Kaede let out a deep exhale that cleared her lungs of air. Her eyes closed as she lowered the asymmetric bow that was taller than she was from its shooting stance. She held herself motionless for several seconds as her lungs stayed in their deflated state. It was then followed by a deep inhale as she finished one last round of ‘box breathing’ to complete her meditation routine.
The Samaran girl stood in the chilly air in the isolated rear of Roazhon Castle. The hour was still early and there was barely anyone outside on this late February morning.
A gentle smile spread across her lips as Kaede basked in the morning sun while she gazed across the Hafren River. She had missed coming outside for alone time in the mornings after weeks of freezing cold temperatures. Her laziness and desire to stay in warm comfort had won out repeatedly, despite her knowledge that even ten minutes outdoors after waking up could do her mood wonders.
She walked toward the target to retrieve her ammo as her attention returned to the bow held in her gloved hand. A thought of the object’s default, short-sword configuration triggered the magical item’s transformation process. The enchanted spring-steel began to flow beneath her fingers as the two-meter long bow shrunk down to a double-edged blade. The silvery sword glowed and vanished into the extra-dimensional storage of her leather archery gloves. The arrows she shot with then followed into her quiver before she turned to leave.
Kaede closed her eyes and took another deep breath as she passed under a stone archway and entered a corridor. She was heading back to the guest wing and had just opened the mahogany door to a spiral staircase when she heard footsteps approaching. The soft but swift tapping that echoed across the limestone hinted at a light-footed woman rushing down the steps towards her. And sure enough, it did not take long before Kaede’s eyes met the peridot-green gaze of Elspeth, the Princess’ new bodyguard.
“Good morning, Dame Elspeth.” The familiar greeted with a friendly smile and a slight bow out of habit.
“Morning.” The petite Summerborn replied curtly before rushing past Kaede and out the stairway door.
She barely even looked at me. The Samaran girl’s smile faltered as she paused in her steps.
It was moments like these which left the impression on Kaede that Elspeth didn’t like her much. However, the familiar had no idea why. Since Elspeth had replaced Mari as the royal armiger who stayed the closest to Sylviane, Kaede recognized that it was essential for her to stay on good terms with the young Summerborn. Otherwise, the bodyguard could easily sway the opinion of the Princess against Kaede in a pivotal moment, especially if Sylviane was to have another hypomania ‘episode’.
I really miss Robert and Mari. Kaede thought with a dejected sigh before she turned around and followed in Elspeth’s wake.
“He’s late!” Kaede heard Elspeth complain as the latter stood behind a giant tree on the edge of the castle’s main courtyard with her arms crossed.
“Are you waiting for someone, Dame Elspeth?” Kaede asked in a friendly, if slightly forced tone as she approached.
“Yes. That pipsqueak Reynaud!” The petite, scowling armiger replied sharply without even looking back.
Her demeanor was completely different from the cute and charming expression she usually wore before the Princess. Gone was the innocent and infectious smile that she often wore, although her voice retained her sweet, schoolgirl soprano.
“Reynaud is often late when it comes to private meetings.” Kaede casually answered as she stopped an arm and a half away from Elspeth. It was close enough for familiarity but not so close that it intruded upon the latter’s personal space.
“Perceval scolds him about it often.” The Samaran girl continued. “But unless you make it clear to Reynaud that the matter is urgent or serious — in which case you can absolutely trust him to have your back — the man seems to have no concept of punctuality.”
“Well he better start learning if he wants others to take his words seriously. Hmph!” The Summerborn fumed. “I told Her Highness that I’d be gone for only twenty minutes. If he takes any longer then I might not have time to kick his skinny butt properly!”
I’m not sure you should be the one to call him skinny. Kaede thought to herself as she eyed the petite girl that was only a hint taller than she was. Elspeth looked more like a tenth grader in cosplay armor than a veteran of many battles, especially with her helmet off and her fluffy, caramel-whipped hair exposed in the light breeze.
“You scheduled a sparring match with him?” The familiar asked next as she tried to keep the conversation flowing.
“I wanted to see just what skills he has to warrant the title of ‘Winterslayer’ from King Leopold of Weichsel.” Elspeth replied as her face contorted with contempt in a manner more befitting of Yakuza than of a cute girl. “He’s been nothing but a disappointment during the entire Avorican Campaign.”
Wait, Reynaud? Kaede’s eyebrows shot up as she had trouble believing the young man was a burden to others in combat.
The Samaran girl had no idea how to follow up on that statement, so she decided after a pause to change the topic.
“Dame Elspeth, you seem… different, from normal.”
“You mean I’m not as cute as I was before Her Highness?” The girl immediately answered with one of her sweet, beaming smiles.
The retort left Kaede speechless for a moment as the familiar hadn’t expected such a straightforward response. She gave the faintest nod in reply before Elspeth’s sunny smile widened into a knowing grin.
“It’s an open secret in the Oriflamme Palace that Her Highness really likes cute girls.” The armiger said. “I may not be sugary by nature, but I was born cute, so it’s not hard to act a little before the Princess. She likes me better this way and I prefer for her to like me — best outcome for everybody involved.”
I guess… Kaede was reminded of her ‘twin’ Vivienne who spoke of a similar motive.
The Samaran girl certainly wasn’t against Elspeth taking on a different persona in front of the Princess. People wore masks in any society, and she had certainly met plenty of girls who acted innocent and cute during her years in a Japanese high school.
“Don’t you ever grow tired from it though?” The Samaran girl asked. That was Kaede’s biggest problem when she pretended to be someone she’s not — it quickly drained her mental energy and left her needing alone time.
However, the royal armiger glanced towards Kaede like the familiar was an uncultured peasant.
“Fatigue is not something that comes naturally to us Summerborn,” Elspeth said. “As long as it’s interesting, I doubt I will ever tire of doing it. Acting cute is certainly fun in its own way, though it does make me seem naive and bit of an airhead…”
That was my issue as well. Kaede almost nodded as she thought back to her days in high school. The girls he met back then often pretended to know less than they actually did. It was rather problematic for a teenage boy who cared little for pop media and preferred intellectual discussions about the world.
“Still, being the best at anything requires me to stand out. And if being the cutest chevalier in the Empire helps me to stand atop the ranks of its armigers, then it’s a trivial cost.” Elspeth smiled genuinely this time before she sneered derisively towards Kaede. “After all, it takes not just talent and diligence, but attention from those worth my time to rise the ranks. I can’t just ride on the coat-tails of a famous master and a prodigious look-alike.”
The royal armiger had barely finished her sentence before she sprinted away towards the castle like a gust of wind. A quick glance from Kaede discerned the reason as a short, redheaded young man exited the building and rushed down the stairs.
Elspeth didn’t give so much as a warning as she drew her meteor hammer. She hurled it towards Reynaud with all of her strength as she swiftly closed the distance. Her judgment of the weapon’s reach was perfect as the trailing rope nearly grew taut before the hammerhead reached its target. Nevertheless, a sharp clang resounded through the courtyard as Reynaud not only dodged to the side but also drew a kukri to deflect the bicone flying weight.
Is that how she views me? Someone who relies on Pascal and Vivi to get to where I am? Kaede thought with a frown as she broke into a jog towards the impromptu duel.
“Holy Hyperion, are you trying to kill me!?” Reynaud cried out from the other side of the courtyard at the same moment.
“Consider it payment for your tardiness.” Elspeth answered as she yanked on the steel-reinforced rope. The flying weight soared back to the petite armiger before she spun on her heels and flung it back towards Reynaud in a low, wide arc.
Four vicious, bladed spikes had deployed from the hammer head during its return. One of them grazed the steel armor of Reynaud’s boot as he leapt backwards to open the distance.
“Armor Aura Burst!” The young man cried out as he switched his aura stance for faster casting while conjuring an invisible suit of magic armor over his gambeson and chestplate. Two more defensive spells followed in quick succession as he kept parrying before opening the distance to buy time.
However, even after Reynaud finished his preparations, the young man seemed to have trouble closing the distance. Every time he advanced forward, another blow from Elspeth’s meteor would pressure him to step back or dodge to the side.
Kaede halted in the middle of the courtyard as she kept around thirty meters from their unfolding duel. She watched as Reynaud was forced to stay on the defensive while Elspeth exploited her tremendous advantage in reach. The redhead kept his dual kukris before his eyes as he did his best to parry and deflect the flying weight. But he couldn’t seem to seize an opportunity to counterattack.
You can’t just defend in a situation like this. Kaede thought as even a novice like her realized.
“What’s wrong, Winterslayer?” Elspeth mocked as she spun her meteor in a wide arc. She had almost wrapped it around one of his boots before Reynaud leapt back once again to evade. “Is your reputation of taking on the greatest threat just for show? Or do you need others to do the work before you take the kill?”
The young man had been pressed back to the wooden platform outside the guest wing. He stared back at Elspeth with gritted teeth before widening his arms in a more offensive stance. Then, as the petite Summerborn hurled her meteor once more towards his chest, the redheaded armiger vanished in an arcing bolt of electricity before re-materializing two steps behind Elspeth.
Now inside the perimeter created by Elspeth’s reach, Reynaud immediately closed in to launch a flurry of strikes with his twin blades. It forced Elspeth into the defensive as she dodged and parried his blows with a small buckler strapped to her forearm. Meanwhile, her right arm jerked on her meteor hammer’s cord and sent the weight soaring back towards her from behind.
She ducked to the side at the last moment which almost sent the head flying into her opponent’s face. Reynaud swerved to his left and was barely able to dodge it. Though the spikes of the hammer grazed his invisible Barrier Armor and might have drawn blood from his cheeks without it.
That girl’s kinesthetic intelligence is incredible! Kaede watched in awe.
She wasn’t the only spectator either as the clash of steel drew attention from across the castle. At least a dozen soldiers who had been on guard duty emerged to watch from doorways, battlements, and windows. There were even two armigers who wore the blue-on-green capes of Queen Katell’s household.
Meanwhile, Elspeth grasped the cord of her meteor hammer only a pace away from its weighted end. She spun the spiked bicone around her right hand like a flail head as Reynaud leaped forward in another close-quarters assault. Steel clashed as the two of them danced around each other with movements too fast for Kaede to properly follow. It looked as though the two of them formed a whirlwind of flashing steel that would have shredded any lesser warrior who approached.
The vicious exchange lasted over a minute before Reynaud disappeared into another bolt of lightning. It arced away from Elspeth this time and he re-materialized halfway across the courtyard before taking a low stance with heavy breathing.
Elspeth was similarly panting with exertion as the gleaming steel plate rose and fell over her small chest. Yet as the seconds lingered, it also became noticeable that she was making a much faster recovery than Reynaud.
Is that because she’s a Summerborn? Kaede considered as she thought back to Elspeth’s earlier comment about never really being tired.
The familiar had read from her books that the four ‘seasons’ of the Faekissed were more categories than subspecies. After all, there were dozens if not hundreds of kinds of fae according to history and folklore. Nevertheless, the fae of each ‘season’ shared strong similarities between them, which tended to blur together among their descendants after many generations.
The Summerborn were, above all, known for being passionate and energetic. They were the most physically active of the fae’s descendants. And they were generally known for having honest, straightforward, and quick-tempered personalities.
“Not bad.” Elspeth said as she finally relaxed her stance.
The girl looked down at her arms and examined the Barrier Armor that glowed visibly in a dozen places. Her peridot-green mana seemed to evaporate from these translucent ‘gashes’ where the spell had been disrupted by antimagic.
Both sides had infused their weapons with a low-powered Negation spell. It wasn’t enough to penetrate each other’s defenses, but it was enough to leave a mark each time it disrupted the Barrier Armor that layered over both the protective steel plate and exposed skin.
Reynaud’s breathing was still heavy as he lowered his guarded stance as well. His own Barrier Armor had been damaged in at least ten places where his burning-red mana dispersed back into ether.
The results seemed to indicate that it was essentially a tie between the two. It wasn’t quite the same as real combat, as the first side to score a hit would receive a significant advantage. Nevertheless, there was no doubt that each was a worthy adversary for the other. And neither could win without close calls that could make a less trained fighter break out in cold sweat.
“Y-you could have killed me… with that first throw.” The redhead protested once more in between deep breaths.
“And if that was all it took, then I doubt you would have lasted another battle.” Elspeth answered without the slightest apology. Her deadly nonchalance felt dissonant with the innocent, sunny smile that grew across her childish face. “Still, I’m glad to see that the title ‘Winterslayer’ isn’t just another boast. I guess you simply hadn’t recovered fully in the last few battles.”
What came as a surprise for Kaede was the fact that Reynaud neither retorted nor defended himself. Instead, an inward scowl clouded his expression as his eyes lowered briefly in dissatisfaction with himself.
“Awww, cheer up, I was praising you.” Elspeth beamed as she crossed the distance between them. Her meteor hammer vanished back into extradimensional storage before she leaned forward to look at him.
“Your mobility is easily among the best of all armigers I’ve met. The way you’ve mastered that lightning transformation and can use it without a moment of disorientation is remarkable.” She clapped her gloved hands together as she stared bright-eyed at him.
It seems Reynaud had just become someone ‘worth her time’. Kaede realized as she watched Elspeth’s behavior change.
Clearly, the girl was someone who respected martial aptitude. If anything, Elspeth’s judgmental attitude toward others reminded Kaede of Pascal, except with the armiger valuing valor and strength of arms over intellectual thought. Nevertheless, her earlier statement about Kaede ‘riding on coat-tails’ left it obvious that she attributed the Samaran girl’s battlefield accomplishments to others.
Then it’s no surprise she disdains me. The Samaran girl thought. There’s nothing soldiers ridicule more than unearned honors.
In some ways, Elspeth wasn’t wrong. Kaede certainly couldn’t have accomplished her deeds at Nordkreuz or Gwilen River without Pascal’s magical support. Yet, the familiar also couldn’t help but scowl at the thought of not even being recognized for the risks she had to take. Though this only brought more mixed feelings into Kaede’s emotions as the last thing she wanted was to be known for her achievements in state-sanctioned murder.
Meanwhile, Reynaud smiled a little as he took another deep exhale before replying to Elspeth:
“Thank you. I’ve never dueled with someone using a meteor before… especially someone as fast as you. It was quite a learning experience. The way that head flies around is hard to follow.”
“It’s also not a weapon you’re likely to encounter from our enemies.” Elspeth said. “The meteor was mostly known as a novelty of House Martel, at least before my late sister taught its use to Her Highness. The clan historians claim it was brought back by ancestors who fought as part of Leslie’s campaigns in the Grand Republic. But even within my house, mastering the meteor was a really tricky endeavor that made it a sure way to stand out from amongst the crowd.” The girl stated as she placed a hand upon her buffed up chest with pride.
It reminded Kaede that House Mackay-Martel — in addition to being one of the most influential families in Rhin-Lotharingie — was also one of the largest. Their dynasty included everyone from the Kings of the Glens to lesser nobles who lived in the Lotharin Heartlands. And as most elite families go, there would be tremendous pressure on its scions to perform and outshine the rest.
“Still, I think you’re actually faster than me, if only by a wee bit.” The petite armiger tilted her head as she made a pinching gesture with her left hand. “Though neither of us holds a candle compared to Saint Estellise when it comes to precision and speed.”
“Well, Her Ladyship is the North Star for us all.” Reynaud’s lingering doubts seemed to vanish as he replied in an awestruck voice. “She’s the role model whom all Lotharin men-at-arms look up to but can never quite match.”
It was clear that the mere comparison to Edith seemed to have flattered him immensely.
He sure hasn’t changed. Kaede smiled wryly as she looked upon the young man whose romanticization of military heroism seemed undimmed by his participation in bloody battles.
“She’s certainly the ideal woman – strong, unwavering, yet elegant and beautiful at the same time.” Elspeth said with a yearning look as she pressed a finger against the cheek. “Still, I’m not one to settle for second place. Lady Estellise might far outclass me now, but I intend to keep improving until I can surpass her one day! Buuuut, for now I’ve stayed too long already as Her Highness expects me back.”
She then spun about on her heels and gave an odd, two-fingered salute as she rushed back towards the castle. “Toodles!”
“Bye!” Reynaud responded with a chuckle before he turned to the remaining girl with a smirking grin. “Morning Kaede, if you don’t mind me skipping the formality. Figured we’re close enough for that, right?”
“Good morning Reynaud. Just don’t get too close physically.” Kaede rebutted as she beamed back.
The Samaran girl still remembered all the times when Reynaud had tried to grope her, as well as that one time she punched him for it.
“Awww you don’t have to be all coy about it.” Reynaud teased.
“Harassment is not funny.” Kaede put on a sterner face as she took a step back. The redhead finally got the message and seemed to drop it.
“If you’re heading back towards the castle, do you mind if I follow?” Reynaud said in a casual tone. “Perceval, Gerard, and I had agreed to pay a visit to Pascal this morning and spend some time together. In fact, I might already be late.”
“A visit? That’d be great.” The Samaran girl’s smile returned as she began to lead the way. “Pascal hasn’t been in a great mood. Some company from old friends would do him wonders.”
“And that’s why I suggested it.” Reynauld grinned from ear to ear like a kid who just won a bet. “Perceval told us that Pascal’s injuries were quite extensive and that he’s been rather moody. I don’t know the details, but I figured he could use some fun with a surprise visit.”
Glad to see patient-physician confidentiality even in this world. Kaede thought as she reached the outer stairs to the castle’s guest wing.
The petite familiar had to take a really large step to climb onto the tall stairs. They were the same set that she fell from while helping Pascal down the other day. A shiver up her spine reminded her of the faint, cold breeze that blew in the courtyard and between her legs. It made her turn around and stare at Reynaud, who waited behind her with an anxious if expectant gaze.
“You’re not trying to sneak a peek up my skirt are you?”
Normally Kaede wouldn’t worry as there wasn’t much to see anyways, since she wore velvet leggings that covered everything underneath. However, she also knew Reynaud and his tendencies for lechery. And the last thing she wanted was to give him more opportunities to comment about her bum like during their first meeting.
“Noooo! Wouldn’t dream of it!” Reynaud’s exaggerated response couldn’t be more transparent as Kaede narrowed her gaze.
“You first.” The girl stepped back before gesturing for the armiger to lead.
I guess some things don’t change no matter what era you’re in. Kaede thought as she reflected on how even the prudish men of the Victorian Age fished for ‘saucy ankle’ glimpses.
—– * * * —–
“Reynaud, Ariadne, Perceval, and Gerard…” Pascal met each of his visitors in the eyes and addressed them with a nod. “Please take my words at face value when I say that I am exceptionally grateful that you all came to visit me.”
Nevertheless, Pascal knew he looked anything but happy at the four people who now sat and stood around the guest room that he shared with Kaede. There was neither joy nor enthusiasm in the voice he heard coming from his own lips. Even his attempt to smile earlier went poorly as his right cheek felt stiff during it.
“No! No if and buts!” Reynaud plowed right over Pascal as the redhead bounced up from his seat on the bed. “We’re here to snap you out of it whether you like it or not!”
“Reynaud is correct, Pascal.” Perceval said next as he stood behind Ariadne’s seat. “You’ve been spending far too much time alone resting. Or with only Kaede while she was on her period and prefers quiet reading…”
The healer gave an apologetic nod towards Kaede as though commenting that it wasn’t her fault. Nevertheless, Pascal could sense the guilt ebbing across his familiar bond as Kaede recognized that she hadn’t been very proactive at striking up conversations.
“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Or idle brains in your case, as you’ve always been a trove of radical ideas.” Perceval smiled with good humor beneath his sympathetic gaze. “All of that unused mental capacity is making your mind play tricks on you by imagining the most exaggerated implications and outcomes. It’s part of why depression is so common for those in convalescence.”
“But I have started working.” Pascal countered as he tapped the small stack of papers on his round table. “I have been going through General Macdonald’s reorganization plans and filling in details.”
“He just received them this morning.” Kaede added from her spot by the door.
Perceval nodded as Reynaud stepped up and took one of the papers. Both he and Ariadne examined it out of interest, before the short armiger commented.
“But this is staff work.”
“Staff work is important. The army runs on its details.” The Landgrave countered.
“I’m not disagreeing with you,” Reynaud said. “I’m just saying that there’s not much decision-making in it.”
“What are you trying to imply?” Pascal narrowed his eyes. That people don’t trust my judgment anymore?
He left the latter half unsaid. But it was a thought he often had himself.
“He’s saying that you should take on something that truly occupies your focus,” explained Gerard, the tall engineer who leaned against the wall on the other side of the room. “There is a big difference between running through the numbers of someone else’s design, versus taking on a project yourself and driving it forward as the man in charge. The latter requires you to strategize and think proactively — and that, Pascal, is when you’re at your finest.”
“I agree.” Ariadne nodded before she stared intently at Pascal from her seat. “What you need above all else is a new project, something new to challenge yourself with.”
“I am not sure I am quite ready for that yet.” Pascal frowned as his expression turned grim. The fearful, contemptuous remarks that he overheard the soldiers speak behind his back passed through his mind once more.
— It was a reminder of just how badly his last ‘project’ had screwed up.
For a moment Ariadne looked incredulous as she looked up towards her betrothed. Perceval, however, seemed to understand as he tightened his jaw before responding:
“You still blame yourself for what happened at Glywysing.”
“Yes.” Pascal admitted after a moment of silence. “I killed hundreds of my men, myself almost included.”
The young lord then pursed his lips as this was hardly the audience to which he’d prefer to speak of his problems. His response only came because Perceval had put him on the spot. But now that he had said it, he couldn’t help but look aside in discomfort.
“We’ve all made mistakes. Some of ours are more apparent than others, and none of us always succeed.” Ariadne’s bright-cyan gaze met him straight in challenge. “I don’t remember having a rival so pathetic that he gave up after a single failure, Runelord.”
Her words were clearly meant to provoke him, yet they felt so removed, detached from Pascal emotionally that he barely cared. Even the nickname ‘Runelord’ seems so long ago that it hardly mattered to him.
You do not understand. The Landgrave thought and was about to reply when another responded first.
“It’s not that simple either, Ariadne.”
Pascal looked surprised at Reynaud as he was the one who spoke. The young redhead stretched out his arms and fell back onto the soft covers where he stared at the canopy of the four-poster bed. It was extremely uncharacteristic to see Reynaud being hesitant and pensive. Yet the armiger was exactly that as he laid for a moment in silence.
“Take me for instance.” He then began to speak in a wistful voice. “You all know — I’ve never shied from a challenge before, certainly not those that I care about. And when I fought during the Air Battle of Nordkreuz, when I saw my allies being killed all around me by the bolts and spells coming from Admiral Winter’s skywhale, I charged in without a moment of hesitance.”
Pascal nodded along with the others as everyone already knew the story. It was that brave and foolhardy act — some would say ‘suicidal’ — which earned the special Knight’s Cross that hung from Reynaud’s collar, as well as the title of ‘Winterslayer’ from King Leopold.
“But that’s only half the story.” Reynaud added as his voice grew dark and distant. “What you didn’t hear about is how after I charged through that barrier and killed Admiral Winter, I was left barely able to move and completely defenseless. I nearly died on that skywhale’s deck. Would have, even, if Her Highness hadn’t come after me.”
The young man seemed to shiver as he recounted that moment. “There wasn’t a single night in the week after when I did not wake up in cold sweat as I watched, again and again, as the nearest Northmen drove his blade into my chest.”
I never would have thought…
Pascal felt so speechless that his lips couldn’t even open. Clearly, the others hadn’t heard this story either as the room fell silent around them. None of them could have guessed it as it was Reynaud’s own bravado, both before and after the battle, that covered it up.
“I also almost died in that battle.” Ariadne said next as though trying to make a connection. But Reynaud cut her off as he interjected once more.
“Yes. But you almost died due to enemy action. It wasn’t because of your own mistake.” Reynaud stressed as he sat up on the bed sheets. “When you have a near-death experience where you lament your own choices beforehand, it’s very different. It changes you.”
Pascal almost raised his eyebrows as he honestly wasn’t accustomed to Reynaud being philosophical. The redhead always seemed to live in the moment rather than thinking with any level of depth about life. However, although the Reynaud before him did seem different from the young man back at the academy, his words also didn’t completely line up with what Pascal felt.
Yes, Pascal had also acted with reckless abandon because of a desire to help his friends and allies. He knew he would not have cast the spell at Glywysing if he did not have his back against the wall and was desperate for miraculous victory. But the difference was that Reynaud had unquestionably succeeded. Whereas Pascal, even if he accepted Edith’s conclusions the other night at face value, his actions had been a partial success at best.
…But perhaps more importantly, Reynaud had done it without gambling away the lives of his own comrades or permanently maiming himself.
“After Nordkreuz, I officially became one of Her Highness royal armigers. But I also grew more fearful for my own life.” Reynaud continued in a regretful tone as the story clearly wasn’t over. He then turned towards Kaede who still stood at the door.
“When Dame Elspeth said earlier that I must not have fully recovered in the previous few battles, she was commenting about the cautiousness I displayed during the Avorican Campaign. I kept skirting around melee and going after easy targets instead of throwing myself in.”
The young man squeezed his hands into fists atop the bedcovers as he looked down in self-abasing shame. Yet despite Reynaud’s internalized blame, Pascal couldn’t help but feel discomfort and an uneasy parallel seemed to develop between them.
“Even Her Highness had noticed my craven behavior. Otherwise I don’t think she would have sent me on a messenger boy’s errand in Glywysing when I could have, should have fought beside her!”
Tears surfaced in Reynaud’s spring-green eyes as he looked back up and gritted his teeth towards no one but himself. It made Pascal look away as he couldn’t bear to meet the young man’s pained gaze.
“I should have been there when Robert and Mari sacrificed themselves to protect the Princess!” The young man’s voice cracked as his lips trembled. “I was supposed to be one of Her Highness’ better fighters, and with Elspeth we could have potentially fought off the enemy without so many casualties! Instead, I let fear and doubt get the better of me. I had turned into such a coward that even the Princess couldn’t trust me!”
So Robert and Mari’s deaths are also partially because of me. Pascal’s thoughts ran darker as he slumped back into his armchair.
“It’s not your fault, Reynaud.” Kaede was the first to comment as the Samaran girl crossed the distance between them and gave the young man a full hug. “What you’re feeling is Survivor’s Guilt. You could not have anticipated what happened any more than Her Highness could have when she sent you to find Pascal.”
“Exactly.” Perceval backed her up. “And you don’t know that’s what the Princess thought at the time. We all know how important Pascal is to Her Highness, to Rhin-Lotharingie. She would not have sent someone whom she did not trust to find him on that chaotic battlefield.”
The healer then turned towards Pascal as he seemed to notice the latter’s darkening mood.
“We cannot be so egotistical to think that every course of action has to do with our choices,” Perceval chastened. “We are responsible for our actions and only ours. We do not control the hundreds, even thousands of possibilities that could be taken in response.”
Not from the perspective of military command. Pascal’s mind brushed aside Perceval’s words. After all, manipulating the opponent’s behavior was exactly the work of great tacticians and strategists.
Nevertheless, Reynaud hadn’t finished speaking as he wiped the tears from his eyes and continued.
“I’m not raising this topic to blame myself or ask for sympathy. I’m past that now,” he stated. “I bring it up because I want to warn you, Pascal — Don’t. Make. My. Mistake.” He emphasized one word at a time as he passed down the costly lesson from one veteran to another. “Don’t let one regret drag you down to the point you make another mistake.”
The depth of sincerity in Reynaud’s warning helped them slip past Pascal’s defensive mindset. And in that moment Pascal realized why he’d been feeling a growing sense of similarity between their experiences. After all, was there really much difference between Reynaud’s unwillingness to dive into melee and his own hesitation to pick up a new challenge?
Ariadne certainly seemed to see Pascal’s own self-doubt as just another form of cowardice. He was hiding himself behind the work of a staff assistant and only ‘going after easy tasks’ that required little responsibility. The young officer who boldly stepped up after his commanding officer’s death during the Battle of Nordkreuz seemed a lifetime ago in comparison. What would King Leopold or Princess Sylviane think of him now as he did nothing but cower and hesitate?
I should have been there. He thought of the words that haunted Reynaud as it once did him.
The young lord pursed his lips as he nodded back for the first time in a way that he had not done with Perceval, Kaede, or Edith’s arguments. He realized once more that his greatest regret was not the spell cast at Glywysing. Rather, it was his complete and utter helplessness as he received the news of his father’s death, as he imagined the scene of his father’s final moments before assassins took the latter’s life.
Pascal then looked to Kaede. He thought of Sylviane. He gazed upon the faces of everyone in this room. All of them were people who he could not bear to lose.
“Remember, Pascal, that inaction is in itself an action, and nonparticipation is itself a choice.” He thought back to one of the pivotal lessons that his father once gave him.
Pascal might not be able to bear the thought of his own actions endangering the lives of his family and friends. But he would not be able to forgive himself if his inaction led to their death — casualties lost to war because he failed to properly play his role in this military campaign.
“We are soldiers, first and foremost.” Reynaud concluded with words that echoed in Pascal’s own thoughts. “Risking our own life is nothing compared to the pain of losing our comrades. And if I could, I would gladly throw myself onto that skywhale once more to see Robert and Mari alive.”
—– * * * —–
The next day, Pascal had asked Sylviane to summon all of the senior Lotharin leaders and military commanders still present in Roazhon for a meeting. This included Queen Katell, Saint Edith-Estellise and Mother Anne, Generals Caradoc and Macdonald, Grand Squire Kaede, and the Oriflamme Vivienne.
“I’m glad to see that Your Grace is active and driven once more.” Edith was the first to speak as they all sat down in the conference room. “Though we would have preferred a little more context on what this meeting today is about.”
“You and me both.” Queen Katell commented with a curious grin. “Her Highness simply remarked that the topic would be of great interest to me.”
Sylviane only smiled playfully before turning back to Pascal. All eyes around the table fell upon the young lord whose black eyepatch no longer overshadowed the light in his turquoise gaze.
“Your Majesty, My Ladies and Lords.” Pascal began as he stood up with a tilt. His physical recovery was clearly inadequate as he had to use his cane to hold himself up straight.
He knew that he wasn’t back up to mental standards either. Part of him still felt inadequately prepared for this meeting, too uncertain about how his ideas might be received. But time waited on no one, and the next stage of conflicts loomed ever closer regardless of his readiness to take another step. Therefore, he had taken Reynaud’s advice to heart — to act now instead of leaving potential regrets.
“Today I wish to talk to you about a topic that I have discussed many times with Her Highness as well as His Majesty, the late Emperor Geoffroi.” The Landgrave announced. “It is a subject dear to His Majesty, one that will bring significant strategic advantage to Rhin-Lotharingie in the conflicts to come. But it is also a difficult path, one that the late Emperor has always cautioned to delay until an appropriate time.”
Pascal had avoided revealing the topic immediately and built up the tension first as Sylviane had recommended. Now, he paused for a moment of anticipation before continuing:
“I believe we have reached that moment, and Her Highness agrees with me.” He declared. “For too long, the leadership of Rhin-Lotharingie has bickered over the privileges, responsibilities, and prestige of commands in wartime. These disagreements nearly led to disaster both before and after the Battle of Gwilen River, when our nobles fought over everything from strategy to replenishment.”
It was a beneficial coincidence that Duke Lionel had decided to return to his fief in order to nurse his wounds. Otherwise the moment might have seemed inflammatory as he had been one of the main naysayers during the retreat from Roazhon.
“A crisis looms before us from the ravages of war.” Pascal continued his prelude. “The Caliphate’s invasion has cost our brave nobility dearly. Many families have been bled of their fathers and sons; many now struggle to pool together more than a dozen retainers, or send combat-trained family members to lead their levies. This is certainly the case here in Avorica, though it is not limited to this kingdom as losses have mounted across the Empire.”
The Landgrave noticed a faint nod from Queen Katell before she stopped. It showed that the monarch herself recognized the problem that her kingdom faced. Feudal methods of mobilization were no longer sufficient to rally the men needed to rebuild the Avorican army. The reason she couldn’t agree openly was likely because of her shrewd political caution — she still didn’t know Pascal’s exact motive.
“This is a crisis that I recognize precisely because I am Weichsen.” Pascal went on. “When the Northmen’s Great Heathen Army descended upon the lands of my ancestors, it was the first would-be King of Weichsel who revitalized the nation with a renewed call to arms. Therefore, I feel obligated to bring before you a proposal that is inspired by the successful mobilization strategy of my home country as well as your adversaries. Yet it also adopts the traditions and cultural circumstances unique to Rhin-Lotharingie and its kingdoms.”
He unrolled a scroll of parchment on the table which began with the words ‘Crown Mobilization Laws’. It contained a draft proposal for the centralization of training, equipment, organization, and supply of forces. Feudal lords would no longer be relied upon to bring entire banners of fully equipped soldiers to the battlefield. Instead, they would be charged to provide a number of recruits based on the local population, as well as money to equip, train, feed, and pay these men. Regions with high-quality local products could substitute equipment and supplies in lieu of money. Meanwhile, the recruits would then be sent to the nearest capital to be organized and trained into actual combat units.
The solution wasn’t an ideal one in Pascal’s view. It centralized power under the monarchs of each kingdom rather than under the sole authority of the Emperor. Furthermore, it left the topic of armed retainers — the professional soldiers and therefore private armies of each house — under question.
Nevertheless, Sylviane pointed out that it was necessary to acquire the support of each monarch and not overly infringe upon the privileges of the nobility. Otherwise, the reforms would overreach and spark further unrest, which could start even more civil wars within the Empire.
Even as the current proposal stood, plans could still go wrong if they did not be careful of where the changes could be pushed. But the losses suffered by the Avorican nobility have made the kingdom a ripe testing ground — it was a mercy, and not appropriation, to relieve a fourteen year-old heir of his obligation to military service, as his family had already paid the numbers demanded by the new laws.
“Your Majesty, Ladies, and Lords,” Pascal reiterated once more before. He then finished with a forced smirk that mimicked the domineering confidence that he had once projected with ease:
“The topic I wish to bring before the Council today is the legal reformation and centralization of the armies of Rhin-Lotharingie.”Author's Comment
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