"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.
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
"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.
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