7 Chapter 6: Princess Ekaterina“s Journey Part II
Feather-like snowflakes swirled in the sky as if a myriad of birds suddenly flew off. Animals hurried to find a comfortable place to pass the winter and fishes swam gleefully in the lake, protected by the superficial ice.
The roads of Lacrimosa were mostly empty, except for a few latecomers desperately running or riding toward cities. As the tracks were already covered by the snow, it was as if the stagecoach congestion from the last few days never really happened.
On the West Lacrimosa Highway, an unusually grand coach was advancing slowly in the snow, unhindered by the increasingly cold weather and road conditions. On its sides, 3 riders rode on their warmly dressed horses bearing the proud emblem of the Lacrimosian Life Guard Regiment, currently the strongest unit in Lacrimosa.
"Halfway through!" Alexa said while stroking her beloved Armand (Horse). "Hopefully, we should arrive by noon in two days. After that, it'll be bath time at the Hot Springs!"
"Yes!" Ursula shouted as she strode closer to the carriage. "After all these years training in the Military Academy, my skin has gone all ragged. Even my dad was astonished seeing how ugly I became in the last five years!"
As she heard her beautiful friend's self-loathing words, Estelle almost spit the double expresso coffee she was drinking. "Come now, you narcissist," she said while she recovered from the initial burst of laughter. "You are arguably one of the prettiest female cadets in our cohort. What more do you want?"
Just like that, the quiet road suddenly filled with laughter. The earlier loneliness had disappeared once the guards started talking. The princess inside the carriage also laughed when her maid Bonny told her one of her many antics. On the deserted Highway, the girls' laughter echoed loudly.
"What do you think of Mikhail?" Alexa asked while smirking at Estelle. " Strikes you fancy? I've caught you staring at him quite a few times during the shooting lessons."
Seeing an opportunity to get back at Estelle, Ursula rubbed salt on the wound. "Well, I DO get why you like him, though. Isn't he the dashing son of the late Margrave Medvelt and also a candidate for becoming a Hauptmann of the Artillery upon graduation?"
"Q-quiet down you two!" A heavily blushing Estelle brushed them off hastily. "Her Highness can hear us! Don't you DARE corrupt her mind with y-your stupid rumors!"
"Don't mind me," a gentle, yet playful voice came from inside the carriage, "we're just getting at the juicy parts, after all. I have no rights to stop you! By all means, do carry on!"
Princess Ekaterina was extremely perceptive and mature for a girl her age. When Estelle spoke to her, she always felt as if she was speaking with a grown woman rather than a little girl barely past her age of awareness.
"You heard her, girls!" Vendée the coachman exclaimed, just as eager as the princess to listen to the girls' story. "Those are Her Highness' orders!"
Hearing that, Alexa and Ursula continued teasing poor Estelle about her prospective lover for five long minutes.
"On top of that, he's in the Artillery!" Alexa said at the end. "That's where the best cadets go, right?"
"About that," the small voice resonated from the carriage, "Mother told me that the Army has too many outstanding junior artillery officers and the senior officers don't know what to make of them. They say it's a waste of good human resources."
"A waste of human resources?"
"Is the Artillery too crowded?"
The 3 temporary Life Guards were astonished. Their entire conception of the Artillery corps crumbled under the Princess' confession. Then, another question popped into their minds.
"Your Highness, are you sure that it's okay for you to tell us all this?" Estelle asked, worried about their lives for knowing too much. "Isn't this classified information we shouldn't even know?"
The princess chuckled and the carriage was silent. No one dared to ask more than they already have. Only questions remained in the young women's heads. Nobody but Bonny saw the princess' complex facial expression.
She wanted to create her own Guard regiment that will only respond to her own authority and that of the King. She wanted to create a stalwart unit strong enough to save the Kingdom in times of need. That is the dream his father has instilled in her pure, innocent heart. For this purpose, she intended to recruit the most brilliant officer cadets from the Royal War Academy in all fields of study, be it Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery, and even War Engineers, to form the greatest officers corps of all Lacrimosa. Those 3 cadets would become the first officers in this unit. To rope them in, Ekaterina felt it necessary to use some slightly underhanded means to secure their loyalty and have them attached to her with a "State secret", which was actually invented by Ekaterina on the spot. The true fact was that the Artillery still lacked qualified personnel. This small lie would mark the start of an extensive series of military reforms the Princess Edelweiss will bring to the Kingdom.
The princess was still thinking about how she would dress her guards when a clamor suddenly raised outside. Noises of gunshots were heard and horses neighed furiously. Ursula could be heard issuing orders to her companions. The princess was not worried, as by now, she trusted her subordinates completely. In the worst case, Bonny can save both her and the carriage. Thus, Ekaterina watched the fierce battle unfold before her window.
A rustle in the woods startled Estelle. She was riding up front to avoid further teasing from her friends. Suddenly, she saw a muzzle pointed toward the carriage. A shot fired through the foliage and ricochetted on the princess' armored carriage.
"Estelle," Ursula ordered, "the bullet came from the front! Find the shooter!"
Estelle took out her already charged gun, her eyes screening the forest for any clue of the shooter.
At the same time, Alexa stormed pass her and drew her sword and her pistol, determined to kill any criminal who dared attack a member of the Royal Family. In fact, the Royal Family represents the national identities of all Lacrimosians no matter their ethnic background. No Lacrimosian, be it peasant or lord, would allow anyone to lay their hands on their royals. This is what Alexa felt beyond her duty as a guard.
Suddenly, they were surrounded and outnumbered by the mysterious enemy. Ten fully armed men came out of the woods, swords and guns ready for combat. They wore sinister black garbs destined for stealthy activities. Seeing how the cadets have seen through their hiding spots instantly, they have decided to come out and fight them openly on the road. As such, they would not be hindered by trees and branches as they fought close combat with the guards. What they did not know, however, was that the guards were no mere mercenary guards hired by the nobles, but actual Lacrimosian Life Guard Cavalry Candidates. The Life Guard units were the strongest troops even amongst the Lacrimosian Elite Forces and they were charged to protect none other than the Royal Family.
Even if Alexa, Estelle, and Ursula were not official members, they were still the pride of the Kriegsschule's Hussar Class.
After issuing her orders, Ursula charged at the shooters, who smiled mockingly at the beautiful maiden armed with nothing more than a lance. A particularly gaudy one at that.
Mueller (one of the shooters) was impressed by the girl's bravery. She was outnumbered 5 to 1 and she only had a lance, which was obsolete against their superior bayonets. Seeing her beautiful curves and her even more gorgeous face, he hoped to injure her just enough to incapacitate her and have his way with her body afterward. With such dirty thoughts, Mueller loaded his gun, ready to fight.
Unfortunately for Mueller and his folks, Ursula was stronger than she looks. Deflecting with swift movements her opponents' bullets, she plowed her lance right through a man's throat and impaled another man's chest immediately after. Before the other men could come out of their surprise and unload their entire cartridges on her and her horse, she took out a pistol from under her shirt and shot the two men farthest from her. None of them stood a chance against a seasoned warrior like Ursula.
Mueller gasped. In a matter of mere minutes, all the men around him lay dead on the ground and the girl he wanted to ravish rode before him, the tip of her lance at less than a centimeter from his throat. Too frightened to fight on, Mueller peed his pants and fainted.
Meanwhile, Alexa and Estelle also had their ways with the other five assailants. The carriage was proven to be bulletproof, which allowed the graduating cadets go all out without worries.
With great speed, Alexa shot one of the enemies and jumped off her horse, aiming for another man's throat with her sword. Before she could land, four shots rang in rapid succession and Alexa's victim dropped dead, his head pierced through by one of Estelle's bullets. Seeing her targets snatched away, Alexa cursed at Estelle.
From the window of the bulletproof carriage, Erika felt inspired by the cadets' fight. She knew, however, that she must not be too moved by them. The Academy has specifically asked Bonny to judge and grade the young women as objectively as possible without any bias. If Bonny saw her excited expression, surely she would interpret it as the Princess' will to give higher grades and do just that, which was against regulation.
As a matter of fact, there were various mistakes to the guards' performance during the attack. First of all, they allowed the enemy to have a first shot at the carriage. If it wasn't for the bulletproof properties of its outer material, the princess would have been gravely injured, according to Bonny's calculation. This time, the enemy was overconfident and asinine, otherwise, all the guards and the princess would have been slain, or at least shot through. Although their performance during the fight was commendable, they have made a major mistake in their guard duties for not noticing the enemy prior to the confrontation. Individually, Alexa also made the mistake of jumping and expecting to land her sword on her opponents' throat. Even if the action itself looked intimidating, the man was equipped with a bayonet and she was in the air with absolutely no control over where she was supposed to land specifically. The man could have killed her by the time she landed by holding his bayonet firmly on her landing point. At the same time, Estelle's performance was perfect, as she shot down the man before he could harm her companion. Ursula, despite being too bold and confident, she was able to incapacitate all her assailants while avoiding getting shot despite the point-blank range. Furthermore, she also kept some of her targets from shooting, judging by how she hard it would be for her to lunge at them from her far distance. Finally, she was the only one who captured a prisoner for questioning, which was impressive in the chaos of the fight. As a group, this battle was graded B, because of their low awareness and Alexa's mistake.
After the fight, Ursula turned to face Mueller. Her expression was sinister and filled with intense antagonism.
"Speak," she said while nodding curtly, "Tell me how did you know we were here! Who hired you bastard?"
Mueller was paralyzed by fear. He stood still, unaware of Ursula's words.
"Cat's got your tongue?" Ursula asked mockingly. "Let's see...why don't we cut a finger and see what happens then."
Seeing as there was no reaction from Mueller, she reached toward her hunting knife and grabbed his hand.
His contact with Ursula's soft, cold hand suddenly reanimated the previously stunned Mueller. His lips started shaking from cold and fear.
"I-I-I will tell you everything!" He yelled. "Just don't kill me!"
"Oh?" She asked. "Will you then?"
"As long as you promise to spare my life!" He said with a high voice.
"Don't worry about it." Ursula gave him a reassuring smile while skillfully hiding her deep hatred. "I will not kill you as long as you cooperate with us."