Kaede’s small hands flew to her mouth as she emerged from the mist-enshrouded stone circle. Her head felt like it was spinning as vertigo overcame her senses. She lost her balance and fell to her knees before doubling over to stare at the grassy ground. She retched twice as she attempted to suppress the urge to gag. Nevertheless her stomach won as she regurgitated the light breakfast she had eaten.
“Kaede, are you all right?” The Samaran girl heard Cecylia’s concerned voice before she felt a hand rub her back.
“I’m… fine…” The Samaran girl said as she breathed hard in the cold, morning air.
She still felt a strong sense of nausea and a desire to throw up. But with her stomach already emptied of its contents there was nothing else to vomit.
It had only been an hour since Kaede sat with Princess Sylviane and Queen Katell over breakfast in Roazhon’s Citadel. The two royals had wanted to give the new Grand Squire of the Empire a send off, though Kaede wasn’t exactly in the mood for chatter. She had slept poorly last night due to her anxieties over this coming trip and was feeling under the weather as a result. Though in hindsight, perhaps she should have opted for just some juice, instead of the fruit-filled crepe that now laid before her in a half-digested slurry of stomach fluids.
“I just need… a moment’s rest.” Kaede said breathlessly as she slowly picked herself off the ground.
The familiar walked a handful of paces so the smell of vomit would no longer be overpowering before she sat down on the grassy dirt. The stone circle rested on top of a small hill that stood near the base of a tall mountain range. The land was flat for roughly another kilopace before it rose sharply up steep, rocky cliffs. The scant vegetation left much of the dirt and gravel ground exposed, clearly showing that they were in the rain shadow of the South Lotharingie Mountains.
The Princess and her faekissed armigers had opened the Faerie Paths from a stone circle that stood north of the Roazhon Castle. The trip through the ethereal forest carried Kaede and her entourage nearly two thousand kilopaces to the northern borders of the Kingdom of Garona in Southern Rhin-Lotharingie. The familiar did not doubt that this mode of traveling was far more efficient than even the most advanced modern marvel of Earth. However, the rollercoaster-like journey through the otherworldly forest also left Kaede with more nausea than when her father dragged her onto the amusement park rides of Nagashima Spa Land.
“Should we take a walk to town then instead of teleporting?” Reynaud helpfully suggested as he gestured towards the east. “Aouta is just under two kilopaces that way.”
“That’d be great for me, if you don’t mind.” Kaede said in between several deep, calming breaths.
She took several deep inhales and exhales before opening her eyes once more. All three of the others — Reynaud, Cecylia, and Gerard — were standing around her with looks of mild concern.
“Sorry.” Kaede said before she stood up. “I’m okay now.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Cecylia answered with a caring smile. “We’re here to accompany you this time, Kaede. Not the other way around. So if you need a break and a stroll, I’m more than happy to oblige.”
“Besides, I’ve always wanted to come visit this place.” Reynaud grinned as he clasped his hands behind his steel helmet as though to lean back and relax. “It’s a historical site, after all.”
“Speaking of going into town…” The dhampir girl added as she reached out with her gloved right hand and cast a spell to clean the dirt and vomit stains on Kaede’s apron and dress.
The Samaran girl smiled slightly as she couldn’t help but appreciate the irony. Here she was, adorned in a frilly, black-and-white maid dress that clearly fixed her status as being a rich noble’s servant. Yet for the first time since coming to Hyperion and despite the pretense of being a lady’s maid, she was undoubtedly the real leader of their little party.
Meanwhile to her left, Gerard reached down into an extradimensional familiar pocket and retrieved a black raven with white feathers above its neck.
“Soar, Sophie, and give me lay of the land.” He said before flinging out his arm and letting his raven take flight.
The burly engineer then turned back to a staring Kaede and shrugged: “Figured since we’re walking I’d survey the land, as Her Highness had requested of me.”
“Just a bit surprised to see a raven for your familiar,” Kaede expressed but left the remaining half of her thoughts unsaid. He doesn’t match the witch stereotype at all.
“Ravens represent curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge,” Cecylia commented with a smile. “I think it actually fits him quite well.”
“That’s true. I’d almost forgotten.” Kaede responded as she remembered Huginn and Muninn, the twin raven familiars of Odin, the Allfather of the Norse.
— It made her wonder if this was yet more symbolism between Medieval Christianity’s persecution of witches and its stifling of knowledge’s progress. Which begged the question: did Hyperion’s Trinitian Church have any similar effect on its growth?
“Well, since we’re taking the scenic route, let’s be going then.” Kaede said before she turned towards the southeast and began to walk downhill.
“I’ll give you all the intro tour.” Reynaud announced with enthusiasm before taking the lead at the head of their column.
They walked down from the mound of the stone circle and emerged onto a wide dirt-and-gravel road. The trail led into a valley in the mountains surrounded by steep, rocky slopes. A sleepy little town was built into a hill in the middle of the valley’s entrance. The small settlement couldn’t have held more than five hundred inhabitants. But it did nevertheless have a formidable stone keep and a ring of old castle walls.
“The town of Aouta may not be as important as it used to be, but this fortified settlement was once called the ‘Gate of the South’ after the Rhin-Lotharingie Independence Wars.” Reynaud began as she strutted ahead of the group in his clinking, ‘half-plate’ armor.
“Five important sieges had been fought here over the centuries. Three of them were broken when Queen Gwendolen of Ceredigion arrived at the head of a relief force through the same stone circle that we just stepped through.” Reynaud proudly declared. “Needless to say, the castle never fell and the tough people of this town never once surrendered to our foes. It’s for that reason that the stone keep in Aouta is monikered the ‘Iron Keep’, and its ruler given the inherited title of the ‘Iron Count’.”
There he goes again. Kaede smiled to herself. Reynaud’s nationalistic hero worship never seemed to diminish.
Nevertheless, Kaede herself had been curious about the town during her preparations. Despite being a mere layover on their journey to meet Duke Hugh, there had been at least two chapters from her books on the significance of this town.
“For two hundred years, Aouta held out against Imperial incursions into the Lotharin heartlands, all while serving as a supply base of insurgent campaigns in Garona,” Reynaud continued with pride. “It wasn’t until Emperor Geoffroi’s southern wars liberated our brethrens’ lands in Garona, when the Empire’s borders pushed further south and Aouta lost its importance as a bastion of our southern defense.”
“It’s certainly important to culture and national identity to have inspirational tales.” Cecylia replied from Kaede’s left. “But the people cannot survive on heroic legacy alone. And even from here, it feels apparent that this town has seen better days than now.”
Her voice was largely neutral. But it carried just enough wry emotions that made Kaede realize the dhampir’s unease.
She wasn’t wrong either.
Even from a distance, Kaede’s keen vision as a familiar could see visible deterioration in the town. Yes, the fortifications were still well-maintained and its walls were brushed down with lime. But beneath the towering citadel and tall bastions, faded paint and worn-down exteriors covered most buildings which gave the town a ramshackle appearance. Some of the civilian structures looked borderline unsafe as they were propped up by makeshift support beams. Many homes also showed hail damage on their tiled roofs, and it wouldn’t surprise Kaede if those houses leaked in the times it rained.
But perhaps even worse than the town was the surrounding lands, as Kaede pulled back her focus and gazed across the roads and fields that history books and heroic epics rarely spoke of.
The dirt-and-gravel road they walked on was badly maintained and hadn’t been tended to for years. Its path was bumpy and full of shallow pits and small gullies where old rain puddles eroded the land. Old tracks of compacted earth cut into the road further divided the uneven ground. And while it was still possible for vehicles to traverse the road, Kaede rather doubted that any merchant would have found the journey pleasant.
Considering the strategic importance of this town in Lotharin history, this path had to be a vital artery of troops and supplies at one time. Yet, it seemed clear that the road had fallen into disuse and disrepair along with the loss of significance for the town.
To make problems worse, it doesn’t appear that the settlement had made any effort to revitalize itself. The sparsely covered earth on both sides of the road mostly lay fallow even as the planting season in the south drew near. Only the fields near a small river that ran by the town were plowed and watered by irrigation channels.
Looking around, Kaede could not see any signs of industry either. Only an old quarry sat in the distance and the familiar’s keen hearing did not pick up any sounds of stone being cut from it. It seemed clear that most of the land and resources in the area simply sat in disuse and waste. And despite over a half century of peace since the border pushed further south, there was no sign that the town had done anything but decline.
It’s just like so many old cities in Russia. The Samaran girl couldn’t help but feel a nostalgic pain in her chest, as Aouta reminded her of the many rusty Central Russian cities that once pumped out everything from tractors to tanks to jets.
At the same time, the familiar heard an audible sigh from her right which revealed that Gerard was also of a pensive mind.
“Aouta has only declined since the days of the Independence War.” The tall engineer grumbled. “I would know. My mother was originally from here.”
“You’ve never even mentioned!” Reynaud immediately spun around to look at his friend.
“Never thought it was important, seeing as my maternal grandparents moved away from this place long before I was born.” Gerard explained with a wry smile. “They were yeomen bakers who once worked here to support the garrison. However, my grandparents decided there were no opportunities for a better life here and departed.”
“Is there a reason why the town is in decline?” Kaede decided to ask before making any assumptions. “A strategic location of military importance usually translated to commercial importance as well. Nordkreuz is a perfect example of this. And the gap that Aouta guards remains one of the few routes between Garona and the Lotharin Heartlands.”
She hadn’t even mentioned the fact that although the town stood in the rain shadow of the mountains, it was also fed by a river which likely created this valley. The runoff nutrients it carried from the melted snow of the Southern Lotharing Mountains should be more than sufficient to support even a city ten times the town’s size.
“It’s because of its people.” Gerard voiced with a deep and exasperated sigh. “Aouta stayed the military frontier for so long that its inhabitants developed an adversarial mentality towards outsiders. They can’t see the profits of merchants, even those from other parts of Rhin-Lotharingie, as anything other than their own loss. That makes it really hard to do any business here.”
Zero-sum thinking. Kaede exhaled a slow sigh as it was yet another trait that Russian culture had far too much of, and often to its detriment in a peaceful world.
“You’d think cooperation with relief armies from the rest of the Empire would have taught that victories are shared.” Reynaud frowned.
“You’d think.” Gerard echoed with frustration. “But as you of all people should know from Lotharin history, the garrison of Aouta would always say that they ‘never needed rescuing’ in the first place!”
Reynaud then went silent as he frowned in response, though it wasn’t directed at Gerard as he looked aside with a scowl.
“And I always thought it was cool that they said that.” The short redhead muttered under his breath.
“Stubbornness may help us through adversity, but it’s rarely beneficial in times of plenty.” Cecylia added as though repeating a well-known saying.
The Grand Squire’s party of four then strode past an empty field where an old man in his fifties and a young man in his late teens watched over a large flock of sheep. The two had stopped talking among themselves and turned to stare as the newcomers approached, so the familiar smiled and waved in a friendly gesture to the local residents.
However, all she received in return were cold glares, as the men did nothing in response except to follow her with suspicious gazes.
“You see what I mean?” Gerard grumbled after they were out of conventional earshot. “And I warn you all now — Aouta is not a friendly town to outsiders, nor to ‘traitors’ like me whose family packed up and left, which many shops did after the town stopped being as important.” He scowled as though from personal experience. “The inhabitants here only like to speak of their past glory. It only took a decade before the goodwill from visitors from the rest of Rhin-Lotharingie began drying up.”
Kaede could only sigh as this was, yet again, a topic she was all too familiar with.
A cultural problem. She realized. These were truly the most difficult issues to root out, as humans were conservative by nature and resisted change from the values that they grew up with.
“Unfortunately, cases like this aren’t even rare inside Rhin-Lotharingie.” Cecylia added a troubled frown. “Aouta is a bit extreme. But much of Rhin-Lotharingie is suspicious of outsiders, sometimes from outside their region but certainly outside their realm.”
“Well what do you expect, after so many centuries of foreign occupation?” Reynaud almost snapped back as though it was only natural.
“Understandable, yes.” Cecylia nodded first to reassure that they’re on the same page. “Though even after the War of Imperial Succession, when Weichsel’s Marshal — Pascal’s father, the future in-law of the Lotharin Crown Princess — proposed joint infrastructure projects where Weichsel would invest in the riverine towns of the Belgae region west of Cross Lake, the local nobles kept refusing on the grounds that they didn’t want foreigners meddling in their affairs.”
“But–” Reynaud was about to retort again as Gerard loudly spoke over the redhead with his deeper voice.
“It does take time to build up trust, especially after the Marshal fought us Lotharins as well during the war.”
“Yes. Though it’s been ten years since, and the project never did begin.” Cecylia finished with a sigh. “Had it been, perhaps this civil war might have never started, as the Belgae lords that rebelled would have had their investment to better their economy.”
“The trouble with ‘what ifs’ is that we will never know what other difficulties might arise.” Kaede looked back and met Cecylia’s ruby-red gaze with her eyes. “Nevertheless, I do agree that it is a missed opportunity.” She said before turning back to Reynaud.
“You kick the foreign invaders in the teeth. You cannot kick foreign investors in the teeth. You got to smile and be nice to them. Very painful.” The Samaran girl repeated a quote she once heard about the lessons learned by the Vietnamese.
Kaede had felt uncertain about saying it, as she was in the presence of at least one Lotharin nationalist who might take it negatively. Yet, as Gerard snorted and began to laugh, and Reynaud followed with his own chuckling, the Samaran girl’s lips finally relaxed into a beaming smile.
“There is always a win-win solution, where both sides stand to benefit.” The familiar concluded as the party drew close to the town and its plowed fields, where more and more local inhabitants showed up to stare at them. “But first, we must learn to trust each other. It may be the most difficult step, but it is also the foundation for everything, and it always begins with showing goodwill.”
Therefore, even though Kaede felt only discomfort from the cold suspicion of the locals’ gaze, she nevertheless forced herself to smile and nod and occasionally wave.
—– * * * —–
“Who the… M-milady?”
Kaede was sure that the pot-bellied innkeeper with balding hair almost said something rude before he backtracked at the last moment.
“Countess Maelle d’Rhianwen de Rochemar.” Cecylia introduced her cover identity with a pose that would have made any noble proud. Her shoulders were pulled back and her chin held high as she spoke with an imperious tone. Though she wore a friendly smile and met the owner’s eyes directly in a manner nobles rarely did with the lower class in a civilian setting.
“I am here to meet the Wayfarer whose services I chartered.” She then added.
It hadn’t been easy to find an available Wayfarer in the south, as most of them were currently serving the war effort. However, Aouta’s unique history and its role as a ‘reserve fortress’ meant that it had an independent and permanent garrison, including a Wayfarer who couldn’t simply be drafted elsewhere.
The individual they hired still wouldn’t be enough to take them all the way to their destination. Nevertheless, it significantly reduced the distance they’d have to cover by carriage, since everyone agreed that Reynaud’s mana should be reserved for emergencies.
“Ah, yes, ummm, he should be here soon.” The owner of the town’s main tavern stuttered, as though the man was somehow unused to dealing with high class customers.
Perhaps not a surprise. Kaede thought as she looked around the shabby inn that barely had any overnight stayers. Only the locals seemed to congregate here and it was still too early in the day to gather for anyone but the drunks.
Unfortunately, there were quite a few of them around — yet another sign of a town that had declined from its better days. Over a dozen of them gathered at a table and jeered when Cecylia and Kaede first walked in. Even now, the Samaran girl could hear their dirty jokes and feel their eyes trained on the back ribbon of her frilly, black-and-white maid dress. It left her feeling grateful that her current wardrobe had a long skirt, instead of the short one of her usual pseudo-uniform.
“Might you have any estimate of how long?” Cecylia asked politely. Meanwhile, she completely ignored the crass remarks that she could surely hear.
I wish I had her composure.
“He should be here by now, actually,” the Innkeeper answered in a gruff tone as he turned away. “Said he’ll be back by noon after an errand and… speak of the devil.”
The man then peered around and nodded towards the entrance as a rowdy pair marched into the tavern.
“The war in the south requires powder, and we can’t supply one iota with the mine being the way it is!” A young man in his late twenties who wore a padded shirt and an odd-looking kettle helmet almost shouted as he walked in. “Can’t you at least travel to the other towns and look for an engineer?”
“As you yourself have said, our country is in a state of war.” A middle-aged man in his thirties who wore a bright-blue gambeson responded. “Why would I be able to find an engineer in any of the nearby towns? They’re all serving either at the front or with one of the military supply trains. And my duties prohibit me from going that far in search!”
“We can’t just do nothing either!” The first man cried out as he adjusted his kettle helmet and wiped the sweat off his grimy face with his hands.
“Marshal Cosette has requisitioned for as much blast powder as can be provided. With the mines in the south having fallen into enemy hands, it comes to the rest of us to make up the deficit. This is the best chance in decades for our town to make a name for ourselves as well as bringing in money!” He cried out with a glance towards the deadbeats in the corner to make sure they could hear him. “Our sulfur veins are barely tapped, but we can’t bring any meaningful quantity out unless we get this fixed!”
“<I wonder what they need so much blast powder for?>” Kaede asked over the private telepathy network they created since entering the town.
“<Probably to create landslides and avalanches in the mountains.>” Reynaud filled her in. “<The Garonans are excellent at taking advantage of their home terrain.>”
Meanwhile, the Grand Squire and her companions remained silent as they stood listening to the conversation just like everyone else.
“Look, I’ll do what I can to help you. I’m a son of Aouta as much as you are!” The middle-aged man stressed before gesturing to Kaede’s group. “But at the moment I have another customer whom I must see.”
Kaede turned towards Cecylia as her rose-quartz eyes met ruby-red. The dhampir girl nodded as she clearly understood the Samaran girl’s intent. Sure, the familiar recognized that this was a ‘side-quest’ to their main mission. But with the war in mind, any help they could render would also contribute to the Princess’ overall cause.
“We don’t mind waiting a little.” Cecylia said pleasantly as the pair turned towards her. “In fact, Gearóid?” She addressed Gerard using the Brythonic version of his name.
Gerard made a slight scowl for a brief moment, as though he really didn’t want to get involved with the affairs of this town. However, with both Kaede and Cecylia looking towards him, he buried his reservations and stepped up.
“I have a bit of engineering background, if you don’t mind my assistance.”
“Gearóid has served under several master siege engineers during the recent battles in Avorica.” Cecylia cheerfully endorsed him. “And we would be honored to help the war effort in the south as Her Highness the Princess aided us.”
The middle-aged Wayfarer in his blue gambeson looked skeptical as he glanced up and down at Gerard’s apparent youth. However, the younger man who wore the kettle helmet didn’t pause for a single moment before he readily accepted.
“Thank you!” He exclaimed before turning to the Wayfarer. “In that case Felix, can you take us back to the mines?”
“Hey wait a second, you’re going to show these outsiders our new mine shafts without even consulting his Lordship?” The middle-aged man named Felix answered.
“His Lordship entrusted me to run this project and it is my responsibility!” The younger man insisted as he thumped his own chest. “And you should remember that I have His Lordship’s ear as we go way back to our training days!”
Only in a feudal society would someone take pride in such nepotism. Kaede thought with a silent sigh.
Yet, by a stroke of luck, it was also this ‘childhood friend’ of the Count who took the initiative in actively seeking help to fix the mines.
—– * * * —–
“How is it?” Kaede said as she followed Gerard out of the mines to where he stood over an extremely long pipe.
The iron duct ran over the foothills of the mountains from the sheltered chasm where the mine was built. It was responsible for removing water from the mines through the use of a magical pump that took advantage of a nearby ley line. But while the pump itself remained functional, the system as a whole had stopped working recently.
“Not good.” Gerard scowled. “Using a pump to pull the water over several kilopaces instead of pushing isn’t the most reliable design to start. And the construction quality is shoddy — the pipe is leaking and there’s no draw pressure to pull the water with.”
He then turned to private telepathy as he noticed the mine manager walking over: “<I hate to say this, but the townsfolk were ripped off by the people they hired.>”
I guess trust issues go both ways. Kaede frowned.
“Can it be salvaged?” She then asked.
“The good news is that the pipes themselves are solidly built.” Gerard announced loudly as he hit the pipe lightly with the flat side of his voulge. He then turned towards the manager. “You said the pump did work for a while before it stopped?”
“A few weeks, yes.” The young man nodded with a scowl. “We would have never paid those knaves had it not been working in the beginning. The money His Lordship gave me for this project was his family’s savings for the past two decades!”
“The Iron Count must trust you a great deal to place such responsibility on your shoulders.” Kaede forced herself to keep smiling as she commented.
“It was I who persuaded him to undertake this project. Of course I should take responsibility!” The manager answered as though his personal honor was at stake.
“Well, chances are, the pipe leaked from the very beginning, except it wasn’t as noticeable and the problem grew worse over the following weeks of use.” Gerard stated before he sighed and added in telepathy. “<A better inspection would have caught it, but…>”
“<He may be enthusiastic and forward looking, but he’s way too inexperienced.>” Kaede realized with a nod as she looked at the mine manager.
“But as I mentioned, the pipes themselves are solid.” Gerard returned to speaking openly. “The leaks must be at the connection points where, unfortunately, your contractors cheapened out and welded the ends together instead of using fitted pipe connectors. You’ll need to re-test the length of the pipe to find and seal the leak. I suggest welding two half-pipes together and cementing the exterior with mortar this time — starting with the leaks but eventually all connection points.”
“Re-test…” The young man looked dumbfounded. “How do I do that for only a segment at a time without breaking the pipes first?”
“There is a spell. I can teach you, if you…” Gerard trailed off with uncertainty.
“I’m a yeoman, yes.” The young man answered firmly before he realized that he never introduced himself. “Apologies, my name is Leon. My father is the Captain of the Citadel. I may not have his skills in combat, but I’ve always been a quick learner of skilled trades.”
“This afternoon then.” Gerard declared with a hopeful grin. “It might take you a lot longer than a trained engineer to inspect the pipes. But I’m sure you’ll catch on quickly.”
“And the half-pipe connectors that you mention?” Leon replied. “Only one blacksmith remained behind in our town, and none at all in the nearby settlements. All of them have gone to the front lines with their lords.”
Kaede almost pressed her palm into her face as it sunk in just how devastating the war’s impact on society truly was. And this was still winter when they didn’t need every farmhand they could spare in the field.
“I would suggest sending a message south to the frontlines then.” The Samaran girl then recommended. “Give them a generous estimate of how much sulfur you can quickly mine, but only if they lend you the help of their blacksmiths. The pipe connectors themselves are small enough that even a single Wayfarer can bring in many.”
Leon turned to stare at Kaede with an astonished expression, which finally made the girl remember:
Shoot! I’m supposed to be a mere Lady’s Maid!
“Karin always did have good ideas. It’s why Milady is so fond of her.” Gerard rubbed Kaede’s hair with a beaming chuckle as he covered up for the petite girl’s mistake. “In the meantime, you’ll have to focus on determining the priority of which places need fixing. Chances are the connectors you receive will also vary in quality, and knowing where to put your best ones will help. Rely on your blacksmith at home to make any final adjustments…”
The tall engineer then went on for a while providing suggestions. It rather amazed Kaede that a mere ‘civil engineering intern’ had so many tips to give. Gerard was clearly the observant type who had learned a ton from the few years of experience he had.
—– * * * —–
It took Gerard all of that afternoon to teach the leakage-inspection spell to the young man, until the latter could cast it with some reliability. In return, the group had been invited to dine and stay the night in the Citadel with the Iron Count. His Lordship was much younger than Kaede expected at only twenty-eight years of age. The previous Count had died a few years ago from a gliding accident, to Kaede’s great surprise.
Apparently the nobles of the South Lotharingie Mountains really enjoyed climbing mountain peaks and then gliding off them. It was their most famous sport aside from their preference for slings over archery.
The next morning, as Leon came to see the group leave town, he pulled Gerard aside quietly and asked:
“You’re not really just a soldier accompanying a traveling Countess, are you?”
For a long moment, Gerard found himself dumbfounded as he wasn’t sure how to reply. In hindsight, perhaps he did part far too much knowledge to be justifiable as the aide of master siege engineers.
To travel incognito during wartime, it would not be hard to assume — especially for a town suspicious of outsiders — that they were spies. Gerard couldn’t help but glance around him, as a dozen armed guards stood to both sides of the gate that they had yet to pass.
“It doesn’t matter.” Leon then added as his expression broke into a wide smile. “We’re both Lotharins. And it’s clear we both want the Empire to win this conflict. That’s enough for me. Perhaps one day we will meet again, and you can tell me then who you really are.”
“I may not be a son of Aouta, but this town is special to me.” Gerard said as his relaxing expression broke into a smile. He then extended a hand and the two shook each others’ arms. “I’ll be back to visit. You have my word on it.”
Meanwhile from several dozen paces away, Kaede smiled as she listened in from outside of conventional earshot.
One soul at a time. This is how cultural attitudes change.
—– * * * —–
Later that night, Sylviane sat in Pascal’s room as the two of them exchanged thoughts on the day’s events and meetings.
Tonight would be their last night staying in Roazhon, as the Princess’ forces were scheduled to begin their march on the Empire’s capital of Alis Avern on the following morning. This army included the entirety of General Caradoc’s 20,000 strong Army of Ceredigion, nearly 5,000 soldiers from the Kingdom of Avorica, 353 surviving veterans of the elite Black Guard from the Kingdom of Gleann Mòr, and 2,500 experienced troops of the capital’s garrison who would be returning home.
In total, the forces Sylviane gathered to retake Alis Avern numbered nearly 28,000 men. And significant work had been done over the past week to restructure units depleted by combat, integrate communications across cultural and language barriers, and prepare the logistical support necessary to supply the army on its march.
The Princess was still uneasy about the campaign ahead. However, she could at least feel satisfied that they have crossed off every item on her checklist. Nevertheless, she still felt like there was something else that was missing. And after looking around the room, her eyes settled upon the guest bed where she noticed the reduction of pillows at its head.
Of course. She thought to herself as she envisioned the sight of a petite, snowy-haired Samaran girl sitting on the bed with a book.
“It sure is quiet without Kaede here.” Sylviane remarked with a nostalgic smile.
A month ago, the Princess would never have thought that she would actually miss the Samaran girl. Certainly not the cute, wispy voice that the familiar would call her Elder Sister with. It was a remarkable change in how she viewed the young girl, from ‘dangerously innocent potential adversary’ to ‘loyal and faithful friend’ in the mere span of a few weeks.
Had it been anyone else, Sylviane might have to do an internal audit on the suspicion that she had been manipulated. After all, charming characters were abundant when one dealt in court politics, and her father had trained her well on how to not only double-check the attitudes of others, but also herself.
…However, that simply wasn’t the case for Kaede. The familiar had earned the Princess’ trust, and without a bit of ulterior motive except for the girl’s own well being.
“You are telling me.” Her fiancée responded softly as he stared into her with one eye. “I am the one who is sleeping alone again.”
His fiancée gave him a knowing, mildly disapproving look. Although this time, the Princess felt only a momentary flutter of her envy and self-despised jealousy. It never rose by any significant margin, never spiked the way it once did every time Pascal mentioned Kaede in such an intimate tone.
Sylviane then closed her eyes for a brief moment and took a long, deep breath the way Kaede had taught her. And by the time she opened her eyes again, what little of her envy had disappeared completely.
It was as if she had truly come to terms — at least for this one issue.
“You really should learn better than to talk to your betrothed about sleeping with another girl.” She chided.
For a moment Pascal froze, as though worried that he had set her off once again. However, Sylviane’s smile never grew cold or menacing. And her tone remained friendly and warm as she added:
“Yes, I’ve come to see Kaede as a little sister. And I’m okay with her sleeping in the same bed as you now. But we really shouldn’t be pushing the boundaries here, should we?”
“My apologies.” Pascal took on a sheepish look. “It is just that it feels odd without her around.”
“It may be odd for you to hear this, but I feel the same as well.” Sylviane said. “I’ve grown rather used to having her… smooth out your sharp edges.” The Princess then beamed with a giggle.
It made Pascal roll his eyes as he sighed dramatically.
“Speaking of, you have never explained to me why you specifically picked Kaede as the emissary to Duke Hugh.” Pascal commented. “I understand you promoting her to Grand Squire. The girl is trustworthy and loyal to a fault, and her direct connection to us, as the future royal family, gives her much legitimacy as a personal representative from the crown.
“But to send her out on such a sensitive mission when she does not have a millistone of diplomatic experience?” The young lord’s expression grew skeptical. “Her social anxiety does not exactly make her a natural negotiator.”
“No, it doesn’t. But I also wasn’t looking for one.” Sylviane replied, which only left a puzzled expression on Pascal’s countenance.
The Princess then grinned before she continued:
“But all accounts, Henri is a natural prodigy in politics. I haven’t met him personally since before he was a teenager, but I can only surmise that his reputation means he excels in all the fields that I was taught in — rhetoric, speechcraft, negotiations, and scheming.” Sylviane then tilted her head to one side before she asked.
“Now you’re a strategist by training. Tell me, why would I send someone who is trained to fight in our opponent’s style, against a natural genius, on the battleground of his choosing?”
It took only a split second before Pascal realized her meaning and chuckled. “Indirect approach.”
“Exactly.” Sylviane nodded. “If I sent someone to try to manipulate Henri, it would only go against his strong suit and backfire. So instead, I sent Kaede, who is honest and straightforward to a fault and genuinely holds no ill intentions towards other people, whose modus operandi is to seek ‘win-win’ solutions where both sides benefit. Yet at the same time, the girl is neither gullible nor easy to hoodwink.
“It is a rare combination that Kaede has,” the Princess then added in an admiring voice as she felt almost… envious of the Samaran girl. “It’s like she has shed most of the downsides of childish naivety, yet kept many of innocence’s advantages. I can only imagine what a loving family she grew up in.”
Her final comment made Pascal look down with a guilty conscience made clear in his pursed lips and abashed gaze.
“It is why I am so glad that you and her are now on good terms, Sylviane.” He declared in a sincere voice that came from the bottom of his heart. “I owe Kaede a kind family for what I had taken.”
It was a rare moment of selfless humility from Pascal, a request made only for the benefit of another, and Sylviane did not miss it.
The Princess returned a genuine smile as she nodded in agreement.
“And she is worth every bit of it.”Author's Comment
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