"Milady! It's morning! Time to get up!"
A miserable groan replied to the shouted greeting as 'her ladyship' sank deeper beneath the plush comforter.
Marina felt her lips curve into a teasing smile as she eyed the cream-white hair that covered the exposed island of Kaede's head. The Landgrave had ordered her current task: to wake his familiar up for their scheduled breakfast time. The official reason had been to maintain good lifestyle habits and keep her biological clock 'campaign ready'. Though for Marina, the opportunity to torment Kaede soon pushed such rationale aside as she peeled the bedcovers away from the small girl's meager grasp.
"Come on Milady! Breakfast is ready!"
The head retreated further as Kaede curled up like a ball beneath the bedcovers, leaving behind waves of silky hair scattered across the embroidered pillows. But the maid pursued without mercy as she yanked the comforter down to the familiar girl's waist, exposing not only the fluttering eyelashes to the bright sunlight pouring in, but also the delicate skin on her back to the cold morning air.
This is kind of fun, Marina thought with a wide grin, reveling in her moment of clearly defying her lady's wishes yet getting away with it.
With a sharp, startled intake, Kaede immediately twisted herself face up, burying her back against the bed. Her thin arms rushed to cover those narrow shoulders, left bare by her white halter top.
"Uuuuu," she blinked open her teary eyes. Her whole body shivered as more wintry air wafted in from the opened window. "You... you're evil."
"I'm just obeying your master's orders," Marina smiled sweetly, finally letting go of the comforter which her lady hurried to pull up.
Marina did feel a hint of remorse as she gazed into Kaede's bloodshot pupils and noticed the dark shadows under her eyes, but it was soon swept away by her sense of fulfillment. The maid hadn't been lying last night when she spoke of her gratitude, though such logical understanding also didn't remove an urge to exact some measure of reprisal. She couldn't seriously wrong Kaede without feeling guilty. However, since Marina had suffered many emotional downs after that botched mission, it seemed only fair that she could torment the girl a little for her own amusement in return.
...Especially when there was an rare opportunity to do so without triggering her curse.
"Yes yes I know, now would you close the window please!?" Kaede scowled as she huddled under the bedcovers with her only face and her fingertips exposed.
"Aren't your garments enchanted?"
"They keep me from being cold, but they don't stop my skin from feeling cold when that icy wind is blowing straight in!"
With a smile still stretched across her lips, Marina walked over to the window and shut it tight. She had to rub some heat into her own hands afterward, but it had definitely been worth it.
"Didn't sleep well?" the maid finally let some concern -- only half-faked at that -- work its way into her voice.
"Same nightmares as yesterday," Kaede mumbled as she sat up in bed, her drooping head propped up by both hands as though it was too heavy to lift.
"From your experiences on campaign?"
"From my first battle, yes," the familiar girl noted before emitting a deep groan. "I had thought they passed after the first two nights."
"Maybe the change in sleeping arrangements made your rest uneasy?"
As Marina passed her neatly folded clothes, Kaede sighed before raising her head up properly. However, the words that followed were even more depressed than before:
"That's what I'm afraid of..."
----- * * * -----
Upon her entry into the stately dining room, Kaede found it a sharp contrast to last night. Rather than a small, private meal, over a dozen chairs now surrounded the long table. Pascal continued to occupy the host's seat at its head, with Sylviane to his right at the place of honor. All nine of the Princess' armigers followed; their seating wrapped around the far end, and their silver utensils clinked merrily as small subgroups chatted away.
Seated to the host's left were two completely unexpected guests, one of whom was in deep conversation with Pascal over the city's recovery efforts and its economic needs.
"Parzifal, Ariadne! It's good to see the both of you!"
Cheered by the unexpected surprised, Kaede walked by the two of them before claiming the only unoccupied chair -- just left of Lady Ariadne.
"You are late," Pascal reprimanded, before his brows furrowed upon meeting her gaze. "And you look terrible."
"And who's to blame for that?" Kaede retorted through their private telepathy as she sat down. "You can cast your cosmetics after I've had some breakfast."
Sir Robert sent her an energetic grin from across the table, and Kaede returned it while trying to quench her thought of just how handsome he looked. Though her neighboring friend soon drove that unease away: brushing back soft pink tresses with matching fingernails, Ariadne beamed a serene, welcoming smile of such elegant perfection that it left Kaede with a captivated blush.
...Which unfortunately lasted hardly a second before the Princess knocked her out of it with a strict, 'watch your manners' glare:
"Lord Parzifal is the Duke of Mitterfels now."
"Though you're always welcomed to call us by name, Kaede."
Parizfal's genial smile gave her a brief -- and thankfully suppressed -- urge to stick her tongue out at Sylviane. Although a concerned frown soon clouded away his beaming joy:
"Having trouble sleeping again?"
"Afraid so," Kaede sighed softly as she looked at the jam-filled pfannkuchen doughnut placed before her. Despite the comment to Pascal, her dull headache left her stomach with zero appetite to speak of.
Probably a good thing, she thought to herself. Deep fried pastries are terrible for me anyway.
She did notice that Sylviane had also set her own untouched doughnut aside, and Ariadne had done the same after scarcely a bite.
"Could I get a coffee and some milk please?" Kaede asked the nearest footman, who had just added a plate of bread, smoked ham, leberwurst, and salami to the table.
The reply was professional and courteous enough, despite the astonished look he returned. Clearly coffee was not a common breakfast drink around here, or at any meal, now that she thought about it.
...But it is available enough to be stocked.
"You have pretty expensive tastes," an armiger with dark, curly hair added from her left. He was another attractive young man hand picked by the Princess, this time with the most impressionable dreamy blue eyes.
...Although Kaede could almost hear the phrase 'for a commoner' attached to his words, graciously said or not.
"It's fairly common where I'm from," she gave a plain reply, too tired to lecture him about the benefits of globalism on trade that a progressive society -- with its higher labor wages and larger middle class -- helped to bring forth.
"I thought Samarans were immune to coffee?" Sir Robert joined in from across her as he sent a dissuading glance to his comrade.
Kaede wanted to slam her head into table.
Of course she was immune. Her Samaran blood was intent on flushing out all harmful chemicals as well as those abnormal to her biology or diet, and caffeine was just another psychoactive drug. Unfortunately for her, even in this world Russia was nowhere near the Coffee Belt.
"Not all of coffee's effects go through the bloodstream," Parzifal turned from his conversation with Pascal to add, his medical training engaged by the conversation. "Besides, not even Samaran blood could instantaneously cleanse foreign agents."
"Hopefully a brief buzz is all my headache needs," Kaede muttered sadly to herself.
The end result actually proved better, as Kaede nursed the mug of steaming coffee between her hands and let receptors in her nose do the work. She wasn't sure if caffeine could actually transmit by smell alone, but her brain certainly felt empowered as she breathed in the rich aroma, savoring every moment of it with closed eyes.
"How is your family doing?" she then heard Pascal's voice open up a new topic, and a sensitive one at that.
"Not great," the reply from Ariadne seemed not only careful but... wary. "The King's Black Eagles cleared my family from any involvement in the 'Manteuffel Incident', but that doesn't stop the chatter among the aristocracy or even the ranking officers and men."
"They're just gossip. You shouldn't pay them any mind," Parzifal comforted as he reached out to take her right hand, squeezing it in support and trust.
Pascal nodded in firm agreement as he took it two steps further:
"The investigation had already reached its verdict. Those who speculate further without evidence are nothing more than rumormongers devoid of personal integrity."
Though Ariadne more or less ignored him as she smiled appreciatively back at her fiancé.
"Of course, thank you."
The Princess had wisely decided to stay out of the discussion. In fact Kaede could see the glint in Sylviane's eyes that spoke of her mild amusement towards the exchange. It was actually her most positive expression towards Ariadne since the two met -- as everything else had been punctuated by a cool and distant cordiality.
"Nevertheless, the von Manteuffel name has been tarnished by treason," Ariadne spoke on, a calm indifference suffusing her voice as though she didn't carry the name herself. "The King even issued an attainder which stripped the Duchy of Polarstern from the main family -- the very same that King Ferdinand I awarded Marshal Eckhart Albert von Manteuffel for being his political right hand during the Kingdom's founding."
It was a hard fall from grace, one that Kaede found rather ironic: the von Manteuffel predecessors rose to prominence by helping to establish Weichsel's near-absolute monarchy; yet the current king would use that same power to strip the family of its rewards.
"But His Majesty did leave the branch families alone, including both the Margraviates of Altmark and Saale-Holzland," Pascal added, his gaze reinforced by righteous conviction. "Only that traitor, Neithard von Manteuffel himself could be blamed for his rampant ambition. The attainder would reduce his two daughters to mere gentry, but surely the rest of the clan..."
"There is no 'von Manteuffel clan' anymore..."
Ariadne's words were quiet and soft-spoken, yet it rang an icy chill that instantly cut Pascal off and spread a brief hush over every other conversation at the table.
"It won't be the same as before; not as a single political entity," she continued, her composure unfazed to the point of seeming callous. "With the main family shattered in power, prestige, and reputation, neither of the major branch families will listen to them nor each other. My father is far more likely to fight Margravine Sophia von Kostka-Manteuffel of Altmark over any remaining influence than to agree with her on much of anything. But at the same time... that might also be the reason why the King spared their lands and titles."
'Their' and not 'our'. It was as though Ariadne had already married into Parzifal's von Sedlityz family. Of course, being the fourth child of her parents, she never had a hope in inheriting any titles to begin with.
"I am not going to force distance between you and your family," Parzifal openly vowed as he held onto her hand. "There is no need to begin with. My conscience, our conscience to the Holy Father and His Majesty is clear."
"I know you wouldn't," Ariadne beamed back a grateful smile.
Yet in spite of what she said, the stirring in her bright-cyan eyes had clearly been touched by his promise.
Amidst the fallout after the 'Manteuffel Incident', most uninvolved nobles were rushing to put distance between themselves and the disgraced family. Yet here was a man who continued planning their marriage as though nothing had happened -- who wouldn't even hear of the slander against his fiancé and her family.
"But I will."
Observing that their conversation had grown too private for a table of outsiders, Ariadne spoke in little more than a private whisper to Parzifal. Yet in spite of the resolute words that left no room for negotiations, Kaede could just barely pick out the faintest quiver of tears in her voice.
She wants to protect him from the power struggles...
For all of Ariadne's staunch drive and determination, her heart was anything but made of steel. Her attempts to hide it only showed that she dearly loved her family, and this was not a sacrifice that she took lightly.
Only a soft sigh emerged from Parzifal as his thumb continued to caressed the back of her hand.
"A just king would not involve anyone else when only von Manteuffel himself was guilty of treason," Pascal soon broke the quiet that followed. "Surely His Majesty's sparing of the branch families shows that."
But Ariadne could only shake her head, as though in disbelief of the Landgrave's naivety:
"I'm sure the verdict for General von Manteuffel's actions are just," she affirmed first. "But dynastic politics never ends that easily, nor is it ever a simple matter of black and white. This incident might have began through the General's treason. But you would do His Majesty a great disservice if you did not think he used this to further his own goals -- at least to an extent."
Scarcely a month ago, Pascal and Ariadne wouldn't even be on speaking terms. Yet today, the 'Runelord' deflated within moments as he concentrated not on their differences, but the meaningful messages behind her cautious words.
"It is true that dynastic politics is rather out of my league, seeing as I hardly come from one," Pascal admitted. "After all, my father had created this surname."
The reply, however, was the single most earnest piece of advice that the noble lady had ever given him:
"Then you'd best learn fast, because you're marrying into one of the greatest."
But perhaps the most unexpected result of the morning's conversation did not take place until much later that day.
Ariadne had been running an errand for Parzifal, as the healer was too busy to deliver ledgers on the hospital's supply needs to the city's liege lord. But on her way back from Pascal's study, she found the Princess waiting for her in a most unusual spot.
"Lady Ariadne," Sylviane began politely as she stepped out of the shadows in the keep's entrance hall.
The Duchess-to-be bid a deep curtsy to her social superior. Being surprised did not stop her from acting with the decorum that had been hammered into her upbringing since early childhood.
She knew the Princess did not like her. She wasn't sure why, but she suspected it had something to do with Pascal. Though to be fair, Ariadne wouldn't exactly welcome a girl more beautiful than herself to loiter around Parzifal either.
"I just wanted to thank you for this morning," Sylviane almost chuckled, as though noticing the faint sparks of tension that marked this scenario as an ambush.
But her words only left Ariadne more wary, more confused. Surely the setup was intentional, using this oppressive atmosphere to coerce where royal propriety could not.
"I had hoped that Pascal would reflect upon his involvement in the 'Manteuffel Incident' as a lesson in politics. But for days I wasn't sure how to breach the topic, since it did involve the circumstances behind his father's death," the Princess explained in a courteous yet reserved smile. "You may have done a better job at breakfast than I could ever have."
Was it sincere, or was Sylviane mocking her family's misfortunes? Uncertain of the Princess' aim, Ariadne chose her reply with cautious professionalism as she offered another light bow:
"It wasn't my intention, but I'm glad to be of service."
"Do you resent him for his involvement in this incident?"
It was an astonishingly blunt question for one born into royalty. But at the same time, it also represented Sylviane offering her a chance -- a direct question that sought for a straightforward answer, one that would easily separate treachery from trustworthiness.
Ariadne exhaled. The problem with being honest was that far too often, the truth resisted simplicity and proved much harder to grasp than falsified masks.
"Not particularly," she began with an uncertain, yet also the most accurate phrase. "Either the General really was a traitor and Pascal simply upheld his sworn duty to family, King, and the Holy Father, or he had been played like a pawn in a plot far beyond our skill.
"...But either way, he's not the one to blame," the lady finished after a pause. "Not for this one at least."
The fact he was to blame for many other complications in their past was left unsaid.
There was no immediate response. It took a moment before the Princess lifted her scrutiny and calmed the atmosphere with slow, gentle nods.
It was also the first time that Ariadne truly saw Sylviane smile at her -- a faint smile shadowed by other concerns, but a real one nonetheless.
"Your Highness really has no need to doubt me," Ariadne offered as a sincere bonus. "Given my past with the Landgrave, it's impossible for anything more than respect to develop between us, and even that His Grace has yet to rebuild."
As the Princess' smile broadened ever so slightly, Ariadne realized that her gamble had paid off. At least part of the royal resentment must have came from perceiving her as a potential challenge. Sylviane might even have misunderstood the years of feuding between Ariadne and Pascal as a form of obsession, since love and hate were often two sides of the same coin.
"It's a relief to hear you say that, Lady Ariadne," Pascal's fiancé confirmed it in her seemingly casual reply. "And I wish for the best in your marriage to the Duke."
Of course you do, the Duchess-to-be thought.
After all, social rank notwithstanding, Ariadne stood certain of her superiority as a woman in every other way.
----- * * * -----
"Parzifal!" Kaede called in her wispy voice as she raced down the corridor after breakfast. She had almost forgotten to ask the healer before he departed for the day.
She needn't have bothered to run, as he turned about right away, long attuned to others seeking out his aid.
"Could I borrow Tofu... I mean Putty again for the day? Please?" Kaede pleaded with her hands held in prayer before her, the Japanese mannerism drawing a surprised blink from Parzifal before he re-grasped its meaning.
"For resting on again?"
"Yes. Only one more day I promise," she added. "Please?"
Considering the dark lines beneath her puppy dog eyes, Parzifal exhaled a faint sigh, as though he was acceding to someone's bad habits:
"This really isn't the solution if you're having persistent sleep issues, but I guess there's no harm done either. One second..."
Reaching around his side, Parzifal unbuckled the outermost pocket of his rigid belt pouch, which looked large enough to be a fanny pack.
Kaede puzzled over what he was doing until a white and firm gelatin began to flow out. Her eyes soon rounded to the size of tea saucers as the silken tofu familiar that took more volume than a King sized mattress emerged from the seemingly flat pocket and took its wobbly form next to Parzifal.
With her bewildered gaze fixated on the living tofu, she almost missed Pascal's footsteps walking up until the healer turned to face him:
"Pascal, you should have Kaede's maid make her some chamomile and lavender tea after dinner at night. It's a relaxant that might help her sleep, and many of the herb's active properties are common enough among other plants that her Samaran biology might not reject it."
The 'fluid of life' provided yet another example that nothing in nature happened without consequence. The crystal-clear red blood offers countless immunities to various diseases and poisons, but it also complicated any medicinal aid to regulate chemical imbalances within the body and mind.
"Would it not be easier to simply use Slumber spells?" Ariadne wondered aloud from behind Parzifal as she finally joined in.
"Mind-affecting spells are best not used unless necessary," Parzifal frowned. "Compulsion magic has a high tendency to cause unintended side-effects upon in our complex and sensitive brains, and it's not like she hasn't been able to sleep at all."
Comparable to heavy-duty prescription drugs then, Kaede concluded, even if modern technology had yet to become sufficiently advanced enough to be 'indistinguishable from magic'.
"Does that include Mental Clarity?" Pascal asked next, concern shadowing his eyes as it was the one spell that his familiar used more than any other from her runes; not to mention that one time he surged it to blank out her fears in the heat of battle.
"Yes. It actively suppresses undesirable feedback from the nerves. Not only is that psychologically addictive, but prolonged use may even cause permanent imbalance in the nervous system. I realize it's popular among officers and that being alert and steady is always better than being dead, but try to use it sparingly."
The healer's well-reasoned warning left his listeners with deep, thoughtful nods.
"Alright," Pascal took the opportunity to return to the original topic. "I will check with the staff if we have chamomile in stock."
"If you don't have any, give me a message and I'll have some sent over this afternoon."
As Parzifal drew the conversation to an end, Kaede finally popped the question that has been bubbling away in her thoughts:
"So, just one last thing... what is that?" Her delicate fingers pointed at the pocket that spat out her bed for her afternoon nap mere moments ago.
"Extradimensional familiar pocket," Parzifal answered as though it was completely natural, harmless compared to a Slumber spell.
"They make those for living beings too?" she muttered in disbelief, never even realizing how she easily classified the energetic tofu as a living entity.
"Those are designed for familiars," Pascal explained from beside her. "The enchantment required is more complex. But many people use these, since it makes it easier to bring their familiars along on journeys."
It was no wonder why Kaede rarely saw familiars out in the open.
What is this, Pokémon!?
Ariadne suppressed a giggle as the familiar girl slowly turned on her master with an ominous glare.
"Don't. You. Even. Dare."
Taken aback by the sudden hostility, Pascal looked unsure of what he did wrong.
"If you even try to stuff me in a bag, I swear I'll give you free broken ribs again."
Soft, wispy voice or not, Kaede's words were dead serious, and Pascal felt the threatening aura grow as he cried bloody unfair:
"I did not even say anything!"
----- * * * -----
Huddled under a warm blanket atop the floating, squishy mattress, Kaede rubbed her cheeks against the cool pillow as she woke up from her long nap.
Unlike yesterday, the strong wind billowing across the lake had forced her to stay indoors. She ended up camping in the keep's small library, reading over organization charts for the city's reconstruction before drowsiness sent her drifting off to sleep.
A pleasant if nostalgic dream had followed, as Kaede's subconscious took her to the class graduation dinner. It was a jovial feast that she should have attended, where memories and Karaoke songs were exchanged over alcohol, yakiniku, vegetables, and tofu. The boisterous shouting and energetic chattering went on for hours, all before a drunk and exhausted Daichi had to be assisted home.
Everything had felt so real that Kaede could still taste the tofu in her mouth. It was smooth, squishy, and oddly pervasive, flooding out even the savory aftertaste of grilled meats.
It was also thoroughly undercooked.
How did I manage to grill silken tofu over open flames again?
Kaede was still wondering that as she opened her eyes to the library room. Her body was back on Hyperion, and her mouth... still felt the soft chunks of tofu within.
It wasn't just an aftertaste either. It was real, and the shock of realization made her swallow it wholesale.
"Crap," her head jolted up to a half sit before she looked back down. Her tofu-pillow showed no signs of damage, but there was definitely several bites worth of saliva on it.
She had been sleep-eating her bed, after nodding off while examining the power relations between Nordkreuz's local guilds.
"I'm sorry!" Kaede bowed as she rushed an apology to the white pudding familiar under her.
Putty responded, as usual, with a gentle wobble.
Perhaps a tofu couldn't even feel pain? If anything, this accident seemed to reinforce that idea.
But even then...
Her thoughts derailed as she spun around to the faint exhales of suppressed laughter. Her gaze caught the wry grin beneath a large and balding forehead -- a uniformed gentleman she knew as Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Ostergalen, the intelligence officer of former General von Manteuffel.
"Sorry to intrude," he curtailed his open grin. "I had asked the servants to check out the old Marshal's library as I awaited His Grace, though I ended up seeing something far more interesting instead."
"You were watching me sleep?" Kaede retorted as she bolted to sit up straight, wishing he would at least look more apologetic than amused.
"It was relaxing. You reminded me of how my daughter curls up when she sleeps," came his unabashed, if rather melancholic smile. "Besides, it was more like watching you eat."
A soft chuckle finally emerged as her cheeks began to color.
"I know the locals of those regions consider white pudding a backup source of food, but you must be a real fan to prefer that even in your dreams."
That's not what I was dreaming about! Kaede almost blurted out. But then, it hardly mattered what she dreamed of; she was still sleep-nibbling away at Parzifal's tofu familiar.
She could feel the growing warmth of an embarrassed red spreading across her face.
"Please... don't tell anyone," the whisper barely came out.
"Oh don't worry," Hans happily waved it off. "I doubt anyone would believe me if I told them about two Ducal familiars mating in the library."
Kaede's jaw hung open in shock as Hans went on with a hearty, congratulatory grin:
"Well what else do you think it means when you exchange parts -- or liquids for your case -- with a pudding? It is their custom after all."
T-th-that can't possibly count! Kaede stuttered even in her thoughts as her bent legs pressed together on reflex.
This only made it worse as she felt even more conscious of the cool, gelatinous mass shifting below her butt, its gentle, cresting waves pressing between her thighs.
I-it's not like it was in me or I was in it or anything!
"...Don't worry about it! Puddings aren't picky about what race you're from," Hans went on with an understanding smile that proved anything but reassuring. "Besides, it seemed pretty happy and satisfied with you. Probably be glad to introduce you to the tribe."
As if on cue, the white pudding below her gave another joyful wobble. Its apparent delight conjured the faint echo of wedding bells as a pack of wild tofu gathered on the grassy plains in her mind's eye.
A-and why am I in a wedding dress!?
Being the bride was bad enough. But bride to a tofu?
"It doesn't even have a gender!"
She managed to forced that last part out loud, but her usual gears of logical deduction were clearly jammed as her entire head began to overheat.
"Of course it does not," a new voice entered the room as Pascal stepped through the door. "Oozes reproduce asexually through budding."
They do? Then what I did...
Only then did comprehension dawn upon Kaede, and her cheeks darkened yet further as they pouted back at the sly intelligence officer who had just played her like a fiddle.
With a quirked eyebrow, Pascal glanced between the disappointed Lieutenant-Colonel and his familiar's flushed-scarlet face.
"My apologies for the wait," he exhaled a frowning sigh as realization struck. "I trust you have had enough fun with my familiar's over-reactive imagination now?"
Hans looked like he was going to say something before closing his mouth without a word. The humored joy of the previous moment quickly evaporated from his brown eyes, leaving behind a nervous and disenchanted hue.
"No, Your Grace," came the stiff, formal reply. "I apologize for getting carried away."
"The next time, at least invite me first before you 'get carried away' again."
At first, Kaede thought she had misheard the words that Pascal spoke as though reprimanding his ranking superior. But the outraged stare from her rose-quartz eyes soon trained upon their new target as his meaning grew clear.
"Hey! What is that supposed to mean!?"
"Well it hardly seems fair if someone else gets to enjoy my familiar without at least sharing the moment with me," Pascal announced as though it was his birthright.
Kaede almost gave him a few 'free broken ribs' right there.
The real reason for the Lieutenant-Colonel's coming did not reveal itself until they relocated upstairs to Pascal's 'new' office -- the same room in which his father the Marshal once attended to affairs of state.
"You know why I called you here right?" the nineteen-years-old liege lord sat down as he faced the Lieutenant-Colonel from across the desk.
Kaede found a seat on the nearby sofa as well, though Putty's cool presence beside her legs soon inspired her to transfer ship. However Hans remained upright as though reporting in to his superior officer, despite the fact that Pascal's 'Major' was a rank below 'Lieutenant-Colonel'.
"I figured there's a reason I was released instead of court-martialed," he spoke as unblinking brown eyes locked onto Pascal's turquoise gaze. "But what that reason is, even I don't know."
An audible sigh emanated from beyond the desk as the younger man looked up in disappointment.
"What in Holy Father's name were you thinking that night? Raising men in arms against the Black Eagles? Deliberately obstructing the King's men in support of a traitor? You were lucky His Majesty did not demand your head for such treason."
A moment of tense silence passed between them as Hans sized up his opposition, trying to decide just how honest he should be.
"I thought the General was innocent and that..."
"Well you thought wrong!" the low, harsh words that erupted from Pascal had instantly cut Hans off.
Taking a deep breath, the Lieutenant-Colonel stared back at the Landgrave in defiance:
"I'm sorry Your Grace, but in over a dozen years as one of the closest and most trusted members of his staff, I have never known the General to plot against the King or country. He has toiled and bled for this country and no other! I would sooner eat a broom than believe for a single second that he has worked with the Imperials!"
"Then what about the proof? The paper trails that had been magically verified? Or are you saying that your gut instinct is more accurate than the best investigators of our country?"
"No, but they also do not know him as I do," Hans retorted. "Even the best intelligence can be fooled by convincingly falsified data, but no amount of trickery could change the fundamental character of a man so easily!"
Sparks filled the room once more as both men glared at one another from across the table, their steady gaze clashing again in a contest of wills.
Thinking back to past conversations, Kaede remembered that the Lieutenant-Colonel's own methods in information gathering focused on tracking the long-term behavior of important individuals. Certainly, there was validity in his belief that 'character' was more reliable than isolated events. However...
"He had always put ambition first," Pascal challenged in a solemn voice. "I fail to see how it is against his character."
"That is because--!"
Hans had to force his mouth shut to suppress the urge to fire back. With the glint of agitation noticeable in his eyes, he took another deep breathe to calm his rising frustration.
The odds were simply far too stacked against him in this argument. Hans would have to overcome rumor, reputation, and charges of treason all at once, not to mention Pascal's personal bias against those responsible for his father's death. Rather than swaying the young lord's opinion, he was only making himself sound sentimental and unreasonable.
His only option was to withdraw.
"Your Grace, I don't have any proof right now to convince you. I can only say that the General must have been framed by treachery, and that Weichsel has lost a perfectly good, innocent, and loyal man."
Pascal pursed his lips as he heard the downtrodden, almost-defeated voice. This was clearly not what he had in mind for a conversation.
"All right... let us presume for a moment that von Manteuffel had been innocent and his enemies had set him up," the Landgrave took the proverbial step back in a gesture of good faith. "How in the world did you expect to help him by opposing the King's agents at sword-point?"
"It's politics," Hans almost spat out in disgust. "Had the General been taken, there would be no way for him to clear his own name. His only chance was to stay in power long enough to appeal to the King in person and..."
"Are you stupid!?"
Kaede cringed as Pascal voiced his absolute and utter contempt. There were even traces of anger laced within, as she felt the deep offense that trickled across their empathic bond.
"Do you find me so unscrupulous, so contemptible and dishonorable, that I would not have granted him an audience with the King to make his case? Had he surrendered, he would have been arrested and given a chance to prove his innocence in the court of law. But no, you had to show up with forces that would tempt him to struggle, to rebel, to brand himself a traitor without any doubt!"
No, I remember you being angry enough to grind the General's bones on the spot...
Kaede didn't doubt Pascal's sense of duty. What she did question was his ability to hold back on that night.
She still remembered that intense tide of murderous impulse that woke her up in cold sweat. It had crashed through their empathic link to blow open a new path, frightening her trembling mind more than the worst of nightmares.
At times she wondered if even Pascal realizes how terrible his wrath could be.
Besides... didn't Ariadne just tell you this morning that you're being too naive?
Trials for treason had always been more about politics than law. In such circumstances, it was doubtful if even the due process could have protected an innocent man. Unfortunately, Pascal's staunch faith in the 'Rule of Law' as the first and foremost principle in proper state administration also left him... more than a little blindsided in the ruthless arena of internal politics.
"Isn't that what you wanted?"
The reply from Hans was impetuous, and even he glanced aside in regret almost as soon as the words had left his mouth.
"I only want to bring those responsible for my father's death what they justly deserve," the cold and unnerving declaration swept across the room, leaving a stilled and icy atmosphere.
"Well..." the Lieutenant-Colonel sighed after a long pause. "As I've said, I have nothing firm to persuade you with. But if you are hell-bent on punishing those who conspired against your father, then why did you persuade the King to release me?"
"Because as foolish as it was, your final stand for von Manteuffel was what convinced me of your innocence."
Both of the listeners in the room quirked up their brows at that.
Pascal leaned back against the cushioned chair, his dead-serious visage punctuated by a thin smile at last.
"No man opportunistic enough to betray his own country would gamble his life on such a desperate last stand, not when you could easily claim ignorance as there were no evidence linking you to the plot," the young Landgrave noted the Black Eagles' latest disclosure, which he must have received through the King.
His turquoise gaze was still fixated upon the Lieutenant-Colonel's every wrinkle, every expression. But within those steady eyes, a soft and forgiving light had already permeated through:
"You are a loyal man Hans, not to mention competent, intelligent, and resourceful. You simply made one mistake, and I would hate to see your life ruined, or for Weichsel to be denied one of its best intelligence analysts because of that."
"So you had petitioned the King for my release?"
The intelligence officer sounded cautious even as he stated the obvious. It was as though he tried to suppress his own optimism, to hope for no more than that.
"Yes, you and the men who followed you; although the King demanded that at least some disciplining was in order for your obstruction of justice," Pascal scowled in disappointment, though it was more towards Hans than the decision of his liege lord. "Therefore I am tasked with collecting your current rank insignias. I am sorry."
Biting down upon his lower lip, Hans nodded as he reached to take the articles from his own shoulders. He had been demoted one grade, and while this punishment might seem very lenient, it was a bitter distance to fall for a magic-less commoner of few opportunities.
With his own age in mind, Hans rather doubted he could climb back up, assuming he had any career prospects remaining at all.
"Well... thank you, Your Grace," the now-Major sighed as he placed the Lieutenant-Colonel insignias on the table. "I am grateful for your help, truly, but I think it's best that I retire at this point. No one is stupid enough to use the 'spymaster' of a convicted traitor, and without that..."
"I am not stupid," Pascal cut him off sternly, as though claiming 'that's twice you've insulted me now'.
Though his other implication was far more eye-opening... and widening as well.
"You can't be serious," Hans muttered in barely more than a whisper. "But you're..."
"I am the Marshal's son who helped His Majesty arrest von Manteuffel and take revenge for my father's death. Nobody could accuse me of sheltering von Manteuffel's supporters, nor could they claim that I am stepping into his shoes in active collaboration with the Imperial Mantis Blades that killed my father."
As Pascal crossed his arms from behind the table, that smug, aristocratic smirk that Kaede knew so well had returned to reinvigorate his presence.
"There is no one better positioned to redeem your career than myself, assuming you do not think that your considerable talents are wasted on someone of my 'mediocre' ranking. Besides..."
They were once comrades, acquaintances, and enemies. They had laughed over dinner before raising blades against one another over the fate of another man. But even as the still-bewildered Hans faced his loyalty, his pride, and his doubts, Pascal had already reached past his defenses to seal the deal:
"--If you sincerely believe that von Manteuffel was innocent in my father's death and wish to redeem his name, then what better way of uncovering the indisputable truth than to join me?"
Hans was still struggling through conflicted thoughts even after he had left the room. With all attention focused inward, he hardly noticed until Kaede caught up right next to him.
"I thought there was one piece of information you could use," she delved straight in. "Apparently the Chancellor-Cardinal, Adele von Lanckoroński, rushed up here from Königsfeld around a week ago to have a private meeting with His Majesty the King and Colonel von Falkenberg."
The revelation came hard and fast as the first words that erupted from his mouth was a scathing 'that bitch'.
"I figured you would know far more about her relationship and involvement with General von Manteuffel," Kaede shrugged, as though the rest was beyond her concern.
"Does His Grace know about this?"
"If he does, it's not from me."
"Then do you believe the General was innocent also?" Hans asked, his eyes hopeful for a well-placed ally.
But Kaede had to disappoint him:
"I'm afraid that's beyond my understanding of these recent events."
"Then... why are you telling me this?" he questioned, caution of uncertain factors creeping back in once more.
"Because I do realize that Pascal has a biased if not blind side where his father's death is concerned," Kaede shrugged again, although this time she followed it with a broad and innocent smile:
"Also, welcome to the team."
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