"You've been to Earth?"
Kaede's eyes were as wide as saucers, as she stared unblinkingly at the Worldwalker amidst the barren, wintry forest. The two women were taking a stroll through Ceredigion's woods, not far from the main camp of the Lotharin army.
"Third orbital of Sol? Indeed," Gwendolyn nodded. "The first realm I visited after I began traveling the worlds."
A bittersweet nostalgia spread across her lips as she leaned back against an oak tree:
"I was rather depressed and wanted to leave everything behind. So I found this beautiful lake on a rainy, forested island to relax in. But it seems that once you're a queen, you stand out no matter where you go. The tranquil years passed, and I eventually came to the attention of a local Prince in search of help."
"I take it you turned him down, treaty and all?" Kaede mused as she munched on a mouthful of lamb stew, its warm bowl nursed between her small hands.
"The Treaty... has far too many loopholes," Gwendolyn scoffed with a disdainful smile. "It's what happens when you force a complex group together to draft a compromise, when all each of them could think about was their individual political gain. From what I've heard, the wartime unity of the 1st Generation Worldwalkers had already fractured by the time of the treaty. And too few of them came from administrative and legal backgrounds to understand proper law-making in the first place."
So, worse than a day at the United Nations, Kaede thoughtfully nodded.
Most people never seemed to understand that 'defeating the evil empire' was the easy part compared to what came afterward. Destroying a reviled system was simple. Creating and negotiating a new, functional administration that would be satisfactory to everybody? That was exponentially more difficult.
To set rules that governed the actions of immortal archmages with world-rending powers? Killing Hitler suddenly sounded like a quiet, afternoon walk in the park.
"But I digress," Gwendolyn continued as her smile returned to a calming serenity. "I didn't want anything to do with that local Prince at first. However, he was so righteous -- kind, passionate, and not just handsome but cute as well..." Gwendolyn closed her grinning eyes as though enjoying a pleasing dream.
"So, I tiptoed around the treaty a weee bit. Worldwalkers aren't allowed to hand out artifacts or leave behind any equipment 'foreign to the standards of the realm', to use the legal term. However, we are allowed to discard locally made tools that we just happened to temporarily bless for our own use -- you know: like animating tools to do the household chores since we can't bring any servants from world to world, other than our familiars."
Kaede had to chuckle, as the image of a Queen who achieved immortality washing her own dishes drifted across her mind.
"Assuming the blessing is finite and the spell isn't archmage tier or above, nobody really cares. Therefore, I temporarily blessed two swords -- both for my own use, of course," Gwendolyn grinned with a wink. "It's not my fault I only needed them for a minute and my magic easily lasted decades. I even tried to prevent mortals from using them by shoving one into a rock and throwing the other into a lake! Because you know," her sarcastic tone now saturated her voice, "that worked so well with the others."
Kaede almost snorted the lamb soup she'd been eating out of her nose.
No wonder why we have so many tales finding random magical swords! Rocks and lakes are not effective means of weapons disposal! At least use the Marianas Trench or an active volcano!
Meanwhile, Gwen's gentle laughter slowly faltered into a faint grimace.
"...That story didn't end well. Taught me a lesson too."
"That can't be right," Kaede suddenly realized. "You said you've only been 'Worldwalking' for a few centuries. No mythical swords had been pulled out of rocks on Earth for well over a thousand years!"
"Time, is a fickle spirit when you journey between worlds..."
Gwendolyn rubbed the familiar's head as the much-younger girl stopped within reach to pause and think.
"--I wouldn't overthink it, dear," she added with a peaceful smile. "After all, the universe must keep some secrets to itself."
Earth's astrophysicists might scream heresy at that, Kaede thought.
"Then..." the familiar girl gulped down a breath of courage. "Would it be possible for you to take me back?"
Kaede felt like Gwendolyn had just punched her hopeful, innocent heart; proverbially speaking of course.
Shot down, so easily! Not even the slightest room for negotiation!
The Samaran familiar wasn't sure if and how she would say goodbye to the still-unconscious Pascal. But it was always better to know her options ahead of time.
"That really hurts, Grandma."
She had meant to say Obaasan, an appropriately respectable way to address the elderly in Japanese. But some terms just didn't translate.
"Grandma? Now who's the hurtful one!?" Gwen was still smiling though as she feigned outrage.
"But," Kaede paused for a brief moment before deciding to tag along. "You're over several centuries old!"
"--And my heart is still romantic and young!"
"...Plus you have great-great-great-grandchildren!"
The Worldwalker's meadow-green gaze did darken this time, sending a chill up Kaede's spine in an instant.
"Don't remind me, after how idiotic one of them turned out to be," Gwendolyn answered, the pressure in her voice immediately put an end to the conversation.
A true queen would always remain a queen, no matter how many centuries passed by.
"But why can't you send me back to Earth?" Kaede returned to the original subject. "Is it because of the timeline fluctuation?"
Male body or not, if Kaede's only choice was an Earth in a different time period -- when her family and friends did not exist -- then Kaede would rather not return at all.
"The time issue isn't insurmountable, just... complicated," Gwendolyn brushed aside the topic as though it were obnoxious legal code. "But the simple answer is that it's against the rules."
"The treaty between the Worldwalkers that you spoke of?"
"Yes," the elderly lady nodded. "Just like intervention in mortal affairs, cross pollination of individuals between worlds is forbidden. We're allowed to spread ideas ourselves through conventional means, otherwise it becomes a gag order on all interactions with locals which no Worldwalker wants. But it stops at that: no propaganda spells, no evangelical armies, no interdimensional cults; an equal footing between us all on each new world we step into."
"Then how do you explain my presence here?" Kaede spread her arms, one hand still holding onto her bowl. "Captain Markov -- he's a Samaran skywhale merchant -- once surmised that the immortals must have played a joke on me, since it's abnormal for a Samaran to be 'born' in a fully-grown body, luggage and all."
Gwendolyn brows furrowed:
"Well, I admit. Your case is... peculiar. Not that I'm an expert on Samaran reincarnation, you understand."
Do politicians like you always leave a back door? Kaede scowled as she crossed her arms in challenge: "does that mean you also believe that a Worldwalker likely had a hand in me being here?"
The former queen pursed her lips:
The Samaran girl gawked in awe as Gwendolyn bit her bait... or at least nibbled on it.
Ever since Kaede heard the theory from Captain Markov, she had acknowledged celestial interference as a possibility, however remote. The arrival of Gwendolyn increased the chances, as it not only proved the existence of the fabled Worldwalkers, but also showed that under the right circumstances, they did and could intercede upon mortal affairs.
But to seriously consider her arrival on Hyperion as not just Pascal's doing, but the intervention of divine forces as well. It would imply that a Worldwalker had hijacked Pascal's spell as an opportunity, perhaps even boosting it with the power to reach across worlds. But that would also mean that Kaede's summoning was no mere coincidence. She had been plucked by some fateful search criteria to become a pawn in the political chess between timeless beings.
"But why would they choose you? To what purpose? What motive?" Gwendolyn stared back. "As far as I can tell, you're just a bright, curious, but otherwise fairly average girl. There's no evidence, or even implication, that some machination of divine politics is at play."
The Samaran girl deflated at once.
If even a Worldwalker could not see any obvious evidence of misconduct, how was she -- a young girl without even any spellcasting ability of her own -- ever going to find it?
"I have to admit though," Gwendolyn added. "If your presence here truly is a part of some greater political scheme, then it is an impressive play indeed."
"But... it doesn't make any sense though," Kaede puzzled. "If the Worldwalkers banned cross-pollination of individuals and ideas, then doesn't that mean that the Samarans' very nature breaks the law?"
Gwendolyn shrugged as she made one of those 'it can't be helped' looks.
"The Samarans predate even the First Generation Worldwalkers. Obviously, since several of them are Samaran. Of course, many of us never cared, since the Samarans are also the least likely to force their ideals onto others."
Kaede tilted her head in perplexity, and Gwen simply mirrored it with a grin and her own tilt:
"It's almost a racial behavior for them. You included."
With her thoughts turned inwards, Kaede had to agree. She had introduced many ideas to Pascal as potential 'solutions' to problems he faced. But very rarely did she try to impress ideologies upon him, nor did she hold any great desire to. One could even argue that she had always been this way, possibly as a byproduct of her cross-cultural education and heritage.
Are Samarans mostly like this? How much did it contribute to me becoming one?
It only raised more questions that Kaede would like to ask Captain Markov the next time he brought King Alistair.
"Though in either case, you can't send me back to where I came from?"
"No," Gwendolyn put down her foot, albeit with a sympathetic look. "However, if a Worldwalker was responsible, then I know whom I'd suspect first. I wasn't even alive yet when she made her famous intervention. Nonetheless, I can only think of one individual who has both the skills and the foresight to take advantage of your presence here"
"A name would help," Kaede's enthusiasm sparkled in her rose-quartz eyes.
"Sure," Gwendolyn grinned. Clearly this did not violate any code of 'immortal conduct'. "But keep in mind that names are as fickle as the wind for many of us, especially the older Worldwalkers. The one I speak of -- I call her 'Tara'. It was the identity that I first met her in, but she has at least a dozen others."
Tara? Kaede searched her mental archives and came up blank. It was far too simple and generic of a name to begin her research with.
"She is better known as the Grand Strategist during the Dragon-Demon Wars. Though I recommend you start with the Great Eastern War fought between the Polisian Federation and the Great Khanate, predecessors of the Grand Republic and Dawn Imperium. Focus on its great turning point at the Battle of Samara and the man responsible for it," the older women added. "His victories and his allies' reforms are what transformed the region into the modern Grand Republic of Samara."
Kaede nodded. The Samaran Captain had given her the exact same example, which was a good sign of not only its correlation, but also the availability of its information.
"What was his name?"
Gwendolyn bit down on her lip in thought.
"It's hard to pronounce, so I may not be saying it right. But I believe his name was... Subotai."
The familiar girl's eyes almost popped out of their sockets.
Kaede had never encounter a greater irony: that the only man who managed to conquer Russia on Earth was responsible for forging it in another world.
How could a man whose military conquests led directly to tens of millions of deaths somehow be reborn with the serenity of a Samaran?
Kaede was still in her little world when a cell phone ring tone began in the back of her head, jolting her out of her reverie. She sat in the tailgate of a small, covered wagon that carried Pascal's unconscious form. A bump in the dirt road rocked the carriage at the same time.
Magic always seemed to adjust to the user, even in the case of her earrings' ability to receive Farspeak.
Must be Onee-sama calling, Kaede thought as she gave it a mental 'click'.
"Hello. You've reached voicemail box of Kaede S--"
"Cease whatever joke you are playing at, Miss Familiar," Kaede immediately recognized the serious tone of Karsten, Pascal's Majordomo in his Nordkreuz estate. "Is your master -- His Grace -- available? I've been trying to reach him for two days now."
"He's... unconscious," her voice darkened. "Injuries from recent combat..."
"Then why are you fine?" Karsten snarled. "Is it not your duty to protect your master?"
Kaede wanted to retort. She had been kilopaces away when Pascal cast that reckless spell. How could she have helped? Yet, at the same time, she was also the reason he experimented with magic beyond his comprehension in the first place.
"I was in a different battle... his orders."
Even Karsten couldn't reprimand her for that.
"I hope you're taking proper care of him then," his stern voice rang as authoritative as to the estate's other servants.
...And in Karsten's eyes, Kaede was exactly that: a servant of the House of Moltewitz.
"I am, and he's slowly recovering," Kaede tried to sound reassuring. "May I ask what you are calling about? Perhaps the Princess would like to know as well."
"The Princess does not need to be bothered by such trifles," the Majordomo reprimanded. "Though it may help if you inquire one of her advisors. We're running into some... business trouble... here in Nordkreuz. The Public-Private Investment Partnership that His Grace created before departure has developed some questionable behavior as of late."
Kaede's lips twisted. She should have expected this. Every economic reform throughout history has run into its share of road bumps and, occasionally, massive pitfalls.
"What's the issue?"
"Do you remember the North Sea Company -- one of the three created by His Grace?"
"Yes," Kaede nodded. Pascal had established a company to spur the redevelopment of each Nordkreuz sector: public infrastructure, industrial workshops, and trading/docking facilities. The North Sea Company's responsibility was focused mostly on the port itself.
"Stock values in the company have been rising at a phenomenal rate," Karsten continued, his tone growing increasingly worried. "I believe this is normally good news, as the stocks are openly traded and its rise in value will boost confidence and bring in more investment. However, Her Grace, Cardinal-Chancellor von Lanckoronski, have expressed concerns that the changes are... 'too unnatural'... which is ironic since that better describes her own deviancy."
You mean her love of young boys, Kaede snorted a little. Even she had heard the rumors by now.
"...At any rate, the guild leaders say that the availability of capital should not double and triple from nothing. Yet the city is awash with rumors of how quickly the company could profit, once the Skagen Peninsula's territories are annexed by the King's peace treaty with the Northmen. They claim that there is great wealth in the north, with new products like cocoa and sugarcane soon to enter the market to earn a fortune..."
Kaede frowned. Assuming things remained similar as they often were, cocoa was a product of the new world. Both it and sugarcane grew in tropical climates, and certainly not in the cold north. Weichsen soldiers no doubt acquired batches of it during Operation Winter Typhooon, which in turn made its way back into Weichsel to energize public curiosities. But the Skagen Peninsula -- if annexed -- could hardly yield any such crops!
"The traders within the city should know better!" she retorted.
"They do, and many of them have actively opposed these rumors." Karsten declared. "Yet they continue to spread, as if all voice of reason has been pushed into a corner. It doesn't help that even when one rumor is dispelled, another -- such as claims that the Northmen's silver mostly come from their peninsular mines -- replaces it."
Kaede furrowed her brows. This was an ominous sign. The marginalization of accurate information requires propaganda, purposeful propaganda. Some entity was actively spreading false information to engineer public opinion, then switching gears to distract the populace once they have achieved their aims. It reminded Kaede of just how vehemently her father cursed the western media for its blatant lies during the 2008 War in Georgia.
"These rumors are causing... 'speculation', as the Cardinal's supporters describe it, to run astray," Karsten added. "One local guildmaster claims that all his apprentices have sunk their savings into the company. Because of such rash behavior, the North Sea Company's stocks have multiplied tenfold over the past few weeks, achieving total values that -- according to the Cardinal's agents -- surpasses even the gross value of Nordkreuz combined before the air raid."
The Samaran girl bit her lip. The story now sounded familiar enough to clear her doubts.
Someone at Nordkreuz -- likely a group of shareholders for this North Sea Company -- had learned to game the new system. The false rumors were almost definitely started by them, and the rampant speculation was fast forming a 'financial bubble' where asset prices grow to be implausibly, unrealistically high.
If such a bubble was allowed to keep growing, it would eventually burst. The collapse of the Japanese Assets Bubble in 1992 ruined an entire generation to stagnation. A single company in Nordkreuz should not have such catastrophic results, but with public confidence on the line, even a small disaster could ruin Pascal (and her) attempts to introduce modern finance and investment.
"Karsten, please listen to me -- this is a potential problem that Pascal foresaw in our discussions," Kaede told an outright lie to fabricate some authority for her following statements. "The Cardinal's supporters are partly correct, although the guild leaders probably hold ulterior motives of their own as they never liked the idea to begin with. The North Sea Company is developing what we call a 'bubble', and if left unmanaged it could spell disaster for Pascal's new economic policies. We must nip this problem in the bud by popping this bubble with a sharp needle."
"His Grace always did show foresight," Karsten spoke as proudly as a father would. "He has left instructions then?"
"Yes." Kaede's thoughts were running on overcapacity now. Even for her this was frontier territory, as she had no experiences at all when dealing with finance. "We're not sure if this'll work. But -- Pascal suggested pulling out all of his initial investment in the troubled company at once. As the original shareholder, his stocks represent a sizeable slice of the pie and will surely cause a noticeable dip in the company's asset value.
"People will notice, and their confidence will waver. Seize this opportunity and spread a counter-rumor that the North Sea Company is facing a crisis of mismanagement and lying about their future prospects. Use the estate's maids, footmen, deliverymen -- anyone you have access to propel the rumor..."
"The maids and footmen, spreading rumors!?" Karsten sounded insulted.
"Karsten, please. More is at stake here than just the honor of the house," Kaede pleaded. "Someone is likely manipulating the system in a most treacherous attempt to earn a greedy profit, perhaps even sabotage Nordkreuz."
Now that she considered it, Kaede would not be surprised if the whole incident was deliberate sabotage. The Communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin once warned that "Imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism." But by the same token, capitalism could be monopolized and controlled to aid imperialism. The Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea certainly has a history of tying military and economic expansion together. Weakening Nordkreuz by sabotaging its economy certainly played to its geostrategic interests.
Faced with the dire circumstances, Karsten replied with only a begrudging "...I understand."
"Once the rumors begin clashing and the stock prices waver, you should openly, publicly confirm the Landgrave's loss of confidence in the company using your position as the estate's caretaker," Kaede steadily hammered out the plan's supporting elements. "It will discredit them, hopefully delivering a Coup de Grâce to the whole charade. Meanwhile, put a trade-ceiling -- a daily limit on the value of stocks bought or sold at once by any investor -- on each individual stock. Consult the guild leaders on what is the yearly earning of a new craftsmen and use that figure. This will stop the culprits from trying to hide the stock's decline using their own funds, but also help protect the poor investors if our actions are successful."
"But the estate cannot control all of this!?" The Majordomo countered.
Kaede twisted her lips. This was the biggest problem of new ideas. There isn't enough system set in place to manage everything -- to control, to supervise, to enforce.
Then a lightbulb lit.
Weichsel was a near-absolute monarchy, which gave one body the highest authority to... interfere as they saw fit.
"File an official appeal in Pascal's name to the King's Black Eagles in the city," Kaede answered. "Ask them to enforce these actions using their authority. Request them to monitor and report on anyone who attempts to retrieve sums exceeding five times the daily purchase ceiling. This should require only a few agents from them. Tell them there may be foreign subterfuge at play when they demand why. Pull in the Cardinal-Chancellor for extra leverage if you need."
Kaede still remembered when the King personally named the Cardinal as the overseer for this endeavor. If some catastrophic failure were to happen, Cardinal von Lanckoronski would not be able to escape responsibility either.
"Understood," Karsten confirmed.
"If our counter-offensive proves successful, the North Sea Company's stocks will begin a sharp decline as people lose their confidence and pull out their funds," Kaede stated. "Once the fall begins, I want you to slowly re-inject ninety percent of Pascal's pulled funds over a six-day period to stabilize its descent. Let the company collapse, but not all at once, so the people's losses may be mitigated."
Kaede left ten percent so Pascal wouldn't lose everything he had thrown in. An early pull would net him tenfold earnings to spend. Since this was his money, it was best if she could return his original investment and not... earn a beating.
She doubted he would. But Pascal did have a scary temper.
"Do you understand everything that I've said?"
"Yes." Karsten confirmed. He even rephrased a list of all the actionables, which rather impressed Kaede given how new the subject must be to him.
Though that's not really surprising, Kaede smiled to herself. After all, Pascal was allergic to stupid people.
"I'm not keen on such rapscallion behavior, you understand, the Majordomo added. "But I believe I understand its necessity."
"I have no doubt that His Grace will be thankful for your sacrifice," Kaede grinned. "Please keep me apprised of day-to-day development. I'll see if any of the Princess' advisors may weigh in on this problem before Pascal has recovered."
"Understood. Please take care of His Grace." Karsten was almost imploring. "I'm counting on you."
With a mental 'click', the Farspeak call ended, and Kaede took a deep breath to calm back down.
It was her first experience with just how much power she could wield through decrees in Pascal's name. Not a lowly rank like Pascal the Captain or empty titles like Pascal the Crown Prince Consort, but the one position that Pascal truly held authority in: Landgrave.
Even a slight taste of it felt... intoxicating, in a self-righteous sort of way. Her conversation with Karsten began with him patronizing her. It ended with her giving him a list of orders to carry out.
She had better be careful with this power, especially as her influence with Princess Sylviane grows. Plenty of trusted, close advisors have lost their heads because they grew overconfident in issuing orders in their master's stead.
Kaede stared back at the supply train that she was now a member of, with over a hundred wagons following behind the main army. It was often too easy to forget how many pieces must be in position for history to be made. The people who worked in the background were often forgotten by everyone except scholars, but that did not mean they lacked the power and influence to affect the world.
The Samaran girl was still gazing into the distance when she felt a faint stirring over her familiar link. The placid void she felt instead of Pascal's consciousness was growing active once more, radiating waves of awareness, discomfort, even confusion and pain. Then, just as Kaede spun around in uncertainty, she saw a twitch from his exposed right hand as his arm tried to lift it up.
Relief and joy flooded across her mind at once. The driver turned around to stare but she didn't even care. She scampered over to Pascal's side and took his shaky hand into her own. A warmth filled her entire body as she felt the weak movements of his fingers.
The healers hadn't been sure when he would awake from his coma: perhaps this week, perhaps next month, perhaps never. It was a miracle that he survived at all. To be conscious again after just six days' time -- some higher power must be watching over them.
She felt his weak arm trying to reach up. With his right hand arrested by her grip, he tried next with his left, steady with noticeably better control this time.
"Don't..." Kaede caught his other wrist before it could reach his face. "Don't take off the blindfold. Your eyes haven't recovered yet. You'll go blind."
"K-kaede?" A sickly, raspy voice emerged from Pascal's parched throat. The healers had kept his body fed and hydrated through Sustenance spells. Though it clearly wasn't enough. His body continued to tax itself in a low fever, gradually repairing the horrendous damage taken from the directional thermonuclear blast.
"Don't..." She added before remembering. "Don't tire yourself out. Just speak to me by telepathy."
Kaede thumbed the back of his hand as she stared at his pale cheeks. She felt her eyes grow blurry as she brought his fingers up to her tender cheeks. His touch was cold and clammy but she didn't care. She was just glad that he was back among the living once more.
The pain and nausea that ebbed over their empathic link was growing. Pascal's body was clearly still in a state of recovery from the acute radiation poisoning that -- had this been on Earth -- would have easily killed him. His next appointment with the healers wasn't until dusk, when two of them would cast Regeneration, Cleanse, and Invigorate on every one of his damaged organs and muscle groups again. 'Magic' was the only reason he still lived, and even then, the healers wasn't sure yet on how much of his bodily functions he could recover.
Yet, despite his misery and agony, Pascal's first statement had nothing to do with his own personal well-being:
"I failed... did I not?"
Kaede could almost feel the tears that leaked from beneath his blindfold. With her own palm, she cupped the hand still feeling its way across her cheeks and pressed herself into it. She wanted him to feel the smile that he could not see, to sense the joyful tears and be reassured that all was still well.
There was so many, so many things she wanted to say to him. But at the moment, none of them seemed to matter. Just the fact he was still alive was enough for her, for now.
"No, you didn't, she replied. "You blew away the Caliphate's entire right wing -- their best cavalry brigade by survivor accounts. It did hurt our forces as well..." She didn't try to hide. "But, in the end, we won."
Pascal didn't need to hear how exactly they won yet. There would be a time for that later, when he was feeling better and not stuck in depressing blackness.
There was an audible sigh of relief as Pascal relaxed in his wagon-bed. Then, as a hot tear dripped from Kaede's eyes onto his fingertips, his blindfolded eyes turned towards Kaede once more:
"I am sorry..."
"You... idiot!" the familiar girl choked back a sob. Unable to hold back all of her thoughts, she let one leak, just one:
"Did you even have any idea of just what kind of fire you were playing with!?"
Kaede almost burst into tears as memories of that night came rushing back in. Thousands of burned out tree husks that stretched on for kilopaces. Tangles of blackened limbs as soldiers dumped bodies onto corpse wagons. She would have thought Pascal dead had it not been for her own life. Yet the state she found him in wasn't much better -- with severe burns covering him from head to toe and entire patches of inflamed red skin sloughing off.
A mental sigh emerged from Pascal as his feeble fingertips tickled her cheek.
"I am sorry to have worried you..." He replied slowly with a tinge of regret, and Kaede remembered that he could acutely feel her emotions -- much better than she could feel his. It offered him a perfect mental image of her expression, even if his eyes couldn't actually see.
"But..." He continued more forcefully. "It was a necessary fire to play."
"And just whom do you think would be happy if you had died!?" Kaede retorted. "Your father in heaven? Your fiancée? Or your King?"
Kaede knew that she herself wasn't even near the top. Pascal would always uphold his social obligations first: as an heir, as the crown prince consort, and as a vassal lord. In his growing list of responsibilities and priorities, Kaede ranked somewhere far down, somewhere closer to his own personal safety.
...That was the price of the 'special bond' they shared.
"That is not for any of us to decide," Pascal added dryly. "Unfortunately, only the Holy Father can ultimately decide where my fate lies."
His comment knocked Kaede off balance, leaving her staring back in surprise.
She couldn't quite grasp it yet. But, something about Pascal was... different. Something beyond merely his injured state.
This wasn't the same Pascal she had left before the Battles of Lysardh Point and Glywysing.
"The Lotharin Rangers estimated that out of almost ten thousand Cataliyan troops who arrived on the battlefield, less than a thousand escaped." Kaede briefly explained the Battle of Glywysing's final outcome.
Pascal replied with a thoughtful nod.
"And our losses?"
It felt odd for Kaede to not see his clear, turquoise gaze, only the black blindfold wrapped between his golden light curls and his pale, faded cheeks.
Even his emotions seem to have vanished from their empathic feedback link, leaving only his ebbing pain and nausea behind. Pascal must have suppressed it, and the master-to-familiar channel was not as sensitive as its reverse. Kaede could only sense powerful sentiments through it to begin with, or moderate emotions if she concentrated. But now, there was almost nothing on the other side.
It was as if she was talking to a faceless... well, certainly not a stranger, as he was easily recognizable even with his blindfold. But it just felt... weird.
"We... lost around twenty-five hundred out of our four thousand troops," Kaede noted, trying to sound positive. "The lowest casualties were actually on your flank, as your spell destroyed the enemy right wing wholesale. However, it also left your wing so disorganized and shaken they hardly participated in the remainder of the battle."
"I see..." Pascal sighed.
An uncomfortable silence settled over their private channel, while only the creaking of the wagon wheels and the chattering of distance drivers disturbed the air around them.
"Pascal, please... don't block me out like this."
"Then speak clearly," he countered, his harsh words almost accusatory. "What are you not telling me?"
"W-what are you talking about?"
The question came so sudden it caught her off guard.
"I'm blind, not stupid, although I guess there is not a huge difference," Pascal sighed bitterly. "There's no way we could have won that battle if my spell neutralized both sides at once. My entire gamble rested on blowing away the Cataliyans' right wing so that my troops -- still fresh -- could smash into their flank. Their deployment was premature which gave us a short window of opportunity to knock them off balance. Otherwise, there was no way our outnumbered and underequipped soldiers could win!"
Without much of a choice, Kaede told Pascal the whole story of the battle as she heard it: of how the Lotharins had lost the town, how the Princess had been pressed to the brink of defeat, only to be rescued by divine intervention. She avoided mentioning Sir Robert and Lady Anne's death or how it nearly broke Sylviane, but... Pascal was also too smart for his own good.
"So... in the end, what I did mattered not at all," Pascal took a deep exhale.
The void where his emotions had been suppressed returned once more. Kaede could feel the gloom of guilt spreading from their empathic link. The dark fog soon took on a sickly hue, turning to one of disgust, even loathing -- hate not directed towards anyone else, but at himself.
"Pascal..." She felt his anger tore into her own emotion, stabbing into her heart like glass shards.
It smashed her calm self-control as though a raging bull in a China shop. Her eyes grew teary once more as she realized why he was trying to bottle everything in.
"What do the troops say about me?" He demanded next, as if already knowing the answer.
"Pascal..." Kaede pleaded, tears brimming her eyes once more.
She hadn't even realized that she dropped out of telepathy and spoke through the real air.
"Pascal, please. You're overthinking things."
"J-just answer the question, you silly girl," his raspy voice blurted out. "What do the troops say about me?"
For a moment, Kaede gawked back as if she had just been slapped.
One crucial moment -- that was all it took for him to learn the horrible truth.
"They're calling you the Deathbringer," the wagon driver spoke out with barely-concealed contempt, perhaps even hate, in his tone.