Blood Bonds

Chapter Eleven

An old flame


The main road was paved to allow carriages a smooth transit.

While riding, one noticed when the bumpy dirt roads ended, and it was a way to know not just by the scenery but also the vibrations from the ground that one had entered the capital city of Tristain.

The merchants were coming and going, their booming voices announcing the products they had for sale, brought from all corners of the kingdom and beyond. Commoners formed long lines to buy from them, be it for themselves or their noble masters.

Houses with roofs of every color of the rainbow.

And the castle at the end, surrounded by its magnificent gardens and protected by imposing towers. It was from there that Henrietta ruled as Queen.

It brought her memories.

What felt like a lifetime ago, on a night exactly like that one, Louise and her family had arrived at that place, ready to leave her under the care of the royal family. Louise's stomach had been filled with butterflies back then, fearful of what kind of person Henrietta would be and if she'd like Louise. Those fears had been quickly put to rest when a then eleven years old Henrietta received her with a warm hug and a promise of friendship.

If Louise now closed her eyes and allowed her mind to wander off, she could almost hear the wind as it brought to her the sound of past laughter of two girls as they joked and played.

But it had been years since then, and as her carriage rode through the streets of Tristania, doubts and fear crept down her back, the butterflies of old having been replaced by ravenous hornets.

The last time that Louise had been in Tristania, only some months ago, her mind had been in turmoil, overwhelmed by the idea of having returned to the land of her birth. She had been reliving memories of her childhood, of warmth and companionship. But had also been riddled with fears. She no longer was the same person from ten years ago. She had wondered if she'd be accepted again.

She got an answer to that question after the battle for Tarbes when a horrified Henrietta had rejected her ideas and accomplishments.

That last argument had hit her worse than Louise had admitted. She had felt betrayed, wounded like no enemy had ever managed to offend her before. It had led to her seeking solace in the company of Kirche of all people. That had been a decision birthed out of desperation and scorn that she had been sure she'd come to regret. But as with most things, she had been wrong. Now here was Kirche with her, riding alongside to what Louise couldn't help but feel was her own execution.

Louise still remembered the words she had spoken to her several nights ago, even when the alcohol had been clouding her senses and eroding her reason. She had confessed all her shames and hidden desires, and yet she didn't regret having said any of that. Kirche had quietly accepted her and moved on. What else could Louise have asked for?

What even were they right now?

Friends?

The idea didn't sound as bad as it may have some time ago. She wouldn't mind having someone who could hold her and look after her, even if that person was Kirche.

Louise would need something to trust if Henrietta rejected her again, and for now, Kirche would fill that role.

Like she had told her, there was no fear in battling monsters from beyond human comprehension. After all, what would there be for her to worry about if she was defeated?

Death?

She didn't care about it.

But she did care about disappointing those she loved, and Henrietta had been her first and, for the longest time, only friend.

"You're trembling like a wet cat," Kirche told her from her position across the cabin. "Would it make you feel better if I held your hand?"

She was already having trouble mustering the courage to carry on with this meeting, but she wasn't a child who needed to be carried around. She still had her pride, and it wouldn't survive entering Henrietta's chamber alongside Kirche. "That'd ruin the purpose of a private conversation, wouldn't it?"

"Well, my offer remains. And, hey, everything's going to be fine."

Louise just nodded in silence, desperately wanting to believe her. This wasn't a battle she wanted to have, but she needed to if she wanted the satisfaction of closure.

Reaching the end of the main avenue, they rode across the bridge and went in through the main gates. Upon reaching the royal gardens they were met with the soldiers protecting the place. Had there always been that many? When she had been living there she hadn't seen them. Maybe she hadn't noticed them, their presence falling into the background as just another part of the decoration. Now that she was older and was better acquainted with the dangers of the world she noticed things like that better. Like the glimmering metal behind lookout posts, betraying the muskets aimed at them.

Louise steadied her hand. She forced herself to remember that those guards weren't enemies and were just taking precautions in the name of Henrietta's well-being. She shouldn't kill them just for angering her. For treating her like an enemy. For distrusting her. That was just their job.

Tearing her eyes away from the assembled guards, she scanned her surroundings in search of a lock of purple hair or a glimpse of a crown but immediately admonished herself for such a childish idea. Of course Henrietta wouldn't be there to receive her. She was a monarch now with far more important things to worry about than Louise.

What if she didn't want to meet her?

Louise had made a bold claim when she said she'd be talking to Henrietta, but what if she didn't want to talk to Louise? What would she do then?

A hand closed around her own and the trembling stopped. Giving Kirche a courteous nod, Louise climbed down from the carriage and gave herself a moment to take in her surroundings.

Henrietta had sprained her ankle under the shadow of that tower while trying to climb it.

One rainy afternoon Louise had slipped and ended with her face full of mud while following a horse down that road.

And there were the bushes from where they picked flowers to decorate their hairs.

Despite the passage of time, many of her childhood memories remained alive there. But those memories were cold and empty without the people that had lived through them.

"My offer still stands, you know?" Kirche announced patting Louise's back. Just then she realized that she had been standing perfectly still in the middle of the courtyard for who knows how long.

"I thank you for it but I think I can do this."

"Well, in that case, I'm off!"

"Where are you going?"

"Don't know," Kirche shrugged. "Sightseeing I guess. I should look for Guiche and go see how this entire mess with Mott and the vampire wraps itself up."

Oh, yes. That. It was funny to think how the search for criminals and murderers had become a secondary concern.

"Good luck and, please, mind your manners around the guards. I'd hate to have to avenge you if you get yourself killed." If one of them hurt Kirche, would Henrietta mind if Louise killed them?

"Will do my best! And hey, if you patch things up with Henry, remember that I'm open to threesomes."

Louise could only answer with a gargled grunt as she choked on her spit.

That blasted woman!

Shaking up to clear her head of any insidious images that may have been summoned, she forced one foot in front of the other in search of her Queen. But it didn't take long before being intercepted by someone.

"Miss Vallière!" A boy dressed in the armor of an Albionesse knight came rushing to her side. "What a pleasure to meet you again." He made a curtsy like a maid addressing her master.

"I'm sorry but could you repeat your name to me?" Louise asked, cocking her head to one side.

"Of course!" He straightened up like an unraveling spring. "I'm Dominico. We fought side by side in Albion against Lady Tiffania's enemies."

Ah, now she remembered. He was a noble who they had freed from being fed to orcs, and he shortly joined their small group. It was a surprise to see him there, in another kingdom. "The illusionist, right? What brings you here? Where's Tiffania?"

The boy looked back at her in confusion. "I'm honestly surprised you don't know. Lady Tiffania is in the lands of your family. She went there to visit your sister."

Those words made her flinch. "She went to heal Cattleya?" She tapped one foot against the ground, embarrassed to admit that she didn't know how her sister was doing. "I haven't been in contact with my family. For a variety of reasons I've been avoiding them."

"Take it from me, never miss the chance to be with them." His smile wavered as his expression turned grim. "You never know when they'll be no longer there for you." He shook up and his cheerfulness was back. "And about your other question, I'm here because Queen Henrietta has offered to send support to Albion."

That did catch her interest.

"What kind of support? Medicine? Food? Soldiers?"

Had she changed her mind? Would she be willing to send her out there?

"I-I'm not sure yet." The boy took a step back, cowered by Louise's passion. "It's not my place to negotiate that. I'm just here as a bodyguard."

Louise nodded, pulling back. "Yes, yes. Apologies. I got over-excited there for a moment."

"Yeah, we noticed. You looked like a puppy finding the pantry wide open."

That voice was different, coming from what sounded like an older man. Looking left and right, she couldn't find the source of it.

"Who said that?"

Looking down at the boy's belt, she noticed a sword whose crossguard moved up and down like lips in rhythm with the mysterious voice. "Hey there, lassie!"

"This is Lord Derflinger." Dominico clarified, patting the side of the talking weapon. "Can you believe my luck? I come to Tristain and here I find him on sale. He once fought alongside my family but we believed him lost."

"Ah, yeah, the old Rodrigo." The sword sounded like an old soldier telling stories of his youth. "What a great guy! We went through so many enemies together! And those other two swords of his were quite the pair. Tizona was shy but a beast when she got going. And Colada was all prideful but a softie once you got to know her. I have so many stories to tell you about them!"

And now he sounded like someone that she knew very well.

"Yeah, I imagine, but I'm busy right now for stories." Taking a step to the side, she aimed a finger at the boy's chest. "Just make sure that, if you find someone named Kirche, you don't let your sword talk to her."

"I don't understand why, but sure."

Leaving the odd pair behind, Louise entered the main hall. At that hour, it was empty, but it was in there where those seeking council with the Queen waited for their turn. Tall portraits of the kings and queens of old hung from the walls, looming over those who entered, reminding them of the power that place once held. Flowers coated the air with their intoxicating perfume and inviting chairs waited for the tired travelers who came from afar, tempting them with promises of rest. And if one was a particularly powerful visitor, like a member of the church, a high ranking noble, or the leader of a guild, servants would come bringing wine and food. That place promised rest and levity, but that promise came with hidden danger. While one waited for the queen to call them, from balconies above trained combat mages watched their every move ready to strike them down if they suspected folly. Runes inscribed on the walls analyzed those who came in, searching for foreign magic, and hidden openings led to side rooms where crossbowmen waited to unleash their fury on whoever proved to be an enemy.

Behind its beauty, that place hid a deadly trap for those who came with malicious intent.

How appropriate it was, then, that the person who she met there was her mother.

"Louise," Karin said, rising from her seat like a draugr roused from torpor.

"Mother," She greeted her back, taking a step forward until they were at arms reach.

Karin scanned her up and down as if searching for any fault that she could point Louise at. If she found any, she didn't say it as she turned around gesturing at Louise to follow her. "Her Highness has been expecting you."

"Aren't you going to ask me what I've been doing all this time?"

"There will be ample time for us to talk about that later. For now, there are other things for you to do."

In complete silence after that, Karin led and Louise followed.

Behind the waiting room was the throne room, and at its end, there was a door that led deeper into the bowels of the palace, where busy clerks ran from one end to the other with stacks of documents working to keep the gears of the kingdom turning.

That was a place that few outsiders would ever see, but that Louise had once known as the back of her hand. It was there that Louise and Henrietta had played hide and seek, pranking each other and all those that came looking for them.

"We're here," Karin announced, not only to Louise but also to the pair of guards standing outside one of the rooms. Like synchronized machines, they each took a step to the side. So did Karin, who remained standing there staring back at her daughter.

The message was clear: that was as far as she would take her. The rest was up to Louise.

Muttering a silent 'thank you' Louise crossed the threshold.

And there she was. Seated behind a modest desk, quill on hand, Henrietta was reading through piles of documents. Some she signed, some others she tossed aside, and around her, a trio of assistants waited for her, each one with a pile of their own that also needed her. So focused she was that she didn't notice Louise's arrival.

Henrietta looked tired, but there was a fire, a determination behind her eyes that Louise had never seen before. She didn't want to interrupt her.

It was one of the assistants who did so for her, pointing Henrietta at the intruder.

The moment their eyes met, it was like being a child once again.

"Louise," Henrietta gasped, the quill falling from her grip. "Everyone, leave us!"

The assistants rushed out, one of them locking the door at his back.

They were alone, and all of Louise's fears and doubts returned in full force. But they all vanished when Henrietta rushed to her, her arms opened, and locked Louise in a tight hug.

"I missed you."

Slowly and carefully, as if Henrietta was a porcelain figurine, Louise returned the hug. "I missed you too."

For the first time in a long time, Louise allowed herself to think that maybe things would be fine.


When Louise entered Henrietta's room and looked around, she surprised herself with how little it had changed. Now books covered most surfaces, yes, and there were scattered documents here and there, but Henrietta's dolls remained where they had always been next to Henrietta's dresses. Louise remembered playing with them, trying to host elaborate parties while Henrietta insisted on telling stories of death and forbidden romance before condemning one of the dolls to the guillotine. Their games usually descended into chaos as cushions were hurled or brandished as clubs.

Henrietta had cried for days after they accidentally ripped the head of one of the dolls during one of their mock battles, forcing Queen Marianne to get a seamstress to get it fixed.

When the servant walked in with steaming teacups, the picture was completed. It was as if she had walked through a portal to the past or another world. One where she had never left and remained steadfast at her Queen's side.

It was a nice fantasy to believe in.

"When we're together, smiling like this," Henrietta said, taking a sip of her cup, "it feels as if nothing has changed." She set the cup down and threw Louise a piercing yet sad stare. "But we have changed, haven't we? You and me. Maybe more than we can fully comprehend."

Louise folded her arms, her head hanging low. "Is it necessary for us to talk about such sad topics?" She knew that talking about it was an inevitability. She had readied herself for it. But now, with the challenge right in front of her, she wanted to turn tail and flee. "Can't we just enjoy the night like we used to?"

"Heaven knows I wish to, but both of us have been running from it for far too long."

That they had. From the thing that Louise had seen reflected in Henrietta's eyes after the battle for Tarbes. A thing she didn't want to admit.

"You're afraid of me."

"I'm not afraid of you!" There was pain in her voice. "I'm afraid for you." Was there even a difference? "When I went to meet you that night at the Academy I was so eager to rekindle our friendship, but who I met was a stranger!"

Louise flinched. The surprise must have been shown in her face because Henrietta quickly corrected herself.

"No. I misspoke." She reached out with a gloved hand making Louise flinch when she touch the side of her face. "When I see you now, I see fragments of the girl I used to know you as. A girl that I fear I failed."

Louise clenched her jaw, pushing Henrietta's hand away. "You speak as if what happened to me was some big tragedy," she snapped. Her body was shaking by this point. "It wasn't."

Who was she to dictate what had been right or wrong? What was there to mourn or regret? No matter the challenges that life had thrown at her, she had survived and fought back. She was now stronger thanks to that.

"When was the last time you were truly happy?" It was as if Henrietta had been reading her mind when she asked that question. One that, as Louise realized, she had no answer to.

She pondered about it for a moment, wondering what even happiness was. Had she ever experienced it in her whole life?

"I could ask you the same thing," She reasoned. "If you asked me when was the last time I was truly joyful, eagerly awaiting the next morning, I don't think I could answer that. I stopped feeling that way after we stopped living together. But I can tell you that now I'm content."

After all, that was the only thing that counted, right? To have the strength to put one foot in front of the other. To wake up every single day willing to face the new threats that life had in store for her.

Henrietta went quiet for a moment. "You deserve so much more than that." She sighed, wistfully. "I wished we could laugh and play like we used to. I don't want one day to wake up and be told you got yourself killed in some stupid way."

"Dying for you would never be stupid." As long as it was Louise's choice, it would be fine. "And if I do end up dead, I assure you that'll claw my way out of whatever hell I find myself into just to be back to you." She had already done that once before.

"I don't know what part terrifies me the most. The part about how callous you are about your life and the life of others, or the one where you assume that you'll go to hell after all is done and said."

Louise snorted. "I'm not a good person, Henrietta. And I don't regret it." There was no point hiding what she was. She had been broken many times over but the only thing that mattered was that those who she loved stayed safe.

"How many people did you kill in Albion? There were thousands just in the fleet you destroyed."

"I only did what was necessary to keep Tristain safe."

"Don't you see how that's damaging your soul?" Henrietta raised her voice. "Yours are the words of a mindless weapon!"

Only that? She was selling Louise short.

"Worse," Louise replied, shrugging her shoulders. "I'm a weapon who has a mind of her own. There's nothing more dangerous than that."

"Dangerous for whom? For you? Everyone else? Me? I don't want you to be a killer!" The strength behind Henrietta's voice made Louise flinch. But, as her voice reached a crescendo, her will wavered and she collapsed back on her seat, growing quiet all of a sudden. "I want a friend who can stand by my side, who can laugh and cry with me. And yet I don't know if that's the desire of a selfish child who doesn't know better. Being a Queen is a game of numbers. It's my job to tell who needs to be sacrificed for the sake of the majority, treating human lives like pawns in a board. I hate myself for it. And I hate myself more because a killer may be exactly what I need to stop the bigger tragedies."

That was the burden of leadership, one that Louise had rejected in the past. One that she didn't dare to carry. Henrietta did, and that spoke volumes of her strength of will.

Louise sat at her side, placing a palm on her lap. "The fact that you still care like that tells me that there's no one better suited for the throne." Who else was there who could do it? Henrietta had been preparing since birth for it. Louise knew it. She had been right there at Henrietta's side while her tutors taught her all she needed to know to be a proper queen. And if the two of them worked together, there would be no enemy who dared to stand against them. "And don't feel bad about treating me as what I am. Killing is something I became very good at." She released a sigh. It was funny in a way to think that after so many failures this had been the one area where she had excelled at. "Sometimes I feel it's the only thing I'm good at."

"That's not true! Don't you remember when we were taught how to sew? You were always better than me."

Louise broke down in laughter. Was this the argument that Henrietta used? But, admittedly, talking about such silly things put her soul at ease. It reminded her of the time they had spent together. "That's not saying much. Remember the sweater you tried to make for me?"

"Oh, Founder!" Henrietta groaned, pressing her palms against her face. "Why did I make it with three sleeves?"

"It was original."

"I guess you can say that." With a relaxed smile, Henrietta leaned back on her chair. "I also always admired how you could see things I may have missed. You were quick to point out flaws in my plans that I never accounted for."

Yes, she always did that. The safety of her friend and Princess (now Queen) had always been her main concern, no matter how unwelcomed her efforts were. Henrietta never liked people telling her no.

"As I did back at the Academy," Louise said, failing to keep the bitterness out of her words. "And just like at the Academy, you always got furious when I did that. You always yelled at me when I disagreed with you. That's why I stopped doing it after a while and just went along with whatever plan you had. No matter how often those ended with us crying." The fear of rejection was a weapon that Henrietta knew very well how to wield against her.

At least now she had the courtesy to look embarrassed by that.

"I remember. And yet you were always there for me." She went quiet for a moment. "You know? Karin told me what you talked about in Tarbes. Of how you feel about me."

Louise pressed her lips into a thin line, feeling a cold chill running down her spine. That had been a private topic, what right did her mother have of talking to others about it? "It'd have been nice if she had asked me first."

"I did coerce her. And she thought that, if left on your own, you'd have never told me."

"Like you never told me about Wales?" In her frustration, Louise spoke out without thinking. The expression of shock on Henrietta's face told her that she had made a mistake. "Sorry, I shouldn't have brought that up."

Henrietta looked away, pressing a palm against the corner mouth. "Wales and I-" She mumbled, as if forcing herself to speak, "It was never meant to be, but that was the part I enjoyed the most about it. Our parents would have never approved, so seeing him in secret was another game, another mischief."

Old memories and regrets were coming back to the surface. Henrietta had always liked dragging Louise into her small adventures, and Louise had never tattled on her. They had always been the perfect partners in crime. "I wouldn't have thought less of you for that, you know? I'd have even helped you."

Henrietta released a long, sad, sigh. "I wonder if I ever truly loved him. I don't know if I loved Wales as a person or what he symbolized. A way out. Mother married an Albionesse and let him rule in her place, so why shouldn't I do the same?"

Was that truly what her Queen wanted? Just a life of gluttony and laziness? There was so much more that she could do. And yet, wasn't fulfilling her desires what Louise wanted to do? "But you still wanted him, and you were happy with him."

"Entering a relationship only for what you can take from the other is a horrible thing to do." Henrietta shook her head. "Like I did with you. I wasn't a good friend, was I? I was a stupid kid back there. I thought I was better than anyone, including you."

"Henrietta-"

"No. Let me finish. The only thing I ever cared about was my own enjoyment. I treated you more like a servant than a friend, ordering you around without ever asking you what you truly wanted."

How wrong she could be. Doubts had plagued Louise for as long as she had memories to remember. The presence of Henrietta at her side, always so sure of herself, had been like a bulwark against the darkness of her mind. "And yet that's what I ever wanted. I never had much of a vision of where to go or who to be. All I ever wanted was someone who could lead me when I was lost. You were the person I always wanted to serve. In my eyes, you were perfect."

"But I'm not that person. I was never that person."

That was something that only now she was starting to understand. It was funny, in a way. Both had forced their preconceptions and desires on each other, blinding themselves to how they truly were. "Whatever the fact is, you always knew what to do. You always had the vision I lacked."

"And you always were the one to bring me down to reality." Henrietta crossed her arms over her chest, hugging herself as if she was cold. "Do you still love me?"

The question caught Louise off-guard.

What even was love? A desire to be with someone? A desire for their best? To possess them? Or was it the purpose that Louise had to find in other people because she had failed to find it within herself? But now, with the real person in front of her, she had to wonder how much of it had been real and how much had been a lie that she had wanted to believe in the name of survival.

"I don't know," She admitted. "As I told you, loving you was my ideal, the engine that kept me going. But then we met again and I realized that you weren't the person I thought you were." It pained her to say that. It was like letting go of the oldest doll she had gotten attached to, but the doll was rotting away and making her sick.

"The dreams of children who don't know better," Henrietta said with a tone of finality. "I'm confused. I don't know what to think of you or us. The person that I thought I loved was recently killed, and then I found out that my oldest friend was in love with me. I don't know if I can reciprocate."

That was the final truth that Louise had refused to believe in, one that she had dreaded to hear, but now that she had listened to it she realized that it wasn't that hard to bear. The truth hurt, but it was as if a heavy burden had left her shoulders.

"Then this is a fantasy that has to end."

Slowly Henrietta nodded with an expression of grim acceptance. "A part of me is sad. It's the envious, selfish part that wants me to still be the center of your world. Another better part feels relief. You deserve someone better, someone who can understand and truly appreciate you. Sorry."

"It's okay," Louise lied, making a dismissive gesture with her hand. "I still treasure you, and I'd like us to remain friends."

Henrietta's lips curled into a smile. "That's something I'd like too."

The question remained of how they'd continued from that point. Whatever answer they reached, they'd need to do it together. "So, what do we do now?"

Henrietta joined her hands together as if praying. "I need to be better. All my life I tried to avoid challenges and violence, but those just came looking for me. Now I realize that trying to flee only increases the suffering." She closed her fingers into fists and stared at Louise with a determination that she had never shown before. "I need to make my stance and I'll need a knight that I can trust to stand by me. I want you at my side, but as the Queen of this country I need you to follow my orders."

She could work with that. "I'm a weapon. Nothing more, nothing less. And if we're being honest here, I'm happy like that. All I ask you is to point me at the target you want to see destroyed."

"And will you follow my commands? Even when I tell you to hold back or when I do something you disagree with?"

Louise's nostrils opened as she took a deep breath. That request would be a challenging one to fulfill. She was a dragon, and as such, it was her right to do whoever she pleased, unconcerned by the consequences. But she was also a person who just wished to be of use to those she loved. "As long as those orders come from you, and no one else." A weapon was only as good as the hand behind it, and if Henrietta wanted to wield her she'd need to prove herself worthy. If she failed, Louise would need to do her best not to fall on her. "No more of you doing what other people tell you. If you give me an order, I want you to believe in it, because if you're to be both queen and master of someone such as I, you better act like it."

"That's something that I've been working on," Henrietta admitted, sounded embarrassed with herself. "I hope you'll help me with that."

Yes, she would. That was Louise's duty as defender, champion, and friend.

For the first time in a long time, she felt happy.


While Louise was having her heartfelt reunion with her childhood friend -and possible love of her life- Kirche's mind wandered to previously unexplored territories.

She wondered: would the little ball of pink be ripping the Queen's dress off at this very moment? Would they now be in bed having their merry way with each other?

She doubted it.

These were still Tristanians after all, people who refused to get in touch with their passions.

Well, Louise was a very passionate person herself, it was just that her interests were more bloody and less carnal. So no, Kirche doubted they'd be hearing the Queen's moans any time soon.

And if she had to be honest with herself, that was a relief.

That realization had been a novelty for her. Like many others she had in the last month. Kirche had never been a loyal person and had never demanded loyalty from her partners either. If anything, she wanted everyone to be loyal to their desires. That was why she had been so eager to help Louise get Henrietta. Besides, what did it matter if some of her partners left her for someone else? That was fine. It only meant that she'd have to try harder next time.

Not like that had ever happened because it had always been her the one to leave them, eager to wander off and try new and exciting things.

Was she a bad person?

What a stupid question, of course she was! She had always known that. And she accepted it because who'd ever cared? She made her lovers live a little and all she asked in return was a bit of fun. Some shared pleasure. And if anyone got hurt in the process it was because they didn't know how to play the game, so it was clearly their fault.

Ever since the battle at Isabella's manor she couldn't stop thinking about how easy it could have been for her to end like Urbat.

What happened when other people's desires went into conflict with hers? What happened when someone taking something away would prevent Kirche from enjoying it too? That was a conundrum that had been rolling inside her head and that she had no answer for yet.

There was a reason why she didn't like thinking about the future. It terrified her.

"Kirche? We're here." Guiche's voice pulled her out of her thoughts, and she found herself in front of a wooden door at the end of a long corridor.

Guiche knocked once, twice, and a familiar voice allowed them in. "It's open!"

The inside of that room was pure madness. If anything, Kirche would say that it looked like what the inside of her head sometimes felt like. Every single inch was covered in books, parchments, and ink bottles. Even the walls had papers nailed to them. What Kirche failed to find was the source of the voice.

Wait, this situation felt eerily familiar.

"Sir? Where are you?" Guiche asked, looking as confused as Kirche was.

In response, a tall pile of documents was pushed to the side revealing the person that had been seated behind them.

Kirche couldn't see his face, but she recognized him from his getup: a high-collar jacket and a hat that left only his eyes visible. "Pad!" It was the officer that Louise and she had met investigating Mott's death. She had wondered what had happened to him after that.

He tipped his hat at her and then turned to address Guiche. "Sir Gramont, I understand you have something for me?"

The boy puffed up his chest, patting the box that he carried at his side. "Yes, Mister Batard. It's here."

While Pad went up to receive it, Kirche cocked her head to a side surprised by the familiarity with which they talked to each other. "You two worked together before?"

Pad set the box on his desk so he could inspect its content. "We've been working to uncover the network of corruption and illegality that has spread across the country. We later had to split up when Sir Gramont went to Gallia, and I went to investigate Mott's murder."

A faint blush spread across Guiche's cheeks. "I told you to call me Guiche."

Wasn't he adorable when he got flustered?

Sadly, Pad didn't seem to hear him as he was too busy scattering the documents over what little space he had on his desk. His eyes then darted line after line and from one page to the next.

If there was one thing that Kirche felt attracted towards above all else, it was excellency. Her heart throbbed for those who refused to stand in line with everyone else and fought to show their uniqueness. That was what she found so attractive in Louise, and what would have attracted her to Pad if she had met him first.

After skimming through the documents he put them back into an orderly pile and set them down. "Where did you get this information?"

"A trusted ally gave it to me," Guiche replied with pride. He looked like a puppy demanding affection. Kind of like Louise. But while Louise was a feral wolf, he was a lapdog.

"I told you not to believe any information you can't verify on your own."

Pad's words caused Guiche to deflate, his expression turning serious. "Do you believe it may be false?"

"In this particular case, maybe not. I recognize many of these names, we've been investigating them and many were confirmed Reconquista sympathizers." He ran his fingers down a list, coming to a sudden stop at a particular point. "Okay, this could be bad."

Kirche drew closer so she could read over his shoulder. "What?"

"Horacio de Montblanc."

Yes, that was what was written there but it meant nothing to her. She wasn't good with Tristanian names. "Who?"

"The new Royal Messenger."

Guiche's eyebrows knitted into a serious frown at the explanation. "Why wasn't I informed?"

"He only recently got the post. Looking back at it, the whole process was strangely swift."

It took Kirche a moment to understand the connection, but then it clicked inside her head, and realized why the two men had gotten so worried. "And he'd have gotten this new post after Mott's death."

Oh, yes, it was all coming together! Just like in her novels.

"Wait, that's it!" Pad jumped off his feet and rushed toward one of the walls covered in pinned papers. He tore them away to reveal what was underneath: a drawing of Halkeginia with multiple names attached to each kingdom with lines of different colors connecting them.

"What are we looking at?" Kirche asked in confusion, unable to make heads or tails of whatever that was.

Pad pinned a piece of paper to Tristain that read 'Montblanc'. "LPD. The three letters we found in Mott's manor."

"What about it?"

"I was thinking that it may be the name of a person or an organization, but I may have been wrong." He picked a piece of red string and tied it on end to Tristain. The other he tied to Albion. "Le Poer Dingshof."

Kirche kept staring at him hoping that he would elaborate.

"It's now a defunct title of an Albionesse family. The late king erased it after the family died out to claim their lands for his use. Except that was a lie because not all of them were dead. Horacio's father was a Dingshof who was married to a Tristanian Countess."

So many people, so many names attached to confusing motivations. Puzzling them together was her passion, but the answer here looked to be fairly simple: the late Albionese King had been a dick, stole some lands, and in the process angered the rightful owners."That's a reason to join Reconquista if I ever saw one. But if you already knew this, why isn't he behind bars already?"

"Do you have the slightest idea how many noble families the late King angered in that way?" Pad tapped an extended finger against his open palm. Then he broke into a sprint, away from that room.

"Hey, where are we going?" Kirche asked, following after him with Guiche close behind.

The mad dash led them away from the castle and into the stables. Pad raised a fist and smashed it against a side door. "Open up!"

It only took a moment for a young girl dressed in the uniform of the musketeers to obey. "Sir! What do you-"

Pad forced his way into her office, pushing the girl aside, and walked to one of the desks where a chest full of letters rested.

"I need a summary of the Royal Messanger's movements during the last two months," he ordered. "Where he went, who he met, and what he ate. Also, a detail of all the goods he transported."

The girl gave him a nervous nod. "Yes, sir! Immed-"

"Wait!" He interrupted her reading through a booklet that he had picked from that same desk. "It says here that a shipment under his name arrived this morning. Why wasn't I informed about it?"

"I-I don't know, sir," she stuttered. "I wasn't here during that shift. But it has the signature of Lady Agnes so I assumed it was fine."

"Soldier, I've memorized the signature of every single person in this castle including yours. This is fake. Where is this shipment? Where was it stored?"

At that precise moment, an explosion rocked the very foundations of the walls.

Guided by instinct, Kirche burst out of the room while reaching for the swords that Louise had gifted her.

The sound of screaming reached her ears mixed with that of gunfire in a steadily increasing quantity.

"You! Stop!" A knight stepped in her way, his spear aimed right at Kirche's throat.

Typical, something had gone wrong and the first person they suspected was the Germanian in town. She had promised Louise not to get into trouble but it seemed that someone else had made that decision for her.

Kirche hated when that happened.

"Wait! She's with us!" Guiche and Pad rushed in, their palms raised begging for peace.

"Lord Gramont!" The knight answered. "You should go to-" That was all he managed to say before his words degenerated into a gargle of pain and blood when a creature dropped on top of him.

It was a mass of sinew, muscle, and bone that, when it reached its full height, revealed itself to be a full torso taller than Kirche.

It reminded her of Isabella's knights, but while those were the product of a skilled jewelsmith, this one looked like the hack-job of a clumsy butcher.

The monstrous human wore a metal cage that covered his face and was almost naked except for the metal bands tightly tied around his body. Kirche suspected that they were there less as armor to protect him from enemy attack and more to prevent his body from bursting open like an overripe fruit. His muscles trembled with barely contained power, and there were sections of his body where his skin had been torn open to reveal the crimson-red flesh underneath.

One of his feet had sunk into the chest of a knight that had tried to detain Kirche, who now had copious amounts of blood flowing through the visor of his helmet.

Adding another item to the steadily growing list of personal realizations: never before she thought that she'd come to regret asking for more excitement in her life.

...

A/N: This took far longer than it had any right to but I'm happy to have finally finished it.