Kaede cringed as trumpets suddenly blared stridently across the battlements ahead. Her hands rushed to cover her ears until the deafening notes stopped. The drums that followed made it clear that this was a celebratory meeting between royalty. Nevertheless, the fanfare was loud enough it would have rattled her even without her familiar-enhanced senses.
It once again reminded Kaede that she hated crowds and public gatherings. It had been the one thing about Japan that she had never grown accustomed to.
The large, steel-framed oaken gates slowly creaked open to reveal the main entrance into the Avorican capital city. Two dozen men-at-arms in bright blue and turquoise ceremonial garb — the respective colors of Rhin-Lotharingie and Avorica — marched out before forming a line on both sides. Their armor had been polished to a shine and their raised polearms were adorned with banners. A second column of armed men then emerged to form another rank, before they conjured defensive barriers that faced outwards from the gateway.
The reason for the extra security became obvious as Queen Katell walked out. She was dressed in a black, velvet mourning gown. A thin, black veil adorned her long, golden-blonde hair. It contrasted oddly with the cloak draped over her shoulders, which was made of the finest, white fur and bedecked with jewels. The cloak did help mask her clumsy movement as she waddled like a duck. Though this didn’t surprise Kaede one bit — the queen was already in her third trimester of pregnancy, and the bulging stomach she cradled with her gloved hands showed.
“Your Highness.” The beautiful, youthful queen greeted in a cheerful voice. However, her mirthful tone did not reach her eyes, with a wistful look remaining in her sapphire gaze.
Behind her stood the figures of General Macdonald and two women whom Kaede did not recognize. One of them wore half-plate armor and a fur-lined cape as she surveyed everyone present with hawkish eyes. The other wore the magenta-and-white choir dress of an archbishop.
“Your Majesty.” Sylviane strode across the stone-paved ground at a pace just short of seeming rushed. “I’m honored that you came to greet me in person. But you really shouldn’t strain yourself like this.”
“I’ve been cooped up in the palace for weeks now. And as Vivienne reminded me — it does me good to come out and breathe some fresh air when opportunities arise.” Katell spoke with a smiling glance towards the petite Winterborn who stood next to Kaede. Though her joyful countenance was still forced as the Princess reached her and the two embraced.
There was no sign of the tight familiarity that Sylviane showed with King Alistair. Instead, the two young women parted quickly as their relationship was entirely political. Katell’s hands almost immediately returned to her swollen belly in a protective, cradling posture. It was as though she couldn’t let go of her baby for even a moment.
— It reminded Kaede of what Vivienne had told Sylviane: that had it not been for the baby, Katell’s bleak depression after the death of her husband might have killed her.
She must see this display as an important step towards securing her child’s future reign. The familiar surmised as to the real reason why the Queen came out herself.
“Besides, Your Highness has beaten back the infidels and protected my capital from a prolonged siege. You are the savior of Avorica and should be treated as such.” Katell declared as Sylviane helped the very pregnant queen by holding onto the latter’s left arm.
The two of them were about to turn back to the city when Katell gazed into the distance and her jaw dropped slightly. Kaede didn’t even have to turn around to realize that the Queen must have caught sight of the Migrating Trees. Hundreds of them marched south of the city in neatly spaced columns as though they were an orchard on the move. They were followed by several faekissed officers, who had been taught how to use mana to communicate with the trees.
“So those are…” Queen Katell whispered in awe as she stared, her eyes transfixed on the moving forest.
“The Migrating Trees left behind by Queen Gwendolen? Yes.” Sylviane nodded with a smile. “I had asked them to keep their distance from the city for now to not spook anyone. Besides, they’re tired from their march here and want proper rest and nourishment. I arranged for them to settle on the plains south of the city, where the Lotharin army camp had been prior to the Battle of Gwilen River. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all.” Katell muttered before she recollected herself. “I guess it makes sense that they would have basic needs just as we do. Though I must admit — it didn’t even occur to me when you told me about them. They don’t also expect warm meals and pay like the rest of the army, do they?”
“No, no,” Sylviane laughed as she waved it off. “They just need space and nutrient-rich soil.”
And I guess the buried wastes from tens of thousands of troops count. Kaede almost snickered to herself.
The two royals began to slowly walk back into the city. They were followed by a dozen lords, ladies, and generals of Sylviane’s relief army. An open-topped carriage waited on the other side of the gatehouse, which Katell climbed back into with Sylviane’s help. Beyond them cheered thousands of soldiers and civilians, who filled both sides of the main street to bursting.
The Queen’s bodyguard and Sylviane’s armiger Elspeth joined the two royals before the carriage departed back to the citadel. Most of the other leaders waited for their mounts to be brought in before they saddled up to follow.
Kaede, however, ducked to the side of the main gate and watched them pass.
“You’re not coming?” Ariadne asked Kaede from atop her pegasus. The lady was one of the few who remained behind.
“I’m going to wait for Pascal. He’s still asleep on one of the carriages.” Kaede responded over the noise of countless horseshoes striking the stone-paved entryway. It sounded like an entire cavalry formation had entered the gatehouse. “Besides, walking through streets full of crowds isn’t really my thing.”
“But it’ll take at least an hour before they come through.” Ariadne asked. “Are you sure? I don’t mind if you ride behind me.”
Kaede nodded as she smiled at the lady.
“Besides, aren’t you staying also?”
“Only for a moment.” Ariadne spoke even as she nudged her mount forward with her legs.
Before Kaede had a chance to reply, the first row of cavalrymen trotted through the gates. And perhaps not surprisingly, it was the Weichsen Knights Phantom with Colonel Hammerstein riding his hippogryph in the lead.
“Come on, Ariadne!” Hammerstein shouted with a huge grin plastered across his homely face. “You don’t get to ride at the head of a victory parade every day!”
“Sorry, duty calls.” Ariadne bid before she rode off to join her superior. Though from a distance, Kaede could see the lady’s eager smile as she found herself right at home leading a military parade.
This left Kaede with only Vivienne and her armiger bodyguard. The young Winterborn once again wore a hooded cloak that covered everything but her face. Meanwhile, her phoenix was also nowhere to be seen.
Unlike Sylv’s Hauteclaire, Vivi’s Olifant seems to leave her quite a bit. The Samaran girl observed.
“Do you also not like crowds?” She asked her almost-identical ‘twin’. She didn’t really expect an affirmative answer, given that Vivienne was a bard by training. Nevertheless, she rather hoped to have some friendly company as she waited.
Kaede might not enjoy being the focus of a large and clamorous crowd. But that didn’t mean she liked being alone in an unfamiliar land either.
“I don’t like it when men ogle at me.” The Oriflamme bard answered as she turned to face Kaede with a wistful smile. “You can probably guess why.”
Yeah, I shouldn’t even be surprised.
Kaede nodded with a sympathetic look as she remember the curse that Vivienne bore due to her background as a slave. It suddenly made sense to her why Vivienne always seemed to wear her hooded cloak in public.
“Though, I’m surprised you perform as well as you do, considering most of the soldiers in the army are men?”
“Soldiers on a battlefield have more important details to pay attention to than staring at me.” Vivienne stated. “It’s not until after the battle finishes, when their adrenaline and battle frenzy all too easily transform into avarice and lust, that they become dangerous to more than just their enemies.”
Kaede scowled as Vivienne brought up a topic that historians and sociologists rarely liked to discuss — which was how easily soldiers could devolve into a furor of plunder, murder, and rape after a victory. The poisonous elixir of achieving absolute dominance over the enemies always went straight to their heads. And the more hard-fought the war was, the more potent this elixir always became.
It was the reason why war was not just terrible, but oftentimes addictive.
It was also why Kaede tried as hard as she did to keep the Lotharins from annihilating the retreating Cataliyan army, albeit with mixed results.
“Though by the end of a battle, I’m usually gone. Mostly because I’m too exhausted after a long performance.” Vivienne finished in a quiet voice even as the cheering noise of the crowd grew.
She pulled the Samaran girl away from the gates and into a back alley. Kaede simply went with the flow as they walked in a leisurely stroll, away from the hubbub of the main street.
“What about performances outside battle then?” The familiar asked. “And I don’t mean like that night at camp in the woods of Ceredigion, when you played a calming melody which helped the troops to rest. I meant more like at harvest festivals or holiday celebrations, because it feels like your music is much better suited for it.”
Her last comment made Vivienne look at her with a slight frown. And the Samaran girl almost rushed to add:
“Not that I think your battle songs are bad. Plus I’m no connoisseur of music to begin with.” Kaede expressed with a sheepish look. “It’s just that I’ve noticed Lotharin music is folksy and festive by nature. Its fast rhythm and flowing melodies make it much more fitting for joyous celebration and group dances than what I’d consider traditional martial music.”
Though if Kaede were to be truthful, she didn’t think any of Vivienne’s songs were fit to accompany a march. The rhythm of her battle songs was simply too fast, as the Oriflamme bard often played her fiddle like its strings were about to catch fire.
“There’s some truth to that.” Vivienne answered with a faint shrug. “Lotharin music has a lot of melodic variation. Our group performances usually have two or more simultaneous melody lines, either independent or with secondaries in support of a main. Even when it’s a solo performance, our melodic line constantly moves up and down across the length of a song.
“This makes it very unlike Weichsen or Imperial marching songs with their almost constant bassline and monophonic tune.” She pointed out in contrast. “Furthermore, Lotharin melodies tend to have wider tonal intervals, whereas martial music usually has tight intervals with a steady rhythm that matches the marching beat.”
“That’s exactly what I thought,” Kaede nodded in agreement. She simply lacked the ability to describe it, due to her lack of musical knowledge.
“Well, a lot of that is because of the wide range of musical instruments we use,” Vivienne continued. “Lotharins basically use every form of string and wind instrument there is — from harps and dulcimers and fiddles, to tin whistles and bagpipes and flutes. We also have some percussion instruments, though drums are nowhere as important to us as others.
“In fact, it’s basically a Lotharin tradition that every village boy learns to play an instrument as they come of age.” The petite Winterborn smiled. “It’s an important aspect of the Lotharin courting ritual — if the girl accepts, she usually sings back an accompaniment.”
Kaede couldn’t help but grin as she imagined a dandy, young suitor who looked like Pascal. And rather than reciting poetry in the classic fashion of European romantic literature, he would be trying to impress the Princess by playing a flute outside the window. However, his lack of experience was apparent as his performance was annoyingly off-tune. Therefore instead of a song, she responds by pouring a cold bucket of water onto him.
Probably what would happen too, as I haven’t seen a single instrument or musical sheet among Pascal’s things. The familiar snickered. It was clear that the Weichsens did not share the musical tradition of their Lotharin neighbors.
“Furthermore, Rhin-Lotharingie is a big place, with a great deal of tribal and local traditions to songs.” Vivienne explained further. “Our musical traditions started at the village level, unlike Weichsel with its armies or the Imperium in its coastal cities. So it’s a lot more divergent with loads more variations.”
Which also means it’s richer in content. The Samaran girl considered with a wide smile. Her inner cultural enthusiast already felt tickled by the thought of attending a Lotharin music festival.
“Then have you ever played in a town or village when they’re celebrating a harvest or marriage?” Kaede asked almost absent-mindedly. “It’d be a shame if your beautiful music is only used to play songs for war.”
Vivienne tilted her head slightly as her eyes almost sparkled.
“Are you flirting with me now?”
“Wha–” Kaede immediately felt her cheeks glowing as red as charcoal. “No! I mean– we’re basically twins!”
Vivienne giggled in response as she wrapped an arm around Kaede’s. She turned the two girls away from the alley that separated the city from its walls and onto an empty side street.
“Syls is right. You are fun to tease.” The Winterborn expressed in between her giggling.
It made Kaede pout at her in return, before the Faekissed bard finally answered the question:
“I have played in a few local events before. I can usually manage it if there aren’t too many men near me, especially if their faces are familiar or if the atmosphere is laid back.”
It made Kaede think back to the bard’s performance at camp, when she played in front of a mere few drowsy rangers who kept watch late at night. Perhaps it’d be the same in the middle of a folk dance, when most of the attendees were too busy having fun with their partners.
“But when there’s this many who’d focus their eyes on me…”
Vivienne gestured towards the row of brick and wood townhouses that separated them from the bustling main street. They were all two to three stories high, which seemed to be the standard inside the city for as far as Kaede could see. Many of them featured a store or workshop on the first floor, while the residents likely lived on the upper floors.
“And when I’m already nervous, it can be pretty hard.” The Winterborn continued. “It’s actually one of the reasons why the late Emperor didn’t trust me,” the Winterborn added sheepishly. “I almost had a panic attack when we first met during a feast at the Oriflamme Citadel and he asked me to perform for him.”
Vivienne then leaned onto Kaede and whispered straight into the Samaran girl’s ear: “That’s the real reason why she always follows me around.”
Kaede blinked for a moment before she realized that Vivienne spoke of the bodyguard who followed behind them. She did remember Pascal telling her that all of Vivienne’s armigers were assigned to her by Emperor Geoffroi. Though most of them had recently been recruited by Princess Sylviane as ‘replacements’.
Not knowing what to say in response, Kaede decided to change the topic instead.
“By the way, where are we going?”
“There’s no point for us to stay at the southern gates for the next hour. And this is the perfect time to do some window shopping!” Vivienne joyfully exclaimed like a kid for whom Christmas had come early.
“Why ‘window shop’?” Kaede was puzzled. “Just do it normally.”
“Because it’s not fun if you can just buy everything you wanted.” Vivienne happily noted. “It’s that ‘wanting’, but not actually ‘getting’, that really brings out our appreciation of things!”
It made Kaede wonder just how old Vivienne really was. As the Winterborn sounded more like a philosopher than a girl her age.
—– * * * —–
Kaede had spent closer to three hours in the city with Vivienne before the two girls and their bodyguard made their way to the citadel. Therefore, it rather surprised her — and validated Vivienne’s claims — when the wagons carrying the wounded, including Pascal, still hadn’t arrived.
The main streets were simply too packed with throngs of soldiers and civilians. They danced and cheered as food and drink were passed around in abundance.
Therefore, Kaede waited by herself at the gates of Roazhon’s citadel as dusk fell upon the city. She took the spare time to examine the royal castle’s construction, and couldn’t help but think about how ‘normal’ it looked.
Sure, its steeply sloped walls still differentiated it from the traditional European architecture that it resembled. And it certainly had better sanitary conditions than Earth’s Middle Ages, seeing as the moat was surprisingly clean and its white, limestone walls weren’t stained by falling feces from garderobes. But apart from that, the castle really didn’t seem all that different from those that her family once visited — when a kid Kaede would always charge straight into the gates with her father.
The girl from another world couldn’t help feeling homesick as she remembered those fond memories.
The Samaran girl heard an exuberant cry over the noise of the celebrations. She turned around and saw that the wagons carrying the injured nobles — the lower ranks were sent to the city’s makeshift hospitals — had finally arrived.
Kaede’s face brightened as she watched Perceval wave from beside the lead wagon’s driver. She ran up to walk alongside the vehicle before asking:
“You didn’t join the celebrations?”
“Of course I did!” The healer answered with a huge smile. “I met Aria too. Though she’s still back there in the crowd somewhere — she loves to be in the center of attention like this!” He chuckled before his tone grew serious.
“But I thought I’d do a check-up on Pascal real quick. Aria and Reynaud already told me about everything that had happened. It amazes me though that he could sleep through this!”
The noise died down considerably as they made their way across the drawbridge and through the citadel’s gatehouse. The castle was essentially situated on an island. The moat, which had either been widened or was entirely of artificial construction, was essentially a diversion from the main flow of the Hafren River.
“The healers gave him some spell-enhanced medicine yesterday.” Kaede replied. “I’m told he woke up earlier this morning. But before we left for the city he fell asleep again.”
“Well, he certainly needs the rest, by the looks of him.” Perceval glanced back into the wagon before he sighed. “On the bright side, Her Highness the Princess has asked that I take over Pascal’s care after his arrival. I’ve already had the castle’s staff prepare rooms for everyone here. And yours is special.”
The healer grinned knowingly when the wagon came to a stop near one of the palace-keep’s two wings. It made Kaede wonder if Perceval was about to play a prank on her — despite his professionalism and the fact Pascal was a patient.
Regardless, the two of them worked together to lift a stirring Pascal off the wagon. The young lord still wore bandages around his cheeks and limbs, as well as a blindfold over his eyes. They placed him on one of the armchairs that the footmen brought down — which Perceval enchanted with a Levitation spell for ease of mobility.
“You go up first. I need to help the others. The maids will show you.” Perceval gestured towards the upper floors before he strode off toward the other wagons.
“Milady.” A pretty, cute brunette with freckled cheeks curtsied to Kaede. She looked so young that she couldn’t be older than her mid-teens. “This way please.” She gestured politely before walking over to the stone building and holding open the heavy, oaken door.
It led to a steep, spiral staircase. Kaede therefore turned to walk backwards as she pulled the chair up. The Levitation spell thankfully kept the furniture upright, which made the job much easier.
Upon reaching the third floor, the maid in her turquoise and white dress held open a thick, mahogany door. The thick rug, intricate wallpapers, and life-sized paintings that decorated the corridor made it clear that this was a royal guest wing.
Kaede followed the young girl until they reached a door near the end of the hallway. She pushed Pascal’s levitating chair inside before stopping to survey the room.
The place was cozy-looking and only somewhat gaudy by the Samaran girl’s tastes. A massive, albeit comfortable, four-poster bed was situated in a slight alcove. A crackling fireplace was set in the far side wall and already lit. The four walls were adorned with velvet-red damask fabric. Meanwhile several mahogany dressers, counters, armchairs, and a small table furnished the room.
It was then when Kaede noticed that there was an attached bathroom. She sniffed as the smell of lavender and rose-scented candles filled her nose. The girl left Pascal’s chair leaning against the bed before she rushed over to take a look. The bathroom included a huge, marble tub that was built for two. It was filled with water already, heated by the fireplace in the other room, and decorated with a mix of rose petals in different colors.
What is this, a honeymoon suite? Kaede felt her jaw drop as she turned around to stare at the maid.
“Is something wrong, Milady?” The brunette asked with a puzzled expression. “His Lordship said you would like to take a bath after you arrived. We’ve prepared everything exactly as instructed. Dinner will also be brought here once it’s ready.”
Kaede thought back to Perceval’s grin when they arrived. There was no doubt in her mind of who ‘His Lordship’ was. Worse yet, the healer told the servants that Kaede would like to take a bath, with scents and flowers, in the same room as Pascal, at dusk, with their dinner brought up.
You might as well have told the staff that we were newlywed lovers!
The Samaran girl’s hands clenched into fists as her body shook with indignation. She had just arrived at a new castle in a new country and already there was a massive misunderstanding between her and the staff.
The uncharacteristic yell from the normally wispy-voiced girl could be heard all the way down the guest hall.
It wasn’t until later that Kaede discovered that Reynaud was actually the real culprit, and Perceval merely the executor. The latter actually apologized when Kaede explained why she didn’t want yet another servant staff to see her as a harlot and mistress to the Crown Prince Consort.
Nevertheless, the Samaran girl feared that the damage was already done.
—– * * * —–
Kaede and Pascal did have dinner in their room that night. And this time Sylviane wasn’t free to join them. The Princess no doubt had a state banquet to attend. Although Kaede savored her share of the marvelous food through the servings brought upstairs by the maids.
Now, with the dishes put away, she pushed Pascal into the adjoining bathroom and helped him take off all of his clothes and bandages. She supported him with both arms as the young lord — still wearing a blindfold around his eyes — climbed out of his chair and slid into the huge bathtub.
The water wasn’t scalding hot, but it was enough for him to quickly start sweating.
Perceval had agreed with Kaede that it would help expunge toxins and wastes from Pascal’s body and boost his recovery. Though Kaede might have insisted on giving him a bath even if that wasn’t the case. The healers’ cleansing magic simply wasn’t thorough enough. And Pascal was starting to give off some pungent male odors.
“Hey Pascal, cut the familiar link would you?” The familiar asked as she dragged a chair into the bathroom.
Her master had been using her eyes for sight ever since before dinner.
“Huh? Why?” Pascal objected.
“Because I need to undress. And it’s hard without looking at myself.” Kaede said as she stared back at herself — and by extension him — through a giant mirror that stood against the bathroom corner.
“You are taking a bath with me now?”
“No, I’m just going to wash you.” Kaede answered plainly. “But the tub is huge and it’s kind of hard for me to reach in.”
Her master gave an exasperated sigh.
“I have seen you naked before…”
“That’s NOT THE POINT!” Kaede immediately grew flustered as her wispy voice rose an almost-yell. She really didn’t need a reminder of how they met.
“All right, all right.” Pascal sounded disappointed. “There, I deactivated it.”
Kaede stood almost in doubt for a brief moment. After all, there was no way for her to tell if he was using her senses or not. She only had his word at it. But Pascal had almost never broken his word to her, and certainly not when he could help it.
Why am I being so self-conscious about this? It made Kaede ponder. If this was back in Japan, we’d just be two guys in a public bath.
Of course, it was hard to forget the reason: she wasn’t a ‘guy’ anymore. If nothing else, the work of cleaning a patient would probably be easier if she still was.
Kaede looked at herself in the mirror and took a deep exhale. She began to take off her clothes and laid each garment upon the chair. Her eyes gazed upon the mirror again and saw a petite girl staring back — one with delicate features, thin shoulders, and small breasts.
When am I going to grow accustomed to seeing myself like this?
The Samaran girl averted her gaze before she stepped into the hot water and sat down on the tub’s edge. Her eyes closed for a moment as she felt her anxieties melt away in the soothing heat.
A minute passed in silence before Kaede helped Pascal adjust his position to the center of the bathtub. She then sat down behind him with her legs folded to her sides. The tub wasn’t quite long enough for this arrangement though, and it forced her to press the inside of her thighs against his rear.
“Are you tempting me again?” The young lord spoke in a voice halfway between protesting and teasing.
“I never tempt.” Kaede answered plainly as she took a sea sponge and pushed it into the water.
“I swear, Kaede,” Pascal sighed. “Half the time you are overly conscious. While the other half the time, you have zero awareness of what you are doing to me. Do you know how hard it is to be unable to see in a moment like this?”
“Don’t take off the blindfold, seriously.” Kaede’s tone grew insistent. “Seeing me naked is minor compared to the damage it could do to your eyes. Let them finish healing first, or you might go blind.”
“Assuming I am not going blind already.” All playfulness vanished from Pascal’s tone as it dropped straight to sulking.
“Have some faith in our efforts, will you?” Kaede voiced a slight rebuke. “Pessimism is bad for your health. Besides, I spent a lot of blood helping you get better, you know?”
Pascal exhaled rather audibly and said nothing more.
“You can use my eyes again now, if it helps.” Kaede offered as she pulled the now drenched sponge out of the water. The familiar started scrubbing it against a bar of soap until the sponge was full of foam.
“Lean forward as much as you can.” She instructed before grasping the sponge in both of her hands as she began to scrub his back.
The young man’s skin began to take on a more healthy, reddish shade as Kaede scrubbed off layers of dead tissues. It reminded Kaede a bit of when Pascal was first treated and his skin was still sloughing off his body. The healers had already worked miracles just to get him to this point. Though there was still plenty more to go as Pascal flexed his right hand and struggled to clench his fist.
“Have you done this before, in your old life?” He finally spoke again as Kaede finished washing his upper back and shoulders.
“Sort of, for my Grandpa, back in my world.” Kaede explained as she adjusted her hold on the sponge. She then started scrubbing downwards, from the middle of his back and towards his hips.
“Grandpa was a Shturmovik pilot. They’re essentially the air cavalry of my world.” Kaede added with a nostalgic smile. “He fought during our ‘Great Patriotic War’ and was hit by anti-air flak fire during combat. His leg was never the same, and it only got worse in old age. I’ve watched my mother take care of him as a child. Though I wasn’t old enough to help much.”
“You never told me that you came from a veteran’s family.” Pascal commented.
“Grandpa wasn’t career military. He joined the war because… well, everyone did back then.” Kaede’s expression turned melancholic as she remembered those days when she was still only a pre-teen boy.
She had spent most of her early childhood growing up in her grandparents’ home in Russian Siberia. Her father believed a rural community was better for the kids to develop a healthy, athletic disposition than in a dense, suburban district outside Sapporo. Though Kaede wasn’t sure it worked in her case, as all the stories grandfather told turned her into a cultural and history buff who loved books more than any sport.
“He saw a lot of things during the war that he never wanted to see again — crimes and atrocities committed by every side.” The Samaran girl responded with a scowl. “It was one of the things he told my father and I — that ‘God could forgive any trespass, except those who waged wars of aggression.'”
And those people shall burn in hell for not only their own sins, but also the cycle of hatred that they began. Kaede thought as she left the second half of the quote unsaid. It seemed inappropriate to say right now, since Pascal’s own father intervened offensively during the War of Imperial Succession.
“But what if you are fighting for a just cause?” Pascal countered after a brief pause. His voice grew defensive as he clearly disagreed with his familiar’s statement.
He never even paid attention to her morose tone, or the growing pain in her chest that passed through their empathic bond.
His question reminded Kaede of when she was still just a seven year old boy, who sat beside her grandfather to ask a similar question.
When is it ever NOT a ‘just cause’? Kaede considered the answer she heard back then and what she knew now. She thought back to all the war propaganda that she had seen from the superpowers on modern Earth. Everyone claimed they’re the ‘hero’ that comes to vanquish evil and deliver justice, with the supposed evil often built upon made up crimes and falsified ‘evidence’.
Once one has heard enough casus belli, they all start to sound the same.
“There is a saying in my world, that ‘all wars are holy wars‘.” The Samaran girl answered. “There is no such thing as a side who does not claim they are just. The propaganda is universal for those who wish to justify their crimes of aggression.”
For a moment Pascal opened his mouth like he wanted to argue further. Yet, whether due to fatigue or because he didn’t want to start a debate in the bathtub, he seemed to think better of it.
“I guess that explains your beliefs.” He merely added. “What happened to your grandfather?”
“He died.” Kaede answered in a solemn whisper that was barely audible. “He was moody in his old age to begin with, and his Alzheimer’s — an illness that led to memory loss — didn’t help with things. He used to tell me stories when I was young. Yet in the last two years before his death, he couldn’t even recognize me…”
Just like my parents probably wouldn’t recognize me now. Kaede thought.
The Samaran girl felt a droplet fall onto her chest. Several tears had trickled from her eyes before she even noticed. The familiar looked down without even thinking about how her Master could see everything she did.
However, Pascal made no mention of it as he apologized:
“I am sorry Kaede. I should not have brought up your old life. After all, it was I who took you away from it.”
“It’s not your fault…” Kaede wiped her eyes as she turned her attention back to scrubbing his waist. “I mean… It is your fault that I’m here. Though even that I don’t blame much anymore. I just… haven’t quite gotten over it yet. And it’s hard to just ‘let it go’ when I remember everything I’ve lost.”
“Yes.” Pascal acknowledged. “I understand. Again, I am sorry.”
The Samaran girl wanted to tell him about the possibility that she might be dead even before the summoning. It was a likelihood that she had been leaning more and more towards. Though she wasn’t exactly sure why again…
This isn’t the right time anyway.
Kaede exhaled a deep breath as she finished scrubbing his back and shifted to his arms. She decided to concentrate on giving Pascal his bath for now, to focus on moving forward with her new life and take her mind off what cannot be helped.
…Just like she had been doing all this time.
—— * * * ——
Kaede awoke in the middle of the night. Her eyes fluttered and opened to a dark room. It was lit by only the bright moonlight that filtered in through the curtains. Her senses returned to her body as her mind rebooted itself to sort out her surroundings.
She could feel movement. The comforter pulled and the mattress below her shifted. She could no longer feel the weight of a heavier person lying next to her.
The familiar sat up before she noticed Pascal’s dark figure. He sat at the edge of the bed and was trying to grab the chamber pot. However, his outreaching hand kept missing the rim.
“Wait… let me help.”
Kaede pushed herself out from the bedcovers. She shivered as she stood up in the cold air of the room. The fireplace had gone out and left only embers among the ash.
The Samaran girl walked around the bed before she helped to steady Pascal. She grasped the small chamber pot from the chair beside the bed and moved it closer to his private parts.
At least I didn’t have to help with his pajamas this time. She thought with a yawn. His motor skills were definitely recovering.
Her hand kept the chamber pot tilted until the sound of his pee hitting water stopped.
“Sorry for waking you,” she heard Pascal mumble. “I thought I could manage by myself this time.”
“It’s my job to help take care of you right now.” Kaede said as she pushed the chamber pot back into its spot against the chair’s back. “You don’t need to feel ashamed about it.”
“I doubt there is a man who does not feel shame when he can only answer nature’s call with help.” Pascal’s figure shook as he pulled up his pajama pants once more.
That’s… probably true. Especially for one as prideful as him. Kaede thought as she helped him get back into bed.
She then pulled up the bedcovers and tucked him in, before rushing back to her side and snuggling between the warm sheets once more.
The two of them did not speak any further. Though as Kaede twisted and turned with time’s passing, she realized that she couldn’t go back to sleep.
She had rushed back to bed not just because it was cold, but because the darkness made her apprehensive. The odd shadows cast by the curtains’ wrinkles, the pitch blackness in the room’s corners — they reminded her of images that she desperately wanted to forget:
The haunting memories of Glywysing’s battlefield, with its blackened fields and burnt tree husks and carts of mangled bodies.
She could almost see the shadowy outlines of disintegrated soldiers engraved into the room’s walls, or the piles of blackened flesh and bones haphazardly piled into corpse wagons in the dressing mirror. Even closing her eyes did not help, as images of that day replayed itself in her mind’s eye over and over again.
“Pascal?” Kaede whispered as she pulled the covers over her eyes and squirmed closer to him. Maybe, like her, he was also still awake.
Her guess proved correct as she heard his response. Though now that she had his attention, she wasn’t really sure what to say.
She hadn’t spoken to him at all about what he did at the Battle of Glywysing. It felt inappropriate to confront a severely wounded patient about it. However, Kaede also knew that they had to have a proper discussion about it. She needed that conversation. They needed it.
Just… not tonight.
She snuggled up to his side until they were touching. Her hands took his and clasped around it, as though seeking proof that he was still there.
“Next time, please, talk to me first, before you put any knowledge I gave you into action.”
She felt that would be enough for one night. That should be enough for tonight.
For a minute afterwards, Pascal didn’t say anything. Then, Kaede felt the squeeze as his fingers closed around hers.
Kaede nodded against his shoulders in a silent thank you. And with his warmth as her shelter, she began drifting off to sleep.
She never heard his quiet mutter half an hour later, or noticed that Pascal still laid awake and brooding in the darkness.
“The responsibility is mine, Kaede. I am sorry to have burdened you with my failure.”
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