A/N: What happens when two Eight Leaves One Blade Practitioners meet? They wax philosophy of course. Notes about Japanese swordsmanship are found at the end of the chapter. Have fun reading.


Chapter 16 – City of Parallel Justice Saint-Arkh

2:00 am

Body dummy tucked into the bed sheets, check. Nightvision googles on, check. Hair stuffed into his headscarf, check. Face paint on, check. Handguns and Rebellion Master Quartz ready to go...

Perfect.

Crow left the cadet tent on silent soles while cloaked in the concealing shroud of mirage. The first part of tonight's nightly operation was the most prone to failure, namely sneaking out of the cadet tent without any of his schoolmates noticing. They might sleep the sleep of the damned and downtrodden what with them being put through the wringer during the field exercises, but there was always the risk of somebody waking despite their no doubt bone-deep exhaustion.

Still better than trying to sneak out of the train. As a second year and temporary assistant instructor, he was technically allowed to rest in a more comfortable bed together with the instructors and his fellow second years. He declined though, claiming that he wanted to be seen as the more approachable kind of drill sergeant who wasn't afraid to roll in the mud with the rest of the firsties.

Crapload of bull of course.

Getting past the instructors was simply much, much riskier. Thors didn't suffer any fools and it's field instructors were without exception the cream of the crop. Certified badasses, each of whom could murder him in a straight fight if he was ever foolish enough to engage them in such, with instincts honed for decades in Erebonia's strict martial culture and the theater of war.

There was also Angelica and her freakish eastern martial arts sense, though according to Instructor Sara, Rean was even worse.

Or better, depending on which side he happened to be on. Crow was certainly glad that Class VII's field studies took them out of the exercise camp. After everything he learned about Eight Leaves One Blade practitioners, he'd most likely abandon his plan to sneak away during the night, if the black haired swordsman were in the vicinity.

The patrols around the tents were easily evaded. Crow was among the ones who came up with the patrol routes after all. He made it past the base perimeter shortly after and disengaged the cloaking field. Almost half of his entire energy capacity spent for only 90 seconds of invisibility. The cost was steep, but Crow knew better than to underestimate the tactical application of even a few seconds of cloaking. He pulled out an EP capsule and plugged it into his orbment's energy port, watching how the luminescent fluid was hungrily sucked into the device, its color identical to the ever present Epstein-Kowalski radiation.

As for the next step...

Crow put up more distance between him and the exercise camp. He then took out a small feather which glowed in the deepest azure, an eerie blue that seemed to suck in the darkness. He channeled a little mana into it, one of the tricks Vita taught him, though she tended to be stingy with showing him the intricacies of her spellwork. The diva did admit that he had an unusual knack for learning Hexen magic, but Crow suspected that deep down she still defaulted to the customs of her clan if she didn't have a clear reason to break them. And those customs were pretty clear on dudes not allowed to learn the cool stuff.

Despite the front Vita put on about being a heretic among her people, Crow was pretty sure that she valued her roots. He smirked as he gazed at the starlit sky. Going down a road of sin and crime, a road which inevitably lead them astray from their places of origin. All the while though, they clung to past memories with a dead man's grip, their spirits fueled by the nostalgia of better times.

Better times stained through the harsh realities of life, for when Crow sought recovery in sleep's gentle embrace, it was the image of a smiling old man shuffling cards that haunted his dreams.

As Grianos settled on his shoulders, the bird's plumage looking as scintillating as ever, Crow wondered about the kind of demons haunting the dreams of his beautiful partner in crime.

The spatial translocation felt smooth with Vita's power washing over him like water, caressing him, drenching him, swallowing him. The sensation was somewhat similar to the way he was transported into Ordine's cockpit, a brief moment of unrealness that permeated his existence as he moved through space with deceptive ease.

He reappeared in a small clearing. Tall grass surrounded him as well as flowers with white blossoms, their color only perceivable through the sparse illumination provided by starlight. There were trees with their thicket forming alcoves pointing in all four cardinal directions.

Crow got the impression of standing inside a natural pavilion and there was something magical in the air.

"Hello, my lovely Chevalier."

She flowed into his vision as if she materialized from nothing. The luminescence of her dress shone in the same darkness-sucking blue as her familiar. Bird and witch merged into a single shade of haunting aquamarine. Crow felt slender arms around his shoulders, listened to the rustling of lace against the fabric of his combat fatigues. When she whispered into his ear, her lips close enough to feel the heat from her breath, his knees turned to jelly.

"Miss me?" Her Voice was thick like molten chocolate, dark, lustrous and aromatic, her words ephemeral kisses that directly assaulted his brain. Crow felt a shudder run through his entire body. A dam broke as he leaned forward, his gaze resting a mere second on her impossible long eyelashes and the beauty mark beneath her left eye.

He stole her lips, tasting nothing but infinite softness, his senses submerged in a sea of passion. The skin around her neck was cool to the touch just like the rest of her body. She liked to say that she was anemic and Crow was clueless as always whether she spoke in jest just to confuse him.

But he liked it. That creamy smoothness and the startling contrast to his own skin, for he had plenty of heat to share. It was a fire which had roasted his soul for years, lit by a fuse as slow as the gradual demise of his grandfather. A burning hate stoked by the experience of watching the person he loved most waste away, unresponsive to the world around him.

Nothing but a catatonic body, a mentally shattered corpse just waiting for its biological functions to cease. And all the while, he could do nothing but watch, powerless to change anything for the better.

As their kiss deepened, something started to flow between them. Something primal and raw, a shadowy feeling of water currents far more voluminous and substantial than the saliva exchanged. Just like the power of Grianos which had suffused him earlier, only more concrete, more potent. A pulse of the purest sapphirl reverberated between them, circulating from one to the other in an endless loop so very reminiscent of the icon of her organization.

Crow drank from this generous offer. Greedily. Hungrily. It was power, pure and simple. Mana compatible to his own, for they shared the water part of their elemental affinity.

Flashes of images, tiny vestiges of memory shadows bubbled inside his mind, as transient as sea foam, trickling away the instant he tried to grasp them. All that remained was the phantom taste of unshed tears and the echo of suppressed wails. The emotions see-sawed, like the ebb and flow he learned to read as a kid. And with each turn of the tide, something was flushed out from inside him, cleansed.

They separated from each other, breathless. The diva's cheeks were flushed, something Crow felt through his fingertips instead of seeing it.

"Vita..."

"Do you feel better?"

"Considering you just pumped me full of mana..."

She leaned closer again, her body pressing against his own, stoking a fire inside Crow which was entirely different than the usual one burning inside him. "Don't be obtuse." She placed a well-manicured hand on his breast, right atop his heart. "I'm talking about what's in here."

"You know what's in there. The hate necessary to bury that bastard six arge under."

"Really?" Her Voice took on a cadence as if she was rolling her eyes, without her actual eyes doing it. "Then how can you look at me like this? How can we kiss like this? Is the only emotion exchanged between us hate?" She cupped his face with both hands. "It certainly doesn't feel like it."

"You're one hell of a vixen, you know that? Trying to lead proper terrorists astray from their self-destructive path."

"Why, you say the sweetest things."

He paused. Didn't he still had his face paint on? Did he just kiss Vita in such a state? He looked her over while touching his left cheek only to realize that the skin was unblemished.

Vita winked. Her seductive lips formed a teasing smile.

Magic. Crow closed his eyes. Technically, they were both on a schedule. But if nothing else, he prided himself on being good at improvisation. No plan survived contact with the enemy and all. Liberties needed to be taken instead of slavishly following a timetable.

Their bodies merged again. The scent of lavender made his head swim. They sank into the grass in concert and rolled along the ground ending with Vita on top of him. Their legs intertwined, hands roving over the body of the other. The diva's unadorned hair fell freely around his face, surrounding his field of vision like a curtain.

Crow activated his Rebellion Master Quartz, concealing them both in a cloak of invisibility. It was a waste of energy. Vita would've never greeted him in a place easily disturbed and the darkness shrouded their activities further. But he simply felt like it. Another layer of mystery thrown on top everything else. A hidden space only they were privy to. An intimacy that nobody else could pierce.

Her first reaction was to quirk a single eyebrow. But her slightly exasperated smile told him that she'd play along with his childishness. And as their lips met once more, Crow sank into a comfortable blanket of pleasure and peace.

.

- ] | [ -

.

Vita puttered about his face, all the while murmuring those arcane words he never bothered to learn.

Following their brief 'roll in the grass' and setting straight their wrinkled clothes afterwards, the witch set out to deal with the actual business their nightly rendezvous entailed. Namely maintaining some of his long-term enchantments. The by far most crucial one was a subtle mind shield which served to prevent his more negative emotions and the associated memories of spilling over through the ARCUS link. Sitting all pretty in one of the more heavily militarized locations of the Empire as a hidden terrorist made certain precautions necessary. And as cool as the idea of the combat link was, Vita was quick to intervene when Crow was chosen as a member of the trial group a year ago.

How could he ever thank her enough for all the help and guidance she provided? Nevertheless, Crow was starting to get bored.

"Yo, Vita. There's one thing I've been wondering about."

"I'm all ears."

"Do you know a girl called Emma Millstein?"

She froze in the middle of her incantation. He felt how the mana around him dissipated into uselessness. "Sometimes, you're much too smart for your own good, Crow." The witch sighed. "And now I have to start from the middle again."

She put a hand on her hip. "How did you know?"

"For one, the orbal science instructors won't shut up about her. Her arts affinity is S-Rank. In other words, too high to properly quantify. People like that aren't exactly common. Besides, she gives off a similar vibe to you. I can't really explain but each time I talk to her, I can't help but be reminded of you."

Vita nodded. "Hone these instincts of yours. They will carry you far."

"Thanks. Well, another thing that made me suspicious was that her looks were a little too flawless. I mean, the noblewomen at Thors have their personal maids to help maintain their appearances, but even then the harsh training still takes its toll. Even the best skin-or hair care can't cover up some of the damage, especially when the ladies in question decide to keep their hair long.

His companion palmed her face. "Oh, this foolish girl."

"Nah, I doubt anybody noticed beside the other Class VII girls. Though I wouldn't be surprised if they gang up on Emma at some point and interrogate her about her favorite make-up and shampoo brands."

Vita started to groan, her expression one he had never seen before.

"Oookay, she working for you?"

"No. She has a mission of her own." She sighed again. "Consider her... my little sister."

He blinked. "You don't exactly look alike. I'd say the only physical commonality between you is that you're both drop-dead gorgeous."

Vita gave him a half-lidded stare. "Why is it, Crow, that I get the impression you've been checking out Emma a little more than I'm comfortable with?" She bend forward and for the first time in quite some while, she straight up glared at him.

"Won't deny it." Her eyes became slits and he felt a cold shudder work its way down his spine. He raised both arms in surrender. "Overprotective much?"

The witch's glare persisted. She then looked away and to his utter surprise her lips formed into an actual pout. "Emma is a big girl now," he heard her mumbling. "She can fight her own battles..."

Okay, this was adorable. Not something Crow ever believed he'd think about Vita of all people. But here he was, watching her go into big sister mode.

"Hey, is there a risk that your little sister might discover the enchantments you put on me?"

The diva was still pouting, her arms folded below her considerable bust, a sight which would've eroded the self-control of lesser men.

"That's actually the reason this round of enchantments are taking so long. I'm weaving a new mana lattice from the ground up to conceal it from the eyes of someone versed in witchcraft. It won't be perfect, but..." she closed on him again, her index finger propping up his chin in a manner that was both sultry and threatening, "as long as you don't get all touchy-feely with Emma, you should be safe, my dear Chevalier."

Crow swallowed. "Warning received."

"Good. Now sit still and let me do my work."

About 10 minutes later during which Crow tinkered with the Quartz-configuration of his ARCUS, Vita finished her spellcraft. He put away his orbment and stood up from the boulder where he sat. "You leading the way?"

She smirked. "As always."

They left the clearing and its magical, fairy like atmosphere. As they made their way beneath one of the naturally formed alcoves, Crow felt as if they've re-entered the real world, with all its dangers and ugliness.

"Vita."

"Yes, Crow?"

"Thank you for trusting me."

She glanced at him with her left eyebrow raised questioningly.

He chuckled. "You showing me that vulnerable side of yours. How much you worry and care about Emma." He put a hand on her shoulder. "Don't think I'm fooled for a second. I might've surprised you a little by figuring out your relation, but if you really wanted, you could've deflected the whole topic. Instead you allowed me a precious glimpse into your past. So thank you."

Vita put her own hand atop Crow's which still rested on her right shoulder. "I did had an unfair advantage over you until now, didn't I? But as always, you're so adorably honest, my dear Chevalier."

He answered the smirk on her lips with his own. "Only to you, love."

.

- ] | [ -

.

They arrived at Vulcan's encampment shortly after. Most of the ILF members were resting with only a few patrolling the perimeter. Once Crow and Vita were spotted, they were quickly shown in - the witch's artful blue dress made it easy to identify her even amidst the darkness.

The bulky ex-jaeger was in the middle of fiddling with a military grade radio communicator. He turned toward them with a nod. "Boss, madame."

"Yo, Vulcan. Everything running smoothly?"

"Hah, yeah. At least from my side."

"Meaning..."

The muscular man flipped over a switch and stood up. There was some static, but soon enough, a female voice could be heard. "V, you still copy?"

"Solid copy, S. Had to cut off the transmission to G so we can pick up where we left off."

A suffering sigh could be heard from the other end. "We really need to come up with a better way to communicate than this. A three way briefing where only two sides can connect is a pain in the goddess's ass."

Vita stepped forward. "Perhaps I can help."

"Is that you, Lady Clotilde?"

"It is. Now Vulcan, please show me Gideon's radio frequency."

"On it."

Crow watched the witch look over the information. For a few seconds, she seemed absorbed in her thoughts. Suddenly, there was an outpouring of mana and as the Azure Abyss raised her Voice, it echoed and reverberated to his very core.

Resound, resound, O Voice everlasting.

Rend night's silent veil and reveal unto all the beautiful world!

Two sets of blinding lights appeared out of nothing, as if two stars were transported right inside the tent. The two sets of white brilliance expanded, revealing the faces of Gideon and Scarlet. The former assistant professor looked around with an expression of wonder. The ex-nun on the other hand had a bloody bandage affixed to her face. A bandage that covered where her right eye should be.

"What happened to your eye Scarlet?" The other members of the ILF asked at once.

Another suffering sigh. "Fragmentation grenade. Got me right where it counted. I'm up to the gills in pain meds, so if I lose the thread of the conversation or something, you know why."

"Are there further dangers with your injury?" Vulcan spoke up. "Has the splinter been removed?"

"Yeah. Karen provided first aid and after that Nimoy got that damn piece of metal out. Said something about threat of infection to the optical nerve and how this can progress to the brain." Scarlet whimpered. "But I'll let a proper doctor look over me once we're back at HQ."

"And if it's okay with you, Scarlet, I can also provide my services," Vita offered.

"Won't look a gifted horse in the mouth." She hesitated. "Is it perhaps possible to restore my eyesight with your magic?" Her voice sounded a tad hopeful.

"If the damage is as grievous as it sounds, then I fear there isn't much I can do, now that so much time has passed."

"Can't ask for more, I guess. Thank you, Lady Clotilde."

Gideon pushed up the frame of his glasses. "Well, Scarlet's distressing situation aside, this is a most welcome improvement compared to our until now flailing attempts at briefing each other." He inclined his head respectfully towards Vita. "If I were to hazard a guess, this is your spellwork, madame?"

"Yes. It's quite a useful trick, isn't it?"

"A useful trick, she says." Crow raised his shoulders in defeat. "If orbal technology were to recreate this 'trick' of yours, it would revolutionize long distance communication once more. But hey, I'm not here to complain."

He stepped to the center of the room and raised his voice. "Comrade S, Comrade V, Comrade G. How went the first phase of our plan?"

"If you were to ask my right eye, I'd say your plan was a little too successful, boss."

Crow folded his arms. "Were you the one who had to contend with the Icy Maiden, S?"

"That would be me." Gideon said. "The Chancellor's dog dismantled the little ruse I organized in Celdic as quickly as one would expect from her moniker. Not fast enough to prevent our ultimate aim from coming to fruition though.

"So..."

"Celdic's Grand Market manager has buckled under the pressure and agreed unconditionally to the implementation of the tax increases as stipulated by Duke Albarea under the Provisional Taxation Act."

Crow nodded in acknowledgment. "Job cleared then. And High Lordiness Albarea now owes Old Man Cayenne a favor."

"Honestly," Scarlet said, "I find this job pretty distasteful. Squeezing honest to goddess farmers like that."

Gideon exhaled loudly. "We went over this several times, Comrade S. War costs money. Especially those newfangled machines. The murderous tax rates are only a temporary measure until the Nobel Alliance has put that detestable man into the ground. I doubt Duke Albarea would be so foolish to keep it up, once they've won. Anyone with only a smidgen of economic understanding knows that this degree of tax gouging is unsustainable."

Crow wasn't quite so sure about Michael's forecast. From what he had observed during those fancy meetings, the leaders of Erebonia's Great Houses just loved to engage in dick-measuring contests. Marquis Hyarms was by far the most reserved among them, but Duke Albarea? His downright obsession with trying to upstage Cayenne were almost comical in their juvenility, were it not for the fact that this was an older than fifty manchild with more power than some nation states engaging in such behavior.

Compared to him both his sons were downright wellsprings of rationality and good sense.

He turned to Scarlet. "So, who were the ones who gave you such trouble, Comrade S?"

"Two officers actually. Captain Frederica Dominique and Major Michael Irving are their names. It was Irving who got me with that blasted grenade when I let down my guard."

Vulcan harrumphed. "But none of our comrades under your command were captured, I hope?"

Scarlet shook her head.

"What have you found out about these two?" Crow asked.

"Dominique is a Thors alumnus. Two years younger than the Icy Maiden as well as her protégé. As for Irving, he got into the RMP through Weapon's School. An artillery officer originally, but for some reason he decided to go with a RMP career. Certainly didn't make things easy for himself, though there's an interesting rumor about him."

"Really?" Crow leaned foward. "Let's hear it."

"According to an information broker from Raquel, the guy is the estranged cousin of Ms Icy Maiden herself."

He whistled, while Gideon scoffed. "So much about the Reformists' vaunted meritocratic ideals," the former assistant professor spat. "All I'm smelling here is the typical rotten stench of nepotism. How are Osborne's lapdogs any better than their political counterparts?"

"Is that guy trustworthy?" Crow asked.

"I'm having the information vetted from another source, but if you ask me, the guy's legit. You don't get the kind of reputation he has in Raquel until you earn it. Though he has some weird-ass fetishes.

The other ILF members except Vita looked at her askance. "Fetishes?" Vulcan asked, his tongue stumbling over the word.

"Me and my big mouth." She blushed a little. "Ahhh, whatever. Can as well tell you boys. Otherwise Nena will be insufferable during the next accounting session when she sees how little I paid for the info." She breathed in deeply as if to brace herself. "The guy, Miguel is his name, asked me to step on him."

Crow quirked an eyebrow. "What?" Vulcan and Gideon looked just as clueless.

Vita started to chuckle. "Men and their fantasies."

Before he could ask his partner in crime what in Aidios' name she was talking about, Scarlet elaborated further. "Apparently, the guy really likes it to have an attractive woman trample all over him while she's wearing high heeled boots. Don't ask me why. It was either that or forking over 220,000 Mira instead of 44,000."

"He gave you an 80 percent discount for that?" Gideon said aghast. He then palmed his face. "And I thought humanity couldn't disappoint me any further."

Vulcan guffawed. "He sounds like a pretty funny guy, if you ask me."

"Well, I can kind of see the appeal to be honest," Crow added.

"Considering your active imagination," Vita drawled, "I really shouldn't be surprised."

He answered her by waggling his eyebrows.

"But levity aside, comrades, we aren't exactly swimming in money, so what Scarlet did was pretty sensible," he turned to her, "well, as long as going along with that broker's fetish hasn't mentally scarred you or anything."

"Nah, I'm okay. The horror of losing my eye kinda displaced any psychological damage I might've suffered before."

"Don't push yourself too much, Scarlet," Vulcan called out. "Now that you've done your part, you should rest."

"You know what, big guy? I think I might listen to you for once. Dead tired here."

"Then rest," Crow told her. "You did well."

"By your leave then, boss. And you boys behave yourselves in front of Lady Clotilde." With a finger snap by Vita, Scarlet's image blinked out.

"That leaves only you then, Comrade V. Which RMP lapdog did you manage to smoke out?"

The ex-jaeger smirked. "A pretty interesting fellow. Name's Ingram Engels. Another major. Held his own against me in a brief one-on-one while his subordinates were distracted. And also pretty sharp nose. He didn't need longer than one day to figure out our little smuggling racket in Parm."

"And what about Gavin?"

"Arrested, just like we anticipated."

Crow nodded. "And you're absolutely sure the RMP won't be able to use him to get to us?"

"No, boss. We only ever dealt with Gavin through an intermediary. And that intermediary is more slippery than an eel. The RMP could as well be hunting a shadow. Honestly, I actually hope they swallow this bait. Will give them one helluva goosechase..."

"Which will stretch their limited forces even thinner."

Vulcan smirked again. "Got it in one."

Crow began to pace across the room. "With this threefold operation, we managed to tease out the top officers of the RMP beside the Icy Maiden. Along with their nominal leader Colonel Siegmaier this makes at least three other elites we have to keep our eyes on. I want extensive profiling done on Irving, Dominique and Engels. Ask Cayenne's little spies for help if necessary. I also want a proper assessment of the RMP's reaction time."

"Understood boss," Vulcan said.

"We'll get to it, leader," Gideon followed.

"Very good. Then let's get to the next agenda which is going to be one big headache." Crow furrowed his brows. "That nasty little rumor about the primary member of the Ironbloods, who is said to be a mole inside the Noble Faction."

The atmosphere became tense. "I put out some feelers," Gideon began, "but I came back with nothing."

"Same here," Vulcan said. "Asked a broker situated in Saint-Arkh harbor. Former sea-jaeger. Pretty good connections all around, but she believes it's just a hoax."

Vita stepped beside him "Considering that the entire Noble Alliance has spent a significant part of their resources hunting this rumor, I'm inclined to believe that it was Chancellor Osborne himself who planted it. The only thing we know for sure is the nickname 'Jade Rook'. Nothing else."

"So you think it's Mr Blood and Iron engaging in information warfare?" Crow asked. "Just a diversion, huh?"

Gideon snorted. "That man was considered a prodigious military officer back in the days. Such a gambit comes easy to him, I fear."

Vulcan nodded along "Just because we're leading Osborne's lapdogs on a goosechase doesn't make us immune to the same tactic. I'd even say that strategically, this is a loss. Rumors are cheap while our diversionary tactics devour quite a lot of manpower and mira."

Crow clicked his tongue. "Fair enough, I guess. What about you, Vita? Is there anything you could do with your magic?"

"I fear not. I may have spells that affect the mind, but proper mind reading to root out a potential spy is no easy matter. It's considered a dark spell for very good reasons."

"But it could be done in theory?"

The Azure Abyss sighed. "Duke Cayenne asked me the same thing. Yes, it could be done in theory, but it's simply not practical. Each human mind can be considered a world unto itself and to read its contents in any useful detail necessitates that I astralyze my own consciousness into the target."

"Let me guess: very dangerous."

"Yes. If I were to invade the mindspace of another human being without consent, even a moderately strong willed individual could cripple me permanently. In the worst case I could end up losing my consciousness forever, leaving me as nothing but a catatonic husk."

A shiver ran down his spine. Crow couldn't help but feel nauseated by the mere thought. Vita, the strongest woman in existence becoming like grand...

He bit the inside of his mouth until it bled, using sheer willpower to suppress the horror building inside him. Everything but that.

Everything but that.

"Is there no method to do this sneakily, Madame Clotilde?" Gideon asked.

"There isn't. The only other way to ensure the safety of the mind reader is to crush the will of the target. Certain drugs, heavy abuse, torture of the physical or psychological kind or... a depravity even more base. This should make it clear why this approach is impractical and unacceptable..."

"ENOUGH!"

Crow swept his gaze around, his expression wild with anger pouring out of him in waves. "This topic is over. Now!"

Gideon and Vulcan looked mildly shocked at his outburst. Vita was also surprised, but her surprise soon turned to dawning horror, followed by an apologetic expression. She moved near him and took his hand. "Crow, I..." She squeezed his fingers, her eyes full of understanding and reassurance.

He breathed in and breathed out. He tried to empty his mind, focusing only on the motion of his lungs. A cool hand, Vita's hand, caressing his temple followed by a mild sensation, as if his consciousness was wrapped inside a warm, snugly blanket.

Slowly, very slowly, his emotions calmed down. The veil of red and black faded from his vision. "I'm good now. I'm good now."

"I apologize, leader." Gideon sounded contrite. "I didn't think this through."

He let out a derisive laugh. "Water under the bridge, Michael. I brought this on myself. I was the one who broached this topic in the first place."

The former assistant professor sighed. "While this happens on a somewhat awkward note, I suggest we end our briefing here. By your leave, comrades?"

Crow closed his eyes. "Yeah, have a good night."

"We'll speak again," Vulcan said. Gideon's image blinked out.

The hulking man looked a little uncomfortable. "I guess I should leave you alone?"

"Wait!" Crow raised his hand, signaling him to stop. "This might be a little sudden, but you and our comrades need to vacate this place as quickly as possible. Consider this an order."

Vulcan folded his arms, causing his muscles to bulge. "Something happened?"

"You can say that again. My underclassmen kicked off a damn hornet's nest in Saint-Arkh and right now, one of the most famous bracers on the continent is only a stone's throw away. To top it all off, me and my fellow cadets ended up with a capture order for the White Rabbit."

"The Ironblood?"

"Yep." He popped the 'p'.

"This needs to happen fast?"

"Since yesterday, Vulcan."

"Then I'll get to it, boss. But next time we meet, you need to tell me the full story."

"Will do, over a pint of rye beer."

"That's the spirit. See ya."

And just like that, it was only him and Vita left in the tent.

"How are you feeling?" She continued to caress his hair.

"Better. Sorry I flipped out like that."

"Don't be. We were the insensitive ones. Everybody in the ILF carries burdens and mental scars. It's the other thing that unites you beside your hatred."

He looked down at his feet. "Too true."

"But I'm curious. What is this hornet's nest you were speaking about? Were you talking about Class VII?"

"Worried about your little sister?"

"Yes." Vita's expression was so serious, it almost scared him.

"Just a warning, but I don't have the full picture. Since the investigation in the Remiferian embassy began, the details have been on a need-to-know basis."

"Remiferian embassy?"

"Yeah, let me start from the beginning..."

He told Vita about the strange monster attack, the subsequent hunt inside Isthmia Forest which resulted in a dead end, the embassy fire, the high profile suspect and the sudden order issued by the instructors yesterday evening."

"You think the White Rabbit is either a murder suspect or a material witness?" Vita asked.

"Nothing else makes sense. I talked with Instructor Luditz and he confirmed that the order originates from Council Chancellor Linquist."

"Interesting. Since I arrived here, there has been a vortex of causality lines raging across Sutherland. A vortex so complex that I couldn't make heads nor tails about it. But now that you've told me about the activities of your classmates, the lines have become slightly clearer."

"Is this your precognition thing?"

"It's not exactly precognition. And we witches are mere amateurs when it comes to our paltry attempts at looking into the future. The only thing I can tell you, Crow, is that Class VII seems to be at the center of this vortex. So if you continue to associate with them..."

"My own causality is going to be influenced?"

"Yes."

"In a good or bad way?"

She sighed. "I cannot tell. Perhaps only Ouroboros' Grandmaster can."

"I guess you can't just make a phone call and ask her? Or whatever the equivalent of your Hexenmagic is?"

"I fear not. The Grandmaster only grants insight during critical junctions of her choosing."

He chuckled. "And then you wonder why I rejected your offer of becoming an Enforcer. Your whole organizational structure is shady as all gehenna."

"The offer still stands, Crow."

"Nah, I'm good." He paused. "Could you leave me alone for a bit?"

"Of course." She bend over and gave him a peck on the cheek. "If you need anything, you'll find me in the vicinity until Vulcan finishes his task."

"Yeah, thanks as always Vita. You're the best guide a guy could ask for."

"Of course I am." She left the tent with a flourish, a playful wink and finished it with a smile so tender it stole his breath away.

Crow sat down on a wodden crate. The vestiges of the horror vision were still gnawing at the edge of consciousness. He knew it was just a product of his overactive imagination, but damn was it a frightening thought. At least the first phase of their operation went smoothly. After everything they found out about Osborne, it was clear that both the RMP and the IIA served as his hand and feet, considering that his physical presence was constrained to Heimdallr most of the time.

Most of the provincial officers focused all their attention on the Iron Bloods. The young geniuses of the Chancellor, chosen from the best and reared by his own hands to do the work of elite veterans. Rumors of their deeds and accomplishments rippled ceaselessly across Erebonia's higher echelons of power. And their nicknames - White Rabbit, Scarecrow, Icy Maiden and the empty rumor that was Jade Rook - it surrounded them with an air of prestige and mystique, making them larger than life figures.

And the movers and shakers of the Noble Faction swallowed up the blasted melodrama hook, line and sinker.

Fools.

Crow knew misdirection when he saw it. At the end of the day, each Ironblood was only human and there was only so much a single human could do. No, this whole larger than life spiel served a crucial purpose most people overlooked:

The bigger the reputation, the bigger the shadow other elite operators could hide in. And the deadliest strikes were always the ones you didn't see coming.

He absentmindedly put his left hand into one of the half-open crates, groping around with his fingers. He then fished out a bottle with a shimmering fluid of esmelas green. Lost in his thoughts, Crow playfully twirled the container between his dexterous fingers until suddenly, the scales fell from his eyes.

The shape of the bottle, the material the stopper was made of.

He rushed to the half-open crate and ripped the cover away, finding an assortment of different colored liquids inside. Among them also bottles shining with the hue of water elemental septium.

It was identical to the bottle he found near the water source of the contaminated ostriches.

What did Vulcan say again? A smuggling racket in Parm? He only knew that the thing smuggled was septium, but he never bothered to learn how it was done exactly.

Crow ran out of the tent. Vulcan better had some answers.

.

- ] | [ -

.

3:00 am

Rean woke up to someone shaking him awake.

He opened his eyes, his consciousness asserting control immediately. As he rose out of bed, he didn't feel the least bit tired.

So he was this excited, huh?

"Morning, Machias." he looked out the window, seeing only darkness outside, "or should I say good night instead?"

"Not sure and don't care. Bed..."

"Have you been helping out until now?"

His fellow cadet nodded, his eyelids drooping. "Yeah, but wasn't really needed." He sank into the bed Rean just vacated and started to pull the blanket over himself. "Didn't know he was former police. Learned some things myself..." he yawned and pulled off his glasses.

"Sleep well, Machias," Rean said with a smile. He adjusted the blanket so Machias was fully covered. After that, he quickly changed out of his nightclothes and back into the cadet uniform. Once his tachi was attached, he left the embassy guestroom to resume his patrol.

The first hour was uneventful with him making his rounds dutifully while suppressing his desire to straight up walk into Ambassador Hylefias' office, where Arios MacLaine was doing his work.

A fellow disciple of the Eight Leaves, only a few rooms away. It still didn't feel real.

When the clock hit 4 o'clock, Rean decided to get a snack from the cafeteria. To his surprise he found Gaius and Jusis sitting together at a table with some food between them. But this wasn't what truly startled him. There was a falcon perching on Gaius' shoulder, a magnificent creature with black-brown plumage and a predator's bearing, it's sharp beak beautiful and deadly in equal measure.

Rean knew a bit about falconry. Living as part of the Schwarzer household made it unavoidable to get infected by dad's enthusiasm, passionate hunter that he was. And judging by his amateur eye, this animal wasn't tamed at all. It was also a good deal bigger than domesticated falcons though its sleek profile and build hinted at the speeds it could reach. The black haired swordsman unfocused his eyes for a moment, sinking slightly into the depth of his consciousness.

He was only half-surprised to realize that this falcon radiated Ki. Not much, but synchronizing with the flow of nature in this particular way hinted at intelligence far surpassing that of a mere beast.

"Hello Gaius, Jusis." Rean faced the falcon and felt the strange urge to be extra polite. He bowed slightly which was answered by a haughty shriek.

Gaius laughed. "Zeo appreciates your humbleness, Rean."

"He does? Wait, he's called Zeo? Like that Zeo?"

"Yes." They exchanged a knowing look. Thinking about it, Rean hadn't yet asked the Nordian to tell him the stories about their tribal heroes what with officer school keeping them so busy.

"Sit down, Rean," Jusis invited him. He inclined his head in greeting. "It seems this falcon has drawn your fascination, too."

"It's quite magnificent," he admitted. "I've seen my father handle birds of prey, but none quite like this one."

"Interesting," the Albarea heir said. "I didn't expect Baron Schwarzer and my elder brother to share the same hobby."

"I've heard of him. Rufus Albarea, right? He is also into falconry?"

"Quite so. Rufus has been an avid enthusiast for many years, though lately he has become too swamped by his duties to spend time on... frivolous things."

Rean could easily see where this line of conversation was going. "So... why exactly is a wild bird perching on your shoulder, Gaius? And where did you find it anyway?"

The Nordian smiled gently. "Zeo has been a protector of my homeland for many years. But for some reason, he decided to extent the area of his guardianship when I left the plains for Roer, intent on looking after me even on foreign land."

"And now that you've come to Thors, he continued to follow you?"

"Yes. I think we've become friends by now," Gaius picked up a sausage from his plate which was quickly devoured, "although Zeo still calls me a hatchling that needs to be watched over."

Rean wasn't sure how to broach the question that was on the tip of his tongue, but luckily, Jusis did it for him. "Do you understand its language, Gaius?" The high noble did an admirable job keeping the scepticism out of his voice.

"We're not communicating on the level of languages, I think, though I'm sure Zeo understands a good deal of human speech. It's more like..." the Nordian struggled for words, "something of a mental bond. Actually, it's surprisingly similar to how the ARCUS link feel."

Jusis chuckled. "Bird telepathy. Will wonders never cease? But if this connection is really as profound as you claim, will it be possible for you to convey that task to... Zeo?"

"Which task?" The black haired swordsman asked.

"It's about the search mission issued for that mysterious white object," Gaius explained.

Rean looked at the falcon again. "Tracking a flying object is practically impossible, which makes this a wonderful idea." Beside his anxiousness of seeing Arios MacLaine in person, finding the missing witness had been his other worry. It were his conclusions that led his classmates down this trail and he really hoped it didn't pan out to be another dead end.

"We're afraid so," Jusis said. "If the theory proves correct that this flying object is indeed ridden by a person, then it stands to reason that said person needs to land from time to time. Resting, eating or recharging the energy of whatever that white thing is. But with no tracks in between these resting points conventional scouts won't be able to do much."

He nodded. "But we do need to narrow down the area first. The entire Sutherland Province is too big for Zeo to search."

"Which is why all Thors students and even part of the Provincial Army have been ordered to question the populace and be on the lookout for this as of yet unidentified flying object." Jusis' voice sounded weary.

"Is this the end of your shift?" Rean asked the Albarea heir.

"Yes. A few hours of sleep might do me some good."

Gaius folded his arms. "You should've been in bed an hour ago, Jusis." The tribesman's chided softly.

"I cannot help it when you grace me with wonders such as this." This time the high noble inclined his head toward the falcon, who answered with another shriek that sounded almost friendly? Rean wasn't sure.

"Well, look at what the cat dragged out of the bag," they heard a playful voice call out.

Rean felt his heart skip a beat as his gaze was inexplicably drawn to the tall man walking beside Class VII's combat instructor.

He had seen his picture in an an old issue of the Crossbell Times and heard many a tall tale during campfire hours from Master Yun. But seeing his fellow disciple in the flesh was another matter entirely.

There was an air around him that was hard to define, as if his presence was shrouded in a perpetual veil. It didn't make him invisible or anything, but despite his personal interest, Rean imagined Arios MacLaine to be a surprisingly easy man to overlook. There was an unobtrusiveness about him that exceeded even Gaius' demeanor, which made his own gaze wanting to focus on other people in the room. Not due to any negative emotions the legendary bracer radiated outwards, but simply because the man gave off the clearly mistaken impression that he didn't matter much.

In between the merry stories Rean remembered from Master Yun, he had also glimpsed at some of the tragedies from the swordmaster's past. These memories came to the fore, as he took the measure of his elder disciple for the first time and somewhere at the edge of consciousness, he felt something click.

It was only an indistinct feeling akin to instinct, but Rean somehow understood where Arios was coming from.

They exchanged greetings, but soon enough, the others in the room turned their attention to the two Eight Leaves practitioners, clearly expecting something to happen.

Rean raised his hands in the traditional greeting of eastern martial-artists, left hand holding his tachi with right hand on top. Arios mirrored his motion with impeccable timing.

"Hachiyou Ittou Ryuu, junior disciple Rean Schwarzer extends his greeting to his elder."

"Hachiyou Ittou Ryuu, Arios MacLaine accepts his younger disciples' greeting with gratitude." He let his hands fall again, a signal to relax. He then smiled. "It's good to see you. I've heard a lot of things about you, Rean Schwarzer, last disciple of Yun ka-Fai."

"As do I, Divine Blade of Wind."

Sara groaned. "Oh for Aidios' sake! You could give nobles a run for their mira with how stiff your greeting is."

"And just as I was starting to respect you," Jusis murmured.

"Honored instructor," Rean began, "shouldn't it be your duty to encourage sensible behavior and be a shining example to the green eared cadets under your care? I remember distinctly how you gave us quite a... lecture about responsibility just a few hours ago."

"Ugh, I..." the fuchsia haired woman grimaced. "You see that, Arios? Being a teacher is totally tough. Excruciating working hours, cadets who give you lip constantly and zero respect."

The legendary bracer looked at his colleague with a slightly amused expression. "If I were to sum up the average bracer career: excruciating working hours, clients who give you lip constantly and zero respect. It seems your prior job experience prepared you perfectly for your current one."

Sara looked between Rean and Arios with mild exasperation. "You two are certainly quick to gang up on little old me. I can already see you getting along like a house on fire."

Rean scratched his head while Arios nodded in assent. "Followers of the Eight Leaves are few and far between. A rare meeting like this should be treasured, Sara."

After the two adults each got a tray of food and steaming cups of coffee, the five persons gathered around the table for another sitrep.

"Anybody care to tell me what this big bird of prey is doing here?" Sara asked.

They told her the plan which elicited a broad grin from their instructor. "Man, I was actually worried about this, but with Zeo here we have a true fighting chance." She smiled at Gaius. "Didn't expect any of you kids to pull out an ace like that at this late junction. Well done!"

"From the little I've seen of your cadets, Sara, you might be underselling them," Arios remarked.

Sara mock glared at her fellow bracer, a glare he endured with a perfectly stoic face.

"Well, the issue of our worth notwithstanding," Jusis said, "how goes the legal side of the case, Sir MacLaine?"

"There's no need for any 'sir' title. I come from a humble background. As for the affidavits, they look fine to me. From the beginning, me being here is mainly to lend weight to your investigation and smooth over potential diplomatic complications. As another Senior Bracer of sufficient rank, my presence also fulfills the condition for the four-eye-principle. Considering the political volatility of the case, having the available facts vetted by several persons of trustworthy repute is a necessity.

Jusis nodded sharply. "True words."

"I'm impressed how quickly you came for our call for help, Mr MacLaine," Gaius said. "Even after two years of living in urban society, the way modern travel has greatly shrunk the distance between nations continues to astound me."

"It's convenient and certainly faster than travel on horseback." Arios paused. "You're a member of the Nord people, aren't you? I've studied your people's customs and beliefs, though I haven't yet found the opportunity to pay your beautiful land a visit."

Gaius bowed his head. "I'm truly honored to have a person like you find interest in Nord culture. I myself would be eager to learn of your thoughts on the wind, considering its part of your moniker."

The tall bracer closed his eyes. "If you ask me, that nickname has overstayed its welcome for a long time." He looked pointedly at Sara. "Then again, some of my colleagues are very insistent on propagating these... nicknames at every opportunity. It's a case of majority rule within the guild I can do nothing about. As for my thoughts on the wind..." he looked at Rean who looked back, not sure where the conversation was going as he watched his elder disciple being deep in thought.

"It's something we might discuss shortly."

"So, already planning to fulfill my request?" Sara asked.

"I do plan to leave Saint-Arkh with the passenger liner at 10:00 am today, so I might as well start now."

Rean scratched his cheek. "What are you talking about?"

"Your instructor asked me to give you a short lesson. It's already rare enough for us disciples to meet, so we should as well make the time count. I suggest we go to the embassy courtyard. It has enough space to move around and is out in the open, so any noise we make won't be quite as far reaching." Arios turned to Gaius and Jusis. "You're both welcome to watch of course."

Rean blinked, unable to come up with a proper response. It never ceased to amaze him how frequently people went out of their way to help him.

Jusis cleared his throat. "I'd love to watch, but I fear I'm too tired to appreciate the upcoming spectacle. If anything, this could prove a fiercer duel than the one I watched between Rean and Angelica. Then again, it might end up far less spectacular, considering the difference in strength."

Sara folded her arms. "Weeell, now that I think about it, Cadet Albarea, your shift has long been over. Why are you still up and about and not safely tucked away in bed?"

He sighed. "Roger instructor. If you'll excuse me."

The fuchsia haired woman shook her head and then stood up. "I'll proceed with the paperwork, Arios. As much as I'd love to see your lesson, someone has to hold down the fort." She gestured to Gaius. "Cadet Worzel, be so nice and watch over these two swordnuts, will you?"

"Of course, instructor."

"Aaah, that's why responsible students are the best," she said as she gave the Nordian another big smile. As Sara left their group, they heard her muttering "...perfect to hoist all the troublesome stuff on them..."

Rean gave her retreating back a half-lidded stare. "Did she just say that aloud?"

"I fear she did," Gaius confirmed, his stoic demeanor not perturbed in the slightest.

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- ] | [ -

.

Just like the rest of the embassy, the inner courtyard appeared opulent due to its sheer size. Paved walkways, a neatly trimmed lawn and well cared shrubbery. It looked like the perfect place to relax during midday or afterwork hours, though considering recent events it propably didn't see much use yesterday.

Rean was facing Arios with Gaius standing on the sidelines. A fresh breeze was blowing, gently shaking the young leaves sprouting out of the trees. Despite the darkness, the twittering of birds could be heard, signaling the dawn that was soon to break.

Rean and Arios faced each other with about ten arge of distance between them. Neither has drawn their blades, but there was already a palpable tension in the air.

"Before we begin, I need an overview of your current progress."

So he told him. About his lessons with master, the wilderness training in the Eisengard Range, instructions cut short, though he omitted the exact reason. His desperate attempts to hold on his skills during Baldurs and finally Yun Ka-Fai's most recent letter as well as the instruction scrolls.

Arios listened without interrupting him once, though it was clear from watching that the man was taking everything in with razor-sharp focus. It was only when Rean finished that he spoke up again.

"Perhaps it was fate that lead us to meet in this most unlikely of places." He opened his eyes and as Rean met his elder disciples' gaze, he felt himself subjected to Arios' honed perception, as if his elder disciple was looking straight through him.

"Right now, you're stuck at Master Yun's second instruction scroll, correct?"

He nodded. "Yeah. The first one was just me going over the basics again. But once I've been confronted with advanced instruction, I realized how little I understand. Perhaps master was too eager to grant me the intermediate rank."

"Perhaps. Despite master's insight, there's only so much that can be done from a distance. Still, he gave you quite a monumental task when this is just the middle part of the instructions left for someone of the intermediate rank."

"You mean, I'm not ready for them yet?"

His fellow disciple shook his head. "No, what I mean to say is that this riddle should be too difficult for any practitioner of the intermediate rank. The task given to you is fit for a master." He closed his eyes.

Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form.

"But then again, you, Rean Schwarzer, are the one disciple chosen to follow the path of the Void. A path I am incapable of walking to the end. I have my own understanding of what this line means. But my answer is just part of the puzzle. And it only ends up highlighting my inadequacy." He stilled. "But if you're willing to listen to my flawed answer, it might be the support you need to continue."

"I...no. I'll gladly accept of course, but I don't believe your answer to be flawed. You're a Divine Blade, a legend."

"What you're talking about are titles. Artificial labels as transient as the wind. Ultimately, they mean nothing." He drew his weapon. "There is no need to put me on a pedestal, Rean. We're brothers in spirit following the precepts of the same school. The Eight Leaves knows no hierarchies. We might not be equals in skill, but we're all equals in standing." The tall bracer brandished his weapon at him. "I'll convey the answer you seek with my blade. Are you ready?"

Rean breathed in deeply. "Your words honor me, elder brother. So this is to be an instructive duel?"

"Something along those lines."

"Then would you serve as referee, Gaius?"

"It would be my honor."

His grip on the tachi was already becoming slick with sweat. This was the point of no return. A fight which would show him what he was lacking and perhaps even a way to move forward.

Rean felt Gaius cast adamantine shield around both combatants. He concentrated on his opponent and slowly drew his tachi. During his duel against Angelica, he had opened the fight with an unconventional feint and a fast approach, but such cheap tricks won't work against a master like Arios.

Slow and steady was the way to go. His mind reached into the ARCUS and steered time elemental energy from both the chrono drive and chrono break quartz into his body. With a deep exhale he activated a complex nohval current, which oscillated between quickening and slowing his internal time.

In sword duels, the common wisdom was to draw shallow breaths. When in the process of breathing in, the muscles reacted slower compared to when the air was expelled. As such, the general rule was to shorten the time of inhaling, while stretching the periods of exhaling to the limit.

Of course, the true difficulty was to direct the time manipulation so it only affected his circulatory system.

Rean took the waki-gamae stance, making each rege of his blade movement a deliberate action, keeping awareness of every last detail inside his body.

Arios went into an atypical stance, something he knew from court fencing rather than kenjutsu. One-handed Alber, sometimes called the fool's guard. Instead of pointing towards the enemy, the bracer's tachi was facing the side, revealing the blade-length in its entire glory.

Simple, but sturdy craftsmanship. Rean corrected himself though. This wasn't a tachi, but a full-blown odachi with a nagasa about ten rege longer than his own. Combined with Arios' longer arms, this gave his opponent a significant advantage in reach.

They began to circle each other, their steps measured and small, their feet stuck to the ground even when in motion.

Both their stances left obvious openings. But the fighting spirit they exuded chocked the air, their alertness drenching the atmosphere of the inner courtyard. It belied the seeming weakness of their fighting forms, revealing to the initiated the true menace underneath, like the open maw of a beast just waiting to snap shut its fangs.

Arios blade dipped minutely, but to Rean's focused senses the motion was akin to a monster lowering its head to prepare for the charge. But even with the foreknowledge derived from this telegraphed movement, when the Divine Blade of Wind began his attack, Rean lost sight of him halfway.

The opponent's slash went down in the exact millisecond of Rean's inhaling, the blade tip nothing more but a glint, hitting him at an awkward angle.

His adamantine shield broke, the kinetic force strong enough to throw him down the ground. Pain shot up and judging from his bruised left shoulder he was hit by a picture perfect kesagiri, a diagonal downward slash. He grimaced. Without the arts protection the blade would've cut through the collarbone and laid open his chest. A sure kill strike.

Once he was standing, his mind immediately went to work. He concentrated on the direction of the pain, Arios' stance which he hadn't changed in the slightest after the successful hit. Rean swept his eyes across the ground between the bracer's starting and finishing position. There was a line of disturbed grass, but it wasn't straight. Instead there was a bend about one-third from the beginning as if Arios' steps had cut a lightning bolt into the lawn.

He was pretty sure this particular craft wasn't part of any Eight Leaves form, though the flavor leaned heavily on the Second, which wasn't a surprise really. Nevertheless, despite failing to perceive his elder disciple's attack, Rean's mind was using the leftover clues to construct a clear outline of the technique.

Arios relaxed his stance. "Already seen through?"

"I believe so." He stroked his chin. "Though knowing how it works and performing it are two entirely different things."

"The performance part comes with practice. But I didn't chose this technique so you can copy my style piecemeal. That would defeat the purpose." The bracer sheathed his odachi. "Surely you're already developing an inkling of how this craft came to be?"

"The basis is clearly the special footwork inherent in the Gale Form," Rean answered, "but the modification feels like..."

"Yes?"

"The Fifth Form, I think."

"Very good. The middle part of my charge," he gestured to the ground, "is done by creating a controlled unbalancing, which is the core essence of the Petal Dance Craft." The tall bracer sat down on the lawn in the lotus position and gestured for him to do the same.

"This is my answer to the instruction that Master Yun wrote for you, Rean. Eastern martial-arts styles often talk about deep secrets hidden within obtuse instructions which have been bestowed from generation to generation." He paused. "But at least for us Eight Leaves users, mastering a specific form is something much simpler and at the same time infinitely more difficult."

Rean leaned forward, eagerly drinking in every word.

"You know of course that each form of the Eight Leaves are based on existing styles of Eastern martial-arts sects."

He nodded.

"I believe though," Arios lowered his voice, "that when Master Yun implemented these styles to create his own, he intentionally made each form flawed."

"Flawed?" Rean couldn't claim to have ever thought about the Eight Leaves techniques in this particular light.

"Remember, our forms are derived from complete martial-arts systems. Some of these sects boasts disciples numbering in the thousands, which if nothing else is a testament to their system's practicality."

He raised his eyebrows. It was slowly dawning on him what Arios was trying to say. "For a style to be considered practical, it needs to be applicable to most combat situations. But our Eight Leaves forms are too... specialized for that."

Arios chuckled. "I'd rather say constrained. Helix boasts uncontested offensive and defensive options, but the execution of the techniques take a lot of time, making its usage only worth it when facing a single foe with superior physical capabilities. Gale shines when facing a high number of weaker enemies, but a single strong or cunning opponent among the crowd can end up ruining you if you're careless. It also requires room to maneuver. Karmic Flame can generate surprising amounts of burst power in tight quarters and even from constrained positions, but the force multiplying nature of the techniques renders them vulnerable to counters once the movements are seen through, making the form heavily reliant on the element of surprise..."

"But as long as I assess the situation and use the form most fitting, the flaws can be compensated for."

"I believe this is what you've been practicing. But its just the first step, Rean." His fellow disciple closed his eyes. "Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form. For me, mastering Gale meant disengaging and then transcending the constraints of my form. To realize that the name, the labels, the classification were just an illusion. Gale by itself is flawed, but it needn't be a system only applicable against many enemies and an obvious weakness for experienced opponents."

Rean nodded in understanding. "So you removed these flaws by merging the Second Form with aspects derived from the others."

"Isn't this what art is? First comes practice and the attempts at imitation. Then, when the budding artist has the imitations down, follows the first bouts of originality which are easily seen through as existing aspects of the art put together. A string of various imitations to built something greater. But true originality is only reached when the imitations lose their definition, their clearly delineated forms. When it becomes increasingly difficult to tell where one imitation begins and the other ends, because they have become so seamlessly fused that something new was born instead." Arios stood up again.

"But enough with the theory. Let's go for another round. We've attracted a crowd."

Rean had already sensed the people, but he was so absorbed in Arios' speech that he hadn't yet checked who the additional observers were.

Two of the embassy guards stood at a respectful distance, their gazes starry eyed. Gaius was still watching them calmly which made Rean feel bad. The talk between fellow disciples was probably too esoteric for outsiders and excluding his classmate was the last thing he wanted. But the remaining observers were a true surprise: Fie and Laura were also present and judging by their hungry gazes - hidden behind Fie's apathetic mask and Laura's knightly presence - their desire to watch a Divine Blade in action clearly superseded any antipathy they felt for each other.

Despite their differences, those two had a lot in common.

Gaius stepped forward. "May I serve as referee again?"

"Of course. And sorry, Gaius, for making you listen to..."

The Nordian raised his hand. "There is nothing to apologize for. I only understood parts of it, but watching masters of their craft comparing notes is something I find deeply satisfying."

Rean scratched his head. "If anything, it's only Arios who's the master here."

"Bracer Arios," Gaius inclined his head respectfully, "also has more than a decade of experience over you. But let's begin the next round, shall we?" He cast another set of adamantine shield and both fighters took their positions.

Rean went into chudan stance, choosing to go for the most basic of basics. Now that he had tasted Arios' attack first hand, he at least knew what to expect. His elder disciple was as fast as Fie. Not a surprise really, considering they both had the dual affinity of wind and time, the elemental combination which allowed for the fastest movement. But different than his classmate, the man in front of him combined this prodigious speed with the intricate footwork often found in Eastern martial-arts, which served to distort the enemy's perception of range and timing.

Arios took Alber again, but with a twist - air began to stir around him, a whirlwind that condensed around the bracer's odachi. Petals swirled up and fresh leaves were ripped loose from the courtyard's apple trees as even more air was drawn to the blade which slowly, very slowly, lost it's substance until it seemingly disappeared.

Did he just...

The attack came from beneath, a rising slash performed from a low position while charging with the entire body close to the ground. Rean had performed this craft himself, but Arios' version was overwhelming in its speed and ferocity, nearly ripping away the tachi from his grip as he sought to deflect it.

He emptied his mind and unfocused his senses, sinking deep into the precepts of the Fifth Form, synchronizing his breathing pattern with that of his opponent's. His manipulation of inner time was easily seen through by Arios' Unclouded Eye, so Rean saw no other option but to go with Morning Moon, the form most suited for duels.

Sight was practically useless, as he evaded and deflected a barrage of charging thrusts from ever changing directions. Touch, sound, even smell and taste were stretched to their very limits, his mind awash in the scent of fresh cut grass as he tried to anticipate his elder disciple's invisible blade.

But the advantage was still overwhelmingly Arios', for Rean couldn't follow through with any counter-attack. His opponent was too fast, treating the space between them as if it didn't exist, seemingly blinking in and out of sword range at will, his footwork reminiscent of the dance of an unleashed windgod.

Rean thought back to the moment when he combined forces with Fie as they performed the double gale against the ostriches, as he matched her superior speed by moving within the slipstream of her wind-trail.

Another thrust barely deflected but as Arios moved out of range, Rean chased after his elder disciple, diving right into the fierce gale left behind.

Riding the wind of an opponent's instead of an ally's made things a lot harder, but he was proficient enough in the Second Form to manage. As his stomach lurched and his sight blacked out for moments due to G-forces, Rean caught up to Arios for the first time, robbing him of the initiative.

His thrust was calmly deflected, a counter-slash sidestepped, but Rean's follow-up slash only met empty air. His elder disciple was flying, a straight jump upwards of thirty arge. Deep green turbulence was gathering where his blade was, making him look more like an arts user about to unleash a powerful storm spell - or perhaps this was the visage of an ancient god residing in the heavens, about to deliver divine punishment to the mortals crawling on the ground.

Conventional tactics stated that aerial attacks were risky at best and suicidal at worst, for they telegraphed to opponents on the ground the location and timing of the attack, practically begging to suffer a lethal counter in return.

But the introduction of tactical orbments and their amplification of a fighter's innate elemental affinities allowed them to defy gravity's dictate, upending this once ironclad rule.

As Rean took a low stance to brace himself for what looked like a hammer of wind crashing down, he ruminated that opening up the distance as far as possible was probably the sane thing to do.

But here and now, during an opportunity rare and precious, he had to prove himself. He needed to show that he was worthy of being a follower of the Eight Leaves. Therefore, retreat was not an option.

The first part of the strike was a like a solid wall, with the loosened wind bearing down on him like the palm of a giant. Instead of meeting the overwhelming attack head on though, Rean exhaled deeply, relaxing his entire body. He merged with the air, became a part of it, overcoming an abundance of force through the absence of force.

All in preparation for the second part, as he met Arios' solid blade with a tap as gentle as a lover's caress, directing and flowing with his opponents movement in a circular motion, causing the force to bleed out in a whirlwind which only chased itself.

They opened up the distance, their duel coming to a short lull as both fighters took each other's measure anew.

Rean blinked the sweat out of his eyes, ignoring the sting of the salt, still incredulous that he pulled that off. The orthodox forms of Helix emphasized the rotational motion of the blade, much like Court Fencing. But watching Laura deflect attacks delivered by monsters much stronger and heavier than her opened up a new path in his mind.

The rotation needn't be constrained to the blade alone, but should encompass the entire body instead. He smiled despite the tense situation. Perhaps this had been one of the deeper secrets of the First Form from the very beginning.

Once again, high density air gathered around Arios' blade, compressed and held in place by space manipulation. Rean's best guess was that this setup interfered with light refraction to render whatever was enveloped invisible. As he went into waki-gamae with his blade pointed backwards, he pictured a miniature sun glowing in the center of his forehead. He then emptied his mind for the second time.

Arios began his offensive with the exact same craft with which he scored a hit before. Rean parried the slash coming at his open flank with deceptive ease. He had his eyes closed, for they only served to be fooled, but his other senses reached heights he never knew possible. Every single shift in the wind, the location of every leaf and stalk of grass flying about. A three dimensional quartz picture sprang alive within his inner eye, an everchanging network of dynamic flows which crystallized into something concrete with each attack Rean evaded and parried.

Roads of wind carved into the dueling space, which allowed his elder disciple to reach unimaginable charging speed. But the moment the evershifting pattern of these wind roads were seen through, Arios' attacks became predictable.

He performed a simple thrust right where his opponent would run into. Arios corrected his course as expected. And just as expected, being forced astray from his wind road caused him to slow down considerably. Rean followed up with an overhead strike which was of course deflected, but this was just a distraction for the bodycheck that followed. Arios spun out of the way and Rean stuck to him like glue, denying his opponent the full reach of his odachi while using techniques of the Weaponless Form to trip him up.

It went as well as he anticipated with both neutralizing their every leg sweep, pommel strike and knife hand. A stalemate so perfect it could only exist between followers of the same martial-arts school.

Arios threw a knifehand aimed at gouging his eyes. Just as Rean raised his guard to block it though, the hand changed to a hook at the last moment, drawing him toward his opponent, followed by a shoulder check so powerful that he flew several arge back.

Before he could wonder why his elder disciple just performed a move reminiscent of the Taito school, Arios performed another gale. Rean stepped out of the way at the last second, diving right into the slipstream left behind, adding his own gale on top. Both of them dashed over the courtyard like loosened pinballs, finally colliding in an attack that stretched the metal of his tachi to its limit with both duelist relenting their push at the last second.

Rean went from the gale dash into battojutsu stance in an instant, far smoother and faster than ever before, the sheathed blade practically overflowing with Ki. Arios on the other hand went from his gale dash to the petal dance craft, his movements creating widely spaced afterimages which made it impossible for Rean to aim the second part of his arcane gale.

Arios own windblades appeared in an instant, flying at him from three directions. And Rean was far too inexperienced in aerial maneuvering to risk a jump upwards.

Flames gathered on his blade as he drew his tachi to perform a nearly 360 degree slash, using the fire to disrupt the airflow and rob the windblades of their power. Arios continued his offensive, blithely ignoring the ring of flames Rean had created around himself. The black haired swordsman was more than ready though, channeling even more Ki toward his blade, turning the orange fire that enveloped his tachi into nearly invisible blue.

When wind and fire met, the compressed air around Arios' sword was disrupted and stripped away, the mass of released air creating a flame pillar the likeness of dragon's breath. As if his elder disciple expected this, he tilted his blade so the tip was aiming straight at him, dousing Rean in fire he himself started.

He pushed through by diverting the damaging effect of the flames through his elemental affinity, followed by a kesagiri which changed direction mid-slash. Arios deflected the attack by a hairsbreadth, his stance for the first time unbalanced.

Rean was not going to waste this chance, his follow-up slash nearly instantaneous.

Arios blocked the attack with the long handle of his odachi, returning to a solid stance as if his moment of weakness was just an illusion. Rean's tachi bit into outer wood, but failed to penetrate further as it hit metal belonging to the lower part of the blade mounted into the handle.

For the fraction of a second, Rean's tachi was stuck inside his opponent's sword.

For somebody like Arios MacLaine, that was more than enough.

The bracer's left hand went to secure the wedged in blade followed almost simultaneously by him flipping his odachi with all the leverage he could muster, nearly wrenching Rean's sword out of his grip. But with his stance broken, Arios simply placed the edge of the weapon on Rean's neck before he had the chance for any counter action.

The winner was decided.

Rean collapsed to the ground as his knees gave in, gasping for oxygen and with his uniform completely drenched. The duel had forced him to tap deeply into his mental and physical reserves. Not quite into that reserve, but he did channel so much Ki into his body that it was a single step away from suffusing his heart, therefore awakening the slumbering power within him.

His elder disciple breathed a little deeper, the only sign of the physical exertion he just performed. It seemed he didn't even broke a sweat though. If nothing else, this illustrated the wide gulf in skill that separated them.

He still had such a long way to go. In the end, he couldn't eke out an win even as he cheated.

"I... have to apologize, Arios, elder brother."

The bracer sat down on the dirt beside him. "Whatever for?"

"During the... heat of battle," he gasped for another lungful, "I unconsciously activated a combat link. Instructor... Sara told you about it?"

"Your combat orbments. Yes, I'm aware." He paused. "I understand now. You seeing through my qinggong to this extent..." Rean saw Arios turn to their impartial referee. "He borrowed your instincts, Mr Worzel?"

The Nordian looked slightly embarrassed. A rare sight. "I didn't intent for it to happen, but once the link was activated I couldn't bring myself to terminate the connection." He bowed toward Arios, with his dominant hand held over his heart. The bracer accepted the apology by inclining his head. "The way you rode the wind was exquisite, Bracer MacLaine. Your fierce combat spirit was a joy to behold. And very well done, both of you. This was a splendid fight."

"I concur," Laura said. She and Fie joined their group with both Eight Leaves disciples standing up again. "Rean, did my eyes deceive me or have you just performed an Arseid technique?"

He chuckled. "Well, the way you deflect rhinociders out of your way might have inspired me, ehm, a little. I hope you aren't mad?"

"Far it be from me to be close-minded with how our school's techniques are utilized. I'm just wondering whether you performing it so well is a result of the Eight Leaves having similar techniques?"

"Something like that."

While Laura nodded to herself, her curiosity seemingly satisfied, Fie went straight for Arios, staring at him without blinking.

"Did you use the concealing wind craft, but only on your blade? And how do you maintain it for so long?"

Laura turned her attention to the bracer, too. "Despite using the same weapon and hailing from the same school, how can two practitioners end up so similar and yet so very different at the same time?" The bluenette asked, as if not wanting to be upstaged by the other girl.

"Could you explain how you utilize time and wind in your movements?"

"Is it usual for the Eight Leaves One Blade to borrow this easily from the techniques of other schools?"

"How can you be this fast despite your weird footwork?"

"What is your exact approach behind feints..."

"Please, teach us, Instructor MacLaine!" They chorused.

Arios glanced at Rean, his until now perfectly stoic demeanor looking shaken as Class VII's two combat prodigies exposed the full extent of their earnestness. Gaius watched everything unfold with an amused expression, while Rean could only offer a tiny shrug.

His elder disciple was on his own here. And no, he surely didn't feel even the slightest bit sore at his loss.

.

- ] | [ -

.

9:45 am

When Jusis was greeted by gentle rays of sunshine kissing his cheek, he expected this third day to get back on track of their original program. They had done all they could to investigate the embassy case. Now that they've proven the murder to have happened outside Remiferian soil, further judicial matters were outside their purview. The Aulic council bestowed with the best legal expertise of the Empire could, no, should pick up where Class VII left off.

Or so he believed

But as his mind tried and failed to process the ridiculous proposition uttered by none other than Marquis Rodias H. Linquist, it appeared he believed wrong.

"Forgive me, but I need to ask again, your lordship." Jusis cleared his throat to buy himself precious seconds. "Do you really believe this to be a good idea?"

The head of House Linquist, one of the so called three 'Lesser Houses' gave him a friendly, even guileless smile. Jusis didn't trust that smile for even a second.

"It is as I said, young Albarea. I wish you to act as lead prosecutor in the murder of one Joseph Sagitarus as well as the arson of the Remiferian embassy. As you are undoubtedly aware, members of the Four Great Houses possess special privileges in the judicial realm, codified by old laws that even Emperor Dreichels left unchanged."

As if to emphasize his point, the marquis glanced at the man standing beside him, a noble with well kept orange hair and an open, honest face.

Marquis Fernand Hyarms, the highest authority in Sutherland Province and one of the few high nobles who had always treated him with kindness and respect.

His first instinct was to decline. While he didn't know these old laws to the letter, Jusis did understand the spirit in which they were written. He was aware most of these privileges were exclusively reserved for the Head of Houses only. On the other hand, he was also aware of the idea of customary law which led to established rights over time. And the Albarea name, no matter who carried it, had power. It was something Rufus never stopped to emphasize.

Truly, his lord brother never stopped to emphasize that even he mattered.

"And the Remiferian side agrees to this?" Jusis asked.

Ambassador Hylefias and Bracer MacLaine nodded their assent. The tall swordmaster looked at the ambassador meaningfully who continued: "Prince Bartholomeus has send his consent via express telegram after Sir MacLaine finished his work. Full authority to pursue the crime committed on Remiferian soil has been granted to the Aulic Council given the state of evidence. We of course wish to observe the court proceedings, but I doubt this to become a problem."

The Council Chancellor bowed graciously. "Of course not, ambassador. Despite this humble institution being allowed to prosecute that despicable arson committed inside your borders, we fully intend to treat your side as befitting a partnership."

Marquis Hyarms dipped his head, his expression rueful. "It saddens me to have such an incident happen on my watch inside the very city I preside over. You have my heartfelt apology again, madame ambassador. But let us return to the issue at hand, namely having... young Albarea help us with the next inevitable step."

And back to putting him on the spot again. For a moment Jusis wished his classmates to be with him, but he quickly abandoned such silly thoughts. He needed to probe further. It was clear everybody in the room was eager to see him accept this outrageous task. So how about some false modesty...

"I understand the privileges and responsibilities granted to me by birthright, but I am nevertheless an amateur in the arena of law," which wasn't quite correct, but Jusis wasn't going to reveal the true extent of his studies so easily. "Aren't there eager members of the prosecutor's office with years of experience, who'd be eager to prove themselves in such a high profile case?"

And why in Aidios' name were they in such a hurry in the first place? This was utterly unnatural.

Council Chancellor Linquist began to pace. "I understand your worry, young Albarea. The Aulic Council is of course going to provide you with adequate legal support to allow your work to go smoothly."

"The idea is to give you a temporary title with extensive judicial authority," Marquis Hyarms continued. "We decide to name this 'Special Counsel', though it can also be called independent counsel. You shall be granted command of the 3rd Sutherland Provincial Army Battalion 'Reinwolf' for policing and investigative purposes along with the authority to request the help of any full-fledged attorney belonging to the Aulic Council, but not member of the Inner Council Assembly. Alongside this you shall also be given the right to issue subpoenas to any citizen within Sutherland. Combined with legal assistance established with the Remiferian Principality as of today, the only people not covered are the Imperial Army stationed in Dreknor Fortress as well as the members of the North Ambrian Embassy."

Jusis suppressed a frown. "Independent counsel... I understand now. Due to an Imperial State Attorney being the main suspect, letting a member of the same institution prosecute her may lead to conflict of interest."

"An allegation we need to stifle at the root," Marquis Linquist confirmed. "Thus, our wish for your appointment, young Albarea."

Interesting. He straightened himself "If I may be so bold to ask, who will be the judge?"

"An old friend of mine," the council chancellor said with a smile. "Werner Tungstos, a judge affiliated with the Imperial Chamber Court in Heimdallr. Has presided over cases for more than three decades. He should arrive in about an hour if his train is on time."

Jusis barely kept his bafflement from showing on his face. Even if this judge was a friend of the marquis, this was too fast. For this person to arrive all the way from Heimdallr, the man needed to had taken a late evening or midnight train from yesterday. "How..."

"I contacted Werner yesterday afternoon, just when your group left with Bracer Valestein and Doctor Gilfaeth." The man's eyes twinkled.

Ridiculous. He called over such a high level government official on the off-chance that Class VII might uncover something substantial? Granted, this judge was most likely a commoner, but even then - this rush to put everything into place. What was the purpose?

"Considering how far you have thought this through, your lordships, it wouldn't behoove me to decline," Jusis finally said. He adjusted his tie only to stop when he realized what his fingers were doing. "But you're aware that with the way things stand, Imperial State Attorney Helena Freising is most likely going to be sentenced guilty?"

"Of course." Council Chancellor's smile remained on his lips, which Jusis couldn't help but find disturbing. The Head of House Linquist was a much respected and feared figure in High Society. He knew this from hearsay, but being confronted with the 'real deal', to use a common parlance, made the rumors feel paltry in comparison. Then again, the unofficial title of 'Lesser Houses' was only in relation to the Four Great Houses. The three noble families whose power and influence were closest to the four pinnacles of Erebonian aristocracy. Linquist, Gueldenstern and Jostein.

"I also have my obligations at the officer school I'm attending. Am I correct to assume that you already spoke with Thors, your lordships?"

"Of course," Marquis Hyarms confirmed. "Your stay in Sutherland will be extended and I will see to it that your work as special counsel will earn you appropriate credits."

"The Aulic Council is also a teaching institution and has a storied history with Thors," Marquis Linquist added. "I'm confident an arrangement agreeable to both sides can be worked out."

Jusis glanced over to the Remiferian delegation, but they were as unreadable as the two high nobles in front of him. The Albarea heir knew he was missing something crucial to the picture. "Despite the extended stay, as per the privileges bestowed to me, I will push for a swift ruling. And I won't tolerate any interference even from you, once you grant me the authority of special counsel." He inhaled loudly. "Is this acceptable to you, Council Chancellor? Truly?"

He was aware of Prosecutor Freising's reputation. Was Linquist really going to throw his most valuable subordinate to the wolves?

"Yes, it is. Will you help us by taking this burden upon you, young Albarea?"

Considering the still unsatisfactory state of the investigation, Jusis couldn't claim to dislike this arrangement. He was given a chance to see this case through to the end and if he performed well, he would finally contribute to the prestige of the Albarea name. Just like his lord brother. Jusis just wished that such an opportunity wasn't granted to him at the cost of watching another person being sacrificed like a pawn in a chess game.

"Very well, I accept."

Marquis Linquist laughed. "Thank you very much, Jusis Albarea. I believe this job is tailor made for a young upcoming noble like you. A job that will show the world your outstanding prudence, integrity and honesty." He steepled his fingers. "I'm looking forward to see your admirable performance."

.

- ] | [ -

.

Machias was mildly irritated.

Once again, his lordship was given the special treatment Erebonian nobility was wont to get with people left and right worshiping the ground they walked on.

After the entire group delivered their morning report to not only the Council Chancellor but also the ruler of Sutherland Province, everybody but the Albarea scion were gently shushed out of the office, probably so that his Lordship could receive extra praise for the extra privileged.

And of course, the rest of the common rabble could do nothing but endure being held up by their... betters to finish whatever they did behind closed doors. More vapid praise? Some empty trinket given out to stroke their already overinflated egos?

He looked around, but other than Instructor Valestein the rest of Class VII didn't seem impatient at all. Instructor Neithardt looked stoic as ever, watching the office door with a face carved from granite, his body standing in parade rest.

The door finally opened, releasing the Remiferian delegation first. Ambassador Hylefias seemed tense though Machias couldn't figure out the reason. The man following her could rival Instructor Neithardt in both stoicism and body build: Bracer Arios MacLaine, probably the first man he ever encountered who managed to make long open hair look manly. He was also a former member of the Crossbell Police Department and as he learned today an acquaintance of the Ian Grimwood, internationally acclaimed lawyer and a contestant for the most prolific writer of the legal sciences in Western Zemuria.

If nothing else, Instructor Sara knew to call the correct man for the correct job.

And lastly, his Lordship deigned it worth his time to grace the rest of class with his anointed presence. It really was time for them to continue their field study program.

"You certainly look like you attended a funeral just now," Sara joked.

"I'm very curious what needed to be discussed behind closed doors," Laura said upfront, perfectly expressing the sentiment of their entire group. "Or are you bound to secrecy, Jusis?"

His Lordship sighed. "Nothing of the sort." He glanced to the Remiferian delegation who simply looked back, their gazes full of unspoken messages Machias couldn't decipher. "What Marquises Hyarms and Linquist told me affects my participation in the field study program. Therefore, I have an obligation to disclose what was spoken about."

Special Counsel. Old laws. Lead prosecutor. Independent investigation. With each sentence Machias heard, the irritation he felt slowly transformed into white hot rage. He thought they did it. He assumed that with Prosecutor Freising's case falling under the purview of the Aulic Council, a professional, thorough and most of all fair trial was all but guaranteed.

He assumed wrong. So, so wrong.

Old laws, which granted the most powerful nobles in the Empire even more power than they could possibly need, were a disgusting stain on Erebonia's legislation. A stupid relic of a bygone era, when jurisprudence hadn't been professionalized yet. An era when issuing rulings of cases by the dozens on a single day was a common occurrence, because the few nobles vested with this privilege had too many responsibilities to ever pay such an important task the attention it deserved.

A broken system through and through.

But to see Prosecutor Freising being put at the mercy of a bleeding amateur. Jusis fucking I'm-too-good-for-the-rest-of-you Albarea was a chemistry major with a specialization in mineralogy for Aidios' sake. Probably so he could appraise all these fancy gems his fancy province was so famous for. Machias knew for bloody sure though that his Lordship didn't attend any legal course at Thors. But this backwards nation with its fucking backwards traditions dared to allow

this...

this...

POMPOUS ASS

to determine the fate of an important member of society just like that!? A person with actual fucking value instead of these dressed up, vapid wastes of space?

Machias stood in front of Council Chancellor Linquist's work desk before he even knew it. He could hear people calling to him as if from a great distance, but all his attention was focused on the man before him.

An enemy he was foolish enough to like for even a second. A smiling, poisonous viper with no compunction to sacrifice one of the greatest legal minds of the younger generation for political expediency. A legal mind this man himself raised.

Machias balled his fists and clenched his teeth until they grated. But his mind felt strangely calm as if the rage inside him went into such overdrive that his emotions were flipped around. Was he going to simply shout at the man? Make an ass of himself just like the first day at Thors? Or like that one time back at Odins? No. He wasn't going to give these nobles such easy satisfaction.

"Your excellency," he said in a tone he didn't recognize. "It came to my attention that fellow cadet Albarea was granted the right to prosecute the murder case of the late Joseph Sagitarus."

"This is correct, young Regnitz." The man gestured for him to continue.

"In this case, I offer to represent Imperial State Attorney Helena Freising as her defending lawyer."

Marquis Linquist raised a single eyebrow.

"A simple cadet defending in such a high profile case?" Marquis Hyarms asked rhetorically, revealing the noble's hypocrisy for all to see. But the council chancellor raised his hand to interrupt.

"I think young Regnitz' idea is a wonderful one."

"But..."

"He is a law major at Thors and has also passed the first legal state exam, Fernand. He has by all rights the permission to practice law."

"Still, isn't it usual to wait for law students to pass the second state exam before they are given their first real court cases?" The hypocritical noble then turned his attention toward him. "Not that I'm doubting your competency of course, young Regnitz."

"Of course," he answered back with only a tiny bit of sarcasm creeping into his voice.

"Usual practices are for usual times," Marquis Linquist interjected. "Let's be honest here, Fernand. We treated Helena's defense attorney as a mere afterthought. With this young man here, the trial can proceed at the speed we truly need. This..." he pointed at Machias, "is the youth most responsible for the legal work that allowed us to establish judicial assistance with the Remiferian embassy in the first place. Different than any other attorney we might call, he already knows this case by heart. Besides, I can feel his overflowing passion for... justice just by looking at him."

Machias held himself back from spitting into his face.

Marquis Hyarms folded his arms and sighed. "This is highly irregular, but I see your point, old friend. Still, the son of Governor Regnitz facing off against the son of Duke Albarea in a courtroom? This might raise an entirely different kind of attention."

The council chancellor stroked his beard. "As long as public perception doesn't focus overmuch on the scandalous nature of the alleged crime, I'll consider this an added boon for our plan." He turned back to Machias and smiled a smile he wouldn't trust as far as he could throw the man. "I think we have an agreement. I hereby grant you the permission to legally represent defendant Helena Freising as her attorney, Machias Regnitz."

Linquist then waved somebody forward. A somebody who turned out to be the Albarea heir.

Machias balled his fists again, though he forced himself not to look at his Lordship's no doubt smug face lest he really lost control.

"Well due to this unexpected development," the leader of the Aulic Council said, his smile becoming wider, "I consider it prudent to move the timetable forward. I originally intended to wait for at least an entire day to open the first court session, but with both of you here we can begin today at 5:30 pm." He looked at the clock with a seemingly lighthearted expression. "A little more than seven hours to prepare. With such talented youth here, this should be doable, right?"

Amid the heated emotions, overturning events and the crazy chancellor's impossible demand, Machias was surprised to realize that a smidgen of trepidation was still nestling inside his heart.

Him and his big mouth.

A/N: Annnd end of chapter. I can't believe I finally reached this point. This event is what I was working toward the whole time. The lynchpin that informed this sprawling field study. Making Machias the main focus, placing the two embassies in Saint-Arkh, building a justice department from scratch, the murder mystery, throwing OCs out of my hat like there is no tomorrow. Considering how long the heroes are already running around in Saint-Arkh, the courtroom proceedings are most likely not going to be as expansive as I originally envisioned and I don't know how much you dear readers will ultimately like them. But I just wanted to reveal that at least for my writing, reaching this event was one of the main motivations. That and your continued support of course.


Notes

Waki-gamae: Rean's default fighting stance in canon and also one of the five standard stances in Japanese kenjutsu. It's associated with the metal element.

Chudan: Often called the middle stance in Japanese kenjutsu. It's probably the kind of stance that most of us expect an amateur or beginner to take who has never properly held a sword in their life. It's performed by pointing the tip straight forward, while the blade is positioned at the space above and including the waist, and below but not including the shoulders. Due to its equal balance for offense and defense, it's associated with the water element.

Odachi: Can be literally translated as 'big tachi'. Basically a Japanese curved sword that is even longer than the tachi, while the tachi is (for the most part) already a longer katana. Historically odachis could reach truly ridiculous sizes and it's hypothesized that they might've been used either from horseback or for a foot soldier to cut down horses.

Alber or fool's guard: A stance that exists in historical European longsword fencing. It should be performed with two hands usually and resembles the Japanese gedan stance which covers the lower area. The major difference is that the Alber has the sword pointed slightly sideways, while the Japanese version has the sword in a perpendicular position. The one-handed Alber I put into this chapter is something I derived from Arios' sprite model in Zero/Ao no Kiseki. As for the Cold Steel characters whose gameplay stances most resemble Arios? That would be Jusis and Rufus funnily enough.

Kesagiri: A downward slash that is diagonally tilted. There is also the karatake, the straight downward slash that is performed perpendicular to the body axis along the sagital anatomical plane. But due to the head's round shape, there is a risk of a straight downward cut glancing off the cranial bone and ruining the attack. As such, historical research implies that in practical combat the kesagiri was much more widely used.

Nagasa: Refers to the section of the blade that is visible and that most people unfamiliar with sword assembly would consider to be the entire blade period. Of course, a portion of the blade (called the nakago) is actually fitted inside the sword handle which is usually made of wood, meaning that this section of the metal is concealed in a way. This is also the reason why it's possible to block a strike with the sword handle without running the risk of the enemy simply slicing through it.

Battojutsu: Literally the 'craft of drawing the sword'. Iaido and battojutsu mean the same, but are used in different contexts with Iaido denoting a spiritual or training situation, while battojutsu is a sign of sword drawing used for practical combat.