Daybreak:Volume 3 Chapter 15

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Chapter 15 - Breaking Point

"...The fisherman said he saw a fleet sailing up the Bay of Ceredigion," reported the signal officer. "He estimated at least a hundred ships. Based on his descriptions, they were mostly war galiots, xebec transports, and a few deep-water fluyts."

It was a cloudy afternoon on the day after. The makeshift assembly of commanders and nobles took place right beneath the forest canopy, with the army still on the march around them.

"That must be the naval force bringing twelve thousand reinforcements," Pascal remembered from Cecylia's intelligence report.

The Bay of Ceredigion separated the Ceredigion peninsula from the Avorican coasts. Its northern waters, near the mouth of the Gwilen River, was split in two by the island of Gwernenez.

According to Cecylia's intel, the Caliphate's reinforcements were mostly infantry. They should have sailed up the eastern passage to reinforce the siege at Roazhon. But instead, they were spotted heading towards the western side by locals...

"They're landing in Ceredigion, hoping to pincer us between their two armies," Duke Lionel declared while Major Hans nodded.

Pascal humphed. "Too late for that. We are already far enough inland that the best they can do is meet up with their cavalry force. On a road this narrow, all that would do is further strain their logistics."

Although a combined force of twenty-seven thousand is more men than the entire Ceredigion army, his concerns stayed private. This could be just a show of force to keep King Elisedd neutral.

"Even that won't be easy though," an Avorican noble added. "Ceredigion's forested hills drop off sharply at the coast. There are only a handful of beaches on this side where a large-scale landing is even possible."

That gave the intelligence Major an idea:

"How dangerous are the coastal waters?"

"Cliffs along the shores. Outcroppings in the sea. Rocky reefs beneath the water... it's terrible. Even Avorican sailors steer clear of unfamiliar waters."

"They certainly won't be familiar to the infidels, that's for sure."

"So, if we can lure them into hostile waters..." Pascal soon caught on, before exchanging glances with Sylviane.

"Vivi? Think you can manage?" the Princess turned to the hooded Winterborn.

Pascal always did wonder if Vivienne's sense of propriety was because she spent her teenage years on the southern continent. The infidels, especially their women, were always reserved about showing their appearance in public.

"Lure them into rocky shallows, right?" the Oriflamme bard smiled. "Of course."

The young Landgrave then felt a mental shiver from Kaede, as his familiar watched someone who looked like her twin discuss the deaths of over twelve thousand men in a relaxed, singsong voice.

Pascal himself, however, had no such moral qualms:

"Then let us find a maw of hell to bait them into."

"We should pivot the army's march south first," Lady Edith-Estellise added, noting that their forces were still heading southwest, along the arcing forest road to the Ceredigion Capital of Caernarfon.

"No, that will not be necessary. Sending a detachment of archers south will be enough." Pascal brushed aside the official front commander without any discussion.

He called for maps from the communication officers next, never noticing the saint's exasperated frown, nor the contemptuous glare from Mother Abbess Anne that lasted until the meeting's end.

"Here," Kaede strode forward as she opened Vintersvend's Expedition Map.

Pascal wasn't surprised that Admiral Winter had charted the entire coast of the Hyperion continent, reaching at least fifty kilopaces inland thanks to the cartography artifact's scanning range. At full zoom, it even offered depth lines at five paces, which was enough for the Northmen's shallow draft Dragon Boats.

"Handy map. Where did you acquire this?" Lionel asked, impressed.

"Admiral Winter of Skagen. We downed him and his skywhale flotilla during the Air Battle of Nordkreuz." Pascal replied as his finger traced along the coast, before stopping at a rocky outcropping that reached into the sea. "Here, Lysardh Point. They will have to sail past this area to access the largest cove in this region -- the best position to beach their entire fleet."

Assuming the map was accurate, the waters surrounding Lysardh Point were filled with rocky shallows.

"I still remember when we lost a fishing trawler in those waters twenty years ago, after a storm blew it off course," the Avorican noble added.

"A cursed place for vile men."

"Oh, it gets better," Major Hans smirked like a hungry predator. "Assuming they operate like most navies do in hostile areas, they will anchor out in the bay at night, then sail in to land their troops at dawn. Perhaps Your Grace has noticed, but this part of Ceredigion gets rather foggy in the morning."

"It will be the perfect cover." Pascal grinned back before turning to Vivienne:

"I can spare you five battalions of longbows and all the arrows they can carry. So lure the Caliphate's ships into those rocky shoals and destroy that army using every magic at your disposal!"


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


"Heard anything about our pretty new Lieutenant?"

"Ain't she some noble brat's pet?"

"Real yokel of you Ernest. She's a familiar to our Princess' Wicker fiancé."

"Well... some men gets all the luck."

Riding through the forest near the head of the army column, Kaede's cheeks colored as her familiar-enhanced ears eavesdropped on the soldiers of her new command.

I nearly get killed in battle and all these soldiers think about is how I warm some noble's bed, she grumbled in silence. Men!

But even as Kaede sulked, she heard a new voice from the crowd:

"More than just that. I was in the center at Gwilen. Watched her run past, calling for men as she went to smash that cavalry charge. Cut the river to shreds!"

"She did that?"

"Might've been her master's magic. But she's the one who carried it out."

Kaede almost turned around to see whom the speaker was before she stopped herself.

No. I shouldn't reveal that I can hear them at this distance.

She had been handed the 3rd Company of the 29th Ranger Battalion, which in truth was little more than sixty men pieced together from three Ranger units shattered during the Battle of Gwilen River. That was less than forty percent strength; yet as appalling as it was, she actually led one of the higher morale units in their detached force.

The 'five battalions' Pascal promised were all critically under-strength. A battalion using the Imperial Legionary military structure shared by the continental powers was supposed to include two combat companies and one logistics company, totaling five hundred men. But all together, the four battalions of militia longbows and one of rangers summed up to less than eleven hundred, and only seven hundred of them were trained archers.

Facing the two dozen figures who rode ahead of her, Kaede stared at the back of the hooded, petite Winterborn leading this battlegroup. Against a Caliphate landing force of twelve thousand, this cobbled-together force would not last even ten minutes without Lady Vivienne's sorcery. But even as Kaede thought this, she remembered the conversation with Pascal prior to her departure:

"What do you mean, you want me to watch Vivienne?"

"I mean exactly that -- I want you to take this command and follow her," came his heavy, authoritative tone. "We lack local guides for this region, therefore they may need Vintersvend's Map to find the right location. Furthermore, I want somebody I can trust on the mission to keep an eye on her."

"You... don't trust Lady Vivienne?" Kaede was bewildered. The Princess certainly seemed to have total faith in the Winterborn; shouldn't that be good enough for Pascal?

"If you knew her history, you would not fully trust her either," Pascal answered. "That girl grew up among the infidels. She had supposedly been captured by Cataliyan privateers as a child and sold as a slave. But slaves in the Caliphate are normally only freed after they achieve a certain position -- like the Ghulams who are trained from indoctrinated slave boys, then given their freedom after earning their ranks as professional soldiers.

"Who could guarantee that Vivienne herself is not an agent of the Caliphate?" His piercing gaze warned. "There is a reason why most Oriflammes hand-pick their own armigers, but Vivienne's armigers were all assigned by Emperor Geoffroi. It goes to show that even he did not trust her."

"But she did summon a phoenix, did she not? And the Princess seems to trust her implicitly."

"King Alistair does as well, for reasons unknown. I once asked Sylv why, but all she told me was that the secret is not hers to tell." Pascal grumbled. "Though as far as I know, a phoenix chooses a master from among the Lotharin cultures for their character integrity, not whether they are dedicated to the nation; otherwise, the Oriflamme Paladins would not have begun as rebels in the Rhin-Lotharingie Independence War."

It made perfect sense to Kaede: patriotism and nationalism were not human virtues, however governments might insist otherwise. For individuals with a multi-national background like herself, 'traitor' was often a matter of perspective.

"Perhaps there is something in Vivenne's past that leaves her loyalty without doubt. But until I know what that is to judge for myself, I must take precautions against the possibility that Vivienne's talents have influenced if not clouded Sylv's judgment." Pascal had finished.

I guess we'll know by morning, Kaede concluded as looked up at the dusk sky and sighed, trying to ignore the disquieting flutter in her stomach as she did so.

For the first time since Nordkreuz, she felt the suppressed sensory links, the lingering silence over her private telepathy channel with Pascal. The familiar bond was still active, but everything except her empathic link with Pascal had shut down due to the growing distance between them.

When Kaede first came to Hyperion, she absolutely hated the familiar link that allowed Pascal to use her senses and violate her emotional privacy at any time. But after weeks of campaigning, she had grown used to always having Pascal on the other end of their telepathic bond. His presence and voice had been a reliable anchor for her, a life buoy that her mind clung onto in this wartime scenario of constant danger and death.

"Lieutenant... Kaede?"

Lady Vivienne called again as her horse fell back alongside Kaede's, leaving the familiar girl staring at a face remarkably similar to her own.

"Sorry." She opened the map scroll in her hand and examined the current location marker once more. "We're almost there, just five kilopaces ahead."

"Please take a reconnaissance squad ahead to verify," Vivienne smiled kindly. "We'll need to set camp before the sun goes down completely."

"Yes Sir," Kaede swiveled her mount around. "Sergeant Gaspard! Follow me with your squad!"

It was her first battlefield command, and while the soldiers could begrudge her lack of experience, she was determined they would not fault her for being a backseat leader. Especially since Pascal had confiscated all of her arrows so she couldn't strain her still-healing arm... all except four 'for emergency use only'.

...One of which was a rune-inscribed arrowhead of black iron, designed specifically to kill faekissed.


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


"There they are!" Kaede cried out from her vantage point. "Distance: around one-point-five kilopaces!"

She stood near the edge of the V-shaped rocky cliffs that protruded into the sea. Her eyes watched through arcane binoculars as a fleet of sails emerged through the light wintry mist. Leading the formation were a dozen war galiots -- half-galleys with flat decks, dual lateen sail masts, and two rows of oars each.

"I don't see them..."

"Nor do I."

"My osprey confirms, Sir," spoke a third lookout.

"Good enough for me," Lady Vivienne declared as she stepped up before amplifying her voice. "Clarion Boost!"

"A familiar after all," the yeoman ranger captain who spoke first sneered at Kaede as he returned to his unit.

He never saw the disapproving stare Vivienne threw his way, or the soft white-blue embers in her eyes as she gave Kaede an appreciative nod.

She has to be on our side... the familiar girl hoped, her fingers tracing the scroll of forged royal orders in her extradimensional messenger bag, which gave her the authority to carry out yet another 'Manteuffel Incident'.

"Cover your ears everyone," the leading Oriflamme Armiger commanded before they stuffed their ears with tiny yarn plugs.

Kaede watched as Lady Vivienne took off her hood and walked gracefully to the cliffs' precipice. Her phoenix Olifant was already merged inside her, their unison transforming her cloak's surface into a billowing cape of cerulean cinders. White-blue embers cored by traces of gold drifted off her, unaffected by the coastal breeze as they floated about like faerie lights, enchanting the very atmosphere surrounding the young Winterborn.

As she unfolded her thin arms towards the sea, the Oriflamme bard began her siren song.

Even with wool in her ears, Kaede could hear the beautiful and soothing melody that reached out across the air. The prelude began gentle and slow, its soft lyrics flowing in perfect harmony with the rhythmic sound of lapsing waves. Accompanied by several hand drums and mandolins, the music was simultaneously lifting and calming, perhaps even relaxing her thoughts and dulling her senses...

Kaede shook her head to drive off the mental fog that began to gather. Pascal must have forgotten how easily she was affected by Vivienne's songs, likely as a side effect of her trained magic sensitivity.

She also realized then that Vivienne was not singing in Lotharin or even Brython. In fact, her lyrics didn't sound anything remotely like the languages of Rhin-Lotharingie. Aside from the slow tune which threw Kaede off at first, there was something vaguely Middle Eastern about the song.

Pulling out a piece of parchment, she scribbled 'what is she singing?' before handing it off to the nearest armiger. The reply came back quick in barely legible letters:

'Kiswahi song with partial Caraliyyah lyrics. It's about a fisherman's wife beckoning her husband to return home.'

Kaede raised her binoculars again to survey the enemy fleet, trying to keep her mind and sight focused as the seconds passed. At first, it seemed like the Cataliyan oars slowed as the music from the mists confused the rowers. Then, as minute after minute passed, the ships began to slowly change course.

Before long, the entire fleet was headed towards Vivienne, towards the craggy outcrop known as 'Lysardh Point' and its surrounding waters full of wave-breaking rocks.

The familiar girl rubbed her eyes in disbelief:

Now this... is magic.

"They're coming!"

In the light morning mist, it took a while before any of the Cataliyan officers she watched on deck grew alarmed by their course change. But as the outlines of land came into view, the commanders whom were least affected by the siren's song began to point and yell at the coast.

Zooming in on the lead galiot, Kaede watched as an officer pulled out a whip and began beating the rowers and sailors, yelling into their faces as he did. Some of the men seemed to snap out of their reverie, only to throw the vessel into further confusion as they rowed off-sync from the rest of the crew. The third galiot to the left seemed to recover the most, its course just beginning to turn back when it was rammed by another ship coming from behind.

The Cataliyan fleet had sailed in a tight, half-moon formation. It had been a sound defensive choice in the mist, given the obscured vision and hampered visual communications. But now, as their fleet fell into chaos, individual ships found themselves unable to maneuver as the herd drove them into shallow waters.

If that wasn't bad enough, the wind and tides were both beginning to pick up.

As the fleet closed and panic spread, Kaede watched as the first ship collided with a rocky outcrop and overturned, spilling over a hundred men into the sea. Just like historic navies on Earth, even many of the marines had little knowledge of how to swim and promptly began to flounder in the water, not to mention the army infantrymen who already suffered from seasickness.

A second galiot soon overturned in the same way, while a third began to capsize after a barely submerged reef tore through its keel. Meanwhile all around them, vessels that have regained a semblance of control tried to break free from the formation, only to ram into the hulls of their confused or still-entranced comrades.

It was a scene of total chaos, and it was only about to get worse.

"ARCHERS!"

Kaede yelled out as she picked the signal flag off the ground and waved it with both hands. She could see other officers doing the same all along the cliffs and hilly shoreline. Companies of longbowmen marched out from their concealed positions, lined in two long rows that snaked along the coast with arrow-laden horses following close behind.

"SHOOT AT WILL!" She waved the flag in a circle above her before leveling it forward.

Without timed orders, even the first volley came a bit scattered. Nevertheless, hundreds of arrows soared out from the high ground and shot into the cauldron of Cataliyan ships and men. Leading them were the transmutation arrows that had been supplied to the ranger companies, including at least a few dozens made by Pascal himself. Many rangers sent their projectiles into the confined waters between vessels -- especially those positioned at the formation's flanks and rear. There, runic arrowheads activated and began transmuting the water and its organic waste into oil.

A rain of death began as arrow after arrow pierced the torsos and faces of Cataliyan sailors, some on their ships while others in the water. Chaos escalated further as the first fire arrows soared in. They ignited the canvas sails and patches of floating oil, billowing choking black fumes into the faces of officers who desperately tried to rally their men.

Some brave compound archers and ballista operators managed to fire back against the Lotharin lines, forcing the Oriflamme Armigers to raise wards to protect their lady. But in the grand scale of thing, it was too little, too late.

Morale began to collapse as more and more vessels overturned, capsized, or simply caught fire. Organization disintegrated from one ship after another as fear and panic spread like wildfire. Within the span of just a few minutes, the ambush had gone straight past 'battle' and turned into a slaughter.

If that wasn't enough, Vivienne then finished her enchanting melody and began a new aria, its hastening tempo coordinating the Lotharin longbowmen while inspiring them to shoot faster... at least once they took off their earplugs.

Waving her flag once more, Kaede signaled for logistical troops who could not use a bow to march on the shoals. There, they would spend the rest of the day spearfishing with pikes and partisans, as helpless survivors from the Cataliyan fleet -- most of them without even weapons or armor -- washed ashore in groups too small to resist.


...


The 'Ambush at Lysardh Point' would go down in Hyperion military history as one of the textbook examples of a perfect defensive battle... or, for Kaede, a practical field lesson.

Every circumstance had been set against the invaders. Sailing into unfamiliar terrain that weren't part of their original war plan, the Caliphate lacked knowledge of local conditions. The weather dulled their senses and compacted their formation. The mysterious Vivienne and her Concordance Magic led them astray and disrupted crew organization. Then came the shock of a coastal ambush which destroyed their morale, before the tide and treacherous waters finally sealed the deal.

Out of the one-hundred-nineteen Cataliyan vessels that sailed for the Ceredigion coast, only fifty-six turned back to find shelter among the conquered ports of Avorica. Even there, three of them would be burned by Lotharin guerillas operating behind front lines.

It also cemented the reputation of Lady Vivienne -- whose name had only been spoken in gossip and rumor before the Battle of Gwilen River -- as an Oriflamme archmage known as the 'Winter Siren'.

Later that night, Kaede smiled watching as the forged orders from Pascal burned to ashes before her eyes. Maybe one day she would learn just what Vivienne's secret was. But for the moment, she was glad that her 'twin' was firmly on their side.


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


"Say that again!"

General Salim stared at the signal lieutenant from atop his steed, hardly able to believe his ears.

"Commodore Hayreddin reports that the 3rd Fleet had been ambushed off the coast of Ceredigion by Lotharin forces. Admiral Kilic was killed in combat when his flagship sank."

Slumping into his saddle, the General found himself struck speechless. He had warned the naval admiral to take extra precautions when landing given the Lotharin's new -- and evidently more capable -- Weichsel commander. But clearly, his words were not heeded.

As moments passed in silence, it was his wazir, Hakim, who stepped up and dismissed the messenger.

"Your Eminence. I think it is safe to assume that King Elisedd of Ceredigion has betrayed his promises to the Caliph and joined the war."

"You're right..." General Salim broke in mid-reply. Then, as his voice recovering: "you have to be right. There is no way that measly force we're chasing could break off enough men to stop an amphibious assault from sixteen thousand infantry, marines, and sailors. They must have had support from local forces! And if that infidel king could betray his own emperor by accepting our bribes and promises in return for neutrality, why can he not turn face a second time and backstab us?"

Hakim nodded:

"All traitors are opportunists without faith."

"Perhaps we should return to Roazhon and assault the city, before meeting the Ceredigions in battle with our full force," proposed Colonel Farah, Salim's senior Mubarizun commander.

Her tone had been polite enough, but Salim knew that beneath it lay an impatience that had been simmering among his officers for days.

"They have kept to less than a day's march ahead of us. If we turned around, they'll do the same and bite us in the rear," the General declared. "Furthermore, we cannot afford for the Princess to join her veterans with Ceredigion's army. No, we must end this game of cat and mouse by accelerating our plans."

"You're thinking..."

Salim nodded. The two of them hadn't partnered for three decades for nothing.

"Lieutenants!" He called his signal officers up. "Inform the brigadiers and their staffs: we rest early at dusk today. There will be no camp, no fortifications. Instead, logistic companies will hold the night watch in strength. At midnight, we ditch all non-essential personnel and ride west with the cavalry!"

"Yes Sir!"

"Let our enemies rest on their laurels tonight," the General stared at his wazir with cold embers in his gaze. "By the time they wake up, it will be their time to repent before God."


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


"Lady Vivienne reports that the ambush was a resounding success, Sir!" the Lotharin officer reported with glee. "They destroyed over half of the enemy fleet. The remnants retreated in total disarray!"

Pascal smirked in reply. This was good news that the army's morale truly needed. But more importantly, it brought Sylviane political support, which meant more time to execute the next phase of their stratagem.

"That ends any threat of a possible southern pincer," he traced the traditional map in his hands, wishing that Kaede was still here besides him. "Tonight we take shelter in the town of Glywysing. The men can have a peaceful night's rest before we continue west along the road to Ceredigion Capital."

Several of the congregating nobles cheered at the news. After days of strenuous forced marches, they were more than willing to accept whatever comforts a rustic town in the Ceredigion forests could offer them.

"Excuse me," Saint Estelle cut in, her brows furrowed in disapproval. "You're not proposing that we abandon Glywysing to the advancing infidel army?"

She pointed to the marker that denoted a 'large town':

"There are at least five thousand lives in that settlement. We cannot simply..."

"We will warn the residents to flee into the forest," Pascal declared. "But Glywysing neither holds a strategic location nor has it seen war in centuries. I doubt the town has anything more than an old stockade to keep out wild animals. We cannot hold such a position against a far superior force."

"Flee?" Edith looked aghast. "Thousands of refugees without shelter in the deep forest? They'll either freeze to death or become fodder for wild beasts!"

"A town like this will have its own hunters to protect and shelter them," the Landgrave scowled, fully aware that it was impossible for a few dozen woodsmen to keep thousands safe. "Regardless, their only other alternative is to stay..."

"Or we could escort them."

Pascal glared back. Not this again.

"Impossible. The forest road is too narrow. The civilians will only slow us down."

"Then we should stop and fight!" Edith-Estellise asserted. "The victory at Lysardh Point has raised the men's morale. We are surrounded by streams and forests which will benefit our archers and impede their cavalry. Furthermore, we will have whatever defenses and buildings the town has to strengthen our center, backed by hunters and militia from the townsfolk themselves!"

Staring up with mismatched eyes of lapis and violet, the beautiful saint's gaze filled with a simmering frustration.

"Why can we not make a stand for these people!?"

"Because we cannot afford to gamble away this army on a slim chance! We choose to fight only when we are ready to win!"

Pascal took a deep breath as he tried to suppress his annoyance.

When will these people learn!?

But Edith was no longer interested in what the Weichsel Major had to say. Instead, she turned intently on the Princess, waiting for a decision from royal authority.

For several moments, Sylviane pursed her lips as she pressed her knuckles against her chin in deep thought. She stole glances at the faces of the waiting nobles, trying to weigh military strategy against political opinion.

It took long enough that Pascal was beginning to worry. Sure, Sylviane had always judged the politics more carefully than he did. But with the recent victory buying them support, this should be an easy choice.

He was almost about to speak out when Sylviane made her fateful decision.

"I do understand your concerns," she gave Edith a sympathetic frown. "I would even agree with you, had circumstances been different. But the current war situation leaves me with no choice. We must force King Elisedd's hand before returning to fight."


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


"Retreat, retreat! All he knows is to retreat!" Mother Abbess Anne fumed over telepathy as she followed Lady Estelle back to the Knights Hospitaller column. "He would rather send his familiar into battle than take it upon himself! Why? Because the man has no integrity, no faith!"

Stopping to lean against an ancient oak, Edith hammered its bark with her gauntlet.

"Gwilen River and now Lysardh Point, our enemies have seen only bloodshed for the past week. If we let them take Glywysing without a fight, the people will surely suffer those sinners' lust for revenge."

"Over five thousand lives... Lady Anne stressed. "If we do not stand our ground, then their slaughter will be on our conscience! Ceredigion would never forgive us; the Holy Father would never forgive us!"

Clenching her eyes shut, Edith sighed as she thought through her options. She had tried to persuade the Princess, tried to show her Weichsel fiancé a correct and feasible path. But nothing was working!

...At least, nothing legal worked.

Is there truly no other way?

"Edith!" her foster mother pleaded. "I know you wish to stay loyal. I do as well! But we have given them chance and again to do the right thing, to act with the virtue that our Lord and Savior expects of kings! We cannot stand idly by and watch a sin of such magnitude come to pass! To do nothing as that ruthless, military-minded Wicker fiancé of hers spills the blood of our people for his own safety and prestige!

"Everything is ready," Anne assured. "There are still discontent nobles who will support our cause! Especially without King Alistair's dogged obedience backing her! You were the rightful commander of this front to begin with. All you have to do is to give the word!"

The saint stared up through the branches bared by winter, to the cloudy skies that obscured the heavens.

Blessed Father... just what should I do?

But just like last time, there came only silence.

"Edith!" Anne pressed again. "Remember, you vowed that when the time came, you would take action! Do what must be done to protect the innocent!"

Yes, she did vow, a day that seemed so long ago now. She had been sure that this moment would never come to pass, that Princess Sylviane would prove that she was indeed a champion sent by the divine.

Edith had never wanted to betray Her Highness, to betray His Majesty's memory and final wish.

A tear slid down her cheek as she bit down on her lip and wiped it away.

"You're right, mother. I am being selfish; and I cannot be in such a moment."

With pain in her gaze, the Saint stood up straight and faced Mother Abbess Anne:

"Spread the word to those faithful and trustworthy: we move at first light tomorrow. But tell the commanders that they are to disarm only. There will be no killing between Lotharins unless absolutely necessary. I want casualties at the minimum so we may yet face the infidels with our full strength."

"And the Princess?"

Unsheathing the Sword of Charity, Edith held it between her palms as she examined its pristine blade. Even after dozens of battles under her care, the dragon-forged Aurorum Steel remained flawless, untarnished.

But after tomorrow? She may never again wash it clean.

"Sylviane is my sin to bear. No one else must interfere."


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


Late that night, the heavy oaken doors to the smaller chapel in Glywysing opened. Between the cracks slipped in a feminine figure, hooded and cloaked.

The stone structure was centuries old, built before the Rhin-Lotharingie Independence War by Trinitian missionaries. Its purpose had long since been replaced by the larger church facing the town square, a new establishment that impressed the common folk with its opulence and wealth: altars adorned by fine brocade and gold, stained-glass imported from Weichsel, even delicate ceiling artistry learned from the Inner Sea.

But none of that compared to the spiritual boon of this old sanctuary, a relic of times when the church was cleaner, purer, less interested in secular politics and more devoted to learning and charity.

With the room lit by only the candles in her hand, the guest walked up the aisle in graceful silence. Stopping before the plain granite altar in front of the room, she placed the candlestick on top and knelt down before the wooden cross.

"Blessed Father in heaven," Edith-Estellise whispered as her delicate hands closed in prayer. "I have always been true to you, always lived by your laws and commandments. But tonight, I beseech you for guidance.

"Never for a single day have I forgotten my solemn oath -- To be without fear in the face of evil. To be truthful and upright, even if it leads to my death. To protect the weak and defend the helpless. To act with mercy and kindness for all."

Edith was confident that when the time came, she could disarm Sylviane without harming her. It would take only one strike of her holy sword.

But... what then?

Everyone thought of 'Saint Estelle' as an apolitical figure, a naive girl with no interest in the power struggles of the realm. But even Edith knew that there was no future for a deposed crown heir.

After all, what capable ruler would allow such a dangerous threat to their throne to exist? Even if Sylviane renounced her inheritance, there would always be others who raised flags and armies in her name.

"Lord, I am your faithful and obedient daughter. I know what you expect of me. But I also have no wish to cause her death! To betray His Majesty's expectations and kindness!"

Her eyes then clenched shut as memories resurfaced from those bittersweet days. She remembered when she first knelt before Emperor Geoffroi in personal audience; when she heard his confession and felt the crushing embrace; when she first spoke to him -- not as from subject to liege, but with mutual affection and kindness.

"Please..." her eyes reopened, glistening with desperate appeal as they plead before the Savior's form. "If there is even the slightest chance I may be wrong... If there is any other way. Then please, Holy Father...

"Give me a sign!"



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