding her flawlessly to the music.
"What are you doing?" she asked him.
"Dancing, of course. It was unbecoming to leave you alone with the dirty commoner like that," Guiche said. But it wasn't Guiche's voice so much as it was the ugly rasp of dozens of nobles sneering at once.
"There's nothing dirty or common about him!" she shrieked.
"If you believe that, then it must be your brains and not your magic that's Zero," the mass voice spat again. Guiche spun her and Saito disappeared from sight. But over her partner's shoulder Louise now saw something new.
"Why is the Viscount dancing with Fouquet?" Louise yelped.
"Because you're a child and he wants a real woman," her partner said. She didn't recognize him, but saw that he had the characteristic Moon Eyes—one red and one blue—that were said to be a mark of great destiny. "Short, flat, stupid, and talentless, no one would even want you for a brood mare, let alone a wife. Except for me," he purred. "You're plenty woman for me, Zero."
"Who are you?" she shrieked, stopping in place.
"I'm your father," her father said. "Now calm down. It's not every day you get married, after all."
"Married?" Louise squawked, and looked around. What before had been a dance floor was now a church, and all the pews were full. She saw her classmates—except for that woman, thankfully—and her sisters, and even Princess Henrietta and Prince Wales were in attendance. Saito stood by her side as best man, and as the wedding march began to play she turned to see her bride coming down the aisle.
Sure enough, Louise was in the star role of the wedding, but for the wrong gender. She wore an elaborate suit, and Saito stood by her side as best man.
And garbed in white, coming down the aisle towards her, was none other than—
"Darling!" Kirche cried gleefully upon seeing Louise, and looking resplendent in her white gown.
"What! I can't marry her!" she shrieked. "We're both girls! We hate each other's guts! It's wrong! I don't want to!"
"Are you refusing to do your duty?" her mother asked darkly from the altar. Louise felt herself grow faint. Karin the Heavy Wind was standing in the priest's position and holding the holy book, but garbed in her full battle armor. "You know why this must occur, Louise."
"We need an alliance with Germania to survive the upcoming war," Karin the Heavy Wind said darkly. "What's more, your marriage to von Zerbst will end our families' rivalry as well."
"B-but we're both girls!"
"No worries darling!" her…bride said, sweeping Louise into her arms. "Haven't you already said that my family's lechery knows no bounds? And you were right! We have spells for," Kirche's hand snuck under Louise's skirt and squeezed, "that kind of thing. The von Zerbsts will make a man out of you in no time flat!"
"It's not as though you could be useful for anything else," Karin sneered. "Zero magical skill."
"Zero skill in marital arts!" Eleanore added mockingly.
"Zero good points personality wise," Saito said with a smug smile.
"That's a lie!" Louise shrieked. "I can do magic! I make…make explosions! And I summoned and bound a familiar!"
"What familiar?" Saito asked, displaying the lack of runes on his hand.
"Louise François Le Blanc!" her mother roared, summoning a storm that blew away the church, leaving them standing in a barren wasteland. Karin was dressed in her armor, and Louise found herself garbed only in rags. "That is the last straw! For your refusal to do your duty and your complete and utter lack of worth, I hereby strip you of your name and title, and cast you out onto the streets!"
"You are no daughter of mine," the Heavy Wind said, and with a flick of her wand threw a tornado at Louise.
Louise's eyes snapped open. She was in her room, in her bed, covered in the light of the two moons.
"It was just a dream," she breathed, and took a vial of sleeping potion from her bedside table. "It was just a dream." Downing it, she returned to a dreamless sleep.
At Genoa, Tristain's highest security prison, Fouquet the Crumbling Earth gazed out at the night sky through the high bars in her cell. The highest security level of this prison had only four cells, each designed to hold a different element of mage.
In the earth one, where Fouqeut resided, the floor, walls, ceiling, and furniture were all covered in smooth wood enchanted with hardness. Her bed, her plates, and even the silverware she ate with were all made of wood. However, behind the wooden walls and floor was a latticework of metal bars enchanted to resist magic. Even if she had her wand, it would be difficult for Fouquet to escape.
Since she didn't have her wand, it was effectively impossible.
"How cruel to lock a feeble woman like me up in here," she grumbled to herself. "I was born to noble blood, isn't that supposed to mean something to them?" It didn't to Fouquet herself, of course, having been forced to surrender her name and heritage many years in the past, but she wished it did to her captors so she could take advantage of it.
"Well, at least I went down fighting," she grumbled to herself. It had taken four mages, two of whom were triangle-class, one of which was a Chevalier, in addition to a dragon and the so-called 'Legendary Gandalfr' to catch her. Not many others could say the same.
"Yeah," she mused to her herself. "If I had to go, I'd say this is on my top three list. First old age. Then battling against overwhelming odds. And this if those don't work."
Fouquet had no illusions. She had caused chaos all around the country, stealing from nobles for money and fun, and now she had to reap the whirlwind. Maybe if she were extraordinarily lucky she'd simply be banished. Phht. That'll be the day. If they're stupid enough to banish me I'll commit suicide in shame for being caught in the first place. After I get a new wand and return to cause more chaos, of course.
There was the unlikely possibility that she would get life in prison, but the death sentence was almost certain. She'd made enemies of too many noble families, including the Crown itself. Even life in prison would be likely to end with a noble's assassin paying her a visit.
Giving that option, she'd rather take the death sentence. It would be cleaner than letting one of their dogs play cat and mouse with her for a while. Of course, escape was still technically an option. She only had to get out of a cell specially designed to hold mages even with their wands, despite not having hers, and then escape through a high-security maze of a building that was constantly patrolled by guards, and all without being caught.
On a time-limit, too, since she faced trial next week. Easy as pie.
I might as well get some sleep. Maybe I'll get an idea in the morning, she decided, and lay back on her wooden bed to close her eyes.
And then she heard footsteps. Soft footsteps, growing slowly louder. At the edge of her hearing she caught the rattle of metal that suggested a spur on the walker's boots.
Wardens don't wear spurs, she realized. An assassin? No, they'd be more quiet. But maybe a noble has come for some personal justice. She tensed herself to either move or scream. If they came in the door she was hopefully a good enough fighter to beat them into submission. Not only that, but coming in would mean that they opened the door. This could be my chance!
She slumped back on the bed and pretended to sleep, but remained ready to move at a second's notice. If they stayed outside and cast she'd scream to call the guards, since this was hopefully without their knowledge. If they came inside, she'd grab her chance and run.
The figure came into view the bars of her cell. They wore a cloak concealing their gender, but from her own experienced Fouquet guessed that they had more of a male's body shape. A white mask covered their face perfectly, and the wand tucked into their belt indicated that the stranger was a noble.
She kept her breathing even while simulating sleep, hiding a hitch as the figure drew its wand. If it cast at her, she could scream. And then the figure waved its wand once and uttered a single word that shot her plans to hell.
She felt the barrier of air go up around them. Crud. I wish I'd realized he'd do that. I would have screamed when I had the chance.
"Wake up, Fouquet of the Crumbling Dirt." The voice sounded male and youthful, though definitely out of adolescence.
"I see I have a visitor," she murmured, sitting up smoothly. "Won't you come in? I can offer you some tea if you like."
"Actually, Id' like to make you an offer," the male replied politely. "I'm a member of a certain group that was impressed by your activities, and we'd like to hire your services."
"Oh? What can you pay with?" Fouquet asked flirtly.
"Your freedom and your life, Mathilda of Saxe-Gotha." Fouquet blanched dead white. Had she been standing, her knees would have buckled.
"That's a name I was forced to throw away many years ago. How do you know it?" she whispered.
Instead of answering, the man continued, "Our organization wishes you to serve Albion again."
"I'll die first!" she snapped. "I will never bow to those who murdered my family and annexed my home! If that's your offer, you'd be better to just kill me now."
"Who said anything about the Albion Royalty?" the masked man asked. "We, the people, are rising up against the weak rulers and will soon overthrow them. And we want your help."
"Oh? I recognize your Tristain accent. What's Albion's revolution got to do with you?"
"We are a consortium of nobles without borders who are worried about Halkeginia's future. We wish to unify Halkeginia and regain the holy land that Founder Brimir had once set foot on."
"Nonsense. Why would you need an imprisoned thief like me, then?"
"Skilled mages are needed now more than ever. And I can already think of one job we need you for."
"But dreams are what make the world run round. Dreams, and the power to accomplish them. I dream of reuniting the continent of Halgenkia and ending all our petty strife so that, as a unified people, we can end the stranglehold that the elves have on what was once our original homeland."
"I have no love for other nobles and no interest in what you're offering. For all I care, the elves can stay there!" The masked figure calmly pointed his wand at Fouquet.
"I'll make you this one offer, Fouquet of the Crumbling Dirt. Become our comrade in arms…"
"Or perish immediately," she finished drily.
"Indeed. My recruitment has revealed too much of our secrets, and I will leave this jail with you…or with your corpse."
Fouquet laughed. "How arrogant. You will have me whether I want it or not, then. Fine, I accept."
"Truly, or do you merely wish to live?"
"I wish to live, so that I may smash Albion's royalty into the dirt," she said simply. "Give me the name of my new masters."
"We are the Reconquistadors."
"I can not believe you," Louise said sternly to her familiar, who was crumpled on the floor in pain.
"Not so looouuuud," Saito moaned, trying to pull the blanket over his head.
"You got challenged to a duel, Saito. No, you got challenged to three duels!"
"No, I managed to start a three-way duel over who would duel me first," he corrected weakly. The hangover was killing him. It didn't help that Louise kicked him with her toe.
"What. Were you thinking?"
"I was thinking that I was drunk, and you were gloating about how you'd managed to meet my challenge, so I needed to show that I was still superior," he whimpered.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I was drunk!"
"I thought you said you knew how good your tolerance was!"
"I thought that wine was weaker than it was," he pleaded, but Louise had no mercy, pulling him out of his cot. "Oh, my head."
"Oh no you don't," she grumbled. "You danced to last night's tune, and now you pay the piper. No hangover cure, no going back to bed, and no slacking off. Maybe then you'll learn better."
"Do I need to get out the riding crop?" she threatened playfully.
"Only if you'll wear that corset of yours and nothing else."
This was not the right response.
Louise's bad mood as she walked into class was almost literally palpable—a dark miasma that tried to fill and choke the lungs. It needed no saying that the Zero was not to be crossed this morning. The fact that her familiar—attending classes for the first time since summoning—suffered a black eye among other bruises was also a helpful hint.
"Oh my, what happened to him?" Montmorency asked.
"Indeed, is Saito well?" Guiche questioned.
"We merely had a discipline issue," Louise said with her nose in the air. "A stupid dog needs to learn to watch his tongue and not comment on his master's state of dress."
"Woof, woof," Saito deadpanned, rolling his eyes. "Bow wow." That got a few snickers out of the nobles.
"State of dress? Watching his tongue? Why dirty Louise, were you undressed when Saito's tongue went somewhere unwanted?"
"Von Zerbst!" Louise shrieked, blushing bright red.
"Or was it actually somewhere you wanted, but he wasn't good enough?" Kirche suggested lewdly.
"You…don't accuse me of acting like you! I keep a clean bedroom," Louise snarled, too upset to think of a better comeback.
Kirche ignored her and glomped onto Saito. "Oh, darling, you're hurt! Here, let me fix that for you with a spell," she cooed, nuzzling his face into her breasts. If asked, Saito would have had to admit that he enjoyed it.
"You can't cast water spells for healing, von Zerbst, you're a fire mage. It's even in your runic name, Kirche the Heat. Though that might be because you're always in heat," Louise snipped.
"It's Ardent. Ar—Dent," Kirche enunciated. "Your magic might manage a one, but your breasts and memory are still Zero."
"You…you…" Louise suddenly burst out into cold laughter. "What do I care about your opinion, von Zerbst? The only good thing about you is your breasts! A woman's measure is worth more than that, which you'd know if any nutrients reached your b-brain instead…of y-your ch-ch-chest." Lousie was trying to keep her temper under control, but the barb had clearly hit home all the same.
Now I wish I could get out of her stranglehold and defuse this, Saito thought to himself, but the more he struggled the further Kirche pushed him into her cleavage.
"Oh, you're stuttering, Valliere. Oh darling," and she loosed Saito from her cleavage, "do you think that your dear Calamari is stupid?" she asked with a pout.
Thank you! Saito rejoiced and opened his mouth to try and defuse the situation.
Sadly, a cold grin had spread across Louise's face, and she whirled around to face her classmates.
"Oi! Boys," she called. "Who here's seen Kirche without her clothes?"
Several hands went up, and then were halfway being pulled down in embarrassment—having realized exactly just what they revealed—when the owners saw who else (and how many) had instinctively answered yes.
Shouts of shock, accusations, and threats quickly drowned out the two girls as boys stood up and drew wands while girls yelled at their male friends.
You know, it's sort of hilarious that Guiche didn't get dragged into this, Saito noticed, seeing the ponce keeping his and Montmorency's heads down.
It was into this madness that the Professor appeared, brought a bit early by the noise.
"Silence!" he yelled. In seconds everyone had hurried back into their seats. Apparently this teacher had a nasty reputation. "Good. Well then, let's begin a little early, since you all can't settle down. As you may know my runic name is gust. Kaita the Gust." Several students murmured at this. "Now, who can tell me what the most powerful element is?"
"None of them," Saito whispered to his master, who put her hand in the air. But he called on Kirche instead.
"Surely it would be Void," she said authoritatively.
"I meant in reality, Miss Zerbst. Don't give me the stuff of legends."
"Blasphemy," Louise muttered under her breath.
"Then it must be fire," Kirche declared.
"Oh? Why would you make that utterly incorrect statement?" Professor Kaita asked innocently. Saito immediately decided that he really didn't like this guy.
"Passionate flames can incinerate anything and everything, of course."
"Oh? Let's test that then. Hit me with your best flame spell."
Kirche stared. "What?"
Saito frowned. Oh come on, this is a set up. Regardless of the elements used he's a much more skilled and experienced mage, and he's thought about this ahead of time. It all depends on how it's used: wind can fan the flames higher or snuff out a candle. Even I know that. This is just bullying. With that thought, he quietly began moving over towards Guiche to whisper a suggestion in his ear.
"You do your best work with flame, and the von Zerbsts are known for fire magic, aren't they?"
"This won't be a dot-class spell like Spark or Scald," she warned, stepping up to the front of the class.
"Give me your best," Professor Kaita challenged smugly.
Kirche's smile disappeared. She produced her wand from her cleavage and began chanting in a low, sensual voice. Her words whispered around the room like snakes, winding into people's ears. The air became thick with power, and warmth began to fill the room.
In front of her, cupped in the hand that didn't wave her wand, a flame appeared. As Kirche von Zerbst, Kirche the Ardent, Kirche the triangle-class fire mage chanted it grew larger and larger. Soon it was the size of her fist. Then the size of her head.
Classmates very quickly realized that it would probably be better to get out of the not-so-proverbial line of fire. In an act usually seen only when Louise was the one chanting they began moving to the back of the room and ducking under desks. Those who could began chanting water spells to be safe.
As her chant came to a close the fiery sphere that hung in front of Kirche like an adolescent sun was almost a meter wide. Kirche's face was exultant, even though Saito could see signs of effort and strain at casting such a spell. Her wand turned and spiraled towards her chest while her empty hand pulled away from it. And then she sent the fireball spinning towards her teacher.
Kaita, Saito saw, had been quietly chanting to himself too, and he made another whispered suggestion in Guiche's ear, prompting a nod. The professor, to his credit, showed no fear and made no attempt to dodge, instead waving his wand like a sword. Sweeping gestures like slashes carved a figure eight as the flame soared closer.
Instantly a powerful gust kicked up, throwing around pieces of parchment and scattering the fireball into fading embers. It threw aside desks and even knocked Kirche down, though she had been on the far side of the room.
"That," he said smugly, "is why wind is the strongest element. Fire, water, and earth all are picked up and at the mercy of the above when faced with strong enough winds. And while there is no factual basis for this, I hypothesize that even the Void might not be able to match up. After all, Brimir's eldest son was a wind user, was he not? Yes, Gramont?"
"I'd like to try, sir," he volunteered.
"Oh? Did I not just say that earth can find no footing against the wind?"
"Yes sir. But I'd like to try anyway, if I can." Kaita sighed dramatically.
"Very well, come up and test your luck." A fuming Kirche made her way back to her seat, but perked up when Saito simply mouthed, 'watch,' with a smirk.
Guiche began to chant, but his voice was much quieter. Kaita noticed that the blond kept his wand pointed as the ceiling during most of the chant—he couldn't hear most of the runes and thus determine the spell—and guessed that Guiche intended to collapse the ceiling on him.
Admittedly a more creative concept than most, since I can't counter with a simple Levitate, but you're two decades too early to think of challenging me, boy, he thought to himself, beginning the chant to raise a defensive barrier of wind.
His first spell would catch the rocks that Gramont intended to drop on him, and then a second would send them towards the student instead. An object lesson that he could reinforce by pointing out that, barring caves, you couldn't attack from above with earth in normal circumstances.
Unfortunately Kaita rarely bothered to do research on his students beyond whether or not they were wind users, and how skilled they were. If he had, then he would have known that Guiche's greatest skills lay not in alchemy, disruption, or projectiles. They lay in construction and animation.
"Grow!" Guiche announced, flicking his wand to the floor and then sweeping it back up. A single petal had dropped at the lowest point, and it touched the stones at their feet. There was just a moment for a look of surprise and confusion to appear on Kaita's face, and then he got his just desserts.
The stone beneath Kaita erupted upwards as a pair of arms appeared. Seizing him by the pants it knocked him off balance as the rest of the Valkyrie emerged, dragging him to the floor. There was a tearing noise as the teacher's struggles ripped his pants, revealing his undergarments to the class.
Thankfully, he was wearing undergarments, and those not grossed out by his legs got a good laugh at the tornado pattern sewn onto them.
"Cute," Tabitha commented drily.
"Please excuse the intru—what's this?" Professor Colbert asked, walking in the door.
"I, but, this," Kaita stammered, trying to regain his dignity. So amusing was the sight that only a few people saw how oddly Colbert was dressed, in fancy robes and an odd, golden wig. It only made them laugh harder.
"Silence!" Colbert yelled over the laughter and calls of, 'Eww, gross!' "Only commoners laugh out loud! Nobles should snicker behind their hands when amused. If the Princess were to see this, what would she think?"
"Y-yes, quite," Kaita managed, rising to his feet and holding up his breeches.
"Well, I have an important announcement. Not only is today our Great Founder Brimir's birthday, but it is highly likely that Her Highness, Crown Princess Henrietta, the flower of our fair nation, will pass by the Academy on her return from her visit to Germania!"
"Oh dear, I hope she won't be too bored to be back," Kirche laughed. Colbert frowned at her.
"We will not allow any slack, or we shame ourselves as nobles. The Academy has already begun preparations to receive her appropriately, but we have only hours to go. Because of this, classes for the day are cancelled." Everyone erupted into cheers.
"Silence!" Kaita yelled, shaking his fists and conjuring a breeze. Unfortunately, this caused him to drop his pants once more, prompting another round of retching noises.
Teenagers are teenagers, no matter what the age or where they are in society, Saito thought to himself.
"All students are to put on their formal wear and assemble at the main entrance," Colbert continued loudly. "We will not waste this opportunity to demonstrate how everyone is a grown, mature member of nobility, ready to take their place solemnly as a member of the next generation of serious leaders," he stressed. "Prepare your best, for the Crown itself will be watching and weighing your worth. Dismissed!"
"Long live Princess Henrietta!"
"Long live Tristain!"
"Long live Princess Henrietta!"
The princess pulled her head back inside the window, having been waving and smiling at the crowd, as her arm was getting tired. Now sheltered from the cheers of the amassed crowd she allowed the beatific smile to slip from her face, and sighed morosely.
"I do wish you would tell me what is on your mind," the Cardinal Mazarin told her, sitting in the other side of the carriage.
You know very well what's on my mind, she thought crossly.
"I have not a clue as to your meaning, cardinal," she said politely. "I am merely preoccupied with the journey and what I will be doing when we arrive."
"Ah, where we arrive but not where we came from?" She sighed again at his observation. Well, maybe you don't know what is in my thoughts, but that's close enough. "Your Highness?"
"I will marry the emperor of Germania for the good of our kingdom," she said firmly. "You say that it is the only way, and perhaps it is, since you would know. There is very little you do not know, cardinal."
"Oh princess, I've found in my long life that the more I know, the more still that I have to learn," he said with a chuckle, not taking his eyes off of her. "For instance, I know that there are worries that Albion may find some way to interfere with our designs, but I have yet to learn how they plan to do so, which is much more important. Would you have any ideas, your highness?"
Henrietta was very careful to meet his eyes and not sigh this time. It would have been a dead giveaway to the cardinal.
"I don't believe that there is anything in Albion that these rebels could use against our country," she said mildly. "If there were it would be my mother who knew, as it likely involved my father before he married her."
"Yes, it's possible that he would still have secrets from when he was a member of the Albion royal family," Cardinal Mazarin mused. "Although there will also be your mother's past to look into. She had some interesting…adventures in her youth, one might say. Still, there is nothing you know of that we could beware of?"
"You would know better than I. There is nothing in the country that you do not know." Henrietta sighed.
"That is the thirteenth time today, Princess. Royalty should not do such things before their subordinates. Are you sure there is nothing that the Reconquistadors could find?"
"Royalty? Me?" Henrietta joked. "Surely your Majesty knows the rumors about how he is the king of Tristain, and we are just the pretty face! Bird's bones holding the golden scepter," she murmured.
"Bird's bones? That stings, princess," he said. She smiled faintly at having successfully distracted him.
"It's true, Cardinal Mazarin," the princess said earnestly. "And after all, my mother is widowed and I am an only child. After I do as you tell me and marry the Emperor of Germania, who but you would inherit the throne?"
"Well, I've thought that the Vallière family might take the title," he said modestly. "They are rich, powerful, and of the best blood, as well as having fame in their name."
"Vallière…" Henrietta mused. "Louise Vallière was a dear friend of mine as a child. I consider her such still, though it has been almost two years since we spoke. She should be at the Academy, now, I believe. Cardinal, arrange a few spare moments for me to meet with her once I am done with the awards." She sighed again.
"There may not be a need," the holy man replied cheerfully. "Louise François le Blanc de la Valliere is one of the mages we are giving the Elven Medallion to, for aiding in the capture of Fouquet."
"Such deeds already," Henrietta said, impressed. Louise, while her dear friend, had never seemed very skilled or smart, although she was very passionate. "Perhaps I should reconsider that knighthood, then." Mazarin humphed.
"Let's keep it as it is, Princess. One should serve in the military before they can be a knight. Capturing a mere thief is not enough. Besides, she is a child!"
"A thief who ran rings around our Mage Guards and stole from my own mother's bedroom," Henrietta said with a quiet ferocity. "She is only one year my junior, and her age only makes her achievements more impressive." She sighed again, the fire leaving her.
"Fifteen, Princess. You're getting into bad habits. Are you sure there is nothing you wish to confess to me?"
"Mazarin, if you are so certain that the Reconquistadors will find incriminating evidence, then why do we not send aid to ensure that they fail!"
"No amount of aid would be enough at this point. The last of the old nobility is entrenched in a castle and surrounded, and they may not even last out the week. Good riddance. Countries that can't solve their own strife don't deserve to exist."
The air in the carriage chilled, becoming heavy with moisture.
"We have family among the rulers of Albion, Mazarin, and we take offense to that statement. You would do well not to say such things in our presence." The Cardinal quailed slightly. Henrietta had almost no temper, but when it rose it rose like a tidal wave. "The savages are rising up against our relatives, one of the kingdoms descended from Brimir, the Holy Founder, and we think such an act is abominable. Even if the rest of the world forgives them, He will not. We will not. I will not."
"M-my deepest apologies, your highness," he muttered, bowing slightly. "I will pray to the Founder for forgiveness tonight before I go to bed." She simply exhaled and looked out the window, to begin waving to the people on the road again.
"Long live Princess Henrietta!"
"Long live Tristain!"
Cardinal Mazarin poked his head out the other window and motioned for one of their retinue to draw closer. A sharp looking nobleman riding a griffin, the symbol also emblazoned on his cloak, nudged his mount to the window. He carried an air of confidence and power, and even the Cardinal felt impressed.
Viscount Wardes the Lightning, commander of the Griffon Corps of the Mage Guards.
"You summoned me, Cardinal?
"Her highness is in a foul mood, captain. Would you dare try your hand at some trick to cheer her?"
"She seems happy to me, but it will be my pleasure to try," he murmured. Swinging his griffon around the back of the carriage and towards the other window, he waved his wand with a quiet chant. A stiff breeze spun around the flowers in the air and on the road, gathering them into a bundle that fell into the captain's hand.
"A gift?" Henrietta murmured as he offered her the bouquet.
"A token of all of our esteem, Princess. Please, be merry today for as long as you can." She took the flowers and offered him her free hand, which he politely kissed.
"Your name, good sir?"
"Wardes, captain of her Highness's Griffon Corps."
"Thank you, Lord Wardes," she said with a smile, and he retreated to give her space. She looked at the bouquet once more and sighed.
"Tell me, do you believe that flowers on the road are a blessing?"
"I suppose they would be intended as such, Princess."
"Ah, but a blessing for who, Cardinal? For us, for the flower throwers, for the road, or for the flowers themselves?" She trailed off and sighed once again as the castle came into view.
Kirche was rather bored of standing around, waiting for the princess of Tristain to arrive. She was Germanian, so why did she have to be out here? But, at least Saito was beside her.
"Darling, when do you think this famous princess will arrive?" she asked, looping her arm with his. He actually stepped slightly closer to press against her and she nearly squealed in joy. But even she knew that that would only get her glares in this situation.
"Since I see soldiers on the road, I'd guess she's here," he murmured. Sure enough, a carriage surrounded by an honor guard clattered up to the open gates. The red carpet had been rolled out, leading from the carriage, through the rows of students now raising solely ceremonial staves (spell-casting around royalty was a big no-no, and most of them used wands anyway) and to the wide open doors of the Academy, where Old Osmond and the other professors waited in full regalia.
"Her Royal Highness, Princess of Tristian, Henrietta Anne le Stuart de Tristain has arrived!"
"That's the famous princess?" Kirche asked skeptically. It was not a young woman, but an old man who had stepped out of the carriage.
"Cardinal," Tabitha said, standing on the other side of Kirche from Saito with her head buried in a book. One day I will figure how she does that and reads at the same time, the redhead swore. Just then applause erupted from everyone.
The cardinal had just helped a young woman out of the carriage. She had chestnut-brown hair that shone with purple highlights in the sunlight and skin that was neither pale nor tanned, but clearly glowing and healthy. Well, she might have a decent chest, but that dress is too frumpy to tell, the redhead thought grouchily amid the applause.
"Darling, don't you think I'm prettier than she is? I don't see what the fuss is about, really." Kirche paused, waiting for an answer, and then turned to look when she didn't get one. Even if Darling had nothing to say, I would have thought Louise would snap at me for insulting her princess. She's quite a traditionalist and stuffy, really.
Neither of the two were paying her any attention. Saito would flick his eyes across the crowd every now and again, but for the most part his attention was focused on his master. And Louise…Louise looked worried.
The petite pinkette was shifting her weight from on foot to the other and fidgeting with her fingers, as though she were trying to knit without needles or yarn. I think she's going to draw blood, Kirche thought to herself, seeing the Zero's bottom lip clenched tightly between her teeth. And her eyes wouldn't stop moving.
Louise would keep looking at the princess, Kirche saw, and then looking somewhere, anywhere else as though in shame. The princess, the carriage. The princess, the ground. The princess, a distant tree. And there was a faint blush on her cheeks that would not fade. Finally, the princess exchanged greeting with the teachers and went inside, meaning that they could finally disperse until the evening, much to Kirche's relief. She noticed that Louise had finally relaxed as well.
Still, the way Louise was acting…could it be? The Germanian smiled brightly. She's blushing and keeps sneaking glances. She feels uncomfortable on some level, and hence her fidgeting. And she ignored everything else around her, as though the world was comprised only of the one she was watching. Could it be…?
Vallière has a crush! On her own princess! Kirche cackled silently to herself in glee. I know she said that she didn't like Darling, but I'd never have guessed she didn't like boys at all! And maybe she didn't either—this might be her first realization. Oh, the fun I can have with this! She closed her eyes to imagine the scenarios, but then something occurred to her.
But wait! I just realized, this could be a catastrophe! Louise Vallière the Zero, scion of the house that is age-old rivals with my own, has just done what I hoped was impossible. She has found a love interest…that I cannot hope to steal! Seducing a foreign princess would be all but impossible even for I, especially if she doesn't hold such tastes. How can I ever hope to uphold my family's tradition in the face of such base cunning?
"I'll think of something," Kirche said to herself firmly. "Oh Darling, would you help me out with a little plan? Darling? Where did everyone go?" Looking around, the courtyard was bare, as everyone had left already.
"You still want to go through with this?" Saito asked, rolling his eyes. A group of over a dozen nobles had gathered in an out of the way courtyard, watching with great interest.
"Yes, you knave! I will have satisfaction!" snapped Ereborn the Scalding, one of the three nobles who had challenged Saito to a duel during the ball. Behind him, the second of the three stepped forward to object.
"No, I want to deal justice upon this peasant," declared Dalton the Waterfall. "I earned the right to claim my grudge against him when I knocked you off your feet, Ereborn! I will have my satisfaction!" Saito snorted, drumming his fingers against Derflinger's hilt as the two argued over which one would get beaten up first. Some of the nobles watching giggled at the foolery while others seemed more exasperated.
"Do you want your turn while they're busy?" Saito asked the last of his three challengers. Gimli the Breathless laughed and folded his hands behind his head, leaning against a pillar near the edge of the courtyard.
"I was as drunk as you, Sir Familiar, and I'll call it quits if you will," he said cheerfully, waving his hand in a declining gesture. Saito smiled back amicably.
"Finally, a man with good sense," he cheered, saluting lazily. "All's well that ends well, and we'll leave the past in the past."
"Agreed!" Gimli announced. "So who do you think will triumph?" He pointed to the two arguing nobles, looking as though they were about to draw wands on each other instead of the familiar.
"Those idiots both lose, as far as I'm concerned," Louise humphed from the sidelines. The awards ceremony wasn't until that evening, but she'd been in an odd mood since the Princess's arrival. He'd have to ask about that later, and maybe about the nobleman she'd blushed at as well.
There's definitely some interesting history there, he mused. "Unless one of them is some frightening genius, I'd be willing to take both on at once," he told them. Louise snorted.
"Nope, they're both pretty average. And this is me saying that," she answered. "One's fire, one's water, and I don't think either is even a line mage."
"I'd guessed the elements from their names," Saito agreed. "Gentlemen," he added loudly, "perhaps this would be best settled as a two-on-one duel?" That got mutters of interest from the crowd. Both nobles turned to look at him at the same time.
"Do you think to insult me by saying that I alone could not triumph?" Ereborn asked sharply.
"What would you do if I said yes? Challenge me to a duel?" Saito countered drily.
"Well, 'tis true of you, Ereborn, but I am not in the same grouping and could easily win alone," Dalton snapped at his rival. "I will face you alone, commoner, and crush you beneath my heel!"
"Nay, I shall be the one to educate this simpleton in the art of proper manners," Ereborn declared, and 'that simpleton' rolled his eyes.
"The sexual tension here is making me sick, would you just shut up and kiss already?" Saito suggested.
"What!" they shrieked as the watching nobles burst out into laughter. Both immediately aimed their wands and began chanting.
"Heads up, ref! We've already started," he called to Louise. Then he drew Derflinger and smiled.
"Embers!" Ereborn announced, only for Saito to blur away from the attack effortlessly. The Gandalfr zigzagged towards the two mages as Dalton finished his longer chant.
"Surge!" Saito slipped to one side of the spell, batting away a part of the jet that was too close for comfort with Derflinger.
"Hey, do that again! I remember now!" the sword called as Saito whipped his arm around. Dalton screamed and stumbled back but the blade found its target anyway.
In a single swing Saito split the noble's wand in two.
"I, but, m-my," the disarmed boy babbled, staring at the blood welling up from a slight gash where Saito wasn't perfectly accurate.
"Fireball!" Ereborn called from behind Saito. He was several feet away, having desperately backpedalled for distance while chanting. The blast of flame flew towards Saito's chest, but would undoubtedly hit Dalton should the Gandalfr dodge.
"Partner, use me to block!" Derflinger yelled. Saito had been planning just to kick the noble out of the way and dodge, but did as the enchanted sword said.
The fireball disappeared, drunk up by Derflinger once it touched the metal.
"How?" Ereborn asked dumbly, staring.
"I'd forgotten I could do that," the sword announced smugly. "Cool, huh?" Behind him Saito heard a step, the rustle of cloth, and swish of something moving through the air.
Without turning around he ducked under the wild haymaker from Dalton and kicked backwards. His foot caught the pudgy guy straight in the stomach, picking him off his feet and launching him a small ways into the air. Saito's foot touched the ground again and he kicked off, exploding towards the hurriedly chanting Ereborn.
"Fireball!" he managed to choke out, but Derflinger once more devoured the magic greedily before tracing an X across the boy's shirt. Saito swept his feet out with a kick, grabbing the noble's wand as he fell, and then just stood over him, calmly watching.
"Do you yield?" he asked quietly. Derflinger's tip aimed at his exposed throat. The boy nodded wildly.
"Alright, Saito beat them!" Louise called. "Show's over, everyone. Come on! I want to go get dressed for the ceremony."
"Right behind you, master," Saito agreed cheerfully, tossing Ereborn's wand to him while walking away. He was always a little fatigued after tapping into the Gandalfr's skills, but this wasn't anywhere near as bad as it had been at first. Those people who weren't intimidated were too busy laughing to stop him, with Gimli laughing hardest of all.
He knew it had been a bad idea to fight this guy, commoner or not. And hey, for a familiar and a commoner, the guy was pretty cool.
"You seem distraught. I'd thought you'd be bouncing off the walls at getting an award." Louise grumbled eloquently at her familiar's observation. She was lying on her bed, staring up at the night sky, and playing with the badge that had been pinned to her cloak at a lavish ceremony earlier that evening. "Is something wrong? It looked like the princess spoke to you."
"She asked me to wait up, saying that she wished to visit with me in secret," Louise said quietly.
"You know her? Personally?"
"I…I had the honor of being a royal playmate in my youth," Louise answered, her eyes cloudy as she looked back on some far-off time. Saito mulled this over.
"You know, I've never asked this before and I now realize I should have. Exactly where is your family in the hierarchy anyway? That doesn't sound like something that most children would get to do, so how important is a duke?" Louise made an effort to puff herself up self-importantly, but she was too distracted for it to really stick.
"You," she explained, "have the honor of addressing Louise François le Blanc de la Valliere, youngest daughter of his Grace the Duke of Valliere, whose line was founded by none other than a younger son of the royal family, and whose house is second or third only to the Crown itself." Then she turned to look at him. "Bow down and lick my feet worm, although even that is a great charity from one so high as myself." A moment passed and then they both broke out snickering.
"I thank her Graciousness for permitting me to breath the same air as her," Saito chuckled out, "but it is too great a gift for me to accept. I shall hold my breath until I die in shame for having sullied your atmosphere so unforgivably." That got another round of laughter. "Still," he mused, "I'd guessed that your family was somewhat important, but I hadn't seen that coming."
"Oh? You don't think that I am an appropriate representative of my house, familiar?" she asked lightly, but with a touch of threat.
"No, I'm surprised that you were teased as badly as you were. I would have thought people would be sucking up to you left and right." Louise scowled.
"Some did for the first week or two," she muttered. "No doubt their parents gave them instructions on doing so, just as my parents warned me to beware such knaves." Her mood darkened. "But after everyone realized how bad I was at magic, the compliments turned into sniping," she growled. "At that point I'd even have taken the bootlickers rather than have no one at all."
"Well, you have me now," Saito assured her. "And your magic is getting better too."
Louise let out a bark of bitter laughter. "Better? Saito, all I can do are explosions! The only difference is that I'm doing them on purpose!"
"And it's been less than a month since we started," he answered. "Considering how long it usually takes people to learn magic, I think that's actually good improvement. You'll probably be learning regular dot-class spell by the end of the year." Maybe not, but we can always hope, he admitted to himself, and then an idea occurred to him. "Besides, have you tried yet?"
"Tried what yet?" Louise asked blankly.
"Tried casting something other than an explosion. It might work by now." Excitement passed across her face like the dawn and she scrambled for her wand, only for someone to knock on the door.
"What?" she snapped. Saito opened the door and a cloaked figure ghosted inside.
"Close the door, please," a feminine voice whispered, "I would not like to be overheard," and as Saito obliged she cast a quick silence spell. "It has been too long, Louise François," she mused as she lowered her hood.
"I—you—Pri-princess Henrietta," Louise babbled, bouncing off her bed and immediately kneeling down, but the royal woman would have none of it.
"Please, no," she gushed and stepped forward to hug the kneeling girl. "It has been some time, Louise, but are we not still friends? You need never bow to me, and especially not if we are away the vipers at court!"
"Ah! But, it would be improper," Louise muttered, blushing as Henrietta firmly pulled her to her feet.
"We grew up together, Louise François," Henrietta chided. "Stealing cakes from the kitchens, chasing butterflies through the mud, sneaking out in disguise to the city…if I did not mind that you pulled my hair when we fought then you should know that I won't mind a little laxness in propriety. Indeed, I would welcome it as a chance to relax with an old and dear friend!"
"Y-yes, I suppose so," Louise murmured, brightening up a little. "Although I remember that you would always burst into tears when I pulled your hair, Princess." Her hand snaked out and she wrapped a lock of the royal's hair around her finger with a smile. Henrietta pouted.
"Oh, please do not call me that, Louise. Was I not always Anne to you? But yes, you would always win our battles with that trick."
"Nonsense! I remember you once struck me in the stomach and I fainted dead away," Louise objected, growing more cheerful. "It was in your room, over a dress, and then the Chamberlain scolded the both of us for unbecoming behavior."
"Oh yes, those were good days," Henrietta laughed. "I wish all my life could have been so worry-free, but alas…" she trailed off, sighed, and then continued. "Now I am a bird in a gilded cage, to do as my masters bid me. I am to be wed, Louise François."
Louise gasped. "Ah, congratulations Anne! Oh, but, you don't seem pleased with it," she noted.
"It is arranged," Henrietta sighed. "Those Reconquista dogs will threaten Tristain after they've butchered their rightful rulers, and an alliance with Germania, sealed through my wedding vows, will hopefully hold them off. And in exchange, the blood of Brimir that flows through my veins will give his line more legitimacy in the eyes of the Church. Oh, but I ramble too much." She sighed again.
"The chains of commanding can be heavy, especially when made of gold," Saito murmured. Henrietta turned to look at him.
"Oh, I'm sorry for interrupting, Louise, but would you send your lover away? I would speak with you in private."
"Lover!" the short girl squawked. "We would never! That is my familiar, Saito, and you may trust him with any secrets you possess," she explained.
"Familiar? A human?"
"It is odd, but true," he assured her. "If it helps, think of me as a trusted bodyguard or retainer, and nothing more."
"I see…although it would be more appropriate if such attendants at this hour were female, I'd think."
"It would, but we resolved not to listen to others' malicious whisperings," Louise said firmly. "I trust Saito to do nothing I would dislike, nor try anything I might like too much."
Henrietta burst into tinkling, bell-like laughter. "Oh, my dear friend, the more you change, the more you seem to never change, and I hope you never do." Then she hardened herself. "Do not speak of this matter to any other, please."
"Would you like me to step outside?" Saito offered.
"If you are Louis François's familiar, and she trusts you, then I shall do the same. You would no doubt find out anyway, as a mage and their familiar are as one."
"If it were needed, I could keep secrets," Louise told her.
"Is it needed?" Henrietta asked.
"From him? No," Louise answered instantly.
"Very well then." Henrietta drew a deep breath. "As I said, I am to wed the Emperor of Germania to seal an alliance against the Reconquista. Naturally, those curs seek to stop our alliance so that they may fall on us undefended, as Gallia has refused aid already. And I worry that they have found such a thing."
"Something to stop the wedding? To break the alliance? What is it?" Louise asked.
"A letter I wrote in my youth, currently held in possession of Prince Wales of Albion."
Wales? I'm suddenly reminded of England, Saito thought to himself. The more things change…
"Surely, Prince Wales would never give it up! He is your royal cousin, and the Reconquista are his sworn enemies who seek to overthrow him," Louise objected.
"Aye, the Reconquista would only take that letter from his cold, dead fingers. Unfortunately, they see that simply as icing on the cake."
"Wouldn't Prince Wales destroy the letter?" Saito asked. Henrietta winced, a small blush forming on her cheeks.
"It is doubtful. The letter is of grave import, and Wales—and I, I must confess—can be somewhat sentimental about the matters it addresses. I firmly believe that it still exists, and is in his holding. But it cannot stay there, for it will inevitably fall into the Reconquista's hands, and Tristain will be alone against the onslaught!"
"Princess, you mean—?"
"Anne," she corrected, "and yes, Louise. I know I ask a lot, but if it is possible, could you go to Albion and retrieve this letter? It cannot fall into enemy hands, but I cannot convince anyone else to send aid, and you are the only person I am absolutely certain will not betray me!"
She's laying it on a bit thick, Saito observed clinically, but it looks like it's working. Indeed, his young master was practically alight with determination and certainty, and not a little pride.
"Princess—Anne, to ask that I enter Albion is nothing! I would go to the Holy Lands amidst the elves, or even through the gates of Hell should you command it! By my name, as Louise François le Blanc de la Valiere, do I so swear it!"
"Oh Louise, I—"
Louise knelt down on one knee solemnly. "Your Highness, as one of the ones who captured Fouquet the Crumbling Dirt, please leave this to me. With no doubt, we shall retrieve this letter."
"Or at the very least, we'll nobly die trying," Saito added cheerfully. Louise glared at him.
"Louise, I cannot thank you enough," Henrietta practically sobbed in relief. "My friend, if I can there shall be a knighthood waiting for your return. Oh, my dearest friend!"
"A-a kn-nighthood...Rewards are meaningless," Louise sputtered, but noticeably perked up all the same. "I vowed eternal friendship and loyalty to you, and I shall keep that vow to my grave and beyond!"
"Oh, if I never know a greater friendship than yours I shall still die a happy woman, Louise, for there can be no friendship greater."
Saito watched the two women skeptically. Great, I just know I'm going to need to watch Louise's back even more closely than usual. Well, if I can't talk her out of this I can at least make sure that she has a clear head about what we're going into. He sighed. I wonder if they were this bad at this age, he thought, remembering the group of people, many of whom were powerful mages of their own right, who had fought to save his world back home when they were young.
Then the snippets of TV programs, as well as his few interactions with them in person, came to mind. If anything, they were probably worse. Neither of their Majesties could give a speech to save their lives, and so many people wished that had kept them from trying. Still, at least that means there's definite room for improvement here, too, he mused.
"We shall go to Albion and retrieve this letter, Anne," Louise said firmly. "When do you wish us to leave?"
"Tomorrow, if it can be done," Henrietta answered. "My sources say that the Albion Royalty may not last the week."
"Then tomorrow, we shall depart," Louise said seriously.
"Do you have any maps?" Saito asked. "Or supplies we can use? I don't like the thought of going into a war zone alone and unarmed."
"I…yes, I can aid you with some preparations," Henrietta agreed, and pulled a pouch from her pocket. "It is not much, but this should be sufficient to supply you in town before you take a ship to Albion."
Oh yes, it's on an island. If this is France, that's definitely a version of England, Saito noted.
"What? Princess, we can't accept your coin!" Louise objected. "I refuse to be paid for helping a friend!" Henrietta was going to argue, but Saito beat her to it.
"She's not paying us, she's giving us money to make us better able to do our job. More weapons, armor, maps, bribes for guards, etc. It means we'll have a better chance of succeeding," he told her. "Not taking it would make it harder for us to get the letter. It's not pay, it's resources. Like giving a knight armor and a horse when they set off."
"I…" Saito's master thought it over, drooping. "I guess I can accept that," Louise decided, taking the purse and handing it to Saito, who disappeared it into his pocket. Then she blinked as Henrietta extended a hand to Saito, who also blinked. It was becoming a force of habit for them both, it appeared. "P-Princess, what are you thinking, offering to let a commoner do that?"
"Your loyal familiar is loyal to you, Louise, and I would like him to remain so. This is a simple gesture of appreciation, Louise François."
"Um…I still don't know your customs. What am I supposed to do?" Saito asked. At home this would either be a handshake, or he'd kneel and she'd place her hand on his head in benediction, but he didn't know the etiquette here.
"She's—she's offering you the chance to kiss her," Louise explained.
"On the lips?" It wasn't like Henrietta was unattractive, because she was definitely a looker—and far more developed than his master, though he'd never say that aloud in case she heard—but he would have seriously misjudged this land's sense of propriety if that was acceptable behavior.
That, or Louise was just a prude.
"Of course not!" his master squawked, and Henrietta herself choked and giggled slightly in spite of herself. "Don't even think of taking such liberties with the Princess, or agreement or not I really will grab my whip!"
"I wouldn't dream about it," Saito assured her blandly. He warmly wrapped both his hands gently around the one she had offered. Then he stepped much closer to her and pressed his lips against the princess's cheek.
"Ga-ba-ga," Louise squawked again and he literally felt the royal's cheeks heat up as he kissed them. Then before they could react he pulled his head away, only to again lean in and place a kiss on her other cheek.
This time the princess actually squeaked, while Louise just dropped her jaw silently. Then Saito stepped back smugly. "Did I do that right?" he asked innocently.
"I—you—kiss—dog," Louise babbled. The princess recollected herself faster.
"Ahem. Well, that was close enough, I suppose," she mumbled, staring resolutely at the ground.
"What was that!" Louise shrieked. "Did I not just instruct you not to take liberties with the Princess?"
"You said not to kiss her on the lips, which was obvious. Those were both on her cheeks. What's the problem?" he queried impishly.
"Her hand! You were supposed to kiss her hand!" Louise dropped down on one knee. "I'm so sorry, your majesty. Saito's from a foreign land and doesn't know how civilized cultures behave. Familiar, apologize," she barked. Saito shrugged.
"Sorry, I guess. You should have been clearer."
"It's q-quite alright," Henrietta managed. "Louise, stop that. I take no offense. It was fine."
"As you say, Princess," Louise said. Then the door slammed open and a figure burst in, shouting.
"Sir Saito, how could take liberties with the, the…could you, please, take the sword away from my neck? Are we not friends?" Guiche whimpered from where Saito had slammed him against the wall. Derflinger had been drawn and touched to Guiche's windpipe faster than the two noblewomen could blink.
"Guiche, you were listening on a private conversation involving national secrets," Saito said slowly. "I'm pretty sure that's treason. The fact that we're friends is the main reason I haven't taken your head. Yet." Guiche paled more and more as Saito kept mechanically talking. "It's all up to the Princess here, and I'll try to speak on your behalf, but no guarantees."
"I—b-but, but, I…Princess, please allow me to assist them on this quest!" Guiche blurted out. "It shall be my way of proving myself and atoning for my rude actions!"
"Ah? Who are you?" Henrietta asked.
"Guiche de Gramont. He has some rude habits but he's trustworthy and skilled with golems," Saito said. "I'd vouch for him, but it's your choice." He didn't move his sword.
"Hey partner, if you're going to kill him can you do something a bit more stabby than cutting his throat? I haven't stabbed anything nice and bloody in ages!" Derflinger requested. "Golems just aren't the same, you know."
"No worries, Derf. If all else fails we'll find people for you to stab in Albion," Saito earnestly assured the sword. "But if we get the chance, you're welcome to gut Guiche like a fish or hack off a few limbs first."
"Yay!" the sword celebrated as Guiche squeaked and paled further, and even Louise flinched at the thought of such violence.
After all, it would get blood on her carpet. And that would be bad.
"A talking sword?" Henrietta noted, momentarily distracted. "I've never seen such a thing. But, ah, killing will not be necessary, loyal familiar. Gramont? Of General Gramont?"
"Y-yes, Princess! I am his son, Guiche."
"Oh, but I thought his son was Jeane?"
"My elder brother, your highness."
"Well…it seems you have inherited your father's bravery and sense of duty, Guiche de Gramont. It would be a boon for you to join this mission."
"We should close the door," Saito noted. "And you should put up the silence spell again."
"Ah, the spell remains," Guiche informed them. "I could not hear so I merely stood at the peephole and watched." He frowned. "And through such an aperture, Sir Saito, I witnessed you—urk!" Saito had removed Derflinger from the blond's neck only long enough to flip it around and press the blunt end much harder against his throat.
"You can let him down," Louise told Saito, "and close the door while you're at it." Saito let Guiche drop with a gasp and closed the door after scanning the hallway. Empty. He remained standing in front of the keyhole just in case someone else tried something similar, anyway.
"Do you know where Prince Wales is?" the familiar asked.
"He should be making his last stand at Newport Castle, my sources say," Henrietta informed them.
Louise nodded. "I've traveled around Albion with my sisters, including there. We'll find our way easily."
"Thank you. I," Henrietta took a quill and parchment from Louise's desk, "will write you a letter so that Wales will know who you are." She began scribbling down in silence as everyone else in the room watched emotions play across her face. Regret, sadness, determination, fear. Near the bottom of the parchment she paused. "Ah. Brimir forgive me," she whispered, "but I cannot leave this out." She scribbled down one last sentence and then folded the paper and sealed it with a spell.
Great, I just knew this was going to be a lover's thing. And the only thing worse than star-crossed lovers is a spat, Saito thought, disgruntled.
"Saito, keep it safe," Loiuse ordered, handing him the letter. He disappeared it into his pocket. The others blinked, but didn't ask any questions.
"Also, Louise, take this." Henrietta pulled a blue ring from her finger. "This Water Ruby is a keepsake of the Tristain royal family. It will tell Wales that you are my ambassadors. Wear it, and may it keep you from ill winds on your journey. Or if you lack funds, sell it."
"Well," Saito murmured as Louise slipped the ring onto her finger, "I believe we should start packing. Guiche, you should head back to your room as well."
"Meet us by the front gate in the morning."
"Do we want to leave unobserved, or rested?" Saito asked. The others looked questioningly at him. "If we don't want people to know that we're leaving so they can follow or stop us, then we should leave around dawn, or even tonight. If we don't care, we should wait until lunchtime so that we can pack thoroughly and be rested. But that isn't as important on a long journey like this, as we can catch up on sleep and buy supplies later. Opinions?"
"It may be a lot to ask, but secrecy and speed are of utmost importance," Henrietta suggested.
"We will meet at dawn. Guiche, go pack," Louise said firmly. She turned and hugged Henrietta as he left.
"I cannot thank you enough, my dear friend," the Princess said softly.
"It is an honor to help, Anne," Louise told her. Henrietta left quietly, pulling her hood over her head. There was a short period of silence as Louise produced her traveling bags. "Saito is there anything you wish to say?"
"About?" Louise shrugged.
"Anything. Guiche. The mission. What I should pack. Henrietta. Your observations are usually helpful."
"It's late and I'm tired, but I can talk as we go. Nothing that important comes to mind though." He paused. "Well, I can help pack, but could you answer my questions?"
"Your family. We were talking about them earlier and I'm still curious."
"Only if you tell me about yours."
"Deal." And they began preparing for what they—or at least Louise—thought may turn out to be the adventure of their lives.
Those poor, optimistic fools.
"Is…is that all you're taking?" Guiche asked as they met him at the gate. Saito was wearing both Derflinger and a small pack mostly stuffed with food from the kitchen while Louise had no luggage beside her saddlebags, to his eyes. Granted, she'd dug out another spare wand and now had three in total, but he didn't know that.
"It's all we need for now," Louise assured him. They'd stuffed the rest of it into Saito's invisible pocket to keep it safe, but that was only so large. "There's more than you'd guess. Saito's a very good packer.
"As you say," Guiche conceded. "Now, I have a request."
"It's a bit late for that, don't you think?" Saito pointed out.
"This will be quick. I wish for my familiar to accompany us as well."
"The mole?" Saito asked. Guiche tapped his foot and the furry creature—the size of a bear cub—popped out of the earth.
"As a master and familiar, you must understand how hard it is to be parted," Guiche practically cried, burying his face in it's fur. "Oh, my dear Verdandi! How I would miss you so!"
You could always stay behind, Saito thought but didn't say. They'd invariably need all the help they could get on this trip. Still, it was a pain to not be working with professionals.
"Guiche, we're riding horses and then taking a flying ship to a floating island. What part of that makes bringing a mole sound like a good idea?" Louise snapped.
"But Verdandi loves me so! Were I not with her, she would assuredly…waste…away?" While he'd been talking the mole had perked up, wiggled out of his grasp, and scuttled over to Louise. Both boys stared as it pounced on her, sniffling around in what looked like a tickle attack.
"Both master and familiar like girls, I guess," Saito mused. "Still, this is the first time I've seen a lesbian mole."
"Don't be so crude," Guiche chided, not taking his eyes off the scene. During the scuffle, Louise's underwear had started showing. "It's the jewel. Verdandi loves precious gems."
"Oh, I remember Louise mentioned that once," Saito acknowledged.
"Don't just stand there you twits! Get it off of me!" Louise yelped. And then the familiar heard a chanted verse.
"Autumn Gale," A voice intoned. Saito didn't see the gust of wind, as at the words he had already exploded forward, torn Louise away, and gotten behind a tree as cover while aiming with a throwing knife. The spell sent the mole tumbling several feet but missed his master completely.
"Who are you?" Saito asked calmly. The man was a noble about a decade older than Louise, with dark gray hair and a beard. He was holding the sword-wand he had cast with, eyeing Saito with an interested look. And he looked familiar… "Ah, would you be the Viscount Wardes?" Saito asked remembering Louise's explanation of the man she'd stared at the night before.
"I would. You would be my fiancée's familiar?" He asked curiously, sheathing the sword. Saito relaxed slightly and stepped out from behind the tree. But he kept the knife in his hand. I can't believe he completely snuck up on me…That's actually a little scary. I'm not exactly an amateur, no matter how burnt out or soft I might be getting here.
"I am. It is an honor to meet you, Viscount." He sketched a quick bow and turned to his master, who was still a little shell-shocked. "You should go greet your future husband, master," he chided her.
"Future wha'?" she mumbled dizzily. Then her eyes focused on Wardes. "Oh! Viscount! I-it's been a long time!" She blushed brightly at his smile.
"Too long, my Louise. Although I seen you've grown up nicely. Quite the young woman you're becoming," he mused. "Well, you should know that I'm here on orders from her highness to accompany you. I'm sorry I could not congratulate you in person on your award, and I hope this can make up for such a grave oversight."
"N-not at all, Viscount! It's always a pleasure to see you." Wardes whistled once and a griffon soared down majestically. Both walked over and he cheerfully picked Louise up.
"As light as ever, my Louise," he said jovially. "You remember Stormfront, yes?" he asked setting her on the griffon's back.
"Y-yes," she muttered as it turned its head to stare into her eyes. Saito took the chance to give Wardes the once-over. He was very well built, muscled but more sculpted than bulging from what he could see through the man's uniform.
His movements were smooth, elegant, and tight, implying power and the readiness to use it. Moreover, he clearly had brain to go with his brawn, possessing an eagle-like focus and intensity in his gaze.
Not the toughest fighter Saito had ever encountered by any means, but still likely to be tougher than he was. Possibly even with the Gandalfr boost. And if magic was added into that…well, the odds would be against him, albeit not quite impossible.
"Thank you for taking care of my dear Louise," Wardes said, turning to Saito.
Saito bowed again. "It was my duty, honor, and pleasure. You have yourself a very interesting fiancée, Viscount. I look forward to seeing her grow into adulthood."
"Yes, our engagement is a touch enviable," Wardes said testingly. Saito got the gist: the man was worried about possible threats.
"Some might envy you, but not I," he assured the older man. "Even if I ignore the other girls interested in me here, I have a lady waiting for me at home whom I would not betray. Besides, we already decided that anything beyond servitude between the two of us would be a catastrophe."
"Oh?" Wardes asked. It was, somewhat surprisingly to him, Louise who answered.
"It was one of the first things we agreed on when working out the terms of my contract, Lord Wardes," she said. "Even without taking pre-existing relationships into consideration, any romance between would be a bad idea. After all, if it didn't work out, we'd still be stuck as master and familiar with that failure between us, and it may well drive off anyone else we would try to seek out. So we both agreed not to even think of taking the risk."
"Ah, well, I'd be lying if I said that you haven't set my heart at ease," Wardes admitted with a laugh. "The thought of losing you is more than I could bear, Louise, but how could I have hoped to compete with the familiar responsible for the capture of Fouquet the Crumbling Earth?"
"Quite easily. I would be no match for the genius captain of the Griffon Knights," Saito answered smoothly. They both smiled and Wardes offered his hand.
Saito took it firmly and they shook.
Any moment now, Wardes thought to himself as they neared the pass to the port city. His attention diverted for a moment to the other body generated by his Ubiquitous Wind. Keeping up even two bodies had been a stretch for that time and the distance between them, especially casting magic, but now that they were so much nearer it was far easier to maintain.
Yes, he saw that the mercenaries were in place, and were watching as his party drew closer. Seeing himself was always an interesting experience. Wardes raised a hand to fix his hat, the body on the cliff seeing that it was ajar.
No, the other hand, the other hand, he chided himself, having raised the hand on the wrong body and nearly knocked off his mask. He fixed his hat properly and eyed the Gandalfr.
The familiar was in disarray, not used to riding so hard for so long, if he had to guess. Good. Sheffield had told him that the Gandalfr drew its power from the strength of its emotions. Jealousy or depression was best, but this would have to be a sufficient substitute. If he were tired and bored the Gandalfr would be unable to muster up a proper response to the ambush.
Having seen the attack coming, Wardes could be in the perfect position to intercept and deflect, demoralizing the Gandalfr further with his own uselessness. Though, it appeared that Gandalfr supported his engagement to Louise, rather than having feelings the way that woman did for the Gallian king.
Well, no plan survives contact with the enemy intact. That this is proceeding so well is a boon indeed, Wardes thought to himself.
The body on the griffon gripped his sword-wand. The body on the cliff gave the order to begin.
Torches were thrown down to light up the pass and spook the horses as a swarm of arrows flew into the sky. Wardes began chanting. The Gandalfr's head snapped up and his body went flying into the air, bucked off by his startled mount.
Wardes realized with a shock as the familiar flipped, and a faint glow appeared, that the Gandalfr had jumped willingly off of his horse, drawing a knife and his sword in midair, and then blurred into motion almost as fast as Wardes could chant.
"Breaking Gale," Wardes yelled, startled as the familiar jumped off the cliff-face and cut a handful of the arrows out of the sky as they fell. His spell swept away the rest of them, and caught the Gandalfr, but the familiar recovered before he fell to the ground.
"Can you blow away the arrows? I'm going to go close the distance." The familiar's voice was brisk and precise, reminiscent of some of his fellow knights.
"Yes," Wardes answered reflexively, slightly cursing that this was not the shaming event he had hoped for. Then to his surprise, as a second wave of arrows flew into the sky, the Gandalfr jumped a good fifteen feet into the air and onto a ledge, and then another twelve feet before his digging his knife into the rock and climbing.
"Yay! It's stabbing stabitty stab-stab time!" he heard the talking sword shout. "I haven't gotten good and bloody in years! Let's go, partner!"
He'll be on them in five seconds or less, Wardes realized. Someone so skilled as the legendary Gandalfr will tear apart my cannon fodder easily, instead of being overwhelmed while I take the spotlight. Well. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Even as his body on the griffon chanted Breaking Gale to blow away the next round of arrows, his body on the cliff chanted Sky Hand. The lightning spell, which he purposefully weakened, would wound the familiar and knock him off the cliff, hopefully disabling him.
Fingers of lightning lashed out, playing across the swordsman's body. The Gandalfr froze as his sword's glow brightened somewhat, and then dropped four feet onto another ledge and collapsed. Not everything I could have asked for, but good enough for—
"Blast!" Louise shouted beside him, and he almost stabbed her on instinct. She had pointed her wand at…the cliff?
He winced as a flash of pain flashed through his head and a large chunk of the cliff side shattered. There was tumbling, and confusion, and, and, pain.
She'd blown his copy off of the cliff. If it didn't hurt so much, he'd be impressed. I'd thought Louise would be breeding stock at best, to give my children the possibility of Void magic, as well as connect my house to the Valliere and to the Crown. But this may prove somewhat troublesome if I can't bring her around to my side.
Then he heard screaming as he was forced to let the copy dissipate into the air. Were those wind chants? And that was definitely a—
Yes, that. The Gandalfr dropped back to the ground, singed and a little shaky, but well enough. Wardes shook off the confusion his loss of the clone had caused and examined the cliffs. A dragon?
"So sorry to keep you waiting, darling," a well-developed redhead called with a touch of Germanian accent. "But your beloved Calamari has arrived!"
"May I join you?" Saito asked at the hotel bar, slipping into the seat next to Wardes. The man simply blew out a breath and nodded stiffly, emptying his cup as Saito ordered. "How friendly. Don't tell me you're upset about the rooming arrangements, Viscount?"
"It has been a long time since I saw my fiancée. Is it so strange that I desire to spend time with her?" Wardes had, over dinner, suggested that they order three rooms with two beds: Tabitha and Kirche; Saito and Guiche; Louise and himself. Saito had nixed this, suggesting that they sleep three to a room for safety, divided by gender. Tabitha and Louise were small enough to fit in the same bed, and of the three men he had volunteered to take the floor if neither were comfortable sharing.
"You had all day with her on your Griffon, Viscount."
"That is not precisely what I meant, familiar."
"Please, call me Saito. And I know what you wanted. My refusal to leave you alone with my master is not because of you personally, Lord Wardes, but because of the circumstances. Otherwise I would merely wish you well and request that you remember your silencing spells." Despite himself, Wardes's lips twitched slightly.
"Please, enlighten me…Saito. Which circumstances do you speak of? We are engaged, even if the official ceremony has not yet occurred."
"It's not that, Viscount. Well, mostly not that. But considering my track record I'm not one to lecture on such things. I meant that we are entering a war zone, and having my master deal with confusing emotions on top of chaotic battles is a recipe for disaster. She lacks experience in both bloodshed and romance, and I would rather introduce her to them one at a time. Throwing her in the deep end has too high a risk of drowning."
"You fear that she will be caught up in a battle and hurt? Nonsense! I am here to protect her." Wardes paused. "And so are you, of course. Although I must admit that after the ambush I might find myself… underwhelmed by your displayed abilities. I expected more from my fiancée's protector."
"Well, I expected more from my master's fiancé, but we were both caught flat-footed," Saito replied, emptying his cup and signaling for another. "Still, it's unpleasant to see how quickly I've grown rusty."
"You expected more from me, familiar? I was our guard against arrows. You merely were harmed while climbing the cliff-face, and defeated no enemies."
"True. But that means that our mysterious mage thought that I, not you, was the greater threat. Had he not shot me in the back I would have hit the bandits like a hawk in a henhouse. What would you have done in my place?"
"Had I your skills, there is nothing else I could have done in your place, Gandalfr. That is why I worry that you are not the best protector for my Louise. You lack the abilities to protect her from all harm."
"It is true that I lack the capabilities of a mage like yourself," Saito admitted, "but were I in your place I would have acted differently than you did."
"You find my actions inappropriate?"
"When the arrows came I would have flown the griffon into the air and rained down lightning upon our attackers' heads. You are, after all, Wardes the Lightning. So while I lacked the ability to act, you lacked the thought to act. Looking at it that way, Louise may have done better than the both of us when she killed the mage."
A silence stretched between them as they both nursed their drinks. Then Wardes set his cup against the table.
"So, you believe that I am not fit to take care of my fiancée?" he asked carelessly.
"I believe that we both made mistakes that we should take care not to repeat," Saito answered. "The ambush was the worst possible situation for the both of us, and to judge us by our worst is pointless, like saying a man cannot ever fight well merely because his arm is broken now."
Wardes's blood didn't boil, but began simmering. Yes, he could have done more in the battle than he did, while the familiar was more limited. But the familiar did not know that this was on purpose, to weaken him. And it seemed that the first attempt had failed, and the Gandalfr looked down on him for it. It stung.
"Oh? And what would be the best situation for you?"
Saito considered telling him that his best situation to fight in would be with his master away from any stray fire, with him knowing that his enemies are coming and able to react and prepare.
Or better yet, with them asleep and unguarded, but one can't have everything in life.
"Face-to-face. I cannot cut a man who I cannot reach," Saito answered suggestively.
"Then I would like to see that. Gandalfr, I would duel you on the morrow." Saito smiled. It was bright and cheerful, like the sun gleaming off of bared steel on a winter's day.
"A duel might be a bit much. But a friendly match to test each other's limits and abilities is something I would eagerly look forward to." The familiar stood up, dropping coins to pay for his drink. "En garde, Sir Wardes. I will see you in the morning."
"You stupid—STUPID! Why the in the Founder's name are you dueling my fiancé?" Louise's shriek echoed around the yard of the hotel where Saito and Wardes were squaring off.
"This isn't a duel, master. Just a friendly match."
"Indeed, my Louise," Wardes concurred. "We are entering an area where we will be beset upon by all sides. Under such circumstances it is vital to know the abilities of those who fight beside you. While men may talk about their skills all day and night, the only way to discover the truth—"
"Is through an honest fight," Saito finished. "One day, master, after you've worked hard to become a skilled mage, you'll find yourself wondering how skilled you are compared to others who've also worked hard. Then you'll understand."
"This still seems foolish," she huffed.
"Oh, it is," Saito agreed. "Don't you know that all men are fools? It's why women rule the world. But if you want to help, master, then make sure we have a water mage on standby to treat us."
"You need not fear injury, familiar. I will hold back," Wardes assured him. Saito narrowed his eyes.
"Then you insult me, Viscount. I know that you are stronger than me, and I cannot afford to hold back. I expect you to do the same, or else I may murder you by accident. And that would be bad."
They were entering a war-zone and the Viscount, Tabitha, and he were the only ones with any combat experience. They needed to feel out each other's capabilities to trust each other and best work together. The only reason he wasn't trying to include Tabitha was because the shy girl disliked attention or showing off, but even she knew this was important enough to watch.
"Oh, Darling is so handsome when he prepares to fight. Come into my embrace," Kirche swooned, and tried to glomp Saito. To the shock of everyone else Saito's hand lashed out at her face—gently, so as not to actually hit her, but with force all the same—and pushed her away.
"Not now, von Zebst, the trained killers are talking," he said softly, and drew Derflinger. The student mages paused as everything seemed suddenly to sharpen, and except for Tabitha they all took a subconscious step back. Saito smiled dreamily and everyone shivered at the juxtaposition.
The aura of mild bloodlust beside that gentle smile made even Tabitha pause, but Wardes merely laughed and drew his own blade, the wind swirling around him challengingly. The threat hanging in the air more than doubled as Wardes's own presence clashed with the Gandalfr's.
It's like whenever mother got serious, Louise thought to herself sickly. In actuality it wasn't quite so bad as Karin's combat presence, but Louise hadn't felt that recently enough to know.
"Wonderful, familiar. No, you said your name was Saito. Well then, familiar Saito, I believe that I will enjoy this. And as you request, I will not hold back. Who will judge?"
"Tabitha?" Saito asked, not taking his eyes off of his foe. She raised her staff in acknowledgement. He lowered his sword to his waist and reversed it, as though it were sheathed at his hip like a katana instead of drawn for a duel. His fingers and knees tightened, but he displayed no other tells.
Wardes took a stance of his own, holding his sword-wand with his right hand in a guard position. He licked his lips and took a deep breath, preparing to chant.
Tabitha tapped her staff loudly against the cobblestones, and they exploded.
I was never any good at kendo, so I'll have to rely on my iaido and the Gandalfr runes. End it in one instant if I can, or hit him too hard and too fast to chant if I cannot, Saito had thought to himself as he prepared. Saito had never been more athletic than necessary, but he'd taken a year and a half of iaido—the art of drawing and swinging in one motion to end fights with the first attack—because of an inside joke among his unit and coworkers/comrades.
It wasn't really appropriate for these circumstances, but something told him that if he relied only on Gandalfr, then he would undoubtedly lose.
And while Saito might decide to cede a match for strategic reasons, or hold back the full of his abilities in spite of what he said, the truth was that he still really hated to lose.
At the signal he burst forward at full speed, not straight towards Wardes but at an angle to flank his right side. As Wardes was right-handed most people might have tried to attack an opening on his 'weaker' left, but Saito bet that Wardes knew that as well. However the way the man stood meant that Saito could take his back if he moved fast enough and end this instantly.
Wardes sidestepped while chanting, opening his stance, and failed to parry Saito's low swing at his waist. Instead he attempted to use his longer reach to strike first, aiming for Saito's eyes. The familiar swung his torso even lower, now supporting himself with one hand against the ground as well, passing under Wardes's blade, and finished his swing aiming to disembowel the knight captain.
His opponent jumped away from the attack, his shirt not even being cut, and redirected his sword's point toward the familiar, triumphantly finishing his chant.
An explosively pressurized cone of air burst from the tip, powerful enough to damage a slab of rock with a direct hit. It was one of spells favored by wind mages for combat due to its piercing power, ease of aim, and simplicity.
In this position one would think Saito was in a bad place to dodge. He was down on his left hand and knees—somewhat like the dog Louise used to name him as—and had his balance thrown off by his extended right arm, which was following through on the swing. Since he was not even standing, one would not think that Saito could dodge away from the spell.
Saito didn't think so either, so he didn't.
Pressing against the ground, Saito flipped himself several feet into the air and over the spell. Wardes would later wonder if the Gandalfr had positioned himself with the sun at his back on purpose, but at the time everything was too fast for the idea to occur.
It was only a glint of light and the movement of shadow in the glare that warned Wardes of the mid-air attack. He barely dodged the two knives Saito had thrown from the apex of the jump, and one of them clipped the brim of his hat. But the familiar was helpless in mid-air, and another chant was already on Wardes's lips.
This, the captain felt, was the endgame. Saito was dropping back to the ground, and once his feet touched that horrendous speed would likely let him dodge. But in mid-air the familiar was still subject to usual physics, and could only fall so fast. The spell would hit him before he hit the ground, and Wardes was already chanting a second spell to take advantage of the opening being knocked head over heels would create.
But as the swirling wind neared, Saito managed to bring his blade between him and it in a guard position, in what Wardes thought was a futile attempt to dodge.
Then the wind began to die down as the blade's dim glow brightened, and Wardes realized what had really happened with the Sky Hand the previous night.
Of course the blade can counter magic! How else would he hope to fight mages? The knight captain cursed to himself.
And Saito's feet hit the ground.
The Gandalfr dashed forward again in a blur, meeting Wardes's Lightning Cloud spell head on and letting his sword devour it. Wardes's body could match the Gandalfr's horrifying speed due to the speed spell he had cast upon himself before they began, but his reflexes and mind could not keep up so perfectly.
And no matter how fast his arms may be, his mouth could only chant so fast, or his lungs hold so much breath.
The Viscount instinctively—and silently—cast the dot-class Air Blade spell he knew as their swords clashed. He'd expected to lock blades, but Saito's talking sword cleaved through his blade like clay and drew a shallow line across his chest.
At the same time, part of the Air Blade spell avoided Derflinger's abilities, and bit into the Gandalfr's torso.
Both men froze at the sting of drawn blood, panting heavily. Saito blinked the sweat out of his eyes but didn't take a hand off his sword to wipe it away.
"Call it a draw?" the familiar suggested.
"My thoughts exactly," the captain agreed, and both sank to the ground, panting for breath.
I had to debate with myself whether or not to end the chapter here, and decide to save Fouquet's reappearance for the next chapter. It will give you something to look forward to.
EXpertUS: Yeah, I know he didn't beat all the 70,000. Still the fact that canon Saito fought the army, delayed them, and walked away alive (the nobles don't know he was near death until Tiffa found him) should get him more respect. Though he gets canonical, in-universe fan-clubs in the light novels, and a play made about him, so he's definitely popular.
Reishin Amara: I'll consider it, but I have too many stories on my hands already to start new ones. In fact, speaking of ideas, here's one that I was talking over with someone: what if, instead of Louise summoning someone else, Saito was summoned by someone else? Plenty of people have done it with Tiffa, but what about Saito as the Pope's familiar? Actually, Joseph would be even better, as you could get some good bromance, and either make Joseph more sane, or have the familiar runes brainwash Saito into following Joseph.
Akuma-Heika: I'll consider the benefits thing, but almost certainly not. And the reason that Saito is a 'safe bet' is why. What's the fun of writing a story if you don't screw with the balance of power, and to heck with the consequences! :)
These Heroes We Shall Remember: Any suggestions on where or how? I only have experience with this site, not any others.
Hypothetical Spiritual Entity: Thanks. It's hard getting the right balance to fit his character, so I'm glad to know that I'm doing it right.
Hope to see you all soon!