(This scene takes place in the middle of Volume 3, hours before meeting Cecylia during Chapter 10)
Standing a hundred paces from the straw practice dummy, Kaede kept her footing with her left side facing the target. Her hand drew a fresh arrow, and her body straightened into the proper form -- pelvis and shoulders in parallel, back straight from neck to feet.
She held her spring-steel greatbow diagonally in hand, before gripping the bow string with her right glove. A grooved piece of horn sewn into the thumb's crouch in her three-fingered archery glove caught onto the metal wire. Meanwhile her left hand readjusted itself on the bow's grip.
Kyūdō archery wasn't just a sport. It was also a ritual, a contemplative prayer to the perfection of form.
Ashibumi, Dozukuri, Torikake, Tenouchi, and now -- as Kaede turned her eyes to face the target once more -- Monomi.
A cold, morning breeze swept through the grassy meadow where she stood, but Kaede hardly even felt the chill as her mind zoned out everything else in the world. She raised the greatbow above her head, paused, then pulled it back down, drawing away the steel wire while pushing her bow forward at the same time.
It shouldn't have been possible under normal circumstances. Kaede's Yumi-Daikyū wasn't made of laminated wood but far stronger spring-steel. Her meager strength should have left her hand shaking just trying to pull back the stress-laden bowstring. But Pascal had grown tired of refilling her spell-holding runes with Elemental Body of Earth every day after practice. He enchanted her gloves weeks ago with... not strength, but a significant reduction of reactionary forces for a steady draw.
It was magic that violated the laws of energy conservation, so much that Kaede still couldn't fully wrap her head around it.
Not that it mattered as Kaede's posture reached Kai -- the full draw.
Her mind melded into the arrowhead to form one entity. Her eyes saw nothing but the target itself. Her thumb and fingers then released the string, hurling out the arrow across the open air.
The arrow in flight represented something sacred to Kaede, bringing her a sense of perfect serenity.
...Just before it soared straight into the straw dummy.
Lowering her bow, Kaede's concentration returned from her intense focus. It had felt good to leave the world behind, to put aside all of her worries and consider only the absolute truth:
Her arrow was fated to pierce the straw man's throat.
She heard a few cheers. "Dead center, every one of them!" A nearby Lotharin cried.
Sixteen practice arrows, four targets. All of them in the sniper's 'triangle of death'. Had the targets been made of flesh and blood, every one of those hits would have been fatal.
She hadn't split any of her own arrows though. That represented the pinnacle of archery that she had yet to reach.
"Damn impressive for a girl your age," even a relaxed Ranger Captain appraised.
"Thanks," Kaede beamed as a logistics trooper retrieved her arrows. Then, as she slowly walked back after accepting them, she noticed two familiar faces within the dispersing audience.
"Ariadne!" She waved before taking a staggering step, her legs still sore from the Princess' punishment two days ago.
"Good morning, Kaede," the serene lady seemed to bewitch the bystanders as she strode across the grass. Her pink tresses and fiery uniform billowed in the morning breeze, while her hand held the reins of a pristine white pegasus.
Flanking her was not her fiancé but a tall, broad shouldered young man with gray eyes, chiseled chin, and a full mustache.
"Sergeant... Steinmetz, was it?" Kaede greeted with a smile as she remembered the section leader from Captain Karen von Lichnowsky's company, who had drank with her after the desperate fighting at Nordkapp.
"Sir Lieutenant now," the yeoman thrust his muscular chest forth with pride, a shiny new Knight's Cross decorating his collar. "But you can call me Eckhart."
"Congratulations," Kaede eagerly shook his massive hand, also noticing the difference in uniform -- he now wore the black-on-burning-red of a Knight Phantom.
"Pascal and Colonel von Hammerstein recruited him for the Ghost Riders while he was recovering from a wound in Nordkreuz," Ariadne explained as she noticed Kaede's gaze. "He's still learning our tricks in using the Phantom Steed, but we're certainly glad to have a decorated veteran like him with us."
"I serve as Captain Gerd Kessler's new second-in-command."
It was almost shocking how quickly everyone's rank rose after the White Typhoon campaign. The Ghost Riders had paid in blood during the Air Battle of Nordkreuz. But in exchange, the survivors received the honor of becoming the 6th, fully-fledged Knight Phantom formation in Weichsel's armed forces.
"I can't think of anyone more deserving," Kaede grinned from ear to ear. "Are the two of you out for a stroll?"
Ariadne nodded with her elegant smile.
"I was giving him another lesson on some of our aerial maneuver tactics. Gerd is a good leader in the field, but he's not the best at explaining details."
Leadership really is half mentoring, Kaede nodded.
"I noticed back at Nordkapp," Eckhart added as he stared at Kaede's weapon. "But your bow really is unusual. There aren't many archers in Weichsel; but now that we're in Rhin-Lotharingie, it's obvious that your archery style is odd too."
"I do come from a fabled land," the Samaran girl glowed with a mysterious smile. "The Lotharins use the three-fingered 'Inner Sea draw'." -- Kaede noticed as 'Mediterranean' translated into its Hyperion equivalent as soon as her lips formed the words -- "But I come from the Far East. We use a variant of the superior 'thumb draw' commonly seen among nomadic societies."
"Why's it better?"
Presenting her bow, Kaede curled her right thumb around the bowstring and pulled on it, while wrapping the index and middle finger around in a tight grip.
"The nomads use a thumb-ring instead of a glove, but the idea is similar. The thumb is a single digit that holds greater strength than the other fingers combined. This brings the advantage of a narrower grip on the bowstring that pulls harder, further, and never suffers an uneven release -- unlike the three-finger draw which must stay coordinated even as the fingers tire, otherwise they'd foul the shot."
Ariadne looked up, her eyes impressed:
"How long have you been practicing archery?"
"Since I was... nine?" Kaede tilted her head to ponder. "Pa took me to Mongolia -- a region in the east -- for a trip, and I was fascinated when we watched a tournament. My style has changed some since then, but I've been shooting for a good seven-eight years now."
My Kyūdō teacher wasn't pleased by my 'crude' steppe habits though, she thought back with a wistful smile. Though he'd probably scream heresy if he saw my bow now.
It was his biggest drawback when going to tournaments: his form was 'contaminated', so to speak. Always had points taken off.
...His father had complained of Japanese racism though. 'Can't let a half-blooded foreigner win, it'd insult their Dai Nippon pride,' he would grumble in private.
Kaede shivered as a new breeze blew across the clearing, while Ariadne's pegasus neighed in the chill. With her attention drawn to the steed, Kaede changed the subject to chase away the bittersweet homesickness:
"What did you name your new pegasus?"
The Samaran girl still remembered that moment atop the skywhale, when a Northmen berserker hacked into Ariadne's first familiar and mount. The lady had been thrown off and almost killed, before Kaede saved her with a miraculous, last second arrow.
A shadow of guilt ran through Ariadne's cyan gaze as her gloved fingers combed through the pegasus' mane with adoration.
It was the exact same name she had given to her first familiar.
Kaede's stomach flipped. Had she died in battle, would Pascal just summon another and call her 'Kaede'?
Don't be ridiculous, her mind chided. Pascal certainly hadn't tried to name her after another.
Given that a master's death would doom the familiar but not vice versa, the familiar bond's magic really was unfair. But then, that was the case for any relationship where authority and power were inherently skewed, be it master and familiar, aristocrat and peasant, or bourgeois and proletariat...
Authority was unavoidable in any social structure. What differed and truly mattered, was respect.
"That name is really special to you, isn't it?" Kaede forced a grin towards the lady, trying to suppress her bothersome thoughts.
For a moment Ariadne said nothing, not even as a nostalgic smile began to form. Then:
"It's the flower Parzifal gave me when he first asked me to a dance."
Kaede's eyebrows shot up at that. The Edelweiss had been enshrined in Swiss and Austrian culture because of its rarity, for the flower only grew on high, rocky passes and symbolized the untarnished beauty of the mountains. Retrieving it to give to a beloved was meant to be a test of courage and dedication. Since the translation magic rarely matched terms without equivalence in the meanings beneath them, she expected that the Hyperion flower had a similar background.
Sure enough, Eckhart's eyes swelled:
"He fetched one himself? Our healer is a brave man."
"Where do they grow in Weichsel?" Kaede asked the Lieutenant.
"They don't. They only grow on the high mountains -- the Dead Mountains," he stressed as danger flashed across his gaze. "The Edelweiss is the only flower that survives uncorrupted in those forsaken lands."
The legacy of extinct vampire clans continues to this day. A gray, poisonous mist that covered those rocky, steep slopes which could kill an unwarded man within minutes. Even for a mage, this was a challenge that would tax both his physical and magical endurance, not to mention the courage it took to brave treacherous mountains with zero visibility.
"He did admit to me later that he had help from Gerd, who mountaineers for a hobby," Ariadne accentuated as though she clearly thought Gerd was crazy. "He picked the flower himself. But the most important part was what he said to me, even back then when he was all shy and embarrassed and insecure."
With an angelic smile blooming across her cherry lips, Ariadne recounted the scene that had began the love of her life:
"He said I should never be without my noble purity, for I was his beacon of guidance in this world."