Daybreak:Volume 2 Chapter 10

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Chapter 10 - Shifting Winds

"....The entire hill was a sea of fire at that point. So I figured it was time to lead in a charge. One hundred and seventy armored gryphons straight into their ranks! And their center hardly even buckled!"

Kaede listened to Sylviane's incredulous tone as she sat next to Cecylia on the Princess' spacious bed, in the broad but otherwise austere 'royal cabin'. Meanwhile her hands nursed a steaming mug of hot chocolate, which Cecylia had introduced as a Skagen product when she made it.

It was surprising, since cocoa was not a plant that grew in the frozen north. Given that most other produces paralleled those of Earth, there was likely more to the Northmen nation than meets the eye.

"They're housecarls -- and their name for being household troops isn't just for show either..."

With patient words that were almost unlike her, Cecylia explained in a soft soprano that felt soothing just to hear. Her hands gently stroked the largest Ania as all nine bodies of the matryoshka cat laid comfortably around her, purring in turn as though a chorus of relaxation. They all basked in the warm glow of the phoenix Hauteclaire, who continued to stand regally next to the Princess while chirping playfully to the smaller kittens.

"--The housecarls live in their lord's castle. They feast at the same tables, train on the same grounds alongside noble sons and daughters, even address each other like brothers regardless of rank..."

Not even Cecylia could keep the rising admiration out of her voice.

"Men like that have a bond stronger than any oath. They will fight to their dying breath for their liege, protecting the safety of his life and the sanctity of his corpse. The Jarl's personal force might have struck the detachment, but I'll bet that the heir was among those you defeated, Sylv."

"We don't have any units like that," Sylviane murmured.

"The Knight Phantoms, the Lotharin Armigers, the Imperial Scholares, not even the Cataliyan Ghulams could compare to the élan of the Northmen elite."

Cecylia's broad grin then returned in full:

"It's brotherhood at its finest."

"Of course you're a fan of them," Sylviane chuckled back as she twirled her dark-plum hair, periodically brushing them past her cheeks and lips. "Sweaty shirtless men wrestling each other in the halls before drinking themselves to a stupor." Then, curious: "but I thought they also killed over mere arguments?"

Cecylia tilted her head as she frowned with mild distaste, but not towards the Princess:

"It's true that in the north all disagreements could be decided by single combat. But usually it isn't to the death; certainly not among brothers -- that's just outsiders exaggerating what they don't understand by chalking it up to 'barbarism'. Though you have to admit: it does save all the political wrangling and plotting, just smash your wine cup at them and draw swords!"

"Sometimes I wish we had that tradition," Sylviane sighed wistfully. "Then I can just knock out all those bickering lords and save me the headaches!"

Kaede could almost imagine: the new United Nations Assembly, where they resolved national disputes by putting world leaders in a ring and having them fight it out.

There was a certain refreshing allure to it... definitely cleaner, at any rate.

"Once upon a time hehe," Cecylia grinned again, her scarlet-crossed eyes almost twinkling. "A lot of Lotharin cultural aspects survived the Imperial subjugation, but that's not one of them..."

The petite dhampir shrugged.

"...It does have its downsides though: like how all judicial cases may be overthrown through trial by single combat -- no representative champions allowed either. So among the Northmen, if you're weak, you're nothing. Can't even get a bride, since a man is expected to literally beat off the other suitors and then take his bride-to-be in a staff duel."

"Sounds like a painful wedding," Sylviane frowned back.

"If he wants her to look good and perform well on their first night, then he better be good enough to beat her without much bruising! It's part of the incentive!"

In response, the Princess crossed her arms and raising her head high. With her eyes closed, she began in a faked, haughty voice:

"No, Pascal. I cannot marry you. Go back and train for another century."

Sylviane peeked one eye open and met her friend's gaze once more, before her composure fell away and both of them began to laugh.

Even Kaede couldn't help but grin at the mental image -- Pascal's frozen shock as he faded to dust after being told that he simply wasn't good enough.

"Well, having Hauteclaire is rather unfair," Cecylia countered half a minute later when the giggling finally died away. "Not that Pascal will ever say that. He's no sore loser and talks plenty about combat realism. A loss is a loss, and Oriflammes certainly don't hold back on a real battlefield."

The Princess nodded as she proudly declared:

"It's a manly trait, and not one of those fake macho ones either."

With Pascal's rooftop apology to Ariadne and Parzifal only two weeks old in memory, Kaede had to agree with that as well. Bowing one's head might seem to undermine the image of alpha masculinity, but it also took true courage that embodied strength and integrity beyond any cheap facade of confidence.

Perhaps I really should talk to someone about my own issues, she concluded.

Though speaking of Ariadne, Kaede had been curious about one thing. Sipping away the last of her hot chocolate, she put the mug aside before finally cutting in:

"Wouldn't such a culture imply that Northern women are martial as well? I didn't see any of them fighting though; neither the attack force nor on the walls."

"Only the men leave their settlements on campaigns," Cecylia clarified. "Northern women only take up arms to defend their homes, so they're enlisted in all-female garrison units, lead by the professional shield-maidens. The men are also very protective of them; the units stationed on the walls were probably all male."

Then, it was Sylviane who answered with a solemn deadpan as she reached down to cradle a meowing kitten:

"There were hundreds of women killed and wounded at the gates. I had to bloody them some more before they would talk... and I thought we Lotharin girls were tough..."

The Princess trailed off as a somber silence fell upon the room.

"Sorry," Kaede looked down. I shouldn't have brought it up now.

She soon felt an all-encompassing hug from the back. A comforting embrace she had wanted since last night, yet couldn't ask.

Cecylia felt warmer than most people too; more touchy-feely than she was used to, at any rate...

...Just before hot breath blew into the sensitive back of her left ear as the dhampir girl leaned in and softly bit her earlobe.

"EEK!"

Kaede yelped. She almost jumped on the bed, if it wasn't for the other holding her down.

"She's having trouble dealing with her first battle," Cecylia informed Sylviane through a catlike grin. "Clearly we should help her forget it."

The Princess smiled back but shook her head:

"It doesn't work that way."

But as her wisteria eyes met Kaede's, it was with the softest look she offered the familiar girl yet.

"Come over here Kaede. My hair is just not as soft as yours."

Kaede paused and looked back with reluctance, while the Princess reinforced her imposing smile:

"What did you promise in exchange for my permission to stay besides my fiancé again?"

The smaller girl almost groaned aloud.

Teddy Bear time again...

After Cecylia let go and Kaede shifted across the soft comforter, she once again found Sylviane draped over her shoulders and rubbing cheeks against the back of her head.

"She's super-huggable isn't she?" Cecylia grinned.

"Yep," Sylviane agreed happily, her voice slightly muffled as she continued her snuggling. "And since she's my fiancé's familiar, she belongs to me as well."

I'm not a belonging! Kaede almost cried out.

Not that it would have done her any good. But for some reason, despite Pascal's more oppressive aura and Sylviane's lack thereof, Kaede found it a lot harder to go against the Princess than against him.

"Hehe you're possessive as ever," jested Cecylia as she stood up from the bed.

She strode over to the simple table to make tea, using a kettle without any fire and a can of leaves that appeared from her pockets.

"Holy Father forbid a ruler who isn't possessive," Sylviane countered. "They might start losing pieces of their realm."

Turning to face Kaede from over the smaller girl's right shoulder, Sylviane finally decided to talk to her depressed doll:

"Kaede, to tell you what my father once told me -- in war, your enemies are here for the same reason you are: to serve their allegiance, to protect their view of the world. Once battle begins, you win or you lose. You kill or be killed. It's either your life, your friends, your country... or theirs. And until you're willing to surrender everything you hold dear or they offer the same to you, there is no middle ground..."

Even as the Princess spoke, her delicate fingers continued to gently brush back the fine, silky strands of beige-white hair that pooled around Kaede.

"--Respect your foes, for they are the same as you. But never hesitate to kill them where they stand, so long as they hold steel."

Meanwhile, Cecylia nodded along with a thoughtful smile.

"I... I know all that," Kaede agreed as well. "But it's just..."

Knowing it and doing it are still two entirely different things.

But that wasn't something any amount of reasoning from others could fix.

Kaede once read that women recovered far easier from the psychological effects of killing than men, so long as they recognized their own families as 'endangered' in some way. Hence the Soviet Union discovered that women made excellent snipers -- a grisly job that watched the faces of every life they plucked, something even most men couldn't stomach.

It was a scary extension of the maternal instinct that both iron ladies before her had in abundance.

Something I need more of for my life in this world...

Kaede could only sigh her envy away:

"...I just wish we could have won without destroying so many lives."

"Everyone believes they're just, everyone wants to win," Sylviane spoke quietly. "But to achieve that with little or no bloodshed is a rare accomplishment... one that required the highest caliber of military command."

"Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting," Cecylia added sagely as she brushed a nonexistent long beard.

Her first cup of tea went to the Knight Mari, who continued to guard the door, seemingly disinterested in their conversations.

"Who was that from again?" the Princess asked, mirroring Kaede's exact thoughts.

She could have sworn she read those very words in The Art of War. But that would be far too much to be mere coincidence...

"The 1st Sun General of the Dawn Imperium," Cecylia answered, referring to the superpower in the eastern continent of Eos.

Two millenniums ago, it was the Inner Sea Imperium and the Dawn Imperium that signed the accord "Two Realms Under Heaven", splitting the world into two respective spheres of influence that still shaped geopolitical and cultural boundaries today.

"Unfortunately, Pascal isn't that good yet," Sylviane spoke Kaede's mind once more.

"Neither was its originator when he first started," Cecylia noted from the table. "It took him a lifetime to perfect his ways of war. They say that by the end, he wrote those lines because he grew absolutely sick of spilling blood."

"So... the only way to avoid bloodshed in war is to get better, and the only way to get better... is by bloodying more foes."

Talk about a catch twenty-two, Kaede summed up her own words.

"I don't want to sound callous," the Princess began. "But you're his familiar, Kaede. This is the path you'll have to help him along, so it's best you become acquainted with it."

I wasn't the one who picked this life...

"Easy for you to say," Kaede retorted irritably.

She regretted it almost immediately. Sylviane was the last person she could afford to throw temper at.

But as she turned towards Sylviane with a "sorry", what she met instead was a dry smile filled with melancholy.

"No, you're right. It is easy for me to say..."

The Princess replied before exhaling deeply. But her firm gaze never broke contact, only to reveal an icy disappointment:

"--Perhaps one day you'll figure out just what it means for me to wear this tiara of a crown... But in the meantime, just what should I do with you?"

I really shouldn't have done that...

Kaede had barely a second to fear and ponder, before Sylviane reached both hands over her shoulders.

"Cecil says your skin is as beautiful as your hair, so let's have some fun and take a look."

'Fun' was the last thing on her mind as Sylviane began to strip her swiftly and... almost forcefully.

Caught completely off-guard, Kaede's half-hearted attempts to stop the Princess were easily overpowered by stronger and faster hands.

"Wait... I'm really sorry... please..."

Within half a minute, Kaede was down to only her charmeuse undergarments, as pure and white as the freshly fallen snow. They were warm and soothing to the touch, but she nevertheless felt cold and vulnerable as her hands huddled around the halter top covering her small chest.

"Please stop... Your Highness," her wispy voice cried out. Isn't this enough as your 'punishment'?

It was all Kaede could do to ask. Against someone with years of martial training, her left hand had easily been caught in a vice-like grip that proved she was nowhere close in strength or reflexes. Not to mention Sylviane still leaned over Kaede's shoulders with both arms, leaving the smaller girl able to neither move nor defend herself.

...And I can't hit her either; she's not just a Princess but also Pascal's fiancée!

With her word against someone of diplomatic eloquence, not even Pascal would stand by her side. Moreover, striking royalty was among the highest offenses. Sylviane didn't even tolerate rudeness; for hitting her, Kaede might literally have to dig her own grave.

"You promised to obey me, remember?" Sylviane whispered with a sensual edge, her breath hot against the back of Kaede's ear.

Across from them, Cecylia sat back down while nursing a mug of hot tea, content to observe in expressionless silence as her scarlet-crosses met Kaede's pleading eyes.

There was no point even looking at Mari. As the Princess' constant bodyguard, she would do whatever her master commanded.

"Haaa!"

Kaede gasped aloud as she felt a hand placed on her upper thighs, just touching the exposed, sensitive flesh above her thighhigh stockings.

"P-please..." she whimpered as she cringed her eyes closed, shivering in trepidation even as tears pooled into her eyes.

Please don't... I really don't want... not like this...

She had never felt so helpless and vulnerable, not even on her first night in Hyperion when Pascal had pinned her onto the floor.

Then, she heard the air exhaling from Sylviane's nose, almost as though a sigh.

The fingers on her thighs lifted away as Kaede felt the Princess hugged her from behind.

"Shhhh. It's over... It's alright... I won't do anything else."

Sylviane placated in a motherly voice as she rhythmically stroked the small girl's hair from behind.

Cautiously, Kaede reopened her tear-stained eyes and turned. As she met a soft gaze warmed by an almost adoring tenderness, she finally believed the sincerity of those words.

Ever since yesterday, her emotions had been raised high and slammed low, strung up to be pulled down again and again. Fear, anxiety, depression, grievance... there was only so much stress she could take. With many sleepless nights before and the haze of exhaustion covering her mind, Kaede collapsed a second time as her small, trembling body curled up and began to sob in the Princess' arms.

"It's alright..."

Sylviane continued her strokes while repeating the same calming words for minutes, dozens of minutes, until the smaller girl relaxed once again.

Even at its end, when Kaede left the cabin feeling indescribably confused, she still couldn't figure out just what exactly Sylviane was trying to do.

Was she merely punishing me for impudence? Or was she just asserting dominance again?

But if either of those was the case, Sylviane had hardly needed to spend much effort comforting her. Not to mention there was something else in the Princess' gaze -- something she couldn't figure out at the time.

The only thing apparent was that Kaede had to be careful when joining Sylviane in the future, especially when Pascal wasn't around.


...


Later that night, Cecylia decided she had to pay Sylviane another visit, complete with her reflection at the day's events:

"You sure toed the line today with that sadistic habi--"

"I am not sadistic!"

The frowning rebuttal came immediately, prompting Cecylia to give her friend a tilted, knowing look:

"You enjoy making cute girls cry."

The Princess almost rolled her eyes with a "whatever" expression.

However this time, Cecylia didn't just back off. She had stayed neutral earlier. In hindsight, it could have resulted in disaster.

"You know I don't usually involve myself in other people's affairs, Sylv," she began. "But... be careful with that habit of yours. The poor girl is already having a rough time; Pascal won't overlook it if you bully her maliciously, you know?"

Reluctantly, Sylviane returned her gaze.

Then, she sighed as she fell back onto her bed.

"I know... and you're right..."

Her deflated expression continued to gather gloom as her voice dropped to a mutter:

"It's not fair. He's my fiancé, yet she's the girl who spends every hour closer to him."

Cecylia couldn't help but break a smile. It was nice to remember at times that as tough as Sylviane often seemed, she was still just a girl.

In a way, Emperor Geoffroi was a genius to arrange such a political marriage -- one that actually left his daughter smitten and... unfortunately, jealous.

But that was also its one downside: jealousy was dangerous, especially in the hands of those used to wielding power. Worse yet, Sylviane was no stranger to moodiness brought by envy -- which Cecylia had found apparent since their first meeting.

It was something Cecylia had to moderate, not only for the Princess but also for her own sake. After all, she was a childhood friend of Pascal's. It only took one misunderstanding to fall on the wrong end of royal malice.

"Hate to break it to you Sylv, but you'll be a ruler, and he'll be a general," she calmly noted in her soothing soprano. "Your time together will always be limited... and like all men pressed into stressful situations, he'll be lonely from time to time; certainly on those long, difficult campaigns..."

"B-but that's high treason! To cheat on his sovereign! I could have his head for that!"

Sylviane returned a scandalized look, which only made Cecylia's smile soften more. The Princess was often terrible at being honest with herself. Cecylia could hardly imagine Sylviane ever bringing herself to seriously harm Pascal in any way. Besides...

"Yes, you could. But would you? Brilliant commanders don't come easily to begin with, especially one that you can politically trust beyond any doubt."

Cecylia then moved over to take up the Princess' hands in her own. There was a certain art to voicing disagreement -- the trick was to leave no doubts that one was on their side.

"I'm not saying Pascal will be unfaithful to you. But he is a man. From that perspective, wouldn't it be better to leave him in the care of a mistress you can control and trust, than risk some possible outsider whom you can't even predict?"

"That's what I'm working on, as you suggested. I was just... carried away," Sylviane fell to a mumble.

"Sure," Cecylia agreed. "You need to take it a lot slower -- come to know her better, give her some deserving compliments, develop a stronger bond before you work her into this kind of thing. Had you crossed the line today, not only would you be committing a grave sin, but she might never be able to trust you."

With another exhale, the Princess slowly nodded.

It wasn't rare for Sylviane to fall depressed. In fact, it was her most earnest way of expressing "I screwed up".

"She's definitely a submissive though," the dhampir smiled again after a few seconds' pause, trying to cheer her friend back up. "It was even more glaringly obvious than my time with her."

"...That tearful look when she couldn't stop shivering was so cute..."

Sylviane smirked a little in response, before their eyes met again:

"Thanks for the tips from before."

"What are friends for?" Cecylia rhymed back, before the two of them started giggling again like normal girls their age.


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


Gabriel Gautier de Gaetane, Duke of Auxerre and brother of the Rhin-Lotharingie Emperor -- which made him Sylviane's uncle -- still knelt in prayer before the Cross of Holy Hyperion when the gates to the stone chapel opened. Through it one could see the dozens of banners flying outside, where an entire army encamped in the fields surrounding the rural Lotharin town.

In walked three figures hooded and cloaked. Their footsteps clinked with the telltale sounds of heavy plate underneath, interrupted only by the sound of oak doors slamming shut behind them.

With his 'trusted allies' already assembled within the chapel, the Duke had instructed his armigers to keep all disturbances out... all except his anticipated guests.

Time to kiss up to my 'benefactors', he scoffed in silence.

Everyone had a natural talent, and playing to people's favor was Gabriel's. In the north, his people loved him; his vassals loved him. The only ones who didn't was the phoenix he hoped to summon and the wife he married...

Thankfully for his image, she was a diligent actress herself. Gabriel was certain she knew the truth since their wedding night, but she tried so hard to pretend -- in front of him, the family, the world.

She was a faithful woman who stayed true to the scriptures. But the Holy Father... the Father had abandoned her, alongside with him.

"Your armies are quite a sight, Your Grace," said the leading knight before taking off his hood, revealing a square-faced man just beyond his prime with blond hair, full mustache, and a well-trimmed beard.

Meanwhile, Gabriel slowly turned around as he stood up to his modest height.

"Fifty thousand strong," he replied through a handsome smile and confidence worthy of a true zealot. "But they are not mine -- it is the Holy Father's will they follow! And among us stand many other lords who share our just and righteous cause."

So righteous, in fact, that we're plotting to murder my own brother, the Emperor they all swore before Holy Father to obey... his thoughts ran with biting sarcasm.

Dozens of bowed heads nodded along respectfully from both sides of the room. Here within the sanctity of the chapel, they paid their homage in silence to the authority of the Holy Church.

The knight scanned through them with approval before declaring in a much heavier monotone:

"But you speak for them. Just as you spoke to them. It was you who brought them from this godless realm, back to the grace of the Holy Father."

Gabriel wondered if the knight commander merely upheld the formalities or if he was actually this stiff all the time. Maybe it was part of the Inquisition's arsenal -- to slowly bore their victims to a screaming frenzy.

Sad part is that I have to play along; at least until...

With open arms the Duke bowed deeply, enough for his torso to form a right angle to his long legs:

"I am the Holy Father's humble servant first and foremost. It is our solemn duty as true believers to bring his love back to the people."

Love enough to start a civil war while being invaded; love to send thousands to their graves...

The irony of his own words was not lost on him. The fact he could speak such blasphemy before the sanctity of the altar only reinforced his cynicism that the Holy Father cared not at all.

Only the clinking echo of steel interrupted the silence that followed as the knight strode forth.

Then, just three paces away, he stopped. Meeting Gabriel in a leveled gaze, his eyes revealed a thin halo of gold surrounding the cerulean iris -- the blessing of a Knight Templar, sworn in service to the Holy Church.

More precisely, they were the paramilitary arm of the Papal Inquisition. Except the 'Papal' name was becoming questionable: they had grown powerful enough that even the Holy See often had trouble commanding them.

"In the name of His Holiness the Pope, please kneel, Your Grace," the templar beckoned.

Duke Gabriel gracefully lowered himself onto one knee without a moment of hesitance. Before the messenger of the Trinitian Church, he could not afford to show even the slightest doubt... for otherwise his piety would prove insufficient to be the Holy Father's chosen, the savior of the realm.

...Or so he would like them to think.

He bowed his head in reverence as the knight opened the cloak to pull out a glistening sword.

"By the powers invested in me by His Holiness Pope Vigilius..."

Gabriel felt the cold, deadly steel lay flat against the back of his exposed neck. Only by prostrating one's life before the mercy of the Holy Father could true devotion be proven.

"--I, Preceptor Caelestis of the Monastic Knightly Order of the Temples, hereby recognize Gabriel Gautier de Gaetane, Duke of Auxerre and Prince of Rhin-Lotharingie, as Defender of the Faith and, by the grace of the Holy Father, the rightful liege to the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie."

Withdrawing the blade from his neck, Caelestis then tapped the Duke's shoulders one after the other:

"May you deliver the realm from the apostasy of the false Emperor, Prince Gabriel."

How dare that heretic improve our laws, network our roads, and expand our borders...!

"In the name of the Holy Father, Noblesse Oblige," Gabriel answered the calling of his faith.

After sheathing his sword, Preceptor Caelestis pulled the entire scabbard from its straps. Then, he carefully laid it in the Duke's open palms.

It was a beautiful arming sword of untarnished white and gold. Straight and elegant, with two crosses on each side laid into a hilt of metallic feathers, stretching outwards like a pair of angelic wings.

The Sword of Fortitude -- one of the seven holy swords of virtue that belonged to the Trinitian Church of Holy Arcadia.

The excommunicated Emperor Geoffroi might still believe that his brother was marching south with fifty thousand reinforcements. But on this day, in this moment, Gabriel had baptized himself for a new life -- one armed with the sword of the 'just' and dedicated to a path of no return.

Forgive me, brother. But this is clearly the 'best' course for our nation, our people...

Gabriel prayed in silence as he stood back up to face the Preceptor. Drawing the sword from its sheath, he raised the cross before his eyes in a symbolic gesture of loyalty.

--And it is the Holy Father's will... apparently.

Maybe by the time this was over, the Church would canonize him as a Saint. He could be the patron of hypocrisy, defending the faith even onto death.

Sometimes Gabriel wondered if it would be better that he went to hell. Surely the Devil, as a rebel against the Holy Father, would be better company than the tyrannical hypocrite who lorded over them all.


...


Ultimately, Gabriel's pious seriousness lasted only as long as the audience remained.

"Is there a 'Flail of Fortitude' I could use instead?" he asked casually after the lords departed, flourishing the sword in his hands as he tested its balance.

"No."

"How about a 'Mace of Fortitude'? Or better yet -- a Morphic Blade of..."

"The virtues of our faith are not to be altered at will."

Caelestis' steep frown clearly took offense to Gabriel's carefree and playful emphasis. But the Duke paid no heed as he continued on:

"Yeah but don't you think the Holy Father is a little biased towards the Inner Sea folks? I mean does it have to be a sword? It's just a bit too... ornate."

"Swords are the embodiment of knightly grace and chivalric virtues."

"Yeah, just like a rose... enemies of the faith, feel my thorns!"

Gabriel swashed it with embellished waves before spinning around and bowing, as though presenting a flower to the knight commander.

"Great for the ladies, I'm sure," he flashed a perfect smile. "But we Lotharin nobles prefer something with a little more substance; a trusty flail for instance -- flanks shields and bashes steel."

He stopped just short of mentioning that the Lotharins also adopted their shield-and-flail style to rebel against Imperial legionaries, who relied upon their steel mail and towering shields.

Judging by the twitching brows, Gabriel was certain that the Preceptor already regretted naming him Defender of the Faith.

Thought I'd be an obedient puppet of your holy worshipfulness? Too bad... and too late.


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


Jarl Asgeirr Vintersvend scratched his gray beard as his icy-blue gaze stared unblinking through the glass windows.

Shaped from a single rock column and reinforced by steel, the Air Docking Tower laid at the corner of a V-shaped cliff that rose twenty-stories from the shores below. From its control room at the top, Asgeirr should have been able to see the waves for kilopaces around...

Instead he could barely make out Polarlys' bulwark-like head in the dense icy fog.

His skywhale 'flagship' was moored below, tethered to the tower alongside three others. They were also asleep -- their first rest in three days' time. Meanwhile, the dockhands took this opportunity to move one wheelbarrow after another of supplies on-board; at least, that was what they should be doing.

"Welcome back to civilization, Asgeirr."

The aging man with a perpetual frown never bothered to turn around. Even after ten years, he still recognized the gruff voice of his older half-brother and one-time liege: Jarl Eyvindur Sigmundsen of Kattegen.

Asgeirr soon felt the hard muscles of a powerful arm reach around his bony shoulders. They wasted no time before pulling him into a warm, familial embrace.

"Cold as ever," Eyvindur chuckled before releasing his brother. He then turned about to gaze out the same window, though his arm continued to hang around the other's shoulders.

"Still upholding your name as our Admiral Winter?"

"They call me Admiral Winter because winter comes with me, not for my interest in meaningless banter," Asgeirr corrected him. "It's stupid how the southerners consider us 'uncivilized barbarians', then we turn right around and call the frontier tribesmen that."

Yet despite his sour words, his older brother's grin soon lit up like the sun. Asgeirr didn't even have to face him to feel its radiating warmth.

"Isn't that why we call it the 'frontier'?"

"And the frontier is where we belong," said the younger. "Settling wildlands and recovering realms the dragonlords once held, not back here squabbling over strips of dirt."

The Hyperboreans of Skagen excelled at seamanship above all other peoples. Here boys learned to swim before they could even walk, to knot a rope before they could truly talk. Saltwater was the grass of their prairie, with trimaran hulls in place of saddles and steeds.

...Except for those who rode in the skies, of course.

Not that the difference was huge: the storms rocked the same, just replaced waves with clouds.

"Hey, I didn't vote for this war," Eyvindur countered. "In fact, we never voted at all. Those idiots in the south decided to mobilize on their own, and before we could force an edict on them the Wickers struck first. What were we suppose to do? Drink and cheer while those heathens trod over the last of our people on the continent?"

Asgeirr didn't bother answering, and Eyvindur took a moment's silence to calm back down.

"Hyperboreans never abandon their brothers, no matter what. You know that better than anyone. Out in the frontier, our ways are all you can depend on," Eyvindur reasoned. "Västergötland took a thrashing and lost their fleet during their fall campaign, yet they didn't hesitate for even a half-day before issuing a call to arms when the Wickers invaded."

"Their fault in the first place," Asgeirr retorted with contempt. "Were it not for their marauders and adventurer scum, we'd have hammered out a treaty with Weichsel centuries ago!"

It wasn't entirely fair. The southerners' own prejudices were also to blame; they often neglected to even bother differentiating between the Hyperboreans.

"And were it not for their warriors, the Imps would have kicked us off the continent even longer ago."

The burly Eyvindur then slowly shook his head:

"Pointless 'what ifs' better left to historians. We are what we are -- different, but united by our honor, the dragons' honor. Those Trinitians can call us barbaric all they like, but if that's what it takes to not degenerate into a bunch of scheming, backstabbing, morally-depraved mongrels, then I'll gladly remain a 'barbarian'."

"Hmph."

Asgeirr grunted as he eyed the silhouette of a volcanic drake in the fog. The armored beast belonged to the lead rider of Polarlys' on-duty 'combat air patrol'. Except given the need to hide the skywhales' presence, they were kept on reserve atop Polarlys' blocky head instead.

"We'll see who the barbarians are when we rain fire and ice upon them."

"Don't forget the acid," chuckled his companion in good humor. "Fire is in our hearts and ice is in our blood. But acid rain, that's your trademark! Should of named you Admiral Vinegar instead. Cool and sour!"

Asgeirr exhaled sharply. It was as close to a snort as he would get.

It was better to be 'sour' than bitter. Growing up, Eyvindur was the Jarldom's mighty heir, full of confident masculinity, while Asgeirr was the scholarly bastard mage. People flocked to see Eyvindur in action, while nobody even noticed him -- until he made a name for himself circumnavigating the world, single-handedly.

He had broken his brother's heart before departure, yet Eyvindur welcomed him back with open arms and a grand feast to spread his fame. Since then, Asgeirr vowed to himself that he would never betray blood again. So long as Eyvindur remained the leader of Skagen's confederate forces, he would fight alongside with the wrath of the Stormlord himself.

"Just make sure they don't notice," Asgeirr replied after a long pause. "Keeping the Frontier Fleet fogged up the entire way back already killed my men's mood. Hate to see it go to waste."

"Don't worry," the jolly Jarl reassured while patting Asgeirr's shoulder. "I handpicked every man in this tower right now. There's not a single one of them that I wouldn't trust with my life."

The Admiral simply nodded back.

"Two days till we meet up with the surface fleet. Then... where to?"

"You're asking me because you already have a goal, right?" the older brother noted warmly. "We're family. Out with it already."

Asgeirr took a deep breath. He had thought long and deep about this on the way back.

For over a millennium the Southerners kept encroaching upon the north. His people fought back with the tenacity of stone. But against the wealth of the Trinitian heathens, it was like a mountain watching the sea grow.

But even the ocean was not unstoppable. It needed surface to consume. Without that, without a coastline, its waters would plunge straight into the Abyss.

"Get me and my whales to the Nordkreuz ley-line junction. I will scorch the earth into a wasteland where nothing will ever grow again to threaten our south!"



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