"It is finished!"
Sylviane breathed out those exhausted words as she released the tension from her sore limbs, leaving Hauteclaire in control of the flight magic keeping them aloft.
The Weichsel main force had caught up to the retreating Skagen army this morning. The moment Pascal received the news at Nordkreuz, Sylviane had Sir Robert rush them up through a chain of teleportation jumps. It was vital for the representatives of Rhin-Lotharingie -- herself and her Oriflamme Armigers -- to fight alongside their Weichsel allies as much and as visibly as possible in this campaign. Because soon enough, she would need all the help she could muster from them in exchange.
Her father had taught her long ago that when it came to the lives of nation-states, there was no such thing as 'free goodwill'.
Everything had a price, paid in gold, in influence, or in blood.
Well, gold did not grow on trees but through the sweat and toil of her people, and she had no intention for Weichsel to dominate the future politics of Rhin-Lotharingie. This left her only one option.
Royal blood might seem an expensive commodity, but her body could certainly spare a few drops.
The battle had seemed simple on paper. The Weichsel army led by King Leopold von Drachenlanzen had numbered 48,000, more than twice the numerical strength of their foes. Furthermore the Skagen Army of the Home Isles, lead by the half-brother of Admiral Winter, Jarl Eyvindur Sigmundsen, had been stripped of its mobile striking power in the decisive Air Battle of Nordkreuz. With supplies cut off and morale sapped by constant raids from Weichsel cavalry, the 20,000 strong Skagen force had been battered and exhausted.
But the Northmen were a tough people bred by the harshness of the arctic gales. Cornered by their Trinitian adversaries, they had fought on like wounded beasts.
Thrice the dreaded Housecarls and Västergötland Adventurers charged the Weichsel lines, their final assault lead by Jarl Sigmundsen himself. Through the smoke of hellish rimefire, the ferocious Skagen onslaught almost broke the Weichsel center. But King Leopold had stuck his courtblade into the ground in defiance, allowing no retreat for either the men or himself. His courageous rally, assisted by a searing countercharge from the Oriflamme Princess, had bought enough time for General von Blumenthal's right wing to pivot around the Skagen flank and smash into them from behind.
With their path of retreat cut off, the ensuing bloodbath had become a massacre.
From her vantage point in the air, Sylviane estimated that at least a third of the Skagen force -- around seven thousand -- had been wiped out, their blood dyeing the fields of wintry slush in crimson death. After morale disintegrated and the commanding Jarls fell alongside their Housecarl bodyguards, the less trained militia had surrendered in droves. Only a few small detachments had managed to break out and escape.
The defeat was more than crushing for the Northmen. Their Army of the Home Isles had been destroyed, annihilated. After the loss of Nordkapp, the sinking of their skywhale flotilla, and the burning of their beached North Sea Fleet, this fourth hammer blow would surely put an end to northern resolve.
At least, that was what Sylviane hoped. She needed the military support of her Weichsel allies for the war in Rhin-Lotharingie, and this could only be accomplished once hostilities in the north came to an end.
"Your Highness!" the petite Elspeth flew up from near the ground, her caramel-whipped hair billowing in the icy, blood-scented breeze.
It always struck Sylviane as unnatural how such a cute girl could seem so comfortable on the battlefield. Elspeth's leather brigandine was smothered in blood by all the faces her short blades had gouged this fight. Yet the young girl was... grinning; her large, apple-green eyes marked not by fatigue but the dancing lights of exultation.
"Your Highness!" her bubbly voice repeated. "They've captured Jarl Eyvindur Sigmundsen!"
Sylviane furrowed her brows as her pupils dilated in surprise. That can't be possible! There was no way a Northmen commander of his ranking would even contemplate surrender!
"Someone must've bonked his head unconscious in the melee," Elspeth explained. "But I just saw the Weichsens carrying him off on a stretcher!"
"Then Weichsel has a serious chance of negotiating a swift end to this conflict," the Princess truly believed this time. "Any idea how many other Jarls they've found or caught thus far?"
"They've already counted three dead and one other captured, also injured," the reply came from Sir Robert this time, who had linked back into the communication loop.
The Grand Jarldom of Skagen had only eight Jarls on Fimbulmark Isle. It also bore remembrance that the Northmen leadership marched to war in generations, with their brothers, sons, and even grandsons following close behind. After such devastating losses among their upper nobility, it was impossible to think that they could continue this war.
"Then let's pray for the best," the Princess spoke to the distant horizon.
She would have a voice in the negotiations of course, bearing the royal authority of Rhin-Lotharingie. But it would be Weichsel who made any territorial demands. Her home country was far too distracted to integrate any newly conquered lands.
In either case, time to call Pascal up.
Her fiancé had been furious when she denied him the opportunity to join the battle. Her excuse was that teleporting an extra always cost more, and Sir Robert needed every ounce of ether he could spare for the battle itself. But in reality? She just wanted him to stay out of the fray this time. Unlike during Operation Winter Typhoon, this was an orthodox battle for which the King already had a plan, as well as the generals to carry it out.
Besides, Pascal is no great fighter unless he breaks into his jewelry box, and I'd rather he save that for later...
----- * * * -----
Kaede's trip up the next day took a series of four teleportation jumps that left her almost ready to vomit. It certainly didn't help that her meager hours of sleep last night further added to her sleep deprivation. The transit spells then hurled her senses through a repeated cycle of physical sublimation and being flushed down an ethereal whirlpool, which gave a whole new meaning to the concept of 'travel sickness'.
I am never going to get used to that...
"Good Morn... Kaede are you alright?"
Kaede's pale cheeks sucked in deep breaths of cold, icy air, and Princess who had been awaiting their arrival stepped up to hold the smaller girl's shoulders.
"Yeah, just... give me a moment."
The familiar girl sighed as she felt the soothing warmth of Hauteclaire's aura engulf her once more. Her whispers of thanks to the phoenix came answered by a sympathetic chirp.
"You really did not have to come outside to greet us," Pascal smiled as he took the Princess' hand and gave it a formal kiss before clasping it between his palms.
They were in the presence of Weichsel soldiers guarding the beacon, after all.
"I could use some fresh air from the negotiations earlier and you could use an escort; it seemed a good deal."
Kaede had to hide her grin as the Princess struggled to maintain eye contact. Even for the sake of appearances, Sylviane would never openly admit that she had been waiting just to see him earlier.
"Is there a need to section the camp off like this?" Kaede asked a few minutes later when guards at yet another checkpoint waved them through.
It felt as if the army was multi-national, with each group having its own partition inside the overall camp. Compared to open-ground bases that promoted camaraderie, all the fences and sentries in this massive encampment felt stifling.
"The term is 'compartmentalization'," Pascal looked back to explain. "It enhances security and limits the chaos inflicted by surprise attacks. With all the illusion, teleportation, and alchemical transmutation spells we have available, just how hard do you think it would be to insert a strike team of infiltrators and saboteurs?"
One of the key tactics of military special operations was 'Insertion', where a small number of elite troops would infiltrate hostile lines to destroy high value targets and/or sow confusion before a major assault. The availability of magic added a whole new dimension into this realm of asymmetric warfare, as commandos could literally appear out of thin air to wreak havoc upon a military base.
"Couldn't they just ward this place in the same fashion as castles? I mean there are thousands of mages in this army."
"--And each with a finite reserve of ether that they need to perform other tasks, including fighting," Pascal noted the opportunity costs. "Remember that exposed ether slowly degrade and diffuse their energy back into mana? The magical requirements to keep large-scale wards and barriers continuously running grows astronomical over time. Castles and cities are built over ley-lines where they may benefit from a Projection Focus -- have you read about those yet?"
"They're enchanted devices that uses magic from ley-lines to power wards," Kaede mustered a simple reply.
She had mostly glanced over them. For someone more interested in the far-reaching, sociological impacts of technology, she often found herself bored by the technical details of 'machinery'. To skip past the minute details to see how innovations altered civilizations and shifted cultures was far more fascinating.
"Correct," Pascal nevertheless gave her a passing grade. "Remember that natural mana, not processed ether, flow through the spiritual ley-lines that stretch across the land. Without a soul to refine it, mana lack the malleability of ether that would allow them to simply be injected into a supernatural spell effect."
In other words, Kaede summarized, you can't pour crude oil from a derrick straight into the engine and expect it to run...
"This is where the Projection Foci come in," Pascal continued on. "They are built specifically for their deployment locale, attuned to the ley-lines each taps by design. They do not refine the mana itself; instead, they harness the magical pressure of the mana stream to energize near-depleted ether cycling through wide-area spell fields."
The mental imagery that Kaede painted was a steam engine connected to a geothermal vent, using water to translate heat power into mechanical torque.
"But armies in the field have no such blessings," Sylviane hastened the conversation as they neared the destination. "Mages can either use their reserves to fortify, or bolster the army's mobility and firepower." Then, as she looked back with a grin: "Bet you can guess which choice Weichsel picks."
"Of course," the familiar girl smiled back. The Weichsel army always attacks.
Her magic sensitivity could feel the tingle of layered auras as they passed into the innermost camp. Only this small area offered a full assortment of wards that would block teleportation and detect all manners of intrusion, since it protected the single most vulnerable point of failure for a Monarchy -- the King.
King Leopold's expandable cabin -- or at least the outer room -- featured little more than a row of cushioned chairs and a huge desk that doubled as a map table. The only decorations were the man-sized Black Dragon Crest adorning the wall behind him, flanked by the judging stares of copied oil portraits on each side: the founding King Leopold I von Drachenlanzen, and his greatest general, the 'Commoner Marshal' Hermann von Mittermeyer.
"Pascal," the smiling figure in his adult prime looked up from a stack of parchment. "It's good seeing you again. How have you been? Brilliant work you did for our country in the Skagen campaign, and your familiar as well," he nodded towards Kaede before acknowledging the Princess.
"Thank you, Your Majesty," the Landgrave stood sharp to return a knightly salute. Meanwhile Kaede followed it with one of her own, glad to skip the curtsy now that she was an 'Honorary Lieutenant' of the Weichsel army and holder of the Knight's Cross.
"I do wish I could have been here for the battle yesterday as well."
"What? Two promotions in three months is still not enough for you?" the King quipped in good humor before gesturing to the whole group. "Please, grab a seat."
"It is not about the rank, Your Majesty. It is the opportunity and experience," Pascal added as Lady Mari pulled up a chair for her mistress, prompting Kaede to follow suit. "I can learn all about command, leadership, and decision-making from books and lessons, but it is simply not the same as experiencing it in the heat of battle."
"Thanks," he muttered in surprise as Kaede offered his seat before taking her spot standing behind him.
Even I can be a good little familiar in front of your boss...
"Your insights do you merit, Pascal," the King flashed an approving grin as he leaned back with a cup of steaming coffee. "What you just spoke of is exactly why I've sent for General... Professor von Marienfeld, to immediately begin developing a course for 'Command Exercises' using this 'Tabletop Wargaming' concept that we've discussed by letter. It's still far from actual experience, but it will at least put the tactical-track cadets in the spotlight as they formulate large-scale battle plans and respond to an ever-changing battlefield."
Kaede beamed as she stole a glance at Pascal. She wasn't sure when he had began this conversation with the King, but it was always nice to see her suggestions receive adoption on a national level. The Prussian General Staff had first developed wargaming, or Kriegspiel, in the early 1800s using metal pieces and dice. But on Hyperion, the availability of magic meant they could enchant dedicated tables to automate the wargame's mechanics -- something not possible on Earth until the advent of the information age.
"Thank you for your support, Your Majesty," Pascal unfurled his own proud smile.
But before he had a chance to continue, the King snatched back the baton:
"So, I'm fairly certain I know what you came here for today. But before you speak of any adventurous fancy, I must know that you're meeting your current obligations."
King Leopold's fatherly smile faded away as his brown gaze beckoned a stern if not grim shadow.
"How is Nordkreuz doing?"
"It could have been worse, Your Majesty," Pascal sighed as though he really should have expected this conversation. "The final death toll reached just under sixteen thousand -- over one-quarter of the city's original population. Ninety percent of all structures within the city were either destroyed outright or damaged beyond repair, including all port facilities on the lake-side docks. Of the city's defenses, only Headquarters Keep and my estate survived in repairable conditions; the outer fortifications have been reduced to ruins and will need to be rebuilt entirely from scratch."
The faces within the room grew dark and darker as the Landgrave of Nordkreuz recited the aggregate numbers from his countless damage reports.
As a city that thrived on its strategic location, Nordkreuz served as both an important military staging point and the largest trade junction in Northern Hyperion. Yet now, with its fortifications gutted and its water traffic stopped, the city once known as the 'Jewel of the North' had become little more than a lakeside fishing village.
Well, perhaps not quite that disastrous, as Pascal began to list off the 'good news' next:
"But the most important factors are that one, the bulk of the city's population -- especially its richer, mercantile sector -- survived the calamity..."
It wasn't really fair that the city needed its rich more than the poor, but the world was never fair. The most essential resource for the city's reconstruction was money: coins to purchase supplies, hire engineers, and organize labor. Spare muscle always proved easier to find in the aftermath of a disaster; it was the materials and expertise that proved rare.
"--Two, the city held sufficient stocks to survive a long siege, and the bulk of our underground storage facilities survived. Thanks to General von Falkenhausen's excellent logistical preparations, the army also left enough extra winter supplies and camping equipment that Nordkreuz will have little problem providing for its own refugees."
It'll still be an unpleasant winter for them, just not a deadly one...
Without a shortage of food, water, and shelter, there would be no need for Nordkreuz's survivors to disperse into the countryside; not unless they feared a repeat of the disaster.
"--Three, our decisive victories against the Skagen forces have eliminated any major threats to the city and uplifted the morale of the populace. While there remains a great deal of sorrow, many feel that their grievances have been avenged by Your Majesty and the army."
That was an optimistic assessment, as Pascal had omitted the outcry that called for the heads of the Skagen leadership. Weichsel's own propaganda certainly didn't help, as they piled on the blame for the Northmen's 'ruthless butchering of civilians' in order to draw the spotlight away from their own defensive failures. Nevertheless, it was true that civilian confidence had largely been restored.
Shadows of smile and confidence had returned to the King's lips after Pascal presented one point after another. By now, his eyes shone with light that not only agreed and approved, but stood impressed by the young liege lord still scarce of twenty.
...And that, was when Pascal added his finishing touch:
"In light of these conditions, I have created a system to fund rapid recovery and reconstruction for the city through the open trading of investment funds. All private commerce and industry owners have been invited to publicly speak their business propositions, where they will sell a percentile share of their future establishment in exchange for cash investments necessary for rebuilding. I have also taken initiative to do the same for the housing sector and public facilities, beginning with a sizable investment from my own coffers."
For the first time, the King's eyes widened as his mouth opened in stunned silence. Then:
"You are just full of ideas, aren't you?" he chuckled with astonishment still trailing his voice.
Kaede was now grinning from ear-to-ear.
With morale boosted by the recent victories, the geo-societal conditions that once shaped Nordkreuz into the 'Jewel of the North' would inevitably bring forth its recovery. Reconstruction was synonymous to 'growth', presenting business opportunities that entrepreneurs would seize with relish.
The only limitation was the availability of funds.
The modern concept of a stock exchange had been established as early as 1600 when the Dutch funded the mercantile ventures of the East India Company, and the idea of 'investment shareholding' traces back even further to ancient times. There were signs that the Holy Imperium's commerce guilds and the Grand Republic Merchant Alliance of Samara have adopted similar practices. But this foundation of modern finance had yet to establish itself in the militant state of Weichsel.
Since their return to Nordkreuz when she heard Pascal's money concerns, Kaede had spent many hours inspiring and advising him to create a system of public investment and stock trading. Although her lack of financial knowledge left countless questions unanswered, she had no doubts that the local business and legal experts would be more than capable of filling in the blanks once the idea took hold.
"How are the local merchants and craftsmen liking it?"
The young lord shrugged as he answered his sovereign:
"Mixed, as with any new idea. Some think it is brilliant, some approach tentatively, and some reject it outright, fearing it will rob them of their business' freedom. Overall, the younger generations are more optimistic towards the concept than the older, more established. The guilds are also afraid that it will destabilize the hierarchy; so I had told them that if they want to retain control the market, invest, because Nordkreuz will rise from the ashes -- with or without them," Pascal finished with a satisfied smirk.
The King had almost burst out laughing. Mirth filled his eyes as his lips and shoulders continued to shake in suppressed glee.
"I'll have to ask the good Cardinal to stay an eye on this project and keep me informed," King Leopold chuckled again before taking another drink of his coffee. "If this works, we'll need to consider expanding to the other cities."
"It will not be easy to achieve this under normal conditions, since any established guild will feel threatened by their loss of market control," Pascal added.
"Well, I'm sure Lisbeth will convince them somehow; she's a resourceful woman."
Leopold closed the topic as though he knew exactly what kind of underhanded if not illegal methods Cardinal-Chancellor Lisbeth von Lanckoroński utilized to make ends meet, which left Pascal frowning with concern.
"You are your father's son, Pascal. I could not have asked for a more confident report of Nordkreuz's situation in light of recent events," he nodded with an approving grin. "Thus... onto the main topic then! How many troops do you want?"
The Landgrave blinked back in surprise, as did Kaede and the Princess. None of them had expected the King to be this straightforward, or agree so readily.
"I haven't said 'yes' yet," King Leopold raised a finger as though he read their minds. "But Weichsel certainly owes Princess Sylviane for our swift victory in the Skagen campaign. It is only natural that we support her rightful claim to the throne of Rhin-Lotharingie in return."
So everything till now hadn't just been a report, but a test as well, Kaede surmised.
Like money, military aid in men was an 'investment', albeit on a national scale and for diplomatic rather than financial returns. The King must have determined even before this meeting started that he was potentially willing to support Sylviane and bump heads with the pretender, Duke Gabriel's backers -- the Knights Templar and the Papal Inquisition. But first he had to establish his confidence in the venture through knowledge of Pascal's strategic mind, in both military and civilian affairs.
Now, with his assessment satisfactory, he had no intention to look ungracious in the eyes of the world. This meant that Sylviane's initiative to join Operation Winter Typhoon weeks ago would soon pay its dividends.
The only question that remained was 'how much'.
Clearing his throat, Pascal decided he might as well play along and dance to the King's tune:
"One company of the Knights Phantom."
This time it was the Leopold's turn to look astonished.
"I would ask for two, but I doubt you will allow me that."
"Of course not."
It almost sounded as though the King was toying with his subject. But behind his swift reply came a tilted frown and a pained look in his gaze.
"After the Skagen campaign and the Air Battle of Nordkreuz, I have less than five hundred Phantoms left, and that's including every graduating cadet for this year and the next."
That's only about three full-strength companies...
The victory Weichsel achieved over the Grand Duchy of Skagen in this short war would cripple the naval and colonial power for years if not decades to come. But in doing so, they had incurred heavy losses of their own, especially among the aristocratic cavalry corps that was difficult to replenish.
"I was expecting that you would ask for more than just Phantoms."
Pascal shook his head at the King's presumption:
"We plan to head south first. This means bypassing much of Rhin-Lotharingie without drawing attention to ourselves, especially in the northeastern Belgae region where Gabriel wields a dominating influence. Only the Knights Phantom can manage such a journey fast enough."
"It would also be damaging for my image if we brought too many Weichsel soldiers," Sylviane interjected into the conversation between liege and vassal at last. "Hence quality over quantity is our best option."
The King looked down in deep thought. One-third of his remaining Knights Phantom was hardly a cheap price. But...
"You shall have it," his firm reply set the deal in stone. "I'll give you Walther's Falcon Force company, plus all the surviving elements of Erwin's Ghost Riders and anyone you could recruit in time to replenish it. But in return," King Leopold dangled the strings attached with an open smile, "I want you to fund Erwin von Hammerstein in building at least three new Phantom companies."
Pascal gave a faint cringe at that. The specialized equipment and high-quality armaments of the Knights Phantom made them very expensive units. Recruiting from the middle-class yeomanry rather than the aristocracy, it would fall upon him to subsidize the costs that they couldn't afford.
"The Grenadiers Phantom are accepted then?"
The King nodded:
"They've certainly proven their worth in the Air Battle of Nordkreuz, so much that I plan to elevate all of survivors from the Ghost Riders to full Knight Phantom status. The nobles in the current Knights Phantom won't like it; but we must recruit more men from somewhere, as we've all seen just how much of a difference the Phantoms make. The Imperials seem set for an eventual intervention in this war between Rhin-Lotharingie and the Caliphate, and Weichsel could hardly stand by when that occurs."
The Knights Phantom were more than just an elite unit. They represented the dominance of Weichsel cavalry in the air, and the battlefield strength of air power could not be understated.
But perhaps even more importantly, the expansion of Weichsel's air forces showed just how much King Leopold had been alarmed by the recent events. As far as he was concerned, the coup in Rhin-Lotharingie was a conclusive sign that the Pope -- Weichsel's longtime ally -- could no longer be depended upon to check the ambitions of the Holy Imperium.
Hence even before the current war against Skagen drew to a close, the country was already gearing up for an even greater conflict.
"I understand and agree, Your Majesty," Pascal confirmed his end of the bargain. Then regrettably: "although it will be a shame to leave Colonel von Hammerstein behind."
The King almost snorted at that.
"You only say that because you haven't known him long enough or realize the amount of trouble he'll eventually make for you! During the War of Imperial Succession, your father couldn't even find the man and his unit half the time! Since he only answers Farspeak calls when he feels like it, rascal that he is!"
"Nevertheless, he is still one of the best tacticians we have," Pascal stood his ground.
"Of course, but he's also a hero to the commons and a lion to fresh recruits," the King highlighted the importance of this reassignment. "Don't worry. His second-in-command might be a novice, but she's still a Manteuffel and they're as determined as they come!"
The young lord couldn't help smile at his own memories of Ariadne: "that she is, Your Majesty."
"In addition to the Knights, I'll give you the 36th Logistical Company," King Leopold added. "Operation White Typhoon taught us that we need logistical units that could keep up with just the Phantoms, and they're among the first to receive some training for it."
Pascal hadn't expected that as he blinked back. A full logistical company could carry enough to supply two combat companies for extended operations in the field. Just how much supplies did the King expect him to bring?
"In for a pfennig, in for a mark," the King beamed towards the Princess. "You said too many Weichsel troops would be a liability, but surely that doesn't speak for the weapons themselves. During the Rhin-Lotharingie Independence War, we became the arsenal of your freedom, supplying the Coalition with arms and armor against the Imperial oppressors."
The Princess' eyes almost glistened with appreciation as King Leopold resurrected the century-old bonds between the two nations. As a major steel-producer, Weichsel was known for its blacksmithing industry. Without them and the millions of high-quality, armor-piercing bodkin arrowheads and artillery bolts they supplied, it was debatable if Rhin-Lotharingie could have ever thrown off the Imperial yoke.
"I see no reason why we cannot do so again, now that our joint faith is threatened by the corruption of greed within and besieged by the violence of infidels outside," he spat in contempt. "Weichsel has long stood as the 'Northern March of the Trinitian Realm', the bastion of true belief. We are more than ready to serve as the Arsenal of the Holy Father as well!"
Emotions stirred as the King declared his adamant faith, pledging his commitment to support the Holy War.
Riding upon this cresting wave of enthusiasm, Leopold soon turned towards his Landgrave once more:
"So what do you need?"
It took Pascal several moments of quiet contemplation. But in the end, he settled on one item with all conviction:
"One hundred Weichsel 150-millipace tandem-charge mortars, with no less than thirty rounds each."
It was enough to outfit two artillery battalions, and that was just to start.
----- * * * -----
It was late that night when Kaede knocked at her master's door.
Pascal was still wearing his undershirt when he opened the thick mahogany door to the main residence.
She averted her gaze in an instant. It had been hard enough just to work up the nerves to knock on the door. To look him in the eyes as she asked the humiliating question would be outright impossible.
But as a flushed-red Kaede was still trying to build up enough courage, Pascal took her hand and pulled her inside first:
"Good timing Kaede. I need to show you something."
He led her over to a dresser by the corner. Sitting atop the intricately-carved table was an item she would never expect most men to own: a rosewood jewelry box, complete with gold trim and magical enchantments.
"W-why do you have..."
"I am a gem magic user, remember?" Pascal reminded her with an ecstatic smile, as though he was about to show her one of his heirloom treasures.
"Runic Magic values stones with crystal lattice structures, especially non-metallic elements, because they can retain the most ether with the least amount of diffusion over time. High quality gemstones offer some of the most perfect crystal lattices found in nature. So for us, they are not just decorations of beauty but valuable tools for sorcery. Gem magic users like myself take this into an art form by maximizing the compression of ether inside the most flawless of gemstones."
Pascal opened the box's lid to reveal dozens of glittering gemstones filed neatly in rows. At the center of attention was an oval intense-green diamond of at least a hundred carats, with worth easily in the tens of millions had it been auctioned on Earth; perhaps even more, as a mysterious radiance seemed to emanate from within the diamond itself -- sparkles of turquoise light flowing across its perfect luster from the high compression of infused ether inside.
With her magic sensitivity trained up over the past few weeks, Kaede felt her gaze sucked in by the sheer brilliance of the intense ether concentration; the cascading light of her master's ether no less, which seemed to call out to her through its very glow.
Her eyes had grown so mesmerized that Pascal had to shake her out of it.
"I know girls are always entranced by beauty, but you seem to have forgotten yourself completely."
"It's not the gems, it's the ether," Kaede rubbed her eyes. "There must be some kind of resonance effect since I'm your familiar."
Pascal's thoughtful expression revealed that he hadn't considered such an effect, but he wasn't surprised by it either.
"Besides," she scowled at him. "I'm not exactly a girl."
Only biologically, and that's your fault.
"But you are so cute as one!" he happily announced, almost prompting Kaede to punch him.
"Anyways!" she rushed to switch the topic. "You were concerned over finances when we first came back, but you never considered selling this?"
Pascal pursed his lips as he stared back inside:
"There is something like a third of my life's ether in there. Just that diamond alone probably contains enough magical power to blow up a town if I pour a cascading explosive spell into it. Of course I cannot sell these!"
Now that he brought it up, Kaede did remember the many hours Pascal spent infusing one gemstone or another back at the academy. She had always thought he was creating more magical items, like the turquoise casting ring she wore which could replicate several basic spells. The box itself had probably been hidden away in his extra-dimensional storage.
"Besides, I will likely need them in Rhin-Lotharingie," he finished, his eyes glazed with sentiment as they stared at the precious stones that he spent years collecting.
"Has anyone ever accused you of having an obsession with shiny rocks?"
"Do not remind me about it," Pascal grunted in displeasure. "There was one time when Sylv thought I was ignoring her as I finished my daily infusion process. She threatened to make an engagement ring out of that diamond, enchanted so only she could take it off my finger."
Kaede barely kept herself from breaking down in laughter as the image of Pascal forced to wear an oversized diamond every day passed through her thoughts.
Unable to suppress her obvious glee, she attracted a piercing glare from Pascal.
"Oh do not worry, you have yours coming," he spoke ominously as his fingers reached inside the box.
They returned seconds later, fingertips carefully holding two drop earrings: each an array of five tiny rose-quartz arranged around a diamond like flower petals, with three thin strands of white gold dangling one more gemstone each.
Seeing those brought an instant end to Kaede's lingering humor.
"You're kidding me!"
"Not at all," came Pascal's turn to smirk. "I spent a good number of hours enchanting them so I expect you to wear them. Brings out the color in your eyes too."
"You want me to punch holes in my ears?" she cast back an outraged glare.
The mere thought of marking her skin offended Kaede to the point that tattoos in the old world outright disgusted her.
She had forgiven him for the runes on her arms thanks to their utility. Though to be fair, she had never minded the look of other girls wearing cute earrings.
"Parizfal had told me that you accumulated quite some hearing damage during the Battle of Nordkapp from those Firemist Ignition explosions," Pascal explained as his countenance fell serious. "Your hearing is far too acute to not protect it. These are actually enchanted to further enhance your hearing, but at the same time protect your ears from sound bursts and air pressure shocks."
Kaede sighed as she pouted, puffing out her cheeks.
He was right in that her ears needed some protection. Given how useful her familiar-boosted hearing had been on multiple occasions, she certainly couldn't wear enchanted earmuffs or something that would impede sound waves. Ear clips always held a chance of falling off, and male ear piercings were even more intrusive.
"Furthermore, they allow you to receive Farspeak communication spells and will attempt to auto-translate Brython, one of the three official languages in Rhin-Lotharingie," Pascal finished the feature list. "Both of those may prove useful in the future, since the familiar telepathy does have range limits and I cannot speak Brython myself."
It was a nice and handy set of utility function, as communication failures were easily the worst impediment while operating in foreign lands.
"Couldn't you have at least picked something simple?"
Pascal beamed with mischievousness once more:
"If you are going to wear something most of the time, might as well make it beautiful--"
This time Kaede did punch him in the gut, though her attempt to hold back at the last second meant it had struck with almost no strength.
Pascal raised an eyebrow as he rubbed where her fist had landed.
"That was adorable."
"Don't make me reenact our first morning," Kaede snarled back at his teasing smile.
But thanks to her wispy voice, even that must have sounded cute as Pascal lit a wide grin:
"Ask Marina to help you with those earrings. If you are worried about the piercing, ask Lady Mari -- Sylv always praises her embroidery for being extremely precise."
Kaede was still fuming when Pascal handed her a small velvet box with the earrings inside.
"By the way, what did you need me for?"
She had almost forgotten thanks to all his distractions. But since they were planning to depart Nordkreuz for Rhin-Lotharingie tomorrow and she really couldn't afford any more sleepless nights...
Kaede then remembered just exactly what she had come here to ask. Her eyes glanced towards her thin, fidgeting legs in their pure-white stockings as a fiery crimson blazed across her cheeks.
"Let me sleep in your bed tonight."
It had been scarcely a whisper, nearly inaudible even to herself.
"Uhhh... sorry? I could not hear that."
Kaede could feel her shoulders quaking. With embarrassed tears in her shut eyes she almost cried out:
"Please let me sleep in your bed tonight!"
A second passed in the silence that ensued, followed by another.
By the time a fearful Kaede opened her glazed eyes to look up, she found Pascal's jaw hanging open as rounded eyes gawked back at her.
"W-what... I mean, I am not really against it, but..."
Ever since coming to Hyperion, Kaede had demanded her own bed. Yet just a week after she finally had the leisure of using her own private bedroom, she was requesting to sleep in his once more.
It was apparently beyond his comprehension.
"I c-can't sleep!"
Kaede felt so humiliated that she wanted to cry.
"Ever since we came back... even when the herbal tea helped me fall asleep early, I'd still have nightmares and wake up in the middle of the night and then I can't fall asleep until it's almost morning!" the torrent of words rushed out. "It's been driving me mad and I don't even know why only except that I slept fine with you! And..."
With an exasperated sigh, Pascal stepped in and wrapped both of his arms around her thin shoulders, hugging her closely.
"It is alright. You can sleep here..."
Pulling away just enough to make eye contact, Pascal stroked her long, silky hair as he made an expression that seemed halfway between the adoration and helplessness, between 'I promised to take care of you' and 'just what am I going to do with you'.
"Sylv is not going to like this," he warned. "I think she can understand, and I hope she will agree to look the other way. But even then she is not going to approve and you had best be prepared."
Kaede bit down on her lip as she nodded.
She knew the consequences. It was a shame to rock the relationship so soon after the Princess grew kind to her.
But she couldn't think of any other way. After all, she could hardly spend every afternoon sleeping once they embark on the campaign. With an average of three to four hours of sleep per night, it would not take long before she collapsed from mental if not physical exhaustion.
"Sorry," she apologized to him in advance.
Another sigh emerged as the atmosphere fell into uncomfortable silence, before an odd chuckle from Pascal soon broke the lull:
"Forget just Sylv, are you trying to kill me with temptation?"
Kaede almost yelped as Pascal's quick tug pulled her onto the bedcovers. For a second her eyes snapped up in fear. But the turquoise gaze that shone back at her were still soft and caring.
"Stop worrying so much. You know I would never do anything to you without consent."
He always did have the oddest way of trying to cheer others up.
Kaede knew most men had standards and expectations. She knew that she wasn't being fair to him. Yet at the same time, the alternative seemed unfathomable.
Leaning in without doubt as she took comfort in his words, she could only offer one voice in response:
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