Kaede grasped the door frame as she limped out from the Princess' cabin. Her legs still felt like sticks of jelly. The lingering pain had long been replaced by a numbness that refused to go away after the ten hours of torment yesterday.
In fact, it was a testament to Samaran fast healing that she could walk at all.
Unfortunately, the expandable cabin had an elevated floor that raised it two steps above ground. Two short, wooden steps -- which barely even warranted a thought in everyday motion -- now proved a daunting hurdle.
Kaede stretched her stockinged leg down with reluctance. She had a decent footing; but as soon as her body's mass shifted over, even her light weight proved too much. The leg crumbled beneath her, hurling her towards the dirt and pebble ground.
The distant spell came just in time. The air condensed beneath her, breaking her fall as though a giant, deflating balloon.
"Kaede, are you alright?" Pascal called out as he and Sir Robert rushed up to help her stand.
"Sorry..." Kaede muttered, ashamed that she couldn't even walk by herself.
I feel like a crippled on rehab...
"You have nothing to apologize for," Pascal scolded.
There was no trace of his prideful or teasing smile. Her master wore only one expression today: tight-jawed brooding.
With the two men holding onto her arms, Kaede teetered over to a yew tree in the center of the clearing and sat down against its trunk.
"How was calling her name supposed to help anyway?" Pascal turned back to face Robert, who bit down on his lips in annoyance with himself.
"Pascal... don't be a jerk," Kaede retorted for the abashed armiger. "I'm glad you broke the fall, but not everyone thinks as fast on their feet."
"No, he's right," Robert sighed as his eyes bore a hole into the ground. "I'm never helpful when I could have helped."
The gloomy dejection was in stark contrast to the usual bright demeanor of this boyishly handsome knight.
It made Kaede cast a scowl in her master's direction, only to bounce off his thick skin completely.
...Although to be fair, he wasn't exactly paying attention.
"Here we are -- Rejuvenate spell," Pascal settled on a page of the tome he had pulled out.
He then knelt down besides Kaede's outstretched legs:
"Give me a minute. I have not cast this for a long time."
Not being a specialized healer, there was no reason for him to dedicate the higher tier curative spells into muscle memory. But that meant he had to use spellcraft the hard way: by zoning out from the world and focusing all attention inwards, he would align his nerve conduits into the proper arrays necessary for shaping ether into manifesting the supernatural.
It left the other two in a brief moment of silence.
"How is Her Highness doing?" Sir Robert tentatively asked.
"Lady Mari is with her now, trying to get her to go back to sleep," Kaede spoke with care, hoping to suppress her own mixed emotions toward the Princess.
She had silently cried herself to sleep last night, only to wake up in the Princess' arms during the midst of a nightmare. Befuddled and agitated, her mind soon conjured a dire fear of impending rape -- a continuation of that one time when the Princess almost molested her.
Kaede struggled in panic at first, twisting and straining against the tight embrace. But as foreign tears fell wet against her cheeks, she came upon the realization that the Princess truly harbored no ill intent.
...In fact, it was quite the opposite.
Sylviane's sobbing apologies came in an endless stream, and they were not just sincere but made in almost desperation. Rather than merely the voice of someone with a guilty conscience, they felt like the confessions of a woman struggling to maintain her sense of identity -- one where she still controlled her own actions.
Sure, Kaede was still scared. Yes, she still felt bitter and sullen. But in the face of such emotional misery, it had been impossible for her not to feel sorrow and pity in return.
The barriers crumbled one at a time. Before long, Kaede found herself hugging Sylviane back. Hesitantly at first, but with soft, reassuring whispers as the night went on.
It was hard not to extend forgiveness when the other made such a hard landing in bleak, utter depression.
Besides, what else could I have done? She is Pascal's fiancée...
The two girls had stayed like that for the rest of the night: a princess and a familiar, on the cold floor and in each others' arms, silent except for the intermittent sobs and the occasional whisper.
...Though to be honest, both the situation and the posture had grown rather uncomfortable over time. Kaede was certainly glad when Lady Mari returned in the morning.
Talk about a 'unique' bonding experience...
Kaede could probably forgive the Princess this time. After all, Sylviane was truly sorry for it, no permanent damage had been done, and her own legs would recover in a day or two. As far as punishments went, the Princess certainly could have done far worse: being told to kneel for hours was closer to the disciplining of an old-fashioned Japanese schoolteacher than vindictive royalty.
Emotionally though, She was still struggling to persist that forgiveness.
It was hard to not feel bitter when she couldn't even walk by herself.
But... what about the next time? she worried.
...Will I even manage to walk away?
"Sir Robert, could you please tell me..." she began, her brain grasping at straws to cushion the blunt statement. "Is the Princess... mentally unstable, or something?"
Robert's brows furrowed back at that.
"Yes... and no."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
The young armiger sighed in exasperation, as though he was unearthing a horse that had long been beaten dead.
"It means Her Highness is bipolar -- her mood swings like the moon and its two faces. It's obvious to anyone who understands what bipolarity means. Except my father wouldn't actually classify her as bipolar because her bipolarity isn't severe enough."
Kaede thought back to yesterday, when Sylviane went from raging machine to sobbing wreck within the span of just a few hours.
"You call that 'not severe enough'?" Her eyebrows shot up in response.
"To be considered a proper mania episode, it has to last at least four days," Robert emphasized. "Yesterday was the worst one I've seen from Her Highness to date, but it hadn't even hit forty hours before subsiding..."
Four days! Kaede shivered at the prospect. If yesterday was any indication of how quickly events could spin out of control, she would be the victim of 'off with her head!' by the end of it.
"--Not to mention her 'hypomania' are a milder form of the bipolar 'mania' episodes -- ones where we could still talk her out of some poorly influenced decisions," Robert finished with a grave stare. "'True bipolarity' is utterly crippling."
The fact they had such precise, clinical terminology for psychological disorders was yet another sign of just how advanced Hyperion medical sciences were. It reminded Kaede of how much she grossly oversimplified a complex reality every time she slapped the label of 'pre-industrial society' upon this world.
"I take it that your father is some kind of expert in this field then?"
"As close as it gets," he half-shrugged. "Both of my parents are actually healers by training. They've campaigned alongside the army in every recent war Rhin-Lotharingie has fought and spent countless hours patching troops together. But over the years they realized that while physical wounds could be readily healed by curative spells, the mental scars that veterans accumulated were... much more difficult."
Of course, Kaede reflected. Not only do Hyperion mages live much longer, but magic can bring a level of destructive savagery onto the battlefield unseen on Earth until the World Wars...
Robert then offered her a wry smile. He wasn't instantly rebounding from his earlier moment of depression, but there was still a shadow of his usual cheery self as he explained with a personal passion:
"You could say they're pioneers in the field. In fact, they were the ones who coined the terms 'anxiety disorder' and 'mood disorder' to separate behaviors like panic attacks from the more common problems we see in everyday life -- like mania and depression."
"Why did you become a royal armiger if both of your parents are healers?" Kaede puzzled. "It's obvious that you're interested in their line of work."
"Well..." Robert scratched his cheek.
"You see, I had wanted to be a healer. I mean, like most boys, I wanted to be like my father, to help others and see the gratitude in my patients' smiles. But my parents? They wanted me to be a royal attendant... They told me that it was a rare opportunity, since they had become acquainted with the Emperor thanks to his interest in their work. They said that if I truly wanted to help other people, this was the better way."
Of course, Kaede nodded. The difference in scale was just incomparable.
A doctor might be able to help individuals. But those in position to advise powerful figures could influence policy that benefited entire nations. Only those blinded by idealism would fail to see which could contribute more to society as a whole.
Meanwhile, Robert took a deep breath as he leaned back against the yew tree.
"But you know, I was a child back then -- I could only see the results that were in front of me. So one day when I was ten, papa decided he had enough of my pestering to become a healer, and chose settle the matter once and for all."
His countenance clouded as he sat down besides Kaede and stared into the sky.
"I didn't grow up with many children nearby. So the animals of our elderly neighbor's farm sort of... became my friends. But on that day, papa told me that we could adopt one of their dogs or even a mare as our own. He asked me to pick my favorite... so I called Arly out..."
Even now, there was still a sense of lingering guilt as his vivid-green eyes darkened.
"He struck her down with a cutting spell right in front of me."
One thing was clear: for all the dedication his parents poured into researching the effects of trauma, they did not hesitate to inflict one upon their own son.
"I was appalled," his breathing hastened as outraged memories flashed across his eyes. "I screamed at papa, pleaded for him to heal her. But there he was, just calmly watching her thrash and whimper her life away. There was blood all over, but he paid it no mind and looked at me with the coldest eyes I had ever seen in him. He asked me which could be done faster, easier: to kill them all, one by one just like that, or to save even one of them from death."
...Just as a prince could kill men faster than any healer could save. Kaede thought.
Robert sighed once again before simpering at himself:
"I never did forgive him for that."
"That must have been... difficult," Kaede's wispy voice barely made out.
"It certainly changed me, changed how I looked at everything," he admitted. "It also made me realize that the world... was just really unfair. That becoming an adult means to accept reality for what it is, and not what it should be."
"Because you can harm others faster than you can help them?"
"Well... yes," he gave a tilted nod. "Also the fact that the Knight Hospitallers -- the only institution in Rhin-Lotharingie that offers training in both arts at the same time -- doesn't accept any men."
Kaede's attention swiveled back to Pascal as his healing spell finished with an electrifying shock.
"Owowowowow..." her legs seized up as the lingering electricity coursed through her nerves for several seconds.
"What was that for!?"
"As I have said: Rejuvenate spell," Pascal noted as he stood back up to stretch his legs. "There is a shock component in it to re-energize your nerves, or did you forget that time when Parzifal cast it on you after the assassination attempt on me?"
"My legs need healing, not electric shock therapy!"
"The shock is part of the healing spell though," Pascal puzzled back.
Recognizing that her cause was 'lost in translation', Kaede turned to Sir Robert for a third opinion.
"Well don't look to me," he replied. "I thought His Grace picked the right spell... but I'm no professional healer."
In the end, Pascal settled on applying several Climatize Invigorate spells on her legs. They kept her muscles bundled in a soothing warmth, all while the slow healing effect aided in repairing any damage inflicted from yesterday.
"So what are the full symptoms of this 'hypomania'?" Kaede asked.
After all, understanding was always the first step, and it seemed that Pascal had already received this 'talk'.
"A 'hypomania' episode is a period when her mental functions move into an elevated state," Sir Robert explained as he casually stood just five paces away. "There are actually many characteristics associated with it -- which is what makes these episodes difficult to identify. But the most common traits are hyperactivity, restlessness, inflated confidence to the point of grandiosity, and a general lack of inhibitions..."
"So... what Pascal suffers from all the time," Kaede nodded back earnestly.
"Hey!" her master retorted from the right, apparently offended.
It was actually a welcoming change from his dead-serious face. Furthermore, it also returned a real smile to Robert's countenance.
"The key difference is that 'hypomania' is an episodic event -- a specific, finite period of time when her personality deviates from the norm," Robert clarified. Then, with a humored nod to Pascal: "although Kaede isn't entirely wrong. Her Highness is more like Your Grace during these episodes than Your Grace would like to admit."
"I do not lack inhibitions!" the Landgrave shot back.
So you're not denying the 'grandiosity' then?
Meanwhile, Robert's eyebrows shot up:
"I heard Your Grace once painted the entire Königsfeld Academy in rainbow colors, then filled its corridors with glowing swarms of pink flamingos."
"That happened only once!"
"I'm sure Your Grace's academic advisor could give me a full list of similar examples if we asked," Robert stared back as though a real psychiatrist in diagnosis mode. "But don't worry: denial is a common initial response for all individuals suffering from such a condition."
Kaede had tried to suppress her laughter -- which turned into a rather feminine giggle that left both men with a tinge of red across their cheeks... albeit for very different reasons.
"But to be serious," Robert cleared his expression. "High confidence and self-esteem do tend to bloat one's perceived value of their own decision-making..."
Feeling a hint guilty for laughing at him, Kaede decided to defend her master this time:
"Pascal often argues with himself though. So his differing voices of reason is acting as his own self-checking inhibitor."
"Right," Robert simply nodded. "But Her Highness isn't used to being supremely confident. Her own self-doubts are what's normally holding her back; they make sure that every decision is thoroughly examined and reconsidered. But when you remove that and pump her full of self-assurance..."
She goes off the rails like a runaway train fueled by her own righteousness.
"Are you saying," Pascal's eyes suddenly widened. "That she becomes like this because she wants to be more confident in herself?"
"That's a theory," Robert shrugged back. "Honestly, even my parents have no idea. It may very well be a combination of factors, and the burdens on her as a Crown Princess is just one of them. All we know is that faekissed in general exhibit mood disorders with greater frequency, and that for Her Highness, the hyperactivity goes straight to her head when she enters 'hypomania' mode."
"What do you mean?"
Instead of responding, Robert pulled open one of his extradimensional belt pouches and reached into it. What came out was a stack of papers that he handed to Pascal:
"Speaking of which, Her Highness wanted these done today... or as soon as possible. Though I would suggest you discuss them with the senior lords and commanders first. Unlike Weichsel, the Rhin-Lotharingie military is still feudal; the various dukes have authority over their fiefdoms' battalions. It would be best if we snubbed as few prominent noses as possible."
"I know that," Pascal added irritably as he began to flip through them.
"What is it?" Kaede asked from the ground beside him.
"Charts for restructuring the army and various officer assignments for reorganizing the devastated battalions..."
With awe rising in his tone, Pascal then stared back at Sir Robert in disbelief:
"When did she manage this?"
"Last night, before she let Kaede back in and slept."
"Last night?" Pascal's jaw dropped. "She had but a few hours! It would take even a headquarters staff -- an entire team of people -- multiple days to examine the hundreds of personnel available and make such proposals!"
"Like I said: straight to her head," the royal armiger reiterated. "I dare say that her brain works even faster than yours when she is in one of these energized states."
"So these 'hypomania' episodes give her a boost to intelligence?" Kaede pondered aloud.
"--In exchange for her emotional self-control, yes," Robert nodded back. "It also gives her energy when she is exhausted; it offers her inspiration when she is stuck; it brings her courage when she stands against daunting odds; and these papers here are just another perfect example of what she can manage during a crisis."
Meanwhile, Pascal was still stunned speechless as he kept flipping through the papers, his own mental circuits already tapped to analyze her 'suggestions'.
"Of course, the trouble is that the more intense her episode, the less self-control she has; not to mention the worse her depression becomes when her mental high crashes afterwards," the armiger finalized as he glimpsed toward the Princess' cabin with concern.
"Is that why... you believe she'll make a good ruler? Despite her condition?" Kaede hesitantly asked.
Swiveling back around, Robert pursed his lips in deep thought.
"Maybe a little..." he admitted after a brief moment. "Though my main reason is simply that Her Highness is still a good person, especially between her episodes. Even at her worst, I do not believe that she would commit a blatant evil. She may toe the line, but not even her mania would be able to justify a true crime to herself.
"...Besides," he added, "if anything, I would support her for the throne because of this."
"Because you think the pros outweighs the cons?" Kaede's brows furrowed, not really convinced by the idea herself.
"No," Robert corrected her at once. "Because what makes her a little bit insane actually leaves her saner than most of us."
Kaede blinked back, not understanding, but the young armiger beamed in response:
"How long do you think it would normally take for a prideful sovereign to acknowledge their own failings?"
Pascal had barely said another sentence before departing, only claiming that he had best start the reorganization process immediately. Although before he left, he told Kaede that he would drop by the field kitchens and tell the maid Marina to come take care of her lady today.
Perhaps not surprising for a trained spy, Marina was multilingual and even had a native Lotharin accent. Combined with her servant status which had most people ignore her as part of the background, it made her the perfect candidate for discretely gathering information from the Lotharin forces -- especially the officers' tables as they shared meals and alcohol.
But as soon as Pascal walked out of sight, Sir Robert pulled Kaede's attention back with an expression of unease:
"Kaede, I... we, rather, owe you an apology."
"Why?" She felt her emotions tense. "It wasn't your fault for what happened yesterday."
"By we, I meant Mari and myself. We... didn't exactly try very hard to stop Her Highness yesterday..."
His statement only puzzled Kaede more. She remembered both of them kneeling on the ground and pleading to the Princess. If that wasn't 'trying very hard', then what was? They could hardly slap a royal highness and expect it to bring her back some sense. That only worked in fantasies. In reality, it would only land them in the oubliette.
"You put yourselves in her line of fire and begged for her to reconsider. What more could you have done?"
"Yes, we did that. In fact, we did everything we could think of to keep Her Highness from having His Grace flogged in public -- that would simply have been an unmitigated disaster..."
Robert exhaled a deep breath -- at least the worst scenario had been avoided.
"But... we didn't exactly try very hard to hold her back when she imposed an excessive punishment on you. That's why... both of us owe you an apology."
Kaede thought back. She had been too distraught over her own welfare at the time. However, it was true that neither of them offered anything more than verbal objections when Sylviane hauled Kaede outside and glued her legs to a rock.
At the time, she had thought it was simply because they saw it as a hopeless cause. But in hindsight...
Her emotions suddenly flared as she felt wronged for a second time.
"Excessive?" she hissed. "It was unwarranted! At least Pascal was to blame for some of the fault. I was innocent!"
The armiger sighed as though he expected this.
"Pardon me, but no, you're not," Robert insisted as he stared back into her aggrieved gaze. "How would you like it if your fiancé was sleeping with another woman? Whatever the circumstance?"
"You must remember that the higher an individual's social status, the more they value reputation and image; for royalty, this becomes critical as legitimacy is above all," he added sternly. "Infidelity towards a sovereign is a capital offense for a reason -- because even the illusion of it undermines their authority."
"Nobody will obey an empress who becomes the laughing stock of the court," he finished.
Kaede bit down on her lip as she looked away. The historian in her knew this perfectly well: how many adulterous queens and ladies had been jailed or executed outright over the centuries for high treason? Many of them weren't even proven guilty; merely the public accusation had been devastating enough to ruin their reputation.
It's still unfair, she couldn't help but fume in silence.
"But the fact is," Robert continued after the pause. "Her Highness knew perfectly well that both of you were innocent, and that you had no intention of undermining her. She should have just given you a warning, or some proverbial slap on the wrist. Instead, she took her anger and jealousy out on you... and we..."
He sighed once more before an ashamed voice conceded to the inevitable:
"--And we allowed her to do it."
Kaede's gaze spun back in an instant, meeting only a guilty, apologetic light from those vivid-green eyes.
It wasn't because he felt like he couldn't stop the Princess.
No, he chose to step aside.
"Why did you then?" she whispered, feeling what could only be classified as betrayal -- even though he had never been truly on 'her side' in the first place.
"Because it was either you, or hold her temper back and risk her blowing it off at someone else later in the day... and, I'm sorry, but she had far more important people to meet," he explained with brutal honesty.
"So I'm the punching bag?"
Kaede's phrase left Robert lost for a split second, but her glare made it perfectly clear what she meant.
"We don't punch bags," he insisted first. "But true 'loyalty' means going beyond what is simply expected of us. And occasionally -- rarely, for something this serious -- that means being dealt the unfair card because we are the ones they can afford to offend."
Robert then turned towards the east, eying the sun that was now halfway up the cloudy, morning skies.
"If you cannot understand that, then you might want to reconsider this life," his solemn voice added. "The trust we are given is not without its price."
"You say that as though I chose this life," Kaede mumbled in retort.
"Neither did I," Robert half-shrugged as he looked back, peaceful.
"Those who stay among the aristocracy do not choose. We're simply given a role to play."
He then took a step away, halted, and swiveled right back around to stare at her again:
"By the way, is it true that you were a young man before being summoned?"
Kaede gawked back for a moment, floored by the unexpected question.
Robert tilted his head and looked up as he considered the implications.
"You know -- I'm kind of envious."
With that, the young armiger turned away once more and walked off, leaving Kaede with her mouth hanging in astonishment.
What is there to be envious about? or does the psychiatrist himself needs psychological help?
----- * * * -----
Edith groaned as her consciousness returned.
A burning ache permeated her body. Every part of her below the neck felt numb and sluggish. Even the warmth of the phoenix aura, which usually soothed her with a gentle touch, seemed oppressive and stifling.
It was as though her muscles were in open rebellion after the brutal treatment they had been put through... yet again.
It wasn't even the first time this week. Since the war began a month ago, she must have had nearly a dozen occasions when she would wake up to find her entire body in pain.
At the beginning, she could shrug it off with just a few extra hours of rest. But the duration it took to recover a semblance of normality had escalated with every episode.
"Edith," she heard the gentle voice of Mother Abbess Anne as a damp cloth wiped her sweaty forehead.
Her eyelids fluttered open, meeting a pair of deep-emerald eyes heartbroken with worry.
Pressing her elbows against the bed, Edith struggled to even push herself up to a sitting stance.
"Don't..." Anne spoke as she laid a tender hand on Edith's arm. "Your body is exorcising all the damage it accumulated. Let it rest."
In other words, she was in a 'controlled fever'; except instead of being a natural bodily response to disease, her 'fever' was induced to accelerate internal cleanup and repair.
It was no wonder why her body felt hot and her lips parched; the atmosphere seemed sweltering compared to the usual aura from her phoenix Durandal.
She soon noticed that there were in fact two phoenixes standing atop her comforter. Her Durandal was joined by his best friend Hauteclaire, both of whom chirped as they looked up towards her with expectant eyes.
Edith could feel the ether streaming through her familiar link. Durandal was not just feeding her magical energy; he was cycling his innate power through her, burning away all contaminants with the blazing heat of purification.
With one arm behind her back, Anne slowly helped Edith lean up -- just high enough to sip from a waiting cup.
"You almost died this time, you know," the Mother Abbess spoke in a pained voice. "You've been unconscious for two nights! Even though the backlash from the sword is supposedly 'non-lethal', there's only so much your body can endure!"
After finishing the entire cup, Edith laid back down, albeit against a few extra pillows this time.
"You know I have to do it, mother," the saint smiled weakly. "I am the only one who can do it, and therefore I must do it."
"It is... the Holy Father's will."
The Mother Abbess pursed her lips. It was clear just how much she hated those words in this instance.
"Were it not, I would take that sword away from you in a heartbeat," Anne declared. "You may be the Holy Father's daughter first, but I'm the one who raised you! Saint of the Church or not, I am still your mother."
"...And I will never forget that, mother," Edith beamed with gratitude. "None of us will."
"How is everyone?" Edith asked some minutes later, after she had drunk three more cups, and Hauteclaire had departed back to his master.
"We've retreated back to the Gwilen River crossings," Anne began. Though her words soon turned to acid: "Her Highness, or more precisely, that Weichsel fiancé of hers, has more or less taken command of the army using her authority."
"It matters not who is in command as long as the soldiers managed to withdraw safely," Edith smiled with relief.
"But he has completely rewritten our strategy and began reorganizing our forces, without even the courtesy of consulting you -- the official commander in charge of this front -- or even your plans first!"
Edith tilted her head. Whereas others might see it as an insult to their honor, she felt that it was only natural.
"Well, I have been rather... unconscious. The war waits on no one."
"That is no reason to scrap all of your arrangements without so much a word!"
"Mother..." Edith returned a calming smile. "I don't mind. I really don't. We all know that I am by far the least experienced of the front commanders..."
"--As if that pretentious, insolent brat has any more experience than you do," the Mother Abbess scoffed. "At least you've had practice commanding a border garrison for the past decade."
"Nevertheless," the saint patiently added, "if the Holy Father has sent Her Highness, then her fiancé is just as much a part of his plans. After all, His Grace is the prodigal son of the famous Marshal of Weichsel. If our Lord wishes to make use of his talents to aid our country in repelling the infidels, then whom are we to say no?"
But Anne wasn't convinced in the slightest:
"Who is to say that the Holy Father has sent them? I should remind you that she is the daughter of an apostate! Her father was excommunicated by the representative of our Lord!"
Edith winced at those words. If Princess Sylviane could be tainted by her birth, then what about herself? After all, Edith's father didn't... couldn't even acknowledge her as his own.
"...And I, am a bastard in the eyes of the Holy Father," she felt the stabbing pain in her chest.
Anne's expression softened as her lips twisted under an apologetic frown:
"The sin is your father's! You, my daughter, are innocent! The Lord himself has expressed that you are blameless -- how could a sinner be recognized as a saint?"
"Then... surely, Her Highness also cannot be held responsible for the wrongdoings of her father."
...Especially when they were accusations that Edith wasn't convinced of. This was an emperor who had toiled for the good of his people, who had shown her such personal generosity, who had risked his personal safety in order to meet this crisis upon the Trinitian Realm -- and consequently, lost his very life.
How could such a man be condemned to hell for all eternity?
Unless... Edith agonized, the man I knew had entirely been a lie.
"It is not the same," Anne sighed. "You were brought up within the sanctity of the Church and taught all that is good about the world. The Princess... was groomed by an apostate."
Feeling uneasy, Edith had opened her lips again to counter, only to halt when the Mother Abbess stopped her with a raised hand.
"You were not there at the meeting yesterday," Anne's sad tone rang with disappointment. An agitation fueled by disillusion soon began working its way in: "you did not hear how she callously advocated that we forsake our vows and abandon the innocent. You did not see how she lashed out at the officers for bravely making our stand; how she raved with the fury of one possessed! She even stated that we should have just retreated -- turned our backs upon helpless women and children! -- while those immoral disbelievers overran the main refugee column."
"--Why? Why would she say such things, if she was truly the chosen of our Lord?" Anne exclaimed. "No virtuous woman would speak such blasphemy! Unless, of course, she was not sent by the Holy Father, but by the Devil to trick and deceive us, to tempt us into damnation instead!"
With a deep breath, Edith returned an uncertain gaze.
To her dying day, she doubted she could forget that moment when Princess Sylviane's white-blue hew soared in from the horizon. When all hope seemed lost, when forty thousand Lotharins found themselves in the noose of Cataliyan cavalry, the Cerulean Princess had descended like the light of heavens to save the day.
It seemed too perfect, too beautiful not to be the work of the Holy Father.
"I don't know... mother," Edith shook her head. "If the Holy Father worked in such a straightforward manner, then he should have crushed the Tauheed uprisings before they ever forged the Caliphate. But rather than allow the Imperium to spread the Holy Scriptures far and wide, he allowed one nation after another to break away..."
"That is because the Imperium is decadent and sinful," Anne stated.
"But surely, it is still better for the people to be educated in the true words of our Lord?" Edith thought aloud. "Even if the state is sinful and most of its people corrupt, would it not still be better than an empire of false religion that sought to lead everyone astray?"
This time, even the Mother Abbess could not answer.
"What are you trying to say?" She asked with a troubled expression.
"I am saying that whatever plans the Holy Father has, they are well beyond our comprehension," Edith replied. "It is folly, if not outright arrogant of us, to believe that we can understand his work -- when he is all knowing, while we see but a few kilopaces before us."
"You believe we should place our faith in the Princess then? When her words actively seek to lead us astray?"
With no clear answers to guide her, Edith could only frown and look out the window.
O Holy Father... just what is your will?
But there came only silence, only dark clouds that continued to obscured the heavens.
She had to think for herself, to remember those truthful words that -- in a fit of irony -- had been taught to her by the same emperor now cast off by the representative of the Lord:
Would our blessed, merciful savior do thus?
"I would like to give her the benefit of the doubt first," Edith decided. "After all, we are but imperfect creations of the Holy Father, and none of us are without sin. Following such catastrophic losses, perhaps her judgment merely erred in a moment of helpless frustration... Lord knows I have done similar."
She then turned back to Anne:
"However, mother, you are also right: the Holy Father would never love someone who gladly abandons the innocent. Thus," she added with increasing discomfort, "we must also prepare ourselves for the worst possibility -- that she is indeed tainted by evil, and therefore unworthy of the throne."
...Just like that king-and-kin-slayer Gabriel.
Edith had announced years ago that she served only the Holy Father, and would not take part in any petty conflicts between fellow Trinitians. But despite Duke Gabriel's papal backing as the Defender of the Faith, she... just couldn't pretend to approve of him.
Staring at the subordinate who was also her foster mother, the Crusader Saint declared her intent as the road forked before them:
"Mother, privately contact every duke and senior battalion commander whose character you can trust. Tell them that for now, we should follow Her Highness. However... should she fail to correct her behavior and follow the virtues and responsibilities entrusted to her by the Holy Father, then make sure they're ready."
"After the number of toes Her Highness stepped on yesterday," Anne scoffed, "acquiring their support will be easy."
With a nod and a deep breath, the saint then announced her firm resolution:
"Should that time come, I shall lead the coup myself."
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