“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh…” Kaede held her mouth wide open to catch the wind as she rode in the front of the horse-drawn carriage.
Cecylia had used her contacts through the Black Eagles to arrange for a carriage several towns back. The vehicle had belonged to one of the local merchants and was currently ‘on loan’ to Kaede’s traveling party. The carriage was richly furnished with a sturdy, mahogany frame and leather benches. But it was also a lightweight model with a folding, canvas top, and was pulled by four horses and two Phantom Steeds for extra speed.
Of course, their travel speed still couldn’t compare to any modern car or train. Though with the conjured and tireless Phantom Steeds pulling at the front, which reduced both wind drag and exertion on the magebred horses, they were able to maintain a consistent fast canter. It also helped that Cecylia had planned their travel route to start by teleporting from Aouta to a town in the South Lotharingie Mountains and then journeying downhill for three days. The horses were currently moving at a near-gallop as they rushed downhill, and it was a sign of Gerard’s aptitude as the driver that he was able to keep the carriage under perfect control as they bounced down the straight slope.
“I suggest you close your mouth before you accidentally swallow a pebble.” Gerard cried out in a humored tone over the sound of iron horseshoes striking the dirt and gravel road.
“Not to mention it’s extremely improper of a Lady’s Maid.” Cecylia said from inside the carriage. Though her tone was also more amused than reprimanding.
“Sorry.” Kaede remarked sheepishly as she closed her lips. “Old habit.”
The petite girl sat next to the tall and burly Gerard in the front of the carriage. It made Kaede feel like a child again as Gerard was easily tall enough to use her head as an armrest. It wasn’t exactly proper for a Lady’s Maid to sit with the chauffeur. However, Kaede both hated the smell of the leather and suffered from motion sickness, which prompted her to trade spots with Reynaud who now sat inside the carriage.
“Kaede, where you come from, do people like to keep their mouths open while traveling?” Cecylia asked in both humor and curiosity. Though her voice also betrayed her discomfort from the bumpy carriage ride. “Because that is a really odd habit.”
“No. It’s more something kids from my world like to do when the wind is blowing into their faces.” Kaede answered as she felt embarrassment creep into her cheeks.
Growing up, it was something she did almost daily during the summer when the electric fan was turned on. It was an activity she found extremely relaxing, especially in the years before she learned to meditate.
“It’s good to kick back and relax during moments like these. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.” Reynaud beamed. “Besides, it’s cute!”
I wonder if people would still say that if I was still a young man? Kaede thought as she gave a little wry smile. Her chest felt constricted as her mind dwelled on the kind face of her Russian grandmother from her childhood memories.
“Whoooooaaa!” Gerard then cried out as he used both verbal command and a steady pull on the reins to get the horses to slow down. There was a bend in the road coming up ahead in a few hundred paces, and the surface was not at all inclined to match their speed.
“Gerard, when did you learn how to drive?” Kaede took the opportunity to shift the topic.
“When I was ten and my papa began teaching me how to make deliveries for the family bakery.” The burly ‘chauffeur’ replied. “It was also what allowed me to get a broader education than mere literacy, as my parents sure didn’t have the time to bring me to and back from the monastery every day for years.”
It was yet another reminder to Kaede that before the dawn of modern universal education, only the children of affluent families could afford to pursue proper schooling.
“I thought you told me once that most middle-class families would send their children to the monastery for basic education?” She asked.
“Yes.” Gerard nodded. “Most yeomen parents would send their children to an abbey or monastery during the summer, when there was plenty of spare farm labor to go around. Children from far away settlements like myself would even stay at the convent for many weeks, and this usually went on for three to four years between the ages of seven and twelve. It was considered good for the spirit to experience a monastic life, not to mention meeting kids from neighboring communities. And during that time the monks taught us reading, writing, and accounting — basic mathematics — in exchange for a donation from every family.”
“That can’t be easy for the monks.” The familiar commented as she imagined the rambunctious kids turning the quiet monastery upside down.
“No. Not at all.” Gerard laughed. “But compassion and patience are Trinitian virtues which the monks sought to practice. They also had plenty of land that we can run wild in, and good behavior was only enforced by the stick during meals and lessons.”
How is caneing a child ‘compassion’?
Kaede’s eyebrows rose slightly as the complete banning of corporal punishment on children in Japan was one of the last major events she remembered from her former life. It had been signed into law on February 2020, much to the disagreement of her traditionalist father.
— And just like that time, she opted not to comment.
“Though if you lived in the convent during your education, what necessitated the trips back and forth?” The Samaran girl then asked.
“Because I wanted to continue.” Gerard said. “I wasn’t satisfied with just the basics. I wanted to learn more words and more ways of using numbers!” He commented excitedly as though reliving his childhood passion. “The monks are the keepers of so much knowledge in our society, from records and scriptures to illumination and fermentation. It seemed a waste to learn only the basics and ignore everything else that could be used to make the people’s lives better!”
“I’m amazed, Gerard.” Cecylia commented from the back. “You’ve never struck me as the particularly bookish type.”
“I’m not.” The tall engineer countered. “Books are just another tool. What I want is the knowledge to help people!”
You really are a big brother through and through. Kaede thought with a smile before she asked:
“I’m guessing your parents were supportive of you expanding your education then?”
Even in the modern world, too many struggling families had to pull their children out of school early to help supplement the family income. And this was especially the case for any ‘eldest son’. Kaede herself had known a classmate in high school who slept through many of his classes because he was too busy working at his family’s ramen stand at night. Needless to say, there was zero chance of that young man going to college to receive higher education, which left him stuck doing the exact same thing as his own parents.
“Not initially.” Gerard commented in a plain voice. “They had expected me to become another baker, just like their parents and grandparents before them. After all, my extended family collectively owns over a dozen bakeries across the region. It’s actually pretty fun when everybody gets together for a wedding or childbirth and we all exchange the latest ideas and recipes.” He noted with a chuckle.
Generational professionals were certainly common enough back in the day. Kaede smiled and nodded.
“But I convinced my parents that even as just a baker, I could stand to benefit from understanding more advanced studies like alchemy.” The engineer continued. “After all, is the fermentation of yeast not itself a science? Do bakers not constantly experiment with different ratios of ingredients cooked at different temperatures? Well — how about having someone in the family who actually understood why dough rises in a certain way, instead of relying purely on trial and error?”
“That’s more or less the same argument I remember you using when applying for engineering at Alisia.” Reynaud chuckled.
“Yes, well, nobody said you can’t shoot the same arrow twice.” Gerard shrugged. “Besides, it’s true. As I always say — baking is a science.”
Kaede nodded. Too many people forget that science isn’t just a career or profession, but also a way of life. To make a hypothesis, test a method, and observe results was a process that could be applied to every aspect of daily life.
“So anyways, that argument got my parents halfway there, but I still had to play my part in the family business.” Gerard continued with a sense of pride in his voice. “I convinced my parents to let me run all daily bread deliveries, and to make up for the rest by being the first person to get up every morning to start the ovens. I also took all of my younger siblings that were willing to join me, as well as anyone else from the nearby villages — as long as their family was a good customer of our bakery.” He looked down at Kaede with a smirk.
It was clear that the tall engineer considered the journey to acquire his education as one of his life’s accomplishments.
Complimentary services. Kaede chuckled. “You’d make quite the entrepreneur.”
“My parents thought so too.” Gerard beamed before his smile turned a hint sour. “They were actually disappointed when I accepted Perceval’s generous offer to help me enroll at Alisia as an engineering student. Thought I’d be able to leverage my relationship with Lord Baguette to establish a renowned bakery that would bring prestige to the whole family.” The engineer finished.
Kaede almost snorted, but managed to half-suppress it into a weird exhaling sound at the last second.
“Parents are always disappointed when we refuse to be the next torchbearer of their lifelong dreams.” Reynaud commented. “All you can do is prove to them that we can soar even higher, just like I did.”
The redheaded armiger’s proud statement only brought mixed emotions to Kaede’s chest once more.
I wonder what Papa would think of me today, as the Grand Squire of an Empire? The Samaran girl couldn’t help thinking.
Though she didn’t doubt for a second as she imagined her father’s face glowing with pride as he grinned back from ear to ear.
—– * * * —–
“Is that…?” Kaede asked as she pointed at a small town in the distance while the dusk sun began to set behind her.
“Blancheroche, yes.” Gerard nodded. “We’re almost there. And it’ll be the last stop before we arrive at Duke Hugh’s Castle at Outremont.”
The settlement was built on the southern slopes of a hill near a river’s bend. And as the carriage descended from the roads that traversed the edge of the South Lotharingie Mountains, they had a perfect view of the river valley as well as the small town on the opposing bank.
“I swear these towns all look like they’re cut from the same mold.” Kaede thought out loud as she examined the settlement that likely had a population of roughly four hundred. “It’s always a stone castle on top, a walled community built along one slope, and surrounded by a ditch plus ponds at the bottom. Even the buildings’ layout inside the walls feel similar.”
“The Lotharins do like to build them in that pattern.” Cecylia remarked. “Even the layout of Alis Avern followed the trend.”
Kaede thought back to her days in the Empire’s capital when she realized it was true. Alis Avern might be situated on an island and had a far bigger castle on top. But the royal capital was still built along the southern slopes of its hill, stretching from the harbor to the rocky crag where the Oriflamme Palace stood.
“Is there a reason for this?” Kaede looked up at Gerard to ask.
“Of course.” The tall engineer said before he happily began to explain. “Most Lotharin towns are agrarian settlements built as defensive holdouts. Several centuries of incessant conflicts have taught us a lot on how to build farming communities that are defensible, low maintenance, and easy to renew. These experiences allowed us to create a set of rules that have since become common wisdom in Lotharin culture.”
“What do you mean by ‘easy to renew’?” Kaede raised her eyebrows.
“Are you familiar with the study of Permanent Agriculture, or Permaculture?” Gerard asked in return, to which Kaede shook her head.
“It’s a field of study in land management that I focused on quite a bit during my days in Alisia.” Gerard continued. “The idea is that farming communities should not rely on expensive subsidies like spells and fertilizer to stay productive and not deplete the land. Instead, we should be designing our villages in a manner that allows nature to regenerate itself even as we benefit. But to do this effectively, we must understand the land first — how the soil, the forest, the animals, the weather, the hydrology, how everything must work together. Only then can we manipulate the biome without disrupting it in a manner that’s harmful to our descendants.”
Synergistic agriculture with environmental engineering. Kaede nodded as she thought back to the environmental science boom of modern Earth. She could swear she has heard of the phrase ‘permaculture’ once before.
“Didn’t one of the Oriflammes start that whole field of study?” Reynaud pitched in.
“Not quite. Laetitia de Estrées, one of the twelve Oriflamme Paladins of the Independence War, is often attributed with bringing Permaculture to national recognition.” Gerard corrected him. “But the knowledge of permaculture has been passed down by the druids since the days of the Faerie Lords. Ceredigion historians even argue that it was the Faerie Lords themselves who first introduced agriculture to humanity.”
“I guess it’s quite important for a country that had just emerged from centuries of continuous bloodshed to have a means of productive agriculture.” Cecylia added.
“Very.” Gerard responded as he carefully maneuvered the carriage through a one-eighty bend in the mountainous road. “We Lotharins have neither the human nor material resources to match our wealthier neighbors. All we have is an abundance of land, which means it’s all the more important to utilize that land in an effective manner. The greatest advantage of Permaculture is that it requires minimum maintenance for the land to stay productive. And it matters less when foreign invaders burn down every field if we could revitalize them within a year.”
It was a reminder to Kaede that every field of study in the world was interconnected. And also how the military history of the Lotharins fundamentally affected every aspect of their culture.
“So is that why every town seemed to be built on the southern slopes of a hill and near a river or lake?” Kaede pulled the discussion back to her original question.
“Yes.” Gerard nodded as he raised his hand and held it against the outline of the hill to highlight its slope. “The standard design for a Lotharin settlement is to build on the south-facing slopes of a hill, starting at the slope-break where the incline turns from gentle to steep. The area below the break is dedicated to farming fields while the area above is where the settlement begins. We also usually build several wide, crescent-shaped ponds just beneath the town, both to serve as a reservoir moat and to naturally replenish the water and nutrients to the fields.”
“But why only the southern slope?” Kaede inquired.
“It’s to maximize the amount of sunlight each home receives.” Gerard gestured to their sun in the southern skies. “Lotharin homes are built with their widest side facing south while the narrowest side faces west. This is crucial in the winter when the sun is low on the horizon and can be blocked by mountains or hills. Meanwhile, the summer sun is high and we limit exposure to the east and west to stay cool. This also plays a big role in internal design — living areas and large windows face south, kitchens face east for the morning sun, and storage sheds face west to keep the summer nights cool.
“And because of this, it’s conventional for streets within our settlements to zigzag uphill, with buildings constructed at a sharp angle to the road.” Gerard added as he pointed at the town in the distance where Kaede could see the stitch-like pattern of roads. “This both makes it harder for attackers to reach the top — as every house can be turned into a strongpoint to shoot down — while allowing every home to be built facing south.”
And here I thought Fengshui was mere superstition. Kaede felt a little stunned as she connected the dots back to what she knew.
“What’s ‘Fenshi’?” Gerard asked with a frown as the petite girl had unknowingly muttered out loud.
“Ah, sorry. It’s a traditional practice of landscaping and home design from my world.” Kaede replied. “I don’t know too much about it. But I think it’s founded upon the same core principles as what you speak of.”
“Well, you wouldn’t be the first to mistake it for superstition. The Imperials do so all the time and endlessly mock us in their propaganda.” Gerard said with a sigh. “Even merchants from the forests of Ceredigion and the temperate coastal plains of Avorica often fail to understand why the rest of Rhin-Lotharingie build in this manner. People often forget that as the climate and geography changes, so do the local customs.”
Ethnocentric thinking. Kaede frowned inwardly as it has been a long time since she herself could be accused of it. This was actually one of her pet peeves back on modern Earth, where netizens often belittled other cultures for traditions that they failed to understand.
“The Lotharin town design does remind me a bit of the motte-and-bailey setup that us Weichsens used to build,” Cecylia commented as she brought their conversation back to the main topic. “Though with a castle placed on top of the hill with a sloped ditch running down both sides, it’s certainly easier to defend.”
“More than just defend.” Gerard returned to his explanation. “The fortification built on the hilltop offers significantly more visibility for the garrison, which allows them to better spot threats and command the countryside. The ditch that surrounds the walls also serves as drainage, with a variety of berry bushes and small fruit trees planted to the side to stop soil erosion and impede scaling ladders. It also funnels rainwater from across the hill to the crescent ponds that you see flanking the main gates. Those ponds are used to irrigate the fields between them and the river through subsurface seepage, while simultaneously protecting the most vulnerable part of the settlement.”
“It truly is a synergistic design.” Cecylia openly admired.
“What about the ponds and ditches in the surrounding hills?”
Kaede pointed out as she noticed the lanes cut across the surrounding slopes, except this time the entire ditch would be dug at roughly the same altitude. Each of them fed water to a pond while being secured by trees on both sides. It made them look almost like elevation lines drawn onto the rolling hills.
“Those are purely for irrigation and groundwater replenishment. Though many larger ponds are also used to raise ducks or frogs, which are not only useful for pest control but are also a delicacy for nobles and commons respectively.” Gerard beamed. “Since this town is built in the shadow of the South Lotharingie Mountains, it becomes all the more important for them to catch what rain they can. Otherwise the only water their crops have is what they can bring uphill from the river. And that often requires more labor or magic than we’d like.”
“Even with ley lines?” Kaede brought up the nigh-infinite energy source that Geomancers in Hyperion tapped.
“Not all of these smaller towns are built along ley lines. And those that are generally prioritize security and industrial needs over farming.” Gerard answered. “Ley-lines anchors aren’t just expensive. They also have limitations on how closely they can be built together, so small settlements can only have a few ley-line powered enchantments at most.”
“So it really is all about reducing external resource needs.” Kaede concluded. Even modern Earth could learn a thing or two from this.
“Yes.” Gerard nodded. “There’s a lot more to talk about, like why it’s necessary to always convert the waste of one actor into nutrients for another, why it’s important to divide the fields based on the topography and its effect on water flow, and why it’s essential to rotate the fields between a diverse crop of grains, roots, brassicas, and legumes.” Gerard outlined several more topics to show that they were just scratching the surface of this field.
Meanwhile, Kaede looked up briefly as she heard the flapping of wings approach. A black raven with white feathers above its neck dove down from the skies before slowing its descent and matching speed with the wagon.
“But in general, Permaculture is all about maximizing access to the resources that are freely available, from sunlight and rainwater to gravity and biomass.” Gerard added as he stretched out an arm for his familiar to land upon. “This allows us to create productive and resilient farming communities that are entirely self-sufficient. No need for fancy nitrate fertilizer, pumped water, or expensive Stormcallers.”
India, that’s where I remember reading about this! Kaede remembered at last, as India had been undergoing a massive permaculture revolution to revitalize the depleted water tables caused by over a century of intensive farming. And in many places, the people were returning to traditional methods of land and water management, which they had used before the British colonial administration arrogantly changed them.
It was an excellent example of how society really did not need to brute force every problem through magic or industry. Sometimes all that was needed was a thorough understanding of the environment — the wisdom that human communities accumulated through generations.
—– * * * —–
Night had fallen by the time Kaede’s party crossed the stone bridge over the river and entered the small town. They made their way to a tavern near the front gates, where Reynaud requested two rooms for the night. The inn wasn’t fancy in any way but its guest quarters were surprisingly clean. Kaede and Cecylia also took the best room, which consisted of a large wicker bed covered by furs as well as a smaller one dressed in quilts that were likely reserved for a child or close servant.
“Haaaaa…” Cecylia sighed as she collapsed onto the big bed as soon as she took off her outerwear.
“Tired? Milady?” Kaede said as she closed the door.
“I hate traveling by carriage, especially down a mountain.” Cecylia remarked as she stared up at the nondescript ceiling. “All that nonstop rocking and bumping. Having to keep my body braced the whole time… it’s exhausting. And my stamina isn’t great to begin with.” She finished before propping up her torso with her elbows.
Kaede returned a sympathetic smile as riding a carriage certainly wasn’t as easy as it looked. Riding a horse — even a semi-physical Phantom Steed — was far more preferable in comfort as one could at least predict the ups and downs. Nevertheless, Cecylia had argued that an all-mounted four-person party was too easily mistaken for enemy infiltrators and scouts.
The Samaran girl fared a bit better since her small frame didn’t shake as much and she was riding up front. Nevertheless, as the day drew to a conclusion, Kaede was feeling more and more nervous about what lay ahead. By tomorrow afternoon, she would expect them to have arrived at Outremont and begun negotiations with Duke Hugh.
And I don’t feel ready by a longshot. The familiar thought as she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, only for her moment of solitude to be disrupted by a growl from Cecylia’s stomach.
“Kaede, could you go get us some food from the kitchens?” Cecylia asked as she giggled. “<I’ll get up to scan and ward our rooms in a moment.>” She then added over telepathy.
Cecylia had been careful to always scan their rooms for scrying sensors and to ward them from eavesdropping. It was yet another layer of precaution to ensure that their true identities wouldn’t be revealed by accident.
“Yes Milady,” Kaede dipped in a slight curtsy before leaving through the door and closing it behind her.
The Samaran girl walked through the narrow corridor and took the spiraling staircase down. The main floor of the tavern was filled with rowdy locals who sat around several tables drinking. Two men in plain tunics played an aerophone and a tambourine while those gathered around the bar led a singalong. Dozens of locals including several barmaids all joined in as a jolly and festive atmosphere filled the floor, and Kaede herself couldn’t help but beam until she realized just what they were singing.
“…The land fell into chaos and the holy men feared for their poor souls! But we don’t care and order some more and get drunk like there’s no tomorrow!”
What a depressing drinking song.
Kaede thought before she noticed a bald man who sat at the head of a table. He sang with a tankard of sloshing liquor in hand while he leaned over to slap the rear of a tavern girl. The young woman shook her finger at him but otherwise didn’t seem bothered as the men continued their song. However, what astonished Kaede the most was that the bald man also wore a pastor’s robe.
“…So pour me some more and make my world spin! Cause who knows if demons may show up again in the morrow!” The entire group all cheered and raised their steins to take a deep drink as the singalong came to an end.
“And I say f-fuck those fat bishops and Gabriel!” The bald prelate shouted in a slightly slurred voice as he downed his liquor and slammed the tankard onto the table. “I ain’t selling those filthy pieces of pi-pigskin just so the kingslayer could collect two extra silver from us! You all know that (hic) I have my sins but avarice ain’t one of them!”
“You said it, Father.” One of the townsfolk shouted back. “Who the fuck does Gabriel even think he is? A pretender who can’t even sit on the throne — no phoenix chose him for the Emperor’s crown!”
“The Imps chose him. And those corrupt decadent Papists who spit on our Lord’s legacy!” Another man cried out while those around him nodded in agreement. “And if our duke, His Hugeness, had anything but fat in that thick skull of his, we’d tell the fake Emperor to shove his new taxes back up his sodomite ass!”
“<Someone sure is unpopular.>” Kaede commented over telepathy as she noticed Reynaud leave the bar and approach her.
“<Can you blame them?>” The short armiger replied. “<Both the new taxes and the sale of indulgences are deeply unpopular with the commons. The towns have already contributed to the war effort, yet the pretender Gabriel — who hasn’t sent a single banner to reinforce the front — insists on squeezing every copper out of them.>”
Kaede then looked over as the redhead came to stand beside her with his armor already off and his hand carrying a tankard of booze.
“<You weren’t the one who led them to start this, were you?>”
She had already learned earlier this trip that Reynaud was excellent at mingling with the common folk.
“<Nah, I was just chatting with the priest when I asked him about the new policies.>” Reynaud answered with a smirk. “<The rest was all his pent-up frustration. Though I’m sure the tankard I bought him loosened his lips.>” He added before taking a sip of his own.
You’re a natural-born agitator. The familiar half-chuckled and half-scoffed.
“So what’d you come down for? I thought Her Ladyship wanted to rest?” Reynaud then asked as he returned to regular speech.
“Her Ladyship is also famished,” Kaede answered. “So am I, for that matter. Please tell me they have something other than liquid bread.”
“Oh no, this is just appetizer.” He glanced down at his drink. “They’ve got something much better here. I’m waiting for them to finish my order.” Reynaud grinned like a kid in a candy store. “And don’t worry, I requested enough for all four of us.”
Kaede was curious about what Reynaud had opted for as she followed him back to the bar of the tavern. The local men glanced up and down her dress with interested looks but otherwise said nothing about her presence. A few of them glanced at Reynaud before receiving a serious look from him. It seemed the armiger had already built up some rapport with the townsfolk during the brief time Kaede was upstairs.
One of the barmaids approached Kaede and asked if the girl would like to order anything. Kaede smiled nervously and replied that they were already waiting. The barmaid then left for the kitchens to check on their food before returning several minutes later with a huge wooden platter. Four bowls sat on top with bread and cheese, hearty stew, cooked lentils and nuts, and what looked like a mound of elongated and sauteed chicken legs.
“What are those?” Kaede asked as she took one of the smaller bowls that another maid brought out. The familiar began to ladle soup into it so she could bring two meals back upstairs.
“Fried frog legs.” Reynaud beamed as he grabbed one and immediately stuffed his face with it. “<I’ve missed this so much during our time in Avorica.>”
Kaede blinked back in surprise as she hadn’t encountered this once during her time in Alisia and Alis Avern. She then remembered Gerard’s comment about ducks and frogs being delicacies for nobles and commoners ‘respectively’.
Anxious to try, she tore a small piece off and placed it in her mouth. The aroma was mouthwatering and a glowing smile immediately came to her lips. The way the meat slid off the thin bone left an exquisite taste on her tongue. And the herb seasoning added just the right touch of spice to the tender, juicy meat.
“Oh this is so good.” The familiar closed her eyes as she savored the moment.
“Isn’t it?” The redheaded armiger grinned.
“Hey you ordered extra, nicely done!” Gerard’s gruff voice then joined in as the ‘chauffeur’ finally arrived after taking care of the animals. He shook free the water on his freshly washed hands before diving his fingers straight into the plate of frog legs.
With complete disregard for the other food, the two young men quickly began to devour the meat using their bare hands. The way they ate made Kaede realize why this food wasn’t considered high class, as sauteed frog legs were basically the equivalent of ‘finger food’.
Nevertheless, Kaede snatched some for Cecylia and herself before the men could hog them all. She then scooped out balanced servings of all the other dishes — while trying a bite of each in turn — before she placed the small bowls onto another wooden tray.
“I’ll be taking these back upstairs to eat with Her Ladyship then,” Kaede said as she turned to leave. “Don’t stay too long or overdrink. We have quite the day ahead tomorrow.”
“We will, we will!” Reynaud answered with a mouthful of food as she left.
The Samaran girl smiled as she realized that her anxieties about tomorrow still affected her behavior. Though her brief trip into the festive tavern certainly helped in taking her mind off things.
Kaede continued to hear the music and the rowdy crowd as she slowly made her way back upstairs. Though the instruments had changed as the Lotharin men demonstrated their musical culture. She focused her attention on keeping the tray in balance as they walked across the hallway and back to her room with Cecylia. The door had been left open and she walked straight in, only to almost jump as she raised her head and saw what Cecylia was doing.
The dhampir girl stood with her right arm extended against a wall. Her hand clenched like talons around the throat of a mousy young man in his early twenties. The man tried to kick her but his legs were feeble and barely had any impact. Meanwhile, Cecylia’s eyes were glowing with a deep crimson as she stared at the terrified man’s gray gaze.
“Wha…” Kaede looked between the two before she rushed to close the door.
“Imperial spy.” Cecylia said in a cold voice. “Caught him sneaking inside.”
“I’m not… a spy… for the Imperi…” The young man barely managed to say in a choked voice. His arms struggled against Cecylia’s grip. Yet despite how thin the dhampir’s own wrists were, he couldn’t move her by the slightest.
It was as if he was being sapped of all strength.
“I’m… Emperor Gabri–”
The young man didn’t even finish before Cecylia squeezed harder around his throat while kneeing him in the groin. The man spasmed and tried to cry out as tears rushed out of eyes that almost popped out from their sockets. No sound emerged from either of them as Cecylia’s spell completely suppressed all noise. And it was only when the dhampir withdrew her bloody knee when Kaede saw the blade that jutted out from it.
The Samaran girl winced as she realized that Cecylia had just shoved a dagger straight into the man’s groin. However the dhampir girl wasn’t done yet as she leveled her right hand against his neck before a blade extended from her sleeves. She then pushed the steel edge straight into the underside of his chin. It took only a few seconds after that for all life to leave the man’s gaze.
Cecylia finally let go of the lifeless corpse and allowed it to slide onto the floor. The girl was breathing hard as she dismissed the Silence spell and cast Cleanse on her blood-soaked dress.
Meanwhile, the familiar stood dumbfounded by the closed door as her mind struggled to make the transition from festive tavern celebration to cold-blooded murder scene.
“Sorry about that, Kaede.” Cecylia said as she pulled out an extradimensional storage sack from her belongings. “Help me get his corpse in here. We’ll have to dispose of this after we leave town.”
“W-won’t they notice he’s missing?” Kaede whispered as she could still feel herself trembling. The familiar stared at the body that had been alive a mere minute ago as her mind still struggled to process what had just happened.
“Not before we leave.” Cecylia answered as she ‘tossed’ the sack to straighten the enchanted fabric. “Besides, I don’t think he works in this inn. A delivery boy at best.” She gestured towards the flat messenger bag he wore to his side.
Finally coming to her senses, the Samaran girl put down the tray of food on a nightstand before she slowly moved up to the dead body. It took another minute before she crouched down to help Cecylia roll the small sack over the corpse that was much larger than it.
“How did you do that?” Kaede asked several minutes later as Cecylia cast several more cleansing spells to return the room to normal. “He might be on the short side but he’s still a grown man.”
“A dhampir’s gaze can mesmerize and weaken through direct eye contact.” Cecylia smiled knowingly back at the familiar, which reminded Kaede of that night at Alisia Academy when Cecylia had looked into her eyes after they first met. “Aside from that and a strength-booster for myself… well, there are some state secrets that I shan’t reveal, hehe.”
It was certainly more than enough to make Kaede realize that she should never piss Cecylia off.
—– * * * —–
None of the members of Kaede’s group managed a good rest that night. Cecylia couldn’t be sure if the spy informed anyone else before she caught him, so they warded the rooms with extra precautions and took turns staying up to keep watch. The four of them checked out as soon as dawn arrived and headed back onto the road.
Gerard and Reynaud also helped Cecylia dispose of the corpse. They buried it twenty kilopaces outside of town in some woods.
Unlike the previous days, the four of them talked very little before making it to their destination — the fortress-city of Outremont, capital of the Duchy of Lorraine.
The city was built onto the southern slopes of an outcrop mountain that stood at the northeastern end of the South Lotharingie Mountain range. It kept watch over a strategic nexus of several major roads, including the South Lotharingie River as it widened past the steep terrain. The fortress settlement was formidable, with two layers of thick stone curtain walls that rang rings around the city, large projecting bastions that protruded from the lower walls, and even a crowded market built atop an elevated ravelin that shielded the main gate. This design left it looking like an odd hybrid between a Medieval castle and an early Renaissance Star Fortress, except one built upon very rough terrain.
Yet, unlike the declining fortress-town of Aouta, Outremont was a prosperous and bustling city of commerce that had long outgrown its old self. The city’s stout walls separated its districts into the old and rich ‘upper city’, the poorer ‘lower city’, and several suburbs built atop external earthworks. Meanwhile, Duke Hugh’s white castle sat at the peak of the small mountain that the city stood upon. It held a commanding view that towered over the fortress’s surrounding countryside by at least twenty stories of total height and elevation difference.
As the group made their way into the city, Cecylia had met someone at the local tavern to ‘return’ their borrowed carriage. The four of them then trekked through the imposing gatehouses of the inner walls and castle. A squad of soldiers met them at the castle gates and offered to escort them to meet the Duke. It was clear that the Princess had sent a message ahead of them and their arrival was expected.
The Samaran girl had shed her maid outfit back at the tavern for her new dress as the Princess’ Grand Squire. She forced herself to take deep breaths as she strode up the red carpet with her head held high. The familiar was flanked by Cecylia in a Weichsel dress uniform on one side, while Reynaud and Gerard followed on the other with the redhead wearing his royal armiger’s cape.
Kaede wasn’t surprised when she was led into an audience chamber that was as grandiose and kingly as any royal court. The place felt more like a small cathedral than a ducal court with its high ceiling and ribbed vaults. Intricate sculptures decorated the gables while light poured through tall, stained glass windows. The entire room was arranged to ensure that the light best illuminated the raised platform where the Duke sat and those who stood before him.
Around two dozen nobles and courtiers stood in the back of the court as Kaede made her way up to the throne. The Duke’s soldiers and armigers lined up on both sides of the carpet in full armor with their weapons drawn. Their silence was unnerving as every pair of eyes across the huge audience chamber fell upon Kaede. Only the sound of her companions’ boots could be heard as the four-member party approached the throne in a tense and oppressive atmosphere.
Ignore the pomp and concentrate. The familiar swallowed as she tried to ignore her skittish nerves.
The muted ceremony was clearly intended to unsettle and intimidate the Princess’ emissary, all the while serving as a reminder of House La Tours’ power and influence. Kaede knew that her battle ahead would not be easy, as she would be fighting on her opponents’ home ground. Therefore, she did her best to not be distracted by the surroundings and center her gaze on the Duke whom she came to greet.
The corpulent and severely obese body of Duke Hugh sat upon a stone throne like a supersized blob of man-shaped pudding. His blubber overflowed onto the chair’s armrests as though the generous seat was still too small for him. It was a potent reminder of his unflattering nickname ‘Huge the Rotund’, which conveniently passed through Kaede’s mind in the mocking tone of Elspeth’s schoolgirl soprano.
Can he even get up there by himself? The familiar couldn’t help but wonder.
It wasn’t quite enough to bring a smile to Kaede’s lips. But for a brief moment, she felt the tension and pressure upon thin shoulders alleviate. The Samaran girl took a deep breath before she stepped into the light that criss-crossed before the raised platform.
“Your Grace.” Kaede dipped down in a curtsy while she lowered her head in a deep and courteous bow. She then placed her hand on top of her chest and introduced herself.
“My name is Kaede Nikita Konstantinovna Suvorskaya, Grand Squire of the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie. I come before you as the emissary of Her Highness, the Crown Princess Sylviane Etiennette de Gaetane.”
“Yes, I know who you are.” The Duke said with an expression that was rather hard to discern due to the swaying fat of his many chins. “To think that the Princess would send a familiar to treat with me. I would be amused, if I wasn’t offended by such ridicule.” His gaze hardened as he finished.
Kaede drew in a sharp breath as she felt taken aback by how badly this was going from the very start. Pascal’s intelligence officer Hans Ostergalen did inform her that Duke Hugh was one of those nobles with an abundance of blue-blooded prejudice. Nevertheless, it was not uncommon for those of low birth to be promoted into offices of state service even in the Empire. It would be a stretch to claim sending Kaede was ‘discourteous’, let alone ‘offensive’.
“Y-Your Grace.” Kaede tried to speak up and not retreat back to her usual, wispy voice. But the Duke cut her off without giving her any opportunity to explain.
“Yes, I have heard that you are close to Her Highness. But you are nevertheless a mere servant, and your undeserved promotion does not change that fact.” He declared before giving a derisive snort. “Nevertheless, your intimacy to both the Princess and her Wicker fiancé does give you value. And I shall gladly make use of it, by offering you to His Majesty, Emperor Gabriel, as a sign of my goodwill.”
The Samaran girl heard the sound of cold steel being drawn as her entourage pulled out their weapons. But as a translucent magic barrier crackling with electrical charge slammed down in front of them between her and the Duke, she immediately realized that this was all prepared theater and she had walked into a trap.
It was clear that Gabriel had been one step ahead of them, and the false Emperor had already secured House La Tour’s crucial allegiance.
“Arrest them all.” The Duke unilaterally ended the negotiations before they even began.Author's Comment
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