Daybreak:Volume 1 Full

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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.

"Yes Sir."

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."

Well... crap.

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!"

"I cannot."

"Just send me back however you brought me here then!"

"I cannot."

"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.

"Perfect."

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:

I'm dead.

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.

"I'm sorry."

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.

"I, I-I..."

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.

"No...?"

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.

"Crystal."

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?"

Kaede shrugged:

"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."

"But..."

"--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.

"Is that..."

"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:

"Uhhhhnnnnn?"

"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.

*Knock, knock*

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.

And now...

"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.

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The Inner Sea and its two continents: Hyperion (North) and Eurypha (South)

"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.