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“You may leave,” she tells the guards, and then the two of them are alone: One woman behind bars, arms crossed behind her head and legs folded at the ankle, propped on the dirty bales of hay that served as bedding and  furniture; one woman in full decorated armor with the door framed at her heels.

Valery raises an eyebrow as if inviting her to speak. She sits as lofty as if she were empress, apparently oblivious to her dank environment and the dark smudges of grime like bruises along her once-fine clothes.

“I don’t understand you,” Natalia says. Her voice is polite and betrays no emotion even as the words themselves are blunt.

“What isn’t there to understand?”

“That you would choose to remain here. You know that if you were just to give your allegiance to Her Majesty the Empress, you would be released from this place. As was Julio. As were all the others. Your deeds have granted you an as yet unlimited stay of execution. Even Sir Robertus will graciously accept that much. And so—”

Valery closes her eyes, tilts her head to the side in a gesture like turning up her nose.

“…It’s not a choice for me. I won’t lie and grovel and turn my back on what I believe in just to get out of here; this cell isn’t that uncomfortable.”

“It’s preposterous. For all your ideals, all the will of the Republic,” and Natalia cannot help but bite the ends of the word in affront, “you can change nothing from there.”

“Maybe not. Definitely not right now.” Valery lifts one eyelid as if that’s an immeasurable favor. “But I’m staying true to what I believe. I’m not like you—I won’t contort myself into something I don’t want to be so that I can’t even remember what I stood for when I get the chance to be myself again. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it as many times as I have to—just switching rulers isn’t going to do anything for this country, no matter how good or bad the new emperor’s intentions are. It’s the system that’s rotten. Your own dear father is proof enough of that.”

Natalia doesn’t rise to the bait. She has—thanks to her knighthood, thanks to the system—more discipline than that. “And yet for all your idealistic words, you remain the one in jail, and I the one with freedom.”

“If you call what you’ve got freedom.” All the same, Valery seems unfazed. “Change is coming to Gargandia. Even I can sense it. Go on and keep watching over Alyssa playing chess with Robertus, if it pleases you. But chances are that’s not going to matter much in the end.

“What matters is what you’ll do when this blows over and there’s nothing left of the Empire as we know it. Whether you’ll still be able to do anything without being told.”

Natalia sighs.

“If you will not swear your allegiance to Empress Alessandra—”

“You’re wasting your breath,” Valery interrupts.

“It seems that I am.” Natalia bows her head smoothly, turns on her heel, and walks out the door.

“And yet you keep coming back here.” Valery’s voice echoes oddly now that she is in the hallway.

Natalia chooses to ignore her.