Gabriel Gautier de Gaetane sat alone in the Oriflamme Citadel’s war room. His cushioned armchair had been raised on top of a wooden platform, which had been built inside the room so he could use it as his royal throne. The real throne room of the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie was only one hallway down, but he had it abandoned and its doors shuttered.
It would be farcical for him to use the official throne room when he couldn’t even sit upon the rightful seat of the Emperor. The aptly-named ‘Burning Throne’ would incinerate anyone unprotected within a minute with its unquenchable blue-white flames. The fires that emanated from the enchanted stone seat were so hot that even a ring of fire protection was not enough. Within seconds after sitting down, Gabriel would feel like he was being roasted on top of a searing grill and had to stand up before his rear started to cook.
So instead, Gabriel sat upon a makeshift throne with one arm propped against his cheek. He looked down upon the giant oval table where a three-dimensional terrain map of the Empire was displayed. His reasoning was that given their current state of conflict, it was more practical to always meet in a room where they could discuss matters in the context of the war. However, Gabriel did not doubt for a single moment that anyone who heard this claim would quickly see through the poor excuse.
Most of the court had refused to recognize him as the Emperor. Over a third of the ministers had outright defied him and been arrested as a result. This included the late Emperor’s Grand Chancellor and Grand Chamberlain, both of whom were locked in the dungeons beneath the Citadel’s sixth tower. The Grand Squire had attempted to escape to Weichsel, but was killed instead by a downriver garrison. Only the Grand Master, the steward of the palace, had agreed to cooperate; yet even there, Gabriel had to assign his own household’s steward to watch over the man, under the pretense of being the latter’s subordinate.
The result was that most of the people who currently worked inside the royal castle either obeyed him only due to coercion, or because they were faithless political opportunists who sought only their own gain. Gabriel could only trust the nobles whom he had brought in from his home region in Belgae. Unfortunately, few of them were qualified to administer an office that oversaw an entire Empire.
Just this morning, Gabriel had found out that the new Minister of Land and Resources had forgotten to send orders to stop shipping timber from logging camps along the North Lotharingie River to the town of Peruwelz. The settlement, which lay on the western coast of Cross Lake, had capitulated to Weichsen forces last week. It had since been handed over to Duke Mathias, whose men marched on behalf of the Princess. Any wood being sent there would certainly get processed into lumber, but only to fill their enemies’ coffers and aid in the reconstruction of Nordkreuz.
It would be another matter entirely if this was a lone occurrence, except events like these happened at least once a day. Perhaps even worse was the fact that Gabriel often couldn’t even tell if it was due to sheer incompetence or because someone was acting in bad faith. This left the entire administration of the Empire feeling more like a carnival stage play. It felt fake, phony, false — not only the orders he issued to these unreliable fools, but even the crown he wore upon his own head felt like a sham.
Clearly the phoenixes were right and I was never fit for the throne from the start. Gabriel thought with a scowl as he thought of the reality that he had been in denial over for decades.
Growing up, Gabriel’s mother had always favored his younger brother Geoffroi, who had been such a large baby that the healers had to cut open his mother’s stomach to deliver. And although Geoffroi had always shown Gabriel the love of a sibling, as they were almost inseparable as children, it was impossible to not feel bitter after the phoenixes also chose the younger instead of him.
I’ve always sought the chance to prove to everyone that I can be just as capable as Geoffroi. Gabriel thought to himself as he opened the locket that hung around his neck. He reached his finger in and touched the image of his teenage little brother with arms wrapped around his thin shoulders.
…Yet now, everyone can only see how we truly compare.
The Emperor shut his locket as he heard the doors to his throne room opening. An elderly-looking man with a long head and thin shoulders walked in. His gray hair had turned white in several places as he was well over one-hundred-twenty years of age, which even for a mage was entering the final stage of his life. Nevertheless he wore a suit of half-plate armor and carried a helmet beneath his right arm.
Marshal Menno van Britsum was the commander of Gabriel’s forces. Since Marshal Cosette pledged her loyalty to Princess Sylviane, the Emperor had officially stripped her of the office and given it to his leading commander.
Menno was also one of the most competent leaders that Gabriel had. The man had once loyally served under the late Emperor for five decades and was the Empire’s finest in the art of siegecraft. However, when Geoffroi chose Cosette Louise Granger, who was only known as the mistress of Duke Gaston at the time, to become the new Marshal of the Empire, the incensed Menno resigned and went into early retirement.
“Your Majesty.” Menno walked up to the map table and bowed toward the throne. Two officers flanked him to his sides, both similarly dressed in armor with Chevalier’s Swords hung from their belts.
“Marshal Menno.” Gabriel nodded as he put on one of his charming smiles. “I hear that forces loyal to my niece are almost upon us. How goes your preparations?”
“The fortifications surrounding our army’s encampment are complete,” Menno declared. “Two concentric rings of stone and earthworks plus two more layers facing the landward approach. There is no chance that Sylviane’s army can break our position before Lord Henri’s arrival. And once that happens, we shall crush her outnumbered forces between our two armies.” He concluded with complete confidence.
As the sovereign who commands the Empire’s capital at Alis Avern, Gabriel could have stationed his forces on the island in the middle of Lake Alise, upon which the capital was built. Without a significant fleet of ships, it would be impossible for Sylviane to mount an amphibious assault on the island and win against an almost equal force.
However, this would also make it difficult for him to project power over the Lotharin Heartlands, not to mention joining forces with Henri after the young lord began his march. Therefore, Gabriel and Menno had encamped their army upon a peninsula on the southern shores. The soldiers had spent much of the winter there constructing a new lakeside town, which was now further bolstered by recent fortifications built over the past two weeks.
“Very well done, Marshal. I knew I could rely on you,” Gabriel beamed as he stood up and walked down to the table. “I plan to join the army once the Princess arrives to bolster the men’s morale. I may not be an Oriflamme, but I do wield one of Saint Michael’s seven holy swords.” He said as he drew the Sword of Fortitude from its scabbard and looked upon its pristine blade.
“However, rest assured that you shall retain full command of the army,” the Emperor added as he looked back at his marshal. “I will not second-guess your decisions on the battlefield.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Menno said as he bowed his head once more. “I have no doubt that as long as Lord Henri comes through, we are in an overwhelming position to win the battle ahead.
“However, I must ask My Liege,” Menno then inquired in a concerned tone. “The treasury has been replenished thanks to the new taxes and Your Majesty’s authority over the Church. Why are we not hiring mercenaries to further bolster our ranks in the decisive battle to come? The stronger our hand is, the more Lord Henri can be relied upon to join us.”
“You need not worry about Lord Henri, Marshal Menno.” Gabriel replied with an assuring grin as he sheathed his blade once more. “Duke Hugh has not only rebuffed, but already arrested my niece’s envoys, and is holding them prisoner even now. His forces are marching upon the capital at double pace precisely because they come to defeat Sylviane. Whereas if he merely intended to reinforce the Princess after her own army already lay bloodied upon our earthworks, then he could afford to take his time.
“The funds that we have acquired from the latest taxes and Church sales will be needed more come Spring, when the Caliphate renews its offensive,” Gabriel explained further. “I have prepared an edict to summon mercenaries to our banner after we have secured prestige from our coming victory. It would also be far more enticing for warriors of the faith to know that they are fighting the enemies of our Lord, and not merely the politics of the Empire’s Civil War.”
“Understood, Your Majesty,” Menno answered with a convinced nod. “In that case, I shall return to our army to make final preparations. We look forward to Your Majesty’s arrival.” He bowed once more with his men before turning on their heels to depart.
The Emperor’s confident smile vanished as all eyes in the room left him. Gabriel could not admit that his ‘prepared edict’ didn’t actually exist. Even if it did, the Empire’s communication network was in too much disarray for him to properly distribute the message. He certainly could not request the ex-mercenary King Alistair to help put him in contact with the high quality mercenaries of the Glens or the Northmen.
Without such means, the only sellswords he could expect to hire were poorly-trained opportunity seekers, who would serve as little more than fodder on the battlefield.
— However, all of that was subject to change.
The clash between his army and Sylviane’s would change the political landscape of Rhin-Lotharingie. The victor would command the Empire when the Caliphate and the Imperium make their moves come spring. Then, the four kingdoms and various lords had to bow before their ruler regardless of their political preferences, as their very survival through the upheaval to come was at stake.
And at that time, the treasury that I have refilled will see its intended use. Gabriel promised himself.
He might not be much of an Emperor in any other way. But in this, he would see that the best course of action for Rhin-Lotharingie was taken. After all, to become Emperor meant he was no longer merely himself. He was now the leader, the herald, the icon of the entire Empire in conflict.
And this is the path that I have chosen.
—– * * * —–
“Uuughhh, what is the Princess waiting for!?” Reynaud scratched and pulled at his short red hair as he saw the setting sun through the forest canopy. “At this speed, Henri’s army is only two days away from meeting up with Gabriel’s. She needs to make a decision, whether that’s agreeing to his terms or sending us the men to get Kaede out!”
Behind him, Gerard was helping the men prop up their tents for the night. They had recruited over two dozen soldiers from the villages and towns they passed along the way. Most of them were local guardsmen who had been left behind as sentries or local quartermasters. Many of these men scoffed at the thought of being conscripted by Henri as they remained loyal to the late Emperor.
Reynaud could have easily recruited quadruple the numbers he had. It was a sign of just how popular Geoffroi was among his subjects in the Lotharin Heartlands. However, there were not enough horses for all of them. And it was important that their entire group stayed small and mounted for extra mobility — not only to stay ahead of Henri’s army, but also to stay hidden from the scouts, screens, and air cavalry..
“Oh come off it. It hasn’t even been a full day yet.” Gerard replied as Reynaud had only left to meet Henri last night. “Her Highness needs time to make a decision as important as this. Though…”
The tall engineer sighed as he couched beside a tent pole and added with a frown:
“I know the fate of the Empire hangs in the balance and all, but I certainly hope our princess chooses to stay with Lord Pascal. They’ve been through so much together. The same goes for us with him. It feels wrong to simply betray him like this.”
Reynaud scowled. Truth be told, he didn’t like it either. The redhead might still think of Pascal as a prick, but the Runelord had certainly come a long way in the past few months. Reynaud may not go as far as to call Pascal a ‘friend’, but they have fought together enough to be comrades.
Nevertheless, the royal armiger also knew how important it was for Sylviane to resolve their Civil War as quickly as possible…
“I think Her Highness should just make some empty promises to Henri,” Reynaud said as he turned back to his friend. “What worth is there in being faithful to a traitor anyway?”
“Except… you know that’s… not how most… people will see it.” Gerard answered between several grunts as he tied down the rope that held up his tent. He then leaned down and began to knot the rope in a well-practiced manner.
“As Cecylia said during our trip,” he continued. “The Gaetane dynasty has a reputation for negotiating in good faith and keeping their word to their allies. “Furthermore, Duke Hugh has only sworn fealty to the late Emperor, not our princess. With the throne contested in a power struggle, ‘traitor’ is but a point-of-view as so many nobles are re-examining their own loyalties.” He finished before looking up with a lopsided frown.
“Since when did you become so political?” Reynaud stared back with a scowl.
“I’ve been reading ever since Her Highness knighted me.” Gerard returned a wry smile. “Haven’t you seen me with that book that I borrowed from Pascal? Not everyone is like you in their dislike of learning, you know.”
“Hey, I’ve been paying attention to your lectures on all the flora and fauna that we’ve passed by,” Reynaud countered. “Besides, it’s easy for you to stay calm on this trip, seeing as your job as a chauffeur is over and your raven is off surveying the land even now. Meanwhile, I was entrusted to provide security for Kaede, which if you can’t tell I’ve failed super hard at.” The redhead said in a peeved voice as he crossed his arms. “How am I going to explain to Her Highness if anything should happen to the cute girl?”
“Her Highness also knows that it’s not your fault,” Gerard answered before furrowing his gaze. “Well, you did tell Her Highness how that lightning transform works, I hope?”
“Of course I did,” Reynaud answered. “I told her back in Nordkreuz. It would have been foolish to head into battle as her armiger when she didn’t even understand my skill set.”
Because Reynaud was a licensed Wayfarer, people he met often believed that his lightning transformation was some kind of a unique elemental teleportation spell that could bypass lockdown wards. However, the reality was that Lightning Leap was an alchemy spell invented by the Imperial Mantis Blades, which Reynaud had learned from his mother. It transformed the caster’s body into lightning for a split second, which made it useful as a spell to escape sticky situations.
However, like all other instantaneous movement spells, Lightning Leap left the caster dazed and disoriented for a dozen or so seconds after use, which made it almost useless in combat. Reynaud was only able to overcome this thanks to his Wayfarer training, where he cast such spells thousands of times to train his body to continue performing the same action it was doing before.
Nevertheless, unlike teleportation spells, self-transmutation spells could not bring along others, even if the passenger had no mana resistance to thwart the external alchemy magic. This meant Reynaud could not bring Kaede with him, nor would he have been able to escape at all without his lightning spell — which he only did after Kaede ordered him to leave.
“Look, I know what you’re thinking, I think…” Gerard continued in a not-entirely-convincing tone. “But even should we fail to rescue Kaede, Her Highness isn’t the type to hand you over to Pascal as some kind of scapegoat.”
Reynaud scowled again as Gerard hit it on the nail this time. If something should happen to Kaede on this mission, he had little doubt that the Runelord would be irate. And as Sylviane was not only Pascal’s betrothed, but also the person who sent Kaede on this quest, it was a possibility that she would use him to deflect the blame.
But that’s no reason to think ill of Her Highness’ relationship with Pascal…
The redhead scratched his head as he had always considered himself above such petty politics. Yet now, when faced with two problematic options, he felt his concerns weigh down upon him no matter which option was chosen.
Perhaps this was why it felt so much easier to face the third option — rescue Kaede or die trying. At least then, he wouldn’t have to justify the events that followed to his own morals.
“I guess we’ll just have to see that it doesn’t come to that.” Reynaud declared before looking up to see a pretty young woman in her early twenties approach them from atop a horse.
Her name was Laetitia Leclerc. And true to her surname, she had been left in charge of the granaries in the town of Roulans. When Reynaud stopped by to gather several men-at-arms from the remaining guardsmen in the town, she had refused to let them leave unless they also took her along.
“Sir Reynaud,” the plainly dressed woman addressed him as she climbed down from the saddle. “I’m done gathering information on the interior layout of their army camp. It’s clear from these past few days that while the exact positioning of buildings and tents might change, the overall layout always stays the same.” She finished before handing over her hand-drawn map of the camp’s major divisions.
Every Lotharin army had thousands of camp followers as well as locals who catered to them to make money. Henri’s repeated force marches had also caused many camp followers to fall behind, which made his army rely even more on temporary help from the nearby settlements. Taking advantage of the girl’s local accent, Reynaud had opted to send her in to perform some ‘scouting’. It was also a test of courage as the yeoman girl had no military background or militia training.
“Nicely done,” Reynaud smiled encouragingly before he looked down upon the map. Its contents had been corroborated yesterday with Gerard’s information from his familiar scout.
“What’s the army’s condition?” He asked next.
“Exhausted. Some of the men can barely stay upright long enough to pitch their tents,” Laetitia answered. “If we strike at night and during their rest, I doubt most of them will be in any shape to properly fight.”
Reynaud nodded as he focused on a star near the middle of the camp, where Gerard’s raven had glimpsed Kaede and Cecylia the day prior. The inner camp’s security was too tight for a civilian outsider to penetrate. But knowing where all the checkpoints and guard posts were would nevertheless give Reynaud a significant advantage.
“When the time comes, I’ll sneak in alone while you all create distractions here, here, and here.” Reynaud leaned towards Gerard as he pointed at three junction points near the edge of the camp. “With any luck, the girls and I will meld into the chaos, make our way to the edge of the camp’s wards, and then teleport out. And if Cecylia knows how to cast Wind Walk, it might be even easier than that.”
“Cecylia’s shadow magic excels at staying inconspicuous, and Kaede is easy to overlook as long as her hair color changes.” Gerard nodded before he turned to Reynaud and raised a skeptical eyebrow. “But you? An armiger escorting two camp followers is bound to raise some eyebrows.”
“Nonsense. I’ll dress up as a girl too,” Reynaud replied with a beaming grin. “People always did tell me that I’m pretty.” The redhead said as he turned to Laetitia and wagged his eyebrows, which made the girl start giggling.
“Heavens forbid, can you go one day without flirting with the girls around you?” Gerard rolled his eyes. “I’m being serious here.”
“So am I,” Reynaud reaffirmed with a goofy grin. “Laetitia here can do my makeup and hair.”
“Sure, I’ve had some practice helping a theater troupe in town before,” Laetitia answered with a sunny smile. “But first, Sir Reynaud, I expect you to uphold your end of the bargain. I’ve passed your test, haven’t I?”
“For joining our little operation? Sure. But that’s your not real aim, is it?” Reynaud asked with a knowing look.
“No. I’m searching for a chance to prove myself so that I might become an armiger,” the young woman answered. “Though seeing as nobles only extend offers to those that catch their eye, it’s hardly a position that I could simply seek out.”
“Outside of specialists and family connections, armigers are usually promoted from veterans with battlefield valor,” Gerard commented.
Which is why I decided to become a Wayfarer. Reynaud thought.
“Sure, but I can’t get any combat experience since the militia and guards in my area won’t accept women!” Laetitia expressed her frustration. “And when I tried to join the banners heading towards the front, the recruiting officer just laughed at me!”
“Why are you so keen on becoming an armiger anyway? Not exactly the best choice of career for a young woman, you know?” Reynaud replied as his voice took on a sarcastic tone. “Lousy hours, constant peril, zero opportunities to start a family. The only real good benefit is that you get first dibs on loot.”
“Then why did you become one?” The young woman challenged.
“Because money can’t buy the brothers that I want.” Reynaud flashed a knowing smile. “True brotherhood can only be earned.”
“And money can’t replace the calling that I feel!” Laetitia declared. “My parents named me after Laetitia the Greenheart Paladin, if you can’t already tell!”
“Figured as much. You’ve got a fancy name for a yeoman’s daughter,” Gerard pointed out.
“Yes, and I grew up listening to my grandfather’s war stories.” The girl added. “I want to serve my country and my people just as he did. But the only way a girl can do so is apparently by becoming a ranger or an armiger!”
“Or move to a different area where the recruiting standards are different.” Gerard shrugged before he turned to Reynaud with a smile. “Well, how about it? She’s certainly enthusiastic enough.”
“And she has the guts,” the redhead acknowledged as he dug deep into his extradimensional pocket and pulled out a pair of wooden kukris that he used for practice.
“Time to test your skills then, girl,” he returned a haughty smile. “Grab your spear and shield and show me just what your grandpa taught you.”Author's Comment
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