"Never before entering Thors did I realize that things, great things even, could be expected of me. After having been mostly ignored during my childhood, that was an exciting and terrifying prospect in equal measure."- Olivert Reise Arnor, Memoirs of a debaucherous prince (unfinished)
March 31st, 1204
The auditorium was full. Between the two rows of columns of the building more than two hundred teenagers were taking their seats, simple wood chairs in keeping with the relative austerity of the place. From above, the imperial stallions and the academy's horned lions adorning the red tapestries decorating the room were a silent, yet highly visible presence, as if they were about to pass judgment on the newcomers. Facing the young men and women pouring in the building, half a dozen adults were lined up in front of a theatre scene, today used to host the podium from which the upcoming speech would be delivered. On the upper balconies, a few observers were simply waiting around by the glass windows, largely indifferent to the nervous tension coming from the freshmen's group.
For many teens of the Erebonian Empire, the end of March was to be an auspicious day. As the gates of Thors military academy opened, dozens of young men and women were about to embark on a life-changing journey, like many of those who came before them. With more than two hundred years of continued existence, the school had shaped up Erebonia's finest year after year, a fact any new student would often be reminded of. For many, it could be a tough act to follow, hence the ambient stress and trepidation that seemed to permeate the air today, as students were waiting for the opening speech of principal Vandyck. Yet the man most eager for this year to start wasn't a student, but a man in his mid-twenties, blonde hair tied in a ponytail, with piercing violet eyes and dressed in a regal red and gold uniform indicative of his social class. Above the gathered freshmen, from the auditorium's balconies, Prince Olivert Reise Arnor, eldest - though illegitimate - son of Emperor Eugent III, amateur bard-adventurer, notorious troublemaker, and according to some, disgrace of the imperial family, was intent on being present in this auspicious day.
Thunderous applauses signaled the arrival of the upcoming speaker. At seventy years old, principal Vandick still cut a striking figure, with his imposing height , broad shoulders and straight posture, only emphasized by his black uniform decorated with golden epaulettes. Even with his grey hair and beard, it was easy to believe this was the man acclaimed as a war hero throughout the Empire, and who once led its armies during numerous campaigns. It might have been ten years since he left active service, dedicating himself to his role at Thors instead, but it was likely no-one in the building ignored his accomplishments, despite the students being too young to really remember them.
"It is with great pleasure and pride that I wish to welcome you all for this new year at Thors academy..."
Vandick's booming voice became the only audible noise in the auditorium. Still, Olivert couldn't help but notice the different reactions among the assembled teenagers. In fact, he made it a game of sorts trying to differentiate the first years students from the second through reactions alone. The more relaxed half, whose polite attention didn't prevent from occasionally whispering to each other or looking around for familiar faces, were most certainly second years students, no longer inhibited by Thors' mystique. On the other hand, those drinking the principal's every words, almost standing at attention while doing so, tended to be newcomers, entering the academy with their heads full of tales and expectations. Ultimately, whether or not they would find what they were looking for here depended mostly of themselves. For now though, Olivert's gaze was focusing on the handful of students dressed in red, less than ten lost in a sea of green and white uniforms. There it was. The concrete proof that he won his first gamble, and that his pet project was about to come to fruition: the establishment of class VII.
Aidios knew it had not been easy. While the academy's board of directors, which he presided, was supposed to have the final say on any internal matters of the institution, it was still imperative to not alienate the school's most generous contributors, most of them nobles of ancient families. And Class VII, in many aspects, had been a hard sell. The idea of mixing nobles and commoners had triggered outraged protestations. The suggestion of using students as field-testers of the new ARCUS technology had been met with open scorn and ridicule – some going as far as dismissing the device itself, calling it a glorified radio transmitter. The principle of monthly field studies had been similarly derided - "Thors trains soldiers, not travelers!" protested Hyarms. Of course Olivert had gleefully pointed out to the marquis that nowadays, two-third of the graduates found positions outside the military, so clearly Thors wasn't just training soldiers. And then came the names. Sara Valestein as main instructor had been a contested choice, to say the least; while no-one doubted the combat prowess of the Purple Lightning, her qualifications as educator were less than obvious. Convincing Duke Albarea to let his bastard son participate in this experiment proved excruciating – and it wasn't even as if he cared about the boy, he was just being difficult on principle alone. And allowing a foreigner, even one who came with a war hero's recommendation, in the ranks of a project partly devoted to testing cutting-edge military technology resulted in more than a few arguments. Oddly enough, the ones who protested this the most were often the same people who had derided said technology in the first place. Go figure.
All in all, Olivert had to fight hard for this project to be born, spending days in tedious meetings to cajole, coax and if needed sometimes coerce Thors backers into agreement. Those were the moments when he really missed his adventure days in Liberl. Life had been so much simple as Olivier Lenheim back then, not to mention a lot more fun, despite – or maybe because of? - the dramatic events of that time.
"Through history" Vandick's voice boomed "Thors has acquired a reputation for excellence, one that you will be expected to uphold. Do not let that pressure crush you, though, for self-confidence is often the first step toward success."
Among the teachers, Olivert saw a young woman stifling a yawn, earning herself a glare from the ever-vigilant vice-principal, which she answered with a half-apologetic grin. The prince had to restrain himself to not wave at her from the balconies; he was certain she'd wave back, indifferent to the commotion it could cause. Sara Valestein never had been one to be bound by conventions – and it was exactly why he picked her. It took one troublemaker to appreciate another, after all.
"So you did come. Here to watch out for your investments?"
Olivert was drawn out of his musings as he saw a stern-looking, bespectacled blond woman making her way toward him. Clad in a white business suit, Irina Reinford could have easily passed for a noblewoman, given the air of authority that seemed to accompany her everywhere. Yet she was "but" a commoner, although one that wielded more power than most nobles could ever dream of, an impressive accomplishment for someone barely entering her forties.
Such a situation would have been almost unthinkable until fifty years ago, when the Orbal Revolution swept through the continent of Zemuria, marking an unprecedented time of technological innovations in every nation. In barely half a century, societies had been deeply transformed by this seemingly endless tide of progress that affected every field, and most countries were still in the process of adjusting to these changes. One of the most noticeable aspect of those societal changes had been the rise of a merchant, industrialist and scientist class, who despite their common blood, could easily prove more influential than the old ruling noble families, often more rooted by land and traditions. In Erebonia, no-one exemplified this phenomenon better than the Reinford group, who quickly became the Empire's chief innovator in civilian and military orbal technology. Since she became the chairman of the Reinford group, Irina had worked tirelessly to make her company reach new heights, and the results had been speaking for themselves. How she also managed to be on the board of directors of Thors Academy, Olivert had no idea, but her support to his project had been a real boon.
"Aidios be praised!" the prince exclaimed "My heart yearned for us to be reunited once more after such a cruel separation! Truly this day is blessed like no other."
While he made sure to keep his voice at a somewhat appropriate level – the acoustics of the room meant that a conversation on the balconies would be harder to pick up, but still – his beaming smile and enthusiastic greeting conveyed his feelings well enough. The businesswoman only gave him an unimpressed gaze from behind her glasses, before answering in a flat tone.
"I fail to see how this is a surprise. I did send a notice saying I'd make an appearance, I believe."
Olivert simply shrugged, as if to concede the point.
"That you did! Still, I confess I wasn't sure you'd actually find the time. I know how busy you usually are, after all."
"Time is something you make, not something you find. Since the Reinford group has a significant investment in that project of yours, it was only natural that I came to check it out."
"That's very good! And I suppose you also took the time to greet your lovely daughter while you were at it?"
She casually dismissed the remark with a hand gesture, showing no particular emotion at the mention of her only child.
"Irrelevant. She neither need nor want my input in this matter, and I have better things to do than to hold her by the hand."
Olivert kept on smiling, but couldn't help but wince internally. He knew the Reinford chairwoman was serious to a fault and had her company as her foremost – some would say only - concern, but this was pretty cold. Well, it wasn't his place to interfere in family matters, he supposed. Though it was rather hard to keep his meddling instincts in check. Once again, he glanced downward at the assembled students, still listening to Vandick's inaugural speech In the sea of green and white uniforms, it was easy to notice the odd red ones, even though those wearing them had not yet been made aware of their significance.
"There is something I'd like to know."
Olivert raised his head to look at the Reinford chairwoman who had moved by his side, looking at the crowd with a dispassionate glance.
"What do you hope to accomplish? I supported your project in order to speed up the field-testing of the ARCUS, but that's hardly your main goal, isn't it? You and Vandick plotted this thing far too well to be a simple fancy."
The prince offered her his most dazzling smile.
"Why, the answer should be obvious! As in all things, my only desire is for love and peace!"
He was only met with an unimpressed look.
"I have no idea why you insist on playing the fool." Irina sighed. " Fine then, keep your reasons to yourself, the Reinford group will benefit either way. And as much as I'd like to continue our banter, I should probably go. Sharon should be about done by now."
For the first time since the beginning of the conversation, Olivert's smile fell, replaced by a forced neutral expression mixed with a tinge of worry.
"Ah... Are you saying she's on campus right now?"
If the businesswoman was surprised by the question, she showed no sign of it, instead shooting him a flat look.
"Of course. I swear, there are days were I feel she's the only employee I can rely on. I trust this isn't a problem?"
Olivert had to pause before answering. "No. No, of course not."
"Good. Then we will see each other at the next meeting of the board of directors. With your permission."
With a curt nod, Irina departed, leaving the bastard prince alone once again, and doing his best to cast aside that sudden surge of worry this last exchange inspired in him. He should trust the Reinford heiress, he reminded himself. She knew what she was doing, and they were on the same side. Probably. Still, the prospect of having one of them running around among staff and students, even if just for a couple of hours, was... unnerving – and reminded him of the not-so-fun parts of his Liberl adventures.
"... to adapt to the ever-changing nature of warfare. But there is more to what Thors has to offer you than simply learning how to wage battle. The advances of orbal technology have changed the very faces of our society, and thus our teachings, too, strive to keep up with..."
Huh, Olivert believed he recognized that line. Was it used during his own entrance address? Well, the imperial scion couldn't blame Vandick if did reuse some of his old speeches a bit. It probably was hard to be entirely original for the tenth time in a row. He was probably near the end anyway – and not a moment too soon, if the gradual increase of chatter among the student corps was to be trusted. No matter how skilled an orator the old general might be, it was hard to keep the full attention of hundreds of teens for a long period of time. Not that the prince could blame them, what with his own thoughts wandering toward his exchange with Irina once again.
If he was to be honest, the way she questioned his motives hurt a tiny bit. The sad truth was, he hadn't been lying, though he supposed he could have done with less theatrics – but where would be the fun in that, really? As things stood, he could feel the tension inside the Erebonian Empire rising by the day. War had been a common occurrence for his country, which never shied from flaunting its military strength. But this time, what Olivert feared was to see his country torn apart from the inside. It had been two hundred and fifty years since the War of the Lions, and now Erebonia was threatened by civil war once more. The tensions between a nobility jealous of its privileges, and an emperor-backed chancellor determined to reform the country with an iron fist kept growing, and Olivert feared that at this point, a single spark could trigger a catastrophe if nothing was done to prevent it.
Despite his royal lineage, he had little political influence, and almost no military assets to his name. What he did have, though, was a few friends, and the ability to shape the very destiny of this country through his position at Thors Academy. For two hundred and fifteen years, the school did welcome the Empire's brightest, turning them into the ruling elite who would decide of Erebonia's future; the teenagers down below, who were anxiously waiting for Vandick to finish his speech, would become the next nobles, generals and administrators of this country. They would become the ones to shape this country's future. Provided with proper guidance, Olivert believed it would be a bright one. There were many issues to solve first though, the most urgent being the growing hostility between nobles and commoners. For too long, Thors Academy played a part in that growing distance, despite having been founded to prevent it. Now, it was time to take the first step to correct that imbalance.
He would have been the first to admit that his hand, compared to those of his opponents, appeared weak. He was essentially trying to insert himself as a third faction in a two-sided fight, without an army of any kind and with limited financial and political capital. But if, as he suspected, the country was on the brink of a battle for its very soul, this was not a conflict Olivert could simply sit by. And while the Noble Alliance and the Blood and Iron Chancellor alike were gathering weapons and training men, the prince wanted to provide for a third way, one that did not involve a bloodbath that nobody claimed to want, but that seemed to become more and more unavoidable with each passing year. Well, not if he and his allies could help it.
In the auditorium below, the principal's addresses was reaching its conclusion.
"... our mission, however, remains the same: to prepare our students to fulfill Emperor Dreichels' famous mandate. Arise, O Youth, and become the foundation of the world."
Hard words to live by. Olivert could only hope that they would be up to the challenge. The future of this country would depend on it, after all.
Author's notes: well, after months of writing, rewriting, procrastination, vanishing beta-readers and emotional turmoil, here's finally the prologue of the story I've been sitting on for a little while now. First disclaimer: this fanfiction is born out of mild frustration; I really enjoy the Legend of Heroes licence, and Trails of Cold Steel was no exception (in fact, the first game was what introduced me to the world of Zemuria), and yet I couldn't help but think it had the potential to be even better, that some things would be worth exploring more, or that sometimes the narration was taking shortcuts that could have been avoided.
This is basically an attempt at novelizing/rewriting the Trails of Cold Steel saga, while doing so through multiple PoV instead of being constrained by Rean's. In the process, it is my hope to be able to expand on the world of Legend of Heroes, while hopefully providing decent character studies and enjoyable action/adventure in between, while doing my best to address some of the flaws (or at least, things I perceived as flaws) in the original story (that's mostly for the sequel though, if I ever get there).
If you are unfamiliar with the Legend of Heroes setting, yet are still willing to give this story a go, I am making an effort to making this accessible to newcomers (in fact, my current beta-reader hadn't played the games). Whether or not I'm successful at that will be up to you.
Final note: In the Legend of Heroes series, I only played the games available on Steam (meaning the Trails in the Sky trilogy and the first two Trails of Cold Steel). I'll probably spoil myself heavily on the Crossbell arc for research purpose, but I intend to avoid spoilers about ToCS III & IV as much as possible. If that eventually leads me to write continuity errors... well we'll cross that bridge when we get there.
Thank you all for your support, and see you soon for the next chapter!