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"Saito" - Talking

'Louise' - Thinking/ Human-Human Telepathy

"Explosion!" - Spell

:Master: - Master/Familiar Telepathy

Chapter 33: Three Gifts for Saito


Ballroom, Castle Tristain, City of Tristainia, Tristain

The newly knighted 'Sir Saito de Hiraga' felt mildly uncomfortable in the rather fancy clothing he was currently wearing. This particular outfit had been a gift from Queen Henrietta, paid for from her own personal purse, so he couldn't really get away with not wearing it. It was well-tailored and expertly made, but for some reason it still felt off against his skin. Or, more accurately, the entire situation still felt vaguely wrong to him. He had spent his entire life being lectured that wielders of magic were not to meant to rule over mundane matters and that those who wielded it should focus on studying and understanding the mystical arts rather than interfere with mortal governance. Onmyōji were meant to advise, protect, and even intercede in times of great peril, but never to take up the reigns of rulership themselves.

So to now hold an official place in the feudal monarchy he had found himself interacting with was making him vaguely uncomfortable.

To try and distract himself from the internal disquiet that the clashes between his upbringing and his new reality were causing him, the Onmyōji instead kept his focus outward; looking out across the palace's expansive banquet hall from his position next to the Royal Dais where Louise and Henrietta were quietly and happily chatting away like a pair of reunited sisters.

There was a small band in one corner that was playing some form of local music, that sounded vaguely like Western Classical to his ears, while multiple men and women danced elegantly across the middle of the floor while others walked about, stood, or sat at several smaller tables scattered around the outer edges of the room; talking, gossiping, and chatting amongst themselves. The 'victory party' was apparently going quite smoothly from his own observations. Most of the Traditionalist and Devout Brimirite factions had departed with almost indecent haste after Queen Henrietta had called the official gathering of the Court to an end.

They were all quite obviously unhappy about the rather large amount of egg that had been smeared on their faces after the start of the war, and having their attempts to reassert some authority and regain respectability by preventing Henrietta from 'abusing' her newly gained position as their sitting monarch fail so thoroughly had only made the entire thing that much more humiliating.

'It is unfortunate that those two factions make up just under half of the Royal Court, so Henrietta can't just be rid all of them, or it would throw all of Tristain into chaos, something that we can't risk with the threat of war still looming over us.' he thought to himself, still lightly disgusted by the self-serving nature shown by those particular examples of 'nobility.' Back in his world, any mage who so blatantly ignored a call to battle, regardless of their position, would have soon afterwards have found their magic sealed away before they were imprisoned for treason. Japan had long had a very strict and sharp outlook when it came to cowardice, particularly when it interfered with one's duty when it came to matters of combat and war. That sentiment was still very much alive and well within the Imperial Ministry.

Still, the nobles were not going to be let off without repercussions. Henrietta fully intended to put all of those recalcitrant nobles to work; every noble that had failed to provide troops for the Battle of Tarbes was now being forced to muster all their available soldiers to battle, while their noble lords would have the chance to 'regain their honour' by taking the lead on the invasion of Albion when it happened. And, of course, Henrietta intended to have loyal assets among those ranks to 'supervise and advise' and keep a sharp and weather eye on them.

Tristain's Royal Court was mostly made up of two major factions, the Crown Loyalists, that backed the crown and royal family, and the Traditionalists, that pushed the interests of the noble families; and two long-standing minor factions, the Devout Brimirites, that desired a more direct connection between Tristain and Father Church, and the small but influential Neutral Faction. New minor factions would occasionally rise up purporting one cause or another, but most were quickly subsumed back into one of the more long-standing players in the Imperial Court. The Neutral Faction, whose members had all provided troops to the Battle of Tristain and had stood largely on the peripheries of the debates that had taken place earlier in the Throne Room, apparently attempted to keep the conflicts that were common between the Crown Loyalists and Traditionalists in balance; weighing in with one side on some issue only to side with their opponents on the next and sometimes just staying out of the entire affair. Saito didn't have a clue what kind of strange political calculus that group was following, but the Dowager Queen Marianne had seemed fairly certain that, more often than not, their interests seemed be in line with the betterment and survival of Tristain as a whole.

Of course, the group had their own agenda when it came to this (even if she didn't know the particulars of it), but by and large they were at least somewhat trustworthy compared to the two factions that seemed intent on making themselves thorns in the Royal Family's side.

Incidentally, because Saito had been raised to nobility by the Queen's direct order and his own ties to the current Crown Princess, Saito had been automatically been considered as a part of the Crown Loyalist Faction.

'Not that I had any intention of throwing my lot in with the other groups either way.' Saito scoffed mentally. While Saito knew that no political system was ever going to be perfect, including and sometimes especially democracy, his recent involvement in court politics had highlighted quite a few of the pitfalls and negatives of the feudal system.

"Chevalier de Hiraga." a familiar voice called out, drawing him out of his own thoughts.

Turning his head slightly, Saito inclined his head forward slightly in respect without breaking his watch over the ballroom as a whole. "Duchess de Vallière. This is turning out to be quite the nice little party, isn't it." he replied politely.

"Quite, though there is no need to keep your guard up so tightly this night." the Duchess responded mildly, one eyebrow raised in mild curiosity. "After everything that occurred only an utter fool would try to spit so much as a poisoned word at your charge tonight, let alone throw a spell."

Saito shook his head slightly. "A few days ago, an odd magical constructed attempted to scout out the Gaol where Cromwell is being held." Saito responded, keeping his voice low so that they weren't overheard. "Luckily my Familiar Kaede was easily able to detect and destroy it, but I was able to sense traces of something similar in the Throne Room earlier."

Karin stiffened in shock before frowning. "Someone sent some construct to spy on the Royal Court? Inside the castle itself no less?" she asked sharply.

The newly raised Chevalier nodded. "Yes. From what I've able to determine from studying the traces left behind it is unlike any form of magic I am familiar with from my own home world. It is actually more similar to native Halkaginian Magic, but more sophisticated and…slightly different in a way that I can't quite put my finger on just yet." Saito explained calmly. "I fully intend to craft some form of countermeasure to ensure that whoever is playing these games will be unable to do so again without at least being noticed."

"Should you require any assistance or materials to do so, simply speak to me and I will ensure it is made available." the older woman instructed him sternly. As Henrietta consider her daughter her sister, so too did Karin love the young Queen like a daughter. Anything that could be used to ensure her safety within the castle was a boon she would gladly pay for from her own pocket.

Saito merely nodded his acquiesce before changing the subject to something less serious. "I notice that neither of your elder daughters are here?"

"Cattleya has never had the best constitution, I'm afraid that dancing would just tire her out too quickly for her to enjoy it, so she rarely comes to events like these." Karin answered absently. "As for Éléonore…she rarely attends any event where her former fiancé is likely to attend. I'm afraid there is quite a lot of bad blood left between those two. And…well, to be honest she has not been in the best of moods recently for…sadly obvious reasons."

Saito nodded at that, keeping his expression carefully neutral. The middle sister of the three daughters of the de Vallière Family had always viewed herself as being superior to 'Crybaby Louise', so to suddenly find that her younger sister had been elevated to the kingdom's new Crown Princess, and revealed as a legendary Void Mage at that, must have come as a rather nasty and unpleasant shock for the abrasive young woman, one that she was likely having troubles reconciling with her own preconceptions.

"Well, at the very least she will be able to keep her tongue in check when around Louise from now on." he offered dryly.

"Of course. My second daughter might be hard-headed at times, but she still has some survival instincts." Karin scoffed. "Poking at and even insulting one's younger sister is one matter, but to insult the Crown Princess that has also earned renown as a war hero? Even if she only did such a thing behind closed doors, her father wouldn't be able to protect her from facing consequences."

That at least was somewhat understandable to Saito's sensibilities. Insulting any member of the royal family in their own country might not be lèse-majesté, but it was still something that would be frowned on quite severely in both public and private in places where the monarchy still held some sway, and could see one facing the executioner's block in some more severe cases where the royals were particularly severe. In Halkaginia, one also had to remember that the royal family were also descended from their 'god' Brimir, which would make such an insult both treasonous and blasphemous in some eyes.

And considering how dangerously and suspiciously omnipresent the Church of Brimir was in these lands, the kind of social backlash that kind of thing could bring was likely to be even more dire than what would have been seen in Medieval Europe.

"You should go out and mingle." Karin informed him abruptly. "You are a new noble in the Faction, you need to start making connections and contacts. Start by at least talking to some of your new fief's neighbours. I will take over your guard duty."

"…must I?" Saito asked with a weary sigh, eyeing the milling crowds with clear trepidation.

"Unfortunately for you, yes you must." the Duchess replied, sending him a knowing look. "You are now a noble and that means you must learn to interact with your new peers. Better you start now, when they have yet to truly form an opinion on you, than later, when rumour and scuttlebutt will have already had time to start to shape their preconceptions."

Reluctantly, Saito was forced to concede that she made a fair point. He'd just been using his guard duty, self-appointed as it might have been, as a way of avoiding getting involved in this political muckety-muck for a bit longer. And really, if anyone was suicidal enough to try something while both Agnès de Milan and Karin of the Heavy Wind stood on guard, then they would deserve everything that happened to them afterwards. Even dressed as she was now in a courtly gown, Saito had no desire to tangle with the good Duchess.

"Then I shall leave my Master and charge in your more than capable hands, Your Grace." Saito offered, bowing slightly before stepping away and allowing the older woman to take his place. He then proceeded to square his shoulders and march into the wolves' den, or rather the crowd of milling nobles, several of which had noticed his departure and were now watching him with almost academic interest. Saito just knew that he was not going to enjoy this experience.

Fortunately, one of the first people he encountered was one that he actually had a fairly good opinion of and some minor experience with, the Baronet of Tarbes.

"Ah, Sir de Hiraga. Welcome!" the man greeted him warmly, raising the wine glass he was sporting slightly in a toast. Baronet Jean-Luc 'Le Feu de Joie' (The Bonfire) de Beaufort was a fairly old man by the standards of this world, probably approaching his mid-fifties. He was tall and narrowly built, with a neatly trimmed grey beard and moustache, warm brown eyes, and looked to still be in fighting trim despite his advanced age. "I was hoping that I would have a chance to speak with you at some point tonight."

"Sir de Beaufort." Saito inclined his head slightly in respect. A Baronet was only a single step up from a Chevalier such as himself, and thus were accorded only a slight bit more respect. "I was hoping for the same. How goes the rebuilding of Tarbes?"

"Thank to Her Majesty already offering a pledge of Royal Support to the efforts, I doubt that the rebuilding will take more than a mere four months or so to complete." the man replied happily, looking sincerely relieved by the fact. That was half of his entire fief that he was talking about, so it was not really a surprise that he was happy that rebuilding efforts were going so quickly. "Supplies have already started to be assembled and shipped to the location and the villagers of Tarbes are all eager to chip in and see their homes rebuilt as quickly as possible."

"Honestly, the actions that the Reconquista took in destroying Tarbes in the first place was nothing more than a wasteful display of power and a meaningless attempt at intimidation." the newly-appointed knight replied with a small scowl. "I'm sorry that I didn't arrive earlier to join the fight."

"Bah, all that was lost were a few material things, buildings and the like. None of my people were lost thanks to Her Majesty ordering the evacuation of the village long before the battle even began." the Baronet replied with a shake of his head. "Most of them even managed to escape with most of their personal possession thanks to how thoroughly the evacuation was being handled. Had you arrived to the field any earlier with that iron dragon of yours I fear the Reconquista would have simply turned tail and fled back to Albion like the cowards they are just to harass us again some other day. You struck when they had already fully committed themselves to the battle, which made their attempts to withdraw after you and the Crown Princess properly knocked out their teeth slow, chaotic, and impractical. You arrived at the perfect moment to aid Tristain, so absolve yourself of any guilt, Sir de Hiraga. I certainly carry no grudges over that battle."

"My thanks for that, Sir de Beaufort." Saito inclined his head again. "I did hear from my Master that there was one particularly loud noble that derided Her Majesty's decision to evacuate…?"

"Ah yes, that particular little shit." the Baronet smiled grimly. "Her Majesty was very much displeased with his words on the field, and he now finds himself being ejected from the Tristainian Army with no honours to his name. I am also in the process of formally challenging the young reprobate to a duel over his remarks. He has yet to recant them, you see."

"Indeed? Well, should you have want of it, I would be honoured to stand as your Second should such a duel occur." Saito offered sincerely.

"HA! I can see that lickspittle cringing in fear at the thought of facing the likes of the Gandálfr in a duel!" Jean-Luc let out a bark of amused laughter. "Should it come to that, I shall very gladly take you up on that offer, Sir de Hiraga, though I honestly believe that the little fool is going to recant his words and apologize the moment he realizes that I don't intend to back down on this. I may not be Karin of the Heavy Wind but I have managed to build quite the solid reputation as a duellist over the years. The young noble in question, however, can make no such claims."

"And just who is this noble that was foolish enough to incur Her Majesty's wrath so blatantly." Saito asked curiously.

"That would one be one of my own neighbours, the Baron Damien 'La Boule de Terre' (The Earth Lump) de Quittet. A young man whose greatest aspiration seems to be mediocrity in all things." the Baronet replied with a sniff of disdain. "The only reason he even showed his face at the battle was that his own Barony was too close to even try and pretend an inability to supply troops. The only reason that the young lout's Barony has yet to go under financially since he took the reigns from his father, who was a half-decent man at least, is more a testament to the ability of Lord de Quittet's subordinates than any personal ability of his own. The only skill that man seems to have in any real abundance is the ability to find capable people he can delegate his responsibilities onto instead of handling them himself. Every year I hear complaints of high taxes and insufficient levies to protect his people, so I am sincerely looking forward to taking him down a peg or two, one way or another."

The Onmyōji had to raise an eyebrow as he heard that particular Runic Name. From what he'd learned of the tradition, those tended to be descriptive of the magical prowess of an individual, with more simplistic, straightforward ones being considered more desirable and respectable. 'Earth Lump' meant that this Baron likely wasn't a very capable mage in his own right even when it came to his native element of Earth.

"It certainly sounds like he is in need of it." Saito offered with a nod.

"Quite right. Now, to move on to a more pleasant subject, how does it feel to stand as a noble now?" Jean-Luc enquired politely.

"To be completely honest, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all." Saito admitted with a slight frown. "While I am confident that the basic education that I received in my own world will be more than a match for the standard education that any noble could have received, I'm afraid I have little to no knowledge when it comes to things like governing a fief."

"Ah, I suppose that is understandable." the Baronet nodded a bit. "Well perhaps I can offer a bit of advice. What do you think is the most pressing matter that you have to deal with at the moment?"

"Right now, I would say that my biggest concern is just how I am going to pay for anything. Even if Ornières is a small fief, I can only imagine the sheer number of expenses that bringing it up to standard will incur." the Onmyōji responded after taking a moment to consider the question. "My salary as a teacher at the Academy so far has been able to fill my coffers by a modest sum, but I'm quite certain it will be nowhere near enough to pay the expenses that running a fief will incur. Even with the five year tax exemption, I'm likely to be broke before my first month is up."

"Ah, well then you can rest your worries a bit." Jean-Luc offered. "In addition to the tax exemptions, a Noble who has been newly appointed will also receive a modest purse of starting funds from the Crown for precisely that reason. I also know a thing or two about Ornières; it's a fairly good-sized bit of land for a Chevalier's fief, with a single village. The 5000 Écu that you will receive from the crown should be more than enough to have everything brought up to prime so that you can start paying your taxes in five years' time. And that is not even taking into account that you are likely to earn yourself a sizeable battle purse for your part in the Battle of Tarbes."

"A battle purse?" Saito asked, unfamiliar with the term.

"Ah, I suppose they don't have those in your homeland? Well, in Tristain, and most of the other nations of Halkaginia, those nobles who accomplish an incredibly notable and/or praiseworthy feat in a major battle, as declared by the ruling Monarch, are rewarded with a purse of Écu appropriate for their accomplishments." the Baronet explained. "Outside you and your Master, the only other person that could be considered for such a reward would be Her Grace, Duchess Karin, who led the assault against the invader's landing forces and soundly ground them beneath her heel. I'd dare say you will receive at least another 5000 Écu or so, considering how you almost single-handedly routed the invader's Dragon Riders and set the stage for your Master's final attack, not to mention your own Familiar's capture of the regicide."

Saito frowned slightly. "But I wasn't a noble when I did any of that." he pointed out curiously.

"Since you earned your Writ of Ennoblement due to, at least in part, your distinguished actions during the battle, tradition dictates that you be counted among those considered for a battle purse." Jean-Luc clarified with a shake of his head. "And given the clear nature of your achievements, not to mention the Queen's own support for you, then I very much doubt even the most recalcitrant lordling will try and argue against it."

"I still imagine that a number will want to try, either way. The good Minister Richemont for one doesn't seem the type to hand out any more gold than he is forced to." the Chevalier commented absently.

"Hm, oh indeed, that man does like to keep the purse strings drawn tight. Well, that and he can a bit…dismissive of new nobility." the Baronet offered, looking around carefully before continuing more softly. "The Richemont Family have been a part of the Tristainian Nobility since the times of King Tristain the First and the man tends to be quite the snob about it. Any noble without at least five generations of pedigree behind them is simply unworthy of his time or consideration; doubly so for mere Chevaliers or Baronets like the two of us."

Saito mentally made a not of that. Arrogant, classist and a snob even amongst fellow nobles…the Minster of Finance was certainly a real piece of work.

"Returning to matters of my new fief, do you happen to know why it was named such?" Saito asked, changing the subject. "To the best of my knowledge 'des Ornières' translates roughly to 'The Ruts'."

"Oh, it is merely in relation to an old Tristainian expression that suits its location quite appropriately." Jean-Luc answered with a slightly amused grin. "Calling some place in the 'the ruts' usually means that it is in the middle of nowhere or that it has nothing of interest to it. Ornières is a quiet little fief with absolutely nothing special to it other than the fact that it is a bit isolated from most of the major trade routes."

"Ah, we have a similar expression in my world; though we refer to such place as 'the sticks' or 'the boonies' depending on the area." the Onmyōji nodded in understanding.

"Interesting words. Well, either way, the only real thing of interest about Ornières is that it has a history of being the place where those who have earned the Royal Family's favour in some way are first raised to." the older man continued. "All of the families who have held domain over it have gone on to eventually raise themselves up in status within a few generations at most, earning a new fiefdom and allowing Ornières to return to the custody of the Crown afterwards. The de Vallière Family is actually one of the most prominent examples of such early in the days of Tristain; long before they managed to rise to the rank of duke."

"Well that is certainly an interesting bit of history, I'm surprised Louise didn't mention it before." Saito responded.

"To be fair it is quite ancient history, the event occurred close to 3500 years ago after all and the de Vallière were only Chevaliers for a single generation before the second Lord de Vallière earned his family an advancement. When you live as long as I have, you tend to collect quite a variety of hobbies and collecting odd or mostly forgotten bits of our dear nation's history is one mine." Jean-Luc offered with a chuckle. "Back in those days, the nobility was quite a bit scarcer than it is these days and having new talent raised up to nobility was far more common. It wasn't until nearly a full millennia later when the de Vallière Family had already held the rank of Marquis for close to a century that their young Head of House and last living scion managed to win himself great honour on the field of battle and was raised to the rank of Duke, as well as earning the heart and hand of the youngest daughter of the Royal Family in the process."

"I'd certainly love to hear more." Saito admitted with a smile. "I know I still have a great deal to learn about Tristain."

"Well I'd be glad to offer my help there, you know how we old men love to hear the sounds of our own voices." the Baronet offered with a laugh. "But for now, let me introduce to a few more of our peers and neighbours…"

The rest of the party was spent meeting and be introduced to the other lower-ranked members of the Crown Loyalist Faction, as well as a few of the more curious higher-ranked members. By the time that the party was over, Saito's head was practically swimming from the sheer number of new faces and names that he would need to memorize. Thankfully his mental training allowed him to remember them all for no, but he was going to need to write them down later and meditate to make sure everything stuck.

He practically collapsed into his bed in the castle; his new room having formerly belonged to Agnès since it was adjacent to the Crown Princess' bedchambers. Since Henrietta had moved to the Royal bedchambers, Agnès had of course moved her own belongings to the appropriate guard's suite. Curled up into his in the bed with him was Siesta, who had wept tears of joy when she had found that Saito had decided to stay when she had been summoned to the Palace from the Academy.

Simply cuddling with his lover, Saito fell into a deep, peaceful sleep; satisfied with his choice in remaining in this world.

The Next Day

Private Meeting Room, Castle Tristain

"You comported yourself quite well while mingling with the rest of the Royalists yesterday, Chevalier de Hiraga." Henrietta offered him a warm smile as he joined her and Louise for breakfast the next morning.

"There were quite a lot of names and faces that I will need to quickly memorize." Saito admitted as Siesta happily bustled around the table that three were sitting at, filling cups with tea from the pot in her hands. "The Baronet of Tarbes was a great help in introducing me to everyone. Thank you, Siesta."

"It is my honour to serve, Master." the maid offered a happy smile and an impeccable curtsey.

"Speaking of you and Miss Siesta, I hope I would not be incorrect if I said that the two of you would not be opposed to being in the same household as master and maid, correct?" Henrietta asked.

"Well, no. I would certainly like to buy Siesta's contract from Louise." Saito admitted, taking a sip of his tea. It was as delicious as always. "However, I am concerned that with my current monetary situation and my new responsibilities that I will be ill-able to afford it." Even taking into account the purses that Baronet de Beaufort had spoken about yesterday, he was still feeling a bit hesitant to make any major expenditures until he could get a full idea of what assets he had available now and what costs he would have to consider in the immediate future.

"Ah, I suppose that would be a fair consideration." the Queen nodded before looking towards her lifelong friend. "Louise?"

"Mugh. Haaaah…" the petite pinkette grumbled to herself for a bit before sighing. "Very well, I'll grant Siesta's contract to Saito as a personal reward for his valiant showing on the battlefield…and for staying."

"T-Thank you, Mistress Louise!" Siesta curtseyed to her now-former mistress in gratitude.

"Whatever his station Saito is still my Familiar, so through him you are still in my service." Louise pointed out a bit sulkily.

Henrietta had to cover her lower face with one hand to hide the fit of giggles that tried to bubble up at that. Louise had never been all that good at being honest with herself. She knew that her sister-in-all-but-blood had become quite fond of Siesta, not just because of her formidable skills as a maid and housekeeper, but for her friendliness, upbeat nature and determined outlook. And when Louise liked something or someone she would absolutely refuse to let them go without a fight; she clung to that which she loved quite fiercely and stubbornly.

Her words just now were nothing more than a bit of self-justification that she wasn't giving up the older girl in her entirety, that she was still hers in some way.

"I'll have the contract transfer documents drawn up before lunch." the young Queen offered aloud. "More importantly, I still need to award you with your initial funding to go with your fief; 5000 Écu. In addition to that you were one of three nobles that displayed great results during the Battle of Tarbes, so you will be awarded a battle purse of 5000 Écu as well."

"Ah, I'd heard about that during last night's festivities. At least I won't have to worry about entering my fief dead broke now." Saito offered with a relieved sigh. "Exactly how large is Ornières, anyway? I believe that Baronet de Beaufort mentioned that it was fairly good-sized for a Chevalier's fiefdom, with a single village, but…"

"That would be correct." Henrietta nodded, shuffling a few papers she had brought with her. "If the last census is still accurate, there should be just over fifty or so residents. The village itself grows its own food, raises its own livestock, and is largely self-sufficient for the most part."

"Seems like the kind of place that would have little need for a feudal lord." the Onmyōji noted absently. "How long has it been since one was assigned to it?"

"Hmm? I do believe that the last Chevalier who held residence there lived during the reign of my grandfather, King Justinian." the young monarch mused. "If memory serves, the entirety of the manor house where the Lord of Ornières resides was fully refurbished shortly after it was reclaimed by the crown, but I don't think it has been touched since then."

"Ah, yeah, that will likely need attending to." Saito winced a bit at that.

"Don't be too concerned. It is tradition that, once a year, a small number of village women from the closest settlement will be hired by the Royal Family to go in and give any building held in trust by the Crown a proper cleaning and airing out to keep things in at least halfway decent condition." Henrietta offered an explanation. "There is also a single knight assigned to the grounds to ensure that nothing is damaged or stolen during the cleaning before the grounds are re-secured."

The assumption that the villager women might steal something was sadly a valid one; given how even a small trinket from a noble's manor would, if sold, could likely pay enough coin to feed a family for a month at least. With that kind of temptation some people wouldn't be able to resist without at least some oversight.

"In honestly, the main duties a feudal lord might be needed for would be to mediate conflicts, negotiate any trade deals that are needed, and to organize the defences should an attack occur." Henrietta continued. "The village lacks even the most basic militia or even a true village guard, nor does it have any real walls. Given that the village has been under the aegis of the Royal Family for so long, it has never really needed to worry about being raided by anyone, but with the outbreak of this war, it will be in a vulnerable position."

"Ah, so the old saying is true; the reward for any job done well is simply more work." Saito offered with a smirk. "In rewarding me with Ornières, you are not only offering me a fair reward for my services, but also ensuring the safety of people who have looked to the Royal Family as their direct liege lords for generations, making a rather public statement of your favour towards me, and tying me close to Tristain as a whole. Four birds all felled with a single stone. Most impressive, Your Majesty."

Blushing slightly at having her motives seen through and dissected so easily, Henrietta couldn't help but tilt her head to one side in confusion. "You…do not seem upset about that?" she asked, sounding almost timid.

"Why would I? None of the reasons behind your decision were done to my detriment and all serve to protect the innocent, a cause that I will gladly support in any situation, or to stick it to people that I personally do not care for in the first place." Saito returned with a slight scoff. "All of your decisions were what should be expected of a wise leader, Your Highness, and come from a place founded in reason, logic, and the desire to do the best for your country. It would be selfish and petty in the extreme to take offence to your choices having secondary reasons behind them, and at the very least you are being open about it with me, unlike the Ministry was."

After some rather intense soul searching over the past few days, Saito had come to realize that, while their mission was an honourable and just one, the means by which the Ministry of Onmyōji were pursuing it had been steadily becoming less and less morally sound as the years went on. The Mind of Duty was simply the most basic method that the Ministry had resorted to in order to enforce loyalty amongst its subordinates. Having finally broken completely free of it, Saito was honestly a bit amazed that he had still been able to think so freely and independently while under its effects. It was like he had been forced to wear a coat of heavy armour over his mind for most of his life and for the first time in forever he was finally able to shed it and think without any encumbrance or restraint.

It had been…a truly liberating experience, in truth.

"I thank you for your kind words and vote of confidence." Henrietta offered with a slight bow of her head (which conveniently hid her slight blush at the praise) before moving on to the next topic. "I understand that you intend to return the Ring of Andvari to the Great Water Spirit?"

"Yes, and as soon as humanly possible. Just having the thing in my possession is making me nervous." Saito agreed with a rather fervent nod, one hand absently rising to touch at where the magical artefact was resting in a magically sealed pouch around his neck, underneath his jacket. "I'll have to borrow Montmorency once again in order to make contact with the Water Spirit of Lake Lagdorian."

"Granted." the Queen nodded her agreement. "If you can, please ensure that the Great Spirit understands that we do not wish for such a dangerous artefact to be risked falling into the wrong hands again."

"I very much doubt that will be necessary; the Spirit was quite furious about the ring being stolen in the first place." the Onmyōji offered with a slight shake of his head. "I think that anyone who is foolish enough to try and steal this ring again in the future would be better served simply lying down in their own grave to save themselves the suffering of whatever new protections are going to be placed around this ring once it is back in the Spirit's possession."

"Brr." Louise shivered slightly. Her memories of meeting the Great Water Spirit of Lake Lagdorian were heavily tainted by that damned love potion that she'd been under, but something about the power and majesty of the ancient elemental spirit had managed to pierce through even her muddled perceptions. She certainly did not wish to ever have to confront the Great Water Spirit as an enemy.

"Will you need to bring Louise along to accompany you?" Henrietta asked.

"No, I think we should keep our party as small and as quick as possible for this. For the moment, I think it would be better for everyone if she were to stay in the castle and continue her practice with the new, more complex, talismans that I have shown her." Saito responded after a moment's thoughts. "Besides, your Musketeer Guards are still trying to figure out just how they should treat her."

"Agnès is still trying to sort that out, yes. A lot of them joined out of a personal sense of loyalty to my family and I." the Queen offered a bit guiltily. A few of the Musketeer Guard hadn't liked the idea of being assigned to guard anyone other than Henrietta or her mother, Agnès included. The Chevalier de Milan was currently going through the Guard's ranks, trying to find members that would be willing to form the base of Louise's own Musketeer Guard.

"It's understandable, Anne. Most of them barely even know me after all." the pinkette offered with a shake of her head. "Honestly, if I thought I could get away with it, I would be trying to refuse a Guard unit in its entirety."

"Not happening." Saito cut the idea down at once.

"Unacceptable." Henrietta stated flatly, her voice mingling with the Chevalier's.

"As I said, I know better than to try and get out of it." Louise sighed tiredly, strangely pleased by how protective her liege/childhood friend and Familiar/Master/Guardian Knight were of her. "So, how goes the preparations for the invasion of Albion?"

"At present, our greatest concern is rebuilding the losses we took to our Dragon Rider Wings. While Sir Saito's arrival was most fortuitous, we still lost a number of riders in the initial conflict that will need to be replaced if we want the invasion to be at full strength." Henrietta answered with a slightly tired sigh. "Other than that, we mostly just have to do some minor repairs and maintenance for our warships while the levies are being prepared. Gallia, Romalia, and Germania have all pledged their support, more to get a slice of the pie once Albion has been fully liberated from the Reconquista than anything else, but the aid is still very much needed. Even if all of Cromwell's spells were broken when the ring was taken from him, there has been no sign or inclination of surrender from the 'Holy Republic' since his capture."

"I honestly have no idea if removing the ring from Cromwell would have broken his control. Such artefacts are incredibly rare in my world and I have never had the need the interest to study those that are well-known in any real detail." Saito offered with a frown. "I can certainly ask the Great Spirit when I return the ring and even see is she knows a way to break the spells cast through it by Cromwell if they haven't already broken."

"They aren't exactly common here either." Louise offered with a sigh. "This is the first time in hundreds of years that an artefact of the great spirits has been used or seen in any true capacity."

"Louise is a far better historian than I am." Henrietta nodded. "If she says that such is the case, then I am prepared to believe her."

"Fair enough." Saito agreed with a nod of his own. "How do think the invasion will fair?"

"Honestly, with just the resources that we currently have available from both combined Free Albion and Tristain itself, retaking Albion shouldn't be beyond our capabilities, but it would leave both nations utterly exhausted afterwards." the Queen offered with a sigh, disliking the political calculus that she was currently having to work through. "And I trust Joseph of Gallia as much as I would trust a starving wolf with a herd of lambs. I don't doubt that he will try something when he believes we are at our weakest. At least this way, he will be forced to commit some of his own forces as well."

"And then there's most necessary but also the most annoying thing that will need to be done before the invasion can commence." Louise sighed out.

"Cromwell's trial." Henrietta agreed. "Even if the man is a usurper and a regicide, he is still the declared ruler of a nation and being tried with orchestrating regicide, assassination, mind control and a host of other crimes. This is the first time that such a thing has occurred and the Pope himself is sending an observer to witness the trial. A Flamen-Knight of the Romalian Dragon Knights by the name of Julio Chesaré."

"Why would His Holiness not simply have Bishop Madolene act as his eyes for this?" Louise frowned. "He is the highest-ranking member of the clergy in Tristain."

"I suspect that my repeated demands for the Founder's Prayer Book on your behalf, and the good Bishop's desire to acquiesce to my rightful claim, has reduced his standing as a loyal member of Father Church." the Queen answered with a shake of her head. "Bishop Madolene is a loyal child of Tristain and has made it clear, after he handed the Prayer Book to me, that it was only the direct orders from the Holy See that had prevented him from doing so when I first asked for it."

"…once again, this Church of yours is giving me some very, very bad feelings." Saito remarked blandly. "So, what do we know about this priest-knight?"

"Essentially all but nothing other that the fact that Pope Vittorio Serevare evidently trusts him enough to place him as his eyes and ears on a momentous trial such as this." Henrietta stated with a shake of her head. "He is our age, however, and likely to be quite handsome and charming. Perhaps he will come with orders to try seduce either me or Louise in the name of protecting Father Church's interests. I cannot say."

"Wouldn't a priest knight have to take a vow of celibacy." Saito asked, feeling a spike of irritation pass through him at the thought of some religious zealot trying to seduce Louise.

"Flamen-Knights are not cloistered members of the faith, so they are required to take no vows of celibacy or poverty." Henrietta explained with a slight shake of her head. "Most of the member of the Flamen-Knights are scions of Romalia's various high-ranking families, so they need to be able to marry, have children and mange their family holdings."

"Well, I suppose that is good to know. When is this Julio fellow supposed to arrive?" the Onmyōji asked.

"He is set to arrive on the day of the trial of Oliver Cromwell, one week from today." the Queen answered grimly.


Next Chapter: The Trial of the Usurper Oliver Cromwell