Daybreak:Volume 2 Full

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Chapter 1 - By the Crossroad Shores[edit]

The chamber was lavishly furnished and fit for royalty. Its wide floors were layered with rugs of the richest wool and spacious enough to park three carriages. Dressers and drawers built from the finest mahogany lay interspersed along the walls, while two renowned watercolor landscapes sat within gilded frames larger than shelves. Atop the nearby bedside counter sat a tray of gleaming silver, filled with breakfast pastries and sweets almost too beautiful to eat.

None of that changed the fact it was a prison, occupied by a young girl no more than nine years old.

The sun that poured through the windows was approaching its noontime high. However the girl still laid awake in bed, curled up under the bedsheets with only her head poking out. Her light-violet eyes were bloodshot after an entire night spent weeping, while her tears continued to stain her soft cheeks.

It was part of why she refused to come out of bed. No one must be allowed to see her like this, not even the maid who delivered the food. To reveal her disgraceful state would be worse than embarrassment. It would humiliate the proud people of her entire nation before the eyes of their enemy.

Perhaps it was just as well, as she certainly did not wish to partake in anything else in her depressed mood.

The sound of scampering footsteps resounded from the hall outside her door, which had laid silent for hours other than the occasional clink of armor.

"She is inside right? Open the door."

The childish voice couldn't have belonged to anyone older than a mere boy. Yet it held a pride and confidence capable of matching any crown prince.

"I'm sorry Milord, Marshal---"

The soldier's feeble retort was cut off before he could finish.

"My father has already left this morning, which leaves me lord of this castle. Perhaps you are not aware of how insolent your behavior is towards a presiding lord? The word of a mere guard against the prodigal son of a Landgrave and Weichsel's hero. Who do you think your commanding officer will believe when my men come to arrest you?"

Even across the wide room and through closed doors, the girl could feel the pressure of the young boy's threats.

"But the Marshal expressly forbid any---"

"Does that include the maids who deliver food? Does that include the King should he stop by? I am now the castle's lord. It is only natural that I pay homage to our guest of honor. Did my father expressly forbid me from carrying out my duties as nobility demands?"

"No Milord!" The soldier almost shouted, before clinking armor could be heard beyond the door once again.

The soft click of a door unlocking soon followed, and the girl rushed to toss the bedcovers over her head once again.

"Thank you, soldier. Carry on."

Light footsteps marched in, and the thick doors closed shut behind them.

For a minute, nothing happened. Then she heard a single word spoken near the door, voiced in Ancient Draconic -- the preferred language across Hyperion for mnemonic spellcasting.

He must be older than me then, the girl thought. She was just starting to learn before she had been kidnapped, and few mages managed to cast any actual spells before the age of ten.

"I know you are awake. Do not worry. That was merely a simple Silence spell on the door."

She neither moved nor answered, so the boy continued on in his self-assured tone:

"My name is Pascal Kay Lennart von Moltewitz, son of Weichsel Field Marshal Karl August von Moltewitz and heir to the Langrave of Nordkreuz. What of Your Highness?"

The girl being addressed neither shifted nor replied. And a nervous silence soon fell upon the room.

One minute passed...

Five minutes passed...

Ten minutes later, she began to wonder if he had quietly left, with the door's closing silenced by his spell. She slowly peeped out from under the covers, only to meet eye to eye with a boy of her own age.

Pascal wore a faint grin below turquoise eyes brightened by curiosity. His golden soft curls were neatly cut and draped over both ears. His visage was well-proportioned, poised confidently atop a balanced build. Even at a mere nine years old, it was already apparent that he would grow up to become a handsome young man.

For a moment she paused, her attention captured by his gaze. Another few seconds passed before she realized her need to pull the covers back up.

"I just saw your eyes, by the way. You need not hide your tears any longer."

His calm words of sympathy only annoyed her further.

"I am NOT crying!" she declared as her hands pushed off the comforter.

"Of course not. You are a Lotharin Princess after all. Though... you are not exactly what I expected."

With eyes full of amused curiosity, Pascal's slow speech had a nature of being almost... irritating.

"What, did you expect me to wear a flower tiara as appropriate of the tribal Lotharins!? You arrogant Weichsens are little better than Imperials!" she retorted in an almost yell.

Yet somehow, Pascal smiled:

"Not really. Though I thought princesses had more... you know, attitude. Bow down before me! and all that..."

Her cheeks heated as embarrassment permeated them, which was followed closely by annoyance and anger.

She didn't need some petty Weichsel lordling to tell her that. She had already heard enough growing up. As the third and youngest child of Emperor Geoffroi Jean de Gaetane, ruler of the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie, she had spent her years with the adoration of two older brothers. They were perfect noblemen, as handsome as they are talented, as capable as they are kind. Few younger sisters enjoyed the blessing of even one admirable and caring older brother, let alone two. Yet even though she loved them with all her heart, she couldn't help but feel the slow creep of inferiority every time she watched them from afar.

It certainly didn't help to hear the nobles, or even the servants' chatter from behind corners. They admired how 'princely' her brothers were while expressing that she looked less like a princess and more like a mere baron's daughter.

"But of course, none of that really matters," the boy named Pascal continued. "Still, there are some protocols to follow."

He then bowed down, his hands waving in the perfect gestures of a nobleman placing a request towards a lady:

"May I have the honor of hearing your name, my beautiful princess?"

The praise 'beautiful' was never one she could seriously take from another, but she nevertheless responded with composure as she sat up in her bed:

"Sylviane Etiennette de Gaetane, daughter of Emperor Geoffroi Jean de Gaetane of the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie."

Pascal then stood back up straight. A playful smile stretched across his countenance:

"That was not too hard, was it now? Although I could certainly see how one would be troubled by worries in such a stuffy room. What was father thinking!? No maps, no projectors, not even a single shelf of books. Forget the bright sun and open air to let the mind flourish!"

The girl named Sylviane blinked. The boy's lines seemed almost... contradictory. His first three items listed were precisely the culprits that palace servants often accused of stuffiness. Meanwhile free sun and air were simply not comforts normally given to any prisoner of war, which she certainly was.

"So! How about it, my princess? Do you dare to brave the foreign lands of a hostile liege? Or would you rather cower inside this bedchamber, doomed to dust and mold like the expensive but nonetheless useless furnishings of a trophy room?"

Who does he think he is!?

Her temper, although not exactly matching that of her father's, was at least finally rising. Yet oddly enough, Pascal seemed happy to see it.

"Only if your bravado is capable of getting me out of this room," she retorted.

"Now that is a challenge no knight could possibly refuse. Shall we go then?"

Pascal offered his hand. However Sylviane merely looked down at the white blouse with violet ribbons she was wearing.

"I need to get changed first."

"Sure," he turned around and left. But rather than departing, he merely went to the nearby dressers, pulled out a long, purple dress, and walked back to her.

"Here, let me help." He offered as he laid the dress down on the bed.

"Whoever heard of any man other than her husband helping a lady dress!? Now GET OUT!" Sylviane finally snapped.

She didn't miss Pascal's humored grin as he strode away.

As Sylviane dressed herself in a violet dress two shades lighter than her dark-purple hair, she heard the boy toss more barely-veiled threats at the guards outside in between enticing them with bribery.

"--What use does my father have for you if your entire unit cannot even keep watch over two kids by the lakeside!? Or do you think you will be free of responsibility if father returned to find her gravely ill because she did nothing but mope inside a gloomy room all day? Would it not be better for everyone involved to breathe fresh air and stay happier while your friends earned some extra silver for bar tabs this weekend...?"

In just one meeting, Sylviane decided that she had never met a nobleman, or noble son, as rude, audacious, downright impertinent, and --Holy Father forbid-- as interesting as Pascal.


----- * * * -----


"I still can't believe I'm sitting next to Cross Lake."

Sylviane's wisteria eyes gazed across the calm waters, towards the horizon and the unseen shores of her home country. It was a peaceful autumn day. The soothing sound of gentle waves rolling onto the stone embankments was the essence of tranquility for the second largest lake in Northern Hyperion. Yet her eyes couldn't help but moisten as yet another surge of homesickness washed over her.

The princess suppressed it, hard. This was no place to be seen crying.

Aside from the boy Pascal, who laid back beside her against the grassy earthen motte, there were also at least two dozen soldiers who kept watch over the two kids. Some of them were Pascal's men-at-arms and had already learned the bodyguards' art of discretion. But most were garrison soldiers responsible for the captive princess, and she could almost feel their glances continuously sweep across her back.

Sylviane had just enough introductory martial training to realize how suicidal it would be to take on this many soldiers at once, even assuming she had a weapon. Yet just because she was helpless didn't mean she could allow them to see it.

"Let me guess -- your father wished he stood here." Pascal asked with nonchalance after a moment's thought.

She almost spoke the truth before holding herself back and deciding for a more neutral answer:

"Why do you say that?"

Pascal bolted back to sitting upright before his bright turquoise gaze caught hold of her eyes once again.

"Do you know how strategically important this Lake is?"

It wasn't a question, but a challenge.

Thinking back, Sylviane was beginning to realize that many of this nine-year-old boy's statements were precisely that: challenges, tests.

But for what? She didn't have a clue.

"I don't remember the maps well, but father once said that the Cross Lake is where the Lotharingie Rivers united before flowing towards the sea."

"Do you know what that implies?" he asked again.

Sylviane took a minute to ponder it over. Even for royalty, she was still too young to receive schooling on military or economic strategy. But it hardly required official lessons to understand the importance of rivers to transportation, and therefore every aspect of civilization.

"Ummm... that whoever holds Cross Lake controls the two largest rivers of Rhin-Lotharingie, and... through them, project military power across the whole Lotharin heartlands?"

It would take years before she realized how much difference this simple answer by her ten-year-old self made in the course of her life.

"'Control' might be a bit excessive," the boy followed up. "However there is definitely a strong military influence, and maybe dominance over trade. Not to mention the third river, Albis, that flows here from the northern parts of the Holy Imperium. One could definitely say that this lake is the crux, the most important strategic location in Northern Hyperion."

Pascal then shrugged before a wide grin lit up his expression from cheek to cheek:

"But good enough! Wow, a princess is a princess. You really are different from all those other noble daughters. I have met plenty twice your age, yet all they know is gossip and arts."

It was the first time Sylviane had received such conflicting words from outside the family. On one hand, his sincerity towards her worthiness as a 'princess' was so genuine she could almost taste it. On the other hand, he indirectly insulted one of her favorite interests -- one that her parents encouraged and the nobles praised.

Between shy modesty and annoyed retorts, her pride automatically seized the second:

"What's wrong with arts?" Sylviane pouted. "I like music -- especially Lotharin music. It's festive, and joyous, and easy to understand. Never fails to cheer the heart. Not like your Weichsel orchestral, all martial and stuck up on drums and trumpets."

"That is because Lotharin music source from folk songs. They are popular among the commoners even here in Weichsel. But you misunderstand, Your Highness..."

"Sylviane is fine." she cut in. "All this 'Your Highness' when you're the one actually in charge makes it feel like you're mocking me."

Truth be told, Sylviane couldn't help but feel envious of Pascal. She had always felt daunted by her royal rank, always afraid she would not live up to expectations. Yet here beside her sat a boy her own age, who spoke and acted as though he was born to command others.

"Sure, Princess Sylviane," Pascal beamed back, completely ignoring the annoyed pout she gave him. "As I was saying, I have nothing against the fine arts. But people cannot live on art and culture alone. What can noble artistry accomplish when the people starve from poor agriculture, when they wallow in destitution due to a lack of commerce? Father believes too many nobles forget this as they raise their heirs, daughters especially, and I fully agree."

"But mother and father said that it was still too early for me to study what my elder brothers learned." She countered with a matter-of-fact tone. "They just want me to train a properly royal demeanor for now. They said an interest in the arts would help my image."

"Royal demeanor? Attitude is easy to fake. Watch me!"

Pascal hurriedly stood up atop a nearby rock. With his back straight and chin high, he began to gesture sternly at the lake with pointed fingers while calling out in a deliberately pitched voice:

"Hmph! You better be grateful! That is a royal gift from the house of de Gaetane...!"

"Don't misunderstand. I am merely issuing you a fair reward for your accomplishments..."

"As a princess, I must show kindness to loyal attendants. That is all there is to it!"

He then gracefully sat back down.

"Well, what do you think?"

Sylviane's entranced eyes were lost between astonishment and stupefaction.

"It definitely has 'attitude'. But nothing like what my tutors taught me."

"Please! What do those old men and women know about being a princess!?" Pascal's voice held nothing but disdain as he began to speak of his hired tutors. "I chased away three of them before father gave it up. Not a single one of them could stand up to me in either a contest of will or knowledge, always resorting to barbaric violence instead! Of course... if your mother had advice, that would be something else entirely."

"Mother was only the daughter of a Count before father married her," she replied. "As much as we love her, mother has never grown accustomed to being empress. There's no way I would bother her for such advice!"

"A mere Count?" Pascal's brows shot up. "I thought noble marriages were usually made for more political gain than that? A lone county will not offer much to help back up an Emperor's authority."

Sylviane snapped her irritated glare back onto him. Only then did she realize that his eyes held not an ounce of condescension, merely curiosity and surprise.

After taking a deep breath and donning her 'royal composure' once again, the princess started to explain:

"Father always said that political marriages are the folly of short-sighted nobles and certainly not the 'Gaetane' way. He told my elder brothers and me that because we are royalty who bear the burden of the realm, we must take extra care to marry well and create warm, caring families. Because only a good family may raise a good heir, and only a responsible child with a healthy mind may become an excellent liege..."

She paused for a moment in uncertainty before continuing:

"I'm still a child, so I don't really understand it all. But I know they're right! It's because of father and mother that my brothers became the kind, smart, and diligent young men that they are. Just the thought of father and mother disappointed and ashamed, after everything they've done for us... I don't think any of us could bear that."

Sylviane watched as Pascal turned back to the lake. He seemed to think it over as his soft, golden curls swayed in the waterside breeze. Then, with his eyes still far away, he began with pensive words:

"I think you are probably right. My mother died before I really knew her, and father is too busy to return home often. But it does not matter how tired or how far away he is, he always makes sure to write to me, or send long messages every week through our Majordomo Karsten. He is one of the main reasons I want to learn and understand all manners of stately affairs, and magic too--!"

Pascal's tone suddenly rose in excitement:

"I simply cannot wait for the day when I can receive Farspeak calls directly from him!"

He then turned back around and met the amethyst eyes of the princess. His gaze held a new light even as he repeated old words:

"Like I said, a princess is a princess! You are just so much better than all those other noble girls!"

This time, Sylviane no longer had the distraction of another mood. This time, she turned away coyly as her cheeks flushed pink.

"You're actually the first one outside my family who sincerely meant that," she admitted. "Everyone else keeps whispering behind my back that I'm not graceful enough, or not beautiful enough, or lack that alluring aristocratic refinement..."

"Oh please, do not tell me you actually listen to those idiots." Pascal cut in. His hard eyes were insistent if not imperative, more pressuring than any tutor she met.

"Sure, some noble girls may look nice -- beautiful as a peacock! With just as little birdbrains! I have met many of them, and most of their thought capacity barely extends beyond squealing like pigs and chirping over which set of feathers to admire tomorrow. Seriously, those 'nobles' can go jump off a cliff and the world would hardly have lost a thing."

Sylviane knew that his statement was rather excessive and mean if not outright horrible. Yet she nevertheless smiled and grinned as he bashed upon the same people she always held an inferiority complex towards.

As disdain rapidly drained from his gaze, Pascal returned to his appreciative voice:

"Now being a real princess -- that requires skills and knowledge. Royal demeanor is important too, but that is easy to learn and project! The rest is what truly requires work. I cannot say that I am sufficiently learned myself to teach you, but I could certainly help you study!"

At the time, Sylviane mostly thought that Pascal was boasting. After all, even if he was smarter than the average, how much could a mere nine-year-old understand about affairs of state and governance?

It took but days before the princess realized how wrong she was.

While other children their age spent most of their time playing outside, learning language, numbers, etiquette, and equestrian skills, Pascal had already skipped ahead by several steps. Instead of comparing dresses and dance steps or matching bravado with wooden swords, the young lord spent every day dragging her to study map displays and book projections:

-- Administrative sectors and the effect of synergistic coupling on managerial efficiency.

-- Trade networks and their convergence points' need for transport expansion.

-- Climate zones and the inevitable limitations of agriculture based on weather.

-- Resource maps and the optimal placement of supply-production chains.

-- Military strongholds and their potential for mutual support and coordinated defense.

The list went on and on...

For nearly a year Sylviane stayed at the Moltewitz estate in the Landgraviate of Nordkreuz as a political hostage. Landgrave Karl August von Moltewitz never disrespected her. Even King Leopold of Weichsel treated her as the royalty she was during his cordial visit. Other than her limited freedoms and the dozen soldiers constantly tailing her, one could easily mistake her for some other noble daughter staying at the fortified estate as Pascal's study-mate.

However, after many months of playing catchup, Sylviane slowly came to the realization that she had never been a foreigner in his eyes. She had held a suspicion since her first week that the entire meeting with Pascal may have been set up by his father the Marshal. Yet in the end it hardly mattered whether or not the old man plotted and schemed, for Pascal himself was truly sincere.

It had been a precious chance for Pascal to garner a new friend... one of only two at that.

Yet despite all their time spent huddled in libraries and studies, despite all their heated lakeside discussions and peaceful, humored strolls, it was Pascal's words during her last day beside the shores of Cross Lake that would forever be engraved into her memories:

"Tell your father I think he should hire healers to check his court nobles for vision problems." The ten-year-old Pascal said nonchalantly as his beautiful turquoise eyes left the glittering, sunlit lake and turned towards her.

Sylviane almost giggled. Saying something equivalent to 'tell the Emperor to do this' was just... such a Pascal thing to do.

"Why is that?"

"Because blindness is their only excuse for belittling the sight of the most beautiful girl I have ever met."

Completely unabashed, Pascal was positively beaming in his childish innocence.

For a second, Sylviane almost thought she misheard.

For a moment after that, she thought he was joking or perhaps teasing her again.

Then, her entire face ripened like an apple as she realized that he was absolutely serious. If embarrassment actually burned as hot as it felt, Sylviane was certain that her lightheaded brain, her overheating shoulders, her fluttering chest... her entire body would have erupted with steam.

Her light-violet eyes reflexively turned away as they fled his gaze and sought the cool blue ripples of the lake.

"D-d-don't get too ahead of yourself with flattery!" Her failing voice stuttered out. "I am still the Royal Princess of Rhin-Lotharingie!"

"Of course, Your Highness."

Joyous pride filled Pascal's voice as he lifted and kissed the back of her hand.


...


Sylviane never figured out if Pascal intentionally did it or if his lack of social common sense simply left him misguided. However, her father certainly did not appreciate Pascal's idea of 'royal attitude' rubbing off on her. With the rest of the family now gone, Emperor Geoffroi took it upon himself in the following months to stamp almost every vestige of it out of her.


----- * * * -----


"Your Highness?"

The words of Sir Robert de Dunois, wayfarer mage and Oriflamme Armiger to the Cerulean Princess, pulled Sylviane's thoughts back to the present.

I'll see him soon enough, she thought.

"Just planning ahead, Sir Robert."

Crown Princess Sylviane lied through her royal mask of imperturbable confidence. Her shoulders felt heavy and burdened by responsibility. Yet she could not reveal one iota of it -- not to her closest guards, not to the ministers in court, not to anyone, except maybe the three most important men in her life.

Fairy tales aside, being a royal princess had never been about an enviable and enjoyable life. It was hard, and lonely, and just outright tiring.

It was but another reason why no true heir of the Gaetane dynasty ever wanted the throne.

"Your Highness!" A friendly cry interrupted Sylviane's thoughts. "We're here!"

The Princess looked towards the front of the deck. King Alistair was in the prime of his adulthood and wore an imposing suit of half-plate armor. Yet his countenance held the expression of a boy who had just received birthday presents. Sylviane never understood how Alistair could be so lax and cheerful at moments like these, even though she felt like the world was collapsing and that she was one of the few who bore its weight.

Sylviane couldn't help feel envious as she looked up to meet his faded-blue gaze. The King wasn't merely pretending to be happy. His eyes truly looked like that of an excited, tail-wagging puppy.

But then... this is part of why they call him the 'Hound King'. She smiled a little as she stood up from her chair. She strode forward with firm steps as she joined the tall, broad-shouldered man almost thrice her age.

"Come on, Sylviane. Join us on the front deck. You're missing all the scenery!"

"Surely this cannot be your first time in Alis Avern, Your Majesty?" The Princess replied rather stiffly -- a sign of her anxiety and worries.

"It's Alistair. There are no outsiders here." The King insisted playfully, and not for the first time.

Sylviane exhaled a sigh before she smiled and chuckled to herself. This man never holds to protocol. Must be all those years he spent as a mercenary.

"Alistair." She addressed him more casually. "I'm sure you've been to the capital before."

"Of course I have!" He answered with an infectious smile. "But never from this altitude before! And never from the bridge of a skywhale!"

The deck corridor that they strode along soon ended. It opened up to a semi-circular viewing deck, which was surrounded on three sides by floor-to-ceiling windows. At least a dozen Oriflamme Armigers, mostly Alistair's and also a few of Sylviane's, chatted as they pointed to the ground below. The crew compartment they stood in hung under the belly of a skywhale. They were still over a thousand paces off the ground and the windows offered a perfect view.

"Captain Moreau," Alistair turned to face a tall, red-haired man who had just passed his prime. "Bring us to dock please. And make sure to give Geoffroi an eyeful." He then leaned over to Sylviane and half-whispered: "I want to make your father jealous."

"Yes, Your Dippisty."

"Dippy?" Alistair looked taken aback, yet he remained in good humor. "That's a new one."

"The Captain isn't wrong." Sylviane shook her head. "Only you would annoy my father like this."

"Only I can annoy your father like this." Alistair grinned from ear to ear. "Call it the privilege of being his most loyal supporter."

Yet another reason why they call you the 'Hound King'. Sylviane chuckled.

Sylviane looked out through the giant windows and watched as the Oriflamme Palace grew in size at a steady pace. The skywhale still flew over the waters of Lake Alise, the largest lake in Western Hyperion. The capital city of Alise Avern, built by the refugees of the Averni tribe after the fall of Fort Alisia, was situated on the northern tip of an island in the middle of the lake.

There, at the island's northernmost point, was a hill formed by a single, gargantuan rock. On top of this rock was the citadel of the capital's fortifications -- a tall, hexagon-shaped keep, surrounded by a curtain wall with twelve towers devoted to the twelve sacred phoenixes of the realm.

The stone keep in the center was almost boring in its blue granite construction. It wasn't awe-inspiring like the Black Dragon Castle of Weichsel. It wasn't elegant like the tower of the 'Perennial Court' in Ceredigion's Caernarfon Castle. It wasn't even as beautiful as the landscape surrounding Alistair's home in Highcliff Castle.

But this boring looking keep was nevertheless the Oriflamme Palace, the place where she grew up.

I'm home. Sylviane finally smiled in earnest to herself.



Chapter 2 - Gendered Recollections[edit]

"Morning Ma! Morning Pa!"

Stifling a mild yawn with his hand, the seventeen-year-old young man strode into the modest kitchen-bar-dining room his family shared.

"Morning, Kaede. I was wondering if I might need to wake you up for once."

His mother offered a bright smile before turning back to the kitchen counter. Her long ponytail swayed behind her as she chopped vegetables to prepare lunch at a quick beat.

Honoka was petite and slight of build, with a height even shorter than the average Japanese woman. Although technically she was of Ainu ethnicity, a fact that the more pretentious and xenophobic local residents never allowed her to forget, even up here in the northern prefecture of Hokkaido.

"No practice this morning, Ma," Kaede explained in Russian as he stepped up to the two pieces of honey-covered french toast his mother set on the kitchen bar.

It was routine in the Suvorsky household to speak Russian when only family members were around. Kaede's parents had been afraid that his proficiency with the language would deteriorate after years of living in Japan. Indeed, Kaede's writing skills had already regressed. Reading, on the other hand, was kept up by an endless flow of articles shared by his father.

"Those piss-condoms are still at it," that same father swore from a dining chair as he finally put the tablet down, an electronic news article displayed across the screen.

"Language, dear," the mother admonished, though her voice was more velvet than steel. "It amazes me to this day that Kaede didn't grow up with a foul mouth like yours."

"Perhaps I'm just too cultured for him," the youth grinned back, only to void his own claim by stuffing an entire piece of toast into his mouth.

"Oh please! Who taught you all that--" his father spun around the chair as he began to retort, only to halt as the mother cleared her throat aloud. "--Well, at least half that culture?"

Kaede shrugged back, still grinning as his stuffed cheeks grounded down the sweet breakfast with haste.

Konstantin was a Russian of mostly Komi ethnicity. He had bright, slate-gray eyes, sharp eyebrows, and a straight nose, all well-centered upon a somewhat rectangular face. The thin, brown hair above his surprisingly-smooth forehead was graying steadily, which gave a respectable professor look alongside the large spectacles that adorned his image.

"Whaf--" Kaede shoved the chewed food to one side of his cheeks before gesturing at the tablet on the table: "--happened this time?"

"More finger-pointing by the Americans. Not that it's anything new," Konstantin commented with disgust before he picked up the tablet and swiped. "There is more interesting news though -- Motegi met with Lavrov to discuss 'concrete steps' in resolving the Kuril Islands dispute," he read the title before his lips formed something between a grin and a scowl. "The tides are finally turning. The Japanese are growing the balls to think foreign policy for themselves, instead of simply adopting whatever their American overlords wished."

"Abe and Xi's meeting last year certainly ruffled the Americans' feathers," Kaede pitched in before he grabbed a glass of orange juice. Honey on toast was his favorite at breakfast, but it was perhaps a bit too dry by itself.

International politics was arguably his father's biggest hobby. As a result, Kaede found himself well-versed in the maneuvering of leaders and nation-states.

"Indeed, and now the Americans are starting to bend over backwards: anything Japan wants so long as it aligns with their anti-China policy," Konstantin snorted. "Just look at what the bastards are doing. China is mobilizing its entire country to tackle this new virus. Even a centuries-old rival like Japan knows how to be a good neighbor."

Kaede nodded in agreement. He never thought he'd see the day when a renowned Japanese troupe would sing the Chinese National Anthem --an anti-Japanese song written during the World War-- as a sign of solidarity for Wuhan. When he first showed the video to his Chinese friend, the latter almost shed tears.

"Meanwhile what do the Americans do?" Konstantin continued. "They politicize every technical mistake the Chinese make, even going as far as making the World Health Organization their whipping post! Anyone with half a brain should know that 'discovery' is a process of trial-and-error. It would be more surprising if the Chinese did not make major blunders when they're the first to encounter the virus."

"Is it any surprise though?" Kaede thought aloud. "Thucycides' Trap -- a declining hegemon is always fearful of a rising power. Isn't that what you've taught me?"

The father turned to look upon his son with a gruff but proud smile.

"Yes. But in decline or not, America is still the dominant power of the world, and will likely remain so for another quarter century. They should at least pretend to be diplomatic, and not like gleeful bandits overjoyed by the arsonist's crimes," Konstantin explained as he stirred the hot bowl of Shchi cabbage soup that he preferred in the morning. "Still, the virus has made its landfall in America. We'll soon see if they retain the right to call themselves 'world leader', or if their politicians only know how to bullshit."

"I doubt 'diplomatic' is in their current president's vocabulary." Kaede gave an amused shrug, which prompted a snort from his father.

"You're not wrong about that!" His father loudly agreed with a twisted smirk. "Whatever else you can say about Trump, he's at least frank about the Americans' daydreams. They've always sought to strut the globe and enrich themselves at the world's expense, only to turn around and claim it's 'freedom'. Maybe the Clintons should pay a visit to the markets of bombed-out Libya and tell the enslaved African migrants how free they ought to be feeling!"

A scowl stretched across Konstantin's lips as he leaned in to drink a spoonful of soup. There was nothing that riled him up as quickly as the topic of American Imperialism.

Therefore Kaede decided to soften the mood, if only by a little:

"So, have you liberated your rear of its 'Freedom Gas' today?" He referred to recent news of Americans naming their natural gas 'Molecules of Freedom' and trying to force Europe to buy them.

The explosive laughter that came from his father sent spittles of vegetables and soup flying in every direction.

"Kaede!" Honoka shouted in warning from the kitchen.

"Sorry Ma," the young man's smile turned sheepish. In hindsight, he did feel somewhat bad about it, since it was his mother who now had to clean up the mess.

"Trump..." His father snorted out between laughing coughs. "Has the subtlety of a baboon's arse."

"Which is exactly why his voters like him," Kaede shrugged. "Look on the bright side though -- all the US-China scuffles have pulled their 'free press' off Russia-bashing for a few months, at least until their elections swing around."

It was more for his father's benefit than his own. Kaede was proud to have Russian roots from his father's side, but he himself had at least been able to keep a degree of distance. In online comment threads, Kaede had been called everything from a 'Russian Troll' to a 'Chinese Wumao' to a 'Muslim Terrorist' to a 'Zionist Jew'...

It was actually something he was proud of. It showed that he could often grasp and even represent another culture's viewpoint.

"The US doesn't need allies, only vassals -- Putin could not have said truer words," Konstantin declared with an annoyed sigh. "I admit that their media is right about one thing: Putin is an ambitious tyrant surrounded by kleptocrats, and we all know it. But he's also the most competent leader Russia has seen since Catherine the Great. Only an imbecile can think that just because he's gone, someone better would take his place."

Kaede shrugged again. "Probably why the Americans hate him so much: the tragedy of Great Power politics."

Konstantin nodded with a smirk. His gaze was full of pride for the son who had learned so much from him.

"Of course, they'd much rather a piss drunkard like Yeltsin stay in charge, pawning off the Motherland's assets to the highest bidder and pocketing the change! Gorbachev sold us out and we learned the hard way that Russia can never coexist with NATO, because to hell if Russia is going to be some satellite of the EU or US, good for only the extraction of our natural resources!"

His father was still not done when his mother came to interject with gentle smile:

"Kaede, you might want to take off before your father's rants make you late for school."

"Got it Ma! See you Pa! Try not to argue with your fellow professors too much today!" Kaede called back as he rushed out, the remaining slice of toast soon dangling from his mouth.


...


"Daichi! Kaede is already here! You're going to be late if you take any longer!"

Mrs. Ho called into the house before turning back to Kaede with a shallow yet respectful bow:

"Thank you so much for coming here every day, Kaede."

"No not at all, Aunty." Kaede rushed to reply with an even lower bow. It always made him uncomfortable when people a generation above him showed that much courtesy.

"I'm coming, I'm coming!" Daichi finally rushed into view, pulled on his shoes, and swirled right around his mother to dart out the door. "See ya later Ma!"

"Have a good day at school!" the elegant Mrs. Ho waved from the door as the two young men departed.

Daichi was a high school boy with a classic athletic build. Round-headed with rather large eyes for an Asian, he paced at an above-average height --especially among Japanese males-- with a lean and confident stride. He might not be the best looking in their grade, but he was up there in popularity, and being the Kendo team captain certainly didn't hurt.

"Wish Sayuri was the one picking me up every mooooooorning," he expressed through a great yawn before looking at Kaede with drooping eyes still half-asleep.

Good thing I look nothing like your girlfriend, Kaede suddenly thought. Otherwise his spine might be shivering with discomfort right now.

"Don't confuse reality with that lame anime you watch," he retorted from besides Daichi as the two walked up the hill.

"Then how come you manage it every morning?"

"Because you're my oldest friend here and you live on my way to school," came the nonchalant reply. "Sayuri is on the wrong side of town."

"I wish I had a cuter childhood friend," Daichi mumbled out.

"Even if I were cuter I'm still a boy," Kaede smirked back before nudging the other's shoulder. "Think your parents might be aghast if you tried that."

"Ugh, no. No way! Hell no!"

Daichi's eyes sprang wide, bulging with nightmarish alertness as his friend began to laugh out loud.

He wasn't exactly Kaede's 'childhood friend'. The two hadn’t met until middle school, mere months after Kaede came to Japan. At a time when Kaede was still trying to fit in with his poor Japanese and mixed-blood appearance, he met the half-Chinese Daichi during the school's activities fair.

Kaede still remembered that moment when he walked by the Calligraphy Club's stall and heard the young boy remark: "look at those beautiful symbols! I wonder who they stole them from?"

The half-Russian had burst into uncontrolled laughter in that very moment, unable to suppress it even after receiving several annoyed stares.

The two of them became best friends almost immediately. It certainly helped that they both showed an interest in archaic martial arts: swords for Daichi and bows for Kaede. Furthermore, Daichi was half-Chinese and therefore half-fascinated in history and politics by blood.

"How come you know where Sayuri lives anyway?" Daichi returned to the topic once more.

"I'm the one who introduced her to you, in case you forgot," Kaede answered, his expression plain except for the tilted eyebrows. "I walked her and several other girls home once when they stayed late for a culture fair project."

Daichi groaned aloud:

"I swear, you are just asking for the girls to friendzone you! No wonder why you're on such good terms with the girls yet still don't have a girlfriend!"

"Morning, Surusuke-kun!" a girl in class called out in greeting just as they rounded the corner.

"Morning!" Kaede waved back with friendly enthusiasm.

He had long grown used to everyone mispronouncing his surname.

"See!" Daichi cried out, his open palm gesturing between them as they continued on their way. "This is what I'm talking about!"

"I don't know about you, but my parents taught me manners," Kaede shrugged it off with another smile. "Besides, what kind of a man would you be to not walk a group of stranded girls home?"

"That's not what I meant!" Daichi retorted, his tempo rising as he spoke. "I meant your overt friendliness! You need to at least keep some distance with the girls so that when you do approach them it's exciting! That's what a budding relationship needs! Emotion! Thrill! Passion!"

Daichi struck a cool pose as he laid one gesturing hand right beneath his smirking chin.

"I'll never let Sayuri see me and only think 'oh hey, it's Daichi'. I want her heart to skip a beat every time she rounds the corner and sees me!"

"She's not about to round that corner ahead, you know that right?" Kaede joked it off to pull Daichi out of his silly posture before defending his own lifestyle:

"Besides, what's wrong with being friends with girls? I want a love that grows out of friendship. Because in years from now, when that youthful spark of passion gradually wanes, it's companionship and trust that keeps couples together and happy."

"There you go again, trying to be 'Mister Mature' and talking like some old salaryman..."

Daichi let loose a deep and exasperated sigh that essentially cried 'what is wrong with you?'

"Come on! You're seventeen! Enjoy life's youth and beauty while you can! Most girls our age aren't interested in some safe, platonic relationship, you know?"

Kaede grimaced. Just barely, so light that his best friend never even noticed.

He didn't need a reminder. He still remembered that incident quite well. His attempt at high school romance had ended in heartbreak. His once girlfriend leaving with some rather barbed words for him.

"As you said, I'm still young. I have tons that I want to do, so I'm not in a rush for this either," Kaede declared. "If the girls we know aren't mature enough for a stable, long-term, and adult relationship, then I'm willing to wait until they are."

A distant corner of Kaede's mind wondered if those statements were really true, or if he was simply trying to avoid another hurtful experience.

"I swear, keep up this attitude and you'll be thirty before you find a good..."

"Can we get off this topic?" Kaede objected as Daichi kept up the walking commentary. "We're clearly not seeing eye-to-eye here."

"Fiiiiine..." the other begrudgingly dropped it at last.

A moment of silence followed, which Kaede didn't mind. However Daichi always found such lapses uncomfortable, and he was quick to break it:

"So, in other 'Mister Mature' news, did you hear back from..."

"Tokyo U? Yes. I'm going," Kaede beamed, all shadows chased from his sunlit smile within the second.

"Damn overachiever."

"Hey you could at least..."

"Congratulations."

Daichi expressed his sincerity as he hooked his arm around Kaede's neck and pulled his friend in. The latter's chestnut-brown hair was soon a mess as two of them held a friendly wrestle in the middle of the sidewalk.

"But I still get to gripe about it, you damn overachiever."


...


Standing a hundred paces from the practice target, Kaede kept his footing with his left side facing the target. His hand drew a fresh arrow, and his body straightened into the proper form: pelvis and shoulders in parallel, back straight from neck to feet.

He held his yumi greatbow diagonally in hand, before gripping the bow string with his right glove. A grooved piece of horn sewn into the thumb's crouch in his three-fingered archery glove caught onto the bowstring. Meanwhile his 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 his eyes to face the target once more -- Monomi.

A cold, Spring breeze swept through the archery range where he stood. However Kaede hardly even felt the chill as his mind zoned out everything else in the world. He raised the greatbow above his head, paused, then pulled it back down. His hands drew away the string while pushing his bow forward at the same time.

His posture reached Kai -- the full draw. His mind melded into the arrowhead to form one entity. His eyes saw nothing but the target itself. His thumb and fingers then released the string, hurling the arrow out through the open air.

The arrow in flight represented something sacred to Kaede, bringing him a sense of perfect serenity.

...Just before it soared straight into the straw dummy.

Lowering his bow, Kaede's concentration relaxed from his intense focus. It had felt good to leave the world behind, to put aside all of his frustrations and consider only the absolute truth of the moment:

His arrow was fated to pierce the target dead center.

"Perfect shot," Kaede heard Daichi's voice from behind him.

"Nah. Perfect is when I learn to split my own arrows," Kaede turned around to meet his best friend with a smile.

"Oh shut it, you overachiever," Daichi grabbed Kaede by the neck and began pressing his fist into his friend's head.

"Ow! That hurt! Come on I've enough of a headache today!"

The best friend and kendo captain let go at once. His earlier grin faltered in apology.

"Math again?" He asked.

"Calculus," Kaede emphasized and insisted upon the difference. "I'm good at math. We were equals back in algebra and geometry."

"Almost equals," Daichi grinned. Mathematics was his best subject and one of only two in which he beat Kaede. The other was Japanese, thanks to the unfair advantage provided by the Chinese-Kanji connection.

"But clearly I can't do differentials worth squat." Kaede scowled as he led the way to the changing room. "I mean how the heck am I supposed to calculate something I can't even envision?"

Daichi shrugged. "Abstract thinking?"

"Easy for you to say, Mister Numbers," Kaede protested as he took off his gear. "I'm a pictographic thinker. Need a mental image."

"Does it really matter though?" Daichi leaned against the wall as he replied. "You've been accepted to Tokyo U already. You're planning on studying history and media, so it's unlikely you'll ever use calculus. All you need in that class for the rest of the year is a passing grade."

Kaede was in the middle of taking off his equipment when he turned to frown at his best friend.

"I don't do things half-hearted," he retorted. "Maybe calculus will be useful in my life. Maybe it won't. But if I'm going to study it, then I want to learn it. We didn't come to school for our parents' sake."

Daichi sighed as he tilted and scratched his head. As someone with a Chinese parent, the complaint of 'who am I learning this for' was one he filed often.

"Sure, sure, Mister Mature. But don't distract yourself like this right before the big tournament." Daichi advised. "Tell you what -- if it helps put your mind at ease, I'll tutor you after the tournament. We've got time now that our college admissions are settled. I'm sure that between my calligraphy and your interest in art, we'll find some way of turning Laplace Transforms into a Monet painting."

As Kaede placed the last piece of his archery uniform in his bag, he gave his best friend a knowing look.

"Your calligraphy is terrible. What did your father call it again?"

"Chicken scratch." The two of them said at the same time before bursting into laughter.

It was one of those activities that Daichi had no real interest in, and only practiced because his parents insisted on it.

"But thanks, I'll take you up on that offer," Kaede grinned.

"Oooh, I have a pupil now!" Daichi looked proud of himself as the two of them started to leave. "Call me--"

"I am not calling you 'Master', you Shounen fanatic," Kaede retorted.

"Wuxia, not Shounen." Daichi insisted. "That Japanese stuff is a pale imitation. And you should know better. Since when have you ever met someone who learned how to discuss real politics from Shounen?"

It was another one of their shared interests. Daichi's background even gave him a unique perspective. His grandfathers, both of them, had fought in the World War... on opposite sides of the Chinese front.

Life is wonderful and full of irony. Kaede thought with a smile.

The two continued to chat until they arrived at the school's bus station. It was getting late and Kaede wasn't in the mood to walk several kilometers home today.

"I still have some errands to run, so I'll be seeing you," Daichi commented as they saw a bus coming down the road. "When do you leave tomorrow morning?"

"Six-thirty."

"Ooomph, way too early. I need my beauty sleep."

"You mean you're going to stay up late playing video games again," Kaede returned another knowing look.

"Hey what can I say, the world isn't going to conquer itself," Daichi shrugged as the bus pulled in and the doors opened. Then, with a final pat on his friend's shoulders. "Get 'em at the tournament, Tiger. Show 'em what we halves are made of."

"Will do!" Kaede grinned back with appreciation.


----- * * * -----


I never did make it to the tournament. Kaede thought as she buttoned up her shirt.

Her gaze was fixated on her image in the dresser mirror, though in reality her mind wasn't there at all. She watched as her small hands tightened the short, black tie around her stiffly-folded collars, followed then by the pink ribbons around her sleeves just below the shoulders. Her dainty, stockinged feet stepped into her short petticoat. She soon had its upper hem compressed around her narrow waist, followed by that of her skirt.

Her uniform-like white jacket came last. She straightened its black lines and pink ribbons before buckling the narrow belt around her thin waist.

The entire experience had a certain... out-of-body quality to it. It wasn't new, as every time Kaede looked upon the mirror since coming to this world, she always had this weird feeling that she was in the wrong body, that it wasn't hers. Yet now, as she finally began to accept her life here for what it was, it felt like her new body was going through the motions without any conscious thought to it.

Her mind was stuck in a turmoil of emotions. Her recollection of last night intermixed with that of her 'dream', memories of the day before she had been summoned.

Have I really become a girl? She thought.

Her behavior last night --not just comforting Pascal on the roof but even letting him hold her while she slept-- was simply not usual for any male in a non-romantic relationship. Men, especially Russian men, tended to keep a certain distance when sharing their worst troubles and deepest emotions.

Kaede remembered how her mother often complained of her father pushing people away whenever he was in a poor mood. It had taken her years to wean him off alcohol as an emotional management tool, but he still had trouble connecting with others whenever he was depressed or angry or frustrated... which was often, thanks to his political views.

It wasn't easy being a Russian male in a post-Cold-War world. Negative stereotypes were abundant, from the terrible Vodka jokes to the insinuation that even their most common names sounded 'evil', due to the prevalence of Russian villains in stories and films. It was part of why Kaede preferred to use her Japanese given name than her Russian one. 'Nikita' had a tendency to summon suspicious looks and mockeries of 'we will bury you'. Even though the Soviet leader whom Kaede shared a name with never said that -- it had been a mistranslation from the very beginning, yet popular media wouldn't let it go as it confirmed the stereotype of the 'Russian menace'.

A young, twelve-year-old Kaede once found an article to explain his father's behavior to his mother. Even back then, Kaede had learned to research whenever he stumbled across a difficult topic. It had turned out that the male tendency to isolate themselves while in poor mood was more than just a common trend. The differences in genders, from brain wiring to bodily hormones, literally made it difficult for males to express their most heartfelt emotions.

Is that why I acted the exact opposite last night? Kaede thought.

She could still feel Pascal's warmth from when she wrapped her arms around him. Her cheeks colored slightly as she thought about how she had completely tore down any barriers that still existed between them. It had only taken a month since her coming to this world to bridge the gap between them. She doubted that could have been possible if she was still male.

Nevertheless, Kaede needed the bond between her and Pascal to stay within a safe zone. It wasn't even a matter of whether or not she wanted romance as a girl. Her life in the new world simply depended too much on the stability of their relationship for her to risk anything beyond mere friendliness.

...Especially when he's betrothed to a Princess. She reminded herself.

Kaede stole another glance at Pascal. Facing his mirrored reflection, a blank expression replaced his usual dashing smirk as he adjusted his collar and the Knight's Cross hanging below it. His countenance was still stern as he proudly saluted his own image before turning to face her.

She hurriedly glanced back to her own wardrobe before their eyes could meet.

"Ready to depart?"

His tone was composed, or perhaps 'controlled' was a better description. It certainly lacked the humored arrogance he began most days with.

"Y-yeah..."

She had to will herself not to pull away as Pascal leaned in to adjust her appearance to the perfection he demanded.

"Have you already told the others?" She remembered to ask. After all, Pascal had originally said that he'd be joining Ariadne on her trip back to Weichsel, while Perceval would come along as the healer for his new command of a Noble Reiter company.

"Yes." He answered. "Ariadne is still leaving today, possibly by herself. Perceval will be staying behind until he receives an update from me. Reynaud will take us to Alis Avern this morning as he is apparently meeting his father. He has already received his Wayfarer license."

Kaede had read that Wayfarers were mages who specialized in teleportation magic. They could transport up to a dozen people and take them to a beacon as far as a hundred kilopaces away. This meant that a network of Wayfarers who stationed themselves in various towns and cities effectively functioned as Hyperion's 'shuttle service'. They often kept to a schedule but also allowed people to reserve appointments, which allowed travellers to plan their trips in advance.

Prominent figures, such as rich patricians, upper nobility, and certainly most royalty, also hired their own, personal Wayfarers. It was easily one of the most highly demanded services in this world. Many mages, particularly those of yeomen birth, became Wayfarers for its guaranteed employment opportunities.

Though I doubt that's Reynaud's reason, Kaede thought.

"What is... the Emperor like?" She then asked. She could feel that her anxiety was making her stomach do somersaults.

"Emperor Geoffroi is a stern man. A bit sarcastic at times, but also good-hearted underneath. He is an excellent leader of his people and a good father." Pascal spoke with admiration towards his future father-in-law. "Regal is in his nature. So, do not be impertinent. Speak only when you are asked." Pascal warned. "He will not hesitate to throw someone with no political authority into the dungeons."

Kaede nodded back faintly. With everything else on her mind, the stress of an impending royal audience did not add well to her nerves. But however daunting meeting an Emperor may be, the prospect of facing Pascal's royal fiancée while being a girl bonded to him was... far worse.

She didn't even have to ask before Pascal volunteered that information:

"Sylviane, thanks to her upbringing, is overly serious and pressured by her role as the Crown Princess. Be courteous, look cute, and stay on your best behavior. I am certain she will warm up to you given time, but best you tread carefully at the start."

His advice didn't make her feel any better, nor the hints of worry in his own voice. Kaede simply couldn't shake the feeling that she was like a mistress about to be introduced to the official wife. It made her wonder...

Wouldn't 'look cute' just aggravate her?

With one finger under her chin, Pascal brought her eyes back to his turquoise gaze. He waved his hand and its glowing ring over her face. The usual Refreshen spell soon brightened her appearance.

His usual demeanor finally made Kaede realize that she was being awkward by herself.

Sure, his expressions were different. His attitude was unusual. But that was expected for any normal person who just lost their parents. The key point however, was that he treated her the exact same way as before. Meanwhile she was trying to keep more distance, reneging upon the very words she said to him on the rooftop last night. If she kept this up, she would unintentionally harm him during a time he needed support the most.

"Well... would you prefer I address you as Milord, Sir, or Master then while we're in public?" She forced out her words, half-jokingly as she sought familiar ground in the atmosphere between the two of them.

Pascal paused as he returned a frowning scowl. Kaede soon berated herself as she found out why.

"As my father is now gone, I am the new Landgrave of Nordkreuz. It is a title of ducal rank, therefore the proper style to address me by is 'Your Grace'. It overrides the 'Sir' for addressing my knighthood or as a noble head of household. And, as I had told you on the first night, I am not some faux noble who needs ego stroking, so please do not give me some weird reputation with the last..."

Then, Pascal finally smirked. It was light, almost faint, but it was nevertheless the first time he showed any semblance of joy all morning.

"Although if you wish to do so in private, I would not really mind."

Kaede squeezed her right hand as she felt an urge to strike that handsome face again.

It was the first time she found her feeling at his expression oddly reassuring.



Chapter 3 - The Oriflamme Princess[edit]

Kaede hated teleportation more every time she did it. The feeling of undergoing simultaneous freezing and sublimation, all while being flushed down a whirlpool, simply wasn't something she could acclimate herself to. She confirmed all her body parts while their nerves reconnected. Her thoughts felt immensely grateful that Reynaud took only two jumps on their hundred-kilopace journal to Alis Avern, as Pascal commented that it would have taken him at least four jumps to match the same distance.

She was even ready to forgive all the times he had annoyingly called her 'buttercup'. Maybe.

He's still a pervert. Kaede reflected as she kept her distance from Reynaud by staying on Pascal's other side.

Alis Avern was rather unimpressive for a capital. The streets were narrow, the houses were small, and the planning was nonexistent. Even most larger 'avenues' could barely manage two wagons passing side-by-side, and the smaller alleys could fit a handcart at best. Most buildings were wooden with thatched roofs raised two-stories high. The winding roads snaked up and down the hilly terrain with no discernable pattern, while homes were crammed onto sloped hills like stepping stones.

It certainly showed that Rhin-Lotharingie was far from a wealthy country. Though if Kaede had to pick one charming quality, it's that the city felt very... organic. The way the streets circled around large trees and giant boulders. It made the place feel less like a city and more like an overgrown town of rural tradition.

"Where are you heading?" Pascal asked Reynaud as the three of them walked uphill along a cobblestone street.

"Same place as you -- the palace." Reynaud grinned. "I'm meeting my father there."

"Your father works in Oriflamme Palace?" Pascal raised an eyebrow.

"No. He arrived yesterday with King Alistair and Princess Sylviane. Delivered them in person, more like," Reynaud answered with pride.

"What? On both hands?"

"Ha-ha, funny." Reynaud retorted. "Papa is a sky merchant, though these days he acts more as a captain for the King than a trader. The Emperor gave him the title of Chevalier for his services during the War of Imperial Succession. But Father prefers working with King Alistair. They're almost best friends."

Of course they are. Kaede thought. She wasn't sure about the others, but that last part was almost certainly a boast.

"Is that the reason why you summoned a baby skywhale familiar? To follow in your father's footsteps?" Pascal asked before he realized that didn't make sense. "But you are a military cadet in the academy."

"I knew my familiar before I summoned her." Reynaud smirked as though it was finally his turn to tout special privileges. "Priscilla was a baby whale that father's Marianna gave birth to. And speaking of Marianna, she's right there..."

Through a gap in the buildings, the redhead pointed to the side of the rocky crag that the Oriflamme Palace was built on top of. Sure enough, there was a sperm whale hovering adjacent to one of the outer wall's towers. The beast was even more colossal than its Earth equivalent, and would need a clearing the size of an ice hockey rink to land. It also had tentacle-like appendages extending out from above her jaws like some long mustache, and the huge, block-shaped head glistened with a metallic shine.

However, the most interesting detail was the steel-framed wooden structure strapped beneath the belly. Its size was somewhere between a large bus and a small ferry. Behind it dangled massive cargo nets, although they were mostly empty at the moment, as well as a small platform with two ballistae on each side. The entire design reminded Kaede of a dirigible airship, except with structural supports wrapped around the back of an oversized whale instead.

Well, it's not sentient tofu, Kaede thought. Her logic still lay bloated with incredulity, but at least it didn't require emergency resuscitation.

She had read about skywhales after Perceval spoke of Reynaud's familiar. Wild skywhales traveled across the northern skies in tight-knit, highly-protective groups. Adults were too powerful and intelligent to tame, therefore the only skywhales that worked with humans were those summoned as a familiar during early childhood and brought up over the course of two decades. They were easily the strongest beast of burden on Hyperion, but only for the lucky few who had one.

"How do they stay afloat?" Kaede asked, incredulous.

She didn't even notice that she had stopped in her tracks and fallen behind.

"Magic." Pascal replied with a smirk, which attracted an annoyed glance from his familiar.

"Skywhales have three magical traits: levitation flight, steelskin, and flourish." Reynaud was kind enough to explain. "Their size combined with their ability to turn their own skin into armor makes them one of the apex predators of Hyperion."

"And flourish?" Kaede puzzled.

"Those mustache-like tentacles. They can grow them at will to snatch game from the ground and deliver to its mouth."

"And what do they eat?"

"Fish, mostly. But they also gobble up large land animals, anything from elk to musk ox." Pascal explained this time. "Cattle and reindeer herders treat them like a roaming natural disaster, since it takes an army, and willingness to take massive casualties, to take down a pod of skywhales. For that reason, private skywhales like this one are often commandeered during times of war, to be used as anything from giant battering rams to airborne siege platforms."

"So your familiar is going to grow into one of those?" Kaede pointed as she finally caught up with the two young men.

"Well, they don't grow the gondola structure. That has to be built by human hands." Reynaud noted with a grin. "In fact, most gondolas are designed to be detachable, so the skywhales can land them somewhere and then go fishing on their own. The ridiculous amount of food they consume makes their upkeep too expensive otherwise."

He then tried to wrap an arm around Kaede after she absentmindedly walked between them. However the Samaran girl slipped from his grasp and spun around to Pascal's other side.

"Stop that!" She said as she tugged on Pascal's sleeve almost by instinct.

"Hands off, Reynaud. Kaede is my familiar. Summon your own girl." Pascal added before the cadet relented.

Why does it always take another man to say it before they'll take it seriously? Kaede thought.

"Sheesh, stingy!" The redhead complained in an exaggerated tone. Yet he kept smiling and continued as though nothing had happened. "I'm not entirely sure how my familiar is connected to my future yet. My goal is to become an Oriflamme Armiger --since I clearly failed to summon a phoenix myself-- and there's only a hundred-forty-four of those positions, at best, throughout the entirety of Rhin-Lotharingie. Being good at combat helps but it's often not enough. It's why I learned to be a Wayfarer as well. Every Paladin needs one of those, and I have dual expertise in conjuration and alchemy!"

"Why only a hundred-forty-four?" Kaede asked as her curiosity replaced her earlier distaste.

"There are only twelve sacred phoenixes so, at best, you might have twelve Paladins at any time," Reynaud added. "And it's tradition that each Paladin takes no more than twelve armigers as their personal retinue."

Don't tell me the Lotharins built an entire national myth around the limitation that there are only twelve birds? Kaede thought.

She could just imagine how awkward it'd be if one of them had a baby. Sorry Sir, we must now change everything to thirteen.

"I read that the Oriflamme Paladins are chosen by the twelve phoenixes of Rhin-Lotharingie to serve as the nation's guardians. What else is special about them?" Kaede inquired further.

The response came back with the excitement of a starry-eyed fanboy zealously worshiping his heroes:

"Only that they're some of the best spellswords across Hyperion, both in prowess and sheer style. When duty calls, they form a union with their phoenix familiars, and look absolutely kickass in their halo of golden blue-white flames." Reynaud even gestured as though he held his dual kukris while he explained. "They glide through the air on burning wings and hurl blue fire that melts through plated steel... any knight of Hyperion who claims that they aren't envious of the Oriflammes in some way is outright lying."

Kaede wondered just how much resemblance they bore to Arthur's Knights of the Round Table, or perhaps more appropriately, the Twelve Peers of Charlemagne. The translation magic did match their name up with 'Oriflamme', the golden flame battle standard once carried by the Kings of France until it was lost at Agincourt.

"There are currently only ten Paladins though." Reynald continued in his buoyant enthusiasm as he began to list his heroes. "There's the sworn Paladin Trio: Gervais, Laurent, and Edgard. Duke Gaston the 'Pristine Lord' and his mistress, Cosette the 'Tide Breaker'. Sylviane the 'Cerulean Princess' and her father, Emperor Geoffroi the Great. Alistair the 'Hound King' and the crusader, Edith-Estellise the 'Polar Cross'. And last as well as most recent..."

Reynaud then paused as he struggled to conjure the last name.

"Vivienne. She had yet to fight her first battle so most do not know her." Pascal filled in as he continued in his stride, which forced Kaede to scurry along at his side. "It is not all sword-and-sorcery either. The Paladins also make some of Rhin-Lotharingie's best commanders and mages. In fact, Vivienne is a young concordist: a bard who uses rare fae magic. Furthermore, only Oriflamme Paladins --their character proven by the phoenixes' choice-- may inherit the throne. Therefore the phoenixes always select at least one individual from the royal line of succession. As you can imagine, Sylviane's appointment is more political than purely martial."

Wait, did he say 'fae magic'? Kaede thought. She was about to ask when Reynaud spoke out first.

"How is it that you always manage to pick the most hopelessly realistic thing to say? Way to ruin my romantic childhood dreams of knights-in-burning-armor."

"I practice," Pascal replied sarcastically. "Romanticism has no place in my army, or any army..."

"Your army?" Reynaud cut in. "Think the King of Weichsel might care to hear this?"

"The King is the one who kept comparing me and father when he personally knighted me. Mark my words: I will become Marshal, be it in Weichsel or in Rhin-Lotharingie. It is just a matter of time..."

"Aren't you--"

Pascal then trampled over Reynaud's interjection by the sheer weight of his stern voice:

"But as to the point: we already have enough necessary wars, Reynaud. There is no need for unnecessary ones because some foreign idiot believes it is 'noble' for them to launch one."

"I wholeheartedly agree with that," Kaede added with a firm nod. Philosophers might disagree over how 'necessary' any war was. But as a historian, she couldn't be more proud of Pascal's attitude towards his profession.

"Yes yes, I agree too. It isn't as if the last war hasn't impacted my family. But come on, knights-in-burning-armor!"

Reynaud gestured wildly as he accentuated his final words. Then, as Pascal gave no response and Kaede almost giggled, he tossed in rather hypothetically:

"Besides, I thought real generals only felt at home on the battlefield?"

"'Real generals' also do not enjoy seeing their men get killed," Pascal countered harshly. "There are other ways to simulate a battlefield, whether over a beer casket or under a projector. Kaede even introduced me to a term from her home realm. It is marvelously simplistic really: they call it 'wargaming'."

The three of them finally arrived at the citadel's front gates. They marched across the drawbridge and over a rocky ravine before stopping at the gatehouse. Several guardsmen wearing chainmail armor and blue tabards approached them from inside.

Stepping forth, Pascal produced a tightly bound scroll from his enchanted pockets before handing it to the officer in charge:

"I am Captain Sir Pascal Kay Lennart von Moltewitz, Landgrave of Nordkreuz. These two are my retainers. I am here to see the Emperor at the behest of Crown Princess Sylviane, my fiancée."

Reynaud shot him an evil glare from the side before stepping forward as well. "I'm Reynaud Moreau, son of Sir Claude Moreau, captain of the skywhale parked just outside. My father was the one who brought King Alistair and Princess Sylviane to the palace yesterday. He summoned me to the castle at the behest of the Emperor for... well I don't really know." The redhead finished with a shrug before handing over a scroll of his own.

The officer was meticulous. He first scanned both scrolls with magic, and then did the same thing to all three of them.

"She's a familiar?" His eyebrows shot up in surprise as he finished examining Kaede.

"Yes. She is my familiar." Pascal answered with evident pride.

"Must be a Weichsen thing," the officer shook his head in disbelief. "Your aura signatures confirm and there are no signs of deceptive illusion or alchemy." He then bowed slightly in courtesy. "Welcome to the Oriflamme Citadel, Your Grace."

"Thank you," Pascal nodded curtly before continuing on into the outermost castle courtyard. Reynaud waited until he received his scroll back before catching up.

"Retainer? What am I, your squire?" Reynaud snubbed back as his voice dripped with sarcasm: "would you like your armor polished with that, Your Grace?"

"After the trip here? You can be my stablehand."

"Do you two always have to be this pleasant around one another?" Kaede sighed.

The two men answered almost at once as even their voices clashed against one another:

"Blame the firestarter lord of sarcastic hill..."

"Not my fault his ass is still glued to the same old arrogant high horse."


...


The Oriflamme Palace was certainly more impressive than the city outside it. The hexagonal keep was built from blocks of blue granite, some no doubt quarried from the rocky crag it sat on top of. The walls and floors inside were marbled and partially paved with carpets. The hanging chandeliers and landscape art weren't overly extravagant, but they were sufficient for a palace.

As two guards led the trio through the halls, Kaede noticed that every landscape painting that stretched along the walls depicted a scene which included a blue-feathered phoenix. She wasn't sure if the artworks told the founding story of Rhin-Lotharingie or paid homage to each of its Oriflamme Paladins.

The nationalism is certainly strong here, she thought. Though perhaps that's not a surprise, given the price they paid for their independence.

The palace was also fairly empty. They could walk through an entire hallway without meeting a single new guard or servant.

"Mind if I follow along and meet the Princess?" Reynaud finally broke the silence that had settled between them since entering the palace.

"You may come along as my gratitude for your help. But let me make one thing clear," Pascal replied with a warning. "I will not tolerate any of your disrespect towards my fiancée. She is far more sensitive than I am."

"Ha! As if you have any sensitivity to speak of..."

Reynaud's retort attracted a harsh glare from Pascal. As a result the redhead quickly appended to his answer:

"Don't worry you playboy. I have no desire to put my head on a chopping block. She's royalty, the first Oriflamme Princess too, even if she isn't quite a match for the others on a battlefield," the redhead spoke with awe as he examined yet another painting. "Besides, I know how to treat a proper lady."

Does that mean I'm not a proper lady? Kaede thought, annoyed, before another mental voice rushed in to counter: What am I thinking? Of course I'm not a lady!

The gender issue was still giving her a serious case of identity confusion. Was it more important to be respected in her current form, or was it preferable to not stress such proper male-female courtesy? Kaede had no answer for this, so she pushed it aside to focus on the bigger picture.

She also realized that for all of Reynaud's contempt towards proper aristocratic decorum, he seemed surprisingly willing to follow them as long as it brought him into the graces of a beautiful noblewoman.

As the trio and their guards rounded another corner, they saw another group of three coming down the hallway towards them. The newcomers were led by a young lady, followed by two protective bodyguards, one male and one female, both wearing armor.

The two guardsmen were quick to stiffen their postures, while both Pascal and Reynaud stopped talking and tried to look their best. A glance at Pascal revealed to Kaede that his focus was locked onto the approaching lady's figure, while his eyes shone with a hint of anxiety amidst a sea of fondness and admiration.

"I do not believe a girl more beautiful than her could exist..."

Those were Pascal's exact words when Kaede first asked about his fiancée. Given that he once courted Ariadne, who epitomized grace and noble elegance, Kaede had always imagined that the Princess would be a gorgeous beauty no less stunning.

However as the approaching lady drew close, Kaede's first thought was that not everything lived up to expectations.

To put it simply: Crown Princess Sylviane seemed almost... average.

That wasn't entirely fair. Sylviane was still pretty by any standard. She was about the same age as Pascal and stood with confidence at a moderate height. Her voluminous, dark-purple hair draped across both of her narrow shoulders. It stopped short of her petite chest in front and reached just beyond her slender waist in the back. Her eyes were large and caring, as they carried the color of wisteria flowers. Below them lay a feminine nose, a pair of small, peachy-pale lips, and fair cheeks that were a hint pudgy. Combined with the blank, composed expression she wore, it gave her an innocent air that went oddly with the royal bearing.

In essence, she was pretty and cute in a rather ordinary way. Sylviane appeared more like the daughter of a backwater baron than the Princess of an Emperor monickered 'the Great'. She certainly lacked the graceful elegance and calming serenity that Ariadne radiated with each step and every smile.

Maybe that's rather unfair, Kaede thought to herself. Few nobles anywhere could match such competition.

Crowned by a modest silvery-cerulean tiara, the Princess wore what could best be described as a 'battledress' dyed from sky-blue to violet. Soft leather in darker iris padded her shoulders and embraced her waist, which marked the fitting spots for absent armor. Meanwhile a wide skirt below the belts extended outwards in sectioned fabrics.

"Pascal," the Princess spoke with a soft smile as the two betrothed stopped within an arm's reach.

Pascal gave a deep and courteous bow before straightening his back. He gently raised her offered hand and clasped it between his palms. "It is wonderful to see you again, Sylv."

Time seemed to stand still as the two betrothed's gazes met in the emotional exchange of a long-overdue greeting.

Meanwhile, the guards who accompanied Pascal's group here saluted and departed. Their departure left Kaede feeling like she was intruding on a private meeting. Only Reynaud's presence, as well as the two armigers flanking the Princess, kept her standing still instead of quietly backing away. The Princess' guards, one male and one female, also examined her and Reynaud with a wary gaze.

"I'm sorry about what happened."

Sylviane's soft words carried a surging torrent of sympathy, so much that Kaede barely caught the touch of remorse hidden deep within.

"Thank you."

Pascal breathed out a sigh of gratitude, not just sincere but also... humble, without even a trace of his habitual arrogance. Then, Kaede swore that she missed something hidden in their exchange as Pascal probed with a hopeful uncertainty that was most unlike him:

"Does this mean we are back to before?"

The Princess slowly shook her head.

"I doubt that's possible at this point..."

She sent Kaede a quick, almost inquisitive glance. It lasted no more than a mere second, but nevertheless produced a key that clicked with perfect timing in the young Samaran's mind:

They had a falling out... because Pascal summoned me...

"However," Sylviane continued with a forgiving smile, "it was my wrong to simply pull away. We have to work this out... together."

The young landgrave was about to say something else, when the Princess stopped him with a raised finger:

"Not right now. You know the rules: official business first. The Emperor's council is in session. I only ducked out so I could come greet you."

It was their last word on the subject for the time being. Pascal soon nodded in understanding as he proceeded to follow Sylviane. Yet, to Kaede, this short exchange had reaffirmed her suspicion into a firm, doubtless realization:

Pascal truly held Sylviane as a special, irreplaceable figure in his life. His words that the Princess was the most beautiful girl in his life weren't praises or boasts, but a true expression of how his eyes viewed her every step.

But does the Princess feel likewise?

In any other circumstance, Kaede would say yes. But Sylviane wasn't just anyone: she was a politician, and her nation was desperately in need of aid from Pascal's home country.

However, before the princess took a step, she turned back around and faced Reynaud.

"You must be Reynaud, the son of Captain Moreau."

"Yes, Your Highness." Reynaud gave a deep and respectful bow of his own. He then kissed the back of the Princess' offered hand with such grace that it astonished Kaede. His demeanor had flipped to the mirror opposite of his usual unruliness. "I am honored Your Highness knows me by name."

"Pascal wrote of you in the report he forwarded to me and my father," said Sylviane. "You have my sincere gratitude for helping save the life of my betrothed."

"I would do no less for a comrade and personal friend, Your Highness."

Okay now you're just outright lying, Kaede thought to herself as she tried to keep a straight face at Reynaud's proud grin.

"It's alright, you don't have to force yourself to speak nicely of him..." Sylviane's smile widened as she almost chuckled. "I have known Pascal since childhood. I know perfectly well that he can be a complete pain at times, especially to those he doesn't understand."

It was Reynaud who failed to cover up his astonishment this time as his own presumptions lay shattered.

"I will not ask for you to be nice to him." The Princess went on in her gentle voice. "But if you could continue to offer him your acquaintance and aid him against our shared foes, then I shall be personally grateful."

...Though a few bruises when he deserves them are perfectly fine, Kaede added in the safety of her own mind.

Anxieties notwithstanding, Kaede couldn't help appreciate her growing impression of the Princess. Royal politician or not, there was a candid sincerity in the way Sylviane expressed herself. If nothing else, she seemed a reasonable person who could think through others' perspectives: which was far more than Kaede could say for Pascal, or most nobles in general.

The fact their opinions of him drew parallels certainly supported Kaede's opinion.

"I shall do what I can, Your Highness." Reynaud smoothly laid his right palm flat across the chest and gave another respectful bow.

"Thank you," Sylviane replied with a courteous nod before turning to one of her armigers, a boyishly pretty young man with a handsome face. "Sir Robert, please escort Sir Reynaud to meet his father."

"Yes, Your Highness."

"Sir...?" Reynaud looked stunned.

"My father will be awarding you the title of Chevalier later today," Sylviane smiled. "In the meantime, if you'll excuse me, I have a council to return to."

The Princess then turned away and led Pascal down the hall from whence she came.

Kaede couldn't help but scowl as she felt ignored. Princess Sylviane never even acknowledged her presence except through a cursory glance, even though she had helped Pascal as much as Reynaud did during the incident at the academy, if not more. Her stomach tied itself in knots as this was not a good sign of future relations with the Princess.

It's not fair. She couldn't help but complain to herself. I never chose this body.

Nevertheless, she scurried after Pascal with her soft steps. Being found alone in a royal palace was the last thing she wanted to do.



Chapter 4 - Council of War[edit]

As Pascal followed Sylviane into the Emperor's 'war room', he noticed the curious glances from those assembled around the oval table that dominated the spacious chamber. Most of them lingered on him for only a moment, though a few of them lasted longer as Kaede walked in behind him.

Even Emperor Geoffroi's sight drifted as he briefly eyed the Samaran girl.

A lady in her late middle-ages had just finished presenting the strategic situation using the illusory projection in the table's center. The conjured figment was a three-dimensional terrain map of Rhin-Lotharingie, complete with its mountains, rivers, roads, and settlements.

The Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie

"Do you think the second line fortresses will hold?" The Emperor asked.

Broad-shouldered and tall, Geoffroi Jean de Gaetane had an imposing figure that towered over most others even as he sat. The Emperor was almost a century old, which for a mage meant he was approaching the end of his adult prime. His face was fairly wide, with plum-black hair and an intense blue-violet gaze that felt as though he saw straight through people. His prominent nose and thick mustache gave him an ever-stern expression, while his shaved cheeks held a thin stubble that he often rubbed in deep thought.

"The southwestern mountain passes will hold without doubt. The 'Trio' may cry a shortage of troops, but they have the advantage of terrain backed by formidable mountain fortresses. In such narrow lanes of advance limited by the steep South Lotharingie Mountains, the martial prowess of three Oriflammes will easily make up for our severe numeric disadvantage."

Standing next to the Emperor was Dame Cosette Louise Granger, whose thin figure and unassuming appearance contrasted greatly with that of her liege. Cosette was widely known as the lifelong mistress of the illustrious Duke Gaston, though she was neither a great beauty nor of aristocratic birth. The woman was just shy of old age and upheld a respectful elegance in her classy dress and calm image. However Pascal knew that behind her silver-gray hair and plain gray eyes lay one of the best minds of Rhin-Lotharingie.

It had taken considerable time for even an Emperor as wise as Geoffroi to realize that she was behind Gaston's string of victories in previous wars. Nevertheless Geoffroi acted swiftly when he found out a decade ago. He had promoted her to the position of 'Marshal of the Empire' which effectively made her the commander of the Rhin-Lotharingie military, outranking even her lover.

Though in reality she has very limited authority, Pascal thought. Unlike Weichsel, the Empire's feudal nature resists centralized command.

The young landgrave took a seat next to Sylviane, who sat across the oval table from her father. Her faithful maid and bodyguard Mari stood behind her left side, just as Kaede came to stand behind Pascal's right. They were not the only attendants either, as several figures he recognized stood behind the other nobles present. That didn't even include the four phoenixes perched near a ceiling corner who chirped quietly to one another.

"The two coastal regions, however, are a different story." Cosette pointed at the coasts of Avorica and Garona respectively with an extendible rod in hand. "The Inner Sea front is my main concern, and I plan to rejoin Gaston in Garona as soon as our meetings end. The Caliphate's forces there are undoubtedly the strongest of their three thrusts. With the support of Duke-Regent Raymond and his famous Hippo-Cuirassiers, I hope to blunt the Cataliyan advance along the banks of the River Ròse."

"And therefore you choose to ignore Avorica's plight?" Queen Katell de Penteur, of the Kingdom of Avorica, spoke in a cold voice.

Pascal was surprised that the beautiful young queen with golden-blonde hair and sapphire eyes came to Alis Avern in person. She was already in her second trimester of pregnancy, and it showed noticeably despite her narrow frame. House Penteur was also one of the Emperor's more vocal opponents in recent decades. Perhaps it was for that reason that Queen Katell braved the journey, to represent her homeland in person so that it might receive the military aid it needed.

"I have no intention of such." Cosette calmly defended her actions as she sat back down. "The Army of Avorica is led by Dame Edith-Estellise and the Knights Hospitaller. Knowing her, she will fight for every centipace of Avorican land, even if it's not necessarily wise to do so. Nevertheless, Edith is the champion of Rhin-Lotharingie and the best of the paladins in direct combat. She will make the Cataliyans bleed even if she is forced back along the Avorican coastline."

"But you admit that Edith will be forced back," Queen Katell stressed. "Surrender Avorican lands to the infidels?"

"That is inevitable unless the Army of Avorica can receive backup from the Kingdom of Ceredigion." Cosette frowned as she looked towards an empty seat, where the representative from Ceredigion was noticeably absent.

"Is that not the jurisdiction of Your Majesty's?" The Queen turned her glare upon the Emperor.

"It is. But you have made it difficult for me over the preceding decade." Emperor Geoffroi replied. "Ever since the War of Imperial Succession, or even before that, your alliance with King Elisedd of Ceredigion in opposition to my authority has undermined my influence in the Empire's western territories. I have sent for King Elisedd and called upon his forces. Yet, as you can see." Geoffroi gestured at the empty chair.

You reap what you sow, Pascal thought as his lips twisted into a faint smirk. The young queen however did not miss this as she sent him a quick glare.

"And what of reinforcements from King Alistair?" She looked towards the King of the northern Kingdom of Gleann Mòr.

Alistair raised his hands in an almost casual shrug:

"What can I tell you? Winter is setting in. The snow is locking my bannermen in their valleys and mountain holds even as we speak."

"Surely your troops can march through a little snow?"

"Have you never travelled up north?" The King's voice was casual yet mocking. "This isn't like a dusting upon the white sands of the Avorican coast. A pace or two of heavy snow and even the tallest man could barely walk, let alone roll wagon wheels. There is no 'marching' under such conditions. Even with the aid of the stone circles, we might, at best, bring down a few hundred troops at a time."

"Then why have we still not seen any northern troops in Avorica?"

"Because I advised the King to send his men to Gervais, to the mountain garrisons that the 'Trio' must defend." Cosette answered. "Given the narrow width of marching routes in the mountains, quality trumps quantity. Therefore, if Gleann Mòr can only send men in the hundreds, it is ideal that they send their best highland troops which we may use to bolster the center front."

"You..." Queen Katell gritted her teeth. "You are deliberately choosing to sacrifice Avorican lands then!"

"Yes. Yes I am." Corsette admitted as she met the Queen's angry gaze with a plain but willful stare. "If the Cataliyans breach our mountain fortress in the center, then they only have to march downhill until they pour into the Lotharin heartlands. Meanwhile if Caliphate forces cross the River Ròse, they will lay siege to the Garona capital of Narbonnaise. Both of these two positions are too strategically vital to lose, and both of them are under immediate pressure from the invasion. Meanwhile, the Avorican capital of Roazhon is situated to the Kingdom's north, and we can afford to retreat across two duchies before it comes under threat."

Dame Cosette leaned back as she finished presenting her assessment. She neither smiled nor returned Queen Katell's cold glare. Her refusal to be provoked revealed an unflappable confidence in the superiority of her own rational judgment. However, this only further annoyed Queen Katell as the pregnant royal rose slowly from her seat.

Yet before the Queen could speak further, it was Geoffroi who remarked diplomatically to settle the issue:

"As Emperor, I shall continue to impress upon King Elisedd of Ceredigion that he has sworn an oath to defend all Lotharins within the Empire." He then turned towards the young queen: "however, it would be best if the influence of House Penteur could be applied as well."

"Of course I will press that perfidious King for reinforcements!" The Queen retorted. "But Avorica also needs support from the rest of Rhin-Lotharingie."

'Perfidious' is you as well, who switch sides in the politics of the realm as easily as you change your hairpiece. Pascal commented dryly in his own mind.

Between Dame Cosette and Queen Katell, Pascal knew whom he would support in a heartbeat. The former was a born tactician in the art of defense, while the latter was a political opportunist who backstabbed others behind closed doors.

"Then I suggest we continue to hear the regional reports," the Emperor replied with a knowing look before turning away. "Duke Hugh? What is the readiness of the eastern territories?"

Duke Hugh de La Tours de Lorraine is the head of the powerful La Tours family that Perceval comes from. Nevertheless, it did not please Pascal one bit to sit next to the grossly overweight man. The Duke had to rest on a special armchair as the seats provided for the others were insufficient to bear his girth. His bejeweled, fat fingers stroked the small, blonde beard he grew in an attempt to hide his quadruple chins.

Even before coming to Rhin-Lotharingie, Pascal has heard of his unflattering nickname: 'Duke Huge the Rotund'. Though if it had merely been a matter of weight, Pascal wouldn't feel as offended by his proximity. The problem was that behind his layers of blubber was a greedy, selfish, and aggravatingly shortsighted bird-brain.

"Your Majesty." The Duke began in a haughty, high-pitched voice. "The eastern duchies of Rhétie are in the process of mobilization. However I do not see it as prudent to send our forces southwest. My spies claim that the Holy Imperium's northern field army has swelled to a strength of twenty legions, including two of their elite Tagmata Legions. They now stand adjacent to our borders in the east, no doubt ready to reclaim lands lost in the last war should we show any sign of weakness."

"But the war in the south requires troops from the rest of the Empire, including your family's domains and those of your allies." Geoffroi demanded. "I should remind you that the same people who ask for your help now are those sent aid to your front during the last war."

The Emperor did not have to vocalize the implied threat: should the Duke renege on his duties, he might find himself similarly ignored the next time Rhin-Lotharingie clashed with the Holy Imperium.

"Yes, Your Majesty, I do understand. However, the eastern territories cannot afford to strip our defenses down to a minimum at this time."

"Do you have an alternative suggestion then, Duke Hugh?" The Emperor asked next.

"If Your Majesty can provide me with funding, I can raise no less than thirty thousand additional troops from the Rhétie duchies. The other dukes and I can reinforce this with a further ten thousand before dispatching them south."

As if your coffers aren't bloated enough already, Pascal thought. It was an open secret that the La Tours main family often took bribes from sources within the Imperium.

The Emperor clearly shared Pascal's opinions as his deep voice rose with cold, simmering temper:

"Duke Hugh, the Empire's treasury is already taxed to its limit by the war's financial needs. Your family has a long history and deep pockets of its own. Do you not feel embarrassed to beg for coins from the Empire's coffers at a time like this? You are the descendent of Roland the Gallant, not a poor beggar on the street!"

"Yes. Yes, Your Majesty." The duke seemed to visibly cower beneath the Emperor's overbearing pressure.

"You will gather and dispatch the ten thousand men that you can spare immediately upon your return. And you, along with the other dukes, shall raise the additional forces using your own gold. You will send additional reinforcements in waves of five thousand each as soon as new men could be recruited to take their place. Is that understood, Duke Hugh?"

"Yes, perfectly. Your Majesty." The obese duke bowed his head. The rest of his body couldn't bend even if he tried.

The Emperor took a deep exhale before he turned to the last Lotharin figure at the table:

"Gabriel, what of the Belges territories?"

Duke Gabriel Gautier de Gaetane was Emperor Geoffroi's older brother. However appearances were deceiving and he seemed the younger with his lean and handsome image. He had the same plum-black hair and and blue-violet eyes as his brother the Emperor, except his face was more oval and his height was modest compared to his imposing liege. His well-kept appearance also looked to be in his best years, despite the fact he was now past his prime and the first century of his life.

"The dukes of the northeast are assembling an army of thirty thousand even as we speak," Gabriel answered with a dutiful smile. "They will begin the march south under my banner before the end of this week."

Emperor Geoffroi grinned as he exchanged nods with the Duke. "Thank you, brother. I knew I could count on you."

"We must all strive to make father in heaven proud," Gabriel replied with one hand against his chest in a display of sincerity and courtesy.

They really are brothers who grew up together like Sylv said, Pascal thought with a smile. It was moments like these when he wished he wasn't an only child.

Geoffroi then turned towards Queen Katell:

"Once Marshal Cosette blunts the Caliphate's push in Garona --and I have every confidence that she will succeed-- Gabriel's reinforcements will head to Avorica to stabilize the front. Together with Edith's army, they will drive back the invaders to reclaim any temporarily lost lands."

The queen of Avorica nodded back, satisfied at last by the promise of support.

"Last but not least, I would like to hear from our Weichsen allies." Geoffroi said next as he turned towards Ambassador Gerhard and Pascal. "Your Excellency? Your Grace?"

Ambassador Gerhard August von Gneisenau was a dashing man with a coffee-brown hair and jade-green eyes. He was broad shouldered and above average in height, but it was his youthful appearance despite his seniority which really stood out. Although he was a retired general over a century old, he still had the pink cheeks of a boyish young man in early adulthood. It didn't help that he kept neither a mustache nor a beard. Instead, his squarish face ended in a sharp, clean-shaven chin, and his charming smile seemed natural and came without effort.

Standing behind his right flank was Cecylia, whose scarlet-crossed gaze Pascal had already met several times, though neither of them spoke a word.

"Your Majesty," the ambassador stood up with a courteous bow. "Weichsel has begun mobilizing as soon as we heard of the invasion and our allies' plight. King Leopold is prepared to commit an army of no less than forty thousand to the defense of not only Rhin-Lotharingie, but that of our Trinitian realm. The expeditionary forces are gathering in the city of Nordkreuz even as we speak. We anticipate the first columns to begin marching out in one week's time."

It cannot be that simple. Not after the Pope's excommunication and Father's death. Pascal frowned as the ambassador finished his statement. However, he did not wish to speak out against his King's official representative to the Rhin-Lotharingie court.

"That is also what I hear from back home," the young Landgrave concurred. He was being honest too, at least based on his information from two days ago.

However, given the events of the last two days, Pascal also knew that his knowledge was already obsolete.

A brief meeting of gazes with the Emperor revealed that Geoffroi noticed his doubts. Yet the Emperor replied with a broad grin as though he noticed nothing wrong:

"That is the best news I have heard all morning." Geoffroi stood up before walking over to Ambassador Gerhard. "Weichsel's troops have always been known for their quality. Their professionalism surpasses even that of the Imperium." The burly Emperor then clasped Gerhard's shoulders with a hearty laugh. "Please tell King Leopold that I owe a personal debt of gratitude for his quick response and his devotion to the allied cause."

"Of course, Your Majesty." Gerhard answered with a humble bow before he sat back down. Pascal could see noticeable unease in the ambassador's eyes, as though he felt guilty over not disclosing the full details.

It was only then when Pascal understood why Geoffroi played up his gratitude. Gerhard may be a diplomat but he was also once a general. To hide information from their sworn allies was not the conduct of a proper soldier, and he will surely try to make up for this in the future.

"Now... let us end on this bright note if that is all we have to discuss."

The Emperor had barely finished his sentence before Dame Cosette stood back up.

"Sire, we still have one more issue that requires your attention. I do not wish to sour this meeting's end but it cannot wait."

Geoffroi's smile vanished as quickly as it came. He gestured towards her as he strode back to his seat: "Go ahead, Marshal."

"As you all know, Duke Guy of Avro-Calent chose a martyr's death rather than withdraw from the first-line fortresses as he was ordered." Cosette spoke with steadfast composure, but everyone in the room knew that it was her command that the late Duke had defied. "This is extremely unfortunate for our forces in the south, as his castle had been used as the main supply depot for our armies near the Cataliyan border. Now, with the loss of its stockpiles, our armies in the south are in danger of starvation. They still have supplies and coin to manage for two to three weeks, but they don't have anywhere near enough to make it through winter."

"An army marches on its stomach. This is indeed of critical importance." Geoffroi agreed as he sat back down. "It's a pity that the harvest in Garona this year was poor. Though even if they hadn't, that mountainous kingdom is hardly the breadbasket of the Empire."

Cosette nodded. "It's another reason why I must prioritize the Garona front. Their capital Narbonnaise simply does not have the provisions to withstand a major siege."

"Queen Katell," the Emperor turned towards the young monarch. "I shall entrust you with supplying Edith's army in Avorica as well as Gervais' forces in the mountains. The harvest in Avorica this year has been bountiful and you should have enough to spare."

"Your Majesty," the young queen was quick to object. "Avorica is the smallest of the four kingdoms within the Empire. We might be able to feed and pay Edith's army, but surely you cannot expect us to take on the burden of supplying the 'Trio' as well! That responsibility should rightly fall upon the heartlands' granaries!"

And at the Emperor's expense, Pascal added in his thoughts.

It was moments like these when he missed the absolute authority of his king in Weichsel.

"You're correct that the heartland's granaries are better suited to carry such a burden," Geoffroi admitted. "However, the heartland duchies are also far from the front lines. The Empire's roads and waterways have limited transport capacity. We cannot expect them to ferry everything, from reinforcements to food to arrows to winter clothing. Therefore we must choose -- because if we are to supply an additional army across such a distance, it will likely slow down the reinforcements bound for Avorica."

The Emperor concluded by offering Queen Katell the illusion of a choice. However there was never any doubt of which option she would take.

The young royal bit down on her lips and reluctantly agreed:

"Very well then. Avorica will supply Gervais' forces in the mountains. The reinforcements must be given priority in transit."

"Please remember that the 'Trio' also guards the backdoor into Avorica," Dame Cosette added for good measure, just in case the Queen thought she might cheat her new role.

Pascal only had to take one look at the map before he realized: if the mountains passes fell and the Caliphate emerged on the northern side, they would be able to block the narrow gap that linked Avorica and Ceredigion to the Lotharin heartlands.

"In the meantime, Sylv," Emperor Geoffroi called upon his daughter at last. "I want you to ascertain all available provisions in the Lotharin heartlands and organize transportation to supply our forces in Garona."

"Yes, Father." The Princess answered without hesitation.

"With that said, I believe we've covered everything." Geoffroi looked about to all participants before he declared. "This meeting is adjourned. Marshal Cosette," he then turned towards the senior lady as her azure phoenix familiar flew down from the ceiling corner. "Good luck, and may Courtain guide your hand to victory."

"Thank you, Your Majesty." Cosette bowed in deference while her familiar --the phoenix Courtain-- chirped back. However Geoffroi would have none of the formality as he took the lady's hand with both palms and gave it a heartfelt shake.

"Rhin-Lotharingie is counting on you." Geoffroi added in earnest.

At that moment, Pascal felt a ping in the back of his mind. He accepted the Telepathy with a mental pull, and Ambassador Gerhard's voice emerged into his thoughts:

"<Your Grace,>" Gerhard began as he approached Pascal in reality as well. "<On behalf of King Leopold, please accept our deepest condolences for your father's death. He was an irreplaceable pillar for Weichsel, and there is no man in our country who does not mourn his passing.>"

The Ambassador's voice seemed to echo as he spoke over both open air and telepathy. However, while Gerhard's audible voice ended as he bowed in deep reverence, his telepathic words continued:

"<Please take extra care in your conversations with the Emperor. The situation in Weichsel right now is complex and unstable. I have my orders from the King and I am not at liberty to disclose further to the Lotharins. Nevertheless, the alliance your father forged is necessary for the long-term security of Weichsel, and I for one do not wish to see it falter.>"

Father, do you see this? This is what your work meant to our people...

Pascal's eyes grew glassy at mentions of his father's legacy. Even as the young noble shared a hug offered by his childhood friend Cecylia, he could not stop reflecting on how deeply felt the ambassador's words were to him.

Gerhard did not need to mention that Cecylia was a member of the King's Black Eagles. The young dhampir may have only graduated from Konigsfeld Academy last year, but she nevertheless served as the eyes and ears of King Leopold in the Empire's capital.

It was the first time Pascal felt that a friend he knew for many years was intruding upon his meeting with a near-stranger.

"<I understand. You may trust me to act for the best interests of Weichsel.>" The young noble responded in private before his public face finally composed itself to vocalize a sincere "Thank you."


...


Ten minutes later, Pascal sat in a royal sitting room with only his betrothed and his future father-in-law. Even his familiar and their bodyguards had been kept outside, as the Emperor requested a private 'family moment'.

"Pascal," Geoffroi began in a deep, fatherly voice that he usually reserved for Sylviane. "I know this must be a difficult time for you, and you do not need me to add to it. However the Marshal's early death has pushed you into the crossroads of life. And I wanted to tell you plainly that you have an immediate choice before you."

As the young noble slowly nodded in understanding, the Emperor leaned back into his seat with a deep exhale.

"You are a noble lord of Weichsel. But you are also the future Prince Consort of Rhin-Lotharingie. Unfortunately these two identities cannot always be reconciled. Will you follow your King and hide the truth from me as your ambassador did? Or will you speak the facts to honor your betrothal and the realm of your future wife?"

Pascal pursed his lips. Of course Geoffroi the Great already knows.

"It is not my wish for you to make a hasty decision." Geoffroi added. "However these are the facts you must keep in mind. Pick a path and stay true to it, for the alternative is that you may satisfy neither side and be seen as unfaithful to both."

"Your Majesty," Pascal began in earnest as he met the Emperor eye-to-eye. "You are correct that Ambassador Gerhard has not been forthcoming with you. Before he left, the ambassador told me in private that the situation in Weichsel is 'complex and unstable'. I may not be as practiced in the art of intrigue as him or my father, but I can nevertheless deduce the basic situation in my home country."

As the Emperor offered a simple gesture for him to continue, Pascal spoke on to explain the politics of Weichsel:

"As you know, ever since its founding, Weichsel's foreign policy has been driven by one of Papal Appeasement. The Holy Imperium has been the sole superpower of Western Hyperion, and Weichsel has always sought to use the church as a means of keeping Imperial ambitions in check. However, during the War of Imperial Succession, my father has taken the first steps away from this as he waged an undeclared war against the Holy Imperium. Because of this, Weichsel is now at its own crossroads, split between those who share my father's vision of a new system of alliances with our neighbors, and those who believe in the old ways established by our first King."

Geoffroi nodded, partly in agreement and partly... Pascal was now certain that the Emperor already knew everything he said.

"Which side do you think the ambassador favors?"

"My Father's, without a doubt," Pascal stated with confidence. "Unfortunately, my father's death also left a power vacuum in Weichsel, and the two generals likely to succeed him are of opposing factions. Wiktor von Falkenhausen was my father's chief-of-staff and will likely continue to champion his vision. Meanwhile, Neithard Mittermeyer von Manteuffel is the General of Cavalry and the head of the powerful Manteuffel family. He has always been the leader of the conservatives and was opposed to my father's aims of a Lotharin-Weichsel alliance. With the Pope's excommunication complicating the picture, Weichsel's next moves will be decided by whichever of these two who becomes the next Marshal."

The Emperor nodded again, this time with greater understanding and a deep, thoughtful frown. His stern expression then lifted for a brief moment as he cracked open a thin smile.

"Not that I don't appreciate your sincerity, Pascal, but are you sure you should be telling us all this? When even Ambassador Gerhard has kept his silence?"

"Ambassador Gerhard has his orders and may not be free to choose his own actions. However I am, and I have a will to see through my own beliefs," Pascal declared as he raised a hand to his chest. "I am the son of my father, whom he entrusted to serve as the future link between Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie. I wish to preserve this alliance with every means at my disposal, even if that means being more truthful than the King would like and more unfiltered than you might wish to hear. I will serve both the interests of Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie to the best of my abilities, to ensure that both countries' goals are united on the road forward, and not divided to go separate ways."

With his gaze still locked with the Emperor's, Pascal could see from his peripheral vision that his fiancée the Princess smiled and looked expectantly to her father. Meanwhile Geoffroi's blue-violet eyes measured his determination for a minute longer before his own grin broadened:

"If that is your will, then I pray that you succeed."


----- * * * -----


Pascal never heard the telepathic dialogue that the Emperor and his daughter kept running this entire time. Most of it was merely to digest the new information that Pascal offered, as much of it was new to Sylviane and even a few pieces were unknown to Geoffroi before now. However as their conversations began to round down, the Emperor remarked to his daughter as a loving father would:

"<He'll no doubt make an excellent general one day, but he is too forthright for courtly intrigue. I would certainly keep and treasure him if I were you, Sylv. I doubt you will find another this earnest and reliable for your future reign.>"

Sylviane's shoulders slumped slightly as she replied: "<I know, Father, I know.>"

"<Speaking of, who is the Samaran girl who follows him around?>" Geoffroi then asked in curiosity. "<I do not remember her the last time I met him.>"

The Princess sighed, perhaps a bit too loudly as she drew Pascal's notice.

"<She's his new familiar... and the new problem.>"



Chapter 5 - A Royal Eccentricity[edit]

For weeks at the academy, Kaede had felt less like Pascal's servant and more like... something akin to a close friend. Pascal had never left her out of any conversation that she was present for, and he often solicited her thoughts on topics that she had knowledge of.

But today reminded Kaede once again that in the eyes of society and everyone else, she was still just a servant.

The war council was her first experience in being seen but not heard, as she spent the whole time standing still and silent. It was understandable though, as just like Cecylia --who stood silent behind the ambassador through the whole meeting-- Kaede was far too inconsequential to speak out in a gathering of Empire-ranking bigwigs. Even Sylviane and Pascal barely had any opportunity. The two of them only sat at the same table due to their position as heirs. Meanwhile the other attendees were either lifelong career officials or seasoned political leaders with an established power base.

However, Kaede did not extend the same understanding to her exclusion from Pascal's meeting with Sylviane and Emperor Geoffroi. She might have promised Pascal on the roof last night that she would always be family to him. Yet a real family member would not have been kept outside the doors like she was now...

A real family member would be sitting inside in their private meeting, not left waiting outside with a mere bodyguard.

Maybe that's not entirely fair, the familiar girl thought.

Kaede glanced at the female armiger who stood on the other side of the closed doors. The young lady appeared somewhere in her early twenties, which for a mage meant anywhere between actually twenty to half a century old. She was a hint taller than average, with chestnut-brown hair that barely draped over her narrow shoulders. Her eyes were a cloudy gray, and while her face held the ideal 'almond' shape, her wide nose and freckled cheeks were just proportional enough to not be homely.

She also wore heavy half-plate armor, although Kaede had never heard it clink. She carried a steel heater shield on her back, while the weapon that hung from her crossed double-belt was a heavy mace. This imposing wardrobe made it clear that she was ready for action at any moment. Though thankfully her vigilant gaze stayed on the empty hallway rather than looking at Kaede with suspicion.

Sylviane had addressed her affectionately as 'Mari', so it was clear that she was very close to the Princess. Kaede knew that royal bodyguards also routinely served as confidants, and Mari was likely no exception.

"So... what's the Princess like?" Kaede finally worked up the courage to ask.

It felt rather uncomfortable just standing there with a fully-armored lady in silence.

"You'll find out in a moment." Mari replied simply.

That is so extremely not helpful, Kaede's face fell.

Though before she could file any more silent complaints, Mari looked at her and added:

"Word of advice though: I would tread carefully if I were you. His Grace may be quite laid back when it comes to noble courtesy, but Her Highness is a stickler to etiquette. You didn't exactly start on the right foot by virtue of being his familiar."

The Princess is the jealous type then. Kaede swallowed as she muttered "thank you". Mari's sympathetic warning was definitely precious insider knowledge of Sylviane's character.

Then, as if on cue, the doors to the private chamber opened.

"I'll let you two work out your problems," Emperor Geoffroi's deep yet affectionate voice came. "Don't forget the meeting this afternoon Sylv."

"I won't, Father."

The brawny Emperor then stepped out from the room. He paused briefly and examined Kaede with a stern gaze, which made the familiar girl feel like she had just been brain-scanned by a MRI machine.

The Emperor's mustache then curled upwards as he offered a fatherly smile.

"Kaede, is it?"

"Y-yes, Your Majesty," Kaede hurriedly replied with a curtsy. She almost stumbled in her anxiety.

Geoffroi chuckled, which did wonders to calm Kaede's nerves in her first time greeting an Emperor.

"Don't worry. I'm used to Pascal's outlandish ideas in 'proper behavior'. There is no need to fear me, so long as you treat my daughter with the appropriate respect that she deserves and do not seek to undermine their relationship."

Kaede did not miss the conditionality of his statement which also made it a warning.

"Of course, Your Majesty." She nodded firmly.

"Sylv told me that you're from another world, but you're nevertheless a Samaran in ours." Geoffroi added with curiosity in his gaze. "Would you like to meet the ambassador from the Grand Republic of Samara? He is in charge of all Samaran relations in Rhin-Lotharingie. I believe he is still away on business, but we can certainly have arrangements made."

Kaede's eyes lit up. Considering the problems that Samarans faced outside the Grand Republic, the ambassador would certainly be a man who could offer advice and protection to her kind. The only issue was, of course, the fact that she wasn't actually from the Grand Republic.

"Y-yes! Thank you very much, Your Majesty!" She bowed this time.

The Emperor simply nodded with a mild smile before he strode off. He met his own bodyguards further down the hallway before turning and vanishing from sight.

"Mari, you can bring her in now." Kaede heard the Princess' voice from inside.

The knight-in-waiting nodded to Kaede, as though reminding the familiar girl of what she had just said. She then followed just behind Kaede into the room, and closed the door gently almost as soon as the smaller girl stepped past the threshold.

Kaede swallowed again as she walked into the middle of the room under the Princess' unimpressed gaze. Sylviane sat regally upon a plush armchair. Even Pascal looked a hint nervous as he sat on another armchair to her side. It certainly did not help Kaede's nerves to see even her master tense, as he was normally so unflappable if not downright insolent towards figures of authority.

The young girl carefully lowered herself in the most sincere curtsy she had given yet.

A silent moment of eye contact soon followed. Yet as uncomfortable as the air grew, Kaede did not shy away from Sylviane's steady gaze. In a situation where she had nothing to be guilty about, weakness would only mislead the other's judgment to worse ends. All she could do was wait patiently for her turn to speak: a courtesy appropriate for differences in social rank, as Pascal reminded her this morning.

She isn't just some noble from the academy either. Kaede reminded herself as she tried not to fidget in her small heels. She's Pascal's dear fiancée, someone I MUST try to stay cordial with...

After what seemed an eternity, Sylviane finally bestowed upon Kaede the grace of a gentle smile. Her hands, which were clad in long, periwinkle gloves, left the armchair's sides and folded on top of her lap. Her violet, mid-calf skirt had clearly been smoothed out after she sat, as it did not show even a single wrinkle over her legs.

Her actions were straight and simple, yet they exemplified the Princess' behavior. Sylviane's movements held neither natural grace nor crudeness. However they were all taken with a delicate touch, as though she concentrated upon her image with every step.

"Don't worry," the Princess spoke at last. "I won't bite even if you are his kept woman."

Kaede's attempt to smile back was wry at best:

"I'm not. I'm his familiar."

"Which... is far worse, if you'll pardon the expression," Sylviane replied in calm words. "I realize that it's no fault of your own, and I am grateful that you saved his life. I gathered from his report that you were quite central to the bait-and-trap scheme. But..."

The Princess closed her eyes and sighed, almost in exasperation, before reestablishing contact.

"Courtesans I can deal with. It is simply a matter of fact that few men of greatness and ambition are ever completely faithful to only one woman. Even my father, as family-oriented as Gaetane traditions go, had a second lover when he was younger. He's not proud of it, and while I don't understand what drives men to unfaithfulness, the simple fact is that powerful men often do: it's a cardinal sin of their kind." Sylviane answered with a glance towards Pascal, who oddly kept his silence even though his frowning gaze clearly wanted to retort.

Kaede returned a bare nod. It hardly took a historian to know just how common affairs were among the nobility and the modern political elite. Media-aware scandals represented merely a tiny tip of the iceberg. Female activists might debate biologists on the role of genetics, but as a scholar the evidence to Kaede was overwhelming.

Far more interesting was Sylviane's willingness to share this history with her, since royalty did not normally air their dirty laundry to outsiders.

"But such 'concubines' are also temporary, or at the very least, informal," Sylviane continued as her voice gradually hardened to almost a lecture. "I am willing to tolerate Pascal having one as long as he continues to hold me in the highest regard and is discrete about his affair -- which means keeping her tucked away, in some remote residence, unseen and unheard."

In other words, keep the dirty tramp out of my sight, Kaede thought. It was somewhat bitter too, as she was the harlot of this conversation, even if the princess avoided saying so.

Sylviane then grew solemn:

"Unfortunately, you are none of those."

"I'm also not intimate with him, whereas a concubine would be." Kaede held her ground, though even her stiffened voice remained wispy.

She then blanched a little when Sylviane's eyebrows shifted up just a hair to betray her revelation...

Seriously! Why do all nobles, even the sensible ones, always jump that conclusion!?

Of all the changes brought by Kaede's gender switch, the social view that kept seeing her as some sexual object was easily the most irritating. It was as though her femininity came before her identity as a person, and she would rather suffer her menstrual period again than deal with this every time.

Though ultimately, it hardly even mattered to Sylviane:

"Yes, but you are a girl officially attached to him. Furthermore, your bond is even more permanent than the sanctity of marriage, as not even the Pope can divorce you. As a mage's familiar, it is part of your function to be present and active," Sylviane stated. "This you have already proven through foiling the assassination plot against Pascal."

"In other words," Kaede moodily interjected, "you would have the same problem with a sister, if Pascal had one."

She heard a groan from Pascal. Only then did Kaede realize that she just completely tore up his request of "speak only when you are asked.".

"Apologies, Your Highness." She hurriedly added, finally breaking eye contact to glance down. "That was inappropriate of me."

The air grew silent once more. The atmosphere became almost oppressive.

Kaede also couldn't help wonder what the penalties for disrespecting royalty were. As a crown princess, Sylviane would inherit far more dungeons than Pascal ever could. They might even come with their own secret police department, with medieval sensibilities capable of making Stalin's gulags seem like a beach resort by comparison.

But as she snuck a glance back up, all of her imagined pressure evaporated at once.

Sylviane was still staring at her, but now with an odd, almost bittersweet smile before she broke out in a chuckle. The Princess then turned towards her betrothed:

"I can see why you like her." She followed with a sigh.

"I told you she was fun to talk with." Pascal grinned as he finally confirmed that his betrothed hadn't put a silencing spell on him.

"I think your idea of 'fun' is different from most people's." Sylviane's voice was somewhere between amusement and exasperation.

"On that note, please stop grouping me with other men." Pascal remained unabashed. "Last I checked, it was you who encouraged me to court other girls at the academy to 'broaden my experiences'. I have never initiated a relationship with another girl without your approval."

He's clearly henpecked, Kaede thought. It was apparent now that Sylviane had asked him to hold his tongue, so that the Princess could assess Kaede for herself.

Does that mean I passed? The familiar couldn't help wonder.

In the meantime Sylviane countered flatly:

"Except this one."

"Yes, well, I did not think a familiar would apply." Pascal at least had the courtesy to look sheepish. "In my defense, I just wanted a companion."

"Should have tried the other gender." The Princess tossed back as her eyes gave Kaede another up-and-down sweep. They weren't exactly grumpy or unhappy, more like... conflicted.

"I do not think the Church would approve," Pascal grumbled into the air.

Sylviane's gaze immediately froze. Then, as her eyes widened and her cheeks flushed, she spun around to cast an outraged glare at Pascal:

"You know what I meant! And they don't approve of this any more than the other!"

Kaede wondered if religious conservatism actually turned girls off from fantasizing forbidden romance like Japanese schoolgirls often did, or if Sylviane only rejected it because the prospect of her fiancée being gay was... extremely not cool.

And here I was worried about being seen as a guy, by a girl, as paired with another guy, when I'm now a girl, but was a guy... her thoughts looped about.

This is so surreal.

"I honestly believed you would like her," Pascal mumbled out again, paying triple to the concept that anything a man could say in such a situation only made it worse. "I mean... you can tell by the looks alone."

Sylviane's gaze upon Kaede was conflicted again. There was even a look of familiarity in her eyes, as though Kaede reminded her of someone. Nevertheless, she turned away to her betrothed and asked pointedly:

"And how far down did that rank in your original motivations for summoning a cute girl as your familiar?"

Kaede blinked a few times. Wives simply did not refer to mistresses as 'cute'. Perhaps that meant she was now past the first hurdle of being seen as a direct threat?

"Does that mean you do like her?" Pascal asked with rising hopes.

"SHE is not the problem. YOU are!" Sylviane declared as she jabbed her index finger his way. "A familiar does not choose the summoner, but I have no doubt that you did specify the result, Runelord!"

"I cannot deny that one," the lord himself admitted. "She even gave me the fisticuffs for pulling her out of her life in another world. Left me sore for days."

Sylviane spun towards Kaede with an incredulous look:

"Is that true?"

Kaede hesitantly nodded. "Sorry. It was the morning after he summoned me, and my emotions had gotten the better part of me."

"Oh you don't need to apologize." The Princess giggled with amusement. "I'd been tempted to give him a good slap ever since he told me. It's nice to know that you've already done the deed, even if it's not quite as satisfying."

The Princess then grinned at Pascal's rolling eyes before her gaze returned to Kaede and hardened into a stare:

"However in the future, I will have you arrested if you assault my future husband, is that understood?"

"Crystal." Kaede rushed to nod. It was clear that Sylviane wished to reserve the privilege of dealing with Pascal for herself.

Satisfied with her answer, the Princess' expression softened.

"Did you really come from another world?" She then asked in curiosity.

"Yes, Your Highness. A far more technological realm that's sent men to the moon, but with no magic at all," Kaede clarified. "I would say more socially advanced as well, but discussions with Cecylia proved that may just be bias from my perspective."

"How could one travel to celestial bodies without magic...?"

Kaede's eyebrows shot up instantly. Did that mean mages figured out space travel?

Nevertheless the Princess puzzled for merely a brief second, before her eyes soon refocused upon Kaede. Sylviane would not be side-tracked easily, a sign of mental discipline as expected from someone whom Pascal deeply respects.

"Never mind. It's good that you've talked to Cecylia at length. She's an excellent judge of character and one whom I trust very much."

With a preoccupied frown, Kaede halted her other thoughts as she realized that Sylviane and Cecylia didn't just know one another; they were on excellent terms. Since they were both Pascal's childhood friends, it was likely they met way back then and kept in touch. Plus Cecylia was a trained intelligence analyst, thus the Princess had the best eyes and ears for monitoring Pascal back when he was at the Königsfeld Academy. Though this might be a little more awkward today, considering that Cecylia was a spy for another country, alliance notwithstanding.

A brief shiver went through Kaede as she remembered her near-paralysis when those scarlet-crossed dhampir eyes came up close and personal...

Not sure if I want a reference like that.

"I do admit, Kaede, that your intrusion into our relationship may be similar to that of a sister." Sylviane noted back to their prior conversation before Pascal spoke. "Except that men don't summon sisters, however much some of them may want to."

Kaede nodded back. After her recent years in Japan, she became very familiar with that concept. It was one that she found more amusing than anything else, since she actually grew up with an older sister.

"There is also a natural limit between siblings, however close they might become," the Princess continued. "That limitation does not exist when you do not share any blood relations with him."

Incest is a near-universal taboo, after all, Kaede nodded as she understood. Sure, there were a few cultures in history which saw a siblings' union as 'sacred'. However, it was clear that the Trinitian Church teachings which spread through Western Hyperion did not harbor such views.

Then, Sylviane spoke with a stern face fitting of a tigress marking her own grounds:

"Could you promise me that you will not develop romantic relations with my husband-to-be then?"

"Of course!" Kaede rushed to answer. It's not like I've ever felt attraction towards a man before!

Yet even as she said that, she felt something uneasy deep within: was this really something she could promise? When she could be spending untold years in this body?

However Kaede completely ignored it as she went on:

"In fact, Your Highness, there is something you should know about me. I don't know if Pascal told you, but..."

"She is a boy, or was." Pascal interjected as he stole her thunder. "I really was not looking for anything of romantic or sensual interest, honestly!"

After freezing for a brief moment, Sylviane locked her gaze upon Kaede once more and leaned forward in her seat. Her waist-long, dark-purple hair fluttered about in voluminous tresses as she stared straight at the familiar with shock-enlarged eyes.

Kaede felt like an exotic animal being scrutinized over. Even the armiger Mari was now gawking at her from the door, all pretense of disinterest abandoned.

The rapidly growing curiosity, perhaps even fascination, in the Princess' eyes did not help. Within moments, Sylviane stood up and closed the distance between them. She reached out to Kaede's cheeks and shoulders, gently feeling them through silken gloves as though confirming the reality of what she saw. Her hands then trailed down, brushed past the familiar's small chest before settling on a firm hold at the narrow waist.

"I would never have guessed..." Sylviane spoke through an almost trance-like voice, before stepping to Kaede's side and gliding one hand gently through the snowy-white long hair. "It's like you were meant to be a girl. How does it feel?"

"Uh... smaller?"

Kaede honestly wasn't sure what kind response the Princess sought from her. After adapting to countless changes over the past few weeks, her entire experience was simply too overwhelming to describe by words alone.

"I guess I'm starting to get used to everything." Kaede shrugged as she glanced down in dejection. "Not that I have another choice: even Pascal has no idea how to fix this."

"I guess it must have been a shock, suddenly finding yourself like this."

Kaede nodded back as images of that fateful first night flashed through her mind:

"Waking up in some stranger's bed and finding myself stripped and dressed in 'bridal lingerie' was... not exactly pleasant."

"<Did you have to...>"

Pascal's mental voice cut off as his fiancée slowly rotated back towards him. His entire body stiffened as her petrifying glare laid him against the chopping block.

"<Well, it's true,>" Kaede commented, relieved to have the Princess' examining eyes off her again. "<Besides, payback is fair.>"

"Uh, I would like to point out that you have done that too," Pascal stated. "Well, the lingerie, at least. Your collection for Vivi is just obsessive..."

"It's not even two dozen--" Sylviane let slip before she loudly retorted: "I do NOT have an obsession!"

Pascal didn't say a word after being interrupted. He simply stared at his future wife with a knowing look, arched eyebrows included. Somehow he had reversed the situation in an instant, and it was now Sylviane who sported a light blush while trying to recover her momentum:

"A-anyways, I'm a girl. I'm allowed to play with dolls."

Kaede shivered as she felt a chill sweep across her from Sylviane's words. Pascal's mention of 'Vivi' also left her curious if Sylviane kept some ornate, life-sized doll.

"You're a man, aren't you?" The Princess's voice grew adamant. "What are you doing in my domain?"

"So it is acceptable for ladies to take sword-and-shield but we are not allowed to enjoy cuteness!?" Her betrothed immediately cried unfair. "What kind of gendered hypocrisy is this!"

"The practical kind, since by the grace of magic we can fight just as well as you do." Sylviane countered. "In case you forgot, the last five times you dueled me..."

"I have not forgotten a thing and you can stop rubbing salt in every chance you get," Pascal cut her off with a torrent of words, his drawling arrogance completely abandoned by this point. "Can we get back on topic please?"

He must be really desperate if he'd rather talk about...

"Sure, let us revisit how you summoned a girl, took advantage of her helplessness, stripped her bare naked, and had your way with her, when you're already engaged..."

Sylviane leaned forward over him, forcing herself deep into his personal space to continue her offensive without giving him a moment of respite. Even Pascal's steadfast determination to hold his ground soon began to buckle under the relentless verbal assault:

"I have a portable projector if you would like to show us your memories. I'm sure your eagerness of the moment will be perfectly noted by your ravishing hands as they anxiously stroked every length of that porcelain skin, carefully examining a girl's most intimate parts. Or when..."

Kaede felt her cheeks ignite as Sylviane's exaggerated descriptions began conjuring vivid, uncensored images in her mind. Before she knew it, her thin arms had wrapped themselves around herself in a tight, protective embrace while her glare fixed itself on Pascal.

She felt dirty from just the visualization. Worse yet, Pascal could have done exactly that and she wouldn't even know...

With his back arced away from his fiancée, Pascal was also blushing a fiery red. He soon threw up both hands in defeat:

"I surrender! Unconditionally! Just state your demands already! And please stop making me sound like such an irredeemably lecherous pervert!"

Sylviane finally returned to standing upright. Even her cheeks were flushed with embarrassment, although her shortness of breath was mostly due to the machine-gun fire of accusations.

"Well... you did say that you honestly thought I would like her, right?"

After taking a few steps back and pivoting towards her fiancée's familiar, Sylviane sent Kaede a warm smile: the delight of a victor as she admired her prize.

I have a bad feeling about this...

"I will allow you to accompany him wherever he goes. But in exchange, I want you to obey my authority in all matters at home." Sylviane dictated her terms and conditions. "That means if I want to borrow you this afternoon, or request that you keep your distance from him for a week, you will do so. I will also tell you where to sleep. I reserve the right to determine what you can or cannot wear. And I may demand changes in your etiquette or behavior."

Sylviane then rotated back to Pascal:

"And you will not object or interfere in any way. Is that acceptable?"

She's a natural dictator, Kaede thought. Still, a part of her did have to admit: this is quite mature for her age.

It was an old trick in the book, especially in cultures that once practiced polygamy. When a husband of authority grew interested in another female, a shrewd wife would often seek to establish dominance over the new girl, and therefore control any budding relationship. Although there was usually far more subtlety and less... tyranny.

Furthermore, none of the authorities Sylviane demanded was unusual when Kaede thought about old aristocratic sensibilities. A lady of the house easily held all of that, and more, over her maid servants. It was simply part of how noble households used to be run, even back on Earth a century or two ago.

I just need to play along for now until I can get on her good side first, then maybe we can renegotiate. Kaede thought of the warning that Pascal gave before setting out.

Meanwhile, Pascal's first response was a deep frown.

"I do have obligations to take care of her after summoning her into our world."

"And I'm not unreasonable," Sylviane replied. Then, almost jokingly: "besides, if I were mean enough to desire harm upon her, I hardly require your permission to manage it."

Of course. She has plenty of guards and agents at her beckon...

Kaede sighed. Sylviane wasn't exactly subtle in reminding her of their difference in rank. It felt as though they were negotiating a transfer of her 'ownership'. This might be common to their 'medieval' sensibilities, but it certainly wasn't in the modern age that Kaede grew up in.

"Fine," Pascal begrudgingly agreed. "But I retain my right to intervene in the interests of her well-being." His voice then grew unyielding: "I will not relinquish my obligations to her, on any grounds."

"Wouldn't have it any other way," Sylviane replied with a genuinely sweet smile. "You being responsible in personal relationships is a rare and good thing."

Her royal gaze then bore down upon Kaede in expectation of a response. Though there was a hint of light within them that was already admiring a newly-acquired possession.

"Of course..." Kaede answered. Not that she had any other realistic choice but to play along for now. Then, as nonchalantly as she could: "should I address Your Highness any differently then?"

She honestly wasn't sure this time. Historical events were one thing, but details like the evolving etiquette of different time periods confused her, even if Hyperion followed similar trends to Earth.

Sylviane went back to staring at Pascal again, her eyebrows raised halfway between surprise and curiosity:

"What weird things are you making the poor girl call...?"

"NOTHING-!!!" His near-shout came on instinct before she even finished. "She just calls me Pascal!"

The Princess' grin was still humored as her sight returned to Kaede.

"'Your Highness' is still the formal way to address me. But among us and my other servants? 'Milady' will suffice adequately."

"Yes Milady," Kaede answered as she gave a slow curtsy, seeking as much elegance as she could manage. "I'm in your care."

"Don't worry, I'm a far more reasonable person than Sir Runelord here," Sylviane beamed with reassurance. "I'm certain we shall come to know each other real well. However, I will hold you to the promise you made me earlier."

That ill sense of unease in Kaede's chest only grew worse as she nodded back.


...


Kaede wasn't sure how the situation had evolved so quickly...

Before the hour was up, she was already sitting next to the Princess on a rich velvet couch, with the unusual pleasure of having her hair brushed by royal hands.

...Except that she was stiff as a board and too nervous to enjoy it.

Meanwhile, Pascal remained in a large and comfortable armchair right across from them. He watched his fiancée with a peaceful smile. Though his turquoise gaze seemed distant and preoccupied under the soft, golden curls.

"<Relax. This is normal for her.>" He had told Kaede some minutes ago. But that was far easier said than done given how out of place she felt.

Sylviane's hairbrush then vanished into an extra-dimensional pocket somewhere near her waist. With both hands on Kaede's thin shoulders, she adjusted the smaller girl's position before leaning over.

Kaede felt the pressure build on her back. The Princess' arms were soon draped over both shoulders, while soft cheeks nuzzled against the silky, straight hair behind her head.

"I take it the past month was quite stressful." Pascal finally broke the silence.

The weight atop Kaede's head increased as it was turned into a royal headrest. She rather doubted that the slim-waisted Princess was heavy, but her own body was smaller and hardly built for strength.

Apparently I'm a large teddy bear, Kaede thought.

Still, being treated like an oversized ornament wasn't that bad of price if it meant earning the Princess' trust over time. The real question that troubled Kaede was: where does this go?

"Edith took Vivi south with her, so I haven't even had any chances to relax like this in the past few weeks," Sylviane complained as she crossed her hands over Kaede's chest. Meanwhile she continued to rub her cheeks against Kaede's silky hair. "And you weren't around to help either."

For the first time, it dawned upon Kaede that 'Vivi' might actually be a person, another girl whom the Princess treated as a cuddle-toy like her. However if she remembered correctly from the meeting, 'Edith' was the name of one of the front line commanders...

Wait, are they talking about Vivienne? The Paladin-Bard Pascal mentioned on the way here?

Kaede could not fathom why one of Rhin-Lotharingie's most notable individuals would allow themselves to be treated like... well, a stuffed animal.

In the meantime, the familiar could almost feel Sylviane's pout press into the top of her head. Compared to the poised and careful princess, this was Sylviane's true, relaxed form.

"I kept calling though," Pascal kept his voice neutral as he defended himself. "You never accepted the Farspeak..."

"Like I said, you weren't helping," Sylviane interjected before going back to brushing her cheeks against silky soft hair.

Pascal took his own turn for a long sigh, as though in acceptance that he couldn't win against royal unfairness.

"Alright. Fine. What did I miss helping with? Last we talked, you spoke of tensions down south, but were more preoccupied with the unrest up north."

"We knew that tensions were brewing in the south, thanks to all the lies that the Imperator spread about our treatment of Tauheed worshippers. Though we had no idea how overwhelming the Caliph's readied forces were." Sylviane spoke as she continued to use Kaede as a headrest. "Nevertheless, Father told me to help King Alistair resolve his domestic issues as quickly as possible, since the north has always provided Rhin-Lotharingie with its best soldiers during times of war. Unfortunately, the 'Ducal Alliance' under that agitator Fitzgerald was on the brink of open revolt. They demanded King Alistair sign their 'Charter of Liberties' to undermine his authority -- no taxation without the lords' approval, no revocation of aristocratic property, no punishment without consent by a court of peers..."

"It is a load of horse manure, just like I had told you then." Pascal scoffed. "Their claim of 'liberty' is laughable at best. It is nothing more than a brazen grab for more privileges! With a 'court of peers', all they have to do is to win a popularity contest and now they can walk free from even the worst criminal offenses! It makes a mockery of the law, as cases should be judged by those who have spent their lives studying legality. Verdict should never be passed by some random gaggle of lords whose only qualification is their birth, who could be bribed, emotionally manipulated, or simply given promises to sway their opinion!"

Pascal's fuming voice made it clear that he found the demands downright offensive. It wasn't even a surprise for Kaede. Pascal had always been someone who believed that responsibility and power should be given based on professional merit.

Meanwhile, Sylviane sighed with a wry, little smile, as though she expected this from him as well. She leaned away from Kaede and began to brush the familiar's snowy hair once more.

"I know you felt strongly about the 'Trial by Jury' part. And the taxation point is just..."

"Blatant exceptionalism?" Pascal's scowl grew. "No one likes paying taxes. Yet without taxes, how shall the state grow? Weichsel certainly did not develop its roads, canals, hospitals, its fortresses using only the King's personal funds. Rhin-Lotharingie is vast and sorely lacking in infrastructure to tap its abundant resources. Yet every time the Emperor tries to secure coin for projects, the collective dukes whine and pretend poverty, as though the wealth they took from their own lands had suddenly vanished!"

Kaede was still trying to grasp the whole picture of their conversation. But this 'charter' felt oddly familiar despite the fact she only just heard of it. However it was clear from the exchange and all their past conversations: Pascal was a firm supporter of crown authority over what he considered the 'petty and selfish nobility'.

"Pascal you're a monarchist then?" Kaede inquired.

"He's an absolutist." Sylviane chuckled in reply. "Though Pascal does have extremely high expectations for rulers. I wonder if I can even meet them when I become Empress?"

"You will do fine." Pascal said simply.

Kaede couldn't see Sylviane's expression, but there was something in the Princess' humored voice which sounded genuinely worried.

"Either way, you know I agree with you on the point about taxation," Sylviane frowned. "However, I don't think all their demands are unreasonable. What about the guaranteeing of private property, noble or otherwise? I believe Weichsel has such a law?"

"Of course! Otherwise there would be robber barons who try to seize merchant wares under false pretenses!" Pascal answered. "Even Kaede here understands the logic behind it."

He then paused and looked expectantly at Kaede, as though asking her to fill in the rest.

Does he want me to show off before the Princess?

"Uhhh... because the guaranteeing of private property is essential for boosting commerce, especially trade." Kaede answered. "For a merchant, any risk to their wares spells an increase in prices and thus lowers both supply and demand. However if such risk can be mitigated or eliminated, then the flow of goods will increase while making it cheaper for people to receive what they need. This can have a snowball effect, as cheaper materials and tools will improve local productivity and wealth, which in turn brings in more trade."

Pascal's smile showed that she scored full marks. Meanwhile Sylviane stroked her hair as though the Princess saw her as an even more deluxe toy.

"Adorable and smart. You are a treasure."

Kaede wasn't sure if this was a good outcome or not. She felt distinctly like she was being even more objectified.

"But this is why a property guarantee law is something that Rhin-Lotharingie could actually use," Sylviane added. "I'm less sure about the nobles' land rights, though we can discuss those details another time."

"You are more interested in this Charter than I expected. Just how exactly did you resolve the issue for King Alistair?"

Pascal's look wasn't just inquisitive. He also spoke the King's name with a smattering of disdain. He had tried to hide it, but Kaede could still tell.

I wonder what happened between them?

It felt like whenever they turned, there was someone else whom Pascal had a rocky relationship with. However if Princess Sylviane noticed, she said nothing about it as she went on to explain:

"Fitzgerald was already starting to gather his forces by the time I arrived. Alistair had hoped to try one last time to negotiate, though by that point he had already resigned to meet them in the open field. He had hoped to cut a path to the rebel commanders in battle and eliminate them before the fighting took too many lives."

"That King still thinks like a mercenary." Pascal shook his head with disapproval. "So did you negotiate with them?"

"No. I agreed with Alistair that Fitzgerald had grown too egotistical and wouldn't accept anything less than near-complete concessions. Alistair asked me to contact Duke Kenneth Randolph and persuade him to join the King's side. When I did, I found out that Kenneth had been invited to the other group also. Kenneth didn't really like Alistair and he did agree with some of the Charter's demands. Nevertheless, he refused to join the rebels as he had no wish to betray the crown -- even if Alistair was never legitimized as a bastard."

Kaede's eyebrows rose. She did remember reading that the Kingdom of Gleann Mòr had some kind of succession crisis less than a decade ago.

But... an illegitimate King? No wonder why his nobles are trying to undermine him.

"Of course Duke Kenneth does not wish to be remembered for treason. He is a descendent of Douglas the Black's second-in-command." Pascal raised the name of the Lotharin hero from the Independence War. "However Kenneth does have a formidable army and is an experienced veteran. I heard that even the elite 'Black Guard' looks up to him."

"Precisely."

Kaede could now hear the knife in Sylviane's humored tone as the Princess continued:

"Kenneth was too good for the Ducal Alliance to pass up, even if they were suspicious of him changing his mind. So I negotiated a compromise with him: I would take the Charter's seventeen points to my father and we'll give some of it due consideration on which ones would be good for the Empire. In exchange, he would join the Ducal Alliance under false allegiance, on the condition that he would be given command of the entire rebel army."

"And they agreed?" Pascal looked incredulous. "The moronic idiots!"

Even Kaede felt surprised, though for a completely different reason: Sylviane cannot be more than a year or two older than Pascal!

Yet, the Princess clearly had a talent for devious schemes.

"Never underestimate the power of ambition and greed." Sylviane mused. "With that one stroke we defanged the rebel alliance. It wasn't hard for Kenneth to arrange an opportunity for me and Alistair to raid their camp and capture their leaders in one stroke, all without a single major battle. Alistair was quite merciful though, as he pardoned most of the minor lords. However Fitzgerald and the other top leaders had to be made an example of."

It was then when Kaede finally realized why the whole story sounded familiar. It reminded her of the circumstances behind the Magna Carta during the First Barons' War of England. Kaede had always found it ironic that Anglo-Saxon historiography paints the Magna Carta as some sort of great leap for democratic values. When in reality it was written by a cabal of treasonous barons who demanded exemptions and special treatment from their King.

Just like the modern elite and their tax loopholes! She could almost hear her father's voice complain.

It was another one of those moments that gave Kaede a pang of homesickness.

"Is that the reason why you are so keen to talk about the Charter's details?" Pascal asked.

"Yes." Sylviane nodded. "I did promise Duke Kenneth to seriously consider its contents. It was a promise made in good faith and I intend to keep it."

Devious to her foes, yet honest to her allies, Kaede reflected. She really does have great potential as a leader. If only I could find a way to earn her respect...

The conversation was then interrupted as several taps came from the window.

Sylviane's bodyguard Mari, who had stood against the door with a look of complete disinterest for the past hour, swiftly crossed the floor without waiting for the Princess' word.

As she turned to the source, Kaede saw the entire window glass enshrouded by a light blue haze. The bird hovering just outside reminded her of a lean falcon, except with a magnificent, flowing tail decorated by tiny sapphire gems. It was covered in cerulean feathers that progressively grew lighter towards the wings and tail. Meanwhile its body emitted white-blue flames that sent ripples of heat through the surrounding air.

It was one of the twelve sacred phoenixes of Rhin-Lotharingie: the noblest of magical beasts.

But rather than staring in awe, Kaede tensed up further as the phoenix flew through the opened window and towards its master. The familial girl tried to shift away, except the Princess, who was still draped over her shoulders, pinned her firmly in place.

Kaede braced herself for the heat of scorching air so close to the flame source. Yet as the phoenix settled on Sylviane's shoulder, she felt only the envelopment of a soothing warmth. It was as though she lay just far enough away to enjoy a lit fireplace on this wintry day.

"Relax," Sylviane reassured. "Phoenixes are natural empaths. Hauteclaire's flames only burn those he detect hostility from."

"Was that a test then? Milady?" Kaede asked with relief, wondering how weird they must look to Pascal's amused eyes right now: bird standing regally on top of a Princess who lazied over his familiar girl.

"Not really. Although if I was wrong about you, you might start to sizzle a little right now. Be a shame though..."

There was a deadly nonchalance in her voice, and Kaede made a mental note that whatever else Princess Sylviane might be, she was not someone to be scorned. The phrase 'off with his head' came to her as naturally as placing an order for dinner.

Perhaps it was just another way for the Princess to warn 'you really do not want to become my enemy'.

Sylviane then patted down Kaede's hair twice before rubbing cheeks against them once more. "A little heat and they're even softer now," the Princess happily noted.

Like a blanket fresh out of the dryer, Kaede thought as she looked towards Pascal for support, but he merely shrugged with amusement:

"<You do make a nice, soft pillow.>"

Only the phoenix Hauteclaire seemed to sympathize with his fellow familiar as he gave a low whistling chirp of solidarity.



Chapter 6 - The Third Wheel[edit]

Kaede loitered in the castle as the dusk sky dimmed outside. Sylviane had dragged Pascal off to the Emperor's privy council meeting. However unlike the war council earlier, the privy council was a much more limited affair. There also wasn't any tradition of bringing in junior lieutenants.

Even Queens didn't usually attend privy council sessions, Kaede reflected from Earth history. It would be unusual if Pascal brought me.

Nevertheless, it made her feel like an unwanted outsider again. Pascal and Sylviane were a pair in more ways than one. Apart from being the next royal couple of Rhin-Lotharingie, they were both talented if not brilliant in their own way. Both of them were also willful and determined to shape the future of their countries. It was as though the two of them were fated to leave their mark on history.

Meanwhile... I'm just some average student from Japan. Kaede sighed.

Well, that wasn't exactly true. She could at least justify being 'above average'. She had been accepted by one of the best universities in the world, and she had spent her formative years debating history and international relations with her father, a university professor in history.

While Kaede's friends indulged themselves in romcom fiction or action manga, she was consuming world history and treatises on geopolitics. Her celebrities were world leaders like Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin. Her heroes were great thinkers who applied history to shape the world: men like the Cold War strategist George Kennan, the cultural-political scientist Samuel Huntington, and of course, the 'grand master' of geopolitics Lee Kuan Yew.

It had always left her a bit of an outcast in pop-culture discussions. It was part of why while Kaede had plenty of acquaintances in school, there were few whom he could call a true friend.

The Samaran girl sighed again as she strode up to yet another painting and examined it. The beautifully-detailed artwork had a frame as wide as a dining room and ran from hip-high to almost reach the ceiling. Like all the others found in the Oriflamme Palace, its focus was another paladin of Rhin-Lotharingie -- this time a lean-shouldered, handsome, if somewhat effeminate young man. Clad in mail armor, the paladin sprouted flame-feathered phoenix wings and glowed in a halo of white-blue flames. He flew above the ground with his armigers, leading far ahead of a massive charge of mixed cavalry and heavy, wagon-like chariots.

Are those... mongols with cannons?

Kaede examined the 'enemy' painted in ominous grey. The flanks were predominantly light cavalry, with many pulling back recurve bows. However the center was mostly infantry carrying wooden planks with small iron tubes affixed to them. Interspersed among them were wheeled, wooden platforms that carried a black, metallic tube. One of them even belched forth flames as the primitive bombard unleashed its shot.

"Leslie Eachann Barclay of Tollaigh, Voivode of Dvina." Kaede muttered as she knelt down to inspect the label inscribed onto the frame's bottom.

According to the Lotharin history books she read, Leslie the Paladin was a mercenary captain from the clans of Gleann Mòr. He joined the Grand Republic of Samara's predecessor state in repelling an invasion from the east. At the time, almost nobody knew of him back in the Rhin-Lotharingie lands, even though he clearly did well in establishing himself as a 'Voivode' -- which on Earth was an Eastern European name for a ducal-level military commander.

His fame only spread to his homeland three centuries later, when it was Leslie's legacy which brought in a Samaran expeditionary force to aid the Lotharins during the Rhin-Lotharingie Independence War. Today, Leslie's name was known even among children. Their rhymes sang of Leslie's blessing which brought hope during difficult times.

It was hard to tell if anyone on Leslie's side in the painting was a Samaran since they mostly wore helmets. However as Kaede comed through the allied ranks, she did spot a young lady with flowing white hair. The girl stood on top of one of the leading heavy chariots. Her hands steadied the scorpion-like light artillery affixed to the wagon-bed while her companion loaded the weapon.

"You like the painting?"

Kaede turned as she stood up. Her eyes met the gaze of a smiling, elderly maid. The wrinkled old woman was thinly built and dressed in elegant black and white. Though the small, bejeweled hairpin that she wore in her french-bun showed that she was no common servant.

"Yes. I'm no connoisseur of paintings, but its history fascinates me." Kaede answered before realizing that she had better identify herself, lest they treat her as an intruder in the palace. "Sorry, I'm Kaede, the familiar of Landgrave Pascal von Moltewitz of Nordkreuz."

"Yes, I know." The matron replied warmly. "I'm Head Maid Rachel. Her Highness Princess Sylviane asked me to come find and bring you to dinner."

Kaede's stomach growled as if on cue. It brought a sheepish smile to the Samaran girl's lips. Apart from a few pastries that Sylviane had requested in the royal sitting room, Kaede hadn't eaten since breakfast back at the academy. The winter sun set early so they were only entering dinnertime. Nevertheless Kaede felt famished now that she was no longer distracted by historical artworks.

"I'm afraid the food isn't quite ready yet," Rachel smiled back. "Is there anything you would like to know about these paintings while we wait for a few more minutes? I happen to also serve as a curator in my secondary role."

Kaede's eyebrows rose. That... sort of makes sense, actually.

She had noticed that Emperor Geoffroi clearly did not believe in hiring many servants. Kaede wasn't sure if this was because of frugality or the need to reduce palace expenditures. However it definitely felt like the royal court had less attendants than Alisia Academy, and certainly less than any palace from Earth as shown in historical dramas.

"I've read about Leslie the Paladin in books but... to see a scene of it depicted in such grand detail. It's... awe inspiring." Kaede tried to describe her feelings as she looked over the huge painting. "Was this an actual battle that Leslie commanded?"

"Commanded? No. This painting depicts the Second Battle of Desna River." Rachel explained as she pointed out the blue streak that could just be seen behind the friendly cavalry. "It's a visualization of the climatic moment, when Leslie the Paladin joined Lidiya the White Rose as they led the charge of the elite Polisian, and later Samaran, 2nd Guards Cavalry Brigade against the Great Khan's Divine Engine Division."

The head maid then grinned proudly. "His Majesty always said that this battle forever changed world history."

Kaede frowned. It was strange to see a battle in Hyperion where large numbers of gunpowder weapons were employed. In all of Kaede's research for Pascal, she hadn't read a single one.

"I presume it has something to do with this Divine Engine Division and their gun... blast powder weapons?"

"Yes." Rachel confirmed Kaede's suspicions. "They were an experimental formation originally established by the eastern Dawn Imperium. The unit was later enlisted by the Great Khan after he all but vanquished that eastern superpower, having conquered it at least for a few decades. The Dawn Imperium has a tendency to bounce back as a superpower after every calamity, even if it takes them a century or two."

They're definitely the China of this world, Kaede concluded.

"The division was recorded to be armed with a variety of weapons including mortars, grenades, hand-cannons, bombards, and uhh... I think these were called 'rockets'." She highlighted the trails of smoke that flew over the battlefield, even as streaks of mana rushed up from the friendly forces to intercept them."

Kaede could feel her curiosity growing more and more. "What happened exactly?"

"Leslie had volunteered to lead the vanguard attack before the main charge." The Head Maid answered. "Since blast powder is volatile and an Oriflamme burns the very air around them, the soldiers caught fire one after another and their 'divine engines' exploded. The Polisian cavalry then poured through the collapsing center and broke the Easterners' battle line. It was a complete disaster for the forces of the Great Khan and it turned the tide of the war."

"Is that why the Emperor said the battle forever changed history?" Kaede asked, though she could already guess at the answer.

"No." Rachel shook her head. "His Majesty said that this battle was the first and last time blast powder would play a decisive role on the battlefield. After this, no army would rely upon such a volatile technology. Therefore despite their potential, blast powder weapons would, at best, be used in a supporting role."

Sounds like the Emperor is a student of history as well.

Kaede knew that on Earth, early gunpowder weapons were often considered questionably useful due to their low accuracy and tendency to explode. Even as late as the Napoleonic Wars, gunpowder's susceptibility to the elements meant exposure to rain could cripple an army. In a world where every mage was capable of conjuring fire and water, gunpowder weapons were never given the opportunity to evolve. Its innovation had been stifled long before sealed cartridges could be developed, which took centuries of use in warfare even back on Earth.

"Does His Majesty read many books?" Kaede inquired.

"Oh yes, His Majesty is a voracious reader. Even back when the late Empress blessed these halls with her grace, his books would cost the palace more gold per year than her jewels and dresses." Rachel gave a nostalgic smile. "Would you like to see the library?"

"I'd sure like to know where it is. Though I probably shouldn't distract myself further before dinner."

"Certainly. Please follow me." Rachel announced before leading Kaede down the hallway.

"What kind of person was the late Empress?" Kaede added in curiosity of Princess Sylviane's mother. It's said that while fathers taught skill and determination, it was the mother who shaped a child's morale character.

"She was a kind and gentle woman, if a bit too... innocent, for the intrigues of the court," Rachel reminiscenced. "She had dedicated her life to bringing up her three children, to be upright, industrious, and dedicated. It's such a great injustice what happened to her and the two princes."

Kaede had heard from Pascal that Sylviane had lost her mother and both elder brothers to Imperial Mantis Blade assassins. It was merely another example of the deep, blood-soaked hatred between the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie and the Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea.

"It's been over a decade since her death and His Majesty has never even shown an inkling of interest in remarrying." Rachel noted sadly. "He has even kept her old room exactly the way it was. Some say it's because her fae magic melded the Emperor's soul to her own, and when she left she took a part of him with her. I think it's simply because His Majesty loves her that much."

"Fae magic?" Kaede's eyebrows rose as they turned to another hallway.

It was the second time she heard the phrase spoken today.

"Yes. The late Empress was a faekissed, the daughter of a minor earl from Ceredigion." Rachel began to explain, clearly realizing that Kaede had never heard of them before. "The faekissed are descendants of the faerie lords, whose rule over these lands is described in the ancient Book of Invasions. During the height of their power, they had dominated all of Western Hyperion as far as the reaches of modern day Samara. However, for reasons unknown, they have since retreated through the portals back to their world. All that remains of them today are the stone rings, the faekissed, and the various artifacts that could be found throughout the land -- like the armor Her Highness wears."

"I would never have guessed," Kaede muttered in astonishment. "I mean... she looks so human!"

But then, perhaps Kaede shouldn't be surprised. After all, she herself had a Samaran body, yet the only way to tell from external appearance was her snowy-white hair. Meanwhile Cecylia was a dhampir, a heritaged shown only in her gaze. Even the Princess' purple hair didn't mean much, as many mages had tresses dyed by the color of their mana, for instance Ariadne's floral-pink hair.

It was only then that Kaede realized that she was being rude. However Rachel at least took no offense as the old maid simply chuckled:

"It's been several thousand years since the faerie lords left our world. That's several dozen generations, even with the longevity given by the blessing of magic. Most faekissed have but a drop of fae blood in them today. Though even that blood is enough to make a big difference from most humans."

"Could you tell me about some of those differences?"

The head maid looked back and smiled. "You're a real scholar aren't you? The questions just don't stop coming."

"Ah, sorry..."

"No, I'm happy to answer. You're just not what I expected." Rachel answered as she turned back and kept on walking. "Just like her mother, Her Highness is an autumnborn. As the name implies, she was born in October, and Fall is her favorite time of the year -- she could spend hours just watching the leaves fall outside. She also has absolutely dreadful spring allergies, and tends to be moody and irritable during that season."

So, walk on eggshells around her then. Kaede made a mental note.

After all, it wasn't like she was asking merely out of curiosity. Relationship building benefited from research and planning just like any other activity. Professionals like diplomats usually began their task by seeking an understanding of the other side's background and temperament. And while Kaede normally wouldn't go this far, she knew that as long as she stayed with Pascal, managing her relationship with the Princess will be one of her greatest challenges.

"The autumnborn favor acumen," Rachel continued in the meantime, "though they're not as logical as their cold and stoic winter brethren. They also have a tendency to get jealous, though they're never as passionate as their summer kin. They dislike airheads above all, probably due to their rivalry with spring. Though I'd say you're in no danger of that."

And I thank every buddha for this small blessing.

"And here we are, the royal library." Rachel announced as she pushed open a pair of wooden, double doors. "It's not quite as grand as the one at the Alisia Academy where you were living. But I'd say you'll find plenty to read here."

For a brief moment Kaede stared in awe as she eyed the rows upon rows of bookshelves. There was enough here to make even a modern public library proud. Furthermore, unlike the massive collection at the Alisia Academy of Magic, this library was meant for the royal family's personal use. Its size and abundance certainly showed just how many rulers of the Gaetane dynasty were of erudite character.

"You know, in all my years, you are the first individual who is more interested in His Majesty's library than his throne room." Rachel spoke with amusement as she watched the young girl's reaction.

"The throne?" Kaede turned towards the head maid with raised eyebrows. It's just a fancy chair, isn't it?

Kaede had seen enough thrones on Earth to know that they were always magnificent and opulent and often downright excessive. From the Winter Palace to the Kyoto Imperial Palace to the Palace of Versailles, the thrones of Kings and Emperors were always purposefully set up to make anyone who stood before them feel awe and a sense of insignificance by comparison.

However, when one peeled away all the unnecessary pomp and pretentiousness, the throne was always just a room with a seat. Everything else was just an illusion of grandeur, as even the most grandiose throne in the world provided little meaningful value to the well-being of a nation-state. The garish colors of the Chrysanthemum Throne was certainly less than worthless during Japan's Sengoku Jidai, as it became a focal point of conflict inside a fracturing nation, torn asunder by a dozen simultaneous civil wars.

The same could not be said for a well-kept royal library, which was the physical manifestation of the ruler's breadth of knowledge and their capacity for learning.

Nevertheless, Kaede merely shrugged and gave a sheepish smile. It seemed unkind to speak her thoughts to the head maid. After all, Rachel's whole career was to maintain the palace so that it could be presented to dignitaries in its most awe-inspiring state.

"I guess I just find this room far more practical, and telling of the Emperor's character." The young girl added.

Somehow, Rachel found this surprising as her eyebrows shifted upwards. "How much do you know about the throne of Rhin-Lotharingie?"

"Only that it's called the 'Burning Throne'," Kaede frowned with a perplexed tilt. But that's just hyperbole, isn't it?

She remembered reading mentions of it on several occasions. But each time she simply continued on without a second thought. After all, just because the Japanese Emperor had the 'Chrysanthemum Throne' didn't mean he sat on an actual throne of flowers. It was all just symbolism and embellishment.

Her moment of silence was all the answer the head maid needed. Rachel smiled knowingly as she gently ushered Kaede from the library and closed its doors.

"Follow me," the head maid spoke before leading the familiar girl down a hallway.

They turned twice before reaching the main entrance hall. Yet after her single request, Rachel did not say another word and instead wore a playful little smile as though she had a surprise planned. The Samaran girl could only follow the elderly maid in silence before they reached a double-door that had an armiger guard on each side. It was the only place outside the Emperor's presence where Kaede had met stationary guardsmen in the palace, and she felt keenly aware of their wary gazes which both fell upon her.

However neither of the guards said anything as they each grasped a handle and pulled the heavy, wrought iron doors open. Clearly the head maid's presence was enough to satisfy them that Kaede was not trespassing.

"Do you still think it's not practical?" Rachel spoke with amusement.

Kaede had to blink her eyes in disbelief as she took in her first view of the throne room.

The chamber itself was not exceptionally large and certainly not opulent by the standards of Earth. It was built almost entirely of polished blue granite and little else. The royal seat took its customary spot on the far end, elevated above the rest of the floor by a stone pedestal three steps high. However, what instantly drew Kaede's attention and almost made her jaw hit ground was the chair itself:

It was a blocky, heavy, uncomfortable-looking stone seat that was ablaze with blue-white flames.

It did not escape Kaede's attention that the royal chair burned in the same color as Rhin-Lotharingie's phoenixes. The embers seemed to emanate from the stone itself, and they were so bright and hot that she could almost feel the heat emanating across the room from it.

When Pascal said only an Oriflamme may inherit the throne, I didn't think he meant it physically, Kaede thought.

She did not even realize that in her awestruck state, she had whispered it audibly.

"There's a reason why the 'Burning Throne' is famous throughout Hyperion," Rachel spoke with pride. "It was enchanted by one of the companions of the founding emperor -- the Oriflamme Paladin and artificer, Gwendolen the Fairie Sword. No man or woman whose character has not been vouched by the sacred phoenixes may sit upon it. Anyone else who attempts to do so will be burned to ashes within the minute."

It was a sure symbol of what it took to wield the authority of the Emperor. Blood, charisma, power -- none of those were enough. Only those worthy enough to be chosen by the phoenixes could sit upon the throne of Rhin-Lotharingie.

Reflecting upon this, Kaede couldn't help but feel impressed by the legacy left by the nation's founders. Through a single item, they managed to create one of the most capable guarantors of their country's future.

At least in theory, she thought. After all, the succession of Rhin-Lotharingie had yet to be tested by a true crisis -- what political scientists called the 'acid test of reality'.


...


Kaede was far less impressed by the time she sat down at a crowded, long dining table. Apparently, the Princess had arranged for her to eat with the other servants. They also ate earlier than the usual dinner time, since many of the maids and footmen would have to serve dinner to the privy council.

Not that I've caught a case of contagious snobbishness, but...

Kaede looked through the doorway to the kitchens, where everything from roast pig to fattened goose had been prepared. The mouthwatering aroma wafted through the air and filled the servants' areas. It made the simple meat and cabbage stew she had look downright unappetizing by comparison.

"What's wrong? Is the food not good enough for our little mistress?" A young maid who sat next to Kaede spoke. Her unfriendly tone elicited even a few jeering smiles from others.

"No, it's not that..." Kaede struggled to come up with an excuse as she pulled her eyes away from the kitchen.

"Oh, you want your master's food. Don't worry about that. I'm sure he'll feed you some in bed later." Another maid remarked unkindly.

The male servants said nothing. When Kaede caught one of the young men's gazes, he hurriedly looked away with a sudden and intense interest towards the wall clock. It was clear the handsome young footman found her attractive, which only further aggravated the maids who now took stabs at her with cutting phrases.

"Ahem!"

It was only thanks to Head Maid Rachel, who sat at the long table's other end, that Kaede gained a moment of reprieve. The eldly woman sent her an apologetic look before speaking to the gathered servants, who numbered just under two dozen.

"If you have time to chatter, you have time to eat. Be quick about it. His Majesty and the privy council will need their meal in ten minutes."

"<Sorry about that.>" Rachel's voice then emerged in Kaede's mind. "<Her Highness is quite generous to the girls so they're very keen with her. I'm afraid they find your master's actions offensive to the Princess' honor.>"

Clearly, the Head Maid was a mage. Or more precisely a yeoman, Kaede guessed.

She reached over to her right forearm and pressed the first spell-storing rune. Her hand waved briefly at Rachel as the Telepathy spell activated.

"<I completely understand,>" Kaede replied, much to Rachel's astonishment as the old woman's eyes went wide. "<But please remember that His Grace was the one who summoned me as a familiar. I had no choice in the matter. Plus Her Highness already gave him a piece of her mind.>"

"<I'm glad to hear that.>" Rachel showed a satisfied smile. Clearly she agreed with the maids insofar as the Princess' honor was concerned. "<Unfortunately though, I don't think these maids understand how such magic works, nor do they care to listen. It may not be fair, but I'm afraid you'll have to bear your master's sins in this regard.>"

Kaede exhaled a quiet sigh. What else is new?

"<When you finish, feel free to peruse the library.> Rachel then added. "<I'm sure His Majesty wouldn't mind, as he encourages us --at least, those of us who can read-- to use it as well. I'll collect you after His Majesty's dinner is finished and show you to your quarters.>"


...


"I realized you were bookish, but I didn't think you'd be this keen."

Kaede heard Rachel's amazement as she balanced the four heavy tomes in her thin arms. Her breathing was laden with exertion as she climbed up yet another rotation of the stone, circular stairway. She had already counted four stories from the second floor library. It was clear by now that Kaede's new quarters were just beneath the keep's roof.

If I knew I'd have to climb this much I wouldn't have taken so many! She thought. She had forgotten to bring her extra-dimensional messenger bag from the academy. It didn't help now that she couldn't see her own footing on the steep staircase, which made her take even longer than usual to climb.

Unfortunately for her, Rachel also wasn't interested in helping like Pascal did back at the academy. Kaede couldn't blame the woman either. Stairs were treacherous and the head maid was already of elderly age.

Finally! Kaede's mind cried out in joy as they reached the last landing. Rachel opened the heavy door for her as they walked into the hallway for the servants' bedrooms.

"This hallway is for the maids only. Men are not allowed up here, and that includes your master." The head maid explained the rules. "I will be turning the hall's lights off by eleven, though you may use a candle after that if needed. Breakfast is at six tomorrow morning. I suggest you get up early if you're interested in the leftovers from the privy council's dinner -- the boys have voracious appetites and will devour the remnants faster than carrion. You may plan tomorrow's day as you like otherwise."

Clearly, Princess Sylviane was intent on treating Kaede like any other servant. However, Rachel also didn't know what to do with her since she wasn't a palace maid. This unfortunately left Kaede in limbo, where she would have to live with the other servants, yet couldn't find acceptance among them through working together.

This sucks. Kaede complained to herself, just before Rachel opened the door to her assigned bedroom.

"I thought it would be best to give you your own bedroom, instead of sharing with one of the other maids. Unfortunately this room hasn't been used in a long time, and we've had no time today to give it a cleaning."

The room was simple enough: two single beds, two small dressers, two chairs, and one desk by the window. However the stifling air supported Rachel's words that this room had laid empty for far too long. The furniture and windowsill even collected a layer of visible dust. The beds also lay buried under boxes and various assorted items as the place had been used as a storage room.

"Not a problem. I can clean it up. Thank you." Kaede said as she laid the books down on the desk's only empty corner.

She had forced a smile to her lips. However it was difficult to sound enthusiastic when she felt so disappointed inside.

What did I expect? That the Princess would let me use one of her guest rooms? Kaede tried not to scowl, as Sylviane's message in these arrangements was not lost on her. She clearly wants me to know my place -- that I'm just a servant.

"Her Highness also found you a more appropriate outfit." Rachel stressed the word as though she didn't agree at all. She gestured towards a frilly dress that had been laid out on the bed's only available surface. "One of the maids can help you with any adjustments you need to it tomorrow. Though I expect you'll find it a perfect fit. You do have the exact same height and build as Lady Vivienne whom this dress was originally made for."

So 'Vivi' really is Vivienne, Kaede thought. It was almost enough to confirm her hypothesis: that the girl whom Sylviane treated as a dress-up doll was none other than Rhin-Lotharingie's youngest Paladin.

"Thank you. I appreciate it." The Samaran girl tried to sound like she meant it, but she doubted that Rachel was fooled.

"I believe that is all." The Head Maid concluded. "I've told the other maids not to bother you, so you shouldn't be disturbed as long as you're in here. You may need one of us to help in getting dressed tomorrow though. I live just down the hallway, first room from the entrance to the right. Knock if you have any further needs."

"Thank you." Kaede nodded. "And have a good night."

"Good night Miss Kaede." Rachel smiled warmly before she exited the door and closed it behind her.

Kaede's forced smile vanished instantly as she collapsed onto the bed where her new outfit had been placed. She sighed deeply as she exhaled all of the dejection she felt inside.

Pascal... you idiot. She thought. Why'd you have to summon me into a girl's body?

Everyone spoke of the Princess' kindness, except Kaede didn't feel an ounce of it thanks to Sylviane's apparent jealousy.

It took her a few minutes before she finally forced herself to stand. It took even longer for her to clear out her bed and move all the miscellaneous items to the spare. The room was still cluttered and messy but that couldn't be helped. She would have to air and dust the place tomorrow, but for tonight she would just have to manage.

Returning to sit upon her bed, Kaede lifted the one-piece dress that had been prepared for her. It was lavender with soft-pink accents, and had an extravagant amount of frills and laces which gave it a 'lolita' feel. Its tiered, ankle-length skirt alone contained over a half dozen layers with all its petticoats, including a crinoline. Meanwhile the frilled top was an off-shoulder design, held up by halter straps and translucent chiffon-lace that connected to a wide choker around the neck.

None of that though was intolerable. Instead, it was the built-in corset that filled Kaede with dread and made her groan.

So the Princess can strangle me with it. The familiar girl mulled as she tugged at the laces.

With another sigh, Kaede decided there was nothing to do but sleep. She wasn't in the mood for much reading tonight. And she did want to wake up early tomorrow so there was still sumptuous food to be had.



Chapter 7 - Pecking Order[edit]

"I can't breathe..."

Kaede gasped out as she leaned forward with her hands holding onto the table's edge. Rachel, the head maid, was tightening the laces on her back, and it was impressive how much strength the old woman's bony fingers had.

"Stop complaining. I haven't even finished the first tightening." Rachel retorted as she continued her methodical lace-pulling. The elderly maid then offered some advice: "Breath slowly. I thought you Samarans believed in 'meditating'?"

"I fail to see how 'meditation' has anything to do with strangling my lungs." Kaede gasped out as the leather corset around her waist tightened another notch. She could feel how it forcely shaped her waist into an hourglass-like arc. "Why do I have to wear this again?"

"Because Her Highness ordered it," Rachel reminded the familiar girl. Though her words ran with approval as she continued: "besides, every girl wears one. It helps you maintain better posture and provides support for your back through a day's work. Even the Princess' dress has a leather corset sewn in."

Kaede did notice that all of the palace maids had a leather cincher around their waist, which hugged their midsections from below the chest to above the hips. The Princess' dress had it was well. Though in her outfit, the leather simply blended in with the other patches that were meant to anchor armor straps.

I don't remember seeing anything like this on Ariadne's uniform, Kaede thought. It was yet further proof that Rhin-Lotharingie was 'backwards' compared to the more progressive Weichsel.

The Samaran girl then immediately snapped off that train of thought. She closed her eyes and shook her head in self-disgust. I sound like an egocentric American.

"Done." Rachel announced at last as she knotted the laces' extra length. "That's the first tightening. We'll let your body adjust for a few minutes before we finish with a second round."

Kaede groaned. She was already having trouble taking a full breath.

"Isn't this enough? If you pull this any tighter I'm going to pass out."

She really did not want to have first-hand user experience with the infamous 'fainting couch'.

"If you do, you'd enter palace history as the first girl to do so from something so mild." Rachel's reply came flat. She then patted the leather waist cincher attached to her own dress. "I've worn one of these every day for the past century."

"I'm pretty sure leather expands more than this one does." Kaede's wispy answer came with an exhale.

She reached down with her fingers and traced across a stiff, vertical bump on the corset's exterior. It was hidden beneath a column of pink, floral laces.

"Is this... steel boning?"

"Yes." The elderly woman admitted. "You're right that yours is more constricting than what we wear. Leather adjusts over prolonged use and isn't hard to bend. However we still need to do our chores or, in Her Highness' case, fight in it. You're expected to do neither."

"I can fight. I have a weapon you know."

Kaede pulled out her leather archery gloves and put them on, over the long armgloves of her undergarment. She willed the spring-steel 'morphic blade' from its extradimensional storage into her fingers and grasped the handle of its default, shortsword form. Knowing that she was little more than an amateur in its use, she gave it a quick twirl before putting it away.

However, the head maid continued to look unimpressed.

"You'll find that most Lotharin women carry a knife on them," she noted before reaching down to her boot and producing her own. "We've had too many generations of experience with Imperial Legionnaires."

Kaede winced. Clearly rape by soldiers in Hyperion was no less common than in Earth history.

"Many Lotharin woman also know how to use a hunting bow," Rachel added. "Though that's not of much use against soldiers in proper armor. A military-grade bow however is far more strenuous than what most women can manage."

Kaede nodded sadly as she glanced down at her thin arms. Before coming to this world, Kaede had built up enough arm strength to pull a yumi greatbow to shoot a dozen consecutive arrows. Now? Her muscles were so weak even carrying stacks of books proved difficult. Strength training seemed a waste of time when her current build was so poorly suited for it. Thus as a result, she had to rely on Pascal's magic whenever she wanted to practice.

"Do Lotharin women serve in the military then?" She asked next, shifting the topic to one involving her curiosity rather than her loss.

"Yes, though only on a voluntary basis." Rachel nodded. "There's even a dedicated knightly order: the Monastic Order of the Knight-Healers of Saint Joan, more commonly known as the Knights Hospitaller. The famous Lady Edith-Estellise, Saint de Lyonesse and the Polar Cross paladin, is their most notable member."

And the commander of the Army of Avorica, if I remember correctly from yesterday's meeting.

There was a clear sense of pride in the way Rachel said Edith's name. It really showed just how much of a role model the saint was to the women of Rhin-Lotharingie.

Nevertheless Kaede sighed inwardly as she thought: yet another action hero.

It was one of Kaede's annoyances about society -- how people most often focused on those who fought on the front lines. Sure, Edith was the 'champion' of Rhin-Lotharingie and widely considered the best Oriflamme Paladin in direct combat. But surely Dame Cosette, who served Emperor Geoffroi as his chief military strategist, should be more famous? This was doubly true for women, as male bodies had a biological advantage in raw strength and stamina, which in turn meant women should establish more role models based on wisdom and intellect.

Why are the brains always overshadowed by the brawn? She filed one of her old complaints.

"I think we've waited long enough." The head maid's voice shook Kaede from her reverie. "Let's finish tightening your laces."

It summoned only a louder, more resentful groan from the Samaran girl.

Bear with it, Kaede had to remind herself.

It was important that she keep her word to the Princess and not create more reasons to be disliked at present. Not to mention she needed to at least work on 'fitting in'. Fashion has always been dictated by the culture of a society and not the individual. Those who refused to accept the 'norm' inevitably attracted prejudice, and the Samaran girl already received enough strange looks as it is.

Besides, Kaede figured that the current status quo wouldn't last since Pascal wasn't the type to just stay in a palace anyway, not when there was a war raging outside. Then, once she had a chance to prove herself before the Princess, perhaps things would change...

"Be glad then that Her Highness isn't the one pulling," Rachel remarked almost off-handedly. "Her standards for a 'proper waistline' are far stricter than mine."

Kaede swallowed. Just what kind of unrealistic body image was this princess taught?


----- * * * -----


Pascal forked a piece of ham before digging his utensil into the tartiflette. The potatoes, onion, and cheese gratin had been baked to a crispy exterior, however the inside was still mushy and he smeared it over his ham before scooping some extra with his fork. The combination was soon brought to his mouth to enjoy.

The sumptuous taste lifted his mood for a brief moment. The potatoes were fairly new to Lotharin cuisine and he had only enjoyed it twice before. It was said that the starchy tuber was a new crop found by the Northmen's expeditions in the 'New World'. It had been brought back to Rhin-Lotharingie by King Alistair himself, when he ended his adventures as a mercenary and began his reign as the King of the Glens.

However Pascal's sourness soon returned when Sylviane giggled in the seat beside him. Her cheeks were turned the other way to face the very same Alistair, whose own fork still sat on the table as his arms gestured to accompany his tale.

"So thanks to that fiasco with the druids, I found myself in a dispute with the Archbishop of Sruighlea." Alistair exclaimed with his usual goofy, boyish grin. "But I thought to myself -- hey, the archbishop likes beekeeping and brewing, right? In that case, can't we just settle this like men over a flagon of mead? Better than him sermoning me to death with hours of biblical preaching!"

That's because you Highlanders are half-heathens who intermix the Holy Father's teachings with that of your superstitious idols. Pascal thought with distaste.

"Thus I invited the good bishop for a drink at my favorite tavern, and brought some of the finest mead I had to share." Alistair continued. "What I didn't expect was that within an hour after we sat down, the bishop was red as roses and swaying from side to side! He was flirting and slapping the rears of every tavern wench who walked by, though he was generous enough with his coin that the girls didn't seem to mind. You'd think a man whose stomach matched his shoulder width wouldn't be such a paperweight! Yet by the time I noticed and offered to take him back, he insisted that he was fine and stumbled outside!"

"I hope you went with him?" Sylviane spoke with amused concern. "He might hurt himself in that state."

"Of course, but I had to pay first, and it gave him a head start," Alistair recounted. "By the time I left the tavern I couldn't believe my eyes. A drove of pigs had wandered outside between the exit and our horses left outside the fence. The good, fat bishop couldn't even tell the difference as he saddled up on the largest hog instead!"

Sylviane almost snorted into her food, while Emperor Geoffroi didn't hold back and burst out laughing. Even Pascal couldn't help but give a chortle. The young landgrave might not like Alistair in many ways, but he had to admit that the King was quite a storyteller. There was a reason why many of Alistair's tales and adventures could now be found circulating the taverns of Rhin-Lotharingie.

"It took a moment for my shock to wear off before I shouted at him: 'Wait Archbishop! That's a pig!'" Alistair feigned yelling. "But the good bishop didn't seem to care as he grabbed the swine by the ears and kicked its rear. The squealing hog charged right through the rickety fence gate and up the meadowed hill to the west. It was dusk too and the image was almost picturesque: a prelate riding a pig off into the sunset!"

Sylviane was now bent over laughing nonstop. She then leaned close to Alistair and gave his back several hearty, congratulatory slaps.

"You should have the scene commissioned! 'The Pig and The Prelate!' It'll be a masterpiece!"

Pascal felt his dislike for the King simmer as he watched her familiarity. He couldn't help but complain why doesn't she ever do that with me!

"Sure sure, but that had to wait until after I found the good bishop. What a disaster it'd be if he rode into a creek and drowned?" Alistair made a horrified face. "I called in my armigers so we could fan out and search for him. It took us hours before we found the porker sound asleep twelve kilos away in a pigsty! And by porker I meant the one in robes, because we couldn't find his stallion of a pig!"

"Twelve kilopaces!?" Sylviane was amazed. "Good Lord the bishop can ride!"

"I know right? I was certainly amazed! Alas we took the Archbishop home and thought that was the end of that. It wasn't until the week after, when I paid the Archbishop another visit, that I found him with a new ride: the very same hog that he rode off into the sunset on! Apparently the story had gotten around and he was now posing for a sculptor who wanted a statue of it! Who knew the good bishop had such a sense of humor!"

"Humility too," Geoffroi said with a broad grin before it turned wry. "A rare trait among the ecclesiastical these days."

"Right?" Alistair remained in good humor as he gestured with an open hand. "Didn't take long after that experience for me and the good bishop to become friends. And that's the story of where this mead comes from. The Archbishop will be honored to hear that Your Majesty enjoyed it."

"All the more so when it's made by his hands," Geoffroi declared as he raised his silver goblet for a toast. "To Archbishop Lachlan, may his charity, humility, and diligence never fade!"

"To Archbishop Lachlan." Pascal cooly joined Sylviane, Alistair, and the Emperor in the toast.

Then the King added jokingly: "and may he keep his pants on when tempted by bathhouse wenches!"

Sylviane feigned a scandalized look before she countered:

"Pot calling kettle. As if you could!"

Normally she would be offended by such boorish behavior. Pascal scowled.

"Well I'm unmarried!" Alistair retorted. "Neither to woman nor Holy Father!"

"Keep that attitude up and you never will!" Sylviane teased as she grabbed Alistair's right cheek and pulled on it, which elicited a cry of 'Ow' from the much-older King.

It also sent a spike of annoyance straight up to Pascal's temple.

Sylv are you not getting a little TOO familiar with him?

Pascal knew that Sylviane had a 'special relationship' with King Alistair. Somehow the two became friends almost as soon as they met prior to Alistair's coronation. However this was also the first time he had seen them together in an unofficial setting, and the casualness of their interaction had left him with more than a hint of discomfort.

It didn't help that this could have been a private, family dinner, had Sylviane not invited the King to join them. Pascal wished that Kaede had been invited instead. However by the time he found out to ask over their bond, his depressed-sounding familiar had already eaten and retired to her room to read.

He stared at the table's other end, where three phoenixes -- the magnificent Joyeuse, the brightly-feathered Hauteclaire, and the largest bird Almace -- occasionally chirped while they ate their feed. They were the respective familiars of Emperor Geoffroi, Princess Sylviane, and King Alistair. It reminded Pascal that he was the one who sat at this table whose familiar remained absent.

I haven't seen her all day, or yesterday, Pascal complained to himself. It's just been meeting, after meeting, after meeting... and why hasn't this King returned to his own kingdom?

Most of the meetings had been about pay and provisions for the armies. Unlike Pascal's homeland of Weichsel, the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie didn't have a single 'Ministry of the Interior' to manage national stockpiles. Instead the responsibilities were divided up by the Ministry of Agriculture for granaries, the Ministry of Trade for treasury, the Ministry of Land and Resources for iron and lumber, and finally an overlap between the Ministry of War and Ministry of Industries when managing blacksmith production.

Who set up this ridiculous system?

Alas, Sylviane was almost done gathering the information they needed. Next was going over all the data and arranging for transportation to collect the various supplies and send them to the front. Tonight was meant to be a break from the working dinners of yesterday and the day before. However, Pascal didn't find this one bit relaxing, not when that jester king was here and taking all of his betrothed's attention with his jokes and stories!

"Hasn't Lachlan been the Archbishop for over two decades now?" Pascal decided the best course of action was to divert the conversation. He needed to steer Alistair off from all the personal tales, and onto a more serious topic that Pascal could converse in. "Is there any chance of him receiving a cardinal's hat?"

"I highly doubt it," Alistair's countenance turned serious at once. It was a credit to the King that he could switch his mode of thinking so quickly. "Lachlan isn't evangelical enough for the Pope's tastes. The spread of the Trinitian Church in the Highlands has been more or less halted for decades."

"Why is that?"

"The druids of the north and west have reformed and centralized their religion." The Emperor explained. "They had begun to establish a formal scripture almost a quarter century ago. And now they have a circle that meets twice per year to discuss religious issues much like the College of Cardinals. The standardization of their practices have also allowed them to consolidate and offer more spiritual support to their believers. The result is that Trinitian no longer has the advantage in guidance and answers in the eyes of potential followers."

"The same could be said for the believers of the Hyperborean Gods," King Alistair added. "They began their reforms even earlier than the druids. However their progress has been slower as they're spread much thinner -- from their homelands in the Grand Jarldom of Skagen and the Kingdom of Västergötland, to countless isles scattered all across the oceans and even realms in the New World." The King then turned to the Emperor: "I also heard the druidic faith is making a significant comeback in the Kingdom of Ceredigion?"

Geoffroi nodded in confirmation.

"The Church has been growing too corrupt, more interested in tithes and politics than the spiritual enlightenment of the common man. Gone are the days when priests were best known for their alms and orphanages. Is it any surprise that some of the faithful are turning away?"

The Emperor's voice was not just disappointed. Pascal knew that troubles of faith were increasingly plaguing the rulers of Rhin-Lotharingie. King Elisedd of Ceredigion's departure from the Trinitian Church was among the reasons for his growing detachment to the rest of the Empire. King Alistair also found his realm pulled between three different religions: Trinitian, Hyperborean, and Druidic. Meanwhile Pascal had even heard of an entrenched Trinitian heresy spreading in the southern Kingdom of Garona.

For a devoted Trinitian like himself who comes from Weichsel, the 'Northern March of the Trinitian Realm', it felt like the natural order was slowly being overturned in this Empire.


----- * * * -----


Pascal had left the room almost the second after dinner finished. The meal had consumed over three hours of his time, between King Alistair's many stories and their discussions over religion and politics. It felt as though every time they were about to finish, the Princess would bring up another topic that she wanted to talk about. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, except Pascal had another item on his plans for tonight.

He had almost reached the stairs before Sylviane caught up with him.

"Pascal, wait! Where are you going in such a rush?"

The young nobleman turned around and met his fiancée's eyes with a frown. "I am going to see Kaede."

"It's already past curfew for the maids." Sylviane objected. "Besides you know the rules: men aren't allowed up in the female servants' hallway."

"Then I will call her down." Pascal insisted. "I have neither seen nor spoken to her, at least not face-to-face, for two days! I need to know if she has been doing alright in this new place."

Pascal's thoughts replayed Kaede's depressed reply from earlier, when he had asked her if she wanted to join them for dinner. Even now the emotions that emerged across their link remained gloomy and restless. He turned away to grab the handle of the door to the stairway. However before he could open it, Sylviane took hold of his arm and stopped him.

"It's almost eleven. Kaede is probably asleep by now."

"No. She is awake. I can tell."

Pascal didn't see the twitch in the Princess' lips as he reminded her of his familiar bond.

"Head Maid Rachel isn't supposed to let people in and out unless it's an absolute necessity." Sylviane pressed her case. "It would be against the rules."

"You are the crown heir. You can tell Rachel to make an exception this time."

"It is precisely because that I'm the crown heir that I cannot just go around making exceptions to the rules!" Sylviane countered in a firm voice. "What kind of example would I be setting? That the laws we make do not apply to ourselves?"

For a second Pascal did not reply. He might be annoyed but that didn't mean his brain had stopped working. There was sense in Sylviane's words and he knew it. However it also wasn't the real issue, and he released a deep exhale as he tired of this game.

"You are doing this on purpose, are you not?"

"What are you talking about?" Sylviane asked while Pascal slowly turned around to stare at her.

"You are doing this on purpose: trying to keep me from seeing her." Pascal pressed. "It has been over two days since we came and you have not asked her to even sit at a table with us!"

"We've been busy!" The Princess insisted as her wisteria gaze hardened to meet his.

"And what about tonight? Could you not have invited her?" He challenged but left out the accusation in his thoughts: You did not even tell me until it was past the servants' dinner and too late for me to invite.

"King Alistair is leaving tomorrow morning. It's only appropriate that we send him off with a proper dinner!"

"How is that a problem for Kaede to dine with us?" Pascal demanded. "It was a family plus guest dinner!"

"Of course it's inappropriate!" Sylviane retorted. "She's a servant--!"

"She is my familiar!" Pascal cut her off angrily. "I do not see you or Emperor Geoffroi banishing Hauteclaire and Joyeuse to eat elsewhere when you have dinner!"

"Should I ask Captain Moreau's skywhale outside to dine with us also?" Sylviane replied sarcastically.

"You are being deliberately contrarian!" Pascal retorted in a voice just shy of shouting. Not that there was anyone else in the dim hallway to hear it, apart from Sylviane's bodyguard Mari who kept a discretionary distance.

"And you are my fiancé!" Sylviane gritted her teeth as she stared back. "You're here to support me! Not to create more headaches for me!"

"Create headaches!?" Pascal responded with an incredulous laugh. "I only asked to see Kaede, to meet my personal responsibilities for the first time in two days!"

He then raised his palms and shook them in the air between them, as though to stress how empty they were.

"I mean what am I even doing here?" The young landgrave fumed. "Listening to your meetings? Attending your meal discussions? I gave up my command for this! I abandoned my Landgraviate for this! And now you are even making me ignore my familiar!"

"You're supposed to help me--!" The Princess stated. However she had barely finished her sentence before Pascal's voice burst out:

"Then let me help!" He shouted, before taking a deep breath and reducing his volume. "Give me a task that I can do for you! Anything! Do not just drag me around from meeting to meeting all day with neither role nor purpose, as though I am just a child that you must keep in your sight! I did not come here just to hold onto your hand! And I certainly did not come here for you to tear Kaede from me!"

"I'm not--" Sylviane tried to say before an angry glare from Pascal stopped her cold.

Her eyes swelled as though they were in shock. Her lips were left ajar as though she had forgotten what to even say. There was a glint in her eyes that saw him as something... foreign, even frightening. It was as though she had never seen him like this.

She might be right too. A faint voice in the back of his mind spoke, almost begged for the rest of him to calm down. I have never been like this in front of her.

Pascal pursed his lips as he turned away and exhaled another deep breath. He struggled to suppress his boiling temper as he reached out and pulled open the staircase door. If Sylviane wouldn't let him see Kaede then he could at least talk to his familiar over their telepathy. It was ridiculous that he didn't even know what Kaede had been up to these past two days and three nights.

But regardless of what he did next, he needed to leave the Princess' presence. In his current emotional state, the longer he stayed the more he was likely to do something he might regret.

"Pascal..." Sylviane was still at a loss for words when he walked through the door.

"I am going to my room." His reply came in a still-harsh tone. "Good night Sylviane!"


----- * * * -----


"<...And he just stormed off after that. Can you believe it?>" Sylviane complained over a Farspeak spell as she conversed with Cecylia. The dhampir was probably her best, and only, female friend from childhood.

It was strange in many ways: the only real friends Sylviane had as a child were from a country that she had been kidnapped to during wartime. As a kid, she had never been any good at breaking down barriers. The fact that she was a princess had set up a great many of them in any social encounter.

"<All men have tempers, Sylv. Even your beloved Pascal.>" Cecylia's reply was mostly-consoling yet still partly-teasing. "<Besides, Pascal takes his responsibilities seriously. And this is a critical time for him to spend away from his fiefdom. Perhaps he simply wanted to see his familiar for some... familiarity, no implications intended.>"

Sylviane sighed as her heart softened with sympathy. Cecylia was right: Pascal hadn't even seen his father's body or arranged a funeral yet. Nor has he returned to Nordkreuz to officially take up the seat of his inheritance. There were a great many things that undoubtedly awaited his attention back at home. Yet he came to the royal palace upon her beckon without any conditions.

"<You're right,>" the Princess admitted. "<I am demanding too much from him.>"

She could almost see Cecylia's satisfied smile as the other continued:

"<Pascal was never the hand-holding kind. He is a doer. He might not be an outright workaholic like his father, but he nevertheless needs something to do, constantly. In fact, it's probably why he summoned a familiar like Kaede -- a walking encyclopedia like her could help him much in whatever he chooses to accomplish. My guess is even when he doesn't have a task to do, he would be bouncing ideas off her all day... that's probably been happening ever since he summoned her a month back.>"

Sylviane pursed her lips as she leaned back and fell into her huge, four-poster bed. This wasn't the first time she had heard Cecylia compare Kaede to an encyclopedia. Nevertheless it brought a surge of irritation as she imagined Pascal and Kaede chatting for hours on end... just like how she and Pascal used to talk on the shores of Cross Lake.

"<It's not fair. Why doesn't he talk to me like that anymore...>"

She could almost feel Cecylia giggling to herself the Farspeak spell's other end.

"<That's because you always have something more specific to talk about nowadays.>" Cecylia noted. "<It's always this rowdy lord or that troublesome task. You don't quite have the pleasure to just meander as you used to! But really, you should see this as a good thing.>"

Sylviane frowned as she stared at her bed's velvet ceiling, which was dyed in her favorite lavender color. "<I don't see how.>"

"<You two are having adult conversations these days! Hehe.>" Cecylia then proceeded to giggle audibly over the telepathic channel. "<Meanwhile he's still a kid with Kaede, just playing around with ideas instead of toys. Besides, you can still jump into those discussions at any time. The only reason you haven't recently is because of your lack of time!>"

Sylviane sighed and closed her eyes. Cecylia's right. She thought. It's just time I'm lacking... time to chat with him like we used to.

"<By the way,>" the dhampir girl then added. "<You haven't done anything to his familiar, have you?>"

"<No!>" The Princess retorted almost on instinct. "<Well. I had her squeezed into a dress. Apparently the girl had never worn a corset before. But that's all!>"

"<Hehe. That's 'normal' for you. I just wanted to make sure you haven't tortured the poor girl or something. You do have a sadistic streak...>"

Cecylia didn't even finish before Sylviane bolted to sit upright in her bed. Her voice immediately hissed back:

"<I am not sadistic!>"

The other girl paused as though letting the silence sink in.

"<You enjoy making cute girls cry,>" Cecylia spoke as a matter of fact. "<It's why I was concerned. Pascal won't overlook it if you bully her maliciously, you know?>"

Reluctantly, Sylviane nodded to herself. "<I know... I've been holding back too...>"

It's not like I've forced her into any lingerie... yet.

The Princess thought to compare Kaede with Vivienne, or Vivi as Sylviane affectionately called her. She was always so obedient, wearing what she'd been given and doing as she'd been told. Kaede seemed to be more bashful compared to Vivi, but that also had a charm of its own as it only added to the girl's cuteness.

"<The only 'bullying' I've done was to put her in the servants' quarters to keep her away from Pascal.>" Sylviane admitted.

"<Yeeeahhh I'm not sure that was your best idea,>" Cecylia responded. "<It'd be like if someone took Hauteclaire away from you and locked him up in some birdcage.>"

Sylviane scowled as she glanced to the phoenix on his perch. She's right. I'd certainly be annoyed if someone did that.

She was reminded of her father's words -- that mages had a 'unique bond' with their familiars. This was doubly so for those who had special familiars, like the Oriflamme Paladins, the skywhale merchants, or in this case: a young landgrave who contracted a Samaran girl.

"<It seemed such a great idea two days ago. But now...>" Sylviane sighed once more.

Cecylia returned a mental shrug. "<It happens to all of us. Though I have a feeling your 'self-righteous' moments are just a little stronger than usual.>" She added sarcastically.

This wasn't the first time Sylviane told Cecylia about a choice that she regretted.

"<It's not fair... for him to have such a familiar,>" Sylviane complained.

Though to be honest, she wasn't sure whom she was more envious of: Kaede for being so close with Pascal, or Pascal for having such a cute girl bonded to him.

"<Why? It seems like a plus to me, hehe,>" Cecylia replied in good humor. "<I don't understand why you're not seeing the bright side: now you get to have your fiancé and a free cutie to come alongside that you get to play with. Two different kinds of eye candy in every gaze. What's there not to like?>"

It reminded Sylviane of that 'hungry' look Cecylia occasionally had when the dhampir girl met handsome men.

"<Remember, my fiancé.>" Sylviane stressed.

Cecylia laughed. "<You don't have to remind me!>"

"<And as for Kaede, what if she starts sleeping with him?>" Sylviane's eyes narrowed. "<And I mean: actually laying together, not just sharing a bed.>"

The Princess noted as she already knew they did that at his academy dormitory.

"<I mean sure, she doesn't seem to be romantically interested in him now,>" Sylviane then added. "<But they have over a hundred years of life together ahead!>"

"<Then at least you'll have a guarantee that there isn't some other woman whom he might be spending time with.>" Cecylia answered straight. "<I mean think about it, Sylv. You'll be the Empress, and he'll be your Marshal. There'll be months, even years when he goes on campaign and you two will be apart. And like all men pressed into the stress of battle, he'll feel lonely from time the time, seek the comfort of feminine embrace...>"

"<B-but that's high treason!>" Sylviane cut her friend off in retort. "<To cheat on his sovereign! I could have his head for that!>"

"<Yes, you could.>" Cecylia admitted after a brief pause. "<But would you? Even if you were no longer best friends? Brilliant commanders don't come easy to begin with, especially those whom you could trust, politically, beyond any doubt. Pascal has a special bond with you that can never be erased. Do you think you can just find another to replace him?>"

"<You know that's not what I meant.>" Sylviane sighed as she fell back into bed again. She's even saying the same thing as Father...

"<I'm not saying Pascal is guaranteed to be unfaithful, certainly not where it truly counts,>" Cecylia added. "<But he is a man. From that perspective, wouldn't it be better to leave him in the care of a mistress whom you can command and trust, rather than risk the intrusion of some outsider that you can't even predict? You can control the relationship between Pascal and Kaede. You cannot control if some other woman tries to snake into his life and seduce him.>"

"<And that's exactly what I'm working on.>" Sylviane replied. "<It's just...>"

"<You're trying to impose your dominance over her, over their relationship. I know.>" Cecylia filled in after the Princess trailed off. "<But you're going about it too hastily. You have to take it one step at a time. Discipline her, sure, but offer treats for good behavior as well. If Kaede has been obedient to your will, then you should let her see him more as a reward. The girl is trapped in a foreign world entirely different from the one she was raised on. She'll be happy just to hold onto her pillar of support.>"

Sylviane slowly nodded as she thought back to Cecylia's first assessment on the familiar girl. After taking a trip to the Alisia Academy at Sylviane's request, Cecylia concluded that Kaede wasn't the type who adapted to new environments well. The Samaran girl put on a brave face but she was actually quite scared to be in this world. It was why she embraced every pillar of support she could find, unwilling to let go of even a maidservant-turned-traitor whom she befriended.

"<Then... What do you suggest? That I give Pascal a significant task and let Kaede help him?>"

"<Yes, that's exactly what I would recommend,>" Cecylia stressed. "<As I mentioned, Pascal is a doer. He needs to be kept occupied, and he'll be happier once you assign him some function to take responsibility over. That'll also lighten your plate and hopefully give you more time to relax with him. It's a win-win!>"

"<I can see that. And I know Pascal hates being micromanaged, so it's best I leave a task with him and not interfere. But I can't just let Kaede orbit him all day...>" Sylviane scowled.

"<Why not?>" Cecylia countered. "<Sylv, you do realize that keeping them apart is no long term solution? Pascal's sense of responsibility would never allow it. It's why he grew angry with you today. You have to use more subtle means of controlling Kaede if you want to make your future marriage with Pascal work.>"

"<I understand that. But it's just...>" Sylviane remarked as she struggled to put her feelings into words.

She knew she was being irrational. She knew that trying to keep Kaede from Pascal wouldn't work, certainly not in the long term. Yet she didn't want these past two days to end, when it was just the Pascal and her once again...

"<You've already made it clear to the girl that you can keep them apart.>" Cecylia pointed out. "<Now you can show her that they can be together too. Just make sure she knows that it is at your discretion. It reinforces the idea that she'll want to stay on your good side.>" The dhampir advised before she explained in a playful voice. "<Kaede has a plucky exterior, but she also has a rather submissive nature. I could tell almost immediately when I teased her that night. Her cultural background seems to give her a preference for following rules and authority. Plus she herself desires stability and predictability in life. Therefore if you offer her a compromise, even if it's on your terms, she will likely accept the ground rules you lay down as long as you uphold your end of the bargain.>"

Sylviane grinned a little as she nodded along to Cecylia's suggestions. None of this surprised her as she knew exactly how Cecylia operated. Beneath the adorable tease was a shrewd, calculating girl with a domineering personality and an excellent judge of character. Yet despite this, the dhampir had never tried to manipulate the Princess. It was one of the reasons they'd been best friends since childhood.

If only you weren't a Weichsen, you’d be my closest confidante, Sylviane sighed with longing. She never once forgot that Cecylia was also the eyes and ears of King Leopold, which made it... difficult, to discuss certain topics.

This was part of the reason why she grew so close to King Alistair, despite the fact he was more than twice her age. The two of them shared many views when it came to the future of the Lotharin realm. It also helped that Alistair had a candid personality and an excellent sense of humor, which allowed her to hear the truth from him without feeling... inadequate.

If only Pascal could soften around the edges in the same way, the Princess sighed.

Alas, the world wasn't perfect. Sylviane could only work with the hand that it dealt her.

"<Thanks for the advice and tips, both now and before,>" she smiled appreciatively.

"<What are friends for?>" Cecylia rhymed back, before the two of them started giggling again like normal girls their age.



Chapter 8 - Logistical Wizardry[edit]

Kaede followed Rachel as the elderly head maid led her down the hallway early next morning. Her breathing was still irregular after Rachel tightened her corset to the most restrictive it's ever been. The reason for that became apparent when Rachel told her that she'd been summoned by the Princess.

Her anxiety hadn't helped in regaining her breath, nor the new footwear that Sylviane provided which forced her to walk with care.

Does Vivienne even have the same shoe size as me? Kaede wondered as she focused on taking each careful step.

Her new shoes had a soft lavender hue with floral laced ankle straps. However their cute appearance was just a devious ruse to hide how they tortured her poor feet. Kaede would definitely classify them as 'high heels', as they forced most of her body mass onto the balls of her small feet. Combined with the corset and the heavy, layered dress, the outfit really forced Kaede to concentrate on walking to not lose her balance.

Thankfully, it didn't take long before Rachel reached their destination. The head maid turned to one of many closed doors in the hallway and knocked twice.

"Your Highness. I've brought her."

"Come in, Rachel."

The elderly maid opened the door before ushering Kaede though. Inside was a modestly sized office room, dominated by a large table and an assortment of armchairs on both sides. Princess Sylviane sat on the far side of the desk, beneath a huge window where the sun could be seen just climbing above the horizon. The only other occupant was her bodyguard Mari who stood two steps to her side.

Kaede had learned from Rachel that in addition to being an armiger and bodyguard, Mari also served as a lady's maid to the Princess. This meant that apart from her martial duties, Mari also helped Sylviane dress and kept track of the Princess' wardrobe. Curiously, this meant Mari had to answer to Rachel as a superior, despite the fact that armigers were knighted and Rachel did not hold any title of nobility.

Clearly, even with the feudalism of Rhin-Lotharingie, the social ladder isn't entirely dependent on birth.

"Good morning, Rachel, Kaede," Sylviane greeted the two of them with a warm smile.

"Good morning, Your Highness," Kaede wobbled on her heels as she followed Rachel's lead and curtsied to the Princess.

"I don't have any other request, Rachel. So if you're busy, don't let me keep you," Sylviane added.

"Of course, Your Highness." The elderly woman replied before she curtsied again and left the room.

Kaede could feel her heart beat faster as she heard the door close behind her. Being alone with the envious princess made her worry and unlike last time, Pascal wasn't in the room to offer his support.

"I hope you've been doing well these past two days, Kaede," the Princess began. "I heard from Rachel that you've been reading."

"Yes, milady," Kaede opted for the more informal address now that the head maid was no longer present. I've been doing nothing but reading. She then added dejectedly in her own thoughts.

It wasn't that she hated being buried in books. But even Kaede would like the occasional variety in her day, or to see a friendly face a few times. Rachel was nice but the elderly matron kept a strict, professional distance between them. Meanwhile all the other servants either disliked her presence or took an interest in her for all the wrong reasons.

"I'm also glad you did everything I asked without complaint, just as you had promised." Sylviane added with an approving smile, much like how a boss might praise their subordinate's performance.

"Yes, milady." Kaede merely repeated.

"Kaede, I know you're intelligent and learned," the Princess continued. "Furthermore, it has come to my attention that your knowledge stretches across a breadth of topics. The conflict in the south has left my country shorthanded for many tasks. Therefore I thought I'd ask -- how would you like to help out with the war effort?"

Kaede blinked. "Uhhh... yes, Milady?"

Sylviane smiled in amusement at the familiar girl's surprise. Meanwhile the latter thought: I certainly didn't expect this.

Given the Princess' demands during the previous two days, Kaede had resigned herself to be sidelined and kept away from Pascal for much longer. Yet here was an opportunity staring at her in the face: the chance that she'd been waiting for to prove to Sylviane that she was worth keeping around, and not merely as an 'unwanted attachment' to Pascal.

"I-I'd, I would very much like the opportunity to help out in a meaningful way, milady!" Kaede rushed to add, this time with more enthusiasm.

"Excellent!" Sylviane cheerily replied. "I'd like you to help Pascal with a task I'm about to assign him. In exchange, I'll have a room set up for you in the guest wing, just down the hall from his. I'd also like you to start joining us at meals. I heard you haven't been exactly fitting in with the other servants."

'Other servants', Kaede did not miss the phrase. It was a reminder that while the Princess was offering her a significant upgrade in amenities, she was still seen only as Pascal's servant.

The Samaran girl almost sighed before she caught herself. Still, this is quite an improvement after a mere three days. One step at a time.

"Thank you very much, milady," she bowed with a mostly-genuine smile. "I'll do my best!"

Sylviane beamed as she tilted her head and cupped her cheek with a raised palm. She looked upon the smaller girl as though admiring a work of art.

"You really are Pascal's familiar." The Princess mused before she stood up and walked around the desk. Her hands gently grasped Kaede by the shoulders, where only fine, translucent chiffon-lace separated her fingers from Kaede's skin. "Let me see how you look."

Guided by the Princess' hands, Kaede slowly turned in place. Sylviane would adjust her dress here and there, smoothing out fabric and fixing ribbons before standing back to examine the younger girl's appearance. By the time Kaede had her back turned to the Princess, she felt Sylviane was doing something to the knot of laces behind her corset.

"Milady?" Kaede worried. I really can't take any more squeezing at my waist!

"Just tightening the knot," Sylviane noted in a humored voice as she clearly heard the fear in the younger girl's tone. "We wouldn't want it to loosen during your day, would we?"

Kaede groaned. That was exactly what she was hoping for.

The Princess was still working her fingers when a knock came from outside. Before she could even answer, the door opened and Pascal walked into the room. His eyebrows rose swiftly in surprise as he saw the two. His expression still held the lingering traces of an annoyed mood, but they faded quickly as he observed the seeming closeness between Kaede and Sylviane.

"Did I miss something?"

"Oh nothing, just admiring how huggable she is in this dress." Sylviane smiled towards her fiancé before embracing the smaller girl's shoulders. "Don't you agree?"

"Kaede is cute no matter what she wears." Pascal replied with a chuckle. "But I am glad to see you two getting along."

"Oh come on, what do you think?" The Princess then insisted on his opinion. "Doesn't this dress fit her much better than it does Vivi?"

The Princess pulled back slightly to offer him a better look. However she kept her hands on Kaede's almost-bare shoulders.

This time, Pascal examined his familiar with a careful gaze before he smiled and nodded:

"I agree. Vivi's silvery hair is colder, and her eyes can be a bit too intense for the soft lavender hue. Kaede's snowy-white hair and her soft pink eyes are just perfect to accompany this dress. And I am not surprised that it fits her perfectly, though... it feels she is, a bit taller?"

"I gave her a taller pair of heels. She's easier to hug this way." Sylviane said as though 'huggability' was one of the most important attributes for any girl.

"Ah. I like it."

"<You two are both terrible,>" Kaede complained to Pascal, which only made his lips open in a silent laugh.

"<What can I say? I do not regret summoning you in that form at all when I see you like this.>"

His smug reply only made the Samaran girl pout. "<I hate you.>"

Pascal chuckled to himself for another moment before he looked up to meet Sylviane's gaze. "Sylv I do believe you asked me here for a serious matter. Not that I do not enjoy seeing this, but you know our rules."

"Yes. Official business first." The Princess pulled away reluctantly before she walked back around the office table. She then placed her hand upon a large stack of papers and parchment and began:

"This is all the information that we had received from those requesting pay and provisions. All the accounting work has already been done and documented. And this," her hand went to an even bigger stack, "is what we've found out over the past few days on available foodstuffs, coin, winter clothing, and other spare equipment, as well as the transport facilities between their stockpiles and the front lines."

Sylviane then smiled as she met Pascal's expectant eyes. "I want you to take charge of arranging for collection and transportation, to have all the necessary pay and supplies gathered and brought to the front-line troops that need them."

For a long second, Pascal merely stared back as though he was dumbfounded.

"You mean it?"

"Of course." Sylviane beamed. "Isn't this what you asked for?"

"Yes, yes!" Pascal's voice was ecstatic while he looked back with bright eyes. "I just did not expect that... you would..."

"I realized last night that I made a mistake." Sylviane returned an apologetic smile. "I should have given this task to you from the beginning. Logistics is part of the training and experience for any military commander. And I have too much on my plate to not make use of your expertise."

Amateurs discuss tactics, professionals study logistics. Kaede thought with a smile as she remembered Napoleon's famous quote. For Pascal who wanted professional experience above all else, this was a true opportunity to prove himself.

"Though this is a task for more than just two pairs of eyes." Pascal noted. "I will require..."

"I have already asked the palace clerks to place themselves under your command as needed." Sylviane spoke as she clearly anticipated his request. "I am also assigning you a squad of the Highland Guard, should you require a bit of authority on errands. This is a task of the highest priority."

Kaede remembered reading that the Highland Guard was a battalion dedicated to the royal family's protection. They were handpicked by the King of Gleann Mòr -- which really showed just how strong the ties were between the Emperor's Gaetane dynasty and King Alistair's House Mackay-Martel.

"You will not regret this," Pascal declared as gratitude and fresh determination lit his turquoise gaze.

"I know I won't," Sylviane replied, beaming. "You've never let me down, Pascal. I'm just... not the best at delegating," the Princess added rather sheepishly.

"We are all still learning," Pascal grinned back. His approval made the Princess look away slightly as a blush overcame her cheeks.

I'm not sure just who is in charge of whom here, Kaede mused.

Sure, Sylviane was undoubtedly higher on the aristocratic pecking order. However, Pascal was the one who extruded the confidence and assurance that the Princess clearly sought.

"Oh, I almost forgot," Sylviane appended. "This office is now yours to use whenever you're at the palace. I figured between my office and the guest wing is a good place."

"I appreciate it," Pascal nodded back.

"I have to leave the palace today to help with recruitment in the surrounding regions," Sylviane announced next. "I doubt I'll be back before late tomorrow night at the earliest. So how about we grab breakfast together?"

"All three of us?" Pascal hoped as he glanced towards Kaede.

"Yes." The Princess answered without any reservation.

It brought another true smile to Pascal's countenance.

"I would like that very much."


----- * * * -----


"I've finished organizing the supply manifests," Kaede stated as she carried a stack of papers back into the office.

Pascal had requested her to work through all the accounts of food and provisions based on their location of storage. They'd been separated into four groups, depending on which of the four main transit arteries --two highways plus the North and South Lotharingie rivers-- would be best suited to transport the supplies. The categorized lists were then arranged based on how far they were from the front lines. In addition, information such as the amount of time it would take from each location to reach the main artery or the next supply depot had to be appended for ease of scheduling calculations in the next step.

Even with several clerks assigned to assist her, it had taken Kaede many hours of comparing location names against maps, tracing local roads, and measuring the distances involved. By the time she was finished, night had already fallen and her stomach was sporadically growling.

She hadn't had a proper meal since breakfast. Lunch had been a mere handful of sandwiches delivered from the kitchens.

Plus my feet are killing me from standing in these heels all day! Kaede complained bitterly. Pascal, you're a slavedriver.

Kaede looked out the windows and reflected on just how late it was. The sun's rays had long vanished beyond the horizon. Only the glow of lamps and the light from the indigo gas giant remained.

Though to be fair, Pascal hadn't taken any more breaks than she had over the past fourteen hours, which was zero. Nor did either of the two clerks trapped in this room, who now looked towards her with hopeful pleas in their tired gazes.

I'm not even eighteen yet and I'm already working the hours of a Japanese salaryman, Kaede complained in her thoughts. Give me back my final year of childhood!

The young lord glanced up from his writing desk as he finished adding some notes to the corner of a parchment scroll.

"Good work. I am almost finished assessing all the supply requests and transit points. Just give me another..."

As if on cue, Kaede's stomach growled audibly in protest. The young girl covered her midriff with her hand as she looked a bit sheepish.

"How much did you have for lunch?" Pascal's brows rose.

"Just one sandwich," Kaede commented, before her wispy voice fell to barely more than a whisper: "a small one."

"You should have eaten more." He replied unsympathetically.

"It's hard to with this." Her hand stroked the corset that mercilessly squeezed her tiny waist.

Kaede had tried to loosen the laces at lunch. However the knot behind her was so tight she doubted she could undo it without help.

Her comment made Pascal sigh as he took a small piece of paper and hovered it over the spot where he wrote on the scroll. His turquoise ring glowed with mana as he magically copied the contents to the small leaflet. He then placed the scroll in one of seven, organized stacks. There was still a small pile remaining, perhaps one-tenth of what he had already completed.

"I guess I could finish this later," he took a moment to convince himself before standing up and dismissed his aides with a nod. "You two are free to go. Free feel to grab some food from the kitchen staff. I told them to make extra tonight."

"Thank you, Your Grace," the two young men took a quick bow before rushing out. It was as though they feared that Pascal might change his mind.

The sight of their hasty retreat only made Kaede shake her head. "Have you ever heard of 'working hours'?"

"Working hours last until work is done for the day." Pascal answered without any room for negotiation.

Kaede sighed. Bosses like you are the reason why countries have labor laws.

"We need to finish all of this today so we can focus on drawing up the transit schedules tomorrow." Pascal then added. "That is enough of a monster to engage by itself, even with Systematize sorting spells to help. Therefore all necessary information must be compiled beforehand."

"Sorting spells?" Kaede's eyebrows shot up. "If you have magical sorting then why did you need me to go through that list by hand?"

"Magic is not that smart," Pascal retorted as though it should be obvious. "I can feed the spell a list of numbers, or names, or even pairs of coordinates. However it does not know how to account for cliffs and rivers, and certainly not meandering roads."

So basically you have Microsoft Excel but not Google Maps, Kaede thought. "Can Systematize be combined with a cartography spell? Or is that too complicated?"

"Cartography magic is tremendously expensive due to the huge areas it must cover," Pascal explained. "It would be different if someone crafted a to-scale magical map and then..." Pascal's words slowed as he took on a pensive look, "linked to it with a specialized processing spell that adjusted for scale..."

Kaede grinned as her master had clearly caught onto an idea.

"That could potentially work." Pascal stared knowingly at her before he frowned. "Though I would have to create several new spells first. Not a solution to the immediate problem at hand."

Shame, Kaede couldn't help feel disappointed.

The young lord's attention returned to one of the document piles. He straighten it before pressing his turquoise ring into the stack's lower-right corner, where he had written a number on each sheet. For a minute Pascal said nothing but simply closed his eyes to concentrate, channeling magic through his body without the use of a mnemonic spellword. Then, with a brief glow of turquoise mana, the heap of papers began to float just off the table. An invisible hand pulled out one sheet before inserting it back in, and the process repeated itself again and again as the briefly enchanted pile of papers sorted itself.

"Is that spell the reason why you wanted me to label every sheet? Distances in one corner and time on the other?" Kaede asked as she continued to stare at the magically self-arranging documents. That procedural repetition -- it has to be some sorting algorithm at work.

"Yes. Inscribing that information in a consistent spot makes it much easier to cast the spell." Pascal said as he walked around the huge table to the giant map of Rhin-Lotharingie that hung from the wall. The paper map was likely a copy also, as dozens of notes had been pinned onto it with small tacks. Pascal took the small leaflet he just copied and, like all the others, pinned it to the location of a small, riverside village.

The young lord then stepped back to examine his work. His lips formed a scowl as he furrowed his brows in deep thought.

"There are far too many bottlenecks." He sighed as he muttered to himself. "This is not going to be easy."

Uncertain of what he was looking for, Kaede took a moment to read the note he had just pinned to the wall:

Capacity: 1 dock, small. Storage: 3 wagon loads. Manpower: <25, request nearby militia. Priority: critical, best in 50kp for barge, temp dock expansion necessary...

Kaede then scanned the other bits of writing pinned to the map. There were more notes on dock capacity, on bridges that needed immediate repair, on depots with available wagons and spare parts, on delivery targets, et cetera. Every one of them was also assigned a priority category and two colors for visual identification: four corners shaded based on the type of location it was, and a thick border that matched the inadequacy of the place compared to demand.

Looking around the map, Kaede noticed that far too many of the pinned notes were labelled with red borders, just like the note Pascal had just pinned.

"Well, maybe clearing my head will do me good for solving this dilemma," Pascal sighed again before he turned towards Kaede. "Come on. Let us go see what they made for dinner. Though with both Sylv and Emperor Geoffroi out of the castle tonight, I doubt it will be as sumptuous as yesterday's."

"Bet it's still better than the bread, cheese, and squash soup I had last night," Kaede shrugged. And I don't even like cheese much.

She had subconsciously withheld her last comment, as Pascal's favorite food was a beer-and-cheese broth. However as Pascal opened the door and strode out, he began walking at such a brisk pace that Kaede had to scurry along as she followed him.

"Do you have to walk so quickly?" The familiar girl said as she struggled to keep up. "I'm wearing heels!"

"You do not need to keep up." Pascal stated, before he added in a begrudging voice that carried a hint of urgency: "I must use the latrine."

Kaede had to suppress a laugh as she began grinning from ear to ear.

So he's not a robot after all.


----- * * * -----


Just as Pascal had predicted, dinner was a comparatively simple pan-cooked chicken and pork sausage cassoulet. However Pascal could not put aside his work even as he ate. As a result Kaede ended up discussing the logistical problems with him through dinner:

"--The biggest challenge with all of this is the Rhin-Lotharingie's roads. Most of them were highways built by the Holy Imperium to facilitate troop movements, which meant these routes ran from the southeast towards the north and west. Since the Lotharins' independence, these roads have supported the mobilization of Lotharin troops towards any conflict with the Holy Imperium. But their directions run perpendicular to what we need now, which are highways that run from the north and east to the southwest."

Kaede nodded in agreement. "At least the North and South Lotharingie Rivers cuts in the direction we need."

After all, rivers were natural highways, built by nature at free of charge. It was one of the reasons why the great civilizations of Earth all began along river basins, and Kaede doubted Hyperion was any different.

"Yes, but it also makes the process more complicated." Pascal fretted. "We will have to bring the supplies from their stockpiles to a dock, load onto barges, ferry them upriver, unload from barges, and then take them by wagon to their final destination. Barges moving upriver will not travel any faster than wagons, while all the extra loading and unloading doubles the manpower required to handle the goods."

"Not to mention scheduling," Kaede added, to which Pascal nodded in agreement.

Using the river in between meant that the transport route was now broken into three segments, each of which have to be coordinated separately with different timetables. Otherwise, goods would simply pile up at the river docks which mostly lacked long-term storage. This meant the supplies not only deteriorated from exposure but also ran the dangers of thieves and saboteurs.

"To make the situation worse," Pascal complained as he swallowed another mouthful, "most of the Lotharin docks along the river are far too small, built to only handle the locals' fishing needs. Even the docks here at Alis Avern, the Empire's capital, has only a single trade wharf."

The young lord shook his head as though he couldn't believe how underdeveloped this country was.

Kaede was certainly starting to grasp why Rhin-Lotharingie was a poor country. If hauling food and provisions to the front lines was this difficult, then moving resources and trade goods between the various duchies would be as well. Worse yet, most of their roads go to the Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea, who had awful relations with Rhin-Lotharingie and would persistently embargo the Lotharins' access to Inner Sea markets.

This made Kaede realize another reason why Emperor Geoffroi secured an alliance with the Kingdom of Weichsel: the North Sea trade route was unreliable due to its stormy weather and the Northmen's tendencies to raid merchant shipping. However, Weichsel's territory runs along the north sea's southern coast, all the way from Cross Lake --where the two Lotharingie Rivers met-- to the borders of the Grand Republic of Samara. This allowed Rhin-Lotharingie secure access to their historic ally, who happened to be the premier trading power on the Hyperion continent.

Ever since winning the Great Northern War, the Grand Republic's merchants have dominated the east-west trade lanes between the two superpowers --the Dawn Imperium in the east and the Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea in the west-- in this world's equivalent of the 'Silk Road'.

"The transport routes are one problem," Kaede thought out loud as she brought another spoonful of cassoulet to her lips. "Does Rhin-Lotharingie even have the wagons and barges we need?"

"Of course not," Pascal scowled. "I have already sent out the guardsmen Sylv lent me with orders for the local lords: they are to requisition more draft animals and vehicles from the farmers, as well as any spare parts --wheels, axles, tongues, et cetera-- that we could find. More parts for repair equals more wagons in service as they wear down from the stress of the long hauls. Hopefully the people will be cooperative. It is Winter anyway and they should not need them until Spring."

"Are you going to pay them for its use?" Kaede wondered.

"I wish the Empire's treasury could afford that," Pascal said bitterly. "No, the best we can manage are promises of reimbursement if the borrowed wares are damaged."

"That's not much consolation for the farmers if they don't have their animals back for Spring planting," Kaede added.

"What else can I do?" Pascal sighed. "When Father first taught me logistics, he told me to always identify the bottlenecks first and plan around them. The problem is that normally you expect a few bottlenecks to cause problems, not every single item in the forsaken list. Transit routes, dock capacity, vehicle availability, and I have not even mentioned the shortage in manpower. I doubt even the famed Wiktor von Falkenhausen could work his magic here without developing a headache."

I should have guessed that manpower would be a problem, Kaede thought. The Empire's population density had been sparse to begin with. And now the most able-bodied men have also been levied into the military, and were now either preparing or already marching south.

"Who's Wiktor von Falkenhausen?" She then caught on. That's Cecylia's surname.

"He's Cecylia's father, my father's chief-of-staff and closest associate," Pascal's expression turned nostalgic. "Cecylia and I grew up together because of our fathers' close relationship. He is also known as the Accountant General, as the man is a logistics wizard."

"There's a discipline of magic dedicated to logistics?" Kaede asked, which brought a faint chortle from Pascal.

At least it made him laugh, she thought with a smile.

"No. There are a wide range of utility spells that help with logistics, from conjuring temporary platforms that we'll need for the docks, to alchemic welding for vehicle repairs, to extradimensional expansion which increases carrying capacity. But the phrase simply means that Wiktor is exceptionally good at logistical planning," Pascal corrected. "Unlike Rhin-Lotharingie, Weichsel has a General Staff dedicated to supporting the deployment of troops. We have war plans, including mobilization and logistics, for every conceivable scenario. We would never find ourselves in the situation Rhin-Lotharingie is in now -- lacking a plan for supplying frontline armies after the realm had already been invaded."

The more Kaede heard about Weichsel, the more it reminded her of Prussia from European history. And while the Prussians weren't the first to create a 'General Staff', their reforms had made the institution famous and their template became the inspiration for every modern military's high command.

"Let me guess: you want to create a General Staff for Rhin-Lotharingie after the war," Kaede surmised.

However this time, Pascal gave her a look as though she was being stupid.

"A General Staff is useless for a country without centralized command," Pascal noted. "What Rhin-Lotharingie requires above all else is the curtailment of the nobles' privileges and centralization of crown authority. Without it, even the best General Staff has no authority to carry out its plans."

It's no wonder why he's a proponent of Absolute Monarchy, Kaede reflected.


...


It took almost an hour before the two finished their dinner. They left the dishes for the servants to clean up as Pascal led Kaede back to the guest wing.

"This is the room Sylv assigned you, if I remember correctly?" He looked towards Kaede in the dim hallway before receiving a nod.

Pascal then opened the door and waved the lights on as the two stepped inside. The room was one of the smaller guest quarters and was comparatively plain. Though 'plain' for a royal palace still meant that it came with full sets of velvet curtains and cherry wood furniture. The four-poster bed was certainly luxurious compared to the single bed that Kaede slept in last night.

It's such a waste to just leave these rooms empty while the servants sleep in spartan quarters, Kaede thought.

Yet Pascal clearly wasn't impressed as he sighed:

"I guess this is enough for the time being. I will definitely make sure a room better than this is prepared when you come to Nordkreuz with me."

"You know, I don't need to be pampered," the familiar girl chuckled in appreciation. "Apart from the lack of a computer, this is probably better than my room back in my old world."

After all, Kaede's father was a history professor, not some corporate executive. Kaede's mother was a housewife. Their middle-class household lived decently enough, but it was far from the lap of luxury.

Not that I would want to live in some equivalent of Versailles Palace anyways, she thought. The excess is tasteless.

"Nonsense. Pampering is mandatory," Pascal smirked. "Sylv always said that those of us with heavier responsibilities deserve more privileges, and I quite agree with her."

Saying you 'agree' is an understatement, Kaede giggled to herself. Still, it certainly explained how Sylviane had no problems treating real girls as her personal playthings. She clearly believes she deserves it for all the stress and burdens she carries.

Kaede couldn't even entirely disagree. There was a reason why Lee Kuan Yew, the Father of Singapore, famously made the prime minister position of his tiny city-state the most highly paid head-of-state in the world. To encourage the best performance from national leaders, Lee argued that it was important to provide the best wages and materialistic comforts to satisfy a person's basic, physiological needs.

Of course, the big difference here was that Sylviane never had to compete for her position. It had been handed to her by birth and circumstance.

"Well, tell me if you need anything. My room is just down the hall, around the corner and five to the left." Pascal finished.

On the other end of the guest wing, Kaede realized. It was clear that even here, the Princess wanted to keep them as separate as possible.

"Wait..." Kaede stopped Pascal before he could walk out. "I need help taking off my dress."

A huge grin spread across Pascal's lips as she said that. Kaede immediately felt her cheek turn into red hot irons as she realized the implications of what she had just said.

"That's not what I meant!"

"I know, I know," Pascal chuckled. However, he was still grinning from ear to ear as he strolled back to stand behind Kaede. "I just never thought I would get to hear that from a girl. It is always the lady's maid who gets the pleasure of handling this particular brand of 'logistics'."

Clearly, Pascal wants to be the commander-in-chief of his future wife's dresses, Kaede mused, which Pascal only confirmed as he continued:

"I mean -- why make women's clothing so complicated if it is not for the husband's benefit?"

"Your ego is as astronomical as always," Kaede retorted, which only made Pascal chuckle.

"Wow, Sylv did quite a number on this. I am not sure if it is even possible to unknot this by hand," Pascal commented as he fumbled with the corset's laces behind her back.

Kaede was aghast. "Please don't tell me I have to sleep in this stupid thing!"

"It would certainly help shape your waist," Pascal spoke in amusement.

"Not a chance!" The familial girl rushed to reach behind her, only to have her hands batted away by Pascal.

"Just give me a moment. I am trying to remember how to cast this spell. It has been some time since I have used it."

It took a minute before Pascal magically unwinded the laces. Meanwhile Kaede couldn't help but pout as she suspected:

The Princess did this on purpose, didn't she!?

"There." Pascal stated as he finally began pulling the laces open. "I might have been tempted to leave you in this. But I need you to have a good sleep tonight. We have much to accomplish tomorrow. I expect you at my office by daybreak."

His last comment might have started as a joke, but its ending tone was completely serious. It made Kaede sigh as she reflected upon her situation.

Great. I'm stuck between an unreasonable princess and a tyrannical master.


...


Kaede didn't find out until the next morning that after Pascal left her room, he went straight back to working. It was only after he finished processing the remaining stack of papers, which took until past midnight, when he at last retired to bed.


----- * * * -----


Two days later at dusk, Kaede watched with an exhausted, yet proud smile as Sylviane looked through all of their finished work.

The final plan included scheduling time tables, manifests for every caravan and vessel, drafted orders for local nobles with action items to support the resupply effort, and more. The arrangements would require the mobilization of over 1,900 wagons of various sizes, all 39 of Rhin-Lotharingie's riverine barges and trade cogs, plus 65,000 personnel for labor, transport, and security. In total, over 1,300,000 stones of food and forage, as well as 240,000 articles of winter clothing and other equipment, had to be collected across the country and sent south. Their recipients would be the tens of thousands of frontline troops in the Kingdom of Garona, as well as supply depots along the various reinforcing armies' marching routes.

It was a monumental, multi-staged execution plan.

"I can't believe you managed all this in under three days!" The Princess was in awe as she looked about the neat piles of papers on the table.

"Well, I am a prodigy." Pascal grinned, completely shameless.

"And a slavedriver," Kaede interjected. "He worked me and the palace clerks to exhaustion checking all the details."

She didn't mention that Pascal even insisted on having all the results double-checked by a separate group. Clearly, he was taking no chances for mistakes.

"Considering the urgency, I must say that I approve," Sylviane briefly looked up from the documents. "Father always said that when it comes to military matters, time is blood. Though admittedly this task had a few more days to spare."

Kaede blinked as Sylviane's words reminded her of the famous line from Chuikov, the defender of Stalingrad: 'Time wasted had to be paid for with the blood of our men.'

It suddenly made sense why Pascal worked the way he did.

Yet I never even considered it that way, the young girl frowned, all her annoyance towards Pascal in the past few days now redirected towards herself. Perhaps I'm the one who's really spoiled... by the peace and luxury of modern times.

"That being said, these plans are made on the assumption that we can increase our transport capacity by at least twenty percent through local requisitions, and the breakdown rate per trip of wagons and draft animals is no more than ten percent." Pascal admitted. "I doubled the breakdown rate from what we would normally use in Weichsel due to the poorer condition of the Empire's roads."

Sylviane frowned as she considered it for a moment before answering:

"I don't think that's too optimistic. It should give us close enough to the real numbers that any adjustments should be minor and easy to make." She then looked up and beamed in approval at her fiancé. "I'm glad I entrusted this task to you. Thank you, Pascal."

"I told you that you would not regret it," Pascal replied with a smirk.

Sylviane giggled. "Don't celebrate yet. The job is only half done. What's next?"

"Next, we meet with your father and go over the details," Pascal remarked. "With all the petty nobles we have to rope in to make this work, only his authority can guarantee its success."



Chapter 9 - Strategic Ambition[edit]

Kaede loosened her fingers and felt the arrow release into flight. It soared across a hundred paces of wintry air and struck the practice dummy. The arrowhead pierced through the straw man's torso just beneath the neck. It landed squarely within the sniper's 'triangle of death', just like all nine previous shots.

Had the targets been made of flesh and blood, every one of those hits would have been fatal.

The Samaran girl closed her eyes and slowly exhaled as her senses returned from her intense focus. The world emerged back into existence around her as she heard Pascal's voice ring out with approval.

"Excellent!"

Archery had always been a meditative exercise for her, when she not only aimed and released the arrow but became its very essence. The act of 'correct shooting' was almost trance-like for her, during which she zoned out the rest of the world and thought of only the arrow plus its target. It was in those moments when Kaede could feel herself being perfectly at ease, especially once the arrow was released into flight.

It was an almost religious feeling, as though she could just touch the divine, or enlightenment as Zen Buddhists would call it.

"I daresay you could easily be a finalist in Lotharin archery tournaments with skills like that," Pascal declared from his seat behind Kaede.

It was early morning on the first day of the new year. They had just finished the supply arrangements last night over a hearty dinner. Now, Pascal and Kaede relaxed in the gardens behind Oriflamme Palace, which in typical Lotharin fashion included an archery range. Unfortunately the trees and bushes were all barren, otherwise the place would easily rank one of the most beautiful shooting ranges Kaede had ever been to.

Turning away from the target, the familiar girl faced her master with an amused smile:

"They'd probably disqualify me first for using a weird bow and relying on a spell to pull it."

True to her words, the silvery bow in Kaede's hands was anything but a normal Lotharin longbow. After several days of practice, Kaede had learned to transform the morphic blade Pascal gave her into a yumi-daikyu -- a greatbow of Japanese design.

Even back on Earth, the yumi was an unusual bow design in that it was extremely asymmetric, featuring an upper limb that was almost twice as long as its lower limb. However, while a traditional yumi had a body of laminated bamboo, wood, and leather, the bow in her hands now was made of enchanted 'spring-steel'.

Kaede was no metallurgist and did not grasp the characteristics of this magical metal. However she did realize that her bow's limbs were significantly stronger than anything made from wood, including the Lotharins' yew longbow. The result was a bow so stiff it would take a bodybuilder to pull. Kaede of course sidestepped this by relying on the Elemental Body of Earth spell Pascal stored in her arm runes, which could multiply her strength more than tenfold for a few short minutes.

"There are no rules for what constitutes an appropriate 'weapon' on the battlefield. The only factor that matters is whether you can achieve results." Pascal answered, revealing yet again his disdain for most 'rules'.

"Are there no 'Laws of War' in Hyperion?" Kaede raised an eyebrow as she thought of the Hague Conventions on Earth.

She then focused on the spring-steel weapon in her hand and envisioned its default, shortsword form. The silvery bow seemed to melt in her fingers as though it was made of mercury. It retracted and reshaped itself into a short blade, before Kaede put it away in her gloves' extra-dimensional storage.

"There are the Articles of War, which were signed between the Holy Imperium and its protectorate states on the treatment of prisoners and civilians in warfare," Pascal admitted. "However it was mostly made to limit the damage in wars between Trinitian states, and even then there are exceptions. For example Weichsel is a signatory, but Rhin-Lotharingie is not. Ask most Lotharins and they will tell you that the Imperium deserves no mercy and no quarter."

Kaede grimaced. This is what happens when an entire people becomes scarred by conflict: it escalates into cultural hatred.

"Regardless, I did not learn archery to kill people," she sent him a warning glance.

However Pascal looked puzzled, almost taken aback by this.

"For what other reason is there to learn a weapon of war? And do not give me that gibberish about protecting oneself," he added bluntly. "We both know that in combat, the only way to protect is to destroy the other side. Those who act solely in defense will eventually forfeit their lives."

Kaede pursed her lips, not because she disagreed with Pascal, but because she found her perspective difficult to explain.

It was a well known rule in martial arts that to subdue an opponent without serious harm was thrice as difficult as disabling an enemy by crippling them. Therefore only those with an absolutely overwhelming advantage could afford to stay solely on the defensive -- a scenario that almost never happens in real combat.

However, 'real combat' was also not why she learned archery. If it had been, she'd have learned something more practical in a civilized, modern society, like throwing knives. Kaede's father also intended to teach him how to hunt with firearms 'like a proper man' on one of their summer vacations in Russia... though that never did happen as Kaede had yet to reach full adulthood.

It's ironic, that Papa used to complain that I'm not 'manly enough' by Russian standards, Kaede thought.

The Samaran girl then shook aside the feeling of homesickness that threatened to engulf her. She allowed herself only a faint sigh as she walked towards the oaken chair on the other side of the small, circular table beside Pascal.

"For me, archery is a calming, meditative exercise." Kaede elucidated as she retrained her thoughts. "It helps me focus, gives my inner being composure. Someone back in my world once called it maintaining 'mental hygiene', much like how a bath might cleanse your physical being."

For a moment Pascal arced his eyebrow in an incredulous frown. Then, to Kaede's great surprise, he began to nod slowly in contemplation.

"I think I can sort of understand." Pascal noted as he offered her a cup of water. "I have heard many duelists claim that the very act of practicing their weapon gave them a certain... calmness. Though personally I have never experienced such."

He's certainly becoming more sensitive to others, Kaede smiled inwardly as she took the offered water and gulped it down. Back when they first met, he probably would have responded by giving her a look like she was insane.

"Do you have an activity that brings you inner calm?" She asked with curiosity as she sat down, before reaching up to massage her right shoulder.

Her arm was starting to feel a bit sore now that the spell was wearing off. Clearly, the magic that boosted her strength also strained her muscles to produce its results.

"Analyzing maps, maybe?" Pascal remarked. "It is the closest that I can think of. I used to spend hours losing myself in Father's old campaign maps: all the maneuvers that he had orchestrated, all the battles that he had commanded and fought. He used to tell me his war stories in such detail... it felt like I was actually there..."

His eyes glazed with moisture even as he spoke with a nostalgic smile. It was clear that his father's passing was still too recent and too heartfelt.

"You can talk about it more if it helps," she suggested. "I'm a good listener."

However, Pascal also recovered quickly as he immediately pushed away such saddening thoughts. He shook his head in response. Though a return nod nevertheless showed that her gesture had been appreciated.

"There is no need," he insisted. "Father is gone. I simply need time to accept it. My thoughts are better spent on charting my own future." He then made a wry smile. "Sylv's task for me was a welcoming gesture, but it is hardly what I imagine myself doing for life."

"And here I thought your true calling really was to organize schedules and arrange supply trains," Kaede joked as she tried to lighten the mood.

"Oh certainly not!" He barked back, albeit in good humor. "I do not mind gaining more experience in military logistics. It is an important part of the job. However I am no 'accountant general'. I will gladly command troops on the front lines any day over busying myself in all that paperwork."

"Not exciting enough?" Kaede gave him a knowing smile.

"Yes, I admit," Pascal briefly chuckled to himself. "But it is also more than just that. It is a matter of priority. Logistics is important work, but it is supporting work -- there to back up someone else's decisions."

I didn't realize your 'protagonist syndrome' was this severe, Kaede thought amusedly.

"And you'd rather be the decision-maker?" She then asked.

"Would you not?" Pascal asked back as though the answer should be obvious.

"Not really," Kaede frowned. "It's one thing to make decisions for myself. It's another thing entirely to plot the course of whole armies, whole countries even. To do so with the awareness that even a single mistake from me could cost thousands of lives," she felt a tremble up her spine, "I don't think I'm up for that level of responsibility."

"Responsibility is what Sylviane and I had been raised for," Pascal replied with a smirk. "For us, it would be a disappointment to not be able to exercise it. Though I can see how it might be... rather daunting, for most people."

The way he looked at her in response was... more than a bit patronizing. Kaede could almost hear the phrase 'most commoners' being used in his thoughts.

Nevertheless, she suppressed her scowl and challenged him instead:

"Aren't you afraid that you might make an error in judgment that would cost countless others their lives?"

"That is why I take every precaution to ensure that the wrong choice would not be taken in the first place," Pascal declared. "Someone has to make the decision. To 'not choose' is simply not an option. At least when I do it, I could ensure that it will be made with the highest standards and only after thinking through every detail and every option."

He then looked away into the distant sky. "I am far more afraid that someone else might bungle the task, leaving me to watch helplessly at an oncoming disaster, yet be unable to do anything about it."

It's probably why nothing attracts his disdain more than incompetence, Kaede reflected.

"Does that mean that if you recognized another individual as even more skilled and insightful than yourself, you would be fine letting them take charge?"

"Of course!" Pascal replied as though it was obvious. "I would much rather serve directly under them and learn firsthand from their expertise, so that I may refine my own skills and one day become just as good as they are! But to do so would require that I take on responsibilities one level below them. That is why it is important for me to climb the career ladder as soon as possible, so I can bring myself closer to those whom I truly wish to learn from."

I've never thought about it that way, Kaede frowned inwardly.

Even though she had read about mentorship in the workplace, she had never considered 'responsibility' as a prerequisite to 'learning'. Perhaps this was because she had spent her entire life as a student and had yet to accumulate any professional work experience of her own.

But don't we all take on increasing responsibilities as we grow in life? She thought. Whether it was growing up as a child, or being promoted in one's career, or starting a family. The trend was inevitable. The only difference was a matter of scale.

Nevertheless, Kaede had difficulty imagining herself ever taking charge of more than a handful of people at most. It was clear that those like Pascal and Sylviane lived in a whole different world: one where the fate of entire nations rose and fell as a result of their actions.

How would I feel... to be caught up in such a world, such a life?

Kaede wasn't sure. There was a part of her that felt excited. After all, was this not every historian's dream come true? She would witness firsthand, from such close proximity, as promising young leaders like Pascal and Sylviane matured into rulers who would change the world.

Yet at the same time, it felt scary to be so close, so involved.

Before Kaede could mull on the topic further, she saw Princess Sylviane approach them from a distance in her sky-blue-to-violet battledress. The familiar girl swallowed as she prepared herself. She was wearing her white pseudo-uniform again, as it was impossible to shoot wearing that dress provided by the Princess. She could only hope that Sylviane 'would understand' as Pascal claimed.

However, as the Princess strode across the gardens' walkway at a brisk and determined pace, it became clear that she was not interested in Kaede's appearance this morning.

"Pascal! Come inside! We have news from the front lines!" She called out as soon as she was close enough to be heard without yelling.

Pascal didn't need any more encouragement. He stood up at once and straightened his uniform as he made his way over to his fiancée.

"Good or bad?" He asked.

Based on Sylviane's concerned frown, Kaede already knew it wasn't good news.

"The report from Garona is not bad," the Princess began. "Marshal Cosette and Duke Gaston fought a major battle near the Ròse estuary. They attacked on land while the Cataliyans were crossing the river, while simultaneously assaulting downstream using fire ships to destroy the bulk of the Cataliyan support fleet. Both armies took crippling losses before Cosette withdrew. However, the Cataliyans were forced to halt their advance, as the loss of their support fleet meant they could not march further inland and still supply their army."

"Tactical draw but strategic victory," Pascal summarized. "Impressive considering how outmatched her army was."

Sylviane nodded as she spun around without stopping. She then marched back towards the palace besides her fiancé. Meanwhile Kaede had to scurry along behind them with her shorter steps to catch up.

Pascal's assessment had been simple to the point that even Kaede could easily understand. The Samaran girl had learned enough military history to grasp that any battlefield encounter must be measured in at least two layers. Those outside the field did not always appreciate the difference. However those within would embrace the topic as one of life and death.

After all, strategy was the overall plan of any participant, often defined by 'war goals' in military terms. Meanwhile tactics were the specific and discrete actions taken with these goals in mind. Therefore while the 'tactical' results of any engagement, such as who controlled the battlefield and who withdrew, might be more obvious, it was the 'strategic' results that were far more vital.

In the recent battle described by the Princess, Marshal Cosette might have failed to secure the field and drive the Cataliyans back. However it was important to remember that her objective wasn't to retake the river crossings, but to halt their advance towards the Garona capital of Narbonnaise and buy time for Rhin-Lotharingie to mobilize. In this regard, Cosette had been absolutely successful, and Kaede thought it was wise of the Lotharin Marshal to pull back instead of further risking her inferior army in pitched battle.

Nevertheless, this left the question of why Sylviane looked so troubled.

"It's the news from the western front that's downright disastrous," the Princess scowled as she strode through a door held open by Lady Mari and into the palace keep. "The Army of Avorica has just been crushed in a major battle against the Caliphate's western invasion force."

Pascal instantly grew alarmed. "Was the army destroyed?"

"No," the Princess added. "But half the army was lost. Worse yet, King-Consort Armel was killed in battle."

Kaede's eyes swelled as she realized just how much of a blow this must be to the Kingdom of Avorica. It must be especially devastating to the young and pregnant Queen Katell.

"Worse?" Pascal replied in an incredulous tone. "Armel is a brave and skilled duelist, but I never thought of him as much of a commander. I always believed Katell chose him for his handsome good looks and charming words, over any perceived qualities in leadership. His loss is a blow to morale but that is recoverable."

It seemed downright callous to Kaede that Pascal would speak of a fallen royal in such an unsympathetic tone. However the reason soon became obvious as he then added:

"I would consider the loss of half the army to be a much graver circumstance. That is over fifteen thousand good men! Many of them with irreplaceable experience!"

"Armel might not be the best commander," the Princess admitted, "but he was also Queen Katell's representative on the front lines and those two were always in close contact. Meanwhile Katell might be a schemer, but she has always been careful when it came to preserving her kingdom's resources. Without him to act on the Queen's behalf, command of the Army of Avorica would fall to Edith alone."

Sylviane's disparaging tone at the end made her opinions clear: anything commanded by 'Edith alone' was a disaster waiting to happen.


...


"What was Edith thinking?" Kaede heard Sylviane seethe in cold fury. "She sent the Avorican light cavalry in a head-on clash against the Cataliyan Ghulams! The Avorican light horse may be elite troops, but their speciality is in skirmish! There is no way they can hold their ground in a close melee against armored heavy cavalry!"

Pascal and Sylviane had joined Emperor Geoffroi in the war room, where a huge, enchanted sand table now showed an illusory projection of the battlefield. Colored figments of trees and grassy knolls had been layered on top of the sculpted sand to imitate the terrain. Rectangular unit blocks and arrows in Lotharin blue and Tauheed green highlighted the rough positions and movements of allied and enemy forces alike. Together, this created an animated display of the battle reconstructed from frontline reports.

Apart from the Emperor, the Princess, and the future Prince Consort, the only people present were Kaede, Sylviane's bodyguard Mari, and six of the Emperor's most trusted guardsmen. The exalted rank of those present made Kaede keep to her spot behind Pascal, as she felt distinctly uncomfortable standing anywhere else despite the abundance of space.

"What do you think, Pascal?" Geoffroi turned to his future son-in-law. It was apparent that he was taking this opportunity to test the young man's military acumen.

"Tactically, I do not believe Edith had any other choice," Pascal frowned as his gaze remained fixated on the animated map. "Edith had no heavy cavalry of her own, while she faced off against an enemy that not only outnumbered her, but was also predominantly mounted."

Pascal then pointed to the map table, centered upon a patch of forest where the Lotharin infantry had been deployed. Just like most Lotharin forces, the Army of Avorica included large contingents of longbow archers and rangers, which were identified by the bow-and-arrow symbols on the rectangular unit blocks. The rest was a mix of light and heavy infantry, identified by the thin and thick 'X' lines inside their unit blocks.

Even the military symbols are so similar to that of Earth, Kaede thought of the modern military symbology that dated back to the Napoleonic Wars.

However, what astonished her even more were the names of the Lotharin commanders: a dot on the right wing was labelled 'Edith', while the light cavalry stationed on the left wing was marked 'Armel'. In the center lay the name 'Vivienne', the full given name of Vivi whom Kaede had thought about so many times over the past week.

She really is a Paladin, Kaede thought as she imagined a small girl like herself, whom the Princess treated like a live dress-up doll, fighting among the soldiers on the front lines.

"Dame Edith-Estellise stationed the core of her army in the woods, which would undoubtedly help her fend off any Cataliyan cavalry charges against her center. Her left flank was on open terrain, but that's where she positioned herself and her armiger squad. The Caliphate's first charge in that direction broke upon her like water on rock."

Kaede could hardly believe her eyes as she watched the single blue dot marked 'Edith' shatter several blocks of heavy cavalry that represented the first charge. It seemed as though the Dame and her twelve armigers destroyed an assault by hundreds of heavily-armored horsemen by themselves.

Just what kind of monster is this Edith? The familiar girl thought.

Nevertheless, no individual, regardless of how strong they were, could carry the battle by themselves. The Cataliyans simply shifted their focus away from Edith's left and focused on the opposite flank instead.

"Edith's right wing was defended by King Armel and the bulk of the Avorican light horse," Pascal continued. "They had a strong, defensive position, as the small stream and shallow ravine they were stationed behind meant that any cavalry charge would be brought to a halt. Cataliyan forces crossing the stream would also be exposed to the Avorican light horse's javelins. They would be able inflict significant casualties to even the odds for any post-crossing clash."

"But clearly things did not go as planned." The Emperor remarked dryly.

"No. Things never go 'as planned' in battle, not unless the enemy's leadership is moronic," Pascal stated. He then pointed to the dotted screen that showed up on their foe's side of the river: "The Cataliyans sent in their own skirmish cavalry to trade missiles with the Avoricans and tie them down. At the same time, their heavy Ghulam cavalry most likely took a detour and crossed further downstream. By the time King Armel noticed, the Ghulams were already on his side of the creek in force. At that point his options narrow down to just two: he can either engage and countercharge, or to fall back and leave the army's flank exposed."

Needless to say, King-Consort Armel chose the braver option and consigned himself to a soldier's death. The Army of Avorica would lose half its numbers during the retreat. But without his heroism the entire army could have been surrounded and destroyed.

Yet, if Armel did not let the enemy slip across the river, none of that would have happened, Kaede thought.

Did that make the late King-Consort a hero, or a fool who simply paid with his own life? Kaede had no doubt that many historians examining such a battle would lay the blame on Armel. However, it soon became clear that Pascal disagreed:

"Given the competence shown by the Cataliyan commander, there was no way Edith could have won this battle. The Caliphate's superiority in both quality and quantity was too great. They could use their numbers to tie down Edith's troops while sending their disciplined heavy cavalry around her flanks."

"She shouldn't have deployed her army and fought in the first place!" Sylviane hissed.

Pascal nodded in agreement. "Tactics cannot compensate for such strategic differences in power. The Avorican coastal plains also lack geography that would allow her outnumbered forces to fight on equal footing. Dame Edith-Estellise should have made it a priority to avoid direct confrontation and rely on more indirect methods to slow down the enemy's advance. Her primary goal should be to buy time for more reinforcements to arrive and bolster her forces. Instead, she depleted her already inferior numbers by attempting to defeat a superior foe without securing appropriate countervailing advantage."

It was clear from Geoffroi's approving gaze that he agreed completely. However the young landgrave's remarks also made the Emperor sigh.

"The problem is that Edith does not know how to fight a war in any other way," Geoffroi scowled. "I cannot spare a general from one of the other fronts. And without Ceredigion's army, the Avorican front lacks a more flexible military commander."

It reminded Kaede that the greatest challenge for leaders was using the right people for the right tasks. Dame Edith-Estellise might be the Lotharin equivalent of Achilles: brave, inspiring, and clearly nigh-invincible in personal combat. However, she also lacked tactical subtlety in a front that could benefit more from a guerilla commander like Tito Broz or Che Guevara.

"I could go advise her," Pascal suggested without any hesitation.

Kaede's eyes swelled as she recognized just how brazen it was of him to volunteer himself for the task. Despite Pascal's self-proclaimed genius, he was still a young man barely out of academy training with no actual command experience to speak of. His only major battle had been one where he participated as an adjutant and glorified courier.

Emperor Geoffroi, however, was not the least bit offended. If anything, his lips formed a momentary smile as he barked an amused laugh.

"No. You need to go back to Nordkreuz. That's where you'd do the most good, not at the Avorican front."

Pascal frowned as he clearly did not understand. It was as though the Emperor was sending him packing. However before his stunned countenance could utter a word, the Emperor offered him a parchment scroll bearing the broken seal of Weichsel's ambassador.

"Read that and you'll understand," Geoffroi added.

The young landgrave immediately unfurled the scroll to read its contents. Meanwhile Kaede shifted a half-step behind Pascal so she could follow along:

To my dearest ally, Emperor Geoffroi,

I regret to inform you that the departure of Weichsel's forces for Rhin-Lotharingie must be delayed. Our military intelligence has discovered that the Grand Jarldom of Skagen is mobilizing its forces to our north. Several villages along our borders have also been raided by the Northmen, and we believe these are but probing attacks launched prior to a major incursion. As King of Weichsel, I must prioritize the defense of my own people first. I beseech your understanding that any reinforcements Weichsel may send to your holy struggle against the infidels must wait until Weichsel's borders are secure once more.

Sincerely, Leopold Karl-Wilhelm von Drachenlanzen, King of Weichsel.

Kaede could hear Pascal's frustrated exhale as he slowly closed the scroll in his hands.

"Your Majesty..." The young landgrave began in an apologetic tone. However the Emperor stopped him by raising a large and calloused hand.

"Please, Pascal, you're family, even if you two have yet to marry," Geoffroi remarked with a fatherly smile. "I also do not blame King Leopold for prioritizing his own people. I would have certainly done the same in his shoes."

Pascal pursed his lips as he nodded gratefully. However the Emperor's remark did not alleviate any of the anxious concern in his turquoise gaze.

"If there is anyone whom the fault must be laid on, it is that treacherous Imperator on Arcadia's throne," Geoffroi declared bitterly. "I have no doubt that this turn of events was orchestrated by him."

"But the Northmen of Skagen bear no love for the Holy Imperium," Pascal frowned.

Kaede did remember that Pascal's current fief of Nordkreuz had once been Imperial territory. It wasn't until ten years ago, during the War of Imperial Succession, when the Kingdom of Weichsel seized and annexed the strategic city and its surrounding lands. Before that, Weichsel had bordered neither the Grand Jarldom of Skagen nor the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie. Instead, it was the Imperium that had occupied the shores of Cross Lake and routinely fought border skirmishes with raiders from the peninsula.

"The Grand Jarldom is a decentralized jumble of petty nobles, each hoping to raise their own glory above the others," Sylviane reasoned. "It wouldn't be hard for the Imperium to entice a few of the more adventurous Jarls with the idea of 'reclaiming ancient lands'. After that, the other Jarls would be dragged into war whether they like it or not."

Geoffroi nodded in agreement.

But wouldn't it be more likely for the Caliphate to do the same? Kaede pondered. It would certainly help their invasion to keep Rhin-Lotharingie's ally distracted.

Kaede wasn't confident enough to openly raise her concerns, not in the presence of two career royals. However part of her also couldn't help but ponder if Rhin-Lotharingie's generational hatred towards the Holy Imperium might have created blinders for the Princess and the Emperor.

"This is why I want you to return to Nordkreuz, Pascal," Geoffroi stated. "King Leopold has already relocated his command to your household estate in preparation for the upcoming campaign. Now you can kill two birds with one stone: see to your inheritance while making your case to the King. Furthermore, I want Sylv and her armigers to accompany you."

"But Father--" the Princess immediately objected, only to be stopped as Geoffroi raised his hand once more.

"I want King Leopold to see what dependable allies we Lotharins can be," he declared to Pascal. "That even in the hour of our greatest need, we would spare resources to assist your homeland."

The Emperor then turned towards his daughter:

"Remember, Sylv, that you are royalty first and all other roles second, including that of an Oriflamme Paladin. Your contribution to any field of battle pales in comparison to the symbolism of your mere presence at a war front. For the Crown Princess of the Lotharins to fight and shed blood alongside the soldiers of Weichsel -- that is more powerful than any number of treaty signatures."

Geoffroi's goal isn't simply to show Weichsel, but the whole continent, the whole world, Kaede realized at once.

After all, the strongest bonds were forged in adversity. This was just as true on a national level as it was between individuals. If Weichsel failed to uphold their obligations to the alliance after this, then everyone, even the Weichsens themselves, would see their King as a faithless oathbreaker.

"Yes, Father. I understand." Sylviane nodded in reply.

"There will be a decisive battle near Nordkreuz, I am sure of it," Geoffroi added. "Offer your services to King Leopold in the vanguard and he will not refuse. Ensure that every Weichsen can see the light of the Oriflamme leading the charge."

Kaede stood in awe as she wondered how many princesses in Earth history had ever been sent off to 'lead the charge'. It was a rare and dangerous proposition even for a male heir, and almost unthinkable for a father to send his only daughter into.

Yet, the Emperor of Rhin-Lotharingie did not show the slightest hesitation as he did exactly that.

The Princess' wisteria gaze filled with determination in return. "Yes Father. I will show them the strength and dignity of us Lotharins."

Geoffroi's intense blue-violet eyes softened as he laid a brawny hand atop her head. His smile was full of fatherly pride as he gave her dark-purple tresses a hearty ruffle.

"You may not have been my first choice for an heir, Sylv. But you have done well and made me proud." He declared. "Never doubt that you are every bit as gifted and as capable as your two elder brothers. I am sure that your mother would agree, and that they will always be watching over you from the Heavens above."

Sylviane's eyes grew watery as her emotions flooded into them. Her composure was on the cusp of breaking as she nodded back.

In that moment, Kaede recognized just how important Geoffroi's approval had been for the Princess. She had always felt overshadowed by her two late brothers, the familiar girl thought.

"Mari," the Emperor then turned towards the bodyguard and lady's maid. "I entrust you and Sir Robert to keep my daughter safe."

"I swore my life upon it, Your Majesty," Lady Mari replied as she returned a knightly salute, with her arm bent and her armored fist held before her chest.

Geoffroi nodded before turning to the leader of his own bodyguards:

"Lindsay, please arrange and prepare the stone ring for Sylv's departure. I'd rather she not use her own magic -- she has a long day ahead of her."

"Yes, Your Majesty," replied Colonel Lindsay, commander of the Highland Guard. Her dignified poise and bearing could easily pass for a Countess.


...


Kaede stared in awe at the stone ring situated on the hill's lakeside, just beyond the castle's curtain walls. It looked like a smaller version of stonehenge, except there was only one ring of raised stones and the structure was undamaged. However, unlike the stone rings back on Earth, the rock-hewn path leading into the circle showed that this one was still in use.

As Lindsay and two other armigers took up a triangular position at the stone ring's outer edge, all three of them began to channel their magic into the ancient structure. Within moments, a growing patch of fog began to obscure the center of the stone circle.

I hope this isn't worse than teleportation. The familiar girl thought as she dreaded the travel to come.

"<Do not worry.>" Pascal noted over telepathy as he likely sensed Kaede's anxiety. "<It is a safe, albeit rare, form of travel. I have done it twice before.>"

"<Only twice?>" Kaede was amazed. Surely he had taken the trip between Alis Avern and Nordkreuz more than that?

"<The Stone Rings are a legacy of the Sidhe faerie lords.>" Pascal explained. "<One can travel across great distances, and with far more passengers, through their network compared to teleportation. However the mana costs to activate them is also much higher than casting Astral Teleport. Even with three individuals, the strain on their magic is strenuous.>"

"<Can they add more mages then??>"

"<It is not easy to find qualifying mages.>" Pascal answered. "<According to Lotharin legends, the faerie lords never had a cohesive system for spellcasting like the dragonlords' internalized spell array. Of course unlike the dragonlords, humanity also never learned magic from the fae, and after many generations even the faekissed have lost much of their lore.>"

"<Then what did they use to open the path? You said the stone rings formed a transit network. Doesn't that mean they have to select where to start and stop?>" Kaede questioned as the fog within the stone ring condensed. It slowly transformed into a shimmering haze with fractured, otherworldly light. Meanwhile the strange, cloudy mist began to flow out from it into the surrounding air.

"<One of the founding Oriflammes of Rhin-Lotharingie --I believe it was Gwendolyn the Faerie Sword-- created a spell that allows one's consciousness to interface with the faerie lords' artifacts,>" Pascal continued. "<In fact, Gwendolyn's mastery of Sidhe Pathways was instrumental to the Rhin-Lotharingie Coalition's victory over the Holy Imperium during their Independence War. However, it also proved to be a spell that only the Faekissed could use, so there must be some sort of magical marker in them that we have yet to identify.>"

"<Maybe the fae used a more 'innate' magic that couldn't simply be taught?>" Kaede pondered.

"<'Innate magic' does not explain the complexity of the Sidhe's many creations. You see that armor Sylv wears?>" Pascal noted the breastplate, spaulders, and other armor plates that now covered over the Princess' sky-blue-to-violet battledress. The armor shone with the luster of steel yet had a faint, translucent purple sheen.

"<That is fae dendrite crysteel: does not rust, does not shatter, lighter yet tougher than even the Caliphate's wootz steel, and conducts neither lightning nor heat. Best of all, it can self-repair by consuming nothing more than water and mana. The purple hue is because Sylv's natural mana color has dyed it over time. The faerie lords were allergic to the touch of ferrous metal, so they created an armoring material superior to any other that we still cannot duplicate today. Nothing but the most sophisticated arcane metallurgy could explain that.>"

Kaede stared at the Princess with an astonished gaze. She knew that as royalty, Sylviane's armor was undoubtedly enchanted and of the highest quality. But even she had never expected it to be a relic of ancient, otherworldly beings. It was certainly difficult to refute legends and myths when such 'proof' of their existence could be found scattered across the world.

"<You said that the fae were allergic to ferrous metal, then is the Princess...?>"

"<Most Faekissed can touch metal, considering their overwhelming human heritage. However unlike the rest of us, their wounds have trouble closing when torn by iron and steel.>"

Pascal's tone revealed that even he was worried about the possibility of Sylviane entering battle. It truly highlighted just how dangerous it was for Geoffroi to send Sylviane to war.

Iron hemophilia, Kaede reflected. Not exactly a blessing on a battlefield of cold steel.

Seeing as red blood cells --the oxygen carriers of the bloodstream-- all contained iron, Kaede had to wonder if the faekissed nobility really did have 'blue blood'.

She still blushes red though.

Kaede's thoughts were then interrupted as she heard Colonel Lindsay announce:

"Your Majesty, it's ready."

Then, before the familiar's eyes could pull away, Emperor Geoffroi closed the distance to his only remaining child and wrapped his thick arms around her in a great bear hug. There was no royal pretense as he embraced her as a father and even picked her slightly off the ground.

"Father! You're embarrassing me in front of..." Sylviane protested in a muffled voice before her face emerged from his chest with a glance towards Pascal.

"Not at all," Geoffroi declared in a deep voice. "If anything, Pascal would be envious of you."

"Very much so," Pascal acknowledged as he watched the duo with a wistful smile. He then joked: "Besides, you should always take advantage of free hugs."

Nevertheless, the Emperor soon lowered his daughter back onto her own two feet. However, for nearly a minute afterwards, he would continue to hold her in the safety of his embrace.

"Stay safe, Sylv," Kaede could hear Geoffroi whisper as though in prayer.

In that moment, there was no sign of the Emperor monikered 'the Great', only a concerned parent who was sending his only remaining child off to war.

He really is worried about her.

Yet until this moment, Geoffroi did not once reveal his personal concerns. His steadfast composure as an Emperor had entirely masked his concerns as a father.

The Emperor soon pulled away from the Princess and put his hands on her shoulders instead.

"May the Holy Father watch over you."

"Thank you, Father," Sylviane nodded deeply in return. "And I promise, I will make both you and our people proud."

With one last grin, Geoffroi shifted his hand to her head and ruffled her hair once more.

"I already am, Sylv. I already am." He confirmed. "But you are not just my daughter. You are the Crown Princess of Rhin-Lotharingie. Remember that."


----- * * * -----


Geoffroi watched with a bittersweet smile as Sylviane waved one last time before walking into the otherworldly fog. He felt a slight wetness in his eyes as he saw his daughter depart. However despite this and the faint dizziness and vertigo that had plagued him all morning, his composure nevertheless held steady until she had left.

Then, with a deep sigh, the Emperor closed his eyes and reached up to press his right hand against his temple. A pained grimace spread across his countenance as he walked over to a large rock and sat down upon it.

"Your Majesty?" Geoffroi heard Dame Lindsay, who also served as his personal aide in addition to being the commander of his bodyguards, ask with concern.

"The migraines are getting worse," he replied simply.

"Shall I call for Healer Julien?" Lindsay asked.

"No. His yapping will just add to it," the Emperor responded before he sighed. "Besides, Julien had already made his diagnosis clear."

He did not say what it was out loud, for there were only four people in the world who knew this secret. Even his own daughter had been kept in the dark about it.



Chapter 10 - Homecoming in Nordkreuz[edit]

Kaede stared in awe at the dense patch of fog that engulfed the center of the stone circle. One armiger after another emerged from its shimmering, otherworldly haze, which concealed the distortions in space that bent the very fabric of reality itself.

Her own journey through had been surreal, to say the least. It was as though gravity had turned horizontal the moment she had stepped into the fog, forcing her to 'fall' through a twilight forest at breakneck speeds. There she had flown, her twists and turns guided by powers beyond her control as countless ethereal trees rushed past in blurs.

Then, before her queasy stomach could expel its contents, she had soared into another fog and decelerated into reality. In the span of less than a minute, her physical existence had leaped across the country, emerging just outside the gates of a small, fortified town.

Had it not been for Pascal pulling her aside, the dazed Samaran who had materialized from the haze would have stood there, dumbfounded, until the next person collided with her.

It was only after all twelve of Sylviane's armigers came through that the Princess followed. Then, moments after Sylviane strode out from the haze, the shimmering fog lost its otherworldly sparkle and began to fade. The light mist that had engulfed their surroundings also dispersed. It revealed their position on top of a small mound just outside a town's open gates.

Kaede felt a sense of validation as she saw two guards clad in mail armor and tabards with Lotharin livery. They gazed upon the new arrivals with dumbfounded faces as though they had trouble picking up their jaws off the ground.

Clearly I'm not the only one who finds this totally abnormal, the familiar thought.

It was a reminder that even though the nobility of Hyperion used magic in their daily lives, the more esoteric sorceries continued to seem like 'miracles' in the eyes of common peasants.

However this also left Kaede with a worrying thought: did this mean that Hyperion was unlikely to ever shed its Medieval social hierarchy?

After all, it was impossible to establish even the illusion of equality when the gap between those who have magic and those who didn't was impossible to cross.

"Sir Robert," Sylviane called out which snapped Kaede out of her thoughts. "Take us the remainder of the way please."

"Yes, Your Highness," the young armiger who stood next to Kaede replied. At the same time, the phoenix Hauteclaire left his perch on the Princess' shoulder and flew over to land on Sir Robert's.

"Everyone, link hands and form a circle." The wayfarer armiger then beckoned before reaching out to Kaede with an open hand. His expression beamed as befitting of a chivalric knight.

Sir Robert was a handsome young man with a boyishly cute face and a brilliant, infectious smile. He was a bit short for a Lotharin male. However his figure was lean and athletic. His eyes were a vivid green. And the chocolate-brown hair framing his smooth cheeks was just long enough to look elegant without being too feminine.

Kaede couldn't help but smile back as she took his white-gloved hand. His grasp of her fingers was both gentle and firm in equal measure. It was as though the young man practiced being a gentleman.

The Princess sure chose a pretty boy for her retinue, the white-haired girl amused herself.

Looking around, Kaede realized that all of Sylviane armigers were young, fit, and at least a quartile above average in looks. It certainly felt like the Princess took advantage of her position to make sure she was surrounded by treats for her eyes.

The Samaran girl then winced as she felt Pascal roughly clutch her other hand. His expression was scowling but not at her. It quickly dawned upon Kaede that Pascal's absentminded gaze was in deep thought, likely over his impending meeting with Weichsel's King. He remained worried even as Sylviane moved to his other side and took his hand.

"Don't fret. You'll grow wrinkles," the Princess smiled as their eyes met. "Diplomacy is my arena, remember?"

"Never thought there would be a day when you would be reassuring me." Pascal replied before a smirk came to his lips. "Still, I am happy for your concern."

For a moment Sylviane looked taken aback as a furious blush spread across her cheeks.

"Why would I be concerned?" She turned away. "Worrying just doesn't suit you, that's all."

Pascal chuckled to himself before his expression turned serious once more.

"Father always told me that despite King Leopold's attitude, his political acumen should never be underestimated. No offense to your charms or powers of persuasion, Sylv, but I anticipate this trip will require a concerted effort from the both of us. And I intend to play my part to its full extent."

"I'm sure we'll persuade King Leopold to send reinforcements as early as possible." Sylviane nodded back.

Yet even as she did so, Kaede could see the shadow of doubt creeping in her wisteria gaze. The Princess was nowhere as confident as she wanted to appear, which was made more obvious as Sylviane silently mouthed three words as she turned away:

'We have to.'

In the meantime, Sylviane's armigers had finished forming the circle. Fifteen individuals had their hands linked in a tight ring as Sir Robert began to channel his magic with Hauteclaire's aid. Ebbs of blue and green mana poured out of them and formed a tree-like magical array beneath his feet. A thick 'trunk' spouted out to the middle of their circle between reaching out with tendril-like mana strands that wrapped around each and every individual forming the ring.

"<I thought mages couldn't share mana since different sources repel each other,>" Kaede puzzled over telepathy as she saw the two different mana colors interweave. "<Are phoenixes special in this regard?>"

"<Phoenixes are natural metamages -- rare spellcasters whose mana have limited transfusive properties.>" Pascal stated.

Kaede refrained from more questions as she watched the air between them distort. Her body stiffened as it felt like ice was growing across her tingling skin. The space within the circle twisted as though it was being drawn into a whirlpool. The initial manifestations of a teleport spell were taking shape, and Kaede shut her eyes tight as she did not want to see its disorienting visual effects.

Here we go again, she thought with distaste just before her body felt like it spontaneously evaporated.


------ * * * ------


"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Nordkreuz."

Kaede heard Pascal's ringing voice before she slowly opened her eyes. It had taken them five jumps before arriving at last. Over two-hundred kilopaces of travel by teleportation had left Kaede feeling as though her entire body was now a foreign entity. She felt like a literal airhead with her head floating like a balloon above the rest of a detached body.

These alien sensations were exactly why she hated teleportation as a medium of travel, even with all of its efficiency.

Meanwhile, Kaede felt a sweaty palm part from her right hand. Sir Robert was breathing hard as he staggered over to a short stone wall and almost collapsed against it.

"Sir Robert?" Sylviane strode over to him with concern.

The young armiger tried to stand back up, but the Princess placed a hand on his narrow shoulder and pressed him to sit back down.

"Take a few minutes to rest." She insisted. "You must be exhausted after making five consecutive teleportation jumps for such a large group."

The phoenix Hauteclair, who flew back to Sylviane's shoulder but stayed close enough to engulf Sir Robert in his soothing heat aura, chirped as though in agreement.

"Thank you, Your Highness," the wayfarer armiger nodded with an appreciative smile.

It's no wonder the people close to the Princess are so fiercely loyal to her, Kaede reflected as her lips formed a smile. She couldn't help hope that, perhaps in time, Sylviane would also treat her that way, and not simply as a nuisance who latched onto her fiancé.

In the meantime, the familiar looked around as she took in the scenery. The hewn-stone, circular platform they arrived at had an inscribed-stone in the center, which was likely the city's main teleportation beacon. The platform was built on a small island just off the shores of a huge lake. The island was in turn connected to a small gatehouse in the city's walls by a short, wooden bridge.

So this is Cross Lake, the most strategic location in the north, Kaede thought.

She had forgotten how many times she stared at a map, marvelling over just how important Pascal's home and fiefdom was in the geopolitics of the continent. The lake was only mildly shaped like a bent cross, but it was the junction point between three important rivers: North Lotharingie, South Lotharingie, and Albis. Because of this, whomever controlled Cross Lake could dominate transportation and trade across the continent's north. It was why the city of Nordkreuz had been built here, upon a peninsula that jutted out into the center of the lake.

It also helped that Nordkreuz was built upon a convergence point in the ley lines -- a geographical magical phenomenon that Kaede didn't understand but was critical to the siting of cities and fortifications in this world. They were the only replenishable source of magical power apart from living mages. As such, defensive wards and industrial equipment like arcane forges were often attuned to draw energy directly from the ley lines. This in turn made Nordkreuz not only important in trade and military strategy, but also in the development of industry.

It's no wonder why Pascal's father wanted to use Nordkreuz to tie Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie together in an alliance, Kaede thought back to her prior conclusion. Without a peaceful settlement, Nordkreuz would become a thorn in the relationship between Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie that the Holy Imperium could exploit, just like how the United States took advantage of the Sino-Soviet Split to win the Cold War.

As Kaede turned away from the lake and looked upon the city's imposing stone walls, she noticed that Pascal was talking to a young Weichsen lieutenant who had crossed the bridge.

"He has been reassigned? Who is in command of this city's garrison now then?" Pascal asked.

"Brigadier-General Bernard von Konopacki, Your Grace," the redheaded junior officer replied, which instantly brought a scowl to Pascal's countenance. "Though with His Majesty and the other generals in the city, the Brigadier doesn't have much room to exercise leadership."

"Which other high-ranking commanders are in the city right now?" The landgrave inquired next.

"Chief-of-Staff General Wiktor von Falkenhausen and General of Cavalry Sir Neithard von Manteuffel are both here with the King. Three other brigadiers of the army are also encamped outside the city. In addition, four Knight Phantom commanders are cycling in and out of the city in their raids against the Skagen Peninsula. Lastly, Colonel Sir Erwin von Hammerstein is here to train the new Phantom Grenadiers."

"Phantom Grenadiers?" Pascal raised an eyebrow.

"They're a new formation that the King established with the late Marshal," the officer explained. "Air cavalry, organized in the same manner as the Knights Phantom, except most of them are yeomen who have yet to receive the Knight's Cross."

"Then the bulk of Weichsel's elite forces have already been gathered here?"

"Yes, Your Grace," the officer answered. "Colonel Albrecht von Bittenfeld of the Black Lancers is expected to arrive tonight."

That's all five of the Weichsel's elite Knight Phantom units. Kaede realized. No country would ever divest itself of all its best troops just to aid an ally. The fact King Leopold concentrated his elite forces here meant he had military operations of his own planned.

"Thank you. Please inform the King of our arrival and arrange an escort to my residence. That is all." Pascal concluded before exchanging a military salute with the young officer, who strode back across the wooden bridge and returned to his post.

"<What's wrong?>" Kaede asked as her master's scowl persisted while he remained in deep thought.

For a second Pascal didn't answer. He took a runestone out of his pockets and activated it. Then:

"<Brigadier Bernard, one of General Manteuffel's protégés, was given command of the city's garrison.>" Pascal explained with a worried frown. "<Nordkreuz has always been in the control of my father's faction. It makes sense for the local lord to have a garrison commander whom he could work with. I do not understand why the King would pass this position to someone from the conservatives, unless General Manteuffel has already won the contest and is slated to become the next Marshal.>"

Kaede knew that this was one of the key differences between the two countries. Weichsel's feudal divisions were administrative only, with each lord serving effectively as a governor who carried out the King's will. Crown laws dictated everything from the range of acceptable tax percentiles to how many soldiers each lord must raise. Traders and artisans received royal seals to operate through the national guilds, while officers fell under the command of the General Staff and swore allegiance to the King.

Nobles didn't even have any right to command the soldiers they raised unless they also served as army officers. All of this solidified Weichsel as a unitary state with an absolute monarch.

However, before the Samaran girl could respond, it was Sylviane's voice that rang across her mind:

"<Isn't Manteuffel against the Weichsel-Lotharin Alliance?>"

Kaede almost jumped. Hearing a voice she didn't expect inside her head was definitely not pleasant.

Who else is in my head now...?

"<That is correct.>" Pascal answered.

"<Then I hope we haven't arrived too late,>" the Princess added with concern. "<If King Leopold had indeed chosen him as the next Marshal, then it means the King is also shifting his stance on foreign policy.>"

"<How can you be sure of that?>" Pascal raised an eyebrow.

"<Because...>"

For a moment Sylviane struggled to come up with a simple explanation. It was then when Kaede had a moment of inspiration and jumped in:

"<Because war is the continuation of politics by other means,>" she quoted Clausewitz, the famous Prussian military theorist back on Earth.

"<Exactly,>" the Princess gave her a surprised, but appreciative nod. "<A wise king will not chose a man who disagree with his foreign policy to lead his armies.>"

It was a reminder that the boundaries between political and military affairs were inseparable, at least for those who rose to a certain ranking.

"<Kaede have you dealt with the nobility back in your world?>" Sylviane asked next as her eyes were full of curiosity.

"<There aren't really any 'nobles' in my world, Your Highness, just plenty of politicians,>" the Samaran girl replied. "<But I am fairly well learned on geopolitics and international relations.>"

"<Though she mostly talks to books and prays to flying pasta,>" Pascal lightened the mood slightly with a casual joke. "<There are only the three of us in this, Kaede,>" he noted after her formal address.

"<I didn't even notice you set this network up,>" Kaede remarked, unhappily. "<Aren't Telepathy spells suppose to give a 'ring' inside the head?>"

"<That is because I tied our familiar bond to the Telepathy connection I made with Sylv,>" Pascal explained. "<Joining individual links is the basis to forming telepathic networks. Sylviane also tends to run one with her armigers. You can tell when they exchange silent glances at times.>"

No wonder why they rarely talk, Kaede thought. They're all chatting away on smartphones inside their heads.

"<Still, the lieutenant called Manteuffel 'General of Cavalry', so it does not appear he has secured the Marshal's position yet.>" Pascal took the conversation back on topic. "<With father's chief-of-staff General Wiktor here to back us up, we may still have an opportunity.>"

"<I sincerely hope so,>" Sylviane replied as she exchanged a nod with Sir Robert. The wayfarer armiger had stood back up as a sign that he was ready to walk again.

"Blaze Ignition," the Princess whispered in a quiet yet commanding tone. Her phoenix Hauteclaire expanded his wings with a cry before transforming into a halo of blue-white flames, which then merged into Sylviane's body.

Flame-feathered wings sprouted from slits on her back armor while white-blue embers cored by traces of gold began to drift from her body. Sylviane's usual wisteria eyes grew alight in bright cerulean, meanwhile her dark-purple hair began to burn with an electric blue hue. Even the waist-hugging steel cuirass, skirting, and lightweight spaulders that covered her battledress emanated blue flames across their surface, as though they were freshly hammered by a sacred blacksmith.

The entire ensemble reminded Kaede of a fire burning on pure oxygen. It formed a stark contrast between radiating presence --which the normal Sylviane rather lacked-- and the cool gentleness of her composed countenance.

"The Black Dragon awaits us." The Princess declared to her armigers. "Form up and show them the pride of Rhin-Lotharingie!"

"Yes, Your Highness!"

As Sylviane strode ahead to lead, her twelve Oriflamme Armigers fanned out behind her to form the wings of a chevron. They all wore uniforms of white and aqua on bright-cerulean, which included an enchanted cape that now billowed flames of golden-white to match her burning embers.

It was clear that Sylviane intended to awe the residents of Nordkreuz. She would ensure that every citizen who saw her would spread the news that the Cerulean Princess had arrived to aid their Kingdom against the coming Northmen.


------ * * * ------


"Atten-tion!"

Ariadne Charlotte von Zimmer-Manteuffel snapped her heels together. She stood alongside six other junior officers in black-on-burning-red uniforms in the front row. They led a loose square of uniformed men and women totaling over fifty. This included an entire class of fresh graduating cadets from the Königsfeld Academy, as well as other young, newly promoted officers who had earned battle honors from the recent autumn campaign against Västergötlander raiders -- the same battles during which Ariadne earned her Knight's Cross.

The bulk of those assembled didn't know what to expect. All they knew was that this was some recruitment event for a new, experimental unit. Ariadne however was one of the few who knew exactly why she was here. She had already heard the details through her Manteuffel family connections, and there was no way she would miss this chance.

The old man --well, not actually as old as he looked-- who stepped up onto the podium was Colonel Sir Erwin von Hammerstein. Even with his wrinkled cheeks neatly shaved and wearing a spiffy uniform, the Colonel still looked like a bandit plucked out of the mountains. He had ferocious, bulging eyes that could scare a recruit by mere glance, a big mouth whose toothy grin wavered between contagious and frightening, and coarse, darkly tanned skin that belonged on a farmhand more than any aristocrat. The man was neither tall nor strongly built, but his homely face alone was more than enough to leave an impression.

He was also a legend in the Weichsel military, especially among the lower ranks. Had anyone asked for the bravest and most daring commander, every soldier would point their fingers at him.

But his reputation wasn't all compliments.

Erwin von Hammerstein was known for his fearlessness, not only towards the enemy, but also to his own superiors. It was why despite his thoroughly impressive battle record over a century of service, the man was still a mere Colonel. To him, leading a charge came as easy as disobeying an order. If it weren't for the chestful of medals he had collected, his equivalent number of demerits would have sent him to a court martial long ago.

"Talk about a bunch of scrawny-ass dew-dripping sprouts..."

The lines across his brow easily tripled while his big mouth turned into a deep, downward curve.

"I'm sure you all know me. I am Colonel Erwin von Hammerstein, Hammerstein for short. People call me anything from the 'daredevil' to the 'pillory celebrity'. And chances are everything you've heard about me is true, except I don't have any extra heads or digits..."

A few cadets loosened up from his joke and chuckled. Two of them even snorted, one of them was a young man whom Ariadne had shared classes with back at Königsfeld Academy.

Ariadne could almost see little glittering stars in the young man's eyes. The intensity of his hero worship reminded her of Reynaud, whom she hadn't seen ever since she left Rhin-Lotharingie on the same day Pascal departed for the Oriflamme Palace.

"I'm here today on a simple matter," Colonel Hammerstein continued in his gruff voice. "The late Marshal, Father bless his soul, had assembled two new units of Phantoms earlier this year. Problem is, they're no knights, not even cadets... Yes son?"

A fresh graduate that Ariadne only knew by name lowered his upright hand and spoke out:

"By the laws of Weichsel, only the King may create a formation of Knights Phantom."

"Yes I've got your permission and paperwork right here, ye damn lawyer," the Colonel waved the stack in his hand before putting them back down. "And Holy Father forbid that you should listen. I said they ain't no knights. They're trained in the Phantom's ways, but not to your standards. Reason is a simple one: the last war showed that we could always use more Phantoms, yet we don't have enough nobles to go around. So these fresh greens are all yeoman instead..."

Some of the cadets started murmuring in discontent, and Ariadne scowled faintly as she recognized the signs. Like any other branch of the Weichsel military, there were officers of yeoman origin --commoners blessed by magic-- in the Knights Phantom. However they had to earn the lowest rank of nobility, a Knight's Cross at least, to be accepted for training in these elite units. As a result, many nobles claimed that the Knights Phantom was the 'last true bastion of noble blood' in Weichsel's military. It was therefore unsurprising that many resisted expansion to the lower classes.

"But our shortage in officers is even worse, hence why I'm here to ask for your support. We need platoon leaders, company commanders! And I need a sidekick! Any who accept will be given a full rank of promotion, to at least a Junior Lieutenant!"

"Sir!" Another fresh graduate spoke up, rather smugly too: "everyone here is at least an officer cadet. We're guaranteed Junior Lieutenants or higher upon the campaign's completion, which is also the lowest ranking for any proper Knight Phantom. Why should we devalue ourselves to a lesser unit?"

"...Especially one that probably won't see any action," a young lady chipped in. "Why would a unit in training be dispatched to the front?"

"All you vainglorious, ladder-climbing bastards can get out of my face," Colonel Hammerstein growled. "I want you worthless punks no more than cowards and deserters."

Who are you calling 'worthless'? Ariadne fumed with a scowl.

She cannot deny that her intentions were all about 'ladder-climbing'.

Many of the noble cadets paid just enough respect towards the authority of his rank of Colonel to wait out his last syllable before strutting away, insulted and angry. Knowing about the man's foul mouth was one thing; experiencing it was something else entirely. Only a handful of them stayed behind, alongside a number of yeomen who had been promoted from the ranks.

"And this is the so-called elitest of the elite, all fucking twelve of you," the Colonel scanned over them like a lion observing gazelles, then snorted as he came across Ariadne. "A blood-be-damned Manteuffel too. I'd thought you'd be first to clear out."

"My pride isn't so cheap to be insulted by meager and ungrounded provocation, Sir!"

Yet even Ariadne couldn't keep the anger out of her voice. The young lady took pride in her own steadfast persistence, but she did not possess the rhinoceros skin needed to deal with men like Hammerstein.

I came here for a purpose, and I am not leaving here without it!

Only a stubborn refusal to yield kept her from lashing back against the infamous Colonel.

"So why'd you stay? Why join up?"

"Any soldier could join a famous unit, Sir!" Ariadne stared back with unerring challenge. "It takes a true knight to forge one themselves. As green as these troopers may be, I highly doubt any unit assembled by the Marshal and drilled by yourself lacks potential!"

And then, it happened. The famous one-eighty, as Colonel Hammerstein's mouth went from downward half-circle frown to upward half-moon grin in an instant.

"Spoken like a true man!" He lauded, despite facing someone who was anything but male.

For a brief moment, Ariadne felt as though her facial muscles had been petrified. By the time her lips finally twitched in annoyance, the Colonel had already gone onto his next target:

"What about you, Hans Herbert? Think you're good 'nuff just because you earned the Knight's Cross in autumn for saving your commander from three berserkers? You were also knocked unconscious in the fight and survived by sheer luck! You should know that I demand better than that!"

The young man whom Ariadne recognized as they had been knighted at the same time looked taken aback. Hans was clearly surprised that the Colonel knew his name and background despite his humble, yeomen roots. It was apparent that whatever roughneck image Colonel Hammerstein might like to cultivate, the man also did his homework.

Nevertheless the lean and freckle-faced young man returned an eager salute: "Yes Sir! I know I still have a long road ahead of me, but I have the guts it takes to learn what I need! I look forward to your training so that I may perform better next time!"

Colonel Hammerstein settled for a toothy nod this time before moving on. He sneered and walked past three young men, before stabbing his finger into the chest of a female cadet after them:

"What about you, Elise? Think your scrawny little ass is enough to command air cavalry?"

Ariadne had never actually spoken to the petite girl back at the academy. The latter was a year her junior and easily the smallest of the Knight Phantom cadets. Short and fragile in appearance, Elise held a demure and thoughtful look that seemed the antithesis of a cavalry officer.

Yet despite the man's casual harassment, Elise's countenance never wavered as she saluted back. It was precisely the kind of attitude required for any woman --even one of noble birth-- who sought a career in the military.

"My butt is not required to command, Sir! I rank among the best riders in the academy! And my wish is to join and learn from one of the best unit commanders in Weichsel's history!"

"Flattery will get you nowhere. But accepted!"

Even though Colonel Hammerstein said that, his grin still stretched from ear to ear when Elise had offered her response.

"And you, Kayeten? Didn't you claim that you will become a Knight Phantom commander one day? You sure it's acceptable to settle for such an unprestigious unit?"

Kayeten was another cadet whom Ariadne knew: a braggart by nature whose defining features were his messy black hair and a prankster's gaze. He was the same boy who looked upon the Colonel with hero worship from earlier.

"Prestige be damned, Sir! There is no value to glory unless it is won by our own deeds!"

"Well said!" The Colonel boomed. "But remember that efficacy always comes before glory! Fail to achieve victory and all you have is foolhardiness!"

"Yes Sir!" Kayeten saluted in response.

Meanwhile, Colonel Hammerstein seemed satisfied for the moment and returned to the podium:

"I will speak to each and every one of you in due time. But for the moment, I want you to seek out your new commands and assess the men's character and readiness. Ariadne, you're promoted to Captain of the 1st Company and will act as my second. Elise, you will serve as Ariadne's lance lieutenant."

"Yes Sir!" Ariadne acknowledged along with Elise before her lips formed a faint smirk.

This was what she had come here for. Colonel Hammerstein might be an insolent man to serve under, but he was also a fair leader who valued competence above all. Ariadne was sure that between her top grades at the academy and the Knight's Cross she earned since, she would compare favorably against the others and receive her own command.

Her expectations were not disappointed.

"Hans, you will command the 2nd Company, with Kayeten as your lance lieutenant," the Colonel announced next. "Yes Lieutenant?"

"Why am I under him?" Kayeten said, clearly disgruntled at having to serve below a yeomen, who had risen from town militia instead of graduating from the academy. "He never even had formal officers' training."

"You will find that I value practical experience more than schooling. Hans has fought in over a dozen battles and has worked his way up from squad and platoon command. How much combat have you seen, sproutling?" Hammerstein challenged.

Those words shut Kayeten up at once, though not without much disgruntled fuming and stares shot at his new captain.

Aren't we just off to a peachy start? Ariadne thought before she met Elise's gaze and the two nodded. At least I can agree with my second.

"Hey look at that," the new Captain Hans spoke with an incredulous voice.

Tracing his gaze east, Ariadne quickly discovered what he had been staring at. It was impossible to miss the blue-white glow that enveloped the armored knights that marched up the bustling main street, especially as throngs of residents gathered along the road to watch. The perfect chevron formation was led by an armored princess whose bright-blue hair was billowing with lit embers. She was flanked on each side by six armigers who followed in her wake, while a young man and his white-haired familiar walked behind them.

Needless to say, everyone within sight soon had their gazes fixed on the newcomers. Even the seasoned Colonel Hammerstein couldn't take his eyes off the Lotharin visitors:

"Is that... Crown Princess of the Empire?"

He had stepped close to his new second-in-command, clearly in recognition of her previous role as a post-grad 'exchange student' in Alisia Academy.

"The one and only Cerulean Princess," Ariadne answered.

Uncle Neithardt, King Leopold, General Wiktor, Princess Sylviane, and even Pascal... why would all these key figures congregate here? The young lady thought. Unless...

Ariadne smiled to herself as she realized what it meant. The spotlight of history had clearly lit its focus upon Nordkreuz. Something was coming, something important enough to leave its mark in the history books as a turning-point in the fate of nation-states.

And Ariadne knew she must prepare herself for the opportunities that lay waiting ahead.


------ * * * ------


Kaede stared in amazement at the cylindrical keep which served as the Moltewitz family residence. It made for a nice distraction after what she had just gone through.

The guards from the city's gates had escorted Sylviane's group all the way here before departing. They had to walk across the whole city, from the southwestern end to the northeast where the lord's residence was located. This proved no easy task as Nordkreuz was a trade city. Its avenues were bustling with merchants peddling their wares, and today the crowds were especially large as many came out to celebrate New Year.

The garrison had to send several squads ahead of Sylviane's armigers just to clear a path for the Princess as she formally made her way to the Landgrave's estate. And despite their best efforts, the city's guards could not stop many bystanders from shooting pyrotechnic spells into the air and turning the Princess' arrival into an impromptu parade.

Needless to say, the trip had not been a calming experience for Kaede. Sure, she wasn't the one most people stared at, as the presence of both the Princess and the Landgrave were more than enough to seize the bystanders' attention. Nevertheless, walking down the central boulevard of a city with thousands of eyes pointed in her direction was the opposite of comforting for her. By the time she reached the city's northern walls, Kaede desperately needed a quiet break from the stress overload.

Still, we made it, Kaede thought as she breathed out another sigh of relief. She focused her eyes once more on the four-story stone keep and its idyllic surroundings.

The home that Pascal grew up in actually laid outside the city walls. It was built on top of a motte raised from a lakeside island, which could only be reached by bridge. The construction was quite militaristic for a Landgrave's dwelling, as windows were only present on the upper floors while the lower floors had arrow slits instead. However, it did offer peace and quiet from the busy urban quarters, as well as an excellent scenic view of the lake.

It was also Kaede's official place of residence as a member of the Landgrave's household, even if a stone keep felt as displaced from 'home' as it got.

After making it across the bridge, the group arrived in a small courtyard before the keep. There, they found a sizable welcoming party waiting for the Princess. It included one king, two generals, at least ten servants including six maids and a majordomo, and more than two dozen guards and officers of various affiliations.

Most of the lower ranking soldiers wore Weichsel's crimson-on-black officer uniforms or its black half-plate armor. However, six of them wore pitch-black uniforms with thin, midnight-blue markings, which identified them as members of the King's Black Eagles.

"Welcome to Nordkreuz, Your Highness, Your Grace."

The man who approached Pascal first was in the prime of his adult life. He had a figure of modest build and mediocre height, but his facial features were handsomely proportioned with a sense of lingering boyishness. His lightly-curled hair was coffee-black, trimmed in a long men's cut that just obscured the ears. Meanwhile his clear brown eyes and clean-shaven cheeks offered a natural, approachable smile.

What surprised Kaede the most was that he wore an exact copy of the regular crimson-on-black officer uniform of Weichsel, including the two-starred insignias of a lieutenant general. Apart from the midnight-blue cross that hung from his collar instead of the usual black Knight's Cross, there wasn't a single extra decoration to hint at his social standing.

Nevertheless, the man's status was made abundantly clear when Pascal approached him and bowed deeply with a knightly salute.

"Your Majesty."

The King however made no attempt to maintain proper protocols of rank. He walked straight up to Pascal and clapped the young man's shoulders as though consoling a relative.

"Pascal. I'm sorry about the loss of your father. He was a dear friend and shall be missed."

They were sincere condolences given with sorrowful eyes, and Pascal nodded back with genuine appreciation in his melancholic voice:

"Thank you, Your Majesty."

"Your Majesty," Sylviane spoke next. The Princess had cancelled her Oriflamme transformation and was back to her usual self. She gave a slight bow with her head which was accompanied by a light curtsy.

It was just enough to show respect and courtesy without seeming deferential. After all, she was not merely an ambassador but also the crown heir of her country.

"Your Highness," King Leopold beamed a charming smile as he took the Princess' gloved hand before bowing to kiss it softly. "It has been almost a decade since I've last seen you. Your father must be proud as you have grown into a remarkable young lady."

"It is good to see you in excellent health as well, Your Majesty," Sylviane smiled back. "My father the Emperor sends his warmest regards. He understands that Weichsel's expedition to aid our struggle against the Caliphate has been delayed. Nevertheless, he thought it would be best to send me to assist in your conflict against the Northmen, to clear the threat to our alliance's rear so that Weichsel's forces may march south as early as possible."

A knowing smile spread across King Leopold's lips as though he had already expected this.

"Your help is most appreciated, Your Highness." The King paid his gratitude first before asking: "But does the Empire not have a non-aggression pact with the Grand Jarldom of Skagen, brokered by King Alistair between his former employers and Emperor Geoffroi?"

"Yes." Sylviane replied firmly. "Our treaty dictates that we shall not violate each others' borders. However, it does not forfeit the Empire's right to come to the defense of our allies within their own realm. If the Jarls of Skagen invades Weichsel in cold aggression, then I am obligated by the honor of Rhin-Lotharingie to help."

That may be the legal interpretation, Kaede thought. But in spirit, Rhin-Lotharingie would be tearing up a treaty that would leave their northern flank exposed while their south is embroiled in war.

It was a bold gamble made to secure an ally, one which hinted at both the Emperor's desperation and his respect for Weichsel's military prowess.

Even King Leopold looked a bit surprised as his eyebrows slightly rose.

"I am truly, deeply grateful for the integrity of our allies." Leopold nodded sincerely as he spoke. "The Northmen are already assembling their forces for a winter invasion -- the snows began early this year which gives their forces the greatest advantage. I doubt it will be long now before we see a decisive battle. My armies could certainly use the strength and inspiration of an Oriflamme in the lead."

"That is what we are here for," the Princess exchanged smirks with the King, as both of them recognized each other's game.

...Which didn't mean they couldn't both benefit from it.

In many ways, this was the truest form of alliance-building. There was no altruism, no charity. Both sides joined because they wanted to make use of the other, and this created a shared, common interest where they could both benefit.

"Let's discuss this in more detail inside," the King added. "In the meantime, may I introduce Your Highness to my top commanders -- General of Cavalry Neithard von Manteuffel and Chief-of-Staff General Wiktor von Falkenhausen."

"Your Grace," Sylviane's expression was a careful smile as she stepped up with an outstretched hand.

"Your Highness."

The first to shake hands was General Manteuffel. He offered a brief nod of courtesy but his expression was otherwise emotionless. Even his words came in an almost monotone. It was as though meeting royalty had already become boring for him.

Talk about the expressiveness of a rock, Kaede couldn't help think.

Neithard Mittermeyer von Manteuffel was the Duke of Polarstern, commander of Weichsel's cavalry, and leader of both the conservative faction and the powerful Manteuffel clan. At one-hundred-twenty-nine years old, he was a moderately-built senior who appeared to be in his fifties. His graying hair was thin and flat. His mustache lay neatly trimmed from the nose to lip corners, which combined with aged winkle lines and sharp blue eyes for a tall, elderly gentleman look.

The most surprising aspect however was that he wore the black-on-burning-red uniform of a Knight Phantom. It signified that --despite his age-- he was a man who never gave up his membership in the elite air cavalry and, to this day, still led from the front.

The other general however could not have acted more differently. He took the Princess' hand and, with a flourish of his own, knelt slightly with a deep bow to plant a gentle kiss.

"Your Highness," he spoke with a beaming, infectious smile. "I am charmed to see what a beautiful and intelligent young lady you've grown up to be."

Kaede could at once see the resemblance as the handsome and surprisingly young man stood back up. His glossy black hair and the scarlet crosses in his intense, deep-red eyes were the exact shade as Cecylia's. The dhampir girl certainly hadn’t been kidding when she said her father was a 'stud beefcake'.

Standing tall even among able-bodied military men, Wiktor von Falkenhausen had a broad chest and a firm waist. His musculature shone through the standard black-and-red uniform he wore. His stunning good looks were perfect enough for a modern action movie star, even with the heavy-stubble beard and mustache that covered his jaws. However, the most amazing part was that he appeared not a year older than twenty-five, despite his seniority in the group as he was actually a hundred fifty eight years of age.

It was as though the gods had crafted a specimen of male physical perfection, and he now stood before them just short of posing in a herculean stance.

Even for Kaede, the thought of what laid beneath that tight-chested uniform passed through her mind for a brief second. The attraction seemed undeniable for anyone who had even the slightest sense of aesthetics, let alone female hormones...

No, just NO.

Her recognition rebounded in horror at what she had just thought. Even assuming she had sorted out her gender issues, Wiktor was still older enough to be her grandfather, not to mention the parent to one of her friends.

Kaede proceeded to kill her mental imagery with fire.

In the meantime, Sylviane couldn't help but cover her mouth and giggle like a teased schoolgirl.

"General--"

"Uncle," Wiktor corrected her with a playful grin. Even his voice was smooth as velvet.

"Uncle Wiktor," Sylviane giggled again. "You certainly haven't changed one bit. Keep that up and your wife will pull you home by your ear again."

"I am simply welcoming a gorgeous young princess with all due courtesy," Wiktor announced with a completely shameless smile. "Especially after the rather stone-faced gesture by my colleague."

It made Kaede wonder if the general exaggerated on purpose, just to make sure the Princess who obsessed over etiquette didn't feel unwelcome. There was no doubt that he helped Sylviane loosen up from the stiffly professional persona she adopted to meet the King. Meanwhile General Manteuffel was completely unfazed by the rebuff as the latter kept up a perfect poker face.

King Leopold then chuckled:

"As much as I enjoy your antics, Wiktor, we're pushing the line of hospitality with how long we're making guests stand in the courtyard. Pascal? If you would -- it is your home after all."

"Of course," Pascal nodded with an amused smile. His familiarity with General Wiktor showed as he was never bothered in even the slightest by the courtship behavior of his father's chief-of-staff. "Everyone, please follow me to the war room. We will continue our discussion there."



Chapter 11 - Realigning Interests[edit]

It was a strange feeling for Pascal, to lead the King and company through the halls of the Moltewitz residence.

It was an even stranger feeling, to know that he was now the master of this estate.

Sure, Pascal had spent much of his childhood alone in these halls. His father was the Marshal of Weichsel, and the late Landgrave spent most of the year at the capital and rarely home with the young Pascal. Nevertheless, every time he found himself addressed as the 'young master' by the servants, he was reminded that the true master of these halls, his father, would return.

It might have been next week, or at the end of the month, or perhaps over the coming holidays, but there was no doubt that it would eventually come to pass.

Until then, Pascal eagerly awaited the weekly chats he had with his father by Farspeak communication spell. It was the pivotal reason why his younger self dove headlong into the study of magic. He wanted to learn advanced spellcasting as quickly as possible, so that he could converse with his distant father directly rather than rely on an intermediary like the Majordomo.

But now... Pascal thought in solemn silence as he walked up the central staircase to the second floor.

On top of the staircase was a life-sized painting of the Moltewitz family. Pascal's father, who had yet to become the 1st Landgrave of Nordkreuz, stood tall and stern in his crimson-on-black military uniform while carrying his marshal's baton. Beside him sat a beautiful, golden-haired woman that Pascal could not remember, yet knew in his heart as his kind and gentle mother.

Between the two was a three-year-old toddler, the child's tiny hand clutching his mother's thin fingers even as he stood on his own. However while young Pascal stayed on his mother's right side, it was the left hand that he grabbed -- an awkward arrangement which forced his mother to turn slightly towards him and away from the viewer.

Pascal couldn't help feel moisture in his eyes as he thought of the scene that never happened. By the time his father had the painting commissioned, his mother had already died, and the work had to be managed using her old portraits. The artist had done a remarkable job, even using a creative pose to hide his mother's deformity. She was a retired cavalry-woman who had lost her right arm in battle against the Northmen 'adventurers' who raided Weichsel's coasts. But even that didn't stop her from taking the field one last time in command of her hometown's militia, fighting off a seaborn raid and receiving wounds that claimed her life.

--And now, seventeen years later, Pascal's father had followed her to heaven, leaving the grown-up toddler all by his lonesome.

Mother, Father, I'm home... Pascal whispered to himself as he bit down on his lower lip and forced himself to not tremble and not cry.

He was a soldier of Weichsel, just as his father was, just as his mother had been. He had a duty to his King, to the alliance, that he must see through. That was his first priority, not to sob like some abandoned child and disgrace the parents that raised him.

Pascal raised his arm and pretended to scratch his temple. His fingers brushed the corner of his eyes and wiped away the lone tear building there. He then forced himself to turn away from the painting, to lead his guests towards the map room that his father once used.

The doors were already open and the furniture inside showed signs of recent use. It was only natural, for the King had made this place his command post in Pascal's absence. Nevertheless, as the newly returned master of the estate, Pascal stopped just inside the door before welcoming his guests.

"Your Majesty."

"There's really no need for such formality, Pascal," King Leopold said kindly, his gaze softening with sympathy as though he read Pascal's mind. "Please, take a look at the map and update yourself on the situation at present. The Eagles had it enchanted to match the war room's map table back at Black Dragon Castle while I'm staying here."

"Yes Sire," Pascal nodded before he moved to the long table that dominated the room.

Just like Emperor Geoffroi's war room table in the Oriflamme Palace, Pascal's father's --no, it was his map table now-- was enchanted to combine sculpted sand and projected illusions to create a three dimensional map. Currently, the table displayed the entire length of Weichsel as it stretched across the North Sea's southern coast. The scale was zoomed out far enough to show all of Weichsel's immediate neighbors: the Holy Imperium's border provinces loomed in the south, the Lotharin Estuary connected Cross Lake to the sea in the west. The east was dominated by the void of the Dead Mountains, leaving a narrow but important coastal trading corridor to the Grand Republic of Samara.

In addition to landscape, borders, and settlements, the illusory map also displayed every sizable military force within two-hundred kilopaces of Weichsel's borders. Fourteen of the miniature infantry and cavalry figures carried the Black Dragon banner of Weichsel, either already assembled at Nordkreuz or marching westwards towards the city. Ten more held towering shields and purple standards -- the Holy Imperium's Legions which stood menacingly along the border. To the east was a single army of the Grand Republic, represented by an armored Samaran battlewagon instead of a soldier. Meanwhile troops of Rhin-Lotharingie's Belges region mobilized for war in the west, leaving the castles that guarded their borders with Weichsel seemingly abandoned as they'd been stripped down to skeleton garrisons too small to be represented.

However, the new threat which drew Pascal's attention came from the northwest: soldiers carrying the green kraken flag moved towards one another on skis. Their numbers pooled together in the only continental territories still controlled by the Northmen. Meanwhile, two cavalry figures bearing the black dragon flag of Weichsel were already deep in Skagen territory.

The Grand Jarldom of Skagen was assembling its army for war, and Weichsel had clearly responded with a preemptive strike.

So this is what 'perfect intelligence' looks like, Pascal thought as he saw this view for the first time.

His map table had been synchronized to the King's war room back in Königsfeld's Black Dragon Castle. This meant the information it displayed came directly from the artifact known as the 'Eye of the Dragon'. The ancient relic of draconic origin --its history tracing back all the way to the Dragon-Demon Wars-- was one of Weichsel's greatest assets. Its magical senses reached out from every synchronized outpost beacon to detect armed forces within range. It even labelled the model soldiers with numbers, accurate down to half a thousand. And as a result of this intelligence, it was virtually impossible for any military force larger than a battalion to mount a sneak attack on Weichsel's forces near its home territories.

The young Landgrave was still reformulating his strategic analysis when King Leopold turned to him:

"As you can see Pascal, we've already locked horns with the barbarians outside your fief."

"Did we start hostilities first or did they?" Pascal asked.

"They did, by raiding two of our border villages," the King replied. "It wasn't an isolated incident either, as the southern jarldoms of Skagen began mobilization at the same time. The Eagles told me the Jarls are calling for reconquest. They believe that 'fate' has given them the opportunity to retake ancient lands they lost to the Imperium centuries ago."

Pascal knew that in addition to serving as agents of the King, the Black Eagles also functioned as Weichsel's royal guard and its military intelligence apparatus. They were trained to gather information and forge contacts wherever their duties may take them, creating networks of spies and informants that the army relied upon for both intel and counter-espionage. Furthermore, since the Eagles answered to the King alone, it created a system where the generals could be rendered blind and dumb with a single royal edict -- thus reducing any chance of successful military coups.

It was an effective system that Pascal hoped Rhin-Lotharingie could one day replicate.

"The timing of their mobilization also didn't fit a defensive response," the handsome General Wiktor spoke next, "If they were simply wary of our mobilization, they should have started gathering troops two weeks ago -- when Weichsel first began to mobilize in response to the Caliphate's invasion of Rhin-Lotharingie. Even in Weichsel, a frontier lord has the authority to mobilize local forces for a defensive response, let alone a decentralized feudal state like Skagen. Yet despite this, the movements by the Northmen only began the day after the Marshal's death. That's too long of a wait for 'defensive' measures."

The King nodded in agreement before turning towards his stone-faced general of cavalry. "Neithard believes that the loss of our renowned Marshal has emboldened them. And I daresay I agree. The Northmen know that our Lotharin allies are now preoccupied in the south and are demanding the reinforcements that we promised. Meanwhile, the Imperium will only act against us as they're still bitter over our annexation of Nordkreuz during their civil war. With the first snow arriving early this year to pave a road for the Northmen army, I do believe Skagen is trying to take advantage of our woes."

"But is that timing not too perfect?" Pascal's brows furrowed. "The very day after my father was assassinated..."

"That is also my main concern," General Neithard pitched in. "Skagen is no monarchy. It is ruled collectively by a group of petty Jarls. The Abyss will freeze over before they can make their decision in a single day. After everything that has happened in the past few weeks in rapid, seemingly planned, succession, I fear we are merely seeing another step to an unfolding Imperial plot."

However, despite his words, the elderly Manteuffel's monotone remained unchanged while his emotionless mask stayed undisturbed. It made Pascal retort in silence:

I doubt you have ever feared for anything in your life.

Nevertheless, Pascal couldn't help but nod in response. He knew perfectly well who was at fault for his father's death, and the map's display reminded him with how the Legions of the Holy Imperium were deployed. Normally, the Imperium's 'defense-in-depth' doctrine would hold its field armies deep within its territories to retain mobility and strategic responsiveness, while the border was guarded by only small garrisons. Yet currently, the entire northern field army of the Holy Imperium was pressed up right against Weichsel's southern border and Rhin-Lotharingie's southeast. This was a clear show of force, meant to intimidate both sides to stay in a defensive posture instead of sending troops west to meet the Caliphate's invasion.

In the worst case scenario, if Skagen attacked from the north while the Imperium struck from the south, Weichsel would find itself sandwiched in a two-front war -- a catastrophic situation that no general would wish to face.

The young landgrave then turned to meet his King's clear brown gaze:

"May I presume that your Majesty has seen the details of my report regarding the assassination attempt on me?"

"Of course," King Leopold's countenance was grim. "Both Wiktor and Neithard have seen it too. Although I hope you understand why I can neither publicly confirm the assassin's identities nor accuse the Imperials. There's no doubt that the two assassination cases are connected, yet we can only say that the Marshal was killed by mercenaries of 'unknown origin'."

Pascal's fists tightened as he heard the response that was entirely too censored by political motivations.

It wasn't just. It wasn't even fair. But while nobility respected honor and despised cowardly acts such as assassination, ethics only served politics when it met the interests of state. This was something that Pascal learned from an early age. Yet the desire for justice that now simmered inside him could not be reasoned with.

First my mother by the Northmen. Then my father by the Imperials. And now I find them working together...

Pascal could almost hear his knuckles groan as his fist grounded into itself. It felt almost as though an primal rage was building inside him, a cry for vengeance spurred on by the memories of the deceased. He wanted the power to lash out against those who took his parents away from him -- to make them bleed, to make them suffer.

--Yet at the same time, Pascal knew that escalation with the Imperium was the last thing Weichsel could afford right now.

In memory of his father, the now orphaned son took a deep breath to bury his darker emotions. The Imperium would pay dearly for their sins, but now was not the time.

"I understand, Your Majesty," Pascal replied in a stiff tone. "At the moment we cannot afford to escalate tensions with the Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea. Nor would we benefit from revealing Imperator Skantarios' acts of treachery, as this would level an accusation upon both Pope Vigilius and the Imperator that they are jointly plotting with heathens against fellow Trinitian states. Such accusations are likely to backfire -- not only in angering the Pope but further pushing the Church into the Imperator's influence. Meanwhile, the morale of our armies would plummet if we openly antagonize both the Caliphate and the Imperium, the two major powers in western Hyperion, at the same time."

King Leopold flashed a brief grin, a wry yet proud smirk, towards his foremost cavalry general:

"I told you he was good."

"As the rumors claim, Sire," General Neithard spoke as he upheld his mask of neutrality.

"Thank you, Your Majesty," Pascal brushed it aside with a reluctant smile.

In reality, he might not have deduced the political ramifications at all without Sylviane's aid in their many discussions. His political insight was nowhere as keen as his fiancée's, even without personal emotions affecting his judgment.

"The upside of this, however, is that the Imperium should also pose no threat to us in the short term," Pascal then added. "Therefore, we can focus on our efforts in eliminating the northern threat, before turning our armies westwards to aid our Lotharin allies."

The King's eyebrows shot up. "How are you sure of that?"

"Because all of recent events point towards one thing." Pascal began to explain, echoing the arguments that Sylviane once used to break down the situation to him. "The removal of my late father, who had been a champion of the Weichsel-Lotharin alliance for the past decade. The assassination attempt on me, who has been entrusted with solidifying the bonds between our people as the future Weichsen Crown Prince Consort of Rhin-Lotharingie. The excommunication of Emperor Geoffroi, which seeks to dispel our sense of duty in aiding our fellow Trinitians in their holy struggle. The incitement of the Northmen to open a new war front, which serves to distract us with a new threat..."

There was one more factor that Sylviane had hypothesized, and that was the possible backing of General Manteuffel as the next Marshal of Weichsel. Since the general was a proponent of the more traditional, 'Papal Appeasement' foreign policy, the Imperium would no doubt prefer him to be in charge of Weichsel's armies.

However, Sylviane had told Pascal early on to never speak of this before another Weichsen. This was not merely speculation, it could also be misunderstood by King Leopold as foreign meddling in his internal affairs -- something no sovereign nation or legitimate ruler would approve of.

"Every one of these actions contribute to one notable goal." Pascal continued as he raised a finger to emphasize. "And that is to dissuade us from fulfilling our obligations as allies and aiding the Lotharins in their holy cause."

"But why do you believe this implies the Imperium poses no threat to us?" The elderly Manteuffel challenged.

"Because the Imperator's aims are clear," Pascal declared. "He seeks to sever the Weichsel-Lotharin alliance, while using the Caliphate as a battering ram to weaken the Rhin-Lotharingie Empire. Then, once both the Caliphate and the Empire are on its knees from exhaustion, the Imperium will sweep in to claim the spoils. However, doing so would require Imperator Skantarios to keep his armies fresh and his war chest full until the window of opportunity arrives."

Slowly, the King nodded his head in response, all while his lips gradually stretched into a broad grin.

"I knew you were insightful, Pascal. But I didn't think you had progressed to the level of statecraft professionals," He spoke with a genuinely impressed tone.

I can't really take credit though...

For a mere moment, Pascal couldn't keep the sheepish look out of his expression. Unbeknownst to him, those mere seconds was all that King Leopold needed to confirm his suspicions, as he glanced towards the Princess who kept up the careful facade of a thoughtful listener this whole time.

"Imperator Skantarios seeks to reclaim the lands lost by the Imperium during the War of Imperial Succession, and perhaps even more than that." King Leopold added. "He made a promise to the great patrician houses of Arcadia that he would reverse the Inner Sea's decline and revitalize its economy. For this he needs new markets, new resources, and perhaps even new slaves. It's clear now that he plans to begin with Rhin-Lotharingie."

"And he may not end there," the Princess spoke at last, finally putting away the pretense that she had been in deep thought. Pascal knew this, as the two of them had agreed on the road here that he would present the bulk of the argument. After all, he was a Weichsen and not a Lotharin. This might not matter much to the rational reasoning of politically astute minds, but human emotions always favored those whom we considered 'one of us' over outsiders.

"The scale of the Caliphate's invasion may have taken Rhin-Lotharingie by surprise, but the Empire still has deep reserves of strength to call upon," Sylviane declared with confidence. "However, while I have no doubt that Rhin-Lotharingie can fight the Caliphate to a standstill, it would likely result in the total exhaustion of both sides. At that point, the Holy Imperium would easily be able to march in and cripple the Empire."

Her voice then took on an increasingly bleak tone as she warned: "Rhin-Lotharingie would not be able to recover from such a devastating war for at least a half century. In the worse case scenario, the Empire may even fracture under the strain. The power shift this creates would make the Holy Imperium the undisputed hegemon of Western Hyperion once more. After that, there is nothing that can stop the Imperium from invading Weichsel, to retake the lands they lost during their civil war while turning the remainder of your kingdom into a vassal state."

Just like before, Pascal thought bitterly.

After all, the Kingdom of Weichsel's predecessor state, the Kingdom of Amudaria, was an Imperial vassal state. The Imperium had created it by settling Weichsel's nomadic ancestors along the North Sea coast. For centuries the Amudarians shielded the Imperium from Northmen raids, only to be abandoned during its hour of greatest crisis when the Northmen's 'Great Heathen Army' rampaged through its lands.

It was then when King Leopold's ancestor, the founding king Ferdinand I von Drachenlanzen, created the Writ of Universal Conscription, binding nobles and commoners alike in collective defense of the realm.

The victory against the Great Heathen Army at the Battle of Königsfeld did not just create a new kingdom. It created a new identity for Weichsens. And part of this identity was the pride of independence, along with memories of how the Imperium threw their ancestors aside like sacrificial pawns.

...And as a member of the Drachenlanzen dynasty, it was King Leopold's duty to see that this would never again happen.

"I understand, which is why I did not hesitate before invoking the Writ of Universal Conscription after hearing of the Caliphate's invasion," the King stated. "If Imperator Skantarios would put forth such effort to rend the Weichsel-Lotharin alliance, then it only goes to show that this is a legitimate threat to his hegemonic dream."

Had the King been convinced of this all along? Or had they indeed persuaded Leopold to reaffirm his dedication to the alliance? Pascal wasn't sure. But he had the feeling that so far, none of their arguments were exactly 'new' to the King.

His Majesty truly is a King worthy of the Black Dragon's legacy. Pascal couldn't help smirk as he felt pride as a Weichsen.

"Nevertheless, the situation with Skagen has changed the overall strategic disposition," King Leopold declared. "Weichsel must deal with the northern threat first before it can look west to the Caliphate's threat." His expression then softened as he smiled towards Sylviane. "Of course, Emperor Geoffroi already understands this, otherwise he would not have sent you."

"Yes, Your Majesty," Sylviane nodded. "Father believes that Nordkreuz will no doubt see a decisive battle in the days to come, and that I should help our allies ensure a crushing victory."

"The Emperor always did have a knack for understanding others' needs," King Leopold grinned. "Pascal, what do you think?"

Pascal's focus had redirected itself to the map table and the displayed troop dispositions before he answered:

"I think the north has presented us with an opportunity, one that Your Majesty was right to seize."

In that moment, as all eyes were drawn to the young landgrave, nobody in the room noticed that General Neithard smiled. It was a slight, upward twitch of his lips that was barely noticeable. But it was nevertheless the first emotion that the general revealed.

"Weichsel began its mobilization a week earlier, and a significant portion of its cavalry had already been assembled at Nordkreuz," Pascal pointed out on the map. "Meanwhile Skagen has not only started late, but only half their forces were situated on the continent. By striking first and striking hard, we could smash many of their units before they could even be marshalled together into a single force. With Västergötland still reeling from a decisive defeat in the fall, Skagen alone will no longer hold the military strength for a successful invasion."

The fact that snow already covered the peninsula was but a minor nuisance to Weichsel's cavalry. Thanks to the Writ of Universal Conscription, one in every four cavalrymen was either a yeomen or a noble. This abundance of spellcasting gave them an overwhelming advantage in arcane support, with utility spells ranging from Climatize which kept the soldiers warm and prevented armor from locking up, to Snowskimmer spells that allowed horseshoes to gallop atop snow as though firm ground. Periodic recasting of these effects for hours would prove a constant drain upon their mana supply, but Weichsel's army could afford this cost as long as they limited their combat spells.

"Very good, Pascal," Leopold nodded with an open grin. "Though I cannot take the credit for this one. Neithard was the one who first thought of it, and therefore it is only appropriate that I allowed him to command the campaign."

No wonder his protégés have been elevated to the best command positions, like the Nordkreuz garrison, Pascal realized at once. He glanced at the elderly Manteuffel, but received only an eagle-eyed, stone-faced stare in return.

"Neithard has made effective use of our most mobile elements," the King continued. "With four companies of the Knights Phantom and nine battalions of cavalry, he struck deep into the Skagen Peninsula and inflicted significant casualties on the Northmen's still-mobilizing forces." Leopold then looked to one of the officers. "Hans, would you please repeat the report you gave us this morning?"

"Yes, Your Majesty." The lieutenant-colonel replied before retrieving a parchment scroll from his belt pouch and pulling it open.

Pascal immediately recognized the officer as Hans Ostergalen. He was a middle-aged commoner of moderate stature and, despite his large and balding forehead, had a well-groomed yet unassuming appearance. He was also General Neithard's intelligence officer, though he had clearly been promoted as he was a major during the autumn campaign against the Västergötlanders.

"Over the past week, we have intercepted six columns of Skagen forces above battalion size, thirty-three smaller detachments, and razed nineteen outposts and blockhouses. In addition, we have mounted a successful night raid on Skagen's main army encampment at Kappel. In total, we have inflicted between ten to thirteen thousand losses upon the Grand Jarldom of Skagen, including those who surrendered. This accounts for over half of the enemy's total mobilized forces in the Skagen Peninsula."

Pascal wasn't even surprised that the general managed to achieve such spectacular results with just five thousand men. As much as he might dislike Neithard von Manteuffel due to political differences, there was no doubt that the man was an excellent cavalry commander.

...He also couldn't help but feel a sense of bloody satisfaction, along with a regret that he wasn't able to personally contribute to the inflicted casualties.

The young landgrave's suggestion for the King to strike north was one made based on military opportunity. However there was also another motivation that was far more personal than he'd like to admit. This was a chance to crush the Imperium's machinations in the north. It may not be as gratifying as destroying an Imperial Legion, but it still helped to appease the desire for vengeance that still burned within him.

"Our own casualties thus far amount to roughly twenty percent." Hans continued. "This includes 364 dead and 57 other irrecoverable injuries. The exchange has been overwhelming in our favor. Though it is important to recognize that all of our losses are cavalry, instead of infantry that's easier to replenish."

Pascal frowned. This was the problem with an all-cavalry operation: there was no infantry available to act as the anvil and absorb the bulk of the losses.

After all, a country's resilience in war was one of raw numbers. Infantry were not only cheap and easy to train, but were primarily filled with commoners who often began having offspring in their late teens. Meanwhile, proper cavalrymen took years to master their riding skill, not to mention the higher ratio of mages -- whose long lifespans meant they mostly didn't raise children until their 40s and 50s.

The young landgrave also couldn't help but think of his one-armed mother.

Irrecoverable injuries... what a euphemism for 'crippled for life'.

Modern healing magic went a long way to ensure that most casualties were merely temporary injuries. However permanent injuries --usually the loss of extremities to mages-- were still a problem. Regeneration spells were a godsend for commoners as they could patch up even the worst of injuries. However, their high complexity made it difficult if not impossible to overcome the innate mana resistance of other spellcasters. As a result, any severed appendages for a mage that was not quickly recovered and reconnected by a healer risked permanent maiming.

It was just another reason why every Hyperion army tried to fill the ranks with commoners to serve as fodder for the more valuable yeomen and nobles.

"Unfortunately, we were unable to seize the port of Nordkapp in time, where Skagen forces from the Scania Isles have begun to land," Hans added. "The Eagles estimate that around 20,000 troops will disembark by the end of this week. They will join the 10,000 foes still present on the Peninsula and --assuming they have not changed their plans-- march on Nordkreuz." He finished with a salute towards the King.

"Thank you, Hans." Leopold nodded with a smile.

"Thirty thousand troops will not be enough to take Nordkreuz," Pascal thought aloud. "There will be over fifty thousand Weichsel soldiers here by the time they arrive."

"Yes, which is why I've reached out to Skagen to offer a cession of hostilities," the King replied. "Unfortunately, we have thus far received no response. Clearly the Northmen still believe that they can somehow win this war."

"They likely still hold cards that they have yet to play," General Wiktor cautioned.

"Indeed," General Neithard agreed. "Skagen is no longer merely a peninsular and island nation. Their campaigns in the New World have established colonies that we know far too little about. We do not know what kind of reinforcements they may be able to summon from their newly acquired lands. Thirty years ago, the Skagen navy proved its might by completely destroying the Caliphate's 'New World Expedition' fleet. Worse yet, we still do not exactly know how they did it."

The general's words sent a chill down Pascal's spine. To date, nobody truly knew how one of the largest armadas ever assembled had been destroyed without a trace. Not a single individual from the Caliphate's 'New World Expedition' ever returned to tell the tale. The only reason they knew it was Skagen's doing and not an 'act of god' was due to the frantic Farspeak messages sent back by the ships' officers -- when the fleet had encountered Skagen drake riders in the midst of a 'magical storm'.

"You're correct. That is a concern," the King nodded apprehensively before he chuckled to himself. "Though we may at least rest easy in the fact that ships cannot grow legs to walk on land, at least not in significant enough numbers to alter the force balance."


...


An hour later, after the meeting finished and everyone was taking a break before dinner, King Leopold called Pascal into a small sitting room for a more private conversation. Two members of the Black Eagles first scanned the room for any scrying devices, then warded it before stepping outside. As they closed the door behind them, the King sat down on a cushioned chair while gesturing for Pascal to do the same.

"Pascal, you know, in some aspects, you really are your father's son, and I'm glad for that." The King spoke with a warm smile almost as soon as he sat down.

"Your Majesty?" The young lord wasn't sure how to interpret that.

"Karl was never good at lying, which was part of why I trusted him," Leopold grinned with a slight smirk. "He rarely had ulterior motives and almost entirely devoted himself to the country. It also helped that his... your family was small, simple, and without a complex web of relations to tie you down with special interests." The King then sighed. "I wish I could say the same about Neithard, but the Manteuffels' propensity for intrigue and scheming is too deeply bred into him."

What exactly is the King trying to tell me? Pascal thought before he tentatively asked: "Is Your Majesty... having second thoughts about placing him in command?"

"See, that straightforwardness is what I mean." Leopold chuckled before leaning back in his chair. "What is your opinion on Neithard, Pascal?"

"I think he's a brilliant general whom I hope I can surpass one day," Pascal stated without hesitation. "However, I'm also not happy that he put one of his men in charge of the Nordkreuz garrison. It feels like he's taking advantage of his position to reshuffle the army's factional balance."

"That is exactly what he is doing." Leopold scowled. "Learn from his military acumen, by all means. But do yourself a favor and do not take after his political ambitions." The King's stern words came with a tone of warning. "The claim that career military officers should remain apolitical is of course, complete bogus. But there is a line to be drawn between being politically astute versus being a nest of intrigue."

"Yes, Your Majesty." Pascal nodded as he committed those words to memory.

The King's clear brown eyes then locked onto the young man's gaze with royal intent.

"Pascal, you and Sylviane were betrothed since childhood, and for much of your life you were expected to become the Crown Prince Consort of Rhin-Lotharingie. So it does not surprise me that the two of you are joined at the hips in many political views."

Does the King know then? Pascal thought about how he had essentially acted as Sylviane's 'vanguard' during the meeting, presenting her assessments and arguments to the King and his generals.

"From the perspective of the Weichsel-Lotharin alliance, there is nothing you said that I would disagree with in the slightest." Leopold then continued, which made Pascal feel a bit more at ease. "However, what I want to know is -- where would you stand if this alliance was no longer useful to Weichsel?"

"Your Majesty--" Pascal's tone was immediately one of retort, which made King Leopold cut him off with a raised hand:

"I'm not saying the alliance isn't beneficial to Weichsel today, or next year, or even a decade from now. But you should know the saying well, Pascal -- that there are no permanent enemies, and there are no permanent allies. There are only permanent interests. And you, Pascal, have a long life ahead of you."

This is definitely a test, Pascal thought to himself. Do I tell the King what he wants to hear? Or...

Pascal's late father had warned him repeatedly. It was one thing to conceal information, but the family had no talent for lying, certainly not against an experienced statesman as astute as the King.

It was why he was brought up to be a professional soldier, a career battlefield commander, and not a power-mongering schemer in internal politics. Pascal might never meet his father's wishes to remain humble, but he could at least be devoted and truthful.

"Your Majesty, I will not deny that such a situation will be extremely disappointing to me. And I will certainly do everything within my ability to make sure it never arrives at that point."

"But in the case where we do arrive..." King Leopold insisted.

For a moment, Pascal merely scowled but said nothing. Then, with a long sigh, he admitted to his King:

"It is difficult to foresee my actions in such a conflicted position, especially after I am married. However, even in the case where that becomes reality, I believe I will still strive to change the divergent course of the two nations. I will do my utmost to ensure that Weichsel's interests can still be found in cooperation with Rhin-Lotharingie, just as I would endeavor to ensure that the Empire will never act against Weichsel's future well-being -- alliance or not."

"And what if all such roads are cut," Leopold pushed. "What if all bridges have been burnt and the two nations are on the brink of war? Which side will you pick?"

Pascal opened his mouth to reply, only to freeze midway.

He had wanted to assure his liege that he was still a Weichsen. Yet part of him knew that there was no way he could guarantee this. To marry into the royal house of another nation meant that his identity would slowly, surely change. He might never be a true Lotharin, but he wouldn't be a Weichsen either in the end.

And if a war starts between the two countries, then... Pascal thought. I would be an orphan without a homeland.

The young lord's lips twisted. His conflicted, frowning gaze made it obvious that he found the question exceptionally difficult to answer, even before he protested:

"That is unfair, Your Majesty, to seek my promise right now."

"I suppose it is." The Monarch replied with a wry smile. "But I had to ask. Because... to be frank, part of me regrets letting Karl make you the pivot of the Weichsel-Lotharin alliance right now, because you have turned out to be far more valuable than I would have thought."

I guess I should take that as a compliment.

The young landgrave then steeled himself once more. He might not have a real answer. But he wanted to at least avow to the King whom he not only owed loyalty to, but respected, admired, even looked up to:

"All I can say is, Your Majesty, that no matter where and when, I will never stop being Weichsen. I will never willingly act to harm Weichsel. And I will never cease to promote the interests of the nation where I was born and grew up in."

If Leopold had been disappointed, he didn't show a hint of it. Instead, the King returned a slow, appreciative nod and a faint smile.

"I'm grateful you were willing to find an earnest answer for me. Had it been your father, I doubt he would have given me such a sincere and personal answer." Leopold replied, which only made Pascal tilt slightly in confusion.

The King then stood up and paced over to the window to look outside.

"You know Pascal, for years, I wanted your father to become a friend. Not just vassal and liege, general and ruler, but someone whom I could trust on a personal basis, and who trusted me..." Leopold then looked upon a portrait of the late Marshal which hung behind Pascal and sighed. "Karl never did open up to me. He was strictly professional to the end."

"My father always believed that some boundaries should not be crossed, Your Majesty." Pascal noted.

"Do you?" The King's eyebrows rose as he turned to face the young lord. "Of course, I know from your record that while you technically respected most authority, you never cared a great deal for the rules. Isn't that right, Runelord?"

For the first time, Pascal felt abashed at his own nickname from his academy days. Sure, it was often used --perhaps even mostly used-- by his enemies to deride him. But he had simply never cared about what they thought of him.

"I believe in duty," he declared. "But I also believe how we meet our duty is our own choice as individuals."

His monarch almost snorted.

"Kids..."

For a second Pascal found himself too taken aback to consider a retort. By the time he recovered the King had already moved on:

"But then, perhaps it's good that you see it that way. I do certainly hope that I can succeed with you where I failed with your father, Pascal. If nothing else, such bonds of trust last far longer than duty or loyalty."

It took only a second before Pascal's eyes grew wide.

"I would be honored, Your Majesty." The young lord stood and bowed deeply with all the courtesy he could muster. "And thank you."



Chapter 11.5 Interlude - The Coming Storm[edit]

Gabriel Gautier de Gaetane, Duke of Atrebatois and brother of the Rhin-Lotharingie Emperor, knelt in prayer before the Cross of Holy Hyperion when the gates to the stone chapel opened.

The atmosphere grew tense as the guards tightened their grips. The three figures who just entered this holy sanctuary were all hooded and cloaked. However their footsteps clinked with the telltale sounds of heavy plate underneath. Behind them the oak doors slammed shut, blocking the view to the myriad of banners flying outside.

Duke Gabriel, however, did not react immediately as he finished offering his prayers. The chapel had been used as the rallying point for all forces mustered throughout the region of Belges in northeastern Rhin-Lotharingie. It now lay in the center of a massive camp that held over thirty thousand retinue, militia, and levy. The building was further secured by forty of his loyal retainers, who had been instructed to keep out all others... except for two dozen assembled nobles and the three anticipated guests.

It was strange for a mere village to be the site of such ceremony. However, while the old chapel and its stone altar might look worn and unremarkable, it nevertheless held great spiritual significance. Historical records maintained by the Trinitian Church claim that this chapel was the first place of worship erected to the Holy Father in Belges territory. The centuries-old building and its stone furniture had all been chiseled to perfection by the very hands of Saint Guillaume the Apostle.

"Please, give me courage to do what I must..."

Gabriel muttered as he looked up to the statue that hung from the wall. It was a depiction of Hyperion the Dragonlord casting the unknown spell that Saint Peter later named 'Ritual of the True Cross'. The grand sorcery played a pivotal role in history, ending the Dragon-Demon Wars and saving humanity from centuries of unending conflict. Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that Hyperion became the center of Trinitian worship, widely seen as the 'son' in the Holy Trinity -- one of three aspects of the 'one true god'.

We call them 'saviors of humanity'... even though it was their kind's fault that the war began in the first place. The Duke thought as he stared up at the dragon whose arms and wings stretched out upon a magical cross.

Yet despite knowing this, despite never having truly believed, Gabriel found himself in need of prayer at a moment like this.

Such is the limitation of human fortitude, He exhaled before slowly standing up. His lips formed a welcoming smile as he turned towards his guests. Now, time to kiss up to my 'benefactors'.

Everyone had a natural talent, and Gabriel's was playing to people's desires. The Belges duchies in northwestern Rhin-Lotharingie had long been neglected by the Emperors in Alis Avern, due to the fact they were neither a region that saw frequent conflicts nor held an abundance of resources. As a result of this, the discontent of merchants and nobles had been slowly rising for decades if not centuries. And Gabriel took advantage of this after he failed to summon a phoenix and thus forfeited his claim to the throne.

Today, the people of Belges loved him as the humorous yet virtuous duke whose name was recognized by even the pope. His vassals loved him as well, as he had been just enough of a pushover when it came to tax collection and noble privilege. The only ones who weren't fooled were his few confidants, including dear Heleen -- the loving wife that he had married.

Thankfully for his image, Heleen was a diligent actress herself. She had realized the truth ever since their wedding night, but she tried so hard to pretend -- in front of him, the family, the world.

Gabriel might never love her as a proper husband ought to, but over the years she had proven to be a true friend. She was also a faithful woman who stayed true to the scriptures. But the Holy Father... the Father had abandoned her alongside him.

"Your army is quite a sight, Your Grace," the leading knight spoke before taking off his hood. He was a square-faced man just beyond his prime, with blond hair, a full mustache, and a well-trimmed beard.

"Thirty thousand strong," Gabriel replied through a handsome smile and confidence worthy of a true zealot. "But they are not mine. It is the Holy Father's will they follow. And among us stand many other noble lords who share our just and righteous cause."

So righteous, in fact, that we're plotting to murder my own brother, the Emperor they all swore before Holy Father to obey... his thoughts ran with biting sarcasm.

Two dozen bowed heads nodded along respectfully from both sides of the room. Here within the sanctity of the chapel, they paid their homage in silence to the authority of the Holy Church.

The Knight Commander scanned through them with approval before declaring in a much heavier monotone:

"But you speak for them. Just as you spoke to them. It was you who led them from the tyranny of the apostate Emperor. And it was you who returned them to the grace of the Holy Father and the Mother Church."

Gabriel wondered if the Knight Commander was merely upholding formalities, or if he actually idolized his own self-righteousness. Maybe it was part of the Inquisition's arsenal: to torment their victim with bullshit just as the priests' holier-than-thou sermons conned people into buying indulgences for 'sins'.

To extract gold and confessions by taking the immeasurable soul hostage. What else could one call this except for a racket, a pyramid scheme?

Yet, even as the duke thought this, he opened his arms and bowed deeply, his torso almost forming a right angle to his long legs. There was no choice but to accept, for the Church brought with it power and wealth. He had to embrace this hierarchical 'pyramid' to achieve his own aims:

"I am the Holy Father's humble servant first and foremost. It is our solemn duty as true believers to bring his love back to the people."

Love enough to start a civil war while being invaded. Love to send thousands to their graves...

The irony of his own words was not lost on Gabriel. The fact he could speak such blasphemy before the sanctity of the altar only reinforced his belief that the Holy Father cared not at all.

Only the clinking echo of steel interrupted the silence that followed as the Knight Commander strode forth.

Then, just three paces away, he stopped. His leveled gaze soon met Gabriel's, while his eyes revealed a thin halo of gold surrounding the cerulean iris. It was a blessing that marked the brothers of the Knight Templar, sworn in service to the Holy Church.

Their order's full name was the 'Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Hyperion and Defenders of the Holy Temple of Arcadia', which of course was too much of a mouthful for any conversation. Instead, everyone simply referred to them as the 'Knights Templar', the paramilitary arm of the Papal Inquisition.

...Although the 'Papal' name was becoming questionable these days: the Inquisition had grown so powerful that even the Holy See often had trouble controlling them. The 'Poor' was even harder to take seriously, as the order had become so wealthy their monasteries often managed funds like banks for the elites.

"In the name of His Holiness the Pope, please kneel, Your Grace," the Templar Commander beckoned.

Gabriel gracefully lowered himself onto one knee without a moment of hesitance. Before the messenger of the Trinitian Church, he could not afford to show even the slightest doubt. For otherwise his piety might be seen as insufficient to become the Holy Father's chosen, unworthy of becoming the 'savior' of the realm.

He bowed his head in reverence as the knight opened the cloak to pull out a glistening sword.

"By the powers invested in me by His Holiness Pope Vigilius..."

Gabriel felt the cold, deadly steel lay flat against the back of his exposed neck. Only by prostrating one's life before the mercy of the Holy Father could true devotion be proven.

"--I, Preceptor Caelestis of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Hyperion and Defenders of the Holy Temple of Arcadia, hereby recognize Gabriel Gautier de Gaetane, Duke of Atrebatois and Prince of Rhin-Lotharingie, as Defender of the Faith and, by the grace of the Holy Father, the rightful liege to the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie."

Caelestis then withdrew the blade from Gabriel's neck, before he tapped the Duke's shoulders one after the other:

"May you deliver the realm from the apostasy of the false Emperor, Prince Gabriel."

Yes... how dare that tyrant improve our laws, network our roads, and expand our borders... Gabriel scorned in his thoughts.

Nevertheless, he did not allow even a hint of his inner emotions to surface. Even his mental shields were running at full capacity, just in case one of the Knights Templar flouted the laws --as they often did-- and tried to read his mind.

"In the name of the Holy Father, Noblesse Oblige," Gabriel answered the calling of his faith as though he truly believed in it.

After sheathing his sword, Preceptor Caelestis pulled the entire scabbard from its straps. Then, he carefully laid it in the Duke's open palms.

It was a beautiful arming sword of untarnished white and gold. Its blade was straight and elegant, with two crosses laid into a hilt of metallic feathers, stretching outwards like a pair of angelic wings.

This was the Sword of Fortitude, one of the seven holy swords of virtue that belonged to the Trinitian Church of Holy Arcadia.

The excommunicated Emperor Geoffroi might still believe that his brother would march south with thirty thousand reinforcements. But on this day, in this moment, Gabriel had baptized himself for a new role: one armed with the 'sword of the just' and dedicated to a path of no return.

Forgive me, brother, for what I must do. This is the 'best' course for our nation, our people...

Gabriel prayed in silence as he stood back up to face the Preceptor. Drawing the sword from its sheath, he raised the cross before his eyes in a symbolic gesture of loyalty.

--And it is the Holy Father's will... apparently.

Maybe by the time this was over, the Church would canonize him as a Saint. He could be the patron of hypocrisy, defending the faith even unto death.

Sometimes Gabriel wondered if it would be better that he went to hell. Surely the Devil, as a rebel against the Holy Father, would be better company than the tyrannical hypocrite who lorded over them all.


...


Ultimately, Gabriel's facade lasted only as long as the audience remained. Satisfied with his reverence and piety, the other lords and templars soon departed, leaving him for a private moment with Preceptor Caelestis.

"Is there a 'Goedendag of Fortitude' that I could use instead?" The duke asked casually as he flourished the new sword to test its balance. "A sword like this is rather light in the hands."

"What is a Goedendag?" Caelestis asked, his voice stuttering over the unfamiliar syllables as he raised his eyebrows questioningly.

"It means 'good day'. It's how the locals greet unwelcomed guests," Gabriel joked with a beaming grin. "A long pole with a rounded weight and a pointy tip at the end. Excellent hospitality for armored knights."

--Like yourself. The duke left the last two words unsaid.

"No." The Templar declared with a puzzled frown.

"How about a 'Mace of Fortitude' then? Oh! Better yet -- a Morphic Blade of..."

"The virtues of our faith are not to be altered at will!"

Caelestis' steep frown clearly took offense to Gabriel's carefree and playful emphasis. But the Duke paid no heed as he continued on:

"Yes but don't you think the Holy Father is a little biased?" Gabriel purposefully mocked the preferred weapon of the Inner Sea. "I mean does it have to be a sword? It just seems so... ornate."

"Swords are the embodiment of knightly grace and chivalric virtues!" The Templars was downright fuming now.

"Yeah, just like a rose... enemies of the faith, feel my thorns!"

Gabriel swashed it with embellished waves before spinning around and bowing, as though presenting a flower to the knight commander.

"Great for the ladies, I'm sure," he flashed a perfect smile. "But we Lotharin men prefer something with a little more substance: like a trusty mace, to shatter shields and rend steel."

He stopped just short of mentioning that the Lotharins also had adopted their preferences for bludgeoning weapons to rebel against Imperial legionaries, whose famed heavy infantry relied upon their steel mail and towering shields.

Judging by the twitching brows, Gabriel was certain that the Preceptor already regretted naming him Defender of the Faith.


----- * * * -----


Jarl Asgeirr Vintersvend scratched his gray beard as his icy-blue gaze stared unblinking through glass windows.

Shaped from a single rock column and reinforced by steel, the air docking tower laid at the corner of a V-shaped cliff that rose twenty-stories from the shores below. From its command room at the top, Asgeirr should have been able to see the waves for kilopaces around...

Instead, he could barely make out Polarlys' bulwark-like head in the dense icy fog.

His skywhale 'flagship' was moored below, tethered to the tower alongside three others. They were also asleep, as it was their first rest in three days' time. Meanwhile, the dockhands took this opportunity to move supplies on-board by wheelbarrow.

"Welcome back to civilization, Asgeirr."

The aging man with a perpetual frown never bothered to turn around. Even after ten years, he still recognized the gruff voice of his older half-brother and one-time liege: Jarl Eyvindur Sigmundsen of Kattegen.

Asgeirr soon felt the hard muscles of a powerful arm reach around his bony shoulders. His brother wasted no time before pulling him into a warm, familial embrace.

"Cold as ever," Eyvindur chuckled before releasing his brother. He then turned to gaze out the same window, though his arm continued to hang around the other's shoulders.

"Still upholding your name as our Admiral Winter?"

"They call me Admiral Winter because winter comes with me, not for my interest in meaningless banter," Asgeirr chastised him. "It's stupid how the southerners consider us 'uncivilized barbarians', then we turn right around and call the frontier tribesmen that."

Yet despite his sour words, his older brother's grin soon lit up like the sun. Asgeirr didn't even have to face him to feel its radiating warmth.

"Isn't that why we call it the 'frontier'?"

"And the frontier is where our attention belongs!" The younger brother declared. "An entire continent, barely populated and full of abundance! Exploring and settling this 'New World' should be our people's priority, not back here squabbling over strips of dirt with those greedy Trinitians!"

The Hyperboreans of Skagen excelled at seamanship above all other peoples. Here boys learned to swim before they could walk, to knot a rope before they could truly talk. Saltwater was the grass of their prairie, with trimaran hulls in place of saddles and steeds.

The only exception was, of course, those who sailed across the skies instead. Though the difference wasn't tremendous: the storms certainly rocked the same, just replaced waves with winds.

Combined with the adventurous urge common among Northmen, the people of Skagen had led the world in seafaring expeditions for centuries. They settled numerous, far-flung islands where they set up lucrative trading posts. But the jewel of their discoveries has always been the 'New World' -- an entire continent across the oceans that humanity had lost contact with since the departure of the dragonlords.

"Hey, I didn't vote for this war," Eyvindur countered. "In fact, we never voted at all. Those idiots in the south decided to mobilize on their own and attacked two border villages. The Wickers then began to retaliate by sending raids into our lands. What were we supposed to do? Drink and cheer while those heathens trod over the last of our people on the continent?"

Asgeirr didn't bother answering. He merely scowled as he remembered the history that every Hyperborean child was taught. The lands surrounding the North Sea had been promised to them by the divine dragonlords, earned by their ancestors through blood and iron during the Dragon-Demon Wars. Yet, after centuries of conflict against the encroaching Trinitians -- the lands they once held in the south had been reduced to only the Skagen peninsula.

"Hyperboreans never abandon their brothers, no matter what." Eyvindur declared proudly after a moment's pause. "You know that better than anyone. Out in the frontier, our ways are all you can depend on. Västergötland took a thrashing and lost their fleet during their fall campaign, yet they didn't hesitate for even a half-day before issuing a call to arms when we asked them for help."

Asgeirr thought of the men he saw through his scrying spell earlier. They had been selected by the adventurer guilds to join his flotilla of skywhales and boost its 'marine escort' once the two fleets rendezvous. Many of those burly adventurers and towering berserkers were undoubtedly Västergötlanders, whose mountainous fjords and harsh winters bred some of the world's toughest men.

There was no doubt that Asgeirr would appreciate their support in protecting his precious skywhales from the renowned Weichsel air cavalry. Yet, had it not been for those same 'adventurer guilds' who constantly raided the south for plunder, this war might have been avoided to begin with.

"It's their fault in the first place," the younger brother retorted. "If the Västergötlanders only stopped raiding and switched to focus more on exploration and trade like us, we could have hammered out a treaty with the Wickers centuries ago, just like we managed with the Lotharins of the Glens!"

That wasn't entirely fair. The Trinitians' own prejudices were also to blame. They often neglected to even bother differentiating between the Hyperborean cultures, and instead grouped them all under the collective name 'Northmen'. The Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie was more an exception than the rule, as the Lotharins were used to dealing with religious and ethic minorities -- particularly the northern Kingdom of Gleann Mòr whose population included a sizable portion that worshipped the Hyperborean Gods.

"And were it not for their warriors, the Imps would have kicked us off the continent even longer ago..."

The burly Eyvindur then paused for a moment before shaking his head.

"Pointless 'what ifs' better left to historians. We are what we are: different, but united by our honor, the dragons' honor. Those Trinitians can call us barbaric all they like, but if that's what it takes to not degenerate into a bunch of scheming, backstabbing, morally-depraved mongrels, then I'll gladly remain a 'barbarian'."

"Hmph."

Asgeirr grunted as he eyed the silhouette of a volcanic drake in the fog. The armored beast belonged to the lead rider of Polarlys' on-duty 'combat air patrol'. However, given the need to hide the skywhales' presence, they were kept on reserve atop Polarlys' blocky head instead.

"We'll see who the barbarians are when we rain fire and ice upon them."

"Don't forget the acid," chuckled the older brother in good humor. "Fire is in our hearts and ice is in our blood. But acid rain, that's your trademark! Should've named you Admiral Vinegar instead. Cool and sour!"

Asgeirr exhaled sharply. It was as close to a snort as he would get.

It was better to be 'sour' than bitter. Growing up, Eyvindur was the Jarldom's mighty heir, full of confident masculinity, while Asgeirr was the scholarly bastard mage. People flocked to see Eyvindur in action, while nobody even noticed him -- until he made a name for himself circumnavigating the world, single-handedly.

He had broken his brother's heart before departure, yet Eyvindur welcomed him back with open arms and a grand feast to spread his fame. Since then, Asgeirr vowed to himself that he would never betray blood again. So long as Eyvindur remained the leader of Skagen's confederate forces, he would fight alongside with the wrath of the Stormlord himself.

"Just make sure they don't notice," Asgeirr replied after a long pause. "Keeping the Frontier Fleet fogged up the entire way back already killed my men's mood. I would hate to see it go to waste."

"Don't worry," the jolly Jarl reassured while patting Asgeirr's shoulder. "I handpicked every man who's in this tower right now. There's not a single one of them that I wouldn't trust with my life."

The Admiral simply nodded back. "Three days till we meet up with the surface fleet. Then... where to?"

"You're asking me because you already have a goal, right?" The older brother noted warmly. "We're family. Out with it already."

Asgeirr took a deep breath. He had thought long and deep about this on the way back.

For over a millennium the Trinity-worshipping southerners kept encroaching upon the north. His people fought back with the tenacity of stone. But against the wealth of these heathens, it was like a mountain watching the sea grow.

But even the ocean was not unstoppable. It needed a surface to consume. Without that, without a coastline, its waters would plunge straight into the abyss.

"Get me and my whales to the Nordkreuz ley-line junction. I will scorch the earth into a wasteland where nothing will ever grow again to threaten our southern borders!"



Chapter 12 - Late Night Confidence[edit]

Kaede couldn't stop feeling nervous as she sat at the same table as a King, two generals, four brigadiers, two colonels, a landgrave, plus the crown princess and her bodyguard. The fact she was one of only two people not wearing a uniform didn't help her anxiety, especially as the other was Princess Sylviane who sat on the far side of the table from her.

Despite the Keep's austere exterior, Pascal's father had the public areas inside built and decorated with no expenses spared. The opulent dining room exemplified this with its huge crystal chandeliers and life-sized paintings. It was fit to host state banquets -- something Kaede would never have imagined attending, let alone as a girl.

The Samaran girl fidgeted as she pulled on the soft velvet that clung to the top of her arms. Her bared shoulders and half-exposed back made her feel uneasy, especially as she sat in the presence of royalty.

What do womens' dresses have against shoulders anyway?

The evening dress she wore was a deep, garnet-red over white and looked somewhat victorian in design. It left everything above her breasts exposed, except for her neck which was hidden beneath a wide choker. Pascal must have used her measurements to order the dress in advance for it to fit her so perfectly. Sylviane had forced Kaede to change into it before dinner when the Princess herself switched into her own starry, deep-violet gown.

It also made Kaede realize that even Weichsel's formalwear for ladies involved a leather corset, only it was hidden underneath.

The one bit of good news was that Pascal had at least seated her directly to his left. Meanwhile King Leopold sat on the far side of the table from his host, with Princess Sylviane playing the role of the hostess as she sat left of the King. The arrangement seemed almost natural, given that everybody knew Pascal and Sylviane were betrothed. But it was also convenient, as it offered the Princess plenty of opportunity to talk to His Majesty. At the same time, Cecylia's father General Wiktor sat to the King's right and could help promote the continued Weichsel-Lotharin Alliance.

However at the current moment, King Leopold was eyeing the snowy-haired familiar as he asked Pascal with an amused grin:

"So you really did summon a Samaran girl for a familiar. I could scarcely believe it when I first heard the report from Gerhard."

The King's question across the length of the table seized everyone's attention with ease. Kaede froze in her seat as she felt most of the attendees' eyes fall upon her.

"Yes, and she has been worth every effort," Pascal grinned and he declared with staunch pride in his voice.

"It's certainly not every day when a familiar sets an ambush for professional assassins and succeeds at it," the King acknowledged. "Tell me, Miss Familiar, what other talents did you bring from your former life?"

Does the King know I'm not from this world? Kaede thought. He should, considering that Cecylia knew about it and she worked as an agent of the King. Yet the King made no mention of it.

...And unless he did, Kaede wouldn't either, as she wasn't keen on disclosing it to any more people and having to explain through it all.

"I-I-I w-was a student, Your Majesty," she stuttered as nervousness filled her wispy voice. "H-history and cultural studies, mostly. I'm a-afraid my role against the assassins was a l-lucky coincidence due to their misinformation on me."

"I see the Samaran reputation for humbleness continues to hold true," King Leopold smiled with amusement. "Opportunity may arise by luck, but the ability to recognize and exploit it requires both acuity and skill. I'd say you've learned well from your history lessons, Miss Familiar."

"T-thank you, Your Majesty," Kaede returned an awkward smile but she was too skittish to think of anything else to say.

Unfortunately, the King wasn't done with her yet.

"Tell me, Miss Familiar, what is your thought on the Trans-Hyperion Polarity Rail that the Grand Republic is currently building? I've heard the project was much debated within the Grand Republic."

The King then looked towards one of his colonels, a particularly beautiful officer with straight, light-blonde that reached down to his thin shoulders. In fact, had it not been for Pascal telling her, Kaede wouldn't even be able to tell if Colonel Hannes von Falkenberg --commander of the Black Eagles-- was a man.

He was also a dhampir, as revealed by the sapphire-blue crosses in his ocean-blue gaze.

"The project was approved by the State Duma and the Grand Prince six year ago," Hannes nodded to his king. "Construction began after three years of preparations, with the first tracks laid westward from the capital city of Ilmen." The dhampir then turned his attention towards Kaede: "the project is certainly of great interest to all neighboring countries, considering the sheer scope and tremendous expense of such a mega-infrastructure undertaking."

Polarity Rail? Kaede almost voiced her confusion out loud when the King asked. Her anxiety shot skyward and her mind almost blanked out as the King questioned her over something she knew nothing about.

Thankfully, her thoughts had echoed it over her familiar bond instead.

"<It is similar to the 'high-speed rail' network you mentioned from your home country of Japan, except its speed is anything but 'high' as even a horse could run faster,>" Pascal helpfully explained over their private link. Both his voice and the recognizable topic went a long way to help calm Kaede's nerves.

"<Nevertheless, the polarity rail represents the cutting-edge of geomancy. It is built along ley-lines and utilizes the inexhaustible ether source to transport bulk cargo by means of lodestone repulsion.>"

Lodestones? Kaede puzzled as she took a deep breath. She remembered that they were the term used for naturally-magnetized magnetite, which had been used by the ancient Chinese to create the first compass. To build a 'rail' system based on lodestones implied that the 'polarity rail' ran on magnetic repulsion. The reliance on ley-lines and its ether hinted that the magnetic forces were amplified by magic. This somehow gave it enough strength that made it viable to carry freight over long distances.

It sounds like Samara already began on this world's equivalent of the 'Trans-Siberian Railroad', Kaede pondered in awe as her composure slowly returned. Unlike Earth, both the Europe and Asia of this world were grouped under the single supercontinent 'Hyperion'.

"I-I think the expense is worth the undertaking, Your Majesty," Kaede reflected. "A transcontinental freight line between eastern and western Hyperion would cement Samara's dominance over the sil..."

She almost said 'silk road' before correcting herself.

"--Over the east-west trade between the cultural spheres of the two Imperiums. This is especially important for the Grand Republic to maintain its trade dominance while advancements in seafaring technology continues to improve the efficiency of maritime trade, which the Grand Republic lacks access compared to other states. Furthermore, given Samara's sheer size and the distances between its cities, any improvements in infrastructure to reduce transport costs would be a great asset in stimulating both commerce and industry."

Kaede didn't forget that one of the reasons for the decline of Imperial Russia in 19th century Earth was its failure to keep up in railroad construction, which was exacerbated by the vast distances between Russian cities. The inability to transport materials and goods efficiently created a downward spiral which made Russia lag behind the other great powers in industrialization and trade.

The Samaran girl also didn't notice that she had stopped her occasional stutter, and was now speaking almost naturally before the King.

"Is the Grand Republic not worried that such a megaproject would bankrupt the state?" General Neithard asked from the opposite side of the table. His expression was a poker face as always, but there was a hint in his tone that gave Kaede the impression that he disapproved of it. "At the very least, such a heavy burden on state finances for years if not decades would leave it vulnerable -- neither able to respond effectively to crisis, nor able to exploit opportunities."

It reminded Kaede that the elderly Manteuffel was the leader of Weichsel's conservative faction, and 'conservative' in internal affairs meant they wished to preserve the socioeconomic status quo.

"That's why it's important for the rail to be built in segments," Kaede stated, hoping that the Samarans of this world were just as smart as project planners back on Earth. "The existing cities and trade hubs of the Grand Republic should be connected, one at a time, with priority given to cities that show the highest projected benefits. As each segment of rail becomes operational, the linked cities can immediately start profiting from the investment while the next phase of construction begins. This breaks even a most daunting megaproject into manageable, bite-sized chunks with steady payoffs.

"A war or other 'black swan' event might disrupt this endeavor and bring a temporary halt to the project," she continued. "But as the country becomes more interconnected thanks to improved infrastructure, it also enhances the ability of the state to respond to such events."

"'Black swan?'" The King raised an eyebrow.

"Sorry, Your Majesty. It's a metaphor from my homeland," Kaede explained sheepishly. "It means an unexpected if not unforeseeable event that creates a ripple effect, leading to a chain of consequences that significantly affects macroeconomics and geopolitics."

"Charming expression," King Leopold beamed with an impressed nod. "It seems to me that you are not just a student of history, but also in economics and geopolitical strategy."

"I've... dabbled in it," Kaede replied with an awkward smile, as she thought of the countless discussions she had with her father on the topic, or the many papers and articles he shared with her over the years.

"Tell me, what do you think would be Weichsel's optimal response to such a megaproject?" King Leopold asked next.

"Uhhhh, I-I'm not sure my knowledge of Weichsel is s-sufficient enough to offer a good reply, Your Majesty," Kaede began to stutter again, as her nervousness from prior returned upon her entry into unfamiliar territory.

"Try anyway," the King smiled encouragingly.

Kaede was about to look towards Pascal when she heard her master's confidence as well. "<You can do it.>"

"Ummmm, I-I think... t-the best course that I can see Weichsel embarking on... is to c-construct its own rail system," Kaede thought aloud. "Weichsel occupies a strategic location in the Saale Corridor, which --thanks to the impassable Dead Mountains and the dangerous North Sea-- forms the only land link between Western Hyperion and the Grand Republic of Samara. If a rail line could be built from the Weichsel-Samara border all the way to Nordkreuz, Weichsel could cement itself as the nexus of trade and exchange between four major cultures: the Imperium in the south through the Albis river, the Lotharins in the west through the twin Lotharingie rivers, the Hyperboreans to the north through the the North Sea, and Samarans in the east as well as through it, the Dawn Imperium to the far east."

"And such a position would provide us a tremendous boost in trade income, a great boon to the coffers and development of Weichsel," General Wiktor pitched in from the far end. His voice was one of clear approval, making it obvious that he was in support of such a project.

However the same could be not said for General Neithard, who interceded as the devil's advocate again:

"But what about security?" He asked with a concerned look. "Wealth spurs envy, and wealthy lands entice the gaze of would-be conquerors. If Weichsel links itself by polarity rail to the Grand Republic, how could we guarantee that the next train which comes through is not carrying goods for trade, but supply and ammunition to accompany an invasion force?"

Not this drivel again, Kaede found herself instinctively annoyed, before remembering that this wasn't Europe and the general wasn't alluding to the 'Russian Menace'. She also recalled that Tsar Nicolas I of Russia decided to make the Russian rail gauge different from the rest of Europe, which precisely addressed the concern that the elderly Manteuffel spoke of.

After all, from Poland-Lithuania to Carolean Sweden to Napoleonic France to Nazi Germany, Russia had found itself invaded and ravaged by European powers roughly once every century. The ensuing cultural trauma made Russians extremely wary of their national security, which made them pursue an 'aggressive defense' policy that sought to create buffer states. Unfortunately, this played straight into the modern American propaganda of the 'Russian Menace'.

Thankfully, the same did not apply to the Grand Republic of Samara, since the accursed Dead Mountains created a natural barrier that shielded it from Western Hyperion. This allowed the Russians of this world to focus on what their ancestors did best -- long-distance trade and taming the wilderness.

"In that case, why not use part of the new tax revenues to build additional fortresses?" Kaede suggested. "The Saale Corridor is already narrow and easy to defend. Trying to conquer a fortified pass is like trying to catch a porcupine. We Samarans are a peaceful people. And even if the Grand Republic suddenly became militaristic, the prospect of throwing away profitable trade links just to bite down on a rock simply isn't worth the shattered teeth."

By the time Kaede finished and focused back on the King, she noticed that Leopold was giving Pascal an odd, knowing look.

"I swear I did not tell her any of that, Your Majesty," Pascal declared with pride.

"I guess even your familiar takes after your father," Leopold's lips formed a bemused smirk. "Her arguments are roughly similar to Karl's from the economic angle. Of course, Karl also did not miss the military benefits of having our country connected by Polarity Rail." He added before looking to his 'Accountant General'.

"It would certainly make my job a great deal easier," General Wiktor chuckled. "The Polarity Rail's overland speed is comparable to encumbered horses. However trains need neither rest nor fodder whereas animals do. Transporting troops and equipment around the country would be significantly faster, and..."

The dhampir general trailed off as the door to the dining room opened and in marched a line of Pascal's household servants, each carrying a tray of food. Like the others, Kaede immediately found her gaze drawn in by the delicious aroma of spanferkel. Two roasted suckling pigs were cooked to a luscious golden brown and sliced in a way that maintained their shape. Along with it came roasted beet and soused herring salad, honey mustard chicken salad, white asparagus in hollandaise, and many other dishes.

A proper holiday feast at last! Kaede rejoiced.

She had missed the Winter Solstice feast back at the academy, and their New Year's Eve dinner had been largely occupied by discussions of logistics. She had never imagined herself spending a holiday travelling and attending conferences, but the state dinner was a welcomed reward.

Kaede didn't even mind that she was more than a hint famished as the potbellied majordomo began serving the guests, starting from the King. However, as her eyes examined the other dishes that were added straight to the table, her gaze fell upon a familiar figure while her mind froze.

Marina.

The maid wore a forced smile as she placed a bowl of salad on the table and backed away. However, before she departed the room, her eyes met Kaede's with a cold, distant stare.

I really should have prepared for this, Kaede thought to herself. Between the royals, the politics, and all the generals, she had completely forgotten that she would be meeting Marina again.

Nevertheless, as the lieutenant-colonel who sat besides her leaned over to chat, the Samaran girl resolved herself to talk to Marina after dinner tonight. She wasn't sure what face she should put on to confront her one-time friend. But she knew that she had to at least try to salvage their relationship.


...


Despite Kaede's apprehension towards meeting Marina again, it was inevitable that the long meal and its dinner chatter would pull her in. There were simply too many interesting people seated around the table. This included one balding, late-forties intelligence officer who sat next to her.

"You can't cast? At all?" The familiar remarked in astonishment as she stared with open lips.

"Believe me I've tried. Even pretended I could, back in my younger days," Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Ostergalen chuckled at himself. "But no, not even a spark. All it did was make me look silly."

"I did tell you that the lieutenant-colonel was a commoner, not a yeoman," Pascal commented from her right before taking another mouthful of his own dinner, which as always came with a bowl of cheesy beer soup. He then nudged her over telepathy, "<and you are being rude.>"

"Sorry, I didn't mean..." Kaede broke off her stare and looked back down, before realizing that she had forgotten about the sliced spanferkel on her fork.

"That's quite alright," Hans grinned back with a natural smile that foretold his future life as a jolly old grandpa. "I've met plenty of others who were just as surprised. It's certainly very unusual for an officer without any magical ability to advance beyond captain."

"And doubly rare to be promoted past major. That is the career ceiling for most officers: anyone without special talent," Pascal added. Clearly, Hans was someone competent enough to earn his respect.

"You must have worked really hard to get here," Kaede looked back up in admiration.

"It certainly wasn't easy," Hans' smile turned wry as he shrugged. "Commanding officers from platoon to battalion level are all expected to fight alongside frontline troops and raise defensive wards. It's why they're called MCOs, or Magic-Capable Officers. I can't cast any, so I've had to climb the ladder without a single battlefield command experience."

Kaede nodded back as she ate. Career building in the military expected a broad range of experiences across different roles, with combat leadership being the most important. To rise through the ranks without ever being a frontline commander was like trying to run a marathon in crutches.

"It also doesn't help that I can only stay in the military for fifty years at most, while the mages have well over a century before they reach retirement age," Hans scowled, with a slow sigh that exposed the lingering bitterness underneath his begrudging acceptance. "Still, complaining about it isn't going to change my birth. I got over what I don't have, and focused on what I do."

Make the best of a situation. He's just like me, Kaede thought with a smile. "You must be one of Weichsel's best analysts if you rose this high on staff experience alone."

"Father used to compare you to Marshal Mittermeyer." Pascal expressed next as he casually stirred his soup. His compliment, however, almost made the lieutenant-colonel choke on his food.

"I'm flattered, but I'm nowhere near that level!" Hans replied as he wiped his lips with a napkin. "My forte lies in analyzing our adversaries' actions and predicting their next moves, but it still falls upon others to translate that into a proper operational plan. That's a longshot from Hermann von Mittermeyer. After all, his strategic acumen was crucial in King Ferdinand's campaign against the Great Heathen Army."

The name was renowned enough for even Kaede to recognize. Hermann Mittermeyer began his career as a mere stable boy to the young Ferdinand I von Drachenlanzen, the founding King of Weichsel. After saving the King's life in an ambush, he became one of Ferdinand's aides, where his keen military insight would propel him through the ranks to eventually become a general and marshal -- the only commoner to do so in Western Hyperion history.

His legacy also cemented the nation's meritocratic military traditions. Furthermore, he established a precedent in the west for being the first non-yeoman commoner to be given a hereditary rank of nobility. Though it was only after he married a noblewoman to ensure that his descendants had magical affinity.

"Perhaps not marshal, but Father thought you had the making of a general in you," Pascal then added with a bittersweet smile. "It was why he suggested that I talk to you more back during the autumn campaign, so I could absorb more of your insight. Though he laughed when I told him that I would surely catch up to you with a decade or two of experience."

"As an analyst? You'll need more than just a decade," Hans smirked back as he tilted his head and propped it casually with his left arm, his filled plate already miraculously emptied. "Remember, my biggest lacking also gives me an advantage in focus: unlike you, I don't have to spend thousands of hours learning to cast spells and maintaining that expertise."

"And that's a lot of time you can focus on studying Weichsel's enemies," Kaede realized, prompting a pleased, almost-smug nod from the lieutenant-colonel.

"For an analyst, it's important to keep up to date with news from around the world, and not just the big headline items either," Hans explained. "It helps to understand countries and people, particularly leaders, when you have a long-term view of their character established over years if not decades. Knowing their behavior patterns and core values can provide an in-depth understanding of how they view any situation and prioritize goals. However, scouring through that much news also takes a lot of time. The Black Eagles generate a tremendous amount of intelligence, and not all of it useful."

In other words, he's been info-stalking everyone important and building character profiles on them for decades. Kaede thought. She could certainly appreciate how it worked, considering her own father often discussed the politics of Earth leaders like Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin by citing their long career history and how it shaped their worldview.

"So do you know what makes Pascal tick then?" Kaede joked with a beaming smile.

"Talk to me afterwards," Hans whispered openly with a playful wink.

"Sir, I must protest: conspiring against me with my familiar is not a good way of maintaining my support," Pascal grinned a little himself. "Though I am surprised that you did not request a vice-brigadier position for this campaign. Brigade command hardly cares about one's capacity in spellcraft. And while the position normally expects a full colonel, I am sure there are opportunities now that the King has invoked the Writ of Universal Conscription."

Hans smiled a little before sitting back upright. However Kaede could also see that a shade of caution had crept into his brown eyes.

"This campaign will make or break General Neithard's candidacy for Marshal. I owe the general everything I am today. I'm not about to abandon him in his hour of need."

Kaede found herself almost astonished. It was hard to imagine the stone-faced elderly Manteuffel --who had excused himself from the room earlier, possibly to visit the latrines-- being a gracious superior, especially to a commoner given that his conservative faction was dominated by the old noble families. But clearly, he had some virtues to gain the staunch loyalty of his subordinates -- enough to make Pascal worried about his growing influence within the army.

"And of course, if he manages that, you would have a better chance of achieving generalship yourself in the future," Pascal added with a knowing smirk.

"I never said it was entirely selflessness on my part," Hans chuckled.


------ * * * ------


The room Kaede received as her own had recently been furnished. Its size was modest and comparable to modern bedrooms, but the contents were far more opulent than she was used to. A queen-size four-poster bed layered in rich fabrics took the center, its sides lined by long, intricate rugs. A small writing desk and bookshelf stayed against the wall on one side, while a large dressing table flanked by mahogany wardrobes occupied the other.

There was also a closet in the corner that camouflaged itself as a small wardrobe, but actually hid the chamber pot that she hated to be reminded of.

The bedcovers and window curtains all came in a gentle floral-pink, then adorned with a vine-like green pattern that gave it the semblance of a flowerbed. Their overabundance of ruffles and laces projected an air of extreme girlishness. Combined with the large wardrobes that devoted way too much space for clothing --including another dress that Pascal had already prepared for her-- it made Kaede wonder:

Is Pascal deliberately trying to feminize me?

She definitely needed to have a talk with Pascal about this. Nevertheless, Kaede did appreciate the fact that Pascal at least kept her interests in mind. This was most noticeable in how he left several books on Weichsel in her room, as well as a huge map of Western Hyperion which hung from the wall.

Most meaningful of all -- her room was in the same corridor as Pascal's own, just down the hall that was meant for only the lord's immediate family. It certainly explained the attitude of the maids, who politely addressed Kaede as 'Milady' when they met, only to whisper quietly once she was out of ordinary earshot.

Kaede scowled as she remembered hearing the word 'whore' at least once.

They were partially right though: Kaede wasn't a 'lady' by any means. She had neither the upbringing nor the refinement, and certainly not the noble blood. Furthermore, familiars were meant to be servants for their mage masters, and Kaede's unusual relationship with Pascal certainly seemed to have become a topic of much gossip.

In hindsight, Princess Sylviane had been perfectly reasonable when she arranged for Kaede to stay in the servants' quarters of Oriflamme Palace. But even that did little to quell the rumor mongering.

Give me a break already. Kaede thought as she fell back into her soft bed. Can't a girl just fit in without being judged?

She rather doubted she would have any of these troubles if she was still a boy.

Nevertheless, as Kaede looked to the ceiling of her four-poster bed, she couldn't help feel touched by Pascal's gesture. His summoning had ripped Kaede from her family back on Earth. In exchange, he was offering her the chance to join a new one.

Kaede felt a hint of moisture gather in her eyes as she thought of it that way.

There was never any doubt on whether Kaede would accept. After everything she promised on the roof of Alisia Academy's dormitory keep, she wasn't about to leave Pascal to occupy this hallway by himself. The fact he refused to move into the master bedroom showed that he still wasn't over his father's death, despite the brave front he put on to show the world.

In the meantime though, she had another concern -- and it was one that she needed to tackle now.

"Marina, please take a seat," Kaede said as she sat back upright on the velvet bedcovers. Then, when the maid looked hesitant, her pink eyes almost pleaded: "Please."

The petite maid sat down on the cushy chair at Kaede's reading desk. An uncomfortable silence fell upon the two once more. Even Kaede had trouble starting the conversation as she eyed the shade of black under Marina's reddened eyes. The maid had clearly been crying a lot over the past few weeks.

"How are they treating you here?" Kaede asked before glancing down. Her words were more wispy than usual.

"It's a life." Marina shrugged. Her voice wasn't hateful, but neither did it contain any other emotion. "Majordomo Karsten judges us on a purely professional basis, so he's cordial as long as my work is done proper."

"How are they forcing you to stay?"

Kaede was curious, but now that she asked she felt like a block of insensitivity. Marina's life had been reduced to one of slavery, and here all she could think of was ask more questions.

"They don't need to..." The maid's tone stayed bland even as she pulled up one sleeve and revealed a faintly-glowing tattoo inscribed just above her wrist. It featured two links of chains crossed with what looked like a broom. The symbol seemed to mark Marina as an indentured domestic servant. The word 'law' written just beneath made it obvious that it had been done so on judicial grounds.

"It's a Geas brand," Marina's eyes teared as she explained in a whisper, as though her words might set it off had they rang any louder. "It forbids me from leaving the estate's premises without permission, and will shock me if I attempt to. It also makes it impossible for me to lie when activated, which Majordomo Karsten did before he let me come with you."

Kaede had wondered why Pascal trusted Marina to attend her -- because there wasn't any actual 'trust' involved.

Ever since Marina had been sent away from the academy, Kaede had began reading about the institution of slavery on Hyperion. The practice had been outlawed centuries ago by the Dawn Imperium in the east and the Grand Republic in the north. Even the Holy Imperium, with its historic economy built on slave labor, recognized that slaves were persons and offered them limited rights.

The countries of Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie both abandoned slavery in its traditional form. However both continued to use 'indentured servitude' as a means of debt collection and punishment. The practice was widely seen as an effective means of 'justice', as it forced the criminal to provide recompense for their crimes by working off a timed contract for the wronged party. However just like the Imperium did for slaves, both nations also gave indentured servants certain rights -- for example Marina could own private property, and received legal protection from murder or even crippling punishments.

"Can it be removed?"

Marina shook her head.

"They said that while any spell can be dispelled with enough power, this mark will detect any attempt and activate at max intensity. So sure, it's removable. But whether I survive the attempt or not..." She finished before she pulled down her sleeves and covered the mark once more. "The same thing will happen if the brand runs out of mana, which Majordomo Karsten fills periodically as long as I serve here."

"Then... how long do they expect you to stay... an indentured servant?"

Just forcing out those two words burned Kaede's tongue. It might be common in a traditional, eye-for-an-eye legal system. But being synonymous to slavery still gave it a barbaric edge in her worldview. After all, the last society on Earth that practiced systemic slavery was brought to an end when China retook the breakaway region of Tibet and ended the Dalai Lama's theocracy.

"For assisting the attempted murder of a high noble? Life for a life." Marina stated. Then, the maid finally unveiled her acidic disdain as she added: "What did your naive little head think it was going to be? Maybe I would be quietly hung with a sack over my face?"

Kaede winced. Perhaps the activated brand was making Marina a little too honest.

"I'm sorry, Marina, but please believe me. I didn't want anything this bad for you..."

Yet even as she said that, Kaede couldn't look Marina in the eyes. It wasn't even naivety. Kaede simply didn't think about it much back then. Sure, she had voiced objections, but she also allowed herself to be silenced the moment Pascal grew insistent. Though at the same time Marina was also right -- any punishment feudal law would have handed down for her role in the assassination attempt would be far worse than this.

The Samaran girl then took a deep breath and tried again:

"You paid loyalty to a master for raising you. I can understand that. I even respect it. But my own life is tied to Pascal's. So just as you saw no other choice, neither did I."

"W-why do you care if I believe you?" Marina retorted in a standoffish tone. "I mean, if that's what you believe, then why are you even being nice to me? I could have killed you in connection to him."

"Because I know you were candid in your offer," Kaede answered as she forced her sincere gaze to stay on Marina's swollen sea-green eyes. "And because if you hadn't said anything, that assassin's arrow would have shot straight through my neck."

"Isn't that why you had my punishment reduced to this?" The maid interrupted, though her tone softened mid-sentence. It was a faint sign that behind the barbed wires of pride, there was also a shadow of gratitude.

Clearly, the maid had conflicts of her own when it came to Kaede. There was no doubt that Marina blamed Kaede for her current predicament. After all, Kaede did trick Marina and used her to bait the assassins into a trap. But at the same time, Marina also seemed to recognize that Kaede did help her -- even if this help didn't actually leave her with much of a life.

"I had wanted to go further but... Pascal wouldn't budge." Kaede explained. "However I don't think this is the right treatment for you, not for what you did. And... there is one more reason..." The familiar girl noted as her wispy voice fell to barely a whisper. "You were my first friend in this world, Marina, and I really didn't want to let go."

"Well that's impossible now," Marina's sour retort came as a matter of fact.

A brief silence returned, followed by a deep, heartfelt sigh from Kaede.

"I know... I'm occasionally idealistic, not spontaneously idiotic."

The Samaran girl wondered if she would ever again see that angelic smile -- the one that lifted her spirits during her gloomy initial week in this world. An idea then struck her and Kaede pursed her lips in deep thought as she struggled to consider its details. Pascal's intentions for her standing did seem quite obvious, which meant she needed a servant she could rely on.

She only wished that her 'trust' wasn't founded on a penal curse.

"Marina, I think... I can still offer you something," Kaede gently tested the waters. "Since Pascal will probably assign me a servant, would you be willing to become my maid? I promise I'll treat you as kindly as I can. And I welcome you to voice your objections when I do misstep."

Marina's eyes swelled in surprise. Yet within those rounded, glassy orbs also clashed a conflict between disbelief and suspicion. If there were any appreciation at all, they were very faint traces.

It's going to take a looooong time for her to trust me again. Kaede sighed. "Would it help if I let you hit me?"

The maid's eyebrows went up further. Of all things, she clearly wasn't expecting that.

"I'm told the spell will also activate if I try to physically harm another person," she muttered.

Though one point was clear: she did want to hit Kaede, or give the familiar a hard slap, or some other medium of venting anger and frustration upon the Samaran girl who tricked her back at the academy.

That's... probably a good sign, actually, Kaede thought. The desire to vent was both more direct and less extreme than the alternative -- when anger transformed into hatred and buried itself as a scheming desire for revenge. Maybe there's a slim chance after all.

"You won't always have his favor like now, you know," Marina warned as she wiped her eyes. "Especially once he becomes the Lotharins' king consort. There will be more people around him then, powerful figures far more interesting than just a novelty familiar."

It was an odd way to agree, however tentative it was. But at this point Kaede simply sagged with relief to hear an opportunity.

"Then I just have to keep up," she answered, a faint smile finally returning to her expression.

It was easier said than done. However Pascal had summoned her for a companion in his long journey, and Kaede promised that she would do her best to support him. Besides, knowing what she did about Pascal, Kaede doubted that the young lord was the fickle type. He had promised her that she would become part of his household, and Pascal took his promises very seriously.

She also didn't forget Marina's former occupation for a second.

"Although... that does lead me to a request for you, Marina," Kaede began. "Since you were an observer for an Imperial lord before this..."

Marina blinked several times, her expression suddenly blank and lost.

"I won't ask about your former master's identity," Kaede reassured with a wave. "But could you keep a tab on as many happenings within this keep as you can? Inconspicuously? And tell me if you find anything that I may find of interest, especially anything that feels out of place or suspicious."

After all, there was no better counterespionage than the eyes of a former spy.

"You want me to spy on the staff and visitors for you?" the maid whispered with incredulity, as if the list of surprises would never end.

"I'm not sure if 'spying' is the best word. More like, 'looking out for spies'," Kaede returned an awkward smile. "Heaven knows that a landgrave has his foes. I don't think Pascal underestimates most opponents, but arrogance certainly leaves chinks in the armor. And it's part of my job to watch out for his back."

"What makes this any different from my last mission then?"

Marina struck Kaede with one last hammer for the night, but the latter made almost an immediate recovery this time:

"Because you can just leave any info with me," she smiled back with tired eyes, "and I'll handle the reckless parts this time."


...


The next morning, when Kaede inquired Pascal about her idea at breakfast, the latter replied with an incredulous tone:

"You want to make her a lady's maid?"

"I don't know how much of a 'lady' I am, but why not?" Kaede asked. "I know her well. She's trained, in more ways than one. It seems a good fit."

Pascal shook his head in disbelief.

"Marina is qualified. That I have no doubt. But a lady's maid --and you are a lady, as far as this household is concerned-- is a considerable step up from just an average housemaid, let alone an indentured maid."

Pascal then met her stiff gaze and finally seemed to realize why she was doing this.

"You are being way too easy on her." He sighed.

"'In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity'... doubly so since she did try to help me," Kaede stated with a faint smile. "Besides, I still like her."

Pascal looked thoughtful for a moment, then:

"Is that another quote from your world?"

"Winston Churchill. Some consider him a great leader," Kaede added with a sarcastic tone. "I thought he was a racist warmongerer who committed crimes against humanity." She thought of the policy-induced Bengal Famine before shrugging. "But even people like him have at least some kindness."



Chapter 13 - Heroic Legacy[edit]

Kaede twisted and turned her body as though she was stretching before gym class. She tried running in a tight circle to see if her new outfit imposed any detriment. She even took out her morphic blade and transformed it into a bow to try her archery stance. Though without a strength-boosting spell, she didn't stand a chance at pulling back the spring-steel limbs.

"How is it? Does it fit well?" Pascal asked with a mirthless expression from where he leaned against the shop's wall.

"It's... a lot easier to move than I would have expected?" The familiar said before looking down to examine the armor that she wore.

Despite all of Kaede's interest in history, she had never been into medieval reenactment. She always had the notion that 'armor' was meant to be heavy, bulky, and an impairment on mobility. However the set she wore at the moment was anything but that.

The pitch-black gambeson that Pascal had ordered to her measurements didn't look all that different from a modern quilted jacket -- a girl's jacket at that, as it wrapped tightly around her waist and would have shown off her figure if she had more curves to speak of.

Kaede wore this padded armor over a black pseudo-uniform with white lines, which she had custom-made as the exact opposite to the white pseudo-uniform she wore back then. Its front buckles were half-hidden beneath a blackened steel chestplate that reached from her neck to just above her waist. The chest guard was held in place by leather straps that criss-crossed over her back and flaps around her waist. Meanwhile a simple kettle helmet adorned her head.

"Yes, well, this is really the minimum insofar as 'armor' goes," Pascal shrugged. "I did request the 'reactive' enhancement -- the armor will magically harden at the point of impact. However it seemed rather unnecessary to fit you with a half-plate, especially since you said you are unused to wearing too much weight. It is not like you are going to wade into melee. The worst I expect you to face is the occasional arrow."

Kaede had seen Pascal's own half-plate armor yesterday when he had a sparring session with a sergeant. In the week since their arrival at Nordkreuz, she had noticed that the majority of Weichsel's troops wore such a suit of armor when they were on duty. It consisted of a plate cuirass, spaulders, gauntlets, greaves, and tassets. The gaps in-between were protected by chainmail patches sewn onto a black gambeson. The result had a higher degree of mobility and comfort than full plate while retaining most of its protective value. Most soldiers also wore a sallet helmet with its iconic visor, though kettle helmets were also common among the city's militia.

"Waist looks bit loose though," the burly, middle-aged armorsmith noted as he came over and knelt down behind Kaede. He unbuckled and tightened the strap until the two leather flaps squeezed around her midsection. "I need to punch another hole here."

He then helped Kaede take off the chest guard, before taking it to the back of the shop where he exited through a heavy, wooden door.

I wonder what 'industry' looks like on Hyperion? Kaede thought followed the armorer to the back. Her lips fell open as she looked through the open door, to the large backyard that the armorer seemed to share with several neighboring smiths.

A series of open sheds with covered walkways linking them filled much of this space. The largest shed in the middle had a stone roof, and was built around a massive, two-story stone furnace and smelter. The stone structure was roughly squarish in construction. The side facing her had a chute that was being used to dispense molten metal into a mold. Meanwhile both flanks had a series of alcoves, each lining up with a workspace that included a blacksmith anvil, a stone table, and a large trough filled with water.

"Is that... an arcane forge?" Kaede thought out loud.

She had seen it mentioned so many times in the books she read. It was said to be one of the centerpieces of Hyperion industry.

"Yes, Milady." The armorsmith answered as he returned from the forge with a tiny, metal peg that glowed red with heat. "This is one of the newer forges, built eight years ago through the late Landgrave's investment. Father bless his soul." He added as he fitted the metal piece to what appeared to be a heavy duty hole-puncher on a nearby table.

Kaede was still wondering what made it 'arcane' when she noticed that there were no fire pits. Instead, there was a large, flatly cut slab of reddish-brown stone in each alcove. The nearest slab that she could see had small, red flames rising from it, as though the very rock was burning at a low simmer. Meanwhile at an adjacent workspace, white-hot flames emerged from another slab of rock as a blacksmith quenched a freshly hammered arming sword in his water trough.

"If I remember correctly, arcane forges are basically a continuously running blast furnace?" Pascal asked plainly as he came to stand behind Kaede.

"Yes, Milord." The armorsmith explained in his gruff voice. "The interior of a forge must run at a temperature hot enough to smelt steel. It takes nearly half a day to activate or deactivate it, so it's far easier to simply leave it running. Iron slags and coal are fed into the furnace from the far side," he pointed to where several wagons sat beneath a set of stairs and a treadmill crane. "Meanwhile molten steel is poured out from the chute. The heat is also conducted and controlled through enchanted stone plates to be used by the smiths."

"I'm guessing it relies upon magic from the ley-lines to bolster the heat?" Kaede asked next.

"Both to keep the smelter burning and to provide a continuous flow of fresh air," the armorsmith said as he created a new hole through the waist strap and fed a grommet through it. "We feed in coal as needed to create the appropriate air mixture. But the quantity is nowhere enough to keep the smelter in the temperature it must maintain. The furnace's enchantments require one of us yeomen smiths to manipulate. But even a commoner smith could make use of it to forge steel tools, weapons, and armor."

Talk about fuel efficiency, Kaede thought as she considered just how much coal a magical industry could save, which in turn reduced the resource demands across its entire supply chain.

I guess the Hyperion civilization will be a lot less worried about its carbon footprint.

The armorer soon returned with Kaede's chest guard and fitted it again. This time the waist flaps wrapped snugly around her midsection when he buckled the strap.

The familiar repeated all of her stretches again. The leather flaps proved just tight enough to give her waist support without limiting her range of motion.

"Looks good," Pascal declared with satisfaction as he paid the armorsmith -- a handful of gold and silver coins bearing the crest of Weichsel on one side and the royal coat-of-arms on the other. The depiction of an armored, lance-wielding knight riding atop a drake spoke volumes for the history of the Drachenlanzen dynasty. It reminded everyone that King Leopold's lineage could be traced all the way back to the Dragon-Demon Wars

Just like on Earth, Kaede reflected as she thought of how monarchs would use every tool at their disposal to remind the people of their royal legitimacy.

I'd love to see what all the countries will put on paper bills once they establish fiat currency. IF they establish fiat currency.

There was no doubt that magic made counterfeiting far more of a threat.


...


After Kaede and Pascal left the armorer's shop, they came across a squad of soldiers, who marched in two columns as they patrolled the streets. Kaede couldn't help but feel self-conscious and took off her helmet. A distinct feeling that it didn't belong on her head had overwhelmed her, as she felt like a child playing war before the eyes of professional soldiers.

"Are you sure the army is okay with me following you into combat?" She asked Pascal. "I know mages bringing their familiars is pretty common, but..." She trailed off as even she wasn't sure exactly what she should be classified as.

All she knew was that Weichsel had a fully professional army, and that meant no 'camp followers'. Instead, every company and battalion had an integrated support unit, responsible for managing the soldiers' logistical needs.

"Considering even His Majesty liked you? I doubt anyone will have a problem with you coming along," Pascal declared in a proud tone, though his countenance wore a faint scowl which puzzled Kaede. "Nevertheless I did attain his permission just in case. As for your role, being 'eyes and ears' means I would like you to stay at a good vantage point near the front lines. It would give me better battlefield vision and save an adjutant for passing orders."

"So... pretend to be a walking pair of binoculars?" She remarked as the two of them walked in the direction of the setting sun, back towards the main street of Nordkreuz.

The irony was not lost on her as they had just picked up a pair of 'arcane binoculars' before coming to the armorer. Kaede only had a brief moment to try it out. Its magically-enchanted lenses had an impressive zoom of up to 25x, which was comparable to that of modern sporting binoculars.

"Learn to judge battlefield deployments yourself," Pascal added as a stern edge worked into his voice. "We have had plenty of tactical discussions during our research and you are certainly no novice."

No, just an amateur, she thought.

If there was one thing Kaede never overestimated, it was just how well her skills really compared against true professionals.

"Since you are good with a bow, I have also made you a few rune-tipped arrows, just in case you need them." Her master said as they strode past several wagons and shops. "I can also enchant First Aid into your ring and load whatever spells you need into your runes. However, I want your attention focused on the field as much as possible, not busying over concerns better left to others."

"Why First Aid?" She puzzled. Just because I'm a girl now doesn't mean I suddenly have medical training.

"Because only basic spells can be put onto a spell activation item. And because you can perform basic healing better than most mages, simply due to your nature," Pascal explained.

"For being Samaran? I did read that my blood was a healing enhancer."

"It does more than just enhance," he emphasized. "Remember what I said about mana's repulsion property?"

"That all mana repel foreign sources of mana? Yes." Kaede answered his impromptu quiz before she puzzled. "So that means magic has trouble... healing other mages?"

"Correct." Pascal nodded. "Healing commoners is easy. Healing mages, however, requires a special focus to compensate for their magic resistance. Samaran blood is never rejected in a transfusion. Likewise, healing spells --and only spells that cure or calm, for whatever reason-- cast through Samaran blood gain a limited ability to bypass mana repulsion. The blood also loses potency as it is used more. So effectively, your entire body full of fresh blood is a healing focus of the highest quality."

Being called a top quality trade good wasn't exactly a very flattering comment. But then, Pascal merely stated the facts 'as is'.

At least he doesn't see me as a bag of gold.

"I do remember being 'medical supplies'. But I don't remember seeing Perceval carry vials of blood around."

"Samaran blood is not cheap. It is part of why I told you never to enter the city by yourself," Pascal stated with a completely serious expression. "But ask Perceval about his bloodquartz stasis rod the next time you see him..." He then trailed off with another scowl. "Actually, it may be easier to ask another healer. Who knows when we will see Perceval again?"

Kaede nodded. She hadn't heard from Reynaud or Perceval since the day they left Alisia Academy.

"Speaking of Perceval, Ariadne is in Nordkreuz now, isn't she?" The familiar asked.

"No, actually." Pascal replied with another scowl. "She joined one of the new Phantom Grenadier units which almost immediately left the city to raid in Skagen."

We really have gone our separate ways, huh? Kaede reminisced about the friends she made at the academy before the war broke all of them up. "Why do you sound unhappy about it though? I thought the two of you had already made up?"

"It has nothing to do with Ariadne." Her master sighed. "If anything, I am envious of her for being deployed into combat as a company commander. She is out there in the field, gaining valuable leadership and combat experience. Meanwhile I am stuck here in the city, with little to do other than paperwork and the occasional supervisory tour."

"Did the King not already assign you to be a brigade tactical officer?" Kaede asked.

"Yes, the tactical officer of an infantry brigade," Pascal scowled. "There is not a great deal of tactics to infantry, apart from facing the right direction and using the right formation to absorb the enemy's attacks. I would much rather command a company of Noble Reiters, sent into Skagen to support the cavalry."

Kaede remembered that Pascal had originally been offered such a position, before he turned it down to help Sylviane in Alis Avern instead. The Noble Reiters were conscripted nobility who fought as 'mobile artillery', as their equestrian and spellcasting abilities meant they could rapidly maneuver around the battlefield to lay down a devastating barrage of spells. Their magic also made them excellent logistics and support units. The combination of these roles meant they were usually sent to where the action was, both tactically and strategically.

"But alas, my return was late, and this was the best that the King could offer me." Pascal sighed again.

In other words, he lost his best chance at earning experience and promotions in this campaign. Kaede reflected on the opportunity cost Pascal paid to help his fiancée.

"At least this means you can stay up to date on the King's strategy discussions?" Kaede looked for a silver lining.

"Only because I am the lord of Nordkreuz, as well as the owner of the manor which they use as headquarters." Pascal countered. "The King is keeping me in the communication loop as a gesture of courtesy. However, since I am merely a captain, I have no actual role in operational planning. Therefore unlike the other members of the command staff, I do not have any of the responsibilities in organizing and coordinating the ongoing maneuvers of our forces against Skagen!"

His irritable tone made Kaede wonder just how much of Pascal's impatience for valor was because he grew up under his father's shadow.

He really wants a chance to prove himself.

The two of them soon made it back to the hustle and bustle around Nordkreuz's main street. The cobblestone avenue was built wide enough for two wagons to pass side by side. However, the merchants and customers that overflowed from both sidewalks slowed all passing vehicles to a crawl. Even those on horses advanced at a slow trot, as the innumerable stalls and shouting tradesmen left many pedestrians more than a bit distracted.

The street wasn't as busy as the New Year's when Kaede arrived. Nevertheless it was clear that business was booming, partly caused by the concentration of soldiers in Nordkreuz. Now that the dusk sky was beginning to dim, those who had leave after a day's hard training were coming into the city in droves. They gathered beneath the illumination of the street 'lanterns' -- metal posts with enchanted, ley-line-attuned crystals affixed on top. Some were here to meet old comrades, some to grab a bite to eat, and some browsed wares that weren't available in their rural hometowns.

"Out'a way..."

Kaede heard the gruff voice just in time to evade. A large, overweight man who wore a cloth veil over his nose had just emerged from a door by the side street. His thick, hairy arms carried a massive, partially-covered wooden bucket that spread the most atrocious smell.

The familiar rushed her hand up to pinch her nose as she felt nausea churn her stomach. She turned to stare at the man and his oversized container, while he carried it to the ledge of the sidewalk before tilting the bucket towards what looked to be a stormwater drain.

The small, brown chunks that poured out with water were undeniably poop.

What the hell! He almost crashed into me with that! Kaede thought, appalled.

The bucket that man carried was wider than her shoulders. Its contents were more than enough to drench her entire body. The Samaran girl shivered as she realized that had such an accident occured, she could take a million baths yet still feel filthy.

Yet to Kaede's incredulousness, the man only poured out a surface layer of water before he put the rest of the bucket into a waiting cart. There he covered it with a lid, before grabbing another, empty bucket from the wagon and striding back into the door from where he came.

"W-w-why...?" The young girl stammered as she looked at the cart in bewilderment. She never even noticed as Pascal, who had walked ahead during the interim, had returned and now stood just five paces behind her.

"Ah, a night soil merchant. Your world does not have those?" Pascal asked from a safe distance before he turned towards the building. "This must be a public bath."

Kaede thought it was wise first to retreat to his position before opening her mouth again.

"Night soil? That's just manure!"

"Exactly," Pascal commented. "I believe they mix it with compost before selling it to farmers. It is rich in nitrogen which makes it excellent fertilizer."

Kaede blinked. Now that her shock at the near-accident was beginning to fade, she remembered that her grandmother, who farmed as a hobby in her retirement, did much the same thing. In fact it was quite common on Earth, especially before the industrial revolution when advanced chemistry allowed for synthetic fertilizers to be produced.

"Does Hyperion have non-poop fertilizers?"

"There used to be a Fertilize spell, but nobody uses that anymore due to its inefficiency," Pascal answered. "Covering large tracts of land with magic is simply too mana inefficient, a brute force solution. Instead, there are alchemists today who use Transmute spells to convert air and water into ammonium nitrate, which could be spread to fertilize the fields. It is still not cheap, and only wealthy cash crop farmers can consistently afford it."

Of course, since it's mage labor, Kaede thought.

The trouble with magic was that only mages could provide it, which led to a perpetual 'labor shortage'. Whereas on Earth, an industry using pure chemistry could be operated by anyone, regardless of whether or not they were born with innate special powers.

Even so, is there even an incentive to create non-magical technological processes?

After all, the people of Hyperion did have a solution for getting what they wanted, even if the supply availability was far lower. However this suited the mages --the most educated members of Hyperion society-- just fine, as it maintained the high value of their labor and their wealth as the middle and upper class. Meanwhile commoners without magic had to perform occupations like shovel manure for a living.

"I'm guessing 'night soil' is a cheaper alternative then?"

"Significantly." Pascal confirmed Kaede's suspicions about the value of non-magical labor. "It may not work as well, but manure is easy to attain and compost can be made in large quantities."

The young lord then glanced at the building again before remembering:

"Did you not mention a 'need to go' before we left the armorer's? This is a public bathhouse, one of several that my father had constructed within the city to improve sanitation. You will find latrines inside. They should be in rooms adjacent to the entrance."

"I... think I'd rather wait," Kaede replied with reluctance. The pressure on her bladder was still mild and... I'm not sure I want to make use of 'public latrines'.

"We still have several more items that need to be picked up. It will be at least another hour before we return to the manor." Pascal warned.

"Fine," Kaede sighed. Unwilling to risk an accident, she waited until the 'night soil' merchant emerged again with yet another bucket before she went inside.

The entrance hallway was short and led to a large, open-roofed atrium within the building. The atrium was surrounded by covered corridors with round columns holding up the roofs. There were lounge chairs scattered about, but none of them were occupied since it was winter outside. On the far side of the building she could spot steam coming out of the ceiling-high vents, as well as hear the sound of running water and the voices of people relaxing inside.

It really is like a Roman bathhouse, Kaede thought.

The open architectural design was clearly one that originated from a warmer climate. It would not surprise Kaede one bit if the Weichsel imported the concept of these bathhouses from the Romans of this world -- the Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea.

I should visit one of these days. It's been too long since I've had a proper bath and not just 'cleansing spells'.

On her side of the atrium, a door on each flank was marked by a stick-figure sign. Needless to say, the one that had a triangle skirt was the one that she was looking for.

Kaede took a deep breath as she grasped the door handle and pulled it open. The room didn't smell nearly as foul as she would have expected, as it had plenty of ventilation near the roof. However, as soon as she walked inside and saw the arrangements, she froze.

There were two rows of bench seats that faced each other, with a round hole cut into the wooden bench every meter of distance. Three women currently sat next to each other and chatted along as they did their business. There wasn't any privacy to speak of as there were no stalls, not even a divider between each latrine seat.

"<Is something wrong, Kaede?>" Pascal asked over their familiar bond as he must have sensed her surprise.

"<Th-there're no stalls!>" Kaede sent back as she continued to stand by the door. Her odd behavior had already attracted the womens' curious looks.

"<Why would there be stalls inside a public latrine?>" Pascal replied in a confused voice. "<It is not a stable for horses.>"

"<I don't know... maybe some privacy!?>" Kaede retorted in disbelief.

"<Are the latrine rooms not separated by gender?>"

"<They are, but that's not the point!>" Kaede was baffled by the fact she had to explain something so simple. "<What about privacy from other girls? Or other men in your case?>"

"<Why would that be necessary?>" Pascal's voice was still bewildered. "<Are public latrines not a social place in your world?>"

"<What!? NO!>" Kaede was aghast. "<Why would it be?>"

"<It would be boring if all you had to do was stare at a wall while you did your business. Might as well catch up with the neighbors while you are at it.>" Pascal replied with a mental shrug. "<As far as I know, girls usually visit the latrines in groups too.>"

Kaede did remember noticing that trend even in the modern world. But Hyperion was clearly taking it to an extreme!

"<Also hurry up. I do not enjoy waiting near a manure wagon.>"

"<Ugh, fine...>"

Kaede forced herself to walk to the far side of the room where she found a spot near the corner. The wooden bench was surprisingly clean, probably aided by the fact this was a 'female only' bathroom which didn't have to worry about men and their randomly aimed pee. She lifted her skirt and unbuttoned the soft, clingy fabrics between her legs from behind.

For once I'm thankful for wearing a skirt. She thought as she sat down on the latrine hole, while the fabric of her skirt completely covered her feminine bits. This would not have been an option if she was still wearing pants.

"What's her problem?" Kaede's keen ears heard one of the women whisper to her companions.

"Look at her clothes. Must be some rich merchant's daughter trying out for the militia. Thinks she's too good for us."

"She's a Samaran though. I don't know of any Samarans who are residents of this city?"

Clearly, the way she purposefully kept her distance was a social affront. Kaede sighed as she wasn't sure it was worth trying to correct their first impression of her at this point.

"<Out of curiosity,>" Kaede asked as she noticed that this 'public bathroom' was distinctively lacking in a vital resource. "<What do I use here to wipe? There's no paper.>"

"<Pulp paper is too expensive for public latrines. You should see a few buckets near the wall.>" Pascal noted.

Sure enough, Kaede noticed the wooden buckets. Each had several handles sticking out from them, as though they were cooking instruments being soaked.

"<Those buckets are filled with vinegar.>" Pascal added. "<The sticks have sponges affixed to the end. You use them to wipe your rear after you finish.>"

In other words, people shared sponges to wipe their butt after defecation.

Kaede would rather ask Pascal to cast his Cleanse spell on her butt than to use a stick that might have someone else's feces on them.

I'm never going anywhere without toilet paper again! She silently swore to herself.


...


The other women were still chatting when Kaede finished peeing and left. She met back up with Pascal outside and the two of them continued their errand trip.

"What's next?" Kaede asked eagerly.

"Next we go to the clothiers and pick up a black mourning dress for you." Pascal replied rather stiffly.

Kaede fell quiet at once. No wonder why Pascal has been moody today.

"Your father's?"

"Yes. His state funeral is tomorrow." Pascal's reply in a melancholic tone. "And of course, you will be attending besides me, Sylv, and the King. Therefore I expect you to look your best."


----- * * * -----


Just as Pascal had warned, Kaede stood the next day as part of the congregation that waited outside Nordkreuz's cathedral. The group had over three dozen individuals, who stood evenly spaced in two rows at the top of the stone stairs. They included not just King Leopold, Princess Sylviane, and the generals who served directly under the late Marshal, but also his majordomo, his chaplain, and several members of his personal staff who avoided the ambush that took his life.

What quickly became obvious was that the Marshal did not seem to have any personal friends outside of his work, as every attendee was either a member of his household or a state official. Nor was there anyone from the estranged family from Pascal's mother's side.

The group watched as a long column of soldiers marched down Nordkreuz's main street. They were led by Colonel Albrecht von Bittenfeld and his elite Black Lancers Knights Phantom atop their armored gryphon mounts. A wagon carrying the embalmed body of the late Marshal came next, wrapped in the black dragon banner of Weichsel and adorned with white flowers. The wagon was followed by the rest of the Black Lancers as well as several squads of the King's Black Eagles who acted as the honor guard.

The entire city fell under a solemn atmosphere as soldiers from the army stood shoulder to shoulder across both sides of the main street. The sidewalks were packed as it seemed like the entire populace of Nordkreuz had gathered to pay their respects. Entire formations of officers also stood in the plaza in front of the cathedral. Kaede estimated that the number of people in attendance numbered over ten thousand.

The familiar glanced towards her master, who stood between the King and the Princess, roughly a dozen paces away from her. Pascal did his best to maintain a steadfast countenance, but his eyes were glistening with a sentimental longing as they stayed fixated on his late father's casket.

"<Your father really meant a great deal to many people.>" Kaede reflected over their familiar bond as she sought to comfort him.

"<He was a hero of Weichsel, the most accomplished marshal since Hermann von Mittermeyer.>" Pascal's voice responded stiffly.

Not just a hero either, Kaede thought back to the arcane forge and the public bathhouses that the Marshal all had a hand in erecting. It was clear that despite being a newly-minted, first generation aristocrat with no hereditary wealth, the Marshal prioritized the development of his people and fief.

"<I wish I could have met him.>"

"<He would have liked you too.>" Pascal stated with certainty.

Kaede watched as eight members of the Knights Phantom dismounted to pull the marshal's casket from the wagon. They lifted it upon their shoulders before carrying the mahogany funeral box up the short stairs and through the cathedral's double doors. The congregation followed the knights in, while behind them came several hundred military officers and other attendees.

The marshal's casket was placed before the altar while Kaede filed into the space before a second row bench. Her eyes remained glued to Pascal who stood stiffly in the first row besides Princess Sylviane and other dignitaries. They waited for the next twenty minutes as the available space in the modest cathedral --which had clearly been built when Nordkreuz was smaller and less important-- was filled to capacity.

Then, as the last of the milling footsteps behind them fell silent, the clergy of Nordkreuz stepped forth and began their religious service.

"Faithful men and women of Weichsel, we gather here today to pay homage..."

The Bishop of Nordkreuz blessed the Marshal's soul and spoke of how Karl August von Moltewitz carried out the Holy Father's will in defense of the Trinitian realm. He praised how the late landgrave lived a life of modesty, ever loyal to the King while displaying charity and generosity towards the city's residents...

It was a sermon largely spoken in Imperial, a hybrid language which had once been created by the Inner Sea Imperium to administer their northern provinces and vassal states. Today, even though Weichsel no longer saw the Holy Imperium as its suzerain, it kept Imperial as its official language which made it Pascal's mother tongue -- and Kaede could perfectly understand it thanks to their familiar bond.

Parts of the sermon, however, remained difficult for Kaede to digest, as the bishop quoted directly from the Holy Scriptures. The religious texts of the Trinitian Church were written strictly in ancient Draconic, the same language that Pascal memorized his mnemonic spellwords in. However, while Pascal knew many words in Draconic, he was hardly 'fluent'. The result was a smattering of comprehension in between a string of gibberish that made Kaede only able to guess at the true meaning.

In hindsight, it wasn't really surprising for the Church to use the language of the dragonlords. After all, the services were conducted beneath the Cross of Holy Hyperion -- a sculpture of the dragonlord in the midst of casting 'the spell that saved the world'.

It's like seeing a Catholic Church that worshipped aliens, the familiar couldn't help reflect on how otherworldly the whole experience felt.

For tens of minutes the sermon continued. It also reminded Kaede why she never enjoyed church services: there's just too much moralistic preaching.

She might have always been a spiritualist who took great interest in the moral virtues taught by religion. But that didn't mean that she enjoyed being preached to -- especially when those same sermons often felt detached from reality, from the moral dilemmas that real people in real stories had to face.

So instead of focusing her attention on the bishop's words, Kaede kept the edge of her gaze trained on Pascal's side and back. She could see the tension in his shoulders as he stood stiff as a board. His fingers reached up on several occasions as he pretended to scratch his head before touching the corner of his eye to wipe a tear from it.

Her master was clearly in mourning, just as he had been that night on top of the dormitory keep. However this time he could not display it openly. He had no choice but to suppress and stifle his grief before hundreds of attendees.

It took well over a half hour before the sermon finished. By the time the bishop stepped off the altar, he beckoned Pascal to come forth. The young landgrave strode up to the podium, where he would offer a final eulogy.

For a minute Pascal stood silent behind the altar with parchment in hand. He opened and closed his lips several times but no words came out. Tears brimmed in his glistening eyes as he looked upon the casket with a nostalgic longing that he clearly had trouble turning into words. Then, with a stiff voice that almost cracked under the weight of his emotions, he began to speak out in a magically amplified voice:

"Most of you knew my father as the Marshal of Weichsel. He was courageous in battle, inspiring in command, visionary in strategy, and considerate as a leader. But I knew that many of you also thought my father seemed devoid of a personal life. After all, he had lost his wife before becoming the Landgrave of Nordkreuz yet never remarried. He dined with his staff regularly yet never seemed to meet any friends outside of work. He had a son at home -- a brat spoiled by servants and a lack of parental supervision," Pascal spoke of himself which elicited a wave of chuckling from the crowd. "Yet he spent most of his days in the King's Black Dragon Castle and the capital Königsfeld's army base, rarely returning to his home to celebrate with his small family.

"Well, I am here today to tell you that you could not be more wrong..." Pascal stated before his voice cracked again.

He paused for another moment as his shoulders trembled faintly. He had to take a deep breath to regain his composure before continuing on.

"My father was many things to me -- an inspiring role model, a wise teacher, a set of expectations that I constantly strove for yet never seemed to quite match. But he was first and foremost a loving parent, whose messages for me would arrive like clockwork no matter how busy or how tired or how frustrated he became. There was never a week when he did not stay up to date with my activities, or comment on my studies. He might have been away from me by several hundred kilopaces, but his spirit has always remained with me.

"However, as I stand before you here today, I realize the true significance of my father's life." The young lord voiced. "He was not just a father to me, but a father to an entire generation of soldiers and officers whom he led in the King's name. And they, like me, have learned to appreciate his deeds."

Pascal took another break as he blinked repeatedly to clear his gaze. His turquoise eyes were glistening yet he struggled to pretend that wasn't the case. He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath before reopening them. His brows furrowed as he continued his prepared speech as though everything was fine with him:

"My father may be gone now, but his legacy from a lifetime of dedicated service remains. Under his tutelage, countless young officers have stepped into the shoes of those who came before them, ready to protect our realm and serve the interests of our King. Under his patronage, many brilliant cadets arose from struggling families, who would have otherwise lacked the circumstances to send their children to proper schooling. Under his guidance, the army has refined its organization and doctrine to score dozens of victories, proving our mettle even as our kingdom is caught between the geopolitical ambitions of giants. Under his vision, Weichsel has almost doubled its size over the past two decades, with new allies to support us so we no longer must bend knees to appease the decadent Imperator on his distant throne."

"Thus I ask you to remember my father, not merely as the workaholic marshal who never seemed to go home, but as a diligent father to his men and a faithful servant of his King. Remember him for his accomplishments, his policies, and his legacy which remains. For..."

Pascal's voice cracked again but he did not relent this time. His fists clenched hard as he steeled his resolve to keep going.

"--For as long as his vision lives on with us, his spirit will endure and always remain with us -- to guide, to inspire, to watch over us and the future of our state."

I didn't think Pascal could write something so touching, Kaede smiled earnestly as she watched him take another deep breath. His shoulders relaxed a little at last as he seemed finished, not just with the speech, but also with a part of his grief.

"<That was well done,>" she said over their private telepathy. "<It was a beautiful speech.>"

"<Thank you.>" He replied simply. "<Though I am not finished yet.>"

It wasn't until later that Kaede found out that Pascal had asked the Princess for help in writing it. Or that he had also run the draft past King Leopold at Sylviane's recommendation, to ensure that the monarch would not see it as trying to impose foreign policy by using his father's legacy.

"As a final tribute," the young lord continued after a prolonged pause. "I would like to thank His Majesty the King for approving and funding the last proposal that my father drafted on behalf of Weichsel. I am glad to announce that the Mittermeyer and Moltewitz Boarding School will begin construction in Königsfeld next spring. Once completed, this institution will admit up to 200 bright and talented adolescents of ages 8 to 12 each year, and offer them up to 6 years of education with free boarding, food, and tuition. Admissions will be based strictly on examination, and graduates will be given a position in Weichsel's government, army, or a scholarship to continue their studies at the Königsfeld Academy of Magic."

Kaede immediately recognized the proposal as one that she and Gerard helped Pascal draft back at the Alisia Academy. They had agreed that while Weichsel could not afford universal public education, they could at least begin establishing free schooling for those with potential. The idea was to begin with one school and scale up as the program accumulated experience and results.

She could also hear the quiet murmuring of the crowd behind her. Many voices were in clear approval, though many others also cast their doubts. It was probably one of the reasons why Pascal decided to announce it under his father's name, rather than take personal credit for the idea. However, the other reason was purely one of sentimentality...

It's quite a fitting tribute, she thought approvingly. To have his father remembered as not just a hero of battlefield valor, but also one for fostering the next generation.

"It is my father's final wish that just like Marshal Mittemeyer and himself, the commoners and yeomen of Weichsel may receive the opportunity to prove and elevate themselves in the service of our country and our king!" Pascal declared, which prompted Kaede to smile again.

With his eulogy finished, the new landgrave's eyes scanned across the audience before falling back upon his father's casket and the black dragon banner that wrapped around it.

"Hail the Black Dragon!" Pascal shouted as he snapped his boots together, stood perfectly straight, and raised his hand to his head in a military salute.

The gesture was followed by dozens, hundreds, everyone gathered not just inside, but also outside the cathedral's gates.

"Hail!"



Chapter 13.5 Interlude - Chaos Rising[edit]

Colonel Lindsay de Martel watched silently from her post as Geoffroi Jean de Gaetane, the Emperor of Rhin-Lotharingie, silently circled the massive map projection table.

The war room of the Oriflamme Palace was empty, except for the Emperor and a squad of royal armigers from the Highland Guard. The elite knights were all well-practiced in the art of being seen but not heard. Only Geoffroi's heavy footsteps resounded across the spacious room as he paced around the table display.

The Emperor was clearly in a pensive mood today. And Lindsay couldn't blame him as news from the frontlines had been mixed over the past week.

On the Inner Sea front, the Cataliyan army withdrew behind the Ròse River after Marshal Cosette destroyed their support fleet. This brought a much needed if temporary reprieve to the Army of Garona. And thanks to Pascal's quick work in logistics, the first supply convoy was already well on its way to the front. By the time the Cataliyans advanced again, the Kingdom of Garona's capital of Narbonnaise should be provisioned and reinforced -- its fortifications ready for a protracted siege.

In the center, the sworn 'Trio' --Gervais, Laurent, and Edgard-- had stopped the Tauheed forces in the second line fortresses guarding the South Lotharingie Mountain passes. Weeks of nonstop fighting along narrow, treacherous mountain roads had left both sides exhausted. However, now that snow has arrived and the mountain passes were beginning to close, the chances of a Cataliyan breakthrough before next Spring was dropping to nil. That should give the 'Trio' plenty of time to reorganize and replenish losses.

It was the situation in the west that the Emperor remained worried over.

Edith's defeat in last week's battle had proven to be less severe than they first thought. Another fifth of the army had trickled back in since their loss, bringing their numbers up to nearly seventy percent of their original strength. The lady-knight whom the troops affectionately dubbed Estelle the Polar Cross might not have a great sense of strategy, but her ability to inspire was second to none. Most armies began to disintegrate after a major defeat, yet Edith managed to keep morale up to the point that many stragglers regrouped and rejoined rather than desert.

However, the loss of King-Consort Armel also proved more serious than expected. The death of her beloved husband hit Queen Katell of Avorica particularly hard. The pregnant queen had holed up in her room since then, declining to see anyone except her maid and refusing to do anything except eat and sleep.

With one royal dead and the other incapacitated by grief, the Kingdom of Avorica was paralyzed at a moment when leadership was needed most. It didn't help that several prominent nobles had also been killed in the previous battle, including three members of the privy council. Combined with losses from other skirmishes, this left the council lacking the authority to govern in the absence of their queen -- which meant Edith could not expect any further mustering of reinforcements from Avorica.

Then, perhaps worst of all, Geoffroi's spies in the Kingdom of Ceredigion reported that the combination of Edith's loss and Avorica's paralysis only further convinced King Elisedd to stay out of the conflict. This meant that two of the four subsidiary kingdoms under the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie had already been rendered useless to the war effort. Meanwhile the northern Kingdom of Gleann Mòr still couldn't mobilize due to the onset of winter, and would stay that way until late next spring.

Determined to prevent a catastrophe, Emperor Geoffroi had stripped the capital and its surrounding territories of every soldier that could be spared. Even the palace guards had been reduced to a measly hundred. Everyone else had been sent off to the Avorican front, along with most of the remaining food in the local granaries.

Lindsay was the only high-ranking commander who remained behind. She was now responsible for protecting both the palace and the city with just a hundred men-at-arms and the city's militia. They were spread so thin that it would be laughably easy for assassins to sneak past, especially Imperial assassins: the renowned Mantis Blades, who recently added the Marshal of Weichsel to their long list of victims.

This was why she stood in this war room at the very moment. Lindsay had been following the Emperor every hour of every day since she had been left in charge, even sleeping against his bedroom door.

Actually, that only happened once.

Geoffroi had angrily told her that since she insisted upon being there, she could either sleep in one of the adjacent royal family bedrooms or he would drag her into his own.

His blue-violet gaze had been completely serious too.

Lindsay certainly did not forfeit her duty just because of a threat from her sovereign. Royal Armigers were not chosen for a lack of personal integrity. But even rumors of having an affair with the Emperor would surely destroy her reputation and career. Perhaps even worse, it would ruin her relationship with Crown Princess Sylviane -- her pupil in the martial arts whom she had come to see as almost a younger sister.

That left her with only one choice.

The nearest bedroom belonged to Geoffroi's deceased wife, who died ten years ago yet her personal effects were still perfectly maintained. With no intention to intrude upon such a sanctuary, Lindsay borrowed the next room instead, which belonged to the Princess.

Sylviane would just have to forgive her in these unusual times.

I wonder how Her Highness is doing in Nordkreuz...

Lindsay's attention soon snapped back to present as Joyeuse --the cerulean phoenix perched on Geoffroi's shoulder-- stretched out her wings and squawked a sharp warning.

"Blaze Ignition."

Without hesitation, the Emperor called upon his phoenix before activating the arming pendant he wore over his heraldic surcoat. A cascade of brilliant-blue mana poured out of the pendant's sapphire centerpiece and engulfed his body. Within three seconds, the mana that wrapped around his body condensed into smooth, hardened surfaces, before evaporating into the air to reveal a perfectly-fitting suit of full-plate armor that covered his muscular bulk.

The phoenix Joyeuse was also no longer in sight. Instead, the white-blue embers that drifted off the Emperor gave clear evidence to their unison.

Meanwhile Lindsay, like every other armiger in the room, already wore her armor. She merely stretched out her right hand, activated her extra-dimensional storage glove, and felt the sturdy chains of a heavy meteor hammer erupt into her fingers.

"Wards!" She ordered as they weaved one defensive spell after another upon themselves.

Lindsay strode forth in her armored boots, but had yet to reach the entrance when the heavy mahogany doors crashed open. They revealed a frantic armiger in bloodstained plate mail clutching his wounded neck.

"We're under---"

That was all he managed to croak out before another man in white full-plate rushed up from behind and rammed a longsword through the chink beneath his cuirass.

Silence Field, Lindsay instantly recognized the signs. There was no other way a man could dash forth in heavy plate without making a single sound, even though she stood no more than five meters away.

"Negation Surge."

Before the assailant could even finish pulling out his sword, a studded sphere of metal smashed into his white helmet. The antimagic spell discharged and tore a hole through the crusader's defensive wards before the helmet was pulverized against the door. With his skull crushed, the swordsman collapsed to the floor alongside the Lotharin armiger he had just killed.

Lindsay retrieved the mace-like head of her meteor hammer with yank on its chain. For a moment she continued to stare at the corpse, alarmed yet puzzled. The intruder wasn't dressed like a Mantis Blade by any means. In fact, he wore white plate armor with gold stripes.

...A Knight Templar.

Her eyes sprang wide with dismay as apprehension struck. Templars did not infiltrate castles to assassinate. They were a battlefield force who crushed their enemies wholesale.

They were also the paramilitary branch of the Papal Inquisition, whose greatest current foe just happened to be the excommunicated Emperor standing behind her.

How many of them are within the Palace already? And just how did they get inside?

Lindsay's first question was answered within the minute as a chorus of clanking steel emerged from just down the hall.

There was no longer any purpose for the enemy to hide their numbers.

Their surprise had been total and complete.

The next templar through those doors blocked her flying meteor with a CLANG from his heater shield. But instead of charging straight at her, he fanned off to one side, followed by seven other shielded knights to form a 'V' just inside the door.

With their beachhead established, dozens more poured through. They spread out towards both flanks, threatening to envelope the defenders in the center of the room. Yet despite their absolute advantage in numbers, despite losing yet another head to Lindsay's meteor hammer, not a single one charged forth to attack.

What are they waiting for?

Pressured by their numbers, Lindsay fell three steps back to the defensive chevron her royal armigers had formed.

It was a desperate gesture of resistance. They were twelve against dozens, with what sounded like hundreds more just waiting outside. These were no lowly soldiers either. Every one of them wore plate mail of the highest quality, affordable to only a proper knight-brother of the Templar Order.

How did they...

Lindsay had yet to finish her thought before a familiar figure stepped through.

"Gabriel," Geoffroi's stiff voice rang out from behind her. "You traitorous bastard."

The lean and handsome prince stopped between the two V-wings of templars. His armor was pristine. His white clothes were impeccable. His plum-black hair and blue-violet eyes made him look every bit like the Emperor's younger brother. Except Gabriel was actually the older of the two, who had been passed over for Geoffroi due to his failure to summon a phoenix.

The traitorous duke wore a sad yet beautiful smile, as though nostalgic over the sight of an old friend. His cuirass displayed the same Gaetane heraldry as Geoffroi's own. However his hands did not hold a mace or some other crushing weapon --as would be expected of most noblemen from central Rhin-Lotharingie-- but a sleek arming sword of the Church. Countless tiny, floating crucifixes of glowing gold surrounded him in a sphere of brilliant light, marking his new status as a champion of the faith.

So much for your 'reinforcements', Lindsay thought bitterly.

With most of Rhin-Lotharingie's intelligence efforts directed south, Gabriel could have easily hid the templars within his army as 'mercenaries'. They were marching south to join the front lines, and took the riverside road that passed Lake Alise. Lindsay wasn't exactly sure how Gabriel brought hundreds of men across the lake unnoticed. But with the Capital's garrison so understaffed, even a single bribed sentry could open a doorway of opportunity.

This was especially true when the Pope had swayed countless devotees against His Majesty.

Once those templars were on the island, there was no stopping them. The royal prince who led them did not just grow up here. He had once accompanied the adventurous young Geoffroi in all sorts of mischief. The two of them knew every nook, cranny, and secret passageway coming in and out of the palace grounds.

"I know Mother had always favored me, but please do not be so unkind towards her heavenly soul." Gabriel replied, his wistful smile never faltering.

"No, you were adopted," Geoffroi declared straight. "Our parents simply never had the heart to kick you back out."

Really?

Lindsay blinked in surprise before taking Geoffroi's words into consideration. For a moment she had believed his statement for real.

"Save your bad jokes, Geoffroi. I am here to request your surrender and abdication."

"Which Emperor has ever surrendered to a pretender and failure?" Geoffroi retorted with scathing words as he deployed his heavy weapon from extradimensional storage and slammed its butt onto the stone floor.

The Emperor's custom goedendag was a steel-shafted polearm built like a halberd. It had a studded cylindrical mace beneath the long spike. Attached to the mace's side was a crescent blade, jutting out like a pair of bull's horns.

"Which Emperor has ever been excommunicated by his head of faith?" The brother rebutted, all traces of his smile vanishing behind a stern and sorrowful gaze. "You have already broken the law of kings. Had you not turned your back on the Holy Father who entrusted you with this realm, I would have no need to demand your crown."

Yet despite facing such accusations, the Emperor began to chuckle. It soon grew to a deep, derisive laugh that revealed his incredulity and contempt for the irony of the situation:

"So that gold-draped puppet, His Holiness, decided that you were a better alternative? You, who failed the phoenix's test three times!? You, who fled from your duties as a prince of the realm decades ago, to bath in idolatry after retiring to an insignificant land!? You, whose hermaphroditic character contained neither the steadfast decisiveness of men nor the sensible judgment of women? Ha!"

Emperor Geoffroi barked another laugh as he gently pushed Lindsay aside and stepped in front of his guards. White-blue flames radiated from his muscular body and splashed against the glowing shields of the templars, forcing them to cautiously take a step back.

"You were never fit to rule, Gabriel, and I can tell you why." Geoffroi continued. "Because the phoenixes knew, just as I did, that you are a cynical, faithless sinner. A homosexual, impregnated by the Devil's lust and devoid of the Holy Father's grace. Yet the Church would pick you for a champion? Just whom is it that the den of corruption represents now!?"

A few of the Knights Templar turned their armet helmets, glancing towards their leader in question and doubt. However most of them never even hesitated.

Neither did Duke Gabriel.

"Has your conscience deserted you to madness, Geoffroi?" The pretender softly asked through a mask of pity. "Does my long and loving marriage not speak for itself? Or are you so corrupted that you hear naught but the Devil's slander? Arrogant enough to believe yourself superior in judgment to all the lords who stand with me, even the representative of the Holy Father himself?"

"What lords," Lindsay spat out in anger. "Those not hoodwinked by your lies are clearly all traitors like yourself!"

"A true patriot does not side blindly with tyrants, Milady," Gabriel's eyes softened as they shifted onto her. "I have no wish to antagonize House Mackay-Martel. I respect your devotion, but it is wasted on such an apostate. Please stand aside. I personally guarantee you and your knights an honorable surrender and safe return to your lands."

"The Guard dies! It does not surrender! Certainly not to vermin like you!" she declared as her right hand continued to twirl the mace-like head of her heavy meteor hammer.

"As you wish," Gabriel replied back with a slight bow before issuing his order:

"Send them all to Purgatory."

"To Hell with you first!" Geoffroi cried out as he raised his goedendag off the ground. "Flamebreak!"

A corona of white-blue fire burst forth from the Emperor's armored body, expanding outwards to engulf row after row of crusader knights. Inside the nimbus of a maximum-power eruption of Joyeuse's cleansing flames, the mana fueling the templars' wards combusted and dissolved in the fire. Although their pristine armor remained untarnished, the horrid screaming of dozens divulged the truth beneath. Their bodies had been immolated across every centipace of skin, and every one of them was overwhelmed by pain as they were roasted alive.

Meanwhile, not a single one of Geoffroi's own armigers showed any sign of injury.

Seizing the moment, the Emperor dashed forward and smashed his mighty polearm into the traitorous duke. But instead of crushing the thin-shouldered man like tomatoes under a hammer, Geoffroi's weapon struck one of the floating crucifixes and was brought to a sudden halt.

The tiny little cross hardly budged by a finger's width, just as a sphere of them had easily repelled the phoenix's flames.

How...?

Lindsay doubted her eyes even as she sprang into action. The Emperor's flames might have destroyed the templar vanguard, but an unending stream of armored knights now poured in through those open gates. Two other sections of wall also turned to dust under Disintegrate spells, further opening the room to assault.

It was now up to her and the other armigers to protect His Majesty's flanks, for as long as they could.

Oriflamme Paladins were unparalleled warriors on the battlefield. But just as all other beings, they had a critical shortcoming: the flames of their bonded phoenix were not inexhaustible. The Flamebreak spell which unleashed all of a phoenix's reserves was meant to be a Paladin's final trump card, as it often took a week for their familiar to recharge after such an exhaustive discharge. Geoffroi had clearly gambled on a quick decapitation of the coup's leader.

Unfortunately the traitor Gabriel was also aware of this, as he too had been raised as a Prince of the Empire. There was no doubt he came prepared, including the secret weapon that he had just displayed.

"The Sword of Fortitude, quite worthy of its name," Gabriel announced as though bragging while he tossed the arming sword into his left hand. "So long as both me and my men are determined to achieve justice, neither steel nor spell may touch my hallowed being."

It was an artifact of Conceptual Magic -- a relic of the dragonlords' highest sorcery.

"Then I just have to slaughter your men until they break!"

The Emperor shouted as he swung his weapon with magically-enhanced strength, smashing two fully-armored knights into a nearby wall before parrying Gabriel's sloppy thrust with his polearm shaft.

"Before the Defender of the Faith and the will of the Holy Father, these templars face no death, only salvation," Duke Gabriel stated as his right hand reached back to pull out a spiked mace from his belt.

"How many times can you keep swinging that thing, Geoffroi? Because it won't be enough."


----- * * * -----


Cecylia von Falkenhausen peeked out from the shadows of a small bridge near the city's edge. Night had just fallen which meant the new, city-wide curfew has gone into effect. Her scarlet-red eyes glowed with a glimmer of magic as they scanned the surroundings. Yet even with Thermal Sight active on top of her vampiric night vision, she still couldn't spot a single individual in the immediate area.

She could see more from her familiar bond through the nine bodies of Ania, her matryoshka cat. There was a squad of patrolling guards on the next street and a few local residents who looked out from the windows of their residences. Nevertheless, she couldn't see a single person who might be the one she was waiting for.

"<Sir, are you sure this bridge is the right place?>" She asked over telepathy.

"<Yes.>" The reply came from Gerhard August von Gneisenau, Weichsel's ambassador to the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie. His physical figure was nowhere to be seen, as he was still back inside the Oriflamme Palace's embassy wing.

Since Duke Gabriel's forces arrived in the city at midday, they had overtaken the garrison and placed the entire capital under martial law. Cecylia wasn't sure exactly what had happened inside the palace, but she had confirmation from the ambassador that the coup had succeeded and the Emperor had been killed.

To the best of their knowledge, the Emperor's Highland Guard fought and died rather than surrender. However at least one of them had survived the coup, and had contacted the ambassador earlier to arrange this meeting.

"<This Elspeth, do you know her?>"

"<No.>" Gerhard answered. "<But I know she's the younger sister of Lindsay de Martel, Colonel of the Highland Guard and arms instructor to the Princess. And I did run mana verification on the Farspeak spell when she contacted me. I think we can trust her to not be playing a trick for the usurper.>"

"<I agree, Sir,>" Cecylia noted. "<But should we be sticking our hand into this messy business?>"

"<Aren't you friends with the Princess?>" Gerhard's response came with a hint of surprise. "<You should know that Elspeth asked for you specifically.>"

"<Sylviane is my friend. But I am a Black Eagle of Weichsel. My duties are to our King and our country first,>" Cecylia declared. "<If Rhin-Lotharingie does indeed have a new ruler, would it not be imprudent for us to begin on his bad side by plotting behind his back?>"

What the young girl didn't mention was that the dhampir of Falken clans --Falkenhausen, Falkenberg, and Falkenrath-- have a unique relationship with the Drachenlanzen dynasty that ruled Weichsel.

Like all other dhampirs, the three clans once wandered the continent on the receiving end of every form of racism, due to being descendants of the historic vampires who were corrupted by demons during the Dragon-Demon Wars. However in return for their services during the founding of Weichsel, the first king Ferdinand von Drachenlanzen accepted them into Weichsel as part of its aristocratic elite. In return, the Falken clans had sworn a blood oath -- to serve the successors of the Drachenlanzen dynasty above all other political interests.

...Though this last detail was a state secret, known only by the Kings of Weichsel and the dhampirs themselves.

"<Duke Gabriel does not meet the qualifications to become Emperor of Rhin-Lotharingie, even if he is of Gaetane blood.>" Gerhard's derisive voice pulled Cecylia back to the present conversation. "<The Emperor of Rhin-Lotharingie must be, above all, an Oriflamme Paladin. The founding Emperor, Charles the Bold, once said that it was more important that the ruler of the Lotharins be of noble character, approved by the phoenixes, than be of his blood.>"

"<That story is indeed well known, Sir.>" Cecylia nodded while she kept her eyes on the surroundings. "<But unfortunately neither Charles nor his successors ever wrote it into the Empire's laws. It has no legal binding.>"

"<It may not be a tradition de jure, but it is certainly one de facto.>" Gerhard insisted. "<The Burning Throne is famous across Hyperion, and the ascension of Emperor Geoffroi over his older brother had already provided the precedence. Gabriel's seizure of the throne will undoubtedly mark the start of a civil war, especially since he relied upon Imperial crusaders for his coup, whom most Lotharins --particularly those in the south-- absolutely despise. If Weichsel is to maintain and benefit from this alliance in the decades ahead, it would be best if we help support a more legitimate candidate than a failed prince.>"

We? Cecylia thought with a smile. The ambassador had been careful to word it in terms of national interest. But she also knew that deep down, Gerhard was rather fond of Geoffroi and Princess Sylviane, whom he dined with regularly and could consider his personal friends.

"<So you'd like to place our bets on Princess Sylviane?>" she queried next. She already knew the answer, of course. But she still wanted to know how he'd reason it.

"<She is the groomed successor, not to mention betrothed to our new Landgrave of Nordkreuz.>" Gerhard noted. "<Furthermore, she also has a close friendship with King Alistair of Gleann Mòr, who wields one of the strongest military forces within the Empire. If she could attain both the military support of our King and King Alistair, then she has a good chance at retaking the throne, even if she does begin in a position of weakness.>"

"<That's a big IF.>" Cecylia frowned.

One of the most important lessons her father had ever given her, was that it was unwise to try to predict the whims of Kings. No, it was better, not to mention politically safer, to carry out established policies and directives.

But what about now, when recent events have left those policies adrift? Cecylia pondered to herself.

She had already sent a Farspeak message home to the King's spymaster, Colonel Hannes von Falkenberg of the Black Eagles. However, the Colonel seemed distracted when he received her report -- something big must be happening back in Weichsel as well. And until new instructions arrived, she was left on her own judgment.

"<You sound as though you don't want to see Weichsel support Princess Sylviane?>" Ambassador Gerhard asked in a skeptical tone.

It reminded Cecylia why the retired general had been chosen for this position. After all, he might technically be her superior here in Alis Avern, but she had read his file. Gerhard von Gneisenau was a career military officer known for his honesty, candidness, and dependability. In other words, he was perfect for developing trust between two established allies, but far from the best for more subtle political intrigue.

"<Not at all, Sir.>" Cecylia replied with a shrewd, inward smile. "<Of course I'd like to see the continued alliance between Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie. However, it would not do the Princess any favors for me to simply agree with you, Sir. It would be far better for me to play devil's advocate to help sharpen your analytical argument,>" Cecylia highlighted. "<After all, His Majesty will certainly be asking all the hard questions when he eventually entreats your advice. And...>"

Cecylia instantly snipped off her train of thought as her eyes noticed movement nearby. She couldn't make out any details in appearance, but the figure's outline was undeniably small and feminine. That matched what she had been told about this Elspeth individual. Furthermore, the petite, shadowy figure moved with a slight limp, which was a sign that the girl had been injured.

Without the need of magical assistance, Cecylia opened her lips to perfectly mimic the soft meow of a small kitten. It was the agreed upon signal for their meeting.

A meek, badly done meow came in response. The other side was clearly not used to cloak-and-dagger business.

Then, as a petite girl even shorter than herself limped out of the shadows and into the open, Cecylia hurried out of her hiding place to meet the other. The dhampir gently took hold of the latter and rushed back to her spot under the bridge. There, they could stay out of sight from any potential patrols.

"<Dame Elspeth de Martel?>" Cecylia was quick to cast a Telepathy spell. She received a brief and feeble nod in return. Her nose sniffed as she smelled the scent of dried blood. However it seemed the wounds had already been closed some time ago.

The young dhampir then tied her new link to the Farspeak connection she was still concentrating on to stay in contact with Ambassador Gerhard.

"<I have her, Sir. She's wounded, at least twice, and has lost a lot of blood.>"

"<Dame Elspeth?>" Gerhard queried. "<You should have mentioned that you were injured. You're in no shape to-->"

"<It doesn't matter.>" Elspeth mustered enough energy to cut him off with her young, girlish voice. "<I've been entrusted to bring the news of what happened here to Princess Sylviane, in person, and I will do it. Will you help me or not, ambassador?>"

"<I've already agreed, haven't I?>" Gerhard replied straight. "<I do not think it is wise for you to travel in person, but I'm certainly not going to go back on my word. Getting out of the city will be easy. The new soldiers who came with Duke Gabriel don't know Alis Avern well and it should be simple for Cecylia to sneak you out.>"

"<Piece of cake.>" Cecylia declared confidently. "<And once we leave the city's wards, I can teleport her off the island.>"

"<With a rider? That's impressive at your age.>" Gerhard remarked.

"<Well, I did grow up with Pascal.>" The young dhampir smiled.

"<Even so, you're no wayfarer, Cecylia.>" Gerhard pointed out their next dilemma. "<Duke Gabriel has already issued a reward for anyone who turns in loyalists of Emperor Geoffroi. You cannot rely on any Wayfarers in this area unless you know them well enough to trust them. And you do need a wayfarer for the number of teleportation jumps you'll need just to leave this region.>"

He's right about that, Cecylia frowned for a moment, before the face of a young redhead came to mind.

"<Sir, I know a wayfarer just outside the city, and I am certain that he can be trusted.>"

"<Whom?>" Gerhard replied with surprise.

"<Sir Reynaud Moreau.>" Cecylia said. "<His father is a close associate of King Alistair. Furthermore, while I wouldn't call them exactly friends, Reynaud has already helped Pascal once during the assassination attempt. Last I heard, Reynaud had just joined an independent 'free company' that was mustering outside the city. They still haven't left for the front lines yet.>"


----- * * * -----


Sneaking out of the city proved far too easy. The new soldiers whom Gabriel ordered to take over the city's garrison clearly lacked awareness of all the blind spots in the city's walls. And since the capital city of Alis Avern was built on rough, hilly terrain and relied more on Lake Alis for defense than its stoneworks, there were a great number of weak spots in its centuries-old fortifications.

Instead, Cecylia's biggest burden was the fact she had to help Elspeth limp along. The young armiger had received a deep stab in her right thigh. Even with magical healing, it would take days for the girl's leg to recover fully. And while the petite Elspeth was anything but heavy, neither physical strength nor stamina were among Cecylia's better attributes.

By the time they reached the encampment that Reynaud was staying at, Cecylia was exhausted to the point of collapse herself. It had taken hours for the two girls to walk just a few kilopaces, and by now it was already late at night. Cecylia's fatigue had caused her to slip and almost attract the attention of passing soldiers who were on watch. Thankfully, a distraction by Ania convinced the soldier that the noise he heard was just a foraging cat.

"Meow." Cecylia cried softly from the shadows as she saw the short and skinny man with red hair near the hay stockpile. Reynaud had promised he'd be waiting for them there when she called ahead by Farspeak.

It took only a moment for the young man to spot them, even with limited torch lighting and the Camouflage illusion spell that made Cecylia and Elspeth's figures blend into their background.

Clearly, his ex-assassin mother taught him more than just swordplay. The dhampir smiled to herself as her hypothesis proved true.

"Cecylia, Dame Elspeth," Reynaud spoke in a hushed voice as he came close. "Follow me, but stay out of sight if you can. Gabriel's men have already visited once and offered a reward to the men for anyone with information on loyalists. Best we keep your arrival a strict secret."

The two girls nodded in agreement, and proceeded to follow the young man through several empty alleys until they reached the door of a modest-looking cabin. However, Cecylia immediately noticed that the foundations of the cabin merely sat upon flattened ground, rather than dug in with wooden pillars like a properly built stationary structure. This meant the cabin was most likely an enchanted, redeployable type -- one that could shrink down to the size of one's palm and be carried in a knapsack on campaign.

There's no way the son of a mere chevalier could afford his, Cecylia felt alarms go off in her head. With a flick of her wrist, she popped out her spring-loaded wrist blade and pressed its pointy end against the back of Reynaud's gambeson.

"Whose cabin is this?"

"Relax, would you?" Reynaud replied calmly. "This is Perceval's. We've been sharing it."

"I told you to keep this private." Cecylia hissed.

Despite her attitude, Cecylia didn't entirely object. After all, having a healer to look over Elspeth was useful, and Perceval was as trustworthy of a healer as she could attain within a hundred kilopaces. However Perceval did have political affiliations which added potential complications. And the iron rule of spycraft was that the less people who knew, the better.

"You also told me that Elspeth is injured." Reynaud retorted. "Look, you trust me, you trust my friends. It's simple as that."

He then turned slightly and gloated: "And you'll need more than just a tiny dagger to hurt me."

"Like this?" Cecylia said as she nudged her raised knee against the inside of his upper thigh. She had a loaded blade there as well, though it wasn't ejected yet.

"Holy Hyperion you're vicious for a cutie," Reynaud balked slightly this time, as he realized that one wrong move could have relieved him of his precious manhood.

Sure enough, as he opened the door and helped the two girls in, they were greeted by a wide grin from the young healer. Also present was Gerard Fournier, the beefy young engineer who was part of Perceval's inner circle of close friends.

...It wasn't completely unexpected. But Cecylia shot Reynaud another glare anyway.

Perceval, meanwhile, immediately rushed over to take Elspeth's weight off Cecylia's thin shoulders. He carried Elspeth over to... his giant, white blob of a familiar who was pretending to be a badly-built lounge chair.

There, he took off her armor and began to examine her closed wounds with the professionalism expected of a healer.

"Cecylia, it's good to see you again." Perceval spoke as soon as Reynaud closed the door behind them. "And Dame Elspeth. Please excuse me," he said just before tearing the undergarment that had stuck to her wound with dried blood. "I fear your First Aid has left some complications. There's heavy internal bleeding on your left."

"Yes," the petite Elspeth admitted through gritted teeth. "I think several of my ribs are broken."

Perceval gently pressed his fingers against her left side and the young girl instantly recoiled. He then pulled out one of his quartz tablets to run a scan on the girl before concluding: "three, to be exact. You're also magically drained, though that does make my job easier."

He then cast a surgical spell which made glowing extensions of aquamarine mana sprout from the tips of his fingers. As the healer pressed his fingers against her torso again, the ethereal extensions sunk into Elspeth's body. The young girl's eyes swelled to the size of saucers while a whimper emerged from her lips as though she was a puppy being stepped on.

Considering how mana of different sources usually repelled each other, the ease to which Perceval forcibly projected his own mana into her body showed just how low on magic she was.

I'm surprised she managed this whole time. Cecylia reflected with a grimace. Even a pain suppression spell would have been running on bare threads

"Reynaud has already told us what you told him," Perceval noted as he carefully kneaded her side to line up the broken ribs for mending. "She really is in no state to travel."

"It doesn't matter. I must!" The young girl kept up her bravado even as her face contorted with excruciating pain.

"But--"

"My journey is not up for debate!" Elspeth half-gasped and half-yelled. "If you do not help me then I shall do it by myself!"

There's definitely another reason for her trip that she's not telling us about. Cecylia instinctively felt.

"No, we'll take you." Reynaud declared. "We'll guard you all the way to Nordkreuz," he then looked around and received a nod from both Perceval and Gerard. "All of us."

"Is that really necessary?" Cecylia raised an eyebrow. "More people will strain your teleports."

"I'll manage," Reynaud smirked. "Besides, not like any of us are going to be of any use to the country while we're sitting here. I doubt that usurper is going to let us go to the front anytime soon. His men already expressed their intentions to force us to join his army when they visited earlier. And I bet you he's more interested in using us to fight loyalist elements than sending us against the infidels."

"A traitor during a time of national crisis," Gerard spat. "To start a civil war while we're being invaded? He deserves nothing less than the most agonizing death possible."

Perceval frowned upon that but chose not to comment. Instead he remarked: "Shame to abandon our company though. It was just starting to shape up too."

"Abandon? No way I'm leaving it for those traitors to make use of!" Reynaud retorted. "The last thing we must do before departing is to disband the company. Better to think of the money spent as charity than giving it for free to the enemy!"

Perceval nodded in agreement, despite his obvious reluctance.

"I thought you had joined this 'free company'?" Cecylia asked. Though the name was clearly a bit of a misnomer. Real 'free companies' were mercenary groups willing to serve for the highest bidder. This group was clearly more motivated by Lotharin national pride.

"No. Me and Gerard recruited it from the local militias. Perceval bankrolled it." Reynaud explained. "It really is our company."

"You were training a mercenary company from scratch?" The dhampir asked skeptically.

"Better than serving under one of the local nobles," Reynaud shrugged. "If the company is our own, then we get to keep what we win, and not have to give the majority of it up to some petty lord."

"Petty lord funding the unit right here," Perceval noted sarcastically, which --insofar as Cecylia knew the healer-- was actually pretty rare for him.

"You know what I mean," Reynaud quickly added. "You don't try to claim the lion's share of the credit whenever someone kills or captures someone important. Unlike half of our so-called aristocracy."

It was moments like these when Cecylia felt pride as a Weichsen. To promote its meritocratic heritage, her country had strict rules and regulations on awarding credit where it's due. Even the lowliest peasant can expect a promotion after scoring battle honors, while plunder and ransom were always pooled together and then redistributed based on battlefield contributions and accomplishments -- and only after widows and orphans received their dues for the comrades who lost their lives.

"In either case, we're Lotharins." Gerard pulled the topic back with pride in his voice. "Fightin' foreigners is in our blood. We figured a few weeks of drilling would be enough for militia men who already had basic weapons training."

"Why didn't you return to Perceval's home in the Duchy of Baguette?" Cecylia queried next as she turned towards the healer. "Surely your grandfather was mustering?"

It was more than just a question of curiosity. Baguette was one of the duchies of the northeastern Belges region, the same area that Gabriel drew his support from. Cecylia knew from her sources that the eccentric old duke had chosen to stay out of Gabriel's army. What she didn't know was why.

She was certain that economics at least partially played into it. Unlike most of the impoverished and politically-sidelined Belges territories, Baguette was well managed by its lord, who made use of its proximity to Nordkreuz and its strategic position guarding the Lotharin estuary to pull in taxes for local development. Because of this, the elderly Duke of Baguette never jealously eyed the Empire's treasury like the rest of his neighbors, nor felt disregarded by the Emperor's attention elsewhere.

However, Cecylia was also wary of the trap of seeing money as the primary motivator of men. People were far more nuanced than that. Her own family certainly valued honor and respect far more than their materialistic possessions. To finally settle in a nation where one felt appreciated -- it was why the Falken clans swore their blood oath.

"No." Perceval sighed. "Gramps claimed that since he held the borders with Skagen where the Northmen were mobilizing, it was important for his soldiers to stay at their posts. We had a huge argument over that too." He admitted sheepishly. "In hindsight though, I think Gramps may have had an inkling of what Gabriel was planning to do, and wanted no part of it. Growing up, he's always taught me that as Lotharins, our duty was to Rhin-Lotharingie first, and not to its petty, factionalistic disputes."

Probably the wisest move too, Cecylia thought. If the Duke had joined Gabriel, he'd be counted among the usurpers now. Yet he also couldn't side with the Emperor without having his neighbors turned on him. So he used Skagen as a shrewd excuse.



Chapter 14 - The Storm Front[edit]

Two days after the late Marshal's funeral, Kaede and Pascal were passing time in the library when she heard him sigh faintly. The young lord then began to pace back and forth in front of the windows, where his eyes remained drawn to the snowy flurry outside.

"Feeling restless?" His familiar asked as she looked up from the small booklet that she had been writing in.

Pascal glanced towards her with a scowl before responding in a voice somewhere between sullen and irritated:

"I feel like a week of my life has just wasted away."

It wasn't the first time Pascal had expressed his displeasure over the past week over a lack of purpose. While Weichsel's cavalry forces were taking turns launching raids into the Skagen Peninsula, the bulk of its infantry and officers remained in Nordkreuz, with little else to occupy their time other than training. This left Pascal with very few responsibilities, especially compared to his fiancée.

Princess Sylviane had been busy negotiating a new trade deal with King Leopold that sought to attract Weichsen investment to the mines of Rhin-Lotharingie. After all, while Weichsel has a significant metallurgy industry known for the quality of its steel, it also has a shortage of iron ore which it had traditionally imported from the Holy Imperium. However, since the War of Imperium Succession ten years ago when Weichsel annexed several of the Imperium's northern provinces, Weichsel's economic ties with the Imperials had come under periodic embargos.

Sylviane wanted to persuade King Leopold that Rhin-Lotharingie would be a far more reliable source. However the problem was that the Empire's mines and infrastructure were also significantly behind that of the Imperium. Therefore, to meet the same needs, Rhin-Lotharingie would need significant investment and expansion of its mining facilities -- capital which the Lotharins lacked and would require outside funding.

The problem was that after centuries of being exploited by the Imperials, the Lotharins were also wary of foreign economic interests. Therefore, Lotharin law specified that all land within the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie must be held by Lotharin owners. This caused negotiations to stall for the longest time until Kaede made a suggestion to the Princess:

"Why not create new, joint venture businesses with shared ownership? If a business has a 51% Lotharin ownership, then it's technically a Lotharin business and can therefore own Lotharin lands. Meanwhile the margin is so slim that should a dispute happen, it wouldn't be hard for the Weichsen owners to draw support from the other side with a sound argument."

It was the exact same dilemma that Deng Xiaoping faced in 1978 when he decided to reform China and open it up to the world. Kaede recognized this and therefore proposed the exact same solution. The only problem --at least back on Earth-- was that they would be accused of 'forced technology transfers' four decades later by a declining superpower with selective amnesia, even though the ventures were freely agreed upon and it was how commercially-applicable technology spreads.

Last she heard from Sylviane, this was the breakthrough they needed. Negotiations had moved onto the next phase, and the Princess was so delighted she spent all of lunch today in a self-congratulatory spirit.

...That likely contributed to Pascal's mood, as it only further highlighted his own lack of recent accomplishments.

"What are the Northmen doing?" Pascal complained as he looked out the window again in-between his back and forth pacing. "Skagen's army left the port city of Nordkapp a week ago, yet they still have not made it to the border. It is like they are seeking battle yet deliberately drag their feet along the way. We know from past experience their army is capable of more than twice the speed they are marching at, especially on snow."

"Well, you did say that their army of 30,000 alone had no chance of victory," Kaede interjected. "Maybe they are waiting for more reinforcements to arrive by sea?"

"An expedition group of 6,000 from Västergötland has already arrived and is landing as we speak." Pascal noted. "I doubt there is more to come as that country had taken heavy casualties back during their autumn raiding campaign. Meanwhile Skagen's own forces would not have departed from Nordkapp if they had more troops to disembark. Yes, I maintain my opinion that their numbers are not enough to assault Nordkreuz. But if the Northmen recognize this fact, then they ought to respond to His Majesty and begin peace talks! Their current stance of neither fighting nor negotiating is just wasting our time!"

Kaede made a wry, sympathetic smile as she considered her master's frustration. Pascal wasn't much of a negotiator so he was of no use to Sylviane in the trade talks. What he wanted to see above all else was for Weichsel's army to begin its march into Rhin-Lotharingie, to honor the defensive alliance that he himself stood at the center of. However, until the northern threat was resolved --be it through battle or diplomacy-- Weichsel's forces were going nowhere. And as a result he was stuck here in Nordkreuz playing armchair general.

With a deep sigh, Pascal forced himself to turn away from the windows. His turquoise eyes fell upon Kaede and for a brief moment, curiosity overpowered irritation in his gaze.

"What are you doing anyway?"

"I'm writing a journal," Kaede smiled more naturally as she raised the enchanted self-inking quill in her hand. "I figure if I'm going to be caught up in the great events of this world, then the least I could do is record it as a first-hand source just like Xenophon." She cited the Greek historian who personally fought in wars as a mercenary commander. "Besides, it gives me a chance to practice writing in your language."

It felt particularly odd to write down letters that she had never personally learned and therefore had no muscle memory for, yet recognized and understood thanks to her familiar bond with Pascal.

"You really are a history scholar," Pascal's eyebrows rose slightly. "Most people in your position would be seeking to change the world, not record it."

"You speak as if I'm not already doing my part to help you and the Princess," Kaede feigned a slight pout.

"No, no. Not at all," Pascal sighed. "In fact, you are being more helpful than I am."

"Patience, young one," Kaede stroked her nonexistent beard sagely before she gave Pascal an encouraging grin. "You'll get your moment soon enough."

"The sooner the better," Pascal remarked impatiently. "But what I meant is -- are you fine with just staying to the side as you do now? Recording what you see and giving the occasional piece of advice, instead of actively trying to push the world in the direction you want?"

"I've never considered myself a mover and shaker of the world, certainly not where I come from," Kaede shrugged. "All I've ever wanted was to educate others on the importance of history and learning from the past, to take a more nuanced view of the present and look past the black-and-white narratives that dominate my society back on Earth."

"Considering your father was a professor and you were surrounded by students, that is only natural," Pascal pointed out. "But it is also no longer the case. You now walk among the corridors of power, being close to leaders of national importance. Surely you have greater ambitions than to simply 'teach history'?"

"'Ambition' is really not my thing," Kaede frowned as her lips twisted into a faint scowl.

If anything, Kaede had been mocked as being too unambitious back on Earth. Herbivore men, as the Japanese liked to say -- a term Kaede found particularly distasteful as it dredged up memories of his ex-girlfriend and their unpleasant breakup.

"But at any rate," Kaede rushed to bury the distasteful thoughts that she hated to be reminded of. "I haven't even lived in this world for two full months yet. That is far too short a time to develop a mature view of how I envision its future. The last thing I want to be is one of those people who demand change without even taking the time to properly grasp the reasons behind the current status quo. After all," she declared proudly, "I'm a strong proponent that only those who live within a society have any right to make decisions for that society..."

At that moment, Kaede's keen, familiar-enhanced ears heard a commotion outside the door. It sounded as though every officer who frequented the building was now marching down the hall in their leather boots towards the map room.

"Something's happening," Kaede closed her journal booklet and stood up. "Impromptu conference in the map room."

"Finally," Pascal remarked as he immediately strode towards the door. His expression had changed to a grin so eager it bordered on wolfishness.

However his overenthusiasm made Kaede feel uneasy as she frowned slightly.

I know you're eager for recognition, Pascal, the familiar thought. But you should never be in a rush to see battle, or you'll regret it.


...


"What was Colonel Brykalski thinking!?" Kaede heard General Neithard von Manteuffel's deep growl resounded through the room like rumbling thunderclouds. "His orders were to impede and harass the Västergötlanders' upriver landing operations, not to decisively engage an entire brigade with only three battalions of cavalry and a single company of Phantoms!"

There was no sign of the general's stony poker face as he stared at the map table where a cavalry figure bearing a tattered flag of Weichsel represented the recently shattered force.

So roughly 1,200 versus 6,000? The Samaran girl estimated.

Kaede had read that Weichsel's battalions --based on the Holy Imperium's cohort system-- consisted of three companies of 150 men each plus battalion command, with a full strength of 500. Though the reality was a little more complicated since the battalions were organized as self-sufficient units on the operational level, with an integrated support company to manage supplies. As the cavalry shed its support elements to conduct fast raids, this meant that only seven combat companies were present at the battle, with roughly 1,200 combat and command personnel.

Meanwhile General Neithard made the brigade analogy since a Weichsel brigade --based on the Imperium's legion-- was roughly 5,500 men, and the Västergötland landing force was 6,000 in strength. Though in reality the Northmen had a very different unit organizational structure.

"That's not exactly fair," Chief-of-Staff General Wiktor von Falkenhausen interjected. "Brykalski followed his orders to the letter. There is clearly something else at play here."

The dhampir general then looked towards Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Ostergalen, who clutched the full transcript of the Farspeak message received by a signal officer earlier.

"According to his second-in-command's report, Colonel Brykalski attacked the invasion fleet's vanguard, hoping to light enough ships on fire to spread confusion and disrupt their landing," Hans began to explain as his eyes darted back and forth across the sheet of paper. "However, the low cloud cover and snow --the very same that hid their own approach-- also concealed enemy air forces until it was too late to avoid engagement. Over a hundred drake-riders descended into their formation just as the North Wind Phantoms climbed out of their attack run, forcing them into a chaotic melee. Command of the ground cavalry then fractured after repeated strafing attacks by the drakes' breath weapons, which allowed Västergötland ground troops to close the distance and entangle our cavalry in close-quarters combat..."

"A hundred drakes," the elderly Manteuffel remarked dubiously. "Västergötland couldn't scratch together two dozen drakes in its entirety, and our spies report but a handful with the Skagen army before they set out from Nordkapp. Where did a hundred drakes come from?"

Then, as though in response to the general's question, the map table in front of them conjured a new figure off the coast of Weichsel. The distance was roughly two-hundred kilopaces from the shore, which matched the detection range of Weichsel's artifact -- the 'Eye of the Dragon' which the map table drew its information from.

Kaede audibly gasped but she wasn't the only one. The Samaran girl instantly recognized the silhouette of a skywhale. However, as soon as the table's illusion magic drew the first whale, it shrunk the size down before drawing another, and another...

The room fell to a deathly silence as every individual present soon found themselves staring at a formation of four tiny skywhales. The miniature figures flew off the coast of Weichsel, with a numerical label of 1,000 displayed under it -- a rough estimate of their collective crew strength.

"That answers the question," General Neithard's lips twitched as he instantly recognized that the reports had been completely accurate, and not the attempts of a defeated officer trying to shirk responsibility as he had initially thought.

Does he mean a hundred drakes were launched from these skywhales? Kaede thought as her eyes widened. They're being used as carriers then!

It made sense, when she thought about it. If the skywhale they saw back in Alis Avern could be configured to transport cargo and passengers, then why couldn't other skywhales be adapted to carry drakes as some kind of 'mobile nest'?

"Skagen's volcanic drakes can outfight several of our Phantoms in a close encounter, especially once they penetrate our formation and disrupt our units' cohesion," General Wiktor commented grimly. "Meanwhile even a few dozen drakes' breath weapons rival the anti-air capacity of three cavalry battalions..."

Kaede remembered drakes as one of the more fascinating creatures from her reading. They were miniature dragons -- 'miniature' as in elephant-sized, instead of beings so massive they could use sport stadiums as landing pads and wrestle science-fiction starships. The dragonlords had created the drakes in their image to serve as grunt soldiers during the Dragon-Demon Wars. This made the drakes' mere existence a testament to the godly powers wielded by the dragons of Hyperion's past.

However when the dragonlords departed from Hyperion, they left most of the drakes behind. Lacking intelligence and without purpose, many drake breeds died out. But some, especially the broods tamed by humans, remained. The volcanic drakes from Skagen's Reykjanes Islands were easily one of the more dangerous breeds.

"It's no wonder they shattered in less than a half hour of combat," King Leopold spoke in a hushed tone.

Hans nodded before adding: "the report also states, and I quote 'we attempted repeatedly to break off, but regardless of which direction we turned, a strong gale always blew snow in our faces while lifting the wings of our foes'..."

The Lieutenant-Colonel then stared back with alarm as his fingers tapped the stiff sheet of paper:

"Your Majesty, this is the most important piece of information that the Colonel died to bring us. Between those winds, the skywhales that the 'Eye' just detected, the advancing blizzard covering the Västergötland fleet, and this unusual cold front that just swept down from the North Sea -- it can't be all a coincidence, Sire."

"You think it's him?" Colonel Hannes von Falkenberg, the King's spymaster, inquired.

"Him?" King Leopold raised an eyebrow.

"Admiral Winter, Sire," both Hans and Hannes declared at the same time.

"If I remember correctly," General Wiktor voiced next, "this 'Admiral Winter' is surmised to be the one most likely responsible for the destruction of the Caliphate's New World Expedition fleet thirty years ago?"

"Yes, Sir." Hans and Hannes spoke in unison again. The beautiful and androgynous spymaster then gestured for the balding intelligence officer to go ahead, probably since Hans was the first to make the deduction and it was only fair that he claimed the credit.

"Four decades ago, Asgeirr Vintersvend --the bastard half-brother of Jarl Eyvindur Sigmundsen of Kattegen-- wrote a book titled Massive Strike," Lieutenant-Colonel Hans explained. "In it, he espoused for the concentration of airborne striking power by pooling together aerial assets, including both drakes and skywhales, which may be swiftly deployed for overwhelming air offensives that can quickly decide a war."

This sounds remarkably familiar... Kaede couldn't help reflect.

"Then twenty-five years ago," Hans continued, "just a few years after the destruction of the Caliphate's New World Expedition fleet, we heard that Asgeirr had become a Jarl on Skagen's New World Frontier. Around the same time, we began hearing of the name 'Admiral Winter' from mercenaries and traders who frequently associate with the Northmen."

"It took us a few more years before we realized that Asgeirr Vintersvend is Admiral Winter," the dhampir spymaster followed up. "And it has less to do with his name and more with his choice of spells. Asgeirr is a stormcaller, and one of the most powerful archmages Skagen has ever seen. His aptitude for weather control magic and his skywhale familiar are two reasons why, in his youth, he became the first individual to solo-circumnavigate the world."

Kaede had always thought the term 'stormcaller' was a particularly accurate job description. Although the affinity was uncommon, they were easily one of the most important mage occupations in Hyperion. Their function varied from calling down rains for crops, to conjuring winds for trade fleets, to manipulating weather conditions on the day of battle.

"But four skywhales," Princess Sylviane spoke in awe. "Most countries are lucky to have just one or two of those beasts."

"Skagen is not just a northern kingdom, it is also a seafaring culture with a tradition of exploration. Those kinds of people are far more likely to summon a skywhale familiar," Hans pointed out. "I believe only the Grand Republic of Samara has more."

"Even so, how did he concentrate that many rare assets under a single command, given the Grand Jarldom's loose feudal structure?" Sylviane asked next. Her tone carried a slight tinge of envy as though she had personal experience trying to do the same.

"According to our sources," the King's spymaster commented, "Asgeirr has a particularly close relationship with his half-brother Jarl Eyvindur Sigmundsen, who in turn is one of Skagen's most prominent nobles and the current commander of their confederate forces."

"Furthermore, the Northmen may squabble continuously among themselves, but they always unite when facing an outside threat, and their social structure places great emphasis on personal prestige and fame," Lieutenant-Colonel Hans added. "I believe it's probable that the two brothers used the threat posed by the Caliphate's New World Expedition three decades ago to pool together this fleet, at least temporarily. Then, after their stunning victory, Asgeirr Vintersvend likely used his newfound fame and influence to cement the skywhale captains together as a permanent command under his leadership."

"But how would they hold it together in peacetime? When there is no need for such a massive concentration of force?" Sylviane puzzled aloud.

"They don't need to." General Wiktor explained. "Once a command hierarchy has been established and a sense of camaraderie forged, it is easy for the group to be recreated again, even if those involved go their separate ways during the interim years. This is the exact same logic we use for Weichsel's Fourfold Mobilization system."

"The petty Jarls of Skagen would surely resent someone with this much concentrated power though," King Leopold noted. "The weakness of the Northmen's sociopolitical structure has always been their obsession with one-upmanship."

"Which means when we defeat them, Skagen will not be able to form another battlegroup like this for who knows how long," Pascal scoffed as he spoke up for the first time.

There was never any doubt in his words: not if, but when.

The balding Lieutenant-Colonel nodded in agreement, at least on the topic of replacement:

"Skywhales are extremely rare to begin with, and are too intelligent and powerful to be tamed through normal means. Only baby skywhales may be summoned as familiars, and those take over a decade to grow to their adult size. This skywhale fleet is no doubt extremely powerful, but it is also not a force that Skagen is capable of replacing in anything less than a half-century."

"Which means that once we defeat it, the Northmen would have to sue for peace," General Neithard declared with stiff-jawed determination, his stony gaze already fixed upon the skywhale figures as though brainstorming a battle plan.

"I thought you told me before that Admiral Winter is a proponent of peace with Weichsel? Since in his opinion, warring on us is a waste of time and resources?" The King asked his spymaster.

"He does, Your Majesty. But his political influence is limited back here in Skagen's home isles, where he is resented for luring many of Skagen's finest to adventures in the Frontier," the dhampir replied.

"In fact, I'd say this makes him even more dangerous," Lieutenant-Colonel Hans followed up. "He will likely seek a decisive and crushing victory against us in order to secure a favorable peace. That way, he'll be able to go back and focus on his own interests on the other continent, undisturbed by Hyperion politics."

Great, so we really are dealing with a magical Yamamoto, Kaede thought.

The analysis of the spymaster and the intelligence chief reminded her of the famous Japanese World War II Admiral. Isoroku Yamamoto was one of the most prominent advocates of naval aviation. He was unflinchingly opposed to war with America, as he had lived in America for years and knew first-hand of its industrial might. Yet, after he was politically overruled, he planned and led the devastating Attack on Pearl Harbor in the misguided hope of a swift victory against the United States.

But Weichsel doesn't have the nigh-infinite production of the United States did back then. Kaede thought. Nor could Isoroku Yamamoto call down a Kamikaze -- the 'Divine Wind' to literally blow in the Skagen admiral's favor.

"Considering how his skywhales skirted around the Skagen Peninsula where our spies might have detected it." Lieutenant-Colonel Hans went on. "And how they launched their drakes from far offshore to prevent us from detecting them through the 'Eye of the Dragon' until after our first defeat, I think it is safe to surmise that a quick, strategic victory is exactly what Admiral Winter seeks. Which means that his target is..."

"Nordkreuz," General Neithard finished for him with a single word enveloped in deathly cold.

It's just like the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Kaede thought. Although they don't quite have the element of surprise anymore. Perhaps that other battle is a better fit...

"Asgeirr wants to bombard Weichsel's army in its encampments," Pascal said as he nodded in agreement. "Then, once our soldiers' morale and organization lay in tatters, Skagen's ground forces will storm the city. With that, they can achieve victory even with an inferior force."

"It certainly explains why their army's speed of advance more than tripled over the past hour." General Wiktor highlighted. "At this pace, they may reach the walls of Nordkreuz as early as midday tomorrow. We'll have to immediately recall any cavalry detachments still raiding in the Skagen Peninsula. They've been ordered to limit their range of operations so they should be able to make it back in time for the main battle."

The King nodded in agreement before General Wiktor turned towards the signal officers to issue new instructions. However, the intelligence chief wasn't finished yet:

"Your Majesty, I'm afraid the stakes of the upcoming clash are much higher than a mere battle," Hans warned, his voice growing more ominous by the second. "Nordkreuz has one of the most powerful ley-line junctions in Northern Hyperion, and there are claims that Asgeirr is a geomancer in addition to being a stormcaller--"

"That rumor is unconfirmed," spymaster Hannes interjected.

"But it's not rare for a mage of his caliber to have more than one specialization," the intelligence colonel insisted. "We must consider the possibility it is true, especially when you think about the amount of magical power he must have channeled thirty years ago." Hans then flung his arms out to impress the seriousness of the situation upon the others. "The man once devastated an entire armada with hurricane-force winds billowing strong and royal water. There is no reason he cannot do the same against an entire army or even the whole region if he is allowed enough time to access the Nordkreuz junction!"

Kaede couldn't remember the chemistry terms, but strong and royal water --'Aqua Fortis' and 'Aqua Regis'-- were two of the most corrosive acids known to medieval alchemists. The latter was named after its ability to dissolve even noble metals like gold and platinum, which were highly resistant towards corrosion.

"Nordkreuz has been the staging ground of many conflicts between Trinitians and the Northmen for centuries, long before we annexed it from the Holy Imperium," Pascal recognized as even his face grew a shade pale. "If Asgeirr Vintersvend indeed wishes for Skagen to focus its resources on their New World Frontier, then he does not even need the city. He could simply raze Nordkreuz and its surrounding lands, to create a wasteland buffer region just like what the Dead Mountains have become."

Pascal clenched the projection table as his turquoise eyes darkened. He then turned to meet the King's gaze:

"Your Majesty, we must intercept Admiral Winter and his skywhales before they can reach the city. Otherwise all Asgeirr has to do is buy time with the Skagen army while he channels a grand sorcery."

"With the North Wind essentially destroyed, all the Phantom units aside from the Phantom Gale company are currently conducting raids deep inside Skagen territory." General Wiktor highlighted. "They'll have to ride overnight if they are to make it back before the main battle."

We've been caught overextended and out of position, Kaede thought as she surveyed the room. The King was clearly worried, as were many of his officers. A few younger faces even revealed creeping traces of fear.

Yet General Neithard, the Manteuffel patriarch, was still as composed as a rock -- an unfeeling boulder that merely scoffed at the storm's attempt to dislodge him.

"This admiral has some guts, coming halfway across the world into our domain and trying to raze our city..."

Without even waiting for his king, General Neithard pivoted to the signal officers who used Farspeak spells to stay in contact with far-flung unit commanders:

"Message all of our forces in Skagen. Order every unit to cease any and all ongoing operations. They are to head south and regroup west of the town of Suokamo near the border." he pointed out on the projection map. "I will meet them there with the Phantom Gale. Make haste but avoid engagements until we rally."

"Yes Sir!"

Without waiting for their acknowledgements, the General had already turned his gaze to another -- Colonel Dietrich von Falkenrath, commander of the Phantom Gale.

"Assemble your men, Dietrich. We ride north after nightfall, and we will not stop until we are ready to have whalemeat for dinner."

Kaede heard that the youthful-looking, fifty-seven years old dhampir was one of General Neithard's most able protégés. Standing lean and tall, Dietrich von Falkenrath had sepia brown hair and a short-trimmed walrus mustache that might have been fashionable during World War I. His expressions were almost always neutral. But unlike his mentor, there was a constant, brooding intensity within his eyes, accentuated by two blood-red crosses that contrasted sharply with his emerald-green gaze.

Talk about minority overrepresentation, Kaede reflected as she realized that there were not one or two, but three dhampirs within the room: chief-of-staff General Wiktor von Falkenhausen, Knight Phantom Colonel Dietrich von Falkenrath, and Black Eagles Colonel Hannes von Falkenberg.

"Yes Sir!" Colonel Dietrich and several officers saluted with snapping boots. They then gave the King a nod of courtesy before marching out.

Kaede barely spotted a faint tightening of King Leopold's lips. His Majesty was clearly not happy that General Neithard's orders were being carried out without waiting for his approval first, even though he stood in this very room.

"Your Majesty, General," Sylviane then spoke next. "If you do not mind, I wish to join in the assault against Admiral Winter's skywhales. Father told me that there will be a decisive battle near Nordkreuz, and I believe this is it."

The Princess' wisteria eyes shone with steely resolve as she declared: "It is the duty of an Oriflamme to lead the charge, and I shall do so as long as the battle begins over Weichsel's airspace."

Kaede watched as General Neithard, in a rare, uncharacteristic moment, looked uncertain. It was as though the elderly Manteuffel felt conflicted, between whether to accept the Princess' help as military necessity, or to politely reject her since he wasn't actually in favor of the Weichsel-Lotharin alliance.

However before Neithard could respond this time, the King made the decision for him. Leopold strode up to the Princess, took her hands into his own, and shook it with appreciation.

"The inspiring courage of the Oriflamme Paladins is legendary across Hyperion," the King declared. "The knights and soldiers of Weichsel will be proud to follow the Crown Princess of our dearest allies into battle. Isn't that right, Neithard?"

The elderly Manteuffel looked extra stone-faced as he replied in a monotone: "Yes, Your Majesty."

Meanwhile Sylviane nodded back at King Leopold, and for a brief moment it seemed as though the two royals had reached a complete understanding.

"Sir, what about the Phantom Grenadiers?" A young signal officer, who looked barely more than a teen, asked next. "Colonel Erwin von Hammerstein hasn't reported in since two days ago. He hasn't been receiving our Farspeak calls and we're not even sure where he is..."

General Neithard glared back at the signal officer with such intensity that the young man's hands almost trembled.

"Contact his second-in-command Ariadne von Manteuffel." The elderly Manteuffel declared in voice cold enough to freeze air. "Tell her to inform that old man that if he does not meet us at the rally point, then I will personally make him a head shorter the next time I see him!"

"Yes Sir!"

At the same time, a puzzled Pascal queried Kaede over their familiar bond:

"<What did you find so nostalgic during the meeting?>"

"<Huh...?>" Kaede was caught off-guard before she remembered that Pascal could sense her emotions. "<It just... reminds me of something from my world. The Northmen fit the attackers quite well, apart from those crazy flying whales. But the defenders won that fight, so the concepts might be useful...>"

"<And when were you going to tell me?>" Pascal asked impatiently. "<We are on the clock here.>"

"<Right.>" Kaede nodded sheepishly, realizing now that she had been too swept away by the mood. "<Well, it happened near an island called Midway...>"


...


Ten minutes later, as General Neithard was still discussing their plan of attack with the other officers, Pascal finished drafting out his own plan with Kaede and approached the King:

"Your Majesty, General, I think I have a better idea for an attack plan."

Despite being a mere captain, Pascal's words instantly seized the attention of every high-ranking officer in the room. The King did not hesitate for even a split-second before he gestured with an open palm: "let's hear it then."

General Neithard, on the other hand, looked far more dispassionate. He turned his attention towards Pascal as though merely observing a formality.

"Sire, we know, that the enemy knows, that our cavalry --and particularly our Phantoms-- are scattered within Skagen conducting deep raids. We also know that Admiral Winter deliberately circumvented around the Skagen Peninsula, to strike directly at Nordkreuz from the North Sea. Asgeirr Vintersvend has successfully delayed our ability to detect his skywhales until the last possible moment. He likely did so hoping it would take us time to regroup our air cavalry, which creates a window of opportunity that he can exploit."

"You're saying that Admiral Winter will likely launch an immediate air strike on Nordkreuz?" The King inquired. "If that is the case, should we not order the Phantom Gale to remain within the city?"

"Yes and no, Your Majesty." Pascal continued. "I believe Skagen's drakes will conduct a sortie tonight to bombard Nordkreuz, before the majority of our Phantoms can return from the peninsula to challenge their air superiority. However, while we know exactly where his skywhales are, thanks to the real-time updates provided to us by the 'Eye of the Dragon', Admiral Winter will not have the same information in regards to the whereabouts of our Knights Phantom in Skagen. And this, gives us a crushing advantage on information."

"My proposal is that once General Neithard regroups with our other Phantom companies, he should commit all of our Knights Phantom in a two-pronged assault against Admiral Winter's skywhales." Pascal insisted. "If we time it correctly, we'll get there before the drakes can return and rest after their sortie. Our primary goal should be to destroy those armored beasts which serve as a mobile base for the drakes, and hopefully kill their admiral alongside them. Without the skywhales to shelter their drakes, we can then use the Phantoms' superior maneuverability to harass their drakes when they must land to rest and recuperate..."

"Stop." General Wiktor interrupted him. "You wish for all of our Phantoms to be committed to attacking their skywhales, and not to deal with the drakes until later. What about the city in the interim then?"

"We hunker down and prepare for the bombardment." Pascal declared with a stiff gaze. "We send all civilians to basement shelters and reinforce them by magic. And we empty the army encampments and evacuate the men. Units trained in anti-air combat should be pulled in to reinforce the city's garrison. However, all other soldiers should take shelter further away from the city under the cover of illusions to spare them from the bombardment."

"You're using the city and the camps as fodder," the King stared back, amazed. "Pascal, Nordkreuz is your fiefdom."

"I know, Your Majesty," Pascal declared as he felt a chill envelop his body. "But this is also the surest way for Weichsel to win. Nordkreuz will undoubtedly receive damage, but with strengthened anti-air, it will endure and it will survive. The same cannot be said if our forces fail to achieve victory."

"I agree completely," General Neithard remarked stiffly, though his stony gaze also looked upon Pascal with sincere respect for the first time. "We must recognize where the priorities lay. It is clear that the enemy's entire plan revolves around their skywhales, for without them, Admiral Winter will not have a secure shelter to channel his magic from. Therefore we must eliminate them as our primary objective, even at the cost of reducing the city's defenses."

King Leopold stared at Pascal for a moment longer before he pursed his lips and nodded:

"I see you are resolved, and I accept your proposal. The details I will let you and Wiktor work out. However--"

"However given the risks, Your Majesty must not remain here in Nordkreuz." Colonel Hannes interrupted the King, which caused the latter to raise his eyebrows as he glared back.

"You don't think a King should stay and set an example for the men?"

"I think the benefits of that would be marginal and the risks great," the dhampir spymaster insisted. "General Wiktor is more than capable of managing the defense of the city. Your Majesty's heir is still an infant. It is important for you, Sire, to act with prudence, and not with your ego."

Only Hannes would dare say something like that to the King, Pascal thought.

Nevertheless, he did agree with the Colonel. King Leopold might hold the rank of Lieutenant-General and was an enthusiastic supporter of the army, but his forte had always been more in politics than in military affairs. For the King to remain in a city that was about to be hit by a massive air raid -- the benefits would be entirely symbolic, while even a fluke hit could lead to severe consequences for the whole nation.

"I concur, Your Majesty," Pascal decided to speak up. After all, did King Leopold not express a desire for me to be more candid with him?

"And so do I," General Wiktor nodded as well.

The King looked between the three of them before he exhaled a deep sigh.

"Very well," he said unhappily. "I will depart back for the capital, but only after we have made all arrangements here," he insisted. "And as I was about to point out -- I think it would be an error in judgment to assume that simply because Admiral Winter will take the opportunity to bombard the city, the skywhales will be left undefended."

"In addition to any onboard soldiers and weaponry, they'll likely retain at least some of their drakes as a defensive air patrol," Lieutenant-Colonel Hans pointed out.

"And that is why we will launch two separate waves," Pascal said as he began to explain the details of his plan. Weichsel might not have any propeller-driven 'torpedo' or 'dive bombers' that Kaede spoke of, but the Knights Phantom were more adaptable and just as deadly.

"We send the first wave on a level attack against the skywhales. The Phantom Gale can form a wind tunnel and clear a path through any acidic rain clouds they throw at us..."

Pascal knew that Colonel Dietrich von Falkenrath, commander of the Phantom Gale, was one of the best stormcallers in Weichsel. Even if his magical abilities were nowhere near those of an armada-destroying archmage, they should still be sufficient to create a gap through which they may launch their attack.

"Colonel Albrecht von Bittenfeld and his Black Lancers should then follow the Phantom Gale in the first attack." Pascal declared next. "The Black Lancers are at their best in frontal assaults, and their armored gryphons can fight against drakes in close-quarters combat better than any other mount. We can further augment their numbers by sending in the Phantom Grenadiers. This should draw the attention of the skywhales' onboard weaponry as well as any drakes they retained as a defensive air patrol."

"And that's when you spring the second wave," General Neithard commented, as though already seeing through Pascal's plan.

"Yes Sir," Pascal nodded. "The second wave, consisting of the other two Knights Phantom companies, will move into position, hidden in the upper cloud cover. They will dive down at a steep angle to reduce the amount of time the defenders have to react. Their objective will be to deliver precision strikes against those whales' biggest weak spots -- their blowholes."

The blowholes were a relic of the whales' non-magical ancestors. But since all biological creatures needed a vent for air intake, their evolution had left this sole weakness on the skywhales' hardened heads.

Kaede had likened it to a 'thermal exhaust port', which in this context made absolutely no sense.

"Those skywhales will likely carry considerable numbers of anti-air troops on their backs," Hans voiced his concerns. "Especially towards the front to guard such a vulnerability."

"That is why the second wave features two companies when only one could manage the attack," Pascal stated. "Although it would be nice to increase those numbers, it is imperative that the first wave be sufficiently convincing as the 'main attack'."

"In that case, it would be best if I lead the first wave," Sylviane declared. "An Oriflamme's presence will undoubtedly draw their attention. Those volcanic drakes might be tough against fire, but a phoenix's flames will scorch them all the same."

Pascal frowned. I just hope Sylv does not do anything too reckless.

The thought of holding her back never even occurred to him. The mere idea of stopping an Oriflamme Paladin from committing to battle was utter nonsense. Pascal's only worry was that since he lacked a Knight Phantom's training, he would not be able to accompany Sylviane in their mission to attack the skywhales. Instead, he would have to remain behind to help defend the city.

"The general plan is sound." General Neithard declared after a moment of consideration. "I will ride alongside Her Highness in the first wave. However, given the factors of uncertainty, I will hold the Dawn Sky company from the second wave back as a reserve. Colonel Erwin von Hammerstein's Phantom Grenadiers will be assigned to the second wave instead. They can dive ahead of the other company and clear a path through hostile anti-air. Only once they have the defenders pinned down will the real second strike dive in."

He plans to use them as fodder, Pascal immediately recognized.

The Phantom Grenadiers may have accrued some battle experience during their raids in Skagen, but they were still a mostly green unit. To throw them at the skywhales' formidable air defenses alone, they could almost certainly expect heavy casualties.

However, since the Phantom Grenadiers were also the least trained of Weichsel's air cavalry units, they were also more expendable than the other, proper knights.

What amazed Pascal was how the General chose this, despite knowing that his own niece was second-in-command of the grenadiers.

Is he just being callous, or is he deliberately doing this to give her the most dangerous assignment? Pascal couldn't help wonder.

After all, units that undertook the most dangerous assignments also had the most valor to gain. It was as though Neithard expected Ariadne to either return with honors... or not at all.

"Even with all of this, the opportunity to deliver critical damage against the skywhales may only last a fleeting moment," General Neithard then added. "We must consider what is our best means of maximizing damage through those blowholes in a single strike."

For a moment everyone fell quiet as they considered their arsenal of military weapons. But try as he might, Pascal couldn't think of a single option that really stood out.

"Since it's their nostrils," noted the King's spymaster, Colonel Hannes. "What about an inhaled poison?"

Trust a spy to think like an assassin, Pascal almost snorted. However the Colonel was also onto something, and the suggestion immediately elicited an idea from him.

"What about prussic acid?" The young landgrave recalled from the previous night when he and Sylviane discussed steelmaking, where the alchemical was used for surface hardening and caused the blackening of the armor that Weichsel preferred. "It is a highly toxic gas that inhibits respiration, is easy to create, and is also extremely flammable. Once we hit them, those whales will not merely suffocate. They will burn from the inside."



Chapter 15 - Massive Strike[edit]

"There they are!" Ariadne von Manteuffel heard the cry of her commanding officer, Colonel Erwin von Hammerstein, who insisted on riding at the very head of the air cavalry formation.

They had run across a party of Weichsel deep reconnaissance scouts last night, who'd told them that a Northmen supply convoy of sleds had departed from the port city of Nordkapp several days ago and was on its way south to join the main Skagen army. The supply convoy was guarded by over a thousand men, more than three times the number of soldiers in their detachment. However these were second-rate support troops, while Colonel Hammerstein's two companies were specially trained and equipped Phantom Grenadiers.

Needless to say, the possibility of knocking out an entire convoy had proved too alluring for the maverick Colonel to pass up. They had set out early to hunt down their target. But even with their scouting familiars and sight enhancement spells, the hard snow had made it difficult to spot a large convoy... until now.

"We'll gut their belly and take the bacon!" Hammerstein shouted in his rough voice from atop his hippogryph mount. "Form up by platoons! Wedge formation!"

"<Wedge formation by platoons! Wards up!>"

Ariadne issued her orders over the telepathic channel she shared with the other commanders before hearing them echoed by platoon leaders. Two companies --three hundred cavalrymen in all-- fanned out into groups of forty to simultaneously hit multiple points along the long convoy train.

She watched as her comrades seemingly vanished into the snowy flurry. The weather made it difficult to see more than a hundred paces in any direction, while the Skagen column was drawn out over more than a kilopace. Colonel Hammerstein was spreading the attack dangerously thin. Should anything go wrong, the individual platoons would struggle to support one another.

Yet, it was also an excellent idea that used the weather to their favor.

He wants to maximize shock, Ariadne considered her orders. To make the enemy, who outnumber us, believe they are under attack by a much larger force.

The convoy's guards began to shout in Hyperborean as they spotted the Weichsel air cavalry flying in at low altitude. But the obscuring snow had delayed them for too long. Even with their skis, the Skagen infantry had no chance of forming lines in time.

A smattering of lone arrows and preloaded crossbow bolts shot out to meet the attackers. The majority of them struck the Phantoms' wards and harmlessly bounced off. Without the officers' Dispel arrows to lead an organized volley, commoner archers had no chance of repelling mage cavalry with their bows.

"Mana Seeker!" Ariadne heard Elise, her company's second-in-command and 1st platoon commander, cry out as both an order and a spell. Five glowing bolts of magic shot out from the petite girl's casting glove. They were soon joined by dozens of others which swarmed through the air towards the enemy.

Most of these magic missiles did nothing but fly harmlessly over the enemies' heads. However a few homed in on arrows or bolts that were tipped with runes. Mana Seeker was a simple, 'cast and forget' type of spell that relied on quantity. They were automatically drawn towards incoming sources of mana -- so long as they weren't other Mana Seekers. These magic missiles disrupted en-route spells by interdicting them with unstable, foreign mana, often ruining an approaching spell before it could reach its target. Though their ability to 'find' targets was limited by proximity, which made it important for them to cross paths with hostile spells.

A Fireball exploded somewhere to her right as a runic arrow from the defenders managed to get through the seeker barrage. Glancing back, Ariadne saw Elise --who led from the right wing of the cavalry wedge-- billowing smoke from her armor and uniform. Her anti-elemental Resistance ward had repelled most of the damage, leaving the petite girl only slightly cooked with singed hair and a sunburnt face.

"<Two voll... fly-by!>" Hammerstein's voice was becoming garbled on the telepathy channel. "--arge on third!"

The spells being exchanged were already starting to have an effect on basic telepathic communications. Soon only Farspeak spells and their reduced-range variant --which required concentration to maintain and therefore needed dedicated signal officers-- would be able to function.

"Two volleys fly-by! Grenades at the ready!" Ariadne bellowed.

Knights Phantom were elite cavalry with expensive, specialized equipment. And while the Phantom Grenadiers weren't proper knights, they still had gear matching their noble brethren that the late Marshal spent a fortune to subsidize for this experimental formation. Each cavalryman wore a heavily-warded, extra-dimensional belt pouch dedicated to grenades -- shrunken barrels filled with either pitch and tar or blast powder.

Two air cavalry companies formed seven triangular wedges that flew in at an altitude of twenty paces. As they soared close to the defenders, Ariadne and nearly three hundred cavalrymen threw out their grenades towards the disorganized enemy. The grenades were followed by area Dispels, ripping away shrinking spells to reveal full-sized kegs.

Then came the Ignition rays.

Almost three hundred crashing barrels of flaming pitch, burning tar, and exploding powder turned the Skagen convoy into a vision of hell. Men cried as they were set aflame or torn asunder. Sleds full of grain and feed either caught ablaze or burst into splinters.

Ariadne might not be able to see the other platoons or damage with her own eyes, but she could hear the explosions and panicked cries to recognize the mayhem unleashed.

"Bank right!" She shouted as she led her company's 1st platoon around in a wide loop for a second pass.

The triangular wedge formations made such maneuvers easy. Most mounts --including both pegasi and hippogryphs-- inherited the herd mentality of horses, which naturally made them follow a commander's steed whom they've learned to recognize as the 'alpha'.

It was also why Ariadne's familiar summon was always a pegasus stallion.

The survivors of the first barrage soon found themselves under a second wave of expanding-barrel grenades. More fire and explosions tore into the Skagen convoy as sleds shattered and men were set ablaze.

Then, as the Phantom Grenadiers swerved about for the second time...

"Holy Father with us! Phantom Charge!"

The shadowy barding covering their beastly mounts tore away, forming a stampede of spectral horses that caught ablaze as they charged ahead of the cavalry wedge. These 'phantom steeds' rammed and trampled through the enemy troops, before detonating inside their formations in a blazing inferno.

By the time Ariadne and her comrades plunged into the Skagen convoy with cold steel, the Northmen's morale had already shattered. Soldiers threw away their weapons and began to either flee or surrender in droves. A few squads rallied around stalwart officers fought on, only to be cut down by Weichsel's riders with their lances and swordstaves.


...


Sitting atop her pegasus familiar, Ariadne held two right fingers against her temple to concentrate on the Farspeak connection she had with a signal officer back in Nordkreuz. Her eyes meanwhile continued to keep watch on her surroundings, where the Phantom Grenadiers were cleaning up the now muddy battlefield.

"Sir!" Ariadne shouted as she ended the Farspeak call. She beckoned her pegasus familiar Edelweiss to trot closer to the homely Colonel Hammerstein, who stood roughly forty paces away among several other officers.

"Sir, have you been instructing our signal officer to reject calls from Nordkreuz?" The pink-haired captain challenged her superior.

"Yes," the Colonel declared openly, without even the slightest hesitation over how openly he flouted regulations. "I don't need those stinkin' scribes to tell me that I'm outside of operational boundaries."

Y-you... Ariadne's fist tightened as she struggled to figure out how to even insult him in her own head.

"Sir that's insubordination!"

"Funny to hear a subordinate tell me that," the Colonel scoffed. "Keep your panties on, will you? What High Command wants above all are results, not rule-abiding--"

My panties were never off, you crass oaf! Her thoughts screamed.

"SIR!" She cried over him. "Command messaged me that a Skagen skywhale fleet has been spotted inbound for Nordkreuz. General Neithard demand that we immediately return to rendezvous with the main force, west of the border town of Suokamo!"

For a brief second Colonel Hammerstein looked confused. Then, as Ariadne's words dawned on him, a trace of horror entered his countenance as his bulging eyes widened even further.

"Those bastards used their main force as a distraction!?" He snarled with crooked lips before turning towards the soldiers, who were still cleaning up the battlefield.

Ariadne immediately gestured for the platoon signaler to blow his bugle and call for the soldiers' attention.

"STOP WHATEVER YOU'RE DOING AND GATHER UP!" Colonel Hammerstein shouted. "WE RIDE SOUTH!"

"But Sir, we haven't finished disarming the captives!" Lieutenant Kayeten, vice-commander of the 2nd company, cried back.

"Forget them! Forget everything here! Drop a Fireball on any sleds that remain, because we must ride south! NOW!"

He really is a brilliant tactician, Ariadne couldn't help ponder. She didn't even have to explain the details, let alone pass along the General's threats, to make the Colonel recognize how critical their situation was. If only he wasn't such a glory-mongerer.

"We might end up late for the rendezvous," Hammerstein sighed as he looked at Ariadne with concern. "We're too far north."

Those operational boundaries exist for a reason. Ariadne thought. However she refrained from saying anything along the line of 'I told you so.'

Ariadne had voiced her objections this morning before all the platoon and company leaders. However she had been overruled by the Colonel who was her superior. This meant that whatever would transpire, she was not responsible for it. Instead it was Colonel Hammerstein whom all the accountability would fall upon, even if that meant the removal of his head as her uncle had threatened.

Yet... that would only serve to benefit our enemies, Ariadne scowled.

She might not like Hammerstein personally, but there was no doubt that the man was an excellent field commander.

"Sir, I can give the group a boost." The young lady volunteered.

"How?"

"I'm a Stormcaller." Ariadne declared with a hand upon her chest. "Not certified yet, so you wouldn't see it on my file. It might leave me tired for the main battle, but I can definitely put the wind at our backs for our flight."

The Colonel's deep eyes stared at her for a moment before he nodded. "I owe you one."

Yes you do.

As Hammerstein turned away to shout more orders, Ariadne frowned and pressed a hand against the armor over her abdomen. Her magic might have mitigated most of her period cramps, but she was still queasy and lacking in appetite. Worse yet, her bleeding days always left her slightly anemic and easily fatigued... certainly not the best time to have an overnight ride.

Not that her biological clock mattered to the enemy. Her duties as an officer of Weichsel remained the same.


----- * * * -----


"What did you just say!?" Reynaud watched as Sir Robert's eyes ballooned to the size of saucers. The two of them stood at the foot of Pascal's fortified residence, illuminated by a nearby lamp beneath the cloudy, snow-filled skies.

"We've had a coup at the palace... in Alis Avern." Reynaud repeated in between rough breathes. "The Emperor is dead... and Duke Gabriel now commands the capital!"

It was past midnight when Reynaud arrived in Nordkreuz with Cecylia. She had since left to meet her superiors. However before she departed, she had asked a few soldiers to escort Reynaud to the Moltewitz estate, where the young redhead requested a meeting with Sir Robert first.

Reynaud had heard from Dame Elspeth that Robert de Dunois was the second most trusted among the Princess' armigers, ranked behind only Lady Mari, the Princess' maid and bodyguard. He wanted to consult the latter on how to best deliver the terrible news. After all, he had only met the Princess in-person once, and by all accounts the rulers of the Gaetane family had a fiery temper.

"Where is Dame Elspeth?" Sir Robert asked next.

"At the tavern." Reynaud answered as he straightened his back and slowly brought his breathing under control. "Poor girl almost collapsed... by the time we arrived."

"You look like you're about to collapse yourself," the pretty-boy armiger said with raised eyebrows.

"I had to make ten of the jumps myself," Reynaud exhaled out. "And when I saw how eerily empty the city was... I ran the rest of the way here."

"Ten!?" Robert was amazed. As a Wayfarer himself, he knew exactly how taxing it was to make consecutive jumps with multiple riders.

"Yeah," Reynaud slapped a slightly-forced smile onto his lips. "Pretty good... ain't it?" He added boastfully.

Robert snorted a little as he immediately recognized the tone. "Yes yes, the bards will be singing your praises when this is all over." He noted almost casually before a serious frown returned. "A shelter-in-place order has been issued for Nordkreuz. We anticipate a Skagen air raid to arrive within the next hour or two. In fact, the Princess is getting ready to depart..."

His countenance then turned grim: "we can't tell Her Highness now!"

"Why not?"

Robert glared at the redheaded Reynaud. "We're about to head out and into battle. Do you want Her Highness to get herself killed!? We cannot let her know of her beloved father's death until after!"

"You're still going to fight for the Weichsens now!?" Reynaud hissed.

"We'll need Weichsel's aid more than ever," Robert declared sternly. "This battle will go down in Hyperion history, and every knight of Weichsel will know that it was Her Highness who led the charge against a fleet of colossal skywhales! Nobody will allow King Leopold to forget his treachery if he abandons the Princess afterwards. It is the best way for Her Highness to gain leverage!"

For a moment Reynaud forgot to close his mouth. Then: "they have a fleet!?"

The winds blowing in from Cross Lake strengthened at that moment. The winter storm was now blowing snow straight into Reynaud's face, and for a moment he almost lost his footing as the gales grew to an audible intensity.

"Four, to be precise," Robert answered, before he tilted his head as though he suddenly realized something. "Isn't your father a skywhale merchant?"

"Yeah," Reynaud leaned against the walls of the residential stone keep. "King Alistair has been using Father's skywhale like his personal airship."

"That's right..." Robert said thoughtfully. "How well do you know their weak spots?"

"I know a skywhale's anatomy inside and out," Reynaud asserted. "I even gave my baby skywhale familiar a bath last week!"

"And you're trained as an armiger?" Robert asked next.

"Yes Sir." Reynaud smirked. "Best fighter in my class!"

"We could use your help in battle then," Robert stated. "Think you're up for it after your teleports here?"

"Are you kidding!?" Reynaud responded, his eyes almost glittering with excitement. "Being an Oriflamme Armiger is my dream! My body can run on excitement alone!"

The redhead then paused with a frown. "But how are we going to explain my presence to Her Highness?"

Robert pressed a finger thoughtfully against his cheeks in a surprisingly feminine gesture. Then, with a scowl, he said:

"Tell her that the Emperor sent you after hearing unconfirmed rumors about skywhale sightings off the northern coast." The royal armiger then sighed. "I hope you're a good liar though, or she'll see right through you."

"As long as I have something to boast about." Reynaud grinned.


----- * * * -----


Torsten Asgeirsen closed his eyes as he immersed his thoughts in the icy winds.

He rode atop his drake at the head of the column, flying through the clear night skies above the thick clouds and the raging blizzard below. Without the enchanted shirt he wore beneath his heavy drakeskin armor, the cold air buffeting his exposed face would have left ice crystals in his thin beard. Yet to an experienced Outrider, the feeling of cutting through wintry winds was the epitome of blissful serenity.

No man could become an Outrider without loving this paradise. To appreciate the flawless beauty of the open heavens, unveiled by bashful clouds and untouched by the desires of men -- such was the duty of every being who wished to master the skies.

The Wickers' air cavalry simply did not understand it. Despite all their three-dimensional combat training, they had no real feel for aerial maneuvers. To them, the skies were just multiple layers of flat plains at different altitudes.

Torsten almost felt sorry for those poor heathens... almost.

After all, those Wickers --and the Imps who once backed them-- were the aggressors. They were the ones who settled upon the Hyperboreans' promised land and began over a thousand years of enmity. All the wars that resulted were entirely their fault.

They deserved to die.

...Or so he told himself.

Torsten did not like this mission, if he were to be honest. There was no glory in massacring a city through aerial bombardment. Yet the Weichsel army gathering in Nordkreuz left him no choice.

As the firstborn son of Admiral Asgeirr Vintersvend and the commander of Polarlys' air group, it was his duty to lead the assault. Against this duty to his people, his nation, his family, his comrades, and his friends, his personal feelings and sense of ethics weighed next to nothing.

He focused on his Pathfinder guidance spell once more and realized that their distance to Nordkreuz beacon had fallen under a kilopace at last.

Their mission was simple: to lay waste to the city before the Weichsel air cavalry could return. Only by destroying the city's fortifications and crippling the Weichsel army gathered there will Skagen's main force have a chance of successfully storming the settlement.

The Skagen army didn't need to occupy the whole city. However they needed at least enough of a breach for his father to tap the ley-line junction which lay inside the walls.

It's time.

Torsten pulled four pebbles from his pocket and threw them into the air. The runes on them triggered as they left his hand, bursting into flares of red, blue, yellow, and black. They formed an emergency call for aid in Hyperborean maritime communications. Yet on the precipice of battle, the combination carried another special meaning:

'The fate of our people lies in your hands.'

"<Commence attack!>" Torsten sent to squadron leaders over the command telepathy channel as he pulled his drake into a leftward dive. "<Group Polarlys with me to northern gate and fortifications. Group Lyngbakr to eastern gate and camps. Group Hafgufa to southern gate and camps. and Group Livjatan the central city and docks. Brothers! Let's send these Wickers to the freezing mists of Hel!>"

He didn't really need to repeat their orders. His men were the best and already knew their jobs. Nevertheless he felt the moment needed a bit more 'oomph' to precede his last line. Unfortunately, his scholarly father hadn't passed down much in the ways of oratory skills.

"<Yes Sir!>"

The strike groups began splitting up even before their commanders responded. Volcanic drakes in cloudy-gray illusory camouflage banked away from the aerial armada by the dozens. The separate units flew in loose formations as they plunged straight into the clouds.

Skagen Outriders didn't practice the neat arrays their Weichsel counterparts fought in. But then, they didn't need to. They much preferred scrambling the battle into one giant mess and letting individual superiority carry the day.

Torsten activated two more runestones just as he dived out of the freezing clouds. His eyes began to radiate an icy blue as Snow Sight allowed his vision to see through the blizzard as though the snow was transluscent. His partner's retracted wings also shimmered faintly, embraced by a Stormblessed spell that shifted the winds to its favor.

After verifying his target in the distance, Torsten tugged the reins and swerved right before urging his drake into a yet steeper plunge.

Thirty-one more volcanic drakes followed in his wake. Each of them dived towards the ground at a slightly different angle. Each rider aimed for a separate tower or length of walls as gravity accelerated them through over a thousand paces of air, basking in the thrill of free fall just before the kill.

Seven hundred... six hundred... five hundred!

"DROP! DROP! DROP!" Torsten shouted over both the howling winds and the telepathy channel.

Releasing his reins for a moment, Torsten first touched two runes in the front of his saddle. They disengaged the 'safety' sticking spells that kept the payload containers closed. He then reached behind and grabbed two small metal loops held up by the back of his saddle. Yanking both forward with all his strength, he pulled out the heavy duty cords attached to each loop. These cords fed through several pulleys, around the drake's sides, and connected to the lids of two long, metal boxes bound to the mount's underside.

Tugged back by the cords, the container lids slid open, revealing hundreds of rune-inscribed stones.

As Torsten took back his reins and urged his drake out of its dive, gravity and the difference in velocity accelerated those rocks out of their compartment. They scattered into the air as they emerged, forming two rough 'blankets' of massed bomblets that fell toward the gatehouse below.

The runestones came in numerous varieties, from single-spell pebbles that exploded in lightning or shrapnel, to multi-spell combinations that could penetrate structures and set interiors ablaze. There were even runes attached to shrunken down barrels of noxious alchemical liquids.

But the most dangerous kind came from the Admiral himself. Packed all the way in the back to avoid being struck by counterspells, these runestones surrounded themselves with a Dispel Barrier once they entered free fall to protect against Mana Seekers and other antimagic spells. After they landed, the Animated rocks would roll until they struck earth or stone ground. From there, high-powered Tectonic spells would reach deep underground and send violent tremors throughout the city.

With over a hundred runestones per container, two containers per drake, and four groups totaling one-hundred-twenty-eight drakes, Torsten's strike force would dump more than twenty-six thousand magical munitions over the city of Nordkreuz.

Amidst the blizzard brought forth by Admiral Winter, the skies literally rained death.


----- * * * -----


Pascal looked down to examine his arcane pocket watch. He could hear its faint ticking, managed by a combination of mechanical durability and magical precision. The device had a reputation for being faultlessly accurate, which meant that he had been standing outside, in the heavy snow, for nearly two hours already.

He wasn't really bothered by it. Every mage had at least one set of enchanted clothing that kept him comfortable and dry regardless of weather. Such conveniences were just another part of the Holy Father's blessing for those who carried the burdens of leadership.

Prayers from the blessed to the Holy Father have ended with Noblesse Oblige for as long as Hyperion history remembered. Certainly, there were always some who forsook their duties and flouted their privileges. However, it was a matter of necessity that mages always stood where they were most needed. Magic was simply too vital, be it for military conflicts or economic prosperity. Any culture whose mages failed to uphold their civic duty were quickly conquered by others whose elites still held onto the spirit of true nobility.

Nowhere else in Western Hyperion was this more true than in Weichsel. Thanks to the Writ of Universal Conscription and their meritocratic traditions, Weichsel boasted a higher ratio of Magic-Capable Officers to enlisted commoners than any other military in the west. And tonight, this was on full display as thousands of Weichsen soldiers manned the fortifications of Nordkreuz, organized in platoons to provide the city with much needed anti-air defense.

The remainder of the army --those who lacked either the equipment or training for skyward volleys-- were sent to encamp several kilopaces east of the city. There, they pitched tents to rest for the land battle tomorrow. Meanwhile their presence was hidden beneath Mirage Figment spells that imitated shallow, snow-covered hills.

To minimize their chances of being detected, they were forbidden from lighting any fires. Needless to say, this was not a great way for the troops to stay warm in the midst of a blizzard. Thankfully, the men of Weichsel could at least be confident that they were adequately provided with winter equipment. Every soldier who answered the call-to-arms had been given a thick, sheepskin winter coat, two extra wool pants, several pairs of wool socks, and other improvements such as extra stuffing for their bedrolls.

It was in moments like these when Pascal's appreciation for General Wiktor von Falkenhausen rose to new heights. Many in Weichsel's army --especially the hot headed officers of the cavalry corp-- mocked the dhampir chief-of-staff as the 'Accountant General'. Yet, without his logistical wizardry, how were their men supposed to win battles with their stomachs empty, their toes frostbitten, and their lips sealed by frozen snot?

Now such logistical work paid its dividends. Tens of thousands of men had to spend tonight in the open, with only a thin tent between them and a raging blizzard outside. They might be cold and miserable, but Pascal could at least be confident that few were outright freezing to death.

"Skagen drake riders have been spotted to the northeast by familiar scouts," Pascal heard a signal officer announce. "They're splitting up into four groups."

"The enemy is likely to hit us at different timings," spoke another signal officer, whose fingers were pressed against his temple as he maintained a Farspeak spell with the main command post at the eastern gatehouse. "General Wiktor authorizes company commanders to make the judgment call on first volley."

"Pass the word," Brigadier-General Bernard von Konopacki, Pascal's commanding officer, declared from his command post atop the city's northern gatehouse. "Signal all anti-air groups to raise wards. Charge ammunition with Legion Stormblessed spells. Arrows won't fly far in this weather without it."

Within Weichsel's military hierarchy, every company had a dedicated signal officer attached to its command squad to maintain Farspeak communications. Battalion command squads had double that, and brigade command had over two dozen. Command units also used other means, including flags, bugles, and illumination spells. However it was the signal officers who played the most pivotal role.

It was expensive to dedicate many of their mages to communications, but the value of reliable inter-unit coordination --unhampered by visibility, noise, and other environmental factors-- could not be overstated. When Pascal first told Kaede about this, the familiar responded with a wry, nostalgic smile: "Every tank needs its own radio. We Russians learned that the hard way."

Kaede had to explain to Pascal what a 'radio' was after that, and the young lord was shocked to hear that her homeland's most 'reliable' form of communications was broadcasted in the open and could therefore be intercepted and decoded by the enemy. Farspeak spells had no such weakness -- it was yet another trait that proved the superiority of magic in Pascal's view.

Summoning his runes, Pascal activated one ward after another as he layered defenses on top of the brigade command staff. Several other officers also cast their own spells and added it to the mix, but 'entrenchment' was definitely a field where runic magic held superiority with its prepared spells.

Meanwhile, a platoon of infantrymen raised their arbalests skyward. The soldiers moved in unison as they pointed towards wherever their commander did with a thin beam of guiding light. Several troopers who manned the scorpion ballistas did the same. Even the two bomb mortars --barrel-sized tubes packed with blast powder and stuffed with a bag of steel pellets-- were tilted towards the northeast where they anticipated to see the enemy.

"DRAKES SIGHTED! INCOMING!"

The shout came from a spotter who stood at the edge of a gatehouse. Even with Snow Sight extending his view, it was hard to see two hundred paces in the raging blizzard. His third word indicated that the enemy flyers were already unleashing their payloads.

"MANA SEEKER!" Brigadier Bernand drew his sword and cried over the howling gales.

"Mana Seeker!" A dozen officers followed, including Pascal himself.

The same phrase could be heard from the next tower, the one after that, and even the top levels of several buildings inside the walls. Had it not been for the vision-obscuring blizzard, dozens of structures spraying hundreds if not thousands of glowing projectiles skyward would have made a stunning light show.

The Brigadier waited a moment for the wave of seekers to depart before shouting a second spell, to ensure that it wouldn't be disrupted by his allies' antimagic.

"Solar Burst!" He cried before shouting: "All units SHOOT AT WILL!"

Pascal and another captain followed the lead, and the skies above them were soon lit by three eruptions of red-orange light. Snow melted into vapor in the wake of the searing flare, which would have blinded anyone in view who failed to shield their eyes in time.

...Or in the case of the officers on the gatehouse: if they hadn't been sheltering under a Sunward Screen, a spell traditionally used by dhampirs to avoid sunburn.

The trio of high-powered spells cleared several hundred paces of obscuring snow and revealed three drakes that were pulling out of their dive. The lieutenant who led the arbalest platoon immediately directed his guiding light towards one of the drakes. His weapon released a glowing tracer bolt infused with antimagic at its tip, which was soon followed by over three dozen armor-piercing bolts and several offensive spells.

A thundering roar came next as one of the bomb mortars opened fire. Its explosive, powder charge hurled out a blast of steel balls in a high-angled cone. The steel pellets tore through the wings of the drake it aimed at, as the beast's wards had already been stripped away by the dispelling bolt.

Amazingly, the drake didn't crash straight towards the ground, but tried to fly away in a limp. However before the other artillery could pivot its aim and open fire, two carpets of runestone bomblets fell upon the gatehouse.

The very first rock actually hit a customs building just inside the gate. It disintegrated a hole through the roof, fell through, and then exploded into fiery pellets that set the entire structure ablaze. Dozens of other runestones also overshot the gatehouse, falling upon the stone-hewn road just inside the city. However, a handful of runestones landed on top of the protrusion where the bomb mortar was placed, and one of them was a Lightning Blast that shot out in just the right direction.

The officer in charge of the mortars had left a hole in their ward coverage for the weapon's discharge. A bolt of evoked lightning blasted straight into this gap and made contact with the barrel of the mortar. The blast powder inside the barrel ignited prematurely, before two of the crew members --who had been readjusting the weapon-- could cower from the cone of discharge.

Two decapitated men fell besides the mortar as the blast tore off their heads at point-blank range.

More explosions came from the wards covering the command group as a carpet of bomblets fell directly onto them. Their detonations came in such rapid succession that it was impossible to tell them apart. The erupting thunder of dozens blended together, forming a cacophony of destruction that stifled all other sounds. Mana flashed and vaporized as dozens of spellshields and protective screens were torn asunder in the blink of an eye, tearing holes through the defensive wards that sheltered those underneath.

The arbalesters who stood near the crenelations were the next to fall victim as only a Legion Resistance ward protected them. Entire squads cried out as they were consumed by multiple fire and lightning spells. The intense bombardment was overpowering their defenses through sheer brute force, and they fell in screaming agony as the raw elemental discharge roasted them alive.

Yet this was merely the beginning...

One of the un-shrunken barrels crashed into a battered spellshield overhead, spilling its contents into a volatile mixture of airborne liquids. Two individually-stable alchemical compounds soon mixed together and reacted with the air. Combustion was nearly instantaneous, and it transformed a falling carpet of rimefire that burned its way through remaining wards as though consuming oil-soaked sheets.

In one moment, a half-dozen young signal officers --some of them not even twenty years of age-- stood near the head of the Brigadier's bodyguards where they relayed commands to the various air defense groups. A second later, they were but shrieking humanoid shapes of burning flesh, collapsing amidst a pool of flames in the very vision of hell.

Holy Hyperion...! Pascal was barely able to stop himself from crying out.

Not even a seasoned officer could witness such calamity and remain unshaken, and Pascal was anything but a veteran as he backed away from the grotesque, burning flesh. Brigadier Bernard had been pulled out of the way at the last split-second. However even one of his saviors had been in the wrong spot and suffered a gruesome fate.

"<Pascal!?>" He heard Kaede's urgent voice through their private, familiar bond. He had left her back at his own residence, to maintain communications with the anti-air platoon stationed there.

Clearly, he had sent his horrified cry over telepathy instead. But as the young lord stood in a brief moment of intense shock, he found himself unable to respond.

Pascal's legs were trembling as his dazed eyes looked towards his beloved hometown. The raging blizzard made it impossible to see, but he could hear the thundering cacophony throughout the city. Cries of dying men intermingled with the sound of buildings being blasted apart. Bursts of intense light lit up the night sky as waves of explosions blanketed the streets and structures.

"<I made a mistake...>" The young landgrave thought in horror as realization hit him. "<I made a BIG mistake...>"

He had been so focused on planning for the destruction of Skagen's skywhales that he completely underestimated just what kind of devastation could be delivered by over one hundred drakes in a single air raid.

As one of those drakes flew by and strafed the gatehouse with its fiery breath weapon, only his combat training made him pull out and activate another spellshield rune in time.

The remaining mortar crew had been reloading their weapon when the flames crashed into them. The powder exploded just as two soldiers were adding it to the barrel. The blast tore the poor souls into pieces, which splashed bits of human remains over Pascal and those close by.

"<Pascal?>" He heard the confused voice from Kaede. "<Are you okay?>"

"<It's no wonder Asgeirr Vintersvend named his book Massive Strike.>" Pascal thought as he stood in a daze.

...And then, as if things couldn't get any worse, the very earth began to move.

It didn't just shake and rattle. It convulsed violently. Had it not been for the blizzard, Pascal would have seen the very streets pitch and yaw as though the paved stones now rode stormy seas.

"<An Earthquake?>" Kaede remarked unhelpfully.

Of course, Pascal realized. "<The Admiral is a geomancer!>"

They had been too occupied by the fact that the attack was coming in from the air, too concerned about the danger of Admiral Winter reaching the Nordkreuz ley-line junction with his skywhales. They failed to consider all the other ways in which archmage-level geomancy could be used. Most of their preparations had been focused on reinforcing roofs, not beams and pillars!

How do you even defend against someone who can hit from every angle?

Now, the urban districts buckled under earthquake tremors that were magnitude eight at least. Several buildings that Pascal could see inside the walls began to wobble and sway. One of them then collapsed and its crumbling pillars brought the others down in a chain.

Even the city's stone walls, which were nigh-invulnerable to conventional siege weapons due to its permanent, ley-line powered wards, began to crack and break as the earth heaved. This included the reinforced gatehouse which Pascal stood on top of, which tore apart at its center as though an unseen giant bent it like a twig.

"<I should have dedicated more attention on how to better defend the city!>" Pascal berated himself.

What would the city known as the 'Jewel of the North' even look like once the blizzard cleared? Will there even be much of it remaining? Pascal feared the worst as he heard the sounds of more and more structures collapsing. He could even hear the stone tower to their east crumble as the men stationed on top cried out.

Then, just as he thought that at least Kaede seemed to have been spared from the worst of the bombardment, he heard the girl cry out in telepathy:

"<D-drakes! waAHHHHHH!>"

"<KAEDE!>"

With his thoughts focused on his familiar, Pascal channeled his senses to connect with Kaede. A view of the girl's gaze laid over his own vision, just in time for him to see the scorching breath of a volcanic drake.

The familiar's wards flared as the flames poured over her. The cover provided by her Spellshield Fortress blocked much of the flames, and Barrier Armor stopped more from making contact. Her Elemental Body of Earth provided even better defense against the elements than the far simpler and more commonly used Resistance spell.

Pascal felt relief as the most Kaede would suffer were some singed clothes and a mean sunburn. However her fear had cost her the best chance to retaliate as the drake flew past and vanished back into the snowstorm.

She's too green... just like myself, Pascal couldn't help but reflect upon the mistakes each of them made.

The difference however was that his error affected tens of thousands of lives.



Chapter 16 - Decisive Action[edit]

Asgeirr Vintersvend held a telescopic spyglass to his eye as he observed the approaching Weichsen air cavalry. He stood not in the enclosed observation deck of the main bridge, but near the port-side entrance of Polarlys' hangar deck. As a fleet commander, the bridge might offer better communications. However as an archmage, he needed direct access to the open skies.

Two full Weichsen companies --over three hundred Phantoms-- flew across the open air towards the line of four Skagen skywhales. The Wickers approached in a tight-knit, close order formation, which Asgeirr recognized as the 'combat box'. It was an arrangement that focused on mutual, interlocking fields of fire from the Weichsen riders, whose ability to coordinate spell and grenade volleys at range have always been a step above their rivals'.

Curiously enough, they were led by a girl with burning wings enshrouded in blue-white flames. Behind her followed a chevron of armigers in bright burning-blue.

Asgeirr had seen an Oriflamme in combat once before, back when Alistair Mackay-Martel was still a mercenary and yet to become the King of Gleann Mòr. The Admiral had heard that the Crown Princess of the Lotharins had arrived at Nordkreuz a week ago. Clearly, his assault on the city had triggered the Weichsel-Lotharin Alliance.

It's surprising the Lotharins even have time to worry about others, invaded from the south as they are, the admiral thought.

Meanwhile, two groups of sixteen drakes, which had been flying slow circles around the entire skywhale battlegroup, banked and turned towards the incoming attack. They formed the skywhales' combat air patrol, and were the only drakes that remained behind after the bulk of the air groups had been sent to raid Nordkreuz.

Asgeirr lowered his spyglass and turned to shout into a nearby communication tube that was installed into the bulkhead:

"Thirty degrees to starboard. Clear for broadside action."

"Aye aye Sir!" His longtime friend and first mate replied before the same voice echoed across the ship. "Thirty degrees to starboard! Staggered line formation! Prepare broadside!"

Hours ago, Asgeirr had launched his air groups for an all-out strike on Nordkreuz. He had hoped to not merely destroy the city's fortifications with a full aerial bombardment, but also to eliminate as many of the troops gathered there as possible. With any luck, he hoped the attack might even kill King Leopold of Weichsel, who had been sighted by Skagen spies in the city just two days ago.

Weichsel's Crown Heir was currently little more than an infant. Competing against two royal uncles and a general whose ambition was renowned even in the north, the fearsome Black Dragon might just suddenly collapse into civil war.

...Which would be perfect for Skagen's interests.

Asgeirr had no way of knowing if he had struck gold. But the remaining objectives of the air strike seemed to have been achieved. His son Thorsten was returning from a victorious assault that left the city's walls in ruins and the camps outside a blazing inferno. He also managed to do so in time to meet the counterattack that Asgeirr knew would come, as the Phantoms clearly intended to hit the skywhales before the drakes could return.

Unfortunately for the Wickers, time was not in their favor. The decisive air battle that was about to begin would seal their fate for this entire campaign.

Sure, Thorsten's drakes could use a rest from the early morning attack. The hangar deck wasn't merely an extradimensionally-expanded chamber to land and rest in. Magic also regulated the rear compartment to offer the sulfur-rich environment of the drakes' home habitat. The volcanic gases back there were terrible for unprotected humans. However the drakes not only preferred it, but found it essential for recharging their breath weapons.

The Admiral was actually worried that events were progressing a bit too smoothly. His rough estimate put the attacking force at around half of Weichsel's air cavalry. Did the other units fail to withdraw from the Skagen Peninsula in time? Or were they still out there in the clouds?

It doesn't matter, he quickly decided.

Asgeirr had placed a hundred experienced Västergötland adventurers and his brother Eyvindur's best company of Runebolt Archers on top of the skywhales. Combined with hundreds of the new 'Living Runes' that fortified their backs, the anti-air defenses protecting these behemoths were more than sufficient to take on another two to three hundred Phantoms.

To split his drake Outriders for defense at this point would not be caution, but cowardice instead.

"Order the combat air patrol to merge into one and engage the enemy right," Asgeirr bellowed into the communication tube again. "Do not wait to regroup with returning drakes. In fact, tell Thorsten to stay hidden in the clouds for as long as he can. I want him to charge in after the Wickers' formations have already been disrupted. Until then, master artillerists have discretion to launch broadsides at will against the enemy left wing!"

By attacking from the northeast, the Admiral hoped to use the flow of battle to tilt Weichsel's formation towards their right flank. This would not only present the skywhales' ballistae a semi-enfilade angle of shot, but also expose the Wickers' rear to Thorsten's drakes coming back from the southwest.

All they need is a nudge of chaos to buy time.

As an archmage worthy of the claim, Asgeirr not only had the expertise to craft the most complex spells, he also invented new, complex sorceries. Out of his half-dozen creations, two of them were made to support major battles and fleet action:

One was Storm of Twilight, or simply 'that acid rain spell' to everyone else.

The other was a wide area effect he named Mantle of the Stormlord. It covered the entire battlespace with charged clouds, causing any positive-current electric spell to trigger another lightning from above.

"What's your opinion Fannar? Acid or thunder first?" Asgeirr asked his first mate as he pulled several runestone tablets the size of outstretched hands from his belt pouch.

He always found it ironic that in their profession, having to kill an enemy barely warranted an afterthought. Meanwhile, it was the precise method of killing that required discussion and debate.

"Jarl Eyvindur did call you Admiral Vinegar," Fannar's nonchalant voice came through the metal tube. "Besides, maybe these 'civilized' southerners would appreciate their meat marinated before being crisp-fried in lightning."

"Vinaigrette then it is," the Admiral commented dryly as he activated the Levitation Flight rune on the tablet, causing it to zip into the skies. The rest of the runic inscription was set with a delayed activation of fifteen seconds, and after that the entire battlespace would change.


----- * * * -----


"Sir! Familiar scouts spot drakes inbound from the southwest! Numbering around hundred! It's the group that struck Nordkreuz!"

"Send the reserve Dawn Sky toward the southwest. Locate and skirmish the returning drakes. Do not engage in close combat. We only need to buy time to finish off the patrol before hitting the main group in full force!"

Sylviane heard General Neithard's stern voice about fifteen paces behind her, bellowing orders to a trio of signal officers who rode behind him. It was further reassurance of her allies' presence, although the message itself was something else.

Not even engaged yet and already committing the reserves. This is sure off to a great start. She thought with bitter sarcasm.

But then, at least General Neithard had the foresight to set aside those reserves, or they would be in trouble now as the Skagen drakes sought to pincer them between two groups.

Meanwhile, Sylviane focused her gaze on the skies ahead. It was her duty to lead the charge from the front. However to face only a mass of incoming foes without a single ally in view was no simple affair.

Four colossal skywhales floated across the open air, flying above the lower cloud cover and the blizzard below. They loomed in the skies like flying fortresses. And unlike the merchant vessel that Sylviane rode to Alis Avern on with King Alistair, the Skagen behemoths traded out its cargo nets to allow for much larger steel 'gondolas' to be strapped beneath the belly of each beast. These compartments bulged outwards to each side, and were separated into three decks.

The top deck had a row of wooden hatches, which lowered themselves to reveal ballistae that would soon be hurling out runic ammunition. The middle floor seemed squashed with many small, glass windows, hinting at its use for mostly crew quarters. The lower deck was the thickest of the three, and it was entirely armored except for the massive, rectangular gaps near the front -- the open-air entrance through which the drakes flew in and out to rest.

Three wide, steel bands wrapped around the skywhale's body to secure the gondola to the colossal beast. These bands featured ladders which were now covered with climbing men, as more personnel moved from the artillery deck up to the skywhales' backs. Crisscrossing rope nets filled the area between steel bands, offering both additional support for the gondola and better footing for those on top of each whale.

Had it not been for Pascal's plan of attack, Sylviane's first impression would have been that these imposing monsters were nigh undefeatable. Even as an Oriflamme Paladin --the pride of Rhin-Lotharingie-- she couldn't help feel humbled by these colossal beasts.

Closer to her, thirty-two massive drakes flew straight toward her, each with a wingspan as wide as a farmhouse barn. Black-red scales covered their bodies like hardened magma, reinforced by steel helmets and banded breastplates that made them seem hopeless to stop. Their shrieking roars shook the air and sent chills down to the bone, not to mention their razor-sharp claws which were as long as scythe blades, or the sight of jagged rows of teeth that could rip a man to shreds.

To meet such predators in melee was suicidal -- so said her voice of reason, her instinct of self-preservation.

Sylviane could feel her arms shaking. Had she carried a sword instead of a chained hammer, the effect might have been obvious.

I have Hauteclaire with me. I can take these stupid beasts!

She readied the phoenix-crest shield strapped to her forearm, while her right hand began to spin her weapon of choice: a chain six paces long anchored to her left wrist, ending with the knobby cylinder of a single-headed meteor hammer.

It would not do to let her idle arms reveal her anxiety and fright.

Fear was not a weakness. It was a sign of intelligence. It kept humans alive. But the same could not be said for cowardice.

For those born to royalty, leadership was an obligation rather than a choice. To inspire others, one must be willing to set an example. Soldiers matched the bravery they saw with their own courage. Those who followed lions into battle inevitably became lions themselves.

However what stood true for followers worked the same way for leaders. Soaring ahead at the tip of the spear, Sylviane's own mettle was fortified by the reassurance that hundreds followed in her wake.

Courage was not only the strength of an individual.

It was a collective force, drawn together from the hearts of many.

Perhaps that explained the sound of heavy drums and trumpets that accompanied Weichsel's cavalry into decisive battle. Without a single instrument, let alone an entire orchestra, the martial consonance that shook the air could only be the playback of magical recorders.

The music wasn't really her style. But even Sylviane had to admit that the hastening tempo of battle notes was nothing short of 'epic'.

Immersed in the atmosphere at the head of the army, Sylviane was not just a young lady on the fringe of maturity, not merely an inexperienced warrior facing her first true air battle.

She was a crown princess, who represented the honor and dignity of Rhin-Lotharingie.

She was an Oriflamme Paladin, who symbolized the strength of her people and their will to fight.

Before the eyes of her brave Weichsen allies, she could not falter in the slightest. She must be a leader they would be proud to follow, even to the depth of hell itself.

So while Sylviane the twenty-one-year-old girl continued to tremble and doubt, Sylviane Etiennette de Gaetane, the Cerulean Princess of Rhin-Lotharingie, found herself increasingly resolute and firm.

She could even feel the support of another from within. Her union with Hauteclaire made the phoenix's presence persistent. Their selves intertwined so closely she was no longer certain where Sylviane ended and Hauteclaire began.

However she could feel his unequivocal approval and support: his soothing touch that calmed her mind, his blazing heat that warmed her soul.

"Storm clouds manifesting!" She heard Sir Robert's voice call out.

The clouds multiplied from the existing cover, with new ones even forming out of thin air. These dark, ominous masses grew rapidly in size, as though hours passed right before their eyes.

"Legion Resistance!" One of her armigers cast the elemental damage resistance spell with the prefix for multi-target, group enhancement. More protective spells followed suit as the soldiers behind her raised wards for battle, while others took the opportunity to unleash a wave of Mana Seekers.

"All units tighten up! Dietrich!" General Neithard called out.

"Cyclone Blast Field!"

Spells were universal. Any mage with sufficient expertise could cast them. Magic specializations --which required both affinity and practice-- did not affect spell selection, but rather the power and capability of a narrow category of spells. Just as Wayfarers focused on boosting teleportation capacity and range, Stormcallers learned to control weather on a massive scale.

Instead of a small twister, Colonel Dietrich von Falkenrath created a colossal vortex of hurricane winds that wrapped around the entire Weichsen column, sheltering the Knights Phantom in the eye of its storm. This blew aside the clouds and rain that sought to hamper their charge.

It wasn't a perfect solution. It severely limited the cavalry's greatest asset -- their mobility. Instead of spreading out around the melee-oriented drakes and destroying them with ranged spellfire, they now had no choice but to engage their foes in close combat.

Pascal, on the other hand, had called it 'hugging the enemy'. This way Skagen rainclouds and ballistae could not harm the Phantoms without risking friendly fire. Given the Northmen's culture, there was no way their troopers would tolerate that.

From the pride in his voice, Sylviane had the distinct impression this was his familiar's idea rather than his own.

"Prepare for spell volley!" The General ordered.

"Firestorm!"

Sylviane stretched out her left hand as an orb of flames gathered before her palm.

Her thirteen armigers --the addition of Reynaud had taken the number above the usual full complement-- did the same. Each of them held onto their spell charge in the palm of their hand, ready to shoot at will.

"Cross formation! Purify Flames!"

Unlike the Weichsel's Phantoms who rode aerial mounts, Sylviane's armigers followed in her wake using little more than Levitation Flight spells. The magic gave mages the ability to fly on command. However controlling it in combat required great concentration -- something in short supply during the frenzy of battle.

The Oriflamme complimented this by giving every one of their armigers an enchanted cape woven with embedded phoenix feathers. This channeled not only the aura of blazing heat that spread from the phoenix, but also linked them within the slipstream created by the paladin's flight.

As long as Oriflamme armigers followed closely behind their paladin, the demands of their magical flight were greatly reduced while their aerial performance improved. The standard formation was a chevron with two staggered wings of six. But with Sylviane's order, her armigers shifted to a slanted cross formation with four staggered, rotating wings -- which spread the armigers out further and allowed them to better evade enemy attacks.

Purifying mana trailed out of Sylviane and Hauteclaire, down the channel of their burning aura to each individual armiger. Orbs of blazing orange turned white-blue as the phoenix's power cleansed them into sacred flames. These Firestorm spells now bore the phoenix's strength just as Sylviane's did.

Different sources of mana normally repelled one another. However phoenixes were natural Metamages -- a rare affinity that allowed them to share mana with others, which in turn let them alter the spells of others with their own power.

This also made them the only familiars capable of merging with their masters, resulting in the Oriflamme's famous 'Unison'.

"Volley! Chain Catalyst Dispel!" Sylviane heard General Neithard cry out.

"Release!"

The antimagic dispels from Weichsel's front ranks shot out first, heading out to hammer the layered personal wards that Northmen always applied. After them came fourteen fist-sized orbs of blue-white flames, which soared into the oncoming drakes before proximity detonations turned them into blasts of fiery pellets.

Volcanic drakes had tough, fireproof hides that hardened in reaction to any damage. However the phoenixes' magical blue-white embers cared not as they penetrated through to cook the flesh within.

Nine vanguard drakes' excruciating screeches turned into death cries as two hundred more rays of mana arced in, bombarding them with what should have been an overkill of spells. Yet despite this devastating barrage, one of them managed to actually stay aloft.

Drakes weren't created by the dragonlords for nothing. They had redundant organs and were numb to all but the most intense pain. Each drake could absorb tremendous punishment before succumbing to death. However they also weren't very smart, which was why the Dragonlords had trained many human clans to ride them during the Dragon-Demon Wars.

"Kill the riders first!"

Sylviane called out as she tore into the enemy before the smoke could clear. Given that many drakes were familiars to their more fragile human masters, it was an easy way to kill two birds with one stone.

She first dodged a falling drake covered with bleeding wounds. Her eyes then sprang wide as a jet of liquid rimefire burst out from the smoke, coming straight at her like an infernal hand of death. The bladed tip of a charging lance emerged next, followed by the reptilian face of a hideously-scarred volcanic drake which let out a terrible, shrieking cone of flames.

Panic and terror seized her nerves for a precious moment as Sylviane froze in her flight. Her burning aura might repel the drake's breath, but nothing she had --not wards, not armor, not even Hauteclaire's protection-- could stop the Northmen's weapon from hell, their infamous 'rimefire siphon'.

Just a split second before the rimefire would have melted her flesh, Hauteclaire took control of her burning wings and spun them away from an agonizing death.

The jet of flame traced her afterimage, intent on roasting the Princess who led the formation. However her phoenix maneuvered them beautifully through the air, transforming the sharp, spinning bank into a wide corkscrew that evaded not only the rimefire but also the couched lance. The loose formation of her armigers also allowed them to dodge the burst of flames, as they spun behind her in the wake of her flight.

Sylviane could hear Hauteclaire cooing in her mind, calming her back down with soothing sounds attuned to the ongoing symphony of war. Her resolve soon strengthened, although she continued the corkscrew to duck beneath the drake.

Even coming into reach of those scythes-like claws was better than playing with rimefire.

Her body rotated to face up as she dove below. She dodged one swipe of the drake's claws while deflecting another with her small shield -- a powerful blow which almost sent her hurling off-course. Meanwhile the drake screeched in pain as her mere proximity torched its underside with Hauteclaire's blazing aura. It provided just the right distraction for two of her armigers to smash their maces into the drake's biting head.

Coming out behind the drake, Sylviane soared back up and spun around to hurl out her meteor hammer. Instead of smashing the mace-like cylinder into the back of the rider's head, she wrapped its chains around his neck instead. Twisting the chain around her waist, she used her momentum to yank his body off the blinded beast, snapping his spine in the process.

The Outrider was dead within the second. But his fingers kept a death grip on his siphon. It was still pumping fire when Sylviane hurled his body toward another pair of drakes.

Burn in your own hellfire, her thought passed without a shred of mercy.


----- * * * -----


There's their second group.

Asgeirr thought as he watched more Phantoms dive from the clouds. They intercepted Thorsten's returning drakes with a barrage of blinding, Solar spells. This was followed by a cacophony of massed detonations as the very air seemed to explode, caused by a volley of combination spells.

The Admiral blinked away his tears from the intense light. He could just make out the sight of Phantoms caracoling away while showering the blinded drakes with grenades, javelins, and yet more spells. Six drakes in the front fell as their wings shredded apart under fire. Several more followed as their riders succumbed to wounds.

Concentrating on the high sorcery that now gripped the battlespace, Asgeirr willed the clouds to begin forming in the Wickers' path even as recovering drakes turned to chase. Both sides might number around one-thirty riders each, but the huge disparity in size left little doubt who was the mighty predator and whom the evasive prey.

Thorsten, my son, make me proud, the Admiral thought before swinging his spyglass to the other battlefront. As the Admiral of the fleet, his attention must focus on the battle at large and not merely his blood kin.

A chaotic melee had broken out between the first, and larger, Weichsel force and the skywhales' combat air patrol. The two formations had interpenetrated and the Wickers were now trying to hack their way through the smaller flight of drakes and clear the path to the skywhales. Amidst the fighting the Admiral caught sight of a rather unique weapon. It was an enlarged Manteuffel swordstaff -- which he had heard about from the Västergötlander veterans.

The double-bladed 'swordstaff' --if one could still call it that-- was in its heavy lance form when it stabbed into the neck of a volcanic drake. The magical weapon pushed deep before shrinking to its 'normal' size in the wielder's hands. The senior officer who carried it then cleaved the Outrider's helmet in an overhead fly-by. It was an exceptional attack from someone who clearly had decades of experience in combat.

That must be their general of cavalry -- Neithard von Manteuffel.

Asgeirr turned to the communication tube where he relayed his orders to the bridge command staff:

"Order Thorsten to break through the Phantoms before him and strike at the enemy's first wave. That is where their general fights -- kill him and we will win!"


----- * * * -----


"We have signal!" Ariadne heard the signal officer announce as he looked up towards Colonel Hammerstein.

The thuggish-looking Colonel swept his bulging eyes across the skies. He surveyed the assembled and tense-looking Phantom Grenadiers from atop his hippogryph mount.

"Well what are you all waiting for!? You wanna live forever!?"

His growl quickly rose into a yell as he pointed his swordstaff down towards the heavy clouds.

"Triumph! Fame! Immortality! It's down there! Your courage, your passion, and your pride -- ignite them all in blazing glory and seize it! It is YOURS for the taking!"

The Colonel then spun his swordstaff back, pointing in challenge to each and every one of his cavaliers.

"Let no lord claim yer not good enough! To befoul that your blood, your upbringing, your children aren't good enough! Today, you will show them courage! You will show them honor! You will show them all the true meaning of nobility! NOW WITH ME! CHARGE!!!"

"CHARGE!" Ariadne joined in the echoing shouts as over three hundred riders all plunged their mounts into a steep dive towards the clouds below.

In just a few lines, Colonel Hammerstein had managed to evoke everything those yeomen hated and wanted at the same time. It was a masterpiece performance that elicited a smile of appreciation even from her.

"Gryphons in the lead!" The Colonel commanded.

"Second company, armored wedge!" Captain Hans Herberts shouted.

The yeomen captain was one of those who rode a gryphon mount, and so was his company's entire first platoon. The muscular gryphons could bear more weight and withstand stronger headwinds than the agile pegasi or even the balanced hippogryphs. As a result, they wore plated steel armor which covered their eagle heads and lion-like upper torsos.

In accordance with both aeronautics and assault tactics, the rest of the Phantoms formed up behind the gryphons in a giant V formation to reduce air drag and protect more vulnerable steeds.

Ariadne felt a hint disappointed considering that she was supposed to be the 1st company commander. But then, she wasn't the only one giving up the lead position. Colonel Hammerstein did the same as he stayed with her company as he always did.

Besides, she had an important role that nobody else among them could play.

"Cyclone Blast Field!"

Ariadne channeled her mana and poured it out from her extended left palm.

She wasn't truly a Stormcaller, not yet. She had the affinity and had received some training back at the academy, but she wasn't ready for the certification exam and she knew it. Her techniques still needed work as she relied more on strength than finesse in shaping air currents. The result was that providing a tailwind for their trip back had left her even more tired than she anticipated.

Unlike Colonel Dietrich von Falkenrath, Ariadne couldn't even surround one whole company with wind barriers. The best she could manage was roughly the size of a platoon. This she maintained as a 'whirlwind drill', plowing a road through the static-charged thunderclouds ahead of Captain Herbert's lead platoon.

Their targets finally came into sight after the last cloud blew apart to reveal the ground far below. The armored bulks of four colossal skywhales lumbered through the skies, hurling sparse volleys of ballista bolts into the distant struggle for aerial superiority.

Ariadne could not discern much through the storm clouds. However the echoing explosions and cries told her all she needed to know. Weichsel's first wave had interpenetrated with the Skagen drakes, entangling them in a chaotic aerial melee to buy time for the main strike.

Let's make their sacrifices count.

"SECOND COMPANY: MAXIMIZE FORWARD DEFENSE! FIRST COMPANY: COVERING FIRE!" Colonel Hammerstein bellowed out in a magically amplified voice. "DRUMS!"

The prelude of orchestral battle songs soon began against the noise of howling winds. It was a Weichsel army tradition -- because the more decisive an attack, the more it needed musical accompaniment. Once a unit was committed in heavy assault, words beyond shouted orders grew meaningless. Far more important was the atmosphere that permeated their resolve.

Ariadne released her cyclone drill, hurling it towards the top of the closest skywhale. Voices cried out as some men were blown into the air. More joined as a barrage of multicolored rays hurled onto the defenders' wards.

Yet at the same time, at least a hundred archers atop the other skywhales notched arrows to release rune-infused volleys. They greeted their foes with a curtain of missile fire.

Discharging spells soon met friendly wards in a cascade of thunder -- which was even more literal than Ariadne had expected. Every spark of electricity called down a thunderbolt from above, as though each lightning rune had been blessed by the weather itself.

It's that bastard admiral!

Her ears already rang from the deafening clash of magic. Her eyes blurred from the endless flash of voltage spikes.

But at least the distance was short.

"First company! Switch targets!" Colonel Hammerstein's yell came muffled by the ringing. "Suppress flanking whales!"

The range soon closed to but a few hundred paces. The 1st company's layered wards had been thinned but not broken outright. Their casualties remained surprisingly light.

Yet even through her fuzzy sight, Ariadne soon spotted an anomaly forming on the nearest skywhale's back. Glowing dots connected themselves into a rectangular field of mana, ready to unleash a weapon of unknown power.

"Mana Seeker! Grenades!"

What are you doing?

Ariadne's thought came instantly as she heard Captain Hans' cry. It was doubtful if his company --which had bore the brunt of the thunder-- could hear at all. Nevertheless many followed in his example, launching waves of disruptive seekers before drawing grenades.

Phantoms were not supposed to deploy grenades unless they had a crushing magical superiority against their foes. Did that idiot forget? Or had he simply grown accustomed to repeating the same tactic as they had been doing during their raids in the Skagen Peninsula?

"STOP!" she screamed as her eyes glued themselves to the throbbing grid of power on the skywhale's back.

"SCATTER!"

Colonel Hammerstein's shout overcame her other thoughts, prompting Ariadne to press Edelweiss into an emergency dive.

She plunged not a second too soon as the 'anomaly' erupted in a blinding flare, just before the wavefront of Mana Seekers could reach them.

Some had followed the warning. Others obeyed evasive calls from their own leaders. Yet as the mana field on the skywhale's back burst into dozens, no, hundreds of lightning bolts, the bulk of the 2nd company --including the entirety of its gryphon platoon-- had been caught within its destructive path.

Crisscrossing beams of electricity hammered through the unit's remaining wards and tore through the formation. They were joined by a massive column of lightning from the overhead clouds, transforming the very airspace into a crackling voltage field.

Next came the blasts as every exposed blast powder grenade detonated. Even a few extradimensional pouches tore apart as the titanic discharge of power overwhelmed their heavy wards.

Ariadne gazed back up to where the 2nd company had been. Her mouth fell agape as she saw nothing but a floating sea of sparks and flames. Men and beasts plummeted from the gigantic fireball in the dozens, each a corpse burning in pitch and tar.

Within the span of seconds, the Phantom Grenadiers had lost over a hundred riders and roughly a third of their strength. Those men were not just wounded or maimed, but annihilated wholesale.

The entire formation now lay shattered. Their momentum paralyzed by their shock and horror at the devastation. Yet amidst the burning rain of fallen comrades, a single rugged rider tore past Ariadne to continue the charge.

In one hand he carried the Black Dragon banner, seized from the bearer of the 1st company. With the other hand he readied his swordstaff blade, crouched beneath his arm just as one would use a lance.

Her ears heard nothing except a steady ringing, but her heart felt every echo of his rallying cry.

Colonel Sir Erwin von Hammerstein was ugly, boorish, crass, and despotic. His intolerable insolence had drawn Ariadne's unforgiving ire since the day they met. But nobody, nobody, could deny that he was a knight to be revered, a leader to be followed.

...Even to the depth of hell itself.

Spurring on her own mount, Ariadne raised her Manteuffel swordstaff high into the air. She enlarged it to maximum size --a heavy lance almost thrice her height-- before lowering it under her arm into a jousting stance.

"HOLY FATHER WITH US! CHARGE!"

There was no way she would let herself fall short next to him.


----- * * * -----


For centuries, southern mages had mocked the Hyperborean's Runic Magic as obsolete compared to Aura Magic.

Runic Magic had its advantages, sure. It allowed for the storage of mana from pre-cast spells through the use of runestones. Many rock minerals' crystal lattices had a low mana diffusion rate, making it possible to maintain hoards of prepared spells. It also allowed anyone who knew the trigger conditions to activate prepared runestones in bulk -- an absolute quantitative advantage which the Hyperboreans exploited at every opportunity.

However, Runic Magic's inability to spontaneously cast and its need for a physical carrier drastically limited its use. For example, there was simply no northern equivalent of the Mana Seeker multipurpose counterspell. The inflexibility of their spellcasting left them vulnerable to Weichsel's superbly coordinated spell volleys -- a critical weakness which had cost them many battles.

But the manipulation of mana was as much a science as alchemy or metallurgy. Runic Magic evolved with time just like any other technology in demand.

Hyperborean mages on the Frontier had recently developed the newest form of Runic Magic: spell runes which were limited by neither their location nor contact activation. These new runes had a rudimentary awareness of their surroundings. They could move freely across any two-dimensional surface. They could even work in groups and follow specific instructions, such as "band together and discharge in a coordinated volley against hostile attack."

In essence, they were self-regulated, automated spells that no longer required a human operator.

The proud Hyperborean mages of the newest generation called them 'Living Runes'.

The deafening thunder from the Skywhale Polarlys' back left a buzz in Asgeirr Vintersvend's ears. However he paid the discomfort no mind as his cool Admiral Winter facade finally cracked open a broad, vengeful smirk:

"Where is your Holy Father now?"


----- * * * -----


Ariadne watched as Colonel Hammerstein's mount was killed under him by a volley of rune-inscribed bolts. The hippogryph was virtually blown apart by the explosive projectiles, and its final stumble catapulted the gruff Colonel through the air and onto the skywhale's back.

The man was clearly bleeding from multiple wounds. Yet despite this he charged a group of archers with his swordstaff in hand. He stabbed his weapon through one foe and shoved the body into several others, then spun his polearm around to cleave through a bow and into the face of another Northman.

However northern archers were not helpless in melee. They drew their axes to fight back in close combat. One of them managed to cut the Colonel's leg and forced Hammerstein to fall to one knee, but not before he used his strength and magic to spear the flagpole of the Black Dragon banner onto the skywhale's armored back.

Pushing her pegasus through arrows and spells, Ariadne charged straight at the commander of the squad that Hammerstein was fighting. Her weapon was infused with a Catalyst Dispel at its tip, and she speared the Manteuffel swordstaff in its lance form through the man's torso.

Then, as a nearby Northman in chainmail-reinforced-hide lunged at her, she shrunk her weapon to its 'normal' size, pulling the twin-bladed swordstaff out of the corpse before hacking towards her foe. However with the penetration spell on her weapon now discharged, she barely even cracked his spellshield.

Ariadne urged her pegasus Edelweiss to plow straight into him and trample him underfoot. His wards and armor ensured that his ribs stayed intact, but the hard impact still stunned him for a few precious seconds.

"Catalyst Dispel!"

She cast the antimagic to burn away his layered wards before ramming her weapon's blade down and into him. She then spun her polearm around to parry the axe of another Northman, this time coming from her other side.

A dispel struck the Northman from the rear, cast by Hammerstein even as he half-knelt on the ground. However the assistance cost him as an axe blow landed upon his back, and only the enchanted cuirass he wore saved his life.

Taking advantage of the opening, Ariadne stabbed with her swordstaff. The first attack grazed the man's shoulder armor, which forced her to use her weapon shaft to deflect a riposte. However a second strike pierced straight into the man's neck, killing him almost instantly.

Hurling out a Cyclone spell at close range, she knocked back the Northman who stood over the Colonel before he could deliver a coup de grâce. She then charged the foe before he could regain his footing. And with two heavy blows from atop her mount, she overpowered the archer-turned-axeman and cut him down.

Still astride her bloodied pegasus, Ariadne looked down at the Colonel who was now on the ground. He rolled over onto his back and spurted out a mouthful of blood. His right hand clutched his wound as he cast First Aid spell on himself.

"GO!" He urged her. "Our primary objective remains!"

Ariadne nodded before she heeled her pegasus into another charge. But this time a squad of archers had trained their aim upon her. A quick cast of Mana Seekers disrupted many of the runes inscribed on their arrows, but the lead projectile's Dispel crashed her wards before two bodkin heads managed to pierce her armor on the right arm and shoulder.

It took all she had to not drop her weapon mid-charge.

Gritting with pain, Ariadne opened her grenade pouch and unstrapped it. She then hurled out its entire contents towards the squad of archers while caracoling away. This was followed by an area dispel and an Ignition ray. A dozen barrels of tar and powder crashed into the Northmen just as they caught fire and exploded.

However the redirection of her mount only sent her into another threat. Eight bulky Västergötlanders --adventurers based the look of their mismatched gear-- charged her with polearms, axes, and swords. One of them actually hurled his zweihander sword at her, which glowed slightly as magic took charge of its flight and put it into a spin.

The pink-haired lady knight ducked down in the nick of time to avoid being decapitated by the large, spinning blade. Although she was certain that she lost some hair in the process.

Two of the men squeezed runestones in their hands even as they charged. Ice crystals grew over their chainmail-and-hide armor at a phenomenal pace, forming an additional layer of spiked armor that made them almost invulnerable to conventional weapons.

Frostfell berserkers, Ariadne instantly recognized.

Her arm trembled in fear as it was men like these who almost killed her back during autumn, when her first pegasus --the one who had accompanied her since childhood-- had been cut down during the Battle of Parchim.

"Spellshield Fortress!"

Ariadne brought her main defensive ward back to full strength as she guided Edelweiss to leap away. But she had already moved too close to evade, and her opponent's massive glaive smashed into her pegasus head on.

Multiple runic spells activated in quick succession as tiny pebbles popped off the polearm's shaft. Her fresh spellshields shattered under an antimagic burst right before a glowing, heated blade cut through Edelweiss' shadowy barding to discharge a surge of painful electric shocks.

The pegasus collapsed under her almost instantly, hurling her forward through the air.

Ariadne realized she had just lost her second familiar as the empathic link promptly cut off.

Still shaking from the aftershocks, she broke her tumbling fall as her leg became ensnared by the ropes covering the skywhale's back. Her weapon however tumbled away, falling off the whale and into the empty skies below.

She still had a dagger as backup. Yet there was simply no time to draw it, even assuming her wounded arm still had the strength to parry an attack that nearly beheaded her mount in one swipe.

She would still try. But even as time slowed to a crawl before her impending death, Ariadne knew that this time, she had thrown her dice against fate and lost.

I'm sorry Perceval...

She saw him one last time with tears in her eyes. Her body braced for the killing blow as the berserker raised the glaive edge high above his head.

--And in that moment, an explosive detonation could be heard behind the man's back, just before a jet of molten steel drilled a hole through the his armored chest. The man was dead before he body fell to the skywhale's back, and his corpse soon rolled down the sloped side and fell overboard.

A shattered lance had been responsible for the kill, and holding the other end of the weapon was the petite Elise, Ariadne's second-in-command. Behind her charged in an entire platoon, overrunning not just the adventurers but also several other nearby squads.

Ariadne recognized it as the Blast Lancet spell, pioneered during the last war after Weichsel's lances repeatedly broke upon the Imperium's demigryph super-heavy cavalry and their triple layered armor. It transformed the lance tip into a hollow, reversed cone, before using a small, magical explosion to imitate what they called a 'shaped blast' effect.

Though, regardless of how it worked, the young lady couldn't help but feel elation as she had just been spared. The life-and-death bond she felt with the girl mounted before her was one that only veterans could truly understand.

"Please... take care of the rest..." The pink haired lady breathed out as she collapsed against the skywhale's back. "I'll message command... to send in the final strike."


----- * * * -----


Unlike the 'fateful five minutes of Midway' that inspired Kaede with this entire battle plan, the decisive moment of Nordkreuz was not brought to reality by coincidence, but through the willful sacrifice of countless brave lives.

The last Phantom company that had been lurking above the cloud cover dove down at a steep angle. Their dispersal was perfect, with two squads each sent against the first three skywhales. Their four best squads --reconnaissance and 1st platoon-- concentrated on the last, which had successfully fought off the Phantom Grenadiers' charge.

A cascade of thunder reached out from the fourth whale. At least a third of the assault wave there went down in an instant. But with most defenders distracted and the Phantoms in scattered formations, enough of them nevertheless made it through.

The Falcon Force Knights Phantom company came in behind massive dispel volleys, hammering any remaining wards near each skywhale's blowhole. Then, just before they sped past, every knight hurled in their modified javelin.

Accuracy was poor, but quantity held a quality of its own. Out of two dozen or so javelins thrown against each blowhole, at least a few made it through each.

The javelins had been Pascal's design. They carried tiny compartments with reagent payloads in the shaft. Impact triggered two different runes inscribed into the weapon: an electric surge that blasted forward to paralyze the skywhale's nasal muscles, and a transmutation barrier that covered the air intake. A third, delayed-action alchemy spell would combine the abundant airborne nitrogen with its payload to create hydrogen cyanide -- prussic acid.

Nothing visible seemed to happen at first, other than stronger wailing from the whales. Then, as the twenty second mark finally passed, geysers of flame erupted from one skywhale after another as even-more-delayed Fireball runes activated to ignite the poisonous gas that had spread into their lungs.

The result was almost painful to watch.

The gargantuan beasts buckled, tossed, rolled, and performed every physical motion imaginable in their agonizing death throes. Holding formation and altitude was impossible as they flailed through the air, shedding men and equipment as they went.

The battle raged on as falling northern mages activated levitation runes to stay airborne and retaliate. But these were mostly infantry or shipboard operators. With their organization shattered, they posed only a minor threat to Phantoms who specialized in air combat.

Dozens of drakes in the distance abandoned their own battle and turned to their motherships' aid. Yet the Phantoms and armigers they fought had no intention of letting them go. Their attempt to disengage cost them dearly, and what had been a contested battle in Skagen's favor soon turned Weichsel's way.

By the time the first skywhale began to plummet, the battle was already turning into a slaughter. The Northmen that stayed airborne fought back in penny packets, and the organized Phantom squads that remained butchered them without mercy.


----- * * * -----


Asgeirr Vintersvend struggled to hang onto the bulwark as his skywhale fell through the skies. It would have been easier if he could use both hands, or if his dead familiar wasn't plunging towards the ground listing at nearly fifty-degrees.

Physical prowess had always been his brother's domain, not his. Furthermore, he also wasn't as young as he used to be...

Finally!

His other hand extracted the Air Glide Boost tablet from a belt pouch, which he promptly activated by pressing it against the gondola deck. He had prepared the runestone as part of his contingencies for an emergency. However he had never expected to actually use it.

Certainly not today.

They had been winning too! The Wickers' boarding troops might have had momentum after their charge. However the opening volleys had left too few of them to actually seize the whales! The attritional melee that had broken out played to Skagen favor. They were on the verge of shattering Weichsel's air cavalry corp and securing air dominance for the remainder of the war!

Then, in the span of less than a minute, everything had been reversed.

The hammer blow had come too quick, too fast. By the time the Admiral realized what had happened, the damage had already been done:

Four heavily armed and armored skywhales --the pride of the Skagen navy-- defeated in mere moments.

The mighty Drake Outriders had been thrown into disarray, then pressed into a desperate defense -- predators pounced upon by packs of angry prey.

Over a thousand veteran marksmen, runescribes, engineers, and other experienced specialists found themselves crashing toward their death. Those who managed to stay airborne found little mercy as roaming squads of Phantoms hacked them apart.

It was a disaster. A calamity that he had walked straight into. A catastrophe that he had no possible way to overturn.

The battle is lost.

Faced with the grim reality, Asgeirr had no choice but to admit it. All that remained was to see how many survivors could still be saved from his fatal mistake.

"Milord, we must leave!" His flag lieutenant, a young Wayfarer tasked to be his personal aide, shouted. "Once the Wickers see us glide, they'll hit us with concentrated force!"

To effectively place a spell, even a simple Air Glide, across a monster of such colossal size was no easy feat. Asgeirr doubted any of the other skywhale captains had prepared a rune of similar strength. This meant he had just painted a bullseye on his own sinking ship. Yet at the same time, it offered the only real hope of survival that his men had.

"I am NOT leaving my men behind to die!" The Admiral yelled back in fury.

He had known most of the Polarlys' crew for decades. The thought of abandoning them in this critical moment was unthinkable. It would be cowardice beneath the dignity of any man alive, an act of treachery for which he would never be able to forgive himself.

"But Milord...!" The aide cried again, his earnest blue eyes almost begging.

"Sir, Skagen cannot afford to lose you in this war," The voice of his first mate came from the communication tube.

As the Air Glide took hold and returned the flight deck mostly upright, Admiral Winter released the bulwark handle and dug into his pouches for two more tablets. The Gustcloak spellword was another one of his personal creations, and he reached out with both hands to project wind barriers onto the hangar deck entrances on opposite sides.

His falling skywhale familiar became a bunker gliding through air. Its armored mass was now charged with delivering several hundred crew members safely to the ground.

"No! We're all going back!" the Admiral set down his proverbial foot. "Now both of you shut up and organize the men for defense!"

Asgeirr could already see a squad of Phantoms riding towards them from beyond the wind wall. He reached into more pockets to pull out handfuls of lightning stones, before hurling these into the gust barrier that bulged outwards from each entrance, where cycling winds trapped them in the hurricane gales.

With one hand outstretched towards the barrier, Asgeirr concentrated his magic to manipulate his spell. The gale barrier spat out a horde of runestones with ballistic accuracy, and the delayed-action electrical bursts called down a lightning volley to blast the Phantom squad.

However the thunderous barrage also caught people's attention. Spell rays began flying toward the entrance in the dozens, but the arcane volley never made it past the wind. The barrier detonated spells as though solid matter. Elemental and antimagic blasts rapidly weakened the hurricane gales, yet they were hastily replenished as the Admiral poured more mana into his specially crafted stones.

Asgeirr was soon breathing hard as he strained his magic reserves. No individual archmage could match mana endurance against dozens, hundreds of battlemages and win. He still carried plenty of runestones for combat use, but he had to hold these barriers firm with his own power -- at least long enough to persuade the Wickers to cease their 'worthless' bombardment.

It took half a minute before they stopped. Then, as the Admiral finally took a calming breath, he saw a single armiger in glowing white-blue peel off from the Oriflamme's formation. The Lotharin flew in with nothing but a Levitation Flight spell, charging in the wake of the barrage.

Asgeirr focused on the barrier again to have it hurl out a dozen more stones. However the armiger vanished in a bolt of his own lightning before the salvo struck. Then, just before striking the wind wall, the attacker rematerialized into physical form once more.

The Admiral's eyes swelled with astonishment as he watched the intruder fall into his hangar. The gale barrier had torn the armiger's uniform into bloody shreds. Without the man's enchanted steel half-plate, the cutting winds would have ripped him apart.

The sheer audacity of this... this boy!

The Admiral stared in near disbelief as the armiger crashed hard onto the gondola's metal floor and rolled to a stop merely five paces away. A dozen gashes had cut the attacker's face into a bloody mess beyond recognition. Nevertheless Asgeirr estimated that the short redhead who appeared to be a teen was in his early twenties at most.

Was it bravery? Overconfidence? Or outright stupidity? Asgeirr didn't know what compelled the boy into such a foolhardy stunt. But it hardly mattered anymore.

A handful of his huskarl bodyguards were rushing over from the entrances. The heathen boy would never be allowed to stand up again.

Yet as hateful, blood-covered eyes turned to glare at the Admiral, Asgeirr realized that the kid wasn't finished. The redhead tossed a kukri still held in his hands, hurling out the curved steel like a bladed boomerang.

However the kid was too badly hurt. His aim was terrible even at so close a range. The kukri merely tore the edge of the Admiral's billowing cloak.

No... it had also grazed his layered wards, and the weapon's discharged Catalyst Dispel overwhelmed them with cascading failure.

With a jerk of his hands, the Admiral summoned runic pebbles between his fingers to replenish the wards. But a sharp, slashing pain from his right forearm caused him to drop the stones.

"Armor Screen!" The bloodied boy spat out, curving the protective bubble around the Admiral and enclosing his space against the steel bulwark.

--Which happens to include the thrown blade.

What-- Asgeirr puzzled in confusion before he saw the re-emerging threat.

The kukri had bounced off the wall and came back, somehow tripling itself in the process. Then, with another rebound off the translucent bubble, two more copies duplicated into existence.

They cut across his shin, slashed his bony shoulder, even sent a hacking stab deep into his back. The whirlwind of steel escalated in mere seconds, and agonizing pain drowned out all coherent thought -- let alone any deduction that could devise a suitable counterspell.


...


Reynaud never found out if the Admiral lacked the right prepared spell to deal with the unusual threat, or if he simply didn't react fast enough. Within seconds, the swarm of flying steel created by the Bladestorm Kukri --a 'gift' from the Imperial Mantis Blades weeks ago-- had cut the old man apart.

Which left three armed and now outraged Northmen surrounding him.

Too bad... I won't get to show Gerard my medal for this...

Lying face-up on the floor, Reynaud tried to laugh at his situation yet he only coughed up blood. His eyes glanced sideways, not at the swords about to end his life, but the fading winds that once protected the entrance.

My first battle... what a blunder...

Regret seeped into his mind as he thought of his hasty action. Second thoughts have never fitted him, but for once, he wished he had made a different choice.

Reynaud tried to raise his arm again but it wouldn't budge. He tried to cast another spell yet his body wouldn't listen. Every part of him was aching numb as a precast Desensitize spell dulled his pain. But even with it, throwing out that kukri and the spell that went with it had cost every last strength he had.

Trying to reconcile himself to the inevitable, Reynaud closed his eyes. Yet even as his eyelids met, hot tears rolled down his cheeks from the corner of each eye.

I don't want to die...

However, as Reynaud braced himself and the seconds rolled by, there was no sharp, burning agony. No ending of consciousness.

Instead, Reynaud heard cries of agony above him, accompanied by the clanging of steel and swishing of chains.

He opened his eyes once more. And there she was, the Princess of Rhin-Lotharingie. Her meteor hammer spun in her hand, while her surviving armigers crushed the remaining foes with maces in their hands.

Her Highness... came after me...

As he coughed and another spatter of blood flew out from his lips, Reynaud watched the Princess wrap her meteor hammer's chains around her arm. She then rushed over to him, while her hands withdrew several runestones from her belt pouch along the way.

"Are you OUT OF YOUR MIND?" The glowing-haired Princess cried out in visible anger as she activated the healing runes. The stones took positions around him, and a hemisphere of turquoise healing magic --the same color as Pascal's-- flared into existence.

Without even the energy to lift his hand, Reynaud could only lay there as he stared, crying, smiling, all at the same time. He looked at the Oriflamme whom he had sworn, just before the battle, to follow, to serve, and to protect.

"It worked... didn't it?" His bravado re-emerged as he tried to put on a normal face.

"YOU IDIOT!" Princess Sylviane shouted. "There's a difference between taking risks and commiting suicide!"

"I'm not dead yet." Reynaud joked with a faint, coughing laugh.



Chapter 17 - Desperate Assault[edit]

"We need to redeploy outside the city," Pascal insisted as he faced the assembled commanders of the Weichsen army in their morning gathering.

Eight brigade commanders, plus a dozen more staff officers or tactical officers, met in the paved square just inside the city's northern gate. As the majority of the nearby buildings now lay in ruins, army personnel deployed a 'mobile command center' for the meeting instead. This was a large, single-room structure which had been expanded from its shrunken, crate-sized form. It featured an enchanted map table which they used to display the geography around Nordkreuz.

The map table back at Pascal's home --with its links to Weichsel's 'Eye of the Dragon'-- would have been preferable for this meeting. However, while his cylindrical keep residence wasn't seriously damaged by the air assault, its foundations had been destabilized by the subsequent earthquake which had caused the structure to list dangerously. The building had been evacuated as a result, aside from two signal officers who stayed there to relay information from the map display.

In addition, the air attack that devastated the city had also claimed the lives of two brigadiers and seriously wounded General Wiktor von Falkenhausen -- who had been entrusted with the overall command of the forces assembled at Nordkreuz since the King and General Neithard's departure. Per Weichsel regulations for a defensive battle on home territory, command now fell to the next highest ranking officer, with priority given to the local garrison commander.

This happened to be Pascal's direct superior, Brigadier-General Bernard von Konopacki. He was a mediocre statured man who looked just past his adult prime, but with premature salt-and-pepper hair that added at least a decade to his visage. His slate-blue eyes now turned towards Pascal as the brigadier spoke in an even-mannered voice:

"You believe it would be better to sally out from the city for battle? Why?"

Pascal knew that although the Brigadier was of General Neithard's faction and therefore politically opposed to his views, Bernard von Konopacki was also an astute tactician and reliable infantry commander, if a bit old fashioned. Nevertheless, the thought of abandoning prepared fortifications to fight out in the open was too unorthodox for the general. He looked upon the young captain with a look of skepticism... but also a willingness to listen.

"For four reasons," Pascal raised his hand as he began to list. "First of all, the early morning bombardment from Skagen's drakes have left the city's fortifications in ruins. More than half the towers in the city's north and east have collapsed, along with many lengths of the city's walls. Countless wall sections now require scaling ladders even for our men to access, while others are so badly damaged they might collapse under the lightest spell bombardment."

"The rubble left behind by those walls would still impede entry," one of the other generals commented.

"Yes, but they also pose a hindrance upon our own forces' ability to conduct a coordinated defense," Pascal highlighted. "This brings me to point number two -- our forces still hold a significant numerical advantage, with roughly 46,000 against their 36,000. We need room to deploy and maneuver if we are to make full use of this quantitative edge. For this the ruined fortifications are more of an impedance than a boon."

In fact, most Weichsens found it surprising that the Northmen still insisted on fighting now that the skywhales had been defeated and Admiral Winter reportedly killed. Nevertheless, both the Skagen army and the Västergötland expedition force had set out from their camps at daybreak and now converged upon the city of Nordkreuz.

"This is especially the case when you consider that the Northmen are at their best in melee, which is my third point," Pascal continued as he raised another finger. "If we fight in Nordkreuz, and they break through the city's perimeter, we will be forced into chaotic, close quarters urban combat, where the Northmen hold a decisive edge. We need to make use of Weichsel's superiority in ranged and formation combat, and for that we require open terrain."

Brigadier Bernard nodded as he clearly recognized Pascal's points. Nevertheless he made one last objection:

"And what of the snow? The accumulation is almost half a pace high and hard snow continues to fall."

"The Northmen are expert skiers trained from childhood, while most of our men lack even snowshoes," another general pointed out. "A battle out in thick snow will not be to our advantage. They will cut our forces into pockets using their motti tactics, just like they did to the Imperium's expeditions decades ago!"

"--Not to mention the impact of the snowfall on visibility and range," added yet another. "Our arbalests will hardly get off a second volley before they close the distance."

"However the intensity of the weather is decreasing," Pascal insisted, "and it will continue to do so, since the originator of this storm, Admiral Winter, has been killed in the air battle. Ground accumulation may slow us down, yet it also offers us an opportunity to prepare the battlefield. After all, Nordkreuz lays on a peninsula that juts out into the middle of Cross Lake. The enemy has no choice but to approach from one direction, which gives us an opportunity to prepare."

"Trenches, slush pits, icicle stakes," one of the colonels, a brigade staff officer, joined in support of Pascal this time. "We can rough up the ground so they can neither run nor ski across it effectively. That will buy us the time needed for successive volleys."

"Skagen's mages do prepare runes for dealing with problematic ground."

"Yes, but any lanes they create through obstacle terrain will become bottlenecks, which our mages can exploit as effective kill zones."

There was actually a fifth reason that Pascal didn't want to mention, and that was he wanted to spare Nordkreuz any more destruction by keeping the battle outside of its walls. The city already lay in ruins after the aerial bombardment. Its militia was busy rescuing people trapped in collapsed cellars even as they spoke.

It is my fault that the city is in such a state, the young lord couldn't help but think of the smoking ruins outside. I do not want the city's residents to suffer any more than they already have.

However, as Pascal was the Landgrave of Nordkreuz, it would seem selfish if he claimed this as one of the reasons. There would no doubt be those who see it as him using national assets to protect his own fiefdom.

"Does anyone else have counterarguments?" Brigadier Bernard called out.

"Won't we be spreading our forces thin trying to cover the whole width of the peninsula?" A general questioned.

"We have the numbers. More than sufficient to create mobile reserves to bolster any part of the line that falls under determined attack," spoke another.

"Plus the Northmen know that piling up in one place will just make them fodder to our spell volleys."

"Not to mention that time is on our side," Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Ostergalen then added before Pascal could point out himself. "General Dietfried will arrive with the 1st cavalry brigade by early afternoon. As long as we can hold the anvil until that time, then our cavalry will become the hammer that crushes our enemies from behind."

"It's settled then," Brigadier Bernard declared as he used his sword to draw a line in the map table's sand. "We will deploy seven brigades across this line north of the city, at the crest of these two shallow ridges. Brigade commanders have authority to deploy as they see fit within their zone of responsibility. However I want two defense lines constructed -- an outer skirmish screen to slow down the enemy and a main line to hold fast. Then once those are completed, withdraw the support companies to the city's perimeter to construct a fallback position just in case."

"Yes Sir," officers nodded from across the room as they drew more indentations in the sand. Operational responsibilities were quickly divided up among the commanders before Bernard issued orders for the last two remaining formations:

"The veteran 5th infantry brigade and the 2nd cavalry brigade will be held back to act as reserves for the overall line. They will clear two lanes, each no less than four abreast, behind the main line for the rapid relocation of troops. We have only a few hours before the enemy's arrival so let's get started!"


----- * * * -----


"What is the point of attacking Nordkreuz now!?"

"How are we supposed to take the city when Admiral Winter has been defeated!?"

"You and your brother must bear personal responsibility for the calamity that has befallen our skywhales!"

Jarl Eyvindur Sigmundsen of Kattegen narrowed his eyes as he gazed upon the dozen rowdy nobles gathered before him. Many of them were already threatening to leave with their retinue and levy. The only reason they have not done so was because nobody wanted to be the first to break ranks and thus be accused of cowardice.

"SIIILEEENCE!" The tall, burly jarl bellowed out in a roar. It seized not only the nobles' attention, but also turned the heads of several hundreds more, as men continued to ski past the impromptu assembly of lords.

"Are you all children!?" Eyvindur snarled with disdain as he looked upon the nobles before his gaze. "One setback and you call it quits!? If that is the extent of your determination then I will not stop you from fleeing back to your homes! Better to let the cowards go now then have others catch their weak-minded disease!"

Several of the lords' faces grew red with anger as Eyvindur's retort struck where it hurt. In Hyperborean culture only the brave may be rewarded in the afterlife, cowardice was seen as an unforgivable sin.

"My brother dines with the Stormlord in the Golden Halls now, because he died bravely in battle!" Eyvindur declared. "Our fleet may have been defeated in the skies, but Admiral Winter has done his duty first in guaranteeing our army a path forward! The fortifications of Nordkreuz lie in ruins, and the army of Weichsel was devastated when we laid waste to their city and camps!

"With their forces reduced and their morale in tatters, we have a better chance now than at any moment in the past century!" He continued. "We can raze this heathen settlement and stop their excursions into our lands! And you want to retreat!?"

The Jarl swung his muscular arm around and pointed at a half-dozen young women who carried swords and shields upon their backs. They stood in a ritual circle around a rune-coated obelisk mounted on a sled. A squad of drummers walked in a ring around them, their beating and chanting uninterrupted by the nobles' arguments.

"Even my seventeen-years-old granddaughter has more balls than the lot of you!" He cried out.

"Jarl Eyvindur--" one of the other lords attempted to speak up. His remorseful expression showed that he was clearly having second thoughts, and he was far from being the only one.

However, Eyvindur had zero patience for any perceived excuses as he bulldozed right over the man's fumbling words:

"Those who wish to flee may do so now! Go back and cower in your holds as the heathens creep ever closer to your home! Go wait for your deathbed in old age when the Stormlord reminds you of your disgrace this day!"

The commander of Skagen's confederate army pointed towards the north, as though inviting the lords to take up on his offer. Then, as the moment passed and nobody turned or moved, Eyvindur heard his favorite granddaughter's voice announce from behind him:

"Gramps... commander," the young lady quickly changed her tone. However she could not keep out the excitement that beamed from her pretty smile. "We've found it! The Wickers' headquarters! It's located just slightly behind the center of the Wickers' second line."

Eyvindur was a veteran of multiple conflicts between the Hyperboreans and the Trinitians. He understood that Weichsel's greatest strength lay in the command and leadership of its officer corp. They had a tradition of setting up headquarters near the front lines, which not only bolstered the soldiers' morale but also improved battlefield communication and comprehension.

Therefore the moment he heard that the Weichsel army had sallied out from the city, he gathered his best Völva --female mages who specialized in divination and scrying-- to find out where the Wickers were establishing their new headquarters. The deployable command centers those heathens used would be protected by both illusions and wards. But there was no such thing as a foolproof defense.

"How can you be certain?" Eyvindur asked, more for the benefit of others than his own doubts.

"We found six major communication trenches converging in one location, where the Wickers began to dig out almost as soon as their soldiers left the city." The young lady explained. "There are a dozen other dugouts of similar size where I suspect other command units to be sited. But this one that we found -- it was the first that the Wickers began working on, the first they laid illusory camouflage over, and we've observed more staff officers vanish beneath its Mirage cover than any other."

"--And one of them matched the description you gave us for the new Landgrave of Nordkreuz," added another.

"Then that is where we focus our strongest thrust." Eyvindur declared before turning towards a signal officer at his side. "Tell Jarl Ericsson to prepare his drakes for dive bombing. Once our vanguard has the Wickers' frontal defenses occupied, he will assault their command center with all of our remaining air strength. His orders are simple -- slaughter the Wickers' command unit and impose bloody terror upon these heathens!"

Västergötland's seventeen drakes, under the command of Jarl Ericsson, may not be as well trained as the air groups of Admiral Winter's fleet. But they were nevertheless a formidable bunch. Plus they had a fearsome Zmey -- the most powerful of all drake broods that the Dragonlords created.

"Yes Milord!"

With his order issued, Eyvindur turned upon the other nobles with a stern and determined look on his face.

"Well?" He snarled impatiently. "Will you fight? Or will you flee? Choose now!"

"We fight," two of the jarls declared, followed by acknowledgements from the rest.

"Good," Eyvindur stated with a sneer. "Then let me fill you in on the rest of the battle plan."

Though in reality, Eyvindur did not feel any of the confidence that he displayed, not even as he began to detail all the pieces of his converging, multi-pronged assault plan. He knew this whole battle was a risky gamble. However it was also a gamble he had to make.

I will not let your death be in vain, brother, The Jarl repeated the oath his swore upon hearing of his half-brother's demise. I will drown this city in blood to see you avenged!


----- * * * -----


Kaede looked through her binoculars at the distant battle being waged. The snow which continued to fall obscured her vision. But thanks to a combination of a Snow Sight spell and her familiar-enhanced vision she could see almost a kilopace out from her vantage point atop the makeshift bastion.

The structure was built from packed snow and elevated her off the ground by two paces. A combination of landscaping spells and good old shovel work had created the foundation, which Weichsel's mages then transmuted to create a solid ice exterior. A thin layer of dirt and snow was added to give traction for those who stood on top.

Weichsel's army had built over a dozen of these along the seven kilopace-long defense line, and Pascal had stationed Kaede on the extreme right flank.

Between the bastions was a snow-and-ice parapet half a man's height, which provided cover for Weichsel's soldiers as they formed up behind it. Protruding from the parapet were wooden and icicle stakes, while in front of the parapet was a wide but shallow ditch filled with mud and slush.

Waist-deep communication trenches criss-crossed across the front, including many which extended out from the main defense line to forward positions where lookouts and skirmishers were deployed behind another, narrower ditch.

It was impressive just how much fieldworks the Weichsel army created in three hours' time. It helped that every battalion had a squad of pioneers. Versed in the art of battlefield engineering, the pioneers had quickly laid out fortification plans and directed the soldiers of the combat and support companies to turn them into reality.

It's like the Roman Legions' ability to construct marching camps, Kaede thought.

Now, as the Skagen army launched probing attacks along the line, these fieldworks played a pivotal role in slowing the enemy's advance. Kaede watched as a force of a thousand Northmen skied their way up to the first shallow ditch. However they couldn't cross this obstacle without their skis driving into the mud and getting stuck.

Some of them conjured icy ramps across the ditch. Others kicked off their skis to close the remaining hundred paces of distance on foot, which slowed them considerably as they had to wade through the knee-deep snow.

"BY RANKS!" She heard a voice cry out from the adjacent battalion. "VOLLEY!"

A wave of arbalest bolts flew out behind several area dispel spells. It was followed by a second, and then a third volley, as Weichsel's soldiers unloaded their weapons one row at a time. The missiles rained down upon the front lines of the Northmen infantry attack, stripping away wards before the steel bolts punched through armor and into flesh.

Dozens of men fell before the Skagen infantry could form a shield wall. The thick snow made moving in formation difficult. However the Northmen nevertheless pushed forward through the withering barrage.

That's the courage it takes to fight in a battle...

Kaede couldn't help but feel ashamed of last night, when she cried out in terror after being caught in a drake's fire breath for the first time. Pascal had given her far more wards than even the average mage, and the drake's breath weapon had left her mildly cooked at most.

--Yet I had screamed like a little girl, the familiar berated herself.

The fact she was a petite girl now was no excuse.

The problem was that Kaede had never faced a scenario where everything felt overwhelming. Sure, she had taken part in the rooftop fight against Mantis Blade assassins back at the academy. But raising her weapon against a few men was... a big difference from marching into a deluge of spells and arrows on a battlefield.

Kaede watched as the Northmen shield wall advanced in company-sized blocks. Their mages had inscribed anti-projectile Repulsion Field wards onto their shields, which made lightweight missiles change vector at the last second and 'bounce off'. Weichsel's officers responded with a steady stream of Dispel spells, each time creating an opening for a new arbalest volley to penetrate and kill.

Noticing movement in the distance, Kaede swung her binocular further north. A group of horses had pulled five sleds up to a distance of five hundred paces away. As the crew detached the horses and led them away, Kaede noticed that two of the sleds had ballistae mounted on them, while the other three featured the throwing arms of catapults.

"<Pascal, enemy light artillery.>" She called for his attention through the familiar bond.

"<Rune-throwers,>" Pascal immediately recognized as he peered through her gaze.

Two ballistae finished loading first and soon released their javelin-sized bolts. One of them flew across the air and soared straight into the torso of a mage on her bastion.

"GAHHHhhhhhhhh!"

The rune-enchanted projectile punched through his wards before penetrating his armored chest. Its momentum then carried him off the structure's edge. The soldier screamed and flailed as he crashed into the snow below, impaled into the ground by the shaft that skewered his torso.

Two nearby medics rushed over to examine the fallen trooper. But by then the body had already stilled into an unmoving corpse.

He had been standing right next to me!

Kaede's mind virtually froze as she slowly turned back around to face the enemy. Her body trembled as she felt the shock of his death coursing through her. That ballista bolt could easily have claimed her life instead of his. All it would have taken was a fraction of a degree's difference in aim!

"<Kaede, order the lieutenant to take out that battery. Firemist combination spell.>"

Pascal's forceful voice rang through her mind, dragging her back into the present.

"L-l-lieutenant, command from HQ," the familiar stammered out before taking another breath to steady herself. She pointed a finger towards the snowy distance. "Eliminate that artillery battery. Firemist combo."

The lieutenant was a young nobleman who appeared to be in his late 'twenties'. His binoculars were already directed towards the enemy when he nodded: "understood."

He then turned towards his squad of dismounted Noble Reiters:

"Extended range spells. Gas them. I'll ignite."

The others nodded back before switching their aura magic stance to one more suitable for high-output, low-precision spellcasting.

"Aura Bombard!"

Kaede didn't even have to focus to feel the gentle pressure in the air as their magical auras expanded. Her sensitivity to magic was definitely growing as a result of being Pascal's familiar.

"Extension, Firemist Condense Field!" Ten of them called out, their extended gloves sending arcing rays of crafted ether towards their target.

"Extension, Ignition!" The Lieutenant then followed suit.

The first ten rays flew across five hundred paces of open terrain and scattered into the upwind air like leafy veins. They left no visible effect, except for a faint clash of mana against some shield bubble from a defending mage.

Kaede's keen hearing then picked up shouts that she didn't understand. A pitched cry soon trailed behind them -- which apparently meant 'run'.

They barely had enough time for more than a few steps...

As the final spell shot in, the very air over the artillery battery exploded like a petroleum reservoir. Flames and burning air poured out in every direction. The force of the blast pulverized the siege engines like twig models, hurling out pieces of men and machine as though toy blocks thrown by a tantrum-stricken child.

By transmuting impurities in the air into dense cloud of methane and other highly flammable gases, then followed with a simple fire spell, Weichsel's mages had learned to imitate the nature of a coal dust explosion. Its power was equivalent to that of a modern tactical thermobaric weapon -- the fuel-air bomb.

Even from several hundred paces away, Kaede still felt the heat wave of such a powerful blast.


----- * * * -----


"Kraken on the left flank! It emerged from the lake!" Pascal heard a signal officer cry out within the command center.

"A kraken!?" The young lord was stunned as he turned to exchange looks with an equally bewildered Brigadier Bernard.

He had never seen a kraken before. However the gigantic sea monster which looked like an oversized squid could be found on every flag of Skagen.

"The Lotharins let it through?" Bernard asked. "They control the estuary!"

"They won't know if it travelled through while submerged," Pascal replied.

"Reposition 2nd cavalry towards the left. Send four battalions to the flank!" The Brigadier immediately ordered. "That monster is the symbol of Skagen! It might very well be the prelude to a major attack!"

Second cavalry is the better half of our reserves! Pascal thought before he objected. "Sir, this might be a diversion. A kraken can hardly--"

He hadn't even finished before Kaede's voice interrupted him.

"<Pascal, there's-->"

She was still speaking when an observer screamed from just outside the cabin door:

"DRAKES! INCOMING!"


----- * * * -----


Kaede watched as the Northmen's first attack was thrown back with heavy casualties. Hundreds of men now lay dead or dying on the snowy fields. Though their efforts weren't completely in vain as they had managed to create several passages through the first ditch, some of them made using the bodies of their own fallen comrades.

She could see a second attack forming in the distance. It was difficult to make an estimate due to the poor visibility. However her guess was that the next wave was three to five times the strength of the previous attack.

The familiar then furrowed her brows as she heard a strange noise. It came from the east, past the extreme right flank where the Weichsen line met the shores of Cross Lake's eastern wing.

"Do you hear that?" Kaede spoke out loud as she moved to the eastern end of the bastion.

The sound was difficult to describe. But it reminded Kaede a bit of when she stepped on broken ice. She also had trouble seeing where it came from, as a thin, morning mist continued to cling onto the surface of the lake.

This doesn't feel right, the familiar puzzled as she glanced further south. Why is only this part of the lake still foggy?

"I don't hear anything from over there," the lieutenant answered back before pointing in the other direction. "The battle is that other way."

I know that! But...

The sound kept on coming. It was as if some giant was crunching the ice beneath their feet, grinding the frozen crystals together.

Kaede raised her binoculars and peered out into the water.

The weather wasn't actually cold enough to freeze the lake. Yet as she scrutinized the surface, she could see a sheet of ice forming, growing across the water as though it were a new road.

It was also wide enough to match a six-lane highway. And it would soon meet the shoreline, just behind Weichsel's defensive fortifications.

Water expanded as it froze, which meant the crystalline dendrites of ice inevitably pushed against each other as blocks of ice solidified and took shape. This 'crunch' of crystals caused by rapid freezing was what she was hearing!

Exclamation marks shot through Kaede's mind as she rushed to send this information up immediately:

"<Pascal, there's a hostile force approaching from the east! They're freezing the water into a bridge!>"

"<Tell Major Karen-- GAHHH!>"

His reply never finished. A fusillade of explosions resounded from the west like distant, rolling thunder. Kaede immediately swung her binoculars in that direction but she couldn't see the source of the blasts in the obscuring snow.

Nevertheless, Pascal's final cry had given her more than enough clues on what had just happened -- the command center had clearly been struck by a powerful magical assault.

"<Pascal...? Pascal!?>"

Kaede felt as though someone had just stabbed a dagger into her chest. Her mind completely blanked out for a split second as she cast aside all other thoughts in a desperate bid to reach him.

"<PASCAL!>"

However their telepathic link remained quiet, completely silent. Not even white noise could be heard from the other side.

Please-please-please be okay...

Kaede shut her eyes for a quick prayer to whatever gods in this world who would listen. Yet even as her chest contracted, even as her beating heart accelerated...

There was no physical pain, no mental onslaught. She wasn't keeling over. And despite the overflowing fear and anxiety that crowded her thoughts, her mind remained clear and open.

She simply needed to use her head.

I'm still alive, aren't I? Then Pascal has to be as well.

She wasn't sure how alive though. Was he injured? Crippled? Unconscious and bleeding to death even at this very second?

However one thing was apparent. If she didn't do something and fast, he really might end up dead before the day was finished, along with everyone else on the Weichsel side of this battle.

Kaede could still hear the crunch of ice crystals. She could see the frozen highway grow closer and closer to the shores. The surface of the ice soon transformed to a layer of snow. And through the mist she could spot the figures of Northmen...

First a few, then dozens, then hundreds. All making their way across the frozen bridge.

They'll smash into our right flank and roll up the entire line like a carpet, just like Caesar did at Pharsalus! The young girl thought before she looked around. I must warn this Major Karen!

The familiar leapt off the bastion and landed in the deep snow right next to a communication trench. She then climbed down and ran to where the battalion command was situated.

"Major! There's a hostile force incoming from the east! They're freezing the lake to make a path!"

Major Karen von Lichnowsky was a woman who looked to be in her late 'twenties'. Moderate of build and on the plain side of pretty, she was most noticeable from the back due to her long, wavy red hair. She stood adjacent to her signal officers with a swordstaff in hand, and her attention immediately fell upon Kaede as the familiar spoke. However the dark-green eyes above her freckled cheeks looked uncertain, as though unsure of how to respond to the civilian girl before her.

"Command from HQ!" Kaede then stressed with a complete lie, hoping that her grim expression and battle anxiety might bury any obvious signs. "Swivel all men and face right to refuse the line! Their flank attack will be upon us within a minute!"

"We just lost contact with..." One of the signal officers spoke.

"I'm the familiar of Captain Pascal von Moltewitz, tactical officer to Brigadier-General Bernard! Do I look dead to you!?" Kaede almost shouted as she channeled some of her uneasiness into impatience. "We must refuse the line or they'll smash straight through us!"

Major Karen held a look of clear disapproval at Kaede's tone. However she didn't waste another second before bellowing out orders:

"SWIVEL RIGHT! REFUSE THE LINE! REFORM RANKS CENTERED ON ME! MOVE!"

'Refusing the line' was a classical tactical maneuver where troops reformed at a perpendicular angle to the main battle line in order to repel flanking attacks. Well-drilled in battlefield maneuvers, Weichsel's soldiers in blackened half-plate armor ran through the communication trenches before climbing up to reassemble their formations.

In just a few minutes, a new line anchored at the bastion that Kaede once stood on began to take shape. Nearly two hundred men gathered to stand behind a shallow communication trench that ran from the bastion all the way to the rear -- a mere thirty paces from the lake's shores.

More men were making the way up from further west, but they wouldn't get here in time.

The crystallizing ice bridge diverged and met firm ground in three locations. The frozen water looked thick enough to withstand even explosive shells. The top layer then transformed into compacted snow, just before the enemy vanguard skied across.

"WARDS UP!" Major Karen cried out from beside Kaede. "Legion Resistance!"

Platoon and company leaders soon joined in with their own spells, while Kaede brushed across her arm to activate the rest of her self-enhancement spells. Her body took on a stone-like consistency while rotating spellshields began to orbit. Her mind cleared as Mental Clarity pushed out all unfocused thoughts.

The first skiers were still making their way across the snow-and-ice bridges as they crouched down. They took aim with their repeating crossbows and swung the back-mounted levers to release rune-inscribed bolts.

A cascade of missiles flew out and into the Weichsen formation. Their low kinetic energy meant they mostly bounced off the armor of anyone they hit, but that didn't matter as the bolts began to detonate in fire and thunder on impact.

Explosions tore across the field as though a howitzer strike just hit the defensive front. The Resistance spells offered some protection against the elemental bombardment. However the sheer intensity still left many troops bloodied and dazed.

"HOLD VOLLEY! BOWS ONLY!" Kaede heard a captain cry out.

Weichsel's infantry predominantly used the steel-limbed arbalest as their ranged weapon of choice. However there were a few archers within each platoon who now took aim.

Kaede followed their lead as she pulled out her morphic blade, which she had left in its bow form. She drew one of five rune-inscribed arrows that Pascal made for her and notched it against a Northmen.

Nevertheless she could feel her reluctance to take aim at the vitals of real people. Her first shot was released in haste, and the arrow missed its mark by almost a full pace.

Concentrate! The Samaran girl berated herself as a second wave of skiers neared the shores.

This is no time to hesitate. It's kill or be killed!

Even at a glance Kaede could tell that these new attackers were elite infantry. They wore crimson armor made from the fire-repellent hides of volcanic drakes, while their hands carried weapons that looked like two enclosed steel pipes glued together. A hand-pump extended from the back of the bottom pipe, while two tubes connected the assembly to a backpack.

Are those... flamethrowers? The familiar could hardly believe her eyes.

"SIPHONS!" A young lieutenant cried out with the shadow of terror in his voice.

"BY RANKS!" Major Karen was more steadfast as she swung her swordstaff forward. "VOLLEY!"

"Catalyst Dispel!"

"Lightning Blast!"

The first row of arbalesters took aim and released their bolts before crouching down, followed by the second and then third rank. Three waves of steel bolts shot out towards the new threat in quick succession. However massed volleys were far from optimal in countering troops in scattered formation.

A combination of Dispels and bolts brought down nearly twenty siphoneers. But many of the shots either missed or bounced off wards. Focused spellfire from the bastion's mages took down several more, however that still left almost half.

The remaining two dozen flamethrower infantry activated runes which made their skis accelerate into a dash. They soon reached the shore and made their way up the gentle slope.

Behind them followed at least a hundred huskarls, the professional retinue troops of the northern lords. Each of them was clad in wooly, chainmail-and-hide armor and holding a massive zweihander sword that looked capable of cleaving a horse in half.

A banner that flew among them caught Kaede's attention. it was the red dragon flag of the Kingdom of Vastergotland.

Kaede forced her gaze away from their deadly greatswords before nailing her sight to a siphoneer. With the aid of Mental Clarity sharpening her mind, she drew another rune-inscribed arrow and transfixed all attention onto her target.

She hardly even noticed as the Northmen began yelling their frenzied battle cries.

"SHOOT AT WILL!" Major Karen shouted. "KILL THE SIPHONS!"

Kaede felt as her awareness became one with the arrow before her fingers loosened. Her eyes traced the glowing missile in flight as it soared out alongside dispels and arrows from the Weichsen line.

The runic spell which tipped her shot triggered as soon as her target's Repulsion Field ward attempted to deflect the attack. The Scourge Catalyst Dispel then ripped through multiple magical defenses with increasing strength, clearing a path for the razor-sharp bodkin arrowhead as it plunged straight into the victim's upper thigh.

Her target lost his balance and crashed violently on the snowy bank. The siphoneer spun twice before landing headfirst into the snow. His right ski shattering to hurl back a jagged piece of ironwood.

Kaede drew a deep breath before drawing another arrow. Several more siphoneers had gone down in the interim, but there were still nearly twenty of them remaining.

Given the charge speed of ski troops, there simply wasn't time to reload the heavy arbalests. A battalion of Weichsel's infantry might fare well against a more conventional Northmen attack. But they were facing an onslaught of veteran and elite shock troops.

The siphoneers banked in a wide arc as they entered twenty-paces range. Their steel pipes pumped out deadly jets of liquid fire like strafing water guns...

Kaede released her second arrow at the same time.

The siphoneer targeting the Major's command squad hardly squirted before her arrow nailed him in the chest, just below the throat and near the center of the sniper's triangle. The crimson-clad warrior crashed into the snow, stumbling forward as he went before sliding to a stop less than five paces in front of Kaede, dead.

However, one kill was nowhere enough to change the course of the battle.

Soldiers all around screeched with agony as viscous flames sprayed over them. The liquid fire stuck to armor and skin alike, melting flesh even as more flowed between gaps in steel plating to burn what lay beneath. Troopers dropped to the ground and rolled through the snow to no avail, as melted water seemed to feed the very flames into ever greater strength.

Water-intensified napalm... Kaede thought as she watched a scene that could only come from hell itself. Who the devil gave Nordic Berserkers Greek Fire!?

It was even worse than that, as rimefire ate through mana like fuel. Wards such as Resistance which had protected them from the elemental bombardment earlier did less than nothing, as they combusted like paper to feed the flames.

One of the siphoneers had pumped an entire burst onto the bastion that Kaede once stood on. Now, she watched in horror as screaming men --including the young lieutenant whom she had spoken to moments ago-- leaped off the structure like human torches. They flailed about in the snow with painful cries. However nothing they did could quench the burning rimefire that consumed them alive.

Then, as Kaede thought things could not grow any worse, hell's herald arrived in the form of a new battlecry. The noise came from far behind her this time, along the main line where a fresh Skagen attack of thousands pressed forward into a charge.

At that moment, a voice Kaede had long awaited finally rang through her mind. Unfortunately, its tone was anything but pleasant reassurance:

"<Order Major Karen to hold at all costs! Do you hear me, Kaede? Fight to the last! If the flank crumbles this entire army could be rolled up and destroyed!>"

That's impossible, Kaede thought even as she heard Pascal's stern voice.

Their line was already in tatters. Two companies, more than three hundred men in total, had been reduced to mere pockets of resistance. Two-thirds of the platoons were already routing after taking horrendous casualties from the rimefire bursts. The rest were wavering at best, utterly shaken by the screams of living corpses who flailed out in vain to quench the fires consuming them.

It was especially bad in the center, where only Kaede, the Major, and twenty or so others held their ground in the middle of a huge gap.

Only a dozen siphoneers remained standing. Some of them skied straight through their porous line, burning everything as they moved past the shallow trench. Yet this did little to quiet her apprehension, as the familiar now looked upon a mass charge by hundreds of Skagen ski infantry.

It felt like an unstoppable avalanche of death had rolled across the lake and onto their shores, led by bear-like men holding overgrown foe-chopping swords.

Kaede couldn't help but notice that her arms were trembling. Cold shivers travelled up her spine as she felt almost paralyzed by fear. Her body screamed at her to turn and flee but her eyes couldn't peel themselves away from the approaching wave of death.

It was just like last night, except her situation now was exponentially worse than merely meeting a fire-breathing monster. She faced a tide of Northmen bent on killing everyone here. And she couldn't imagine a single scenario where she could make it out of this alive.

What other choice do we have? Run? We'll be butchered!

No. Pascal wouldn't simply abandon her like this. He must be sending reinforcement even now, which meant that if they stood and fought, they might at least have a chance!

--Yet, to claim this logically was one thing. To overcome her natural inclinations was another matter entirely. Kaede felt sick in her stomach as her legs quivered like jelly. She needed to pass on Pascal's orders but her voice cracked the moment she tried to speak.

I have to do this!

The familiar was still struggling to reign in her fears when, in an instant, she felt as though her emotions had been disconnected. Without any more resistance, she turned to the redhead Major and voiced through hollowed tones completely devoid of humanity:

"Our orders are to fight to the last."

Major Karen blanched as she turned about. But she nevertheless nodded back, as though in grim acceptance that she... neither of them, would live to see past this day.

Recognition and respect passed between the two of them in an instant, before they turned away from each other.

The Major readied her swordstaff with both hands as her steady voice shouted desperately to rally the scattered remains of her battalion:

"YOU ARE SOLDIERS OF WEICHSEL! YOU WILL STAND YOUR GROUND AND FIGHT! HOLD FAST TO YOUR BROTHERS AND DEFEND YOUR HEARTHS FROM PLIGHT!"

Meanwhile, the girl from another world puzzled over a steel 'water gun' just a few paces out. It laid on the other side of a shallow trench where burning rimefire continued to float on pooled water, on the wrong side of her only protection against a wavefront of barbarian tide mere seconds away.

Kaede felt like an infantryman eyeing an abandoned heavy machine gun. It was the only medium that offered her a fighting chance. Twenty paces of fire in both directions would form a sweeping curtain of flames, plugging the hole in their line as surely as any fresh platoon.

What's the worst that could happen? Die?

Her decision came within the blink of an eye as she leaped over to pry the weapon off its dead owner.

She would have to get there before the lead skier. The bulky man clad in chainmail, hide, and rich furs charged across the snowy embankment and straight at her, while his hands raised his zweihander into the air like a looming executioner.



Chapter 18 - Baptism of Fire[edit]

"<PASCAL!>"

The frantic shout resounded within the confines of Pascal's empty mind. He didn't recognize it, but he felt the desperation from someone he instinctively knew and held dear.

Pascal stirred with a splitting headache and a steady ringing in his ears. His eyes opened to the blurry sight of a mostly-collapsed room, and he tried to wipe away the tears still clouding his vision...

"Gahhh!"

Hot pain shot across his shoulders when his left arm attempted to move. His breath quickened to a labored pant as his right hand reflexively reached up towards the injury. It came across a thick, wooden shaft. A javelin had apparently pierced through his left shoulder and impaled him into the ground.

Perhaps even worse, Pascal couldn't hear his own pained cry. Apart from the ringing in his ears, everything else in the world was a deathly silence.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, he reached his fingers around the pole before muttering "Disintegrate". The javelin handle instantly vanished into specks of dust, leaving only a bleeding hole the width of two fingers.

His arm moved this time, painfully. It jerked upwards briefly before flopping back down, neither of which were intended.

That was bad news, really bad. The hit must have shattered his left shoulder joint. He would need a real healer to fix that, which meant no curative spells until then.

"Blood Stasis."

Suspending the blood flow to his left arm wasn't much better, but it bought him at least some time. Healing magic could always restore dying cells deprived of oxygen, as long as he didn't bleed out first.

A quick check proved that his ears were indeed bleeding, probably ruptured from a sonic blast. After rummaging through an extra-dimensional belt pouch, Pascal pulled out two of his best healing runes and glued them to his ears with a sticking spell.

He then pushed himself back to sitting upright. His working hand rubbed to clear his eyes for a situational assessment of the disaster:

The command center was an expanded cabin with a wooden exterior, a hardened steel frame, and interior welded-steel armor. Yet now an entire facing of the ceiling and walls --what remained of them anyway-- had buckled inwards. The room's furniture, including the enchanted map table, had shattered into pieces. Many of which were still burning, alongside several bodies and pools of rimefire on the ground.

The runes dropped by the air attack had destroyed wards and armor alike with a combination of Dispel, Disintegrate, and Sonic spells. They severed support beams and left gaping holes in the command center's armor, which cleared the way for follow-up spells and breath weapon attacks.

Over a dozen bodies lay mangled or burning on the floor. They were the remains of what had once been the brigade's command staff. Even more corpses could be seen outside amidst blast craters as the HQ's guard unit had been caught in the attack.

Pascal could only identify Brigadier-General Bernard by the single golden stripe on his helmet. Half of the man's face was missing, a gruesome sight that left Pascal at odds on what had hit him. The deputy commander, a quiet colonel by the name of Emil, also lay dead among the bodies.

The only reason Pascal survived was because he had activated all of his defensive wards after hearing the sentry's warning cry. His prepared runes allowed him to do this within seconds, a blessing not afforded to the other officers.

Nevertheless, as Pascal looked up through the gap in the ceiling, he could see several drakes of different colors loitering in the area.

A black-red volcanic drake flew by, strafing troops unseen with its fiery breath weapon. Its attack was mitigated by a spray of conjured water, likely from an officer who then cried for a return volley of arbalest bolts. However this made them a target for a deep-green forest drake that followed behind, which spat out balls of acid towards the platoons organized for anti-air defense.

I need to get out before they see me. Pascal thought. This room is a death trap!

He quickly cast Camouflage upon himself, a visual illusion spell that blended him into the surroundings. He then stood up to a half-crouch and began making his way through the rubble and wreckage.

As he turned a corner he found himself face-to-face with a medic, a commoner girl who had braved the danger to wrap blood-stopping bandages around the leg stump of a signal officer.

Her lips parted to say something. However he heard only silence.

"We need to get him out of here!" Pascal spoke back. His ears still unable to confirm his own words.

The medic nodded, and each of them took an arm of the half-conscious, clearly-sedated lieutenant.

They pushed aside fallen beams as they made their way out through the back of the command center and into the nearest communication trench. This left at least a wall between them and the fighting on the other side. Pascal added to their cover by pulling out a Mirage rune which covered their position with the illusion of a snow pile.

The young lord then tapped his sensory link to Kaede for an update with his own eyes.

He faintly remembered her reporting something just before he was knocked out. The connection opened in the middle of a rune-bolt barrage, with blasted snow and expanding fireballs everywhere in sight. Beyond that were the repeater crossbowmen that initiated any huskarl attack, although a sparse line of siphoneers soon overtook them.

Oddly enough, while Pascal couldn't hear a thing himself, he registered every thunder and explosion that Kaede heard.

Situation critical. Right flank under massive assault, he concluded.

The presence of elite siphoneers always raised a warning flag. Those flamethrower troops with their deadly weapons could afford to attack in a dispersed formation, which made them far harder to hit. The defenders had no choice but to stop the deadly siphons. Yet in doing so, they lost their best chance to deliver volleys against the massed charge that followed behind.

The only blessing was that the Northmen's coordination was slightly off. In their feverish haste to engage, the siphoneers' charge had opened a gap between them and the main force. It would take no more than twenty, thirty seconds at most, for the huskarls behind them to catch up. But for the defenders, every extra second they had to repel the vanguard before the tidal wave struck was a godsend.

Pascal shrunk the vision to lay over his own peripheral sight. Another signal officer sat further down the trench, miraculously uninjured except for a dozen bleeding scratches. Two medics soon rushed past that man, one carrying a small lemur on his shoulders.

"Where's your healer?" Pascal barked as he helped lay down the crippled officer. Then, raising his hand to tap the glowing rock stuck to his ear: "Get me your healer now! I have a battle to coordinate!"

The majority of medical squad personnel were only medics -- commoners trained to treat injuries but couldn't actually cast spells.

To Pascal's surprise, it was the lemur who responded. The furry little primate who wore a Samaran-blood pendant leaped onto his right shoulder and pulled the rocks off with magical ease. Then, after loosely wrapping its legs around his neck, it inserted one tiny finger into each ear canal.

A healer's familiar...

Wherever its master was, he or she was clearly using the familiar as a proxy to channel spells. The carefully-controlled, focused Restoration spell proved exponentially more effective than his own. Within moments, Pascal was beginning to hear for himself again. The voices were still muffled and fuzzy, but it was enough for him to communicate properly.

The ground shook as a drake landed no more than thirty paces to his east. The beast was half again the size of most volcanic drakes and had a body covered by pitch-black scales. Rather than a single head, this drake featured three separate ones, all of which turned in the direction of an incoming cavalry company. Two of the heads spewed out cones of noxious gas before the third breathed fire to set it alight.

The gaseous cloud exploded as the air turned into a misty conflagration.

A Zmey, Pascal thought with widened eyes.

He had heard about the fearsome drake breed that originated from deep within the Grand Republic of Samara. However he had never seen one until today.

Yet, as the Zmey paid no attention to him or the medics that cowered in the trench, it became clear that the drake and its rider had been fooled by his Mirage illusion.

Taking stock of his priorities, Pascal took a quick glance through Kaede's vision first. The oncoming charge was rapidly approaching their right wing defense line.

Pascal shut his eyes. He hated himself for what he was about to do. It was a dangerous gamble, yet he couldn't see any other choice. This entire defensive line could buckle if that flanking attack wasn't stopped. This included not only an entire army, but the fate of the whole city of Nordkreuz!

Sure they had a fallback position being built at the city's ruined walls. However with the two armies already engaged, even a successful retreat during the day would cost thousands of lives. As the Landgrave of Nordkreuz, not to mention the officer who put forward this strategy, he had no right not to risk everything he had for the success of this battle.

Everything, including his own life and that of his familiar -- Kaede herself.

It was his obligation as an officer, as a lord of Weichsel.

Pascal gritted his teeth and sent what he knew was an unreasonable order:

"<Order Major Karen to hold at all costs! Do you hear me, Kaede? Fight to the last! If the flank crumbles this entire army could be rolled up and destroyed!>"

He could feel his familiar struggling with her own fears he uttered those callous words.

Pascal had faith in Kaede's resourcefulness and insight. But it was clear to him that the girl was still too green. She was weighed down by anxiety and dread. And in a critical juncture like this, such decision paralysis would only decrease her chances of survival.

"Mental Clarity Surge!"

Mana coursed into his left palm before he shut it with a squeeze, sending the magic through the familiar link and to Kaede. Mental Clarity was a spell designed to focus the mind. However as a Surge spell which maximized strength at the cost of duration, it effectively became an emotional whiteout, pushing away Kaede's fears and leaving only her rationality behind.

Pascal had now given her all the tools he could. Now he had to make sure that reinforcements would get to Kaede before her position was overrun. But for that he needed to regain control of the situation where he stood.

I need to deal with this quickly! He thought as he stared up at the monstrous drake, which had just finished its breath attack and was taking a moment to recuperate.

But how?

For all of his proud magical talents, Pascal's sorcery focused on adaptability, not power. He hasn't learned any spells capable of taking down such a powerful monster. And he had only one chance, as the vector of his attack would immediately draw the drake's attention to his presence, not to mention the tendency for illusions to collapse due to light or mana distortions caused by offensive spellcasting.

Battle tactics were all about using circumstantial advantages to create force multipliers, which a shrewd tactician exploited for morale shocks to inflict paralysis and terror.

This should be no different, the young lord concluded as he stared at the mighty beast.

"Aura Burst," Pascal began by switching his aura magic stance for fasting spell channeling. "Sunward Screen," he then muttered to add a ward over the group, followed by summoning his runes to replenish his personal defenses.

With a deep breath to ready himself, Pascal pointed his casting ring towards the drake's three heads and cried: "Solar Sonic Burst!"

A blinding, red-orange light erupted in the drake's faces alongside a high-frequency sound discharge. The combination would not only blind and deafen the drake and its rider. The sensory overload it created would also leave them temporarily stunned.

Furthermore, the burst of light acted as a flare to catch the attention of all Weichsel troops in the near vicinity -- a signal for them to 'shoot here'.

"Scourge Fragmentation Catalyst Dispel!" He focused on the armored rider next, collapsing the target's wards with cascading failure.

The pain from the backlash of mana burn would keep the enemy mage from responding effectively even as his senses returned. A second, simpler Catalyst Dispel went out to tear apart the drake's wards as well.

Pascal's right arm grew numb under the burden of rapid spellcasting. His fingers shook as he struggled to reach into his extra-dimensional storage pocket for a handful of small gems. He could barely clench his hand as he threw them with a spell, which guided the gems into a ritual circle around the drake's feet.

Then, channeling as much magic as he could into his casting ring, he pointed at the Zmey and cried:

"Force Boost Prison!"

Per its name, Force spells created an immaterial, directional force, while Boost drastically raised the mana cost to augment the effect's strength. The Prison spellword then redirect this inward from all directions, creating a crushing effect which would pin the drake in place. This had the added bonus of accelerating any inbound projectiles, increasing the damage dealt by the arbalest volleys that would soon come.

And surely enough, Pascal heard a cry from further south as more reinforcements from the reserve 5th infantry brigade arrived.

"BY RANKS, VOLLEY!"

Several hundred steel bolts flew into the zmey and its rider. The giant beast was tough but even it couldn't simply shrug off the massive, spell-amplified volley.

Pascal didn't even bother to look at the drake as he heard its death throes. He grabbed one of the medics who was still huddled against the wall of the shallow trench.

"Run over to the commander of those reinforcements and tell them that our right flank is under heavy assault! Ask them to relay orders from General Bernard -- all brigades on the eastern third of the line are to send reinforcements to the right flank!"

Pascal never even hesitated to lie about whom the orders came from. If news went out that brigadier-general Bernard had been killed, leadership of this army would pass to the seniormost of the remaining commanders, which would be Brigadier Bergfalk. The yeoman general was competent enough, but he was also stationed near the far left of the defensive line, with some of the least idea on what was happening on the far right.

"Sir I'm just a medic..."

"You see anyone better around!? Now off to it or we will all be a head shorter by nightfall!"

The tall and lanky medic's eyes grew wide as saucers when he finally realized the severity of the situation. He then spun around and dashed off without another word.

"Lieutenant!" Pascal rushed over to the barely-injured one, although the young man's emerald eyes were still shaking -- a clear sign of lingering shock from the attack that had nearly taken their lives.

"Lieutenant, do you hear me!? Is your Farspeak link with General Kasimir's 2nd cavalry still active!?"

The blond young man nodded back slowly, still half-dazed.

Pascal slapped the lieutenant with his right palm, straight across the cheek. Even Kaede, a complete civilian by all measures, had joined the front lines to repel a siphoneer charge. There was no excuse for such disgrace from an officer of Weichsel.

"PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER, Lieutenant!" he shouted in the signal officer's face. "I need an order passed to Kasimir and I needed it done two minutes ago!"

It took another moment before the blond lieutenant finally began to snap out of it.

"Ye-y-yes Sir?"

"Tell General Kasimir that our extreme right is under heavy assault and they need relief ASAP!" Pascal demanded with a stern gaze while his working hand firmly grasped the junior officer's shoulder. "2nd cavalry should still have two battalions positioned behind the right wing. Tell Kasimir to authorize the closer battalion commander to form a new battlegroup -- gather any spare infantry they can collect along the way and reinforce our right anchor!"

The signal officer concentrated to pass the message. Then:

"G-General Kasimir acknowledges. He requests the status of HQ command."

"Tell him those are General Bernard's orders! And have him shift his brigade back towards the east. That kraken on our left anchor is clearly a distraction. The main enemy attack is falling upon our right wing!"

The Lieutenant then glanced towards the destroyed command center. He clearly doubted that Pascal's words were orders from the General.

"Listen. We cannot afford for the situation to devolve any further Lieutenant," Pascal declared with every bit of severity he could muster. "I have the best grasp of the overall battle, so if you want to stay alive until nightfall, you will do as I say! I swear to the Holy Father that I will take full responsibility!"

The reply came back in the form of a slow, hesitant nod, but a nod nonetheless. The Lieutenant soon crossed his eyes again in concentration.

"Cold Steel!" Pascal heard a muffled cry from the other side of the ruined command center.

It was the Weichsel call for all arbalesters to draw melee weapons. Some of them would stream back through gaps amidst the swordstaff infantry, who now advanced with a wall of bladed polearms. Meanwhile others remained on the front lines as they drew pavise shields and short swords from their backs.

All this meant that a determined Skagen assault had reached the parapet of the main line.

Pascal checked on Kaede's senses just long enough to verify that his stand fast order was being executed by Major Karen. As he brought his attention back, he heard the muffled cry of someone closer crying out his rank:

"Captain!"

He hardly even noticed when the lemur leaped off his back. His ears weren't back to full capacity yet, but they would suffice for now. The healer --who was still not here in person-- clearly decided the other lieutenant's severed leg was more important.

"Corporal." The young lord turned to face his visitor.

"I'm sent by Major Caroline of the 5th infantry brigade, 8th battalion, to check on headquarters, Sir!"

"Command is intact, but we have lost most of our communications," Pascal replied solemnly, not even considering it a lie anymore. "Tell Major Caroline to send us any signal officers she can spare, and pass word to brigade command that the enemy is seeking to break our right wing. 5th infantry is to commit all battalions held in reserve behind the center and right wing. Is that clear?"

"Yes Sir!" The runner saluted before taking off.

If the Northmen thinks destroying my HQ is going to ruin our response to their flank attack, then they are in for a painful lesson, Pascal thought.

The frontal clash will be a meat grinder but Weichsel would ultimately triumph. Pascal was certain of this. However the battle itself would be decided where Kaede stood. This meant everything depended on whether Major Karen could hold long enough for reinforcements to arrive. Then after that, whether their combined strength could fight off the Northmen assault until their main cavalry force under General Dietfried reached the battlefield.

Leaning heavily against the packed-snow trench wall, Pascal considered what else he could still do to sway the odds in Weichsel's favor. His arms were still numb from the rapid succession of spells he channeled against that drake. But he nevertheless focused to begin casting anew.

"Farspeak, initiate. To: Sylviane Etiennette de Gaetane."

It would take at least a minute to open a stable communication link. He knew that Sylviane must be tired if not exhausted after the air battle. His concern for her wouldn't allow this under any other circumstance. However he was in desperate need for his gallant princess to come help his first command.


----- * * * -----


"You stupid girl!"

Kaede was still trying to extract the siphon from its dead owner when she heard Major Karen's voice. As she glanced back on reflex, she saw the Major use her swordstaff to pole-vault over trench and snow alike.

"Flourish, Animated Assault!"

As the Major rotated her body around the shaft in midair, her red hair gained a life of its own as it shot forward with thousands of tendrils. They grew like wildfire even as they flew through the air, before wrapping themselves around the translucent arcane armor of the huskarl leader that was about to cleave Kaede in two.

The massive zweihander blade came within a finger's reach of the snowy-haired familiar.

Then, as Major Karen landed, her carpet-length hair pulled its grappled foe aside like the bent arm of a giant. The large man was thrown aside with ease as braking skis made for poor footing. His body was hurled across the snow before slamming into another. A wardbreaker rune inscribed into his sword discharged itself as the blade cut into his unfortunate comrade.

Two more Northmen rushed up before braking in parallel, which kicked up a massive wave of flurry and ice to blind the red-haired major. But Karen used her momentum to swing her swordstaff around in a wide arc, over the kneeling Kaede before slicing deep into the oncoming wave.

"Negation Surge."

The Major imbued her weapon with the ward-penetration aid, just before the sweeping blade met the thigh of one skier. The cut was blind and shallow. Though it nevertheless sent its victim into an uncontrolled crash.

"Cyclone Blast!" A lieutenant yelled as he stepped up beside Kaede. He aimed towards the ground at a low angle. His wind spell blew the wintry wave back towards the attackers while intensifying it with freshly loosened snow.

His spell was still taking effect when his stomach was sliced open, as a huskarl erupted from the concealing vortex and banked hard while leveling an outstretched sword.

However his killer, blinded by the snow, didn't turn fast enough and fell into the communication trench behind them. A pool of lingering rimefire soon set him alight in screams.

Got it!

Kaede raised her head as she finally yanked the siphon out of its previous owner's death grip. Her struggle had at least shown her where the trigger was.

Better yet, the rune-inscribed handle of the lower-barrel pump continued to push in and out automatically -- probably as the result of an Animate spell.

It couldn't have been a moment too soon.

Zweihander-equipped ski infantry now poured into their position, claiming the lives of more soldiers who had followed their commander across the trench. The common Weichsen footman served as little more than fodder before the huskarl retinue troops, who all had heavy warding from their runes. However the same could not be said for the magic-capable officers -- as Major Karen pulled her swordstaff blade out of yet another northerner, he fell to become the eighth enemy corpse that cluttered the nearby ground.

Standing just ahead of Kaede and to the side, the Major was the only one left who protected the familiar from the barbarian horde.

The huskarl leader, a Västergötlander nobleman based on his gold-studded helmet, stood back up to rejoin the fight. After clenching a runestone and tossing it aside, his skin darkened to a stony texture while a sheet of ice crystal layered over his chainmail-and-hide armor.

His massive sword swung in and pinned Karen's blocking shaft into a contest of strength, one that she quickly began to lose. Yet even as her life was endangered, the Major's prehensile hair continued to trip incoming foes to keep the smaller girl safe.

With limited precision involved in a flamethrower, Kaede simply aimed it towards the enemy and pressed the trigger against the lower barrel. Her first victims were two skiers charging in from the right. Their faces melted away in grotesque sight as the jet of rimefire sprayed into them.

Keep shooting. Keep shooting! The Samaran girl repeated to herself, trying hard not to stare at the gruesome fate of those whom she had just killed.

Strafing the siphon without releasing its trigger, Kaede swept the field with its curtain of flames. Over a dozen foes ignited into human torches under her fire, their piercing shrieks drowning out even the sound of battle. A crashed but merely injured siphoneer knelt in an attempt to return fire. However she noticed his movement first and sent him to a fiery grave.

After a brief pause to adjust her aim, the familiar then tapped a burst at the huge man who was about to overwhelm her guardian.

At just a few paces of range, Kaede nailed the shot on the nobleman's left shoulder. But some of the liquid fire splashed off the ice, which landed on Major Karen's right forearm and wrist...

"AaaaAHHH!"

The Major immediately lost her right hand's grip on the swordstaff. As though trying to escape the burning pain, she half-leaped, half-fell to her left.

Even after receiving enough rimefire to engulf his shoulder, the huge northerner continued to press in like it was just a flesh wound. His zweihander easily brushed aside the now one-handed swordstaff before hacking into the Major's upper arm. More wardbreaker runes triggered as the massive sword cleaved its way into a gap below her steel-plated spaulder, then skin, muscle, and bone alike, before severing her entire right arm in a spray of blood.

Ohmygod what have I done...

Kaede stood frozen with horror as her protector wailed with pain on the snowy ground. Her arms felt paralyzed by shock as they trembled without end.

Meanwhile the northern nobleman, dripping flames with his entire icy torso now ablaze, took a heavy step towards Kaede.

Tall as a bear and covered in frozen furs and chain-linked steel, the enemy seemed an unstoppable ice devil wreathed in hellfire. His deep growling felt more like the haunted voice of an anguished soul than the pained weakness of a dying man.

But before he could finish taking another step, the one-handed Captain stabbed her swordstaff --its shaft supported by wraps of wavy red hair-- straight into his groin.

"KEEP... SHOOTING!" She yelled as blood continued to flow from her arm stump.

The Major's cry hit Kaede like a slap before the familiar snapped out of her paralysis. She adjusted the siphon with shaking fingers before sending a burst straight into the devil's smoke-concealed face.

Not even a magically-enhanced berserker could survive that.

Kaede swept leftward on reflex. Her weapon incinerated a squad of sword-and-shield huskarls who had almost reached her from the side. The curtain of flames then swung back right in a wide arc, forcing a new wave of spear-equipped infantry to bank hard and steer away from her blazing arc of death.

However it didn't stop some of them from hurling their spears. Most of them either missed or deflected off her wards. Though one of them managed to penetrate and plunge straight into her upper thigh.

Kaede cried out in pain as she fell down onto one knee. But she never stopped shooting.

Within a massed charge of ski infantry, there wasn't much room to maneuver without intruding upon another's lane. Fallen soldiers already littered the area as evading skiers rammed into those less accomplished. This in turn increased the obstacle count for those behind them.

Yet despite her efforts, Kaede felt certain that the defense was broken. She couldn't afford the time to assess her surroundings. However her peripheral vision could already see enemy troops crossing the trench en masse atop frozen ramps, overwhelming the far smaller number of defenders who stood their ground.

There was only so much so few people could do.


----- * * * -----


Major Reinhardt von Gottschall, commander of the 2nd cavalry brigade, 9th battalion, and leader of the newly formed 'Battlegroup Reinhardt', couldn't believe his eyes.

Some of his men were distracted by the frontal assault. The Skagen shield wall had come into contact with the Weichsen infantry, and a ferocious melee now engulfed the main defense line to their left.

Others gawked at the devastation caused by the few siphoneers who had broken through. Their rimefire inflicted untold losses among the tight infantry formations before they were brought down.

However Reinhardt remained focused on their objective at the extreme right flank, where he found himself staring at an awe-inspiring sight.

The entire 'line' --what had once been a battalion of hundreds-- had been reduced to three holdouts and a few dozen men. Yet its center was still held by a lone girl who knelt on one knee due to her injuries.

Her armor was too light to be soldier-appropriate. Nor did she wear a proper Weichsel uniform. Yet with a fiery reach of twenty paces, her jet of flames continued to sweep back and forth, breaking the charge like a boulder in the middle of a stream.

Blazing corpses, burning pools, and the entangled limbs of crashed ski infantry scattered all around her across the ravaged fields.

It was a scene to inspire, a sight to behold.

"Battalion! Halt! Reiters front! Fire volley over the trench! Avoid friendlies!"

Under his orders, the Kostradan Noble Reiter company moved ahead of the regular cavalry and reached out with casting gloves. Over a hundred fireballs flew out. They hurled past the perimeter trench where they detonated together in a blazing inferno that covered the fields.

Assuming the enemy had standard wards, such a basic elemental barrage would kill and disable few. But battles were also a contest of morale. The chain of explosive blasts knocked countless foes off their feet, buying his forces valuable time.

Better yet: there were now plenty of foes lying prone in pools of icy slush.

The Northmen usually entered battle with frost runes on their skis to ensure clear lanes of advance. However that wouldn't help those who had been knocked off their feet.

"Reiters! Razor Field!"

A second barrage lashed out, with mana rays arcing over the air before striking wet ground. The wintry mix froze solid in an instant as icy transmutation spread, pinning fallen men to the freshly frozen ground. Spears of icy stalagmites raced upward, piercing flesh and forming rows of teeth to slow those still trying to advance.

The charge was soon stopped by a field of frozen icicles.

Here and there a northern officer would halt the transmutation with bursts of heat or antimagic. But against cohesive spellcasting sent in successive volleys from over a hundred mages, which simultaneously covered huge tracts of the battlefield, the efforts of individuals simply weren't enough.

Time for the finisher. Major Reinhardt thought.

"Reiters! Firemist! Cavalry forward! Form up for charge!"

The Noble Reiters were conscripted mages after all. They lacked the endurance training of true battlemages. After a successive volley of spells most of them would require a short break. Though this was a perfect opportunity for a massed charge by his company of regulars to throw back the enemy forces.

A hundred and thirty cavalrymen soon trotted forward with readied lances and swordstaves while their squad leaders cast warding spells. Meanwhile Major Reinhardt watched as a hundred rays scattered over the northern beachhead before the Ignition spells arrived.

"HOLY FATHER WITH US! CHARGE!" He heard the company commander cry out, just before a searing inferno erupted across the shoreline.

The quake of the massive explosion that followed could be felt tens of kilopaces out.


----- * * * -----


Sylviane almost fell into the water as her squad emerged from teleportation.

The earthquake, the thunderclap, the heat wave...

Perhaps Weichsel should rename their beloved Firemist Ignition combo as the 'Hammer of God'.

--Not that the Holy Father needed mundane articles like hammers to smite.

Sir Robert's teleport had landed them on a tiny island in Cross Lake's eastern wing. Only a light snow continued to fill the air, and they could see the battle in the distance. However they were still a good kilopace away from the burning shoreline, where a Weichsen counterattack was preventing the Northmen from deploying the rest of their thousands-strong assault force.

It was dangerous to teleport straight into a battlefield. One could never know where another mage might have placed the infamous Astral Scramble spell, which disabled the safety protocols on incoming teleportation and dealt an instant-death for any arrivals. The spell was so deadly that it was outright banned outside military use. And most towns' teleportation beacons had an enhancement to specifically suppress this spell within its vicinity, just in case some criminal tried to start a murder spree.

The Princess brought herself back to standing upright.

"Ready?" She looked towards her six remaining armigers. Four of them had been killed during the air battle. Three others had been left behind to recuperate from severe injuries.

"As ever, Your Highness," her bodyguard, Lady Mari, declared without hesitation.

Those words were followed by confirmations from all of her armigers, even though Sylviane knew every one of them must be exhausted. A few of them had caught some shuteye yesterday before flying overnight to assault the skywhales. All of them were now relying on Rejuvenate spells to keep themselves from collapsing.

"Let's go then, Blaze Ignition!"

Sylviane expanded her phoenix Hauteclaire's aura over her armigers, who formed into the customary chevron formation as they took flight after their Princess.

"Remember, our job is to disrupt the assault on the defensive line's right anchor," she declared as they flew over the surface of the lake. "Don't risk yourselves beyond that and let Weichsel sort out the rest. Also..."

She felt some reluctance before forcing herself to add: "keep an eye out for Kaede the familiar. Break off and protect her if you spot that Samaran girl."

"Yes, Your Highness."

Sylviane wasn't entirely sure about risking her companions' lives to protect a girl from her fiancé's thoughtless summoning. Nevertheless, Pascal had asked, his voice almost begging, for her to save Kaede, and she couldn't refuse.

Besides...

Keep your jealousy under control, Sylv. The Princess berated herself. This is not befitting of royalty.

After all, had Kaede not performed as Sylviane had asked? Had the girl not done her duty through determination and bravery? Loyalty should be appreciated and rewarded -- that was what Sylviane's father always said. And Kaede had proven herself time and again to be of great help.

Let's just hope she's still alive. Sylviane thought as she began to spin her burning meteor hammer.


----- * * * -----


Later that evening, King Leopold of Weichsel sat in his royal office at Königsfeld's Black Dragon Castle as he read over reports on the Battle of Nordkreuz. The overall operation had been a resounding success. Sure, the city of Nordkreuz suffered severe damage as a result of the air attack, but Skagen paid the far greater price.

The Skagen confederate army and Västergötland expeditionary force was unable to break through Weichsel's defense line before General Dietfried's 1st cavalry brigade arrived in the early afternoon. Several thousand horsemen smashed into the Skagen army from the rear, and the Northmen's morale shattered as their forces began to surrender in mass. Jarl Eyvindur and his retinue huskarls had fought to their death rather than face inglorious defeat, but the same could not be said for most others.

Combined with the loss of Admiral Winter and his skywhale fleet, the Battle of Nordkreuz brought a decisive and crushing defeat for the Grand Jarldom of Skagen in this short war. King Leopold had already accepted the captured jarls' request to begin peace talks.

He would be heading back to Nordkreuz later this week. But before then, there were some reports that he needed to address.

"Like father, like son," Leopold remarked as he leaned back in his cushioned chair while reading a report. "The first thing Pascal requests is five years of tax exemption for the citizens of Nordkreuz, as he argues that the damage done by the air strike is on par with that of a major natural disaster."

"More like two disasters at once," Colonel Hannes von Falkenberg, commander of the Black Eagles and the King's spymaster, stated. "By all accounts, Nordkreuz looks like it had just been hit by an earthquake and a firestorm at the same time. Its market district and docks both lie in ruins. They city will require significant rework to function as a trade hub again."

"I concur that Nordkreuz should be allowed to recover its economic prosperity first before we impose taxes again," a newly arrived lady nodded. "In fact, I would recommend Your Majesty to extend credit from the national treasury to aid in the reconstruction of its trade infrastructure."

Lisbeth Adele von Lanckoroński was the Chancellor of Weichsel. Despite her age at over a hundred years old, which was past the prime of a mage's life, Lisbeth still looked remarkably youthful as she stood proudly before the King's huge mahogany desk. Her thin figure was covered by the intricate red-and-white choir dress of a cardinal of the Trinitian Church, which also brought out the intensity and depth of her ruby-red eyes and her deep-red hair.

"Indeed. Nordkreuz's role as a center of trade must not be allowed to be usurped by another city," King Leopold confirmed. "Lisbeth, ask the merchant and industry guilds to see if they can also extend a hand. Nordkreuz is a hub for Weichsen steel, glass, and Lotharin wool. It is to their benefit to see the city restored as quickly as possible."

"Yes, Your Majesty." The Chancellor replied.

"Now, what's more amusing," the King then added as he took on a humored tone, "is that Pascal recommended his own familiar for the Knight's Cross."

Leopold then looked up with a chuckle: "can you just imagine what people would say if we knighted a familiar?"

"Well Sire, you'd be carrying on a proud, family tradition," the beautiful spymaster Hannes grinned. "After all, your great-grandfather knighted a commoner."

"Yes... and I still remember how much whining he received from the old nobility thanks to that," the King commented. "Though it does sound like the familiar --Kaede, was it?-- deserves it. What do the other officers say?"

"I have two other reports also recommending her for the Knight's Cross," Hannes added in his soft voice. "One from Major Karen von Lichnowsky, 11th infantry brigade. The other from Major Reinhardt von Gottschall, 2nd cavalry brigade. Both declare that without the familiar's crucial role in staunching the surprise attack, the right anchor would have collapsed before sufficient reinforcements could arrive."

"And those two are heroes themselves," the King tilted his head thoughtfully. "Very well. Have a Knight's Cross prepared for the girl, and give her an honorary rank in the army as well. And as for her master..." Leopold tapped on the report's paper before adding: "give Pascal a star to his Knight's Cross, and promote him by three full ranks."

"Three!?" Hannes looked bewildered.

"A mere captain takes command of an entire army by pretending that his directives were his deceased general's orders?" King Leopold spoke with a shake of his head in disbelief. "Yes, he flouted regulations, and in any other circumstance he should be severely punished. But today his proactive leadership averted a potential disaster, which would have likely happened had he passed command to the senior ranking general as he was supposed to do."

"Even so," the Colonel remained hesitant. "Isn't three full grades at once a bit much?"

"I have half a mind to promote him straight to brigadier-general," the King declared. "Nobody expected him to take the reins in a moment of crisis. To do so, knowing he would be held responsible for the fallout if he failed -- that requires real leadership! And don't forget that it was his strategy that we executed for both the air assault and the land battle. If the kid consistently proves himself this influential to military strategy yet I don't promote him to high command, then I'll be the one who looks like a fool!"

"Three ranks it is then," Hannes gave a faint shrug. "I think that just made him the youngest colonel in Weichsel's history."

"Now, Lisbeth," King Leopold turned his attention to his chancellor. "I'm sure you didn't come just to watch me hand out military promotions."

The Cardinal-Chancellor nodded. She opened the extravagant, gold-trimmed leather binder in her arms, and handed a paper to her king before explaining:

"Your Majesty, I have word that the young heir of the Rhin-Lotharingie Duchy of Baguette, Perceval de La Tours de Baguette, formally made a request to the Zimmer-Manteuffel family of Saale-Holzland to marry their daughter, Ariadne Charlotte. The head of the Zimmer-Manteuffel family, Brigadier-General Hartmut, negotiated that the marriage be made bilineal to incorporate the future family into the Manteuffel clan, which Perceval apparently agreed to."

The King's prior amusement immediately vanished as his face grew wary.

"When did this happen?"

"Just today."

"All in one day?" King Leopold looked up from the report in astonishment.

"Apparently Lord Perceval was in the city of Nordkreuz prior to the battle," Colonel Hannes began to explain. "He visited Captain Ariadne as she was being treated for her injuries from the air battle, where he met her father who was doing the same thing. I have multiple sources confirming this meeting. It seems the young Perceval is quite smitten with Lady Ariadne and was appalled by her near-death experience during combat. He proposed on the spot and took the opportunity to negotiate with General Hartmut."

This only confirmed Leopold's suspicions that it was Hannes who provided this information to Lisbeth, whose mercantile faction was one of Manteuffel's great enemies.

"Without his immediate head of family?" The King noted with surprise.

"Apparently Duke Mathias of Baguette, who is Perceval's grandfather, has met Lady Ariadne before," Hannes stated. "The old man must have taken a liking to her."

"He's also known to be quite eccentric," Lisbeth added. "Considering he renamed his fiefdom after a piece of bread."

"Eccentric or not, he is a member of House de La Tours, one of the most powerful noble dynasties in Rhin-Lotharingie," Hannes noted. "It seems that the Manteuffels are hedging their bets. Since Your Majesty seems set on the Weichsel-Lotharin alliance, they intend to take advantage of the opportunity and extend their clan's influence into Rhin-Lotharingie."

"Baguette is also just across the border from Nordkreuz, which makes it easy to involve them in Weichsel's affairs..." King Leopold remarked. "I take it Neithard doesn't know about the coup in Alis Avern yet?"

"I doubt it Sire. It's only been a day and we've been suppressing that information," answered his spymaster. "Though I anticipate news to spread by other sources soon."

The King nodded as his brows furrowed in deep thought. He stood up from behind his desk and walked over to the giant map of Western Hyperion in his office. His gaze fell upon the landmass of Weichsel's huge, western neighbor.

The matter of Rhin-Lotharingie would require more discussion and deliberation before he made a decision. However...

"The Manteuffels are getting out of hand," Leopold declared as his eyes narrowed. "Neithard already has the Duchy of Polarstern, and the branch families control Saale-Holzland, Altmark, and half of Starigard. Yet that is still not enough to satisfy his ambition?"

"Not to mention he took advantage of this campaign to place his lieutenants into the best command positions within the army," Lisbeth took the opportunity to fan the King's flames, as both she and Hannes knew the King was deeply bothered by this.

"Nor was that enough to satisfy him," Colonel Hannes added almost casually. "There's more promotion requests from this battle's reports, with a clear bias towards his own people."

"He must think I'm either blind or stupid!" The King growled.

"Perhaps he considers himself too important for Your Majesty to relieve," Hannes shrugged. "After all, Your Majesty didn't lift a finger to stop him when he reshuffled the commanders prior to the Skagen campaign."

The King instantly sent a smoldering glare towards his spymaster, but it had no effect. The Colonel continued to stand with a slight tilt, his stance so relaxed that it looked like he was about to start whistling a tune.

It wasn't really surprising, considering that Hannes was the same individual who once handed in a list of conspirators with his own name on top. The King had to warn him back then that it wasn't a very funny joke.

"I wanted Neithard to have an efficient command structure for a quick and decisive northern campaign," Leopold thought back to his decision. "I had hoped he would be like Karl and knew where to draw the line."

"I'm afraid that unlike the late Marshal, the Manteuffels are not known for their modesty, Sire," Hannes shrugged again.

King Leopold sighed as he paced about his desk.

"Neithard needs to be removed. I don't care how good of a general he is. If I let this continue for another campaign, his control over the army will be enough to gamble on a coup!"

"He already has enough to chance it," the spymaster interjected. "Just not a good one."

The King ignored him this time. He glanced back to his Chancellor instead with a congratulatory smile:

"It's what you've always wanted, isn't it, Lisbeth? Without Neithard to throw his influence around, the only easy way up in the administration is to bribe you..."

"Your Majesty, I..."

Leopold cut off the Cardinal-Chancellor with a raised hand.

"I know your greed, Lisbeth." The King stared at his chancellor with royal prerogative. "Everyone knows your greed. Even the children in the streets sing rhymes about it. However, you're also the best chancellor Weichsel has seen in two centuries. Most of your appointments are at least competent. Plus you know exactly where to invest to grow the country's economy and how to keep the guilds' interest tied to that of the state."

He then paused with a knowing smile, as though he knew exactly what she was thinking.

"As long as you stay loyal to me and keep the nation's economy on track, Lisbeth, I'll let you shower yourself in gold. But be careful not to overstep, or you will certainly drown in your own wealth."

The warning at the end was almost dismissive. However the Cardinal-Chancellor was attentive as she accepted her liege's words with a slow, mindful nod:

"I will watch my step, Sire."

"Good! I like keeping my councilors." King Leopold smiled appreciatively before his face fell stern once more. "Hannes, Lisbeth, I want the two of you working together on this, and only your most trustworthy men. I want the investigation into Karl's death to point a finger at Neithard," he spoke of the late Marshal's assassination. "It doesn't have to be serious, perhaps he simply allowed a gap in the security arrangements. But I want it to look purposeful."

Colonel Hannes smiled, though it was more of an eerie smirk:

"You Majesty wants his reputation destroyed amongst the troops when you arrest him."

"Precisely!" Leopold sneered as he walked around his desk to sit back down. "And whom better to stage the act than convincing the wronged son himself to take revenge for his father? It'll be dramatic!" He accentuated in a theatrical tone. "The playwrights will be romanticizing it for decades to come!"

"Fabricating the evidence will be easy, given some of the murky details we've found surrounding the late Marshal's death," Hannes stated confidently. "When would Your Majesty like for us to make the arrest?"

"Do it tonight," the King declared. "Half the troops will be celebrating their victory, and the other half will be exhausted in their beds. It's the perfect opportunity to strike. Neithard won't have the time to notice anything is amiss. And by the time his supporters can organize anything, it'll be too late."

"And what of the Manteuffel clan?" Lisbeth asked next.

She was clearly not willing to let her other political adversaries go without a beating -- which the King immediately noticed.

"Neithard lays at the core of the tumor. Once he is dealt with, we only need to lay pressure on the Manteuffel clan's branch families to make them splinter and break away from the main house." Leopold decided. "I see no need to start a purge. A few reprimands and withholding of honors should be enough to send a signal."

"I agree, Sire," Hannes nodded.

The spymaster didn't actually glance at the Chancellor, but it was clear he was concerned about her potentially exploiting a power vacuum.

"And as for the young lovebirds, have your Eagles send a discreet suggestion to the Baguette Duke that he should consider pushing back and demanding a patrilineal marriage," King Leopold added. "That should not be difficult once Neithard goes down, as the Manteuffel name will take a steep plunge in value."

"Yes, Sire."



Chapter 19 - Hail the Black Dragon[edit]

Fire.

It was everywhere, scattered across the surreal, snowy landscape like pyres of the underworld.

Kaede watched as the flames burned away the pure-white snow. They consumed the bodies of fallen allies which laid all around.

But most of all, they sprayed over still living men through a blazing jet -- flames that pumped endlessly from her own hands.

A human wave of Northmen charged straight at her. Their zweihanders glinted with bloody, razor-sharp steel. However Kaede felt her arms pivot towards them as though moving on their own. Her finger held the trigger of the flame projector down, and the scorching fire that shot out from her hands landed squarely on those men's faces.

Rimefire dripped from their melting eyes and sizzling flesh. It burnt away their chainmail-and-hide armor to reveal only civilian tunics. Their weapons dropped away and left only outstretched hands that sought help. Their lips and chin were consumed by the liquid fire, exposing jawbones that began to wail more terribly than any banshee.

"KEEP FIRING!" She heard someone cry out from behind her.

The voice sounded desperate but it was nevertheless an order. The torrent of liquid fire continued unabated from the weapon held in her hands. Yet the burning corpses did not stop their advance. They shambled through the torrent of flames with agonizing shrieks.

"KEEP FIRING!" Kaede heard again. This time just before an officer of Weichsel charged past her flank to intercept the approaching corpses.

A major with long, wavy red hair, slashed through the approaching foes with her bloody swordstaff. Though instead of falling down, the pieces of those bodies seemed to fuse together into a four-armed giant.

This abomination grasped an even more massive sword, which he brought down upon the Major without mercy. It cut straight through the haft of her swordstaff as well as her right shoulder. Yet the Major did not flinch as she drove the remains of her polearm into her foe with her remaining arm.

However even as the giant fell to the ground before Kaede's savior, the familiar felt no relief, only apprehension.

The Major's body convulsed for a brief moment. She seemed to grow taller while her wavy-red hair shortened and went gray. The remains of her swordstaff changed into a marshal's baton just like the one Kaede had seen in Pascal's family painting. But as the figure turned about her face was no longer human.

Kaede felt frozen with trepidation as she gazed upon the woman who had just saved her. Instead of eyes, the figure had hollowed out sockets with ghoulish embers glowing in them. The officer looked upon the snowy-haired girl and decreed:

"Diieeee."

But... why?

Confusion and terror filled her thoughts at what she was seeing, right before an inexplicable wave of seething hatred crashed into her mind. Her body seized control once again as she raised her flame siphon. And with a press of the trigger she sprayed liquid fire straight into the officer's face.

Stop! What am I doing? She saved my life! Kaede's thoughts screamed.

Yet her lips spoke a very different message as she felt herself cry out:

"<You fucking traitorous PIECE OF SHIT!>"

However while Kaede could feel her lips moving, the voice she heard wasn't hers, but Pascal's.

A fresh deluge of searing rage cut through her anxiety like a hot knife through butter. Her chest was pounding while her eyes narrowed with disdain at the world. Then in that one moment Kaede realized that the nonsensical anger, the hatred, the betrayal that she felt. They weren't her own.

They were Pascal's.

His anger wasn't directed at her. However he also didn't spare her from the outpouring of raw indignation and malice. Kaede felt like her own thoughts were being consumed by a wildfire that now raged all around her -- a conflagration that burned with an all-devouring desire to destroy, to murder, to take revenge.

This outpouring of hatred was more intense than anything she had ever felt, anything she could imagine.

--And it absolutely terrified her.

"<P-Pascal?>" She muttered both aloud and in telepathy, as her world faded to black and her eyes opened inside a dark cabin.

She had been asleep. It was all a dream, a nightmare. Except...

The flood of enmity and malice continued unabated.

It took a moment before Kaede realized that these emotions were flowing into her through the familiar bond that she shared with Pascal. The empathic link was supposed to be one way, from her to him, yet somehow it had reversed?

The familiar wasn't sure what was going on. She knew only that the murderous rage which overflowed her master was downright frightening. It felt like he was ready to burn down the world, kill anyone whom he encountered, anything to satisfy his thirst for retribution.

--And by extension, Kaede couldn't help but feel the urge to kill in her own emotional state.

She wasn't even sure whom this anger was directed at. All she knew was that she couldn't stop this raw desire, and it terrified her.

"<P-Pascal? W-what's going on?>" Her wispy voice was shaking as she tried to reach out to him.


----- * * * -----


Pascal sighed again as he put the final after action report down and leaned back against his chair in the new command cabin.

It was already past midnight, and this was the fourth time he had read over the document. He had to make sure every detail was duly explained before he sent its contents to the General Staff in Königsfeld.

The King may have been satisfied by his preliminary report. However the military administrators would be combing over every detail of his actions after how grossly he violated the army's rules and regulations during the Battle of Nordkreuz. Pascal had no doubt that some of these people would be seeking to do him harm. He was politically astute enough to know that rapid promotions and the King's favor always came as both a blessing and a curse.

After all, there were only so many high ranking positions. All of them were contested by the three major political factions of Weichsel, not to mention the personal ambitions of many individuals. The mercantile faction led by Cardinal-Chancellor Lisbeth wasn't too aggressive in pushing its influence within the military. But the same could not be said for Neithard von Manteuffel's conservative faction. They had been locked in a perpetual tug-of-war with his father's royalists for as long as he remembered.

Pascal had no doubts which side he was on.

His father had taught him that autocrats, especially competent monarchs like the Kings of Weichsel, had a vested interest in bringing 'new blood' into the existing power structures of society. These newly-made men, which included Pascal's father, did not have the generational wealth and established political influence that old merchant and noble families held. As a result, the newly promoted elites derived most of their power solely through the King's good graces, and as a result they were more reliably loyal to the King.

This did not apply to established elites like the Manteuffels, who maintained their political influence through a vast network of branch families and longtime retainers. Sure, competent old nobility, such as General Neithard, also sought to recruit new talent, and Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Ostergalen was proof of this. Yet to maintain his existing power base, Neithard von Manteuffel had to show favor to those who already followed him -- lest they switch their loyalties to more fertile grounds.

These differences in support meant that, with all other factors being equal, the King was simply more likely to favor rising stars who relied on merit and not connections. Even for the Falken clans who have maintained a 'special relationship' with the monarchy, the rulers of the Drachenlanzen dynasty have always been careful to limit their power.

To Pascal, who was not only 'new nobility' but also respected merit above all else, it was a given that he would continue his father's royalist cause.

However, there was one new factor which muddled the political waters for him.

His betrothal to Princess Sylviane meant that he now had two royals to follow.

Weichsel's victory during the Battle of Nordkreuz had been costly. The city that prided itself as the 'Jewel of the North' lay largely in ruins. The Knights Phantom lost over thirty percent of their order of battle. The Phantom Grenadiers had been hit the hardest, as they were reduced to only a third of their original numbers. And this didn't include the thousands of casualties taken among Weichsel's infantry and ground cavalry -- injured men and women who now overflowed every makeshift hospital in Nordkreuz.

It was no surprise that the healers were already running out of Samaran blood.

Yet none of this made Weichsel's victory any less than total. Both Skagen's skywhale fleet and confederate army had been utterly annihilated. Even Västergötland had paid dearly for their support by losing an expedition force of thousands. Over a dozen jarls had been killed in battle, and another dozen captured.

The Grand Jarldom of Skagen still had its seaborn fleet. But they no longer had the resources to prevent their peninsula on the continental mainland from falling into Weichsel's hands.

This however created a conundrum for Pascal.

He had hoped for Weichsel to end the northern conflict quickly so it could free its hand to join Rhin-Lotharingie's war against the Caliphate. This would require a white peace, a return to the status quo, for the two belligerents.

However that was no longer likely. After how complete Weichsel's victory had been, King Leopold would most probably seek to press for annexation of the entire Skagen Peninsula. Yet the people in these newly conquered lands belonged to both a different culture and religion. Their integration would require pacification, which would tie down considerable military might -- forces that could no longer be spared to aid Rhin-Lotharingie.

I had not thought this far when I proposed the battle plan, Pascal reflected.

He had been too focused on achieving military objectives, without considering the broader political implications.

It was in times like these, when Pascal had to admit that in spite of all his talents, he was still a long way off from becoming a true general, let alone a renowned marshal like his father.

Pascal wished he could talk to Sylviane right now. She had considerably more political experience than he did, thanks to years of working under Emperor Geoffroi in the Lotharin court. But her armigers had called her away on urgent business -- something about a message from home.

I might be the fiancé of their crown princess. But in the eyes of most Lotharins, I am still just a foreigner and outsider, Pascal sighed as he pondered over this sad and lonely truth.

The young lord leaned his head back from the chair, before bringing his right hand up to rub his temple. He had barely started before he heard two knocks on the door, followed by a familiar voice:

"Pascal? Are you in?" A soft soprano came through the door, which Pascal immediately recognized as the voice of Cecylia von Falkenhausen.

"Yes! One second!" He called back as he stood up and rushed over.

Pascal was genuinely grateful that Kaede had allowed him to semi-reconcile with Ariadne, which had brought his childhood friend Cecylia back to everyday speaking terms again. Word of her father's grievous injuries during the air raid must have reached her in Alis Avern. It was the only reason he could think of for why Cecylia would be in Nordkreuz.

"Hello Cecylia!" He greeted cheerfully as he opened the thick wooden door, and promptly froze.

The dhampir girl with scarlet-crossed eyes was only one of six people who stood outside. All of whom wore figure-concealing black cloaks.

"Sorry, official business," Cecylia noted as she gave him an apologetic smile.

"Could we talk inside?" A middle-aged man who stood right behind her requested.

Pascal's eyebrows shot up. This was certainly an unusual, late-night encounter. Without breaking eye contact or changing his puzzled expression, Pascal slowly turned his hand to point his turquoise casting ring at Cecylia. His other hand summoned four defensive runes, yet a subtle scan of her magic aura held a match to what he remembered. The unique mana signature was definitely Cecylia's, not some fake modified by polymorph or illusion magic.

He didn't detect any enchantment magic either. Sure, minor spell auras could be concealed. But any spell capable of overwhelming a dhampir's mana resistance and dominating their mind would be powerful indeed.

"Come on in," Pascal replied at last as he beckoned them into the command cabin, which had wards inside the structure against external eavesdropping and scrying.

"How is your father?" He asked to pass the time as the others strode inside.

"Father's legs were crushed when the air assault collapsed the eastern gatehouse," Cecylia kept her tone casual despite the topic. "Thankfully the healers reached him in time to save them. He'll be bedridden for a week, but they promised he'll make a full recovery."

"That is a relief to hear."

The last figure stepped inside the cabin and closed the door behind him. The six newcomers then reached out to take off their cloaks, revealing the pitch-black uniforms of the King's Black Eagles.

Pascal had an uneasy feeling about this. It wasn't natural for the Black Eagles to operate openly in groups unless the King was nearby. And as far as he knew the King was still in the capital.

The lean, middle-aged man who spoke earlier wore a fierce scowl and had blond hair tied back in a short ponytail. He immediately began to introduce himself:

"I am Major Kempinski, leader of field operations in the west for the Black Eagles' state security branch." The man revealed his Black Eagle crest-badge, offering it for Pascal to examine its authenticity.

However Pascal simply nodded. Cecylia's presence was good enough for him. If he couldn't trust a Falkenhausen, who had been faultlessly loyal to the Crown of Weichsel for generations, then there would be no man in the kingdom whom he could rely on.

Of course, his friendship and trust towards Cecylia was probably the reason why they called upon her for this task.

"I have been charged to bring you a personal note from His Majesty the King, along with conclusive findings of recent investigations into the death of Field Marshal Karl August von Moltewitz," Major Kempinski continued.

At the words 'His Majesty the King', Pascal immediately stood to full attention and gave a responsive salute.

"Hail the Black Dragon," he swore his allegiance before receiving the offered scroll-case.

What about father? Is there something else other than him being killed by Imperial Mantis Blades?

Questions rolled nonstop across Pascal's mind as he unfurled the two sheets of parchment and began reading.

It began with pleasantries, more condolences, all the warm words one could expect from an eloquent writer to a family friend. And it remained that way until right up to when the hammer struck:

...We have since discovered irrefutable evidence that the assassination of the Marshal had been supported by none other than General Neithard Mittemeyer von Manteuffel in a most blatant act of high treason...

Pascal felt his lungs halt mid-breathe. His eyes stared back as though threatening to pop out from their sockets.

Neithard... von Manteuffel... treason...

At that moment, facing the black, ironclad words on cold parchment, Pascal could have sworn his heart stopped. It had frozen in doubtful disbelief, then ignited as he read on, by icy flames of simmering fury.

...The Black Eagles have unraveled evidence of direct contact between the Manteuffel household and Imperial intelligence agents, including the passing of detailed information on the late Marshal's personal security, as well as the schedules of patrols outside the city of Königsfeld...

Pascal's knuckles had turned white. His arms had begun to quiver, though his grip on the parchment itself had grown as firm as steel.

This was General Neithard, one of the most decorated officers in the Weichsel army. He and Pascal's father had served together for decades! They might not have been friends, but they were at least comrades! How could he!?

...Although initially thought to be the work of a spy within the household staff, thorough examination by our diviners has confirmed that these documents have been personally handled by the General...

Pascal could barely believe it. He simply couldn't accept it. This was betrayal, a personal act of treachery from not just a superior officer, but a general whom he had looked up to for the man's tactical brilliance, a man for whom Pascal had nothing but respect for from a professional viewpoint.

"Is this... is this all certain?" Pascal heard his own trembling voice.

"The King had assigned the best investigators in Weichsel to this task and gave it the highest priority," Cecylia's soft reply came with an apologetic look. "These results are as reliable as they get."

But... why?

His thoughts were clearly one of denial, and Pascal knew exactly why. In the wake of his father's death, Neithard von Manteuffel had already become the main contender for the next Marshal of Weichsel, and it was questionable if his ambitions ended there.

To pass such sensitive information on the Marshal's security to the Imperials... Neithard could have done no worse if he had personally handed the Mantis Blades a sword to kill Pascal's father.

Pascal hadn't even noticed as his breathing grew heavy, or his shoulders quaking under barely-contained explosive rage.

The dark clouds of vile hatred, the thirst for blood and vengeance -- he had suppressed them in the wake of the assassination for the interests of Weichsel. But now, they could no longer be contained.

Father knew you were too ambitious to be politically reliable. But he had always respected, RESPECTED you! Because you were a brave and brilliant leader, one whom he had thought shared the belief of a strong Weichsel independent from Imperial influences. Yet you...

"--You fucking traitorous PIECE OF SHIT!" Pascal finally spat out, before turning to the Black Eagles Major with murderous hatred in his tone: "I take it that you are here to arrest that treacherous bastard?"

"<P-Pascal?>" Kaede chimed in. However he completely ignored her concerned, wispy voice.

"You have my deepest condolences for the Marshal," Major Kempinski's steady voice replied. "But please stay calm and continue reading, Captain Pascal."

The young lord took a deep breath to swallow any further words of impatience. He begrudgingly returned his gaze to the parchment. The royal communique was more effluent than usual. He wished the King would get to whatever the next point was already so he could return to discussing how to strangle that man alive...

Then, there it was:

...It is my heartfelt desire that you be given an opportunity to personally avenge this betrayal by assisting in Neithard's immediate arrest, before his own agents may hear of his unveiled treason and prompt him into launching a military coup d'etat. The Black Eagles charged with delivering this message are hereby assigned to your command. Please exercise initiative with caution, my young friend, as Neithard's long career of service has earned him countless loyal supporters within every military camp. Should he resist arrest by any means, you have my permission for his immediate execution. The Weichsel army cannot risk a major disturbance given the present state of conflict in Hyperion.

Pascal found himself in complete agreement with the King's every sentiment. If the old traitor found out about his impending arrest, he could launch a military coup in desperation which would inflict immeasurable harm to Weichsel's military strength.

All of this pointed towards one fact: the sooner General Neithard was removed from command, the better.

"<P-Pascal? W-what's going on?>" Kaede's frightened voice came over their familiar bond again.

And once again Pascal ignored her. More precisely, his mind never even bothered to process her words. With eyes intent on his mission, he stood straight to face Major Kempinski at last.

"I accept His Majesty's mission with obedience and gratitude," his voice resounded as hard as steel. "However, Neithard von Manteuffel is one of Weichsel's highest ranking commanders. Should his immediate death be necessary, may I ask if you bear His Majesty's sword to represent his royal authority?"

The Black Eagles officer then shook his head without any change in expression:

"Unfortunately, we did not have time to transfer His Majesty's sword from the capital. We must make do with the orders of the King."

Pascal pursed his lips as he heard that.

Generals were some of the highest offices in Weichsel, and could only be promoted or removed through the personal consent of the King. With His Majesty's orders in hand, Pascal could certainly arrest a general, as that was a temporary measure. But to execute, to permanently remove a general, that required more substantial authority. It was an established tradition of Weichsel to ensure that no forged orders or subterfuge could do irreparable harm to the nation's interests.

Unfortunately, these were also special circumstances. King Leopold was certainly correct that they must move quickly.

"We will just have to make do then," Pascal decided. "With the King's personal letter and his Black Eagles at hand, there should not be any problems. If anything, the best time to strike would be now and immediately. Most of the encamped army is either celebrating or resting, with only perimeter patrols on battle alert. Last I heard, Neithard himself was overseeing the celebrations amidst the 1st cavalry brigade. Our biggest danger is that a considerable number of knights from his old unit, the Phantom Gale, will be there."

"Then we have no time to lose," the Major replied. "There is always the possibility that one of his loyalists sighted our approach here and might raise suspicions."

"In that case, we will meet Colonel Walther von Mackensen and gather whomever he has at hand. Not only is he a diehard royalist, but his Knights Phantom suffered the least casualties in the last battle. We will head over to the dining halls of the 1st cavalry brigade after that," Pascal finalized, as he stood up and began to stride towards the door.

And I hope that traitor does resist, because I will gladly send him to hell myself!

"<Pascal please say something!>"

Kaede's faint cry was almost begging when he noticed it at last.

The emotions pouring over their empathic link were beyond mere worry and concern now. They had entered the realm of being distraught.

When did she...?

Pascal realized it wasn't her first attempt, but he couldn't recall when her calls began, or how many times he had already ignored her.

"<Kaede you should be resting.>" His reply rang terse and imperious as he strode through the door. "<Your injuries...>"

"<The hell I'm staying put when you're out looking for someone's blood!>" The familiar cut him off in a clearly agitated voice. "<What's going on!?>"

Pascal didn't remember venting any of his stormy wrath across their telepathy. But clearly he must have, as it had been enough to alarm Kaede and drive her own anxieties to the edge.

I do not have time for this right now!

"<This is a political matter. You would just complicate the situation,>" he insisted.

"<Fine. I won't ask any more questions until you're ready to tell me.>" Kaede relented yet her tone remained desperate. "<But at least let me be there! Surely you could use an extra hand?>"

Pascal didn't really need her help. He certainly didn't want her in this dangerous affair, not when she was still recovering from her injuries after Sir Robert found her unconscious on the battlefield.

However Kaede was right in one regard. At this moment, he needed all the trustworthy manpower he could get. His familiar might be tired and recuperating, but she had also proved during the battle earlier that she was an excellent marksman.

Besides, if she was just going to keep pestering him, then this also doubled as a way of shutting her up.

"<Meet me outside the gates of the northern encampment in five minutes. Remember: no questions!>"

...And stay out of my way when I skin this bastard alive!


----- * * * -----


Although General Neithard sat amidst an atmosphere of celebration, he was anything but jubilant.

The men of the Phantom Gale --the Knights Phantom company that he personally led as its first commander-- drank and sang in good cheer all around. However the General had plastered a trace smile across his expression while nursing his beer stein in silent contemplation.

Earlier tonight, mere hours after the Battle of Nordkreuz concluded in Weichsel's victory, Neithard had received a Farspeak message from a close friend back in Königsfeld.

The General knew that he had been under investigation by the Ministry of the Interior for weeks now. His entire household had been placed under surveillance, and his immediate family had been tailed on more than one occasion. However today he heard that a member of the King's Black Eagles had been seen colluding with these people -- a sign that Neithard's enemies had reached the ears of the King.

It was ill tidings that cast a shadow upon the afterglow of victory.

Perhaps it couldn't be helped. No man could climb the ranks of power without making enemies, just as no man could maintain his presence everywhere at once. Neithard knew the moment he took command in the field, his political opponents in the Capital would begin to plot against him.

Cardinal Lisbeth, you slimy old hag...

As the leader of the conservative faction, Neithard had been bitterly opposed to the Cardinal-Chancellor's pro-Imperium mercantile faction for as long as he remembered. Neithard wasn't in favor of forming alliances with enemies of the Holy Imperium, like King Leopold and the late Marshal had done with the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie. Instead, he wanted to uphold Weichsel's traditional policy of 'Papal Appeasement', to keep the Holy Imperium at a safe distance while Weichsel used its military prowess to expand into Northmen and Lotharin lands.

This would allow Weichsel to grow its national power without offending its huge, hegemonic neighbor... at least until their country was strong enough that even the Holy Imperium could no longer declare war without risking defeat.

It also didn't help that Neithard's and Lisbeth's personalities mixed like oil and water. Whereas the General was stern, stoic, and frugal, the Cardinal-Chancellor was... well, a greedy hedonist who liked to abuse teenage boys.

To enjoy younger members of the opposite sex was hardly a rare trait among the powerful. Nevertheless Neithard always wondered why the Holy Father allowed such a sinner to tend to his flock.

The late Marshal had believed strongly in staying out of this dispute. However that was a trait that Neithard found exceedingly foolish. No army could live on honor and tradition alone. It needed funding, gold, its slice of the national budget.

Sure, Nordkreuz was a rich region thanks to its strategic location as a center of trade. But not every duchy held such blessings! More money spent on economic subsidies and grandiose infrastructure projects meant less for the army. And these were crucial decades with military opportunities that Weichsel could not afford to miss!

So Neithard fought the Cardinal for every silver pfennig in the Marshal's stead. He used his military contacts to extend his influence into the civil bureaucracy. He clashed with the Cardinal over every digit of spending, every project of national infrastructure.

And more often than not, he won. Had he not secured these funds for Weichsel's army, the late Marshal could never have achieved his exceptional success during the last war.

However, such victories also came with a price.

Before Neithard knew it, Cardinal Lisbeth, the snake that she was, had begun spreading rumors of Neithard's ambition to seize state power for himself. By the time Neithard finally realized the danger he was in, it was already too late.

Only then did he finally understand why the late Marshal had been so careful to stay out of these factional disputes. For any man other than the King to control that much power -- it was like wearing a bullseye behind his head.

Since then, Neithard did what he could in downplaying his hand. Though he couldn't stop expanding his influence in the army. The military depended on the quality of its officer corp, and he just happened to be exceptional at grooming new leaders. He had placed many of his followers, including young men and women from his own family, in pivotal positions that forced them to prove themselves. Those who rose to the challenge undoubtedly deserved their promotions.

However his clan, his extended families, had grown too accustomed to wielding such power and prestige.

Neithard had met his cousin, Brigadier-General Hartmut of the Zimmer-Manteuffel branch family, over dinner. He was astounded to hear that Hartmut had brokered a deal to expand the family into a Lotharin duchy just across the border. Sure, Neithard always believed that Weichsel should conquer the lands currently held by the Duke of Baguette. But there was a mountain of difference between a military conquest sanctioned by the King, versus an expansion of power achieved through political marriage by the House of Manteuffel.

Had he been a betting man, he would confidently wager that Cardinal Lisbeth had already received this news, and was using it to further her argument of his 'dangerous ambition'.

Neithard was still pondering when the dining hall's thick wooden door slammed open. The first one to step in was the young Captain Pascal, whose burning eyes soon met his with a clear murderous intent.

The General hardly had time to consider why before six Black Eagles and one Samaran girl strode in behind Pascal. They fanned out to both sides as Colonel Walther von Mackensen rushed in. Behind him entered one Knight Phantom after another, fully kitted in half-plate armor over their black-on-burning-red uniforms and wielding their swordstaves in hand.

All ruckus within the cabin died down in seconds. Even the drunk could sense the rapid shift in room temperature to below freezing.

"General Neithard Mittemeyer von Manteuffel!" Captain Pascal snarled as his hands held out a scroll of parchment bearing the royal seal. "By order of His Majesty the King, you are under arrest on charges of high treason for willingly conspiring in the assassination of Marshal Karl August von Moltewitz!"

What!?

For a passing second, Neithard found himself utterly stunned.

Conspiring in the late Marshal's assassination? Neithard's opinions might often have clashed with the late Marshal, especially where Rhin-Lotharingie was concerned. But they were still comrades in almost every regard! Why would he ever...

Then, his mind finally made the turn:

That snake has already spread her venom... and this is her killing blow.

Everything had been set against him. The trial's verdict was already clear. Cardinal Lisbeth would not have made so bold a move unless her 'evidence' against him was overwhelming.

If he surrendered here, his head might adorn a pike before he even had a chance to meet the King.

But what else... what else can I do?

Slowly, the cornered general stood up from the bench. He never once broke eye contact from Pascal's malicious gaze.

"I have fought a hundred battles for Weichsel, and not once, not once! Have I fought against our Fatherland!"

Yet the young Captain was already beyond reason, beyond reach. His turquoise eyes were filled with icy flames and never even flickered at the General's declaration.

Neithard did not want to rebel. He did not want to betray his king, even for a second.

But, at this stage, what other choice do I have?

The General was not afraid of dying. He had braved death too many times to fear it. However he feared his enemy's victory. He feared for his family's honor.

And most of all, he was afraid of just how much harm an unopposed Cardinal Lisbeth could inflict upon Weichsel's military.

His only chance was to stay alive -- long enough to score an audience with the King, to appeal to Leopold in person.

"What would your father think, to see his own son beguiled by that Imp-loving Cardinal." Neithard announced with bitter sorrow.

"SHUT YOUR MOUTH! YOU FILTHY TRAITOR!" Pascal cried back. "You have no right to invoke my father's memory!"

But Neithard's words weren't directed towards Pascal. They were meant for his own men, several of them were already beginning to stand up, their expressions an image of defiance.

Foremost among them was his protégé who sat right behind him: Colonel Sir Dietrich Gottfried von Falkenrath, commander of the Phantom Gale and one of his brightest pupils.

At the same time, he heard a voice call "General!" from just outside the doors. It was Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Ostergalen. Neithard didn't have a clue how the intelligence officer acquired information so quickly this time. Nevertheless he was grateful as more Knights Phantom stepped through the door with their weapons drawn towards his enemies.

"I had held no intention of rebellion against His Majesty the King! But I will be damned if I let that backstabbing bitch of a cardinal destroy everything I have worked for our proud army! Now, who is with me!"

"I AM!"

Neithard wasn't surprised when the first shout of firm allegiance came from just behind him.

He never even had time to be astonished when a swordstaff blade sliced through his neck.


----- * * * -----


Pascal's gaze was still frozen in shock as he stared at the fountain of blood spraying from Neithard von Manteuffel's severed neck.

His mind was still grappling with 'what the heck just happened' when Colonel Dietrich von Falkenrath slammed his bloody swordstaff onto the ground and reached deep into an extra-dimensional belt pouch.

Time seemed to stand still as nobody else in the room dared to make a single move. All eyes were anxiously awaiting a statement from the dhampir commander that had just plunged an already crazy situation into outright insanity.

Then, the Colonel pulled out his hand, carrying a crest-badge of the Black Eagles and an old, discolored scroll bearing the King's seal.

"By order of His Majesty the King, I have infiltrated the Manteuffels' inner circle for the past two decades to maintain watch on his activities. Should Neithard von Manteuffel ever attempt to betray the Crown, my orders are to eliminate him as opportunity presents itself! Now, in the name of His Majesty Leopold Karl-Wilhelm von Drachenlanzen, STAND DOWN!"


----- * * * -----


Colonel Hannes von Falkenberg, commander of the Black Eagles, smiled from behind his office desk as he read the report on the final moments of Neithard Mittemeyer von Manteuffel.

This isn't Rhin-Lotharingie, he thought to himself. This is Weichsel, and the only man allowed enough power to seize the throne is the King himself.

In a single night, Hannes had destroyed the greatest internal threat to the Crown of Weichsel. At the same time, he sent the only other menace, Cardinal Lisbeth, into cowering submission towards the King.

The former general's power base wouldn't just disappear overnight. With blood already spilled, the hatred of the Manteuffel loyalists would keep the Cardinal-Chancellor's faction under control for years at least. After all, nobody held grudges like old veterans with battlefield bonds.

It was unfortunate that the army had to lose its foremost commander, again. However the war against Skagen was already won. Weichsel was ready to annex three duchies' worth of new lands. Between the need to digest these new gains and the necessity to replenish losses taken during this short, winter campaign, it would be best if Weichsel stayed out of any other major wars for a few years.

A limited expeditionary force into Rhin-Lotharingie was still on the table. In fact it might even be desirable, as it would be an opportunity to train the promising young officers who had distinguished themselves in recent battles. Hopefully after that, some of these new talents would be ready to step into the older generation's shoes -- ready to serve the King and not the entrenched political factions.

Everything had been a necessary sacrifice to maintain Weichsel's continued stability, and the centralized power of its absolute monarchy.

There was no way Hannes would allow his fatherland to collapse into the unholy mess that Rhin-Lotharingie found itself in today.

Putting down the report, Colonel Hannes looked to the far side wall at the life-sized portrait of Weichsel's founder, King Ferdinand I von Drachenlanzen. Centuries ago, his ancestors swore a blood oath to that very expression.

Today, he would uphold it once more.

"Hail the Black Dragon."

His sapphire-crossed eyes glanced down upon the report once again, reflecting upon the name of a young captain --soon to be promoted to colonel-- who helped bring this entire charade to its dramatic end.

Pascal had been lucky, as the final words of Neithard von Manteuffel had made it clear that the young man had been taken advantage of by Cardinal Lisbeth. Nobody could blame him for being emotional over his father's death, especially not after the heartfelt eulogy Pascal gave during the funeral. This meant that while Manteuffel's supporters might begrudge him for partaking in this incident, their anger and hatred would not be directed towards him.

Instead, the blame would lie solely upon the Cardinal-Chancellor, which was exactly what Hannes had hoped for.

May you learn from this and grow to be as wise as your father in the game of politics, the spymaster of Weichsel thought with a satisfied smile. Then perhaps, just perhaps, Rhin-Lotharingie might make it through to become a reliable ally after all.



Chapter 20 - What A General Needs[edit]

"--Pascal also said that given Rhin-Lotharingie's political position, it would be best if we managed a peaceful coexistence with the Caliphate."

These words, which came from a young girl merely ten years old, were a proposition towards the foreign policy of an empire.

After over a year spent in Nordkreuz effectively as a prisoner-of-war and political hostage, Princess Sylviane was at last returning to her homeland. Her father Geoffroi, the Emperor of Rhin-Lotharingie, had crossed the border in person to pick her up. And now she snuggled into the side of his broad chest as they rode the royal carriage back.

The young girl watched as an amused smile stretched across her father's visage. His large hand brushed the tresses of her dark-purple hair before rubbing the top of her head. His touch was heavy yet it brought a faint and nostalgic smile to the girl's lips. It was a comforting luxury that she had not experienced for too long.

"Pascal seems to think that politics consist of mere numbers and tools, freely manipulated for efficiency at will," the Emperor laughed. "The Caliph has an ego too. There is no way he'll simply agree to be friendly, when we Lotharins took lands that he painstakingly seized from the Imperium during the last war."

"Not even when we're the enemy of their enemies?" The Princess asked with a curious gaze. "I mean, 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend', right? Doesn't the Caliphate have to struggle against Skagen's naval projection and the Holy Imperium's maritime dominance over the Inner Sea?"

Power projection, maritime dominance -- they were concepts that Sylviane wouldn't have dreamed of using two years ago. But now, she spoke of them with pride and confidence, hoping to impress her own father with her maturity and growth.

Though for a moment, Geoffroi's smile wavered as he lightly shook his head:

"Sadly, geopolitics aren't that simple. It's not just situational circumstances, but also a clash of cultures and personalities. Apart from interests, there are also cultural values, the egos of rulers, and the trust between two societies..."

An all-embracing warmth soon returned to the father's doting eyes as he looked down to meet the daughter's wisteria orbs.

"I take it Pascal is an adherent of 'Realpolitik'? He is a Weichsen."

"Uh... maybe? Ummm, w-what is real-polit-ick?" Sylviane carefully pronounced the unfamiliar term, abashed that she still fell short of her father's expectations.

However his return smile, full of fatherly pride and love, chased all of her concerns away with ease.

"Looks like the know-it-all hadn't taught you everything after all," Geoffroi chuckled again. "Don't worry. Father will gladly coach you once we get back. And the next time you meet Pascal you can make him envious at just how much you've outgrown him!"

"Oooh, that would be great!" The child princess beamed back. "He's always wearing this smug little grin around. It would be nice to see him falter and cringe for just once!"

Geoffroi continued to smile as he rhythmically stroked her hair. However his blue-violet eyes grew pensive as he turned to look out of the carriage's window at the passing landscape. Their entourage followed the riverside road along the North Lotharingie River as they made their way west, crossing the Empire's heartlands as they journeyed back to the capital of Alis Avern.

"Sylv, you know, you've been talking non-stop about Pascal ever since I picked you up."

There was a tinge of sadness in her father's voice, and Sylviane felt her guilt instantly spike. She had been so engrossed in telling her father about everything she had experienced and learned that she had forgotten to ask about how he, or the rest of the family, was doing.

Her sunny demeanor vanished in an instant. Within seconds, the gloomy clouds of dejection swept in as her gaze dropped to the carriage floor.

"I'm sorry father. I was carried away--"

She then stopped as he reached down and gently lifted her chin back up.

"No, that's not what I meant," Geoffroi reassured with a wistful smile.

For several moments, neither the Emperor nor the Princess said a word. The two of them simply looked upon one another. The father's gaze was proud yet sentimental, while the daughter stared back with uncertain curiosity.

Sylviane couldn't figure out what her father was thinking, not even when his eyes grew glassy with moisture. It was almost shocking to see, as she had never, not even once, seen her father be overwhelmed by emotions.

He was Geoffroi the Great, the steadfast Emperor whose masculine strength was admired by every Lotharin throughout the realm. He was the ruler of the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie, whose efforts to strengthen the nation through his half-century reign showed its results when he twice defeated the Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea.

Everyone whom Sylviane met, be it Pascal, or Marshal Karl von Moltewitz, or King Leopold of Weichsel, they all spoke of her father with great respect.

"Sylv..." Geoffroi finally broke the silence. "What do you think about Pascal? Do you enjoy being with him?"

"He's fun, and interesting... but but, i-it's not like that I like him or anything!"

Sylviane almost shouted back in a delayed, flustered response. She stared at Geoffroi with indignation in her gaze. Yet before those earnest, penetrating eyes, the young girl soon wilted and glanced away.

Her cheeks were burning red and hot. She didn't even understand why. It was just... embarrassing to talk about.

Besides, Pascal was from Weichsel, a country they had been hostile with until just a few weeks ago. She could be friendly and courteous with him, but she couldn't actually be friends with him.

...Let alone anything more than that.

"Royalty should never be afraid of their own feelings," Geoffroi added sternly. "Now, tell father: did you enjoy your time with Pascal? And you swear to the Holy Father that it's the truth, because this is very important."

Sylviane wanted to shy away from her father's gaze, to hide her embarrassment from him. However there wasn't any cover for her to shelter behind, not even a loose blanket. Under her father's unrelenting scrutiny, she finally returned a meek nod.

Silence returned to the air once more, and the young princess couldn't bring herself to peek at her father's eyes. Was he dejected? Disappointed? Disconsolate?

However the words that he spoke next showed none of those emotions:

"I am considering offering him your hand in marriage."

For a brief moment Sylviane completely froze. Her cheeks were glowing-red as her eyes grew as wide as saucers.

"W-w-what are you talking about, father!?" She snapped back. "I'm only ten!"

The young princess felt stunned by her father's proposal. After all, mages rarely married before mid-life, which left two decades after reaching adulthood to find a mate. Marriage betrothals at her age were exceedingly rare, even for a third-born child who had little chance of inheriting the family titles.

"Do you dislike him?"

"I-it's not that I hate him or anything, b-but isn't this against..."

"What have I told you about expressing yourself, Sylv?" Geoffroi cut in with another stern frown. "Clarity. Royalty must speak with clarity, confidence, and determination. There must be no room for misunderstandings. Because if you provide an opportunity for others to misinterpret your words and misrepresent your intentions, they will do so and exploit you to their benefit."

Sylviane shut herself up at once as she cast her eyes down again, ashamed in the wake of her father's lecturing words.

"Sorry."

"You never talked like that before," Geoffroi pondered aloud. "Where did you pick this habit up?"

"P-Pascal said..."

Her meek voice trailed off again as Geoffroi gave a deep sigh.

"That brat."

For the next minute, an uncomfortable silence settled over the two as Sylviane heard only the rhythmic creaking of the wagon's wheels. She could only hope that her reply didn't just ruin any chances of her meeting Pascal again.

"Sylv... do you remember what your mother once taught you about the 'Gaetane Legacy' -- about how our family doesn't make political marriages?"

Sylviane rushed to nod back. It was precisely what she tried to bring up a moment ago:

"Yes father. Before Great-Great-Grandfather Charles the Bold united the Twelve Oriflamme Paladins and founded the Coalition of Twelve Tribes during the Rhin-Lotharingie Independence War, he had to abandon the love of his life and settle for an arranged marriage made by his parents. He blamed his wife and never forgave her, not even when she helped him faithfully during the war. It was not until his dying years that he finally recognized the damage done to his children by his failed marriage."

A nostalgic grin broke across her father's expression as he gently stroked her hair once more.

"Trust your mother to always emphasize the romantic parts," Geoffroi spoke with bittersweet nostalgia that left Sylviane briefly confused before his tone stiffened again. "Charles the Bold was an avid student of history, and he believed strongly that the endurance of any royal dynasty lay in the number of consistently able monarchs it produced. Before he died, he stated that the Gaetane family should never marry for political purposes again, but for loving, supportive families that can raise strong heirs -- not only physically but also mentally, emotionally, spiritually."

The Emperor's doting eyes connected with his daughter's wisteria gaze again.

"Sylv, I know you've been told many things about what a Princess should be. But always remember that as a Gaetane, duty to our family is the same as building the future of our realm." Geoffroi continued his fatherly teachings with a proud emphasis. "The Holy Imperium's Golden Age ended when one of their finest emperors completely failed as a father. Therefore it doesn't matter if it's man or woman, conqueror or administrator -- those who abandon their role as a parent also fail as a hereditary ruler."

Slowly but surely, Sylviane nodded back to her father's smile. She carved his words into memory, promising herself to remember them even years, even decades from now.

"I am certain that Pascal has many excellent qualities and will surely grow to be a capable man," Geoffroi acknowledged, much to the daughter's growing joy. "However, would he be a good husband? A good father? That I'm not sure about..."

"Father," the Princess murmured hesitantly. "You really want to m-marry me off to him? I mean, I d-don't object if you really..."

"Marry you off?" The Emperor said before he laughed. "Oh never! I'm considering asking for his betrothal to you, not the other way around!"

Then, as his tone gradually settled back down:

"Sylv, I know this might seem a bit early, but a political marriage cannot be arranged late..."

With her cheeks still glowing like charcoal, Sylviane instinctively opened her mouth to object. However her father laid a gentle finger upon her lips, stopping her before she even voiced a single word out loud.

"Yes, I know. I'm going against the decree of our dynasty's founder. Yet there is a problem with not forging alliances by marriage, and I have felt it keenly over the years. Ever since its founding, the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie has remained a collection of autonomous and semi-independent feudal states. It is ruled by not just the Crown in Alis Avern, but also four kings and many powerful dukes that command entire regions. Our markets cannot adhere to standardized regulations. Our military lacks centralized control. Our efforts in the economy and industry are always disorganized, and our frontiers vulnerable to neighboring aggression..."

Sylviane nodded back as she understood the pain in her father's voice. Even Pascal had recognized this problem, which he highlighted to her as Rhin-Lotharingie's principal weakness that Weichsel exploited during the war.

"--Your grandfather and I both tried to change this," Geoffroi continued on in begrudging words, "and we both gave up when faced with powerful resistance from the nobility. These centralization reforms are necessary for our nation's future, yet they are also deeply unpopular. For any chance of their success, we need powerful alliances, the most reliable of which can only be obtained through ties of marriage and bonds of blood."

"And... that's why you want me to marry a Weichsen." The Princess realized at last, her embarrassment finally fading in the face of royal duty.

"Not just any Weichsen, but the son of their greatest duke and marshal since that upstart commoner Hermann von Mittermeyer," the Emperor accentuated. "Even without his own considerable potential, Pascal will inherit the richest duchy of Weichsel and retain the good graces of King Leopold through his father's legacy alone. He might not command any military assets without his king's authority, however his wealth and influence will more than make up for it."

Yet as Geoffroi's statement came to a conclusion, the Emperor's gaze softened to that of a father's once more:

"Nevertheless Sylv, I may be risking your happiness, but I'm not prepared to throw it away. That is why I want your honest, truthful reply: what do you think of Pascal?"

Sylviane's cheeks flushed red once more. Though this time, she neither stuttered nor faltered. Instead she fortified her will with a personal sense of obligation, before answering her father in clear, unwavering terms:

"I do get along well with him, and I honestly believe that he will grow up to be a splendid man. It's just that... I'm not sure what to think about him for marriage. For starters, he's not exactly 'chivalrous'..."

The Princess then halted in bewilderment as her father made the weirdest noise. An oddly tilted grin stretched across his countenance as his shoulders shook with something between a suppressed chortle and a choking sigh.

Geoffroi had to clear his throat several times before he could speak again:

"I swear... your mother read way too many romantic stories. What does chivalry have to do with ruling an Empire?"

Sylviane's brows furrowed once more. The title of Emperor was slated for one of her two older brothers. The eldest, Henri, had already secured his eligibility by summoning the phoenix Hauteclaire. It was hardly a task for her, let alone her future husband.

"Sylv, a perfect knight might be able to protect you as an individual, to save you from disaster to live another day," Geoffroi stated. "However a perfect general... he would guarantee not only your safety from thousands, millions of foes, but ensure the prosperity of your children, your descendants, your entire realm for generations to come."

"That is what I hope Pascal will be for you," the Emperor then declared. "A true general, a marshal, just like his father is to the King of Weichsel."

"You want me to secure an alliance and bring a military leader into the family to help my brother?"

It wasn't a flattering statement, but Sylviane knew she had little else to offer her brothers in the family business. At least this way she could ensure her contributions to the Gaetane dynasty, to her royal duties as ordained by the Holy Father.

Besides, she did admit that Pascal was 'hardly a terrible' choice.

Her father did not respond at first. Instead, his expression hardened into a sad frown, as a long and grave silence fell upon them both.

"Father?"

The young girl looked up, seeking the love of that paternal gaze once more. However this time, Geoffroi didn't meet her eye-to-eye. In fact he glanced away with a pained expression as though he was actively avoiding her gaze.

It was almost as if he couldn't face her, as if he was too beset by the guilt of forcing such a heavy burden upon the thin shoulders of his only daughter.

"Father, don't worry," Sylviane stretched a reassuring smile across her lips as her small hands reached out to his. "I'm happy to do the right thing."

For a brief second, she saw a faint smile return to the corner of his mouth. Her father leaned in to press a kiss atop her head, followed by the gentle, rhythmic stroking of her hair. Yet throughout his affectionate display he still would not directly meet her gaze.

Yet he still would not directly meet her gaze.

"It's... it's not just that," Geoffroi's unsteady voice spoke out.

Sylviane looked upon her father with scrutiny, and she saw that beneath the stoic exterior, his eyes had grown glassy with sadness and loss.

Geoffroi might be her parent, but he was also an emperor. Regardless of what happened, an emperor did not simply cry, not even in front of their own child.

Yet, as a single tear trailed down the side of his cheek, her father broke the news at last:

"Sylv, it seems no one was willing to tell you this. But last year, our family was twice struck by Imperial assassins..."

The Princess felt stunned as her thoughts went blank within an instant. Her mind refused to comprehend what her father was saying, not even as her body felt paralyzed as a horribly cold sensation travelled up her spine.

"Your mother and brothers are gone. And you are now the only successor to the throne."


----- * * * -----


Sylviane opened her swollen eyes and looked upon the dim cabin that she was staying in. She was still sitting on the floor with her back against a corner. Her reprieve in the past --the final memory of her childhood-- had come to its end.

She couldn't even remember what happened afterwards. The remainder of that trip had passed in a blur.

But ten years old or not, she could no longer be a child after that.

For more than a decade since, she had walked the path of a crown princess. Her father had become her foremost tutor, instructing her in every affair of state through his daily tasks. Privy council, military council, assembly of lords, diplomatic audiences, legal consultations, et cetera... she had attended them all.

Her daily schedule ran from dawn until dusk. She initially had one day off a week plus two hours of free time per day, yet even that slowly vanished over the years.

There were times when she absolutely hated, hated her father for forcing her through it all. Crown Princess? She never once cared for her exalted rank and title. All she wanted was to be able to leisurely study and play at her own pace alongside others of her own age. She never wanted every boy to bow and every girl to curtsy before her, to speak through a false mask of cordiality and distance. She wanted to laugh and talk with them as friends, just as she had with Pascal and Cecylia during her time at Nordkreuz.

However when she finally gathered enough resolve to lash out at the Emperor, it was he who stole her thunder by faltering first:

"I'm sorry, Sylv," the Emperor whispered back, his pained eyes a visage of exhaustion. "I know you never wanted this, but... I don't have anyone else left. I have no other choice."

Sylviane had never felt as ashamed of herself as that day. She had sworn to herself that she would never, ever try to abandon her father again.

Yet the Imperials weren't satisfied with taking only three-quarters of her family away.

Yesterday evening, Sir Robert finally revealed to her the truth behind why Sir Reynaud arrived in Nordkreuz. Sylviane came face-to-face with a crying Elspeth -- the younger sister of Lady Lindsay de Martel, commander of the Highland Guard and the Princess' martial arts instructor.

A tear-streaked Elspeth informed Sylviane that her royal uncle, Duke Gabriel of Atrebatois, who had marched south from the Belgae region of northeastern Rhin-Lotharingie with an army of 30,000, stormed the capital of Alis Avern in a military coup d'etat. With the aid of the Knights Templar, Gabriel had butchered his brother Geoffroi, impaled the Emperor's head upon a pike, and burned the rest of the corpse in a final act of desecration.

Sylviane was no longer the Crown Princess. She had been denounced as an apostate's daughter, and everything she had toiled for the last decade of her life was gone.

Worst of all, she was now truly alone in the world. The last of her family had been snatched away, by what she knew without doubt to be an imperial plot.

Sylviane couldn't hold her composure after that. She had dismissed her armigers and secluded herself in a dark corner of her unlit cabin, where she silently wept the whole night away.

The sun fell and rose again. The tears ran out and left her with swollen, itchy eyes. But the orphaned, royal daughter couldn't be bothered to care. All she did was seek comfort in the sanctuary of her own mind: to reminiscence through memories of the past, memories of happier times.

In the darkness of her depression, she had even pulled out her engraved dagger. It had been a present from her father as part of a long Gaetane family tradition: to give every child, male or female, their first live weapon at the age of ten.

After carefully removing the sheath, Sylviane stared into the faint metallic reflection for what seemed like minutes. She could see the deadly glint of its razor-sharp edge, the vicious curvature of its blood groove.

She could end it all -- the pain of loss, the despair of defeat, the endless exhaustion of a now pointless life, resigned to nothing but helpless solitude.

Following her father's footsteps had been everything to her. She might not have wanted to be the crown princess. Yet without it, she had nothing left.

Slowly but surely, her trembling hands turned the dagger towards her own chest, her very heart. Sylviane squeezed her eyes shut as she felt the sharp tip press in between her breasts...

That, however, was as far as she went.

Try as she might, she couldn't bring herself to commit the ultimate sin.

It could be cowardice. It could be weakness. However it was also because her conscience had called out to her being, screaming with everything it had to make her stop.

Not only the Holy Father, but even her parents would never forgive her had she committed suicide. She would have gone straight to hell, never to see her mother, her father, or any of her brothers again.

Sylviane had gasped with breathless anxiety upon her realization. She had tossed the gleaming steel dagger away as though it was burning her hands. It had skidded across the floor before coming to a rest near the doorway. In the hours since it had been forgotten about, as the despondent princess returned to staring at the empty air through hollow, bloodshot eyes.

She couldn't even die cleanly -- that was the true worthlessness of her life now. The love of the Holy Father had evaporated away, and without it only the weight of a dead spirit remained.

Sylviane never heard the repeated knocking, or the calls in her name. She never noticed at all until the door opened to the sharp sunlight outside, framing the silhouette of a man and her armored maid.

"Holy Father in heaven," came a horrified but otherwise familiar voice. "Sir Robert, Kaede, wait outside. Shut the door, Mari."

Sylviane never bothered to even look up at the intruders. It took all her willpower just to crack open her parched lips:

"Mari... I told you to leave me alone..."

"You also claimed that you were no longer the princess, and we no longer had to follow you," Mari replied in a stiff voice as she closed the door and leaned against it. "If you wish to rescind that order, I will gladly offer you my head as punishment."

"You should have fetched me earlier, Mari," the male voice reprimanded as his figure crouched down. He picked up the abandoned dagger before handing it to the Lady's Maid.

"Apologies, Your Grace, but I thought she would recover as usual after a day or two of rest. I didn't think it was this bad until morning when I peeked in and saw this on the floor," she emphasized the dagger before tucking it away.

Sylviane at last recognized the familiar voice. The man was Pascal. He was much older than in her memories... and he was also the last person she wanted to see right now.

More precisely, he was the last person whom she wanted to see her like this.

"LEAVE!" She shouted at him with a hoarse voice, before pulling her knees in and burying her face between them.

Even during her worst moments, Sylviane had refused, utterly refused to cry aloud. The dignity of a princess was all she had left. If others saw her in such a miserable state, they would lose what little respect they had remaining.

"Sure, once you kick me back out." Pascal spoke almost casually as he walked over and sat down on her bed, no more than a pace away. "Your skills at that have improved considerably over the years. I am sure you would have no problem if you meant it."

Sylviane could feel her eyes trying to conjure more tears.

I do mean it! She thought. She seriously, truly wanted him to leave right now, before he could glimpse another look at her disheveled appearance and tear-stained face.

Yet it seemed even this, even her own personal space, had now slipped beyond her control.

"I don--I don't need your help!" Her voice cracked as it finally rose to a delayed yell.

"Of course, Your Highness," Pascal replied as a matter-of-fact.

There was no room for him to be here. She had no need for his self-righteous pity. Yet how could she force his departure without revealing her shameful state? Or perhaps, as a tiny voice rode against waves of staunch denial: is his absence what I really want?

An awkward silence hung over Sylviane's clouded thoughts for nearly a minute before Pascal broke it again:

"Where is Hauteclaire?"

The temperature seemed to plummet as silence returned. Sylviane felt her lips, her jaw, her whole body begin to tremble as the last vestige of her control cracked under a new tide of depression. Of all things, he had picked the worst topic to remind her. Even the noble and saintly phoenix could no longer tolerate her cursed existence.

"Gone," Sylviane barely murmured at last.

"Empath," Mari commented from her spot by the door.

"Riiight," Pascal drawled out with a full return of his most annoying habit. "Your depressive episode became too much for him..."

Sylviane felt it like a stab in the gut. She didn't even deserve pity from her fiancé, who only scorned upon her failures and sins before she departed from this unforgiving world.

"--Probably just out taking a stroll though," Pascal finished after a momentary pause, too little too late for the deep wound he already dealt.

"Why don't you just leave... You don't have to pretend to be my fiancé any longer," Sylviane muttered out with her last reserve of energy.

It pained her to say it. But beneath all of their casual intimacy, the betrothal between Pascal and her was a political arrangement from the very beginning. Now that she had lost all value, what possible purpose would their marriage still serve?

"Since when did I ever have to 'pretend' to be that?" Pascal almost snorted out.

Though before she even had a chance to rekindle hope, his truthful follow-up stabbed straight into her heart:

"I admit, I rather hate the prospective 'Prince Consort' title. Yet even that fit me better than how you approached your 'Crown Princess' role. Really, it did not suit you at all."

His words burned like searing acid, melting away the already-shattered armor of her dignity and pride.

Sylviane no longer even had the will to defend herself, nor the mental energy to retort. All she did was stay in her curled-up, protective embrace while pretending to ignore his incisive words.

"Do you remember when we first met?" Pascal said as he lifted himself off the bed. He sat down on the floor this time, his voice coming in from less than an arm's reach away. "It was kind of like this. Except I had to stand still for ten whole minutes without moving! Even my feet went numb that time. All because you insisted on pretending you were asleep. And now what? You are ignoring me again?"

Sylviane wanted to tell him that nobody was forcing him to stay, that he was more than welcome to leave at any time. However her throat was no longer responding. She couldn't even will herself to push those words out.

"Fiiine," Pascal sighed aloud as he leaned back against the bed. "I shall just sit here and keep talking to myself all day. On the hard floor, with my butt aching, next to this impertinent, unlovable princess whom, after ten years of engagement, would not even give me a free hug."

A faint memory brought awareness that those last two words formed one of Pascal's favorite jokes. Yet there was nothing funny in the context he expressed it through. Was it merely inappropriate or outright derisive? Her threads of judgment could no longer process its truth.

"Did you know that even Kaede gave me a free hug within a month after we met? Of course, she also gave me three broken ribs, so I guess it rather balanced itself out. Though the point is that she could at least express herself properly, even if it hurt to be on the receiving end..."

Why don't you just marry her then...

Sylviane was long past the luxury of envy or jealousy. She might have even whispered her thoughts out loud, to offer her blessing for a union that would at least leave him in trustworthy hands.

However this time Pascal did not wait before pushing on:

"You, on the other hand... even a decade ago you were totally not cute. A princess should do this. A princess should be that. That was all you thought about, all you seemed to live for...!"

The tone of his complaints rapidly escalated. Even his hands had joined in through dramatic gestures, as told by the faint swishing of air.

"I mean seriously! Which nine-year-old child who loves her parents does not cry when kidnapped to a foreign land by brutish troops? But noooo! Those rules did not apply to you!" He declared in an exaggerated voice. "You would not let me see you cry. You would not even admit that you were scared, or that you simply missed home!"

It was unpleasant to hear such criticism, to hear the apparent disapproval that Pascal had held all along. None of it even mattered any more, not after Sylviane lost her princess role.

Yet her thoughts would not let go. Her feelings could not let go. Even as her exhausted mind steadily zoned out, even as her logic stopped processing his words, her subconscious still clung onto the tone of his voice, the flow of his speech.

Perhaps there was a comforting warmth in his words after all. His emphasis was neither sarcastic nor condemning. Rather, it whined with disapproving familiarity, backed by a protective concern reminiscent of her father's love.

It both energized and aggravated her at the same time. Pascal might be many things. But a father figure to her was something he would never be.

Then, as though she had been shaken out of a reverie, her thoughts returned to a bitter silence. Pascal had stopped. However it had only been a respite before he mounted his philosophical 'peak':

"...Oh right. That was what Kaede called it -- you just had to be a special snowflake."

For a brief moment, Sylviane found herself stunned at this conclusion. Annoyance began to bubble up inside her as her lips twitched at Pascal's complete and total hypocrisy, which only seemed to worsen as his tirade went on:

"Do you know how annoying that was? You would not throw a tantrum, or show your tears, or even do something childishly annoying. Nooo," he drawled out peevishly, "you had to pretend that everything was just fine, that they were doing a marvelous job keeping you locked up. Meanwhile I had to guess at what you wanted -- to bribe the guards, to talk to the maids, to appeal to father on your behalf..."

She was a 'special snowflake'? Pascal had spent his entire life ignoring every law of man and concealing every weakness beneath his pride. The only difference between her 'princess' and his 'prodigy' was that he should have been wearing a frilly dress!

But then, that was also where they diverged.

'Childish' never quite described him. Though Pascal wouldn't have stayed quiet either. Instead, he would have irritated his overseers in his own way.

With a deep, exasperated sigh that seemed to carry more years than his age, Pascal finally settled down from his lengthy rant and returned to soft-spoken words:

"Sylv... you know I was never good at guessing what other people wanted. We shared many similarities back in the day, so I often scored right. But the more you matured into a lady, the less I could guess what you were thinking..."

It was true that his 'prodigy' and her 'princess' personas held common ground. Yet that was also mostly superficial.

Pascal was a gifted child, an exceptional individual wherever he went. As an impertinent boy, he chased away even his tutors and learned to accomplish everything in his own way. To him, life was an endless opportunity for a boundless mind. Being an officer might not be his favorite profession, as he always held a love for magical innovations. But it was nevertheless a career he would walk with joy and pride.

Meanwhile, Sylviane had been anything but 'special'. Raised in the palace as the least gifted of three siblings, she had grown accustomed to going with the flow. Traits that people wanted to see, qualities that brought others to approve -- she had crammed them all within her mind, plastering them over herself. For someone who struggled just to meet her responsibilities, being the heir was an unenviable duty to which she had little choice.

Yet what did that make her? Was she just a reflection of the 'princess' others wanted? Did she still have an identity of her own?

Her mood swings, her jealousy of others, her hobby of collecting adorable garments to dress Vivi in, her desire to dominate Kaede that had nearly caused a rift between her and Pascal...

--Who would wish to claim such eccentricities as their own?

"...You have always kept weakness to yourself, Sylv, always kept others at arm's reach," Pascal heaved another sigh. "Sure, I am your fiancé. I just have to accept it 'as is'. But do you really expect to go through life, treating everyone around you as one of your subjects, your subordinates? Do you think those of us who view you as a friend would appreciate that? To see not the real you, only that mask you claimed as your own?"

His exasperated voice rose in pitch with every word, highlighting the annoyance behind them until it became an almost shout:

"Sure, most people in the royal court are vultures. But never forget that some are on your side! How long do you expect them to keep groping in the dark before they say 'screw it, I give up on trying to help!'"

As his frustration faded from the air, Sylviane sensed Pascal shifting to stand back up.

He had been her fiancé. He had been on her side. It was not her intention to keep him in the dark, but she had done it, not once but twice in just two recent months!

Her heart instantly lurched on the brink of eternal despair. No, she didn't want him to leave. No, she wouldn't be able to stand his cold back! Just as she didn't want to die, she couldn't even fathom losing his support!

Though was it too late? Had he had enough? Was 'screw it, I give up on trying to help' an expression of his own beliefs?

Of course...

Why would he tolerate her for a third time?

No. Please, her thoughts screamed out at last. I don't want that. Anything but that!

Then, as her fingers struggled to reach out, as her throat trembled to call out, Sylviane finally felt the presence of a sincere touch.

It began with a palm on her shoulder, soon echoed by another warm presence on her other side.

For a brief moment the princess almost tried to shake him off. It was an instinctive reaction, fortified by years of prideful demeanor.

She did not need to be consoled. She did not want to be coddled. A true princess would not need any of that!

--Even if she did.

However, Pascal never gave her the chance to decide.

Sylviane felt a crushing embrace wrap around her half-buried head and bent knees. His arms had slipped around her back. They squeezed hard and forced her head into the protective warmth of his firm chest. Meanwhile his desperate whispers finally reached past her ears, past layers upon layers of broken emotional armor and devastated mental landscape, and appealed to the depth of her soul:

"I do not pretend to replace your father, Sylv. I do not want to either." He declared. "But I do want you to know, to understand it in your heart, that the world is not over, and not all is lost! You still have those who love you, who care for you, who believe in you and will fight alongside you!"

Pascal's voice no longer held the firm control of his usual self. It no longer slowed with his aristocratic drawl or even carried his usual air of superiority.

With his knees pressed against the floor, the man Sylviane once considered 'unchivalrous' pledged his solemn oath to his princess through begging pleas:

"So please -- stop bottling everything in just this once! Let me share your grief and your pain. I am not some outsider. I am your fiancé, your family, your future husband! Show me what you truly, honestly feel, and let me offer all I can to help!"

In that final moment before the dam cracked and broke, before her reservoir of suppressed emotions poured out in a great flood, Sylviane finally came to realize the truth that she had denied herself for years:

Pascal didn't just like her just because he found her to be a 'beautiful', commendable princess.

He loved her because he had accepted her for whom she truly was.


----- * * * -----


Kaede couldn't help but release a silent yawn as she leaned against the cabin's exterior wall. She hadn't slept since that nightmare woke her up, and the incident left the army encampment in a furor that took until morning to calm down.

She tried to hold her anxieties at bay by playing with her long hair, though it didn't really help. Her hand then went down to press against her stomach next. She could feel a faint nausea, accompanied by those annoying cramps, ebb back in once more.

Not again, she sighed before trying to distract herself with other thoughts.

Kaede understood that Sylviane was in a vulnerable state of emotional turmoil after losing her remaining parent. In such a case, the best help would be a select few of those closest to her. As Pascal was her fiancé in what was evidently more than just a political marriage, he seemed the clear and obvious choice.

Yet this only left Kaede more worried. To put it simply: Pascal had no tact. Certainly not in sensitive situations like this. Thinking back to her own emotional episodes with him, Kaede found it more likely for Pascal to make blunt, foot-in-mouth statements that would only make the problem worse.

-- Which was exactly what came to mind when she heard a muffled howl emerge through the door.

The magical, expandable cabin was warded against eavesdropping and supposedly soundproof. Pascal and Mari had vanished inside for what seemed like hours without the slightest noise passing through. To hear even a faint cry through its enchanted walls, it made the familiar wonder just how deafening the princess' wailing must be.

Kaede felt her heart melt with sympathy as she turned to her companion with concern. However Sir Robert never lost his composure. The boyishly pretty if not stunningly handsome young man merely let go a relaxing sigh before turning towards her with his sunlit smile.

-- Though perhaps it wasn't entirely sunny. There was a sense of wistful resignation emanating from his vivid-green eyes as he shrugged back.

"About time," he stole another glance at the door where a stifled, grief-stricken bawl seemed to go on and on.

Kaede stared back with confusion. His concern for the princess seemed real, but then... how could he look happy at this turn of events?

"Letting it all out is the first step towards recovery," the Oriflamme Armiger replied to her unasked question with a sincere gaze. "Holding all those emotions back would only drive her to further despair."

Her only parent did just die a gruesome death, Kaede sympathized as she nodded back. I guess not grieving is far more worrisome than crying her heart out.

"Well, there you have it... our dear but troublesome princess." He half-chuckled before returning to the posture of a perfect guard. Then, as Robert took another glance at Kaede, he departed his post before retrieving a wooden stool from just outside a nearby cabin.

"Here, please sit," he remarked in a gentle voice. "They'll be a while still. And you look under the weather. Best not to strain yourself after yesterday's injuries."

Kaede smiled graciously before accepting the offer. She had already thanked Sir Robert earlier for being the one who saved her during the battle. However, his earlier words also left Kaede with a considerable chunk of fresh anxiety. Part of that worry held out for Sylviane, though a growing share went to Pascal and herself.

After all, those serving under a capricious ruler often met tragic results. The history of Earth had more than enough examples as proof.

"Does this happen often with the Princess?" She couldn't help but ask.

"Once in a long while," Sir Robert calmly noted. "But never this bad... never even close to this bad..."

Well, she was a teen until just two years ago, Kaede settled in her thoughts. "Must be stressful, for her to carry so much responsibility at such a young age."

"Unfortunately, Her Highness was never meant to be the heir," the armiger responded. "And after her brothers' assassination the Emperor rushed to start her training. It would have been better if she had a few more years of childhood."

It was a surprisingly candid piece of information from someone within the princess' inner circle. Kaede could only surmise that what Pascal just did solidified the armigers' trust in him, and by extension, her. Since whether she liked it or not, most nobles of Hyperion would always see her as an extension of Pascal. It was a simple fact that she might as well accept, with all its pros and cons.

"Given what happened back in Alis Avern, one could argue that the Emperor did the right thing," the familiar replied. "She is the crown princess. She had to be ready."

"For Rhin-Lotharingie, sure. But for her?" Sir Robert sighed once more. "Well... the damage has already been done."

"What do you mean?"

Kaede turned towards the young knight in his 'twenties'. Her perplexed rose-quartz eyes met his peridot-green gaze in a sincere exchange.

She certainly didn't miss the hint: Robert de Dunois was evidently someone who cared more about Sylviane as an individual than his loyalty to the crown, or her tiara in this case. Considering his apparent youth, Kaede thought it was very probable that the princess and her armiger also shared some sort of childhood bond.

However before he could answer, a familiar chirp from above distracted them both. Kaede didn't even have to look up before she felt relief from the growing warmth, the comforting presence that enveloped her whole being.

Hauteclaire circled around, flying low above them before descending to land. For a brief second, Kaede felt a flash of surprise and anxiety as the cerulean phoenix glided towards her.

Yet as Hauteclaire came to perch on her right shoulder, the aura of tranquility he emanated overcame her unrest. Even the sharp talons did not hurt. The soothing heat felt more like a shoulder massage than a bird's bony grasp. The warmth that engulfed her certainly helped with her worsening stomach cramps.

"I think he likes you," Sir Robert grinned.

Kaede almost tried to shrug. She didn't have a clue on what the expected behavior of a phoenix should be. Though she was sure of one fact:

Even from here, Hauteclaire's presence should definitely help Sylviane calm down.

Her hand reached up on instinct to brush the phoenix's burning feathers. She felt their comforting warmth in the cold, wintry breeze. And as the seconds dragged on in peaceful silence, Kaede felt a measuring look in her companion's friendly gaze.

"Milady, I have a request to ask of you."

"I'm not a lady," Kaede shrugged off the unusual politeness. "But please go ahead."

"I know our princess hasn't been the most kind to you," Robert offered an apologetic nod. "But her... hobbies, well, they're also some of the only habits she has left for herself, the only pastimes to counterbalance the weight of burden upon her shoulders. I know Her Highness can be rather demanding at times..."

Kaede released a deep sigh, which instantly stopped him short.

Toying with her like a doll in the royal sitting room was one thing. Kaede didn't like to admit it, but it wasn't entirely unpleasant of an experience. In fact, it felt comfortable to have her hair brushed and her head rubbed, even if she was too tense at the time to really enjoy it.

However Sylviane had also tried to treat Kaede like she was property, from dictating what she could wear to where she would sleep. Worse yet, the Princess had tried to isolate her from Pascal, from the only 'family' she had in this foreign world and her one pillar of safety, just to assert dominance.

Considering Kaede's problematic relationship with Pascal, the Samaran girl could understand why the Princess did it. Nevertheless those anxiety-filled nights when she had difficulty sleeping were certainly hard to forget.

"I don't begrudge Her Highness for 'trying to put me in my place', if that's what you're asking," Kaede spoke with a faint scowl. "I realize most girls in the Princess' place would do something similar, doubly so as she's royalty and used to commanding respect. However... that doesn't mean I enjoy being treated like her belonging."

Especially as she was even worse than Pascal was at the beginning, the familiar appended silently. At least Pascal was concerned about my day-to-day needs.

"The princess may not express it or even realize it, but she does like you." Sir Robert then remarked with a calming smile. "Otherwise she wouldn't have taken such an interest."

In me or in what I look like? The Samaran girl had to wonder, considering she seemed to share the exact same measurements as Vivienne, whom Princess Sylviane apparently treated like a live plaything with neither resistance nor repercussions...

"I won't ask you to simply do as she demands," Robert continued. "But please, at least be her friend. She doesn't have many of those to speak of."

Not trustworthy ones without any strings attached, in any case.

Kaede made an awkward smile as she held her hand against her stomach ills. Even with the armiger's aid to her in mind, she could only offer a rather noncommittal reply:

"I'll do what I can."


----- * * * -----


Sylviane wasn't sure how long she had wailed on. With her tears already spent, her emotions had seized her voice as the only form of release.

Now, it was impossible not to feel embarrassed as she and Pascal continued to sit on the bedside floor. They leaned against each other in silence, with Pascal's arm wrapped around her shoulders while her head rested upon his.

At least, she was silent...

Sylviane had enough experience to realize that Pascal could read the atmosphere. He just rarely knew how to act accordingly.

Not long after she stopped crying, Pascal went back to talking by himself.

That might have been fine, except the contents were entirely inappropriate for the moment. He started by filling her in on the events of last night: a Weichsen political drama that she, as an outsider, was only too happy to stay out of.

"Well, look on the bright side..."

Sylviane could feel the shoulder beneath her head shift as Pascal turned his expression towards her, prompting her to glance back.

"We are both orphans now," he announced through a somber smile.

"That is really not funny."

"I did not say it was," he protested in his usual drawling speech.

A puzzled frown soon stretched across her countenance. It wasn't like Pascal to make his point in a roundabout way. Being indirect simply didn't fit him, not to mention how hard it would be to guess his intentions, considering how different his thoughts were compared to everyone else.

Thankfully, he also didn't keep her waiting for long:

"You do not like to be pitied, and I do not enjoy it either. Well now, neither of us need to worry about that from the other. We are both alone, yet we both have each other."

"Together, alone?" she echoed back.

Pascal always had an odd way of trying to cheer people up.

"A most contradictory expression, is it not?" His words emerged with the hint of a chuckle.

"What about Kaede then?"

Sylviane had been hesitant to ask. But in the aftermath of the Marshal's death, it was Pascal who had announced to her that he had received a new family member.

"She is the same as us -- no other family or close relations in this world."

"Isn't that your fault?"

"Yes, it is." Pascal admitted plainly. There wasn't even a hint of begrudging denial.

It was yet another virtue where he bested her with ease.

"Yet that is also why I have a responsibility towards her," he asserted before turning to stare into her eyes. "So please, be nice. We are all in the same family now. We have to support each other."

Pascal paused briefly before adding in a nostalgic tone:

"After what happened to me the night I learned my father's death, I realized there was no way you meant it when you told me to leave. Even if my words and my actions might prove no good at comforting you, my presence alone should be of help."

Sylviane realized then that while she might not have a direct bond with Kaede, the familiar girl had been a pillar for Pascal on several occasions. And the princess was reaping the benefits of that now.

In hindsight that was what defined a family: not mere bonds of blood and matrimony, but a deep sense of trust and mutual, inter-support through hard times. And for that if nothing else, she owed the little girl some kindness and few gestures of gratitude.

"I know," the princess murmured back before repeating, "I know."

In that moment Sylviane made a promise to herself: regardless of how much she liked or disliked them, those who were Pascal's friends and family also made them her own. She would treat them with the same respect Pascal always extended to her closest companions, like Mari and Robert.

The two of them relied upon one another far too much to do otherwise.

Well, I might still tease her a good amount, she left an honest opening for herself.

"So what do you plan to do next?" Pascal asked after a long moment of silence.

"I... I honestly don't know," Sylviane admitted. "I haven't thought about doing anything except being the Crown Princess for ten years now."

"Do you still want to be?"

"It's not a matter of want or not," she turned to reply as their eyes met once more. "I am a crown princess. It might have begun as simply a mask, but it's who I am now. Even if I'm told to stop..."

"Who told you that?" Pascal's eyebrows went up.

"Can I still be? A princess disowned by her country?" Sylviane commented before her depressed voice seeped back in. "Perhaps the Holy Father doesn't want me..."

"I doubt this is the Holy Father's work." His interjection was stern and instantaneous. "First your father gets excommunicated. And a few weeks later he gets deposed and murdered by the paramilitary branch of the Inquisition, led by a newly anointed 'Defender of the Faith'? This has the avarice of the Church written all over it!"

"Yet... the Holy Father allowed it to happen," the Princess noted dejectedly. "How can you be sure it's not his will then?"

"It is not simply what I think..."

Pascal's words rang earnest as his hand stroked her hair in trying to calm her back down.

"Emperor Geoffroi devoted his life to making Rhin-Lotharingie a better country. As far as I know, he was a ruler loved by his people, and few monarchs could claim to have upheld the crown as dutifully and faithfully as him."

"Besides," he stared at her with utmost seriousness. "Even if he dissatisfied the Holy Father in some way, do you honestly think our Lord's benevolent mercy would bestow such ruin upon Rhin-Lotharingie in the moment of its greatest crisis -- during an invasion of heathen swords?"

No, it doesn't make any sense, Sylviane wanted to agree. But then... what does the Holy Father want of me?

But, if it was contrary to his will, why would the Holy Father simply stand by and watch it happen?

"I believe the Holy Father is testing you," Pascal answered as though reading her thoughts. "These are troubled times ahead, and he wishes for Rhin-Lotharingie to be led by someone who is not just willing, but also ready to face the Empire's challenges. A leader who overcomes these trials can ultimately bring your country to greatness. The road ahead may be difficult, but we must have faith that the final goal will be worth the sacrifices."

"You sound like a priest." Sylviane's lips formed a wry, if hesitant smile.

"Must I be a priest to have faith?" Pascal countered with a gentle smile. "Faith is not just accepting what you are told. It is about believing in others: that the Holy Father, in his omnipotent goodness, will always be just and virtuous, even if his mysterious ways are not immediately apparent to our limited view."

"That doesn't sound like you at all," Sylviane remarked in jest.

Pascal might follow the Holy Scriptures, yet she would never tag him as a particularly spiritual man. He was simply too pragmatic, too much in love with understanding the material world.

"Probably because I acquired the saying from Perceval," Pascal shrugged. "He's the healer from the incident at the academy."

Right, one of your new friends, Sylviane thought, unsure of whether she should feel proud or envious. Nevertheless, she finally felt a smile return to her lips as she leaned back into him once more.

"Do you want to know what I think?" Pascal asked next after another moment of comfortable silence.

Of course, he never even waited for her reply:

"Let us go to Rhin-Lotharingie, to Alis Avern. Take back what is rightfully yours. Restore the country to order. Bring vengeance upon those traitors who betrayed the nation during its hour of peril and murdered their rightful liege in cold blood."

You make it sound so easy. Sylviane thought as she relaxed further into him.

But then, the right path was never easy.

Yet is it the right path to take?

On moments like these, Sylviane wished the Holy Father could be a nudge more obvious with his signs. Though if that were the case, then was the conviction to move forward still her own?

If Pascal was right, if this really was a test, then this was her first hurdle. She must summon her own resolve to take back the throne that was rightfully hers.

"You're right." Sylviane spoke, softly at first before she declared again in a more resolute voice. "You're right. The Holy Father wouldn't simply abandon the Lotharins to crisis and catastrophe. All of this is happening for a reason, and I will not simply fold while the Empire needs me."

She then stared at him, her wisteria eyes locked onto his turquoise gaze:

"I will not abandon the responsibilities that I've spent my whole life learning to uphold."

Pascal smiled. His lips formed a broad grin that stretched from ear to ear.

"That is the spirit of a true Princess!" He remarked with approval. "We can restore your country and destroy your enemies in one decisive stroke! And we can take pleasure in exacting vengeance while doing so!"

"Wrath is a sin, you know," Sylviane raised her only objection.

"So it is." Pascal shrugged it off with ease. "I am human. Have to at least sin a little."

She almost scoffed at that. Almost.

The concept of 'transgress now, repent later' had taken deep roots within the Trinitian faith. It was a growing disease that sapped the morals of its followers, made only worse among the upper class by the abuse of indulgences -- 'forgiveness' and 'salvation' which could now be purchased from the Church at premium cost.

"The Holy Father might dispense clemency to those who lament a moment's carelessness," Sylviane frowned back with a stern reply. "However that is not the same as purposeful wrongdoing."

"And war is murder, politics is deceit. Yet knowing that, do we not still perform them out of necessity?" Pascal stated as he straightened his posture. "You know what is one lesson that last night taught me? People say revenge leads nowhere. But it felt good, and it felt right to see justice dealt. To see one of my father's murderers receive what he deserved -- nothing could better restore my faith that no matter how dark the night may grow, the light of day will ultimately triumph."

His voice was neither hateful nor malicious. Instead it expressed a thorough satisfaction backed by firm intent, a strong will tempered by raging flames.

"We are not all saints, nor do we live in paradise," he sat up to face her with a steely gaze. "We need that something to keep us going through difficult times, even if it is not entirely virtuous."

Sylviane knew that in many ways, this was Pascal's ego speaking. Before the eyes of the Holy Father, it would serve as little more than an excuse.

Yet, that same self-justified belief was also what made him a confident, decisive leader. It was what gave him the same qualities that she had always craved.

"Does it really feel that good?" She pondered aloud, her voice still shadowed by doubt.

Pascal grinned in response and leaned back against her.

"Better than sex, in fact." He announced in an oddly satisfied tone.

"Uhhh, well... I wouldn't have a basis for that now, would I?" The princess glanced back through narrowed eyes.

Sylviane knew that Pascal wasn't a virgin. However she had also overheard enough gossip from the maids to realize that men having 'experience' should be considered a good thing. At least this way, one of them would enter their wedding night with some idea of what they were doing, rather than leaving her with a scarred memory for life.

Nevertheless...

You could at least avoid saying that in front of a lady!

"Do not fret. We will get to it eventually." He announced with a casual smirk.

Sylviane felt a burning heat rush into her flushed cheeks. As if on reflex, she leaned away to make room as her arm smacked him on the shoulder.

"Ow!" Pascal rushed to rub it at once. "Careful with that! You actually do swing a hammer around!"

"Hmph!"

The embarrassing sight that her imagination had conjured was fuzzy at best. Though it also refused to leave her head.

"A-anyways, what if we don't succeed in reclaiming the Empire's throne?" She banished her thoughts by hurriedly bringing the topic back on track.

"Weeell... as long as we stay alive, we can always return to Nordkreuz," Pascal noted as he turned towards her with a proud grin. "You can always be my wife..."

The urge to hit him again rose like a flash flood as her cheeks reignited at once.

"--However I am certain the Holy Father has more in mind for you than just that."

It was a simple line of words. Yet the unwavering faith it carried pierced her armor of pride with ease. The Princess turned away as she tried to hide her embarrassment. Yet it didn't do her any good. Rather than just her face, Sylviane could feel her entire body heat up from deep within. It felt as though her very heart was melting under his warm gaze.

"Flatterer," she barely whispered out.

"Not flattery if it is honest," he declared without holding back, his words only made her blush worse.

For several minutes, it felt as though she couldn't do anything. Sylviane merely laid there in his arms, her will sapped by a warm glow, content to stay buoyant in the gentle atmosphere.

Yet, there was just one nagging thought that kept trying to climb back up.

"Would you really follow me in an empress' path, wherever I go, whatever it takes?"

Sylviane hadn't spent years in self-doubt to recover under a single moment of kindness.

"Of course, I will accompany you anywhere," Pascal asserted, reminding her that 'Prince Consort' or not, he would not accept being a mere subordinate. "After all, I am not just your fiancé."

Her puzzled frown returned as she wondered what he meant by that.

"Do you remember eleven years ago, when I asked you 'what is the most important trait for a general?'"

They had countless discussions back then, yet Sylviane still felt the nostalgia as Pascal resurrected one of his favorite topics.

"Courage and decisiveness," she offered the same answer as years past. "I am a Lotharin after all. Oriflammes first, always."

"And I debated 'cunning, guile, and vision'. After all, it took far more than bravery to win wars."

However Pascal no longer sounded sure of himself. It was as though his idea was yet another relic of the past.

"Have you changed your belief to something else?"

"After yesterday? Yes." Pascal spoke, before taking a brief pause, to reflect upon a day during which he had seen and done so much.

"Dedication and loyalty, to his country, to his people," Pascal then declared without any inkling of doubt. "War is only ever a means to an aim, and that aim must be worthy as a cause. After my father was murdered, every soldier of Weichsel mourned for the passing of a hero who would go down in history. Meanwhile Manteuffel had no such dedication. He cared only for his ambitions, and as such the only legacy he would leave behind is the accursed name of a traitor -- all his brilliance brought him nothing more than a passage straight to hell."

Sylviane kept her silence for the moment. She wasn't sure the circumstances were as simple as Pascal claimed it to be. After all, politics rarely unfolded as it appeared on the surface.

But now was not the time.

"Father had hoped for me to become the general of a new era. He wanted me to bridge Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie, our nations which share historic ties and geopolitical interests."

A fire seemed to ignite in his eyes as he turned to Sylviane in a solemn oath:

"That is my only wish by your side, and I swear I will uphold it until my dying day."

It was as off-putting as it was reassuring. To swear an unwavering, personal loyalty to her would be the moment of romantic legends. Yet that was not how events unfolded in real life. Those who followed blindly only degraded themselves as fools. The truly dependable ones were those who upheld a righteous ideal of their own.

As a woman, Sylviane knew she had Pascal's affection. But as an Empress-to-be, she would have to work hard to stay worthy of his devotion.

It was in moments like these when Sylviane realized: Pascal really did bring out the best in her.

Nevertheless, the world did have a mind of its own. Political circumstances change. And Sylviane couldn't help but worry as she asked:

"What if the alliance fractures?"

"If those in Weichsel seek to break the alliance, then they are my foes." Pascal replied without a moment of hesitation. "I will not take up arms against my state of birth. But the same does not apply to those who lead it."

It was a statement that could be construed as treason if heard by the wrong ears. Yet, it was also a sign of just how committed Pascal was.

"And if I did?" Sylviane raised the possibility, however unlikely so long as she held Pascal's support.

The smile he replied through was a bittersweet challenge:

"You will have to kill me first."



Epilogue[edit]

The wintry winds lightened across the Skagen Peninsula's snow-covered coasts as the cold front withdrew. Frosty low clouds pulled away from the ground as they warmed, while the soft flakes they shed reduced and vanished.

It was as though even the weather could sense that the war was lost.

Yet even as the winds changed, a single, ominous line streaked south across the shrouded skies. The oppressive veil of clouds concealed the sight from all but a few faithful. And only the most devout recognized it as a possible sign of the divine.

...And for once in the span of several centuries, they were right.

Thousands of paces above ground, a pressurized bubble of mana and air blew apart yet another cloud. The expanding sonic boom left shockwaves in its wake, as a figure within the magical sphere continued its journey at supersonic speeds.

However on this day, the Hyperboreans' prayers for a miracle were not meant to be.

"<Where do you think you're going?>" A tranquil, feminine voice spoke straight into the feverish mind of the Stormlord.

The flyer that moved at breakneck speeds instantly banked into a spiraling ascent. The brawny figure climbed through the icy air as he decelerated from his godly speed. Clad in sturdy chainmail, rich furs, and thick hides, his bulging, muscular arms effortlessly spun a static-charged greathammer into a ready stance.

The immortal warrior had yet to see the speaker who interrupted him. But even without sight he already knew the immaculate voice that entered his thoughts.

"YOU!" His thunderous boom burst outwards with enough pressure to shatter air. "SHOW YOURSELF!"

A cloud parted as a woman of unearthly grace seemed to descend from the heavens. She had a thin figure surrounded by loose, silken-white robes that provided little insulation. Her long, silver-white hair floated around her as though she was a sacred spirit untouchable to the soaring winds.

"Yes, me," The woman announced serenely as her hand raised the only 'armament' she carried -- a long willow staff with branches sprouting leaves as though it were already spring.

"It's been four hundred years, Sigurd. Not even a kind greeting for a one time companion of the battlefield?"

"You have too many names." The man identified as Sigurd scoffed back through his thick, bushy beard. "How am I supposed to remember which one to use?"

"Are you no different? Siegfried? Perun? Taranis? Perkūnas? Thor?"

Despite her challenging words, the white lady spoke through warm eyes and a calming smile. Hovering effortlessly in the windy air, she gently laid the willow branch over her other arm as her figure drifted to within twenty paces.

"A name means little to those of us who journey across multiple worlds," her voice flowed on. "Only Peter remained steadfast in holding onto his mortal identity."

"Fine! I'll settle for what I can actually pronounce then, Tara," Sigurd growled back, never letting down his guard for a second.

"Did the others send you to stop me?" He demanded.

"No," Tara's gaze held unwavering as she spoke with sincerity. "I am here on my own accord, Vanguard Sigurd. Patience has never been one of your virtues. But nevertheless you must halt. The situation is not as you wish. Should you continue, you shall set forth a most terrible precedent that would surely bring disaster for the whole world.""

Sigurd's lips twisted to reveal his clenched teeth. His sneer challenged her with a silent 'make me'. Yet the white lady did not show the slightest hint of being provoked.

"Halt!?" The man spat his scornful reply. "By you and what army, Grand Strategist!?"

"I may not be able to defeat you in single combat, but I could certainly occupy you long enough for the others to notice."

The casual statement came without an inkling of hostility, yet it nevertheless added to the tension between the two immortal beings. Then, before her opponent could consider calling it a bluff, Tara's spring-green eyes turned to cast a cursory glance toward the southern horizon:

"Besides, there is that army down there..."

"The Wickers are not yours to command," Sigurd scoffed. "They are Peter's followers. Nor will they last for even ten minutes beneath my lightning storm."

"Only if your storm is allowed to form," Tara smiled. "I may not be your match in close combat. But I can easily cancel out your magic."

"Even so, to directly influence them would be an intervention as illegal as mine!"

"Ohhh? So you do remember that the offense you are about to commit is illegal? That you do not have the 'Right of Armed Intervention' unless your homeland, the Scania Isles, is being invaded directly?" Tara asked knowingly. "Then why--?"

Lightning crackled and surged across Sigurd's hammer as his simmering wrath boiled.

"Why? WHY?"

His leather-clad fist swung south with a pointed finger:

"Peter's followers have been encroaching upon the land of my descendants for centuries! The entire North Sea coast used to be Hyperborean, yet they continue to relentlessly push our culture into the sea! I will not stand and watch as they destroy the last of my people on the continent! I did not fight a lifetime for the dragonlords to see all of my promised lands forsaken!"

"A lifetime thousands of years past." Tara spoke with a nostalgic gaze as calm as a meadow in the gentle breeze. "The world has changed since the Dragon-Demon Wars. We must accept that, as unpleasant as it may be."

"Easy for you to say, Holy Protectress of Samara," Sigurd mocked. "Your descendents are doing well for themselves, ever since you intervened for them during the Great Northern War. May I remind you that the lands of the Grand Republic were once dominated by my followers before your intercession!?"

"And your followers are still there, even if they've somewhat waned in popularity," Tara smiled. "Unlike Peter, I have no intention to deny others of their beliefs. I merely took the opportunity to seed a great commandant amongst my people, when the descendants of Sunslayer Mergen overstepped themselves in their conquests. If the Scania Isles were being similarly invaded, I would suggest you look to your own options for establishing a lasting legacy..."

"Oh fuck your system of reincarnation!" Sigurd interrupted once more as a dry thunderclap resounded from his hammer. "Just because you've decided to cheapen out doesn't mean all of us will!"

"We all met the Allfather, the Maker, the Enlightened, the 'one true god', whatever it is you want to call him!" Sigurd declared. "He was there, leader paramount of Asgard, supreme commander of the Aesir. He was not just some distant, mythical ruler but our ally! His greatest warriors fought alongside us and the noble dragonlords against the endless evil that springs forth from demon realms!"

Heated breath rushed from Sigurd's nostrils as the unstoppable momentum of his beliefs plowed straight on:

"All of us met him! We may all have a different name for him, his people, and his world! We may all disagree on just what role he plays in the universe and what virtues he upholds. But you cannot deny his one desire from us: that the single most strategic resource in fuelling his armies in their eternal struggle against the demons are brave souls from the mortal realms!"

"Evil always is and always will be. However that does not prove your methods as superior to my ways," rebuffed the white lady.

"Karma through the Eightfold Path will cultivate souls of the highest discipline to oppose the tides of sin. That is my conclusion and Gautama's. It may be the opposite of Peter's 'mass conscription' approach, or your method of selection through the Valkyries' call, but it is certainly no less proven," Tara said sternly to bring an end to their tangential debate before moving on. "Regardless, none of this changes our agreement that the mortal realms shall have peace -- to which, I remind you, you gave your oath."

Sigurd could no longer contain himself as he barked a derisive laugh.

"Peace? You call this peace! Oh sure, your homeland is certainly peaceful today! But what of my kinsmen? Are they just pigs to be butchered under the endless ambition of Peter's zealots?"

However Tara merely closed her eyes as she returned a sigh.

"Would you rather witness the loss of thousands, or the death of millions? We Worldwalkers wield the power of gods at our fingertips. That is why our descendants worship us thus. If we rend the treaty asunder and freely impose our conflicting views upon the world through strength and magic, then just what do you think will happen?"

The 1st Generation of Worldwalkers had fought alongside the dragonlords during the Dragon-Demon Wars. They were the greatest champions of humanity who followed the Grand Coalition in their offensive into the endless demonic realms. Even the least gifted among them could rend armies and cleave mountains. Those most able --like Tara the Grand Strategist, the World-Watcher, the Thousand Arms-- could harness enough power to alter the fabric of reality across an entire world.

Far from satisfied by mere logic, Sigurd opened his mouth to retort. Yet the white lady was not finished, and she demanded his silence with her unnerving composure:

"Your head isn't there just to call lightning and smash hammers, Vanguard Sigurd," Tara berated him just like the old days. "Your kin may not win against Marshal Peter's followers on the continent, but there are better paths to victory than stubborn resistance."

For a dozen seconds Sigurd's sky-blue gaze seethed on without answer. Then, as though the voltage of his thunder finally pushed his brain into action, the huge warrior's eyes cleared with foresight at last.

"Really..." Tara whispered as she gently shook her head with a faint smile. "It's a shame Admiral Winter couldn't transcend mortality in time. For most of his life Asgeirr Vintersvend knew the future of Hyperborean society lay in the New World, the 'Frontier' as your people call it. It's about time you caught up to your visionary junior."

"Let Peter rejoice in his followers' victory," the lady added with finality, "for it will be his last against you."


...


"So which world are you off to save this time?"

As their interactions cooled to a casual conversation, Sigurd sought to ask one last question before he parted ways with his old comrade. It had been centuries since their last meeting, and another few hundred years would likely pass before they met again.

"I'll be staying around for a while, actually," the woman replied.

"What, you don't trust me?"

Tara turned about one last time to give him a knowing look:

"You're impetuous and rash, but not an outright idiot like your followers might like to claim," Tara smiled. "Though... there was that one time when you wore a bridal headdress..."

"We agreed to NEVER speak of that incident!" Sigurd's entire face turned beet-red as he cried out in a voice just short of a roar.

"I'm just teasing you," Tara chuckled. "I do appreciate that you've stopped calling me Freyja. I always thought that version of my story was... a little off."

"Shame. I always liked the part with you riding off to battle in a chariot pulled by your two cats," Sigurd commented. "But why do you stay then? I know you're not the type to linger in one world."

"I'll be staying around to advise Gwendolyn when she comes back..."

It took Sigurd a moment to remember the name: Gwendolyn was a 3rd Generation Worldwalker, a mere 'girl' by Worldwalker standards who was not even half a millennium old. She went by the nicknames Arbor Sanctum and Faerie Sword. She was also one of the great champions of the Lotharins, an Oriflamme Paladin who played an instrumental role in the creation of the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie.

"--Unlike your homeland, it shall not be long before her birthplace bears witness to the carnage of invasion and war." Tara explained. "I do not know if she will have the opportunity or the desire to intervene. But if she does, I want her to be prepared."




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