Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 12 Old

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Chapter 12 - The Undeclared Triumvirate

The dimly-lit room erupted from a tiny hole to fill my vision. The hum of mechanical rotors resounded from the shadowy corners of the ceiling as thin rays of targeting lasers homed in upon us from heavily armed auto-turrets.

Teleportation was bad enough. But to find myself on the wrong end of a barrel half the times I teleport was even worse...

"Stand down!" A crisp voice called out from behind us.

I spun around and met eye to eye with a young lady no older than twenty in appearance (probably just under thirty in actuality) standing before the passage to an equally dim hallway. She was around one-sixty-nine (5'7") in height and average of build, clad in white archaic plate armor with a golden cross pattee engraved across the chest. A white tunic laid under her armor, billowing out below her cuirass like a skirt and reaching down towards her greaves-protected knees. Framed by hazelnut hair that was pinned back on one side and cascaded elegantly down her shoulders, her facial features were soft and cute to the point of being almost childish. Yet her wary rose-colored eyes examined me like a hawk before turning towards Shirayuki, still stern but softening considerably to match as she gave a perfect salute.

"Miko-Hime Shirayuki, Jiguang Shitai, welcome to Château de Falaise. May I see your identi-EEEK!"

Her face flushed scarlet as her entire body jolted.

"Still want the ID Linnaea? Or can we skip the formalities?"

Linnaea glared daggers at Shirayuki, who smiled back innocently, whimsical light dancing in her eyes.

"I told you to stop harassing people through their auras!"

"Not everyone, just you~" Shirayuki said like it's the most natural thing in the world.

"W-what is that suppose to make me!"

"A cute sensitive soul who's fun to tease~"

"I am not here for your enjoyment!"

"Relax, I'm just helping you loosen up a bit. You were making me feel like some political emissary."

Linnaea's lips quivered several more times before she sighed in resignation. As Shirayuki stepped up and patted her on the spaulders, a smile finally tugged at the edges of her mouth. It was awkward, yet it still fit her far more naturally than her strict look.

"I was under the impression that diplomacy was exactly what you came here to do."

Shirayuki tilted her head and shrugged.

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that ~ and thanks for setting this up on short notice under such circumstances; knew I could count on you~"

"T-thank you, but I am just doing my job."

Linnaea's response was stiff, but even its formality couldn't hide her bashfulness as her cheeks deepened and her eyes averted away, albeit just barely.

Shirayuki's knowing grin spoke louder than words: this was exactly the response she sought.

(Knight of noble upbringing, meet the party tease... Oh wait you're already close friends, boring.)

"Oh, and you can just call her Aurora, it's far more comfortable than your German-ese anyway~"

To be fair, Linnaea's attempt at Chinese had been fairly decent, despite her obvious German accent. But she nevertheless agreed and nodded apologetically to Aurora.

Abbess (direct translation of Shitai) Han Rong was the leader of the more canonical Buddhist nuns within the Eclipse, which made up roughly half of their personnel. Because most Chinese names were notoriously difficult to pronounce for most people who grew up on English as the primary language, many simply called her Aurora -- a literal translation of her courtesy name Jiguang, which was like a middle name that often substituted one's given name upon reaching adulthood.

Her nickname was rather appropriate too. Aurora's cream-color hair flowed past her thin waist, which only added to her white robes, wispy figure, and pale, beautiful complexion; she would almost look like a snow spirit had not for the red hakama skirt. Aurora was also the tallest here at one-seventy-four (~5'9"). Her expression always had a serene and pleasant smile on, but she never opened her eyes and rarely spoke unless asked.

It was interesting how her mainstream Buddhists and Shirayuki's Shinto-Buddhists could coexist so easily within a single pseudo-religious organization -- a sign of tolerance not usually found within Western faiths. Although when I asked why the nuns adopted the Japanese miko attire, Aurora simply responded that "shaving one's head is too unfashionable for recruitment".

"...And forgive me, but whom would you be?" Linnaea's examining eyes pulled me back to the present.

Shirayuki had asked me to wear my old uniform instead of their robes. Although she insisted, almost obsessively, on dyeing the blouse and skirt (magically of course) from white lines on black to black on white.

I was still trying to decide how to identify myself, other than just by name, when Shirayuki interjected to help.

"Kannon Reginbrandt. Bit complicated, but you can take my word that she has important information for Sidika."

Linnaea wasn't quite satisfied, but she nodded in acceptance anyways.

"In that case, please follow me."

She turned around and headed into the windowless hall with damp, chipped walls, passing by two other auxilia and another Knight of the Cross just outside. As she went, my eyes were drawn to the apparatus on her back. It was a golden cross, the size of a large kite shield, with black trimmed edges and a black eagle crest in the center. The way she wore it was tilted, with a saber handle lodged into the top of the cross, which protruded out from above her right shoulder for easy reach. Two lines of runic writing were engraved in different languages just above the eagle crest.

(Helfen, Wehren, Heilen.)

"Help, Defend, Heal," Shirayuki answered my focused curiosity that read over the channel. "German motto of the Teutonic Knights of Old Terra."

"What about Etiamsi omnes, ego non?"

"Latin for 'even if all others, I will not' -- the need for independent moral judgment. You can tell the Order of the Golden Cross takes great pride in their history, which can be traced wayyyy-way back to the Medieval Ages of Old Terra, supposedly having joined the crusading Teutonic Order to avoid prosecution."

"In Avalonian history they're known for the so-called 'Bureaucratic Inquisition'. Meant well, but was too weak and broke their coffers for a while instead. They defected in whole during the revolution and mostly avoided the purges afterward. But even now they're still the weakest of the main Knightly Orders."

I would be lying if I claimed to have gotten over my contempt for Shirayuki, but she has been tremendously helpful and friendly to me despite my... attitudes.

"Wouldn't that kind of historical consistency give them a decent reputation?" It was closer to the other way around based on my reading... Even if they were 1st District documents.

"Text history is easily changed and most people won't care enough to dig far. The Seventh Cross didn't help either, even if they pretended it was a rogue branch."

"Pretended?"

"Horseradish for public deniability. They're sanctioned. We're walking right behind one~"

"You mean she's a terrorist?" I blurted out, mentally (and thankfully).

"Isn't that great? She's the same as you, right?" Aurora's voice was as friendly as ever, but the overwhelming pressure behind it effortlessly sent a shiver up my spine.

"I'm sorry Ma'am. I'll be more considerate."

Even though I couldn't see her face since she walked in front of me and Aurora, I could sense Shirayuki chuckling silently before continuing on:

"Few know with all the record cover-ups, but Linnaea Tesarik is both a Seventh Cross ops leader and the daughter of Cross Knights Grand Master Atanas Guderian. With that kind of connection, you can be sure of where the leadership stands~"

Since she knew such sensitive information...

"Are you allies?"

"Not quite, but yes. Though this was from that one time when I got Parzival drunk~" her humored voice was oddly filled with pride. "Ah, that would be Holy Judgment Parzival Staufen, one of the two Seventh Cross Komturs and--"

"I apologize in advance for the accommodations in which the Marshal shall receive you in."

Linnaea's firm voice interrupted our chat over the communication ring as we passed yet another set of retracting blast doors and into a corridor of exposed gray ceramacrete. We continued our descent into what is obviously the fortified bunker of an old military base.

"Château de Falaise had lay abandoned since the Revolutionary War and was only reactivated a month ago. The new command bunker we are in has yet to finish, but it is also the only secure and sufficiently private complex the 2nd District would lend us. We created some furnishings by nano-fabrication, but the Marshal forbid any further decoration given the, ardor, in which Colonel Hans-Rudel took upon the task."

"That's fine~ It'll be just like camping out... underground."

Shirayuki replied just before a final set of reinforced gates began to open, revealing a strangely contrasting room. Its exposed ceramacrete walls and floor were bared like an unfurnished basement, but a richly decorated rug filled most of the room. The round table and chairs sitting on top, while simple in materials, were meticulously detailed. It was as though everything was made by a poor artist who lacked materials but invested creative aspiration in abundance.

Only one person sat on the table, and I immediately recognized the soft black curls and crimson-red eyes as the image of Marshal Sidika. Despite being well into her thirties, which meant she was probably over a hundred years of actual age, Sidika Krivoshein had a firm, well-endowed figure that would easily pass for a model was she somewhat taller. Her deep eyes, soft nose, and fair lips formed a perfect mixture between Northern European and Middle-Eastern traits. The large red garnet that decorated her elegant hair bun accentuated her grace and beauty, as though a dark red rose in full bloom. A devilish smile which seemed to perpetuate as her natural expression only made her more enticing.

Two auxilia guards and another knight, in gold-on-white tunic rather than armor, stood by the walls, flanking her from opposite corners of the hexagon room. Their postures quickly stiffened and their expressions turned unreadable upon the door's opening. The fifth and last person was leaning back against a chair before he swiveled around and smoothed out his black-trimmed-crimson uniform to perfection with a single passing tug.

Short, neatly-trimmed golden hair, emerald-green eyes brimming with energy, and a boyishly handsome face; Kayeten Hans-Rudel looked far better in person than on hologram. He had a one-eighty-six (6'3") tall and firm build of an old Terra Scandinavian that was just the right compromise between strength and grace. His dazzling smile felt unrestrained and infectious, despite being quickly summoned over the still fading light of worried concern in his eyes. Like Arkadi, he looked just under twenty years of age, and probably less than thirty in reality.

"Star-Marshal Sidika Krivoshein, Colonel Kayeten Hans-Rudel, may I introduce Miko-Hime Shirayuki Kaguya, Jiguang Shitai Han Rong, and Kannon Reginbrandt of the Moonlit Eclipse."

Linnaea actually did her best to pronounce the organization's formal Japanese name Nisshoku Getsumei, yet for some unusual reason the ring decided to translate anyway. She then gave a knightly salute, right arm bent and hand held before her chest, before stepping aside.

Sidika was in motion the instant Linnaea finished. Her eyes focused upon us, assessing with intense interest as she made her way swiftly around the table:

"It's an honor to meet you in person, Princess Kaguya. I've heard--"

The crisp sound of impact came from the right-side chair just as Sidika neared it. Her eyes twitched, her cheek jerked, and her step staggered for the slightest second...

One of the three most powerful people on this side of the universe just walked into a chair.

Then her amused expression and impish smile returned, flawless. Even her soft soprano voice did not falter for a pause:

"--Much about you from the Cross Order."

"Definitely going with that idea~"

Shirayuki sent as she stepped up and shook Sidika's offered hand before the Marshal could step on her foot. She then gave Sidika a friendly pat on the shoulders too...

My stomach began tying itself in knots.

"Shirayuki is fine, Sidika. The honor is all mine, and to you as well, Kayeten," she turned towards him with an apologetic smile and nodded. "I take back what I said in the gateport four days ago; you're a dedicated man for opposing me given past circumstances."

The smile froze on Kayeten's face as his eyes widened at the implications.

Even Sidika raised her eyebrows, before her grin grew into a faint smirk.

"Your reputation certainly does precede you."

"Only the good ones..."

I could almost hear a wink in the Miko-Hime's playful voice.

"...Let me introduce you to my second-in-command Aurora, whom your intel dossiers phonically erred 'Frost Laser' from her Chinese name; albeit not incorrectly so, after she razed an entire base--"

The guards, already suspicious of the alien redhead before them, entered paranoia mode instantly.

"--And my tac witch Kannon, who was a cute prisoner I managed to capture from the Black Prince just the other day when he tried to kill you; had to make do with her uniform though, since I hadn't enough time to design an adorable new outfit--"

The ace colonel, despite his full recovery in expression, relapsed into stunned shock.

"--In any way, our wish today is but a simple one -- we offer you an edict of alliance."

The military dictator's mask of calm, honed by decades of political experience, fell to the floor and shattered.

And I, who had never been informed of my promotion from prison-of-war until now, discovered for the first time how hard it was to fulfill the urge of crawling into a hole to die when half my upbringing had just been violated by a careless torrent of words.

Then, just to prove that the impossible was not over, Shirayuki continued on to break every rule of diplomatic contact known to humankind.


----- * * * -----


It felt weird watching the supreme commander across the table pinch and stretch her own cheeks before asking in a still-bewildered-but-at-least-humored tone:

"So now that we know reality hasn't collapsed -- what are you here for again?"

"A-lli-ance," Shirayuki accentuated, fingers gesturing.

Shirayuki's relentless verbal ambush had battered down the barriers of formality with shocking alacrity. By now the three of them, including Kayeten, were almost joking with each other like old friends. There was obviously still some mutual understanding issues, but the growth of solidarity was astounding.

"So really -- who are you? And what have you done with the real Shirayuki?" the Marshal teased. Then in all seriousness, with a touch of exasperation: "I was told again and again, complained to and pestered even, that the Eclipse refused to make pacts even with natural allies."

"Atanas?" Shirayuki's head tilted as she raised the Cross Knights' Grand Master's name. Sidika nodded, and the younger redhead shrugged back, covering her own vexation with nonchalance:

"I still won't sign with him. True allies don't need an alliance, no more than true friends need asking, or true lovers a marriage. They're already thinking of one another where it serves. Anything more on top is but a necessity for the insecure, a formality for appearances. Besides, his conservative half certainly doesn't need another rope for making demands upon me."

The contents flowed like tenants of wisdom, yet her simple, matter-of-fact speech made it only worse as her words pierced straight into my chest like needles. They called forth memories of vanity, of when I sought and received recognition for my skills, of silence and depression during times without.

Agreement, dissent, surprise, anguish, regret... all of it topped off by admiration followed closely by a growing sense of inferiority.

(She declared herself like it was nothing, denying commonality without even worrying about others' thoughts of her beliefs.)

Yet on the other side, Sidika smiled with relief, as though sanity was restored in completion once more. After all, there was no reason for Shirayuki to trust her, and therefore this alliance was necessary.

"Nevertheless, Shirayuki, not everyone is nigh-perfect like you. Consider it before universally applying your standards."

It was Aurora's first words since entering the room, blunt yet passed in tranquil serenity as the white lady continued to gently swirl the teacup in her lithe hands, eyes closed and undirected.

The younger redhead mulled it over, like an adolescent receiving wisdom from her elder. Then, she gave a strangely-tilted nod that simultaneously shrugged it off.

Kayeten chuckled as he smoothly put his teacup back down without the slightest sound:

"Still, there is a simple elegance in the unrestrained lifestyle. Quite charming for a beautiful woman as yourself, and certainly befitting of the flawless will blessed by your name, Lunar Princess Snow White."

"Awww your famous pick-up lines are so sweet~! But this is a bid for military fraternization, not proposal for political matrimony."

"I solemnly swear no such motivations were involved! I merely wished to admire a truth of nature."

Kayeten's brilliant white smile returned to its full charm as his emerald eyes twinkled with mischief.

"Besides, there's already a beautiful young lady in this room who had captured my heart's devotion."

For a brief second I thought Kayeten looked at me, then realized his focus was further away, towards the knight Linnaea who still stood by the wall behind us... I could almost feel the pressure building behind me, held back from steaming fury by sheer determination as smug amusement danced in the Colonel's eyes.

Sidika surveyed the whole scene like a much-amused parent about to speak of 'the joys of youth' before she forced a return to the topic:

"Hostilities have been building up gradually over two past decades. I believe open conflict will likely befall Avalon in but a few years. It's certainly advantageous for me to support the enemy of my foes, but first I must ask: just how far are you willing to support us?"

"By the power of Aura Dominion, two-way open sharing of all non-cloistered intelligence, and strategic coordination with 3DHQ."

Sidika nodded in acceptance, "and your primary demands?"

"Revolutionary support, cessation of interdiction, and... a specified opportunity~"

Shirayuki wink-nodded at me, passing the proverbial baton.

"We wish to use the current situation to bait -- although he'll find here even without leaking info -- and to capture Arkadi Simarshall, the Black Prince and Commandant of the Black Hand."

Kayeten twitched like he just had a heart attack; his eyes now watched me with curious uncertainty. Meanwhile Sidika's eyebrows vanished into her bangs, gazing intently as though I was some strange alien creature that was impossible to identify.

Long, long seconds dragged by in stunned silence...

Then, both of their eyes sprang wide a second time in surprised recognition.

"Hey! That's cheating, stop sync'ing your senses with Infinite Junction!" Shirayuki called them out with mocked outrage.

Infinite Junction -- the title of the 3rd Arvitor of the project. Between him (or her) and Holy Judgment would give them support from two of seven Arvitors. Aura Dominion would make three.

"Not cheating is not trying hard enough -- that, would be disrespectful," grinned Kayeten.

"And isn't it unfair for you to hold back something like this?" Sidika answered, as her eyes continuing their uncomfortable focus on me. "How's the eye."

It was my turn for astonishment this time as I realized what they sought after. Nausea rose at the way they stared at me... like adventurers who just found an ancient artifact, key to the lost Atlantis.

"Do you want another laurel for the crown that badly?"

(Not to mention they're also wrong. I'm not...)

Kayeten lit up a sad, sympathetic smile. "Just surprised, mostly; but my apologies."

"Not a chance for me," Sidika spoke firmly, stern eyes still trained on me. "The 'Republic' needs Quinctius Cincinnatus, not Julius Caesar. Three decades of reformation, if the system could even work, and not a second more. If the Arvitors' power may lessen the blood shed by my soldiers and the toil upon our worlds through the transition period, then of course I desire it, but not as a laurel."

Within her eyes was the look of an executive considering the value of a potential asset...

It was a stare that I had experienced. There were many managers who looked upon an interviewee and saw only benefits and costs, skills and deficiencies, not -- a possible comrade who they could share their endeavors with.

(Don't look at me like that--)

As I was a normal human, the same as them, then they could at least see me as a person. Yet to the people of this world, who gazed upon Arvitors as faeries found within crystals, batteries to power their starships and other wondrous construction...

It was a sickening feel.

(How does Shirayuki stand it?)

My reflexive thought came out too strongly and went over the channel. It was answered by the person in question:

"Because my actions are known far and wide. Methods and choices that define me as a person speaks far more than mere classifications or appearances. Past, responsibility, and goals -- not just usefulness and skills -- that's what makes me normal to them."

Useful. Skillful.

But they were among recognition that I sought the most. Were they wrong?

Maybe it was like a Résumé, a Curriculum Vitae: the more defined one's past responsibilities and future goals, the more irreplaceable one's value as a being within the company -- not just a passive asset, but an active driving force.

"We're only judged by our origins until we take control of our own lives with our own actions," Aurora added, with Shirayuki nodding in agreement.

Of course, but that was why I needed to prove myself, to overcome the doubts of others.

"It matters not what others say, it matters only what you believe. The moment you let another's degradation or doubt reach you, is the moment you mark your own failure."

Maybe I was still wrong, still missing something.

Maybe it was their doubt that I should have cast aside completely in the first place. To reach for myself, not prove for others.

(Easier said than done.)

"Yet three decades? Is that how long she wants us for? ...And what of Cincinnatus?"

"Thirty years is the Sovereign's minimum term of service per original Imperium Project specification. Cincinnatus is an Roman Senator from Old Earth; twice granted supreme power of dictatorship, he held it for not a day longer than necessary each, in stark contrast to Caesar who overthrew the Republic to establish imperial power. Don't worry about them for now; take a deep breath first."

Shirayuki then switched to open voice:

"I can't give you the support I don't have, nor the understanding that we have yet to reach; that still needs time."

Sidika frowned oddly, and considered it, and mulled it over. Her focus kept on me the entire time. Then, without hesitation:

"No."

"Mother--"

Kayeten's disapproving voice was cut by a single glare from Sidika's red eyes, intense enough to scorch metal, let alone a rebellious subordinate.

Shirayuki looked from me to Sidika with a worried scowl and sighed.

"Why?"

"Riddle me this first, what's your wish?"

"World optimization, of course," Shirayuki answered with all pride and no hesitation.

But Sidika's eyes were locked with mine.

"I mean what's your wish?"

My thoughts froze instantly...

(To help Arkadi back? To survive? To go back to my old world?)

I doubted any of those would be a useful answer for her.

(What else--?)

"Tell me, what do you think is the one most significant trait of an officer?"

(Leadership to organize others and earn respect? Rationality to discard misconceptions and appropriate judgments? Decisiveness to respond to and seize control of situations?...)

I didn't know much about combat. But be it project management or field command, the roles of leading others shouldn't be so different. Picking a few was a classic interview question, but exactly which one? The specifications of the job would be of vital importance: charisma and responsiveness was essential in field commanders but far less valued in most staff roles; deduction was central to strategy but hardly the foremost for other roles--

"Give her a moment~ she's a little slow," Shirayuki cut in, tone almost in jest, before Sidika could interrupt again.

--Yet the question was not circumstantial. The trait must apply across the board. Reasoning and rationality were high on the list. But for those in the line of fire, control of the instinct and impulse still superseded. After all, the pinnacle of decision-making was still a selection between logic and desire. While rationality may discern the appropriate answers, it didn't always make the correct choice. Was there another that may yet elevate above self-control given a categorical difference in function or responsibility? From command to strategy to coordination to resourcing... No.

(Well, Eastern philosophy did claim that mastering yourself was the first step to commanding others.)

"Command over oneself," I stated with my firmest tone. There was no room for doubt or hesitation here.

"Not bad," Sidika smiled approvingly. "But there's still one overriding value."

I thought it all over again and could only draw a blank look.

"Without loyalty, even the greatest general or adviser cannot be trusted, their value not only questionable but dangerous. Without faith, even invincibility becomes doubted, diverting attention and leaking resources. Without ambition, even the most self-controlled man cannot meet their full potential, let alone exceed. All of these qualities are important yet merely temporary; all of them determined by a greater factor -- motivation."

The first that came to mind was the concept of Management by Objectives: a powerful methodology that relied on fitting a project into common goals of both the management and the employees. It was often viewed as somewhat idealistic, as it emphasized more on people rather than context and progress. It was indeed highly effective for assessing people in a manner of complete abstraction, but to take this as her most valued consideration...

(Maybe Sidika is a bit of a romanticist as well.)

"Shirayuki expects a Binding Oath of me, yet such is not acceptable for mysterious allies that cannot be trusted longer than the shortest term. Whatever your current limitations, your intended role will undoubtedly be quite profound. So let me rephrase the original question," Sidika asked again with her piercing gaze that sought to reach my very soul:

"What is your motivation?"

Shirayuki had promised me, last night, that she would offer me passage back, but only after I help them settle the immediate upheaval. The chance to capture Arkadi had also been placed on the table as a requirement of our negotiations.

Both of those were but temporary goals, unsuitable for the prolonged commitment that Sidika defined.

Then...

(To prove myself? To honor my parents' faith in me?)

They were too abstract. Personal dispositions that drove behavior rather than motivations that influenced decision-making.

I thought deeper, further; but the clues that came up only bothered me more and more.

(Do I even have a motivation? For myself?)

It was worrisome that I couldn't answer that.

"...How about I offer you tactical coordination then, and we forge this on temporary hold?"

Shirayuki's offer was begrudging. But her voice was worried, and so were the eyes that glanced my way. In fact, there was a hint of fear in them, not of me but of something that might happen to me...

"You do realize, with our balance of power, that you're effectively giving up operational freedom?"

"You do realize I'm not actually a fresh sprout on this over-tilled field," the redhead quipped back at the Marshal's warning with one of her own.

Sidika's mouth tilted with hesitancy. But she nodded, barely:

"Very well. I'll offer you the commitment for the moment's being--"

I realized, a moment too slow, what Shirayuki had offered in exchange for my lacking.

"--But I do expect proper affirmation before we leave Brocéliande."

She had proposed forfeiting the organizational independence of the Moonlit Eclipse, after decades of preserving it from even their staunchest allies. Within a war, that meant the Eclipse could be assigned the unwanted, most dangerous missions, and she would have to carry them out.

Actions did indeed prove stronger than origin: she truly was a natural ally to me.


----- * * * -----


Even though it was meant to be just a 'temporary' agreement, drafting the alliance treaty still took Shirayuki and Marshal Sidika all day. Much of it was spent haggling over the finer details. It was yet another sign that they were allies of convenience rather than allies by nature -- taking care to show their dedication through utmost seriousness while minding every detail along the way.

Yet during this entire time, Sidika's question never left me.

But still I had no answer.

"Dinner is served~!" Kayeten called out in a singsong voice as he pushed in a restaurant-style serving trolley from the hallway. On it were elaborate bowls made of polished but simple steel containing... some sort of common beef stew. Add the fact that he had somehow changed into a butler's suit during his few minutes away and...

The contradiction between class and lack thereof was staggering.

"Pot-au-feu, with blanched cabbage in Alsace-Lorraine style," Kayeten presented softly as he served the food with all the grace of a professional butler. "I figure we'd enjoy some simplicity after all the complications."

"It would be simpler," Sidika began with a hint of exasperation, "if you stopped trying to get artistic with every tool. I swear next time we leave official accommodations for a trip I am packing everything."

"Did you make all this?" Shirayuki asked with pleasant surprise.

"The silverware? Yes." The Colonel-turned-Butler answered, obvious pride in his voice. "We have plenty of construction materials here but little household equipment, so some fabrication was in order. The food itself? As much as I'd like to claim credit, it was prepared with love by Linnaea and slow-cooked all day~"

"I just thought we would be too busy today to prepare meals properly, and I was right!" Linnaea's voice came from behind me.

"Come on, turn off your armor and eat with us," Kayeten beckoned towards the knight. Linnaea was the only one still on guard duty after Sidika dismissed the others once initial negotiations were finished. The Marshal nodded towards her in approval as well.

"Ah... very well, if you insist."

"Oh I do insist." Kayeten winked towards Linnaea, which made her aura of menace erupt in full force once again.

"Ah, don't mind us," Shirayuki grinned while giving her a thumbs-up. "Just turn him into a bloody smear if you wish~!"

Part of me couldn't help but feel that was exactly what would have happened if not for the 'diplomatic' circumstances.

Her murderous aura had mostly subsided by the time Linnaea strode around to the spare seat where Kayeten left a bowl. As she pulled out the chair, her armor, shield, and sword transformed into a cascade of golden light. It was then all pulled up to her neck and sucked into a diamond pendant that hanged around her neck, leaving her wearing only her tunic.

"Wardrobe accessory," Shirayuki spoke over the channel as she eyed my intrigue. "Good for switching in and out of armor, gear, and outfits, as in Kayeten's case. I'll give you one later -- thought you'd have one already. Kinda a must-have for any girl~"

My sight was still fixed on Linnaea as she silently recited some kind of prayer before picking up her utensils. Meanwhile everyone else had already began eating their long overdue meal.

"You know," Sidika said towards Shirayuki as she casually stirred her stew before picking up another spoonful. "I'm surprised you didn't request for emancipation of the Arvitors."

"Being an idealist doesn't make me lose touch with realism. You can't promise me that even if you wanted to."

"Well, I am a dictator though. Supreme word of law and all."

"Only as long as the military supports you," Shirayuki was clearly not impressed. "I have no clue how you Marshals sleep with that Sword of Damocles over you, but I do know that taking away the power source for all that fancy equipment they take for granted is a surefire way to lose control of it. Then you'll be surrounded by a lot more than just two companies of untrustworthy soldiers."

Sidika had spent considerable time discussing that earlier -- that any 'operational opportunity' to capture Arkadi would be extremely risky due to the undependability of the perimeter security forces, and therefore worth far more in their bartering of conditions.

"I have an idea regarding that, the operation I mean," I forced out the words with all the confidence I had before I missed the chance again. It was an idea I had after the end of their prior discussion, a somewhat crazy and amateur idea at that.

Everyone turned towards me with varying degrees of surprise. Shirayuki's worried and protective gaze in particular shifted between my eyes and the spoonful of beef stew I still held in midair above the bowl.

"Eat first, and take your time--"

"Before that, I have a burning question for you, Kannon," Kayeten asked with an extremely serious expression incompatible with his outfit, while completely ignoring the glare that Shirayuki threw his way. "Why, do you want to save him?"

I felt my face heat up for some reason.

"Because... because I still owe him one..."

I wasn't sure that was all, but it certainly wasn't a lie.

"Besides, isn't he your childhood friend? Don't you want to also?"

Unprepared shock went through Kayeten's eyes for a brief moment. Then he looked down; his expression grew pained.

"Tell me Kannon, if a once-best-friend who had abandoned you for eighteen years killed the best friend who had supported you since then, what would you think of him?"

Silence filled the room as all movement stopped.

"...And I thought I had a good plan. An entire team, lost for nothing."

His warning was clear enough. If my idea, or even the operation I requested failed, or even if it succeeded, there was no way I could dodge the responsibility for the deaths that would incur.

(Is all this really worth it?)


----- * * * -----


Hours more passed since their dinner, but Kayeten was still bothered by a thought. The surge of annoyance and distaste had calmed, but it persisted with an ever-present pull on his conscience. Yet he also knew better than to continue raising his objections during negotiation when Sidika made her intolerance of it clear. The two of them may be casual in most circumstances, thanks to their adoptive family relationship; but the Marshal never hesitated to remind him just who was higher on the chain-of-command when push came to shove.

Still, minutes after their guests' departure (with Linnaea showing the way) was long enough to not be disruptive to lingering thoughts.

"Mother, was there really any need to provoke that poor, confused, and possibly-in-denial girl? The princess' offer, quite generous in my opinion, already meets our own needs and objectives."

"What, afraid of violating the ancient law of the brocean and harming your buddy's girlfriend?" Sidika chuckled, and Kayeten rolled his eyes in response.

"Very inappropriate, mother, although I do agree there's something odd about those two -- but I'm being serious here."

The Marshal's eyes grew distant and preoccupied; her faint smile betraying signs of uncertainty.

"Merely trying to rectify reality. Forcing a mirror on them is... usually the best way."

Few seconds of weakness was the limit of what Sidika allowed. Her tone immediately shifted back to her usual, one of absolute confidence, as though there was never any doubt:

"Not to mention, did you know that the Imperium Project specifically modified its heirs to be 'incomplete' human beings? One of the things they lack is a personal sense of ambition, so they don't try to take over. But that also means they lack a drive to excel, unless pushed by duty or circumstance. I'm giving her that push, one towards a path that will ultimately benefit our goals."

Kayeten wasn't sure how to take the first fact. It made perfectly good sense, and certainly beneficial to society. Yet... there was something inhumane about it. As for the second... well, he was already used to his mother's methods.

"Just, please, don't crack her."

"Well, if she's that fragile, then nothing of value was lost... But I think she'll manage. Her thinking was already impressive for someone without experience. Seriously, Eight Trigrams Formation? It's so obsolete it's almost new."

Kayeten sighed and shook his head, fingers reaching up to massage his temples. He couldn't argue against Sidika's past results, but being used to her ways didn't imply liking them.

"You're an evil, evil person mother."

"Why thank you," came the reply with a gracious smile. "I've been worried over my indulgence in goodness as of late; do have a title and reputation to keep, you know~"


----- * * * -----


The clock was just short of midnight, and Linnaea resisted a yawn as she patrolled the only passageway into the warded underground bunker complex while listening to the heavy downpour outside. She has watched over security with utmost diligence for nearly eighteen hours by this point. But until Kayeten came to relieve her after his rest, she was in command of the guard detail and its entire shift of eight.

There were more sentries, hundreds more: two full heavy-infantry companies stationed around the base's outer perimeter. But they were all 2nd District troops; their dependability was questionable at best. Even if they were reliable, armored marines trained for frontal engagements were far from optimal in defense against black ops commandos.

Worse, if one of them managed to ascertain the Eclipse's presence here...

"Rawr~!"

Linnaea turned to glare at the source of the sprightly call; but Shirayuki continued to ascend the gentle-sloping tunnel without sound, amusement dancing across her eyes at the knight's annoyed, pouting cheeks -- more like a schoolgirl than a warrior.

"You shouldn't be here," the knight seethed, or at least tried to.

Despite countless attempts, Linnaea had never managed to successfully make an angry face that actually looked intimidating. Her aura might be menacing, but even the freshest recruit had always found something... cute, about her expression. She once heard a young squire say that her angry face was only scary when she wasn't staring at them.

"If someone can notice me before I notice them, I'll eat this stupid weather."

"That is just impossible," Linnaea said as a matter-of-fact, eyes half-closed and arms crossed for a properly peeved look; although she did agree that the chances of noticing Shirayuki without the Miko-Hime wanting them to notice is... quite infinitesimal.

"Precisely~! Can't eat the weather, can't see me~"

"I doubt the rules of inference works that way."

"Well, they should, seeing as it's true~"

Sometimes, more like most of the time, there was just no point arguing with Shirayuki, and a sighing Linnaea decided to shift topics before exasperation would overcome her again:

"I must say I was quite surprised today. I never expected you would offer that."

"Well, me too," the shorter girl replied as she walked up to beside the knight. Sighing deeply with obvious fatigue, she gently rested her head on Linnaea's armored left shoulder. Amusement tugged at her grin as she relaxed even as the other stiffened.

"W-w-what are you d-doing?"

"Resting... an entire day of haggling really isn't my kind of work." Although her tone was serious, Shirayuki smiled mischievously as she knew Linnaea would not deny her the favor, despite the girl's obvious discomforting embarrassment.

"W-why are you going so far for her sake?"

Shirayuki took another step. Her head spun a quarter-circle in its resting spot on Linnaea's shoulder, eyes turning to face the other from just a breath away.

"Jealous~?"

"D-don't be an idiot."

The red-haired princess giggled as the knight looked away, blushing.

"You know, sometimes I really wish I was a guy~"

For a dozen seconds Linnaea was too embarrassed to even respond with her instinctive denial, yet with her left shoulder on lend she could hardly pull away.

"But, you already made the choice."

"Yes, yes I did, and I never regret my choices. There are simply too many perks to being the wiser and fairer of the genders~" Shirayuki lifted her head back up, but still holding Linnaea close with her gaze. "Though to answer, I'm supposed to be Eternal's champion within the Imperium Project; even her lady's maid if need be, so of course I would go that far..."

It was a reminder that however playful and casual Shirayuki might seemed, she also took her duties very seriously.

"...After all, she does carry the greatest burden among us."

Always carefree, always vivacious, caught in her own pace to the point of near tactlessness; Shirayuki was always that way. Yet for the first time, Linnaea saw her eyes filled with worry.

"So... what did you think of her?"

"Well... why do you ask? It is hardly my role to judge," Linnaea asked, unsure but also curious.

"Because you're one of the few whose opinions Parzival trusts explicitly, completely -- totally expected, with that perceptiveness and honesty -- and it's certain that his opinion on all of this will be of critical importance."

Linnaea's entire face flushed several shades of pink the instant Holy Judgment's name came up. She wasn't so confident herself, but what Shirayuki just told her really amounted to the highest praise in her eyes.

"H-honestly, I am still not sure yet... She seems the honest and hardworking type, willing to listen and press herself. But she fails to project confidence in her limited proactiveness and definitely lacks maturity. I wonder if she has somehow been holding herself back all this time."

"She had a bad case of denial when I told her about being an Arvitor, like panic-attack-bad."

Linnaea pondered it over for a moment. "That helps to explain, although it is quite unfortunate, both for her and us. Her role as a selector really does not give her any room to ignore unpleasantries, not to mention her connection with the Black Prince is rather... worrisome. I understand she's pretty much genetically hardwired to be attracted to leadership qualities, but--"

Shirayuki's smile grew apprehensive as she pondered how Kannon might react to being the first of the three centerpieces to the Imperium Project, whenever she got around to telling. But her concern lingered for only a second. Faith in her comrades was something she had in abundance, and she was certainly in position to do something about it herself if needed.

"--But really, I should be more surprised this all came from you. You positively vowed blood vengeance on the man."

The princess chuckled; her words true without even an ounce of resentment: "Well, the wishes of my cute lil'sis versus an unhealthy grudge? My priorities have never been more certain! Especially if I ever want her to call me big sis~"




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