Difference between revisions of "Daybreak:Volume 3 Chapter 11"

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After seeing Cecylia off near the command cabin, Kaede left the inner camp for one of the five major dining areas inside the army's tent city. Pascal couldn't squeeze her into the full meeting today, and she had already finished her archery practice this morning. With time on her hands, Kaede decided to check up on the maid Marina instead.
 
After seeing Cecylia off near the command cabin, Kaede left the inner camp for one of the five major dining areas inside the army's tent city. Pascal couldn't squeeze her into the full meeting today, and she had already finished her archery practice this morning. With time on her hands, Kaede decided to check up on the maid Marina instead.
   
She felt the gazes of men follow her down the main road between battalion campgrounds. Most of them appeared simply curious: her pseudo-uniform was Weichsen enough, especially with the Honorary Lieutenant rank and Knight's Cross; but her hair was clearly not that of a common human. Some of the stares, however, took on a more perverse shade, sending a repugnant taste up her throat as though she could feel the dirty thoughts they projected upon her in their minds.
+
She felt the gazes of men follow her down the main road between battalion campgrounds. Most of them appeared simply curious: her pseudo-uniform was Weichsen enough, especially with the Honorary Lieutenant rank and Knight's Cross; but her hair was clearly not that of a common human. Some stares also took on a more perverse nature, sending a repugnant taste up her throat as though she could feel the dirty thoughts they projected upon her in their minds.
   
 
The worst came when she passed by the camp of a battered infantry battalion:
 
The worst came when she passed by the camp of a battered infantry battalion:
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It didn't make any sense for Kaede: ''Drafting? But for what? They're already soldiers.''
 
It didn't make any sense for Kaede: ''Drafting? But for what? They're already soldiers.''
   
"Hey!" shouted one of the young logistics lieutenants at a registration booth in Lotharin. "Mister! You forgot your pay!"
+
"Hey!" shouted a young logistics lieutenant from one of the registration booths in Lotharin. "Mister! You forgot your pay!"
   
 
Standing up from his chair, the officer rushed after the middle-aged soldier who just left his table. He soon caught the trooper by the shoulder and added:
 
Standing up from his chair, the officer rushed after the middle-aged soldier who just left his table. He soon caught the trooper by the shoulder and added:
   
"You forgot your bonus pay for signing up..."
+
"You forgot your bonus for signing..."
   
 
"Don't need it," the man gruffed in a strong accent.
 
"Don't need it," the man gruffed in a strong accent.
   
"Then at least leave us your family's contact information. We'll send it to them, and they'll be taken care of should you..."
+
"Then at least leave your family's whereabouts. We'll send it to them, and they'll be taken care of should you..."
   
"Should I die in the Forlorn Hope?" he looked back with a tired, expectant smile. "That's what I'm counting on."
+
"Should I die in the Forlorn Hope?" he looked back with a tired, expectant smile. "I'm counting on it."
   
A hushing silence rippled outwards from those words, soon halting most of the recruitment center.
+
A hushing silence rippled outwards from those words, soon halting half of the recruitment booths.
   
 
Cold shivers traversed up Kaede's spine as the auto-translation worked its magic. The 'Forlorn Hope' was a Dutch concept that originally meant 'lost troop'. They were essentially volunteer suicide units tasked with extremely low survivability missions, such as the first wave in assaulting a fortress.
 
Cold shivers traversed up Kaede's spine as the auto-translation worked its magic. The 'Forlorn Hope' was a Dutch concept that originally meant 'lost troop'. They were essentially volunteer suicide units tasked with extremely low survivability missions, such as the first wave in assaulting a fortress.
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Kaede could almost see the hollowed, lifeless sight that reflected off the officer's startled eyes.
 
Kaede could almost see the hollowed, lifeless sight that reflected off the officer's startled eyes.
   
"My family are all in Heaven..." the aging soldier uttered. "My wife, my mother, my children... they all died when those demon-worshipers bombarded my town and destroyed my home."
+
"My family are all in Heaven..." the aging soldier uttered. "My wife, my mother, my children... they all died when those demon-worshipers bombarded my town."
   
 
The brief silence that followed was stifling. Nobody could speak a word; nobody except those with similar sentiments as they joined in: "me too."
 
The brief silence that followed was stifling. Nobody could speak a word; nobody except those with similar sentiments as they joined in: "me too."
   
"All I want is to rejoin them," the soldier added as he shuffled his grasp lower on the voulge haft. "And if I kill a few damned Tauheeds before I meet the Lord, then all the better."
+
"All I want is to rejoin them," the soldier added as he rebalanced the voulge in his grasp. "If I kill a few damned infidels before I meet the Lord, then all the better."
   
"Then place your trust in the Holy Father," a serene voice answered.
+
"Then place your trust in the Holy Father," a serene voice followed.
   
 
"Lady Estelle..."
 
"Lady Estelle..."
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The Saint and Oriflamme stepped across the open ground as though gliding through tranquil air. Her wavy blond hair grazed just past narrow shoulders as it billowed in the gentle breeze. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties, wearing a benign, Mona Lisa smile that permeated the air with serenity. But the most prominent feature of all was her tender gaze, promising truth and eternity through irises of lapiz and violet.
 
The Saint and Oriflamme stepped across the open ground as though gliding through tranquil air. Her wavy blond hair grazed just past narrow shoulders as it billowed in the gentle breeze. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties, wearing a benign, Mona Lisa smile that permeated the air with serenity. But the most prominent feature of all was her tender gaze, promising truth and eternity through irises of lapiz and violet.
   
At a height of one-seventy-one centimeters (5'7"), Lady Estelle's lithe figure stood proud but not imposing. She wore a half-veil draped behind the ears, bearing the white cross on black background of the Hospitallers. Meanwhile her ornate battledress contrasted the silken white over her well-endowed chest to black-bordered midnight-blue fabrics. It extended past her narrow waist belt and down a wide skirt to just above plated knees. The rest of her body remain unarmored, though bands of soft leather embraced her waist, chest, arms, and shoulders, ready to strap on protective steel.
+
At a height of one-seventy-one centimeters (5'7"), Lady Estelle's lithe figure stood proud but not imposing. She wore a half-veil draped behind the ears, bearing the white cross on black background of the Hospitallers. Meanwhile her ornate battledress contrasted the silken white over her ample chest to black-bordered midnight-blue fabrics. It extended past her narrow waist belt and down a wide skirt to just above plated knees. The rest of her body remain unarmored, though bands of soft leather embraced her waist, chest, arms, and shoulders, ready to strap on protective steel.
   
It wasn't until later that Kaede discovered the battledress was a gift from Emperor Geoffroi, hence its design similarities to the Princess' own wardrobe. After all, nuns who took knightly vows weren't supposed to afford such rich garments.
+
The design held strong similarities to the Princess' own wardrobe, and Kaede puzzled as such rich garments should hardly be affordable for a nun who took knightly vows. It wasn't until later that Kaede discovered the battledress was another gift from Emperor Geoffroi.
   
"Weep for those whose presence we miss. Embrace our duty with fortitude and faith..."
+
Stopping before the middle-aged soldier, the Crusader Saint spoke in a voice that rang clear as the gospel:
   
Stopping before the middle-aged soldier, Edith-Estellise spoke in a voice that rang clear as the gospel:
+
"Weep for those whose presence we miss. Embrace our duty with fortitude and faith. But do not bring with you the essence of ruin. You family waits for you in eternal salvation. Should you not meet them as the son, the husband, and the father you once were -- a loving heart clear of hatred?"
 
"--But do not bring with you the essence of ruin. You family waits for you in eternal salvation. Should you not meet them as the son, the husband, and the father you once were -- a loving heart clear of hatred?"
 
   
 
"Milady," the middle-aged man bowed in respect, only to be lifted back up by the saint's own hand.
 
"Milady," the middle-aged man bowed in respect, only to be lifted back up by the saint's own hand.
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"Remember," Lady Estelle took his wrinkled hand and clasped it between her gentle fingers. "Our own merciful Savior prayed for his enemies as he completed the True Cross. He forgave those who betrayed and condemned him for teaching humankind the grace of magic. It is his example we aspire to -- our lives laid down to defend all that is Holy. But we shall do so without tainting our souls through wrath and hatred."
 
"Remember," Lady Estelle took his wrinkled hand and clasped it between her gentle fingers. "Our own merciful Savior prayed for his enemies as he completed the True Cross. He forgave those who betrayed and condemned him for teaching humankind the grace of magic. It is his example we aspire to -- our lives laid down to defend all that is Holy. But we shall do so without tainting our souls through wrath and hatred."
   
"Then..." a single tear dropped from the corner of his gaze. "Will I be able to see my family again with a clear conscience?"
+
"Then..." a single tear dropped from the corner of his gaze. "Will I be able to see my family again in Heaven?"
   
"When your time has come, yes," the Saint's smile beamed like the gates of Heaven itself. "But do not embrace death too hastily. Perhaps the Holy Father sees even greater joys in your future; and when your life is fulfilled, your soul shall rest with loved ones for eternity."
+
"Yes, when your time comes," the Saint's smile beamed like the gates of Heaven itself. "But do not embrace death too hastily. Perhaps the Holy Father sees even greater joys in your future; and when your life is fulfilled, your soul shall rest with loved ones for eternity."
   
 
"Yes," the man squeezed his eyes shut. "Thank you, Milady."
 
"Yes," the man squeezed his eyes shut. "Thank you, Milady."
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As the commotion began to die down at last and the registration center resumed its function -- though in exponentially greater numbers -- Mother Abbess Anne leaned in from beside Lady Estelle:
+
Later that night, Pascal groaned when he saw the final sign-up count.
   
"Holy Hyperion himself would have approved. But now we're ''really'' late for the meeting."
+
The Forlorn Hope was meant to serve as an example -- to inspire the rest of the army by holding the foremost defenses to the last man. Its numbers were never intended to reach more than one thousand. Yet with Edith-Estellise's interference, they ended up receiving nearly three thousand recruits.
   
"Well," the saint smiled. "His Grace will just have to forgive me then; it was for a good cause."
+
The army had barely enough gold in reserve to pay this week's wages. Many nobles also cried poor and expected the crown to subsidize them. But since the pretender Gabriel now controlled the Rhin-Lotharingie treasury and withheld aid to the front-line Oriflammes who did not acknowledge him, the deficiency had to be made good from Pascal's own coffers.
   
Neither of them considered that the young Landgrave would also have to cover the extra expenses. After all, the army barely had enough gold in reserve to pay this week's wages.
+
The Forlorn Hope also received more compensation pay than the common soldier, which only further strained the limited funds he brought.
   
Wars could not be fought on morale alone, as much as popular imagination wished.
+
"Idiot Saint", the young lord grumbled. "Should have saved the speech for the battle itself."
   
   
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"Did you see ''that''?" Kaede spoke, still awed as she met up with Marina near the edge of the dining tents, obscured by a cluster of pine trees.
+
"Did you see ''that''?" Kaede spoke, still awed as she met up with Marina ten minutes later, near the edge of the dining tents and obscured by a cluster of pine trees.
   
 
"Every person within the kilopace did."
 
"Every person within the kilopace did."
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"Don't get all starry-eyed yet," the maid half-joked. "You should hear what I found out first. Remember how I've been serving the officers' tables?"
 
"Don't get all starry-eyed yet," the maid half-joked. "You should hear what I found out first. Remember how I've been serving the officers' tables?"
   
"Hence why the Lotharin army camp is such a security risk with all its servants," Kaede muttered her disbelief. "Sorry."
+
"Hence why the Lotharin army camp is such a security risk with all its servants," Kaede shook her head in disbelief. "Sorry."
   
 
"Oh no, you're right, seeing as I already got one Cataliyan agent caught..."
 
"Oh no, you're right, seeing as I already got one Cataliyan agent caught..."
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Nevertheless, the Samaran still wore a scowl on her lips as she continued:
 
Nevertheless, the Samaran still wore a scowl on her lips as she continued:
   
"Just remember that if you get into trouble here, don't hesitate to raise my name so I can bail you out of it."
+
"Just remember that if you get into any trouble, don't hesitate to raise my name so I can bail you out."
   
The Lady's Maid did have an informal Weichsel uniform of her own, courtesy of Pascal so Kaede could bring her along. But it was always better to directly get somebody of influence involved.
+
The Lady's Maid did have an informal Weichsel uniform of her own, courtesy of Pascal so Kaede could bring her along. However it was always better to directly involve someone of influence.
   
 
"Yes, Milady," Marina curtsied in reply, her earnest words admixed with a teasing tone.
 
"Yes, Milady," Marina curtsied in reply, her earnest words admixed with a teasing tone.
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"But here's the intriguing part," Marina continued. "Whenever a group of battalion commanders or above spoke of this long enough, there was a good chance they would be pulled aside for a more... ''private'' conversation elsewhere."
 
"But here's the intriguing part," Marina continued. "Whenever a group of battalion commanders or above spoke of this long enough, there was a good chance they would be pulled aside for a more... ''private'' conversation elsewhere."
   
The Samaran girl stared back, her rose-quartz gaze fishing for answers.
+
The Samaran girl stared back, her gaze fishing for answers.
   
 
"I can't tell you what those private conversations are," the maid shrugged. "But I've seen it enough times to doubt it's just a coincidence."
 
"I can't tell you what those private conversations are," the maid shrugged. "But I've seen it enough times to doubt it's just a coincidence."
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"With that many unit commanders? I think we're looking at a coup in the making."
 
"With that many unit commanders? I think we're looking at a coup in the making."
   
This statement reduced the familiar girl to silent gawking. Kaede wasn't sure what to say. She wasn't even sure what to ''think''. Everything was just unfolding too quickly.
+
This statement reduced the familiar girl to silent gawking. Kaede wasn't sure what to say.
   
"Not a very concealed coup, of course," Marina added. "Whomever organizing this is clearly out of their element. But that doesn't make this any less dangerous when the Saint has such monumental support from the soldiers. Furthermore, while there's a chance that some ambitious lord is trying to take advantage of her name -- it seems foolish given the strength of her conviction. He'd have to be speaking through her dreams as the savior Hyperion to convince her to follow a tune that she doesn't believe in."
+
"Not a very concealed coup though," Marina added. "Whomever organizing this is clearly out of their element. But that doesn't make this any less dangerous when the Saint has such monumental support from the soldiers. There's also a chance that some ambitious lord is trying to take advantage of her name -- bit foolish given the strength of her conviction. He'd have to be speaking through her dreams as the savior himself to convince her to follow a tune that she doesn't believe in."
   
 
"With all that in mind," the maid concluded. "I think it would be extremely dangerous for us to not consider ''her'' as a main actor in this scheme."
 
"With all that in mind," the maid concluded. "I think it would be extremely dangerous for us to not consider ''her'' as a main actor in this scheme."
   
"What are you saying?" Kaede uttered, perplexed by the pronoun game. "That ''Saint Estelle'' is the one trying to ''backstab the Princess?''"
+
"Let me get this straight," Kaede uttered. "You believe that ''Saint Estelle'' is the one trying to ''backstab the Princess?''"
   
 
"Makes you wonder how 'saintly' she really is, doesn't it?"
 
"Makes you wonder how 'saintly' she really is, doesn't it?"
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For better or for worse, Kaede had grown to know Sylviane on an individual level. The Princess was no longer just some distant political figure who happened to be engaged to Kaede's master.
 
For better or for worse, Kaede had grown to know Sylviane on an individual level. The Princess was no longer just some distant political figure who happened to be engaged to Kaede's master.
   
''But what would ''my life'' be like if I have to worry about the Princess' mood at every moment? Uneasy over my every step near Pascal, fearful over every change of face from Sylviane?''
+
''But what would ''my life'' be like if I have to worry about the Princess' mood at every moment? Uneasy over my every step, fearful over every change of face?''
   
 
Kaede wasn't sure she could ''live'' like that.
 
Kaede wasn't sure she could ''live'' like that.
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Cecylia entered the cabin and found Sylviane in a dreadful state.
 
Cecylia entered the cabin and found Sylviane in a dreadful state.
   
The Princess sat in her bed, still dressed in her silken negligee. Her hair was a mess, and her empty gaze almost despondent. It rose sharply as Cecylia entered the cabin, only to fall back to the comforter without any reaction.
+
The Princess sat in her bed, still dressed in her silken negligee. Her hair was a mess, and her empty gaze almost despondent. It rose sharply as Cecylia stepped in, only to fall back to the comforter without any reaction.
   
 
A silent exchange between the dhampir and the royal maid who sat in the corner spoke it all:
 
A silent exchange between the dhampir and the royal maid who sat in the corner spoke it all:
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"You don't understand..."
 
"You don't understand..."
   
"I don't understand," Cecylia pursed her lips and nodded. "How could I understand?"
+
"Sure, I don't," Cecylia pursed her lips and nodded. "I had forgotten how special it must feel, to shoulder all the guilt and blame like some tragic heroine."
   
Those bitter memories of her past resurfaced on more.
+
Her bitter memories of the past resurfaced once more.
   
"Remember when I told you about my dear elder sister? All my life, she cared and treated for me. Yet on her last night home, I just ''had'' to betray her expectations and side against her."
+
"Remember when I told you about my dear older sister? All my life, she cared and treated for me. Yet on her last night home, I just ''had'' to betray her expectations and side against her.
   
 
"We never did have a chance to make up," Cecylia muttered sadly. "But you're not like me -- you still ''have'' a chance."
 
"We never did have a chance to make up," Cecylia muttered sadly. "But you're not like me -- you still ''have'' a chance."
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"...He shouldn't bother," the response came dark and simple.
 
"...He shouldn't bother," the response came dark and simple.
   
"But that's the point -- he ''is'' bothering!" Cecylia insisted. "He's not trying to wash his hands of you, or sit there glooming over your future marriage, or even doubting his shared goals with you. No, he is out there, trying to save your crown, ''your life'' for you."
+
"But that's the point -- he ''is'' bothering!" Cecylia insisted. "He's not trying to wash his hands of you, or sit there glooming over your marriage, or even doubting his shared goals with you. No, he is out there, trying to save your crown, ''your life'' for you!
   
 
"Please don't tell me you're just going to throw it all away?"
 
"Please don't tell me you're just going to throw it all away?"
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"W-wouldn't it be better for him, for everyone... if I did?"
 
"W-wouldn't it be better for him, for everyone... if I did?"
   
"Shouldn't that be his decision?" Cecylia pointed out. "Pascal knows exactly how to weigh every pro against con, and his choice has always been to stay true to you."
+
"Shouldn't that be his decision?" Cecylia pointed out. "Pascal knows exactly how to weigh his options, and his choice has always been to stay true to you."
   
 
''...Even if he's terrible at overcoming his pride at times,'' she thought back to their conversation just minutes ago.
 
''...Even if he's terrible at overcoming his pride at times,'' she thought back to their conversation just minutes ago.
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Her words "the rest I leave up to you" still rang in Pascal's ears as he took a deep breath and carefully sat down facing Sylviane.
 
Her words "the rest I leave up to you" still rang in Pascal's ears as he took a deep breath and carefully sat down facing Sylviane.
   
"Sylv... I am sorry," he began earnestly. "I apologize..."
+
"Sylv... I am sorry," he began earnestly. "I..."
   
"Y-you can be straight with me, Pascal," Sylviane interjected before sniffing her stuffy nose. "I'll understand... if you're still angry with me... if..."
+
"Y-you can be straight with me, Pascal," Sylviane interjected before sniffing her stuffy nose. "I'll understand... if you're still angry with me... if you want to break..."
   
 
"What? No--!"
 
"What? No--!"
   
The apology he had spent an hour rehearsing came apart in seconds.
+
The apology he had spent the past hour rehearsing came apart in seconds.
   
 
"I am not angry with you," he blurted out immediately. "Well... maybe some, but--!"
 
"I am not angry with you," he blurted out immediately. "Well... maybe some, but--!"
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"Now you are being unfair to yourself, Sylv," Pascal twisted his lips.
 
"Now you are being unfair to yourself, Sylv," Pascal twisted his lips.
   
What else could he say to that? When Sylviane didn't even want his forgiveness because she believed herself unworthy of it.
+
What else could he say to that? When Sylviane didn't even want his forgiveness because she believed herself unworthy of it?
   
 
"''Just... talk to her, earnestly,''" Cecylia's earlier words urged him to continue.
 
"''Just... talk to her, earnestly,''" Cecylia's earlier words urged him to continue.
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Pascal then paused to take a deep inhale, closing his eyes for a brief moment as he grappled to wrestle out the truth:
 
Pascal then paused to take a deep inhale, closing his eyes for a brief moment as he grappled to wrestle out the truth:
   
"I am not one of those hypocritical men who believe only the husband has a right to fury, Sylv... You had every reason to be angry at me when you first woke up. I do not regret doing what I ''had to do'' to stop you from going ballistic on the hill that day. But by the same token, I also have no right to complain if you threw a few barbed words at me afterwards."
+
"I am not one of those hypocritical men who believe only the husband has a right to fury, Sylv... You had every reason to be angry at me when you first woke up. I do not regret doing what I ''had to do'' to stop you from going ballistic on the hill that day. But by the same token, I also have no right to complain if you threw a few barbed words at me afterwards.
   
"Of course, that is not to say that you are faultless either," he took her hands into his own while returning a wry smile. "What it does mean though -- is that we are both at fault. In fact, all three of us are at fault, since Kaede is in this also. But at the same time, all three of us are also ''victims'' in this scenario."
+
"Of course, that is not to say that you are faultless either," he took her hands into his own while returning a wry smile. "What it does mean though -- is that we are both at fault. In fact, all three of us are at fault, since Kaede is in this also. But at the same time, all three of us are also ''victims'' of circumstance here."
   
 
"I'm sorry," Sylviane uttered, her remorse beyond sincere and reaching towards bleakness. "I'm sorry for what I did... to the both of you."
 
"I'm sorry," Sylviane uttered, her remorse beyond sincere and reaching towards bleakness. "I'm sorry for what I did... to the both of you."
   
"Perhaps you can stop blaming only yourself, because it is not helping much more than when you blamed only me," Pascal exhaled audibly, "only then... can we talk about this like rational equals, like future husband and wife, and decide what we ''can'' do about this in the future."
+
"Perhaps then you can stop blaming only yourself, because it is not helping much more than when you blamed only me," Pascal took a deep exhale, "only then... can we talk about this like rational people, like future husband and wife, and decide what we ''can'' do about this in the future.
   
 
"Because let us face it," Pascal's lopsided smile expanded to a grin as he stroke her hair lovingly. "I may not be one to talk, but you have a terrible temper -- at least in the wrong moment."
 
"Because let us face it," Pascal's lopsided smile expanded to a grin as he stroke her hair lovingly. "I may not be one to talk, but you have a terrible temper -- at least in the wrong moment."
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Of course, Sylviane didn't smile back. It wasn't that easy. But at least a semblance of her normal alertness had returned to that watery gaze as she gave a tiny nod, finally acknowledging that together, they still had a road forward.
 
Of course, Sylviane didn't smile back. It wasn't that easy. But at least a semblance of her normal alertness had returned to that watery gaze as she gave a tiny nod, finally acknowledging that together, they still had a road forward.
   
''One step at a time,'' Pascal thought to himself as he pulled his fiancée in, almost crushing her fragile shoulders between his arms in the process.
+
''One step at a time,'' Pascal thought to himself as he pulled his fiancée in, almost crushing her fragile shoulders between his arms.
   
   
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"Not that I'm doubting Pascal... but I feel like we need something more substantial than words alone. She's so down and out of it that it's difficult to convince her of anything positive."
 
"Not that I'm doubting Pascal... but I feel like we need something more substantial than words alone. She's so down and out of it that it's difficult to convince her of anything positive."
   
"I sent message to Lady Vivienne last night, requesting her return from Roazhon," the handsome armiger nodded. "She had another meeting with Queen Katell's commanders this afternoon, but she should be here soon."
+
"I sent message to Lady Vivienne last night," the handsome armiger nodded. "She had another meeting with Queen Katell's commanders in Roazhon this afternoon, but she should be here soon."
   
 
"Vivienne?" Cecylia raised her eyebrows.
 
"Vivienne?" Cecylia raised her eyebrows.
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"You're talking about enchantment magic?"
 
"You're talking about enchantment magic?"
   
"Well yes," Sir Robert nodded back "We need some way of exciting her happiness nerves, and a controlled enchantment spell is much preferable to substances like Opium." Then, smiling almost as though he was teasing her: "Of course, this would be much easier if His Grace was already married to Her Highness."
+
"Well, yes," Sir Robert nodded back "We need some way of exciting her happiness nerves, and a controlled enchantment spell is much preferable to substances like Opium." Then, with a teasing smile: "Of course, this would be much easier if His Grace was already married to Her Highness."
   
 
There was no reply. The dhampir simply gawked back at the armiger in disbelief for implying that 'make-up sex' was an effective treatment for depression.
 
There was no reply. The dhampir simply gawked back at the armiger in disbelief for implying that 'make-up sex' was an effective treatment for depression.
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"May I?"
 
"May I?"
   
The Landgrave seemed uncertain about the sudden interruption. But he nevertheless stood from his fiancée's bed, clearly putting his trust in Vivienne.
+
The Landgrave seemed uncertain about the sudden interruption. But he nevertheless stood from his fiancée's bed, clearly putting his trust in the small girl.
   
 
"Hello Syls," the newcomer sat down next to the Princess and pulled her in.
 
"Hello Syls," the newcomer sat down next to the Princess and pulled her in.
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"Gulu gulu," Vivienne whispered as her fingers caressed down to Sylviane' waist, eliciting a sharp gasp and a pinkish scarlet to flush through both royal cheeks in an instant.
 
"Gulu gulu," Vivienne whispered as her fingers caressed down to Sylviane' waist, eliciting a sharp gasp and a pinkish scarlet to flush through both royal cheeks in an instant.
   
It wasn't just a physical tease either. Kaede could sense how Vivienne's magic harmonized with Sylviane's through the chant -- their auras melded like two water droplets meeting, instead of the mutual repulsion normally seen between different ether sources. Now, with those fingers as the channel, yet more of Vivienne's ether pushed into Sylviane as a spell catalyst.
+
It wasn't just a physical tease either. Kaede had sensed how Vivienne's magic harmonized with Sylviane's through the chant -- their auras melded like two water droplets meeting, instead of the mutual repulsion normally seen between different ether sources. Now, with those fingers as the channel, yet more of Vivienne's ether pushed into Sylviane as a spell catalyst.
   
 
"...Wait," a bare whisper emerged in resistance. "Wait... not--ahhh."
 
"...Wait," a bare whisper emerged in resistance. "Wait... not--ahhh."
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Kaede barely managed to steer her gawking towards Mari. The Lady's Maid herself looked oddly satisfied as she shrugged back towards the familiar.
 
Kaede barely managed to steer her gawking towards Mari. The Lady's Maid herself looked oddly satisfied as she shrugged back towards the familiar.
   
Meanwhile, Vivienne had began to sing once more. A slow, soothing melody, with but a trace of ether laced into its tune this time.
+
Meanwhile, Vivienne had began to sing once more. A slow, soothing melody, with barely a trace of ether laced into its tune this time.
   
 
''Did she just...'' the Samaran's lips silently worded.
 
''Did she just...'' the Samaran's lips silently worded.
Line 491: Line 491:
 
Pascal simply stared back. Then:
 
Pascal simply stared back. Then:
   
"I ''am'' her future husband."
+
"I am her future husband."
   
 
"''Future''," came the retort. "Not yet. You still have to follow the rules just like the rest of us."
 
"''Future''," came the retort. "Not yet. You still have to follow the rules just like the rest of us."
   
That only made Pascal look away and roll his eyes.
+
That only made Pascal roll his eyes and look away.
   
Then a moment later, Robert asked back:
+
A moment passed before Robert leaned in:
   
 
"You're not jealous?"
 
"You're not jealous?"
Line 511: Line 511:
 
Another awkward moment passed between the two men before Pascal spoke again:
 
Another awkward moment passed between the two men before Pascal spoke again:
   
"How does Vivienne do that? Sylv may be depressed but she is also fully rested. I would not have a snowball's chance in hell to break through her ether resistance."
+
"How does Vivienne do that? Sylv may be depressed, but she is also fully rested. I would not have a snowball's chance in hell to break through her ether resistance."
   
 
This time, the armiger shrugged back.
 
This time, the armiger shrugged back.
Line 525: Line 525:
   
   
Meanwhile, around the corner but a cabin away, leaned a figure who was listening in.
+
Meanwhile in her unlit cabin, Cecylia von Falkenhausen smiled to herself as she pondered over the latest discovery, made available by just a few careless words spoken in public.
   
Cecylia von Falkenhausen smiled to herself as she pondered over the latest discovery, made available by just a few careless words spoken in public.
+
Laying still in the darkness with her eyes closed, her senses tapped into all nine of Ania's forms. The matryoshka cat familiar kept watch throughout the Lotharin camp: some of them stalked important leaders from the shadows, others stayed hidden in perfect eavesdropping locations. There was even one who guarded dark corridors that she found ideal for covert infiltration use.
   
It didn't last long though. A faint blur near the edge of her sight revealed that she wasn't the only one hidden amongst the shadows -- or in this case, trying to hide.
+
...And it was the last one who detected movement: a faint blur entering her sight revealed that someone else had just overheard the same conversation, and was now departing with that information.
   
Another one of the vampiric attributes she inherited was the best dark-vision among all Hyperion races.
+
Cecylia's eyes sprang open as she bolted up from her bed. The darkness inside her cabin didn't bother her. Her dhampir blood had inherited the best dark-vision of all Hyperion races.
   
"<u>Ania,</u>" she unbuttoned her familiar pouch. Out pounced a plump cat who soon split into a deluge of nine.
+
"<u>Ania two, three, nine,</u>" she commanded three of the cats within vicinity of the royal cabin. "<u>Track him.</u>"
   
"<u>Track him,</u>" she gave the telepathic order as all nine landed and scurried off in perfect silence.
+
Her hands checked both forearms as she raced out the door. It would be bad if she flexed her wrists later and no concealed blade ejected to gut her enemy.
 
Cecylia's own hands touched both forearms before following. It would be bad later if she flexed her wrists and no concealed blade ejected to gut her enemy.
 
   
 
''Only I'm allowed to spy on Sylv, you little weasel.''
 
''Only I'm allowed to spy on Sylv, you little weasel.''
Line 549: Line 549:
 
Furthermore, the field was expanding...
 
Furthermore, the field was expanding...
   
It was possible one of her cats spooked the target, who was preparing for their escape even as she watched.
+
It was possible one of her cats spooked the target, who was preparing to escape even as she watched.
   
 
Calling for security was no longer an option. But Cecylia's own martial arts were abysmal; the element of surprise was all she could rely on.
 
Calling for security was no longer an option. But Cecylia's own martial arts were abysmal; the element of surprise was all she could rely on.
   
''Telekinetic Surge,'' her finger detached the lock to her spring-loaded wrist-blade as her magic imbued it with power.
+
''Telekinetic Surge,'' her finger detached the lock to her spring-loaded wrist-blade as her magic imbued it.
   
 
Her one chance relied on the target not having anti-projectile ''Repulsion'' wards, which radiated a defensive aura and were hard to conceal.
 
Her one chance relied on the target not having anti-projectile ''Repulsion'' wards, which radiated a defensive aura and were hard to conceal.
Line 563: Line 563:
 
A faint, feminine gasp returned as the blade grazed her arm, cutting forearm straps along the way and dropping a device onto the ground.
 
A faint, feminine gasp returned as the blade grazed her arm, cutting forearm straps along the way and dropping a device onto the ground.
   
It wouldn't be enough to even the odds for Cecylia...
+
The figure took one alarmed stare before her fingers jerked. Her body then vanished in a burst of shadowy smoke that drifted airborne before being carried off by a gentle breeze.
 
The figure however, took one alarmed stare before her fingers jerked. Her body then vanished in a burst of shadowy smoke that drifted airborne before being carried off by a gentle breeze.
 
   
 
''Wind Walk variant,'' Cecylia pursed her lips as she examined the direction of departure. There had to be a hole in the inner camp wards if the target could enter and depart this way undetected.
 
''Wind Walk variant,'' Cecylia pursed her lips as she examined the direction of departure. There had to be a hole in the inner camp wards if the target could enter and depart this way undetected.
Line 575: Line 575:
 
Cecylia stood confused as she gazed back up to the starry sky.
 
Cecylia stood confused as she gazed back up to the starry sky.
   
''What's a Samaran Shadow Guard squad doing here?''
+
''What's a Samaran Shadow Guard doing here?''
   
   

Revision as of 15:06, 6 April 2017

Chapter 11 - As God Wills It

After seeing Cecylia off near the command cabin, Kaede left the inner camp for one of the five major dining areas inside the army's tent city. Pascal couldn't squeeze her into the full meeting today, and she had already finished her archery practice this morning. With time on her hands, Kaede decided to check up on the maid Marina instead.

She felt the gazes of men follow her down the main road between battalion campgrounds. Most of them appeared simply curious: her pseudo-uniform was Weichsen enough, especially with the Honorary Lieutenant rank and Knight's Cross; but her hair was clearly not that of a common human. Some stares also took on a more perverse nature, sending a repugnant taste up her throat as though she could feel the dirty thoughts they projected upon her in their minds.

The worst came when she passed by the camp of a battered infantry battalion:

"Heyyyy sweetie!" a drunken soldier called out. "Yer a sight for sore eyes!"

"Wanna to do something fun? Before the next battle kills us all?"

"Come on, you'll enjoy it!" barked a third. "They don't call me Big Jonathan for nothing! I'll make that cute midriff feel even firmer!" He finished before the entire group began laughing.

Unlike the regimented Weichsel forces, Lotharin armies had no military police. Lesser nobles and their armigers took turns patrolling to maintain order with varying degrees of discipline. The female-only Knights Hospitallers were stricter in enforcing regulations, but there were too few of them to keep an eye everywhere.

Kaede could ignore the arrogant, patronizing gazes of aristocrats with ease. But these uncouth heckles shook her self-esteem in ways that made her feel dirty from the inside.

No wonder why most women walk about in flocks, she reflected, desperately wishing for a cloak to cover herself up.

Her scurrying feet soon took her to a major assembly area, where several Hospitallers kept watch and harbored zero tolerance for harassment. In fact, they were keeping order over some sort of recruitment event, as lines of soldiers shuffled forward to sign their names at registration tables.

It didn't make any sense for Kaede: Drafting? But for what? They're already soldiers.

"Hey!" shouted a young logistics lieutenant from one of the registration booths in Lotharin. "Mister! You forgot your pay!"

Standing up from his chair, the officer rushed after the middle-aged soldier who just left his table. He soon caught the trooper by the shoulder and added:

"You forgot your bonus for signing..."

"Don't need it," the man gruffed in a strong accent.

"Then at least leave your family's whereabouts. We'll send it to them, and they'll be taken care of should you..."

"Should I die in the Forlorn Hope?" he looked back with a tired, expectant smile. "I'm counting on it."

A hushing silence rippled outwards from those words, soon halting half of the recruitment booths.

Cold shivers traversed up Kaede's spine as the auto-translation worked its magic. The 'Forlorn Hope' was a Dutch concept that originally meant 'lost troop'. They were essentially volunteer suicide units tasked with extremely low survivability missions, such as the first wave in assaulting a fortress.

In other words, the hundred or so men lined up in this clearing were waiting for their turn to sign their life away.

"But don't you want your family..."

The young lieutenant's voice faded as he looked into the older man's gaze.

Kaede could almost see the hollowed, lifeless sight that reflected off the officer's startled eyes.

"My family are all in Heaven..." the aging soldier uttered. "My wife, my mother, my children... they all died when those demon-worshipers bombarded my town."

The brief silence that followed was stifling. Nobody could speak a word; nobody except those with similar sentiments as they joined in: "me too."

"All I want is to rejoin them," the soldier added as he rebalanced the voulge in his grasp. "If I kill a few damned infidels before I meet the Lord, then all the better."

"Then place your trust in the Holy Father," a serene voice followed.

"Lady Estelle..."

Kaede heard the reverberating echo in the crowd. She saw the heads of devout soldiers bowing in reverence. Every eye among hundreds soon fell upon the newcomer -- a lady flanked by Hospitallers, azure phoenix perched upon her shoulders.

Kaede had always thought that Ariadne looked 'angelic'; but compared to her, Edith-Estellise was nothing less than a goddess.

The Saint and Oriflamme stepped across the open ground as though gliding through tranquil air. Her wavy blond hair grazed just past narrow shoulders as it billowed in the gentle breeze. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties, wearing a benign, Mona Lisa smile that permeated the air with serenity. But the most prominent feature of all was her tender gaze, promising truth and eternity through irises of lapiz and violet.

At a height of one-seventy-one centimeters (5'7"), Lady Estelle's lithe figure stood proud but not imposing. She wore a half-veil draped behind the ears, bearing the white cross on black background of the Hospitallers. Meanwhile her ornate battledress contrasted the silken white over her ample chest to black-bordered midnight-blue fabrics. It extended past her narrow waist belt and down a wide skirt to just above plated knees. The rest of her body remain unarmored, though bands of soft leather embraced her waist, chest, arms, and shoulders, ready to strap on protective steel.

The design held strong similarities to the Princess' own wardrobe, and Kaede puzzled as such rich garments should hardly be affordable for a nun who took knightly vows. It wasn't until later that Kaede discovered the battledress was another gift from Emperor Geoffroi.

Stopping before the middle-aged soldier, the Crusader Saint spoke in a voice that rang clear as the gospel:

"Weep for those whose presence we miss. Embrace our duty with fortitude and faith. But do not bring with you the essence of ruin. You family waits for you in eternal salvation. Should you not meet them as the son, the husband, and the father you once were -- a loving heart clear of hatred?"

"Milady," the middle-aged man bowed in respect, only to be lifted back up by the saint's own hand.

"Remember," Lady Estelle took his wrinkled hand and clasped it between her gentle fingers. "Our own merciful Savior prayed for his enemies as he completed the True Cross. He forgave those who betrayed and condemned him for teaching humankind the grace of magic. It is his example we aspire to -- our lives laid down to defend all that is Holy. But we shall do so without tainting our souls through wrath and hatred."

"Then..." a single tear dropped from the corner of his gaze. "Will I be able to see my family again in Heaven?"

"Yes, when your time comes," the Saint's smile beamed like the gates of Heaven itself. "But do not embrace death too hastily. Perhaps the Holy Father sees even greater joys in your future; and when your life is fulfilled, your soul shall rest with loved ones for eternity."

"Yes," the man squeezed his eyes shut. "Thank you, Milady."

Lady Estelle gave his hand one last squeeze, before standing straight and surveying the silent crowd. Surrounded by a congregation that had swelled to thousands, the Saint and Oriflamme addressed them all:

"Soldiers of Rhin-Lotharingie! I am proud to stand here, among men and women as courageous as you! There is nothing ahead for us to fear -- not when we perform the work of our Lord, virtues that Holy Father has taught!"

With a hand grasping the hilt by her waist, Lady Estelle drew the Sword of Charity. She raised it to the heavens, its sanctified blade gleaming under the late afternoon sun.

"--When the time comes, it shall be my honor to stand beside you, first in line at the river fords. We shall defend this land, this nation, and this people that we love above all! Take heart that even should any of us fall, we shall depart for eternity with a life fulfilled! But until then, fight! Not only for victory, but for a better future, a better world!"

"Father Bless, Lady Estelle!" the men shouted back as they clamored maces against shield, polearms upon ground.

"We'll fight with Your Ladyship until the end!"

Then, someone shouted a phrase in Arcadian from among the crowd.

For a moment, Kaede thought her translation magic malfunctioned. But as the words gained momentum, repeated in chant by countless voices, she came to realize that this must be one of the famed phrases that Pascal knew well.

"Deus Vult! Deus Vult!"

...or, as the history student from Earth whispered its meaning: "God wills it."

In that moment, as Kaede stood watching thousands raise their fists in a sweeping tide of fervor, she came upon a shaking realization:

"This woman could launch a crusade by herself."


...


Later that night, Pascal groaned when he saw the final sign-up count.

The Forlorn Hope was meant to serve as an example -- to inspire the rest of the army by holding the foremost defenses to the last man. Its numbers were never intended to reach more than one thousand. Yet with Edith-Estellise's interference, they ended up receiving nearly three thousand recruits.

The army had barely enough gold in reserve to pay this week's wages. Many nobles also cried poor and expected the crown to subsidize them. But since the pretender Gabriel now controlled the Rhin-Lotharingie treasury and withheld aid to the front-line Oriflammes who did not acknowledge him, the deficiency had to be made good from Pascal's own coffers.

The Forlorn Hope also received more compensation pay than the common soldier, which only further strained the limited funds he brought.

"Idiot Saint", the young lord grumbled. "Should have saved the speech for the battle itself."


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


"Did you see that?" Kaede spoke, still awed as she met up with Marina ten minutes later, near the edge of the dining tents and obscured by a cluster of pine trees.

"Every person within the kilopace did."

Wiping her freshly washed hands on a white apron, Marina almost chuckled as she eyed her lady's dazed expression. Thankfully, Kaede took only a few moments to recognize the innocuous signal; she then activated a rune on her right forearm to grant the two of them some audio privacy.

"Don't get all starry-eyed yet," the maid half-joked. "You should hear what I found out first. Remember how I've been serving the officers' tables?"

"Hence why the Lotharin army camp is such a security risk with all its servants," Kaede shook her head in disbelief. "Sorry."

"Oh no, you're right, seeing as I already got one Cataliyan agent caught..."

Kaede was aghast: "Don't do anything dangerous!"

"Don't worry about it," Marina smiled back. "All I did was move aside some things and leave their notes in the open. A cook found and reported it."

Nevertheless, the Samaran still wore a scowl on her lips as she continued:

"Just remember that if you get into any trouble, don't hesitate to raise my name so I can bail you out."

The Lady's Maid did have an informal Weichsel uniform of her own, courtesy of Pascal so Kaede could bring her along. However it was always better to directly involve someone of influence.

"Yes, Milady," Marina curtsied in reply, her earnest words admixed with a teasing tone.

"But as I was saying," her expression turned perfectly serious again. "Some of the officers have been making some pointed statements towards the Princess: that she's cold, or callous, or simply unfit for her duty. Her harsh words towards Lady Estelle seem to grow worse with every rumor, and none of the men are taking it kindly."

"I can imagine," Kaede stated simply, trying hard to avoid think about whether or not she agreed.

"But here's the intriguing part," Marina continued. "Whenever a group of battalion commanders or above spoke of this long enough, there was a good chance they would be pulled aside for a more... private conversation elsewhere."

The Samaran girl stared back, her gaze fishing for answers.

"I can't tell you what those private conversations are," the maid shrugged. "But I've seen it enough times to doubt it's just a coincidence."

"You think... they're plotting against the Princess?"

"With that many unit commanders? I think we're looking at a coup in the making."

This statement reduced the familiar girl to silent gawking. Kaede wasn't sure what to say.

"Not a very concealed coup though," Marina added. "Whomever organizing this is clearly out of their element. But that doesn't make this any less dangerous when the Saint has such monumental support from the soldiers. There's also a chance that some ambitious lord is trying to take advantage of her name -- bit foolish given the strength of her conviction. He'd have to be speaking through her dreams as the savior himself to convince her to follow a tune that she doesn't believe in."

"With all that in mind," the maid concluded. "I think it would be extremely dangerous for us to not consider her as a main actor in this scheme."

"Let me get this straight," Kaede uttered. "You believe that Saint Estelle is the one trying to backstab the Princess?"

"Makes you wonder how 'saintly' she really is, doesn't it?"

In some ways, Kaede could even agree with the schemers. A military coup d'état was betrayal of the highest order, but it could also save a nation from the whims of a mentally unstable ruler. In the eyes of history, the only difference between 'traitor' and 'revolutionary' was whether or not they ultimately succeeded.

But where would that leave her?

Kaede's life was bonded to Pascal's, whose own loyalties had been decided for him by his father. If a coup against the Princess did happen, there was no doubt he would be knifed down as a priority target. What did average military officers -- let alone religious fanatics -- care for diplomatic repercussions? Kill first and apologize later.

Does either of us have any choice, in the end?

Perhaps... Kaede thought, if the Princess no longer existed.

Only then would she be free to live a quiet life with Pascal, until an opportunity to return home came, if ever.

Coldness crept up from Kaede's fingers as she faced her own inclinations.

Was it selfishness? Was her prior 'forgiveness' just a cover for the ugly longing of retribution? Would she do nothing and only try to keep Pascal out of the danger, even if it meant ruin for Sylviane?

For better or for worse, Kaede had grown to know Sylviane on an individual level. The Princess was no longer just some distant political figure who happened to be engaged to Kaede's master.

But what would my life be like if I have to worry about the Princess' mood at every moment? Uneasy over my every step, fearful over every change of face?

Kaede wasn't sure she could live like that.

"Milady?" Marina's concern broke the silence.

Drawing a deep breathe, the Samaran girl braced against her shivers:

"I'll take care of this Marina. I don't know how yet, but... I'll take care of it."


...


Kaede's thoughts remained in conflict as she walked back towards the innermost camp. She had been so preoccupied that she entirely missed the first call in her name.

"--Kaede!"

It finally registered as she turned back around. The source was easy to identify -- a cloaked and hooded girl walking up in a brisk pace, one hand waving in good cheer.

She was also flanked by two Lotharin armigers, whose alertness marked them as not just entourage but bodyguards.

"Yes?"

The familiar girl was mystified. Who else among the Rhin-Lotharingie aristocracy knew her by name?

But as the newcomer's hood came off, Kaede could feel her jaw striking ground in astonishment. It escalated to outright paralysis as the other girl gave her a tight hug.

"You're just as small and cute as Syls says," the girl added before covering her mouth to giggle.


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


Cecylia entered the cabin and found Sylviane in a dreadful state.

The Princess sat in her bed, still dressed in her silken negligee. Her hair was a mess, and her empty gaze almost despondent. It rose sharply as Cecylia stepped in, only to fall back to the comforter without any reaction.

A silent exchange between the dhampir and the royal maid who sat in the corner spoke it all:

This is terrible.

"You're not even going to tell me to leave?" Cecylia tried to inject some humor as she sat down at the edge of the bed.

"...What's the point?" Sylviane's dry voice cracked. "You never listen."

Cecylia felt the Princess' cold hand as she took it into her fingers.

"I've heard the story already," she began slowly. "So you had a shouting match, and you did some awful things. Brew storm in a teacup, Sylv. Which couple doesn't get into a fight every once so often?"

Tightening her fingers, Sylviane just barely whispered:

"You don't understand..."

"Sure, I don't," Cecylia pursed her lips and nodded. "I had forgotten how special it must feel, to shoulder all the guilt and blame like some tragic heroine."

Her bitter memories of the past resurfaced once more.

"Remember when I told you about my dear older sister? All my life, she cared and treated for me. Yet on her last night home, I just had to betray her expectations and side against her.

"We never did have a chance to make up," Cecylia muttered sadly. "But you're not like me -- you still have a chance."

Nevertheless, as the seconds lingered on, the Princess remained silent.

"You realize you're only making Pascal's life harder by doing this, right?" Cecylia reminded. "He's out there, trying to make up for your absence by working himself to exhaustion. While you're here... what are you doing here?"

"...He shouldn't bother," the response came dark and simple.

"But that's the point -- he is bothering!" Cecylia insisted. "He's not trying to wash his hands of you, or sit there glooming over your marriage, or even doubting his shared goals with you. No, he is out there, trying to save your crown, your life for you!

"Please don't tell me you're just going to throw it all away?"

The Princess' shoulders quivered as she heard Cecylia's pleading.

"W-wouldn't it be better for him, for everyone... if I did?"

"Shouldn't that be his decision?" Cecylia pointed out. "Pascal knows exactly how to weigh his options, and his choice has always been to stay true to you."

...Even if he's terrible at overcoming his pride at times, she thought back to their conversation just minutes ago.

"But now he won't even see me!" Sylviane raised her wisteria gaze at last, pupils red and dry from over a day of crying. "And why wouldn't he hate me!? I'm the one who ruined everything!"

Cecylia's heart melted as she exchanged looks with her bosom friend -- a royal princess reduced to little more than a lost child. Embracing Sylviane with both arms, she pulled the depressed girl into a tight hug.

"Of course he does not hate you, you silly," she added softly. "Pascal might blame you for a thing or two. But after everything you've been through together -- there is no way he could hate you."


...


It took nearly an hour before Cecylia left the royal cabin.

Her words "the rest I leave up to you" still rang in Pascal's ears as he took a deep breath and carefully sat down facing Sylviane.

"Sylv... I am sorry," he began earnestly. "I..."

"Y-you can be straight with me, Pascal," Sylviane interjected before sniffing her stuffy nose. "I'll understand... if you're still angry with me... if you want to break..."

"What? No--!"

The apology he had spent the past hour rehearsing came apart in seconds.

"I am not angry with you," he blurted out immediately. "Well... maybe some, but--!"

A sigh followed before he looked intently at her, or at least, the plum-colored mop that covered her dejection.

With gentle fingers, he reached over to lift her chin back up, until his gaze could meet her wisteria eyes once more.

The redness, the baggy shadows, they were even worse than last time. Eying the dull sight that gazed back at him, Pascal couldn't help but feel his heart crumble.

"I want you to understand Sylv. I definitely do not want any changes to our relationship; at least, not unless it involves a trip to the altar."

He could see the moisture returning to her glistening eyes, threatening to overflow once more if only she had enough tears left remaining.

"W-why?" Sylviane just barely whispered, as though any louder and the illusion would shatter.

"Why would you? When I've shown you nothing but malice and ingratitude..."

"Now you are being unfair to yourself, Sylv," Pascal twisted his lips.

What else could he say to that? When Sylviane didn't even want his forgiveness because she believed herself unworthy of it?

"Just... talk to her, earnestly," Cecylia's earlier words urged him to continue.

Pascal swallowed.

"Did I feel wronged by what had happened? Yes, I did," he admitted, thinking back to emotions that had ceaselessly plagued him until just an hour ago, perhaps even mere minutes ago.

"I thought it was grossly unfair, unjust, that I should be treated like a criminal, when all I had done, all my intentions were only of helping you. But... you know what, Sylv? If you had unilaterally forced a decision on me by knocking me out, I would be angry too, especially if I had a royal image to maintain before an entire empire."

Pascal then paused to take a deep inhale, closing his eyes for a brief moment as he grappled to wrestle out the truth:

"I am not one of those hypocritical men who believe only the husband has a right to fury, Sylv... You had every reason to be angry at me when you first woke up. I do not regret doing what I had to do to stop you from going ballistic on the hill that day. But by the same token, I also have no right to complain if you threw a few barbed words at me afterwards.

"Of course, that is not to say that you are faultless either," he took her hands into his own while returning a wry smile. "What it does mean though -- is that we are both at fault. In fact, all three of us are at fault, since Kaede is in this also. But at the same time, all three of us are also victims of circumstance here."

"I'm sorry," Sylviane uttered, her remorse beyond sincere and reaching towards bleakness. "I'm sorry for what I did... to the both of you."

"Perhaps then you can stop blaming only yourself, because it is not helping much more than when you blamed only me," Pascal took a deep exhale, "only then... can we talk about this like rational people, like future husband and wife, and decide what we can do about this in the future.

"Because let us face it," Pascal's lopsided smile expanded to a grin as he stroke her hair lovingly. "I may not be one to talk, but you have a terrible temper -- at least in the wrong moment."

Of course, Sylviane didn't smile back. It wasn't that easy. But at least a semblance of her normal alertness had returned to that watery gaze as she gave a tiny nod, finally acknowledging that together, they still had a road forward.

One step at a time, Pascal thought to himself as he pulled his fiancée in, almost crushing her fragile shoulders between his arms.


...


Meanwhile, outside the cabin, Cecylia turned to the remaining figure who had been on guard: Sir Robert.

"Not that I'm doubting Pascal... but I feel like we need something more substantial than words alone. She's so down and out of it that it's difficult to convince her of anything positive."

"I sent message to Lady Vivienne last night," the handsome armiger nodded. "She had another meeting with Queen Katell's commanders in Roazhon this afternoon, but she should be here soon."

"Vivienne?" Cecylia raised her eyebrows.

She has heard of the name many times before. Vivienne was a singer and violist who caught the young Princess' eye through not only her music, but her adorable cuteness. Cecylia once joked that the girl was Sylv's 'snuggle toy'. But such impressions also represented the veil of deception around this unknown figure.

Vivienne was the youngest of the Oriflamme Paladins, but even the Weichsel Black Eagles were completely in the dark on what the girl was capable of.

"I can't explain how she does it," Sir Robert gave a clueless look. "But if there's anyone who can give Her Highness a euphoria spike to overcome the post-mania depression spiral, it's her."

Cecylia stared back in thought.

"You're talking about enchantment magic?"

"Well, yes," Sir Robert nodded back "We need some way of exciting her happiness nerves, and a controlled enchantment spell is much preferable to substances like Opium." Then, with a teasing smile: "Of course, this would be much easier if His Grace was already married to Her Highness."

There was no reply. The dhampir simply gawked back at the armiger in disbelief for implying that 'make-up sex' was an effective treatment for depression.


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


Kaede was still staring as Vivienne Máiréad Tromp de Winter barged into the royal cabin without even a knock, leading the familiar girl in tow with Sir Robert following behind to close the door.

The Samaran had met Vivienne on the way back, when the girl called out to her. But what had stunned her then continued its work even now, as Vivienne released Kaede's fingers at last, propping hand on waist to give Pascal a tilted stare.

"May I?"

The Landgrave seemed uncertain about the sudden interruption. But he nevertheless stood from his fiancée's bed, clearly putting his trust in the small girl.

"Hello Syls," the newcomer sat down next to the Princess and pulled her in.

Backing to the wall, Kaede watched as the Princess laid her cheeks upon the silky long fluff draped over Vivienne's shoulder.

The girl... could almost pass for Kaede's twin sister.

At one-fifty-seven centimeters (5'2"), the two of them were equal in height and size alike. They looked exactly the same from their modest bust to the curvature of their waist. Even their small, cute noses, soft cheeks, and porcelain-pale skin seemed identical.

This can't be a coincidence.

Kaede had no doubt about it: Vivienne was the model that Pascal envisioned when he summoned Kaede into her new body. It even explained some of the odder-than-usual looks she received when several of Sylviane's armigers first met her.

But whereas Kaede had creamy-white hair and rose-quartz eyes, Vivienne had a ruby gaze beneath the long, silver-white hair that reached past her hips. Whereas Kaede wore a black-on-white pseudo-uniform reminiscent of Weichsel forces, Vivienne sat in a frilly, tiered-skirt dress in ivory, cyan, and pink; her shoulders bared beneath thin straps had it not been for her rabbit-fur cloak.

Perhaps most of all, whereas Kaede absorbed the world around her through wide open lenses, Vivienne's gaze remained only two-thirds open -- her lowered eyelids combined with a wily, knowing smile gave the impression that she was always planning something.

Well, she is a winterborn, Kaede thought, remembering her mistaken first impression that Vivienne's white hair meant she must be Samaran.

The Faekissed Winterborn are known for their sharp intelligence and cunning, but not so much for their empathy. That didn't mean they were socially awkward though, as even sociopaths were known to be diplomatic and charming.

Now I'm just being fae-racist...

After all, Vivienne did summon a phoenix for her familiar, even if the bird wasn't around at the moment.

"Vivi--" the Princess muttered back, her gaze still depressed towards the comforter.

"Shhhh," the shorter girl reached over. With one hand she stroked Sylviane's long hair, with the other she lightly brushed one finger across the lips of royalty.

"You can talk later, Syls. But for now, I want you to listen to me. Listen, to my voice, this voice, and only this..."

Vivienne closed her eyes as she spoke gently, her soft words brushed through the cabin air like poetic melody.

"--Forget our world, our anxiety through history.

"--Seek my call, and I shall set you free from worry..."

Her cadence rose with every verse; her chant seamlessly transforming into lyrical song. The gentle notes that danced across the air soon grew into a hypnotic lullaby, an innocent, maternal call to relieve a troubled child.

Yet amidst the beautiful performance, ether streamed from between those small lips to enshroud the air. Within just minutes, not only the Princess had drooped into a tranquil daze, but even Kaede herself began to feel entranced.

There was a mesmerizing quality to Vivienne's singing voice, one that enraptured the senses as though all else ceased to matter.

Kaede hardly even noticed when Sir Robert stepped up and shook Pascal:

"We need to leave. It won't be appropriate for us to stay."

The Landgrave was somewhat dazed himself. He merely nodded before being half-dragged out, leaving only four girls inside.

As the minutes passed, the Princess's entire body soon slouched to a complete relaxation. The dim light in her eyes seemed to freeze solid, and at last Vivienne spread a satisfied smile.

"It is all going to be fine, Syls," she continued to stroke Sylviane's hair. "Everything has passed. Everything is forgiven. Now... you must forgive yourself. You must look ahead, to tomorrow, to the future..."

"You still have a conflict to win, an empire to save, a life to live before you."

A slow, faint nod emerged from Sylviane, like a puppet on strings as she remained under the enchantment.

...Even Kaede couldn't help but feel the urge to nod along.

"Now..." Vivienne sported a playful smile as her face leaned into Sylviane's. Their noses stayed almost touching even after a quick kiss.

The Princess' eyes snapped back in a second. But rather than alert, they still seemed entranced in the moment.

"Gulu gulu," Vivienne whispered as her fingers caressed down to Sylviane' waist, eliciting a sharp gasp and a pinkish scarlet to flush through both royal cheeks in an instant.

It wasn't just a physical tease either. Kaede had sensed how Vivienne's magic harmonized with Sylviane's through the chant -- their auras melded like two water droplets meeting, instead of the mutual repulsion normally seen between different ether sources. Now, with those fingers as the channel, yet more of Vivienne's ether pushed into Sylviane as a spell catalyst.

"...Wait," a bare whisper emerged in resistance. "Wait... not--ahhh."

It was over in just an instant: a magical pulse erupted from deep within Sylviane as the spell bloomed.

The Princess shut her eyes as her entire body trembled. Her arms quivered as her thighs squeezed tight against the bedcovers. Meanwhile, Vivienne's hands moved back up to hold her close, curling around her shoulders and waist before gently stroking her rich plum hair.

Kaede watched, speechless, as they sat like that for nearly a minute while the aftershocks subsided.

"Purr for me?"

Vivienne was still grinning as Sylviane reopened her glazed eyes. Her mouth still hanged ajar as her ragged breathing slowly calmed.

"Hhhhyyyyyyyee...?"

"Mewl for me then."

"Mmewwwwwwwww..."

"Good girl," Vivienne added as she stroked Sylviane's hair and gave the flushed princess a forehead kiss.

What the heck... just happened...

Pascal had told Kaede that Vivienne was not just a close friend, but also a 'snuggle toy' of sorts to Sylviane. But from her vantage point, it felt more like the Princess herself was the tamed kitten, purring in her master's toying arms.

Kaede barely managed to steer her gawking towards Mari. The Lady's Maid herself looked oddly satisfied as she shrugged back towards the familiar.

Meanwhile, Vivienne had began to sing once more. A slow, soothing melody, with barely a trace of ether laced into its tune this time.

Did she just... the Samaran's lips silently worded.

She receive a simple, smiling nod in return.

To a princess no less... are you KIDDING me!?


...


Outside the cabin, Pascal had come to a similar conclusion. It didn't even take that much deduction, between what Sir Robert said and the incredulity now trickling across the familiar bond.

"Why did you ask me to leave?"

"Because no man other than a husband should ever see a maiden..." Robert's own cheeks flushed as his tone dropped to sheepish: "Doing what Vivienne is making her do."

Pascal simply stared back. Then:

"I am her future husband."

"Future," came the retort. "Not yet. You still have to follow the rules just like the rest of us."

That only made Pascal roll his eyes and look away.

A moment passed before Robert leaned in:

"You're not jealous?"

"She is with Vivi," Pascal emphasized. "If I get envious every time Sylv coddles a cute girl... or vice versa, I would have no end of it."

"Besides..." he added begrudgingly. "It is just a treatment."

"But..."

Robert then trailed off, clearly thinking better of it.

Another awkward moment passed between the two men before Pascal spoke again:

"How does Vivienne do that? Sylv may be depressed, but she is also fully rested. I would not have a snowball's chance in hell to break through her ether resistance."

This time, the armiger shrugged back.

"The Holy Father saw it fit to grant Vivienne the rare gift of Fae Concordance Magic, and through it she executes his will."

Robert tilted his head, his expression lit by a faint sarcasm-tinged smirk as he faced the Landgrave:

"Why should we complain if it makes our lives easier?"


...


Meanwhile in her unlit cabin, Cecylia von Falkenhausen smiled to herself as she pondered over the latest discovery, made available by just a few careless words spoken in public.

Laying still in the darkness with her eyes closed, her senses tapped into all nine of Ania's forms. The matryoshka cat familiar kept watch throughout the Lotharin camp: some of them stalked important leaders from the shadows, others stayed hidden in perfect eavesdropping locations. There was even one who guarded dark corridors that she found ideal for covert infiltration use.

...And it was the last one who detected movement: a faint blur entering her sight revealed that someone else had just overheard the same conversation, and was now departing with that information.

Cecylia's eyes sprang open as she bolted up from her bed. The darkness inside her cabin didn't bother her. Her dhampir blood had inherited the best dark-vision of all Hyperion races.

"Ania two, three, nine," she commanded three of the cats within vicinity of the royal cabin. "Track him."

Her hands checked both forearms as she raced out the door. It would be bad if she flexed her wrists later and no concealed blade ejected to gut her enemy.

Only I'm allowed to spy on Sylv, you little weasel.


...


The Anias soon followed the intruder to a dark corner between two cabins.

Viewing through the eyes of her smallest kitten, Cecylia noticed that her mark was fiddling with some contraption just behind the waist. The space surrounding it was pitch, utterly black, as though even the dim moonlight was being absorbed.

Furthermore, the field was expanding...

It was possible one of her cats spooked the target, who was preparing to escape even as she watched.

Calling for security was no longer an option. But Cecylia's own martial arts were abysmal; the element of surprise was all she could rely on.

Telekinetic Surge, her finger detached the lock to her spring-loaded wrist-blade as her magic imbued it.

Her one chance relied on the target not having anti-projectile Repulsion wards, which radiated a defensive aura and were hard to conceal.

Here goes nothing, she tongued her tiny fang, before springing out around the corner and flinging her arm forth.

A well-timed flick of her wrist sent the undersized dagger soaring towards its target at the speed of sound.

A faint, feminine gasp returned as the blade grazed her arm, cutting forearm straps along the way and dropping a device onto the ground.

The figure took one alarmed stare before her fingers jerked. Her body then vanished in a burst of shadowy smoke that drifted airborne before being carried off by a gentle breeze.

Wind Walk variant, Cecylia pursed her lips as she examined the direction of departure. There had to be a hole in the inner camp wards if the target could enter and depart this way undetected.

But in the meantime, she stepped up and picked up the gadget left behind.

It was a tiny, folding crossbow, designed for concealment in the sleeves. There was a three-bolt 'magazine' set into the groove, loaded with poison-tipped bolts the size of overgrown nails.

The weapon was certain. But the intent?

Cecylia stood confused as she gazed back up to the starry sky.

What's a Samaran Shadow Guard doing here?



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