Thors Officer School, ToCS Outside the Fairy Tale
A/N: Hello, this is my first Legend of Heroes story, so I'd like to establish some ground rules.
Edit(21/02/2020): First chapter has been shortened by roughly 2000 words to make it more accessible.
This fic assumes that the reader has played the entirety of ToCS1 and ToCS2 including the New Game+ secrets. This story is going to be mostly original content. I only plan to follow the plot of ToCS1 on a very rough approximation, which is why I will draw from the entirety of Kiseki lore. That means minor spoilers for the Sky Trilogy, Zero Duology (I played the official Chinese localization) and few very minor facts from ToCS3. I won't touch on any big plot points or major political upheavals outside the first two ToCS games (and if I slip up you are free to lambaste me), but if that is still too spoilery for you, then this story is probably not for you (yet).
I am always open to constructive criticism. If I make a genuine error, please tell me about it so I can correct it. if you don't like a plot point or something to that effect, I will at least consider your opinion as long as you convey it in a mature way. Keep in mind though that regarding plot points, character relations and story structure, I have the final say. I will read your opinion, but I don't have to agree with it.
Now that the boring stuff is out of the way, let's get this party started.
Chapter 1 - Serious Selection
Rohan Imperial Villa was the smaller and far less known counterpart of Karel Imperial Villa. It was a mansion with elegant but conservative architecture hidden away on a forested hill northwest of Trista. The building expressed dignity and grace as befitting of Erebonian Nobility, but it lacked the scale or sheer artistry of its cousin villa. It was modest in its opulence. As such even a viscount of good standing could have afforded the building. Were it not for the banner of imperial crimson and the golden stallion denoting the identity of its true owners, most nobles probably wouldn't have deemed it more than a smidgen of polite interest.
Only a select few were aware this lack of notoriety made Rohan Imperial Villa a favorite spot for back room politicking of a very special kind: the kind of politicking designed to escape the notice of the usual back room politicians.
As Olivert Reise Arnor straightened his cravat he couldn't help but regard his father with gratitude in his mind. Their differing opinions when it came to Erebonia's dear Chancellor had always been a point of contention in an otherwise amicable and even warm relationship. But despite the Emperor claiming that Giliath Osborne enjoyed his full trust, he made exactly zero moves to obstruct Olivert's own plans.
And then there were occasions like this, when it felt like his father was actively encouraging him. He was provided with the key and security protocols of an off-the-book mansion, delivered to him with an almost cheeky note. It stated that even the all-knowing Chancellor shouldn't be aware of this particular place.
There was no guarantee, but Olivert wasn't about to lose any sleep over that. When dancing with the monster there couldn't be any guarantees.
Even assuming they existed was a weakness.
The conference room they resided in was a battlefield of documents. Dossiers, essays and financial reports were scattered carelessly over a heavy table made of polished oak with a glimmering finish of esmelas-infused bee wax. The floor was littered with emptied plastic bottles and packages. They formerly contained energy drinks as well as high caloric protein bars. Their taste was middling at best, but they allowed the six occupants in the conference room to brave a marathon meeting which had already spanned two days.
He saw Lieutenant General Vander take a heavy puff from his cigar, inhaling the smoke and hoping in vain that the mild stimulants would keep his exhaustion at bay. At least the sepith-coated oak-table forced the air in the room to continuously circulate. Otherwise some of them would have fallen asleep long ago.
"Want another energy drink, general?" A female voice offered.
The speaker was a seemingly young woman whose attire was clearly at odds with the other uniformed individuals. Her clear, focused gaze also seemed impervious to fatigue. Honey-blond hair was tied in a simple ponytail which flowed over the front of her right shoulder, framing a truly lovely face with high cheekbones, sky-blue eyes and a dimpled smile. Her clothes were for the most part non-descript and functional: a blue turtleneck sweater, a maroon skirt that reached her ankles and red sneakers. The only notable piece was the white lab-coat marking her as a researcher.
"I mean no offense Lady Russel, but I fear the special nourishment you brought has lost its effectiveness."
Professor Erika Russel, genius inventor and daughter of legendary Epstein disciple Albert Russel sighed heavily. "Could you guys drop the 'Lady Russel' part? It makes me sound like some old maiden. Besides, you can come out and say that the ZCF smart food tastes like ass."
Olivert let out an amused chuckle. "Truly, were it not for your beautiful visage and your skill in everything orbal one would never guess you're the mother of dear, sweet Tita."
She scrunched her face which was so very reminiscent of one of the good friends he made in Liberl, minus the baby fat. "I certainly never expected a member of the Imperial family to be quite so free-spirited. And to invite little old me to be part of your conspiracy."
"You are aware my original request was directed towards your father?"
Erika sneered. "Of course I'm aware, but that scatterbrained old coot can't keep a secret even if his life depends on it."
Mueller Vander, his eternal bodyguard, furrowed his considerably thick brows. "Forgive me for asking Lady Russel, but wasn't your father the one who developed Liberl's combat aircrafts? Given his experience, shouldn't he be familiar with military protocol and the requirements of confidentiality?"
Wasn't this a very insightful question? Just what he expected from his old quick-witted friend. And look, beautiful Erika's expression turned stormy, a stink-face worthy of Estelle herself.
"That old coot certainly contributed a lot, but he was hardly the only one responsible for creating combat-worthy aircrafts. Back then the whole of Zeiss Central Factory was working like a single well-oiled machine. We toiled and sweat like our lives depended on it," and here she glared at every member of the Erebonian military, "because that was quite literally the case."
Seems like Mueller's inquiry opened up old wounds. The trauma the Erebonian military inflicted on the Liberlian psyche during operation 'Falcon Killer' was an act which shall rightfully haunt his fellow countrymen for years to come.
"To answer your question, Major Vander, the issue is the time frame: the aircraft development was pushed through in the middle of the Hundred Days War and the machines were directly fielded into battle without the usual quality control or any kind of preliminary testing. It was basically an act of desperation. As such there was simply no time for that old coot and his loose lips to deal any kind of damage."
She then turned her gaze towards him, spearing him with her intensity. "Your 'Third Way' plan on the other hand is much longer in scale. Every secret, especially about orbal development, is in danger of being blabbed out if Professor bloody Russel had been entrusted with them. If you had ever seen him bragging during the annually Zemurian Congress of Orbal Science you'd know how foolish your initial decision was. So be thankful I corrected it beforehand."
The little gathering Olivert called together consisted of some of the mightiest warriors the Erebonian nation had to offer. Mueller Vander, the young ace of the 7th Armored Division. Lieutenant General Zechs Vander, the leading officer of the famed 3rd Armored Division. Tristan Vandyck, honorary general of the Imperial Army and last but not least Victor S. Arseid, the strongest swordsman of the Empire. But despite the concentrated fighting prowess, nearly all of them were stunned to silence by the sheer brazenness and irreverence the young researcher just displayed.
Olivert gave her a warm round of applause. It was only fair exchange for the impromptu piece of history which was certainly nowhere to be found in any kind of Erebonian chronicle. "Bravo, bravo, your boldness is truly an inspiration. I think you could even give Chairwoman Irina Reinford a run for her money."
Erika smirked. She probably even took his backhanded insult as a compliment. "Thank you for your kind words, Prince Olivert. Mrs Reinford certainly is a woman I approve of."
Victor Arseid chuckled. "I grew up with classes about the fathers of the Orbal Revolution during Sunday School, reading about their endless innovations, their unparalleled genius. As such listening to you dressing down your own father is quite an eye-opening experience. I guess the old saying still holds true: there is no hero to his valet."
Mueller let out a suffering sign. "Isn't that true."
"As welcome as this short revelry is, I think it's in all our interest to continue this meeting." Principal Vandyck folded his arms in front of his massive barrel chest. "We are almost at the finishing line. The last major agenda will be to finalize the selection of students who are to be part of the ARCUS program."
So onward with the tedious discussions. "Agreed. Erika, have you brought your aptitude estimates?"
"I have, though I wonder why you assigned me a task that should have been completed ages ago."
"Oh, it has already been done," Olivert said sardonically. "We just don't trust the results."
Erika narrowed her eyes. "You want a second opinion from an independent source."
It was always such a pleasure to work with people who were quick on the uptake.
"That's it exactly, Lady Russel", Vandyck answered in a gravelly voice. "I also have here a copy of the aptitude tests done by orbal-physiologists of the Reinford Group's 4th Developmental Division. This is the initial estimate."
The copies of the different reports were swiftly distributed. The occupants in the room perused them for a while until Zechs Vander let out a gusty sigh. "This is worse than we anticipated."
Olivert couldn't help but agree with his former master.
"How can there be such a difference?" Victor murmured. "These scientists from the Reinford group, don't they have any pride in their profession? To be complicit in this kind of base deception."
"Whoa, Viscount Arseid. There is no reason to jump to conclusions here," Olivert pleaded.
The Radiant Blademaster shook his head. "As a swordsman it's second nature to take the measure of another person in an instant. Lady Russel here is without doubt highly skilled and supremely driven in her chosen field. Were she someone pursuing the path of the sword, I imagine her to be a most formidable opponent. Nevertheless, when it comes to reaching mastery of skills be they martial or mundane, a person's spirit resonates in accordance. During our meeting here, Lady Erika has repeatedly shown her skill and pride in being a researcher, a woman of science, someone dedicated to the pursuit of objective truth. I cannot fathom her ever betraying this pride for some hidden agenda."
And here the Viscount was, displaying his frightening insight clothed in the essence of Erebonian chivalry. The Radiant Blademaster truly was one of a kind.
"Aren't you a charmer, Viscount Arseid." Erika was smiling, her cheeks slightly tinted with red. "I'll give it to you - if only for a moment you actually made me regret being a married woman, which is no mean feat. My hubby is very strong, kind and dependable."
Victor returned her warm smile with his own. "I will take it as a compliment."
Olivert decided here and then to ask the man for advice on charming women after their meeting was over. He was watching a master at work and even if the Viscount's tactics should be of no use to him – flirtation was an art most subtle after all – his inquiry should be more than sufficient to rile up dear old Mueller and his stuffy sensibilities.
Vandyck chuckled. "As fascinating as it is to watch you seduce a married woman, Victor, we are at something of an impasse. You make a strong argument for Lady Russel's trustworthiness. Still, I feel like I cannot in good conscience completely disregard the Reinford Report. Due to the discrepancy in the prospective student's placement I suggest we find a compromise in the ranking."
Olivert nodded. "Unfortunate, but necessary. I may be the chairman on the board of directors at Thors, but my position is traditionally more ornamental in nature. If I go ahead with Lady Erika's ranking, I will have to justify my decision in front of the directors and some of Erebonia's military top brass. Telling them I trust the words of a ZCF researcher over my own country's experts to push a ranking, which heavily favors commoners, will earn me a good deal of ill will - even though it's true."
Zechs Vander shrugged. "I'm in agreement but Lady Russel seems to have some additional...insight?"
All men in the room turned to the female researcher who was leafing through the pages of the report with frantic speed, all the while tipping on a handhold calculator. Her lips were moving tonelessly and she looked for all intents and purposes dead to the outside world.
"I got it!" She cried out. Then she looked up to the other persons gathered in the room, pinning them with a feverish gaze.
"From your reaction I guess you found the reason for the discrepancy?" Mueller asked.
"Yes. It's pretty easy."
"Oh boy, here she comes." Olivert steepled his hands and braced himself for the fireworks.
"The aptitude ranking is based on three main measurements: a scan of whole-body nerve oscillation frequency, a spiritogramm and finally the blood-works. The aptitude for ARCUS orbments is mainly determined by two sub-factors: Above average neurological activity in the theta-range determined through brain EEG and above average affinity for the mirage element determined through the amount of certain blood factors. You still follow?"
Olivert nodded. This was pretty fundamental knowledge. The others in the room followed his motion albeit with some hesitation.
"Obviously, I didn't do any of the measurements myself. My ranking is the result of the same base data as the one the idiots at the Reinford Group tried to feed you. Therefore, the discrepancy should be a difference in how we interpreted the initially measured data. Here's where it gets interesting, because the formulae the Reinford idiots used to calculate aptitudes and affinities are exactly the same I used, following state-of-the-art recommendations from the Epstein foundation."
He raised one single eyebrow. "So what? Did the Reinford researchers bumble up their math?"
Erika shook her head, her expression a study in unveiled disgust. "Nothing so amateurish, though in a way, what they did was far more deplorable. They introduced a fictional blood component."
Victor blinked owlishly. "A fictional blood component?"
The researcher sighed. "It's called the Noble Blood Factor and it's what happens when social class politics try to push their agenda under the mantle of objective science." She stood up and started pacing.
"The idea was introduced eight years ago by some Erebonian researchers. They proposed that every Erebonian noble's blood contained a component which raised their affinity for space and mirage, sometimes called the noble elements. Following their hypothesis they tried to isolate this supposed blood factor. Ironically, it lead to great contributions of those scientists in understanding how various enzymes and hormones served as markers and predictors for elemental affinity. But to make a long story short: they never found a blood factor which truly matched their neat little story of noble supremacy."
She continued her speech.
"There are factors indicative of high mirage and space affinity, but they are found in every human's blood stream. The concentration which determines strength of affinity is also all over the place irrespective of social status. There is a very rare blood factor exclusive to the Arnor Imperial Family and the Cayenne Noble Lineage, but it's not indicative of an exclusive mirage or space affinity, so that ended up a bust, too."
Olivert's mind was racing frantically. He wasn't aware of this similarity between his family and the Cayennes. Something to keep in mind. "Interesting. Basically the Noble Blood Factor couldn't be proven, but the researchers at Reinford still pretended it exists. As long as a student is a noble they automatically have an initial and undeserved edge in their space and mirage affinity, resulting in this heavily biased ranking."
"Exactly. It was your Professor Schmidt who put the final nail in the coffin. Three years ago he underwent a cooperation with two Remiferian medical experts. They discovered a lot, even formulated a biochemical theory of sepith-haemoglobin complexes and its resonance properties with the neuro-lymphatic system."
Wow, this was stuff even he couldn't follow. And he tried his best to keep abreast of new scientific developments on combat orbments. It was his most potent weapon.
"Professor Schmidt's theory fitted all data up to the point, but also contradicted the notion that social class determines arts affinity. Shortly after, talking about the Noble Blood Factor during a scientific conference has turned into a good way to be laughed out of the room."
Vandyck stroked his beard. "I won't pretend to completely follow your explanation, Lady Russel. But the initial ranking given to us goes against current scientific consensus, no?"
"And am I also correct to assume that Professor Schmidt's rebuttal against this Noble Blood Factor theory is well documented?" Vandyck continued.
Marvelous. Trust Thors' principal to cut to the heart of the matter.
"Of course. Most research papers in the scientific community are freely available. As long as we're not bound by contracts and stipulations on confidentiality we tend to openly communicate our experimental results." Erika grinned. "Scientists love to brag."
The men in the room looked at each other, before nodding as one. Olivert smiled. "In that case, I see no problem going along with Erika's ranking. Dearest Mueller, can I entrust you the task of procuring the needed research papers to prove the Reinford researcher's detestable subterfuge? Presenting them to the board of directors and the members of the General Staff Office will certainly be most entertaining. I think the archive at the Roer Institute of Technology should prove a fruitful avenue in finding them."
"I'll see what I can do. And stop calling me 'dearest'."
"Before the two of you descend into another round of bickering," Zechs Vander said, "let's start. The list won't get done by itself."
"Agreed." Vandyck said. "I suggest we screen the top ten students with the highest ARCUS aptitude first." The principal looked at the names again and took out the first dossier in alphabetical order.
"This should be an easy one", he chuckled. "Laura S. Arseid. Intermediate rank in the Arseid school of swordsmanship. Arts affinity C+, ARCUS aptitude A-, graduated Lokis military academy in Bareahard magna cum laude. She was merited the badge of courage and friendship during her first year and the medal of strength in second year. She displayed excellent conduct during her tenure and is a natural leader. No friction with commoners. Member and later captain of the swimming club, she is also proficient in horseback combat. Took advanced electives in small scale assault tactics, military history and logistics. Finished them all with excellent marks. She scored 23th out of 200 on the entrance exam for Thors, reached 307 points on the Manway physical fitness index, placing her square in the top 99,9 percentile of military personnel throughout the Empire. Her chosen academic major at Thors is economics."
Victor laughed softly. "As her father I can't be more proud of her. But I will abstain from the voting process. I am heavily biased."
The other occupants in the room joined him in his mirth. "You have raised a worthy successor, Viscount Arseid," Zechs said. "And no matter which Class she attends at Thors, I think Matteus will be delighted to work with her."
Mueller smiled one of his rare smiles. "You actually managed to snatch father away from the Imperial guard, Principal Vandyck?"
"Indeed, though far from full time. He'll visit Thors for three intensive weekend courses over the school year. Still, I am sure the students will greatly benefit from his guidance." Vandyck looked around the room. "So Laura S. Arseid shall be nominated the first prospective student of Class VII?"
The next two dossiers passed quickly albeit with difficulties. Jusis Albarea had excellent grades and recommendations, but Victor of all people spoke out against the bastard son of Duke Albarea. His daughter Laura knew the young man personally and according to her he was something of a loner. Elliot Craig's dossier only showed average grades and his artistic leanings weren't exactly military, though his arts affinity was prodigious. Still, after Olivert held a passionate speech on behalf of Jusis and some gentle prodding to steer the others in favor of Elliot, both were chosen to become Class VII members.
As a bastard himself, it only felt right to give the Albarea heir a chance. And young Craig was a fellow musician who had become something of minor celebrity in Heimdallr. He was one of the main instigators of a joint project between the Orchestra Club of Odins Military Academy and the Heimdallr Academy of Music. It resulted in a concert played during the Solstice Festival last year at Valflame Palace with Vita Clotilde doing the vocals. A performance that even impressed his father.
Olivert clapped his hands once. "Three down, more to go. Principal Vandyck, which letter of the alphabet is the next dossier?"
"The letter G."
"In that case, I'd like to make a special recommendation." He took out a dossier embossed in red. As expected the men at the table tensed, seeing it as the classified file it was. "Erika, this dossier touches upon national secrets of a political nature. I'm aware you can keep your silence, but the mere knowledge of what's about to be disclosed could put you into the cross-hairs of the Imperial Intelligence Agency."
"In other word, my lack of knowledge is supposed to be a protection." Erika scowled. "But aren't you underestimating me, Prince?" She speared him with her intense gaze and he suddenly felt like an insect under the scrutiny of a looming microscope.
"I have passing knowledge of the true reason behind the Hundred Days War." All military personnel in the room flinched. "I'm also aware of Ouroboros. As one of the lead engineers of ZCF I have the express permission of Queen Alicia II to try to match the Society's ridiculous technological supremacy. At this point, Prince, do you really think some dirty laundry from Erebonian politics is going to make much of a difference?"
Victor placed a hand on his shoulder. "Give it up, Prince. She's too headstrong for you."
Olivert dipped his head in theatrical defeat. "What an utter and complete loss. If Tita grows up to be like you, she'll end up the most formidable engineer in the whole of Zemuria."
Erika smirked, her face aglow with motherly pride. "Of course she will be. This is my sweetheart we're talking about. Now come on. This meeting is already dragging on. I'm curious what kind of student dossier even deserves to be classified."
Olivert opened the folder. "Before I begin, this was on Instructor Valestein's insistence. Allowing this individual to be put up for deliberation is one of two conditions for her working on Class VII." He inhaled deeply. This was going to be interesting.
"Fie Clausell, adoptive daughter of Rutger Clausell, deceased leader of Zephyr, aka the 'Jaeger King'. Place of birth unknown. Date of birth, unknown. Biological parents, unknown. Estimated age: 16. No formal fighting style. No formal education. Arts affinity C, ARCUS aptitude B+. Her entrance exam for Thors was waived. She reached 233 points on a standardized assessment exam for general knowledge, slightly above average for Erebonian citizens 18 years of age with mere Sunday School education. Reached 320 points on the Manway physical fitness index, placing her in the top 99,99 percentile. Further combat demonstrations and advanced written tests on combat subjects at Thors revealed her to possess applied knowledge in squad assault tactics, ambush tactics, stealth, tracking, survival, infiltration and ordinance handling on the level of second year graduates. She further demonstrates applied knowledge of ballistics, anti-arts combat, sniping, interrogation and sabotage on the level of first year graduates with respective specializations. Beside her chosen weaponry, dual hybrid gun-knifes, she is proficient in all ranged personnel weapons that are military issue up to class C heavy weapons."
He paused to take a breath. "Our knowledge of her...history with Zephyr is fragmented at best. Her codename is Sylphid. What can be verified is that she partook in her first combat operation five years ago. Eye-witness reports combined with intelligence from the internal Jaeger network places her involvement in nearly all 45 combat operations conducted by Zephyr from then until their disbandment four month prior. According to interviews with Instructor Valestein and other eye witnesses, the corps has abandoned Fie Clausell and has actively cut all ties with her."
Major contributions she performed according to an annex from the IIA include a successful infiltration of Juno Naval Fortress and subsequent sabotage of the fortresses' internal orbal energy network. It allowed 'Operation Seagull' conducted by the Lamarre Provincial Army to go without a hitch. Another noteworthy accomplishment was a multi-pronged ambush assault Zephyr performed against a rival corps named Fenrir. She was made temporary squad leader and slaughtered the enemy Fenrir unit to the last man and woman. That despite one-to-three numeric superiority on the enemy's side and without a single casualty. Last but not least was Zephyr's involvement during the Jester-incident. One of the rare occasions of Bracer-Jaeger cooperation facilitated by none other than Cassius Bright. Zephyr managed to anticipate and prevent the bombing of the Bracer Guild branch in Saint-Arkh. Following the exposure, Fie Clausell successfully shadowed and tracked the Jester unit to one of their major hideouts, allowing the Bracer task force to rout a full third of their units and decapitate part of the leadership."
As the annex suggests, Fie Clausell merits her own independent dossier managed by the IIA. Her current threat rating is 3, one below every Zephyr squad leader and two below the Jaeger King himself who was rated a threat to Erebonian national security until his demise. This threat rating is according to their footnotes an underestimation. 27 out of 45 Zephyr combat operations were conducted outside Erebonian borders. As such, she probably has additional noteworthy contributions under her belt which the IIA isn't privy to."
Vandyck was the first to regain his composure. "I'm aware of her case. Her attendance at Thors is already highly irregular and I'm also aware of her former affiliation with Zephyr, but certainly not the particulars." He shook his head, suddenly looking his true age as if the years were weighing down on him. "What a peculiar young lady. She's a war veteran with the body and mind of a sixteen year old girl, no pardon me, a sixteen year old woman."
Zechs still looked flabbergasted. "Operation Seagull happened two years ago. She infiltrated an Imperial fortress located in the middle of the sea when she was fourteen? And followed it up with a successful sabotage of critical infrastructure?" He buried his face in his hands. "I wasn't even aware there was Jaeger involvement during the Lamarre Succession Skirmish."
Mueller sneered. "Probably just the way the Provincial Army wanted it, uncle. Imagine this becoming public knowledge. It would detract from their glory." He sighed. "To be honest Olivert, I don't have the foggiest clue how you even procured these intelligence reports, considering who the IIA ultimately answer to. Still, this Fie Clausell compares favorably to another infiltrator we know of."
"You aren't the only one who made the comparison, dear Mueller, though I don't think she quite reaches his level." He shrugged. "To wit, dear gentlemen, what do we do with this killer kitten?"
"Prince Olivert," Victor's voice carried an irritated edge, "your verbiage doesn't exactly evoke a positive image."
He laughed without remorse. "At the moment, Instructor Valestein is her official guardian, so I've already met her. She really is as cute as a kitten."
"Any further impressions?" Victor asked in a dry voice. "Aside from her… cuteness."
Seems like the others were thirsty for more information before committing to a decision, although Victor seemed offended. Well, chivalry and Jaeger ethics went as well as cold water on hot oil.
"Withdrawn. Almost apathetic. And considering her past, she's also surprisingly non-threatening."
Zechs leaned forward on the table. "Non-threatening? Please elaborate, my Prince."
"How to say it delicately. Oh well, usually people who're trained to kill display a certain edge in their body-language. Frankly gentlemen, all of you give off this vibe, more or less, if one knows where to look."
Vandyck stroked his beard. "Military life will do that to you, as long as one doesn't shoot to become an armchair general." He narrowed his eyes. "So young Fie doesn't display this edge?"
"Curiously enough, she doesn't. I even watched a practice fight between her and Instructor Valestein. She seems, how to put it, detached from the violence. No intent at all, like going through the motions."
Mueller scratched his head. "Honestly, I'm understanding her less and less."
"Was she matching the instructor during the fight?" Victor asked.
Now it was Olivert's turn to scratch his head. "Not exactly. This is Instructor Valestein we're talking about. She could give almost anyone in this room the fight of their lives. But little Fie wasn't getting overwhelmed either." He shrugged. "Both of them were holding back anyway."
"I vote yes."
All of them looked askance at the Radiant Blademaster.
"This is surprising, Viscount Arseid," Zechs stated. "I got the impression you didn't like this recommendation at all."
"Your impression is correct. I don't approve of Jaegers and their bloody trade. However, people change and this young woman seems to be at a crossroads in her life. Besides, if I were to detest all people with Jaeger affiliation I should also lambaste our Prince about his choice of Class VII's combat instructor, shouldn't I?"
Olivert suppressed a chuckle. He knew of course that Victor gave his full support to Sara Valestein, a woman who turned her life as a Jaeger around to pursue the path of a Bracer. Victor made his sympathy for the Bracer profession and lifestyle well-known when he voiced a passionate protest against Chancellor Osborne's parliamentary bills to curtail the Guild's presence in the Empire. It was a move which surprised a fair amount of Erebonian high society due to Victor Arseid's tendency to stay apolitical. Olivert actually got to know the Radiant Blademaster on a personal level by joining him in his protest. The subsequent cooperation stemming from that fateful meeting has continued to reap benefits until now, with no signs of stopping.
Mueller sighed. "We have at least one yes vote. I guess you're also backing her, Olivert?"
"I'm on the fence for once. I may have put her dossier forward, but I'm a mere messenger bird here."
Zechs folded his arms. "If I understand correctly, Fie Clausell's attendance at Thors, irrespective of which Class she ends up in, is already a done deal. How was this even approved?" He turned a questioning gaze towards Vandyck.
"It was on the insistence of certain members of the General Staff Office. I suspect some of them want to fast-track her in becoming a combat instructor."
Mueller made a noise of recognition. "Let me guess - Brigadier General Gneisenau is one of those interested in her."
Vandyck nodded. "You seem to have a clearer understanding of the situation than us, young Vander. Would you care to elaborate?"
Mueller nodded sharply. "Of course, Sir. Brigadier General Gneisenau is pushing for a new kind of combat doctrine. He wants to elevate the role of Infantry from mere support units deployed around armored vehicles or artillery into a potent force of their own. It basically means restoring the Infantry's former importance on the battlefield. The idea is to use a combined arms approach solely focused on foot-soldiers. His chosen name are Sturmtruppen – or stormtroopers. It has some sympathizers in the Ministry of Defense due to the cheaper cost compared to fielding bigger tanks in higher numbers."
Mueller folded his arms, his voice turning frosty. "Of course, this combined arms doctrine isn't anything new. Elite Jaeger corps like Red Constellation, the Northern Jaegers or Zephyr have been practicing and refining this approach for roughly a decade. Still, elite Jaegers are hardly a good baseline for the average Erebonian foot-soldier."
Zechs grunted. "It seems your superior plans to shoot for the position of general, nephew. That he does so on the back of a sixteen year old woman with a half-cooked doctrine, which could get a lot of soldiers killed, is something I find distasteful. This is enough reason for me to put her in Class VII. As long as Prince Olivert's Third Way plan goes off, Fie Clausell should have a shot at determining her own way in life. Even if she continues to live off war, her unique experience will better serve the combat doctrine behind Class VII."
Vandyck nodded. "I concur and also vote yes. I also thank you for sharing your in-depth knowledge, young Vander. It seems I'm being kept out of the loop these days about the true machinations of the General Staff Office. The curse of retirement I fear."
"One question, gentlemen," Erika spoke up. "What is this combat doctrine behind Class VII all about?"
Another one of her pointed questions. Olivert decided to humor her. "To prepare the prospective cadets for their role in the Third Way, we designed a curriculum which combined the best aspects of Thors education with a training program for Junior Bracers. This is one of the reasons I wanted Sara Valestein, an A-Rank Bracer, as their main instructor."
The Liberlian researcher narrowed her eyes. "How does this even work? No, how did it even got approved? My husband told me about the way the Guild and the military are always at loggerheads."
The Imperial Prince shrugged with an exaggerated motion. "Very true. In case of the beast which is the Erebonian military, their distaste for the Bracer Guild is particularly pronounced. That's why I had to give some of Erebonia's top brass a bit of enticement for them to fall in line."
Erika's face took on a hard edge. "Enticement?" She asked coldly, her harsh tone ordering him to continue.
"I asked Principal Vandyck to help me draw up the doctrine for a new version of elite unit. Highly trained, extremely intelligent youngsters skilled in various academic fields, fighting styles and field abilities, their different talents combined into a single flexible unit. Instead of funneling the bright minded cadets towards a career of staff officers, like current tradition demands, the idea is to shape them into a small, but very powerful squad. They're required to accomplish extremely complex and demanding missions behind enemy lines and to adapt to ever changing conditions and mission parameters. This kind of squad can operate on speeds that frankly, a conventional army could never match. In the end, the ARCUS orbments are merely a measure to accelerate and streamline the process. As for the name, we decided to call them Special Forces."
Erika's voice turned so cold, it send shivers down Olivert's spine. "I see. So a cross between Bracers and Jaegers but beholden to the chain of command of the military, backed by their considerable resources."
"This is a good approximation," he said delicately, not sure why she seemed… let's call it distressed. And intent on clobbering him.
"You have done something very dangerous, Prince." The researcher pronounced every word. "This idea of Special Forces is very much like a newly invented weapon of war. As an engineer, when developing new means for my fellow humans to kill each other, the moment I publish the blue print, the usage of said blue print is out of my hands. Even if I wished otherwise. This Bracer-Jaeger mix you thought up will end up the same. If your plan goes well, the youngsters in Class VII will use the power given to them to make your ideals a reality. This doctrine will be in the open though, usable and abusable by all manners of people sitting in military positions, no matter the nation."
The door to the conference room opened and Viscount Arseid's old retainer Klaus stepped in. He performed a graceful bow. "My lady, gentlemen. I have prepared some local cuisine from Legram. While I'm not as proficient as the Arseid household's designated cook, I believe this old fox still has some culinary tricks up his sleeves. Would you care for a short food break?"
"Thank you for your work, Klaus," Victor spoke hastily, intend on dispelling the heavy atmosphere. "This is most welcome. We had a string of harrowing discussions."
The old retainer's eyes twinkled. "Oh? I hope you gentlemen didn't come to blows."
Olivert laughed. "Hardly, retainer Wallenstein. If the individuals present decide to duke it out, this villa would turn into shambles in short order."
Zechs gave a weak smile. "Don't even joke about it, my Prince. But as far as real food is concerned? Count me in."
The short food break ended up lasting almost two hours. Klaus had prepared rainbow trout fillet with a delicious sauce of white wine, lemon and custard milk, finished with equal measures of red and black pepper. Freshly baked rye bread accompanied the main course as well as a plate of wild vegetables. Mostly diced forest carrots and burdock, mixed with herbs and a small shot of dark vinegar.
The red tea Olivert was sipping was brewed to perfection with a dash of goat milk, giving it the kind of mouth feel he preferred. Enjoying tea this way was an old Nord custom, something his master learned from the nomads during his 'exile' at Zender Gate. Truly, were it not for the various political problems plaguing his homeland he would consider Erebonia a very pleasant nation to live in, with a great variety of food and culture just begging to be explored and enjoyed. Unfortunately, it was an old land, very set in its way, the soil suffused with blood and iron.
After their filling meal, which was very light on the stomach, the people present made some light conversation. Olivert felt storm clouds brewing inside his mind though. Erika's astute prediction was weighing on his conscience. He had invested so much in his idea, this wind of change - a moniker he liked to use in the privateness of his mind. The negotiations, the careful haggling, favors accumulated over years, harvested like wheat. In the end, Class VII became something utterly unique in his mind. A singular project that won't be repeated any time soon.
How foolish of him.
He wanted the mixing of social classes to be a trailblazer. But how did he overlook that there were other aspects of Class VII to inspire imitation? It was actually worse, because the combat doctrine he thought up was useful for every nation as long as his proof of concept met with success. And he was disinclined to hope otherwise. The vanguard for the Third Way needed all the power and skills it could get. It would just be a toothless lion otherwise. Nice to parade around, but without any true bite.
He allowed himself a self-derisive smile. Seems like he had a long way to go. Someone like Erika was able to immediately grasp the consequences of innovation on an international scale. Surely the result of her background as a renowned scientist. Truly admirable and something he should strive to emulate.
No man was an island. In the same vein, no nation was an island, at least not on Zemuria.
He smiled again, this time without any self depreciation. Nothing to be done but continually sharpening his wit. He wasn't going to perform such a blunder again.
After another round of pleasant conversation the group returned to the conference room, intent on finishing the last bit of deliberations to make Class VII a reality.
The next dossiers turned out to be short affairs and were quickly rejected. One Rosine Guenther and Hugo Kleist. Both had solid grades and aptitudes, but Rosine lacked any outstanding accomplishments and social connections while Hugo's commitment was even more in doubt than Elliot's. The cadet insisted on commuting to Trista from Heimdallr, splitting his time and attention between his company and Thors from the onset.
The next one turned out to be mighty interesting though.
"Emma Millstein," Vandyck read in his gravelly voice. "Parents Sigmar and Lisa Millstein. From a remote village near Saint-Arkh. Arts affinity S, ARCUS aptitude S, only general Sunday School education. Due to lack of any combat ability or training, she was assigned to the Orbal Staff program. Scored 1st out of 200 on the entrance exam for Thors. Reached 156 points on the Manway physical fitness index, placing her slightly below the physical requirements for military service. Has procured additional certificates from the Imperial Academy in Heimdallr in orbal physics, orbal chemistry, biology, linguistics and general history. Scored almost full points on all certificate exams. Her chosen academic major at Thors is orbal science."
Again, there was silence. "Sir," Zechs began, "these certificates are usually taken by people without higher education who gained their knowledge through years of work experience, if I remember correctly?"
"Is this young woman eighteen?" Victor asked.
There was again silence.
Mueller pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'd like to say she's a spy, but I can't imagine any intelligence agency being this blatant. This almost veers into stupidity."
He grinned. "We can always take it at face value."
"Seriously, Olivert?" His stalwart companion grunted. "This young woman somehow acquired the equivalent of five university degrees without ever studying in one and without falling back on any notable connections or pedigree we're aware of. She also happens to have the same arts affinity as you. A member of the Arnor blood line. Everything screams fake here."
"But that leaves the question of how she managed to falsify these records," Vandyck said. "Thors triple checked. And if she or her backers indeed have the power and reach to give her such credentials, which also holds up to scrutiny, why didn't they do it in a more prudent manner?"
"I feel like there's some unfathomable force guiding her actions," Victor added. "No matter the truth of her supposed accomplishments, it leads to uncomfortable conclusions. Still, I say we take her."
Olivert smiled. "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer?"
The Radiant Blademaster shrugged. "We're all men of a martial bend. This kind of action is par of the course."
Mueller rubbed his temples as if to stave off a headache. "I guess we should assign someone to keep an eye on her?"
"We can ask instructor Valestein," Vandyck suggested.
"I agree, but backup is always appreciated." Olivert took out a red rose, using it as an impromptu pointer. "I think I'll have someone sympathetic to our cause become part of the service staff at Thors. Unobtrusively of course."
"Class VII's dormitory?" Mueller asked.
"Too obvious. I'll give you the details later, dearest." Olivert took a sniff.
They continued with the dossiers, rejecting Alan Schneider, but including the graduates Alisa Reinford and Machias Regnitz into the program. It left a stale taste in Olivert's mouth. On a purely academic and physical level young Alan was as capable as the other two, although he lacked some of their recommendations. What cinched the decision was the sheer political weight behind the Reinford and Regnitz name. And due to Rufus Albarea and Governor Regnitz being on the board of directors and Jusis already in the run, dismissing Machias could damage his reputation of being an impartial force between the Noble and Reformist faction.
Erebonian politics could be so tedious.
With the top ten graduates in regard to ARCUS aptitude screened, they looked over the next ten. However, their search turned out to be much less fruitful than before. Mostly scions of big shot Erebonian nobles, even the third son of Marquis Hyarms. All of them with a penchant for treating commoners like dirt. The rest showed good grades and aptitudes, but lacked that certain 'something'.
They finally found another prospective cadet, a denizen of Nord called Gaius Worzel who graduated with honors from Baldurs military academy in Roer. He came to study in Erebonia through a run-in with his old master and Zechs Vander was full of praise for the young man, which was an accomplishment in itself. Like his father the emperor, Zechs Vander was a man who didn't impress easily. And having an outsider's perspective in his experimental class was exactly what they needed.
Olivert clapped his hands again. "Lady Erika, gentlemen, I thank you all for your momentous effort. With eight cadets carefully chosen, I think we've established a good basis to start Class VII. If there are no further additions, I would like to call this nightmare of a session closed. As much as all of us get along, we probably look forward to returning to our usual duties and loved ones again."
Laughter and agreement followed his words. Only Principal Vandyck remained serious. "I'd like to make another special recommendation," the retired general rumbled. "Seeing as all other participants of our round table discussion are ready to leave, this should be the last nasty surprise of the day."
Olivert quirked an eyebrow. "Principal, please stop to tempt fate. Though this truly must be a special student."
"I don't think I can outdo your IIA dossier on young Fie, but yes, it's a special case." He took out a thick file.
"Rean Schwarzer, adopted son of Baron Teo Schwarzer. Date of birth, unknown. Place of birth unknown. Biological parents... unknown. Practitioner of the Eight Leaves One Blade School. The latest known student taken by the Sword Hermit Yun Ka-Fai himself. Arts affinity C+, ARCUS aptitude B. Graduated Baldurs Military Academy in Roer magna cum laude. Was merited the badge of courage and friendship during his first year and the medal of bravery in second year. Displayed good conduct during his tenure and shows natural leadership in times of crisis. Significant friction with commoners and nobles during his first year due to his unique heritage. No official club membership, though he was reported to have participated in over ten different clubs during his first year. According to extensive footnotes consisting of interviews with various instructors and students, he ended up the unofficial handyman of the student council. He spent a significant amount of time running errands of all kinds across campus. In that capacity, he also became a honorary member of the fishing club, the tea ceremony club, the photography club, the fencing club and the riding club."
He was, according to this extensive annex, instrumental in solving the Sachsen Mine Incident along with Alisa Reinford and Towa Herschel, though his involvement was pushed to the background due to political reasons. He took advanced electives in archeology, political history, military history and cultural history. Finished them all with excellent marks. He scored 44th out of 200 on the entrance exam for Thors, reached 255 points on the Manway physical fitness index, placing him in the top 95 percentile of military personnel throughout the Empire. His chosen academic major at Thors is, unsurprisingly, history."
"An Eight Leaves One Blade practitioner." Zechs mumbled. "If we were to accept him, we could as well turn Class VII into a martial-arts exhibition."
"This sounds like a marvelous idea, master", Olivert said. "I shall discuss the possibility with Instructor Valestein posthaste. All we're lacking is a Vander style practitioner. However, this can be quickly ameliorated, given that one of them is my bosom-buddy."
Mueller popped a vein. "That was sarcasm, you idiot."
Zechs sighed. "General Vandyck, Sir. I'm not sure why you put this student forward, but his ARCUS aptitude is below our agreed threshold. No matter his other accomplishments, I really don't want us to establish a precedent here. I also have serious misgivings about his focus. In wake of the Orbal Revolution, the people have been increasingly pushed to further specialization. That's simply the way of the times. This cadet seems to aim to become a generalist though which is simply not feasible anymore."
Vandyck thought for a moment. "Zechs, despite young Rean's generalist attitude, he carved a place at Baldurs on his own and it allowed him to pursue a role very similar to the Bracer portion of Class VII's curriculum. In a strange twist of fate, he, like young Fie, is already way ahead in his course work. As for focus, I posit his electives show him to be capable in this regard as well. The reason I'm in a position to even make the recommendation is due to Towa Herschel making a convincing case for why a project like Class VII would be ideal for someone with his background."
"Towa Herschel?" Mueller asked. "Wasn't she one of the students participating in the trial run?"
"Exactly," Olivert said. He turned towards his master. "I am aware you're a stickler for commitment, but I understand exactly why Cadet Herschel insisted on including her former junior in the mixed class system. A system she has experienced for herself no less. Think about his background: Rean Schwarzer, even more than Jusis Albarea, is someone straddling the line between commoners and nobles. The moment he was put into the noble quarters, there was no escaping his stigma of adoption. But a project like Class VII? A place with the potential to accept him as he is? You can be sure, master, that he will do his utmost to cherish and protect such a place. To make it thrive. Isn't this enough commitment?"
Zechs raised his arms in defeat. "You win Olivert, though I think your preference for Eight Leaves One Blade practitioners is shining through."
He grinned. "I don't have a clue what you are talking about."
Victor rubbed his forehead. "I'm really on the fence here, but with the majority already willing to include young Rean, I simply look forward to all the growth my daughter will no doubt undergo. With such an eclectic roster of cadets I feel like this will be a bountiful year."
The participants in the room slowly dispersed, though every man in the room took extra care to give their regards to Erika, praising her for her professionalism and expertise. Victor, the old charmer, even kissed her hand which elicited a giggle from the otherwise severe woman. Vandyck bowed the deepest out of all, uttering words that surprised everybody present.
"As the supreme commander of the Erebonian troops during the Hundred Days War, I apologize for all the tragedy, destruction and suffering me and my subordinates inflicted on the Liberlian people."
Erika's expression turned stony. "General Vandyck. I'm hardly representative of my countrymen and women. If you apologize to me, you'd have to apologize to a ton of persons all across Liberl. The people affected by the war are endless."
Vandyck locked her square in the eye, his face set in a rictus of determination. "If this old man is ever in a position to do so, I shall act as you say and apologize to all the affected people, one by one."
Erika smiled softly. "Then help the Prince with all your might, general." She looked at Olivert and the Imperial Prince felt more than ever the importance of the task in front of him. "The Hundred Days War is in the past. But we need to secure the future, so that our children might grow up in true peace. Not this uneasy zero-sum game played between nations."
With these words, the Liberlian scientist left the mansion.
Edit: Author rikotch pointed out in a review that not every reader may be familiar with the names of elemental Septium. I plan to go into greater detail about how orbal technology works than Kiseki canon, so these names are bound to pop up every now and then. Here's a list and a big thanks to rikotch for his commentary.
Earth - Amberl
Water - Sapphirl
Air - Esmelas
Fire - Carnelia
Time - Nohval
Mirage - Argem
Space - Goldia