"Where is Elspeth? I had hoped you would bring her."
Kaede heard Pascal inquire as the four of them made their way towards the nearby Garrison Headquarters. It had been the most heavily-warded building in Nordkreuz, and despite Skagen's focused bombardment the fortified stone structure managed to remain intact.
"She's out helping the townsfolk while running a few errands for me; Sir Robert is with her," replied Sylviane. "In fact, I told all my armigers to go out and make themselves useful. Mari too -- not that she would leave even if I had my meteor around her throat."
The Princess walked beside her fiancé, her sapphire-blue phoenix Hauteclaire standing regally upon the left shoulder. Her right arm held level and steady, supporting the Samaran girl who shuffled along at her other side.
Kaede felt as though she was being escorted to a dance. But for the moment, she was just glad their destination was close enough that the Princess didn't try to carry her again.
Glad and... a bit disappointed as well, as begrudging as it was to admit.
"I would be negligent in my duties if I allowed you to be rid of me that easily," a calm voice responded from behind as Pascal began casting a Farspeak spell.
Kaede glanced back at the armiger and lady's maid. Mari Annick d'Averton appeared somewhere in her early twenties, which for a Hyperien mage meant anywhere between actually twenty to over half a century old. She stood only a hint taller than the Princess at one-seventy-two (5'8"), with chestnut-brown hair that barely draped over her narrow shoulders. Her eyes were a cloudy gray, and while her face held the ideal 'almond' shape, her wide nose and freckled cheeks were just proportional enough to not be homely.
Mari wore heavy half-plate armor, although Kaede had never heard it clink. The armored maid also carried a towering kite shield shrunken to buckler-size on her back. Her armament was a classic Lotharin dual-purpose flail -- steel links ran from the rod at her side to a heavy flail-head carried behind her waist. The weighted head had vicious, stubby spikes, which could be affixed onto the rod for use as a morningstar.
"Lady Mari, have you always known the Princess?" Kaede spoke out in curiosity, breaking the silence that had began to settle in.
The maid's expressions ranged from serious to stern, which left the smaller girl convinced she was a disciplinarian caretaker of sorts when the Princess was growing up.
But the reply was instant if not somewhat terse:
"Not since her birth. I'm not that old."
"I didn't mean it like that!" Kaede almost squeaked out, which only pulled down an amused smile from Sylviane.
"Mari is a childhood friend, only six years older than me," the Princess explained. "She's been my guard since I was seven, albeit still in training back then."
"I started only a few months before that incident."
Despite her level voice, there was a strong sense of guilt and shame buried beneath Mari's words, which Sylviane certainly did not miss:
"There's hardly any need for you to remember that every time, Mari," came a soothing, if not forgiving voice. "You were thirteen, facing off against Weichsel's best. It would be unrealistic to expect any more of yourself back then."
'That incident' must refer to the raid on Silverglen Castle, Kaede concluded.
That was when the Knights Phantom marauding deep inside Rhin-Lotharingie territory captured the young Sylviane. They took her to Nordkreuz to be held as a prisoner and hostage, where she soon met Pascal for the first time.
"It would be the greatest disgrace upon me if I ever forgot such a deed Your Highness," Mari retorted. "I should have died there with your other guards..."
"--And how would that have helped me?"
Sylviane sighed after interjecting against her stubborn maid. She then stopped and turned to face Mari:
"I was going to be captured one way or another; von Mackensen had a far superior force and caught us with total surprise. What I should have done was surrender as soon as they broke through the defenses to barter for your lives. But I was just a kid back then! I didn't even realize what was happening until only you and Sir Robert were left from my entourage!"
But she did surrender in the end in exchange for Mari and Robert's lives.
Kaede couldn't help but smile as she remembered her conversation with Sir Robert the other day. It was no wonder that the young knight cared so much for the Princess' well being. A liege willing to go that far for her subjects was a ruler to die for.
"Remember Mari," Sylviane cut her maid off, never even leaving the opportunity to interject. "You're no good to anyone dead, me least of all. If you have to feel like you owe me something, then repay it by continuing to stay by my side!"
Swiveling back to keep walking, the Princess' cheeks colored as she squeezed out her final words:
"I won't forgive you if anything should happen because you were being reckless!"
Kaede never saw Mari's expression as Sylviane led her on, but she hardly needed to as the stern maid replied in the most gentle voice yet.
"Understood, Your Highness."
For several minutes afterwards, only an comfortable silence lingered between the four of them. Then...
"And done," Pascal noted as he ended the communication spell. "Elspeth and Robert will be with us in five minutes."
"They must be close by," Sylviane commented, her eyes glancing about as they made their final approach to the small keep that was the Garrison Headquarters building.
"And it looks like we might as well wait outside," he finished with a sigh.
Before anyone could ask why, Pascal strode away towards a group of five locals who came running in. They began bombarding him with loud questions as soon as they drew close, their rowdiness eliciting a subdued chuckle from Sylviane.
Why is that funny?
Kaede tilted her head as she looked to the Princess.
"Don't let the sigh fool you," Sylviane grinned back. "Pascal loves the work, though perhaps not all at once."
Looking back to her fiancé, the nostalgic smile soon spread across her countenance:
"That man is a born architect. If he wasn't the son of a Marshal, he'd have picked urban planning or industrial organization as his choice career."
----- * * * -----
Pascal ended up commandeering the Garrison Headquarters' map room -- a conference hall designed for dozens of officers, now occupied by only the six of them.
In addition to Pascal, Sylviane, Kaede herself, Mari, and the ever-dashing Sir Robert, they were also joined by the young Lady Elspeth de Martel.
Elspeth had been the one who brought news of Gabriel's treachery. She was the younger sister of Lindsay de Martel, the Highland Guard commander who fought to the end as Emperor Geoffroi's personal bodyguard. Covered by her comrades, Elspeth had been the only one who broke out of the encirclement, dodging patrols as she fled Alis Avern to bring the dire news to Sylviane.
Even now, she was still recovering from a broken arm that had gone untreated for too long. Perhaps the paranoia of having fled from death was why, at first, Elspeth looked at Kaede as though she saw a ghost.
But then, so did a few of Sylv's other armigers, Kaede pondered before pushing the thought aside.
The petite armiger seemed no older than a ninth-grader in Kaede's eyes. She was around the same height as Kaede herself at near one-fifty-seven (5'2"), with fluffy orange-brown tresses flowing like caramel-whipped marshmallows to just beyond her shoulders. Below them lay a pair of inquisitive, apple-green eyes and soft, red cheeks that begged for the Princess' prodding finger. Yet her most beaming feature was her innocent smile; as forced as it had to be given her recent circumstances, it was still sunny and infectious.
Shuffling a few steps over in anxious curiosity, Kaede came close enough to compare before pouting in silence:
Seriously? Even she's a hint taller than me!
Kaede did not find it surprising that Elspeth already wore the cerulean cape bearing the Princess' crest. Sylviane would have loved to make the cute girl her armiger, even if she wasn't already four cohorts short after the Air Battle of Nordkreuz.
Besides, those things look vicious...
The familiar girl held no doubts about Elspeth's worth as a fighter either. Sylviane had described Elspeth as 'charming, sweet, and outright sadistic in battle' to Pascal. As a result Kaede found her eyes drawn to the two dagger-like blades sheathed at the waist. Each had a sharpened hook exposed to the side, as well as an attached steel rope that trailed up to bracelets around the wrists. They reminded her strongly of the Japanese Ninja's kyoketsu-shoge, except with narrower but thicker blades designed to push through armor gaps.
I wonder how she uses them without losing fingers...
"Now that we're all gathered, Pascal?" the Princess began, her gentle voice masking the impatience beneath. "Kindly inform us why your plan involves me sitting around in Nordkreuz for several days."
"Just so you know, I was going to explain this at dinner tonight," Pascal exhaled a faint sigh as he stepped up to the map table, a rod suddenly appearing within his gloved right hand.
With a flick of his wrist, he expanded it to a telescoping metal pointer to tap on the three-dimensional map of the northern continent.
"Best as we know from Elspeth's information, Duke Gabriel de Gaetane was leading an army of fifty thousand past Lake Alise. They were supposedly on their way to the southwestern front in Avorica, when he launched a surprise attack on the Lotharin Capital of Alise Avern. The attack was spearheaded by the Knights Templar, possibly reinforced from the Holy Imperium as their Lotharin Chapters lack the numbers to meet several hundred ranking knights."
"Emperor Geoffroi was killed during the attack, alongside most of his Highland Guard, though not before inflicting heavy casualties upon the Templars," Pascal added before pausing for a moment of solemn respect. "We could reasonably claim that the Lotharin Chapters of the Knights Templar had been effectively wiped out during the engagement."
"If it weren't for that 'Holy Sword', His Majesty would have smushed that traitor too!" Elspeth added as her schoolgirl soprano ran sharp and acidic.
"The Sword of Fortitude, was it?"
"So I was told, Your Highness" she answered Sylviane, ashamed as she looked down in a mutter. "I wasn't there at the initial standoff."
"It's not your fault. I would imagine that Gabriel knew the palace grounds better than any guardsmen, after growing up there with father."
The Princess then nodded back to Pascal, signaling him to continue on.
"Our main problem is that the Sword of Fortitude had only been given in history for one purpose: to entitle the Defender of the Faith," Pascal noted as his lips twisted into a disgusted scowl. "This means that Duke Gabriel has the full backing of the Knights Templar, the Papal Inquisition, and even the Holy See in this succession struggle. And make no mistake about that..."
His gaze swept the room as he met each Lotharin in the eyes before finishing his summary with a declaration:
"War with the Caliphate notwithstanding, the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie is now also in a state of Civil War."
"Wouldn't this increase the urgency of the situation?" Sylviane reasoned as she latched on. "For every moment we wait, Gabriel will only tighten his grip on the Lotharin heartlands."
"That would normally be a concern, if the Lotharin heartlands were not already squeezed dry," Pascal countered as he waved his pointer to encircle the central Rhin-Lotharingie plains between the two Lotharin Rivers.
"These realms where royal authority held strongest are all but emptied at this stage. Since the first day of the war, Emperor Geoffroi had mustered all the reinforcements he could dispatch to the front from these regions. Even the garrison at Alis Avern had been stripped to a bare minimum. I very much doubt the towns and nobles of the region could cough up much more than some old militiamen and household guards."
"And if he tried to," Sir Robert noted as he rubbed his shaved chin. "He would only gain resentment from the commons and nobles alike."
"Precisely," Pascal nodded back as he pointed toward the Lotharin Fryslân region, west of the lake from Nordkreuz. "this means the army of fifty thousand he brought with him from the Northeast -- courtesy of his wife and House Louvain -- are all that he has available for the immediate future."
"Fifty thousand isn't enough, not to uphold the authority of the crown by might," muttered Sylviane as she caught on, her scrutinizing gaze lifting to meet Pascal's encouraging smile.
"For all effective purposes, Gabriel's victory brought him little more than symbolic gains," he highlighted. "For a throne he cannot even sit upon, Gabriel undermined his own legitimacy by committing regicide and branding himself a kinslayer. Excommunicated or not, Emperor Geoffroi's prestige within Rhin-Lotharingie is undeniable, including a solid reputation built upon decades of popular support. Furthermore, no society shall look kindly upon those who usurp power for ambition in such desperate times."
Kaede smiled a little at the thought of a pretender who couldn't actually sit upon the throne. She still remembered her astonishment when reading up on the seat of Rhin-Lotharingie power -- when she saw that drawing and promptly dropped all thoughts, her curiosity pumping every ounce of brainpower into absorbing the words that followed.
The 'Burning Throne', as it was called, did not receive its name from some mythical origin or symbolism of royal responsibility. It was known as that because the white marble seat was literally cloaked in purifying flames.
After all, only those who proved their qualities by bonding with a phoenix could ascend the throne... or capable of sitting down without being burnt by their ambition and greed.
"Therefore this marks my first point: I believe it is advantageous for us to wait for the news to spread before making our move," Pascal declared before looking to his Princess for her political insight.
With her hand curled right beneath her chin, Sylviane continued in deep thought for a moment longer before standing straight:
"You may be right. The initial reaction to my father's death will not be favorable to that 'Uncle' of mine; not under such circumstances, and not for most of the realm. However, Gabriel does have an army sanctioned by the Church, a strong base of yet untapped power, and the likely promise of crusader support to repel the Caliphate's invasion..."
"I do not have any of those," Sylviane voiced her concern as her troubled frown looked back upon Pascal.
After all, 'Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun', Kaede thought of the famous quote from the twentieth century Chinese revolutionary. Modern Republics have shown that this statement wasn't always true, but it certainly held its merits in any turbulent era.
"No," Pascal admitted. "But as Gabriel begins courting the nobles in an attempt to sway them towards his symbolic throne, the reactions of the regional lords will give us a better picture of friend versus foe."
The slight Elspeth swiveled to offer a knightly salute: her right arm leveled and bent, presenting a raised fist before her chest.
"You can always count on the support from Gleann Mòr and the Mackay-Martel Clan."
As ruler of the Glens, the Mackay Clan had been a steadfast ally of the Gaetane Dynasty since the Independence War. Generation of intermarriage between the clan and their mutual friend, House Martel, resulted in the unified Mackay-Martel Clan and an expansion of Gleann Mòr territories onto the Lotharin Plains.
Over the centuries, the Mackay-Martels have established themselves as ardent Royalists. Their 'Highland Guard' exemplified this dedication and the crown's trust in return, for the elite unit was handpicked by the King of the Glens to serve as the Emperor's royal guardsmen.
"Of course, your family has my firm confidence as always," Sylviane declared, her own hands clasping Elspeth's tiny shoulders in an expression of faith.
But it proved to be much more than just a political gesture. What surprised Kaede the most were the glistening emotions that collected in the Princess' eyes as she looked upon the petite girl as though a younger sister.
"Lindsay was almost like a mother to me," Sylviane fell to a near whisper as she spoke of Elspeth's elder sister. "Uncle of mine or not, I swear to you and your family that Gabriel will see justice for what he has done."
It was then when the young Elspeth's smile finally buckled. Tears pooled at the corner of her eyes as she bit down in self-control and nodded back at her liege. Had it not been for their official relationship, Kaede could almost picture the smaller girl throwing herself into the Princess' arms.
Feeling as though she was intruding, Kaede peeled her eyes away from the brief emotional exchange, which coincided in sharing a glance with Pascal.
"Lindsay was Sylv's combat and weapons instructor," he explained in telepathy. "You could say she even served as a role model of sorts."
...And she won't be the last of the victims when the Capital fell, Kaede thought. The most loyal and trusted retainers are also the first to forfeit their lives in the name of principle.
Her fingers still wet with the younger girl's tears, Sylviane wrapped one arm behind Elspeth's back before returning her attention to the table.
"I have no doubts of King Alistair's loyalty," the princess spoke of the Mackay-Martel leader, more for Elspeth's benefit than anyone else. "But the majority of his forces have been trapped in the north ever since the early snow sealed off the mountain passes. We may wait a week or two to observe Gabriel's first move, but surely you're not suggesting I wait until the Spring thaw?"
"Not at all," Pascal dismissed. "It is imperative that we regain control of the country -- or the Capital at least -- before the next campaign season when the Cataliyan juggernaut begins anew."
"So long as we could hold on in the south until then," Sylviane exhaled a deep breath as she stared back at the map. "If Edith had done her job in Avorica then none of this would have happened!"
The subdued reply was most uncharacteristic for Pascal. Kaede was sure he had purposefully steered clear of a confrontation in order to stay on track:
"The fact is that the Armies of Avorica, Garona, and the Lotharin heartlands are all invested in defense of the south, and I cannot see the Army of Ceredigion coming to our aid with the Avorican battlefront pushing so perilously close to their borders..."
"The Rhodri Clan wouldn't be of help even if they weren't threatened," Sylviane added bitterly. "If their King had any sense for cooperation their troops would be in Avorica already, instead of dragging his feet all this time."
"If he had three brain cells to rub together he would have done the same," Pascal piled on even more contempt. "But my point is that none of the actors in the south, west, center, and north are available to provide us military aid. We can only look towards the east."
"And the northeast is dominated by House Louvain and Gabriel's allies..." Sir Robert added, even his bright optimism fading as the potential list of supporters narrowed further and further.
"That leaves only the Haut-Rhône region in the southeast," the Princess eyed the area opposite of Weichsel's Duchy of Kostradan with a sigh, "and Hugh de La Tours."
"Duke Huge the Rotund," Elspeth piped in.
The unflattering nickname might have been funny on another day. But at this moment it evoked a wry grin at best.
"I heard his son is quite extraordinary," Sir Robert sought a glimmer of hope. "The are many who speculate that he might even become the next Oriflamme."
"A single diamond in the rough cannot shine through thickets of unspeakable muck," Pascal declared. "the once mighty House of de La Tours has grown weak over the centuries, fattened by Imperial bribes."
"But if that's our only choice..."
"He's not suggesting we court the Tours family," Sylviane cut Sir Robert's objection as she continued to scrutinize the map. "He's suggesting we go around them, to the lesser dukes of the region. Because of our tense relations with the Holy Imperium, the lords of that area maintain far more troops than usual. The Duke of Colmar alone has nearly eight thousand professional soldiers to stand off against Imperial Legions stationed across the border."
The number was admirable, until one noticed the five Purple Dragon Standards gathered in Imperial territories opposite the Weichsel-Lotharin demarcation line. Each banner represented an entire Legion, and altogether they formed a professional army of nearly thirty-thousand men.
It was apparent why the Haut-Rhône dukes had yet to dispatch any significant forces to join the war.
"What about the battalions of Nordkreuz, Your Grace? Or even that of Weichsel's?" asked Lady Elspeth.
"The Ducal forces of Weichsel are all under the centralized control of the General Staff, our commanding officers sworn to only His Majesty the King," Pascal explained the difference between Weichsel's near-Absolute Monarchy and Rhin-Lotharingie's Feudal military structure. "I do intend to petition His Majesty for an expeditionary force into Rhin-Lotharingie. But that has to wait until after our army crushes the retreating Skagen forces in decisive battle -- which happens to be my second reason for waiting."
News had arrived yesterday of General von Blumenthal's successful strike against the beached Skagen fleet. His ground cavalry force had burned hundreds of the Northmen's trimaran 'dragon boats' before a remaining third could escape into the sea. With their naval transport force destroyed, the Skagen invasion army now lay stranded on the continent with no means to escape.
"Do you think he'll agree?" the Princess voiced her doubts.
Her fiancé's response came with an affectionate smile:
"Father saved me an admirable war chest in case something happened during your early reign. King Leopold will need coin to keep the army raised for any pacification of the Skagen Peninsula. I figure I can offer him some for reliable troops."
"You're going to bribe the King?" muttered Sir Robert in a thunderstruck daze.
"I prefer to think of it as 'chartering', only a few companies," Pascal's reply came unabashed.
"I thought you said the late Landgrave was saving funds to construct a Polarity Rail? One to link Nordkreuz to Falkenstrom and the Imperium's fledgling rail network?" Sylviane asked next.
The Polarity Rail was an innovation of Hyperien Geomancy made only in the past thirty years. What little Kaede found about it in the books described it as a propulsion system using magnetic forces. Its speed wasn't impressive, and could be outmatched by riders on overland journeys. But it could carry loads far exceeding any horse-drawn wagon, as well as tap the ley lines for an inexhaustible energy source rather than burning fossil fuels by the tons.
Not being a physics major, Kaede found the more technomagic details baffling. But she did understand the economic implications of a railway system that rapidly emerged into reality, its development pioneered by the Commerce Guilds of the Holy Imperium.
"And your father was supposed to reign for another few decades," Pascal's expression stiffened. "No one could have predicted how events were to unfold. It is best to pull these funds to do good now rather than years later, and I intend to support your bid with everything I have at my disposal..."
The slight, wry twist of his lips did betray a hint of the pain that came with the sacrifice of so much economic planning -- which Sylviane did not miss as she finally left Elspeth and approached her fiancé.
However, the young landgrave never gave her an opening as he pushed the discussion on:
"But even with the King's support, we still need a Lotharin force."
"I agree," Sylviane acknowledged as she drew up alongside him, her arm pressing against his. "It would not be right for an army that marches on our Capital to consist mostly of Weichsel soldiers. Gabriel only has to point it out to make me look like a puppet controlled by foreign interests."
"Pot calling kettle," Elspeth quipped.
"Sure, but his army is still mostly Lotharin, especially after he used the Templars up like meat fodder during the opening blow."
Sylviane then strolled around the huge map table, a curled hand pressing against her lips in deep thought.
But the silence that reigned over the room lasted mere moments. The Princess soon pressed both hands against the table's other edge, her back straightened to face them in declaration:
"We must win this without relying heavily on foreign intervention, even if it is my fiancé's country. Because only then will the Lotharins see me as a legitimate victor and ruler -- one true to Rhin-Lotharingie and no other."
Pascal nodded back in firm agreement, though Kaede could feel the stab beneath his mask of self-control. It wasn't even Sylviane's fault. In the eyes of the Lotharins, part of him would always represent the influences of foreign interests, and one miscalculated step could undermine the Princess' own legitimacy to the throne.
"Which is also why we will not be seeking the support of the Haut-Rhône Dukes. We're certainly not spending your fortune on bribing them," she announced once more, completely shredding the rest of her fiancé's proposal.
It left five pairs of bewildered eyes staring at her from across the table.
"Our empire comes to dire straits, and Gabriel reveals his hand to unmask his true intent -- he is greedy, he is ambitious, and he is opportunistic. He cares nothing for the plight of the country, only a crown for himself. Well, why not let him have it?"
Sylviane glanced back at them all with a broad smile... no, a hungry grin beneath the cold flames that ignited within her eyes.
"I would rather give the crown to another Lotharin than see it at the feet of the Caliph."
"But Your Highness...!"
Lady Elspeth was still mouthing her disbelief when Pascal began to laugh:
"Well played! I cannot believe I missed that! And I am supposed to be the military expert!"
"It's because you were focused on the military that you didn't think of it," Sylviane answered, still grinning. "This is a political solution; it just happens to rely on more martial means."
"Would Your Highness please inform the rest of us ignorant peasants?" Sir Robert added everyone else's thoughts with a sarcastic touch.
"What do you think is more important to the lords and people of Rhin-Lotharingie?" Sylviane swept her gaze, meeting each of them in the eyes as her arms gestured across the map. "That a ruler of royal blood sits upon the throne? Or that our nation, our people, and our lands are kept safe from the ravages of foreign armies and and secular ambitions?"
Kaede blinked back. The answer to that was obvious.
"Let Gabriel have the throne," Sylviane went on after the pause. "Let him show the world that he cares more for dynastic struggles against his own brother than the welfare of the nation. That he yearns for the grace of the Holy Father yet turns a blind eye towards his responsibilities as royalty."
"Meanwhile, I shall show our people the exact opposite -- that I do not care for the crown, for authority, not even for personal revenge. All of those are but minor concerns in light of current affairs."
Speaking as a true heir of the Rhin-Lotharingie landscape before her, Sylviane declared her firm resolve for the journey ahead.
"The first and foremost responsibility of royalty is not to carry on the succession. It is to protect our realm, our beliefs, and our people's way of life. We shall go south -- join the front lines, blunt the invasion, and resolve this crisis that threatens all of Rhin-Lotharingie."
Light from the windows gleamed off the Princess' tiara in a crowning halo as Sylviane's final words reverberated through the regal air of Hauteclaire's burning aura:
"Then we shall see whom the people recognize as their legitimate and true sovereign."