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. The urban fortress, with its control of the rivers Hafren and Gwilen, served as the western pivot of Rhin-Lotharingie's second defense line. Beyond it 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 seize 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.
Meanwhile, Kaede could feel a surge of dark emotions trickling over her empathic feedback link with Pascal, coloring her thoughts with sour jealousy.
King Alistair 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 had 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 emotion as she grasped his gauntlet in both palms and nodded firmly. Meanwhile, Alistair returned a reassuring smile as he explained 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 logistics 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.
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 a 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 arrive with heavy infantry -- troops that the Lotharin army desperately lacked.
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.
However, 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 Kaede of steamship lounges.
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."
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..."
"Ha-ha," Kaede faked a laugh. "No, I was this size from the start..."
"Little thinner around the waist," Pascal interjected, earning him a glare before she set the topic back.
"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.
"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. I 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 falling asleep 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?
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. I don't think I've ever heard of it outside of 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 do not 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."
"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.
"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...
"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?'
But 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?"
"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?"
She 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 rotten 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.
"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.
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 screwed 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.
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.
"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.
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.
"'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."
"That won't make you happy though," the smaller girl surmised.
"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."