Daybreak:Volume 2 Chapter 11
Chapter 11 - Vacant Choice
Pascal smiled stiffly at the mirror as he adjusted the Knight's Cross he wore below the collar, now set atop a four-pointed starburst in white gold. Brand new rank insignia also adorned the crimson padding on his shoulders -- a silver star laid between two stripes, identifying him as a Major in the Weichsel army.
Staring at his own reflection, he raised his hand in a solemn military salute.
Father if only you could see me now...
Pascal twisted his lips as his hand came back down. Honors and promotions simply didn't feel as meaningful as before, not even when von Manteuffel -- stone-faced as always -- had pinned it onto him in front of over a thousand men. In fact, Pascal had stood through the entire evening ceremony feeling somewhat apathetic, as though something was just... missing.
It was as though a hole in space had drained the colors away, and not even Sylviane's proud smile could patch it up.
Staring at his image, Pascal began undoing the buttons on his uniform shirt as he prepared for bed.
His eyes then fell upon a small box. Kaede had passed out from fatigue by the time of the evening ceremony, so Pascal had received its contents in her stead. After everything that happened, he didn't have the heart to drag her to an event that she so strongly resented.
Which was kind of a shame...
Down to his trunks, Pascal draped his uniform neatly over a chair before doing the same to Kaede's. The girl had a tendency to just leave her clothing strewn over the bedcovers. Thankfully her undergarments were self-cleaning, otherwise he'd probably have to remove them from his pillow on a daily basis.
Why am I doing servants' work...?
But any desire to sigh was immediately forgotten as Kaede muttered in her sleep:
Her wispy words were trembling. The small girl was curled up under the comforter with only her face exposed. Meanwhile Pascal could see the faint perspiration rolling down her pale forehead as she turned about in her sleep with hastened breaths.
Another nightmare... he thought in sympathy.
Pulling back the comforter, Pascal laid down next to her in the double bed. He then draped one arm over her side as he gently stroked the silky hair at the back of her head.
"It is just a dream, you are safe here..." he whispered slowly, again and again.
It took only three strokes before her faint shivering stopped.
After another minute, and her breath calmed back to a tranquil waft as well.
Her expression grew peaceful again, except for the worsening shadow under her eyes.
It really has been hard on you... Pascal exhaled as he gestured the lights off.
He kept stroking her hair until he fell asleep. For a mere history student he had forced into military life, helping sooth her sleep was the least he could do.
Kaede groaned as she turned in the bedcovers, away from the rays of light pouring through the small window. That was the best she had slept all week, through the whole night no less. Why couldn't the sun be a little more understanding?
Enveloped by a fuzzy warmth, she snuggled against the bed in a stubborn attempt to retain her happiness.
...Except her small nose came across something smooth but firm -- certainly not a pillow.
Her hand crept upwards under the covers, feeling the extra weight over her shoulder but ignoring it, until she found the surface of what seemed like a rough palm.
Kaede's eyes snapped open. Sure enough, Pascal's left hand was right in front of her face, palm down and thumbnail just under her nose.
...Which meant the weight on her shoulders was the rest of his arm, and that comforting warmth behind her...
Why did... you said you wouldn't touch me without asking!
She wasn't really alarmed, just... startled. His hand was wayyyy too close for comfort, even putting aside the conservative nature of her Russian and Japanese cultural upbringing. Sure, Pascal had done this once before, but that was one time and he had asked with special circumstances!
Kaede shifted back reflexively, right into the rest of Pascal's body.
That only made it worse, far worse. She was certain he was now spooning her, judging from the contact on her back. But that wasn't even the part that shocked her eyes wide open...
...Something hard had pressed into her butt. More like jabbed, since it felt more like a stiff baton.
Kaede froze on the spot as her breath halted. She could feel her cheeks catching on fire.
Unlike proper girls who at least had some naivety to shield them from the surprise, she knew exactly what that was.
She rolled back the other way and flipped his arm off of her at the same time.
"Wake up!" she cried out as soon as Pascal's golden soft curls came into sight.
The lazy eyes that lifted were rather grumpy. Meanwhile Pascal flexed his left arm and shrugged its stiff joints before focusing upon her.
"What did I do to deserve abuse this early in the day?"
"W-what were you doing in my sleep!?" Kaede cried back.
Pascal paused for several moments to think back, but his stare never left her gaze.
"You were having a nightmare," he stated simply.
"That doesn't--!" her incensed momentum carried on a bit further before deflating into the air like a runaway balloon. "...Oh..."
Kaede's cheeks were glowing red as her eyes shifted away towards the ceiling.
I didn't ask for that...
It was so embarrassing to think about. But at the same time... it was true that she slept unusually well last night.
Nonono. I was just really darn tired. Nothing to do with...
Kaede sighed. Ignoring what she didn't want to think about was one thing. But being fallacious towards herself when she did ponder over it? Not her forte at all.
Okay he did help with the nightmare, probably...
She snuck a peek at Pascal's lazy turquoise eyes before glancing away again, her face still burning.
"T-thank you... I guess," she muttered. "You might want to do something about that down there."
"Kind of hard when you are in my bed. Taking care of it hardly seems appropriate," Pascal sighed as he began to sit up, dragging a tiny tent across the bedcovers as he did.
Kaede almost snorted back. Her countenance was still flushed, but she couldn't resist the temptation to return a little cheek this time:
"So... you haven't masturbated at all since I came here?"
She actually felt really sorry for him. It was one of those common urges that she welcomed not having a ton of in her current body; not yet, at any rate.
Back in the other world, he had always felt bad after getting it out of the way. It supposedly had something to do with the decrease in testosterone levels... or was it the social stigma?
Either way, Kaede suspected that as a subspecies, Samarans had far less of a sex drive than average humans. It would certainly explain their low population growth over the centuries, despite their innate healthcare and a policy of staying out of foreign wars. Furthermore, as devotees of the reincarnation cycle, abandoning pleasures of the flesh was a necessary step on the path to enlightenment.
...Assuming their faith paralleled Earth equivalents anyway. Kaede had yet to confirm any details, since 'sacrilegious' evangelical writings were banned from Weichsel by the Heresy Laws.
Meanwhile, Pascal raised one eyebrow in mild surprise as he turned towards her:
"Sometimes I forget that you were male once also..." Then, with a faint smirk: "do you want me to do it while watching your cute little sleeping face? Or perhaps you would like to help? You do have the equipment now."
The first question sent an uneasy shiver back up her spine, while the second reignited her embarrassment altogether into a wildfire.
Kaede pulled up the bedcovers and buried her entire face under it this time, all the while retorting:
"You pedophile! Total pervert!"
"Only two years between us," came the matter-of-fact answer. "And if you were a boy once, you know exactly how our urges work."
Kaede was thinking more of the twenty-eight centimeters (11") height difference between them and the fact she looked barely sixteen. Meanwhile Pascal was almost twenty and appeared even older with his mature expressions and ever-composed demeanor.
Thank heavens for his self-control though, she thought. Somewhat impressed even, if she was frank about it, since he had been sleeping with a girl in the same bed for weeks and never once touched her inappropriately.
"Have you ever done it? As a man?" she heard him ask nonchalantly, as though talking about the weather.
"W-what? Uh... no?" she peeked back out from the comforter.
"Have you ever courted a girl then?" Pascal turned towards her with an amused, lopsided smile.
What kind of weird pillow talk is this? Kaede thought.
Was he trying to discuss as though between two men? Despite the body she inhabited now and the fact he still had a hard on while sharing the same bed? The conversation was beyond awkward by any normal measure, but Pascal himself hardly even seemed to care.
"Once," she replied. It wasn't an experience she really wanted to talk about. "What about you? Have you ever done it?"
She mostly just wanted to change the topic, but part of her was curious.
"Father made sure I had a chance when I hit puberty," Pascal half-chuckled. "He just came back with a courtesan one day and said that if I did not experience it early, youthful fantasies would just blow it out of proportions. Then, being a highborn, I would be in danger of far worse sins than sex without matrimony..."
Wouldn't be the first noble brat to force a maidservant down...
"--He also taught me how to cast a contraception spell around then, just so you know," his eyebrows shot up suggestively, "if you ever felt the need badly enough."
"Get-on-with-it before I hit you," Kaede retorted sharply while her cheeks continued to glow.
For a moment Pascal looked like he was about to snicker. Then:
"What can I say? It was not as hyped up to be..." he shrugged. "The act itself was pleasurable, sure. But the woman was dumb as a cow. Felt like my brain cells were dying just by laying next to her."
By itself, sexual activity satisfied only a physical urge. The endorphins it produced did help emotional needs, but that really needed an established relationship for it to be more than short-lived. However, for Pascal who coveted an intellectual companion he could respect above all else, mere acts of lust weren't even close to enough. Unfortunately, the girls whom he could respect were also the ones his attitude annoyed most.
Your father knew you too well.
Kaede was quite impressed. Not many parents knew how to deal with their kids' puberty. In fact, most of them lost touch with their own past and began idealizing... as though youth and hormones had anything to do with wisdom and logic.
"So not a big fan huh? Most guys your age would disagree on that." Then she hurriedly added: "as far as social trends go."
She did not need Pascal to group her under that category.
"Most males my age also behave with hardly any more intelligence than beasts," Pascal commented without care. "If the defining goal of their youth is to lust after girls through a physical urge to mate, then how does that make them any better than animals in heat?"
Kaede couldn't help but let off a half-snort chuckle. Even without an acidic intonation, his choice of words made his disdain clear. Yet at the same time... this was the man whose summoning spell had turned her into a girl.
News flash: hypocrisy still omnipresent as ever.
"--But just so you know, it does not mean that I have no interest at all," he continued with an odd glint in his eyes that made her a little nervous. "Though I can certainly wait for a proper relationship, like being married. Until then, dealing with bodily urges is a matter of mere maintenance -- no different from eating or using the chamber pot. I have no need for hormone-induced drama to derail my life."
"Though you came pretty close when you summoned me..."
Pascal's gaze narrowed immediately, which made Kaede grin a little before nodding lightly and continuing:
"--But I can agree with that."
She certainly did not need her life on Hyperion any more awkward than it already was.
"Speaking of life interests..."
Pascal turned to stand up from the bed. His trunks were mostly flat at this point, although his shirtless, muscular chest still proved quite a distraction. He then walked over to his work desk before fetching a black velvet box.
"Here is your Knight's Cross from the King."
He opened the container to display the gleaming black-and-white medal, with two rank insignias also pinned against the lid.
"He also gave you an Honorary Junior Lieutenant rank, since the Knight's Cross is meant to be a military medal," Pascal explained as he leaned back against the desk, smiling with pride and approval.
Meanwhile Kaede had the exact opposite reaction, as images of just what she did to earn that honor flew through her head once more.
"I'm not sure I really want a military rank," she frowned. "I mean... helping you is one thing. But this army work... I'm really not cut out for it."
Pascal's lips went flat in an instant. As displeasure and disappointment ran through his narrowed eyes, Kaede looked back down and braced herself for a tirade.
But as the moments passed, all he gave was a heavy sigh.
"We would have a problem if most people enjoyed war and blood," Pascal reasoned. "It is a duty and a obligation, as the Holy Father gave us our skills and backgrounds for a purpose. The commoners might fantasize about silly notions of individual freedom, but if everyone simply acted as they desired... where do you think our world would be?"
Kaede generally agreed with that view. As someone who grew up in Trans-Ural Siberia and later Japan, she adhered to the socially conservative Eastern philosophy far more than its liberal, Western counterpart. The freedom of choice might have a nice ring that appealed to the masses, but 'duty' should always take the highest spot of consideration when assessing that 'choice'.
After all, every person had an obligation to protect their family, to uphold order in society, and to maintain the prosperity of the human race itself. Because without civil stability, the happiness of individuals was merely an illusion, one that could vanish into thin air at any time.
The Dissolution of the Soviet Union and its aftermath had taught all Russians a hard lesson. Western calls for freedom and reforms were cheap; the price paid -- when economies collapsed and paychecks vanished and families starved -- was often far too heavy.
But even then, there are limits to what can be expected of individuals. Besides...
"Weichsel isn't my home country." she ended up retorting first.
"You are living here, are you not? If Weichsel falls to chaos and ruin, would you not be affected?" Pascal sternly asked. Then, before she could interject: "I know -- it is my fault that you are here, and I certainly will not force you to take this role if you tell me you would rather stay back at the estate."
Though you will patronize me like some disappointed parent, she thought, which was exactly what his downcast eyes were already doing.
"I didn't say that I wouldn't stay." Kaede muttered before conviction recharged her voice: "I promised that I would be your familiar and your family, remember? But following you into combat and being part of Weichsel's army are two different things."
Pascal sighed once more. There was even some relief in it this time.
"It is just an honorary rank. It does not mean you are actually an officer of the army -- that would be far too generous of a promotion. It only means you are to be recognized and respected as one. You still have neither authority nor responsibilities, not that it stopped you from ordering a Captain around during battle," he smiled again at last.
Kaede nodded back with pursed lips before stretching out her fingers and accepting the box from him. Pragmatically, she knew it was the right decision. It would certainly help her standing by tons.
But... that didn't make her conscience feel any better.
"Have you spoken to Captain von Lichnowsky since the battle?" Pascal asked.
"Not yet," she mumbled back. Not that easy when I'm the one at fault for her getting crippled.
"You really should," he suggested as he began putting on his shirt. "She could probably help you with your troubles. More than I can, at any rate."
Pascal then turned back towards her with a curious gaze:
"I am surprised this is bothering you even more than being a girl."
"Have I broken three of your ribs and knocked out two of your teeth over this?"
"No," his head bobbled slightly in consideration. "But it feels like you are complaining about it a great deal more."
"I didn't have a choice over what my body is. I 'sort of' have a choice over this," Kaede grumbled back.
"I did not choose to be a man, or born into a military family as the son of a hero, or be betrothed for marriage into another country," Pascal shrugged as he looked back to the mirror. "Well, look where I am today."
By the time they had finally stopped chatting and finished dressing, Sylviane had arrived to drag Pascal out of his cabin:
"You've been doing nothing but paperwork, mapwork, and mouthwork the past few days. Stop staying in one place or you'll get fat."
"Does Your Highness not have anything better to do than pestering me first thing in the morning?" he grumbled aloud.
"I am neither in charge of this army nor working with the ministers in Alis Avern," the Princess noted the Rhin-Lotharingie Capital. "There's only so much for me to do while we are camped here. Besides, since you're my fiancé, it's part of your job to walk around with me and show the world how close we are."
She was correct enough that Pascal couldn't argue against it, so he simply stood against the mirror to fix his image.
"One hour then," he declared. "I have new intelligence reports to dig through," Then, with a grin: "meanwhile, Kaede could amuse us with her courtship experiences in the other world."
The familiar girl, who had been carefully eying the Princess while avoiding her gaze until now, suddenly turned towards Pascal with an outraged glare.
"What? I told you my stories, did I not?" he smirked back. "Fair trade is fair."
"So she asked you first?"
Pascal's response was slightly surprised. A bit impressed even, if Kaede wasn't mistaken about the tone.
"Yes," she nodded back as the trio stepped out of his cabin. "It's not as common as the other way around in my culture either, but it happens."
Under the clear winter skies, they began a casual stroll around the fortified encampment outside the city -- extending right up to Nordkapp's shattered gate. The day was still early enough that most troopers not on duty were just starting to emerge from their cabins.
After all, 1st Echelon was still on rest and recuperation time after a week-long offensive and one bloody battle. Although they'd been strictly banned from entering the city without permission -- to keep any outbreak of violence from harming either side.
"It's actually not that rare in our world, at least for the nobility," Sylviane commented neutrally from Pascal's other side, always sure to make eye contact when she spoke. "But when a lady is the initiator of the courtship, she tends to be very picky about the qualities of the man."
Kaede's mouth felt dry as it formed a faint scowl. If Sylviane was trying to offer a mild compliment, it had the exact opposite effect.
"Did you agree?" Pascal asked.
"Eh... I didn't really know her well. But I figured since I was in high school and a romantic relationship was lauded as like -- the ideal school life -- why not?"
She had to take a moment and explain what modern standardized education was to the Princess. For a brief moment, Kaede thought Sylviane's fascinated look might change the topic, which would have suited her just fine.
Unfortunately, the Princess suppressed the urge and returned to her attentive smile:
"How did the courtship go?"
"We dated for about two weeks before she dumped me," Kaede shrugged.
"Well that was fast," Pascal piped in.
A stare from his familiar then made Pascal look back innocently:
"I never said most girls in teen years are any less retarded than most boys. That goes doubly so for commoners."
Are you trying to console me or insult me? Kaede thought as her gaze hardened into an outright glare. "You're not even twenty yet yourself."
"I do not belong under 'most teens'," Pascal countered as his drawling haughtiness returned in full, which then fell aside as he hurriedly added: "nor did I say you do."
Your compliments suck.
"Did she explain why?"
It was the Princess who finally derailed them back towards some semblance of maturity.
"Apparently I'm not manly enough," Kaede shrugged, trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice. "She said since I studied martial arts, had excellent grades -- academics, good friends, and knew what I wanted to do for life while still in school, I seemed like a pretty mature guy. Then she accuses me of being uncompetitive, unambitious, indecisive and introverted..."
As her thoughts grew more and more agitated, the acidity slowly crept into her tone and words.
"--Basically she had the delusional fantasy in her head that I was some kind of alpha male figure when I'm not. Reality is such a disappointment."
"You do fit a girl pretty well though," Pascal commented in a matter-of-fact tone.
"Geez, how nice of you!" Kaede's fake gratitude rose another pitch, only to make her sound even more girlish. "Now can we please get off the topic before I reward your kindness with a fresh stabbing?"
On the other side, Sylviane giggled silently in response. But as rose quartz met wisteria eyes, the Princess gave her a gentle smile:
"The best traits of men are courage, vision, and leadership. I would say that your recent actions prove two of those qualities just fine."
Kaede blinked several times as she ran those words through her mind a second time. For Sylviane to acknowledge her with such directness... she almost wondered if her senses had gone delusional.
"I... uh... thanks," she stammered back. "It was a pretty desperate situation, so I kind of jumped in..."
"That is what courage is -- decisiveness in the face of absolute necessity," Pascal interjected, albeit rather neutrally. "Had you done that any other time, it would have been purely imbecilic..."
He almost snorted the air out of his nose before continuing:
"The only difference between a hero and a fool is that the hero was lucky enough to succeed. Only morons would gamble on that in anything but utter desperation. I do hope my familiar will not do so unnecessarily in the future."
"Do I look like a moron to you?" Kaede glared back. "I certainly don't plan on jumping in front of oversized swords again anytime soon."
Pascal's single response was almost cheerful as he sped up his pace, and it took Kaede a moment before she could figured it out:
Can't you just say you were worried about me?
----- * * * -----
Ariadne grinned proudly as Cecylia admired the engagement ring on her finger. The size of the gem itself was quite modest, with her birthstone -- a sapphire -- held inside a magically grown diamond. The two tiny pegasus wings in platinum that hovered around the centerpiece had also been intricately detailed, not to mention the layers of protective enchantments...
"I'm a bit surprised he proposed now, though -- middle of a campaign and all," the dhampir girl wondered aloud.
Standing at the edge of the encampment, Ariadne was supposed to be overlooking the Ghost Riders as Colonel von Hammerstein put them through a chaotic mock melee exercise.
Except when Cecylia demanded someone's attention, she usually received it.
"Parzifal said he had wanted to propose before we marched off to war, except Operation White Typhoon sped everything up," Ariadne smiled sweetly. "He ended up proposing in front of the entire company last night, just after we left the ceremony."
"With the customizations on this ring, he had certainly been preparing for a while," Cecylia commented as she looked back up. She then whispered in a cat-like grin: "Sooo... have you two done it yet?"
The look Ariadne sent back was a mix of a scandalized 'really?' and a scowling 'you-should-know-better'.
"What? You're properly engaged now. It's technically considered acceptable."
"Would you like to ask Parzifal on how well that 'technically' holds up against the Holy Scriptures?" Ariadne asked in her angelic voice, totally unfazed.
"Pass," the smaller girl waved it off. "Too early in the day for a sermon. Although..." her eyes quickly spun around with a fresh idea, "might be worth it just to see his cheeks glow."
At that moment, Ariadne spotted Pascal coming around the corner, flanked by Sylviane and Kaede. With the addition of a new medal and insignia, the familiar girl's outfit became even harder to discern from Weichsel military uniforms at a distance. Only a lack of crimson shoulder padding and the solid black stockings under her non-standard short skirt gave it away.
Reacting even more swiftly, Cecylia pulled Ariadne's left hand up and waved it backwards towards the newcomers, almost bouncing up and down as she called out:
"Hey Pascal! Check it out!"
The excitement had apparently reduced Cecylia's refined aristocratic poise -- at least in public -- to the mannerisms of an adolescent maiden.
Her lively cry even caught the attention of quite a few soldiers in the combat drill, many of whom soon took a beating from their better focused opponents.
"I actually heard the news last night," Pascal grinned as he steadily walked up. "Congratulations are in order, Ariadne."
Had Ariadne lacked a disciplined mask of perfection, her eyes would have narrowed as she took a moment to assess the Runelord's sincerity. It was hard to tell at times, since he always seemed to shadow any smile with a smirk.
But this time, there was neither sarcasm nor contempt. The insufferable prat had truly meant it for once.
"Thank you," Ariadne replied with gracious serenity, followed swiftly by a deep curtsy towards the Princess of Rhin-Lotharingie.
She didn't say anything though. Proper nobles did not talk directly to royalty without an introduction, even if she was the daughter of a Margrave, which in Weichsel meant a Duke in charge of a militarized coastal frontier.
But if nothing else, the Runelord at least knew basic manners:
"Sylviane, may I introduce Lady Ariadne Charlotte von Zimmer-Manteuffel, daughter to the Margrave of Saale-Holzland. She is General von Manteuffel's second cousin, once removed."
"It is a pleasure to meet you," nodded the Princess. "I have heard many things about you, Milady, and I'm grateful for your help in keeping my fiancé alive."
Sylviane was smiling, except it was somewhat cold and forced. She tried to hide its imperfections, but to someone with Ariadne's social expertise, the emotions behind them were quite readily apparent.
Grateful or not, the Princess clearly did not like her one bit.
No doubt because of that self-centered prick, Ariadne swiftly concluded.
"There is no need, Your Highness. As an officer of Weichsel, it is my duty to uphold the safety of our countries' alliance," she replied with her most courteous smile and a light bow.
It might take her longer thanks to that prick of an obstacle, but there was more than one way to earn someone's respect. Ariadne always believed that impeccable professionalism was every bit as potent as individual charm.
But for now, Sylviane merely nodded back coolly.
"My congratulations on your engagement as well."
Her Highness' words were soon mirrored by Kaede's, except with far more apparent enthusiasm.
Ariadne replied warmly to each of them, but Sylviane didn't wait a second longer to break eye contact as she turned towards Pascal with a frown:
"How come I never received an engagement ring from you?"
"Because your father was the one who proposed our betrothal, not me," Pascal stated simply.
Ariadne had to stop herself from grinning as the Princess sighed softly.
To tell your fiancé like that... you're every bit the prick you were two years ago.
"You were so much cuter as a kid," Sylviane complained aloud before turning away.
For a second, Pascal looked like he was about to retort, only to close his opened mouth as he sent Kaede a brief glance.
The familiar girl had apparently told her master to shut up, before his foot went any further into his mouth.
"I thought the Ghost Riders already spent most of yesterday drilling?" Pascal went on to change the topic. "Your company was supposed to get some rest before returning to combat duty this afternoon."
"Tell the Colonel that," Ariadne shrugged as she turned back towards the exercise. "A few troopers actually complained about it this morning. Colonel von Hammerstein asked them if they'd rather be a little bruised and tired, or dead in the next major battle."
"That's putting it kindly," commented Cecylia. "If I overheard correctly, I believe his opening words were... you think this is kinderparty!? one tussle and you veggies think you're vets already?"
It was shocking how smoothly Cecylia transitioned from her natural, soothing soprano into a perfect imitation of von Hammerstein's loud, gruff voice. Even Ariadne, who knew of Cecylia's expertise with illusion magic quite well, found herself more than a bit startled.
"Good man," Pascal nodded approvingly once his own astonishment wore off. "It would not do a unit any good to praise them after just one success, not if they are to become elites."
Guess it takes a prick to know a prick.
But of course, Ariadne kept thoughts like that to herself.
To be fair, Sir Erwin von Hammerstein was an excellent commander. Ariadne admitted it; she even learned to follow his example. The men might complain every once a while, but she also knew perfectly well that few commanders were as lionized as the Colonel.
She just couldn't forgive how he had called her a man at their first meeting.
"Hey Major brat!" Colonel von Hammerstein then hollered from the other side. "Quit yer harem-building and let my second get back to work!"
This time, Ariadne wasn't the only girl who sent a glare back.
----- * * * -----
Kaede took another deep breathe as she held her knuckles up to the wooden door.
I've put this off for far too long already, she childed herself.
At first it was 'still morning' and the Captain could still be asleep. After that was lunchtime and not the best moment...
By the time she finally knocked on the cabin door, it was already halfway through the afternoon.
"Come in. It's unlocked," a lighthearted voice replied from deep inside the room.
Without further excuse for delay, Kaede pushed open the thick wooden door, stepped inside, and closed it behind her.
The room looked similar to Pascal's, except only half as large and its furnishings even more basic -- a simple bed, small writing desk, and a wooden chair.
Within the bed sat Captain Karen von Lichnowsky, her face paler than Kaede remembered despite the dim lighting inside the room. She wore only a simple white blouse. Her long, wavy red hair pooled to one side atop the bedsheets, partially obscuring the shoulder stump that was the only remainder of her right arm.
"Captain von Lichnowsky," Kaede nodded with a smile that was wry at best.
She tried not to stare, but her eyes kept sneaking glances at the missing arm with every blink.
"Kaede... Suvoro... Suvorsky, right? Feel free to take a seat."
Kaede nodded before pulling up the chair, while Karen grinned back:
"I only knew you as Captain von Moltewitz's familiar until after the battle. Eckhart, Sergeant Steinmetz was the one who first told me your name. You could've said something before the fight, seeing as that was the third time HQ attached you to our unit."
"I didn't have a formal military rank," Kaede shrugged. "So I didn't... uh, want to give the wrong impressions."
"Afraid we were going to think you were a camp whore following some privileged brat?"
Kaede colored a little as she glanced away.
"Yeah... pretty much," she exhaled out.
She had received enough stares of that particular variety during her few weeks at the Königsfeld Academy to last her a lifetime. But unfortunately for her, they hadn't ended there.
"I actually thought that myself," Karen admitted with a slight nod. "It didn't help that you didn't care to talk to any of us. Just come and go, straight back to your boy noble." Then, with an amused grin: "that impression lasted right up to when you jumped off the tower and started shouting orders at me."
"Yeah, sorry about that," Kaede looked down in embarrassment as she smiled a little herself this time.
"Don't be. Your Captain... Major now, I guess, came by to apologize for your fake orders himself. Well, that and the 'fight to the last' order he passed through you. But fake or not, it saved my men's lives."
"What's left of the company, anyway," Kaede muttered. Though a part of her was wondering: how come Pascal never said sorry to me for that?
Meanwhile, Captain von Lichnowsky sighed as her expression grew solemn:
"Eighteen others survived. I'll take that over a complete loss any day. And make no mistake; had we not pivoted to face them, they'd have plowed right through our position..."
Putting down the book she held in one hand, Karen pushed herself up a little further. Her long hair then reached out towards the nearby table and poured a cup of water. After bringing it over and passing it to her remaining hand, Karen took a deep gulp before continuing on:
"Those Reiters behind us may have a ton of firepower, but they're not trained soldiers. If they were charged before von Gottschall had the time to organize them, they would have collapsed right there, and the entire line with them. The Northmen aren't exactly in the habit of taking prisoners."
Kaede had heard about that from Cecylia. To the northerners, a warrior who lived in defeat forfeited their dignity as a human and therefore no longer deserved mercy. It was an honor, not an obligation, to spare a fallen foe. But few Northmen believed that honor extended to the southerners.
"I understand, and that's why I did it, and would do it again," Kaede declared firmly. "However, that doesn't excuse when I..."
She began to falter as a lump formed in her throat.
"--You saved my life... and I... I gave the enemy an opening to take off your arm."
She could still remember that moment perfectly, when the rimefire she aimed at the enemy splashed onto the Captain's forearm and wrist. Karen had lost her grip, and her opponent seized the opportunity to cleave off her entire arm from just below the shoulders.
Yet the next thing Kaede felt was her head being patted by something unusually soft. As she looked back up and met Karen's dark-green eyes, she found the Captain smiling while her long, red hair awkwardly patted her head.
It was a grim smile, but it nevertheless carried the serenity of acceptance.
"I never thought I'd ever see someone so stupid, just leaping over the only defensive obstacle we had and exposing her neck to Housecarl Zweihanders like that. Those things could have cut your skinny butt in half even without you helping!"
The smaller girl did managed to look abashed. It was the only thing I could think of that would actually help.
"But you gave us the warning. You helped us stop the charge. And you never looked back, not even when you passed along that death sentence of an order," the Captain went on. "I've always told my troops that only family will stand by and face death together."
"So whether 3rd company stays together or not, you're family to us now," Karen acknowledged her junior with a firm nod.
With a lopsided grin, she then repeated Kaede's own words:
"And that's why I did it, and would do it again."
"But..." Kaede tried to interject, almost desperate to claim some blame for herself.
"Don't tell me you have your master's ego and think half the world revolves around you," Karen half-joked with a chuckle. But her sternness soon returned: "You, are not responsible for my arm. A Northman took away my arm, because I couldn't fight him and win."
Those words left Kaede speechless.
It wasn't fair, how the Captain had put it. Karen couldn't be faulted for that. She had fought off so many others, and she could have stalemated that giant of a man too if not for Kaede's incompetent 'assist'.
"Besides..." von Lichnowsky continued, as though reading Kaede's mind. "My swordstaff was on the verge of breaking even before I lost my hold. If you hadn't been there, he'd have finished the job. Telling me sorry? I should be thanking you instead!"
Kaede returned another wry smile, feeling humbled by the woman before her. There was no way she herself could have taken the loss of a limb so well. She would have found someone to blame, someone to lash out at.
Yet here she was... the very person responsible, and Karen von Lichnowsky was trying to make her feel better.
So this... this is what a true Captain of men is like.
Nevertheless, there was no way anyone could simply shrug away the loss of an arm, to accept being crippled for the rest of their life without bitter tears. The Captain was a strong person, but Kaede could only guess at the lonely times when Karen wept silently to herself.
For a long minute, Kaede couldn't think of anything to say, and silence dragged on between them.
In the end, it was Karen who grinned with good humor and went on:
"Well, if you feel like you owe me something, you could ask your master to lend me some money to set up my new estate. Nordkreuz's wealth is pretty famous, being the trade junction of the north and all."
It was mostly a joke. But Kaede took it completely serious:
"I'll certainly do my best, Milady. And congratulations on your new Barony. I can't think of anyone who deserves it more."
By the time Kaede left the cabin, over three hours had passed. The Captain had been an excellent conversationalist, and kept Kaede quite entertained with stories of all the horseplay she had seen in daily military life. It was only the need for her to finish preparing that brought an end to their chat.
With a dragoon battalion arriving at dusk to take over the Nordkapp garrison, the 1st echelon planned to move out in the morning. After several days of recuperation, those crippled by combat would be teleported back to Weichsel through a string of jumps by the battalion's logistics Captain -- an experienced Wayfarer.
Karen was in the first group, scheduled to leave later tonight.
So Kaede had wasted no time before asking Pascal about funding for her savior.
Though to her surprise, he had agreed instantly:
"I will take care of it."
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