Omake - Zero
October 7, 2017 a.t.b.
The sun was out, the ocean waves remained gentle, and a light breeze carried a warm southern air. All in all, it was probably the best day they were going to get to transport Kallen to the mainland by boat. Taking a plane or helicopter would only alert Marrybell and Euphemia to something being wrong, and neither Kallen nor Lelouch wanted that. The less attention they drew to Kaminejima, the better.
Lelouch turned the page of his book, enjoying the quiet moment on the deck after their recent adventure. Beside him, Kallen lay sprawled out upon a chaise lounge chair atop a good number of extra pillows providing support. She’d fallen asleep at some point whilst basking in the sun, wearing nothing but a bikini and her bandages. In all honesty, he’d been tempted to order something slipped into her drink to get her to sleep, but it seemed she had the good sense to let her body rest and recover for once. Well, it was either that or she was just too exhausted to stay awake. His money was on the latter.
A swoosh and then a crash of water came from the pool. Lelouch glanced up to see C.C. climbing out of it. She briefly wrung her hair out and then made her way over to collect her towel. Of all the things she could regenerate from with but the prick of a finger, a serious case of dampness was apparently too much to overcome. He did wonder if pruning triggered her regeneration, but by the time he thought to check if her fingers had shrivelled from spending so much time in the pool, she’d already buried her hands in her towel.
Not long later, Lelouch noticed C.C. bend slightly at the waist in his peripheral vision to see the cover of his book. He tipped it up slightly to answer her unasked question. Every once in a while, he enjoyed a good fantasy, and he’d always meant to read The Wizard of Oz. He’d just never gotten around to it, something Marrybell had chastised him for at length during their last visit to Japan.
“What comes after the happy ending?”
“Spoilers,” Lelouch replied dismissively. He knew sequels existed but very little beyond that. After a few moments of silence, he hazarded an upward glance. C.C. stood staring at him with a slight, reproving glare in her eyes. He chuckled, knowing she’d meant her question in a more philosophical sense, but opted not to indulge her in conversation unless she pressed.
“I’m hungry,” C.C. then declared. “Go bring me a fresh pizza.”
Lelouch rolled his eyes and turned another page. “That’s what the help is for. Go ask someone else.”
“Well, I suppose my contractor is right here.”
Heaving an exasperated sigh, Lelouch snapped his book shut. “Fine.” If this was to be his punishment for ignoring her, so be it. He suspected C.C was going to wake Kallen anyway for a private conversation, but he could hope she would let the injured rest peacefully. As he rose, he asked, “What toppings do you want?”
Thus Lelouch departed and left Kallen in C.C.’s dubious care.
Tristain Academy of Magic
In the early morning light peeking in through her tower window, Louise idly watched the sun rise as she practised. Magic surged through her from her centre out to her fingertips. The most basic of basics, channelling willpower into mana was child’s play. From mana, spells sprang forth. Reality submitted to a mage’s will. That was the way of things.
Or so it should be. Louise knew she was a mage, a woman of true noble birth. She knew it. She felt it in every corner of her very being. Magic roiled around within her. Where others described it as a tingling feeling, she called it a crackling lightning dragon that refused to submit to its mistress.
But no longer! Today is the day. Today is my time to shine. Today is the moment I break my chains. Today is the end of the zero.
Louise meant that with all her heart. There would be no Zero after today. This was her last chance.
A bright light pulled Louise’s attention from the dawn. She glanced down at her wand and immediately throttled the flow of her magic before it blew up in her face. After it settled within her, she returned to her exercise in control.
So passed her morning. Breakfast and lunch flew by without notice. The sun rose high into the midday sky. Both moons joined it on this momentous day to bear witness to this final chapter of Zero’s tale. Louise took it as an auspicious sign.
At last the bell tolled. It was time. The entire academy had the day off to witness the second years summoning their familiars, a sacred ceremony in which Louise would prove once and for all that she was no common born impostor. The alternative didn’t bear mentioning; plans had already been made for that contingency.
And so Louise made the long walk down from where she resided out of sight and out of mind at the top of the second years’ tower where she could cause the least amount of damage. When she finally arrived at the courtyard, she received the welcome she’d long since grown accustomed to.
"Well, look who finally decided to show her face. Finished saying goodbye to everyone, then?"
Louise ignored Kirche von Zerbst’s taunting and the whispering of her peers. They didn’t matter, and someday they would come to regret every maligned word. Maybe she would forgive them. She was generous, after all. Magnanimous, even!
Soon enough, Professor Colbert arrived. The tall, bald man looked gentle and hardly able to manage a crowd, but something about how he carried himself made everyone – including those not eager to summon their familiars – quiet quickly and listen. He explained the summoning process to the uninitiated, few though they were, and then called upon the first student to step forward.
As the names passed, Louise couldn’t help but notice that she was relegated to the back of the line. As the daughter of both a duke and perhaps the second or third most influential woman in the country, she should have been first in line. But that was fine. She was used to this treatment. They would all realise their error after today.
Louise pointedly ignored Kirche preening over the salamander she’d summoned and observed the other more impressive familiars. Guiche had called forth a giant mole. Delphine had gotten a bugbear. Roland, a two-tailed fox. Tabitha rode atop her dragon in the sky without a care in the world, far removed from the ceremony.
What could I possibly summon more impressive than a dragon? Life was particularly unfair sometimes.
Finally, after every last one of her classmates had had their turn, Professor Colbert called upon Louise to make her ‘attempt’. She ignored the unintentional barb. He was perhaps the nicest person at the academy and meant nothing by it, even if the rest of the crowd – those who hadn’t fled like cowards – found it amusing enough to jeer.
Raw mana suffused down Louise’s arm into her hand until it spread into her fingertips. The force of it prickled and roiled, barely contained, within her. She deftly curled her fingers about her wand in sequence before relaxing her grip and then repeating the motion over and over, idly waving the device of power up and down as she prepared herself mentally.
This was her chance – no, her last chance – to show everyone her true worth. She felt the power within her. She had strength to spare, perhaps enough to strike down even elves. She need only harness it. She need only put it to purpose. She need only bend it to her will.
It was perhaps the most honest, heartfelt word of her life. If there were to be one single, solitary spell she could cast correctly, she begged that this would be the one.
Louise rose her wand and let her magic flow into it. The ritual circle on the ground sprang to life about her. It crackled in protest as she poured strength enough into it to tear a hole in space and time. Not content to merely accept what the ritual gave her, she pushed for what she needed.
Despite her boasting to her insufferable classmates, it was not beauty she sought. It was not magical power. It was not physical prowess. No, it was much simpler yet so much more to ask. For the first time in years, she let down her walls and bared herself in complete and utter self-honesty in the hope that the ritual would see and answer her cry for help.
Please, if there’s any being out there who can fix me, teach me, help me, relate to me… Please, I beg of you, answer my summons.
Louise spoke the incantation. The words were not her own, but nothing had ever felt more natural. They formed of their own volition as her magic crescendoed in demand to be unleashed upon the world.
“I don’t want it to end here. If I had the strength, I could continue on.”
Her peers laughed. The words were far afield of any other summoning. They probably sounded like a joke, like the babbling of someone who hadn’t studied. But they knew nothing! She could feel them burning through her. She stood taller. Her focus sharpened. This would be her triumph!
“I propose a deal. Grant one wish of mine, and I shall grant one of yours.”
The world exploded into light and fire. The force of the blast knocked Louise off her feet and sent her tumbling back head over heels. Ultimately, she ended up flat on her back and moaning in pain. As usual for her spellwork, dry, hot ashes singed her exposed skin and ruined her clothes, and the horrid stench of brunt hair assaulted her nose. Fortunately, a short trip to the infirmary later would fix the lot.
When they recovered, the crowd jeered, but they were of no concern. It was done. The summoning had succeeded, and it only remained to complete the familiar contract.
Louise only had eyes for the slowly dispersing cloud of ash before her. Slowly, a figure appeared. Piercing blue eyes locked with Louise’s own, and a shiver ran down her spine. As the smoke cleared, she took in her familiar’s appearance in full. The young woman, certainly no older than her early twenties, wore a fiery mane of hair and wreathed herself in the finest reds and purples. A glorious rapier hung at her waist with the promise of the same grisly end as any dragon’s claw or fang if threatened. She stood with poise and wore authority about her like a cloak.
Louise froze. This was equal parts disaster and salvation, hope and ruin. Too stunned to break the tension in the air with mere words, she watched the woman before her in utter silence.
By Brimir, she’d summoned a queen!
Kallen’s hand rested on her rapier’s hilt, trapped in a slowly dispersing cloud of ash, as she scanned her surroundings. She had no idea how someone had managed to bypass her control of the Thought Elevators to teleport her here, but it likely wasn’t for afternoon tea with an old friend she’d been neglecting.
Gathered in a group were a few dozen school-aged children wearing cloaks of all things over professionally tailored uniforms by the fit. The animals at their feet she barely paid any attention. Some looked exotic at a quick glance – possibly robots – but she dismissed them as a threat. AI wasn’t that good yet. Closer, a middle-aged man stood in a tightly fitted robe with a modified quarterstaff held at the ready. When she met the hard look in his eyes and evaluated his stance, she recognised a fellow veteran. If this turned into a fight, she would have to prioritise him over the untrained whelps.
Then movement caught Kallen’s eye. There was another teenager present practically at her feet sprawled out on the ground. The girl was covered in the same soot that no doubt coated herself and, judging by the girl’s height, had a few less years under her belt than her peers. Horror and elation played out across her face simultaneously for whatever reason.
Slowly, careful not to let the man and the girl at her feet out of her sight, Kallen shifted to look behind her. No one was there. Then because one could never be too careful, she glanced up. There was nothing but the moons. Then her eyes returned to the sky.
Two moons? That’s not possible. The empire hadn’t yet expanded beyond its native solar system, and Mars’s moons were a joke. But a thought occurred. She shifted in place, testing her weight. She felt…lighter. It was a small difference but a noticeable one nonetheless. Right. So either I’m inside C’s World or I’m on another planet. Reaching out for her connection to the collective unconscious, she quickly ruled out the former.
Another planet, then, eh? After a moment to absorb that, Kallen cracked a smile. Interesting. Her gaze turned downward to the girl in front of her and then further to the slight glow at her feet. She could put the pieces together. The girl had to have summoned her somehow, probably entirely by accident. That might pose a problem for returning home, but she could use a long holiday. Rhia could hold the fort for her while her throne sat empty, and if anything important came up, Rhia could always contact her via a Thought Elevator.
Now then, what to do about my summoner… Kallen recalled that the other children present all had an animal companion beside them. A quick glance up confirmed that. If any of her Earth knowledge translated into this oddly human culture, she knew what had happened. This is a familiar summoning. Her smile grew into a grin, and she fought down a good, ominous cackle. I’m to be a familiar, eh? An ancient memory from her childhood surfaced, and this was far too good of an opportunity to let it go to waste. Well, time to see if this magic included a translation component.
Kallen focused her gaze upon the girl still on the ground. The attention started her, and she emitted a shrill, “Eep!” before hastily rising to her feet with as much grace as she could probably muster at the moment. She self-consciously patted down her skirt and cloak, obviously hoping to make a good second impression. She shook, the trepidation easily apparent, but Kallen gave the girl credit for meeting her eyes and not flinching away. Not many could these days.
Careful to keep one eye on the old man lest he think her a threat and act to defend, Kallen assumed, his student, she approached the girl with one hand resting lighting atop the pommel of her rapier. When they were but a single stride apart, she fell to one knee and placed a fist over her heart. In perfect solemnity, she said, “Servant Saber. Upon thy summoning, I have come forth. I ask of thee, art thou my master?”
Keeping a straight face when the girl grew flustered proved a Herculean task, but Kallen succeeded. Perhaps she’d never mastered the stoicism C.C. had maintained, but she nonetheless had more than enough experience. It was these little comforts that got her, as they had with C.C., through the years.
“I – my Albian is rusty.” The girl changed languages. “Do you speak Tristainian?”
Kallen quirked an eyebrow. That sounded like the offshoot of an old dialect of French. It was close enough that they could probably communicate well enough, but in her experience, she’d estimate that it’d had a few centuries of unregulated drift. That solved the mystery of how she was talking to a human born and raised on a planet outside their native solar system. Some Europeans must have stumbled their way here through the Temple of Kings’s Thought Elevator in the Britannian Isles. That said, she’d need to do some reading while she was here to find out the whole story.
For now, however, Kallen cast her mind back to the version of French she’d learnt so long ago. It would do until she’d picked up this new dialect. “I will learn quickly,” she assured the girl as she rose to her feet.
“Good.” The girl nodded to herself. “Good,” she said again with slightly more confidence. She swallowed, eyes closed, as she visibly worked up the courage to do whatever it was she intended or was expected of her. Then her hand rose, and Kallen just noticed the wand in her grip. When she spoke, it was with a calm that belied her prior nerves. “My name is Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière. Pentagon of the Five Elemental Powers, bless this noble being and make her my familiar.”
Kallen felt the flow of power not entirely dissimilar to her own. It swelled around Vallière – it was good to have a name for the girl – and through the ritual circle beneath them. Then Vallière did something she hadn’t expected. The girl leaned forward, rising onto her toes, and hesitated a moment. When Kallen didn’t draw back, Vallière quickly pecked her on the lips before stepping away as though one or both of them had committed some great faux pas.
Not knowing the local culture, Kallen quirked an eyebrow. “No offence, Louise, but you’re a decade or two too young for me. Maybe three.” She preferred her lovers with a bit of life experience on them.
Blushing, Vallière retreated back a step and fidgeted in place, unable to meet Kallen’s gaze anymore and utterly unable to form words despite trying. It was adorable. If she wasn’t careful, she’d turn into C.C. and tease this girl relentlessly. She’d have to watch that. The last thing she needed was a diplomatic incident with–
Kallen’s gaze snapped down to her hand. A light shown from its back, and it burned. Her amusement fled as she grit her teeth. “What did you do?” she bit out. It wasn’t stopping! She fought not to collapse to her knees as her vision swam.
“It – it’s just the familiar runes,” Vallière said. She took a half-step back and wobbled through the motion. This was obviously affecting her as well. From the flow of power Kallen felt, she was powering the ritual. “It’ll be over soon.”
A harsh grunt escaped Kallen in place of any more coherent words. Her legs gave out on her, and she just barely managed to fall with some grace onto her rear. If the intention was to brand her with a set of magical runes, Vallière was going to be in for disappointment. Her body didn’t like changing. Hopefully this process had a failsafe built in before it killed the poor girl. She didn’t deserve to die by an unfortunate quirk of chance, not when she’d been so hesitant to take a person for a familiar.
It wasn’t long before Vallière joined her on the ground. The girl fell limp, but the magic continued on without her conscious direction. Soon after, Kallen passed out as well.
Tristain Academy of Magic
The waking world wasn’t worth the pain. It felt like someone had reached into her chest and crushed her heart. Founder, was this what willpower exhaustion felt like? Everyone had described it as a horrid, sickly feeling, but Louise had honestly thought they were just whining. Her mother had never voiced a single complaint after a draining day of training, after all.
A low groan escaped Louise. Then a stirring beside her attracted her attention. She hurt too much to move just yet, not even to open her eyes, but she managed to ask, “Who’s there?”
Louise didn’t know whether to feel relief or dread. Had the ritual failed? Had she failed? Saber stood vigil at her bedside as all good familiars should, but Saber wasn’t some wild animal. She had the capacity to choose to be here regardless of whether or not they’d completed the contract.
“What happened?” Louise managed, though her voice cracked.
“Hold that thought.”
A pair of strong but clearly feminine arms snaked their way beneath Louise’s back and legs. The touch stung like a thousand hot needles, and it didn’t get any better when those arms shifted her into a mostly upright position. There had to be a dozen pillows supporting her back, however, so there was that. When she settled, the pain at least receded somewhat.
Within moments, the rim of a vial pressed against Louise’s lips. “Here,” Saber said. “Your healer asked me to give this to you when you woke. It’ll help with the pain.”
Grateful, Louise croaked out a weak noise of approval before a slow trickle of a potion poured into her mouth. She let it flow over her parched tongue despite the horrid taste and then diverted the stream to her gums to wet her mouth. As she swallowed, she felt a bit of her willpower slowly return to her. It was naught but a drop in an ocean, yet it soothed her pains. Her eyes blinked opened, slowly adjusting to the light, and there indeed sat Saber leaning onto her bed with the wonderful potion in hand. Her possible familiar looked no less regal on this second meeting, but there was a softness about her now that had been absent upon her summoning. Perhaps it was the lack of ash or something about her eyes.
Louise rose her hand to Saber’s, and they passed the vial between them with silent understanding. Was that the familiar bond at work? Regardless, she said, “Thank you, Queen Saber.” Even as a familiar, it was beneath a queen to personally wait upon her. And wasn’t that just fantastic? Her familiar outranked her! She’d been desperate and foolish enough to try to bind a queen to her will. She didn’t even want to consider the consequences right now. Maybe, if she was very lucky, she hadn’t actually succeeded. Maybe Saber would forgive her this transgression and not declare war on Tristain.
Once Louise had finished her potion, Saber took it from her and set the empty vial aside on an end table. Then, with remarkable forethought, Saber said, “I am unfamiliar with your culture. I could make an educated guess, but how should I address you?”
“Oh. Well…” That question posed something of a conundrum now that Saber had brought it to Louise’s attention. No one had ever summoned a human for a familiar before, so no one had ever bothered to create rules about this sort of thing. In the end, she decided to take a risk since Saber at least seemed to be possessed of an amicable nature. “Louise, I think.” When Saber nodded in acceptance, she asked, “And you?”
Saber regarded Louise with a scrutinising eye somehow more piercing than her mother’s. This was the queen she’d summoned. Not wanting to be found wanting, she forced herself to sit a little straighter and put on a strong front despite the lingering aches in her body.
Once she’d discovered whatever she’d wanted to know, Saber replied, “Kallen.”
Louise wrapped her head around the foreign name, silently voicing it a few times to ensure she’d gotten it right. It sounded Albian, but it wasn’t a name she’d ever heard before. She tried it aloud this time. “Kallen. Is that your real name, then?”
“Yes. Saber is…let’s call it a private joke from where I was born.”
Louise wasn’t sure she understood, but then she supposed that went back to the definition of private. “Where are you from, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I don’t,” Kallen replied, “but I doubt you would believe me without proof. For now, let’s just say I’m from very far away.”
It couldn’t be! “Beyond the elven lands?”
Kallen shrugged and left it at that. “For the record, I’m an empress, not a queen.”
With a cringe, Louise said, “I apologise for my mistake.” She knew intimately how prickly people could get about their titles.
Yet Kallen waved off the faux pas. “No offence taken. If you’re curious, I rule over a complex federation of nations as empress. I exercise direct power, however, over only my homeland.”
That sounded somewhat like what the Germanian Empire did. Louise pushed down her distaste and politely nodded her understanding. “Is that an elected position?”
“Ah…” Kallen ran a finger along her cheek in thought over what should have been a simple question. “No? There’s a line of succession in place, but its only been tested once, and I was the obvious choice regardless.”
Oh, that wasn’t good. A newly minted empire absent of only its second empress would tear itself apart!
Louise’s mounting distress must have shown on her face as Kallen asked, “What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong?” Louise echoed, her voice barely more than a squeak. She took a deep breath to steady herself. “I summoned you here from your empire! What’s going to happen with you gone?”
“Oh, that’s all? Don’t worry. Rhia will keep order for me.”
That was an awful lot of trust Kallen was showing this Rhia and an equal amount of faith in her administration. Albion had descended into civil war during its king’s infirmary. Gallia went through a succession crisis less than twenty years ago. Even Tristain had its own problems during the current regency! If Kallen’s empire fell apart, the blame would fall squarely on one person and one person only.
Kallen placed a hand on Louise’s shoulder in what was probably a gesture of support or comfort in her homeland. “Seriously, Louise, don’t bother yourself with this. I’ve been meaning to take a holiday anyway.”
Hesitant to accept forgiveness for such a crime so easily, Louise asked, “Are you sure? I – I can try to find a way to send you back.” How it hurt to do the right thing! “Who even is Rhia to you?”
“Ah, I forget our exact relation.” Kallen counted something on her fingers up past twelve before pausing and giving up with a shake of her head. “Her full name is Princess Rhiannon vi Britannia the Third. She’d be my successor in the unlikely event anything happened to me. Worst-case scenario, I come home after twenty years, she yells at me for taking so long, and we don’t talk for a few months while she sulks in her lab.”
“I…” Louise had a very strong feeling that the culture Kallen had come from was fundamentally alien to her. Surely an empress, even a newly coronated one, couldn’t otherwise be so naive. “Okay.”
But with that settled, Louise supposed, the other major worry she held surfaced in her mind. “Are you…” she started, afraid to ask because either answer had equally disastrous consequences. “Did the ritual…”
Kallen understood what Louise wanted to know and held up the back of her hand – the smooth, unblemished back of her hand. “Afraid not.”
A whimpered, “No,” escaped Louise in her despair. She’d completed the summoning, but she’d failed the contract. She was a failure. The academy would kick her out. If she was lucky, she would get to go home. If she was even luckier, her parents would still accept her as their own. If not, she’d have to live the disgraced life of a fallen noble at best, a commoner at worst. She’d have nothing and no one, not even a familiar to keep her company.
“For what it’s worth,” Kallen said gently, “it’s not your fault.”
Louise pressed her eyes against the sheets of her bed before daring to even look at her not familiar. “How can it not be!” Why was she shouting? That wasn’t proper behaviour for a noble. Had she already fallen so far?
“My magic resists changes to my body.” With a click and then the sound of steel sliding against steel, Kallen withdrew a dagger from somewhere beneath her clothes. She pricked her finger on it and then held the injured digit up for inspection. The blood flowed quickly and, to Louise’s amazement, just as quickly stopped as the wound sealed itself. Kallen wiped it clean on a handkerchief and, once finished, showed off her unmarred skin as further proof. “According to Professor Colbert, the ritual drained your magic until you had nothing left to give. When you ran out of power, it ceased its futile attempt to brand me. You can try the summoning again, but historical precedent suggests you’ll just get me.”
It built up slowly from a hitch in her breath until Louise fell into a fit of sobbing laughter. She couldn’t believe it. She wasn’t a complete failure. She wasn’t, but she had the worst luck of anyone ever born. She could never have a familiar, the one spell she might have been able to do right, until after Kallen died, and that surely wouldn’t happen until she was a withered old spinster. Her not familiar couldn’t be more than a few years older than her.
Kallen clapped a hand on Louise’s shoulder. She felt the urge to scream at her not and never familiar to get out and leave her to wallow in her own misery, but without warning, the world fell away.
“You don’t want it to end here, do you?”
Tristain Academy of Magic
Flipping through yet another history book in the academy library, Kallen knew she’d been spot on about the origins of humanity on Halkegenia. The entire place gave off a strong feudal Europe vibe from its language and cuisine right down to its people. She hadn’t yet been able to determine if this Founder Brimir fellow had been anyone of importance in the Old World, but his exaltation had since evolved into outright worship with strong Christian parallels. Amusingly enough, when reading between the lines, the local church had even developed a Protestant schism recently.
Her research, however, hadn’t really taken Kallen’s mind off of her latest contractor. Her thoughts kept slipping back to Louise, the poor girl. Kallen had peeked in on a few of her more recent memories before giving her a geass, and they weren’t good. Her environment and almost complete lack of a support network had ground her self-esteem to dust, and she’d been running purely off of her stubborn refusal to throw in the towel. If things didn’t change for her soon, Kallen would need to watch her for suicide attempts.
That was part of why Kallen had decided to grant Louise a geass. That girl needed something to be proud of beyond her heritage, and now she had the power to go out and find whatever that would be for her. That might backfire, though. Kallen hated putting down her own contractors, but they did sometimes abuse her gift in ways she couldn’t abide. While Louise herself had strongly ingrained morals – by her people’s standards – she could fall either way. Temptation was part and parcel with the geass she’d developed. Worse, misuse could easily turn it into a curse. C.C. would certainly attest to that.
I’m going to have to watch over Louise for a while, aren’t I? She needs guidance, life advice, support, a friend… Really, it boiled down to one conclusion. She needs a mentor.
It would be a waste of time. Kallen already knew the girl wouldn’t be able to fulfil their contract. She doubted anyone could, really, but when she stopped looking, she’d end up slowly wasting away until she just wanted to die like C.C. had. If time proved her wrong, she’d be delightfully astonished and would welcome the universe to the opportunity to point and laugh.
Regardless, Kallen did feel somewhat responsible for Louise’s happiness. That was the other reason she’d offered a geass so readily. It wasn’t her fault that she’d locked Louise out of a core rite of passage amongst Halkegenian nobility, but that was the result nonetheless, and solving other people’s problems was kind of her thing. She certainly hadn’t managed to stay empress so long by stomping on the hopes and dreams of troubled girls.
Speaking of whom, Louise strode into the library with a weird expression on her face. It was equal parts disgust, confusion, horror, and triumph all at once. Kallen could imagine what had happened but resisted taking a firsthand look via peering into her memories.
“The healer finally let you out of bed?”
“I, uh, yes,” Louise replied very distractedly. “This magic you gave me… I’m not sure if…”
Chuckling, Kallen asked, “What happened?”
“It… It was glorious.” After a moment to bask in the memory, Louise suddenly looked as though she’d swallowed a lemon. “And so. Horribly. Wrong! Kirche tried to apologise to me for everything she’s done. She begged for forgiveness! Begged!”
Kallen vaguely recalled Kirche as one of Louise’s especially personal tormentors. She could imagine how deeply satisfying and equally disturbing that must have been. “So no complaints, then.”
“Well…no,” Louise reluctantly concluded. “But it feels wrong. Why did you give me this power?”
“Geass manifests differently in everyone.” Kallen doubted Louise was ready to hear why. She needed to build herself up before she tried to examine who she had been too closely.
“Then what should I do with it?”
Kallen shrugged. “What do you want to do with it?”
In a rather small voice, Louise said, “Well, it would be nice if everyone respected me a little more.”
“You could certainly make that happen. I once knew a woman with a power similar to yours. Hers induced romantic love, not platonic, but the principles are similar. She loved being loved. She was the belle of the ball, showered in gifts and affection. She wanted for nothing, and everyone loved her everywhere she went.”
Hesitantly, Louise asked, “Are you suggesting I should use this…geass…on everyone who’s mean to me?”
Kallen offered Louise a sad smile and then shook her head. “The woman grew so used to using her geass on everyone, she forgot that none of it was real. By the time she realised her error, she’d lost track of who she’d ensnared and who remained free. She no longer knew how to distinguish real love from that which she created, and it drove her to despair.” That was hyperbole, strictly speaking, but ‘it drove her to boredom’ just didn’t have the same impact. Kallen met Louise’s eye and held her gaze. “Don’t lose yourself to your geass.”
The message got through. Louise nodded, slow and solemn, without breaking eye contact.
Good. Now it was time to address what Louise had originally meant to ask. “As with any other magic, geass is a tool. Rather than trying to decide what to do with it, why don’t you ask yourself how it can help you achieve what you want?”
A moment passed in heavy silence.
Having expected this, Kallen asked, “Louise, what do you want?” Lelouch had always been better at this sort of thing, but she’d learnt a lot over her long life.
Louise was silent for the longest time. She gnawed on her lip, likely in an attempt to hide her varying expressions, but it only revealed how unsettled she was to not have an answer to that question. Finally, she said, “I want to make my parents proud.”
That could, of course, be more appropriately phrased as Louise wanted her parents to be proud of her, but Kallen opted not to step on that particular land mine so soon into the healing process. “Fair enough,” she said, “but then how do you want to make them proud of you?”
There was another long silence before Louise offered up, “I’m supposed to get married.”
“Do I really need to point out that a sack of potatoes could stand in for you?” Kallen had read more than enough historical records of brides being married in absentia and against their will in cultures like this to know the marriage wasn’t about Louise in the slightest. It was a business contract at best and an opportunity for her parents to rid themselves of an unwanted daughter without society frowning upon them at worst.
Louise said nothing.
“Tell me about your mother.”
Like magic, Louise perked up and went on to describe Karin of the Heavy Wind, a decorated war heroine, in verbose detail for the next hour. Kallen let her ramble on about everything from the battles her mother had taken part in to the woman’s philosophy of life, the so-called rule of steel. A more clear-cut case of hero worship Kallen had never seen. She even went on to describe Karin’s friendship with the queen dowager and, with a little subtle prompting from Kallen, how she’d had the opportunity to befriend the soon-to-be queen Princess Henrietta. After that, she spiralled off into Karin’s apparently near mythical ability to cast spells without an incantation before recounting tales of her service in the Manticore Knights and the adventures she’d gone on.
When Louise finally wound down, Kallen offered her a drink from her glass of water. Her generosity was met with a parched, “Thank you.” Perhaps as she should have expected, the cup returned to her all but empty. She set it aside.
“So,” Kallen began, “would you like to follow in your mother’s footsteps?”
For a moment, Louise’s eyes shone so brightly they sparkled. But then she collapsed in on herself. “Oh, I couldn’t. I have other responsi–”
“Louise,” Kallen interjected. She directed a no-nonsense look at the girl. “Do you want to be like your mother?”
Lips pursed, Louise gave a tight nod as though she were betraying some horrible secret.
“You want to be a great warrior?”
With less hesitancy, the truth already out, Louise nodded.
“I – I want to be a battle mage like Mother.”
That Kallen could make happen. Everyone here had, for some strange reason, overlooked Louise’s obvious battlefield potential. That couldn’t be all, though. She needed a reason to fight. “You want to protect and serve your princess?”
The words came without pause or self-doubt. Louise must genuinely count Princess Henrietta amongst her friends, perhaps even as her only friend. Kallen could work with that. If the princess returned the sentiment, she would mold Louise into Tristain’s sword as she once had been Lelouch’s.
It occurred to Kallen that she was self-sabotaging her contract by encouraging this attachment, but she didn’t care. C.C. had acted with no greater prudence, and she’d still managed to find a contractor to take her code eventually.
Tristain Academy of Magic
Louise dutifully marched out into the forest surrounding the Tristain Academy of Magic. Against her better judgement, her hopes were high. Kallen had gone around to her professors and arranged to take over her education in its entirety since, to quote the empress herself, whatever nonsense they were peddling obviously wasn’t working for her. According to Kallen, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result was the definition of insanity.
Louise didn’t want to disrespect the academy or its professors when she was clearly the problem, but privately, she agreed.
And so here they were, technically still on school grounds, in the forest where a stray explosion or two wouldn’t harm anyone. It’d rained only a few days ago, so they didn’t even need to worry about sparking a wildfire that the academy water mages would have to put out. Why the professors had never thought to do this, Louise would never understand. Personally, she’d already spent plenty of time berating herself for the oversight. Maybe they’d just considered her a lost cause but had been too polite or scared of her parents’ reprisal to toss her out of the academy.
Regardless, they were here now. Kallen stood but a few paces away, stripped of her finery and garbed in unfitting clothes which might as well have been rags. Louise had changed too despite her protests. Kallen had insisted. “Only a great fool goes to war in silks and furs.” It sounded like something her mother would say, which was ultimately what had made her relent and consent to dressing like a common mercenary.
“Louise, you mentioned that your mother can cast without incantations.”
It was a question, Louise thought, so she nodded and explained in a bit more detail. Karin could cast magic silently, but it weakened her spells. Even so, it was an unheard of ability outside of the elves which had made her a force of nature on the battlefield.
Kallen hummed in interest, absorbing the information. “Very well. Do you see that boulder over there?”
Following Kallen’s gaze proved no difficulty. One would have to be blind to miss the rock in question.
“Point your wand at it and fire.”
Louise’s eye snapped back to Kallen, incredulous. “I can’t cast without incantations! What would I even be casting? An explosion spell?” The closest thing she could think of that actually existed would be a fireball.
Despite this, Kallen smiled. “Now you’re getting it.” She slipped behind Louise, placed her hands on Louise’s shoulders, and rotated them both back to face the boulder. “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Shout ‘explosion’ if you must. Just have confidence and mean it. I know you can do this.”
The sarcastic words about how this was the only thing she could do died on Louise’s tongue. No one had ever said anything like that to her before. Not about her magic. “What – what if I fail?”
“Then I help you back to your feet and we take a step back to examine what went wrong.”
Louise felt her chest swell with her breath. Ignoring the mounting feelings threatening to leak out of her, she snapped her wand up. She summoned up a drop of the power she had left to her after failing her first contract with Kallen and pushed. It surged down her arm and through her wand. Off in the distance, a sphere of blinding white light erupted from nothing. It consumed her target, and when the afterimage finally faded from her vision, there was nothing left.
She’d done it. She’d done it! Louise had really done it. She could hardly believe it. She couldn’t believe it. It had to be a trick. She had to be mistaken. But she’d done it.
From behind, Kallen lifted a hand to pat Louise’s shoulder twice before stepping to the side so they could hold a proper conversation, not that Louise could look away from the empty space that the boulder had once filled. The pride in her voice came clearly despite how shortly they’d known each other. “Well done. We’ll have to experiment with your control. You won’t always want to disintegrate your target, but first steps and all.” She paused a moment. “How does it feel?”
“I…” Louise pressed the sleeves of her tunic to her eyes. “Good. Really, really good.” If her voice had hitched, no one made mention of it.
“It’s my understanding of your culture that you generally take an epithet as a mage name. You usually choose them for yourself?”
Louise nodded, not sure if she trusted herself to say anything aloud without embarrassing herself.
“Then might I make a suggestion?”
Again, Louise nodded. It would be an honour.
“My people have a history of linguistic reclamation. I think Louise the Zero would suit you well. Not because you are nothing–” Kallen turned her gaze toward the nothingness that used to be a boulder, and Louise’s followed. “–but because you will leave nothing in your wake to threaten you, your friends, your family, your country, or your princess.”
Louise swallowed. Could she really do that? Could she really take all that hate, ridicule, and despair and turn it into something to be proud of? “I… I think I like that.”
An eternity passed as Louise absorbed the radical change to her life set before her. She could finally be the person she’d always wanted to be. She could do great things. She could stand beside Henrietta without being an embarrassment. Her parents would be proud of her.
Louise snapped out of her thoughts and turned back to the woman she owed everything to.
“From what I’ve overheard, a war is brewing. Whether you voluntarily fight in it or not is your choice. Either way, you need to be prepared. In time, I will teach you physics, biology, mathematics, chemistry, civics, economics, administration, and more besides.”
Louise’s head spun at the daunting task. Who could learn so much? And why bother? She didn’t even know what all of those things were!
“I expect to leave you the most educated woman on this continent. Even without your geass, Princess Henrietta will consider you an invaluable asset for reasons beyond your friendship.”
That…sounded very nice, actually. Maybe all the work required would be worth it.
“For now, however, we will focus on honing you into a one woman army. We’ll play to your strengths first. You’ll need to improve your aim, speed, stamina, situational awareness, and tactics. After that, we can round out your martial skills with swords, knives, and firearms.”
Kallen held up a hand before Louise could protest.
“It is never a good idea to have only one tool in your chest. Unless you think you can learn to cast wandlessly…”
Understanding dawned on Louise, and she shook her head.
“–then it will serve you well to have nonmagical options available. You don’t have to master them, but basic competency will someday save your life.” Kallen paused and eyed Louise speculatively. “Hmm… You’re a little too scrawny to bother with martial arts.”
Louise felt the prickle of indignation, but she knew Kallen hadn’t meant anything by it – or not anything offensive, at least. Suppressing her temper, she said, “My mother assures me she had the same…unfortunate build as me at my age. I will grow.”
A distinctly suspicious hum met the claim. Louise didn’t say anything because she couldn’t claim to be entirely without her own doubts, but Kallen ultimately didn’t comment further. Instead, she asked, “How are you feeling on… I think the word you use is willpower?”
Nodding, Louise said, “I could cast all day.” And it was true. She’d never understood why everyone else flagged so quickly. Even her mother had her limits, nearly insurmountable though they were. While she did feel drained and tired, the little explosion she’d cast earlier had barely put a dent in her reserves.
“Excellent,” Kallen said. “Then in that case, we should start with some experimentation.”
Tristain Academy of Magic
Louise’s eyes snapped to the apple Kallen hurled low into the forest. Her wand came up. She didn’t have long to aim before it hit something or fell to the ground. With a rush of power, the apple exploded into chunks that went flying every which way. Kallen didn’t need to say anything. She’d put too much magic into that one in her haste, but at least the radius of her explosion hadn’t extended very far past the apple.
Another apple went flying into the forest. This one proceeded in a graceful arc that would take it just barely above the forest canopy. Louise allowed herself a little bit more time to allocate the correct amount of power before she fired. The apple vanished with nothing left in its wake but a soft crack of air. According to Kallen, that was the sound of the atmosphere rushing to fill a vacuum.
Louise blinked. Once she finally parsed the word, she turned to find Kallen offering her what turned out to be one of the last two apples they’d taken from the academy kitchens. She took it gladly and bit into its juicy flesh. They’d been at this all morning, and she could use the break.
“You’ve done well today,” Kallen said. “Your aim is good, and your control is improving. I wouldn’t trust you to capture or rescue anyone yet, but you’re getting there.”
A well of pride bubbled up inside Louise. She smiled brightly and thanked Kallen for the compliment and the instruction.
Tristain Academy of Magic
“I thought we’d try something different today.”
Louise eyed the perpetually spinning sphere of ice in Kallen’s gloved hand. It was a deceptively complex spell to cast for so simple an effect, and the only person at the academy she could think of who could was Tabitha. One of the water mage professors might be able to with a bit of study, but she suspected Kallen wouldn’t want to ask one of them for help. The two of them worked largely independent of academy oversight, and she knew Kallen didn’t want anyone sticking their nose in on their training. The last time someone had, Headmaster Osmond had nearly lost his familiar.
“I have a few spares, but do try not to destroy this.”
Somewhat nervous now, Louise said, “I’ll try my best.”
Kallen briefly nodded in acknowledgement before moving on. “Your explosions can annihilate matter. I think it’s time we tried magic instead.”
Louise frowned. “Magic?”
“Yes. You could think of it as a counterspell.”
That concept Louise understood. It was a theoretical notion, but the magical community largely agreed that no such spell existed nor could exist amongst humans. When she told Kallen that, however, she got a simple response.
“Like your explosions?”
Louise politely shut up.
After first setting the spinning ball of ice down atop a tree stump, Kallen took a few steps back. “Why don’t you give it a try?”
Nodding, Louise did. She pushed magic out through her wand as she usually did, careful not to put much mana into it, but focused on the nebulous idea of removing only the magic present instead of the water. Rather predictably, a large spiderweb of cracks erupted throughout the ice. It spun on otherwise unfazed.
“Well, you can’t get everything on your first attempt. Try less power. Remember, spells are complex weaves of magic. Like a cloak unravelling, a tiny tear is all you need to make it fall apart.”
Louise didn’t know if any of that was actually true, and Kallen probably didn’t either, but the visualisation had a persuasive quality to it. It made sense. And if spells were like a weave of fibres, all she needed to do was snip the loops holding them together. She didn’t need to destroy the entire thing. She only needed to disrupt the pattern of the magic. If she just flooded a volume with a bit of volatile mana, not even that much of it, would a spell be able to retain its form or function?
“Open your eyes.”
As bidden, Louise did. She meant to turn to her mentor, but her gaze instead fell upon the ball of ice. She sat transfixed as she watched it slow and, ultimately, come to a halt. When it had, it fell to the forces of gravity and rolled off of the tree stump onto the forest floor.
“Gyroscopes, eh? Cool stuff.”
Louise turned to Kallen. “Gyro-what?” What did that even matter in the face of this second miracle?
Kallen, of course, just laughed in good humour. “Don’t worry. We’ll get to them when I teach you about momentum. Excellent work, Louise. We have our proof of concept. Now you just need practice.” She reached into her bag and removed another rotating ball of ice. She placed it atop the stump and, as before, backed off to a safe distance.
Like the dutiful student she’d always been, Louise pushed all distractions from her mind and focused on the task before her.
Tristain Academy of Magic
“What are you wearing?” Louise asked.
Kallen removed the strange pair of glasses from her face as they walked to their usual area in the forest and offered them to Louise. “That pair is mine,” she said but promised she was working on obtaining another one for Louise. “The lenses are polarised glass. Cool kids don’t look at explosions, but we both need eye protection. The last thing we want is to wind up blind in the middle of a battle.” To Louise’s sceptical look, she urged, “Go ahead. Try them.”
When Louise put the glasses on, the world around her dimmed. She could still see clearly, but everything looked so much crisper in the light of day. Curious, she even risked a glance up at the sun. It still hurt to look at, but it wasn’t blinding. When she cast an explosion and stared straight at it, she only blinked from the sudden brightness.
“They work.” Louise didn’t know why that surprised her anymore. “What did you call them?”
“I didn’t, but I suppose you can call them sunglasses. They’re not meant for casual use, but if you want to make a fashion statement, go ahead.” Kallen shrugged. “The lenses, though, are polarised glass.”
Louise had never heard of that and wasn’t entirely sure what that even meant.
“I’m not surprised. Halkegenia has gone down a magical route instead of a technological one. Jean has some good ideas, but I doubt they’ll gain much traction in your society for a couple centuries.”
‘Jean’? “Right…” Louise wondered just how close Kallen had gotten to Professor Colbert while she wasn’t watching. She recalled the frankly scandalous jest Kallen had made after she’d tried to complete their familiar contract. Maybe it was better not to know.
“Still,” Kallen continued, “he’s got a good head on his shoulders. He absorbed everything I told him and agreed to make the lenses for us.”
They arrived at a meadow Kallen decided they would use for training today. Then with a care she didn’t usually show for the things she brought along for it, she asked Louise to make a hole in the ground roughly the same size. Louise obliged, and then she gently set the basket inside to the clink of glass against glass. When she noticed Louise’s curious look, she offered a quick peek inside. A dozen healing potions at least sat lined up in three neat little rows! Unless the academy had paid for them, those had to be expensive. Where had she gotten the money? More importantly, why had she brought them? She certainly didn’t need healing potions, which meant…
An ominous sinking feeling settled deep in Louise’s chest.
Kallen stood to her full height. Her hand fell onto the pommel of her rapier. “Today,” she began, “you will begin duelling me.”
Louise swallowed but didn’t protest. Most of what she knew of Kallen’s magic was entirely internal, but what little she knew of the rest of it terrified her even more than her mother’s.
“Don’t worry,” Kallen said with a smirk. “I won’t mess with your mind. You’re free to fight as you will, but do try to make your explosions count. Burns hurt. Being blown to pieces doesn’t. I’ll be fine either way, but…”
A nervous chuckle escaped Louise. Kallen’s regenerative abilities still mystified her, and she didn’t doubt them, but not pulling her punches, she believed was the phrase Kallen used, against her beloved mentor still felt wrong. Nonetheless, she wouldn’t disappoint.
“And do get creative. If you can’t hit me, try blocking my path or crushing me with a few trees.”
Yeah, Louise was never going to get used to that.
Tristain Academy of Magic
Louise panted and heaved as she tried to keep up with Kallen. These daily runs were killing her. They were getting easier, but neither had she missed the slowly increasing pace Kallen set each day. Noblewomen weren’t meant for this life. There were reasons why they usually left the business of war to the men. Right now, she didn’t care two bits what her mother would have to say about that.
After one last lap around the lake, Kallen finally called an end to Louise’s torment. She happily threw herself onto the dirt, not caring one whit how filthy it was or what anyone else would think. It wasn’t like she was wearing good clothes anyway. If she had the energy, she would roll herself into the lake to cool down and wash the sweat off of her, but she didn’t.
Kallen, of course, thought it all a lark. Louise could hear the silent laughter. With a huff, she managed to roll onto her side to face away from Kallen and the woman’s literally infinite stamina.
“A couple more weeks, and I think you’ll be ready.”
Louise perked up at the declaration. She could hardly believe it. “Really?”
“Oh, don’t mistake me. You have a long way to go before you peak, but if war comes and you want to go, I’d feel comfortable signing off on it.”
A grin split Louise’s lips. Then she recalled that it wasn’t Kallen’s permission she needed. Technically speaking, she didn’t need her parents’ either, but there would be consequences if she went behind their backs on the matter. Still, if Kallen thought she was nearly ready, maybe she could put in a good showing against her mother. That should be proof enough that she could handle herself.
Seeking some idle conversation while she rested, Louise asked, “Are you married?”
Louise exhaled a quiet sigh of relief. She’d been a little worried she’d taken Kallen away from her husband. That prompted a different question, however. “Why not? Most women are by your age.”
What the joke was, Louise didn’t know, but Kallen must have thought it was hilarious judging by her laughter. When she finally recovered from her fit, she asked, “Louise, how old do you think I am?”
“Twenty-two, Twenty-three? Maybe a little older?” She had a feeling that was wrong now, but Louise couldn’t give a better guess.
Still with the occasional chuckle, Kallen said, “Do you know that ageing is just the gradual buildup of damage in the body?”
Louise hadn’t, and while she wondered how Kallen knew that, it was an interesting theory. “So?”
It took a few moments before Louise understood.
“My people call me the Immortal Empress. Some worship me like your people revere Brimir, but I try to discourage that as much as I can. I’ve married, Louise, but I don’t think I will again.”
Louise had absolutely no idea what to say to that. She wondered how old Kallen actually was but didn’t dare ask. She wasn’t so sure she wanted to know the answer. Eventually, she managed a simple, “Wow.” When nothing more was said between them, she worked up the courage to ask, “Professor Colbert?”
A warm chuckle escaped Kallen. “I never said I was celibate.”
“W-what!” A warm flush worked its way up Louise’s face at the thought. How could Kallen go around throwing herself at men she hadn’t married? She was an empress! It wasn’t just unbecoming; it was beneath her! “B-but–”
“Different culture,” Kallen interjected. “Sex, marriage, and love have different meanings where I’m from. Our society has different priorities. If you’d like to visit someday to see for yourself, I’d be happy to receive you as a guest or as an ambassador.”
“I…” Louise couldn’t deny that she was curious what kind of scandalous civilisation Kallen ruled. “Maybe.”
Not in the least put off by Louise’s reticence, Kallen carelessly discarded the subject and said, “It won’t last, I know, but Jean is rather fit, don’t you think?”
Louise covered her ears with her hands and declared, “I can’t hear you! I’m not listening!”
Naturally, Kallen just laughed.
Not long later, Louise let out an oof as a sword dropped onto her chest. She turned and found Kallen, rapier drawn, standing not far away. It would seem her brief respite had ended. Sluggishly, she rolled onto her feet with sword in hand.
Tristain Academy of Magic
It was the middle of the night. Kallen lay beside Louise in the bed they shared at the academy, an unnecessary rooming assignment since the familiar bond hadn’t taken but one she enjoyed nonetheless. So far from home, she didn’t particularly want to be alone. While Louise was only on the cusp of adulthood, her company proved no lesser for it. Kallen did need to work out that bias against the lower class – she could only imagine how frustrating things would have been had she needed to convince Louise of her social standing – but that would come in time with education. The girl at least understood noblesse oblige, something her parents had apparently drilled into her, so it wasn’t a priority.
Overall, this was shaping up to be a fun holiday. Rhia had life back home under control, Kallen had the freedom that came with anonymity, and best of all, she had a protégé to mold. Really, it’d been far too long since she’d last taken on a personal student.
A faint smile curled at Kallen’s lips. Marika and Louise probably would have gotten on well. If nothing else, they could respect one another’s tireless dedication to self-improvement.
A creak of hinges interrupted Kallen’s train of thought. Before the light from the door reached her, she silently slipped out of bed onto the floor. It’d been even longer since she’d last had to put the assassination skills Marianne had taught her to the test, but if need be, she would take care of this without waking Louise.
When the door shut and there was no light left to see by but the moons’, Kallen crept from shadow to shadow while the intruder’s eyes were still adjusting. From the build beneath the hooded cloak, she assumed it was a woman. Kallen had roughly half a foot on her in height, and a few locks of her hair spilled out from under her hood when she moved. To her credit, she did so without a sound, but she’d forgotten to scan the room for threats.
Not a professional, then. In some ways, that was worse. Kallen knew how to deal with trained assassins, but amateurs could be unpredictable in ways dangerous to everyone involved.
Regardless, the intruder approached the bed, and Kallen took the opportunity to slip behind her. In a single, fluid motion, she pulled a dagger from its sheath, pressed it against the intruder’s neck, and clapped her free hand over the woman’s mouth. In a harsh whisper, she said, “Remain quiet if you want to live.”
The frozen silence of the intruder Kallen took as cooperation.
“What are you doing here?”
When Kallen removed her hand to allow the intruder to speak, the woman said, “I need to ask a favour of Louise.”
“You could have knocked,” Kallen suggested.
The intruder shifted uneasily. “It is a delicate matter of the utmost secrecy.”
“Intrigue, eh? And who calls upon us without announcing herself in the dead of night?”
“Henrietta de Tristain.”
A moment passed in silence.
Kallen withdrew her dagger and allowed the intruder room to breathe easy. As she retreated, she pulled back the hood. From what she could tell, the features matched Louise’s description of the princess. Moreover, the jewelled tiara and equally fine choker she wore had a price tag Kallen doubted anyone would bring to an assassination.
Satisfied for the moment, Kallen sheathed her dagger. “Not many princesses learn the art of stealth.”
Henrietta offered a wan smile in return. “Not many have to, but we all do as we must. And I see I still have much to learn.”
If Tristain was in enough trouble to justify that, Kallen would need to speed up Louise’s initial education or she wouldn’t have a princess to come home to. Or perhaps an alternative arrangement would do. “If you’re interested, I could help you with that.” The offer, if accepted, would put Louise in the palace for a few months at least and improve her princess’s odds of surviving long enough to become queen. “Louise considers you a dear friend, and I believe I owe you an apology.”
Henrietta turned her attention fully from Louise. She weighed Kallen with a piercing gaze far beyond her years. In truth, it reminded Kallen somewhat of Lelouch. These two would make a good pair.
“I may take you up on that offer someday,” Henrietta finally replied, “but no apology is necessary. Thank you for looking after Louise’s safety. May I have your name?”
Kallen considered how she should answer. Louise was the only one who knew Kallen’s full status so far. If it got around that she’d summoned an empress instead of some faraway noble no one cared about, she might face some difficulties from a diplomatic panic. She would keep the secret, Kallen knew, even from her princess if she must, but everything would be much simpler if they kept to the truth. And Henrietta had made a good impression so far.
Thus decided, it would be a proper introduction. “Empress Kallen vi Britannia.”
“You can get the whole story from Louise later.” After a moment to decide if she should say anything, Kallen added, “She misses you.”
A grimace of pain flashed across Henrietta’s face. “And I her,” she said at a whisper’s whisper. “Shall I end this separation, then?”
Kallen gestured for Henrietta to go ahead. She waited just long enough to witness Louise’s delighted surprise before grabbing a long coat to toss on over her nightclothes. Without disturbing the girls, she slipped out the door and granted them the privacy their reunion deserved. For all she knew, they were lovers as she and Lelouch had been.
A gentle but insistent hand nudged Louise onto the wrong side of wakefulness. She was still tired. When she rolled over and away, the subject of her ire persisted and called for her to awaken. She groaned in protest but stopped when she realised that hadn’t been Kallen’s voice. No, it was different, older now, but she knew that voice almost as well as her own.
“Princess Henrietta!” Louise hastily sat up and spotted her oldest friend sitting beside her on the edge of her bed. Kallen was nowhere to be seen, and dear Founder, she was in her nightclothes and must look a mess. What was acceptable as children was hardly acceptable now!
Before Louise could apologise for her state of undress, however, Henrietta wore a sad smile and asked, “My dear Louise, are we not friends? Please call me Ann as you once did. Henrietta, if you think us too old for such things.”
“I–” Oh, where was Kallen when one needed her? “I – yes, I consider you my friend, Henrietta.”
Henrietta’s smile brightened.
“I – I think the kitchens can bring us some tea. And I should have something to eat somewhere. And–”
Henrietta placed a finger to Louise’s lips. “Relax. It’s just us. There’s no one to impress, and…” Her smile faded. “–I’ve come to trespass upon our friendship. It’s important that my visit remains secret.”
“Oh.” Now that Louise was finally beginning to properly wake up, she realised how far removed this was from a normal social call. No one visited in the middle of the night without cause, and to steal into a lady’s bedchamber meant the need was great. “What’s happened?”
Through the grief so visible on her face, Henrietta said, “Wales is losing the war.”
Louise let the sympathy show freely on her face. The love between those two was a closely guarded secret only she was privy to and then only because she’d covered for them when they’d slipped away together. “What do you need me to do?” She could guess, but she didn’t want to overstep.
“Louise…” Through the tears threatening to spill, Henrietta leaned forward to wrap her in a tight hug. “My dear, precious Louise, you are too good to me.”
That was nonsense, but Henrietta wouldn’t hear of it. With no other choice, Louise let the matter go and indulged in the affection she probably wasn’t worthy of.
Before too long, Henrietta extricated herself from the embrace and sat back upright. She then withdrew a letter from beneath her cloak and offered it to Louise. “This is… I would like you to discover Wales’s location and deliver this to him. He… He should have something to give to you for me. If the rebels were to find it, Tristain would be in great danger because of my youthful indiscretion.”
Louise gasped. “Do they know?”
Although Henrietta said nothing, the weight of her guilty conscious answered for her.
Louise took the letter from Henrietta. “I won’t fail you, but…” She hesitated, fidgeting with the envelope. “Well, would that really be so bad? If Tristain joined the war on the Royalists’ side–”
“No. No, Louise, I dearly wish we could, but we can’t. We would lose. I can’t do that to Tristain over a silly thing like love.” Henrietta only just fought back a sob. “It’s not public yet, but I’m to be married to Emperor Albert.”
“No!” The emperor was an infamous cad not worthy of a sow, let alone Henrietta. And besides, it was Germania. “But – but Tristain!” It was the only legitimate objection Louise could think of without running afoul of the sentimental.
Henrietta wore a thankful smile, knowing exactly why Louise had said that. “We’ll remain independent. Officially, my second born is to inherit the throne with me sitting as regent. Unofficially, I may make…other arrangements.”
Something Louise saw in Henrietta’s eye told her not to ask, so she didn’t.
“I should go. I’m sorry to be so brief, but as much as I would like to, I cannot linger here. I have to return to my bed before the maids discover my absence.”
Henrietta rose, and though Louise desperately wished for her to stay, wished for the chance to convince her to find a solution to Tristain's woes better than selling herself to Germania, Louise knew this wasn’t the time or place. Truthfully, it also wasn’t her place to interfere. They said their goodbyes, and Louise promised to come visit at the palace. Then to her surprise, Henrietta departed through the window. She dared to stick her head out after her friend and found her ascending up the tower to the roof rather than plummeting twenty storeys to the ground. Not long later, a small black dragon flew off silently into the night, barely visible against the stars.
Louise crossed the room and yanked open her door. She found Kallen waiting there leaning against the wall. “Is there anything you can do?”
“I actually didn’t eavesdrop,” Kallen replied evenly. “But I can guess what she told you. War is coming. Tristain isn’t ready. She needs you to prevent a treaty with some sort of personal cost from falling apart. How close am I?”
Lips parted, Louise had to take a moment to compose herself. “Shockingly.”
“Remind me to tell you about Jiang Lihua and Li Xingke sometime.” The warmth faded from Kallen’s voice. Her eyes hardened as her smile turned to a stony frown. “I fought a geass war once. Never again. I’m here in my capacity as your contractor only, not as the empress of a foreign power or as a loyal citizen of Tristain.”
With a shifting of her hips, Kallen pushed herself off the wall and closed the distance between them. She bent at the knees to bring her to eye level, whereupon her features softened. “I will follow your lead and support you, but this is your battle to fight, Louise. If you want my advice, you have it. If you want someone to fight alongside you, I will have your back. But your future? That’s yours alone to shape. If you don’t like this treaty, I suggest you act before it’s too late.”
“Act?” Louise echoed. The word felt almost foreign on her lips.
Kallen chuckled. “Ah, the first taste of the burden of leadership. Yes, act. I’m sure you know enough now to ruin the treaty.”
“I would never!”
“Or,” Kallen continued, “you can let it proceed as it will. If you don’t like either of those options, it’s up to you to create a third one. What can you do to change the balance of power? What can you do to increase Tristain’s bargaining power?”
That was easily the single hardest question Louise had ever been asked in her life. She fumbled with it in the dark for what must have been minutes before, defeated, she admitted, “I don’t know.”
Kallen clasped Louise on the shoulder. “That’s okay. You have time. Don’t rush yourself, and think things through. I know you can do this.”
The words were like stoking a fire.
They left in the middle of the night on horseback dressed as mercenaries. It was easier to disappear that way. Some of the students at the academy were entirely too nosey for their own good. Kallen had left a note with Professor Colbert to explain their absence, and no one of any importance would ask any further questions. The staff was used to them disappearing when they wanted and returning whenever was convenient.
The journey to the port city of La Rochelle went smoothly. They encountered a few travellers on the road, but no one looked twice at two mercenaries headed toward Albion, even if they were ‘late for the party’, as Kallen had put it. Buying passage on an airship up to Albion had been even easier than the journey to the port. They had to wait a couple days for the next ship, but they had time. The most recent news from Albion had it that the rebels had lost track of the Royalists’ movements.
The perfect execution of their mission came to an abrupt end that evening when Louise heard a familiar voice call out her name from above. Kallen grasped her wrist and hissed, “Don’t react!” Then in a smooth, natural motion, Kallen pulled her into a busy tavern nearby. Between the drunken patrons and the entertainment, she could barely hear herself think, which was probably the point. Kallen claimed a small table for them in the centre of the mob and left her there while she obtained drinks and something to eat.
Kallen had only just returned when Louise spotted him through the crowd. It was her fiancé, Wardes. It didn’t take him long to find her nor to cross the floor to get to their table.
“You’ve got the wrong girl,” Kallen said with a surly tone and a scowl.
Wardes paused for a moment, but only just. “I assure you, I do not.”
“You do,” Kallen insisted. “She’s Luca. I’m Mina. Who the fuck are you?”
If Louise didn’t know better, she would swear Kallen was a genuine mercenary. She slipped into the character so easily, she had all the skills to pass as one, and she certainly had, to put it politely, the vocabulary.
When Louise didn’t correct Kallen, Wardes finally understood what was going on. Cover identities, Kallen had said, were important to maintain in public even when someone recognised you. A rumour spreading or the wrong person overhearing as little as a single name could ruin an otherwise well executed operation. In the quiet moments of their journey, Louise had wondered how she’d learnt all this but had chalked it up to a very, very long life.
“Ah, good evening to you both,” Wardes said. “I must have misheard the young lady’s name. I’m Jean-Jacques. Would you mind if I joined you two for a drink? I’ve been flying all day and could use the company of a pair of beautiful women.”
Kallen’s expression said that she minded very much, although she kept her protest to a glare and a scowl.
On her end, Louise politely invited Wardes to join them with a, “Please sit,” and a blush.
Kallen scoffed. “You fallen nobles and your manners,” she muttered before burying her face in her pint. She slammed it down onto the table when she’d finished, sending droplets of alcohol flying everywhere. “So, Jean-Jacques, what are you doing here? Delivering mail or something?”
“Yes, actually,” Wardes said, apparently having picked up on the hint. “My employer sent me to make sure it gets delivered. With the war, we’ve had some trouble with bandits spilling over across our border.”
“You hardly seem fit for the job. With how much noise you make, you’d attract every cutthroat and highwayman within twenty miles looking for a payday.”
That… Well… Reluctantly, Louise admitted to herself that Wardes hadn’t exactly made a good first impression.
Frowning, Wardes replied, “I assure you I am discreet when I need to be. Some of our clients pay for it.”
“Including your current one, I’d bet,” Kallen countered.
“Yes, well, I was just so taken with Luca here.”
Louise blushed redder.
In the extreme opposite reaction, Kallen said, “Then buzz off, flyboy. If you’re paid for discretion, you don’t need a big, obvious distraction hanging around.” After a pause, her eyes narrowed. “Unless, of course, you want to get caught?”
Having barely been able to keep up with the rapid back and forth, Louise only trusted herself with a simple, “Surely not!” in protest. But Kallen paid her no mind. Oh, why had she never told Kallen who her fiancé was? This was going to be so awkward and embarrassing when all was said and done. She couldn’t blame Kallen for being suspicious of some stranger joining their secret mission without any warning from Henrietta. If she didn’t know Wardes personally, she would be too. Founder, please don’t let this come to blows.
The argument went back and forth for a short while longer before Kallen demanded, “Flyboy, give me your hand.”
“Just do it,” Kallen insisted. They clasped hands, and to all the world, nothing happened. Then she released him and, without saying a word, took a large bite out of her… Well, Louise wasn’t sure what food she’d procured for them, so she would call it roast beast. Regardless, Kallen must have taken a look at Wardes’s memories and been satisfied, if somewhat reluctantly, by whatever she saw.
Unsure of what had just happened, Wardes looked between Louise and Kallen. With Kallen silent on the matter, she just shrugged and took hold of her own share of the roast beast. It didn’t look very appetising, but anything had to be better than her and Kallen’s attempt at cooking on the road. Neither of them, it seemed, had ever bothered to learn anything more complicated than how to boil water.
When Louise bit into the meat, Kallen’s voice came directly into her head. “Hey.” She started in surprise, but when Wardes enquired what was wrong, she only replied that the roast beast was surprisingly tolerable. After that, Kallen continued, “It’s your choice on how you want to play this, but let me show you what I found in your fiancé’s head.”
Louise’s first meetings with Wardes from when she was a child played out in her mind from his perspective. He hadn’t particularly cared for her as he’d claimed, only for the power within her. That…hurt, she admitted, but she hadn’t been raised to expect romance. It was enough that Wardes was a nice enough person to pretend. Of course, he thought she was a void mage, which was ridiculous. It probably wouldn’t do their marriage any favours when he ultimately had to accept that, but they could recover. She’d moved past being a complete failure, and he would still be marrying up into a family with intimate ties to the royal line. They could have a companionable enough union.
The next set of memories were unexpected in the extreme. Wardes wanted to rule the world – really, what man didn’t? – and had some convoluted plot to make it happen. It involved Louise’s nonexistent void magic somehow, but she wasn’t sure of the details. The whole thing was really just a mess, to be honest. She had a hard time following it. She’d have to talk him out of that nonsense once they’d married.
Then Kallen showed Louise something unforgivable. Wardes was a member of the Albion rebels. Reconquista, they called themselves. He was here to sabotage the Tristain–Germanian alliance, kill Henrietta’s beloved, and then whisk her away under the guise of marriage. Worst of all, when all that was done, he intended to return to Tristain to lie in wait until he could abduct Henrietta.
Louise slammed her hands onto the table and rose in a fury. Whatever childhood affections she’d held for Wardes evaporated in an instant. She only kept her hands off her wand and other weapons by virtue of Kallen repeating, “Not now. Not here,” in her head over and over again. And that was fine. She could be patient.
“Mina, Jean-Jacques, let’s find somewhere quieter to” – Louise nearly retched saying it, but Kallen’s mental suggestion was the best she had without breaking cover – “grow more deeply acquainted with one another.” It didn’t sound much like flirting, but the anger had helped. She’d done her best and hadn’t stammered in embarrassment. Everyone around her could think whatever they wanted. She didn’t care.
Without bothering to look back – Kallen would warn her if anything bad were about to happen and indeed reminded her to put her sunglasses on – Louise all but stomped through the streets of La Rochelle until they made their way into the forest outside the city in the mountains. No one would bother them here. More importantly, no one would interfere.
“Wardes,” Louise spat in rage. Her wand leapt to her right hand, and she unsheathed a parrying dagger in her left. “My name is Louise the Zero. Draw your wand before I execute you, traitor.”
The shock showed on Wardes’s face as clear as day before he could school his expression. If there had been any doubt, it was gone now. “Louise,” he tried. “Dear, sweet Louise–”
“Don’t bother,” Kallen called out from a good ways away. “She knows everything.” She’d found a nice tree to lean against instead of maintaining a flank as Louise had thought. “Louise, this one is all yours.”
That only ignited Louise’s fury. “You said you’d have my back!” she screamed.
Kallen waved her off. “He wants you alive. I’ll step in if you lose. Otherwise, consider this your final exam for combat training.”
A final exam against a square class wind mage! Louise could pick harder fights, she knew, but only if she had a death wish. “Fine! Wardes, do you have any last words?”
“I would not call them last words,” Wardes said without concern as he drew his sword wand from its sheath, “but I would say you’re making a huge mistake.”
Louise snorted at the insult with narrowed eyes. He doubted her just like everyone else, and on his own head be it. That worked just fine for her. Kallen had tried to teach her how to use words in combat to distract, dishearten, and deceive, but she just didn’t have the head for it. Better to focus on what she excelled at, and that was unmitigated destruction. If Wardes wanted to fool himself, however, perhaps she would disabuse him of that notion more quickly than expected.
Louise raised her wand in formal acknowledgement of their duel, and Wardes had the scraps of honour necessary to do the same. He named himself as Wardes the Lightning as tradition dictated, and then the duel began.
She fired off an explosion that should have removed the emptiness in his chest he called a heart. When she saw he’d managed to dodge, she clicked her tongue. Of course it wouldn’t be that simple. He wouldn’t be worth it if it was, anyway.
As Louise fired off a barrage of small, controlled explosions, he moved with unnatural grace around them. Wind mages were always tricky to catch.
While he ran for his life, Wardes managed to chant the incantation for a triangle spell. A vortex gathered about his wand before launching toward Louise. Having been through dodging training with Kallen, she sidestepped the attack with ease. Her opponent was barely taking this seriously. She couldn’t have that.
This time, Louise vocalised the name of her spell. “Explosion!” The tiny balls of death that followed swelled in size, nearly catching Wardes off guard. His eyes widened before they narrowed. Now he saw her as a threat.
“I apologise for this in advance.”
Louise scoffed. She wouldn’t fall for false sweetness. As was only fitting, she snapped her wand at Wardes and cast another empowered explosion. He dodged, of course, but he’d lost a bit of his cloak.
A crackling noise filled the air. Louise only just had time to notice the lightning jumping in small sparks from Wardes’s blade before his speed doubled. Already fast, now he moved almost too quickly to react to. He rushed at her, no doubt intending to shock her into unconsciousness, but he hadn’t counted on her knowing two spells.
“Dispel!” Louise cried. Every magical effect centred on her ended just as Wardes approached. His sword wand returned to normal, he slowed to a painful crawl, and she brought her parrying dagger up in time to redirect the blade away from her. She didn’t have the physical strength to block, but she could certainly do that much.
While Wardes stood stunned but too close to risk a melee explosion, Louise brought her foot up and slammed it into his crotch. A short stream of filth escaped her mouth when she struck metal. Of course he wore an armoured codpiece over the most vulnerable part of his body. The rest of his clothes had probably been enchanted, too, before her dispel had caught them.
Biting down the pain in her toes, Louise leapt back as Wardes moved to grapple. If he got ahold of her, she was screwed. After Kallen had thoroughly destroyed her in unarmed combat, she’d accepted that she couldn’t do anything there until she finally grew taller and stronger.
“Well, you are full of surprises, Louise. I was right to pursue you.”
Louise didn’t care. She fired off an explosion between them to create some distance. It gave her the time to run away, but it also gave him the opportunity to chant his signature spell: ubiquitous wind. Three identical copies of Wardes appeared, each of them as real as the next.
What would happen if Louise cast dispel on them all at once? That would be interesting to discover, but they spread out too quickly for her to catch all four without burning through her power. She didn’t know if dispelling them all would kill him, so she couldn’t take the risk. If the familiar summoning ritual hadn’t drained her to empty, this wouldn’t be a problem. If she’d had at least a week’s notice to rest before setting out on this quest, this wouldn’t be a problem. But it was, and she would deal with it.
Unfortunately, Wardes understood that he needed to keep his distance as well lest Louise simply dispel his clones. He distributed them evenly in a circle around her. As they moved, they each chanted the incantation for an air needle spell, a simple cantrip meant to pierce from a distance. Quick to cast. Quick to fire.
So he wants to catch me in a net. Kallen had very specifically taught her about both sides of that tactic. Pointing her wand at the ground, Louise cast a weak but large explosion to toss up a concealing cloud of dust and debris. She moved quickly, not trusting her cover to last more than a few seconds against a wind mage. In a dead sprint, she managed to break out of the encirclement and took a Wardes by surprise. She countered the magic holding the construct together – a much less power-hungry solution than blowing it up – and was pleased when it vanished entirely.
A wind swept through the forest and blew away the dust. The remaining three of Wardes clones already knew where she was from her attack and fired. She managed to dodge two of the air needle spells, but the last one tore a chunk of skin off her left arm. She quickly checked the injury and concluded that it was nothing she couldn’t live without. She would trust the healing potions they’d brought with to take care of her later.
To Louise’s left, she spotted Wardes trying to get behind her. Her wand snapped in his direction and she cast an explosion. Just before her spell fired, she flicked her aim a little bit past him. He dodged the spell that never would have hit him, but with his ears ringing from the explosion, he completely missed the tree that fell and crushed him.
Two down, two to go.
Louise slipped behind a thin tree that wouldn’t hide someone of larger stature, scanning the forest around her for any immediate threats. When she found none, she moved as silently as she could to find a new vantage point. Kallen always told her to keep moving. Stationary combat was for sieges and last stands. If the enemy didn’t know where she was, they couldn’t capture her, hurt her, or kill her.
In the distance, Louise spotted a Wardes at the same precise moment he spotted her. She threw herself to the ground when another air needle flew right at her centre of mass. It wouldn’t have killed her, but he wasn’t aiming for mere debilitating blows anymore. If Kallen’s ‘exam’ got her killed, she would haunt that woman for the rest of time.
With a deep breath to prepare herself, Louise pulled free a throwing knife, glad that she hadn’t stubbornly refused to learn how to use commoner weapons. She leapt onto her feet and hurled the knife where she expected Wardes to dodge. She then fired off a much faster explosion at him, and it was like magic. He’d missed the dagger entirely in the forest clutter, and the shock of it sinking into his flesh stunned him long enough for her to blow him to pieces.
One left. And Louise desperately needed to find that one before he could cast ubiquitous wind again. She only had so many tricks to use before he learnt them all, and that came paired with a very nonmagical stamina which she was quickly burning through. Her one saving grace was that the incantation was long and cumbersome. If she found him, she could keep him from completing it.
Crouching low and remaining silent, Louise managed to catch the sound of Wardes’s voice on the wind. One advantage of her explosions was the tendency for those afflicted with the temporary deafness they induced to speak louder in order to hear themselves. She turned toward its source, took aim, and fired blindly. From the surprised cry that resulted, she didn’t hit, but she’d come close enough.
Louise rushed toward Wardes’s last known position and cast small dispels as she went to avoid waltzing into a trap. Unfortunately, she made the same error she’d made long ago when Kallen had first taught her forest tactics: she forgot to look up.
Wardes landed heavily atop Louise, knocking them both to the ground. He managed to roll with the strike and knocked her wand from her hand. Fighting down a panic, she threw a knife at him. He deflected it with his sword wand while she rushed to collect her own.
A gust of wind blew the wand away from her.
“Louise.” Even Wardes’s breath was a little heavy now. “You’ve surprised me.” His arm shook as he pointed his blade at her. “I’m very impressed.” He must have been hit by something there at some point during the duel. “But now it’s over. Do you yield?”
There was one thing Louise had left to try. Wardes either hadn’t noticed it on her yet or didn’t think she knew how to use it. But she only got one shot, so she had to make it count. She wouldn’t have time to reload.
“I would never surrender to a traitor.”
Wardes sighed. “Then I’m sorry, but this is going to hurt.” He chanted a short spell meant to shock its target into incapacitation.
Louise pulled her flintlock from its holster, aimed, and fired. Unlike a normal firearm, the one Kallen had gifted her had a few modifications courtesy of Professor Colbert. The lead inside flew straight and true to strike precisely where she’d aimed.
She really needed to thank Kallen for making her learn how to use nonmagical weapons. And apologise again for calling firearms useless. Rifling really made a difference.
Before Wardes even hit the ground, Louise was moving to collect her wand. She didn’t trust him to stay dead. Once she had it, she disintegrated what was probably his corpse.
Blood coursed through her veins.
Her heart pounded in her ears.
Hot blood flowed down her arm.
She felt lightheaded.
By the founder, she’d won! She’d beaten a square class mage all on her own! Everyone who’d ever doubted her could go piss on an elf!
Louise’s legs gave out on her, but Kallen caught her before she could hit the ground. How Kallen had gotten behind her without her noticing, she didn’t know or care. With a little bit of rest and a couple potions to heal her wound and restore her lost blood, she managed to stand on her own two feet again. When she did, she punched Kallen in the chest for all that she was worth, which, right now, wasn’t much. “You git!”
“Yes, but you needed this.”
A moment passed.
Kallen smiled proudly. “You’re welcome.”
The only thing that could possibly make this moment better was if Louise’s mother looked upon her the same way when she told this story.
“You could have used your geass, you know.”
The thought hadn’t even occurred to Louise. “That wouldn’t have been very honourable.”
Kallen rolled her eyes but let it go. Instead, she asked, “So what was it that set you off? Wardes had a lot to answer for.”
“He threatened Henrietta.”
With a cry of delight, Kallen slapped her leg. “Oh, I like you.”
Had Kallen not already?
“Remind me to tell you sometime about the first time I saved my husband’s life when we were children.”
That explained…a lot, actually.
As the moment died down, Louise’s gaze fell upon the hemisphere of nothing that marked where Wardes had met his end. He was really gone, wasn’t he? She’d done her duty and executed an unabashed, unrepentant traitor to the crown. She’d foiled a plot against princess and country. She’d secured an alliance between Germania and Tristain that she still needed to figure out how to destroy. She’d saved the life of a prince and spared Henrietta the heartbreak of losing the man she loved, at least for a time.
When she’d done all that, why did she feel so…conflicted?
Kallen seemed to have read Louise’s mind, and maybe she really had. “When the adrenaline fades and all this catches up with you, I’m available if you want someone to talk to.”
“I… Thank you.” Right now, Louise wasn’t sure what she was supposed to say or be feeling. “Have you ever…”
“The first time, I was nine years old.”
“Nine?” Louise cried in shock. She couldn’t imagine being in Kallen’s shoes, forced to take a life while still so young.
“An assassin,” Kallen offered.
“Louise, I can’t speak of your mother, but you are most assuredly setting out on the same path I did. When you’re old and grey, do you want to turn around and see a trail of bodies behind you? Some of them will be people you knew and killed. Some will be friends who fell alongside you. Most of them will be faceless people who got in your way.”
It wasn’t as if Louise hadn’t known what she was in for when she’d decided to follow her mother’s example. It didn’t sound very pleasant when Kallen put it like that, but that was just how life worked. Besides, Kallen had left out the most important thing.
“Will Henrietta be there?”
Kallen didn’t bother to hide her wistful smile. “I’m sure she will.”
Then that settled it.
“Do you want to continue this mission?” Kallen asked. “If Wardes had any sense, the rebels must know we’re coming.”
“Of course. Will you still come with me?”
A smirk split Kallen’s lips. “I wouldn’t dream of abandoning my accomplice.”
October 7, 2017 a.t.b.
When Kallen stirred from her sleep, her nose met the smell of fresh pizza – sausage, if she wasn’t mistaken. That sounded good right now. “Lelouch,” she whispered as though she were at death’s door. “Pizza.”
Kallen could practically hear Lelouch rolling his eyes. “Here,” he said, and the delicious smell grew until she felt the heat on her skin. She leant forward a little and bit into it. Judging from the shape, she’d just stolen a bite from one of his slices. Either C.C. wasn’t sharing or they were almost out. While she chewed, he asked, “How are you feeling?”
Overall, for someone who’d been shot twice, Kallen felt fine. “Not bad. Had a weird dream, though.”
“You get those a lot,” Lelouch remarked.
Kallen didn’t bother dignifying that with a reply. “It was kind of depressing, except not? If that makes any sense.”
And because Lelouch was Lelouch, he of course said, “Not at all.”
Kallen harrumphed. “It was the distant future. You were long dead. I think I had C.C.’s code, and I was Empress of the Stars or something. I got summoned to a magical world to be some girl’s familiar, but I just ended up becoming her mentor or something. I don’t know. I feel like I continually set myself up for heartbreak when people inevitably moved on from me or died. But I kept doing it.”
“Better to live than to merely exist.” That sounded a bit more wise than Kallen suspected Lelouch had intended with somewhat of a throwaway comment. “So what happened? I assume the ending was bittersweet from what you said before.”
“Not exactly. I think.” It was getting hard to remember. Such was the way of dreams. “I think I attached myself to someone who I knew would leave me, so there’s that. I think I was just looking for someone to give V.V.’s code to.” Kallen opened her eyes and found Lelouch’s. “Someone to replace you.”
He smiled back.
In the background, C.C. impassively commented, “Honeymoon’s over.”
Kallen sighed as Lelouch broke away from her. “How far are we out from Tokyo?” She felt like she’d slept through most of the trip.
“A little less than half an hour,” Lelouch replied. “You should probably get dressed and ready to face the world again.”
Yes, Kallen supposed she should.