The next week went by in a blur as the Königsfeld Academy of Magic prepared for war.
King Leopold von Drachenlanzen of Weichsel had evoked the Writ of Universal Conscription, calling for 'General Mobilization' in the name of the Holy Father. Using this first stage of Weichsel's Fourfold Mobilization system, the standing army would quadruple in size as professional soldiers were augmented by active reserves and young militia. Furthermore, Noble Reiter units, formed by drafting the magic-blessed nobility, would supplement the professional Weichsel Cavalry that consisted of noble spellsword knights and their retainer troops.
Last but not least, 'General Mobiliziation' reduced the cycle of officer training from four years to three. As the end of the year already drew near, Weichsel's General Staff declared that not only fourth year student cadets will be required to join the campaign, but the third years as well.
It was the worst present as the holidays approached.
The Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie had responded to the military buildup in their south by beginning a partial mobilization five days ago. But spy reports that reached the eyes of the Emperor grossly underestimated both the readiness and the tidal scale of the Caliphate's invasion. News from the borders claimed of Cataliyan armies numbering in the hundreds of thousands, pouring over the southern mountain passes in three separate army groups. Hopeless to stop the approaching juggernaut, Lotharin border forces fell back across the front, seeking to regroup with reinforcements at second line fortifications.
They left four undefended Duchies in their wake.
Three, technically. Duke Guy of Avro-Calent refused the general retreat order. His proud four-layer concentric castle, which boasted the strongest fortification in Southern Rhin-Lotharingie, was simply bypassed by the Cataliyan vanguard forces. Rear army units then surrounded the fortress and bombarded it nonstop for three days, followed by a nineteen-hour relentless assault which seized the citadel from its exhausted defenders. In the end, the Duke's bravado and 'glorious death' not only failed to halt or even slow down the invasion, but cost the Lotharin defenses three thousand precious seasoned troops.
The entire war could not have come at a worse time, just as winter was beginning to seal the Northern Lotharingie Mountains under ice and snow. Even Weichsel's coastal Margraviates found it hard to mobilize as yet another cold front swept in from the North Sea.
But the King and his Marshal had no choice. This was the first war against the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie since signing the defensive military alliance treaty. Failing to uphold the pledge would not only invalidate their coalition in the eyes of the world, but also risk condemnation from Weichsel's only influential ally within the Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea.
Ever since Ferdinand I, the founding King of Weichsel, allowed himself to be crowned by the Pope, the small nation in the north has maintained the confidence of the Holy See, serving as a bastion of Trinitian might against the barbaric pagans of the north.
Papal appeasement was Weichsel's foremost deterrence against southern aggression, especially after hostilities during the War of Imperial Succession. Tripling Weichsel's landmass had been worth the papal condemnation it earned them that time -- silenced only by generous donations of gold while leaving church assets alone during territorial annexation. But King Leopold could ill afford further disapproval.
So the army gathered outside the academy's stone fortifications.
The Königsfeld Academy of Magic was one of fourteen rallying points within Weichsel. Every day, more forces arrived outside the curtain walls, setting up camps as they awaited fresh orders from above.
Companies of swordstaff infantry marched in from nearby villages. Battalions of arbalest troops gathered from neighboring towns. Even several hundred cavalry rode in from the nearby counties and baronies who paid direct fealty to the king.
By Saturday morning, the entire area surrounding the academy had grown into a new settlement of tents, palisades, 'Instant Cabins', and simple watchtowers. Inside this makeshift town lived more than three thousand troops, awaiting orders to march west.
Without enacting 'Full Mobilization' and stripping Weichsel's effective defenses bare, Pascal estimated that his nation should be able to muster a total force of fifty thousand -- a mere fragment of the Caliph's might.
----- * * * -----
"I have never seen someone so bad on a horse."
Kaede lay flat on the ground as she ignored Pascal's scathing remark. This was her third practice session with a mount, and she still almost fell off twice during only a prolonged canter. Then the white war steed went into a full gallop, and only Pascal's Air Cushion spell kept her from injuring her back.
Among his kendo friends back on Earth, Kaede's coordination and reflexes had been mediocre at best. It was yet another reason he preferred the meditative and gradual forms in archery over the rapid assaults and reactionary parries of swordplay. Coming to Hyperion and adapting to a new, smaller body hadn't helped her any in attaining better control over her muscles... or lack thereof.
At least her period had ended. The first two practice session had far less pleasant results.
"She's not that bad. You should have seen Gerd when he first learned how to ride. That guy was a true sack of potatoes -- makes one appreciate how far he's come."
Parzifal had tried to encourage her every time he came by to see Ariadne, who offered Kaede what pointers she could. Unsurprisingly, the pegasus knight was not only the best rider in her year, but the entire academy as well. The Manteuffels weren't literally raised in the saddle like their nomadic ancestors; but having learned to ride a pony since she was four, it wasn't far from the truth either.
"Excuse me for not being born noble," Kaede retorted as she stood back up, rubbing her painful behind.
The Air Cushion softened the landing enough to prevent injuries, but there was still some impact. Combined with all the ups and downs in the saddle, it made Kaede's butt hurt -- not quite a place used to it given the wonders of modern vehicle suspension.
The horsemanship problem was hardly a new one. Even during the pre-industrial eras of Earth, cavalry was predominantly a noble occupation, for only the wealthy could afford to grow up accustomed to any proper steed. Many farmers had horses and mules as well, but a docile, plow-towing animal was far different from one bred for the military.
As for Kaede, she had never even petted a pony before, let alone ride a galloping stallion.
"Again?" she asked, watching Pascal whistle the horse back around.
"No. Dinner is almost upon us, and that was already your fourth try this session. Give your backside a rest already."
Kaede quickly put her hands away. She wasn't aware it had been that obvious.
"Nobody is going to become good in just a few days. Only a prodigy would be foolish enough to expect that, even though your own horsemanship is hardly worth bragging about..."
Ariadne voiced her cutting words with a serene smile as she walked over from the wall Parzifal and her had been leaning against. Her delicate fingers extended back to cup her waist-length hair, a pink waterfall swaying between two sides in the castle courtyard's strong crosswinds.
"--Besides, isn't hanging onto a canter enough? Not like she's going to join a thundering charge, even in the very unlikely scenario that you did."
With the reins back in his hands, Pascal's turquoise gaze was still examining Kaede as he began his reply:
"I was hoping she could act as my courier should the opportunity arise. The telepathic link grounded in our familiar bond would allow me to communicate with command directly through her -- exceedingly useful given how normal Telepathy spells cannot function in a battlefield full of clashing ether. It would be a good reason for her to come with me."
"I thought mages often brought their familiars along?" Kaede puzzled.
Thankfully, her own hair was long enough that she stuffed its end into her belt pouch. With most of her time spent reading, Kaede didn't usually mind the sheer length of her beige-white hair, which reached all the way down to her thighs. In fact, she rather enjoyed how soft and comfortable it was. But it was also rather annoying on windy days when she came outside.
"Yes; and in most other cases, I would not worry about it," Pascal answered. "But bringing a girl from my household does raise questions -- and not the kind of rumor good for unit morale."
Smiling as he watched Ariadne from behind, Parzifal strode up to his beloved and put his arm around her shoulders. As though treating a precious jewel, his hands carefully brushed her hair back into place. After receiving an appreciative smile from her, he turned his gaze towards Pascal:
"Oh right, congratulations are in order, although it's hardly surprising after your promotion to Captain. Now you're also the youngest person to command a Noble Reiter company."
'Reiter' was one of the few military terms Kaede knew from German history -- one of the first cavalry in Europe who raised firearms to the status of primary weapons. The fact her familiar bond's 'translation' feature picked this word in specific meant that the magic actually tried to match Weichsel's language to her specific knowledge.
Unlike the professional 'Weichsel Cavalry' which used a combination of polearms, projectiles, and spells, the entirely aristocratic Noble Reiters were cavalrymen who served only as artillery-mages. Their lack of proper combat training reflected in their poor ability to hold out in a close encounter.
Therefore, 'Reiter' was rather appropriate, not to mention far less confusing, than its literal meaning: horse-rider.
"Thanks," Pascal answered a bit awkwardly, clearly still not used to this new relationship. "Do you know which unit you are being assigned to yet? I presume you will be taking a healer's role with the Knights Phantom."
"There's not enough new Knights Phantom to form another company, and new medical squads are only formed on a company-basis," Ariadne said dejectedly as she leaned into Parzifal's shoulder. "Our modus operandi is too different from any other unit to work together, so we're being added to bolster the Black Lancers company when we link up with the King's forces coming from Königsfeld."
"So they offered me to pick any company from your battalion, since they're short on healers for the medic squads again. What do you think, Captain Sir von Moltewitz? Am I good enough, or do you still think I'm too boring?"
Parzifal glanced away at the last second, and Kaede wondered if he regretted impulsively scratching that old wound the moment those words left his mouth.
But if anything, it was Pascal who looked more uncomfortable, his prideful mask leaking just enough humility to identify as mildly apologetic:
"I would be honored if you joined me."
The two men looked back upon one another, and turquoise gaze met aquamarine before each of them nodded in silent recognition and agreement with the other.
"Well, I'll inform the good Major tomorrow then. Not to mention, this also solves our other problem with bringing Kaede."
Both Pascal and Kaede stared at Parzifal for several moments. Neither could figure out the meaning behind his words before the two of them spoke at once:
"Easy," the healer's eyes almost sparkled under his brown bangs. "Medical supplies."
Oh right, walking Blood Bank of Samara, Kaede remembered.
Facing the grinning Parzifal and the giggling Ariadne, her wispy response came out completely flat:
"Oh ha ha, very funny."
Meanwhile, Pascal looked even less amused than his familiar:
"Fair warning: if she faints, I am holding you accountable."
After returning the horse to the stablemaster, Kaede followed Pascal back to the dorms because he wanted to "deal with something first."
Thus she sat down on the bed and took out a tome to read while he finished whatever errand he had.
Except that he stood staring at her.
"What is it?"
"I received something from the postmaster for you today."
Pascal spoke with a not-serious, not-joyous, not-angry, but oddly peaceful and gentle expression as he handed her a wrapped parchment scroll. He then turned the chair at his work desk around to face her before sitting down on it.
Who would send something to me?
Kaede frowned as she took the scroll. Rolling it over, her eyes widened at the black dragon crest of Weichsel on its official wax seal. Her small hands almost fumbled in their rush to unwrap it, pulling it open before her gaze to scan through...
All speculative trains of thoughts came to crashing halts as she registered its impossible content.
Although Kaede had always avoided thinking about it, and despite trying her best to forget it, her memories would never let go of that dreadful first meeting with the headmaster, or even the exact words his horrible raspy voice used to announced her fate in this world:
"No, Miss Familiar. You are neither a citizen of this country nor a holder of lawfully issued identification. Furthermore, you were summoned by a mage through his contractual ritual. In the eyes of our national laws, you are an non-entity who is only recognized as part of his responsibility. You are not property, but due to the lack of legal precedence, you are not far above it either."
She couldn't even begin to count the number of times those words, spoken in that exact same voice, returned to haunt her as she laid awake in bed into the depth of the night.
Returning to the beginning of the scroll, Kaede carefully read each line and every word, taking care to ascertain its reality, that she wasn't merely misinterpreting through wishful thinking:
By the powers invested in me by His Majesty King Leopold Karl-Wilhelm von Drachenlanzen, I hereby recognize and certify Miss Kaede Nika Suvorsky, member to the noble household of Sir Karl August von Moltewitz, Landgrave of Nordkreuz, as a resident of the Kingdom of Weichsel, with all the rights, privileges, and duties of...
She couldn't continue anymore as moisture invaded her eyes and blurred her sight.
I can't believe it.
"This... this is..." her dry voice choked out.
For a pre-modern society, 'household' simply saw her as a servant to the Landgrave's family, but this was nevertheless infinitely better than mere 'property'.
"It is an official certification of residency in the Kingdom of Weichsel, personally signed by the Department Chief of Immigration from the Ministry of the Interior. As long as you abide by our laws, this residency will turn into lawful citizenship after ten years of either living within Weichsel's domains or serving the interests of Weichsel on foreign soil -- which will certainly be the case when you travel with me."
Residency... it's been only... twenty-two days since I came to this world!
Kaede had never applied for citizenship herself, but even she knew that such changes in status usually took years, months at the very least. She had already resigned herself for being completely without rights and reliant upon his protection for the foreseeable future...
"How did you get this so--"
"The process normally takes at least two years. But since high government positions are mostly filled by military officers who retired into the reserves, my family has plenty of contacts within the ministries..."
Pascal was totally unabashed. To him, using back-doors for personal affairs like this was his right:
"--Some bribery also paved the way, of course. But I saw how shocked you were over this when the headmaster first mentioned it. Given that particular worry, expediency became an urgent need."
Even so, he must have started the weekend after I came...
Kaede felt the wet warmth of tears streak down her cheeks as her glassy eyes continued to gaze upon the scroll. Her fingers were almost shaking as she slowly closed the thick parchment back into a roll.
She finally let out the breath she had been unknowingly holding. Her hands brought the certificate close to her chest, protectively clutching what was easily the most precious item Pascal had given her since coming to this fantasy realm.
Yet in hindsight, it wasn't his best present to her. More precisely, it was merely a representation of the rest:
In a land where she had absolutely nothing to her name, he had given her a warm and secure place to call home.
It was easy, so easy to consider this his obligation, as Pascal was the one who tore Kaede away from her past life by summoning her into this world. But she also knew that few individuals placed in such circumstances would have taken the same position or invested the same effort for her sake.
It might be his responsibility, but it was a responsibility he took in full measure and upheld even without being asked.
Kaede smiled back at Pascal through her blurry gaze. Her hand reached up to wipe away the tears, but even then she had trouble clearly making out his countenance.
"--I can't even begin to describe... but... this really, really means a lot to me. Everything..."
The wetness in her eyes wouldn't stop coming out, a small yet steady stream that her hands kept clearing away.
Throughout her entire life, Kaede almost never lost control of her emotions. Yet this was already her second time since coming to Hyperion.
A small corner of her mind couldn't help but wonder if being a teenage girl had something to do with it. She had once read that the hormone imbalance of undergoing puberty had a critical impact on how teen minds perceived and responded to situations.
There was also the fact that female brains were wired very differently from male brains, or how neurotransmitter roles varied between genders, or...
Perhaps shedding a few more tears were the least of her self-adapting changes since arriving in this new world.
"--I know I should at least give you a hug or something in gratitude over this, yet I can't even stop crying here..."
Thinking back, Kaede had never felt more glad that she picked his side, never so assured that she made the right decision when she joined the assassination scheme against him for his protection. Yet she couldn't help but feel a pang of guilt over her brief indecision. Even back then, when she chose whether or not to partake in his murder, he had already started his work to help her feel at ease.
I could have done so much wrong...
Wordlessly, Pascal stood up from his chair, walked over to the bed, and wrapped both of his arms around her thin shoulders.
She could feel his protective warmth as he pulled her into his firm chest.
"The hugs are free," he said in that odd joking tone of his.
Still buried in his chest, Kaede couldn't help but crack an unseen smile:
Such inappropriate timing.
She didn't even have the urge to hit him this time.
After nearly a minute, Pascal pulled back just enough to look down into her glassy eyes. His fingers reached up to carefully wipe them away, as though brushing aside delicate beads of pearl.
"As much as I enjoy how huggable you are, we really should go down for dinner. Otherwise, Ariadne and the rest are going to believe I am chastising you over today's practice."
Kaede couldn't help but smile back at him, her rose-quartz eyes still swollen red:
"Then you better help me clean this up first. Otherwise, they'll know you've been bullying me."
----- * * * -----
As Kaede followed Pascal into the main keep, they found Professor Albert waiting for him with a stern, almost grim expression:
"Sir von Moltewitz, please come with me for a moment. There is something private I must inform you."
Kaede tilted her head slightly as she looked at Pascal, whose poker face went on instantly.
"Go join Parzifal and the rest for dinner. I will be there shortly," he told her before following his advisor into the dark hallways of the stone keep.
She hesitated for a minute before leaving. Something about Pascal, about the entire situation just didn't feel right. But at the same time, it didn't do her any good to wait there.
This turned out to be the first time Kaede walked into the great dining hall by herself.
The tables were almost full, with as many older nobles as there were younger. All the new faces were aristocrats from the army gathering outside. Most of them wore standard Weichsel military uniforms, but some were dressed quite flamboyantly.
Kaede received plenty of odd stares on her way. Some were merely curious, presumably over where her master was. Meanwhile others held her in contempt, disgusted over how the familiar girl could be allowed to stride unescorted across noble grounds in her proud bearing, as though she deserved to eat there.
Thankfully, nobody approached or stopped her.
As she walked up to Parzifal's large group, Cecylia raised her curiosity first:
"Professor Albert stopped him along the way to tell him something."
Parzifal and Cecylia had managed to save them two seats, so Kaede sat down and waited; her eyes kept peeled at the entrance.
She was slightly surprised when she overheard that Cecylia had been assigned to the same battalion as Pascal, leading the 'Information Control' section directly under Battalion Command.
After several minutes, Kaede watched as Professor Albert entered the hall, but with no sign of Pascal following him.
The senior administration professor that served as the de-facto headmaster of the academy's educational role then turned towards a table and pulled out an open chair near the entrance. But before he would sit down, his gloves reached up and cupped his throat for a split second.
"May I have your attention please."
Despite the polite words, his magically amplified voice did not speak them in the tone of a request, but as an order.
Kaede already heard the rumor that the King had offered Professor Sir Albert von Marienfeld a restored generalship and the position of commanding officer over two brigades. But the professor turned it down, stating that the nation's immediate needs were of no greater importance than its long-term survival, for which it must have capable officers and administrators. A protracted war with the Caliphate will only increase the demand for cadets upon the Königsfeld Academy; therefore his greater duties were on the teaching floor, not the battlefield.
Under his commanding presence, the entire dining hall quieted down within seconds. Even the nobles not obligated to obey him fell silent in respect and courtesy.
"Before we offer our nightly prayers to the Holy Father, I have two announcements to make. I ask you all to brace yourselves, for neither of them bear pleasant news."
Kaede's stomach twisted itself in knots as she anxiously awaited the bad news that almost undoubtedly involved Pascal.
"First, His Holiness Pope Vigilius has recognized the late Duke Guy of Avro-Calent a martyr of the faith and canonized him as a saint..."
It was an obvious backhanded slap towards the Emperor of Rhin-Lotharingie, who gave the order for a general retreat from the Lotharin-Cataliyan borders. But what came next was far, far worse as Professor Albert continued in his stern but grim voice, with only a barely detectable trace of disgust that he had to deliver such a revolting message:
"--Distressed by the loss of the helpless and the faithful to infidel hands due to the ungodly cowardice displayed by Emperor Geoffroi of Rhin-Lotharingie, who performed no deeds yet basked in sin over the past decades in his greed against the pious people of the Holy Imperium and even against the Church itself, it is with great sorrow that Pope Vigilius hereby excommunicates Emperor Geoffroi Jean de Gaetane from the Trinitian faith, for he has clearly left the grace of the Holy Father..."
Hushed murmurs began across the hall as people discussed where the war would turn to now, or how King Leopold could possibly aid a heretical ally using an army mobilized in the name of the Holy Father.
But Professor Albert warned about two pieces of ill news. The canonization of a new saint, as political as its motives were, simply wasn't unpleasant enough to count by itself.
"Second, I regret to inform you that tragedy has befallen our own Kingdom of Weichsel. On this morning, during a trip out to inspect the Capital's outlying defenses, Field Marshal Sir Karl August von Moltewitz..."
Kaede could feel the hammer that knocked the air out from her lungs.
"--Commanding Officer of the Weichsel Military Forces and Landgrave of Nordkreuz, plus twenty-eight staff members and bodyguards, were cowardly ambushed by unknown assassins. Reinforcements from Königsfeld did not arrive in time to intercede, and the entire group has been confirmed dead."
This time people didn't even try to stay silent. Conversations erupted across the dining hall like wildfire, fueled by the war anxieties everyone had built up over the course of the past week. Some individuals even began shouting matches as their arguments flared...
But Kaede had already stopped paying attention.
She only waited long enough not to be an embarrassment to Pascal in the eyes of the gathered nobles. He would need his dignity more than ever in the coming days. But the moment Professor Albert finished and the hall erupted into chaos, she pushed back her chair and began striding towards the entrance.
There was no way Pascal was coming here.
In the back of her mind, Kaede also realized...
This was the first time Pascal broke his word.
Pascal was not in his dorm room.
Kaede thought it was unfair that he could always figure out where she was, but not the other way around.
Only then did she finally remember the telepathy channel. She had been subconsciously avoiding it. In this kind of situation, its use felt like cheating.
But it was still better than not being there.
"Where are you?"
She didn't even bother to ask 'are you alright'. That would have been purely insensitive. There was no way he could be fine after his father's death. Whatever odd 'daddy issues' Pascal had, there was also no doubt that he only spoke the word 'father' with reverence and respect.
"On the roof."
Pascal's mental voice could not be any more monotoned.
Kaede climbed up three more flights of stairs, emerging into the rooftop chill to find Pascal standing in the middle of the gently falling snow. His hardened turquoise gaze did not turn, still watching the far-side battlements and the indigo planet draped over the black horizon.
A noticeable layer of snowflakes had already accumulated on his broad, uniformed shoulders.
It felt almost like the morning after she came to this world, had their roles been reversed.
Uncertain of what she should do, what she could do, Kaede tentatively took her first step towards Pascal.
"You don't need to apologize," she stopped his dry words.
Kaede knew perfectly well why he did not come as promised to the dining hall. Once he entered it, there was no way for him to leave with dignity until he finished his meal. An entire hour spent under the gaze of hundreds, whose eyes were pitying at best and gloating at worst; a full dinner spent listening to people's sympathies, regardless of whether they sincerely bared their hearts or merely paid lip service per aristocratic courtesy...
Neither of those would be something Pascal's pride could handle, not in this delicate moment when his mask was at its most brittle state.
"I am fine, rea..."
"You don't have to hold it in," her soft voice interrupted him again.
Silence returned to the rooftop once more, disrupted only by her quiet footsteps as his statue continued to gaze upon the distant planet. His stilled, half-turned eyes soon reflected the dim light of the heavens as hardened turquoise softened into glass.
Then, as Kaede took her last step behind him, as she reached around with both of her thin arms and wrapped them across his lower chest, Pascal's deep, anguished voice finally shattered the last vestige of peace:
"I WARNED him..."
Kaede kept her silence as she leaned her head into him, hoping, praying that their bond, the empathic link she cursed so many times, would give Pascal the emotional support he badly needed.
"--Given what Reynald said about the Mantis Blades, I told him, TOLD HIM, that after their attempt on my head, he was in serious, grave danger as the logical next target. That IN NO UNCERTAIN TERMS he should immediately discontinue his habitual personal visits to individual army camps for the coming months, at least until the Weichsel army is fully engaged in the war and the Imperium has missed its window of opportunity... but when does he EVER listen to me...!?"
It wasn't entirely fair. Kaede stood certain that had Pascal received a similar warning in that same position, he probably would not have altered his habits either. Generals did not succumb to fear over the mere likelihood of danger. They certainly did not alter schedules and change routines with ease -- which would clearly announce their fright to their soldiers.
Besides, had the elder von Moltewitz stopped his visits, how long must he cower under the threat of assassins? As the Marshal of Weichsel, every enemy of the state wanted him dead on a daily basis.
The thin line between courage in the face of danger and reckless stupidity could only be seen through hindsight, yet it was the willingness of commanders brave enough to tip that line that gained them the trust, admiration, and loyalty of their troops.
But this was no time for Kaede to wax philosophy.
She could only hold back her thoughts as Pascal's voice grew hoarse:
"--NO! Of course not! I am just the immature son who could not even graduate from the academy in time for him to see it!"
Pascal did not cry out when she knocked out two of his teeth and broke three of his ribs on this spot. He did not complain once about pain after his left arm was mangled by assassins -- a feat even Reynald respected in the redhead's exaggerated storytelling. Nor did he flinch when he faced the most humiliating moments of his life, apologizing to Parzifal and Ariadne over years of regret on this very rooftop.
It wasn't even a matter of masculine pride. The man was born and raised to be a soldier, a commander, a leader.
He was simply not allowed to falter, to even show weakness.
He must be confident and assured at all times, never to reveal a single doubt towards the inevitability of victory.
Yet under the distant glittering starlight, basked in the glow from the indigo planet, Kaede watched as a shining stream of tears slid down his half-turned cheeks.
But his next words -- spoken as unforgiving as the arctic cold -- almost made her own heart freeze:
"I should have gone to him myself."
Survivor's guilt was renowned enough that she recognized it instantly.
"Don't be ridiculous Pascal. Your father undoubtedly took two of his best bodyguard squads. They must have faced at least several Mantis Blade teams, if not other mercenaries. How could you have done what they couldn't!?"
Kaede knew that she was no psychiatrist, but Pascal was also a bastion of logic and willful integrity.
She did not need to debate such points with him.
All she needed to do was point out the obvious, then let him argue it out with himself.
"But... he was... the only family I had left..."
Kaede could feel Pascal's tears streaming down through his broken voice.
She didn't say anything. She didn't even know what to say. All she did was bury her own tear-stained cheeks into his back and tighten her arms around his chest.
She knew his mother had died early. But in hindsight, if Pascal had been raised by servants, then his extended family must have been lacking as well.
Her borrowed genealogy references did mention that Pascal's father Karl was also an only son. His parents, or Pascal's paternal grandparents, were young nobles displaced by political fallout from the Rhin-Lotharingie Independence War. The name von Moltewitz was Karl's creation, by merging a family surname prefix to the clan name suffix of his Weichsel bride.
Pascal and Kaede had a brief discussion over it once. But he never mentioned his mother's side, even though plenty of his maternal relations should still be alive...
"Y-your mother's family?" Kaede was almost afraid to ask.
Pascal didn't answer.
He only began after his voice finally regained a fragment of its composure:
"Father's relationship with mother's side of the family deteriorated after she died. A Northmen invasion after that laid waste to my maternal grandparents' estate, and everyone blamed him for not sending reinforcements fast enough. They accused father of delaying aid over a personal grudge, even though half the coast was under attack and he just couldn't blatantly favor his own family..."
There was no need to explain what happened after that.
Everyone always expected leaders to be accomplished in everything; to be perfect and superhuman, to flawlessly address every need. In turn, those with responsibility were blamed and accused and reviled and criticized over every cent of error, even as they juggled the pros and cons of every decision, agonized over every sacrifice they made for a strategic victory -- for the 'greater good'.
After all, there was no point to winning the battle and losing the war. Yet in sacrificing a pawn to assure victory across the board, a leader could only cut off a part of themselves.
For some, that meant their flesh and blood.
For others, their heart and soul.
Perhaps that was part of why history had precious few enlightened absolutists, overshadowed by hordes of greedy and cruel tyrants who had lost their humanity.
Yet Pascal was doomed to face the worst of it, for nothing accentuated the contradiction in human decision-making more than the realm of military strategy.
In that moment under the sky, the stars, and the planetoid moon, Kaede finally realized the core of Pascal's being:
Why he was confident, arrogant, and intolerant.
Why he expected the best from everyone, only to lay scorn upon those who could not meet his demands.
It was because he expected the same qualities from himself.
It was his wish to be 'perfect' in his worldly role. To not merely rise beyond the renown of his father, but to achieve what his father could not.
Losses may be inevitable in war, but he would at least seek to win them without 'sacrifice'.
But no floor was smooth from the cut of a single tile. No rope could hold from the strength of only one strand. And just the same, no general could win 'perfect' victories without staffers, lieutenants, and even soldiers of the highest quality.
In seeking his 'perfection', Pascal inadvertently created his greatest flaw:
Even though he had the charisma to persuade and intimidate, his social skills were abysmal.
It was why he summoned her.
Without friends, no leader could stay in the light. Not even an aspiring one.
Kaede's decision turned out to be remarkably easy.
It was less than an hour ago when she read her certificate of residency. Now, it felt as though a lifetime past.
But within it was one line of words she would never forget:
"Kaede Nika Suvorsky, member to the noble household of Sir Karl August von Moltewitz..."
That household now belonged to Pascal.
"You're wrong about one thing, Pascal."
Still embracing him tightly, Kaede's wispy voice came muffled by the proximity of his uniform jacket. It was barely more than a whisper, yet its content rang clearly in the silence between them:
"No one will ever replace your father, but he's not the only family you have left."
Pascal didn't say a word as he brought his own arms up, covering her small, chilled hands with the warmth of his palms as she continued:
"I'm sure the people of your estate, those who watched you grow up and raised you, all consider you part of the same family."
She also thought of his fiancée Sylviane. But having never met the other side of their political betrothal, she couldn't be sure of the princess' intentions.
Not to mention that for the first time, she felt... odd, about bringing up the name of his betrothed.
Kaede paused for a few more seconds as she reviewed her decision. She knew exactly how critical this moment was, and she would neither tarnish it with false promises, nor soil it with ambiguous misunderstandings.
"Even more than that, you have me... I can't promise I'll always be here. I can't swear I won't dream of my old life and world. But I will always be your familiar. I willalways be your family. And so long as I remain on this realm, I will support you to the best of my abilities..."
This was her declaration, her solemn pledge.
Families could still separate, grow apart. But even by the unlikely chance Kaede discovered how to return to her world, they would still be master and familiar, still try to remain part of each others' lives.
Hyperion was no longer merely an endless dream or nightmare. She would finally, truly embrace it as her reality.
"--You have my oath."
Pascal's large hands wrapped around her own, gripping them with firm determination. His gaze, however, never left the distant horizon.
"Thank you. That is more than I could ever ask for."
----- * * * -----
Two hours later, as Pascal laid down next to Kaede and pulled up the bedcovers as usual...
The overhead light was still on as he turned towards her, his gaze pulling in her rose-quartz eyes as she did likewise.
"What is it?" Kaede smiled back at him.
Her countenance was serene. Her visage was beautiful, from her long silky hair, to the thinly-curled lashes above caring eyes still tinged with a trace of worry, to her small nose and cute lips...
She was angelic.
Pascal was sure, for the second time, and he was staring at his personal guardian angel.
How else could all the changes to his life in the past few weeks be explained?
Yet never before has he needed the blessing of another as much as tonight:
"I once told you that I would never touch you while sleeping without consent, but... may I hold on to you while we sleep?"
Her flawless white skin immediately flushed seven shades of scarlet.
Pascal knew he was being unfair to ask on such a night, especially after what just happened.
But Kaede didn't say a thing. Shyly pulling the covers up a little further, she returned two small but firm nods.
She's just way too cute.
He carefully wrapped his arms around her before slowly pulling her closer, as though afraid to break a delicate gem.
He could almost feel her heartbeat quicken and her cheeks burning as he held her soft body against the firm musculature of his arms and chest. His right hand then reach behind her head, gently stroking her silky long hair as he tried to calm her back down.
...Too huggable as well.
Closing the last breath of distance, Pascal placed a tender kiss on her forehead.
"Thank you, and good night."
She never resisted, never recoiled, not even voicing the slightest sound of objection.
Pascal held onto Kaede until her breath evened out, until she had drifted away under the rhythmic strokes of her long hair.
It was the first time he noticed her falling asleep before him.
It was her way of expressing how truly she had accepted him.
After his loneliness finally subsided, Pascal couldn't help but feel somewhat guilty for forcing her into it. He carefully -- with a bit of magical help -- extracted his arms from her, and settled for just holding onto her hand.
It was not until hours later, late into the night, when a still-wide-awake Pascal felt the pinging sensation of an incoming Farspeak spell.
His mind soon visualized the source -- it was from his fiancée. The first time in weeks that she was willing to speak to him.
Pascal rushed, mentally of course, to open up the channel from his receiving end.
For nearly a minute, silence reigned across the channel as neither he nor Sylviane spoke.
Farspeak calls had a range and reliability unmatched by conventional Telepathy. But it also had glaring weaknesses: each person may only join one such link, both ends must concentrate on keeping the channel open, and the spell not only took minutes to cast but could also be easily missed if one wasn't paying attention.
Pascal was anxious, but it was common courtesy to allow the caller to speak first, especially after they've already spent minutes shaping the spell.
Then, her message began with only two sorrowful words:
It was the one opening that Pascal did not know how to respond to. Should he offer to take the blame for their last call, or should he accept her sympathy?
He was about to choose option one -- better safe than sorry -- when a second line soon arrived on the heels of the first:
"I'm on my way to Königsfeld and will arrive by tomorrow morning. Official business first, but I will definitely see you afterwards to talk."
Pascal was a fast thinker when he needed to be, but he was still not quick enough. Before he could even expand his phrase into a proper response, she had slipped him a quiet third communique:
"I missed you."
Then the link cut off.
Even if it didn't, it would have taken Pascal at least a moment to recover from that.
Three simple words, spoken in a shy, almost embarrassed voice, yet drowned in a mixture of exhaustion and longing that Sylviane had never expressed.
He always believed that at least part of his interest towards her was because their personalities were peas from the same pod, even if she was far more approachable and friendly.
But his fiancée made one error in judgment.
After the news of today, Pascal knew exactly why she was coming to Weichsel. There was no way he would just sit back and watch while she fought tooth and nail for their fathers' legacy.
His first order of business upon daybreak now stood clear: he must travel to Königsfeld for an audience with the King as the new Landgrave of Nordkreuz.
History might only remember the Caliphate's declaration of Holy War days ago as the ignition point, but for Pascal Kay Lennart von Moltewitz, it was tonight when the war truly began.
And it would not stop until all of Hyperion lay changed.
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