"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.
"Hey you could at least..."
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."
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.
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.
"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.
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!"
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