Year Zero

Stage 02 - The Black Queen


So I’m fully Britannian this time. Sort of. As far as Kallen could tell, she was in some strange alternate history universe where Rome conquered Britannia. There’d still been a British empire, most events in history sort of matched up, and everyone spoke some weird Frenchy dialect of English, but the world was mostly okay and slowly getting better.

Hearing footsteps approaching, Kallen quickly exchanged her history book for a far more age appropriate picture book while simultaneously pushing her family’s massive, unabridged dictionary underneath the nearest chair with her foot where the trimming hid it.

“You doing okay, princess?”

Kallen smiled up at Dan Granger. “Yes, Dad,” she said with fond exasperation. “Just reading. You and Mum don’t have to check on me all the time.”

“Yes, you’re a big girl now. I understand.”

Kallen rolled her eyes but swallowed her pride and let Dan get on with being a good parent.

“Dinner will be ready soon. When you’re done with that book, go wash up, okay?”

“I will.”

“If you need any help, call for us.”

“I’ll be down soon.” Kallen’s pointed insistence only elicited a chuckle from Dan as he departed.

Left alone in the library again, Kallen made a mental bookmark and returned her history text to its proper place on the shelves. She managed to lug the dictionary back into place as well to the sound of a dozen muttered curses upon her tiny body. It wouldn’t do to be caught reading anything too advanced when other children were still trying to figure out how to talk.

In truth, Kallen was already pushing the limit of what she could get away with before raising red flags. The Grangers thought her a prodigy, and they weren’t wrong, but she also had a few more years of education under her belt than they knew. Since reincarnation didn’t appear to be a thing in this world any more than her own, she tried not to push their suspension of disbelief. They didn’t deserve that. She felt guilty enough already without shattering the masquerade.

Kallen sighed and pushed away such gloomy thoughts as she made her way to the nearest sink and washed up. Instead, she focused on her indulgence in this new life to bring a smile back onto her face. It’d been so long since she’d had a stable family life. No politics. No war. No drama. No death. No heartbreak. Even if the Grangers weren’t Mum and Dad, they came close enough as to make no difference.

A twist of the knobs turned the sink off. Kallen flicked most of her hands’ lingering wetness into the bowl and then climbed down the step stool allowing her to reach everything. She brushed them against her skirt on her way out and down the corridor.

As Kallen walked past the library door, she realised she’d forgotten to turn off the lights. She could go through the hassle of trying to reach the switch. It would be the easy thing to do. It would be the safe approach.

Gnawing on her lip, Kallen succumbed to the bad decision. She mentally focused on the switch and willed it to go down.

Nothing happened.

Refusing to admit defeat, she kept trying to flip it off with her mind.

Still nothing happened.

Frustrated, she thought really hard at it, demanding the lights go out.

They did. Unfortunately, the bulbs burst and the switch, of course, remained unmoved.

“Eep!”

“Hermione!” Emma’s voice called out from downstairs. The sound of her heavy footsteps raced closer. “What happened!”

“I, uh – the lights broke!” Kallen called back. Bloody magic. Why can’t you just do what I want you to? How many things have I destroyed now?

Once Emma had arrived and fussed over Kallen until she was absolutely sure her daughter was alright, she stepped into the library to take stock of the situation. The correct conclusion came within moments. “Did you have one of your ‘special moments’ again?”

“Sorry,” Kallen mumbled, awkwardly staring down at her feet as she shifted in place.

Emma gathered Kallen in her arms and hoisted her up to carry downstairs. “It’s okay, princess. As long as you’re not hurt.”

“I’m fine, Mum.” To avoid another bout of worried parental fussing, Kallen added, “But I’m hungry.”

That got a laugh. “Of course you are. I’ll clean up later, then. Your father should just about be finished setting the table anyway.”

“With real food, right?” Anything else was one indignity too many. Kallen had vague memories of being breast fed and nightmares of baby food.

“Of course, Your Highness.” In stark contrast to such deference, Emma tickled Kallen without mercy. No amount of squirming could escape her grasp. “Only the best for you.” At long last, however, once victorious on the dishonourable field of battle, she released her daughter to walk hand in hand. “You are the most strangely picky three-year-old I’ve ever met.” She said that, but her expression practically broadcasted her gratitude for having such an easy to raise daughter.

With all the haughtiness worthy of her former aristocracy, Kallen harrumphed. “It’s not my fault other children have such poor taste.”

“Would that all parents be so blessed,” Emma said, trying not to laugh.

Kallen grinned up at her second mother, happy to be able to make her new parents happy. She’d screwed up so badly last time, the shame would never leave her. This time, she swore, would be different.

And so far, it was.


Another boring day of school. Kallen sighed. Spotting a rock on the pavement, she gave it a solid kick. She took a half-step to line herself up with a follow up when she reached the rock again. It could be worse, I suppose. Skipped a few years, so at least I’m not suffering as much as I could be.

There was, of course, the other problem. Dan and Emma were worried about her. Oh, they knew she had social skills, but they also knew she lacked any connection whatsoever to her peers.

It’s not my fault. They’re children. What am I supposed to do? It’s not like they can hold a conversation. Their ability to play sports competitively is basically zero. She snorted. They don’t even make good minions.

A longer sigh escaped Kallen. She was lonely. She admitted it. Children weren’t engaging enough for friendship, and adults never took her seriously. Not that she blamed them. She was six. What did she expect?

One hope did exist, however. It was only a fool’s hope. Half of her would curse its fulfilment even as the other half rejoiced. But it was hope nonetheless. A hand unconsciously slipped up to finger a nonexistent gunshot wound over the heart.

We died at the same time in the same way. C.C. should be here with me. In this world of five billion souls. Somewhere.

This time, Kallen’s sigh had a distinctly resigned tone.

The Internet is barely even a thing right now. Computers are trash. Cell phones are bricks. People read newspapers. How on Earth am I supposed to find C.C. without even a name or description of what she looks like?

Kallen split off from the group of kids being escorted home to walk the last block to her house. When she got inside, distracted, she called out, “Tadaima!”

“Hermione?” It was Dan home early from the surgery today, then.

“Oops.” Finding her way into the parlour, where she discovered Dan reclined on the settee with a book, Kallen replied, “Yeah, it’s me. I’m home.”

“What did you say before?”

Channelling her inner Lelouch, Kallen easily lied. “Tadaima. It’s Japanese. I picked up some of the grammar and vocab from a kid at school.”

“That’s wonderful,” Dan said, more genuinely happy than he should be. “A friend?”

Oh. Kallen shifted in place. This could quickly spiral out of control. “I… Well… No. I read a book about the language. I’m sorry for lying.”

Dan set his book aside and opened his arms in invitation. Accepting it, Kallen dropped her knapsack and leapt into them. The hug quickly turned into a snuggle.

“Hermione, princess, your Mum and I only want you to be happy. We think it would be good for you to make friends, but we’re not ashamed you haven’t.”

“I know. I just don’t like worrying you.”

Dan placed a kiss on the crown of Kallen’s head. “It’s a father’s job to worry about his daughter her entire life.”

No, only for his entire life. Eyes wide, Kallen frantically shoved that depressing thought out of her mind before Dan noticed her distress. No dragging old world baggage into this one. Searching for a subject change, Kallen’s eyes landed on the book Dan had set aside. “A Winter’s Tale?”

“Mm-hmm. Shakespeare.”

Huh. He didn’t write a play by that name in the old world. The cultural bridges between Britain and Britannia were weird.

“It’s one of my and your mother’s favourites. It’s where your name came from.”

Now Kallen was curious. “Really?”

“Yep.” Dan picked up the play and flipped through it. “See? Queen Hermione.”

A stab of loss shot through Kallen. She’d never wanted to be royalty, but she should have been. For perhaps the millionth time, she cursed the noble git she’d fallen in love with. “Is this why you and Mum call me ‘princess’ all the time?”

“No.” The response came quickly and firmly. “That’s because you are our little princess.”

Kallen rolled her eyes. Fathers. “Could we read it together?” Plays were best read aloud, after all.

Without hesitation, Dan agreed. They split the list of characters between them and began. A couple hours later, Emma returned home and joined in the fun. They weren’t even halfway through when Kallen’s stomach growled and reminded them that they needed to eat. By a unanimous decision, there would be no cooking tonight. Dan got up to order takeaway.

While they waited for him to return, Emma asked Kallen about her day. She idly answered questions when posed and demonstrated some basic knowledge of Japanese while her mind slipped back to the problem of friendship. She’d thought about how to find C.C. off and on for years without making any progress. Every idea she came up with limped away with dozens of holes poked into it.

“Mum, how do you find a needle in a haystack?”

“Hmm?” Although confused by the sudden change in topic, Emma offered up a solution. “Set the hay on fire.”

Kallen rolled her eyes. Yeah, I’ll just kill everyone until I find someone who doesn’t die. Wouldn’t even work. C.C. had her code stolen. “That’s cheating. You can’t destroy the hay.”

“A really big magnet, then.”

That would work, true, but it sounded prohibitively expensive. Kallen could, in theory, and only in theory, send a letter to every person in the world and wait for a reaction, much like the magnetic field would permeate every straw of grass.

“Too expensive.”

“Well, how about pushing it all into a pool? The needle will sink to the bottom while the hay floats.”

That’s no different than the magnet solution. It always comes down to sorting the needle from the hay. If only I could get the needle to come to me instead.

Kallen paused and turned that thought over in her head. Perhaps she’d been approaching this the wrong way the whole time. She didn’t need to find C.C.. She needed to enable C.C. to find her.

“Not what I was looking for, Mum, but thanks anyway. I think I answered my own question. Sort of.” Kallen just needed a way to announce her presence to the entire world. She needed to become famous.


The idea hit her all at once.

Kallen could, of course, try to replicate some of the advanced tech from her own world. She knew enough about science to draw attention to her, but that might raise too many questions.

Her magic would, naturally, draw attention in a world that didn’t believe magic existed. That said, she doubted she was unique. That implied enforced secrecy. Revealing magic to the world might very well get her assassinated.

But there was one thing she knew she could do while only drawing the right kind of attention to herself. It was so simple. She read all the time. The next logical step was to become an author. Her apparent age would do half the work for her. If she wrote something even half-decent, publishers would pounce on her like lions after their next meal. If she wrote something good, she might very well become a household name.

And did she ever have a story to tell.

Kallen prepared herself for battle. She maximised her cuteness. She steeled her determination. She approached the parent who would be least inconvenienced by her request.

“Mum, could I use the computer?”

“Hmm?” Emma’s eyes kept moving through her book, no doubt searching for a place to pause. ”What for?”

“I wanna write a story.”

Emma hummed as she thought. Soon, she closed her book with her thumb jammed between its pages. “I don’t know. We should ask your fa–”

“Please? I know how to use…” Now that she thought about it, Kallen had no idea how far along operating systems were in this world. Still, she was a bright young woman who had worked with Rakshata at times. She could figure it out. Worse-case scenario, she would learn one of this world’s programming languages and write her own software. “Well, I know how to type, and I promise I won’t delete anything.”

Eyebrows arched. “You know how to type already?”

Kallen nodded.

“Well, I suppose it’s fine. But if your father or I need the computer, you’ll have to give it up.”

“That’s fine. Thank you, Mum.” Kallen gave Emma a quick thank you kiss on the cheek and then ran upstairs to the study.

As the painfully ancient computer three decades out of date for her booted, Kallen threaded her fingers together and cracked her knuckles. She’d never written anything longer than an English essay before, but it should be easy enough to write an autobiography and sell it as fiction. C.C. had told her enough to fill in all the gaps. She might have to take a few creative liberties to better the narrative, but the story already had everything a reader could want: love, drama, action, betrayal, politics.

“Let’s see. What title will instantly catch everyone’s attention…” After a few seconds, it came to her. Kallen typed, ‘Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion.’


Kallen silently crept through the house to sneak a late night snack from the kitchen when she heard voices from the parlour. Having dumped the first draft of her autobiography onto her parents earlier in the day for preliminary editing, she crept closer to eavesdrop.

“Emma, do you have any idea what a… How do you even pronounce this word?”

“I have no idea, but I’m keeping a list. That particular word shows up in a few other places. From context, I think it’s a computer of some sort.”

Oops.

Now that Kallen thought about it, writing about a world roughly thirty years ahead of this one technologically might have been a bad idea. Never mind the lack of context. People might become suspicious when an eight-year-old girl turned out to be exactly right about basically everything. And then there was the fact that she spoke three languages now when her parents only knew about one-and-a-half of them. Who knew how many times she’d slipped on that end.

Still, even if she had to answer some uncomfortable questions and prevaricate, this was for the best. She couldn’t think of a better way to find C.C. if the witch were here to be found.

“Do we want to talk about the fact that our little girl apparently knows what arousal is?”

Kallen swore under her breath. She hadn’t written anything explicit, not even close, but there were certainly certain feelings she’d alluded to which she should not understand at her age.

“I think I’ll give her the talk after I finish reading through this. And maybe talk to her about choosing more age-appropriate reading material in the future.”

No doubt Dan grimaced at that as he hastily moved to relinquish all parental responsibility for the subject. “Yes, that’s all you. Godspeed.”

“Coward,” Emma shot back. There was some playful giggling which Kallen refused to contemplate. “Anyway, I’m a little concerned about one of the themes of this story.”

Dan snorted. “Which one? The fact that our daughter seems undecided on imperialism?”

What? That’s not true! I mean, sure, I would have put up with it if Lelouch… He would have been a good… I need a drink.

“Well, there is that–”

“Or that she firmly believes in the ends justifying the means? The religious metaphors clashing with her obvious atheism?”

“Dan, when was the last time we went to church?”

A pregnant silence fell.

“Probably shortly after Hermione destroyed my motorcycle. I’m still waiting for her to walk on water.”

It took Kallen a few moments to understand the reference, but she giggled along with Emma once she had.

“That reminds me, I promised her a cake for services rendered and never followed through.”

Kallen quickly pretended not to hear anything and slipped off to the kitchen. When she returned with her ill-gotten gains, her parents were no longer engaged any amorous activities.

“No, I meant the masks and lies. The double identities. And that this Kallen Stadtfeld slash Kōzuki appears to be a self-insert. She accidentally wrote her own name instead a few times.”

A rather emphatic, “Fuck,” escaped Kallen’s lips. Never one to panic, she started contemplating how she could talk her way out of this disaster.

A rather solemn Dan said, “You don’t suppose she’s trying to pretend to be someone she’s not, do you? To fit in, perhaps?”

“I don’t know. I know we had a hard time when we were her age, and she’s more gifted than both of us combined. Have you heard anything about bullying?”

Dan spent a few moments in thought. “No. I doubt she identifies enough with the students at her school to even care if they were harassing her.”

A sigh, and then Emma said, “Well, that’s something.”

“Do you think – I mean, what if – could her gifts be… Is there something she hasn’t told us? Does she experience time twice as fast or something? Is she a not-quite-teenager already? That would explain a lot.”

Ooh, good save, Dad! I think I’ll appropriate that idea, make a few changes, and blame magic for all of my oddities.

Silence fell onto the room. Kallen assumed her parents had gone back to reading, so she quietly inched away with her unauthorised second pudding. She did hear one last parting remark, however.

“This is very good.”

Emma agreed. “We’re going to need to hire a lawyer for her.”

With an absolutely dazzling smile, never mind her awkward front teeth and what awaited her the next morning, Kallen snuck back upstairs.


Breakfast in the morning came with all of Kallen’s favourites up to and including double chocolate chip muffins that her dentist parents considered the very height of evil.

She wasn’t fooled. This was either an attempt to get her talking or, she hoped, reassurance that her parents would love her no matter what she told them. In all honesty, if she hadn’t already decided last night to bite the bullet, this would have sent her into a hasty retreat.

“Should I bring the dictionary down from the library?” To her parents confused expressions, Kallen added, “You seem to have forgotten the meaning of subtlety.” She sighed. “I overheard you last night. Ask whatever you want.”

Despite the guilt and embarrassment that flashed over her face, Emma quickly recovered. “You’re father and I are…curious more than anything. But it’s not so much a matter of us having questions as concerns. We wanted to reassure you that you can come to us with anything troubling you.”

“I know, but it’s…hard.” Kallen reached out and grabbed one of the chocolate muffins. The first bite was always the sweetest. “I’m not troubled, and I risk much for little gain by opening up. Not that I have much choice now.”

Emma reached across the table and stole one of Kallen’s hands. Dan did the same on her other side, forcing her to drop her delicious confectionery. “Hermione, no matter what, your mother and I love you.”

While she doubted that, Kallen made no mention of it. She had no right to judge what was and was not unconditional love after the absolute disaster that was her relationship with her first mother.

“I have…dreams,” Kallen said. “Or rather I did. I don’t know if they were real, or visions, or something else. They felt real, at least.” She nodded toward the drafts of her novel sitting atop a counter nearby. “My story isn’t very interesting compared to Lelouch’s, so I only wrote down the parts where he intersected with my dream life. With a few artistic liberties.”

Kallen hated how easily the lies slipped off her tongue. She’d always been a good actress, but it shouldn’t be this easy to lie to her parents.

“I stopped having the dreams about three years after the epilogue. I died.” And Kallen would absolutely not be confessing exactly what she’d been doing at the time. “Some bastard wanted C.C.’s code, and I just happened to be in the way.”

The shock visibly coursing through Dan and Emma prevented them from chiding Kallen for her language. Dan snapped out of his stupor first and leapt to gather Kallen in his arms.

“Oh, my dear, sweet, little girl. I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”

Emma joined the hug. “I wish you’d have told us sooner. We may have been able to help.”

Burning, guilty tears gathered at the corners of Kallen’s eyes. She had no right to take comfort in this, but no part of her resisted indulging. “You’re really okay with this? I think I’ve spent more time as Kallen than Hermione.”

“Of course we are,” Dan said. His tone left no doubt as to his sincerity. “You’re our daughter, and you’ll always be our daughter. Just please no relationships until you’re physically older.”

Kallen laughed weakly. “No promises, Dad. Did you read my dedication page?”

It clicked immediately. “You’re looking for that boy.”

And Emma immediately swatted Dan upside the head. “What your father meant to say is we would love to get to know the real Lelouch.”

“If he really exists,” Kallen whispered. Her words caused a resurgence in the group hug, but it gave her no comfort. C.C. might be here, but Lelouch? She didn’t want to get her hopes up.


“You know, you don’t have to read all your fan mail. If you’re only looking for other Dreamers” – the term the family had settled on for those from Kallen’s world – “your father and I can at least help you sort out the definite nos.”

There was a lot of it, and Kallen knew she had little more than a fool’s hope, but she pressed on nonetheless. “I know, Mum. I just prefer to do this myself.” The kitchen had seen better days, though. She’d made a horrible mess of it in the process. Envelopes lay strewn about everywhere with letters only loosely associated with their origin.

“So long as you’re enjoying yourself, I suppose.”

“I am,” Kallen insisted. She did actually enjoy the praise. It was nice to have something to be proud of beyond her ability to leave a swath of destruction in her wake. The hate mail she could do without, but those were few and far between.

Kallen opened the next letter and immediately froze. Emma noticed right away and asked, “What is it?”

“Britannian English.” Kallen swept everything else aside, clutched the envelope close, and placed the letter itself flat onto the table. “This is Britannian English.” It worked! It actually worked!

Emma glanced at the text. “I’ll take your word for it. So there are other Dreamers. Who is it from?”

The very first line read, ‘Thank you for not revealing that you had to nurse me through a Refrain overdose.’

“Lelouch,” Kallen whispered. “You’re alive. It’s Lelouch! He’s alive! He’s here!” Her gaze turned to the envelope and checked the return address. “Surrey. That’s not even an hour’s drive from here.”

“A little over, actually,” came Emma’s correction. “But I’m happy for you. I’m sure your father will get over you having a boyfriend before your teens.”

A fierce blush erupted from Kallen’s cheeks all the way down her neck. “Mum!”

“Fiancé then? I don’t think your father could handle husband.”

“We were never engaged, let alone married! Honestly! We never even dated.”

“Yes, yes. I read your book, you know. But there were moments were you looked into his eyes and time stood still. Slight touches which felt like fire. Those lips–”

“Mum!” If this was what a happy, stable family was like, perhaps Kallen had been better off with her dysfunctional one. “Please stop. I’m not nearly old enough to…appreciate–”

Emma’s smirk landed one last blow.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a dear friend’s letter to read.”

Kallen quickly skipped over the first line and moved on to the actual letter itself.

‘Kallen, I’m sure I have a slap at best in my future–”

Oh, at the very least, you git. There might also be some kissing involved, but there would definitely be slapping.

“–but I eagerly anticipate our reunion nonetheless. Although I wish things had been different, I don’t regret my actions nor my punishment. The world needed a villain, and there was no one better suited for the role.

‘That said, after the last six years here, I feel I’ve earned the right to pursue my own happiness. We need to talk. I suspect we both have a lot to say to each other that should have been said a long time ago.’

A giddy smile grew on Kallen’s face as she read, one she quickly banished the moment she saw Emma’s knowing look. And on second thought, what was that about having ‘earned the right to pursue his own happiness’? That couldn’t be good. She read on.

‘Now to less pleasant affairs. I have no right to ask this of you, and I know you must be comfortable in your new life, but I need my Q1 to return to my service.’

Kallen unconsciously sat a little straighter. She’d grown soft in these times of peace, but it wouldn’t take her long to get back up to speed.

‘In short, and I will explain in more detail, I appear to be or have been a prophesied child destined to destroy an evil wizard. Magic is real here but secret and hereditary. Think Merlin. Wands and incantations. Rituals. It’s all very Westernly occult. Unfortunately, I’ve lost my geass and have yet to gain any mastery over my own magic.’

Magic is hereditary? “Mum? Are you sure you or Dad aren’t magical?”

“Quite sure. Why do you ask?”

“Lelouch says magic is hereditary. Hmm… Maybe we have magical ancestors?”

Emma shrugged. “So His Majesty is magical as well? I hope he can teach you not to set things on fire that aren’t supposed to be.”

“One time!” Kallen protested. She then proceeded to ignore her mother and returned to Lelouch’s letter.

‘Since my parents in this world died, I’ve been living with relatives who… Well, let me put it simply. We’ve killed thousands for far lesser crimes than them. Unfortunately, between their abuse–”

“What! How dare they!” Kallen ignored Emma’s enquiries and continued reading.

‘–between their abuse, my diminished stature, and my mysterious watcher, I’ve not been able to effect my escape. I need your help as an unknown outside element. I need you to kill Petunia and Vernon Dursley. I trust your assassination skills have grown a little less conspicuous since Suzaku. And that time in the shower.

‘…

‘Please don’t get caught.’

Kallen silently promised to extract her revenge for this affront to her dignity.

‘Also, please don’t contact me. It would not end well. My gaoler has the ability to erase memories and magically compel others. I’ve yet to determine how to recover lost memories, if such is even possible, but compulsions break when too heavily strained. I’ve detailed my experiences with them below. I don’t know if it’s possible to read minds, but it wouldn’t surprise me. This world’s Japanese is nearly the same as ours, so try to think exclusively in Britannian English as a basic security measure.

‘Once this matter is taken care of, I’ll contact you again to update you on the situation. I have reasons to believe my current environment is unique. With the elder Dursleys gone, my circumstances should significantly improve. If not, then we’ll have to take greater risks.

‘Lelouch.

‘P.S. Here are a list of upcoming dates and times for which I will have an unshakable alibi. I’ve included a copy of all my records, escape ideas, and how they failed. Once you read everything, I’m sure you’ll understand what my alibis will be. Please don’t rush. If you must, think of it as revenge for how long it took me to rescue you.’

Kallen set aside Lelouch’s actual letter and hesitantly began to read the other documents he’d enclosed. The first was a simple catalogue of everything he knew about magic and the magical world. The second laid out everything he knew about the Dursley family. The third, however, painted a dark picture of abuse and the desperate attempts of a man to escape. It only got worse the longer she read.

“Hermione,” Emma said, worry pervasive in her tone, “you’re pale. What did he write?”

“He – he – oh, Mum, he tried to kill himself.”

“Not in the dream, you mean?”

Kallen nodded as she fought back tears. “He’s being horribly abused by his aunt and uncle, and someone is erasing memories and enchanting people to keep him with them. He’s tried everything to get away. They keep him so malnourished, exhausted, and locked up that he can’t even just kill them.”

That visibly set off every warning bell in Emma’s mind, and Kallen cursed herself for the slip. Now she needed to convince her parents to aid and abet two counts of assassination.

“Perhaps we could discuss alternatives before leaping straight to murder.”

“Mum, this is enemy action. It would be the height of folly to reveal our hand without so much as knowing who our enemy is. Our only protection is our anonymity. As soon as we become associated with Lelouch, we become vulnerable. They could make me forget him. I cannot risk that. Nor can I do nothing. I’ve turned my back on him three times. That’s three times too many. No more!”

Emma’s horrified look hurt. It really did. “You… I don’t think I ever fully processed that you were a soldier.” Perhaps worse was the sorrow in her voice.

Even so, Kallen refused to budge on the matter. “I’m a knight.” The distinction meant far more to her and those from her world than it did to her mother, but it had to be made. “And my liege needs me.”

“I’m not saying no,” Emma said, a hollow placation. “But we will talk about this first.”

“Well of course we will. I would appreciate your critiques on whatever plan I decide upon.”

And so the battle of wills commenced.