Chloe opened her eyes slowly, blinked a few times, then barely resisted giving a snort of combined irritation and amusement as she realized the only limb she could move freely was her left arm. In the week since the ball, Eloise had spent every night in Chloe’s bed, nestled up against her and using her arm as a pillow. Finding that her legs had been immobilized by a large sleeping dog, however, that was new. She knew from experience that waking Sheila would also wake Eloise. Ash had told her this would stop once the two of them had become attuned enough to each other, they would become instinctively able to tell the difference between waking up because there was a threat, and just waking up. It had only been after Ash had left that a question had occurred to her, did Ash never wake her because she never slept or because she just had that much control over the bond between them?
Pressing herself a little bit more firmly against Eloise, Chloe settled down. Eloise, Chloe had quickly learned, was not a morning person, and liked to sleep until the last moment possible. Because of this, Chloe was already getting in the habit of leaving some partially hardened air under Eloise’s head and pressed against her side in the morning. While Eloise slept, Chloe could read, then get some breakfast for them to eat together, before waking Eloise. Looking at the peacefully sleeping face beside her, she decided none of that was worth risking disturbing Eloise, instead she let her mind wander.
Once they had begun sharing a bed they also began to change their rooms. Chloe’s room had quickly turned into a combination bedroom lounge, while they converted Eloise’s room into their workshop. Four of Eloise’s birds, as well as one of the suits of armor, had made the move. Two of the birds now perched above her window, while the other two were above the door while the suit of armor stood beside it. It had been as they were moving the birds that Chloe had noticed something strange about them, in addition to being sheathed in metal, their beaks and talons were considerably longer than was natural.
“Part of the necromantic affinity,” Eloise had explained, “is power over that which houses a soul, flesh blood and bone. It is not especially good at fine work, but I can lengthen a beak, or even fuse a bone back together.”
Classes were going well, being able to discuss where they felt spells were slipping away from them with each other was helping even more than Chloe would have expected. They had already mastered a couple of the most basic pain blocking spells, one that would only help with minor aches and another that completely deadened all feeling. they were also fairly certain today would be the day they’d finally mastered the basic truth spell.
Not that mastering spells more quickly was always a good thing. Since she had learned the complete pain block, Ash had insisted that Chloe begin to practice her new regeneration ability. While she would apparently regenerate automatically, carefully feeding power into the ability, along with the proper visualizations, could drastically speed up the process. While she had to admit being able to heal faster could be the difference between life and death, she found what she had to do to herself in order to practice, disturbing.
The only time she was parted from Eloise, other than regeneration training, was for baths. Like Chloe, Eloise apparently felt uncomfortable going into the girl’s bath when other people were in it, and instead slipped in at night. The first time Eloise had headed to the bath, Chloe had offered to go with her and wash her back, but Eloise had declined. While it had been something of a disappointment, it had not truly come as a surprise, as she had never seen Eloise out of her robe. Apparently the only time the other girl took her robe off was for a bath, changing into a clean robe immediately after.
The weekend had been a pleasant surprise, though, Chloe had to admit, it probably shouldn’t have surprised her. It was Saturday morning, and Chloe had just finished getting ready to go to practice.
“Eloise, would you be interested in practicing with me this morning?”
Eloise, who’d been watching her change into her more worn clothes with some interest, looked up at her face.
“I normally spend a good bit of the weekend practicing with the arcane knights. I know you trained with the sword when you were younger, but have you learned the enhancement spells?”
“No, I kept my increasing power reserves a secret up until the day I ran, since then I never encountered a knight who would have been interested in training me.”
“Well then, what could be a better opportunity.”
Eloise stood up, looking interested but nervous.
“Do you think they’d be comfortable training with me?”
“Sergeant Tomlin’s a good man, I can’t promise he won’t be nervous at first, you are a necromancer after all, but he won’t let his nervousness stop him from teaching someone who wants to learn. As for the other students, the few others who train all intent to become battle mages, learning to control their fear will be good for them.”
Eloise chuckled at Chloe’s final words. Chloe raised an inquiring eyebrow.
“Do you disagree?”
“No, but I’m starting to think you simply find an angle that justifies what you intended to do all along.”
Chloe just smiled and linked arms with Eloise as she walked towards the door. Chloe was pleased to learn her judgement of Tomlin had proved spot on. Despite a nervousness that he was only partially successful in hiding, he did his best to teach Eloise. With Chloe helping her as well, she had mastered the basics by evening.
The next morning, they returned, both ready for a few hours of sparring. Chloe picked up the practice saber and hook knife, then paused in surprise when she realized Eloise had only picked up the saber. Eloise noticed Chloe’s surprise.
“Mother trained me in the Imperial style, I haven’t the faintest idea how to use a hook knife. Honestly, I’d prefer to practice with just the saber, rather than risk a moment's confusion about which style’s counter I need to employ if we end up in a real fight.”
A look of surprise and interest crossed Tomlin’s face “The Imperial style? I’ve never had the opportunity to practice against anyone who used that. Unfortunately, we don’t have the weapons required, though if you’d be willing to spar with me, I’d be happy to try and acquire what we need.”
Chloe had agreed with the Tomlin, opportunities to train with someone proficient with the Imperial style didn’t come along often this far west after all. The imperial style embraced a philosophy somewhat different from the school common on this side of the continent. Believing that the enhancement magic and the saber should be enough to deal with most opponents, the off-hand weapon was chosen specifically with combat against other arcane knights in mind, a serrated whip. The idea was that all you needed to do to claim the advantage was make the other person bleed, then wait until blood got into an eye, or made a hand or foot slick, or simply kept bleeding long enough to slow the person down. Apart from just the difference in off-handed weapons, from what Chloe had heard, the style had far more focus on the attack, rather than on parrying and waiting for an opening.
The three of them, along with three other arcane knights and four other students, spent the next few hours sparring. They rotated through one on one, two teams against each other, and last man standing free-for-alls. Throughout the practice Eloise kept her left arm moving, clearly flicking out an imaginary whip. Chloe asked Eloise why in one of the periodic short breaks.
“This is another skill I’m rusty in. If I’m going to get back in practice, I want to do it right. While a might not have a whip now, I want to be prepared for when I do. Besides, the strange had motions are distracting to my opponents.”
While Eloise may have been rusty at the start of the day, but by the evening she was showing the clear difference that having the muscle memory drilled into you as a child made. For the last thirty minutes of practice, Chloe simply backed off and watched Eloise. She now had the same fluid grace in her movements that she had shown in that final dance. A smile spread over Chloe’s face as she realized that, like while dancing, Eloise clearly found a joy in the movement and competition of sparring. As the practice came to an end and Eloise walked up to Chloe, Chloe wrapped an arm around her and whispered into her ear.
“That was absolutely beautiful. Every day I’m with you I just get happier and happier that I risked staying for this second year.”
Eloise blushed, as a small smile played over her face, then it turned to a look a confusion.
Chloe winked at Eloise, then seemingly ignored her question.
“While they might be rare on this side of the continent, we're going to need to find you a proper whip. But that’s a matter for later, for now, let’s find some dinner.” Chloe paused for a moment then continued “It’s a beautiful evening, with the autumnal equinox past and Shirina gaining in influence, the number of evenings like this that we will be free on is limited, would you be up for a stroll after dinner?”
Eloise blinked in surprise, then understanding dawned on her face, and she smiled. “An after-dinner walk sounds lovely.”
Later that evening the two of them walked into the forest, hand in hand. After a few minutes of walking Chloe sat down, and Eloise sat next to her, leaning her shoulder against Chloe’s.
“Risked?” Eloise asked again
“Yes. How much do you actually know about Telkirin?”
Not much, it’s the westernmost country on the continent, and one of the most powerful ones on this side of it. From what little I’ve heard, while many of the attitudes of the inhabitants are different, it seems like a miniature version of The Empire.”
Chloe’s eye’s widened in shock, and she sat in stunned silence for a moment, before bursting out laughing. Even after she stopped laughing, mirth filled her voice as she began to speak.
“I suppose, considering our attitude towards our neighbors, I can see how you would get that impression. I have to recommend, however, that you never say that to another Telkirin noble, The Empire doesn’t have a good reputation.”
“I’ll remember that. By the way, where Ash? I haven’t seen her all day.”
“Last night she told me she was going to Cinaia, then she flew out the window. Anyway, Telkirin. As you seem to know it’s not precisely a popular country, but it’s not one anyone wants to provoke either, the problem is the king. The king's old, even for a mage of his power, and he’s growing more and more sickly, at a guess he has somewhere between six months and three years left in him.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I’m not, I’m glad that when I become a noble, it will be a different king that I have to kneel to. While I’m in no position to condone someone for loving more than one girl, it’s an entirely different matter when three of the women his eye fell on happened to be engaged at the time, at least in my opinion. And that’s just a symptom of my real problem with him, he’s too self-obsessed, he just sees what his people can do for him, not what he should be doing for them.”
“Anyway, the problem comes from the succession. Several hundred years ago the man who became king of Telkirin happened to be the sort of man who just wants to watch the world burn. He only ruled three years before his brother led a coup and took the crown. That king ruled well, unfortunately, the queen who took the crown after his death did not. She was only interested in the luxury that came with the crown, she threw massive parties and commissioned exorbitantly expensive statues and gardens, while the infrastructure of just about everything outside of the capital began to collapse. Luckily, before she completely bankrupted the country, her sister seized the crown. One of the new queens first actions upon gaining the thrown was to declare that birth did not matter, as far as the far as the royal succession was concerned. The reigning monarch is responsible for selecting which of their children is most suitable to take the crown, and declares them the heir.”
“The problem is, the king has made no such declaration of succession. At this point, two of his sons and one of his daughters have built up their own factions, and aren’t going to give up their claim to the crown without a fight. And there are whispers of others who are simply more subtle than those three. And as if that’s not enough, two of the duchies, the ones that came from our two most recent conquests, still have enough of a sense of being their own nation that as soon as our noble’s start turning their swords on each other, they will undoubtedly rise in rebellion. If the rebellions aren’t dealt with swiftly, there’s a third dutchy that’s likely to follow suit.”
“Anyway, the point is there’s a world of difference between the treatment a powerful noble from one of the most formidable countries around can expect, and that which an important noble from a despised and weakened country can expect. I want to be within the borders of Telkirin, preferably those of Twin Rivers, when the king passes into Zalane’s embrace. While I could say that I stayed because I wanted a familiar, and because there’re a bunch of other spells I wanted to learn, the truth is I could have hired private tutors for that. If I’m being honest, the real reason I stayed was because I was enjoying the break from the pressure of the responsibility’s I have in Twin Rivers. And in the end, even if I made the choice for the wrong reasons, the fact it led me to Ash, and then to you, makes me think it was probably one of the best choices I’ve made in my entire life.”
Eloise had sat, still and silent beside her while she talked, but now she leaned over and kissed Chloe.
“I’m truly glad you decided stayed too, even if though it does sound like it was a major risk.”
Chloe felt a warmth spread through her as Eloise kissed her. She returned the kiss while turning and wrapping her arms around Eloise. Not stopping with a single kiss, she kissed her entire face, then began on her neck. As Chloe enjoyed the embarrassed smile on Eloise’s face. Somewhere in the distance a branch broke, and a single thought ran through Chloe’s mind.
She bit down gently on the side of Eloise’s neck, not hard enough to break the skin, but enough to leave a distinct mark. Chloe jerked in surprise, just as she was opening her mouth she had felt a surge of magic run through Eloise’s neck. She drew her head back in surprise, looking at Eloise. It took her a few moments of close inspection to determine that the only unusual thing she could see on Eloise’s neck, was that the bite mark was even more prominent than she would have expected. Eloise gave a happy smile and ran her finger’s over the mark.
“I told you I had some power over flesh, didn’t I? while it’s not permanent it should last at least a couple of weeks.”
Chloe blinked in surprise, before being thoroughly distracted by Eloise, as she began to kiss Chloe again. The two stayed like that for a while, kissing while wrapped in each other’s arms, before returning to their room and to bed.
Remembering the night before, Chloe looked at Eloise’s neck, the mark didn’t seem to have faded in the slightest. Her father had always told her,
“Chloe, always keep working, always keep improving yourself. The entire reason we are granted the wealth we are is so our entire focus can our duty, knowing our families are taken care of and that servants will keep things in proper order. Never give into the sloth that can come with wealth, remember why we have it and always keep working.”
And despite the disagreement she felt with her father about many of his lessons, this was one she agreed with wholeheartedly. Still, looking at the peaceful expression on Eloise’s sleeping face and listening to her rhythmic breathing, it was far easier than normal to push that need to be doing aside and just relax.
Chloe remained like that until they needed to get up if they were to have time to eat. She leaned over and kissed Eloise, while using her free left hand to caress her head. Eloise simply mumbled sleepily to herself at first, but after Chloe spent a couple of minutes kissing and caressing her, her eyes opened fully, and awareness returned to them. A smile covered her face, and she arched her neck to return the kiss.
“We really do need to get up if we’re going to have time for breakfast before class,” Chloe said, as she reluctantly broke away from the kiss. “And you need to talk to your dog about sleeping on the bed, with her on my legs, I was stuck in here if I didn’t want to wake you.”
Eloise gave Chloe a mischievous smile, “I don’t know, while waking up to breakfast is pleasant, I think I prefer waking up to find you still lying beside me.” Then her expression became more serious. “Besides, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you simply relaxing, this is probably good for you.”
Chloe grumbled annoyedly, but honestly, she couldn’t put much heart into it. She changed out of her nightgown and into her robe, then hurried down to fetch breakfast. The two of them ate together in their room, then got ready and headed to class.
During their last class of the day, Eloise let out an exuberant cry.
“I’ve got it!”
Chloe smiled widely. “that’s wonderful. shall we test it?”
Eloise nodded excitedly.
“Well then, 2+2=5.”
Eloise’s smile only widened
An evil little impulse suddenly took hold of Chloe, and she bent forward to whisper in Eloise’s ear
“I love you.”
A dark blush spread across Eloise’s face, and it was in a voice tinged with equal parts joy and embarrassment that she squeaked out “Truth.”
Chloe clapped. “very good, but those were obvious answers, let's try something a little bit harder. Ask me anything you’re that you want to know about me, or about anything that worries you.”
Eloise looked thoughtful for a moment, then she began to look nervous before taking a deep breath and saying one word quickly.
Chloe blinked in surprise, then smiled. “What about her?”
“You’ve mentioned her in passing a few times this week, how will she react to me? What will she think of me?”
“Relax, you have the one quality she truly cares about, and that’s enough for her to give you a chance. Once she gets to know you, I have no doubt she will become quite fond of you. Probably not quite as fond of you as I am, but still very fond.”
Eloise gave a relieved sigh. “Truth. How certain are you about your answer?”
Chloe’s smile just grew wider. “I’ve known Luna since she was born, we’ve worked in sync most of our lives, I the tactician, she the logistitician, and we would work together on strategy. There’s no one who knows my mind better then she does, and there’s no one’s mind I know better than hers. I am absolutely certain.”
Chloe could see the relief spread over Eloise’s face, she then gave out a little laugh and spoke.
“Truth, though I’m not sure if logistitician is a word.”
“It may not be a word, but it’s certainly what she is. She has a true gift for details and organization. While I’ve spent much of my life learning to command, lead, and control, she’s been learning about the organization and running of the march. Not that I haven’t been learning that too, just not to the same extent she has. She was already in charge of several areas when I left her, a bit over a year ago. As she’s a sorcerer and has no need to spend the time we mages do developing fine control, I have no doubt her area of control has expanded, and I dread to imagine what she’s done in this past year without me to keep her in check.”
“That last part was only partially true.”
“Oh, very good. Ok, it’s more of a nervous curiosity than a dread. She already had several projects underway before I left that she refused to tell me about, just saying they were surprises and that I would like them. Don’t misunderstand, I trust her completely, or rather I know she would never betray me, and what the few areas are in which her judgement is, questionable.”
“Good, now that you’ve got the hang of it, you can help me master it.”
Eloise helped Chloe for the rest of the class, and by the end, Chloe too could cast the basic truth spell. Just as the two of them were leaving the instructor called out.
“Miss Yinara, come here a moment.”
When Chloe walked over, he continued.
“Miss Yinara, the chancellor wanted me to tell you that now that class is done for the day, he would like you to go see him in his office.”
Chloe nodded and placed a hand on Eloise’s shoulder as she saw the worried look spreading across her face.
“It’ll be fine, just go to the room and I’ll bring dinner when I’m done with the chancellor.”
Eloise gave a weak smile, then turned and started towards their room. Chloe only vaguely remembered where the chancellor’s office was, but she only made one wrong turn before she managed to locate it. Before going in, she patted her robe down, then smiled as she realized what the lump she felt in one of the pockets was. Reaching into the pocket she pulled out her gloves, after the ball she had just put them in her pocket and after that she had just transferred them robe to robe, never quite getting around to putting them away. She pulled them over her hands, stud up straight, put in place a confident smile, then knocked on the door.
Chloe opened the door and strode in, stopping directly in front of the desk the chancellor sat behind.
“Ah, good. Thank you for coming so promptly. Please, take a seat.”
Chloe sat down, then looked at the chancellor in silence, he gulped slightly then resumed speaking.
“I do hope your time here has been both pleasant and productive. I have heard you managed to summon a familiar, and that you’ve been doing well at mastering the non-affinity spells. Unfortunately, it’s come to my attention that a certain other student has been spending a lot of time in your room rather than her own. While we did except her, she scares the other students, and that’s why we gave her a room away from everyone else so”
Chloe suppressed a smile as a workable plan came together in her mind. She began to tap her fingers on the desk, loudly. The chancellor paused in mid-sentence at the noise, then looked down at her glove-clad hands. Chloe took advantage of the momentary pause to begin talking.
“It has been a pleasant experience for the most part, I have been very pleased with the character of your academy. If I had to come up with a complaint, the only one I can think of is that the small amount of biological magical supplies you have here is highly inconvenient.”
The chancellor blinked, clearly taken aback by the change in topic.
“I do apologize for that, we are far from the first place monster hunters go to sell. Honestly, most of what we can get is the excess supply, or the things the others aren’t even interested in.”
“Ah, I see. I have to admit it’s not a problem I’m familiar with. As you probably know, my family rules the lands that border the Umbraian forest and the Moon Thorn mountains. For us, it’s always been more of a problem to find people and institutions with the proper character to sell to. The creature of the Moon Thorns and the Umbraian keep us well supplied with useful monster parts. That is, in fact, one of the reasons I was so pleased to see the character of this academy.”
“But anyway, that’s not why you called me in here, you wanted to talk about Eloise. I have to suggest, having her share a room with me benefits your academy. The students of this academy will be powerful mages when they graduate, and that could be a problem if they let their emotions rule them. Luckily for you, Eloise’s mere presence provides a wonderful opportunity for a number of students to learn to control their fear, wouldn’t you agree?”
The chancellor looked down at the crest on Chloe’s gloves, then up at her, and finally smiled.
“You are quite correct, it will help to instill character.”
“Precisely, so was there anything else you needed with me?”
“No, but don’t hesitate to stop by if there’s anything at all you need.”
Chloe smiled, nodded goodbye, then left the room. As she went to get some dinner, she made a mental note to ask Luna to replace Silvian Academy with Alir academy on the list. Her grandfather had gone to Silvian and it had been a quite respectable school in its day, but lately it had been in decline, and with her grandfather long since gone to Zalane’s embrace, there was no reason to keep selling to his old alma mater.
A few minutes later Chloe used a gust of air to open the door to her room, both her hands being full. Eloise looked up the moment she walked into the room, concern written all over her face. Chloe gave her a reassuring smile and placed the food on the table and sat down beside Eloise.
“What was it?”
Chloe wrapped an arm around Eloise when she heard the worry in her voice.
“Nothing to worry about, just a little question of supply and demand.”
Eloise looked at her curiously, so she continued. “As I said, it wasn’t a big deal. I can tell you about it later if you want, but for now, our dinner’s getting cold.”
Chloe could feel the tension leave Eloise’s shoulders. As the dinner was coming to an end, an idea struck Chloe, if she was going to send a letter home asking for one thing, might as well make it two. As soon as they had both taken their last bite, Chloe opened her chest and pulled out a measuring tape, she then gestured at a spot in the middle of the room.
“Would you mind standing there for few minutes?”
Eloise looked at the measuring tape as she walked to the indicated spot. “And why are you measuring me?”
Chloe suddenly remembered asking Luna the exact same question, in the exact same tone and mimicked the reply. “A surprise.”
Eloise chuckled, then held still as Chloe began to measure her. Chloe spent several minutes measuring and jotting down notes, then, just as she was measuring the neck length, her hand knocked the collar of Eloise’s robe open slightly. Chloe froze as she inadvertently peaked down it and got her first look at Eloise’s bare shoulder. Eloise was clearly surprised Chloe’s sudden stillness, then she noticed her partially open collar, froze briefly, then yanked it closed.
“What was that?” Chloe was barely able to keep the murderous rage out of her voice.
Though Eloise didn’t respond, Chloe watched as fear and shame wared for prominence on her face. Seeing that, Chloe wrapped Eloise in an embrace and floated them both to the bed. She simply held Eloise for a time, until Eloise pulled free and stood up. While looking like she might burst into tears at any moment, Eloise shucked out of her robes and undergarments with a few quick motions.
Chloe stared at Eloise’s body for a few moments, before looking up at her face. As she looked into the blue eyes that had tears welling up them, she knew why Eloise always slept in her robe and why she had turned down Chloe’s offer to bath with her so firmly. Not only were numerous scars now visible, they didn’t look like ordinary scars, they looked like the wounds had just closed the day before, and some of them seemed somehow, misshapen.
Eloise broke eye contact, looking down at the floor as she began to speak.
“I told you I could work with flesh, but it’s closer to sculpting then what a water mage would do. Not that I really should be complaining, when you have a spurting wound, or can’t afford to leave a blood trail, it’s extremely useful. Unfortunately, I’m no sculptor. I’m sorry, I should have said something before getting you to agree to be with me, but.”
Eloise’s voice broke, and Chloe quickly stood up and hugged her again.
“Calm down, I’m sorry if a failed to keep all the anger out of my voice a few moments ago, none of it was meant for you, I was just furious at the idea of someone hurting you.”
Eloise snuffled slightly, then wrapped her own arms around Chloe.
“These are from the times the bounty hunters caught up with me.” Eloise paused and rubbed at a scar that ran down her side. “Well mostly.”
“I swear,” Chloe growled softly, “I will have their heads.”
“Don’t worry about it, I got a number of them myself, and the rest are most of a continent away.”
Chloe hugged her more tightly, then asked, “It’s fairly clear you don’t like them, have you ever thought about getting them removed?”
Eloise shook her head slightly “With the way my magic closed the wounds, it would take more power than a mage would have to fix them. There aren’t many things that can hurt a witch or wizard in their sanctum, this makes them uninclined to let in one of the only things that can.”
“But if there were some water witches who would treat you, you’d want them removed?”
Eloise looked down at her body in disgust “Of course.”
“Would you mind using the lie detection spell for a moment?”
Eloise blinked, then pulled together the power she needed and cast the spell.
“I love you, scars or no.” Chloe paused for a moment, then continued “But if you want to get rid of them, we can. It will have to wait until we head home to Twin Rivers, but I guarantee you, the Water coven there would far rather risk losing one of its junior members, then face the certainty of losing its patronage.”
Tears were flowing down Eloise’s cheeks, and she began to kiss Chloe, then to pull at her robes. Before Eloise succeeded in very thoroughly distracting Chloe, she had one final clear though.
“I meant it, I swear I will have their heads for doing that to you.”