Kaede hardly noticed as the maid Marina brought her dinner in. Her focus was still transfixed upon the scroll-like magical map, each hand holding one of its rollers.
Vintersvend's 'World Expedition Map' -- labeled in bright gold letters on top -- was unlike anything she had ever seen. The scroll stretched no more than a Hyperion pace (76.2cm/30") in width and half as much in height. It displayed twisting rivers and jagged shorelines in an amazing degree of detail, all in vivid watercolors soft to the eyes. Furthermore, it could zoom in or out at her will, with lines shifting and colors rolling across the parchment to as fine as 1/10,000 scale, complete with topography markers and elevation lines near the maximum zoom.
The map also marked the 'current location' in red. An extra semi-transparent overlay covered all within fifty kilopaces, displaying weather effects like the wintry mix of sleet and rain descending upon the northeast.
Yet despite the impressive display features, the map was woefully incomplete. When zoomed all the way out, Kaede could see the huge masses of cloudy gray that represented terra incognita. Narrow lanes cut across the far oceans of the world and through the 'Frontier' continents, where much of the eastern coastal regions -- as much as the Thirteen Colonies, Caribbeans, and Argentina combined -- were marked as Skagen colonial territory. But the interiors of the Hyperion and Eurypha continents were largely unknown, not to mention most of Asia's equivalent in this world.
Give it another century and Skagen will have an empire on which the sun never sets, she thought.
After pressing a button she found in the right scroll roller, Kaede suddenly felt waves of ether pulled from her and into the map. The magical power requirements were enormous, straining even the rate that Pascal could resupply her through the familiar bond. But the reason behind it soon proved apparent as the map began redrawing its contents within a fifty kilopace spread.
This is an actual map of Vintersvend's travels! Kaede confirmed at last. It was so detailed yet incomplete because the late Admiral had to journey to each region for the map to magically scan and plot the surrounding lands.
"Kaede, stop doing that here."
Her eyes were still wide with astonishment as she looked up to meet Pascal.
"It's charting the surrounding lands! And even recognizing the nearby villages!" her wispy voice muttered in awe.
"I figured as much, hence I told you to stop it," Pascal repeated with even more authority, although for a moment Kaede saw hints of a cringe in his brows.
The tremendous ether consumption by the map could not have escaped his notice.
"If you are going to run a scan, do it outside, preferably on the roof," Pascal scolded her. "Cartography magic has pitiful efficiency when used indoors. You are going to drain me dry with a mapping tool that powerful. Furthermore, dinner is already here and it is in the way."
Looking to her side, Kaede finally noticed the maid Marina giving her an impatient glare.
"Sorry," she rushed to close the map scroll before putting it away in the messenger bag slung behind her chair. With the table space before her no longer blocked, Marina was at last able to place her meal on the table.
How the mouthwatering waft of the sauerbraten could have escaped her notice was an even bigger mystery.
Kaede also didn't miss the disapproving glare from Majordomo Karsten. But then, her mere existence at this table seemed to offend him in some way -- possibly because she was dining with a Landgrave and a Princess as though they were equals.
Although Kaede had to admit that she did feel rather out of place. Despite the Keep's austere exterior, Pascal's father had the public areas inside built and decorated with no expenses spared. The opulent dining room exemplified this with its huge crystal chandeliers and life-sized paintings. It was fit to host state banquets, which it probably did from time to time when the King visited, or the Emperor, or even both.
Maybe after all the Dukes and Princesses and Kings on whom Karsten had waited, serving me food is beneath him, she mulled.
It wasn't uncommon for those who serve the wealthy and powerful to considered themselves a station above peasants who lived outside such grace, which applied just as much for a modern plutocracy as it did for the aristocratic regime.
It was as if pride itself was an infectious contagion.
I hope I don't catch it myself...
With a quiet sigh, Kaede closed her eyes to take a deep breath, exalting in the aroma of the fine cuisine.
After over two weeks of 'beef jerky stew' and other bland army foods, Kaede was more than happy to leap back into the bosom of civilization... even if it meant a return to social stratification.
"I have missed this so much," Pascal reflected her own thoughts from the head of the table as he breathed in the smell of his cheesy beer soup.
"Why couldn't you just manage your own food during the campaign?" Sylviane asked from her seat across the table from Kaede.
The Princess had changed before dinner into a velvet evening gown in royal blue, with delicate lace framing her narrow shoulders and silken gloves hugging her thin arms. It made Kaede wonder just how often the Princess came to Nordkreuz to justify outfitting a wardrobe here.
"The army's policy is no special treatment in regards to anything concerning logistics," Pascal explained. "We have too many nobles in the military. If everyone demands this and that of their own, even the most efficient supply train would be overburdened. So to remove any potential conflicts, our founder King Ferdinand wrote it into the Writ of Universal Conscription that everyone receives the same bland rations in the field; with priority based on military rather than social rank if supplies fall short of needs."
"I think that was wise of him. After all, logistics is not only the backbone but also the ball and chain of warfare," Kaede appraised, modifying yet another famous quote for her own needs.
Her Russian half was well educated in this. Popular opinion might think that the infamous Russian winter was the destroyer of conquering armies, as men always blamed nature for their own failures. But in truth, both Napoleon and Hitler's invasions failed because their logistical preparations were woefully inadequate for campaigning across a realm as massive as Mother Russia. By the time either reached Moscow, their men were already lacking in food, ammunition, shelter, and fuel. Without adequate warmth and nourishment, any harsh blizzard would take its toll, let alone a Russian one.
Hence why the only outsiders to succeed in an invasion of Russia... were the Mongols.
With her napkin set in place, Kaede prepared herself to dig in. Her Sauerbraten beef roast was flavored with red wine and raisins in Rheinischer style. She also had potato dumplings, white asparagus with Hollandaise sauce, and as always -- more sausages, even as a side.
I swear Weichsel has a wiener obsession, she commented to herself. Her fork raised and ready.
"Not so fast," the Princess stared with disapproval. "I don't know how your world's God prefers it. But here in Hyperion, prayers first."
Kaede put her utensils down again with an impatient scowl. Her meal was about to taste a minute colder through no fault of her own due to the gross religious tyranny against her freedom of... ingesting. As such, it should be within her right to protest by adorning her head with the holiest symbol of the pasta gods: the colander.
But then, she doubted the Almighty -- whatever form he or she might take -- would approve of her being disrespectful of others practicing their own faiths. After all, there was no holy text that claims 'thou shalt be an intolerant cur'; not even the Abrahamic ones, despite the popular notions of their more zealous believers.
"Are you actually religious at all?" Sylviane asked as her delicate fingers gracefully cut her meat into slivers. She then offered the first one to the phoenix perched atop the back of the adjacent chair. "I don't think I've ever seen you pray on your own accord."
"The Flying Spaghetti God encourages us to express our God-given free will and see to the health of our conscience, unchained from the yoke of any unnecessary religious indoctrination."
Kaede completely made that up. She didn't read any of the supposed 'holy texts' from the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But at this point, she was far too deep into the joke to back out of it.
Pascal would find out some day... when she was in the mood to explain it all.
"I still find it hard to believe that God could be named with such wording, even by a religion as heathen as yours," the man himself reminded her of why she couldn't bring herself to say the truth, before replenishing his own mouth with alcoholic foods.
"Maybe Imperial just doesn't have the right terms to translate 'Flying Spaghetti' any better," Kaede shrugged back, faulting linguistic differences for the common 'lost in translation' phenomenon.
That evoked an inward frown from Pascal as he considered the translation magic he built into the familiar bond. But the knowing gaze that stared back from Sylviane meant that the Princess wasn't deceived for even one second.
I need to be careful around her, Kaede warned herself. Career royalty are far too good at reading people.
But at least this time, Sylviane dropped the topic without a word. Instead, she turned towards her fiancé:
"You're also not used to dealing with weird religions. After that blasphemy I once heard from an Albigese priestess, I'm sure people -- even the sane ones -- are capable of chalking up just about anything."
Kaede had stumbled across the word several times in her readings. But as Weichsel banned all unsanctioned religious material, she didn't have a clue of what that word meant other than being synonymous for heretic.
"They're an entrenched heresy in the Kingdom of Garona," the Princess explained without even an attempt at holding back her derisive tone. "They believe that the Old Testament and everything written within, including the creation of the world, was the work of the Devil."
"Crazy fools," Pascal jumped in on the mockery himself, before adding a little fairness:
"Although you have to admit, the Holy Father did change quite a bit between the Old and New Testaments. He was so vengeful and full of wrath in the older tales -- the very antithesis of our merciful Savior."
"It is not our place to judge our creator," Sylviane sent back a harsh glare. "I suggest you refrain from such blasphemy, especially in public."
Those words shut Pascal up instantly, leaving him more than a hint disgruntled.
Now you know how I feel, Kaede held back the urge to smile.
"Perhaps the Holy Father did change. But then -- which father doesn't change for the better, when they experience the raising of their own child?" the Princess continued with the serene conviction of a true believer. "Though I can see why the Albigese might interpret it wrongly, given how the Old Testament might clash with many of Hyperion's teachings about virtue and sin. Hypocrisy is seen as the work of the Devil, after all."
Which explains why the Church is full of it, Kaede muttered in the safety of her own mind.
"But since the days of creation is part of the Old Testament, the Albigese also believe that the physical world itself is tainted by sin. This includes our bodies, as we're all supposedly angelic spirits trapped by the flesh of evil -- now that's far too much to swallow, even for me," she finished with a disgusted look.
"I'm surprised you have to deal with them at all," Kaede added with her own food held in midair. "Isn't Rhin-Lotharingie a Trinitian realm?"
"Only predominantly," the Princess sighed, releasing some long buried exasperation. "I wish it was wholly Trinitian. It would make my job much easier."
"The Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie was born from a coalition of rebellious forces who rose up against the Holy Imperium's attempt to enforce Trinitian conversion," Pascal noted as he stirred his thickening soup. "When an empire begins like that, its laws and rulers must learn to accept religious differences from the very start."
"Quite, although other factors like taxes raised for the war against the Caliphate and cultural encroachment were also major contributors," the Princess clarified. "Religious Autonomy is one of the few common laws within the Empire -- the regional lords are allowed to choose their own religious leanings. For example, there are several duchies within the Kingdom of Gleann Mòr that still openly worship the Northmen's pagan gods, not to mention the druidic minorities in the Kingdom of Ceredigion."
"Practicality over piety then," Kaede noted as she stabbed a sausage. "No wonder why the Pope dislikes your country."
Sylviane simply nodded back as Pascal sent his familiar a knowing smile.
But as Kaede brought her fork up and bit into the veal, the Landgrave froze in his seat. His turquoise eyes trained upon her with an incredulous stare.
"Kaede -- what, are you doing?"
"Eating a sausage," she answered, rather bewildered at the sudden shift in behavior.
I guess I forgot to cut it first. But still...
There was no reason to stare at her as though she spontaneously turned into an octopus, except it only grew worse when she brought the fork back up for another bite.
Even Sylviane was staring at her now, although more annoyed than astonished. Meanwhile the Majordomo Karsten -- who had been pouring some wine for the Princess -- looked a mix between flabbergasted and petrified by an eldritch horror.
"That look is kind of... obscene."
Without actually biting down, Kaede pulled the meat from her lips and examined it.
"It's a sausage."
"Way too many inappropriate undertones, apart from being just plain rude," Pascal scolded.
What, because I have a phallic object sticking out of my mouth? Can social conventions learn a little maturity please?
"I used to do this all the time," she defended herself, even as the sausage was set back down to the plate for knifing.
"Maybe as a man. Never do that as a girl in public."
Pascal ordered in that stern, final voice of his, to which Kaede put her hands down as she heaved a heavy sigh.
Girls have to watch their appearances way too much.
----- * * * -----
Kaede was rubbing her stomach as she walked around the halls after dinner. It was yet another downside of becoming a girl, and a petite one at that. She could no longer stuff down entire plates when facing a scrumptious meal. In fact, she couldn't even finish all of the modest servings brought before her.
First world problems, she chided herself.
Thousands of survivors in the ruined city outside had nothing more than stale bread and cafeteria soup, yet here she was complaining about overindulging in delicacies. At least none of the masterful cooking would be wasted, as Kaede made sure any leftovers from the household would be sent to the downtown kitchens. She even petitioned Pascal to pay the staff extra if they were willing to help out inside the city.
Nevertheless, Kaede's normally flat stomach did sport a small and uncomfortable bulge tonight. Hence she strolled about the Keep's carpeted stone hallways, hoping to hasten digestion before turning in for the night.
I probably should watch my food intake.
The female metabolism was considerably lower than that of males by nature. Combined with her smaller stature, lower muscle mass, and a lack of aerobic exercise routine, it was extremely easy for her to overeat compared to what her body was capable of burning off.
...The last thing she needed from Pascal was a patronizing lecture on 'getting fat'.
"Evening," Kaede raised her hand in greeting as she passed two maids walking the opposite way.
She received two curtsies and fake smiles in return, but not a single opportunity for friendly conversation.
Nor did her keen hearing miss the whispers that emerged as soon as she was out of conventional earshot:
"Can you believe the little harlot received a Knight's Cross?"
"Maybe she has redeeming traits after all," said the other maid, leading Kaede to hope that she might finally gain a bit of acceptance.
"Oh she's brave all right. She has to be to sleep with a Princess' fiancé. I bet you that when the His Grace gets married, her head will be the first to roll..."
Kaede sighed again as she stepped up her pace, hoping they would leave her actual earshot as soon as possible.
Stupid servants. Who cares about what they think, she tried to convince herself.
Events in real life always proved wishful thinking wrong in the most unpleasant way.
The problem was: part of her was afraid of exactly what they said. Perhaps the Princess really was just tolerating her for the moment, and would seek to remove her as soon as they tied the knot in the eyes of God. Nothing brought cruelty out like jealousy; and in a world like this, facing the guillotine might even be a 'good end' compared to, say, being vanished off onto the black market as a slave.
No, no, Kaede closed her eyes and shook her head. I can't think the worst of people. It's neither fair nor right.
Besides... a smile prodded her lips as she thought back to the day's events, the warmth in her cheeks returning as she remembered how the Princess carried her through the town.
She is trying to be nice.
Kaede stopped by a window at the edge of the hallway's turn, one of those upper class Weichsel windows with beautiful stained glass framing its transparent center. Exerting her meager strength, she managed to open it to the icy winds outside. The cold air billowing in from the lake stung her cheeks. But at the same time, feeling the refreshing chill, listening to relaxing waves of Cross Lake washing ashore -- it was exactly what she needed to calm her conflicted thoughts.
Thankfully for her small shoulders and even smaller hands, her self-heating garments continued to keep her body at a soothing warmth.
Kaede wasn't sure how long she stared absentmindedly into the pitch darkness above the cloud-covered lake. But when she finally began to close the window, she heard an odd retching noise coming from the down the hallway, faint even to her familiar-enhanced senses.
She silently crept down the corridor, trying to keep her steps as soft as possible. By the time she reached another bend in the hallway, she heard the heavy steps of someone emerging from a nearby room.
A quick peek around the corner left her astounded. It was the Princess, her sickly countenance white as paper, while Lady Mari lead her out of the doorway.
"Ughhh... I hate this feeling," Kaede heard Sylviane's miserable groan.
"Perhaps if Your Highness stopped doing it," the lady's maid replied in her ever composed tone.
"That's easy for you to say. I wasn't born with good metabolism you know, and I certainly don't need to hear anyone else mocking me for my appearance, ever... least of all Pascal."
Kaede was a hundred percent certain that she shouldn't be here. She definitely shouldn't be hearing this. But at this point, any movement from her was more likely to give her presence away.
"I don't think His Grace would deride you about something so shallow," Mari countered. "He has never said anything ill about your looks. Quite the opposite, from what you have told me."
"Maybe not, but I don't want to be an embarrassment for him to stand next to either..."
Sylviane then paused to take a few deep breathes.
"In any case, we've been over this a hundred times. Just help me back to my room, then get me something to drown this wretched taste out of my mouth."
Neither said anything after that, and the pair of footsteps began moving down the hallway in the other direction.
Only when Kaede heard their steps traverse far down the hall did she let go of the breath that she unconsciously held. Peeking across the corner once more, she confirmed they were gone before thinking to herself:
She threw up. Intentionally. And not for the first time.
Sylviane's appearance might not be exceptional, but she did have the slim figure that girls in well-fed societies sought as the epitome of beauty.
Kaede did understand why people turned to such ends. Many girls in Japan were borderline if not outright anorexic, pressured by the demands of society and unfair gender expectations. Except, for Sylviane, not touching her food was hardly an option. After all, she attended a lot of banquets and feasts with men -- who are blessed with high metabolism in their youth and tended to run loose with weight as they aged.
But still... does Pascal know about this?
Just as she thought his name, Pascal's telepathy homed in through their bond:
"Try not to think negatively of her for it."
"I'm not," Kaede chased away her condescending urges, only to start fuming: "And were you using my senses without permission again?"
"Only a peek. Sorry," he apologized immediately. "You had sent quite a shock across the empathic link. I had thought you might have been in danger from something."
Kaede couldn't even get angry when he put it like that.
"You're forgiven then. More importantly, how long have you known about this?"
"Since her third visit to Nordkreuz -- when she was twelve, I think?" Pascal pondered. "She was really sensitive about her looks growing up."
"I can imagine!" Kaede almost said out loud. "So she's been doing this for at least seven, eight years already? It's a really unhealthy habit!"
"I think she already knows that; although healing magic goes a long way to patching up any damage to her throat. Either way, I am not going to scold a girl about her eating or dieting habits when she has a complex over appearances. People may think me insensitive, but I am far from downright stupid."
"Besides..." Pascal continued on. "She has enough pressure on her without me nitpicking her bad habits. None of us are perfect, after all."
"Far from it," Kaede agreed.
To administer an empire as fragmented and complicated as Rhin-Lotharingie... it really was too much of a task for a girl fresh out of her teens to handle. Under the circumstances, Sylviane was already taking far more upon her thin shoulders than anyone has the right to ask of her.
Although... Kaede's mind took a sharp turn as her tired subconscious grappled for something less exhausting to think about:
"Does that mean you won't complain if I put on a little weight either?"
Except Pascal held no such leniency towards her:
"Certainly not! If you get fat, I am dragging you away from your books and putting you through the reins myself!"
----- * * * -----
"How was your experience on campaign, Milady?"
A sigh emerged from Kaede as she plopped down on her queen-sized bed.
"I know you like to rub it in, but please stop calling me that."
Having a personal maid prepare her for bed felt weird enough. The 'lady' part... that was too much to bear, especially when the overabundance of laces, ribbons, ruffles, and pearls decorating every comforter, cushion, and curtain reminded her with every glance.
"As for the campaign, let's see: I got knocked unconscious again, lost a ton of blood, murdered dozens in excruciating manner, watched several people I care for nearly get killed, witnessed an attempted coup end with a bloody execution... have I mentioned that war really sucks yet?"
Kaede felt her eyes narrow at Marina's silent chuckle at her complaints.
Sometimes I wonder if this really was a good idea.
"You did receive a medal for it, and helped His Grace gain another promotion," Marina added with a smile.
"Whole lot of good that's doing me," the familiar girl muttered bitterly as the scene in the hallway replayed itself.
As the maid's expression faded away, Kaede realized that it had been a legitimate attempt at encouragement. It was further proof that her once-friend and once-enemy wasn't completely against her either, so at least some efforts did pay off.
But the relationship that resulted... well, it's complicated.
...And judging by the atmosphere, awkward to boot.
"How was your past half-month?" Kaede returned the cordial attempt at conversation as she sat back up.
"Well, you know," Marina played up her aloof nonchalance as she folded away Kaede's uniform. "When you're a known criminal, people are just dying to warm up to you."
This exchange between them was clearly going swimmingly.
"Sorry," Kaede offered the only word she could think of.
It evoked a deep exhale from Marina, as the petite maid stacked the folded uniform on the lounge chair before sitting down next to it.
"It's not really your fault. I don't blame you either..."
Kaede found her eyebrows arcing. Not only did she find this doubtful, it was also a rather dramatic switch from the last time they spoke.
"Alright... I do," Marina admitted. "But I really shouldn't."
A brief but awkward silence followed, lingering for a near half minute before Marina continued on:
"I've had a lot of time to think over the past two weeks... about everything you've said to me. And I sort of realized that I wasn't being fair. I did my duty, and I felt justified in performing it. But by the same token, you were just doing yours -- or at least, your duty if you believe that your true calling is to be a familiar to some pompous lord."
Kaede's twisted her lips as mixed emotions rose up at that.
Sure, she had promised Pascal that she would 'always be his familiar'. But in her mind, the word had become synonymous with 'family' and 'partner'. To hear it in the derisive way that Marina spoke...
"Then was your 'true calling' to be a spy?" the familiar girl countered, tit for tat.
The tears that sprang up in Marina's sea-green eyes didn't make Kaede feel any better. In fact, it was quite the opposite, and not even her self-reminder that Marina excelled at... well, crying, kept the image from slipping right past her defenses.
She must have heard that word aplenty in the past weeks... just like how they still call me a harlot and whore.
"Sorry, that was unkind," Kaede muttered as she looked down, ashamed of herself.
"What I meant to say is that while our roles may not sound glamorous, it doesn't mean that they are not crucial to those we care about." Raising her eyes to connect once more, she then rushed to add: "Not that I'm encouraging you to return to the service of someone so willing to throw your life away."
"How do you know His Grace is any different with you?" Marina rebutted. "He certainly didn't hesitate to drag you into the carnage of war."
Recalling his lecture after the Battle of Nordkapp, Kaede smiled back with confidence brimming in her reply:
"Pascal isn't a good enough liar to fake the concern and worry he has shown... at least not to me."
Marina could only stare blankly in response.
If her master did care enough for her to offer a ransom, then neither of the girls had heard about it.
"At any rate," Marina began once more after a brief pause. "I just wanted to express that from now on, I'll at least try to be nice. Mister Karsten had pointed out that you've shown me far more kindness than I deserve from you... and given our positions, I have to admit that he's right."
Kaede wasn't sure what she found more surprising: that Marina was openly expressing gratitude, or that Karsten said something nice about her behind her back. But then, she already knew that Marina had strong, personal ethics given the devotion to her prior benefactors.
It was the Majordomo whom she needed to give more credit to.
"Even if the other staff are mocking me for being a 'lady's maid' to..."
"Me, who is anything but a proper lady," Kaede filled in for Marina when the maid struggled to find a non-derogatory expression.
"You shouldn't mind too much," the Samaran girl consoled. "They're just envious."
A lady's maid was a rank up from housemaid, regardless of how noble the lady might actually be. Kaede wouldn't be the first commoner to join an aristocratic household in this world, nor would she be the last.
Besides, she was now the proud bearer of a Knight's Cross. Even if it might not earn her instant respect from everyone, it was proof that the King himself saw it fit to bestow upon her the lowest rank of nobility for her services to the country.
"That's easy for you to say. You're not the one who works with them every day, or sleep in the same corridor."
The maid then sniffled as her fingers tried to wipe the tears away.
"But... I guess that's to be expected even if you didn't offer me this position," she admitted. "And you have made my workload far lighter, so that when I do help at Mister Karsten or the others' request, some of them actually show me appreciation and kindness."
Kaede offered a wry smile in response. It wasn't easy picking up one's life after falling so low. But she was glad to help, at least a little.
She reached out to take the maid's soft hand, resolved to risk the proposal that had lingered in her mind since this afternoon:
"What do you think about coming to Rhin-Lotharingie with me and Pascal?"
The maid blinked her tear-stained eyes, once again caught off-guard by the unusual girl from another world.
"It's completely optional," Kaede added, just in case the Geas spell on Marina tried to intercede. "But hey, it's not unusual for a lady's maid to journey with her 'lady', right?"
"It is for an indentured servant..."
"But if you come at my request, you'll still be fulfilling your oath of service," Kaede beamed. "It might be more dangerous, but it would also be more interesting and refreshing than being confined in this place. Besides, nobody else we meet will need to know your background or show contempt towards you. Pascal is certainly not the gossiping type."
Marina was still recovering from the surprise when an idea struck, leading her to narrow her reddened eyes:
"You're not thinking of using me..."
"As a spy?" Kaede realized immediately, her hands reflexively rising to wave 'no'.
"I did think of it," she admitted. "But I swear that wasn't my intention in asking you. Sure, opportunities might arise, and I can't guarantee that I won't raise the topic. But I promise you this: I will not force you to do anything that you feel uncomfortable with, or undertake a risk that I would not be willing to take upon myself."
Staring back at the maid's downcast, worried gaze, Kaede felt her stomach twist in anticipation, concerned that she might have ruined the best opportunity she had thus far at patching up things with her first friend in this world.
"I guess that's more than fair," Marina said at last, eliciting a sigh of relief from the other girl.
"Though I am surprised... you're not afraid I might send a message to my former contacts? With the current political atmosphere, the Mantis Blades would still be interested in His Grace's death."
"A little, sure," Kaede conceded. "But all trust starts somewhere, and I want to be able to trust you."
"Because you're a loyal individual with strong principles in repaying kindness with kindness," the answer came without even a moment of pause. "And because you're my first friend in this world."
Breathing out an exasperated sigh, Marina lit up a sunny, or at least mostly-sunny smile -- one that Kaede had not seen since before the assassination attempt.
"You know if you keep being this naive, someone will betray your expectations eventually."
"Perhaps," Kaede shrugged it off. "But I'd rather be wronged by fate than live in paranoia of the world."
The cloudy skies between them haven't departed. But through the light of optimism, a rainbow of hope had at last bridged their understanding.
"Oh, I did forget to tell you one thing," Marina remarked just before she was about to leave, after Kaede had tucked herself into bed.
"His Majesty was here until two days ago -- not surprising since Nordkreuz was the army's main assembly point this war. But about a week ago, Cardinal von Lanckoroński also traveled up here."
"The Chancellor?" Kaede puzzled. "What was she doing out here in Nordkreuz? It's not like they don't have long-range communications, and she already has the authority to run Königsfeld's civil administration in the king's absence."
"I don't know," Marina shrugged. "But it couldn't have been too complicated, since she left within two hours. She also met His Majesty in the study alongside Colonel von Falkenberg, commander of the Black Eagles -- which meant it was probably a sensitive if not secretive topic."
Kaede still had no idea where this was going. It was interesting, sure, but not the least informative to know that the Chancellor arrived for a special meeting with the King and his spymaster.
"I thought you might want to know that, since His Grace took a major role in the 'Manteuffel Incident'," Marina referred to General von Manteuffel's treasonous declaration which resulted in his immediate execution. "The Cardinal-Chancellor was von Manteuffel's nemesis after all, so I very much doubt the two events are unconnected."