It was everywhere, scattered across the snowy landscape like pyres of the underworld, consuming men both alive and dead.
...Flames that pumped endlessly from her own hands.
Before her charged in three corpses. With rimefire dripping from melting faces and sizzling flesh, they rushed towards her with hands outstretched like frenzied zombies. Their lips had already burnt away, exposing jawbones that wailed more terribly than any banshee.
"S-stay away!" her own voice trembled.
With merciless steel in her hands, she unleashed a torrent of liquid fire. But even through the smoke, she could tell that it did nothing to stop the zombies' advance.
...Until a bloody swordstaff cut through all three, disintegrating them into the air.
"KEEP...FIRING!" her savior cried out, even as a giant zombie rose up from the ground to smash a massive blade into her staff.
Flames reached out almost reflexively, scorching everything in its path -- both friend and foe alike. With a painful yell, her guardian lost an arm to the crashing blade. But instead of simply falling, the burning limb flew through the air and extended its fingers.
...Right into her face.
Kaede scrambled upright as her eyes opened to the darkness.
She was in Pascal's expandable cabin, although only she occupied its bed right now. Her lungs panted breathlessly. Her hands still shook, and she could feel the icy perspiration rolling down her sensitive skin.
It's only a nightmare... only a nightmare, she repeated to herself.
"Is everything alright?" came Pascal's worried voice.
"Y-yeah. Only... only a nightmare, Kaede answered over the link.
"You just experienced your first real battle and your first... well, couple dozen kills. That reaction is natural and nothing to feel ashamed about," he reassured. "Try to go back to sleep. Healing magic might close wounds quickly, but it still takes time for muscle tissues to properly recover."
Memories began to return as Pascal spoke. Kaede had been knocked out by a massive explosion, and woke up after the battle on Parzifal's tamed tofu for the second time. She had only a few brief words with Pascal and others before Parzifal had sent her off to rest and sleep.
Flipping the thick comforter off her, Kaede stretched her stockinged legs off the fleece bedsheet. Her left thigh still ached a little, but walking wouldn't be a problem.
"You were injured as well. Shouldn't you be back here asleep also?"
"I need to finish these action reports while they are still fresh on my mind, Pascal replied.
"Well... okay," Kaede felt rather disappointed. "I'm going to take a walk. I don't think I can sleep after that."
"Remember to turn your garments' heat up."
Kaede wondered if a normal girl would ask for some company and a long, warm embrace on moments like these. But while she couldn't claim to having a ton of masculinity even before coming to Hyperion, she had nevertheless been raised to be emotionally strong and independent.
Always trying to appear steady and in control, she sighed as her small hands, clad in long charmeuse gloves that radiated a gentle warmth, pulled on the black pseudo-uniform around her thin shoulders.
It was on moments like these when Kaede questioned that if girls really did have an easier life. Culturally speaking, people judged the masculinity of men by their successes, while femininity appealed through a girl's weakness. Though an accomplished woman had her charms, society considered it not only acceptable but even attractive for females to show vulnerability. It was expected for girls confide their troubles among close friends and family. But males? The social expectation for any fall was to walk away with apparent pride.
That went doubly so for Pascal, who was exceedingly judgmental and took every opportunity to test others' intellect and resolve.
...Although, since she was a girl now, maybe he wouldn't look down upon her for requesting some comfort. He certainly offered her free hugs when she broke down after receiving her residency.
Kaede mulled it over as she opened the door to the freezing winds outside.
No, she firmly told herself. This body is one thing; reality can't be denied. But I refused to lose my ways -- my personality, my real self.
Reply came as a nagging echo from the depth of her mind:
...I may already have.
----- * * * -----
The large and sturdy cabin being used as a mess hall had a rather thick door. Kaede felt her weakness once again as she exerted to push it open.
She received a few curious glances, but most of the inhabitants were too busy celebrating to notice.
"Hey cutestuff! Care to join us?" One of the soldiers called out.
Like many of those surrounding him, he was wearing the black-on-burning-red uniform of a Knight Phantom. His face was just as red, and he happily waved a stein of sloshing beer in midair.
That instantly drew her more attention than she ever wanted.
"We're the Ghosts who saved the day!" said a buddy next to him, with an even redder face. "You should offer (hic) us a drink!"
"Pay some respect boys," came a familiar voice. "She's a friend of mine. And without her sending a hundred Northmen to early graves, we'd never have arrived in time to save anything."
Kaede sent an irritated glare to the speaker on reflex. He wasn't hard to pinpoint either, since Gerd Kessler's imposing musculature easily stood out from the crowd.
"Of course L.T."
The men around Gerd answered instantly, like pups obeying a recognized alpha wolf. It was the exact opposite of how the academy treated him.
Although it still didn't stop some of them from ogling her.
"I did not kill a hundred," Kaede tried to snarl back, as soft as her voice was.
"That's what Captain von Gottschall had been saying," Gerd answered with a wide open grin, completely misreading her expression. "And you are a hero, even if not everyone thinks that way."
"I sure don't feel like one... nor do I want to," she grumbled back, images from the recent nightmare still drifting across her head. "Mind if I have a seat?"
The long wooden table Gerd sat at had only a pair of women to twenty-odd males, which included Reynald right next to him. There was also a smaller table with five women on the far side of the room, but Kaede didn't know anyone there.
"Sure thing," Gerd said cheerily as he and Reynald shifted to make room.
Kaede had never seen him smile so naturally back at the academy. It was contagious, in a rustic sort of way, with his chiseled jaw opened to reveal rows of uneven teeth.
"Hey L.T.! I thought you only had eyes for one! Don't tell me you're bedding other wenches already!"
The comments that followed were good-natured enough, but Kaede still colored a little.
She had forgotten how crude soldiers could be.
"She's my friend! Next person I hear being disrespectful of the lady gets to play with my steel," Gerd declared to the whole table with a chuckle.
"Well damn. No thanks L.T. After seeing you send three men flying with one swipe, I ain't touching that swordstaff of yours," spoke a nearby sergeant with a rather toothy smile. "Although I hope you won't mind me telling the little miss that she's cute as a button. Samaran I'm guessing?"
"Yeah... you've met one before?" Kaede replied, just before giving Reynald a jab in the ribs. She wasn't sure a finger or two had enough strength, so she used all four.
"Ow!" the short redhead yelped, immediately pulling back the hand that was almost on her butt.
"You just don't learn do you?"
Amusement danced within Gerd's ash-blue eyes as he looked over at his friend.
"But the fire! It's so warm and tempting! Please, more!" Reynald extended his creepy, wriggling fingers toward her skirt.
Nonono stay back!
A shiver went up Kaede's spine as she inched away while giving him another jab. At the same time, Gerd reached over her to handchop his friend's red head.
Reynald leaned back to dodge the bigger hand. But sitting on a bench drastically limited his evasive options, and he moved straight into her low stab. Stopped hard by pain in his ribs, he took Gerd's hand right across his nose.
It would have broke right there, had the angle not been so shallow.
"OWWwww! Okay okay that's really starting to hurt," Reynald complained as blood dripped down from both nostrils.
He wiped it off with one hand while the other pinched the bridge to cast First Aid.
So he's not actually a masochist, Kaede thought with relief. Good to know: just keep hitting him until he stops.
"Where's Ariadne and Parzifal anyway?" she changed the topic to bring back some semblance of normality.
"Something about beauty sleep and... well, Parzifal is just tired," said Reynald, still rubbing his ribs.
"They wrung him dry today. One of the conditions for the town's surrender that the Princess negotiated was immediate medical assistance," explained Gerd. Then, with an oddly longing tone: "Although, I'd be asleep too if I had Putty, all soft and smooth and white and cute..."
Reynald snorted into his beer mug mid-drink, and Kaede had to wipe a bit of spray off her cheek.
"You sure you're thinking white pudding still and not imagining Cecylia's thighs?" Reynald voiced rather loudly, facing his friend with a gleeful grin and a faint beer mustache. "I'd say breasts, but she's bit lacking in that."
His comment brought quite a few friendly laughs around the table.
Gerd, however, gave him a scowling retort:
"I don't undress women with my eyes, you shameless scoundrel..." Then, with a faint blush completely unsuited to his macho appearance: "Although I'm sure she could give a great lap pillow, once we were at a stage for it to be appropriate."
Reynald kept up his grin even as he shook his head:
"Give it up, bro. Pretty clear that she isn't interested."
"She's just testing my perseverance," Gerd waved it off. "Even after the rejections, I still catch her sneaking glances my way. She's clearly interested!"
That's because even through the uniform you look buff as heck.
Kaede was tempted to tell him, although it really wasn't her place to say, not when Cecylia had voiced her opinions in the confidence of her friends. Furthermore, she was a bit flustered herself:
...Why did I just think of that right away?
"You'd have better luck asking the new girl," Reynald sent back a knowing look. "And don't lie, I saw the way you looked at her!"
"I admit: Lydia is cute; definitely my type," Gerd replied. "But I will not try to court two women at once. It's cheap -- cheapens my efforts and cheapens them, just disgraceful altogether."
"L.T's the romantic type isn't he?" one of his troopers called out while another cried "virgin", before everyone broke out into boisterous laughter.
"Possessive is more like it," Reynald interjected. "Just ask Cecylia once more and be done with it. Life isn't long enough to keep waiting, magic or not."
Kaede wasn't sure if it was the alcohol, the embarrassment, or rising temper, but Gerd's glaring face was a bright, glowing red. His gaze soon met Reynald's with a stony glare.
Ah... barfight warning.
She hastened to head him off just as he was about to retort:
"So, why do you like Cecylia that much?"
It drew his eyes back down to his beer stein in an instant, focused again.
"Well... she's pretty, cute, energetic. She's daring and determined, yet still the type I'd need to protect. She's smart and can talk for hours about life in the world, unlike those sheltered girls who squeal over pairs of shoes, yet she never argues. Plus she's a dhampir, and they're as devoted as a wife could be."
"So the L.T. just wants to go home for a smile, a kiss, and the smell of freshly made dinner!" a corporal from across the table announced.
"Plus firm and tender thighs!" added another before they burst into laughter again.
Unfortunately, dinner is exactly what Cecylia won't do.
Kaede actually felt rather sorry for him.
"Yeah yeah I know it's cliché," Gerd answered proudly. "But it's my dream and it's half of what a wife is for!"
"Can't say no to that," a soldier agreed. "Who doesn't want a caring family to welcome them home?"
"Other than that none of us are gonna brave a general's daughter. We'll cheer you on just for that!"
"To the L.T.!" his men called out, before two groups of them clamored their steins together, splashing golden-brown beer all around.
The comfort Gerd's men already shared with their commanding officer rather astonished Kaede. After all, he only took charge six days ago.
"It is okay for them to drink this much?" she asked Reynald.
"Fight hard, play hard, that's what Colonel von Hammerstein told us anyway," the redhead grinned back. "Besides, command gave everyone except the companies on watch tomorrow off for rest. So don't ruin the topic!"
Kaede smiled a little herself. It was indeed nice to have a pleasant conversation free of battles:
"Face it though, he's smitten."
"I'll work on that," Reynald's smirk could not be any more lopsided.
"Go work on your own girl!" growled the big guy from Kaede's other side.
"Don't worry bro, it's in your best interests," the short redhead reassured. "By the time you realize what's happening, you won't even complain!"
Gerd began to scowl again, but his men soon pulled him back into yet another rowdy cheer:
"Come on L.T., here's another!"
"Although you're oddly comfortable with discussing this," Reynald eyed Kaede with an unusual look.
"Why shouldn't I?" She shrugged, thinking back to a complaint she once had heard from a female friend. "It's not like Gerd is ranking the girls, or judging them based solely on physical attractiveness."
Besides, Cecylia did rate him in a similar manner.
"I don't know," Reynald gave a half-hearted shrug of his own. "Gerd's attitude offended plenty of ladies at the academy before he stopped talking about it. Even Ariadne lost her patience once at how commoners only see women as some household commodity... I bet none of them would feel comfortable sitting here."
Wait wait... Nobles!? As the more liberal, progressive, forward-thinking social class!?
Kaede's eyebrows shot straight up. The thought was just absurd.
"Okay, please do explain. Why do the commoners have that cultural view while nobles often don't?"
"Well..." the redhead crossed his eyes as he grasped for an answer in unfamiliar ground. "For one, women of noble birth are subject to the Writ of Universal Conscription. So... when both sides are equally called upon for the most dangerous job of them all, it's pretty darn hard for men to uphold the belief that you girls are somehow weaker or need us for protection by being kept at home."
A social equality that began with the equal chance of being killed, she mused.
Historical truths did agree that patriarchal societies also saw men as the 'expendable' gender. After all, assuming an abundance of food, one men and ten women could potentially reproduce as fast as ten and ten. So while cowardice was often seen as cute and attractive in girls, it grew to become the most intolerable sin for men, as they were the ones called upon to fight wars and oppose disasters.
In traditional governments where state power rested with the military, this meant it was the men who would seek 'special privileges' for their sacrifices. Furthermore, significant losses of men which resulted in skewed gender ratios would even prompt society to give them preferential treatment.
Kaede's motherland was actually a good example of this. Despite accepting women into its combat units, the Soviet Union lost nearly three males for every female in the Great Patriotic War. The postwar gender imbalance was so great that there were widespread calls for the legalization of polygamy. It was rejected, but the need to replenish the population nevertheless encouraged the men to sleep around, while their obligations as fathers were met by social programs of the state.
Needless to say, this was disastrous for the gender equality cause. Countless Russian men grew pampered and irresponsible, expecting women to treat them like kings while chain smoking and binge drinking themselves to an early demise.
"I'm guessing this attitude in shared responsibility between genders runs down to other aristocratic roles as well?" she asked next, to which Reynald nodded vigorously:
"Oh definitely! Every noble man or woman who doesn't have a respectable occupation means wasted magical resources for the nation, whether that's in military power, industrial productivity, or administrative efficiency. It is the call of Noblesse Oblige that we must harness our magical gifts for the country -- or at least here in Weichsel! No self-respecting woman of noble birth would only stay home to raise kids! Only commoners do that!"
"And even apart from how valuable casters are to the economy and military, mages live long enough and have the financial resources to juggle both a career and family," a rough voice emerged from behind. "The commoners' short lives and lower incomes restrict their options quite a bit. Many of my own childhood friends are already married and with kids. So of course the wives, being better caretakers but less suited for labor-heavy jobs, are expected to housekeep and raise them. For a yeoman like myself or the Lieutenant, it all depends on the community we grew up in."
Kaede and Reynald both turned about on the wooden bench. They found themselves facing a tall, broad-shouldered young man in 'late twenties' with a full mustache and gray eyes.
"Sorry, I couldn't help overhearing," he said before offering an open hand. "Sergeant Eckhart Steinmetz, Nordkreuz 3rd Cavalry, 1st Platoon, 2nd Squad leader. It's a pleasure to meet the hero of our company."
Kaede grasped it as firmly as she could, feeling as though she was shaking hands with a giant.
"Kaede Suvorsky. I'm... not really military, just Captain von Moltewitz's familiar," she spoke back carefully. "And it's Captain von Lichnowsky who is the real hero, not me. Without her, I'd be dead."
"That's what soldiers are: we watch out for one another, and you became part of the family the moment you stood by us against that ghastly charge," Eckhart solemnly declared as he offered Kaede an extra large stein of beer.
She couldn't well refuse, even if her only experience with alcohol was her father offering a sip of vodka at age six.
...She still remembered that unpleasant burning on her tongue.
But among true soldiers, her gender hardly mattered. He clearly expected her to drink it like a man.
Several deep gulps proved that this beer didn't burn, although it was very strong and bitter. Kaede coughed a few times afterwards, and Eckhart gave her two pats that felt more like rubber mallet blows.
"I always heard that Nordkreuz had some of the best troopers," Reynald said admiringly. "They say that not a single man ran from the 3rd company, not to mention how bravely the 1st fought. You guys are good, and your attitude proves it all the more."
"Colonel von Hammerstein is one hell of a trainer, and the Captain is a good woman herself," Eckhart nodded as he shook Reynald's offered hand. "I just hope they don't disband us. Even including the Captain and those who will be retiring, only nineteen of us survived this battle."
Retire, Kaede thought as she gulped down more liquor. What a nice way to say that she's too crippled to fight anymore.
She didn't know if drunkenness really could drown all worries. But right now, she really wanted the stupor that supposedly came along.
In the end, Reynald and Eckhart ended up trading stories.
Kaede was rather surprised to learn that unlike the stern Captain she only knew from the battlefield, Karen von Lichnowsky was quite a humored commander. She apparently had excellent timing for comebacks toward acts of comedic stupidity, using her long hair much like a slapstick tool.
The last good moment of the night came when Gerd, curious over tales of Kaede shooting down a siphoneer, asked to see her morphic blade:
"Weeell 'arn, could buy dozen o' mine 'ordsaff for this!"
"Wha' di'ye expect? 'Er master's a rich 'astard," Reynald slurred back.
Then, one thud after another, both of them passed out.
Reynald's tolerance was average, he just kept his pace in check. But Gerd? Judging by the mountain of mugs, his men must have fed him a whole keg.
With no one remaining to distract her, the images and screams soon returned to haunt...
----- * * * -----
The first one who walked in next morning was Parzifal, followed closely by Cecylia in her black uniform with the long wide skirt.
Eying the roomful of passed out drunks, the healer gave a very audible sigh even before he emerged from the doorway.
"Kaede, what're you doing here?"
The girl replied with a depressed sigh of her own.
"Apparently on Hyperion, Russians really can drink vodka like water... I had hoped to fall asleep if I got drunk enough, but since I'm Samaran and alcohol is a slow poison..."
Parzifal exchanged a worried glance with Cecylia.
"Kaede, if you want to talk about it, I'm always willing to listen," he began in a warm and understanding voice. "Killing another person is never easy for good people, and you're certainly a good girl."
"What does a healer know about murdering people?" she retorted irritably.
"Pascal or Reynald can tell you what I did to an assassin, Kaede. It wasn't pretty, and I could barely sleep afterwards. I had to pray for hours and confess my sins the next day -- which, if you prefer, I also know a good chaplain here with the army."
Parzifal kept his calm and patience, but Kaede still felt the regret buried deep underneath.
"Sorry," she muttered. But I don't think a priest can help me any...
"Besides Kaede, it's not murder -- you only did what you had to," Cecylia added firmly. "If they had broken through, it was you, Pascal, and hundreds of our men who would have died. You didn't have a choice."
Yes... no choice but to torch men's faces and melt the Captain's hand...
Thankfully, she managed to hold that in.
Kaede then shook her head and forced a wry smile back to her lips:
"Thanks... Don't worry about it. I'm sure I'll be okay, soon enough."
Neither of others looked convinced by the slightest margin.
Although Cecylia still tried to raise the mood back up with a cheerful declaration:
"Come on Kaede. I'm meeting up with Sylviane outside and you're joining us. Loads better than this dank place reeking of alcohol. Besides, Parzifal could use the room to cleanse the hangovers like he promised the boys."
"They'll be pretty rowdy when they get up," the healer admitted. "Complain more than a bunch of elders with arthritis."
Kaede almost chuckled at that as she slowly stood up from her seat.
She apparently wasn't fast enough; Cecylia ended up dragging her off the moment one leg stepped around the bench.
As it turned out, they emerged from the cabin the moment Sylviane stepped around the corner.
The Princess wore her sky-blue-to-violet battledress with armor plates off, while her knight Mari followed just a step behind.
But Sylviane's reaction towards Kaede's presence was very different from the others:
"Are you stupid? Spending a night drinking with men? Even your appearance is a terrible disgrace. Pascal should have hauled you off."
"Sorry, Your Highness," Kaede looked down from the Princess' harsh gaze. Even within her own thoughts, she didn't have the energy to argue back. "I... actually haven't heard from Pascal since waking up shortly after midnight."
"And you're supposed to be taking care of your master," Sylviane reprimanded. "Where was he then?"
"He was finishing action reports, probably in the command center."
Sylviane didn't hesitate for a moment before turning her heels.
The trek through the snow was mostly uneventful. The skies were barely lit in the early morning fog, and most soldiers were still asleep.
The four girls did encounter one odd event when a column of men ran by, chanting some army song as they went.
They were also shirtless... in the dead of winter.
"Blessed be the Holy Father for granting us magic..." Cecylia whispered as she stopped in her tracks. Her head swiveled about to follow them, eyes nailed until they were out of sight.
Kaede did some staring as well, even nodding along before she realized what she was doing.
Darn it, not again! I hate you, hormones!
"Who was that leading?" Sylviane asked, both impressed and curious.
"Colonel Sir Dietrich Gottfried von Falkenrath of the Phantom Gale," answered Cecylia. "He's a dhampir like me, but about thrice my age. Delicious looking, isn't he?"
"Well, he's certainly not a fruit," Kaede muttered back, still trying to fan the image of dashing-good looks with perfect abs out of her mind.
"Dhampirs seem to liken everything appealing to food, even their own kind," Sylviane then waved them to continue crunching through the snow.
The thought came a bit disconcerting to Kaede:
"Isn't that slightly... cannibalistic?"
"Before the Church took us in, some dhampirs did nibble among themselves," Cecylia voiced with complete nonchalance.
"That's disturbing," the Princess interjected immediately.
"Yes... I rather agree," the dhampir nodded. "But then, everything can seem disturbing until it's adopted by culture. I mean when you think about it from a different angle, even the most religiously approved act of fornication isn't all that different from spitting down each others' throats."
"Ew. I guess that's why males are the more promiscuous gender?" Sylviane asked, her volume dropping to a shy whisper as she continued: "Since they're the ones doing the... uh, spitting."
Not sure I'll ever forget that analogy.
Kaede rather wished she hadn't heard this exchange.
Then it grew worse as Cecylia began to explain:
"Not really. The real reason is quite simple: the mother of a child is always clear and must take responsibility. But a man does so only through marriage. Fathers also couldn't be certain that the child was theirs before they created the Bloodline Trace spell, which lead to widespread cultural expectations for bridal chastity and all that even before the religious faiths preached them."
"Right, since we're the ones who get pregnant," Sylviane added.
Just as Kaede's thoughts reached the same conclusion and instantly derailed into a cataclysmic train wreck.
Since coming to Hyperion, Kaede had avoided thinking about gender issues unless it was immediately relevant or necessary. The thought I could become pregnant had never even crossed her mind...
Until now, as copies of the same message exploded across an already cluttered mind. Combined with a tangled mess of emotions, it formed a mental state that could only be described as utter chaos.
The only component of her normally organized mind that did not fail was the emergency shutdown. It soon triggered as the tidal surge of turmoil overwhelmed her exhausted brain nerves in a cascading power grid failure.
To the other three, it seemed like Samaran girl tripped, plunged face-first into the foot-compacted snow, and passed out.
Sylviane's guess about Pascal proved right within another minute.
They found him asleep on a large desk in the still-empty building, using the last parchment he had written on as a pillow. The action report appeared mostly smudge-free as they pulled him off, although his cheeks now had ink stamped onto them.
"Huhhh?" Pascal stirred through half-opened eyes.
"You're sleeping in the wrong place," Sylviane noted softly as she pulled his right arm over her shoulders, while her knight Mari silently stepped up to help.
"No, I can manage..." the Princess interrupted. Then, as she struggled somewhat to pull him off the chair: "Nevermind. He's heavier than he looks."
"That's a good thing," Cecylia grinned, her hand still supporting a spaced-out Kaede. "Must be pretty beefy under that uniform."
"Remember: my fiancé," Sylviane replied with a trace smile.
She was mostly joking, although a hinted warning still laid within.
Then, with Pascal's other arm around Mari's shoulders, the Princess and her knight began to carry him off.
Meanwhile, Cecylia held the door open with her one available arm.
"Seriously, what is it with these two?" the Princess wondered aloud.
"Stress? Injury? Overwork? Sleep deprivation?" Cecylia offered one explanation after another before shrugging. "Kaede it can't be your period again could it? That would be wayyy too irregular of a cycle."
The dazed Samaran girl faintly shook her head but never answered.
Had Cecylia tried to scan her thoughts, the response would've been overwhelming:
I can't take this anymore.
----- * * * -----
"Well this is a new one," King Leopold of Weichsel was amused as he leaned back against a large, comfortable work chair. "Ever heard of a familiar being recommended for the Knight's Cross?"
"No Sire. But this is also the first time an officer is campaigning with such a familiar."
The reply came from Lisbeth Adele von Lanckoroński, Chancellor of Weichsel and a Cardinal of the Trinitian Church of Holy Arcadia.
Upon her elderly ages at hundred-twenty years old, Lisbeth still looked a remarkably stunning woman. Standing proudly before the huge mahogany desk, the lady held a gold-trimmed leather binder lined with jewels. The intricate red-and-white choir dress of a cardinal completely covered her frail figure, but also brought out the intensity and depth of two bright-red eyes under her deep-red hair.
Next to her stood Colonel Hannes von Falkenberg, Commanding Officer of the Black Eagles, which effectively made him Weichsel's Spymaster. With a pleasant and polite smile, the beautiful Colonel stepped up to pass another parchment into the King's hands. Thin shouldered with delicate arms and neck, Hannes had straight, light-blond hair draped to just above his shoulders to further the androgynous look. But the ocean-blue eyes that sparkled with curiosity revealed his lineage: the sapphire-blue crosses of a dhampir.
There were many who claimed that he was actually a woman pretending to be a man. He certainly spent plenty of his career crossdressing, one way or another.
"The preliminary Farspeak report from Captain von Gottschall also agrees with von Lichnowsky on the recommendation," Hannes explained with a soft, soothing voice fit for a bard.
"And I'm guessing Pascal recommended his own familiar as well?" the King asked as he glanced through the second report.
"Of course, Sire."
That elicited a chuckle from King Leopold.
"That kid knows no shame. But he is definitely his father's son."
He then put both parchments down and looked back at Lisbeth:
"So... I'm guessing my Chancellor didn't rush to Nordkreuz in person over two military reports?"
"Sire, word arrived last night that the Duchess Karoline of Mitterfels was killed by a Northmen raid while returning from a trip to Neueoder. With no direct heirs, her successor is the scion of the von Seydlitz family -- Parzifal Sigismund. Whom, according to my sources, coincidentally requested permission from the von Zimmer-Manteuffel family of Saale-Holzland to marry their daughter, Ariadne Charlotte, just a week ago. The condition was that the marriage be bilineal and incorporate the von Manteuffel name, which Parzifal apparently agreed to."
The King's eyes narrowed as he grew wary:
"Could this have been done by someone else?"
"The von Zimmer-Manteuffels are staunch allies of the General," the Cardinal replied with a solemn shake of her head. "I cannot envision a plot of this magnitude carried out without von Manteuffel knowing."
"And of the direct beneficiaries, the young Parzifal himself is a healer, deployed alongside his not-yet-fiancée in Skagen," confirmed the Spymaster Colonel. "I have a source placed close to them who assures me that it's impossible for them to be involved. From what she describes, it's completely unthinkable for Parzifal's character, and Ariadne still doesn't know about it yet. Furthermore, the relationship between them seems to be one of genuine youthful romance."
"How reliable is your source?" the King questioned again.
"The info comes from Cecylia Renata von Falkenhausen, the daughter of General von Falkenhausen."
Leopold nodded quietly. Few people knew the truth, but the dhampirs of the Falken-clans were utterly reliable not only because of their proven record for devotion and loyalty. The Blood Oath they swore when Weichsel first gave them refuge made them incapable of betraying the von Drachenlanzen dynasty. Any attempt to do so would be met with a swift and painful death.
"I knew the boy's -- Parzifal's parents, both heroes from the last war," the King began grimly. "His father died leading a charge that saved the day at Leuthenberg, and his mother lost both legs and an arm in that same bloody fight..."
Leopold paused briefly before continuing:
"I have no objections to him inheriting Mitterfels. Holy Father knows that his family sacrificed enough to deserve it. However..."
The King shoved back his chair and strode over to the projection map of Weichsel covering the wall. Since he was staying in the Nordkreuz Keep, it was natural that he also took the best office on the von Moltewitz estate. The map belonged to his late Marshal, including personalized notes enchanted into the illusory projector.
"Neithard is getting out of hand," the King growled as he tapped the map. "He already has Polarstern, and his branch families control Altmark and Saale-Holzland. And now... Mitterfels."
Seizing the opportunity, the Chancellor continued on to fan the King's flames:
"He has indeed created very nice sack against the North Sea, with the Capital set to fall straight in."
By the time the King turned back around, his clear-brown eyes were fuming with outrage.
"Does he think me stupid or just blind? Outside Altsteier, he's trying to completely cut off my own lands from the rest of the country!"
"Perhaps he's too important to the coming wars for Your Majesty to relieve," Colonel von Falkenberg shrugged. "After all, he just reshuffled all of his commanders, and Your Majesty didn't lift a finger to stop him."
The King instantly sent a smoldering glare towards his spymaster, but to no effect. The Colonel continued to tilt his weight onto one leg, relaxed enough to start whistling.
It wasn't really surprising, seeing as this was the person who once handed in a list of conspirators with his own name on top.
The King had to warn him that it wasn't a very funny joke.
"Regardless of what von Manteuffel believes, it's apparent that the death of Duchess Karoline is no coincidence," the Cardinal declared. "Unfortunately, we do not have any evidence of this. The raiding party seemed to have vanished back into the sea."
"Adventurers, most likely," the Colonel chipped in again.
The term seemed innocuous enough. Except in the north, it meant marauding sellswords operating from so-called 'Adventurer Guilds' in the Kingdom of Västergötland -- men whose occupation was hack and slash, violence and plunder.
"You are implying that the General leading our war effort is conspiring with those whom we are currently at war with?" the King highlighted.
"Not directly. There are those who broker such deals with mercenary elements," the Colonel clarified. "Quickly too; certainly within a week."
Leopold exhaled deeply, as though taking deep breath to calm himself down.
"Neithard needs to be removed. I don't care how good of a General he is. By the time he achieves victory over Skagen, his control over the army will be enough to gamble on a coup!"
"Already enough to chance it," Colonel von Falkenberg interjected. "Just not a good one."
The King ignored him this time, glancing back to his Chancellor instead with a congratulatory smile:
"What you've always wanted, isn't it Lisbeth? Without Neithard throwing his influence around, the only easy way up in the administration is to bribe you..."
Leopold swiftly cut her off with a raised hand.
"I know your greed, Lisbeth. Everyone knows your greed. Even the children in the streets can sing a tune about it," he stared at her with royal prerogative. "But you're also the best Chancellor we've seen in two centuries, most of your appointments are at least halfway decent, and you know how to invest and multiply. So long as you stay loyal to me and keep the nation afloat, I'll let you shower yourself in gold. But be careful not to overstep, or you will certainly drown in your own wealth."
The warning at the end was almost dismissive. But Cardinal von Lanckoroński took it in with a slow, mindful nod:
"I will watch my steps, Sire."
"Good! I like keeping my councilors."
King Leopold's clear brown gaze then swept across both of them:
"Hannes, Lisbeth, I want the two of you working together on this, and only your most trustworthy men. I want the investigation into Karl's death to point a finger at von Manteuffel," he spoke of the Marshal's assassination. "It doesn't have to be serious, perhaps he simply allowed a gap in the security arrangements. But I want it to look purposeful."
The Colonel smiled, or perhaps more of an eerie smirk:
"You want his reputation destroyed amongst the troops when you arrest him."
"Precisely!" The King accentuated as he walked around the desk to sit back down, on the chair that once belonged to the Marshal himself. "Whom better to stage the act than convincing the wronged son himself to take revenge for his father? Dra-matic! They'll be writing plays about it for decades!"
Even the way he said it was theatrical, with an upward twist of his head as he voiced the key word.
"I guess Weichsel now has its first familiar wearing the Knight's Cross," Leopold confirmed as he looked back down onto the reports. "Single star and promotion to Major to Pascal also. With any luck, maybe he'll be my new cavalry general someday."
"We can certainly hope he turns out as good as his father," the Cardinal agreed. "The people would enjoy the confidence, the security."
"The economy would, you mean?" The King half-joked. "Also, Lisbeth, see what lands are available to create a new Barony. I want von Lichnowsky... Karen, is it? To be given a proper place to retire. The troops should see that such sacrifice to their King is properly rewarded."
"Yes Sire. What about the Manteuffels?"
"Ah yes, of course, can't leave a tumor to keep growing," Leopold nodded. "Send message to both Parzifal and the Zimmer-Manteuffels that a bilineal arrangement is not acceptable. That I wish the von Seydlitz name to remain whole as a tribute to his parents."
"Should I draft an appropriate warning for General von Manteuffel as well?" the Colonel asked with another charming smile.
The King puzzled for a clueless moment before he realized why:
"Right, if I only scold the Zimmer-Manteuffels by themselves, the General would get suspicious. Go ahead and alleviate Neithard's doubts, Hannes. It's certainly a cheap way to buy some time."
After all, a direct punishment, even as light as a reprimand, usually marked an end to the incident. A superior who scolds and warns his subordinate typically sought improvement, instead of plotting the vassal's elimination.[ Next Chapter ]