Kaede sat slumped on the hard stone floor of a dark dungeon cell. Her hands were raised above her shoulders and cuffed in unforgiving steel manacles. Their chains were pulled into a small hole in the wall at roughly an average man’s waist height. The length that emerged allowed just enough movement for her hands to scratch a growing itch on her cheek.
The familiar sighed as she briefly looked around her tiny jail cell once more. The confined space she inhabited was barely over two meters in any dimension. Its walls were built of rough limestone which left the atmosphere feeling even more stifling. Kaede was glad that she was the opposite of claustrophobic, as she normally found small spaces quite cozy. However, a tiny cell in Duke Hugh’s dungeons was far too distant from any definition of comfort, especially with its dimly lit interior, where the sole source of light filtered through a small, murky window near the ceiling.
Well, I did expect to get thrown into a dungeon on my first day in Hyperion. This is a long time coming. The familiar considered as she tried to comfort herself.
Never thought I’d fail my first job this spectacularly though.
Kaede thought back to the standoff in Duke Hugh’s throne room where they were hopelessly outnumbered from the start. The barrier that had split the room also made it impossible for them to even reach Duke Hugh and his nobles. Her companions had all been willing to fight, but only one of them was a trained armiger who specialized in combat. There was almost zero possibility that they could break free, especially when they were in the heart of their enemy’s fortress.
The cautious advance from Hugh’s soldiers did offer Kaede enough time to properly assess their situation. Even if the enemy had orders to prioritize capturing them alive, swords didn’t have eyes, and there was always a chance that one of them could be maimed or killed in the fight.
Therefore, Kaede told Cecylia and Gerard to stand down instead of risking their lives. She then ordered Reynaud to escape, and after some initial hesitation, the redhead had little difficulty doing thanks to his lightning transformation magic. The royal armiger leapt up to one of the stained-glass windows which he shattered to break out of the castle. Kaede did not doubt that Reynaud had the ability to sneak out of the city, though whether or not the armiger was willing was another matter entirely.
Best thing he could do now is to lay low and contact the Princess, Kaede thought.
Even the renowned Winterslayer had no chance of mounting a rescue operation against an enemy fortress on his own. However, it was possible that Duke Hugh’s remark about offering Kaede to the pretender Gabriel might have given him hope, as it was much easier to intercept a transport column than to break into a castle. Such an attempt would be extremely risky, especially if Reynaud was acting alone. Though Kaede also knew that the redhead would gladly risk his own life to protect a dear friend — a sentiment he had once expressed with deep remorse after losing his comrades at Glywysing.
Nevertheless, while Reynaud’s impetuous nature was worrying, Kaede was even more concerned about Cecylia. The dhampir girl had been treated quite roughly by the soldiers when they arrested her. One of them even punched her in the gut and twisted her arms after she doubled over from painful coughs. Kaede wasn’t sure if it was because Cecylia was a dhampir, or because the guards knew they were dealing with a member of the Black Eagles. They certainly took no chances as they had even blindfolded and gagged her before they dragged the two girls off to separate cells.
The Samaran girl tried not to fret as it was out of her control either way. She didn’t even have spells to use, as Duke Hugh’s men had dispelled the magic from her arms’ spell-storing runes.
No chance I’m getting out of this mess by myself.
Kaede exhaled another deep sigh as she could only resign herself to being a helpless prisoner of war until circumstances changed. Hopefully, that involved Sylviane winning the Civil War and having her rescued, and not the familiar being handed over to Gabriel’s executioner.
At least I can add being a damsel-in-distress to my growing list of experiences. Kaede joked dourly to herself as she considered her hopeless state of affairs.
She had never thought of herself as being particularly Russian in her sense of humor. But now, in her hopeless situation, it was all she could do to lighten the mood.
A rattling sound from the other side of the thick, wooden door drew Kaede’s attention. The barred and shuttered window in it didn’t open, though she could hear the lock on the outside being undone. Light from the hallway poured in as the door opened, which forced Kaede to shy her eyes away. Nevertheless, she noticed the guard who opened the lock stand back at attention as a guest stood in the doorway.
“Good evening, Your Excellency.” The newcomer said in a youthful baritone that was not only smooth and suave but surprisingly kind.
Kaede blinked her eyes as she tried to look upon the figure who stood with light to his back. His silhouette was lean and fit with an above average height. As her eyes adjusted she could see that his build was neither broad nor muscular, but he stood with an aristocratic poise that was all the more exemplified by his rich garments. His torso was covered by a tight-fitting purple doublet adorned with gold embroidery, which easily stood out as belonging to a noble of high rank.
Kaede still had trouble seeing the young man’s face, but there was only one person whom the familiar could think of.
“Please don’t mock me, Your Gra… Milord.” The Samaran girl corrected herself at the last moment.
Henri de La Tours de Lorraine might be the successor to Duke Hugh’s titles. But he was not the duke yet, and addressing him as such had the potential to cause a misunderstanding.
“As expected of Her Highness’ new Grand Squire.”
Henri smiled with perfect white teeth as he took a step into the tiny cell. The young man looked no older than twenty and was quite attractive, his appearance was only marred by an outbreak of acne. He had deep, emerald-green eyes beneath wavy, brunette locks that descended just past his ears. His clean-shaven chin featured a strong and pronounced jawline, which really stood out beneath the gentle curve of a rather feminine nose. And between them, the young scion’s lips held a natural smile which spoke for his character above all.
This was a young man who endeared himself to others almost without effort. And he expected to be highly regarded in return as he had been born to all the privilege the world could afford.
Kaede blinked away her light-induced tears as she followed his white gloves to a wooden lever just inside the entrance. His slender arm pulled it towards the door, which gave the chains connected to Kaede’s manacles more slack and allowed the familiar to finally lower her raised arms. The Samaran girl pulled her hands down to her lap as Henri turned back to grab a bowl of stew. He crouched down before her and offered it to her chained hands while Kaede’s stomach gave a faint growl of anticipation.
The familiar felt a slight blush enter her cheeks. She had not eaten since breakfast this morning and was more than a bit famished as a result.
“I do not mean to mock you, Your Excellency.” Henri addressed her again with sincerity in his soft and velvety voice. He took a step back and crouched down with his back against the other wall, until his eyes met Kaede’s at almost the same level.
“I apologize for my father’s actions this morning,” the young man said. “No doubt you can tell that your arrival is late and he has already chosen a side. But it is nevertheless improper to imprison an emissary who has only come to speak.”
“I’m glad that at least someone recognizes my diplomatic credentials.” Kaede said dryly before she took the wooden spoon in her bowl and wolfed down a mouthful of warm stew.
Her eyebrows rose slightly as she tasted the salt and spices used to season the hearty beef stew. The wooden bowl had been deceiving, as this was certainly no food meant for prisoners. Kaede doubted even the food served to common guards in the castle was this savory in taste. Henri most likely brought down the stew from the dinner offered to the nobles of the court.
He certainly knows how to make an impression. The familiar thought as her hungry body couldn’t help but enjoy the delicious meal.
“I have tried to persuade my father to not resort to such a violation of diplomatic and noble etiquette. But he… disagrees, because you are not true nobility in his eyes.” Henri added with a sigh. “Nevertheless, as my father has already promised you to Gabriel, he has at least agreed to release you into my custody tomorrow. And I have been entrusted to lead the Army of Rhétie in its march north.”
His announcement immediately drew the familiar’s attention as her eyes snapped back up to look into his green gaze.
The Army of Rhétie… 20,000 strong by our intelligence’s last report. Kaede considered as ‘marching north’ surely meant joining the civil war.
They were more than enough to tip the scales in Gabriel’s favor with a two-to-one advantage against the Princess’ forces.
Henri smiled wistfully as though remarking that this was not his choice. “I would like to offer you better arrangements for the night than a dark cell, but only if you agree to not try to escape.”
“An…” Kaede almost opened her mouth that was full of soup that she had forgotten about. She hurriedly chewed apart the few chunks and swallowed before trying to speak again. “And what of my companions?”
“I have already arranged for Gerard’s release.” Henri declared with a comforting smile. “He is, after all, a close friend and attendant of my cousin Perceval. And although my father is displeased with the Baguettes in taking a side without consulting him first, I have persuaded him that it is important for our House’s interests to be represented on both sides of the civil war.”
Kaede blinked in surprise as Henri’s frank reasoning took her off guard. Though she also couldn’t tell if that was a mere line of persuasion used to convince his father as his tone hinted, or if he really believed in playing both sides.
After all, the flames of war could be as whimsical as the fates themselves, especially in an internal dispute over the crown as both sides fought over the same resources. Henri could not predict which side would ultimately prevail any more than he could read the future. Therefore, one could claim that the safest bet was to wager on both sides. That way, no matter who wins, House La Tours would always remain standing among the victors of the conflict.
“Reynaud, as you can probably guess, has escaped into the city and hasn’t been seen since. Clearly my cousin has an eye for talent among those whom he associates with.” Henri continued with beaming respect.
“Cecylia, however, is in our hands and places us in a rather difficult position.” He added as a frown entered his countenance. “I have no desire to make an enemy of Weichsel, and certainly not of their infamous Black Eagles. But King Leopold’s invasion of our Empire’s eastern territories, under the guise of supporting Princess Sylviane, makes him an enemy of Emperor Gabriel. As the daughter of Weichsel’s new Marshal, Cecylia has much value as a bargaining chip in any negotiations for Weichsel’s withdrawal.
“Therefore, we have no choice but to keep her prisoner, as difficult and discourteous as that may be.” Henri sighed as though he had no choice but to accept the valuable political leverage that had fallen into his hands through dishonorable means. “Regardless, I promise you that no harm will fall upon her.”
Certainly not while she has value. Kaede thought.
Nevertheless, the Samaran girl exhaled a breath of relief as she looked down at her bowl and smiled.
“Will you be offering her the same deal as you’re offering me then?”
“Of course.” Henri answered straight away with a comforting smile. “I can even arrange for you two to stay together in the same room if you would like, just as you did during your trip here. Though I will require your word of honor that you will not attempt to escape.”
“My ‘word of honor’ is enough?” The familiar raised her eyebrows.
“Of course.” Henri nodded before his smile turned apologetic. “Though the standard bonds of captivity will be necessary. After all, it would be a problem if either of you were tempted to break your word, which might lead to an accident where my soldiers mistakenly killed you.”
Kaede pursed her lips as she heard the deadly nonchalance in his voice. There was no doubt that Henri was well-versed in the maneuvering of power politics. He also gave the impression of someone who held a great deal of respect for honor, but only in far second place compared to acting in the best interests of his noble house.
“I’ve never been the particularly athletic type anyway.” Kaede shrugged before she returned a nod. “I promise to be a good and docile damsel-in-distress until such time that people come to my rescue.”
A chuckling grin spread from ear to ear across Henri’s expression as he slowly stood back up to tower over the petite and sitting girl.
“Your Excellency, I’ve read the reports from my father’s spies about you, as curiously brief as your known history is.” He said with a mirthful gaze. “I don’t think anyone short of an actual fool should ever mistake you for being the docile doll that you appear to be.”
The familiar could only return a wry smile. She couldn’t decide whether she should be alarmed or flattered that someone not on her side was taking her so seriously.
Instead, as Henri gestured for the guard outside to come into Kaede’s cell, the Samaran girl rushed several spoonfuls of stew into her mouth until her cheeks were bulging like a chipmunk. Kaede then set down the empty bowl and allowed the soldier to unlock her wrists from the wall-anchored manacles. She rubbed her sore arms before standing up and following the young lord into the narrow dungeon corridor.
They walked for a half minute before emerging into what looked like an entrance hallway. There, Kaede came to face six more soldiers, as well as two ranking armigers and a female servant who stood waiting.
The Samaran girl’s eyes immediately fell upon a pair of golden cuffs held in the maid’s hand. The servant curtsied to Kaede before kneeling down in front of her long skirt. The cuffs were joined by a thick and heavy-looking chain less than a half meter long. The maid reached beneath Kaede’s skirt and joined each cuff around her ankles with locking pins that had to be hammered into place.
“Golden chains?” Kaede remarked as she stared at Henri with astonishment. Isn’t this a bit too literal?
“Gilded steel, standard for mages. Though I realize that you’re not actually a magic user.” Henri commented with a polite smile.
His comment reminded Kaede of something she had read about — how the non-reactivity of noble metals made them highly resistant to transmutation magic. And even within that group, gold stood out as being extremely resistant to corrosion, oxidation, and other chemical reactions.
It was yet another reminder that the entire school of transmutation magic was just a supernatural form of applied chemistry.
A pair of similarly gilded cuffs for her wrists followed, though these were at least not linked by chains. Nevertheless, Kaede could sense mana emanating from the crystal bands lining the inside of each cuff through her magic sensitivity as a mage’s familiar.
“As you seem unfamiliar with these, please be warned that each cuff is enchanted with wards,” Henri explained. “For example, there are small Lockdown fields that cause your hands and feet to be left behind if you attempt to teleport, which for obvious reasons I would recommend against.”
Even running away physically seemed unlikely as Kaede took a step to test her bonds. The fetters between her ankles were barely long enough to match an average step. They were too short to run in, and they dragged noisily behind her with what felt like at least five kilograms of weight.
“Is there even a point to my ‘word of honor’ with these?” Kaede scowled as the cuffs made the thought of attempting to escape almost farcical.
“Your Excellency, it’s not that I don’t trust your word.” Henri replied with a charming smile. “It’s simply that I would never rely upon a promise for something as important as keeping you safe.”
It was then when Kaede truly realized that for all of Henri’s respectful lip service towards honor, the man clearly had very little faith or belief in it. Though perhaps in hindsight, that was what all astute statesmen should be. At least he was in no danger of being played like the fool that Soviet Premier Gorbachev was, who accepted vague promises on ending ‘eastward NATO expansion’ without demanding a single assurance of it.
“Please stay here for a moment, Your Excellency, while I retrieve your companion.” Henri then bowed slightly before leaving Kaede at the dungeon’s entrance.
The Samaran girl stood in awkward silence in front of the soldiers and maid for several minutes before she heard familiar steps emerge from the other corridor.
Kaede cried out as she scurried forward. Her heavy ankle chains clinked away behind her as Kaede wrapped her arms around the friend whom she had been most worried about.
“I’m all right. Sorry for worrying you.” Cecylia answered with a kind smile as she hugged back.
The familiar never saw the look of surprise that briefly entered Henri’s expression. It stayed for only a brief second before he resumed a mellow smile.
“I apologize for my soldiers who acted with disproportionate force in the audience chamber.” The young lord remarked with a slight bow. “I have since made it clear to everyone under my command that any violence towards our cooperative guests will not be tolerated.”
As long as we remain ‘cooperative’ anyway. Kaede thought as she pulled back.
The Samaran girl nevertheless returned an appreciative smile. “Thank you.”
She then stepped aside as the maid curtsied and knelt down in front of the dhampir with another set of golden cuffs in hand. It took only a minute before Cecylia was placed in the same restraints that Kaede wore in a sign of Henri’s ‘assurance policy’.
Yet, regardless of Henri’s faith in the chivalry of others, it was clear that the young man practiced it himself in behavior and etiquette. For two girls caught and imprisoned by the enemy, it was certainly a relief to be guaranteed a modicum of respect and freedom from barbarism.
—– * * * —–
“I think that takes care of everything you requested, Your Excellency.” Henri said politely from near the entrance as two of the castle’s maids departed from the room.
The servants had brought a tray of food along with a pot of the chamomile-lavender tea that Kaede asked for. They had also added fuel to the crackling fireplace and even offered to prepare bathwater.
The guest room provided for Kaede and Cecylia was clearly intended for the nobility. It was carpeted and comfortably furnished with everything they needed, including an attached bathroom. The large four-poster bed that dominated the room even came with red velvet curtains, which offered some much needed privacy from the soldiers who held the keys to the door and stood just outside.
“If there’s anything you need, please do not hesitate to summon the servants.” The young lord added before he turned to leave.
“Milord, before you go…” Kaede forced herself to speak before she could miss her last opportunity. “I’d like to ask about your earnest thoughts on the situation in Rhin-Lotharingie.”
She had been feeling indecisive ever since they left the dungeons. After all, Duke Hugh has clearly already taken a stance, which meant that her mission was a failure before it really began. Did she really want to offer unsolicited advice and risk the possibility of offending her captors and being sent back to a cell?
However, Henri’s mellow smile did not falter as he released the door handle and turned back around. He faced the Samaran girl who sat by the curtained windows and met her eye-to-eye.
“Of course, Your Excellency. You shall have my honest answer as much as I am able.”
Meanwhile, Cecylia picked up her bowl of stew and turned towards the young lord. The way she ate without the slightest sound while she sat on the other side of the small table from Kaede felt almost unnatural. The dhampir had remained surprisingly quiet since they left the dungeons. Though her eyes remained fixed on Henri as she carefully observed his every move and mannerism.
Kaede wasn’t sure if Cecylia was merely being careful or if being manhandled earlier left her feeling distrustful. The two of them also didn’t have access to Telepathy spells to converse, which meant Kaede would have to wait until they were in bed to talk with some privacy. It made the familiar realize how much she had come to rely upon Hyperion’s communication spells as a crutch.
“Milord…” The Samaran girl then took a deep breath before she asked. “Do you truly think it wise to support Gabriel in this civil conflict?”
“It was not my decision, as you can probably guess.” Henri replied earnestly with a wry smile. He then stepped over to an armchair by the fireplace and sighed as he sat down. “I personally believe that it is far too hasty to leap at Gabriel’s offer, as generous as it may be. The Empire is divided and the Princess and her uncle are evenly matched in strength. But neither of them is quite that desperate yet. And my house could achieve more by waiting for a better moment to declare our allegiance.”
He’s at least honest about it, Kaede thought. But…
“Evenly matched?” She raised her eyebrows. “Her Highness has the support of all four kingdoms and both Saint Edith-Estellise and Marshal Cosette. What does Gabriel have in return?”
“The full backing of Belgae, the Trinitian Church, and command of the royal capital.” Henri declared as he crossed his fingers before his chest. “Yes, Her Highness has gained the approval of a greater half of the Empire. But appearances can be deceiving, and we should examine each of these actors in detail.” The young lord grinned before he went on to explain:
“In the south, both Marshal Cosette and the regents of Garona’s child-queen are fully invested in the war against the Caliphate. The Marshal may lead the largest army in the Empire, with supplies from the late Emperor before his untimely demise. But with a poor harvest in Garona last year, her provisions will only last until late-spring at best.”
Henri’s gaze briefly turned to Cecylia as the dhampir’s eyes widened slightly.
“Neither the Kingdom of Garona nor the Marshal’s army has any men or materiel to spare for Her Highness in retaking the throne.” He then pointed out. “Instead, it is the Princess who must redirect a portion of her meager resources south, lest she forsake any benefits in legitimacy from their backing of her cause.”
Kaede frowned as she thought back to Sylviane’s tepid smile when she received the backing of Marshal Cosette in the aftermath of Glywysing. At the time, the Samaran girl had simply believed the Princess was too exhausted to cheer the glad tidings.
Elder Sister’s political acumen still far exceeds mine.
“In the north, King Alistair holds the greatest reserve of strength that the Empire has yet to tap,” Henri added. “But the mountain passes that sealed in the clans will not thaw until spring, while the Caliphate is preparing a hundred thousand more men to launch a fresh offensive. King Alistair will be forced to choose between campaigning against a fellow Lotharin in an internal dispute, versus marching south against the invaders whom his clan chiefs see as the real enemy.”
Henri paused for a moment as his smile grew thin. “I see only one politically astute decision.” He added as though he truly considered this unfortunate.
Not unless Alistair wants a potential Xi’an Incident on his hands. Kaede scowled as she considered the Chinese Civil War, when Nationalist generals kidnapped the country’s leader and forced him to stop fighting the Communists and instead form a United Front against the Japanese invaders.
“Meanwhile in the West,” Henri continued. “Saint Edith-Estellise’s declaration of support might bring the Princess much needed moral authority on religious grounds. But the Saint has sworn an oath to never take up the sword against fellow Trinitians. To have the Crusader Saint oppose the Pope’s chosen Defender of the Faith will undoubtedly undermine the Church’s authority in the long term. However, it brings few tangible benefits in the short term, and time is against Her Highness as long as Gabriel holds the capital of Alis Avern in his grasp.”
“Her Highness also has the backing of both the Kingdoms of Avorica and Ceredigion.” Kaede tried to sound confident as she declared.
Yet even as she said the words, she knew the weakness of that argument. And judging by the slight twist of Henri’s lips, he could see straight through her.
“Unfortunately for Her Highness, Avorica has been bled white by the war in the south, and Ceredigion has the least manpower of the four nations to muster.” The young lord countered. “It would have been different if your real master, His Grace, was able to keep the Army of Avorica intact. Nevertheless, Landgrave Pascal had to fight a war against his instincts. And the Ceredigion army that remains — even with Weichsel’s support in the north — lacks a decisive advantage against Emperor Gabriel’s forces, especially when you consider his recently expanded coffers.”
The taxes and sales of indulgences might undermine his long term legitimacy. But it also bolsters his war chest in the short term, the familiar scowled as she considered.
Kaede pursed her lips as Henri, despite his distance from the various theaters of action and not being directly involved with any of the other power players, offered an accurate assessment of the overall military and political situation. Clearly, the young man not only had access to an impressive intelligence network, but also an acute mind to piece together all the information into a coherent view.
However, the Scion of House La Tours still wasn’t finished:
“And none of this takes account of the fact that based upon my observation, His Holiness the Pope is likely to call a Crusade with the arrival of spring.” Henri said with a grim look. “Such a declaration will immediately force Weichsel to stop fighting Gabriel’s home garrisons and turn their attention south, as King Leopold will not wish to sully his reputation with the faithful as the ‘Warden of the Trinitian March’. Furthermore, if Gabriel wisely commits to the south at the same time, it would force them towards becoming allies rather than foes — which is certainly not to the Princess’ advantage.”
The young lord looked to Cecylia once more, who thinned her lips as though she didn’t want to acknowledge that he was correct.
“And the Imperium will use this as justification to launch an invasion of the Kingdom of Garona.” Kaede muttered out loud in her wispy voice while her eyes swelled.
“On the grounds of liberating Trinitians from the oppression of both infidels and heretics,” Henri nodded. “Even though the Albigese Sect has taken over the majority of the Kingdom.”
Then Her Highness truly has only a short window of opportunity to retake her throne.
Kaede couldn’t help but wonder if Sylviane already knew this and simply never shared the full details. She turned towards Cecylia in search of confirmation, only to see ruby-red eyes that gazed upon Henri with an impressed look.
“I did not realize House La Tours had such effective intelligence.” The dhampir spoke up for the first time since they entered the room.
“The Black Eagles wouldn’t be the first who think so.” Henri said with a sour smile. “People tend to underestimate my house, thanks to some of the… less wise actions that my father had taken. Nevertheless, Outremont sits at the heart of all commercial activity between the Empire and the Imperium.” The young lord then grinned as he voiced with pride. “It was not difficult to establish an effective information network and grow it across the continent.”
Don’t tell me that he was the one who expanded Duke Hugh’s intelligence to its current state. Kaede felt awed by the young man who was only nineteen years of age.
In hindsight, perhaps Sylviane never told Kaede about the likelihood of an impending Crusade because she did not wish to place even more pressure upon the Samaran girl. The Princess had worn such a confident face before King Llywelyn and Queen Katell that Kaede never even suspected how desperate and pressed for time Sylviane truly was. Considering that they were already in late February, Sylviane likely had no more than two months to retake the capital before the political situation swung against her once more.
Elder Sister was depending so much on me to help bring a swift end to the Civil War… The familiar finally realized as she squeezed her right hand into a fist.
I can’t just let my mission fail like this!
—– * * * —–
Later that night, after Henri bid the girls good night, both Kaede and Cecylia washed themselves before climbing awkwardly into bed with their heavy ankle chains.
Cecylia closed the velvet curtains around the four-poster bed for some privacy. Without her casting glove as a spellcasting focus, she had been unable to scan the room for scrying sensors.
Kaede had tried to search instead using her magic sensitivity. However, it was difficult for the familiar to do so within a warded castle and with enchanted cuffs locked to her wrists. Her rudimentary knowledge of spellcraft also wouldn’t allow her to identify the aura of any magical object. Nevertheless, as there was no reason to keep magical items in a guest room, given the dissipation of mana over time from disuse, any magic that Kaede could sense coming from the contents of the room was suspicious.
It rather surprised Cecylia that their search came to nothing.
The two girls laid down and huddled next to each other beneath the comforter. Their faces were so close that Kaede could feel the other’s breath touching her cheeks. She could see every movement from Cecylia’s eyes as they reflected the meager light available like those of a cat. It was almost unnerving, had the dhampir not looked upon Kaede with a soft and friendly gaze.
“You are really soft, Kaede.” Cecylia giggled like her usual, carefree self as the girls’ legs briefly mingled. “It’s no wonder why Pascal likes to sleep with you, hehe.”
“Is this really the time for that?” The familiar rolled her eyes as she felt a blush rise to her cheeks.
“One has to take every chance to enjoy life while the opportunity is there.” The dhampir grinned.
“Oh enough with that already,” Kaede retorted before dropping to a whisper. “Tell me what you think of Henri.”
“That’s… hard to say.” Cecylia frowned as her lips grew lopsided. “He seemed surprisingly candid given his reputation and upbringing. But I tell you this — I’m not picking up any of the usual tells of someone lying. Not one.”
“I also get the feeling that he’s being sincere…” Kaede replied before she heard a ringtone in the back of her mind.
They didn’t take my earrings like my other belongings for some reason.
The familiar reached up and squeezed her left earring. “<Hello? Kaede here.>” She answered as she gestured to her floral drop earrings until Cecylia nodded.
“<Kaede!>” Sylviane’s voice cried out from within her head. “<Thank goodness you’re all right! I was so worried when Reynaud told me that Duke Hugh took you all prisoner! I tried to contact you several times earlier, but I couldn’t get through. I thought maybe they took your earrings, but I couldn’t reach Cecylia either.>”
The dungeons must have a ward capable of blocking communication spells.
“<Cecylia is here with me right now. We’re both fine.>” Kaede replied reassuringly. “<Duke Hugh sent us to the dungeons earlier. But Henri persuaded him to release us into more comfortable quarters, albeit still restrained.>” She added with a mental shrug as her fingers played with one of her wrist cuffs.
“<I’m just glad you’re both well.>” Sylviane answered before her tone grew harsh. “<Duke Hugh may not always act in the most courteous manner, but I never expected him to sink this low.>”
“<Regarding that — before he left, Henri informed us that the Army of Rhétie will begin its march north tomorrow before noon, with him entrusted in its command.>” The Samaran girl said in a voice that became increasingly gloomy and apologetic. “<I’m sorry, Your Highness. I’ve failed you…>”
“<You have nothing to apologize for, Kaede.>” Sylviane insisted. “<Duke Hugh has clearly made up his mind before you said a single word. Do you know if Henri will be bringing you and Cecylia along with his army?>”
“<Yes.>” Kaede confirmed. “<They plan to hand us over to Gabriel.>”
The Samaran girl used ‘they’ as during their previous discussion, she felt consistent disapproval from Henri towards his father’s actions. And while Henri had repeated multiple times that his father had already promised Kaede to Gabriel, he never actually said anything about handing her over.
Perhaps Henri simply couldn’t bring himself to say such dishonorable deeds out loud. Or perhaps Kaede was looking for a sliver of hope where there was none. Nevertheless, Kaede couldn’t help but feel drawn to these small hints that Henri was more of an independent actor than it might first seem — that he was not merely an executor of his father’s will but had his own agenda and beliefs.
“<Not if I have anything to say about it.>” Sylviane scoffed. “<Kaede, I’m sending ten of my best armigers south, to meet up with Reynaud and Gerard. Together, they will devise a plan to infiltrate the Henri’s army on its march and help you and Cecylia escape.>”
Kaede smiled a little to herself, as the thought of the Princess placing enough value on her to mount an expensive rescue operation was unthinkable a mere month ago. Nevertheless, part of her also felt conflicted if this was the right course of action to take.
Yes, Duke Hugh had already chosen a side, which meant her diplomatic mission was a failure. She had been captured and imprisoned, even if her room was nicer than a jail cell. However, Kaede had also attained the ears of exactly whom she came here to speak with — the prodigious young scion who was not dogmatic but calculating, who could therefore be swayed to change sides as long as conditions met to serve the interests of his house in the long-term.
What made the situation more complicated was the fact that Henri himself not only disagreed with his father, he had also been entrusted to command the army that could tip the scales of this conflict. And while its support had already been promised to the pretender Gabriel, the deal would not be sealed until their armies joined.
That offered time still to change his mind, as whomever he sided with would gain a significant advantage on the decisive field of battle. History was full of conflicts where a faction from one side switched allegiances at the climatic moment. And this was a boon that none of Sylviane’s allies — apart from King Llywelyn whom she had already petitioned — could offer.
“<Kaede?>” Sylviane asked in a concerned tone as the familiar had been thinking and not responding for too long.
“<Sorry, Your Highness, I was woolgathering.>” Kaede replied at last. “<But… I think it may still be premature to write my mission off.>”
“<Kaede, are you serious?>” The Princess answered in an incredulous voice. “<Do you realize what my uncle will do to you if you gets his hands on you?>”
“<Yes, I do.>” The familiar replied as a chill ran up her spine at the thought of an executioner’s axe looming overhead. “<But only if it comes to that.>”
The familiar’s tone grew more firm as she then declared:
“<I may yet still be able to persuade Henri to switch sides.>”
—– * * * —–
“Henri, my boy.” Duke Hugh addressed his son proudly as he sat in a sturdy wooden chair that was built almost like a throne. “I hope you are satisfied with today?”
The night was already late. Yet it did not stop Duke Hugh from enjoying one last meal in his private dining room before heading off to sleep. He did, however, make an allowance for lighter, healthier food. And as he used a large spoon to bring the beef and vegetable stew to his mouth, a dribble of soup fell from his puffy lips.
“Yes, Father.” The young heir replied with a serene smile as he gazed out of the window to look upon the huge indigo ‘moon’.
It was a reminder of how massive the world truly was, how insignificant each individual life was beneath the night sky. Yet, as powerless as many people must surely feel in this geopolitical conflict between giants, Henri stood with absolute certainty that he was not among their ranks.
After all, he was the Scion of House La Tours, the descendant of Roland the Gallant — the greatest hero of the Empire. He had been blessed with intellect that amazed both parents and tutors alike since birth. Even the Imperium’s patricians were but fiddle strings for him to play.
The young man had only one regret, which was the embarrassment of a father whom he had been born to. Duke Hugh was widely regarded in Rhin-Lotharingie as a disgrace. And it wasn’t merely because of the high regard for body image held in Lotharin culture, which equated obesity with a plethora of character sins.
His father also had a reputation for being shortsighted and greedy, who fawned over the wealth and benefits dangled before him so much that he would forget long-term aims.
However, all reputations could be used as tools, even one that was as tarnished as ‘Huge the Rotund’. And in this, the young Henri took full advantage of his father’s widely known character flaws, along with Hugh’s one virtue — the man’s pride and love for his only son, who had been born at the expense of his beloved wife.
“I have done everything in my power to help your plans succeed.” The Duke said as a dribble of broth fell from his still-chewing mouth, which the son pretended not to notice so he wouldn’t feel any disgust.
“From publicly declaring our allegiance to that kinslayer Gabriel,” Hugh scoffed harshly, “to imprisoning the Princess’ emissaries and offering them as a gift to the Emperor.”
“Indeed, Father. Your performance in court today was impeccable.” Henri replied with a smirk as he remembered the stunned face Kaede wore before Hugh called for her arrest.
“And with it, the stage has been set for your entrance into the Empire’s, no, the World’s greatest play.” Hugh beamed with pride towards the son he raised.
Imprisoning Sylviane’s emissary not only created additional leverage. It also shifted the baseline expectations for her people in all subsequent actions. As such, even a minor favor, such as offering good food or hospitable accommodations, earned a disproportionate amount of trust and ‘bargaining points’ with the other side.
Such a setup offered Henri the finest hand he could play in the subsequent political game. And the only cost came at the expense of his father’s already sullied image.
It did make Henri feel a little guilty, to sacrifice his parent’s reputation for personal gain like this. He had once heard from his wet nurse that it was grief from his mother’s death in childbirth that caused his father to start binge eating, which worsened over time until Hugh became the most rotund man in Rhin-Lotharingie.
Yet, was it not a law of nature for the parents of every species to give everything to see their children flourish?
As the child in question, Henri had only one duty to repay his parents — to do everything in his power to achieve greatness.
Henri hasn’t truly decided whom he would support yet — he was completely honest with Kaede in this regard. Nevertheless, he was determined to ensure that whoever won the Lotharin Civil War would not only be eternally grateful to him, but also lavishly reward his house in its aftermath in the Empire’s new order.
His father might still be the Duke. However, Henri would become the true patriarch of House La Tours in all but name. The young lord was sure his father realized this — Hugh was nowhere as blind as some people claimed. Yet the Duke agreed to it knowingly,
Turning around to face his father at last, Henri glimpsed a final image of the unsightly manner in which Hugh ate. The corpulent duke gnashed through the last of his food and swallowed almost too hastily. His fat fingers had to grab a nearby chalice and wash it down the chunks with a drink of wine.
“Use it well, my boy, use it well.” Hugh added as he rubbed his bloated stomach before releasing a loud burp.
“I shall, Father.” The son replied with a confident and gracious smile and he walked over to help his father stand up. “I will treasure your precious gift and see that it is exploited to the utmost. You have my promise.”
“I have faith in you, as I always do.” Hugh beamed in response. A shadow of sadness passed through his eyes as he turned to waddle towards his bed. “Your father, as lacking as I am, has not always earned the respect of the realm…
“But you, my son, will surely bring House La Tours the power and prestige that will make us all proud.”Author's Comment
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