The first winter cold front from the North Sea had arrived early this year. Flakes of snow already dotted the skies, leaving a sheen of moisture on the dormitory keep's stony roof.
It was Saturday morning, and Kaede was meditating through archery as usual. Except this time, shooting was as much a nerve-calming exercise as an excuse to stay up there.
After receiving her update from Marina, she had spent most of her waking hours over the past two days planning out different scenarios. There was no way Pascal didn't notice her reduction in research output, but he didn't say a word.
Since the plot on Pascal's life did not launch into full swing on Monday night, Kaede surmised that the assassins must have Pascal and her under surveillance. This had allowed them to call off the final strike when she, instead of he, fell unconscious to the poison. However, it also meant she had to tread carefully to maintain the facade that she was still on-board with the plan. It pushed her first action as far back as Saturday morning, for there was no other way to accost Ariadne without drawing excessive suspicion.
Thankfully, Ariadne was also a stickler for personal schedules, and Kaede waved the lady down from her joyride without a hitch.
"...Isn't it a bit chilly to be flying today?" Kaede said her pleasantries with the usual cheerfulness while pressing a rune on her arm. She had asked Pascal -- privately over telepathy -- to load one set with utility spells instead of defensive enhancements. This first rune sent a telepathic whisper straight to Ariadne's thoughts:
"Sorry Ariadne, but I need help. I'm certain I'm being watched. Do you have a spell to guarantee a private conversation? Best if it's as inconspicuous as possible."
"My uniform has thermal adjustment, so a little cold doesn't really bother me." Ariadne nodded before her right hand twisted about in a series of odd gestures. "I'm guessing that prick ordered most of your clothes here, so ask him which one he had the enhancement put on. It's probably the one he expects you to wear most often. The self-adjustment should do its job once you've worn it several times, although you may need to ask for extra warming since you're so thin. Imperative thoughts should work; most magic items take orders that way."
Kaede instantly knew which one: no wonder why I feel more than just chilly unless I'm wearing this lingerie from the first night; thought it was just the material...
Her body was soon wrapped by a comfortable warmth that reminded her of insulated heating pads. Meanwhile, Ariadne's entire soft-leather glove glowed for a brief second. She then explained through her angelic smile:
"Sanctum Veil spell. Anyone trying to observe or listen in from the outside will just see and hear us discussing everyday things like the weather. Chances are they're observing from afar though, since scrying sensors are easy to detect for any vigilant mage who monitors the auras around them -- and nobody ever blamed your prick of a master for sloth or stupidity."
"So," Ariadne stood eagerly with her hands propped at her waist. "What do you need help with? Need to give that self-centered prick a longer-lasting lesson?"
Pascal must have been a lot worse two years ago to make her like this. Kaede almost shuddered.
"Actually, the opposite. I need help because someone is attempting on Pascal's life, for political gains as a matter of national security."
Kaede gave her keywords the verbal highlight to make sure Ariadne understood that this was not a personal matter, but one of interest to any aspiring knight of Weichsel. Otherwise, there was no way Ariadne would listen to a plan on helping her nemesis.
Just as she had hoped, the lady's smile froze.
It took a while for Kaede to explain her episode of being poisoned, her encounter with the maid, and her accepting their offer.
"Marina, I take it?" Ariadne chuckled at Kaede's surprise. "Easy to figure that one out. She's the maid responsible for cleaning the third-year boys' dorms." Then more sternly: "I'm surprised you didn't just report her. I'm also surprised that Pascal didn't jump to the same conclusion."
"And her group would disperse into hiding before they could be caught, which just delays them for a few weeks before they try again." Kaede countered, her eyes hard with determination. "I want to drag them out into the open and clean the entire mess in one sweep. As for Pascal," she shrugged, "I might have given him the impression that my fatigue was to blame."
"You don't think this is way over your head? Assuming you weren't a spy or something before the summoning?"
"Nothing of the like," Kaede waved it off. "I was an ordinary student. But I'm not one to think anything is completely above me. History is altered not just by grand sweeping plans, but by all the little individual actions that made it possible."
Ariadne nodded with her usual smile: "You sound like my friend Gerd. Go on."
"I'm also not stupid enough to tackle this alone, which is why I need your help. These people are trained killers; I know barely enough to defend myself. But this academy is full of aspiring knights and commanders, including you and your friends." Kaede took a deep breath as she opened her argument: "I realize you have no reason to help Pascal in anything, and neither does he deserve it. But you are also nobles who value duty to your country enough to serve it as your career. I have faith in you all to pick the greater good over personal grudges -- however deserving they may be -- so I see no reason why we cannot do this."
It was immediately apparent that Kaede had at least partially succeeded, as Ariadne pressed one finger into her cheek in serious consideration over the proposal.
"I'm surprised you waited until today to ask me. If father hadn't received a last minute dispatch, I'd be gone for the holiday weekend by now."
"Sorry, but I couldn't approach you without being conspicuous, and everything depends on maintaining the lie," Kaede explained in apology. Then: "Wait... holiday?"
"Next Monday is Weichsel's National Day; I take it you didn't know?" Ariadne asked, and Kaede shook her head. "Nordkreuz is too far for that prick to return often, but my estate isn't. If I was gone already, what would you have done then?"
The noble smile that backed the question somehow made it more daunting.
"I could discretely approach your beloved Parzifal for help," Kaede shrugged as she silently scolded herself, realizing how much worse that alternative was. "But otherwise this really would be beyond me and I'd have to call off the bluff. Meeting Pascal's professor is as good as declaring my intentions to the other side, and I've barely even spoken to anyone else."
The air between the two fell into a nervous silence as Kaede felt examined, scrutinized under magnifying eyes, while the noblewoman contemplated with one finger still held against her cheek. Then, just as Kaede was about to continue her drafted thoughts on persuasion, Ariadne nodded with a calm smile:
"It's the Holy Father's will then. I'll need to consult my friends before giving you a confirmation, but consider us tentatively in. Your clothes came in at the store also, so I'll pick them up and give them to you this afternoon -- the perfect opportunity to discretely pass you a message."
For seconds, Kaede stood speechless while the lady smiled sweetly back at her.
"...That was a lot easier than I anticipated... thank you. But why?"
"I'll take offense if you think me a fool in politics, you know," Ariadne declared cheerily while puffing up her prominent chest. "The betrothal between that prick and Crown Princess Sylviane of Rhin-Lotharingie is well known..."
Kaede felt her thoughts halted, then blown away as a second, far larger tidal wave struck her.
"--It's also one of the founding stones of Weichsel's defensive military alliance with Rhin-Lotharingie. Marina claimed her master is a Lotharin duke, so fracturing the alliance isn't their goal as much as preventing suspected manipulation of the throne by a foreigner, but it doesn't change the effects should they succeed."
He... he... Kaede's mind was still sorting out the information pileup.
"Pascal is ENGAGED!?"
I really should emphasize researching the noble families as much as the countries themselves.
"You didn't know? I thought that prick at least had enough sense to tell that to a girl before courting her! What else did you think was of political importance on a national scale?"
Kaede then shook her head as she denied it outright:
"We're not in that kind of relationship. In fact, that would be outright impossible for me even if he sought it..."
Somehow, the mere thought of telling Ariadne about her gender mix-up just felt... wrong.
"--Anyway, I simply thought they were trying to provoke Pascal's father, the Field Marshal, into some kind of rash response in an upcoming incident. Wouldn't be the first time wars started prematurely because of an angry family member."
Ariadne nodded in agreement: "Part of the reason Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie set aside their differences to form this alliance was because of an enraged Emperor who lost two sons to Imperial assassins, but that's a whole different story."
Even though Rhin-Lotharingie was also an Empire, the Hyperien word for 'Imperial' was reserved for Weichsel's southern foe -- the Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea and its 'Holy' Emperor.
"So assuming everything on my side works out, what's your plan of action?"
"I couldn't really narrow down much detail," Kaede admitted, "since I have no clue about the combat potential of your friends. But since Pascal is their main goal, his dorm is where we'll need the most help. I figured since Parzifal and Reynald are also the same year, their rooms should be on the same floor...?"
Ariadne nodded in confirmation.
"Then they can sandwich the attackers in from behind while Pascal buys time. Meanwhile, since I have to stay on the roof to keep the assassins fooled, I would appreciate some help once the cover blows. After all, I have no desire to get killed in this."
"I can work with that plan," Ariadne agreed, her bright-cyan gaze smiling with approval. "If any changes are necessary, I'll pass them back with the reply. Either way, it sounds like I have a busy day ahead, so I will see you later, Kaede."
With a boot soon in the stirrup, Ariadne mounted her white pegasus in one swift motion. She then waved goodbye before taking off from the dormitory keep roof.
And the day begins...
Kaede continued shooting for a good half hour before she went back inside, just to be sure her meeting with Ariadne didn't seem deliberate.
----- * * * -----
"Why didn't you tell me you were engaged?" Kaede asked after Pascal returned from his morning errands and workout.
It was hard to tell at times, since mages unsurprisingly had a spell for refreshing up after a sweat as well. In fact, they had so many cantrips for keeping clean and maintaining appearances that showering was more of a luxury for them than a periodic need.
"Because there is not much to say? I have not even seen Sylv for nearly a year thanks to our schedules, and she has not been responding to my calls lately."
Kaede knew that wasn't unusual for political arrangements of the period. But Pascal didn't just sound irritated; there was also a powerful longing buried underneath.
"How is she?"
"I do not believe a girl more beautiful than her could exist," he spoke of the princess, his awe shining through even the dark clouds of melancholy. "She is a wonderful person as well, and will make an excellent queen. Unfortunately, her spare time is only going to wane further."
He definitely likes her.
Kaede smiled. It was hard to tell whether or not Pascal actually loved his fiancée -- that was exceptionally rare in the political marriage custom. But it was obvious that he respected, valued, and even trusted her -- all of which were far more important than love in any union among feudal aristocrats, let alone future heads of state.
She also felt an odd sense of relief, since Pascal truly liking another girl greatly reduced any chances of something awkward happening between the two of them.
"Since when have you two been betrothed?"
"Since I was nine," Pascal began to explain as a nostalgic smile entered his expression. "My father's Knight Phantoms took her captive on one of their deep raids into Lotharin territory during the War of Imperial Succession, although she still had older brothers back then and wasn't the crown heir. I first met her when I was seven while she was held on our estate, and we became friends during her one-and-a-half years' stay there."
"Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie were not formally at war during that chaotic time; both countries simply sought to take advantage of the Holy Imperium's civil war to lay claims, except these claims overlapped with each other. So when my father negotiated an end to hostilities between the two states and a partnership against our real foe in the south, her father, Geoffroi the Great, requested our matrilineal betrothal as the bargaining price. Father agreed."
Matrilineal arrangements indicated that any descendants would be traced through the maternal side, which meant that Pascal would be marrying into another family -- the Rhin-Lotharingie royal family, in this case.
"Aren't you the heir of NordKreuz?" Kaede furrowed her brows. "How does that work for your domain then?"
"Yes. Although Nordkreuz was gifted to Father through lands annexed during that war, it was also a contested strategic position on the border. Our betrothal implied that after me, those territories would pass to the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie. The treaty was very unconventional, especially since we were winning at the time. But Father also knew Weichsel was a small nation caught between several giants, and he was planning for the long run."
Pascal's admiring words came out in a somewhat pensive tone, and Kaede soon realized why:
He also has daddy issues. Not surprising though, having to live in such an accomplished father's shadow.
"I'm surprised you still courted Ariadne and other girls, then."
"That was Father's idea, and Sylv agreed to it as well. They both said that I needed 'experience', whatever that is supposed to imply." Pascal shrugged.
Kaede thought it was best to stay away from that bombshell.
"So you have no siblings to contest the succession then?"
While his father often came up in conversations, Pascal almost never spoke of his family.
"I am the only child," he sighed. "Mother died from a crippling war injury when I was just four, and father never remarried. I guess you could say that I was mostly raised by servants."
No wonder you have social problems.
----- * * * -----
"...Since Gerd and Cecylia are both away on holiday, it's down to the three of us," Reynald heard Ariadne say as she sat next to Parzifal on her bed, with his right hand held tightly in hers.
It was against all propriety for a lady to invite multiple men into her room, but this was also the only way she could guarantee their privacy. Unlike Parzifal, who wasn't good at any magic except bio-alchemy, and Reynald, who simply didn't care, Ariadne actually maintained periodic sweeps of her room.
Reynald knew that as a proper noble, he was supposed to keep a healthy dose of paranoia. But that assumed he gave a single care about being a 'proper noble' in the first place.
He also sat backwards in a chair with his legs splayed; hardly the most appropriate when facing a lady.
"But this is Pascal we're talking about..." Parzifal replied.
His voice was almost frozen, and Reynald wondered how cold his gripping hand must be at the moment. From Ariadne's concealed wince, it couldn't be comfortable.
"--Let the Runelord deal with it by himself. He's always so high and mighty, so sure that he can do everything single-handedly. Well, here is his chance. If anything, I'm surprised his familiar even cares enough to intervene."
"But if he fails and dies, it would put the alliance between Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie in jeopardy," Ariadne raised the political card as her worried eyes kept their focus on her beloved.
"What's the problem with that?" Parzifal countered. "The treaty was unequal to begin with. Why should we forfeit territory when we were winning? What did von Moltewitz get from Emperor Geoffroi that made him so anxious to sign such a treaty?"
Reynald raised his eyebrows. Parzifal's statements were all concerns that many others shared; the only 'stain' upon Field Marshal von Moltewitz's exemplary career. But while some in Weichsel suspected betrayal, others saw it as a willingness to give up his newly-minted fiefdom of Nordkreuz for the good of the nation. Sure, his son would become the Prince-Consort of Rhin-Lotharingie, but his successors would bear the name 'de Gaetane' instead of 'von Moltewitz'. For the nobles' game of dynastic political ambitions, it was tantamount to suicide.
For the glory of Weichsel...
Reynald hadn't forgotten about the childhood days when he absolutely worshiped the elder von Moltewitz as a conquering hero. He had learned of the Marshal's faults since then, especially after his father was 'honorably' discharged by the Marshal. In many ways, Pascal merely displayed the elder von Moltewitz's intolerance on a new magnitude. But Reynald's own parents were nothing if not fair about the circumstances, and the Witzinger family harbored no hatred despite the misfortunes they suffered.
It wasn't easy, but having spent time on both sides of the fence, it gave Reynald a very objective view of the Marshal... or at least he believed so.
Meanwhile, Ariadne looked hesitant to continue. In fact, she was even nodding to Parzifal's continued list of accusations and complaints.
Reynald considered Ariadne a great girl for his best friend. But the Holy Father was fair, and in spite of her numerous good qualities, she also held one major flaw: the girl was vain enough to put others' opinions before her own sense of morals and duty, even if the 'others' were being stupid and she was the voice of reason.
In this case, the disapproval of a beloved accounted for dozens of 'stupid others'.
"Bro. Stop. I'm sorry to say this, but you're sprouting nonsense now."
Unfortunately, Parzifal was also as stubborn as a mule and held onto grudges with a memory better than elephants:
"Reynald, I know the Marshal is your childhood hero, but you can't--"
"Oh, you remember that, don't you?" Reynald cut in with deliberately acidic words. "How come you don't remember that the Marshal also discharged my father after six decades of faithful service because he fell in love with my mama... step-mother, an Imperial Mantis Blade assassin sent to kill him? Or that our family was disgraced as a result? Or maybe..." he voice lightened, "that until you befriended me during our first year, almost every other noble treated me like a bastard, since my real mother was also a commoner?"
Sometimes a bull was the only thing that could stop another rampaging bull. Parzifal's mouth shut instantly as he realized the mine-infested china shop he entered.
Reynald knew he had the baton now, and he wasn't about to let it go:
"Cut all that bullshit from the Marshal's enemies already and look at things from his perspective. Do you seriously think a man who spends ninety percent of his time in army camps, who barely goes back home ever since his wife died fifteen years ago, who used his only son as a bargaining chip for diplomacy, would honestly sell Weichsel to the Lotharins? Outside of Weichsel, does that man even have a life left!?"
"I'm standing up for the Marshal not because of some stupid immature fantasy, but because in matters of military affairs of state, the man is almost always right. Bloody-minded and merciless? Yes; my own family history proves it. But a natural genius in the art of war who proved his loyalty to Weichsel many times over? Also yes."
Reynald look back at Ariadne and nodded. What she needed now was precisely the approval of her original idea from others so that she could snap out of the moment of idiocy that Parzifal had dragged her into.
"I agree with Ariadne's suggestion. In fact, I believe she's absolutely fracking right! This is above personal relationships we have with Pascal or his father; ALL of them. It's a matter of state, and we have the perfect opportunity to take care of it."
"But we're still students. Something like this should be left...!"
"Like Ariadne said, if we inform the authorities now, they would either pull the wrong muscle and blow the entire thing, or pick the right brains who wouldn't get here in time."
Well, she was a lot more diplomatic than that... Reynald left unsaid.
One of the best aspects about Parzifal was that he never gave up easily. Reynald learned that when Parzifal spent weeks showing kindness to a younger and more cynical version of himself. Unfortunately, this also tended to be the case even when Parzifal was wrong.
"Think of it this way, brother. If we lose this alliance with Rhin-Lotharingie, and the Holy Imperium takes this as an opportunity to stick a vengeful sword in our backs... how many people do you think are gonna get killed? Are you really sure you're willing to take that chance?"
Parzifal did not speak another word of disapproval after that. His instincts as a healer simply overruled the rest of him.
"Alright, so what's the plan?" Reynald asked after several moments of silence, and Ariadne simply gawked back at him.
"What? I'm just the dumb knight," he grinned. "Parzifal may be the heart of our little group, but you're the Captain here, girl!"
----- * * * -----
"What is that? Your uniform?" Pascal asked as Kaede took a few steps to jump and spin about in her new clothes.
The white outfit did indeed have a uniform-like design, with its stiffly-cut shoulders, folded collar, and black tie. It was mostly white, except for the black lines running near the borders, and pink ribbons at the edges to match Kaede's eyes. It made an excellent contrast to Pascal's crimson-on-black uniform, and the thigh-length skirt plus its longer lace petticoat that reached over her thigh-high socks made it far easier to move in, not to mention the black calf-high boots.
"Yep," Kaede replied with nervous cheer as she read Ariadne's note for the third time:
Mission is accepted. Parzifal and Reynald will monitor the situation and engage the assassins from behind; please leave the coin scrying focus in your room. I'll be attending to Edelweiss in the stables until Parzifal gives me the signal through his familiar, after which I'll take off to assist you as needed and assert battlefield air superiority should any attackers attempt escape. - Ariadne
After a late lunch, the clock was already past mid-afternoon; the plan was to begin by the early dusk of winter.
"Pascal, please sit still and pretend you're still reading," Kaede asked over the telepathic channel. "I have no clue how they might be watching us, but it's time for me to tell you what is going on."
An hour went by as Kaede explained everything that happened, including the operational plan. True to his word on trusting her, Pascal never looked suspicious or angry, merely nodding and requesting clarification until her conversation with Ariadne came into the picture:
"I told you that I do not wish to owe Ariadne any--"
"If they can put aside their personal grudges against you for the sake of your country, then at least you can respond in kind!"
Silence fell over the two for several moments as Pascal flipped a page to keep up the pretense.
"Fine," he relented. "And I admit Reynald is an excellent fighter to have as backup. I doubt Parzifal will be of much use, though."
"Healers always come in handy. It's better to be safe than sorry."
Kaede filled Pascal's chalice with freshly-conjured water, then poured the antimagic poison in her vial into her cup in front of the chalice. Any observer from outside the windows would only see it being added to Pascal's drink. A sleight of hand as she picked both up and turned around easily sent the cup onto the floor without being noticed.
"Here, before you complain of thirst again."
Pascal's eyes never left the book as he took the chalice and put it on the table.
"I assume I will not be drinking the poison and passing out, then?"
"Of course not. You're going to drink this water and pretend to pass out, and then I will go to the roof and signal the assassins. I've already hidden a number of your defensive runes around the room; they should activate to your usual triggers."
"Then this should go smoothly." Pascal concluded before closing his book. With his right hand reaching for the goblet, his left took out a pair of a small, white gloves and laid them on the table.
"You know, for a complete novice, your planning is pretty decent."
Kaede sent a mental shrug:
"I did tell you: read enough history and apply some creativity, and you'll have at least one good idea for any occasion."
"Then hopefully, by the time I receive my first command, I will be able to appoint you a position on my staff. You are not allowed to get yourself killed tonight, do I make myself clear?" Pascal ordered as he held up the chalice and began to drink in gulps.
With most of the water downed, Pascal's grip slowly let the goblet clang to the floor while he slumped over onto the desk. Even from directly behind him, Kaede thought it was a very convincing performance. Then, as though to confirm his consciousness, his voice continued to resound in her head:
"Take the gloves. They have a built-in pocket dimension like the type most mages use. Held within the left one is a morphic blade -- consider it a gift from me. It is forged from flexible spring-steel, and its enchantment can transform it into any non-mechanical weapon you imagine. However, I do not suggest trying to recreate something with a complex material composition like your bow at first."
Kaede prodded Pascal twice, as though testing the poison's effects, before she reached over and took the gloves. They were made of soft leather, with a full glove on the left and a three-fingered archery glove for her right.
"Don't worry, I'll make them regret ever thinking I'm just a familiar."
"Of course. You are my familiar."
The last half-hour before dusk passed away in an instant, and Kaede soon stood on the northwest corner of dormitory keep's roof just as she was told.
"Alea iacta est..." she repeated Caesar's famous words from memory.
Bathed in the orange light of the setting sun, Kaede drew a deep breath before raising her right hand into the air as the agreed signal.
She hadn't even exhaled before a weight struck her back and sent a burning sensation through her chest.
Looking down, she saw the bloody tip of an arrow protruding from just above her right breast.
Did I... mess up?
It was Kaede's last thought before she collapsed on the stone roof.
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