For the first time, Kaede spent considerable time obsessing over the ruffles and wrinkles of her white pseudo-uniform. But it wasn't her appearance that she cared about. Her eyes merely needed an excuse to avoid Pascal's gaze, as reading wasn't an option when they were preparing to leave.
Recollections of last night still looped through her mind on replay, reminding her of behavior that was simply not normal for anyone in a non-romantic relationship.
There was little doubt that after the twin hammer blows of her residency and his loss, rampant emotions had carried her away.
Part of her wondered how much of that could even be attributed to the psychological and hormonal differences between genders. The rest of her was less theoretical, even if simply berating herself was no more practical.
Kaede needed the relationship between her and Pascal to stay within a safe zone. It wasn't even a matter of whether or not she wanted romance as a girl. Her life in the new world simply depended too much on the stability of their bond for her to risk anything beyond mere friendliness.
...Especially if he already had a fiancée, a royal one at that.
Kaede stole another glance at Pascal. Facing his mirrored reflection, a blank expression replaced his usual dashing smirk as he adjusted his collar and the Knight's Cross hanging below it. His countenance was still stern as he proudly saluted his own image before turning to face her.
She hurriedly glanced back to her short skirt and the longer petticoat before their eyes could meet.
"Ready to depart?"
His tone was composed, perhaps 'controlled' was a better description. It certainly lacked the self-humored arrogance he began most days with.
She had to will herself not to pull away as Pascal leaned in to adjust her appearance to the perfection he demanded.
"Do not worry. King Leopold is a true monarch of his troops -- an open-minded, martial ruler not given to petty formalities. Just stay behind me, be respectful, and you should manage fine..."
Kaede nodded back faintly. With everything else on her mind, the stress of an impending royal audience really did not add well to her nerves. But however daunting meeting a King may be, the prospective of facing Pascal's royal fiancée while being a girl bonded to him was... far worse.
"--Sylviane, on the other hand, is somewhat too serious and pressured by her role as a Crown Princess. Be courteous, do not speak until spoken to, and only keep to answering her for now. I am certain she will warm up to you given time, but best you tread carefully at the start."
His advice didn't make her feel any better, nor the hints of worry in his own voice. Kaede simply couldn't shake the feeling that she was like a mistress about to be introduced to the official wife.
With one finger under her chin, Pascal brought her eyes back to his focused turquoise gaze. Waving his hand and its glowing ring over her face, he cast the usual Refreshen spell to brighten her appearance.
Kaede finally realized that she was being awkward by herself.
Sure, his expressions were different, and his attitude unusual. But that was expected for any normal person who just lost their parents. The key point however, was that he treated her the exact same way as before.
Meanwhile she was trying to keep more distance, reneging upon the very words she said to him on the rooftop the night before. If Kaede kept this up, she would unintentionally harm Pascal during a time he needed support the most.
"Well... would you prefer Milord, Sir, or master then?" She forced out her words, half-jokingly as she sought familiar ground in the atmosphere between the two of them.
"Since I am your liege, 'Milord' should be fine for the formalities. It certainly overrides the 'Sir' for addressing my knighthood or as a noble head of household. And as I had told you on the first night, I am not some faux noble who need ego stroking, so please do not give me some weird reputation with the last..."
Then, Pascal finally smirked -- lightly, but nevertheless the first time his habitual arrogance manifested itself all morning:
"--Although if you wish to do so in private in the future, I would not really mind."
Kaede's right hand balled into a fist as she wrestled with the urge to hit that handsome face again.
It was the first time she found her feeling and his expression oddly reassuring.
"Oh hey it's the Runelord. Out for an errand this early?"
Just as they exited the dormitory keep, Kaede and Pascal met Reynald and Parzifal. The two men both wore gray cotton sweats with red lines, still panting with lingering sweat as they cooled off in the winter breeze after an early Saturday morning workout.
"Are you alright, Pascal?"
Parzifal's worried glance for his former arch-nemesis just a week ago reminded Kaede once again of how saintly the healer was.
"I am now, thank you," Pascal answered a bit stiffly. "And I must travel to Königsfeld today."
"Ah, of course. Noble duty calls," Parzifal nodded back with the understanding of a gentle smile.
"More than that actually. My fiancée is visiting to have an audience with the King. After what happened recently, it is only appropriate that I join her there."
"The Cerulean Princess is coming?" Reynald's fatigue vanished as his entire face lit up with piqued curiosity. His feet then rushed toward the door. "Give me a min to get changed. I'll give you two a ride."
"I can manage..."
At Pascal's words, Reynald instantly spun around and leaned in with a stern glare. Despite being shorter by a full head, he berated the Runelord as though a freckled kid admonishing an adult:
"Don't be an idiot. You'll need five Teleport jumps to get to Königsfeld; that'll strain even your prodigious ether reserves. Is that what you're looking for? Window of opportunity for assassins to prove your newly entitled lordliness?"
"That is why I have ether-storing gemstones," Pascal replied flatly, unflinching.
"Yes, because that's so much more efficient, the hours it takes to create those things. In case you haven't noticed, Runelord, we have wars coming up, so save your beauty accessories for when it really matters. Seriously, just wait a few. I'll get you and Muffin there in two clean jumps."
Reynald then spun his heels and ran into the keep without another word.
With an amused smile, Parzifal caught Kaede's raised eyebrows and shrugged:
"This is pretty normal for him, actually."
"Turn time back a week, and I never would have thought he could even think that far ahead..." Pascal noted as he turned to face the other two.
"What, you've never heard of 'playing the buffoon?'" Kaede asked. "It's not that rare in political circles."
"Pretending to be an idiot is valid for rulers and heirs trying to avoid attention, especially in succession struggles," Pascal replied in his official, know-it-all voice. "Reynald is the only son to an unlanded noble family that does not even own fiefs. There is no point for him to hide his potential. Unless..."
"Unless he wants arrogant nobles like you to underestimate him. Given that he kicked your sorry butt twice before you learned your lesson, I'd say he succeeded at it," Kaede crossed her arms before switching the topic: "What does he mean by two jumps versus five?"
It was Parzifal who explained this time, his expression oddly wistful:
"Standard Astral Teleport spells have a safe maximum range of ten kilopaces. Reynald has wayfarer training thanks to his affinity with teleportation spells, and he can jump at least twenty-five kilopaces while bringing along more passengers. Though Pascal: you could also get there in under an hour by Phantom Steed gallop, even if it's rather windy."
"Unless I am misreading the weather, we should expect snow sometime today. With her riding skills, I would rather not be caught in a blizzard." Pascal surveyed at the cloudy skies before turning back to Parzifal: "can you manage teleport at all? Given your problem with non-bio spells?"
It took a second for the realization to pass, but Kaede almost slammed her palm into her forehead. Instead, she settled for two fingers on her temple as annoyed thoughts rolled across her mind: darn it Pascal you're not supposed to just raise touchy subjects like this.
"No, I can't even manage a short-ranged Astral Leap, let alone long-range teleportation," Parzifal admitted with a wry grin. "But then, many mages have trouble with it, otherwise it wouldn't be considered a 'career spell'. You, Cecylia, and Reynald are among the rare ones to manage solo-teleportation. Even Ariadne still require my help to align the spell."
Pascal frowned back:
"I thought only metamages could directly influence another caster's spells, given the usual non-compatibility between different individuals' ether."
"I don't know why," Parzifal shrugged again. "But part of my knack with bio-spells has been the ability to work well with others. In fact, I can heal other mages to a degree even without the need for Samaran blood. The problem is that metamages' affinity is rare and it's not a popular specialization given its pure-support role. We simply don't have one here at the academy."
Kaede watched with an encouraging smile as Pascal took a moment to mull things over. She already knew his obsession with expertise well enough to anticipate his response:
"Allow me to tap into my family contacts in the government. The claim is that metamages usually learn their abilities by nature once their magic reaches full-bloom after the age of twenty-five, but it is never too early to start exploring and grooming a potential affinity. The ability to turn spells and unravel magic is nothing to scoff at either."
"If you don't mind, that is," Kaede nodded courteously towards Parzifal.
Perhaps it wasn't really needed. The healer's hopeful eyes seemed as though the holidays had arrived early this year:
"Of course not! I'd appreciate that quite a bit!"
----- * * * -----
Kaede hated teleportation more every time she did it. The feeling of undergoing freezing and sublimation while simultaneously being flushed down a whirlpool simply wasn't something she could ever acclimate herself to. As she confirmed all her bodyparts while their nerves reconnected, Kaede felt immensely grateful to Reynald that she only had to ride two teleportation spells instead of Pascal's originally-planned five jumps.
She was even ready to forgive all the times he had annoyingly called her 'Muffin'.
"Let me make one thing clear," Pascal said as he lead the three of them up a stone-paved street with 'sidewalks', wide enough to be considered a long plaza rather than a mere highway. "You may come along as part of my gratitude for your help, but I will not tolerate any of your disrespect towards my fiancée. She is far more sensitive than I am."
"Ha! As if your sensitivity is any comparison to speak of..."
Reynald's retort attracted a harsh glare from Pascal, and he quickly appended it:
"--Don't worry you playboy. I have no desire to put my head on a chopping block, and she's royalty -- the first Oriflamme princess too," the redhead spoke with rising awe. "This will be my first time even meeting an Oriflamme, even if she's far from the best."
Kaede filed away her question for the moment as she followed Pascal's wake on the left, her eyes transfixed upon the mighty fortress before her eyes.
Built on the shores of the North Sea, the 'Black Dragon Castle' was the seat of the Weichsel crown. As a three-layer concentric castle that formed the northern stronghold to Königsfeld's capital defenses, it was constructed entirely from ashen-black rocks on a steep, spell-terraformed hill. Mounted atop the powerful citadel keep was a sleek central tower, decorated by a massive dragon's head carving raised over twenty stories high. Combined with artistically designed 'wings' folded into the curtain walls, the redoubt really did give the rough impression of a legendary dragon watching intently from the shores in defense the capital.
It was a powerful symbol of Weichsel's strength -- the declaration of its people's defiance and vigilance against the barbarian raiders from across the sea.
Several minutes passed before Kaede finally pulled her admiring eyes away from the fortress and asked Reynald:
"I read that the Oriflamme Paladins are chosen by the twelve phoenixes of Rhin-Lotharingie to serve as the nation's guardians. What else is special about them?"
The response came back with the excitement of a starry-eyed fanboy zealously worshiping his heroes:
"Only that they're some of the best spellswords across Hyperion, both in prowess and sheer style. When duty calls, they form a union with their phoenix familiars, and look absolutely kickass in their halo of golden blue-white flames. They glide through the air on burning wings and hurl blue fire that melt through plated steel... any knight of Hyperion who claim that they aren't envious of the Oriflammes in some way is outright lying."
Kaede wondered just how much resemblance they bore to Arthur's Knights of the Round Table, or perhaps more appropriately -- the Twelve Peers of Charlemagne. The translation magic did match their name up with 'Oriflamme', the golden flame battle standard once carried by the great Kings of France.
"Not all sword-and-sorcery either," Pascal added as he continued to stride ahead. "They also make some of Rhin-Lotharingie's best commanders and mages. In fact, the latest addition to their ranks is a young bard of sorts. Furthermore, only Oriflamme Paladins -- their character proven by the phoenixes' choice -- may inherit the throne, so the phoenixes always select at least one individual from the royal line of succession. As you can imagine, Sylviane's appointment is more political than purely martial."
"How is it that you always manage to pick the most hopelessly realistic thing to say?" Reynald pouted. "Way to ruin my romantic childhood dreams of knights-in-burning-armor."
"I practice," Pascal replied sarcastically. "Romanticism has no place in my army, or any army..."
"Your army?" Reynald cut in. "Think the King might care to hear this?"
"The King is the one who kept comparing me and father when he personally knighted me. Mark my words -- I will become Marshal. It is just a matter of time..."
Pascal then trampled over Reynald's interjection by the sheer weight of his stern voice:
"But as to the point: we already have enough necessary wars, Reynald. There is no need for unnecessary ones because some foreign idiot believes it is 'noble' for them to launch one."
"I wholeheartedly agree with that," Kaede added with a firm nod. Philosophers might disagree with how 'necessary' any war was; but as a historian, she couldn't be more proud of Pascal's attitude towards his profession.
"Yes yes, I agree too; and even if I didn't, Parzifal has lectured us aplenty. But come on, knights-in-burning-armor!"
Reynald gestured wildly as he accentuated his final words. Then, as Pascal gave no response and Kaede almost giggled, he tossed in rather hypothetically:
"Besides, I thought real generals only felt at home on the battlefield?"
"'Real' generals also do not enjoy seeing their men get killed," Pascal countered harshly. "There are other ways to simulate a battlefield, whether over a beer casket or under a projector. Kaede even introduced me to a term from her home realm -- marvelously simplistic really: they call it 'wargaming'."
By this time, they finally walked across the castle moat's lowered drawbridge and saluted the guards: a squad of garrison in partial plate and two officers in pitch-black armor.
Stepping forth, Pascal produced a tightly bound scroll from his enchanted pockets before handing it to the officer in charge:
"I am Captain Sir Pascal Kay Lennart von Moltewitz, the new Landgrave of Nordkreuz, and these two are my retainers. We are here to request an audience with the King."
The two officers were meticulous, first scanning the scroll with magic and then the three of them.
"Aura signature confirmed, no sign of overriding illusions or alchemy." The guards saluted as they passed back his scroll: "Welcome to the Black Dragon, Milord. Our condolences for the Marshal. Every soldier of Weichsel shall miss his presence."
"Thank you," Pascal nodded curtly before continuing on into the outermost castle courtyard.
"What am I, your squire?" Reynald snubbed back at Pascal once they were out of the soldiers' earshot. His voice was dripping with sarcasm: "would you like your armor polished with that, Sir?"
"After the trip here? You can be my stablehand."
"Do you two always have to be this pleasant around one another?" Kaede sighed.
The two men answered almost at once as even their voices clashed against one another:
"Blame the firestarter lord of sarcastic hill..."
"Not my fault his ass is still glued to the same old arrogant high horse."
----- * * * -----
The royal 'palace' was situated within the citadel keep and built of grayish-blue slate. But instead of an audience in the throne room, the valet brought Pascal, flanked by Kaede and Reynald, to a large side-chamber before announcing the Landgrave's entry.
Four soldiers posted outside the room hinted at the presence of royalty inside. Two of them were the King's Black Eagles, wearing pitch-black uniforms with thin midnight-blue lines and markings. In sharp contrast, bright outfits of cerulean and white adorned the other two. Through the double doors were another six of the King's finest and four junior officers, standing watch around a rectangular mahogany conference table that projected a three-dimensional terrain map above it. One last trio of men in Weichsel officer uniforms leaned over the display, while the Princess of Rhin-Lotharingie stood on the other side, flanked by two of her own.
"Pascal! You made it sooner than I anticipated."
The officer who approached Pascal first was at the prime of his adult life, which as a mage meant he was between forty and fifty years old. Handsomely well-proportioned with an abundance of lingering boyishness, his clear brown eyes and evenly-arced eyebrows gave him the countenance of a natural smile even with lips held neutral. His hair was lightly-curled and coffee-black, trimmed in a long regular men's cut that obscured the ears. Meanwhile, the clean-shaven cheeks revealed a slight plumpness to an otherwise modest one-eighty (5'11") build.
What surprised Kaede the most was that he wore an exact copy of the regular crimson-on-black officer uniform of Weichsel, including the two-starred insignias of a lieutenant general. Outside the midnight-blue cross that hanged from his collar instead of the usual black Knight's Cross, there wasn't a single extra decoration to hint at his social standing -- which Pascal's reply made abundantly clear:
The new landgrave bent his right arm sharply, holding his fist to his chest in a knightly salute. Reynald followed with a more conventional military salute, and Kaede rushed to give an anxious curtsy.
King Leopold nodded at the two of them before stepping up to Pascal and clapping the younger man's shoulder.
"I'm sorry about your father. He was a dear friend and shall be missed."
They were sincere condolences given with sorrowful eyes, and Pascal nodded back with wordless appreciation.
The King then turned halfway around to look back to the others:
"I don't think any introductions are necessary here, are they? Wiktor? Neithard? Certainly not for Princess Sylviane."
Retainers often went unnoticed until called upon by the lord who brought them. Kaede knew that the King's wordless acknowledgment of their presence already went far beyond the usual. What bothered her more were the wary gazes of the King's men, ready to draw blades at the first sign of hostility.
"Not at all, Sire," said the oldest-looking member of the group before nodding towards Pascal: "Captain."
Even first name basis was enough for Kaede to recognize them given the importance of their positions. The one who just spoke was General Neithard Mittermeyer von Manteuffel, Duke of Polarstern, commander of Weichsel's cavalry, and leader of the powerful Manteuffel clan. At one-hundred-twenty-nine years old, he was a moderately-built senior who appeared to be in his late fifties. His graying hair was thin and flat; his mustache lay neatly trimmed from the nose to lip corners, which combined with aged winkle lines and sharp blue eyes for a meter-eight-three (6'0") elderly gentleman look.
The most surprising aspect was that he wore the black-on-burning-red outfit of a Knight Phantom. It signified him as a man who never gave up his membership in the assault companies and, to this day, still led from the front.
He must work out, thought Kaede, only to have her eyes snap wide as the other general spoke:
"Although 'Landgrave' may be more appropriate in this context. It's unfortunate that succession is never a joyful event... I'm sorry for your loss, Pascal, and I apologize for being unable to protect him better."
Wiktor von Falkenhausen was Cecylia's father, with same glossy black hair and scarlet cross in his intense, deep-red eyes. But the dhampir girl certainly wasn't kidding about the man being a 'beefcake', despite his seniority in the room at one-fifty-eight. Two centimeters (1") taller than Neithard, Wiktor had a broad-chested yet firm-waisted musculature that shone through his standard uniform. He appeared not a year older than twenty-five, with stunning good looks perfect enough to be a modern action movie star, even with the heavy-stubble beard and mustache that covered his jaws.
The thought of what laid beneath the tight-chested uniform passed through Kaede's mind for a brief second, just before her recognition rebounded in horror. It was undeniable that the General was physically attractive to the teenage hormones in her feminine self. But even assuming Kaede had sorted out her gender issues, he was still older than her grandfather, not to mention the parent of one of her friends.
No, just NO.
Kaede proceeded to kill her mental imagery with fire.
In the meantime, Pascal stepped up to firmly shake hands with his father's chief-of-staff for the past several decades:
"General, I cannot find you any more accountable than my own failure to stop him, assuming father could be stopped at all from being himself. I know he was as dear a partner to you as he was a father to me."
Even as Kaede glanced away, she still couldn't help catch the relieved, grateful smile that lit General von Falkenhausen's dashing image. But what lingering thoughts she had were soon extinguished as the Crown Princess of Rhin-Lotharingie walked around the conference table and accosted her betrothed.
Kaede's first thought was that not everything lived up to expectations.
"I do not believe a girl more beautiful than her could exist..."
Those were Pascal's exact words when Kaede first asked about his fiancée. Given that he once courted Ariadne, who epitomized the grace of noble elegance, Kaede had always imagined that the Princess would be a gorgeous beauty no less stunning.
But Sylviane seemed almost... normal.
That wasn't entirely fair. Sylviane was still pretty by any standard. She stood with confidence at a moderate height of around one-seventy (5'7"). Her voluminous, dark-plum hair draped across both sides of her narrow shoulders, stopping short of her petite chest in front and reaching just beyond her slender waist in the back. Under a pair of large, caring eyes the color of wisteria flowers, she had small peachy-pale lips and fair cheeks that were a hint pudgy. Combined with the blank expression of composure she wore, it gave her an innocent air that went oddly with the royal bearing.
In essence, she was pretty and cute in a rather ordinary way. Sylviane appeared more like the daughter of a backwater baron than the Princess of a renowned Emperor. She certainly lacked the graceful elegance and calming serenity that Ariadne radiated with each step and every smile.
Maybe that's rather unfair, Kaede thought to herself. Few nobles anywhere could match such comparison.
Crowned by a modest silvery-cerulean tiara, the Princess wore what could best be described as a 'battledress' dyed from sky-blue to violet. Soft leather in darker iris padded her shoulders and embraced her waist, marking the fitting spots for absent armor. Meanwhile a wide skirt below the belts extended outwards in sectioned fabrics.
As Pascal straightened his back from a courteous bow, he gently raised her offered hand and clasped it between his palms.
Time seemed to stand still as the two betrothed met their gaze in the emotional exchange of a long-overdue greeting.
Meanwhile, the King silently gestured his two generals back to the conference table.
"I'm sorry about what happened."
Sylviane's soft words carried a surging torrent of sympathy, so much that Kaede barely caught the touch of remorse hidden deep within.
Pascal breathed out a sigh of gratitude, not just sincere but also... humble, without even a trace of the Runelord's habitual arrogance. Then, as Kaede swore that she missed something hidden in their exchange, Pascal probed with a hopeful uncertainty that was most unlike him:
"Does this mean we are back to before?"
The Princess slowly shook her head.
"I doubt that's possible at this point..."
She then sent Kaede a quick, almost inquisitive glance. It lasted no more than a mere second, but nevertheless produced a key that clicked with perfect timing in the young Samaran's mind:
They had a fallout... because Pascal summoned me...
"--However," Sylviane continued with a forgiving smile: "It was my wrong to simply pull away. We have to work this out... together."
The young landgrave was about to say something else, when the Princess stopped him with a raised finger:
"Not right now. You know the rules: official business first."
It was their last word on the subject for the time being. Pascal soon nodded in understanding as he followed Sylviane back to the conference table and its illusory projection.
Yet, to Kaede, this short exchange had reaffirmed her suspicion into a firm, doubtless realization:
Pascal truly held Sylviane as a special, irreplaceable figure in his life. His words that the Princess was the most beautiful girl in his life weren't praises or boasts, but a true expression of how his eyes viewed her every step.
But does the Princess feel likewise?
In any other circumstance, Kaede would say yes. But Sylviane wasn't just anyone: she was a politician, from a nation desperately in need of aid.[ Next Chapter ]