The conference was Kaede's first experience in being seen but not heard. She spent the whole time standing still and silent, feeling entirely like an extraneous decoration. All she could do was to imitate the royal guards and junior aide-de-camps in the room.
It certainly didn't help when she recognized that even Pascal's military rank made him too junior for this meeting. It was likely why General von Falkenhausen insisted on calling him 'Landgrave', since an entitled feudal lord stood more appropriate to debate strategy with generals than a mere captain.
...Sort of. Weichsel's feudalism was more administrative than military. While each lord governed a region and were required to maintain sufficient forces, command of these troops ultimately fell to the army's General Staff. Officers swore allegiance to the crown directly, and the nobility had little direct military power unless they served as commanders. Combined with extensive kingdom laws on governance and taxation, it centralized power within Weichsel for a uniformed state nearing that of absolute monarchy.
In the end, it was Pascal's audacity, plus the King's respect for his father and fiancée, not his own standing, that allowed him to contribute to the discussions.
After the King's departure, the generals called forth their staff to organize the coming campaign. Officers rushed back and forth through the side-door as they relayed orders to the neighboring command room. Many of them also took the opportunity to sneak glances at the presence of the renowned Oriflamme.
Kaede's observation was cut short as she found herself under the scrutiny of royal eyes once more. Her chest squeezed with breathless anxiety as the Princess approached in slow steps. But as she met the soft wisteria gaze, Kaede saw neither contempt nor superiority, both of which she knew well from the halls of Königsfeld Academy. Instead, there was only a shadow of uncertainty.
Maybe she's as confused about this situation as I am.
Princess Sylviane broke contact first as she turned to the young man besides Kaede. Her lips formed a gentle smile as she greeted with friendly warmth:
"You must be Reynald Lucian von Witzinger."
Still helplessly reliant upon the familiar bond's translation magic, it took until now before Kaede grew certain that Sylviane had a completely different accent from the sharp and solid words of Weichsel. The pronunciation was rougher and stressed emphasis, but the pitch flowed smoother as though up and down the crests of rolling hills.
'Imperial' was a hybrid language the pre-Holy Imperium once created to standardize its northern linguistics. But although Weichsel's predecessor embraced it as a sign of loyalty to their tributary overlord, the autonomous Rhin-Lotharingie regions merely practiced it as the language of administration and trade. After achieving its independence two centuries ago, the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie retained Imperial as merely one of three state languages recognized within its realms. Therefore while the two nations shared a common language, it was nevertheless a divergent affinity.
"I am honored Your Highness knows me by name."
Reynald bowed and kissed the back of the Princess' offered hand with such grace that it almost startled Kaede. His demeanor had flipped to the mirror opposite of his usual unruliness.
"Pascal wrote of you in the report he forwarded to me and my father," said Sylviane. "You have my gratitude for helping save the life of my betrothed."
"I would do no less for a comrade and personal friend, Your Highness."
Okay now you're just outright lying, Kaede thought to herself as she tried to keep a straight face on at Reynald's proud grin.
"It's alright, you don't have to force yourself to speak nicely of him..."
Sylviane's smile widened as she almost chuckled.
"--I have known Pascal since childhood. I know perfectly well that he can be a complete pain at times, especially to those he doesn't understand."
It was Reynald who failed to cover up his astonishment this time as his own presumptions lay shattered.
"I will not ask for you to be nice to him," the Princess went on in her gentle voice. "But if you could continue to aid him against hostile threats, especially in light of the current situation, then I shall be personally grateful."
...Though a few bruises when he deserves them are perfectly fine, Kaede added in the safety of her own mind.
Anxieties notwithstanding, Kaede couldn't help appreciate her growing impression of the Princess. Royal politician or not, there was a candid sincerity in the way Sylviane expressed herself. If nothing else, she seemed a reasonable person who could think through others' perspectives -- which was far more than Kaede could say for Pascal, or most nobles in general.
The fact their opinions of him drew parallels certainly helped.
"I shall do what I can, Your Highness," Reynald smoothly laid his right palm flat across the chest and gave another respectful bow.
"Thank you. Now, if you would excuse us," Sylviane replied with a courteous nod before turning her glance, its warmth quickly fading back to neutrality.
"Kaede, please follow me."
"Yes, Your Highness."
She had prepared those words for so long they felt like the stiffly automated response of a message box.
It took several minutes for Sylviane -- or more accurately, one of her knights -- to find accommodations appropriate for a personal chat. Even though they were inside the royal 'palace' section of the citadel, most of the nearby chambers were occupied by military staff. With deployment maps and organization charts covering entire roomfuls of tables and walls, Kaede had no doubt that this was the nerve center of the Weichsel military -- its general headquarters, situated right next to the throne room.
"Whereas some states possess an army, the Prussian army possess a state."
A faint smile came and went as words from her favorite philosopher Voltaire passed through her mind. Kaede didn't appreciate wandering thoughts often, but moments like these worked wonders to sooth her nerves. Yet before returning from her brief tangent, Kaede reminded herself that Weichsel actually had a good reason for its militant nature: the country was, after all, the northern border of the Trinitian faith.
Beckoned by the lady knight who attended the Princess, Kaede followed Sylviane into a family-sized sitting room. Three of the royal bodyguards stopped outside to take sentry, but the lady knight followed them in. She then closed the door and stood vigilant with her back against it, blocking the only way in and out.
Trying not to fidget in her small heels, Kaede watched as Sylviane walked over to a velvet-cushioned seat. The plum-haired princess then sat down, periwinkle gloves smoothing out her violet skirt as she went.
The act was straight and simple, yet it exemplified her behavior. Sylviane's movements held neither natural grace nor crudeness; but they were all taken with a delicate touch, as though she concentrated upon her image with every step.
Silent moments of eye contact soon followed. Yet as uncomfortable as the air grew, Kaede did not shy away from Sylviane's steady gaze. In a situation where she had nothing to be guilty about, weakness would only mislead the other's judgment to worse ends. All she could do was wait patiently for her turn to speak -- a courtesy appropriate for their rank differences, as Pascal reminded her this morning.
She isn't just some noble from the academy, Kaede reminded herself. She's Pascal's dear fiancée; someone I must get along with.
After what seemed an eternity, Sylviane finally bestowed upon Kaede the grace of a gentle smile.
"Don't worry," the Princess spoke at last. "I won't bite even if you are his kept woman."
Kaede's attempt to smile back was wry at best:
"I'm not. I'm his familiar."
"Which... is far worse, if you'll pardon the expression," Sylviane replied in calm words. "I realize that it's no fault of your own, and I am grateful that you saved his life; I gathered from his report that you were quite central to the bait-and-trap scheme. But..."
The Princess closed her eyes and sighed, almost in exasperation, before reestablishing contact.
"--Courtesans and prostitutes I can deal with. It is simply a matter of fact that few men of greatness and ambition are ever completely faithful to only one woman. Even my father, as family-oriented as Gaetane traditions go, had a second lover when he was younger. He's not proud of it, and while I don't understand what drives men to unfaithfulness, the simple fact is that powerful men often do -- a cardinal sin of their kind."
Kaede returned a bare nod. It hardly took a historian to know just how common affairs were among the nobility and the modern political elite. Media-aware scandals represented merely a tiny tip of the iceberg.
The far more interesting detail was Sylviane's willingness to share this with her, since royalty did not normally air their dirty laundry to outsiders...
"But such 'concubines' are also temporary, or at the very least, informal," Sylviane continued as her voice gradually hardened to almost a lecture. "I am willing to tolerate Pascal having one as long as he continues to hold me in the highest regard and is discrete about his affair -- which means keeping her tucked away, in some remote residence, unseen and unheard."
In other words, keep the dirty tramp out of my sight, Kaede thought; somewhat bitterly, as she was the harlot of this conversation, even if the princess avoided saying so.
Her highness then grew solemn:
"Unfortunately, you are none of those."
"I'm also not intimate with him, whereas a concubine would be," Kaede held her ground.
She then blanched a little when Sylviane's eyebrows shifted up just a hair to betray her revelation...
Seriously! Why do all nobles... even the sensible ones... always jump that conclusion!?
Of all the changes brought by Kaede's gender switch, the social view that kept seeing her as some sexual object was easily the most irritating. It was as though her femininity came before her identity as a person -- she would rather suffer her menstrual period again than deal with this every time.
Though ultimately, it hardly even mattered to Sylviane:
"Yes, but you are a girl officially attached to him -- by bonds even more permanent than the sanctity of marriage, I might add, as not even the Pope can divorce you. As a mage's familiar, it is part of your function to be present and active, as you have already proven through foiling the assassination against Pascal."
"In other words," Kaede interjected, "you would have the same problem with a sister, if Pascal had one."
Only then did Kaede realize that she just completely tore up Pascal's request of "do not speak until spoken to, and only keep to answering her.".
"Apologies, Your Highness," she hurriedly added, finally breaking eye contact to glance down. "That was inappropriate of me."
The air grew silent once more; the atmosphere became almost oppressive.
Kaede also couldn't help wonder what the penalties for disrespecting royalty were. As a crown princess, Sylviane would inherit far more dungeons than Pascal ever could. They might even come with their own secret police department, with medieval sensibilities capable of making Stalin's NKVD and gulags seem like a beach resort by comparison.
But as she snuck a glance back up, all of her imagined pressure evaporated at once.
Sylviane was still staring at her, but now with an odd, almost bittersweet smile.
"I can see why Pascal likes you already," she sighed. "Did you really come from another world?"
"Yes, Your Highness. A far more technological realm that's sent men to the moon, but with no magic at all," Kaede clarified. "I would say more socially advanced as well, but discussions with Cecylia proved that may just be bias from my perspective."
"...How could one travel through space without magic...?"
Kaede's eyebrows shot up instantly. Apparently mages could space-travel, even if such exceptional magicians numbered less than a handful.
But the Princess puzzled for merely a brief second, and her eyes soon refocused upon Kaede. Sylviane would not be side-tracked easily, a sign of mental discipline as expected from someone Pascal deeply respects.
"Never mind. It's a good thing you've talked at length with Cecylia though. I do trust her judgment very much."
With a preoccupied frown, Kaede halted her other thoughts as she realized that Sylviane and Cecylia didn't just know one another; they were on excellent terms. Since they were both Pascal's childhood friends, it was likely they met way back then and kept in touch. As Cecylia trained as an intel operative, the Princess had the best eyes and ears for monitoring Pascal during his academy days.
A brief shiver went through Kaede as she remembered her near-paralysis when the scarlet-crossed dhampir eyes came up close and personal...
Not sure if I want a reference like that.
"I admit that you're probably right, Kaede," Sylviane returned to the main topic. "Except that men don't summon sisters, however much some of them may want to."
Kaede nodded back. After her recent years in Japan, she became very familiar with that concept -- one that she found more amusing than anything else.
"But there is also a natural limit between siblings, however close they might become," the Princess went on.
Then, with a stern face fitting of a tigress marking her own grounds:
"Could you promise me that you will not develop romantic relations with my husband-to-be then?"
"Of course!" Kaede rushed to answer. I am, or was, a guy after all!
Yet even as she said that, something felt uneasy deep within. A warning of rushed, ill-considered decision-making, just as it had in times past.
But Kaede completely ignored it as she went on:
"In fact, Your Highness, there is something you should know about me. I don't know if Pascal told you, but..."
Her determination to relieve tensions between them was interrupted when two knocks rang loudly against the mahogany door.
"It is me," came Pascal's proud voice.
Sylviane nodded to her knight-in-waiting, who swiftly opened the door with the grace of an dedicated servant.
"Thank you Mari," Pascal casually nodded to the lady knight as he strode in. From a lord who hardly ever acknowledged most servants, this was a clear indication that she was not just some common escort.
"Sorry for the delay, Sylv," Pascal dropped back to informality as the door closed behind him.
Smiling sweetly, Princess Sylviane slowly stood up from her chair. She walked over to Pascal, and threw her arm out into a wide swing...
It wasn't as forceful as Ariadne's ragdoll-tossing strike, but the solid smack still left a bright imprint on the young nobleman's cheek.
"Ow," Pascal stated before he turned his head back. "I guess I deserved that. Although I thought we were working through this, not resolving it through violence?"
"We are working through it," Sylviane's smile was still sugary, although her violet eyes were glaring at him now. "But it doesn't mean you get off without punishment."
"In my defense, I just wanted a companion," Pascal added with a shrug.
"Should have tried the other gender," the Princess tossed back as her eyes gave Kaede another up-and-down sweep. They weren't exactly grumpy or unhappy, more like... conflicted.
"I do not think the Church would approve," Pascal grumbled into the air.
Sylviane's gaze immediately froze. Then, as her eyes widened and her cheeks flushed, she spun around to cast an outraged glare at Pascal:
"You know what I meant! And they don't approve of this any more than the other!"
Kaede wondered if religious conservatism actually turned girls off from fantasizing forbidden romance, or if Sylviane only rejected it because the prospect of her fiancée being gay was... so not cool.
And here I was worried about being seen as a guy, by a girl, as paired with another guy, when I'm now a girl, but was a guy... her thoughts looped about.
This is so surreal.
"I honestly believed you would like her," Pascal mumbled out again, paying triple to the concept that anything a man could say in such a situation only made it worse.
"And how far down did that rank in your original motivations for summoning a cute girl as your familiar?" Sylviane asked pointedly.
Kaede blinked a few times. Wives simply did not refer to mistresses as 'cute'. Perhaps that meant she was now past the first hurdle of being seen as a direct threat.
"Does that mean you do like her?" Pascal asked with rising hopes.
"SHE is not the problem. YOU are!" Sylviane declared as she jabbed her index finger into his chest. "A familiar does not choose the summoner, but I have no doubt that you did specify the result, Runelord!"
"I cannot deny that one," the lord himself admitted. "But, if it is any consolation, she did used to be male. I really was not looking for anything of romantic or sensual interest, honestly."
After freezing for another brief moment, Sylviane spun around on her heels. Her waist-long, dark-plum hair fluttered about in voluminous tresses as she stared straight at Kaede with shock-enlarged eyes.
"I... was about to say that, Your Highness, before he entered," Kaede's wispy voice murmured as her cheeks colored.
She felt like an exotic animal being scrutinized over. Even the knight Mari was now gawking at her from the door, all pretense of disinterest abandoned.
The rapidly growing curiosity, perhaps even fascination, in the Princess' eyes did not help. Within moments, Sylviane closed the distance and reached out to Kaede's cheeks and shoulders, gently feeling them through silken gloves as though confirming the reality of what she saw. Her hands then trailed down, brushing past the familiar girl's small chest before settling on a firm hold at the narrow waist.
"I would never have guessed..." Sylviane spoke through an almost trance-like voice, before stepping to Kaede's side and gliding one hand gently through the beige-white long hair. "It's like you were meant to be a girl. How does it feel?"
Kaede honestly wasn't sure what kind response the Princess sought from her. After adapting to countless changes over the past few weeks, her entire experience was simply too overwhelming to describe -- certainly not through words alone.
"I guess I'm starting to get used to everything," Kaede shrugged as she glanced down in dejection. "Not that I have another choice -- not even Pascal has any idea how to fix this."
"Not sure if it needs..." Sylviane muttered before she caught herself. "I guess it must have been a shock, suddenly finding yourself like this."
Kaede nodded back as images of that fateful first night flashed through her mind:
"Waking up in some stranger's bed and finding myself stripped and dressed in bridal lingerie was... not exactly pleasant."
"Did you have to..."
Pascal's mental voice cut off as his fiancée slowly rotated back towards him. His entire body stiffened as her petrifying glare laid him against the chopping block.
"Well, it's true," Kaede commented, simply relieved to have the Princess' examining eyes off her again. "Besides, payback is fair."
"Uh, I would like to point out that you have done that too," Pascal stated. "Well, lingerie, at least. Your collection is just obsessive..."
"I do NOT have an obsession!"
Pascal didn't say a word after being interrupted. He simply stared at his future wife with a knowing look, arced eyebrows included. Somehow he had reversed the situation in an instant, and it was Sylviane who sported a shallow blush while trying to recover her momentum:
"A-anyways, I'm a girl. I'm allowed to play with dolls."
Kaede shivered as she felt a chill sweep across her from Sylviane's words.
"--You're a man. Get off my realm."
The Princess was adamant, but her betrothed immediately cried unfair:
"So it is acceptable for ladies to take sword and shield but we are not allowed to enjoy cuteness!? What kind of gender hypocrisy is this!"
"The practical kind, since by the grace of magic we can fight just as well as you do," she countered. "In case you forgot, the last five times you challenged me..."
"I have not forgotten a thing and you can stop rubbing salt in every chance you get," Pascal cut her off with a torrent of words, his drawling arrogance completely abandoned by this point. "Can we get back on topic please?"
He must be really desperate if he'd rather talk about...
"Sure, let us revisit how you summoned a girl, took advantage of her helplessness, stripped her bare naked, and had your way with her, when you're already engaged..."
Sylviane leaned forward, forcing herself deep into his personal space to continue her offensive without giving him a moment of respite. Even Pascal's steadfast determination to hold his ground soon began to buckle under the relentless verbal assault:
"--I have a portable projector if you would like to show us your memories. I'm sure your eagerness of the moment will be perfectly noted by your ravishing hands as they anxiously stroked every length of that porcelain skin, carefully examining a girl's most intimate parts. Or when..."
Kaede felt her cheeks ignite as Sylviane's exaggerated descriptions began conjuring vivid, uncensored images in her mind. Before she knew it, her thin arms had wrapped themselves around herself in a tight, protective embrace while her glare fixed itself on Pascal.
She felt dirty from just the visualization. Worse yet, Pascal could have done exactly that and she wouldn't even know...
With his back arced away from his fiancée, Pascal was also blushing a fiery red. He soon threw up both hands in defeat:
"I surrender! Unconditionally! I take fault for everything! Just state your demands already! And please stop making me sound like such an irredeemably lecherous pervert!"
Sylviane finally returned to standing upright. Even her breath was heated, although its shortness was mostly due to the machine-gun fire of accusations.
"Well... you did say that you honestly thought I would like her, right?"
After taking a few steps back and pivoting towards her fiancée's familiar, Sylviane sent Kaede a warm smile: the delight of a victor as she admired her prize.
Kaede had a bad feeling about where this was going...
"I will allow you to stay around him. But in exchange, I want you to obey my authority. That means if I want to borrow you this afternoon, or request that you keep your distance from him for a week, you will do so..."
Sylviane then rotated back to Pascal:
"--And you will not object or interfere in any way. Is that acceptable?"
It was an old trick in the book, especially in cultures that once practiced polygamy. When a husband of authority grew interested in another female, a shrewd wife would often seek to establish control over the new girl -- and therefore any budding relationship; although it was usually done with far more subtlety.
Still, this is quite mature for her age, Kaede had to admire.
Meanwhile, Pascal's first response was a deep frown.
"I do have obligations to take care of her after summoning her into our world."
"And I'm not unreasonable," Sylviane replied. Then, almost jokingly: "besides, if I were mean enough to desire harm upon her, I hardly require your permission to manage it."
Of course. She has plenty of guards and agents at her beckon...
Kaede sighed. Sylviane wasn't exactly subtle in reminding her of their difference in rank. Furthermore, it felt like they were negotiating a transfer of her 'ownership'.
Although she had to admit that such occurrences were common in politics, personal or national. It could be a servant, a team, or an entire vassal realm. At least she was important enough that a royal couple actually cared to argue.
"Fine," Pascal begrudgingly agreed. "But I retain my right to intervene in the interests of her well-being." His voice then grew unyielding: "I will not relinquish my obligations to her, on any grounds."
"Wouldn't have it any other way," Sylviane replied with a genuinely sweet smile. "You being responsible in personal relationships is a rare and good thing."
Probably the reason why she allowed him to court others at the academy, Kaede concluded.
Royal eyes then bore down upon Kaede in expectation of a response. Even though a hint of light within them was already admiring a newly-acquired possession.
"Of course..." Kaede answered, not that she had any other realistic choice. Then, as nonchalantly as she could: "should I address Your Highness any differently then?"
She honestly wasn't sure this time. Historical events were one thing, but details like the evolving courtesy of different time periods confused her, even if Hyperion followed similar trends to Earth.
Sylviane went back to staring at Pascal again, her eyebrows raised halfway between surprise and curiosity:
"What weird things are you making the poor girl call...?"
"NOTHING-!!!" His near-shout came on instinct before she even finished. "She just calls me Pascal!"
The Princess' grin was still humored as her sight returned to Kaede:
"'Your Highness' is still the formal way to address me. But among us and my other servants? 'Milady' will suffice adequately."
"Yes Milady," Kaede answered as she gave a slow curtsy, seeking as much elegance as she could manage. "I'm in your care."
"Don't worry, I'm a far more reasonable person than Sir Runelord here," Sylviane beamed with reassurance. "I'm certain we shall come to know each other real well. However, I will hold you to the promise you made me earlier."
That ill sense of unease in Kaede's chest only grew worse as she nodded back.
Kaede wasn't sure how the situation had evolved so quickly...
Before the hour was up, she was already sitting next to the Princess on the rich velvet couch, with the unusual pleasure of having her hair brushed by royal hands.
...Except that she was stiff as a board and too nervous to enjoy it.
Meanwhile, Pascal sat in a large and comfortable armchair right across from them, watching his fiancée with a peaceful smile, his turquoise gaze distant and thoughtfully preoccupied under the golden soft curls.
He had told Kaede some minutes ago to "Relax. This is normal for her." But that was far easier said than done given how out of place she felt.
Sylviane's hairbrush then vanished into an extra-dimensional pocket somewhere near her waist. With both hands on Kaede's thin shoulders, she adjusted the smaller girl's position before leaning over.
Kaede felt the pressure build on her back. The Princess' arms were soon draped over both shoulders, while soft cheeks nuzzled against the thin, straight hair behind her head.
"I take it the past month was quite stressful," Pascal finally broke the silence.
"You have no idea," Sylviane remarked before letting out a long, relaxed sigh. "It would have been nice if our diplomatic efforts actually paid off... but now... circumstances are only going to grow worse before they become any better."
The weight atop Kaede's head increased as it was turned into a royal headrest. She rather doubted that the slim-waisted Princess was heavy, but her own body was far smaller and hardly built for strength.
Apparently I'm a large teddy bear, Kaede thought as she stressed to keep her back straight against the pressure.
"Edith took Vivi south with her, so I haven't even had any chances to relax like this in the past few weeks," Sylviane complained as she crossed her hands over Kaede's chest. "And you weren't around to help either."
Kaede could almost sense the pout press into the top of her head. Compared to the poised and careful Sylviane, this was the true form of the princess letting off some steam.
"I kept calling though," Pascal kept his voice neutral as he defended himself. "You never accepted the..."
"Like I said, you weren't helping," Sylviane added firmly before going back to brushing her cheeks against silky soft hair.
Pascal took his own turn for a long sigh, as though in acceptance that he couldn't win against royal unfairness.
"I am doing what I can now."
He then opened his lips again, only to bite down as though trying to hold back anxious details.
"You have news, don't you?" Kaede asked over their private familiar link.
"Not sure," came Pascal's worried thoughts. "I do not wish to give her false hopes before the King declares his position."
Talk about a new form of 'behind someone's back', Kaede thought as the object of their conversation continued to nuzzle soft cheeks against silky hair, mere centimeters away yet blissfully unaware.
She wasn't really comfortable with this, even though it was for Sylviane's sake.
"No. Any short term relief really isn't worth the let-down. Only a few hours more anyway..."
Several taps from the windows then interrupted their conversation over telepathy.
The knight Mari, who had stood against the door with a look of complete disinterest for the past hour, swiftly crossed the floor without even waiting for the Princess' request.
Turning to the source, Kaede saw the entire window glass enshrouded by a light blue haze. The bird hovering just outside reminded her of a lean falcon, except with a magnificent, flowing tail decorated by tiny sapphire gems. Covered in cerulean feathers that progressively grew lighter towards the chest and tail, it emitted white-blue flames that sent ripples of heat through the surrounding air.
It was a Hyperion phoenix, the noblest of the magical beasts.
But rather than staring in awe, Kaede tensed up even further as the phoenix flew through the opened window and towards its master. She tried to shift away, except the Princess -- still draped over her shoulders -- pinned her firmly in place.
Kaede braced herself for the heat of scorching air so close to the flame source. Yet as the phoenix settled on Sylviane's shoulder, she felt only the envelopment of a soothing warmth, as though she laid just far enough away to enjoy a lit fireplace on this wintry day.
"Relax," Sylviane reassured. "Phoenixes are natural empaths; Hauteclaire's flames only burn those he detect hostility from."
"Was that a test then? Milady?" Kaede asked with relief, wondering how weird they must look to Pascal's amused eyes right now: bird standing regally on top of a Princess lazying over another girl.
"Not really. Although if I was wrong about you, you might start to sizzle a little right now. Be a shame though..."
There was a deadly nonchalance in her voice, and Kaede made a mental note that whatever else Princess Sylviane might be, she was not someone to be scorned. The phrase 'off with his head' would come to her as naturally as placing an order for dinner.
Perhaps it was just another way for the Princess to warn 'you really do not want to become my enemy'.
"I was surprised you did not bring him to the meeting," Pascal asked as he stretched out further in his armchair, basking in the comfort of the phoenix's extended aura. "The empathy of a phoenix is strong, and General Staff members often relax their mental shields since those rooms are compartmentalized with Sanctum Veil and other wards to protect against outside scrying. Hauteclaire may just catch a warning flag or two."
"I... hadn't considered that," Sylviane admitted. "Does feel like cheating though, not to mention inappropriate."
"The phoenix travels with the Oriflamme, and empathy is part of their nature," Pascal added. "It is a trick you can get away with using, so may as well take advantage of it. You know what they say: in diplomacy..."
"Not cheating is not trying hard enough. Yes, I know," Sylviane finished for him. "Although people often appreciate it when you relinquish an obvious advantage... Either way, the main reason was that Hauteclaire wanted a look around. If he had ever visited Königsfeld before, it would be centuries ago."
Sylviane then patted down Kaede's hair twice before rubbing cheeks against them once more.
"A little heat and they're even softer now," the Princess happily noted.
Like a blanket fresh out of the dryer, Kaede thought as she looked towards Pascal for support, but he merely shrugged with amusement:
"You do make a nice, soft pillow."
Only the phoenix Hauteclaire seemed to sympathize with his fellow familiar as he gave a low whistling chirp.
----- * * * -----
"Princess Sylviane, Pascal, welcome back."
By the time Kaede followed Pascal and Sylviane back into the conference/war room several hours later, King Leopold was smiling broadly again and looking considerably refreshed. It was a positive sign that heralded the announcement of good news. After all, politicians simply didn't grin happily as they told their allies 'sorry, you're on your own'.
"Your Majesty," the Princess replied with a light but well-practiced curtsy.
"I am pleased to inform you that my decision is now formal," Leopold began. "Neithard is making final arrangements before departing to lead the first echelon in Nordkreuz. We hope this war to be swift and decisive so that we may come to your nation's aid."
It went without saying that his precondition for joining Rhin-Lotharingie was the removal of rear threats from the north.
The two generals and their staff were still conversing over the display table. But the King had strode over to greet Sylviane with a satisfied smile.
"I am truly grateful..." Sylviane's voice wavered a hint as the weight finally left her shoulders. "Thank you, Your Majesty, both for my father and for the people of Rhin-Lotharingie."
"May our alliance hold firm in the face of Imperial treachery," Leopold declared as he extended an open hand.
Without hesitation, the Princess reached out and grasped the offer, renewing bonds between the royal dynasties of the north through solemn words of promise:
"And may the Holy Father smile upon those true and faithful."
Kaede was certain that for all its simplicity, she had just witnessed a moment that would go down in history. There was no dramatic speech, no elaborate signatures, but the physical contact between King and Princess carried with it the determination of two realms united in common purpose:
They would not bow to the ambitions of a single hegemon, nor would they tolerate a world dominated by the Inner Sea and its so-called 'Holy' Imperium.
The historian part of her had never been more excited. The ancient Chinese curse was still alive and well -- here in Hyperion, she truly lived in interesting times.
Even if the brief moment left as soon as it came...
"I apologize for interrupting the formalities, Sire," the elderly General von Manteuffel called over with his usual poker-face. "But I must get this operation going if we are to follow the set outline. Captain Sir von Moltewitz..."
"Yes Sir!" Pascal saluted as he snapped his boots together.
"Since I am dispatching my chief-of-staff and tactical officers to the second and third echelons, I want you on my staff in the first echelon. We are seriously lacking experienced officers -- even theoretical experts, as in your case -- in this type of warfare. Prepare for an overnight trip to Nordkreuz within the hour."
For a second, Pascal gave only silence.
"Is there a problem, Captain?" The General stared through weathered and stern countenance dominated by piercing-blue eyes.
"No Sir. I was simply thinking of the Reiter command the General Staff assigned me to."
Pascal really did not want to give up his first opportunity for an independent command, not even for a more prestigious position.
"Your proposal is changing structure across the charts, Captain," General von Manteuffel spoke through the deep tone of finality. "We depart from the main gates at 1800 sharp. Prepare yourself and be there."
"General, Your Majesty," Sylviane voiced immediately after Pascal. "I would like to volunteer myself and my armigers for this operation."
As though the temperature in the room suddenly plummeted, everyone slowed down to a frozen halt at the Princess' announcement. Even General von Manteuffel couldn't keep the surprise out of his expression this time.
"Princess, I'm not sure if this is..." King Leopold began, before he trailed off in a struggle to find the right words.
"Hostilities from the north are a threat to both of our nations, Your Majesty," Sylviane declared. "We must show them a united stand of solidarity to dissuade them from opportunism and adventurous folly later in the war. The bulk of Rhin-Lotharingie's forces may be occupied and transferring south, but I believe my presence and authority will more than amply announce to the world that we continue to stand as one."
Kaede stood awed by how bold yet shrewd Sylviane's move was. By subjugating herself to Weichsel's command during the northern campaign, her presence on the battlefield would warn all enemies that the alliance still held firm. Furthermore, this made it much harder for the King to renege his promise in aiding Rhin-Lotharingie upon the campaign's conclusion.
After all, no one could predict what the winds of fate might bring by then. Failing to answer a call-to-arms after receiving such high profile military assistance would not merely be dishonor, but an act bordering on betrayal in the eyes of the world.
"Your Highness," Wiktor von Falkenhausen snuck a glance at his King before turning to face the Princess. "We do not have any structure for working together with your knights, nor..."
A soldier might have the option of remaining apolitical, but no competent general could afford to stay ignorant of political implications. The chief-of-staff took this a step further as he tried to build a case for his King to deny the offer.
"Just like half of everything else this operation," Sylviane smiled back, almost in challenge. "Besides, our role is simple once any battle begins..."
Bearing the phoenix Hauteclaire proudly upon her shoulders, the Cerulean Princess then swept her wisteria gaze across the room -- a willful display of confidence as she directly met every pair of eyes along the way.
"The Oriflamme fights at the head of an army, and nowhere else."
Kaede finally came to understand why many on Hyperion spoke of the paladins through words of complete reverence; or in Reynald's case -- undiluted idolatry.
The first to break the silence that followed was a chuckle by the King himself.
"Very well, Princess. I do agree with your reasons. Although given the immediate need for departure, it's a shame we will have to wait for another opportunity to dine together."
Leopold then turned back to his operational commander:
"Neithard, I trust that you will be able to accommodate and support her in battle as appropriate."
"Yes, Sire," General von Manteuffel answered simply.
"Then you have my blessings to proceed as planned, General Sir Neithard Mittemeyer von Manteuffel. Operation White Typhoon may begin tomorrow at 0600, and I shall join the main forces assembling at Nordkreuz in person by the week's end."
The theatrical lines were clearly a formality, for the King had already declared his intentions twice over. But traditions were important for the morale of any military establishment, and Leopold was careful to pay his officers the respect they deserved.
...And they in turn pledged their loyalty to King and country.
"Hail the Black Dragon," General von Manteuffel saluted in military fashion.
"Hail!" followed every officer in Weichsel black.
"Hail," answered the King as he returned their salute. "And Holy Father with us all."[ Next Chapter ]