Pascal sighed again as he put down the action report and leaned back in his cabin's workdesk chair.
It was his third time reading over the report in contemplation. In fact, he had already sent its contents to Weichsel's General Staff an hour ago.
The real problem was that he simply didn't know what else to do.
The Knights Phantom had set up camp after the battle to rest, recover, and reorganize. Most of the cavalrymen were celebrating with their own units, paying respects to the dead, or just plain sleeping.
Problem was: Pascal couldn't sleep. He was far past the 'drowsy' stage of fatigue.
He also didn't belong to a unit, or even a 'past unit'. He was one of the few command staff personnel who came along for the battle, and unlike the others he had come straight from the academy.
That shouldn't be a problem since there were plenty of cadets from the academy right? Well, of the people he actually talked to...
Parzifal was still working in the makeshift 'hospital'.
Reynald, Ariadne, and Gerd were all recovering from heavy injuries -- severe enough that the healers allowed no visitors so the wounded could receive undisturbed rest.
Kaede had gone there to help, at least until she herself passed out. A lack of rest plus being drained for blood really wasn't a good combination. Pascal might have been tempted to go yell at Parzifal for that, had he not seen firsthand the casualties they took.
Nearly forty percent of the Phantoms' order of battle had been killed or crippled. The Ghost Riders had been hit the hardest, down to less than a fifth of their effective combat force. Their only blessing was the survival of Colonel von Hammerstein. The grievously injured commander had stayed conscious long enough to drift down and cushion his landing, where he was later found by Weichsel's rescue teams.
It would take years for the elite Knights Phantom to recover back to full strength after this fight.
Combined with all the other battles and skirmishes fought during the Peninsular Campaign, Pascal wasn't surprised that the healers had run out of Samaran blood.
The victory was a costly one. But that didn't make it any less total. Both Skagen's skywhales and their drake force had been utterly destroyed, denying the Northmen of their mobile strike force. With Admiral Winter dead, Weichsel's stormcaller mages already detected a warm front moving in from the south. Soon, the snow-covered fields would turn to wintry slush, rendering the northern skis and sleds unusable. Once General von Blumenthal's land cavalry destroyed the beached Skagen North Sea Fleet tomorrow, the entire Skagen army would be trapped in Weichsel without supplies.
Sure, the border didn't seem far -- except Skagen's outer defenses had already been obliterated by the Peninsular Campaign. With superior Weichsel cavalry harrying them from all sides, their retreat back to friendly supply lines would be agonizingly slow.
Meanwhile, King Leopold was already leading the main Weichsel army out of Nordkreuz. They were marching east to finish the job: the annihilation of Skagen's Confederate Army of the Home Isles.
The Greater Jarldom of Skagen still had more forces in their overseas frontier realms. But those units would take months to return, assuming they could be spared from their duties on the frontier at all. If the King could destroy Skagen's home army, he would ruin their capacity to wage war on the Hyperion continent for decades to come. This would give Weichsel absolute and undisputed superiority in any peace negotiations which followed.
But would the King settle for merely a white peace -- a return to the status quo -- so Weichsel could free its hand to join Rhin-Lotharingie's war against the Caliphate?
Pascal rather doubted that.
A decisive victory would encourage Weichsel to press towards its ultimate goal in the north: the annexation of the Skagen Peninsula.
With two of the three peninsular Jarls already killed in battle, it was possible that Skagen's Assembly of Jarls might actually agree after a catastrophic loss.
But even in the best case scenario of a swift peace, the people in these newly conquered lands belonged to both a different culture and religion. Their integration would require pacification, which needed the presence of considerable military might -- forces that could no longer be sent to Rhin-Lotharingie's aid.
I had not thought this far when I initially proposed the Operation, Pascal reflected.
He had been too focused on achieving military objectives, without considering the broader political implications.
At times like these, Pascal had to admit that in spite of all his genius, he was still a long way off from becoming a true general.
...Let alone a renowned Marshal like his father.
Pascal wished he could talk to Sylviane right now. She had considerably more political experience than he did, thanks to years of working under Emperor Geoffroi in the Lotharin court. But her armigers had called her away on urgent business -- something about a message from home.
I might be the fiancé of their crown princess. But in the eyes of most Lotharins, I am still just a foreigner and outsider, Pascal sighed as he pondered over this sad and lonely truth.
Leaning his head back from the chair, Pascal brought his right hand up to rub his temple.
He couldn't wait for night to come and hopefully bring some rest for his fatigue-clouded mind.
That was before he heard two knocks on the door, followed by a familiar voice:
"Pascal? Are you in?" came the soft soprano of Cecylia von Falkenhausen.
"Yes! Be right there!" Pascal called back as he stood up and rushed for the door.
He really was thankful that Kaede had allowed him to semi-reconcile with Ariadne, which brought his childhood friend Cecylia back to everyday speaking terms again.
"You are back in Weichsel already?" Pascal cheerfully asked as he opened the thick wooden door... and promptly froze.
The dhampir girl with scarlet-crossed eyes was just the first of six people who stood outside, all of them wearing figure-concealing gray cloaks bearing the Black Dragon crest of Weichsel.
"Sorry, official business," Cecylia noted as she gave him an apologetic smile.
"Can we talk inside?" requested the middle-aged man standing right behind her.
Pascal's eyebrows shot up. This was certainly a very unusual encounter. Besides, he thought Cecylia was still supposed to be in Skagen, doing intelligence work.
Never breaking eye contact or changing his puzzled expression, Pascal slowly turned his hand to point his turquoise casting ring at Cecylia. Meanwhile his other hand summoned four defensive runes. But a subtle scan of her magic aura held a matching checksum with his memory. The unique ether signature was definitely Cecylia's, not some fake modified by polymorph or illusion magic.
He didn't detect any enchantment magic either. Sure, minor spell auras could be concealed. But any spell capable of overwhelming and dominating a dhampir's mind would be powerful indeed.
"Come on in," Pascal replied at last as he lead them into the cabin. "How is your father Cecylia?"
The elder Falkenhausen was a leading general of Weichsel, which made this more than just a personal question but also a matter of state.
"His legs were crushed when the air assault collapsed the eastern gatehouse," Cecylia kept her tone casual despite the topic. "But the healers reached him in time with Regeneration spells. He'll make a full recovery in a week or so."
"That is a relief to hear."
With seven people inside, the room was a little cramped. It only worsened when six of them reached out to take off their cloaks, revealing their uniforms underneath.
...The pitch-black uniform of the King's Black Eagles, all six of them.
Pascal had an uneasy feeling about this. It wasn't natural for the Black Eagles to operate openly in groups unless the King was nearby.
The lean, middle-aged man -- who wore a fierce scowl and blond hair tied back in a 'manly' ponytail -- then began without waiting for the resident's invitation:
"I am Major Kempinski, leader of field operations for the Black Eagles' State Security section," the man revealed his Black Eagle crest-badge, as though offering Pascal to examine its authenticity.
But Pascal simply nodded. Cecylia's presence was good enough for him. If he couldn't trust a Falkenhausen, who had been faultlessly loyal to the Crown of Weichsel for generations, then there would be no man in the world whom he could rely on.
Of course, his friendship and trust towards Cecylia was probably the reason why they recalled her for this task.
"Is this cabin warded from outside spying?"
"Of course," Pascal answered. What does he think I am, incompetent?
"Then-- I have been charged to bring you a personal note from His Majesty the King, along with conclusive findings of recent investigations into the death of Field Marshal Karl August von Moltewitz," the Major continued.
At the words 'His Majesty the King', Pascal immediately stood to full attention and gave a responsive salute.
"Hail the Black Dragon," he swore his allegiance before receiving the offered scroll-case.
What about father? Is there something else other than him being killed by Imperial Mantis Blades?
Questions rolled nonstop across Pascal's mind as he unfurled the two sheets of parchment and began reading.
It began with pleasantries, congratulations for the victory, all the warm words one could expect from an eloquent writer to a friend of the family.
...Right up to when the hammer struck:
...We have since discovered irrefutable evidence that the assassination of the Marshal had been supported by none other than General Neithard Mittemeyer von Manteuffel in a most blatant act of high treason...
Pascal felt his lungs halt mid-breathe. His eyes stared back as though threatening to pop out from their sockets.
von Manteuffel... treason...
At that moment, facing the black, ironclad words on cold parchment, he could have sworn his heart stopped.
It had been frozen in doubtful disbelief, then reignited as he read on, by icy flames of simmering fury.
...The Black Eagles have unraveled evidence of direct contact between the von Manteuffel household and Imperial intelligence agents, including the passing of detailed information on guard and patrol schedules...
Pascal's knuckles had turned white. His arms had began to quiver, though the grip on the parchment itself had grown as firm as steel.
This was General von Manteuffel, one of the most decorated officers in the Weichsel army. He and Pascal's father had served together for decades! They might not have been friends, but they were at least comrades! How could he...
...Although initially thought to be the work of a mere spy within the household staff, thorough divination testing has confirmed that these documents have been personally handled by the General...
Pascal could barely believe it. He just couldn't accept it. It was betrayal, a personal sense of betrayal from not just his commanding officer, but a general whom he had looked up to for the man's tactical brilliance.
"Is this... is this all certain?" Pascal heard his own trembling voice mutter.
"The King had assigned the best investigators in Weichsel on this task and gave it the highest priority," Cecylia's soft reply came with an apologetic look. "These results are as reliable as they get."
It was a question of denial. Pascal knew exactly why: in the wake of his father's death, von Manteuffel had already pulled ahead as the main contender for the next Field Marshal of Weichsel.
...And it was questionable if his ambitions ended even there.
Hence why von Manteuffel seeded his own protégés in all the important command positions of the operation.
Perhaps it even explained the General's 'blunder' at the Battle of Nordkapp which almost had Pascal killed.
To pass such sensitive information on the Marshal's security to the Imperials... von Manteuffel could have done no worse if he had personally handed the Mantis Blades a sword to kill the elder von Moltewitz.
Pascal hadn't even noticed as his breathing grew into heaving pants, or his shoulders quaking under barely-contained explosive rage.
The dark clouds of vile hatred, the thirst for blood and vengeance -- he had suppressed them in the wake of the assassination for the interests of Weichsel. But now, they could no longer be contained.
Father knew you were too ambitious to be politically reliable. But he had always respected, RESPECTED you, because you were a brave and brilliant leader, one whom he had thought shared in the belief of a strong Weichsel independent from Imperial influences. But you...
"--You fucking traitorous PIECE OF SHIT!" he finally spat out.
"I take it... that you are here to arrest that traitorous bastard?" Pascal heard the murderous hatred exit his own mouth.
"...Pascal?" Kaede chimed in, but he ignored her worried voice completely.
"You have my deepest condolences for the Marshal," Major Kempinski's steady voice replied. "But please stay calm and continue reading, Major von Moltewitz."
With a deep breath to swallow any further words of impatience, Pascal begrudgingly returned his gaze to the parchment. The royal communique was more effluent than usual. He wished the King would get to whatever was the next point already so he could return to discussing how to strangle that man...
Then, there it was:
...It is my heartfelt desire that you be given an opportunity to personally avenge this betrayal by assisting in von Manteuffel's immediate arrest, before his own agents may hear of his unveiled treason and prompt him into launching a military coup d'etat. The Black Eagles charged with delivering this message are hereby assigned to your command. Please exercise initiative with caution, my young friend, as von Manteuffel's long career of service has earned him countless loyal supporters within every military camp. Should he resist arrest by any means, you have my permission for his immediate execution. The Weichsel army cannot risk a major disturbance in this crucial stage of the war.
Other than the words 'my young friend', Pascal found himself in complete agreement with the King's every sentiment. If von Manteuffel found out about his impending arrest, he could launch a military coup in desperation which would inflict immeasurable harm to Weichsel's war efforts.
All of this pointed towards one fact: the sooner that General was removed, the better.
"...Pascal what's going on?" Kaede spoke again over their telepathy.
...And once again Pascal ignored her. More precisely, his mind never even bothered to process her words.
With eyes intent on his mission, he stood straight to face Major Kempinski at last.
"I accept His Majesty's mission with obedience and gratitude," he voice resounded as hard as steel. "However, Neithard von Manteuffel is one of Weichsel's highest ranking commanders. Should his immediate death be necessary, may I ask if you bear His Majesty's sword to represent his royal authority?"
The Black Eagles officer then shook his head without any change in expression:
"His Majesty said that his sword cannot be spared on the eve of battle. We must make do with the orders of the King."
Pascal pursed his lips at that.
As one of the highest offices in Weichsel, a general can only be promoted or removed with the personal consent of the King. With His Majesty's orders in hand, Pascal could certainly arrest a general -- that was a temporary measure, after all. But to execute, to permanently remove a general, that required more substantial authority. It was an established tradition of Weichsel to ensure that no forged orders or subterfuge could do irreparable harm to the nation's interests.
But then, these were special circumstances. It certainly would be unreasonable to deny the King his personal sword while he was in command of an army.
"We will just have to make do then," Pascal admitted. "With the King's personal letter and his Black Eagles at hand, there should not be any problems. If anything, the best time to strike would be now and immediately. Most of the camp is either celebrating or resting, with only perimeter watch on battle alert. Last I heard, von Manteuffel himself was overseeing the celebrations. Our biggest danger is that a considerable number of knights from the Phantom Gale -- his old unit -- will be there."
"Then we have no time to lose," the Major replied. "There is always the possibility that one of his loyalists sighted our approach here and might raise suspicions."
"In that case, we will gather Colonel von Mackensen and whomever he has at hand. Not only is he a diehard Crown Royalist, but his forces suffered the least casualties in the last battle. We will head over to the dining halls after that," Pascal finalized, having already taken his first steps towards the door.
...And I hope that traitor does resist, because I will gladly send him to hell myself!
"Pascal please say something, you're scaring me now..."
Kaede's faint cry was almost begging him when he noticed it at last.
The emotions pouring over their empathic link were beyond mere worry and concern now. They had already entered the realm of becoming distraught.
When did she...?
Pascal knew it wasn't her first attempt, but he couldn't recall when her calls began, or how many times she had already been ignored.
"Stay put where you are," his reply rang terse and imperious as he strode through the cabin door.
"The hell I'm staying put when you're out looking for someone's blood! What is going on?"
Pascal didn't remember venting any of his stormy wrath across their telepathy. But clearly he must have, as it had been enough to wake Kaede and drive her own anxieties to the edge.
I do not have time for this right now!
"This is a political matter. You would just complicating things," he sent back.
"Fine, I won't ask any more questions until you're ready to tell me," Kaede relented in her desperation. "But at least let me be there! Can you use an extra hand? Or..."
Pascal didn't really need her help. He certainly didn't want her in this dangerous affair.
But Kaede was right in one regard -- at this moment, he needed all the trustworthy manpower he could seize.
Besides, if she was just going to keep pestering him, then it also doubled as a way of shutting her up.
"Meet me outside the dining halls in five minutes then. Remember: no questions!"
...And stay out of my way when I skin this bastard alive!
----- * * * -----
Although he sat amidst an atmosphere of celebration, General Neithard von Manteuffel was anything but jubilant.
The men from his old, personally-trained company -- the Phantom Gale -- drank and sang in good cheer all around. But the General had plastered a trace smile across his expression while nursing his stein in silent contemplation.
During the ride south from Skagen, he had received a Farspeak message from a close friend back in Königsfeld. He had ignored it at the time -- a looming decisive battle that could alter the fate of the nation held more importance than any news a retired officer might bring.
Unfortunately, that merely pushed back the ill tidings to cast a shadow upon the afterglow of victory.
Apparently, the General and his entire household was under investigation. His friend couldn't offer him any details, other than how the Black Eagles have been probing his activities and contacts... and very subtly at that.
Perhaps it couldn't be helped. No man could climb the ranks of power without making enemies, just as no man could maintain his presence everywhere at once. Neithard knew the moment he took command in the field, his political opponents in the Capital would begin plotting against him.
...Though if the Black Eagles were brought into the scheme, it meant they finally caught the ears of the King.
Cardinal Lanckoroński, you slimy old hag...
As the leader of the militant faction, Neithard had been bitterly opposed to the Cardinal's pro-Imperium commerce faction for as long as he remembered. It certainly didn't help that their personalities mixed like oil and water. Whereas Neithard von Manteuffel was stoic, stern, and frugal, Lisbeth von Lanckoroński was... well, a greedy hedonist who liked teenage boys.
Enjoying younger members of the other sex was hardly a rare trait among the powerful. But Neithard always wondered why the Holy Father ever allowed such a sinner to tend to his flock.
The late Marshal von Moltewitz had believed strongly in staying out of factional politics -- a trait Neithard once found exceedingly foolish. No army could live on honor and tradition alone. It need funding, gold, its slice of the national budget. Sure, Nordkreuz was a rich region thanks to its trade junction, but not every Duchy held such blessings!
So Neithard fought the Cardinal for every silver pfennig in the Marshal's stead. He used his military contacts to extend his influence into the civil bureaucracy. He clashed with the Cardinal over every digit of spending, every project of national infrastructure.
...And more often than not, he won.
But such victories came with a price.
Before Neithard knew it, Cardinal von Lanckoroński -- the snake that she was -- had begun spreading rumors of Neithard's ambition to seize government power for himself. By the time Neithard realized the danger he was in and began to tread carefully, it was already too late.
Only then did he finally understand why Marshal von Moltewitz had been so careful to stay out of factional politics. For any man other than the King to control that much power -- it was like wearing a bullseye behind his head.
Since then, Neithard did what he could in downplaying his hand. Though he couldn't stop expanding his influence in the army. The military depended on the quality of its officer corps, and he just happened to be excellent at filtering out the inferior from the exceptional.
But his clan, his extended families -- they had grown accustomed to wielding power and prestige.
The day Neithard heard about Duchess Karoline's death -- which conveniently passed the Duchy of Mitterfels into the hands of Ariadne von Zimmer-Manteuffel's new fiancé -- he suggested for her parents to reconsider the engagement.
But he had been a step too late. The King had already noticed, and sent him a warning to boot.
Had he been a betting man, he would confidently wager that the slimy Cardinal was actually behind the Duchess' death, just so she could pin the blame on him.
Neithard was still pondering when the dining hall's thick wooden door slammed open. The first one to step in was the young Major von Moltewitz, who soon found him with burning eyes ready to murder and kill.
The General hardly had time to consider before six Black Eagles and one familiar girl strode in behind Pascal. They fanned out to both sides even as Colonel von Mackensen rushed in, leading one battle-ready Knight Phantom inside after another.
All ruckus within the cabin died down in seconds. Even the drunk could sense the rapid shift in room temperature to below freezing.
"General Neithard Mittemeyer von Manteuffel!" the young Major snarled as his hands held out a scroll of parchment bearing the royal seal. "By order of His Majesty the King, you are under arrest on charges of high treason for willingly conspiring in the assassination of Marshal Karl August von Moltewitz!"
For a passing second, Neithard found himself utterly stunned.
Conspiring in the late Marshal's assassination? Neithard's opinions might often have clashed with von Moltewitz -- especially where Rhin-Lotharingie was concerned. But they were still allies in almost every regard! Why would he ever...
Then, his mind finally made the turn:
That snake has already spread her venom... and this is her killing blow.
Everything had been set against him. The trial's verdict was already clear. Cardinal von Lanckoroński would not have made so bold a move unless her 'evidence' against him was foolproof.
If he surrendered here, his head might adorn a pike before his words even reached the King's ears.
But what else... what else can I do?
Slowly, the cornered General stood up from the bench.
He never once broke eye contact from Pascal's malicious gaze.
"I have fought a hundred battles for Weichsel, and not once, not once! Have I fought against our fatherland!"
But those turquoise eyes filled with icy flames never even flickered at the General's declaration.
The young Major whom he had hoped to nurture was already beyond reason, beyond reach.
Neithard did not want to rebel. He did not want to betray the King's wishes, even for a second.
But, at this stage, do I have any other choice?
The General was not afraid of dying. He had braved death too many times to fear it.
But he feared for his enemy's victory. He feared for his family's honor.
Most of all, he stood afraid of just how much harm an unopposed Cardinal could inflict upon Weichsel's military pride.
His only chance was to stay alive -- long enough to score an audience with the King, to appeal to Leopold in person.
"What would your father think, to see his son as a lap dog of that Imp-loving Cardinal's," Neithard announced with bitter sorrow.
"SHUT YOUR MOUTH! You filthy traitor!" the son cried back. "You have no right to evoke my father's memory!"
But Neithard's words weren't directed towards Pascal. They were meant for his own men; several of whom were already beginning to stand up, their expressions an image of defiance.
Foremost among them was the protégé who sat right behind the General: Colonel Sir Dietrich Gottfried von Falkenrath, commander of the Phantom Gale and one of his brightest pupils.
At the same time, he heard a voice call "General!" from just outside the doors. It was Lieutenant-Colonel Ostergalen. Neithard didn't have a clue how the intelligence officer acquired information so quickly this time, but he was grateful as more Phantoms stepped in the door -- their swordstaves directed towards his enemies.
"I had held no intention of rebellion against His Majesty the King! But I will be damned if I let that backstabbing bitch destroy everything I have worked for our proud army! Now, who is with me!"
Neithard wasn't surprised when the first shout of firm allegiance came from just behind him.
He hardly had time to be astonished when a swordstaff blade sliced through his neck.
----- * * * -----
Pascal's gaze was still frozen in shock as he stared at the fountain of blood spraying from von Manteuffel's severed neck.
His mind was still grappling with 'what the heck just happened' when Colonel von Falkenrath slammed his bloody swordstaff onto the ground and reached deep into an extra-dimensional belt pouch.
Time seemed to stand still as nobody else in the room dared to make a single move. All eyes were anxiously awaiting a statement from the dhampir commander that just plunged an already crazy situation into outright insanity.
Then, the Colonel pulled out his hand, carrying a crest-badge of the Black Eagles and an old, discolored scroll bearing the King's seal.
"By order of His Majesty the King, I have infiltrated von Manteuffel's circle for the past two decades to maintain watch on his activities. My orders are to eliminate von Manteuffel at the best opportunity should he ever attempt to betray the Crown! Now, in the name of His Majesty Leopold Karl-Wilhelm von Drachenlanzen, STAND DOWN!"
----- * * * -----
Colonel Hannes von Falkenberg, commander of the Black Eagles, smiled from behind his work desk as he read the report on the final moments of Neithard von Manteuffel.
This isn't Rhin-Lotharingie, he thought to himself. This is Weichsel, and the only man allowed enough power to seize the throne is the King himself.
At the price of one Duchess' head, he had destroyed the greatest threat to the Crown of Weichsel, while sending the only other menace -- the Chancellor-Cardinal -- into cowering submission.
The former General's power base wouldn't just disappear overnight either. But with blood already spilled, the hatred of von Manteuffel's loyalists will keep Cardinal von Lanckoroński's faction under control for years at least. After all, nobody held grudges like old veterans who forged battlefield bonds.
It was unfortunate that the army had to lose its foremost commander, again. But the war against Skagen was already effectively won. After the casualties taken during Operation White Typhoon, it would be best if Weichsel stayed out of any new wars for several years so the cavalry arm could recover. By then, some of the younger talents revealed by the recent campaign would be ready to step into the older generation's shoes.
Everything had been a necessary sacrifice to maintain Weichsel's continued stability -- the centralized power of its absolute monarchy.
There was no way Hannes would allow his fatherland to collapse into the unholy mess that Rhin-Lotharingie found itself in today.
Putting down the paper, the Colonel looked to the far side wall at the life-sized portrait of Weichsel's founder, King Ferdinand I von Drachenlanzen. Centuries ago, his ancestors swore an unbreakable blood oath to that very expression.
Today, he would uphold it once more.
"Hail the Black Dragon."
His sapphire-crossed eyes glanced down upon the report once again, reflecting upon the name of a young Major who helped bring this entire charade to its dramatic end.
"May you learn from this and grow be as wise as your father in the game of politics. Then perhaps, just perhaps, Rhin-Lotharingie might make it through to become a reliable ally after all."[ Next Chapter ]