Awareness returned to Sylviane with a terrible headache. Her spinning brain felt bloated within the confines of an intolerably small container; her head seemed like it was about to fracture and split under the pressure.
"Unhhhh..." Her hands rushed up to the forehead. What in Holy Father's name did I do to deserve this torture?
"Mari..." the Princess cried out before opening her eyes. "Mari!"
"Yes, Your Highness?" came a gentle reply from the bodyguard and lady's maid, her blurry silhouette leaning in from the bedside chair.
Even before her vision cleared, Sylviane could recognize that they were in her expandable cabin -- the royal cabin, despite its austere interior.
She took the silver chalice that Mari offered with extended fingers. The water felt icy and refreshing to her dry lips; even the slight brain freeze proved a blessing as it dulled the throbbing pain in her head.
"--Your Highness had just returned from the battlefield... and you were berating the unconscious Lady Edith-Estellise when... His Grace..."
Mari trailed off into hesitation, unsure of how to put it into words. But as Sylviane finished her drink and wiped the tears and mucus from her eyes, her memories began to rush back amid a deluge of racing thoughts.
She hadn't been aware that Edith was unconscious. But so what? If anything, the Holy Father should have kept the girl awake. Dear Miss Perfect sorely needed to hear opinions contrary to all the praise and admiration, which had clearly gone to her head.
The saint of knights and crusaders indeed... she has spent so much time sheltering her own image of honor and chivalry, that she would risk leaving the remainder of the country defenseless just to preserve her pride!
It was the logic of ignorant buffoons, virtue championed by the bovine. To fight when there was every possibility of annihilation and not a shred for victory -- it was no courage but sheer lunacy! Had Edith even a quarter the intelligence to match her beauty, she would have detached irregulars to buy time while she withdrew the army north. The mighty fortification at the Avorican Capital of Roazhon laid less than forty kilopaces north of the battlefield, built on the other side of a natural defensive barrier provided by the Rivers Afon and Gwilen.
But stupidity, however terrible, could still be forgiven. Sylviane might wish some cutting words upon the front commander, but as returning memories filled out the missing gaps, those thoughts faded beneath her emotions towards the intolerable act of Pascal's betrayal... no, treason.
My own fiancé! How could he humiliate me like that! In broad daylight!
To forcibly silence her with a Blackout spell was the magical equivalent of negotiating with a cudgel. It was demeaning and humiliating, an act as barbarous as a husband beating his wife. Worse yet, it violated not only her body but the sanctuary of her mind. Had she not remembered her moment of shock upon hearing his words, she would have never believed him capable of such brutish insolence.
I should see him whipped in public for such affront!
The Princess gritted her teeth under more than just pain. Her fists clenched as they struggled to contain emotions more terrible than agony. Were it not for the headache that plagued her as a direct consequence of the Blackout spell, the surging anger that boiled as she scanned through racing memories would have exploded.
"Where's Hauteclaire?" Sylviane groaned as she pressed one palm into her forehead.
She could use some of that soothing phoenix aura right now.
"He... he's off visiting Durandal."
Hauteclaire and Durandal were close friends, sure; but Sylviane had no doubt that her phoenix was actually off alleviating the idiot saint's injuries, all while leaving her to suffer.
At that moment, the door to her cabin opened. Sir Robert was the first to enter, but behind him stepped in someone who was both the first and last face she wanted to ever see again.
"Pascal..." she barely forced out between gritted teeth. "What... do you have to say for yourself?"
Sylviane's hateful eyes rose slowly towards his face. She hardly noticed as her grasping fingers turned white, burning with torrents of anger that sought to crush the metal vessel in her hands.
She would give him one chance, to kneel down and beg for her forgiveness.
But instead, the Landgrave stared back in bewilderment. "Sorry?" he replied in an innocent version of his aristocratic drawl, as though he was unaware of any misdeeds and therefore blameless.
The Princess never even considered the possibility that he simply didn't hear her clearly.
Before she realized it, the emptied chalice in her hands had been sent hurling towards his face.
Her fiancé reacted just a second late. His hand batted aside the flying silver at the last moment, sending the weighted base straight into the surprised expression of the familiar girl flanking him.
The stunned Samaran swayed before rushing her small hands to her face, where a delicate nose was already dripping translucent-pink blood.
She'll heal in a minute.
Caught up in her fury, Sylviane easily brushed aside any guilt she might have had. But as Pascal's turquoise gaze pivoted back to her from his familiar, the embers of ire were already kindling among his shock and outrage.
"Sylv wha--- what is wrong with you!?"
"What is wrong with me? WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?" the Princess roared in a shrill explosion as Sir Robert rushed to close the door to the morning sun outside. "My own fiancé decided it was a good idea to shut me up by force, in front of an audience no less, by KNOCKING ME OUT, for a whole day!? And you think I AM THE ONE WHO IS WRONG!? ARE YOU INSANE OR JUST PLAIN RETARDED?"
Struck speechless by the diatribe, Pascal glanced toward the Lady Mari, who returned the barest of head-shakes.
Did you conspire with him as well?
The Princess' eyes narrowed as she reviewed Mari's expressions since waking up, images flying past at the same breakneck speed as a dozen other trains of thought. Her lady's maid might have seemed troubled, but to describe Mari as 'guilty' would be a gross injustice.
"I do not need an account from her," the Princess clarified. "I have my own memories to judge you by!"
"Yes, I admit, I was in the wrong for knocking you out like that."
Pascal's ire spoke more as a retort than any sincere apology. It certainly didn't help that he followed up by pointing towards the door, his voice growing more self-righteous with every passing second:
"But do you remember how you berated Lady Edith-Estellise as she laid there, bruised, bloody, and unconscious? Do you also remember how you called her an 'idiot' and 'fool' even as she underwent emergency surgical healing, in front of her own assembled troops -- the men and women who loved her almost like a mother for how she puts their lives ahead of her own on the battlefield!?"
"You forget who you are and whom you are speaking to, Landgrave!" Sylviane almost spat back. Being her fiancé and childhood companion had made this man brazen and impertinent. He would dare to question her authority, yet another clear sign that the young upstart needed to be put back in his place.
"I did not realize that she was unconscious at the time, but she bloody well deserved every word!"
The Princess' chest rose and fell with indignation as her wisteria gaze hardened with scorn.
"'Saint Estelle', they call her -- 'the Miracle of Ronceval'. She is the embodiment of virtue -- 'courageous and exemplary, benevolent and selfless, an example to us all...'"
Sylviane bitterly repeated the words that her father, the late Emperor Geoffroi, once spoke when he presented Edith with the Saint's Lily. The rechristened fae crysteel kite shield was a heirloom of the Royal House of Gaetane, given to her Great-Great-Grandfather Louis the Bold by the Faerie Sword Oriflamme, Princess-Consort Gwendolyn of Avorica.
It was the shield to match Sylviane's Faerie Plate armor -- such was the esteem that Edith held in her father Geoffroi's gaze. Those proud, doting eyes had shone what everyone else whispered within the palace halls, even if the Emperor could never say it aloud:
'If only she were born into royalty.'
'If only Princess Sylviane was perfect like her.'
Even Hauteclaire, her own familiar, preferred Edith over herself.
"--and even you believe she is beyond reproach!" Sylviane lashed out as a tear of betrayal slid down from the anguish in her gaze. "That her soul is as pristine as her enchanting beauty! So of course it is not my place to accuse someone so perfect!"
"I knew you were going to say that--!"
"But that is what you were thinking! Am I wrong!?" Sylviane challenged her fiancé's retort.
"You are shoving words straight into my mouth!" the Landgrave countered, torn between frustration, anger, and being completely flabbergasted.
"Oh please. Don't think I haven't seen how you stared at her in the past, lusting after her with the same eyes as every other man..."
"Do not compare me with every other sex-addled brainless imbecile out there!"
Sylviane sneered for a brief moment as she glanced towards the Samaran familiar who was still pinching that pretty nose.
"And you think I am blind to how you have started sleeping with your familiar again? Less than a minute away from your lawful fiancée no less! So tell me, who is the 'sex-addled brainless imbecile' now?"
With his cheeks flushed, Pascal took a deep breath to calm down before explaining:
"Kaede... has been having difficulty sleeping. She has been suffering repeated nightmares from battle trauma. So I--"
"So you thought her a mistress who would better share your bed than sleep in her own?" Sylviane had to stop herself from barking a laugh in disbelief. "What a convenient excuse!"
"It's not an excuse," the familiar herself chimed in, her wispy voice barely audible behind her embarrassment. "I-I'm the one who asked him... I've been having nightmares ever since I returned to Nordkreuz... since I stopped sharing a cabin with him..."
"Of course now the familiar would disgrace herself to stand up for her master," the Princess cut off the rest.
She had no time for such pitiful attempts at excuses.
By this point, Pascal had leveled his palms into the air in exasperation:
"Sylv, you are not even trying to listen--!"
"I have no need to listen to your lousy excuses--!"
"--I may have slept in the same bed as Kaede, but we have done no more than that--!"
"--only because she has the soul of a man and is not a complete harlot--!"
While everybody else in the room already knew the truth, Sir Robert's eyes almost popped out of their sockets as his eyes spun towards the Samaran girl.
"--besides, do I look stupid enough to vie for the affections of Edith-Estellise!? Just look at what happened to the other--!"
Pascal had tried to talk over his fiancée by repeatedly escalating his volume. But the Princess would tolerate it no longer as she pounced out of her bed and all but screamed in return:
"--AND NONE OF IT EVEN BEGINS TO JUSTIFY THE CRIME THAT YOU HAVE COMMITTED!"
Thrown back onto the defensive, Pascal could only let loose a helpless, defeated sigh. He then exchanged a brief glance with his familiar before taking several more deep, calming breaths.
But what helped sooth him only made Sylviane's knuckles squeeze tighter as recognition struck:
It only served to remind her of the permanent bond between these two -- a contract as sacred as the rite of matrimony itself.
"Yes, you are absolutely right," her fiancé admitted. "It was I who knocked you out in the most barbaric manner, and there is no excuse for that."
Unlike his previous apology, Pascal actually sounded remorseful this time, much like a sinner keen to beg for the Holy Father's forgiveness. It enticed Sylviance's sense of mercy, to calm her anger and offer him another chance.
...Then he ruined it with a single following word: the holier-than-thou 'but' after the 'sorry' that rendered it meaningless.
"--but I did it because I could not think of any other way that would work fast enough to stop you from ruining yourself!"
"So you can ruin me instead? To destroy my honor and dignity before the eyes of the army!?"
"Please Sylv! If you would just let me finish!" Pascal half-begged and half-scolded.
"--Just like you allowed me to finish before blacking out my consciousness!?"
"That is what I am trying to explain! That I did it for your sake!"
But before the next thought could rush out from the Princess' lips, it was Sir Robert who beseeched next on behalf of the Landgrave:
"Your Highness, please!"
The royal armiger even knelt down on one knee as a sign of obedience, that he was still on her side.
He was soon joined on the floor by Lady Mari, and even Kaede as well.
With her breaths loud and her indignation irrepressible, Sylviane bored her cutting glare into Pascal's bitter, pleading eyes. Facing those turquoise orbs swirling with emotions, the Princess decided that the man before her would receive one more chance... and only one.
"On your knees then!"
"Sylv... what--!?" Pascal uttered back in stunned surprise.
"If you wish to explain your crimes, then you may at least do so with due penitence. On your knees, Your Grace!"
His expression floored by what he was hearing, the Landgrave of Nordkreuz slowly bent one leg and lowered himself onto the floor.
Sitting back down on her bed like it was her throne, Sylviane could at last console herself that nature had, once again, been restored to its proper order. It sparked a sense of triumph, a minor satisfaction that all was as it should be once more.
But it was still a long way from exacting her revenge, her desire to see him humiliated in return.
"Your Highness," Pascal stressed as he began, his speech slow but soon accelerating. "Lady Edith-Estellise, to be sure, has the intellect of a common blacksmith. But with Gaston and Cosette in the south, and Gervais leading his brothers in the mountains, who else does Rhin-Lotharingie have? This is a woman who was abandoned at an abbey as a child, who was thrice engaged and thrice widowed, her third husband assassinated at the altar itself! Since then she has sworn a life of celibacy and dedicated her sword to the defense of the Trinitian Realm; for this, her limited mental faculties were pressed upon to command a theater of war where she must face several times her forces in battle!"
"In short..." He paused to catch his breath. "Lady Edith-Estellise has been forced onto a role that she could never fulfill because everyone insists on putting her on a pedestal! And just to hold the line, she is left no choice but to constantly martyr herself by carrying that doubled-edged Sword of Charity!"
"For Holy Father's sake, Sylv!" Pascal plead as he gradually rose from the ground, his tone normalizing as that high-handed conceit returned alongside his annoying drawl. "She is a woman who deserves our pity, not our scorn! Certainly not before the army that she is like a mother to! Or do you think any child would gladly hear insults leveled at a beloved parent cursed by tragedy, regardless of whether they ring with the echo of truth?"
Sylviane didn't even have to think. She would cut out the insolent person's tongue for daring to presume they had the right to criticize the late Emperor -- her dutiful father who died prioritizing the country rather than his own safety.
But that was also the difference: Edith didn't sacrifice herself out of a love for her country; she did it for her own ideals, for honor and virtue.
In other words, it was her vanity.
"Perhaps my words were brash," the Princess' irate tone left her own admittance hollow. "But that is no excuse for your outrageous behavior!"
"I am sorry but what else was I supposed to do? Stand by and watch as Rhin-Lotharingie's own soldiers come to detest their Princess?"
"I don't care what the situation is. You have no right to use such barbaric methods!"
"You are not being reasonable!" Pascal protested, his hands waving in desperation.
"I am your future wife and empress! I don't need to reason with you!"
Sylviane's finishing words left a tone of finality in the air.
The period had been carved in stone. There was no longer any purpose left to argue. Only an oppressive silence stayed to reign over the atmosphere as the two betrothed locked their detesting gazes.
"Have it your way then," Pascal almost spat out as he spun his heels towards the door. "Kaede--"
"Leave Kaede here," Sylviane interjected. "You are not allowed to be with her again until you learn to repent for your actions!"
"WHAT!?" Pascal spun back around within a second's time.
"She is MY familiar and MY responsibility! You cannot just-- confiscate her!" he gestured towards the Samaran girl with bewildered outrage.
"I can, I am, and you will accept it!" the Princess fired back. "What other fiancée would tolerate you keeping a mistress so openly? She is an insult on my honor!"
"She is not... You know that is not what she is!"
"Then perhaps I should give you twenty lashes before the army! As appropriate for the offenses of Lese Majesty, Insubordination, and Assault towards a superior officer under Weichsel Military Code!"
Before her, Sir Robert paled instantly. His expression was aghast that the Princess could even suggest such a thought. The military bullwhip could break skin in a single strike; twenty lashes was more than sufficient to reduce even the most sturdy back to bloody tatters.
...But this only convinced Sylviane that he had clearly missed the bigger picture -- that Pascal's actions amounted to far more than just insolence; it was treason.
By knocking her out in an open display of unilateral force, he violated not only her dignity as a human being, but also undermined her legitimacy as a sovereign in the eyes of her people. If her Weichsel fiancé could just trample over her objections like that in public, then who could say how much foreign influence her future husband would lord over Rhin-Lotharingie through her?
With the destiny of her country resting on this succession crisis, what Pascal did was tantamount to a stab in her back. She had to punish him to clear this mistaken impression, to show that she was still the one in control.
But before she could even consider making him understand the gravity of his actions, Pascal ripped the gulf between them yet further as he yelled back:
"I would rather be flogged in public, than to debase myself in failing to uphold my obligations to her!"
To her!? What about to ME!? Your lawful future WIFE the eyes of the Holy Father!
That can be arranged! Sylviane was about to shout back when Kaede finally cried out:
"Pascal, please! You're not helping here! And I can take care of myself!"
The faint quiver in her voice sounded anything but sure of her safety in the Princess' care. Nevertheless, her master fell silent and -- after another few deep breaths and probable telepathic exchanges -- gave in to the inevitable.
Meanwhile, the other silent party -- Lady Mari -- had stepped forth to quell the royal temper:
"Your Highness, please reconsider," she knelt down to hold the Princess' hand. "The army will not like you any better for a lack of compassion towards your own betrothed."
Beckoned by the pleading sentiments of her maid and longtime companion, Sylviane finally brought herself to take deep breaths. Images floated into her mind of the last time she had witnessed a man flogged for his crimes, and she felt the bile in her throat as she remembered the agonizing visage of a back torn bloody.
Truth be told, she had no desire to see Pascal tortured. Robert and Cecylia might consider her bit of a 'sadist', but she held only revulsion toward the twisted expressions of pain.
This is all his fault for goading me so.
"You will leave Kaede here," Sylviane announced sternly, trying to remain calm as she locked gazes once more with those turquoise eyes brimming with suppressed fury. "Then you will return to your cabin and consign yourself under house arrest until further notice."
For a moment Pascal said nothing. Then, the irate Landgrave's hand almost shook as he raised a finger in return:
"If you harm her..."
He left the remainder unsaid as he strode out and slammed the cabin door behind him.
----- * * * -----
"Your Grace! Wait!"
Sir Robert had to make his excuses before rushing out after Pascal. He found the Landgrave no more than fifty paces away, his returning stare defeated and resentful.
After sprinting over to catch up, Robert began to cast Sanctum Veil around themselves. Security was high here in the center of the Lotharin encampment. But the last thing they want would be for a patrolling officer to overhear their conversation and leak out a twisted rumor. With the spell in place, those outside their immediate vicinity would hear nothing but inconspicuous conversations such as about food, clothing, and the weather.
"Your Grace, please," Robert began the moment his ward took hold. "You have to forgive Her Highness. She's been under another episode since her speech to Lady Lynette's troops yesterday, maybe even before that. She doesn't--"
"Yes, I know," Pascal interrupted irritably. "You have told me before what this 'hypomania' condition does to her. But knowing what causes it hardly makes me feel any better! Here I am, exhausting every ounce of my energy in trying to keep her country intact, to piece together her retreating armies, to make sure she could still be the sovereign! And what do I receive in return?" He thrust a finger back towards the cabin. "THAT!"
"House arrest!?" he scorned as his chest huffed in anger. "I have not even eaten since lunch yesterday and barely slept last night. I would be happy to go back to my cabin for the first time since our arrival here!"
"Still, Your Grace... you have to admit: many of her accusations against you were true..."
Robert's voice soon trailed off as Pascal sent him a smoldering glare of you-know-what-I-had-meant.
The Landgrave did commit an act of barbarism, and he was being unfaithful to his fiancée in sleeping with another woman -- however chaste the experience might be. But while a normal, reasonable individual might have considered the broader circumstances and exercised restraint, the Princess... was currently running with a crippling bias towards her own beliefs and impulses.
Had Pascal began with a thorough apology, perhaps Sylviane would have stayed calmer. Except such behavior was alien to the Landgrave's pride. A better prepared Pascal might have considered it, but not when he was hungry, stressed, fatigued, and simply carrying far too much baggage in his mind.
I really should have advised him before we arrived... Robert sighed as he berated himself. Like always, I only think of these things after it's too late.
They had been out inspecting the battalions before joining them in the Mass of the Holy Word. After offering their prayers alongside tens of thousands of troops, it had put them in a rather... spiritual mood.
...which obviously didn't help Pascal step down from the moral pedestal.
"Yes... I know I deserved some of that for my rash actions. You do not have to tell me," Pascal admitted at last before his indignation spiked once more. "But she could not even attempt to see my perspective? To understand why I did it? And Kaede... she is the innocent one in all this!"
With his impassioned embers burning out as quickly as they came, Pascal gritted his teeth as he struggled to suppress the injustice that he clearly felt wronged by.
"I'm afraid rationalizing from any perspective other than her own is beyond her at the moment," Robert quietly spoke what they both already knew.
But to understand it logically was one thing. To accept it emotionally... that was entirely something else.
"What do you plan to do now?"
"What will I do? What can I do!?" Pascal's derisive reply seemed to mock both Robert and himself. "She is still my fiancée! One of the few people I could still call 'family'! I could hardly just turn my back on her!"
Exhaling another heavy sigh, Robert glanced back towards the Princess' cabin, where Pascal's parting words did -- truth be told -- leave him concerned.
"I guess I should feel relieved..."
He had yet to finish before Pascal sneered in reply:
"What do you take me for? A commoner? That I would even consider annulling our contract just because of an obstacle like this?"
"I will see you tomorrow -- hopefully -- Sir Robert," Pascal brushed him off as he stepped out of the Sanctum Veil area and went on his way. "Let us pray she snaps out of it by then!"
No, Sir Robert pursed his lips in thought. At best, she'll crash into a terrible depression. Although I guess even that's better than actively ruining her life like this.
"What a day it is to be celebrating the Midwinter Mass..." he sighed to himself.
----- * * * -----
"...With the 23rd Regional Brigade -- commanded by the Duke of Carnutres -- joining us, all accountable forces have now been withdraw to the Gwilen River crossings close to Roazhon. The exception being the five battalions detached by the Duke of Pictiers and Landgrave of Nordkreuz, left behind to harass Caliphate activities."
Sylviane nodded along as Lady Anne finished her brief tactical summary at the projection table.
Anne was the Knight Preceptor and Mother Abbess who once raised Edith. Now, she served as the saint's chief-of-staff and commanded the Sword Lily battalion. She wore leather brigandine over her traditional nun's habit -- a tunic in black and white that concealed much of her lean one-sixty-eight (5'6") figure. Her wrinkled, stern countenance seemed in her mid-forties, with an appearance that would have been homely had it not been for her deep-emerald gaze. Her long, candy-apple-red hair lay obscured under a black veil, with a white cross decorating it behind her head as the symbol of the Order of the Knight-Healers of Saint Joan, or better known as the Knight Hospitallers.
"Do we have a count on our casualties yet?" asked the Princess.
"The tally is still coming in, Your Highness, although many units will need to have their command structure rebuilt before we could even begin to accurately assess their losses," the Mother Abbess grimaced. "Twenty-seven battalions have lost almost their entire combat strength, and many others were so badly mauled they need reorganization before they can even fight again. My initial estimates are around eighteen to twenty-four thousand irrecoverable losses."
Sylviane could feel her knuckles tighten as she leaned into the projection table. Her eyes fixated themselves on the Lotharin unit markers by the river as she pictured the endless columns of missing men those numbers failed to represent.
"Half the available army..." she muttered through clenched teeth. This day is just getting worse and worse.
"What about the enemy?"
"We destroyed much of their vanguard and first three attack waves, plus Lady Estelle annihilated almost their entire fifth wave," spoke the Duke of Helveteu, one of the army's more experienced noblemen. "Combined with casualties inflicted upon their light horse and mounted archers, I'd estimate their casualties to be around... ten to fourteen thousand."
"...Except they took the battlefield, so two-third of that as they'll be able to recover their wounded," finished Sylviane.
The healing arts of Hyperion had been refined to the point where soldiers who survived the battle itself were very unlikely to die from wounds or infections, at least for the winning side. The noble and yeomen troops were harder to treat, due to their innate ether resistance which sought to reject even a healer's magic; but the common soldier could regrow an entire severed arm and still return for combat duty within two weeks.
According to the Articles of War, the defeated must be given medical attention as well. But 'outsiders' would always receive a lower priority for treatment than the victors' 'own'. Given the emergency nature of injuries, even a minute's delay could mean the difference between life -- albeit as a prisoner of war, a euphemism for 'slave labor' -- and being dumped into a mass grave.
"So what you are all saying... is that Edith -- with your support -- lost nearly half our army, in exchange for one-tenth of our enemy's?"
Sylviane lifted her eyebrows as she raised her head with a cold, unforgiving look. She glared across the nobles and officers assembled inside the large expandable cabin that served as their briefing room.
And the stupid woman herself is still too unconscious to account for her actions! she thought about Edith, the commander responsible for this entire debacle.
"We had hoped that the ambush would be more successful..." mumbled one officer.
"...And that the powder explosion would buy us more time..."
"Plus, they were the elite cavalry corp of their army," interjected a third, as though it had justified everything.
"Yes, notice they're well-led cavalry with the capacity for quick response and rapid maneuvering," Sylviane's fingers pointed on the map, to the main Caliphate encampment that remained near the battlefield. "Notice the rather flat terrain in that area, notice complete lack of natural barriers to impede their movement except for some sparse woods, and notice that they began the battle outnumbering you!"
"What is your next excuse? That you weren't expecting to be flanked!? Have you been all struck down by idiocy!?"
Several faces reddened with anger as the Princess lashed out. But before any of them could retort, it was Mother Abbess Anne who began in a soft, unperturbed tone:
"Our goal had never been to win outright. We only hoped to halt the infidels' advance, to inflict enough casualties upon them and forcing them to reorganize -- which is exactly what they're doing. Now, tens of thousands of refugees will have the time they need to reach the safety of Roazhon."
"Safety?" Sylviane turned to stare as though the nun had suddenly sprouted horns. "How safe do you think the city will be when I tell Queen Katell Penteur that her capital will soon be under siege, and instead of outnumbering us by less than two-to-one, the Caliphate now has four times as many heads as we do!?"
"What are you suggesting then, Your Highness?" the Mother Abbess replied as a veil of disdain enshrouded her voice. "That we betray our vows to protect the people and abandon the innocent in order to make our lives easier?"
"We will do what is necessary to protect all the peoples of Rhin-Lotharingie, not just those who stand before us!"
"--Then when you stand before the Holy Father for judgment, will you also tell him that yesterday, virtue could not be upheld because it stood against practicality?"
"--I will tell him that it is my burden of responsibility to bear evil for a greater good," Sylviane retorted. "That we could not afford to gamble this army away and leave the entire northern flank of the empire defenseless!"
"Our reinforcements from the interior will arrive by then..."
"Of course! There will be forty thousand reinforcements arriving in three days' time to make up for this army's destruction," the Princess interjected with feigned understanding. "Why is it that these troops are not labeled on the map? Or do you suppose that the Holy Father will send his angels to make up for the disparity?"
"Remember, Your Highness, that we all win or lose by the grace of the Holy Father," Lady Anne countered, her calm demeanor refusing to be agitated. "The Lord himself shall decide the final outcome of battles, judged by our virtue and sin."
"The outcomes of battles are decided by the Holy Father," Sylviane acquiesced first. "But also by the qualitative and quantitative disparity of our armies, by the tactics and planning of our leaders, by the morale and discipline of our troops!"
Stepping closer, the Princess stared down the Mother Abbess from less than an arm's reach away.
"--How many wars did the Holy Father win for us just because we declared in his name?"
The answer was known by everyone in the room: there had been six major holy wars since Pope Peter VI launched the first at the behest of King Ferdinand I of Weichsel -- three declared by the Trinitians and three by the Tauheeds, including this one. Thus far, only the Third Holy War, declared by the Caliph Fatimah, had achieved a decisive victory.
"Then what do you advocate? That we simply surrender?" challenged Lady Anne. "Even if we had lost not a single soul this battle, even if we received all the expected reinforcements for the next three weeks ahead of time, the Caliphate's forces will still outnumber us and be of superior quality! Without the grace of the Holy Father, this is a battle that we cannot win!"
"I can," came a familiar voice from the corner of the room as the door that nobody noticed opening pressed shut.
"Blasphemy!" Hissed one of the Hospitallers behind Anne.
"I can and I shall, because the Holy Father has seen to place me here. Do you deny this?" the newcomer countered as other officers stepped out of his way.
"Pascal," Sylviane addressed in a suppressed calm. "I believe you are supposed to be under house arrest? Who told you to come?"
But before he could even answer, it was the Colonel von Mackensen -- the Knight Phantom commander who hadn't said one word all meeting -- who spoke out first:
"I did, Your Highness."
The Princess turned to shoot him a royal glare. But von Mackensen rebuffed it with a mere upward twist of his lips, as though he found it cute.
"I told him to quit being a spoiled little brat and come back to do his job," he stressed. "Because while Your Highness may be soft hearted and unwilling to flog him for insubordination, I am not."
----- * * * -----
Outside Sylviane's cabin, Kaede watched as light flurries of snow drifted down from the heavens.
Dusk was approaching, and most of the soldiers have retired to the larger cabins and open tents. Even with the gloom of loss and defeat surrounding the whole encampment, Kaede could still hear the rowdy banter of assembled troops. They celebrated this holy day with prayers spoken out loud, with festive music and bellowing chants as they drunk away their anxieties and sorrow.
Meanwhile, Kaede could only watch from afar as she knelt on a flat rock outside the cabin door, feeling the curious stares from the inner camp patrols.
After five hours, the snow had begun to accumulate on her hair and shoulders.
How much longer was left? Even she didn't know.
Not wanting to cause any more trouble for Pascal, Kaede decided to suffer in silence until the Princess released her. Maybe that would be when Sylviane returned from the meeting. Maybe it would have wait until morning tomorrow.
Her legs were already numb from the pain, to the point where she could barely even feel them. The rock had a few uneven ridges that really hurt at the beginning. The thin fabric of her stockings certainly did nothing to help.
But it was still a small price to pay, compared to alternatives like being pilloried for days, or beaten, or branded. After all, Hyperion was still in the pre-modern days of physical punishments -- which were actually considered 'light', compared to magical sanctions.
She just wished someone would bring a plate of that alluring chicken broth that the camp was feasting on. Thanks to Pascal, her stomach hadn't been refilled since lunch yesterday.
"Happy Christmas, Kaede," she muttered to herself as she leaned forward, pressing her hands into her stomach.
Her period cramps were acting up again.
Happy Consumer Capitalism Day, Kaede tried to not feel sorry for herself as she repeated her father's favorite joke at this time of the year in Japan.
But this only made it worse as a tear slid out from her eyes, running down the same trail as the countless others she shed when her legs felt like they were about to break.
I want to go home and see Ma and Pa again...
----- * * * -----
Sylviane shifted in her comfortable bed.
The Princess rolled over, pulling the comforter up to cover her ears this time.
Her cabin was supposed to be soundproof, yet why was she being awaken by this moaning and groaning?
Grasping her silk casting gloves off the bedside table, Sylviane waved it at the light.
She then sat up in her bed, her thin fingers still rubbing blurry eyes in the dim illumination magic.
Her eyesight soon focused, and it took no time at all to pinpoint the source of her disturbance.
In the far corner of the room, a small girl was curled up on the floor. Her only padding were the black-and-white pseudo-uniform she wore, and the hay padding she slept on top of.
"Kaede..." Sylviane muttered in confusion, before everything flooded back to her.
The stone ring. The encounters. The battle.
The caustic words she spewed towards Edith, towards her own officers and men... and worst of all, towards Pascal.
He had supported her through her worst moments. He had stood as the last pillar in her life, as the only person she could still rely on.
...She almost had him arrested, humiliated in public, and whipped to within an inch of his life.
Mari had intervened in time to avoid that catastrophe, but neither of her armigers could persuade her not to take her anger out on the familiar.
Kaede had knelt outside in the snow, on an uneven rock, with her legs glued to the spot by a sticky spell, for ten hours. Then, as a means of further humiliating the girl who could no longer even walk, Sylviane had given her only a bundle of hay to sleep on.
...Not even enough for a human, but just enough for a dog.
"Stay away...!" Kaede jerked her leg, her body squirming to push herself even further into the corner.
Even the reasons Sylviane had ridiculed proved true, as the Samaran familiar was relapsing into those nightmares right before her very eyes.
Oh blessed Lord... what have I done...
The Princess' hands were shaking as she arced her head towards her palms.
She had repaid kindness with ingratitude, rewarded aid with anger, and held back exactly none of her worst urges.
Her envy, her apathy, her cruelty, her wrath... they were traits more hideous than any scar or deformity, yet she flaunted them openly before the eyes of the world as though they were glittering jewelry.
...It was no wonder why Hauteclaire hadn't returned the entire day.
Pressing her palms together, Sylviane bent over in her own bed as tears of regret and self-contempt pricked her glass eyes.
Oh Holy Father... please forgive me...
Perhaps the Holy Father would; the Lord was merciful, after all. But how could she ever face Pascal after today, how could she ever ask for his forgiveness? Or even apologize to Kaede?
Such words were no longer just the incoherent cries of a girl deluded by the subconscious. They were accusations against the Princess' cruelty towards an innocent, reminders of the compounding sins that would place her in eternal damnation.
I didn't mean it... I swear...
Her eyes were shaking. Her hands were trembling. Sylviane felt like she had woken up from some terrible dream, as though her conscience had returned after being possessed by a demon.
...except there were no such excuses to shield her from facing her own wickedness.
She could still remember the satisfaction when she stuck the familiar's legs onto that torturous rock and walked away, leaving the horrified girl alone to suffer.
"It's not...!" Kaede twitched again.
This is my fault... this is all mine...
Unable to bear the terrified stammering anymore, Sylviane pushed off the comforter and stood up in her underwear. Half afraid and half rushing, she made her way over to the trembling girl on the ground.
Sliding down next to the Samaran girl, Sylviane gently stretched out her hands to pull Kaede off the hay padding. Pulling the other girl close against her chest, she folded her head into the other and cried tears of remorse as she plead for atonement.
"I'm sorry. I really am sorry. I didn't mean it."
The Princess never realized when the familiar girl woke up, never saw how terrified those confused pink eyes were as Kaede found herself in the arms of the one who had tortured -- and two weeks ago, nearly raped her.