"--Pascal also said that given Rhin-Lotharingie's political position, it would be best if we managed a peaceful coexistence with the Caliphate."
It was a proposition towards the foreign policy of an empire, which came from a young girl no more than nine years old.
After over a year of stay in Nordkreuz as effectively a prisoner of war and political hostage, Princess Sylviane had returned to her homeland at last. Her father Geoffroi had come to the border in person to pick her up, and now she snuggled into the side of his broad chest as they rode the royal carriage back.
But had the Emperor taken any offense from being told how to manage diplomacy by a mere child, he showed no signs of it. Instead, an amused smile stretched across his visage as his large hand brushed her dark-plum hair from her other side.
It was a comforting luxury that she had not experienced for too long.
"Pascal seems to think that everything is like numbers and tools, just freely manipulated at will," the Emperor laughed. "The Caliph has an ego too. There is no way he'll agree to be friendly when I'm the one who took lands from him during our last war."
"Not even when we're the enemy of their enemies?" the princess turned her curious gaze to ask. "I mean -- 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' right? Doesn't the Caliphate have to struggle against Skagen's naval projection and the Imperium's Inner Sea dominance?"
Power projection, maritime dominance -- they were concepts that Sylviane wouldn't have dreamed of using two years ago. But now, she spoke them with pride and confidence, hoping to impress her own father with her maturity and growth.
Though for a moment, Geoffroi's smile wavered a hint as he lightly shook his head:
"Sadly, politics isn't that simple. It's not just situational circumstances, but also a clash of personalities. Other than interests, there are also personal values, dignity, ego, trust, and so on..."
An all-embracing warmth soon returned to the father's doting eyes as he looked down to meet the daughter's light-violet orbs.
"I take it Pascal is an adherent of 'Realpolitik'? Well, he is Weichsen after all."
"Uh... maybe? Ummm, w-what is real-polity-k?" Sylviane carefully pronounced the unfamiliar term, abashed that she still fell short of her father's expectations.
However a return smile full of pride and fatherly love easily chased her concerns away.
"Looks like the know-it-all hadn't taught everything after all," Geoffroi chuckled again. "Don't worry. Father will gladly coach you once we get back. And the next time you meet Pascal you can make him envious at just how much you've outgrown him!"
"Oooh, that would be great!" the small princess beamed back. "He's always wearing this smug little grin around. It would be nice to see him falter and cringe just once or twice!"
Still smiling, still rhythmically stroking her hair, Geoffroi's blue-violet eyes grew pensive as he turned to look out of the carriage's window at the passing landscape. The entourage followed the riverside road as they made their way west, crossing the heartlands of Rhin-Lotharingie.
"Sylv, you know, you've been talking non-stop about Pascal ever since I picked you up."
There was a tinge of sadness in her father's voice, and Sylviane's guilt instantly spiked. She had been so engrossed in telling her father about everything she had experienced and learned that she had forgotten to ask about how he -- or the rest of the family -- was doing.
Her sun vanished in an instant. Within seconds, the gloomy clouds of dejection swept in as her gaze dropped to the floor.
"I'm sorry father. I was carried away--"
But she stopped as her father reached down to gently lift her chin back up.
"No, that's not what I meant," Geoffroi reassured with a wistful smile.
For several moments, neither the Emperor nor the Princess said a word. They simply stared into each others' eyes. The father's -- proud yet sentimental. The daughter's -- curious and uncertain.
Sylviane couldn't figure out what her father was thinking, not even when they grew glassy with moisture.
It was almost shocking. She had never, not even once, ever seen her father be overwhelmed by emotions.
He was Geoffroi the Great, the steadfast Emperor whose masculine strength was admired by every Lotharin throughout the realm.
...Or at least, that was what she believed. Even Pascal, or the elder von Moltewitz, or King Leopold of Weichsel, spoke of her father with great esteem.
"Sylv..." Geoffroi finally broke the silence. "What do you think about Pascal? Do you enjoy being with him?"
"He's fun, and interesting... but but, i-it's not like that I like him or anything!"
Sylviane almost shouted back in a delayed kneejerk reaction. Her wisteria gaze had locked stares with her father's. But before those earnest, penetrating eyes, the young girl soon wilted and glanced away.
Her cheeks were burning red and hot. She didn't even understand why, but it was just... so embarrassing to think about.
Besides, Pascal was from Weichsel -- a country they had been hostile against until just a few weeks ago. She could be friendly and courteous with him, but she couldn't actually be friends with him.
...Let alone anything more than that.
"Royalty should never be afraid of their own feelings," Geoffroi added sternly. "Now, tell father: did you enjoy your time with Pascal? And you swear to the Holy Father that it's the truth, because this is very important."
Sylviane wanted to shy away from her father's gaze, to hide her embarrassing moment from the world. But there wasn't any cover, not even a loose blanket.
Under her father's unrelenting scrutiny, she finally returned a meek nod.
Silence returned to the air once more, but Sylviane couldn't bring herself to look at her father. Was he dejected? Disconsolate? Disappointed?
But the words that spoke next were none of them.
"I am considering offering him your hand in marriage."
For a brief moment Sylviane completely froze. She couldn't have heard that properly, could she?
Her cheeks were beet-red under eyes as wide as saucers by the time she snapped back.
"W-w-what are you talking about father!? I'm still only nine!"
"Do you dislike him?"
"I-it's not that I hate him or anything, b-but isn't this against..."
"--What have I told you about double negatives Sylv?" Geoffroi cut in with another stern frown. "Clarity. Royalty must speak with clarity, confidence, determination. Even if you must express doubt, you should never allow your voice to fall into weakness."
Sylviane shut herself up at once as she cast her eyes down again, ashamed in the wake of her father's lecturing words.
"You never talked like that before," he pondered aloud. "Where did you pick this up?"
Her meek voice trailed off again as Geoffroi gave a deep sigh.
For a half-minute, a discomforting silence settled over the two as Sylviane heard only the rhythmic creaking of the wagon's wheels. She could only hope that her honest reply didn't just ruin any chances of her meeting Pascal again.
"Sylv... do you remember what your mother once taught you about the 'Gaetane Legacy' -- about how we don't do political marriages?"
Sylviane rushed to nod back. It was precisely what she tried to bring up a moment ago:
"Yes father. Before my Great-Great-Grandfather Louis the Bold united the Oriflamme and founded the Rhin-Lotharingie Coalition during the Independence War, he had been forced to abandon the love of his life and settle for an arranged marriage by his parents. He blamed his wife for this and never forgave her -- not even after she helped him faithfully during the wars. It was not until his dying years when he finally recognized the damage done to his children due to his failed marriage."
A nostalgic grin broke across her father's expression as he gently stroked her hair once more.
"Trust your mother to always emphasize the romantic parts," he spoke with bittersweet nostalgia that left Sylviane briefly confused before his tone stiffened again. "Louis the Bold was also an avid student of history, and he believed strongly that the endurance of any royal dynasty lay in the number of consistently able monarchs it produced. Before he died, he stated that the Gaetane family should never marry for political purpose again, but for loving, supportive families that can raise healthy and strong heirs -- not only physically but also mentally, emotionally, spiritually."
Connecting doting blue-violet eyes to earnest wisteria gaze again, Geoffroi continued his fatherly teachings with a proud emphasis:
"--Sylv, I know you've been told many things about what a Princess should be, but always remember that as a Gaetane, duty to our family is the same as building the future of our realm. It doesn't matter if it's man or woman, conqueror or administrator -- those who abandon their role as a parent also fail as a hereditary lord."
Slowly but surely, Sylviane nodded back to her father's smile. She carved his words into memory, promising herself to remember them even years, even decades from now.
"I am certain that Pascal has many good qualities and will surely grow to be a capable man," Geoffroi acknowledged, much to the daughter's growing joy. "But... would he be a good husband? A good father? That I'm not certain about..."
"Father..." the Princess hesitantly murmured. "You really want to m-marry me off to him? I mean, I d-don't object if you really..."
"Marry you off?" the Emperor almost barked a laugh. "Oh never! I'm considering asking for his betrothal to you, not the other way around!"
Then, as his tone gradually settled back down:
"Sylv, I know this might seem a bit early, but a political marriage cannot be arranged late..."
With her cheeks still glowing like charcoal, Sylviane instinctively opened her mouth to object. But her father's gentle touch stopped her before she even finished a single word.
"Yes, I know. I'm going against our founder's decree. But Sylv, there is a problem with not forging alliances by marriage, and I have felt it keenly over the years. Ever since its founding, Rhin-Lotharingie has remained a collection of autonomous and semi-independent feudal states. Our markets cannot adhere to standardized regulations; our military lacks centralized control. Our efforts in economy and industry are always disorganized, and our frontiers vulnerable to neighboring aggression..."
Sylviane nodded back as she understood the pain in her father's voice. Even Pascal had recognized this problem, which he highlighted to her as Rhin-Lotharingie's principal weakness that Weichsel exploited during the war.
"--Your grandfather and I both tried to change this," Geoffroi continued on in begrudging words, "and we both gave up when faced with powerful resistance from the nobility. These centralization reforms are necessary for our nation's future, but they are also deeply unpopular. For any chance of their success, we would need powerful alliances, the most reliable of which can only be obtained through ties of marriage and bonds of blood."
"And... that's why you want me to marry a Weichsen," the Princess realized at last, her embarrassment finally fading in the face of royal duty.
"Not just any Weichsen, but the son of their greatest Duke and Marshal since that upstart commoner Hermann von Mittermeyer," the Emperor accentuated. "Even without his own considerable potential, Pascal will inherit the richest Duchy of Weichsel and retain the good graces of King Leopold through his father's legacy alone."
But as his declaration came to an end, the Emperor's gaze softened to that of a father's once more:
"Nevertheless Sylv -- I may be risking your marriage, but I'm not prepared to throw it away either. That is why I want your honest, truthful reply: what do you think of Pascal?"
Sylviane's cheeks flushed red once more. But this time, she neither stuttered nor faltered. With her will fortified by a personal sense of obligation, she answered her father in clear, unwavering terms:
"I do get along well with him, and I honestly believe that he will grow up to be a splendid man. It's just that... I'm not sure what to think of him for a marriage. For starters -- he's not exactly 'chivalrous'..."
The Princess then halted in bewilderment as her father gave off the weirdest noise. An oddly tilted grin stretched across his expression as his shoulders shook... with something between a suppressed chortle and a choking sigh.
Geoffroi had to clear his throat several times before he could speak again:
"I swear... your mother read way too many romance novels. What did chivalry have to do with ruling an Empire?"
Sylviane's brows furrowed once more. Becoming the Emperor was a job slated for one of her two older brothers. The eldest, Henri, had already secured his eligibility by summoning the phoenix Hauteclaire.
It was hardly a task for her, let alone her future husband.
"Sylv, a perfect knight might be able to protect you as an individual, to save you from disaster to live another day. But a perfect general... he would guarantee not only your safety from thousands, millions of foes, but also ensure the prosperity of your children, your descendants, your entire realm for generations to come."
"That is what I hope Pascal will be for you: a true general -- a marshal."
"You want me to secure an alliance and bring a military leader into the family to help my brother?"
It wasn't a flattering statement, but Sylviane knew she had little to offer her brothers in the family business. At least this way she could ensure her contributions to the Gaetane dynasty, to her royal duties as ordained by the Holy Father.
Besides, she did just admit that Pascal was hardly a 'terrible' choice.
At first, her father gave no response. Instead, his expression hardened into a frowning rock as a brief yet grave silence fell upon them both.
The young girl looked up, seeking the love of that paternal gaze once more. But this time, Geoffroi did not meet her eyes.
It was as though he couldn't face her, plagued by the guilt of forcing such burden upon his only daughter.
"Father don't worry," Sylviane stretched a reassuring smile across her lips. "I'm happy to do the right thing."
For a brief second, she swore that a faint smile returned to the corner of his mouth. Her father leaned in to press a kiss atop her head, following by the gentle, rhythmic stroking of her hair.
But he still would not meet her sight.
"It's... it's not just that," Geoffroi's unsteady voice muttered out.
As Sylviane scrutinized once more, she saw that beneath the stoic exterior, her father's eyes had grown glassy with moisture.
He might be a parent, but he was also an emperor.
Regardless of what happened, an emperor did not simply cry, not even in front of their own child.
But as a single tear trailed down the side of his cheek, Geoffroi broke the news at last:
"Sylv, it seems nobody was willing to tell you this. But last year, our family was twice struck by Imperial assassins..."
Her mind went blank within a split second, paralyzed by shock even before the horror seeped in.
"Your mother and brothers are all gone, and you, are now the only successor to the throne."
----- * * * -----
With her back against the room's corner, Sylviane opened her swollen eyes once more. Her reprieve in the past had come to its end: the final memory of her childhood years.
She couldn't even remember what happened afterwards. The remainder of that trip seemed to pass in a blur.
But nine years old or not, she could no longer be a child after that.
For more than a decade since, she had walked the path of a crown princess. Her father had become her foremost tutor, instructing her in every affair of state through his daily tasks. Privy council, military council, assembly of lords, diplomatic audiences, legal consultations, etc etc -- she had attended them all.
Her daily schedule ran from dawn until dusk. She initially had one day off a week plus four hours of free time per day, but even that her father halved over the years.
There were times when she absolutely hated, hated her father for forcing her through it all. Crown Princess? She never once cared for her exalted rank and title. All she wanted was to be able to leisurely study and play at her own pace alongside others of her own age.
But when she finally gathered enough resolve to lash out at Geoffroi, it was he who stole her thunder by crumbling first:
"I'm sorry Sylv," the Emperor whispered back, his pained eyes a visage of exhaustion. "I don't have anyone else left. I know you never wanted this, but... I have no other choice."
Sylviane had never felt as ashamed of herself as that day.
She had sworn to herself that she would never, ever try to abandon her father again.
But the Imperials weren't satisfied with only three-fourths of her family.
Yesterday, a trusted messenger had personally brought the worst news from Alis Avern:
Her uncle Gabriel, who had retired from his duties to the north, returned with the aid of the Knights Templar to usurp the crown.
He had butchered the Emperor during the coup, impaled the head on a pike, and burned the rest of the corpse.
Sylviane was no longer the Crown Princess. She had been denounced as an apostate's daughter, and everything she had toiled for the recent half of her life was gone.
Worst of all, she was now truly alone in the world. The last of her family had been snatched away, by what she held no doubt was an Imperial plot.
Sylviane couldn't take it any more after that. She had dismissed her armigers and secluded herself in a dark corner of her unlit cabin, where she silently wept the hours away.
The sun fell and rose again. The tears ran out and left her with swollen, itchy eyes. But the orphaned girl from royalty didn't give a single care.
All she did was seek comfort in the sanctuary of her own mind: to reminiscence through memories of the past, memories of happier times.
In the darkness of her depression, she had even pulled out her engraved dagger. It had been a present from her father as part of a long Gaetane family tradition -- to give every child, male or female, their first live weapon at the age of ten.
After carefully removing the sheath, Sylviane stared into the faint metallic reflection for what seemed like minutes. She could see the deadly glint of its razor-sharp edge, the vicious curvature of its blood groove.
She could end it all -- the pain of loss, the despair of defeat, the endless exhaustion of a now pointless life, resigned to nothing but helplessness and solitude.
Following her father's footsteps had been everything to her. She might not want to be the crown princess, but without it, she had nothing left.
Slowly but surely, her trembling hands turned the dagger towards her own chest, her very heart.
Sylviane squeezed her eyes shut as she felt the sharp tip press in between her breasts...
But that was as far as she went.
Try as she might, she couldn't bring herself to commit the ultimate sin.
It could be cowardice. It could be weakness. But it was also because her conscience had called out to her being, screaming with everything it had to make her stop.
Not only the Holy Father, but even her parents would never forgive her had she committed suicide. She would have gone straight to hell, never to see either of them again.
Suddenly gasping with breathless anxiety, Sylviane tossed the gleaming steel away as though it was a burning cross.
Soon, it too laid forgotten on the floor as the despondent princess returned to staring at the empty air through hollowed, bloodshot eyes.
She couldn't even die cleanly -- that was the true worthlessness of her life now. The love of the Holy Father had evaporated away, and without it only the weight of a dead spirit remained.
Sylviane never heard the repeated knocking, or the calls in her name. She never noticed at all until the door opened to the sharp sunlight outside, framing the silhouette of a man and her armored maid.
"Oh my lord," came a horrified but otherwise familiar voice. "Sir Robert, Kaede, wait outside; shut the door, Mari."
Sylviane's eyes never bothered to focus her blurry sight. It took all her willpower just to crack open her parched lips:
"Mari... I told you to leave me alone..."
"You also claimed that you were no longer the princess, and we no longer had to follow you," Mari replied with grim determination as she closed the door and leaned against it. "If you wish to rescind that order, I will gladly offer you my head as punishment."
"You should have fetched me earlier, Mari," the male voice reprimanded as his figure crouched down to pull the abandoned dagger off the floor before handing it to the Lady's Maid.
"My apologies, Milord, but I thought she would recover as usual after a day or two of rest. I didn't think it was this bad until morning when I peeked in and saw this on the floor," she emphasized the dagger before gently tucking it away.
Sylviane at last recognized the familiarity. The man was Pascal -- much older than in her memories -- who was also the last person she wanted to see right now.
...More precisely, he was the last person she wanted to see her like this.
"LEAVE!" her hoarse voice shouted out as she pulled her knees in and buried her face between them.
Even during her worst moments, Sylviane had refused, utterly refused to cry aloud. The dignity of a princess was all she had left. To see her in such a miserable state, they would lose what little respect they still held.
"Sure," Pascal sounded almost casual as he sat down on the bed right next to her. "After you kick me back out -- your skills at that have improved considerably over the years. I am sure you would have no problem if you meant it."
Sylviane could feel her eyes trying to conjure more tears. She had meant it. She seriously, truly wanted him to leave right now, before he could glimpse another look at her disheveled appearance and tear-stained face.
But it seemed even this, even her own personal space, had now slipped beyond her control.
"I don--I don't need your help!" her rising pitch managed to force out in a delayed yell.
"Of course, Your Highness," Pascal replied as a matter-of-fact.
There was no room for him to be here; no need for his self-righteous pity. Yet how could she force his departure without revealing her shameful state? Or perhaps, as a tiny voice rode against waves of staunch denial: was his absence what she truly desired at all?
The awkward silence hung over Sylviane's clouded thoughts for nearly a minute before Pascal broke it again:
"Where is Hauteclaire?"
The temperature seemed to plummet as silence returned. The last vestige of her control cracked as a tide of depression rolled in anew.
Of all things, he had picked the worst topic to remind her. Even the noble and saintly phoenix could no longer tolerate her cursed existence.
"Gone," Sylviane barely murmured at last.
"Empath," Mari clarified from the door.
"Riiight," Pascal drawled out with a full return of his most annoying habit. "Your depressive episode became too much for him..."
Sylviane felt it like a stab in the gut.
She didn't even deserve pity from her fiancé, only scorn upon her failures and sins before she departed from this unforgiving world.
"--Probably just out taking a stroll though," Pascal finished after a momentary pause, too little too late for the deep wound already dealt.
"Why don't you just leave -- you don't have to pretend to be my fiancé any longer," Sylviane muttered out with her last reserve.
It pained her to say it, but beneath all the casual intimacy, their betrothal was a political arrangement after all.
Now that she had lost all value, what possible purpose would their marriage still serve?
"Since when did I ever have to 'pretend' to be that?" Pascal almost snorted out.
But before she even had a chance to kindle hope, his truthful follow-up pierced straight into her heart:
"I admit, I hate the prospective 'Prince Consort' title. But even that fit me better than how you met your 'Crown Princess' role. Really, it did not suit you at all."
The words burned like searing acid, melting away the already-shattered armor of her dignity and pride.
Sylviane no longer even had the will to defend herself, nor the energy to retort. All she did was stay in her curled-up, protective embrace while pretending to ignore his incisive words.
"Do you remember when we first met?"
Pascal lifted himself off the bed and sat down on the floor, his voice leaning in from less than an arm's reach away.
"It was kind of like this. Except I had to stand still for ten whole unmoving minutes! Even my feet went numb that time. All because you insisted on pretending you were asleep. And now what? Ignoring me again?"
Sylviane wished she could tell him that nobody was forcing him to stay, that he was more than welcome to leave at any time. But her throat was no longer responding; her will couldn't even push those words out.
"Fine," Pascal sighed aloud as he leaned back against the bed. "I shall just sit here and keep talking to myself all day. On the hard floor, with my butt aching, next to this impertinent, unlovable princess who, after ten years of engagement, would not even give me a free hug."
A faint nostalgia brought awareness that those last two words formed one of Pascal's favorite jokes. But there was nothing funny in the context he expressed it through. Was it merely inappropriate or outright derisive? Her threads of judgment could no longer process its truth.
"Did you know that even Kaede gave me a free hug within a month? Of course, she also gave me three broken ribs, so I guess it rather balanced itself out. But the point is that she could at least express herself properly, even if it hurt to be on the receiving end..."
Long past the luxury of envy or jealousy, Sylviane simply fell to the conclusion of 'just marry her then'. She might have even whispered that out -- to offer her blessing for a union that would at least leave him in trustworthy hands.
But this time Pascal did not wait before pushing on:
"You, on the other hand... even a decade ago you were totally not cute. A princess should do this. A princess should be that. That was all you thought about, all you lived against...!"
The tone of his complaints rapidly escalated. Even his hands had joined in through dramatic gestures, as told by the faint swishing of air.
"I mean seriously! Which seven-year-old child who loves her parents does not cry when kidnapped to a foreign land by brutish troops? But no! Those rules did not apply to you! You could not let me see you crying. You would not admit that you were just scared, or that you simply missed home..."
It was unpleasant to hear such criticism -- the apparent disapproval that Pascal had held all along. None of it even mattered any more, not after Sylviane lost her princess role.
But her hearing would not let go. Her feelings could not let go. Even as her exhausted mind steadily zoned out, even as her logic stopped processing his words, her consciousness still held onto the trail of his voice, the drift of his sound.
Perhaps there was a comforting warmth in his speech after all. His emphasis neither bit nor condemned. Rather, it whined with disapproving familiarity, backed by a protective concern reminiscent of her father's love.
It both energized and aggravated her at the same time.
Pascal might be many things; but a father figure to her was something he would never be.
Then, as sudden as a jolt, her focus returned to a bitter silence. Pascal had stopped, though it had only been a respite before he mounted his philosophical 'peak':
"...Oh right, that was what Kaede called it -- you just had to be a special snowflake."
For a brief moment, even Sylviane's internal thoughts found themselves speechless at this conclusion.
But it wasn't entirely apathy. Not anymore.
Annoyance began to bubble faintly as her lips almost twitched at Pascal's complete and total hypocrisy, which only seemed to worsen as his tirade went on:
"Do you know how annoying that was? You would not throw a tantrum, or show your tears, or even do something childishly annoying. No, you had to pretend that everything was just fine, that they were doing a marvelous job keeping you locked up. Meanwhile I had to guess at what you wanted, to bribe the guards, to talk to the maids, to appeal to father on your behalf..."
She was a 'special snowflake'? Pascal had spent his entire life ignoring every law of man and concealing every weakness beneath his pride. The only difference between her 'princess' and his 'genius' was that he should have been wearing a frilly dress.
But then, that was also where they diverged.
'Childish' never quite described him, but Pascal wouldn't have stayed quiet either. Instead, he would have irritated his overseers in his own way.
With a deep, exasperated sigh that seemed to carry more years than his age, Pascal finally settled down from his lengthy rant and returned to soft-spoken words:
"Sylv... you know I was never good at guessing what other people wanted. We shared many similarities back in the day, so I often scored it right. But the more you matured into a lady, the less I could guess what you were thinking..."
It was true that his 'genius' and her 'princess' roles held common ground, but that was just superficial.
Pascal was a rare prodigy, an exceptional man wherever he went. As an impertinent boy, he chased away even his tutors and learned to accomplish everything in his own way. To him, life was an endless opportunity for a boundless mind. Being an officer might not be his first choice of profession, but it was nevertheless a career he would walk with joy and pride.
Meanwhile, Sylviane had been anything but 'special'. Raised in the palace as the least gifted child, she had grown accustomed to going with the flow. Traits that people wanted to see, qualities that brought others to approve -- she had crammed them all within her mind, plastering them over herself. For someone who struggled just to meet her responsibilities, being the heir was an unenviable duty to which she had little choice.
But what did that make her? Was she just a reflection of the 'princess' others wanted? Did she still have an identity of her own?
Her mood swings, her envy, her indulgence in cute girls that nearly tempted her to sin...
...Who would wish to claim such detriments as their own?
"...You have always kept weakness to yourself, Sylv, always kept others at arm's reach," Pascal heaved another sigh. "Sure, I am your fiancé. I just have to accept it 'as is'. But do you really expect your future subjects to appreciate that, to see not the real you, only that mask you claim as your own?"
His exasperated voice rose in pitch with every word, highlighting the annoyance backing them until it became an almost shout:
"Many of them are vultures, of course, but never forget that some are on your side! How long do you expect them to keep groping in the dark before they go 'screw it, I give up on trying to help'?"
As his frustration faded from the air, Sylviane heard Pascal shifting to stand back up.
...And her heart instantly lurched on the brink of eternal despair.
He had been her fiancé. He had been on her side. It was not her intention to keep him in the dark, but she had done it, not once but twice in just the recent months!
No, she didn't want him to leave after all. No, she wouldn't be able to stand his cold back. Just as she didn't want to die, she couldn't even fathom losing his support.
But was it too late? Had he had enough? Was 'screw it, I give up on trying to help' an expression of his own beliefs?
Why would he tolerate her for a third time?
No. Please, her thoughts screamed out at last. I don't want that. Anything but that!
Then, just as her fingers struggled to reach out, just as her throat trembled to call out, Sylviane finally felt the presence of a sincere touch.
It began with just a palm on her shoulder, soon echoed by another warm presence on her other side.
For a brief moment the princess almost tried to shake him off. It was an instinctive reaction, fortified by years of prideful demeanor.
She did not need to be consoled. She did not want to be coddled. A true princess would not need any of that!
...Even if she did.
However, Pascal never gave her chance to decide.
Sylviane felt a crushing embrace wrap around her half-buried head and bent knees. His arms had slipped around her back, squeezing hard forcing her head into the protective warmth of his solid chest. Meanwhile his desperate whispers finally reached past her ears, past layers upon layers of broken emotional armor and devastated mental landscape, and appealed to the depth of her soul:
"I do not pretend to replace your father, Sylv. I do not want to either. But I do want you to know, to understand it in your heart, that the world is not over, and not all is lost! You still have those who love you, who care for you, who believe in you and will fight alongside you!"
Pascal's voice no longer held the firm control of his usual self. It no longer slowed with his aristocratic drawl or even carried his usual air of superiority.
With his knees undoubtedly on the floor, the man Sylviane once considered 'unchivalrous' pledged his solemn oath to his princess through begging pleas:
"So please... stop bottling everything in just this once! Let me share your grief and your pain. I am not some outsider. I am your fiancé, your family, your future husband!"
"Show me what you truly, honestly feel, and let me offer all I can to help!"
In that last moment before the dam cracked and broke, before her reservoir of suppressed emotions poured out in a flood, Sylviane finally came to realize the truth that she had denied herself for years:
Pascal didn't just like her just because he found her to be a 'beautiful', commendable princess.
He loved her because he had accepted her for whom she truly was.
----- * * * -----
With her back leaned against the cabin wall, Kaede held her anxieties at bay by playing with her long hair.
She understood that Sylviane was in a vulnerable state of emotional turmoil after losing her remaining parent. In such a case, the best help would be a select few of those closest to her. As Pascal was her fiancé in what was evidently more than just a political marriage, he seemed the clear and obvious choice.
But this only left Kaede more worried.
To put it simply: Pascal had no tact. Certainly not in sensitive situations like this.
Thinking back to her own emotional episodes with him, Kaede found it more likely for Pascal to make callous, foot-in-mouth statements that would only make the problem worse.
...Which was exactly what came to mind when she heard a muffled howl emerge through the door.
The cabin was warded against eavesdropping and supposedly soundproof. Pascal and Mari had vanished inside for what seemed like hours without the slightest noise passing through. To hear even a faint cry -- she wondered just how deafening the princess' wailing must be.
Kaede felt her sympathy reach out as she turned to her companion with growing concern.
But Sir Robert never lost his composure. The boyishly pretty if not stunningly handsome young man merely let go of a relaxing sigh before turning towards her with his sunlit smile.
...Perhaps not entirely sunny. There was a sense of wistful resignation emanating from his vivid green eyes as he shrugged back.
"About time," he stole another glance at the door where the grief-stricken bawl continued on without end.
Kaede stared back with confusion. His concern for the princess seemed real, but then... how could he look happy at this turn of events?
"Letting it all out is the first step towards recovery," the Oriflamme Armiger in cerulean and white replied with a sincere gaze. "Holding all those emotions back would only drive her to further despair."
Her only parent did just die a gruesome death, Kaede sympathized as she nodded back. I guess not grieving is even more worrisome than crying her heart out.
"Well, there you have it... our dear but troublesome princess," he half-chuckled before returning to the posture of a perfect guard.
The tone of his voice left Kaede with a considerable chunk of fresh anxiety. Part of that worry held out for Sylviane, but a growing share went to Pascal and herself.
Serving under a capricious ruler often met tragic results, after all.
"Does this happen often?"
"Once in a long while," Sir Robert calmly noted. "But never this bad... never even close to this bad..."
Well, she was a teen until just last year, Kaede settled in her thoughts. "Must be stressful, carrying so much responsibility at such a young age."
"Unfortunately, Her Highness was never meant to be the heir, and after her brothers' assassination the Emperor rushed her training."
It was a surprisingly candid piece of information from someone within the princess' inner circle. Kaede could only surmise that what Pascal just did solidified the armigers' trust in him, and by extension, her.
Whether Kaede liked it or not, most nobles of Hyperion would always see her as an extension of Pascal. It was a simple fact that she might as well accept, for all of its benefits and doubts.
"Given what happened in Rhin-Lotharingie, one could argue that the Emperor did the right thing," she answered back.
"For Rhin-Lotharingie, sure. But for her...?" Sir Robert sighed once more. "Well... the damage has already been done."
"What do you mean?"
Kaede turned towards the young knight in his 'twenties', with perplexed rose-quartz eyes meeting peridot-green gaze once more.
She certainly didn't miss the hint: Robert de Dunois was evidently someone who cared more about Sylviane as an individual than his loyalty to the crown -- or her tiara in this case. With his apparent youth in mind, it was very probable that the princess and her armiger also shared some sort of childhood bond.
But before he could answer, a familiar chirp from above distracted them both.
Kaede didn't even have to look up before she felt relief from the growing warmth, the comforting presence that enveloped her very being.
Hauteclaire circled around, flying low above them before descending to land. For a brief second, surprise and anxiety sparked within Kaede as the cerulean phoenix glided towards her.
But as Hauteclaire came to perch on her right shoulder, the aura of tranquility he emanated overcame her unrest. Even the sharp talons did not hurt; their soothing heat felt more like a shoulder massager than a bird's bony grasp.
"I think he likes you," Sir Robert grinned.
Kaede almost tried to shrug. She didn't have a clue what were the traits that a phoenix sought. But she was sure of one fact:
Even from here, Hauteclaire's presence should definitely help Sylviane calm down.
Her hand reached up on instinct to brush the phoenix's burning feathers, feeling their warmth in the cold wintry breeze.
As the seconds dragged on in peaceful silence, Kaede felt a measuring look from Sir Robert's friendly gaze.
"Milady, I have a request to ask of you."
"I'm not a lady," Kaede shrugged off the unusual politeness. "But go ahead."
"I know our princess hasn't been the most kind to you. I don't know all the details, but I know enough to guess that much," he offered an apologetic nod. "But her... hobbies, well, they're also some of the only habits she has left for herself, the only pastimes to counterbalance her depressive episodes and keep her going. I know this sounds..."
You have no idea, do you, Kaede thought as she released a deep sigh, which instantly stopped him short.
Toying with her like a doll was one thing. Kaede didn't like to admit it, but it wasn't entirely unpleasant of an experience. In fact, she rather enjoyed having her hair brushed and her head rubbed.
But Sylviane's fingertips also came within centimeters of molesting her. Given her problematic relationship with Pascal, she didn't really hold a grudge towards the otherwise admirable princess. But it was certainly a hard event to forget.
"You're asking a lot, Sir Robert," she tilted her head with a faint scowl.
"I know, and I'm sorry," the armiger apologized with a sympathetic nod. "But you're not the only one who cares about your lord and master."
"Besides," he offered a calming smile. "The princess may not express it or even realize it, but she does like you. Otherwise she wouldn't have taken an interest."
In me or in what I look like? Kaede had to wonder.
'Attraction' was always such a complicated topic.
"I won't ask you to do as she demands," Robert continued with a hint of amusement that he quickly suppressed. "But please, at least be her friend -- she doesn't have many of those to speak of."
Not trustworthy ones without any strings attached, at any case.
With another sigh leaving her lungs, Kaede could only offer a rather noncommittal reply:
"I'll do what I can."
----- * * * -----
Sylviane wasn't sure how long she had wailed on for. With her tears already emptied, her emotions had seized her voice as the only form of release.
Now, it was impossible not to feel embarrassed as she and Pascal continued to sit on the bedside floor, leaning against each other in a comforting silence.
Silent for her, at least.
She had enough experience to realize that Pascal could read the atmosphere; he just rarely knew how to act accordingly.
Not long after she had stopped crying, Pascal had gone back to talking by himself.
That might have been fine, except the contents were entirely inappropriate for the moment. He had began by filling her in on the events of last night -- a Weichsel political debacle that she, as an outsider, was only too happy to stay out of.
"Well, look on the bright side..."
Sylviane could feel the shoulder beneath her head shift as Pascal turned his expression towards her, prompting her to glance back.
"We are both orphans now," he announced through a somber smile.
"That is really not funny."
"I did not say it was," he added in his usual style, calm and slow.
A puzzled frown soon stretched across her expression. It wasn't like Pascal to make his point in a roundabout way -- which was often impossible to guess given how... different his thoughts were to everyone else.
Thankfully, he also didn't keep her waiting for long:
"You do not like to be pitied, and I do not enjoy it either. Well now, neither of us need to worry about that from the other. We are both alone, yet we both have each other."
"Together, alone?" she echoed back.
Pascal always had an odd way of trying to cheer people up.
"A most contradictory expression, is it not?" his words emerged with the hint of a chuckle.
"What about Kaede then?"
Sylviane had been hesitant to ask. But in the aftermath of the Marshal's death, it was Pascal who announced to her that he had received a new family member.
"She is the same as us -- no other family or close relations in this world."
"Isn't that your fault?"
"Yes, it is," Pascal admitted outright. There wasn't even a hint of begrudging denial.
It was yet another virtue where he bested her with ease.
"But that is also why I have a responsibility towards her," he asserted before turning to stare into her eyes: "so please, be nice."
For a brief moment, Sylviane worried if Pascal heard about what she did to Kaede the other day. It was a moment of poor judgment, a mistake that she had almost realized too late.
Except, if Pascal already knew, he wouldn't hesitate to accost the topic. Unlike most people who saw little benefit to antagonizing royalty, Pascal would only treat her as another individual, a close companion.
"We are all in the same family now. We have to support each other," he stated before adding in a nostalgic tone:
"After what happened to me the night I learned my father's death, I realized there was no way you meant it when you told me to leave. Even if my words or actions might prove no good, just my presence should be of help."
Sylviane might not have a direct bond with Kaede. But the familiar girl had been a pillar for Pascal on several occasions, and the princess was reaping the benefits of that now.
In hindsight that was what defined a family: not mere bonds of blood and matrimony, but a deep sense of trust and mutual, inter-support.
Just for that if nothing else, she owed the little girl some kindness and a favor or two.
"Don't worry," the princess murmured back. "I know."
In that moment Sylviane made a promise to herself. Regardless of how much she liked or disliked them, Pascal's friends and family also made them her own. She would treat them with the same respect Pascal always extended to her closest companions, like Mari and Robert.
The two of them relied upon one another far too much to do otherwise.
Well, I might still tease her a good amount, she left an honest opening to herself. It's just impossible not to...
"So what do you plan to do next?" Pascal asked after a long moment of silence.
"I... I honestly don't know," Sylviane admitted. "I haven't thought about doing anything except being the Crown Princess for ten years now."
"Do you still want to be?"
"It's not a matter of want or not," she turned to reply as wisteria gaze connected with turquoise once more.
"I am a Crown Princess. It might have begun as simply a mask, but it's also who I am now. Even if I'm told to stop..."
"Who told you that?" Pascal's eyebrows went up.
"Well... I don't think the Holy Father wants me to be..."
"I doubt this is the Holy Father's work," his interjection came stern and instantaneous.
"You think you can understand the Holy Father's will now?" she half-challenged, her frustration rising once more. "First my father gets excommunicated, and after just a few weeks he gets deposed and murdered, by someone entitled 'Defender of the Faith' no less! Even with insidious politics at work, is it really just a coincidence!?"
"It is not simply what I think..."
Pascal's words rang earnest as his hand stroked her hair in trying to calm her back down.
"Emperor Geoffroi devoted his life to making Rhin-Lotharingie a better country. As far as I know, he was a ruler loved by his people, and few monarchs could claim to uphold the crown as dutifully and faithfully as him."
"Besides," he stared at her with utmost seriousness. "Even if he dissatisfied the Holy Father in some way, do you honestly think our Lord's benevolent mercy would bestow such ruin upon Rhin-Lotharingie in the moment of its greatest crisis -- an invasion of heathen swords?"
No, Sylviane wanted to agree. That wouldn't make any sense.
But... if it was contrary to his will, why would the Holy Father simply stand by and watch it happen?
"Since when do you claim to be an expert on the Holy Scriptures?" she objected. "You're not a priest."
"Must I be a priest to have faith in our Lord and Savior?" Pascal countered with a gentle smile before he turned to the empty air:
"Faith is not just accepting what you are told. It is about believing that the Holy Father, in his omnipotent goodness, will always be right and virtuous -- Even if his mysterious ways are not immediately apparent to our limited view."
"That sounds like your pride is judging the Holy Father," Sylviane retorted.
"No, not judging. Expecting," he grinned back, completely unabashed.
"...It still doesn't sound like you at all."
Pascal might follow the Holy Scriptures, but she would never tag him as a spiritual man. He was simply too pragmatic, too much in love with understanding the mortal world.
"Probably because I acquired the saying from Parzifal," Pascal shrugged. "He is Ariadne's fiancé -- the better half, in fact."
And that doesn't sound pompous at all either.
Sylviane finally felt a smile return as she leaned back into him once more.
"Do you want to know what I think?"
Of course, Pascal never even waited for her reply:
"Let us go to Rhin-Lotharingie, to Alise Avern. Take back what is rightfully yours. Restore the country to order. Bring vengeance upon those traitors who betrayed the nation during its hour of peril and murdered their rightful liege in cold blood."
You make it sound so easy... Sylviane thought as she relaxed further into him.
But then, the right path was never easy.
Yet that's the most important question -- is it the right thing?
On moments like these, she wished the Lord could be a nudge more obvious with his signs.
"Wrath is a sin, you know," Sylviane raised her counter first.
"So it is," Pascal shrugged it off with ease. "I am human. Have to at least sin a little."
She almost scoffed at that. Almost...
The concept of 'transgress now, repent later' had taken deep roots within the Trinitian faith. It was a growing disease that sapped the morals of its followers, made only worse among the upper class by the abuse of indulgences.
"The Holy Father might dispense clemency to those who lament a moment's carelessness," Sylviane frowned back with a stern reply. "But that is not the same as purposeful wrongdoing."
"And war is murder, politics is deceit. Yet knowing that, do we not still perform them out of necessity?" Pascal stated as he straightened his posture.
"You know what is one of the things last night taught me? People say revenge leads nowhere. But it felt good, and it felt right to see justice dealt. To see one of my father's murderers receive what he deserved -- nothing could better restore my faith that no matter how pitch black the night may grow, the light of day will ultimately triumph."
His voice was neither hateful nor malicious, but a thorough sense of satisfaction backed by firm intent -- a strong will tempered by raging flames.
"We are not all saints, nor do we live in an utopia," he sat up to face her with a steely gaze. "We need that something to keep us going through difficult times, even if it is not entirely virtuous."
Sylviane knew, that in many ways, this was Pascal's ego speaking. Before the eyes of the Holy Father, it would serve as little more than an excuse.
But that same self-justified belief was also what made him a confident, decisive leader.
...The same qualities that she had always craved.
"Does it really feel that good?" she pondered aloud, her voice still shadowed by doubt.
Pascal grinned in response and leaned back against her.
"Better than sex, in fact," he announced in an oddly satisfied tone.
"Uhhh, well... I wouldn't know how to compare that now, would I?" the princess glanced back with narrowed eyes.
It wasn't that she held a grudge against his lack of celibacy. In fact, Sylviane overheard enough gossip from the maids to realize that this was probably a good thing. This way, at least one of them would enter their wedding night with some idea of what he was doing, rather than leaving her a scarring memory for life.
You could at least avoid saying that in front of a lady!
"Do not fret. We will get to it eventually," he announced with a casual smirk.
Sylviane felt the burn travel up the rest of her cheeks at once. As if on reflex, she leaned away to make room as her arm smacked him on the shoulder.
"Ow!" Pascal rushed to rub it at once. "Careful with that! You actually do swing a hammer around!"
The embarrassing sight her imagination conjured was fuzzy at best, but it still wouldn't leave her head.
"A-anyways, what if heading back doesn't work?" she hurried to bring the topic back on track.
"Weeell... as long as we stay alive, we can always return to Nordkreuz," Pascal noted as he turned towards her with a proud grin. "You can always be my wife..."
The urge to hit him again rose like a flash flood as her cheeks reignited at once.
"--But I am certain the Holy Father has more in mind for you than just that."
It was a simple line of words, yet the unwavering faith it carried pierced her armor of pride with ease.
The princess turned away as she tried to hide her embarrassment. But it didn't do her any good. Rather than just her face, Sylviane could feel her entire body heat up from deep within.
It felt as though her very heart was melting under his blissful gaze, transforming her into warm, mushy goo that enraptured every sense.
"Flatterer," she barely whispered out.
"Not flattery if it is honest," he declared without holding back.
...Which only made it worse.
For entire minutes, it felt as though she couldn't do anything. Sylviane merely laid there in his arms, with her will sapped by the warm glow, content to stay buoyant in the gentle atmosphere.
Yet there was just one nagging thought, intent to climb its way back up.
"Would you really follow me in an empress' path, wherever I go, whatever it takes?"
The princess hadn't spent years in self-doubt to recover under a single moment of kindness.
"Of course, I will accompany you anywhere," Pascal asserted, reminding her that 'Prince Consort' or not, he would not accept being a mere subordinate.
"After all, I am not just your fiancé."
Her puzzled frown returned as she wondered what he meant by that.
"Do you remember eleven years ago, when I asked you 'what is the most important trait for a general?'"
They had countless discussions back then, yet Sylviane still felt the nostalgia as Pascal resurrected one of his favorite topics.
"Courage and decisiveness," she offered the same answer as years past. "I am a Lotharin after all. Oriflammes first, always."
"And I debated 'cunning, guile, and strategy' -- It took far more than bravery to win wars, after all."
But Pascal no longer sounded sure of himself. It was as though his idea was yet another relic of the past.
"Have you changed your belief to something else?"
"After last night? Yes."
Pascal then proceeded to affirm his choice without any doubt:
"Loyalty -- because Manteuffel had none to the King and everyone knew it. After my father was murdered, every soldier of Weichsel mourned for the passing of a hero who would go down in legend. But the only legacy Manteuffel left behind was the cursed name of a traitor; all his brilliance brought him nothing more than a passage straight to hell."
Sylviane kept her silence for the moment. She wasn't sure the circumstances were as simple as Pascal claimed it to be. After all, politics rarely unfolded as it appeared on the surface. The death of her own father was evidence of how easily truth and 'justice' could be bent.
But now was not the time.
"Father had hoped for me to become the general of the Northern Alliance -- to bridge two nations that share cultural bonds and geopolitical interests."
A fire seemed to ignite in his eyes as he turned to Sylviane in a solemn oath:
"That is my only wish by your side, and I swear I will uphold it until my dying day."
It was as off-putting as it was reassuring. To swear an unwavering, personal loyalty to her would be the moment of romantic legends.
But that was not how events unfolded in real life.
Those who followed blindly only degraded themselves as fools. The truly dependable ones were those who upheld a righteous ideal of their own.
As a woman, Sylviane knew she had Pascal's affection. But as an Empress-to-be, she would have to work hard to stay worthy of his devotion.
It was on moments like these when Sylviane realized: Pascal really did bring out the best in her.
Nevertheless, the world did have a mind of its own.
"What if the alliance ever breaks?"
"If Weichsel breaks the alliance, then they are my foes," Pascal replied without a moment of hesitation.
It was a sign of just how prepared he was.
"And if I did?" Sylviane raised the possibility, however unlikely so long as she held Pascal's support.
The smile he replied through was a bittersweet challenge:
"You will have to kill me first."
[ Author's Notes | Next Volume ]