After rejoining the King and the generals at the conference table, Pascal anxiously awaited his opportunity to speak. But one look across the map display changed everything.
The long table projected the illusion of a three-dimensional terrain map, centered along the length of Weichsel which stretched across the North Sea's southern coast. The scale was zoomed out far enough to show all of Weichsel's immediate neighbors: the Holy Imperium's border provinces loomed in the south, the Lotharin Estuary connected Cross Lake to the sea in the west, while the east was filled by the gray void of the Dead Mountains, leaving a narrow but important coastal trading corridor to the Grand Republic of Samara.
But in addition to landscape, borders, and settlements, the illusory map also displayed every sizable military force within two-hundred kilopaces of Weichsel's borders. Fourteen of the miniature infantry figures carried the Black Dragon banner of Weichsel, either assembled at one of the major rallying points or marching eastward. Ten more held purple standards -- the Holy Imperium's Northern Legions which stood imposingly along the border. To the east was a single army of the Grand Republic, represented by an armored Samaran Battlewagon instead of a soldier; meanwhile troops of Rhin-Lotharingie mobilized for war in the west.
But the new threat which halted Pascal's prepared words rose in the northwest.
Soldiers carrying the green hydra flag, in the only continental territories still held by the heathens of the north...
The Greater Jarldom of Skagen was mobilizing for war.
Pascal wondered if the intelligence was accurate, but only for a brief second. The artifact which powered the display was one of Weichsel's greatest assets. Known as the 'Eye of the Dragon', its magical senses reached out from every synchronized border outpost to detect armed forces within range. It even labeled the model troops with numbers, accurate down to half a thousand.
The young Landgrave was still reformulating his strategic analysis when King Leopold turned to him:
"As you can see Pascal, those barbarians just outside your realm are getting uppity."
"It could be defensive and in response to ours," Pascal commented, more to buy time and information than because he believed in it.
"Unlikely. The Eagles tell me their men are rallying under the call for reconquest -- their opportunity to retake ancient lands they lost to the Imperium centuries ago..."
The Black Eagles may be known as Weichsel's royal guards, but their function was not strictly military. In fact, they were chosen more for their capacity to gather information and forge contacts than their martial qualities. Within Weichsel's military structure, they served as the intelligence and counter-espionage branch, coordinating networks of spies for the crown.
"--Besides, this timing doesn't match those of a defensive response," the King gestured towards the green figures on the map. "If they were just wary of our mobilization, they should have started gathering troops last week. A frontier lord hardly needs approval for a defensive mobilization. But these movements only began this morning. Neithard believes that the loss of our renowned Marshal has emboldened them, especially with our allies already preoccupied in the south. I daresay that he is probably right."
Pascal's brows furrowed:
"Is this timing not too perfect?"
"That is also my main concern," the elderly General von Manteuffel pitched in. "Skagen is no monarchy. It is ruled collectively by a handful of petty Jarls. The Abyss will freeze over before they can make their decision in a single day. After everything that has happened in the past few weeks in rapid, seemingly planned, succession, I fear we are merely seeing another step to an unfolding Imperial plot."
Hot breath exhaled from his nose as Pascal urgently suppressed his flaring anger. He knew perfectly well who was at fault for his father's death, but he did not need its reminder... not yet.
He then turned to meet the King's clear brown gaze:
"I take it your Majesty has already seen my report from the recent assassination attempt on me?"
"Of course," King Leopold's countenance was grim. "Both Wiktor and Neithard have seen it too. Although I hope you understand why I can neither publicly confirm the assassin's identities nor accuse the Imperials. There's no doubt that the two cases are connected, yet we can only say that the Marshal was killed by 'unknown assassins'."
Pascal's fists tightened as he heard the response that was entirely too censored by political motivations...
It wasn't just. It wasn't even fair. But while nobility respected honor and despised cowardly acts such as assassination, ethics only served politics when it met the interests of state.
He had learned that since an early age. Yet the thirst for vengeance could not be reasoned with. It was an elemental force, an instinct of being human that began to settle in, replacing the grief and sorrow that Kaede helped him suppress.
But while retaliatory action was a natural defense mentality meant to ward off future hostility, it often escalated in matters of statecraft. Escalation... was the last thing Weichsel could afford right now.
In memory of his father, the now orphaned son took a deep breath to keep his darker emotions buried. The Imperium would pay dearly for their sins, but now was not the time.
"I understand, Your Majesty. At this moment we cannot afford to offend the Pope by implying that he is playing into Emperor Gaudentius' hands, assuming this was not a joint scheme to begin with. Nor can we risk the morale of our own armies by publicly antagonizing the two largest nations of the Western World. With the Pope on his side for the time being, there is no way we can even win propaganda points against the Holy Emperor, especially not on religious grounds."
Weichsel's King flashed the briefest grin, a wry yet proud smirk, towards his foremost cavalry general:
"I told you he was good."
"As the rumors claim, Sire," Neithard von Manteuffel spoke through a dignified mask of neutrality.
"Thank you, Your Majesty," Pascal brushed it aside with an inexpressive nod before continuing. "Since the incident, Imperial intentions have been made obvious by the Caliphate's Holy War: they seek to disrupt our willingness and ability to militarily aid Rhin-Lotharingie. If Skagen's actions are indeed an Imperial machination, then they will attack us without any doubt."
"But if not, their target could also be Rhin-Lotharingie."
It was an almost throwaway comment from General Wiktor von Falkenhausen, but it also outlined the elephant in the room that everyone avoided to mention. With the Emperor of Rhin-Lotharingie excommunicated by papal disapproval during this critical moment, Weichsel was given a legitimate reason -- perhaps even a warning, as some would argue -- to stay out of the war.
...If the King so desired.
"What could they possibly gain from that?" Princess Sylviane shook her head as she pointed towards the blue figures in the display. "Rhin-Lotharingie's northern armies were mobilized late and have yet to be dispatched south. Between them and the powerful fortifications guarding the Lotharin Estuary, Skagen could hardly occupy two counties at best. If their aim was Rhin-Lotharingie, it would be better for them to wait a few more weeks before baring their fangs."
It wasn't her best argument, but persuading Weichsel to join a war when they would be attacked anyway was easier than asking the King to support a nation about to be flanked by two fronts.
Politically speaking, it was in Weichsel's favor to help their ally resist imperial advances. But at the moment, short-term worries over the military situation weighed far more on everyone's mind than long-term benefits.
After all, nobody wanted to join a lost cause.
Pascal saw this as his perfect opportunity to speak:
"As it stands, are they not the ones foolishly handing us an opportunity, Your Majesty?"
General von Manteuffel almost smirked -- a slight upward twitch of his lips that was barely noticeable. But everyone else sent back probing stares that demanded explanations.
"Our mobilization is nearly complete," Pascal pointed out on the map. "But Skagen's had just began, not to mention only half their home forces are situated on the continent. If we strike first and hit hard, we could smash apart the bulk of their armies on this side before they could rally them together. With Västergötland still reeling from their decisive defeat in the fall, Skagen alone will no longer hold the military strength for a successful invasion."
"In case you forgot, Landgrave -- it's winter right now."
Cool turquoise met crossed scarlet as Pascal leveled his eyes against General von Falkenhausen's objection. The young Captain held less qualms than most when it came to standing up against superior officers. The dhampir's seeming youth only further undermined an entire century of seniority.
"Which is why I do not propose taking on a full campaign," Pascal declared. "We leave the infantry and logistics units behind; travel light with only the aristocratic cavalry corps. Magic will shield our limited numbers against snow and winter attrition. There will be no assaults, only skirmishes and raids. With the enemy still scattered in penny packets, we will have more than sufficient firepower to engage and destroy them as our superior maneuverability allows."
"Preemptive strikes during a de-facto state of war without an official declaration -- where have I heard this before?"
A hint of mild amusement was all it took to make the King's expression break into a hopeful smile as he looked to his generals.
"Like father, like son," General von Falkenhausen shrugged before flashing a charming grin: "I'm sure the Princess remembers as well?"
"Fondly," Sylviane's response went deadpan even as she tried not to be too sarcastic.
It was almost ironic, as the Princess had met Pascal after being captured during one of those marauding raids. Now her fiancée was proposing something similar once again.
Yet despite the opportunity, Pascal's image remained solemn. Still under the spotlight and without the mood to joke, he swiftly went on to clarify:
"Except this time it will require not just the Knights Phantom, but all three cavalry branches. Investment is higher, and so are the risks. But I believe Weichsel's proud nobility will rise to the challenge and deliver Skagen a swift knockout blow."
His recommendation remained a professional one, but its motivations had already become more personal than he would ever admit. This was his chance to crush the Imperium's ambitions in the north, and there was no way he would settle for anything less.
"Neithard, what do you think?" King Leopold asked his senior cavalry commander.
"Militarily speaking, this is feasible, although primary objectives must be met before the arrival of their forces from Fimbulmark Isle, which leaves us a time window of no more than three weeks."
General von Manteuffel gazed unerringly at the map display as his experienced tactical mind quickly weaved an operational plan.
"We would have to split the cavalry corps into three echelons, based on how quickly units arrive at the Nordkreuz borders. The cavalry of Nordkreuz, Kostradan, and Altmark, reinforced by the Phantom Gale whom I sent forth two days ago, could form the first echelon by tomorrow. They would begin with a counter-clockwise sweep of the Skagen coastline from the southeast, and work inwards with the other echelons as they become available. This should presumably allow us to hit enough targets of opportunity to make the operation decisive. But..."
The elderly knight then turned towards his King as worry accentuated the countless winkles that already permeated his weathered appearance.
"Sire, only the Knights Phantom have the organization and training for something like this. Our regular cavalry units, not to mention the Noble Reiters, are neither built for independent operations nor prepared for deep operations without support. Furthermore, the Writ of Universal Conscript may grant our General Staff the de jure capacity to rearrange feudal forces at will, but we have always kept individual lords' armies in the same battlefield before -- they certainly would not be happy about this."
"Not to mention that without any contingencies, three individually launched and independently operating echelons will be hard pressed to support each other in time should anything wrong happen," Chief-of-Staff von Falkenhausen warned. "I'm sure we all hope for the flawless maneuvers the Landgrave envisions, but unforeseen circumstances could bring disaster not only to the battlefield, but also provoke a major political backlash."
A flare of annoyance spiked through Pascal from the not-too-subtle reminder of his inexperience. It was especially grating because it was completely true. Compared to either general, Pascal was a complete novice, lacking the decades of battle-hardened experience.
It was why he had been anxious to graduate and lead his own command.
But then, Wiktor von Falkenhausen was a renowned logistician, the type of commander who preferred to 'manage' an army instead of 'leading' it. To him, successful wars were carefully orchestrated maneuvers made according to timetables. He was an exhaustive planner for all possible scenarios, which undoubted included an all-out invasion of the Skagen peninsula... except not under the current circumstances.
A war during the harsh northern winter and its frequent blizzards was full of uncertainties. Pascal had no doubts that going 'by the book' would call for a defensive war until Spring, when Weichsel forces could march against a Skagen army exhausted by the winter campaign. It was far less risky, and infinitely wiser to the older military minds of the room.
...Which was exactly why he couldn't afford to back down now.
The young Landgrave took another deep breath and locked onto the King's gaze with nothing held back:
"Your Majesty, our main army is ill-suited to engage Skagen forces in a field battle before the Spring thaw. But the war in the south will not wait for us. Once they stop the Caliphate's initial momentum, Rhin-Lotharingie's mountain defenses will hold through the winter..."
Pascal never questioned IF the Lotharin forces could stop the Caliphate's advance. Such a loss of faith in their allies would imply that the Caliphate had already won, the Imperium's plans would succeed, and his father had died for nothing.
He would never accept that.
"--But when Spring arrives and the campaign season starts proper, they will need our support. I believe the Imperium's actions have made it clear that we should aid Rhin-Lotharingie in this fight. For unless we stand together now, we will surely stand alone in the future."
"I know the idiom well, Pascal," the King's clear brown eyes were patient, but it was nevertheless a gentle reprimand. "And I agree with your concerns, Wiktor. However," he turned back to von Manteuffel, "Neithard, do you believe that your chances of success are worth these risks?"
As the General scratched his gray mustache, Pascal realized that in his rush to give his proposal, he had ignored one important factor.
His father's death had left the seat of the highest military command open. While Wiktor von Falkenhausen, as the Marshal's Chief-of-Staff, was temporarily in charge, Neithard von Manteuffel had just as much prestige and seniority as a general. Ultimately, it was up to the King to formally decide who would be his next Marshal.
The coming campaign may prove the deciding factor, and Pascal had unwittingly tossed in his vote for the elder Manteuffel.
From a military perspective, this was a sound choice. Neithard von Manteuffel was a distinguished cavalry commander. Furthermore, he was a proponent of the high-mobility warfare doctrine the late von Moltewitz had advanced. If Pascal ever wanted the 'Pandemonium Doctrine' he had proposed to find acceptance within the military establishment, he would need someone like-minded in command.
However, Neithard was also the leader of the Manteuffel clan, making him a magnate with political power rivaling those of the Chancellor. If he was made Marshal, even the King would have trouble challenging his personal agenda in the future.
Since the Manteuffels were an ambitious lot, Pascal couldn't help but feel he had just proposed a pact with the devil.
"If you wish a swift and decisive war against Skagen? Yes, Sire. I believe Captain Sir von Moltewitz's proposal has the greatest potential," the general spoke. "As such, I would argue that this is more a political decision than a strictly military one."
He did not even need to point out that everything also depended on whether or not the King wished to join Rhin-Lotharingie's war.
So much weight attached to a single verdict, all piled atop the King's shoulders.
Leopold von Drachenlanzen sighed. But even though his tone soon changed for a more imperious role, his expression still held a faint smile as he firmly nodded to his generals:
"In that case, please begin moving our forces into position and exacting your plans. I will give you my decision by tonight, but clearly preparations cannot wait that long."
"As you wish, Sire."
Realizing the importance of the moment, Princess Sylviane parted her lips to speak. But King Leopold swiftly held up his hand.
"Please, Your Highness," he stated with uncharacteristic formality. "I understand your position perfectly, but at this point I need some time for myself to decide. I believe you and Pascal have not caught up for some time, so please make yourself at home. I hope to give you good news as soon as I can."
After a nod of courtesy, the King turned and began striding towards the doors, only to stop midway.
The entire room froze as he effortlessly summoned everyone's attention once more.
"Pascal, I need to borrow you for one more minute. Follow me."
His words did not leave any room for debate, and Pascal gave Kaede and Reynald a quick glance to stay put before following the King out.
Pascal soon found himself in a much smaller sitting room, probably used for one-on-one negotiations. But King Leopold made no motions to sit down as he gestured for a Black Eagle officer to close the door behind them.
"You know, Karl was never very good at lying, which was part of why I trusted him..."
Clear brown eyes then bore down upon the young lord's gaze with royal intent.
"Pascal, you and Sylviane were betrothed since childhood, and for much of your upbringing you were expected to become the Prince-Consort of Rhin-Lotharingie. So I want to ask, without your Princess or any other lord present: where would you stand if I break this alliance?"
Pascal's eyes swelled with disbelief. He felt his mouth open before he could even help it...
He cannot be that stupid!
But before thoughts of lèse-majesté could transform into words of objection, Pascal suddenly paused in the midst of his gaping expression. There was something off about the King's looks. Rather than one of grim finality or bracing for a negative reaction, Leopold merely awaited a response with patience.
Wait... maybe this is just a test, Pascal told himself to calm back down.
His father had warned him repeatedly. Concealing information was one thing, but the family had no talent for lying, especially not against experienced statesmen.
It was why they were to become professional soldiers, not power-mongering schemers in internal politics. Pascal might never meet his father's wishes to remain humble, but he could at least be devoted and truthful.
"Your Majesty, I will not deny that such a decision will be extremely disappointing to me, and seem quite unwise in the grand scheme..."
Pascal then saluted his liege lord.
"--But I am also the son of Karl August von Moltewitz, the heir to Nordkreuz before the fiancée of the Princess Sylviane. As my father before me, my current duty serves the interests of Weichsel first and foremost."
With a certain nod, the King's faint smile returned.
Then he asked again:
"Now, for sure. What about after you marry? After you have children? Would Weichsel still be your home country then?"
Pascal's mouth opened to reply, only to freeze midway.
He had wanted to assure his liege with the truth, yet part of him knew that there was no way he could guarantee his intended words.
After a dozen seconds, all he managed to say was:
"That is unfair, Your Majesty, to seek my promise right now..."
If Leopold had been disappointed, it didn't show. Instead, the King's smile broadened with mild amusement.
"I suppose it is."
As his monarch turned to glance out the window, Pascal steeled himself to speak once more:
"All I can say is, no matter where and when, I will do my best for Weichsel."
The only response was a slow nod.
Then, a minute later, the King's nostalgic voice rebounded off the walls:
"You know, for years, I wanted your father to become a friend. Not just vassal and liege, general and ruler, but someone whom I could trust on a personal basis, and who trusted me..."
Leopold sighed as he turned back around.
"He never did open up to me. A professional to the end."
"My father always believed that some boundaries should not be crossed, Your Majesty."
"Do you?" the King's eyebrows went up as he strolled about with hands clasped behind him. "Of course, I know from your record that while you technically still respect most authority, you never cared a great deal for their rules. Isn't that right, Runelord?"
For the first time, Pascal felt abashed at his own nickname from the academy.
"I believe in duty," he declared. "But I also believe how we meet our duty is our own choice as individuals."
His monarch almost snorted.
Pascal would have retorted on instinct, but the King left him no opportunity to speak before moving straight on:
"--But then, perhaps it's good you're not your father. I do hope I can succeed with you where I failed with the Marshal, Pascal. If nothing else, such bonds of trust lasts far longer than duty."
It took only a second before Pascal's eyes snapped wide.
"I would be honored, Your Majesty," he bowed deeply with all the courtesy he could muster. "And thank you."
The final verdict was by no means absolute. But Leopold Karl-Wilhelm von Drachenlanzen was a decisive King, and he still wished to pursue a long-term relationship with the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie.[ Next Chapter ]