"I never thought it would be this bad, Hakim."
Standing at the crest of a shallow, grassy knoll, the commander of the Caraliyyah Caliphate (which the Trinitians somehow mumbled into 'Cataliya') western front army looked down the aisles of his field hospital. Rows upon rows of white tents bore the Red Crescent -- the crystal light red of Samaran 'Fluid of Life' that all healers shared in common. Thousands of sick, quarantined troops overflowed even their capacity, overwhelming the amply prepared medical battalions attached to the army.
Baha ad-Din Salim ibn Ziyad pulled at the hairs beneath his thickly-bearded chin. It was a bad habit he regressed to every time he felt frustrated, but he doubted any general worth his salt could feel more helpless than he did right now.
"Flu, typhus, and now even dysentery? How could this happen? So quickly?" Salim turned about to face his second-in-command.
"The problems have been present since the start, Your Eminence," Hakim answered, his countenance blank as tranquil water. "We walk among a land and climate alien to our kinds. Our men grew up on the arid savanna and scorching deserts and tropical coasts, while they now trek beneath the gloom of a northwestern winter and its freezing rains."
"The human body is frail and slow to adapt," he added. "How could they not fall sick?"
"But why now? Why the sudden surge?" Salim countered. "We entered Rhin-Lotharingie over a month ago. Our soldiers have been falling sick since week one, yet the healers have always managed to keep the illness contained. I even moderated our pace of advance to stay the troops from exhaustion."
"All resources have limitations, Your Eminence," replied the advisor. "The heavy casualties incurred in our last battle drained our healers' ether and expended their supply of Samaran blood. How could they cope with another disease outbreak immediately afterwards?"
Hakim had the appearance of a beautiful, scholarly young man clad in white robes. He was too tall to be inconspicuous, too pale to be a descendant of the desert tribes. But advisors of exotic origins were nothing new in the Caliphate. Affluent individuals often sought to claim wives or servants of distant origins, as it was widely considered a fashionable display of wealth... or in Salim's eyes, decadence.
But looks were also deceiving. Hakim... wasn't even human.
A close examination would reveal faded blue hues that seemed to billow across his very skin. Instead of supple human tissue, his 'flesh' was an illusion. They were embers condensed into layers to take on a tangible profile, blending in easily amidst humankind.
Hakim was a jinni -- a race veiled in mystery, a creature of smokeless flames.
The human and jinn societies shared a God, a Prophet, and even an empire -- yet they remain segregated to this day. Hakim was among the few who intermingled with humans. He was one of the marid caste, the elite class of scholars and leaders among his people's rigid social hierarchy.
The Caliphate's western front army had only twenty marids in total, plus several hundred ifrits -- jinn of the warrior caste. But the numeric racial imbalance did not stop the Caliphate's military traditions: every commander of the brigade level and above was paired with his or her own wazir, a marid who served as their second-in-command.
The other nations of Hyperion might have equated this to the 'chief-of-staff' position. But the truth was far more complicated than that. The bond between commandant and wazir was forged for life -- usually the shorter, human life. But until death breaks them apart, the two shared all assignments, promotions, and punishments equally.
"Battalions! Full stop!" came a distant yell from behind the two leaders.
The order echoed down the road from one officer after another. The wheels creaked and hooves stamped against hardened ground. A supply convoy of several hundred horse-drawn wagons snaked down the earthen path until it vanished between the wooded hills. They halted at the encampment's outer security perimeter, where the captain on watch verified their identity before letting them through.
The scene was almost suspicious -- it had been weeks since Salim witnessed such an unmolested column.
Most supply trains had to run a gauntlet of ambushes on their journey to the front, if they arrived at all. By the time they reached camp, the wagons would roll in with Lotharin arrows sticking out from their sides, escorting guards in bloody bandages, and half-burnt carts carrying men too injured to walk.
Salim's army of 80,000 soldiers consumed over 50,000 stones (nearly 300 wagon loads) of bread, 40,000 stones of meat, and 60,000 stones of forage per week. Ferrying such immense quantities from the Caliphate and transporting them safely across several hundred kilopaces of wooded Lotharin hills required a monumental effort from the logistical and reserve corps.
Without adequate supplies, his frontline corps would be forced into 'foraging' -- which in military terms meant seizing grains and livestock from the local populace. Such behavior often encountered resistance, which soon escalated to murder and rape once soldiers draw blood. But even foraging couldn't supply an army of such bulk for long, and within days the troops would begin to starve. In a realm where the average commoner knew how to use a bow, this only escalated the problem yet further as vengeful peasants-turned-partisans tightened the noose on logistical lines.
Hence, atrocities against the civilian populace were more than sins. They created a negative feedback loop that quickly spun out of control.
Thankfully, Salim had managed to avoid such a scenario thus far. Battalions of reinforcements from the rear had ensured that this latest delivery of food and medical supplies came through. Meanwhile, the four rotting men hanging by their necks near the entrance served as a potent reminder of his command's "zero tolerance policy" towards all acts of barbarism -- especially the rape those four committed against Lotharin prisoners.
The yell came as a squad of light cavalrymen detached themselves from the supply column and galloped towards the hill.
The newcomer leaped off his horse and scampered up the grassy knoll. Two dozen wary bodyguards squeezed the handles of their scimitars; they were on the edge of the Caraliyyah encampment and well outside the inner wards. But the officer paid them no mind as he rushed up and took a deep bow.
"Major Hamid," Salim addressed the youthful commander of the 86th Light Cavalry Battalion. "What brings you in such haste?"
"General Salim, I bring dire news," he began immediately. "Early this morning, while my scouts patrolled the surrounding regions to ward off partisan activity, we caught a squad of Lotharins poisoning a natural spring two kilopaces upstream through the disposal of animal carcasses."
Salim's eyes hardened as he turned to his wazir:
"They're poisoning the land..."
"Yes Sir," the Major confirmed. "I've sent my men to double check other water sources in our locale. They have already discovered three other springs, seven wells, and one stream nearby to also be contaminated by the enemy. In three cases, the contagions were well camouflaged, and may have been left there as long as five days ago."
"It certainly explains our sudden influx of disease, and these are probably just the tip of the iceberg," the marid Hakim nodded in contemplation. "The abundance of fresh, running water in these lands has made our officers lax in cleansing what they consume. Perhaps even more importantly -- this shows that our opponent has changed commanders."
"The Oriflamme who joined the battle?"
"Some prisoners claim it was their Princess."
Salim could only scoff at Hakim's statement:
"A mere child then. With the Emperor's untimely demise, her own authority swings in the balance. What can a maiden barely out of her teens command?"
"She doesn't have to," the Wazir warned. "The Weichsel Knights Phantom that devastated our aerogyros must have arrived with her. Even if she is a mere figurehead, that crusader state has more than enough competent generals to lend an experienced commander."
...And the Lotharins might just be desperate enough to listen to those blackened warmongers.
Squeezing his bearded chin, General Salim went quiet as he considered it briefly. No follower of God would forget that it was Weichsel that sparked the First Crusade, thus igniting centuries of Holy Wars between the Caliphate and the Trinitian states.
"That makes sense. Lady Estelle may be a nonbeliever, but she is also a courageous and honorable woman," he spoke with earnest respect. "Such treachery is beneath her dignity and conduct. To poison the water supply would not only harm us, but also their own civilians for many months to come."
Not that many of them remained, Salim thought, as most of the nearby villagers already fled across the river to take shelter behind the Avorican Capital's fortified walls.
"Do we have any information on the status of their command?"
"None," answered Hakim. "We killed and 'captured' several of our own spies during the last battle; two of them were signal officers whom we relied upon to pass information from our agents within their camp. Intelligence has already taken efforts to re-infiltrate them back into the Lotharin ranks, but we have yet to hear back from either."
It really spoke for just how savagely Caliphate forces had mauled the Lotharin army -- they ended up severing even their own spies' communication lines.
"What of the Lotharin saboteurs you encountered?" Salim addressed Major Hamid once more.
"We had cornered their squad, but..."
"Their leader did not surrender. He insulted God in his cowardice, and therefore I killed him in battle."
"What did he say?"
The cavalry major's expression tensed, having realized late that he had already said too much.
"...There is no deity but God," he then uttered before lowering his gaze to the ground.
The phrase was sacred to the Tauheed religion: words spoken not only as a prayer, but as an official declaration of one's conversion -- a transformation which forgave all prior sins.
"Then why did you kill him?" Salim demanded, his calm but chilling voice penetrating all resistance in a display of his twenty years' experience as a judge on the military frontier.
"B-but he spoke them out of fear of our arms!" the Major stammered under the oppressive atmosphere. "They were insolent to God!"
"How do you know? Did you split his heart open and see?"
"Answer me, how do you know? How could you be sure of his insincerity?
"How do you know?"
Kneeling down to the earth, Major Hamid could only bow in regret as the General repeated the question again and again.
"I do not... I cannot!"
With a softening sigh, Salim looked down upon the subordinate who failed to remember one of the fundamental teachings of the Prophet.
"It is not our role to pass judgment upon his faith and piety. If he lies in the name of God, then it is God who shall judge and punish him. Whom are you to take such decisions into your own hands in arrogance?"
For minutes, no words came back as the Major could only stare into the dirt in guilty silence.
Even if there is no military code to adjudicate this, I have to pass judgment, Salim exhaled a deep breath.
The Major had broken a law of God, a law of moral conscience. For discipline and ethics were to be upheld among the soldiers, he must serve as an example and be punished accordingly.
But at the same time, Major Hamid was a seasoned veteran with countless deeds of battlefield valor; if the penalty was excessive, it would discourage the other men. Furthermore, Hamid was among the best wilderness scouts in the army; it would be difficult to replace him and maintain the same level of efficiency.
Salim pursed his lips as he felt his scholarly mind turn, seeking legal precedence as far back as the Prophet's Companions. But unlike his theological counterparts who administered civil law, time was one leisure that he did not have. Every minute in a war zone could be measured in lives; he needed a swift decision so that the Major -- or his replacement -- could be sent back with new orders.
"Major Hamid," the stern-faced General said after a half-minute of deliberation. "You are hereby ordered to fast for the next two months in repentance for your sin -- from sunrise to sunset as if they were the Holy Month of Revelation. Furthermore, you will surrender two years of your salary as blood money."
Relief flooded the young Major's face before bowing again:
It was easy to be considered merciful when Salim had a reputation for legal severity.
"Hasten your search and identify any fresh water sources remaining, Major Hamid," the General continued. "Focus on our rear where there is less chance of sabotage. Put a watch on any unspoiled water supplies; you may pull two infantry battalions to assist you as needed."
"Yes Sir! It shall be done!"
"In the meantime," Salim added as his voice softened and he squeezed the young man's shoulder. "Repent, reflect, and atone. I will pray for God to forgive you, for it is his law you have broken."
"Yes Sir! ...and thank you," the Major saluted again, this time with gratitude reflecting through his eyes.
As the cavalry commander descended the hill, General Salim exchanged a look with his wazir Hakim:
"You don't approve, dear brother?"
"It simply seems... unlike you," the marid stated, his expression as stale as ever.
Salim returned his gaze to the young Major's back with the traces of a smile. There was a time when he was just like his wazir. But the more he aged -- and the more children his wives gave him -- the more he realized that being logical and impartial was far from enough to being a responsible leader."
"The Caliph once gave me advice to be more fatherly to my men; I am trying to follow it still."
"Sentimentality has little to do with legality though," Hakim simply replied.
"No," Salim admitted. "But it has everything to do with humanity."
After all, did the Prophet himself not say 'kindness is a mark of faith, and whoever has not kindness has not faith.'
The General then watched as the descending Major grew distracted, perhaps even entranced for a brief moment, by the figure of a new arrival traversing up the slopes. The woman's face was obscured by a black veil that revealed only a pair of large, onyx eyes. But in spite of her armor and concealing robes, it was obvious that she was slender of build and took every step with grace.
Salim couldn't help but shake his head as he watched the encounter. Boys.
It wasn't rare to see a woman in the army. The tribes of the south had been forced to enlist women ever since they ran out of manpower during the Dragon-Demon Wars -- over a thousand years before the coming of the Prophet. But although women had relinquished their role among the line infantry and assault cavalry, female-only battalions could still be found among both the logistical and specialist troops.
Of course, the two genders were strictly segregated by both unit organization and camp arrangements. Just because God allowed the two groups to work together didn't mean he tolerated frivolous indecency.
Nevertheless, it was an unusual sight to see a woman wearing the red-striped lamellar armor of the Mubarizun -- champions of the Caliphate armies.
Salim felt his instincts clash as he eyed the newcomer. He had nothing against women; he loved his wives dearly, and had already sent two daughters to institutes of education in law. But hell would freeze over before he allowed any of them to clash blades against the finest killers of his enemy.
...Even if they were also women.
But then... Salim felt his lips twist into a faint smirk. She and her girls are probably the reason why my supplies arrived unhindered.
Not only were these women famous for their keen awareness of the surroundings, but few men could challenge a dervish of ascetic traditions to a sword fight and live.
"Colonel Farah ad-Durr Ismat ad-Din, commander of the Crimson Dervish Mubarizun squadron, reporting for duty, General Salim!" a crisp yet soft voice emerged from her hidden lips as Farah took a deep, respectful bow.
"Welcome, Colonel Farah," Salim returned a polite nod. "How was your trip?"
"We shattered two ambusher companies and the engineers had to repair five sabotaged bridges; so nothing unusual."
Spoken like a true professional, the General smiled.
He rather disliked the inability to read her expression. But then, it would hardly be appropriate for him to ogle the spouse of another man.
"If memory serves, you are the third wife of His Excellency, Emir Salih."
"Yes, General," Farah replied before preempting his next question: "and my husband is glad to see me participate in safeguarding God's faithful and bringing down this so-called 'Saint' of the infidels."
As the meeting on the hill continued, neither the Caliphate commanders nor their bodyguards paid any attention to the two disheveled, stray kittens playing among the tall grass just outside earshot.
They were partially right. One of the kittens was a true stray, who stayed with the army thanks to the food that sympathetic soldiers would toss her way. However, the other had been carefully disguised with dirt and dyes, as well as intricately woven wards that concealed her magical aura as a familiar.
The playtime was but a pretense, as she kept a keen eye and two ears on the Cataliyans' conversation at all times. Both sensory feedback relayed straight to her master -- prone and hidden among fallen leaves in a dense patch of trees nearly three kilopaces away.
So a new challenger appears, Cecylia Renata von Falkenhausen mused to herself as she stroked the largest body of her matryoshka cat. ...And naval reinforcements are on their way.
Three days of lying on the cold, hard ground had all been worth it. Her ceaseless observation had gained dividends on its own, but that was nothing compared to the treasure trove of insider information that she overheard now.
Thank the Lord for human carelessness, she smiled to herself.
Of course, as one of the detail-obsessed dhampirs, she had none of that particular weakness.
----- * * * -----
Cecylia exhaled a silent sigh as the Lotharin officer called for her to stop. The main allied encampment had four layers of security checkpoints backed by patrols. But by the time she passed the innermost perimeter, she had already been stopped over a dozen times.
It wasn't even because she looked suspicious. Cecylia had swapped her disguise as a peasant teenage boy for her Weichsel regimentals before entering camp. Compared to the mishmash of clothing that common Lotharin soldiers called a 'uniform', her crimson-on-black officer's dress identified her in the crowd with ease.
"Lieutenant Cecylia von Falkenhausen of Weichsel," she turned to salute the Lotharin Captain, a young Avorican nobleman judging by the crest sewn into his seafoam-green tunic.
Cecylia didn't miss the pursing of his lips in disapproval, or the disgust in his gaze as they met her scarlet-crossed pupils.
"What does a sinner like you want with our Saint and Princess?" He almost spat out.
His fingers never once reached for her offered identification scroll. In fact, he stayed just outside arm's reach, as though her mere touch carried a vile contagion.
"I'm on my way to the allied commanders to report the successful completion of my mission," Cecylia kept her head held high and her tone professional.
"What kind of mission would that be? To whore yourself before the enemy just like your ancestors did during the Demonic Invasion?"
A few of the nearby men jeered, but the Lotharin Captain held his expression in contempt, as though his guess had been serious.
This is why I didn't want to stay in camp, Cecylia thought as she held her face expressionless. He's even worse than the usual bigot.
She had prepared herself for this before departing Weichsel; but it had still hurt on the first day when even a lowly cook proclaimed 'we don't serve your kind here'.
Unfortunately, masking herself with illusions while traversing the encampment just wasn't an option. Cecylia's spellcraft wasn't adroit enough to conceal major illusory auras against close scrutiny by trained security officers. To give them suspicion on top of existing prejudice would only serve a recipe for disaster.
"The details of my mission are for command's ears only."
...Not for an insignificant, loathsome half-wit like you, she finished the rest in her head, not wanting to give him an excuse to escalate this further.
"I'm sure a Cataliyan assassin would claim the same thing," the Captain sneered back.
"There are no dhampirs in the Caliphate, and no assassin would be foolish enough fake being one outside of Weichsel."
The retort seemed almost nonchalant, despite the dark history it held. For centuries, the Imperium had prosecuted the dhampirs for their ancestors' betrayal. The Tauheed Caliphate that rose in the south proved even more ruthless; with their continent permanently scarred by the ancient Dragon-Demon Wars, they considered the vampiric descendants to be tainted beyond redemption and therefore worthy of only a quick death.
Cecylia had heard of dhampir communities settling within the Grand Republic of Samara and nations further east. But even though the Blood Oath her predecessors swore made the Falken-clans effective slaves to the Weichsel monarchy, it was still the only country where dhampirs had truly gained a respectable place in society.
Meanwhile, the Lotharin nobleman's brows furrowed as he snapped back:
"Are you calling me a fool?"
"Not at all. I merely spoke of some little-known facts..."
She was still explaining herself when a distant call rang from behind.
Her eyes soon fell upon the short and cute Samaran girl who walked up with a slight limp, arm waving in joyful, if tired cheer.
"Is there a problem with her identification, Captain?" Kaede added in mild confusion as she came closer.
The Lotharin nobleman pursed his lips, obviously recognizing whom the familiar girl belonged to.
"No, not at all," he simply stated before leaving with his men to resume their patrol.
"What was that about?"
Kaede wondered aloud as she staggered up to Cecylia, who wrapped an arm behind the smaller girl to support her.
"In the eyes of most Trinitians, we dhampirs will always be miscreants who transgressed against the Holy Father," Cecylia spoke plainly as she helped Kaede back towards camp's central area.
"...We're used to it though."
The familiar girl, however, only puzzled back:
"But that was over a thousand years ago, right? Today you're a Trinitian just like he is... so what's the difference? If anything, he should be disliking me for being a Samaran and therefore a heathen."
Cecylia couldn't help but smile at Kaede's innocence.
"Except being Samaran makes you a cute, 'tolerated heathen'. Even if you are a nonbeliever, all but the most hard-nosed inquisitors will forgive you for being misguided by your 'past life' memories. Of course, the Grand Republic's 'Blood Bank' diplomacy certainly helped."
"By the way, what happened to your leg?" the dhampir then added.
With a bitter sigh, Kaede's expression clouded:
"The Princess happened."
----- * * * -----
"...And that concludes my report," Cecylia finished as she faced the assembled commanders of the allied force, doing her best to ignore a dozen repellent stares.
"Eight new battalions; that's over four thousand reinforcements..."
"Another twelve thousand on the way by sea as well..."
"They're transferring air cavalry to this front also, those Wasteland drakes..."
The room almost shuddered at the prospect of facing those contaminated monsters from the demon-tainted lands.
"I anticipate they'll be advancing again in a day or two," surmised Major Hans, the Weichsel intelligence officer.
His eyes then returned to the map table, staring at the river fords before the Avorican Capital.
"They'll force the river crossing and lay siege to Roazhon. Once those reinforcements arrive, they'll begin assaulting the city."
"Obviously," jeered Count Albert, a fifty-year old nobleman -- his looks in his mid-twenties -- who came from a branch of the powerful House of Condé.
He was also a younger brother to the Duke of Atrebates, who died heroically defending the right flank in the previous battle.
"--That is why we've spent the past four days fortifying the riverbanks, is it not?" Albert shot Hans another mocking stare before turning towards Pascal. "What I do not understand is why you've taken away hundreds of men and officers from my brother's battalions -- troops that should rightfully fall under my jurisdiction."
"...And many of my soldiers as well," another Lotharin noble joined in.
"What gives you the right to snatch our troops as you see fit?" Albert objected, emboldened by the others' support. "You're just an outsider. A Wick... Weichsel Major at that!"
The door to the command cabin opened and closed, but Pascal was too busy to see who it was.
"I am only carrying out reorganization orders from Princess Sylviane," he pulled out the stack of papers from his extradimensional pocket and shook it in his hands. His eyes then glared between several other nobles who spoke out. "I informed each of you about this two days ago. You agreed then!"
"Only because you browbeat them into it with those so-called 'orders' from Her Highness!" Albert spat out. "And you certainly didn't consult me!"
"They were not your troops in the first place!" Pascal countered, his temper flaring.
"Milord, please," Major Hans tried to intercede on Pascal's behalf. "After our heavy losses from the last battle, it is only natural that we disband the units that suffered the worst casualties and use their manpower to replenish other formations..."
"Shut up, you peasant," the Count sent him another glare. "I don't care how it is in Weichsel, but you have no right to speak here!"
Major Hans' face went red in an instant. But he nevertheless bit back his tongue, clearly realizing that anything he said would only make the situation worse.
"If the Princess wants these done, then why does she not tell us herself? Why has none of us even seen her for the past two days!? Not even a Farspeak message?" Count Albert demanded.
"I have told you..." Pascal tried desperately to keep his own simmering anger under control. "Her Highness fell ill two nights ago. The healers who cured it said her body needs rest to recover from exhaustion. Therefore I..."
"--Therefore you're issuing orders as if it were hers!? You arrogant Weichsens might not care for our customs, but Her Highness does! There is no way she would give such demands without speaking to us in person!"
"That's right!" several others pitched in as well. "You're just a Major, nothing more than a battalion leader! Stop trying to order our whole army around!"
"Is this how the nobility of Rhin-Lotharingie behaves? Are your loyalties so decrepit that you cannot even obey orders unless every decree is personally given to you by Her Highness?"
The deep, authoritative voice silenced the entire cabin in seconds. All eyes turned as they met the towering man who entered just moments ago -- the stiff-jawed Knight Phantom commander, Colonel von Mackensen.
"In order to bring my knights into Avorica in time, Her Highness drained her ether near empty to open the old Faerie Paths. She then spent what little remained covering your retreat in battle. She fell ill because she fought to protect you all, as her duty demanded."
With his tone slowly rising, the Colonel's explanation soon escalated into a shout as he stared down each and every one of the disgruntled Lotharins.
"Yet here you are... squabbling away over who gets to command a few men! Your unit, his unit; are you not all nobles of Rhin-Lotharingie, charged to defend her borders using whatever means necessary in this great hour of need!? But you would rather pull the Princess out of her sickbed, just so she can soothe your bruised egos!?
"Have you no shame!"
Many of the Lotharin nobles looked down in ignominy. But four of them, including Count Albert himself, refused to back down.
"That does not give a mere Major the right to fake orders to our army!"
"Mere Major?" Colonel von Mackensen challenged. "Tell me, Count, how many battle plans have you organized? How many engagements have you commanded?" He gave Albert no more than a second to respond before plowing on. "By the standards of Weichsel, you wouldn't even be a Major! Even by Rhin-Lotharingie ranking, Landgrave von Moltewitz is a Duke. Between his credentials and his position as the future Crown Prince Consort, he has every right to command your obedience as the representative of Her Highness!"
"Furthermore, he has faked no orders," a new, feminine voice came as the cabin door closed again. This time, it was Sylviane's companion, Lady Mari, who stood by the entrance. A hard breathing Cecylia stayed just behind her, clearly having ran to fetch the lady's maid.
When did she sneak out? Pascal couldn't help but wonder, even as he sent a nod of thanks.
"Her Highness personally wrote those orders two nights ago. I can verify, as I had watched her myself." Mari declared as though swearing an oath.
"No wonder why she fell ill," Colonel von Mackensen stared back, amazed. "It must have taken her all night to do that."
That wasn't true. But Mari simply nodded back, her concerned expression never betraying a hint.
"Fine, I accept it as being from Her Highness," Count Albert added, clearly not satisfied with the result. "But it does not excuse His Grace's insult in never conferring with me over those five battalions' disbanding."
You little piece of-- Pascal was gritting his teeth and on the verge of hollering back when Colonel von Mackensen nudged him from the side.
The square-jawed man gave a sideways nod. His eyes bulged as he waved an open palm, as though saying 'just give him something.'
Taking a deep breath, Pascal tried to calm his thoughts.
Shut him up and he'll stop inciting dissent, you mean?
After all, the Count could never command this army; he had neither the rank nor the experience. This meant his challenge against Pascal was for something else, something that would boost his standing among the nobles of Rhin-Lotharingie:
The young Landgrave could feel his teeth gnashing as he lightly bowed his head before the Count:
"My apologies. The fault is mine for not grasping Rhin-Lotharingie's military customs. In return, I would like to offer you one of the most honored locations of the defense plan," Pascal pointed to an upriver marker on the map table. "I personally oversaw its construction. When the infidels come, I have no doubt that its waves will break the Caliphate assault."
The proposal actually killed two birds with one stone. Pascal would never trust a backroom stabber like Albert on the riverfront defense line. The new position might be a prestigious one, but it was also a location least likely to see combat action.
The assembled leaders soon returned to their flurry of tactical planning, mostly feudal lords arguing over whose battalions should be positioned where along the riverfront fortifications. Meanwhile, Pascal exchanged a nod with Colonel von Mackensen, before extracting himself from the crowd and pulling Cecylia outside.
Leaning back against the command cabin, Cecylia began as soon as Pascal raised wards against eavesdropping:
"I met Kaede on my way in. She already told me what happened..."
"Then you know why I want you to talk to her; you are one of her closest friends," Pascal uttered as he looked up to the late afternoon sun. "Her Highness has not emerged from her cabin since two nights ago, and as you heard in there, the Lotharins are growing restless."
In other words -- time was running out.
If the Caliphate forces attacked tomorrow, and Sylviane could not lead because she was still despondent in bed... she would lose all legitimacy as a crown heir before the eyes of her people.
"She's depressed after fighting with you," Cecylia gave a sympathetic frown. "Sylv always gets gloomy after pushing away someone she cares about -- and she relies on you a great deal."
"Great manner of showing it then," came his sullen sarcasm.
"She's sort of like you in that way," the dhampir insisted.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
As their eyes met, Cecylia stared into those turquoise orbs which showed barely a glimmer of their usual clarity. Instead, they were dulled by a tired, melancholic fog; both vision and purpose fading amidst the haze.
But before her lips could open again, Cecylia's instincts warned: that's enough already.
It had always been her personal policy not to get involved in a feud between two close relations.
Years of fighting between her siblings had taught her a crucial childhood lesson. She was better off staying on the sidelines, observing as the neutral third party. To intervene would not only add her bias as fuel to the conflict, but also place herself in bitter struggle for no avail.
Cecylia still remembered her elder sister's gaze on that day she left for the war, never to return.
They weren't just angry or disappointed; they spoke of betrayal.
For years, Eliza had been Cecylia's closest. She was like a mother to the younger sister, a nurturer of the sickly dhampir even more so than their busy parents. Yet on that fateful night, Cecylia's concern for her elder sister made her side against Eliza in a heated argument, until frustration built up and unleashed words she had never meant.
Even to this day, Cecylia remembered those nights of bitter tears and regret, when she swore never to directly involve herself again.
But... is that fair?
The last time two of her closest friends fell out, they had refused to acknowledge one another for years. Cecylia had been forced to choose a side between Pascal and Ariadne, hardly speaking to the other until a certain familiar finally pushed the lord of pricks to mend his ways.
This time, the fallout wouldn't just be between two individuals either. No, it impacted the destiny of entire nations, including the country that offered sanctuary to her kin.
It's more than just friendship at stake here, she forced the final decision upon herself. Duty calls.
"You're both prideful individuals," she explained. "Just how often do you voice your appreciation? To Kaede for example?"
The young Landgrave's mouth twisted before he gave off one of those 'you're-right' sighs.
"But what am I supposed to do when Her Highness..."
"Stop calling her that," Cecylia berated. "You're opening up extra distance for no good reason."
"She is the one who insisted upon the formality, not me."
Seeing the flickers of guilt in his gaze, Cecylia grabbed on and began yanking it with all her might:
"--Oh please, climb down from your moral peak already; it's clearly freezing your brains! Yes, Sylv's behavior was far too excessive. But you know better that all three of you are at fault here! And Kaede was the poor soul who ended up absorbing Sylv's backlash, so what are you doing wallowing in self-pity for?"
"I am not wallowing..."
"Aren't you?" the dhampir's eyes darkened as she trampled right over his weakening retort. "I'm guessing you approached me because you haven't spoken to her at all since the fight -- am I right?"
"I have been busy organizing..."
"Yes, bury yourself in work and call it 'duty' as an excuse," Cecylia locked her blood-red gaze onto him like an unrelenting snare, stopping even his attempts to look away.
"--This army will mean nothing to Weichsel if Sylv falters. You know this is true! Or do you think that pretender Gabriel will gladly switch to our side over the Imperium?"
As gloom began to engulf Pascal, Cecylia realized that her pent-up frustrations were channeling too effectively. She closed her eyes for a moment to calm herself, feeling the ether disperse as intensity faded from her pupils.
A dhampir's gaze had the ability to drain concentration and resolve through close eye contact. It wasn't a trait that Cecylia used on her friends often -- the last occurrence was when she had fun weakening Kaede for a tease back at the academy. But as many innate abilities go, it was hard to hold back once emotions flared.
It was yet another reason why she preferred to stay out of any personal drama.
"Pascal..." she started slower this time. "This isn't like you and Ariadne two years ago. You can't afford to just let the problem simmer with this much at stake..."
"I know that," the young Landgrave blurted out as he pressed his forehead against the cabin wall. "Just..."
"Sylv isn't just your fiancée Pascal," Cecylia interjected. "She's also your family, your childhood companion, your closest friend. She represents your aspirations in a way nobody else can, and you know as well as I do that your life would never have the same meaning without her."
"--I know all that too!"
"Then why aren't you taking this seriously?"
"I am taking this seriously!" Pascal snapped straight, glaring. Tired of arguing with everyone, he leaned his head back against the wall, his eyes full of exhaustion: "I just do not know what I should be doing... how should I see her when I am part of the cause for this entire episode?"
He can command entire armies, but he doesn't know how to smooth things out with his own fiancée, Cecylia sighed. Typical.
Moving next to him, the dhampir girl extended a supportive hand onto his shoulder:
"Just... talk to her, earnestly," she advised. "At this moment, your forgiveness is more important to Sylv than anybody, anything else. After that, the two of you can hopefully work out something so you can avoid this the next time."
"The next time?" Pascal gaped.
"Of course," Cecylia stared intently. "You're oozing with arrogance and take everything for granted; she has trouble keeping her emotions in check; and Kaede won't just suddenly vanish and stop causing misunderstandings between you two. This situation will happen again. The only difference is how the three of you will react to it. What you need is an established strategy on how to defuse these incidents, not escalate it like this time."
"What?" she added in the speechless silence that followed. "Did you think maintaining a relationship was easier than coordinating a battle?"
Cecylia shook her head and almost rolled her eyes too:
"Remember: the best relationships -- where both sides complement one another and have the most to gain -- are also those with the most obstacles to overcome."
"Who did you learn that from?" Pascal puzzled.
"Ariadne," Cecylia grinned back, knowing fully well that the mere idea of seeming less mature than her would leave Pascal irritated and anxious for a challenge.
...And sure enough, she didn't miss the double twitch from his temple.
"All right; I understand," Pascal pursed his lips in determination. "I will speak to Sylv right after this. But could you..."
"Of course," Cecylia grinned back in encouragement.
She stretched her arms high before stepping away.
"I'll go talk to Sylv and lay the groundwork first. But remember Pascal," Cecylia spun around and pointed a teasing finger at him. "you're the only one who can truly bring her out of it, so I expect you to follow up well!"
"No pressure," she added with one last smile.
Of course, the real dilemma that plagued Cecylia wouldn't occur until later that night -- when she had to decide just how much of her day she should report to King Leopold of Weichsel.
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