"Aaaah... This mission was really close..."
Kurdak hauled Leguna along as he limped on.
"My whole party was almost wiped out!"
"Apologies, Mister Kurdak. I didn't think Saron would be a quasi-high-order warrior," Alissanda said, dissatisfied, "His recovery abilities are far too amazing. It's far beyond what I predicted."
"It's too late to apologize now."
Kurdak was furious. It not for Tamro's incessant pestering, they wouldn't have been dragged into this. If not for Leguna suddenly doing way more than he should actually be capable of, Kurdak, his party, and even the second prince would've been wiped out. The war would have become even worse if that happened.
"I'm sorry, I know it's my fault," Alissanda said, head lowered, "The casualties weren't massive, but my mistake can't be excused. I will bear the responsibility when I go back. Right now, however, all I can do is apologize to you sincerely..."
"Alright, Kurdak, Alissanda's very sorry, so don't be too hard on him," Vera said from up front.
Kurdak decided to let it rest for the time being since it wouldn't be right to push the prince too far.
"The people that died had nothing to do with me in the first place..."
"They... they died because of me..."
Alissanda's eyes were suddenly red. He had an immense build, but he was, after all, only 17 years old. It was too cruel that someone at his tender age had to bear such a burden.
Kurdak glanced at the prince and patted his head like he usually did for his little brother.
"What are you thinking about?"
"Nothing... I... I was just feeling guilty..."
"Guilty?" Kurdak patted his head again, "Can you eat it? What's the point of feeling guilty?"
Alissanda didn't know how to respond.
"Listen, kid, their deaths were undeserved, but you're not the only one responsible. Did Haden not plan this? Was Saron and the other soldiers not the ones to kill them? I also failed to keep my group alive. And didn't you say casualties were inevitable in war? We won't be surprised even if someone like you falls on the battlefield!"
"You're right," Alissanda said in a deep voice.
He had been leading the men years earlier. He thought he would not shed tears for fallen comrades anymore. But his wounds were raw every time, he had not yet grown numb to losing his comrades. He had advised Kurdak to leave quickly to save him, now safe himself, however, his heart was growing black. He had thrown his loyal subordinates' lives away.
"You understand a leader's mission now?" Kurdak asked.
Alissanda didn't answer.
"A leader's job is to keep his subordinates safe whilst completing the mission. You can't keep everyone safe, of course, but you have to do your best to keep as many alive as possible. Some died, yes, but many more survived. You can mourn the dead, yes, but not if it impedes your ability to look after the ones that survived."
Alissanda nodded after a while.
"I get it, Mister Kurdak. Thanks."
"Ah, I'm just sharing my experience," Kurdak smiled humbly.
"So you're already practicing what you just learnt?" Vera asked with a teasing smile.
She knew Kurdak had stolen the line from Tamro.
"You even managed to disrupt Stok's transport unit before you arrived at Pato, right?" Alissanda asked.
"Yes. Gana, Jeff and the others died then--" A hint of grief flushed Kurdak's face. "--Stok's soldiers were too fast during the pursuit, they also arrived much earlier than we expected. Those two stayed behind to hold them back..."
"I gave you faulty information. Please don't blame yourself," Alissanda said hurriedly, "You led them properly and precisely. I doubt many in the empire could've done as well as you."
"I'm used to leading small groups in these kinds of operations." Kurdak forced a smile.
"I see..." Alissanda, "If I have a chance, I'll put in a word with my father. It'd be a waste to not put good talent to use."
"I'm more than willing to serve."
Despite the somber atmosphere, Kurdak was happy to hear those words, this was exactly what he'd been waiting for.
"Wonderful," the prince nodded.
The lot had dragged Leguna along for a good four hours now. The sky was brightening. They were still in behind enemy lines, but they didn't encounter many enemies. It seemed Haden's death had caused complete chaos. Even so, they didn't dare slow down more than absolutely necessary. They were still behind enemy lines, after all, it would be best to make haste. Just as they were about to run out of energy, a rider's silhouette broke the horizon in front of them.
"Is that a foe?" Vera asked as she drew her bow anxiously.
"Wait, I think it's Lisana." Alissanda quickly answered.
"Lisana?" Kurdak and Vera glanced at each other puzzledly.
"She's in my brigade. She came along on the mission," Alissanda explained.
He stared at the silhouette for a few more seconds before sending up a directed beacon using his impetus. It wasn't very bright, but the night immediately noticed it in the darkness.
The figure became clearer as it approached. Indeed it was a female.
She wasn't tall, slightly shorter than Annelotte, in fact, and sported a head of short pink hair. Quite attractive, in fact. She couldn't compare to Annelotte, but she much better than Vera, though she wasn't as spilling in certain places.
Kurdak remembered her once he saw her: she was the only female knight in Alissanda's brigade. He had actually wanted to pick her for his group.
She wasn't just a decent sight, she was apparently also quite strict and obedient. She would have been perfect as a second-in-command. She refused to join him, however, and Vera wasn't too happy with his choice either, her death-stare was an obvious giveaway, so he gave up on the idea."
He finally understood why she had refused. She had already been put in the prince's unit. The thought unnerved him.
"Pri-- Captain..." Lisana dismounted and saluted in a smooth motion.
"Alright, now's not the time to be anal about the details," Alissanda said as he helped her up, "Why are you here?"
"I..." Lisana hesitated for a moment, "I was worried, Captain, about Mister Kurdak and the others too... I disobeyed Sir Jast's orders and came here alone to come find you. Please punish me."
So she thought about him as well! Wasn't she thoughtful? Kurdak's mouth bloomed into a ruffian smile.
"Your arrival is most timely. We're in need of aid. How could Alissanda possibly punish you?"
The girl ignored him completely, however, simply continuing to kneel.
Kurdak's face was shoved against cold butt-cheeks.
"It is an unforgivable offense. I will deal with this appropriately when we return. Right now, however, we should concern ourselves with leaving only. Did you bring supplies?" Alissanda declared.
"I only brought rations I got from the other and two horses..." Lisana murmured, standing up, "Apologies, Captain, I didn't prepare enough..."
"It's more than enough. I'm grateful you came prepared," Alissanda said as he patted the girl's shoulder.
"I was born to serve Your Highness, so this is a matter of course!" Lisana blurted, saluting again.
"Let's put this kid on the horse! My shoulders are about to break!" Kurdak complained, throwing Leguna onto the horse haphazardly. Lisana hurried to catch him before he slipped off on the other side.
"My brother is out cold. I have to trouble you to ride with him to keep him secured."
"Huh?" Lisana's head nearly fell off her head as she ripped it to look at them, "Can't any of you do that?"
"We're all injured. Vera will have to look after me."
"The heck? Who said I was going to look after you?" Vera snapped.
Kurdak ignored her.
"His Highness is also injured so he can't either. You're the only one."
Lisana stared at Kurdak seriously before turning to her prince.
"We're counting on you," the prince nodded.
"Alright," she agreed immediately.
"Kid, don't say your boss didn't look after you. You did your best, so I'm putting you in the girl's care. That should be reward enough, right?" Kurdak whispered to the unconscious boy.