"Oh, hi there, Hein, you're a little early!"
"I w... was planning on doing some last minute reading up. You know, on the new spells I've been learning." Hein was carrying a couple of books under one arm that he he had been planning to sit and read before the meeting. He almost dropped them when he heard Imelda's voice. She had that effect on people that made them drop books a lot.
"That's useful. You're such a reliable young man." she winked at him, then gestured to the seat beside her, tapping the arm with her long, painted fingernails, "Come over here and tell me all about it."
"Er... I th... think I'll go and put the tea on." he stammered.
"I made Rohga do that already." she said, "I wanted everyone out of the way for a little mage-to-mage talk."
"I suppose so." he said, praying to Lushiris that this really was only about tactics, "We work closely together as units."
"We do work VERY closely together, and I think its important that we have a good relationship." said Imelda. The hairs on the back of Hein's neck prickled as he became aware that she was invading his personal space more and more. She was practically nuzzling up against him. Her strong perfume wasn't unpleasant but it was a little overpowering. Even more distracting was the way she didn't seem to believe it was important to wear clothes to strategy meetings, or into battle, or, for that matter, anywhere else. What she wore, a tight-fitting leather tunic, long boots, a cape a skirt so short it could barely be called a skirt, all in red, only just managed to cover any part of her. At least it was covered by some armour in battle but she seemed to wear it in random places, more for stylish effect than actual protection. Everything about Imelda was distracting: her silky blonde hair that fell down her shoulder in waves, her curvaceous figure, her lush voice, her random genocidal psychopathic tendencies...
"Uh... yes... we need to..."
"Like I said, you're a VERY reliable mage. It makes me happy that you're there to protect me in battle." she purred, reaching out a long fingernail to stroke his cheek, "And I know you've been looking for a teacher. I'm an experienced woman, Hein, I could teach you ALL sorts of things. Many more things than that recluse Jessica ever could..."
"Leon!" she flinched and almost jumped back into her own chair. Hein was grateful that she had found something more interesting than torturing him, until it occurred to him that their Commander had just walked in and seen him doing something other than work, and with a girl on his lap, for which he could potentially be blamed for, "We were just having a little mage-only strategy meeting. About how we should continue to support each other in battle. We have to rely on each other, seeing as the rest of the units seem to insist on running off and leaving us unprotected!"
"That's nice, except that in the last battle you deliberately ran off in the opposite direction to us, screaming about how we were all stealing your kills and you hated us."
"You DO steal our kills! Do you know how far behind quota I am?"
"And I'm sure this is a lot more important to you than your unit's lives." said Leon, "Hein, do you have any contributions to this discussion?"
"Um... where's Elwin?" asked Hein. He wasn't sure what he could say that wouldn't result in Imelda killing him in a dark alleyway as soon as Leon's back was turned, so he tried to change the subject.
He felt a sudden urge for familiar company. Of all the people he had travelled with, only Elwin remained. The rest had become enemies when their leader, seemingly on a whim, defected to the Empire. Rohga had been with them for a long time but in Hein's opinion, the mercenary didn't really count. He was a friendly presence and very reliable in battle but he rarely talked to anyone any more, not since they found his sister leading a pack of werewolves, raiding a town and attacking the villagers. Everyone else was a stranger, a former enemy who was now suddenly an ally. It was a little surreal. It wasn't that Hein didn't trust Leon – he seemed like the sort who would never break a promise – but it was the way Elwin didn't act the slightest bit uneasy around the Imperial Generals or as though it was at all unusual to randomly defect to the other side. The way Elwin acted most of the time was even weirder than Rohga's obsession with finding his sister again, which Hein could at least understand. Elwin's decisions didn't make sense. It was as if he didn't even know who he was any more, never mind which side he was on.
Leon eventually managed to steer the discussion back to the strategy for their proposed attack on Cherie's forces (Another former friend. Hein had liked Cherie, even though she yelled at him all the time when he hadn't done anything wrong.). Rohga came back with a tray full of tea. It didn't take an hour to make tea, even though he had to make it exactly right or Imelda would throw the teapot at him, so Hein guessed he was drawing it out deliberately to make sure he entered the room when Imelda would be too involved in the meeting to torment him. Elwin and Vargas were late for their own reasons but they managed not to disrupt the meeting.
"So, Elwin goes in first and takes care of the cavalry. Leon, Rohga and Vargas come in once Elwin falls back. Hein, Imelda, you stay in the middle where we can protect you and you can cast supportive magic on everyone." said Leon.
"What about the airborne troops? We're the ones with all the archers!" said Imelda.
"Fire at them if you can do so safely, but please stop overstretching. If you don't take them down in time and you're left open, they'll kill you all." said Leon.
"For what its worth, Cherie's a lousy tactician, so she's likely to just walk into a line of archers." said Rohga, one of his rare contributions.
"Oh, yes, you've fought alongside Cherie and Keith before, haven't you?" said Leon, looking at Elwin as well, "Elwin, are you sure you're okay with fighting against them? If its going to be too much of a strain on your morale, fighting against your previous allies..."
Elwin shook his head, "I was prepared for this when I joined your force. I won't be a burden. However, I would ask that we try and avoid killing Cherie or Keith if at all possible."
"I understand. Capture them or let them retreat. That includes you, Imelda." The look on the female General's face was one of pure venom but she nodded to show her acquiescence. She later got her revenge on the annoying newcomers by forcing Rohga to go and make more tea. The meeting drew to a close. Leon asked Hein to stay behind.
"I noticed you've said virtually nothing throughout the entire meeting, despite the amount of reading up on strategy you do. Is there a problem?" he asked.
"Um... no... I'm just not used to dealing with all the strangers."
"Is it Imelda?" asked Leon, "You can talk freely. I know what she's doing. She does it to everyone. The seasoned Generals have all learnt to ignore her."
"Sh... she's hard to ignore. She's practically groping me."
"Don't fall for her tricks. She's trying to get away with doing whatever she wants. Its important to keep her on a short leash."
The mental image of Imelda on a leash didn't help matters. "I kn... know. I've heard all about her reputation. I just can't concentrate. I mean no disrespect but I can't get used to suddenly siding with the Empire. I don't know anybody here. I'm not Rohga, I'm not used to fighting for just anyone."
"So what ARE you fighting for?"
"Uh? I'm just following Elwin." Hein bowed his head, "I owe him my life."
"That's a good reason." said Leon, "But what is Elwin fighting for?"
"I don't know." it was the truth, "Have you asked him?"
"Several times. He says the same thing. 'I don't know.'." Leon told him, "I don't believe him. You can't fight with such determination without knowing why you're fighting."
"I'll try asking him again." said Hein.
"Please do." said Leon, "I'm not saying I suspect him of betraying me. I'm just worried. In turn, I'll tell Imelda that meetings outside hours arranged by me are banned, and that you are to sit beside Elwin during meetings."
"Thank you, General Leon!" Hein gave him the Imperial salute, which he had been practising in his room when nobody was looking, then gathered up his books and walked out of the room.
He found Elwin sat on his bunk, polishing his weapons and armour. The mage invited himself to sit down on the single wooden chair in Elwin's quarters and put his books on his lap.
"Something wrong? You look nervous." said Elwin.
"Um..." said Hein. He realised how difficult it was to speak naturally when you weren't being entirely honest. He didn't want Elwin to know that he was getting information for Leon, in case his friend was hiding information from Leon for a reason. He had already formulated a plan on his way to the barracks but it was different in theory to actually having to do it himself. He wasn't a confident speaker, any more than he would be able to fire a ballista without accidentally hanging himself, despite knowing the best way to field a unit of ballistae. "Do we really have to fight Cherie?"
"I'm hoping that I can make her understand there's no reason to fight us, seeing as we're both after the same thing."
"Do you really believe that?" asked Hein, "That the Empire is after the same thing as Cherie?"
Elwin shrugged, "They're equally strong, they both claim to have ambitions of world peace, they're both after Langrisser, what's the difference between them?"
"Kalzath doesn't want to actually take over the world?"
"I wonder if they'd still say that if they had a weapon that enabled them to."
"If they're both the same, why abandon all your friends?"
"I had barely met the others anyway, but I..." Elwin bowed his head, "I regret leaving Liana behind. I didn't expect her to react so badly to my choice. Why is she so convinced that Kalzath can protect her any better than the Empire could if I was there to make sure no harm came to her? Morgan was acting against Leon's orders and besides, he's dead! Leon's never done a thing to harm Liana! She doesn't even know what the Empire wants from her! Wait..." he stopped and gave Hein a suspicious look, "Are you going to tell Leon any of this?"
"Leon did ask me to get it out of you, but if its that important to you, I guess I care less about his opinion than I do about yours." said Hein. It was the truth.
"To tell you the truth, the reason is... because of Leon. Because it was him who asked me. I felt like I couldn't refuse."
"He's a very charismatic leader." agreed Hein.
"I hope its no more than that." said Elwin, "But I wonder, sometimes. My head doesn't work when I'm around him. I forget what I'm doing and just start thinking about him instead. What the Empire is doing makes no sense, but then, nobody and nothing is making any goddamn sense if you stop to think about it. No decision I make is going to be absolutely perfect. Maybe I should just do what I want to do. Right now, I feel like I just want to be with Leon."
Oh great, thought Hein, What next - is Rohga going to develop a crush on Vargas?