Kaede woke up from her slumber as the wagon bed lurched. A wooden wheel seemed to have hit a rock on the snow-covered dirt road.
The Samaran girl rubbed her eyes with her small hands as she registered her surroundings. She sat in the front-left side of a covered wagon on top of a thick, woolen blanket. Meanwhile Pascal, who was still unconscious, laid flat with his head in her lap. A young, apprentice healer girl sat diagonally across from Kaede and peered out to the rear. To her side lay another patient — a Lotharin noble who looked not even thirty. His exposed head and limbs were largely covered in bandages, while his unconscious face was red from a burning fever.
Kaede could hear the creaking of wagon wheels and the clinking mail of armored troops. She could see the train of vehicles to both the front and rear which traversed through the wintry forest on a narrow road. Soldiers marched in columns on each flank through the snow-covered ground. The horse-drawn wagon behind her carried no less than six injured officers. While the one behind that was outright packed with wounded soldiers.
Aristocratic privileges, Kaede couldn’t help but smile a little. She doubted the people in the wagons behind them could stretch out their legs as she did in her sparse carriage.
Nevertheless, the familiar felt not just drowsy but exhausted. The healers had asked her for more blood last night, and she had given them enough that it left her anemic. It didn’t help that she had another nightmare which jolted her awake in a cold sweat. The haunting image of a blackened wasteland had replaced the snowy landscape of her previous dreams, where zombie-like corpses crawled and lunged after her in waves of endless terror.
Kaede was about to doze off again when a ringtone began in the back of her head. Her torso jerked upright as another bump in the road lurched the wagon’s carriage at the same time.
Magic always seemed to adjust to the user. And in the case of her earrings’ ability to receive Farspeak, the lively music it used was the same as Kaede’s cell phone on Earth.
Must be Her Highness… or rather, elder sister calling. Kaede adjusted her thoughts with a faint smile. She was still trying to grow accustomed to thinking of Princess Sylviane as her elder sister.
Regardless, the familiar reached up with one hand and squeezed her earring between her thumb and index finger.
“<Hello. You’ve reached the voicemail box of Kae–>”
“<Cease whatever joke you are playing at, Miss Familiar.>” Kaede immediately recognized the serious tone of Karsten, Pascal’s Majordomo from his Nordkreuz estate. “<Is His Grace, your master, available? I’ve been trying to reach him for two days now.>”
“<He’s… unconscious.>” Her mental voice darkened. “<He sustained some serious injuries from the recent battle.>” She added without explaining in further detail just how bad those injuries were.
“<Then how are you doing fine?>” Karsten snarled. “<Is it not your duty to protect your master?>”
Kaede pursed her lips as a sharp retort rose from within her. She had been nearly thirty kilopaces away when Pascal cast that reckless spell. How could she have helped?
— Yet, at the same time, she was also the reason he experimented with magic beyond his comprehension in the first place.
“<I was in a different battle, per his orders.>”
Even Karsten couldn’t reprimand her for that.
“<Then I hope you’re taking proper care of him.>” The Majordomo’s stern voice rang as authoritative as to the estate’s other servants. It was clear that in Karsten’s eyes, Kaede was merely another servant to the House of Moltewitz.
“<I am, and he’s slowly recovering.>” Kaede tried to sound reassuring. “<May I ask what you are calling about? Perhaps the Princess would like to know as well.>”
“<Her Highness does not need to be bothered by such trifles,>” The Majordomo reprimanded. “<However, it may help if you inquire with one of her advisors. We’re running into some… business trouble, here in Nordkreuz. The public-private investment partnerships that His Grace created before his departure have developed some questionable behavior as of late.>”
Kaede’s lips twisted. She should have expected this. Every economic reform throughout history had run into its share of road bumps and, occasionally, massive pitfalls.
“<What’s the issue?>”
“<Do you remember the North Sea Company that His Grace created?>”
“<Yes,>” Kaede nodded.
Pascal had established several publicly traded companies to help spur the reconstruction of Nordkreuz. Three of them were allocated to the different guilds and their industrial workshops, while a fourth — the North Sea Trading Company — was set aside for the harbor and its dock facilities. The idea was to attract private investments for the rapid re-establishment of Nordkreuz’s strategic trade port. In turn, the port would share 50% of its future profits with all private investors.
“<Stock values in the company have been rising at a phenomenal rate.>” Karsten began to explain. “<We considered this good news at first. The harbor’s reconstruction is meant to lead redevelopment efforts in Nordkreuz. A rise in its stock share value shows the public’s faith in Nordkreuz’s economic recovery. We hoped that this would, in turn, also boost confidence in the other company stocks and bring in more investment. However, Her Grace, Cardinal-Chancellor Lisbeth, has expressed concerns that the changes are… ‘too unnatural’… which is ironic since that better describes her own habits.>”
You mean her love of young boys, Kaede almost scoffed. Even she had heard the rumors by now.
“<Her Grace warned that the stock value’s climb has been alarmingly fast.>” Karsten continued as his tone grew more troubled with worries. “<She is concerned at how the city is awash with rumors on how quickly the company could profit, once the Skagen Peninsula’s territories are annexed by the King’s peace treaty with the Northmen. These rumors claim that there is great wealth in the north, that new products like cocoa and sugarcane would soon enter the market to earn a fortune…>”
Kaede frowned. She had learned from her conversations with Cecylia and Perceval that both cocoa and sugarcane had become commonplace in Skagen society thanks to their colonies in the New World. However, while the Grand Jarldom of Skagen had a formal trade embargo with both the Kingdom of Weichsel and the Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea, these products nevertheless entered the Imperial-speaking cultural sphere through traders in Gleann Mòr and illegal smugglers on the North Sea.
I wonder if there’s an Adam Smith of Hyperion who is writing furiously right now. Kaede thought of the ‘Father of Capitalism’, who relentlessly attacked the stupidity of trade embargos in how they negatively impacted both sides — the British and French in his time — while enriching the coffers of the Dutch middlemen.
Nevertheless, both cocoa and sugarcane required tropical climates to grow. They certainly would not thrive near the shores of the cold North Sea. And while Weichsen soldiers likely acquired batches of it during their raids across the Skagen Peninsula, it didn’t mean that these lands could yield such crops.
“<The traders within the city should know better!>” The familiar retorted.
“<They do, and many of them have actively opposed these rumors.>” Karsten stated. “<Yet the claims continue to spread, as if all voices of reason have been pushed into a corner. It doesn’t help that even when one rumor is dispelled, another — such as claims that the Northmen’s silver mostly came from their peninsular mines — replaces it. To the best of our knowledge, there aren’t any silver mines in the peninsula.>”
That’s not a good sign. Kaede thought as she furrowed her brows.
The marginalization of accurate information required purposeful propaganda. Some unseen actor was actively spreading false information to engineer public opinion.
It reminded Kaede of the disinformation campaign launched by American and British media in the run up to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq to gain control of its vast oil wealth. In less than three months, public approval of a war to remove Iraq’s supposed ‘weapons of mass destruction’ went from less than 25% to over 75% of the populace. Meanwhile, anyone who expressed disapproval of the war on mass media was declared a traitor and had their careers destroyed. Even allies — like the French who refused to participate — were ridiculed and branded as spineless, immoral cowards by the media onslaught.
“<These rumors are causing ‘speculation’ — as the Cardinal describes it — to run astray,>” Karsten continued. “<One local guildmaster claims that all his apprentices have sunk their savings into the company. Because of such rash behavior, the North Sea Company’s stocks have multiplied more than tenfold over the past few weeks. The stock has achieved total values that — according to the Cardinal’s agents — are reaching even the gross value of Nordkreuz before the air raid.>”
“<Do you know what is the P/E ratio?>” Kaede asked as her anxieties grew.
“<Sorry. The ratio of market price per share divided by the earnings per share.>” The familiar had to clarify her modern terminology.
“<One moment. Let me add someone…>” Karsten answered before a new, much younger voice joined the conversation:
“<Good morning, Kaede. This is Marshal Wiktor von Falkenhausen speaking.>”
Cecylia’s dad! The Samaran girl’s eyes widened as she thought of the handsome dhampir whom she had met back in Nordkreuz. He’s been made Marshal too!
Kaede realized then that Karsten must have linked his Farspeak call to her with a Telepathy connection from the new Marshal. It readily created a telepathic chatroom that stretched across thousands of kilopaces.
“<The price per share of the North Sea Trading Company has just exceeded 2,000 this morning, while the earnings per share — even if we use commerce figures from before the Battle of Nordkreuz — would only be about 9 marks.>” Marshal Wiktor responded to her earlier question. “<The price per share had been less than 300 merely a week ago.>”
The Samaran girl’s brain did the math and… That’s a P/E of over 200! Kaede’s mental alarms immediately sounded.
Kaede wasn’t much of a stock trader back in Japan. But she did talk about it with the family, especially as Konstantin wanted to make sure his son had a ‘basic financial education’ which was sorely lacking in schools. She remembered that a healthy P/E ratio was around 15. Anything above 100 was definitely a bubble. Even worse, her P/E ratio was using ‘projected figures’, as the destroyed harbor wasn’t even rebuilt yet and it currently had virtually no revenue source at all!
The Samaran girl bit her lip. This was proof enough to clear all doubts.
Someone at Nordkreuz — perhaps a group of wealthy speculators — has learned to game the new system. The false rumors were almost definitely started by them. And the rampant speculation was fast forming a ‘financial bubble’ where asset prices grow to be implausibly, unrealistically high.
If such a bubble was allowed to keep growing, it would eventually burst. The collapse of the Japanese Assets Bubble in 1992 ruined an entire generation to stagnation in the ‘Lost Decades’. A single company in Nordkreuz should not have such catastrophic results. However, with public confidence on the line and people betting their life savings on such a gamble, even a small disaster could ruin Pascal and her attempts to introduce modern finance.
“<Marshal Wiktor, Mister Karsten, please listen to me carefully — this is a potential problem that Pascal foresaw in our discussions.>” Kaede told an outright lie to fabricate some authority for her following statements. “<The Cardinal-Chancellor is correct. The North Sea Company is developing what we call a ‘bubble’. If it is left unmanaged, it could spell disaster for Pascal’s new economic policies. We must nip this problem in the bud by popping this bubble with a sharp needle immediately.>”
“<His Grace always did show foresight.>” Karsten spoke as proudly as a father would. “<He has left instructions then?>”
“<Yes.>” Kaede’s thoughts were running on overcapacity now. Even for her this was frontier territory, and she could only rely on her knowledge of historical bubbles. “<We’re not sure if this’ll work, so please run everything past Cardinal Lisbeth first…>”
“<Hold up on that.>” Marshal Wiktor interjected before silence fell over the link. Kaede wasn’t complaining though, as her brain was already overheating as she hastily put together a plan of action.
The Samaran girl had read enough about historical financial crises from Earth to at least grasp the overall strategy. However, while she could make high level plans, the execution was a far more complicated affair. Furthermore, not only did Kaede lack understanding of the intricacies of financial and economic management, she also had zero experience in trying to organize and coordinate so many people at once.
Therefore, Kaede had to entrust the execution of this plan to others. And there was no better candidate in her mind than the Cardinal-Chancellor, who was a deft old hand with decades of experience in managing Weichsel’s economy.
“<This is Lisbeth.>” An older, feminine voice joined in several minutes later.
“<Lizzie.>” Wiktor spoke as though greeting an old friend. “<I have Pascal’s Majordomo Karsten and his familiar Kaede with me on the network. Kaede was just about to recommend an idea from her master on how to address the issue we’ve been discussing regarding the North Sea Company.>”
“<I’m listening.> Lisbeth replied curtly.
“<Your Grace.>” Kaede greeted first before explaining her draft proposal as her master’s idea. “<Pascal suggested that in the event of a ‘bubble’ forming — that is, excessive speculation upon the stocks that result in unrealistically high share values — we should immediately pull out 90% of his initial investment in the troubled company at once. This also includes any investment made using the King’s funds. As the original shareholder, Pascal’s stocks represent a sizable slice of the investment pie. This will surely cause a noticeable dip in the company’s asset value.>
“<People will notice the sudden drop, and their confidence will waver.>” Kaede continued. “<Seize this opportunity and spread a counter-rumor that the North Sea Company is currently facing a crisis of mismanagement. Tell them that the Landgrave has discovered that several harbor managers are lying about the company’s future prospects, and that he is about to clean house and punish those who are responsible for spreading rumors based on fabrications and lies. Use the estate’s maids, footmen, deliverymen — anyone you have access to propel the rumor to give it more legitimacy…>”
“<The maids and footmen, spreading rumors!?>” Karsten sounded insulted.
“<Mister Karsten, please. More is at stake here than the honor of the house,>” Kaede pleaded. “<Someone is likely manipulating the system in a most treacherous attempt to earn a greedy profit, perhaps even to sabotage Nordkreuz.>”
Now that she considered it, Kaede would not be surprised if this whole incident was deliberate sabotage. The Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea certainly has a history of tying military and economic expansion together. Weakening Nordkreuz by sabotaging its economy would definitely play to its geostrategic interests.
“<I completely agree.>” Marshal Wiktor added. His sentiments were then echoed by Cardinal Lisbeth.
Faced with the dire circumstances, Karsten replied with only a begrudging “<…I understand.>”
“<Once the rumors begin clashing and the stock prices waver, you should openly, publicly confirm the Landgrave’s loss of confidence in the company using your position as the estate’s steward.>” Kaede carefully added the plan’s supporting elements. “<This will discredit any other ongoing rumors, and hopefully deliver a Coup de Grace to the whole charade. Meanwhile, put a trade ceiling — a daily limit on the amount of stocks bought or sold at once by any investor — on each individual stock.>
“<Pascal’s suggestion was to use the yearly earnings of a new craftsman as the baseline figure. For those who partook in the initial offering, this limit could be raised to equal their initial share. This will stop the culprits from trying to hide the stock’s decline using their own funds, but also help protect the poor investors if our actions are successful.>”
It was also the reason why Kaede suggested leaving 10% of Pascal’s total shares in the system. This would allow sizeable reinvestments to be made without violating their own rules.
“<We do not yet have a system set up for such fine methods of control.>” The Cardinal-Chancellor warned. “<It may take some time — perhaps a week — for my people to properly establish such.>”
Kaede twisted her lips. Time was of the essence. Yet it was also the Achilles’ heel of new ideas. There needs to be an institution set in place to manage everything — to control, to supervise, to enforce.
Cardinal-Chancellor Lisbeth was the most prominent figure in the Weichsen civil bureaucracy. She had direct control over two of the five ministries. Her people could no doubt summon an army of clerks and accountants to manage transactions and perform record-keeping. However legal enforcement was outside her jurisdiction. Therefore, not only did she lack the authority to conduct investigations into the accounts of private enterprises, she likely also lacked personnel who specialize in tracking, monitoring, and arresting suspects.
Then a lightbulb lit in Kaede’s mind.
Weichsel was a near-absolute monarchy. This gave one body the highest authority to interfere in all civil and military affairs as they saw fit. Kaede wasn’t sure what exactly was the relationship between the Black Eagles and Weichsel’s Ministry of Law. But she had no doubts over who had greater freedom of action in a crisis situation.
“<Please file an official appeal to King Leopold that we would like to request the aid of his Black Eagles.>” Kaede answered. “<Tell His Majesty that we need his royal authority and their enforcement powers to deal with this potential crisis. Furthermore, ask for the Eagles’ help in monitoring and reporting on anyone who attempts to retrieve sums that greatly exceed the daily purchase ceiling. His Majesty should also know that we suspect there may be foreign subterfuge at play, with the goal of wrecking Nordkreuz’s economic recovery efforts.>”
“<That sounds like a good starting point.>” Cardinal Lisbeth answered thoughtfully. “<I will work with Majordomo Karsten to gauge the right amount of divestment to achieve the results we need.>”
“<And I will contact His Majesty regarding this matter immediately,>” Marshal Wiktor added.
Kaede had to pause for a moment and blink as she heard their acknowledgements. She could hardly believe she was conversing with two of Weichsel’s highest ranking leaders as if they were equals.
Nevertheless, she still wasn’t done:
“<If our counter-offensive proves successful, the North Sea Company’s stocks will begin a sharp decline as people lose their confidence and pull out their funds. Once the fall begins, we can slowly re-inject Pascal’s pulled funds over a period of multiple days to stabilize its descent. Mister Karsten, Pascal asks that you cooperate fully with Her Grace on the quantity, frequency, and timing of divestment and reinvestment. The goal is to allow the company to return to its starting point, reset and restabilize. But the descent should be slow, not all at once, so that the people’s losses may be mitigated and their confidence in the system overall maintained.>”
The good news was that by pulling most of his investments out while the stock was at its peak, Pascal would make several times his original funds in profits. This would give them more than sufficient of a ‘war chest’ to fight the remainder of the economic battle.
We’ll make you pay dearly for trying to sabotage our economy, just like what the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities did to George Soros. Kaede grinned wolfishly as she thought back to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.
“<Yes. I agree that returning sanity and stability to the new market is our primary concern.>” Cardinal Lisbeth responded, before she recapped the conversation with a complete list of all the actionable items. This included additional details and fine-tuning tweaks that she added herself. It rather impressed Kaede how quickly she caught on.
It’s no wonder King Leopold relies on her. Kaede thought before she decided to add: “<Your Grace, in addition to the North Sea Company, please work with Karsten to take appropriate measures on the other companies’ stocks should anything unnatural happen.>”
“<Of course, Miss Familiar. Please tell your master, His Grace, that I will lend my full support on this matter.>” She said before bidding her departure. “<Good day.>”
“<And I as well. Thank you for your excellent advice, Kaede.>” Marshal Wiktor then finished in a teasing tone. “<I’ll make sure we make good use of it.>”
He knows that was from me and not Pascal? Kaede couldn’t help wondering before adding. “<The recommendations come from Pascal. I’m merely following his directives.>”
“<Of course they do,>” Wiktor then added in a knowing tone. “<Take care, Kaede.>”
He definitely knows. The familiar girl scowled.
“<Mister Karsten,>” Kaede then interjected before the Majordomo could close the connection also. “<Please keep me apprised of day-to-day development. I will also see if any of the Princess’ advisors may weigh in on this problem before Pascal has recovered.>”
“<Understood. Please take care of His Grace.>” Karsten was almost imploring. “<I’m counting on you.>”
With a mental ‘click’, the Farspeak call ended. Kaede then took a deep breath to calm back down.
It was her first experience with just how much power she could wield through decrees in Pascal’s name. It wasn’t a lowly rank like Pascal the Captain or empty titles like Pascal the Crown Prince Consort either. Instead, today’s meeting showed that Pascal exercised true authority and influence through his ducal rank as the Landgrave of Nordkreuz.
Even a slight taste of it felt… intoxicating, in a self-righteous sort of way. Kaede’s conversation with Karsten began with him patronizing her. It ended with her giving orders, and not just to him.. She had even issued the main plan of action to the Chancellor and Marshal of Weichsel!
I’d better be careful with this power. Kaede couldn’t help thinking. This was doubly so as her influence with Princess Sylviane grew. Plenty of trusted, close advisors throughout history had lost their heads because they became overconfident in issuing orders in their master’s stead.
Kaede stared back at the long train of over a hundred wagons. It was often too easy to forget how many pieces must be in position for history to be made. The people who worked in the background were often forgotten by everyone except scholars. But that did not mean they lacked the power and influence to affect the world.
The Samaran girl was still gazing into the distance when she noticed a twitching jerk from the blanket across from her.
“Attack. Attack!” The youthful noble who lay across from Kaede suddenly cried out in his delirious fever. Tears streamed from his unbandaged eye as it suddenly snapped open and the young man yelled “For Maela! Kill them all!”
The healer girl who sat beside him quickly pulled out a cloth from her waist pouch. She covered his nose and mouth with it. The nobleman struggled slightly before his eyes closed and he fell back into unconsciousness.
Chloroform, Kaede sniffed as she could smell the strong scent from the cloth.
“Sorry,” the young healer looked towards the familiar with a wry smile. “I didn’t think he’d wake so early.”
Kaede could only return a similar smile before she pondered aloud: “who is Maela?”
“His newly-wed bride, from what I’ve heard.” The healer sighed. “They were apparently childhood friends. They married on the same day they joined the Avorican army together.”
Kaede grimaced. War stories loved to use such tales to romanticize and glorify heroism. But the reality was that they almost always ended in tragedy.
The familiar was so distracted by what had just happened that she almost missed the faint stirring that came over her familiar link. The placid void she felt instead of Pascal’s consciousness was growing active once more. It began to radiate waves of awareness, discomfort, even confusion and pain. Then, right as Kaede looked down with hopeful uncertainty, she saw a twitch from his exposed right hand as Pascal tried to lift his arm.
Relief and joy flooded across Kaede’s thoughts at once. Both the driver and the healer looked at her with interest but she didn’t even care. The Samaran girl felt water in her eyes as she looked down at Pascal’s blindfolded face. His head moved slightly as it laid on top of her lap. Meanwhile she took his trembling hand into her own as she felt the weak movements of his still-bandaged fingers.
The healers hadn’t been sure when he would awake from his coma. They said perhaps this week, perhaps next month, perhaps never. It was a miracle that he survived at all. To be conscious again after just six days time was surely a blessing from some higher power that watched over them.
Kaede could sense Pascal trying to put strength into his arms. However, with his right hand arrested by her grip, he tried next with his left hand. The arm was slightly shaky at first. Yet as it rose, his control became noticeably better, and a lot more so than his right hand.
“Don’t…” Kaede caught his other wrist before it could reach his face. “Don’t try to take off the blindfold. Your eyes haven’t recovered yet. You’ll go blind.”
“K-kaede?” A sickly, raspy voice emerged from Pascal’s parched throat. The healers had kept his body fed and hydrated through Sustenance spells. Though it clearly wasn’t enough. His body continued to tax itself in a low fever. It was gradually repairing the horrendous damage taken from the directional thermonuclear blast.
Meanwhile, the healer girl who just put the other patient back to sleep crawled over on top of the wagon bed. She pulled out a crystal display from her extradimensional pouch and began casting several diagnosis spells.
“Don’t speak.” Kaede added before remembering their familiar link. “<Don’t tire yourself out. Just speak to me by telepathy.>”
Kaede thumbed the back of his hand as she stared at his pale cheeks. She felt her eyes grow blurry as she brought his fingers up to her tender cheeks. His touch was cold and clammy but she didn’t care. She was just glad that he was back among the living once more.
The pain and nausea that ebbed over their empathic link were growing. Pascal’s body was clearly still in a state of recovery. It wasn’t a surprise. After all, the acute radiation poisoning that he suffered would have killed him had he been on Earth.
His next appointment with the senior healer wasn’t until dusk, when two of them would cast Regeneration, Cleanse, and Invigorate on every one of his damaged organs and muscle groups again. Magic was the only reason he still lived. And even then, the healers weren’t sure how much of his bodily functions he could recover.
Yet, despite his misery and agony, Pascal’s first statement had nothing to do with his own personal well-being:
“<I failed… did I not?>”
Kaede could hear the disappointment in his trembling voice. She laid her palm over his right hand — which was still feeling its way across her cheeks — and pressed her head against it. She wanted him to feel the smile that he could not see. She wanted him to touch her joyful tears and be reassured that all was still well.
There were so many, so many things she wanted to say to him. But at the moment, none of them seemed to matter. The fact he was still alive and awake was enough for her, for now.
“<No, you didn’t,> she replied. “<You blew away the Caliphate’s entire right wing — their best cavalry brigade by survivors’ accounts. It did hurt our forces as well…>” She didn’t try to hide. “<But, in the end, we won.>”
Pascal didn’t need to hear how exactly they won yet. There would be a time for that later, when he was feeling better and not stuck in depressing blackness.
An audible sigh of relief came from Pascal as he relaxed on top of the wool blanket. Then, as a hot tear dropped from Kaede’s eyes onto his fingertips, his blindfolded eyes turned towards Kaede once more:
“<I am sorry…>”
“<You… idiot!>” the familiar girl choked back a sob. “<Did you even have any idea of just what kind of fire you were playing with!?>”
Kaede almost burst into tears as memories of that night came rushing back in. Thousands of burned out tree husks stretched on for kilopaces. Tangles of blackened limbs piled together as soldiers dumped bodies onto corpse wagons. She would have thought Pascal dead had it not been for her own life. Yet the state she found him in wasn’t much better — with severe burns covering him from head to toe and entire patches of inflamed red skin sloughing off.
A mental sigh emerged from Pascal as his feeble fingertips tickled her cheek.
“<I am sorry to have worried you…>” He replied slowly with a tinge of regret. Kaede remembered then that he could keenly feel her emotions — much better than she could feel his. It offered him a perfect mental image of her expression, even if his eyes couldn’t actually see.
“<But…>” He continued more forcefully. “<It was a necessary fire to play.>”
“<And just who do you think would be happy if you had died!?>” Kaede retorted as her emotions turned to anger. “<Your father in heaven? Your fiancée? Do you think I’d thank you for dying and pushing me off to my next life?>”
“<That is not for any of us to decide.>” Pascal spoke dryly. “<Unfortunately, only the Holy Father can ultimately decide where my fate lies.>”
His comment knocked Kaede off balance, leaving her staring back in surprise. She couldn’t quite grasp it yet. But, something about Pascal was… different. Something beyond merely his injured state.
This wasn’t the same Pascal she had left before the Battles of Lysardh Point and Glywysing.
“<…The Rangers estimated that out of almost ten thousand Cataliyan troops who arrived on the battlefield, less than a thousand escaped.>” Kaede finished her summary of the conclusion to the Battle of Glywysing.
It felt odd for Kaede to not see his clear, turquoise gaze. Instead, she faced only the black blindfold that wrapped between his golden, wavy hair and his pale, faded cheeks.
Even most of his emotions seem to have vanished from their empathic feedback link. They left behind only his ebbing pain and nausea. Pascal must have suppressed it, and the master-to-familiar channel was not as sensitive as its reverse. Kaede could only sense powerful sentiments through it to begin with, or moderate emotions if she concentrated. But now, there was almost nothing on the other side.
It was as if she was talking to a faceless… well, certainly not a stranger, as she could easily recognize him even with his blindfold. But it simply felt… weird.
“<And our losses?>” Pascal asked with a thoughtful nod.
“<We lost around twenty-five hundred out of our four thousand troops.>” Kaede tried to sound positive as she replied. “<The lowest casualties were actually on your flank, as your spell destroyed the enemy right wing wholesale. However, it also left your wing so disorganized and shaken they hardly participated in the remainder of the battle.>”
“<I see…>” Pascal sighed.
An uncomfortable silence settled over their private channel. Though the atmosphere was not quiet as the creaking of wagon wheels, the steel of marching soldiers, and the chatter of drivers and troops alike continued to fill the air. Yet to Kaede they all seemed distant, nondescript.
“<Pascal, please. Don’t shut me out like this.>” Kaede frowned at him. You’re just like my dad.
“<Then speak clearly.>” He countered, his harsh words almost accusatory. “<What are you not telling me?>”
“<W-what are you talking about?>”
The question came so sudden it caught her off guard.
“<I am blind, not stupid. Although I guess there is not a huge difference.>” Pascal sighed bitterly. “<There is no way we could have won that battle if my spell neutralized both sides at once. My entire gamble rested on blowing away the Cataliyans’ right wing so that my troops — still fresh — could swing around and smash into their flank. Their deployment was premature, which gave us a short window of opportunity to knock them off balance. Otherwise, there was no way our outnumbered and underequipped soldiers could win!>”
Without much of a choice, Kaede told Pascal the whole story of the battle as she heard it. How the Lotharins had lost the town. How the Princess had been pressed to the brink of defeat. How she had been rescued by Edith’s counterattack, mere moments before the reserves ran out of momentum. Then, when the Lotharins were spent and the battle seemed lost, a miracle happened as an entire forest uprooted itself.
“<…We told the army that we had known about the Migrating Trees all along.>” Kaede explained what had happened afterwards. “<We said that it was based on a tome left to the royal family by Queen Gwendolen, that the queen had enchanted a segment of the forest in southern Ceredigion while she was still alive. It was somewhere along the road to the capital, though we weren’t sure exactly where. It was our luck that we were close enough for the magic released by the battle to awaken the trees.>”
“<And Sylv… did not tell me any of this beforehand?>” Pascal asked in a disappointed voice.
“<Because only half of it is true.>” Kaede said with a scowl and a frown. “<Even we’re not completely sure how the trees awoke, or how Elspeth just happened to stumble across a tome on how to communicate with them in the forest. But according to what’s written, it was indeed Queen Gwendolen who created the Migrating Trees.>”
The Samaran girl had a headache just thinking about it. It wasn’t merely because of its implausibility either. She knew that she remembered more about what happened. Yet for some reason, she couldn’t remember it right now. It was as though she suddenly had selective amnesia.
“<It is the Holy Father’s will then.>” Pascal muttered with a sigh. “<What happened afterwards?>”
“<The trees chased the Caliphate army out of the town of Glywysing and drove them from the battlefield.>” Kaede answered with a shrug. “<And the rest you already know.>”
“<So… in the end, what I did mattered not at all.>” Pascal took a deep exhale.
The void where his emotions had been suppressed returned once more. Kaede could feel the gloom of his guilt spreading from their empathic link. The dark fog soon took on a sickly hue as it turned into one of disgust, even loathing — hate not directed towards anyone else, but at himself.
“<Pascal…>” Kaede felt his anger tore into her own emotions. They stabbed into her heart like glass shards. It smashed her calm and her composure as though a raging bull in a China shop. Her eyes grew teary as she realized why he was trying to bottle everything in.
“<What do the troops say about me?>” He demanded next, as if already knowing the answer.
“Pascal…” Kaede pleaded as tears brimmed in her eyes once more. She hadn’t even realized that she dropped out of telepathy and spoke through the real air. “Pascal, please. You’re overthinking things.”
“J-just answer the question, you silly girl.” The young lord’s raspy voice blurted out. “What do the troops say about me?”
For a moment, Kaede gawked back as if she had just been slapped. And that crucial moment was all it took for him to learn the terrible truth.
“They say that Your Lordship is a born destroyer with a callous disregard for friendly casualties.” The wagon driver spoke in a voice that was laced with both awe and fear. “The men can’t decide between calling Your Grace the Dusklord or Blightlord right now. Though a suggestion to just smush the words together in typical Weichsen fashion is catching on.”Author's Comment
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