“Good morning Kaede.”
“M-morning…” Kaede yawned as she strolled out into the citadel’s courtyard. She covered her mouth with her small hands as she tried to stifle it without success. “Your Highness.”
“No Your Highness allowed today.” Sylviane declared as she pinched the Samaran girl’s soft cheeks and pulled slightly. “We’re going incognito, remember?”
“O-of course, elder sister.” Kaede answered with a sheepish smile.
True to her statement, Sylviane did not wear her intricate ‘battledress’ in royal Lotharin blue today. Instead, a lavender and white dress hugged her shapely figure, with an A-line skirt that went down to her ankles. Her body was then obscured by a long, wisteria cloak with embroidered patterns lining its edge. The garment had holes on each side, which her arms reached out of.
The Princess had given Kaede a similar cloak to wear. Though hers was white with pink highlights along the trim.
As Kaede looked around, she noticed that the other attendees all wore similar cloaks. Vivienne was covered by her hooded, white cloak as usual. An emerald-green garment wrapped around Sylviane’s bodyguard Elspeth; its color accentuating her peridot-green eyes. Meanwhile a gray cloak adorned Cecylia, the dhampir from Weichsel who was also the Princess’ close friend.
The Samaran girl blinked in surprise as she noticed Cecylia’s dark-ruby eyes didn’t sport their characteristic scarlet crosses. Yet before the familiar could ask, the dhampir pressed a finger against her lips in a playful ‘shhh’ gesture.
She must have hid them with a concealed illusion spell. Kaede surmised as it was difficult with her capacity for magic sensitivity to tell when a spell was placed on a mage themselves.
It certainly felt like everyone was pretending to be common, albeit upper class Lotharin ladies today. The style of cloak was one Kaede saw often back at the Alisia Academy. But within the army, it was usually only worn by civilian camp followers.
The last girl present was one whom Kaede had only seen a few times behind Vivienne. Though it wasn’t the usual bodyguard who’d trail behind the Winterborn. This girl was slender, willowy, and only slightly taller than Kaede, with brown hair and spring-green eyes. Her cute, innocent face gave Kaede a feeling that the girl might still be in her late teens. Nevertheless, the steel cuirass she wore beneath her grass-green cloak revealed that she was an armiger just like Elspeth.
“Hello, Dame Kaede,” the young girl dipped in a slight curtsy. “I’m Priscille Etiennette d’Macdonald.”
Macdonald? The Samaran girl’s eyebrows rose before she replied with a curtsy of her own. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dame Priscille.”
“She’s General Macdonald’s youngest daughter,” Sylviane answered the question that Kaede wore on her face. “She’s also Vivi’s new bodyguard, as well as one of her only two remaining armigers — since I stole the rest to replenish mine.” The Princess added with a mournful smile as she blinked her eyes in quick succession to keep her tears away.
She’s still not past the loss of Mari and Robert. Kaede realized.
It also made the familiar wonder why the Princess didn’t poach the young Priscille as well. After all, the Princess had a love for cute girls and Priscille was certainly no exception. However, as a breeze picked up in the courtyard which left Kaede downwind from the new girl, her nose picked up a scent that smelled like grass and dandelions.
“Aah-achuuu!” The Princess sneezed before she took a slight step away from Priscille. Sylviane looked upon the dainty armiger with a conflicted expression, as though she liked the girl yet couldn’t stand to be near her.
A springborn. Kaede finally realized. The General must have married a faekissed wife.
It made her wonder if the Lotharin nobility had a similar over-representation by the faekissed as Weichsel did with its dhampirs. Considering that the faekissed were one of the human sub-species whose magical lineage did not descend from the disciples of the Dragonlord Hyperion, it likely contributed to the Trinitian Church’s lack of legitimacy within Rhin-Lotharingie.
Regardless, it did not escape her attention that although Sylviane was average in height for a Lotharin girl, she was still the tallest one present. Vivienne, Cecylia, Elspeth, Priscille, and herself were all slightly short if not outright petite. It felt like Sylviane had deliberately gathered a coterie of cute girls as company for their trip into the city today.
Pascal, I think your future wife is at least somewhat bisexual. The Samaran girl thought.
Kaede also noticed that she was the shortest one present. Sure, Vivienne was of the exact same height as her. But the girl always wore really high heels, which made Kaede’s platform wedges look flat by comparison.
“Well, let’s be off then.” Sylviane’s expression grew more cheery as she wrapped one arm around Vivienne while the other hugged Kaede. The Princess steered the group towards the citadel’s gates and began to walk at a leisurely pace.
“You two sure have grown close since I last saw you.” Cecylia commented with a blithe smile as she strolled alongside the three. Meanwhile, the two armigers followed a half-dozen paces behind. “By the way, what was that address you used earlier, Kaede? Oh-nee-sama…”
“It’s a phrase from my homeland. It means ‘elder sister’.” The familiar replied with a shy smile.
“Ohoo…” Cecylia’s grin grew cat-like as she leaned forward to meet Sylviane’s eyes with her ruby gaze.
“S-she suggested it, not me.” Sylviane glanced away as a glowing blush spread across her fair cheeks, which had already been tinted red by the wintry air.
This made Cecylia giggle with an oddly satisfied expression.
The Princess then looked down upon the familiar whom she wrapped her right arm around with a beholden expression. “But yes. If there’s one good thing that came out of Pascal’s… injuries, it’s how much it made me appreciate Kaede’s importance. And since she’s basically family, why not?”
It made Kaede realize just how far the two of them had come. When she had first met Sylviane less than two months ago, she was afraid the Princess would seek to wreck her life in the same way a queen would destroy her husband’s mistress. Instead, the two of them have bonded after the tragic losses at the Battle of Glywysing to form something akin to a family relation. Though there was still no doubt who was in charge.
Not that I really mind. Kaede thought with a serene smile as she continued to walk along in Sylviane’s embrace.
The girls walked past the drawbridge and into Roazhon’s city center. They strolled onto a stone-paved plaza with a fountain adorned with a statue of Avorica’s first king at its center. The kingdom’s founder rode atop his Avorican steed, the same prized breed that had made Avorican cavalry the best in Rhin-Lotharingie.
The plaza was roughly triangular in shape as the main street bent at a right angle before the citadel’s drawbridge. Its clearing was already beginning to fill up with wagons, as dozens of merchants started their week early on this cold, Monday morning.
A cathedral wrought in white limestone stood facing the citadel’s gates from the other side of the plaza. The building towered over the rest of the city with its three spires. It left no doubts that Roazhon, and by extension the Kingdom of Avorica, was a Trinitian realm. Here, only the Church could even come close to competing with the royal court in influence over society and its people’s lives.
“By the way, how is Pascal?” Sylviane asked as she steered them straight through the center of the plaza.
“Pascal is doing all right.” Kaede answered. “He’s been recovering his motor functions at a good pace. The healers say they can take off his remaining bandages, including his blindfold, in another day or two. He still needs help with food and hygiene though, so Perceval is with him today while I’m out.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Though I’m more concerned about his mental health.” Sylviane added with a scowl. “Pascal has always been good at everything he tried his hands on. I do not believe he has ever experienced failure of this magnitude.”
Genius is not without its downsides, Kaede exhaled a deep sigh.
The Samaran girl would never have thought Pascal could utilize the basic information she gave him on thermonuclear physics in the manner he did. But in his self-assurance, he underestimated the magnitude of the energy that would be unleashed. His loss of control over the spell — which obliterated thousands of friends and foes alike and almost killed him — was the price he paid for it.
“He’s rather down and depressed; there’s no doubt about that.” The familiar answered with a wistful sigh. “I think once he recovers physically, he’ll start to feel better. But right now, it’s certainly easy to feel depressed when one is blind and requires help to even manage basic bodily needs.”
“Do you want me to help?” Vivienne asked innocently from the embrace of Sylviane’s other arm.
“Let’s not start enchanting people as soon as their mood is off.” The Princess gave a wry chuckle. “It’s always best if things are managed naturally.”
“I completely agree.” Kaede nodded as she thought back to the anti-depressants of her old world.
Sure, those with severe, chronic depression might require chemical aid. But for most people, a combination of a healthy diet, good exercise, and plenty of time outdoors was always the best remedy. What Pascal needed most was a return to his normal routine, not psychoactive, mind-altering melodies.
“Though in addition to his own injuries, Pascal has also been down over what the troops have been saying about him, due to the friendly fire casualties he caused.” The Samaran girl brought up next. “Is it true that the army came up with a new nickname for him?”
“Yes. They’ve been calling him the ‘Blightlord of Dusk’.” Vivienne spoke the name in a single, long word that Kaede’s magic translated. “Two mages surveyed the land that his spell blasted into. They said that the soil is essentially dead, completely unusable for growing anything now.”
It reminded Kaede of what she had once read in high school biology — that most soil was considered ‘living’, filled with biomatter and microorganisms that helped the plants grow. However, overuse of chemical fertilizers could often ‘kill’ the soil, leaving a barren wasteland where nothing grows and could take decades to recover.
The radiation and thermal pulse shouldn’t have penetrated too deep though, Kaede considered before commenting. “It’s probably just the topsoil and those mages examined only the baked surface.”
Nevertheless, the familiar knew that the land wasn’t Pascal’s main concern. It was the fact his uncontrolled blast killed over two hundred of his own troops. The young lord had been apologetic even after he ordered Kaede and Major Karen to stand fast and buy time at the Battle of Nordkreuz. The fact he had murdered entire banners of his own soldiers must seem horrific to him.
Meanwhile, the Princess looked thoughtful as she unwrapped her arm from around Kaede’s shoulders. Sylviane pressed a curled finger against her lips in habit before she stated with a pensive expression:
“I should ask Edith to speak to him then.”
“Edith?” Kaede stared at Sylviane with a bewildered look. Wouldn’t the Saint’s moralistic sermonising just make it worse?
“It’s ironic. But since what Pascal did at Glywysing, Edith has become his biggest supporter, at least aside from you and me.” The Princess answered with a wry smile. “When General Macdonald heard what Pascal did and criticized his actions at dinner last night, it was Edith who stood in his defense.”
Kaede frowned as she had trouble understanding why Edith would be standing up for Pascal. After all, the two of them took completely opposite strategic views — the realist versus the moralist — before the Battle of Glywysing.
“Edith told Macdonald that as a veteran, he should know better than to believe what happened on the battlefield was necessarily what one intended.” Sylviane summarized. “Pascal took a risk with an unfamiliar, experimental spell that he cast while under the stress of an enemy attack. And Edith pointed out that it is not a crime to try to do good, even when such actions have negative repercussions. Otherwise nobody would ever take the risk to even try.”
Religion did always emphasize the importance of premeditation in sin, Kaede reflected. The Buddha even explicitly stated in the Dhammapada that ‘there can be no evil for one who has no evil intention’. Yet philosophically, Kaede knew this was also slippery ground. As the famous saying went — ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions.’
Nevertheless, Pascal certainly wasn’t the first — nor would he be the last — individual to accidentally kill an ally in the heat of battle.
“You really can’t tell this city was under siege until just two days ago.” Kaede expressed in awe as the girls walked down a street that was flanked by high class shops on both sides.
The two to three-story high buildings were mostly built with a limestone foundation and brightly painted, wooden upper floors. They all had classy, intricately carved signs, while their ground floors were dominated by huge windows that proudly displayed their best wares.
It was a stark contrast from Nordkreuz after the air bombardment. The Samaran girl looked around and couldn’t spot a single sign of damage to any of the structures on this street. There wasn’t even a crack on any of the glass windows that she could see.
“Colonel Hammerstein really did an excellent job.” Sylviane praised the gruff Knight Phantom commander. “His air cavalry raids against the Cataliyan artillery seemed to have kept them at bay.”
“Yes. That’s what I’ve heard as well.” Cecylia remarked. “The Colonel completely outmaneuvered the Cataliyan air cavalry during the first two days and destroyed a number of their forward-deployed artillery positions. He inflicted sufficient losses that the Cataliyan siege pulled back to fire at the city from maximum range. And as a result, only the walls and buildings at the city’s edge took any real damage.”
It’s no wonder that people here are already back to ‘business as usual’ then. Kaede thought as she watched another shopkeeper flip their door sign to ‘open’.
Even though it was still early morning, there were already a dozen other well-dressed individuals browsing the nearby shops’ wares.
“Please send my praises to King Leopold for both Sir Hammerstein and Lady Ariadne.” Sylviane lauded. “I know that the Colonel has a reputation for being a maverick in the Weichsel army. But in light of his performance on this campaign, I must recommend him for a promotion.”
“I’ll pass it along to the King.” Cecylia chuckled. “Hammerstein has been pursuing the rank of general for decades so he’d certainly be ecstatic to receive it. The man would have reached it long ago too, if he hadn’t also earned so much disciplinary action.”
It’s probably helped that Hammerstein was given almost complete independence of action in Avorica then, Kaede thought.
After all, some commanders were excellent at following orders and playing their part in a grand plan, while others performed their best when given an independent command. People varied hugely in their skill sets. To use each individual — including oneself — according to one’s talents was by far the most difficult job for those seeking to lead.
The thought also made Kaede wonder where she belonged in this whole hierarchy, now that she had integrated herself into the Princess’ coterie. After all, she couldn’t, and wouldn’t, forever remain as “Pascal’s familiar”. But while she had made a decision to involve herself in the unfolding history of this world, she still wasn’t sure exactly what exact role she wanted to play.
The Samaran girl was still in deep thought when her attention was seized by a large store window. A shelf of thick tomes and hanging map scrolls were held on prominent display. However, adjacent to them was what looked suspiciously like a small printing press.
Kaede had realized that printing technology existed since her first days on Hyperion. After all, while books were still expensive, they were hardly a rare sight here. Plus, there were simply too many copies of common referenced materials in the library of Alisia Academy.
Nevertheless, until now, she had never run across an instrument that could copy text. Part of her even wondered if it were purely something mages did with their spells, as Pascal had shown once over documents.
What intrigued Kaede even more about the printing press was the fact it didn’t appear to have a pan for typesetting. Instead, a thick sheet of metal with ranks of letter indentations was displayed on top of the press bed.
Do they not have movable type? Kaede pondered before she focused her familiar-enhanced sight on the metal sheet. Wait, is that spring steel? Her eyes then widened with recognition.
It was the same material as her morphic blade. The enchanted platen pan could likely morph into any page its owner desired to print. This meant it could skip the laborious work of a typesetter. Though in exchange, it needed a mage’s mana to be used — which only helped to cement the control of information by those with magical affinity.
Not that having access to printing would help the mostly illiterate commoners, Kaede thought with a frown. She had learned from Gerard that a general education was largely only affordable to only the yeomen class and above.
The familiar didn’t even notice that as she grew distracted by the printing press, she first slowed and then completely halted in her steps.
“Kaede?” Sylviane stopped as the Princess still had an arm wrapped around the petite girl. She traced the Samaran girl’s gaze before giggling to herself. “And why am I not surprised you’re distracted by the first bookstore you come across?”
Meanwhile, Vivienne leaned forward from Sylviane’s other side to look before she exclaimed with excitement. “Oooh, they have an arcbook too!”
“An arcbook?” Kaede was puzzled over the unusual term.
“See the book on top of the shelf that’s locked in a glass case?” Her ‘twin’ pointed out the tome with golden patterns inscribed into its thick, leather bound covers. “That’s an archivist book, or arcbook!” The girl beamed as she reached into an extradimensional storage pocket that she wore around her waist and pulled out a book of her own.
“It’s an enchanted book that can make exact copies of other writing, drawings, or charts that you press it against. It duplicates the information on its pages, which you tag for ‘chapters’ of your choice before it’s stored extradimensionally.” Vivienne explained as she turned her own book over and showed off a thin, gemstone rod that was built into her book’s spine. “You can usually tell by the crystals built into them. These are designed to store mana so the book remains functional even if it’s set aside, or put into storage for years at a time.”
So basically a magical database that I can copy pages from other books into! Kaede stared at it with a starry-eyed gaze. She could already imagine herself building lists of references that she could cite in her own writing and arguments.
“They’re somewhat rare outside government ministries and guilds, and cost a fortune too.” Cecylia commented with interest. “Archivist books require an enchanter skilled in multiple schools of magic to make. But I’ve heard that a good archivist book can hold knowledge equivalent to a small library, or an entire kingdom’s finances on its pages.”
“Yep!” Vivienne answered proudly. “Mine was used to collect fae lore long before it came to my hands. There are several generations of scholars’ efforts here.”
I guess that’s where you learned your Concordance Magic from then. Kaede surmised. Though that still left a question of just how Vivienne acquired such a valuable item of knowledge.
Nevertheless, Kaede could feel her shoulders slumping as she looked enviously at the book in the window. There was no way that the small bag of gold and silver coins that Pascal had given her would be enough.
— However, before the Samaran girl could force herself to look away, it was the Princess who had walked through the shop’s front door.
“Good morning. Are you the shop owner?” Sylviane addressed the elderly man dressed in rich furs who sat behind the counter.
“Yes.” He replied in a casual tone as Kaede, Vivi, and Elspeth followed Sylviane into the shop. A pair of reading spectacles sat atop the shopkeeper’s nose while his eyes were still glued to the book in his hands.
“How much for the archivist book that you have on display?”
The man froze as though someone had poured cold water over him. He finally turned towards Sylviane and her companions. His eyes examined their rich garb and expensive accouterments before meeting the Princess’ gaze.
“500 livres.” He declared as he slowly took off his reading glasses.
Kaede’s jaw almost hit the ground. A gold livre was roughly what a common armiger or professional mercenary could expect to be paid in a month. That meant even a career soldier — one of the best paying positions a commoner could aspire to be in this world — could spend their entire life working yet still never be able to afford this book.
However, the Princess did not look impressed. Instead, her eyebrows rose as she cast a skeptical glance at the book.
“Does it have valuable information inside already?”
“No. It’s brand new.”
“Do you mind showing me its capabilities and functions then? I’m looking for another one like this.” Sylviane demanded before reaching out to Vivienne, who passed over her own archivist book.
The Princess then deliberately showed its spine-embedded crystal rod towards the shopkeeper so that he could not mistake it for a common tome. It was as though she was warning him to not mistake her for an amateur who couldn’t recognize the item’s worth.
“O-of course.” The shopkeeper seemed astonished as he stood up and retrieved the tome from its glass display. The dust that had collected was a sign that it had been a long time since anyone has even expressed serious interest in buying the book.
“It holds up to one million pages and up to five chapter tags per page.”
“That’s the standard design then, nothing special.” Vivienne commented while the Princess examined the book in her hands.
“We could get a better one by custom order at this price.” Sylviane looked at Vivi, who nodded in return, before handing it back with an impassive look. She then turned towards the exit and was about to leave when the shopkeeper stopped them.
“P-please wait, Milady. We can talk about the price.”
For a moment, Sylviane seemed unfazed. She reached the door and had already opened it before turning around to speak. Then, to Kaede’s incredulity, the Crown Princess of the Empire began to discuss in a manner that the familiar would never have expected.
“Two-fifty then?” The Princess offered as she began to haggle with the shopkeeper.
By the time they left the store a half hour later, Kaede was holding the archivist book against her chest with both arms like it was a treasured heirloom. It had cost nearly two-thirds of its original asking price, which was still a small fortune beyond the means of the average man.
As soon as they were out of the shop owner’s sight, Kaede turned towards Sylviane and bowed low enough that her chest formed a right angle to her legs.
“Thank you so much, elder sister.”
“Actually, the one you should thank is Pascal, since he is the one funding me right now.” Sylviane wore a sheepish smile as she gave Kaede a headpat and ruffled the familiar’s soft, snowy hair. “However, given everything you’ve done for him of late, I think he would agree that you deserve a reward — especially when I managed to get it at a good price.” She beamed.
“Color me surprised on that last part.” Cecylia remarked. “I didn’t know you could wrangle over prices so well. Your feigned exit really had him sweating from the start.”
“Father was rather strict with my allowance when I was growing up.” Sylviane responded with bittersweet nostalgia. “I complained quite a bit about it back then — it’s unheard of, certainly compared to the girls of the other noble houses. Nevertheless, he insisted. He said that I would never be able to balance our realm’s budget if I couldn’t even manage my personal expenditures.”
Kaede couldn’t help but nod in agreement. I guess Rhin-Lotharingie is one country that’s unlikely to run into a sovereign debt crisis then.
“Oh my goodness, those are so cute!” Kaede heard Sylviane almost squeal in delight.
The Princess led them towards what seemed to be a clothing shop. Several mannequins dressed in rich, velvet gowns with A-line skirts that reached down to the ankles were on display. Each of them also had a fancy, wide-brimmed hat pinned to its head. It seemed to be one of those stores that catered specifically to nobles and courtiers.
However, what caught Sylviane’s attention was a pair of ladies’ shoes presented before the mannequins. They were strappy-looking heels with rounded, enclosed toes in front. Each shoe was pearl-white with silvery trim and was decorated with small pearls.
“I should get a pair for you two.” The Princess pressed her hands together as she spun around to face Kaede and Vivienne with a mirthful expression.
The Samaran girl immediately changed her expectations as she took another look at the pair of shoes. Certainly, they were cute. However, they also came in narrow heels that were at least 13cm high. And unlike her wedge boots, where most of the height came from the softly cushioned platforms, these had steeply arched soles to match.
Kaede was still surprised that Vivienne could walk in such high heels on the stone-paved but not-entirely-even streets. Nevertheless, there was no chance that she would be able to maintain her balance in them.
“Those heels are way too high for me.” The familiar almost groaned as she protested.
Kaede remembered that even on Earth, French aristocrats had a preference for heels as it made them appear taller and more imposing. And the higher one’s social rank was, the more they tried to increase the height of their shoes. However, Hyperion’s standards had clearly escalated due to its already well-fed populace.
“Come on, we can wear matching pairs!” Vivienne was totally unhelpful as she leaned into Kaede with a beaming smile. “It’s really not that hard. I’ve been wearing high heels since I was thirteen.”
I’m pretty sure you’re an anomaly! Kaede’s thoughts retorted.
“Please?” The Princess asked in a tone she had never used before, certainly not when determining Kaede’s wardrobe. “I’m sure Pascal would also like it if you were a few centipaces higher.”
Well it’s his fault for summoning me into a body this short. The familiar grumbled about the height difference between them, as Pascal was almost tall enough to use her head as an armrest.
“Plus, you don’t have to wear them outside.” Sylviane added. “After all, shoes of this design are usually meant for court. Vivi here is bit of an exception.” She noted with a chuckle.
“I’m just used to it.” Vivienne beamed back innocently as she did a dainty, little spin like a ballerina.
The Samaran girl could feel her resolve faltering as both Vivienne and Sylviane looked at her with smiling, expectant gazes. Ever since her middle school years spent in Japan, Kaede always found herself having trouble saying ‘no’ when people asked nicely.
“All right. I guess my boots aren’t exactly fit for special occasions.” She thought back to the slightly awkward feeling when she had to wear them to dinner with King Leopold. “Just don’t expect me to wear them all the time, okay?”
“Of course.” Sylviane nodded happily in agreement as she strode to open the store’s door. “Now let’s see if we can get you two a matching dress as well.”
It brought a quiet sigh to the familiar’s lips as she recognized that she had inadvertently opened the floodgates. Her best hope now was that the Princess had set herself a budget and wouldn’t go too far.
“You know Kaede, I really ought to bring you out to buy clothes more often.” The Samaran girl heard Sylviane comment as they browsed the wares inside the fashion store. “Pascal might be fine with you having only two outfits for daily wear, seeing as he dons the same uniform every day. But it’s downright sinful to not let you try on more cute dresses and accessories with your adorable looks.”
Believe me, he’s tried. Kaede thought to herself while Cecylia snickered before giving her a knowing look.
“Oh Pascal has definitely tried to dress her up.” The dhampir girl remarked. “You should have seen Kaede during her first few weeks at the Alisia Academy, before she had a chance to order that outfit.”
“I dislike being dressed like a peacock.” The Samaran girl commented dryly. “And almost everything he bought for me were long dresses that got in the way.”
“I’m guessing based on your preferred outfits–” Sylviane gestured towards the white pseudo-uniform which Kaede wore beneath her cloak even now. “That you prefer something comfortable yet utilitarian.”
“Clothes aren’t supposed to have an attitude,” Kaede remarked. “I prefer something simple, comfortable, and easy to move in. Hence this.”
However, the Princess shook her head with a disagreeing smile as she browsed through a shelf of felt hats.
“On the contrary, clothes should always reflect the prestige and bearing of the individual. That’s something my mother taught me ever since I was little, and probably the same for everyone in upper society…”
Cecylia and the two armigers — Elspeth and Priscille, who had been following quietly behind them — all nodded in agreement to Sylviane’s words. Even Vivienne gave a concurring smile. Though the look she gave made it clear her experience was more complicated.
“After all, whether we like it or not, we are often judged by the people we meet at first glance.” The Princess explained as Kaede remembered the shopkeep at the bookstore. “Admittedly, your choice of outfits does set the correct expectations when meeting you. Though that’s not to say we can’t improve upon it.”
Sylviane returned to Kaede as she finished. Her hands carried a soft, round cap which she laid onto the familiar’s head. She then adjusted it slightly so that it leaned to the right side.
“That goes perfectly with your outfit.” She beamed as she took a step back.
Kaede looked at herself in the nearest mirror. The hat looked like a floppy beret. It was made from soft felt and was snowy white. The accessory was simple, comfortable, and cute. Yet it also matched her white pseudo-uniform just like Sylviane said.
I guess this is fine. Kaede thought as she tried not to show too much smile. After all, the last thing she wanted was to encourage the Princess to play dress-up.
“Can I get this with two ribbons in wisteria purple attached to the rear sides?” Sylviane asked the young, female clerk who had been watching them with an attentive gaze.
“Of course, Milady.” The girl received the hat from Sylviane’s hands and left for the back of the store.
Why more ribbons? Kaede’s lips formed a faint scowl.
It seemed the go-to trend to feminize her choice of outfits. Her pseudo-uniform already sported several pink ribbons thanks to her outfitter’s insistence, and Kaede didn’t feel like she needed two more.
“<Purple ribbons are how Sylviane shows her favor to people at court.>” Cecylia explained to Kaede through private telepathy. “<It’s considered an honor to wear them. Plus, it’ll help keep the other noble girls off your back.>”
It only reminded Kaede of how most nobles looked down upon her, especially back in the Alisia Academy. If a pair of ribbons could deter some of that, then even Kaede had to admit that it was worth it.
However, Sylviane’s interests also didn’t end there.
“Now, let’s find a proper, formal gown for you.” The Princess was all smiles as she strode towards the section of the store that was filled with fancy dresses. “Her Majesty the Queen is hosting another dinner tonight, and this time she invited you specifically. Therefore, you should at least come dressed like a proper lady.”
Kaede couldn’t help but groan in response. I should have just packed one of the dresses that Pascal had bought for me.
—— * * * ——
Dinner that night turned out to be less nerve-wracking than Kaede had anticipated. Queen Katell’s interest in Kaede seemed largely to be one of mild curiosity. However, the queen spoke very little to her since their introduction. Though the fact Kaede almost botched her curtsy might have had something to do with it.
It’s these stupid heels. Kaede blamed her new footwear again as she fidgeted in her seat.
The Samaran girl wore a frilly, red-and-pink tiered dress with a large, red ribbon tied to the back of her head. Her apparel was a matching set to Vivienne’s, whose own blue-and-purple dress came in the same design. The difference in their attires matched the one physical feature that really set them apart — Kaede’s rose-quartz and Vivienne’s brilliant-blue eyes. The two girls also sat side-by-side, which made them look even more like twins.
It also helped that Kaede sat to Sylviane’s right, who occupied the guest of honor’s seat. Meanwhile, Queen Katell sat in the host’s chair on the other end of the long table. The other people in attendance included Saint Edith-Estellise, Mother Abbess Anne, General Macdonald, General Caradoc, Colonel Hammerstein, Colonel Ariadne, and the newly promoted Major Cecylia.
It was a gathering of all the military leaders. And although this wasn’t a ‘working dinner’, the discussion topics it took were all about the events of the war:
“–I’m afraid I ain’t the most politically astute officer present.” Hammerstein spoke in his gruff voice as he haphazardly snapped a lobster tail in half and bit directly into its flesh. “The idea that those infidels from the Caliphate think they have a right to invade makes zero sense to me.”
We can all see that. Kaede couldn’t help but frown as Hammerstein was clearly one of those military types who happily accepted the propaganda he was fed. Here he was, leader of the Weichsen Expeditionary Force to Rhin-Lotharingie, and he didn’t even understand why the Holy War began!
The man had also attracted quite a few stares due to his catastrophic lack of table manners despite being seated among royalty. The most basic court etiquette demanded chewing with one’s mouth closed. Yet the Colonel routinely talked with food still in his mouth, and the sound of his lips smacking together was obvious to the whole table.
The Samaran girl couldn’t help but notice the blush in Ariadne’s cheeks as the noblewoman sat next to her superior. Clearly, she found Hammerstein’s uncouth behavior to be a personal embarrassment.
“It’s because of those stupid Albigese.” Queen Katell remarked with bitterness as she clearly blamed them for the war that killed her husband. “They’ve been a problem in the Kingdom of Garona for decades now. However, ever since the death of King Guillem and the start of the regency, Garona has completely lost control of its religious affairs.”
The Queen then sent an annoyed glance towards Sylviane. “And unfortunately, your late father hasn’t been of any help.”
“The Crown of Rhin-Lotharingie has had an agreement to not intervene in the religious affairs of its kingdoms ever since the founding Emperor Charles,” Sylviane countered. “After all, many of the leaders in the coalition that began the Independence War rose up against the Holy Imperium’s attempt to enforce Trinitian conversion.”
And a state built upon religious disagreements naturally offers greater respect for religious autonomy. Kaede reflected.
“That being said, I do agree with you that the Albigese are troublemakers.” The Princess then offered. “The last time I went to Narbonnaise to discuss matters with Duke-Regent Raymond, I had the… pleasure of receiving a sermon from an Albigese priestess.”
Sylviane’s temple twitched as she was reminded of her unpleasant experience. “Let’s just say that their zealotry puts even the most fervent crusaders to shame.”
“Please do not compare us with those deluded heretics.” Edith objected calmly as she ate her lentil soup.
It also did not escape Kaede’s attention that neither Edith nor Anne had taken even a bite from the abundance of seafood.
“I heard that the Albigese claim that the Old Testament and everything written within, including the creation of our universe, was the work of the Devil?” Cecylia spoke in a questioning tone as she used her fork to savor the meat of Avorica’s renowned oysters. The tidal conditions unique to the coastal kingdom have made it famous for its shellfish.
“Yes, but they don’t just stop there.” Sylviane explained with a scowl. “Since the days of creation are part of the Old Testament, the Albigese also believe that the physical world itself is tainted by sin. This includes our bodies, as we’re all supposedly angelic spirits trapped by the flesh of evil, and must seek to escape it by any means. In other words — they’re a people who actively seek martyrdom.”
“Blasphemy, is what it is,” Anne voiced with disgust. “Those crazy heretics couldn’t even tell the difference between lunacy and common sense.”
At least not when everyone thinks their own ‘common sense’ is universal. Kaede thought dryly.
“Considering that the Holy Trinitians like to accuse everything not of their own faith as the ‘work of the Devil’, why am I not even surprised that it is now biting you back?” General Caradoc made a half-snorting sound as he answered with a smirk, which immediately attracted a glare from Edith and Anne.
“Let’s keep discussions on topic, please.” Princess Sylviane nipped it in the bud as she scowled at the General. “The Colonel’s question is on how the war started, not to begin a debate on theology.”
Though this is a powder keg that you’ll have to address sooner or later. Kaede thought as she glanced between the Ceredigion General and the two Hospitaller sisters.
“But you gotta admit, the Holy Father did change quite a bit between the Old and New Testaments.” Hammerstein voiced next as though he was completely tonedeaf. His gaze was so focused on the famous black-shelled lobster that he ate with his fingers that he never even noticed the sparks that flew between Caradoc and Anne.
“I’m not the most religious church attendee.” The Colonel continued. “But even I remember that the Holy Father was so vengeful and full of wrath in the Old Testament tales, demanding sacrifices left and right to be appeased. It’s like he’s the very antithesis of Hyperion’s mercy.”
For a moment after, Edith seemed to forget about her disagreement with Caradoc as she gawked at Hammerstein. It was as though she couldn’t believe such words could come from an officer from the ‘Northern March of the Trinitian Realm’.
“It is not our place to judge our creator.” Ariadne spoke up this time with barely suppressed ire. Her shoulders were almost shaking as she added, “I must recommend, Sir, that you keep such opinions to yourself. You are giving our King and country a bad name.”
Somehow, those words managed to shut Hammerstein up. Though the glare he shot his second-in-command was more than a hint disgruntled.
“Perhaps the Holy Father did change.” Queen Katell forced a smile to her lips as she offered a diplomatic compromise. “But then — which father doesn’t change for the better, when they experience the joy of raising their own children?”
However, all this did was give Hammerstein yet another opportunity to place his foot in his mouth:
“Well, seems clear to me why the Albigese might interpret it wrongly then, given how the Old Testament might clash with many of Hyperion’s teachings about virtue and sin. Hypocrisy is the work of the Devil, after all.”
The Queen’s smile froze instantly as the temperature in the room plummeted. Meanwhile, Ariadne’s face dropped as though she wanted to ram her head through the table.
One thing was for certain — the Colonel was unlikely to receive any further invitations to dinner with the Queen.
“B-but…” Kaede summoned her courage as she spoke up for the first time. “Why would a Trinitian heresy invite the intervention of the Tauheed Caliph?”
The Samaran girl already knew the answer. However, her real aim was to redirect the conversation back to more amicable grounds, as the topic of religious ideology was clearly too inflammatory for polite dinner conversation.
The smile that she received from Princess Sylviane showed that it was appreciated.
“Because the Albigese, in their pursuit of local religious dominance, didn’t just clash with other Trinitians.” Katell exhaled her earlier fumes as she voiced her contempt. “They’ve also stirred the hornet’s nest by prosecuting Tauheed worshipers, even going as far as burning down several mosques.”
“Given that the Imperium has hated us ever since we threw off their yoke, their propaganda did not hesitate to spin such stories out of all proportions.” Sylviane explained further. “They claimed that the rulers of Rhin-Lotharingie began a religious genocide specifically targetting the Tauheed. And they used their control of the Inner Sea information and trade networks to spread this across the south.”
That certainly sounds familiar, Kaede thought as she couldn’t help but think of the propaganda war being waged by the two superpowers on modern Earth.
“And those idiotic imams in the south, not understanding our religious complexity, swallowed the misinformation hook, line, and sinker.” The Princess chafed in a frustrated if not helpless voice. “They’re the ones who pressured the Caliph to launch the Holy War.”
“You mean — the Caliph was not in favor of this war?” Kaede gawked.
“Not according to what Father has told me. And he had exchanged personal correspondence with the Caliph.” Sylviane sighed.
“As the head of Tauheed religious authority, the Caliph has a responsibility to protect all worshippers of the Tauheed faith.” It was Vivienne who explained this time. “The qadi — judges of religious law — and the imam priesthood form the two most powerful institutions in the Caliphate. If the Caliph cannot persuade them, then his hands are tied. He must answer the call or he will lose his legitimacy, and that he cannot do.”
It was a reminder to Kaede that there was almost no such thing as true ‘autocracy’. Every leader had to answer to someone, even if it was simply to their own subordinates in the government hierarchy.
After all, no queen or empress — no matter how powerful — could rule alone. They needed a chain of command, a bureaucracy to interpret their decrees and translate them into actionable details. And without the support of this hierarchy, even the most powerful ruler would become little more than a figurehead.
However, this train of thought only brought Kaede back to the thoughts she had earlier in the day:
Where do I want to be in all this?Author's Comment
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