“Please watch your step, Your Excellency.”
Kaede heard the maid as she stepped off the four-person carriage that she had ridden in with Cecylia all day. A small, expandable cabin stood in front of them near the top of a shallow hill. The sound of hammers and saws could be heard from all around, as they were deep inside a compartmentalized marching camp that was being erected. Twenty thousand Lotharin soldiers filled the plains and sparse woods around them, as they took turns to work after another exhausting day of forced march.
Almost a week had passed since their departure from Outremont. A beautiful blend of red, orange, blue, and indigo filled the skies as the setting sun slowly sank into the distant horizon. They had already traveled several hundred kilopaces over the paved Imperial Highway that connected Rhétie to the Lotharin Heartlands. It was a reminder to Kaede that they were drawing ever closer to the shores of Lake Alise, where her fate and that of the Empire would be decided.
And I’m no closer to persuading Henri to switch sides. She sighed before she stretched her back in the dusk sun.
“Your Excellency, this way please.”
The maid gestured as she led the two envoys to their arrangements for the night. She had been assigned by Henri to take care of Kaede and Cecylia’s needs during their travels. The accommodations had been excellent, as Henri even granted them the use of a magical cabin that could shrink down to a palm-sized model, which was expensive enough that only lords could afford. However, there was no doubt that the girls remained prisoners — as the heavy fetters wrapped around her ankles and the four female armigers assigned as guards served to remind Kaede.
“Your Excellency,” the senior-most of these armigers addressed Kaede as the familiar approached the cabin door. “His Lordship asks if you would be open to having dinner with him again tonight.”
“Of course,” Kaede answered before adding in her thoughts. He needn’t even have asked.
Nevertheless, even though she was Henri’s prisoner and the young lord could do just about anything he wanted, he still made it a point to request permission for something as simple as coming over for dinner.
Then, before the Samaran girl reached the door itself, she caught sight of a raven flying overhead. The bird had white feathers above its neck while its wings were entirely black. And she could hear it flap its wings as it landed on the roof.
“Mirèlha”, Kaede addressed the maid, “could you bring us some hot water from the kitchens? I’d like to make some tea to calm my nerves after the day’s travel.”
“Yes, Your Excellency.”
The maid curtsied before departing, which left Kaede and Cecylia alone to enter the cabin themselves. The armigers stood watch and patrolled outside, seemingly confident that the enchanted fetters would make it difficult for their prisoner to escape.
However, the real reason Kaede requested the maid to go fetch was because she wanted a moment of privacy with Cecylia to ask:
“Was that bir…?”
Cecylia returned a warning look that immediately made the familiar go quiet. She then smiled a little and gave a slight nod in response.
Kaede had only seen Gerard’s familiar a handful of times during this whole trip. The engineer had been content to let his raven roam free in surveying the land and returning only at night for food and rest.
Reynaud and Gerard must be shadowing the army then. The girl thought as she wondered why Reynaud never tried to make contact with Farspeak since their separation.
I hope Sylviane passed my word to him and he isn’t about to try anything reckless.
—– * * * —–
“Your Excellency, if you don’t mind me asking, just how exactly do you feel about Her Highness the Princess?”
Kaede heard Henri ask as the two girls and their ‘host’ sat around the small dinner table inside the cabin. They were attended by only one maid, though a lean and somewhat effeminate man in full armor stood just inside the door as Henri’s armiger bodyguard.
Dinner for the trio turned out to include the head of a roasted boar, several kinds of pickled vegetables, and the classic onion soup. And just as the previous few nights, Henri had asked about Kaede’s experiences over the past several months, from her days helping Pascal in Alis Avern to her time spent in Nordkreuz.
“I heard that after your arrival in Avorica, the Princess had been seen raving at the unconscious Saint Edith-Estellise after the battle,” Henri said with a discerning expression. “And even Your Excellency yourself had been punished by the Princess to kneel upon a rock for an entire day.”
Your information is way too thorough. Kaede thought as her lips formed a scowl from that day’s difficult memories.
It was also a reminder that her decision to tell only the truth in her stories had been a prudent choice.
“Her Highness has a temper, there’s no doubt about that.” The Samaran girl chose her words carefully as she began to describe the incident. “We had arrived in Avorica just as Lady Edith offered battle to the Cataliyans, and her army was enveloped and nearly destroyed as a result. Her Highness was incensed that Edith almost cost an entire front to protect a column of refugees. And in her exhaustion from both opening the faerie gates and the battle itself, she did not notice that she was berating an unconscious woman whom others had surrounded.
“And that was when Pascal intervened… by knocking her out.” The Samaran girl finished with an exasperated sigh as she saw no way around telling this fact in explaining the events that followed.
“He really did that!?” Henri’s eyes grew to the size of saucers. “And here I thought that was just an overinflated rumor.”
“It was a Mental Blackout spell. Pascal really lacks common sense at times and apparently that was the quickest solution that came to him at the moment.” Kaede threw up her hands as she didn’t know what went through his head at the time either.
“It’s barbaric!” Henri voiced in anguish as he almost threw down his spoon. “It’s about as heinous as a man beating his wife in public!”
“That’s what Her Highness said after she woke up,” Kaede reminisced. “She was angry enough to have him whipped in public, except I stepped in then.”
“And you took her punishment upon yourself instead of your master?” Henri asked expectantly.
“More or less.” Kaede scowled. “Her Highness did apologize to me afterwards. Quite profusely, in fact.” She thought of that night when Sylviane hugged her tightly and cried nonstop for hours.
It made Kaede wonder if she should bring up the Princess’ bipolar nature. However, without knowing just how much understanding Henri had with psychological concepts like mania and depression, this was more likely to cause misunderstanding than not. Therefore the familiar resolved to simply describe it as an episode of runaway anger — which everyone, especially a young man, could understand as they’ve likely had similar experiences.
“Her Highness realized after her anger wore off that evening that while Pascal’s actions were extreme, he did it with the best of intentions,” Kaede said with a wry smile. “As the two of them were close childhood friends who went way back, she felt guilty when she should have known better… not to mention the fact she ended up taking it out on me.”
“And what about you? Do you still fault her for that?” Henri inquired.
“No. Not at all.” Kaede’s smile turned genuine as she thought of that night after the Battle of Glywysing when Sylviane truly opened up. “Yes, it was a difficult experience for me. But in the end, it was what allowed Her Highness and I to understand one another. It helped me realize that while the Princess is not without her faults, she is an exceedingly self-aware individual who recognizes both her own mistakes and flaws.
“And as a result, she places great value on the good counsel of others to help guide her decisions… people whom she views not merely as subjects, but as companions and close friends, whose wellbeing she comes to care deeply about.” Kaede finished as she remembered the sight of Sylviane crying her eyes out on that same night after Glywysing, when she grieved for the loss of Robert and Mari.
“Brave enough to lead the charge at Nordkreuz, shrewd enough to devise the plan of intervening in Avorica, charismatic enough to convert Lady Lynette’s picket without a single arrow, yet wise enough to recognize the limits of her own ability.” Henri nodded as he spoke with admiration. “And to think the Princess is only twenty-one years of age. She truly is the successor to Geoffroi the Great.”
Elder sister really does have amazing prospects as a future ruler when you put it like that. Kaede thought.
It was also a sign that the Samaran girl had made progress over these last few days after all. She had been taking advantage of Henri’s thirst for information to tell him stories of Pascal and Sylviane. She had hoped to appeal to his honorable nature, as well as the nationalism that surely resides in his heart as it does in all Lotharins, that Sylviane would be a far more just and capable ruler than that pretender Gabriel.
“Do you think that would make a difference for your father?” Kaede steered the conversation.
“You mean in terms of his decision to side with Emperor Gabriel?” Henri asked in return, to which Kaede nodded.
“I doubt it myself.” The young man shook his head.
“Is Duke Hugh not concerned about whether the Empire has a good or bad sovereign in such a time of crisis?” Kaede pondered aloud.
“My father’s concerns are more immediate to the current war.” Henri answered before he paused to take another sip of his soup.
“You see, when my Great-Great-Grandfather, Roland the Gallant, established the fortress city of Outremont near the Empire’s then-borders and built our family holdings there, it was because our greatest concern was defending the Rhin-Lotharingie’s hard won independence against the Imperium.”
Kaede nodded. It was clear from Outremont’s strategic position and stout defenses that Roland sought to make his family the guardians of the Empire’s southeastern ‘gateway’. Though this only made it more ironic that his descendants later grew their wealth by raking in the Imperium’s bribes.
“However, after the current war began, I realized from the Imperium’s propaganda — when they cast Geoffroi in the wrong after every turn of events — that they were planning to take advantage of the situation, likely through an intervention in the second year of the war,” Henri went on to explain. “It was the reason why my father was against sending our soldiers to reinforce the Kingdom of Garona, as he firmly believed that it was only a matter of time before Rhétie became a new front line.”
Kaede nodded again as she thought back to the conference in Alis Avern after the war started. At the time, Duke Hugh was against sending troops to the Garona front. Nevertheless, the late Emperor forced his hand, and 10,000 men from Rhétie were dispatched to reinforce Marshal Cosette in the end.
“Nevertheless, since Gabriel raised his flag against the late Emperor Geoffroi, my father has lost any confidence that Rhin-Lotharingie may emerge victorious from this conflict,” Henri expressed with a scowl that signaled he himself mostly agreed. “Since then, Father’s priority has switched to damage mitigation — to reduce the losses our family is likely to suffer in the eventual peace.”
“And your father thinks Gabriel might make a better peace deal?” Kaede asked with a tone that betrayed how absurd she considered this to be.
“Yes.” Henri replied with a firm nod. “Being entitled ‘Defender of the Faith’ has clearly proven that Gabriel has significant backing from the Church, and therefore influence within the Imperium. In addition, he has promised my father that he will only sacrifice lands in the Kingdom of Garona in any peace treaty that will eventually be signed. In the worst case scenario, Garona will be abolished as a Kingdom in the treaty to come, and any lands the Imperium insists on taking from Rhétie will be compensated to our family from lands in Garona.”
Roland must be spinning fast enough in his grave to electrify Outremont. Kaede scowled as she considered how far the La Tour family had sunk, from ‘guardians of the Empire’ to nobles who openly sacrificed Lotharin interests.
Worse yet, if such a peace deal were to go through, the people of Garona would remember it as Lotharin betrayal for generations to come. Such events would likely shift the fundamental identity of the Garona people, as they move away from the rest of Rhin-Lotharingie to forge an independent group.
And this is how Empires rot, when the elites care more about themselves than their state.
“Is this what Your Lordship also believes?” The Samaran girl then asked.
“I agree with my father in that the Empire is unlikely to emerge from this war without territorial losses,” Henri responded. “However, I disagree with him on the role our family still has to play. Because even if we are to lose territory, it is important that we fight hard to raise the cost of each kilopace of land seized from us.”
“In which case, Your Lordship also realizes the importance of having a capable sovereign at the helm to lead the Empire through this difficult time,” Kaede steered the conversation back.
“Yes, which is why I wanted to hear just what kind of character Her Highness has, as well as her fiancé, who clearly served as her closest military advisor.” Henri said with a knowing smile.
I suspected as much. Kaede smiled back as she was finally able to confirm where their interests met.
After all, when it came to diplomacy, the best outcome wasn’t a negotiated compromise, but rather a ‘win-win’ solution that promoted the interests of both sides. The tricky part was to find out where the two sides’ objectives overlapped, as well as on how to build enough trust for the two parties to cooperate instead of antagonize.
— And now that she understood the concerns of House La Tours as well as Henri’s own views, it meant she could focus her efforts on portraying Sylviane and Pascal as the ‘better solution’, at least in comparison to Gabriel.
“Speaking of which,” the familiar took the opportunity to bring in an old topic. “Back in Outremont, Your Lordship said that Pascal ‘had to fight a war against his instincts’ — what did you mean by that?”
“Your Excellency has a keen memory for details.” Henri chuckled as he sat back into the armchair. “Based on my information, I believe His Grace the Landgrave has certainly performed better in Avorica than anyone has reason to expect. But I would also venture to claim that he wasn’t the right man for the job.”
Kaede felt an immediate urge to defend Pascal as she opened her lips. But before she could speak a word to interject, Henri raised his gloved hand to indicate he had yet to finish.
“His Grace was taught in the Weichsen ways of war, with a focus on decisive battles and offensive operational maneuverability where he holds the initiative. The Weichsen army is built to bring superior forces and spellpower to a single focal point in the conflict, where they may attain a tactical victory to exploit as operational and strategic advantages.
“This, however, does not match the Lotharin way of war in the slightest.” Henri pointed out. “Especially not when an offensive specialist like His Grace is forced to fight a defensive campaign.”
“You’re speaking of indirect approach and guerilla warfare?”
Kaede quickly caught on as she thought back to all the campaigns and battles she researched back in Alisia Academy. If there was one trait above all that described the Lotharin way of war, it was their preference to avoid pitched battles against the better equipped and more disciplined Imperial Legions. Instead, they relied on skirmishes, ambushes, and raids to slowly wear down their opponents until the odds swung decisively in their favor.
“Yes.” Henri nodded. “We Lotharins have never been able to match our opponents in the quality of our troops. And aside from the Glens, our armies have a consistent shortfall of heavy infantry, which are vital to holding the line in a set-piece battle. Lotharin armies perform at their best when we can strike fast, strike hard, and then quickly withdraw back into the mountains or forests — which is exactly how Marshal Cosette has been fighting in the south.”
“But isn’t that an oversimplification?” Kaede countered with a complaint she often made against those who evaluated events from afar. It was particularly the case for the many pundits that filled the airwaves of modern media on Earth, who applied little rigor to their analysis and largely entertained the existing biases of their audience.
“Yes, Lotharin armies have traditionally focused more on guerilla warfare and fighting over rough terrain,” she began. “However, the Avorican plains — especially the area near its capital at Roazhon — was largely flat and offered few good ambush sites. Furthermore, Pascal had to work with both Saint Edith-Estellise’s Steel Lily Knights Hospitaller, and King Alistair’s Black Guard Galloglaichs. And both of these commanders and their elite troops performed at their best in a direct fight.
“Furthermore,” the familiar continued. “The opposing commander on the Cataliyan side was General Salim, a former judicial advisor who was a stickler for details. Pascal had originally planned to make use of the Lotharins’ favored night raid tactics, until he discovered that his opponent was exceptionally well-prepared in camp security. Had we gone ahead and done as the Empire always did, it was possible that we would have walked into a trap against a foe who has clearly studied the Lotharin ways of war.”
Her response caused Henri to raise his eyebrows before he stared at Kaede with an impressed smile.
“I did not expect Your Excellency to also be an expert in military affairs at such a young age.”
“Well… Pascal did teach me a thing or two.” Kaede replied sheepishly as she looked down and felt a mix of emotions that could only be described as ‘it’s complicated’.
Leaving aside how it felt to be complimented by a true prodigy, Kaede also never wanted to be a ‘military expert’. It felt ironic, for a young boy who had spent years telling friends that there was more to history than battles, to be praised for her insights in the art of war.
“Nevertheless, it is reassuring for me to hear that His Grace views warfare with such nuance that even his familiar understands it to this detail,” Henri declared in a pleased tone.
It reminded Kaede once more of how familiars — no, anyone in service of a liege lord — also reflected upon the character of their master by their own conduct.
The dinner lasted nearly three hours before Henri finally decided it was time to call it a night. During this time, Kaede not only recounted to Henri more details of the Avorican campaign, but also broached the topic of Sylviane’s offer:
“Her Highness promises that if you help her retake the capital of Alis Avern and return the Empire to normality before the Caliphate’s Spring Offensive, she will either make you the Grand Master of the royal household, or permit you to take charge of any ministry of the Empire to which you see yourself as most able to make an impact.” Kaede said as she did her best to make the offer and its opportunities sound impressive.
“Furthermore, if you perform capably in the job, she is willing to consider you for the exalted position of being the youngest Grand Chancellor in Rhin-Lotharingie history, second in civil matters to only the Empress herself.”
There was a brief second, when Kaede mentioned ‘Grand Chancellor’, when she saw even Henri’s eyes light up.
“That is quite an offer.” The young lord remarked as he wiped his lips with a handkerchief and replaced it with a charming, but hard-to-read smile. “And I am honored that Her Highness has such a high regard for me.”
“Does that mean you will consider it?” Kaede smiled politely in return.
“It means I will do what I can to persuade my father, both of Her Highness’ capable leadership and her generous offer,” Henri replied before he stood up from his chair. “In the meantime, I have already stayed longer than appropriate. The night grows late and we have an early start and long march ahead of us tomorrow.”
“Of course, Your Lordship,” Kaede nodded as she stood up in response. Her movement caused her to feel the weight of her ankle chains once more, which reminded her of the status that she had almost forgotten about during their pleasant dinner.
“Thank you, as always, for your generous arrangements and kind company,” the familiar then added.
“Not at all. It is the courtesy that Your Excellency rightly deserves.” Henri said with a courteous bow before he motioned to depart. “And with that, I bid you a good night, Your Excellency.”
“Good night, Your Lordship.” The Samaran girl dipped down in a light curtsy as she smiled in return.
—– * * * —–
By the time Henri left the cabin that Kaede was staying at, he had already made up his mind. Nevertheless, it took a Farspeak call and another hour to make the appropriate arrangements.
Now, with the night already late, the young lord stood outside the main entrance to his sleeping army’s camp with six armigers in tow. His armored retainers fanned out behind him and to both sides in a loose, parade formation. Each of their shields held a glowing quartz crystal that had been enhanced with illumination spells. And together they lit up the clearing in the forest where the well-paved stonework of the Imperial Highway cut through.
Then, with the snap of a twig from the nearby woods, a short red-haired man bearing the cape of a royal armiger stepped out. He walked steadily up towards Henri until they came within only ten paces. He kept a hand on the handle of a sheathed blade but otherwise showed no hostility.
“Lord Henri?” The youthful armiger asked.
“Sir Reynaud.” Henri responded with a welcoming smile. “You are a brave man for accepting my offer for parley at this location.”
“And you are a braver man for agreeing to meet me face to face.” A chilling smirk tugged at Reynaud’s lips as though he was about to bare a mouthful of bladed teeth. “Surely you understand that I killed Skagen’s renowned Admiral Winter from such a distance?”
“Which is why I did not come unprepared.” Henri beamed as he raised his left hand and revealed four runic pebbles grasped between his digits.
The runes were not his, but rather from his loyal bodyguard. Nevertheless, the defensive wards he could raise in the blink of an eye would easily buy him the time needed to disengage while his own armigers stepped into the fight.
“Well played, Your Grace.” Reynaud addressed wrongly as he kept a close watch on not just Henri, but all six of the other men. “Nevertheless, I’m sure you did not call me here just to exchange pleasantries, or to make a futile attempt to capture me. May I suggest we get to the point?” He added whimsically. “The night’s not getting any younger, you know?”
“Of course.” Henri chuckled before he raised his right hand which wore his casting glove. “Telepathy.”
The redhead armiger clearly looked surprised as Henri formed a link between their minds. Nevertheless, Reynaud accepted the link request before the young lord spoke:
“<I require your aid in sending a message to Her Highness.>”
After all, Farspeak spells could only be cast from one mage to another if the two already knew each other. And while Henri had only met Reynaud briefly before the armiger burst out of the castle at Outremont — a moment that left a rather striking impression — he didn’t even remember the last time he came face-to-face with Princess Sylviane.
“<Her Highness?>” Reynaud’s eyebrows shot up as he breathed out in the late winter night’s chill. “<Certainly. But why me? You have the Princess’ envoy in your grasp already.>”
“<Because as much as I trust Her Excellency’s honest character, it would not be appropriate for me to pass this message through her, as it would represent too great a conflict of interests,>” Henri answered.
—– * * * —–
“Not that I don’t appreciate a dinner between old friends, Sylviane. But couldn’t you have invited Vivi to join us also?” Sylviane heard King Alistair ask from beside her at the dinner table inside her expandable cabin.
The King had arrived in mid-afternoon on the skywhale of Reynaud’s father, Sir Claude Moreau. He had attained the services of the Samaran Captain Marko once more, and used the two whales to ferry another eight hundred elite troops from the Glens.
The Galloglaichs he brought this time were from his royal guard. Many of them were veterans from his days serving as a mercenary abroad, who had followed Alistair for decades before he even became a King. Therefore, while their numbers might seem only a small addition to Sylviane’s 28,000 strong army, their contribution provided a significant boost to not only morale but combat effectiveness.
Furthermore, the presence of the royal guard made it clear to everyone that King Alistair himself would be participating in the battle ahead.
The Princess knew she owed a great debt to the King of the Glens that should be repaid once she retook her throne. The fact that Alistair was a personal friend did not mean she could take his help for granted. Until then, it was necessary that she do what she could to show gratitude.
“I have tried.” Sylviane responded with a soft sigh. “But alas, Vivi said she felt ill and excused herself.”
“Is she sick?” Alistair expressed with genuine concern. “Or is it just that time of the month for her?”
His comment caused a brief block in Pascal’s throat as the Landgrave sat on the opposite end of the short, six-seat table. It was a reminder that Sylviane had once made it clear to Pascal that it was not acceptable to blame her periods whenever her mood turned against him. Nevertheless, the young lord did not comment further as his gaze remained fixated on his own food.
— It was probably a good thing that he was only half participating, as Pascal wore a frown and a scowl that showed he wasn’t in a good mood.
“That is not an appropriate statement to make about a lady, Alistair.” Sylviane chided Alistair sternly before a gentle smile returned to her lips. “Vivi is fine. Don’t worry. I think… she just wasn’t in the mood to come.”
Her frank response made the King of the Glens sigh in response. Alistair put down his spoon and reached up to scratch his head like a teenage boy who looked lost.
“I swear Vivi has been avoiding me ever since I let slip that I liked her last year,” Alistair grumbled as he looked down at his creamy potato soup.
The vichyssoise had been made using sacks of potatoes that Alistair had brought from the Glens. It was a treat for the whole army as most of the men had never tasted the tuber that originated from the New World.
“It was the same back when I came to help you at Gwilen River,” the King continued. “And she hardly ever speaks to me these days outside of official settings!”
“Has Vivi… told you why?” Sylviane asked before taking a bite of her own delicious soup. Though she could already guess at the reason herself.
“No!” Alistair exclaimed with frustration in his faded-blue gaze. “I don’t know if it’s the supposedly enigmatic nature common to Winterborns or something. But that girl hardly tells me anything!”
It’s because you’re a man. The Princess thought but avoided speaking out loud.
Both Alistair and Vivienne were dear friends whom she trusted. And while she had… complicated feelings about handing the young girl over to Alistair, she certainly didn’t want to see the King suffer from his not just unrequited, but completely unanswered affections.
“This is really not my story to share, but I’ll throw you a bone here, Alistair.” Sylviane put down her own spoon as she began to explain. “Vivienne has had some rather… traumatic experiences with men. She’s androphobic.”
Alistair’s eyes widened as though he could hardly believe it. “B-but she…”
“She manages it well, and it’s not so serious that she cannot even be in the presence of men,” Sylviane added before contemplating. Or former boys for that matter, considering how quickly she warmed up to Kaede.
It really was an odd case, when she thought of how secretive Vivienne was normally about her past. The Princess could only surmise it had to do with Kaede and Vivienne’s similarities in appearance, as well as the fact that Kaede also had experience ‘being owned’ by a man.
“So she’s literally afraid of me…” Alistair grumbled as he lowered his head into his hands and sighed. “And like an idiot, I went up and told her that I liked her and wanted a closer relationship.”
“That’s not your fault, and I doubt she blames you for it.” Sylviane comforted him in response. “I’m willing to bet that Vivi would feel at least a little flattered by it. Any woman would. But that doesn’t change the fact that she’s also scared.”
For a moment Pascal looked over and frowned at Sylviane as though he took issue with some of her words. However, all he did was make a scowl before he gazed back down to his food.
“Because I have a penis?” Alistair complained in frustration as he turned to face Sylviane, only to receive another ‘that’s inappropriate’ stare.
“Yes, but more so because you are a King.” The Princess answered, which made the King in question scowl and frown and scratch his head again.
Sylviane exhaled as her inner thoughts struggled with whether she should even share this much. But in the end, her desire to help Alistair won out, as the voices that supported the pro-Alistair camp in her head argued that this wasn’t information that Vivienne shared with Sylviane to begin with.
— At least, as long as she avoided mentioning the fact that Vivienne bore a curse of the most vulgar form of slavery.
“Vivienne is exceptionally weak and delicate of build for a girl, despite ranking as one of the Paladins of Rhin-Lotharingie,” she began. “She doesn’t have much strength to speak of, has no close combat training whatsoever, and her unique concordance magic takes a long time to activate…”
“Yes, I know all that,” Alistair responded curtly. “But I’m trying to court her, not assault her!”
Not you. Though she has been assaulted before.
“But you should understand how such a vulnerable girl, given her traumatic experiences with men, would be far more wary than any typical noblewoman might be?” The Princess inquired yet did not wait for a response. “Furthermore, were you a lesser nobleman, especially a lord who owed direct fealty to the Emperor, she could at least rely on me to protect her…”
“Am I not the Emperor’s loyal vassal also?” The King countered with pursed lips.
“Yes you are. And what I meant is — House Mackay-Martel and the Gaetane dynasty share a special relationship that goes back for generations,” Sylviane pointed out. “The Kings of the Glens literally provide the bodyguards that protect the Emperor’s family. It’s unthinkable to believe that a future empress might sacrifice such an important alliance for the sake of a single girl.”
Alistair sat silently with a frustrated scowl as Sylviane finished. He grabbed his silver chalice and downed an entire cup full of the mead he brought in one go.
“Damn it.” The King cursed, which didn’t even draw a disapproving glare from Sylviane this time. “Why couldn’t I have met her back when I was just a bastard sellsword? Everything is so much more complicated now that I’m King!”
“What can I say…” Sylviane shrugged with a wry smile. “Welcome to the dilemmas of royalty.”
And Vivi won’t be the only girl who is wary of being a King’s consort, the Princess thought with a heartsick feeling in her chest.
Sylviane’s own late mother once said that had she not fallen in love with her father Geoffroi, she would have never agreed to join the royal court. The constant atmosphere of political intrigue and treacherous schemes was simply not her idea of an ‘enjoyable life’.
Meanwhile, Alistair turned towards the quiet Pascal and voiced:
“I cannot be more envious of Your Grace right now — to have secured your life partner in childhood when everything was so much simpler, and none of these complications existed to muddy the waters.”
It brought amusement back to the Princess’ lips as she considered: Pascal and I were anything but simple…
However, she hadn’t even finished her thought before the fiancé in question spoke up with a rather scathing tone:
“Are you mocking me, Your Majesty?” Pascal challenged as he tightened his lips beneath a hard gaze. “Is there anything to be envious of about being a cripple at my age? Or have I fallen so far in your eyes that you no longer even see me as worthy of the Princess and can now openly flirt with her in my presence?”
“Wha–?” A bewildered Alistair was just starting to say when Sylviane interrupted him.
“Pascal! That is out of line!” The Princess’ voice was stern as iron as she glared across the table at her betrothed.
Silence fell across the room for a moment as nobody spoke. Even the King looked unsure as he looked between the young royal couple.
Then, Pascal exhaled a deep audible sigh as he looked down at his empty bowl of soup.
“Yes, that was out of line. I apologize, Your Majesty.” Pascal offered Alistair a curt nod before he rose from his seat, grabbed his walking wane, and left the table.
“Pascal?” Sylviane’s tone softened with concern as she followed his limping steps to the door.
“I am sorry, Sylv.” The young lord said without ever turning his face. “I have not been in a good mood today. And I should not have ruined your dinner like this. Please excuse me.”
He then opened the door and departed into the night.
“I’m so sorry about that, Alistair,” the Princess turned back to her guest with a frown above her slanted lips. “Pascal has not been the same as before ever since his injuries from the Battle of Glywysing. He has made significant recovery since then and is no longer down in the pits, but without his familiar here to help him…”
Unfortunately, that was only half the reason. Pascal’s mood had swung high and low on multiple occasions over the past week, and Sylviane could only guess at the trigger of what caused his attitude today. The fact Pascal was quiet and contemplative for most of dinner meant something in his thoughts must have been troubling him.
Did he overhear more unpleasant rumor mongering from the men about him?
“Actually,” the King replied with a surprised face, “to see him apologizing to me is quite refreshing. Nevertheless, I do understand how he feels.”
You do? Sylviane’s eyebrows shot up.
“For us men, there is nothing worse than feeling inadequate and useless before our family and loved ones.” Alistair said with a subdued smile. “Had I been injured as badly as His Grace had been, I’m sure I would also be lashing out at the people around me, especially towards a man whom he used to see as a rival in romance.”
A rival… you!? The Princess’ eyes lit up as she never realized that Pascal’s frequent condescension towards Alistair might be caused by this.
“I would have thought it obvious…” She began before trailing off.
“Oof, this must be what it feels like to be ‘friended’ by a beautiful lady.” Alistair joked as he feigned bending over a pain in his chest. “But alas, Sylviane, I think you forget that for all of His Grace’s confidence, he has never been good with women. Whereas I…” The King waggled his eyebrows.
“Oh stop bragging, you!” Sylviane waved him off as a joyful smile returned to her lips.
It was moments like these when Sylviane was reminded of how much more mature, and rounded, Alistair was compared to Pascal.
“Who said anything about bragging?” The King protested with a beaming grin before his expression turned back into a plain smile. “Though to be serious — I’ve seen fellow companions go through what Pascal is going through after being grievously injured. But it is always temporary, and Your Highness must have faith.”
Sylviane blinked as Alistair rarely addressed her formally when they were in private. It was a clear sign that his words were less for Pascal’s sake and more for hers.
“His Grace will recover.” The King declared with certainty. “And you must believe in him until he does — believe that he will rebound from his fall with a more mature, better tempered confidence. As that is the future Emperor Consort whom we all hope to see.”
—– * * * —–
Later that night, after their dinner and an extended conversation as the King left, Sylviane finally returned to her room in the expandable cabin. The Princess stretched out her arms as Elspeth helped to unlace her dress from behind.
Although Alistair’s reassurances helped her to feel better, Sylviane was still worried about Pascal. The young lord might have returned to actively partaking in various deliberations of military and political strategy. However, he was still often moody, and certainly no longer the cheerful, optimistic, and overly confident Pascal that she remembered from before.
After all, it was that Pascal who had so attracted her ever since they met on the shores of Cross Lake a decade ago.
I guess I can’t expect him to recover fully after just a few talks, the Princess thought.
Then, as the leather stays sewn into the narrow waist of her dress completely loosened, Sylviane felt a chime in the back of her head that indicated an incoming Farspeak spell.
“<Sir Reynaud?>” Sylviane’s brows furrowed with concern as she opened the link. “<Has something happened?>”
“<Hello, Your Highness.>” Reynaud said with noticeable tension in his voice. “<No, I haven’t broken Kaede out or anything, but rather… I’m here with Lord Henri de La Tours. He’d like to speak with you.>”
Why is Reynaud with Henri? The Princess frowned as confusion wracked her thoughts.
“<Yes, of course.>” Sylviane nevertheless responded as she made a ‘shhh’ gesture to Elspeth before tapping the back of her own head.
The petite armiger nodded back as she continued to help the Princess undress.
“<Your Highness, I am Henri de La Tours de Lorraine,>” a youthful and velvety voice began politely over the link. “<I apologize for calling so late at night. I wanted a chance to speak privately with you and this was the only available time.>”
“<Your Lordship.>” The Princess answered in due courtesy. “<This is very unusual circumstance indeed. Not only for you to reach out to me directly, but also through an armiger who is trailing your army, rather than through my envoys whom you are holding prisoner.>”
“<Yes, I’m sorry for the improper etiquette. I must also apologize for my father’s breach of diplomatic protocol,>” Henri replied candidly. “<And while I must follow his orders, please rest assured, Your Highness, that so long as Dame Kaede and Dame Cecylia are in my custody, no harm will befall either of them.>”
Until they’re no longer in your custody. Sylviane’s thoughts filled in as she knew full well how this game was played.
“<I appreciate what you have done for them, Lord Henri,>” the Princess acknowledged. “<Nevertheless, I must ask why they are not the intermediary in our conversation right now.>”
“<Because I am here to make a proposal, Your Highness, one that would put Her Excellency in a position of conflicted interests,>” the young lord responded.
This has to do with Pascal and Weichsel then. Sylviane considered. “<Go ahead.>”
“<Your Highness, over the past week, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing of your deeds and accomplishments on behalf of the Empire in our moment of crisis,>” Henri began in earnest. “<It is now my belief that you have shown yourself to be a ruler who can better uphold Rhin-Lotharingie’s long term interests, and I have spoken as such to my father.>
Kaede has done a good job then. Sylviane thought.
Nevertheless, she suppressed the feelings of elation that rose inside her. Henri’s tone came as someone who spoke as an equal and not as a subordinate, which meant he wasn’t simply pledging his allegiance and there was yet another shoe to drop.
“<As Your Highness might already know,>” Henri continued, “<Emperor Gabriel has already dispatched 5,000 of his soldiers back to his home provinces to delay the Weichsen invasion. This leaves his remaining 25,000 troops to defend the capital, which stands at about even parity with the forces that Your Highness has brought against him.>”
Which is unfortunate, as I had hoped Gabriel would dispatch twice that amount to defend Belgae, the Princess frowned.
“<Meanwhile, the Army of Rhétie under my command marches upon the capital in haste with 20,000 men,>” the young lord added. “<And I expect to arrive within three days to sway the balance of this decisive conflict for the future of our realm.>”
“<Indeed, Lord Henri, which makes me all the more anxious that you are currently holding my envoys prisoner.>” Sylviane replied as a scowl formed across her lips.
Stop flaunting your leverage and get to the point.
“<For the moment, Your Highness,>” Henri replied as though everything was about to change. “<My father may have offered the support of House La Tours to the Emperor Gabriel, but there is no binding contract between us and no oath of allegiance. I have therefore been able to petition him to switch sides in this conflict, which he has expressed willingness, but only on one condition… Though we understand if this condition cannot be met until the war is at an end, for Weichsel still has a role to play.>”
Sylviane pursed her lips as she had a bad feeling about where this was going, even before Henri laid down his demands:
“<I ask for Your Highness’ hand in marriage, in a true union between fellow Lotharins for the future of our Empire.>”Author's Comment
If you've enjoyed this update, please take a moment to vote for Daybreak on Hyperion at TopWebFiction. Aorii isn't good at self-promotion so every bit of your support helps.
Thank you \(•ᴗ•)/
P.S. Please note that comments need to be approved (or your submitted email must have a previously approved comment) before they'll show up.