Kaede was aghast as she trekked into the wasteland north of town.
She had seen the mushroom cloud on her way back, its dispersing smoke clouding out the afternoon sun. She had requested to scout ahead with her Rangers; but despite her desperate plea -- or perhaps because of it -- Lady Vivienne had denied her the privilege and gave the mission to another.
It had taken every bit of Kaede's willpower to stay with the detachment returning from Lysardh Point, to not rush ahead and verify with her own eyes just what Pascal had done this time.
She had no doubt it was Pascal, likely with help from that jewelry box of his. She hadn't forgotten his burnt hair and disheveled image from three days ago when he returned after testing out some 'Wunderwaffe' spell. Combine this with the audacity he had already shown with experimental spells when summoning her, and it created a dangerous situation where a prodigious mage could unleash devastation far beyond his control.
Kaede had to remind herself that any sufficiently large explosion could produce a mushroom cloud. Apart from a handful of utility spells passed down by the Dragonlords, Hyperion magic was limited to either natural phenomena that they could visualize, or science based on Newtonian physics which they actually understood. They could channel the elements and synthesize chemicals for powerful fuel-air explosions. But to cross the realm into quantum physics?
The thought was absurd.
Surely, not even Pascal could mimic a thermonuclear weapon.
...Or so she had thought, until she saw the battleground for herself.
Her first shock came as she met the moving trees that patrolled the woods like elephant herds. Even the latest dispatches from Glywysing could not prepare her for their nonsensical sight. Crawling across the land on four sturdy 'legs' that seemed too short for their massive body, the animated plants paid no attention to the stunned men and women of the Lotharin battlegroup.
Yet... as they lumbered off into the distance, Kaede heard horrified screams just before several trees slammed their limbs onto the ground to silence them. It soon dawned upon her that somehow, these moving trees could discern friend from foe as they cleaned up stragglers retreating from the battlefield.
But even that wasn't as alien as when the forest abruptly ended, leaving the town of Glywysing with almost a five kilopace radius of cleared ground. Large pits surrounded by uprooted earth displayed where those walking trees had come from, as though an entire forest of tens -- no, hundreds of thousands -- had suddenly decided to migrate.
There was, however, one exception...
A field of broken trees laid to the northeast of town. Thousands of branch-less, burned out husks swept to one side as though blown by a hurricane of flames. The damage grew steadily towards the northwest, with stumps vanishing into the ground until there was only a blackened, lifeless landscape.
Still unable to contact Pascal through telepathy, Kaede handed off command to Sergeant Gaspard and swiftly made her way north around the edge of town. The streets were awash with corpses left by the vicious urban combat, the air saturated by the nauseous smell of blood and guts. Soldiers and citizens alike worked nonstop to cart the dead off to mass burial pits dug just outside the town. However as the skies glowed with the reddish-orange tinge of dusk, Kaede doubted they would even come close to finishing today.
Then, as she stepped beyond Glywysing's northern perimeter, the terrain changed into that apocalyptic wasteland.
A roughly conical swath of scorched earth stretched across the battlefield, with blackened strips of death splitting off before crashing into allied positions. The trees that once stood here had been reduced to charred stumps. The occasional building identifiable only by hints of tumbled walls and rubble. The air was still warm and permeated with the smell of burning dirt and flesh. Yet within this nauseating atmosphere, several platoons of soldiers accompanied by medics worked tirelessly to look for survivors while bringing the dead to wagons.
One of these wagons was nearby, and one look upon its contents left Kaede almost retching. A tangle of blackened limbs stiffened by rigor mortis protruded from the mass of burned out husks, corpses so disfigured that they hardly even looked 'human'.
But even that wasn't the worst sight. In the distance, her familiar-boosted vision could spot rows of deep shadows etched across what were once dirt roads. These haunting images marked the final positions of marching army columns -- hundreds, perhaps even thousands of men who were instantly vaporized by an intense fireball.
Pascal... just what have you done?
Kaede's lips were ajar. Her mouth and eyes quivered nonstop. Her arms and fingers trembled without end. Her stiff legs carried her across the land in a zombie-like fashion, while a slow trickle of tears pooled into her gaze.
Three years ago, Kaede couldn't sleep for two days after visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Now, she wasn't sure if she could ever sleep again.
Just what have I told you to 'inspire' this...?
Try as she might, Kaede couldn't remember saying anything that would have led down this horrifying path. Sure, she had mentioned the atomic bombs to Pascal. She even gave him a shorthand description of fusion in a conversation about forces in the universe. But she couldn't have given him any details about the functions of an atomic bomb. It was simply impossible when she herself didn't understand the quantum mechanics necessary to produce a thermonuclear reaction.
Yet the reality was undeniable. Somehow Pascal had not only made it work, but also released the explosion in a mostly conical blast. Now, Kaede stood overlooking the result -- a land of death rippling out from 'ground zero' of what was clearly a multi-kiloton detonation.
A painful cry to the southwest fell into a gurgling sound, and Kaede turned to the line of aid tents marked by crucifixes in Samaran-blood-red. She could hear the endless groaning of injured troops, while a breeze carried over not the smell of bloody surgery, but the pungent odor of vomit.
How could I have forgotten...!? She thought as a horrifying realization dawned.
Kaede almost tripped as she dashed forward. Her legs stumbled as she ran, but she didn't care as she made her way to the nearest tent.
Rows of Lotharin soldiers laid on the stretchers and blankets that covered the ground. Some of them vomited to the side as blood dripped from their noses. Others sported what seemed an intense sunburn on their faces except with chunks of skin already sloughing off. Batches of human hair could be seen scattered across the ground, and the nauseating smell of diarrhea wafted across the air as some soldiers, too exhausted to stay conscious, simply soiled themselves.
She didn't recognize all of the symptoms, but some of them were definitely signs of acute radiation poisoning.
The medical staff could only analyze and care for the soldiers as best as they could. Kaede could hear the casting phrases of Invigorate spells. It was clear as day that the healers were baffled by the symptoms and had no idea what they were dealing with.
"Healer!" Kaede accosted the nearest one she could find. She grabbed him by the shirt as her frantic words spilled out: "You have to move these people, these tents further away from the battlefield! Otherwise the radiation will...!"
"Ho-shasen?" The man replied, hardly even pronouncing the word that Kaede spilled forth in plain Japanese.
Her eyes went wide as she realized the implication, the possibility that she should have considered from the start:
Hyperion had no concept of what 'radiation' even was.
An unfamiliar voice came from behind, and Kaede turned to face an unfamiliar Lotharin noblewoman flanked by armigers.
"You're the familiar of that Weichsel Landgrave, correct?" She asked again, before receiving a slight nod. "The Princess sent word that if you returned, you are to immediately report to her in the main camp."
There was something about her scowl that expressed a clear disapproval for the familiar girl.
"Are you the commander here?" Kaede inquired.
"I am in charge of these few tents, yes."
"Then please, you have to move them further away from the battlefield!"
The noblewoman stared back. For a moment she seemed nonplussed, but as the seconds dragged on a simmering ire returned to her gaze:
"Look, I don't know what you think you know, but your master's stunt today has already killed hundreds of my countrymen, including a cousin of mine. Many of these men simply cannot afford to be moved until they recover some."
"Carole," The lady turned impatiently to one of her subordinates. "Take her to Her Highness."
"Yes Milady," the female armiger bowed lightly before seizing Kaede's arm.
"Wait... please, Milady!" Kaede was almost yelling as she was being dragged off. "You have to move them further away or even more lives will be put at risk!"
It didn't please Kaede at all that she was somehow the one being sent to safety. In her opinion, there was no one more deserving of the radiation than herself for revealing what should never have been told to Pascal.
----- * * * -----
"...Your Highness," the senior healer, Sir Ariel, faced Sylviane as he explained in exasperation. "We've already healed most of his burns, repaired his rib cage, and stopped his internal bleeding -- all as you requested. Yes, he still has broken bones under stasis that we could mend. But how would that help?"
"How would it help!?" the Princess lashed back with distress written across her face. "Shall I break your arm and see if it hurts!?"
Sylviane didn't care for the disappointed gaze from the elderly healer with salt-and-pepper hair. All she thought of was how her father should never have knighted this man. He clearly couldn't act with the professionalism expected of his kind.
Lying on the bed inside his cabin, Pascal had been cleaned up from the blackened mess they first found him in. But even after healing his severe burns, his skin remained an inconsistent red, with small patches of flesh and hair occasionally coming loose as though he was a scale-shedding lizard.
Only two attending medics and a junior healer monitored Pascal's condition right now. Sylviane's phoenix Hauteclaire also perched on the bed's headboard, his soothing aura radiating outwards to keep the atmosphere an ideal temperature.
"His Grace's body is beginning to degrade at a cellular level," the healer spoke solemnly. "At this rate, we'll be seeing multiple organ failures within the next few hours. And currently, we don't even know why it's happening!"
"I don't want to hear your excuses!" she snarled back. "Find out why! That is your job!"
Sir Ariel and the Princess were so caught up in their argument that they didn't even hear the cabin door open.
"Your Highness, we have nearly a thousand patients out there with milder symptoms of the same illness. Of course I intend to find a cure!" The man looked insulted. "But I cannot do so by wasting my time and ether on a mur... on a body that is already so damaged it is likely hopeless!"
Sylviane was certain that Ariel was about to call Pascal a 'murderer'. However before she had the chance to act on it...
"Hopeless?" Kaede stood in the doorway, her fearful eyes bouncing from Pascal's still form, to the pair who were arguing, to Elspeth and the medical staff who remained quiet in the background.
Sir Ariel clearly recognized Kaede at a glance. His gaze softened with pity and remorse:
"His body is starting to break down. Without even any idea of what this illness is, I'm afraid there's little we can do for him."
In other words, you're about to follow your master into death.
Sylviane's fingers clenched as she felt an overwhelming urge to execute him.
But before she could say anything, the familiar added five words that surprised them all:
"I know what it is."
The Princess' eyes bulged as she immediately swiveled to face Kaede.
"Not in great detail," the Samaran girl admitted. "I'm fairly certain that whatever Pascal did, he unknowingly released a radiation wave. There have been many cases of this... illness, in my country during the last war, so I've read the basics. His body is breaking down because the radiation's ionizing effects have damaged his cellular DNA, leading to large scale deaths among his body's tissue cells."
'Radiation', 'DNA' -- Kaede was suddenly sprouting nonsense words that Sylviane had never even heard of. With one look at the healer, it was clear that he didn't know them either.
A frantic sense of helplessness rapidly encroached into Kaede's rose-quartz gaze. Yet even as the girl faced her own approaching death, her eyes still darted around in thought, looking for an inspiration, an answer.
"Then how about... do you know what cancer is?"
"The disease that causes tumors?"
It was a younger healer from the back who blurted out, and Kaede took a moment to think before nodding.
Sylviane turned back to Sir Ariel, who replied:
"No one has ever nailed down the cause, but we do understand the disease enough to treat it."
"You can!?" the Samaran girl's eyes widened to saucers.
"The Regeneration spell works by stimulating the body's natural repair process, accelerating tissue growth by several magnitudes," he explained. "Therefore it's crucial that there are built-in safeguards to identify healthy cells while terminating diseased ones. Once the tumor is removed by surgery, a prolonged treatment of daily Regeneration spells will gradually purge the illness from the body, ensuring no repeats."
Kaede stood amazed, and for a brief moment her lips simply hung open in midair.
"Well? Can you help him then?" Sylviane stared between Kaede and Sir Ariel, irritated by her own helplessness.
"We might be able to use Regeneration to treat this illness," the Samaran girl stared at Pascal's red face. "I'd assume that the cellular DNA damage from radiation poisoning would be much more widespread. But there should still be some cells which are either healthy or able to self-repair. If the Regeneration spell could latch onto that... then you should be able to heal him."
"But," the junior healer cut in again. "Regeneration is a bio-alchemy spell and therefore has minimalistic effect on mages. It's why lost appendages for us are far more permanent than for commoners..."
The young man hadn't even finished before Kaede rolled up her sleeves and pulled off her long gloves.
"Take as much as you need," she offered her bared forearm with a determined gaze. "My blood is Samaran and I also carry his ether. You might just be able to work a miracle."
Sylviane watched as the healers considered this. Normally, mages couldn't use ether refined by another soul to craft spells. But similar to other natural metamages like phoenixes, Samaran blood seems to ignore this rule for curative spells.
"No. I cannot allow this--!"
Sir Ariel put his proverbial foot down.
"Just how many Regeneration castings do you think it would take? How many others could we save with all the blood you're proposing to risk on this gamble? We should be healing our own--"
Ariel hadn't even finished before the fuming Princess grabbed him by the collar. Pushing him back with all the strength her exhausted body could muster, she slammed him against the cabin wall.
"Listen, you ungrateful bastard. I don't care how many castings it takes! Pascal wagered everything he had, including his life, to support us in this war! Only the last second sabotage of the Cataliyans made his spell lose control! I will not have some rear-echelon bigot like you accuse him out of ignorance!"
Sylviane hardly cared that the 'sabotage' was an outright lie. She knew that Pascal most likely just lost control of an unfamiliar spell. But given the lack of information that Sir Cailean was able to gather when she sent him to investigate, it was doubtful that any proof had survived to challenge her version.
"--I expect you to do your best in treating him! Because if he dies tonight, then I will have you hanged for criminal negligence!"
The Princess wasn't even threatening. Her words rang with the finality of an ultimatum, spoken and reinforced with a death glare.
She never saw the mixed reaction as Kaede scowled behind her.
On any other day, the familiar might have considered objecting against such blatant abuse of power. But with Pascal's life on the line? She merely addressed the stunned medical staff in her kind, wispy voice:
"Just so you understand what's at stake -- if Pascal dies, then I will also pass onto the next life. And it is clear to me that I'm the only one here with any understanding of what this illness even is."
At the time, neither of them realized just what an effective combination they made.
----- * * * -----
Sylviane was still fuming as she strode away from Pascal's cabin.
That short-sighted, arrogant, racist, moronic piece of...
She would have liked to stay in Pascal's cabin, to oversee the healers as they performed their work. Yet as the Crown Princess and commander of this army -- or what little of it that remained -- she had her own duties to attend to.
Part of her couldn't help but feel envious of Kaede. In a time when Pascal hung on the precipice between life and death, it was his fiancée who should be sitting by his side and grasping his hand. Instead, not only was Sylviane useless in providing assistance, she couldn't even stay with him.
Nevertheless, she was glad that the Samaran girl had returned. If Pascal recovered, then there would be no doubt that they owe a great debt to the familiar girl.
No, I need to stop thinking like that, Sylviane chided herself. It's as Pascal said -- there is no debt when we help each other, because we're family.
With Elspeth in tow, Sylviane took some deep, calming breaths as she strode across the largely abandoned inner camp towards a great, towering oak.
It was the only tree that remained in what had once been a wooded Lotharin encampment.
Though 'remained' wasn't exactly correct. It had grown legs and walked off just like its other brethren, only to return after the battle and root itself back in. Even now, Sylviane could see the trunk's four way split, just paces before its 'legs' plunged into the ground.
The perpetrator of all this now sat on its lowest branch -- a middle-aged lady caressing a bright-blue phoenix with golden jewels on its tail.
Courtain, the lost phoenix, Sylviane sighed. So much for it being lost.
As a young girl being groomed as the Crown Princess, Sylviane had to memorize the lineages of all five royal families in the Empire, as well as the succession lines of all twelve Oriflamme Paladins. Unlike the other phoenixes, Courtain had only been summoned once in all of Rhin-Lotharingie's history.
Her master was Gwendolyn -- the Princess-Consort who deposed her Imperial-puppet husband, joined the rebellion to become the first Queen of a new Ceredigion, and later abdicated in favor of her son.
Family legend had it that she and the first Emperor, Louis the Bold, had also been lovers. However it remained a secret because Gwendolyn... was a heathen.
"Your Majesty," Sylviane bowed lightly.
Technically, she outranked a former queen like Gwendolyn. But facing a woman who should be dead centuries ago yet returned to rout an army, it was better to be respectful than to be sorry.
"Hello Princess," Gwendolyn pushed herself off the branch and landed with the catlike grace expected of most Faekissed. "You don't mind if I call you Sylv, do you? I was quite close to your Great-Great-Grandfather Louis."
Should have expected this from her kind. Sylviane sighed before forcing a slight smile:
"Of course not."
Gwendolyn should be nearly three centuries old, yet the woman standing before Sylviane still had the appearance of a commoner in her late-thirties. She stood at around the same height, with long brown locks flowing freely down thin shoulders. Her face was a bit long to fit the conventional standards of beauty. But her skin was fair, her eyes a bright spring-green, and her thin lips naturally curled in a teasing smile. Her ankle-length dress seemed too simple -- green and white with only golden strings embroidered near the edges. However there was no doubt of its fabric quality or that of her shawl.
"I thought you were dead?" Sylviane spoke as she kept her distance. Even at five paces, the Princess could feel her nose itching as fresh pollen drifted through the air between them.
I hate dealing with Springborn.
"The exact words in all the official records state that I... 'left this world with a broken heart'," Gwendolyn's smile turned melancholic. "I would know. I cast the spell to rewrite all of them myself."
That has to be illegal somewhere, Sylviane scowled.
"I don't mean to sound disrespectful, but how are you still alive?"
Gwendolyn simply shrugged.
"Once I started journeying between worlds, mortality just... seemed less interesting."
Sylviane's temple twitched as her irritation rose:
"Then why did you not help us? You're an Oriflamme sworn to the defense of Rhin-Lotharingie, are you not? How could you just forsake your vows and desert your country like that? Vanish for entire centuries?"
Her demanding tone soon escalated into anguish. Fury blazed in the Princess' gaze as she realized just how differently events could have unfolded, if only this woman had returned sooner.
"Why couldn't you have returned at the start of the war? Why couldn't you have done so a month, or even a week ago? You could have saved tens of thousands of people!"
...Pascal, Robert, Mari, and maybe even Lindsay and Father!
Water pooled into the Princess' eyes once more as she thought of all the loved ones burned by the callous flames of war.
Gwendolyn's smile had vanished. Her long face held only a stiff expression, as though declaring 'it couldn't be helped.'
"I'm no longer just a Queen or a Paladin. Those days are forever gone," she explained with a sad nostalgia in her soft meadow gaze. "I'm a Worldwalker now, and unless I wish to plunge the world into further chaos, I must follow the rules of being one."
"Stop talking in riddles! You're not making any sense!" The Princess almost yelled as warm tears began to slip down her cheeks.
Your Highness, you should consider taking a rest. You're emotionally exhausted.
Even now, Sylviane could almost still hear Mari's telepathic voice. Like any good lady's maid, Mari knew how to blend into the background and thus rarely spoke. But when she did, she always gave her advice deftly like the older sister that Sylviane never had.
Closing the distance in swift steps, Gwendolyn wrapped her arm around the younger girl and pulled her into a tight embrace. For a moment Sylviane struggled. Though as the grip grew tighter, the Princess remembered that Gwendolyn was also once a sovereign who lost family and loved ones on the battlefield.
"A mother may slap a neighbor for bullying her children. But a Queen who retaliates could bring war upon her entire realm," the older woman explained. "You saw what I did today, Sylv. What do you think would happen if a group of immortal archmages, each as powerful or even more so than myself, began a war over their respective homelands across the world?"
The first thought that came to Sylviane's mind was the massive fireball that covered a quarter of the morning skies, except multiplied a thousand-fold and stretching across the world.
Gwendolyn must have thought she was wailing, as the older woman began rubbing the back of her head. However as the itch in Sylviane's nose grew past her limit, she couldn't help but sneeze into the former queen's bosom.
Thankfully, the centuries-old ruler released her and cleaned them both, otherwise the Princess would have had her face pressed into her own snot.
"Then... how long will you be allowed to remain?" The Princess rubbed her nose as she slowly calmed down.
"Two days," Gwendolyn raised her fingers. "One for every century that I haven't interfered."
The gears immediately began to churn in Sylviane's head. Just how much could they take advantage of an immortal archmage's presence and turn the tide of war in two days' time?
"...And I cannot leave the borders of Ceredigion," the woman added.
The Princess' face fell, disappointed. After all, most of the Caliphate's troops were still in Avorica and Garona.
"Please tell me you have more of a plan than just annihilating one army," she pleaded.
...And Gwendolyn, for the first time, returned a broad, unrestrained smile:
"Great minds think alike," her eyes flickered with approval. "You see, I had begun planning for this ever since I heard the story of how Kan... another Worldwalker's interference left a legacy that still protects her homeland today. Of course, each Worldwalker has a unique set of magical expertise, so copying another's work is almost impossible.
"So Sylv, do you remember what my nicknames are?"
Sylviane pressed her curled fingers against her chin.
One of Gwendolyn's nicknames was the Faerie Sword. She was an exemplary swordswoman, but also said to be a Faekissed with so much otherworldly blood that she couldn't stand the touch of metal. This drove her into excavating and studying the artifacts of the Faerie Lords. The Crysteel Faerie Plate armor that Sylviane wore right now was one of the results, along with the spells used to control the Faerie Rings that had brought Weichsel reinforcements to this front.
She said 'nicknames', the Autumnborn Princess thought. Were there any others?
Two words fell out of her mental archive after several moments of searching. However she couldn't remember the what they meant; the story attached to them had been lost.
"The Faerie Sword... and Arboreal Sanctum," Sylviane replied before raising her head upwards, her eyes staring at the giant oak tree.
An 'arboreal sanctum' certainly described the wooded realm of Ceredigion. But what did it mean for an individual?
"Right," Gwendolyn nodded. "I had three specializations in magic -- fae lore, druidic sorcery, and planar creation. Years of research into the first two resulted in the spell you witnessed earlier today."
You can't mean... Sylviane looked up at the tree with renewed awe. "Just how long will they stay this way?"
"Oh, I'm afraid they're not in some temporary, magically-animated state," the Worldwalker's grin grew wider. "I fundamentally altered them to create several newly awakened species."
Extending both hands outwards, Gwendolyn spun backwards as though dancing, until she stood beneath the branches of the giant oak.
"Sylv, I present to you your newest subjects -- the Migrating Trees of Ceredigion!"
The Princess' chin dropped and froze as the giant tree's trunk groaned, bending slightly as though bowing to her.
"Powerful, enduring, plus they produce a potent neurotoxin against foes," Gwendolyn glowed with pride. "I'll teach you how to communicate with them later tonight, so that your descendants may always coexist in mutual cooperation and peace."
----- * * * -----
Kaede felt like she was about to fall unconscious at any moment.
Laying still besides Pascal, she was so exhausted that she could barely keep her eyes open. Her lips stayed ajar to allow her weak lungs enough air. Her mind was enshrouded in a fog that made thinking difficult.
But even this was better than two hours ago when the healers had just finished. Their Invigorate spells continued to work their slow magic, while Hauteclaire kept her engulfed in his soothing aura.
Nevertheless, hints of a smile shadowed her pale lips as two consoling thoughts drifted across her mind:
One was Sir Ariel's promise that the 'operation' was successful and that Pascal would at least live, assuming continued Regeneration treatments.
The other was his dispatch that all aid tents and their patients be moved further west to leave the radioactive fallout zone.
In the meantime, the sun had long fallen, and only darkness could be seen through the windows in this cloudy night. The healers and staff had mostly departed, leaving only a medic to watch over Pascal and his familiar.
Kaede hardly noticed the sound of the cabin door creaking open. The Samaran girl only registered Sylviane's presence when the young medic bolted to her feet.
"How is he?" the Princess accosted the medic, her voice anxious despite the exhaustion in her slouched stance.
"Sir Ariel said that His Grace should make it through. With further Regeneration treatments, he might be able to recover in time. Although it would be best if he was kept comatose for at least three more days to help his body heal."
Sylviane's collapsed into a chair and breathed a deep sigh of relief as her head drooped.
"So he'll make a full recovery in time then?"
"Not... quite..." The petite medic's voice turned timid.
"I'm not going to bite the messenger," the Princess sent an annoyed stare. "Get to the point."
The young girl swallowed.
"His Grace's hands and arms had been seriously damaged by the... back-blast, or whatever this 'radiation' thing is. The skin and muscles will heal, but as you know... we have trouble regenerating ether-conductive nerves once a critical damage limit is reached. Sir Ariel believes that His Grace's sense of touch will never fully return to normal. It's possible that his arms and even legs may stay numb for the rest of his life. Still..." she glanced at Kaede, "we're working under unique conditions here.
"His facial nerves also suffered severe damage, particularly his eyes. We don't know if his eyesight will ever recover. He will be blind when he wakes up, and there is a high possibility that it will stay that way."
"You're joking," Sylviane added in a menacing tone.
The medic almost squeaked. It was obvious she was too scared to even contemplate humor.
"Have faith... Your Highness," Kaede barely muttered, her wispy words gasped out between shallow breaths. "I'm sure... that my blood... can work another miracle. Until then... he can borrow... my eyes. Besides..."
A fatalistic chuckle emerged from her lips:
"I'm sure... he'll look good... even in sunglasses."
Sylviane blinked, clearly not knowing what Kaede even meant. She then exhaled a long breath as she turned to the medic.
"Is that all?" She asked before receiving a hasty nod. "Then leave us. I'll keep watch over him tonight."
The young girl didn't wait another second. She rushed an awkward curtsy before fleeing the room.
As the door closed, Sylviane let go of an even longer sigh before pulling her chair up besides Kaede.
"Do I really scare people that much?" She asked, mostly to herself.
"Do you want... an honest answer?" Kaede smiled a little.
It wasn't that the Princess had a scary face or anything. But at times she could summon a real, royal temper that anyone who was both intelligent and valued their own head would tread carefully around.
Though for Kaede... there had never been a better opportunity to speak her mind than now.
"Thank you, Kaede," Sylviane's gaze shimmered in the dim light as she grasped the smaller girl's hand. "For being here, for everything you've done for him today... thank you so much."
The Princess brought the familiar's pale hand to her cheek, just as a single, shining tear slid out. Kaede could feel the warmth and wetness of the droplet, as though proof of just how earnest Sylviane truly was.
"Pascal always said... we're family... aren't we?" Kaede whispered out.
Another tear fell as the Princess heartily nodded.
"Yes, yes! We are!"
Guilt formed in her wisteria gaze even as an adoration for the smaller girl bloomed.
"I'm really, truly sorry for how I've treated you up until now."
Kaede's smile took on a forgiving note. Her relationship with Sylviane had certainly been rocky up to this point.
She wasn't naive though. She knew that whatever Sylviane felt now, there would always be occurrences in the future where royal jealousy would manifest once more. But if Mari and Robert's dedication for the Princess were any indication, Sylviane was also a girl who knew how to repay kindness in spades. As long as Kaede didn't overstep enough to lose her head, she should always be able to recover by leveraging their special relationship through Pascal.
"Friends?" Kaede took the opportunity to ask.
"Isn't that a given? If we're family?"
You should know better as royalty. Kaede thought, before noticing that Sylviane was also acting funny.
The Princess had glanced away. A deep red was coursing up her cheeks, and her sure voice fell to a tentative mutter as she asked:
For a brief moment, Kaede found herself caught completely by surprise. However as the seconds passed away, she found her grin growing as wide as her exhausted cheek muscles would allow.
"Mmh, mmmh!" Her touched gaze nodded with enthusiasm.
"I'm still your senior though," Sylviane tilted her chin back up as she laid down the pecking order. "So you have to listen to me, understood?"
"Yes, Milady... or rather, Onee..."
Kaede noticed that her word simply translated into some compound Imperial term, smashed together in Germanic linguistic fashion. She would have to explain the special significance her words held in Japanese, which roughly meant 'esteemed elder sister' but implied so much more. Though even if Sylviane never understood the respect and admiration endowed in this endearing phrase, it nevertheless sent a broad smile and reassuring warmth through Kaede just to say it out loud:
----- * * * -----
Kaede fell asleep for a few hours after that, only to awake before dawn could arrive. Rubbing her eyes with her still-weak hands, she found the room barely illuminated by a film of glowing embers that stretched across Hauteclaire.
Royal night light, she smiled a little, before realizing that the phoenix wasn't the only one who stayed.
Sylviane was still awake, sitting on Pascal's side this time as she watched over them both from the shadows.
"Milady... Onee-sama, shouldn't you get some sleep?"
"No..." The Princess sighed. "Let me at least feel like I'm doing what a fiancée should."
Kaede had no doubt that once the sun rose, Sylviane would have to leave Pascal again as she went off managing official business. Over the past week, it was mostly Pascal who managed the army's organization, while the Princess focused more on political tasks. Though with him down and out, the workload would suddenly double.
"I can help tomorrow, you know," Kaede muttered. "I may not be a prodigy like Pascal, but I did learn a few things from him."
The Princess picked up her chair in the dimly-lit shadows and dragged it around the bed, back to Kaede's side.
"I'm sure you can," her smile was grateful. "Pascal certainly finds your advice useful. Still... I'd be more comfortable if at least one of us stayed with him... Besides, I doubt you will recover from your anemia in just a few days, especially when the healers will no doubt need more blood for the Regeneration treatments."
Kaede nodded silently. She knew she should prepare herself to be mostly bedridden for a while.
"Though... there is something you can do for me," Sylviane added before pointing her casting glove, turning on the overhead light crystal.
The Princess pulled open her extradimensional belt pockets and reached into them.
"Sir Robert left you something. And with Pascal incapacitated, it's time I bring you into this council..."
Left me... something?
It was only then that Kaede realized:
"What happened to him? And Mari?"
Sylviane's body instantly froze.
Her quivering eyes were a bright red and ringed by shadows. Kaede had thought at first it was just sleep deprivation. However as the Princess' shoulders trembled yet her eyes barely moistened, Kaede realized that Sylviane had been crying by herself again.
Silent, alone, and in the barely-lit shadows, she had gone on until she ran out of tears.
She wasn't sleeping... because she can't sleep.
It was the survivor's guilt that Kaede knew all too well.
Exerting her arms' strength, the familiar slowly propped herself to sit up on the bed. Though as soon as she leaned over to give her elder sister a hug, her muscles gave away and she collapsed onto Sylviane's shoulders.
"It's okay," Kaede nevertheless soothed. "You can cry aloud. It'll make you feel better."
"You don't understand... I don't deserve to feel better!" The Princess croaked.
"They died, protecting me! For ME! Taking blows that should have struck me!"
No matter how one looked at it, Sylviane was still just a twenty-year old. Yet those thin shoulders quaked as they bore the weight of an entire Empire, a mountain of emotional strain that no individual should ever have to bear themselves.
"...And they were glad to do it, if it meant that you could live," Kaede whispered without any doubt.
"Well they shouldn't have had to! They wouldn't have had to! If only I hadn't been so mule-headed and saw reason! I could have called a retreat! Yet I didn't... I couldn't just give it all up!
"I wanted to win... not just the battle but also the country, to RETAKE the Lotharin throne!" Sylviane wailed. "And I killed them for it!"
Kaede tried to tighten her arms. But without any strength left in them, she could only settle for slowly rubbing the back of Sylviane's head.
"And that... is where you're wrong," she added as Sir Robert's sunny, heartwarming smile came to mind.
Even by the end, Kaede didn't know Mari that well. However she knew Robert. Even if he was kind of selfish and unreasonable at times, she still liked the gallant knight who would do everything in his power for the benefit of his country, his liege.
"Mari and Robert would gladly give their lives to see you on the throne. Of that, I am absolutely certain," Kaede declared. "It is your job to see that they did not die in vain. To retake the crown and rule the Empire with a righteous hand, so that their souls in Heaven may take pride and find solace."
A brief silence fell after that, and Kaede felt only Sylviane's trembling body in her embrace. Then, as the Princess let loose an animal-like cry that rapidly grew into an ear-piercing wail, it was only thanks to Kaede's earlier laziness -- having fallen asleep with her enchanted earrings still on -- that she did not lose her familiar-boosted hearing.
----- * * * -----
Outside, Edith-Estellise shed a bittersweet tear as she leaned her head back against cabin wall.
She had been taking a midnight patrol of the camp when she found Elspeth guarding outside the Landgrave's cabin with her head drooping. It wasn't really surprising after such an exhausting day. But there was possible danger that enemy agents, not to mention her former co-conspirators, might take advantage of the Princess' depleted armigers. Therefore Edith dismissed Elspeth -- with a little convincing and much insistence -- before taking up guard herself.
The cabin was almost soundproof, and Edith never heard the conversations that went on inside. However she did notice when the light turned back on, and Sylviane's sorrowful wail was so loud even the enchantments failed to completely block it.
The Crusader Saint was sympathetic, of course. Every noble worthy of their rank had lost close companions and loved ones today.
But more than that, she was glad.
No, she wasn't happy that Sylviane was suffering. Instead, she took reassurance that the Princess could feel such deep, personal pain from the loss of others.
Edith had already learned from the good healers that the Landgrave's life had been saved. His familiar had apparently came up with a way to save those dying from that ruinous spell. Though due to the high costs of Regeneration and their limited magical resources, hundreds of those afflicted would likely still die.
Perhaps His Grace should be held accountable. Although Edith believed such judgment was premature. The chaos of battle meant anything could happen, especially to the casting process of complex archmage spells. It was evident his goal was to wipe out the infidel attack wave with a conical blast, except something even he was unprepared for had occurred.
Regardless, this meant that Sylviane had no need to cry over her fiancée. Then who else would she be wailing over, if not for her guards and soldiers?
A sovereign who truly cared for the lives of her men -- that was rarer than her weight in gold.
It was yet another sign that Edith had made the right choice during last morning's aborted coup.
Thank you, Holy Father, she looked up into the cloudy skies, wondering once more just how mysterious the Lord's ways truly were.
And thank you for saving us all today.
Edith had met the Worldwalker named Gwendolyn. Heathen or not, her courteous bow before the Cross of Hyperion showed that she clearly respected the almighty Lord. Hence, there was no doubt that her coming to aid Rhin-Lotharingie was just another result of the Holy Father's omnipotent will.
Kneeling down onto the hard, frosty ground, Edith-Estellise put her hands together in a barely audible prayer:
"I vow before you, Holy Father, that I will not rest until Her Highness -- your chosen Empress -- sits upon the throne."
Closing her eyes, she felt a tear of joy and certainty roll down her cheeks.
What better sign was there that it was the ambitious Templars who sinned, that her father had indeed been just and would continue to watch over their realm from Heaven?
Edith knew that she would take the secret to her grave. Although in this moment, she couldn't help but revel:
...I'm proud to have Her Highness as my dear sister.
----- * * * -----
Leaning against the headboard next to a still-comatose Pascal, Kaede read through the parchment containing a portion of Robert's will:
"Kaede, if you are reading this, then I have already left to face the Lord's judgment. I know we have not known each other for long, and during this short time, I have already laid several unrealistic expectations upon you. Yet, as an armiger sworn to the service of the Gaetane dynasty and Rhin-Lotharingie, I have no choice but to make one last selfish request."
Cheater... Kaede thought as her gaze grew a bit teary.
Robert no doubt knew that she didn't have it in her to simply ignore his dying wish.
"Of all the people close to Her Highness, you are one of the few without even any shred of personal ambition. The Princess may still be envious and suspicious of you, however I have no doubt that you are a person of integrity. You only fear for your own life, perhaps because you do not have any of the protections that nobles like Pascal receive through their status. Well, I intend to give you a basic guarantee. It is not much, and it comes with a heavy burden; but I am certain that Her Highness will not deny my final wish.
"Would you please take my place on the Grand Council and be a voice of caution and reason to Her Highness?
Kaede looked up at the Princess, puzzled:
"Finish reading, and I'll explain."
Her gaze returned to the parchment and saw one more paragraph:
"I also leave behind directions that may help you in this. My parents, in their recent travels, discovered a spring near a village settled by veterans. It is said that drinking from the spring helps with traumatic episodes. Father tested the water and found it to yield an unusual concentration of minerals, particularly lithium salts. Unfortunately, I have not had time to journey there myself. It is my greatest hope that this discovery will yield results to calm Her Highness' mood swings.
"I sincerely pray that you and the Princess become good friends and learn to share Pascal.
Kaede's pale cheeks flushed scarlet at once. She wiped her eyes as she pictured Robert's boyish grin.
Unreasonable to the last, the familiar couldn't decide to scowl or to smile. Why should I even worry about 'sharing' Pascal!?
Meanwhile, Sylviane smiled as though she found it cute.
"He left this map attached to it," she passed a folded piece of parchment next. "Also, did Robert ever say anything... strange, to you?"
The Princess looked awkward enough to fidget, as though she didn't know how to approach the topic.
"When an individual falls in combat, we look through their possessions for any mementos to be sent home. Letters, wills, valuables and private items. But Sir Robert's belongings were... abnormal, to say the least."
Sylviane sighed, and decided to simply say it straight:
"He had a lot of girls' clothes. And I mean... enough to fill a wardrobe. Definitely not just a piece or two intended for a lover. Not to mention the accessories, wigs, cosmetics, even underwear..."
Kaede's eyes grew. Thinking back, there had always been one statement from Robert that left her puzzled:
"By the way, is it true that you were a young man before being summoned?" The Armiger asked that day beneath the yew tree.
"You know -- I'm kind of envious."
Are you kidding me? Kaede thought.
At the time, Kaede passed it off as the 'psychiatrist' having psychological quirks of his own. She would have never thought that Robert... had serious transgender tendencies.
He was certainly pretty enough to pass for a girl when disguised, and it was clear from the Princess' reaction that none of his close friends and coworkers had ever found out.
"I've been puzzled about what should be done about this," Sylviane added, clearly asking for help because Kaede really was a boy transplanted into a girl's body. "Should I send this back to his parents along with the rest of his belongings?"
"No," Kaede rejected it outright. "I doubt even his parents knew."
The fact that Robert kept it with him, hidden in his extradimensional storage, highlighted how he didn't want to risk anyone finding out. After all, crossdressing was a sin by the tenants of the Trinitian Church -- a fact that had forced Kaede to adapt since her first week after coming to Hyperion.
I have already left to face the Lord's judgment, Kaede read again from the beginning of his will.
She would never find out just how much this guilty pleasure weighed upon his conscience.
"What do you suggest then?" Sylviane asked.
"Is he getting a casket burial?" Kaede questioned. Few would receive the privilege after such a horrendous battle.
"I'll make sure of it," Sylviane nodded. "But it would be the chaplains, not me, who perform his final rites."
The Samaran girl scowled. There really were no good answers.
"Then maybe we can bury him with some of the... more inconspicuous things. The rest should be burned," Kaede determined despite the ache in her chest. "I'm sure he would have preferred that we never found out to begin with."
Lithium salts... Kaede considered as the two girls returned to Robert's will some time later.
If her fuzzy memories from years of reading encyclopedias as part of her hobby were correct, 'lithia water' had been one of those 'weird American consumerist fads'. It was a rare mineral water that helped stabilize moods. Except the market proved yet another example of capitalism gone awry -- as most 'lithia water' produced were chemical-additive fakes that profited off ignorance, no different from many of the 'healthy' supermarket labels in the modern world.
With a reminder to herself filed, Kaede pocketed the map and returned to the much bigger question:
"So what is this 'Grand Council'?"
"It's a legal oversight committee that I am assembling," Sylviane explained as she pulled out a large roll of parchment. "When I am Empress, the last thing I want to do is have one of my episodes -- when my judgment is compromised -- and order something irreversibly harmful to the Empire. Therefore, I need a framework in place that would have the legal authority to challenge my decision-making, and not just for my episodes either.
"The idea is still very much a work-in-progress," she admitted. "There's a delicate balancing act to consider -- the Grand Council needs enough independence and legal protection so they may voice their objections without worrying about temperamental backlashes from me. Yet at the same time, there is no way to guarantee that everyone who gets in is loyal to Rhin-Lotharingie's interests. Therefore it must not allow minority factions with ulterior motives to destroy royal authority."
Kaede's pupils couldn't stop growing. She's talking about political pluralism.
The Samaran stared as Sylviane unfolded the table-sized piece of parchment. She fell to an amazed silence as her eyes took in its complex charts and paragraphs of text, most of it in the Princess' own delicate handwriting.
The 'Grand Council' effectively brought legal oversight to the monarch's powers. It was a body of up to fifty members, including:
- Twenty Royalists, seats chosen by the five monarchs of the Empire and likely to include the four Kings and Queens. This is distributed as six handpicked by the Empress, four each by the monarchs of the larger kingdoms (Gleann Mòr and Garona), and three each by the monarchs of the lesser kingdoms (Avorica and Ceredigion). Each royalist council member will serve appointed terms of ten years.
- Eleven Oriflammes, seats effectively chosen by the phoenixes. This included every Paladin apart from the current ruler. These members serve for life.
- Nineteen Tribunes, seats elected by citizen voting. These individuals cannot be nobles and must have held a civil administrative position from the approved list, such as town chiefs or city mayors, for at least ten years. The various duchies of Rhin-Lotharingie will be grouped into nineteen constituencies for this. Elected terms last five years each.
Any members of the 'Grand Council' may object against certain orders from the monarch, such as new laws, edicts, and royal decrees. Two council objections would block the order and trigger a vote, to be enacted in twenty-four hours and include any council members who could present themselves, in person, within twelve hours. If the vote passes with a majority, then the motion is halted until a second vote, to be carried out one week later if the sovereign still desires it; all council members who represent themselves in person are eligible, and a two-thirds supermajority is required to overrule the monarch.
...And most importantly, council members cannot be legally detained without royal authority. They also cannot be harmed, or stripped of their rank before their term expires, without a similar council vote. Of course, this was only on paper, and provided no real guarantees against men with swords.
Kaede was speechless. There were far more details written down, including how these rules interact with the existing system of courts, mentions of possible loopholes, and ideas for closing them. But for a first draft, this document was nothing short of amazing.
It was truly as Sir Robert once said -- that "what makes (Sylviane) a little bit insane actually leaves her saner than most of us."
In an era when rulers believed themselves infallible and empires moved toward Absolutism, Sylviane's bipolar personality allowed her to recognize the most terrible human flaw. The mind was deeply biased, and it was difficult, even for the wisest of rulers, to not stubbornly adhere to only one limited perspective. Because of this, even history's most enlightened monarchs have been known to make terrible mistakes that tarnished lifelong careers.
Though by the same token, too much delegated power also risked political deadlock. From the Late Roman Republican Senate, to the infamous 'Liberum Veto' that doomed the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, to the modern day United Nations Security Council, political assemblies were always prone to manipulation and paralysis. Factionalism was inevitable, and open discontent -- like the assembly of nobles that ran the Lotharin army -- could lead to outright disaster. In the end, only a strong reformist leader could purge the tradition of corruption and bribery from a voting body.
Such was the balancing act that Sylviane faced: she needed a body that could restrain her temperamental impulses, yet not become so overpowering that it would be impossible to reform the Rhin-Lotharingie Empire.
"So, what do you think?" Sylviane asked, her expression worried. "I gave Sir Robert a royalist seat. And while I have no intention of establishing a precedent that someone could inherit another's position, I would honor his request and grant an open seat to you. Furthermore, Pascal also holds a royalist seat, and as his familiar you may act as his executor."
This meant that by acting as Pascal's proxy, Kaede could raise the two objections needed to block Sylviane by herself.
"What did Pascal think about this?" The familiar asked, eyes blinking in earnest.
"He thought I was making my job harder for myself."
He is a Monarchist, after all.
"Well, he's not wrong..." Kaede admitted with a head-tilt. "This will make your job more difficult."
"You don't approve then?" The Princess frowned.
"Are you kidding me?" The Samaran stared back. "I think you're a visionary!"
Not even the Magna Carta that the Westerners enshrine could pretend to be this enlightened, she thought. That was just a bunch of treasonous barons forcing the King to bow before their petty ambitions.
Meanwhile, Sylviane was looking thoroughly confused.
"Onee-sama, what you are doing here is a revolution that my world has already gone through," the familiar explained with a broad smile. "We call it 'Constitutionalism', when laws are enshrined to protect the country and its citizens from the impulses and excesses of its leaders. In essence, it creates a safety net for your governance -- to assure you of righteous action while halting the wrongdoings that your country may regret down the road."
"I'd be honored to accept the position," Kaede beamed with pride. "When do you plan to start putting this into practice?"
"Once we relieve Roazhon," the Princess replied with an appreciative nod and smile. "King Alistair and Vivienne already know, and I plan to tell Queen Katell and Edith then. After that's done, you can bet that Saint who follows Holy Scriptures to the letter will declare herself its enforcer."
Kaede nodded back. She could picture it now -- the two arguing over how a future law would better serve the nation.
"In that case, we better start drafting the biggest piece still missing from this."
Sylviane puzzled. "And that is?"
Kaede lifted the giant parchment and tapped it with a broad grin.
"A legal framework to amend this -- because even aside from further changes that you will want to make, there is no law that does not adapt to the changing cultural attitudes across lifetimes."
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