A talk with the family

If there was a place that evoked as many memories of her childhood as the Tristanian palace did, it was the road she was traversing right now.

During the morning Louise would stare at the distance, wondering if in any of the coming carriages her once beloved Wardes -wretched traitor- would arrive. She'd then follow him with her eyes when he left.

It had been across those fields that her father had taught her how to ride, how to keep a firm hand of the reins, and how to enjoy her hair flowing with the wind.

There had been this one time when Louise had tried to jump over a river, only for her horse to bury its hoof at the edge, sending her face-first into the stream. Her father had burst into laughter. He had laughed at her. And yet that wasn't a bad memory. He had pulled her out, dried her up, and explained to her that even if the river was narrow enough to make the jump, her horse didn't yet trust her.

'A horse won't obey someone they don't respect, and if you want them to respect you, you must show them that they are safe with you as their rider.'

Louise smiled when she thought about that. That was from a time before the academy, back when she thought that someone laughing at her would then hug her and teach her how to be better. Back when her instinct wasn't to answer laughter with violence.

A hollow sound told her that her carriage was driving over the wooden bridge that announced that they were almost at the manor.

She still remembered the terror she had felt when she had been sent off to become Henrietta's playmate. It was a great honor, she had been told, but would she be able to do it right? It had been a terror similar to the one she had felt when she left for the Academy for largely the same reasons.

She had sworn that she'd return in triumph or not at all, and now, after what felt like a lifetime, here she was.

Had she made true of her word?

She had fought, she had bled, and then she had kept fighting. She had shattered any challenge put in front of her, and there were places where her name would remain in history books for centuries to come. All that with the focus always on being a proper, loyal noble.

Had it been enough?

More importantly, was that what her family wanted of her?

And then there were the circumstances surrounding her sudden return.

"Be honest with me," Louise asked, joining her hands together and looking down at her knees. "Do you think that I went too far?"

Seated across from her, Kirche and Tiffania exchanged a glance.

It had been a week since the last time Henrietta had been at the Capital. She had been abroad, making alliances with the neighboring rulers. Not only asking if they could support her campaign, but also ensuring that they wouldn't attack her kingdom while they were busy fighting in Albion.

Her first destination had been Gallia, where the mad king had refused to meet her. Henrietta had been ready to give up when Princess Isabella approached her, already knowing of Tristain's intentions of dismantling Reconquista. With Isabella's promise of troops, Henrietta returned home. She had been hoping to rest before departing to Romalia, but first she needed to know what had happened around the court during her absence.

"Don't misunderstand me, I get what she's trying to do," Chevallier Agnes said as she followed Henrietta down the corridors of the Palace. "But have you seen how she selects the people she wants to take with her? She calls it an 'infiltration team' but it looks to me like a freaking harem!"

Henrietta put a gloved hand against her mouth, not bothering to hide her amusement. "Are you jealous, Agnes?" Henrietta knew her better than that, but that didn't mean that she wasn't going to use a chance to mess with her. Founder knew that both of them needed humor in their lives.

"Please don't joke about that." The other woman blushed, but if it was in embarrassment or frustration Henrietta couldn't tell. "And then there's the amount of gunpowder she's requesting."

Henrietta skipped a step. "I- admit that last one worries me too." She loved Louise like a sister, but was aware how overzealous her friend could get when given a mission. At least, she got to understand that after her return from Albion. Henrietta was aware that they were preparing for war and that lives would inevitably be lost, but that still didn't mean they could simply disregard them. Doing so would lead them down a path that she refused to traverse. "I may ask you to go with her."

Agnes pressed her lips into a thin line as if trying to swallow what Henrietta had just said. "I'm not comfortable leaving you unattended, Henrietta. But I'm also not comfortable leaving Valliére unattended either. If those are your orders, I'll obey."

It would be a problem if those two didn't learn how to cooperate with each other. They were the only people who Henrietta blindly trusted with her life, and yet if one heard Agnes speak she'd give the impression that Louise was a rabid dog.

Something that wasn't exactly inaccurate, as much as it pained her to say it. Founder knew that Louise had been far too eager to jump into action when Henrietta announced her plans to invade Albion to put an end to Reconquista.

Hopefully by adding Agnes to Louise's group the older woman would learn to trust her while also offering a moderating voice.

"And what about the group of mercenaries that she hired?" Henrietta asked moving to the next topic of interest.

"The one led by the Marshal guy? It's good enough. The youngest Lord Grammont is already integrating them with his own troops and-"

They reached the doors to the throne room where Henrietta would conduct the meetings for the day. Agnes stepped ahead to open them for the Queen, and when she did both women came to a sudden stop at the doorway.

That was not how Henrietta remembered that room.

"Agnes, did you know about this?"

"I- no. When did this happen?"

Originally the throne had been located on a platform so the King and Queen could loom over whoever came to visit them. Henriettta had ordered it moved to ground level. The visitors had also been requested to kneel in front of the crown but Henrietta had ordered chairs to be brought so the visitors could sit.

Both changes had been reverted.

The throne was now on a platform even taller than the previous one, behind a folding screen that would make it impossible for a visitor to look at Henrietta's face, and surrounded by magical lamps. There were also scaffolds against the walls where workers were busy installing curtains to block the light of the sun, while also removing the paintings of her ancestors that they replaced with portraits of Henrietta.

As much as she tried, she failed to keep her voice down. "What happened here?!"

She already suspected it, but got it confirmed when a familiar person jumped from behind the throne to receive her.


"Louise?! What are you doing? What did you do to the throne room?"

To Henrietta's side, Agnes pinched the bridge of her nose while muttering something that would make even the most seasoned sailor blush.

"I'm so embarrassed," Louise said with a light blush while pressing the tip of her fingers together. "This should have been ready by the time you arrived, but we got delayed. Do you like it? I made some improvements!"

With a hand against her mouth Henrietta looked around the room. 'Improvements' is not how she'd have described any of that.


Her question went unheard as Louise eagerly gestured at the throne. "But now that you're here, let me show you the new features!"

Louise ordered one of the servants to close the curtains, making the room descend into total darkness. The only source of light was a faint glow behind the throne. Louise dashed to it, and when she sat down the shadow projected against the screen gave the impression that the person on the other side wasn't a human but a giant.

"Now, where- Oh, here it is!" By doing something behind the folding screen, Louise lit several torches that formed a path from the main entrance to the throne. With the rest of the room in darkness, one couldn't tell how big it truly was.

"And then, if I do this- Testing- TESTING-" Louise's voice was like a thundershock, a rumble that Henrietta didn't just hear but felt like a pressure against her chest. "Sorry, too loud? Let me- okay, what about now?"

Louise's voice echoed across the room, making it sound as if it was coming from the heavens themselves rather than from the person sitting on the throne.

With another command the candles were turned off, and the curtains were opened returning the room to its more mundane state.

Louise descended from the throne, a wide smile on her face. "What do you think? Awesome, right?"

That's not the word that Henrietta would have used. "I- apologize for repeating myself, but why did you do this?"

"Because your subjects need to understand who's in charge around here!" Louise said, pointing at the portraits of Henrietta that lined the walls. "This way, whenever someone comes to meet you, they won't feel like they're talking to a queen but to a goddess!"

Henrietta replied to that with a long, hard look.

"Louise, I think it's time you go see your family."

"You, eh-" Kirche began and then stopped, throwing Tiffania a look as if asking for help.

"Had the best intentions at heart."

"Yes, that! What she just said."

Louise rolled her eyes. They were doing their best to make her feel better. They were failing, but they were trying. At least she was grateful for that..

It was funny, in a way, to think that it had been in a Germanian and in an Elf that she had found friendship, just as she had found it in a vampire. It had been alongside those shunned by society at large where she had found companionship.

Serana, who had found herself in a new world the same way Louise had.

Kirche, who had fought for her independence and had been rejected by her family as a result.

Tiffania, who had lost her family and that the world at large hated, and yet refused to lose her optimism.

Few cared about them. Fewer would have mourned their loss. And yet now, if the world turned against them, Louise wouldn't doubt siding with them. A funny thought considering that some years ago she'd have been one of the first demanding their execution.

A vampire, a Germanian and an elf.

It sounded like the start of a bad joke.

Sometimes she felt that was the best way to describe her life.

The carriage came to a sudden and abrupt halt, jerking Louise back with enough force that she almost smashed her head against the wall of the cabin.

"Hey! What gives?"

That wasn't right. Unless her memories were far off they still had another twenty minutes to go before reaching the manor proper. Why, then, the unexpected stop?

Instinctively she reached for her weapon.

"Halt! Who goes there?!"

And stopped as her hairs stood on end and waves of electricity shot down her back.

That voice-

She knew that voice.

She had grown up alongside it.

Louise had fought dragons, vampires, and stood her ground against beings that could drive lesser mortals insane with just their presence. Why, then, was she feeling so afraid?

"Hey, honey, are you alright?" Kirche asked but Louise ignored the question.

She had known that moment would eventually arrive. It had been inevitable. And she had chosen to prepare for it by ignoring it, trusting in her capabilities to survive when backed into a wall and devoid of any options but to break through it. Well, here she was now and she had no idea how to proceed.

The door to the cabin opened and Louise's blood ran cold. She soon started breathing again when she realized that it had been Tiffania who had opened it so she could descend.

"Oh, lady Tiffania!" The voice said. "My most sincere apologies, if I had known that it was you I'd have arranged an escort!"

Should that have been any surprise? Tiffania spoke softly and was always eager to help. She had that quality that made everyone endeared to her. And had been looking after Cattleya on top of it all. Of course she'd be beloved wherever she went.

Even here.

"It's alright," Tifania said. "Believe me when I tell you that an escort wasn't needed."

Of course it wasn't. Louise had been traveling alongside her. Anyone who would have dared to attack them would have been left as a smoking corpse on the side of the road.

"You have nothing but my respect, my lady, but the roads have become dangerous lately. Someone like you deserves nothing less than a full lance of our best knights!"

Their 'best knights' would be nothing more than children wielding sticks next to Louise. If anything had been able to endanger her, a dozen lances would have barely been a hindrance.

"But now, my lady," the voice continued. "May I inquire on the reason for your unexpected visit?"

A chill ran down Louise's back.

Here it came! There was no hiding her presence any-

"Sup!" Kirche said, pushing half of her body out of the cabin soon followed by the rest of it.

An awkward silence fell over all of them.

"A Germanina," the voice said in disdain. "The only reason why I'm not throwing her into a dungeon and tossing the key away is because she came with you, Lady Tiffania. I still hope for a good explanation."


"You see-"

Louise clutched the side of her head. What was she doing? She was there, cowering like a fragile child while one of her friends was being threatened!

This wasn't the person that she swore to be. That was the one she had buried and forgotten about!

She took a deep breath and stepped out.

Outside she found Kirche and Tiffania under the shadow of a horse rider who stared down at them with a stern gaze. That was a look that Louise knew all too well. Whenever their parents were away she was the one who enforced the rules of the Vallière household. The one who had taught Louise proper discipline and etiquette, how to walk straight and properly bow.

Her mind brought to her memories of old grievances from whenever she failed to measure up.

Back then the other woman was like a looming giant that judged Louise's every action. It was funny to think that even now she found herself looking up because her sister was on horseback.

"Greetings, sister Eleonore. I'm back."

Unlike Louise and the middle sister Cattleya, Elenore's hair wasn't pink. Instead, she had inherited the golden locks of their father.

Or, at the very least, the ones he used to have when he was younger.

That had always been a point of pride for Louise. Something that she'd forever have over her older sister. Eleonore didn't like that being mentioned in her presence.

"Little Louise? Is that you?" The woman's eyes widened before narrowing in confusion. "What the hell happened to you?"

She snapped the reins of her horse, drawing it closer to her younger sister.

For Louise it was as if she had been suddenly put on display in a museum. Should she be surprised? The last time they had met had been shortly before Louise had departed for her second year at the academy. Far too much had happened since then and Louise had changed to match. To her sister's eyes she may well be a stranger.

"You look like a mess," Eleonore continued.

"Yes, I know," Louise snapped back, rolling her eyes. She didn't need Eleonore of all people to mention that. She had stared at herself in the mirror more than enough times to be aware of that fact.

"Mother told us that you had gone to Albion to play the adventurer, but I wasn't expecting it to be this bad." Her frown deepened, leaning forwards to look at Louise's face better. "Are those scars? That's what you get for going where you aren't wanted."

Louise's hands curled into fists at her sides. "I go where I want," she muttered through her teeth, looking away.

"Not with that attitude."

"I could say the same about all your broken marriage arrangements."

For a moment the world stood still, the birds stopped singing, and even the wind fell silent.

"Someone woke up with a sharp tongue today," She snapped at Louise. "Be careful with it or I'll have to pull it out."

"You may try but I don't promise that I won't bite."

The scowl scarring Eleonore's face deepened as she leaned forwards to look at Louise over her angular glasses. "I did tell mother that letting you go to the Academy was a mistake. Look at you!" She clicked her tongue. "You dress like a common bandit and hang out with Germanians! But you were always a selfish brat who always got away with everything she wanted." She pulled from the reins, turning her mount away. "Don't be late for dinner." With a snap she put the horse into motion, dashing away.

Only after she was gone Louise noticed how her muscles had been aching, af if ready to explode into motion at a moment's notice.

Well, that had happened.

They had talked. It had been just a talk between sisters, not dissimilar to the ones they usually had. Even if those usually involved Louise listening in silence and letting Eleonore speak. She seldom talked back as that made Eleonore angry, and Louise had learned from an early age that being in the same room with an angry Eleonore was a poor decision.

But, as she was now finding out, she no longer cared as much as she once did.

Still, she felt as if she had just been chewed and spit out. Something that she could describe in detail because it had happened to her once or twice in the past.

It was a good thing that the night would be arriving soon because she already felt like crashing into bed.

"I'm surprised that you didn't kill her." Kirche said, walking up to her.

"She's my sister!" Louise yelled at her.


Louise opened her mouth in search of an answer but found none. "Nothing. I'm just as surprised as you are."

They returned to their carriage. The driver looked somewhat disturbed by what had just happened, but with a reassuring nod Louise gave him the order to continue on.

"I know that Miss Eleonore can be very intense," Tiffania said as they boarded their transport.

"Is that your way of saying that she's a total bitch?" Kirche countered.

"I- no, no." Tiffania pinched the bridge of her nose, puffing as if she was a mother admonishing her rebellious child. "I talked to her, and I know that she has a hard time showing it but she does care about her family."

"She certainly has a funny way to show it, but it's not like I'm an expert on the issue either."

While those two talked, Louise threw her head back and looked at the ceiling. She didn't know what to think about all that, about Eleonore, about her father, about Cattleya. The closer they got to their destination, the more distant her memories of it felt.

"Does it matter?" She asked. "It's not like we'll be staying here long. A day. Two tops. Then we go back." That'd be enough to make Henrietta happy.

"This is still your family," Tiffania argued back. "Are you sure you don't want to stay with them longer? Catch up?"

Louise clenched her teeth. She had only told her mother about that entire ordeal. Neither her father nor sisters knew.

"I don't know what difference it'd make."

Once again her mind turned to that old fear that had been plaguing her.

What would they say if they knew?

Part of her hoped that they'd just not care and move on as if nothing had ever changed.

Maybe just not talking about anything important would be for the best.

When they had met Eleonore, Louise had been rendered paralyzed. She had acted like a cowardly child struggling to survive in a world she didn't understand. And to make it even worse, she had abandoned Kirche -a Zerbst- to fare on her own. If she had been hurt because of her innaction Louise would have never forgiven herself.

Because of that, when they finally reached the manor, Louise was the first one to descend.

Shortly after she found herself being shaken as if she was a doll in the arms of an energetic child.

She could almost hear her ribs cracking.

"My little Louise, how have you been? We got so worried when we got told you had gone to Albion! I almost fainted!"

It was said that those arms could lift a horse, crush a Germanian helmet, and that once had broken a bear's neck. She had come to see those tall tales as the rambling of soldiers, in no small part because those arms had always treated her with care, but now she was starting to realize that there may have been a grain of truth behind those stories.

"Pappa! Breathing!"

She was immediately let go.

"I'm sorry, sweetie."

That Duke had always looked like a titan in her eyes. A tower of a man whose gray hair and beard reminded Louise of the top of a snowy mountain. Only now she was starting to realize that he was just a head taller than her, far from the tallest people she had met. Even then he compensated with his broad shoulders that made Louise wonder how he walked through doors.

"It's good to be back," she told him, even if she was unsure how much truth there was behind her words.

A sound to her back told her one of her companions had descended from the carriage, and the way her father's eyes sharpened told her who it was.

"Kirche von Zerbst." Only once before had Louise heard her father speaking with such a tone, when news had arrived of a Zerbst scouting force being found inside their lands. That brief skirmish didn't escalate into anything, but it reminded Louise that her father was also a man of war.

If Kirche knew the danger she was in she didn't seem to care as she offered the Duke a wave.

"Hi, Duke Vallière! I see that my fame precedes me!"

Louise was so going to murder her later.

The Duke straightened up, his eyes pinning Kirche down as if they were daggers. "It is my duty to know for the sake of my lands and my family. And my dear Karin told me a bit about what you two have been up to."

"All good things, I'm sure."

That had gone far enough and if Louise didn't stop it she didn't dare to think where it would escalate.

She placed a hand against her father's chest, walking between them.

"Pappa, don't scare my friends."

A moment passed. His face was inscrutable, but then it cracked and his lips curled into a grin.

"But that's the best part of being a father!" He laughed as he patted her back, gesturing with a wide wave of his arm for them to get inside.

And to think that this was how a Zerbst finally put a foot inside the Vallière's manor. Not because of their strength of arms or subterfuge, but because Louise had allowed her in.

Well, Kirche's charm had its own form of strength even if Louise would never-


Her heart skipped a beat and her eyes darted up, seeking the source of that voice.

"Cattleya!" She gasped.

It was the middle sister, standing at the edge of the stairs that lead to the upper floor. She looked fine. No coughing, no trembling, and her face had recovered the color that Louise only remembered from her oldest memories. She wasn't in bed either, that may have been the first thing she should have noticed.

And then Cattleya hopped on the railing and slid down.

"Wait! What are you-" Louise found her words suddenly interrupted when Cattleya reached the end of the stairs and jumped at her, locking Louise in a thigh hug like their father had done.

It had been years since she had seen her like that. So healthy.

"I missed you so much!" Cattleya cheered, making a good imitation of their father and shaking Louise from side to side. "There's so much we must talk about! So much we have to do! And- oh, hello, and you are-?" She asked as if suddenly realizing that Kirche was there.

"I'm very jealous!" She replied with a cheeky smile. "Not sure of whom, though. I'm also Kirche!"

"I see?" Cattleya asked with a raised eyebrow. Then her eyes darted towards the person that had just entered carrying the luggage that -Louise just remembered- they had left at the carriage. "Tiffania!"

"Cattleya! I told you to take it easy and don't strain yourself."

"I can't just stay put! I'm so excited! There are so many things I want to do now!" She took a deep breath, taking a step back and releasing Louise. "But first, it's already late. Why don't we enjoy something warm and catch up?"

She offered them a beaming smile, and that was when Louise realized how late it was. It would soon be time for dinner, and her stomach was already demanding something solid.

Louise threw a glance back at her companions. "I guess we could do that."

"So, Eleonore," their father opened the conversation. "I understand you made some important progress in your research, is that correct?"

Eleonore's voice was always loud and full of pride whenever she talked about any new project she was working on..

"Yes. The big problem during mining operations is dealing with aquifers, something that even water mages struggle with. The pump system I proposed will allow us to dig deeper."

"I see, I see. And what about you, Cattleya? Anything worth sharing?"

In contrast, Cattleya's voice was softer, more moderate. Or at least that was how she remembered it. Now it was full of a vibrancy that Louise had thought impossible.

"I finally have the chance to work on that music piece I always wanted!" She had always dreamed about playing one day in a big opera house, but her sickness had robbed her of the time she needed to practice. "One of my bears also gave birth! The cubs are so cute!"

"Bears?" Kirche asked but Louise didn't answer, her eyes focused on her empty platter, grateful that her father hadn't addressed her directly.

It was all so mundane. Just like it always was.

They acted the same way they always had.

Their father asked them about their lives and they answered. At least Eleonore and Cattleya did, while Louise remained silent.

The only difference was how happily Cattleya retold how she had strolled around the nearby field, enjoying both the morning and afternoon breeze. But that was something that she had always wanted to do. Louise and her used to talk all the time about what Cattleya would like to do, what places she'd like to visit, once her sickness that loomed over her had been finally lifted. All dreams that, deep down, Louise feared were only wishful thinking, but that now could be finally fulfilled.

The other major difference was their guests.

Meals for the Vallière family had always been private affairs. Not even Wardes had been allowed to share them with them. Yes, there had always been the odd dignitary coming to visit but whenever that happened their parents sent their daughters away. They just didn't want their family time to get mixed with their duties.

And yet here Tiffania was and so was Kirche, this last one seated between Tiffania and Louise as if seeking protection from the rest of the table.

Good. She had remembered to guard her flanks.

To be fair for the half-elf she had been recognized by Henrietta as kin, had people proclaiming her sainthood after how she had healed so many in Tarbes, and was now Cattleya's medic.

But Kirche? She was a Zerbst! They were the enemies!

And yet all that Louise had needed to do to get her accepted was to request it.

It was wrong. Why didn't they address Louise's changes? Her wounds? Both inflicted and received. She hadn't mentioned it to them, but wasn't it obvious for everyone to see? They were carved in her skin!

It was as if none of that mattered!

"My lord," one of the servants announced. "The food is ready."

Bread, birds, fishes and fruits of all kinds and origins suddenly covered the table, filling the air with a smell that was loaded with memories.

Kirche was the first to grab some portions with greedy hands. The others soon followed. Except for Louise whose stomach remained firmly closed, and who kept staring at the food as if it was an illusion about to be dispelled.

"Before we start," her father's voice boomed through the room, "why don't we have one of our guests give thanks for the food?"

Her family's eyes turned as one towards Kirche, who had a piece of chicken skin hanging from the corner of her mouth.

"Oh, yes! Of course." Kirche swallowed and straightened up, using a napkin to clean her lips. "Thanks for the food, family!"

Cattleya placed a hand against her mouth to poorly hide a smile.

Whatever her father was thinking remained hidden behind a mask of polite serenity. The same one he wore whenever a foreign dignitary he didn't appreciate came visiting.

Eleonore was the most vocal one about her opinion. "Should we have been expecting anything less from the Germanian?" She asked through clenched teeth, her nose wrinkling as if she had just bitten something sour. "Maybe our younger sister could show her how it's properly done."

Louise didn't even have the energy to roll her eyes. If anything, it was fair. After all, she was the reason why Kirche was there.

She put aside the fork she had been using to idly toy with the dish.

Liked her dry lips.

As she slowly raised to her feet, she looked at her family in the eyes, one at a time.

How many times had she dreamed of being there, dining with those people around that table once again? Only for those dreams to turn into nightmares once she woke up and found herself alone and cold.

Now here she was and she wasn't sure what to say.

She opened her mouth. "My element is Void." And that was what came out of it.

She then sat back down and waited for their reaction.

Her father sat wordlessly, the light of a flickering flame washing over his face.

Cattleya was as if she had been told that the king of Gallia had just arrived to ask her hand in marriage, her eyes so wide that they almost bulged out of her skull.

There was a metallic sound, and when Louise glanced at Eleonore she realized that it had been her fork slipping from her fingers and hitting the ground. It was as if Louise had just said the most heretical thing imaginable. Which she technically had. "What?!"

Their father remained silent, idly scratching his beard as if digesting what Louise had just said. His silence was taken by Eleonore as authorization to take over the conversation,

"How could you-"

But with a raised palm he stopped her.

"Void, you said?" The Duke finally continued. "Many would argue that I should send you to a madhouse or a stake for claiming such a thing. What makes you believe that?"

A memory flashed across Louise's mind. A time when she had been in the College of Winterhold under the care of an orc scholar of all people. She had laughed at the idea of one of those existing, without a doubt her family would laugh even harder if told.

She still remembered with amusement how Urag had started sweating as if he had been teleported to the sands of Hammerfell just before sharing with Louise his conclusions. She had fainted immediately after.

"It's a long story," she admitted while fixing her position in her chair, realizing just then how unconvincing what she had just said sounded. "But her Majesty, Queen Henrietta, can vouch for me."

"How convenient," Eleonore muttered through clenched teeth.

Cattleya's eyes darted from Louise to the rest of her family, as if not sure what to do and waiting for who'd make the next move.

After a moment of silence, her father finally spoke. "So, it is true."

"Father?! You believe her?" Eleonore yelled, recoiling back in her chair.

"Of course I do," he answered in the same tone one would use to describe the color of Louise's hair. It wasn't a belief or an opinion, it was a simple statement of fact. "We always knew that your sister's magic was different, and she isn't one to lie about something like this." He reached out for his cup, took a sip. Then the corner of his lips curled into a knowing smile. "And besides, your mother already wrote to me confirming that."

"What?!" All three sisters yelled at the same time, Louise being the only one who kept enough composure to continue. "You knew? Why didn't you say anything?"

"Because if you didn't want to talk about it, I wasn't going to force you either."

Louise tried to swallow but found her throat dry. "What else did she tell you?"

"Just as much as you want to talk about." His words sent a chill down Louise's spine. He knew about everything. What other conclusion could there be? "But now, my question is, what do you wish to do with this power?"

"Wait!" Cattleya interrupted. "If she's a void mage, doesn't that mean that she's the rightful-"

"Don't!" Louise interrupted. "Don't finish that sentence, please."

The last person who had dared to suggest she should take over the throne had been Wardes. Louise still didn't know what he had attempted to achieve with that. Maybe tempt her with promises of power in exchange for her servitude. It had failed. Louise was no traitor and her existence was to serve.

She wasn't sure what she'd do if her family insisted she did it. She hoped not to find out.

"It's said that the legendary Void was capable of amazing feats," her father continued, thankfully ignoring Cattleya's question. "And now our kingdom is preparing for war. Is your intention to join the Queen's campaign?"

"Of course!" Louise answered without vacillation. "It's my duty. My kingdom needs me, I have the power to help, so I will."

"And if I forbid you from it?"

Louise snapped her head at her father.

Had she misheard? Had he truly said that? Why? She had been raised knowing that the honor of nobility was its loyalty and faith. And even if she no longer had much of the later, she had plenty of the former.

If she couldn't put her power towards the benefit of her people then what was the point of having it?

Was this a trick? Was her father putting her resolve to the test?

This wasn't how this meeting had been supposed to go.

She wanted to scream at him but hold her words back. This was her father and she had always trusted that he'd be at her side. Why would this be any different?

"Why would you?" She pushed the words out of her mouth, almost struggling to form them.

"Why would a father need to explain to his daughter why he doesn't want her exposed to danger?"

If that was his wish she had already ruined it more times that she could count.

Where had he been while wolves had been mauling her flesh or dragons had been burning her skin? She had ventured through Apocrypha! She had survived things that his mind could not even begin to imagine!

But he didn't know. How could he? There was nothing that he could have done to protect her.

And if Karin had truly told him everything about Louise's situation, he should know.

Was he simply unaware of how strong Louise truly was? It was one thing to be told about a fact but a very different one to live through it. Was he mistaking Louise for the weak child she had once been? She was no longer that person. She had turned into what she had needed to become.

She'd show him.

He was not going to keep her away from her mission. That was the only thing of worth she had.

"Then we will cross swords," she said, her statement forcing a gasp of surprise out of Cattleya and a look of horror out of Eleonore. Again, they just didn't know. There was nothing that their father could do to hurt her. Even if an accident were to happen they had Tiffania right there to fix it. "If I win you'll have to accept that there's no threat that could endanger me that you could protect me from. And if you win, I'll accept whatever you order me to do." That was not going to happen. What could he do to her? Kill her? Beings akin to gods had tried and failed. Restrain her? He had no means to achieve that. Disown her? As if she'd care.

She stared at him without daring to blink.

So did he, and for several long moments the only sound that Louise heard was that of her heart beating inside her throat.

Her father leaned back on the chair, almost as if growing in size.

His lips twitched, and curled into a smile.

"You're growing, Louise," his soft voice cleared the air between them, but did nothing to calm Louise's beating heart. "This old man thought -and, admittedly, wished- that you'd remain a child forever. I don't know when you turned into a woman and started shaping your own path."

He- What was he trying to do?

What was he trying to say?

"But, Louise," he continued, "you're neither a cannonball nor a flaming arrow. You aren't a tool to be used and then discarded. Please, don't forget that."

Was she though? Service was the only thing that had given her life any meaning. That had kept her sane during her darkest hours.

It was the only thing she had. The only thing she was good at. If she didn't, then what was left for her?

"And remember, whenever you're in trouble, you can always return here. This is your home, after all."

His words-

Was Louise meant to find them reassuring? To appreciate the option she was given?

But they just felt empty. Like a vague platitude. A cold and empty confort.

This was all wrong.

Why was he acting as if Louise had a choice in the matter?

She needed to get out of there.

Louise pushed her chair back and, without looking at her family, she dashed away.

"Louise!" The voice of Tiffania called for her but she ignored it as she kept fleeing.


Kirche heard Tiffania's voice. She realized that something was wrong, but couldn't act on it as she was currently tearing through a chicken leg.

Whatever her family may say about the Vallières -and they had a lot to say- no one could argue that they knew how to enjoy food.

It was after setting the clean bone back on her platter that she realized that neither Tiffania nor Louise were still there.

She glanced over her shoulder and realized that they were no longer inside the room.

She looked ahead and found the undivided attention of three pairs of eyes.

That was awkward.

"Yeah, well-" she shrugged, cleaning her mouth with a napkin and pushing the chair back. "My compliments to the chef! Now, if you excuse me-" She darted for the exit, only for the door to close on her face. "Or, well, I think I could stay for a bit longer."

Louise's father straightened up, clearing his throat. "My daughters, please leave us."

Oh, she did not like that tone.

Eleonore and Cattleya took their leaves through a door at their father's back, the former without saying a word, the latter offering her a fleeting wink.

At least someone was on her side.

Kirche considered darting after them -after all, they couldn't be worse than the father- but before she could do it, the duke spoke again.

"So, what are your intentions with my daughter?"

She considered that question, rolled it inside her brain and then her tongue, thought about the best way to phrase it.

And then she grinned.

Why was Louise there?

How had she ended there?

She had run and her feet that led her to that place, guided by old memories of a time that was long gone for her.

The bed creaked when she sat on it. The familiar sound of the cracked board that she had broken that one time when she had tried jumping on it. Something she had never told anyone out of shame.

The wardrobe was full of old clothes that didn't fit her anymore, and from a shelf next to it a dozen dolls stared back at her.

She had seen them once while her family had been on a trip to northern Romallia and her mother had bought them after Louise had expressed interest in them.

They remained pristine. She had always taken good care of her things. Whenever her magic didn't blow them up, of course.

"Can I come in?" A voice called for her from the door. What was Tiffania doing there? She hadn't bothered to knock but Louise hadn't bothered to close the door either, an error that she was now regretting.

"Do as you please," Louise grumbled, her stare fixed on the wall in front of her.

So Tiffania did, taking a seat at Louise's side.

What she didn't do was speak. Louise had been expecting her to say something, but she just remained there in silence.

Was that all she'd be doing? No opinions about what had happened? No admonishments over Louise's behavior?

Tiffania enjoyed doing so. In Albion she had done so on multiple occasions, criticizing her actions, telling her that what Louise had been doing was wrong.

Why wasn't she doing that now?

The knuckles of Louise's hand cracked as she snapped them. If Tiffania had gone there with a reason, she should say it!

The silence was unbearable.

"You know," Tiffania finally spoke. "Even if my power allows me to create and erase memories, it doesn't allow me to rebuild them. If something gets lost then it's lost forever."

"Why are you telling me this?" Louise asked, unsure of where she was getting at.

A faint and sad smile drew across the other girl's face. "Because as time has gone on it has been more difficult to remember what my parents were like. I have their paintings, but that doesn't help me remember what their voices sounded like, or what perfume my mom used. I can see the holes in my mind and my magic allows me to fill them in, but I'm scared of doing it wrong. I don't want to turn their memories into something else."

That was the nature of the mind. Memories were fragile, fleeing things. From experience Louise knew how easy they were to twist. Hadn't she done that with her memories of Henrietta? Who she knew that person to be had been mixed with her fantasies and desires into a person who had never existed.

Confrontation with reality had been an ugly affair.

And yet, even if now she knew them to be lies, she struggled to let go of them. They had been a beautiful thing to believe in.

"Sometimes they are the only things that keep us going."

What would she have done without them? Would she have kept fighting or would she have given up? Would she have tried to build something new and real even if it wouldn't have been as satisfying?

It was funny to think that her wildest expectations had been fulfilled while meeting her family, and yet she hadn't been able to handle them. Maybe because deep down she had never expected that to happen. Pain was something that she had learned how to manage and thrive in. She wasn't sure what to do when she didn't receive it.

A chill went down Louise's spine when Tiffania set her head on Louise's shoulder.

"If things had gone different, I wonder if our families would have gotten along," she said. "Maybe if things had been different, we'd have been friends."

She was asking for a lot. What would have been necessary for that to happen? For the kingdom to not fear elves, for a start.

And yet Tiffania was right there, unconcerned by her status, walking freely among a family who no longer cared about who she was. Who had accepted her with open arms. Yes, it had taken Cattleya being healed for that to happen but the result had been the same.

It would have been nice to have her at her side while they were growing up.

And then by some miracle the Vallières and the Zerbst would have made peace and she'd have been able to add Kirche to her childhood entourage. What would have happened then, besides growing into completely different people?

Both the good and the bad had shaped her, allowing her to survive the tribulations ahead of her. Would she have been able to do that as this hypothetical person?

She shrugged. "It's worthless to think about it. That never happened. It's just a fantasy."

"Maybe, but that's a fantasy worth making real, isn't it? A world where we can all be at peace and happy."

"That's why I do what I do," Louise grunted through her teeth. "So the people I love can be happy."

"But you're important too." Tiffania reached for her hand but Louise pulled it back.

"No I am not! My worth is my duty. If I fail my duty, then I have no worth."

What was so difficult to understand about it? She had accepted it. She had embraced her position and chose to struggle and bleed because that was how she could fulfill her purpose. The only one she had. The one that made her happy. And so she'd keep doing it until there was nothing left to do.

She just wanted to be useful. Was that such a bad thing?

"And you struggle to believe that your father would care about you even beyond that."

The muscles of Louise's neck tensed and her jaw ached with how hard she was clenching her teeth.

She wanted to make her family proud, she wanted them to love her.

Didn't they?

Her mother did. So did Cattleya and her father. Her relationship with Eleonore had always been difficult but it wasn't like they hated each other. At the very least, Louise didn't believe they did.

But then, why did Louise feel that she was constantly disappointing them? Why did she feel that she didn't deserve any of that? If she was unable to give she shouldn't receive.

The mere thought of being a burden filled her with dread, because burdens shouldn't be allowed to exist.

If Tiffania had any inkling on what was going through Louise's head, she made no comment on it. She stood up and wandered through the room, looking at what she could find in there. The wardrobe was full of neatly arranged dresses, some of which she hadn't worn in years but that were always ready for any need. Louise would never wear them again as she had long ago outgrown them, but she had no intention of throwing them away either. The dressing table was covered with the bottles of perfume she had been gifted over the years, most of them still full as she rarely had good reasons to use them.

And then Tiffania reached for the shelves, making Louise flinch when she picked one of her dolls up.

One by one Tiffania inspected them, turning them around, inspecting the well-kept hair and their immaculate clothes.

"You never grew up, did you?"

Louise recoiled at the comment. "What?! Why do you- why would you-?"

"You were never a child, always forced into things you weren't ready for, and so you didn't get the chance to be a proper adult."

Over her lap, Louise's hands closed into fists as she clenched her teeth. "You say that as if it was something bad." What if it was true? Where others may have sought for a way out she had stood her ground and broke through everything that had been thrown at her. She had triumphed and she had conquered. She was better because of that. "I simply-"

"Cast away what held you back."

Louise's throat went dry.

"That's not how it works," Tiffania continued. "We need a proper foundation to build upon."

"Why should it matter?" Louise replied with a dismissive gesture. "Anyone else would have died or worse." That made her better.

"It matters because you're worth beyond what you can do! Those that love you do so because you're you, not because of what they expect of you. But I fear that you may not believe that."

Her knuckles cracked as she joined her hands together. Tiffania didn't know, she didn't understand, how could she? She hadn't been there.

"My purpose is to do as I am told. My power exists so I can alway fulfill my missions, and follow wherever others may go!" Her voice raised before going quiet once again. "It's what I always wanted. To know that I'm useful. I don't want to be the reason why the people I care for fail."

The thought of it filled her with dread.

To be at fault. To be blamed.

The idea that people would be better without her around.

Because the moment she started thinking that, she started considering that the best thing to do was to remove herself from their lives.

That was why she constantly needed to prove her worthiness.

"One of the things you just told me is a lie, Louise," Tiffania argued back. "And I don't believe that you yourself are even aware which one it is."

Louise stared back waiting for her to elaborate.

The second passed without answer, until Tiffania sighed looking down.

"You truly don't know, do you?"

"Then pray tell, do tell me!" Louise snapped back at her. "You seem to know everything about me already!"

The words failed to push the girl back, who took her place once again seated at Louise's side. She locked her arm around Louise's, making her hair stand on end.

"You say that your purpose is to do as you're told, and yet you're failing the one wish all of your loved ones have been imposing on you from the start. To love yourself."

"Who would love me?"

"Well, Kirche, for starters."

"She just sees in me a source of entertainment."

"She sees you as a very intelligent person that can keep up with her, challenge her, and give her the stability she so desperately needs."

Louise struggled to put together the pieces that Tiffania was giving her.

"How do you know all this stuff?!"

"Because I go out and talk to people," she replied with a giggle. "That's something that you should try. You may find that a lot of people appreciate you just because you're there."

She reached up, placing Louise's face between her hands and then pulling down, allowing Louise to rest on her shoulder.

"Why do you?" Louise asked in a quiet tone fearful of the answer, but that was what Tiffania was implying wasn't it?

"First, because I refuse to stay still when I see a wounded person. But, more importantly, because I appreciate you. You helped me and you didn't even let my ears scare you."

"I put a sword to your neck!"

"And then you put it away. That's more than most people would have done. The fact is that I feel safe with you."

Louise's arms tightened around Tiffania's back making sure not to hurt her.

"As long as I'm around, nothing will happen to you." Whoever dared to harm those she'd chosen to stand with would be broken, be them humans, kingdoms or gods.

"And I believe you. I just dearly wished your methods were different. Even if your insistence on trampling over everything that stands in your way is the reason why I'm here. You forced me to confront things about my life that I wasn't aware of. You were also the one who helped me achieve my more ridiculous ideas."

"I don't think I did?"

"When I insisted on coming to Tristain with you, Mathilda refused. I love my sister dearly, but you were the one who helped me reach that ship and protected me during the voyage."

With the limited range of motion she had at her disposal, she nodded. "That's me, helping others achieve their dreams."

"And in the process you forgot your own. If you continue like that, you'll become the source of your loved ones' grief."

Louise pressed her teeth together. Why did she have to talk about things like that? She didn't want to think about things like that! It just brought her grief.

But, for more than she tried, she couldn't bring herself to be angry with Tiffania.

"Can you hold me a moment longer?"

"Of course. Is this what you want?"

"Yes. To be at peace. I want to trust that when I close my eyes the people I love will still be there when I open them. That's why I can't be with Kriche. Not yet."

Tiffania shivered. Had Louise said something wrong?

"G-give it time," she said, her voice breaking for a moment. "Kirche's doing her best, b-but these things can't be rushed!"

What was wrong with her? She sounded like a child who was giving their parents a bad excuse. Almost like-


A thought suddenly crossed her mind.

"Hey, talking about Kirche, did we really just leave her alone with the rest of my family?"

"Oh, dear."

They weren't that hard to find. If anything, Louise should have seen that one coming. If the servants hadn't pointed them in the right direction then the sound coming from that section of the manor would have been enough.

The moment that Louise opened the door to her father's training room, she was greeted with the sight of Kirche being hurled through the air, coming to a sudden stop when she crashed against the floor.

"Ouch-ouch ouch," she grunted as she picked herself from the ground, forcing herself back into a fighting position. "I can keep this up all day, old man!" So she said but her knees were shaking and she could barely keep herself straight. Good thing that Louise had taught her how to roll with the landings or that hit would have hurt a lot more.

Yeah, this had gone for more than enough.

"Dad, what are you doing?" She asked, walking between the two.

Her father glanced at her with a cheeky smile. "Well, I heard that you took the lady here as your adventuring companion! I wanted to test how good she is by myself. You know, be sure that I can trust her with my daughter's back."

"You can trust her back to me!" Kirche proclaimed. "Not sure about other body parts, though!" Then she stumbled, losing balance. "Oh, dear, that was a heck of a concussion."

At the sight of that, Louise rolled her eyes. "She's still a work in progres. Right now she's just 'acceptable'."

"That's the most sincere compliment anyone ever gaveme!"

"I don't doubt that."

Louise shook her head. Why had she been worried for her again? Well, she hadn't desired anything bad to happen to her, as simple as that.

Why was Kirche here with Louise? Because she had the hots for her, that was easy enough to understand. But Kirche had, admittedly, been putting a lot of effort into it. More than it may even be warranted.

And more importantly, why did Louise want her around?

Same with Tiffania.

Their presence had become a source of relief.

"Get on your feet," she told Kirche. "I have something to show you. To you too, Tiffania."

"Is it an ice-mage?" Kirche asked. "Because I could do with some ice about now."

Tiffania walked to her side and with a quick wave of her wand she cast a spell that discharged light all over Kirche's back.

"Oh, girl, that really helps!"

Having a healer at hand was always useful.

"What did you do for my father to rough you up that way?"

Kirche shrugged. "I just told him the truth."

"Where are you taking us? Not like I mind, this wouldn't be the first time I'm dragged behind some bushes in the middle of the night but, you know, I'm curious."

Louise ignored Kirche's insinuation, keeping her eyes firmly on the road ahead.

After dragging her and Tiffania out of the manor she had led them across the back gardens, past the stables and the gardener's shack. That was a path that she had taken dozens of times in her youth and that she could do blindfolded. Of her family, only Cattleya knew about it but her sickness had kept her from following it. The only other person that Louise had ever talked with about it had been Wardes. She didn't want to think about that.

With the soft sound of water moved by the nightly breeze, Louise cut past some bushes and reached behind a tall tree.

There it was, in the same place she always found it. A boat tied to a stake at the edge of the lake.

She remembered it being bigger.

"All aboard," Louise told her two companions while climbing into it.

"A boat ride under the moon? Is this romantic or what?" Kirche said while giving Tiffania a mischievous look, who replied by poking Kirche's side.

"Don't tease her."

Louise rolled her eyes, but found that she didn't have much to argue Kirche with when she had taken the place close to the front of the boat, where the oars were located. That was Wardes' place whenever he took her for a ride. Whenever he sang to her and talked about their future together. Back when Louise loved him.

What a stupid thought. She had done that ride dozens of times on her own because Wardes was rarely with her.

"Just do as I say. And could someone cut the ropes?"

Kirche did and they got on their way. Pushing with the rows was proving to be surprisingly challenging. She had gotten accustomed to that boat, she had used it every time she wanted to be left alone, but that was the first time she was taking someone else alongside her. Two people, in fact, which made moving the boat even harder..

"So, where are you taking us?" Tiffania asked.

"There." With a gesture of her head Louise aimed at her back. She didn't even need to look at their destination as she knew it so well. It was a small island in the middle of the lake. Its shores were surrounded by tall trees and grasses which made looking into it difficult. To the untrained eye it may look like a green wall, but she knew the paths that cut through it.

Kirche's eyes widened as she leaned forwards, causing their ride to rock. "Oh! Is there a treasure in there?"

Louise's eyes rolled as she kept rowing, and yet she couldn't keep herself from smiling. Kirche had a very romantic view on adventure, one that reminded Louise of how she had been years ago. She found that she didn't want to shatter that illusion, and even appreciated it. It reminded her of better days.

"Yes," she replied without missing a beat. At least it was a treasure to her.

It didn't take long for them to reach their destination. Louise tied the boat to a tree and lead them further in, following a path that cut through the trees.

The last time she had been there had been before her departure for the Academy, and some weeds had grown to obstruct their way. Her sword made short work of them, and soon enough they reached the core of that place.

"It's beautiful!" Tiffania gasped looking at it.

The trees opened into a clearing so big that their entire manor could have been built inside it, but doing so would have ruined the reason why Louise bothered to go there in the first place. Not a single patch of grass could be seen, the entire place covered by thousands of flowers of all kinds and varieties that coated it like a colorful blanket.

Its sight was a bittersweet one. It brought Louise comfort, and yet plagued her with the memories of why she had sought refuge inside it so many times.

"This, well, I always liked calling it my 'secret island' even if it is a bit of a stupid name," she explained as she walked in, her feet disrupting the perfect pattern but also casting the flowers' fragrance to the wind. "Definitely not a secret at all. I think that dad had it built for mother, but she was never one for flowers or those sort of things. I never knew of anyone else who came here, so I made it my own."

She struggled to remember when it had been the first time that she had arrived there. She had been fleeing. She had wanted to go to where no one else could follow.

Her hairs stood on end when a hand closed around her arm, but she forced herself not to flinch. It was just Tiffania.

"Sounds like this place means a lot to you."

"It does. Whenever things got too hard I could come here and forget about my problems."

Whenever she walked into that garden she could forget about everything for some blissful moment. About her failures, her shortcomings and her responsibilities. As a child, many times she wondered if she shouldn't just stay, but Louise was always someone to put duty ahead of her own pleasure. That was why she forced the two to overlap, to various degrees of success.

"Why did you bring us here?" Kirche asked, walking from her opposite side.

"Beats me," Louise replied with a shrug.

Why had she done it? It had been a spur of the moment decision, a fly of fancy. This was one of her best guarded treasures and had exposed it to only one person before, who she ended up killing.

But she had wanted to do it.

She had only known Kirche and Tiffania for a very short time, but they had already gone through a lot together and Louise wanted to believe that she could trust them with this fragment of herself. If only because she didn't feel as lonely when they were around.

That was a strange realization. Since when had she started seeing those two under the same light she saw Serana?

But it wasn't the same.

Louise trusted Serana not only because they had gone through a lot together and had saved each other's lives more than anyone would bother to count, but also because the ancient vampire was strong. She was someone who Louise could trust with her back not only because Louise didn't fear being stabbed in it, but also because Serana had the strength to stay alongside her.

When entire nations sought her death, how could Louise expose herself to be with anyone who couldn't defend herself? She could sleep peacefully while Serana kept watch because Louise knew that if anything could endanger her then it could endanger Louise all the same.

Neither Tiffania nor Kirche were anywhere close to that level, but weren't they getting there?

Tiffania had shown her strength in Tarbes, and Kirche in Gallia.

A vampire, a half-elf, and a Germanian.

A bad joke indeed, but one she could enjoy.

Walking further into the garden, Louise let herself fall. First seated, and then on her back.

"Be careful where you sit," she said from her position. "You don't want to land on one of the thorny patches."

"Talking from experience?" Kirche asked.

"Oh, yes. I don't know what was worse, the cuts or having to explain what happened to my dress. One time I fell asleep and woke up with a cold. As nice as this place is, it can get very chilly at night."

Something started glowing at the edge of her sight and saw an orb of fire floating above them, offering them warmth without risking burning the garden down.

"Thanks," she said to Kirche.

"That's it? No smarm or sarcasm? No 'hey, at least you're useful for something'?"

"What can I say? This place does wonders for my mood."

As consciousness lost its grip on her, she felt a body pressing against her left, and another against her right.

There were few people that she allowed close to her. She feared the harm they would bring, and the more she opened to others the more damage those others could make. And yet despite that she realized that she was coming to trust those she was with now.

With that thought, she fell asleep.