Daybreak:Volume 1 Full
- 1 Chapter 1 - The Curse of Prodigy
- 2 Chapter 2 - By the Runelord's Will
- 3 Chapter 3 - Master and Familiar
- 4 Chapter 4 - Regressions of Time
- 5 Chapter 5 - Status of Life
- 6 Chapter 6 - A Peaceful Day
- 7 Chapter 7 - The Perfect Contrast
- 8 Chapter 8 - Inquisitive Hope
- 9 Chapter 9 - Bonds of Faith
- 10 Chapter 10 - Critical Appeal
- 11 Chapter 11 - For Weichsel, Not You
- 12 Chapter 12 - Better Late Than Never
- 13 Chapter 13 - Scarlet Cultural Exchange
- 14 Chapter 14 - Outbreak of War
Chapter 1 - The Curse of Prodigy
"Did you hear!? They're back! They're already back!"
Reynald could barely contain his excitement as he bounced down the granite steps, ahead of his two companions. Short-statured with fiery red hair, his energy lit up the gloomy castle corridor like a radiating torch.
"How could we not? With you reminding us every three minutes?" Parzifal sighed. Built with the lean musculature of a runner, his legs strode into the corridor with grace. "Do you know how many we lost this time?"
"Only three from the entire school, and the whole campaign took just two weeks!" Reynald pumped his fist into the air as he spun for good measure. "The Holy Father has graced us with a great victory this year! Our Marshal crushed and humiliated those barbaric Västergötlanders in an epic triumph! Only mobilized a third of Weichsel to do it too!"
"Three out of four dozen." Parzifal's gaze at Reynald was stiff, but the younger redhead didn't even notice. "How is six percent a good number, especially given how young they... we are? Throwing good lives away..."
Reynald had wanted to volunteer for the campaign himself, but Parzifal put his foot down as their group's leader. "Finish your training first," his words had been at the time.
The redhead wouldn't hold it against him though. There were advantages to being a healer trainee, not to mention the sacrifices his family already made for the Weichsel army.
"There is no glory without risk, brother!" Reynald's celebratory grin left his 'brother' wincing.
Tell that to my 'posthumous hero' father and thrice-crippled mother...
Parzifal clenched his jaw, but said nothing of it. Meanwhile Reynald proved as oblivious as usual when he romanticized battlefield heroes.
"Come on! I even heard that one of our class became the youngest Captain in national history! Decorated by the King himself no less!"
"I heard about that too," added Ariadne as she walked besides Parzifal, her voice soft and her gaze worried about him. "The girls have been chattering about the latest news for days..."
She intertwined her delicate fingers with Parzifal's for some reassurance before continuing:
"Anna Marie's fiancée works on the Marshal's staff, and she says that Pascal was serving as an adjutant for his father--"
She felt her beloved's fingers tighten, and she squeezed back while trying to hide her painful grimace.
"--When the situation changed during the Battle of Parchim, Pascal modified the orders he was sending to the Reiter artillery-mages to bombard a weak spot the enemy revealed in their line. It threw the entire Northmen front into confusion just before the decisive charge hammered into their line. Marshal von Moltewitz gave him due credit of course, but also publicly reprimanded him for overriding command orders. Yet when the King heard about it... he personally promoted and knighted that prick."
Both of the men groaned.
"Great, leave it to the King to undo our Field Marshal's brilliance. That princeling needs to be taken down a notch and even his father knows it..." Reynald's mood plummeted straight to grumpy, and not even his hero worship for the elder von Moltewitz could rebound it. Then, as he opened the last door along the corridor and turned into the theater-like classroom: "and speak of the devil, our Runelord's new celebrity status is already taking effect."
It didn't take familiarity to spot Pascal. Even with eyes shut and arms crossed, he still sat with a regal poise that cleared all doubts. Framed by soft golden curls just long enough to cover his ears, his broad yet lean build gave his polished military uniform the best look a propaganda poster could seek.
But that wasn't what naturally made him the center of attention. Sitting on the front row's left wing, he was surrounded by a semicircle of girls, all of whom sat at least two arms' length away yet kept him in their sight. Meanwhile, over half the men scattered across the room, and quite a few women as well, looked toward him with scowling faces.
It was an understatement to say that Pascal Kay Lennart von Moltewitz, the only heir of Field Marshal and Landgrave von Moltewitz of Nordkreuz, stood far above the crowd. But regardless of how assured he looked, no one could doubt the ill symptoms that too often followed any childhood prodigy:
Amongst a roomful of chattering peers, he sat silent and alone.
----- * * * -----
"Captain and Knight's Cross recipient at the mere age of nineteen..."
"He took the fourth years' exams and aced them too!"
"...I heard even common mercenaries from the Empire have heard of his name!"
"Of course! He's engaged to the Lotharins' Crown Princess, isn't he? Didn't she teleport over to personally congratulate him..."
"...Feels like he's even further beyond our reach now."
The noble daughters that surrounded him whispered in hush voices, but Pascal's trained ears caught the words nonetheless. He did not enjoy such gossip, but no properly raised nobleman, bred for political intrigues of the court, could subconsciously dismiss what others spoke of him.
...Day after day I'm surrounded by insignificant fools, each with no greater role in the world than a mere name, barely altering the statistics of census records and enrollment sheets.
Pascal couldn't help but wish that one of those rumors was actually true, that Crown Princess Sylviane really did pay him a visit. She was one of the few girls he knew worthy of her nobility -- who not only had the beauty to match her prestige but also thought with the farsighted intellect of an aspiring ruler. Unfortunately, proper empresses-in-training also lacked time, and it was all she could spare to congratulate him three nights ago through a Farspeak conversation spell.
Of course, not everyone spoke of his accomplishments with admiration. That included a number of young lords within this room. Contempt filled their voices as though ridiculing others somehow rescued their pride from the cowardice of doing nothing.
"...His father is just pulling another publicity stunt; von Moltewitz is already famous enough, so why not claim it was his son's doing and gift the amateur some credit?"
"Must be nice being awarded just for having papa as the commander..."
Pascal wasn't agitated by those who could only mock his back from afar. No, he only cared enough to track those who foolishly marked themselves a foe. Their actual complaints were beneath him, unfit for extended consideration by even a single brain cell. It was the fact that he had to waste time near such lowlifes that really bothered him.
Whining cowards and pining damsels, with the sheep-like idiocy of peasantry. At least those who joined had the valor to follow our aristocratic military heritage into war.
The Kingdom of Weichsel prided itself on the competence of its military aristocracy. The curriculum of its noble education followed that tradition. The Königsfeld Academy of Magic was among the best on the continent of Hyperion in the arts of administration, diplomacy, strategy, and of course, sorcery.
...Or so Pascal once believed.
I've already learned everything they offered in the past two-and-half years, so why must father force me to take another year-and-half with these common nobles? I'm wasting my time here!
Pascal knew perfectly well that he had a long way to climb before emerging from the shadows of his father's renown. Furthermore, for an aspiring officer who had already felt the power of responsibility on the battlefield, a return to mere books was like being told to go back to the sandbox.
"Settle down, everyone," announced the balding professor Albert von Marienfeld, exactly one minute late as usual to his Advanced Magical Communications and Organization class.
"I realize that the return of our cadets from the front lines brings exciting news, which is why today's class will be a discussion and analysis of field experiences gathered by your peers!"
His announcement gathered most of the class' attention in an instant.
Even Pascal stared back with a hint of admiration for the adaptability shown by his advisor, who, a few months ago, insisted Pascal follow his father's wishes and continue his education on the grounds that it was somehow 'good for him'.
"But first things first, I'd like to inform everyone that all third-year classes will be canceled this Friday for your familiar-summoning ceremonies."
Eager chatter broke loose across the classroom again.
The professor turned to prepare the classroom's illusion projectors. Whistling a short tune, he patiently waited for the students to empty their minds of burning curiosities so they may receive fresh wisdom.
The only other person who wasn't excited was Pascal himself.
...As if I need the presence of more dumb animals around me.
Silently, he scrolled back through his memories, thinking of every mage's familiar he came across during his years. Some of them made for trusted mounts on the battlefield; some of them served as eyes and ears; a few even trained as valets of simple households. But not a single one -- not even the phoenix familiars of the Oriflamme Paladins -- ever showed more intelligence and creativity than one could expect from a beast.
But then... why must I be limited to mere beasts?
Pascal drew a scroll of parchment and copied down the mnemonic incantations of every core Summon Familiar spell variant he knew from memory. Within a minute, he had them broken down into a tree graph of individual spellcraft components which defined every effect -- scan, calling, summon, transport, compel, binding, connect, sharing...
He didn't need a servant. A traditional, obedient familiar was no better than a yes-man. Loyal, but nevertheless a fool of limited use.
Paying no heed to the conversations around him, he tapped the syllables that represented the 'animal calling' aspect of the spell on his parchment.
What I need is a person near my level and age, a companion who will always be with me to share our thoughts...
Images came of a twin who shared his outlook, and the mere prospect of mirrored words made his mind recoil. Pascal didn't want some voice of agreement and approval. His fondest memories of intellectual exploration were filled with heated debates.
...Someone with a completely different outlook upon the world; a dissimilar foundation of knowledge and wisdom, yet diverse enough to rival my own.
Moving into the future, he thought of his impending career on the battlefields of war and diplomacy, where only a balance of words and swords guaranteed survival.
...Must be capable enough to serve as my second; an advisor and analyst, but also able to fend for herself with the powers I bestow through our bond.
A brief flashback brought his thoughts back to his childhood, when he and Princess Sylviane could spend hours lounging on the shores of the Cross Lake near the von Moltewitz estate. Their conversations naturally flowed from one worldly topic to another with no regard to time, when he had all day to admire the focus and intellect that lay behind her wisteria gaze, or the vast understanding that hid under that dark-plum hair.
...And she needs to be cute too, he decided, with the perfect image coming to mind.
Twice the professor clapped, drawing the room's attention back to the fore where an illusory, three-dimensional overhead projection of the Parchim battlefield lay.
"Captain Sir Pascal Kay Lennart von Moltewitz, as you are our honored 'hero' of the war, it is only fair that we begin today's lecture with your... unregulated contributions to the war effort."
Muffled snickering drifted forth from the back of the room, but Pascal ignored them as though he heard only buzzing flies.
Rolling up his parchment as he stood, Pascal's determination revealed not the slightest sign of offense or hesitance. Albert's choice of words made it obvious that the professor agreed with his father. Pascal understood the reason behind the Field Marshal's reprimand -- rules were rules after all, and no army would be able to operate if junior officers could freely change the orders they received.
He just thought it was unfair that rules of the average should apply to him.
It would be many hours of late night studies before Pascal could finish the work he began. But even at its end, even after triple-checking his modifications with satisfaction, Pascal would never notice his one critical error due to sheer inexperience:
Beasts were simple-minded. It was easy to find a physically and mentally healthy critter to call forth as a familiar.
Humans were another matter entirely, and the divination scanning component he wrote into the spell was nowhere powerful enough to search through the multiverse for a precise match to his exact specifications.
Magical energy naturally diffused towards the nearest shortcut: twiddling with the first subject that met most criteria instead of seeking a perfect match. Of course, shaping minds was a difficult and dangerous business, but molding forms through sorcery could easily be achieved.
Chapter 2 - By the Runelord's Will
"Remarkable, Miss von Zimmer-Manteuffel! You've clearly bested all three of your older brothers in the family tradition." Professor Albert von Marienfeld's awed words mirrored his gleaming-onyx eyes as they examined the beautiful wings of Ariadne's flawless white pegasus. "Between such potential and your top-ranking grades, I'm sure the Knights Phantom eagerly await the day of your graduation!"
"Thank you, Professor Sir," Ariadne returned a courteous reply as she stood up and brushed back her silken pink cascade. Pleased with her own summoning, she finally let go of the breath she'd been unconsciously holding. With a step forward in the magic circle inscribed using crushed sapphire dust -- her birthstone -- mixed with holy water and her own blood, she placed a delicate kiss on the forehead of her new pegasus familiar to seal the bond.
"Very well done, everyone..."
Professor Albert -- since his cousin of the same surname also taught within the academy -- looked around to survey all the familiars. The menagerie of magical beasts ranged from the common, like Emilie von Bittenfeld's silver hawk, to the powerful glacier drake that Howard de Angelis was conversing with. Then, spotting the lone individual that stood by the windows, Albert just barely caught himself from swearing:
"Sir von Moltewitz, my apologies. I almost forgot you had offered to go last."
"No problem, Sir. I am the one who disrupted the order," Pascal remarked with nonchalance as he strode to the one remaining clearing within the Cancellation Field that opened a gap in the castle's Lockdown anti-teleportation ward. "I did not wish to cause an interruption when something unusual happened, since it is my first time accomplishing this."
Somehow, his drawling, aristocratic intonation managed to make even humble words sound arrogant.
"Show-off," several people muttered from among the crowd.
"Well, let's see what your future brings."
Professor Albert took care to suppress his eager curiosity, mostly because he agreed with the other students over Pascal's motivations, at least in part. In the meantime, he stood over Pascal with the examining eyes of a retired general as he watched the young lord retrieve one rune-engraved stone after another from an extra-dimensional belt pouch. After carefully positioning sixteen of them, Pascal connected the rocks with series of tiny malachite gems to form a perfect circle. Three larger runic stones followed, this time linked by lapis lazuli gems to draw the smallest equilateral triangle that would contain the ring.
"Amazing..." came a feminine murmur as others nodded in consent. "Trust the 'Runelord' Pascal to always do something creative."
"I believe you and Professor von Kirchner are the only two experts of ancient Runic Rituals on campus, and I'm not quite a specialist on gem magic," Professor Albert commented. "So would you please explain your setup to everyone?"
"Of course." Pascal relished in the opportunity. "As you know, Runic Magic was created by the Northmen to reduce the casting time of their battle magic. The runic glyphs on these granite stones replaces the mnemonic incantations of the ritual and substitute for our personalized verses. Each symbol is carved deep and inscribed with blood appropriate for bonding magic, and each gemstone is infused with my ether to supply additional magical power. The outer triangle, laid with the gems of truth and wisdom, will enhance the seek and search for the appropriate familiar for teleportation. Meanwhile the inner malachite ring, also known as 'the mirror of the soul', will serve as the primary focus of the ritual itself."
"As expected, you've put plenty of thought into preparing this," the Professor commented. "Very well, you may begin."
"With the runes handling everything, the ritual itself is quite simple and leaves no chance for errors," Pascal began with assured confidence as he gently cut his right index finger with a dagger. Carefully aiming, he dripped a drop of fresh blood into the top rune of the inner ring. Like water flowing across routed channels, the stones and gems lit up one after another, bathing the shadowy room with a combination of crimson, forest, and indigo light. Magic strong enough to be felt pulsed outwards as each glyph lit up, releasing a dense mist that soon enshrouded the entire dance hall.
Minutes passed as everyone stood within the concealment, unable to see, yet unwilling to disrupt a magical ceremony in fear of the often deadly consequences involved.
"The ritual is complete," Pascal announced as he quietly called a wind spell to clear away the mist.
The focus stones and precious gems had been reduced to a ring of worthless gray dust. But what drew gasps from everyone was the small girl that now lay unconscious within it, dressed in baggy clothing and holding onto a thin bag taller than herself.
"Sir von Moltewitz, please explain yourself."
Professor Albert kept his cool, but he was willing to bet his life that Pascal was somehow involved in this unnatural conclusion to a sacred rite of magecraft. In hindsight, he should have expected something like this, when Pascal was not only using magic beyond the supervisor's expertise but also showing off. The last time Albert saw that particular combination during a practical magic exam, the young noble not only painted the entire castle every shade of the rainbow, but also filled it with swarms of brightly glowing pink flamingos, just to prove he could.
...Had Pascal not been the Marshal's son, not to mention a cadet with great promise himself, Albert would have expelled him on the spot.
But Pascal himself paid no heed. His eyes were transfixed upon the unconscious girl. His body barely contained the boiling excitement as thoughts shouted across his mind in triumph: It worked perfectly! Followed closely by: Oh Heavenly Father has granted me an angel!
At barely one-fifty-seven centimeters (5'2") tall, the thin girl appeared no older than her mid-teens and gave off a fragile, almost doll-like appearance. Her figure lay concealed beneath a short-sleeved jacket and pair of pants that looked far too big to fit, but the small hands and cute face revealed her flawless white skin. She had an adorably tiny nose and thinly curled lashes, while straight cream-white hair ran all the way down to her thighs.
"Did he... just summon a Samaran girl for a familiar?"
"With that almost-white hair? Probably."
"But why a Samaran? Not only are they commoners... Republicans," Reynald spat out the word as though it was filthy, "but they're also nonbelieving heathens."
Meanwhile, Pascal knelt down in a dramatic one-kneed pose before taking the unconscious girl's right hand and kissing its back, thereby completing the familiar bonding ceremony.
"Sir von Moltewitz, you have some explaining to do!"
The retired general was not used to being ignored, even by this young upstart. His rising impatience had already reached a simmer.
"It is exactly what it looks like, Professor Sir," Pascal replied while picking up the unconscious girl in a cradling carry, his arms supporting her back and underneath her knees. "I decided to summon an actual, intelligent person, and now the ritual has already been completed."
He left the words 'and there is nothing more you can do about it' unsaid as he strode out the dance hall, leaving behind a roomful of bewildered eyes, gawking expressions, and one incensed advisor.
By the time Pascal reached his dorm room, the adrenaline from his excitement was beginning to wear off, quickly giving way to the feeling of exhaustion. The girl within his arms was as light as she looked, but his late working nights were finally catching up -- not to mention the summoning ceremony and its preparation had drained him dry.
With a swift gesture, his Unlock cantrip was recognized by the door's magical enhancement, and he carried the still-unconscious girl across the threshold into his room. It was officially a 'dorm', but in a school built for nobles, the spacious bedroom was larger and better-furnished than tavern guest rooms.
After gently laying her across his bed, Pascal went through his drawers to find some more appropriate clothes. The preparations he had been making all week included picking out apparel according to his tastes through fast mail order. The exact fit wasn't even a concern, as the enchanted garments were of the highest quality and magically self-adjusting.
Then, just as Pascal was getting into it, the door slammed open.
"Sir von Moltewitz! You still owe--"
Professor Albert's words trailed off into oblivion as he froze mid-step. Pascal was bent over the summoned girl, now naked on his four-poster bed with her baggy clothes tossed onto the floor. Meanwhile, his hands were in the midst of pulling lingerie up her thighs.
Pascal blinked at him, then raised a single eyebrow.
The professor couldn't have teleported out of the room faster, slamming the door again as he went.
He avoided Pascal for several days after that.
----- * * * -----
Kaede had never felt this tired after waking up from a nap. His entire body was felt sore and extraordinarily weak. It took exertion just to push against the bedcovers, with barely a sliver of his usual strength.
Wait a sec... when did I fall asleep?
It had been a tiring week. Kaede had been a member of his high school's athletics festival planning committee, and this year the timing overlapped with an archery tournament that he would be attending. He had been staying late every day to make sure that his previous years of experience would be passed down to his successor, all while joining the morning training sessions at the Kyūdō Archery Club as one of its senior members. Combined with the schoolwork that a 12th-grader still had to finish, it left Kaede with many late nights where he could squeeze in six hours of sleep at best.
It didn't help that his sister's family had fallen sick, prompting his Japanese mother to fly to Vladivostok to care for them. His father -- like most Russian men -- was useless at housework, so Kaede had to wake up even earlier every morning to prepare breakfast.
Today was one such morning, and Kaede's last memory had been laying on the couch as he waited for the clock to strike seven.
It was only half an hour before I needed to meet up with others and leave for the archery tournament.
The fear that he had overslept lit up his mind in a flash. His eyes sprang open, his arms reaching out by force of habit in search of his smartphone, only to promptly freeze as realization came.
Where the heck am I?
He didn't recognize the old-fashioned four-poster bed he laid in, or the redwood furniture that lined the walls, and certainly not the dimly-lit room itself.
He felt his pulse quickening as uncertainty washed over him. Being both too young to drink and uninterested in alcohol, or any kind of drugs for that matter, it was improbable that he had blacked out from some kind of wild club party and screwed up his memories' timeline.
...Especially not before the tournament.
Sitting up on the bed to get a better view, he suddenly realized that his back and shoulders were bared and chilly. By contrast, his chest was covered by a fabric smoother than anything he was used to.
Wait... something's not right...
He looked down, first noticing that his arms were one: far thinner than they should be, and two: wearing silky white gloves... long gloves reaching up his triceps... while sleeping...
What kind of a weird prank is...
Then his downward tracing eyes saw 'his' chest, and his mind promptly blanked out as every thought came to a crashing halt. His senses and mental capacities had to be rebooted one by one as a result.
Realization #1: He, or perhaps she was a better descriptor of this body, had small mounds of outward bulging flesh on the chest that could only be described as breasts. Petite but so very soft and sensitive, if his... her fingers' touch was correct.
Realization #2: She was wearing a pure white halter top of... charmeuse? Some kind of glossy satin-weave, with some kind of crest laid onto her chest -- bosom -- in delicate white gold, and not a stitch covering her back.
Realization #3: Shifting the thighs found nothing in between, therefore identifying, once again, that this was a she.
Realization #4: WHAT THE HELL!
Okay, deep breaths... calm down and think.
Kaede had no clue how long had passed since he, she, whatever one should refer to themselves in such outrageous circumstances, blanked out for the second time in a row.
Unfortunately, after two mental shocks and still no moment of startled awakening, Kaede concluded that this was probably not just a weird dream... which meant that the situation was truly nightmarish.
Some pervert with access to incomprehensible mad science had turned him into a her, and then left her in a fancy room with an extravagant bed dressed in scanty undergarments.
Kaede wasn't used to rape alarms going off in his head.
I've never even done it with the girl I dated before! Oh this is sooo messed up...
Nevertheless, fear did wonders in concentrating the mind, and her hyperactive thoughts soon realized exactly what should be done:
Objective #1: Find something weapon-like and get out of this room.
Objective #2: Figure out how to return to normal, probably by beating the pervert responsible for this unconscious and then forcing it out of him.
Pulling her legs out of the bed, Kaede noticed that the charmeuse halter top went down to form a single, seamless piece with both her underwear and the semi-translucent skirt covering it. Two garter straps also held up thigh-high socks, or more like solid white stockings.
What is this, bridal night lingerie?
A terrifying chill sent shivers down her spine and made her skin crawl.
With her feet on the carpet, she tried to stand up, only to sway once before collapsing back into the bed. Realizing that she still lacked the instinctive motor controls to handle her new body, she repeated the simple action, this time pacing herself with focused concentration.
This much effort just to stand and walk... this is beyond ridiculous.
Taking each step with care, Kaede gradually made her way over to the chair where her blue windbreaker jacket was draped over. She also recognized the bag containing her greatbow leaning against a nearby table, and mentally filed the information away for later. After covering herself with the jacket, she found her best option for self-defense in the form of a fireplace poker, which sat next to an unattended, still-burning hearth.
Kaede was self-taught in both eastern and western swordsmanship, so he could effectively use any stick of reasonable length. But she, with her thin arms and reduced motor skills, found the 'heavy' poker about as agile as an oversized baseball bat. Her first warm-up swing almost sent her crashing into a long dressing table. Her right hand managed to grab the edge just in time, but not before the metal rod plunged straight into the giant mirror behind the drawers.
The loud shattering noise was a dead giveaway.
Hearing faint but rushed footsteps beyond the door, Kaede rushed to take cover behind a protruding wall corner near the doorway. With her pervert-beating stick raised and ready, she could feel every heartbeat as the door opened and soft steps made its way in. The door was slow to close, but in the meantime the silhouette cast by the bright hallway lamps marked the intruder's exact position.
Kaede went into action the moment the door closed. Stepping out from behind the corner, she swung the iron poker with a two-handed grip, its metal spike facing forward. With her weak arms, she knew that maximizing damage on the initial hit was her only chance of winning.
Carrying a tray filled with sandwiches and a bowl of steaming hot soup, the intruder reflexively lurched the tray forward to use as a shield. Its contents hurled straight towards Kaede, especially the scorching soup which passed right through the middle of her opened jacket and onto the thin halter top.
Her painful yell muffled the young man's clenched grunt. The metal rod bounced off the silver tray with a resounding 'clang', but not before its iron spike slashed into his exposed left fist and broke his index and middle fingers.
Tossing the tray towards his left, he used its edge to catch the spike and disarmed her of the poker. Ignoring his broken digits, the man pressed her shaking body onto the floor and pinned her arms back in one fluid motion. With a twist from his wrist and two lightning-fast words, a linked pair of steel shackles appeared out of thin air, binding her hands behind her.
"OwwOwwOwwOwwOwwww!" Kaede continued to thrash about on the floor as her chest burned under the scalding soup.
With a deep sigh, the young man waved his hand again and the searing liquid disappeared. The mess left on the floor soon followed with a few more gestures and words. All that remained was the lingering pain of recent burns on her sensitive flesh.
"Sheesh, I leave to get you some food and this is the thanks I get?"
You're the one who turned me into a girl and you expect thanks!?
Still breathing hard, Kaede rolled onto her back, glaring at her foe through tear-stained eyes even as her thoughts slowly returned. Fluent in three languages and versed in another two, she only recognized his words as similar to Old High German, which she had no business understanding. Yet somehow, she did.
One-eighty-two (6'0") with broad shoulders accentuated by his stiff crimson-on-black uniform, the man turned to sit down on the four-poster bed while keeping her within his glance. Turning towards his bloodied hand, he took out a small pebble and pressed it into his left palm. He then covered the left fist with his right, while a large turquoise-set platinum ring began to glow from the exposed ring finger.
His eyes, as crystal clear as the aqua gemstone, held onto hers with a piercing gaze.
"Please do not attempt anything so stupid again. I am an experienced soldier and I really do not want to be forced to hurt you. Now... if I release your hands, will you be good and let us talk this out like rational people?"
Still glaring with angry eyes, Kaede took a brief moment before nodding in consent. With basic experience in martial arts, she could tell from his movements that the man's prowess was several magnitudes above hers... even before the body change.
He turned the ring towards her again. With a simple "dismiss," her bonds vanished as swiftly as they came. Kaede quickly brought her hands forward, rubbing her chest just above the breasts in an attempt to ease the lingering pain. Surprisingly, there was no longer a single spot of stain on the pure white fabric.
"Here, Invigorate," he reached forward with the glowing ring, hovering just beyond her chest without touching. A soothing cool soon spread over Kaede's inflamed skin, remaining so even after he pulled back.
"Surface wounds are easy. Just sleep on it and you will not even notice it by morning."
"...Thanks," her reply was weaker than a whisper.
"On to introductions: my name is Pascal Kay Lennart von Moltewitz, son of Weichsel Field Marshal von Moltewitz, heir to the Landgrave of Nordkreuz. What is yours?"
A Prussian Landgrave? Didn't the German Weimar Republic abolish the nobility?
Kaede didn't have a clue on what was going on, and only begrudgingly forced out a basic answer in her new wispy voice: "Kaede Nika Suvorsky."
"Are you Samaran? Your family name sure sounds like it," he went on while the turquoise gem continued to glow.
"My surname is Russian! I'm half-Russian and half-Japanese," she countered while sitting back up into a formal Japanese kneel, shifting uncomfortably as she felt her cold, satin-covered heels press against her bottom. "Where's Samaran referring to, anyway?"
For some reason, the words that rolled off her tongue seemed to be of the same language he used.
"People from the northeastern Grand Republic of Samara, usually pale with silver-blue to light-blond hair; social egalitarians who worship the sky-god and believe in spiritual reincarnation." Pascal explained in an irritatingly aristocratic, drawling accent. Then, with a confused look that he wasn't used to: "I have never heard of Russian or Japanese before."
Even Kaede was stumped now.
"Uhhh, where are we now, then? What part of the world?"
"We are in the Königsfeld Academy of Magic, forty-nine kilopaces outside Königsfeld itself, Capital of the Kingdom of Weichsel. The Grand Republic of Samara lays to our east, the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie to our west, the Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea to our south, and to our north is the Greater Jarldom of Skagen, the North Sea, and across it -- the Kingdom of Västergötland. All of this on the continent of Hyperion."
Kaede only knew 'Samara' as a Russian city and region, and the other names mostly sounded either Germanic or Scandinavian, except the continent name, which matched Greek mythology. But it didn't take a linguist to realize that all those foreign nation-states, not to mention the keywords Academy of Magic, meant only one thing:
"This isn't Earth." Her words left in a dazed whisper.
"Of course not. The ground is three levels below." His left eyebrow arced upwards in curiosity. "What kind of weird place did you come from?"
Her mind still reeling, she barely even heard his remark.
"Why... what... this is just... how did this even happen?"
"I summoned you to be my familiar. And either you're some stupid, backwater peasant--"
Kaede stood back up in a flash and almost fell over again. Her rose-quartz eyes narrowed back into a furious glare:
HE did this?
"--Or... I guess asking for someone with a 'whole different world outlook' bought me more than I bargained for."
Somehow, the man was looking more smug by the second and increasingly proud of himself.
"Why the heck did you summon me?" Her arms flailed dramatically. "And why the hell did you turn me into a girl?"
"The spell picked you, not me... wait a second, you are a man?"
"Seventeen, before I woke up here!" Her otherwise wispy voice had climbed up to a soft yell.
With his brows furrowed, Pascal looked split between confusion and disbelief.
"No such procedure was added to the spell."
"Well, whatever you did, fix it!"
"Just send me back however you brought me here then!"
"What do you mean you can't!"
His ring finally stopped glowing, and he stretched out his left hand, whole again without a single scratch. With his eyes examining the healed result, he answered with a tone of uncaring nonchalance:
"I meant what I said. Familiar contracts are not meant to ever be broken. Familiars also rarely live long after the master's death, so even if I can sever it, you are likely to die in the process."
Then, his penetrating gaze locked onto her widening eyes once again:
"And if the summoning spell really did transform your physical body, that means it also materialized -- or better said, naturalized -- you for our world. That means I cannot just banish you back to wherever you came from. So for all purposes, you are now a denizen of this world."
"...As a familiar?" Kaede could only shake her head slowly, her eyes quivering in denial of the words coming from her mouth.
"As my familiar, yes."
This time, it was irritation and anger that dragged Kaede back into reality: a growing desire to tear that smile off his handsome face.
"The only way you'll get me to call you 'master' is by animating my cold, dead body!"
"There is no need for such tasteless measures," he simply shrugged. "I am not one of those commoners who needs their ego constantly stroked."
That is clearly. Not. The point!
"I believe this is quite a fair deal. Be my companion, and I will make certain you are well taken care of and live a comfortable life."
"I had a perfectly good life back there!"
"--And you will have just as good of a life here. I promise."
"You can kiss my ass!"
"--And a cute ass it is. I would not really mind." Pascal chuckled as he eyed the semi-translucent skirt poking out from underneath her jacket.
Kaede quickly pulled the bottom hem of her now-oversized jacket down, with shades of embarrassment working into a pale face reddened by frustrated anger:
"What part of 'I'm a guy' are you not understanding?"
"The fact that you are an adorable young lady."
With an amused grin and a glance at the wall clock, Pascal decided to wrap this conversation up:
"We can continue discussing this tomorrow. Although... it appears I forgot to prepare you a new bed. So just sleep in mine for tonight, and I will have that fixed as soon as I can."
He pulled back the bed cover before starting to undress, clearly intending to sleep in it himself.
I am NOT sleeping next to a man who put me in bridal lingerie! Kaede's mind shouted. If I'm doing it for the first time it should at least be in MY body with a girl I like, not AS the girl with a guy I don't even know!
"You can't seriously be expecting me to... and like... wearing... this!"
"Do not worry. A proper nobleman like myself would never do anything without consent, especially not to a sleeping lady." His reassurance proved anything but reassuring as he finished unbuttoning his undershirt, revealing the chiseled muscles beneath.
"B-but you changed my clothes while I was asleep!"
"Of course. Your jacket and trousers were dirty."
"That's not the point! Do... DON'T YOU HAVE ANY COMMON SENSE!!"
He turned back around and his handsome, noble-bred features lit up with the perfect smile:
"Plenty, just my own!"
Chapter 3 - Master and Familiar
True to his word, Pascal kept his hands to himself that night. Even with their close proximity, he never touched Kaede once. But despite the awkward situation, a far greater concern occupied her thoughts: his words kept replaying in her mind, forcing her to accept the grim new reality.
On the first night of Kaede's new life, she silently cried herself to sleep... yet even that merciful unconsciousness lasted only three hours.
By the time the first rays of light cracked through the curtains, she was tired of lying about. Taking care not to wake Pascal up, she pulled on her windbreaker jacket and grabbed her archery bag. Quietly slipping out of the room, she made her way towards the roof for a breather.
Königsfeld Academy's 'dormitory' turned out to be more of an opulently furnished keep. Intricate rugs of rich wool lined the stone hallways, while bright crystal chandeliers lit every intersection. Gold-framed portraits and ornate medieval weapons decorated the spiraling tower staircase. Even the heating and insulation of its stone construction proved superior to Earth equivalents, as Kaede opened the thick wooden door to the roof and was promptly chilled to the bone by the cold air of an early winter morning.
She had left behind her sweatpants, as their now-oversized waist refused to stay up. Now, even with barely a breeze on the stone roof, the biting cold kept her keenly aware that she wore nothing more than a flimsy skirt and satin stockings under her large windbreaker jacket.
Yet even that discomfort was momentarily forgotten as Kaede took her first sight of the new world.
The red sun was still pulling itself onto the eastern sky, but it seemed tiny compared to the giant moon... no, more like an indigo planet floating just beyond the horizon. The cotton clouds, even bathed by the orange light of daybreak, betrayed a tinge of blue.
It really is a whole different world.
Surveying the surroundings, Kaede realized that the dormitory was but one of many stone keeps in a massive fortress complex. Built upon a sloped hill, it had two curtain walls. Each was steeply slanted, similar to Japanese castle bulwarks but with Eurasian-styled battlements, holding up the raised courtyards like a fortified agricultural terrace. The entire fortification stood amidst a vast, flat countryside dotted by patches of woods and clustered farmhouses. Soldiers in partial plate armor guarded the outer wall towers, while the paved road leaving the gatehouse stood as the only highway in sight.
Laying down the archery bag that was bigger than her, Kaede pulled out a three-fingered glove, a set of blunt practice arrows, and her yumi-daikyu -- a greatbow of Japanese tradition that stood over two meters (6') tall.
Japanese archery, known as Kyudo, sought moral and spiritual enhancement alongside marksmanship improvement. With the motto of 'correct shooting is correct hitting', its practice emphasized form, purpose, and clarity of mind. For Kaede's often-bloated thoughts, it was a hobby that brought her inner peace and serenity.
Both of which were desperately needed.
The leather glove proved as ill-fitting as her jacket, but Kaede paid it no heed as she slowly transitioned from loading into the firing stance, drawing the arrow back as she went. Her weak hand shook as she strained her meager strength to pull back the bowstring. Yet her eyes never left a block of stone that she chose as her target, located on the far side battlements. The familiar motions helped to clear her thoughts, transfix her focus on the target, and transform her mind into the arrow... or at least tried to.
Her fingers loosened, but her arrow missed the target by three stone blocks.
Again, her thoughts rang out, struggling to suppress her rising disappointment alongside waves of other anxieties.
But it was easier said than done.
Will I ever see my friends and family again?
Her third shot bounced off the wrong stone block with a resounding denial.
What about college? After working so hard and finally getting accepted to my first-choice school.
The fifth arrow overshot the battlements altogether, its momentum wasted as it fell through thin air towards the grounds below.
How will I survive in this world, without even a line of work?
Seventh proved to be her worst, striking ground before even reaching the parapet.
By the time she entered the firing stance for her eighth arrow, she heard the sound of soft footsteps approaching from behind.
"How did you know I was here?" Kaede asked in her wispy voice.
"You are my familiar, remember?" came Pascal's response, clear and revitalized. "I can see what you see just by focusing."
Her stomach tightened as she felt the illusion she called 'privacy' shatter into a million pieces.
"And just what else does our bond include?"
"Well, shared sensory perception for starters," he began. "I can tap your senses -- visual, audio, and empathic. Then there is the..."
"Wait," Kaede finally pulled out of her stance and turned to face him. "You can feel my emotions!?"
"Not yet. That one is a passive link, so it takes longer to connect."
Standing proudly in his immaculate crimson-on-black military uniform, Pascal wore his black Knight's Cross medal under the stiff folded collars that held his silver insignias. His perfectly groomed soft golden curls hanged just long enough to drape over both ears, framing lean cheeks colored a healthy pink by the cold air. With a thoughtful smile, his clear aqua-blue eyes shone with admiring intrigue before changing into one of concerned examination.
"You look terrible," he noted her pale countenance while taking a step forward to touch her cheek with warm fingers.
"Gee, thanks. I wonder whose fault it is," she retorted.
He didn't show the slightest hint of guilt.
"I have a spell for that, actually; half-cosmetic and half-healing."
With a few muttered words, Pascal slowly waved his right hand across Kaede's face. His turquoise ring glowed with brilliance, and she felt a soothing warmth spread across her.
"I mostly use this in the field," he explained in rather stiff words. "Officers must always look awake and confident, even if they only caught three hours of sleep. Perhaps I will need to check you in the mornings. We nobles do have an image to maintain."
"Yes, of course." Kaede was feeling unusually sarcastic this morning. "Can't let your mistress play-toy look ashen-faced with bloodshot eyes, can we?"
"While I recognize that many nobles have a taste for that, I have no such need. You are my familiar companion," Pascal warned with complete seriousness. "Please do not sully that bond."
Then how do you explain my appearance now...?
Sighing, Kaede decided to let the matter go, for now.
"As I was saying, a familiar also serves as an eldritch proxy for the master. The arcane conduit between us allows me to cast spells on you, as well as through you, as long as you are within a kilopace of me, give or take depending on the mana saturation of the region. Being supplied by my ether also grants you some of the basic resistance mages have against foreign ether -- so any alchemy or enchantment, spells that shape either the physical or the mind, as long as they do not come from me."
"Terrific, so I'm a water hose now," her response was deadpan. Then more seriously: "Does that at least mean I can learn to cast spells using your ether... mana... whatever?"
Pascal smiled at her question:
"Mana is freely available spiritual power, scattered into the environment by all living beings. Ether is mana after being absorbed and transferred by magically conductive nerves, then refined by the soul. Spells are crafted from ether by using one's magical nerve conduits to form internalized spell arrays, which are drilled into muscle memory through thousands of repetitions and then called upon by mnemonics -- those are the incantations, the exact words being merely a matter of common choice. Unfortunately, you do not have the magic conduits to learn spellcraft. However, you should be able to power and activate magical equipment using my ether."
Well, at least I get something for all this inconvenience...
"The familiar bond also includes a telepathic channel that functions even better than the spell, which..."
Pascal suddenly stopped. His eyes refocused on Kaede with its piercing turquoise gaze, and his voice resounded from within her own mind:
"Is this working yet?"
Her bulging eyes gave an obvious response.
"You can use this also. Just concentrate."
Closing her eyes and imagining a microphone, Kaede channeled her thoughts: "You're an idiot."
"And so are you, if you do not see the value in such a reliable form of private communications."
"You're not going to read my mind through this, are you?" she asked, worried.
"No, only the thoughts you will to others are sent through the channel," he spoke with utmost sincerity. "Of course, there is a mind-reading spell, but since being caught performing thought voyeurism may lead to espionage charges and other devastating consequences, it is considered below proper nobility to use such magic. The same goes to charms, compulsions, and other mind-altering enchantments, which may constitute crimes ranging from larceny and extortion to rape if one is found using them without consent."
Her eyes narrowed:
"You haven't actually said that you don't use them yet."
After a split-second sneer, Pascal continued his serious approach:
"As I have said, it is below proper nobility."
"Then, how do you enforce the loyalty of normal familiars?"
"While the summoning compels the familiar to go through the ceremony, familiar bonds do not rely on compulsion magic. Instead, it links two beings through the arcane conduit. Obedience is achieved through a contest of will, which is why familiars are usually a good measurement of the master's capabilities."
"Alright," Kaede relaxed, suppressing the urge to poke out those increasingly downcast eyes. "What else?"
"The last function of a normal familiar bond is auto-translation magic for both the master and familiar, so they may understand each other."
"So that's how I can understand you. But why am I speaking your language?"
"Because I inserted two additional functions into the bond." Pascal took the credit with majestic pride, his irritatingly aristocrat drawl returning. "The auto-translation magic I gave you functions both ways, modifying both your understanding and your speech by tapping into my linguistics knowledge. Good thing too, because otherwise you would only be able to talk to me."
Despite his attitude, for the first time Kaede felt glad about something Pascal did. The alternative was just too horrifying. Except...
"And the other?"
"I am getting there... Since I am born of high nobility, we can never know if there may be treachery underfoot. So I thought ahead and specified the contract to give you a magic reservoir, in the form of a permanent set of spell-storing glyphs on your forearms."
After setting her bow down in a rush, Kaede quickly stripped the white satin glove off her right arm. Just as he claimed, there were now eight runes etched in a row on the underside of her forearm. Each shedding a faint, turquoise-blue glow, the runes gave off a subtle warmth, which spread evenly in her still-gloved left arm.
"I'm not a battery!" She stared back at him with incensed eyes. Never a fan of tattoos to begin with, she couldn't believe he already had her permanently marked.
"Of course not. I would never ask you to serve for artillery," he replied with slight confusion.
"No, I meant... a battery is a device for storing electricity, lightning-power, from my world."
"Indeed," he nodded with interest. "Well, being a user of both gem and runic magic, reserve capacity is not one of my problems. Those glyphs are capable of storing pre-crafted spells. I transfered over two full arrays of defensive spells before you woke up yesterday, which you can activate just by pressing down on the runes. I also hope that, since your body is not a network of magic conduits like mine, you may be able to absorb foreign spells using those... we will have to experiment with that one."
By now, her shoulders were starting to tremble...
Excuse me!? Experiment? Haven't you had enough fun with my body?
After suppressing all her irritation, frustration, and anger for so long, Kaede's taut emotional strings finally snapped. She stabbed two of her fingers into the runes and activated the entire set on her right arm. Eight glyphs pulsed with magical power, their brilliance and warmth intensifying with a prickling sensation until another pulse discharged their spells less than a second later.
...I'd like to show you some 'treachery underfoot' right now!
Although there was no visual cue, Kaede could feel her skin hardening. Her body became feather light, while her bones grew as sturdy as steel. Best of all, her strength not only returned to that of her former self, but multiplied yet further.
Translucent magical barriers then encased her body like gleaming armor, while five kite shields of shimmering turquoise energy conjured into existence, rotating protectively around her.
"Well, since you insist on trying it now, what do you think?" Pascal grinned with anticipation.
Her smile concealed a gleaming dagger as she bridged the gap between them with one stride. Lowering her mass into a fighting stance, she sent her right fist straight into his stomach. His wool-and-cashmere uniform proved a poor defense against the stone-like consistency of her knuckles. His feet left the ground for a brief moment as her low hook punched the air out from his lungs.
"First: no spells!"
Coughing blood into the air, Pascal reached out with both hands, fingers extended. Four pebble-sized runes appeared out of thin air in between the fingers of each glove. But before he could activate them, Kaede sent a kick that sent them flying.
"Second: no tricks!"
With her initial surprise and momentum wearing off, Pascal soon began to block her attacks and even occasionally attempt to counter. But even though both his skills and his reaction speed exceeded hers, his unpreparedness and the injuries he already suffered left a gap too wide to fill. His fleshy limbs matched poorly against the granite-strength of her attacks, while his few counters were painfully blocked by the barriers and shields protecting her.
"Third: take your medicine like a man!"
The one-sided beatdown lasted just over a minute, and Kaede only halted after Pascal stopped struggling. By that point, he was sprawled out on the ground, both cheeks swollen black and blue, with his left hand cradling a broken right side. Pain lit up every part of his body, except at critical places like the neck, eyes, and head.
Despite obviously knowing all the basics and having an overwhelming advantage, Kaede avoided hitting any of the most vulnerable spots.
Alternating between wheezing and hacking, bloody coughs, Pascal managed to gurgle out:
"Wha'... wahe 'at... fo?"
Only then did he notice that the girl who stood over him, arms hanging in dejection, was also crying.
"You!... You!... You pulled me out of a perfectly good life, forced me to abandon my family and friends, cut short all my effort and dreams, took away everything I know, dragged me into this fucking world, turned me into a girl out of your selfish whims, destroyed any hopes of me ever going back, treat my entire existence like property, and, and, AND YOU DON'T EVEN THINK YOU DESERVE A BEATING!!!?"
Having drained her of what little energy she had, Kaede's violent outburst had opened up the floodgates. All of her doubts, fears, worries, anger, frustrations, and anxieties which had escalated over the past twelve life-changing hours poured out like a deluge. As though her strings were suddenly cut, she fell to the ground, slamming her knees into the stone roof before toppling over to one side. Lying parallel to him and on her side, she curled up her legs and began to wail and sob uncontrollably.
It took many minutes before she quieted back down, and even more before either of them found the strength to say anything.
"I fink 'ou brog 'wo 'oohe," he managed to gurgle out from his bloody mouth. "An' 'hree rihs"
"Well good! And I hope you learned a lesson, you asshat!" She yelled back.
Turning to his other side, Pascal finally spat out the remaining bloody mess in his mouth. Pointing his left arm toward the sky, he called out a single word in an even weirder language, which Kaede's auto-translation magic recognized as 'Sanctuary'.
Rune-engraved stones flew out of a belt pouch too small to hold them all and formed a large ring around them. A crystal-blue, hemispherical barrier of translucent magic soon slammed into position above them, while the very air inside glowed with a turquoise hue.
"What're you doing?" She sat up, alarmed.
"Area dehence and healing rune sed."
With his eyes closed, Pascal mumbled through his swollen mouth.
Only then did she realize that the pain in her knees was fading away.
Then silence fell between the two of them once more.
Too tired to worry or even contemplate for once, Kaede simply sat there, dazed. The last thought that went through her head was an unfeeling conviction:
She didn't know how long it took before her stomach broke the silence with an angry growl.
"No meals for you today," Pascal answered, more irritated than angry, before glancing at Kaede and eyeing her cross-legged sitting posture. "And can't you sit more like a lady?"
Noticing that he was still heavily bruised, Kaede satisfied herself by shooting back a glare.
Yet the anger faded away quickly this time, replaced by an overflowing sense of relief.
Sure, starving through the day would just increase her misery. But as much as Kaede hated the thought, she didn't want to be 'disowned'.
She didn't have a clue of where to go, or how to survive in this strange world.
Worse yet, Pascal was the son of a high noble and an important official of the state. Even if he didn't, his father definitely owned at least one castle, and the dungeons that came with it, and the thumbscrews and branding irons and all those other instruments of torture inside that could only be described as 'medieval'.
Engulfed by their own problems, neither of them noticed the pristine white pegasus that had been flying around the castle perimeter for the past hour, nor the beautiful rider atop it.
----- * * * -----
By the time the two of them returned to the dorms, it was almost midday.
The air between them stayed silent and awkward. Pascal seemed in a particularly foul mood. The healing left him fully functional, but sore and aching all over. His glamor spells, however, fully concealed the lingering bruises on his face, while the bloodstains on his uniform seemed to have magically evaporated. On the outside, it looked like nothing ever happened.
Part of her was relieved. Most of her thought it was a shame.
But what really bothered Kaede was why Pascal kept everything bottled, instead of lashing out her way. For a moment on the roof she thought he was going to just ignore her and leave, but he ended up waiting, with neither a word nor a glance, until she packed her archery gear and caught up.
Now, as he went through the room in search of something, she felt like she had to say something. In hindsight, beating him to an inch of his life really was too extreme. Certainly, he was responsible for turning her life upside down, but it wasn't like he had planned it with malicious intent. The summoning just sort of happened that way, and the result was mostly a side effect of the old saying 'be careful what you wish for'.
It didn't mean she hated it any less, or blamed him any less for it. But accidents caused by selfishness weren't inherently immoral. Violence and murder were.
Her voice was mostly nervous, partly regretful, and more than a hint begrudging. Nevertheless, Pascal froze on the spot.
"I shouldn't have hurt you that badly."
That was the most she was willing to concede. He still deserved some beating, after all. But at the same time, her pragmatic half knew that mauling him all she wanted wouldn't fix the problem. It didn't even make her feel any better. All it did was make things worse.
After half a minute of silence, he expelled a deep sigh before dodging the topic entirely: "Just put your belongings in that corner by the chest."
She walked over and leaned her archery bag at the wall, then paused as she stared down at her jacket.
"Can I get something more proper to wear? Please?"
Wordlessly, Pascal strode over to a large wardrobe. From the side, Kaede could only see a collection of long dresses, or garments so short they should never leave the bedroom. Then, with an ominous chuckle, he pulled out an attire and handed it towards her: "Here, this is perfect."
It was a white-on-black dress clearly made to resemble a maid uniform, except with far more frills, laces, layers of petticoats, and a huge ribbon in the back.
Kaede wrestled with the urge to give him another bruise.
----- * * * -----
For obvious reasons, Kaede was not used to wearing heels, not even five-centimeter-tall (2") chunky heels with ankle straps. The smooth satin stockings also did not offer the same grip as the cotton socks she was used to. Trying to keep up with Pascal's full stride as he crossed the grounds towards the dining hall only made both worse.
She was also keenly aware that almost every person they came across was staring at her.
Located on the first floor of the massive central keep, the dining hall was large enough to fit a small church. Lit by chandeliers and massive stained-glass windows, it was lined with long dining tables. Over a hundred students and teachers filled the individual chairs, gathered mostly in small clusters. Meanwhile servants in maid and butler outfits traversed up and down the aisles, taking orders and delivering food.
"Hey Runelord," a jeering call came from the far side as a short boy with flaming-red hair stood up. "I heard your familiar girl gave you a thrashing on the roof this morning! How does it feel to take yet another first -- the first to receive a beatdown from a loyal familiar? Honestly, was your performance in bed that abysmal?"
About a third of the hall either chuckled or laughed as the boy sat back down.
Kaede felt her face growing crimson as she lowered her eyes to stare at Pascal's heels.
This is humiliating!
Never a fan of the sexual jokes that went around male circles, she found it far worse now that she was 'the girl' used in their crude humor.
"Just ignore them. Mere blithering idiots unworthy of our time," Pascal's stiff voice resounded within her head.
Walking ahead, Pascal never turned back towards her once, and Kaede had a sneaking suspicion that the emotional link he mentioned earlier was starting to work -- possibly a result of her recent outburst. Heat rushed up her cheeks as her realization enhanced her embarrassment with another magnitude of annoyance and discontent.
She followed Pascal to a relatively isolated part of the hall and took a seat next to him. A nearby maid, petite with short brown hair and no older than he was, rushed over to take his order.
But Pascal didn't even look at the servant, or acknowledge her existence in any way, before commanding: "Fresh bread and scrambled eggs, triple servings, and small assortments of cheese and sausages."
"Yes sir." the maid gave a faint reply before hesitantly meeting Kaede's eyes, uncertain.
"Nothing for her," Pascal declared, and the maid sent Kaede a look of sympathy before rushing off.
Kaede's stomach grumbled in protest.
Meeting her stare with a satisfied smirk, he relented:
"You can have dinner."
"Gee, thanks. How generous of you, Sir!"
Her sarcasm was biting.
"I understand that you are having a tough time, given all the tremendous changes in your life, so I will not hold this morning against you past this."
He seemed actually sincere about it, except...
"That's not much of an apology."
"Who said anything about apologizing?" He glanced away. Then, with a distant gaze: "I do take full responsibility for bringing you into this world, and I promise I will take care of you. Just please, the next time you feel overwhelmed, speak to me with words instead of with your fists. I assure you that next time I will not be caught so unprepared by barbaric violence."
Kaede looked back down. Relief washed over her, only to be joined by a sense of shame that she had to rely on someone else, that she had to be taken care of at all in this new world.
All she managed to respond with was a faint "thanks".
When her eyes returned, she found Pascal scowling. Tracing his gaze, she noticed the noblewoman who drew the attention of everybody in the vicinity, carrying a silver tray of food and heading unerringly towards them.
With waist-length cascades of bubblegum-pink hair held back by a flowery bun, the lady held a breathtaking beauty that radiated confidence and refinement. Her clear, bright-cyan eyes seemed to sparkle above the naturally sweet and gentle smile of her cherry lips. Her slender body was athletic yet wrapped by enticing curves, striding forth with firm and elegant steps. Her figure-hugging military uniform was black-bordered and burning red, with a gleaming-black short tie and collars, instead of the crimson-on-black outfit Pascal wore with his Knight's Cross. Accentuated with artistic strokes of orange and yellow, her outfit almost seemed like it was alight with flames.
The hall seemed to hush as she walked up to a stop directly behind Pascal. Ignoring him entirely -- just as he turned his back to her -- she locked gazes with Kaede and gave a short but smiling nod:
"Good afternoon, Miss Familiar. My name is Ariadne Charlotte von Zimmer-Manteuffel, daughter to the Margrave of Saale-Holzland. I apologize for the impropriety, but the last time we met, you were still unconscious."
Kaede was stunned by the presence of true nobility and grace. With an awkward, twisted bow from her sitting position, she just barely managed to force out:
"I'm Kaede Nika Suvorsky. I'm honored to meet you, uh, milady."
If Ariadne took even the slightest offense to Kaede's bumbling sense of etiquette, she gave no sign of it.
"I apologize for being direct, but hearsay has already circulated the school, and I would like to ask the person in question. Are you, per chance, from the Grand Republic of Samara?"
"No. Not at all. Uh... it would be accurate to say that I'm not of this world at all, and none of the countries I know exist here."
Even with her shocked expression, Ariadne's gentle smile did not falter. But her hesitant tone did betray the strand of disbelief that tugged at her sincerity.
"Wow. That... must be really hard on you. I can't even begin to imagine... If you need help with anything, please do not hesitate to ask me. My beloved and friends are all very generous people."
"Thank you," Kaede gave her most grateful smile.
"I must admit that I saw you two on the roof this morning during my ride. Please, allow me to be the first one to thank you for giving this self-centered prick a much-needed lesson. Knowing him, I thought you might appreciate something to eat today." Ariadne finished by offering her the tray, loaded with slices of bread and cheeses, plus assorted sausages next to a heap of red sauerkraut.
As if on cue, her stomach chimed in with another growl. Kaede then glanced at Pascal, her eyes almost challenging. But he continued to face forward, staring at thin air with a clearly disgruntled look.
"Do what you want," he forced out in monotone.
Kaede grinned back at Ariadne and took her offered plate:
"Thank you so much!"
"Not at all. Well then, good luck, have a pleasant day, and I will see you around!"
Ariadne turned back around and strode off, while the hall seemed to burst back into chatter. Crossing paths with the maid returning to deliver Pascal's meal, Ariadne also gave the petite girl a smiling nod as she went along.
Pascal however, didn't even acknowledge the maid as she served him his food. Feeling improper, Kaede told the the girl "thank you, miss", and received a surprised, almost gaping nod in return.
Slicing off and biting into a sumptuous veal sausage, Kaede decided to prod Pascal's moodiness a bit:
"So, what's your problem with her?"
Between Pascal and Ariadne, Kaede harbored no doubts who would be at fault for any conflict.
"Finish swallowing your food before you speak," Pascal sent her a glance. "And close your legs when you sit."
"Why does it matter how I sit? Afraid I might hurt your image?"
"If you want to come off as a one-mark whore desperate for men, be my guest."
Kaede shut her legs instantly, her face glowing with part-embarrassment and part-anger. If she didn't have another forked sausage in hand, she might have hit him.
Perhaps noticing this, Pascal made an off-hand admission:
"And with Ariadne... well, I would be lying to myself if I just shrugged her off as another idiot. She has far too much competence, awareness, and purpose for that."
"So, once again, what's your problem with her?" She poked the wound.
He grew silent again.
Kaede had almost given up on an answer before he sighed deeply and began with a faraway gaze:
"I courted Ariadne once, back during our first year here. It lasted little more than a week. She couldn't stop complaining about every little detail about her performance that bothered her back then. I ran out of patience quickly and broke off the relationship. She has barely talked to me and only referred to me as a 'self-centered prick' ever since."
"Well... you kinda--"
"Eat your food," Pascal ordered.
Which she did, silently, for no more than a minute.
"You regret it, don't you?"
Kaede admitted that at least part of her intrigue lay from a desire to hear him finally concede that he was once an inconsiderate bastard to someone else, one who clearly deserved respect.
But no words left him at all. Pascal kept on eating as if she had never said anything.
Then, as he bit into his last piece of bread, she heard his uncharacteristically melancholic tone fill her mind:
"The courtship I do not care so much about. But... Ariadne has matured considerably during the last few years. She turned out to be a beautiful and caring girl, an excellent mage, and a fine example of nobility. She would have made a great friend, if not at least an excellent political ally. I know what I did impacted her significantly, but... I only wish she did not hate me so much."
Contemplative, Kaede thought back to some of the less-than-stellar people choices she made during her own years. Shortsighted, hasty, and hurtful decision-making often came as a rite of adolescence, but the important part was that Pascal had awareness of it.
Okay, he's not the worst person to get dragged into this whole mess by...
It certainly could have been far worse. At least Pascal seemed to have some half-decency.
"You know..." Kaede advised, sincerely: "While it's not always enough, it's never too late to apologize."
He munched through his last slice of bread in record time.
"I did not ask the summoning spell for a mother."
With his meal finished, Pascal carefully wiped his mouth with the napkin before pulling out his chair and standing up. "Come on, we are going to the library next. You can learn more about this world and help me with my research there."
Sighing, Kaede looked longingly down at her half-finished plate of aristocratic food.
Nope, still just a prick.
Chapter 4 - Regressions of Time
Dusk had fallen by the time they left the library.
Following behind Pascal, Kaede balanced four massive tomes in her small hands. With her concentration focused on the heels to prevent any missteps, she couldn't help but start to fall behind as her thin arms held up what felt like a boulder's weight.
Her body was also bothering her with another pressure... and it was becoming harder to ignore by the second.
"W-wait!" she called out, her breath already starting to fall short. These books may be heavy but they should have been manageable; this body is such a pain.
Already ten paces ahead, Pascal sent a backwards glance. Sighing, he swiveled around, marched right up to her, and pulled all four tomes out of her hands.
Wow, he's voluntarily helping!
Kaede never thought she could be so amazed by something so minor.
"Come on." he started walking towards the dormitories again, his pace slower with books in hand. "You really had to check out all these old history tomes? Not something more substantial like a book on geography or magical treatise? How is a collection of past events, dates, and dead people going to help you?"
"Don't look down on history," she snapped back. "History is the foundation of all culture and geopolitical relations. It's so much more than just a timeline of events and people. It illustrates how entire societies think, act, and relate to each other."
"Seriously, it's annoying how most schools treat something so important as just a bunch of dates, names, and all those useless details. It makes people lose respect for history." Kaede launched straight into an impromptu rant. "The what is only worth a third of the attention given to any event. Instead of focusing on useless details, they should spend more time discussing why it happened and how it affected the flow of civilization, exploring what could have happened had a different choice been made, et cetera. Here is a record of people succeeding and failing, with world-altering implications, for thousands of years! From how policies affected social trends to how arsenals decided battles! And instead of analyzing and referencing it for their own use, most people just shrug it off as useless! Seriously!"
Now really short of breath, Kaede finally noticed that Pascal was examining her with an odd expression: lopsided smile, single raised eyebrow, and amusement dancing in his eyes. "History professor or scholar?" he asked.
"I wanted to be," she replied in a low, somber whisper filled with nostalgia. "Not teach in the traditional sense, but to become the historical advisor to a media studio. Only scholars delve deep into academic books. Spreading the wisdom of history would require the use of games, serializations, movies, that kind of stuff."
"How is a game supposed to teach history?" Pascal was growing more and more intrigued as he turned into one of the dormitory keep's spiraling tower staircases. "And what is a movie?"
"In my world we have tools capable of running a display screen -- kind of similar to those illusion projectors in the library. Games running on those tools can be made to simulate a variety of circumstances, from managing a business to fighting a battle to even leading an entire country. Of course, it's far simpler than the real thing and made to entertain by stimulating people's need for an intellectual challenge. Movies are similar, except instead of being a simulation, it merely shows a recording of actors portraying a scripted story."
"Sounds like commoners in your world are considerably more intelligent than those of this realm," his wistful comment came out more like a complaint.
"It's called 'standardized education'," Kaede spoked the term with pride. "It doesn't mean everyone will be wise enough to seek knowledge, but it encourages people to and ensures those who do are capable of finding it."
"A fine system for any meritocracy. We will have to discuss the idea with father at some point," Pascal concluded. "Weichsel may not have the logistics or resources to 'standardize' a good education, but providing free opportunities for those who seek it would significantly increase the size of our government staffs and officer corps."
Coming up to his dorm room, he waved his hand with a term for Unlock, and the door clicked open.
Kaede stared at the lock as they walked inside.
"Can anyone open it with just a spell like that?"
"No, there is an ether identifier installed on the lock," he said while placing the tomes onto a nearby table. Another wave, wordlessly this time, and the crystal orb mounted on the ceiling filled the room with bright light.
"It recognizes my magical power. I will make you a ring with the Unlock cantrip later tonight, and you should be able to use my ether to open the door. But come now, we are late for dinner."
"W-wait!" she called out as he started to leave. The pressure below her waist was beginning to push her limits, forcing distress to overcome her embarrassment.
She had hoped she would have found one by now...
"W-where do I find a bathroom or toilet room or whatever-you-call-it around here?"
"Bath-room? Why do you want a bath before dinner? And what is a toilet?" Pascal stared back.
Kaede's eyes widened, horrified by what he was implying.
"Come on, we are already running late," he turned his back towards her again.
Stopping again, Pascal looked quizzically at the stuttering Kaede with growing impatience: "just say it already."
With cheeks glowing like charcoals, Kaede forced out a bare whisper with her eyes shut:
"I-I need to pee!"
"Oh." Pascal closed the door again. He moved to a corner and pulled open a small closet, then took out something large, heavy, and porcelain before setting it down on the carpet.
You can't be joking!
But Pascal looked completely casual as he looked back at her:
"Just use that."
What sat on the ground could only be described as a tall, fancy chamber pot, complete with a wide rim for sitting and a shield on one side for catching urine.
I barely know how to do it in this body! Stop making things even more needlessly complicated!
Kaede felt like she wanted to cry, to scream, to break and wreck and just somehow dump out all this mounting frustration at once.
"Please hurry up, we really are running late."
"Then get out," she whispered, her eyes overcast.
"Excuse me?" Pascal narrowed his own, disbelieving what he just heard.
"Please get out," she repeated, louder this time.
"This is my room, you know..."
"Fine," Kaede stepped over the porcelain pot and began fumbling with her maid outfit.
"What... are you doing?"
Without much luck in shedding its frill and petticoat underlays, Kaede simply pulled the entire skirt up and reached in for her underwear.
"What does it look like I'm doing?" She snapped back. "Now would you leave the room? Or are you that anxious to watch a girl take a piss?"
Eyes widening and face reddening, Pascal spun around and rushed towards the door. "I'll wait outside," he muttered before shutting it.
Unfortunately, Pascal had never slept in the same bedroom or even the same suite as another person before. The soldiers in the barracks -- especially the men -- were perfectly content doing it with just their backs turned.
----- * * * -----
"Oh Holy Father, we thank you for your blessings in this wonderful meal and the bountiful harvest this year, and we praise you for your grace in the swift victories that returned peace to our fatherland. May your light of guidance continue to show us the path of the devoted, the faithful, and the righteous. In your heavenly name, noblesse oblige."
"Noblesse oblige," repeated the entire dining hall, before the senior student who led the prayers sat back down.
The nightly feast then began with the clattering of plates and utensils.
Once again, Kaede was sitting next to Pascal near a corner of the dining hall, isolated from everyone else. The grand hall had more than enough capacity, and the nearest other people were five seats down -- a clique of gossiping girls that sent a steady stream of glances their way. Another group that occupied the adjacent table did exactly the same.
Based on the words that drifted through the air, Kaede had the distinct feeling that these were Pascal's admiring 'fans'. Unfortunately, many of them were also taking some verbal jabs at her:
"...Who does she think she is, sitting at the same table as nobles?"
"Does it matter? She's still just a commoner, and a domestic servant as that."
"You know what noble men tend to do with servants that are a little cute...."
The 'fan group' started snickering.
Pascal and Kaede had arrived just in time for prayers, but their dinner -- which the chefs prepared based on the day's theme and each student's known preferences -- had yet to be delivered. With nothing to do and already becoming a target for 'female politics', Kaede's discomfort was steadily growing into annoyance again.
"Ignore those idiots too," Pascal sent over the telepathic channel while he sat with eyes closed and arms folded, as though in deep contemplation.
"Aren't those girls your fans?"
"They are vultures who console themselves with the failure of others. If they have a problem with you sitting here, they can take it up with me."
On one hand, Kaede felt assured by his words. On the other, she wasn't about to forget that this was all his fault, in multiple ways.
She was also beginning to question if Pascal had any friends at all, or even acquaintances.
"What about the ones who did approach you?" she asked, curious.
"I told most of them I was not interested in the relationship they sought. As for the rest... they did not end up working out."
"Pascal the lady-killer, court him one week and he'll give you his everlasting gift... of death."
"That is really not funny."
Pascal was sounding wistful again, and Kaede wondered just how many others suffered a fate similar to Ariadne.
No wonder why everyone is keeping their distance. Actually, it's surprising there are still girls who like this guy.
Kaede didn't think she would ever understand the 'bad boy appeal'... or in this case, arrogant prick appeal.
"By the way... you did not actually pray to the Holy Father, did you?"
Pascal's interrogation hit her spot on just as two servants brought in their meals. He gave no awareness to their presence again, and she hurriedly returned a nod of gratitude.
Kaede had pretended to pray to show respect, but reciting words that she didn't believe in seemed... wrong.
"How could you not pray to the Holy Father?"
Having spent a dozen years in Central Russia, Kaede did attend several Eastern Orthodox services, but she never really converted and stayed an agnostic-deist like her mother. Plus, she considered her religious flexibility to be a major advantage when studying foreign history and culture, so when it came to the religiously adamant...
"Hey, I already follow the Flying Spaghetti God, so please respect my faith," Kaede retorted. "Besides, you told me the Samarans don't worship him either!"
"And the Samarans are seen as heretics! Do you wish to be singled out by the church inquisition!?"
She shut up immediately, remembering the agonizing deaths people used to give nonbelievers.
Please don't burn me at the stake...
"Honestly, I do not care what deity you worship. Who knows if your world even lies within the same divine jurisdiction. But since you are here, you will pray to the Holy Father. With all the religious unrest across the continent these days, the Papal Inquisition has escaped its reins and grown into an independent threat. I will not have father caught up in some heresy investigation. Is that clear?"
Resounding deep into her mind, his voice was as adamant as polished steel. For the first time Kaede felt herself shiver under the cold pressure of his words.
She did not notice until later that for once, Pascal protectively raised the well-being of another above his own pedestal.
"Good, now let us eat."
He then dug into his dinner, laden with several steaming slices of fresh pork roast as the main meal, surrounded by sides of boiled asparagus, potato salad, gourmet bread, and a thick, cheesy broth that smelled faintly of beer.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Kaede found herself looking at half-sized portions of the same dinner, minus the alcoholic soup.
She wasn't complaining. The meal was not exactly modern, but it still tasted like bliss.
Pascal spent most of dinner asking Kaede about her limited martial arts background, her archery practice in the morning, and the role they played in her home world. Intrigued and periodically commenting on the differences between the two world's styles, he nevertheless expressed that "projectile weapons are the inferior tools of untalented commoners, below the dignity of aristocratic arcane heritage."
He admitted that he only studied the conceptual basics because levied archers were used to supplement the limited numbers of aristocratic artillery-mages on the field.
It wasn't until they were leaving that Kaede remembered to ask:
"Do you want me to convert to the Holy Father's grace?"
"Of course! Not that I have to try, with you being a scholar of history. The Holy Father's grace may be mysterious at times, but with millenniums of timeline in sight, his influence becomes as clear as day and night. I am certain you will come around in due time and embrace the one true faith of this world..."
Kaede sighed, any interest in the local theology already evaporating.
"...Although, does your world really pray to airborne pasta?"
Pascal's single raised eyebrow betrayed a hint of bewilderment on a totally-serious face.
"Only when the polar ice caps are melting due to a lack of pirate caretakers."
----- * * * -----
Leaning back against the plush chair in front of his table, Pascal casually juggled multiple sorceries at once. Between his hands hovered a turquoise gem that he was cutting and affixing onto a platinum ring using the Fabricate spell, while simultaneously imbuing it with the Lock/Unlock and Sigil cantrips. The result would be a spell-activation focus that Kaede could use to open doors and sign for academy resources using his ether signature.
It was a task most apprentice artificers divided into two parts, allocating full concentration on each one; yet Pascal treated it like a side-job while mentally chatting with someone over a thousand kilopaces away -- his fiancée, Crown Princess Sylviane Etiennette de Gaetane of the Rhin-Lotharingie Empire -- through an ongoing Farspeak spell.
"...And that is how she came to be. I cannot wait to show her to you over the holidays, Sylv. Not only is she a walking encyclopedia filled with interesting details of her fantastic otherworld -- it is a miracle they even managed to function, with neither the convenience of sorcery nor the establishment of noblesse oblige graced upon us by the Holy Father. But she looks absolutely adorable, a dainty figure caped by silky cream-white hair, not to mention the rose-quartz eyes that I have never even heard of."
"Sounds like quite a fantasy that you conjured there."
Enraptured by his own enthusiasm, Pascal missed the trace of biting sarcasm and, as a result, completely misinterpreted her humored tone.
All he remembered were past scenes where his fiancée would hug and drape herself over cute girls with ecstatic delight, rubbing her cheeks against their long hair in a display that violated all noble protocol.
"Indeed, and by complete accident. I did not even know summoning could work that way!"
"You know, Pascal, when I allowed you to have dalliances during your academy years, I do not remember giving you the permission to bind another girl with a contract of 'till death do us part', officially no less. Our betrothal may be political, but it is still a committed one."
Until then, Pascal hadn't even considered summoning a familiar to have any relation to betrayal. Stunned by the explosive landmine he had just stepped on, his mind quickly backtracked for help. But Sylviane never gave him the chance:
"The next few weeks are about to get busy for me, with all the trouble brewing in the south. I will see you over the holidays."
She hung up without a second's wait.
"Crap," Pascal uttered an uncharacteristic curse, finally realizing the severity of the trouble he was in.
He had been so caught up telling Sylviane his story that he hadn't asked about her problems. Normally, she would confide in him about whatever geopolitical problems was currently troubling her in the Rhin-Lotharingie court, often seeking his input and occasionally his sympathy.
But today, she hung up without even giving him a hint, and then called for a temporary break to their weekly chats.
She really is angry; royally angry, literally...
Pascal hoped this would not cause any political issues. Neither Sylviane nor her father Geoffroi the Great had any tendency to start diplomatic squabbles over personal grudges. But if Sylviane found her royal honor insulted, she might break tradition.
Oh dear Holy Father, have mercy...
Putting aside the mostly finished ring, Pascal prayed, fast and hard, that he did not open any personal rifts with Sylviane -- his friend ever since those days spent idling beside the Cross Lake of the Nordkreuz estate.
He wasn't sure if he could handle that.
He turned to look at Kaede, who sat in his bed with her stockinged legs tucked in. Her small hands propped open a massive leather-bound book, while her fatigued, half-open eyes stared blankly at him, faint perplexity bubbling over their familiar bond.
Her breakdown this morning was still fresh on his mind. Her wailing image was forever burnt into his memory, not to mention the crushing despair and sorrow that followed as a tidal wave of emotional distress breached the last barrier and opened their empathic tunnel.
He spent much of the morning being annoyed at himself as a result. But after mostly enjoying himself in the afternoon, Pascal had recovered too quickly.
Sylviane's shortened call only restarted the hammering on the last nail.
...More like all the nails, at once, with one great big resounding mallet.
After making the biggest, most idiotic, ill-conceived, poorly planned, carelessly rushed, and altogether feebleminded mistake of his entire life, Pascal felt like a moron who just stupidly certified himself by taking a pilgrimage to the apex of moronia.
"So... when am I getting my bed?" Kaede chimed in, finally breaking the silence.
"I would have ordered lumber from the quartermaster this morning," he spouted back, disgruntled.
Annoyance was bubbling across the bond again.
I need some winter air, Pascal decided as he strode towards the door.
"Go to sleep," he ordered, before dimming the ceiling light to a faint glow with a wave of his hand. Swinging open the door, he looked back to Kaede and felt her glaring at him from the shadows.
"Please," he sighed, before closing the door behind him.
Discontent over the empathic link returned to her early perplexity, now with a side of irritation.
"Why does magic not have a fix-everything spell?" the genius grumbled.
Chapter 5 - Status of Life
Even on a Sunday, Ariadne's morning began at 6AM. For an early winter day, that was before daybreak.
Taking advantage of a fresh mind, she always started with an hour of studying. On the second day of the weekend, this meant a quick read through next week's materials in preparation.
After that was a full set of warm-ups, from squats to sit-ups, while she watched the dawning light permeate the horizon in grapefruit red. It was followed by an hour of sword practice, slashing away at illusory opponents provided by the academy's drill hall.
Manteuffel clan swords were heavy and difficult to handle. Though longer than a bastard sword, their blades were narrower and thicker. The handle matched the wielder's arm in length and included a sidebar near the guard, while a second, shorter blade could eject from the rear end. The result could be interchangeably used as a greatsword, spear, or two-bladed sword; not to mention the entire weapon could magically enlarge into a heavy lance thrice the height of man, tipped by a frightful long blade.
Those swords symbolized the family's customs and pride: adaptable to circumstances, creative in its use, mastered only through diligence, and deadly beyond all doubt in action.
Ariadne was the fourth child in a branch family, the only daughter behind three older brothers. In a life where everyone expected her every step to be overshadowed by more prestigious clansmen, she managed to come out with her head held high and her name near the top.
With her morning routine finished and an off-day ahead, Ariadne indulged her impeccable horsemanship by taking her pegasus familiar Edelweiss out on a ride.
Soaring across the castle perimeter from ten stories up, she noticed another girl practicing early in the morning. It was Pascal's familiar, shooting arrows across the roof again with a massive bow, the design of which she had never seen.
"Good morning, Miss Suvorsky!" Ariadne called out as she guided Edelweiss into a flawless landing atop the dormitory keep. Having only spoken to her once before, Ariadne had to tap her memory necklace -- which she used as a diary -- for a reminder on names.
"Good morning, uh, milady." The same could not be said for the other girl as she stood uncertain.
"Ariadne is fine," her ever-gentle smile radiated as she walked up.
The smaller girl finally pulled out from her loading stance, her long cream-white hair swaying in the rooftop breeze.
"In that case, please call me Kaede as well."
"I take it that's a bow from your world?"
Ariadne tested the waters, still not entirely believing the 'otherworld' story. But Kaede dispelled Ariadne's lingering suspicions in an instant as her pensive mood cast a gloom over her entire figure:
"Yes... I practiced with it on most mornings back in my world. It's a meditative activity, and keeping up the routine helps when everything else has changed so much."
"So how are you managing? Has that self-centered prick been treating you alright?"
"I have a sturdy roof to live under, hearty food to enjoy, and a comfy bed to sleep in. Other than my lack of purpose here, and the unusual... changes, I guess I really should be grateful... since it could've been so much worse. Pascal isn't really a bad person. The summoning is his fault, sure, but I can't do anything about what's already done. I just wish he stopped treating me like he owned me."
Not a bad person? He's a walking insult to everyone around him!
Ariadne still remembered the night when he shattered their relationship by listing everything she did that he resented.
Nobody treats me like that and walks away with it.
"That prick does that with everyone. He acts like he's the crown prince or something, that anyone who isn't a superior must come under his unrelenting judgment and degradation. He's so condescending that he doesn't even respect most nobles like people, and outright ignores commoners."
It might amaze others that such bitter words could emerge from a sunny smile. But Kaede's surprised, raised brows soon transformed into a sympathetic grin of her own.
"Well, if he gives you any trouble, please feel free to confide in me about it." Ariadne left the other half of her thoughts unsaid: A real scandal will send enough evil glares his way that even he'll flinch.
For a moment, Kaede's parted lips seemed eager to take up her offer, but all that eventually came out was: "Thanks, I'll keep that in mind."
Ariadne shrugged off her rising disappointment. Don't be greedy, she silently scolded herself.
If there was one thing Ariadne enjoyed more than riding, and wanted more than a renowned career in the Knights Phantom, it was the trust, recognition, and admiration of everyone around her. This went doubly so for the closest person to one of her few enemies -- those who had dared to scorn her. Based on how the younger girl's gaze had been rooted on her this entire time, she held no doubts that Kaede was steadily growing on all three aspects.
Her beloved Parzifal once joked, amicably of course, that 'vanity' should have been her middle name. Her response was to ask him: "What's wrong with that?"
"So what's your impression of our world?"
"Fantastic, decadent, and liberal for its time." Kaede shrugged again: "I haven't left the castle though, so I can't really say."
"To nobility, decadence is an expression of prestige, and as for liberal... Weichsel does pride itself for being one of the most forward-thinking of the Hyperion nations. I'm glad you like it."
The smaller girl's response was a somewhat wry smile under her morning-chilled rosy cheeks.
"Is there anything you need? Like I mentioned before, don't hesitate to ask. There's no way a guy could anticipate everything a girl needs, even if he was the caretaker type." Ariadne didn't even need to append which that self-centered prick certainly isn't.
Looking thoughtful for a minute, Kaede then glanced down at her blizzard-blue dress and pushed against its petticoat layers with her leg, bare except for snow-white stockings.
"Well... Pascal's clothes for me are all dresses. This is rather improper, but... could you help me get some pants?"
"Trousers for women are only worn as a part of military uniforms," Ariadne's answer came straightforward. "Outside that, it's considered religious impropriety. So no, I can't get you a set, sorry."
"What about a shorter skirt then?" The smaller girl eyed the hi-low short skirt that Ariadne wore, with its mid-thigh height front hem, exposing the tight leggings underneath that hugged her beautiful long legs.
The noblewoman in Ariadne felt scandalized, before she reminded herself again: She's from another world; different norms and customs and all.
"In our world, it's proper modesty for a girl to keep both legs fully covered. Although -- let me think on that; I might be able to arrange something."
Kaede beamed; a cute smile that truly lit up her doll-like appearance.
In the moment, Ariadne thought it was kind of a shame: "do ladies in your world mostly wear pants?"
She actually felt relieved when the smaller girl shook her head.
The two made comparisons between their worlds for a good hour, until Ariadne saw Parzifal on his daily run around the grounds and left to join him.
She still didn't believe that another realm, without the aid of magic, could advance to a more technological level of civilization. Sure, traders often boasted of engineering marvels from the Grand Republic of Samara and even brought back gadgets of non-magical construction to prove it. But Samarans merely looked human and held unfair advantages: longevity rivaling the healthiest mages, and memories of 'past lives'... more like fiendish witchcraft and whispers of the devil.
----- * * * -----
It wasn't until near midday when Pascal telepathically called Kaede down to the dining hall for brunch, followed by dragging her off to the library.
"You can read those tomes on your time all you want," he explained after sitting her down at a table with both ends piled high with books. "But while the sun is still up, you are going to help me research for this."
From his chair facing her from the other side, Pascal slapped a piece of parchment down on the table.
"Victory through ordered chaos and destruction of organizational, logistical, and political assets to inflict total system paralysis - Pandemonium Doctrine," Kaede read, before quickly scanning through the rest of the perfect-graded research proposal. Calling upon unknown military treatises from this world as well as the names of battles from recent wars, it suggested a recompilation of operational guidelines with an emphasis on speed, mobility, and fluidity to guide multiple simultaneous thrusts deep into enemy territory.
Blitzkrieg...? Not quite; this sounds more like something from the Eurasian Steppes. But...
"You're writing a new military doctrine?" She asked, her mind barely grasping the reality of the parchment in her hands. He's only nineteen!
"Many of the basic concepts my father already employed during the War of Imperial Succession ten years ago, the same war that earned him a hero's fame and the title Landgrave of Nordkreuz."
Pascal actually had enough humility for a faint blush for once.
"But I need as many field examples as possible. Since you are into reading all those boring history books, finding the right battle records for me to examine will be your task!"
Kaede didn't mind studying. But sweeping across the table with dozens of dusty tomes piled in thick columns, her eyes were beginning to feel tired already.
----- * * * -----
With three knocks on the thick mahogany door, Professor Albert opened it and led the two inside.
Kaede first met Professor Albert von Marienfeld five minutes ago. With balding gray hair above onyx eyes as sharp as an eagle's, he had an imposing set of well-trimmed long mustaches. His build was lean with just a bit of belly, his thick arms a remnant of wrestling days long passed. One didn't even need to see him in uniform, impeccable and proudly decorated with medals including the Knight's Cross, to recognize that he was no mere scholar.
He also glanced over Kaede with just one look and never bothered to introduce himself. His key words that ensured Pascal's attention were: "The headmaster has returned and wishes to see you, now."
Which brought them all to this room, as large as the White House's Oval Office and furnished similarly: massive office table backed against huge windows, with intricate chairs and comfy couches atop rich rugs that covered the room's center. The hour was dusk, and the entire office was currently bathed in sunset orange.
Not satisfied with his face being shadowed by the light from the windows, the headmaster also wore a bucket helmet on top of his gray robes. His outfit exposed not a patch of skin; even his hands were covered by black gloves.
Kaede found it a novel experience, to say the least.
"Sir von Moltewitz, welcome."
The raspy voice emerged from behind the steel faceplate, like the sound of a man with an incurable throat disease.
"Firstly, allow me to extend a belated congratulations for your recent promotion and knighthood."
"Thank you, Sir."
"Nevertheless, it distresses me to hear that you have freely altered the sacred familiar summoning ceremony beyond acceptable boundaries and called forth a foreign girl as a familiar."
"There is a first time for everything, Sir." Pascal reported back in military posture: hands back and chest high. "Our ancestors did not pioneer the art of familiars through tradition."
"Right you are. However, I hope you planned to face the same scrutiny and examination that they did."
"What kind of examination, Sir?" Pascal couldn't sound less thrilled.
"We will need to assess the humanity of your familiar, to determine that she brings no health risks or magical dangers from faraway lands, and to tag her for periodic checks to monitor the resulting long-term effects."
"I understand, Sir. But I can do that myself." His tone was on the verge of protesting.
Kaede loved how they were talking about her -- not just in third person, but as though an experimental specimen -- when she stood within this very room:
"Headmaster Sir, don't I have rights as a human being for any say in this?"
The helmet leaned forward, and Kaede envisioned a skeletal lich behind it as a voice far colder than any human responded:
"No, Miss Familiar. You are neither a citizen of this country nor a holder of lawfully issued identification. Furthermore, you were summoned by a mage through his contractual ritual. In the eyes of our national laws, you are a non-entity that is only recognized as part of his responsibility. You are not property, but due to the lack of legal precedence, you are not far above it, either."
Kaede felt like a trap door just opened below her. Her mind stopped all thinking as an impenetrable horror overwhelmed it.
Sitting back, the headmaster continued:
"As for you, Sir von Moltewitz, the answer is no. A third-party validation is required per academic procedure."
Pascal cast a worried glance her way, before turning back to the shadowy grille that hid the headmaster's expression:
"I neither need nor care for academic recognition for this, Sir. In fact, I invoke my rights as a feudal noble to assert that she is my right and responsibility, Sir!"
For a minute, all signs of passing time stopped as the room froze in the wake of his challenge. Then, it was Professor Albert who cleared his throat from a rear corner of the room:
"Sir von Moltewitz, I suggest you reconsider. As you are still, in the eyes of the law, one year short of maturity, any repercussions for your actions will therefore fall under the responsibility of your father the Landgrave."
Pascal visibly flinched as his father was mentioned.
"I understand, Sir. But I must also take responsibility for my ward, to my ward, for what I have done to her." Pascal's unwavering tone snapped Kaede out of her daze, now staring at him with a gaping expression plastered on. "Having witnessed the procedures allowed on prisoners-of-war, I cannot allow the same to be forced upon her in good conscience!"
After being raised from the depths of despair, Kaede suddenly felt her sight becoming glassy and her emotions stirred. Sure, it was completely his fault that she was stuck in such a situation in the first place. Yet, not only was Pascal backing his promise to the full before her, he was also, in his roundabout way, finally admitting and apologizing for the injustice he committed.
Shock and hopelessness may have passed away to reason, but she was now too relieved to feel angry, even if that relief was still premature.
Surprisingly, it was Professor Albert who followed up in the contest of will between Pascal and the headmaster:
"With your permission, Sir, I would like to advise Sir von Moltewitz in performing the proper checks to ensure that no disaster befall us. I shall also shoulder any responsibility from his errors under my oversight."
Silence fell upon the room again, and Kaede could almost feel the shifting air pressure as two invisible forces dueled one another for supremacy. In the end, it was the headmaster who gave in first:
"Very well," he finalized in his raspy voice. "See to it that history does not repeat itself."
Once back in the hallway, Pascal asked his adviser with lingering disbelief still dangling from his words:
"Sir, this is the first time you have supported an independent action of mine in... anything!"
"Well, this is the first time you've shown a willingness to make amends for your own foolishness." Professor Albert sounded a touch surprised himself.
"What does the headmaster mean by history not repeating itself?"
"See, if you had done your research in human-to-human binding, you would have known that there is an unspoken taboo on pact magic between Hyperiens and Samarans," began the Professor. "Because five hundred years ago, a successful Inner Sea trading magnate and his Samaran partner signed a binding magical contract, which somehow unleashed the epidemic known as the Great Eldritch Plague. The pandemic spread from mage to mage by mere proximity of spell auras, and killed a third of the noblemen across Hyperion before a cure was developed."
"--You know as well as I do that taboo or not, the profit margins will continue to entice merchants in exploring reliable business between the east and west," Professor Albert continued after cutting Pascal off. "No sweeping plagues have shown themselves for four centuries, so that one precedence must have been an act of God or freak occurrence. Headmaster Sir von Bloomberg mostly just wants an excuse to force his way into cutting-edge arcane research, which he can easily take credit for since you're both a minor and a student. Remember to do your homework thoroughly next time so you don't give someone else the opportunity to interfere."
"Yes Sir. Thank you, Sir." Pascal answered, followed by a still-overwhelmed Kaede mirroring his gratitude.
The professor, however, never so much looked at her. After a nod of acknowledgment to Pascal, he walked off:
"I expect your preliminary report by tomorrow morning, Sir von Moltewitz. Assume nothing, confirm! And don't forget your first research project checkpoint next Friday!"
----- * * * -----
Dinner included a gourmet shepherd's pie and chicken soup, which Kaede desperately ate to warm her soul back up.
It wasn't until after they returned to his dorms when she regained the energy to breach the topic again:
"Was that your first time meeting the headmaster?"
"No. I have met him quite a few times... for various things." Pascal didn't seem interested in explaining.
"Why does he wear all that in his office?" Sitting on the bed, Kaede shivered as she remembered that cold, raspy voice informing her that she had no more rights than mere property.
"Headmaster Sir von Bloomberg has not shown his face in years. Rumors have it that he caught leprosy from some magical experiment and was forced to retired from the army's research division."
"Still... uh, Pascal?"
"Yes?" He asked without looking at Kaede, as he continued to rush about the room, either collecting or setting up various pieces of equipment.
"Thank you for what you did. I really mean it... even if the whole thing was your fault to begin with." Her wispy voice rose into a huff as she continued: "Seriously, what the heck were you thinking, forging a familiar contract with another person without even doing your homework properly?"
"I figured nobody else had ever tried making another person a familiar..."
Kaede was surprised Pascal managed to say that with a straight face. History always offered a precedence, similar in circumstances if not the same.
"--Besides, you may want to hold onto that gratitude until after I run through all the checks, which will involve prodding some private places."
As soon as Kaede realized what he meant, she looked away in embarrassment.
"Don't get full of yourself either. Your help is still a long way from canceling out your misdeeds."
She meant every word, but her complexion still made her look shy about it.
Pascal knelt down on one knee before her. Gently taking her left hand and folding back her sleeve, he raised what looked like a small syringe before readying it against her skin. The needle entered her arm with a sting, and he soon began to draw blood from her.
What came out was a crystal clear liquid, tinged only by a shade of pink.
Unlike her, Pascal calmly finished the procedure and pulled out the needle before he froze.
Both of them stared at the syringe that held transparent blood the color of cotton candy.
"W-what does this mean?" Kaede heard her own voice from far away.
"It means that you really are Samaran, or at least your body is. Only they have transparent blood. The color is supposed to be a crystal light red, but this is not far from the expected spectrum."
"And w-what does that mean?"
After laying the syringe on a bedside table, Pascal leaned forward and clasped Kaede on both shoulders. His turquoise gaze pulled her rose-quartz eyes up, before his blank expression continued with earnest words:
"The Samarans believe in reincarnation, born in this life after their last passed away. I cannot confirm or deny since I am not one of them, but they all claim to retain shards, fragments, images and memories of past lives. Some even claim that those memories are often not of this world."
Her mind stood still even at the green light, refusing to process the implications of his words.
"A-and that means...?"
"If what they claim is correct, then Kaede, I did not turn you into a girl. Rather than transform, my familiar spell may have created a humanoid form which hijacked a soul departing from another world. Kaede, it is likely that -- in that other world, you died."
That can't be... no!
Kaede could only shake her head slowly, her mind overwhelmed by torrents of denial, her eyes pointing but not seeing.
"I am sorry to tell you this, Kaede. But it is a truth that we must face. It would certainly explain why your soul was naturalized anew in our world, rather than coming here in an alien body. Perhaps it was part of the Holy Father's plans all along. Perhaps you were meant to live as a girl."
By that point, her gaping expression had already stilled into a delicate statue.
Pascal figured this was as good a time to begin as any, even as a faint grin tugged at his lips.
Fifteen minutes and an unknown number of observations and measurements later, her head finally started cranking again:
"That can't be right! I don't just remember fragments; I have all my prior memories. Besides, that doesn't explain how my bow and clothes got through!"
Pascal shrugged as he stirred a potion vial that included several strands of her hair.
"Don't jump to a conclusion just because it removes blame from you!" Kaede glared, seething. Being told that she had died was another shock she could have gone without this day.
After piling so much weight in the past few hours onto an already overburdened mind, annoyance and anger remained as her only barriers against another teary outburst.
"I did not say that is what happened. I merely said it was a likely scenario." His focus was still concentrated on the vial, his poker face impenetrable.
Kaede huffed and collapsed back into the bed:
"Great, now I can't even be sure whether my parents think I'm missing or just dead. Not that there's anything I can do about it outside of useless worrying."
Yet despite her tempered comment, she held no doubt that many sleepless hours would be spent precisely over this 'useless worrying'.
It was impossible not to, perhaps even inhuman, which was an odd thought because she really wasn't 'human' any more.
"Do not bother getting too comfortable. I need a urine sample from you soon," Pascal noted, only to receive a groan in response.
After sitting back up and chasing the evil thoughts away, Kaede pouted towards the corner closet door that held the heavy chamber pot. Leaning against the wall next to it, there was now a pile of treated wood, packed cotton, and velvet fabrics.
"Materials for fabricating a bed? Yes. I retrieved it from the quartermaster this morning," Pascal commented as he scrutinized the vial's color change. "Although, since you have taken all my free time, and I have a busy week ahead, especially with the project checkpoint on Friday..." he looked over with a Cheshire grin: "I think you should just get used to warming my bed."
If looks could kill, the one Pascal received wouldn't have left even a speck of dust. Instead the only damage he took was from a flying pillow, which splashed the vial's contents across his cheeks, now magically dyed a glowing blue.
Kaede realized that perhaps the greatest struggle of her new life was wrestling with the daily urge to beat him senseless.
Chapter 6 - A Peaceful Day
With his top button on, Pascal put the medal around his neck and pinned it into place, then flipped down his collars. Adjusting it carefully, he made sure the gleaming black Knight's Cross outlined in white gold was perfectly centered. Staring back at the dresser mirror, he examined the dashing grin that reflected back before giving it a nod of approval.
He spun his heels around in their leather boots before walking around the bed.
Today was the first time that Pascal saw Kaede's sleeping face. Even inside the warm dormitory keep, the small girl snuggled into the thick comforter with only her head exposed. Turned to the side, her cream-white hair scattered across her gentle sleeping face, peaceful except for the dark outlines under her eyes.
Another stab of guilt sunk into his chest, but Pascal steeled himself and shook her through the bedcovers.
There was no response, so he did it again.
"Come on, wake up already," he called after the fifth time, finally eliciting a response:
"I said wake up."
Two small hands emerged from the bedcovers to rub her eyes.
"Talk about a heavy sleeper..."
"C-couldn't give me a few more minutes?" Kaede yawned as her thin arms stretched out, her eyes still closed. "I couldn't sleep till like three-something..."
"Sleep earlier then. I have already given you leeway today. You need to wake up at the same time as everyone else when I go campaigning."
Her pink eyes finally opened, highlighting the shadows below them as her cherry lips formed a scowl.
Pascal slowly waved his hand over her while he whispered the Refreshen spell. Her countenance instantly grew less pale, the bags under her eyes disappearing while a healthy tinge of pink returned to her cheeks.
Maybe he overdid it a little. Kaede looked like she was sporting a disgruntled blush.
Kind of cute, actually, Pascal smiled.
"Better. Now, dress up and remember your research tasks today. Get up earlier tomorrow if you want breakfast -- I cannot wait any longer; morning practice in fifteen. I will see you at lunch."
With that, Pascal went straight out the door.
----- * * * -----
"...What's that commoner girl doing here? This is a prestigious library!"
"Orders from the Runelord, who else? Must have gotten her special treatment..."
"...She's still blushing? Has she no shame?"
Kaede swore that the familiars' whole 'eyes and ears' concept made her senses more keen than necessary. She couldn't even concentrate with all the whispering that reached her ears.
It was a Monday morning, but a few dozen people occupied the library nonetheless. They all looked like senior students or research assistants working on a project. Most of these mages completely ignored her, but just a few gossiping mouths were more than enough to irritate.
"Hey, familiar girl," a tall lady with long, golden-blond curls slammed her palms into the desk. "Tell your master to keep you on a shorter leash. You're an eyesore here by yourself. This is a nobles' academic sanctuary, not a whorehouse!"
Kaede flipped another page.
"Are you listening, you ignorant commoner!?"
Kaede finally tilted her head and looked upwards with half-open eyes that barely cared:
"Pascal says you're a blithering idiot and that I should ignore you. I think I agree."
The noblewoman looked like her face was about to spontaneously combust and explode.
Kaede went back to reading, or trying to...
"Listen here you little bitch, I don't care if your master reserved this desk. You get the hell out of here or I'm going to give you the whipping you deserve. Do I make myself clear?"
"Ah, that is Lisel von Straussen." Pascal's voice popped into her head. "Talk about pot calling kettle black. How does that tramp have the brain capacity to attack you when she can barely scrub two cells together for a passing grade?"
"You're not helping, Pascal; and could you knock before tapping in like this?"
"Tell her that--"
"Look, they may be afraid to challenge the Runelord to a duel, but if I keep it up after dropping your name and they don't relent, they're going to challenge me."
"So give them the beatdown you showed me. They will not even see it coming." Pascal sounded oddly proud.
What, just like you didn't? Kaede amused herself before sending back:
"Precisely. Most of them probably believe I'm just a pushover familiar girl who surprised you with a punch, and that the story got exaggerated somehow -- Ariadne does harbor a very public grudge against you, after all. I'd prefer it if they kept thinking that way.
"Not bad at all.
Pascal's reply rang with approval, and Kaede wondered if he was really being impulsive, or if he was just testing her.
Sighing, Kaede stood up from her chair, piled her book plus three others into a small stack, and left without a word.
Whatever, not like I can concentrate in here anyway.
Without someone she was friendly with -- or at least getting friendly with -- Kaede didn't exactly feel comfortable around new people or places. With her books in hand, she headed back to the dormitories, ignoring the noblewoman's departing screech.
She felt the disdain of the librarian's glance as she walked past.
Yeah yeah, I'm just a commoner, foreigner at that. Get used to it, you prissy nobles.
Kaede rather missed having Pascal's 'you-are-all-idiots' attitude shield her from the rest of the world. Sure, his disdainful eyes were annoying. But a roomful of nobles hitching their arrogant noses at her made that seem a paradise by comparison.
----- * * * -----
After another lunch in the dining hall with Pascal, Kaede returned to his room to continue her research. She found three interesting historical references, and each time Pascal tapped her senses directly to read in. The convenience was undeniable, but it was also annoying, not to mention bizarre to turn pages for a pair of eyes that served as someone else's camera.
Still, thrice was enough. By the third time, she finally told Pascal to ask first before reaching through her eyes and ears.
His reply was a defensive "all right, I promise!"
In the meantime, two other thoughts kept bouncing back to the fore of her mind:
Conclusion #1: Fantasy realms needed a magical version of the Internet, not to mention magical Google and Wikipedia. They could probably skip Magebook though. Information processing and networking spells couldn't be that hard when Pascal managed to tap into her own biological sensory network this easily.
Conclusion #2: She was rapidly becoming a shut-in, emerging only to retrieve food and books, and conversing with barely more than one person per day. This was worrisome.
The door then opened without waiting for a response. A petite young maid with short brown hair, the same who often served Pascal in the dining hall, backed into the room with a large cart in tow.
She almost dropped the handle when she turned around.
"I'm sorry Miss, the third years are taking a required course right now. I d-didn't actually expect anyone here."
Sitting on the bed in an orchid-pink dress, Kaede put down her book and returned a welcoming smile.
"Don't worry about it. My name is Kaede, what's yours?"
"M-marina," she bowed. "I'm one of the two maids responsible for the third-year students, Miss Kaede."
"Just Kaede is fine. It's not like I'm one of those noblemen."
"Ah, I've heard... that you were summoned from afar... as a familiar."
"That's right." Kaede tried not to make the maid Marina any more nervous, but all she managed to keep up was a wry smile. "Do you normally only clean when nobody is here?"
"Yes!" Marina nodded bit too eagerly. "The nobles do not appreciate seeing us common servants at work, so we try to be discrete whenever possible."
Thinking back to her dining hall experiences, Kaede remembered that Pascal never even acknowledged, let alone thanked, the servants who brought his food. Nor, for that matter, did most other nobles she saw, except...
"Ariadne seemed friendly with you all though."
Marina's lips finally curled upwards with a hint of joy.
"Miss von Zimmer-Manteuffel is one of the few nobles who do greet us with friendliness." Then, sighing: "unfortunately, she's a very rare minority; most of them pretend we don't exist."
"Stupid nobles with their oversized noses and squinty eyes need to learn some respect," Kaede lashed out at the opulent room she stayed in. Her gaze then returned to find Marina grinning back in silent and total agreement.
However, the maid's expression soon returned to one of sympathy and worry intermixed with curiosity:
"I also heard you gave Mister... I mean Sir von Moltewitz a beating? Did your master punish you any further than cutting meals? He was in a fouler mood than I've ever seen him yesterday morning, but he seemed all better today."
Kaede's eyebrows disappeared into her bangs for a second. I swear, how do nobles keep any secrets from these servants?
"Yeah, a surprise kick to the crotch and he couldn't even defend himself, imagine that," Kaede lied with a totally unapologetic grin. "And not really, Pascal has actually respected me more since then. Goes to show that we can't just take things lying down or these nobles will just see us as useless; we have to push back whenever we get the chance!"
For a brief second, Kaede thought Marina's eyes glittered in amazement. Within minutes, they were chatting like friends, bonding through the power of complaints.
Grumbling to others wasn't something Kaede used to do. In fact, she hadn't even realized that since becoming a girl, she had become far more whinier, albeit for good reasons. Nevertheless, it quickly bridged the distance before Marina was comfortable enough to ask her first personal question:
"Kaede, do you miss your home back in Samara? I mean, I'm guessing by your appearance and attitude towards the nobles that you are Samaran?"
Kaede's grin froze as a torrent of nostalgic images flooded in: her classmates celebrating the newest acceptance letter, her friends chatting after practice, her parents welcoming her home...
"I'msorrythatwasinappropriateofme!" Marina blurted out as a tear slid down Kaede's cheeks. But the latter girl shook her head, melancholic and glassy-eyed, but still forcing on a wistful smile.
"Yes, I do miss home. I wish I could return, but I can't, so there's no point worrying over it."
She didn't even bother correcting Marina's guess about her origins. There just wasn't a point anymore.
Marina had to return to her maid work soon after, and Kaede rediscovered her amusement at what seemed to be a magical vacuum cleaner powered by ether-storing crystals. Not being a mage, Marina couldn't actually turn the appliance on or off, only manipulate its intake controls.
The same cleaner also had an enchanted nozzle for cleaning chamber pots.
Whatever modern thoughts Kaede had on the role, being a medieval maid, at least, was not a job that she envied at all.
----- * * * -----
Pascal's last course of the day was held in the second drill hall. It was more of a stone amphitheater, but with a massive stage ringed by only two meager rows of benches. Advanced Spellsword Combat was an elective class open to upperclassmen and offered every semester, so at the moment only thirty-two noble cadets stood in loose formation.
It was also the only 100% practical course in the academy. Books, parchment, and ink weren't even allowed here. The only acceptable tools of teaching and learning were spells and swords. The usual homework was recovering from injuries, which automatically made students strive for perfection.
"As you all know, the most commonly practiced combat magic style in Hyperion is Aura Magic, utilized for its multiple stances that shift and adapt to circumstances, as well as high spell acceleration which allows rapid ether transfer and spellcasting. However, contrary to many claims, the popularity of Aura Magic is not an indicator of superiority. For example: Runic Magic may be a favorite of the barbaric Northmen, but its capacity for precast and contingent spells that may be activated in a second cannot be underestimated -- as many of you learned the hard way from Sir von Moltewitz."
Contrary to both his name and occupation, Professor Sir Siegfried von Kirchner looked anything but martial. At one-fifty-nine centimeters (5'2"), he was shorter than most girls, and his clean-shaven, chubby cheeks left traits of a boyish appearance despite being just shy of 'elderly'. But the Knight's Cross he wore was also set on an eight-pointed starburst -- the 'Twin-Starred Cross' which represented the highest distinction of battlefield valor in the Kingdom. As a master of multiple combat styles, anyone who underestimated his whimsical forest-green eyes were in for a painful lesson.
"...The key to winning is found not just in practice and experience, but a thorough understanding of the other styles' capabilities. Runic Magic may bring a large cache of prepared spells that may be dumped into battle in an instant, but its glyphs only activate and target by touch. This hampers its offensive potential and allows a skilled Aura Magic user to keep his distance until he can level the playing field. Sir von Moltewitz, Mister von Witzinger, would you be gracious enough to demonstrate."
Professor von Kirchner and the rest of the class quickly left the platform for the benches, leaving just Pascal and the fiery-haired Reynald on stage. Both of them had agreed heartily to the professor's request, but neither of them looked thrilled as they confronted one another.
"What's wrong, Runelord, cold feet in the face of superiority?" Reynald smirked a savage grin as he lowered the mass of his already short, one-sixty-three (5'4") stature even further, one wooden kukri held in each hand.
Pascal never even bothered to respond; his steely gaze met the challenge with an imperturbable poker face, his wooden courtblade -- a heavy rapier with a slashing edge -- held in a classic fencing stance.
"You may begin!" Professor von Kirchner's words rang like a starting bell.
Leaping forward, Pascal charged Reynald without delay, his blade thrusting forth and slashing down. At the same time, his left hand stretched out with fingers extended, triggering a contingency effect as four rune-engraved pebbles materialized into his hand from the extra-dimensional storage glove. They activated a split second later, surrounding Pascal with the invisible aura of his anti-projectile Repulsion Field, five rotating turquoise shields of his auto-blocking Spellshield Fortress, and the unseen plates of his weightless Barrier Armor, which grew translucent as the magic-resistant Barrier Guard layered onto it.
With four powerful defensive enhancements set in the blink of an eye, Pascal could focus his attention completely on offense.
But after three leaps back which avoided Pascal's repeated attacks, Reynald flashed to the other side of the platform in a bolt of lightning, literally.
"Armor Aura Burst!" the redhead called, sending out a pressurized blast of air as he used his aura stance switch to conjure an invisible suit of magic armor. Reynald then crossed his twin kukris before his eyes.
Meanwhile Pascal activated the second four buffs of his usual defensive array, followed by scattering an entire bag of runic pebbles across the arena. With the field under his control, he charged again.
But Reynald unleashed the crimson magic pumped into his practice weapons with a set of Ancient Draconic words:
"Scorch-Ether, Catalyst Fragmentation Dispel!"
Burst-mode Aura Magic was known for having the highest spell acceleration of all casting styles, but it had a high tendency to overwhelm the nerve conduits and leave the body numb. Prolonged use could even lead to temporary or permanent paralysis.
The X-shaped fire blast sucked in atmosphere like a black hole as it soared towards Pascal. His Repulsion Field popped like a bubble under a gargantuan hammer. One of his turquoise shields then met the attack, breaking into three pieces under its power but shattering the offensive spell. Yet instead of dispersing, Reynald's dispel fragmented into four parts that pierced into Pascal's translucent armor. The entire suit glowed as Barrier Guard fought to maintain the defense, only to collapse into a kaleidoscopic burst of mana less than two seconds later. Not done with its job, the shards of fiery-red magic then penetrated Pascal himself.
The Runelord staggered. Steam began to pour from his sizzling body as hostile antimagic crashed against his ether network. His second set of four self-buffs backfired, fueling the hostile incursion as Elemental Body of Earth, Shift Impulse, Mental Clarity, and Metabolic Boost transformed into volatile ether. His speed broke as his teeth clenched down in pain.
A second lightning-transformation put Reynald just behind the distracted Pascal. Coming out in a spin and infused with the ward-piercing Negation spell, his dual kukris struck the Runelord like twin rotor blades, bringing the latter to his knees.
"Stop!" the professor called out. "Thank you, Sir von Moltewitz. Mister von Witzinger, please escort him to..."
Kneeling on all fours and panting in pain did not stop Pascal from cutting in:
"I am fine, Sir!"
Professor von Kirchner nodded before turning back to the class:
"The four-part spell Mister von Witzinger just used is the bane of Runic Magic users' tendency to over-buff themselves. Dispel is your classic antimagic spell, and Catalyst allows it to push through multiple defenses in an increasingly-powerful cascading chain reaction. Fragmentation gives it a chance to break past even the most powerful dispel-warding barriers, and Scorch-Ether not only boosts penetration power, but also makes certain that the final impact leaves a stunning impression."
"Remember that a spellsword relies neither on blasting the opponent nor overwhelming them through pure martial prowess, but by a synergistic combination of arcana, steel, and tricks," the short professor emphasized. "Barrier Armor plus leather and steel will reduce most physical attacks to mere wounds. Infused Guard, Resistance, and other defensive magic diminish most hostile spellfire down to tolerable nuisances, particularly for alchemy or enchantment spells which a mage's innate ether may outright repulse."
"To score a decisive hit, you must be flexible, you must be adaptive. Think on your feet and respond accordingly, let magic be your fist and bring home victory!"
Near the end of class an hour later, after Pascal properly restored his health, Reynald accosted him again in the benches:
"Up for a real duel that isn't pre-scripted this time? Doesn't exactly please me any to win a fixed match."
"Of course," Pascal grunted as he stood back up, still sore all over. "You know I could have easily dodged that blast."
"We'll see," Reynald sneered back.
----- * * * -----
"So... where's my bed?" Kaede didn't even bother taking her eyes off her book.
"In Phantasia," Pascal grumbled before climbing into bed bare-chested, snuggling just close enough without touching her. "Ugh, my back still hurts; that Reynald is unnaturally good at dueling... you think someone stupid and gullible enough to fall for every propaganda piece would not be a spellsword genius."
"His Holiness is fair," she replied, her casual eyes still reading. "With one noodly appendage he giveth, with the other he taketh away."
Pascal just stared at her for a few seconds, then waved the light off:
"Your world is crazy."
Sighing, Kaede pulled down the bookmark string, closed the tome, and laid it on her bedside table.
One night he'll learn to ask first.
...Like that, another day passed in the new world. The rest of the week went by the same way, except after Friday's afternoon chat-break, Kaede was sure she could now consider Marina a new friend, therefore averting or at least delaying her 'shut-in' crisis.
----- * * * -----
"You still haven't managed it?" The new chief groundskeeper snarled, a yeoman -- commoner of the first class -- mage hired only two weeks ago to fill a vacancy left when his predecessor died in an accident.
"I'm sorry," Marina trembled, her eyes nailed to his feet. "Kaede... his familiar girl is in his room all day. It's hard to do it without being noticed, so I'm trying to gain her trust."
"Well, you have one more week. If we miss the deadline and our lord is punished by the Emperor, it will be on your hands, girl. I certainly do not wish to be deemed worthless and a security risk by that squad of killers in town," he warned before departing from the shadowy alcove where he cornered her.
Chapter 7 - The Perfect Contrast
After just one week, life in the new world was already starting to fit into a schedule. As usual on Saturday, Kaede went to the roof to meditate and build her arm strength through archery; and just like any other weekend morning, Ariadne was taking a self-rewarding joyride on her pegasus.
Spotting the latter, Kaede hesitated for a moment, but decided to wave down the angelic rider.
Her reasons were mostly split between I don't want to become a shut-in and she's as true as nobility gets. Although if Kaede examined her decision tree, she's absolutely gorgeous also ranked top five on the list.
It was hard not to feel attraction towards a gracious lady so stunningly beautiful.
After the usual pleasantries, Ariadne happily dropped what Kaede considered a bombshell question:
"I'm going into town for an errand today. Would you be interested in joining me? We can shop for your clothes while we're there."
Calm down, calm down! Kaede's thoughts scrambled, her cheeks instantly glowing. You're a girl now. There's nothing unusual about this! Stop jumping ahead because she is certainly not probing your interests or anything!
Ariadne's smile only seemed to grow wider as Kaede took a moment to cool.
"Of course I'm interested! Although... I'd better ask Pascal first." Kaede left out the or there'll be hell to pay.
"Of course, but please remind that self-centered prick that we are shopping to give his cute familiar a makeover. Oh, and tell him that my beloved Parzifal is coming along--"
Kaede was pretty sure hearts bubbled off Ariadne when she accentuated 'beloved' in a proud and flirtatious voice.
"--since we're meeting an old friend dropping by. We leave in an hour, so please meet us at the inner wall gates before then."
Was that display meant for Pascal as well?
He may have stopped freely using Kaede as an extra sensory organ, but to everyone else, she was still his familiar, his 'eyes and ears'.
Kaede wasn't certain, yet she couldn't help but feel rather put off after hearing it.
I guess that other than my physical gender, not even my interests have changed much.
----- * * * -----
The indecisive look did not fit Pascal at all.
"Please? Please please? Pretty please?" Kaede begged, no longer uncertain about the universal expressiveness of hands in prayer.
"Fine," Pascal gave in at last, before turning to rummage through a drawer. "At least with that borejob Parzifal going, she will not do anything unexpected. Here," he tossed her a small pouch. "Make sure you pay correctly for what you buy. The infinite layers of the Abyss will freeze solid before I owe Ariadne anything else."
Being a girl does come in handy at times, Kaede grinned back. She was almost tempted to give him a hug.
"Also, I want you back by fourteen hundred. We have a ton of work to go through this weekend. I received another project yesterday -- and reading up on spell research will be a good opportunity for you to get acquainted with our sorcery," he noted, his expression reflecting her eager smile.
...Or, maybe not. Her urge died instantly as she replied with a deadpan "Yes Sir."
----- * * * -----
Given Ariadne's breathtaking charm, Parzifal didn't turn out nearly as outstanding as Kaede imagined. He was still handsome in an above average way, with short brown hair above pretty aquamarine eyes, a wide nose, and a strong jaw. Nearly one-eighty-two (6'0") in height, he had a lean musculature that emphasized powerful legs in particular, yet his steps were soft, almost silent.
He wore the same black uniform as Pascal and most cadets, except adorned with white lines instead of crimson patches. Against Ariadne's burning-red outfit -- which few other students had -- it only distinguished her further from the crowd.
Perhaps his most unusual quality was the quiet, cool but unassuming personality.
"Hello, Miss Suvorsky," he barely nodded, not all that pleased to see her. "I'm Parzifal Sigismund von Seydlitz der Chevallerie."
Seriously, if they get married, their kids' names are going to break the word limit, Kaede thought as she gave an inexperienced curtsy in her blizzard-blue dress, still rough around the edges as Pascal only taught her three days ago.
She still found it suspicious that Pascal could do it perfectly.
"It's a pleasure to meet you milord. I'm honored by Ariadne's invitation to come along."
Parzifal's attempt to hide the lemon taste made it obvious he was anything but glad. Yet he swiftly plastered a grin across his expression as Ariadne turned towards him.
Can't really blame him; I am kind of ruining their time alone.
"Just call him Parzifal; the formality will kill the mood," Ariadne said as she grasped his hand, intertwined their fingers, and took a few seconds to snuggle into his chest.
Kaede thought it best to just smile and wait out the intimate moment. Then, still leaning against him, Ariadne turned them around and led them out of the inner gate. If the people of this society looked down upon public displays of affection, Ariadne was completely unabashed in showing it off to the world.
"Morning, Ariadne! Morning, Parzifal!"
"Going for another outing?"
"...Trip to the town? Say hello to Lukas for me."
Almost every person the couple came across greeted them with a friendly face; noble or commoner, staff or servant, it didn't seem to matter. Their network of acquaintances and friends appeared to cover the entire academy.
It was a world of difference compared to how Pascal was treated. Sure, he also stood in the center of attention; but few bothered to talk to him, most either half-admiring or half-mocking from afar.
"Good morning, Gerd. Exciting plans this weekend?"
Perhaps the greatest surprise to Kaede was how genial Parzifal was. His greetings lacked Ariadne's energy, but his smile was always gentle and delightful. Not once did he show another the distaste he revealed to Kaede.
I am seriously getting sick of starting on people's bad side because of that prick, she concluded.
It wasn't until they left the outer walls before Kaede finally spoke up:
"Ummm, pardon me, but how are we getting there?"
"Once outside the Lockdown ward, we're teleporting," Ariadne answered. "I'm not a wayfarer, so I'm limited by a ten-kilopace jump even with his help, which is just far enough."
The prospect of being broken down into tiny pieces and reassembling at the target -- at least, that was how the scientific explanation went -- did not thrill Kaede.
"Uh, what happens if we wind up overlapping with a passerby, or something like that, when teleporting?"
"There are precautions built into the Astral Teleport spell itself to prevent that; you just bounce and get shunted off to the side. Towns also have beacons to guide the teleportation into a sparse area. Otherwise it's always possible to bounce off a warded home and land in a weird alley, or wind up inside a commoner's shop since warding is expensive. Fortified cities and military installations, on the other hand, are often entirely warded."
Of course. Any convenience must also be defended against. Nice to see that humanity remains the same wherever you go.
The pair then turned halfway around as Ariadne extended her delicate fingers:
"Alright, we're out. Grab my hand and hold on."
Kaede took up her offer and, despite her anxieties, struggled to keep her eyes wide open. Reality was about to be bent, and she had no intention of missing it.
However, both aristocrats did close their eyes as they chanted in unison through Ancient Draconic words:
"Merge Targeting... Beacon Lock... Environment Set. Chain, Astral Teleport!"
Kaede braced herself, but it proved impossible to prepare for. It felt as if her entire body was suddenly enveloped by ice, then sublimated in gas and scattered in the air. Her consciousness was pulled through a tiny hole in the fabric of space that materialized before her eyes, while her surroundings dissolved into it like scenery flushed down a drain. Then, as quick as it came, everything popped back out and returned to normal. Except her body still felt like it was reconnecting itself while her vision swapped -- they now stood in a stone-paved square just outside a small town.
If this was only ten kilopaces, Kaede was glad she was unconscious when Pascal summoned her across world boundaries.
"Should we bring the little miss to 'Midnight Crescent' and let them take care of her? It wouldn't do to drag her with us to meet Eckhart." Parzifal spoke this time. His polite words may have phrased a question, but his unwavering tone left little room for negotiation.
"Sure," Ariadne answered without a second thought.
Merely two lines of exchange quickly rewrote the balance of their relationship in Kaede's eyes.
It's not that Parzifal has no charisma; he's just fine with Ariadne making the choices and staying happy, until there's something he really wants.
----- * * * -----
Kluis proved to be a hybrid between a sleepy rural town and a trade stop that supplied the Königsfeld Academy. Other than the local church and tavern, the only large building was a supply depot under the jurisdiction of the academy quartermaster. The market square lay next to it, connected to the only stone-paved road that ran through the town -- the same path that left the academy gates, barely wide enough to fit two passing cars.
What Kaede found most surprising was how remarkably clean Kluis was compared to the medieval towns of Earth. There were no exposed sewage, no muddied paths, not even any aired garbage outside the usual litter. It was as though the injection of magic into a culture also encouraged better sanitation than its European equivalent.
In the end, Kaede was left behind in Ariadne's recommended 'Midnight Crescent' tailor shop while the couple went off to meet their guest and enjoy the day. She couldn't really complain; it was their day after all.
Besides, the owner, Krista, an elderly lady in her late fifties, was very enthusiastic. With both a keen eye and a creative sense of fashion, she quickly put together several designs based on Kaede's tastes. This included both spiffy uniform-like dresses that were easier to move around in and combination outfits that wore leggings below a shorter skirt -- although Krista admitted worriedly that it was very unorthodox and barely meeting dress decorum, if at all. The designs were mostly black or white or some mix thereof as Kaede preferred, with sewn borders and lace trims in carnation-pink to bring out the color of her eyes.
Unfortunately, for all her talents, Krista wasn't a mage, so her designs had to be sent elsewhere for manufacture and enchantment in the highest quality nobles expected. Nevertheless, Ariadne had remarked that the store was a popular shop for the academy's students and earned good money for their ideas.
By one o'clock, Ariadne returned by herself to pick up and send Kaede back. Apparently the meeting was taking far longer than anticipated.
"Sorry about this, even though I invited you," the lady apologized. "Parzifal is usually friendly to everyone, but he dislikes your prick of a master in particular. I was hoping he'd treat you differently, but I guess that was asking a bit much."
Kaede didn't even hesitate:
"What did Pascal do this time?"
Ariadne left behind her ever-present smile for a faint scowl as she continued:
"Parzifal is on the administrative track and the healer's program, since his dream is to become the Surgeon-General of Weichsel. But in a military academy, he always felt out-shined by the officer cadets. When I had the fight with that arrogant prick two years ago, Parzifal tried to interfere on my side, only to get brushed off and called 'Bore-ziful' in return. It's a really childish thing, but it struck a personal complex where it really hurt."
Bore-ziful? Really, Pascal? What were you, seven?
"That idiot," Kaede voiced. Probably explains why she flaunts their relationship so much. What is she, the perfect girlfriend? Talk about missing out on Pascal's part.
Whether it was from a male or female perspective, Kaede couldn't help but feel envious of Ariadne and Parzifal.
----- * * * -----
"You are late!" Pascal growled.
"Sorry! It's hard to run in these heels, and there was a long way." Kaede looked at the clock. "I'm barely two minutes late!"
"The enemy will not wait a single second for you. Late is still late! Come on, we are off to the library. That will be the only break you get this weekend," Pascal decreed as he took her wrist and dragged her out the door. His tight grip was painful and his quick stride almost made her trip several times.
Sheesh, I'm not a stress ball. Don't take your irritation out on me!
----- * * * -----
Once the rising pearl of the Inner Sea region, the coastal metropolis of Arcadia had since fallen into decadence and slow decline. As the Capital of the Holy Imperium, the city was still ringed by high walls and dotted by garish palaces, but the fluidity and nonstop expansion of its harbors and marketplaces had given way to territorial oligopolies of urban guilds and corporations. Market control discouraged competitiveness and brought stagnation, widening the class divide through the reduction of opportunities. The result was social stratification, rising crime, and economic recession as the bright, the motivated, and the daring left to seek new frontiers.
What remained was a city of servants and courtiers, plebeians who slaved day and night for the Senators and their wealthy patrician supporters. Here, the beating heart of the Imperium lay sickened by centuries of decadent cholesterol. The legislature had long stopped being a representation of the people, its subcommittees now fraught with corruption and lobbyists' interests.
The executive throne did no better.
Generations of adoptive sons taking the crown -- many of them wise and just -- nevertheless laid a disastrous precedence to the line of Imperial Succession. Theodosius III, the previous Emperor of the Holy Imperium, died sixteen years ago from sudden cerebral hemorrhage, leaving both a biological and an adoptive son. The ensuing civil war scorched the Holy Imperium with flames for six years. Known as the 'War of Imperial Succession', it quickly engulfed the entire continent, as the Imperium's neighbors and enemies took advantage of the chaos to slice off and annex border states.
With the help of the patricians' bottomless funding and the Legions once loyal to his late birth father, the adopted Gaudentius Aurelius brought an end to the bloodshed by seizing the laurels. Yet even in his moment of triumph, he looked towards the northern horizon with bloodied eyes, never forgetting the treachery of nations that should have been his allies against the infidels of the south.
It took ten years to consolidate his power, ten years to rebuild the Legions to full strength, ten years to bribe and negotiate and wrangle for all the arrangements.
"What is our status, Stilius?" The Holy Emperor asked as he strolled down the shadowy halls, followed only by his most trusted servant -- the foreigner who trice saved his life from overwhelming odds, rising from a mere mercenary to Magister Militum of the entire Holy Imperium.
"Our spies in Cataliya confirm that the Caliphate is mobilizing. Troops are pouring across the Grand Trait Bridge by the thousands every day as they march towards the Rhin-Lotharingie border. Regardless of whether they believed our emissaries' promises, the Caliphate now stands committed. It is only a matter of time before they declare Holy War against the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie."
"Good, and the Pope?"
"His Holiness, Pope Vigilius has long harbored a hatred for Emperor Geoffroi of Rhin-Lotharingie for his revocation of Papal Investiture within the Empire. Neither has the Holy See forgotten Geoffroi's swift eagerness to take advantage of the civil war by stripping us of our western territories instead of intervening against the Caliphate's invasion. The Papal Legates assure that if Geoffroi folds before the infidel invasion and pulls back his border armies, His Holiness will have a more-than-long-enough list of transgressions to have him excommunicated."
In a game of thrones, machinations involving the church had never been about piety. Here, Holy Emperor Gaudentius proved it yet again as he discussed his plot to maneuver the infidels against fellow rulers of the same faith.
"Excellent." His deep voice rang pleased against the dark halls. "Even without aid from those petty Lotharin nobles, that alone should be enough to fracture the Empire during its most critical hour. It will also strip Geoffroi of any right to call upon crusaders' aid. What of their ally, that upstart Kingdom of Weichsel?"
"Imperator, during the War of Imperial Succession, Weichsel not only doubled their landmass by stealing our northern territories, but also struck fear into the heart of Rhin-Lotharingie before the two states could forge a defensive treaty against Imperial retaliation. It is not wise to..."
Old companions or not, the Holy Emperor cut off his foremost general without a moment of hesitance:
"When we want your sermons, Stilius, we will ask for it. Continue, or must we repeat ourselves?"
"Yes, Imperator." The General bowed his head in servitude. "As you already know, the Jarls of Västergötland, desperate after the epidemic that scythed through their herds and blinded by their eagerness for our gold, launched their invasion before the Caliph was ready. Weichsel Marshal von Moltewitz handed them a series of disastrous defeats before winter could embrace the Northern Sea. By now, it is fair to assume that our efforts in Västergötland have been wasted, and the Greater Jarldom of Skagen stands unwilling to commit without their pagan allies."
The Emperor cared nothing for the barbaric Northmen who still worshipped pagan gods. He wouldn't bat an eye if their entire civilization ceased from starvation. However, their presence was necessary to occupy the Imperium's northern foes -- once again of the same faith.
"A great shame. We can only pray that tensions at their northern border will at least pull Weichsel's armies away. What of our own forces?"
"The Northern Legions stand ready under Gaius Aetius. They're assembled near the Weichsel-Lotharin border, poised to apply pressure against either military. The Western Legions were officially furloughed by Marcus Belisarius; but his forces have merely broken down into organized labor units and can swiftly regroup once the time is right. The Southern Legions have been recalled home under my personal command to remove their presence from the borders, so that the Caliph may focus on waging his war."
The Emperor nodded thoughtfully. With geopolitics always being a game of balance, great powers with capable rulers did not wage war unless they could guarantee the noninterference of their neighbors. However, even wiser rulers did not reveal their fangs until their foes were battered and ripe for the taking.
"You have done well, Stilius." The Emperor gave his praise as though gifting a cold, wintry wind. "Once the Caliphate and Rhin-Lotharingie maul each other to exhaustion, we shall have the perfect opportunity to seek permission for a new Crusade. Then, I shall become the first Emperor in five centuries to reclaim lands lost by the Holy Imperium, and maybe even reconquer Lotharingie itself. The patricians will be pleased by the wealth new conquests shall bring, while your name will rise above Marius himself, immortalized as the most celebrated general in Imperial history."
"You are most generous, Imperator." Stilius bowed, suppressing the urge to warn his liege of counting chickens before they hatch.
"The Grand Republic will adhere to their policy of non-interference unless they feel threatened, and the Shahdom of Chorasmia is currently fighting off an invasion from further east. Our only known threat at the moment remains the Kingdom of Weichsel." The Emperor turned towards his general with raised fingers: "I want that alliance fractured if not broken, Stilius; be discrete, but otherwise do whatever it takes."
"Yes, Imperator. I have already dispatched three of my best Mantis Blade squads north. It should not be long before one of my plans bears fruit."
Holy Emperor Gaudentius nodded. Stilius was a first rate general who had never failed him before. But it was precisely that flawless record which made protocols of authority ever more important -- for if the master did not command the servant, the servant would surely rise to become a new master.
"See to it, Magister Militum," he ordered in a deep, stern tone, weighed to fit for a true Imperator.
He hardly cared if it they rang dark and sinister against the shadowy halls. After all, history was written by the victor. Villainy was not a trademark of evil, merely foolish incompetence and stupidity.
...And he was no fool.
Chapter 8 - Inquisitive Hope
By Monday afternoon, Kaede was starting to feel burnt out. Not actually being a bookworm, there was only so much reading she could stand before the task started draining her health. Over a week of almost nothing but research pushed even her focus.
Pascal's sour mood all weekend hadn't helped, but Marina's visit did much to lighten things up.
"You're welcome to come down and visit us in the servant's quarters," she offered, her smile bright enough to light the room. "It's just beyond the kitchens at the end of the dining hall."
"I'd love to," Kaede beamed back. "Probably sometime later this week. Are you around here during the weekends?"
"Yes. Most of the staff lives around the nearby town of Kluis and goes back home during the weekend," Marina explained as her hands continued to rearrange and wipe the tabletops. "But just enough of us are left to keep the kitchen and dining hall running. I'm not from this area -- came up here two years ago in search of a job -- so I also work during most of the weekends and holidays."
"Wow, that must be tough. Two years without a single break."
Kaede couldn't imagine doing that herself. With her modern standards, she would lose control from sheer stress alone.
"Where did you live before?"
"I was an orphan raised on the western borders of Rhin-Lotharingie," Marina casually spoke without any of the melancholy expected of such words. "My parents died during the chaos of the last war ten years ago."
"I'm sorry," Kaede muttered back with downcast eyes, uncomfortable after breaching such a topic. But Marina merely shook her head and gave an angelic smile before returning to work.
----- * * * -----
In an unusual turn of events, Kaede found herself waking up late at night. She felt feeble -- weaker than usual these days -- and aching all over, as though she was in the grips of a fever. There was also a constant buzzing in her head.
"You are finally awake," Pascal noted from beside the bed.
With his back against a chair and a book on his lap, his worried eyes drooped in an uncharacteristic display of fatigue.
"Do you remember what happened? I found you collapsed on the floor after returning from my classes."
She looked at the wall clock. It was four in the morning, over eleven hours since she last checked the time.
Has he been watching over me the entire time?
Thinking back, Kaede tried to recall her last memory:
"I was searching for my cup... but I couldn't find it and was getting thirsty, so I just used yours..."
She eyed the silver goblet that sat on the bedside table, which could be infused with ether to conjure clean, refreshing water out of thin air by summoning it from underground water tables.
Pascal nodded as he traced her gaze:
"It was on the floor also, just beyond your reach. I thought you might have been poisoned, but I scanned both the cup and your system with Detection and nothing suspicious came up. Neutralize spells had no effect on you, nor would Rejuvenate wake you up. You did not have any wounds or noticeable bruises that would indicate being attacked by an intruder either. Do you remember anyone or anything suspicious coming into the room, or feel any lingering pains at the moment?"
Kaede took a moment to run through her memories again. She had spent the entire afternoon reading, and chatted with Marina during her cleaning visit. It was just like most other weekdays since she had been here.
"...No. Nothing unusual happened. And... my body aches, but not in any specific spot as much as all over."
Pascal's brows furrowed as he ran out of ideas.
"The healers' only suggestion was that you might have been feeling anemic; none of them really knew anything about Samaran physiology."
"Well... it's true that I haven't been sleeping well, and someone keeps waking me up every morning; not to mention changing bodies might still be taking its toll." Kaede glared at Pascal with an accusing scowl. "But I didn't feel dizzy or anything outside of the usual sleepiness. It just came out of nowhere... I don't know if Samarans react poorly to sleep deprivation or something."
Pascal sighed, partly in response but mostly in relief.
"I did run the basic tests on your blood while you were out, and all I can say is that you are not showing signs of any major illness we know of." He then stood up and began taking off his dress shirt: "Take the day off tomorrow and sleep in. In the future, tell me when you are feeling under the weather. You do have a girl's body to take care of now."
Kaede merely nodded back as she sank back under the comforter, her mind already set on visiting the library tomorrow.
I can't even gauge my own health anymore! Seriously this is so annoying...
----- * * * -----
Kaede's morning routine must have set her biological clock. After waking up around the same time as usual, she spent the early morning trying to sleep in -- at least until after breakfast, when the cadets began their daily courses.
Pascal made a surprise return after the meal. With no desire to hear any grumpy orders to rest, Kaede pretended to still be asleep. The tray of bread, cheese, and savory veal sausages he left behind for her came as a pleasant surprise.
"Thanks for the food," she told him over the telepathic bond after finishing.
His reply was a simple: "Get better."
Her morning and afternoon trips to the library were far less enjoyable. Both times, several nobles made their opinions of her presence in their sanctuary known with disgusted gazes and hushed whispers. Worse yet, after scanning through two dozen books on Samarans in the library's cultural section, all she managed to find out were some general details:
Other than differences in appearance, Samaran physiology was almost equivalent to that of Hyperien humans. They had the same organ functions, similar biological cycles, and even suffered the same ill effects for nutritional unbalance.
The only major difference lay in their blood, as the crystal-clear Samaran 'fluid of life' was known for its healing properties. It could close wounds in under a minute and chase away all but the worst of diseases within a day. Furthermore, their blood enhanced healing magic, could be transfused into any humanoid race without rejection, as well as put a gradual stop to bleeding when applied to another's wound.
Scholars believed that the blood was the source of their longevity. Few Samarans were innately capable of sorcery, yet all of them shared the same lifespan as the healthiest of human mages. Upon reaching the prime years of early adulthood, it took twice as long for them to decline in health and youthfulness, living for up to two centuries.
Given the fact that infusions of it actually did treat diseases and improve health, Samaran blood was a highly-sought commodity for as long as history remembered. After waging dozens of wars and funding centuries of black operations against the 'blood traders', the Grand Republic finally gave in and made their fluid of life a national export, managed officially by the Blood Bank of Samara as a diplomatic trade good. As a result, adult Samarans within the Grand Republic paid a very literal 'blood tax'. In return for keeping the blood market's supplies up and profit margins down, they discouraged any illegal sourcing and smuggling of Samaran blood to a manageable state. Threats of embargo, war, and active special operations further helped to deter adventurous individuals and nations alike.
Nevertheless, no less than three layers of security zones and checkpoints covered the Grand Republic's borders, and trade was inspected to near stifling ends for smuggling. Samarans outside the Grand Republic guarded themselves carefully, as human traffickers would pay extravagantly for a living Samaran body with a crushed will.
For a second time, Kaede found herself glad that Pascal gave her a set of defensive runes. Reports of Samaran slaves exploited as living blood farms depicted a life too terrible to imagine.
Unfortunately, she found nothing about Samarans being prone to instantaneously fainting. If anything, the healing properties of Samaran blood should reduce the likelihood of such occurrences.
After packing up several cultural books plus a tome on the history of familiars into the extra-dimensional messenger bag Pascal gave her, Kaede departed the library for the dormitory keep. But as she turned around the central keep, her legs froze mid-step upon coming across the most unusual sight:
On the grassy lawn of one inner castle courtyard was a giant amorphous thing that could only be described as a massive blob of silken tofu the size of a small car. Standing next to it was Parzifal, periodically nodding his head and petting the giant tofu as though interacting with it.
It took a minute before Kaede could recollect her composure.
"Hello again, Parzifal" she called out as she approached Ariadne's beloved.
"Oh, it's you," Parzifal replied in a bland tone, his uninterested glance swiftly returning to the giant tofu before him.
"Pardon me but, what is that..."
"My familiar is a white pudding from the Northern Lotharingie Mountains."
Parzifal's casual explanation almost sent Kaede's head into spontaneous meltdown, but her safeties triggered a brief moment of mental paralysis instead.
"That.... that... is... a creature...!?"
"Yes. White puddings belong to the ooze kingdom of creatures," Parzifal continued with just a bare tinge of courtesy. "Like most oozes, they're magical decomposers that can engulf and transmute almost any mass into more of itself, although they prefer the remains of dead critters."
The giant tofu wobbled like jelly under his gentle caress. Kaede's eyes almost popped out of their sockets when it bounced once, like a child hopping in joy.
It was so far outside the realm of Earth biology that Kaede didn't even know how to react. She couldn't even imagine how a huge piece of gelatinous mass could function as a living entity, let alone fit into some corner of the ecosystem.
She also couldn't believe how everyone else walking by ignored the giant tofu as completely normal, but stared curiously at her instead.
"What does it... do?"
"They're a food source..."
With one hand still caressing the giant tofu, Parzifal leaned left and right, examining his familiar as though it had any anatomical features to speak of.
"--Very bland tasting, but nutritious and easy to consume and digest..."
It really is living tofu!!! her battered logic puked out before fainting. Meanwhile, images of cavemen hunting packs of wild tofu with spears paraded across her mind.
"--Animals in the mountains treat them as a roaming food source during the winter, and so do the people living there... ahh, finally..."
"Oyyy! Sorry I'm late!" called out a short boy with flaming-red hair.
"Already used to it," Parzifal sighed. "Seriously, Reynald, just because your friends don't hand out military punishments doesn't mean you should keep us waiting. What took you an extra half hour?"
Small and skinny, Reynald was barely one-sixty-three (5'4") and virtually bounced across the distance with his overflowing energy. Underneath his red hair were a pair of spring-green eyes, a narrow, almost-feminine nose, and lightly freckled cheeks sporting a gleeful grin. His features combined for an innocent, boyish look better suited for a high-school initiate than a collegiate academy student. However, he wore an outfit colored in the same burning-red as Ariadne's, which Pascal explained yesterday as the uniform for aspiring cadets of the Knights Phantom -- an elite order within the Weichsel military.
"Sorry sorry," Reynald waved in apology before stepping up with a large tin bucket in hand. "Gerd wouldn't admit defeat from our early team match and challenged me to a duel right before the end of class."
Oh right, he's that guy Pascal complained about for being too good at dueling, Kaede remembered.
"Well well, if it isn't the Runelord's familiar -- the commoner who walloped the princeling." Reynald circled around Kaede, examining her as he went. "Aren't you a bit too adorable to be giving someone the fisticuffs?"
"You're one to talk, shorty."
With her heels on, Kaede was actually a touch taller than Reynald. But as he spiraled close to her, her gut instincts began to knot themselves in discomfort.
"Miss, you are way too precious to be a decoration for that noble jerk." He bowed lightly before extending his hand. "Please, allow me to take you home instead and treat you like the warm and tasty muffin that you are."
Are you f'ing serious...?
Kaede's brows twitched twice in irritation. Then, her face flushed red as she felt his hand snake behind her and brush down against the skirt covering her rear. She swiftly pulled her arm back... and sent a fist straight into his face.
Her hand might be small and weak, but it was still enough to leave a swollen eye.
"Well... that cleared some doubts!"
Even with a hand rubbing his blackening eye, Reynald's cheery grin seemed to only widen with delight. His tone soon turned into what reminded Kaede of a drawling, British accent:
"Little weak but just the right amount of spice. Please lady may I have some more?"
Oh gods, a real pervert...
Kaede stiffened and hesitantly took two steps back, her fingers poised to stab the runes on her forearm just in case. But Parzifal interjected and stepped in to face the shorter boy:
"Control yourself, Reynald. Just because she's not a noblewoman doesn't mean you can blatantly insult her like this."
Reynald scowled. No, pouted was a better description.
"Sheesh, you're never any fun, Parzifal. Fine fine," he then walked towards the white pudding and, with one scoop, filled his bucket with a chunk of the giant tofu.
"Thanks as always bro!" Reynald began to walk off, backwards. "Nice to meet you as well, Muffin! Next time you give that jerk a beating, be sure to invite the rest of us to cheer you on!"
Talk about noble hypocrisy, Kaede thought. Even 'that jerk' Pascal has more propriety than him.
"I'm sorry about that," Parzifal apologized in his deep, sincere voice. "Reynald doesn't mean any harm by that; he just doesn't know any boundaries on when to stop fooling around."
"That's alright," Kaede nodded back, more surprised that Parzifal was being genial to her.
"Anyhow, did you need me for something?"
Kaede quickly remembered that the man before her was also a healer:
"Yes, actually. I would like to ask if you know anything that may cause someone to fall unconscious with no warning, especially a Samaran."
"Yes. Me," Kaede nodded.
"I'm no more an expert on Samarans than the rest of the healers..."
Parzifal scratched his head. But his eyes focused within an instant, revealing the concentration of an apprentice physician who took his job with utmost seriousness:
"But if you don't mind some blood testing, come with me to the healers' chapel and maybe we can find something out. You can tell me what happened along the way."
"Sure. Thank you," Kaede agreed and began to follow him.
Unable to tear her eyes away from the giant tofu that bounced along behind them, she asked:
"Out of curiosity, what did Reynald want with a chunk of... uh, white pudding?"
"He has a baby skywhale familiar that's barely old enough to cut milk. White pudding's ease of eating and digesting makes it a decent baby food."
Kaede simply nodded. Compared to sentient tofu, skywhales felt like a perfectly logical animal in the world.
----- * * * -----
The healer's chapel was a sterile white hall full of beds, which Kaede now found unusual because it was the only room painted white in the entire castle complex. Counters lined up against the far-side wall were packed neatly with potion vials, flasks, and bottles, as well as a dozen transparent quartz crystals the size of tablet computers.
Parzifal still held one of them in his hands, through which he had examined Kaede over the past half-hour. She felt oddly naked under his focused gaze, but not exactly uncomfortable thanks to his professional demeanor.
"As far as I can tell, there's nothing wrong with you, other than a slight vitamin-D deficiency," Parzifal noted as he put the quartz screen back onto his lap. "You need to come outside more often."
"Well... people haven't exactly been welcoming to me."
A barely noticeable cringe went through Parzifal before he closed his eyes and sighed.
"Yes, and I haven't exactly been helping. I'm sorry about that. I know it's no fault of yours, but... your master and I have a history."
"I've heard from Ariadne. Don't worry about it," Kaede rushed to wave it off before changing the subject back: "Do you know any other reason why people here might faint suddenly?"
"Our medical capabilities are nowhere perfect, and there are plenty of possible reasons for losing consciousness over some condition we either overlooked or simply can't detect, but..." his gaze turned from contemplative to warning. "Not for ten plus hours; that's just too serious not to leave an evident sign. Furthermore, Rejuvenate spells can usually wake up even someone sick to the verge of death. To stop something like that... I can't think of anything BUT a magical effect, except you don't carry any suspicious auras, either."
"Do all magical effects leave an aura?"
"No, but a hidden magical aura isn't a natural occurrence. That means you're not just contracting a magical disease or having an allergic reaction against the wards, but being affected by deliberate foul play. Although, given your master, I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case."
Kaede couldn't tell if Parzifal was smirking or scowling; probably a bit of both.
"Are you sure all you drank was water? That there wasn't anything in that chalice you mentioned?" Parzifal asked.
"Pascal said the Detection spells came out clean. How reliable is that?"
"Reliable enough for everything conventional," Parzifal simply shrugged. "But healers aren't in the subterfuge or poison business, and that spell is old, ancient. One of the first things they teach in this school is that as long as there is a way, there is also a counter. Unfortunately... that's all I can really tell you."
Kaede nodded as she held onto that thought for later:
"Thank you so much for this. I really do appreciate it."
For the first time, Kaede saw Parzifal's gentle, peaceful smile directed towards her.
"Not to sound mean, but I'd do it even if you were the devil's daughter -- that's what it means to take the healers' oath. However, I do promise to try to be cordial in the future... Bet my actions thus far must seem unworthy compared to how dear Aria described me."
Kaede sent back a grin of her own:
"Not at all. As Ariadne said, you're a very generous guy."
The shadow of guilt that entered his almost bashful expression was both what Kaede hoped for and what made her thoughts agree with her words.
Good people aren't always nice, but you can always count on them to strive towards good expectations, she thought as she waved to Parzifal before leaving the healers' chapel.
On her way back to the dormitory keep, Kaede replayed all of yesterday afternoon in her memories. Other than Marina's daily cleaning visit, she couldn't think of a single sign of outsider entry into the room. Furthermore, she remembered that Marina didn't just perform the usual, but also gave all the furnishing in the room a thorough dusting and sanitary wipe-down. She must have at least lifted the chalice when cleaning the bedside counter it sat on.
But why would Marina want to harm Pascal? And if this is poison, it's far too low grade... almost like an immature prank.
Kaede knew that history was abundant with cases where the agents of nobles bribed or blackmailed servants into carrying out their dirty schemes. Pascal was the son of Weichsel's Marshal; his father no doubt gathered plenty of enemies. Furthermore, Pascal's own character was hardly the type to avoid burning bridges.
I can't just lay suspicion on Marina for no reason. Who knows what these nobles may do to a mere servant girl?
The sun was already setting. Pascal would return from class soon. Therefore Kaede's only course of action was to confirm for herself tomorrow.
----- * * * -----
Pascal had been stuck in his irritable mood for several days now.
It began late last Friday when he tried to contact Sylviane again, only to be rejected without a single word.
The Farspeak spell opened the most reliable communication channel using ungrounded telepathy, but it required both the sender and the receiver to concentrate on maintaining the one-to-one link.
Due to her busy schedule, Pascal only called during weekend nights; but in the past, even when she attended a special council meeting, Sylviane always at least sent back a brief reply before closing the connection.
The fact he knew exactly why she ignored him only deepened his melancholy. It certainly kept him awake late into the night.
Ariadne's invitation to Kaede didn't help his moodiness, but it was a mere drop in the bucket compared to Sylviane hanging up his calls on both Saturday and Sunday nights. Pascal had no wish to further irritate his fiancée by pestering her nonstop, but shutting down two attempts per day made it evident that she was deliberately not talking to him.
Sunday night was the first time Pascal realized just how late Kaede stayed awake every night, shifting and turning.
Kaede's collapse on Monday night began to push his limits. Fatigue was but one factor; Pascal was also not used to being emotionally strung.
On Tuesday morning, a noble who unwisely spoke ill of Rhin-Lotharingie's recent policies received a ferocious tongue lashing from Pascal. After that, everyone stayed twice the distance they usually kept from him. Professor Albert noticed this, and requested some early research discussion from Pascal's Pandemonium Doctrine project in order to 'keep his thoughts occupied'. As expected, the assignment kept Pascal contemplative for the remainder of the day and well into the evening.
"Hey Pascal," Kaede asked from behind him. "Did you know that the familiars of mages who die of old age often revert back to normal and live on?"
"Yes." Pascal didn't even bother to look up from his writing desk. "Speculation claims that it is the shock of death carried across the bond that mortally wounds the familiar's psyche, either killing them immediately or destroying their will to live; the same effect for when a bond is severed by force. Obviously, no one is going to experimentally test either of those hypotheses. But I am nowhere close to the age of dying peacefully."
"Can't you at least look into some method of how I can get back?"
Sighing, Pascal put down the ink stone that he used to channel words straight onto parchment. He turned back around to face the familiar girl. Sitting in his bed with another book opened between her small hands, she wore only the white halter-top he dressed her in on the first night. Meanwhile, her long cream-white hair draped across her bare back and shoulders, pooling into a pile besides her.
"I have thought about this Kaede, but by all knowledge there is simply no viable solution. We cannot just cut the bond and hope a miracle happens to return everything back to before, nor does any banishment magic work on your naturalized body, either due to its form or due to the link. In fact, I even asked Professor von Grimm -- he teaches teleportation -- to cast the ancient planar banishment spell on those clothes that came with you; it did not work on them either. Even if we knew exactly which world you came from out of the infinite numbers out there among the multiverse, the magic of the worldwalkers is a tale of old legends and folklore, not something achieved within the annals of modern sorcery."
Kaede met his stare evenly:
"I'm here, aren't I?"
"By some fluke of the spell that I still cannot figure out," Pascal admitted with a scowl. Then, his words almost challenging: "I was impressed how quickly you were adapting to life here. I guess that is not the case after all."
"Oh please, it's only been eleven days!" she retorted. "Philosophically, I adhere to the Eastern views of my home world more than the West. So we try our best to be accepting of the world around us, to be at peace with how it molds our lives. But being accepting isn't the same as surrendering to fate; my will still points my way, and I fully intend to explore all options."
The Holy Father may have plans for us all, but under his guidance we shall still strive for our cause, Pascal reflected as Kaede declared her intent with hardened eyes. For a second he almost felt impressed, with the urge of pulling into a theological discussion.
"Anyhow, since there are stories of visiting other worlds..."
"Yes, from millennia ago when fiends, archons, and dragonkind still waged wars across our world, when the very nature of magic was different," Pascal's irritated words cut her off. "I am not going off to chase sorcery that has been lost for over a thousand years over a pretty wish. I admit that my mistake brought you here, but I do not owe you all the years of my life in repayment for it!"
With final-sounding words, Pascal turned back around to focus on his work, leaving only the back of his head to meet Kaede's burning glare.
"You just don't want me to go back, do you?" Kaede seethed over the mental link.
Pascal froze for a second.
His fatigued thoughts stumbled through a fuzzy world of internal analysis, cycling through memories of the past week-and-half. He admitted that while he did indeed enjoy her company at times, there were many more where he wondered if Kaede was really worth her trouble.
It took another minute before he finally replied:
"Maybe. But I promise you that if some clue of it being reasonably possible appears, I will look into it. But until then, I refuse to waste any more time chasing what every professor believes a pipe dream based on nothing more than ancient history."
The sound of a book slamming shut came from behind him as Kaede haphazardly tossed it onto the counter. She then lowered herself into the bed and pulled the bedcovers over her head.
The emotions that flowed across their link had never grown beyond mere annoyance. But even that, when added to his own irritation, was enough to push his current self-control, or lack thereof.
I need sleep.
Chapter 9 - Bonds of Faith
"Marina! You have a visitor," the burly chef called out. He then nodded towards Kaede before returning to the kitchen.
It was only a half-hour after breakfast at the dining hall. By now, the rest of the students had already started their daily courses, while the staff busied themselves with cleaning. It was the perfect time to accost one of them without being overheard by the rest.
The petite, brown-haired maid rushed out in under a minute, still wiping her hands with a cleaning towel.
"Oh, I should have known it was you."
"You don't seem very happy about it," Kaede grinned.
Marina's hands rushed to wave it off.
"No, no, of course I'm glad! I was just surprised; thought it was a staff member or something."
"I do wish this was purely a social call, but... I need your advice on something," Kaede kept up her smile, but the rest of her face fell serious. "Do you have a private room here? Or should we go back to mine? Pascal won't be back for hours, and I need to ask you something important."
Marina's shoulders stiffened as her smile froze. She looked almost paralyzed for seconds, then:
"Probably m-mine. I can think of nobles spying on one another or keeping tabs on their rooms with surveillance spells, but I'm just a lowly servant below their notice. The walls here may be thin, but all of the other servants are out busy at this hour. It should be fine as long as we keep quiet." She then turned around towards the kitchens' rear. "Please follow me."
Is it usual for a maid to know even that much? Kaede wondered. But then, they would be wary of working under watchful eyes; it only took one incident to leave a lasting lesson among the service staff.
The wide hallway behind the kitchen connected directly to the outside. On one wall were doors leading down to storage cellars, some of which Marina introduced as magical 'purification' rooms housing foodstuffs. The other side held two gateways that linked to the servants' quarters, segregated by gender. These proved no different from old boarding schools' dormitories, with each room furnished in a utilitarian manner: two to four bunk beds lay against exposed stone walls, and a writing desk or two stayed close to the glass windows.
Marina pulled Kaede into a small room just barely large enough to fit two sets of beds and still cram in a table. Clothes, including girls' underwear, hanged off a horizontal bar just above each bed.
Closing the door behind her, Kaede hovered her palm above its knob and sealed the lock. Facing the wide-eyed maid, she waved her right hand with the thin turquoise-set ring around her middle finger:
"Spell-activation focus from Pascal. I can channel his magic to use a few basics."
Nodding, Marina gestured for Kaede to sit on one bed before following suit on the other. Despite sitting right under several drying undergarments, Kaede barely even noticed her embarrassment before her focus marched right over it.
"So, what is it that y-you wanted to ask?"
The mask that hid the maid's anxiety and nervousness was paper thin. It felt like the day they first met, rather than the relaxed conversations they had nowadays.
If she really is a spy, she's not a very good one, Kaede thought. Probably some noble just bribed or blackmailed her into doing it. Hopefully, that means I can resolve this without hurting our friendship much.
"Marina, I collapsed last night after taking a drink from Pascal's silver chalice that was on the night counter."
Being an amateur at this herself, Kaede opted for directness again. At least the weight of information kept the momentum on her side and gave her a better chance at reading the other:
"The healers couldn't find anything wrong, so they suspected there was foul play involved. Since you were there cleaning in the afternoon, do you know if anything might have gotten in?"
"Uh, no? I don't r-remember doing anything there except dusting. Are you alright?"
Her concern seemed genuine, but something in her eyes didn't feel right.
"I am now, thanks. But are you sure you don't remember anything weird in there when you moved it for dusting?"
"No... Honestly, I didn't really p-pay much attention to it... And even if I did, magic could easily hide something like that with glamor."
Kaede couldn't place an impression on her statement, but she did agree with its content:
"True, and it's not like you'd be able to detect that kind of thing. I really should get Pascal to add that to the ring."
"I've heard many nobles have a habit of running detection magic before they eat or drink; some so ingrained that they don't even have to think about it." Marina's relieved tone was exactly what she wanted.
"Do you remember anything else that may have seemed unusual? Like residues or dust imprints? Other than the chalice, Pascal almost never uses that counter..."
Kaede trailed off as she thought back to her original plan. She had held back any direct blame to give Marina a moment of reprieve after the opening. But if she was to boomerang the pressure back, it must be done now or she would soon forfeit the initiative in this conversation.
"No... nothing that caught my eye."
"Are you sure? Because you were the only other person who came inside all day."
"Y-yes I'm sure. I didn't do anything other than move it to clean."
Kaede took the maid's hands and looked into her sea-green eyes, pleading:
"Marina, I really want to have you as a friend, so please, please don't lie to me. I won't tell Pascal about any of this. He doesn't even know that I'm here. I mean, seriously, why should it matter to me if that asshat gets poisoned or not?" She felt a prickle of guilt as she spoke her prepared lines. "But this didn't affect him, it made me sick! And I want to know what it was!"
"B-but I'm telling you the truth!" Marina almost wailed.
The two of them simply sat on their respective beds, staring each other down. More precisely, Kaede did the staring, all the while feeling like the villain as tears pooled in Marina's eyes.
This is getting nowhere.
Kaede really wished she could trust in Marina's words, but something just wasn't right. It felt like their eyes met yet failed to see each other; an intuitive feel that she couldn't explain. She still had one more idea left, but it was also an all-or-nothing gamble. If Marina was truly innocent, going down this path would seriously damage their growing relationship.
But if I don't clear my doubts now, how can I have faith in her in the future? What kind of friendship would that be?
Marina's tears began to trickle down her cheeks, and Kaede hated herself as she gritted her mental teeth to press on.
I swear this is the last one...
"No, you're not. I borrowed a thought detection spellglyph from Pascal," she bluffed with her sternest expression. "Of course, he doesn't know what it's for. But I can use it well enough to know that you're lying to me."
The maid stiffened into a board as her glassy eyes grew wide, finally giving Kaede a sign of what she sought.
"But you're m-mistaken! I really didn't n-notice anything!"
Leaning back against the wall, Kaede used the bunk beds to cast a shadow over her disappointed expression and deepened her voice as ominously as possible:
"Then what are you hiding? You did do something... I want to know what it is and what for. Otherwise I'll have no choice but to report this."
Color rushed out of Marina's countenance as she rushed to her feet:
"H-he'll know anyway... you're his..."
Kaede sighed. She wasn't sure how she would manage if her gamble had proved wrong. But now, it was time to stop waving the big stick and go back to speaking softly. Interrogation wasn't exactly twentieth century foreign policy, but persuasion was persuasion.
"Pascal promised he will not intrude upon my senses without asking. If nothing else, he's a noble who values his pride and sense of honor. I trust him to keep his word on that, and I promise your secret is safe with me."
"H-how can I..."
"--You'll just have to trust me," Kaede finished for her. "I'm the only one who can help you keep this under wraps."
She skipped the part that she was also the only one who could do the exact opposite.
"It's... it's... i-it's just a knockout poison," the maid finally stuttered out. "It just leaves the one who drinks it unconscious for about twelve hours."
"What's the point of something that weak?"
"It's... it's the strongest antimagic poison available."
Sirens blazed through Kaede's mind as Marina revealed the latest information. Immunity to magic instantly solved the riddle of why Pascal could neither detect nor neutralize it. But resources advanced enough that even his profound knowledge had never heard of could only come from a major benefactor.
The academy and all its security made capture half-impossible, so the only reason to knock Pascal out for that long would be a silent assassination...
"Why are you trying to kill Pascal?"
Kaede felt her blood chill as she struggled to keep her tone merely curious.
"W-wouldn't you like to have the link cut and be rid of your master? T-that way you could return to your home in Samara," Marina forced out through her teary gaze.
Kaede almost froze on the spot. Her eyes sprang wide as she realized that she had almost made a deadly mistake: the maid's seeming naivety and apparently stress under amateurish interrogation could have been all an act. It certainly did not suppress a keen mind that was busy preparing a counter-attack.
Thankfully, she had left herself an opening earlier when Marina's guilt was still uncertain.
"I'd love for an opportunity to go back," Kaede's dry voice spelled out her wistful hope. "But that's..."
"I-impossible? That your life would be forfeit if the link was severed? O-of course he would tell you that."
Kaede's eyes narrowed at Marina, her stony gaze demanding an explanation.
"I-I don't know all the specifics but... f-familiars of older nobles who die naturally from age manage fine right? I-if familiars only die when their master's life ends suddenly, that shouldn't be the case if he p-passed away while unconscious."
"Even if that's true... that doesn't help me get back to where I come from." Kaede decided it was best to extract a proposal without revealing that she was from another world.
"My m-master has an excellent Wayfarer -- a teleportation expert. I-I'm sure he could arrange something."
Remembering that Pascal had also sought the aid of a Professor specializing in it, Kaede realized that the key to returning home probably laid in the wormhole-like effect of teleportation. Pascal also said that something kept her from being 'banished', cast back into her world of origin, and one of the possible causes was their familiar link.
It wasn't an assured ticket back. But with no alternative answers, it was also her only shot. Except the price for it...
"P-please," Marina knelt down and begged as tears streaked down her soft cheeks. "If you can get your master to drink it -- even just coating his chalice with it will work -- my master's men will be able to smuggle us out of the country once their task is done."
Feeling a cold, metal vial press into her palm, Kaede slowly wrapped her delicate fingers around it as though it was precious and fragile. Meanwhile, her own emotions and thoughts lay in utter chaos:
Can I even trust her? Compared to Pascal?
She quickly decided that was a stupid question.
But then... will I even have another chance?
Still, isn't this premeditated murder!? Even if my hands don't draw blood, I'd still be an accomplice!
Pascal's selfishness might have ruined her old life, caused all her recent problems, and put her in this dilemma, but there was no way Kaede believed that he deserved to die for it.
But what other choices do I have? Even Pascal said that the only way to cut the link -- sever my connection to this world -- was through death.
How is murder ever acceptable just for my own gains? For just a chance of returning?
Kaede squeezed the vial in her hands. Though certain that her answer should be obvious, she was nevertheless unwilling to close the other door.
"How do I know that your master and his men will keep their word?"
For a moment, Marina looked uncertain. Then:
"R-remember when I told you I was an orphan from the Empire? I was raised by a duke, and I've spied for him ever since to repay the life I owe. I can't g-guarantee it, but I doubt my master will throw away a decade of work so easily while if I can still prove my worth. They will definitely give me a way out, which means helping a second isn't much harder. Besides, we're friends," Marina promised through a tear-stained smile, "and once we return, giving you a teleport home should be easy."
Barely nodding, Kaede looked down at the metal cylinder in her shaking hand. It was wrong. It stood against everything she believed in. Yet it was also her only opportunity for salvation, for her old life back.
She couldn't stop herself from testing the waters once more:
"You want me to coat the chalice in this? Do I need to give you a signal or anything if it worked?"
After thinking it over again, Marina clarified as she wiped away her tears:
"Wait until tomorrow afternoon. I'll c-contact the others to make arrangements today, then give you an update tomorrow on how to proceed. If you want to back out, this is your last chance. Once I tell the rest, they won't hesitate to k-kill you if you try to leave the plan."
A cold shiver went down Kaede's spine, but she nevertheless closed her fingers around the vial of antimagic poison.
Kaede wasn't sure if she dared to risk taking Marina's offer, realistically or morally. But she did know one thing for certain: regardless of which way she leaned, accepting the task and becoming part of the plan was her best option.
"No. Count me in."
----- * * * -----
"How could... why did you decide that on your own!?" the chief groundskeeper snarled again, this time in the dark confines of a storage cellar. "Our role is to observe and provide those killers with info, not to get involved ourselves!"
The maid was sniffling with tears running down both cheeks. But he wasn't fooled. She had been raised for subterfuge because their master recognized that although she gave off a naive impression and cried easily when under pressure, emotional turmoil didn't stopper this girl's thoughts the way it would for most. Marina was intelligent and resourceful to begin with, and her tears effectively disarmed others and made them underestimate how capable her mind was even under duress.
"S-she's a Samaran; she dreams of returning home; and I k-know she hates aristocrats and her life here. She only stands to gain from helping us..."
"--But she's also our target's familiar! However abnormal it may be for a person to be a familiar, she's still bound by the same links!"
"I-I believe her dislike of von Moltewitz is g-genuine. It's known throughout the academy that she h-hurt him on the roof, even if she took him by surprise rather than with any kind of skill," Marina explained. "There is c-clearly no loyalty to speak of. Furthermore, if I did not b-bring her in, she would certainly have revealed us to her master."
"And you think she's reliable just because of that!?"
"S-she can be used as long as she has some t-trust in me, enough to give her hope. B-besides, I told her that we worked for a duke of the Empire. This way, even if she t-tells, we could at least use her for disinformation."
The groundskeeper sighed. While there were indeed nobles in the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie who opposed their crown princess' betrothal -- even a matrilineal betrothal -- to the scion of von Moltewitz, he and Marina actually worked for a northern governor of the Holy Imperium, executing a direct mission from their Holy Emperor.
"We'll need to ensure that she understands there will be consequences, immediate and deadly, should she dare to betray us. Have her carry out the task this Saturday afternoon -- the holiday weekend will see the dorms thinned out once all the nobles with nearer estates leave for their homes. Once our target is unconscious, she is to come to the dormitory keep's exposed roof at dusk as her signal. If our information checks out, the rest of us will reveal ourselves and make our move. But if anything even looks like a trap, she'll be dead on the spot."
"I-I understand. I'll inform her tomorrow."
----- * * * -----
"Are you alright? You've been... conflicted, confused even, since early morning," Pascal voiced as they returned to the dorm room after dinner. His focused eyes turned around to meet Kaede's directly with deep concern.
...Or was it suspicion? She couldn't tell. She had known it likely wasn't possible to hide her emotions from their 'passive link', and her sense of guilt was a dead giveaway.
It really wasn't fair that he had a gateway straight to her heart and mind, one that she couldn't even shut. Not that she could close the other bonds either; all she had was his promise not to use the keys without permission.
Her life now was not just one completely dependent on another, but one at the mercy of another. In this foreign and fantastic land, she didn't even have the basic rights a human being deserved. It was a terrifying basis of living. No matter how much pragmatism she applied, no matter how much she forced herself to adapt, approaching that problem at its core would always yield one result:
She hated this life.
She would do almost anything to wake up from this dream.
"Tell me Pascal, what am I to you?" Kaede turned her gaze away.
"You are my familiar, of course..." Pascal's reply was deep and sincere.
Yet in that laid the problem. She had no wish to be a mage's pet for her remaining life -- well over a century of it, given a Samaran's life expectancy.
"You are my companion and partner that, by the grace of the Holy Father, will be with me until the end of my days, or..." his voice dropped low, "at least until we come across a solution for your return."
Kaede was almost surprised by that. He had managed to keep it in mind after all, however begrudgingly.
Almost, because the slightest hindsight told her that his answer should have been expected. She had only known Pascal for twelve days, yet within this time he had upheld every promise he had made to the letter. Even, especially, that night when he invoked his nobility against his own superiors in her defense.
He could have cast her out from day one when she committed assault, yet he stayed up to watch over her when she was ill -- even if that was also his fault. He wasn't always thoughtful. He swayed between impenetrable composure and lashing out with childish tantrums. But in the end, Pascal always upheld what he saw as his personal responsibility with a steel hand.
Had the circumstances been different, Kaede would have loved to work with such a man. He had a potential for visionary guidance and reliable management. He would make an admirable leader, a boss she would be proud to follow, to even consider a personal friend.
"Companion and partner, huh?" Kaede repeated with the hint of a smile. Isn't that what a good friend is?
There was no way she could contribute to killing someone who only wished for that. Even if she managed to return to her old life, she would not be able to live with herself. Her conscience alone would destroy her future; that was something far worse than this situation could ever be.
"Then, Pascal, do you trust me?" Kaede locked her gaze back onto his turquoise eyes.
"That is a stupid question," Pascal replied without an instant of hesitation. "You are my familiar; of course I trust you."
Kaede wasn't sure how much would have changed had he not said that, or had he hesitated, or...
But her path was clear now.
Pascal couldn't have known what she did, but he also grew up in the courtly atmosphere of hiding daggers behind smiles. Kaede knew she had all the worrisome signs, the more so because they shared the familiar link. Yet he still placed his faith in her, unwavering. Because that was what one did for a dear friend, for a true partner. It was a goodwill that she had to return in kind. To do otherwise would not only be impolite and inappropriate, but further violated her central belief, her personal -- and far more pragmatic -- variation of the saintly golden rule:
Do unto others as they would do for you.
She would put her faith in him, that her 'master' would make this a life worth living, and, should the opportunity arise, find her a way back.
"Leave this problem to me then," she gave him a confident smile.
Pascal looked confused for a moment before he replied with a lopsided grin: "just call me if you need help."
It was the first assurance that she made the right call.
Chapter 10 - Critical Appeal
The first winter cold front from the North Sea had arrived early this year. Flakes of snow already dotted the skies, leaving a sheen of moisture on the dormitory keep's stony roof.
It was Saturday morning, and Kaede was meditating through archery as usual. Except this time, shooting was as much a nerve-calming exercise as an excuse to stay up there.
After receiving her update from Marina, she had spent most of her waking hours over the past two days planning out different scenarios. There was no way Pascal didn't notice her reduction in research output, but he didn't say a word.
Since the plot on Pascal's life did not launch into full swing on Monday night, Kaede surmised that the assassins must have Pascal and her under surveillance. This had allowed them to call off the final strike when she, instead of he, fell unconscious to the poison. However, it also meant she had to tread carefully to maintain the facade that she was still on-board with the plan. It pushed her first action as far back as Saturday morning, for there was no other way to accost Ariadne without drawing excessive suspicion.
Thankfully, Ariadne was also a stickler for personal schedules, and Kaede waved the lady down from her joyride without a hitch.
"...Isn't it a bit chilly to be flying today?" Kaede said her pleasantries with the usual cheerfulness while pressing a rune on her arm. She had asked Pascal -- privately over telepathy -- to load one set with utility spells instead of defensive enhancements. This first rune sent a telepathic whisper straight to Ariadne's thoughts:
"Sorry Ariadne, but I need help. I'm certain I'm being watched. Do you have a spell to guarantee a private conversation? Best if it's as inconspicuous as possible."
"My uniform has thermal adjustment, so a little cold doesn't really bother me." Ariadne nodded before her right hand twisted about in a series of odd gestures. "I'm guessing that prick ordered most of your clothes here, so ask him which one he had the enhancement put on. It's probably the one he expects you to wear most often. The self-adjustment should do its job once you've worn it several times, although you may need to ask for extra warming since you're so thin. Imperative thoughts should work; most magic items take orders that way."
Kaede instantly knew which one: no wonder why I feel more than just chilly unless I'm wearing this lingerie from the first night; thought it was just the material...
Her body was soon wrapped by a comfortable warmth that reminded her of insulated heating pads. Meanwhile, Ariadne's entire soft-leather glove glowed for a brief second. She then explained through her angelic smile:
"Sanctum Veil spell. Anyone trying to observe or listen in from the outside will just see and hear us discussing everyday things like the weather. Chances are they're observing from afar though, since scrying sensors are easy to detect for any vigilant mage who monitors the auras around them -- and nobody ever blamed your prick of a master for sloth or stupidity."
"So," Ariadne stood eagerly with her hands propped at her waist. "What do you need help with? Need to give that self-centered prick a longer-lasting lesson?"
Pascal must have been a lot worse two years ago to make her like this. Kaede almost shuddered.
"Actually, the opposite. I need help because someone is attempting on Pascal's life, for political gains as a matter of national security."
Kaede gave her keywords the verbal highlight to make sure Ariadne understood that this was not a personal matter, but one of interest to any aspiring knight of Weichsel. Otherwise, there was no way Ariadne would listen to a plan on helping her nemesis.
Just as she had hoped, the lady's smile froze.
It took a while for Kaede to explain her episode of being poisoned, her encounter with the maid, and her accepting their offer.
"Marina, I take it?" Ariadne chuckled at Kaede's surprise. "Easy to figure that one out. She's the maid responsible for cleaning the third-year boys' dorms." Then more sternly: "I'm surprised you didn't just report her. I'm also surprised that Pascal didn't jump to the same conclusion."
"And her group would disperse into hiding before they could be caught, which just delays them for a few weeks before they try again." Kaede countered, her eyes hard with determination. "I want to drag them out into the open and clean the entire mess in one sweep. As for Pascal," she shrugged, "I might have given him the impression that my fatigue was to blame."
"You don't think this is way over your head? Assuming you weren't a spy or something before the summoning?"
"Nothing of the like," Kaede waved it off. "I was an ordinary student. But I'm not one to think anything is completely above me. History is altered not just by grand sweeping plans, but by all the little individual actions that made it possible."
Ariadne nodded with her usual smile: "You sound like my friend Gerd. Go on."
"I'm also not stupid enough to tackle this alone, which is why I need your help. These people are trained killers; I know barely enough to defend myself. But this academy is full of aspiring knights and commanders, including you and your friends." Kaede took a deep breath as she opened her argument: "I realize you have no reason to help Pascal in anything, and neither does he deserve it. But you are also nobles who value duty to your country enough to serve it as your career. I have faith in you all to pick the greater good over personal grudges -- however deserving they may be -- so I see no reason why we cannot do this."
It was immediately apparent that Kaede had at least partially succeeded, as Ariadne pressed one finger into her cheek in serious consideration over the proposal.
"I'm surprised you waited until today to ask me. If father hadn't received a last minute dispatch, I'd be gone for the holiday weekend by now."
"Sorry, but I couldn't approach you without being conspicuous, and everything depends on maintaining the lie," Kaede explained in apology. Then: "Wait... holiday?"
"Next Monday is Weichsel's National Day; I take it you didn't know?" Ariadne asked, and Kaede shook her head. "Nordkreuz is too far for that prick to return often, but my estate isn't. If I was gone already, what would you have done then?"
The noble smile that backed the question somehow made it more daunting.
"I could discretely approach your beloved Parzifal for help," Kaede shrugged as she silently scolded herself, realizing how much worse that alternative was. "But otherwise this really would be beyond me and I'd have to call off the bluff. Meeting Pascal's professor is as good as declaring my intentions to the other side, and I've barely even spoken to anyone else."
The air between the two fell into a nervous silence as Kaede felt examined, scrutinized under magnifying eyes, while the noblewoman contemplated with one finger still held against her cheek. Then, just as Kaede was about to continue her drafted thoughts on persuasion, Ariadne nodded with a calm smile:
"It's the Holy Father's will then. I'll need to consult my friends before giving you a confirmation, but consider us tentatively in. Your clothes came in at the store also, so I'll pick them up and give them to you this afternoon -- the perfect opportunity to discretely pass you a message."
For seconds, Kaede stood speechless while the lady smiled sweetly back at her.
"...That was a lot easier than I anticipated... thank you. But why?"
"I'll take offense if you think me a fool in politics, you know," Ariadne declared cheerily while puffing up her prominent chest. "The betrothal between that prick and Crown Princess Sylviane of Rhin-Lotharingie is well known..."
Kaede felt her thoughts halted, then blown away as a second, far larger tidal wave struck her.
"--It's also one of the founding stones of Weichsel's defensive military alliance with Rhin-Lotharingie. Marina claimed her master is a Lotharin duke, so fracturing the alliance isn't their goal as much as preventing suspected manipulation of the throne by a foreigner, but it doesn't change the effects should they succeed."
He... he... Kaede's mind was still sorting out the information pileup.
"Pascal is ENGAGED!?"
I really should emphasize researching the noble families as much as the countries themselves.
"You didn't know? I thought that prick at least had enough sense to tell that to a girl before courting her! What else did you think was of political importance on a national scale?"
Kaede then shook her head as she denied it outright:
"We're not in that kind of relationship. In fact, that would be outright impossible for me even if he sought it..."
Somehow, the mere thought of telling Ariadne about her gender mix-up just felt... wrong.
"--Anyway, I simply thought they were trying to provoke Pascal's father, the Field Marshal, into some kind of rash response in an upcoming incident. Wouldn't be the first time wars started prematurely because of an angry family member."
Ariadne nodded in agreement: "Part of the reason Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie set aside their differences to form this alliance was because of an enraged Emperor who lost two sons to Imperial assassins, but that's a whole different story."
Even though Rhin-Lotharingie was also an Empire, the Hyperien word for 'Imperial' was reserved for Weichsel's southern foe -- the Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea and its 'Holy' Emperor.
"So assuming everything on my side works out, what's your plan of action?"
"I couldn't really narrow down much detail," Kaede admitted, "since I have no clue about the combat potential of your friends. But since Pascal is their main goal, his dorm is where we'll need the most help. I figured since Parzifal and Reynald are also the same year, their rooms should be on the same floor...?"
Ariadne nodded in confirmation.
"Then they can sandwich the attackers in from behind while Pascal buys time. Meanwhile, since I have to stay on the roof to keep the assassins fooled, I would appreciate some help once the cover blows. After all, I have no desire to get killed in this."
"I can work with that plan," Ariadne agreed, her bright-cyan gaze smiling with approval. "If any changes are necessary, I'll pass them back with the reply. Either way, it sounds like I have a busy day ahead, so I will see you later, Kaede."
With a boot soon in the stirrup, Ariadne mounted her white pegasus in one swift motion. She then waved goodbye before taking off from the dormitory keep roof.
And the day begins...
Kaede continued shooting for a good half hour before she went back inside, just to be sure her meeting with Ariadne didn't seem deliberate.
----- * * * -----
"Why didn't you tell me you were engaged?" Kaede asked after Pascal returned from his morning errands and workout.
It was hard to tell at times, since mages unsurprisingly had a spell for refreshing up after a sweat as well. In fact, they had so many cantrips for keeping clean and maintaining appearances that showering was more of a luxury for them than a periodic need.
"Because there is not much to say? I have not even seen Sylv for nearly a year thanks to our schedules, and she has not been responding to my calls lately."
Kaede knew that wasn't unusual for political arrangements of the period. But Pascal didn't just sound irritated; there was also a powerful longing buried underneath.
"How is she?"
"I do not believe a girl more beautiful than her could exist," he spoke of the princess, his awe shining through even the dark clouds of melancholy. "She is a wonderful person as well, and will make an excellent queen. Unfortunately, her spare time is only going to wane further."
He definitely likes her.
Kaede smiled. It was hard to tell whether or not Pascal actually loved his fiancée -- that was exceptionally rare in the political marriage custom. But it was obvious that he respected, valued, and even trusted her -- all of which were far more important than love in any union among feudal aristocrats, let alone future heads of state.
She also felt an odd sense of relief, since Pascal truly liking another girl greatly reduced any chances of something awkward happening between the two of them.
"Since when have you two been betrothed?"
"Since I was nine," Pascal began to explain as a nostalgic smile entered his expression. "My father's Knight Phantoms took her captive on one of their deep raids into Lotharin territory during the War of Imperial Succession, although she still had older brothers back then and wasn't the crown heir. I first met her when I was seven while she was held on our estate, and we became friends during her one-and-a-half years' stay there."
"Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie were not formally at war during that chaotic time; both countries simply sought to take advantage of the Holy Imperium's civil war to lay claims, except these claims overlapped with each other. So when my father negotiated an end to hostilities between the two states and a partnership against our real foe in the south, her father, Geoffroi the Great, requested our matrilineal betrothal as the bargaining price. Father agreed."
Matrilineal arrangements indicated that any descendants would be traced through the maternal side, which meant that Pascal would be marrying into another family -- the Rhin-Lotharingie royal family, in this case.
"Aren't you the heir of NordKreuz?" Kaede furrowed her brows. "How does that work for your domain then?"
"Yes. Although Nordkreuz was gifted to Father through lands annexed during that war, it was also a contested strategic position on the border. Our betrothal implied that after me, those territories would pass to the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie. The treaty was very unconventional, especially since we were winning at the time. But Father also knew Weichsel was a small nation caught between several giants, and he was planning for the long run."
Pascal's admiring words came out in a somewhat pensive tone, and Kaede soon realized why:
He also has daddy issues. Not surprising though, having to live in such an accomplished father's shadow.
"I'm surprised you still courted Ariadne and other girls, then."
"That was Father's idea, and Sylv agreed to it as well. They both said that I needed 'experience', whatever that is supposed to imply." Pascal shrugged.
Kaede thought it was best to stay away from that bombshell.
"So you have no siblings to contest the succession then?"
While his father often came up in conversations, Pascal almost never spoke of his family.
"I am the only child," he sighed. "Mother died from a crippling war injury when I was just four, and father never remarried. I guess you could say that I was mostly raised by servants."
No wonder you have social problems.
----- * * * -----
"...Since Gerd and Cecylia are both away on holiday, it's down to the three of us," Reynald heard Ariadne say as she sat next to Parzifal on her bed, with his right hand held tightly in hers.
It was against all propriety for a lady to invite multiple men into her room, but this was also the only way she could guarantee their privacy. Unlike Parzifal, who wasn't good at any magic except bio-alchemy, and Reynald, who simply didn't care, Ariadne actually maintained periodic sweeps of her room.
Reynald knew that as a proper noble, he was supposed to keep a healthy dose of paranoia. But that assumed he gave a single care about being a 'proper noble' in the first place.
He also sat backwards in a chair with his legs splayed; hardly the most appropriate when facing a lady.
"But this is Pascal we're talking about..." Parzifal replied.
His voice was almost frozen, and Reynald wondered how cold his gripping hand must be at the moment. From Ariadne's concealed wince, it couldn't be comfortable.
"--Let the Runelord deal with it by himself. He's always so high and mighty, so sure that he can do everything single-handedly. Well, here is his chance. If anything, I'm surprised his familiar even cares enough to intervene."
"But if he fails and dies, it would put the alliance between Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie in jeopardy," Ariadne raised the political card as her worried eyes kept their focus on her beloved.
"What's the problem with that?" Parzifal countered. "The treaty was unequal to begin with. Why should we forfeit territory when we were winning? What did von Moltewitz get from Emperor Geoffroi that made him so anxious to sign such a treaty?"
Reynald raised his eyebrows. Parzifal's statements were all concerns that many others shared; the only 'stain' upon Field Marshal von Moltewitz's exemplary career. But while some in Weichsel suspected betrayal, others saw it as a willingness to give up his newly-minted fiefdom of Nordkreuz for the good of the nation. Sure, his son would become the Prince-Consort of Rhin-Lotharingie, but his successors would bear the name 'de Gaetane' instead of 'von Moltewitz'. For the nobles' game of dynastic political ambitions, it was tantamount to suicide.
For the glory of Weichsel...
Reynald hadn't forgotten about the childhood days when he absolutely worshiped the elder von Moltewitz as a conquering hero. He had learned of the Marshal's faults since then, especially after his father was 'honorably' discharged by the Marshal. In many ways, Pascal merely displayed the elder von Moltewitz's intolerance on a new magnitude. But Reynald's own parents were nothing if not fair about the circumstances, and the Witzinger family harbored no hatred despite the misfortunes they suffered.
It wasn't easy, but having spent time on both sides of the fence, it gave Reynald a very objective view of the Marshal... or at least he believed so.
Meanwhile, Ariadne looked hesitant to continue. In fact, she was even nodding to Parzifal's continued list of accusations and complaints.
Reynald considered Ariadne a great girl for his best friend. But the Holy Father was fair, and in spite of her numerous good qualities, she also held one major flaw: the girl was vain enough to put others' opinions before her own sense of morals and duty, even if the 'others' were being stupid and she was the voice of reason.
In this case, the disapproval of a beloved accounted for dozens of 'stupid others'.
"Bro. Stop. I'm sorry to say this, but you're sprouting nonsense now."
Unfortunately, Parzifal was also as stubborn as a mule and held onto grudges with a memory better than elephants:
"Reynald, I know the Marshal is your childhood hero, but you can't--"
"Oh, you remember that, don't you?" Reynald cut in with deliberately acidic words. "How come you don't remember that the Marshal also discharged my father after six decades of faithful service because he fell in love with my mama... step-mother, an Imperial Mantis Blade assassin sent to kill him? Or that our family was disgraced as a result? Or maybe..." he voice lightened, "that until you befriended me during our first year, almost every other noble treated me like a bastard, since my real mother was also a commoner?"
Sometimes a bull was the only thing that could stop another rampaging bull. Parzifal's mouth shut instantly as he realized the mine-infested china shop he entered.
Reynald knew he had the baton now, and he wasn't about to let it go:
"Cut all that bullshit from the Marshal's enemies already and look at things from his perspective. Do you seriously think a man who spends ninety percent of his time in army camps, who barely goes back home ever since his wife died fifteen years ago, who used his only son as a bargaining chip for diplomacy, would honestly sell Weichsel to the Lotharins? Outside of Weichsel, does that man even have a life left!?"
"I'm standing up for the Marshal not because of some stupid immature fantasy, but because in matters of military affairs of state, the man is almost always right. Bloody-minded and merciless? Yes; my own family history proves it. But a natural genius in the art of war who proved his loyalty to Weichsel many times over? Also yes."
Reynald look back at Ariadne and nodded. What she needed now was precisely the approval of her original idea from others so that she could snap out of the moment of idiocy that Parzifal had dragged her into.
"I agree with Ariadne's suggestion. In fact, I believe she's absolutely fracking right! This is above personal relationships we have with Pascal or his father; ALL of them. It's a matter of state, and we have the perfect opportunity to take care of it."
"But we're still students. Something like this should be left...!"
"Like Ariadne said, if we inform the authorities now, they would either pull the wrong muscle and blow the entire thing, or pick the right brains who wouldn't get here in time."
Well, she was a lot more diplomatic than that... Reynald left unsaid.
One of the best aspects about Parzifal was that he never gave up easily. Reynald learned that when Parzifal spent weeks showing kindness to a younger and more cynical version of himself. Unfortunately, this also tended to be the case even when Parzifal was wrong.
"Think of it this way, brother. If we lose this alliance with Rhin-Lotharingie, and the Holy Imperium takes this as an opportunity to stick a vengeful sword in our backs... how many people do you think are gonna get killed? Are you really sure you're willing to take that chance?"
Parzifal did not speak another word of disapproval after that. His instincts as a healer simply overruled the rest of him.
"Alright, so what's the plan?" Reynald asked after several moments of silence, and Ariadne simply gawked back at him.
"What? I'm just the dumb knight," he grinned. "Parzifal may be the heart of our little group, but you're the Captain here, girl!"
----- * * * -----
"What is that? Your uniform?" Pascal asked as Kaede took a few steps to jump and spin about in her new clothes.
The white outfit did indeed have a uniform-like design, with its stiffly-cut shoulders, folded collar, and black tie. It was mostly white, except for the black lines running near the borders, and pink ribbons at the edges to match Kaede's eyes. It made an excellent contrast to Pascal's crimson-on-black uniform, and the thigh-length skirt plus its longer lace petticoat that reached over her thigh-high socks made it far easier to move in, not to mention the black calf-high boots.
"Yep," Kaede replied with nervous cheer as she read Ariadne's note for the third time:
Mission is accepted. Parzifal and Reynald will monitor the situation and engage the assassins from behind; please leave the coin scrying focus in your room. I'll be attending to Edelweiss in the stables until Parzifal gives me the signal through his familiar, after which I'll take off to assist you as needed and assert battlefield air superiority should any attackers attempt escape. - Ariadne
After a late lunch, the clock was already past mid-afternoon; the plan was to begin by the early dusk of winter.
"Pascal, please sit still and pretend you're still reading," Kaede asked over the telepathic channel. "I have no clue how they might be watching us, but it's time for me to tell you what is going on."
An hour went by as Kaede explained everything that happened, including the operational plan. True to his word on trusting her, Pascal never looked suspicious or angry, merely nodding and requesting clarification until her conversation with Ariadne came into the picture:
"I told you that I do not wish to owe Ariadne any--"
"If they can put aside their personal grudges against you for the sake of your country, then at least you can respond in kind!"
Silence fell over the two for several moments as Pascal flipped a page to keep up the pretense.
"Fine," he relented. "And I admit Reynald is an excellent fighter to have as backup. I doubt Parzifal will be of much use, though."
"Healers always come in handy. It's better to be safe than sorry."
Kaede filled Pascal's chalice with freshly-conjured water, then poured the antimagic poison in her vial into her cup in front of the chalice. Any observer from outside the windows would only see it being added to Pascal's drink. A sleight of hand as she picked both up and turned around easily sent the cup onto the floor without being noticed.
"Here, before you complain of thirst again."
Pascal's eyes never left the book as he took the chalice and put it on the table.
"I assume I will not be drinking the poison and passing out, then?"
"Of course not. You're going to drink this water and pretend to pass out, and then I will go to the roof and signal the assassins. I've already hidden a number of your defensive runes around the room; they should activate to your usual triggers."
"Then this should go smoothly." Pascal concluded before closing his book. With his right hand reaching for the goblet, his left took out a pair of a small, white gloves and laid them on the table.
"You know, for a complete novice, your planning is pretty decent."
Kaede sent a mental shrug:
"I did tell you: read enough history and apply some creativity, and you'll have at least one good idea for any occasion."
"Then hopefully, by the time I receive my first command, I will be able to appoint you a position on my staff. You are not allowed to get yourself killed tonight, do I make myself clear?" Pascal ordered as he held up the chalice and began to drink in gulps.
With most of the water downed, Pascal's grip slowly let the goblet clang to the floor while he slumped over onto the desk. Even from directly behind him, Kaede thought it was a very convincing performance. Then, as though to confirm his consciousness, his voice continued to resound in her head:
"Take the gloves. They have a built-in pocket dimension like the type most mages use. Held within the left one is a morphic blade -- consider it a gift from me. It is forged from flexible spring-steel, and its enchantment can transform it into any non-mechanical weapon you imagine. However, I do not suggest trying to recreate something with a complex material composition like your bow at first."
Kaede prodded Pascal twice, as though testing the poison's effects, before she reached over and took the gloves. They were made of soft leather, with a full glove on the left and a three-fingered archery glove for her right.
"Don't worry, I'll make them regret ever thinking I'm just a familiar."
"Of course. You are my familiar."
The last half-hour before dusk passed away in an instant, and Kaede soon stood on the northwest corner of dormitory keep's roof just as she was told.
"Alea iacta est..." she repeated Caesar's famous words from memory.
Bathed in the orange light of the setting sun, Kaede drew a deep breath before raising her right hand into the air as the agreed signal.
She hadn't even exhaled before a weight struck her back and sent a burning sensation through her chest.
Looking down, she saw the bloody tip of an arrow protruding from just above her right breast.
Did I... mess up?
It was Kaede's last thought before she collapsed on the stone roof.
Chapter 11 - For Weichsel, Not You
Prefect Gelasius lowered his composite bow as he rose from the shadows of the far side battlements. Projectile weapons were disdained by most Imperial mages, but they also had no aura flare to allow for an early detection. This, combined with a Stonemeld spell that merged his body into the keep itself, had allowed him to completely conceal his presence until the last moment.
The stupid, unprotected familiar girl never stood a chance.
Two minutes later, six vaguely humanoid clouds blew onto the rooftop. They solidified into people within seconds. Their outfits were all dark gray, each hidden beneath a hooded cloak.
"Didn't you promise that maid Marina that our informant would remain safe?"
"Did I?" Gelasius spoke casually over their linked telepathic channel as he stowed the bow away in a belt pouch. "I believe the words were 'I'll try to bring her out alive if the operation succeeds'. She's still alive, isn't she? I don't need a dumb girl getting in the way until we're ready to leave."
"And if she dies of her wounds?"
"Then sadly, the familiar didn't survive her master's death." The prefect's stern voice then stamped the discussion with finality: "Enough. Sebastian, take your section down and eliminate the target. Gallien, go with them in case they need help, but keep some distance and an eye on their back. Placidia, Cassio, and I will stay here to maintain situational control and await your return."
Sebastian then led two other assassins into the keep, their steps silent and their silhouettes blending into the shadows. They were soon followed by one more figure as the wardbreaker Gallien, who allowed them undetected entry onto the academy grounds, also melded into the darkness of the spiral stairway. Meanwhile, the spellsniper Placidia and spellstorm Cassio camouflaged themselves, maintaining a vigilant watch on opposing corners of the keep.
Gelasius missed the days when he personally lead the hunt as the strike section leader. Being the prefect of the entire operation squad meant that not only did he have to remain on reserve, he also had to wait anxiously while Sebastian took the thrill of the kill.
He ignored the faint, wheezy breathing that came from the unmoving familiar. After all, her role in this entire operation was already over.
----- * * * -----
Two other hoods nodded as their owners each drew twin kukri blades beneath their protective cloaks.
Sebastian then turned the dispelled door handle before all three stepped inside. Nearly blinded by the glare from hundreds of magical auras that saturated the room, he dismissed his Aura Sight spell before advancing.
Their target sat in a chair on the far side, knocked unconscious by the antimagic poison; his head lay motionless across a book on the work desk.
The two other assassins took guard positions on each side as Sebastian advanced forward for the kill. By organizational tradition, they strove to rely on the most certain method of elimination whenever possible -- death by decapitation.
Then, just as he crossed the middle of the room, a deafening thunderclap erupted from behind, and the hallway furnishings ignited into flames under the raw power of a lightning blast.
"Company! No, intervention!" yelled Gallien over the telepathic communication channel.
With his attention distracted for a split second, Sebastian barely noticed the 'unconscious' figure's slight arm movement that brought a turquoise spell-focus ring into clear view.
"Cyclone Blast," muttered Pascal even as he lifted and turned his eyes. Both of the assassins in the rear unleashed cutting hexes with a reflexive wave of their blades, only to watch their magic splash against glimmering turquoise shields as eight runic pebbles expended themselves between Pascal's fingers, layering on his entire defensive spell set.
The strike leader Sebastian spun aside to dodge the gush of hurricane-force winds, but the impact itself had never been Pascal's aim. The blast of air acted as a contingency trigger, pulling dozens of runic pebbles that Kaede had scattered around the room into the air. They hurled about the enclosed room like a whirlwind of destruction. The glyphic stones bounced harmlessly off walls and furniture, but each time one of them met a living entity that did not carry the ether of their creator, they exploded. The more potent runes even carried disintegration spells, capable of reducing any unwarded creature or object they touched into dust.
Detonations rocked the room as the air was instantly filled by flying shrapnel -- cutting shards of rock and jagged splinters of wood blown off the nearby furniture and walls. But while Pascal lay safe behind his Barrier Armor and Spellshield Fortress, the same could not be said for his would-be killers. The layers of defensive magic that enhanced their protective cloaks would have easily repulsed such conventional projectiles, had they not been riddled with holes from absorbing powerful explosions and negating killing spells.
The strike section of three assassins had walked straight into a trap.
With all three of them bloodied by the ambush, Marcellius, the junior member who stood closest to the entrance, spun back around the doorframe and into the hallway. He arrived just in time to see another bolt of lightning streak by, realizing a second too late as two materialized blades chopped off his head and turned his torso into a fountain of blood.
Spells flew through the hall as the wardbreaker Gallien laid down covering fire from behind conjured stone battlements. But the other assassin, Valeria, took no chances as she hurled a specially enchanted kukri outside. The curved blade ricocheted off the walls with perfect bounces, multiplying into three each time. Within mere seconds, a roaming cloud of whirling steel swept down the hall, dicing through anything softer than rock with impunity.
Meanwhile, Sebastian charged at Pascal without hesitation. Even with one arm shattered by the runic assault, his other was still armed and ready to rend the flesh from his foe. With a single thought, he activated the bread and butter of spellswords -- the Negation Surge spell imbued into his kukri that diminished the effectiveness of magical barriers. His first hack cleaved through one of Pascal's spellshields as though meeting mere leather, but even that split-second delay of resistance allowed his target to spin away against the desk's edge.
Renewing his penetration aid with a flourish of the blade, Sebastian's second slash struck horizontally and sliced through two more spellshields. Sharpened steel then pierced the translucent turquoise armor before entering Pascal's left forearm, but too much momentum had been lost to cut through the bone.
Teeth gritting against the burning pain, Pascal twisted his own arm against the blade, using his Barrier Armor and reinforced flesh to overextend the weapon before it could be withdrawn. He followed with a right hook, and his turquoise ring met cheekbones under the tattered hood with a resounding crack. Surging anger poured through his spell-focus in the form of volatile ether, and the spontaneous burst of raw magic blew Sebastian's head apart in a shower of blood and gore.
The rest of the strike leader's body promptly disintegrated into dust -- a contingency spell with deadman's trigger, common among assassins.
But Pascal was now down to one arm and two spellshields as he faced off against the last assassin, who had already sealed the entrance with a wall of metal.
Should he replenish his outer defenses, or should he attempt to draw the courtblade stored in the glove of his limp left arm?
His own room had been turned into a battlefield. Here, there were no rules or points awarded for extravagance. Here, lives would flicker and drown in the blink of an eye.
----- * * * -----
Reynald almost snorted as he burst across the stone battlements and cut the enemy mage down. To a spellsword who charged by transforming into lightning, cover made from non-conductive materials was inconsequential.
However, the vortex of blades advancing towards him was a different matter.
A blast of wind, a barrage of rocks, a burst of antimagic... not a single spell could knock off more than a mere handful of blades. The cloud of whirling steel continued its inevitable advance, as slow and unstoppable as a glacier.
It was easy to evade, but Reynald could not afford to run away. He was the promised cavalry; he had to rush inside that room.
"Dispelling Screen!" Parzifal shouted from the other side of the hall. But nothing happened; the advanced spell combination simply wasn't a type that he had any affinity with.
Yet its inspiration was sufficient.
"Catalyst Dispelling Field," Reynald announced as he held up his right hand, fingers outstretched. Waves of antimagic poured off his shining glove as he marched into the steel storm. His burning-red aura surrounded him like a globe of protection, and every blade that touched its edge vanished from existence.
Except one: the original. Forged from real steel that ignored the dispelling antimagic, it sliced right through the unarmored underside of his wrist.
"GAHHHH!" Reynald cried out as he dropped his other weapon to grip the bleeding stump. Should have freaking added a Repulsion effect.
"Sorry," Parzifal grimaced as he rushed up to collect his friend's severed right hand. "We need to reconnect this, immediately."
"N-no time," came the response between Reynald's gritted teeth as his feet shuffled forward. "You'll have to take front."
"You know I can't use attack spells worth anything!" the healer retorted as he took up Reynald's wrist stump and cast a localized Sensory Blackout spell over it to suppress the pain.
"Yeah and you just cast a potent attack curse if you applied it without restraint. I know you lack the intent to kill after what happened to your parents, but sometimes you have to kill to save someone!"
Reynald soon reached the entrance to Pascal's room, now sealed by a curtain of iron. Leaning against the wall while breathing heavily in pain, the short redhead addressed his best friend with a gaze as determined as any seasoned knight:
"I'll disintegrate this on three. Remember what I told you before: your specialty is bio-alchemy. If there's no foliage in the fight, then conjure some ferocious man-eating plants or something to use. Unless you hate Pascal enough to see his father crying over a son's mangled corpse and his cute little familiar girl dead as well."
Motivation came instantly even if clarity did not. Parzifal's brows were folded with uncertainty, but he nodded to Reynald with determination as his friend's glove stretched out against the iron wall.
After concentrating his magic, Reynald's remaining fist slammed against the barrier, opening a man-sized hole through layers of metal. Alchemy spells weren't always effective against other mages since they already had an innate network of flowing, interactive ether which resisted external sources. But against objects and non-magical creatures, the results were decisive.
"Flourishing Brambles. Animated Assault!"
Parzifal conjured a single sprout, then poured in transmutation magic to make it grow immediately into a mass of thorny vines. Spreading out across the room, the spiked tendrils leaped towards the last assassin like an unstoppable torrent.
Caught off-guard by the attack from her rear, the assassin slashed and cut with her blade on impulse. But there was simply far too many. The veritable horde of vines quickly wrapped around her body, pushing between every gap to wring out her life with a merciless crushing grip. As she opened her mouth to scream, spiked tendrils forced their way inside and down her throat.
All three men in the room watched with horror as the writhing, muffled figure vanished beneath the green biomass before the entire cocoon collapsed, presumably as her disintegration spell triggered.
"Holy Father have mercy..." Pascal blurted out through a face of stunned shock.
"Remind me never to piss you off," Reynald remarked through a similar expression.
Parzifal's own trembling eyes looked the most horrified of all. But after working in forensics and surgeons' labs, there wasn't much that could truly freeze the healer trainee. He quickly returned to the task of reconnecting and healing Reynald's severed hand.
Meanwhile, the mass of vines that crushed Pascal's bed began to shrivel, becoming little more than a small pile of dried stems before vanishing entirely. Most conjuration magic rarely lasted more than a few minutes before the magically-created materials broke down; the exception was when it summoned something real from elsewhere.
"Thank you. I did not--" Pascal began as he stowed away his sword and attempted to make his mangled left arm look presentable.
"Stuff a sock in it, Runelord," Reynald shot back with a disinterested glance. "This is for Weichsel, not you. Let's just get patched up and see if the girls need help... even if that's not darn likely with Ariadne."
Meanwhile, Parzifal was muttering to himself even as he concentrated on healing the wounds:
"I just killed somebody..."
----- * * * -----
"Comp... No, int...!"
Gallien's telepathic shout came garbled. The Königsfeld Academy was simply too saturated with magic for any ungrounded telepathic link to function properly without line-of-sight.
But the thunderous noise and tremor that came from below made the situation apparent, even without Placidia's follow-up:
"Rider in the air!"
The hit squad's spellsniper was already taking aim along an outstretched arm. Three translucent black rings of magical energy formed the firing barrel as she charged up a pulsing multi-hit Disintegration Beam. But her shot missed as the pegasus corkscrewed across the air in a display of unparalleled horsemanship.
Prefect Gelasius cursed as he recognized the dark, shadowy barding that cloaked the pegasus, not to mention the black-on-burning-red armor and uniform of its rider, galloping across the open skies like a burning cloud of smoke. It was the unmistakable sign of a Knight Phantom -- the elite order of marauding equestrians that struck fear into every participant of the last war.
The squad's spellstorm hardly needed orders. Dozens of topaz bolts surrounded him like a cloud of daggers, each spinning within a ring of magical energy. With one wave of his hand, the entire volley hurled out to meet the rider in a single coordinated barrage.
Meanwhile, eleven defensive homing bullets -- an Ether Seeker interception spell -- shot out from the knight with a slash of her sword. Streaking across the open air, the two volleys met each other with explosive fury. But Cassio's projectiles, through weight of numbers, easily emerged victorious as they zoomed towards the airborne cavalier.
His target weaved and dodged, soaring through the air with evasive maneuvers as Cassio's shots chased after her. A second wave of Ether Seekers reduced the numbers further, but the spellstorm was already conjuring another barrage while maintaining control of the first.
The pegasus knight suddenly broke into seven copies, each streaking across the air on a different path towards the keep. A moment of confusion was enough for Cassio to lose touch with his first volley, and they shot wide as he tried to discern the real rider among the illusions.
"Third from the east," Gelasius ordered as his eyes swept the targets. His refined control over the Aura Sight spell was one of his specialties. It allowed him to apply the handy utility on small portions of his vision coverage, even in a battle zone where the magical glare would quickly blind most conventional users.
With the prefect's guidance, Cassio unleashed his second volley. But the pegasus soon dived towards the ground, and the spellstorm's view became blocked by the stony roof. A resounding detonation shook the main keep as the explosive bombardment crashed into its side.
"Go to the corner for clearance! Northwest!" ordered Prefect Gelasius, as he and Placidia sniped the defenders on the surrounding towers.
The shooting in the skies had drawn the attention of the academy's guards and staff, who joined the battle by taking shots against the intruders with spellfire and arbalest bolts. They were more an inconvenience than a threat at the moment, but that would not last long if Gelasius allowed them to coordinate and get organized.
A professor firing from the residence keep soon crumbled to dust as Placidia's black Disintegration Beam blasted through his window and overpowered his wards by sheer might of magic...
----- * * * -----
Trying to monitor the situation was hard when Kaede lay facing the other way, doing her best to appear unconscious. The fact that her enemies didn't even speak to communicate made it far harder to figure out the circumstances.
The only thing she could see was topaz spellfire shooting out from behind her, soaring after a weaving pegasus in the skies.
Kaede had dropped onto the ground as soon as she saw the arrow that pierced her shoulder. At the time, she still wasn't sure if her cover had been blown, only that if she didn't pretend to fall unconscious or dead, another steel tip with her name on it would soon be on its way.
She had almost failed to stifle her voice on the hard landing, especially when the impact shook the arrow lodged inside her. The only upside was that the sharp burst of intense pain had actually pierced her mental fog, clearing away the drowsiness that kept accumulating in her mind.
The few minutes after that were the most nerve-wracking of her life, uncertain if she was doomed to a premature end.
But when the dormitory keep door creaked open and still no one approached her body, Kaede decided that they must have bought the lure after all -- hook, line, and sinker. In hindsight, this should have been obvious from the start. No assassin's arrow would have missed her vitals from this close a range; the shot had been deliberate.
So Kaede kept up the ruse by maintaining her only protection -- the illusion of an incompetent, unconscious girl. After all, it didn't require actual magic to make another believe something false and seriously underestimate both the situation and their opponent.
Pascal's telepathic "they are here... firing!" confirmed the situation at hand. Her intellectual side remained worried, as these were obviously professional assassins. But just as he had faith in her, she would uphold her belief in him.
Besides, as Ariadne's Edelweiss took to the skies and combat began topside, Kaede had to focus on tracking the battle with only her hearing and limited sight. This was actually a blessing, as it gave her something other than the burning pain stuck in her shoulder to think about.
Her first insight was that Ariadne was gaining too much altitude, probably to maintain distance for reaction time as she approached the keep for an overhead dive. The problem was she should be doing the exact opposite. Kaede doubted pegasus knights made good high-altitude bombers, and slow-flying close air support hugged the ground to avoid anti-air artillery during World War II, not the other way around.
Kaede slowly inched her right hand towards her left, fingers seeking her remaining Telepathy rune while praying that no one would notice. It would also allow her to activate the second four spells of Pascal's defensive set, all of which were internal buffs that gave no visible sign and would help her should any opportunities arise. It was too risky to chance the motion before. But now, her life was no longer the only one at stake.
If nothing else, experiencing a life and death situation together automatically made these her newfound friends.
I may be an introvert, but I am NOT a shut-in... she stressed to nobody but herself.
----- * * * -----
"Drop down! Out of his sight! Use the buildings for cover!"
Ariadne heard Kaede's voice resound through her mind. She followed them instinctively, weaving and dodging between the stone construction even as she pondered the familiar girl's fate. Last she saw, the familiar girl was lying still in a corner with an arrow through her back, presumably either unconscious or dead.
...Or not. She smiled, realizing that the small girl was quietly biding her time.
Now using the terrain to her advantage, Ariadne swerved through the gaps between buildings with precise horsemanship. She neared the dormitory keep before rising back into the air to level with the rooftop. As her mount climbed over the battlements from but ten paces away, she came face to face with a hooded figure surrounded by yet another wave of magical projectiles.
Time came to a standstill as Ariadne locked gaze with topaz eyes determined to kill her. Expletives coursed through her frantic mind, but she knew it was already too late to evade...
Then, a corner of her sight picked up movement near the rooftop floor. Kaede's slumped body lay right besides the cloaked caster. With a painful yell of her small voice, the familiar girl pulled out the arrow lodged in her upper chest and, in the same motion, stabbed it straight into the mage's left leg.
The caster's balance faltered, and most of his shots flew wide. Nevertheless, three of them grazed Edelweiss' wings, exploding on contact. The pegasus' phantom barding thinned as they focused on the points of impact to absorb the damage. Edelweiss would suffer no worse than three nasty bruises, but Ariadne doubted the shadowy 'armor' could withstand another similar hit.
Cursing audibly, the hooded mage waved his hand while his injured foot kicked out at Kaede, striking her in the face and leaving a bloody nose. Meanwhile, the arcane bolts that he had managed to maintain control over -- a swarm of two dozen -- turned around to chase after Ariadne's rising mount.
But the sorely underestimated familiar girl wasn't finished.
Kaede's right hand grasped at her left. In a single swing, she drew a thin shortsword from the glove and slashed at the mage's calves, slicing into one leg just above the leather boots and cutting through the bone. Withdrawing the blade, Kaede leaped off the floor and tackled him in the waist. Her attempted backstab failed to pierce the enchanted cloak, but her impact sent the swaying mage over the battlements' low firing gap and into a plummet.
Unfortunately, the momentum also sent the small girl tumbling over, and Ariadne watched in horror as the familiar's left hand struggled to hold onto the fortifications. Before she could finish casting an Air Glide spell to protect Kaede, the hand slipped off the stone and vanished from sight.
Ariadne reined Edelweiss into a sharp bank. Perhaps she could still spot Kaede in time to save her. Perhaps...
The distraction allowed another hooded assassin to catch the pegasus with a beam harnessing the sun's energy. With his entire right wing torn by scorching heat and his eyes blinded by intense light, Edelweiss crashed towards the keep from twenty paces above.
"Air Cushion!" Ariadne cast upon her familiar mount before her enraged eyes returned to her foe. Grabbing a wooden grenade from her belt pouch, she hurled it towards the keep and shouted "Ignition Dispel!"
The spell caught the 'grenade' mid-flight, tearing away the shrinking spell to reveal a massive chest-high barrel which promptly ignited. The opposing mage dove aside to evade the crushing object, only for the keg to strike the stone rooftop and burst apart, covering his surroundings with a conflagration of flaming pitch and tar.
As the burning assassin-mage busied himself putting out the grease fire with a blast of intense cold, Ariadne called upon another trick the Knights were known for: "Phantom Charge!"
Just before her mount crash landed, the last remnants of Edelweiss' shadowy barding tore away, forming a spectral steed that caught ablaze as it charged across the roof. It then rammed the offending mage head-on before detonating into a blazing inferno.
----- * * * -----
The fortifications were still slippery from the melted daytime snow, and Kaede had hardly three fingers' grasp on them. She had already activated the four rune-stored buffs that didn't visually reveal her consciousness, including the Elemental Body of Earth spell which heightened her strength, as well as Shift Impulse which had accelerated her tackle beyond expectations. But even with Mental Clarity reducing the debilitating fog of pain, she was barely able to hold onto her consciousness.
Pulling out an entire arrow shaft, including the accursed tail fletching, through a puncture wound already closed by Samaran fast-healing was far more excruciating than anything she had ever experienced.
With her last reservoir of strength depleted and her injuries draining away any remaining energy, she held on for hardly more than a few seconds before plummeting six stories towards the ground below.
Looks like I don't belong here after all... she thought.
At least she heard the horrified scream of the assassin-mage she sent falling first -- until his yell was suddenly muffled, as though by a thick blanket.
Kaede glanced down just before a giant mass of soft whiteness cushioned her fall. Its very sight was enough to trigger the most incredulous memory of her life.
It was Parzifal's giant tofu, shifting up and down as though 'munching' on something... no, someone: the previously fallen mage.
"Kaede are you alright? I just felt something go wrong," Pascal's worried voice chimed in.
She finally let go of her breath:
"Barely. Saved by Parzifal's giant tofu."
"What is that?" came the incredulous reply.
"I meant his familiar."
After finishing whatever it was doing, the giant tofu bounced up to the wall and, somehow, began to climb using its silken white skin. Most of its amorphous body shifted as close to the wall as possible, yet it maintained a 'platform' large enough to hold her, while two tendrils wrapped tightly across her bent legs to keep her from falling off.
"We just eliminated the threat below and are heading up to the roof to help," announced Pascal.
Parzifal must be controlling it then, Kaede concluded.
Although the putty felt cold and jiggled as it moved, it was as soft as a pillow. Despite having no legs, it also climbed with shocking speed. Within a minute, it reached over the battlements and poured onto the roof.
Still mounting the giant tofu, Kaede took a moment to absorb the situation: a one-winged pegasus lay bleeding and maimed on the stone roof, while Ariadne spun her double-bladed sword but ten paces away. The lady knight danced across the floor with swift footwork, exchanging lightning-fast blows against the assassin's dual kukris. They clashed with one another like two bladed gales, while another mage stood in the far corner, shooting at targets unseen on the other side of the keep.
The giant tofu began to leap again, bounding towards the far-side caster in the pudding equivalent of a charge.
The spellsniper took notice and turned around to power up another spell. Yet before she could unleash even one beam, a storm of forest-green rays arced in from behind her like a rocket barrage. Most of the magic either missed or glanced off her barriers, striking harmlessly against stone fortifications; but two shots connected with the caster.
The human body had fine tolerances over its composition, which easily made many alchemy spells deadly. Utility magic invented for harmless purposes like Extract Water, Solidify Liquid, or Transmute X to Y could easily kill any man, although mages usually resisted it through their innate ether. But with reserves running low after continuous use of high-powered spells, the spellsniper left herself open to hostile alchemy purposed specifically to kill.
Her head and shoulders petrified into granite for a split second before she disintegrated into the winds.
Now only one foe remained.
----- * * * -----
Although Kaede couldn't tell due to the sheer speed of the sword fight, Ariadne knew perfectly well that she was being pressed. Even slowed by burns, the superior experience and prowess of her opponent showed through the precision of his strikes. She had lost the initiative almost as soon as the match began, forced onto the defensive to parry and block. Her armor, both magical and real, was the only reason why he hadn't drawn blood after three grazing hits.
Unfortunately, she knew that the returning Kaede was in no position to help. This was a deathmatch between two accomplished swordsmen, and any amateurish interference was as dangerous to one as the other.
Then, for the slightest fragment of a second, the assassin leader -- she was certain of it -- slowed his assault as his spellsniper vanished from this world.
The Holy Father had graced her with one opportunity, and she seized it without hesitation for an all-out attack.
Spinning her twin-bladed Manteuffel sword around, Ariadne parried the closer kukri upwards while bringing her sword up and overhead into a full-aggression stance to pull his attention. With a tap of the trigger that toggled her sword's two forms, she launched the shorter rear-blade at a downward angle. Her opponent had already lost his outer barriers and protective cloak to her flame assaults, allowing the cable-anchored steel edge to pierce his right boot and dig into the roof.
The other kukri swung forward, cutting through both Ariadne's magical and physical cuirass before striking her ribs. But it hardly affected the outcome as the lady knight brought her bastard-sized sword down with a mighty two-handed swing. Pinned down by his foot, the last assassin was cleaved from shoulder to waist before bursting into ashes.
Panting hard with exertion and pain, Ariadne propped herself up using the sword while her left hand unbuckled the breastplate to clutch the wound underneath. Then, as if on cue, the wooden door into the keep burst open, spilling forth three men with weapons drawn.
Ariadne swept her eyes across all three before she chuckled -- which soon turned into a bloody, hacking cough, prompting Parzifal to rush over.
"Parzifal... you should go take a look at Kaede first," she waved him towards the smaller girl, whose body now slumped unconsciously atop the white pudding familiar. "I bet her wounds are healing the wrong way after she left an arrow in for that long."
Parzifal paused for a moment, clearly torn between caring for his girl's injuries and listening to her wishes. But as Ariadne wiped the blood from her lips and sent him a reassuring smile, he nodded and headed off to meet her request.
"W-well... would you look at us?" Ariadne said dryly as she staggered back towards Edelweiss, unconscious but otherwise alive. "Other than Parzifal, we've sure been taught a bloody lesson."
"I doubt these were run-of-the-mill assassins," Reynald replied, still warming up to his reconnected right wrist by rotating it in circles. "I don't suppose you picked up any clues? Seeing as they all disintegrated."
"Actually..." Ariadne hesitated before continuing: "...the leader fought like you; same dual kukri flurry style."
"I agree," Pascal nodded. "The three assassins that led the attack on me also fought with two kukris each; their style emphasized striking speed."
Reynald's brows rose. He then turned towards Pascal with contemptuous eyes:
"Great. You've got Imperial Mantis Blades on your ass now." Then, as both of them looked at him with agape expressions: "What? Did you forget my mama was one? Where do you think my martial skills come from? Papa, the retired Artillery General? Ha! He'd rather hold onto her coat while she bloodied thugs with twin hairpins."
Reynald then puffed up his chest:
"Be proud, ladies and lords! Few could boast of surviving an assassination attempt by an entire Mantis Blade hit squad!"
Silence filled the air as everyone else absorbed this discomforting fact.
"Well..." Pascal cleared his throat sheepishly. "I am profoundly grateful--"
"Oh, shut up for a moment you self-centered prick," Ariadne spat out bits of blood alongside her words. "We did this for Weichsel, and maybe some for your familiar, but certainly not you!"
Chapter 12 - Better Late Than Never
Kaede jolted upright on her cold and squishy seat, the shivering aftereffects of a light shock still coursing through her body. Her eyes snapped open, meeting the glow of a dozen bright white lights that floated overhead. Meanwhile, two blurry figures before her solidified into appearances she knew and could trust.
Night had already fallen, lit by stars and the indigo planet stretching across the horizon.
"That's what a Rejuvenate spell actually feels like." Parzifal, crouched at her side, gave her a gentle smile. His eyes were still closed as the soothing warmth from his glove coursed through her right shoulder. "Some shock alongside the healing; bit contradictory, but effective."
Pascal, on the other hand, wasn't smiling at all. The frown under his golden soft curls was halfway between worried and stern:
"How long did that arrow stay in you?"
"I don't know; maybe five minutes?" She almost shrugged but caught herself in time. "Counting time isn't the best way of trying to stay conscious while pretending to be the opposite."
Examining her situation, Kaede found herself lying on Parzifal's giant tofu, its top in the form of a foam lounge chair. Her shoulder was no longer hurting. Instead, it felt as though submerged in hot springs, muscles relaxing and tension fading away.
"Well, I guess passing off as dead was your safest option at the time. Just try not to jump off any buildings again." Pascal scowled and shook his head.
"Give me a break! That was my second time using...!"
"--And thank you." Pascal headed off her retort, his head nodding with gratitude. "If you did not lure them in, there was no way our enforcers could have caught an Imperial Mantis Blade squad. Sooner or later, one of their plans would have succeeded in catching me off guard, instead of finding themselves baited into a trap."
Kaede felt that something was off about Pascal. She could see it in his expression, hear it in his firm tone. This was still him, yet different... or perhaps unusual was a better term.
So she turned towards the other puzzling topic: I thought they were from Rhin-Lotharingie, before she realized that Marina had no reason to tell her the truth.
She really needed to stop underestimating those tears from the un-spy-like maid.
"Well, you're all set now," Parzifal patted her shoulder before standing back up, leaving a lingering warmth on the smooth skin where her wound used to be. "I left an Invigorate spell that should tie up any loose ends over the course of the night."
"Thank you so much," Kaede bowed from her seat before grinning back. "And your familiar, for saving my life back there," she patted the giant tofu before standing up from it.
"Don't mention it." he waved it off with a friendly smile. "I'm just glad Putty got there in time."
Talk about a fitting name...
Kaede sent the white pudding familiar a grin as well, and could have sworn it bounced with joy. Her eyes then passed beyond the giant tofu, and she bowed at the tired-but-otherwise-healed Ariadne and Reynald.
The flame-colored leather armor reinforced by steel plates -- cuirass, spaulders, bracers, and greaves -- that they wore during battle was already gone without a trace. The two of them nodded back in their Knight Phantom uniforms, beaming, while their gloves continued to shed the light of healing. Lying between them was the pegasus Edelweiss, who still nursed a bandaged wing but appeared mostly healthy.
"And I must thank you all as well." Pascal nodded towards the others.
Parzifal's and Reynald's change in attitude was nearly instantaneous as their smiles flipped upside down, but Pascal nevertheless pressed on:
"I know none of you three wish to hear it from me, but that only makes it more important that I must convey my utmost gratitude. You were all willing to overlook our past... differences, for the sake of the country, putting your lives in danger against the best assassins in Hyperion. You have chosen to save my life for the noblest of reasons, and I swear now that House von Moltewitz will not forget this debt, nor fail to honor and repay it."
Pascal bowed -- an emissary's courtesy to match perfection -- before turning around without the slightest expectation of acknowledgment.
"Come, Kaede," he said as his legs took the first steps of departure.
His words were lonely. His tone regretful and melancholy. It reminded Kaede of a conversation on her first day in this world, during their first meal, when he begrudgingly admitted his past faults against the admirable Ariadne. It was clear that he now held a great deal of respect for all three of them, even if he had not before tonight. Even more apparent was his wish that things had turned out differently between them to this point.
Glancing around, Kaede found the trio just as taken aback. It was clear that not one of them had expected such words from the prodigious and prideful Runelord.
There would never be a better opportunity than this one, right now.
She turned to the departing Pascal -- just another step away from the stairwell doors -- and shouted after him:
"How long are you going to keep regretting the past instead of facing the present!?"
Pascal spun around to glare at her, but Kaede had no intention of keeping this conversation private, not yet:
"I stand by what I told you two weeks ago: it's not always enough, but it's never too late!"
His legs stood stiff, his body still. But his eyes wavered, caught amid hesitation and resentment, uncertain between a chance to seek the unpleasant light, or returning to the familiar yet cold shadows.
But Kaede knew that Pascal would not be Pascal without his resolve to follow rational judgment in his own way. After a silent minute and a profound sigh, his feet turned themselves around, cautiously stepping back towards Kaede as she unwittingly broke into a welcoming smile.
"You said you will not fail to honor and repay the debt. Then why not start now with everything you have? Better than your half-way apologies that do nothing but tarnish your word."
"Apologies could use more efficiency and less self-injury..." His complaint was bitter.
Kaede's hands propped against her waist as she goaded Pascal with the one line he could not possibly ignore:
"Yes, tell me about how 'efficient' apologies are when you actually make a sincere one for the first time in your life. It's not pride holding you back now -- it's cowardice, you gutless wonder. Seriously, how many years will you keep accumulating interest? There are things you can't fix with magic or genius Pascal... you have to do it the old fashioned way."
"...Fine." He finally agreed, as his irritated thoughts silently met her challenge: "since I am going to do it anyway, I will show you exactly how proper of an apology I can accomplish.
Now meeting the others eye to eye, Pascal took a deep breath, and began in a deep and sincere voice:
"Kaede is correct. I know that you have no reason to grant me any favors, but I ask for only a moment of your time. I have realized all too late that in my foolish immaturity of years past, I committed inexcusable acts of rudeness against the two of you, Parzifal and Ariadne, and for that I owe each of you a most sincere apology."
Even Kaede was stunned by the depth of Pascal's remorse, which sounded even more genuine than she expected. But what followed completely eclipsed even her impression of just how long and deeply Pascal must have considered his past mistakes:
"Parzifal," spoke Pascal, turning towards the lean healer with crossed arms and meeting his aquamarine gaze. "I only wish I could take back the childish words I used that day to bring you low. I knew, even back then, that you hated your magical affinity and held a crisis of confidence. It was dirty and despicable of me, and probably done because even then, I knew your generosity towards a girl you barely knew made my rudeness look more intolerable by comparison. I am glad that you received the gratitude and the beautiful girl you deserved, and that Ariadne helped shape you into to the capable man you are today..."
Whether it was because of unpreparedness or due to Pascal's thoroughly uncharacteristic behavior, Parzifal and his two friends were stunned flat by the prodigy's admission of guilt. Their poker faces -- or Ariadne's once-serene smile -- were left agape, eyes blinking in disbelief amidst the dying flames of residual anger.
It wasn't exactly very encouraging for the person actually trying to apologize.
"You can do this, Pascal."
Kaede noted that his eyes had slid back down to stare upon a faraway battlement. His shoulders were slumping more by the second, wavering on the precipice of yet another plunge from pride.
I know this can't be easy on you, but...
She decided it was time to inject some real motivation again:
"You've told me that you didn't want to owe Ariadne anything else, but what about your debts now...? You know this is the right thing to do."
Pascal sent her another glare, and a reassured -- also slightly amused -- Kaede returned her encouraging smile.
"And Ariadne," he took a deep breath before he focused onto the lady's widened eyes. "When I discovered the differences in our approaches to life, I tried to break up with you by pressing all the blame onto you. It was low, and immoral, and cowardly of me, all the more so when I humiliated you by doing it in public, against all sense of decency. I cannot apologize enough for my past actions, and if I do not get the chance again, I wish you happiness with Parzifal, for he is a far better man than I was."
And that took almost every ounce of will, every strand of self-discipline that Pascal had.
His gaze lingered for but a second before he spun around and strode straight towards the rooftop door. He had just shredded his pride and bared his filth to the critiquing eyes of peers, and he could not withstand it for another moment longer.
"I will never forgive you for that," the prodigy's ego lashed out in an attempt to regain itself, to rebuild its protective shell.
"You're welcome," Kaede simply smiled back, for the first time feeling proud of the man who called her into this alien world.
She then turned towards the three still hanging onto stunned expressions, and curtsied as graciously as she could before rushing off after Pascal.
The only one she heard recover before her departure was Reynald, although his utterance still filled with disbelief:
"THE Runelord apologizing? You've got to be shitting me..."
----- * * * -----
Pascal had told Kaede that while she was still unconscious, Professor Sir von Kirchner flew to the roof and questioned their group before leaving to assess the situation around the castle.
They saw no reason to wake her up for that unpleasant session.
Kaede was grateful, but it also didn't leave her much time to wrap up loose ends.
"Why do you even care about this? Just let the guards and enforcers deal with that maid," Pascal asked as he followed Kaede down the dining hall, where servants and mages alike were cleaning up the mess left by collateral damage from the battle.
"Because she offered me an option, in her own way. I intend to return the favor," Kaede answered.
"Let me restate: you are trying to help a maid that worked with assassins who just tried to kill you."
"Yes, because the best assassins of your world are so incompetent their arrow struck just above my lungs from a flat trajectory shot."
"Well fine, they tried to kill me." Pascal relented, but only slightly. "This is a terrible idea."
"I know it's a terrible idea..." Kaede spun her heels around, her eyes filled with a painful need as she gazed back at Pascal: "Look, I really, really wanted her to be my friend. I thought she was the first friend I made in this world. Okay? So, just let me reach out to her this once to get it off my conscience... please?" she begged.
Pascal stared back, met and tested her with turquoise eyes, before he sighed audibly.
"Fine, I will lend you one favor this time. According to Reynald, the seven members we killed were a full Imperial Mantis Blade operation squad. Any helpers they managed to recruit along the way will not yield us any useful information. This maid has already been here for two years; definitely not specific to this mission. By my guess, she is simply the eyes and ears for some Imperial Governor whose intelligence network the Mantis Blades tapped into, probably near the northern border of the Imperium. Any executive intelligence organization would certainly have the jurisdiction."
"Then... how many favors do you owe me for saving your life?"
"None. You are my familiar."
Kaede sighed. She was starting to recognize the tone that signaled one of Pascal's off-putting and inappropriately-timed jokes.
They soon arrived outside the servant's room Marina lived in, its door now flanked by two armored guards.
"I am Sir Pascal Kay Lennart von Moltewitz," he moved up to introduce himself. "We wish to speak with the prisoner."
"Sir von Moltewitz, this case is currently pending investigations by Professor Sir..." The soldier replied before Pascal cut him off with a glare cold enough to freeze air:
"May I remind you that I am a Captain in His Majesty's service and a feudal lord by right of succession, who happens to be the target of this attack. I also have no doubt that my father, Field Marshal von Moltewitz, will be maddened by this unprovoked treachery. Now, do you seriously intend to keep me from getting the answers that I rightfully and lawfully deserve, soldier?"
"No Sir!" The guard raised his head up high, eyes glancing at the other side's walls before stepping aside.
So many privileges, it's not even fair, Kaede suppressed a grin as Pascal opened the door and lead her inside.
The room was exactly as she last remembered it -- two bunk beds and a table with clothes hanging everywhere. The only difference was that a screen of shimmering violet magic lay over the window, sealing it completely. Kaede guessed that there were probably also guards on the other side.
The brown-haired petite maid was lying in her bed, her hands behind her back and her wet eyes apathetic to the new guests.
"C-congratulations, Kaede," Marina sniffed. "I guess you deserve the faithful familiar award after all."
Pascal finished twirling his hand about in mostly the same motions as Ariadne's Sanctum Veil spell from earlier in the day. He then presented a 'your turn' gesture before leaning back against the other bunk bed.
"I didn't come here to be spiteful or interrogate you, Marina." Kaede spoke dryly as she met the maid's glassy sea-green eyes. "I don't want things to end this way between us, but there wasn't much of a choice before now."
"Of course... you have y-your master, and I have mine."
"You owe him for your upbringing and your life. I respect that allegiance, I really do. But can't you see that he's also using you, and ordering you to throw your life away for him in these missions? Isn't once enough to repay that? How many..."
"I-if... if you think I'm going to talk just because my fate is already sealed, then you can leave now," the maid retorted, her defiant words completely contradictory to her teary gaze.
Pascal practically snorted before interjecting with a contemptuous sneer:
"Do not flatter yourself. If we thought you had anything of value, there are ways to rip it out of your mind. It is below proper nobility to use such hideous magic, but there are matters of national importance that outweigh the honor of nobles... for me, at least, and I am certain the King's Black Eagles would agree. Not that there would be anything left of your psyche afterwards to comment on the matter."
Marina began to sob again, and Kaede sent an exasperated look towards Pascal:
"You're not helping."
"I said we are not interrogating you, and I meant it," Kaede continued. "Obviously, I can't speak for the other involved parties, but that's also why I'm here. If I can find you a way out of this -- and I'm not promising, because I honestly don't know -- then will you take it?"
"W-why are you doing this?" The maid whimpered once more.
"Because if you hadn't asked the assassins to keep me alive, I'm certain I'd be dead by now regardless of how successful Pascal and the rest were."
"E-except I asked you to help kill him..." Marina nodded towards Pascal. "W-what's the catch this time?"
Kaede hadn't really thought this part through. She looked towards Pascal, hoping for an inspiration on the legal side.
"How much do you think you can trust her?" he asked silently.
"She would rather die painfully for the one who raised her than give up any information. What does that tell you about her sense of loyalty?"
Pascal sighed and shook his head before answering:
"If I can get the authorities to agree, it will be to release you into my jurisdiction, as I am entitled to compensation as the directly wronged party. You can work on my estate as an indentured servant, but it will be under the condition that you accept a binding magical contract to never willingly send any information or contribute to any action that you believe may harm my family or any of its sworn allegiances."
"You're asking her to be a slave!?" Kaede glared at him. "Shouldn't that be illegal!?"
"Why? It is a perfectly practical form of punishment. We are not bartering them like trade goods as the Holy Imperium does," Pascal answered stiffly. "And she did assist them in trying to kill me. Fair is fair."
"There is also no way the higher-ups will accept handing her over if I do not give her at least this much punishment. At least sixteen people died in this attack, Kaede, including one professor. I am not willing to indulge your sense of ethics so much to lose my own, understand?"
Kaede didn't say another word. His accusation that she was pushing her cultural mores onto him had stung. She knew perfectly well that it was one of the worst mistakes in cross-cultural relations.
"What is your response?" Pascal intoned, sternly.
"Like I have any choice," Marina looked towards Kaede, who shrugged with her 'sorry, best I can do' expression.
Meanwhile, Pascal stood in contemplation, as though still trying to decide something.
Nearly two minutes passed, and Kaede began to wonder if he was silently accessing some memory storage device to check legality. Then:
"It is settled. Pack your essentials. You will leave tonight, before any unpleasant circumstances change things. I will arrange for someone to bring you to Nordkreuz. Once you reach my family's estate, the Majordomo will arrange for the binding magical contract."
"But we don't even..." Kaede blurted out.
Just then, the door swung open, and in walked Pascal's advisor, Professor Albert.
"I believe your familiar thinks me a fool, that you can just sneak under my nose without notice," the balding professor scathed, his eyes glancing over Kaede with disdain before locked sight with Pascal.
"Not a chance of it, Professor Sir," Pascal replied as he stood upright in military posture, hands back and chest high.
"See to it then. I want the maid gone before morning."
Professor Albert tugged on his well-trimmed mustache once before leaving the room, his striding steps now echoing up the hallway.
It took a moment before Kaede was able to recover and figured out what had just happened. Being an old-styled frame with a cheap lock, the door had a see-through keyhole, which was just in line to cast a Telepathy spell on Pascal's position.
"How long had he been there?"
She felt like she just made a complete fool of herself.
"Around when I first spoke," Pascal shrugged, his eyes still examining Marina. "Using Detect spells from that ring of yours would be a little obvious, so I did not bother to add it -- a poor judgment in hindsight that I intend to fix as soon as I can. Furthermore, since you are my familiar, we really should work on improving your magic sensitivity. The hallway had at least three layers of Professor Albert's Alarm wards. The third was extremely subtle, but the first two were glaringly obvious."
Without waiting for a response, Pascal took Kaede's wrist and dragged her back down the hallway.
"Wait a minute..." She called as her thin legs scurried along, trying to keep up with his stride.
"You two can talk later when she is no longer at the scene of her crime and had some time to cool her head and rethink what happened. I doubt any conversation now will be to your advantage. As for the rest of tonight, I want you back in bed and resting. Two brushes with death are enough for one day when you are clearly running low on beginner's luck."
Despite being forced to rest early, Kaede did not sleep well overnight. With Pascal's room wrecked and repairs delayed in an attempt to collect evidence, they had to relocate to a different one. Another unfamiliar ceiling, plus her anxieties about facing the trio tomorrow easily kept her up late.
There was also something wrong with her stomach...
----- * * * -----
After finishing his usual weekend morning workout, Parzifal refreshed himself before heading to the main keep for brunch. His walk across grounds, hand-in-hand with Ariadne, was quiet as usual.
Reynald yawned from a step ahead. He had stayed up late last night, boasting of his martial exploits to impress guys and girls alike as their classmates requested the details of what happened.
Parzifal didn't mind. His friend deserved the spotlight, and Reynald was already giving Parzifal more credit than he would like. He was still coming to terms with not only the fact he had killed someone, but the gruesome way he had accomplished it. Worse yet was the sense of satisfaction a part of him felt when the muffled assassin vanished under the brambles.
He had prayed long and hard to the Holy Father last night for his soul to be cleansed of its sinful taint.
But that wasn't the only thing on his mind.
Before yesterday, if someone had told him that the arrogant, condescending, judgmental, obstinate, intolerant -- he could go on for a while -- Runelord Pascal would apologize to him over the source of their enmity from two years ago, Parzifal would have responded that Celestial enlightenment was more likely to sweep across the Abyss first.
Maybe it had. Part of him wondered what other miracles the Holy Father orchestrated last night.
But that left him the dilemma of how to respond.
Year-long grudges did not disappear over a single apology, no matter how thorough and sincere it was. Parzifal certainly had not forgotten how hurtful it was back then, when a younger him had been convinced, utterly certain, that his incompetence in most fields of magic meant his dreams would never amount to anything, and that he would remain insignificant and uselessly boring throughout his life.
He could never thank his friends enough for giving him the self-respect to hold his head high over the course of two years. That was especially true for Ariadne, the most beautiful and popular girl in the academy who sat beside him, listening to his pessimistic complaints and encouraging him with saintly patience.
Parzifal prayed to the Holy Father every night for sending the angel that changed his life.
But if the warm, welcoming embrace of friendship could bless his life, why should this divine grace not be extended toward others?
Unlike Ariadne who turned it into yet another self-motivator, Parzifal had done his best to isolate his dislike for Pascal and keep it buried. Hatred was sinful. He may not have the compassion to simply forgive, but he would not allow his life to be ruled by dark emotions either.
...Except they still clouded his judgment, until Reynald opened his eyes to the grander picture yesterday.
For him to still hold onto that grudge after Pascal had shown the deepest remorse... it would be immature, childish even. Not only did it go against the teachings of the Founder, but it also represented the intolerance that he so hated in Pascal.
Parzifal knew that man was doomed to hypocrisy, but he would strive his best to escape it.
Engrossed in his thoughts, Parzifal had unknowingly walked into the great dining hall. Now, seeing the lonely figures of Pascal and Kaede near a far-side corner, he knew that there was only one true choice -- only one act the Holy Father would approve.
A healer's task did not end with merely physical wounds, but troubles of the mind, heart, and soul as well.
"Come on," Parzifal beckoned to Reynald, before his feet turned and his hand lead Ariadne down the long table.
"Oh you've got to be kidding me," Reynald complained, but he followed nonetheless.
It was time to extend an olive branch to the man both admired and scorned as the Runelord, and appeal to the soul of the boy that lived within.
As he pulled out the next seat and sat down, Parzifal wondered if Pascal's astonished expression mirrored his own from the previous night.
"Thought you might appreciate some company after yesterday."
Of course, Parzifal never heard the telepathic exchange between Reynald and Ariadne as they sat down:
"Are you okay with this, Ariadne?" The best friend asked, worried.
"Of course I'm not okay with this!"
"I'm sorry. Parzifal is just getting carried away again. I'm sure he didn't mean to..."
"Oh don't worry about that," the girl reassured. "His headstrong sense of ethics is part of why I love him."
It reminded Reynald of why everyone else, Parzifal especially, thought Ariadne was 'the perfect girl'.
"It's that prick who better prepare himself!"
...Even if she wasn't actually perfect.
----- * * * -----
Kaede knew that nothing ended that easily.
Parzifal kept the banter focused over the course of brunch, discussing mostly the events of last night and the turmoil within the academy that followed. Reynald soon pitched in with tactical analysis made using his knowledge of Mantis Blade modus operandi, occassionally interrupting himself to attempt flirting with Kaede, who he continued to call by the pet name 'muffin'.
She didn't hit him this time, partly because the men didn't need any sparks of hostility, and partly due to her cramping and aching stomach sapping all her energy.
According to Pascal, he had never personally wronged Reynald over the years. Furthermore, the shorter redhead took every opportunities to mock him, not to mention handing him one humiliating defeat after another in their Advanced Spellsword Combat class.
Therefore it was not surprising that Reynald had followed his best friend's lead as soon as he fulfilled his quota of evil glares.
Ariadne, however, was a different case entirely. She still wore her angelic smile through all of brunch, still lovingly offered food to Parzifal through raised forks. But she did not, even once, speak a single word to Pascal.
Until they all stood up to leave.
"I believe I still owe you something, you self-centered prick," Ariadne declared as she closed the distance between them to arm's length.
Just as when Parzifal first walked up to Pascal, a wave of silence rippled outwards through the hall. Within seconds, every moving body stilled as their eyes gazed upon the noble lady facing the Runelord.
Meanwhile, Pascal's puzzled expression didn't have a clue of what Ariadne was talking about...
Until her right hand drew a wide arc and exploded against his face in a slap that resounded through the dining hall.
Several of Pascal's 'fangirls' squeaked, but none dared to challenge the lady.
Kaede was certain Ariadne's glove was glowing. There was simply no way someone could slap that hard without magic, regardless of how big a sword they twirled around every day.
The force of the impact lifted Pascal's feet off the ground and threw him backwards like a rag doll, before the Runelord crashed into the ground several paces away on his back. A red handprint now adorned the right side of his face, his skin rapidly bruising with internal bleeding under the partial cover of his soft golden curls.
"Owww," Pascal remarked as he sat back up, his hand rushing to cradle his swelling cheek. "I do rot rememper drawing plood with mere words."
Sure enough, a small stream of red dripped down from the corner of his mouth before his other hand wiped it off.
"Consider it interest, Pascal, and I reserve the right to slap you again whenever your prick self surfaces."
A dozen or two people in the hall even clapped and cheered. But for Kaede, it was the first time she ever heard Ariadne use his name.
Shaking his head with a chuckle, Parzifal then leaned over to offer Pascal a hand back up.
Which the latter took with a firm grip and a muttered, embarrassed "thanks".
Still sitting on the other side of the table, Kaede tried to smile as she watched the bonding moment that would hopefully, with time, develop into something far more. But all she managed was a wry smirk that seemed more like a grimace.
Her stomach pains were growing worse.
As chatter returned across the dining hall, Ariadne was the first to notice the problem:
"Kaede what's wrong?"
"She's been having pains in her lower abdominal region all morning, and apparently last night as well," Pascal filled in for her, his right hand now rubbing the swollen left cheek while his turquoise ring glowed.
Parzifal leaned over the table to take a look before swiftly pulling back upright. He then glanced at Ariadne while his finger tapped in the air towards Kaede.
"Oh dear," the lady muttered, her rushed steps already on its way around the long table.
Pascal's confusion returned as he looked between Parzifal and Reynald. The healer kept his silence for the moment, while the knight simply shrugged, clueless.
"Some prodigy you are, Pascal; half a day goes by and you don't even notice basic biology?" Ariadne complained as she knelt down besides Kaede.
Are you kidding me!?
Already doubled over in pain, Kaede banged her head into the table as she realized exactly what the noblewoman implied.
"Kaede, you must be on your cycle... or whatever your people call a menstrual period."
Thanks to the translation magic integrated into her familiar bond, Kaede herself had no problem understanding Ariadne's terminology. The contents themselves, however, were far too appalling to think about.
"But... b-but I'm not bleeding," came her voiced thoughts. Even she would recognize the most obvious sign of a feminine body entering 'that time of the month'.
"If your undergarments are appropriately enchanted," Ariadne explained as she rubbed Kaede's lower back, "they'll clean it before it can even stain."
Variations of two thoughts filled Kaede's mind as their numbers multiplied explosively, quickly drowning out every other line of reason:
I should have known...
This can't be happening to me...
----- * * * -----
Kaede spent all of Sunday afternoon in bed, feeling almost as sorry for herself as the day she first came to this world. She was certain her hormones were to blame for that, but the knowledge itself didn't raise her mood.
She had to deal with this every month for the foreseeable future...
Her stomach pains and cramps had not alleviated any since morning, and her one hope of relief had been dashed as soon as it came. Ariadne was quick to point out that there was a spell for mostly suppressing the discomfort during a period. But Parzifal had to remind her that the magic involved direct manipulation of the nerve-conduits, which limited its use to the caster herself. It was why no male healer ever learned the spell for helping another through particularly painful cycles.
Meaning I can't use the blessing that's the privilege of noble ladies, Kaede reflected irritatingly. I have to suffer like the commoner girls do.
Screw this society.
It didn't stop Sir 'I-am-a-prodigy' Pascal from trying... and failing spectacularly. He somehow managed to loosen his own lower controls, which resulted in soiling himself.
Parzifal said that he got lucky. The last male healer who tried to invent a fix for his commoner wife ended up with a painful, week-long erection. After that, nobody wanted to attempt again.
So they returned to the tried-and-true method: applying direct heating to relax the muscles and soothe the discomfort.
That proved simple. Her undergarments had the effect built in. Parzifal also managed to obtain a few rubber hot-water pads, which he enchanted with Heat spells. There she chose to lay, to apply warm pressure from underneath.
This was how Kaede spent her last few hours: not moving, unable to distract herself with books, just laying there face-down, groaning and feeling sorry for herself.
Even Pascal looked like he felt bad for her.
"I have never apologized for pulling you into my world, have I?" He spoke from the work desk, his closed eyes facing a written report, as Kaede whimpered from her latest cramp.
"No. It's why I still hate you," she retorted grumpily.
In hindsight, nothing from her had come out nicely today.
"Well, I am sorry."
"Better late than never. Next time, you try being the one to menstruate!"
Chapter 13 - Scarlet Cultural Exchange
Kaede spent most of the next two days in bed, skipping even mealtime trips to the dining hall. Thankfully, Pascal brought a tray of aristocratic food back for her every time. Even better, he told her that Parzifal started inviting him over to join Ariadne, Reynald, and others during meals, so she didn't even have to feel bad about leaving him to eat alone again.
Although he would have deserved it, as all of her discomfort for the past days could be explained as 'his fault'.
By Monday afternoon however, her menstrual cramps had lessened enough for her to effectively concentrate on other things. Kaede only missed dinner due to being completely engrossed in her book on Weichsel's history:
Today's National Day was actually the 505th year anniversary of Weichsel's founding, declared the night after the Battle of Königsfeld in 61:Faith. The previous Kingdom of Amudaria -- a legacy name of their nomadic past -- had always been a loyal protectorate of the Imperium of the Inner Sea, which declared its 'Holiness' only sixty-one years prior, beginning the Age of Faith. But when religious unrest turned into the War of Cataliyan Independence and drew all available legions south, the Holy Imperium could spare nothing as a fresh Northmen invasion shattered Amudaria.
With the king dead and the capital burned, it was House von Drachenlanzen who took up the banner, rallying nobles and commoners alike by enacting the Writ of Universal Conscription. In a single decisive engagement, the future King Ferdinand I, the Great, the Crusader, the Saint, etcetera etcetera, crushed the invaders and founded a new realm. It also established Weichsel's tradition of military aristocracy, ever vigilant and periodically tested by raids and invasions from the North Sea.
The von Drachenlanzen dynasty still ruled Weichsel today. With their name 'Dragonlance' a very literal reminder of their proud ancestry from the Dragon-Demon War of millenniums ago, Kaede found it hard not to feel awed as she read their noble history...
...Until the door opened and the scent of mouthwatering wiener schnitzel wafted in.
Except Pascal wasn't carrying anything as he strode into view.
"You are being invited to dinner, sort of. Ariadne is just outside the door."
His broad shoulders gave a noncommittal shrug, followed by a silent reminder:
"You should get dressed properly first."
According to Pascal, Ariadne had mostly put away their past after her epic -- and publicly humiliating -- slap. But not hating his guts wasn't the same as being on good terms.
Kaede nodded back and rushed to put on her white 'uniform', a task far simpler than with any of those dresses. She also stuffed her hot water pads into its enchanted belt pouch.
Pascal then stopped her before she could walk out, taking care to make sure her appearance was immaculate and wouldn't embarrass him before the noblest of ladies.
Two of them, as it turned out.
"Good evening Kaede. Thought you could use a little chat and company after two days," Ariadne's angelic smile radiated from just beyond the room's doorway, with a food tray hovering above one palm and the other hand waving at her. "My friend Cecylia just returned from holiday. Would you be interested in joining us?"
"Pleased to meet your acquaintance," the petite girl who stood beside Ariadne's pink cascade beamed and waved energetically.
Kaede wasn't exactly in the mood to meet new people tonight, but this wasn't an offer she could refuse politely.
"The pleasure is mine," she curtsied in return.
Cecylia was slightly taller than Kaede at about one-sixty-four (5'4"), with fine, glossy black hair trimmed short and pull back by a white ribbon. Standing next to the mature and elegant Ariadne, she seemed almost fragile with her petite and thin figure, which only enhanced her undeniably cute appearance. Her small nose and lips lay under a pair of vibrant, dark-ruby eyes that held something odd about them, giving off a mysteriously alluring light. Her skin was fair to the point of being nearly a translucent silky sheen, accentuated by the standard crimson-on-black uniform worn by officer cadets, except with a long, wide skirt instead of the usual trousers.
As Kaede neared the doorway, she gasped and nearly tripped into the wiener schnitzel tray and its steaming bowl of vegetable soup as she realized what that 'something odd' was:
Inside a round black pupil within her deep-red iris, Cecylia's eyes held tiny scarlet-red crosses.
The new girl's hands gently steadied Kaede as she looked back up, her gaze drawn unerringly into the depth of those eyes before she could pull back and glance away:
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to stare."
"Hehe, don't worry about it," Cecylia giggled in her soft soprano. "I'll explain when we get back to my room."
She then turned towards Pascal while reaching for the doorknob:
"See you later Pascal! Don't worry we'll take good care of her!"
Her cheery voice gave Kaede bit of a surprise, who mentally asked in curiosity:
"Made a new friend already?"
"Good night," Pascal bid before sending back a somewhat wistful response:
"No, we spoke quite a bit before I fell out with Ariadne, then until today she mostly avoided me. Cecylia Renata von Falkenhausen is the third child of General Wiktor von Falkenhausen, father's second-in-command. Since we are the same age, our fathers had us meet when we were six. She is actually the one who introduced me to Ariadne."
Bet your breakup came as a personal embarrassment for her then, Kaede thought as Cecylia took her hand and began pulling her down the hall with Ariadne following behind.
"Be careful though. She likes to drag others to her pace before turning it back on them."
But rather than cautionary, Pascal sounded almost... admiring.
So Kaede wrote down another name on her mental list of people that Pascal actually respected.
The third-year girls' dorms were just one floor above, and Cecylia's room turned out very... feminine.
It was bright scarlet, white, and pink, with an abundance of lace and frills. Frames of natural scenery on watercolor canvas decorated the walls, while a baby grand piano lay against the far corner.
The room of a highborn lady.
Even before the door closed behind them, Kaede found herself greeted by a plump cat with lush white and gray fur. It laid down before Kaede and gazed at her through teal eyes before giving an adorable purr.
She knelt down to pet and stroke its wonderfully soft coat.
"Kaede you might want to finish your dinner before getting too friendly with Ania," Ariadne suggested as she took the tray to the writing desk by the window. "She loves to steal food, and it's hard to keep watch on all of them."
"All of them?"
"Ania is a matryoshka cat from Samara," Cecylia watched with an amused grin. "She's also my familiar."
Kaede stood back up, puzzled:
Even as Kaede asked, Ania looked up, and another feline face, identical but slightly smaller, emerged from below her furry stomach. The smaller cat soon pulled herself out, laid down next to the larger Ania, and the process repeated itself.
Kaede soon found herself wide-eyed and speechless, surrounded by nine purring cats of decreasing size and plumpness.
"Are they... separate...?" she struggled to find the right words.
"They share the same psyche, as far as we know," Cecylia explained. "Matryoshka cats use shadow magic to make duplicates of themselves to scout for predators and trap prey. The largest one is always the main body, even though tapping its senses always feel like the smallest one is the primary."
"Speaking of eyes and ears, are you..."
"Not since I got annoyed with him and told him to stop. Pascal did promise not to intrude upon my senses without permission," Kaede answered, wondering how many times she would have to explain this to people.
"Good!" Cecylia grinned. "Not that he's the voyeur type, but we don't need him to catch an eye-full during girls' night."
This must be the 'slumber party' guys are so intrigued over.
Kaede began to fidget just inside the entrance. Her cheeks heated up and her eyes glanced away as Cecylia wasted no time before starting to undress, a set of black velvet pajamas with pink frills laid out on the bed before her.
Ariadne was quick to notice as usual, soon commenting in her peaceful smile from the other side of the room:
"Cecylia, you're making our guest uncomfortable."
"Our rules -- sleepwear only! No stupid layers of formality on girls' night!"
"I think changing in front of someone you recently met goes far beyond mere 'casual'."
"Hehe well, we'll just get familiar that much faster then!"
Before Kaede knew it, Cecylia had finished changing and bounced back. Her first thought was that Cecylia's exposed shoulders above her camisole easily had the smoothest, pearly skin she had ever seen, even with modern cosmetics and skincare products. In fact, it seemed almost unnatural.
Backed into the wall, Kaede yelped in surprise as Cecylia's delicate fingers snaked in and started undoing her buttons with swift precision.
She turned towards Ariadne, her glassy eyes pleading. The noble lady then tilted her head with a 'darn it' look before walking over and pulling the overenthusiastic Cecylia off by the wrist.
"At least give Kaede some room before you drive her off. She's already getting tears in her eyes."
"Awww but I wanna see! Pascal has pretty good tastes you know!"
With her shirt open and halfway down her shoulders, Kaede hugged her small chest and pressed herself against the wall. She could feel her cheeks blushing furiously, her exposed skin reddening as they met the warm indoor air again. Oddly enough, she found this far more embarrassing than wearing the same thing in front of Pascal.
Girls by themselves are way too scary...
"Oh Sylv is going to have so much fun with her!"
Cecylia kept her brightly lit eyes fixated on Kaede, as though savoring an alluring piece of artwork.
Trying to defuse the situation, Ariadne herself began to undress and change to her sleepwear, beginning by revealing a bright-red bustier that tightly hugged her ample bosoms.
It didn't have quite the intended effect. Kaede merely looked for more inconspicuous objects to fascinate over.
"You still haven't introduced like you promised," Kaede grumbled before she leaned over the bedside counter and bit into another slice of wiener schnitzel.
The delicious food -- veal especially -- always made her feel better about things.
She even stopped obsessing over the fact that she wore nothing more than white lingerie as the three of them sat on Cecylia's king-sized four-poster bed in-between 'nine' furry cats. Although it would take a while before she could grow accustomed to it, if that were possible at all.
"Hehe, I do still owe an explanation don't I?" Cecylia replied cheerily. "I take it's your first time meeting a Dhampir?"
Kaede nearly choked. 'Dhampir' of slavic folklore was the child between a human and...
"One of your parents... is a vampire?" She asked as her coughs subsided with the help of Ariadne stroking her back.
"Ah... you really aren't from our world are you?"
Cecylia's scarlet-cross eyes grew fascinated as a mischievous grin lit up her face. She held up the smallest kitty and twiddled its paw towards Kaede while launching into a lively explanation that totally contrasted with its contents:
"The vampire clans were wiped out centuries ago by the not-yet-Holy Imperium, although not before their curses destroyed six entire legions and left the Dead Mountains perpetually filled with murderous mist. Dhampir are the descendants of vampires, still carrying the core of the fiendish blood curse that first created them during the Demonic Invasion. But the magic have at least diluted enough that the church could seal its effects, which..." she pointed to her pupils, "is what this cross is. I've had it since my baptism, dyed by my own magic over the years in the same way Ariadne's rosy ether colors her hair."
"So... you don't drink blood anymore then?"
The moment Cecylia put her kitten back onto the bedcovers, all nine cats scurried forward and surrounded Kaede's sides and rear like a furry trolley train.
"We do not urge for blood. But we certainly still enjoy it..."
Cecylia's grin slanted into a smirk at just the right angle, highlighting the little fang of a canine she sported. Oddly enough, only one was slightly bigger than usual. But Kaede hardly thought about it as the Dhampir leaned in with a hungry, blood-red gaze.
With her entire body shivering, Kaede had never felt so aware of her Samaran body, nor the fact her blood was literally 'health food' for the predatory girl before her.
"Most Dhampirs follow our cultural tradition of taking blood..."
Kaede could feel Cecylia's thin yet firm fingers slide down her bared shoulders, pinning her arms on each side. Hot breaths tickled her exposed collarbone as two deep-red eyes leaned in. Already quivering with trepidation, Kaede shook uselessly against Cecylia's unyielding grasp, cringing as she felt the Dhampir's moist lips touched her skin... and kissed her gently.
Cecylia then leaned back with the broad smile of a joke well played.
"Y-you're horrible," Kaede muttered in her wispy, shaky voice as she wiped the tears from her glaring eyes.
"Hehe sorry. You're just too cute that I couldn't resist teasing a teeny bit extra."
Her playful words didn't harbor the slightest drop of apology.
Meanwhile, her nine cats returned to the center of the bed, forming a full circle around her while each playfully chased the swaying tail of the kitten before them.
"Don't worry though, we only take from the partners we marry," Cecylia announced proudly. "Dhampirs lack the regenerative vitality of vampires, so drinking blood has become a rather private issue -- diseases and all that."
So... Dhampir are dead afraid of STDs.
Still trying to calm down her heartbeat, Kaede sent a note to her future self that the next time a Dhampir threatens to bite her, she should just warn them of syphilis.
"Although we no longer need it, consuming fresh human blood does make us appear younger. You should see my father, one-sixty-eight years old and still drawing the attention of every lady across the hall like a stud beefcake. Mother gets jealous all the time, even though he's never cheated on her once after a century of marriage. We Dhampirs tend to be rather devoted in matrimony, blood of our cherished mate flowing through us and all."
With hands still brushing her long flowing pink tresses, Ariadne had watched the entire exchange with a serene smile, completely unperturbed. Now she finally reentered the conversation:
"That's pretty rare among us. Most noble lords have at least one affair during their youth. It's almost something of a 'proud' achievement among them. The Trinitian church may require monogamy, but aristocratic culture always tend to turn a blind eye toward mistresses."
"Well, neither us or Rhin-Lotharingie completely shrugged off the old pagan traditions of concubines equaling prestige. But here complains the girl whose beloved suitor has eyes only for her."
Cecylia's sigh was almost longing, but Ariadne had no intention of playing into it:
"You've got how many boys chasing after you? Including both Reynald and Gerd, I might add."
"Reynald flirts with half of everything female and walking on two legs, plus I prefer someone taller than me," Cecylia almost laughed. "Gerd is a real diligent worker. Sweet, definitely the romantic type, not to mention that perfect chest the last time he wrestled with Reynald."
Her Dhampir eyes had that 'hungry' look again...
"But... if I court him he'd expect me to become a housewife or something. Nope!"
Cecylia retrieved a tennis-sized ball of red yarn and tossed it onto the bed, where the nine Anias began to juggle and bounce it around like some kind of feline volleyball game.
"Finding the ideal man is overrated. It's far better to help a boy with potential reach his manly peak. That, is where true and lasting love lay."
Ariadne's calm response sounded more like a profession of wisdom. But with Pascal's rooftop apology to Parzifal only days past, Kaede quickly realized that the lady was speaking from personal experience.
Love relationships with a man...
It was hardly a topic that she felt comfortable discussing, especially not if they lingered and the two girls grew interested in 'her tastes'.
"What are you aiming for? Professionally?"
Kaede took the opportunity to change topics as she ate her last two slices of veal. She could swear at least four slices were missing, although that was still an acceptable price to pay for the adorable kittens whose furry tails continued to brush by every few seconds.
"I'm on the intelligence track -- public security, information control, and counter-espionage, shooting straight for the King's Black Eagles!"
"She's also a foreign culture expert. I could have sworn her crosses turned into glittering stars when I first told her about you Kaede," Ariadne joked.
"It's not like I live in Samara. How often do I get to meet someone from another world?" Cecylia said as she scurried forward playfully until her knees almost touched Kaede's. "Soooooo... how similar is your world compared to ours? Other than the no magic part?"
"Ehhhh... extremely? in fact. Hyperion is like my world if neither the Roman Empire -- who conquered most of the Western World like your Inner Sea Imperium -- nor its Catholic Church underwent schism. So instead of a long, slow decline, our version of the Imperium collapsed within a few centuries and lead to the Dark Ages."
In later hindsight, Kaede was surprised by how easily her words rushed out, even though this was their first meeting. But after being nearly stripped and bitten by Cecylia, delving into deep conversational discussions felt almost... casual.
"Let me start closer to home here and run nation by nation: Weichsel is pretty much Prussia from my old world. Although not counting martial rule by the Teutonic Order during the Baltic Crusade, Prussia didn't establish a strong military state to power play in continental politics until after the prevalence of muskets..."
Cecylia cut her off almost instantly, a tribute to the girl's sheer mental processing speed even as she absorbed information that was literally out-of-this-world.
"Weapons that use black powder to propel a small metal ball at high speed."
"Black powder? That stuff used for mining? We've had it for centuries, just not so much for military use. Only elite and specialist troops equip grenades and the likes."
Kaede furrowed her brows as she grew confused. Even the most conservative of nations didn't take long to realize the potential of gunpowder in Earth history. Those who refused were too quickly shown the error of their ways.
Cecylia answered like it was the most obvious thing:
"Can you imagine infantry carrying that stuff when a Fireball or Lightning strikes? Legion Resistance spells won't save them when the soldiers themselves start exploding from the smallest spark. A single platoon of Knights Phantom, or even Noble Reiters will tear through an entire battle line. That doesn't even include how vulnerable logistics would be to supply such combustible ammunition, or what a few raindrops could do."
It was the first time Kaede truly realized that the existence of magic did more than just replace aspects of technology. It completely altered the advancement paths of civilization itself.
----- * * * -----
"How did your night go?" Pascal asked Kaede at brunch the next day as she sat down next to him.
Kaede and Cecylia ended up comparing the cultural and geopolitical evolution of the two worlds late into the night. They eventually concluded that the prevalence of magical communications and transportation must be the key reasons why Hyperion empires not only grew larger than those of Europe, but also lasted longer. After all, the improved accessibility of information led directly to a corresponding increase in administrative power.
Even with the Dhampir's earlier behavior lingering in her mind, Kaede found herself quickly warming up to Cecylia thanks to their mutual interests.
In the end, it was Ariadne who Kaede apologized to this morning. The lady who epitomized nobility spoke little most of the night and simply kept up her flawless smile. Engrossed in their discussion, Kaede did not notice until after the fact.
Ariadne's response this morning had been a truly affectionate "I'm glad you enjoyed yourself. You needed it after the last few days."
It made Kaede feel unworthy of befriending such a wonderful person.
Parzifal's friendly call brought her back to her thoughts.
"Hello Parzifal. Clearly, I must have missed something BIG if the Runelord is sitting next to you."
"The Holy Father does his work in mysterious ways," Parzifal smiled back. "Pascal I don't need to introduce. This is Kaede..."
"The famous familiar girl, I recognized."
Gerd nodded towards Pascal while giving Kaede a slight bow:
"I'm Gerd Kessler. Pleasure to meet you."
Wearing the black-on-burning-red uniform of the Knights Phantom, Gerd stood over meter-eight-five (6'1"). His short, straight hair was black, his firm eyes an ash-blue. Below them, his hard, chiseled chin and a slightly tall, Balkan nose dominated his image. But even covered by his uniform, it was clear that his body held an incredibly firm musculature. Tough and well-built, but no steroids monster either.
"Ah... nice to meet you as well."
Kaede faltered when she heard his surname, which if her etymology memory served, meant some kind of smith -- definitely not noble.
"You are the sponsored cadet," Pascal noted plainly.
Which Gerd completely misread as his cold eyes hardened:
"Yes. My parents are yeomen commoners. Parzifal was the one who sponsored my coming here. You have a problem with it?"
"Your grades are sixth in our class. Why would I?"
"Would it hurt you to show your admiration a little more in your public voice?" Kaede prodded over telepathy, which Pascal utterly ignored.
Gerd shrugged, his blank expression seemingly not caring:
"You do have a reputation, and most nobles here only put up with me thanks to Parzifal and Ariadne."
"I hate incompetent people," Pascal clarified as his turquoise gaze swept the dining hall. "Standing, race, prestige, none of those matter. Intellect, resolve, and the skills it bring are what counts."
Other than Kaede herself and Cecylia, everyone looked back at Pascal with some shade of surprise.
"In fact, I was just talking to my father the other day about the 'Imperial Examination System' that Kaede spoke of from her memories, which could elevate the poorest civilian to important officials. The performance bottleneck to our army's Mobility Doctrine has always been a limit of capable officers. Father told me to draft him a formal proposal on how we could apply a standardized testing and scholarship system for promising cadets, military or civilian."
By the end of Pascal's little speech, Gerd stood awed with a his mouth ajar.
"The Marshal is interested in this?" he asked, almost in disbelief.
Pascal nodded back, his stiff gaze confirming:
"Why is this a surprise? The military aristocracy is meritocratic."
"Only when one of sufficiently exalted rank highlights the achievements, and there's quite a noble preference," Gerd countered in a flat voice. "Still, better some opportunity than none... you really must let me contribute to this."
He pulled out a seat right across from Pascal and sat down.
It was the prodigy's turn for raised brows and querying looks.
Then Parzifal explained, his words filled with mixed emotions as he stared at his friend:
"Gerd had wanted to command infantry so he could lead other commoners into opportunities, but Reynald persuaded him to switch to the Knights Phantom instead."
"Faster promotions and more chances for battle honors; far more visible too," the redhead jumped in. "Earn yourself a noble title, and you'll have the resources to help others aplenty. Wayyy more efficient, so long as you have the skills for it."
"Assuming you don't get yourself killed," Parzifal added wistfully.
Gerd seemed like he wanted to retort, only to hold back at the last moment and look away, as though he just couldn't say it towards Parzifal.
Meanwhile, Pascal was examining Reynald with an odd stare:
"Why do you not use some of that intellect in your studies? Outside of combat and horsemanship, your grades are barely passing."
Reynald answered in three simple words just before stuffing a large chunk of ham into his mouth:
"I hate reading."
----- * * * -----
Surrounded by other acquaintances, Parzifal's group broke to separate conversations as they enjoyed their meal. Classes did not restart until the afternoon, so they all took their last few hours to relax.
Kaede was introduced to nearly two dozen other noble acquaintances who sat nearby, although none of them spoke another word to her afterwards. She quickly realized that Gerd's situation was milder but somewhat similar to hers, aristocratic sponsorship or not.
In the eyes of most highborns, the two of them were seen as little more than servants who shadowed their master's footsteps.
Unfortunately, Kaede did not receive much of a chance to consult her senior. Gerd spent almost the entire meal digging details out of Pascal, much to the annoyance of other nearby nobles who saw an easy opportunity to approach the Runelord.
It soon became apparent that most of the other peers who surrounded Parzifal were not like-minded individuals. His affable demeanor and generous personality did make him easy to befriend, but Kaede was fairly certain that Parzifal's family heritage probably wasn't any lower than that of Ariadne's.
Personal politics and alliance-building worked the same way no matter where one went, especially among junior aristocrats. This was particularly true for those sociable enough to begin a snowball effect: the more acquaintances a high society circle gathered, the harder it became to refuse or ignore them.
Kaede was still observing the group when a fourth-year student ran in from the hallway.
"WAR! WAR!" He yelled at the top of his lungs before stopping just inside the entrance to catch his breath.
All chatter in the dining hall died instantly as everyone awaited his explanation:
"THE CATALIYA CALIPHATE HAS DECLARED HOLY WAR AGAINST THE EMPIRE OF RHIN-LOTHARINGIE! Their armies have already crossed the border!"
Given the defensive military alliance between Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie, everyone instantly knew what it meant.
The entire dining hall erupted back into loud, chaotic conversations. Some voices were worried, others anxious, and a few just plain scared.
Pascal was one of the few who completely kept his cool.
"Well, at least this answers the riddle of why the Holy Imperium suddenly wants me dead."
Most of Parzifal's close friends nodded back in agreement, their expressions varying between alarm and apprehension.
None of them appreciated the frightening implications of being simultaneously hostile to the two largest powers of the Western World.
The only exception was Gerd:
"Okay seriously you're all scaring me. What in Holy Father's name did I miss?"
Chapter 14 - Outbreak of War
The next week went by in a blur as the Königsfeld Academy of Magic prepared for war.
King Leopold von Drachenlanzen of Weichsel had evoked the Writ of Universal Conscription, calling for 'General Mobilization' in the name of the Holy Father. Using this first stage of Weichsel's Fourfold Mobilization system, the standing army would quadruple in size as professional soldiers were augmented by active reserves and young militia. Furthermore, Noble Reiter units, formed by drafting the magic-blessed nobility, would supplement the professional Weichsel Cavalry that consisted of noble spellsword knights and their retainer troops.
Last but not least, 'General Mobiliziation' reduced the cycle of officer training from four years to three. As the end of the year already drew near, Weichsel's General Staff declared that not only fourth year student cadets will be required to join the campaign, but the third years as well.
It was the worst present as the holidays approached.
The Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie had responded to the military buildup in their south by beginning a partial mobilization five days ago. But spy reports that reached the eyes of the Emperor grossly underestimated both the readiness and the tidal scale of the Caliphate's invasion. News from the borders claimed of Cataliyan armies numbering in the hundreds of thousands, pouring over the southern mountain passes in three separate army groups. Hopeless to stop the approaching juggernaut, Lotharin border forces fell back across the front, seeking to regroup with reinforcements at second line fortifications.
They left four undefended Duchies in their wake.
Three, technically. Duke Guy of Avro-Calent refused the general retreat order. His proud four-layer concentric castle, which boasted the strongest fortification in Southern Rhin-Lotharingie, was simply bypassed by the Cataliyan vanguard forces. Rear army units then surrounded the fortress and bombarded it nonstop for three days, followed by a nineteen-hour relentless assault which seized the citadel from its exhausted defenders. In the end, the Duke's bravado and 'glorious death' not only failed to halt or even slow down the invasion, but cost the Lotharin defenses three thousand precious seasoned troops.
The entire war could not have come at a worse time, just as winter was beginning to seal the Northern Lotharingie Mountains under ice and snow. Even Weichsel's coastal Margraviates found it hard to mobilize as yet another cold front swept in from the North Sea.
But the King and his Marshal had no choice. This was the first war against the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie since signing the defensive military alliance treaty. Failing to uphold the pledge would not only invalidate their coalition in the eyes of the world, but also risk condemnation from Weichsel's only influential ally within the Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea.
Ever since Ferdinand I, the founding King of Weichsel, allowed himself to be crowned by the Pope, the small nation in the north has maintained the confidence of the Holy See, serving as a bastion of Trinitian might against the barbaric pagans of the north.
Papal appeasement was Weichsel's foremost deterrence against southern aggression, especially after hostilities during the War of Imperial Succession. Tripling Weichsel's landmass had been worth the papal condemnation it earned them that time -- silenced only by generous donations of gold while leaving church assets alone during territorial annexation. But King Leopold could ill afford further disapproval.
So the army gathered outside the academy's stone fortifications.
The Königsfeld Academy of Magic was one of fourteen rallying points within Weichsel. Every day, more forces arrived outside the curtain walls, setting up camps as they awaited fresh orders from above.
Companies of swordstaff infantry marched in from nearby villages. Battalions of arbalest troops gathered from neighboring towns. Even several hundred cavalry rode in from the nearby counties and baronies who paid direct fealty to the king.
By Saturday morning, the entire area surrounding the academy had grown into a new settlement of tents, palisades, 'Instant Cabins', and simple watchtowers. Inside this makeshift town lived more than three thousand troops, awaiting orders to march west.
Without enacting 'Full Mobilization' and stripping Weichsel's effective defenses bare, Pascal estimated that his nation should be able to muster a total force of fifty thousand -- a mere fragment of the Caliph's might.
----- * * * -----
"I have never seen someone so bad on a horse."
Kaede lay flat on the ground as she ignored Pascal's scathing remark. This was her third practice session with a mount, and she still almost fell off twice during only a prolonged canter. Then the white war steed went into a full gallop, and only Pascal's Air Cushion spell kept her from injuring her back.
Among his kendo friends back on Earth, Kaede's coordination and reflexes had been mediocre at best. It was yet another reason he preferred the meditative and gradual forms in archery over the rapid assaults and reactionary parries of swordplay. Coming to Hyperion and adapting to a new, smaller body hadn't helped her any in attaining better control over her muscles... or lack thereof.
At least her period had ended. The first two practice session had far less pleasant results.
"She's not that bad. You should have seen Gerd when he first learned how to ride. That guy was a true sack of potatoes -- makes one appreciate how far he's come."
Parzifal had tried to encourage her every time he came by to see Ariadne, who offered Kaede what pointers she could. Unsurprisingly, the pegasus knight was not only the best rider in her year, but the entire academy as well. The Manteuffels weren't literally raised in the saddle like their nomadic ancestors; but having learned to ride a pony since she was four, it wasn't far from the truth either.
"Excuse me for not being born noble," Kaede retorted as she stood back up, rubbing her painful behind.
The Air Cushion softened the landing enough to prevent injuries, but there was still some impact. Combined with all the ups and downs in the saddle, it made Kaede's butt hurt -- not quite a place used to it given the wonders of modern vehicle suspension.
The horsemanship problem was hardly a new one. Even during the pre-industrial eras of Earth, cavalry was predominantly a noble occupation, for only the wealthy could afford to grow up accustomed to any proper steed. Many farmers had horses and mules as well, but a docile, plow-towing animal was far different from one bred for the military.
As for Kaede, she had never even petted a pony before, let alone ride a galloping stallion.
"Again?" she asked, watching Pascal whistle the horse back around.
"No. Dinner is almost upon us, and that was already your fourth try this session. Give your backside a rest already."
Kaede quickly put her hands away. She wasn't aware it had been that obvious.
"Nobody is going to become good in just a few days. Only a prodigy would be foolish enough to expect that, even though your own horsemanship is hardly worth bragging about..."
Ariadne voiced her cutting words with a serene smile as she walked over from the wall Parzifal and her had been leaning against. Her delicate fingers extended back to cup her waist-length hair, a pink waterfall swaying between two sides in the castle courtyard's strong crosswinds.
"--Besides, isn't hanging onto a canter enough? Not like she's going to join a thundering charge, even in the very unlikely scenario that you did."
With the reins back in his hands, Pascal's turquoise gaze was still examining Kaede as he began his reply:
"I was hoping she could act as my courier should the opportunity arise. The telepathic link grounded in our familiar bond would allow me to communicate with command directly through her -- exceedingly useful given how normal Telepathy spells cannot function in a battlefield full of clashing ether. It would be a good reason for her to come with me."
"I thought mages often brought their familiars along?" Kaede puzzled.
Thankfully, her own hair was long enough that she stuffed its end into her belt pouch. With most of her time spent reading, Kaede didn't usually mind the sheer length of her beige-white hair, which reached all the way down to her thighs. In fact, she rather enjoyed how soft and comfortable it was. But it was also rather annoying on windy days when she came outside.
"Yes; and in most other cases, I would not worry about it," Pascal answered. "But bringing a girl from my household does raise questions -- and not the kind of rumor good for unit morale."
Smiling as he watched Ariadne from behind, Parzifal strode up to his beloved and put his arm around her shoulders. As though treating a precious jewel, his hands carefully brushed her hair back into place. After receiving an appreciative smile from her, he turned his gaze towards Pascal:
"Oh right, congratulations are in order, although it's hardly surprising after your promotion to Captain. Now you're also the youngest person to command a Noble Reiter company."
'Reiter' was one of the few military terms Kaede knew from German history -- one of the first cavalry in Europe who raised firearms to the status of primary weapons. The fact her familiar bond's 'translation' feature picked this word in specific meant that the magic actually tried to match Weichsel's language to her specific knowledge.
Unlike the professional 'Weichsel Cavalry' which used a combination of polearms, projectiles, and spells, the entirely aristocratic Noble Reiters were cavalrymen who served only as artillery-mages. Their lack of proper combat training reflected in their poor ability to hold out in a close encounter.
Therefore, 'Reiter' was rather appropriate, not to mention far less confusing, than its literal meaning: horse-rider.
"Thanks," Pascal answered a bit awkwardly, clearly still not used to this new relationship. "Do you know which unit you are being assigned to yet? I presume you will be taking a healer's role with the Knights Phantom."
"There's not enough new Knights Phantom to form another company, and new medical squads are only formed on a company-basis," Ariadne said dejectedly as she leaned into Parzifal's shoulder. "Our modus operandi is too different from any other unit to work together, so we're being added to bolster the Black Lancers company when we link up with the King's forces coming from Königsfeld."
"So they offered me to pick any company from your battalion, since they're short on healers for the medic squads again. What do you think, Captain Sir von Moltewitz? Am I good enough, or do you still think I'm too boring?"
Parzifal glanced away at the last second, and Kaede wondered if he regretted impulsively scratching that old wound the moment those words left his mouth.
But if anything, it was Pascal who looked more uncomfortable, his prideful mask leaking just enough humility to identify as mildly apologetic:
"I would be honored if you joined me."
The two men looked back upon one another, and turquoise gaze met aquamarine before each of them nodded in silent recognition and agreement with the other.
"Well, I'll inform the good Major tomorrow then. Not to mention, this also solves our other problem with bringing Kaede."
Both Pascal and Kaede stared at Parzifal for several moments. Neither could figure out the meaning behind his words before the two of them spoke at once:
"Easy," the healer's eyes almost sparkled under his brown bangs. "Medical supplies."
Oh right, walking Blood Bank of Samara, Kaede remembered.
Facing the grinning Parzifal and the giggling Ariadne, her wispy response came out completely flat:
"Oh ha ha, very funny."
Meanwhile, Pascal looked even less amused than his familiar:
"Fair warning: if she faints, I am holding you accountable."
After returning the horse to the stablemaster, Kaede followed Pascal back to the dorms because he wanted to "deal with something first."
Thus she sat down on the bed and took out a tome to read while he finished whatever errand he had.
Except that he stood staring at her.
"What is it?"
"I received something from the postmaster for you today."
Pascal spoke with a not-serious, not-joyous, not-angry, but oddly peaceful and gentle expression as he handed her a wrapped parchment scroll. He then turned the chair at his work desk around to face her before sitting down on it.
Who would send something to me?
Kaede frowned as she took the scroll. Rolling it over, her eyes widened at the black dragon crest of Weichsel on its official wax seal. Her small hands almost fumbled in their rush to unwrap it, pulling it open before her gaze to scan through...
All speculative trains of thoughts came to crashing halts as she registered its impossible content.
Although Kaede had always avoided thinking about it, and despite trying her best to forget it, her memories would never let go of that dreadful first meeting with the headmaster, or even the exact words his horrible raspy voice used to announced her fate in this world:
"No, Miss Familiar. You are neither a citizen of this country nor a holder of lawfully issued identification. Furthermore, you were summoned by a mage through his contractual ritual. In the eyes of our national laws, you are an non-entity who is only recognized as part of his responsibility. You are not property, but due to the lack of legal precedence, you are not far above it either."
She couldn't even begin to count the number of times those words, spoken in that exact same voice, returned to haunt her as she laid awake in bed into the depth of the night.
Returning to the beginning of the scroll, Kaede carefully read each line and every word, taking care to ascertain its reality, that she wasn't merely misinterpreting through wishful thinking:
By the powers invested in me by His Majesty King Leopold Karl-Wilhelm von Drachenlanzen, I hereby recognize and certify Miss Kaede Nika Suvorsky, member to the noble household of Sir Karl August von Moltewitz, Landgrave of Nordkreuz, as a resident of the Kingdom of Weichsel, with all the rights, privileges, and duties of...
She couldn't continue anymore as moisture invaded her eyes and blurred her sight.
I can't believe it.
"This... this is..." her dry voice choked out.
For a pre-modern society, 'household' simply saw her as a servant to the Landgrave's family, but this was nevertheless infinitely better than mere 'property'.
"It is an official certification of residency in the Kingdom of Weichsel, personally signed by the Department Chief of Immigration from the Ministry of the Interior. As long as you abide by our laws, this residency will turn into lawful citizenship after ten years of either living within Weichsel's domains or serving the interests of Weichsel on foreign soil -- which will certainly be the case when you travel with me."
Residency... it's been only... twenty-two days since I came to this world!
Kaede had never applied for citizenship herself, but even she knew that such changes in status usually took years, months at the very least. She had already resigned herself for being completely without rights and reliant upon his protection for the foreseeable future...
"How did you get this so--"
"The process normally takes at least two years. But since high government positions are mostly filled by military officers who retired into the reserves, my family has plenty of contacts within the ministries..."
Pascal was totally unabashed. To him, using back-doors for personal affairs like this was his right:
"--Some bribery also paved the way, of course. But I saw how shocked you were over this when the headmaster first mentioned it. Given that particular worry, expediency became an urgent need."
Even so, he must have started the weekend after I came...
Kaede felt the wet warmth of tears streak down her cheeks as her glassy eyes continued to gaze upon the scroll. Her fingers were almost shaking as she slowly closed the thick parchment back into a roll.
She finally let out the breath she had been unknowingly holding. Her hands brought the certificate close to her chest, protectively clutching what was easily the most precious item Pascal had given her since coming to this fantasy realm.
Yet in hindsight, it wasn't his best present to her. More precisely, it was merely a representation of the rest:
In a land where she had absolutely nothing to her name, he had given her a warm and secure place to call home.
It was easy, so easy to consider this his obligation, as Pascal was the one who tore Kaede away from her past life by summoning her into this world. But she also knew that few individuals placed in such circumstances would have taken the same position or invested the same effort for her sake.
It might be his responsibility, but it was a responsibility he took in full measure and upheld even without being asked.
Kaede smiled back at Pascal through her blurry gaze. Her hand reached up to wipe away the tears, but even then she had trouble clearly making out his countenance.
"--I can't even begin to describe... but... this really, really means a lot to me. Everything..."
The wetness in her eyes wouldn't stop coming out, a small yet steady stream that her hands kept clearing away.
Throughout her entire life, Kaede almost never lost control of her emotions. Yet this was already her second time since coming to Hyperion.
A small corner of her mind couldn't help but wonder if being a teenage girl had something to do with it. She had once read that the hormone imbalance of undergoing puberty had a critical impact on how teen minds perceived and responded to situations.
There was also the fact that female brains were wired very differently from male brains, or how neurotransmitter roles varied between genders, or...
Perhaps shedding a few more tears were the least of her self-adapting changes since arriving in this new world.
"--I know I should at least give you a hug or something in gratitude over this, yet I can't even stop crying here..."
Thinking back, Kaede had never felt more glad that she picked his side, never so assured that she made the right decision when she joined the assassination scheme against him for his protection. Yet she couldn't help but feel a pang of guilt over her brief indecision. Even back then, when she chose whether or not to partake in his murder, he had already started his work to help her feel at ease.
I could have done so much wrong...
Wordlessly, Pascal stood up from his chair, walked over to the bed, and wrapped both of his arms around her thin shoulders.
She could feel his protective warmth as he pulled her into his firm chest.
"The hugs are free," he said in that odd joking tone of his.
Still buried in his chest, Kaede couldn't help but crack an unseen smile:
Such inappropriate timing.
She didn't even have the urge to hit him this time.
After nearly a minute, Pascal pulled back just enough to look down into her glassy eyes. His fingers reached up to carefully wipe them away, as though brushing aside delicate beads of pearl.
"As much as I enjoy how huggable you are, we really should go down for dinner. Otherwise, Ariadne and the rest are going to believe I am chastising you over today's practice."
Kaede couldn't help but smile back at him, her rose-quartz eyes still swollen red:
"Then you better help me clean this up first. Otherwise, they'll know you've been bullying me."
----- * * * -----
As Kaede followed Pascal into the main keep, they found Professor Albert waiting for him with a stern, almost grim expression:
"Sir von Moltewitz, please come with me for a moment. There is something private I must inform you."
Kaede tilted her head slightly as she looked at Pascal, whose poker face went on instantly.
"Go join Parzifal and the rest for dinner. I will be there shortly," he told her before following his advisor into the dark hallways of the stone keep.
She hesitated for a minute before leaving. Something about Pascal, about the entire situation just didn't feel right. But at the same time, it didn't do her any good to wait there.
This turned out to be the first time Kaede walked into the great dining hall by herself.
The tables were almost full, with as many older nobles as there were younger. All the new faces were aristocrats from the army gathering outside. Most of them wore standard Weichsel military uniforms, but some were dressed quite flamboyantly.
Kaede received plenty of odd stares on her way. Some were merely curious, presumably over where her master was. Meanwhile others held her in contempt, disgusted over how the familiar girl could be allowed to stride unescorted across noble grounds in her proud bearing, as though she deserved to eat there.
Thankfully, nobody approached or stopped her.
As she walked up to Parzifal's large group, Cecylia raised her curiosity first:
"Professor Albert stopped him along the way to tell him something."
Parzifal and Cecylia had managed to save them two seats, so Kaede sat down and waited; her eyes kept peeled at the entrance.
She was slightly surprised when she overheard that Cecylia had been assigned to the same battalion as Pascal, leading the 'Information Control' section directly under Battalion Command.
After several minutes, Kaede watched as Professor Albert entered the hall, but with no sign of Pascal following him.
The senior administration professor that served as the de-facto headmaster of the academy's educational role then turned towards a table and pulled out an open chair near the entrance. But before he would sit down, his gloves reached up and cupped his throat for a split second.
"May I have your attention please."
Despite the polite words, his magically amplified voice did not speak them in the tone of a request, but as an order.
Kaede already heard the rumor that the King had offered Professor Sir Albert von Marienfeld a restored generalship and the position of commanding officer over two brigades. But the professor turned it down, stating that the nation's immediate needs were of no greater importance than its long-term survival, for which it must have capable officers and administrators. A protracted war with the Caliphate will only increase the demand for cadets upon the Königsfeld Academy; therefore his greater duties were on the teaching floor, not the battlefield.
Under his commanding presence, the entire dining hall quieted down within seconds. Even the nobles not obligated to obey him fell silent in respect and courtesy.
"Before we offer our nightly prayers to the Holy Father, I have two announcements to make. I ask you all to brace yourselves, for neither of them bear pleasant news."
Kaede's stomach twisted itself in knots as she anxiously awaited the bad news that almost undoubtedly involved Pascal.
"First, His Holiness Pope Vigilius has recognized the late Duke Guy of Avro-Calent a martyr of the faith and canonized him as a saint..."
It was an obvious backhanded slap towards the Emperor of Rhin-Lotharingie, who gave the order for a general retreat from the Lotharin-Cataliyan borders. But what came next was far, far worse as Professor Albert continued in his stern but grim voice, with only a barely detectable trace of disgust that he had to deliver such a revolting message:
"--Distressed by the loss of the helpless and the faithful to infidel hands due to the ungodly cowardice displayed by Emperor Geoffroi of Rhin-Lotharingie, who performed no deeds yet basked in sin over the past decades in his greed against the pious people of the Holy Imperium and even against the Church itself, it is with great sorrow that Pope Vigilius hereby excommunicates Emperor Geoffroi Jean de Gaetane from the Trinitian faith, for he has clearly left the grace of the Holy Father..."
Hushed murmurs began across the hall as people discussed where the war would turn to now, or how King Leopold could possibly aid a heretical ally using an army mobilized in the name of the Holy Father.
But Professor Albert warned about two pieces of ill news. The canonization of a new saint, as political as its motives were, simply wasn't unpleasant enough to count by itself.
"Second, I regret to inform you that tragedy has befallen our own Kingdom of Weichsel. On this morning, during a trip out to inspect the Capital's outlying defenses, Field Marshal Sir Karl August von Moltewitz..."
Kaede could feel the hammer that knocked the air out from her lungs.
"--Commanding Officer of the Weichsel Military Forces and Landgrave of Nordkreuz, plus twenty-eight staff members and bodyguards, were cowardly ambushed by unknown assassins. Reinforcements from Königsfeld did not arrive in time to intercede, and the entire group has been confirmed dead."
This time people didn't even try to stay silent. Conversations erupted across the dining hall like wildfire, fueled by the war anxieties everyone had built up over the course of the past week. Some individuals even began shouting matches as their arguments flared...
But Kaede had already stopped paying attention.
She only waited long enough not to be an embarrassment to Pascal in the eyes of the gathered nobles. He would need his dignity more than ever in the coming days. But the moment Professor Albert finished and the hall erupted into chaos, she pushed back her chair and began striding towards the entrance.
There was no way Pascal was coming here.
In the back of her mind, Kaede also realized...
This was the first time Pascal broke his word.
Pascal was not in his dorm room.
Kaede thought it was unfair that he could always figure out where she was, but not the other way around.
Only then did she finally remember the telepathy channel. She had been subconsciously avoiding it. In this kind of situation, its use felt like cheating.
But it was still better than not being there.
"Where are you?"
She didn't even bother to ask 'are you alright'. That would have been purely insensitive. There was no way he could be fine after his father's death. Whatever odd 'daddy issues' Pascal had, there was also no doubt that he only spoke the word 'father' with reverence and respect.
"On the roof."
Pascal's mental voice could not be any more monotoned.
Kaede climbed up three more flights of stairs, emerging into the rooftop chill to find Pascal standing in the middle of the gently falling snow. His hardened turquoise gaze did not turn, still watching the far-side battlements and the indigo planet draped over the black horizon.
A noticeable layer of snowflakes had already accumulated on his broad, uniformed shoulders.
It felt almost like the morning after she came to this world, had their roles been reversed.
Uncertain of what she should do, what she could do, Kaede tentatively took her first step towards Pascal.
"You don't need to apologize," she stopped his dry words.
Kaede knew perfectly well why he did not come as promised to the dining hall. Once he entered it, there was no way for him to leave with dignity until he finished his meal. An entire hour spent under the gaze of hundreds, whose eyes were pitying at best and gloating at worst; a full dinner spent listening to people's sympathies, regardless of whether they sincerely bared their hearts or merely paid lip service per aristocratic courtesy...
Neither of those would be something Pascal's pride could handle, not in this delicate moment when his mask was at its most brittle state.
"I am fine, rea..."
"You don't have to hold it in," her soft voice interrupted him again.
Silence returned to the rooftop once more, disrupted only by her quiet footsteps as his statue continued to gaze upon the distant planet. His stilled, half-turned eyes soon reflected the dim light of the heavens as hardened turquoise softened into glass.
Then, as Kaede took her last step behind him, as she reached around with both of her thin arms and wrapped them across his lower chest, Pascal's deep, anguished voice finally shattered the last vestige of peace:
"I WARNED him..."
Kaede kept her silence as she leaned her head into him, hoping, praying that their bond, the empathic link she cursed so many times, would give Pascal the emotional support he badly needed.
"--Given what Reynald said about the Mantis Blades, I told him, TOLD HIM, that after their attempt on my head, he was in serious, grave danger as the logical next target. That IN NO UNCERTAIN TERMS he should immediately discontinue his habitual personal visits to individual army camps for the coming months, at least until the Weichsel army is fully engaged in the war and the Imperium has missed its window of opportunity... but when does he EVER listen to me...!?"
It wasn't entirely fair. Kaede stood certain that had Pascal received a similar warning in that same position, he probably would not have altered his habits either. Generals did not succumb to fear over the mere likelihood of danger. They certainly did not alter schedules and change routines with ease -- which would clearly announce their fright to their soldiers.
Besides, had the elder von Moltewitz stopped his visits, how long must he cower under the threat of assassins? As the Marshal of Weichsel, every enemy of the state wanted him dead on a daily basis.
The thin line between courage in the face of danger and reckless stupidity could only be seen through hindsight, yet it was the willingness of commanders brave enough to tip that line that gained them the trust, admiration, and loyalty of their troops.
But this was no time for Kaede to wax philosophy.
She could only hold back her thoughts as Pascal's voice grew hoarse:
"--NO! Of course not! I am just the immature son who could not even graduate from the academy in time for him to see it!"
Pascal did not cry out when she knocked out two of his teeth and broke three of his ribs on this spot. He did not complain once about pain after his left arm was mangled by assassins -- a feat even Reynald respected in the redhead's exaggerated storytelling. Nor did he flinch when he faced the most humiliating moments of his life, apologizing to Parzifal and Ariadne over years of regret on this very rooftop.
It wasn't even a matter of masculine pride. The man was born and raised to be a soldier, a commander, a leader.
He was simply not allowed to falter, to even show weakness.
He must be confident and assured at all times, never to reveal a single doubt towards the inevitability of victory.
Yet under the distant glittering starlight, basked in the glow from the indigo planet, Kaede watched as a shining stream of tears slid down his half-turned cheeks.
But his next words -- spoken as unforgiving as the arctic cold -- almost made her own heart freeze:
"I should have gone to him myself."
Survivor's guilt was renowned enough that she recognized it instantly.
"Don't be ridiculous Pascal. Your father undoubtedly took two of his best bodyguard squads. They must have faced at least several Mantis Blade teams, if not other mercenaries. How could you have done what they couldn't!?"
Kaede knew that she was no psychiatrist, but Pascal was also a bastion of logic and willful integrity.
She did not need to debate such points with him.
All she needed to do was point out the obvious, then let him argue it out with himself.
"But... he was... the only family I had left..."
Kaede could feel Pascal's tears streaming down through his broken voice.
She didn't say anything. She didn't even know what to say. All she did was bury her own tear-stained cheeks into his back and tighten her arms around his chest.
She knew his mother had died early. But in hindsight, if Pascal had been raised by servants, then his extended family must have been lacking as well.
Her borrowed genealogy references did mention that Pascal's father Karl was also an only son. His parents, or Pascal's paternal grandparents, were young nobles displaced by political fallout from the Rhin-Lotharingie Independence War. The name von Moltewitz was Karl's creation, by merging a family surname prefix to the clan name suffix of his Weichsel bride.
Pascal and Kaede had a brief discussion over it once. But he never mentioned his mother's side, even though plenty of his maternal relations should still be alive...
"Y-your mother's family?" Kaede was almost afraid to ask.
Pascal didn't answer.
He only began after his voice finally regained a fragment of its composure:
"Father's relationship with mother's side of the family deteriorated after she died. A Northmen invasion after that laid waste to my maternal grandparents' estate, and everyone blamed him for not sending reinforcements fast enough. They accused father of delaying aid over a personal grudge, even though half the coast was under attack and he just couldn't blatantly favor his own family..."
There was no need to explain what happened after that.
Everyone always expected leaders to be accomplished in everything; to be perfect and superhuman, to flawlessly address every need. In turn, those with responsibility were blamed and accused and reviled and criticized over every cent of error, even as they juggled the pros and cons of every decision, agonized over every sacrifice they made for a strategic victory -- for the 'greater good'.
After all, there was no point to winning the battle and losing the war. Yet in sacrificing a pawn to assure victory across the board, a leader could only cut off a part of themselves.
For some, that meant their flesh and blood.
For others, their heart and soul.
Perhaps that was part of why history had precious few enlightened absolutists, overshadowed by hordes of greedy and cruel tyrants who had lost their humanity.
Yet Pascal was doomed to face the worst of it, for nothing accentuated the contradiction in human decision-making more than the realm of military strategy.
In that moment under the sky, the stars, and the planetoid moon, Kaede finally realized the core of Pascal's being:
Why he was confident, arrogant, and intolerant.
Why he expected the best from everyone, only to lay scorn upon those who could not meet his demands.
It was because he expected the same qualities from himself.
It was his wish to be 'perfect' in his worldly role. To not merely rise beyond the renown of his father, but to achieve what his father could not.
Losses may be inevitable in war, but he would at least seek to win them without 'sacrifice'.
But no floor was smooth from the cut of a single tile. No rope could hold from the strength of only one strand. And just the same, no general could win 'perfect' victories without staffers, lieutenants, and even soldiers of the highest quality.
In seeking his 'perfection', Pascal inadvertently created his greatest flaw:
Even though he had the charisma to persuade and intimidate, his social skills were abysmal.
It was why he summoned her.
Without friends, no leader could stay in the light. Not even an aspiring one.
Kaede's decision turned out to be remarkably easy.
It was less than an hour ago when she read her certificate of residency. Now, it felt as though a lifetime past.
But within it was one line of words she would never forget:
"Kaede Nika Suvorsky, member to the noble household of Sir Karl August von Moltewitz..."
That household now belonged to Pascal.
"You're wrong about one thing, Pascal."
Still embracing him tightly, Kaede's wispy voice came muffled by the proximity of his uniform jacket. It was barely more than a whisper, yet its content rang clearly in the silence between them:
"No one will ever replace your father, but he's not the only family you have left."
Pascal didn't say a word as he brought his own arms up, covering her small, chilled hands with the warmth of his palms as she continued:
"I'm sure the people of your estate, those who watched you grow up and raised you, all consider you part of the same family."
She also thought of his fiancée Sylviane. But having never met the other side of their political betrothal, she couldn't be sure of the princess' intentions.
Not to mention that for the first time, she felt... odd, about bringing up the name of his betrothed.
Kaede paused for a few more seconds as she reviewed her decision. She knew exactly how critical this moment was, and she would neither tarnish it with false promises, nor soil it with ambiguous misunderstandings.
"Even more than that, you have me... I can't promise I'll always be here. I can't swear I won't dream of my old life and world. But I will always be your familiar. I will always be your family. And so long as I remain on this realm, I will support you to the best of my abilities..."
This was her declaration, her solemn pledge.
Families could still separate, grow apart. But even by the unlikely chance Kaede discovered how to return to her world, they would still be master and familiar, still try to remain part of each others' lives.
Hyperion was no longer merely an endless dream or nightmare. She would finally, truly embrace it as her reality.
"--You have my oath."
Pascal's large hands wrapped around her own, gripping them with firm determination. His gaze, however, never left the distant horizon.
"Thank you. That is more than I could ever ask for."
----- * * * -----
Two hours later, as Pascal laid down next to Kaede and pulled up the bedcovers as usual...
The overhead light was still on as he turned towards her, his gaze pulling in her rose-quartz eyes as she did likewise.
"What is it?" Kaede smiled back at him.
Her countenance was serene. Her visage was beautiful, from her long silky hair, to the thinly-curled lashes above caring eyes still tinged with a trace of worry, to her small nose and cute lips...
She was angelic.
Pascal was sure, for the second time, and he was staring at his personal guardian angel.
How else could all the changes to his life in the past few weeks be explained?
Yet never before has he needed the blessing of another as much as tonight:
"I once told you that I would never touch you while sleeping without consent, but... may I hold on to you while we sleep?"
Her flawless white skin immediately flushed seven shades of scarlet.
Pascal knew he was being unfair to ask on such a night, especially after what just happened.
But Kaede didn't say a thing. Shyly pulling the covers up a little further, she returned two small but firm nods.
She's just way too cute.
He carefully wrapped his arms around her before slowly pulling her closer, as though afraid to break a delicate gem.
He could almost feel her heartbeat quicken and her cheeks burning as he held her soft body against the firm musculature of his arms and chest. His right hand then reach behind her head, gently stroking her silky long hair as he tried to calm her back down.
...Too huggable as well.
Closing the last breath of distance, Pascal placed a tender kiss on her forehead.
"Thank you, and good night."
She never resisted, never recoiled, not even voicing the slightest sound of objection.
Pascal held onto Kaede until her breath evened out, until she had drifted away under the rhythmic strokes of her long hair.
It was the first time he noticed her falling asleep before him.
It was her way of expressing how truly she had accepted him.
After his loneliness finally subsided, Pascal couldn't help but feel somewhat guilty for forcing her into it. He carefully -- with a bit of magical help -- extracted his arms from her, and settled for just holding onto her hand.
It was not until hours later, late into the night, when a still-wide-awake Pascal felt the pinging sensation of an incoming Farspeak spell.
His mind soon visualized the source -- it was from his fiancée. The first time in weeks that she was willing to speak to him.
Pascal rushed, mentally of course, to open up the channel from his receiving end.
For nearly a minute, silence reigned across the channel as neither he nor Sylviane spoke.
Farspeak calls had a range and reliability unmatched by conventional Telepathy. But it also had glaring weaknesses: each person may only join one such link, both ends must concentrate on keeping the channel open, and the spell not only took minutes to cast but could also be easily missed if one wasn't paying attention.
Pascal was anxious, but it was common courtesy to allow the caller to speak first, especially after they've already spent minutes shaping the spell.
Then, her message began with only two sorrowful words:
It was the one opening that Pascal did not know how to respond to. Should he offer to take the blame for their last call, or should he accept her sympathy?
He was about to choose option one -- better safe than sorry -- when a second line soon arrived on the heels of the first:
"I'm on my way to Königsfeld and will arrive by tomorrow morning. Official business first, but I will definitely see you afterwards to talk."
Pascal was a fast thinker when he needed to be, but he was still not quick enough. Before he could even expand his phrase into a proper response, she had slipped him a quiet third communique:
"I missed you."
Then the link cut off.
Even if it didn't, it would have taken Pascal at least a moment to recover from that.
Three simple words, spoken in a shy, almost embarrassed voice, yet drowned in a mixture of exhaustion and longing that Sylviane had never expressed.
He always believed that at least part of his interest towards her was because their personalities were peas from the same pod, even if she was far more approachable and friendly.
But his fiancée made one error in judgment.
After the news of today, Pascal knew exactly why she was coming to Weichsel. There was no way he would just sit back and watch while she fought tooth and nail for their fathers' legacy.
His first order of business upon daybreak now stood clear: he must travel to Königsfeld for an audience with the King as the new Landgrave of Nordkreuz.
History might only remember the Caliphate's declaration of Holy War days ago as the ignition point, but for Pascal Kay Lennart von Moltewitz, it was tonight when the war truly began.
And it would not stop until all of Hyperion lay changed.