Volume 3 - Polarized Authority

Prologue - A Matter of Faith

An ominous sign stretched across the skies.

All along the snowy coast of the Skagen Peninsula, the wintry winds could be felt blowing north. Low clouds tinged icy blue followed in the wake of crying gales, shedding soft flakes across the horizon for cover as they made a hasty retreat to the sea.

Even the weather could sense the turning tides of war.

Though despite the cold front's general withdraw, a single line streaked south across the shrouded skies. The oppressive veil of lower clouds concealed the sight from all but a few faithful, and only the most devout recognized it as a possible sign of the divine.

...And for once in the span of centuries, they were right.

Thousands of paces above ground, a pressurized bubble of ether and air blew apart yet another airy cloud. Leaving behind shockwaves of an expanding sonic boom, the figure within continued his journey forth at speeds beyond the fragility of mortal men.

But on this day, prayers for miracle and intervention were not meant to be.

"Where do you think you're going?" a tranquil, feminine voice laced with holy serenity pierced straight into the turbulent mind of the Stormlord.

The breakneck flyer instantly banked into a spiraling ascent. The brutish figure climbed through the icy air as he decelerated from his godly speed. Clad in hard leather and sturdy chainmail, his bulging arms effortlessly spun a static-charged greathammer into a readying stance.

The immortal warrior had yet to see the speaker who interrupted him. But even without sight he already knew the immaculate voice that entered his thoughts.

"YOU!" his thunderous boom burst outwards with enough pressure to shatter air.

"SHOW YOURSELF!"

The highest clouds parted to let forth a beam of the purest light. Descending from the heavens was a woman of unearthly grace. Loose fabrics extended from her white, silken robes and long strands of pristine, silver hair floated around her thin figure, as though a sacred spirit untouchable to the soaring winds.

"Yes, me," the female announced calmly as her hand raised its only 'armament' -- a long willow rod with branches sprouting out.

"It's been four hundred years, Sigurd. Not even a kind greeting for a once companion of the battlefield?"

"You have too many names," the man identified as Sigurd scoffed back through his thick, bushy beard. "How am I supposed to remember which one to use?"

"Are you no different? Siegfried? Perun? Taranis? Perkūnas? Thor?"

Despite her challenging words, the white lady spoke through warm eyes and a calming smile. Hovering effortlessly in the air, she gently laid the willow branch over her other arm as her figure drifted to within twenty paces.

"A name means little to those of us who travel worlds," her voice flowed on, crisp as the gentle mountain stream. "Only Peter remained steadfast in holding onto his mortal identity."

"Fine! I'll settle for what I can actually pronounce then, Kannon," Sigurd growled back, never letting down his guard for a second.

"Did the others send you to stop me?"

"No," Kannon's gaze held unwavering as she offered her sincerity. "I am here on my own accord, Vanguard Sigurd. Patience has never been your virtue. But nevertheless you must halt..."

His mouth twisted to reveal clenching teeth. His sneer provoked with a silent 'make me'. Yet the saintly lady did not show the slightest hint of noticing as she continued on:

"--The situation is not like last time. Should you continue, you shall set forth a most terrible and regretful act that would surely trigger disaster."

"HA! Halt!?" came the scornful reply at last. "By you and what army, Grand Strategist!?"

"I may not be able to defeat you in single combat, but I could certainly stalemate you long enough."

The casual statement came without an inkling of tension. Then, before her opponent could even consider calling a bluff, Kannon's spring-green eyes turned to cast a cursory glance toward the southern horizon:

"Besides, there is the army down there..."

"--You wouldn't dare!" Sigurd snapped to cut her off. "Your intervention would be just as illegal as mine!"

"Ohhh? So you do realize the grievous offense you are about to commit -- that you do not have the Right of Armed Intervention until your homeland, the Fimbulmark Isles, have fallen under direct assault. Then why...?"

Lightning crackled and surged across his hammerhead as Sigurd's simmering wrath boiled into his ether veins.

"Why? WHY?"

His leather-clad fist swung south with a directed finger:

"I have twenty thousand kinsmen down there! Twenty thousand more, after thirty thousand already lost before my eyes this year! WHY NOT!?"

"We have watched millions die in the course of lifetimes," Kannon spoke, her gaze calm as a meadow in the gentle breeze. "Unpleasant it may be, it is a necessary step in the great cycle of life--"

"Oh frack your self-delusional fantasies of reincarnation!" Sigurd interrupted once more as a dry thunderclap resounded from his hammer.

"We all met the Maker, the Enlightened, the Holy Father, the One God, whatever it is you want to call him! He was there, leader paramount of Celestia, supreme commander of the Archons. He was not just some distant Allfather but our ally! His greatest warriors fighting right alongside us and the noble Dragonlords!"

Heated breath rushed from Sigurd's nostrils as the unstoppable momentum of his beliefs plowed straight on:

"You may all walk away with a different opinion of just what he is, how he shapes the universe, and what virtues he uphold. But you cannot deny his one desire: that the bravery of souls is the single most strategic resource in fuelling his Archon armies in their eternal and unwinnable struggle against the Demonkind from the Infinite Abyss!"

"Evil always is and always will be, but that does not prove your conclusion as superior to our own," rebuffed the white goddess -- bodhisattva, in her own terms.

"Karma through the Eightfold Path will cultivate souls of the highest discipline to oppose the tides of sin. That is my conclusion and Gautama's. It may be the opposite of Peter's 'mass conscription' approach or your trial-by-combat, but it is certainly no less proven than your own," Kannon sternly marked an end to the tangential debate before moving on. "Regardless, none of this changes our agreement that the mortal realms shall have peace -- to which, I remind you, you gave your oath."

Sigurd could no longer contain himself as he barked a derisive laugh.

"Peace? You call this peace! Oh sure, your homeland certainly has peace! Your one intervention for Samara gave them everlasting military might! But what of my kinsmen? Are they just pigs to be butchered under the endless onslaught of Peter's zealots?"

This time, it was Kannon who revealed her true emotion, finally closed her eyes in a faint sigh:

"Would you rather witness the loss of twenty thousand, or the death of twenty million? If we Worldwalkers all ripped the treaty and freely imposed our conflicting views on the world through might of magic, then just what do you suppose will happen?"

The First Generation Worldwalkers had fought alongside the Dragonlords in the Dragon-Demon War. They partook in the Archons' Grand Coalition Offensive which cut deep into the Abyssal Realms. Even the least gifted survivor among them could rend armies and cleave mountains. Those most able -- like Kannon the Grand Strategist, the Wishgiver, the Thousand Arms, et cetera -- could harness enough power to alter the fabric of reality across an entire plane of existence.

Far from satisfied by mere logic, Sigurd spat open his mouth to retort. But the white lady was not yet finished, and she enforced his silence with unnerving composure:

"Your head isn't there just to call lightning and smash hammers, Vanguard," Kannon berated him just like the old days. "Your kin may not win against Marshal Peter's followers on the continent, but there are better paths to victory than stubborn resistance."

For a dozen seconds Sigurd's sky-blue gaze seethed on without answer. Then, as though the voltage of his thunder finally pushed his brain into overdrive, the huge warrior's eyes cleared in foresight at last.

"Really..." Kannon whispered as she gently shook her head with a faint smile. "It's a shame Admiral Winter couldn't transcend mortality in time. For most of his life Vintersvend knew the future of Hyperborean society lay in the New World, the Frontier. It's about time you caught up to your visionary junior."

"Let Peter rejoice in his followers' victory, for it will be his last against you."


...


"So which world are you off to save this time?"

As the conversations cooled, Sigurd thought one last question aloud before he departed his old comrade, unlikely to meet again for centuries to come.

"I'll be staying around for a while, actually," the blessed voice replied.

"What, you don't trust me?"

Kannon turned about one last time to give him a knowing look:

"You're tempestuous, but not an outright idiot. Otherwise I'd have never recommended you back then."

The Stormlord sent his annoyed visage, brows twitching and static charged for unleashing from his eyes. But the Grand Strategist -- or perhaps Wishgiver was more appropriate for this meeting -- simply smiled back:

"I'll be staying around to advise Gwendolyn when she comes back, since this is her first time..."

It took Sigurd a moment to remember the name: Gwendolyn was a Third Generation Worldwalker, a 'youngling' not even half a millennium old who went by the nicknames Arbor Sanctum and Faerie Sword.

"--Unlike your homeland, it shall not be long before her birthplace bears witness to the carnage of invasion and war."

 

Next Chapter ]

Chapter 1 - A Disorienting Afternoon

"Morning Ma! Morning Pa!"

Stifling a mild yawn with his hand, seventeen-year-old Kaede strode into the modest kitchen-bar-dining room his family shared.

"Morning, Kaede. I was wondering if I might need to wake you up for once."

His mother offered a bright smile before turning back to the kitchen counter. Her long ponytail swayed behind her as she chopped vegetables to prepare lunch at a quick beat.

Honoka was petite and slight of build. At barely one-fifty centimeters (4'11"), she was shorter than even the average Japanese. Although technically she was of Ainu ethnicity, a fact that the more pretentious and xenophobic individuals amongst the locals reminded her of, even up in the northern prefecture of Hokkaido.

"No practice this morning, Ma," Kaede explained in Russian as he stepped up to the two pieces of jam-covered french toast his mother set on the kitchen bar.

It was routine in the Suvorsky household to speak Russian when only family members were around. Kaede's parents had been afraid that his proficiency with the language would deteriorate after years of living in Japan. Indeed, Kaede's writing skills had already regressed. Reading, on the other hand, was kept up by an endless flow of articles shared by his father.

"Those dickwads still haven't given up," that same father swore from a dining chair as he finally put the tablet down, an electronic news article displayed across the screen.

"Language, dear," the mother admonished, though her voice was more velvet than steel. "It amazes me to this day that Kaede didn't grow up with a foul mouth like yours."

"Perhaps I'm just too cultured for him," the youth grinned back, only to void his own claim by stuffing an entire piece of toast down his mouth.

"Oh please! Who taught you all that--" his father spun around the chair as he began to retort, only to halt as the mother cleared her throat aloud. "--Well, at least half that culture?"

Kaede shrugged back, still grinning as stuffed cheeks grounded down the sweet breakfast with haste.

Konstantin was a Russian of mostly Komi ethnicity by birth, with bright, slate-gray eyes, sharp eyebrows, and a straight nose, all well-centered upon a somewhat rectangular face. The thin, golden-brown hair above his surprisingly-smooth forehead was graying steadily, which gave a respectable professor look alongside the large spectacles that adorned his image.

"Whaf--" Kaede shoved the chewed food to one side of his cheeks before gesturing at the tablet on the table: "--happened this time?"

"Damn Japanese government is pestering over the Kurils again," Konstantin half-snorted out.

"Wha's the point? Putin wouldn' pay one ruble over what the govfernment here phinks," Kaede forced out before he resumed chewing.

"Political posturing for the elections, now that nationalism is on the rise once more," the father spoke as he slowly stirred the hot bowl of Shchi cabbage soup he preferred in the morning. "Enough years have passed that the younger generation is daydreaming their glorious Dai Nippon Teikoku days again."

"Are you any different? Mister Russian Empire?" Honoka calmly noted from the kitchen, her posture never changing.

Konstantin couldn't help but snort again:

"True enough. Us, the Brits, the French. Hell, the Americans too! Even if they won't admit it and are still trotting the globe. Putin might be an ambitious tyrant, but he's right about one thing: 'the US doesn't need allies, only vassals'. Just look at how the Americans piss all over the promises they made Gorbachev to end the Cold War! The Motherland needs Putin for as long as NATO continues to exist, because to hell if Russia is going to be some satellite of the EU or US, good for only our fuel!"

"Kaede, you might want to take off before you father's rant makes you late for school," his mother turned to voice with another gentle smile, amusement dancing within her jet-black eyes.

"Got it Ma! See you Pa! Try not to argue with your fellow professors too much today!" Kaede called back as he rushed out, the remaining slice of toast soon dangling from his mouth.


...


"Daichi! Kaede is already here! You're going to be late if you take any longer!"

Mrs. Ho called into the house before turning back to Kaede with a shallow yet respectful bow:

"Thank you so much for coming here every day, Kaede."

Kaede rushed to reply with an even lower bow.

"No not at all Aunty."

It always made him uncomfortable when people a generation above him showed that much courtesy.

"I'm coming I'm coming!" Daichi finally rushed into view, pulled on his shoes, and swirled right around his mother to dart out the door. "See ya later Mama!"

"Have a good day at school!" the elegant Mrs. Ho waved from the door as the two young men departed.

Daichi was a high school boy with a classic athletic build. Round-headed with rather large eyes for an Asian, he paced at one-eighty centimeters (5'11") of height with a lean and confident stride. He might not be the best looking in their grade, but he was up there in popularity, and being the Kendo team captain certainly didn't hurt.

"Wish Sayuri was the one picking me up every mooooooorning," he expressed through a great yawn before looking at Kaede with drooping eyes still half-asleep.

Good thing I look nothing like your girlfriend, Kaede suddenly thought. Otherwise his spine might be shivering with discomfort right now.

"Don't confuse reality with that lame anime you watch," he retorted from besides Daichi as the two walked up the hill.

"Then how come you manage it every morning?"

"Because you're my oldest friend here and you live on my way to school," came the nonchalant reply. "Sayuri is on the wrong side of town."

"I wish I had a cuter childhood friend," Daichi mumbled out.

"Even if I were cuter I'm still a boy," Kaede smirked back before nudging the other's shoulder. "Think your parents might be aghast if you tried that."

"Ugh, no. No way! Hell no!"

Daichi's eyes sprang wide, bulging with nightmarish alertness as his friend began to laugh out loud.

He wasn't exactly Kaede's 'childhood friend'. The two didn't meet until middle school, mere months after Kaede came to Japan. At a time when Kaede was still trying to fit in with his poor Japanese and mixed-blood appearance, he met the half-Chinese Daichi during the school's activities fair.

Kaede still remembered that moment when he walked by the Calligraphy Club's stall and heard the young boy remark: "look at those beautiful symbols! I wonder who they stole them from?"

The half-Russian had burst into uncontrolled laughter in that very moment, unable to suppress it even after receiving several annoyed stares.

The two of them became best friends almost immediately. It certainly helped that they both showed an interest in archaic martial arts -- swords for Daichi and bows for Kaede; not to mention that Daichi was half-Chinese and therefore half-fascinated in history by blood.

"How come you know where Sayuri lives anyway?" Daichi returned to the topic once more.

"I'm the one who introduced her to you, in case you forgot," Kaede answered, his expression plain except for the tilted eyebrows.

"--I walked her and several other girls home once when they stayed late for a cultural fair project."

Daichi groaned aloud:

"I swear, you are just asking for the girls to friendzone you! No wonder why you're on such good terms with the girls yet still don't have a girlfriend!"

"Morning, Surusuke-kun!" a girl in class called out in greeting just as they rounded the corner.

"Morning!" Kaede waved back with friendly enthusiasm.

He had long grown used to everyone mispronouncing his surname.

"See!" Daichi cried out, his open palm gesturing between them as they continued on their way. "This is what I'm talking about!"

"I don't know about you, but my parents taught me manners," Kaede shrugged it off with another smile. "Besides, what kind of a man would you be to not walk a group of stranded girls home?"

"That's not what I meant!" his best friend retorted, his tempo rising as he went:

"I meant your overt friendliness! You need to at least keep some distance with the girls so that when you do approach them it's exciting! That's what a budding relationship needs! Emotion! Thrill! Passion!"

Daichi struck a cool pose as he laid one gesturing hand right beneath his smirking chin.

"I'll never let Sayuri see me and only think 'oh hey, it's Daichi'. I want her heart to skip a beat every time she rounds the corner and sees me!"

"She's not about to round that corner ahead, you know that right?"

Kaede joked it off to pull Daichi out of his silly posture before defending his own lifestyle:

"Besides, what's wrong with being friends with girls? I want a love that grows out of friendship anyways. Because in years from now, when that youthful spark of passion gradually wanes, it's companionship and trust that keeps couples together and happy."

"There you go again, trying to be 'Mister Mature' and talking like some old salaryman..."

Daichi let loose a deep and exasperated sigh that essentially cried 'what is wrong with you?'

"Come on! You're seventeen! Enjoy life's youth and beauty while you can! Most girls our age aren't interested in some safe, platonic affair, you know?"

Kaede grimaced. Just barely, so light that his best friend never even noticed.

He didn't need a reminder. He still remembered that incident quite well.

"As you said, I'm still young. I have tons that I want to do, so I'm not in a rush for this either," Kaede declared. "If the girls we know aren't mature enough for a stable, long-term, and adult relationship, then I'm willing to wait until they are."

A distant corner of Kaede's mind wondered if those statements were really true, or if he was simply trying to avoid another hurtful experience.

"I swear, keep up this attitude and you'll be thirty before you find a good..."

"Can we get off this topic?" Kaede objected as Daichi kept up the walking commentary. "We're clearly not seeing eye-to-eye here."

"Fine..." the other begrudgingly dropped it at last.

"So, in other 'Mister Mature' news, did you hear back from..."

"Tokyo U? Yes. I'm going," Kaede beamed back, all shadows chased from his sunlit smile within the second.

"Damn overachiever."

"Hey you could at least..."

"Congratulations."

Daichi expressed his sincerity as he hooked his arm around Kaede's neck and pulled his friend in. The latter's chestnut-brown hair was soon a mess as two of them held a friendly wrestle in the middle of the sidewalk.

"But I still get to gripe about it, you damn overachiever."


...


"Kaede!"

The young girl groaned as she slowly opened her eyes, still groggy from the pleasant afternoon nap.

The swaying of barren branches, the gentle sounds of waves washing ashore, the comforting feel of sinking into gelatinous coolness.

Her mind slowly returned to Hyperion, to Pascal's estate at Nordkreuz.

She had fallen asleep on top of Parzifal's tamed tofu while relaxing besides Cross Lake.

"Kaede!"

It hadn't been a dream so much as a memory -- an average morning just a week or two before she woke up in this fantasy realm.

Reaching up with a small hand, she brushed away the tears that pooled at the edge of her eyes.

It was inevitable to feel homesick, especially now that her campaign participation ended and she had time to relax again. Her weeks on Hyperion had broadened her view of humanity, tickled her thirst for knowledge, and excited her with opportunities to watch history unfold. But none of that, not even Pascal's growing familiarity, filled the hole created by the family and friends she left behind.

Sure, a gradual opening of distance came with every step to adulthood. Leaving for Tokyo to attend university, securing a career job, possibly even working abroad -- they all separated the individual from the loved ones they came to cherish.

But not so suddenly, and not so completely.

Kaede couldn't even communicate with her parents by snail mail. She didn't know if he had died or simply vanished in that other world. Were his parents grieving or worried? Did he receive a funeral or was he just another photo on those missing people reports?

She could feel her heart crumble as the image of her mother crying entered her thoughts. The only solace was that Kaede wasn't an only child; otherwise her parents would be crushed. He did have an energetic yet kind sister seven years older, already graduated and living a married life near Vladivostok.

"Kaede! You could at least answer when called!"

Kaede suppressed a sigh as she pulled out of her reverie. She really wasn't in the mood to talk right now, and while Princess Sylviane didn't rank the bottom of her list, she certainly wasn't near the top either.

Well, look on the bright side, she tried to convince herself. It's at least healthier than brooding over facts you can't change.

Faking a huge, open yawn, Kaede struggled to sit back up. This proved quite difficult as both hands simply sank into the silken tofu-like white pudding. It didn't quite break 'skin' like it would with real tofu, but it still felt like she was wobbling on a mattress of jello.

"Sorry, Milady," Kaede rubbed her eyes as she wiggled her small butt around, finally arriving at a reclining lounge. "Still waking up from napping."

"It's afternoon already, you sloth."

Sylviane crossed her thin arms below her small chest as she gazed down with a 'we-are-not-amused' look that would have made Queen Victoria proud.

The Princess wore her battledress of sky-blue to violet as usual, armor plates left off once more. Her voluminous dark-plum hair billowed all around her in the lakeside breeze. A dozen steps behind her stood the discrete Mari -- oriflamme armiger, lady's maid, and personal bodyguard to Her Royal Highness.

"Why are you sleeping outside instead of in your room?" she asked again, her eyes narrowing with concern. "You could catch a cold out here in this wind."

"I don't want to spend any more time in that Leaning Tower of Pisa than I have to, and it's relaxing out here," Kaede shrugged it off. "Besides, I doubt if Samarans can catch a cold."

"I heard you can. You just recover overnight... or perhaps that's the flu? Either way, my point is that you should still take care of yourself," Sylviane advised before she turned to glance at the tilted cylindrical shell keep that was Pascal's residence. "And what's Pisa?"

The overwhelming air raid on Nordkreuz had spared the Landgrave's estate due to its secluded location. But the earthquake that followed must have shaken up its foundation. The four-story stone structure now inclined at almost the same angle as the famous Italian tower.

Pascal had set up a network of runes to magically reinforce the structure before declaring it safe. But knowing and feeling secure were entirely different when one stood inside with its noticeably slanted floors.

Fixing the structure's foundation would require a Geomancer with architectural expertise, and those available were busy at the moment with more pressing concerns in Nordkreuz. Of course, the Runelord might have attempted it personally. But as the Lord of Nordkreuz, he was busy with disaster relief himself.

"City from my world. The tower is a tourist wonder, but certainly not safe to live in," Kaede stressed.

"Well, your world is also crippled by a lack of magic," Sylviane stated plainly, causing the familiar girl to twist her lips under a frown:

At least the 'crippled' have toilets.

"Anyway," the Princess turned her gaze back upon Kaede. "Do you know where Pascal is? And why aren't you helping him right now?"

"He's in the middle of the city, still coordinating relief efforts. And I lost a lot of blood the last few days, so give me a break."

Kaede at least managed to keep her tone from becoming snappy, though the Princess still frowned in disapproval before glancing away.

She wasn't lying either, as the devastated city had been short on the precious 'fluid of life' as well. Kaede had volunteered almost immediately after seeing the carnage -- it would save not only lives but also help the new lord's public opinion as well.

Though in exchange, she also guilted Parzifal into lending her Putty for the day. Being anemic wasn't too bad when it felt like she was drifting on clouds.

Returning her attention to Sylviane, Kaede found the Princess looking away at the lake. Her wisteria eyes had softened with remorse, while her frown revealed an uneasy conscience. Her Highness then closed her eyes, a deep sigh filled with repressed frustration escaping her peachy-pale lips.

Yes, I have been helping. But what have 'you' been doing? Kaede silently took the moral high ground before pulling herself back down.

She wasn't being fair. Sylviane had just lost her remaining parent, killed in cold blood by another family member. Her country was in turmoil, torn by enemies front and center. Yet she was currently stuck in Weichsel, her own future uncertain.

The last time Kaede had been under that much stress, she had almost sent Pascal to the emergency room.

"Do you need to talk to Pascal?" the familiar girl proposed, uncertain.

"Yes," the reply came without any hesitance. In fact, Kaede could see Sylviane's gloved hand bundled into a fist by her hips.

"I need to ask just what we're doing here. I understand that he has a Duchy to run, but if that's the case then why did I need to come along? This is wasting my time!"

Kaede decided that it wasn't safe to wait a second longer:

"Pascal, where are you? Her Highness wants to talk."

"In the middle of everything," Pascal's rushed reply echoed in her thoughts. "Ask her what she needs."

"She wants to know why you're wasting her time."

Kaede could almost feel Pascal's exasperated sigh, as well as the concern that bubbled in alongside it.

The empathic rebound link wasn't that strong. Unless Pascal had an emotional outburst, Kaede had to focus on him to sense it at all. But it was still weird to feel emotions that weren't her own trickle in.

It wasn't supposed to happen at all; or at least, Pascal had never heard of it. But his uncontrolled burst of rage during the 'Manteuffel Incident' had somehow washed open a new stream.

"Tell her to meet me in the city center. I will be there within half an hour," Pascal voiced back, his stress level rising even as he spoke.

"I'll see you then."

As her 'master' drew an end to their conversation, Kaede proceeded to pass the word along.

"Please listen to what he has to say first," she added in her wispy voice. "Since Pascal asked you to stay for a few days, I'm sure he already has a plan in mind."

Sylviane raised her eyebrows, taken aback for a brief moment. Then, with a hint of amusement as she turned to climb the motte's grassy slope, she casually remarked:

"You really are a familiar."

The words struck Kaede speechless as a thousand thoughts simultaneously rushed her mental spotlight. The winner being the simplest 'I am a person!' before it was wrestled down from the podium by a dozen others, the ensuing disruption paralyzing her senses.

Did Sylviane say that because Kaede seemed more a familiar now than before? Was there some kind of 'programming' after all to entice her to speak for her master?

...Or was it simply the deepening bond of companionship and trust developing between her and Pascal?

The last was the most probable by far. Yet for some reason, such a common, expected attitude still left her feeling uneasy.

"Come on Kaede!" The Princess called down from atop the stone keep's earthen mound, just before her phoenix Hauteclaire spiraled down from the skies.

Expelling her confusion through a deep sigh, Kaede leaned back into the cool gel and gave Tofu two pats on its elastic 'skin'.

"Let's go. Follow her please," she requested in little more than a whisper, thankful for the Comprehension spell Parzifal had cast upon his familiar.

The white pudding wobbled and stretched both ways, as though picking its feet off the ground. Wraps of putty then reached out to envelope her legs and waist, securing her into the 'seat' before it began to leap and bounce up the hill.

 

----- * * * -----

 

The moment they crossed the makeshift bridge onto the city's intact northern wall, the atmosphere plunged straight into hell.

The haunting images of bombed out WWII cities had been brought to reality before her very eyes.

Over eighty percent of Nordkreuz' buildings had been burned, gutted, or outright collapsed by a combination of the aerial bombardment, powerful earthquakes, and the countless fires that spread all over the city in the aftermath. They reduced wooden structures to little more than charred rubble. Meanwhile countless brick walls and stone columns stood damaged and alone, like headstones for the flattened taverns and workshops that once stood.

The roads lay twisted and broken. The city blocks reduced to mounds of wreckage and debris. Teams of volunteers toiled with hammers and pickaxes every few streets, filling one cart with recovered foodstuffs while dumping excavated corpses and mangled bodyparts into another.

Such was the sight of what had once been the jewel of the continental north.

Carpet bombing should be a war crime.

The body count stood at over twelve thousand, and still rising as relief efforts streamed in. The only reason it was that 'low' was because General von Falkenhausen had sent all residents to their cellars in anticipation of the air strike.

Regretful as it was, Kaede immediately realized how distasteful it would be to 'ride' tofu through such a shattered city. It would shame not only her, but Pascal as well.

"Uhhh, Milady... could you... help me get up?"

Despite being from another world, Kaede felt keenly aware of just how inappropriate her request to royalty was.

She had considered asking Mari, who followed the Princess from behind as always. But that would feel even weirder, since she had never once spoken directly to the knight and guardian.

Meanwhile her own maid Marina was still in the keep, cleaning up after the Earthquake alongside the rest of the staff.

Sylviane gave an audible sigh as she muttered 'seriously' under her breathe. Yet despite her shaking head, she soon lent an arm to help Kaede off the white blob.

"Why don't you just ride the rest of the way?"

"I don't want to look like some noble brat's privileged mistress in a disaster zone," Kaede noted in a fading voice.

With Sylviane's arm for support, the smaller girl managed to stand upright. Her legs felt weak and unsteady due to the anemia, but she should at least be able to walk.

Since they were likely to spend the hours before dinner discussing plans with Pascal, Kaede decided that she might as well return tofu to Parzifal. At least there, the giant blob of nutritious comfort might actually be useful.

She then turned to the white pudding that had served her as a mattress and bouncing lounge chair all day:

"Take me to your leader, I mean master."

Not that I would mind meeting a roaming pack of wild tofu, especially at a time like this, Kaede thought as she watched the white pudding bounce off.

 

----- * * * -----

 

The makeshift hospital was still overflowing with residents when they dropped by. Kaede only had the opportunity to say a few thankful words to Parzifal before he rushed off, though not before he ordered her to rest more.

However, the short stop might have been a good thing, as she saw at least one other healer clearly interested by her presence. He even grabbed a syringe as he approached, before halting as he noticed just how pale her face was.

As they advanced towards the city center, Kaede began to feel her legs throb with the acidic stricture of exhaustion. It had only been a kilopace or two of walking, but she felt as though she had hiked a mountain. Cold sweat rolled down her forehead as her breathing grew heavy. Even her steps began to wobble as she stared down to vet each step.

"Ahhh!" she yelped as the inevitable misstep occurred. Her eyes opening wide as she fell towards a tangle of splinters and nails by the roadside.

Then, just as her eyes shut to brace for impact, Kaede felt her fall cushioned by a pair of thin yet steady arms.

"Careful! You're going to hurt yourself!"

"Sorry, Your Highness," Kaede panted out, allowing her muscles to relax as she bathed in the soothing warmth from Hauteclaire's proximity.

"I just... need a break."

She could feel the rushing air tickle her ears as Sylviane sighed:

"It can't be helped."

But instead of pulling her back up for a break, Kaede felt the other girl's arm slide lower to her thighs. Then, before she could even prepare for it, both her feet had left the ground.

Her rose-quartz eyes were wide in shock as Sylviane's countenance came into sight. The facts were apparent, though it still took her stunned thoughts several seconds to come to grip with reality:

The Princess now carried the smaller girl between her arms.

"Your Highness!"

"Stop squirming," Sylviane ordered with royal prerogative.

Yet despite her tone, it stood clear that the Princess was enjoying Kaede's discomfort. Light danced within those wisteria eyes as a faint smile made its way onto her lips.

"Your Highness, allow me..."

"It's alright Mari," Sylviane stopped her maid and bodyguard. "She's really light."

As if to prove her point, the Princess raised Kaede closer before rubbing her cheeks into the familiar girl's.

"Soft too."

The distinct feeling of becoming a teddy bear washed over Kaede's thoughts once more.

"Your Highness, I can..."

"--Fall into more shards?" Sylviane berated gently. "Just hold still and rest your legs. Since I'm the one who dragged you here, I'll carry you to the center square."

"Unless you intend to disobey my order," she looked down with an amused, 'I-dare-you' smile as she took her first step.

Kaede merely whimpered as she curled further into the older girl's arms, trying to hide the embarrassment and shame spreading into her burning cheeks.

There were only a few others in the street they were on. But even as she met eyes with the phoenix on the Princess' left shoulder, Kaede could still feel every stare being directed her way.

Meanwhile, Sylviane continued to look down with a smile, clearly enjoying the situation. It wasn't until a dozen steps later before she leveled her gaze to look down the road, commenting with poetic rhythm as she walked on:

"How's this for privilege?"

Being carried by a royal princess definitely attracted more attention than Kaede ever sought.

You're evil, came the silent response.

Though even Kaede couldn't deny that she did enjoy it...

 

----- * * * -----

 

Kaede had watched as the Princess met dozens of well-wishers along their entire way to the city center. Most were Weichsens thankful for the campaign help from their lord's fiancée, though a few were merchants from her own country.

There was even a bald shopkeeper -- except now without a shop -- who had remembered Sylviane from her childhood 'hostage' year.

Many others had kept their distance or even stared with disapproving eyes. But overall Kaede felt that the locals held a positive view of the Princess. It certainly helped that word of Her Highness' exploits in the north had began to circulate, and many wished for nothing more than for her to exact retribution by killing more Northmen.

Nevertheless, what had brought a smile to her lips at the start of their trip grew increasingly discomforting after Sylviane had begun carrying her.

Kaede was sure her face burned scarlet every time someone approached the Princess. They always snuck inquisitive glances at the Samaran girl, and Sylviane didn't help matters when she took pleasure in introducing 'the Landgrave's Samaran familiar who gave the healers too much blood'.

By the time they reached the open square at the heart of the city, Kaede had began to wish that she could crawl into a hole and never see anyone again.

That was when she saw an unblinking Pascal standing next to a dumbfounded Reynald, both frozen in mid-gesture as their proverbial jaws met the broken ground.

"Pascal you lucky lucky bastard."

Kaede's enhanced hearing just barely managed to pick up the redhead's awed whisper. But at that point her brain was already too cooked to comprehend, let alone react.

The next minute passed in a daze for the small girl. By the time Kaede returned to her senses, her own two feet were already back on solid ground, with Sylviane's arm holding her steady from behind.

"...Congratulations on your new title, Sir von Witzinger," Kaede heard the Princess' gentle warmth. "Weichsel is quite fortunate to have a knight as brave and as capable as yourself."

Blinking her eyes back into focus, Kaede found the short, redheaded braggart looking bashful for once. His cheeks glowed with pride as he scratched them with two fingers, an uncharacteristic display which made Pascal's gaze thin with suspicion.

Reynald wore the standard black-on-burning-red uniform of the Knights Phantom, but with a new decoration that proved impossible to miss. The Knight's Cross that replaced his tie was custom-made. Thin, translucent crystals extended out from its curved edges to give the impression of a giant snowflake, shattered by the black cross crushing into its middle.

He also held his left arm in a loose sling. It was a testament to the severity of his injuries that his joints had yet to fully heal, despite several days of magic-boosted healing.

"You should not praise him too much Sylv. Who knows what suicidal act this idiot will pull next time."

Pascal then turned towards Reynald with a disdainful stare:

"What stupidity possessed you to perform such a foolhardy stunt? Charging in by..."

"--And the Runelord simply stands there twiddling thumbs while his countrymen died in vain," the redhead cut him off with a rebellious glare.

Those acerbic words instantly shut Pascal up. His eyes betrayed a painful glint as it was precisely what he had to endure during the decisive Air Battle of Nordkreuz.

"That's unfair, Reynald," Kaede voiced in defense. "Pascal was at the heart of the communications network. It would be a dereliction of duty for him to abandon his post."

Reynald pursed his lips but showed no indication of apologizing. The air between them stilled to a brief moment of frozen silence before he marched on.

"I watched two from Königsfeld's senior class -- faces I knew -- fall as their squads assaulted Admiral Winter's whale."

His first words were a somber tribute. But his pitch soon began to escalate as the frustrated anguish from his memories pumped in:

"Those hangar entries had way too much firepower covering them and the Phantoms simply weren't fast enough to break through! But you know what? I was! So I did it! Simple as that! And I don't give a bloody damn how much of it was idiocy on my part!"

Facing Reynald's unyielding stance, Pascal could only close his eyes and exhale a deep sigh.

"Just remember that dying does not help anyone. You were just lucky it worked that time..."

Kaede braced herself for a fresh outburst as the redhead's brows furrowed. But those spring-green eyes beneath soon reflected the shock of surprise as his classroom nemesis offered an open hand:

"--Nevertheless, congratulation on your award, Winterslayer."

Even for Kaede, it took a second to overcome her astonishment. It was one thing for the situation to force Pascal into such admissions, like that night on Dormitory Keep after the Mantis Blades' attack. But to see him take such initiative by himself?

Reynald's new nickname had been bestowed by His Majesty in person -- or so the rumors went. Acknowledging it was akin to putting the shorter boy on a pedestal, something that Pascal almost never did for anyone else his age.

With a huge grin that soon stretched from ear to ear, Reynald grasped the offered palm and gave it a firm shake:

"Next time, come up with a perfect battle plan so I don't have to resort to any 'idiocy'."

"In real wars there is no such thing as 'a perfect plan'," Pascal noted before declaring with a broad smirk:

"But I will certainly try."

The moment seemed to last an eternity in Kaede's smiling gaze, but Reynald only seemed insensitive when he tried to tease and flirt. The redhead did realize that whatever the Princess was here for, he was in the way; thus he soon bid them goodbye.

...Except he spun back around after taking just one step.

"Oh, before I forget again," he spoke out to Kaede as he pulled out a long scroll case from extradimensional storage. "Here."

The container that passed into her hands was a thin metal tube, almost as long as her arm, wrapped in polar bear fur and decorated by an unfamiliar platinum crest.

"What is it?" Kaede examined it with curiosity, sensing the power of its magical enchantments.

"Admiral Winter's personal maps of the world -- especially the Frontier lands," Reynald explained. "Since I sent him off, any gear of his we found became my spoils. Quite the generous 'donation' from the old fart too. Anyway, Pascal said you'd be fascinated and offered to buy that off me as a present, but I figured I'd just give it to you myself."

"I can't take something this valuable for free!" Kaede's gaze shot back up. "Besides, wouldn't the Black Eagles want this for intel?"

"I was told they recovered better maps from the bridge," Reynald shrugged before giving her a generous smile. "So consider it my thanks for saving my best friend's fiancée. She may not realize it yet -- especially since you won't let Pascal say anything -- but don't think I missed those arrows flying in out of nowhere!"

 

Next Chapter ]

Chapter 2 - Strategy for Legitimacy

"Where is Elspeth? I had hoped you would bring her."

Kaede heard Pascal inquire as the four of them made their way towards the nearby Garrison Headquarters. It had been the most heavily-warded building in Nordkreuz, and despite Skagen's focused bombardment the fortified stone structure managed to remain intact.

"She's out helping the townsfolk while running a few errands for me; Sir Robert is with her," replied Sylviane. "In fact, I told all my armigers to go out and make themselves useful. Mari too -- not that she would leave even if I had my meteor around her throat."

The Princess walked beside her fiancé, her sapphire-blue phoenix Hauteclaire standing regally upon the left shoulder. Her right arm held level and steady, supporting the Samaran girl who shuffled along at her other side.

Kaede felt as though she was being escorted to a dance. But for the moment, she was just glad their destination was close enough that the Princess didn't try to carry her again.

Glad and... a bit disappointed as well, as begrudging as it was to admit.

"I would be negligent in my duties if I allowed you to be rid of me that easily," a calm voice responded from behind as Pascal began casting a Farspeak spell.

Kaede glanced back at the armiger and lady's maid. Mari Annick d'Averton appeared somewhere in her early twenties, which for a Hyperien mage meant anywhere between actually twenty to over half a century old. She stood only a hint taller than the Princess at one-seventy-two (5'8"), with chestnut-brown hair that barely draped over her narrow shoulders. Her eyes were a cloudy gray, and while her face held the ideal 'almond' shape, her wide nose and freckled cheeks were just proportional enough to not be homely.

Mari wore heavy half-plate armor, although Kaede had never heard it clink. The armored maid also carried a towering kite shield shrunken to buckler-size on her back. Her armament was a classic Lotharin dual-purpose flail -- steel links ran from the rod at her side to a heavy flail-head carried behind her waist. The weighted head had vicious, stubby spikes, which could be affixed onto the rod for use as a morningstar.

"Lady Mari, have you always known the Princess?" Kaede spoke out in curiosity, breaking the silence that had began to settle in.

The maid's expressions ranged from serious to stern, which left the smaller girl convinced she was a disciplinarian caretaker of sorts when the Princess was growing up.

But the reply was instant if not somewhat terse:

"Not since her birth. I'm not that old."

"I didn't mean it like that!" Kaede almost squeaked out, which only pulled down an amused smile from Sylviane.

"Mari is a childhood friend, only six years older than me," the Princess explained. "She's been my guard since I was seven, albeit still in training back then."

"I started only a few months before that incident."

Despite her level voice, there was a strong sense of guilt and shame buried beneath Mari's words, which Sylviane certainly did not miss:

"There's hardly any need for you to remember that every time, Mari," came a soothing, if not forgiving voice. "You were thirteen, facing off against Weichsel's best. It would be unrealistic to expect any more of yourself back then."

'That incident' must refer to the raid on Silverglen Castle, Kaede concluded.

That was when the Knights Phantom marauding deep inside Rhin-Lotharingie territory captured the young Sylviane. They took her to Nordkreuz to be held as a prisoner and hostage, where she soon met Pascal for the first time.

"It would be the greatest disgrace upon me if I ever forgot such a deed Your Highness," Mari retorted. "I should have died there with your other guards..."

"--And how would that have helped me?"

Sylviane sighed after interjecting against her stubborn maid. She then stopped and turned to face Mari:

"I was going to be captured one way or another; von Mackensen had a far superior force and caught us with total surprise. What I should have done was surrender as soon as they broke through the defenses to barter for your lives. But I was just a kid back then! I didn't even realize what was happening until only you and Sir Robert were left from my entourage!"

But she did surrender in the end in exchange for Mari and Robert's lives.

Kaede couldn't help but smile as she remembered her conversation with Sir Robert the other day. It was no wonder that the young knight cared so much for the Princess' well being. A liege willing to go that far for her subjects was a ruler to die for.

"Your Highness..."

"Remember Mari," Sylviane cut her maid off, never even leaving the opportunity to interject. "You're no good to anyone dead, me least of all. If you have to feel like you owe me something, then repay it by continuing to stay by my side!"

Swiveling back to keep walking, the Princess' cheeks colored as she squeezed out her final words:

"I won't forgive you if anything should happen because you were being reckless!"

Kaede never saw Mari's expression as Sylviane led her on, but she hardly needed to as the stern maid replied in the most gentle voice yet.

"Understood, Your Highness."

For several minutes afterwards, only an comfortable silence lingered between the four of them. Then...

"And done," Pascal noted as he ended the communication spell. "Elspeth and Robert will be with us in five minutes."

"They must be close by," Sylviane commented, her eyes glancing about as they made their final approach to the small keep that was the Garrison Headquarters building.

"And it looks like we might as well wait outside," he finished with a sigh.

Before anyone could ask why, Pascal strode away towards a group of five locals who came running in. They began bombarding him with loud questions as soon as they drew close, their rowdiness eliciting a subdued chuckle from Sylviane.

Why is that funny?

Kaede tilted her head as she looked to the Princess.

"Don't let the sigh fool you," Sylviane grinned back. "Pascal loves the work, though perhaps not all at once."

Looking back to her fiancé, the nostalgic smile soon spread across her countenance:

"That man is a born architect. If he wasn't the son of a Marshal, he'd have picked urban planning or industrial organization as his choice career."

 

----- * * * -----

 

Pascal ended up commandeering the Garrison Headquarters' map room -- a conference hall designed for dozens of officers, now occupied by only the six of them.

In addition to Pascal, Sylviane, Kaede herself, Mari, and the ever-dashing Sir Robert, they were also joined by the young Lady Elspeth de Martel.

Elspeth had been the one who brought news of Gabriel's treachery. She was the younger sister of Lindsay de Martel, the Highland Guard commander who fought to the end as Emperor Geoffroi's personal bodyguard. Covered by her comrades, Elspeth had been the only one who broke out of the encirclement, dodging patrols as she fled Alis Avern to bring the dire news to Sylviane.

Even now, she was still recovering from a broken arm that had gone untreated for too long. Perhaps the paranoia of having fled from death was why, at first, Elspeth looked at Kaede as though she saw a ghost.

But then, so did a few of Sylv's other armigers, Kaede pondered before pushing the thought aside.

The petite armiger seemed no older than a ninth-grader in Kaede's eyes. She was around the same height as Kaede herself at near one-fifty-seven (5'2"), with fluffy orange-brown tresses flowing like caramel-whipped marshmallows to just beyond her shoulders. Below them lay a pair of inquisitive, apple-green eyes and soft, red cheeks that begged for the Princess' prodding finger. Yet her most beaming feature was her innocent smile; as forced as it had to be given her recent circumstances, it was still sunny and infectious.

Shuffling a few steps over in anxious curiosity, Kaede came close enough to compare before pouting in silence:

Seriously? Even she's a hint taller than me!

Kaede did not find it surprising that Elspeth already wore the cerulean cape bearing the Princess' crest. Sylviane would have loved to make the cute girl her armiger, even if she wasn't already four cohorts short after the Air Battle of Nordkreuz.

Besides, those things look vicious...

The familiar girl held no doubts about Elspeth's worth as a fighter either. Sylviane once described Elspeth as 'charming, sweet, and outright sadistic in battle' to Pascal. As a result Kaede found her eyes drawn to the two dagger-like blades sheathed at the waist. Each had a sharpened hook exposed to the side, as well as an attached steel rope that trailed up to bracelets around the wrists. They reminded her strongly of the Japanese Ninja's kyoketsu-shoge, except with narrower but thicker blades designed to push through armor gaps.

I wonder how she uses them without losing fingers...

"Now that we're all gathered, Pascal?" the Princess began, her gentle voice masking the impatience beneath. "Kindly inform us why your plan involves me sitting around in Nordkreuz for several days."

"Just so you know, I was going to explain this at dinner tonight," Pascal exhaled a faint sigh as he stepped up to the map table, a rod suddenly appearing within his gloved right hand.

With a flick of his wrist, he expanded it to a telescoping metal pointer to tap on the three-dimensional map of the northern continent.

The Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie and its vassal kingdoms: Gleann Mòr, Ceredigion, Avorica, and Garona

"Best as we know from Elspeth's information, Duke Gabriel de Gaetane was leading an army of fifty thousand past Lake Alise. They were supposedly on their way to the southwestern front in Avorica, when he launched a surprise attack on the Lotharin Capital of Alise Avern. The attack was spearheaded by at least three hundred Knights Templar, possibly reinforced from the Holy Imperium as their Lotharin Chapters lack the numbers."

"Emperor Geoffroi was killed during the attack, alongside most of his Highland Guard, though not before inflicting heavy casualties upon the Templars," Pascal added before pausing for a moment of solemn respect. "We could reasonably claim that the Lotharin Chapters of the Knights Templar had been effectively wiped out during the engagement."

"If it weren't for that 'Holy Sword', His Majesty would have smushed that traitor too!" Elspeth added as her schoolgirl soprano ran sharp and acidic.

"The Sword of Fortitude, was it?"

"So I was told, Your Highness" she answered Sylviane, ashamed as she looked down in a mutter. "I wasn't there at the initial standoff."

"It's not your fault. I would imagine that Gabriel knew the palace grounds better than any guardsmen, after growing up there with father."

The Princess then nodded back to Pascal, signaling him to continue on.

"Our main problem is that the Sword of Fortitude had only been given in history for one purpose: to entitle the Defender of the Faith," Pascal noted as his lips twisted into a disgusted scowl. "This means that Duke Gabriel has the full backing of the Knights Templar, the Papal Inquisition, and even the Holy See in this succession struggle. And make no mistake about that..."

His gaze swept the room as he met each Lotharin in the eyes before finishing his summary with a declaration:

"War with the Caliphate notwithstanding, the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie is now also in a state of Civil War."

"Wouldn't this increase the urgency of the situation?" Sylviane reasoned as she latched on. "For every moment we wait, Gabriel will only tighten his grip on the Lotharin heartlands."

"That would normally be a concern, if the Lotharin heartlands were not already squeezed dry," Pascal countered as he waved his pointer to encircle the central Rhin-Lotharingie plains between the two Lotharin Rivers.

"These realms where royal authority held strongest are all but emptied at this stage. Since the first day of the war, Emperor Geoffroi had mustered all the reinforcements he could dispatch to the front from these regions. Even the garrison at Alis Avern had been stripped to a bare minimum. I very much doubt the towns and nobles of the region could cough up much more than some old militiamen and household guards."

"And if he tried to," Sir Robert noted as he rubbed his shaved chin. "He would only gain resentment from the commons and nobles alike."

"Precisely," Pascal nodded back as he pointed toward the Lotharin Belgae region, west of the lake from Nordkreuz. "This means the army of fifty thousand he brought with him from the northeast -- courtesy of his wife and House Louvain -- are all that he has available for the immediate future."

"Fifty thousand isn't enough, not to uphold the authority of the crown by force," muttered Sylviane as she caught on, her scrutinizing gaze lifting to meet Pascal's encouraging smile.

"For all effective purposes, Gabriel's victory brought him little more than symbolic gains," he highlighted. "For a throne he cannot even sit upon, Gabriel undermined his own legitimacy by committing regicide and branding himself a kinslayer. Excommunicated or not, Emperor Geoffroi's prestige within Rhin-Lotharingie is undeniable, including a solid reputation built upon decades of popular support. Furthermore, no society shall look kindly upon those who usurp power for ambition in such desperate times."

Kaede smiled a little at the thought of a pretender who couldn't actually sit upon the throne. She still remembered her astonishment when reading up on the seat of Rhin-Lotharingie power -- when she saw that drawing and promptly dropped all thoughts, her curiosity pumping every bit of brainpower into absorbing the words that followed.

The 'Burning Throne', as it was called, did not receive its name from some mythical origin or symbolism of royal responsibility. It was known as that because the white marble seat was literally cloaked in purifying flames.

After all, only those who proved their qualities by bonding with a phoenix could ascend the throne... or capable of sitting down without being burnt by their ambition and greed.

"Therefore this marks my first point: I believe it is advantageous for us to wait for the news to spread before making our move," Pascal declared before looking to his Princess for her political insight.

With her hand curled right beneath her chin, Sylviane continued in deep thought for a moment longer before standing straight:

"You may be right. The initial reaction to my father's death will not be favorable to that 'Uncle' of mine; not under such circumstances, and not for most of the realm. However, Gabriel does have an army sanctioned by the Church, a strong base of power, and the likely promise of crusader support to repel the Caliphate's invasion..."

"I do not have any of those," Sylviane voiced her concern as her troubled frown looked back upon Pascal.

After all, 'Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun', Kaede thought of the famous quote from the twentieth century Chinese revolutionary. Modern Republics have shown that this statement wasn't always true, but it certainly held its merits in any turbulent era.

"No," Pascal admitted. "But as Gabriel begins courting the nobles in an attempt to sway them towards his symbolic throne, the reactions of the regional lords will give us a better picture of friend versus foe."

"Your Highness..."

The slight Elspeth swiveled to offer a knightly salute: her right arm leveled and bent, presenting a raised fist before her chest.

"You can always count on the support from Gleann Mòr and the Mackay-Martel Clan."

As ruler of the Glens, the Mackay Clan had been a steadfast ally of the Gaetane Dynasty since the Independence War. Generation of intermarriage between the clan and their mutual friend, House Martel, resulted in the unified Mackay-Martel Clan and an expansion of Gleann Mòr territories onto the Lotharin Plains.

Over the centuries, the Mackay-Martels have established themselves as ardent Royalists. Their 'Highland Guard' exemplified this dedication and the crown's trust in return, for the elite unit was handpicked by the King of the Glens to serve as the Emperor's royal guardsmen.

"Of course, your family has my firm confidence as always," Sylviane declared, her own hands clasping Elspeth's tiny shoulders in an expression of faith.

But it proved to be much more than just a political gesture. What surprised Kaede the most were the glistening emotions that collected in the Princess' eyes as she looked upon the petite girl as though a younger sister.

"Lindsay was almost like a mother to me," Sylviane fell to a near whisper as she spoke of Elspeth's elder sister. "Uncle of mine or not, I swear to you and your family that Gabriel will see justice for what he has done."

It was then when the young Elspeth's smile finally buckled. Tears pooled at the corner of her eyes as she bit down in self-control and nodded back at her liege. Had it not been for their official relationship, Kaede could almost picture the smaller girl throwing herself into the Princess' arms.

Feeling as though she was intruding, Kaede peeled her eyes away from the brief emotional exchange, which coincided in sharing a glance with Pascal.

"Lindsay was Sylv's combat and weapons instructor," he explained in telepathy. "You could say she even served as a role model of sorts."

...And she won't be the last of the victims when the Capital fell, Kaede thought. The most loyal and trusted retainers are also the first to forfeit their lives in the name of principle.

With her fingers still wet with the younger girl's tears, Sylviane wrapped one arm around Elspeth's back before returning her attention to the table.

"I have no doubts of King Alistair's loyalty," the princess spoke of the Mackay-Martel leader, more for Elspeth's benefit than anyone else. "But the majority of his forces have been trapped in the north ever since the early snow sealed off the mountain passes. We may wait a week or two to observe Gabriel's first move, but surely you're not suggesting I wait until the Spring thaw?"

"Not at all," Pascal dismissed. "It is imperative that we regain control of the country -- or the Capital at least -- before the next campaign season when the Cataliyan juggernaut begins anew."

"So long as we could hold on in the south until then," Sylviane exhaled a deep breath as she stared back at the map. "If Edith had done her job in Avorica then none of this would have happened!"

"Perhaps..."

The subdued reply was most uncharacteristic for Pascal. Kaede was sure he had purposefully steered clear of a confrontation in order to stay on track:

"The fact is that the Armies of Avorica, Garona, and the Lotharin heartlands are all invested in defense of the south, and I cannot see the Army of Ceredigion coming to our aid with the Avorican battlefront pushing so perilously close to their borders..."

"The Rhodri Clan wouldn't be of help even if they weren't threatened," Sylviane added bitterly. "If their King had any sense for cooperation their troops would be in Avorica already, instead of dragging his feet all this time."

"If he had three brain cells to rub together he would have done the same," Pascal piled on even more contempt. "But my point is that none of the actors in the south, west, center, and north are available to provide us military aid. We can only look towards the east."

"And the northeast is dominated by House Louvain and Gabriel's allies..." Sir Robert added, even his bright optimism fading as the potential list of supporters narrowed further and further.

"That leaves only the Haut-Rhône region in the southeast," the Princess eyed the area opposite of Weichsel's Duchy of Kostradan with a sigh, "and Hugh de La Tours."

"Duke Huge the Rotund," Elspeth piped in.

The unflattering nickname might have been funny on another day. But at this moment it evoked a wry grin at best.

"I heard his son is quite extraordinary," Sir Robert sought a glimmer of hope. "The are many who speculate that he might even become the next Oriflamme."

"A single diamond in the rough cannot shine through thickets of unspeakable muck," Pascal declared. "the once mighty House of de La Tours has grown weak over the centuries, fattened by Imperial bribes."

"But if that's our only choice..."

"He's not suggesting we court the Tours family," Sylviane cut Sir Robert's objection as she continued to scrutinize the map. "He's suggesting we go around them, to the lesser dukes of the region. Because of our tense relations with the Holy Imperium, the lords of that area maintain far more troops than usual. The Duke of Colmar alone has nearly eight thousand professional soldiers to stand off against Imperial Legions stationed across the border."

The number was admirable, until one noticed the five Purple Dragon Standards gathered in Imperial territories opposite the Weichsel-Lotharin demarcation line. Each banner represented an entire Legion, and altogether they formed a professional army of nearly thirty-thousand men.

It was apparent why the Haut-Rhône dukes had yet to dispatch any significant forces to join the war.

"What about the battalions of Nordkreuz, Your Grace? Or even that of Weichsel's?" asked Lady Elspeth.

"The Ducal forces of Weichsel are all under the centralized control of the General Staff, our commanding officers sworn to only His Majesty the King," Pascal explained the difference between Weichsel's near-Absolute Monarchy and Rhin-Lotharingie's Feudal military structure. "I do intend to petition His Majesty for an expeditionary force into Rhin-Lotharingie. But that has to wait until after our army crushes the retreating Skagen forces in decisive battle -- which happens to be my second reason for waiting."

News had arrived yesterday of General von Blumenthal's successful strike against the beached Skagen fleet. His ground cavalry force had burned hundreds of the Northmen's trimaran 'dragon boats' before a remaining third could escape into the sea. With their naval transport force destroyed, the Skagen invasion army now lay stranded on the continent with no means to escape.

"Do you think he'll agree?" the Princess voiced her doubts.

Her fiancé's response came with an affectionate smile:

"Father saved me an admirable war chest in case something happened during your early reign. King Leopold will need coin to keep the army raised for any pacification of the Skagen Peninsula. I figure I can offer him some for reliable troops."

"You're going to bribe the King?" muttered Sir Robert in a thunderstruck daze.

"I prefer to think of it as 'chartering', only a few companies," Pascal's reply came unabashed.

"I thought you said the late Landgrave was saving funds to construct a Polarity Rail? One to link Nordkreuz to Falkenstrom and the Imperium's fledgling rail network?" Sylviane asked next.

The Polarity Rail was an innovation of Hyperien Geomancy made only in the past thirty years. What little Kaede found about it in the books described it as a propulsion system using magnetic forces. Its speed wasn't impressive, and could be outmatched by riders on overland journeys. But it could carry loads far exceeding any horse-drawn wagon, as well as tap the ley lines for an inexhaustible energy source rather than burning fossil fuels by the tons.

Not being a physics major, Kaede found the more technomagic details baffling. But she did understand the economic implications of a railway system that rapidly emerged into reality, its development pioneered by the Commerce Guilds of the Holy Imperium.

"And your father was supposed to reign for another few decades," Pascal's expression stiffened. "No one could have predicted how events were to unfold. It is best to pull these funds to do good now rather than years later, and I intend to support your bid with everything I have at my disposal..."

The slight, wry twist of his lips did betray a hint of the pain that came with the sacrifice of so much economic planning -- which Sylviane did not miss as she finally left Elspeth and approached her fiancé.

However, the young landgrave never gave her an opening as he pushed the discussion on:

"But even with the King's support, we still need a Lotharin force."

"I agree," Sylviane acknowledged as she drew up alongside him, her arm pressing against his. "It would not be right for an army that marches on our Capital to consist mostly of Weichsel soldiers. Gabriel only has to point it out to make me look like a puppet controlled by foreign interests."

"Pot calling kettle," Elspeth quipped.

"Sure, but his army is still mostly Lotharin, especially after he used the Templars up like meat fodder during the opening blow."

Sylviane then strolled around the huge map table, a curled hand pressing against her lips in deep thought.

But the silence that reigned over the room lasted mere moments. The Princess soon pressed both hands against the table's other edge, her back straightened to face them in declaration:

"We must win this without relying heavily on foreign intervention, even if it is my fiancé's country. Because only then will the Lotharins see me as a legitimate victor and ruler -- one true to Rhin-Lotharingie and no other."

Pascal nodded back in firm agreement, though Kaede could feel the stab beneath his mask of self-control. It wasn't even Sylviane's fault. In the eyes of the Lotharins, part of him would always represent the influences of foreign interests, and one miscalculated step could undermine the Princess' own legitimacy to the throne.

"Which is also why we will not be seeking the support of the Haut-Rhône Dukes. We're certainly not spending your fortune on bribing them," she announced once more, completely shredding the rest of her fiancé's proposal.

It left five pairs of bewildered eyes staring at her from across the table.

"Our empire comes to dire straits, and Gabriel reveals his hand to unmask his true intent -- he is greedy, he is ambitious, and he is opportunistic. He cares nothing for the plight of the country, only a crown for himself. Well, why not let him have it?"

Sylviane glanced back at them all with a broad smile... no, a hungry grin beneath the cold flames that ignited within her eyes.

"I would rather give the crown to another Lotharin than see it at the feet of the Caliph."

"But Your Highness...!"

Lady Elspeth was still mouthing her disbelief when Pascal began to laugh:

"Well played! I cannot believe I missed that! And I am supposed to be the military expert!"

"It's because you were focused on the military that you didn't think of it," Sylviane answered, still grinning. "This is a political solution; it just happens to rely on more martial means."

"Would Your Highness please inform the rest of us ignorant peasants?" Sir Robert added everyone else's thoughts with a sarcastic touch.

"What do you think is more important to the lords and people of Rhin-Lotharingie?" Sylviane swept her gaze, meeting each of them in the eyes as her arms gestured across the map. "That a ruler of royal blood sits upon the throne? Or that our nation, our people, and our lands are kept safe from the ravages of foreign armies and secular ambitions?"

Kaede blinked back. The answer to that was obvious.

"Let Gabriel have the throne," Sylviane went on after the pause. "Let him show the world that he cares more for dynastic struggles against his own brother than the welfare of the nation. That he yearns for the grace of the Holy Father yet turns a blind eye towards his responsibilities as royalty."

"Meanwhile, I shall show our people the exact opposite -- that I do not care for the crown, for authority, not even for personal revenge. All of those are but minor concerns in light of current affairs."

Speaking as a true heir of the Rhin-Lotharingie landscape before her, Sylviane declared her firm resolve for the journey ahead.

"The first and foremost responsibility of royalty is not to carry on the succession. It is to protect our realm, our beliefs, and our people's way of life. We shall go south -- join the front lines, blunt the invasion, and resolve this crisis that threatens all of Rhin-Lotharingie."

Light from the windows gleamed off the Princess' tiara in a crowning halo as Sylviane's final words reverberated through the regal air of Hauteclaire's burning aura:

"Then we shall see whom the people recognize as their legitimate and true sovereign."

 

Next Chapter ]

Chapter 3 - Budding Familiarity

Kaede hardly noticed as the maid Marina brought her dinner in. Her focus was still transfixed upon the scroll-like magical map, each hand holding one of its rollers.

Vintersvend's 'World Expedition Map' -- labeled in bright gold letters on top -- was unlike anything she had ever seen. The scroll stretched no more than a Hyperion pace (76.2cm/30") in width and half as much in height. It displayed twisting rivers and jagged shorelines in an amazing degree of detail, all in vivid watercolors soft to the eyes. Furthermore, it could zoom in or out at her will, with lines shifting and colors rolling across the parchment to as fine as 1/10,000 scale, complete with topography markers and elevation lines near the maximum zoom.

The map also marked the 'current location' in red. An extra semi-transparent overlay covered all within fifty kilopaces, displaying weather effects like the wintry mix of sleet and rain descending upon the northeast.

Yet despite the impressive display features, the map was woefully incomplete. When zoomed all the way out, Kaede could see the huge masses of cloudy gray that represented terra incognita. Narrow lanes cut across the far oceans of the world and through the 'Frontier' continents, where much of the eastern coastal regions -- as much as the Thirteen Colonies, Caribbeans, and Argentina combined -- were marked as Skagen colonial territory. But the interiors of the Hyperion and Eurypha continents were largely unknown, not to mention most of Asia's equivalent in this world.

Give it another century and Skagen will have an empire on which the sun never sets, she thought.

After pressing a button she found in the right scroll roller, Kaede suddenly felt waves of ether pulled from her and into the map. The magical power requirements were enormous, straining even the rate that Pascal could resupply her through the familiar bond. But the reason behind it soon proved apparent as the map began redrawing its contents within a fifty kilopace spread.

This is an actual map of Vintersvend's travels! Kaede confirmed at last. It was so detailed yet incomplete because the late Admiral had to journey to each region for the map to magically scan and plot the surrounding lands.

"Kaede, stop doing that here."

Her eyes were still wide with astonishment as she looked up to meet Pascal.

"It's charting the surrounding lands! And even recognizing the nearby villages!" her wispy voice muttered in awe.

"I figured as much, hence I told you to stop it," Pascal repeated with even more authority, although for a moment Kaede saw hints of a cringe in his brows.

The tremendous ether consumption by the map could not have escaped his notice.

"If you are going to run a scan, do it outside, preferably on the roof," Pascal scolded her. "Cartography magic has pitiful efficiency when used indoors. You are going to drain me dry with a mapping tool that powerful. Furthermore, dinner is already here and it is in the way."

Looking to her side, Kaede finally noticed the maid Marina giving her an impatient glare.

"Sorry," she rushed to close the map scroll before putting it away in the messenger bag slung behind her chair. With the table space before her no longer blocked, Marina was at last able to place her meal on the table.

How the mouthwatering waft of the sauerbraten could have escaped her notice was an even bigger mystery.

Kaede also didn't miss the disapproving glare from Majordomo Karsten. But then, her mere existence at this table seemed to offend him in some way -- possibly because she was dining with a Landgrave and a Princess as though they were equals.

Although Kaede had to admit that she did feel rather out of place. Despite the Keep's austere exterior, Pascal's father had the public areas inside built and decorated with no expenses spared. The opulent dining room exemplified this with its huge crystal chandeliers and life-sized paintings. It was fit to host state banquets, which it probably did from time to time when the King visited, or the Emperor, or even both.

Maybe after all the Dukes and Princesses and Kings on whom Karsten had waited, serving me food is beneath him, she mulled.

It wasn't uncommon for those who serve the wealthy and powerful to considered themselves a station above peasants who lived outside such grace, which applied just as much for a modern plutocracy as it did for the aristocratic regime.

It was as if pride itself was an infectious contagion.

I hope I don't catch it myself...

With a quiet sigh, Kaede closed her eyes to take a deep breath, exalting in the aroma of the fine cuisine.

After over two weeks of 'beef jerky stew' and other bland army foods, Kaede was more than happy to leap back into the bosom of civilization... even if it meant a return to social stratification.

"I have missed this so much," Pascal reflected her own thoughts from the head of the table as he breathed in the smell of his cheesy beer soup.

"Why couldn't you just manage your own food during the campaign?" Sylviane asked from her seat across the table from Kaede.

The Princess had changed before dinner into a velvet evening gown in royal blue, with delicate lace framing her narrow shoulders and silken gloves hugging her thin arms. It made Kaede wonder just how often the Princess came to Nordkreuz to justify outfitting a wardrobe here.

"The army's policy is no special treatment in regards to anything concerning logistics," Pascal explained. "We have too many nobles in the military. If everyone demands this and that of their own, even the most efficient supply train would be overburdened. So to remove any potential conflicts, our founder King Ferdinand wrote it into the Writ of Universal Conscription that everyone receives the same bland rations in the field; with priority based on military rather than social rank if supplies fall short of needs."

"I think that was wise of him. After all, logistics is not only the backbone but also the ball and chain of warfare," Kaede appraised, modifying yet another famous quote for her own needs.

Her Russian half was well educated in this. Popular opinion might think that the infamous Russian winter was the destroyer of conquering armies, as men always blamed nature for their own failures. But in truth, both Napoleon and Hitler's invasions failed because their logistical preparations were woefully inadequate for campaigning across a realm as massive as Mother Russia. By the time either reached Moscow, their men were already lacking in food, ammunition, shelter, and fuel. Without adequate warmth and nourishment, any harsh blizzard would take its toll, let alone a Russian one.

Hence why the only outsiders to succeed in an invasion of Russia... were the Mongols.

With her napkin set in place, Kaede prepared herself to dig in. Her Sauerbraten beef roast was flavored with red wine and raisins. She also had potato dumplings, white asparagus with Hollandaise sauce, and as always -- more sausages, even as a side.

I swear Weichsel has a wiener obsession, she commented to herself. Her fork raised and ready.

"Not so fast," the Princess stared with disapproval. "I don't know how your world's God prefers it. But here in Hyperion, prayers first."

Kaede put her utensils down again with an impatient scowl. Her meal was about to taste a minute colder through no fault of her own due to the gross religious tyranny against her freedom of... ingesting. As such, it shall be within her right to protest by adorning her head with the holiest symbol of the pasta gods: the colander.

But then, she doubted the Almighty -- whatever form he or she might take -- would approve of her being disrespectful of others practicing their own faiths. After all, there was no holy text that claims 'thou shalt be an intolerant cur'; not even the Abrahamic ones, despite the popular notions of their more zealous believers.


...


"Are you actually religious at all?" Sylviane asked as her delicate fingers gracefully cut her meat into slivers. She then offered the first one to the phoenix perched atop the back of the adjacent chair. "I don't think I've ever seen you pray on your own accord."

"The Flying Spaghetti God encourages us to express our God-given free will and see to the health of our conscience, unchained from the yoke of any unnecessary religious indoctrination."

Kaede completely made that up. She didn't read any of the supposed 'holy texts' from the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But at this point, she was far too deep into the joke to back out of it.

Pascal would find out some day... when she was in the mood to explain it all.

"I still find it hard to believe that God could be named with such wording, even by a religion as heathen as yours," the man himself reminded her of why she couldn't bring herself to say the truth, before replenishing his own mouth with alcoholic foods.

"Maybe Imperial just doesn't have the right terms to translate 'Flying Spaghetti' any better," Kaede shrugged back, faulting linguistic differences for the common 'lost in translation' phenomenon.

That evoked an inward frown from Pascal as he considered the translation magic he built into the familiar bond. But the knowing gaze that stared back from Sylviane meant that the Princess wasn't deceived for even one second.

I need to be careful around her, Kaede warned herself. Career royalty are far too good at reading people.

But at least this time, Sylviane dropped the topic without a word. Instead, she turned towards her fiancé:

"You're also not used to dealing with weird religions. After that blasphemy I once heard from an Albigese priestess, I'm sure people -- even the sane ones -- are capable of chalking up just about anything."

"Albigese?"

Kaede had stumbled across the word several times in her readings. But as Weichsel banned all unsanctioned religious material, she didn't have a clue of what that word meant other than being synonymous for heretic.

"They're an entrenched heresy in the Kingdom of Garona," the Princess explained without even an attempt at holding back her derisive tone. "They believe that the Old Testament and everything written within, including the creation of the world, was the work of the Devil."

"Crazy fools," Pascal added, before offering a little fairness:

"Although you have to admit, the Holy Father did change quite a bit between the Old and New Testaments. He was so vengeful and full of wrath in the older tales -- the very antithesis of our merciful Savior."

"It is not our place to judge our creator," Sylviane sent back a harsh glare. "I suggest you refrain from such blasphemy, especially in public."

Those words shut Pascal up instantly, leaving him more than a hint disgruntled.

Now you know how I feel, Kaede held back the urge to smile.

"Perhaps the Holy Father did change. But then -- which father doesn't change for the better, when they experience the raising of their own child?" the Princess continued with the serene conviction of a true believer. "Though I can see why the Albigese might interpret it wrongly, given how the Old Testament might clash with many of Hyperion's teachings about virtue and sin. Hypocrisy is seen as the work of the Devil, after all."

Which explains why the Church is full of it, Kaede muttered in the safety of her own mind.

"But since the days of creation is part of the Old Testament, the Albigese also believe that the physical world itself is tainted by sin. This includes our bodies, as we're all supposedly angelic spirits trapped by the flesh of evil -- now that's far too much to swallow, even for me," she finished with a disgusted look.

"I'm surprised you have to deal with them at all," Kaede added with her own food held in midair. "Isn't Rhin-Lotharingie a Trinitian realm?"

"Only predominantly," the Princess sighed, releasing some long buried exasperation. "I wish it was wholly Trinitian. It would make my job much easier."

"The Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie was born from a coalition of rebellious forces who rose up against the Holy Imperium's attempt to enforce Trinitian conversion," Pascal noted as he stirred his thickening soup. "When an empire begins like that, its laws and rulers must learn to accept religious differences from the very start."

"Quite, although other factors like taxes raised for the First Crusade and cultural encroachment were also major contributors," the Princess clarified. "Religious Autonomy is one of the few common laws within the Empire -- the regional lords are allowed to choose their own religious leanings. There are several duchies within the Kingdom of Gleann Mòr that still openly worship the Northmen's pagan gods, not to mention the druidic minorities in the Kingdom of Ceredigion."

"Practicality over piety then," Kaede noted as she stabbed a sausage. "No wonder why the Pope dislikes your country."

Sylviane simply nodded back as Pascal sent his familiar a knowing smile.

But as Kaede brought her fork up and bit into the veal, the Landgrave froze in his seat. His turquoise eyes trained upon her with an incredulous stare.

"Kaede -- what, are you doing?"

"Eating a sausage," she answered, rather bewildered at the sudden shift in behavior.

I guess I forgot to cut it first. But still...

There was no reason to stare at her as though she spontaneously turned into an octopus, except it only grew worse when she brought the fork back up for another bite.

Even Sylviane was staring at her now, although more annoyed than astonished. Meanwhile the Majordomo Karsten -- who had been pouring some wine for the Princess -- looked a mix between flabbergasted and petrified by an eldritch horror.

"That look is kind of... obscene."

Without actually biting down, Kaede pulled the meat from her lips and examined it.

"It's a sausage."

"Way too many inappropriate undertones, apart from being just plain rude," Pascal scolded.

What, because I have a phallic object sticking out of my mouth? Can social conventions learn a little maturity please?

"I used to do this all the time," she defended herself, even as the sausage was set back down to the plate for knifing.

"Maybe as a man. Never do that as a girl in public."

Pascal ordered in that stern, final voice of his, to which Kaede put her hands down as she heaved a heavy sigh.

Girls have to watch their appearances way too much.

 

----- * * * -----

 

Kaede was rubbing her stomach as she walked around the halls after dinner. It was yet another downside of becoming a girl, and a petite one at that. She could no longer stuff down entire plates when facing a scrumptious meal. In fact, she couldn't even finish all of the modest servings brought before her.

First world problems, she chided herself.

Thousands of survivors in the ruined city outside had nothing more than stale bread and cafeteria soup, yet here she was complaining about overindulging in delicacies. At least none of the masterful cooking would be wasted, as Kaede made sure any leftovers from the household would be sent to the downtown kitchens. She even petitioned Pascal to pay the staff extra if they were willing to help out inside the city.

Nevertheless, Kaede's normally flat stomach did sport a small and uncomfortable bulge tonight. Hence she strolled about the Keep's carpeted stone hallways, hoping to hasten digestion before turning in for the night.

I probably should watch my food intake.

The female metabolism was considerably lower than that of males by nature. Combined with her smaller stature, lower muscle mass, and a lack of aerobic exercise routine, it was extremely easy for her to overeat compared to what her body was capable of burning off.

...The last thing she needed from Pascal was a patronizing lecture on 'getting fat'.

"Evening," Kaede bowed her head in greeting as she passed two maids walking the opposite way.

She received two curtsies and fake smiles in return, but not a single opportunity for friendly conversation.

Nor did her keen hearing miss the whispers that emerged as soon as she was out of conventional earshot:

"Can you believe the little harlot received a Knight's Cross?"

"Maybe she has redeeming traits after all," said the other maid, leading Kaede to hope that she might finally gain a bit of acceptance.

"Oh she's brave all right. She has to be to sleep with a Princess' fiancé. I bet you that when the His Grace gets married, her head will be the first to roll..."

Kaede sighed again as she stepped up her pace, hoping they would leave her actual earshot as soon as possible.

Stupid servants. Who cares about what they think, she tried to convince herself.

Events in real life always proved wishful thinking wrong in the most unpleasant way.

The problem was: part of her was afraid of exactly what they just said. Perhaps the Princess really was just tolerating her for the moment, and would seek to remove her as soon as they tied the knot in the eyes of God. Nothing brought cruelty out like jealousy; in a world like this, facing the guillotine might even be a 'good end' compared to, say, being vanished off onto the black market as a slave.

No, no, Kaede closed her eyes and shook her head. I can't think the worst of people. It's neither fair nor right.

Besides... a smile prodded her lips as she thought back to the day's events, the warmth in her cheeks returning as she remembered how the Princess carried her through the town.

She is trying to be nice.

Kaede stopped by a window at the edge of the hallway's turn, one of those upper class Weichsel windows with beautiful stained glass framing its transparent center. She pushed it open to the icy winds outside. The cold air billowing in from the lake stung her cheeks. But at the same time, feeling the refreshing chill, listening to relaxing waves of Cross Lake washing ashore -- it was exactly what she needed to calm her conflicted thoughts.

Thankfully for her small shoulders and even smaller hands, her self-heating garments continued to keep her body at a soothing warmth.

Kaede wasn't sure how long she stared absentmindedly into the pitch darkness above the cloud-covered lake. But when she finally began to close the window, she heard an odd retching noise coming from down the hallway, faint even to her familiar-enhanced senses.

She silently crept down the corridor, trying to keep her steps as soft as possible. By the time she reached another bend in the hallway, she heard the heavy steps of someone emerging from a nearby room.

A quick peek around the corner left her astounded. It was the Princess, her sickly countenance white as paper, while Lady Mari lead her out of the doorway.

"Ughhh... I hate this feeling," Kaede heard Sylviane's miserable groan.

"Perhaps if Your Highness stopped doing it," the lady's maid replied in her ever composed tone.

"That's easy for you to say. I wasn't born with good metabolism you know, and I certainly don't need to hear anyone else mocking me for my appearance again... least of all Pascal."

Kaede was a hundred percent certain that she shouldn't be here. She definitely shouldn't be hearing this. But at this point, any movement from her was more likely to give her presence away.

"I don't think His Grace would deride you about something so shallow," Mari countered. "He has never said anything ill about your looks. Quite the opposite, from what you have told me."

"Maybe not, but I don't want to be an embarrassment for him to stand next to either..."

Sylviane then paused to take a few deep breathes.

"In any case, we've been over this a hundred times. Just help me back to my room, then get me something to drown this wretched taste out of my mouth."

Neither said anything after that, and the pair of footsteps began moving down the hallway in the other direction.

Only when Kaede heard their steps traverse far down the hall did she exhale the breath that she had unconsciously held. Peeking across the corner once more, she confirmed they were gone before thinking to herself:

She threw up. Intentionally. And not for the first time.

Sylviane's appearance might not be exceptional, but she did have the slim figure that girls in well-fed societies sought as the epitome of beauty.

Kaede could understand why people turned to such ends. Many girls in Japan were borderline if not outright anorexic, pressured by the demands of society and unfair gender expectations. Except, for Sylviane, not touching her food was hardly an option. After all, she attended a lot of banquets and feasts with men -- who are blessed with high metabolism in their youth and tended to run loose with weight as they aged.

But still... does Pascal know about this?

Just as she thought his name, Pascal's telepathy homed in through their bond:

"Try not to think negatively of her for it."

"I'm not," Kaede chased away her condescending urges, only to start fuming: "And were you using my senses without permission again?"

"Only a peek. Sorry," he apologized immediately. "You had sent quite a shock across the empathic link. I had thought you might have been in danger from something."

Kaede couldn't even get angry when he put it like that.

"You're forgiven then. More importantly, how long have you known about this?"

"Since her third visit to Nordkreuz -- when she was twelve, I think?" Pascal pondered. "She was really sensitive about her looks growing up."

"I can imagine!" Kaede almost said out loud. "So she's been doing this for at least seven, eight years already? It's a really unhealthy habit!"

"I think she already knows that; although healing magic goes a long way to patching up any damage. Either way, I am not going to scold a girl about her eating or dieting habits when she has a complex over appearances. People may think me insensitive, but I am far from downright stupid.

"Besides..." Pascal continued on. "She has enough pressure on her without me nitpicking her bad habits. None of us are perfect, after all."

"Far from it," Kaede agreed.

To administer an empire as fragmented and complicated as Rhin-Lotharingie... it really was too much of a task for a girl fresh out of her teens to handle. Under the circumstances, Sylviane was already taking far more upon her thin shoulders than anyone has the right to ask of her.

Although... Kaede's mind took a sharp turn as her tired subconscious grappled for something less exhausting to think about:

"Does that mean you won't complain if I put on a little weight either?"

Except Pascal held no such leniency towards her:

"Certainly not! If you get fat, I am dragging you away from your books and putting you through the reins myself!"

 

----- * * * -----

 

"How was your experience on campaign, Milady?"

A sigh emerged from Kaede as she plopped down on her queen-sized bed.

"I know you like to rub it in, but please stop calling me that."

Having a personal maid prepare her for bed felt weird enough. The 'lady' part... that was too much to bear, especially when the overabundance of laces, ribbons, ruffles, and pearls decorating every comforter, cushion, and curtain reminded her with every glance.

"As for the campaign, let's see: I got knocked unconscious again, lost a ton of blood, murdered dozens in excruciating manner, watched several people I care for nearly get killed, witnessed an attempted coup end with a bloody execution... have I mentioned that war really sucks yet?"

Kaede felt her eyes narrow at Marina's silent chuckle at her complaints.

Sometimes I wonder if this really was a good idea.

"You did receive a medal for it, and helped His Grace gain another promotion," Marina added with a smile.

"Whole lot of good that's doing me," the familiar girl muttered bitterly as the scene in the hallway replayed itself.

As the maid's expression faded away, Kaede realized that it had been a legitimate attempt at encouragement. It was further proof that her once-friend and once-enemy wasn't completely against her either, so at least some efforts did pay off.

But the relationship that resulted... well, it's complicated.

...And judging by the atmosphere, awkward to boot.

"How was your past half-month?" Kaede returned the cordial attempt at conversation as she sat back up.

"Well, you know," Marina played up her aloof nonchalance as she folded away Kaede's uniform. "When you're a known criminal, people are just dying to warm up to you."

Their conversation was clearly going swimmingly.

"Sorry," Kaede offered the only word she could think of.

It evoked a deep exhale from Marina, as the petite maid stacked the folded uniform on the lounge chair before sitting down next to it.

"It's not really your fault. I don't blame you either..."

Kaede found her eyebrows arcing. Not only did she find this doubtful, it was also a rather dramatic switch from the last time they spoke.

"Alright... I do," Marina admitted. "But I really shouldn't."

A brief but awkward silence followed, lingering for a near half minute before Marina continued on:

"I've had a lot of time to think over the past two weeks... about everything you've said to me. And I sort of realized that I wasn't being fair. I did my duty, and I felt justified in performing it. But by the same token, you were just doing yours -- or at least, your duty if you believe that your true calling is to be a familiar to some pompous lord."

Kaede's twisted her lips as mixed emotions rose up at that.

Sure, she had promised Pascal that she would 'always be his familiar'. But in her mind, the word had become synonymous with 'family' and 'partner'. To hear it in the derisive way that Marina spoke...

"Then was your 'true calling' to be a spy?" the familiar girl countered, tit for tat.

The tears that sprang up in Marina's sea-green eyes didn't make Kaede feel any better. In fact, it was quite the opposite, and not even her self-reminder that Marina excelled at... well, crying, kept the image from slipping right past her defenses.

She must have heard that word aplenty in the past weeks... just like how they still call me a harlot and whore.

"Sorry, that was unkind," Kaede muttered as she looked down, ashamed of herself.

"What I meant to say is that while our roles may not sound glamorous, it doesn't mean that they are not crucial to those we care about." Raising her eyes to connect once more, she then rushed to add: "Not that I'm encouraging you to return to the service of someone so willing to throw your life away."

"How do you know His Grace is any different with you?" Marina rebutted. "He certainly didn't hesitate to drag you into the carnage of war."

Recalling his lecture after the Battle of Nordkapp, Kaede smiled back with confidence brimming in her reply:

"Pascal isn't a good enough liar to fake the concern and worry he has shown... at least not to me."

Marina could only stare blankly in response.

If her master did care enough for her to offer a ransom, then neither of the girls had heard about it.

"At any rate," Marina began once more after a brief pause. "I just wanted to express that from now on, I'll at least try to be nice. Mister Karsten had pointed out that you've shown me far more kindness than I deserve from you... and given our positions, I have to admit that he's right."

Kaede wasn't sure what she found more surprising: that Marina was openly expressing gratitude, or that Karsten said something nice about her behind her back. But then, she already knew that Marina had strong, personal ethics given the devotion to her prior benefactors.

It was the Majordomo whom she needed to give more credit to.

"Even if the other staff are mocking me for being a 'lady's maid' to..."

"Me, who is anything but a proper lady," Kaede filled in for Marina when the maid struggled to find a non-derogatory expression.

"You shouldn't mind too much," the Samaran girl consoled. "They're just envious."

A lady's maid was a rank up from housemaid, regardless of how noble the lady might actually be. Kaede wouldn't be the first commoner to join an aristocratic household in this world, nor would she be the last.

Besides, she was now the proud bearer of a Knight's Cross. Even if it might not earn her instant respect from everyone, it was proof that the King himself saw it fit to bestow upon her the lowest rank of nobility for her services to the country.

"That's easy for you to say. You're not the one who works with them every day, or sleep in the same corridor."

The maid then sniffled as her fingers tried to wipe the tears away.

"But... I guess that's to be expected even if you didn't offer me this position," she admitted. "And you have made my workload far lighter, so that when I do help at Mister Karsten or the others' request, some of them actually show me appreciation and kindness."

Kaede offered a wry smile in response. It wasn't easy picking up one's life after falling so low. But she was glad to help, at least a little.

"Marina..."

She reached out to take the maid's soft hand, resolved to risk the proposal that had lingered in her mind since this afternoon:

"What do you think about coming to Rhin-Lotharingie with me and Pascal?"

The maid blinked her tear-stained eyes, once again caught off-guard by the unusual girl from another world.

"It's completely optional," Kaede added, just in case the Geas spell on Marina tried to intercede. "But hey, it's not unusual for a lady's maid to journey with her 'lady', right?"

"It is for an indentured servant..."

"But if you come at my request, you'll still be fulfilling your oath of service," Kaede beamed. "It might be more dangerous, but it would also be more interesting and refreshing than being confined in this place. Besides, nobody else we meet will need to know your background or show contempt towards you. Pascal is certainly not the gossiping type."

Marina was still recovering from the surprise when an idea struck, leading her to narrow her reddened eyes:

"You're not thinking of using me..."

"As a spy?" Kaede realized immediately, her hands reflexively rising to wave 'no'.

"I did think of it," she admitted. "But I swear that wasn't my intention in asking you. Sure, opportunities may arise, and I'll probably raise the topic. But I promise you this: I will not force you to do anything that you feel uncomfortable with, or undertake a risk that I would not be willing to take upon myself."

Staring back at the maid's downcast, worried gaze, Kaede felt her stomach twist in anticipation, concerned that she might have ruined the best opportunity she had thus far at patching up things with her first friend in this world.

"I guess that's more than fair," Marina said at last, eliciting a sigh of relief from the other girl.

"Though I am surprised... you're not afraid I might send a message to my former contacts? With the current political atmosphere, the Mantis Blades would still be interested in His Grace's death."

"A little, sure," Kaede conceded. "But all trust starts somewhere, and I want to be able to trust you."

"Why?"

"Because you're a loyal individual with strong principles in repaying kindness with kindness," the answer came without even a moment of pause. "And because you're my first friend in this world."

Breathing out an exasperated sigh, Marina lit up a sunny, or at least mostly-sunny smile -- one that Kaede had not seen since before the assassination attempt.

"You know if you keep being this naive, someone will betray your expectations eventually."

"Perhaps," Kaede shrugged it off. "But I'd rather be wronged by fate than live in paranoia of the world."

The cloudy skies between them haven't departed. But through the light of optimism, a rainbow of hope had at last bridged their understanding.


...


"Oh, I did forget to tell you one thing," Marina remarked just before she was about to leave, after Kaede had tucked herself into bed.

"His Majesty was here until two days ago -- not surprising since Nordkreuz was the army's main assembly point this war. But about a week ago, Cardinal von Lanckoroński also traveled up here."

"The Chancellor?" Kaede puzzled. "What was she doing out here in Nordkreuz? It's not like they don't have long-range communications, and she already has the authority to run Königsfeld's civil administration in the king's absence."

"I don't know," Marina shrugged. "But it couldn't have been too complicated, since she left within two hours. She also met His Majesty in the study alongside Colonel von Falkenberg, commander of the Black Eagles -- which meant it was probably a sensitive if not secretive topic."

"Okay...?"

Kaede still had no idea where this was going. It was interesting, sure, but not the least informative to know that the Chancellor arrived for a special meeting with the King and his spymaster.

"I thought you might want to know that, since His Grace took a major role in the 'Manteuffel Incident'," Marina referred to General von Manteuffel's treasonous declaration which resulted in his immediate execution. "The Cardinal-Chancellor was von Manteuffel's nemesis after all, so I very much doubt the two events are unconnected."

 

Next Chapter ]

Chapter 4 - Never As It Seems

"Milady! It's morning! Time to get up!"

A miserable groan replied to the shouted greeting as 'her ladyship' sank deeper beneath the plush comforter.

Marina felt her lips curve into a teasing smile as she eyed the cream-white hair that covered the exposed island of Kaede's head. The Landgrave had ordered her current task: to wake his familiar up for their scheduled breakfast time. The official reason had been to maintain good lifestyle habits and keep her biological clock 'campaign ready'. Though for Marina, the opportunity to torment Kaede soon pushed such rationale aside as she peeled the bedcovers away from the small girl's meager grasp.

"Come on Milady! Breakfast is ready!"

"Uhhhhnnnnn..."

The head retreated further as Kaede curled up like a ball beneath the bedcovers, leaving behind waves of silky hair scattered across the embroidered pillows. But the maid pursued without mercy as she yanked the comforter down to the familiar girl's waist, exposing not only the fluttering eyelashes to the bright sunlight pouring in, but also the delicate skin on her back to the cold morning air.

This is kind of fun, Marina thought with a wide grin, reveling in her moment of clearly defying her lady's wishes yet getting away with it.

With a sharp, startled intake, Kaede immediately twisted herself face up, burying her back against the bed. Her thin arms rushed to cover those narrow shoulders, left bare by her white halter top.

"Uuuuu," she blinked open her teary eyes. Her whole body shivered as more wintry air wafted in from the opened window. "You... you're evil."

"I'm just obeying your master's orders," Marina smiled sweetly, finally letting go of the comforter which her lady hurried to pull up.

Marina did feel a hint of remorse as she gazed into Kaede's bloodshot pupils and noticed the dark shadows under her eyes, but it was soon swept away by her sense of fulfillment. The maid hadn't been lying last night when she spoke of her gratitude, though such logical understanding also didn't remove an urge to exact some measure of reprisal. She couldn't seriously wrong Kaede without feeling guilty. However, since Marina had suffered many emotional downs after that botched mission, it seemed only fair that she could torment the girl a little for her own amusement in return.

...Especially when there was an rare opportunity to do so without triggering her curse.

"Yes yes I know, now would you close the window please!?" Kaede scowled as she huddled under the bedcovers with her only face and her fingertips exposed.

"Aren't your garments enchanted?"

"They keep me from being cold, but they don't stop my skin from feeling cold when that icy wind is blowing straight in!"

With a smile still stretched across her lips, Marina walked over to the window and shut it tight. She had to rub some heat into her own hands afterward, but it had definitely been worth it.

"Didn't sleep well?" the maid finally let some concern -- only half-faked at that -- work its way into her voice.

"Same nightmares as yesterday," Kaede mumbled as she sat up in bed, her drooping head propped up by both hands as though it was too heavy to lift.

"From your experiences on campaign?"

"From my first battle, yes," the familiar girl noted before emitting a deep groan. "I had thought they passed after the first two nights."

"Maybe the change in sleeping arrangements made your rest uneasy?"

As Marina passed her neatly folded clothes, Kaede sighed before raising her head up properly. However, the words that followed were even more depressed than before:

"That's what I'm afraid of..."

 

----- * * * -----

 

Upon her entry into the stately dining room, Kaede found it a sharp contrast to last night. Rather than a small, private meal, over a dozen chairs now surrounded the long table. Pascal continued to occupy the host's seat at its head, with Sylviane to his right at the place of honor. All nine of the Princess' armigers followed; their seating wrapped around the far end, and their silver utensils clinked merrily as small subgroups chatted away.

Seated to the host's left were two completely unexpected guests, one of whom was in deep conversation with Pascal over the city's recovery efforts and its economic needs.

"Parzifal, Ariadne! It's good to see the both of you!"

Cheered by the unexpected surprised, Kaede walked by the two of them before claiming the only unoccupied chair -- just left of Lady Ariadne.

"You are late," Pascal reprimanded, before his brows furrowed upon meeting her gaze. "And you look terrible."

"And who's to blame for that?" Kaede retorted through their private telepathy as she sat down. "You can cast your cosmetics after I've had some breakfast."

Sir Robert sent her an energetic grin from across the table, and Kaede returned it while trying to quench her thought of just how handsome he looked. Though her neighboring friend soon drove that unease away: brushing back soft pink tresses with matching fingernails, Ariadne beamed a serene, welcoming smile of such elegant perfection that it left Kaede with a captivated blush.

...Which unfortunately lasted hardly a second before the Princess knocked her out of it with a strict, 'watch your manners' glare:

"Lord Parzifal is the Duke of Mitterfels now."

"Though you're always welcomed to call us by name, Kaede."

Parizfal's genial smile gave her a brief -- and thankfully suppressed -- urge to stick her tongue out at Sylviane. Although a concerned frown soon clouded away his beaming joy:

"Having trouble sleeping again?"

"Afraid so," Kaede sighed softly as she looked at the jam-filled pfannkuchen doughnut placed before her. Despite the comment to Pascal, her dull headache left her stomach with zero appetite to speak of.

Probably a good thing, she thought to herself. Deep fried pastries are terrible for me anyway.

She did notice that Sylviane had also set her own untouched doughnut aside, and Ariadne had done the same after scarcely a bite.

"Could I get a coffee and some milk please?" Kaede asked the nearest footman, who had just added a plate of bread, smoked ham, leberwurst, and salami to the table.

"Certainly Milady."

The reply was professional and courteous enough, despite the astonished look he returned. Clearly coffee was not a common breakfast drink around here, or at any meal, now that she thought about it.

...But it is available enough to be stocked.

"You have pretty expensive tastes," an armiger with dark, curly hair added from her left. He was another attractive young man hand picked by the Princess, this time with the most impressionable dreamy blue eyes.

...Although Kaede could almost hear the phrase 'for a commoner' attached to his words, graciously said or not.

"It's fairly common where I'm from," she gave a plain reply, too tired to lecture him about the benefits of globalism on trade that a progressive society -- with its higher labor wages and larger middle class -- helped to bring forth.

"I thought Samarans were immune to coffee?" Sir Robert joined in from across her as he sent a dissuading glance to his comrade.

Kaede wanted to slam her head into table.

Of course she was immune. Her Samaran blood was intent on flushing out all harmful chemicals as well as those abnormal to her biology or diet, and caffeine was just another psychoactive drug. Unfortunately for her, even in this world Russia was nowhere near the Coffee Belt.

"Not all of coffee's effects go through the bloodstream," Parzifal turned from his conversation with Pascal to add, his medical training engaged by the conversation. "Besides, not even Samaran blood could instantaneously cleanse foreign agents."

"Hopefully a brief buzz is all my headache needs," Kaede muttered sadly to herself.


...


The end result actually proved better, as Kaede nursed the mug of steaming coffee between her hands and let receptors in her nose do the work. She wasn't sure if caffeine could actually transmit by smell alone, but her brain certainly felt empowered as she breathed in the rich aroma, savoring every moment of it with closed eyes.

"How is your family doing?" she then heard Pascal's voice open up a new topic, and a sensitive one at that.

"Not great," the reply from Ariadne seemed not only careful but... wary. "The King's Black Eagles cleared my family from any involvement in the 'Manteuffel Incident', but that doesn't stop the chatter among the aristocracy or even the ranking officers and men."

"They're just gossip. You shouldn't pay them any mind," Parzifal comforted as he reached out to take her right hand, squeezing it in support and trust.

Pascal nodded in firm agreement as he took it two steps further:

"The investigation had already reached its verdict. Those who speculate further without evidence are nothing more than rumormongers devoid of personal integrity."

Though Ariadne more or less ignored him as she smiled appreciatively back at her fiancé.

"Of course, thank you."

The Princess had wisely decided to stay out of the discussion. In fact Kaede could see the glint in Sylviane's eyes that spoke of her mild amusement towards the exchange. It was actually her most positive expression towards Ariadne since the two met -- as everything else had been punctuated by a cool and distant cordiality.

"Nevertheless, the von Manteuffel name has been tarnished by treason," Ariadne spoke on, a calm indifference suffusing her voice as though she didn't carry the name herself. "The King even issued an attainder which stripped the Duchy of Polarstern from the main family -- the very same that King Ferdinand I awarded Marshal Eckhart Albert von Manteuffel for being his political right hand during the Kingdom's founding."

It was a hard fall from grace, one that Kaede found rather ironic: the von Manteuffel predecessors rose to prominence by helping to establish Weichsel's near-absolute monarchy; yet the current king would use that same power to strip the family of its rewards.

"But His Majesty did leave the branch families alone, including both the Margraviates of Altmark and Saale-Holzland," Pascal added, his gaze reinforced by righteous conviction. "Only that traitor, Neithard von Manteuffel himself could be blamed for his rampant ambition. The attainder would reduce his two daughters to mere gentry, but surely the rest of the clan..."

"There is no 'von Manteuffel clan' anymore..."

Ariadne's words were quiet and soft-spoken, yet it rang an icy chill that instantly cut Pascal off and spread a brief hush over every other conversation at the table.

"It won't be the same as before; not as a single political entity," she continued, her composure unfazed to the point of seeming callous. "With the main family shattered in power, prestige, and reputation, neither of the major branch families will listen to them nor each other. My father is far more likely to fight Margravine Sophia von Kostka-Manteuffel of Altmark over any remaining influence than to agree with her on much of anything. But at the same time... that might also be the reason why the King spared their lands and titles."

'Their' and not 'our'. It was as though Ariadne had already married into Parzifal's von Sedlityz family. Of course, being the fourth child of her parents, she never had a hope in inheriting any titles to begin with.

"I am not going to force distance between you and your family," Parzifal openly vowed as he held onto her hand. "There is no need to begin with. My conscience, our conscience to the Holy Father and His Majesty is clear."

"I know you wouldn't," Ariadne beamed back a grateful smile.

Yet in spite of what she said, the stirring in her bright-cyan eyes had clearly been touched by his promise.

Amidst the fallout after the 'Manteuffel Incident', most uninvolved nobles were rushing to put distance between themselves and the disgraced family. Yet here was a man who continued planning their marriage as though nothing had happened -- who wouldn't even hear of the slander against his fiancé and her family.

"But I will."

Observing that their conversation had grown too private for a table of outsiders, Ariadne spoke in little more than a private whisper to Parzifal. Yet in spite of the resolute words that left no room for negotiations, Kaede could just barely pick out the faintest quiver of tears in her voice.

She wants to protect him from the power struggles...

For all of Ariadne's staunch drive and determination, her heart was anything but made of steel. Her attempts to hide it only showed that she dearly loved her family, and this was not a sacrifice that she took lightly.

Only a soft sigh emerged from Parzifal as his thumb continued to caressed the back of her hand.

"A just king would not involve anyone else when only von Manteuffel himself was guilty of treason," Pascal soon broke the quiet that followed. "Surely His Majesty's sparing of the branch families shows that."

But Ariadne could only shake her head, as though in disbelief of the Landgrave's naivety:

"I'm sure the verdict for General von Manteuffel's actions are just," she affirmed first. "But dynastic politics never ends that easily, nor is it ever a simple matter of black and white. This incident might have began through the General's treason. But you would do His Majesty a great disservice if you did not think he used this to further his own goals -- at least to an extent."

Scarcely a month ago, Pascal and Ariadne wouldn't even be on speaking terms. Yet today, the 'Runelord' deflated within moments as he concentrated not on their differences, but the meaningful messages behind her cautious words.

"It is true that dynastic politics is rather out of my league, seeing as I hardly come from one," Pascal admitted. "After all, my father had created this surname."

The reply, however, was the single most earnest piece of advice that the noble lady had ever given him:

"Then you'd best learn fast, because you're marrying into one of the greatest."


...


But perhaps the most unexpected result of the morning's conversation did not take place until much later that day.

Ariadne had been running an errand for Parzifal, as the healer was too busy to deliver ledgers on the hospital's supply needs to the city's liege lord. But on her way back from Pascal's study, she found the Princess waiting for her in a most unusual spot.

"Lady Ariadne," Sylviane began politely as she stepped out of the shadows in the keep's entrance hall.

"Your Highness?"

The Duchess-to-be bid a deep curtsy to her social superior. Being surprised did not stop her from acting with the decorum that had been hammered into her upbringing since early childhood.

She knew the Princess did not like her. She wasn't sure why, but she suspected it had something to do with Pascal. Though to be fair, Ariadne wouldn't exactly welcome a girl more beautiful than herself to loiter around Parzifal either.

"I just wanted to thank you for this morning," Sylviane almost chuckled, as though noticing the faint sparks of tension that marked this scenario as an ambush.

But her words only left Ariadne more wary, more confused. Surely the setup was intentional, using this oppressive atmosphere to coerce where royal propriety could not.

"I had hoped that Pascal would reflect upon his involvement in the 'Manteuffel Incident' as a lesson in politics. But for days I wasn't sure how to breach the topic, since it did involve the circumstances behind his father's death," the Princess explained in a courteous yet reserved smile. "You may have done a better job at breakfast than I could ever have."

Was it sincere, or was Sylviane mocking her family's misfortunes? Uncertain of the Princess' aim, Ariadne chose her reply with cautious professionalism as she offered another light bow:

"It wasn't my intention, but I'm glad to be of service."

"Do you resent him for his involvement in this incident?"

It was an astonishingly blunt question for one born into royalty. But at the same time, it also represented Sylviane offering her a chance -- a direct question that sought for a straightforward answer, one that would easily separate treachery from trustworthiness.

Ariadne exhaled. The problem with being honest was that far too often, the truth resisted simplicity and proved much harder to grasp than falsified masks.

"Not particularly," she began with an uncertain, yet also the most accurate phrase. "Either the General really was a traitor and Pascal simply upheld his sworn duty to family, King, and the Holy Father, or he had been played like a pawn in a plot far beyond our skill.

"...But either way, he's not the one to blame," the lady finished after a pause. "Not for this one at least."

The fact he was to blame for many other complications in their past was left unsaid.

There was no immediate response. It took a moment before the Princess lifted her scrutiny and calmed the atmosphere with slow, gentle nods.

It was also the first time that Ariadne truly saw Sylviane smile at her -- a faint smile shadowed by other concerns, but a real one nonetheless.

"Your Highness really has no need to doubt me," Ariadne offered as a sincere bonus. "Given my past with the Landgrave, it's impossible for anything more than respect to develop between us, and even that His Grace has yet to rebuild."

As the Princess' smile broadened ever so slightly, Ariadne realized that her gamble had paid off. At least part of the royal resentment must have came from perceiving her as a potential challenge. Sylviane might even have misunderstood the years of feuding between Ariadne and Pascal as a form of obsession, since love and hate were often two sides of the same coin.

"It's a relief to hear you say that, Lady Ariadne," Pascal's fiancé confirmed it in her seemingly casual reply. "And I wish for the best in your marriage to the Duke."

Of course you do, the Duchess-to-be thought.

After all, social rank notwithstanding, Ariadne stood certain of her superiority as a woman in every other way.

 

----- * * * -----

 

"Parzifal!" Kaede called in her wispy voice as she raced down the corridor after breakfast. She had almost forgotten to ask the healer before he departed for the day.

She needn't have bothered to run, as he turned about right away, long attuned to others seeking out his aid.

"Yes Kaede?"

"Could I borrow Tofu... I mean Putty again for the day? Please?" Kaede pleaded with her hands held in prayer before her, the Japanese mannerism drawing a surprised blink from Parzifal before he re-grasped its meaning.

"For resting on again?"

"Yes. Only one more day I promise," she added. "Please?"

Considering the dark lines beneath her puppy dog eyes, Parzifal exhaled a faint sigh, as though he was acceding to someone's bad habits:

"This really isn't the solution if you're having persistent sleep issues, but I guess there's no harm done either. One second..."

Reaching around his side, Parzifal unbuckled the outermost pocket of his rigid belt pouch, which looked large enough to be a fanny pack.

Kaede puzzled over what he was doing until a white and firm gelatin began to flow out. Her eyes soon rounded to the size of tea saucers as the silken tofu familiar that took more volume than a King sized mattress emerged from the seemingly flat pocket and took its wobbly form next to Parzifal.

With her bewildered gaze fixated on the living tofu, she almost missed Pascal's footsteps walking up until the healer turned to face him:

"Pascal, you should have Kaede's maid make her some chamomile and lavender tea after dinner at night. It's a relaxant that might help her sleep, and many of the herb's active properties are common enough among other plants that her Samaran biology might not reject it."

The 'fluid of life' provided yet another example that nothing in nature happened without consequence. The crystal-clear red blood offers countless immunities to various diseases and poisons, but it also complicated any medicinal aid to regulate chemical imbalances within the body and mind.

"Would it not be easier to simply use Slumber spells?" Ariadne wondered aloud from behind Parzifal as she finally joined in.

"Mind-affecting spells are best not used unless necessary," Parzifal frowned. "Compulsion magic has a high tendency to cause unintended side-effects upon in our complex and sensitive brains, and it's not like she hasn't been able to sleep at all."

Comparable to heavy-duty prescription drugs then, Kaede concluded, even if modern technology had yet to become sufficiently advanced enough to be 'indistinguishable from magic'.

"Does that include Mental Clarity?" Pascal asked next, concern shadowing his eyes as it was the one spell that his familiar used more than any other from her runes; not to mention that one time he surged it to blank out her fears in the heat of battle.

"Yes. It actively suppresses undesirable feedback from the nerves. Not only is that psychologically addictive, but prolonged use may even cause permanent imbalance in the nervous system. I realize it's popular among officers and that being alert and steady is always better than being dead, but try to use it sparingly."

The healer's well-reasoned warning left his listeners with deep, thoughtful nods.

"Alright," Pascal took the opportunity to return to the original topic. "I will check with the staff if we have chamomile in stock."

"If you don't have any, give me a message and I'll have some sent over this afternoon."

As Parzifal drew the conversation to an end, Kaede finally popped the question that has been bubbling away in her thoughts:

"So, just one last thing... what is that?" Her delicate fingers pointed at the pocket that spat out her bed for her afternoon nap mere moments ago.

"Extradimensional familiar pocket," Parzifal answered as though it was completely natural, harmless compared to a Slumber spell.

"They make those for living beings too?" she muttered in disbelief, never even realizing how she easily classified the energetic tofu as a living entity.

"Those are designed for familiars," Pascal explained from beside her. "The enchantment required is more complex. But many people use these, since it makes it easier to bring their familiars along on journeys."

'Many' people...

It was no wonder why Kaede rarely saw familiars out in the open.

What is this, Pokémon!?

Ariadne suppressed a giggle as the familiar girl slowly turned on her master with an ominous glare.

"Don't. You. Even. Dare."

"Dare what?"

Taken aback by the sudden hostility, Pascal looked unsure of what he did wrong.

"If you even try to stuff me in a bag, I swear I'll give you free broken ribs again."

Soft, wispy voice or not, Kaede's words were dead serious, and Pascal felt the threatening aura grow as he cried bloody unfair:

"I did not even say anything!"

 

----- * * * -----

 

"Mmmmh"

Huddled under a warm blanket atop the floating, squishy mattress, Kaede rubbed her cheeks against the cool pillow as she woke up from her long nap.

Unlike yesterday, the strong wind billowing across the lake had forced her to stay indoors. She ended up camping in the keep's small library, reading over organization charts for the city's reconstruction before drowsiness sent her drifting off to sleep.

A pleasant if nostalgic dream had followed, as Kaede's subconscious took her to the class graduation dinner. It was a jovial feast that she should have attended, where memories and Karaoke songs were exchanged over alcohol, yakiniku, vegetables, and tofu. The boisterous shouting and energetic chattering went on for hours, all before a drunk and exhausted Daichi had to be assisted home.

Everything had felt so real that Kaede could still taste the tofu in her mouth. It was smooth, squishy, and oddly pervasive, flooding out even the savory aftertaste of grilled meats.

It was also thoroughly undercooked.

How did I manage to grill silken tofu over open flames again?

Kaede was still wondering that as she opened her eyes to the library room. Her body was back on Hyperion, and her mouth... still felt the soft chunks of tofu within.

It wasn't just an aftertaste either. It was real, and the shock of realization made her swallow it wholesale.

"Crap," her head jolted up to a half sit before she looked back down. Her tofu-pillow showed no signs of damage, but there was definitely several bites worth of saliva on it.

She had been sleep-eating her bed, after nodding off while examining the power relations between Nordkreuz's local guilds.

"I'm sorry!" Kaede bowed as she rushed an apology to the white pudding familiar under her.

Putty responded, as usual, with a gentle wobble.

Perhaps a tofu couldn't even feel pain? If anything, this accident seemed to reinforce that idea.

But even then...

Her thoughts derailed as she spun around to the faint exhales of suppressed laughter. Her gaze caught the wry grin beneath a large and balding forehead -- a uniformed gentleman she knew as Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Ostergalen, the intelligence officer of former General von Manteuffel.

"Sorry to intrude," he curtailed his open grin. "I had asked the servants to check out the old Marshal's library as I awaited His Grace, though I ended up seeing something far more interesting instead."

"You were watching me sleep?" Kaede retorted as she bolted to sit up straight, wishing he would at least look more apologetic than amused.

"It was relaxing. You reminded me of how my daughter curls up when she sleeps," came his unabashed, if rather melancholic smile. "Besides, it was more like watching you eat."

A soft chuckle finally emerged as her cheeks began to color.

"I know the locals of those regions consider white pudding a backup source of food, but you must be a real fan to prefer that even in your dreams."

That's not what I was dreaming about! Kaede almost blurted out. But then, it hardly mattered what she dreamed of; she was still sleep-nibbling away at Parzifal's tofu familiar.

She could feel the growing warmth of an embarrassed red spreading across her face.

"Please... don't tell anyone," the whisper barely came out.

"Oh don't worry," Hans happily waved it off. "I doubt anyone would believe me if I told them about two Ducal familiars mating in the library."

"M-M-Mating!?"

Kaede's jaw hung open in shock as Hans went on with a hearty, congratulatory grin:

"Well what else do you think it means when you exchange parts -- or liquids for your case -- with a pudding? It is their custom after all."

T-th-that can't possibly count! Kaede stuttered even in her thoughts as her bent legs pressed together on reflex.

This only made it worse as she felt even more conscious of the cool, gelatinous mass shifting below her butt, its gentle, cresting waves pressing between her thighs.

I-it's not like it was in me or I was in it or anything!

"...Don't worry about it! Puddings aren't picky about what race you're from," Hans went on with an understanding smile that proved anything but reassuring. "Besides, it seemed pretty happy and satisfied with you. Probably be glad to introduce you to the tribe."

As if on cue, the white pudding below her gave another joyful wobble. Its apparent delight conjured the faint echo of wedding bells as a pack of wild tofu gathered on the grassy plains in her mind's eye.

A-and why am I in a wedding dress!?

Being the bride was bad enough. But bride to a tofu?

"It doesn't even have a gender!"

She managed to forced that last part out loud, but her usual gears of logical deduction were clearly jammed as her entire head began to overheat.

"Of course it does not," a new voice entered the room as Pascal stepped through the door. "Oozes reproduce asexually through budding."

They do? Then what I did...

Only then did comprehension dawn upon Kaede, and her cheeks darkened yet further as they pouted back at the sly intelligence officer who had just played her like a fiddle.

With a quirked eyebrow, Pascal glanced between the disappointed Lieutenant-Colonel and his familiar's flushed-scarlet face.

"My apologies for the wait," he exhaled a frowning sigh as realization struck. "I trust you have had enough fun with my familiar's over-reactive imagination now?"

Hans looked like he was going to say something before closing his mouth without a word. The humored joy of the previous moment quickly evaporated from his brown eyes, leaving behind a nervous and disenchanted hue.

"No, Your Grace," came the stiff, formal reply. "I apologize for getting carried away."

"The next time, at least invite me first before you 'get carried away' again."

At first, Kaede thought she had misheard the words that Pascal spoke as though reprimanding his ranking superior. But the outraged stare from her rose-quartz eyes soon trained upon their new target as his meaning grew clear.

"Hey! What is that supposed to mean!?"

"Well it hardly seems fair if someone else gets to enjoy my familiar without at least sharing the moment with me," Pascal announced as though it was his birthright.

Kaede almost gave him a few 'free broken ribs' right there.


...


The real reason for the Lieutenant-Colonel's coming did not reveal itself until they relocated upstairs to Pascal's 'new' office -- the same room in which his father the Marshal once attended to affairs of state.

"You know why I called you here right?" the nineteen-years-old liege lord sat down as he faced the Lieutenant-Colonel from across the desk.

Kaede found a seat on the nearby sofa as well, though Putty's cool presence beside her legs soon inspired her to transfer ship. However Hans remained upright as though reporting in to his superior officer, despite the fact that Pascal's 'Major' was a rank below 'Lieutenant-Colonel'.

"I figured there's a reason I was released instead of court-martialed," he spoke as unblinking brown eyes locked onto Pascal's turquoise gaze. "But what that reason is, even I don't know."

An audible sigh emanated from beyond the desk as the younger man looked up in disappointment.

"What in Holy Father's name were you thinking that night? Raising men in arms against the Black Eagles? Deliberately obstructing the King's men in support of a traitor? You were lucky His Majesty did not demand your head for such treason."

A moment of tense silence passed between them as Hans sized up his opposition, trying to decide just how honest he should be.

"I thought the General was innocent and that..."

"Well you thought wrong!" the low, harsh words that erupted from Pascal had instantly cut Hans off.

Taking a deep breath, the Lieutenant-Colonel stared back at the Landgrave in defiance:

"I'm sorry Your Grace, but in over a dozen years as one of the closest and most trusted members of his staff, I have never known the General to plot against the King or country. He has toiled and bled for this country and no other! I would sooner eat a broom than believe for a single second that he has worked with the Imperials!"

"Then what about the proof? The paper trails that had been magically verified? Or are you saying that your gut instinct is more accurate than the best investigators of our country?"

"No, but they also do not know him as I do," Hans retorted. "Even the best intelligence can be fooled by convincingly falsified data, but no amount of trickery could change the fundamental character of a man so easily!"

Sparks filled the room once more as both men glared at one another from across the table, their steady gaze clashing again in a contest of wills.

Thinking back to past conversations, Kaede remembered that the Lieutenant-Colonel's own methods in information gathering focused on tracking the long-term behavior of important individuals. Certainly, there was validity in his belief that 'character' was more reliable than isolated events. However...

"He had always put ambition first," Pascal challenged in a solemn voice. "I fail to see how it is against his character."

"That is because--!"

Hans had to force his mouth shut to suppress the urge to fire back. With the glint of agitation noticeable in his eyes, he took another deep breathe to calm his rising frustration.

The odds were simply far too stacked against him in this argument. Hans would have to overcome rumor, reputation, and charges of treason all at once, not to mention Pascal's personal bias against those responsible for his father's death. Rather than swaying the young lord's opinion, he was only making himself sound sentimental and unreasonable.

His only option was to withdraw.

"Your Grace, I don't have any proof right now to convince you. I can only say that the General must have been framed by treachery, and that Weichsel has lost a perfectly good, innocent, and loyal man."

Pascal pursed his lips as he heard the downtrodden, almost-defeated voice. This was clearly not what he had in mind for a conversation.

"All right... let us presume for a moment that von Manteuffel had been innocent and his enemies had set him up," the Landgrave took the proverbial step back in a gesture of good faith. "How in the world did you expect to help him by opposing the King's agents at sword-point?"

"It's politics," Hans almost spat out in disgust. "Had the General been taken, there would be no way for him to clear his own name. His only chance was to stay in power long enough to appeal to the King in person and..."

"Are you stupid!?"

Kaede cringed as Pascal voiced his absolute and utter contempt. There were even traces of anger laced within, as she felt the deep offense that trickled across their empathic bond.

"Do you find me so unscrupulous, so contemptible and dishonorable, that I would not have granted him an audience with the King to make his case? Had he surrendered, he would have been arrested and given a chance to prove his innocence in the court of law. But no, you had to show up with forces that would tempt him to struggle, to rebel, to brand himself a traitor without any doubt!"

No, I remember you being angry enough to grind the General's bones on the spot...

Kaede didn't doubt Pascal's sense of duty. What she did question was his ability to hold back on that night.

She still remembered that intense tide of murderous impulse that woke her up in cold sweat. It had crashed through their empathic link to blow open a new path, frightening her trembling mind more than the worst of nightmares.

At times she wondered if even Pascal realizes how terrible his wrath could be.

Besides... didn't Ariadne just tell you this morning that you're being too naive?

Trials for treason had always been more about politics than law. In such circumstances, it was doubtful if even the due process could have protected an innocent man. Unfortunately, Pascal's staunch faith in the 'Rule of Law' as the first and foremost principle in proper state administration also left him... more than a little blindsided in the ruthless arena of internal politics.

"Isn't that what you wanted?"

The reply from Hans was impetuous, and even he glanced aside in regret almost as soon as the words had left his mouth.

"I only want to bring those responsible for my father's death what they justly deserve," the cold and unnerving declaration swept across the room, leaving a stilled and icy atmosphere.

"Well..." the Lieutenant-Colonel sighed after a long pause. "As I've said, I have nothing firm to persuade you with. But if you are hell-bent on punishing those who conspired against your father, then why did you persuade the King to release me?"

"Because as foolish as it was, your final stand for von Manteuffel was what convinced me of your innocence."

Both of the listeners in the room quirked up their brows at that.

Pascal leaned back against the cushioned chair, his dead-serious visage punctuated by a thin smile at last.

"No man opportunistic enough to betray his own country would gamble his life on such a desperate last stand, not when you could easily claim ignorance as there were no evidence linking you to the plot," the young Landgrave noted the Black Eagles' latest disclosure, which he must have received through the King.

His turquoise gaze was still fixated upon the Lieutenant-Colonel's every wrinkle, every expression. But within those steady eyes, a soft and forgiving light had already permeated through:

"You are a loyal man Hans, not to mention competent, intelligent, and resourceful. You simply made one mistake, and I would hate to see your life ruined, or for Weichsel to be denied one of its best intelligence analysts because of that."

"So you had petitioned the King for my release?"

The intelligence officer sounded cautious even as he stated the obvious. It was as though he tried to suppress his own optimism, to hope for no more than that.

"Yes, you and the men who followed you; although the King demanded that at least some disciplining was in order for your obstruction of justice," Pascal scowled in disappointment, though it was more towards Hans than the decision of his liege lord. "Therefore I am tasked with collecting your current rank insignias. I am sorry."

Biting down upon his lower lip, Hans nodded as he reached to take the articles from his own shoulders. He had been demoted one grade, and while this punishment might seem very lenient, it was a bitter distance to fall for a magic-less commoner of few opportunities.

With his own age in mind, Hans rather doubted he could climb back up, assuming he had any career prospects remaining at all.

"Well... thank you, Your Grace," the now-Major sighed as he placed the Lieutenant-Colonel insignias on the table. "I am grateful for your help, truly, but I think it's best that I retire at this point. No one is stupid enough to use the 'spymaster' of a convicted traitor, and without that..."

"I am not stupid," Pascal cut him off sternly, as though claiming 'that's twice you've insulted me now'.

Though his other implication was far more eye-opening... and widening as well.

"You can't be serious," Hans muttered in barely more than a whisper. "But you're..."

"I am the Marshal's son who helped His Majesty arrest von Manteuffel and take revenge for my father's death. Nobody could accuse me of sheltering von Manteuffel's supporters, nor could they claim that I am stepping into his shoes in active collaboration with the Imperial Mantis Blades that killed my father."

As Pascal crossed his arms from behind the table, that smug, aristocratic smirk that Kaede knew so well had returned to reinvigorate his presence.

"There is no one better positioned to redeem your career than myself, assuming you do not think that your considerable talents are wasted on someone of my 'mediocre' ranking. Besides..."

They were once comrades, acquaintances, and enemies. They had laughed over dinner before raising blades against one another over the fate of another man. But even as the still-bewildered Hans faced his loyalty, his pride, and his doubts, Pascal had already reached past his defenses to seal the deal:

"--If you sincerely believe that von Manteuffel was innocent in my father's death and wish to redeem his name, then what better way of uncovering the indisputable truth than to join me?"


...


Hans was still struggling through conflicted thoughts even after he had left the room. With all attention focused inward, he hardly noticed until Kaede caught up right next to him.

"I thought there was one piece of information you could use," she delved straight in. "Apparently the Chancellor-Cardinal, Adele von Lanckoroński, rushed up here from Königsfeld around a week ago to have a private meeting with His Majesty the King and Colonel von Falkenberg."

The revelation came hard and fast as the first words that erupted from his mouth was a scathing 'that bitch'.

"I figured you would know far more about her relationship and involvement with General von Manteuffel," Kaede shrugged, as though the rest was beyond her concern.

"Does His Grace know about this?"

"If he does, it's not from me."

"Then do you believe the General was innocent also?" Hans asked, his eyes hopeful for a well-placed ally.

But Kaede had to disappoint him:

"I'm afraid that's beyond my understanding of these recent events."

"Then... why are you telling me this?" he questioned, caution of uncertain factors creeping back in once more.

"Because I do realize that Pascal has a biased if not blind side where his father's death is concerned," Kaede shrugged again, although this time she followed it with a broad and innocent smile:

"Also, welcome to the team."

 

Next Chapter ]

Chapter 5 - Arsenal of Faith

"It is finished!"

Sylviane breathed out those exhausted words as she released the tension from her sore limbs, leaving Hauteclaire in control of the flight magic keeping them aloft.

The Weichsel main force had caught up to the retreating Skagen army this morning. The moment Pascal received the news at Nordkreuz, Sylviane had Sir Robert rush them up through a chain of teleportation jumps. It was vital for the representatives of Rhin-Lotharingie -- herself and her Oriflamme Armigers -- to fight alongside their Weichsel allies as much and as visibly as possible in this campaign. Because soon enough, she would need all the help she could muster from them in exchange.

Her father had taught her long ago that when it came to the lives of nation-states, there was no such thing as 'free goodwill'.

Everything had a price, paid in gold, in influence, or in blood.

Well, gold did not grow on trees but through the sweat and toil of her people, and she had no intention for Weichsel to dominate the future politics of Rhin-Lotharingie. This left her only one option.

Royal blood might seem an expensive commodity, but her body could certainly spare a few drops.

The battle had seemed simple on paper. The Weichsel army led by King Leopold von Drachenlanzen had numbered 48,000, more than twice the numerical strength of their foes. Furthermore the Skagen Army of the Home Isles, lead by the half-brother of Admiral Winter, Jarl Eyvindur Sigmundsen, had been stripped of its mobile striking power in the decisive Air Battle of Nordkreuz. With supplies cut off and morale sapped by constant raids from Weichsel cavalry, the 20,000 strong Skagen force had been battered and exhausted.

But the Northmen were a tough people bred by the harshness of the arctic gales. Cornered by their Trinitian adversaries, they had fought on like wounded beasts.

Thrice the dreaded Housecarls and Västergötland Adventurers charged the Weichsel lines, their final assault lead by Jarl Sigmundsen himself. Through the smoke of hellish rimefire, the ferocious Skagen onslaught almost broke the Weichsel center. But King Leopold had stuck his courtblade into the ground in defiance, allowing no retreat for either the men or himself. His courageous rally, assisted by a searing countercharge from the Oriflamme Princess, had bought enough time for General von Blumenthal's right wing to pivot around the Skagen flank and smash into them from behind.

With their path of retreat cut off, the ensuing bloodbath had become a massacre.

From her vantage point in the air, Sylviane estimated that at least a third of the Skagen force -- around seven thousand -- had been wiped out, their blood dyeing the fields of wintry slush in crimson death. After morale disintegrated and the commanding Jarls fell alongside their Housecarl bodyguards, the less trained militia had surrendered in droves. Only a few small detachments had managed to break out and escape.

The defeat was more than crushing for the Northmen. Their Army of the Home Isles had been destroyed, annihilated. After the loss of Nordkapp, the sinking of their skywhale flotilla, and the burning of their beached North Sea Fleet, this fourth hammer blow would surely put an end to northern resolve.

At least, that was what Sylviane hoped. She needed the military support of her Weichsel allies for the war in Rhin-Lotharingie, and this could only be accomplished once hostilities in the north came to an end.

"Your Highness!" the petite Elspeth flew up from near the ground, her caramel-whipped hair billowing in the icy, blood-scented breeze.

It always struck Sylviane as unnatural how such a cute girl could seem so comfortable on the battlefield. Elspeth's leather brigandine was smothered in blood by all the faces her short blades had gouged this fight. Yet the young girl was... grinning; her large, apple-green eyes marked not by fatigue but the dancing lights of exultation.

"Your Highness!" her bubbly voice repeated. "They've captured Jarl Eyvindur Sigmundsen!"

Sylviane furrowed her brows as her pupils dilated in surprise. That can't be possible! There was no way a Northmen commander of his ranking would even contemplate surrender!

"Someone must've bonked his head unconscious in the melee," Elspeth explained. "But I just saw the Weichsens carrying him off on a stretcher!"

"Then Weichsel has a serious chance of negotiating a swift end to this conflict," the Princess truly believed this time. "Any idea how many other Jarls they've found or caught thus far?"

"They've already counted three dead and one other captured, also injured," the reply came from Sir Robert this time, who had linked back into the communication loop.

The Grand Jarldom of Skagen had only eight Jarls on Fimbulmark Isle. It also bore remembrance that the Northmen leadership marched to war in generations, with their brothers, sons, and even grandsons following close behind. After such devastating losses among their upper nobility, it was impossible to think that they could continue this war.

"Then let's pray for the best," the Princess spoke to the distant horizon.

She would have a voice in the negotiations of course, bearing the royal authority of Rhin-Lotharingie. But it would be Weichsel who made any territorial demands. Her home country was far too distracted to integrate any newly conquered lands.

In either case, time to call Pascal up.

Her fiancé had been furious when she denied him the opportunity to join the battle. Her excuse was that teleporting an extra always cost more, and Sir Robert needed every ounce of ether he could spare for the battle itself. But in reality? She just wanted him to stay out of the fray this time. Unlike during Operation Winter Typhoon, this was an orthodox battle for which the King already had a plan, as well as the generals to carry it out.

Besides, Pascal is no great fighter unless he breaks into his jewelry box, and I'd rather he save that for later...

 

----- * * * -----

 

Kaede's trip up the next day took a series of four teleportation jumps that left her almost ready to vomit. It certainly didn't help that her meager hours of sleep last night further added to her sleep deprivation. The transit spells then hurled her senses through a repeated cycle of physical sublimation and being flushed down an ethereal whirlpool, which gave a whole new meaning to the concept of 'travel sickness'.

I am never going to get used to that...

"Good Morn... Kaede are you alright?"

Kaede's pale cheeks sucked in deep breaths of cold, icy air, and Princess who had been awaiting their arrival stepped up to hold the smaller girl's shoulders.

"Yeah, just... give me a moment."

The familiar girl sighed as she felt the soothing warmth of Hauteclaire's aura engulf her once more. Her whispers of thanks to the phoenix came answered by a sympathetic chirp.

"You really did not have to come outside to greet us," Pascal smiled as he took the Princess' hand and gave it a formal kiss before clasping it between his palms.

They were in the presence of Weichsel soldiers guarding the beacon, after all.

"I could use some fresh air from the negotiations earlier and you could use an escort; it seemed a good deal."

Kaede had to hide her grin as the Princess struggled to maintain eye contact. Even for the sake of appearances, Sylviane would never openly admit that she had been waiting just to see him earlier.


...


"Is there a need to section the camp off like this?" Kaede asked a few minutes later when guards at yet another checkpoint waved them through.

It felt as if the army was multi-national, with each group having its own partition inside the overall camp. Compared to open-ground bases that promoted camaraderie, all the fences and sentries in this massive encampment felt stifling.

"The term is 'compartmentalization'," Pascal looked back to explain. "It enhances security and limits the chaos inflicted by surprise attacks. With all the illusion, teleportation, and alchemical transmutation spells we have available, just how hard do you think it would be to insert a strike team of infiltrators and saboteurs?"

One of the key tactics of military special operations was 'Insertion', where a small number of elite troops would infiltrate hostile lines to destroy high value targets and/or sow confusion before a major assault. The availability of magic added a whole new dimension into this realm of asymmetric warfare, as commandos could literally appear out of thin air to wreak havoc upon a military base.

"Couldn't they just ward this place in the same fashion as castles? I mean there are thousands of mages in this army."

"--And each with a finite reserve of ether that they need to perform other tasks, including fighting," Pascal noted the opportunity costs. "Remember that exposed ether slowly degrade and diffuse their energy back into mana? The magical requirements to keep large-scale wards and barriers continuously running grows astronomical over time. Castles and cities are built over ley-lines where they may benefit from a Projection Focus -- have you read about those yet?"

"They're enchanted devices that uses magic from ley-lines to power wards," Kaede mustered a simple reply.

She had mostly glanced over them. For someone more interested in the far-reaching, sociological impacts of technology, she often found herself bored by the technical details of 'machinery'. To skip past the minute details to see how innovations altered civilizations and shifted cultures was far more fascinating.

"Correct," Pascal nevertheless gave her a passing grade. "Remember that natural mana, not processed ether, flow through the spiritual ley-lines that stretch across the land. Without a soul to refine it, mana lack the malleability of ether that would allow them to simply be injected into a supernatural spell effect."

In other words, Kaede summarized, you can't pour crude oil from a derrick straight into the engine and expect it to run...

"This is where the Projection Foci come in," Pascal continued on. "They are built specifically for their deployment locale, attuned to the ley-lines each taps by design. They do not refine the mana itself; instead, they harness the magical pressure of the mana stream to energize near-depleted ether cycling through wide-area spell fields."

The mental imagery that Kaede painted was a steam engine connected to a geothermal vent, using water to translate heat power into mechanical torque.

"But armies in the field have no such blessings," Sylviane hastened the conversation as they neared the destination. "Mages can either use their reserves to fortify, or bolster the army's mobility and firepower." Then, as she looked back with a grin: "Bet you can guess which choice Weichsel picks."

"Of course," the familiar girl smiled back. The Weichsel army always attacks.

Her magic sensitivity could feel the tingle of layered auras as they passed into the innermost camp. Only this small area offered a full assortment of wards that would block teleportation and detect all manners of intrusion, since it protected the single most vulnerable point of failure for a Monarchy -- the King.


...


King Leopold's expandable cabin -- or at least the outer room -- featured little more than a row of cushioned chairs and a huge desk that doubled as a map table. The only decorations were the man-sized Black Dragon Crest adorning the wall behind him, flanked by the judging stares of copied oil portraits on each side: the founding King Leopold I von Drachenlanzen, and his greatest general, the 'Commoner Marshal' Hermann von Mittermeyer.

"Pascal," the smiling figure in his adult prime looked up from a stack of parchment. "It's good seeing you again. How have you been? Brilliant work you did for our country in the Skagen campaign, and your familiar as well," he nodded towards Kaede before acknowledging the Princess.

"Thank you, Your Majesty," the Landgrave stood sharp to return a knightly salute. Meanwhile Kaede followed it with one of her own, glad to skip the curtsy now that she was an 'Honorary Lieutenant' of the Weichsel army and holder of the Knight's Cross.

"I do wish I could have been here for the battle yesterday as well."

"What? Two promotions in three months is still not enough for you?" the King quipped in good humor before gesturing to the whole group. "Please, grab a seat."

"It is not about the rank, Your Majesty. It is the opportunity and experience," Pascal added as Lady Mari pulled up a chair for her mistress, prompting Kaede to follow suit. "I can learn all about command, leadership, and decision-making from books and lessons, but it is simply not the same as experiencing it in the heat of battle."

"Thanks," he muttered in surprise as Kaede offered his seat before taking her spot standing behind him.

Even I can be a good little familiar in front of your boss...

"Your insights do you merit, Pascal," the King flashed an approving grin as he leaned back with a cup of steaming coffee. "What you just spoke of is exactly why I've sent for General... Professor von Marienfeld, to immediately begin developing a course for 'Command Exercises' using this 'Tabletop Wargaming' concept that we've discussed by letter. It's still far from actual experience, but it will at least put the tactical-track cadets in the spotlight as they formulate large-scale battle plans and respond to an ever-changing battlefield."

Kaede beamed as she stole a glance at Pascal. She wasn't sure when he had began this conversation with the King, but it was always nice to see her suggestions receive adoption on a national level. The Prussian General Staff had first developed wargaming, or Kriegspiel, in the early 1800s using metal pieces and dice. But on Hyperion, the availability of magic meant they could enchant dedicated tables to automate the wargame's mechanics -- something not possible on Earth until the advent of the information age.

"Thank you for your support, Your Majesty," Pascal unfurled his own proud smile.

But before he had a chance to continue, the King snatched back the baton:

"So, I'm fairly certain I know what you came here for today. But before you speak of any adventurous fancy, I must know that you're meeting your current obligations."

King Leopold's fatherly smile faded away as his brown gaze beckoned a stern if not grim shadow.

"How is Nordkreuz doing?"

"It could have been worse, Your Majesty," Pascal sighed as though he really should have expected this conversation. "The final death toll reached just under sixteen thousand -- over one-quarter of the city's original population. Ninety percent of all structures within the city were either destroyed outright or damaged beyond repair, including all port facilities on the lake-side docks. Of the city's defenses, only Headquarters Keep and my estate survived in repairable conditions; the outer fortifications have been reduced to ruins and will need to be rebuilt entirely from scratch."

The faces within the room grew dark and darker as the Landgrave of Nordkreuz recited the aggregate numbers from his countless damage reports.

As a city that thrived on its strategic location, Nordkreuz served as both an important military staging point and the largest trade junction in Northern Hyperion. Yet now, with its fortifications gutted and its water traffic stopped, the city once known as the 'Jewel of the North' had become little more than a lakeside fishing village.

Well, perhaps not quite that disastrous, as Pascal began to list off the 'good news' next:

"But the most important factors are that one, the bulk of the city's population -- especially its richer, mercantile sector -- survived the calamity..."

It wasn't really fair that the city needed its rich more than the poor, but the world was never fair. The most essential resource for the city's reconstruction was money: coins to purchase supplies, hire engineers, and organize labor. Spare muscle always proved easier to find in the aftermath of a disaster; it was the materials and expertise that proved rare.

"--Two, the city held sufficient stocks to survive a long siege, and the bulk of our underground storage facilities survived. Thanks to General von Falkenhausen's excellent logistical preparations, the army also left enough extra winter supplies and camping equipment that Nordkreuz will have little problem providing for its own refugees."

It'll still be an unpleasant winter for them, just not a deadly one...

Without a shortage of food, water, and shelter, there would be no need for Nordkreuz's survivors to disperse into the countryside; not unless they feared a repeat of the disaster.

"--Three, our decisive victories against the Skagen forces have eliminated any major threats to the city and uplifted the morale of the populace. While there remains a great deal of sorrow, many feel that their grievances have been avenged by Your Majesty and the army."

That was an optimistic assessment, as Pascal had omitted the outcry that called for the heads of the Skagen leadership. Weichsel's own propaganda certainly didn't help, as they piled on the blame for the Northmen's 'ruthless butchering of civilians' in order to draw the spotlight away from their own defensive failures. Nevertheless, it was true that civilian confidence had largely been restored.

Shadows of smile and confidence had returned to the King's lips after Pascal presented one point after another. By now, his eyes shone with light that not only agreed and approved, but stood impressed by the young liege lord still scarce of twenty.

...And that, was when Pascal added his finishing touch:

"In light of these conditions, I have created a system to fund rapid recovery and reconstruction for the city through the open trading of investment funds. All private commerce and industry owners have been invited to publicly speak their business propositions, where they will sell a percentile share of their future establishment in exchange for cash investments necessary for rebuilding. I have also taken initiative to do the same for the housing sector and public facilities, beginning with a sizable investment from my own coffers."

For the first time, the King's eyes widened as his mouth opened in stunned silence. Then:

"You are just full of ideas, aren't you?" he chuckled with astonishment still trailing his voice.

Kaede was now grinning from ear-to-ear.

With morale boosted by the recent victories, the geo-societal conditions that once shaped Nordkreuz into the 'Jewel of the North' would inevitably bring forth its recovery. Reconstruction was synonymous to 'growth', presenting business opportunities that entrepreneurs would seize with relish.

The only limitation was the availability of funds.

The modern concept of a stock exchange had been established as early as 1600 when the Dutch funded the mercantile ventures of the East India Company, and the idea of 'investment shareholding' traces back even further to ancient times. There were signs that the Holy Imperium's commerce guilds and the Grand Republic Merchant Alliance of Samara have adopted similar practices. But this foundation of modern finance had yet to establish itself in the militant state of Weichsel.

Since their return to Nordkreuz when she heard Pascal's money concerns, Kaede had spent many hours inspiring and advising him to create a system of public investment and stock trading. Although her lack of financial knowledge left countless questions unanswered, she had no doubts that the local business and legal experts would be more than capable of filling in the blanks once the idea took hold.

"How are the local merchants and craftsmen liking it?"

The young lord shrugged as he answered his sovereign:

"Mixed, as with any new idea. Some think it is brilliant, some approach tentatively, and some reject it outright, fearing it will rob them of their business' freedom. Overall, the younger generations are more optimistic towards the concept than the older, more established. The guilds are also afraid that it will destabilize the hierarchy; so I had told them that if they want to retain control the market, invest, because Nordkreuz will rise from the ashes -- with or without them," Pascal finished with a satisfied smirk.

"Ha-!"

The King had almost burst out laughing. Mirth filled his eyes as his lips and shoulders continued to shake in suppressed glee.

"I'll have to ask the good Cardinal to stay an eye on this project and keep me informed," King Leopold chuckled again before taking another drink of his coffee. "If this works, we'll need to consider expanding to the other cities."

"It will not be easy to achieve this under normal conditions, since any established guild will feel threatened by their loss of market control," Pascal added.

"Well, I'm sure Lisbeth will convince them somehow; she's a resourceful woman."

Leopold closed the topic as though he knew exactly what kind of underhanded if not illegal methods Cardinal-Chancellor Lisbeth von Lanckoroński utilized to make ends meet, which left Pascal frowning with concern.

"You are your father's son, Pascal. I could not have asked for a more confident report of Nordkreuz's situation in light of recent events," he nodded with an approving grin. "Thus... onto the main topic then! How many troops do you want?"

The Landgrave blinked back in surprise, as did Kaede and the Princess. None of them had expected the King to be this straightforward, or agree so readily.

"I haven't said 'yes' yet," King Leopold raised a finger as though he read their minds. "But Weichsel certainly owes Princess Sylviane for our swift victory in the Skagen campaign. It is only natural that we support her rightful claim to the throne of Rhin-Lotharingie in return."

So everything till now hadn't just been a report, but a test as well, Kaede surmised.

Like money, military aid in men was an 'investment', albeit on a national scale and for diplomatic rather than financial returns. The King must have determined even before this meeting started that he was potentially willing to support Sylviane and bump heads with the pretender, Duke Gabriel's backers -- the Knights Templar and the Papal Inquisition. But first he had to establish his confidence in the venture through knowledge of Pascal's strategic mind, in both military and civilian affairs.

Now, with his assessment satisfactory, he had no intention to look ungracious in the eyes of the world. This meant that Sylviane's initiative to join Operation Winter Typhoon weeks ago would soon pay its dividends.

The only question that remained was 'how much'.

Clearing his throat, Pascal decided he might as well play along and dance to the King's tune:

"One company of the Knights Phantom."

This time it was the Leopold's turn to look astonished.

"That's it?"

"I would ask for two, but I doubt you will allow me that."

"Of course not."

It almost sounded as though the King was toying with his subject. But behind his swift reply came a tilted frown and a pained look in his gaze.

"After the Skagen campaign and the Air Battle of Nordkreuz, I have less than five hundred Phantoms left, and that's including every graduating cadet for this year and the next."

That's only about three full-strength companies...

The victory Weichsel achieved over the Grand Duchy of Skagen in this short war would cripple the naval and colonial power for years if not decades to come. But in doing so, they had incurred heavy losses of their own, especially among the aristocratic cavalry corps that was difficult to replenish.

"I was expecting that you would ask for more than just Phantoms."

Pascal shook his head at the King's presumption:

"We plan to head south first. This means bypassing much of Rhin-Lotharingie without drawing attention to ourselves, especially in the northeastern Belgae region where Gabriel wields a dominating influence. Only the Knights Phantom can manage such a journey fast enough."

"It would also be damaging for my image if we brought too many Weichsel soldiers," Sylviane interjected into the conversation between liege and vassal at last. "Hence quality over quantity is our best option."

The King looked down in deep thought. One-third of his remaining Knights Phantom was hardly a cheap price. But...

"You shall have it," his firm reply set the deal in stone. "I'll give you Walther's Falcon Force company, plus all the surviving elements of Erwin's Ghost Riders and anyone you could recruit in time to replenish it. But in return," King Leopold dangled the strings attached with an open smile, "I want you to fund Erwin von Hammerstein in building at least three new Phantom companies."

Pascal gave a faint cringe at that. The specialized equipment and high-quality armaments of the Knights Phantom made them very expensive units. Recruiting from the middle-class yeomanry rather than the aristocracy, it would fall upon him to subsidize the costs that they couldn't afford.

"The Grenadiers Phantom are accepted then?"

The King nodded:

"They've certainly proven their worth in the Air Battle of Nordkreuz, so much that I plan to elevate all of survivors from the Ghost Riders to full Knight Phantom status. The nobles in the current Knights Phantom won't like it; but we must recruit more men from somewhere, as we've all seen just how much of a difference the Phantoms make. The Imperials seem set for an eventual intervention in this war between Rhin-Lotharingie and the Caliphate, and Weichsel could hardly stand by when that occurs."

The Knights Phantom were more than just an elite unit. They represented the dominance of Weichsel cavalry in the air, and the battlefield strength of air power could not be understated.

But perhaps even more importantly, the expansion of Weichsel's air forces showed just how much King Leopold had been alarmed by the recent events. As far as he was concerned, the coup in Rhin-Lotharingie was a conclusive sign that the Pope -- Weichsel's longtime ally -- could no longer be depended upon to check the ambitions of the Holy Imperium.

Hence even before the current war against Skagen drew to a close, the country was already gearing up for an even greater conflict.

"I understand and agree, Your Majesty," Pascal confirmed his end of the bargain. Then regrettably: "although it will be a shame to leave Colonel von Hammerstein behind."

The King almost snorted at that.

"You only say that because you haven't known him long enough or realize the amount of trouble he'll eventually make for you! During the War of Imperial Succession, your father couldn't even find the man and his unit half the time! Since he only answers Farspeak calls when he feels like it, rascal that he is!"

"Nevertheless, he is still one of the best tacticians we have," Pascal stood his ground.

"Of course, but he's also a hero to the commons and a lion to fresh recruits," the King highlighted the importance of this reassignment. "Don't worry. His second-in-command might be a novice, but she's still a Manteuffel and they're as determined as they come!"

The young lord couldn't help smile at his own memories of Ariadne: "that she is, Your Majesty."

"In addition to the Knights, I'll give you the 36th Logistical Company," King Leopold added. "Operation White Typhoon taught us that we need logistical units that could keep up with just the Phantoms, and they're among the first to receive some training for it."

Pascal hadn't expected that as he blinked back. A full logistical company could carry enough to supply two combat companies for extended operations in the field. Just how much supplies did the King expect him to bring?

"Your Majesty?"

"In for a pfennig, in for a mark," the King beamed towards the Princess. "You said too many Weichsel troops would be a liability, but surely that doesn't speak for the weapons themselves. During the Rhin-Lotharingie Independence War, we became the arsenal of your freedom, supplying the Coalition with arms and armor against the Imperial oppressors."

The Princess' eyes almost glistened with appreciation as King Leopold resurrected the century-old bonds between the two nations. As a major steel-producer, Weichsel was known for its blacksmithing industry. Without them and the millions of high-quality, armor-piercing bodkin arrowheads and artillery bolts they supplied, it was debatable if Rhin-Lotharingie could have ever thrown off the Imperial yoke.

"I see no reason why we cannot do so again, now that our joint faith is threatened by the corruption of greed within and besieged by the violence of infidels outside," he spat in contempt. "Weichsel has long stood as the 'Northern March of the Trinitian Realm', the bastion of true belief. We are more than ready to serve as the Arsenal of the Holy Father as well!"

Emotions stirred as the King declared his adamant faith, pledging his commitment to support the Holy War.

Riding upon this cresting wave of enthusiasm, Leopold soon turned towards his Landgrave once more:

"So what do you need?"

It took Pascal several moments of quiet contemplation. But in the end, he settled on one item with all conviction:

"One hundred Weichsel 150-millipace tandem-charge mortars, with no less than thirty rounds each."

It was enough to outfit two artillery battalions, and that was just to start.

 

----- * * * -----

 

"ummm... Pascal?"

It was late that night when Kaede knocked at her master's door.

Pascal was still wearing his undershirt when he opened the thick mahogany door to the main residence.

She averted her gaze in an instant. It had been hard enough just to work up the nerves to knock on the door. To look him in the eyes as she asked the humiliating question would be outright impossible.

But as a flushed-red Kaede was still trying to build up enough courage, Pascal took her hand and pulled her inside first:

"Good timing Kaede. I need to show you something."

He led her over to a dresser by the corner. Sitting atop the intricately-carved table was an item she would never expect most men to own: a rosewood jewelry box, complete with gold trim and magical enchantments.

"W-why do you have..."

"I am a gem magic user, remember?" Pascal reminded her with an ecstatic smile, as though he was about to show her one of his heirloom treasures.

"Runic Magic values stones with crystal lattice structures, especially non-metallic elements, because they can retain the most ether with the least amount of diffusion over time. High quality gemstones offer some of the most perfect crystal lattices found in nature. So for us, they are not just decorations of beauty but valuable tools for sorcery. Gem magic users like myself take this into an art form by maximizing the compression of ether inside the most flawless of gemstones."

Pascal opened the box's lid to reveal dozens of glittering gemstones filed neatly in rows. At the center of attention was an oval intense-green diamond of at least a hundred carats, with worth easily in the tens of millions had it been auctioned on Earth; perhaps even more, as a mysterious radiance seemed to emanate from within the diamond itself -- sparkles of turquoise light flowing across its perfect luster from the high compression of infused ether inside.

With her magic sensitivity trained up over the past few weeks, Kaede felt her gaze sucked in by the sheer brilliance of the intense ether concentration; the cascading light of her master's ether no less, which seemed to call out to her through its very glow.

Her eyes had grown so mesmerized that Pascal had to shake her out of it.

"I know girls are always entranced by beauty, but you seem to have forgotten yourself completely."

"It's not the gems, it's the ether," Kaede rubbed her eyes. "There must be some kind of resonance effect since I'm your familiar."

Pascal's thoughtful expression revealed that he hadn't considered such an effect, but he wasn't surprised by it either.

"Besides," she scowled at him. "I'm not exactly a girl."

Only biologically, and that's your fault.

"But you are so cute as one!" he happily announced, almost prompting Kaede to punch him.

"Anyways!" she rushed to switch the topic. "You were concerned over finances when we first came back, but you never considered selling this?"

Pascal pursed his lips as he stared back inside:

"There is something like a third of my life's ether in there. Just that diamond alone probably contains enough magical power to blow up a town if I pour a cascading explosive spell into it. Of course I cannot sell these!"

Now that he brought it up, Kaede did remember the many hours Pascal spent infusing one gemstone or another back at the academy. She had always thought he was creating more magical items, like the turquoise casting ring she wore which could replicate several basic spells. The box itself had probably been hidden away in his extra-dimensional storage.

"Besides, I will likely need them in Rhin-Lotharingie," he finished, his eyes glazed with sentiment as they stared at the precious stones that he spent years collecting.

"Has anyone ever accused you of having an obsession with shiny rocks?"

"Do not remind me about it," Pascal grunted in displeasure. "There was one time when Sylv thought I was ignoring her as I finished my daily infusion process. She threatened to make an engagement ring out of that diamond, enchanted so only she could take it off my finger."

"Pfffttt!"

Kaede barely kept herself from breaking down in laughter as the image of Pascal forced to wear an oversized diamond every day passed through her thoughts.

Unable to suppress her obvious glee, she attracted a piercing glare from Pascal.

"Oh do not worry, you have yours coming," he spoke ominously as his fingers reached inside the box.

They returned seconds later, fingertips carefully holding two drop earrings: each an array of five tiny rose-quartz arranged around a diamond like flower petals, with three thin strands of white gold dangling one more gemstone each.

Seeing those brought an instant end to Kaede's lingering humor.

"You're kidding me!"

"Not at all," came Pascal's turn to smirk. "I spent a good number of hours enchanting them so I expect you to wear them. Brings out the color in your eyes too."

"You want me to punch holes in my ears?" she cast back an outraged glare.

The mere thought of marking her skin offended Kaede to the point that tattoos in the old world outright disgusted her.

She had forgiven him for the runes on her arms thanks to their utility. Though to be fair, she had never minded the look of other girls wearing cute earrings.

...But still!

"Parizfal had told me that you accumulated quite some hearing damage during the Battle of Nordkapp from those Firemist Ignition explosions," Pascal explained as his countenance fell serious. "Your hearing is far too acute to not protect it. These are actually enchanted to further enhance your hearing, but at the same time protect your ears from sound bursts and air pressure shocks."

Kaede sighed as she pouted, puffing out her cheeks.

He was right in that her ears needed some protection. Given how useful her familiar-boosted hearing had been on multiple occasions, she certainly couldn't wear enchanted earmuffs or something that would impede sound waves. Ear clips always held a chance of falling off, and male ear piercings were even more intrusive.

"Furthermore, they allow you to receive Farspeak communication spells and will attempt to auto-translate Brython, one of the three official languages in Rhin-Lotharingie," Pascal finished the feature list. "Both of those may prove useful in the future, since the familiar telepathy does have range limits and I cannot speak Brython myself."

It was a nice and handy set of utility function, as communication failures were easily the worst impediment while operating in foreign lands.

But still...

"Couldn't you have at least picked something simple?"

Pascal beamed with mischievousness once more:

"If you are going to wear something most of the time, might as well make it beautiful--"

This time Kaede did punch him in the gut, though her attempt to hold back at the last second meant it had struck with almost no strength.

Pascal raised an eyebrow as he rubbed where her fist had landed.

"That was adorable."

"Don't make me reenact our first morning," Kaede snarled back at his teasing smile.

But thanks to her wispy voice, even that must have sounded cute as Pascal lit a wide grin:

"Ask Marina to help you with those earrings. If you are worried about the piercing, ask Lady Mari -- Sylv always praises her embroidery for being extremely precise."

Kaede was still fuming when Pascal handed her a small velvet box with the earrings inside.

"By the way, what did you need me for?"

She had almost forgotten thanks to all his distractions. But since they were planning to depart Nordkreuz for Rhin-Lotharingie tomorrow and she really couldn't afford any more sleepless nights...

Kaede then remembered just exactly what she had come here to ask. Her eyes glanced towards her thin, fidgeting legs in their pure-white stockings as a fiery crimson blazed across her cheeks.

"Let me sleep in your bed tonight."

It had been scarcely a whisper, nearly inaudible even to herself.

"Uhhh... sorry? I could not hear that."

Kaede could feel her shoulders quaking. With embarrassed tears in her shut eyes she almost cried out:

"Please let me sleep in your bed tonight!"

A second passed in the silence that ensued, followed by another.

By the time a fearful Kaede opened her glazed eyes to look up, she found Pascal's jaw hanging open as rounded eyes gawked back at her.

"W-what... I mean, I am not really against it, but..."

Ever since coming to Hyperion, Kaede had demanded her own bed. Yet just a week after she finally had the leisure of using her own private bedroom, she was requesting to sleep in his once more.

It was apparently beyond his comprehension.

"I c-can't sleep!"

Kaede felt so humiliated that she wanted to cry.

"Ever since we came back... even when the herbal tea helped me fall asleep early, I'd still have nightmares and wake up in the middle of the night and then I can't fall asleep until it's almost morning!" the torrent of words rushed out. "It's been driving me mad and I don't even know why only except that I slept fine with you! And..."

With an exasperated sigh, Pascal stepped in and wrapped both of his arms around her thin shoulders, hugging her closely.

"It is alright. You can sleep here..."

Pulling away just enough to make eye contact, Pascal stroked her long, silky hair as he made an expression that seemed halfway between the adoration and helplessness, between 'I promised to take care of you' and 'just what am I going to do with you'.

"Sylv is not going to like this," he warned. "I think she can understand, and I hope she will agree to look the other way. But even then she is not going to approve and you had best be prepared."

Kaede bit down on her lip as she nodded.

She knew the consequences. It was a shame to rock the relationship so soon after the Princess grew kind to her.

But she couldn't think of any other way. After all, she could hardly spend every afternoon sleeping once they embark on the campaign. With an average of three to four hours of sleep per night, it would not take long before she collapsed from mental if not physical exhaustion.

"Sorry," she apologized to him in advance.

Another sigh emerged as the atmosphere fell into uncomfortable silence, before an odd chuckle from Pascal soon broke the lull:

"Forget just Sylv, are you trying to kill me with temptation?"

Kaede almost yelped as Pascal's quick tug pulled her onto the bedcovers. For a second her eyes snapped up in fear. But the turquoise gaze that shone back at her were still soft and caring.

"Stop worrying so much. You know I would never do anything to you without consent."

He always did have the oddest way of trying to cheer others up.

Kaede knew most men had standards and expectations. She knew that she wasn't being fair to him. Yet at the same time, the alternative seemed unfathomable.

Leaning in without doubt as she took comfort in his words, she could only offer one voice in response:

"Sorry."

 

Next Chapter ]

Chapter 6 - Unquestionable Authority

According to Trinitian history, the dragonlord Hyperion had been born on the 'day of the longest night' during year one of the Dragon Age -- the same year when the stellar-nomadic dragonkind made landfall upon this world. Twelve centuries later, this youthful draconic messiah would 'save the world from its sins' by sacrificing his own life to shut down the Abyssal Rift, gateway to the demonic realm where all the evils of the universe manifested in physical form.

It came as no surprise that the image of Hyperion casting the unnamed ritual -- later named the True Cross -- would become the most pervasive symbol of the Trinitian Church, or that this historic birthday would mark the second holiest day of the year for its faithful.

That birthday was only three days away. Yet despite the holy time, Kaede found herself standing in an empty field eight kilopaces away from the city with the assembled Knights Phantom of the Ghost Riders. It had taken both days since meeting with King Leopold before Pascal could conclude his obligations in Nordkreuz. The landgrave had done what he could to kick off the recovery efforts, and Kaede had spent much of this time helping assess local talents to whom they could entrust the daunting task of rebuilding.

Now, a fresh cold front had arrived from the north. Amidst the light flurry of snow, a galloping mass of phantom steeds and wagons rode out of the sun in the east. But as Kaede stared at the distant dawn, she pondered just how exactly did soldiers celebrate a white Christmas in wartime.

Well, half of her was wondering -- it helped to take her mind off things. The other half was too busy being distracted by a cramping stomach as she struggled not to double over in pain.

The Period of Christmas... God I hate you, she blasphemed in the safety of her own mind.

It was almost daunting to realize that roughly one-quarter of all women suffered through this on the jolliest week of the year.

"Kaede did you take some tea before leaving?"

The familiar, soothing voice over telepathy lead Kaede to turn about. Her eyes soon met Ariadne's supportive smile just a few paces away.

The Duchess-to-be and newly named commander of the Ghost Riders stood next to another white pegasus. Her flowing pink hair and the burning-red fabrics of her open-front uniform skirt billowed in the lakeside breeze. Beneath her collar was a newly minted Knight's Cross and the rank insignias of a Major, as she had been promoted twice in a row for receiving proper Knight Phantom status.

"No. I've only been drinking it before sleep," Kaede pressed a forearm rune containing one of the Telepathy spells to reply.

"Have some with your meals this week as well. Parzifal had asked some of the commoner medics what they did to relieve menstrual cramps. They said that chamomile tea helps, especially with ginger, peppermint, or raspberry leaves added to it."

She could tell?

The Samaran girl's eyes widened in response, eliciting a sympathetic nod from the noblewoman whose blessing of magic meant she was above the commoners' problem of monthly period pains.

"It's been enough days since your last time. I took a guess since something seemed to be physically upsetting you. I take it you have a thirty-day cycle then?"

Kaede couldn't respond. Given the importance of the female bodily rhythm, she really should have been tracking her cycle. But after the last time, she had almost forgotten entirely about it until this morning. Had her undergarments not come with self-cleaning enchantments, she would have made a mess in Pascal's bed.

Can't even keep up with the least time consuming of 'feminine routines', she thought with a heavy sigh. So much for getting used to being a girl.

"Assuming it stays consistent," Kaede muttered, remembering Parzifal's warning that many girls also had irregular cycles.

As informative the conversation was, it only focused her attention on the cramps and made them feel worse.

Thankfully for Kaede, the reason for their wait soon arrived as shadowy hooves touched down upon the snowy ground. The hundred steeds of the understrength Falcon Force Knights Phantom were followed by light wagons from the 36th Logistics Company -- vehicles drawn by two Phantom Steeds apiece and stayed afloat thanks to Levitation spells.

They were why she stood waiting far outside the city: to minimize the chances of Gabriel's spies knowing just how much support the Princess really received.

Four members of the King's Black Eagles also rode within the formation, as Pascal had requested a squad to help with intelligence gathering. His unspoken goal was to keep King Leopold informed through sources that His Majesty would trust beyond any doubt, thereby transforming the expedition's successes into further military support.

It was a double-edged sword, as even the closest of allies spied upon one another. Yet as Kaede noticed the familiar sight of a petite dhampir waving from within the formation, she couldn't help but return a smile.

"Welcome to Nordkreuz Sir," Pascal began as he lead the salute towards the highest ranking officer of the expedition.

Colonel Walther von Mackensen was a square-faced, stiff-jawed man who appeared to be in his early forties. His height must be nearing two meters (almost 6'5"), for the colonel towered over his cavalrymen even as they remained sitting on their mounts. A pair of neatly trimmed handlebar mustaches accentuated his stern countenance, and the piercing blue gaze beneath his chestnut hair felt as keen as any saber.

Apart from the black-on-burning-red uniform of the Knights Phantom, he also wore his iconic hat -- tall and made of black bearskin with the skulls and crossbones emblem. It was matched by every man in the Falcon Force company, which gave birth to the nickname their enemies knew best: the Death's Head.

"Major von Moltewitz. Your Highness," the Colonel nodded to both Pascal and Sylviane, his expression showing not the least bit of change despite coming face-to-face with the royal princess he captured a decade ago.

"It is an honor to be working with your Sir, and I apologize for any offense the political arrangements might have caused," Pascal conveyed humbly in a display of just how much he respected this man.

"That I am to take my orders from a mere Major?"

The Colonel's smile came out more like a sneer, despite his utter lack of malice.

"Your father would be proud of the work you have done, both in Skagen and here in Nordkreuz," von Mackensen spoke in a low bass that carried his own version of the aristocratic drawl. "So long as you continue to display qualities worthy of your blood and lineage, I do not mind taking orders from a junior. But make no mistake that I shall not hesitate to disregard a foolish order."

"I shall strive to meet your expectations," came Pascal's sincere reply.

It became clear that this man respect two traits above all, although Kaede had to guess which one would win out in a contest between the two: competence or blood?

The answer to that only grew more complicated as the old cavalrymen turned towards Ariadne:

"Major von Zimmer-Manteuffel," he uttered her second surname with clear, unmasked contempt. "Although we are both Phantom commanders, rank and seniority dictates that I shall be your direct superior and you shall obey my orders. Is that understood?"

No wonder Pascal had picked him during the 'Manteuffel Incident', Kaede thought. He must consider 'treason' the eighth and ultimate sin.

She certainly did not miss that von Mackensen proved as shrewd as he was belligerent. Within moments of their meeting, he had already laid the basis for undermining Pascal's command should the young lord fail to meet his standards. Given their difference in both rank and reputation, Kaede had little doubt whom the soldiers would obey.

Meanwhile, the noble lady herself managed -- just barely -- to swallow her own pride and anguish as she returned a perfect salute.

"Yes Sir!"

"Your Highness," the Colonel's penetrating gaze swept back to Sylviane once more. "Regardless of my appraisal of the Major, you have my word of honor that I shall see our objectives through. The Falcon Force is one of most esteemed formations of Weichsel. We shall fight to the last man to defend your honor and uphold the rights of succession as ordained by the Holy Father himself."

The severity of his every demeanor left no doubts among his listeners: this was no declaration made for diplomatic posturing or foreign relations. It was an oath sworn by a diehard adherent of the traditional military caste who truly believed in each and every word.

Taken aback, the Princess scarcely had time to say "thank you" before her fiancé replied with beaming confidence:

"I would not worry about that. We shall make our enemies fight to the last man first."

 

----- * * * -----

 

"Hey Cecylia, I thought you had told me that Hyperion armies didn't use firearms-- I mean black powder armaments? What about those mortars then?"

The journey ahead was long and quiet, as everyone weaved their own web of telepathy while tireless mounts carried them across the clouds. To keep herself occupied, Kaede had asked Pascal to link the dhampir Black Eagle trainee into their private channel, which also connected to Sylviane.

It was a blessing that speaking in telepathy did not require any movement from her jaws, as her teeth were clenched to endure the cramps that seized her abdomen. Kaede had turned up the heat through her enchanted undergarments' temperature controls to help relieve the pain. The cold front from the north might have brought low clouds, masking the expedition's movement into Rhin-Lotharingie. But the feel of freezing winds gusting past her thin body only seemed to worsen her agony.

Why couldn't the past week have been 'that time of the month'? At least I could've stayed in bed, she complained bitterly in thought as she awaited the topic of distraction.

"I believe I mentioned that elite and specialist troops used some black powder weapons," Cecylia's mental voice returned in her soft soprano. "The mortars are considered 'specialist weapons', just like the Knights Phantom's grenades."

Kaede hadn't even noticed until now, thanks to the auto-translation magic Pascal worked into the familiar bond. But the Imperial language word for 'mortar' literally meant 'arcing grenade launcher', three words slammed together in true Germanic fashion.

"But unlike the grenades, these aren't hidden inside some warded extra-dimensional space most of the time," Kaede countered. "So what makes them acceptable as effective weapons when other black powder technologies aren't?"

This time, it was Pascal who answered:

"It is not their effectiveness that is questioned; it is their reliability. Mortars make only a fraction of the Weichsel artillery forces, most of which are still equipped with traditional torsion siege engines. Their destructive capabilities are a blessing for battles. But as a specialist, support weapon, their limited deployment also means their loss could not decide a battle by itself."

"It's probably harder to grasp since you're from a world without magic," Cecylia patiently added. "But black powder's vulnerability to the elements means it's extremely susceptible. The smallest ember causes it to combust; the slightest spark ignites it; a mere splash of water renders it useless -- these are all effects that even the most basic of spells could conjure."

Kaede knew that there were many modern explosive compounds that mitigated or even avoided these pitfalls. But of course, since Hyperion never embraced the earliest form of gunpowder, they also lacked the incentive to research more stable blasting compounds. It had taken centuries on Earth before Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, the first 'safe' explosive; on Hyperion, this process could take millenniums.

"But you also have defensive spells and wards to counteract that..."

"Sure, except most of those spells -- like the often used Legion Resistance -- only reduced the damage dealt by elemental magic; they don't negate it outright," Cecylia went on. "I mean there are spells that can, but those spells are also one, harder to cast and two, drain more of our precious ether reserves -- which is a fairly big deal when the Legion spellword duplicates the same effect across an entire squad or platoon."

It was one of those arguments that reminded Kaede: in war, or perhaps society in general, everything had to be considered in scale. It wasn't enough that a requirement could be met; the solution must also satisfy the objective in quantity to be truly effective.

"Soldiers also have body armor and padded clothes to help absorb any lingering damage that passes through, not to mention people could endure minor burns. But what do you think happens to the infantrymen who are trying to load a black powder projectile?"

Kaede shivered as that horrific explosion during the Air Battle of Nordkreuz replayed in her mind's eye: the sight of a fireball engulfing dozens of comrades, of mangled bodies, severed limbs, and burning carcasses. Scenarios like that didn't just kill the unfortunate troopers caught by the blast either; it also demoralized entire armies and made soldiers distrust the very weapons held within their hands.

The Knights Phantom were elites with exceptional gear, discipline, and morale. They could be entrusted to use the most dangerous and destructive armaments for equivalently high returns. But the average soldier or conscript farmer? Individuals who quaked in their boots from 'just' the looming death of a massed cavalry charge?

...They would desert their weapons and run.

"Combine this with the fact that black powder couldn't even be stored in large quantities," Cecylia continued. "I mean: destroying ten thousand arrows? That takes work, or at least powerful spells that few mages could cast. But ten thousand stones of black powder? Even a child could light a match. Then what do you do with those 'firearms'? Use them as clubs?"

"It'd be worse than a Lotharin army without arrows," Sylviane commented dryly.

The Rhin-Lotharingie military was heavily dependent on its massed archery, courtesy of a national sport that taught every self-respecting man how to shoot and hunt. The common recruit also came with axes, mostly of the tree-felling variety. But without ammunition and forced to engage as light infantry, even a victory would leave the army in ruins.

An army that emphasized firearms only made this worse, as the Swedish Carolean Army of 17th century Earth learned that even muskets with bayonets were a poor replacement for proper melee weapons like the sword.

On Earth, early firearms like the arquebus were unreliable, inaccurate, and had a dismal effective range. Their greatest benefit over archery was that a conscripted farmer could be expected to become proficient within weeks of training rather than years. But on Hyperion, where massed deployment of gunpowder troops posed both unique logistical challenges and significant tactical vulnerabilities, it was unsurprising that the military establishment kept to their traditional ways.

"If that's the case, then what makes mortars so special that they could at least make a limited deployment?"

"There are two main benefits to mortars," Pascal began. "The first is that, like all other grenades, mortar shells are encapsulated. The casing wouldn't stop proper assault spells from detonating the powder, but it at least offers some protection from fire, and more importantly -- the weather."

Pascal had actually shown Kaede a Weichsel 'tandem-charge mortar round' yesterday. Within the thin iron casing were two cylinders of black powder separated by an air gap, held apart by light springs and secured with safety pins. When a shell was dropped into the mortar tube, its momentum would force the upper container to fall onto the lower one. This drove a flint ignition rod into the lower powder chamber where it scraped against a sharply angled steel file. The sparks would then detonate the lower charge, hurling the shell's remnants into the air while igniting the timed fuse to its upper powder chamber. Mortar gunners could even adjust this fuse through a screw on the side, with veterans aiming for the ideal 'airborne burst' where shrapnel rounds exploded just overhead the target for maximum mayhem.

It was an impressive design, despite its crude triggering mechanism. On Earth, it would take until the 19th Century -- half a millennium after the first arquebus saw mass deployment -- before the percussion cap was developed to allow for sealed cartridges that could fire reliably in any weather. Yet on Hyperion, the advancement of grenades had already bypassed that and went straight onto the modern 'tube mortars' first invented in World War I.

"The other benefit is that it is an indirect artillery weapon," Pascal highlighted the high trajectory firing arc that defined mortars. "This means we could fire it from within trenches and deep pits, where they would not only be hidden but also protected from most attack spells. A Resistance Screen could even be applied on top of the pit to protect the weapon and its crew from overhead spell bursts."

Kaede nodded in acknowledgment, her curiosity finally satisfied enough to move onto the next question:

"So apart from grenades, launchers, and flamethrowers, are there any other combustible weapons that Hyperion actually uses?"

"Satchel charges? I guess they're just oversized pillow grenades, hehe," Cecylia mused openly.

"Same with the bangalore torpedo javelins that Garona Hippo-Cuirassiers use," Sylv added, making the auto-translation magic adapt yet more foreign terms to Kaede's dictionary.

It was Pascal who finally found the answer:

"Mines."

Without proper firing pin technology, Kaede doubted Hyperion mines could self-detonate. But that never stopped the partisans of World War II from rigging manually-triggered minefields to devastating effect.

"Oh, and the Imperials have rocket carts that could launch salvos up to four dozen."

Pascal appended it as though it were an afterthought, but Kaede's eyes bulged upon hearing it:

"They have Katyusha Rocket Launchers!?"

"They took that idea from the eastern Dawn Imperium, actually," Cecylia clarified.

"It was impressive for about two battles," Pascal commented in a voice that was anything but impressed. "Before... I cannot remember the name, but she created a counterspell by adapting the self-guided Ether Seeker, which simply destroyed the heat-propelled rockets in mid-flight."

Once again, human ingenuity proved that magical and physical technology mixed in ways that would alter the development of both sciences.

 

----- * * * -----

 

The first day had proved uneventful, as the Knights Phantom rode over a thousand kilopaces to reach their planned campsite -- a natural spring deep inside one of the many forests that covered the Rhin-Lotharingie landscape. But on the second day, as Kaede continuously updated the Vintersvend Expedition Map, she would notice the first obstacle to their plans.

Just fifty kilopaces ahead was the expedition's first staging point. But instead of unmarked ruins atop a barren hill, Kaede's magical map marked the target coordinates as the de Villars encampment.

Her first reaction was to double-check the location with Pascal. They were correct.

...Which meant they had a problem.

"There must be at least five hundred troops if the map could detect and mistake it for a large village," Kaede noted based on her past observation, when she had compared a scan of Nordkreuz's surroundings to the local maps.

"The encampment is not named by unit designation either, which means that it is probably a patchwork force -- some hastily assembled group named after its commander," Pascal surmised. "Good chance they are here on orders from that pretender Gabriel, since he's the one having difficulty making the various formations obey him."

"You're right," Sylviane agreed. "A regional lord would send a full unit, not a hodgepodge that doesn't even have a battalion name." Then, with rising concern: "But that would mean he anticipated me coming this way."

The Princess left unsaid that hundreds more men could lay waiting in ambush just ahead.

"He could also be covering all the likely routes," added Hans Ostergalen after Pascal weaved the intelligence analyst into the telepathy web. "Duke Gabriel's leading commander is Count van Coehoorn, a defensive theoretician who pays great attention to detail even in his everyday life. My guess is that he probably has all the likely routes covered. But Gabriel's main force -- his loyal troops from Belgae -- would probably be kept as a reserve. Given his precarious hold on power, I doubt he'll deploy it until he ascertains Your Highness' intentions."

"So you think this is just a screening force then?" Sylviane inquired.

"More like a picket: to deter if you're few in numbers, to raise alarms if you come in force," Hans replied. "Gabriel's first priority must be to locate your whereabouts now that we've left Nordkreuz."

"In either case, we should know in a moment when Reynald gives me an update," Pascal spoke of the redheaded Winterslayer, who scouted ahead of the main formation with three of his men.


...


"Reynald estimates the camp to be around six hundred men," Pascal passed the word several minutes later. "The soldiers are also constructing wooden cabins, so they seem to be assigned here as a long-term picket."

Only the aristocratic elite -- or at least wealthy cavalrymen -- could afford the comfort of expandable cabins during a campaign. The average commoner had to suffer a miserable tent.

"Much shorter once they pass word to Alis Avern that we came through," Colonel von Mackensen warned. His words followed closely by Hans:

"And the next stone circle isn't for another twelve-hundred kilopaces, assuming Gabriel didn't picket that one as well."

"You are suggesting that we annihilate them?"

Pascal sounded wary as he spoke. But the Colonel? His voice held only stern determination, as though the enemy was just another faceless foe instead of the Princess' own countrymen in a civil war:

"We should wait until past midnight before assaulting their camp. With our firepower, we shall overrun them before they even get a Farspeak link online."

"Sylv?" Pascal called out to his fiancée, who had remained speechless for the past minute.

"Sorry..." came a sheepish reply. "I'm trying to remember... I feel like I've met a Major from the de Villars family before."

For several moments the telepathy chatroom fell silent. Then, it was Lady Mari who spoke:

"Lady Lynette de Villars. Your Highness attended her marriage ceremony three years ago."

"She's a Brython from Ceredigion then?" Sylviane noted her name.

"Yes. I believe Your Highness had asked her why she decided to marry a nobleman from across the country, and she replied that she was 'tired of Ceredigion pretending it wasn't part of the Rhin-Lotharingie Empire'."

Kaede almost snorted. Even without being an island nation like Great Britain, the Kingdom of Ceredigion seemed to stay aloof of its obligations to the greater union; its leaders would feign detachment from the Rhin-Lotharingie collective whenever it benefited them.

"Why would somebody like that bow to a pretender from Belgae," Hans puzzled out loud.

"Because Gabriel commands the authority of the capital at Alis Avern," Sir Robert pitched in. "Just because someone is loyal to the country doesn't mean they are loyal to a specific crown."

"Then, it's clear... Pascal, what do you think?"

The Princess somehow expected her fiancé to know her plans for the next step, which he did:

"It will be risky."

Yet his tone of confidence seemed the exact opposite, as though he was encouraging her on.

"Nothing ventured, nothing gained," Sylviane seemed to take a deep breathe as she spoke to herself. "I have to start somewhere."

Before anyone could object, the Princess raised her voice to the crowd:

"All knights! Form up! And follow me!"

 

----- * * * -----

 

Lynette stared at the mossy granite of the stone circle as she sat outside her expanding cabin. For a noblewoman from Ceredigion, this was probably the least impressive stone circle she had seen. The formation was little more than a ring of two dozen jagged, uneven rocks, reaching up to between knee to chest height.

But in the end, size didn't matter, only the function it served.

The stone circles had many nicknames: faerie rings, Tylwyth crossroads, Sidhe pathways, et cetera. They were ruins of a bygone era, infrastructure built by an ancient race. The era recorded by the Book of Invasions had long past. The Faerie Lords had returned to their otherworld realm, but the legacy they left behind would linger on.

Nor were the stones mere decoration. They were built according to the ley-lines: some at major junctions, now enveloped in cities and citadels; others at mystical locations of exceptional magical power, sacred to followers of the Old Faiths. The one she guarded lay at an unusual intersection -- an outbound fork in the local ley-line.

Their purpose? Transit hubs to an ancient magic, an art lost to most.

Most, but not all.

A faekissed Princess of the Empire, Lynette thought to herself. A true scion of the Otherworld.

The late emperor Geoffroi had married the daughter of some obscure Count, so it had gone unnoticed by most. Yet through her, the royal line of House de Gaetane acquired the lingering bloodlines of the ancient Sidhe.

The Princess? She was an Autumnborn. They tended to favor acumen, though not as logical as their cold and stoic winter brethren. They also leaned towards envy, though never as passionate as their summer kin.

...And most famous of all, they had awful, terrible springtime allergies that even magic failed to suppress. If memories served, the Princess looked downright miserable during the outdoor ceremony of Lynette's traditional Ceredigion wedding, in May.

I really should have noticed back then.

But Lynette didn't. She didn't realize Sylviane's lineage until fresh orders arrived from Alis Avern. Why else would the new, self-proclaimed emperor want her to camp atop ancient ruins that only the Faekissed could still activate?

A paid genealogist took less than an hour to ascertain her thoughts.

Lynette was raised under the cross. She upheld the Holy Father just like most of modern Ceredigion. But within their hearts and memories, there would always be a soft spot for the Old Faiths and the ancient Faerie Lords.

It was an odd tradition. The Sidhe -- or 'Tylwyth', as they were called in the Brython language -- were anything but just. The Seelie Court proved impulsive and chaotic, while the Unseelie Court stood callous and demanding. The Faerie Lords were legendary in many aspects, but being good rulers was not one of them.

It certainly didn't help that they occasionally kidnapped human children to be raised among their own kind, leaving behind a changeling surprise for the poor mothers.

Nevertheless, the common peasant would be ecstatic to have an empress of Sidhe blood, however diluted it became after countless generations. But Lynette was the educated daughter of an Count; she had to ask herself the important question first:

Would a Faekissed -- an immature, twenty-year-old at that -- truly be good for the present dilemmas facing Rhin-Lotharingie?

Gabriel might be a pretender, but he was also shrewd and cunning. His charisma had seduced even the Papal Inquisition, whose templar forces he threw into the grinder like pawns. Even his organizational prowess had proved itself in seizing the crown, as nobody in Alis Avern had even realized before he dealt the fatal blow.

A pretender who could best an emperor monikered 'the Great'. Perhaps he really was the Holy Father's gift in Rhin-Lotharingie's hour of greatest need.

But if that's the case, then why is he just sitting there!? Why isn't he heading south, toward the front lines that pushes ever closer to my homeland?

Lynette still had her fists clenched when the encampment's northeastern sentry called out:

"INCOMING AIRBORNE FORMATION!"

Then, fear pierced the warning tone as the cry turned shrill.

"PHANTOMS!!!"

Weichsel might be a nominal ally of the Empire now, but no veteran would forget the terror that struck deep into Rhin-Lotharingie during the War of Imperial Succession ten years ago.

...Especially not when Knights Phantom dove down from the clouds behind the white-blue flames of an Oriflamme Paladin. Leading the charge was Crown Princess Sylviane and her armigers, the crème de la crème of Rhin-Lotharingie's knights.

Lynette could feel her nape hairs stand up in cold sweat as she pulled her shield and flail off her armored back.

"FORM UP! AIR DEFENSE!"

She had no air cavalry, no rangers, only archers led by a handful of her own armigers.

She had accepted this mission because she had no intention of defying the capital. But now, she wasn't sure it was the right choice.

Against an Oriflamme and over a hundred Phantoms, her men didn't stand a chance.

But to her dying moment, Lynette would never be as surprised as when the burning chevron that soared straight towards her -- a scalpel about to take the head of the commander -- shot back up in an acrobatic loop before braking to a hover above the camp.

"SOLDIERS OF RHIN-LOTHARINGIE!" came the Princess' magically amplified shout.

Hundreds of bows rose. Countless arrows were ready to fire. But the Cerulean Princess paid them no attention as she address the camp with all the authority of a true sovereign.

She did not yell following those opening words. She did not bellow for attention or gesture with melodramatic theatrics. Instead, her magnified voice began slow, calm, and methodical; even as it rang with the confidence of the Holy Father himself:

"I am Crown Princess Sylviane Etiennette de Gaetane. But I come to you today, not as an aspirant for the throne, or royalty demanding of your obedience, or even a commandant calling upon your service. I stand before you, as a woman of the Lotharin plains, a daughter of her forests, a comrade to all who stand shoulder to shoulder on the front lines of our faith, and most of all -- a paladin sworn to uphold her duty to kingdom, empire, and the Holy Father."

The entire camp had fallen to an eerie silence. Even the birds of the nearby woods fell quiet, their attention enthralled by the burning figure in the skies.

"Even as I speak before you now, the evil hordes of Cataliya advances through our countryside," Princess Sylviane then made the first gesture, her finger pointed sharply to the southwest as she gradually built up her tone. "Those slaves of corrupt tyrants from the demon-tainted continent know no honor, no faith. They were trained from boyhood to obey, to submit as blindly to their immoral masters as they do to their false god. They follow orders without question -- whether they be to pillage the homes of our countrymen; to slit the throats of our sons and ravish the innocence of our daughters; even to desecrate the holiness of our faith and the grace of our Lord and Savior who died for the world's sins."

Lynette had yet to hear any tales of atrocities from the south. Unlike her simple-minded soldiers, she would not be so easily agitated by such an eloquent canvas of blood and debauchery.

But Her Highness did prove a point: the Cataliyan Ghulams were raised as slave-soldiers before given their freedom upon entering the professional ranks. These were men who knew no fear and harbored no ethics. Under a chivalrous lord, they might maintain discipline and stay their hand. But it would take only one order, one sinful moment of man, before the tears of women and the blood of men ran a new river to the sea.

Unfortunately, humans sinned aplenty, especially among the infamous decadence of the south.

Without independence, without both military power and legal authority, the various Lotharin cultures would have no way to defend themselves. They would be just another subjugated people, prostrated before the whims of foreign foes.

"The Caliphate comes with chains and yokes to enslave our society, our culture, our faith." The Princess then closed a fist before her chest: "Our nation sits upon the brink of disaster. Our land calls for our every aid! Tens of thousands have answered! Yet even as they drench the fields in foreign blood, the armies of this so-called 'Khalifa' continue to struggle, to advance, to threaten our families, our lands, our way of life! In this struggle for the very existence of our identity, we must unite, to turn and face our common foe! Not to squabble among ourselves for crowns and power and gold!"

From the corner of her eyes, Lynette could see that all but a small fraction of her soldiers had completely forgotten about their weapons; their bows now hung loosely to one side as their spellbound stares transfixed themselves upon the Oriflamme Princess. Many, like her, even nodded along in agreement, embers of patriotic zeal burning within their eyes.

In the span of just moments, the charisma of this twenty-year-old girl had enraptured the thoughts of several hundred men.

"It is for this reason that I come before you," Her Highness continued on, her rising fervor working itself up into a shout once more. "Our ally, King Leopold of Weichsel, warden of the Trinitian March, has pledged his support in the name of the Holy Father! His first wave of men and supplies ride with me, to reinforce our southern lines which so desperately need all aid! We come before you for passage, to gate south for the salvation of our realm! I care not for whom your loyalties are sworn to. But if you have any pride left as a protector of Rhin-Lotharingie, YOU WILL STAY OUT OF OUR WAY!"

For a brief second, Lynette felt the air knocked out of her breathe as the intensity of the Princess' final words struck home. To notice her own swelling hopes and unmasked guilt, to realize that her command was on the brink of mutiny, to visualize the crowning halo of light surrounding that burning-blue hair...

The floating figure before them no longer seemed a mere girl who happened to draw the straw of royalty.

She is an Empress in the making.

On that day, Lieutenant-Colonel Lynette de Villars became the first Rhin-Lotharingie commander who swore an oath of fealty beneath the banner of Crown Princess Sylviane.

She was joined soon after, by all six-hundred-and-forty-three of her men.

 

Next Chapter ]

Chapter 7 - The Polar Cross

Kaede stared in awe at the dense patch of fog that engulfed the center of the stone circle. Even among the mist that clouded their surroundings, the shimmering haze stood out with its fractured, otherworldly light. Within it, space bent to distort the very fabric of reality itself, and one wagon after another emerged through it as they rolled onto the grassy knoll.

Her own journey through had been surreal, to say the least. It was as though gravity had began to shift the moment she had stepped into the fog, accelerating her into a twilight forest at breakneck speeds. There she had flown, her twists and turns guided beyond her control as countless ethereal trees rushed pass in blurs.

Then, before her queasy stomach could expel its contents, she had soared into another fog and decelerated into reality. In the span of but a few dozen seconds, her physical existence had leaped across the country, emerging among the foothills of Avorica near Rhin-Lotharingie's southwestern coast.

Had it not been the steady shout of "keep moving", the dazed Samaran who had materialized from the haze would have stopped there, dumbfounded, until the next person collided with her. Thankfully, the spectral mounts pulling the wagons through were mindless evocations of magic; they would follow their drivers' last order to keep going no matter how unnatural the experience became.

In the meantime, Kaede could sense Pascal's helpless concern as Sylviane's labored breaths grew increasingly erratic.

The Princess stood at the edge of the mist, casting white-blue embers adrift from just inside the stone ring. Her entire body surged with ether as she struggled to hold the portal open. She had been aided by Elspeth earlier, until the petite girl had passed out from ether exhaustion on the other side of the fog patch and had to be carried off by medics. Now, the task of maintaining an arcane bridge that spanned thousands of miles fell squarely upon Sylviane's thin shoulders.

"Is there a reason why only she and Elspeth can carry this burden?" Kaede asked Pascal over their private telepathy, trying to at least keep his thoughts busy while they waited.

He had explained Sylviane's Autumnborn heritage earlier, much to Kaede's surprise; then again, the Faekissed were humans with just a hint of ancient blood within, so it wasn't unusual for them to effortlessly blend into society.

"Well... according to Lotharin legends, the Faerie Lords never had a cohesive system for spellcasting like the Dragonlords' internalized array," Pascal answered without any change in his worried countenance. "Of course, humanity never learned magic from them, and after many generations even the Faekissed lost much of their lore."

"Then what did she use to open the path? You said the stone rings formed a transit system. Doesn't that mean she had to select where to start and stop?"

All Kaede saw when Sylviance first opened the 'doorway' from the other end was the Princess holding onto her tome of spells and concentrating in silence.

"One of the founding Oriflammes of Rhin-Lotharingie -- I believe her name was Gwendolyn -- created a spell that allowed one's conscious to interface with the Faerie Lords' artifacts," Pascal continued as he watched another wagon come through. "In fact, her mastery of Sidhe Pathways was instrumental to the Rhin-Lotharingie Coalition's victory over the Holy Imperium during their Independence War. However, it also proved to be a spell that only the Faekissed could use, so there must be some sort of magical marker in them that we have yet to identify."

"Doesn't that support the theory that the Fae used a more 'innate' magic that couldn't simply be taught?"

"Except 'innate magic' does not explain the complexity of the Faerie Lords' many creations. You see that armor Sylv wears?" Pascal noted the breastplate, spaulders, and other piecemeal plates that the Princess wore over leather patches on her sky-blue to violet battledress -- armor which carried the luster of steel except for a faint, translucent purple sheen.

"That is Fae Dendrite Crysteel: does not rust, does not shatter, light yet tougher than even high-carbon-steel, and conducts neither lightning nor heat. Best of all, it can self-repair by consuming nothing more than water and ether; that purple hue is because Sylv's natural ether color has dyed it over time. The Faerie Lords were allergic to the touch of ferrous metal, so they created an armoring material superior to any other that we still cannot duplicate today. Nothing but the most advanced arcane metallurgy could explain that!"

Kaede stared back, astonished. She had known that the Princess' armor was enchanted and of the highest quality, but even she had never expected it to be a relic of ancient, otherworldly beings. It was certainly difficult to refute legends and myths when such proof of their existence could be found scattered across the world.

"You said that the Fae were allergic to ferrous metal, then is the Princess...?"

"Most Faekissed can touch metal just fine, considering their overwhelming human heritage. Though unlike the rest of us, their wounds have trouble closing, especially those torn by iron and steel," Pascal's reply revealed yet another reason for his discomfort every time his fiancée braved combat.

Iron hemophilia, Kaede thought. Not exactly a blessing on a steely battlefield.

Seeing as red blood cells -- the oxygen carriers of the bloodstream -- all contained iron, Kaede had to wonder if the Faekissed nobility really did have 'blue blood'.

She still blushes red though.

It was then that the final rider emerged from the haze. Captain Ostrowska of the logistics company had waited until the column's end, her hand holding a Black Dragon banner that instantly signaled the end of the task force's transit.

"She is out!" Pascal cried the instant Ostrowska stepped clear. "Let it go!"

Heeding his call, Sylviane took a step back from the mist and severed her link to the magical portal. Then, as though her strings had been cut, she collapsed onto the grassy soil.

"Everyone made it through safe. You did marvelously," Pascal smiled encouragingly as he strode over to lend a supporting hand for her shoulders.

Within seconds, the shimmering haze lost its otherworldly sparkle. Meanwhile the light mist that had engulfed the entire hill began to fade away.

"Thanks... to Elspeth," Sylviane huffed out in between gasps of air. "She poured... all her ether in first... so I could conserve mine."

"Parzifal said she will recover in a few days," he reassured. "She just needs rest, and so do you."

Sylviane gave a light chuckle, as though voicing 'like that's going to happen'. Leaning back against his support, she turned towards Colonel von Mackensen who stood but ten paces away:

"Any report from the scouts?"

"No sign of hostiles yet, or any friendly concentrations," the man stared back with an imperturbable expression under his black bearskin hat. "However, there is a long column of refugees moving down the road, escorted by scattered squads of Avorican light cavalry on both flanks. The scouts who made contact could not understand the language; they needed a minute to get their linguistic spells active and attuned."

"Remind them that half the people in Avorica speak only Brython, not even Lotharin," Sylviane added. "The nobles should speak enough Lotharin and Imperial to get by though."

"If there are any nobles left among them," the Colonel replied, his voice oddly tinged with solemn reverence. "Captain Müller had trouble just finding an officer."

It took a second before Kaede could realize what he meant: there weren't many officers left because they had mostly been killed.

For valuable cavalry units to be delegated to mere civilian escort duty, these formations must have been depleted to mere skeletons of their former strengths. As she considered how exhausted such troops must be after weeks of skirmishing, the mist surrounding their hill had lifted enough to reveal the local 'road'.

Barely a kilopace away, Kaede's magnified sight could see the disheveled figures shambling across. In stark contrast to the proud military men and women who arrived through the faerie paths, these civilian refugees' clothing had worn down to dirty, tattered rags. Their feet were caked with mud from the rain-soaked trail. Their hair lay matted to begrimed cheeks that hadn't been washed in days. Yet with gaunt faces thinned by malnutrition and dulled expressions laden with fatigue, they marched on. Some still lead children or carried what few belongings they could bring with them, others barely dragging along their own two feet as they clung onto hope that they might still escape the invasion with their lives.

As her vision broadened, Kaede began to make out the scattered carts and wagons abandoned on the road. Many of them had simply fallen into a puddle of mud, before being discarded by owners who must have been too exhausted to pull them out. Next to some of them lay the ghastly remains of dead horses, their carcasses barely dragged off the road before they had been carved open for meat by starving refugees. Even now, she could see a desperate mother draining horse blood using a small cup, while her other hand held onto a pallid baby who was likely already dead.

"Welcome to Avorica," Sylviane muttered grimly from behind her, undoubtedly seeing this same vision of filth, misery, and death, even if her sight held the blessing of less clarity.

The unsung battles of war, Kaede bit down on her lips to quell her uneasy stomach. The inglorious reality that every belligerent's propaganda seeks to erase.

"Colonel! Your Highness!" A signal officer called back after receiving a new Farspeak message. "A lieutenant of the 7th Avorican Light Cavalry Battalion reports that Saint de Lyonesse is currently leading the army, deployed just eight kilopaces to the south in rearguard action!"

"Rearguard?" Sylviane stared back, puzzled. Then, as she exerted herself to stand back up, aided by Pascal's arm in support: "Rearguard to what? She's the commander of this entire front! If she has the army with her..."

As her gaze fell upon the column of refugees that stretched as far as the eye could see, her pupils began to widen with anguished disbelief.

"Damn that Edith!" the Princess fell to uncouth blasphemy as she gritted her teeth. "This is what happens when you send a saint to fight a war!"

As if on cue, the rumbling of explosions and spellfire that suddenly erupted in the south began to reach their ears. The battle had begun, and there was no doubt of its location as a blazing Trinitian Cross in bright cyan lit up the distant, cloudy skies.

The Polar Cross Oriflamme was renowned across Hyperion as the modern hero of crusading action. Her moniker came from the personalized illumination spell that inspired all from across the Trinitian realm -- a horizontal cross in the sky that always pointed south toward the Holy Lands. Idolized by the army and canonized by the Pope, she was among the few figures entrusted with one of the most powerful relics of the faith: one of the seven holy swords of virtue.

But in the pragmatic arts of statecraft and war, a woman 'infamous' for her piety and virtue... wasn't necessarily a good thing.

"Armigers!" the Princess called out as avian wings of blue-white flames sprouted from her back, barely missing Pascal's cheeks as he dodged out of the way.

"Sylv, do not be ridiculous!" he almost shouted. "You can barely stand! Fighting a battle in your condition is impossible!"

"It's not impossible! It's essential!" she retorted as Hauteclaire's magic carried her aloft. "I need that army in one piece! Colonel von Mackensen!"

"Yes, Your Highness!?" The stern aristocrat snapped his boots together in salute as a ferocious grin of approval lit up his face.

"Mount up and stay hidden at least a kilopace behind me. I don't want the Cataliyans to find out that Weichsel has entered the war unless we have to. But if I give you the attack signal, then charge in and unleash hell with everything you have!"

 

----- * * * -----

 

"SHOOT AT WILL!"

Edith-Estellise Élisabeth de Lyonesse yelled as she flourished her holy sword, calling upon her archers to fire independently at their best speed.

Her ambush was a partial success at best. The Lotharin army had been hidden among sparse woods augmented by illusory camouflage. But the Tauheed light cavalry screening both flanks had tread too close to the wards that kept her forces from magical detection. Edith had been forced to call the first volley early, leading her archers to shoot high arcs at long range against the crowded heavy cavalry columns still riding up the road.

But those Ghulams were disciplined and well-trained professionals. Their alertness remained high as rapid reaction wards sprung up. Ether Seeker counter-fire rushed out to interdict the incoming arcane arrows, disrupting infused Dispel spells that would clear the way for the rest of the barrage.

Nevertheless, the volume of fire from thousands proved too much for the leading battalions. The deluge of arrows poured through gaps torn among hastily erected wards. Magic infused into wooden shafts detonated as lightning and thunder ripped through neat ranks of armored cavalrymen. The explosions chained quicker than any drumroll, battering the invasion force in an cacophony of destructive violence.

Battle in Avorica: Edith springs the ambush early as Cataliyan light cavalry screen comes into detection range of Lotharin illusory camouflage.

Hundreds of Ghulams had been killed or wounded by the initial bombardment. Survivors were stunned senseless as they stumbled amidst corpses, coughing inside the cloud of static-charged dust. But behind them, tens of thousands more -- wide columns of steel and flesh that stretched on as far as the eye could see -- began to fan out into battle formation.

Waves upon waves of arrows soared out like an unending hailstorm. Edith could hear the magic-capable officers struggling to keep up with Legion Smiting spells, to channel that extra offensive punch into as many projectiles as they could. Meanwhile the Rangers in front of them directed the volleys with tracer arrows, blessed with antimagic to crash hostile wards and clear the way.

But as the scattered light cavalry converged on the Lotharin battle lines with armor-piercing javelins, they forced more and more Rangers to redirect their fire. These marksmen switched to normal arrows to drop the charging riders with pin-point accuracy. But every shot they sent against those mounted skirmishers represented more firepower that failed to focus down the main threat.

And here they come...

Edith took a deep breath as the first ranks of heavy cavalry formed. These professional troops braved the rain of steel with sheer courage and discipline as their armored black chargers began to accelerate.

Battle in Avorica: The Caliphate army deploys from marching order.

The initial wave consisted of no less than four battalions, over a thousand mounted combat troops, arranged in two rows that stretched across a three-and-half kilopace front. Thousands of hooves hammered the ground in sync, shaking the very earth in tremors and quakes. With armor marked by the Tauheed faith's green and yellow, they swept forward like a looming tide of death.

Meanwhile above them, a wall of searing winds had began to form. Trampled dirt pulled into the air dried within seconds, exposing sand that swirled about like a desert storm. The barrier of tornado-force gales rose as high as fifty paces before the air itself seemed to ignite, glowing with a fiery hue as it rolled across the lush Avorican plains.

The oncoming assault no longer looked like a wave of mortal men, but an elemental force of nature -- a raw, unstoppable storm that sought to trample all into a desert wasteland.

The Cataliyan Ghulams had mastered their Sandstorm Ignition Screen to perfection. Stretching from caster to caster along the surging wavefront, they formed a barricade that would blow aside any arrow and trigger any spell that sought to shoot through. With the wall continuously refreshed against dispelling bursts, it formed a nigh-impenetrable barrier that protected the advancing army behind them.

This forced the Lotharin archers to destroy the first wave -- a narrow target only two ranks deep -- before they could reach the rest. Yet the average bowmen, forced to shoot over the front ranks of friendly troops, could only shower a general area with arrows. Hundreds of projectiles overshot and were blown aside by the sandstorm, while countless others fell short and struck nothing more than grassy dirt.

"ARMIGERS TO THE FORE! VOULGIERS SECOND!" Edith shouted as she altered her glowing cross above them from bright-cyan to a brilliant gold, signalizing the change in formation to the entire army.

Her Lotharin archers were hardy militiamen drawn from the forest villages and mountain clans, but they were lightly armored in leather and carried only the longbow and felling axe. Meanwhile, it was the 'urban militia' from Rhin-Lotharingie's towns and cities who had the wealth to deck themselves in chainmail, pavise shields, and the voulge.

Yet the problem was: the comforts of life in the city had made these people soft. Too often, Edith had watched as an urban militia company broke and routed the moment Cataliyan lancers plowed into them.

Unfortunately, the reliable Highlander infantry of Gleann Mòr had mostly been blocked in the north by the onset of winter. This meant she had to hold the front rank using only her Noble Armigers, feudal troops who answered the call to arms alongside knights and lords. After all, it was the Holy Father's will for the nobility to set an example for the masses, and where better to start than in the defense of the Trinitian Realm?

But the aristocracy was not plentiful. After weeks of running battles, she was running out of armigers to form even a single file row.

As Edith lead this porous screen of plated men-at-arms forward, urban militiamen filtered through the ranks of archers and Rangers to fill the space left behind. They leveled rows of polearms forward, presenting a wall of blades against the coming foes while officers blessed them with energy-dampening Legion Resistance in preparation against attack spells.

"SEEKERS AND OBSTRUCTION SPELLS! ON MY MARK!" the Saint and Oriflamme cried next.

Arrow after arrow had pierced the Cataliyan chainmail between those horses' armor plates. Antimagic blasts burned through projectile-deflecting Repulsion wards before explosive bodkin penetrators tore the steeds asunder and threw their riders to the ground. The continuous rain of death had broken the first heavy cavalry wave into pieces. But with their lives, they had bought time for the troops behind them to advance unmolested across several hundred paces of open field.

In the center, a second wave had already formed their own Sandstorm Ignition Screen as they trampled over the bodies of fallen brethren. On both flanks, companies of Asawira armored cavalry archers had charged forth, forming shooting circles as they peppered the Lotharin battle line.

"UNLEASH! ETHER SEEKER!" Edith hurled out a volley with her holy sword before plunging it into the earth. "EARTH REAVER!"

Her spellcraft sent a ripple of magical energy through the ground and towards the infidel cavalry. Dozens followed her example as they unleashed a multicolored tide of autonomous hunter-seeker spell-disruptors before piling on with geomancy magic. Meanwhile others crafted spells ranging from fast-growing briars to fields of transmuted hard-clay spikes.

Behind them, columns of militia grabbed onto nearby ropes and unearthed rows of staked fences hidden beneath camouflage. The soldiers quickly tied them to wooden pegs set into the ground, holding these stakes slanted towards the enemy as they re-grasped their polearms.

However the charging Cataliyan cavalry soon countered with their own magic. Dispel Bursts hurled out to neutralize the Ether Seeker wave before they crafted more specific counterspells in response: Tranquil Earth halted many Earth Reavers before they could churn the fields with eruptions of earth and rock; Sonic Blades sheared through pillars and stakes alike before smashing the bones of even warded Lotharin troops; Levitation Fields created lanes of repulsion forces over brambles and pits, as though translucent bridges built upon thin air.

With the second wave shifting their focus to contest over field control, the sandstorm barrier rapidly dissipated above them. This exposed the third wave to the deluge of arrows, but their own wall of desiccating winds blocked the way further.

"PIKES READY!"

Edith's orders echoed along the line as rows upon rows of infantry braced their polearms. Even the Noble Armigers kept their trusty maces and flails hanging off belts as they raised sharpened pikes thrice the height of man. Yet leading them from the center of the front line, the Crusader Saint herself only flourished a sleek arming sword in her hands.

The Sword of Charity glowed with a brilliant silver as it unleashed three more strands of white light. Curving across the sanctified air like ribbons, they shot out to intercept the agents of death.

An arrow true to its mark, a Sonic Blade about to shatter ribs, an Incinerate ray bound for a depleted mage. It didn't matter what form they came in, all whom sought the doom of her cherished were dissolved amidst the wind.

It was the weapon of perfect defense. Its radiance reached out to cover all within forty paces, shielding the companions whom the saint cherished.

But there was always a price to pay, and Edith grimaced as she felt dull pains slash across her right shoulder and back.

Holy Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name, her prayers came in Arcadian, drawing upon the strength of her faith and the glowing warmth of her merged phoenix Durandal.

In this crucial moment, she had to stand straight and confident. With all eyes upon her, weakness could not be tolerated.

From beside Edith came the tap of a crouching armiger. Green eyes questioned for authority as her gauntlets tightly grasped a metal rod that jutted out from the ground.

The saint smiled and nodded back. The girl retrained her gaze to the battlefield, determination ablaze in her sight.

The nonstop exchange of arrows and spellfire continued all along the line, its pace accelerating as two opposing fronts converged. The charging second wave was almost upon them, shedding horses and men even as those who remained trampled fallen comrades underfoot while leveling long lances tipped with glistening blades.

Then, with a burst of magic from the crouching girl, the whole world seemed to come apart.

...Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, upon all worlds as it is in Heaven.

A massive, continuous explosion rippled across the entire front. Men and beasts were thrown into the air by the dozens as a curtain of earth and smoke erupted towards the heavens, obscuring the rest of the Cataliyan tide. Shock waves plowed across the land on both sides, felling countless in their wake while shattering the eardrums of those unprepared.

The culprit had been a tunnel of mining powder, buried hardly half a pace beneath the surface. With the flash of a lightning spell channeled down a long, iron spike, the entire shaft detonated in a chain faster than any human perception of time.

The explosive trap had been sprung just as the forward arc of the third wave galloped over.

It had taken all the powder Edith's army could gather, and the direct casualties inflicted could not have numbered more than a few hundred at most. But the shock waves had sent much of the second and third Caliphate assaults sprawling onto the ground. Only a meager few horsemen of the second attack held fast onto their mounts. Outnumbered dozens to one, they stood no chance against the ranks of awaiting pikemen.

Even more priceless was the demoralizing shock impact dealt to the enemy by such sheer carnage, or the invaluable boost to her own troops' confidence as they watched an endless Cataliyan tide vanish behind a curtain of destruction. Combined with the noxious smokescreen it left behind, the explosion of the powder tunnel provided exactly the cover that Edith required.

...Give us this day the blessing of mana, and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

"RANGERS AND ARCHERS! FALL BACK TO RENDEZVOUS!"

As the exasperated 'tactician' Vivienne had reminded Edith repeatedly before the battle, the goal of this fight was not to win. Against such quantitative and qualitative odds, a prolonged battle of attrition was simply unwinnable.

Edith had pressed for this engagement purely to slow down the Cataliyan advance and force them to regroup. It would buy the time required for those refugee columns to reach the relative safety of the Avorican capital.

Then, just as thousands of rural militiamen and mountain rangers had began to withdraw, a fourth wave of Cataliyan heavy cavalry emerged from the wall of smoke. Its strength had doubled to four ranks and eight battalions, and among them rode individuals bearing the red striped armor of the Mubarizun -- elite duelists and champions of the Caliphate. Unfazed by the earth-shattering blast, the superbly disciplined Ghulams funneled across hundreds of translucent Levitation Field ramps. They cantered over the wide trench left by the powder explosion before fanning back out into long, solid lines.

Over three kilopaces of bladed lances leveled forward in unison, their armored chargers accelerating to a gallop across the final stretch of open ground. The earth trembled anew under the thunder of several thousand hooves as a rumbling chorus in the foreign tongue chanted their sacred battle cry:

'There is no deity but God for God is greater!'

Edith could feel the doubt sweeping through Lotharin lines as aspects of the battle plan began to backfire. To watch the infidels emerge unscathed through titanic thunder and hellish flames, to see them ride undaunted across an apocalyptic wasteland of death and carnage.

Surely... these people weren't men.

Even the mighty chargers seemed to take on a demonic light as their bulk loomed with the closing of distance.

"FOR RHIN-LOTHARINGIE! FOR OUR BRETHREN! KIN! AND HOLY FATHER!" Edith cried again as she raised her blade once more, its radiance shining the light of hope across friendly lines.

"HOLD STEADY! PIKES READY!" officers yelled all across the front.

Standing at the forefront with her steel kite shield ready, the saint and paladin braced against the coming tide.

...Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Compelled by training and magic, the Cataliyan steeds plowed straight into the awaiting wall of steel. Rows upon rows of lances and pikes interpenetrated as thousands of sharpened blades met armor and flesh. Countless mounts were impaled by spears and voulges; their neighing turned to agony as the crushing weight of their armored bulk crashed upon lines of men. Their riders spilled forth onto yet more ranks of metal, dumped into the melee as they began to hack through the forest of shafts with scimitars, spells, and in some cases -- their own impaled selves.

Within seconds, the carefully coordinated battle had degenerated into a chaotic bloodbath.

Amidst the frenzy of killing, Edith weaved between the masses of men. Her sword blurred into afterimages as she stabbed left and slashed right, dyeing her battledress and armor in an endless crimson of spurting blood. Parrying thrusts with her shield and dodging corpses with phoenix wings, the saint idolized by the army leaped and flew across the center of the battlefront. Her lithe build skated above the ground in an elegant dance as the flourishing blade plucked throats and pierced hearts in precise motion, bringing swift death upon her enemies with a minimum of suffering.

Within ten seconds, her sacred sword had downed a dozen foes. Within twenty, it had saved scores more as shedding light arced away to nullify blow after fatal blow.

But while Edith remained untouched, while her Polar Cross continued to illuminate the sky, a trail of blood ran through her lips as she bit down to endure the unstopping pain.

Before her eyes, the right wing -- which had been hit hardest by cavalry archers even before receiving the charge -- had began to collapse. The urban militiamen were already falling back as they watched the great falchions of Cataliyan elites cleave through their ranks.

Yet as Edith headed that way with her Oriflamme Armigers in tow, she could sense the wavering morale of those behind her on the left flank.

What choice did she have? They had to buy at least ten minutes -- time for the army to fall back through the sparse woods; time for her light troops to make their way to the dense cover among those foothills. Only there could they lay covering fire for the remainder of her forces from a position of strength.

However, time was the one blessing that the Holy Father would not give.

The battlefield had stretched too wide. Before Edith could reach them, the Duke of Atrebates' banner fell as his final armiger died with the pole still grasped in severed hands. Alongside it, any lingering resolve on the right wing collapsed as thousands of men tossed aside their weapons and fled for their lives.

But behind them, the Cataliyan armored cavalry archers -- which had showered them with arrows from the extreme right this entire time -- surged forward to massacre those who exposed their backs.

Battle in Avorica: Caliphate forces press in from all directions; Lotharin right wing shatters under assault.

At that same moment, a fifth wave of Ghulam heavy cavalry burst forth from the black curtain of smoke. Meanwhile to her right, Edith could hear the screams of combat emerge from a new front.

Hidden behind the trees, her retreating archers had ran into yet more hostiles. It was most likely a flanking maneuver by the light cavalry that had vanished halfway into the fight. After all, only their vanguard had charged the Lotharin lines; where had the remainder gone?

Whether that was the case of not, one truth did stand clear as day: even her army's path of retreat had been cut.

For over a decade running, Edith had remained the undefeated champion of Rhin-Lotharingie. Even the Sworn Trio -- the Oriflamme brothers who fought in perfect unison -- could only bring the duel to a standstill. Yet regardless of her swordsmanship, she was but one person. It was impossible for her to shoulder every burden, to be everywhere at once.

Boxed in by heavy cavalry to the front, mounted archers on both flanks, and even fresh foes to her rear, Edith's Lotharin army had truly been trapped like a caged animal, just waiting to be butchered.

The Crusader Saint halted as she felt the warmth of tears rolling down her cheeks. The numbing pain that stretched across her bruised body was nothing compared to the disappointment of her failure, the desolation of defeat, and the desperation of a hopeless struggle as the Lord seemed to turn his eyes away.

What possible hope could a mere daughter of the Holy Father have as the darkness closed in from all around?

Edith stared towards the heavens as Durandal's hallowed song immersed her soul. She eyed the golden cross that continued to shed light across the devastated battlefield.

It represented everything that was pure and holy, everything that she struggled and fought for.

...Everything that she would gladly give her life to serve and protect, if that was indeed the Holy Father's will.

...For thine is the kingdom, for eternity and glory. Noblesse Oblige.

"Milady?"

The Lord must be testing me, Edith inhaled deeply. And if not, then I shall meet my end with dignity!

"Form up," she ordered her concerned Armigers as she grasped the Sword of Charity with her last reserve of energy.

"We'll burn our way through that wave using everything we've got!"

With ether pouring into her flame wings, she kicked off from the ground and soared straight towards the charging row of lances. Behind her followed seven armigers in chevron formation, channeling Durandal's flames through phoenix feathers woven into their enchanted capes.

"Flamebreak -- Aurora Blade!"

White-blue fury poured out from Edith's unison form and ignited the very atmosphere she flew through. Leaving a trail of blazing cyan in her wake, the Polar Cross Oriflamme dove headfirst into the galloping lancers and smashed her shield into the covered face and armored torso of a captain.

The head-on collision had killed him before screams of agony could emerge. However, his mount and neighboring men were not so lucky as the sacred nimbus roasted them alive.

Using the pushback from the impact, Edith changed her trajectory in a sharp left turn. She then charged down the line in an enfilading assault, fronting with her shield as the flames of purification torched four rows of cavalryman.

The 'Flamebreak' was a phoenix's trump card, an outpouring of their blazing reserve which devoured all nearby foes in an unblockable, unquenchable, and irresistible fury of white-blue flames. Over the years Edith had learned to temper this release into a scything blade. Now, that beautiful and deadly stroke would dye the battlefield, an aurora of cyan inspired by the Lord's own magnificence in the polar realms.

Yet even as saint and paladin slashed across the converging lines, felling hundreds in her wake, it was the cries of her armigers that truly rekindled her hopes:

"Milady! Look! To the east!"

The light in the distant sky was unmistakable. A burning blue chevron just shades darker than her own flew in from the northeast, before diving straight into the sparse woods where her light troops fought desperately to clear a road to safety.

It was a sign that felt nothing short of divine.

The Holy Father had not abandoned them after all.

 

----- * * * -----

 

From the air, Sylviane could see the disaster unfold among sparse trees. The entire right wing of the Lotharin battlefront had collapsed and broken away. Thousands of men fled in panic and terror, obeying only the primal instinct of fear as they cast aside tools of self-defense and ran for their lives. Behind them rode at least three battalions of Asawira heavy cavalry archers, their arrows soaring out to pluck lives as easily as hunters who pounced upon packs of helpless prey.

Meanwhile, the remaining, now-dismounted Ghulams on the Lotharin right regrouped. Burdened by their heavy armor, they did not even attempt to give chase. Instead, these cavalry-turned-heavy-infantrymen swiveled their attention towards the center, marching forward to crush them from the flank.

Sylviane was hardly a master tactician. But even her trained eye instantly drew the conclusion: the Lotharin battlefront was now indefensible; there was no choice but for them to mount a fighting retreat.

The only alternative was rout... and annihilation.

Battle in Avorica: Collapse of the Lotharin position as Sylviane arrives.

But beneath the foliage of denser woods closer to her, she could see the green and yellow padding of Cataliyan light cavalrymen. These skirmishers must have ridden around the front lines before throwing themselves into melee to entangle the Lotharin withdrawal.

"Ready for charge!" Sylviane ordered her armigers. "We'll tear through those cavalry in the woods and cut open a path of retreat for our troops!"

"Your Highness, Lady Estelle is..."

Looking up towards the black smoke that clouded the main battlefield, Sylviane could see a cyan aurora blitz through ranks of charging cavalrymen. An entire assault seemed to unravel and collapse onto the ground in the wake of Edith's blazing flight.

The exhausted Princess could feel blood rushing into her temple as she eyed the 'Saint's Lily' kite shield that tipped the aurora stream.

Prowess, beauty, virtue, and piety -- Edith-Estellise was the so-called 'perfect lady', the paladin who summoned the greatest of the twelve phoenixes, the venerated saint idolized by army, country, and church alike.

...Yet she dooms thousands of her countrymen to a stand they could not possibly hope to win just to satisfy her own conscience! Sylviane fumed before retorting in annoyance:

"She can handle herself!"

Though before the Princess could turn away, she heard the telltale sounds of rotor wings. The first Cataliyan Aerogyro soon pierced the thick wall of smoke, their Ifrit pilots gladly inhaling the choking fumes. With spinning blades slanted backwards in autorotation glide, the leading machine of war was followed by squads, groups, an entire flight.

Limited in maneuverability, the Cataliyan Aerogyros were mostly deployed as aerial weapon platforms to bombard ground troops. Since there were no Lotharin air cavalry in sight to challenge the open skies, the Caliphate had sent forth their bombers heavily loaded with racks of Bangalore torpedo javelins.

Their mission was obvious: to harry the retreating troops and pound them senseless.

"Sir Robert, inform Colonel von Mackensen of incoming Cataliyan Aerogyros! I leave the task of ambushing them in his capable hands!"

Sylviane would be kidding herself if she thought she could offer better tactical instructions than the veteran commander. In the meantime, she did not waste another second before leading her armigers into a sharp dive, straight into the chaotic melee between Cataliyan skirmishers and friendly archers.

"Sent!"

Sir Robert's reply came just as Sylviane soared past the treetops. Timing the release at her fingertips, she hurled out her meteor hammer like a flying mace. It smashed straight into the back of a light cavalryman and shattered his spinal column. With a sharp pull she then spun the weighted end to crush another infidel's chest, its chains kept short for better control in the wooded land.

"For the Oriflamme!" her armigers roared in her wake, their flails swinging to break bones and smash skulls.

Cataliyan light cavalry were high-mobility troops who wore little more than a rounded helmet and padded leather, with maybe a few pieces of brigandine. Chosen for their horsemanship rather than their melee skills, they didn't stand a chance against the heavily-armed Oriflamme Armigers.

But there were battalions of them mingled amongst the withdrawing troops. It would take time for Sylviane to help her countrymen clear the path of retreat -- time that equated to the lives of hundreds on the battlefield.

And after this I still have to cover HER withdrawal, the exhausted Princess seethed as her adrenaline and anger pulverized another rib cage. Damn that Edith!

 

----- * * * -----

 

With his eyes closed, Parzifal concentrated on reconnecting the nerves in his patient's arm. He had been impressed; the Ranger from Garona had retained enough composure to bring her own severed arm back as she withdrew from the battlefield. There were even rumors that she clobbered her assailant to death with it before departing... which of course was ludicrous.

Her arm had remained in good shape. It was her shortsword that drew blood in repayment.

Focusing on the surgery spell, Parzifal did his best to ignore the noise of battle. The makeshift hospital had been established near the edge of the 'safety zone', on the backside of a forested hill which the Rangers held with their lives. The location had been chosen to render the fastest possible aid for wounded soldiers withdrawing from the battlefield. But he only had to look up through the trees to see action unfold, as Weichsel Knights Phantom plunged into a formation of Cataliyan Aerogyros and tore them apart with lightning spells.

It was only on moments like these when he disliked his profession. Here he was, providing aid to complete strangers while his own fiancée risked life and limb beyond his help.

He could only pray that the Holy Father kept her safe in his stead.

"It's Lady Estelle!" Parzifal's concentration almost broke as he heard his patient exclaim, a proud voice that began with reverence and ended in apprehension.

"Stay still!" he berated even as cries of "Milady!" began to echo all around.

But the awe in their voices soon passed away to anxiety and desperation. Even the worst of patients, as grievously injured as they were, paid heed to the Oriflamme and saint.

"Milady!?"

"Lady Estelle!"

"Healer! HEALER! I NEED A HEALER!" Parzifal heard the tearful cry.

"No, don't mind me and go help her, please!" his patient plead.

"Five seconds!" he held fast onto her arm. "I'm almost... DONE!"

Without pause, Parzifal spun around and stood as he reopened his eyes.

At the center of this medical camp, surrounded by anxious Lotharin troops like a mother by her children, was an unconscious woman carried by two armigers. Their faces were barely recognizable beneath the grime and gore; their clothes and armor were drenched in blood. But there was no doubt whom the unconscious individual was, from the burning cyan long hair to the blue-white wings that continued to shed embers into the air.

Two Lotharin healers had already rushed over. With the help of everyone else, they lowered Estelle to the ground on top of a clean stretcher. Wasting no time, the medics and armigers began to pull off her armor plates and tear away the bloody clothing.

What amazed Parzifal as he knelt down to help was that her armor lay entirely undamaged. He couldn't even spot a scratch on it. But as the cover peeled away to reveal bare, naked skin, he could see a body marked black and blue. It was as if she had been thoroughly beaten by a gang bearing wooden clubs, leaving her with severe internal bleeding that easily threatened her life.

"Lord have mercy..." he couldn't help but breath out. "Just how many hits did she take?"

"None! Those were hits she took for everyone else!" an armiger cried back.

"Lady Edith-Estellise..."

Parzifal had barely noticed when Pascal appeared to his left. The Runelord had been with the Rangers on the hill's western face, setting up wards and defenses. Perhaps he mistook the light of the Oriflamme for the Princess before rushing back.

Just as he thought that, Sylviane herself landed with her armigers in tow. Bloodied by combat with several gashes across her cheeks and shoulders, the Princess breathed hard as she collapsed onto the nearest rock.

"Edith... just, WHAT THE HELL were you thinking!?"

Even exhaustion couldn't stop the royal fury as Sylviane lashed out before her breath could catch up.

"You are the front commander, not the town fool who can only see the bread laid before her eyes! Your obligations are to the entire Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie, not just a few pitiful peasants who happened to stand before you!"

Parzifal could see the armigers and medics bite down in concentration, suppressing their urges to retort while the princess raved on. As he looked up to send back a warning stare, it became clear to him that Sylviane couldn't possibly see the unconscious Estelle through all the bodies gathered around her.

"Pascal," the healer turned to interrupt as he suddenly remembered. "Do you have a Sanctuary rune set?"

"Always."

"Deploy them then!" He exclaimed before appending a quick Telepathy cast: "and do something about that fiancée of yours!"

Realizing a few seconds late, Pascal hurriedly opened a tiny belt pouch to release twelve rune-engraved stones that could only have fit by magic. They flew out to form a large circle on the ground before activating, creating a hemispherical barrier of translucent, crystal-blue ether that encapsulated the triage group.

Inside, the air soon took on a turquoise hue as the curative magic began its work.

Sanctuary was the perfect example of an ancient spell that did not modernize well. It offered powerful regenerative boosts and had limited Ether Resistance bypass thanks to its area saturation. However, it also required ritual casting with a long setup time, including the creation of a ring from which the containment field formed. Combined with the glowing barrier that exposed its position on a battlefield, Sanctuary had been deemed 'obsolete' by Aura Magic healers. Yet as ritual spells could be inscribed into rune sets, it was the Runic Magic users who retained this time-proven spell.

Nevertheless, even such an obvious sign of desperate emergency care did not stop the Princess as she berated on:

"...This is the only army stopping the Caliphate from breaching our defenses in the west. Just what do you think would happen if you lost it all! Yet like an idiot you insist on gambling before your reinforcements could arrive, reinforcements that my father paid his life to send you!"

"Boost power to Regeneration spells," the senior Lotharin healer spoke in a suppressed tone. "She's lost too much blood. Avril, help me close up the internal bleeding."

"Regeneration!"

By now, it hardly mattered to Parzifal whether the Princess was right or wrong. He was rapidly approaching the limits of his endurance and the same could be said for everyone else. Such verbal abuse was no way to treat a patient whose life hung by a thread, even if she were too unconscious to hear it.

"Sylv! Stop it!" he heard Pascal's voice try to bring sense to the raving girl, but the Runelord might as well been pouring oil onto a wildfire.

"Are you taking her side now too!? Just because she's..."

"Mental Blackout!"

Parzifal's eyes bulged as he couldn't believe his ears. Even the Runelord should know the limits of his transgressions. Surely, knocking out a Royal Highness with enchantment spells went beyond illegal to outright taboo.

Yet it did the trick as the Princess' indignation stopped at once. With her own ether reserves depleted and her willpower scraping rock bottom, Sylviane offered almost no resistance against his hostile ether injection.

For seconds, nobody in the makeshift hospital could speak. The only voices not stunned to silence were the moans of the injured and the echoing cries of battle outside.

Then, a quiet, astonished voice came from Sir Robert:

"You're going to pay hell for that later."

Pascal however, replied with only a resigned sigh:

"She can blame me for it then... In fact," he raised his volume, "you all can, if it helps. Surely those of you who lost loved ones can understand -- the past few days have not been kind to her."

 

Next Chapter ]

Chapter 8 - Extreme Turbulence

Author's Warning: the next few chapters will feel fairly uncomfortable as I run through a major development arc.


Awareness returned to Sylviane with a terrible headache. Her spinning brain felt bloated within the confines of an intolerably small container; her head seemed like it was about to fracture and split under the pressure.

"Unhhhh..." Her hands rushed up to the forehead. What in Holy Father's name did I do to deserve this torture?

"Mari..." the Princess cried out before opening her eyes. "Mari!"

"Yes, Your Highness?" came a gentle reply from the bodyguard and lady's maid, her blurry silhouette leaning in from the bedside chair.

Even before her vision cleared, Sylviane could recognize that they were in her expandable cabin -- the royal cabin, despite its austere interior.

She took the silver chalice that Mari offered with extended fingers. The water felt icy and refreshing to her dry lips; even the slight brain freeze proved a blessing as it dulled the throbbing pain in her head.

"Wh-what happened?"

"--Your Highness had just returned from the battlefield... and you were berating the unconscious Lady Edith-Estellise when... His Grace..."

Mari trailed off into hesitation, unsure of how to put it into words. But as Sylviane finished her drink and wiped the tears and mucus from her eyes, her memories began to rush back amid a deluge of racing thoughts.

She hadn't been aware that Edith was unconscious. But so what? If anything, the Holy Father should have kept the girl awake. Dear Miss Perfect sorely needed to hear opinions contrary to all the praise and admiration, which had clearly gone to her head.

The Saint of Crusaders indeed... she has spent so much time sheltering her own image of honor and chivalry, that she would risk leaving the remainder of the country defenseless just to preserve her pride!

It was the logic of ignorant buffoons, virtue championed by the bovine. To fight when there was every possibility of annihilation and not a shred for victory -- it was no courage but sheer lunacy! Had Edith even a quarter the intelligence to match her beauty, she would have detached irregulars to buy time while she withdrew the army north. The mighty fortification at the Avorican Capital of Roazhon laid less than forty kilopaces north of the battlefield, built on the other side of a natural defensive barrier provided by the Rivers Hafren and Gwilen.

But stupidity, however terrible, could still be forgiven. Sylviane might wish some cutting words upon the front commander, but as returning memories filled out the missing gaps, those thoughts faded beneath her emotions towards the intolerable act of Pascal's betrayal... no, treason.

My own fiancé! How could he humiliate me like that! In broad daylight!

To forcibly silence her with a Blackout spell was the magical equivalent of negotiating with a cudgel. It was demeaning and humiliating, an act as barbarous as a husband beating his wife. Worse yet, it violated not only her body but the sanctuary of her mind. Had she not remembered her moment of shock upon hearing his words, she would have never believed him capable of such brutish insolence.

I should see him whipped in public for such affront!

The Princess gritted her teeth under more than just pain. Her fists clenched as they struggled to contain emotions more terrible than agony. Were it not for the headache that plagued her as a direct consequence of the Blackout spell, the surging anger that boiled as she scanned through racing memories would have exploded.

"Where's Hauteclaire?" Sylviane groaned as she pressed one palm into her forehead.

She could use some of that soothing phoenix aura right now.

"He... he's off visiting Durandal."

Edith again...!?

Hauteclaire and Durandal were close friends, sure; but Sylviane had no doubt that her phoenix was actually off alleviating the idiot saint's injuries, all while leaving her to suffer.

At that moment, the door to her cabin opened. Sir Robert was the first to enter, but behind him stepped in someone who was both the first and last face she wanted to ever see again.

"Pascal..." she barely forced out between gritted teeth. "What... do you have to say for yourself?"

Sylviane's hateful eyes rose slowly towards his face. She hardly noticed as her grasping fingers turned white, burning with torrents of anger that sought to crush the metal vessel in her hands.

She would give him one chance, to kneel down and beg for her forgiveness.

But instead, the Landgrave stared back in bewilderment. "Sorry?" he replied in an innocent version of his aristocratic drawl, as though he was unaware of any misdeeds and therefore blameless.

The Princess never even considered the possibility that he simply didn't hear her clearly.

Before she realized it, the emptied chalice in her hands had been sent hurling towards his face.

Her fiancé reacted just a second late. His hand batted aside the flying silver at the last moment, sending the weighted base straight into the surprised expression of the familiar girl flanking him.

The stunned Samaran swayed before rushing her small hands to her face, where a delicate nose was already dripping translucent-pink blood.

She'll heal in a minute.

Caught up in her fury, Sylviane easily brushed aside any guilt she might have had. But as Pascal's turquoise gaze pivoted back to her from his familiar, the embers of ire were already kindling among his shock and outrage.

"Sylv wha--- what is wrong with you!?"

"What is wrong with me? WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?" the Princess roared in a shrill explosion as Sir Robert rushed to close the door to the morning sun outside. "My own fiancé decided it was a good idea to shut me up by force, in front of an audience no less, by KNOCKING ME OUT, for a whole day!? And you think I AM THE ONE WHO IS WRONG!? ARE YOU INSANE OR JUST PLAIN RETARDED?"

Struck speechless by the diatribe, Pascal glanced toward the Lady Mari, who returned the barest of head-shakes.

Did you conspire with him as well?

The Princess' eyes narrowed as she reviewed Mari's expressions since waking up, images flying past at the same breakneck speed as a dozen other trains of thought. Her lady's maid might have seemed troubled, but to describe Mari as 'guilty' would be excessive.

"I do not need an account from her," the Princess clarified. "I have my own memories to judge you by!"

"Yes, I admit, I was in the wrong for knocking you out like that."

Pascal's ire spoke more as a retort than any sincere apology. It certainly didn't help that he followed up by pointing towards the door, his voice growing more self-righteous with every passing second:

"But do you remember how you berated Lady Edith-Estellise as she laid there, bruised, bloody, and unconscious? Do you also remember how you called her an 'idiot' and 'fool' even as she underwent emergency surgical healing, in front of her own assembled troops -- the men and women who loved her almost like a mother for how she puts their lives ahead of her own on the battlefield!?"

"You forget who you are and whom you are speaking to, Landgrave!" Sylviane almost spat back. Being her fiancé and childhood companion had made this man brazen and impertinent. He would dare to question her authority, yet another clear sign that the young upstart needed to be put back in his place.

"I did not realize that she was unconscious at the time, but she bloody well deserved every word!"

The Princess' chest rose and fell with indignation as her wisteria gaze hardened with scorn.

"'Saint Estelle', they call her -- 'the Miracle of Ronceval'. She is the embodiment of virtue -- 'courageous and exemplary, benevolent and selfless, an example to us all...'"

Sylviane bitterly repeated the words that her father, the late Emperor Geoffroi, once spoke when he presented Edith with the Saint's Lily. The rechristened fae crysteel kite shield was a heirloom of the Royal House of Gaetane, given to her Great-Great-Grandfather Louis the Bold by the Faerie Sword Oriflamme, Princess-Consort Gwendolyn of Avorica.

It was the shield to match Sylviane's Faerie Plate armor -- such was the esteem that Edith held in her father Geoffroi's gaze. Those proud, doting eyes had shone what everyone else whispered within the palace halls, even if the Emperor could never say it aloud:

'If only she were born into royalty.'

'If only Princess Sylviane was perfect like her.'

Even Hauteclaire, her own familiar, preferred Edith over herself.

"--and even you believe she is beyond reproach!" Sylviane lashed out as a tear of betrayal slid down from the anguish in her gaze. "That her soul is as pristine as her enchanting beauty! So of course it is not my place to accuse someone so perfect!"

"I knew you were going to say that--!"

"But that is what you were thinking! Am I wrong!?" Sylviane challenged her fiancé's retort.

"You are shoving words straight into my mouth!" the Landgrave countered, torn between frustration, anger, and being completely flabbergasted.

"Oh please. Don't think I haven't seen how you stared at her in the past, lusting after her with the same eyes as every other man..."

"Do not compare me with every other sex-addled brainless imbecile out there!"

Sylviane sneered for a brief moment as she glanced towards the Samaran familiar who was still pinching that pretty nose.

"And you think I am blind to how you have started sleeping with your familiar again? Less than a minute away from your lawful fiancée no less! So tell me, who is the 'sex-addled brainless imbecile' now?"

With his cheeks flushed, Pascal took a deep breath to calm down before explaining:

"Kaede... has been having difficulty sleeping. She has been suffering repeated nightmares from battle trauma. So I--"

"So you thought her a mistress who would better share your bed than sleep in her own?" Sylviane had to stop herself from barking a laugh in disbelief. "What a convenient excuse!"

"It's not an excuse," the familiar herself chimed in, her wispy voice barely audible behind her embarrassment. "I-I'm the one who asked him... I've been having nightmares ever since I returned to Nordkreuz... since I stopped sharing a cabin with him..."

"Of course now the familiar would disgrace herself to stand up for her master," the Princess cut off the rest.

She had no time for such pitiful attempts at excuses.

By this point, Pascal had leveled his palms into the air in exasperation:

"Sylv, you are not even trying to listen--!"

"I have no need to listen to your lousy excuses--!"

"--I may have slept in the same bed as Kaede, but we have done no more than that--!"

"--Only because she has the soul of a man and is not a complete harlot--!"

While everybody else in the room already knew the truth, Sir Robert's eyes almost popped out of their sockets as his eyes spun towards the Samaran girl.

"--Besides, do I look stupid enough to vie for the affections of Edith-Estellise!? Just look at what happened to the other--!"

Pascal had tried to talk over his fiancée by repeatedly escalating his volume. But the Princess would tolerate it no longer as she pounced out of her bed and all but screamed in return:

"--AND NONE OF IT EVEN BEGINS TO JUSTIFY THE CRIME THAT YOU HAVE COMMITTED!"

Thrown back onto the defensive, Pascal could only let loose a helpless, defeated sigh. He then exchanged a brief glance with his familiar before taking several more deep, calming breaths.

But what helped sooth him only made Sylviane's knuckles squeeze tighter as recognition struck:

Familiar-bond telepathy...

It only served to remind her of the permanent bond between these two -- a contract as sacred as the rite of matrimony itself.

"Yes, you are absolutely right," her fiancé admitted. "It was I who knocked you out in the most barbaric manner, and there is no excuse for that."

Unlike his previous apology, Pascal actually sounded remorseful this time, much like a sinner keen to beg for the Holy Father's forgiveness. It enticed Sylviance's sense of mercy, to calm her anger and offer him another chance.

...Then he ruined it with a single following word: the holier-than-thou 'but' after the 'sorry' that rendered it meaningless.

"--But I did it because I could not think of another fast way to stop you from ruining yourself!"

"So you can ruin me instead? To destroy my honor and dignity before the eyes of the army!?"

"Please Sylv! If you would just let me finish!" Pascal half-begged and half-scolded.

"--Just like you allowed me to finish before blacking out my consciousness!?"

"That is what I am trying to explain! That I did it for your sake!"

But before the next thought could rush out from the Princess' lips, it was Sir Robert who beseeched next on behalf of the Landgrave:

"Your Highness, please!"

The royal armiger even knelt down on one knee as a sign of obedience, that he was still on her side.

He was soon joined on the floor by Lady Mari, and even Kaede as well.

With her breaths loud and her indignation irrepressible, Sylviane bored her cutting glare into Pascal's bitter, pleading eyes. Facing those turquoise orbs swirling with emotions, the Princess decided that the man before her would receive one more chance... and only one.

"On your knees then!"

"Sylv... what--!?" Pascal uttered back in stunned surprise.

"If you wish to explain your crimes, then you may at least do so with due penitence. On your knees, Your Grace!"

His expression floored by what he was hearing, the Landgrave of Nordkreuz slowly bent one leg and lowered himself onto the floor.

Sitting back down on her bed like it was her throne, Sylviane could at last console herself that nature had, once again, been restored to its proper order. It sparked a sense of triumph, a minor satisfaction that all was as it should be once more.

But it was still a long way from exacting her revenge, her desire to see him humiliated in return.

"Your Highness," Pascal stressed as he began, his speech slow but soon accelerating. "Lady Edith-Estellise, to be sure, has the intellect of a common blacksmith. But with Cosette and Gaston in the south, and Gervais leading his brothers in the mountains, who else does Rhin-Lotharingie have? This is a woman who was abandoned at an abbey as a child, who was thrice engaged and thrice widowed, her third fiancé killed on the wedding day itself! Since then she has sworn a life of celibacy and dedicated her sword to the defense of the Trinitian Realm; for this, her limited mental faculties were pressed upon to command a theater of war where she must face several times her forces in battle!"

"In short..." He paused to catch his breath. "Lady Edith-Estellise has been forced onto a role that she could never fulfill because everyone insists on putting her on a pedestal! And just to hold the line, she is left no choice but to constantly martyr herself by carrying that doubled-edged Sword of Charity!"

"For Holy Father's sake, Sylv!" Pascal plead as he gradually rose from the ground, his tone normalizing as that high-handed conceit returned alongside his annoying drawl. "She is a woman who deserves our pity, not our scorn! Certainly not before the army that she is like a mother to! Or do you think any child would gladly hear insults leveled at a beloved parent cursed by tragedy, regardless of whether they ring with the echo of truth?"

Sylviane didn't even have to think. She would cut out the insolent person's tongue for daring to presume they had the right to criticize the late Emperor -- her dutiful father who died prioritizing the country rather than his own safety.

But that was also the difference: Edith didn't sacrifice herself out of a love for her country; she did it for her own ideals, for honor and virtue.

In other words, it was her vanity.

"Perhaps my words were brash," the Princess' irate tone left her own admittance hollow. "But that is no excuse for your outrageous behavior!"

"I am sorry but what else was I supposed to do? Stand by and watch as Rhin-Lotharingie's own soldiers come to detest their Princess?"

"I don't care what the situation is. You have no right to use such barbaric methods!"

"You are not being reasonable!" Pascal protested, his hands waving in desperation.

"I am your future wife and empress! I don't need to reason with you!"

Sylviane's finishing words left a tone of finality in the air.

The period had been carved in stone. There was no longer any purpose left to argue. Only an oppressive silence stayed to reign over the atmosphere as the two betrothed locked their detesting gazes.

"Have it your way then," Pascal almost spat out as he spun his heels towards the door. "Kaede--"

"Leave Kaede here," Sylviane interjected. "You are not allowed to be with her again until you learn to repent for your actions!"

"WHAT!?" Pascal spun back around within a second's time.

"She is MY familiar and MY responsibility! You cannot just-- confiscate her!" he gestured towards the Samaran girl with bewildered outrage.

"I can, I am, and you will accept it!" the Princess fired back. "What other fiancée would tolerate you keeping a mistress so openly? She is an insult on my honor!"

"She is not... You know that is not what she is!"

"Then perhaps I should give you twenty lashes before the army! As appropriate for the offenses of Lese Majesty, Insubordination, and Assault towards a superior officer under Weichsel Military Code!"

Before her, Sir Robert paled instantly. His expression was aghast that the Princess could even suggest such a thought. The military bullwhip could break skin in a single strike; twenty lashes was more than sufficient to reduce even the most sturdy back to bloody tatters.

...But this only convinced Sylviane that he had clearly missed the bigger picture -- that Pascal's actions amounted to far more than just insolence; it was treason.

By knocking her out in an open display of unilateral force, he violated not only her dignity as a human being, but also undermined her legitimacy as a sovereign in the eyes of her people. If her Weichsel fiancé could just trample over her objections like that in public, then who could say how much foreign influence her future husband would lord over Rhin-Lotharingie through her?

With the destiny of her country resting on this succession crisis, what Pascal did was tantamount to a stab in her back. She had to punish him to clear this mistaken impression, to show that she was still the one in control.

But before she could even consider making him understand the gravity of his actions, Pascal ripped the gulf between them yet further as he yelled back:

"I would rather be flogged in public, than to debase myself in failing to uphold my obligations to her!"

To her!? What about to ME!? Your lawful future WIFE the eyes of the Holy Father!

That can be arranged! Sylviane was about to shout back when Kaede finally cried out:

"Pascal, please! You're not helping here! And I can take care of myself!"

The faint quiver in her voice sounded anything but sure of her safety in the Princess' care. Nevertheless, her master fell silent and -- after another few deep breaths and probable telepathic exchanges -- gave in to the inevitable.

Meanwhile, the other silent party -- Lady Mari -- had stepped forth to quell the royal temper:

"Your Highness, please reconsider," she knelt down to hold the Princess' hand. "The army will not like you any better for a lack of compassion towards your own betrothed."

Beckoned by the pleading sentiments of her maid and longtime companion, Sylviane finally brought herself to take deep breaths. Images floated into her mind of the last time she had witnessed a man flogged for his crimes, and she felt the bile in her throat as she remembered the agonizing visage of a back torn bloody.

Truth be told, she had no desire to see Pascal tortured. Robert and Cecylia might consider her bit of a 'sadist', but she held only revulsion toward the twisted expressions of pain.

This is all his fault for goading me so.

"You will leave Kaede here," Sylviane announced sternly, trying to remain calm as she locked gazes once more with those turquoise eyes brimming with suppressed fury. "Then you will return to your cabin and consign yourself under house arrest until further notice."

For a moment Pascal said nothing. Then, the irate Landgrave's hand almost shook as he raised a finger in return:

"If you harm her..."

He left the remainder unsaid as he strode out and slammed the cabin door behind him.

 

----- * * * -----

 

"Your Grace! Wait!"

Sir Robert had to make his excuses before rushing out after Pascal. He found the Landgrave no more than fifty paces away, his returning stare defeated and resentful.

After sprinting over to catch up, Robert began to cast Sanctum Veil around themselves. Security was high here in the center of the Lotharin encampment. But the last thing they want would be for a patrolling officer to overhear their conversation and leak out a twisted rumor. With the spell in place, those outside its radius would hear nothing but inconspicuous conversations -- like food, clothing, and the weather.

"Your Grace, please," Robert began the moment his ward took hold. "You have to forgive Her Highness. She's been under another episode since her speech to Lady Lynette's troops yesterday, maybe even before that. She doesn't--"

"Yes, I know," Pascal interrupted irritably. "You have told me before what this 'hypomania' condition does to her. But knowing what causes it hardly makes me feel any better! Here I am, exhausting every bit of my energy in trying to keep her country intact, to piece together her retreating armies, to make sure she could still be the sovereign! And what do I receive in return?" He thrust a finger back towards the cabin. "THAT!"

"House arrest!?" he scorned as his chest huffed in anger. "I have not even eaten since lunch yesterday and barely slept last night. I would be happy to go back to my cabin for the first time since our arrival here!"

"Still, Your Grace... you have to admit: many of her accusations against you were true..."

Robert's voice soon trailed off as Pascal sent him a smoldering glare of you-know-what-I-had-meant.

The Landgrave did commit an act of barbarism, and he was being unfaithful to his fiancée in sleeping with another woman -- however chaste the experience might be. But while a normal, reasonable individual might have considered the broader circumstances and exercised restraint, the Princess... was currently running with a crippling bias towards her own beliefs and impulses.

Had Pascal began with a thorough apology, perhaps Sylviane would have stayed calmer. Except such behavior was alien to the Landgrave's pride. A better prepared Pascal might have considered it, but not when he was hungry, stressed, fatigued, and simply carrying far too much baggage in his mind.

I really should have advised him before we arrived... Robert sighed as he berated himself. Like always, I only think of these things after it's too late.

They had been out inspecting the battalions before joining them in the Mass of the Holy Word. After offering their prayers alongside tens of thousands of troops, it had put them in a rather... spiritual mood.

...which obviously didn't help Pascal step down from the moral pedestal.

"Yes... I know I deserved some of that for my rash actions. You do not have to tell me," Pascal admitted at last before his indignation spiked once more. "But she could not even attempt to see my perspective? To understand why I did it? And Kaede... she is the innocent one in all this!"

With his impassioned embers burning out as quickly as they came, Pascal gritted his teeth as he struggled to suppress the injustice that he clearly felt wronged by.

"I'm afraid rationalizing from any perspective other than her own is beyond her at the moment," Robert quietly spoke what they both already knew.

But to understand it logically was one thing. To accept it emotionally... that was entirely something else.

"What do you plan to do now?"

"What will I do? What can I do!?" Pascal's derisive reply seemed to mock both Robert and himself. "She is still my fiancée! One of the few people I could still call 'family'! I could hardly just turn my back on her!"

Exhaling another heavy sigh, Robert glanced back towards the Princess' cabin, where Pascal's parting words did -- truth be told -- leave him concerned.

"I guess I should feel relieved..."

He had yet to finish before Pascal sneered in reply:

"What do you take me for? A commoner? That I would even consider annulling our contract just because of an obstacle like this?"

"That's not--"

"I will see you tomorrow -- hopefully -- Sir Robert," Pascal brushed him off as he stepped out of the Sanctum Veil area and went on his way. "Let us pray she snaps out of it by then!"

No, Sir Robert pursed his lips in thought. At best, she'll crash into a terrible depression. Although I guess even that's better than actively ruining her life like this.

"What a day it is to be celebrating the Midwinter Mass..." he sighed to himself.

 

----- * * * -----

 

"...With the 23rd Regional Brigade joining us, all accountable forces have now been withdraw to the Gwilen River crossings near Roazhon. The exception being the five battalions detached by the Duke of Pictiers and Landgrave of Nordkreuz, left behind to harass Caliphate activities."

Sylviane nodded along as Lady Anne finished her brief tactical summary at the projection table.

Anne was the Knight Preceptor and Mother Abbess who once raised Edith. Now, she served as the saint's chief-of-staff and commanded the Steel Lily battalion. She wore leather brigandine over her traditional nun's habit -- a tunic in black and white that concealed much of her lean one-sixty-eight (5'6") figure. Her wrinkled, stern countenance seemed in her mid-forties, with an appearance that would have been homely had it not been for her deep-emerald gaze. Her long, candy-apple-red hair lay obscured under a black veil, with a white cross decorating it behind her head as the symbol of the Order of the Knight-Healers of Saint Joan, or better known as the Knight Hospitallers.

"Do we have a count on our casualties yet?" asked the Princess.

"The tally is still coming in, Your Highness, although many units will need to have their command structure rebuilt before we could accurately assess their losses," the Mother Abbess grimaced. "Twenty-seven battalions have lost almost their entire combat strength, and many others were so badly mauled they need reorganization before they can even fight again. My initial estimates are around eighteen to twenty-four thousand irrecoverable losses."

Sylviane could feel her knuckles tighten as she leaned into the projection table. Her eyes fixated themselves on the Lotharin unit markers by the river as she pictured the endless columns of missing men those numbers failed to represent.

"Half the available army..." she muttered through clenched teeth. This day is just getting worse and worse.

"What about the enemy?"

"We destroyed much of their vanguard and first three attack waves, plus Lady Estelle annihilated almost their entire fifth wave," spoke Duke Lionel of Helveteu, one of the army's more experienced noblemen. "Combined with casualties inflicted upon their light horse and mounted archers, I'd estimate their casualties to be around... ten to fourteen thousand."

"...Except they took the battlefield, so two-third of that as they'll be able to recover their wounded," finished Sylviane.

The healing arts of Hyperion had been refined to the point where soldiers who survived the battle itself were very unlikely to die from wounds or infections, at least for the winning side. The noble and yeomen troops were harder to treat, due to their innate ether resistance which sought to reject even a healer's magic; but the common soldier could regrow an entire severed arm and still return for combat duty within two weeks.

According to the Articles of War, the defeated must be given medical attention as well. But 'outsiders' would always receive a lower priority for treatment than the victors' 'own'. Given the emergency nature of injuries, even a minute's delay could mean the difference between life -- albeit as a prisoner of war, a euphemism for 'slave labor' -- and being dumped into a mass grave.

"So what you are all saying... is that Edith -- with your support -- lost nearly half our army, in exchange for one-tenth of our enemy's?"

Sylviane lifted her eyebrows as she raised her head with a cold, unforgiving look. She glared across the nobles and officers assembled inside the large expandable cabin that served as their briefing room.

And the stupid woman herself is still too unconscious to account for her actions! she thought about Edith, the commander responsible for this entire debacle.

"We had hoped that the ambush would be more successful..." mumbled one officer.

"...And that the powder explosion would buy us more time..."

"Plus, they were the elite cavalry corp of their army," interjected a third, as though it had justified everything.

"Yes, notice they're well-led cavalry with the capacity for quick response and rapid maneuvering," Sylviane's fingers pointed on the map, to the main Caliphate encampment that remained near the battlefield. "Notice the rather flat terrain in that area, notice complete lack of natural barriers to impede their movement except for some sparse woods, and notice that they began the battle outnumbering you!"

"What is your next excuse? That you weren't expecting to be flanked!? Have you been all struck down by idiocy!?"

Several faces reddened with anger as the Princess lashed out. But before any of them could retort, it was Mother Abbess Anne who began in a soft, unperturbed tone:

"Our goal had never been to win outright. We only hoped to halt the infidels' advance, to inflict enough casualties upon them and forcing them to reorganize -- which is exactly what they're doing. Now, tens of thousands of refugees will have the time they need to reach the safety of Roazhon."

"Safety?" Sylviane turned to stare as though the nun had suddenly sprouted horns. "How safe do you think the city will be when I tell Queen Katell Penteur that her capital will soon be under siege, and instead of outnumbering us by less than two-to-one, the Caliphate now has four times as many heads as we do!?"

"What are you suggesting then, Your Highness?" the Mother Abbess replied as a veil of disdain enshrouded her voice. "That we betray our vows to protect the people and abandon the innocent in order to make our lives easier?"

"We will do what is necessary to protect all the peoples of Rhin-Lotharingie, not just those who stand before us!"

"--Then when you stand before the Holy Father for judgment, will you also tell him that yesterday, virtue could not be upheld because it stood against convenience?"

"--I will tell him that it is my burden of responsibility to bear evil for a greater good," Sylviane retorted. "That we could not afford to gamble this army away and leave the entire western flank of the Empire defenseless!"

"Our reinforcements from the interior will arrive by then..."

"Of course! There will be forty thousand reinforcements arriving in three days' time to make up for this army's destruction," the Princess interjected with feigned understanding. "Why is it that these troops are not labeled on the map? Or do you suppose that the Holy Father will send his angels to make up for the disparity?"

"Remember, Your Highness, that we all win or lose by the grace of the Holy Father," Lady Anne countered, her calm demeanor refusing to be agitated. "The Lord himself shall decide the final outcome of battles, judged by our virtue and sin."

"The outcomes of battles are decided by the Holy Father," Sylviane acquiesced first. "But also by the qualitative and quantitative disparity of our armies, by the tactics and planning of our leaders, by the morale and discipline of our troops!"

Stepping closer, the Princess stared down the Mother Abbess from less than an arm's reach away.

"--How many wars did the Holy Father win for us just because we declared so in his name?"

The answer was known by everyone in the room: there had been six major holy wars since Pope Peter VI launched the first at the behest of King Ferdinand I of Weichsel -- three declared by the Trinitians and three by the Tauheeds, including this one. Thus far, only the Third Holy War, declared by the Caliph Fatimah, had achieved a decisive victory.

"Then what do you advocate? That we simply surrender?" challenged Lady Anne. "Even if we had lost not a single soul this battle, even if we received all the expected reinforcements for the next three weeks ahead of time, the Caliphate's forces will still outnumber us and be of superior quality! Without the grace of the Holy Father, this is a battle that we cannot win!"

"I can," came a familiar voice from the corner of the room as the door that nobody noticed opening pressed shut.

"Blasphemy!" Hissed one of the Hospitallers behind Anne.

"I can and I shall, because the Holy Father has seen to place me here. Do you deny this?" the newcomer countered as other officers stepped out of his way.

"Pascal," Sylviane addressed in a suppressed calm. "I believe you are supposed to be under house arrest? Who told you to come?"

But before he could even answer, it was the Colonel von Mackensen -- the Knight Phantom commander who hadn't said one word all meeting -- who spoke out first:

"I did, Your Highness."

The Princess turned to shoot him a royal glare. But von Mackensen rebuffed it with a mere upward twist of his lips, as though he found it cute.

"I told him to quit being a spoiled little brat and come back to do his job," he stressed. "Because while Your Highness may be soft hearted and unwilling to flog him for insubordination, I am not."

 

----- * * * -----

 

Outside Sylviane's cabin, Kaede watched as light flurries of snow drifted down from the heavens.

Dusk was approaching, and most of the soldiers have retired to the larger cabins and open tents. Even with the gloom of loss and defeat surrounding the whole encampment, Kaede could still hear the rowdy banter of assembled troops. They celebrated this holy day with prayers spoken out loud, with festive music and bellowing chants as they drunk away their anxieties and sorrow.

Meanwhile, Kaede could only watch from afar as she knelt on a flat rock outside the cabin door, feeling the curious stares from the inner camp patrols.

After five hours, the snow had begun to accumulate on her hair and shoulders.

How much longer was left? Even she didn't know.

Not wanting to cause any more trouble for Pascal, Kaede decided to suffer in silence until the Princess released her. Maybe that would be when Sylviane returned from the meeting. Maybe it would have wait until morning tomorrow.

Her legs were already numb from the pain, to the point where she could barely even feel them. The rock had a few uneven ridges that really hurt at the beginning. The thin fabric of her stockings certainly did nothing to help.

But it was still a small price to pay, compared to alternatives like being pilloried for days, or beaten, or branded. After all, Hyperion was still in the pre-modern days of physical punishments -- which were actually considered 'light', compared to magical sanctions.

She just wished someone would bring a plate of that alluring chicken broth that the camp was feasting on. Thanks to Pascal, her stomach hadn't been refilled since lunch yesterday.

"Happy Christmas, Kaede," she muttered to herself as she leaned forward, pressing her hands into her stomach.

Her period cramps were acting up again.

Happy Consumer Capitalism Day, Kaede tried to not feel sorry for herself as she repeated her father's favorite joke at this time of the year in Japan.

But this only made it worse as a tear slid out from her eyes, running down the same trail as the countless others she shed when her legs felt like they were about to break.

I want to go home and see Ma and Pa again...

 

----- * * * -----

 

"No... stop...!"

Sylviane shifted in her comfortable bed.

"Please...!"

The Princess rolled over, pulling the comforter up to cover her ears this time.

"No...!"

Her cabin was supposed to be soundproof, yet why was she being awaken by this moaning and groaning?

"I didn't...!"

Grasping her silk casting gloves off the bedside table, Sylviane waved it at the light.

She then sat up in her bed, her thin fingers still rubbing blurry eyes in the dim illumination magic.

Her eyesight soon focused, and it took no time at all to pinpoint the source of her disturbance.

In the far corner of the room, a small girl was curled up on the floor. Her only padding were the black-and-white pseudo-uniform she wore, and the hay padding she slept on top of.

"Kaede..." Sylviane muttered in confusion, before everything flooded back to her.

The stone ring. The encounters. The battle.

The caustic words she spewed towards Edith, towards her own officers and men... and worst of all, towards Pascal.

He had supported her through her worst moments. He had stood as the last pillar in her life, as the only person she could still rely on.

...She almost had him arrested, humiliated in public, and whipped to within an inch of his life.

Mari had intervened in time to avoid that catastrophe, but neither of her armigers could persuade her not to take her anger out on the familiar.

Kaede had knelt outside in the snow, on an uneven rock, with her legs glued to the spot by a sticky spell, for ten hours. Then, as a means of further humiliating the girl who could no longer even walk, Sylviane had given her only a bundle of hay to sleep on.

...Not even enough for a human, but just enough for a dog.

"Stay away...!" Kaede jerked her leg, her body squirming to push herself even further into the corner.

Even the reasons Sylviane had ridiculed proved true, as the Samaran familiar was relapsing into those nightmares right before her very eyes.

Oh blessed Lord... what have I done...

The Princess' hands were shaking as she arced her head towards her palms.

She had repaid kindness with ingratitude, rewarded aid with anger, and held back exactly none of her worst urges.

Her envy, her apathy, her cruelty, her wrath... they were traits more hideous than any scar or deformity, yet she flaunted them openly before the eyes of the world as though they were glittering jewelry.

...It was no wonder why Hauteclaire hadn't returned the entire day.

Pressing her palms together, Sylviane bent over in her own bed as tears of regret and self-contempt pricked her glass eyes.

Oh Holy Father... please forgive me...

Perhaps the Holy Father would; the Lord was merciful, after all. But how could she ever face Pascal after today, how could she ever ask for his forgiveness? Or even apologize to Kaede?

"No...!"

Such words were no longer just the incoherent cries of a girl deluded by the subconscious. They were accusations against the Princess' cruelty towards an innocent, reminders of the compounding sins that would place her in eternal damnation.

I didn't mean it... I swear...

Her eyes were shaking. Her hands were trembling. Sylviane felt like she had woken up from some terrible dream, as though her conscience had returned after being possessed by a demon.

...except there were no such excuses to shield her from facing her own wickedness.

She could still remember the satisfaction when she stuck the familiar's legs onto that torturous rock and walked away, leaving the horrified girl alone to suffer.

"It's not...!" Kaede twitched again.

This is my fault... this is all mine...

Unable to bear the terrified stammering anymore, Sylviane pushed off the comforter and stood up in her underwear. Half afraid and half rushing, she made her way over to the trembling girl on the ground.

Sliding down next to the Samaran girl, Sylviane gently stretched out her hands to pull Kaede off the hay padding. Pulling the other girl close against her chest, she folded her head into the other and cried tears of remorse as she plead for atonement.

"I'm sorry. I really am sorry. I didn't mean it."

The Princess never realized when the familiar girl woke up, never saw how terrified those confused pink eyes were as Kaede found herself in the arms of the one who had tortured -- and two weeks ago, nearly raped her.

 

Next Chapter ]

Chapter 9 - Fundamental Bias

Kaede grasped the door frame as she limped out from the Princess' cabin. Her legs still felt like sticks of jelly. The lingering pain had long been replaced by a numbness that refused to go away after the ten hours of torment yesterday.

In fact, it was a testament to Samaran fast healing that she could walk at all.

Unfortunately, the expandable cabin had an elevated floor that raised it two steps above ground. Two short, wooden steps -- which barely even warranted a thought in everyday motion -- now proved a daunting hurdle.

Kaede stretched her stockinged leg down with reluctance. She had a decent footing; but as soon as her body's mass shifted over, even her light weight proved too much. The leg crumbled beneath her, hurling her towards the dirt and pebble ground.

"Kaede--!"

"Air Cushion!"

The distant spell came just in time. The air condensed beneath her, breaking her fall as though a giant, deflating balloon.

"Kaede, are you alright?" Pascal called out as he and Sir Robert rushed up to help her stand.

"Sorry..." Kaede muttered, ashamed that she couldn't even walk by herself.

I feel like a crippled on rehab...

"You have nothing to apologize for," Pascal scolded.

There was no trace of his prideful or teasing smile. Her master wore only one expression today: tight-jawed brooding.

With the two men holding onto her arms, Kaede teetered over to a yew tree in the center of the clearing and sat down against its trunk.

"How was calling her name supposed to help anyway?" Pascal turned back to face Robert, who bit down on his lips in annoyance with himself.

"Pascal... don't be a jerk," Kaede retorted for the abashed armiger. "I'm glad you broke the fall, but not everyone thinks as fast on their feet."

"No, he's right," Robert sighed as his eyes bore a hole into the ground. "I'm never helpful when I could have helped."

The gloomy dejection was in stark contrast to the usual bright demeanor of this boyishly handsome knight.

It made Kaede cast a scowl in her master's direction, only to bounce off his thick skin completely.

...Although to be fair, he wasn't exactly paying attention.

"Here we are -- Rejuvenate spell," Pascal settled on a page of the tome he had pulled out.

He then knelt down besides Kaede's outstretched legs:

"Give me a minute. I have not cast this for a long time."

Not being a specialized healer, there was no reason for him to dedicate the higher tier curative spells into muscle memory. But that meant he had to use spellcraft the hard way: by zoning out from the world and focusing all attention inwards, he would align his nerve conduits into the proper arrays necessary for shaping ether into manifesting the supernatural.

It left the other two in a brief moment of silence.

"How is Her Highness doing?" Sir Robert tentatively asked.

"Lady Mari is with her now, trying to get her to go back to sleep," Kaede spoke with care, hoping to suppress her own mixed emotions toward the Princess.

She had silently cried herself to sleep last night, only to wake up in the Princess' arms during the midst of a nightmare. Befuddled and agitated, her mind soon conjured a dire fear of impending rape -- a continuation of that one time when the Princess almost molested her.

Kaede struggled in panic at first, twisting and straining against the tight embrace. But as foreign tears fell wet against her cheeks, she came upon the realization that the Princess truly harbored no ill intent.

...In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Sylviane's sobbing apologies came in an endless stream, and they were not just sincere but made in almost desperation. Rather than merely the voice of someone with a guilty conscience, they felt like the confessions of a woman struggling to maintain her sense of identity -- one where she still controlled her own actions.

Sure, Kaede was still scared. Yes, she still felt bitter and sullen. But in the face of such emotional misery, it had been impossible for her not to feel sorrow and pity in return.

The barriers crumbled one at a time. Before long, Kaede found herself hugging Sylviane back. Hesitantly at first, but with soft, reassuring whispers as the night went on.

It was hard not to extend forgiveness when the other made such a hard landing in bleak, utter depression.

Besides, what else could I have done? She is Pascal's fiancée...

The two girls had stayed like that for the rest of the night: a princess and a familiar, on the cold floor and in each others' arms, silent except for the intermittent sobs and the occasional whisper.

...Though to be honest, both the situation and the posture had grown rather uncomfortable over time. Kaede was certainly glad when Lady Mari returned in the morning.

Talk about a 'unique' bonding experience...

Kaede could probably forgive the Princess this time. After all, Sylviane was truly sorry for it, no permanent damage had been done, and her own legs would recover in a day or two. As far as punishments went, the Princess certainly could have done far worse: being told to kneel for hours was closer to the disciplining of an old-fashioned Japanese schoolteacher than vindictive royalty.

Emotionally though, She was still struggling to persist that forgiveness.

It was hard to not feel bitter when she couldn't even walk by herself.

But... what about the next time? she worried.

...Will I even manage to walk away?

"Sir Robert, could you please tell me..." she began, her brain grasping at straws to cushion the blunt statement. "Is the Princess... mentally unstable, or something?"

Robert's brows furrowed back at that.

"Yes... and no."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

The young armiger sighed in exasperation, as though he was unearthing a horse that had long been beaten dead.

"It means Her Highness is bipolar -- her mood swings like the moon and its two faces. It's obvious to anyone who understands what bipolarity means. Except my father wouldn't actually classify her as bipolar because her bipolarity isn't severe enough."

Kaede thought back to yesterday, when Sylviane went from raging machine to sobbing wreck within the span of just a few hours.

"You call that 'not severe enough'?" Her eyebrows shot up in response.

"To be considered a proper mania episode, it has to last at least four days," Robert emphasized. "Yesterday was the worst one I've seen from Her Highness to date, but it hadn't even hit forty hours before subsiding..."

Four days! Kaede shivered at the prospect. If yesterday was any indication of how quickly events could spin out of control, she would be the victim of 'off with her head!' by the end of it.

"--Not to mention her 'hypomania' are a milder form of the bipolar 'mania' episodes -- ones where we could still talk her out of some poorly influenced decisions," Robert finished with a grave stare. "'True bipolarity' is utterly crippling."

The fact they had such precise, clinical terminology for psychological disorders was yet another sign of just how advanced Hyperion medical sciences were. It reminded Kaede of how much she grossly oversimplified a complex reality every time she slapped the label of 'pre-industrial society' upon this world.

"I take it that your father is some kind of expert in this field then?"

"As close as it gets," he half-shrugged. "Both of my parents are actually healers by training. They've campaigned alongside the army in every recent war Rhin-Lotharingie has fought and spent countless hours patching troops together. But over the years they realized that while physical wounds could be readily healed by curative spells, the mental scars that veterans accumulated were... much more difficult."

Of course, Kaede reflected. Not only do Hyperion mages live much longer, but magic can bring a level of destructive savagery onto the battlefield unseen on Earth until the World Wars...

Robert then offered her a wry smile. He wasn't instantly rebounding from his earlier moment of depression, but there was still a shadow of his usual cheery self as he explained with a personal passion:

"You could say they're pioneers in the field. In fact, they were the ones who coined the terms 'anxiety disorder' and 'mood disorder' to separate behaviors like panic attacks from the more common problems we see in everyday life -- like mania and depression."

"Why did you become a royal armiger if both of your parents are healers?" Kaede puzzled. "It's obvious that you're interested in their line of work."

"Well..." Robert scratched his cheek.

"You see, I had wanted to be a healer. I mean, like most boys, I wanted to be like my father, to help others and see the gratitude in my patients' smiles. But my parents? They wanted me to be a royal attendant... They told me that it was a rare opportunity, since they had become acquainted with the Emperor thanks to his interest in their work. They said that if I truly wanted to help other people, this was the better way."

Of course, Kaede nodded. The difference in scale was just incomparable.

A doctor might be able to help individuals. But those in position to advise powerful figures could influence policy that benefited entire nations. Only those blinded by idealism would fail to see which could contribute more to society as a whole.

Meanwhile, Robert took a deep breath as he leaned back against the yew tree.

"But you know, I was a child back then -- I could only see the results that were in front of me. So one day when I was ten, papa decided he had enough of my pestering to become a healer, and chose settle the matter once and for all."

His countenance clouded as he sat down besides Kaede and stared into the sky.

"I didn't grow up with many children nearby. So the animals of our elderly neighbor's farm sort of... became my friends. But on that day, papa told me that we could adopt one of their dogs or even a mare as our own. He asked me to pick my favorite... so I called Arly out..."

Even now, there was still a sense of lingering guilt as his vivid-green eyes darkened.

"He struck her down with a cutting spell right in front of me."

One thing was clear: for all the dedication his parents poured into researching the effects of trauma, they did not hesitate to inflict one upon their own son.

"I was appalled," his breathing hastened as outraged memories flashed across his eyes. "I screamed at papa, pleaded for him to heal her. But there he was, just calmly watching her thrash and whimper her life away. There was blood all over, but he paid it no mind and looked at me with the coldest eyes I had ever seen in him. He asked me which could be done faster, easier: to kill them all, one by one just like that, or to save even one of them from death."

...Just as a prince could kill men faster than any healer could save. Kaede thought.

Robert sighed once again before simpering at himself:

"I never did forgive him for that."

"That must have been... difficult," Kaede's wispy voice barely made out.

"It certainly changed me, changed how I looked at everything," he admitted. "It also made me realize that the world... was just really unfair. That becoming an adult means to accept reality for what it is, and not what it should be."

"Because you can harm others faster than you can help them?"

"Well... yes," he gave a tilted nod. "Also the fact that the Knight Hospitallers -- the only institution in Rhin-Lotharingie that offers training in both arts at the same time -- doesn't accept any men."

"But--Ouch!"

Kaede's attention swiveled back to Pascal as his healing spell finished with an electrifying shock.

"Owowowowow..." her legs seized up as the lingering electricity coursed through her nerves for several seconds.

"What was that for!?"

"As I have said: Rejuvenate spell," Pascal noted as he stood back up to stretch his legs. "There is a shock component in it to re-energize your nerves, or did you forget that time when Parzifal cast it on you after the assassination attempt on me?"

"My legs need healing, not electric shock therapy!"

"The shock is part of the healing spell though," Pascal puzzled back.

Recognizing that her cause was 'lost in translation', Kaede turned to Sir Robert for a third opinion.

"Well don't look to me," he replied. "I thought His Grace picked the right spell... but I'm no professional healer."


...


In the end, Pascal settled on applying several Climatize Invigorate spells on her legs. They kept her muscles bundled in a soothing warmth, all while the slow healing effect aided in repairing any damage inflicted from yesterday.

"So what are the full symptoms of this 'hypomania'?" Kaede asked.

After all, understanding was always the first step, and it seemed that Pascal had already received this 'talk'.

"A 'hypomania' episode is a period when her mental functions move into an elevated state," Sir Robert explained as he casually stood just five paces away. "There are actually many characteristics associated with it -- which is what makes these episodes difficult to identify. But the most common traits are hyperactivity, restlessness, inflated confidence to the point of grandiosity, and a general lack of inhibitions..."

"So... what Pascal suffers from all the time," Kaede nodded back earnestly.

"Hey!" her master retorted from the right, apparently offended.

It was actually a welcoming change from his dead-serious face. Furthermore, it also returned a real smile to Robert's countenance.

"The key difference is that 'hypomania' is an episodic event -- a specific, finite period of time when her personality deviates from the norm," Robert clarified. Then, with a humored nod to Pascal: "although Kaede isn't entirely wrong. Her Highness is more like Your Grace during these episodes than Your Grace would like to admit."

"I do not lack inhibitions!" the Landgrave shot back.

So you're not denying the 'grandiosity' then?

Meanwhile, Robert's eyebrows shot up:

"I heard Your Grace once painted the entire Königsfeld Academy in rainbow colors, then filled its corridors with glowing swarms of pink flamingos."

"That happened only once!"

"I'm sure Your Grace's academic advisor could give me a full list of similar examples if we asked," Robert stared back as though a real psychiatrist in diagnosis mode. "But don't worry: denial is a common initial response for all individuals suffering from such a condition."

Kaede had tried to suppress her laughter -- which turned into a rather feminine giggle that left both men with a tinge of red across their cheeks... albeit for very different reasons.

"But to be serious," Robert cleared his expression. "High confidence and self-esteem do tend to bloat one's perceived value of their own decision-making..."

Feeling a hint guilty for laughing at him, Kaede decided to defend her master this time:

"Pascal often argues with himself though. So his differing voices of reason is acting as his own self-checking inhibitor."

"Right," Robert simply nodded. "But Her Highness isn't used to being supremely confident. Her own self-doubts are what's normally holding her back; they make sure that every decision is thoroughly examined and reconsidered. But when you remove that and pump her full of self-assurance..."

She goes off the rails like a runaway train fueled by her own righteousness.

"Are you saying," Pascal's eyes suddenly widened. "That she becomes like this because she wants to be more confident in herself?"

"That's a theory," Robert shrugged back. "Honestly, even my parents have no idea. It may very well be a combination of factors, and the burdens on her as a Crown Princess is just one of them. All we know is that faekissed in general exhibit mood disorders with greater frequency, and that for Her Highness, the hyperactivity goes straight to her head when she enters 'hypomania' mode."

"What do you mean?"

Instead of responding, Robert pulled open one of his extradimensional belt pouches and reached into it. What came out was a stack of papers that he handed to Pascal:

"Speaking of which, Her Highness wanted these done today... or as soon as possible. Though I would suggest you discuss them with the senior lords and commanders first. Unlike Weichsel, the Rhin-Lotharingie military is still feudal; the various dukes have authority over their fiefdoms' battalions. It would be best if we snubbed as few prominent noses as possible."

"I know that," Pascal added irritably as he began to flip through them.

"What is it?" Kaede asked from the ground beside him.

"Charts for restructuring the army and various officer assignments for reorganizing the devastated battalions..."

With awe rising in his tone, Pascal then stared back at Sir Robert in disbelief:

"When did she manage this?"

"Last night, before she let Kaede back in and slept."

"Last night?" Pascal's jaw dropped. "She had but a few hours! It would take even a headquarters staff -- an entire team of people -- multiple days to examine the hundreds of personnel available and make such proposals!"

"Like I said: straight to her head," the royal armiger reiterated. "I dare say that her brain works even faster than yours when she is in one of these energized states."

"So these 'hypomania' episodes give her a boost to intelligence?" Kaede pondered aloud.

"--In exchange for her emotional self-control, yes," Robert nodded back. "It also gives her energy when she is exhausted; it offers her inspiration when she is stuck; it brings her courage when she stands against daunting odds; and these papers here are just another perfect example of what she can manage during a crisis."

Meanwhile, Pascal was still stunned speechless as he kept flipping through the papers, his own mental circuits already tapped to analyze her 'suggestions'.

"Of course, the trouble is that the more intense her episode, the less self-control she has; not to mention the worse her depression becomes when her mental high crashes afterwards," the armiger finalized as he glimpsed toward the Princess' cabin with concern.

"Is that why... you believe she'll make a good ruler? Despite her condition?" Kaede hesitantly asked.

Swiveling back around, Robert pursed his lips in deep thought.

"Maybe a little..." he admitted after a brief moment. "Though my main reason is simply that Her Highness is still a good person, especially between her episodes. Even at her worst, I do not believe that she would commit a blatant evil. She may toe the line, but not even her mania would be able to justify a true crime to herself.

"...Besides," he added, "if anything, I would support her for the throne because of this."

"Because you think the pros outweighs the cons?" Kaede's brows furrowed, not really convinced by the idea herself.

"No," Robert corrected her at once. "Because what makes her a little bit insane actually leaves her saner than most of us."

Kaede blinked back, not understanding, but the young armiger beamed in response:

"How long do you think it would normally take for a prideful sovereign to acknowledge their own failings?"


...


Pascal had barely said another sentence before departing, only claiming that he had best start the reorganization process immediately. Although before he left, he told Kaede that he would drop by the field kitchens and tell the maid Marina to come take care of her lady today.

Perhaps not surprising for a trained spy, Marina was multilingual and even had a native Lotharin accent. Combined with her servant status which had most people ignore her as part of the background, it made her the perfect candidate for discretely gathering information from the Lotharin forces -- especially the officers' tables as they shared meals and alcohol.

But as soon as Pascal walked out of sight, Sir Robert pulled Kaede's attention back with an expression of unease:

"Kaede, I... we, rather, owe you an apology."

"Why?" She felt her emotions tense. "It wasn't your fault for what happened yesterday."

"By we, I meant Mari and myself. We... didn't exactly try very hard to stop Her Highness yesterday..."

His statement only puzzled Kaede more. She remembered both of them kneeling on the ground and pleading to the Princess. If that wasn't 'trying very hard', then what was? They could hardly slap a royal highness and expect it to bring her back some sense. That only worked in fantasies. In reality, it would only land them in the oubliette.

"You put yourselves in her line of fire and begged for her to reconsider. What more could you have done?"

"Yes, we did that. In fact, we did everything we could think of to keep Her Highness from having His Grace flogged in public -- that would simply have been an unmitigated disaster..."

Robert exhaled a deep breath -- at least the worst scenario had been avoided.

"But... we didn't exactly try very hard to hold her back when she imposed an excessive punishment on you. That's why... both of us owe you an apology."

Kaede thought back. She had been too distraught over her own welfare at the time. However, it was true that neither of them offered anything more than verbal objections when Sylviane hauled Kaede outside and glued her legs to a rock.

At the time, she had thought it was simply because they saw it as a hopeless cause. But in hindsight...

Her emotions suddenly flared as she felt wronged for a second time.

"Excessive?" she hissed. "It was unwarranted! At least Pascal was to blame for some of the fault. I was innocent!"

The armiger sighed as though he expected this.

"Pardon me, but no, you're not," Robert insisted as he stared back into her aggrieved gaze. "How would you like it if your fiancé was sleeping with another woman? Whatever the circumstance?"

"But that's--!"

"You must remember that the higher an individual's social status, the more they value reputation and image; for royalty, this becomes critical as legitimacy is above all," he added sternly. "Infidelity towards a sovereign is a capital offense for a reason -- because even the illusion of it undermines their authority."

"Nobody will obey an empress who becomes the laughing stock of the court," he finished.

Kaede bit down on her lip as she looked away. The historian in her knew this perfectly well: how many adulterous queens and ladies had been jailed or executed outright over the centuries for high treason? Many of them weren't even proven guilty; merely the public accusation had been devastating enough to ruin their reputation.

It's still unfair, she couldn't help but fume in silence.

"But the fact is," Robert continued after the pause. "Her Highness knew perfectly well that both of you were innocent, and that you had no intention of undermining her. She should have just given you a warning, or some proverbial slap on the wrist. Instead, she took her anger and jealousy out on you... and we..."

He sighed once more before an ashamed voice conceded to the inevitable:

"--And we allowed her to do it."

Kaede's gaze spun back in an instant, meeting only a guilty, apologetic light from those vivid-green eyes.

It wasn't because he felt like he couldn't stop the Princess.

No, he chose to step aside.

"Why did you then?" she whispered, feeling what could only be classified as betrayal -- even though he had never been truly on 'her side' in the first place.

"Because it was either you, or hold her temper back and risk her blowing it off at someone else later in the day... and, I'm sorry, but she had far more important people to meet," he explained with brutal honesty.

"So I'm the punching bag?"

Kaede's phrase left Robert lost for a split second, but her glare made it perfectly clear what she meant.

"We don't punch bags," he insisted first. "But true 'loyalty' means going beyond what is simply expected of us. And occasionally -- rarely, for something this serious -- that means being dealt the unfair card because we are the ones they can afford to offend."

Robert then turned towards the east, eying the sun that was now halfway up the cloudy, morning skies.

"If you cannot understand that, then you might want to reconsider this life," his solemn voice added. "The trust we are given is not without its price."

"You say that as though I chose this life," Kaede mumbled in retort.

"Neither did I," Robert half-shrugged as he looked back, peaceful.

"Those who stay among the aristocracy do not choose. We're simply given a role to play."

He then took a step away, halted, and swiveled right back around to stare at her again:

"By the way, is it true that you were a young man before being summoned?"

Kaede gawked back for a moment, floored by the unexpected question.

"...Yes?"

Robert tilted his head and looked up as he considered the implications.

"You know -- I'm kind of envious."

With that, the young armiger turned away once more and walked off, leaving Kaede with her mouth hanging in astonishment.

What is there to be envious about? or does the psychiatrist himself needs psychological help?

 

----- * * * -----

 

Edith groaned as her consciousness returned.

A burning ache permeated her body. Every part of her below the neck felt numb and sluggish. Even the warmth of the phoenix aura, which usually soothed her with a gentle touch, seemed oppressive and stifling.

It was as though her muscles were in open rebellion after the brutal treatment they had been put through... yet again.

It wasn't even the first time this week. Since the war began a month ago, she must have had nearly a dozen occasions when she would wake up to find her entire body in pain.

At the beginning, she could shrug it off with just a few extra hours of rest. But the duration it took to recover a semblance of normality had escalated with every episode.

"Edith," she heard the gentle voice of Mother Abbess Anne as a damp cloth wiped her sweaty forehead.

Her eyelids fluttered open, meeting a pair of deep-emerald eyes heartbroken with worry.

"M-mother..."

Pressing her elbows against the bed, Edith struggled to even push herself up to a sitting stance.

"Don't..." Anne spoke as she laid a tender hand on Edith's arm. "Your body is exorcising all the damage it accumulated. Let it rest."

In other words, she was in a 'controlled fever'; except instead of being a natural bodily response to disease, her 'fever' was induced to accelerate internal cleanup and repair.

It was no wonder why her body felt hot and her lips parched; the atmosphere seemed sweltering compared to the usual aura from her phoenix Durandal.

She soon noticed that there were in fact two phoenixes standing atop her comforter. Her Durandal was joined by his best friend Hauteclaire, both of whom chirped as they looked up towards her with expectant eyes.

Edith could feel the ether streaming through her familiar link. Durandal was not just feeding her magical energy; he was cycling his innate power through her, burning away all contaminants with the blazing heat of purification.

"W-water... please..."

With one arm behind her back, Anne slowly helped Edith lean up -- just high enough to sip from a waiting cup.

"You almost died this time, you know," the Mother Abbess spoke in a pained voice. "You've been unconscious for two nights! Even though the backlash from the sword is supposedly 'non-lethal', there's only so much your body can endure!"

After finishing the entire cup, Edith laid back down, albeit against a few extra pillows this time.

"You know I have to do it, mother," the saint smiled weakly. "I am the only one who can do it, and therefore I must do it."

"It is... the Holy Father's will."

The Mother Abbess pursed her lips. It was clear just how much she hated those words in this instance.

"Were it not, I would take that sword away from you in a heartbeat," Anne declared. "You may be the Holy Father's daughter first, but I'm the one who raised you! Saint of the Church or not, I am still your mother."

"...And I will never forget that, mother," Edith beamed with gratitude. "None of us will."


...


"How is everyone?" Edith asked some minutes later, after she had drunk three more cups, and Hauteclaire had departed back to his master.

"We've retreated back to the Gwilen River crossings," Anne began. Though her words soon turned to acid: "Her Highness, or more precisely, that Weichsel fiancé of hers, has more or less taken command of the army using her authority."

"It matters not who is in command as long as the soldiers managed to withdraw safely," Edith smiled with relief.

"But he has completely rewritten our strategy and began reorganizing our forces, without even the courtesy of consulting you -- the official commander in charge of this front -- or even your plans first!"

Edith tilted her head. Whereas others might see it as an insult to their honor, she felt that it was only natural.

"Well, I have been rather... unconscious. The war waits on no one."

"That is no reason to scrap all of your arrangements without so much a word!"

"Mother..." Edith returned a calming smile. "I don't mind. I really don't. We all know that I am by far the least experienced of the front commanders..."

"--As if that pretentious, insolent brat has any more experience than you do," the Mother Abbess scoffed. "At least you've had practice commanding a border garrison for the past decade."

"Nevertheless," the saint patiently added, "if the Holy Father has sent Her Highness, then her fiancé is just as much a part of his plans. After all, His Grace is the prodigal son of the famous Marshal of Weichsel. If our Lord wishes to make use of his talents to aid our country in repelling the infidels, then whom are we to say no?"

But Anne wasn't convinced in the slightest:

"Who is to say that the Holy Father has sent them? I should remind you that she is the daughter of an apostate! Her father was excommunicated by the representative of our Lord!"

Edith winced at those words. If Princess Sylviane could be tainted by her birth, then what about herself? After all, Edith's father didn't... couldn't even acknowledge her as his own.

"...And I, am a bastard in the eyes of the Holy Father," she felt the stabbing pain in her chest.

Anne's expression softened as her lips twisted under an apologetic frown:

"The sin is your father's! You, my daughter, are innocent! The Lord himself has expressed that you are blameless -- how could a sinner be recognized as a saint?"

"Then... surely, Her Highness also cannot be held responsible for the wrongdoings of her father."

...Especially when they were accusations that Edith wasn't convinced of. This was an emperor who had toiled for the good of his people, who had shown her such personal generosity, who had risked his personal safety in order to meet this crisis upon the Trinitian Realm -- and consequently, lost his very life.

How could such a man be condemned to hell for all eternity?

Unless... Edith agonized, the man I knew had entirely been a lie.

"It is not the same," Anne sighed. "You were brought up within the sanctity of the Church and taught all that is good about the world. The Princess... was groomed by an apostate."

Feeling uneasy, Edith had opened her lips again to counter, only to halt when the Mother Abbess stopped her with a raised hand.

"You were not there at the meeting yesterday," Anne's sad tone rang with disappointment. An agitation fueled by disillusion soon began working its way in: "you did not hear how she callously advocated that we forsake our vows and abandon the innocent. You did not see how she lashed out at the officers for bravely making our stand; how she raved with the fury of one possessed! She even stated that we should have just retreated -- turned our backs upon helpless women and children! -- while those immoral disbelievers overran the main refugee column."

"--Why? Why would she say such things, if she was truly the chosen of our Lord?" Anne exclaimed. "No virtuous woman would speak such blasphemy! Unless, of course, she was not sent by the Holy Father, but by the Devil to trick and deceive us, to tempt us into damnation instead!"

With a deep breath, Edith returned an uncertain gaze.

To her dying day, she doubted she could forget that moment when Princess Sylviane's white-blue hew soared in from the horizon. When all hope seemed lost, when forty thousand Lotharins found themselves in the noose of Cataliyan cavalry, the Cerulean Princess had descended like the light of heavens to save the day.

It seemed too perfect, too beautiful not to be the work of the Holy Father.

"I don't know... mother," Edith shook her head. "If the Holy Father worked in such a straightforward manner, then he should have crushed the Tauheed uprisings before they ever forged the Caliphate. But rather than allow the Imperium to spread the Holy Scriptures far and wide, he allowed one nation after another to break away..."

"That is because the Imperium is decadent and sinful," Anne stated.

"But surely, it is still better for the people to be educated in the true words of our Lord?" Edith thought aloud. "Even if the state is sinful and most of its people corrupt, would it not still be better than an empire of false religion that sought to lead everyone astray?"

This time, even the Mother Abbess could not answer.

"What are you trying to say?" She asked with a troubled expression.

"I am saying that whatever plans the Holy Father has, they are well beyond our comprehension," Edith replied. "It is folly, if not outright arrogant of us, to believe that we can understand his work -- when he is all knowing, while we see but a few kilopaces before us."

"You believe we should place our faith in the Princess then? When her words actively seek to lead us astray?"

With no clear answers to guide her, Edith could only frown and look out the window.

O Holy Father... just what is your will?

But there came only silence, only dark clouds that continued to obscured the heavens.

She had to think for herself, to remember those truthful words that -- in a fit of irony -- had been taught to her by the same emperor now cast off by the representative of the Lord:

Would our blessed, merciful savior do thus?

"I would like to give her the benefit of the doubt first," Edith decided. "After all, we are but imperfect creations of the Holy Father, and none of us are without sin. Following such catastrophic losses, perhaps her judgment merely erred in a moment of helpless frustration... Lord knows I have done similar."

She then turned back to Anne:

"However, mother, you are also right: the Holy Father would never love someone who gladly abandons the innocent. Thus," she added with increasing discomfort, "we must also prepare ourselves for the worst possibility -- that she is indeed tainted by evil, and therefore unworthy of the throne."

...Just like that king-and-kin-slayer Gabriel.

Edith had announced years ago that she served only the Holy Father, and would not take part in any petty conflicts between fellow Trinitians. But despite Duke Gabriel's papal backing as the Defender of the Faith, she... just couldn't pretend to approve of him.

Staring at the subordinate who was also her foster mother, the Crusader Saint declared her intent as the road forked before them:

"Mother, privately contact every duke and senior battalion commander whose character you can trust. Tell them that for now, we should follow Her Highness. However... should she fail to correct her behavior and follow the virtues and responsibilities entrusted to her by the Holy Father, then make sure they're ready."

"After the number of toes Her Highness stepped on yesterday," Anne scoffed, "acquiring their support will be easy."

With a nod and a deep breath, the saint then announced her firm resolution:

"Should that time come, I shall lead the coup myself."

 

Next Chapter ]

Chapter 10 - Benign Interference

"I never thought it would be this bad, Hakim."

Standing at the crest of a shallow, grassy knoll, the commander of the Caraliyyah Caliphate (which the Trinitians somehow mumbled into 'Cataliya') western front army looked down the aisles of his field hospital. Rows upon rows of white tents bore the Red Crescent -- the crystal light red of Samaran 'Fluid of Life' that all healers shared in common. Thousands of sick, quarantined troops overflowed even their capacity, overwhelming the amply prepared medical battalions attached to the army.

Baha ad-Din Salim ibn Ziyad pulled at the hairs beneath his thickly-bearded chin. It was a bad habit he regressed to every time he felt frustrated, but he doubted any general worth his salt could feel more helpless than he did right now.

"Flu, typhus, and now even dysentery? How could this happen? So quickly?" Salim turned about to face his second-in-command.

"The problems have been present since the start, Your Eminence," Hakim answered, his countenance blank as tranquil water. "We walk among a land and climate alien to our kinds. Our men grew up on the arid savanna and scorching deserts and tropical coasts, while they now trek beneath the gloom of a northwestern winter and its freezing rains."

"The human body is frail and slow to adapt," he added. "How could they not fall sick?"

"But why now? Why the sudden surge?" Salim countered. "We entered Rhin-Lotharingie over a month ago. Our soldiers have been falling sick since week one, yet the healers have always managed to keep the illness contained. I even moderated our pace of advance to stay the troops from exhaustion."

"All resources have limitations, Your Eminence," replied the advisor. "The heavy casualties incurred in our last battle drained our healers' ether and expended their supply of Samaran blood. How could they cope with another disease outbreak immediately afterwards?"

Hakim had the appearance of a beautiful, scholarly young man clad in white robes. He was too tall to be inconspicuous, too pale to be a descendant of the desert tribes. But advisors of exotic origins were nothing new in the Caliphate. Affluent individuals often sought to claim wives or servants of distant origins, as it was widely considered a fashionable display of wealth... or in Salim's eyes, decadence.

But looks were also deceiving. Hakim... wasn't even human.

A close examination would reveal faded blue hues that seemed to billow across his very skin. Instead of supple human tissue, his 'flesh' was an illusion. They were embers condensed into layers to take on a tangible profile, blending in easily amidst humankind.

Hakim was a jinni -- a race veiled in mystery, a creature of smokeless flames.

The human and jinn societies shared a God, a Prophet, and even an empire -- yet they remain segregated to this day. Hakim was among the few who intermingled with humans. He was one of the marid caste, the elite class of scholars and leaders among his people's rigid social hierarchy.

The Caliphate's western front army had only twenty marids in total, plus several hundred ifrits -- jinn of the warrior caste. But the numeric racial imbalance did not stop the Caliphate's military traditions: every commander of the brigade level and above was paired with his or her own wazir, a marid who served as their second-in-command.

The other nations of Hyperion might have equated this to the 'chief-of-staff' position. But the truth was far more complicated than that. The bond between commandant and wazir was forged for life -- usually the shorter, human life. But until death breaks them apart, the two shared all assignments, promotions, and punishments equally.

"Battalions! Full stop!" came a distant yell from behind the two leaders.

The order echoed down the road from one officer after another. The wheels creaked and hooves stamped against hardened ground. A supply convoy of several hundred horse-drawn wagons snaked down the earthen path until it vanished between the wooded hills. They halted at the encampment's outer security perimeter, where the captain on watch verified their identity before letting them through.

The scene was almost suspicious -- it had been weeks since Salim witnessed such an unmolested column.

Most supply trains had to run a gauntlet of ambushes on their journey to the front, if they arrived at all. By the time they reached camp, the wagons would roll in with Lotharin arrows sticking out from their sides, escorting guards in bloody bandages, and half-burnt carts carrying men too injured to walk.

Salim's army of 80,000 soldiers consumed over 50,000 stones (nearly 300 wagon loads) of bread, 40,000 stones of meat, and 60,000 stones of forage per week. Ferrying such immense quantities from the Caliphate and transporting them safely across several hundred kilopaces of wooded Lotharin hills required a monumental effort from the logistical and reserve corps.

Without adequate supplies, his frontline corps would be forced into 'foraging' -- which in military terms meant seizing grains and livestock from the local populace. Such behavior often encountered resistance, which soon escalated to murder and rape once soldiers draw blood. But even foraging couldn't supply an army of such bulk for long, and within days the troops would begin to starve. In a realm where the average commoner knew how to use a bow, this only escalated the problem yet further as vengeful peasants-turned-partisans tightened the noose on logistical lines.

Hence, atrocities against the civilian populace were more than sins. They created a negative feedback loop that quickly spun out of control.

Thankfully, Salim had managed to avoid such a scenario thus far. Battalions of reinforcements from the rear had ensured that this latest delivery of food and medical supplies came through. Meanwhile, the four rotting men hanging by their necks near the entrance served as a potent reminder of his command's "zero tolerance policy" towards all acts of barbarism -- especially the rape those four committed against Lotharin prisoners.

"General!"

The yell came as a squad of light cavalrymen detached themselves from the supply column and galloped towards the hill.

"General!"

The newcomer leaped off his horse and scampered up the grassy knoll. Two dozen wary bodyguards squeezed the handles of their scimitars; they were on the edge of the Caraliyyah encampment and well outside the inner wards. But the officer paid them no mind as he rushed up and took a deep bow.

"Major Hamid," Salim addressed the youthful commander of the 86th Light Cavalry Battalion. "What brings you in such haste?"

"General Salim, I bring dire news," he began immediately. "Early this morning, while my scouts patrolled the surrounding regions to ward off partisan activity, we caught a squad of Lotharins poisoning a natural spring two kilopaces upstream through the disposal of animal carcasses."

Salim's eyes hardened as he turned to his wazir:

"They're poisoning the land..."

"Yes Sir," the Major confirmed. "I've sent my men to double check other water sources in our locale. They have already discovered three other springs, seven wells, and one stream nearby to also be contaminated by the enemy. In three cases, the contagions were well camouflaged, and may have been left there as long as five days ago."

"It certainly explains our sudden influx of disease, and these are probably just the tip of the iceberg," the marid Hakim nodded in contemplation. "The abundance of fresh, running water in these lands has made our officers lax in cleansing what they consume. Perhaps even more importantly -- this shows that our opponent has changed commanders."

"The Oriflamme who joined the battle?"

"Some prisoners claim it was their Princess."

Salim could only scoff at Hakim's statement:

"A mere child then. With the Emperor's untimely demise, her own authority swings in the balance. What can a maiden barely out of her teens command?"

"She doesn't have to," the Wazir warned. "The Weichsel Knights Phantom that devastated our aerogyros must have arrived with her. Even if she is a mere figurehead, that crusader state has more than enough competent generals to lend an experienced commander."

...And the Lotharins might just be desperate enough to listen to those blackened warmongers.

Squeezing his bearded chin, General Salim went quiet as he considered it briefly. No follower of God would forget that it was Weichsel that sparked the First Crusade, thus igniting centuries of Holy Wars between the Caliphate and the Trinitian states.

"That makes sense. Lady Estelle may be a nonbeliever, but she is also a courageous and honorable woman," he spoke with earnest respect. "Such treachery is beneath her dignity and conduct. To poison the water supply would not only harm us, but also their own civilians for many months to come."

Not that many of them remained, Salim thought, as most of the nearby villagers already fled across the river to take shelter behind the Avorican Capital's fortified walls.

"Do we have any information on the status of their command?"

"None," answered Hakim. "We killed and 'captured' several of our own spies during the last battle; two of them were signal officers whom we relied upon to pass information from our agents within their camp. Intelligence has already taken efforts to re-infiltrate them back into the Lotharin ranks, but we have yet to hear back from either."

It really spoke for just how savagely Caliphate forces had mauled the Lotharin army -- they ended up severing even their own spies' communication lines.

"What of the Lotharin saboteurs you encountered?" Salim addressed Major Hamid once more.

"We had cornered their squad, but..."

"But--?"

"Their leader did not surrender. He insulted God in his cowardice, and therefore I killed him in battle."

"What did he say?"

The cavalry major's expression tensed, having realized late that he had already said too much.

"...There is no deity but God," he then uttered before lowering his gaze to the ground.

The phrase was sacred to the Tauheed religion: words spoken not only as a prayer, but as an official declaration of one's conversion -- a transformation which forgave all prior sins.

"Then why did you kill him?" Salim demanded, his calm but chilling voice penetrating all resistance in a display of his twenty years' experience as a judge on the military frontier.

"B-but he spoke them out of fear of our arms!" the Major stammered under the oppressive atmosphere. "They were insolent to God!"

"How do you know? Did you split his heart open and see?"

"Sir, I..."

"Answer me, how do you know? How could you be sure of his insincerity?

"How do you know?"

Kneeling down to the earth, Major Hamid could only bow in regret as the General repeated the question again and again.

"I do not... I cannot!"

With a softening sigh, Salim looked down upon the subordinate who failed to remember one of the fundamental teachings of the Prophet.

"It is not our role to pass judgment upon his faith and piety. If he lies in the name of God, then it is God who shall judge and punish him. Whom are you to take such decisions into your own hands in arrogance?"

For minutes, no words came back as the Major could only stare into the dirt in guilty silence.

Even if there is no military code to adjudicate this, I have to pass judgment, Salim exhaled a deep breath.

The Major had broken a law of God, a law of moral conscience. For discipline and ethics were to be upheld among the soldiers, he must serve as an example and be punished accordingly.

But at the same time, Major Hamid was a seasoned veteran with countless deeds of battlefield valor; if the penalty was excessive, it would discourage the other men. Furthermore, Hamid was among the best wilderness scouts in the army; it would be difficult to replace him and maintain the same level of efficiency.

Salim pursed his lips as he felt his scholarly mind turn, seeking legal precedence as far back as the Prophet's Companions. But unlike his theological counterparts who administered civil law, time was one leisure that he did not have. Every minute in a war zone could be measured in lives; he needed a swift decision so that the Major -- or his replacement -- could be sent back with new orders.

"Major Hamid," the stern-faced General said after a half-minute of deliberation. "You are hereby ordered to fast for the next two months in repentance for your sin -- from sunrise to sunset as if they were the Holy Month of Revelation. Furthermore, you will surrender two years of your salary as blood money."

Relief flooded the young Major's face before bowing again:

"Yes Sir!"

It was easy to be considered merciful when Salim had a reputation for legal severity.

"Hasten your search and identify any fresh water sources remaining, Major Hamid," the General continued. "Focus on our rear where there is less chance of sabotage. Put a watch on any unspoiled water supplies; you may pull two infantry battalions to assist you as needed."

"Yes Sir! It shall be done!"

"In the meantime," Salim added as his voice softened and he squeezed the young man's shoulder. "Repent, reflect, and atone. I will pray for God to forgive you, for it is his law you have broken."

"Yes Sir! ...and thank you," the Major saluted again, this time with gratitude reflecting through his eyes.

As the cavalry commander descended the hill, General Salim exchanged a look with his wazir Hakim:

"You don't approve, dear brother?"

"It simply seems... unlike you," the marid stated, his expression as stale as ever.

Salim returned his gaze to the young Major's back with the traces of a smile. There was a time when he was just like his wazir. But the more he aged -- and the more children his wives gave him -- the more he realized that being logical and impartial was far from enough to being a responsible leader."

"The Caliph once gave me advice to be more fatherly to my men; I am trying to follow it still."

"Sentimentality has little to do with legality though," Hakim simply replied.

"No," Salim admitted. "But it has everything to do with humanity."

After all, did the Prophet himself not say 'kindness is a mark of faith, and whoever has not kindness has not faith.'

The General then watched as the descending Major grew distracted, perhaps even entranced for a brief moment, by the figure of a new arrival traversing up the slopes. The woman's face was obscured by a black veil that revealed only a pair of large, onyx eyes. But in spite of her armor and concealing robes, it was obvious that she was slender of build and took every step with grace.

Salim couldn't help but shake his head as he watched the encounter. Boys.

It wasn't rare to see a woman in the army. The tribes of the south had been forced to enlist women ever since they ran out of manpower during the Dragon-Demon Wars -- over a thousand years before the coming of the Prophet. But although women had relinquished their role among the line infantry and assault cavalry, female-only battalions could still be found among both the logistical and specialist troops.

Of course, the two genders were strictly segregated by both unit organization and camp arrangements. Just because God allowed the two groups to work together didn't mean he tolerated frivolous indecency.

Nevertheless, it was an unusual sight to see a woman wearing the red-striped lamellar armor of the Mubarizun -- champions of the Caliphate armies.

Salim felt his instincts clash as he eyed the newcomer. He had nothing against women; he loved his wives dearly, and had already sent two daughters to institutes of education in law. But hell would freeze over before he allowed any of them to clash blades against the finest killers of his enemy.

...Even if they were also women.

But then... Salim felt his lips twist into a faint smirk. She and her girls are probably the reason why my supplies arrived unhindered.

Not only were these women famous for their keen awareness of the surroundings, but few men could challenge a dervish of ascetic traditions to a sword fight and live.

"Colonel Farah ad-Durr Ismat ad-Din, commander of the Crimson Dervish Mubarizun squadron, reporting for duty, General Salim!" a crisp yet soft voice emerged from her hidden lips as Farah took a deep, respectful bow.

"Welcome, Colonel Farah," Salim returned a polite nod. "How was your trip?"

"We shattered two ambusher companies and the engineers had to repair five sabotaged bridges; so nothing unusual."

Spoken like a true professional, the General smiled.

He rather disliked the inability to read her expression. But then, it would hardly be appropriate for him to ogle the spouse of another man.

"If memory serves, you are the third wife of His Excellency, Emir Salih."

"Yes, General," Farah replied before preempting his next question: "and my husband is glad to see me participate in safeguarding God's faithful and bringing down this so-called 'Saint' of the infidels."


...


As the meeting on the hill continued, neither the Caliphate commanders nor their bodyguards paid any attention to the two disheveled, stray kittens playing among the tall grass just outside earshot.

They were partially right. One of the kittens was a true stray, who stayed with the army thanks to the food that sympathetic soldiers would toss her way. However, the other had been carefully disguised with dirt and dyes, as well as intricately woven wards that concealed her magical aura as a familiar.

The playtime was but a pretense, as she kept a keen eye and two ears on the Cataliyans' conversation at all times. Both sensory feedback relayed straight to her master -- prone and hidden among fallen leaves in a dense patch of trees nearly three kilopaces away.

So a new challenger appears, Cecylia Renata von Falkenhausen mused to herself as she stroked the largest body of her matryoshka cat. ...And naval reinforcements are on their way.

Three days of lying on the cold, hard ground had all been worth it. Her ceaseless observation had gained dividends on its own, but that was nothing compared to the treasure trove of insider information that she overheard now.

Thank the Lord for human carelessness, she smiled to herself.

Of course, as one of the detail-obsessed dhampirs, she had none of that particular weakness.

 

----- * * * -----

 

"Halt!"

Cecylia exhaled a silent sigh as the Lotharin officer called for her to stop. The main allied encampment had four layers of security checkpoints backed by patrols. But by the time she passed the innermost perimeter, she had already been stopped over a dozen times.

It wasn't even because she looked suspicious. Cecylia had swapped her disguise as a peasant teenage boy for her Weichsel regimentals before entering camp. Compared to the mishmash of clothing that common Lotharin soldiers called a 'uniform', her crimson-on-black officer's dress identified her in the crowd with ease.

"Lieutenant Cecylia von Falkenhausen of Weichsel," she turned to salute the Lotharin Captain, a young Avorican nobleman judging by the crest sewn into his seafoam-green tunic.

Cecylia didn't miss the pursing of his lips in disapproval, or the disgust in his gaze as they met her scarlet-crossed pupils.

"What does a sinner like you want with our Saint and Princess?" He almost spat out.

His fingers never once reached for her offered identification scroll. In fact, he stayed just outside arm's reach, as though her mere touch carried a vile contagion.

"I'm on my way to the allied commanders to report the successful completion of my mission," Cecylia kept her head held high and her tone professional.

"What kind of mission would that be? To whore yourself before the enemy just like your ancestors did during the Demonic Invasion?"

A few of the nearby men jeered, but the Lotharin Captain held his expression in contempt, as though his guess had been serious.

This is why I didn't want to stay in camp, Cecylia thought as she held her face expressionless. He's even worse than the usual bigot.

She had prepared herself for this before departing Weichsel; but it had still hurt on the first day when even a lowly cook proclaimed 'we don't serve your kind here'.

Unfortunately, masking herself with illusions while traversing the encampment just wasn't an option. Cecylia's spellcraft wasn't adroit enough to conceal major illusory auras against close scrutiny by trained security officers. To give them suspicion on top of existing prejudice would only serve a recipe for disaster.

"The details of my mission are for command's ears only."

...Not for an insignificant, loathsome half-wit like you, she finished the rest in her head, not wanting to give him an excuse to escalate this further.

"I'm sure a Cataliyan assassin would claim the same thing," the Captain sneered back.

"There are no dhampirs in the Caliphate, and no assassin would be foolish enough fake being one outside of Weichsel."

The retort seemed almost nonchalant, despite the dark history it held. For centuries, the Imperium had prosecuted the dhampirs for their ancestors' betrayal. The Tauheed Caliphate that rose in the south proved even more ruthless; with their continent permanently scarred by the ancient Dragon-Demon Wars, they considered the vampiric descendants to be tainted beyond redemption and therefore worthy of only a quick death.

Cecylia had heard of dhampir communities settling within the Grand Republic of Samara and nations further east. But even though the Blood Oath her predecessors swore made the Falken-clans effective slaves to the Weichsel monarchy, it was still the only country where dhampirs had truly gained a respectable place in society.

Meanwhile, the Lotharin nobleman's brows furrowed as he snapped back:

"Are you calling me a fool?"

"Not at all. I merely spoke of some little-known facts..."

She was still explaining herself when a distant call rang from behind.

"Cecylia!"

Her eyes soon fell upon the short and cute Samaran girl who walked up with a slight limp, arm waving in joyful, if tired cheer.

"Is there a problem with her identification, Captain?" Kaede added in mild confusion as she came closer.

The Lotharin nobleman pursed his lips, obviously recognizing whom the familiar girl belonged to.

"No, not at all," he simply stated before leaving with his men to resume their patrol.

"What was that about?"

Kaede wondered aloud as she staggered up to Cecylia, who wrapped an arm behind the smaller girl to support her.

"In the eyes of most Trinitians, we dhampirs will always be miscreants who transgressed against the Holy Father," Cecylia spoke plainly as she helped Kaede back towards camp's central area.

"...We're used to it though."

The familiar girl, however, only puzzled back:

"But that was over a thousand years ago, right? Today you're a Trinitian just like he is... so what's the difference? If anything, he should be disliking me for being a Samaran and therefore a heathen."

Cecylia couldn't help but smile at Kaede's innocence.

"Except being Samaran makes you a cute, 'tolerated heathen'. Even if you are a nonbeliever, all but the most hard-nosed inquisitors will forgive you for being misguided by your 'past life' memories. Of course, the Grand Republic's 'Blood Bank' diplomacy certainly helped."

"By the way, what happened to your leg?" the dhampir then added.

With a bitter sigh, Kaede's expression clouded:

"The Princess happened."

 

----- * * * -----

 

"...And that concludes my report," Cecylia finished as she faced the assembled commanders of the allied force, doing her best to ignore a dozen repellent stares.

"Eight new battalions; that's over four thousand reinforcements..."

"Another twelve thousand on the way by sea as well..."

"They're transferring air cavalry to this front also, those Wasteland drakes..."

The room almost shuddered at the prospect of facing those contaminated monsters from the demon-tainted lands.

"I anticipate they'll be advancing again in a day or two," surmised Major Hans, the Weichsel intelligence officer.

His eyes then returned to the map table, staring at the river fords before the Avorican Capital.

"They'll force the river crossing and lay siege to Roazhon. Once those reinforcements arrive, they'll begin assaulting the city."

"Obviously," jeered Count Albert, a fifty-year old nobleman -- his looks in his mid-twenties -- who came from a branch of the powerful House of Condé.

He was also a younger brother to the Duke of Atrebates, who died heroically defending the right flank in the previous battle.

"--That is why we've spent the past four days fortifying the riverbanks, is it not?" Albert shot Hans another mocking stare before turning towards Pascal. "What I do not understand is why you've taken away hundreds of men and officers from my brother's battalions -- troops that should rightfully fall under my jurisdiction."

"...And many of my soldiers as well," another Lotharin noble joined in.

"Mine too!"

"What gives you the right to snatch our troops as you see fit?" Albert objected, emboldened by the others' support. "You're just an outsider. A Wick... Weichsel Major at that!"

The door to the command cabin opened and closed, but Pascal was too busy to see who it was.

"I am only carrying out reorganization orders from Princess Sylviane," he pulled out the stack of papers from his extradimensional pocket and shook it in his hands. His eyes then glared between several other nobles who spoke out. "I informed each of you about this two days ago. You agreed then!"

"Only because you browbeat them into it with those so-called 'orders' from Her Highness!" Albert spat out. "And you certainly didn't consult me!"

"They were not your troops in the first place!" Pascal countered, his temper flaring.

"Milord, please," Major Hans tried to intercede on Pascal's behalf. "After our heavy losses from the last battle, it is only natural that we disband the units that suffered the worst casualties and use their manpower to replenish other formations..."

"Shut up, you peasant," the Count sent him another glare. "I don't care how it is in Weichsel, but you have no right to speak here!"

Major Hans' face went red in an instant. But he nevertheless bit back his tongue, clearly realizing that anything he said would only make the situation worse.

"If the Princess wants these done, then why does she not tell us herself? Why has none of us even seen her for the past two days!? Not even a Farspeak message?" Count Albert demanded.

"I have told you..." Pascal tried desperately to keep his own simmering anger under control. "Her Highness fell ill two nights ago. The healers who cured it said her body needs rest to recover from exhaustion. Therefore I..."

"--Therefore you're issuing orders as if it were hers!? You arrogant Weichsens might not care for our customs, but Her Highness does! There is no way she would give such demands without speaking to us in person!"

"That's right!" several others pitched in as well. "You're just a Major, nothing more than a battalion leader! Stop trying to order our whole army around!"

"Is this how the nobility of Rhin-Lotharingie behaves? Are your loyalties so decrepit that you cannot even obey orders unless every decree is personally given to you by Her Highness?"

The deep, authoritative voice silenced the entire cabin in seconds. All eyes turned as they met the towering man who entered just moments ago -- the stiff-jawed Knight Phantom commander, Colonel von Mackensen.

"In order to bring my knights into Avorica in time, Her Highness drained her ether near empty to open the old Faerie Paths. She then spent what little remained covering your retreat in battle. She fell ill because she fought to protect you all, as her duty demanded."

With his tone slowly rising, the Colonel's explanation soon escalated into a shout as he stared down each and every one of the disgruntled Lotharins.

"Yet here you are... squabbling away over who gets to command a few men! Your unit, his unit; are you not all nobles of Rhin-Lotharingie, charged to defend her borders using whatever means necessary in this great hour of need!? But you would rather pull the Princess out of her sickbed, just so she can soothe your bruised egos!?

"Have you no shame!"

Many of the Lotharin nobles looked down in ignominy. But four of them, including Count Albert himself, refused to back down.

"That does not give a mere Major the right to fake orders to our army!"

"Mere Major?" Colonel von Mackensen challenged. "Tell me, Count, how many battle plans have you organized? How many engagements have you commanded?" He gave Albert no more than a second to respond before plowing on. "By the standards of Weichsel, you wouldn't even be a Major! Even by Rhin-Lotharingie ranking, Landgrave von Moltewitz is a Duke. Between his credentials and his position as the future Crown Prince Consort, he has every right to command your obedience as the representative of Her Highness!"

"Furthermore, he has faked no orders," a new, feminine voice came as the cabin door closed again. This time, it was Sylviane's companion, Lady Mari, who stood by the entrance. A hard breathing Cecylia stayed just behind her, clearly having ran to fetch the lady's maid.

When did she sneak out? Pascal couldn't help but wonder, even as he sent a nod of thanks.

"Her Highness personally wrote those orders two nights ago. I can verify, as I had watched her myself." Mari declared as though swearing an oath.

"No wonder why she fell ill," Colonel von Mackensen stared back, amazed. "It must have taken her all night to do that."

That wasn't true. But Mari simply nodded back, her concerned expression never betraying a hint.

"Fine, I accept it as being from Her Highness," Count Albert added, clearly not satisfied with the result. "But it does not excuse His Grace's insult in never conferring with me over those five battalions' disbanding."

You little piece of-- Pascal was gritting his teeth and on the verge of hollering back when Colonel von Mackensen nudged him from the side.

The square-jawed man gave a sideways nod. His eyes bulged as he waved an open palm, as though saying 'just give him something.'

Taking a deep breath, Pascal tried to calm his thoughts.

Shut him up and he'll stop inciting dissent, you mean?

After all, the Count could never command this army; he had neither the rank nor the experience. This meant his challenge against Pascal was for something else, something that would boost his standing among the nobles of Rhin-Lotharingie:

Prestige.

The young Landgrave could feel his teeth gnashing as he lightly bowed his head before the Count:

"My apologies. The fault is mine for not grasping Rhin-Lotharingie's military customs. In return, I would like to offer you one of the most honored locations of the defense plan," Pascal pointed to an upriver marker on the map table. "I personally oversaw its construction. When the infidels come, I have no doubt that its waves will break the Caliphate assault."

The proposal actually killed two birds with one stone. Pascal would never trust a backroom stabber like Albert on the riverfront defense line. The new position might be a prestigious one, but it was also a location least likely to see combat action.


...


The assembled leaders soon returned to their flurry of tactical planning, mostly feudal lords arguing over whose battalions should be positioned where along the riverfront fortifications. Meanwhile, Pascal exchanged a nod with Colonel von Mackensen, before extracting himself from the crowd and pulling Cecylia outside.

Leaning back against the command cabin, Cecylia began as soon as Pascal raised wards against eavesdropping:

"I met Kaede on my way in. She already told me what happened..."

"Then you know why I want you to talk to her; you are one of her closest friends," Pascal uttered as he looked up to the late afternoon sun. "Her Highness has not emerged from her cabin since two nights ago, and as you heard in there, the Lotharins are growing restless."

In other words -- time was running out.

If the Caliphate forces attacked tomorrow, and Sylviane could not lead because she was still despondent in bed... she would lose all legitimacy as a crown heir before the eyes of her people.

"She's depressed after fighting with you," Cecylia gave a sympathetic frown. "Sylv always gets gloomy after pushing away someone she cares about -- and she relies on you a great deal."

"Great manner of showing it then," came his sullen sarcasm.

"She's sort of like you in that way," the dhampir insisted.

"What is that supposed to mean?"

As their eyes met, Cecylia stared into those turquoise orbs which showed barely a glimmer of their usual clarity. Instead, they were dulled by a tired, melancholic fog; both vision and purpose fading amidst the haze.

But before her lips could open again, Cecylia's instincts warned: that's enough already.

It had always been her personal policy not to get involved in a feud between two close relations.

Years of fighting between her siblings had taught her a crucial childhood lesson. She was better off staying on the sidelines, observing as the neutral third party. To intervene would not only add her bias as fuel to the conflict, but also place herself in bitter struggle for no avail.

Cecylia still remembered her elder sister's gaze on that day she left for the war, never to return.

They weren't just angry or disappointed; they spoke of betrayal.

For years, Eliza had been Cecylia's closest. She was like a mother to the younger sister, a nurturer of the sickly dhampir even more so than their busy parents. Yet on that fateful night, Cecylia's concern for her elder sister made her side against Eliza in a heated argument, until frustration built up and unleashed words she had never meant.

Even to this day, Cecylia remembered those nights of bitter tears and regret, when she swore never to directly involve herself again.

But... is that fair?

The last time two of her closest friends fell out, they had refused to acknowledge one another for years. Cecylia had been forced to choose a side between Pascal and Ariadne, hardly speaking to the other until a certain familiar finally pushed the lord of pricks to mend his ways.

This time, the fallout wouldn't just be between two individuals either. No, it impacted the destiny of entire nations, including the country that offered sanctuary to her kin.

It's more than just friendship at stake here, she forced the final decision upon herself. Duty calls.

"You're both prideful individuals," she explained. "Just how often do you voice your appreciation? To Kaede for example?"

The young Landgrave's mouth twisted before he gave off one of those 'you're-right' sighs.

"But what am I supposed to do when Her Highness..."

"Stop calling her that," Cecylia berated. "You're opening up extra distance for no good reason."

"She is the one who insisted upon the formality, not me."

Seeing the flickers of guilt in his gaze, Cecylia grabbed on and began yanking it with all her might:

"--Oh please, climb down from your moral peak already; it's clearly freezing your brains! Yes, Sylv's behavior was far too excessive. But you know better that all three of you are at fault here! And Kaede was the poor soul who ended up absorbing Sylv's backlash, so what are you doing wallowing in self-pity for?"

"I am not wallowing..."

"Aren't you?" the dhampir's eyes darkened as she trampled right over his weakening retort. "I'm guessing you approached me because you haven't spoken to her at all since the fight -- am I right?"

"I have been busy organizing..."

"Yes, bury yourself in work and call it 'duty' as an excuse," Cecylia locked her blood-red gaze onto him like an unrelenting snare, stopping even his attempts to look away.

"--This army will mean nothing to Weichsel if Sylv falters. You know this is true! Or do you think that pretender Gabriel will gladly switch to our side over the Imperium?"

As gloom began to engulf Pascal, Cecylia realized that her pent-up frustrations were channeling too effectively. She closed her eyes for a moment to calm herself, feeling the ether disperse as intensity faded from her pupils.

A dhampir's gaze had the ability to drain concentration and resolve through close eye contact. It wasn't a trait that Cecylia used on her friends often -- the last occurrence was when she had fun weakening Kaede for a tease back at the academy. But as many innate abilities go, it was hard to hold back once emotions flared.

It was yet another reason why she preferred to stay out of any personal drama.

"Pascal..." she started slower this time. "This isn't like you and Ariadne two years ago. You can't afford to just let the problem simmer with this much at stake..."

"I know that," the young Landgrave blurted out as he pressed his forehead against the cabin wall. "Just..."

"Sylv isn't just your fiancée Pascal," Cecylia interjected. "She's also your family, your childhood companion, your closest friend. She represents your aspirations in a way nobody else can, and you know as well as I do that your life would never have the same meaning without her."

"--I know all that too!"

"Then why aren't you taking this seriously?"

"I am taking this seriously!" Pascal snapped straight, glaring. Tired of arguing with everyone, he leaned his head back against the wall, his eyes full of exhaustion: "I just do not know what I should be doing... how should I see her when I am part of the cause for this entire episode?"

He can command entire armies, but he doesn't know how to smooth things out with his own fiancée, Cecylia sighed. Typical.

Moving next to him, the dhampir girl extended a supportive hand onto his shoulder:

"Just... talk to her, earnestly," she advised. "At this moment, your forgiveness is more important to Sylv than anybody, anything else. After that, the two of you can hopefully work out something so you can avoid this the next time."

"The next time?" Pascal gaped.

"Of course," Cecylia stared intently. "You're oozing with arrogance and take everything for granted; she has trouble keeping her emotions in check; and Kaede won't just suddenly vanish and stop causing misunderstandings between you two. This situation will happen again. The only difference is how the three of you will react to it. What you need is an established strategy on how to defuse these incidents, not escalate it like this time."

"What?" she added in the speechless silence that followed. "Did you think maintaining a relationship was easier than coordinating a battle?"

"No... but..."

Cecylia shook her head and almost rolled her eyes too:

"Remember: the best relationships -- where both sides complement one another and have the most to gain -- are also those with the most obstacles to overcome."

"Who did you learn that from?" Pascal puzzled.

"Ariadne," Cecylia grinned back, knowing fully well that the mere idea of seeming less mature than her would leave Pascal irritated and anxious for a challenge.

...And sure enough, she didn't miss the double twitch from his temple.

"All right; I understand," Pascal pursed his lips in determination. "I will speak to Sylv right after this. But could you..."

"Of course," Cecylia grinned back in encouragement.

She stretched her arms high before stepping away.

"I'll go talk to Sylv and lay the groundwork first. But remember Pascal," Cecylia spun around and pointed a teasing finger at him. "you're the only one who can truly bring her out of it, so I expect you to follow up well!"

"No pressure," she added with one last smile.


...


Of course, the real dilemma that plagued Cecylia wouldn't occur until later that night -- when she had to decide just how much of her day she should report to King Leopold of Weichsel.

 

Next Chapter ]

Chapter 11 - As God Wills It

After seeing Cecylia off near the command cabin, Kaede left the inner camp for one of the five major dining areas inside the army's tent city. Pascal couldn't squeeze her into the full meeting today, and she had already finished her archery practice this morning. With time on her hands, Kaede decided to check up on the maid Marina instead.

She felt the gazes of men follow her down the main road between battalion campgrounds. Most of them appeared simply curious: her pseudo-uniform was Weichsen enough, especially with the Honorary Lieutenant rank and Knight's Cross; but her hair was clearly not that of a common human. Some stares also took on a more perverse nature, sending a repugnant taste up her throat as though she could feel the dirty thoughts they projected upon her in their minds.

The worst came when she passed by the camp of a battered infantry battalion:

"Heyyyy sweetie!" a drunken soldier called out. "Yer a sight for sore eyes!"

"Wanna to do something fun? Before the next battle kills us all?"

"Come on, you'll enjoy it!" barked a third. "They don't call me Big Jonathan for nothing! I'll make that cute midriff feel even firmer!" He finished before the entire group began laughing.

Unlike the regimented Weichsel forces, Lotharin armies had no military police. Lesser nobles and their armigers took turns patrolling to maintain order with varying degrees of discipline. The female-only Knights Hospitallers were stricter in enforcing regulations, but there were too few of them to keep an eye everywhere.

Kaede could ignore the arrogant, patronizing gazes of aristocrats with ease. But these uncouth heckles shook her self-esteem in ways that made her feel dirty from the inside.

No wonder why most women walk about in flocks, she reflected, desperately wishing for a cloak to cover herself up.

Her scurrying feet soon took her to a major assembly area, where several Hospitallers kept watch and harbored zero tolerance for harassment. In fact, they were keeping order over some sort of recruitment event, as lines of soldiers shuffled forward to sign their names at registration tables.

It didn't make any sense for Kaede: Drafting? But for what? They're already soldiers.

"Hey!" shouted a young logistics lieutenant from one of the registration booths in Lotharin. "Mister! You forgot your pay!"

Standing up from his chair, the officer rushed after the middle-aged soldier who just left his table. He soon caught the trooper by the shoulder and added:

"You forgot your bonus for signing..."

"Don't need it," the man gruffed in a strong accent.

"Then at least leave your family's whereabouts. We'll send it to them, and they'll be taken care of should you..."

"Should I die in the Forlorn Hope?" he looked back with a tired, expectant smile. "I'm counting on it."

A hushing silence rippled outwards from those words, soon halting half of the recruitment booths.

Cold shivers traversed up Kaede's spine as the auto-translation worked its magic. The 'Forlorn Hope' was a Dutch concept that originally meant 'lost troop'. They were essentially volunteer suicide units tasked with extremely low survivability missions, such as the first wave in assaulting a fortress.

In other words, the hundred or so men lined up in this clearing were waiting for their turn to sign their life away.

"But don't you want your family..."

The young lieutenant's voice faded as he looked into the older man's gaze.

Kaede could almost see the hollowed, lifeless sight that reflected off the officer's startled eyes.

"My family are all in Heaven..." the aging soldier uttered. "My wife, my mother, my children... they all died when those demon-worshipers bombarded my town."

The brief silence that followed was stifling. Nobody could speak a word; nobody except those with similar sentiments as they joined in: "me too."

"All I want is to rejoin them," the soldier added as he rebalanced the voulge in his grasp. "If I kill a few damned infidels before I meet the Lord, then all the better."

"Then place your trust in the Holy Father," a serene voice followed.

"Lady Estelle..."

Kaede heard the reverberating echo in the crowd. She saw the heads of devout soldiers bowing in reverence. Every eye among hundreds soon fell upon the newcomer -- a lady flanked by Hospitallers, azure phoenix perched upon her shoulders.

Kaede had always thought that Ariadne looked 'angelic'; but compared to her, Edith-Estellise was nothing less than a goddess.

The Saint and Oriflamme stepped across the open ground as though gliding through tranquil air. Her wavy blond hair grazed just past narrow shoulders as it billowed in the gentle breeze. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties, wearing a benign, Mona Lisa smile that permeated the air with serenity. But the most prominent feature of all was her tender gaze, promising truth and eternity through irises of lapiz and violet.

At a height of one-seventy-one centimeters (5'7"), Lady Estelle's lithe figure stood proud but not imposing. She wore a half-veil draped behind the ears, bearing the white cross on black background of the Hospitallers. Meanwhile her ornate battledress contrasted the silken white over her ample chest to black-bordered cyan fabrics. It extended past her narrow waist belt and down a wide skirt to just above plated knees. The rest of her body remain unarmored, though bands of soft leather embraced her waist, chest, arms, and shoulders, ready to strap on protective steel.

The design held strong similarities to the Princess' own wardrobe, and Kaede puzzled as such rich garments should hardly be affordable for a nun who took knightly vows. It wasn't until later that Kaede discovered the battledress was another gift from Emperor Geoffroi.

Stopping before the middle-aged soldier, the Crusader Saint spoke in a voice that rang clear as the gospel:

"Weep for those whose presence we miss. Embrace our duty with fortitude and faith. But do not bring with you the essence of ruin. You family waits for you in eternal salvation. Should you not meet them as the son, the husband, and the father you once were -- a loving heart clear of hatred?"

"Milady," the middle-aged man bowed in respect, only to be lifted back up by the saint's own hand.

"Remember," Lady Estelle took his wrinkled hand and clasped it between her gentle fingers. "Our own merciful Savior prayed for his enemies as he completed the True Cross. He forgave those who betrayed and condemned him for teaching humankind the grace of magic. It is his example we aspire to -- our lives laid down to defend all that is Holy. But we shall do so without tainting our souls through wrath and hatred."

"Then..." a single tear dropped from the corner of his gaze. "Will I be able to see my family again in Heaven?"

"Yes, when your time comes," the Saint's smile beamed like the gates of Heaven itself. "But do not embrace death too hastily. Perhaps the Holy Father sees even greater joys in your future; and when your life is fulfilled, your soul shall rest with loved ones for eternity."

"Yes," the man squeezed his eyes shut. "Thank you, Milady."

Lady Estelle gave his hand one last squeeze, before standing straight and surveying the silent crowd. Surrounded by a congregation that had swelled to thousands, the Saint and Oriflamme addressed them all:

"Soldiers of Rhin-Lotharingie! I am proud to stand here, among men and women as courageous as you! There is nothing ahead for us to fear -- not when we perform the work of our Lord, virtues that Holy Father has taught!"

With a hand grasping the hilt by her waist, Lady Estelle drew the Sword of Charity. She raised it to the heavens, its sanctified blade gleaming under the late afternoon sun.

"--When the time comes, it shall be my honor to stand beside you, first in line at the river fords. We shall defend this land, this nation, and this people that we love above all! Take heart that even should any of us fall, we shall depart for eternity with a life fulfilled! But until then, fight! Not only for victory, but for a better future, a better world!"

"Father Bless, Lady Estelle!" the men shouted back as they clamored maces against shield, polearms upon ground.

"We'll fight with Your Ladyship until the end!"

Then, someone shouted a phrase in Arcadian from among the crowd.

For a moment, Kaede thought her translation magic malfunctioned. But as the words gained momentum, repeated in chant by countless voices, she came to realize that this must be one of the famed phrases that Pascal knew well.

"Deus Vult! Deus Vult!"

...or, as the history student from Earth whispered its meaning: "God wills it."

In that moment, as Kaede stood watching thousands raise their fists in a sweeping tide of fervor, she came upon a shaking realization:

"This woman could launch a crusade by herself."


...


Later that night, Pascal groaned when he saw the final sign-up count.

The Forlorn Hope was meant to serve as an example -- to inspire the rest of the army by holding the foremost defenses to the last man. Its numbers were never intended to reach more than one thousand. Yet with Edith-Estellise's interference, they ended up receiving nearly three thousand recruits.

The army had barely enough gold in reserve to pay this week's wages. Many nobles also cried poor and expected the crown to subsidize them. But since the pretender Gabriel now controlled the Rhin-Lotharingie treasury and withheld aid to the front-line Oriflammes who did not acknowledge him, the deficiency had to be made good from Pascal's own coffers.

The Forlorn Hope also received more compensation pay than the common soldier, which only further strained the limited funds he brought.

"Idiot Saint", the young lord grumbled. "Should have saved the speech for the battle itself."

 

----- * * * -----

 

"Did you see that?" Kaede spoke, still awed as she met up with Marina ten minutes later, near the edge of the dining tents and obscured by a cluster of pine trees.

"Every person within the kilopace did."

Wiping her freshly washed hands on a white apron, Marina almost chuckled as she eyed her lady's dazed expression. Thankfully, Kaede took only a few moments to recognize the innocuous signal; she then activated a rune on her right forearm to grant the two of them some audio privacy.

"Don't get all starry-eyed yet," the maid half-joked. "You should hear what I found out first. Remember how I've been serving the officers' tables?"

"Hence why the Lotharin army camp is such a security risk with all its servants," Kaede shook her head in disbelief. "Sorry."

"Oh no, you're right, seeing as I already got one Cataliyan agent caught..."

Kaede was aghast: "Don't do anything dangerous!"

"Don't worry about it," Marina smiled back. "All I did was move aside some things and leave their notes in the open. A cook found and reported it."

Nevertheless, the Samaran still wore a scowl on her lips as she continued:

"Just remember that if you get into any trouble, don't hesitate to raise my name so I can bail you out."

The Lady's Maid did have an informal Weichsel uniform of her own, courtesy of Pascal so Kaede could bring her along. However it was always better to directly involve someone of influence.

"Yes, Milady," Marina curtsied in reply, her earnest words admixed with a teasing tone.

"But as I was saying," her expression turned perfectly serious again. "Some of the officers have been making some pointed statements towards the Princess: that she's cold, or callous, or simply unfit for her duty. Her harsh words towards Lady Estelle seem to grow worse with every rumor, and none of the men are taking it kindly."

"I can imagine," Kaede stated simply, trying hard to avoid think about whether or not she agreed.

"But here's the intriguing part," Marina continued. "Whenever a group of battalion commanders or above spoke of this long enough, there was a good chance they would be pulled aside for a more... private conversation elsewhere."

The Samaran girl stared back, her gaze fishing for answers.

"I can't tell you what those private conversations are," the maid shrugged. "But I've seen it enough times to doubt it's just a coincidence."

"You think... they're plotting against the Princess?"

"With that many unit commanders? I think we're looking at a coup in the making."

This statement reduced the familiar girl to silent gawking. Kaede wasn't sure what to say.

"Not a very concealed coup though," Marina added. "Whomever organizing this is clearly out of their element. But that doesn't make this any less dangerous when the Saint has such monumental support from the soldiers. There's also a chance that some ambitious lord is trying to take advantage of her name -- bit foolish given the strength of her conviction. He'd have to be speaking through her dreams as the savior himself to convince her to follow a tune that she doesn't believe in."

"With all that in mind," the maid concluded. "I think it would be extremely dangerous for us to not consider her as a main actor in this scheme."

"Let me get this straight," Kaede uttered. "You believe that Saint Estelle is the one trying to backstab the Princess?"

"Makes you wonder how 'saintly' she really is, doesn't it?"

In some ways, Kaede could even agree with the schemers. A military coup d'état was betrayal of the highest order, but it could also save a nation from the whims of a mentally unstable ruler. In the eyes of history, the only difference between 'traitor' and 'revolutionary' was whether or not they ultimately succeeded.

But where would that leave her?

Kaede's life was bonded to Pascal's, whose own loyalties had been decided for him by his father. If a coup against the Princess did happen, there was no doubt he would be knifed down as a priority target. What did average military officers -- let alone religious fanatics -- care for diplomatic repercussions? Kill first and apologize later.

Does either of us have any choice, in the end?

Perhaps... Kaede thought, if the Princess no longer existed.

Only then would she be free to live a quiet life with Pascal, until an opportunity to return home came, if ever.

Coldness crept up from Kaede's fingers as she faced her own inclinations.

Was it selfishness? Was her prior 'forgiveness' just a cover for the ugly longing of retribution? Would she do nothing and only try to keep Pascal out of the danger, even if it meant ruin for Sylviane?

For better or for worse, Kaede had grown to know Sylviane on an individual level. The Princess was no longer just some distant political figure who happened to be engaged to Kaede's master.

But what would my life be like if I have to worry about the Princess' mood at every moment? Uneasy over my every step, fearful over every change of face?

Kaede wasn't sure she could live like that.

"Milady?" Marina's concern broke the silence.

Drawing a deep breathe, the Samaran girl braced against her shivers:

"I'll take care of this Marina. I don't know how yet, but... I'll take care of it."


...


Kaede's thoughts remained in conflict as she walked back towards the innermost camp. She had been so preoccupied that she entirely missed the first call in her name.

"--Kaede!"

It finally registered as she turned back around. The source was easy to identify -- a cloaked and hooded girl walking up in a brisk pace, one hand waving in good cheer.

She was also flanked by two Lotharin armigers, whose alertness marked them as not just entourage but bodyguards.

"Yes?"

The familiar girl was mystified. Who else among the Rhin-Lotharingie aristocracy knew her by name?

But as the newcomer's hood came off, Kaede could feel her jaw striking ground in astonishment. It escalated to outright paralysis as the other girl gave her a tight hug.

"You're just as small and cute as Syls says," the girl added before covering her mouth to giggle.

 

----- * * * -----

 

Cecylia entered the cabin and found Sylviane in a dreadful state.

The Princess sat in her bed, still dressed in her silken negligee. Her hair was a mess, and her empty gaze almost despondent. It rose sharply as Cecylia stepped in, only to fall back to the comforter without any reaction.

A silent exchange between the dhampir and the royal maid who sat in the corner spoke it all:

This is terrible.

"You're not even going to tell me to leave?" Cecylia tried to inject some humor as she sat down at the edge of the bed.

"...What's the point?" Sylviane's dry voice cracked. "You never listen."

Cecylia felt the Princess' cold hand as she took it into her fingers.

"I've heard the story already," she began slowly. "So you had a shouting match, and you did some awful things. Brew storm in a teacup, Sylv. Which couple doesn't get into a fight every once so often?"

Tightening her fingers, Sylviane just barely whispered:

"You don't understand..."

"Sure, I don't," Cecylia pursed her lips and nodded. "I had forgotten how special it must feel, to shoulder all the guilt and blame like some tragic heroine."

Her bitter memories of the past resurfaced once more.

"Remember when I told you about my dear older sister? All my life, she cared and treated for me. Yet on her last night home, I just had to betray her expectations and side against her.

"We never did have a chance to make up," Cecylia muttered sadly. "But you're not like me -- you still have a chance."

Nevertheless, as the seconds lingered on, the Princess remained silent.

"You realize you're only making Pascal's life harder by doing this, right?" Cecylia reminded. "He's out there, trying to make up for your absence by working himself to exhaustion. While you're here... what are you doing here?"

"...He shouldn't bother," the response came dark and simple.

"But that's the point -- he is bothering!" Cecylia insisted. "He's not trying to wash his hands of you, or sit there glooming over your marriage, or even doubting his shared goals with you. No, he is out there, trying to save your crown, your life for you!

"Please don't tell me you're just going to throw it all away?"

The Princess' shoulders quivered as she heard Cecylia's pleading.

"W-wouldn't it be better for him, for everyone... if I did?"

"Shouldn't that be his decision?" Cecylia pointed out. "Pascal knows exactly how to weigh his options, and his choice has always been to stay true to you."

...Even if he's terrible at overcoming his pride at times, she thought back to their conversation just minutes ago.

"But now he won't even see me!" Sylviane raised her wisteria gaze at last, pupils red and dry from over a day of crying. "And why wouldn't he hate me!? I'm the one who ruined everything!"

Cecylia's heart melted as she exchanged looks with her bosom friend -- a royal princess reduced to little more than a lost child. Embracing Sylviane with both arms, she pulled the depressed girl into a tight hug.

"Of course he does not hate you, you silly," she added softly. "Pascal might blame you for a thing or two. But after everything you've been through together -- there is no way he could hate you."


...


It took nearly an hour before Cecylia left the royal cabin.

Her words "the rest I leave up to you" still rang in Pascal's ears as he took a deep breath and carefully sat down facing Sylviane.

"Sylv... I am sorry," he began earnestly. "I..."

"Y-you can be straight with me, Pascal," Sylviane interjected before sniffing her stuffy nose. "I'll understand... if you're still angry with me... if you want to break..."

"What? No--!"

The apology he had spent the past hour rehearsing came apart in seconds.

"I am not angry with you," he blurted out immediately. "Well... maybe some, but--!"

A sigh followed before he looked intently at her, or at least, the plum-colored mop that covered her dejection.

With gentle fingers, he reached over to lift her chin back up, until his gaze could meet her wisteria eyes once more.

The redness, the baggy shadows, they were even worse than last time. Eying the dull sight that gazed back at him, Pascal couldn't help but feel his heart crumble.

"I want you to understand Sylv. I definitely do not want any changes to our relationship; at least, not unless it involves a trip to the altar."

He could see the moisture returning to her glistening eyes, threatening to overflow once more if only she had enough tears left remaining.

"W-why?" Sylviane just barely whispered, as though any louder and the illusion would shatter.

"Why would you? When I've shown you nothing but malice and ingratitude..."

"Now you are being unfair to yourself, Sylv," Pascal twisted his lips.

What else could he say to that? When Sylviane didn't even want his forgiveness because she believed herself unworthy of it?

"Just... talk to her, earnestly," Cecylia's earlier words urged him to continue.

Pascal swallowed.

"Did I feel wronged by what had happened? Yes, I did," he admitted, thinking back to emotions that had ceaselessly plagued him until just an hour ago, perhaps even mere minutes ago.

"I thought it was grossly unfair, unjust, that I should be treated like a criminal, when all I had done, all my intentions were only of helping you. But... you know what, Sylv? If you had unilaterally forced a decision on me by knocking me out, I would be angry too, especially if I had a royal image to maintain before an entire empire."

Pascal then paused to take a deep inhale, closing his eyes for a brief moment as he grappled to wrestle out the truth:

"I am not one of those hypocritical men who believe only the husband has a right to fury, Sylv... You had every reason to be angry at me when you first woke up. I do not regret doing what I had to do to stop you from going ballistic on the hill that day. But by the same token, I also have no right to complain if you threw a few barbed words at me afterwards.

"Of course, that is not to say that you are faultless either," he took her hands into his own while returning a wry smile. "What it does mean though -- is that we are both at fault. In fact, all three of us are at fault, since Kaede is in this also. But at the same time, all three of us are also victims of circumstance here."

"I'm sorry," Sylviane uttered, her remorse beyond sincere and reaching towards bleakness. "I'm sorry for what I did... to the both of you."

"Perhaps then you can stop blaming only yourself, because it is not helping much more than when you blamed only me," Pascal took a deep exhale, "only then... can we talk about this like rational people, like future husband and wife, and decide what we can do about this in the future.

"Because let us face it," Pascal's lopsided smile expanded to a grin as he stroke her hair lovingly. "I may not be one to talk, but you have a terrible temper -- at least in the wrong moment."

Of course, Sylviane didn't smile back. It wasn't that easy. But at least a semblance of her normal alertness had returned to that watery gaze as she gave a tiny nod, finally acknowledging that together, they still had a road forward.

One step at a time, Pascal thought to himself as he pulled his fiancée in, almost crushing her fragile shoulders between his arms.


...


Meanwhile, outside the cabin, Cecylia turned to the remaining figure who had been on guard: Sir Robert.

"Not that I'm doubting Pascal... but I feel like we need something more substantial than words alone. She's so down and out of it that it's difficult to convince her of anything positive."

"I sent message to Lady Vivienne last night," the handsome armiger nodded. "She had another meeting with Queen Katell's commanders in Roazhon this afternoon, but she should be here soon."

"Vivienne?" Cecylia raised her eyebrows.

She has heard of the name many times before. Vivienne was a singer and violist who caught the young Princess' eye through not only her music, but her adorable cuteness. Cecylia once joked that the girl was Sylv's 'snuggle toy'. But such impressions also represented the veil of deception around this unknown figure.

Vivienne was the youngest of the Oriflamme Paladins, but even the Weichsel Black Eagles were completely in the dark on what the girl was capable of.

"I can't explain how she does it," Sir Robert gave a clueless look. "But if there's anyone who can give Her Highness a euphoria spike to overcome the post-mania depression spiral, it's her."

Cecylia stared back in thought.

"You're talking about enchantment magic?"

"Well, yes," Sir Robert nodded back "We need some way of exciting her happiness nerves, and a controlled enchantment spell is much preferable to substances like Opium." Then, with a teasing smile: "Of course, this would be much easier if His Grace was already married to Her Highness."

There was no reply. The dhampir simply gawked back at the armiger in disbelief for implying that 'make-up sex' was an effective treatment for depression.

 

----- * * * -----

 

Kaede was still staring as Vivienne Máiréad Tromp de Winter barged into the royal cabin without even a knock, leading the familiar girl in tow with Sir Robert following behind to close the door.

The Samaran had met Vivienne on the way back, when the girl called out to her. But what had stunned her then continued its work even now, as Vivienne released Kaede's fingers at last, propping hand on waist to give Pascal a tilted stare.

"May I?"

The Landgrave seemed uncertain about the sudden interruption. But he nevertheless stood from his fiancée's bed, clearly putting his trust in the small girl.

"Hello Syls," the newcomer sat down next to the Princess and pulled her in.

Backing to the wall, Kaede watched as the Princess laid her cheeks upon the silky long fluff draped over Vivienne's shoulder.

The girl... could almost pass for Kaede's twin sister.

At one-fifty-seven centimeters (5'2"), the two of them were equal in height and size alike. They looked exactly the same from their modest bust to the curvature of their waist. Even their small, cute noses, soft cheeks, and porcelain-pale skin seemed identical.

This can't be a coincidence.

Kaede had no doubt about it: Vivienne was the model that Pascal envisioned when he summoned Kaede into her new body. It even explained some of the odder-than-usual looks she received when several of Sylviane's armigers first met her.

But whereas Kaede had creamy-white hair and rose-quartz eyes, Vivienne had a sapphire gaze beneath the long, silver-white hair that reached past her hips. Whereas Kaede wore a black-on-white pseudo-uniform reminiscent of Weichsel forces, Vivienne sat in a frilly, tiered-skirt dress in ivory, cyan, and pink; her shoulders bared beneath thin straps had it not been for her rabbit-fur cloak.

Perhaps most of all, whereas Kaede absorbed the world around her through wide open lenses, Vivienne's gaze remained only two-thirds open -- her lowered eyelids combined with a wily, knowing smile gave the impression that she was always planning something.

Well, she is a winterborn, Kaede thought, remembering her mistaken first impression that Vivienne's white hair meant she must be Samaran.

The Faekissed Winterborn are known for their sharp intelligence and cunning, but not so much for their empathy. That didn't mean they were socially awkward though, as even sociopaths were known to be diplomatic and charming.

Now I'm just being fae-racist...

After all, Vivienne did summon a phoenix for her familiar, even if the bird wasn't around at the moment.

"Vivi--" the Princess muttered back, her gaze still depressed towards the comforter.

"Shhhh," the shorter girl reached over. With one hand she stroked Sylviane's long hair, with the other she lightly brushed one finger across the lips of royalty.

"You can talk later, Syls. But for now, I want you to listen to me. Listen, to my voice, this voice, and only this..."

Vivienne closed her eyes as she spoke gently, her soft words brushed through the cabin air like poetic melody.

"--Forget our world, our anxiety through history.

"--Seek my call, and I shall set you free from worry..."

Her cadence rose with every verse; her chant seamlessly transforming into lyrical song. The gentle notes that danced across the air soon grew into a hypnotic lullaby, an innocent, maternal call to relieve a troubled child.

Yet amidst the beautiful performance, ether streamed from between those small lips to enshroud the air. Within just minutes, not only the Princess had drooped into a tranquil daze, but even Kaede herself began to feel entranced.

There was a mesmerizing quality to Vivienne's singing voice, one that enraptured the senses as though all else ceased to matter.

Kaede hardly even noticed when Sir Robert stepped up and shook Pascal:

"We need to leave. It won't be appropriate for us to stay."

The Landgrave was somewhat dazed himself. He merely nodded before being half-dragged out, leaving only four girls inside.

As the minutes passed, the Princess's entire body soon slouched to a complete relaxation. The dim light in her eyes seemed to freeze solid, and at last Vivienne spread a satisfied smile.

"It is all going to be fine, Syls," she continued to stroke Sylviane's hair. "Everything has passed. Everything is forgiven. Now... you must forgive yourself. You must look ahead, to tomorrow, to the future..."

"You still have a conflict to win, an empire to save, a life to live before you."

A slow, faint nod emerged from Sylviane, like a puppet on strings as she remained under the enchantment.

...Even Kaede couldn't help but feel the urge to nod along.

"Now..." Vivienne sported a playful smile as her face leaned into Sylviane's. Their noses stayed almost touching even after a quick kiss.

The Princess' eyes snapped back in a second. But rather than alert, they still seemed entranced in the moment.

"Gulu gulu," Vivienne whispered as her fingers caressed down to Sylviane' waist, eliciting a sharp gasp and a pinkish scarlet to flush through both royal cheeks in an instant.

It wasn't just a physical tease either. Kaede had sensed how Vivienne's magic harmonized with Sylviane's through the chant -- their auras melded like two water droplets meeting, instead of the mutual repulsion normally seen between different ether sources. Now, with those fingers as the channel, yet more of Vivienne's ether pushed into Sylviane as a spell catalyst.

"...Wait," a bare whisper emerged in resistance. "Wait... not--ahhh."

It was over in just an instant: a magical pulse erupted from deep within Sylviane as the spell bloomed.

The Princess shut her eyes as her entire body trembled. Her arms quivered as her thighs squeezed tight against the bedcovers. Meanwhile, Vivienne's hands moved back up to hold her close, curling around her shoulders and waist before gently stroking her rich plum hair.

Kaede watched, speechless, as they sat like that for nearly a minute while the aftershocks subsided.

"Purr for me?"

Vivienne was still grinning as Sylviane reopened her glazed eyes. Her mouth still hanged ajar as her ragged breathing slowly calmed.

"Hhhhyyyyyyyee...?"

"Mewl for me then."

"Mmewwwwwwwww..."

"Good girl," Vivienne added as she stroked Sylviane's hair and gave the flushed princess a forehead kiss.

What the heck... just happened...

Pascal had told Kaede that Vivienne was not just a close friend, but also a 'snuggle toy' of sorts to Sylviane. But from her vantage point, it felt more like the Princess herself was the tamed kitten, purring in her master's toying arms.

Kaede barely managed to steer her gawking towards Mari. The Lady's Maid herself looked oddly satisfied as she shrugged back towards the familiar.

Meanwhile, Vivienne had began to sing once more. A slow, soothing melody, with barely a trace of ether laced into its tune this time.

Did she just... the Samaran's lips silently worded.

She receive a simple, smiling nod in return.

To a princess no less... are you KIDDING me!?


...


Outside the cabin, Pascal had come to a similar conclusion. It didn't even take that much deduction, between what Sir Robert said and the incredulity now trickling across the familiar bond.

"Why did you ask me to leave?"

"Because no man other than a husband should ever see a maiden..." Robert's own cheeks flushed as his tone dropped to sheepish: "Doing what Vivienne is making her do."

Pascal simply stared back. Then:

"I am her future husband."

"Future," came the retort. "Not yet. You still have to follow the rules just like the rest of us."

That only made Pascal roll his eyes and look away.

A moment passed before Robert leaned in:

"You're not jealous?"

"She is with Vivi," Pascal emphasized. "If I get envious every time Sylv coddles a cute girl... or vice versa, I would have no end of it."

"Besides..." he added begrudgingly. "It is just a treatment."

"But..."

Robert then trailed off, clearly thinking better of it.

Another awkward moment passed between the two men before Pascal spoke again:

"How does Vivienne do that? Sylv may be depressed, but she is also fully rested. I would not have a snowball's chance in hell to break through her ether resistance."

This time, the armiger shrugged back.

"The Holy Father saw it fit to grant Vivienne the rare gift of Fae Concordance Magic, and through it she executes his will."

Robert tilted his head, his expression lit by a faint sarcasm-tinged smirk as he faced the Landgrave:

"Why should we complain if it makes our lives easier?"


...


Meanwhile in her unlit cabin, Cecylia von Falkenhausen smiled to herself as she pondered over the latest discovery, made available by just a few careless words spoken in public.

Laying still in the darkness with her eyes closed, her senses tapped into all nine of Ania's forms. The matryoshka cat familiar kept watch throughout the Lotharin camp: some of them stalked important leaders from the shadows, others stayed hidden in perfect eavesdropping locations. There was even one who guarded dark corridors that she found ideal for covert infiltration use.

...And it was the last one who detected movement: a faint blur entering her sight revealed that someone else had just overheard the same conversation, and was now departing with that information.

Cecylia's eyes sprang open as she bolted up from her bed. The darkness inside her cabin didn't bother her. Her dhampir blood had inherited the best dark-vision of all Hyperion races.

"Ania two, three, nine," she commanded three of the cats within vicinity of the royal cabin. "Track him."

Her hands checked both forearms as she raced out the door. It would be bad if she flexed her wrists later and no concealed blade ejected to gut her enemy.

Only I'm allowed to spy on Sylv, you little weasel.


...


The Anias soon followed the intruder to a dark corner between two cabins.

Viewing through the eyes of her smallest kitten, Cecylia noticed that her mark was fiddling with some contraption just behind the waist. The space surrounding it was pitch, utterly black, as though even the dim moonlight was being absorbed.

Furthermore, the field was expanding...

It was possible one of her cats spooked the target, who was preparing to escape even as she watched.

Calling for security was no longer an option. But Cecylia's own martial arts were abysmal; the element of surprise was all she could rely on.

Telekinetic Surge, her finger detached the lock to her spring-loaded wrist-blade as her magic imbued it.

Her one chance relied on the target not having anti-projectile Repulsion wards, which radiated a defensive aura and were hard to conceal.

Here goes nothing, she tongued her tiny fang, before springing out around the corner and flinging her arm forth.

A well-timed flick of her wrist sent the undersized dagger soaring towards its target at the speed of sound.

A faint, feminine gasp returned as the blade grazed her arm, cutting forearm straps along the way and dropping a device onto the ground.

The figure took one alarmed stare before her fingers jerked. Her body then vanished in a burst of shadowy smoke that drifted airborne before being carried off by a gentle breeze.

Wind Walk variant, Cecylia pursed her lips as she examined the direction of departure. There had to be a hole in the inner camp wards if the target could enter and depart this way undetected.

But in the meantime, she stepped up and picked up the gadget left behind.

It was a tiny, folding crossbow, designed for concealment in the sleeves. There was a three-bolt 'magazine' set into the groove, loaded with poison-tipped bolts the size of overgrown nails.

The weapon was certain. But the intent?

Cecylia stood confused as she gazed back up to the starry sky.

What's a Samaran Shadow Guard doing here?

 

Next Chapter ]

Chapter 12 - Never Leave Regrets

Kaede stood atop a riverfront redoubt as she surveyed the wooded hills across the water.

The soldiers were on high alert. The defenders already assembled behind walls and ditches. Scouts reported earlier that the Cataliyans had broken camp before dawn. Now, Kaede could hear the marching footsteps from tens of thousands in the far distance.

New palisades and earthworks layered the shores between watchtowers and redoubts. The last bridges over the river had been demolished; the last boats filled with oil and hay as fire ships. Every man who could bear arms was given a weapon, down to the last cook and porter.

But as the hour slowly passed, not a single enemy could be seen across the river. Even the steady beat of war drums stopped several kilopaces out, replaced by the noise of hammers and saws.

Kaede glanced at Pascal as she watched every soldier exchange the same look, share the same thought:

What are they doing?

 

----- * * * -----

 

"They're not attacking?"

Sylviane curled her fingers against chin in deep thought. It's barely noon on a sunny day.

"Scouts report they've advanced to within five kilopaces of the river and are now fortifying their position."

"They must be unpacking their siege train," explained Major Hans. "It's been nearly two weeks since they last took a fortified town. I anticipate they'll be taking the afternoon to assemble and prepare forward positions for their siege and pontoons."

"They'll be attacking at first light tomorrow then," a Lotharin duke finished.

Everyone knew what was at stake: Roazhon was the capital and northernmost city in the Kingdom of Avorica. Its strategic location served as the western pivot of Rhin-Lotharingie's second defense line. Beyond its guarded mountain pass lay only the fertile lowlands of the Lotharin heartlands, where the Tauheed cavalry would dominate with impunity. If the Lotharins had any chance of stopping the infidel horde from seizing the Empire's heartlands, it would have to be done here.

But before a tense silence could grip the war council, Vivienne's soft reassurance filled the room:

"Those fools have already given us enough time. General Clermont arrived in Roazhon at dusk yesterday. His brigade of five thousand veterans is moving into position as we speak."

"Clermont is here?" Sylviane gazed back, her focused thoughts suddenly plunging into a whirlpool of emotions.

There was no mistaking that name. General Clermont was the garrison commander of Alis Avern. He was in charge of the very men that should have protected her father's life.

"Yes, Your Highness," Vivienne bowed her head.

The youngest of the Oriflamme Paladins was meeker today than Sylviane had ever seen her. It might have to do with the fatigue in her eyes, after she spent the night playing music to a slumbering princess. The result was a night of dreamless, deep sleep, with Sylviane awaking more refreshed and rested than she had felt in months.

"...He told me that he takes full responsibility for what happened at Alis Avern," the winterborn added, "and that he will seek your forgiveness in person."

Old sly fox, Sylviane grudged.

It took political acumen to command troops stationed within the empire's very capital. By using Vivienne to scout the Princess' mood beforehand, the general could either extract a promise of safety, or withdraw alongside troops that Sylviane so desperately needed.

"The fault is not his," her voice remained calm. "It was Father who decided that the defense of the empire was more important than protecting himself."

Burying her sorrow and intensifying her ardor, Sylviane donned a mask of zeal as her gaze swept the assembled war council:

"His timely arrival is father's final gift to us, and I swear before the Holy Father that we shall not waste it."

Heads nodded as the commanders and nobles voiced their agreement. Even the devout Edith's smiling gaze seemed touched. News had trickled in over the past week that many reinforcing columns bound for the front had been recalled by the pretender Gabriel. His excuse was the assembly of a royal army at the Capital, but no one had been more betrayed than the Paladins commanding each war front.

It also reminded Sylviane that Clermont's brigade was the last reinforcement she could expect. There would be no one coming to aid her after this...

If only Ceredigion's army would join us instead of huddling behind their forest...

King Elisedd had claimed 'neutrality' and rejected one request after another, even a Farspeak request from the Princess herself.

Twenty-six thousand; a third of our enemy's...

Her knuckles tightened.

We have to win.

Then, in that moment, a breathless lieutenant barged into the war room.

"Y-Your Highness, Your Ladyship!" he addressed both Sylviane and Edith, the army's de facto and de jure commanders. Then, as though he couldn't believe it himself: "K-King Alistair has arrived!"

The entire council soon rushed out the door. None of them noticed Vivienne slipping away.


...


Kaede watched from the sidelines as two skywhales loaded with cargo compartments 'landed' -- hovering as low as possible to the ground.

Soldiers from the nearby army camps crowded all around the grassy clearing, watching the spectacle unfold as gates opened and metal ramps hit ground. Giant-like men from the Kingdom of Gleann Mòr marched out from each skywhale in neat columns, carrying claymores and zweihanders upon their backs as their plated mail glittered under the noon sun.

There was no doubt that the arrival had been planned for maximum morale boost. The exiting troops marched around the skywhale before settling into parade formation, as though shouting "don't judge us by our numbers; we're elites."

Meanwhile, a group of four individuals gathered from both skywhales, before striding towards the Princess' greeting party.

"Your Highness!" their leader called out, less in reverence and more like meeting an old friend.

"Your Majesty... Alistair!"

Hauteclaire had to leap off Sylviane's shoulders as the much taller man embraced her in a joyful hug.

From a handful of paces away, Kaede could feel a surge of dark emotions trickling over her empathic feedback link with Pascal, coloring her thoughts with sour jealousy.

Alistair Mackay-Martel wasn't a handsome man by any means. He was youthful and tall, appearing in his late-twenties with a towering height of over one-ninety centimeters (6'2"). A weathered zweihander hilt rose above his broad shoulders and he wore half-plate armor that left no room for a heavy stomach. But his head leaned on the squarish side, his eyes were faded blue, and his hair a dull brown; apart from a rustic smile and a goatee-like fuzz, his face could easily blend in among the crowd.

Above his shoulders flew the deep-blue phoenix Almace, half again the size of Hauteclaire. The two birds spiraled into the air like some form of greeting ritual, as the Princess' companion met the familiar of the Hound King.

Yet as Kaede watched Alistair and Sylviane grin in each other's presence, she realized that it wasn't his physique or even his rank that Pascal felt threatened by.

It was the natural ease he seemed to have in making her smile.

"Why didn't you tell us you were coming?" the Princess remarked, still beaming.

"I told Vivienne two days ago," he replied, a mite confused. "Just wasn't sure of my curtain time."

Scanning the crowd, Alistair's gaze soon fell upon Kaede, only to grow more bewildered before they returned to Sylviane:

"Is Vivi playing a joke on me?"

"I'm afraid such a joke would be too weird, even for Vivi," the Princess concluded her own empty search before looking over to the Samaran girl. "She's my fiancée's familiar, Kaede."

Kaede gave a curtsy from her spot as the King sent her a polite, smiling nod.

"Maybe Vivienne did not want to raise everyone's hopes up for nothing, in case you backed out, Your Majesty," Pascal stepped up, his dislike for Alistair palpable.

"Not a chance in hell I would, Your Grace," the King's reply came crisp and simple.

He left no opportunity for an escalation, as he bowed chivalrously to his Princess and vowed before the eyes of the world:

"The Glens will always remember, Your Highness. Lotharingie has never let us down. We would never let Lotharingie down."

Sylviane's gaze glistened with appreciation as she grasped his gauntlet in both palms and nodded firmly. Meanwhile, Alistair returned a reassuring smile as he announced to every leader before him:

"The army of the Glens remains snowed in, blocked by the northern mountain passes. But as you can see, we outfitted a skywhale and recruited another to help us. I bring six companies of the Glens' finest Galloglaich Shocktroops to aid this front."

In unison, nine hundred clansmen behind him drew two-handed blades and held them before hardened faces, each a warrior ready to fight his way into hell.

The King's expression then fell.

"Please feed us though. We had to ditch supplies to make everyone fit; every loaf of bread counted."

Even in this dramatic moment, a few officers couldn't help but chuckle at the King's sense of humor.

Sylviane included, as she wiped her eyes... which only made Pascal's jealousy swell.


...


"Much as I'd like to, Sylviane, I can't stay," King Alistair divulged after the assembled troops departed. "The northern nobles aren't like those squinty-eyed ones you have down south. Leave them alone and they'll start baring fangs and picking fights. Snowed in all winter with limited supplies and nobody to manage? They'll be tearing each other to shreds."

"No," he sighed. "I have to go back. But you have my promise that I shall rejoin you in the Spring."

"Then stay for just two days, even one," Sylviane requested as his superior, but her eyes were pleading.

"There will be a major battle tomorrow, Alistair. The fate of Rhin-Lotharingie is at stake, and there is no better man to lead the highland charge than their king."

Alistair pursed his lips. A lot could happen in two days; circumstances could turn into obligations that would entrap him here for much longer.

But as he looked down upon the grown-up princess, he once again saw that young, eleven year old girl. She had shown him not the veneer of respect like every other noble, but also true sincerity and kindness. She gave him confidence and faith in his kingship, his bastard inheritance, when everyone else only sought to manipulate and play him, a fiddle to their will.

It had been odd back then, for an accomplished fifty-year-old adventurer and mercenary to consider an adolescent princess his study partner and pen pal. But while Sylviane was emotionally turbulent -- as teenagers often were -- she also held a combination of cunning and sagacity that inspired him.

"All right, all right," Alistair conceded with raised hands, unable to deny her imploring gaze. But he had to set his foot down: "two days then, three at most. After that? I'm sneaking off even if you won't let me."

Broad appreciation spread across her lips like the sun as she grinned back.

"Thank you."

The Princess then turned aside to face the tree line, gesturing for him to take a stroll with her. Alistair nodded to his battlegroup commander and the civilian captain, urging them to stay behind as he followed her with only his bodyguard in tow.

His hunch proved correct as the Princess conjured a bubble of privacy between them.

"There is another major issue I must discuss with you..."

Even as Alistair departed, he could feel a young landgrave's gaze on his back, burning a hole.


...


Kaede had been watching the two royalty as well, but her conclusion was that Pascal was being obnoxious. Alistair did after all arrive with heavy infantry -- troops that the Lotharin army desperately lacked.

Besides, it was obvious to her that Sylviane and Alistair were nothing more than 'just friends'. In fact, they reminded her of a farmer uncle and his urban niece who visited every summer, which was odd considering that he was also a king.

Furthermore, Alistair was the most trustworthy of the commanders in camp. Kaede couldn't be sure if any of the officers in sight were innocent of the plot to depose the Princess, but the King almost certainly was.

Yet before she could try to explain any of this, Kaede herself grew distracted when the civilian captain from the King's entourage approached her.

"Kaede, is your name?"

She spun around as the beefy, broad-shouldered man looking to be in his forties took off a floppy fur cap, revealing a head of snow white hathair.

"You're a Samaran merchant captain?" Kaede's wispy voice barely let out, her lips left gaping in astonishment.

He nodded; his weathered cheeks and crystal-blue eyes crinkled in a tense smile.

"Her Highness the Princess mentioned that you are a... familiar."

Kaede nodded back:

"I was summoned by Pascal Kay Lennart von Moltewitz, the Landgrave of Nordkreuz and Her Highness' fiancé."

"I'm Captain Markov, Grand Republic Merchant Alliance," he offered a large palm to Kaede, who gladly shook it in return.

"It's unusual to find a non-mercantile Samaran in these parts, let alone as a familiar," Markov continued, his countenance more relaxed in the wake of her smile. "Would you and... your master... like to join me mid-afternoon for some coffee? King Alistair's soldiers should be finished unloading everything by then."

Kaede couldn't help but grin. Ever since she arrived in Hyperion, she had been wondering how real Samarans lived. Now all of a sudden, she was being invited to coffee by one?

"I'll have to check our schedule, but I would love to join you."

 

----- * * * -----

 

It was late afternoon by the time Pascal and Kaede finished their inspection of the riverfront defenses.

The tense atmosphere of this morning stayed over the entire encampment. Those on the front lines could hear the distant hammering from thousands of Cataliyan siege engineers, see rows of trees crash as they test fired boulders. Every soldier knew that across the river and beyond the trees gathered over seventy thousand infidels, ready to pour across at dawn like locusts.

Everywhere, skittish soldiers could be seen sharpening their weapons, offering their prayers in mass, or simply listening to the tune of a fiddler as the distant sun fell.

For many, it would be the last peaceful night of their lives.

But to Kaede, the danger wasn't limited to those across the river. Every patrol she passed, every officer she met also brought the same worrying thoughts.

Were they planning to betray Sylviane and murder Pascal?

It wasn't until Kaede and Pascal's brief tour through Captain Markov's 'ship' could she finally relax...

"Ballistae?" she eyed the aft weapon platforms just beyond the armory.

"Three propeller-spun repeating ballistae per flank, just in case we come across any 'bandits'," Markov leered. "My Master-at-Arms could tell you more about them, but most of the crew have gone to visit the city."

Kaede had the feeling that few brigands would dare pick a fight against an armored skywhale. It was far more likely that the armaments existed to deter ambitious lords from seizing his goods.

After all, she thought: this thing easily carried more than an entire trade caravan...

Markov soon led them to the mess cabin, with a handcrafted oaken table and rich wall fabrics that reminded her of steamship lounges.

"Please, sit."

Kaede was the main guest for once, and she pulled out a chair and sat down even before Pascal did. This did not escape the Captain's notice as he began to prepare coffee, using a silver samovar boiler atop the nearby counter.

"Are you partaking in the battle tomorrow?" she asked.

King Alistair's other skywhale was still too young, small, and poorly equipped to be helpful. But the Samaran skywhale was a beast, a merchant behemoth ready for cruiser conversion.

"Oh no, definitely not!" Markov declared, much to Kaede's disappointment. "Transporting Gleann Mòr forces into a battle zone? I'm toeing the line of neutrality as it is. Any more involvement and the Merchant Alliance will toss me out on my butt."

"I am already surprised that you were willing to go this far," Pascal noted.

"I have a long-running contract with King Alistair to transport much-needed supplies. What supplies? Where? Well that's none of my business..."

Kaede could hear hot water pouring as a steamy aroma wafted across the room.

"--So as you can see, I'm simply fulfilling a business contract that I am honor-bound to."

You did bring troops; I should be thankful, she smiled.

"You're on pretty good relations with the King then?"

"My family's been carrying intercontinental trade to the Gleann Mòr nobles for generations," Markov answered. "Northerners in general value trust far more than a good deal, and we've kept that trust for well over a century."

Be it Siberia or Scandinavia or Mongolia, harsh climates always forced cultures to be more communal and accountable.

Grabbing a silver tray from the kitchen, the Captain soon carried three steaming cups of coffee to the table; additives included sugar, honey, syrup, and even two types of jam.

"Might taste a little dull. I take shortcuts with the filter; too used to having my First Mate brew this."

Kaede voiced her thanks as Markov handed her the first cup. A deep breath of that rich coffee fragrance sent energy straight into her brain.

It's nice to not be treated as second class for once...

She snuck a peek at Pascal. If he had any complaints about this switching of roles, he didn't show it.

"Do Samarans drink coffee often?" he was far more curious.

"Fairly, more so with guests over," Markov sat down at the table's head. "Wine, beer, ale, none of that works on us. Got to have something to keep our energy up in the freezing cold."

"Hot tea?" Kaede asked.

Even back on Earth, people often forgot that the 'Tea Road' passed through Siberia, giving the Russians a tea culture that -- in her biased opinion -- was no less sophisticated than Britain's.

"Used to be the national drink, until we fought a century-long war with the Dawn Imperium," Markov took a sip as he examined her. "It's rebound some thanks to greater supply -- seventy percent of intercontinental trade from the Far East to the Trinitian West does run through Samara. But tea has never quite recovered its leading status. Besides... coffee is stronger."

Same as the Americans then, Kaede thought.

"So young man," the Captain turned to Pascal, completely forgoing any noble honorifics. "I heard you summoned a Samaran for a familiar. Mind telling me how that happened?"

For a brief second, Pascal looked like a deer in headlights. He was obviously not used to being talked down to by a complete stranger. Nonetheless, he soon recovered his footing and indulged Markov:

"I wanted an intelligent, mature, and cute girl around my age for a familiar companion instead of some stupid animal. Therefore I rewrote my familiar summoning spell and..." he stared at Kaede with a satisfied smirk. "There she was."

"That's it?"

Markov's eyebrows shot up as his gaze fell upon his two guests in turns.

Kaede, meanwhile, stirred and inhaled her coffee before deciding to tell him:

"I'm... I'm also not from this world," she sighed, eyes still nailed to her cup. "This body isn't my original; the summoning spell gave me it and frankly... neither of us knows exactly what happened."

"You're a first-timer then. How long ago was this?"

"About two months."

The Captain nearly choked as he tried to take a sip.

"You've... certainly grown..."

"He's been feeding me weird pills," a straight-faced Kaede pointed her finger at Pascal.

The young lord rolled his eyes.

"If I had, you would not be this smart-mouthed towards your master."

Kaede gave a wry chuckle at that.

"I was this size from the start."

"Little thinner around the waist," Pascal interjected, earning him a glare before she set the topic back.

"But what do you mean by 'first-timer'?"

Markov coughed one last time before clearing his throat.

"Your first time reincarnated as a Samaran."

"Doesn't that imply that I died first?" she countered.

"Didn't you?"

"Maybe? I have no memories of it either way, just that I fell asleep and woke up like... this."

"Well," Markov stirred his cup. "I've never heard of a Samaran who jumped bodies while still alive. Doubt it's even possible."

His unerring gaze then locked onto her sight.

"Chances are you died from something, even if you don't remember it."

"That is what I said too," Pascal added.

It brought him a second glare, which made him smile as though he found it cute.

Kaede found the idea that she actually died upsetting. His last memory was that of laying on an living room couch. Did the home burn down? Did carbon monoxide leak?

What happened to the rest of my family?

Kaede shut her eyes and held her head. There was no way for her to verify what had happened on Earth. Even if she could be certain about her death, she could do nothing about it, do nothing to console her grieving parents.

What would she accomplish by worrying?

Nothing.

She could only try her hardest to lock these thoughts away once more, to make sure they didn't steal sleep before the looming battle.

Besides, part of her still refused to accept 'death' as the answer.

"Well, do you know of any Samaran who just happens to pop out in a fully grown body then?" she inquired.

"Not from between the legs."

Markov's deadpan reply almost jerked a snort out of Pascal. Meanwhile Kaede rolled her eyes in exasperation.

"I'm serious. I was even wearing my clothes and carrying old stuff."

"Well..." Markov left his half-drank coffee alone and stared back with intent. "It's certainly unusual. Don't think I've ever heard of it outside of folk tales."

"Folk tales?"

"Yes. Some mythical, but some connected to real people," he explained. "The most famous one belonged to our Grand Marshal -- it's said that his first incarnation came to this world during Samara's worst days in the Great Eastern War; he arrived with decades of experience in warfare, a perfect understanding of strategy, operations, and tactics. Within just two years, he completely turned the tables against the Dawn Imperium, driving them from Samaran territory when we had been on the verge of defeat."

"Are these tales common?" Kaede asked again.

"Not terribly, but not rare either. Visit any region, and you'll find a smattering."

"So... you believe that's what I am also?"

The Captain pursed his lips as he brushed his beard.

"Hard to say... Maybe the Immortals played a joke on you, instead of sending you through the Sky-Father's normal cycle."

"Why would they do that?"

Kaede felt slightly upset at the prospect of being toyed around by the gods.

"Why wouldn't they?" Markov shrugged. "Just because they're enlightened sages doesn't mean they lack a sense of humor. You were going to be reborn anyway; is it so bad that you kept some good memories from a past life?"

"How can you be sure that my memories are good?"

"Because we Samarans don't retain bad memories between lives; at least, not guilty ones."

Seeing confusion reflected in Kaede's eyes, the Captain launched into another full explanation:

"The Samarans' reincarnation is a path to enlightenment, a cycle of purification. We keep chunks of our memories, our accumulated wisdom, every time we're reborn. But the amount varies with circumstance. There's no 'rulebook' out there for exactly how this works, but commonly accepted wisdom says that the more at peace your moral conscience is, the more you'll carry onto the next life. In fact -- it is believed that only humans who died at peace with their entire life, but have yet to accept themselves as wise enough for deliverance, are reborn as a Samaran..."

Kaede nodded. It would make sense, assuming she was to accept the 'death' theory. His childhood was merry, peaceful, and spent with a calm, introspective demeanor that matured early; while he might not be completely free of regrets, there were few if any that tugged against principle.

"--But by the same token, the more regretful you are with your life choices, the less you'll receive in return."

"Then..."

"It doesn't mean we won't retain any memories of mistakes or failure," Markov added. "If it's an experience that you have learned from: failed relationships, failed projects, failed business -- those you might keep, assuming you come to terms with them. But an ethical failure? A choice actively made that claws against your moral conscience? You cannot truly come to peace with those. All you can do is repent and bury them."

Scenes that haunted Kaede's dreams night after night resurfaced in her thoughts: the holocaust of flames; those burning men with peeling, molten flesh; that severed arm accompanied by blood-curdling screams.

The Captain's words rang like a final verdict: your cannot truly come to peace...

Her body chilled as she grappled with dread -- that such memories might forever plague her this life.

"--And when you're reborn, those sinful memories will latch onto entire periods of your life, tearing gaping holes in your past and pulling them away from you," Markov's warning resounded like divine judgment. "Since all intelligent beings inevitably gain reason, understanding, and therefore empathy through experience, only those who embrace a virtuous path are guaranteed to regret less, to lose less of their accumulated wisdom across lifetimes."

So... if I die tomorrow, I probably won't remember any of these past months.

I may not even remember Pascal...

Her chest squeezed as she held a subconscious breath.

"What happens if a Samaran remembers nothing of their past then?" Kaede asked.

"If a soul is so burdened by guilt that they retain nothing, it is believed they'll fall from the cycle and be returned to the great beyond," Markov remarked with sadness as he stirred the lukewarm coffee. "Because of this, to commit suicide is considered the gravest taboo for a Samaran. To us, there is no such thing as incurable pains or terminal illness, only desolation to life itself."

His crystal-blue gaze stared at Kaede, before glancing to Pascal, and then back to Kaede.

"It's why we take care of our own," he declared. "Death is just another chance at life. But to be forced to live a dreary existence until our hearts are chilled into a barren glacier -- that, would be a true crime against decency."

Alarm screeched over the empathic link as Kaede felt Pascal's anxiety spike. He kicked aside his chair and spun around. Runic pebbles flew to his fingertips as his other hand grasped the sheathed courtblade.

But the contest... wasn't even close.

He came face-to-face with the open end of a long barrel; its fat rifle butt held more than enough air pressure to propel a bullet through his skull.

Even with her familiar-enhanced senses, Kaede never noticed when the girl snuck behind them. She looked twenty-five at most, wearing pitch black garments that contrasted with short, snowy hair. Her shoulder patches bore a silver star and gray dagger placed atop steel kite shield. Two others girls also rushed in from hallways on opposite flanks, wearing similar, double-bar insignias and leveling wrist-mounted crossbows.

They were the Shadow Guard -- trained killers who protected Samaran interests across the world.

"Stop," Kaede felt her lips order, detached yet never more assure.

"Don't hurt him."


...


"You want to stay with him?" Captain Markov repeated, as though he couldn't believe in his own ears.

"He's the only relation I have in this world," Kaede answered.

Markov exchanged an eye with the assassin leader, clearly wondering if the familiar had been brainwashed.

"You said that a Samaran should never do anything that their moral conscience would regret, right?" Kaede asked.

"Yes."

"Well if I allowed you to kill him, and by extension me as well... or even if I simply came with you..."

Kaede thought back to her past few nights, when she lay sleepless in Lady Mari's empty cabin...

Her fears replayed that time when she plunged down the stone keep, saying her goodbyes to the world; when she stared down a rimefire charge, confident that she would soon be among the dead; when she knelt on that rugged rock, her legs screaming, her stomach tearing, and her thoughts trembling under a future guillotine.

But even as she considered leaving everything behind, images of consequences from her absence haunted her:

Pascal sliced through the neck by an assassin's blade.

Pascal rallying the troops before rimefire burned into his face.

Pascal hacked to pieces in a chaotic, riverfront melee.

Pascal dying in a ditch as rebel Lotharins smashed his ribcage.

There were other bodies as well: Ariadne, Parzifal, Marina, Cecylia... even Sylviane herself. But Pascal's gruesome death was always at the center of it all.

...All because she wasn't there to aid him, to warn him, to support him as a familiar should.

It painted a future Kaede couldn't live with; one that she didn't want to live with, not even if it meant safety for herself.

She looked at Pascal's turquoise eye, glancing at her without any quiver of fear even as he faced his own death.

He was just waiting, almost bored, tired of holding stiff.

You have too much faith in me... she felt a tear-glazed smile tugging at her lips.

"I know that if I just left, I would regret it forever," she affirmed to the Captain. "No one can be certain of where our choices lead, and even if Samara offered me an opportunity for a better life, I would still be forfeiting a sincere promise made in good faith, committing a sin that only the worst sociopaths could tolerate."

Kaede took another deep breath before declaring:

"I cannot and will not abandon family."

 

----- * * * -----

 

It had taken another half hour of persuasion and advice before the other Samarans finally allowed Kaede to leave. With her feet on earthen ground once more, she waved goodbye to the skywhale captain who perched on a ballista balcony.

"Weren't you worried? At all?" She turned around to walk besides Pascal, back towards the center camp.

"For my safety? Not once they stopped for you, so long as I stayed still," he replied. Then, through familiar telepathy: "I was concerned you might leave though, considering what Sylv did."

"The thought did pass," she admitted. "But..."

Kaede's cheeks reddened in the dim firelight as she remembered her worries: why is it always Pascal...

"But--?"

"I promised you I would stay as your family, didn't I? So I'm staying!" she retorted, rather unkindly.

It left Pascal with a chuckle:

"I am glad you did."

Kaede felt another wave of heat ascending her cheeks as Pascal grasped her hand. They walked side by side in comforting silence, along the dim path lit by campfires and oil lamps, against the backdrop of musical strings and soldierly chatter.

For minutes, she didn't want to say anything.

They separated to pass through the inner camp checkpoint, and for the first time today, Kaede was preoccupied with something other than 'are these men also plotting to kill us?'

Though she had to mutter afterwards:

"At least... I'll stay until the war is settled, and the two of you get married..."

Her fingers traced the scroll case in her messenger bag. It was a gift from the Shadow Guard Major: bank notes and a Grand Republic of Samara passport, exchangeable directly for citizenship papers by those biologically Samaran.

...According to the Captain, the papers were just a time-saver. Her blood was enough to seek asylum.

Pascal sighed as he re-grasped her other hand.

"I know it is unfair of me to ask this, but could you give Sylv a third chance?"

"Third?"

"She told me yesterday about what happened in Nordkreuz, in her cabin," Pascal exhaled. "She said that she never properly apologized for it."

"No..." Kaede thought back to the near molestation episode. "She never did."

"Well, it has been plaguing her mind, and... she does learn from her mistakes much faster than I do."

Kaede stared at his shadowy countenance. Light reflected off his clear, earnest eyes as they gazed back at her.

It was unlike Pascal to belittle himself for the sake of others.

"Please?" he implored. "As a favor, for me."

"But... what if she does escalate it a third time? A fourth?"

Kaede felt her shoulders tremble. The last ordeal had seriously, truly made her scared of Sylviane.

Pascal sighed again.

"If she does seriously try to harm you, I swear I shall take you to safety myself."

"Even after you're married?" Kaede asked. "Some might interpret that as treason."

"Whatever it takes," his reply came in a determined vow.

Kaede trailed off into a sigh of her own.

A promise from Pascal was more dependable than any pillar she could find in this world.

The ball was now in her court, her decision to make.

Never leave regrets on moral conscience... she thought back to the her conversation with the Captain.

It would always be easier to forgive, and be wronged by it, than to be without mercy, and feel heartless for it.

...Especially when the decision involved others' lives.

 

----- * * * -----

 

Kaede followed Sylviane and Pascal through the royal cabin doors, only to encounter someone waiting.

Vivienne knelt on the ground, eyes down and hands together almost like a traditional Japanese servant; her docile image was a complete flip from her entrance last night.

"Your Highness--"

"Vivi what are you doing," Sylviane rushed to pull her back up. "There's no need for that."

Mari closed the door behind them while the Princess sat down on her bed, tugging the winterborn into her lap as she did so.

"How many times do I have to tell you?" she berated the smaller girl. "I'm not your owner. You don't need to belittle yourself like years ago."

"Then you forgive me for last night?" Vivienne's large orbs gazed back.

"It... there's nothing to forgive," Sylviane closed her eyes as a faint blush colored both cheeks. "I've thought about it. The truth is you have helped me in exactly the way I needed, even if I was against it at the time. Besides, if anyone was at fault, it would be Robert for giving you the idea."

The girl in her lap smiled, somewhere between relief and satisfaction.

...or was it just as planned? Kaede couldn't tell.

Surely Vivi couldn't be part of the plot?

"Still Vivi, you should be more careful," the Princess scolded. "or one of these days, that audacity really will get you hurt. Enchantment magic like that may be ruled as rape in a court of law."

"Not like I go around charming people to..."

Sylviane had to chuckle in response:

"I should hope not!"

Meanwhile, as Kaede heard Pascal's faint mutter, she glanced at his envious scowl.

"Why could I not have had that response."

From his side, Lady Mari leaned in.

"Wrong timing."

Compared to when Sylviane woke up hollering at Pascal, this introspective, understanding, and considerate princess was different in every way.

Thinking back to that day when the Princess carried Kaede through the streets of Nordkreuz, the familiar girl truly understood at last:

This... is the real Sylviane.


...


"Edith is planning a coup?"

Kaede's information had left the princess bewildered. Though even that didn't stop her fingers from stroking Vivienne's silky long hair, as the winterborn sat in her lap like a sleeping doll.

"Edith is many things -- self-righteous, irrational, shortsighted, sure. But a coup? She doesn't have a millistone of ambition and is too fanatical to manipulate."

"Never underestimate the effects of your own behavior," Lady Mari voiced what everyone else stayed in their minds.

Sylviane grimaced, followed by a long exhale.

"Yes, I know I messed up. But Edith isn't the type to be offended by mere words..."

"It may not be a personal affront," Kaede pondered aloud. "It may be clash of ethics. At any rate, I can only report what Marina observed."

"And you trust her?"

"Yes," Kaede tried to match Sylviane's firmness, but her gaze still faltered first.

"We should arrest her then."

Pascal's declaration was unrelenting, but the vetoed came with just as much steel.

"No."

Kaede and Sylviane had overlapped. Once again their sights turned to connect, and once again Kaede backed down, her lingering fears apparent.

But this time, the princess gave her the invitation:

"Go ahead, Kaede."

The Samaran looked back, uncertain, only to receive a determined nod in return.

"If we arrest Edith-Estellise," she breathed, "then we really will have an immediate coup on our hands; and regardless of who succeeds, the Caliphate will be the ultimate victor."

"But we cannot simply ignore traitors breeding among the ranks!" Pascal rebutted.

"We have no choice," Kaede countered. "Lady Estelle holds far too much influence and respect across all ranks of this army. Arresting her would be like jailing a family's mother; it would tear the Lotharins to pieces. Our only chance, is..."

Kaede halted as she looked back to Sylviane, who nodded with an encouraging smile this time.

"--Our only chance is for Her Highness to win the hearts and minds of the army. If we can win tomorrow with Sylviane at the helm -- to show that her valor and integrity are every bit the match for Edith -- then we can restore the troops' confidence and the plot will falter on its own."

"It's the only way to avoid a lose-lose situation," Kaede finalized, feeling her skin crawl as her thoughts summoned the Munich Conference and how Hitler's diplomatic victory shattered the Oster Conspiracy.

"I agree," came Vivienne's soft voice, still content to seem asleep.

"It falls to me then," Sylviane exhaled.

"And me... to make sure you win," added Pascal. "I imagine you will be taking command from the riverfront redoubts then?"

The Princess nodded firmly. "I can't let Edith take front and be nowhere in sight myself."

"Then I shall join you."

Sylviane stared at Pascal as though he was crazy.

"This will be a straight up assault battle; artillery is key. But your Lotharin artillerists leave much to be desired compared to Weichsel standards," Pascal dug his foot in. "I must have clear line-of-sights across the river to direct any counter-battery. A scrying spell simply will not suffice once smoke and ash enshrouds the battlefield."

Kaede did remember: Pascal's Pandemonium Doctrine made him a proponent of mobile warfare, but his military education began in the artillery school.

"No," she swallowed. "I'll do it."

Images of Pascal skewered in the riverfront battle drifted across her thoughts once more.

"Kaede--"

"You just need an artillery spotter right? I'm your eyes and ears, but I can't be your mouthpiece if those bratty nobles at the HQ get uppity."

"It is far too dangerous--"

"No less dangerous for you," Kaede rebuffed. "You can keep your wits better if you remain uninjured. Besides... I heal faster."

Pascal looked ready for a quarrel of attrition when Sylviane put her royal foot down:

"Then it's settled. Pascal, you stay in HQ. Vivi, you'll stay center field..."

"I will?" Vivienne's eager eyes sprang wide as they swiveled to the Princess.

"I realize my father told Edith to keep you hidden for a tactical surprise, but she's already held on for far too long! Tomorrow is the decisive battle. I want nothing held back, unleash everything."

"Yes! Your Highness!" the winterborn's excitement rang like a kid on Christmas morning.

"Lastly, Kaede will act as Pascal's spotter..."

Sylviane then faced the familiar, wisteria gaze hardened by resolve.

"--And I'll protect her."

Kaede blinked back. Against the pledge of this princess who had tortured her just three days ago, Kaede wasn't even sure of what to think, or even feel.

"Mari, you said it's finished?" Sylviane addressed her bodyguard.

"Yes, Your Highness. Sir Robert brought it in earlier."

The Lady's Maid walked to a corner and unraveled a cowhide bag, pulling out what seemed like a folded set of cured leathers. Then, as Kaede watched Mari bring it to her, she finally realized what the black padding with white borders were.

Leather armor.

Pink stitching too...

Kaede looked back to Sylviane, receiving a sorrowful smile from the Princess:

"Pascal had your measurements, but the craftsmen shops in Nordkreuz were destroyed. I messaged Vivi to place an order in Roazhon before we left Nordkreuz. It's light armor so your body shouldn't be too burdened. It also has the standard reactive enchantment -- magic will reinforce and harden it at the point of impact."

"Still not as good as steel plate," Pascal scowled. "But it should at least give you some protection under your wards, so you are not left bloody unconscious every time you enter close-quarters."

"It was a gift, but please... consider it part of my apology," Sylviane added in remorse.

"Your Highness..."

"'Milady' is fine. We're in private quarters."

"--Also," Sylviane appended as though she had almost forgotten. "You can return to Pascal's cabin. You'll need your rest for tomorrow. I promise I will never object again, as long as the two of you do not... go too far."

Kaede almost laughed at that. No way.

"Milady," her wispy voice turned hoarse as she held onto the princess' gaze. "Thank you."


...


"That was lenient of you," Vivienne spoke after the others left, eyes still closed as she received the princess snuggle treatment.

"If she could forgive me for being bipolar and... wronging her," Sylviane spoke. "Then the least I could do is to forgive her for being Pascal's familiar and seeking out his comfort."

"...And if she wants more than that?"

For a moment, tense silence.

Then, the Princess shrugged.

"Maybe it's about time I take Cecylia's advice to heart then: better Kaede than a real mistress, with webs of ambition strung all over.

"Besides... there's something to be said about a 'girl' who never even considered trying to manipulate Pascal against me -- or so Sir Robert tells me."

"None of that will make you happy though," the smaller girl surmised.

Sylviane sighed.

"No... but that's why I need my idea to work: so my judgment can control my emotions, and not for my emotions to rule me."

 

Next Chapter ]

Chapter 13 - Twelve Thousand A Day

It was just after dawn when the Tauheed army finished their morning prayers and began the advance. All along the lightly wooded slopes, Caraliyyah siege engineers and soldiers pushed forth onagers, trebuchets, and bombard mortars, wheels creaking as they rolled down tracks of transmuted clay.

Meanwhile on a nearby hilltop, General Salim gazed through his binoculars and scanned the opposing riverbank.

Battles of the 6th Trinitian-Tauheed Holy War.

Roazhon was built near the confluence of two rivers. The River Hafren, which flowed south from the southwestern end of the North Lotharingie Mountains, and the River Gwilen, which flowed west from the northwestern end of the South Lotharingie Mountains. The Avorican Capital guarded the eighty kilopace gap between these two mountain ranges, making it one of the most strategic locations on the continent. As such, the city featured an extended array of fortifications, its outermost layer covering the river crossings twenty kilopaces out.

The River Gwilen served as southern flank of the city's 'defense zone'. Upriver, it featured a sharp drop from the southern mountains, with fast-flowing waters cutting a steep valley into the rocky hills. Downriver, after absorbing the River Hafren, the banks of the Gwilen turns into a swampy marsh all the way to the sea. With all the bridges destroyed, this left only a twelve kilopace length where a river crossing could be forced... where the Lotharins had entrenched themselves along a shallow-sloping ridge and waited.

Stone redoubts four-stories high stood every two-hundred-fifty paces; having quadrupled in numbers over the past weeks with the help of clay-to-stone transmutation spells. Between them stood wooden watchtowers, elevated earthen platforms lined with archers and dug-in siege engines, even networks of trenches where thousands of voulgiers and pikemen sat waiting. These were protected by a low stone wall, several spiked palisades, and no less than two rows of sharpened stakes at the riverbank.

"I fear I may have given them too much time to prepare, Hakim," General Salim voiced to his wazir.

"We'll manage," came the Marid's stoic reply. "We brought enough artillery to conquer hell."

The General smirked as he turned to his partner. Hakim always worried about details more than he does; yet the Marid never failed to calm his nerves.

Although this time Hakim didn't meet his gaze; those clear blue eyes stayed fixated on the water.

"Something wrong with the river?"

"Perhaps," Hakim pondered. "The water is much lower than what intelligence claimed."

Spies reported before the invasion that the river crossings were at least two-hundred-fifty paces wide and up to twelve paces deep. But at the moment, even its widest segment wouldn't reach one-eighty.

"Isn't that a good thing?" General Salim replied. "It is wintertime; the snow will collect in the mountains until the spring thaw."

"But a warm front swept up from the Inner Sea just last week. Our spies reported rain in most of the lower passes. It should have melted at least some snow, to normalize the flow if not expand it."

Hakim examined the riverbanks once more. The muddy gravel at its edge showed signs of recent submergence; the waterline was much lower than even a week ago.

"Lieutenant," he gestured a signal officer forward. "Tell Brigadier Arslan to take his cavalry brigade upriver. Reconnaissance in force, sixty kilopaces out!"

"Yes General!"

He then stared at the battalions of Lotharin troops garrisoning the riverfront fortifications. His hand brushed and began to tug at his thick-beard again as his mind wandered into deep thought:

If the river really is blocked, then...'

The Lotharins attempted to play dirty, and God saw it fit to reveal their treachery. But now, it also presented him with a valuable opportunity.

"Send all heavy siege forward."

"All?"

"Yes, all of them!," the General repeated. "Advance to firing positions. Order six battalions of skirmishers to screen the advance with smoke canisters. March all assault formations to maximum enemy range and hold. Tell Brigadier Tariq we'll be using his idea today!"

He never noticed the insidious smirk that spread across his partner's normally stoic countenance:

"Yes, Your Eminence."

 

----- * * * -----

 

In the Lotharin command cabin, Pascal leaned with both arms against the map table. It looked as though he was scrutinizing the countless unit markers lined across the three-dimensional illusory-projection. But in reality, his vision focused through his familiar's eyes, gazing across the river from the left-center redoubt on the line.

Not that there was much to see.

Lotharin disposition in the Battle of Gwilen River: Princess Sylviane commands the left wing, Lady Estelle leads the right wing, General Clermont's brigade holding the center, and King Alistair held in reserve.

Half an hour ago, he could still see thousands, tens of thousands of infidel troops marching on the river. Their neat columns of armor had dyed the entire countryside in lanes of green and yellow. Then, thin screens of skirmishers broke off from the army and charged, their backpacks spraying thick white smoke into the air above.

Individual arrows soared out from the Lotharin lines as rangers and militia marksmen picked apart the enemies as they neared the water. Hundreds lay dead before the remaining skirmishers broke and ran. Nevertheless, those thick blankets of white smoke enshrouded the everything beyond the river like a deep fog.

Pascal had sent orders for Stormcaller mages to summon a wind to the battlefield. Yet the air remained still, without even a gentle breeze.

They must be countering us with Tranquility spells, he could only surmise.

None of the Sight spells would penetrate the white haze. Through this fog of war, he could only rely on ears -- the stomping of iron hooves, the creaking of wooden wheels, the clinking of armor scales.

"They should be nearing the river by now," his familiar noted through their private telepathy.

"Sir!" a signal lieutenant within the command cabin pulled Pascal's attention back to his own body. "Duchess Jeanette reports sighting of enemy bridging equipment. She requests reserves to be dispatched to her front."

Pascal checked the map. The Duchess' troops were near the extreme right flank. It was more likely that a thinner smokescreen had given her an early glimpse, and not that the Cataliyan main thrust would be there.

If I was in command of that army, he thought. I'd use my crushing numerical advantage and launch an attack across the entire front.

It would be foolish to assume that his opponent was stupid enough to use anything less than the clear, optimal strategy.

"Sir!" another officer cried out. "Count Albert reports that the dam garrison is under attack."

Pascal's eyes widened as he abandoned all previous thoughts, his gaze swiveling to an upriver marker. He had ordered the river dammed from twenty kilopaces upstream almost as soon as they retreated here. The reservoir had filled for days and was ringed by a wide area illusion spell. It was enough to fool a survey by cavalry scouts or airborne familiars; only a thorough reconnaissance of the area would be able to notice its presence.

"By what forces?" he demanded.

"No less than five battalions of mixed cavalry! They emerged in overwhelming numbers!"

In other words, Pascal's brows twitched. The incompetent fool didn't even maintain a perimeter watch and failed to spot several thousand horsemen until it was too late.

His fingers balled into fists. The battle had yet to begin proper, and he had already lost one of his trump cards.

No. I still have a chance.

Hidden within the sandbag and stone dam was one of his ether-storing gems, engraved with a specially prepared rune that he could remote detonate with a Farspeak communication spell. Even if the infidels captured the dam, he could still destroy it during the middle of an assault crossing to flood the river.

Pascal synchronized his senses back through Kaede's eyes and ears. He couldn't see anything through the smoky haze, not even the orchard trees they had painted yew-white as rangefinding markers.

He had to do something to impede the enemy, even though the Lotharin siege would be firing blind.

"How far would you guess they are?"

Kaede's keen hearing made it impossible to judge distances based on his own experience.

The inexperienced girl took a moment as she focused on the stomping boots and creaking wheels, even confirming with a nearby ranger.

"Less than a kilopace."

"Ready incendiary barrage for 800 paces."

"Load incendiaries! Eight hundred!" Pascal heard Kaede cry on the other end.

"LOAD OIL! EIGHT HUNDRED!" the shout rang down from the redoubt to the entrenched siege crews, echoing from lieutenant to sergeant to soldier.

He could hear the sound of barrels rolling through the trenches. The combustible ammunition was housed away from the siege engines, in bunkers dug at least five paces into the ground.

Meanwhile from behind the redoubt, the sound of a slow viol reverberated in the morning mist. Vivienne's fiddle began its prelude, a sweet and gentle adagio that conjured the nostalgia of home to the Lotharins. Other instruments soon joined her from nearby, a musical trope of mandolins, flutes, drums, and even a harpsichord. Their melodic timbre rose across several kilopaces of open field, amplified by the magical aura of her phoenix Olifant.

Kaede swiveled her binoculars back in curiosity, its lens refocused just as Vivienne raised her bow into the air. With her viol still pressed against the neck, the winterborn began an aria in beautifully pitched soprano.

"Her magic... it's laced into the very song," the familiar realized at last, before her eyes returned to the front lines.

Crashing cymbals resounded across the air as both instrument and song rose in tempo. The musical energy grew alongside trickling ether streams, slowly but gradually infusing into the minds of thousands.

Soon, Pascal began to hear the 'READY' calls as sergeants reported their siege weapons loaded. They returned uneven and sporadic, as different crews varied in the time they took.

"Volley."

"Volley!" his familiar passed the order.

"VOLLEY!"

Hundreds of onagers and trebuchets jerked as catapult arms threw out their payload. Buckets of shrunken barrels flung into the air, returning to normal size as they passed through raised Dispel Screens.

"Talk about a violation of every conservation law," Kaede stared as the sudden increase in mass made no difference to velocity.

Within the span of seconds, one-hundred-twenty-eight heavy Lotharin siege weapons launched over five hundred chest-high barrels. Oil and pitch filled each of them to the brim, capped by an 'ignition' lid that carried a simple burning flask. The massive volley scattered as it flew across the river, vanishing into the fog bank. Sounds of shattering wood signaled their crash, soon followed by roaring fires and the screams of burning men.

Even the thick white smoke could not entirely conceal the carpet of flames that began to consume the other bank.

Through their empathic link, Pascal felt Kaede's resolve clamper down against her dismay at the painful shrieks. Though to him, the audio feedback was troubling in the completely opposite way:

An army was supposed to be marching down those slopes. Where were the masses of dying men?

Even if the infidels had Legion Resistance wards raised, the intensity of the holocaust should still reap a heavy toll. Yet amidst layers of white smoke, he could hear the screaming of a hundred or two at most.

Something is wrong.

As Pascal paused to ponder, he noticed that Vivienne's gentle singing had faded. The beating of drums replaced it as the rhythm escalated in a span of seconds.

Returning from vocal to instrumental, the Oriflamme bard dashed straight into heated performance. An uplifting beat streamed over the air as Vivienne's viol strummed faster than anything he had ever heard. Her fiddle strings reverberated as though on fire, pitch rising steadily as the song burst into an extended crescendo.

...And with Vivienne, it never stopped at being mere music.

Through Kaede's sight, Pascal watched as the siege crew closest to his familiar loaded in perfect coordination. The soldiers seemed more energized than ever as they stashed one shrunken barrel after another onto the catapult bucket. Their every motion came efficient and harmonious; there was not a single wasted movement, not a second of delay.

"READY!" he soon heard the sergeants' call, over a hundred of them in near perfect cohesion, synchronized within a margin of seconds.

Even during the heat of battle, Pascal felt his jaw drop momentarily.

The loading of ammunition always varied between crews. The massed fire of missiles always grew more incongruent. Yet somehow, none of these laws of warfare applied to the Lotharins now.

It was as though Vivienne lead a concert of war -- a conductor of not instruments but massed artillery.

"Second volley."

"Volley!"

"VOLLEY!"

Again, he sent the order for the Lotharin catapults to launch. Again, over a thousand burning barrels hurled into the shrouded enemy front.

Again, the returning screams failed to meet expectations.

A breeze created by the roaring flames was beginning to disperse the smoke. But before Pascal could see anything other than the burning husks of scattered Cataliyan trebuchets, a massive explosion erupted to the east.

The earth trembled as dirt and rock debris flew high into the air, visible even from twenty kilopaces away.

Already, he could hear the distant roar of waters through Kaede's keen ears. It would take only minutes before they reached the battlefield. The small reservoir they managed wouldn't be enough to flood the banks, but the rushing water would make the river impassable for several hours at least.

Shit, he managed to suppress the swear.

Not only had he just lost his best trap, but the infidels had completely fooled him.

There was no general advance. There would be no assault crossing today. The sound of ten thousand boots and hoofs, the glimpses of bridging equipment -- they had to be all illusions, and nobody had noticed because the smoke had impeded all sight-based spell detection.

The enemy was rolling in for an artillery duel, pure and simple.

"Order all frontline infantry to pull back! NOW!" Pascal ordered, by both word of mouth to signal officers and by telepathy to Kaede.

But even as he said this, he already knew that they no longer had enough time.

Soon, the Cataliyan heavy weapons would be ready to return fire, and their numbers stood at more than four times as many. Such quantitative superiority would overwhelm even the magical defenses of professional Weichsel formations, let alone the Rhin-Lotharingie militia battalions who always ran a shortage of Magic-Capable Officers.

 

----- * * * -----

 

"LOOK OUT!"

Kaede hardly registered Robert's cry before Elspeth, one of Sylviane's armigers, yanked her back from the redoubt's battlements. A cerulean disk eight-meters wide then projected from the Princess' shield, just in time to block and shatter the incoming barrel.

Two armigers renewed the spellshield wards that the previous Dispel arrow tore through. Although that didn't stop the flames from pouring onto Kaede's former spot. Had she stayed for two seconds longer, the liquid fire would have roasted her alive.

"Thank--" she swiveled to voice her appreciation, only to hear a derisive whisper from Elspeth:

"Useless."

The petite girl wasn't even looking at Kaede. Dashing to the left, she threw out her arm and launched a volley of Ether Seekers, interdicting several hostile spells that weren't protected inside siege projectiles.

Meanwhile at twenty paces away, an oil drum fell straight into a trench intersection.

"Ah-AHHHHHHHHH!"

A rear squad of retreating infantrymen had been bottlenecked there; twelve men turned into human torches as bursting oil ignited their chests and faces.

More screams resounded from behind Kaede, as a thrown powder keg detonated against the base of a wooden watchtower, its four marksmen blown into the air in pieces.

Behind the smoking crater, a dug-in Lotharin onager replied with three barrels of its own. A Cataliyan trebuchet on the opposing bank turned to toothpicks as an explosive shot crashed next to it.

Thirty paces away, an enemy mortar was blown into the air, after Lotharin rangers from atop a watchtower punctured the defensive wards and struck the munitions case with a Smiting Fireball arrow.

Scenes like this were duplicated dozens, hundreds of times across the entire front line. Blazing volleys flew overhead like meteor swarms. Flames erupted from every corner, accompanied by deafening blasts and bloodcurdling screams. Entire battalions collapsed into chaos as bursting missiles reaped through ranks of retreating men.

Twelve kilopaces of river crossing had turned into hell incarnate.

Yet even in this slaughter, Vivienne's uplifting tune continued. Her fiddle strings reverberated through the air, urging those who remained to synchronize their fire and fight on.

'Shoot at will' was in effect; however the Lotharin siege continued to reply in cohesive volleys, trading blows with the massed infidel artillery. Friendly earthworks and wards offered them protection, but the occasional direct hit would still score a kill. With hundreds of heavy weapons continuously firing from the opposite bank, this 'occasion' because all too frequent.

"Shoot back you cowards! Shoot back!"

On a nearby earthen platform, Kaede spotted a familiar face. It was the man she saw enlisting for the Forlorn Hope; the man who had lost his entire family and sought only death. Ignoring orders for the infantry to retreat, he abandoned his voulge for a longbow pried off a corpse.

He hollered to a trio of bowmen cowering behind a fallen watchtower, just before a rock sank into the onager pit behind him, its sheer weight breaking the anti-projectile Repulsion Spellshield ward like paper.

BZMMMMMMMMMMM.

Sonic magic imbued into the stone burst in a low bass. The shockwave shattered the boulder and the bones of nearby siege engineers, creating hail of granite splinters that shredded the remaining crew.

One moment, the man Kaede saw was drawing back his bowstring. A second later, blood pumped from his severed neck as a rocky disk sliced off his head.

He never had a chance to take revenge. He never even met the enemy face-to-face.

His faith, his resolve, his bravery -- all of it amounted to nothing. His death came completely in vain.

Kaede's breath halted as a blast of heat knocked her onto the redoubt's floor.

Her legs numbed as she remembered that old Russian poem about Rzhev. Her arms trembled nonstop. Her breathing returned, ragged, as rose-quartz eyes tilted blank into the air, gazing up to the blazing cyan Trinitian Cross that Lady Estelle had painted onto the skies.

What could possibly be holy in this vision of hell?

"Kaede!" the Princess' face emerged into view, her hair burning an electric blue. "Pull yourself together!"

With a hand grasping the smaller girl's palm, Sylviane pulled Kaede back up. Her phoenix's aura helping to sooth the familiar's thoughts.

"Can you hit that over there!?" the Princess demanded, fingers pointed at a distant barrel that peaked just over the hill crest.

No, it wasn't merely a barrel. It was the top of a stockpile just beyond the ridge, where hostile munition wagons unloaded before soldiers rolled them to front-line siege engines one by one.

A few lonely arrows soared toward it as nearby rangers took shots. But even with spell boosters, the Lotharins' recurve yew longbow and their lower-quality arrows simply lacked the range.

With deep, calming breaths, Kaede steadied herself and nodded back. Her fingers squeezed the spring-steel morphic bow as she pulled out one of Pascal's special arrows and pressed the quartz crystal nock, activating its Stormblessed Air Glide spell.

"Wait," Sylviane's glove reached over the fletching. "Delayed Firestorm."

The Princess then tapped the familiar girl's shoulders with a firm nod.

Stepping over the embers that still scorched the parapet, Kaede took aim against the distant horizon. Her eyes focused on the target and nothing else, her mind merging with the arrow once more.

Just like two weeks ago. Kaede's fingers released the bowstring, sending the charged arrow across over a kilopace.

Her eyes never left the target, even as a bubble of anti-spell wards flared against the arrowhead's dispel. The bodkin tip soon sunk into the barrel, its shaft sticking out like a bomb fuse.

Two seconds later, the entire hill crest vanished in an earth rending blast.

It was just one stockpile along the twelve kilopace front. But hopefully, it would buy the Lotharins a little time.

"Pascal," Kaede had an idea. "Air strike those stockpiles along the front?"

"Denied! If we fight over their anti-air, those drakes just over the hills will tear the Phantoms apart!"

With a chilling tone, Pascal gave his bitter order:

"I am sorry, but you are on your own! Assist the heavy artillery for as long as you can, then withdraw!"

He had already written off the fixed siege weapons as doomed. It was just a matter of how much damage they could inflict before their destruction now.

BOOM Kaede felt the heat wave singe her hair; the explosion mere paces away.

"Ahhhhh!"

Sylviane's interdicting fireball blew apart a barrel aimed at the tower late. Its liquid fire splashed through a gap in the wards and onto a ranger's torso and face. He flailed in shrieking agony until Elspeth's roped blade-hook tore out his throat.

If we survive long enough...

Kaede sucked in a trembling breath as she watched a Cataliyan trebuchet hurl out its boulder. The rock smashed onto empty ground this time before bursting apart under another sonic spell.

Meanwhile, the crew was already loading their next stone. A spell-boosted Lotharin arrow flew in, but a bubble-shaped Repulsion ward batted it aside as its Dispel failed to penetrate.

Soon, the siege engine was ready to fire again.

Drawing another enchanted arrow, Kaede took aim across the river and envisioned the machine's previous throw. Guided by the inspiring beat of Vivienne's melody, she timed her arrow's release.

It flew straight into the trebuchet's sling during mid-throw, triggering the boulder's imbued spell -- an overhead sonic burst that overwhelmed the wards and shredded the rock, the weapon, and its entire crew.


...


In the end, it took six agonizing hours before the Caliphate silenced the Lotharin heavy siege weapons. The last few remaining crews had fought to their death, even as the surviving marksmen from the redoubts withdrew.

After six hours of being shelled by boulders, explosives, and spellfire, Kaede no longer had the will to stop her arms from quaking. Endless blasts echoed in her ears as unfeeling legs ran her back through burning communication trenches.

How did the men at the Marne or Somme stay sane through this?

 

----- * * * -----

 

That night proved a much-needed reprieve, though Kaede could hardly sleep. Pascal sent ranger squads back across the river to sabotage as many exposed artillery pieces and munition dumps as they could. Even within the encampment, Kaede's body shook with every muffled explosion or tremble of the ground, her mind conjuring visions of being shelled again.

Her eyes were bloodshot as dawn arrived the next day.

The riverfront fortifications lay in ruins. Blast craters, scattered earth, and the burnt husks of trees littered the once green river banks and its orchards. Only battered earthworks and the foundations of wrecked redoubts remained to provide cover. Lotharin infantrymen rushed into the trenches as the infidels chanted from across the river -- thousands of men facing south as they offered their morning prayers.

Then, as they stood back up and marched in formation, the battle resumed.

Over a hundred Cataliyan heavy siege weapons remained to open fire. Their barrage supported the battalions of compound bowmen that advanced on the muddy riverbank. Behind them came armored wagons that looked almost like battering rams, loaded with cylindrical floats and bisected timbers as engineers pushed them forward to erect pontoon bridges.

"RANGERS AND ARCHERS FORWARD! LOOSE FORMATION!" Sylviane shouted as she left Kaede's side to lead the advance.

Orders echoed along the twelve kilopace front as thousands of Lotharin longbowmen climbed out from their narrow trenches. Braving the hellfire that rained down upon them, they followed the Princess and Saint Estelle down the slopes, where arrows nocked to release volleys against hostile lines.

The Lotharins' recurve yew longbow was inferior to the compound bows used by the other armies. But what they lacked in equipment, they made up for through cultural traditions and numbers. Massed militia volleys soared out one after another in rapid succession, guided by the rangers' tracer arrows and imbued by their officers' spells. 'Shoot at will' was in effect once more, but the Lotharin line stayed in perfect synchronized cohesion as Vivienne's blazing fiddle strings resonated through thousands across the front.

Arrows poured from the skies and shredded company after company of Cataliyan missile troops. The enemy even began to commit their Asawira armored cavalry archers. They formed shooting circles as they kept the pressure on the Lotharin archery. However, their sacrifice allowed Cataliyan engineering teams to reach the river -- wagon ramps down, pavise shields erected, and smoke canisters dispersing thick white shrouds.

Floats and timbers rolled off these wagons as construction spells took hold and began the rapid assembly of pontoon bridges. Bisected timbers aligned in neat rows as transmutation magic fused attached iron girders into a plated surface. Silt from the riverbed rose and hardened into clay columns under terraforming alchemy. Wards sprang to shield these efforts as dozens of armored bridges began to form over the Gwilen River across the whole battlefront.

"Rangers: focus spell volleys on the nearest bridges! Artillery advance on sectors three, four and nine!" Pascal ordered.

The twelve kilopace river crossing had been divided into twelve sectors, numbered from east to west.

Wooden ramps bridged trenches as the Lotharins moved up their mobile light artillery: wheeled scorpions, wagon-mounted ballistae, even horse-drawn carts with Weichsel mortars. Around two hundred of them concentrated on the three flank sectors where the enemy gathered the most bridging equipment; their munitions soon began to pummel the engineering efforts...

 

----- * * * -----

 

"Their artillery is concentrating on the flanks," Hakim observed from the Cataliyan command post.

General Salim nodded. The time was now:

"Freeze the center. Signal Brigadier Arslan to charge."

 

----- * * * -----

 

Kaede watched as two long ranks of Cataliyan rear echelon mages raised their arms from the distant, hilly slopes. Surely the range was too far for their spells to reach the Lotharins?

But even if they could, it didn't explain why entire battalions of heavy cavalry peaked over hill crests and began cantering towards the river. The Gwilen was too deep to ford, and only three unfinished bridges lay before them at the central river crossing -- one of them already buckling under the rangers' focused fire.

She was still puzzled as dozens of chromatic ether trails arced into the air, before scattering and plunging into the stream.

Water froze solid as the icy alchemy spread. Within seconds, what had been an impassable barrier had transformed into an icy highway with sheets of snow.

It came just in time as the Ghulam heavy cavalry entered full gallop. Five echelons formed into broad armored wedges, several hundred men each and all aimed at the river segment frozen by thick ice.

Battle of Gwilen River: Arslan's Cavalry Brigade charges the center

"Kaede! Run closer to the ice! We need to plug that gap!"

"Are you trying to get me killed?" She lashed back.

"Trust me! And take out those three arrows I gave you this morning! We are going to need them!"

The Lotharins didn't have enough artillery, and General Clermont's infantry was still out of position as they rushed up through the trenches. If this charge crashed through the archers in the center, their losses would be disastrous.

Kaede closed her eyes and took a deep breath. His words 'trust me' echoed across her mind.

This is insane...

Darting around the elevated earthwork that she had taken cover behind, Kaede dashed past scattered row after row of Lotharin archers as she sped west along the riverfront. She swiped her right forearm to activate her full set of defensive runes, then reached back and pulled out the three new arrows from Pascal -- each tipped by a sleek gemstone, instead of the usual bodkin penetrator.

"Hold the stones between your fingers, and raise them towards the frozen crossing!" His voice came as though he ran right besides her.

Her right hand balled into a fist; three gem arrows pointed forward from between her fingers. Ether poured over the familiar conduit as magical power amassed into her fist. Energy pulsed from the three gemstones as their magic linked to her hand, radiating a turquoise shimmer across her pale skin.

"Rangers!" she called several nearby squads to attention as she ran, pointing at the massive wave of charging cavalry downriver. "Those with the courage to drive back hell! Follow me!"

Boosted by a Shift Impulse movement boost, her legs soon carried her to within three hundred paces of the frozen crossing. She felt the ground shake and water tremble as several thousand hooves thundered over earth and onto thick ice.

"Beam Field," Pascal's mnemonic spellwords began. The ether buildup in Kaede's arm flowed forth into a turquoise halo, spinning in place just in front of her fist.

"Sonic Penetrator Blast!"

A column of harmonic shockwaves poured out from the ether ring, streaming through the air before they crashed into the ice. Magic from both her body and the gemstones fed into the halo, guzzled up as fuel to feed the emitter's glow.

The Field spellword was typically reserved for duration spells. It created a continuous area effect for as long as ether demands met. Combined with Beam and the Penetrator spellword which enhanced its ability to pierce wards through brute force, Pascal had transformed her hand into a sonic disruptor cannon.

Kaede aimed her arm as she recognized her cue, moving the shockwave stream as she drew lines across the frozen water. Layered ice cracked and fissured under the sonic assault, their breaking hastened by crowded, stomping hooves. Some Cataliyan mages tried to refreeze the water or conjure ramps of force, but few would manage as more and more Lotharin spellfire joined in.

The cavalry charge had been stopped cold as Kaede cut multiple lines across both shores, trapping over a thousand assault troops on drifting plates of ice.

As she slashed the ice with more dissecting cuts, the frigid surface soon began to crumble. Frozen plates overturned and added to the chaos. Entire squads, platoons, even companies of horses and riders crashed and fell through the ice. Burdened by their heavy armor, men and beasts alike started to drown.

With arrows flying all around and Lotharin bowman falling left and right to incoming fire, Kaede hardly noticed as a platoon of cavalry archers began focusing their shots on her. Their first arrows bounced off her wards, but the infused Dispels that followed cut through her Repulsion Field and -- one by one -- shattered her rotating spellshields.

Kaede was still breaking the ice into smaller pieces when her body shook.

The taste of blood filled her mouth as she looked down, finding two arrows buried into her leather-padded shoulder.

"Spellshield Fortress!"

Pascal tried to rebuild her defenses, but a third impact that struck her waist dispelled the forming spell.

The sonic emitter vanished as Kaede dropped her arrows and knelt onto the ground.

"Kaede!" her numbing brain heard Pascal's seemingly-distant cry.

"Good luck, Pas--"

Neither had finished before the air burst, as a Cataliyan mortar round fell just twenty paces down.

The blast ended her consciousness in an instant. She never felt it as a shell fragment sliced right through her arm.

 

----- * * * -----

 

"KAEDE!" Sir Robert yelled, having just witnessed the Samaran girl turn into a pincushion before vanishing in smoke and flames.

"Your Highness!" he swiveled around to inform the Princess, who projected her shield into an overhead bulwark to block a falling mortar shell.

"Don't ask. Go!" Sylviane answered without pause. "Teleport her to the rear!"

"I'll be back!" the armiger who also served as her Wayfarer mage -- and therefore her emergency escape -- bolted off.

I just don't want to see Pascal in tears, that's all! she batted aside her other thoughts.

"Disintegrate!"

One of her armigers fired a ray at the nearest bridge section, turning its foremost floor segment into dust.

But even that only bought a minute as more wood and iron rolled into position to continue the assembly.

The nearest bridges were almost finished. The infidel infantry that pooled just across the river already began to cross.

Four kilopaces to the west, enemy troops streamed over bridges and terraformed shallows alike to engulf Edith's position in a chaotic melee. One kilopace to the east, the heavy infidel artillery destroyed another Lotharin ballista battery as devastated engineering crews continued their work.

"ARMIGERS AND VOULGIERS! TO THE RIVER!" Sylviane yelled back to the trenches, calling her own massed infantry forward.

It was time for the true meat grinder to start.

 

----- * * * -----

 

Pascal did his best to concentrate as he stared at the battlemap, constantly updated by signal officers as messages streamed in from across the front.

He had lost Kaede's visual and audio when the familiar fell unconscious. The link between them continued to exist, therefore she was at least still alive.

But in what state? For how long? Even a Samaran had limits to their healing. Worse yet was that she had collapsed on the open slopes, with nothing to shelter her from the riverfront clash.

Pascal had sent a nearby officer to investigate. But as the battle entered its most critical phase, he could neither afford to dispatch more men, nor continue to distract himself.

Holy Father, he had prayed. I know we do not speak enough. But please... please protect Kaede for me.

Through a combination of bridges, ice lanes, and terraformed shallows, the Cataliyans had crossed the river in force. Six major beachheads had been established, each struggling to break through as both sides poured infantry into the bloodbath.

Caliphate foot soldiers were mostly volunteers driven by religious fervor. These 'Ghazi' fought with neither the discipline nor the skill of the professional Ghulams, but they made up for it through sheer zealotry and numbers. Clad in chainmail and wielding a round shield with either saber or spear, they crashed into the Lotharin infantry -- with its few units of superior Noble Armigers, but mostly filled by militia troops.

Entire brigades were fed into the slaughterhouse at a time. Wave after wave of men marched on the river with banners held high, thousands of feet in sync to the tempo of Vivienne's song. Steel clashed as masses of men piled into the frenzied melee. Unit cohesion disintegrated as casualties mounted and survivors fell back, only to be pressed into battle once more by rows of glistening polearms from reinforcing ranks.

This had continued for the past hour, two, four... until the sun was high into mid-afternoon.

The Cataliyans had launched one air assault: forty-eight autogyro gliders escorted by thirty-seven wasteland drakes. But von Mackensen's Knights Phantom intercepted them, and both sides fell back after moderate losses. Since then, neither commander was willing to order air-to-ground strikes, which left the air cavalry at an altitude disadvantage when the other side counterattacked.

The Caliphate had also declined to invest more heavy horse after that disastrous early charge. The battle had became a pure grind-fest for the infantry, archers, and artillery units.

But even as logistic troops continuously rushed through trenches to resupply the front with fresh quivers and ballista bolts, even as one company after another, one battalion after another of Lotharin militia shattered under sustained bombardment, the raking curtains of missiles slowed to a trickle as ammunition depleted across the battle line.

...And with that, the Cataliyans finally achieved a breakthrough:

"Count Hubert's troops are routing! Sector three defenses have broken!"

Pascal stared at the map table. There were no longer any reserves left on the eastern flank. Even the logistic companies had been fed into the melee to repulse this latest attack, down to the last porter and cook.

The Cataliyan commander facing them had proven excellent thus far. Pascal had no doubt that fresh infidel reserves would soon arrive to exploit the breach.

...Though, it also presented an opportunity for him.

Sylviane held down the adjacent sector four. He could rely on her to anchor the Lotharin front line and keep it from being rolled up. That would buy him ten to twenty minutes, enough breathing room to deploy his final card: the strategic reserve.

"Tell the Princess to refuse the flank! And King Alistair to deploy his men behind sector three for counterattack. Make haste!"

"Yes Sir!"

I am counting on you, you royal bastard, Pascal clenched his teeth. Crash their morale and save Sylv for me.

 

----- * * * -----

 

"Highlanders! Lowlanders!"

"Highlanders! Lowlanders!"

King Alistair's shout resounded down the concave line, his words echoed by officers across the ranks. Formations shifted as veteran units filtered through one another to reposition themselves.

Those two words weren't just a rallying cry. Alistair had been given all the heavy infantry from Gleann Mòr that the army had. This included the nine hundred Galloglaichs he brought down on skywhales, plus another three hundred lowland armigers who preferred the use of polearms.

The northern clansmen fought in two basic formations. On the defensive, pikes and polearms would wall the forward edge. But before pressing the famous Highland Charge? All two-handed swords took their place of glory in the front.

It didn't matter how many foes they faced. It didn't matter that enemy reserves poured across those bridges, building a huge mass of green and yellow armor that numbered above four thousand.

They were still just bags of flesh, grass to be mowed under the cleaving edge of great blades.

With an amplification spell bolstering his voice, the King of the Glens raised his zweihander into the air. Its massive blade burned a dark blue from his phoenix's flames, shining a beacon of the north across ranks of hardened men.

"Come on, you lads! Let's splat some shit-faced fucknuggets! Charge!"

"Charge!" yelled commanders along the front as they lead the wave of steel.

"For the Glens!"

Battle of Gwilen River: Alistair's counterattack.

Twelve hundred men accelerated into a jog, closing the distance before they began to run. Rows of infidel foot soldiers leveled their shields and spears, bracing themselves on trembling ground as the final gap shrank.

"Flamberge, Ignition!" Alistair screamed as his phoenix Almace poured the flames of purification into his raised sword. The steel extended into a burning edge, reaching a hundred paces skyward before the whole length slashed deep into crowded masses of Caliphate troops.

The searing edge then burst against both sides, scorching entire platoons as it carved a deep wedge into the infidel horde.

With his armigers in tow, the seasoned mercenary-turned-king plunged headlong into the breach.

Almace was renowned for being the largest phoenix with the most flame capacity. Even after that conflagrative assault, Alistair could still call a Flamebreak from his millennia-old companion.

...And where better to do that than from the center of this horde of demonspawn?

 

----- * * * -----

 

"Enemy right flank routing!"

Pascal pumped his fist before his chest.

"Redirect all volleys in sectors two through four on those bridges!" He yelled at the signal officer. "I want those bastards dead on this side!"

The Cataliyans had invested heavily into that push, so much that the other riverfront sectors even retook a sliver of ground. Now, with dusk fast approaching, Pascal could be certain that the day was won.

Today, at least, he thought.

Even without Kaede's eyes and ears, Pascal knew perfectly just how badly the army had been mauled. Out of twenty-eight thousand men, he doubted even half of them remained in any state to fight. Many of those alive would also be support personnel, with the least combat training and little if any experience at all.

"Drive them back to the river, demolish all bridges that remain. Do not, I repeat, do not under any circumstance pursue the enemy across."

With his orders given, he began to cast Farspeak.

Part of him kept an eye on the battlemap. But it would seem that the Caliphate had enough for one day. No new attacks emerged after several minutes as his link came online.

"Pascal!" his fiancée was not pleased. "We're still in the middle of a battle!"

"Yes I know. But I have to pass this directly to you Sylv. I doubt the Lotharins would listen to me if I ordered it myself."

As Sylviane returned a mental nod, Pascal took a solemn breath:

"Once you clean up the enemies on this side, demolish the bridges and fall back. We should prepare to withdraw under cover of night."

"Withdraw!? Are you insane?"

"Sylv, listen to me. Every unit had been committed today. Half our formations lie in ruins, and the remainder are exhausted and bleeding. Meanwhile, our enemy might have utilized at most seventy percent of his combat troops!

"If we fight here again tomorrow," he stressed with utmost severity. "This army will rout by midday! We must retreat and reorganize if we wish for any chance of holding this front!"

"Then what about Edith? What about all the feudal lords? You think they're just going to accept that?"

Pascal could give no response. Some factors were simply out of his hands.

 

----- * * * -----

 

On the next morning, General Salim watched as his men crossed newly built bridges over the River Gwilen. They received only sporadic fire this time, mostly from skirmishers hidden in the eastern woods and western marshes.

He dispatched three battalions of light cavalry to screen the advance. Soon they would chase the last brigands from his hard-earned crossing.

Though 'hard-earned' was a gross understatement.

Sliding hands over his eyes, Salim slowly closed both palms in prayer before his nose.

"Verily we belong to God, and to Him truly we shall return..."

He struggled to maintain his stoic image as his eyes gazed upon the river crossing. Twelve kilopaces of ground and water ran a bloody red. The dead lay countless as they carpeted both banks. Bloated bodies formed half-adrift dikes on the water's edge. Scorched earth and blast craters scarred the slopes, and hundreds of burned out husks marked the tombs of tower garrisons and siege engine crews. Shattered wagons lay behind dozens of wrecked pontoon bridges, bloodied by mounds of corpses and bits of men.

It was a site of unimaginable slaughter, all to advance just a few hundred paces.

How many widows and orphans would soon curse the name 'Gwilen'.

"Our scouts confirm that the infidels have retreated," came Hakim's voice. His calmness was almost unnerving against such a backdrop of butchery and death. "Half their army fled behind Roazhon's walls; the other half withdrew west towards Ceredigion's forests."

"The field is ours," he declared, as though coolly announcing a victory.

"But at what cost?" General Salim's reply began with hardly a whisper. "To cross a single river, they bled us by over twenty-four thousand lives."

The General turned to his Wazir with a tormented gaze:

"Twelve thousand men a day -- just how long do you think this army will last?"

 

Next Chapter ]

Chapter 14 - Desperate Authority

"Are you serious?"

"Yes." Pascal nodded as he faced the stern gazes of Colonel von Mackensen and his two sub-commanders in the middle of the wooded Weichsel encampment.

The Colonel and Major Ariadne exchanged incredulous glances as soldiers rushed all around them, dissembling the camp in haste as the army prepared to resume march.

"We have sent all of the urban militia voulgiers, plus most of the Lotharin archer militias and any detached logistical units into Roazhon. That totals about seven thousand men. But it will not be enough."

The final tally had arrived this morning, and Lotharin losses in the Battle of Gwilen River had amounted to around sixteen out of twenty-eight thousand men. Despite inflicting greater losses on the opponent and retreating in good order, a defeat was still a defeat, sapping morale and spiking desertion rates. To help curb this, Pascal sent most of the unreliable militia troops, especially the devastated units, into the Avorican Capital of Roazhon. With the city on lockdown and about to be besieged, all citizens would be pressed into active service; there would be nowhere for deserters to run.

However, those mauled formations also required rest and reorganization, again, before they could fight effectively. This meant they desperately needed time -- time before the Caliphate forces could encircle the city, grind its wards and walls down with magic and artillery, then storm the breach to finish the job.

"We need someone experienced to aid the city's defenses..." Pascal explained. But this time, the Colonel did not wait patiently for him to finish.

"General Clermont is leading the defense, is he not?"

"Yes, but I do not believe Sylv... Her Highness has much confidence in Clermont," Pascal puzzled. "Perhaps his appointment to lead the Capital Garrison was mostly a political one."

"I think Her Highness dislikes the General for other reasons," interjected Major Hans, the intelligence officer who stood by Pascal's side. "Still, Clermont is an infantry veteran -- brave, stoic, unyielding, but not the most flexible tactician. He'll make the Cataliyans pay in blood, but he simply doesn't have the numbers to win a battle of attrition."

Pascal nodded as his gaze returned to Colonel von Mackensen:

"We all noticed at the Gwilen River that the Caliphate has limited air forces. They will not be able to protect the entire siege ring without spreading themselves thin. This will give you complete initiative in the air to harry their besieging units: pull their drakes out of position and then hammer their diminished artillery forces. Keep them off-balance and delay their assault for as long as you can."

As the besieged, the defenders would have the benefit of interior lines. The highly mobile Knights Phantom would be able to strike any part of the siege encirclement with ease, while Cataliyan air cavalry would have to fly the long way -- around the city -- to reinforce any position without being harried by hostile anti-air.

"That is all well and good from a tactical perspective," the Colonel replied, his hardened countenance less impressed than ever. "But Your Grace clearly does not realize the dire political situation..."

"We know we're on borrowed time," Hans stressed.

"That is like losing an arm and calling it a flesh wound," came the dry response. "The Lotharins..."

"Colonel, please," Sylviane's soft voice interrupted, having entered the confines of Pascal's anti-eavesdropping wards just seconds ago. "I realize that my legitimacy among the army's commanders is plummeting after the recent defeat. But I can still buy some time. However, if Roazhon's defenses are breached, then no amount of political maneuvering will salvage the collapse of this entire front."

Colonel von Mackensen pursed his lips. His stony gaze reluctant.

"Please, I implore you--"

Sylviane had only began to bow before the Colonel's pupils swelled. Overwhelmed by the sight of a royal scion humbling herself in his presence, he swiftly knelt down on one knee like a knight before his princess:

"Your Highness, please say no more," he swallowed. "I understand your determination and will accept the charge. I swear in Holy Father's name that Roazhon shall never fall so long as I live to draw breath."

The other officers never noticed, but Pascal didn't miss the faint smile that gleamed across Sylviane's lips.

 

----- * * * -----

 

"...How is the city supposed to hold with just a handful of ragtag units and half-shattered battalions?" challenged the Duke of Helveteu, amidst nodding by a dozen other enraged Lotharin nobles. "Even by the most optimistic casualty estimates, the Caliphate army would still field nearly fifty thousand men!"

It was only the second night after the Battle of Gwilen River, and the nobles already stood in the command cabin in open defiance. Pascal's decision and Sylviane's order this morning to break camp from the Hafren riverbanks and march west into the forests of Ceredigion had been met with cold disgruntlement from the start. But as the distance to Roazhon rose over the course of the day, so did discontent from the troops and the nobility who led them.

However, Duke Lionel was no agitator like the last challenger. Despite his lanky build, colorful furs, and his flamboyant doublet, he was a veteran of four campaigns and respected by common soldiers and nobles alike.

"Your Highness has sent General Clermont and even Colonel von Mackensen into a hopeless final stand, and for what? So we could flee west with tails between our legs? Well I refuse to disgrace myself with such cowardice!"

"Nor I!" shouted several nobles who followed him.

That is because you are imbeciles, Pascal felt his arm pulled back as Sylviane calmly explained:

"We are not fleeing. Had we been, we would have left yesterday morning instead of making camp just west of the Hafren River. We stayed within support range of Roazhon for an extra day to make sure the Caliphate has no choice but to seek us out for battle, as they could hardly besiege a city with roaming foes at their back."

"So you have said," Lionel brushed aside what he clearly saw as a feeble excuse. "But we're fleeing west into the forests now, aren't we? How can we come to the city's aid if it's assaulted tomorrow!?"

"We have no choice but to head west!" Pascal pointed at the map table, where a broad arrow marked the movement of the Caliphate army detachment that crossed the Hafren earlier today in pursuit. "The infidels are throwing most of their remaining cavalry after us -- fifteen thousand professional troops! Not to mention those reinforcements from the sea who could land behind us to cut the road if we stay here. With less than five thousand men at our disposal, we cannot face such numbers and win...!"

"With an attitude like that, of course you cannot!" Lionel slammed back, his gloved finger stabbing across the air. "Who was it that boasted he was sent by the Holy Father to bring us victory!? Now you propose we abandon Roazhon behind us without any chance of relief!? We have to at least try to harry the enemy! Otherwise when their reinforcements arrive, there is nothing stopping them from taking the city by force!"

"It is blasphemy, to claim guidance from the Holy Father yet act in contradiction to Trinitian teachings," Lady Anne added from the other side of the room, attending in place of Lady Estelle who was leading an ambush with several rear-guard companies.

The Mother Abbess' composure stayed poised, but her serene tone held no less accusation: "where were you when the Gwilen's northern banks ran red with martyrs' blood?"

Pascal's returning glare was venomous:

"I was making sure all of you had sufficient backup to hold those banks!"

"What backup!? You would never send us reserves until it became too late!" a noblewoman objected.

"--And you wouldn't risk your own countrymen even though we kept asking for air support!"

"Tell me, You Grace, what kind of man knows only to push others into harm's way?"

The Landgrave gritted his teeth as he felt his gut hammered, the low blow coming straight from Lady Anne herself.

If you Lotharins had any competent tacticians of your own, I would not have to be the one burdened with commanding you rabble!

Before he could blurt such impulsive thoughts out loud, Sylviane stopped him with a firm hand on his shoulder.

"Your Grace," she calmly addressed Duke Lionel, "we have no intention of abandoning Roazhon..."

Although his glare stayed angry beneath furrowed brows, the Duke was at least willing to listen. But not all of his followers had the same propriety as several began shouting over the Princess:

"Yet it is precisely what you are doing!"

"--Abandoning your subjects to run and hide; you're a disgrace to Rhin--!"

"Oh SHUT THE BLOODY HELL UP, all of you!"

The eruption of fury came from King Alistair, as his armored bulk began pushing through the crowded nobles surrounding Pascal and Sylviane.

"For Father's sake, have you learned nothing from your retreat across Avorica!? It is all good to fight for honor and principle, but what good does it do if you cannot actually save the people by winning!?"

"Your Majesty that is..."

Lionel looked insulted, but this time it was Alistair's turn to talk over others:

"You blame the Landgrave for not delivering an outright victory!? Then tell me, over the past few weeks, which one of you have managed to stand your ground until sundown when outnumbered three to one on the battlefield? Which one of you have organized an orderly retreat that saved the lives of thousands from pursuing cavalry? Which one of YOU have succeeded in achieving a favorable ratio of casualties despite the Caliphate's more professional soldiery!?"

The King of the Glens glared about the fuming nobles, as though daring them to refute him.

"None of you could have better organized the defense of the Gwilen River, and you know it well!" He bellowed. "Yet like parasitic malingerers, you would point fingers at those who managed what you could not, blame their inability to conjure a miracle for problems you helped to create! You say He is at fault! He screwed it up!, paying absolutely no regard to your own responsibilities and failings!"

Alistair gnashed his teeth as his words spat on those around him. He might be a King these days, but sometimes old habits died hard.

"We did everything we could! It is..."

"Oh have you?" the King spun around to accost the Duchess Jeanette de Girard-Condé. "Who was it that abandoned the riverfront on the second hour? Who threatened to break ranks unless she received fresh reserves when her companies finished the battle more intact than her neighbors!? Everything you could? At least learn to excrete your reeking stench from the other end!"

The Duchess was swollen with anger by the time Alistair finished spitting into her face.

"Her Highness and His Grace have a plan in mind, which is better than most of you could say," he continued without a break. "She is trying to explain it, yet you wouldn't even let her speak? That, miladies and lords, is cowardice of the highest order!" He slammed the table as he finished.

"Do not speak to me of responsibility, Your Majesty!" Lionel growled. "You! Who abandoned your duty, your country for two decades! To go on some foolish New World adventure as a mercenary for the Northmen!"

"And yet, I am King!" Alistair leered back with bared teeth. "And Gleann Mòr is stronger today than it was!"

"Your Majesty! Your Grace! Please!" the Princess beckoned. "Let us stay on the subject. King Alistair is correct that I have a plan in mind."

Pascal stood amazed as he glanced about the room. Moments ago, the entire cabin was set to pounce on him and Sylviane. Now, she seemed the reasonable mediator rather than the focus of their hostility. All of their discontent and anger had shifted to Alistair -- who might be known for his rough demeanor but was also supposed to be an astute King.

Did he provoke them all on purpose?

Meanwhile, Sylviane turned to Duke Lionel, her voice amazingly calm despite the crackling atmosphere:

"Tell me, Your Grace. If you were to storm a city, would you not lead the charge with your bravest men?"

"Of course!" he snapped.

"Then whom do you suppose the Cataliyans shall use, when their best troops are led away from the city, chasing us into the depth of the Ceredigion Forest?"

For a moment, the Duke only stared back, as though not comprehending.

Then, his eyes swelled.

"You're using us as bait?" he spoke, taken aback. "But then... with what trap? We have no other forces to use!"

"There is one," Pascal pointed at the map, to the forest-green realm labeled 'Kingdom of Ceredigion'.

"King Elisedd has dishonored his vows and done nothing to support us this entire time," Sylviane explained. "My plan, our plan, is to force his hand. Draw the Caliphate's armies into his kingdom, and he will have no choice but to fight."

 

----- * * * -----

 

"Your Majesty!" Pascal caught up to King Alistair after the meeting, alone except for his bodyguard as they strode through the woods back to their section of the camp.

"Your Grace?"

Pascal took a deep breath before taking a short and somewhat reluctant bow:

"Thank you for what you did back there, Your Majesty."

The two men exchanged a long gaze. There was no need to comment further about what had happened. For the first time since they met, an understanding had been forged between them.

"Your Grace should know that I've only bought you a week of time at most," Alistair added half a minute later. "If you can't achieve a victory to restore their confidence, then this will happen again, and worse."

"I know." Pascal pursed his lips.

Sylviane's inheritance, Weichsel's alliance, even the salvation of Rhin-Lotharingie itself -- so much would depend on their, his performance in these few, crucial days.

"...And next time, I won't be around to help you."

Pascal could only stare back at the King.

"You are intent on leaving then? Despite knowing how pivotal this week will be?"

"You have your responsibilities, I have mine," Alistair replied. "My skywhales have already departed for their trip back up north, and I can only stay until tomorrow at most. With my army trapped in the mountains by snow, reports say that my Highland noblemen are already feuding over supplies. I must return to hold the clans together so the forces of Gleann Mòr will be ready for the spring counteroffensive.

"Otherwise," the King stressed. "Even if you win the battle, we will lose the war."

Pascal could only let off a deep sigh. He might not like Alistair, but at least the King was a firm ally of Sylviane. In chaotic times like these, they were worth their weight in gold.

...Even the bulky weight of this royal bastard.

"Stop fretting," Alistair jested. "I'll be leaving all the troops I brought down, plus seven of my armigers to assist Her Highness and Lady Estelle..."

He did not use the word 'replenish', as Sylviane and Estelle's own armigers had been devastated by the recent battles.

"Besides," he looked at the large blue phoenix that stood atop his pauldron. "I exhausted Almace's flames during the last battle. He might have more capacity than the others, but his regeneration speed isn't any better. It'll be over a week before we're back up to strength, and you'll have settled things by then."

"By the Grace of the Holy Father, I have to," Pascal swallowed.

Standing within arm's reach, Alistair reached up and clapped the younger man's burdened shoulders.

"If you don't mind a word of advice, Your Grace -- don't bite off more than you can chew. You don't have to crush the Caliphate's army, just win," he stressed. "Hold onto this front, and I'll be back with more reinforcements in three weeks' time."

With a deep exhale, Pascal nodded back:

"Thank you, Your Majesty."

For several moments, it seemed as though King Alistair wanted to say something yet was unsure about it. But as the inner turmoil left from his faded-blue eyes, he decided to speak out:

"I am not your rival, Your Grace. The sooner you understand that, the better it would be for all of us."

Pascal's brows furrowed. He felt the sincerity of the Hound King in those words, or at least, as much as he could trust a mercenary-turned-politician. Still...

"Maybe you believe that. But she..."

He trailed off as Alistair sighed and shook his head.

"You have a lot to learn about women."

What is that supposed to mean? The Landgrave's temple twitched.

Perhaps feeling generous, the older man decided to give his junior a lesson before departing:

"Unlike us men, a responsible woman will only choose one partner at a time. It's simply a biological imperative given how they reproduce, and for that, the Holy Father has made them the better judges of character.

"But..." Alistair turned away. "If Your Grace cannot tell whom Her Highness has chosen, then you're not the man we all hope you are."

 

----- * * * -----

 

It wasn't until the next night, when Alistair and his three remaining armigers began the trip north, when his bodyguard and long-time companion Lennox spoke out:

"You sure about this?" he asked Alistair through private telepathy. "You know as well as I do that you could stay for 'least another week. The situation at camp is nowhere that bad."

"Yes, I am." The King stood firm in his decision. "As much as I want Sylviane to succeed, Lennox, I cannot be confident of it. I have given her enough help that, should she win, she would already be indebted to me. But if she fails, there will be a fallout -- consequences that we cannot afford to be caught up in."

After all, Alistair thought. Someone has to lead Rhin-Lotharingie when war returns to full swing in the spring.

...And as an Oriflamme, I have far more right to be Emperor than that pretender Gabriel.

 

----- * * * -----

 

A thunderous noise jerked Kaede out of her tranquil sleep. Her entire room seemed to sway, as though in the aftermath of an explosion. Accompanying it was a moment of terror, dismay and anxiety so strong that her life flashed before her eyes.

Breathing hard, Kaede almost jumped out of bed, eyes snapping open as they sought for the battle, for more arrows flying her way.

Except... something was off.

The images that passed through her mind didn't quite look like her memories, and she certainly wasn't on the battlefield now.

Looking down, she stared at the bedcovers that she had not seen in months -- a nostalgic sight that left her stunned.

It was her room, or more precisely, his room back in the family home: closed laptop on the window-side work table, adjacent cabinet with printer on top, two shelves of books by the corner, plus a dresser and the twin-sized bed she sat on.

Kaede could see his prized hardcover historical epics on the bookshelves, or his second place prefectural Kyudo trophy on top. Even the walls were a familiar baby blue, decorated by a replica mongol bow souvenir plus two framed digital artworks in watercolor-like pastels: a scenic view of the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in cherry blossom season, and an adaptation of Viktor Vasnetsov's Bogatyrs.

How could this be?

It took Kaede several moments before she realized the possible implication and looked down to confirm.

No... it was definitely still her: thin arms, small chest, clad in her white charmeuse undergarments, with Pascal's family crest embroidered in white gold upon her halter's bosom.

This only confused her further.

I'm back, but... still in my female body?

There was one difference though, as her entire right arm felt numb. Pulling her long arm-gloves down, she noticed that its length -- all the way down to her wrists -- was wrapped in a layer of bandages.

Was it an injury from the battle?

Flashbacks of pain entered her consciousness. She remembered being pierced in the torso, thrice. But all of those places seem to be healed. Her arm, on the other hand...

There are bigger things to worry about!

Swinging her stockinged legs out of bed, Kaede rushed over to the door. But the brass handle wouldn't even turn, let alone open the exit.

"Ma!? Pa!?" she banged on the wooden frame, before pressing her ears against it.

There wasn't the slightest sound coming from the rest of the house. There wasn't even any sound in the neighborhood. Everything was just... silent.

She tried to open the window next, with no more success. The glass offered her a view of the street outside. But despite the dusk sky that coincided with end of business hours, there wasn't a single pedestrian or car in sight.

Her laptop did open. But when she pressed the power button, nothing happened. No light, no sound, the machine simply appeared dead.

What is going on!?

"Ma!? Pa!? Anybody!?"

Kaede could feel the jerk of tears in her eyes. She was trapped inside a room which looked and felt exactly like home, yet wasn't.

It was as though someone was purposefully toying with her thoughts, her emotions, her homesick nostalgia.

"Kaede? You are awake?" came a voice she had grown too familiar with over the past two months.

"Pascal!? Where are you!? Where am I!? What did you do to me!?"

"Calm down Kaede," he winced. "You are in a familiar pocket. I will let you out in a minute."

...A familiar pocket...

She remembered the extradimensional belt pouch that Parzifal's Tofu slid out of.

"You stuffed me in a pokeball!?" her strung out emotions began to overheat at once.


...


The exiting process was, disorienting... to say the least.

In one moment, Kaede was standing in her fake bedroom. The next, reality seemed to collapse around her as everything blended together in a whirlpool of textures, only to spit her back out, from head to toes, on the bed in Pascal's cabin.

Regaining her orientation and sitting up, Kaede immediately sent her balled left fist towards Pascal, only to be caught in a vice-like grip.

"Don't play with me!" She shouted, tears in her eyes.

"I am not playing with you." His gaze puzzled back, clearly confused. "Look, I know you dislike the familiar pocket for some reason..."

"Some reason!? How would you like it if I shoved you in a sack to be carried around!?"

Pascal was about to continue explaining before he took a moment of pause and sighed:

"Look, I am sorry. I did not exactly have a choice. All servants and heavily injured personnel were sent to the city. This army is traveling light, and I could hardly make an exception by asking the healers to carry you. The shrunken cabin is far too small to keep you inside, so my only choice was to borrow a familiar pocket."

"Then why does the pocket look like my old room!?" Kaede demanded, feeling annoyed as his calm reasoning was snatching the wind out of her angry sails.

"It projects a Phantasm into your mind, showing you whatever location from your memories you most consider 'home'."

Kaede wanted to keep fuming at him, but she was rapidly running out of reasons to. Glaring at his concerned turquoise gaze, she realized that this Pascal was... unusually disheveled. His softly curled hair was a mess, as though it had been blown wild by a heat blast. The entire right side of his uniform was singed; even his palms and right cheek were an inflamed red.

She was still torn between trying to calm down and wondering what happened to him when Pascal's eyes began to glisten with emotion. Before she could ask, his arms suddenly wrapped around her in a crushing hug.

"P-Pascal!?"

"You almost died out there," his deep voice berated.

Memories of the riverfront clash flashed before her eyes: when she cut the ice using his Sonic Beam spell and doomed thousands to a watery grave; when spells and arrows flew all around, striking down allies left, right, and center; when two arrowheads pierced her own shoulders, followed by a third as her consciousness faded.

"I'm sorry--"

"Why are you the one apologizing?"

Kaede felt a droplet land on her bared back. He truly had been afraid that he had lost her.

...And like always, he probably held it in for far too long.

"You should not have just stood there taking arrows like that!"

"I... don't really react well when I'm focusing," she replied sheepishly.

For a long, moment afterwards, only silence filled the air around them.

Her squeezed shoulders were starting to hurt, though it was an ache that she did not really mind.

"I am sorry, Kaede," his deep voice softened. "You trusted me, yet I... my slowness to react almost had you killed."

"I'm alive now, aren't I?" she closed her eyes, her uninjured hand gently rubbing his back.

In the heat of battle, Pascal had countless tasks to manage. Kaede might be slightly disappointed, but she wasn't the least bit angry that his attempt to reinforce her wards had come late.

"Had Sir Robert not brought you and your arm back early, you almost certainly would not be."

His hushed voice alone was an indication of how close death had came. Mentioning her arm as a separate entity just made everything worse.

"That... explains why my right arm is still numb," Kaede muttered, trying to shut off her imagination.

Pascal pulled back just enough to look at her in the eyes. He blinked and rubbed the water away from his sight.

"I only heard the story afterwards, but the healer who regenerated your arm said it had been sliced off and mangled by shrapnel. It was a good thing that you have Samaran blood, so despite being my familiar his Regenerate spell worked well on you."

Talk about a close call. If that shrapnel struck my head instead...

She forcibly cut off that gruesome train of thought.

"The healer also said to minimize use of your right arm in the next two weeks while the tissues and ligaments heal fully," Pascal gently raised her injured arm and examined the bandages. "These are actually part of the reason for that numbness, although they are also enchanted to facilitate healing."

"So... I'll be good as new in two weeks' time," Kaede put on a brave smile. "No harm done."

Even though she knew that yet another scenario had been added to her list of nightmares.

But for the moment, it was worth it just to see Pascal's bittersweet return smile.

Sitting down to her left, he pulled her thin body tight against his shoulder. For several minutes, the two of them simply sat like that, basked in peaceful silence.

It was long enough that Kaede began to squirm in discomfort.

"Kaede..." Pascal hardly noticed as he began to speak once more. "Why did you do that? Just throw your life on the line with one order?"

"Don't you?" she countered.

"Yes, but I am a trained officer. It is not normal for someone of civilian background to do the same, especially without any hesitation for your own safety; at least, after the initial reluctance."

Kaede tilted her head as she looked to the ceiling.

She did grumble about it, thinking him insane back then. But afterwards? She went ahead and did it anyway.

"I don't know," she reflected. "It's not that I don't fear dying. But when you told me, relied on me to trust you, it just... somehow made it easier."

"Meanwhile, you are afraid of even meeting Sylv's gaze these days," Pascal noted. "In fact, you are fairly docile in front of most authority figures, just not your master," he ended with a chuckle.

Kaede sent him a serious, 'that-is-not-funny' look:

"It's easy for you not to be afraid of authority figures. You're a high noble. There are actual political repercussions even for a monarch to touch you without legal cause. But me? If some royal chops off my head, the only person who would be offended is you... and the last way I want to die is to be publicly executed while the crowd brands me a 'whore'," she shivered.

Such an outcome would never have even occurred to her a mere half year ago.

"Sylv would never go that far," Pascal stated, truly believing in it.

That's what Sir Robert said...

Nevertheless, Kaede wasn't convinced of it. In her normal state, Sylviane might never risk losing Pascal's dedication and friendship by harming Kaede. But during one of her episodes? Kaede had no idea what the Princess might be capable of.

"Besides," the familiar thought back. "When we first met, I was pretty scared of what you might do to me."

"Was that before or after you assaulted me?"

"Both, actually," she replied. "You just... pushed me too far, and I lost control."

Truthfully, she had always been the obedient type. She had been an honors student and even class representative back at school; stereotypes did tend to speak a grain of truth.

"Then, what about now?" Pascal's nostalgic smile turned curious.

"Now I understand you too well."

"There goes my dignity as your master," he joked. Then, his voice turned serious: "that is unfortunate for Sylv, though."

"For your sake, you mean," Kaede added. "My mother once said that girls don't expect to be understood, just respected and loved. And your fiancée certainly doesn't tolerate impropriety."

Pascal pursed his lips, as though he didn't quite agree with it, but also didn't want to contradict a woman about women.

"Does that also apply for you?" he simply asked.

"I don't think so." Kaede's answer was thoughtful yet firm. "I wasn't raised a girl. Don't expect me to have their expectations."

"From my point of view, that is a good thing," Pascal grinned.

Standing back up from the bed, he offered a hand to Kaede.

"Come on. We should grab you some dinner while warm soup is still available. You have not eaten for two days."

Without thinking, Kaede reached out with her still numb right arm. But the moment Pascal pulled, the pain in her ligaments transformed into stream of 'Owowow'! Her sudden cries threw even Pascal off balance, and her pain-stiffened grip ended up pulling him on top of her as she collapsed back into bed.

Kaede soon felt Pascal's breath tickling her cheeks, his thumb brushing her side and his knee between her thighs. Her cheeks flushed scarlet as she realized the precarious position she winded up in.

Why meeeee!?

Yet before she could tell him to get up, the door barged open to the darkening forest outside.

"Pascal! Are you alright? Lord Scales said you had an acci..."

The Princess immediately froze as she registered her disheveled fiancé, lying on the bed atop a blushing and shocked Kaede. The familiar girl wore only a set of undergarments that looked exactly like bridal lingerie, while his inflamed, swollen cheek looked as though he had been slapped.

Sylviane's eyes narrowed at once as her voice fell to a threatening tone:

"What... are you doing?"

"Wait, Sylv!" Pascal bolted up at once. "It's not what you think!"

"I know Kaede had a close call last battle. So I sort of understand if you suddenly have an urge to sleep with her." She lectured. "But I would never have thought that you would descend to such vulgarity."

"Wait, what!?" Pascal looked back at Kaede, huddling on the bed with fear in her eyes as though she was the hapless victim.

The misunderstanding was rapidly spinning out of control.

"Wait, no! I did not force myself upon her!"

The Princess was now glaring daggers, the chains of her meteor hammer erupting from storage gloves. His words sounded just like the kind of excuse a rapist would say.

"I mean," Pascal fumbled for words. "We simply fell over! Nothing happened!"

Sylviane looked to Kaede for confirmation, and the familiar girl, finally realizing that she wouldn't be blamed for 'tempting' him, nodded fervently before her master could be turned into meat paste.


...


"Pascal, just what did you do to look like that anyway?" Sylviane asked several moments later, after the trio all had some time to calm down.

"This?" his fingers combed through his blast-swept hair. "I was testing an experimental spell that I learned from Colonel Rudel back in Nordkreuz. It was much more powerful than I had thought and overpowered the containment barriers; killed a patch of trees and gave me some burns, but nothing terrible."

Kaede thought back to the thunderous explosion that jolted her awake in the familiar pocket. That must have been him.

Given the sharp intake of dread and dismay she felt back then, Pascal was definitely playing down the accident.

Meanwhile, the Princess shook her head with disapproval:

"Don't take shortcuts with spell experimentation! Plenty of people have died from that! And shouldn't you wait until you're in a more familiar area? There's no telling if a region's magical properties might interfere with spells, and Ceredigion's forests are ancient."

"Should I wait? Yes. But we no longer have the leisure of time," Pascal's tone was dead serious. "I know it is dangerous, but this is a spell with great potential, and I want it available for the next battle, just in case."

Sylviane could only sigh in reply:

"Just be careful. You won't help anyone by getting yourself killed in an accident."

Taking his nod as acknowledgment, the Princess soon turned her attention to the familiar.

"Kaede, now that you're awake, I also want to thank you for what you did in the last battle. It was brave of you, especially after..." she glanced aside, abashed, "after how badly I treated you."

"Milady," Kaede's gaze stayed down, looking as uncomfortable with this topic as she did with the last. "I wasn't trying to get killed... if you know what I mean. It just sort of... happened."

"Bet you said the same thing to Pascal after Nordkapp," Sylviane couldn't help but smile a little. "Nevertheless, a deed is a deed. I don't have any medals to award you at the moment, but I wanted you to have this..."

She took out two patches of soft fabric from her pockets, which Kaede recognized as Lotharin insignias containing the two gold bars of a Senior Lieutenant.

"Milady...?"

"Pascal told me you're not comfortable with the idea of being a formal army officer," Sylviane added as she gently pressed the insignia patches into Kaede's hands. "I can put you down as a reservist if you would prefer. But right now, we really do need everyone with tactical and leadership experience."

"But I don't have anywhere near enough experience to lead a platoon!" Kaede resisted, completely unable to picture herself taking responsibility for the lives of at least forty men.

"You have far more than many of the others I'm promoting up the ranks," the reply came wry.

Alarmed, Kaede stared back at the Princess.

Pascal is gambling on Wunderwaffe, while Sylviane is scraping the manpower barrel...

Without even hearing a tactical report since before the last battle, she already knew just how desperate the situation had become.

 

Next Chapter ]

Chapter 15 - Breaking Point

"...The fisherman said he saw a fleet sailing up the Bay of Ceredigion," reported the signal officer. "He estimated at least a hundred ships. Based on his descriptions, they were mostly war galiots, xebec transports, and a few deep-water fluyts."

It was a cloudy afternoon on the day after. The makeshift assembly of commanders and nobles took place right beneath the forest canopy, with the army still on the march around them.

"That must be the naval force bringing twelve thousand reinforcements," Pascal remembered from Cecylia's intelligence report.

The Bay of Ceredigion separated the Ceredigion peninsula from the Avorican coasts. Its northern waters, near the mouth of the Gwilen River, was split in two by the island of Gwernenez.

According to Cecylia's intel, the Caliphate's reinforcements were mostly infantry. They should have sailed up the eastern passage to reinforce the siege at Roazhon. But instead, they were spotted heading towards the western side by locals...

"They're landing in Ceredigion, hoping to pincer us between their two armies," Duke Lionel declared while Major Hans nodded.

Pascal humphed. "Too late for that. We are already far enough inland that the best they can do is meet up with their cavalry force. On a road this narrow, all that would do is further strain their logistics."

Although a combined force of twenty-seven thousand is more men than the entire Ceredigion army, his concerns stayed private. This could be just a show of force to keep King Elisedd neutral.

"Even that won't be easy though," an Avorican noble added. "Ceredigion's forested hills drop off sharply at the coast. There are only a handful of beaches on this side where a large-scale landing is even possible."

That gave the intelligence Major an idea:

"How dangerous are the coastal waters?"

"Cliffs along the shores. Outcroppings in the sea. Rocky reefs beneath the water... it's terrible. Even Avorican sailors steer clear of unfamiliar waters."

"They certainly won't be familiar to the infidels, that's for sure."

"So, if we can lure them into hostile waters..." Pascal soon caught on, before exchanging glances with Sylviane.

"Vivi? Think you can manage?" the Princess turned to the hooded Winterborn.

Pascal always did wonder if Vivienne's sense of propriety was because she spent her teenage years on the southern continent. The infidels, especially their women, were always reserved about showing their appearance in public.

"Lure them into rocky shallows, right?" the Oriflamme bard smiled. "Of course."

The young Landgrave then felt a mental shiver from Kaede, as his familiar watched someone who looked like her twin discuss the deaths of over twelve thousand men in a relaxed, singsong voice.

Pascal himself, however, had no such moral qualms:

"Then let us find a maw of hell to bait them into."

"We should pivot the army's march south first," Lady Edith-Estellise added, noting that their forces were still heading southwest, along the arcing forest road to the Ceredigion Capital of Caernarfon.

"No, that will not be necessary. Sending a detachment of archers south will be enough." Pascal brushed aside the official front commander without any discussion.

He called for maps from the communication officers next, never noticing the saint's exasperated frown, nor the contemptuous glare from Mother Abbess Anne that lasted until the meeting's end.

"Here," Kaede strode forward as she opened Vintersvend's Expedition Map.

Pascal wasn't surprised that Admiral Winter had charted the entire coast of the Hyperion continent, reaching at least fifty kilopaces inland thanks to the cartography artifact's scanning range. At full zoom, it even offered depth lines at five paces, which was enough for the Northmen's shallow draft Dragon Boats.

"Handy map. Where did you acquire this?" Lionel asked, impressed.

"Admiral Winter of Skagen. We downed him and his skywhale flotilla during the Air Battle of Nordkreuz." Pascal replied as his finger traced along the coast, before stopping at a rocky outcropping that reached into the sea. "Here, Lysardh Point. They will have to sail past this area to access the largest cove in this region -- the best position to beach their entire fleet."

Assuming the map was accurate, the waters surrounding Lysardh Point were filled with rocky shallows.

"I still remember when we lost a fishing trawler in those waters twenty years ago, after a storm blew it off course," the Avorican noble added.

"A cursed place for vile men."

"Oh, it gets better," Major Hans smirked like a hungry predator. "Assuming they operate like most navies do in hostile areas, they will anchor out in the bay at night, then sail in to land their troops at dawn. Perhaps Your Grace has noticed, but this part of Ceredigion gets rather foggy in the morning."

"It will be the perfect cover." Pascal grinned back before turning to Vivienne:

"I can spare you five battalions of longbows and all the arrows they can carry. So lure the Caliphate's ships into those rocky shoals and destroy that army using every magic at your disposal!"

 

----- * * * -----

 

"Heard anything about our pretty new Lieutenant?"

"Ain't she some noble brat's pet?"

"Real yokel of you Ernest. She's a familiar to our Princess' Wicker fiancé."

"Well... some men gets all the luck."

Riding through the forest near the head of the army column, Kaede's cheeks colored as her familiar-enhanced ears eavesdropped on the soldiers of her new command.

I nearly get killed in battle and all these soldiers think about is how I warm some noble's bed, she grumbled in silence. Men!

But even as Kaede sulked, she heard a new voice from the crowd:

"More than just that. I was in the center at Gwilen. Watched her run past, calling for men as she went to smash that cavalry charge. Cut the river to shreds!"

"She did that?"

"Might've been her master's magic. But she's the one who carried it out."

Kaede almost turned around to see whom the speaker was before she stopped herself.

No. I shouldn't reveal that I can hear them at this distance.

She had been handed the 3rd Company of the 29th Ranger Battalion, which in truth was little more than sixty men pieced together from three Ranger units shattered during the Battle of Gwilen River. That was less than forty percent strength; yet as appalling as it was, she actually led one of the higher morale units in their detached force.

The 'five battalions' Pascal promised were all critically under-strength. A battalion using the Imperial Legionary military structure shared by the continental powers was supposed to include two combat companies and one logistics company, totaling five hundred men. But all together, the four battalions of militia longbows and one of rangers summed up to less than eleven hundred, and only seven hundred of them were trained archers.

Facing the two dozen figures who rode ahead of her, Kaede stared at the back of the hooded, petite Winterborn leading this battlegroup. Against a Caliphate landing force of twelve thousand, this cobbled-together force would not last even ten minutes without Lady Vivienne's sorcery. But even as Kaede thought this, she remembered the conversation with Pascal prior to her departure:

"What do you mean, you want me to watch Vivienne?"

"I mean exactly that -- I want you to take this command and follow her," came his heavy, authoritative tone. "We lack local guides for this region, therefore they may need Vintersvend's Map to find the right location. Furthermore, I want somebody I can trust on the mission to keep an eye on her."

"You... don't trust Lady Vivienne?" Kaede was bewildered. The Princess certainly seemed to have total faith in the Winterborn; shouldn't that be good enough for Pascal?

"If you knew her history, you would not fully trust her either," Pascal answered. "That girl grew up among the infidels. She had supposedly been captured by Cataliyan privateers as a child and sold as a slave. But slaves in the Caliphate are normally only freed after they achieve a certain position -- like the Ghulams who are trained from indoctrinated slave boys, then given their freedom after earning their ranks as professional soldiers.

"Who could guarantee that Vivienne herself is not an agent of the Caliphate?" His piercing gaze warned. "There is a reason why most Oriflammes hand-pick their own armigers, but Vivienne's armigers were all assigned by Emperor Geoffroi. It goes to show that even he did not trust her."

"But she did summon a phoenix, did she not? And the Princess seems to trust her implicitly."

"King Alistair does as well, for reasons unknown. I once asked Sylv why, but all she told me was that the secret is not hers to tell." Pascal grumbled. "Though as far as I know, a phoenix chooses a master from among the Lotharin cultures for their character integrity, not whether they are dedicated to the nation; otherwise, the Oriflamme Paladins would not have begun as rebels in the Rhin-Lotharingie Independence War."

It made perfect sense to Kaede: patriotism and nationalism were not human virtues, however governments might insist otherwise. For individuals with a multi-national background like herself, 'traitor' was often a matter of perspective.

"Perhaps there is something in Vivenne's past that leaves her loyalty without doubt. But until I know what that is to judge for myself, I must take precautions against the possibility that Vivienne's talents have influenced if not clouded Sylv's judgment." Pascal had finished.

I guess we'll know by morning, Kaede concluded as looked up at the dusk sky and sighed, trying to ignore the disquieting flutter in her stomach as she did so.

For the first time since Nordkreuz, she felt the suppressed sensory links, the lingering silence over her private telepathy channel with Pascal. The familiar bond was still active, but everything except her empathic link with Pascal had shut down due to the growing distance between them.

When Kaede first came to Hyperion, she absolutely hated the familiar link that allowed Pascal to use her senses and violate her emotional privacy at any time. But after weeks of campaigning, she had grown used to always having Pascal on the other end of their telepathic bond. His presence and voice had been a reliable anchor for her, a life buoy that her mind clung onto in this wartime scenario of constant danger and death.

"Lieutenant... Kaede?"

Lady Vivienne called again as her horse fell back alongside Kaede's, leaving the familiar girl staring at a face remarkably similar to her own.

"Sorry." She opened the map scroll in her hand and examined the current location marker once more. "We're almost there, just five kilopaces ahead."

"Please take a reconnaissance squad ahead to verify," Vivienne smiled kindly. "We'll need to set camp before the sun goes down completely."

"Yes Sir," Kaede swiveled her mount around. "Sergeant Gaspard! Follow me with your squad!"

It was her first battlefield command, and while the soldiers could begrudge her lack of experience, she was determined they would not fault her for being a backseat leader. Especially since Pascal had confiscated all of her arrows so she couldn't strain her still-healing arm... all except four 'for emergency use only'.

...One of which was a rune-inscribed arrowhead of black iron, designed specifically to kill faekissed.

 

----- * * * -----

 

"There they are!" Kaede cried out from her vantage point. "Distance: around one-point-five kilopaces!"

She stood near the edge of the V-shaped rocky cliffs that protruded into the sea. Her eyes watched through arcane binoculars as a fleet of sails emerged through the light wintry mist. Leading the formation were a dozen war galiots -- half-galleys with flat decks, dual lateen sail masts, and two rows of oars each.

"I don't see them..."

"Nor do I."

"My osprey confirms, Sir," spoke a third lookout.

"Good enough for me," Lady Vivienne declared as she stepped up before amplifying her voice. "Clarion Boost!"

"A familiar after all," the yeoman ranger captain who spoke first sneered at Kaede as he returned to his unit.

He never saw the disapproving stare Vivienne threw his way, or the soft white-blue embers in her eyes as she gave Kaede an appreciative nod.

She has to be on our side... the familiar girl hoped, her fingers tracing the scroll of forged royal orders in her extradimensional messenger bag, which gave her the authority to carry out yet another 'Manteuffel Incident'.

"Cover your ears everyone," the leading Oriflamme Armiger commanded before they stuffed their ears with tiny yarn plugs.

Kaede watched as Lady Vivienne took off her hood and walked gracefully to the cliffs' precipice. Her phoenix Olifant was already merged inside her, their unison transforming her cloak's surface into a billowing cape of cerulean cinders. White-blue embers cored by traces of gold drifted off her, unaffected by the coastal breeze as they floated about like faerie lights, enchanting the very atmosphere surrounding the young Winterborn.

As she unfolded her thin arms towards the sea, the Oriflamme bard began her siren song.

Even with wool in her ears, Kaede could hear the beautiful and soothing melody that reached out across the air. The prelude began gentle and slow, its soft lyrics flowing in perfect harmony with the rhythmic sound of lapsing waves. Accompanied by several hand drums and mandolins, the music was simultaneously lifting and calming, perhaps even relaxing her thoughts and dulling her senses...

Kaede shook her head to drive off the mental fog that began to gather. Pascal must have forgotten how easily she was affected by Vivienne's songs, likely as a side effect of her trained magic sensitivity.

She also realized then that Vivienne was not singing in Lotharin or even Brython. In fact, her lyrics didn't sound anything remotely like the languages of Rhin-Lotharingie. Aside from the slow tune which threw Kaede off at first, there was something vaguely Middle Eastern about the song.

Pulling out a piece of parchment, she scribbled 'what is she singing?' before handing it off to the nearest armiger. The reply came back quick in barely legible letters:

'Kiswahi song with partial Caraliyyah lyrics. It's about a fisherman's wife beckoning her husband to return home.'

Kaede raised her binoculars again to survey the enemy fleet, trying to keep her mind and sight focused as the seconds passed. At first, it seemed like the Cataliyan oars slowed as the music from the mists confused the rowers. Then, as minute after minute passed, the ships began to slowly change course.

Before long, the entire fleet was headed towards Vivienne, towards the craggy outcrop known as 'Lysardh Point' and its surrounding waters full of wave-breaking rocks.

The familiar girl rubbed her eyes in disbelief:

Now this... is magic.

"They're coming!"

In the light morning mist, it took a while before any of the Cataliyan officers she watched on deck grew alarmed by their course change. But as the outlines of land came into view, the commanders whom were least affected by the siren's song began to point and yell at the coast.

Zooming in on the lead galiot, Kaede watched as an officer pulled out a whip and began beating the rowers and sailors, yelling into their faces as he did. Some of the men seemed to snap out of their reverie, only to throw the vessel into further confusion as they rowed off-sync from the rest of the crew. The third galiot to the left seemed to recover the most, its course just beginning to turn back when it was rammed by another ship coming from behind.

The Cataliyan fleet had sailed in a tight, half-moon formation. It had been a sound defensive choice in the mist, given the obscured vision and hampered visual communications. But now, as their fleet fell into chaos, individual ships found themselves unable to maneuver as the herd drove them into shallow waters.

If that wasn't bad enough, the wind and tides were both beginning to pick up.

As the fleet closed and panic spread, Kaede watched as the first ship collided with a rocky outcrop and overturned, spilling over a hundred men into the sea. Just like historic navies on Earth, even many of the marines had little knowledge of how to swim and promptly began to flounder in the water, not to mention the army infantrymen who already suffered from seasickness.

A second galiot soon overturned in the same way, while a third began to capsize after a barely submerged reef tore through its keel. Meanwhile all around them, vessels that have regained a semblance of control tried to break free from the formation, only to ram into the hulls of their confused or still-entranced comrades.

It was a scene of total chaos, and it was only about to get worse.

"ARCHERS!"

Kaede yelled out as she picked the signal flag off the ground and waved it with both hands. She could see other officers doing the same all along the cliffs and hilly shoreline. Companies of longbowmen marched out from their concealed positions, lined in two long rows that snaked along the coast with arrow-laden horses following close behind.

"SHOOT AT WILL!" She waved the flag in a circle above her before leveling it forward.

Without timed orders, even the first volley came a bit scattered. Nevertheless, hundreds of arrows soared out from the high ground and shot into the cauldron of Cataliyan ships and men. Leading them were the transmutation arrows that had been supplied to the ranger companies, including at least a few dozens made by Pascal himself. Many rangers sent their projectiles into the confined waters between vessels -- especially those positioned at the formation's flanks and rear. There, runic arrowheads activated and began transmuting the water and its organic waste into oil.

A rain of death began as arrow after arrow pierced the torsos and faces of Cataliyan sailors, some on their ships while others in the water. Chaos escalated further as the first fire arrows soared in. They ignited the canvas sails and patches of floating oil, billowing choking black fumes into the faces of officers who desperately tried to rally their men.

Some brave compound archers and ballista operators managed to fire back against the Lotharin lines, forcing the Oriflamme Armigers to raise wards to protect their lady. But in the grand scale of thing, it was too little, too late.

Morale began to collapse as more and more vessels overturned, capsized, or simply caught fire. Organization disintegrated from one ship after another as fear and panic spread like wildfire. Within the span of just a few minutes, the ambush had gone straight past 'battle' and turned into a slaughter.

If that wasn't enough, Vivienne then finished her enchanting melody and began a new aria, its hastening tempo coordinating the Lotharin longbowmen while inspiring them to shoot faster... at least once they took off their earplugs.

Waving her flag once more, Kaede signaled for logistical troops who could not use a bow to march on the shoals. There, they would spend the rest of the day spearfishing with pikes and partisans, as helpless survivors from the Cataliyan fleet -- most of them without even weapons or armor -- washed ashore in groups too small to resist.


...


The 'Ambush at Lysardh Point' would go down in Hyperion military history as one of the textbook examples of a perfect defensive battle... or, for Kaede, a practical field lesson.

Every circumstance had been set against the invaders. Sailing into unfamiliar terrain that weren't part of their original war plan, the Caliphate lacked knowledge of local conditions. The weather dulled their senses and compacted their formation. The mysterious Vivienne and her Concordance Magic led them astray and disrupted crew organization. Then came the shock of a coastal ambush which destroyed their morale, before the tide and treacherous waters finally sealed the deal.

Out of the one-hundred-nineteen Cataliyan vessels that sailed for the Ceredigion coast, only fifty-six turned back to find shelter among the conquered ports of Avorica. Even there, three of them would be burned by Lotharin guerillas operating behind front lines.

It also cemented the reputation of Lady Vivienne -- whose name had only been spoken in gossip and rumor before the Battle of Gwilen River -- as an Oriflamme archmage known as the 'Winter Siren'.

Later that night, Kaede smiled watching as the forged orders from Pascal burned to ashes before her eyes. Maybe one day she would learn just what Vivienne's secret was. But for the moment, she was glad that her 'twin' was firmly on their side.

 

----- * * * -----

 

"Say that again!"

General Salim stared at the signal lieutenant from atop his steed, hardly able to believe his ears.

"Commodore Hayreddin reports that the 3rd Fleet had been ambushed off the coast of Ceredigion by Lotharin forces. Admiral Kilic was killed in combat when his flagship sank."

Slumping into his saddle, the General found himself struck speechless. He had warned the naval admiral to take extra precautions when landing given the Lotharin's new -- and evidently more capable -- Weichsel commander. But clearly, his words were not heeded.

As moments passed in silence, it was his wazir, Hakim, who stepped up and dismissed the messenger.

"Your Eminence. I think it is safe to assume that King Elisedd of Ceredigion has betrayed his promises to the Caliph and joined the war."

"You're right..." General Salim broke in mid-reply. Then, as his voice recovering: "you have to be right. There is no way that measly force we're chasing could break off enough men to stop an amphibious assault from sixteen thousand infantry, marines, and sailors. They must have had support from local forces! And if that infidel king could betray his own emperor by accepting our bribes and promises in return for neutrality, why can he not turn face a second time and backstab us?"

Hakim nodded:

"All traitors are opportunists without faith."

"Perhaps we should return to Roazhon and assault the city, before meeting the Ceredigions in battle with our full force," proposed Colonel Farah, Salim's senior Mubarizun commander.

Her tone had been polite enough, but Salim knew that beneath it lay an impatience that had been simmering among his officers for days.

"They have kept to less than a day's march ahead of us. If we turned around, they'll do the same and bite us in the rear," the General declared. "Furthermore, we cannot afford for the Princess to join her veterans with Ceredigion's army. No, we must end this game of cat and mouse by accelerating our plans."

"You're thinking..."

Salim nodded. The two of them hadn't partnered for three decades for nothing.

"Lieutenants!" He called his signal officers up. "Inform the brigadiers and their staffs: we rest early at dusk today. There will be no camp, no fortifications. Instead, logistic companies will hold the night watch in strength. At midnight, we ditch all non-essential personnel and ride west with the cavalry!"

"Yes Sir!"

"Let our enemies rest on their laurels tonight," the General stared at his wazir with cold embers in his gaze. "By the time they wake up, it will be their time to repent before God."

 

----- * * * -----

 

"Lady Vivienne reports that the ambush was a resounding success, Sir!" the Lotharin officer reported with glee. "They destroyed over half of the enemy fleet. The remnants retreated in total disarray!"

Pascal smirked in reply. This was good news that the army's morale truly needed. But more importantly, it brought Sylviane political support, which meant more time to execute the next phase of their stratagem.

"That ends any threat of a possible southern pincer," he traced the traditional map in his hands, wishing that Kaede was still here besides him. "Tonight we take shelter in the town of Glywysing. The men can have a peaceful night's rest before we continue west along the road to Ceredigion Capital."

Several of the congregating nobles cheered at the news. After days of strenuous forced marches, they were more than willing to accept whatever comforts a rustic town in the Ceredigion forests could offer them.

"Excuse me," Saint Estelle cut in, her brows furrowed in disapproval. "You're not proposing that we abandon Glywysing to the advancing infidel army?"

She pointed to the marker that denoted a 'large town':

"There are at least five thousand lives in that settlement. We cannot simply..."

"We will warn the residents to flee into the forest," Pascal declared. "But Glywysing neither holds a strategic location nor has it seen war in centuries. I doubt the town has anything more than an old stockade to keep out wild animals. We cannot hold such a position against a far superior force."

"Flee?" Edith looked aghast. "Thousands of refugees without shelter in the deep forest? They'll either freeze to death or become fodder for wild beasts!"

"A town like this will have its own hunters to protect and shelter them," the Landgrave scowled, fully aware that it was impossible for a few dozen woodsmen to keep thousands safe. "Regardless, their only other alternative is to stay..."

"Or we could escort them."

Pascal glared back. Not this again.

"Impossible. The forest road is too narrow. The civilians will only slow us down."

"Then we should stop and fight!" Edith-Estellise asserted. "The victory at Lysardh Point has raised the men's morale. We are surrounded by streams and forests which will benefit our archers and impede their cavalry. Furthermore, we will have whatever defenses and buildings the town has to strengthen our center, backed by hunters and militia from the townsfolk themselves!"

Staring up with mismatched eyes of lapis and violet, the beautiful saint's gaze filled with a simmering frustration.

"Why can we not make a stand for these people!?"

"Because we cannot afford to gamble away this army on a slim chance! We choose to fight only when we are ready to win!"

Pascal took a deep breath as he tried to suppress his annoyance.

When will these people learn!?

But Edith was no longer interested in what the Weichsel Major had to say. Instead, she turned intently on the Princess, waiting for a decision from royal authority.

For several moments, Sylviane pursed her lips as she pressed her knuckles against her chin in deep thought. She stole glances at the faces of the waiting nobles, trying to weigh military strategy against political opinion.

It took long enough that Pascal was beginning to worry. Sure, Sylviane had always judged the politics more carefully than he did. But with the recent victory buying them support, this should be an easy choice.

He was almost about to speak out when Sylviane made her fateful decision.

"I do understand your concerns," she gave Edith a sympathetic frown. "I would even agree with you, had circumstances been different. But the current war situation leaves me with no choice. We must force King Elisedd's hand before returning to fight."

 

----- * * * -----

 

"Retreat, retreat! All he knows is to retreat!" Mother Abbess Anne fumed over telepathy as she followed Lady Estelle back to the Knights Hospitaller column. "He would rather send his familiar into battle than take it upon himself! Why? Because the man has no integrity, no faith!"

Stopping to lean against an ancient oak, Edith hammered its bark with her gauntlet.

"Gwilen River and now Lysardh Point, our enemies have seen only bloodshed for the past week. If we let them take Glywysing without a fight, the people will surely suffer those sinners' lust for revenge."

"Over five thousand lives... Lady Anne stressed. "If we do not stand our ground, then their slaughter will be on our conscience! Ceredigion would never forgive us; the Holy Father would never forgive us!"

Clenching her eyes shut, Edith sighed as she thought through her options. She had tried to persuade the Princess, tried to show her Weichsel fiancé a correct and feasible path. But nothing was working!

...At least, nothing legal worked.

Is there truly no other way?

"Edith!" her foster mother pleaded. "I know you wish to stay loyal. I do as well! But we have given them chance and again to do the right thing, to act with the virtue that our Lord and Savior expects of kings! We cannot stand idly by and watch a sin of such magnitude come to pass! To do nothing as that ruthless, military-minded Wicker fiancé of hers spills the blood of our people for his own safety and prestige!

"Everything is ready," Anne assured. "There are still discontent nobles who will support our cause! Especially without King Alistair's dogged obedience backing her! You were the rightful commander of this front to begin with. All you have to do is to give the word!"

The saint stared up through the branches bared by winter, to the cloudy skies that obscured the heavens.

Blessed Father... just what should I do?

But just like last time, there came only silence.

"Edith!" Anne pressed again. "Remember, you vowed that when the time came, you would take action! Do what must be done to protect the innocent!"

Yes, she did vow, a day that seemed so long ago now. She had been sure that this moment would never come to pass, that Princess Sylviane would prove that she was indeed a champion sent by the divine.

Edith had never wanted to betray Her Highness, to betray His Majesty's memory and final wish.

A tear slid down her cheek as she bit down on her lip and wiped it away.

"You're right, mother. I am being selfish; and I cannot be in such a moment."

With pain in her gaze, the Saint stood up straight and faced Mother Abbess Anne:

"Spread the word to those faithful and trustworthy: we move at first light tomorrow. But tell the commanders that they are to disarm only. There will be no killing between Lotharins unless absolutely necessary. I want casualties at the minimum so we may yet face the infidels with our full strength."

"And the Princess?"

Unsheathing the Sword of Charity, Edith held it between her palms as she examined its pristine blade. Even after dozens of battles under her care, the dragon-forged Aurorum Steel remained flawless, untarnished.

But after tomorrow? She may never again wash it clean.

"Sylviane is my sin to bear. No one else must interfere."

 

----- * * * -----

 

Late that night, the heavy oaken doors to the smaller chapel in Glywysing opened. Between the cracks slipped in a feminine figure, hooded and cloaked.

The stone structure was centuries old, built before the Rhin-Lotharingie Independence War by Trinitian missionaries. Its purpose had long since been replaced by the larger church facing the town square, a new establishment that impressed the common folk with its opulence and wealth: altars adorned by fine brocade and gold, stained-glass imported from Weichsel, even delicate ceiling artistry learned from the Inner Sea.

But none of that compared to the spiritual boon of this old sanctuary, a relic of times when the church was cleaner, purer, less interested in secular politics and more devoted to learning and charity.

With the room lit by only the candles in her hand, the guest walked up the aisle in graceful silence. Stopping before the plain granite altar in front of the room, she placed the candlestick on top and knelt down before the wooden cross.

"Blessed Father in heaven," Edith-Estellise whispered as her delicate hands closed in prayer. "I have always been true to you, always lived by your laws and commandments. But tonight, I beseech you for guidance.

"Never for a single day have I forgotten my solemn oath -- To be without fear in the face of evil. To be truthful and upright, even if it leads to my death. To protect the weak and defend the helpless. To act with mercy and kindness for all."

Edith was confident that when the time came, she could disarm Sylviane without harming her. It would take only one strike of her holy sword.

But... what then?

Everyone thought of 'Saint Estelle' as an apolitical figure, a naive girl with no interest in the power struggles of the realm. But even Edith knew that there was no future for a deposed crown heir.

After all, what capable ruler would allow such a dangerous threat to their throne to exist? Even if Sylviane renounced her inheritance, there would always be others who raised flags and armies in her name.

"Lord, I am your faithful and obedient daughter. I know what you expect of me. But I also have no wish to cause her death! To betray His Majesty's expectations and kindness!"

Her eyes then clenched shut as memories resurfaced from those bittersweet days. She remembered when she first knelt before Emperor Geoffroi in personal audience; when she heard his confession and felt the crushing embrace; when she first spoke to him -- not as from subject to liege, but with mutual affection and kindness.

"Please..." her eyes reopened, glistening with desperate appeal as they plead before the Savior's form. "If there is even the slightest chance I may be wrong... If there is any other way. Then please, Holy Father...

"Give me a sign!"

 

Next Chapter ]

Interlude - A Quiet Night

Kaede shivered as she stepped out from her assigned tent and closed its flaps behind her. A cold breeze blew down between the rows of tents and cabins, unevenly distributed in the barren winter forest.

The skies were still black, with thick clouds obscuring much of the huge indigo 'moon'. Yet even then, the celestial body stretched across a third of the heavens, adding to the illumination of campfires and lanterns as she made her way through the encampment.

Her footsteps took her towards a hill at the northern edge of the army encampment, which overlooked the surrounding forests just inland from the coast. There, rangers from her understrengthed company kept a watch through the night, divided into three shifts...

Kaede gave off a tiny sneeze as yet another wintry draft blew up her skirt, chilling her exposed thighs between stockings and underwear. Her magical clothing might have kept her body warm, but they didn't stop her exposed skin from feeling like they were growing ice crystals.

Stupid Pascal, she rubbed her small nose. Even a pair of tights would have served better for the heating-enchantment than his choice of undergarments.

There was a fine line in Hyperion between what was female-appropriate clothing and what wasn't. Although now that she was a reservist officer, those limitations really shouldn't apply to her any longer.

I'm also their commander, she had to remind herself. It's my responsibility to check up on them...

Although that wasn't the only reason.

Kaede had woken up an hour ago, after yet another terrible nightmare. Its details had faded from her mind too quickly to remember. But it left her with a terrible anxiety, a feeling that something awful had happened.

Unable to fall asleep again, she spent the hour twisting and turning, until she grew tired of lying about. Her mind couldn't stop wandering from one concern to another -- some about the war, but just as many involved what came afterwards.

Sylviane could apologize with the utmost sincerity, but that didn't change the fact that she was Pascal's envious fiancée. Worse yet, she was an envious Empress-to-be, with all stressful responsibilities and abusable powers that the title entails.

The Chinese once said that 'to accompany one's sovereign was like accompanying a tiger' -- one never knew when it might grow temperamental and hungry. The fact that Kaede's very existence was an intrusion upon this tigress' hunting grounds only exacerbated the problem.

Sure, Kaede could leave. She had been thinking about it ever since she received the immigration documents from Captain Markov. She was sure Pascal would give her some money, even though most of his funds had been sunk into this war. But what then? She was stuck in a world where none of her skills were particularly marketable, in a body unfit for manual labor. Kaede knew that even her high school chemistry held no comparison against practical Hyperion alchemy -- she couldn't even list what compounds to mix for building mortar, let alone industrial reagents like 'Prussic Acid'.

The Grand Republic of Samara was a mercantile oligarchy, not a European Union welfare state. She would have to rebuild her life from nothing. For a girl in this era with neither training nor trade, that meant she would most likely wind up as a domestic servant, subject to the whims of yet another master and mistress.

Is such a gamble really worth it?

Kaede had no doubt that her 'easy' life since coming to this world had been Pascal's blessing. Apart from the war, she had traveled back several centuries and maintained more or less the same standard of living, which could only be achieved by wealth. Furthermore, Pascal respected her opinions, and Sylviane was... if not friendly, then at least cordial half of the time. There was no guarantee that another throw of the dice would return any better results.

Besides, there was also something else. A feeling of reluctance that she hadn't quite wrapped her thoughts around yet...

I really hate risk-taking don't I? She climbed the hill's slopes with a sigh. At least, when I'm not being impulsive about it.

"Morning Sir. You're up early," waved Sergeant Gaspard, her reconnaissance squad leader who held the third and final watch. He was a lanky, freckled young yeoman, with ginger hair and a bright-green gaze.

Two other men also huddled around the campfire. They resembled each other just enough to be brothers, though she knew neither by name. Both of them yawned back with muttered greetings -- a sign of Rhin-Lotharingie's lax military discipline. If this was Weichsel, they would have at least stood up and saluted to greet an officer.

"Couldn't sleep," Kaede suppressed the contagious yawn, before her eyes fell on the fourth and last figure.

The woman seemed to be in her late thirties, with long brown locks flowing freely down her shoulders. Her ankle-length dress was a simple green and white, with a thick wool shawl wrapped around her arms. Even with Rhin-Lotharingie's lack of proper military uniforms, it was apparent that she was no combatant.

"Who are you?"

"Her name's Gwen, a local," Gaspard introduced.

"I'm the resident alchemist and herbalist for nearby villages," Gwen smiled back as she presented a covered straw basket in her arms. "Was collecting herbs in forest before meeting your folks."

"At this hour?" Kaede frowned as she looked around the hill. They were surrounded by dark, barren forests, hauntingly illuminated by only the dim purple light of the 'moon'.

No way I'd ever come out here alone.

She brushed her skirt down and sat on a nearby rock -- a motion that became second nature after several months here.

Gaspard had to translate back. Courtesy of the linguistics magic Pascal worked into their familiar bond, Kaede could speak a perfect Imperial. But it seemed Gwen had a limited understanding of the language and spoke only in Brython -- one of the three main languages of Rhin-Lotharingie. And while Kaede could understand Brython thanks to the slightly-awkward translation magic from her earrings, she couldn't speak it. Thankfully, the sergeant was multilingual, which in Hyperion meant he at least had a middle class education.

"There are herbs best picked in the early hours before daybreak," Gwen explained.

"And we spotted her in the woods and asked her to join us for a chat," Gaspard added, with a subtle nod that he had already verified that Gwen was telling the truth.

"Well, you did," one of the men grumbled. Clearly, the sergeant wasn't always in the mood to translate.

Kaede wasn't sure what to make of Gwen, but the stranger seemed to harbor no ill intent. She shrugged it off after another moment of scrutiny. It was, after all, hard to lie to a ranger about knowledge of the wild.

"Aren't you a little far from Weichsel?" the woman asked, her eyes scanning Kaede's pseudo-uniform and especially the Knight's Cross.

"Allies have journeyed further to support a war."

"Is it true that you're the familiar to a Weichsel duke?" one of the rangers curiously joined.

"...And also Lady Vivienne's twin sister?" the second followed.

Kaede's eyebrows shot up. Guess I should've expected that from the rumor mill.

She reached towards the campfire as she mentally turned up her undergarments' magical heating. The wind chill was worse on the hill, and her light skirt certainly wasn't helping.

"No, I'm not related to Lady Vivienne at all. I just... look like her for some reason."

Kaede still hadn't talked to Pascal about that yet. But she could certainly see how it had happened. Vivienne's mysterious past might make Pascal uncomfortable, but there was no denying her adorable cuteness. Her close relationship with Sylviane also meant that he had plenty of opportunity to see the young girl.

Although that has to be weird... fantasizing about your fiancée's girlfriend.

Don't tell me Pascal is jealous.

Kaede almost chuckled aloud before she pulled her thoughts back to the current conversation:

"...But I am the familiar of His Grace, the Landgrave of Nordkreuz."

"I've never understood the nobles' convention," replied one of the soldiers. "I mean, it has to be weird if you call him 'Your Grace' all the time."

"No..."

Kaede was still considering her answer when Gaspard finished translating for Gwen, and the older woman immediately took on a catty smile:

"Especially when you're in bed with him."

Gaspard coughed and nearly choked while Kaede stared back with her eyes bulging.

We've barely met for two minutes and you're discussing... THAT!?

Meanwhile, the other two soldiers looked between them in confusion, realizing they had just missed something important.

"Hey, what did she say?" one pestered the sergeant.

"I do NOT sleep with him... in that way!" Kaede hissed.

She instinctively corrected her statement mid-sentence, since... well, she did sleep with him.

Kaede felt as though her cheeks were about to start glowing.

"You don't?" the youngest of the soldiers asked, before Gaspard slapped him in the back of the head.

"No!" Kaede almost shouted. "Why does everyone just assumed that I... do that!?"

"Why else would a young nobleman go through the trouble of summoning a pretty girl for his familiar?" Gwen explained. "You can't really say 'no' if he's your master."

"It's because he didn't have any friends!" Kaede blurted out. "And for your information, I don't call him by either, just 'Pascal'!"

The awkwardness only increased when Gaspard had to act as interpreter.

"Ah, so he's the immature kind who just wants to play house."

"He's not that either!"

Gwen chuckled, clearly having fun at the younger girl's expense.

"You're certainly close enough to follow him to war," Gaspard added in a straight tone, trying to redirect the topic onto something he could explain more comfortably.

"Well... after all our time together, he has become family," Kaede calmed down a little as she picked up a stick to poke at the fire. "We've gone through life-and-death together even before the war began."

The three men nodded in understanding. Aiding tribal members was a universal concept that anyone could grasp, especially longtime soldiers who had bonded with their units as a second family.

"Besides..." Kaede thought deeper. "For someone like me, it would be hard to simply walk away from this."

"Why is that?" The sergeant asked, curious. "You're not Lotharin. It's not your obligation to fight our war. The Caliphate hardly poses a threat to Weichsel."

"A religiously-motivated militant empire like the Caliphate eventually poses a threat to anyone who isn't Tauheed," she replied in serious.

After all, just like the Abrahamic religions of Earth, the Tauheed worship of the Caliphate saw all other faiths as either infidels or heathens. Such views always brought about an active desire to convert other, 'morally inferior' societies, often times by force.

"But, that's not your reason," Gwen observed.

"No."

Kaede stared into the fire. Sure, part of the reason she couldn't leave Pascal was a materialistic concern. But there was another part, a feeling she hadn't been able to put into words until this moment:

"You see, I'm a scholar of history. I've spent so many years reading about great people, the great turning points that changed the course of the world. But I've always been an observer, a thinker in hindsight... until now..."

She fed a few nearby branches into the campfire, her gloved hands reaching out as they sought its warmth. Yet through its embers her mind saw a different furnace -- the crucible of this exotic but wondrous world.

Hyperion was filled with marvels of human ingenuity: from the industrialized and weaponized magic to domesticated skywhales serving as aircraft carriers, from maps of the growing Polarity Rail to her chart of Skagen's oversea colonies.

But they haven't come together to form a new brand of civilization. Not yet.

"Hyperion is a continent on the cusp of something historic, something that will shape the future for centuries to come," Kaede tried to explain. "And for once, I'm not just a passive spectator to the events of the world. Instead, I stand right next to some of the great actors who will shape the continent, a unique position to not just witness but also influence the turning pages of history itself.

"How can I not take advantage of that? To help make this world a better place?"

Kaede looked back up to find the three rangers looking thoughtful, while Gwen grinned back from the other side of the campfire.

"It took me many years to learn and appreciate that," the older woman stated. "You're well ahead of your time."

"Of course, as a herbalist, I'm sure you change the lives of people around you on a daily basis."

"Even if I did, it wouldn't be nearly as much as you," Gwen added with a nostalgic sigh.

It took another moment before Kaede realized that Gaspard hadn't translated either of her recent statements, which meant Gwen hardly needed an interpreter to understand her.

"Who are you... really?"

"A local. Who is -- or at least wants to be -- on your side," Gwen smiled as she stood up with her basket. "And that's all you need to know."

Wants to be? Kaede puzzled. "Then why can't you?"

"Because I have to remain neutral, at least for now."

Kaede had only sensed a faint magical aura coming from Gwen, far less than those of trained noble mages. Of course, it was possible that Gwen masked it, since Kaede's intuition was increasingly convinced that Gwen was an eccentric lady from the Kingdom of Ceredigion. Her need for neutrality did not seem a lie, and the only reason Kaede could think of for that was 'regional politics'.

The familiar was still staring back, as speechless as the others, when Gwen walked away and began to descend the hill.

"Wait..." Kaede rose and rushed after her. If she is indeed a Lady of Ceredigion, then...

Standing next to a birch tree on the slopes, Gwen turned to face Kaede with a gentle, moonlit smile:

"I have one piece of advice for you, Miss Familiar," she spoke in lightly-accented Imperial this time. "If you truly wish to render the world a better place, then cherish your time and do all that you can in the coming years. Because if my guess about your master is right, then you'll only have so long before the freedom to change the world as you see fit escapes you."

"What are you-- why do you say that?" Kaede sat perplexed. She had absolute no idea just what this woman was trying to warn her of. "And why have you been watching us?"

This was clearly not the first time.

"Your master and mistress lead the army that protects Ceredigion's interests. Why wouldn't I watch?" Gwen explained as though it was obvious. "As for the former... you'll understand as you grow older. Because the higher you rise and the more influence you accrue, the more your hands will be constrained by the rules. Once you have come as far as I have..."

Gwen's smile turned wry.

With one hand on the birch tree, Gwen's magical aura flared as she activated a silent spell. For a brief second, Kaede could see the woman's outline shimmering with power. It was magnitudes stronger than any mage she had ever met, and the familiar girl took a step back as her body tensed.

"W-wait..."

But before Kaede could say anything else, Gwen walked straight into the tree. No, she didn't crash into it. Instead, the woman simply stepped into the trunk like some bizarre phenomenon of quantum physics and vanished.

For several minutes, Kaede continued to stare at the tree and the vaguely purple forest that surrounded them. But there wasn't even a trace of Gwen's presence remaining, only a renewed wintry breeze.

"Just what was that about anyway?" A soldier's voice came from behind her.

"I have no clue..." Sergeant Gaspard answered. "But I'd heard that treewalking is an old druidic magic. Only a few faekissed still practice that nowadays."

His statement prompted Kaede to swivel around:

"Does Ceredigion have an archmage?"

The two rangers shook their heads, while Gaspard replied:

"Not that I've heard of... But then, I'd never heard about Lady Vivienne either, until just a few days ago."

He shrugged with a sour look.

"War seems to bring out all the hidden talents, even jerks who make me translate for no reason."

 

Next Chapter ]

Chapter 16 - Judgment at Dawn

"Your Grace, please wake up."

Pascal's consciousness was still forming when a hand shook his shoulders.

"Your Grace."

"Kaede, stop..." Pascal mumbled as his arm reached up to his throbbing forehead. He had clearly fallen asleep on his desk again. "Just... give me a minute."

"I'm not your familiar," the voice spoke again before Pascal realized that it was masculine. "And we don't have a minute."

The fog in Pascal's head quickly began to disperse. His eyes snapped open as he stood up straight. His vision was still blurry as it locked onto the figure of a disheveled Oriflamme Armiger.

"Sir Robert."

The handsome young man stood just beside Pascal's desk in his cabin. Judging by the darkness through the window, the sun had yet to peak over the horizon.

"Your Grace, we have a problem," Robert began. "Major Erwan..."

Pascal tensed the moment he heard the name. Erwan was the commander of the Royal Lotharin Rangers Battalion, and -- according to Sylviane -- one of the few whose loyalty to the crown was undoubted. Because of this, Sylviane had requested for him to keep an eye on Edith-Estellise's activities.

Has the God-damned 'Saint' mutinied? The Landgrave stared at Robert with alarm.

"Major Erwan reported that one of the screening platoons he left behind was attacked earlier this morning by Cataliyan light cavalry."

Pascal blinked twice as he readjusted his thought process. To protect the army's retreat, the rangers left several detachments between eight to twelve kilopaces behind to screen the main force. It wasn't unusual for them to skirmish with Cataliyan advanced scouts, but...

He stared out the dark window. Not at this hour.

"By how many?"

"At least two hundred, before the Farspeak link cut," the armiger answered as the cabin door opened, admitting Sylviane and her maid Mari.

"I've sent orders to wake the army up," the Princess added, her hands still fixing her tiara and smoothing out her hair. "They must be raiding us."

Pascal pulled out his arcane pocketwatch. It was almost daybreak.

The Cataliyans should know that he reached Glywysing. With a town at his back and an early warning to alert them, there was no way a raid could inflict any significant damage. The only value of such an attack would be to disturb the army's rest, but when the soldiers were about to wake up anyway...

It just didn't make sense.

But if it wasn't a skirmish between scouts, and it wasn't a raid, then that left only one option -- an aggressive, all-out morning assault after a concealed overnight march.

The Caliphate certainly had the motive: to seek vengeance and restore morale after yesterday's disaster at Lysardh Point, plus the opportunity to strike while the Lotharin force remained divided.

He really should have expected this. Had he been in their shoes, he might have opted for the same gamble.

"No," Pascal's voice was solemn. "They moved up under the cover of darkness. This is a full attack."

"How---?" Sylviane looked back in surprise.

"I will explain later, but we need to assemble the entire army into battle formation, immediately!" Pascal stood up and strode towards the door.

There was no time to retreat. The Cataliyan force's combat elements were mostly mounted. If they shed their logistical units and traveled light through the woods, then they were most likely just twenty to thirty minutes out.

"And Sylv," Pascal stopped the Princess before she could follow her two armigers out. His concerned eyes met with his fiancée's pretty wisteria gaze.

This time, they truly had their backs to the wall. There was no river to cover a retreat. The army would stand its ground or be destroyed.

His fiancée's countenance softened with sentiment. This really could be their last private moment together.

Though Pascal's final statement was anything but romantic:

"You should give one more order to the men," his expression hardened. "Any officer or noble who retreats without orders today should be treated as a traitor. They are to be killed on sight and their family's rank and privileges stripped."

...Or, as Kaede once recounted during one of their military history discussions, there was an (in)famous 'Stalinist' battlecry that resulted in weapons being pointed at their own troops:

Not a step back!

 

----- * * * -----

 

Edith emerged from her tent as she finished tightening the straps to her breastplate.

The sun's halo had just peaked over the horizon, its rays dyeing the skies a dawning red. A low morning mist still enshrouded the camp, and most of its soldiers either asleep or just waking up. But as the Saint marched between tents, she found the Knights Hospitaller of the Steel Lily battalion already assembled in neat rows and waiting.

Despite being a paramilitary religious order and therefore not officially part of the army, the Steel Lily was one of the most elite units in the Lotharin order of battle. In every engagement, Edith relied on them to hold the most critical junction in her front line. But after weeks of ferocious fighting, the battalion had been reduced from over two hundred sisters, to just twenty-nine.

King Alistair had left Edith several royal armigers to help replenish her numbers. Yet in this most critical moment, Edith decided that she couldn't trust them. No, only her sword-sisters would watch her back in the coup today.

Leading the unit was Mother Abbess Anne, who greeted her foster daughter and commander with a knightly salute.

"We're ready."

Edith nodded as she took a deep breath. This was truly the point of no return.

The two women paused as they heard a strange, unintelligible cry in the distance. Its direction coming from the center of the overall encampment.

"Must be one of the nobles," Anne puzzled. Then, with her annoyance rising: "I told the six of them to marshal their troops within their own encampments to minimize attention...!"

The blast of a distant trumpet interrupted Anne, with one prolonged note following another which called for an emergency assembly.

"Assemble f...!" the yelling grew closer.

"Someone must have warned them!" Anne glared into the morning mist before swiveling back to the Saint and Oriflamme. "We must act, now! While we still retain an element of surprise!"

But Edith stopped her with a raised hand.

Something was wrong.

Something was terribly wrong.

Edith wasn't sure why yet. But her intuition was screaming at her to stop.

What is the Holy Father trying to tell me?

Her gaze met the eyes of her phoenix Durandal, its majestic blue form perched atop her spaulder.

The trumpet calls spread as more platoon signalers woke and joined in.

"ASSEMBLE FOR BATTLE!"

This time, the distant, magically-amplified words rang loud and clear.

A column of two dozen noble armigers in half-plate emerged from the mist. Lead by the Duchess Jeanette, they hustled into Edith's encampment.

"Just what is going on!? What are you waiting for?"

Yet before anyone could reply, a runner sprinted in from the direction of the central camp.

"We're... about to be attacked!" The young signal officer halted before Edith, breathless. "Princess... requests for you to raise the cross!"

"Attacked!?" Anne demanded. "By the Caliphate? How!?"

"I don't know!" the officer huffed. "Her Highness simply... say it's an emergency! And that... and that..."

"And what!?"

"A-any commander who fails to answer the call to arms and deserts the field is to be summarily executed as a traitor!"

"PREPARE FOR BATTLE!" more yells began to resound across the camp.

"SENIOR COMMANDERS TO THE COMMAND CABIN! ALL FORMATIONS PREPARE FOR COMBAT!"

"I still need to inform Duke Roland. Excuse me, Milady," the officer added before running off.

He clearly wasn't concerned about Saint Estelle's willingness to fight.

"This is a trick," the Duchess seethed with balled fists. "She knows!"

The Mother Abbess stared back, doubt and turmoil written across her face. Was this alert real, or a pretense? Were they truly under attack by infidels? Or was this just a ruse to round up the traitors?

Everything was rapidly spinning out of control.

A breeze seemed to pick up in the sparsely wooded army encampment, and the morning mist began to thin. It was not enough to see into the distance, but it was sufficient to spot a hazy, cerulean halo in the air -- the burning-blue figure of an Oriflamme.

Apart from Edith, there was only one other paladin in camp right now -- Her Highness, Princess Sylviane.

...And she was headed straight this way.

"Edith!" the Princess' voice resounded over the air. "Raise the cross! The infidels are coming!"

"This is our chance!" Duchess Jeanette hissed at the Saint from just a few steps away. "Seize command before she takes our heads and finds another reason to withdraw!

"Stand ready!"

The Duchess ordered her armigers to deploy into combat formation as the cerulean halo drew closer. Her orders were immediately echoed by Mother Abbess Anne.

"Stand down!" Edith yelled back at her own knights, causing them to look back at a loss.

Even Anne stared back in confusion, her widening gaze shouting 'what are you doing?'.

The timing weighed heavily on Edith's mind. The attack, the rally, the orders given that tolerated no retreat...

This cannot be a coincidence, her thoughts raced as she faced the incoming Princess. Nothing happened by mere coincidence!

She had asked for a sign last night -- a sign from the Holy Father which had clearly been given.

"Edith!" Her Highness soon landed with two armigers in tow, no more than twenty steps away with her hands still empty and unarmed.

Sylviane then paused as she looked upon the assembled knights and armigers. Her alerted gaze narrowed as her hand reached for her necklace.

"Take her!" The Duchess pointed a steely finger. "Or we will all hang by nightfall!"

Edith had no doubt that the second half of the order was directed at her. But as twenty noble armigers charged forward with their shield and flails, the saint closed her eyes and reached one conclusion.

Thank you, Holy Father.

She felt the heat as the empathetic Durandal merged into her body. She felt the coursing of righteous authority, an absolute conviction in where her duty laid.

"IN THE NAME OF THE HOLY FATHER, YOU WILL STAND DOWN!"

The leading armiger had already swung his flail. But in a moment of distraction, his attack was easily deflected by the royal maid's shield reflex. The rest of the men half-halted, their turning eyes bewildered by the clashing orders.

Her Highness, however, did not hesitate. With no doubt of the perpetrator, she materialized her shield and meteor hammer from a cloud of cerulean sparkles that burst from her necklace.

"Elspeth!" Sylviane called her bodyguard as she pinned Duchess Jeanette with a death glare.

The petite royal armiger didn't even voice a reply. In a surge of magic, Elspeth leaped over the heads of the armored troops. She spun once in mid air and flung out a hook-dagger, its rope trailing behind as the killing edge shot straight for the face.

The Duchess' own shield was caught out of position and she barely stepped aside in time. The dagger's bladed hook drew a line of blood as it flew across her cheek. But as Elspeth's gloved fingers caught the rope and gave it a hard yank to her other side, the retracting steel pierced into Jeanette's cheeks and sheared off half of her face.

Bloodcurdling screams emerged from the noblewoman as she reached up to her mutilated expression. Yet even that lasted only seconds as Elspeth landed in a forward dash, and plunged another dagger straight into the side of Jeanette's throat.

With their liege killed before their eyes, the armigers turned their attention back to the Princess, their glares a mixture of turmoil, uncertainty, and outrage.

Behind her shield and that of the royal maid, Sylviane seemed to relax as she loosened her grip on the chains of her meteor hammer. She stood back straight, regal and confident, assured of her divine protection as she offered those present a chance for mercy.

"Do not make me spill another drop of Lotharin blood," she warned in a deathly calm voice. "Fight, today, not for me or that traitorous bitch, but for Rhin-Lotharingie and the Holy Father, for your home and for your families! Fight with courage, and I swear before the Lord: I will not hold any of you at blame."

A tense silence passed as the armigers remained still with weapons ready, some stealing peeks at others in confusion at what should be done now.

"ALL UNITS, PREPARE FOR BATTLE!"

Another round of calls resounded through the camp's background, and it was that which seemed to finally break the stalemate.

"We will hold you to your word then," the leader of the noble armigers growled back. His tone was still furious, but he nevertheless backed away before ordering his men: "Withdraw! We must prepare Her Grace's troops for battle!"

They left without a second of delay, leaving only Princess Sylviane, Lady Edith-Estellise, and their respective entourage still in the compartmentalized camp.

The Princess closed her eyes and took a deep breath, as though the worst was over. Her facade of composure cracked and fell apart. By the time her eyes reopened to meet Edith's, they were seething with disappointment and betrayal.

But instead of showing anxiety, the saint smiled a little and breathed a sigh of relief. It was refreshing to know that the Princess still trusted her to refrain from further violence before meeting their common foe. After all, as good as Elspeth and Mari were as armigers, neither of them stood a chance of holding back the Crusader Saint.

"Now you know."

For the first time in days, Edith felt a burden lift from her soul. There was no longer any plots to hide, any backstabs to scheme. She would face judgment, but with a clear conscience that she had done as the Holy Father commanded in the end.

"I had known, since before Gwilen," the Princess scorned. "But I'd never thought that you would go through with it."

"Neither did I."

Edith closed her eyes and shook her head.

"But even those blessed by the Church cannot always understand the mysterious ways of our Lord. I have erred in my arrogance, and now... my due penance must be paid."

Releasing Durandal from their union, Edith stepped forward and knelt down on both knees. Reaching down, she carefully drew the pristine Sword of Charity and presented it to her liege with both hands.

"Do with it as you will."

For a brief moment, the Princess stayed motionless, stunned. To a knight of the holy orders, their weapon was the symbol of their monastic life. Whatever else Sylviane had expected, a display of total submission was clearly not one of them.

Edith even bowed her head towards the ground, which would have exposed the back of her thin neck had it not been for her flowing blond hair. Given the circumstances, it would be perfectly reasonable for Sylviane to grab the sword and shove it down her spine, bestowing upon her a clean death.

"Your Highness!"

Her foster mother's pleading words came from behind, follow by the sound of armored knees hitting ground.

"The fault lays with me, not her. If--"

"Mother, please," Edith interrupted with her head still bowed. "The choice was mine to make, the sin is mine to bear. I must be allowed to take responsibility before the eyes of our Lord."

She heard the whimper of a mother in reply, but Anne said no more.

The Princess reached out with her hand, settling it on top of the holy blade. Edith felt it as the weight in her palms shifted. Any second now, her sword and life would be taken out of her hands.

Then, it stopped.

The weight of dragon-forged steel soon pressed harder into her fingers, before the Princess' armored boots stepped back.

"Keep it," Sylviane declared. "You'll need it today."

The Saint and Oriflamme looked up. Was she really being given another chance?

The Princess' phoenix-blue gaze remained a whirlpool of emotions. She sighed with exasperation as anger and betrayal mixed with mercy and kindness. But behind them all laid a firm wall of resolve, reflecting a gentle light from an unyielding wall of steel.

"Edith," she began. "I know you're not loyal to me. You certainly don't respect me like the way you did my father. But... I also know that you would gladly die for the people of Rhin-Lotharingie, that you would never betray their interests and cause."

Grasping Edith's hand beneath her sword, Sylviane pulled the Saint back up onto her feet and tapped her armored shoulder.

"Fight well today, and we will never speak of this again."

It was the ultimate gesture of forgiveness, to wipe the floor clean as though it had never happened.

Edith bit her lips and nodded. A joyful relief flooded her thoughts, leaking even a few tears into her eyes as she grasped the Princess' hand.

Why did I ever doubt?

"And Edith," Sylviane added, "next time you believe the Holy Father has a problem with my decisions, I expect you to challenge me face-to-face, preferably in private so we can talk without some opportunist cutting in. No more of this behind-my-back business. It's not you, and it plays straight into those worthless nobles' hands."

"Yes..." Edith bowed and kissed the back of the Princess' hand. "Your Highness."

With one last respectful nod, the Princess turned and took off into the air. But before she could rush off to the central camp, Sylviane swiveled to shout back a final order:

"Don't forget the Cross!"

She didn't wait for a reply. Time was of the essence, and she flew off without another word.

Sheathing the Holy Sword once more, Edith closed her eyes to clear the water from them.

Her reply came in a whispered breath, her voice barely audible:

"Yes, Your Majesty."

She would have to thank the Lord for his guidance later. But for now, she still had another test to face, a battle to win.

 

----- * * * -----

 

Meanwhile in the command cabin, winning wasn't even on Pascal's mind.

No. Realistically speaking, the best he could hope for today was to stave off defeat. That would be a victory in its own right.

Certainly, he had the all the advantages of terrain. He had positioned the army camp just west of Glywysing, down the road towards the Ceredigion capital. With the town at their back and forest on both sides, the Caliphate would never manage their massed lancer charge.

Furthermore, after a night of forced marching, the enemy would enter the battlefield tired and hungry. The Lotharins might not have the leisure of a real breakfast, but at least they were near their supply wagons and could therefore pass out bread as the troops assembled into battle order.

The problem, however, lay in the comparison of forces.

By the scouts' estimates over the previous days, the Caliphate force chasing after them numbered fifteen thousand men. Even if they cast aside all logistical attachments, it would still leave a fighting force of ten thousand professional soldiers. Assuming a standard Cataliyan cavalry brigade's distribution, they would compose of one-quarter light cavalry, two-quarters heavy Ghulam cavalry, and one-quarter Asawira armored cavalry archers.

The Cataliyan Ghulams that formed the core of this force were trained from slaves in the art of war since they were boys. Although they performed best mounted, they were more than capable of fighting as heavy foot in a shield wall.

Meanwhile, the Lotharin army -- having broken off eleven hundred men for the Ambush at Lysardh Point -- was left with just four thousand troops. Logistics personnel accounted for thirty percent of their numbers, leaving only twenty-seven hundred properly trained soldiers.

They included all six hundred of King Alistair's remaining Galloglaich shock troops, plus another four hundred noble armiger heavy infantry. Five hundred were professional Rangers who patrolled the Lotharin border realms during peacetime, and the remaining one-thousand-two-hundred were militia longbowmen drawn from the hardy mountain tribes.

Lastly, there were up to three hundred militiamen from the town that Sylviane could muster. But even if they assembled in time, the Lotharins would still be outmatched five-to-one in terms of actual combat effectiveness.

If only we had more time to prepare the battlefield!

The door to the cabin opened again and again, but Pascal only scratched his head as his gaze remained glued to the map on the main table.

There was no way he could hold a conventional battle line against such a superior and mobile force. The Cataliyans could easily envelop both flanks before crushing his center. Instead, he would have to bend both wings backwards like a half-circle, to make it as difficult as possible for the enemy to outflank him.

The downside to this was that it created a minor 'bulge' at every point along the defensive line, which the enemy could pressure from three sides. To counter this, Pascal would have to rely on a Weichsel concept he had been introducing to the Lotharin army -- the combined-arms battlegroup.

These independent, composite formations would hold the center and inner wings. Each of them comprised of a core of highly disciplined noble armiger heavy infantry, supported by several times as many longbowmen and logistical troops. Meanwhile, the Galloglaich shock infantry would hold the outer wings where they would have more mobility to countercharge, while the Rangers will be placed near the ends to pick off flanking attempts.

Even then, he gritted his teeth as he placed two Galloglaich markers at the rear. We will need to maintain a reserve in case anyone circles behind us.

Everything demanded more from his precious pool of units and men.

Reaching down into his pocket, Pascal retrieved a runic pebble with a reluctant sigh.

His spell wasn't ready yet. He had all the pieces to achieve the desired chain reaction. But the output wasn't stable, and he hadn't been able to assert full control of the tremendous energy burst even in small scale tests. If he deployed the runestones he had inscribed in combat, they could become a double-edged sword that destroyed everything without regard, both friend and foe alike.

But what else can I do?

Those cutting words from Lady Anne drifted across his mind once more:

"Tell me, You Grace, what kind of man knows only to push others into harm's way?"

Clenching his fist, Pascal placed the pebble at the extreme left flank and swiveled it towards the enemy.

Attacking armies traditionally placed their strongest units on their right flank, which in turn would seek to overwhelm the defender's left wing. If he formed the Lotharin left wing in a straight line that bent back like a 'V', then he could -- hopefully -- fire off a semi-enfilade shot that would devastate the Cataliyan forces while minimizing casualties to allied troops.

"Pascal."

He turned to the Princess' voice as she entered the command cabin. Two dozen nobles and officers had already assembled around the map table.

"Is the battle plan ready?"

"Yes," the young Landgrave declared in an assured voice, forcing aside all of his own worries and doubts.

He took out his baton and extended it into a pointing-stick.

"We will deploy in this formation, with both wings folded back to minimize the threat of flanking maneuvers. The front center will anchor itself in Glywysing, taking advantage of the town's buildings as fortifications. The right wing will arc back gradually, using the outlying structures as well as the nearby creek. Meanwhile, the left wing will form a straight line that pivots back from the center."

Battle of Glywysing: Lotharin deployment.

"Your Highness," Pascal turned towards Sylviane. "I hope you will do the honors of commanding the center and holding the town. Your presence would offer the best chance of inspiring the townsfolk to fight alongside us."

"Of course," the Princess nodded.

Her fiancé never mentioned the other reason, which is that as strange as it sounds, the center was actually the safest position along the entire line. Glywysing had a population of five thousand, and although many of them lived in outlying houses scattered among the surrounding orchards, the town center did feature a stockade wall to keep animals away from its granaries and wealthy residents. Its streets could also be blocked off to restrict movement, while every building and window would turn into a guard tower with arrow slits.

'Urban' combat always favored the defender, and this would be no exception.

"Duke Lionel," the young Landgrave addressed the veteran commander next. "I would like you to hold the central right wing, stretching from the town to along the creek."

"Sounds good to me," the Duke casually spoke.

"Lady Edith-Estellise," Pascal added just as the saint rushed into the room. "You will hold the extreme right flank. From there you can retain the initiative to countercharge any attacks on our right wing, as well as engage any Caliphate flanking attempts."

The Polar Cross Oriflamme briskly made her way to the table and looked it over.

"Understood," she spun around with a salute -- an overt display that made it clear to other conspirators just where their leader's loyalties stood.

"But if you station all three of us senior leaders on the center and right, then who will lead the left wing?" Lionel puzzled.

Reaching out with his hand, Pascal released his weapon from the right glove's extradimensional storage. His swordstaff manifested into existence from thin air, just as his fingers grasped the shaft and slammed it into the cabin floor.

"I will."

Even the Princess looked surprised, and the Duke's following smile was only a hint derisive:

"I didn't know you could fight."

"I am fairly mediocre with a weapon, it is true," Pascal admitted. "But that is not why they call me the Runelord."

Realistically speaking, only the cadets at the academy called him that. But if there was ever an appropriate moment to brag, now was that time.

 

----- * * * -----

 

"Sir, Brigadier Ardashir's light cavalry reports having engaged a screen of Lotharin rangers!"

General Salim nodded. Although it was winter, the barren orchard trees and buildings scattered outside the town still made it impossible for him to survey the Lotharin deployment from the ground. The light mist only made this problem worse, obscuring the ground even from Hakim's attempt to scry the battlefield from three-hundred paces above.

We'll just have to get used to the low visibility, Salim thought.

After the loss of Brigadier Arslan at the Battle of Gwilen River, Ardashir's cavalry brigade had become his best formation. As such, they occupied the honored position on the Cataliyan right flank, advancing forward behind a light cavalry skirmish screen that probed the Lotharin lines.

"Order Ardashir to dismount his heavy lancers while the rest of our forces move into position," the General barked to his signal officers from atop his steed. "Pass word for any troops who haven't finished their breakfast to do so now."

"Yes Sir!"

The cooks had distributed two pieces of khubz round-bread with dried beans and nuts wrapped inside to every soldier before departure. The overnight march no doubt left them cold and unappetizing, but it was still better than fighting on an empty stomach.

Dismounting from his horse, Salim strode into a newly erected tent that his staff officers just expanded. They were still laying down a fresh map drawn with cartography magic when he leaned over it.

Thus far, contact reports from frontline units left much to be desired in terms of position. It was hardly surprising, given the commanders' lack of local geographical knowledge. But as Salim surveyed the map, he knew exactly how he would act had he been the opposing commander -- which was a good place to start.

"They know they're outnumbered, and their camp is on the other side of town. My bet is on them deploying in a concave formation with the town protecting their center and the creek on their right."

"I agree, Your Eminence," Hakim took his position across the table. "The town will be a hard nut to crack. We should begin with an assault on one wing to draw in their reserves, while simultaneously deploying cavalry further down both flanks."

"Put pressure on them while taking advantage of the morning mist," Salim met his partner's gaze and nodded in approval. "Their left wing will be the most exposed," his pointing hand circled the anticipated area on the map. "They will expect us to strike there. Why not give them the obvious?"

Hakim simply smirked.

"Tell Ardashir he has ten minutes to form his lines," the General ordered. "After that, I want his lancers to press a full assault on the infidel left. Simultaneously, he is to detach his Asawira cavalry archers to ride west towards the enemy's rear!"

"Yes Sir!"

Salim still had no idea who exactly was in command of the Lotharin forces now. The Caliphate's intelligence network had yet to recover since the last battle on the Avorican plains, nor had he been able to take a high-ranking prisoner who knew the politics inside the chain of command. It was even possible, since the Phantoms had been left behind in Roazhon, that the opposing leader was no longer the same as during the battle at Gwilen.

But as his gaze narrowed around the town labeled 'Glywysing', his teeth clenched before expelling a hot breath.

Let battle commence, his thoughts declared. And don't think I'm as easy as that foolhardy Admiral Kilic.

 

----- * * * -----

 

Pascal clenched his jaw shut as he looked down the line.

The fine mist still enshrouded everything beyond three hundred paces, and once more, he missed the presence of Kaede who always gave him an alternative viewing angle of the front lines.

After several minutes of skirmishing between Cataliyan light cavalry and Lotharin archers, the Caliphate right wing began a general advance. Their infantry marched through the forest in long lines behind disciplined walls of round shields. The Rangers did their best to break up the formations with arrow-imbued blasting spells. But without artillery support, the enemy's numerical superiority was proving too much to overcome.

"Cross fire!"

"Volley!"

Shouts from senior ranger commanders continued to echo across the line. It was a Lotharin tactic which involved dividing every group of longbows into two, with half of them shooting upwards in a high arc while the other half unleashed direct volleys. In this manner, all but the famed Imperial Testudo formation would fail to deflect half the attacks, as soldiers could either raise their shields overhead or protect their front, but not both.

Nevertheless, even without the Caliphate's Sandstorm Ignition Screen thanks to the forest, the lines of dismounted cavalry clad in green and yellow mail continued their unrelenting advance. The first two ranks shattered under a nonstop deluge of arrows. The next two had been cut down to mere dashes. But the Cataliyan juggernaut pressed on... and now, they were almost upon the Lotharin lines.

Now or never, Pascal bit down. More than two-thirds of the Lotharins wore leather, fur, or even padded armor. In a prolonged, close-quarters melee, they wouldn't stand a chance against their heavily armored foes.

"Cover me," he ordered the squad of claymore-wielding Galloglaichs that the Princess had hand-picked as bodyguards for him.

Pascal advanced three steps forward, out from the Lothain flank as though a maniac with a death wish. Swiveling due east on his heels, he faced the advancing infidel tide at an angle, just as he had planned.

His swordstaff vanished back into his storage gloves. Instead, both hands reached deep into prepared pockets to pull out fistfuls of gems and runestones.

"Levitation Field!"

He threw both types of rocks into the air, where they hovered in a menacing cloud around him.

"Activate: Vector Shift Screen!"

The first dozen runestones spun into a circle and activated, forming five layers of small but powerful barriers that sought to redirect all physical forces in one direction. They showed up in midair as a hemisphere of pitch, utter darkness, as not even the flow of light could exit its confines.

Meanwhile, around it gathered a ring of glowing gems, their compressed ether fueling the tiny ward's astronomical demands.

There were reasons why this 'invulnerability' magic was never adapted as a personal defense spell.

During his time in Nordkreuz, Pascal had consulted Kaede on just what were the most powerful energies in the universe as understood by her 'modern' world. His familiar had replied with four categories: electromagnetic, gravity, strong force, and weak force.

Electromagnetic was easy to grasp. All trained battlemages learned the fundamental physics of lightning to better imitate its armor-piercing killing power on the battlefield.

Gravity had been understood since the age of the dragonlords. It was recognized as powerful in its widespread perpetuity, but never useful as battle magic due to the difficulty in concentrating it.

'Weak force' was something that Kaede did not understand herself, evidence that she was no scholar of the physical sciences.

That left only 'strong force', which Kaede explained as 'the power binding atoms together, released as the self-sustaining atomic reaction that powered the sun'... and her world's doomsday weapons.

Their discussion left much to be desired, but it at least gave Pascal a hint to begin his research. Recovering in Nordkreuz at the time was the infamous and somewhat sociopathic Colonel Ulrik Rudel of the Dawn Sky Knights Phantom, the only spellcaster Pascal knew on Hyperion who focused on light-based offensive magic.

"Activate: Transmutation Matrix!"

Pascal had spent an entire afternoon for the conversation that followed, during which Ulrik passed one of his personal inventions -- a catalyst spell that could mimic the sun's power. But there was a catch: the ether required to initiate the spell was tremendous, yet the overall output efficiency was far lower than that of traditional elemental spells. Ulrik had already given up on this path of research when Pascal called.

In other words, it was a spell catalyst that lacked a cascading chain reaction. But thanks to Kaede's "high school physics", Pascal knew roughly what that missing elements were:

Extreme pressure and hydrogen fuel.

Now, he watched as the overlapping turquoise Transmutation screens formed normal and heavy hydrogen from airborne molecules. The final product was held in a vacuum funnel, sealed between layers of alchemy spells. A tiny, hollow ball formed at the tip of this cone as it pressed into the black hemisphere, which grew more spherical as its sides expanded to bite into the funnel.

"Protect His Grace! CHARGE!" Pascal heard the voice of his leading bodyguard.

The Cataliyan advance was almost upon him, and thrown spears had began to shatter his outermost Spellshields. However, the Galloglaich lieutenant realized what Pascal was doing and led not only his squad, but also two nearby platoons in a countercharge against overwhelming odds to buy time.

"Activate: Condensation Field!"

Every remaining runestone hovering above Pascal triggered, rearranging themselves to form a ball around the black spheroid and turquoise funnel. There, each of them pressed in with its own beam of compressive force, crushing the isolated 'ball' at the tip of the conic funnel as though millions of hammers beating in at once.

...And now, the finale.

Pascal still couldn't manage the catalyst spell through mnemonic casting. It was too complicated, too new, too much chance of mishaps. But thankfully, after dozens of attempts to graft its magic into stone, at least a few came out perfect.

Now, he pulled a fist-sized tablet from his pocket and turned it to the magical contraption floating in midair.

He had predefined the spell to target the 'containment core'. As trigger, all he had to do was read the inscribed name:

"Catalyst Phalanx - Solar Initiation."

Pascal couldn't see the nucleus of the reaction, but he knew that fires hotter than anything on this world sparked within the tiny 'containment core' at the end of the fuel funnel. Both the black spheroid and translucent Condensation Field sphere trembled, a sign of the pulverizing forces that sought to rupture layers upon layers of magical containment. All that remained was for his Vector Shift barriers to widen the gap, and the chain 'strong force' reaction would spread like wildfire, detonating in a blast of raw energy several thousand times more potent than even the best Fireball.

"Rel--"

He never even finished his word when the containment core blew. The single barrier facing east was shattered in an instant, and the quintupled-layered black spheroid immediately cracked under pressure.

The overwhelming brunt of the explosion was still channeled eastwards -- a conic blast that swept outwards in the blink of an eye. Every man and tree within two hundred paces east was instantly disintegrated by the sun unleashed. Neither friend nor foe was spared in its wake, including most of the Galloglaichs who had charged forth to protect him.

Accompanying the directional fireball was an intense burst of light, flaying skin and blinding eyes as far as two kilopaces wide. Those within a thousand paces never even felt pain as the thermal pulse destroyed nerves on contact, leaving survivors aghast at the sight of insensate, burning flesh.

Following that came the destructive wave, a tide of flames amidst rolling thunder that consumed everything it touched. In the east, this apocalyptic current of raw, cataclysmic power swept on for nearly a kilopace. It left a forty-ish degree cone of barren, blackened earth, filled with the charred remains of men, trees, and empty cottages where a brigade once marched.

The Cataliyan troops weren't the only victims either...

Bursts of light and heat had rushed out from cracks in the magical containment, unleashing focused beams of energy that either disintegrated or torched anything that they neared. Over a dozen of these plowed into the Lotharin lines, killing and igniting men where they stood.

Pascal had prepared the best he could for such an eventuality, but his troops near the epicenter had neither the time nor the ether to spare. Countless charred remains surrounded his former position, their bones shattered and flesh burned beyond recognition. Black, imprinted shadows also dotted the ground around them, where leaking rays of fusion energy simply vaporized the soldiers in formation. Even what remained of the ground and atmosphere had been set alight, with smoke and dust still burning over lanes of a blackened wasteland.

It was as if Death himself had been summoned onto the battlefield.

And the caster himself?

A triple layer of boosted personal wards could not protect him from the power unleashed. Pascal's barriers endured for as long as they could, before a rupture threw him back like a rag doll -- his charred body later found mangled in the ditch surrounding the Lotharin encampment.

 

Next Chapter ]

Chapter 17 - The Knights' Oath

Colonel Farah ad-Durr Ismat ad-Din coughed in the burning haze that seemed to engulf the whole battlefield.

Her lungs felt like they had caught fire with every inhale, as embers and ashes drifted across the air like black snow. The dawn mist that once covered the land had vanished without a trace, leaving only gloom and shadows beneath a sky filled with smoke.

All around her the assembled troops coughed and gagged in the choking fumes. Farah made her way through ranks of her Mubarizun champions, before pulling aside her signal officer:

"What happened!?"

"I don't know... Sir!" The Lieutenant shouted back between coughs. "My link with command suddenly broke!"

Farah felt her stomach lurch. General Salim had established his headquarters nearly two kilopaces east of the battle line. Surely the explosion that tore the north asunder couldn't have reached him!

"Well keep trying!" She insisted. "Inform me as soon as you regain contact!"

"Yes Sir!"

Leaving the officer behind, Farah made her way through the smoke. Her Crimson Dervish squadron was attached to Hamid's brigade in the center. She had seen the brigadier's staff just north of her formation, before the unknown blast transformed her world.

"Brig--" She had to cough to clear her lungs. "Brigadier Hamid!"

The dismounted lancer company Farah stumbled across first were of no help. She had to echo her cry a dozen more times before a reply came:

"O-over here!"

The smoke seemed to grow denser as Farah moved in their direction. Soon, she came across a dozen black-sooted faces from the Brigade HQ.

"Colonel."

"Sir," Farah saluted as she addressed the ashen-faced commander that she could only recognize by his stocky build. "I've lost my connection with the general. What are our orders?"

"You're not the only one," he growled back. "We've lost our communications as well, along with two of my companies to the extreme right."

Hamid swallowed, his eyes filled by not only anxiety and pain but even the shadow of fear itself.

"My men tell me that the entire area north has been reduced to a wasteland. We can't even find anyone still alive in Ardashir's brigade right now."

Farah's jaw hit the ground. That can't be possible.

She had never heard of a spell so powerful that it could annihilate an entire wing of an army at once; not since the fabled tales of the Dragon-Demon Wars, anyhow.

Yet, the results were undeniable -- from the blinding flash in the northwest, to the titanic explosion that shook the ground, to the curtain of smoke that swept across the land...

Farah had no choice but to face the likelihood that Ardashir's brigade of thousands had vanished in an instant.

"Sir, we have to withdraw!" One of the battalion commanders cried. "Our communications lie in shambles, and our forces cannot withstand spellpower of such magnitude!"

"No!" Farah glared back, her blood pounding as she breathed in the heated fumes.

The Mubarizun Colonel wasn't even sure why she felt anger. The Major who spoke had every right to be afraid, just as she ought to feel now...

"Sir! We cannot simply retreat!" she stressed beneath the veil that covered her lower face. "We must not retreat now!"

"And why is that?" the Brigadier demanded, his demoralized gaze seeing no alternative.

With a deep breath, Farah thought back to the legends of old -- heroines and tales of the greatest war which had inspired her to enter the ascetic Dervish Order at first. Her ancestors had rode into battle facing an endless tide of demons that poured from the Infinite Abyss. Blessed by the dragonlords as the first mages of mankind, their combined sorcery left such devastation that even now, the interior of the southern continent remained a wasteland.

"Because that is the spellpower made only possible by an archmage at full capacity!" Her fingers pointed towards the northwest, where the flash originated from. "Not even the mighty dragonlords could unleash such destruction without draining their ether. If we retreat now, we'd only invite them to recuperate and repeat the process!"

Despite being shorter than the other commanders present, Farah glared at each and every one of them in return. She challenged their honor, their courage, their piety to uphold the very teachings of God:

"Surely this smoke that now covers the battlefield is more detrimental to their massed archery! God has given us this opportunity as a test of our resolve! Our ancestors who drove back the demonspawn would never retreat now!"

One moment after another passed, before Hamid pursed his lips and gave a reluctant nod.

"Very well, Colonel," the Brigadier agreed. "I will try to coordinate with our left wing. In the meantime, distribute your champions among my lancers as you see fit. You will lead the first wave in before the smoke clears."

 

----- * * * -----

 

On the other side of the battlefront, the Princess of the Lotharins strode through the streets of Glywysing in just as much turmoil.

They were still in the process of evacuating the town's residents to the rear when an earth-shattering explosion rocked the ground. A fireball of immense size bloomed across the northern skies, which was immediately obscured by the tidal wave of smoke, dust, and flaming debris that poured into town. The malevolent veil incited panic among the civilians, leading to a stampede that left dozens dead and hundreds wounded. Now, groaning victims and abandoned belongings littered the streets, adding to the hellish scene of a disaster zone.

Visibility was limited to just twenty or so paces. Amidst this smoky haze her soldiers coughed and wheezed, with all but the most disciplined units breaking ranks and leaving their spots. Some of the men simply couldn't stand there and not help the innocent; others had far less honorable aims...

"Get back to your position!" Sylviane glared down a fleeing lieutenant and his men, her knuckles white as she squeezed the chain of her meteor hammer.

"B-but we can't fight in--"

His words never finished as she flung out her weapon and crushed his skull.

"Anyone who retreats without orders will be summarily executed as a traitor!" She shouted to the shocked soldiers watching. "Did I not make myself clear!?"

The two dozen troops he had been leading scurried back to where they came from. Meanwhile the ashes she breathed in forced Sylviane through a chain of coughs.

"Your Highness," she heard one of her armigers, coming just around the corner with a Captain in tow.

Sylviane couldn't believe some of the chaotic reports that were rolling in. She had to hear one of them firsthand with her own ears. Thus she had ordered Sir Cailean -- one of the armigers King Alistair left behind -- to bring back an officer from Pascal's left wing.

"What in the Holy Father's name happened out there?" Sylviane accosted the Captain.

"I don't know!" His haunted eyes quaked. "The infidels were closing in and we braced for their charge. Then... a blast came out of nowhere and just... torched them all! ...And not only that, the same beams of light also tore into the battalion on our left and ignited their men as well!"

"Where did the blast come from?"

The officer blinked once as though in a daze. Then he uttered:

"L-left. Far to the left!"

Sylviane bit her lips as she stared at the officer. His hands still trembled as his pupils shook. There was no doubt that he had just witnessed a most horrifying sight.

Her feet almost lost their balance as she swiveled around.

She had a bad feeling ever since Sir Robert said he couldn't reach Pascal. Her fiancé had anchored himself on the extreme left of the Lotharin line, and Sylviane had no doubt remaining that this destruction was caused by his experimental magic.

But based on the casualties reported from amidst the chaos, he had clearly botched the spell.

I warned you, Sylviane gritted her teeth as she felt tears pool in her eyes. Please tell me you didn't just get yourself killed!

"Robert," she called. "Go--"

She never finished the order as a shrill cry came from the distance:

"ENEMY ADVANCE!"

"RETURN TO YOUR POSITIONS!"

Are you kidding me!? Sylviane's thoughts cried out. You're going to keep fighting in this condition?

Her teeth gritted as she stared at Robert. He wasn't her best fighter, but in addition to being a Wayfarer he also served as her medic and communication officer. There was no way she could spare him now.

But I can't just leave Pascal be either!

"Sir Cailean," she turned back to the giant of a man. "Head north to our left flank and find His Grace the Landgrave. I must know what happened!"

...And if he's still alive, she cut her personal reason out.

"Yes, Your Highness," Cailean bowed before running off into the haze.

"Sir Robert, open a channel with Duke Lionel," Sylviane added as her phoenix wings expanded and her feet left the ground. "Tell him that the enemy is assaulting the town."

...And if he doesn't get pressed, he better send troops to support me!

The Princess flew towards the stockade wall that established her main defense line. Her armigers formed up in a wedge behind her as they cast their Levitation Flight spells.

"Cyclone Blast eastwards!" She crafted her own spell from the air. "Clear the air for archers!"

A torrent of winds erupted from her outstretched palm, its pressure forcing the lingering smoke towards the enemy. But just before her spell hit its limits, she watched as a squad of Cataliyan lancers emerged into plain sight.

They couldn't be more than fifty paces out, with several officers' hands extended and ready to unleash a volley of spells...

 

----- * * * -----

 

"SONIC BLAST!" Colonel Farah shouted as soon as she saw the base of the stockade wall, her mnemonic words both triggered her internal spellcraft and served as a signal for her brave soldiers.

A deafening cone of cacophonous energy erupted from not just her hands, but over a hundred others along the front. It plowed straight into the inner town's palisade, where entire sections were instantly shredded into wooden chips. Cries could be heard as several raised platforms collapsed under their defenders' feet, just before painful wails erupted across the front as jagged splinters burst into the faces of unprepared Lotharin troops.

General Salim had guessed earlier that the town's stockade was erected only to keep out beasts. It did not have any of the long-term wards that protected military fortifications from destructive spells.

Now, with her scimitar raised into the air, Farah sprinted forward with the Tauheed battle cry:

"There is no deity but God!"

"FOR GOD. IS. GREATER!" The echoing voice of over a thousand first wave troops replied.

 

----- * * * -----

 

"--For God. Is. Greater!"

Edith heard the roar from the infidels in the town's direction. She might not understand the southern tongue, but she certainly recognized that battle cry.

Biting down on her lips, she deflected two more arrows with her kite shield.

The smoke that engulfed the Lotharin left and center had mostly dispersed by the time they reached her. It left her men with a stunning view of the alien, mushroom-shaped cloud that rose a kilopace off the ground -- white fumes that formed the background to her cyan airborne cross.

Events beyond her comprehension clearly took place on the other flank, while even the center was being pressed by massed assault. Edith wanted to help them, to aid the princess and defend the town. But unlike past battles where she roamed the center and joined combat at her will, she had been given a clear responsibility to guard the exposed Lotharin right flank this time.

The Saint and Oriflamme gritted her teeth as a loose line of Cataliyan light cavalry rode up to unleash successive javelin volleys. Her Sword of Charity glowed silver as it released more ribbons of white light, curving through the air to intercept shots that would otherwise slay her nearby comrades.

Lotharin rangers and archers replied with arrows, killing a third of the light cavalrymen before they retreated. Ranks of armored cavalry archers advanced through the woods as replacement, their compound bows beginning an archery duel with her own bowmen.

Are they screening an infantry advance? Or are they just trying to pin me here?

Edith could hardly see through the ranks of horse-archers and the forest. All she could do now was hold the line as waves of arrows swept back and forth between the two formations.

It was then, when one of her Ranger Captains from the west shouted:

"Cavalry in the western woods! Hundreds!"

"They ride north!"

Saint Estelle immediately turned to her sword sisters.

"Follow me!" she commanded as she led them down the battle line.

Landgrave Pascal had stationed her here, predicting that the Caliphate would try to flank around the Lotharin defenses. Edith wasn't sure if those armored horsemen were archers or lancers, but their goal was obvious -- to plunge a dagger into the back of the Trinitian line.

It was up to her to reposition forces and build a third line to protect the rear of the Lotharins.

 

----- * * * -----

 

"Their 'saint' is moving west..."

Sitting on top of a smooth rock, General Salim smiled as he heard Hakim's report. A series of bloody, hacking coughs followed, and Salim had to force himself to stay upright as another wave of nausea swept through his body.

Whatever happened in the north had ignited his command tent and badly burnt many of his staff officers. Salim himself had emerged unscathed, except now he felt feverish and dizzy, as though some unknown disease suddenly wracked him.

Unable to contact Brigadier Ardashir's right wing, Hakim had opened communications with the center instead. From there, he learned that Colonel Farah led a massive assault against the town. With the battle already in motion, the general could only play along and offer what assistance he could.

His first order had been to send a cavalry detachment around the Lotharin right wing. He knew this was Edith-Estellise's position given reports of her signature illumination spell. The horsemen were told to tie branches to their saddles which swept the forest ground as they rode. The dust and leaves they kicked up combined with illusory spells to make a convincing display of massive flanking force.

It lured Edith's reserves west exactly as he had hoped, just as other supporting units forded the creek and pinned down Duke Lionel's troops. The town's defenders would receive no support from the Lotharin right wing. While light cavalry from his center would harass the junction to the Lotharin left.

"Now, smash their center," Hakim declared to nobody but himself.

He had hardly finished before nausea overcame him and he vomited onto the ground.

 

----- * * * -----

 

Swiveling around the corner of a house, Sylviane smashed her meteor hammer straight into the flank of a Ghulam platoon -- which had been trying to press through a street blocked by militiamen holding a wall of spears.

Lotharin flails met Cataliyan chests as her armigers crashed into infidels, shattering their unit's cohesion on contact and giving her defending infantry a chance to counterattack.

But before the Princess could extricate her squad from the melee, another platoon of dismounted lancers had charged up the street. The smoky haze had cleared enough for visibility to climb to two hundred paces, and sporadic arrow fire peppered the attackers from upper floors and roofs. Nevertheless, only a few Ghulams fell before the rest plowed into the exposed side of the Oriflamme Armiger squad, where three lances immediately skewered one of her own.

Leaping into the air, Sylviane swept her meteor hammer around in a wide arc to buy her armigers a moment of reprieve. A scimitar slashed into her greaves from below as she turned her back. It didn't cut too deep, but Sylviane nevertheless cried out in pain at the third wound she had received.

The vicious fighting in the streets had decimated her forces. She was down to just four armigers, and everywhere the Lotharins were yielding ground. Gaps opened by the street combat had allowed the defenders to mount several counterattacks. But as a second wave of Cataliyans poured in to reinforce their first, Sylviane was rapidly running out of steady troops.

She had executed four officers already for retreating without orders, but even brutal punishments could only achieve so much. The defenders were wavering everywhere, with high casualties and battle fatigue taking its toll. Entire squads and platoons had fled towards the rear, despite threats of a traitor's death.

Distracted by the chaotic melee, Sylviane never noticed as a squad of Cataliyans bearing the red armor of the Mubarizun emerged onto a side street.

 

----- * * * -----

 

"There's their commander," Colonel Farah eyed the glowing Oriflamme with her burning-blue wings. "Take her down and the town is ours."

"That's not their 'saint' though," remarked one of her girls, sounding rather disappointed.

Farah almost snorted. She had seen the 'saint' in action from across the river at Gwilen -- that inhuman woman whose every strike pierced a man's vitals. Since then, she had come to the unpleasant realization that even her personal squad would have trouble against the Polar Cross, especially now when they were bloodied and exhausted after several frontal attacks against Lotharin strong-points.

"An Oriflamme all the same. Levitation Flight!" Farah hovered into the air as her spell took hold. Combat aerobatics wasn't their specialty, but her Dervish Order's traditional whirling dance had left them better prepared than most.

"Form up into column -- we take her in a stream attack!"

 

----- * * * -----

 

Blood splashed into the air as Sylviane watched another one of her armigers cut down.

"Your Highness!" Sir Robert shouted from just four paces away. "We have to fall back!"

"This is the main street! We must hold it at all cost!" Sylviane cried back as her meteor hammer smashed through an infidel shield and knocked its bearer down. His landing was softened by one of the dead and dying that blanketed the ground, but then a nearby militia's stabbing voulge finished him.

...Though the militiaman lasted only seconds longer, as a Ghulam's scimitar took advantage of the opening and hacked into his chest.

Such was the exchange of steel that pressed the Lotharins back from two corpse-strewn barricades. Streams of blood ran between the paving stones as the defenders on this main street were worn down.

Of the original several hundred, just thirty-eight remained. With one look at their exhausted, desperate faces, Sylviane knew that Robert was right.

Could they hold on for three more minutes? Five? There was no way it would be longer than that.

Her knuckles clenched white as they squeezed her meteor hammer's chains.

But if she retreated... it would spell total defeat. The army's fate would be sealed, and with it, both the defense of the western front and her bid for her father's throne.

Tears of anguish collected in the Princess' eyes as she bit down until she tasted blood from herself:

"We cannot retreat from here!"

"We have no choice!" Robert yelled again as a thrown lance aimed for the Princess clanged off Mari's heavy shield.

Sylviane's fiery-blue gaze shot back daggers as his hand grabbed onto her.

"My orders were specific! NO RETRE--"

"LOOK OUT!"

In a blur of motion, Sir Robert jerked the Princess back as he pushed his own body in front of her.

A Cataliyan champion charged straight through the air at them, and as always Mari intercepted the attack with her shield. She deflected the lance that came first. However the warrior didn't slow and darted straight past, clearing the way for the single column who followed like a stream of murderous steel.

The second foe was met by Mari's flail, its spiky head crushing into the woman's lamellar chest. Nevertheless the momentum of the charge carried through, with a scimitar smashing into Mari's side just below the spaulder.

The heavy half-plate held, but the impact knocked her body back. Seizing the moment, the third charging foe leveled his heavy falchion in both hands and cleaved straight into the exposed gap between her breastplate and skirt armor.

Sylviane watched in horror as her maid and bodyguard fell to the ground. The drop of three paces seemed to last a minute as Mari spat blood into the air, her entrails flowing out from the ghastly cut that almost severed her body in half.

"MARI!"

With shaking eyes, the Princess reflexively reached out. Her brain recognized that the wound was fatal without immediate healing. Her logic screamed that it was suicidal to even try. But none of this mattered to her as emotions surged to save her longtime companion -- to cling onto a thread of hope that her friend might yet live.

Sylviane hardly even noticed the fourth and fifth attacker, following in the wake of her maid's butcherer.

One of them smashed into Robert's shielded side, the blade deflected enough to graze only his shoulder armor. But the other immediately swooped in on his right, and the scimitar struck an already-damaged segment of his breastplate and crashed into his rib cage.

On the ground, Mari barely lifted her fingers towards Sylviane before they fell back down, motionless. Her body joining countless others that littered the street in its bloodbath.

Sir Robert was just beginning to drift down when the Princess caught his hand and pulled him up to a building's second story window sill. Her hands were shaking as she saw his open wound, where crimson blood flowed without ending.

"N-no, nono, Robert--!" Sylviane's eyes trembled as her head waved in denial.

Clenching his shattered chest as blood gurgled from his lips, Sir Robert gulped as he clearly could no longer manage breathing. Nevertheless, with pleading eyes bulging from their sockets, he mouthed a bare whisper to the Princess:

'Retreat...'

"PRINCESS!"

Elspeth's cry, combined with Hauteclaire's screeching warning from within, finally jolted Sylviane's attention back to the fight. Three of the Caliphate champions arced through the air before lining up for a simultaneous charge, while the fourth was locked in an aerial duel with the petite armiger.

Miraculous aid came when two arrows flew in from the church tower in the town's center. One of them penetrated the wards and pierced the chest of one foe. But the two remaining Cataliyans dashed forward through the air, scimitar and falchion poised to meet from separate directions.

Sylviane had already used Hauteclaire's one Flamebreak this battle. She had no special cards remaining.

Feinting an attack towards one, she swiveled around at the last second and threw her meteor at the other. The falchion-bearer couldn't dodge before the flying weight wreathed in blue flames crushed her right shoulder. The sudden impact disarmed the woman and sent her careening into a nearby building.

But while the meteor held the advantage in reach, it took time to retrieve it after any attack. Sylviane braced her small shield as the other soared in, scimitar aimed for a neck or chest blow.

...Then at the last second, it changed course and crashed in from the side, just above her elbow.

The Princess screamed in pain as she felt her left arm break. Her shield was now useless, and her meteor struck a wall when she lost concentration.

The female warrior stopped before her and raised her scimitar for a killing blow.

Time seemed to slow as Sylviane's life flashed before her eyes. Her memories replayed that moment when she met a teenage Robert and Mari in vivid detail, when her seven-years-old self pulled the two kneeling squires up before grinning at them.

...Finally, she would have friends who weren't her brothers. This time, she would not make the mistake of treating them as just servants.

At that moment, a bladed hook flew in from behind Sylviane's would-be-killer and snagged onto a spaulder. The trailing rope pulled taut, forcibly turning the woman around -- just in time for the Cataliyan to watch as Elspeth plunged a second blade-hook into her face.

The petite girl breathed hard, blood splattered across her body. The Summerborn were known for strength that exceeded their size; but even then it was amazing that despite a deep, bloody cut, her right arm could still deal the killing blow.

"Robert!" Sylviane wasted no time as she swung back to the window sill.

But Sir Robert was no longer there. He had fallen to the ground just a few paces away from Mari, his eyes still and unmoving as the clash in the streets pushed on past him.

"COME ON!" Elspeth pulled the Princess' good arm. "You're in no state to fight now!"

Sylviane was almost catatonic as her last remaining armiger dragged her off the battlefield. Tears streamed down both of her cheeks as her eyes stayed glued to the street where her two oldest friends fell, fulfilling the oath that they had pledged on the day they met:

With my life, I swear to protect you.

 

----- * * * -----

 

"That army is broken," the worldwalker Gwendolyn observed from her vantage point in the low clouds.

"The town's loss is just a matter of time now," her compatriot Kannon nodded solemnly from the side. "Once that happens, the Lotharin right wing will be rolled up from the center, and the Lotharin left is too disorganized from that earlier catastrophe to mount an effective defense."

Gwendolyn turned to her senior. The way Kannon summed up the situation almost felt callous, as though the butchery below were just lines drawn on a map rather than the deaths of countless. But then, it was hardly her place to say anything -- Gwendolyn had lead an army in war before; she knew exactly what it took for commanders to watch their men die while trying to stay composed with their mind focused on mission objectives.

"Now can I interfere?" the younger worldwalker -- by over a thousand years -- asked.

"Since the Ceredigion army has no intention of fighting, and the last force in defense of its people has been swept aside." Kannon's return gaze was weighed by sadness. "Yes."

"But are you sure?" She added. "Remember: you only get one chance... and Ceredigion's intact army may still take action."

"Yes, I'm certain," Gwendolyn answered as she materialized her arms and armor from extradimensional storage, including the translucent crystal blade that brought her the nickname Faerie Sword.

"Geopolitics is a game of giants," she stated. "Ceredigion's only chances lay as a responsible member of the Empire."

Gazing upon the bluish hue that was being dragged towards the town's west, Gwendolyn added with a wry smile:

"Besides... I swore an oath to Louis, and his Great-Great-Granddaughter had fought as bravely as anyone could."

 

----- * * * -----

 

"CHARGE!" Saint Estelle flew between the trees at the tip of a four hundred strong reserve.

Edith knew that she was probably too late. She had chased the infidel cavalry all the way to the rear before realizing that it was a feint. Now, when she finally came to the town's rescue with her winded infantry, the Caliphate's flag already flew over Glysywing's church tower.

She could hear the infidels pouring out of the town and onto Duke Lionel's left flank. His front no doubt began to buckle as his side and rear came under attack. Similar clashes of steel also resounded from the smoke-obscured north, where the Lotharin left wing likely found its own position compromised.

This is my fault, her inner conscience blamed. I should have been here to help!

Edith knew that the battle was already lost. No army could lose its center and still hold ground. But she had to counterattack the town with her last sliver of hope -- that she could at least extract the Princess and buy time for the army to retreat into the forest.

"Please merciful Lord, please keep Her Highness safe," her whispered prayers to the Holy Father pleaded. "Take my life in exchange, but keep her safe for the future of the Lotharins!"

It was then, when she heard a resounding chant overhead.

Halting her charge through the sparse forest just southwest of the town, Edith turned to see a figure glowing white-blue in the skies. It was no doubt the light of a phoenix. But as the feminine figure descended to an altitude of three hundred paces, Edith was certain that it also wasn't Sylviane, Vivienne, or any other Oriflamme she knew.

Azure rings of ether formed around the chanting woman, her unfamiliar words echoing an outdated accent of Brython. Magic stronger than anything Edith had ever seen coalesced around this stranger, congealing into a kaleidoscopic sphere of power beneath her feet.

It shouldn't be possible. No soul could process that much ether at once. Yet before Edith's eyes the unknown Oriflamme pulled in an entire battlefield's worth of unspent spiritual energy and sent it into the brilliant globe.

Then, as the chant finished, the sphere collapsed in on itself, releasing a pulse of energy that shot down into the forest and spread like a magical shockwave. Edith felt only pressure as the wavefront of white-blue ether washed over her, but the same could not be said for the trees as their bark glowed upon contact with this strange magic.

She watched with bulging eyes as the hibernating trees began to transform. Wooden limbs groaned as they twisted and wrapped smaller branches around themselves like rope bundles. Forks along the trunk and main branches thickened into sinewy joints. Trunk bottoms cracked and split into fours that lifted off the dirt like stretching legs, while roots erupted from the earth before wrapping themselves into powerful bundles that stood on the ground.

Both the Oriflamme and her soldiers stood frozen. They stared with a mixture of fright and awe as the trees uprooted. It wasn't even just a few plants or several dozens, but the entire forests around. Waves upon waves of trees stood up from the earth like four-legged beasts, their sinewy limbs stretching as wooden hollows groaned.

The unknown Oriflamme in the skies spoke a single, commanding word. Edith didn't have to speak the language to understand the pointed crystalline sword.

'Attack.'

Thus began the march of an entire forest. It did not take long before horrified shouts in the southern tongue erupted across the battle front, as lumbering trees with near immunity to hand-held weapons strode up and smashed into them.

 

Next Chapter ]

Chapter 18 - The Perfect Flaw

Kaede was aghast as she trekked into the wasteland north of town.

She had seen the mushroom cloud on her way back, its dispersing smoke clouding out the afternoon sun. She had requested to scout ahead with her Rangers; but despite her desperate plea -- or perhaps because of it -- Lady Vivienne had denied her the privilege and gave the mission to another.

It had taken every bit of Kaede's willpower to stay with the detachment returning from Lysardh Point, to not rush ahead and verify with her own eyes just what Pascal had done this time.

She had no doubt it was Pascal, likely with help from that jewelry box of his. She hadn't forgotten his burnt hair and disheveled image from three days ago when he returned after testing out some 'Wunderwaffe' spell. Combine this with the audacity he had already shown with experimental spells when summoning her, and it created a dangerous situation where a prodigious mage could unleash devastation far beyond his control.

Kaede had to remind herself that any sufficiently large explosion could produce a mushroom cloud. Apart from a handful of utility spells passed down by the Dragonlords, Hyperion magic was limited to either natural phenomena that they could visualize, or science based on Newtonian physics which they actually understood. They could channel the elements and synthesize chemicals for powerful fuel-air explosions. But to cross the realm into quantum physics?

The thought was absurd.

Surely, not even Pascal could mimic a thermonuclear weapon.

...Or so she had thought, until she saw the battleground for herself.

Her first shock came as she met the moving trees that patrolled the woods like elephant herds. Even the latest dispatches from Glywysing could not prepare her for their nonsensical sight. Crawling across the land on four sturdy 'legs' that seemed too short for their massive body, the animated plants paid no attention to the stunned men and women of the Lotharin battlegroup.

Yet... as they lumbered off into the distance, Kaede heard horrified screams just before several trees slammed their limbs onto the ground to silence them. It soon dawned upon her that somehow, these moving trees could discern friend from foe as they cleaned up stragglers retreating from the battlefield.

But even that wasn't as alien as when the forest abruptly ended, leaving the town of Glywysing with almost a five kilopace radius of cleared ground. Large pits surrounded by uprooted earth displayed where those walking trees had come from, as though an entire forest of tens -- no, hundreds of thousands -- had suddenly decided to migrate.

There was, however, one exception...

A field of broken trees laid to the northeast of town. Thousands of branch-less, burned out husks swept to one side as though blown by a hurricane of flames. The damage grew steadily towards the northwest, with stumps vanishing into the ground until there was only a blackened, lifeless landscape.

Still unable to contact Pascal through telepathy, Kaede handed off command to Sergeant Gaspard and swiftly made her way north around the edge of town. The streets were awash with corpses left by the vicious urban combat, the air saturated by the nauseous smell of blood and guts. Soldiers and citizens alike worked nonstop to cart the dead off to mass burial pits dug just outside the town. However as the skies glowed with the reddish-orange tinge of dusk, Kaede doubted they would even come close to finishing today.

Then, as she stepped beyond Glywysing's northern perimeter, the terrain changed into that apocalyptic wasteland.

A roughly conical swath of scorched earth stretched across the battlefield, with blackened strips of death splitting off before crashing into allied positions. The trees that once stood here had been reduced to charred stumps. The occasional building identifiable only by hints of tumbled walls and rubble. The air was still warm and permeated with the smell of burning dirt and flesh. Yet within this nauseating atmosphere, several platoons of soldiers accompanied by medics worked tirelessly to look for survivors while bringing the dead to wagons.

One of these wagons was nearby, and one look upon its contents left Kaede almost retching. A tangle of blackened limbs stiffened by rigor mortis protruded from the mass of burned out husks, corpses so disfigured that they hardly even looked 'human'.

But even that wasn't the worst sight. In the distance, her familiar-boosted vision could spot rows of deep shadows etched across what were once dirt roads. These haunting images marked the final positions of marching army columns -- hundreds, perhaps even thousands of men who were instantly vaporized by an intense fireball.

Pascal... just what have you done?

Kaede's lips were ajar. Her mouth and eyes quivered nonstop. Her arms and fingers trembled without end. Her stiff legs carried her across the land in a zombie-like fashion, while a slow trickle of tears pooled into her gaze.

Three years ago, Kaede couldn't sleep for two days after visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Now, she wasn't sure if she could ever sleep again.

Just what have I told you to 'inspire' this...?

Try as she might, Kaede couldn't remember saying anything that would have led down this horrifying path. Sure, she had mentioned the atomic bombs to Pascal. She even gave him a shorthand description of fusion in a conversation about forces in the universe. But she couldn't have given him any details about the functions of an atomic bomb. It was simply impossible when she herself didn't understand the quantum mechanics necessary to produce a thermonuclear reaction.

Yet the reality was undeniable. Somehow Pascal had not only made it work, but also released the explosion in a mostly conical blast. Now, Kaede stood overlooking the result -- a land of death rippling out from 'ground zero' of what was clearly a multi-kiloton detonation.

A painful cry to the southwest fell into a gurgling sound, and Kaede turned to the line of aid tents marked by crucifixes in Samaran-blood-red. She could hear the endless groaning of injured troops, while a breeze carried over not the smell of bloody surgery, but the pungent odor of vomit.

How could I have forgotten...!? She thought as a horrifying realization dawned.

Kaede almost tripped as she dashed forward. Her legs stumbled as she ran, but she didn't care as she made her way to the nearest tent.

Rows of Lotharin soldiers laid on the stretchers and blankets that covered the ground. Some of them vomited to the side as blood dripped from their noses. Others sported what seemed an intense sunburn on their faces except with chunks of skin already sloughing off. Batches of human hair could be seen scattered across the ground, and the nauseating smell of diarrhea wafted across the air as some soldiers, too exhausted to stay conscious, simply soiled themselves.

She didn't recognize all of the symptoms, but some of them were definitely signs of acute radiation poisoning.

The medical staff could only analyze and care for the soldiers as best as they could. Kaede could hear the casting phrases of Invigorate spells. It was clear as day that the healers were baffled by the symptoms and had no idea what they were dealing with.

"Healer!" Kaede accosted the nearest one she could find. She grabbed him by the shirt as her frantic words spilled out: "You have to move these people, these tents further away from the battlefield! Otherwise the radiation will...!"

"Ho-shasen?" The man replied, hardly even pronouncing the word that Kaede spilled forth in plain Japanese.

Her eyes went wide as she realized the implication, the possibility that she should have considered from the start:

Hyperion had no concept of what 'radiation' even was.

"You there!"

An unfamiliar voice came from behind, and Kaede turned to face an unfamiliar Lotharin noblewoman flanked by armigers.

"You're the familiar of that Weichsel Landgrave, correct?" She asked again, before receiving a slight nod. "The Princess sent word that if you returned, you are to immediately report to her in the main camp."

There was something about her scowl that expressed a clear disapproval for the familiar girl.

"Are you the commander here?" Kaede inquired.

"I am in charge of these few tents, yes."

"Then please, you have to move them further away from the battlefield!"

The noblewoman stared back. For a moment she seemed nonplussed, but as the seconds dragged on a simmering ire returned to her gaze:

"Look, I don't know what you think you know, but your master's stunt today has already killed hundreds of my countrymen, including a cousin of mine. Many of these men simply cannot afford to be moved until they recover some."

"But--!"

"Carole," The lady turned impatiently to one of her subordinates. "Take her to Her Highness."

"Yes Milady," the female armiger bowed lightly before seizing Kaede's arm.

"Wait... please, Milady!" Kaede was almost yelling as she was being dragged off. "You have to move them further away or even more lives will be put at risk!"

It didn't please Kaede at all that she was somehow the one being sent to safety. In her opinion, there was no one more deserving of the radiation than herself for revealing what should never have been told to Pascal.

 

----- * * * -----

 

"...Your Highness," the senior healer, Sir Ariel, faced Sylviane as he explained in exasperation. "We've already healed most of his burns, repaired his rib cage, and stopped his internal bleeding -- all as you requested. Yes, he still has broken bones under stasis that we could mend. But how would that help?"

"How would it help!?" the Princess lashed back with distress written across her face. "Shall I break your arm and see if it hurts!?"

Sylviane didn't care for the disappointed gaze from the elderly healer with salt-and-pepper hair. All she thought of was how her father should never have knighted this man. He clearly couldn't act with the professionalism expected of his kind.

Lying on the bed inside his cabin, Pascal had been cleaned up from the blackened mess they first found him in. But even after healing his severe burns, his skin remained an inconsistent red, with small patches of flesh and hair occasionally coming loose as though he was a scale-shedding lizard.

Only two attending medics and a junior healer monitored Pascal's condition right now. Sylviane's phoenix Hauteclaire also perched on the bed's headboard, his soothing aura radiating outwards to keep the atmosphere an ideal temperature.

"His Grace's body is beginning to degrade at a cellular level," the healer spoke solemnly. "At this rate, we'll be seeing multiple organ failures within the next few hours. And currently, we don't even know why it's happening!"

"I don't want to hear your excuses!" she snarled back. "Find out why! That is your job!"

Sir Ariel and the Princess were so caught up in their argument that they didn't even hear the cabin door open.

"Your Highness, we have nearly a thousand patients out there with milder symptoms of the same illness. Of course I intend to find a cure!" The man looked insulted. "But I cannot do so by wasting my time and ether on a mur... on a body that is already so damaged it is likely hopeless!"

Sylviane was certain that Ariel was about to call Pascal a 'murderer'. However before she had the chance to act on it...

"Hopeless?" Kaede stood in the doorway, her fearful eyes bouncing from Pascal's still form, to the pair who were arguing, to Elspeth and the medical staff who remained quiet in the background.

Sir Ariel clearly recognized Kaede at a glance. His gaze softened with pity and remorse:

"His body is starting to break down. Without even any idea of what this illness is, I'm afraid there's little we can do for him."

In other words, you're about to follow your master into death.

Sylviane's fingers clenched as she felt an overwhelming urge to execute him.

But before she could say anything, the familiar added five words that surprised them all:

"I know what it is."

The Princess' eyes bulged as she immediately swiveled to face Kaede.

"You do?"

"Not in great detail," the Samaran girl admitted. "I'm fairly certain that whatever Pascal did, he unknowingly released a radiation wave. There have been many cases of this... illness, in my country during the last war, so I've read the basics. His body is breaking down because the radiation's ionizing effects have damaged his cellular DNA, leading to large scale deaths among his body's tissue cells."

'Radiation', 'DNA' -- Kaede was suddenly sprouting nonsense words that Sylviane had never even heard of. With one look at the healer, it was clear that he didn't know them either.

A frantic sense of helplessness rapidly encroached into Kaede's rose-quartz gaze. Yet even as the girl faced her own approaching death, her eyes still darted around in thought, looking for an inspiration, an answer.

"Then how about... do you know what cancer is?"

"The disease that causes tumors?"

It was a younger healer from the back who blurted out, and Kaede took a moment to think before nodding.

Sylviane turned back to Sir Ariel, who replied:

"No one has ever nailed down the cause, but we do understand the disease enough to treat it."

"You can!?" the Samaran girl's eyes widened to saucers.

"The Regeneration spell works by stimulating the body's natural repair process, accelerating tissue growth by several magnitudes," he explained. "Therefore it's crucial that there are built-in safeguards to identify healthy cells while terminating diseased ones. Once the tumor is removed by surgery, a prolonged treatment of daily Regeneration spells will gradually purge the illness from the body, ensuring no repeats."

Kaede stood amazed, and for a brief moment her lips simply hung open in midair.

"Well? Can you help him then?" Sylviane stared between Kaede and Sir Ariel, irritated by her own helplessness.

"We might be able to use Regeneration to treat this illness," the Samaran girl stared at Pascal's red face. "I'd assume that the cellular DNA damage from radiation poisoning would be much more widespread. But there should still be some cells which are either healthy or able to self-repair. If the Regeneration spell could latch onto that... then you should be able to heal him."

"But," the junior healer cut in again. "Regeneration is a bio-alchemy spell and therefore has minimalistic effect on mages. It's why lost appendages for us are far more permanent than for commoners..."

The young man hadn't even finished before Kaede rolled up her sleeves and pulled off her long gloves.

"Take as much as you need," she offered her bared forearm with a determined gaze. "My blood is Samaran and I also carry his ether. You might just be able to work a miracle."

Sylviane watched as the healers considered this. Normally, mages couldn't use ether refined by another soul to craft spells. But similar to other natural metamages like phoenixes, Samaran blood seems to ignore this rule for curative spells.

"No. I cannot allow this--!"

Sir Ariel put his proverbial foot down.

"Just how many Regeneration castings do you think it would take? How many others could we save with all the blood you're proposing to risk on this gamble? We should be healing our own--"

Ariel hadn't even finished before the fuming Princess grabbed him by the collar. Pushing him back with all the strength her exhausted body could muster, she slammed him against the cabin wall.

"Listen, you ungrateful bastard. I don't care how many castings it takes! Pascal wagered everything he had, including his life, to support us in this war! Only the last second sabotage of the Cataliyans made his spell lose control! I will not have some rear-echelon bigot like you accuse him out of ignorance!"

Sylviane hardly cared that the 'sabotage' was an outright lie. She knew that Pascal most likely just lost control of an unfamiliar spell. But given the lack of information that Sir Cailean was able to gather when she sent him to investigate, it was doubtful that any proof had survived to challenge her version.

"--I expect you to do your best in treating him! Because if he dies tonight, then I will have you hanged for criminal negligence!"

The Princess wasn't even threatening. Her words rang with the finality of an ultimatum, spoken and reinforced with a death glare.

She never saw the mixed reaction as Kaede scowled behind her.

On any other day, the familiar might have considered objecting against such blatant abuse of power. But with Pascal's life on the line? She merely addressed the stunned medical staff in her kind, wispy voice:

"Just so you understand what's at stake -- if Pascal dies, then I will also pass onto the next life. And it is clear to me that I'm the only one here with any understanding of what this illness even is."

At the time, neither of them realized just what an effective combination they made.

 

----- * * * -----

 

Sylviane was still fuming as she strode away from Pascal's cabin.

That short-sighted, arrogant, racist, moronic piece of...

She would have liked to stay in Pascal's cabin, to oversee the healers as they performed their work. Yet as the Crown Princess and commander of this army -- or what little of it that remained -- she had her own duties to attend to.

Part of her couldn't help but feel envious of Kaede. In a time when Pascal hung on the precipice between life and death, it was his fiancée who should be sitting by his side and grasping his hand. Instead, not only was Sylviane useless in providing assistance, she couldn't even stay with him.

Nevertheless, she was glad that the Samaran girl had returned. If Pascal recovered, then there would be no doubt that they owe a great debt to the familiar girl.

No, I need to stop thinking like that, Sylviane chided herself. It's as Pascal said -- there is no debt when we help each other, because we're family.

With Elspeth in tow, Sylviane took some deep, calming breaths as she strode across the largely abandoned inner camp towards a great, towering oak.

It was the only tree that remained in what had once been a wooded Lotharin encampment.

Though 'remained' wasn't exactly correct. It had grown legs and walked off just like its other brethren, only to return after the battle and root itself back in. Even now, Sylviane could see the trunk's four way split, just paces before its 'legs' plunged into the ground.

The perpetrator of all this now sat on its lowest branch -- a middle-aged lady caressing a bright-blue phoenix with golden jewels on its tail.

Courtain, the lost phoenix, Sylviane sighed. So much for it being lost.

As a young girl being groomed as the Crown Princess, Sylviane had to memorize the lineages of all five royal families in the Empire, as well as the succession lines of all twelve Oriflamme Paladins. Unlike the other phoenixes, Courtain had only been summoned once in all of Rhin-Lotharingie's history.

Her master was Gwendolyn -- the Princess-Consort who deposed her Imperial-puppet husband, joined the rebellion to become the first Queen of a new Ceredigion, and later abdicated in favor of her son.

Family legend had it that she and the first Emperor, Louis the Bold, had also been lovers. However it remained a secret because Gwendolyn... was a heathen.

"Your Majesty," Sylviane bowed lightly.

Technically, she outranked a former queen like Gwendolyn. But facing a woman who should be dead centuries ago yet returned to rout an army, it was better to be respectful than to be sorry.

"Hello Princess," Gwendolyn pushed herself off the branch and landed with the catlike grace expected of most Faekissed. "You don't mind if I call you Sylv, do you? I was quite close to your Great-Great-Grandfather Louis."

Should have expected this from her kind. Sylviane sighed before forcing a slight smile:

"Of course not."

Gwendolyn should be nearly three centuries old, yet the woman standing before Sylviane still had the appearance of a commoner in her late-thirties. She stood at around the same height, with long brown locks flowing freely down thin shoulders. Her face was a bit long to fit the conventional standards of beauty. But her skin was fair, her eyes a bright spring-green, and her thin lips naturally curled in a teasing smile. Her ankle-length dress seemed too simple -- green and white with only golden strings embroidered near the edges. However there was no doubt of its fabric quality or that of her shawl.

"I thought you were dead?" Sylviane spoke as she kept her distance. Even at five paces, the Princess could feel her nose itching as fresh pollen drifted through the air between them.

I hate dealing with Springborn.

"The exact words in all the official records state that I... 'left this world with a broken heart'," Gwendolyn's smile turned melancholic. "I would know. I cast the spell to rewrite all of them myself."

That has to be illegal somewhere, Sylviane scowled.

"I don't mean to sound disrespectful, but how are you still alive?"

Gwendolyn simply shrugged.

"Once I started journeying between worlds, mortality just... seemed less interesting."

Sylviane's temple twitched as her irritation rose:

"Then why did you not help us? You're an Oriflamme sworn to the defense of Rhin-Lotharingie, are you not? How could you just forsake your vows and desert your country like that? Vanish for entire centuries?"

Her demanding tone soon escalated into anguish. Fury blazed in the Princess' gaze as she realized just how differently events could have unfolded, if only this woman had returned sooner.

"Why couldn't you have returned at the start of the war? Why couldn't you have done so a month, or even a week ago? You could have saved tens of thousands of people!"

...Pascal, Robert, Mari, and maybe even Lindsay and Father!

Water pooled into the Princess' eyes once more as she thought of all the loved ones burned by the callous flames of war.

"Why now!?"

Gwendolyn's smile had vanished. Her long face held only a stiff expression, as though declaring 'it couldn't be helped.'

"I'm no longer just a Queen or a Paladin. Those days are forever gone," she explained with a sad nostalgia in her soft meadow gaze. "I'm a Worldwalker now, and unless I wish to plunge the world into further chaos, I must follow the rules of being one."

"Stop talking in riddles! You're not making any sense!" The Princess almost yelled as warm tears began to slip down her cheeks.

Your Highness, you should consider taking a rest. You're emotionally exhausted.

Even now, Sylviane could almost still hear Mari's telepathic voice. Like any good lady's maid, Mari knew how to blend into the background and thus rarely spoke. But when she did, she always gave her advice deftly like the older sister that Sylviane never had.

Closing the distance in swift steps, Gwendolyn wrapped her arm around the younger girl and pulled her into a tight embrace. For a moment Sylviane struggled. Though as the grip grew tighter, the Princess remembered that Gwendolyn was also once a sovereign who lost family and loved ones on the battlefield.

"A mother may slap a neighbor for bullying her children. But a Queen who retaliates could bring war upon her entire realm," the older woman explained. "You saw what I did today, Sylv. What do you think would happen if a group of immortal archmages, each as powerful or even more so than myself, began a war over their respective homelands across the world?"

The first thought that came to Sylviane's mind was the massive fireball that covered a quarter of the morning skies, except multiplied a thousand-fold and stretching across the world.

"Ah--ahh--"

Gwendolyn must have thought she was wailing, as the older woman began rubbing the back of her head. However as the itch in Sylviane's nose grew past her limit, she couldn't help but sneeze into the former queen's bosom.

Thankfully, the centuries-old ruler released her and cleaned them both, otherwise the Princess would have had her face pressed into her own snot.

"Then... how long will you be allowed to remain?" The Princess rubbed her nose as she slowly calmed down.

"Two days," Gwendolyn raised her fingers. "One for every century that I haven't interfered."

The gears immediately began to churn in Sylviane's head. Just how much could they take advantage of an immortal archmage's presence and turn the tide of war in two days' time?

"...And I cannot leave the borders of Ceredigion," the woman added.

The Princess' face fell, disappointed. After all, most of the Caliphate's troops were still in Avorica and Garona.

"Please tell me you have more of a plan than just annihilating one army," she pleaded.

...And Gwendolyn, for the first time, returned a broad, unrestrained smile:

"Great minds think alike," her eyes flickered with approval. "You see, I had begun planning for this ever since I heard the story of how Kan... another Worldwalker's interference left a legacy that still protects her homeland today. Of course, each Worldwalker has a unique set of magical expertise, so copying another's work is almost impossible.

"So Sylv, do you remember what my nicknames are?"

Sylviane pressed her curled fingers against her chin.

One of Gwendolyn's nicknames was the Faerie Sword. She was an exemplary swordswoman, but also said to be a Faekissed with so much otherworldly blood that she couldn't stand the touch of metal. This drove her into excavating and studying the artifacts of the Faerie Lords. The Crysteel Faerie Plate armor that Sylviane wore right now was one of the results, along with the spells used to control the Faerie Rings that had brought Weichsel reinforcements to this front.

She said 'nicknames', the Autumnborn Princess thought. Were there any others?

Two words fell out of her mental archive after several moments of searching. However she couldn't remember the what they meant; the story attached to them had been lost.

"The Faerie Sword... and Arboreal Sanctum," Sylviane replied before raising her head upwards, her eyes staring at the giant oak tree.

An 'arboreal sanctum' certainly described the wooded realm of Ceredigion. But what did it mean for an individual?

"Right," Gwendolyn nodded. "I had three specializations in magic -- fae lore, druidic sorcery, and planar creation. Years of research into the first two resulted in the spell you witnessed earlier today."

You can't mean... Sylviane looked up at the tree with renewed awe. "Just how long will they stay this way?"

"Oh, I'm afraid they're not in some temporary, magically-animated state," the Worldwalker's grin grew wider. "I fundamentally altered them to create several newly awakened species."

Extending both hands outwards, Gwendolyn spun backwards as though dancing, until she stood beneath the branches of the giant oak.

"Sylv, I present to you your newest subjects -- the Migrating Trees of Ceredigion!"

The Princess' chin dropped and froze as the giant tree's trunk groaned, bending slightly as though bowing to her.

"Powerful, enduring, plus they produce a potent neurotoxin against foes," Gwendolyn glowed with pride. "I'll teach you how to communicate with them later tonight, so that your descendants may always coexist in mutual cooperation and peace."

 

----- * * * -----

 

Kaede felt like she was about to fall unconscious at any moment.

Laying still besides Pascal, she was so exhausted that she could barely keep her eyes open. Her lips stayed ajar to allow her weak lungs enough air. Her mind was enshrouded in a fog that made thinking difficult.

But even this was better than two hours ago when the healers had just finished. Their Invigorate spells continued to work their slow magic, while Hauteclaire kept her engulfed in his soothing aura.

Nevertheless, hints of a smile shadowed her pale lips as two consoling thoughts drifted across her mind:

One was Sir Ariel's promise that the 'operation' was successful and that Pascal would at least live, assuming continued Regeneration treatments.

The other was his dispatch that all aid tents and their patients be moved further west to leave the radioactive fallout zone.

In the meantime, the sun had long fallen, and only darkness could be seen through the windows in this cloudy night. The healers and staff had mostly departed, leaving only a medic to watch over Pascal and his familiar.

Kaede hardly noticed the sound of the cabin door creaking open. The Samaran girl only registered Sylviane's presence when the young medic bolted to her feet.

"How is he?" the Princess accosted the medic, her voice anxious despite the exhaustion in her slouched stance.

"Sir Ariel said that His Grace should make it through. With further Regeneration treatments, he might be able to recover in time. Although it would be best if he was kept comatose for at least three more days to help his body heal."

Sylviane's collapsed into a chair and breathed a deep sigh of relief as her head drooped.

"So he'll make a full recovery in time then?"

"Not... quite..." The petite medic's voice turned timid.

"I'm not going to bite the messenger," the Princess sent an annoyed stare. "Get to the point."

The young girl swallowed.

"His Grace's hands and arms had been seriously damaged by the... back-blast, or whatever this 'radiation' thing is. The skin and muscles will heal, but as you know... we have trouble regenerating ether-conductive nerves once a critical damage limit is reached. Sir Ariel believes that His Grace's sense of touch will never fully return to normal. It's possible that his arms and even legs may stay numb for the rest of his life. Still..." she glanced at Kaede, "we're working under unique conditions here.

"His facial nerves also suffered severe damage, particularly his eyes. We don't know if his eyesight will ever recover. He will be blind when he wakes up, and there is a high possibility that it will stay that way."

"You're joking," Sylviane added in a menacing tone.

The medic almost squeaked. It was obvious she was too scared to even contemplate humor.

"Have faith... Your Highness," Kaede barely muttered, her wispy words gasped out between shallow breaths. "I'm sure... that my blood... can work another miracle. Until then... he can borrow... my eyes. Besides..."

A fatalistic chuckle emerged from her lips:

"I'm sure... he'll look good... even in sunglasses."

Sylviane blinked, clearly not knowing what Kaede even meant. She then exhaled a long breath as she turned to the medic.

"Is that all?" She asked before receiving a hasty nod. "Then leave us. I'll keep watch over him tonight."

The young girl didn't wait another second. She rushed an awkward curtsy before fleeing the room.

As the door closed, Sylviane let go of an even longer sigh before pulling her chair up besides Kaede.

"Do I really scare people that much?" She asked, mostly to herself.

"Do you want... an honest answer?" Kaede smiled a little.

It wasn't that the Princess had a scary face or anything. But at times she could summon a real, royal temper that anyone who was both intelligent and valued their own head would tread carefully around.

Though for Kaede... there had never been a better opportunity to speak her mind than now.

"Thank you, Kaede," Sylviane's gaze shimmered in the dim light as she grasped the smaller girl's hand. "For being here, for everything you've done for him today... thank you so much."

The Princess brought the familiar's pale hand to her cheek, just as a single, shining tear slid out. Kaede could feel the warmth and wetness of the droplet, as though proof of just how earnest Sylviane truly was.

"Pascal always said... we're family... aren't we?" Kaede whispered out.

Another tear fell as the Princess heartily nodded.

"Yes, yes! We are!"

Guilt formed in her wisteria gaze even as an adoration for the smaller girl bloomed.

"I'm really, truly sorry for how I've treated you up until now."

Kaede's smile took on a forgiving note. Her relationship with Sylviane had certainly been rocky up to this point.

She wasn't naive though. She knew that whatever Sylviane felt now, there would always be occurrences in the future where royal jealousy would manifest once more. But if Mari and Robert's dedication for the Princess were any indication, Sylviane was also a girl who knew how to repay kindness in spades. As long as Kaede didn't overstep enough to lose her head, she should always be able to recover by leveraging their special relationship through Pascal.

"Friends?" Kaede took the opportunity to ask.

"Isn't that a given? If we're family?"

You should know better as royalty. Kaede thought, before noticing that Sylviane was also acting funny.

The Princess had glanced away. A deep red was coursing up her cheeks, and her sure voice fell to a tentative mutter as she asked:

"S-sisters?"

For a brief moment, Kaede found herself caught completely by surprise. However as the seconds passed away, she found her grin growing as wide as her exhausted cheek muscles would allow.

"Mmh, mmmh!" Her touched gaze nodded with enthusiasm.

"I'm still your senior though," Sylviane tilted her chin back up as she laid down the pecking order. "So you have to listen to me, understood?"

"Yes, Milady... or rather, Onee..."

Kaede noticed that her word simply translated into some compound Imperial term, smashed together in Germanic linguistic fashion. She would have to explain the special significance her words held in Japanese, which roughly meant 'esteemed elder sister' but implied so much more. Though even if Sylviane never understood the respect and admiration endowed in this endearing phrase, it nevertheless sent a broad smile and reassuring warmth through Kaede just to say it out loud:

"Onee-sama."

 

----- * * * -----

 

Kaede fell asleep for a few hours after that, only to awake before dawn could arrive. Rubbing her eyes with her still-weak hands, she found the room barely illuminated by a film of glowing embers that stretched across Hauteclaire.

Royal night light, she smiled a little, before realizing that the phoenix wasn't the only one who stayed.

Sylviane was still awake, sitting on Pascal's side this time as she watched over them both from the shadows.

"Milady... Onee-sama, shouldn't you get some sleep?"

"No..." The Princess sighed. "Let me at least feel like I'm doing what a fiancée should."

Kaede had no doubt that once the sun rose, Sylviane would have to leave Pascal again as she went off managing official business. Over the past week, it was mostly Pascal who managed the army's organization, while the Princess focused more on political tasks. Though with him down and out, the workload would suddenly double.

"I can help tomorrow, you know," Kaede muttered. "I may not be a prodigy like Pascal, but I did learn a few things from him."

The Princess picked up her chair in the dimly-lit shadows and dragged it around the bed, back to Kaede's side.

"I'm sure you can," her smile was grateful. "Pascal certainly finds your advice useful. Still... I'd be more comfortable if at least one of us stayed with him... Besides, I doubt you will recover from your anemia in just a few days, especially when the healers will no doubt need more blood for the Regeneration treatments."

Kaede nodded silently. She knew she should prepare herself to be mostly bedridden for a while.

"Though... there is something you can do for me," Sylviane added before pointing her casting glove, turning on the overhead light crystal.

The Princess pulled open her extradimensional belt pockets and reached into them.

"Sir Robert left you something. And with Pascal incapacitated, it's time I bring you into this council..."

Left me... something?

It was only then that Kaede realized:

"What happened to him? And Mari?"

Sylviane's body instantly froze.

Her quivering eyes were a bright red and ringed by shadows. Kaede had thought at first it was just sleep deprivation. However as the Princess' shoulders trembled yet her eyes barely moistened, Kaede realized that Sylviane had been crying by herself again.

Silent, alone, and in the barely-lit shadows, she had gone on until she ran out of tears.

She wasn't sleeping... because she can't sleep.

It was the survivor's guilt that Kaede knew all too well.

Exerting her arms' strength, the familiar slowly propped herself to sit up on the bed. Though as soon as she leaned over to give her elder sister a hug, her muscles gave away and she collapsed onto Sylviane's shoulders.

"It's okay," Kaede nevertheless soothed. "You can cry aloud. It'll make you feel better."

"You don't understand... I don't deserve to feel better!" The Princess croaked.

"They died, protecting me! For ME! Taking blows that should have struck me!"

No matter how one looked at it, Sylviane was still just a twenty-year old. Yet those thin shoulders quaked as they bore the weight of an entire Empire, a mountain of emotional strain that no individual should ever have to bear themselves.

"...And they were glad to do it, if it meant that you could live," Kaede whispered without any doubt.

"Well they shouldn't have had to! They wouldn't have had to! If only I hadn't been so mule-headed and saw reason! I could have called a retreat! Yet I didn't... I couldn't just give it all up!

"I wanted to win... not just the battle but also the country, to RETAKE the Lotharin throne!" Sylviane wailed. "And I killed them for it!"

Kaede tried to tighten her arms. But without any strength left in them, she could only settle for slowly rubbing the back of Sylviane's head.

"And that... is where you're wrong," she added as Sir Robert's sunny, heartwarming smile came to mind.

Even by the end, Kaede didn't know Mari that well. However she knew Robert. Even if he was kind of selfish and unreasonable at times, she still liked the gallant knight who would do everything in his power for the benefit of his country, his liege.

"Mari and Robert would gladly give their lives to see you on the throne. Of that, I am absolutely certain," Kaede declared. "It is your job to see that they did not die in vain. To retake the crown and rule the Empire with a righteous hand, so that their souls in Heaven may take pride and find solace."

A brief silence fell after that, and Kaede felt only Sylviane's trembling body in her embrace. Then, as the Princess let loose an animal-like cry that rapidly grew into an ear-piercing wail, it was only thanks to Kaede's earlier laziness -- having fallen asleep with her enchanted earrings still on -- that she did not lose her familiar-boosted hearing.

 

----- * * * -----

 

Outside, Edith-Estellise shed a bittersweet tear as she leaned her head back against cabin wall.

She had been taking a midnight patrol of the camp when she found Elspeth guarding outside the Landgrave's cabin with her head drooping. It wasn't really surprising after such an exhausting day. But there was possible danger that enemy agents, not to mention her former co-conspirators, might take advantage of the Princess' depleted armigers. Therefore Edith dismissed Elspeth -- with a little convincing and much insistence -- before taking up guard herself.

The cabin was almost soundproof, and Edith never heard the conversations that went on inside. However she did notice when the light turned back on, and Sylviane's sorrowful wail was so loud even the enchantments failed to completely block it.

The Crusader Saint was sympathetic, of course. Every noble worthy of their rank had lost close companions and loved ones today.

But more than that, she was glad.

No, she wasn't happy that Sylviane was suffering. Instead, she took reassurance that the Princess could feel such deep, personal pain from the loss of others.

Edith had already learned from the good healers that the Landgrave's life had been saved. His familiar had apparently came up with a way to save those dying from that ruinous spell. Though due to the high costs of Regeneration and their limited magical resources, hundreds of those afflicted would likely still die.

Perhaps His Grace should be held accountable. Although Edith believed such judgment was premature. The chaos of battle meant anything could happen, especially to the casting process of complex archmage spells. It was evident his goal was to wipe out the infidel attack wave with a conical blast, except something even he was unprepared for had occurred.

Regardless, this meant that Sylviane had no need to cry over her fiancée. Then who else would she be wailing over, if not for her guards and soldiers?

A sovereign who truly cared for the lives of her men -- that was rarer than her weight in gold.

It was yet another sign that Edith had made the right choice during last morning's aborted coup.

Thank you, Holy Father, she looked up into the cloudy skies, wondering once more just how mysterious the Lord's ways truly were.

And thank you for saving us all today.

Edith had met the Worldwalker named Gwendolyn. Heathen or not, her courteous bow before the Cross of Hyperion showed that she clearly respected the almighty Lord. Hence, there was no doubt that her coming to aid Rhin-Lotharingie was just another result of the Holy Father's omnipotent will.

Kneeling down onto the hard, frosty ground, Edith-Estellise put her hands together in a barely audible prayer:

"I vow before you, Holy Father, that I will not rest until Her Highness -- your chosen Empress -- sits upon the throne."

Closing her eyes, she felt a tear of joy and certainty roll down her cheeks.

What better sign was there that it was the ambitious Templars who sinned, that her father had indeed been just and would continue to watch over their realm from Heaven?

Edith knew that she would take the secret to her grave. Although in this moment, she couldn't help but revel:

...I'm proud to have Her Highness as my dear sister.

 

----- * * * -----

 

Leaning against the headboard next to a still-comatose Pascal, Kaede read through the parchment containing a portion of Robert's will:

"Kaede, if you are reading this, then I have already left to face the Lord's judgment. I know we have not known each other for long, and during this short time, I have already laid several unrealistic expectations upon you. Yet, as an armiger sworn to the service of the Gaetane dynasty and Rhin-Lotharingie, I have no choice but to make one last selfish request."

Cheater... Kaede thought as her gaze grew a bit teary.

Robert no doubt knew that she didn't have it in her to simply ignore his dying wish.

"Of all the people close to Her Highness, you are one of the few without even any shred of personal ambition. The Princess may still be envious and suspicious of you, however I have no doubt that you are a person of integrity. You only fear for your own life, perhaps because you do not have any of the protections that nobles like Pascal receive through their status. Well, I intend to give you a basic guarantee. It is not much, and it comes with a heavy burden; but I am certain that Her Highness will not deny my final wish.

"Would you please take my place on the Grand Council and be a voice of caution and reason to Her Highness?

Kaede looked up at the Princess, puzzled:

"Grand Council?"

"Finish reading, and I'll explain."

Her gaze returned to the parchment and saw one more paragraph:

"I also leave behind directions that may help you in this. My parents, in their recent travels, discovered a spring near a village settled by veterans. It is said that drinking from the spring helps with traumatic episodes. Father tested the water and found it to yield an unusual concentration of minerals, particularly lithium salts. Unfortunately, I have not had time to journey there myself. It is my greatest hope that this discovery will yield results to calm Her Highness' mood swings.

"I sincerely pray that you and the Princess become good friends and learn to share Pascal.

"Farewell."

Kaede's pale cheeks flushed scarlet at once. She wiped her eyes as she pictured Robert's boyish grin.

Unreasonable to the last, the familiar couldn't decide to scowl or to smile. Why should I even worry about 'sharing' Pascal!?

Meanwhile, Sylviane smiled as though she found it cute.

"He left this map attached to it," she passed a folded piece of parchment next. "Also, did Robert ever say anything... strange, to you?"

"Strange?"

The Princess looked awkward enough to fidget, as though she didn't know how to approach the topic.

"When an individual falls in combat, we look through their possessions for any mementos to be sent home. Letters, wills, valuables and private items. But Sir Robert's belongings were... abnormal, to say the least."

Sylviane sighed, and decided to simply say it straight:

"He had a lot of girls' clothes. And I mean... enough to fill a wardrobe. Definitely not just a piece or two intended for a lover. Not to mention the accessories, wigs, cosmetics, even underwear..."

Kaede's eyes grew. Thinking back, there had always been one statement from Robert that left her puzzled:

"By the way, is it true that you were a young man before being summoned?" The Armiger asked that day beneath the yew tree.

"You know -- I'm kind of envious."

Are you kidding me? Kaede thought.

At the time, Kaede passed it off as the 'psychiatrist' having psychological quirks of his own. She would have never thought that Robert... had serious transgender tendencies.

He was certainly pretty enough to pass for a girl when disguised, and it was clear from the Princess' reaction that none of his close friends and coworkers had ever found out.

"I've been puzzled about what should be done about this," Sylviane added, clearly asking for help because Kaede really was a boy transplanted into a girl's body. "Should I send this back to his parents along with the rest of his belongings?"

"No," Kaede rejected it outright. "I doubt even his parents knew."

The fact that Robert kept it with him, hidden in his extradimensional storage, highlighted how he didn't want to risk anyone finding out. After all, crossdressing was a sin by the tenants of the Trinitian Church -- a fact that had forced Kaede to adapt since her first week after coming to Hyperion.

I have already left to face the Lord's judgment, Kaede read again from the beginning of his will.

She would never find out just how much this guilty pleasure weighed upon his conscience.

"What do you suggest then?" Sylviane asked.

"Is he getting a casket burial?" Kaede questioned. Few would receive the privilege after such a horrendous battle.

"I'll make sure of it," Sylviane nodded. "But it would be the chaplains, not me, who perform his final rites."

The Samaran girl scowled. There really were no good answers.

"Then maybe we can bury him with some of the... more inconspicuous things. The rest should be burned," Kaede determined despite the ache in her chest. "I'm sure he would have preferred that we never found out to begin with."


...


Lithium salts... Kaede considered as the two girls returned to Robert's will some time later.

If her fuzzy memories from years of reading encyclopedias as part of her hobby were correct, 'lithia water' had been one of those 'weird American consumerist fads'. It was a rare mineral water that helped stabilize moods. Except the market proved yet another example of capitalism gone awry -- as most 'lithia water' produced were chemical-additive fakes that profited off ignorance, no different from many of the 'healthy' supermarket labels in the modern world.

With a reminder to herself filed, Kaede pocketed the map and returned to the much bigger question:

"So what is this 'Grand Council'?"

"It's a legal oversight committee that I am assembling," Sylviane explained as she pulled out a large roll of parchment. "When I am Empress, the last thing I want to do is have one of my episodes -- when my judgment is compromised -- and order something irreversibly harmful to the Empire. Therefore, I need a framework in place that would have the legal authority to challenge my decision-making, and not just for my episodes either.

"The idea is still very much a work-in-progress," she admitted. "There's a delicate balancing act to consider -- the Grand Council needs enough independence and legal protection so they may voice their objections without worrying about temperamental backlashes from me. Yet at the same time, there is no way to guarantee that everyone who gets in is loyal to Rhin-Lotharingie's interests. Therefore it must not allow minority factions with ulterior motives to destroy royal authority."

Kaede's pupils couldn't stop growing. She's talking about political pluralism.

The Samaran stared as Sylviane unfolded the table-sized piece of parchment. She fell to an amazed silence as her eyes took in its complex charts and paragraphs of text, most of it in the Princess' own delicate handwriting.

The 'Grand Council' effectively brought legal oversight to the monarch's powers. It was a body of up to fifty members, including:

  • Twenty Royalists, seats chosen by the five monarchs of the Empire and likely to include the four Kings and Queens. This is distributed as six handpicked by the Empress, four each by the monarchs of the larger kingdoms (Gleann Mòr and Garona), and three each by the monarchs of the lesser kingdoms (Avorica and Ceredigion). Each royalist council member will serve appointed terms of ten years.
  • Eleven Oriflammes, seats effectively chosen by the phoenixes. This included every Paladin apart from the current ruler. These members serve for life.
  • Nineteen Tribunes, seats elected by citizen voting. These individuals cannot be nobles and must have held a civil administrative position from the approved list, such as town chiefs or city mayors, for at least ten years. The various duchies of Rhin-Lotharingie will be grouped into nineteen constituencies for this. Elected terms last five years each.

Any members of the 'Grand Council' may object against certain orders from the monarch, such as new laws, edicts, and royal decrees. Two council objections would block the order and trigger a vote, to be enacted in twenty-four hours and include any council members who could present themselves, in person, within twelve hours. If the vote passes with a majority, then the motion is halted until a second vote, to be carried out one week later if the sovereign still desires it; all council members who represent themselves in person are eligible, and a two-thirds supermajority is required to overrule the monarch.

...And most importantly, council members cannot be legally detained without royal authority. They also cannot be harmed, or stripped of their rank before their term expires, without a similar council vote. Of course, this was only on paper, and provided no real guarantees against men with swords.

Kaede was speechless. There were far more details written down, including how these rules interact with the existing system of courts, mentions of possible loopholes, and ideas for closing them. But for a first draft, this document was nothing short of amazing.

It was truly as Sir Robert once said -- that "what makes (Sylviane) a little bit insane actually leaves her saner than most of us."

In an era when rulers believed themselves infallible and empires moved toward Absolutism, Sylviane's bipolar personality allowed her to recognize the most terrible human flaw. The mind was deeply biased, and it was difficult, even for the wisest of rulers, to not stubbornly adhere to only one limited perspective. Because of this, even history's most enlightened monarchs have been known to make terrible mistakes that tarnished lifelong careers.

Though by the same token, too much delegated power also risked political deadlock. From the Late Roman Republican Senate, to the infamous 'Liberum Veto' that doomed the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, to the modern day United Nations Security Council, political assemblies were always prone to manipulation and paralysis. Factionalism was inevitable, and open discontent -- like the assembly of nobles that ran the Lotharin army -- could lead to outright disaster. In the end, only a strong reformist leader could purge the tradition of corruption and bribery from a voting body.

Such was the balancing act that Sylviane faced: she needed a body that could restrain her temperamental impulses, yet not become so overpowering that it would be impossible to reform the Rhin-Lotharingie Empire.

"So, what do you think?" Sylviane asked, her expression worried. "I gave Sir Robert a royalist seat. And while I have no intention of establishing a precedent that someone could inherit another's position, I would honor his request and grant an open seat to you. Furthermore, Pascal also holds a royalist seat, and as his familiar you may act as his executor."

This meant that by acting as Pascal's proxy, Kaede could raise the two objections needed to block Sylviane by herself.

"What did Pascal think about this?" The familiar asked, eyes blinking in earnest.

Sylviane sighed:

"He thought I was making my job harder for myself."

He is a Monarchist, after all.

"Well, he's not wrong..." Kaede admitted with a head-tilt. "This will make your job more difficult."

"You don't approve then?" The Princess frowned.

"Are you kidding me?" The Samaran stared back. "I think you're a visionary!"

Not even the Magna Carta that the Westerners enshrine could pretend to be this enlightened, she thought. That was just a bunch of treasonous barons forcing the King to bow before their petty ambitions.

Meanwhile, Sylviane was looking thoroughly confused.

"Onee-sama, what you are doing here is a revolution that my world has already gone through," the familiar explained with a broad smile. "We call it 'Constitutionalism', when laws are enshrined to protect the country and its citizens from the impulses and excesses of its leaders. In essence, it creates a safety net for your governance -- to assure you of righteous action while halting the wrongdoings that your country may regret down the road."

"Then..."

"I'd be honored to accept the position," Kaede beamed with pride. "When do you plan to start putting this into practice?"

"Once we relieve Roazhon," the Princess replied with an appreciative nod and smile. "King Alistair and Vivienne already know, and I plan to tell Queen Katell and Edith then. After that's done, you can bet that Saint who follows Holy Scriptures to the letter will declare herself its enforcer."

Kaede nodded back. She could picture it now -- the two arguing over how a future law would better serve the nation.

"In that case, we better start drafting the biggest piece still missing from this."

Sylviane puzzled. "And that is?"

Kaede lifted the giant parchment and tapped it with a broad grin.

"A legal framework to amend this -- because even aside from further changes that you will want to make, there is no law that does not adapt to the changing cultural attitudes across lifetimes."

 

Next Chapter ]

Epilogue - The Stage Is Set

The weather was cloudy over Caernarfon Castle, as it often was during the winter season.

Standing on a hill at the entrance to the capital's harbor, the impressive fortification featured two layers of curtain walls molded from milky-white quartz. It was the only castle of its scale cut entirely from a single stone. Its central citadel towered high above the surrounding city, a testament to just how skyscraping the crystal once was.

The Faerie Lords didn't believe in 'construction'. Instead, their magic cultivated the earth and shaped it to their will.

Today, this ancient citadel tower -- reaching over twelve stories into the air -- served as the apex of human power in Ceredigion. Home of the Perennial Court, it featured lush, sprawling indoor gardens that took up the entirety of the eleventh floor, surrounded by clear-crystal windows from floor to ceiling.

A glass, Levitation-powered elevator climbed straight to the gardens and opened its doors. Out stepped a lady of surprisingly common bearing, except for the phoenix standing on her shoulder.

Two squads of guards stepped aside as she strode past them like the wind. Two dozen aristocrats and courtiers bowed in a wave of motion before her approach, this despite intricate garments which put her simplistic green-and-white dress to shame.

Not even King Elisedd of Ceredigion would remain seated in her presence, as he stood from his emerald throne and descended the platform to greet her.

"Queen Mother," the youthful King spoke in awe. Though she was more like his Great-Great-Great-Grandmother.

Elisedd ap Gwladys was thin-shouldered and tall, looking no older than his late twenties at most. Fair skinned with delicate features, his appearance held an elfin quality that the elegant, flowing robes and shoulder-length hair accentuated.

"Your Majesty," Gwendolyn stopped before him and dipped a perfect curtsy.

"This is... a most unexpected event..."

The King looked speechless. He clearly hadn't recovered from when the Seneschal informed him of her arrival. Nevertheless, his political training soon kicked in and lit up a beaming smile worthy of any family reunion:

"But it is a joyous one nonetheless, Queen Mother! For after centuries, you have returned to us at last!"

The secret diary of the Rhodri royal family was the only record of her truth: that their former queen left to 'travel the worlds', promising to return only when her people needed her most.

"I wish I were as optimistic, Elisedd," the Gwendolyn's polite smile vanished. "I'm back on business, and not the most pleasant kind."

The King frowned, clearly unsure of what she spoke of.

"You allowed the Caliphate into our lands without so much as moving a single battalion to stop them," the Oriflamme Worldwalker challenged. "I demand to know why."

Elisedd sighed as though Gwendolyn had just resurrected a beaten-dead horse for discussion.

"Queen Mother, the days of the Independence War are long past us now," the King gestured as he paced back and forth. "Both the Imperium and the Caliphate seek only peace with us. There is nothing to gain from upholding ancient, outdated promises to march to the Empire's banner -- especially when the Gaetane throne sees us as some backwater region only remembered when they are in need of us."

"You cannot seriously be that short-sighted?" Gwendolyn's brows furrowed as a shadow of contempt grew in her gaze. "The Gaetanes leave us alone because out of the four Kingdoms, we are the most geographically isolated and have the smallest population. But do you really believe that the Caliphate would just leave Ceredigion be once Avorica falls? Or have you forgotten those centuries after the First Imperator overran the Lotharins and enslaved entire tribes at his whim? When Imperial magistrates raped even the chieftain's wife and daughters with impunity?"

The King spun around, his lips pursed:

"Queen Mother, you've been gone for centuries. Do you even know what the Empire has become? For the past sixty years Emperor Geoffroi has expected us to support his wars -- to retake Lotharin lands in Avorica and Garona, to extend the Empire east until Weichsel's borders. We've paid in blood and money for his conquests, and for what? So he could dump the treasury building crown roads in the heartlands and boosting his own fame and revenues? What benefit does that serve us!?

"Meanwhile, the Caliph has not only offered us peace, but gold, and trade with the whole of the southern continent as well! He has even personally guaranteed our neutrality. And until yesterday when that exiled princess lured them into battle, the Caliph's armies have not molested a single Ceredigion village!"

"So tell me," King Elisedd strode back up to his throne and gracefully sat down. "Why should I risk my neck for a liege that gives me nothing, over a better man who actually respects me in return?"

Gwendolyn took a deep exhale as she nodded, slowly.

This is your mother's fault, she thought. Always fooling around with those sweet-talking bards and never paying attention to her own child.

"Yes, the Emperor's policies do seem biased," Gwendolyn began anew, her placid countenance revealing a hint of pity. "But the Lotharin heartlands also connect the four Kingdoms and serve as the breadbasket of the Empire. The crown's own demesne in the Southern Lotharingie Mountains is also abundant in timber and minerals. Geoffroi's investments has already driven down the price of food and materials in Rhin-Lotharingie -- conditions necessary to spur the growth of commerce and industry! And while trade with the south is tempting, it cannot possibly surpass those with our neighbors, bound not just by proximity but also a common cultural heritage!

"So even if -- and I say if -- the infidels could uphold their promises in the centuries to come when new Caliphs sit upon the throne, just how do you expect Ceredigion to prosper when rest of the Lotharin lands lay in beggary under a foreign whip?"

"I do NOT accept that," the young King pointed a gloved finger at Gwendolyn. "I will not be bound to some obsolete superstition that our fate must be tied to the rest of the Lotharins!"

"Superstition?" the former Queen's shoulders shook with suppressed laughter. "Have you not checked in with reality lately? We were nothing more than an Imperial colonial protectorate before the Rhin-Lotharingie Coalition threw off the Inner Sea's yoke. Since then, only the Empire's bulk has sheltered our lands from the wars that sweep the continent! Furthermore, the major powers of Hyperion -- aside from the Grand Republic -- all practice Mercantilism. They're only interested in selling us their finished goods, not supplying us with the raw materials to develop our own economy! Because of this, over seventy percent of our needs come from within the Empire..."

"That can change!" Elisedd shot back. "Skagen did it -- apart from us and the Kingdom of Gleann Mòr, they hardly even speak with the rest of Hyperion!"

"Yes, but Skagen is a naval power! They have the world's largest merchant marine and Frontier colonies to extract their resources! Even if the Caliphate and their traders were willing to fulfill our needs, they would only do so to exert their own economic dominance. It would turn us into their vassal instead, except this time on the front lines of their religious expansion!"

"Enough! Queen Mother!" King Elisedd bolted up to declare, his eyes now ablaze. "I shall have you remember that it is I who is the King of Ceredigion, not you!"

"Then act like a King!" She hissed back. "And not some ignorant child tricked by cheap sweets and promises of more candy!"

Elisedd's nostrils fumed. His knuckles clenched and twisted at his side, struggling to suppress royal impulses. Despite his youth, it was clear that the King had not suffered an insult for decades now.

"For your information, it is precisely my vision for the future of Ceredigion that made mother choose me over my brother to succeed her!"

"Yes," his Great-Great-Great-Grandmother raised her eyebrows, unimpressed. "I can see that somehow, stupidity has managed to settle into the family."

It was the last straw as the King snapped:

"This audience is over!"

"Sit your rear back down," Gwendolyn berated, summoning the clan matron of old. "This audience is over when I say it is!"

...Though Elisedd already wasn't listening.

"Guards!" He yelled, seething. "Kindly escort the Queen Mother out!"

The Oriflamme Worldwalker didn't budge a millipace. Quick glances to each side told her that even the royal armigers looked hesitant as they advanced, their faces full of doubt and uncertainty.

"You're even a greater fool than I had thought, Elisedd..."

"You will NOT address me in that way!" King Elisedd yelled as he strode down the throne's platform. "I am the King, 'Your Majesty' to you!"

"Yes, you are the King," Gwendolyn gave a tilted nod at the young man, his twisted fury barely an arm's length before her icy expression. "But I am the mother of all true Rhodri sovereigns, which gives me the right to judge your actions and be the Kingmaker."

The King's eyes suddenly bulged from their sockets. His lips quivered as a trail of blood slowly dripped out.

Looking down, he saw his ancestor's clear crystal sword buried into his chest.

The entire court was frozen in shock as his trembling gaze looked back up at his Great-Great-Great-Grandmother.

"Y-you would kill..."

"I once killed my husband to save my country," her spring-green gaze was steady and unmoving. "You're not that special."

"To the King!" Gwendolyn heard the cry emerge from the royal captain of the bodyguards, awoken from his stupor just a few seconds too late.

She pulled her translucent blade out with a splash of blood, dumping the King's body on the steps of the throne.

...And that was when the slaughter began.

Gwendolyn knew that to truly change a nation, it was not only necessary to replace the sovereign, but the entire senior administration as well. Otherwise, the interests of the old guard -- power-brokers of the crown's authority -- would simply carry over to infect the new blood.

Therefore, in her quest to change Ceredigion's state policies, she saw no reason to keep any of the current court alive.

...Not even Elisedd's pregnant wife. Especially not her. The last thing Ceredigion needed was a seed that could germinate into civil war.

Before Gwendolyn departed from the citadel, she used a broadcasting spell to emit a powerful infrasound. She had kept her entrance as low key as possible, but several castle guards and staff nevertheless met her on her way in. She had planted a triggered memory manipulation spell on each of them, her magic straining but nevertheless piercing the ether resistance of mortals. Now, without their accounts, any rumors that spread could remain nothing more than mere conspiracies.

With a deep sigh, the founder of modern Ceredigion strode into a tree on the eleventh floor. Her final thought recognized that this, was just another reason why the Worldwalkers have rules against interfering in the world.

 

----- * * * -----

 

Leaning over the war room table in the palace at Avis Avern, the former Duke and now Emperor Gabriel examined a map of Rhin-Lotharingie and its shifting war fronts.

The Central (Mountain) and Southern (Garona) Fronts had been deadlocked for weeks now, as exhaustion and supply problems forced both sides to encamp for the winter. Only in the Western (Avorican) Front did the Caliphate push forward and lay siege to Roazhon. The army of Saint Estelle -- no, it was Sylviane's now -- had retreated into the Ceredigion Forest. Then news arrived this morning that they had scored two costly but resounding victories.

The Caliphate's western thrust would never take the fortress of Roazhon by assault, not with their reinforcements routed and their elite troops annihilated. The city's supplies could withstand siege for two full years -- more than enough to hold out until a Lotharin counteroffensive relieved them.

In other words: the Cataliyan juggernaut that had caught the Lotharins off-guard had finally been stopped, at least until Spring when the war renewed itself. If the Empire ultimately triumphed in this Holy War, then these two battles would forever be remembered as the war's turning point.

It came as no surprise that the victorious news completely altered the political climate of Rhin-Lotharingie by evening.

Until today, only King Alistair of Gleann Mòr and Duke Raymond, Co-Regent of the Kingdom of Garona, had denounced Gabriel's worthiness as Emperor. Neither of them even mentioned Sylviane -- not even Alistair Mackay-Martel, whose clan always proved a friend to the Gaetane dynasty in times of need.

Meanwhile, the Oriflammes Cosette and Gervais, respectively in charge of the Southern and Central Front forces, had been sitting on the fence for weeks. They were neither willing to declare their allegiance for Gabriel, nor ready to denounce him and lose all future military support from the crown.

The pregnant Queen Katell of Avorica, depressed after her husband's death in the opening battles, had also dodged all political questions in the face of invasion. The Crusader Saint Edith-Estellise was no different, having announced years ago that she served only the Holy Father, and not the conflicting interests of Trinitian crowns.

Now, all six of them declared their public support for Crown Princess Sylviane's succession to the throne. That gave her backing from all of the front-line armies, plus three of the four kingdoms who paid homage to the throne.

Gabriel still retained control of the Lotharin heartlands and support from the northeastern Belgae lords. But even if his courting of Duke Hugh de La Tours -- whose family influence dominated the southeast, Haut-Rhône region -- succeeded, he would still be an emperor with only a third of his empire remaining.

In just one day's time, the balance of power had shifted against him.

You've done well, Sylv, Gabriel nodded at the interactive map in solemn acknowledgment. Better than anyone except your father could have guessed.

He opened the locket hanging around his neck and smiled.

People always assumed that he looked upon a shrunken painting of his wife when he did this. It certainly played into his 'devoted husband' image which earned the Church's approval. But the portrait that hung closest to his heart was not that of his devout wife whom he barely touched. Instead... it was an image of him being hugged by his little brother, both still in their late-teens.

Even back then, Geoffroi was bulky enough to dwarf him. The younger prince -- just months before summoning the phoenix Joyeuse -- had one arm around Gabriel's thin shoulders. The two of them smiled with heartfelt joy, innocent without a care in the world.

Emperor Gabriel felt his eyes moisten as he thought back to those childhood years.

What wouldn't I give to live those days once more...

Snapping the locket closed in his palm, Gabriel spun on his heels and strode out from the war room. There was no time for sentimentality. He still had a mission to accomplish, a continent's future to change.

It was his divine calling, even if the Devil might approve more than the Lord would.

But what about after that?

You've proven yourself worthy, Sylv, the Emperor smirked. Now come and face me.

 

[ Extra ChapterAuthor's Notes ]

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