Daybreak:Volume 1 Full
- 1 Chapter 1 - The Curse of Prodigy
- 2 Chapter 2 - By the Runelord's Will
- 3 Chapter 3 - Master and Familiar
- 4 Chapter 4 - Regressions of Time
- 5 Chapter 5 - Status of Life
- 6 Chapter 6 - A Peaceful Day
- 7 Chapter 7 - The Perfect Contrast
- 8 Chapter 8 - Inquisitive Hope
- 9 Chapter 9 - Bonds of Faith
- 10 Chapter 10 - Critical Appeal
- 11 Chapter 11 - For Country, Not You
- 12 Chapter 12 - Better Late Than Never
- 13 Chapter 13 - A World of Difference
- 14 Chapter 14 - Outbreak of War
Chapter 1 - The Curse of Prodigy
"She is coming back today, right?" Perceval asked as he continued to lean against the column in the academy's entrance courtyard. His voice carried a hint of anxiety as he watched his best friend pace in circles around him.
"Of course! Since when has Ariadne ever joked about something like this?" Reynaud swayed as he continued to goose-step in a circle. His arms were extended in a tee, while his head shifted from side-to-side.
It was as though the short-statured young man was practicing for a contest in exotic dancing... or just plain silly walks.
"I'm not saying... Oh would you please stop?" Perceval breathed out. "You're making me nervous!"
The short young man spun about and grinned with a teasing voice:
"Sheesh, she's only been gone for a month and you're already like this. Talk about having it bad!"
"She was on campaign, and it's been almost two months," Perceval specified. "What if she'd been wounded? What if she lost an arm? What if her King wouldn't let her come back?"
"I think she'd tell you if any of those happened." Reynaud reassured. "Besides, you're courting a Weichsen Hussar..."
"Knight Phantom," Perceval corrected his friend.
"Which the rest of the continent call Hussars. They're air cavalry," Reynaud shrugged. "Tip of the spear in every major battle. You should at least try to get used to it."
"I know, I know," Perceval exhaled a deep sigh. "It's just... I don't want her to suffer what befell my parents. The battlefield is as unpredictable as it is dangerous. And she did say that the battle had been vicious, so much that her mount had been killed under her." He finished before looking up and seeing a familiar figure in the distance.
"Heyyyy!" A girl with flowing pink hair yelled. "Perceval! Reynaud!"
Reynaud barely even began before his friend ran past him.
"Aria!" Perceval ran right up to her before stopping just an arm's length away. Then, after a brief pause, he stepped forward and gave her an all-encompassing embrace that picked her off the ground.
"Thank the Holy Father. You're alright." His tone finally relaxed.
"I told you I was fine, didn't I?" Ariadne replied in a reassuring voice. "You worry too much. Our campaign against Västergötlander raiders was a complete victory."
"Awww, he's just trying to show you love," Reynaud caught up and leaned forward with a grin, before a slightly blushing Ariadne shooed him away with her hand.
"I'm sorry I was late," Ariadne added in apology as Perceval finally pulled away. The three of them then began to stroll at a leisurely pace along a corridor. "The Wayfarers were scheduled to bring that self-centered prick back along with me. He was late to the rendezvous so we had to wait for him. It delayed the Wayfarers' timetables across the entire trip."
Perceval frowned while Reynaud sighed.
"The Princeling thinks he's the center of the universe. What else is new?" The short-statured young man gave a mocking shrug with his palms raised. "Though... is it true what the rumors have been claiming? That the King of Weichsel personally promoted him to Captain?"
Reynaud didn't notice as Ariadne intertwined her delicate fingers with Perceval's. She reassured the other with a light squeeze before answering:
"Yes. One of my friends' fiancée works on the Marshal's staff. She said that Pascal was serving his father as an adjutant--"
Ariadne felt her beloved's fingers tighten. She squeezed back in support while trying to hide her pained wince.
"--When the situation changed during the Battle of Parchim. Pascal modified the orders he was sending to the Noble Reiters to bombard a weak spot he noticed in the enemy's line. It threw the entire Northmen army off-balance just before our charge struck their flank. His father, the Marshal, 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 your King to undo the Marshal's work. That princeling needs to be taken down a notch and even his father knows it..." Reynaud's mood plummeted straight to grumpy, where not even his admiration for the renowned Field Marshal of Weichsel was enough to rescue it. Then, as the trio turned the corner into another courtyard: "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 in a regal poise that made the marble bench look like a throne. 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 alone in the middle of the courtyard gardens, he was surrounded by noble girls who kept their distance. They all stood at least twenty paces away, whispering among themselves even as they kept him in their gaze. Meanwhile, most of the men who strolled by, and some of the women as well, looked towards him with scowling faces.
It was an understatement to say that Pascal Kay Lennart von Moltewitz, the only heir of Weichsel's Marshal and the Landgrave of Nordkreuz, stood far above the crowd. But regardless of how assured he looked as he gathered the light of mana into a gemstone in his hands, no one could doubt the ill repercussions that too often followed any young prodigy:
Amongst a courtyard of chattering peers, he sat silent and alone.
----- * * * -----
"Captain and Knight's Cross recipient at just twenty..."
"He graduated from the prestigious Königsfeld Military Academy in just three years!"
"Even the King of Weichsel said that he would make a great general one day."
"He's also the heir to the Landgraviate of Nordkreuz, the most prosperous trading hub in the north."
"His inheritance alone will make him one of the richest men on the continent!"
"It's such a shame he's already betrothed to our Crown Princess."
"Didn't she leave the capital a week ago to personally congratulate him in Weichsel?"
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 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 a week 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 wounded pride.
"His father is just pulling another publicity stunt. Marshal Moltewitz is already famous enough. 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 train of thought. 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 in Weichsel, the nobles of the Königsfeld Academy had the valor to follow our aristocratic military heritage to war.
The Kingdom of Weichsel prided itself on the competence of its military aristocracy. The curriculum for its noble's education followed that tradition. The Königsfeld Academy of Magic was renowned throughout the continent for its military schooling. And, as an early graduate of its tactical command track, Pascal had expected to be given an independent command in Weichsel's military.
Instead, he had been sent to the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie as one of Professor Albert von Marienfeld's assistants -- a post-grad 'exchange student' to promote goodwill and share cultural and military expertise with their allies. The Alisia Academy of Magic where he lived now wasn't even specific to military education. Instead, it was a generalist institution full of undisciplined young nobles, many of whom wasted the exorbitant sums their parents paid to send them.
Pascal could understand the need for diplomacy. After all, he was the Empire's future Prince Consort. But...
Why send me to a school of all places? What's the point of forcing me to stay in the classroom!? I'm wasting my time here!
Worse yet, as he glanced sideways towards his left, he saw her sitting on the other side of the podium. The girl named Ariadne had been his nemesis back in Königsfeld Academy. Yet, for some demented reason that he could not understand, they sent her along with him as the professor's other assistant!
Why must I work with her of all people!? All she does is make me look awful!
Pascal knew perfectly well that he had a long way to climb before emerging from the shadows of his father's renown. He needed to start his career early, to take advantage of every opportunity, not be saddled down with additional baggage. Furthermore, for an aspiring officer who had already felt the power of responsibility on the battlefield, a return to the classroom 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 lectures on Military Command, Control, and Communications.
"I realize that the return of my assistants from the front lines brings exciting news. It's precisely why I sent them, so our class could discuss and analyze their first-hand experiences!"
His announcement gathered most of the class' attention in an instant.
Even Pascal glanced back with a hint of admiration for the adaptability shown by his advisor. It was only a year ago when the Professor insisted Pascal follow his father's wishes: to extend his education under Albert in Rhin-Lotharingie, on the grounds that it was somehow 'good for him'.
"But first things first, I'm to remind everyone that all third year's classes will be canceled this Friday for familiar-summoning ceremonies. All students who wish to participate are free to do so."
Eager chatter broke loose across the classroom again at this announcement.
The Professor turned to prepare the classroom's illusion projectors. He whistled a short tune as 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.
Familiar summoning had been an elective program back in Königsfeld, where they were taught how to prepare a personalized summoning ritual. But while Pascal found the sorcery lessons interesting, he had no interest in attaining a pet as the final outcome.
Silently, he scrolled back through his memories, thinking of every mage's familiar he had come across during his years. Many of them made for trusted mounts on the battlefield. Some of them served as eyes and ears for their master. A few even trained as servants in 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, a thought came to him, why must I be limited to mere beasts?
Pascal drew a scroll of parchment and copied down the mnemonic incantations of every 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, binding, connect, sharing...
He didn't need a servant. A traditional, obedient familiar was no better than a yes-man. Loyal, but nevertheless a tool 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 my 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 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-purple hair.
...And she needs to be cute too, he decided, with the perfect image coming to mind. Vivi is Sylv's favorite, after all. He thought of the girl who often accompanied the Crown Princess. Can't object to another girl as cute.
The professor clapped twice, 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 campaign, it is only fair that we begin today's lecture with your... irregular contribution to the war."
Muffled snickering drifted forth from the back of the room, but Pascal ignored them as though he heard only buzzing flies.
Rolling up his parchment as he stood, Pascal's determination revealed not the slightest sign of offense or hesitance. Albert's choice of words made it obvious that the professor agreed with his father. Pascal understood the reason behind the 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 drifted towards the easiest path: twiddling 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 was easily achieved.
Chapter 2 - By the Runelord's Will
"Excellent, Dame Ariadne! It's remarkable how consistent your summoning is." Professor Albert von Marienfeld's words mirrored his gleaming-onyx eyes as they examined the beautiful wings of Ariadne's flawless white pegasus.
It wasn't her first pegasus either. Her previous steed had accompanied her since childhood, only to be killed under her during the Battle of Parchim. Her bravery in combat had earned her a Knight's Cross. This not only qualified her to join the prestigious Knights Phantom --the elite air cavalry corp of Weichsel-- at merely twenty years of age, but also exacerbated her rivalry with Pascal.
"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.
"Remember, class, that a familiar is a mage's companion for life." The instructor commented as Ariadne's demonstration finished. "Therefore, your spell should always demonstrate and describe yourself as an individual, much like a wedding oath. When completing the ceremony you should treat your familiar with respect and care, the same as you would treat your future bride or groom at the Holy Father's altar."
Professor Albert, as nobles of illustrious houses were often addressed by their first names to avoid confusion between members, looked around to survey his students. Dozens of anxious faces stared back, ready to attempt their own hand at summoning. However, Ariadne was not his only assistant, as Pascal was the next to provide an example. This brought signs of worry to his countenance, as he had no idea what the young man was planning.
"Sir Pascal. You're next."
"Of course, Professor Sir," Pascal remarked with nonchalance as he strode to the clearing within the Cancellation Field that opened a gap in the castle's Lockdown anti-teleportation ward. "Please stand back. Unlike Dame Ariadne, this is my first time. I do not wish to cause an accident from my ritual."
Somehow, his drawling, aristocratic intonation managed to make even humble words sound arrogant.
"Show-off," a few people muttered from the crowd.
"Well, let's see what your future brings."
Professor Albert took care to suppress his eager curiosity. He still didn't understand why Pascal had switched stances on the topic of familiars, but he was also interested to see what his most gifted student was capable of. Nevertheless, a part of him remained worried at what would come next, even with the promise he extracted from Pascal to take the summoning ritual seriously this time.
After all, the previous occasion Pascal participated in a summoning ceremony back in Königsfeld, he had filled the castle with swarms of brightly glowing pink flamingos. Even worse were the rainbows found in every hallway that refused to dissipate, which he had to go around dispelling one at a time.
It was only afterwards when Albert found out that the young noble never had any intention of summoning a familiar. He had treated the whole ceremony as an opportunity to experiment and show off. Had Pascal not been the Marshal's son, not to mention a cadet with great promise, the professor would have expelled him on the spot.
Albert now stood over Pascal with the examining gaze of a retired general. 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 a 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 try something creative."
"I believe you and Professor Kirchner are the only two experts of ancient Runic Rituals on campus, and I'm certainly not a specialist on gem magic," Professor Albert commented. "Would you please explain your setup to everyone?"
"Of course." Pascal relished 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 replace 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. Each gemstone is infused with my mana 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. Meanwhile the inner ring of malachite, 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. With careful aim, 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. They bathed 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 concealing mist. They couldn't see. But they were also not willing to disrupt a magical ceremony in fear of the often deadly consequences.
"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. However what drew gasps from everyone was the small girl that now lay unconscious within it, naked except for Pascal's jacket covering her thin body.
"Sir Pascal, please explain yourself."
Professor Albert kept his cool, but he was willing to bet his life that Pascal had intentionally created this unnatural conclusion to a sacred rite of magecraft. It seemed even with a promise the young man could not control himself.
Pascal did not answer his professor. His eyes were transfixed upon the unconscious girl. His body barely contained the boiling excitement as he whispered in simultaneous astonishment and triumph:
"It worked perfectly! Oh heavenly Father has granted me an angel!"
The unconscious girl at his feet was small, petite, and thin. She appeared no older than her mid-teens and gave off a fragile, almost doll-like appearance. Her figure lay concealed beneath his jacket which looked far too big to fit. However the small hands and cute face revealed the flawless white skin that shone like fine porcelain. An adorably tiny nose and thinly curled lashes further decorated her image, while her snowy-white hair ran straight all the way down to thigh-length.
"Did he... just summon a Samaran girl for a familiar?" A spectating student asked.
"With that white hair? Probably."
"But why a Samaran? They're 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 Pascal, you have some explaining to do!"
The retired general was not used to being ignored, not even by his upstart pupil.
"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 promised that I would perform a proper summoning ceremony," he added with a smug grin. "I never said that I would summon a traditional familiar. I chose to summon an intelligent person as my companion. Now the ritual has 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. The girl within his arms was as light as she looked. However his late working nights were finally catching up, not to mention the summoning ceremony and its preparation had drained his magic dry and left him completely exhausted.
With a swift gesture, his Unlock cantrip was recognized by the door's magical enhancement. He carried the still-unconscious girl across the threshold into his room. It was officially a 'dormitory', one he shared with the cadets who attended the academy's military courses. However in an academy built for nobles, the spacious bedroom was larger and better-furnished than most tavern guest rooms.
After gently laying the girl 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 to match his tastes through 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 Pascal! 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 the jacket that once covered her tossed aside on the floor. Meanwhile, the young man's 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 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 was a member of his high school's spring 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 committee experience would be passed down to his successor. At the same time he had to train 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 ill, prompting his Japanese mother to fly to Vladivostok last night to care for them. His father --like most Russian men of his generation-- was useless at housework. Therefore Kaede had to wake up early this morning to prepare breakfast.
Kaede could remember laying on the couch as he waited for the clock to strike six am. He was struggling to stay awake until it was time to meet the others and leave for the archery tournament.
Trash. I wasn't supposed to--!
The fear that he had overslept lit up his mind in a flash. His eyes sprang open. His arm reached out by force of habit to grasp his smartphone, only to promptly freeze as another memory came.
No, wait. I *did* board the bus. I fell asleep as soon as I took a seat.
But his surrounding now certainly wasn't that of a long distance bus. Kaede looked around as he tried to work his brain into making sense.
Where the heck am I?
He didn't recognize the old-fashioned four-poster bed he lay 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 memory.
Sitting up on the bed to get a better view, he suddenly realized that his back and shoulders were bare 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: adorned in silky white gloves... long gloves reaching up his triceps... while sleeping...
What kind of a weird prank is...
His eyes traced downwards and then saw 'his' chest. 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 a crest of some kind laid onto her chest, bosom, in delicate white gold, and not a stitch covering her back.
Realization #3: Shifting thighs found nothing in between, therefore identifying, once again, that this was a she.
Realization #4: WHAT THE HELL!
Alright, 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-- completely blanked out.
Unfortunately, after several mental shocks and still no ray of enlightenment, 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. The perpetrator 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 never even did it with the girl I dated! Oh this is sooo messed up...
Nevertheless, fear did wonders in concentrating the mind. 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 leotard with both her underwear and an attached semi-translucent skirt. 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 motor control to handle her new body, she repeated the simple action, this time pacing herself with focused concentration.
So much effort just to stand and walk... this is beyond ridiculous.
Taking each step with care, Kaede gradually made her way over to a chair where a black jacket draped over it. On the nearby wall she also noticed a Welsh-style longbow, which she mentally filed away for later. After covering herself with the too-large outerwear, she found her best option for self-defense in the form of a fireplace poker. It had been in a stand 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 corner wall 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. However 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. She made sure its metal spike was 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-hot soup which passed right through the middle of her open jacket and onto the thin leotard's 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 face down 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 and 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. She glared 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.
The young man would tower over her even if she stood, with broad shoulders accentuated by a stiff crimson-on-black uniform. He turned to sit down on the four-poster bed while keeping her in his gaze. With a glance at his bloodied hand, he took out a small pebble and pressed it into his left palm. He then covered his 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 her basic understanding of martial arts, she could tell from his movements that the man's prowess were several magnitudes above hers... even before her 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. She rubbed her chest just above the breasts in an attempt to ease the lingering pain. Surprisingly, there was no longer a single spot or 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. The feeling remained even after he pulled his fingers 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 Marshal Karl August von Moltewitz of Weichsel, heir to the Landgrave of Nordkreuz. What is yours?"
A German Landgrave? Didn't the 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 Nikita Konstantinovich Suvorsky."
"Are you a 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.
"They are a group of people from the Grand Republic of Samara in the continent's northeast. They have pale skin with silver-blue to light-blond hair. Their country is a Mercantile Oligarchic Republic and they 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 Alisia Academy of Magic, roughly a hundred kilopaces northeast of Alis Avern, Capital of the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie. The Kingdom of Weichsel, my home country, lays to our east. The Grand Republic of Samara is further east and borders Weichsel. Meanwhile to our south is the Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea, the premier power in Western Hyperion, as well as one of the two superpowers in our world." He explained. "Surely you must have heard of at least one of them?"
Kaede only knew 'Samara' as a Russian city and region, situated at the Samara Bend of the Volga River. The other names she didn't recognize, except the continent 'Hyperion' which matched Greek mythology, as well as 'Alisia' which... she couldn't remember off-hand. Nevertheless, it didn't take a linguist to realize all those foreign nation-state names, 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 was 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 of anger 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 risen to a soft yell.
With his brows furrowed, Pascal looked split between confusion and disbelief.
"No such procedure was added to the spell."
"Well, whatever you did, fix it!"
"Just send me back however you brought me here then!"
"What do you mean you can't!"
His ring finally stopped glowing, and he stretched out his left hand. His fingers were whole again without a single scratch. As his eyes examined the healed result, he answered with a tone of uncaring nonchalance:
"I meant what I said. Familiar contracts are not meant to be broken and are only severed upon death. Familiars also rarely live long after the master's demise. So even if I can sever it, you are likely to die in the process."
His penetrating gaze then locked onto her widening eyes.
"And if the summoning spell really did transform your physical body, that means it also materialized, or better said, naturalized you to our world. That means I cannot simply banish you back to wherever you came from. 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 nobles 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 the jacket that she appropriated.
Kaede quickly pulled the bottom hem of the oversized jacket down. Several shades of embarrassment worked into her pale face while it grew red with 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. Just sleep in mine for tonight. 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 dressed me up while I was asleep!"
"Of course. You arrived as naked as a newly born babe."
"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 the jacket from last night and grabbed the longbow on his wall. There was a quiver in the corner which she took as well. Then, after she quietly slipped out of the room, she made her way towards the rooftop.
The 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 a late autumn morning.
In hindsight, she should have taken a pair of Pascal's pants. Though given the differences in build between them, there was no way they would have stayed up. The wind on top of the roof wasn't much, barely a breeze by most standards. However the biting cold kept her keenly aware that she wore nothing more than a flimsy skirt and satin stockings underneath the oversized wool-and-cashmere 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 looked small compared to the gigantic moon. No, the indigo 'moon' that floated beyond the horizon and took up a third of the sky was more likely a gas giant. A third celestial body, a tiny, silver orb, could barely be seen on the giant's periphery. Meanwhile 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 castle complex. The fortress even had a curtain wall and was built upon a hill. The walls were steeply slanted, similar to Japanese castle bulwarks but with European-styled battlements. They held raised courtyards like a fortified agricultural terrace, which included a stone circle that looked like a smaller version of Stonehenge.
The entire complex stood amidst a vast, flat countryside dominated by deciduous forests and grassy knolls. Several villages of clustered homes were within sight, each surrounded by tracks of plowed land. To the north was a huge lake that stretched into the horizon. Soldiers in scale mail guarded the outer wall towers, while a stone-paved road leading out from the gatehouse stood as the only highway in sight.
Kaede raised the longbow she had taken with both hands and examined it. The bow was about two meters long and much taller than her new body. The design definitely reminded her of the Welsh longbow she once saw in a museum, with a single long piece of wood pulled into an arc by a drawstring. It was significantly different from the Japanese yumi she had used in archery practice.
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 she desperately needed.
Kaede took an arrow from the quiver and raised the unfamiliar bow into the air. Her right hand then notched the arrow and pulled. Her weak arms shook as she strained her meager strength to retract the bowstring. She could barely pull any tension onto the wooden limbs, yet her eyes never left a block of stone that she chose from the far-side crenellations as her target. The familiar motions helped to clear her thoughts, transfix her focus on the target, and transform her mind into the arrow...
Or at least... that was what she attempted.
Her fingers loosened. However her arrow's flight was pitiful. It didn't even make it halfway to the target.
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 skidded off the floor with resounding denial.
What about college? After working so hard and finally getting accepted to the University of Tokyo.
The fifth arrow veered off to the side like she wasn't even trying.
How will I survive in this world, without even a line of work?
The seventh proved to be her worst, as it plunged to the ground almost immediately after leaving her fingers.
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?" Pascal's voice was revitalized and clear. "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. 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 hung just long enough to drape over both ears, framing lean cheeks colored a healthy pink by the cold air. His clear aqua-blue gaze shone with admiring intrigue above a thoughtful smile, before they quickly changed 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.
"No need to worry. I have a spell for this. It's 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 should 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 ether saturation of the region. Being supplied by my mana also grants you some of the basic resistance mages have against foreign mana --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:
"Ether is freely available spiritual power, scattered into the environment by all living beings. Mana is ether after being absorbed and transferred by magically conductive nerves, then refined by the soul. Spells are crafted from mana 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 mnemonic incantations. The exact words are merely a matter of common choice. Unfortunately, it does not look like you have the magic conduits to learn spellcraft. However, you should be able to power and activate magical equipment using my mana."
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. His voice suddenly began to resound from within her own mind:
"<Is this working yet?>"
Her bulging eyes gave an obvious response.
"<You can use this also. Just concentrate.>"
Kaede closed her eyes and imaged a microphone: "<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. However, since being caught performing thought voyeurism may lead to espionage charges and other serious consequences, it is considered below proper nobility to use such magic. The same goes to charms, compulsions, and other mind-altering enchantments. Usage of them may constitute crimes ranging from larceny and extortion to rape if one is found casting 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 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. It is why familiars are usually a good measure of the master's strength of character and mind."
"Okay," 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. They modify 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.
"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."
Kaede set the longbow down in a rush. She quickly stripped the white satin glove off her right arm. It was just as he said. There were now eight runes etched in a row on the underside of her forearm. Each rune shed a faint, turquoise-blue glow, and together they 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 in the 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 toyed enough 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 felt 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. In addition, five kite shields of shimmering turquoise energy conjured into existence, rotating protectively around her.
"Well, since you insist on trying it now, what do you think?" Pascal grinned with anticipation.
Her smile concealed a gleaming dagger as she bridged the gap between them in one stride. She lowered her center of mass into a fighting stance and 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 lashed out with 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 of his cheeks were swollen black and blue. And his left hand was cradling broken ribs on his right side. Pain lit up every part of his body, except at critical places like the neck, eyes, and head.
Despite obviously knowing the basics and having an overwhelming advantage, Kaede had avoided hitting any of the most vulnerable areas.
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 fantasies, 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. She then fell to the ground as though her strings were cut, 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. Even more time passed 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." Pascal mumbled through his swollen mouth with his eyes closed.
Only then did she realize that the pain in her knees was fading away.
Silence fell between the two of them once more.
Too tired to worry or even contemplate for once, Kaede simply sat there, dazed. The last thought that went through her head was an unfeeling conviction:
She didn't know what the penalty was for assaulting a noble. If Earth history was any indication, they would surely lock her up for this?
Kaede lost any sense of time as she sat there, dreading what would happen to her. However her stomach eventually broke the silence with a growl of anger.
"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?"
At a glance Kaede noticed that he was still heavily bruised. She satisfied herself by shooting back a glare instead.
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 charged with a crime or worse, 'disowned'.
She didn't have a clue of what to do, where to go, or how to even survive in this strange world.
Furthermore, 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 who sat upon it.
----- * * * -----
By the time the two of them returned to the dorms, it was almost midday.
The air between them remained silent and awkward. Pascal seemed to be in a particularly foul mood. The healing left him fully functional. However his movements were sluggish, which meant his body was likely sore and aching all over. His glamor spells, however, fully concealed the lingering bruises on his face. Meanwhile the bloodstains on his uniform seemed to have magically evaporated.
On the outside, it looked like nothing had ever happened.
Part of Kaede felt relieved. Most of her thought it was a shame.
But what really bothered Kaede was why Pascal kept everything bottled, instead of lashing out at her. For a moment on the roof she thought he was going to just ignore her and leave. However he ended up waiting at the door, with neither a word nor a glance, until she grabbed the bow and arrows and caught up to him.
Now, as he looked through the drawers and pulled out a fresh uniform, she felt like she had to say... something. In hindsight, beating him to an inch of his life really was too extreme. Certainly, he was responsible for turning her life upside down, but it wasn't like he had planned it with malicious intent. The summoning just sort of happened that way, and the result was mostly a side effect of the old saying 'be careful what you wish for'.
It didn't mean she hated it any less, or blamed him any less for it. But accidents caused by selfishness weren't inherently immoral. Violence and murder were.
Her voice was mostly nervous, partly regretful, and more than a hint begrudging. Nevertheless, Pascal froze on the spot.
"I shouldn't have hurt you that badly."
That was the most she was willing to concede. He still deserved some beating, after all. But at the same time, her pragmatic half knew that mauling him all she wanted wouldn't fix the problem. It didn't even make her feel any better. All it did was saddle her with more worries about her future.
After another half minute of silence, Pascal finished changing and expelled a deep sigh: "Just get ready to leave. I have not even had breakfast yet."
Well, at least he's still willing to talk to me. That's a good sign, right?
Kaede put away the longbow and quiver where she found them. Then, as she stared down at what she wore: a black jacket and nothing else except bridal-white lingerie undergarments...
"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 skimpy they should never leave the bedroom. Then, with an ominous chuckle, he pulled out an outfit and handed it towards her:
"Here, this is perfect."
It was a modest, 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.
"I can't wear this!" She objected almost on reflex.
"Why not?" His lips formed a smile for the first time since they were on the roof.
It was difficult to claim that she was a young man when she didn't look anything like one.
"You are a girl now, and an adorably cute girl at that," Pascal insisted as humor returned to dance in his eyes. "Therefore you ought to dress like one."
"Then can't you give me something at least a little less... frilly?" Kaede retorted as she stared at the dress in her hands with apprehension.
As she looked up and met his eyes, Pascal raised his eyebrows with an expectant gaze.
"Do you want me to forgive you for what happened earlier?"
He's purposefully treating me like I'm some dress-up doll!
For a moment Kaede wrestled with the urge to give him another broken rib. Pascal might find this funny but to her it was utterly demeaning!
----- * * * -----
For obvious reasons, Kaede was not used to wearing heels, not even five-centimeter-tall chunky heels with ankle straps. The smooth satin stockings also did not offer the same grip as the 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.
The dining hall was located on the first floor of a massive central keep. It was large enough to fit a small church and they certainly weren't frugal on furnishing. Lit by chandeliers and massive stained-glass windows, it was lined with long, intricately-carved 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 to the upper-class students.
"Hey Runelord," a jeering call came from the far side as a short boy with flaming-red hair stood up. "I heard your familiar 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 last night?"
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!
She was never a fan of the sexual jokes that went around in male circles. But it was 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. 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, which in turn magnified both her annoyance and her discontentment.
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.
However Pascal didn't even look at the servant, or acknowledge her existence in any way, before he commanded: "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.
Kaede's stomach grumbled in protest, and the maid sent her a look of sympathy before rushing off.
It took a moment before Kaede realized that Pascal was speaking a different language than when they were alone. The linguistics felt similar to what that boy had yelled earlier. Though thanks to Pascal's improvements to the familiar bond, she had no problem understanding it.
He did say he was from another country. She thought as she looked at him. Pascal was also the only one wearing a black-and-crimson military uniform, while the other nobles dressed in an assortment of varied, brightly-colored clothing. Is that why he sits alone in a room with so many?
For the first time, Kaede almost felt a bit sympathetic. She certainly had a similar experience, when her parents moved from Russia to Japan while she was in middle school.
Pascal then relented as he met her curious eyes with a satisfied smirk:
"You can have dinner."
"Gee, thanks. How generous of you, Sir!"
His attitude made any sense of prior sympathy evaporate. It left her with only biting sarcasm.
"I understand that you are having a tough time, given all the tremendous changes in your life. Therefore I will not hold this morning against you past this."
He actually sounded a bit 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 as a sense of relief washed over her. However in its wake came a sense of shame -- that she had to rely on someone else, that she had to be taken care of in this new world.
All she managed to respond with was a faint "thanks".
When she looked up again, she found Pascal scowling. Tracing his gaze, she noticed a noblewoman who drew the attention of everybody in the vicinity, carrying a silver tray of food and heading unerringly towards them.
The lady held a breathtaking beauty that radiated confidence and refinement. She was of average height, maybe a hint taller, and had clear, bright-cyan eyes which seemed to sparkle above her sweet and gentle smile. Her waist-length cascades of floral-pink hair was held back by a flowery bun behind her head. Her slender body was athletic yet wrapped by enticing curves. Even her movements were elegant as she strode forth with soft steps.
Her figure-hugging military uniform was black-bordered and burning red. Accentuated with artistic strokes of orange and yellow, her outfit almost seemed like it was alight with flames. Beneath her stiff, folded collar dangled what looked like a German Iron Cross. It was the same as the one that Pascal wore over his throat.
The hall seemed to hush as the lady walked up to a stop directly behind Pascal. She ignored him entirely, just as he turned his back to her. However the lady then locked gazes with Kaede as she 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 of Weichsel. I apologize for the impropriety, but the last time we met, you were still unconscious."
Kaede felt stunned by the presence of true nobility and grace before her eyes. However, she did not miss the fact that even though Ariadne came from the same country as Pascal, the two of them clearly weren't on speaking terms.
With an awkward, twisted bow from her sitting position, Kaede just barely managed to force out:
"I'm Kaede Nikita Konstantinovich 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. I would prefer to ask the person in question. Are you, perchance, 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 Kaede the tray she carried.
It was loaded with slices of bread and cheeses, plus an assortment of fruits and sliced meat.
As if on cue, her stomach chimed in with another growl. Kaede then glanced at Pascal, her eyes almost challenging. However he continued to face forward. His eyes stared at the 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. As the lady crossed paths with the maid returning to deliver Pascal's meal, she 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.
As Kaede bit into a sumptuous slice of pork, she decided to prod Pascal's moodiness a bit:
"So, what's your problem with her? She's from your country... Weichsel... isn't she?"
Kaede could tell from the language she used to speak. And even though they were both outsiders in a foreign land, Pascal sat alone while Ariadne was surrounded by friends. With this fact in mind, Kaede harbored no doubts who would be at fault for any conflicts between them.
"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 cheap, one-mark whore desperate for men, be my guest."
Kaede shut her legs instantly. Her face glowed with part-anger and part-humiliation. She couldn't believe that she had just been called a 'cheap whore' even though she was, technically, a young man. If she didn't have another forked slice of pork in hand, she might have hit him.
Perhaps noticing this, Pascal tried to shift the topic:
"And yes, Ariadne is from Weichsel, just like me. I am surprised you noticed."
"I'm multilingual in my world." Kaede casually noted. "Even with the translation magic I can tell the differences in speech."
Pascal nodded. There was even a hint of approval in his gaze.
"My mother tongue is Imperial, which is what we're speaking right now. However the language most used by people here is Lotharin, one of the four official languages of Rhin-Lotharingie."
"Interesting. But that's not what I really asked," Kaede added as she suppressed her urge to smirk. Don't change the subject.
Though she really was curious how any country could function with not one, not two, but four official languages. At least, unless they had a hyper-efficient bureaucracy like the city-state of Singapore.
Meanwhile Pascal scowled. He clearly didn't want to reopen the wound.
"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 further.
However Pascal only 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 in Weichsel when we both attended the Königsfeld Academy. 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 an uncharacteristically melancholic voice from him in 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. The important part was that Pascal had awareness of it.
He might not be 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 summon a mother."
With his meal finished, Pascal carefully wiped his mouth with the napkin. He then pulled out his chair and stood up. "Come on, we are going to the library next. You can learn more about this world and help me with my research work there."
Sighing, Kaede looked longingly down at her half-finished plate of fine, upper-class food.
Nope, still just a prick.
Chapter 4 - Regressions of Time
Dusk had fallen by the time they left the library.
Kaede followed behind Pascal as she balanced four massive tomes in her small hands. With her concentration focused on her 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 breaths already starting to fall short. These books might be heavy but they should have been manageable. This body is such a pain!
Ten paces ahead of her, Pascal sent a backwards glance. He sighed audibly and 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 amazed by something so minor.
"Come on." He started walking towards the dormitories again. His pace slowed 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 cultural values 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. "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 write books and 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, all that and more."
"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' -- when society provides a free basic education to every child as they grow up," Kaede explained with pride. "It doesn't mean every individual will be wise enough to seek knowledge. However it encourages people to, and it ensures that those who do, know how to find it."
"It sounds like an impressive system, and your world must be quite wealthy to afford it." Pascal thoughtfully commented. "Education is expensive, and in this world only the nobles and the wealthy upper-middle class can afford to send their children to comprehensive schooling. My homeland of Weichsel certainly does not have sufficient state funding to offer a 'standardized education' for every child. And the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie where we are now is even more lacking in resources."
His words really made Kaede realize just how much the society she comes from takes for granted.
"What about scholarships?" Kaede asked. "Free education opportunities for those who are both gifted and passionate?"
"There is a patronage system, but it is very limited." Pascal concluded with a sigh. "It is difficult to look for talent when most peasants and even some yeomen are illiterate and cannot even read a notice board, let alone a book. Nevertheless..." he turned towards her with a smile. "Remind me to bring up this topic again when you meet my father. He has been thinking of ways to expand Weichsel's talent pool for as long as I remember. We may be able to learn something from the institutions of your world."
The two of them soon reached his dormitory room. Pascal waved his hand and spoke 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 a mana identifier installed on the lock." He said before 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.
"Every mage has a unique mana signature, and this room recognizes mine. I will make you a ring with the Unlock cantrip later tonight. Then you should be able to use my mana to open the door. But come now, we are late for dinner."
"W-wait!" she called out as he started to leave. The pressure below her waist was beginning to push her limits, forcing distress to overcome her embarrassment.
She had hoped she would have found one by now...
"W-where do I find a bathroom or toilet room or whatever-you-call-it around here?"
"Bath-room? Why do you want a bath before dinner? And what is a toilet?" Pascal stared back.
Kaede's eyes widened, horrified by what he was implying.
"Come on, we are already running late." He turned his back towards her again.
Stopping again, Pascal looked quizzically at the stuttering Kaede with growing impatience.
"Just say it already."
With her 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 must 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 overly-fancy maid outfit.
"What... are you doing?"
Without much luck in shedding its frills and petticoats, 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.
Clearly, Pascal had never slept in the same bedroom or even the same suite as another person before, and certainly not a girl at that.
----- * * * -----
"Oh Holy Father, we thank you for your blessings in this wonderful meal and the bountiful harvest this year. We praise you for your grace in maintaining the peace that reigns across our lands. 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 Lotharin-speaking professor who led the prayers sat back down.
The nightly feast then began with the clattering of utensils and plates.
Once again, Kaede found herself 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 people were five seats down -- a clique of gossiping girls that sent a steady stream of glances their way.
Based on the words that drifted through the air, Kaede had the distinct feeling that at least some of 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 us nobles?"
"Does it matter? She's still just a commoner, and a domestic servant as that."
"You know what young lords 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. However 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 admirers?>"
They actually reminded Kaede of overdressed French peacocks from Versailles, always gossiping about others from behind their lace 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 that I was not interested. As for the rest,>" his voice turned almost ominous, "<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. She thought. Actually, it's surprising there are still girls who remain interested.
Kaede doubted 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. Again, he gave no awareness to their presence, and Kaede hurriedly returned a nod of gratitude.
Kaede had pretended to pray to show respect. However, 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 out of interest. However Kaede's Russian father, despite his many superstitions, was an atheist. Meanwhile Kaede's Japanese mother was an agnostic-deist. Kaede's own study of foreign cultures and history led her to explore many faiths, but she never did settle on one of them.
It wasn't because she did not believe in a higher power. But rather...
How do you settle on a single religion when they all have tenets worthy of devotion and praise? Kaede had thought.
Over the years she had discussed theology with many people. However, if there was one type of person that instantly annoyed her, it was those who insisted that their religion --even the 'religion' of atheism-- was the 'one true faith'.
"<Hey, I already follow the Flying Spaghetti God, so please respect my faith.>" Kaede retorted on impulse. "<Besides, you told me the Samarans don't worship the Holy Father anyway!>"
"<And the Samarans are seen as heathens! Do you wish to be singled out by the Church Inquisition!?>"
Kaede immediately shut up, as she remembered the agonizing deaths people used to give nonbelievers as 'treatment' to 'save their soul'.
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?>"
His voice was as adamant as polished steel as it resounded deep into her mind. For the first time Kaede felt herself shiver under the cold pressure of his words.
She did not notice until later that for once, Pascal protectively raised the well-being of another above his own self.
"<Good. Now let us eat.>"
He then dug into his dinner, laden with several steaming slices of fresh pork roast as the main meal. This was 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. He was deeply intrigued when Kaede mentioned that archery had been reduced to a mere sport on Earth:
"<Then what replaced bows in the military?>"
"<Guns.>" Kaede explained. "<Steel tubes that propel a slug using explosive powder. Sulfur and saltpeter, if I remember right.>"
"<Blast powder? They would employ such a weapon for massed infantry?>" Pascal voiced as though it was utter lunacy.
"<What's wrong with that?> Kaede asked.
"<Blast powder is extremely volatile.>" He stressed. "<The Great Khanate once tried to employ it during the Great Northern War around five centuries ago. Their enemies then realized that all they needed to do was to Fireball the blast-powder-equipped troops to turn the soldiers into living fireworks!>"
Kaede's eyes widened as she realized what this meant:
Magic didn't just replace aspects of technology then. It may have completely altered the advancement of civilization itself!
For the first time since her arrival, Kaede found her interest in the new world growing. This was a topic that she would love to research, even if she had to do it as a girl.
"<So you don't use gunpowder, blast powder, at all?>"
"<No. We use it mostly for mining, hence the name.>" Pascal clarified. "<But in strict military applications, its use is limited by its unreliability. We have some weapons that utilize it. But nothing as quantitatively employed as massed archery.>"
"<Then do mages also practice archery? Or is that just a commoner thing?>" Kaede asked.
She remembered that archers were considered a 'peasant' occupation during Earth's middle ages. In fact, many nobles of the time thought that using a bow in battle was 'beneath their dignity'.
"<It depends on the country. I grew up in Weichsel, where we nobles pride ourselves in our arcane heritage, even in battle. Projectile weapons are the domain of commoners and yeomen, who either cannot use or lacked expertise in proper battle magic.>" He declared with a voice even more haughty than usual. "<However here in Rhin-Lotharingie, most nobles are expected to learn the longbow, apart from those in the south who prefer slings instead. They hold more shooting competitions here than they do in dueling or jousting.>"
As he finished with a rather peevish look, Kaede immediately realized:
He's terrible at archery.
For the rest of dinner their conversations continued unabated. Kaede hated to admit it, but she actually had fun talking to Pascal about his world. It was apparent that he was well-versed in a broad range of topics, perhaps even more so than herself.
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!>" Pascal answered. "<Not that I have to try, with you being a scholar of history. The Holy Father's works may be mysterious at times, but with millenniums of timeline in retrospect, 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 she had on a theological discussion had instantly evaporated.
"<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.>"
----- * * * -----
Pascal leaned back against the plush chair in front of his table as he 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. At the same time he was 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 mana signature.
It was a task most apprentice artificers divided into multiple parts and required full concentration on each. 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 also looks absolutely adorable: a dainty figure caped by silky, snowy-white hair, not to mention the rose-quartz eyes that I have never even heard of.>"
"<Sounds like quite a fantasy that you've conjured there.>"
Enraptured by his own enthusiasm, Pascal missed the trace of 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.
"<Well I did use your favorite Vivi as a 'reference' of sorts.>" He added, hoping for her approval.
"<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'. Our betrothal may be political, but it is still a committed one.>"
Until then, Pascal hadn't even considered that Sylviane might disapprove of his choice in familiars. Stunned by the explosive landmine he had just stepped on, his mind quickly backtracked for help.
However Sylviane never even gave him the chance:
"<The next few weeks will be really busy for me. The 'Ducal Alliance' under that schemer Fitzgerald is on the brink of open revolt against King Alistair's rule. Father can spare neither the troops nor the time with the tensions rising near the Cataliyan border. It falls to me to show the Emperor's flag in the north and help King Alistair pacify his nobles. Therefore I doubt I'll return to Alis Avern before the holidays.>"
She hung up without a second's wait.
"Crap," Pascal uttered an uncharacteristic curse. He finally realized the severity of the trouble he had landed himself in.
He had been so caught up telling Sylviane his story that he hadn't even thought to ask about her problems.
Alistair Mackay-Martel was the King of Gleann Mòr, one of the four autonomous kingdoms under the banner of the Rhin-Lotharingie Empire. However the man was also a royal bastard who spent many years traveling abroad as an adventurer and mercenary. Needless to say, his ascension to the throne less than a decade ago was not universally welcomed by his nobles. His unusual style of ruling and his insistence that all nobles return the money they owe the crown's treasury has only further aggravated them.
Many of these noble houses have since banded together to plot behind his back, as they sought to pressure the King to sign a 'Charter of Liberties'. Pascal had read that charter. He thought it was horse manure and told the princess so during their chat a week ago. The nobles claimed they wanted 'freedom' and 'justice'. What they truly asked for was an expansion of their aristocratic privileges.
For Pascal, these chats he had with Sylviane were not just a way to maintain their relationship. They were an opportunity for him to act as her confidant, to discuss courtly intrigues and help shoulder her burdens. She would often use him as a sounding board for her own ideas, as well as seeking his suggestions and even 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 issues. Neither Sylviane nor her father Geoffroi the Great had any tendency to start diplomatic squabbles over personal grudges. However 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. She had been his closest 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. Meanwhile her fatigued, half-open eyes stared blankly at him, with 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. That didn't even include 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 fresh 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. In early winter, that was before daybreak.
She always started with an hour of studying, to take advantage of her fresh mind. On a Sunday, this meant a quick read through next week's teaching materials, so that she might fulfill her duty as a professor's assistant.
After that came 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.
The Manteuffel clan used a signature weapon that was a variant of the Weichsel swordstaff. It featured a blade the length of one's forearm, attached to the tip of a quarterstaff. A second, shorter blade was concealed in the shaft's bottom, and could be ejected from the rear end. The weapon could be interchangeably used as a sword, a polearm, or even a double-tipped spear. Furthermore, it could magically grow into a heavy lance over six paces long, tipped by a frightful blade.
These swords symbolized the family's customs and pride: adaptive to circumstance, creative in its use, mastered only through diligence, and deadly beyond all doubt in combat.
Ariadne was the fourth child of 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 joy 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 longbow. Her archery style was odd, to say the least. Her ability to pull the bow also clearly relied on magic, as there was no way a small, thin girl like her could exert the arm strength.
"Good morning, Miss Suvorsky!" Ariadne called out as she guided Edelweiss into a flawless landing atop the dormitory keep. Having only spoken to the familiar girl once before, Ariadne had to tap her memory necklace --which she used as a diary-- for a reminder on the other girl's name.
"Good morning, uh, milady." The same could not be said for the other girl as she stood uncertain.
"Ariadne is fine." The noblewoman radiated an ever-gentle smile as she walked up.
The smaller girl finally pulled out of her loading stance. Her long, snowy-white hair swayed in the rooftop breeze.
"In that case, please call me Kaede as well."
"I take it that you practiced archery back in 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 on most mornings back in my world, though my bow is very different from this one. Still, the activity is meditative for me, and keeping up the routine helps when everything else has changed so much."
"So how are you managing? Has that self-centered prick been treating you alright?"
"I have a sturdy roof to live under, hearty food to enjoy, and a comfy bed to sleep in. Other than my lack of purpose here, and the unusual... changes, I guess I really should be grateful. It certainly could've been far 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 his property."
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!
"The prick does that with everyone. He acts like he's the crown prince, 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 as people, and he 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: I'll give him a real scandal -- one that will send enough evil glares his way that even he'll flinch.
For a moment, Kaede seemed eager to take up her offer as her lips parted to speak. However 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 -- that self-centered prick who had dared to scorn her. And based on how the younger girl's gaze had been rooted on her this entire time, she held no doubts that Kaede's trust and respect were steadily growing.
Her beloved Perceval 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 beautifully unclaimed." Kaede shrugged again: "I haven't left the castle though, so I can't really say."
"To nobility, decadence is an expression of prestige." Ariadne smiled as though it was just one of those facts of reality that one had to accept. "I'm not sure what you mean by 'unclaimed' though."
Kaede's face lit up in a broad smile as she spread her arms towards the lake in the distance.
"Every morning I can come out and see forests and rolling hills, most of it untouched for as far as the eye can see." She enjoyed the scenery before taking a deep, relaxing breath. "The air is so pure, completely free of pollution. I haven't lived in a place like this since my early childhood in the Russian countryside. There are simply too many people in my world."
"Rhin-Lotharingie is indeed a beautiful country," Ariadne beamed in return. "Though I wouldn't praise the Lotharins about their low population density. They have a bit of a sore spot over it."
"How come?" Kaede pivoted back around with a puzzled face.
"The Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie was formed from a coalition of tribes that spent several centuries fighting the Inner Sea Imperium," Ariadne explained. "Their persistence is... incredible. But they also paid for it in blood."
For a second Kaede's expression grew sympathetic yet nostalgic. It was as though she could tell the same tale about her homeland.
"I take it the Lotharins don't get along with the Imperium?" The familiar girl asked next, even though she clearly knew the answer. "Probably quite difficult when the Inner Sea Imperium is the premier superpower of the west?"
"Yes, on both accounts," Ariadne replied, feeling quite impressed by how quickly the small girl was learning about their world. "The Inner Sea Imperium may be in decline, but they still dominate the politics of Western Hyperion. Thanks to their influence, most people see Rhin-Lotharingie as little more than a huge frontier full of half-civilized barbarians. I certainly did before I came here," she admitted.
Kaede sighed as she bore that expression again. It was as though she understood exactly what it meant to belong to a group constantly being vilified by a hegemonic imperial state.
"Just like Russia and America," the familiar girl muttered in a barely audible voice.
"Nevermind. Sorry. Just thinking about comparisons from this world to mine," Kaede finished with a somewhat wry smile under her chilled rosy cheeks. "It really reminds me that history loves to rhyme."
Ariadne smiled. She wasn't entirely sure what the familiar meant by that. But...
"I can see that you're very interested in our world."
"Interest is an understatement," the small girl chuckled. "I study history and culture. Your world is absolutely fascinating."
Well that's unexpected, Ariadne thought to herself even as she kept up her charming smile. I never took her for a bookworm.
"I'm glad you can at least enjoy some aspects of your new life." Ariadne continued with the tone of a caring, older sister. "Is there anything you need? Like I mentioned before, don't hesitate to ask. There's no way a man 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.
The familiar looked thoughtful for a minute. She 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 that he wants to doll me up in." Her voice came with more than a hint of exasperation. "This is rather improper, but... could you help me get some... trousers?"
"Trousers for women are only worn as a part of military uniforms," Ariadne answered straight. "Outside that, it's considered religious impropriety. Therefore I have to say no. I'm sorry."
"No, no, not at all," Kaede frantically waved her hands. "I'm sorry for asking. I didn't realize there were rules on it in this world."
The small girl eyed Ariadne's hi-low skirt. It had mid-thigh front hem, exposing the tight leggings underneath that hugged her beautiful long legs.
"What about a shorter skirt then?"
The noblewoman in Ariadne felt scandalized. She had to remind herself again: She's from another place. Different norms and customs and all.
"In our society, it's proper modesty for a girl to keep both legs fully covered. Even short skirts like mine which exposes the leggings is rather uncommon outside active military service. Although..." the lady smiled as a thought came to her. "Let me think about this. I might be able to arrange something."
Kaede beamed in response. It was a cute smile that truly lit up her doll-like appearance.
In that moment, Ariadne thought it was kind of a shame: "Do ladies in your world mostly wear trousers?"
She actually felt relieved when the smaller girl shook her head.
The two continued to make comparisons between their worlds for a good hour, until Ariadne saw Perceval on his daily run around the grounds and left to join him. Though even as she left, she still had trouble believing that another realm, one without the aid of magic, could advance to a more technological level of civilization.
Ariadne had heard that the Samarans often claimed to have 'memories of past lives'. It was part of why they had a unique relationship with the Trinitian Church, and were considered 'tolerated heathens' as they were impossible to convert. Official Church scripture declared that the Samarans were undergoing a form of mortal purgatory. However there were many whom believed what the Samarans' memories were tainted by whispers of the devil.
Nevertheless, the Samarans' unique biology not only gave them longevity rivaling the healthiest of mages, but also allowed them to provide a substance that the rest of the world badly needed. Ariadne wasn't sure where exactly the religious differences ended and politics began, but she did know that anything a Samaran claimed about their 'other lives' should be considered with a healthy heaping of salt.
----- * * * -----
It wasn't until near midday when Pascal telepathically called Kaede down to the dining hall for brunch. He then followed it by dragging her off to the library.
"You can read those tomes all you want on your own time," 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."
Facing her from his chair on 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 research proposal that received a perfect grade.
It called upon unknown military treatises from this world as well as the names of battles from recent wars, and suggested a recompilation of operational guidelines to create a new military doctrine -- one which emphasized speed, mobility, and fluidity to guide multiple, simultaneous thrusts deep into enemy territory. The focus was to destroy the enemy's logistical assets, command infrastructure, and lines of communications, instead of fighting their combat forces directly. Its goal was to defeat the enemy not by relying on pitched battle, but through 'total paralysis' which degraded the enemy's fighting potential.
Blitzkrieg...? No, not quite. Blitzkrieg focused on tactical battlefield destruction of opposing forces. This sounds more strategic...
Kaede remembered how his father once proudly explained how 'Soviet Deep Battle' doctrine worked and how it had been used to destroy the mighty Nazi Wehrmacht, even though the German generals refused to admit their failures and whined only of winter and 'endless Russian hordes'. Nevertheless, his lecture was too complicated and her understanding of military tactics was too shallow back then to understand it. She did however attain enough of a basic idea to feel that this was... somewhat similar.
"You're writing a new military doctrine?" She asked, her mind barely grasping the reality of the parchment in her hands. He's only twenty!
"Many of the basic concepts were already employed by my father 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. If anything, she enjoyed learning. But, as her gaze swept across the table and saw the dozens of dusty tomes piled up in thick columns, she could feel her eyelids tiring already.
Where is Wikipedia when you need it? Or at least a library index?
----- * * * -----
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. He had balding gray hair above onyx eyes as sharp as an eagle's, and beneath them were 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. The key words that ensured Pascal's attention were: "The Headmaster has returned and wishes to see you, now."
Those words had brought them all to this room: an oversized office with a massive table backed by huge windows. Several luxurious chairs and couches sat on top of the 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 thick gloves.
Kaede found it a novel experience, to say the least.
"Sir Pascal, welcome."
A raspy voice emerged from behind the steel faceplate. It sounded like the voice of a man with an incurable throat disease.
"First of all, 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. We will also need 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 colder than any human responded:
"No, Miss Familiar. You are neither a citizen of Rhin-Lotharingie nor Weichsel. You are not even a holder of any 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 Pascal, 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 Pascal, I suggest you reconsider. As you are a member of House Moltewitz, any repercussions for your actions will therefore fall under the responsibility of your father the Landgrave. Furthermore, as we are currently in Rhin-Lotharingie and not Weichsel, any overstepping of authority may escalate into a diplomatic incident."
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, and she began to stare at him with gaping lips. "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 had passed away to reason. 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 Pascal in performing the proper checks to ensure that no disaster befall us. I shall also shoulder any responsibility from his errors under my oversight. I am, after all, his advisor and the leader of this cultural embassy."
Silence fell upon the room again. 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 us and the Samarans," began the Professor. "Five hundred years ago, a Prince of the Polisian Federation --the Grand Republic's predecessor state-- sealed a binding magical contract with his Samaran love. According to some Inner Sea historians, this was the event that unleashed the Great Plague, which killed a third of the population across Western Hyperion before a Samaran alchemist eventually synthesized a cure."
"The origins of the Great Plague has never been proven. All we have is speculation and propaganda, since the Imperium also fell out with Polisia-Samara around that same time." Professor Albert continued after cutting Pascal off. "You know as well as I do that taboo or not, the profit margins of trade would entice merchants to continue seeking reliable business contracts between the western states and the Grand Republic. I don't believe for a moment that no binding magical contracts have been formed since, yet no sweeping plagues have emerged for centuries."
Pascal tried to interject, but the Professor still wasn't finished.
"The headmaster just wants an excuse to force his way into cutting-edge arcane research, which he can easily take credit for. 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 Pascal. Assume nothing, confirm! And don't forget your next research project milestone!"
----- * * * -----
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 a few times, for... various things." Pascal didn't seem interested in explaining.
"Why does he wear all that in his office?" Kaede shivered as she remembered that cold, raspy voice informing her that she had no more rights than mere property.
"Headmaster Amaury has not shown his face since before I came here. Rumors have it that he caught leprosy from some magical experiment and was forced to seclude himself from the public."
"Still... uh, Pascal?"
"Yes?" He asked without looking at Kaede. His attention 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 wish 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.
"Yes yes," Pascal smiled slightly as he knelt down on one knee before her. He gently took her left hand and folded back her sleeve, then 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 translucent 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 blood like this. The color is supposed to be a light, crystal red. However this is within deviation 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. It refused to process the implications of his dire words.
"A-and that means...?"
"If what they claim is correct, then Kaede, I did not turn you into a girl. Perhaps instead of transporting, 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 to begin, even as a faint grin tugged at his lips.
Fifteen minutes and an unknown number of observations and measurements later, Kaede's head finally started cranking again:
"That can't be right! I don't just remember fragments. I have all my prior memories! Besides, you said it was a summoning spell -- then why would it create a whole new body!"
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 was 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 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. That was an odd thought because Kaede wasn't even sure if she was still considered 'human' at this point.
"Do not bother getting too comfortable. I need a urine sample from you soon," Pascal noted, only to receive a groan in response.
After sitting back up and chasing the evil thoughts away, Kaede pouted towards the corner closet door that held the heavy chamber pot. Leaning against the wall next to it, there was now a pile of treated wood, packed cotton, and velvet fabrics.
"Materials for fabricating a bed? Yes. I retrieved it from the quartermaster this morning," Pascal commented as he scrutinized the vial's color change. "However, your business has taken all my free time today. Plus I have a busy week ahead, especially with the next project milestone..."
Pascal then 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
Pascal affixed his shirt's top button, before wrapping the medal around his neck and tightening it into place. He then flipped down his collars and adjusted 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 on his leather boots' heels before walking around the bed.
Today was the first time that Pascal had seen Kaede's sleeping face. Even inside the warmth of the dormitory keep, the small girl snuggled into the thick comforter with only her head exposed. Turned to the side, her snowy hair scattered across her gentle sleeping face. Her expression was serene and peaceful, except for the dark outlines beneath her eyes.
Another stab of guilt sunk into his chest, but Pascal steeled himself and shook her through the bedcovers.
There was no response, so he did it again.
"Come on, wake up already," he called after the fifth time, finally eliciting a response:
"I said wake up!"
Two small hands emerged from the bedcovers to rub her eyes.
"Talk about a heavy sleeper..."
"C-couldn't give me just a few more minutes?" Kaede yawned as her thin arms stretched out while her eyes remained 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 a Refreshen spell. Her countenance instantly grew less pale. The bags under her eyes disappeared 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; have 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 about last night? 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. However a few dozen people occupied the library nonetheless. They all looked like either 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 Emilia de Morini.>" 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 would 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. It made Kaede wonder 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 here anyway.
Without someone she was friendly with --or at least growing friendly with-- Kaede didn't exactly feel comfortable around new people or places. With her books in hand, she ignored the noblewoman's departing screech and headed back to the dormitories.
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, along with two unexpected realizations as she browsed through the military history of the nation she lived in right now -- the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie.
First of all, calling Rhin-Lotharingie an 'empire' was giving it far too much credit. The realm of Rhin-Lotharingie included four autonomous kingdoms -- Gleann Mòr to the north, Ceredigion to the west, Avorica to the southwest, and Garona to the south. Each of these kingdoms had their own monarch, who in turn swore an oath of allegiance to the Emperor. Sure, there were also many heartland duchies who did not answer to a King before the Emperor. However this layered feudal system which evolved from a tribal confederation left the realm extremely decentralized.
It made Kaede wonder: just how much power did the 'Emperor' really have?
This throne sounds like a pain for whoever inherits it, she concluded.
Perhaps that was the reason whenever the word 'Imperial' was used, it actually referred to the Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea. That emperor, with the sufficiently fancy title of Imperator Augustus, was a true autocrat who could summon legions with a handwave.
Second, it seems that before the various Lotharin cultures banded together to form their 'empire', they were constantly at the mercy of imperial expansion. Just as Ariadne said, the Lotharins had fought wars with the Imperium for centuries, and almost all of the major battles were won by the Imperial side. Yet no matter how much they tried, the Imperium could not stamp out Lotharin resistance, not even in the territories they conquered.
It was as though magic made it more difficult to crush and integrate foreign peoples. This was no doubt aided by the fact that mages, including both their national heroes and the cultural elite, could live for well over a century.
One notable example of this was the historical 'Siege of Alisia', fought over the very ground this academy was built on. Here, the first Imperator of the Inner Sea Imperium besieged the hilltop fortress of an influential Lotharin chieftain. However a Lotharin archmage had activated a stone circle outside to create a gateway, which transported the majority of the tribespeople to an island in the middle of a huge lake. There, they escaped enslavement from the Imperium and founded the city of Alis Avern, which was now the capital of Rhin-Lotharingie.
Wait a minute, Kaede finally noticed. That's why the academy's name sounds familiar! The Battle of Alesia was when Julius Caesar crushed the uprising by the Celtic Gauls!
Yet it seemed that the Romans of this world failed to subjugate the Celtic people, who later banded together to form their own 'empire'.
I wonder what the connection is between this world and mine? Kaede puzzled. This can't just all be a coincidence?
Despite being engrossed in her own questions, Kaede never forgot to loop in Pascal whenever she found something he could use. Each time Pascal would tap her senses directly to read in. The convenience was undeniable. However it was also annoying, not to mention bizarre to turn pages for a pair of eyes that served as someone else's camera.
It was worse when Pascal just dropped into her head without warning, often for no other reason than he felt her curiosity. 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!"
Apart from all the knowledge of a new world, there were also two other, more personal thoughts that kept bouncing to the fore of her mind:
First of all, fantasy realms needed a magical version of the Internet, not to mention magical Google and Wikipedia. They could probably skip Magebook though, given how bad of an influence it was on society at large. Information processing and networking spells couldn't be that hard when Pascal managed to tap into her own biological sensory network this easily.
Secondly, she was rapidly becoming a shut-in, emerging only to retrieve food and books. She was conversing with barely more than one person per day. This was worrisome indeed.
The door then opened without waiting for a response. A petite young maid with short brown hair backed into the room with a large cart in tow. She was the same one who often served Pascal in the dining halls.
She almost dropped the handle when she turned around.
"I'm sorry Miss. I thought Sir Pascal was in a class 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 maids responsible for the male dorms, 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. However all she managed to keep up was a wry smile. "Do you normally only clean when nobody is here?"
"Yes!" Marina nodded a bit too eagerly. "The nobles do not appreciate seeing us servants at work, so we try to be discreet 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.
"Dame Ariadne 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 smiling back reluctantly, as though she was in agreement wasn't brave enough to express it.
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 Pascal a beating? Did your master punish you any further than cutting meals? He was in a foul mood even as recently as yesterday morning, yet 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 much. In fact, she hadn't even realized that since becoming a girl, she had become far 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 that you are Samaran?"
Kaede's grin froze as a torrent of nostalgic images flooded in: her best friend's congratulations for being accepted to Tokyo U, her clubmates chatting after practice, her parents welcoming her home...
"I'msorrythatwasinappropriateofme!" Marina blurted out as a tear slid down Kaede's cheeks.
The latter girl shook her head. She felt melancholic and glassy-eyed, but still forced herself to wear 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 work soon afterwards. Meanwhile Kaede rediscovered her amusement at what seemed to be a magical vacuum cleaner powered by mana-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 impressions Kaede had towards 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 three meager rows of benches. Advanced Spellsword Combat was an elective class open to upperclassmen and offered every season, so at the moment only thirty-one 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 understandably made students strive for perfection.
As Professor Albert's assistant, Pascal was not required to attend a class that Albert did not teach. However, since Pascal was planning on being a career military officer, he seized upon the opportunity to sharpen his combat skills. Sure, a commanding officer did not need to be a champion, for they relied on brains and not brawn to lead the men. Nevertheless, it would be embarrassing if a mere lieutenant could break into his future headquarters and defeat him.
"As you all know, the most commonly practiced combat magic style in Hyperion is Aura Magic. It is utilized for its multiple stances that shift and adapt to circumstances, as well as high channeling speed which allows rapid mana transfer and spellshaping. However, contrary to many claims, the popularity of Aura Magic is not an indicator of superiority."
It was difficult to remember that Duke Gaston de La Conde was actually one of the most powerful men in Rhin-Lotharingie. It wasn't because he looked ordinary, as despite being just short of old age, Gaston was a dandy who only ever dressed in silver-lined white clothes and sported a meticulously curled mustache. His long face could be described as dignified and moderately handsome, but far more memorable were his wavy brown curls and a deep, violet gaze.
However, even though Gaston was an Oriflamme Paladin and one of the top commanders in the Rhin-Lotharingie military, he spent most of his time teaching students art and dueling while leaving his administrative duties to his mistress Cosette.
"For example: Runic Magic remains a favorite in the Kingdom of Gleann Mòr, not to mention our Northmen neighbors in the Greater Jarldom of Skagen. 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 Pascal." Gaston smirked as he turned to the young man in question.
"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 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 Pascal, Mister Moreau, would you be gracious enough to demonstrate."
Duke Gaston and the rest of the class quickly left the platform for the benches. Only Pascal and the fiery-haired Reynaud remained on stage. Both of them had agreed heartily to the professor's request, but neither of them looked thrilled as they confronted the another.
"What's wrong, Runelord, cold feet in the face of superiority?" Reynaud smirked a savage grin as he lowered the mass of his already short stature.
His weapons of choice were a wooden kukri in each hand, though one was longer than the other and could almost be considered a falcata. He also wore an open helmet and a brigandine vest for protection, just like every other student including his opponent.
Pascal meanwhile didn't even bother to respond. His steely gaze met the challenge with an imperturbable poker face. He held his wooden estoc in an aggressive fencing stance -- the blade raised above his right shoulder, its tip pointed forward and ready to strike.
"You may begin!" The Duke's words rang like a starting bell.
Pascal leaped forward and charged Reynaud without delay. He stretched out his left hand with fingers extended, activating his extra-dimensional storage glove as four rune-engraved pebbles materialized between his fingers. These runes 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. He thrust his estoc towards Reynaud's torso. His first stab was light and aimed just beneath the neck. But as expected, the faster redhead dodged it by stepping back and shifting his weight to one side.
Pascal withdrew his weapon immediately and gripped the estoc's handle with both hands. He stabbed forth again, this time for real and aiming at Reynaud's center torso. However Reynaud twisted his body to one side and spun as though he was dancing. The weapon slid past his opponent's armor just millipaces short of contact.
But this time Reynaud did not stay on the defensive, as he used his rotation to build momentum which he transferred into a slash from one wooden kukri, followed by the other. Yet with Pascal's layered, magical defenses in place, the two short blades harmlessly bounced off the automated guard of a hovering spellshield.
Taking the opportunity, Pascal retracted his estoc and stabbed again, this time angled towards Reynaud's right and beneath the shoulder. His wooden blade was almost horizontal as he soon transitioned the stab into a diagonal, cutting motion. His target was a common weak spot just beneath the armpit.
Yet once again Reynaud proved that he was both faster and more agile. The short redhead pivoted his leftover momentum to fall away from Pascal's strike, where he transitioned into a roll before bouncing back to his feet. Before Pascal could follow up with another attack, Reynaud muttered his favorite spell and flashed to the other side of the platform in a bolt of lightning, literally.
"Armor Aura Burst!" The redhead cried from his new spot, sending out a pressurized blast of air as he used his aura stance switch to conjure an invisible suit of magic armor to layer over his brigandine vest. He then crossed his twin kukris before his eyes.
Meanwhile Pascal activated the second four enhancements of his usual defensive array, followed by scattering an entire bag of runic pebbles across the arena. With the field under his control, he dashed forward again, his estoc raised and ready for another two-handed thrust.
However before he could even get close, Reynaud unleashed the crimson magic he had pumped into his practice weapons with a set of Ancient Draconic words:
"Scourge Catalyst Fragmentation Dispel!"
A four-part spell with multiple advanced spellwords normally took up to a minute to cast. However, Burst-mode Aura Magic was known for having the fastest channeling speed of all spellcasting styles. It did had a high tendency to overwhelm the nerve conduits and leave the body numb though, and prolonged use could even lead to temporary or permanent paralysis.
The X-shaped fire blast sucked in air 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, Reynaud'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 own mana. His second set of four self-enhancements backfired, fueling the hostile incursion as Elemental Body of Earth, Shift Impulse, Mental Clarity, and Metabolic Boost transformed into volatile mana. His speed broke as his teeth clenched down in pain.
A second lightning-transformation put Reynaud 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 Duke called out as he stepped back onto the stage. "Thank you, Sir Pascal. Mister Moreau, please escort him to..."
Kneeling on all fours and panting in pain did not stop Pascal from cutting in:
"I am fine, Your Grace!"
Duke Gaston nodded before turning back to the class:
"The four-part spell Mister Moreau just used is the bane of Runic Magic users' tendency to over-enhance themselves. Dispel is your classic antimagic spell. 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 Scourge not only boosts penetration power, but destabilizes the target's own mana to burn their bodies.
"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 Duke emphasized. "Barrier Armor plus steel will reduce most physical attacks to mere bruises. Infused Guard, Resistance, and other defensive magic diminish most hostile spellfire down to tolerable nuisances. This goes doubly so for alchemy or enchantment spells which a mage's innate mana may outright repulse."
The Professor then scanned his students before concluding:
"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!"
"Now," Gaston followed by raising his arm into the air with a proud grin. Six quarterstaves lifted themselves from the ground and began to hover in a formation around him. "How many of you think you can land a hit on me?"
Five people raised their hands. A slightly winded Reynaud was one of those who did.
"Good." The Duke smiled. "You cannot win if you're hesitant to unsheath your blade, especially when facing a superior adversary. Your assignment today, class, is to form groups of five and try to land a hit on me. Anyone who succeeds will automatically receive a perfect grade."
An hour later and near the end of class, Reynaud accosted Pascal again after both of them restored their health.
"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," Reynaud 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 Reynaud 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.
And just 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. This was an important milestone to Kaede, as it averted, or at least delayed, her fear of becoming a 'shut-in'.
----- * * * -----
"You still haven't managed it?" The new chief groundskeeper snarled. He was a yeomen, a 'middle-class commoner' capable of using magic, who was hired only two weeks ago to fill a vacancy left when his predecessor died in an accident.
"I-I'm sorry," Marina trembled, her eyes nailed to his feet. "K-Kaede... his familiar girl is in his room all day. It's hard to do without being noticed. 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 Imperator, 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 had 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 Sunday, Kaede went to the roof to meditate through archery. And just like every Sunday morning, Ariadne was taking a self-rewarding joyride on her pegasus.
As Kaede spotted the latter, she hesitated for a moment. But she decided to wave down the angelic rider nonetheless.
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 in the top five 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!
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 Perceval is coming along--"
Kaede almost envisioned hearts bubbling 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. Please meet us at the south 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 Perceval going, she will not do anything unexpected. Here," he tossed her a small pouch. "Make sure you pay correctly for what you buy. Hell 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. I received another task 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."
Pascal's world and history might fascinate her. However, the intricacies of magical theory was about as interesting to her as quantum physics.
----- * * * -----
Given Ariadne's breathtaking charm, Perceval 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. His height was also above average and around the same as Pascal's. Meanwhile his lean musculature emphasized his strong legs, yet his steps were soft, almost silent.
Perceval also did not wear a uniform, since he was not part of the academy's military school. Instead he wore a tight-fitting doublet of midnight blue, its exterior decorated by criss-crossing patterns. A small, pink cross was sewn onto his right breast, which Kaede learned was the Hyperion symbol for healers. But apart from that, his wardrobe was fairly unassuming compared to most nobles.
"Hello, Miss Suvorsky." He barely nodded, not all that pleased to see her. "I'm Perceval de La Tours de Baguette."
"Baguette?" Kaede blurted out in a whisper, before she rushed her small hands to cover her mouth.
"Don't worry. I'm used to it. Even Aria had that reaction when she first met me."
Realizing that she was already off to an iffy start, Kaede put in her best effort as she dipped down in her blizzard-blue dress in a curtsy. However, her inexperienced movements were noticeably rough around the edges, as Pascal had only taught her how to do one three days ago.
She still found it suspicious that he could do it perfectly.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, milord. I'm honored by Dame Ariadne's invitation to come along."
The nobleman attempted to hide his sour expression. It was obvious that he was anything but glad in agreeing to this. Yet he swiftly plastered a forced smile across his lips as Ariadne turned towards him.
Can't really blame him. I am kind of ruining their time alone.
"Just call him Perceval. 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 south gates. 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, Perceval!"
"Going for another outing?"
"Trip to the town? Say hello to Lucas 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 ever bothered to talk to him.
"Good morning, Gerard. Exciting plans this weekend?"
Perhaps the greatest surprise to Kaede was how genial Perceval 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'm sick of starting on people's bad side because of Pascal, she complained to herself.
Kaede then realized that she was still in telepathy range from Pascal. The complaints she could file later. But there was a curiosity she wanted to know right now.
"<Pascal, is there really a House Baguette?>"
For a brief second it sounded like Pascal chortled.
"<No. It is a duchy. The Duchy of Baguette. Home of the real baguette.>" He added in good humor as though it was a motto. "<Duke Mathias thought that since his new fief was long and thin, he would name it after his greatest invention. The old man is actually quite brilliant. It is a shame his grandson Perceval is his polar opposite.>"
Must be birds of a feather, Kaede thought.
It wasn't until they left the outer walls before Kaede finally spoke up:
"Ummm, pardon me, but how are we getting there?"
"We're teleporting once we leave the Lockdown ward." Ariadne answered. "I'm not a Wayfarer. Even with Perceval's help, my jump range is limited to just twenty kilopaces. Thankfully that's enough to bring us to the nearest town."
Kaede shivered. The prospect of being broken down into tiny pieces and reassembled at the target did not appeal to her one bit... At least, that was how teleportation was usually portrayed as.
"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 to prevent that." Ariadne reassured. "The spell is designed to lock on to an appropriate exit point. Its limited range is largely due to safety concerns, as being even a few paces off target could leave you inside a wall or underground. Towns also have beacons to guide teleportation into a sparse area. Otherwise it's always possible to bounce off a warded home and land in a weird alley, or even wind up inside a commoner's shop since warding is expensive. Fortified cities and military installations, on the other hand, are often entirely warded with Lockdown to prevent teleportation in or out."
Of course. Any convenience must also be defended against. Kaede reflected. Nice to see that humanity remains the same wherever you go.
The pair then turned halfway around as Ariadne extended her delicate fingers:
"We're outside the wards now. Grab my hand and hold on."
Kaede took up her offer. Despite her anxieties, she 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 phrases in the ancient Draconic language:
"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 twenty kilopaces, then 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." Perceval 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 Perceval has no charisma. He's just fine with Ariadne making most of the choices until there's something he really wants.
----- * * * -----
Auxois proved to be a hybrid between a sleepy rural town and a trade stop that supplied the Alisia 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. It was the same path that lead to the academy's gates, barely wide enough to fit a single truck.
What Kaede found most surprising was how remarkably clean Auxois 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, Claire, 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 Claire admitted worriedly that it was very unorthodox and barely met social decorum. The designs were mostly black or white or some mix thereof as Kaede preferred, with sewn borders and silk ribbons in floral-pink to bring out the color of her eyes.
Unfortunately for all her talents, Claire wasn't a mage. Therefore 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 designs.
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. "Perceval 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:
"Perceval is on the administration track as well as a practicing intern healer. His dream is to one day become a royal surgeon, who advises the Emperor on matters of health for the entire empire. Three years ago, he was studying abroad in Weichsel's Königsfeld Academy when I had 'the fight' with your arrogant prick of a master. Perceval tried to interfere on my side, only to get brushed off and called 'Bore-ceful' in return. It's a really childish thing, but it struck a personal complex that really hurt him."
Bore-ceful? Really, Pascal? What were you, seven?
"That idiot," Kaede voiced. This 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 Perceval.
----- * * * -----
"You are late!" Pascal growled.
"Sorry! It's hard to run in these heels, and it was a long walk." Kaede then 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 today and tomorrow," 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 the territorial oligopolies of urban guilds and corporations. Their control of the markets 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 political decadence. The civil legislature had long stopped being a representation of the people, its subcommittees fraught with corruption and lobbyists' interests.
Once, the people looked to the populist leaders, consuls who proved themselves in the field of battle and claimed they would bring that same competence to the civil administration. But after dozens of Emperors, even the great autocrats and the philosopher kings of old have vanished.
Historians of the Imperium proudly speak of the 'Five Righteous Emperors' who achieved great deeds. Nevertheless the tradition of adopting sons for the throne laid a disastrous precedence to the line of Imperial Succession. When Theodosius III, the previous Imperator Augustus, died sixteen years ago from a sudden cerebral hemorrhage, he left behind both a biological and an adoptive son.
The ensuing civil war tore the Holy Imperium apart and scorched its lands for six long 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 Skantarios Aurelius brought an end to the bloodshed by seizing the laurels. Yet even in his moment of triumph, he looked towards the northern horizon with bloodied eyes, never forgetting the treachery of nations that should have been his allies against the infidels of the south.
It took ten years to consolidate his power, ten years to rebuild the Legions to full strength, ten years to bribe and negotiate and wrangle for all the arrangements.
"What is our status, Stilius?" Imperator Augustus Skantarios asked as he strolled down the shadowy halls. Only his most trusted servant followed him, the foreigner who thrice saved his life from overwhelming odds, rising from a mere mercenary to Magister Militum of the entire Holy Imperium.
"Our spies in Cataliya confirm that the Caliphate is mobilizing. Troops are pouring across the Grand Strait Bridge by the thousands every day as they march towards the Rhin-Lotharingie border. The Caliphate now stands committed, regardless of whether they believed our emissaries' claims. 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 Legate assures me 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, Imperator Augustus Skantarios 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 aid from crusaders. What of their newfound 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, Skantarios 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's Field Marshal handed them a series of disastrous defeats before winter could embrace the North 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. However 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. "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 Imperator Augustus in five centuries to reclaim lands lost by the Holy Imperium. The patricians will be pleased by the wealth new conquests shall bring, while your name will rise above even that of Marius, 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 has adopted a policy of non-interference for centuries and should hopefully stay out of the conflict this time. The Shahdom of Chorasmia is once again engaged in a border war against our treaty partners in the east, the Dawn Imperium. 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 discreet, but otherwise do whatever it takes."
"Yes, Imperator. I have already dispatched three of our best Mantis Blade squads north. It should not be long before one of my plans bear fruit."
Skantarios 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 rang dark and sinister against the shadowy halls. After all, history was written by the victor. Villainy was not a trademark of evil, merely foolish incompetence and stupidity.
...And he was no fool.
Chapter 8 - Inquisitive Hope
By Monday afternoon, Kaede was starting to feel burned out. Not actually being a bookworm, there was only so much continuous reading she could stand before the task started draining her mental health. Over a week of almost nothing but research pushed even her focus.
Pascal's sour mood over the weekend hadn't helped, but Marina's visit did much to lighten things up.
"You're welcome to come down and visit us in the servant's quarters," she offered, her smile bright enough to light the room. "It's just beyond the kitchens at the end of the dining hall."
"I'd love to," Kaede beamed back. "Probably sometime later this week. Are you around here during the weekends?"
"Week...ends?" Marina puzzled.
"Saturdays and Sundays. Don't you get those days off from work?"
"I've... never heard of anyone who get two days off from a regular work schedule." Marina replied. "There are some who get Sundays off from work, but not us. Servants do not receive any days off on a weekly basis. There's always food that need serving and rooms that need cleaning."
"But..." Kaede was surprised and even somewhat appalled by what Marina just said. "How do you get time off from work then?"
"We can request leave if we're sick or if we have family matters. And there are some holidays when we receive most of the day off. But that's about it." Marina shrugged as though this was completely normal. "I'm lucky that my superior is usually very understanding towards such requests."
This world seriously needs some labor regulations! Kaede thought.
"Alright, then what time would be best for me to visit you, so you can request some time off?"
"Probably Sundays, though mornings work better in general," Marina replied as her hands continued to rearrange and clean the tabletops. "Most of the teaching and research staff live outside the castle, and they're usually home on Sundays which saves us a lot of work. Also unlike the other servants, I don't have any family in the area, so I rarely request time off. Shouldn't be a problem if I ask for an hour or two when you visit."
"Sounds good. I'll definitely make time next week," Kaede smiled. She then wondered aloud: "How long have you worked here?"
Marina paused for a second to think. "It's been about two years since I came to this region in search of a job."
"Wow, that must be tough. Two years with almost no vacation."
Kaede couldn't imagine doing that herself. With her modern standards, she would lose control from sheer stress alone. Yet part of her knew that if she left Pascal, this was exactly the life she would have to live in this world.
"Where did you live before?"
"I was an orphan raised near the eastern borders of Rhin-Lotharingie," Marina casually spoke without any of the melancholy expected of such words. "My parents died during the chaos of the last war ten years ago."
"I'm sorry," Kaede muttered back with downcast eyes, feeling uncomfortable after breaching such a topic. However Marina merely shook her head and returned an angelic smile:
"I was lucky. A kind individual took me in and raised me. But I couldn't keep being a burden to them after coming of age. So I left home after I turned fifteen and sought to become independent."
She's only seventeen then, the same age as me! Kaede couldn't help feeling herself grow even closer to the young maid. "Does your benefactor know that you're here then?"
"I've sent letters, and gifts," Marina replied with a happy look. "But I haven't seen him for two years now. I hope that by the time I meet him again, I'll have the chance to settle down."
"Most maids work to save up enough money for a good dowry, so they can get married one day," Marina explained.
I guess some things haven't changed, at least for commoners, Kaede realized. Just because magic-blessed noblewomen like Ariadne had similar opportunities as men, didn't mean that the same applied to the lower classes.
----- * * * -----
In an unusual turn of events, Kaede found herself waking up late at night. She felt feeble, even weaker than her usual self these days. Furthermore, her body was aching all over, as though she was in the grips of a fever. There was also a constant buzzing in her head.
"You are finally awake," Pascal noted from beside the bed. He sat in a chair with a book on his lap. His worried eyes drooped in an uncharacteristic display of fatigue.
"Do you remember what happened? I found you collapsed on the floor after returning from my classes."
She looked at the wall clock. It was four in the morning, over ten hours since she last checked the time.
Has he been watching over me this whole time?
Thinking back, Kaede tried to recall her last memory:
"I was searching for my cup... but I couldn't find it and was getting thirsty, so I just used yours..."
She eyed the enchanted silver goblet that sat on the bedside table. It could be infused with mana to conjure clean, refreshing water out of thin air by summoning it from underground water tables.
Pascal nodded as he followed her gaze:
"It was on the floor also, just beyond your reach. I thought you might have been poisoned, but I scanned both the cup and your system with Detection and nothing suspicious came up. Neutralize spells had no effect on you, nor would Rejuvenate wake you up. You did not have any wounds or noticeable bruises that would indicate being attacked by an intruder either. Do you remember anyone or anything suspicious coming into the room, or feel any lingering pains at the moment?"
Kaede took a moment to run through her memories again. She had spent the entire afternoon reading. She then chatted with Marina when the maid came to clean the room. It was just like most other weekdays since she had arrived.
"...No. Nothing unusual happened. And... my body aches, but not in any specific spot as much as all over."
Pascal's brows furrowed as he ran out of ideas.
"The healers' only suggestion was that you might have been feeling anemic. None of them really knows anything about Samaran physiology."
"Well... it's true that I haven't been sleeping well, and someone keeps waking me up every morning. Not to mention changing bodies might still be taking its toll." Kaede glared at Pascal with an accusing scowl. "But I didn't feel dizzy or anything outside of the usual sleepiness. It just came out of nowhere... I don't know if Samarans react poorly to sleep deprivation or something."
Pascal sighed, partly in response but mostly in relief.
"I did run the basic tests on your blood while you were out. All I can say is that you are not showing signs of any major illness we know of." He then stood up and began taking off his dress shirt: "Take the day off tomorrow and sleep in. In the future, tell me when you are feeling under the weather. You do have a girl's body to take care of now."
Kaede merely nodded back as she sank back under the comforter, her mind already set on visiting the library tomorrow.
----- * * * -----
Kaede's morning routine must have set her biological clock. After waking up around the same time as usual, she spent the early morning trying to sleep in. She wanted to stay until at least after breakfast, when the students began their daily courses.
Pascal made a surprise return after the meal. With no desire to hear any grumpy orders to rest, Kaede pretended to still be asleep. The tray of bread, cheese, and savory slices of roast pork he left behind for her came as a pleasant surprise.
"<Thanks for the food,>" she told him over the telepathic bond after finishing.
His reply was a simple: "<Get better.>"
Her morning and afternoon trips to the library were far less enjoyable. Both times, several nobles made their opinions of her presence in their sanctuary known with disgusted gazes and hushed whispers. Worse yet, after scanning through two dozen books on Samarans in the library's cultural section, all she managed to find out were some general details:
Other than differences in appearance, Samaran physiology was almost equivalent to that of regular humans. They had the same organ functions, similar biological cycles, and even suffered the same ill effects for nutritional imbalance. One book did claim that Samarans' pregnancy lasted much longer than normal humans, though it failed to provide any further details.
The only major difference lay in their blood. The crystal-clear Samaran 'fluid of life' was known for its healing properties. It could close wounds in under a minute and chase away all but the worst diseases within a day. Furthermore, their blood enhanced healing magic, and could be transfused into any human subspecies without rejection.
Scholars believed that the blood was the source of their longevity. Few Samarans were innately capable of sorcery, yet even an average Samaran could live up to two centuries, which was longer than the healthiest of human mages. Upon reaching the prime years of early adulthood, a Samaran would normally retain their youthful appearance and vigor for well over a hundred years.
However, there was also a dark side about being a Samaran...
Ever since the Great Northern War which gave birth to the Grand Republic of Samara five centuries ago, knowledge about the healing properties of Samaran blood had become commonplace. As a result, Samaran blood had become a highly-sought commodity, used to treat diseases, enhance curative spells, and even imbibed by the rich and powerful in hopes of prolonging their life. Because of this, Samarans were often the victims of trafficking and even large-scale slave raids.
After waging several wars and launching countless black operations against 'blood traders', the Grand Republic finally gave in and made the 'fluid of life' a national export. It was managed by the official Blood Bank of Samara as a diplomatic trade good, and collected from all adult Samarans within the Grand Republic as a literal 'blood tax'. This discouraged illegal sourcing of Samaran blood by offering legitimate supplies and keeping profit margins down. Threats of embargo, war, and active special operations further helped to deter adventurous individuals and nations alike.
Nevertheless, Samaran trafficking remained an issue, especially since neither the Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea nor the Cataliyan Caliphate had ever abolished slavery. Samarans outside the Grand Republic had to guard themselves carefully, as black market traders would pay extravagantly for a living Samaran body with a crushed will. Meanwhile, the Samaran Shadow Guard has earned a reputation as the most ruthless intelligence organization in Hyperion, as they routinely made gruesome examples of any traffickers they uncovered.
For a second time, Kaede found herself glad that Pascal gave her a set of defensive runes. Reports of Samaran slaves exploited as living blood farms depicted a life too terrible to imagine.
Unfortunately, she found nothing about Samarans being prone to instantaneously fainting. If anything, the healing properties of Samaran blood should reduce the likelihood of such occurrences.
Kaede packed up several cultural books plus a tome on the history of familiars into the extra-dimensional messenger bag Pascal gave her. She then departed the library for the dormitory keep. But as she turned around the central keep, her legs froze mid-step upon coming across the most unusual sight:
On the grassy lawn of one inner castle courtyard was a giant amorphous thing. It could only be described as a massive blob of silken tofu the size of a small car. Standing next to it was Perceval, periodically nodding his head and petting the giant tofu as though interacting with it.
It took a minute before Kaede could recollect her composure.
"Hello, Perceval," she called out as she approached Ariadne's beloved.
"Oh, it's you." Perceval replied in a bland tone, his uninterested glance swiftly returning to the giant tofu before him.
"Pardon me but, what is that..."
"My familiar is a white pudding from the Southern Lotharingie Mountains."
Perceval's casual explanation almost sent Kaede's head into a spontaneous meltdown. However her safeties triggered a brief moment of mental paralysis instead.
"That.... that... is... a creature...!?"
"Yes. White puddings belong to the ooze kingdom of creatures," Perceval continued with just a bare tinge of courtesy. "Like most oozes, they're magical decomposers that can engulf and transmute almost any mass into more of itself. Although they prefer the remains of dead critters."
The giant tofu wobbled like jelly under his gentle caress. Kaede's eyes almost popped out of their sockets when it bounced once, like a child hopping in joy.
It was so far outside the realm of Earth biology that Kaede didn't even know how to react. She couldn't even imagine how a huge piece of gelatinous mass could function as a living entity, let alone fit into some corner of the ecosystem.
She also couldn't believe how everyone else walking by ignored the giant tofu as completely normal, but stared curiously at her instead.
"What does it... do?"
"They're a food source..."
With one hand still caressing the giant tofu, Perceval leaned left and right, examining his familiar as though it had any anatomical features to speak of.
"Very bland tasting, but nutritious and easy to consume and digest..."
It really is living tofu!!! her battered logic puked out before fainting. Meanwhile, images of cavemen hunting packs of wild tofu with spears paraded across her mind.
"Animals in the mountains treat them as a roaming food source during the winter, and so do the people living there... ahh, finally..."
"Oyyy! Sorry I'm late!" A short boy with flaming-red hair called out.
"Already used to it," Perceval sighed. "Seriously, Reynaud, just because your friends don't hand out demerits doesn't mean you should keep us waiting. What took you an extra half hour?"
Small and skinny, Reynaud was at least a hand's length shorter than Perceval and was clearly below the male average. However, he virtually bounced across the distance between them with his overflowing energy. Underneath his red hair were a pair of spring-green eyes, a narrow, delicate nose, and lightly freckled cheeks sporting a gleeful grin. His features combined for an innocent, boyish look better suited for a high-school initiate than a collegiate academy student.
However, unlike Perceval, Reynaud was a cadet of the academy's military school. His uniform consisted of a padded, bright-blue leather jacket -- a gambeson that wrapped tight around his narrow chest and fell to beneath his waist.
"Sorry sorry," Reynaud waved in apology before stepping up with a giant tin bucket in hand. "Gerard wouldn't admit defeat from our match earlier. He challenged me to a duel right after class ended."
Oh right, he's the one Pascal complained about for being too good at dueling.
Kaede was still lost in thought when Reynaud glanced towards the girl who stood beside his best friend and blinked. A huge grin soon spread across his face as he eyed the young girl.
"Well well, if it isn't the Runelord's familiar -- the commoner who walloped the princeling." Reynaud circled around Kaede, examining her as he went. "Aren't you a bit too adorable to be giving someone the fisticuffs?"
"You're one to talk, shorty."
With her heels on, Kaede was actually a touch taller than Reynaud. But as he spiraled closer to her with his ogling eyes, she felt her gut begin to knot in discomfort.
It felt distinctively like he was undressing her with his gaze.
"Miss, you are way too precious to be a decoration for that noble jerk." He bowed slightly before extending his hand. "Please, allow me to take you home instead and treat you like the sweet and tasty buttercup that you are."
Are you f'ing serious...?
Kaede's brows twitched twice in irritation. Then, her cheeks flushed scarlet as she felt his hand snake behind her and brush down against the skirt covering her rear. She swiftly pulled her arm back and sent a fist straight into his face.
Her hand might be small and weak, but it was still enough to leave a swollen eye.
"Well, that cleared some doubts!"
Even with a hand rubbing his blackening eye, Reynaud's cheery grin seemed to only widen with delight. His tone soon turned into what reminded Kaede of a drawling, British accent:
"Little weak but just the right amount of spice. Please lady may I have some more?"
Oh gods, a real pervert...
Kaede stiffened and hesitantly took two steps back. Her fingers were poised to stab the runes on her forearm just in case. However Perceval interjected and stepped in to face the shorter boy:
"Control yourself, Reynaud. Just because she's not a noblewoman doesn't mean you can blatantly insult her like this."
Reynaud scowled. No, pouted was a better description.
"Sheesh, you're never any fun, Perceval. Fine fine," he then walked towards the white pudding and, with one scoop, filled his bucket with a generous chunk of the giant tofu.
"Thanks as always brother!" Reynaud began to walk off, backwards. "Nice to meet you as well, Buttercup! Next time you give that jerk a beating, be sure to invite the rest of us to cheer you on!"
Talk about noble hypocrisy, Kaede thought. Even 'that jerk' Pascal has more propriety than him.
"I'm sorry about that." Perceval apologized in a deep, sincere voice. "Reynaud doesn't mean any harm by that. He just doesn't know any boundaries on when to stop fooling around."
"That's alright." Kaede nodded back, more surprised that Perceval was being genial to her.
"Anyhow, did you need me for something?"
Kaede quickly remembered that the man before her was also a healer:
"Yes, actually. I would like to ask if you know anything that may cause someone to fall unconscious with no warning, especially a Samaran."
"Yes. Me," Kaede nodded.
"I'm no more an expert on Samarans than the rest of the healers..."
Perceval scratched his head. Nevertheless his eyes focused in an instant, revealing the concentration of an apprentice physician who took his job with the utmost seriousness:
"But if you don't mind some blood testing, come with me to the healers' chapel and we'll see what we can find. You can tell me what happened along the way."
"Sure. Thank you." Kaede agreed and began to follow him.
Unable to tear her eyes away from the giant tofu that bounced along behind them, she asked:
"Out of curiosity, what did Reynaud want with a chunk of... uh, white pudding?"
"He has a baby skywhale familiar that's barely old enough to cut milk. A white pudding's consistency and ease of digestion makes it a decent baby food."
Kaede simply nodded. Compared to sentient tofu, skywhales felt like a perfectly logical animal in the world.
----- * * * -----
The healer's chapel was a sterile white hall full of beds, which Kaede found unusual because it was the only room painted white in the entire castle complex. Counters lined up against the far-side wall were packed neatly with potion vials, flasks, and bottles. There were also a dozen transparent quartz crystals the size of tablet computers.
Perceval still held one of them in his hands, through which he had examined Kaede over the past half-hour. She felt oddly naked under his focused gaze, but not exactly uncomfortable thanks to his professional demeanor.
"As far as I can tell, there's nothing wrong with you, other than a slight vitamin-D deficiency," Perceval noted as he put the quartz screen back onto his lap. "You need to come outside more often."
Kaede was amazed they even knew about vitamins. The biomedical understanding of this world is more advanced than I'd have guessed.
"Well... people haven't exactly been welcoming to me." She then answered.
A barely noticeable cringe went through Perceval before he closed his eyes and sighed.
"Yes, and I haven't exactly been helping. I'm sorry about that. I know it's no fault of yours, but... your master and I have a history."
"I've heard from Ariadne. Don't worry about it," Kaede rushed to wave it off before changing the subject back: "Do you know any other reason why people here might faint suddenly?"
"Our medical capabilities are nowhere near perfect, and there are plenty of possible reasons for losing consciousness over some condition we either overlooked or simply can't detect. However..." his gaze turned from contemplative to warning. "Ten hours is too long. That's just too serious not to leave an evident sign. Furthermore, Rejuvenate spells can usually wake up even someone sick to the verge of death. To stop something like that... I can't think of anything BUT a magical effect, except you don't carry any suspicious auras, either."
"Do all magical effects leave an aura?"
"No, but a hidden magical aura isn't a natural occurrence. That means you're not just contracting a magical disease or having an allergic reaction against the wards, but being affected by deliberate foul play. Although, given your master, I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case."
Kaede couldn't tell if Perceval was smirking or scowling; probably a bit of both.
"Are you sure all you drank was water? That there wasn't anything in that chalice you mentioned?" Perceval asked.
"Pascal said the Detection spells came out clean. How reliable is that?"
"Reliable enough for everything conventional," Perceval simply shrugged. "But healers aren't in the subterfuge or poison business, and that spell is old, ancient. One of the lessons they teach us in this school is that as long as there is a way, there is also a counter. Unfortunately... that's all I can really tell you."
Kaede nodded as she held onto that thought for later:
"Thank you so much for this. I really do appreciate it."
For the first time, Kaede saw Perceval's gentle, peaceful smile directed towards her.
"Not to sound mean, but I'd do it even if you were the devil's daughter -- that's what it means to take the healers' oath. However, I do promise to try to be cordial in the future. Bet my actions thus far must seem unworthy compared to how dear Aria described me."
Kaede sent back a grin of her own:
"Not at all. As Ariadne said, you're a very generous man."
A shadow of guilt entered his almost-bashful expression in response. It was both what Kaede hoped for, and what made her thoughts agree with her words.
Good people aren't always nice, but you can always count on them to try to do the right thing, she thought as she waved to Perceval before leaving the healers' chapel.
On her way back to the dormitory keep, Kaede replayed all of yesterday afternoon in her memories. Other than Marina's daily cleaning visit, she couldn't think of a single sign of an outsider entering into the room. Furthermore, she remembered that Marina didn't just perform the usual, but also gave all the furnishing in the room a thorough dusting and sanitary wipe-down. She must have at least lifted the chalice when cleaning the bedside counter it sat on.
But why would Marina want to harm Pascal? If this is poison, it's far too low grade... almost like an immature prank.
Kaede knew that history was abundant with cases where agents bribed or blackmailed servants into carrying out their dirty schemes. Pascal was the son of Weichsel's Marshal. His father no doubt gathered plenty of enemies. Furthermore, Pascal's own character was hardly the type to avoid burning bridges.
I can't just lay suspicion on Marina for no reason. Who knows what these nobles may do to a mere servant girl?
The sun was already setting. Pascal would return from class soon. Therefore Kaede's only course of action was to confirm for herself tomorrow.
----- * * * -----
Pascal had been stuck in an irritable mood for several days now.
It began late last Saturday when he tried to contact Sylviane again, only to be rejected without a single word.
Farspeak spells opened the most reliable communication channel that could be made using spellcraft. But it required both the sender and the receiver to concentrate on maintaining the one-to-one link.
Due to her busy schedule, Pascal only called once a week. However in the past, even if she was attending a special council meeting, Sylviane always at least sent back a brief reply before closing the connection.
The fact he knew exactly why she ignored him only deepened his melancholy. It certainly kept him awake late into the night.
Ariadne's invitation to Kaede didn't help his moodiness, but it was a mere drop in the bucket compared to Sylviane ignoring his calls on both Saturday and Sunday nights. Pascal had no wish to further irritate his fiancée by pestering her nonstop. However, shutting down two attempts per day made it evident that she was deliberately not talking to him.
Sunday night was the first time Pascal realized just how late Kaede stayed awake every night, shifting and turning.
Kaede's collapse on Monday night began to push his limits. Fatigue was but one factor. Pascal was also not used to being emotionally strung out.
On Tuesday morning, a noble who criticized the Emperor's recent policies received a ferocious tongue lashing from Pascal. After that, everyone stayed twice the distance they usually kept from him. Professor Albert noticed this, and requested some early research discussion from Pascal's Pandemonium Doctrine project in order to 'keep his thoughts occupied'. As expected, the assignment kept Pascal contemplative for the remainder of the day and well into the evening.
"Hey Pascal," Kaede asked from behind him. "Did you know that the familiars of mages who die of old age often revert back to normal and live on?"
"Yes." Pascal didn't even bother to look up from his writing desk. "Speculation claims that it is the shock of death carried across the bond that mortally wounds the familiar's psyche, either killing them immediately or destroying their will to live. It is the same effect for when a bond is severed by force. Obviously, no one is going to experimentally test either of those hypotheses. But I am nowhere close to the age of dying peacefully."
"Can't you at least try to look into some method of how I can get back?"
Pascal sighed and put down the ink stone that he used to channel words straight onto parchment. He turned back around to face the familiar girl.
Kaede sat in his bed with another book opened between her small hands. She wore only the white halter-top he dressed her in on the first night. Meanwhile, her long, snowy hair draped across her bare back and shoulders, pooling into a pile besides her atop the bed.
"I have thought about this Kaede. But by all knowledge there is simply no viable solution. We cannot just cut the bond and hope a miracle happens to return everything back to before. Nor does any banishment magic work on your naturalized body, either due to its form or due to the link. In fact, I even asked Professor Beaucaire -- he teaches teleportation -- to cast the ancient planar banishment spell on a sample of your blood. It did not work. Therefore, even if we knew exactly which world you came from out of the infinite numbers out there among the multiverse, we couldn't send you there. The magic of the worldwalkers is a tale of old legends and folklore. It is not something achieved within the annals of modern sorcery."
Kaede met his stare evenly:
"I'm here, aren't I?"
"By some fluke of the spell that I still cannot figure out," Pascal admitted with a scowl. Then, his words grew almost challenging: "I was impressed how quickly you were adapting to life here. I guess that is not the case after all."
"Oh please, it's only been eleven days!" she retorted. "Philosophically, I adhere to the Eastern views of my home world more than the West. We try our best to be accepting of the world around us, to be at peace with how it molds our lives. But being accepting isn't the same as simply surrendering to fate. My will still points my way, and I fully intend to explore all options."
The Holy Father may have plans for us all, but under his guidance we shall still strive for our cause, Pascal reflected as Kaede declared her intent with hardened eyes. For a second he almost felt impressed, with an urge to pull her into a theological discussion.
"Anyhow, since there are stories of visiting other worlds..."
"Yes, from millennia ago when angels, demons, and dragonkind still waged wars across our world, when the very nature of magic was different," Pascal's irritated words cut her off. "I am not going off to chase sorcery that has been lost for over a thousand years over wishful thinking. I admit that my mistake brought you here, but I do not owe you all the years of my life in repayment for it!"
With those final-sounding words, Pascal turned back around to focus on his work, leaving only the back of his head to meet Kaede's burning glare.
"<You just don't want me to go back, do you?>" Kaede seethed over the mental link.
Pascal froze for a second.
His fatigued thoughts stumbled through a fuzzy world of internal analysis, cycling through memories of the past week-and-half. He admitted that while he did indeed enjoy her company at times, there were many more where he wondered if Kaede was really worth her trouble.
It took another minute before he finally replied:
"<Maybe. But I promise you that if some clue of it being reasonably possible appears, I will look into it. But until then, I refuse to waste any more time chasing what every professor believes a pipe dream based on nothing more than ancient history.>"
The sound of a book slamming shut came from behind him as Kaede haphazardly tossed it onto the counter. She then lowered herself into the bed and pulled the bedcovers over her head.
The emotions that flowed across their link had never grown beyond mere annoyance. But even that, when added to his own irritation, was enough to push his current self-control, or lack thereof.
I need sleep.
Chapter 9 - Bonds of Faith
"Marina! You have a visitor," the burly chef called out. He then nodded towards Kaede before returning to the kitchen.
It was only a half-hour after breakfast at the dining hall. By now, the rest of the students had already started their daily courses, while the staff busied themselves with cleaning. It was the perfect time to accost one of them without being overheard by the rest.
The petite, brown-haired maid rushed out in under a minute, still wiping her hands with a cleaning towel.
"Oh, I should have known it was you."
"You don't seem very happy about it," Kaede grinned.
Marina's hands rushed to wave it off.
"No, no, of course I'm glad! I was just surprised. Thought it was a staff member or something."
"I do wish this was purely a social call, but... I need your advice on something." Kaede kept up her smile, but the rest of her face fell serious. "Do you have a private room here? Or should we go back to mine? Pascal won't be back for hours, and I need to ask you something important."
Marina's shoulders stiffened as her smile froze. She looked almost paralyzed for several seconds, then:
"Probably m-mine. I can think of nobles spying on one another or keeping tabs on their rooms with surveillance spells. However I'm just a lowly servant below their notice. The walls here may be thin, but all of the other servants are out busy at this hour. It should be fine as long as we keep quiet." She then turned around towards the kitchens' rear. "Please follow me."
Is it usual for a maid to know even that much? Kaede wondered. I guess they would be wary of working under watchful eyes. It only takes one incident to leave a lasting lesson among the servants.
The wide hallway behind the kitchen connected directly to outside. On one wall were doors leading down to storage cellars, some of which Marina introduced as magical 'purification' rooms housing foodstuffs. The other side held two doorways that linked to the servants' quarters, segregated by gender. These proved no different from old boarding schools' dormitories, with each room furnished in a utilitarian manner: two to four bunk beds lay against exposed stone walls, plus a desk or two close to the glass windows.
Marina pulled Kaede into a small room just barely large enough to fit two sets of beds and still cram in a table. Clothes, including girls' underwear, hung off a horizontal bar just above each bed.
Closing the door behind her, Kaede hovered her palm above its knob and sealed the lock. Facing the wide-eyed maid, she waved her right hand with the thin turquoise-set ring around her middle finger:
"Spell-activation focus from Pascal. I can channel his magic to use a few basics."
Marina nodded as she gestured for Kaede to sit on one bed before following suit on the other. Despite sitting right under several drying undergarments, Kaede barely even noticed her embarrassment before her focus marched right past it.
"So, what is it that y-you wanted to ask?"
The mask that hid the maid's anxiety and nervousness was paper thin. It felt like the day they first met, rather than the relaxed conversations they had nowadays.
If she really is a spy, she's not a very good one, Kaede thought. Probably some noble just bribed or blackmailed her into doing it. Hopefully, that means I can resolve this without hurting our friendship much.
"Marina, I collapsed last night after taking a drink from Pascal's silver chalice that was on the night counter."
Being an amateur at this herself, Kaede opted for the direct approach again. At least the weight of information kept the momentum on her side and gave her a better chance at reading the other:
"The healers couldn't find anything wrong, so they suspected there was foul play involved. Since you were there cleaning in the afternoon, do you know if anything might have gotten in?"
"Uh, no? I don't r-remember doing anything there except dusting. Are you alright?"
Her concern seemed genuine, but something in her eyes didn't feel right.
"I am now, thanks. But are you sure you don't remember anything weird in there when you moved it for dusting?"
"No... Honestly, I didn't really p-pay much attention to it... And even if I did, magic could easily hide something like that with glamor."
Kaede couldn't place an impression on her statement, but she did agree with its content:
"True, and it's not like you'd be able to detect that kind of thing. I really should get Pascal to add that to the ring."
"I've heard many nobles have a habit of running detection magic before they eat or drink; some so ingrained that they don't even have to think about it." Marina's relieved tone was exactly what she wanted.
"Do you remember anything else that may have seemed unusual? Like residues or dust imprints? Other than the chalice, Pascal almost never uses that counter..."
Kaede trailed off as she thought back to her original plan. She had held back any direct blame to give Marina a moment of reprieve after the opening. But if she was to boomerang the pressure back, it must be done now or she would soon forfeit the initiative in this conversation.
"No... nothing that caught my eye."
"Are you sure? Because you were the only other person who came inside all day."
"Y-yes I'm sure. I didn't do anything other than move it to clean."
Kaede took the maid's hands and looked into her sea-green eyes, pleading:
"Marina, I really want to have you as a friend, so please, please don't lie to me. I won't tell Pascal about any of this. He doesn't even know that I'm here. I mean, seriously, why should it matter to me if that asshat gets poisoned or not?" She felt a prickle of guilt as she spoke her prepared lines. "But this didn't affect him, it made me sick! And I want to know what it was!"
"B-but I'm telling you the truth!" Marina almost wailed.
The two of them simply sat on their respective beds, staring each other down. More precisely, Kaede did the staring, all the while feeling like the villain as tears pooled in Marina's eyes.
This is getting nowhere.
Kaede really wished she could trust in Marina's words, but something just wasn't right. It felt like their eyes met yet failed to see each other. It was an intuitive feeling that she couldn't explain. Nevertheless, she still had one more idea left, but it was also an all-or-nothing gamble. If Marina was truly innocent, going down this path would seriously damage their growing relationship.
But if I don't clear my doubts now, how can I have faith in her in the future? What kind of friendship would that be?
Marina's tears began to trickle down her cheeks, and Kaede hated herself as she gritted her mental teeth to press on.
I swear this is the last one...
"No, you're not. I borrowed a thought detection rune from Pascal," she bluffed with her sternest expression. "Of course, he doesn't know what it's for. But I can use it well enough to know that you're lying to me."
The maid stiffened into a board as her glassy eyes grew wide, finally giving Kaede a sign of what she sought.
"But you're m-mistaken! I really didn't n-notice anything!"
Leaning back against the wall, Kaede used the bunk beds to cast a shadow over her disappointed expression and deepened her voice to as ominous as possible:
"Then what are you hiding? You did do something... I want to know what it is and what for. Otherwise I'll have no choice but to report this."
Color rushed out of Marina's countenance as she rushed to her feet:
"H-he'll know anyway... you're his..."
Kaede sighed. She wasn't sure how she would manage if her gamble had proved wrong. But now, it was time to stop waving the big stick and go back to speaking softly. Interrogation wasn't exactly twentieth century foreign policy. However persuasion was persuasion, even if it bordered on blackmail.
"Pascal promised he will not intrude upon my senses without asking. If nothing else, he's a noble who values his pride and sense of honor. I trust him to keep his word on that, and I promise your secret is safe with me."
"H-how can I..."
"You'll just have to trust me," Kaede finished for her. "I'm the only one who can help you keep this under wraps."
She skipped the part that she was also the only one who could do the exact opposite.
"It's... it's... i-it's just a knockout poison," the maid finally stuttered out. "It just leaves the one who drinks it unconscious for about twelve hours."
"What's the point of something that weak?"
"It's... it's the strongest antimagic poison available."
Sirens blazed through Kaede's mind as Marina revealed the latest information. Immunity to magic instantly solved the riddle of why Pascal could neither detect nor neutralize it. But something so advanced that even his profound knowledge had never heard of could only come from a major benefactor.
The academy and all its security made capture half-impossible, so the only reason to knock Pascal out for that long would be a silent assassination...
"Why are you trying to kill Pascal?"
Kaede felt her blood chill as she struggled to keep her tone merely curious.
"W-wouldn't you like to have the link cut and be rid of your master? T-that way you could return to your home in Samara," Marina forced out through her teary gaze.
Kaede almost froze on the spot. Her eyes sprang wide as she realized that she had almost made a deadly mistake: the maid's seeming naivety and apparent stress under amateurish interrogation could have been all an act. It certainly did not suppress a keen mind that was busy preparing a counterattack.
Thankfully, she had left herself an opening earlier when Marina's guilt was still uncertain.
"I'd love for an opportunity to go back," Kaede's dry voice spelled out her wistful hope. "But that's..."
"I-impossible? That your life would be forfeit if the link was severed? O-of course he would tell you that."
Kaede's eyes narrowed at Marina. Her stony gaze demanded an explanation.
"I-I don't know all the specifics but... f-familiars of older nobles who die naturally from age manage fine right? I-if familiars only die when their master's life ends suddenly, that shouldn't be the case if he p-passed away while unconscious."
"Even if that's true... that doesn't help me get back to where I come from." Kaede decided it was best to extract a proposal without revealing that she was from another world.
"My m-master has an excellent Wayfarer -- a teleportation expert. I-I'm sure he could arrange something."
Kaede remembered that Pascal had also sought the aid of a Professor specializing in it. She realized that the key to returning home probably laid in the wormhole-like effect of teleportation. Pascal had also said that something kept her from being 'banished', cast back into her world of origin, and one of the possible causes was their familiar link.
It wasn't an assured ticket back. But with no alternative answers, it was also her only shot. Except the price for it...
"P-please," Marina knelt down and begged as tears streaked down her soft cheeks. "If you can get your master to drink it --even just coating his chalice with it will work-- my master's men will be able to smuggle us out of the country once their task is complete."
Kaede felt a cold, metal vial press into her palm. She slowly wrapped her delicate fingers around it as though it was precious and fragile. Meanwhile, her own emotions and thoughts lay in utter chaos:
Can I even trust her? Compared to Pascal?
She quickly decided that was a stupid question.
But then... will I even have another chance?
Still, isn't this premeditated murder!? Even if my hands don't draw blood, I'd still be an accomplice!
Pascal's selfishness might have ruined her old life, caused all her recent problems, and put her in this dilemma. But there was no way Kaede believed that he deserved to die for it.
But what other choices do I have? Even Pascal said that the only way to cut the link, to sever my connection to this world, was through death.
How is murder ever acceptable just for my own gains? For a mere chance of returning?
Kaede squeezed the vial in her hands. She was certain that the answer should be obvious. Yet she was nevertheless unwilling to close the other door.
"How do I know that your master and his men will keep their word?"
For a moment, Marina looked uncertain. Then:
"R-remember when I told you I was an orphan? I was raised by a duke on the eastern fringes of the Empire, and I've spied for him ever since to repay the life I owe. I can't g-guarantee it, but I doubt my master will throw away a decade of work so easily while I can still prove my worth. They will definitely give me a way out, which means helping a second isn't much harder. Besides, we're friends," Marina promised through a tear-stained smile. "And once we return, giving you a teleport home should be easy."
Barely nodding, Kaede looked down at the metal cylinder in her shaking hand. It was wrong. It stood against everything she believed in. Yet it was also her only opportunity for salvation, for her to go back to her old life.
She couldn't stop herself from testing the waters once more:
"You want me to coat the chalice in this? Do I need to give you a signal or anything if it worked?"
After thinking it over again, Marina clarified as she wiped away her tears:
"Wait until tomorrow afternoon. I'll c-contact the others to make arrangements today, then give you an update tomorrow on how to proceed. If you want to back out, this is your last chance. Once I tell the rest, they won't hesitate to k-kill you if you try to leave the plan."
A cold shiver went down Kaede's spine, but she nevertheless closed her fingers around the vial of antimagic poison.
Kaede wasn't sure if she dared to risk taking Marina's offer, realistically or morally. But she did know one thing for certain: regardless of which way she leaned, accepting the task and becoming part of the plan was her best option.
"No. Count me in."
----- * * * -----
"How could... why did you decide that on your own!?" The chief groundskeeper snarled again, this time in the dark confines of a storage cellar. "Our role is to observe and provide those killers with info, not to get involved ourselves!"
The maid was sniffling with tears running down both cheeks. But he wasn't fooled. She had been raised for subterfuge because their master recognized that although she gave off a naive impression and cried easily when under pressure, emotional turmoil didn't stopper this girl's thoughts the way it would for most. Marina was intelligent and resourceful to begin with. Her tears effectively disarmed others and made them underestimate how capable her mind was even under duress.
"S-she's a Samaran. She dreams of returning home. And I k-know she hates aristocrats and her life here. She only stands to gain from helping us..."
"But she's also our target's familiar! However abnormal it may be for a person to be a familiar, she's still bound by the same links!"
"I-I believe her dislike of her master is g-genuine. It's known throughout the academy that she h-hurt him on the roof, even if she took him by surprise rather than with any kind of skill," Marina explained. "There is c-clearly no loyalty to speak of. Furthermore, if I did not b-bring her in, she would certainly have revealed us to her master."
"And you think she's reliable just because of that!?"
"S-she can be used as long as she has some t-trust in me, enough to give her hope. B-besides, I told her that we worked for a duke within the Empire. This way, even if she t-tells, we could at least use her for disinformation."
The groundskeeper sighed. There were indeed nobles in the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie who opposed their crown princess' betrothal --even a matrilineal betrothal-- to the scion of Field Marshal Moltewitz. However, he and Marina actually worked for a northern governor of the Holy Imperium, executing a direct mission from their Imperator.
"We'll need to ensure that she understands there will be consequences, immediate and deadly, should she dare to betray us. Have her carry out the task this Sunday afternoon. The following holiday will see the dorms thinned out once all the nobles with nearer estates leave for their homes. Once our target is unconscious, she is to come to the dormitory keep's exposed roof at dusk and raise her hand as the signal. If the information checks out, the others will reveal themselves and make their move. But if anything even looks like a trap, she'll be dead on the spot."
"I-I understand. I'll inform her tomorrow."
----- * * * -----
"Are you alright? You've been... conflicted, confused even, since early morning," Pascal voiced as they returned to the dorm room after dinner. His turquoise eyes turned around and met Kaede's with deep concern.
...Or was it suspicion? She couldn't tell. She already knew that it probably wasn't possible to hide her emotions from their 'passive link'. Her sense of guilt was a dead giveaway.
It really wasn't fair that he had a gateway straight to her heart and mind, one that she couldn't even shut. Not that she could close the other bonds either. All she had was his promise not to use the keys without permission.
Her life now was not just one completely dependent on another, but one at the mercy of another. In this foreign and fantastic land, she didn't even have any basic rights. It was a terrifying basis of living. No matter how much pragmatism she applied, no matter how much she forced herself to adapt, and no matter how much she focused on her interest in this world, approaching the problem at its core would always yield one result:
She hated this life.
She would do almost anything to wake up from this dream.
"Tell me Pascal, what am I to you?" Kaede turned her gaze away.
"You are my familiar, of course..." Pascal's reply was deep and sincere.
Yet with that lay the problem. She had no wish to be a mage's pet for her remaining life. She had well over a century of it too, given a Samaran's life expectancy.
"You are my companion and partner that, by the grace of the Holy Father, will be with me until the end of my days, or..." his voice dropped low, "at least until we come across a solution for your return."
Kaede was almost surprised by that. He had managed to keep it in mind after all, however begrudgingly.
Almost, because the slightest hindsight told her that his answer should have been expected. She had only known Pascal for twelve days, yet within this time he had upheld every promise he had made to the letter. Even, especially, that night when he invoked his nobility against his own superiors in her defense.
He could have cast her out from day one when she committed assault, yet he stayed up to watch over her when she was ill -- even if that was also his fault. He wasn't always thoughtful. He swayed between impenetrable composure and lashing out with childish tantrums. But in the end, Pascal always upheld what he saw as his personal responsibility with a steely grip.
Had the circumstances been different, Kaede would have loved to work with such a man. He had a potential for visionary guidance and reliable management. He would make an admirable leader, a boss she would be proud to follow, to even consider a personal friend.
"Companion and partner, huh?" Kaede repeated with the hint of a smile. Isn't that what a good friend is?
There was no way she could contribute to killing someone who only wished for that. Even if she managed to return to her old life, she would not be able to live with herself. Her conscience alone would destroy her future -- that was something far worse than this situation could ever be.
"Then, Pascal, do you trust me?" Kaede locked her eyes back onto his.
"That is a stupid question," Pascal replied without an instant of hesitation. "You are my familiar. Of course I trust you."
Kaede wasn't sure how much would have changed had he not said that, or had he hesitated, or...
But her path was clear now.
Pascal couldn't have known what she did, but he also grew up in a courtly atmosphere of hiding daggers behind smiles. Kaede knew she had all the worrisome signs, even more so because they shared the familiar link. Yet he still placed his faith in her, unwavering. Because that was what one did for a dear friend, for a true partner.
It was a goodwill that she had to return in kind. To do otherwise would not only be impolite and inappropriate. It would have violated her central belief, her personal --and far more pragmatic-- variation of the saintly golden rule:
Do unto others as they would do for you.
She would put her faith in him. She would trust that her 'master' would make this a life worth living, and, should the opportunity arise, find her a way back.
"Leave this problem to me then," she gave him a confident smile.
Pascal looked confused for a moment before he replied with a lopsided grin: "just call me if you need help."
It was the first assurance that she made the right call.
Chapter 10 - Critical Appeal
The first winter cold front had arrived early this year. Flakes of snow already dotted the skies, leaving a sheen of moisture on the dormitory keep's stony roof.
It was Sunday morning, and Kaede was meditating through archery as usual. Except this time, shooting was as much a nerve-calming exercise as an excuse to stay up there.
After she received her update from Marina, Kaede had spent most of her waking hours over the past two days planning out different scenarios. There was no way Pascal didn't notice her reduction in research output, but he didn't say a word.
Since the plot on Pascal's life did not launch into full swing on Monday night, Kaede surmised that the assassins must have Pascal and her under surveillance. This had allowed them to call off the final strike when she, instead of him, fell unconscious to the poison. However, it also meant she had to tread carefully to maintain the facade that she was still on-board with the plan. It pushed her first action as far back as Sunday morning, for there was no other way to accost Ariadne without drawing excessive suspicion.
Thankfully, Ariadne was also a stickler for personal schedules, and Kaede waved the lady down from her joyride without a hitch.
"Isn't it a bit chilly to be flying today?" Kaede made her pleasantries with the usual cheerfulness while pressing a rune on her arm. She had asked Pascal --privately over telepathy-- to load one set with utility spells instead of defensive enhancements. This first rune sent a telepathic whisper straight to Ariadne's thoughts:
"<Sorry Ariadne, but I need help. I'm certain I'm being watched. Do you have a spell to guarantee a private conversation? Best if it's as inconspicuous as possible.>"
"My uniform has thermal adjustment, so a little cold doesn't really bother me." Ariadne nodded before her right hand twisted about in a series of odd gestures. "I'm guessing that prick ordered most of your clothes here, so ask him which one he had the enhancement put on. It's probably the one he expects you to wear most often. The self-adjustment should do its job once you've worn it several times, although you may need to tweak it for extra warming since you're so thin. Imperative thoughts should work -- most magic items take orders that way."
Kaede instantly knew which one: no wonder why I feel more than just chilly unless I'm wearing this lingerie from the first night. And here I thought it was just the material...
Her body was soon wrapped by a comfortable warmth that reminded her of insulated heating pads. Meanwhile, Ariadne's entire soft-leather glove glowed for a brief second. She then explained through her angelic smile:
"Sanctum Veil spell. Anyone trying to observe or listen in from the outside will just see and hear us discussing everyday things like the weather. Chances are they're observing from afar though. Scrying sensors are easy to detect for any vigilant mage who periodically scans their surroundings, and nobody ever blamed your prick of a master for sloth or stupidity."
"So," Ariadne stood eagerly with her hands propped at her waist. "What do you need help with? Need to give that self-centered prick a longer-lasting lesson?"
Pascal must have been a lot worse two years ago to make her like this. Kaede almost shuddered.
"Actually, the opposite. I need help because someone is making an attempt on Pascal's life, for political gains as a matter of national security."
Kaede gave her keywords the verbal highlight to make sure Ariadne understood that this was not a personal matter, but one of interest to any knight of Weichsel. Otherwise, there was no way Ariadne would listen to a plan on helping her nemesis.
Just as she had hoped, the lady's smile froze.
It took a while for Kaede to explain her episode of being poisoned, her encounter with the maid, and her accepting their offer.
"Marina, I take it?" Ariadne chuckled at Kaede's surprise. "Easy to figure that one out. She's the maid responsible for cleaning the older boys' dorms, and that's where your prick of a master resides as well." Then more sternly: "I'm surprised you didn't just report her. I'm also surprised that Pascal didn't jump to the same conclusion."
"If I reported it, her group would just disperse into hiding before they could be caught. That would merely delay them for a few weeks before they try again." Kaede countered, her eyes hard with determination. "I want to drag them out into the open and clean the entire mess in one sweep. As for Pascal," she shrugged, "I might have given him the impression that my fatigue was to blame."
"You don't think this is way over your head? Assuming you weren't a spy or something before the summoning?"
"Nothing of the sort," Kaede almost laughed as she waved it off. "I was an ordinary student. However I also don't think anything is completely above trying, even if I'm just an amateur. History is altered not just by grand sweeping plans, but by all the little individual actions that made it possible."
Ariadne nodded with her usual smile: "You sound like my friend Gerard. Go on."
"I'm also not stupid enough to tackle this alone, which is why I need your help. These people are trained killers, and I know barely enough to defend myself. However this academy has many knights and aspiring officers, including you and your friends." Kaede took a deep breath as she opened her argument: "I realize you have no reason to help Pascal in anything, and neither does he deserve it. But you are also nobles who value duty to your country enough to serve it as your career. I have faith in you all to pick the greater good over personal grudges, however deserving they may be. So I see no reason why we cannot do this."
It was immediately apparent that Kaede had at least partially succeeded. Ariadne pressed one finger into her cheek in serious consideration over the proposal.
"I'm surprised you waited until today to ask me. I had almost taken up an offer to visit some friends over the holiday."
"Sorry, but I couldn't approach you without being conspicuous, and everything depends on maintaining the lie." Kaede explained in apology, before she pulled herself back: "Wait... holiday?"
"Tomorrow is December 12th -- Rhin-Lotharingie's Twelve-Twelfth Day, also known as Unity Day. I take it you didn't know?" Ariadne asked, and Kaede shook her head. "Weichsel is too far for me. A round trip in two days is possible, but not worthwhile. However my friend Cecylia had invited me to join her in Alis Avern. I only cancelled those plans when Perceval told me he would be staying behind as well. If I was gone already, what would you have done then?"
The elegant smile that backed the question somehow made it more daunting.
"I could discreetly approach your beloved Perceval for help," Kaede shrugged as she silently scolded herself, as she realized how much worse that alternative was. "But otherwise this really would be beyond me and I'd have to call off the bluff. Meeting Pascal's professor is as good as declaring my intentions to the other side, and I've barely even spoken to anyone else."
The air between the two fell into a nervous silence as Kaede felt examined, scrutinized under magnifying eyes, while the noblewoman contemplated with one finger still held against her cheek. Then, just as Kaede was about to continue her drafted thoughts on persuasion, Ariadne nodded with a calm smile:
"It's the Holy Father's will then. I'll need to consult my friends before giving you a confirmation, but consider us tentatively in. Your clothes came in at the store also, so I'll pick them up and give them to you this afternoon. It's the perfect opportunity to discreetly pass you a message."
For seconds, Kaede stood speechless while the lady smiled sweetly back at her.
"That was a lot easier than I anticipated... thank you. But why?"
"I'll take offense if you think me a fool in politics, you know," Ariadne declared cheerily while puffing up her prominent chest. "The betrothal between that prick and Crown Princess Sylviane of Rhin-Lotharingie is well known..."
Kaede felt her thoughts halted, then blown away as a second, far larger tidal wave struck her.
"It's also one of the founding stones of Weichsel's defensive military alliance with Rhin-Lotharingie. Marina claimed her master is a Lotharin duke, so perhaps fracturing the alliance isn't their goal as much as preventing suspected manipulation of the throne by a foreigner. However it doesn't change the effects should they succeed."
He... he... Kaede's mind was still sorting out the information pileup.
"Pascal is ENGAGED!?"
"You didn't know? I thought that prick at least had enough sense to tell that to a girl before courting her! What else did you think was of political importance on a national scale?"
Kaede then shook her head as she denied it outright:
"We're not in that kind of relationship. In fact, that would be outright impossible for me even if he sought it..."
Somehow, the mere thought of telling Ariadne about her gender mix-up just felt... wrong.
"Anyway, I simply thought they were trying to provoke Pascal's father, the Field Marshal, into some kind of rash response in an upcoming incident. The commander's heir killed in a foreign country? Wouldn't be the first time wars started prematurely because of an angry family member."
"Part of the reason Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie set aside their differences to form this alliance was because of an enraged Emperor who lost two sons to Imperial assassins, but that's a story for a different time." Ariadne said before returning to the main topic. "So assuming everything on my side works out, what's your plan of action?"
"I couldn't really narrow down much detail," Kaede admitted. "I have no clue about the combat potential of your friends. But since Pascal is their main goal, his dorm is where we'll need the most help. I figured since Reynaud is a fourth-year military cadet, his room should be on the same floor...?"
Ariadne nodded in confirmation.
"Then Perceval can join his friend there beforehand, and they can sandwich the attackers in from behind while Pascal buys time. Meanwhile, since I have to stay on the roof to keep the assassins fooled, I would appreciate some help once the cover blows. After all, I have no desire to get killed in this."
"I can work with that plan." Ariadne agreed, her bright-cyan gaze smiling with approval. "If any changes are necessary, I'll pass them back with the reply. Either way, it sounds like I have a busy day ahead, so I will see you later, Kaede."
With a boot placed into the stirrup, Ariadne mounted her white pegasus in one swift motion. She then waved goodbye before taking off from the dormitory keep roof.
And the day begins...
Kaede continued shooting for a good half hour before she went back inside, just to be sure her meeting with Ariadne didn't seem deliberate.
----- * * * -----
"Why didn't you tell me you were engaged?" Kaede asked after Pascal returned from his morning errands and workout.
It was hard to tell at times, as unsurprisingly, mages had a spell for refreshing up after a sweat as well. In fact, they had so many cantrips for keeping clean and maintaining appearances that showering was more of a luxury for them than a periodic need.
"I am used to it being common knowledge. Also, there is not much to say? I have not even seen Sylv for nearly a year thanks to our schedules, and she has not been responding to my calls of late."
Kaede knew that wasn't unusual for political arrangements of the period. However Pascal didn't just sound irritated. There was also a powerful longing buried underneath.
"How is she?"
"I do not believe a girl more beautiful than her could exist." He spoke of the princess with an admiration that shined through even the dark clouds of his melancholy. "She is a wonderful person as well, and will make an excellent Empress one day. Unfortunately, her spare time is only going to wane further."
He's definitely smitten with her.
Kaede smiled. It was hard to tell whether or not Pascal actually loved his fiancée -- that was exceptionally rare in the political marriage custom. But it was obvious that he respected, valued, and even trusted her, all of which were far more important than love in any union among feudal aristocrats, let alone future heads of state.
She also felt an odd sense of relief, since Pascal truly liking another girl greatly reduced any chances of something awkward happening between the two of them.
"Since when have you two been betrothed?"
"Since I was ten," Pascal began to explain as a nostalgic smile entered his expression. "My father's Knight Phantoms took her captive on one of their deep raids into Lotharin territory during the War of Imperial Succession. Although at the time, she still had older brothers and was not the crown heir. I first met her while she was held on our estate. We became friends during her one-and-a-half years' stay there.
"Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie were not formally at war during that chaotic time. Both countries simply sought to take advantage of the Holy Imperium's civil war to lay claims, except these claims overlapped with each other. So when my father negotiated an end to hostilities between the two states and a partnership against our real foe in the south, her father, Geoffroi the Great, requested our matrilineal betrothal as the bargaining price. Father agreed."
Matrilineal arrangements indicated that any descendants would be traced through the maternal side, which meant that Pascal would be marrying into another family -- the Rhin-Lotharingie royal family, in his case.
"Aren't you the heir of Nordkreuz?" Kaede furrowed her brows. "How does that work for your domain then?"
"Yes. Although Nordkreuz was gifted to Father through lands annexed during that war, it was also a contested strategic position on the border. Our betrothal contained a special clause that the city of Nordkreuz would eventually become a 'free city' with joint jurisdiction by both nations. The treaty was very unconventional, especially since we were winning at the time. But Father also knew Weichsel was a small nation caught between several giants, and he was planning for the long run."
Pascal's admiring words came out in a somewhat pensive tone, and Kaede soon realized why:
He also has daddy issues. Not surprising though, having to live in such an accomplished father's shadow.
"I'm surprised you still courted Ariadne and other girls, then."
"That was Father's idea, and Sylv agreed to it as well. They both said that I needed 'experience', whatever that is supposed to imply." Pascal shrugged.
Kaede thought it was best to stay away from that bombshell.
"So you have no siblings to contest the succession then?"
While his father often came up in conversations, Pascal almost never spoke of his family.
"I am the only child," he sighed. "Mother died from a crippling war injury when I was just three, and Father never remarried. I guess you could say that I was mostly raised by servants."
No wonder you have social problems.
----- * * * -----
"Since Gerard is away on holiday, it's down to the three of us." Reynaud heard Ariadne say as she sat next to Perceval on her bed, his right hand held tightly in hers.
It was against all propriety for a lady to invite multiple men into her room. However this was also the only way she could guarantee their privacy. Unlike Perceval, who wasn't good at any magic except bio-alchemy, and Reynaud, who simply didn't care, Ariadne actually maintained periodic sweeps of her room.
Reynaud knew that as a member of the gentry, he was supposed to keep a healthy dose of paranoia. But that assumed he gave a single care about being 'proper' in the first place.
He also sat backwards in a chair with his legs splayed. It was hardly the most appropriate when facing a lady.
"But this is Pascal we're talking about..." Perceval replied.
His voice was almost frozen, and Reynaud wondered how cold his grip must be at the moment. From Ariadne's concealed wince, it couldn't be comfortable.
"Let the Runelord deal with it by himself. He's always so high and mighty, so sure that he can do everything single-handedly. Well, here's his chance. If anything, I'm surprised his familiar even cares enough to intervene."
"But if he fails and dies, it would put the alliance between Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie in jeopardy," Ariadne raised the political card as her worried eyes kept their focus on her beloved.
"Would that really be a problem?" Perceval countered. "The treaty was controversial to begin with. Most Lotharins believe that Geoffroi should not have broken tradition, that the future empress should marry a noble from one of the four kingdoms, instead of an outsider that would no doubt influence the throne towards their home country. Meanwhile from what I hear, many Weichsens claim the treaty was 'unequal', that they should not give us part of Nordkreuz when they had been winning at the time."
"Aria," he then turned towards his beloved. "Didn't you tell me even your uncle, the head of House Manteuffel, was against it as well?"
"Yes," Ariadne nodded. Though the hesitation she showed was a clear sign that she was of two minds about this.
On one hand, she's a Manteuffel, one of the most powerful houses in Weichsel, Reynaud considered. On that other hand, she's in love with a Lotharin.
Perceval you knucklehead. The redhead scowled.
Certainly, Perceval was correct in that there were many on both sides of the border who disliked the treaty. Reynaud even heard that there were some in Weichsel who accused their Marshal of treason and selling out their country. However that was not the way Reynaud saw it. Sure, Pascal would become the Prince-Consort of Rhin-Lotharingie, but his successors would bear the name 'de Gaetane' instead of 'von Moltewitz'.
For the nobles' game of dynastic political ambitions, it was tantamount to clan suicide.
Reynaud hadn't forgotten about his childhood days, when Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie were still hostile adversaries. The first time he heard about the elder Moltewitz was when two of his cousins, newly knighted armigers entrusted to protect Princess Sylviane, were killed by a raid launched by the Marshal of Weichsel. Back then Reynaud thought the worst of Marshal Moltewitz. After all, kidnapping a young princess from her castle was textbook villainy like those in fairy tales.
However since the war's end, Raynaud had learned to admire the Marshal's many qualities, particularly his farsighted geopolitical acumen in seeking a long-term military alliance between Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie. There are some, like Pascal, who thought Reynaud's opinions simply swayed with the government's propaganda. However that ignored the fact that Reynaud actually spent time travelling in Weichsel, talking to veterans of the last war so that he might better understand his one-time enemies.
It wasn't easy, especially when two deaths in the family were involved. But Reynaud understood that soldiers fought and killed for the glory of their country. It was nothing personal. After having spent time on both sides of the fence, Reynaud felt like he had a very objective view of the Marshal... or at least he liked to believe so.
Meanwhile, Ariadne looked hesitant to continue. In fact, she was even nodding to Perceval's continued list of accusations and complaints.
Reynaud considered Ariadne a great girl for his best friend. But the Holy Father was fair. In spite of her numerous good qualities, she also held one major flaw: the girl was vain enough to put others' opinions before her own sense of duty and morals, even if the 'others' were being stupid and pushing her into a terrible choice.
In this case, the disapproval of a loved one accounted for dozens of 'stupid others'.
"Brother. Stop. I'm sorry to say this, but you're spouting nonsense now."
Unfortunately, Perceval was also as stubborn as a mule and held onto grudges with a memory better than elephants.
"Reynaud, I know you admire the Marshal a great deal, but you can't--"
"Oh, you remember that, don't you?" Reynaud cut in with deliberately acidic words. "How come you don't remember that I also lost my two cousins during the last war thanks to the Marshal's raids? Or the fact I rarely spoke favorably of him when you first befriended a newly knighted merchant's son like me? It took me years to grow past my dislike for the Marshal of Weichsel. That was part of why I went to Königsfeld to study abroad with you -- so I could see and judge for myself what the Weichsens were really like!"
Sometimes a bull was the only thing that could stop another rampaging bull. Perceval's mouth shut instantly as he realized the mine-infested china shop he had entered.
Reynaud knew he had the baton now, and he wasn't about to let it go:
"Cut all that bullshit from the Marshal's enemies already and look at things from his perspective. Do you seriously think a man who spends ninety percent of his time in army camps, who has barely gone back home ever since his wife died sixteen years ago, who used his only son as a bargaining chip for diplomacy, would honestly sell Weichsel to the Lotharins? Outside of his country, does that man even have a life left!?
"Which only goes to show that he is trying to influence our throne for Weichsel's benefit!" Perceval countered, grasping onto the second platform now that Reynaud had taken apart the first.
"Of course he is. Just like Ariadne here will influence you for her needs. That's what a relationship is! We may not like to say it out loud, but anyone in a relationship will expect some benefits for all their efforts! And what do you think an alliance between nations is? A relationship between states! And you can bet our Emperor, Geoffroi the Great, knows exactly what he wants out of it!"
As Reynaud finished, he added a quick apologetic look to the girl for dragging her into this. Having witnessed her feud with the Runelord, he really didn't want to get recorded in her book of grudges.
Thankfully, it doesn't look like Ariadne was offended. If anything, her faint smile was almost grateful.
"I'm standing up for the Marshal not because of some stupid immature fantasy, but because in matters of military affairs of state, the man is almost always right. Bloody-minded and merciless? Yes. My own family history proves it. But a natural genius in the art of war who proved his foresight many times over? Also yes."
Reynaud gestured towards Ariadne with an open hand. What she needed now was precisely the approval of her original idea from others. That way she could snap out of the moment of weakness that Perceval had dragged her into.
"I agree with Ariadne's suggestion. In fact, I believe she's absolutely right! This is above personal relationships we have with Pascal or his father. ALL of them. It is a matter of state, and we have the perfect opportunity to take care of it."
"But we're still students. Something like this should be left...!"
"Like Ariadne said, if we inform the authorities now, they would either pull the wrong muscle and blow the entire thing, or pick the right brains who wouldn't get here in time."
Well, she was a lot more diplomatic than that... Reynaud left unsaid.
One of the best aspects about Perceval was that he never gave up easily. Reynaud learned that when Perceval spent weeks showing kindness to a younger and more cynical version of himself. Unfortunately, this also tended to be the case even when Perceval was wrong.
"Think of it this way, brother. If we lose this alliance with Weichsel, and the Imperium takes this as an opportunity to stick a vengeful sword in our backs... how many more people do you think are gonna get killed because we don't have any ally to support us? Are you really sure you're willing to take that chance?"
Perceval did not speak another word of disapproval after that. His instincts as a healer simply overruled the rest of him.
"Alright, so what's the plan?" Reynaud asked after several moments of silence, and Ariadne simply gawked back at him.
"What? I'm just the dumb fighter," he grinned. "Perceval may be the heart of our little group, but you're the Captain here, girl!"
----- * * * -----
"What is that? Your uniform?" Pascal asked as Kaede took a few steps to jump and spin about in her new clothes.
The outfit did indeed have a uniform-like design, with its stiffly-cut shoulders, folded collar, and black tie. It was mostly white, except with several black lines and edges as highlights, as well as a few pink ribbons to match Kaede's eyes. Its colors made for an excellent contrast to Pascal's crimson-on-black uniform. The short skirt and its longer lace petticoat made it easier to move. Meanwhile a pair of short, sheer-white tights reached down to tuck under her white, thigh-high stockings, completely covering her legs to ensure that propriety wouldn't be an issue.
Her outfit also came with a pair of calf-high, white leather boots. The shop owner had insisted on medium heels as it made her look taller, and Kaede was surprised by how good the wedge heels left her footing.
"Yep," Kaede replied with nervous cheer as she read Ariadne's note for the third time:
Mission is accepted. Perceval and Reynaud will monitor the situation and engage the assassins from behind. Please leave the coin scrying focus in your room. I'll be attending to Edelweiss in the stables until Perceval gives me the signal through his familiar. After which I'll take off to assist you as needed and assert battlefield air superiority should any attackers attempt escape. - Ariadne
After a late lunch, the clock was already past mid-afternoon. The plan was to begin by the early dusk of winter.
"<Pascal, please sit still and pretend you're reading.>" Kaede asked over the telepathic channel. "<I have no clue how they might be watching us, but it's time for me to tell you what is going on.>"
Half an hour went by as Kaede explained everything that happened, including the operational plan. True to his word on trusting her, Pascal never looked suspicious or angry. He merely nodded along, and occasionally requested clarification, until her conversation with Ariadne came into the picture:
"<I told you that I do not wish to owe Ariadne any-->"
"<If they can put aside their personal grudges against you for the sake of your country, then at least you can respond in kind!>"
Silence fell over the two for several moments as Pascal flipped a page to keep up the pretense.
"<Fine,>" he relented. "<And I admit Reynaud is an excellent fighter to have as backup. I doubt Perceval will be of much use, though.>"
"<Healers always come in handy. It's better to be safe than sorry.>"
Kaede filled Pascal's chalice with freshly-conjured water. She then poured the antimagic poison in her vial into her cup in front of the chalice. Any observer from outside the windows would only see it being added to Pascal's drink. A sleight of hand as she picked both up and turned around easily sent the cup onto the floor without being noticed.
"Here, before you complain of thirst again."
Pascal's eyes never left the book as he took the chalice and put it on the table.
"<I assume I will not be drinking the poison and passing out, then?>"
"<Of course not. You're going to drink this water and pretend to pass out. Then I will go to the roof and signal the assassins. I've already hidden a number of your defensive runes around the room. They should activate to your usual triggers.>"
"<Then this should go smoothly.>" Pascal concluded before closing his book. He reached his right hand for the goblet, while his left took out a pair of small, white gloves and laid them on the table.
"<You know, for a complete novice, your planning is pretty decent.>"
Kaede sent a mental shrug:
"<I did tell you: read enough history and apply some creativity, and you'll have at least one good idea for any occasion.>"
"<Then hopefully, by the time I receive my first command, I will be able to appoint you a position on my staff. You are not allowed to get yourself killed tonight, do I make myself clear?>" Pascal ordered as he held up the chalice and began to drink in gulps.
After he downed much of the cup, Pascal's grip slowly let the goblet clang to the floor while he slumped over onto the desk. Even from directly behind him, Kaede thought it was a very convincing performance. Then, as though to confirm his consciousness, his voice continued to resound in her head:
"<Take the gloves. They have a built-in pocket dimension like the type most mages use. Held within the left one is a morphic blade -- consider it a gift from me. It is forged from flexible spring-steel. Its enchantment can transform it into any non-mechanical weapon you imagine.>"
Kaede prodded Pascal twice, as though testing the poison's effects, before she reached over and took the gloves. They were made of soft leather, with a full glove on the left and a three-fingered archery glove for her right, just like she had once described to him.
"<Don't worry, I'll make them regret ever thinking I'm just a familiar.>"
"<Of course. You are my familiar.>"
The last half-hour before dusk passed away in an instant. Kaede soon stood on the northwest corner of the dormitory keep's roof, just as she was told.
There was no longer any way for her to back out. However that did not mean the knots in her stomach make it easy to move forward.
"Alea iacta est..." she repeated Caesar's famous words from memory. It was rather ironic, considering that she stood atop a millenia old battlefield where the Caesar of this world failed to crush the Lotharins.
Bathed in the orange light of the setting sun, Kaede drew a deep breath before raising her right hand into the air.
It was as their agreed-upon signal.
She hadn't even exhaled before a weight struck her back and sent a burning sensation through her chest.
Looking down, she saw the bloody tip of an arrow protruding from just above her right breast.
Did I... mess up?
It was Kaede's last thought before she collapsed on the stone roof.
Chapter 11 - For Country, Not You
Prefect Gelasius lowered his composite bow as he rose from the shadows of the far side battlements. Projectile weapons were disdained by most Imperial mages, but they also had no aura flare to allow for an early detection. This, combined with a Stonemeld spell that merged his body into the keep itself, had allowed him to completely conceal his presence until the last moment.
The stupid, unprotected familiar never stood a chance.
Two minutes later, six vaguely humanoid clouds blew onto the rooftop. They solidified into people within seconds. Their outfits were all dark gray, each hidden beneath a hooded cloak.
"<Didn't you promise that maid Marina that our informant would remain safe?>"
"<Did I?>" Gelasius spoke casually over their linked telepathic channel as he stowed the bow away in a belt pouch. "<I believe the words were 'I'll try to bring her out alive if the operation succeeds'. She's still alive, isn't she? I don't need a dumb girl getting in the way until we're ready to leave.>"
"<And if she dies of her wounds?>"
"<Then sadly, the familiar didn't survive her master's death.>" The prefect's stern voice then stamped the discussion with finality: "<Enough. Sebastian, take your section down and eliminate the target. Gallien, go with them in case they need help, but keep some distance and an eye on their back. Placidia, Cassio, and I will stay here to maintain situational control and await your return.>"
Sebastian then led two other assassins into the keep, their steps silent and their silhouettes blending into the shadows. They were soon followed by one more figure as the wardbreaker Gallien, who allowed them undetected entry onto the academy grounds, also melded into the darkness of the spiral stairway. Meanwhile, the spellsniper Placidia and spellstorm Cassio camouflaged themselves, maintaining a vigilant watch on opposing corners of the keep.
Gelasius missed the days when he personally led the hunt as the strike section leader. Being the prefect of the entire operation squad meant that not only did he have to remain on reserve, he also had to wait anxiously while Sebastian took the thrill of the kill.
He ignored the faint, wheezy breathing that came from the unmoving familiar. After all, her role in this entire operation was already over.
----- * * * -----
Two other hoods nodded as their owners each drew twin kukri blades beneath their protective cloaks.
Sebastian then turned the dispelled door handle before all three stepped inside. Nearly blinded by the glare from hundreds of magical auras that saturated the room, he dismissed his Aura Sight spell before advancing.
Their target sat in a chair on the far side, knocked unconscious by the antimagic poison. His head lay motionless across a book on the work desk.
The two other assassins took guard positions on each side as Sebastian advanced forward for the kill. By tradition, they strove to rely on the most certain method of elimination whenever possible: death by decapitation.
Then, just as he crossed the middle of the room, a deafening thunderclap erupted from behind. The hallway furnishings ignited into flames under the raw power of a lightning blast.
"<Company! No, intervention!>" yelled Gallien over the telepathic communication channel.
With his attention distracted for a split second, Sebastian barely noticed the 'unconscious' figure's slight arm movement. It brought a turquoise spell-focus ring into clear view.
"Cyclone Blast," muttered Pascal even as he lifted and turned his eyes. Both of the assassins in the rear unleashed cutting hexes with a reflexive wave of their blades. However their magic splashed against glimmering turquoise shields as eight runic pebbles expended themselves between Pascal's fingers, layering on his entire defensive spell set.
The strike leader Sebastian spun aside to dodge the gush of hurricane-force winds. But the impact itself had never been Pascal's aim. The blast of air acted as a contingency trigger, pulling dozens of runic pebbles that Kaede had scattered around the room into the air. They hurled about the enclosed room like a whirlwind of destruction. The glyphic stones bounced harmlessly off walls and furniture, but each time one of them met a living entity that did not carry the mana of their creator, they exploded.
Detonations rocked the room as the air was instantly filled by flying shrapnel. Cutting shards of rock and jagged splinters of wood were blown off the nearby furniture and walls. Yet while Pascal lay safe behind his Barrier Armor and Spellshield Fortress, the same could not be said for his would-be killers. The layers of defensive magic that enhanced their protective cloaks would have easily repulsed such conventional projectiles, had they not been riddled with holes from absorbing powerful explosions.
The strike section of three assassins had walked straight into a trap.
With all three of them bloodied by the ambush, Marcellius, the junior member who stood closest to the entrance, spun back around the doorframe and into the hallway. He arrived just in time to see another bolt of lightning streak by, and realized a second too late as sparks transformed back into a person. Two blades materialized from thin air and chopped off his head, turning his torso into a fountain of blood.
Spells flew through the hall as the wardbreaker Gallien laid down covering fire from behind conjured stone battlements. But the other assassin, Valeria, took no chances as she hurled a specially enchanted kukri outside. The curved blade ricocheted off the walls with perfect bounces, multiplying by three each time. Within mere seconds, a roaming cloud of whirling steel swept down the hall, which diced anything softer than rock with impunity.
Meanwhile, Sebastian charged at Pascal without hesitation. Even with one arm shattered by the runic assault, his other was still functional and ready to rend the flesh from his foe. With a single thought, he activated the bread and butter of spellswords -- the Negation Surge spell imbued into his kukri that diminished the effectiveness of magical barriers. His first hack cleaved through one of Pascal's spellshields as though meeting mere leather. However, that split-second delay of resistance allowed his target to spin away against the desk's edge.
Sebastian renewed his penetration aid with a flourish of the blade. His second slash struck horizontally and sliced through two more spellshields. Sharpened steel then pierced the translucent turquoise armor before entering Pascal's left forearm. But too much momentum had been lost to cut through the bone.
Pascal gritted his teeth against the burning pain. He twisted his own arm against the blade, using his Barrier Armor and reinforced flesh to bind the weapon before it could be withdrawn. He followed with a right hook, and his turquoise ring met cheekbones under the tattered hood with a resounding crack. Surging anger poured through his spell-focus in the form of volatile mana, and the spontaneous burst of raw magic blew Sebastian's head apart in a shower of blood and gore.
The rest of the strike leader's body promptly disintegrated into dust. It was a contingency spell with deadman's trigger, common among assassins.
But Pascal was now down to one arm and two spellshields as he faced off against the last assassin, who had already sealed the entrance with a wall of metal.
Should he replenish his outer defenses? Should he attempt to draw the estoc stored in the glove of his limp left arm?
His own room had been turned into a battlefield. Here, there were no rules or points awarded for extravagance. Here, lives would flicker and drown in the blink of an eye.
----- * * * -----
Reynaud almost snorted as he burst across the stone battlements and cut the enemy mage down. To a spellsword who charged by transforming his body into lightning, cover made from non-conductive materials was inconsequential.
However, the vortex of blades advancing towards him was a different matter.
A blast of wind, a barrage of rocks, a burst of antimagic... not a single spell could knock off more than a mere handful of blades. The cloud of whirling steel continued its inevitable advance, as slow and unstoppable as a glacier.
It was easy to evade. However Reynaud could not afford to run away. He was the promised cavalry. He needed to rush inside that room.
"Dispelling Screen!" Perceval shouted from the other side of the hall. But nothing happened. The advanced spell combination simply wasn't a type that he had any affinity with.
Yet its inspiration was sufficient.
"Catalyst Dispelling Field." Reynaud announced as he held up his right hand, fingers outstretched. Waves of antimagic poured off his shining glove as he marched into the steel storm. His burning-red aura surrounded him like a globe of protection, and every blade that touched its edge vanished from existence.
Except one: the original. Forged from real steel that ignored the dispelling antimagic, it sliced right through the unarmored underside of his wrist.
"GAHHHH!" Reynaud cried out as he dropped his other weapon to grip the bleeding stump. Should have freaking added a Repulsion effect!
"Sorry," Perceval grimaced as he rushed up to collect his friend's severed right hand. "We need to reconnect this, immediately."
"N-no time," came the response between Reynaud's gritted teeth as his feet shuffled forward. "You'll have to take front."
"You know I can't use attack spells worth anything!" The healer retorted as he took Reynaud's wrist stump. He then cast a localized Sensory Blackout spell over it to suppress the pain.
"Yeah and you just cast a potent attack curse if you applied it without restraint. I know you lack the intent to kill after what happened to your parents, but sometimes you have to kill to save someone!"
Reynaud soon reached the entrance to Pascal's room, now sealed by a curtain of iron. As he leaned against the wall while breathing heavily in pain, the short redhead addressed his best friend with a gaze as determined as any seasoned veteran:
"I'll disintegrate this in a sec. Remember what I told you before: your specialty is bio-alchemy. If there's no foliage in the fight, then conjure some ferocious man-eating plants or something to use. Unless you hate Pascal enough to see his father crying over a son's mangled corpse and his cute little familiar girl dead as well."
Motivation came instantly even if clarity did not. Perceval's brows were folded with uncertainty, but he nodded to Reynaud with determination as his friend's glove stretched out against the iron wall.
After concentrating his magic, Reynaud's remaining fist slammed against the barrier. It opened a man-sized hole through layers of metal. Alchemy spells weren't always effective against other mages since every spellcaster's mana repelled foreign sources. But against objects and non-magical creatures, the results were decisive.
"Flourishing Brambles. Animated Assault!"
Perceval conjured a single sprout, then poured in transmutation magic to make it grow into a mass of thorny vines. Spreading out across the room, the spiked tendrils leaped towards the last assassin like an unstoppable torrent.
Caught off-guard by the attack from her rear, the assassin slashed and cut with her blade on impulse. But there was simply far too many. The veritable horde of vines quickly wrapped around her body, pushing between every gap to wring out her life with a merciless crushing grip. As she opened her mouth to scream, spiked tendrils forced their way inside and down her throat.
All three men in the room watched with horror as the writhing, muffled figure vanished beneath the green biomass. The assassin struggled for a few more moments before the entire cocoon collapsed, presumably as her disintegration spell triggered.
"Holy Father have mercy..." Pascal blurted out through a face of stunned shock.
"Remind me never to piss you off." Reynaud remarked through a similar expression.
Perceval's own trembling eyes looked the most horrified of all. But after working in forensics and surgeons' labs, there wasn't much that could truly freeze the intern healer. He quickly returned to the task of reconnecting and healing Reynaud's severed hand.
Meanwhile, the mass of vines that crushed Pascal's bed began to shrivel. It soon became little more than a small pile of dried stems before vanishing entirely. Most conjuration magic rarely lasted more than a few minutes before the magically-created materials broke down. The exception was when it summoned something real from elsewhere.
"Thank you. I did not--" Pascal began as he stowed away his sword and attempted to make his mangled left arm look presentable.
"Stuff a sock in it, Runelord." Reynaud shot back with a disinterested glance. "This is for Rhin-Lotharingie and Weichsel, not you. Let's just get patched up and see if the girls need help... even if that's not darn likely with Ariadne."
Meanwhile, Perceval was muttering to himself even as he concentrated on healing Reynaud's wound:
"I just killed somebody..."
----- * * * -----
"<Comp... No, int...!>"
Gallien's telepathic shout came garbled. The academy was simply too saturated with magic for any ungrounded telepathic link to function properly without line-of-sight.
But the thunderous noise and tremor that came from below made the situation apparent, even without Placidia's follow-up:
"<Rider in the air!>"
The hit squad's spellsniper was already taking aim along an outstretched arm. Three translucent black rings of magical energy formed the firing barrel as she charged up a pulsing multi-hit Shredder Beam. But her shot missed as the pegasus corkscrewed across the air in a display of unparalleled horsemanship.
Prefect Gelasius cursed as he recognized the dark, shadowy barding that cloaked the pegasus, not to mention the blackened-steel armor and burning-red uniform of its rider. The winged horse galloped across the open skies like a burning cloud of smoke. It was the unmistakable sign of a Knight Phantom: the elite order of marauding equestrians from Weichsel that struck fear into every participant of the last war.
The squad's spellstorm hardly needed orders. Dozens of topaz bolts surrounded him like a cloud of daggers, each spinning within a ring of magical energy. With one wave of his hand, the entire volley hurled out to meet the rider in a single coordinated barrage.
Meanwhile, eleven defensive homing bullets --a Mana Seeker interception spell-- shot out from the knight with a slash of her sword. Streaking across the open air, the two volleys met each other with explosive fury. However Cassio's projectiles easily emerged victorious through weight of numbers. They zoomed towards the airborne cavalier like guided projectiles.
His target weaved and dodged, soaring through the air with evasive maneuvers as Cassio's shots chased after her. A second wave of Mana Seekers reduced the numbers further, but the spellstorm was already conjuring another barrage while maintaining control of the first.
The pegasus knight suddenly broke into seven copies, each streaking across the air on a different path towards the keep. A moment of confusion was enough for Cassio to lose touch with his first volley, and they shot wide as he tried to discern the real rider among the illusions.
"<Third from the east.>" Gelasius ordered as his eyes swept the targets. His refined control over the Aura Sight spell was one of his specialties. It allowed him to apply the handy utility spell on small portions of his vision coverage, even in a battle zone where the magical glare would quickly blind most conventional users.
With the prefect's guidance, Cassio unleashed his second volley. But the pegasus dived towards the ground, and the spellstorm's view became blocked by the stony roof. A resounding detonation shook the main keep as the explosive bombardment crashed into its side.
"<Go to the corner for clearance! Northwest!>" Prefect Gelasius ordered as he and Placidia sniped at defenders on the surrounding towers.
The shooting in the skies had drawn the attention of the academy's guards and staff, who had joined the battle by taking shots against the intruders with spellfire and arrows. They were more an inconvenience than a threat at the moment, but that would not last long if Gelasius allowed them to organize and coordinate.
A professor shooting from the residence keep crumbled into a hundred pieces -- Placidia's black Shredder Beam had blasted through his window and tore him into minced meat...
----- * * * -----
Trying to monitor the situation was hard when Kaede lay facing the other way. She was doing her best to appear unconscious. The fact that her enemies didn't even speak to communicate made it far harder to figure out the circumstances.
The only thing she could see was topaz spellfire shooting out from behind her. Waves of magical bolts shot after a weaving pegasus in the skies.
Kaede had dropped onto the ground as soon as she saw the arrow that pierced her shoulder. At the time, she still wasn't sure if her cover had been blown. She only knew that if she didn't pretend to fall unconscious or dead, another steel tip with her name on it would soon be on its way.
She had almost failed to stifle her voice on the hard landing, especially when the impact shook the arrow lodged inside her. The only upside was that the sharp burst of intense pain had actually pierced her mental fog. It helped to drive away any fuzziness that might have built up from blood loss.
The few minutes after that were the most nerve-wracking of her life. There was no way to know if she would be killed in just another couple of seconds.
But when she heard the dormitory keep door creak open and still no one approached her body, Kaede decided that they must have bought the lure after all -- hook, line, and sinker. In hindsight, this should have been obvious from the start. No assassin's arrow would have missed her vitals from this close a range. The shot had been deliberate.
So Kaede kept up the ruse by maintaining her only protection: the illusion of an incompetent, unconscious girl. After all, it didn't require actual magic to make another believe something false, leading to a severe underestimation of both the situation and their opponent.
Pascal's telepathic "<they are here... engaging!>" confirmed the situation at hand. Her intellectual side remained worried, as these were obviously professional killers. But just as he had faith in her, she would uphold her belief in him.
Besides, as Ariadne's Edelweiss took to the skies and combat began topside, Kaede had to focus on tracking the battle with only her hearing and limited sight. This was actually a blessing, as it gave her something other than the burning pain stuck in her shoulder to think about.
Her first insight was that Ariadne was gaining too much altitude, probably to maintain distance for reaction time as she approached the keep for an overhead dive. The problem was she should be doing the exact opposite. Kaede doubted pegasus knights made good high-altitude bombers, and slow-flying Sturmoviks hugged the ground to avoid anti-air artillery during World War II, not the other way around.
Kaede slowly inched her right hand towards her left. Her fingers sought her remaining Telepathy rune while praying that no one would notice. It would also allow her to activate the second four spells of Pascal's defensive set. All of these were internal buffs that gave no visible sign and would help her should any opportunities arise. It was too risky to chance the motion before. But now, her life was no longer the only one at stake.
If nothing else, experiencing a life and death situation together automatically made these her newfound friends.
I may be an introvert, but I am NOT a shut-in... she stressed to nobody but herself.
----- * * * -----
"<Drop down! Out of his sight! Use the buildings for cover!>"
Ariadne heard Kaede's voice resound through her mind. She followed them instinctively, weaving and dodging between stone construction even as she pondered the familiar's fate. Last she saw, Kaede was lying still in a corner with an arrow through her back, presumably either unconscious or dead.
...Or not. She smiled, realizing that the small girl was quietly biding her time.
Now using the terrain to her advantage, Ariadne swerved through the gaps between buildings with precise horsemanship. She neared the dormitory keep before rising back into the air to level with the rooftop. As her mount climbed over the battlements from but ten paces away, she came face to face with a hooded figure surrounded by yet another wave of magical projectiles.
Time came to a standstill as Ariadne locked gazes with topaz eyes determined to kill her. Expletives coursed through her frantic mind, but she knew it was already too late to evade...
Then, a corner of her sight picked up movement near the rooftop floor. Kaede's slumped body lay right besides the cloaked caster. With a painful yell of her wispy voice, the familiar girl pulled out the arrow lodged in her upper chest and, in the same motion, stabbed it straight into the mage's left leg.
The caster's balance faltered. Most of his shots flew wide. Nevertheless, three of them grazed Edelweiss' wings and exploded on contact. The pegasus' phantom barding thinned as they focused on the points of impact to absorb the damage. Edelweiss would suffer no worse than three nasty bruises, but Ariadne doubted the shadowy 'armor' could withstand another similar hit.
Cursing audibly, the hooded mage waved his hand while his injured foot kicked out at Kaede, striking her in the face and leaving a bloody nose. Meanwhile, the arcane bolts that he had managed to maintain control over --a swarm of two dozen-- turned around to chase after Ariadne's rising mount.
But the sorely underestimated familiar girl wasn't finished.
Kaede's right hand grasped at her left. In a single swing, she drew a thin shortsword from the glove and slashed at the mage's calves, slicing into one leg just above the leather boots and cutting through the bone. Withdrawing the blade, Kaede leaped off the floor and tackled him at the waist. Her attempted backstab failed to pierce the enchanted cloak. However her impact sent the swaying mage over the battlements' low firing gap and into a plummet.
Unfortunately, the momentum also sent the small girl tumbling over, and Ariadne watched in horror as the familiar's left hand struggled to hold onto the fortifications. Before she could finish casting an Air Glide spell to protect Kaede, the hand slipped off the stone and vanished from sight.
Ariadne reined Edelweiss into a sharp bank. Perhaps she could still spot Kaede in time to save her. Perhaps...
The distraction allowed another hooded assassin to catch the pegasus with a beam harnessing the sun's energy. With his entire right wing torn by scorching heat and his eyes blinded by intense light, Edelweiss crashed towards the keep from twenty paces above.
"Air Cushion!" Ariadne cast upon her familiar mount before her enraged eyes returned to her foe. Grabbing a wooden grenade from her belt pouch, she hurled it towards the keep and shouted "Ignition Dispel!"
The spell caught the 'grenade' mid-flight, tearing away the shrinking spell to reveal a massive chest-high barrel which promptly ignited. The opposing mage dove aside to evade the crushing object. But the cask struck the stone rooftop and burst apart, covering his surroundings with a conflagration of flaming pitch and tar.
As the burning assassin-mage busied himself putting out the grease fire with a blast of intense cold, Ariadne called upon another trick the Knights were known for: "Phantom Charge!"
The last remnants of Edelweiss' shadowy barding tore away just before her mount crashed. It formed a spectral steed that caught ablaze as it charged across the roof, then rammed the offending mage head-on before detonating into a blazing inferno.
----- * * * -----
The fortifications were still slippery from the melted daytime snow. Kaede had hardly three fingers' grasp on them. She had already activated the four rune-stored buffs that didn't visually reveal her consciousness, including the Elemental Body of Earth spell which heightened her strength, as well as Shift Impulse which had accelerated her tackle beyond expectations. But even with Mental Clarity reducing the debilitating fog of pain, she was barely able to hold onto her consciousness.
Pulling out an entire arrow shaft, including the accursed tail fletching, through a puncture wound already closed by Samaran fast-healing was far more excruciating than anything she had ever experienced.
Her last reservoir of strength had been depleted and her injuries were draining away any remaining energy. She held on for hardly more than a few seconds before plummeting six stories towards the ground below.
Looks like I don't belong here after all... she thought.
At least she heard the horrified scream of the assassin-mage she sent falling first, until his yell was suddenly muffled, as though by a thick blanket.
Kaede glanced down just before a giant mass of soft whiteness cushioned her fall. Its very sight was enough to trigger the most incredulous memory of her life.
It was Perceval's giant tofu, shifting up and down as though 'munching' on something... no, someone: the previously fallen mage.
"<Kaede are you alright? I just felt something go wrong.>" Pascal's worried voice chimed in.
She finally let go of her breath.
"<Barely. Saved by Perceval's giant tofu.>"
"<What is that?>" came the incredulous reply.
"<I meant his familiar.>"
After finishing whatever it was doing, the giant tofu bounced up to the wall. Then, somehow, it began to climb using its silken white skin. Most of its amorphous body shifted as close to the wall as possible, yet it maintained a 'platform' large enough to hold her. It even extended two tendrils to wrap tightly across her bent legs to keep her from falling off.
"<We just eliminated the threat below and are heading up to the roof to help.>" announced Pascal.
Perceval must be controlling it then, Kaede concluded.
Although the putty felt cold and jiggled as it moved, it was as soft as a pillow. Despite having no legs, it also climbed with shocking speed. Within a minute, it reached over the battlements and poured onto the roof.
Kaede was still mounted upon the giant tofu as she took a moment to absorb the situation. A one-winged pegasus lay bleeding and maimed on the stone roof, while Ariadne spun her double-bladed swordstaff merely ten paces away. The lady knight danced across the floor with swift footwork, exchanging lightning-fast blows against the assassin's dual kukris. They clashed with one another like two bladed gales. Meanwhile another mage stood in the far corner, shooting at targets unseen on the other side of the keep.
The giant tofu began to leap again, bounding towards the far-side caster in the pudding equivalent of a charge.
The spellsniper took notice and turned around to power up another spell. Yet before she could unleash even one beam, a storm of forest-green rays arced in from behind her like a rocket barrage. Most of the magic either missed or glanced off her barriers, striking harmlessly against stone fortifications. But two shots connected with the caster.
The human body had fine tolerances over its composition, which easily made many alchemy spells deadly. Utility magic invented for harmless purposes like Extract Water, Solidify Liquid, or Transmute X to Y could easily kill any man, although mages usually resisted it through their innate mana resistance. But with reserves running low after continuous use of high-powered spells, the spellsniper left herself open to hostile alchemy purposed specifically to kill.
Her head and shoulders petrified into granite for a split second before she disintegrated into the winds.
Now only one foe remained.
----- * * * -----
Although Kaede couldn't tell due to the sheer speed of the sword fight, Ariadne knew perfectly well that she was being pressed. Even slowed by burns, the superior experience and prowess of her opponent showed through the precision of his strikes. She had lost the initiative almost as soon as the match began, forced onto the defensive to parry and block. Her armor, both magical and real, was the only reason why he hadn't drawn blood after three grazing hits.
Unfortunately, she knew that the returning Kaede was in no position to help. This was a deathmatch between two accomplished swordsmen. Any amateurish interference was as dangerous to one as the other.
Then, for the slightest fragment of a second, the assassin leader --she was certain of it-- slowed his assault as his spellsniper vanished from this world.
The Holy Father had graced her with an opportunity. She seized it without hesitation for an all-out attack.
Spinning her twin-bladed Manteuffel sword around, Ariadne parried the larger kukri upwards while bringing her sword up and overhead into a full-aggression stance. It caught his full attention, while she tapped the trigger that toggled her sword's two forms. This launched the shorter rear-blade at a downward angle. Her opponent had already lost his outer barriers and protective cloak to her flame assaults. It allowed the cable-anchored steel edge to pierce his right ankle and boot.
The assassin swung his other kukri forward. Its blade cut through Ariadne's magical armor and into the armpit gap in her steel cuirass. Yet this hardly affected the outcome as the lady knight brought her main blade down with a mighty two-handed swing. Slowed down by his injured foot, the last assassin was cut from shoulder to waist before bursting into ashes.
As she panted with exertion and pain, Ariadne propped herself up with her swordstaff while her left hand unbuckled the breastplate to clutch the wound underneath. Then, as if on cue, the wooden door into the keep burst open, spilling forth three men with weapons drawn.
Ariadne swept her eyes across all three before she chuckled, which soon turned into a bloody, hacking cough. It immediately prompted Perceval to rush over.
"Perceval... you should go take a look at Kaede first," she waved him towards the smaller girl, whose body now slumped unconscious atop the white pudding familiar. "I bet her wounds are healing the wrong way after she left an arrow in for that long."
Perceval paused for a moment, clearly torn between caring for his girl's injuries and listening to her wishes. But as Ariadne wiped the blood from her lips and sent him a reassuring smile, he nodded and headed off to meet her request.
"W-well... would you look at us? Other than Perceval, we've sure been taught a bloody lesson."
Ariadne's tone was dry as she staggered back towards her familiar mount. Edelweiss the second was unconscious but otherwise alive. That was good, as she didn't want to compete for the world record of most familiars lost by age twenty.
"I doubt these were run-of-the-mill assassins," Reynaud replied, still warming up to his reconnected right wrist by rotating it in circles. "I don't suppose you picked up any clues? Seeing as they all disintegrated."
"Actually..." Ariadne hesitated before continuing: "...the leader fought like you. Same dual kukri flurry style."
"I agree," Pascal nodded. "The three assassins that led the attack on me also fought with two kukris each, one longer than the other. Their style emphasized striking speed."
Reynaud's brows rose. He then turned towards Pascal with a contemptuous gaze:
"Great. You've got Imperial Mantis Blades on your ass now." Then, as both of them looked at him with agape expressions: "What? Did you forget my mama was one? Where do you think my martial skills come from? Papa, the merchant captain? Ha! He'd rather hold onto her coat while she bloodied thugs with hairpins."
Reynaud then puffed up his chest:
"Be proud, ladies and lords! Few could boast of surviving an assassination attempt by an entire Mantis Blade hit squad!"
Silence filled the air as everyone else absorbed this discomforting fact.
"Well..." Pascal cleared his throat sheepishly. "I am profoundly grateful--"
"Oh, shut up for a moment you self-centered prick," Ariadne spat out bits of blood alongside her words. "We did this for Weichsel, for Rhin-Lotharingie, and maybe some for your familiar, but certainly not you!"
Chapter 12 - Better Late Than Never
Kaede jolted upright on her cold and squishy seat. The shivering aftereffects of a light shock still coursed through her body. Her eyes snapped open and met the glow of a dozen bright white lights that floated overhead. Meanwhile, two blurry figures before her solidified into appearances she knew and trusted.
Night had already fallen, lit by stars and the indigo gas giant stretching across the horizon.
"That's what a Rejuvenate spell actually feels like." Perceval was crouched at her side as he gave her a gentle smile. His eyes were still closed as the soothing warmth from his glove coursed through her right shoulder. "Some shock alongside the healing; bit contradictory, but effective."
Pascal, on the other hand, wasn't smiling at all. The frown under his golden soft curls was halfway between worried and stern:
"How long did that arrow stay in you?"
"I don't know. Maybe five minutes?" She almost shrugged but caught herself in time. "Counting time isn't the best way of trying to stay conscious while pretending to be the opposite."
As she examined her situation, Kaede found herself lying on Perceval's giant tofu, its top in the form of a cushy lounge chair. Her shoulder was no longer hurting. Instead, it felt as though submerged in hot springs, with her muscles relaxing and tensions fading.
"Well, I guess passing off as dead was your safest option at the time. Just try not to jump off any buildings again." Pascal scowled and shook his head.
"Give me a break! That was my second time using...!"
"And thank you." Pascal headed off her retort, his head nodding with gratitude. "If you did not lure them in, there was no way the garrison could have caught an Imperial Mantis Blade squad. Sooner or later, one of their plans would have succeeded in catching me off guard, instead of finding themselves baited into a trap."
Kaede felt that something was off about Pascal. She could see it in his expression, hear it in his voice. This was still him, yet different... or perhaps unusual was a better term.
So she turned towards the other puzzling topic: I thought they were from Rhin-Lotharingie. Then she realized that Marina had no reason to tell her the truth.
She really needed to stop underestimating those tears from the un-spy-like maid.
"Well, you're all set now," Perceval patted her shoulder before standing back up. His work left a lingering warmth on her smooth skin where the wound used to be. "I left an Invigorate spell that should tie up any loose ends over the course of the night."
"Thank you so much." Kaede bowed from her seat before grinning back. "And your familiar, for saving my life back there." She patted the giant tofu before standing up.
"Don't mention it." He waved it off with a friendly smile. "I'm just glad Putty got there in time."
Talk about a fitting name...
Kaede sent the white pudding familiar a grin as well. She could have sworn it wobbled with joy. Her eyes then passed beyond the giant tofu, and she bowed at the tired-but-otherwise-healed Ariadne and Reynaud.
The blackened-steel half-plate that Ariadne wore during battle was already gone without a trace. The two of them nodded back in their respective uniforms, beaming, while their gloves continued to shed the light of healing. Lying between them was the pegasus Edelweiss, who still nursed a bandaged wing but appeared mostly healthy.
"And I must thank you all as well." Pascal nodded towards the others.
Perceval's and Reynaud's change in attitude was nearly instantaneous as their smiles flipped upside down. Yet Pascal nevertheless pressed on:
"I know none of you three wish to hear it from me. But that only makes it more important that I must convey my utmost gratitude. You were all willing to overlook our past... differences. For the sake of our countries, you put your lives in danger against the best assassins in Hyperion. You have chosen to save my life for the noblest of reasons. I swear now that House Moltewitz will not forget this debt, nor fail to honor and repay it."
Pascal bowed with perfect courtesy. Then he turned around without the slightest expectation of acknowledgment.
"Come, Kaede." He said as his legs took the first steps of departure.
His words were lonely. His tone regretful and melancholic. It reminded Kaede of a conversation on her first day in this world, during their first meal, when he begrudgingly admitted his past faults against the admirable Ariadne. It was clear now that he held a great deal of respect for all three of them, even if he had not before tonight. Even more apparent was his wish that things had turned out differently between them to this point.
Glancing around, Kaede found the trio just as taken aback. It was clear that not one of them had expected such words from the prodigious and prideful Runelord.
There would never be a better opportunity than this one, right now.
She turned to the departing Pascal, who was just another step away from the stairwell doors, and shouted after him:
"How long are you going to keep regretting the past instead of facing the present!?"
Pascal spun around to glare at her. However Kaede had no intention of keeping this conversation private, not yet:
"I stand by what I told you: it's not always enough, but it's never too late!"
His legs stood stiff while his body stilled. But his eyes wavered, caught amid hesitation and resentment, uncertain between a chance to seek the unpleasant light, or returning to the familiar yet cold shadows.
But Kaede knew that Pascal would not be Pascal without his resolve to follow rational judgment in his own way. After a silent minute and a profound sigh, his feet turned themselves around. He cautiously stepped back towards Kaede as she unwittingly broke into a welcoming smile.
"<You said you will not fail to honor and repay the debt. Then why not start now with everything you have? Better than your half-way apologies that do nothing but tarnish your word.>"
"<Apologies could use more efficiency and less self-injury...>" His complaint was bitter.
Kaede's hands propped against her waist as she goaded Pascal with the one line he could not possibly ignore:
"<Yes, tell me about how 'efficient' apologies are when you actually make a sincere one for the first time in your life. It's not pride holding you back now. It's cowardice, you gutless wonder. Seriously, how many years will you keep accumulating interest? There are things you can't fix with magic or genius Pascal... you have to do it the old fashioned way.>"
For a moment, he merely stared back.
"<Fine.>" He finally agreed, as his irritated thoughts silently met her challenge: "<since I am going to do it anyway, I will show you exactly how proper of an apology I can accomplish.>"
Now meeting the others eye to eye, Pascal took a deep breath, and began in a deep and sincere voice:
"Kaede is correct. I know that you have no reason to grant me any favors, but I ask for only a moment of your time. I have realized all too late that in my foolish immaturity of years past, I committed inexcusable acts of rudeness against the two of you, Perceval and Ariadne, and for that I owe each of you a most sincere apology."
Even Kaede was stunned by the depth of Pascal's remorse, which sounded even more genuine than she expected. But what followed completely eclipsed even her impression of just how long and deeply Pascal must have considered his past mistakes:
"Perceval," spoke Pascal, turning towards the healer who had his arms crossed. "I only wish I could take back the childish words I used that day to bring you low. I knew, even back then, that you hated your magical affinity and held a crisis of confidence. It was dirty and despicable of me. And I probably did it because even then, I knew your generosity towards a girl you barely knew made my rudeness look more intolerable by comparison. I am glad that you received the gratitude and the beautiful girl you deserved, and that Ariadne helped shape you into the capable man you are today..."
Whether it was because of unpreparedness or due to Pascal's thoroughly uncharacteristic behavior, Perceval and his two friends were stunned by the prodigy's admission of guilt. Their poker faces, and Ariadne's once-serene smile, were left agape, eyes blinking in disbelief amidst the dying flames of residual anger.
It wasn't exactly very encouraging for the person actually trying to apologize.
"<You can do this, Pascal.>"
Kaede noted that his eyes had slid back down to stare upon a faraway battlement. His shoulders were slumping more by the second, wavering on the precipice of yet another plunge from pride.
I know this can't be easy on you, but...
She decided it was time to inject some real motivation again:
"<You've told me that you didn't want to owe Ariadne anything else. But what about your debts now...? You know this is the right thing to do.>"
Pascal sent her another glare. And a reassured if not slightly amused Kaede returned her encouraging smile.
"And Ariadne," he took a deep breath before he focused onto the lady's widened eyes. "When I discovered the differences in our approaches to life, I tried to break up with you by pressing all the blame onto you. It was low, and immoral, and cowardly of me, all the more so when I humiliated you by doing it in public, against all sense of decency. I cannot apologize enough for my past actions. And if I do not get the chance again, I wish you happiness with Perceval, for he is a far better man than I was."
And that took almost every ounce of will, every strand of self-discipline that Pascal had.
His gaze lingered for but one second before he spun around and strode straight towards the rooftop door. He had just shredded his pride and bared his filth to the critiquing eyes of peers, and he could not withstand it for another moment longer.
"<I will never forgive you for that.>" His ego lashed out in an attempt to regain itself, to rebuild its protective shell.
"<You're welcome.>" Kaede simply smiled back, for the first time feeling proud of the man who called her into this alien world.
She then turned towards the three still hanging onto stunned expressions, and curtsied as graciously as she could before rushing off after Pascal.
The only one she heard recover before her departure was Reynaud. Although his utterance was still filled with disbelief:
"THE Runelord apologizing? You've got to be shitting me..."
----- * * * -----
Pascal had told Kaede that while she was still unconscious, Duke Gaston had flown to the roof and questioned their group before leaving to assess the situation around the castle.
They saw no reason to wake her up for that unpleasant session.
Kaede was grateful, but it also didn't leave her much time to wrap up loose ends.
"<Why do you even care about this? Just let the guards deal with that maid.>" Pascal asked as he followed Kaede down the dining hall. There, servants and mages alike were cleaning up the mess left by the battle's collateral damage.
"<Because she offered me an option, in her own way. I intend to return the favor.>" Kaede answered.
"<Let me restate: you are trying to help a maid that worked with assassins who just tried to kill you.>"
"<Yes, because the best assassins of your world are so incompetent that their arrow struck just above my lungs from a flat trajectory shot.>"
"<Well fine. they tried to kill me.>" Pascal relented, but only slightly. "<This is a terrible idea.>"
"<I know it's a terrible idea.>" Kaede spun her heels around, her eyes filled with a painful need as she gazed back at Pascal: "<Look, I really, really wanted her to be my friend. I thought she was the first friend I made in this world, alright? So, just let me reach out to her this once to get it off my conscience... please?>" She begged.
Pascal stared back. He met and tested her with his eyes, before he sighed audibly.
"<Fine, I will lend you one favor this time. According to Reynaud, the seven members we killed were a full Imperial Mantis Blade operations squad. Any helpers they managed to recruit along the way will not yield us any useful information. This maid has already been here for two years. Her role was definitely not specific to this mission. By my guess, she is simply the eyes and ears for some imperial governor-general whose intelligence network the Mantis Blades tapped into. Any state intelligence organization would certainly have the jurisdiction.>"
"<Then... how many favors do you owe me for saving your life?>"
"<None. You are my familiar.>"
Kaede sighed. She was starting to recognize the tone that signaled one of Pascal's off-putting and inappropriately-timed jokes.
They soon arrived outside the servant's room Marina lived in. Its door was now flanked by two armored guards.
"I am Sir Pascal Kay Lennart von Moltewitz," he moved up to introduce himself. "We wish to speak with the prisoner."
"Sir Pascal, this case is currently pending investigations by Professor Sir..." The soldier replied before Pascal cut him off with a glare cold enough to freeze air:
"May I remind you that I am a Captain in Weichsel's service and a feudal lord by right of succession, who happened to be the target of this attack. I am also your future Prince Consort, and my betrothed your future Empress. In addition, I have no doubt that my father, the Marshal of Weichsel, and my King will demand answers for this unprovoked treachery. Now, do you seriously intend to keep me from getting the answers that I rightfully and lawfully deserve, soldier?"
"No Sir!" The guard raised his head up high, eyes glancing at the other side's walls before stepping aside.
So many privileges, it's not even fair, Kaede suppressed a grin as Pascal opened the door and lead her inside.
The room was exactly as she last remembered it: two bunk beds and a table with clothes hanging everywhere. The only difference was that a screen of shimmering violet magic now lay over the window, sealing it completely. Kaede guessed that there were probably also guards on the other side.
The brown-haired petite maid was lying on her bed. Her hands were bound behind her back and her wet eyes apathetic to the new guests.
"C-congratulations, Kaede." Marina sniffed. "I guess you deserve the faithful familiar award after all."
Pascal finished twirling his hand about in mostly the same motions as Ariadne's Sanctum Veil spell from earlier in the day. He then presented a 'your turn' gesture before leaning back against the other bunk bed.
"I didn't come here to be spiteful or interrogate you, Marina." Kaede spoke dryly as she met the maid's glassy sea-green eyes. "I don't want things to end this way between us, but there wasn't much of a choice before now."
"Of course... you have y-your master. I have mine."
"You owe him for your upbringing and your life. I respect that allegiance, I really do. But can't you see that he's also using you, and ordering you to throw your life away for him in these missions? Isn't once enough to repay that? How many..."
"I-if... if you think I'm going to talk just because my fate is already sealed, then you can leave now." The maid retorted, her defiant words completely contradictory to her teary gaze.
Pascal practically snorted before interjecting with a contemptuous sneer:
"Do not flatter yourself. If we thought you had anything of value, there are ways to rip it out of your mind. It is below proper nobility to use such hideous magic, but there are matters of national importance that outweigh the honor of nobles... for me, at least. I am certain the King's Black Eagles would agree, and Rhin-Lotharingie will be happy to hand you over to resolve this diplomatic incident. Not that there would be anything left of your psyche afterwards to comment on the matter."
Marina began to sob again, and Kaede sent an exasperated look towards Pascal:
"<You're not helping.>"
"I said we are not interrogating you, and I meant it." Kaede insisted. "Obviously, I can't speak for the other involved parties, but that's also why I'm here. If I can find you a way out of this --and I'm not promising, because I honestly don't know-- then will you take it?"
"W-why are you doing this?" The maid whimpered once more.
"Because if you hadn't asked the assassins to keep me alive, I'm certain I'd be dead by now regardless of how successful Pascal and the rest were."
"E-except I asked you to help kill him..." Marina nodded towards Pascal. "W-what's the catch this time?"
Kaede hadn't really thought this part through. She looked towards Pascal, hoping for an inspiration on the legal side.
"<How much do you think you can trust her?>" he asked silently.
"<She would rather die painfully for the one who raised her than give up any information. What does that tell you about her sense of loyalty?>"
Pascal sighed and shook his head before answering:
"If I can get the authorities to agree, it will be to release you into my jurisdiction. I am entitled to compensation as the directly wronged party. You can work on my estate as an indentured servant. However it will be under the condition that you accept a binding magical contract that will put strict limits on your actions."
"<You're asking her to be a slave!?>" Kaede glared at him. "<I thought that was abolished in Weichsel!>"
"<Why? Indentured servitude is a perfectly practical form of punishment. We are not bartering them like trade goods as the Holy Imperium does.>" Pascal answered stiffly. "<And she did assist them in trying to kill me. Fair is fair.>"
"<There is also no way the higher-ups will accept it if I do not give her at least this much punishment. Sixteen people died in this attack, Kaede, including one professor. I am not willing to indulge your sense of ethics so much to lose my own, understand?>"
Kaede didn't say another word. His accusation that she was pushing her cultural mores onto him had stung. She knew perfectly well that it was one of the worst mistakes in cross-cultural relations.
"What is your response?" Pascal intoned, sternly.
"Like I have any choice." Marina looked towards Kaede
The latter shrugged with a 'sorry, best I can do' expression.
Meanwhile, Pascal stood in contemplation, as though still trying to decide something.
Nearly two minutes passed, and Kaede began to wonder if he was silently accessing some memory storage device to check legality. Then:
"It is settled. Pack your essentials. Assuming Rhin-Lotharingie is willing to hand you over, and I do believe they will, you will depart tonight, before any unpleasant circumstances change. I will arrange for someone to bring you to Nordkreuz. Once you reach my family's estate, the Majordomo will arrange for the binding magical contract."
"But we don't even..." Kaede blurted out.
Just then, the door swung open. In walked Pascal's advisor, Professor Albert.
"I believe your familiar thinks me a fool, that you can just sneak in, under my nose, without my notice." The balding professor scathed. His eyes glanced over Kaede with disdain before locking sight with Pascal.
"Not a chance of it, Professor Sir." Pascal replied as he stood upright in military posture, hands back and chest high.
"See to it then. I'll talk to the Headmaster. You arrange the transportation. I want this spy of a maid gone before the morning."
Professor Albert tugged on his well-trimmed mustache once before he left the room. His striding steps now echoing up the hallway.
It took a moment before Kaede was able to recover and figured out what had just happened. Being an old-styled frame with a cheap lock, the door had a see-through keyhole, which was just in line to cast a Telepathy spell on Pascal's position.
"<How long had he been there?>"
She felt like she just made a complete fool of herself.
"<Around when I first spoke.>" Pascal shrugged, his eyes still examining Marina. "<Using Detect spells from that ring of yours would be a little obvious, so I did not bother to add it -- a poor judgment in hindsight that I intend to fix as soon as I can. Furthermore, since you are my familiar, we really should work on improving your magic sensitivity. The hallway had at least three layers of Professor Albert's Alarm wards. The third was extremely subtle, but the first two were glaringly obvious.>"
Without waiting for a response, Pascal took Kaede's wrist and dragged her back down the hallway.
"Wait a minute..." She called as her thin legs scurried along, trying to keep up with his stride.
"<You two can talk later, when she is no longer at the scene of her crime, and once she has had some time to cool her head. I doubt any conversation now will be to your advantage. As for the rest of tonight, I want you back in bed and resting. Two brushes with death are enough for one day when you are clearly running low on beginner's luck.>"
Despite being forced to rest early, Kaede did not sleep well overnight. With Pascal's room wrecked and repairs delayed in an attempt to collect evidence, they had to relocate to a different one. Another unfamiliar ceiling, plus her anxieties about facing the trio tomorrow easily kept her up late.
There was also something wrong with her stomach...
----- * * * -----
After finishing his usual morning workout, Perceval refreshed himself before heading to the main keep for a holiday brunch. His walk across the grounds, hand-in-hand with Ariadne, was quiet as usual.
Reynaud yawned from a step ahead. He had stayed up late last night, boasting of his martial exploits to impress anyone who stayed in the castle and was curious about what had happened.
Perceval didn't mind. His friend deserved the spotlight. Reynaud was already giving Perceval more credit than he would like. He was still coming to terms with not only the fact he had killed someone, but the gruesome way he had accomplished it. Worse yet was the sense of satisfaction a part of him felt when the muffled assassin vanished under the brambles.
He had prayed long and hard to the Holy Father last night for his soul to be cleansed of its sinful taint.
But that wasn't the only thing on his mind.
Before yesterday, if someone had told him that the arrogant, condescending, judgmental, obstinate, intolerant --he could go on for a while-- Runelord Pascal would apologize to him over the source of their enmity from years ago, Perceval would have responded that celestial enlightenment was more likely to sweep across Hell first.
Maybe it had. Part of him wondered what other miracles the Holy Father orchestrated last night.
But that left him the dilemma of how to respond.
Year-long grudges did not disappear over a single apology, no matter how thorough and sincere it was. Perceval certainly had not forgotten how hurtful it was back then, when a younger him had been convinced, utterly certain, that his incompetence in most fields of magic meant his dreams would never amount to anything. As far as he was concerned, he would remain insignificant and uselessly boring throughout his life.
He could never thank his friends enough for giving him the self-respect to hold his head high over the course of two years. That was especially true for Ariadne, the most beautiful and popular girl in the academy who sat beside him, listening to his pessimistic complaints and encouraging him with saintly patience.
Perceval prayed to the Holy Father every night for sending the angel that changed his life.
But if the warm, welcoming embrace of friendship could bless his life, why should this divine grace not be extended toward others?
Unlike Ariadne who turned it into yet another self-motivator, Perceval had done his best to isolate his dislike for Pascal and keep it buried. Hatred was sinful. He may not have the compassion to simply forgive, but he would not allow his life to be ruled by dark emotions either.
...Except they still clouded his judgment, until Reynaud opened his eyes to the grander picture yesterday.
For him to still hold onto that grudge after Pascal had shown the deepest remorse... it would be immature, childish even. Not only did it go against the teachings of the Holy Father, but it also represented the intolerance that he so hated in Pascal.
Perceval knew that man was doomed to hypocrisy. However he would strive his best to escape it.
Engrossed in his thoughts, Perceval had unknowingly walked into the great dining hall. Now, seeing the lonely figures of Pascal and Kaede near a far-side corner, he knew that there was only one real choice, only one act that the Holy Father would approve of.
A healer's task did not end with merely physical wounds, but troubles of the mind, heart, and soul as well.
"Come on," Perceval beckoned to Reynaud, before his feet turned and his hand lead Ariadne down the long table.
"Oh you've got to be kidding me," Reynaud complained. But he followed nonetheless.
It was time to extend an olive branch to the man both admired and scorned as the Runelord, and appeal to the soul of the boy that lived within.
As he pulled out the next seat and sat down, Perceval wondered if Pascal's astonished expression mirrored his own from the previous night.
"Thought you might appreciate some company after yesterday."
Of course, Perceval never heard the telepathic exchange between Reynaud and Ariadne as they sat down:
"<Are you okay with this, Ariadne?>" The best friend asked, worried.
"<Of course I'm not okay with this!>"
"<I'm sorry. Perceval is just getting carried away again. I'm sure he didn't mean to...>"
"<Oh don't worry about that,>" the girl reassured. "<His headstrong sense of ethics is part of why I love him.>"
It reminded Reynaud of why everyone else, Perceval especially, thought Ariadne was 'the perfect girl'.
"<It's that prick who better prepare himself!>"
...Even if she wasn't actually perfect.
----- * * * -----
Kaede knew that nothing ended that easily.
Perceval kept the banter focused over the course of brunch, discussing mostly the events of last night and the turmoil within the academy that followed. Reynaud soon pitched in with tactical analysis made using his knowledge of Mantis Blade modus operandi, occasionally interrupting himself to attempt flirting with Kaede, who he continued to call 'Buttercup'.
She didn't hit him this time. It was partly because the men didn't need any sparks of hostility, and partly due to her cramping and aching stomach sapping all her energy.
According to Pascal, he had never personally wronged Reynaud over the years. Furthermore, the short redhead had taken every opportunity to mock him, not to mention handing him one humiliating defeat after another in their Advanced Spellsword Combat training.
Therefore it was not surprising that Reynaud had followed his best friend's lead as soon as he fulfilled his quota of evil glares.
Ariadne, however, was a different case entirely. She still wore her angelic smile through all of brunch, still lovingly offered food to Perceval through raised forks. But she did not, even once, speak a single word to Pascal.
Until they all stood up to leave.
"I believe I still owe you something, you self-centered prick," Ariadne declared as she closed the distance between them to arm's length.
Just as when Perceval first walked up to Pascal, a wave of silence rippled outwards through the hall. Within seconds, every moving body stilled as their eyes gazed upon the noble lady facing the Runelord.
Meanwhile, Pascal's puzzled expression didn't have a clue of what Ariadne was talking about... until her right hand drew a wide arc and exploded against his face in a slap that resounded through the dining hall.
Several of Pascal's 'fangirls' squeaked, but none dared to challenge the lady.
Kaede was certain Ariadne's glove was glowing. There was simply no way someone could slap that hard without magic, regardless of how big a sword they twirled around every day.
The force of the impact lifted Pascal's feet off the ground and threw him backwards like a rag doll. He crashed into the ground several paces away on his back. A red handprint now adorned the right side of his face. His skin quickly bruised with internal bleeding under the partial cover of his soft golden curls.
"Owww," Pascal remarked as he sat back up, his hand rushing to cradle his swelling cheek. "I do rot rememper drawing plood with mere words."
Sure enough, a small stream of red dripped down from the corner of his mouth before his other hand wiped it off.
"Consider it interest, Pascal, and I reserve the right to slap you again whenever your prick self surfaces."
A half-dozen people in the sparse hall even clapped and cheered. But for Kaede, it was the first time she ever heard Ariadne use his name.
Perceval shook his head with a chuckle, then leaned over to offer Pascal a hand back up. The latter took it with a firm grip and a muttered, embarrassed "thanks".
Still sitting on the other side of the table, Kaede tried to smile as she watched the bonding moment that would hopefully, with time, develop into something far more. But all she managed was a wry smirk that seemed more like a grimace.
Her stomach pains were growing worse.
As chatter returned across the dining hall, Ariadne was the first to notice the problem:
"Kaede what's wrong?"
"She's been having pains in her lower abdominal region all morning, and apparently last night as well," Pascal filled in for her. His right hand was now rubbing the swollen left cheek while his turquoise ring glowed.
Perceval leaned over the table to take a look before swiftly pulling back upright. He then glanced at Ariadne while his finger tapped in the air towards Kaede.
"Oh dear." The lady muttered, and she rushed her way around the long table.
Pascal's confusion returned as he looked between Perceval and Reynaud. The healer kept his silence for the moment, while the duelist simply shrugged, clueless.
"Some prodigy you are, Pascal. Half a day goes by and you don't even notice basic biology?" Ariadne complained as she knelt down besides Kaede.
Are you kidding me!?
Already doubled over in pain, Kaede banged her head into the table as she realized exactly what the noblewoman implied.
"Kaede, you must be on your cycle... or whatever your people call a menstrual period."
Thanks to the translation magic integrated into her familiar bond, Kaede herself had no problem understanding Ariadne's terminology. The contents themselves, however, were far too appalling to think about.
"But... b-but I'm not bleeding." She objected. Even she would recognize the most obvious sign of a feminine body entering 'that time of the month'.
"If your undergarments are appropriately enchanted, they'll clean it up before the blood can even stain." Ariadne explained as she rubbed Kaede's lower back.
Variations of two thoughts filled Kaede's mind as their numbers multiplied explosively, quickly drowning out every other line of reason:
I should have known...
This can't be happening to me...
----- * * * -----
Kaede spent the rest of the holiday in bed, feeling almost as sorry for herself as the day she first came to this world. She was certain her hormones were to blame for that, but the knowledge itself didn't raise her mood.
She'd have to deal with this every month for the foreseeable future...
Her stomach pains and cramps had not alleviated any since morning. Her one hope of relief had been dashed as soon as it came. Ariadne was quick to point out that there was a spell for mostly suppressing the discomfort during a period. But Perceval had to remind her that the magic involved direct manipulation of the nerve-conduits, which limited its use to the caster herself. It was why no male healer ever learned the spell for helping another through particularly painful cycles.
Meaning I can't use the blessing that's the privilege of noble ladies, Kaede reflected irritatingly. I have to suffer like the commoner girls do.
Screw this society.
It didn't stop Sir 'I-am-a-prodigy' Pascal from trying... and failing spectacularly. He somehow managed to loosen his own lower controls, which resulted in soiling himself.
Perceval said that he got lucky. The last male healer who tried to invent a fix for his commoner wife ended up with a painful, day-long erection. After that, nobody wanted to attempt again.
So they returned to the tried-and-true method: applying direct heating to relax the muscles and soothe the discomfort.
That proved simple. Her undergarments had the effect built in. Perceval also managed to obtain a few rubber hot-water pads, which he enchanted with heating spells to apply warm pressure from underneath. This was how Kaede spent her last few hours: not moving and unable to distract herself with books. All she could do was lay there face-down, groaning and feeling sorry for herself.
Even Pascal looked like he felt bad for her.
"I have never apologized for pulling you into my world, have I?" He spoke from his work desk as Kaede whimpered from her latest cramp.
"No. It's why I still hate you," she retorted grumpily.
In hindsight, nothing from her had come out nicely today.
"Well, I am sorry."
"Better late than never. Next time, you try being the one to menstruate!"
Chapter 13 - A World of Difference
Kaede spent most of the next two days in bed, skipping even mealtime trips to the dining hall. Thankfully, Pascal brought her a tray of aristocratic food back every time. Even better, he told her that Perceval started inviting him over to join Ariadne, Reynaud, and others during meals, so she didn't even have to feel bad about leaving him to eat alone again.
Although he would have deserved it, as all of her discomfort for the past days could be explained as 'his fault'.
By Wednesday afternoon however, her menstrual cramps had lessened enough for her to effectively concentrate on other things. Kaede only missed dinner due to being completely engrossed in her book on Rhin-Lotharingie history:
The Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie was forged only 236 years ago, making it the youngest nation in Western Hyperion by far. It was created after Charles the Bold united the twelve Oriflamme Paladins and led the first successful Lotharin revolt against the Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea. The rebellion culminated in the Fifth Alisia Campaign, where Charles outmaneuvered the Imperium's northern field army and destroyed a total of twelve Imperial Legions. After that, the rebellion grew like wildfire as the various Lotharin tribes, long discontent over the Imperium's efforts to impose their cultural and religious values, united under Charles' banner in the Rhin-Lotharingie Independence War.
If first you don't succeed, try, try, try, try again, Kaede thought with a wry smile.
It made for a good fable, to be certain. But she could only imagine the generational cost in blood and lives the Lotharins paid.
She also found it a bit ironic. Because after centuries of slow integration and conversion, the Lotharins were more like the Imperials than they would like to admit. Trinitian might not be the 'official' state religion of Rhin-Lotharingie, but it was pretty close as only pockets of the old gods held out.
Nevertheless, the Lotharins managed to carve out a 'National Myth' for themselves. This includes many heroes such as Charles the Bold, Douglas the Black, Gwendolyn the Faerie Sword, et cetera. The number twelve also took on a sacred significance in Lotharin historiography: the twelve Paladins, the twelve original tribes, the twelve weeks campaign that resulted in twelve shattered Legions... Which is almost certainly an exaggeration, Kaede thought.
The Lotharins would claim otherwise, as they had enshrined the twelve captured Legionary Eagles in their royal palace. But even an amateur historian like Kaede could see the signs. For example, the Lotharins took great pride in depicting how Charles' persistent appeals eventually united the squabbling tribes under a common banner of unity, which they claimed was the reason for the revolt's success. However that ignored the international factors which also played a decisive role. This included:
Arms sales from the Kingdom of Weichsel as it pulled away from the Imperial sphere of influence...
Money and military support from the Grand Republic of Samara, in repayment for the help they received from Leslie the Paladin over three hundred years ago during the Great Northern War...
...And last but certainly not the least, the Caliph's decision to launch the 1st Tauheed Holy War against the Imperium at the same time.
If Kaede hadn't cross-referenced the events between multiple historical sources, she might not even have realized. However such efforts were far beyond the scope of the average citizen, even if they read.
Magic or not, history is still written by the victor, Kaede thought. It was a fact of life she had long come to accept, but it still bothered her to think about. Just as it disturbed her when she first saw how, back in 1950, most of continental Europe agreed that it was the Soviet Union who played the greatest role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Yet after seventy years and one Cold War, it was the Americans who raised themselves onto that pedestal.
Kaede's frown was soon abated when a mouthwatering scent wafted into the room. Except Pascal wasn't carrying anything as he strode into view.
"You are being invited to dinner, sort of. Ariadne is just outside the door."
His broad shoulders gave a noncommittal shrug, followed by a silent reminder as he saw how Kaede only wore an unbuttoned jacket over her undergarments.
"<You should get dressed properly first.>"
According to Pascal, Ariadne had mostly put away their past after her epic --and publicly humiliating-- slap. But not hating his guts wasn't the same as being on good terms.
Kaede nodded back and rushed to put on her white pseudo-uniform, a task far simpler than with any of those dresses. She also stuffed two hot water pads into its belt pouches.
Pascal then stopped her before she could walk out. He took care to make sure her appearance was immaculate and wouldn't embarrass him before the noblest of ladies.
Two of them, as it turned out.
"Good evening Kaede. Thought you could use a little chat and company after two days." Ariadne's angelic smile radiated from just beyond the room's doorway, with a food tray hovering above one palm and the other hand waving at her. "My friend Cecylia is paying a visit from Alis Avern. Would you be interested in joining us?"
"Pleased to make your acquaintance." The petite girl who stood beside Ariadne's pink cascade beamed and waved energetically.
Kaede wasn't exactly in a mood to meet new people tonight, but this wasn't an offer she could refuse politely.
"The pleasure is mine," she tried her best to curtsy in return.
Cecylia was slightly taller than Kaede. She had fine, glossy black hair, trimmed short and pulled back by a white ribbon. Standing next to the mature and elegant Ariadne, she seemed almost fragile with her petite and thin figure, which only enhanced her undeniably cute appearance. Her small nose and lips lay under a pair of vibrant, dark-ruby eyes that held something odd about them, giving off a mysteriously alluring light. Her skin was fair to the point of bearing nearly a translucent silky sheen, which was accentuated by a black uniform similar to what Pascal wore. Except hers had no crimson stripes and came with a long, wide skirt instead of trousers.
As Kaede neared the doorway, she gasped and nearly tripped into a tray of wiener schnitzel and a steaming bowl of vegetable soup. She had just realized what that 'something odd' about Cecylia was:
Inside the round black pupils within her deep-red iris, Cecylia's eyes held tiny scarlet-red crosses.
The new girl's hands gently steadied Kaede as she looked back up. Her gaze was unerringly drawn to the depth of those eyes before she could pull back and glance away.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to stare."
"Hehe, don't worry about it," Cecylia giggled in her schoolgirl soprano. "I'll explain when we get back to Aria's room."
She then turned towards Pascal while reaching for the doorknob:
"See you later Pascal! Don't worry, we'll take good care of her!"
Her cheery voice gave Kaede bit of a surprise, who mentally asked Pascal: "<Made a new friend already?>"
"Good night," Pascal bid before sending back a somewhat wistful response:
"<No. We spoke quite a bit before I fell out with Ariadne, then until today she mostly avoided me. Cecylia Renata von Falkenhausen is the third child of General Wiktor von Falkenhausen, my father's second-in-command. Since we are the same age, our fathers had us meet when we were six. She is actually the one who introduced me to Ariadne.>"
Bet your breakup came as a personal embarrassment for her then. Kaede thought as Cecylia took her hand and began pulling her down the hall with Ariadne following behind.
"<Be careful though. She likes to drag others to her pace before turning it back on them.>"
But rather than cautionary, Pascal sounded almost... admiring.
So Kaede wrote down another name on her mental list of people that Pascal actually respected.
The third-year girls' dorms were just one floor above, and Ariadne's room turned out to be... very feminine.
The bedsheets and curtains were in a soft pink that matched her hair, decorated by an abundance of white laces and frills. Frames of natural scenery on watercolor canvas decorated the walls, while a baby grand piano lay against the far corner.
This is definitely the room of a highborn lady.
Even before the door closed behind them, Kaede found herself greeted by a plump cat with lush white and gray fur. It laid down before Kaede and gazed at her through teal eyes before giving an adorable purr.
She knelt down to pet and stroke its wonderfully soft coat.
"Kaede, you might want to finish your dinner before getting too friendly with Ania," Ariadne suggested as she took the tray to the writing desk by the window. "She loves to steal food, and it's hard to keep watch on all of them."
"All of them?"
"Ania is a matryoshka cat from Samara." Cecylia watched with an amused grin. "She's also my familiar."
Kaede stood back up, puzzled.
Even as Kaede asked, Ania looked up, and another feline face, identical but slightly smaller, emerged from below her furry stomach. The smaller cat soon pulled herself out, laid down next to the larger Ania, and the process repeated itself.
Kaede soon found herself wide-eyed and speechless, surrounded by nine purring cats of decreasing size and plumpness.
"Are they... separate...?" she struggled to find the right words.
"They share the same psyche, as far as we know," Cecylia explained. "Matryoshka cats use shadow magic to make duplicates of themselves to scout for predators and trap prey. The largest one is always the main body, even though tapping its senses always feel like the smallest one is the primary.
"Speaking of eyes and ears, are you..."
"Not since I got annoyed with him and told him to stop. Pascal did promise not to intrude upon my senses without permission," Kaede answered as she wondered how many times she would have to explain this to people.
"Good!" Cecylia grinned. "Not that he's the voyeur type. But we don't need him to catch an eye-full during girls' night."
This must be the 'slumber party' guys are so intrigued over.
Kaede began to fidget just inside the entrance. Her cheeks heated up and her eyes glanced away as Cecylia wasted no time before starting to undress, with a set of black velvet pajamas with pink frills already laid out on the bed before her.
Ariadne was quick to notice as usual, soon commenting in her peaceful smile from the other side of the room:
"Cecylia, you're making our guest uncomfortable."
"Rules are rules: sleepwear only! No stupid layers of formality on girls' night!"
"I think changing in front of someone you recently met goes far beyond mere 'casual'."
"Hehe well, we'll just get familiar that much faster then!"
Before Kaede knew it, Cecylia had finished changing and bounced back. Her first thought was that Cecylia's exposed shoulders above her camisole easily had the smoothest, pearly skin she had ever seen, even with modern cosmetics and skincare products. In fact, it seemed almost unnatural.
Backed into the wall, Kaede yelped in surprise as Cecylia's delicate fingers snaked in and started undoing her buttons with swift precision.
She turned towards Ariadne with her eyes pleading. The noble lady then tilted her head with a scowl before she walked over and pulled the overenthusiastic Cecylia off by the wrists.
"At least get to know someone properly before you start being forceful. You're going to drive Kaede off with this behavior!"
"Awww but I wanna see! Pascal has pretty good tastes you know!"
With her shirt open and halfway down her shoulders, Kaede hugged her small chest and pressed herself against the wall. She could feel her cheeks blushing furiously, her exposed skin reddening as they met the warm indoor air again. Oddly enough, she found this far more embarrassing than wearing the same thing in front of Pascal.
Girls by themselves are way too scary...
"Oh, Sylv is going to have so much fun with her!"
Cecylia kept her brightly lit eyes fixated on Kaede, as though savoring an alluring piece of artwork.
Trying to defuse the situation, Ariadne herself began to undress and change to her sleepwear. She started by revealing a soft-pink bustier that tightly hugged her ample bosom.
It didn't have quite the intended effect. Kaede merely looked for more inconspicuous objects to fascinate over.
"You still haven't introduced yourself like you promised," Kaede grumbled before she leaned over the bedside counter and bit into another slice of wiener schnitzel.
Delicious food always made her feel better about things.
She even stopped obsessing over the fact that she wore nothing more than white lingerie as the three of them sat on Ariadne's king-sized four-poster bed between 'nine' furry cats. Although it would take a while before she could grow accustomed to it, if that were possible at all.
"Hehe, I do still owe an explanation don't I?" Cecylia replied cheerily. "I take it's your first time meeting a dhampir?"
Kaede nearly choked. 'Dhampir' of slavic folklore was the child between a human and...
"One of your parents... is a vampire?" She asked as her coughs subsided with the help of Ariadne stroking her back.
"Ah... you really aren't from our world are you?"
Cecylia's scarlet-cross eyes grew fascinated as a mischievous grin lit up her face. She held up the smallest kitty and twiddled its paw towards Kaede while launching into a lively explanation that totally contrasted with its contents:
"The vampire clans were wiped out centuries ago by the not-yet-Holy Imperium, although not before their curses destroyed sixteen whole legions and left the Dead Mountains perpetually filled with murderous mist. Dhampir are the descendants of vampires, still carrying the core of the fiendish blood curse that first created them during the Demonic Invasion. But the magic have at least diluted enough that the church could seal its effects, which..." she pointed to her pupils, "is what this cross is. I've had it since my baptism, dyed by my own magic over the years in the same way Ariadne's rosy ether colors her hair."
"So... you don't drink blood anymore then?"
The moment Cecylia put her kitten back onto the bedcovers, all nine cats scurried forward and surrounded Kaede's sides and rear like a furry trolley train.
"We do not urge for blood. But we certainly still enjoy it..."
Cecylia's grin slanted into a smirk at just the right angle, highlighting the little fang of a canine she sported. Oddly enough, only one was slightly bigger than usual. But Kaede hardly thought about it as the dhampir leaned in with a hungry, blood-red gaze.
With her entire body shivering, Kaede had never felt so aware of her Samaran body, nor the fact her blood was literally 'health food' for the predatory girl before her.
"Most dhampirs follow our cultural tradition of taking blood..."
Kaede could feel Cecylia's thin yet firm fingers slide down her bare shoulders, pinning her arms on each side. Hot breaths tickled her exposed collarbone as two deep-red eyes leaned in. Already quivering with trepidation, Kaede shook uselessly against Cecylia's unyielding grasp. It was as though those very pupils made her feel weak, yet Kaede couldn't break eye contact. She then cringed as she felt the dhampir's moist lips touched her skin... and kissed her gently.
Cecylia then leaned back with the broad smile of a joke well played.
"Y-you're horrible." Kaede muttered in her wispy, shaky voice as she wiped the tears from her glaring eyes. She genuinely felt scared for a moment as it felt like her whole body had been paralyzed.
"Hehe sorry. You're just so cute that I couldn't resist teasing a teeny bit extra." Cecylia responded. Her playful words didn't harbor the slightest drop of apology.
Meanwhile, her nine cats returned to the center of the bed, forming a full circle around her while each playfully chased the swaying tail of the kitten before them.
"Don't worry though, we only take blood from the partners we marry." Cecylia announced proudly. "Dhampirs lack the regenerative vitality of vampires, so drinking blood has become a rather private issue -- diseases and all that."
So... dhampirs are dead afraid of Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
Kaede was still trying to calm down her heartbeat. Nevertheless she sent a note to her future self that the next time a dhampir threatens to bite her, she should just warn them of syphilis.
"Although we no longer need it, consuming fresh human blood does make us appear younger." Cecylia added. "You should see my father, one-sixty-eight years old and still drawing the attention of every lady across the hall like a stud beefcake. Mother gets jealous all the time, even though he's never cheated on her once after a century of marriage. We dhampirs tend to be rather devoted in matrimony, blood of our cherished mate flowing through us and all."
Ariadne had watched the entire exchange with a serene smile, completely unperturbed, while her hands continued to brush her long, flowing pink hair. Now, she finally reentered the conversation:
"That's pretty rare among us. Most noble lords have at least one affair during their youth. It's almost something of a 'proud' achievement among them. The Trinitian Church may require monogamy, but aristocratic culture always tend to turn a blind eye toward mistresses."
"It's worse in Rhin-Lotharingie." Cecylia noted. "They haven't shrugged off their old pagan traditions of concubines equaling prestige. But here complains the girl whose beloved suitor has eyes only for her."
Cecylia's sigh was almost longing, but Ariadne had no intention of playing into it.
"And you've got how many boys chasing after you?"
"Not here." Cecylia's smile faltered a little. "Most Lotharins only need to see my eyes before they decide I'm a sinner."
"Didn't stop Reynaud and Gerard."
Cecylia almost laughed. "Reynaud flirts with half of everything female and walking on two legs, plus I prefer someone taller than me. Gerard is a nice guy and a real diligent worker. Sweet, definitely the romantic type, not to mention those perfect abs the last time he wrestled with Reynaud."
Her dhampir eyes had that 'hungry' look again...
"But... if I court him he'd expect me to become his housewife or something. Nope!"
Cecylia retrieved a tennis-sized ball of red yarn and tossed it onto the bed, where the nine Anias began to juggle and bounce it around like some kind of feline volleyball game.
"Finding the ideal man is overrated. It's far better to help a boy with potential reach his manly peak. That, is where true and lasting love lay."
Ariadne's calm response sounded more like a profession of wisdom. But with Pascal's rooftop apology to Perceval only days past, Kaede quickly realized that the lady was speaking from personal experience.
"Of course it doesn't hurt when that boy you help comes from a powerful dynasty and is the heir to a duchy." Cecylia leaned into Ariadne with a smirk. "It's why the Marshal sent you here on this program even though you're a Knight Phantom. Isn't that right, future Baguette Duchess?"
Kaede rushed a hand to her mouth as she almost snorted with laughter.
At the same time she realized: if the Field Marshal, Pascal's father, was the one who picked Ariadne for the cultural exchange, then chances were he was the one who selected Pascal as well.
A father's love truly is difficult, she thought.
Meanwhile Ariadne retorted with a blush: "That's not at all why I picked him!"
"No. No. You're getting power, wealth, and love. The impossible triangle!" Cecylia grinned. "Just be sure to bake plenty of little baguettes in that oven someday." She patted Ariadne's flat stomach. "Perceval is definitely the type to be a family man." She added before turning to Kaede as though looking for agreement.
The Samaran girl was still smiling when an uncomfortable thought entered her mind:
Love relationships with a man...
It was hardly a topic that Kaede felt comfortable discussing, especially not if they lingered and the two girls grew interested in 'her tastes'.
"What about you, Cecylia? What are you aiming for? It sounds like you're career motivated?"
Kaede took the opportunity to change topics as she ate her last two slices of veal. She could swear at least four slices were missing, although that was still an acceptable price to pay for the adorable kittens whose furry tails continued to brush by every few seconds.
"Cecylia isn't an 'exchange student', unlike me and Pascal." Ariadne returned an appreciative look for coming to her rescue, which was an unintended bonus. "She graduated from Königsfeld last year and works in the Weichsen embassy in Alis Avern."
Same year as you and Pascal then.
"I'm a member of the King's Black Eagles and a junior military attaché," Cecylia smiled. "My specialty is information control and public security."
Kaede blinked. Her reading on Weichsel was considerably less than her research on Rhin-Lotharingie. However she remembered that the Black Eagles were the intelligence and special ops branch of the Weichsel military, who reported directly to the King. Combining that with Cecylia's claims about her specialty...
In other words, you're a propagandist. Kaede realized.
"She's also a foreign culture expert. I could have sworn her crosses turned into glittering stars when I first told her about you Kaede," Ariadne joked.
"Then you're a..."
Kaede struggled to find a better word. However Cecylia wasn't the slightest bit shy about what she did.
"I'm a spy. Yep!" She declared with a grin. "It's not all cloak and dagger, you know. In fact, the Lotharins know exactly what I do. I analyze the information we see and hear from them, and then send it back to Weichsel for the King. I think my ultimate goal can be either spymaster or ambassador. One gets to know all the juicy bits and help nudge the country along the right path. Meanwhile the other gets to enjoy the high life while receiving all sorts of benefits."
A counter-propagandist then. Kaede fixed her initial impression. She had a feeling that she and Cecylia would get along just fine, despite the latter's more... eccentric tendencies.
"But really, Aria, can you blame me for getting excited?" Cecylia turned towards her friend. "It's not everyday that one gets to meet a Samaran, and one from another world at that! Sure, I've met a few Samarans before -- actual Samarans and not just average humans from the Grand Republic. But most of them are so tight-lipped that you can barely get anything out of them."
Probably because they don't feel safe outside Samara, Kaede reflected upon all the accounts of trafficking that she had read.
"What are they like?" She couldn't help but feel curious. "I've never actually met a Samaran before. They don't exist in the world where I come from."
Ariadne looked noticeably shocked by this. But Cecylia took it in stride:
"Well, you have met yourself!"
"Ha-ha." Kaede gave a fake laugh. "No seriously. I wake up and find myself reborn as a Samaran, yet I don't know a thing about what Samarans are like, how I'm supposed to behave, et cetera."
"Wellll," Cecylia tilted her head and cutely pressed a finger into her cheeks. "I can only give you my basic impression of them, plus some of the things I've heard from the other Black Eagles. Though since I've never had a mission in the Grand Republic, I don't have access to the full packet of information on them."
Not that you'd share with me even if you did. Kaede thought.
She knew what it was like to work with those in intelligence. She had a brother-in-law who did so for the Russians. He was the only man Kaede knew who never touched a drop of alcohol, and who was so tight-tipped one could barely get a word about work out of him.
"It's still more than I have," she then shrugged.
"So among the Black Eagles, the most often-said trait about Samarans... is that they're prudes." Cecylia giggled before her schoolgirl soprano deepened in a remarkably good imitation of a male voice: "Never try to seduce one, they say. You're more likely to bed my great-grandmother."
"That can't be right," Kaede thought aloud. "Samarans must still feel attraction."
"Ohhhhh? So who are you attracted to?" Cecylia scurried forward playfully until her knees were almost touching Kaede's.
Kaede could feel the fire that spontaneously erupted in her cheeks. "That's not what I meant. I mean..." She rushed to find an excuse. "They still have kids, don't they? All biological species feel attraction. Otherwise they'd have long gone extinct."
Even pandas get in the mood... eventually, she thought back to how researchers used panda porn to encourage breeding, which her father couldn't stop laughing about.
It made her feel a little homesick.
"That's why I hear that even in the Grand Republic, Samarans are kind of... rare." Cecylia shrugged. "I don't know the real reason. But the gist of what I hear is that Samarans just aren't particularly interested in anything sexual, even though they take relationships very, very seriously."
"What do you mean by that?" Kaede felt her curiosity grow.
"They say a Samaran will never forget anything you did for them. And no matter how long it's been, they'll always repay the favor in kind. Apparently they believe in this concept called 'karma', and that every good deed should be repaid."
Kaede smiled. Buddhism ranked high on the list of Earth religions she had been attracted to for precisely this reason.
"Is that the reason why the Grand Republic sent aid to the Lotharins during the Rhin-Lotharingie Independence War?" She asked.
Cecylia looked taken aback. She exchanged a glance with Ariadne.
"I told you she was a quick study for books," the lady knight grinned.
"Yes, actually." Cecylia nodded as her gaze returned to Kaede. "If there's one thing one could say about the Grand Republic, it's that any diplomatic relationship with them is extremely predictable, almost painfully so. You can't just go on a charm offensive and hope they'll like you. You have to actually build relations with them over time. During the Great Northern War five centuries ago when the Great Khan invaded Samara from the east, there was an Oriflamme Paladin named Leslie who led his band into Samara and lent them his services as a mercenary. The Samarans remembered this even three centuries later and repaid the aid in spades."
Does that mean the Mongols' invasion of Russia failed in this world? Kaede couldn't help ponder. Though Samaran foreign policy sounds more like... China's, obsessed with history.
"Aria told me you found our world fascinating, though I'm a bit surprised by how quickly you're learning." Cecylia gave an encouraging smile. "So how similar is your world compared to ours? Other than the part where your humanity never received the gift of magic from the dragonlords?"
"By 'dragonlords', you mean..."
"Yes, I speak of the dragons that descended upon Hyperion roughly four thousand years ago, and departed at the end of the Dragon Age." Cecylia added. "We call them 'dragonlords' out of respect. After all, they protected our tribal ancestors during the Dragon-Demon Wars, not to mention blessed our forefathers with the ability and knowledge to shape magic. This is especially the case for the Dragonlord Hyperion -- the son of the Holy Father whom ended the Dragon-Demon Wars."
Kaede had to blink several times as she took all that in. She had been too focused on learning about the civilized history of this world, as opposed to the ancient history that, at least back on Earth, were more appropriate to anthropologists than historians. She had encountered mentions of the dragons during her reading, but they were mostly in passing as she had never focused her research on the topic.
"The world I came from had dragons also, but only in myths and legends," the Samaran girl replied.
"Well, they're certainly not limited to myths or legends here," Cecylia grinned. "The legacy of the dragonlords is well researched and documented, from battlefield remains to the artifacts they've left behind."
Clearly, I should pay more attention to the 'prehistory' of this world. Kaede made a mental note to herself before returning to topic.
"But aside from magic, I'd say this world and mine are extremely similar? In fact, Hyperion feels like what my world might have been if neither the Roman Empire --who conquered most of the Western World just like your Inner Sea Imperium-- nor the Catholic Church underwent schism. So instead of a long, slow decline, our version of the Imperium collapsed within a few centuries and lead to the 'Dark Ages' on the European continent."
In later hindsight, Kaede was surprised by how easily her words rushed out, even though this was their first meeting. But after being nearly stripped and bitten by Cecylia, delving into deep discussions felt almost... casual.
"Let me start closer to here and run nation by nation: Rhin-Lotharingie is like Celtic Gaul and Celtic Britain smushed together, except in my world the Romans' Celtic Holocaust basically wiped out their culture. The Empire as it stands now, however, reminds me of my world's Frankish Empire under the Carolingians, except without the Gavelkind succession which later tore them asunder..."
Cecylia cut her off almost instantly, a tribute to the girl's sheer mental processing speed even as she absorbed information that was literally out-of-this-world.
"It's a succession law where the father's realm and assets is split up between all of his sons. My world's history is rather patriarchal." Kaede noted with an apologetic shrug towards the two ladies.
"Since your world didn't have magic, it would certainly be much harder for women to match the men in any contest of power or strength," Ariadne commented as though she wasn't surprised. "The duties of nobility always began with military leadership, and if women can't match up on the battlefield then they automatically forfeit such positions of power."
"That's likely among the reasons, and certainly one of the more apparent differences." Kaede nodded as she pondered. "Though from a worldly perspective, I'd say the biggest difference between this world and mine is that nation-states changed a lot more in my world, with far more division and fragmentation. France and Germany. Eastern and Western Roman Empire. Caliphates of Cordoba and Baghdad. Even the Churches of Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria."
She had a feeling that one of the reasons was because mages lived far longer. But that only meant Hyperion's history 'slowed down' compared to that of Europe on Earth. It didn't explain some of the more dramatic differences, like the fact there were almost no 'small states'. Even the Kingdom of Weichsel -- a comparatively 'minor power' in Hyperion -- came in a size that would make Prussian King Frederick the Great proud.
"Well, distance is a problem when it comes to administration of large realms. So it's easy to break down into smaller state entities," Cecylia suggested as a possible cause. "What did you use for communications? Without magic you wouldn't have access to our Farspeak spell to instantly relay information across thousands of kilopaces."
"Uhhh... back then? Horse and rider? Mail by pigeon? It took a long time to get messages across any empire, at least until we invented the telegraph which ran on electricity... lightning-power." Kaede noted.
"Well that's the problem," Cecylia pointed out. "You can't govern an empire effectively if messages take a month to reach the emperor and another to return. We don't even need a device that catches lightning to send messages. A Farspeak spell can be cast within minutes and allows you to converse with any mage that you've met once in person."
First gunpowder, now this.
It was beginning to sink in just how truly world-altering magic was. Not only did it shift the development paths of technology, it also changed the rules of how human institutions behaved.
----- * * * -----
"How did your night go?" Pascal asked Kaede at brunch the next day as she sat down next to him.
Kaede and Cecylia ended up comparing the cultural and geopolitical evolution of the two worlds late into the night. Even with the dhampir's earlier behavior lingering in her mind, Kaede found herself quickly warming up to Cecylia thanks to their mutual interests.
Cecylia then left first thing this morning. She didn't even wait for breakfast and simply took a few pastries from the kitchens. Her departing words to Pascal and Ariadne was somewhat ominous though:
"Remember what I told you last night -- prepare yourselves."
The two of them pressed her for answers on what for. However all the dhampir girl would say was a cryptic "hopefully nothing, but possibly everything".
It really reminded Kaede that despite how outgoing Cecylia seemed, she was still a keeper of secrets.
After Cecylia left, Kaede decided that she owed Ariadne an apology. The lady who epitomized nobility spoke little most of the night and simply kept up her gentle smile. Engrossed in their discussion, Kaede did not notice until after the fact.
Ariadne's response had been a truly affectionate "I'm glad you enjoyed yourself. You needed it after the last few days."
It made Kaede feel unworthy of befriending such a wonderful person.
Perceval's friendly call brought Kaede back from her thoughts.
"Hello Perceval. Clearly, I must have missed something big if the Runelord is sitting next to you."
"The Holy Father does his work in mysterious ways," Perceval smiled back. "Pascal I don't need to introduce. This is Kaede..."
"The famous familiar girl, I recognized."
Gerard nodded towards Pascal while giving Kaede a slight bow:
"I'm Gerard Fournier. Pleasure to meet you."
Gerard was easily the tallest of the group, as his height was at least a few finger-widths higher than either Pascal or Perceval. His short, straight hair was black. His firm eyes were ash-blue. Below them, his hard, chiseled chin and a slightly tall, Balkan nose dominated his image. He wore a loose fitting tunic and a jacket over it, both of which looked too plain for a noble. However despite his lax clothing, it was clear that his body held an incredibly firm musculature. Tough and well-built, but no steroids monster either.
"Ah... nice to meet you as well."
"Fournier?" Pascal puzzled. "I don't recognize that name."
"My parents are bakers." Gerard shrugged before his voice hardened. "Yeomen, lower middle class. Perceval was the one who sponsored my attendance here. You have a problem with it?"
"I did not know Alisia Academy had a patron program?" Pascal asked. However even his casual voice sounded haughty and was definitely rubbing Gerard the wrong way.
"It's not a program." Perceval explained. "Reynaud introduced him to me. Apparently they met through his parents' bakery."
"He makes the most adorable animal bread, presented in beautiful confection houses." Reynaud grinned. "When I asked him how, he started telling me about how the dough needed just the right mix and had to be set just right so they'd expand in a certain way, yadda yadda. The rest went over my head."
"Like I've told you -- baking is a science." Gerard insisted.
"Which is precisely why I didn't get it." Reynaud remained smiling as he patted the back of the man who was over a head taller than him. "I mean do you ever see me reading a science book? Or any book?"
"You read map books." Perceval interjected.
"Yeah, well, those are fun. Seeing all the places I can go to? Tickles the imagination."
"I still do not see how baking has any connection with this academy."
Pascal's comment made Kaede want to slam her head into the table. You've just made new friends! Don't ruin it already!
Thankfully, Perceval addressed the issue as he explained with pride in his voice:
"Gerard ranked sixth on the entry assessment exam for his year. He is now the best among his class of 4th year civil engineers. Only reason he returned late is because of his internship with the Ministry of Land and Resources in the capital."
"Impressive." Pascal's attitude switch was instantaneous, even if his tone was not.
"<Would it hurt you to show your admiration a little more in your public voice?>" Kaede prodded over telepathy, which Pascal utterly ignored.
Gerard shrugged, his blank expression seemingly not caring:
"You may think as you like. Most nobles here only put up with me thanks to Perceval and Ariadne."
"Most nobles here are incompetent." Pascal clarified as his turquoise gaze swept the dining hall. "Birth, standing, prestige, none of those matter. Intellect, resolve, and the skills it brings are what counts."
Apart from Kaede, everyone else looked back at Pascal with some shade of surprise.
"I was just talking to my father the other day about the 'Imperial Examination System' that Kaede spoke of from her memories, which could elevate the poorest civilian to important officials of state. The performance bottleneck to the Weichsen army's Mobility Doctrine has always been a limit of capable officers, as commanders in the field must be able to think and act independently according to circumstance instead of waiting for orders. Father told me to draft him a formal proposal on how we could apply a standardized testing and scholarship system for promising cadets. When you mentioned patronage I wondered if Rhin-Lotharingie was already ahead of Weichsel in this."
Kaede smiled a little. She wasn't sure where this world's version of China was. Probably the 'Dawn Imperium' that sat as the other superpower in the far east. However she was certain they wouldn't mind her plagiarizing their 2,000 year tradition of meritocracy.
By the end of Pascal's speech, Gerard stood in awe with his mouth ajar.
"The Marshal of Weichsel is interested in this?" he asked, almost in disbelief.
Pascal nodded back, his stiff gaze confirming:
"Why is this a surprise? Weichsel's military is a meritocracy. The enemy will not care about how famous your family is."
"Yet your enemies will always recognize your family name." Gerard countered in a flat voice. "You can't get promoted if your superiors don't remember your name to match your deeds. And if you don't think there's a noble preference there then you've been blinded by your own experience. Still, better some opportunity than none."
Gerard then pulled out a seat right across from Pascal and sat down.
"I'll be happy to give you some proper perspective from a lowborn."
Surrounded by other acquaintances, Perceval's group broke to separate conversations as they enjoyed their meal. Kaede was introduced to nearly two dozen other noble acquaintances who sat nearby, although none of them spoke another word to her afterwards. She quickly realized that Gerard's situation was milder but somewhat similar to her own, patronage or not.
In the eyes of most highborns, the two of them were seen as little more than servants who shadowed their master's footsteps.
Unfortunately, Kaede did not receive much of a chance to consult her senior. Gerard spent almost the entire meal digging details out of Pascal, much to the annoyance of other nearby nobles who saw an easy opportunity to approach the Runelord.
It soon became apparent that most of the other peers who surrounded Perceval were not like-minded individuals. His affable demeanor and generous personality did make him easy to befriend. However, Kaede was fairly certain that Perceval's family heritage probably wasn't any lower than that of Ariadne's. In fact, she was fairly certain that one of the Paladins who fought during the Independence War carried his family name of 'La Tours'.
Personal politics and alliance-building worked the same way no matter where one went, especially among junior aristocrats. This was particularly true for those sociable enough to begin a snowball effect: the more acquaintances a high society circle gathered, the harder it became to refuse or ignore them.
Regardless, the same patterns of conversation kept up for the next two days. The only difference was that Pascal began to draft his idea for a 'scholarship examination' system. He solicited suggestions from those around him, and sent an evil eye to any noble who scoffed at the proposal. Both Kaede and Gerard were only too happy to pitch in, and soon Pascal had what he considered his 'initial draft'.
When Kaede asked how many drafts he usually goes through, Pascal answered: "as many as it takes until I am satisfied."
She couldn't decide if this was due to his perfectionist tendencies or his father's strictness. Probably some of both.
Pascal might have made more progress if he also used his time with Kaede back in the dormitories to work on the proposal. Instead, he spent almost all of that time inscribing new runestones and infusing mana into newly cut gemstones. Half of the reason was because Kaede had expended a significant portion of his rune stockpile to lay her trap for the assassins. The other half was because of Cecylia's cryptic warnings.
And so, the week after the assassination attempt passed in a peaceful school setting... at least until Saturday's lunchtime when the entire hall was disrupted.
At the time, Kaede was watching Pascal and Gerard have another conversation, when a 4th year military cadet who wore their blue gambeson uniform rushed in from the hallway:
"WAR! WAR!" He yelled at the top of his lungs before stopping just inside the entrance to catch his breath.
All chatter in the dining hall died instantly as everyone awaited his explanation:
"THE CATALIYAN CALIPHATE HAS DECLARED HOLY WAR AGAINST US! Their armies have already crossed the border!"
The entire dining hall erupted back into loud, chaotic conversations. Some voices were worried, others anxious, and a few just plain scared.
Pascal was one of the few who completely kept his cool.
"Well, at least this answers the riddle of why the Holy Imperium suddenly wants me dead."
Most of Perceval's close friends nodded back in agreement, their expressions varying between alarm and apprehension.
None of them appreciated the frightening implications of being simultaneously hostile to the two largest powers of the Western World.
Chapter 14 - Outbreak of War
The next week went by in a blur as Rhin-Lotharingie began to mobilize for war.
Emperor Geoffroi Jean de Gaetane issued a general call-to-arms across the entire Empire. However the response that came back was fragmented at best. The war came at an extremely inopportune time as it was already mid-December. Winter was beginning to seal the North Lotharingie Mountains' passes under ice and snow. Meanwhile the winter holidays, including the Winter Solstice, New Year, and Liturgy Day, were just around the corner.
Worse yet, the borders between Rhin-Lotharingie and the Cataliyan Caliphate were fairly new. It had been created due to each side's gains at the expense of the Holy Imperium ten years ago. Before that the Lotharins had always thought of the Caliphate as "my enemy's enemy". Many Lotharins were not used to seeing the Caliph as a new foe.
As a result, opinions toward the war were deeply divided. The differing attitudes of the various regions could readily be seen through the academy's students.
Those from the southern kingdoms of Avorica and Garona, both of which border the Cataliyan Caliphate, were swift to adopt a zealous stance. They spoke of the war as a struggle between good and evil, between noble Trinitians and Tauheed infidels. The Avorican cadets left to raise troops from their family fiefs and prayed that the Pope would call for a Crusade. The Garonans were at odds with the Church, and instead they took the extreme measure of initiating levée en masse and demanded the same from the rest of the empire. Most of their students, some as young as sixteen, began returning home to join the army.
Meanwhile, the students from the northern Kingdom of Gleann Mòr dragged their feet, citing how the Winter was already here and that it would be better to wait until the campaigning season in Spring. However even they weren't as problematic as those from the Kingdom of Ceredigion, many of whom blamed the war on the Emperor's religious policies and diplomatic failures, with some even pretending that this wasn't their problem.
There had already been three scuffles between students over political differences in viewpoint.
Students from the Lotharin heartlands, including both Reynaud and Gerard, often found themselves caught between these two poles. They supported the gathering of feudal armies to defend their nation, but most were neither in favor of a Crusade --which pulled in foreign armies that pillaged the land-- nor mandated conscription. Those who lived further east anxiously pointed out that the Imperium still covetted their family lands. They insisted that the last thing Rhin-Lotharingie could afford to do was to strip bare its other defenses.
This confused situation in Rhin-Lotharingie stood in sharp contrast to that of Weichsel, as Pascal conversed almost daily with his father back home to receive updates.
King Leopold von Drachenlanzen of Weichsel saw no choice but to honor their alliance. This was the first war against the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie since signing the defensive treaty. Failing to uphold the pledge would not only invalidate their coalition in the eyes of the world, but also risk condemnation from Weichsel's only influential ally within the Holy Imperium of the Inner Sea.
Ever since Ferdinand I, the founding King of Weichsel, allowed himself to be crowned by the Pope, the small nation in the north has maintained the confidence of the Holy See. It served as a bastion of Trinitian might against the barbaric pagans of the north.
Papal Appeasement was Weichsel's foremost deterrence against southern aggression, especially after hostilities during the War of Imperial Succession. Doubling Weichsel's landmass had been worth the papal condemnation it earned them that time. It had been silenced by generous donations of gold while leaving church assets alone during territorial annexation. But King Leopold could ill afford further disapproval.
The King had invoked the Writ of Universal Conscription, calling for 'General Mobilization' in the name of the Holy Father. Using this first stage of Weichsel's Fourfold Mobilization system, the standing army would quadruple in size as professional soldiers were augmented by militia reservists. Furthermore, Noble Reiter units, formed by drafting the magic-blessed nobility, would supplement the professional Weichsel Cavalry that consisted of noble spellsword knights and their retainer troops.
However even with Weichsel coming to Rhin-Lotharingie's aid, their armies were months away at least. In the meantime the invasion had caught the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie sorely unprepared.
Emperor Geoffroi did respond to the Caliphate's military buildup in the south by reinforcing his border garrisons. However the spy reports that reached the eyes of the Emperor grossly underestimated both the readiness and the tidal scale of the Caliphate's invasion. News from the borders claimed of Cataliyan armies numbering in the hundreds of thousands. They poured over the southern mountain passes in three separate army groups. The Lotharin border troops, hopeless to stop the approaching juggernaut, fell back across the entire front and sought to regroup at a second line.
They left six undefended Duchies in their wake.
Five, technically. Duke Guy of Avro-Calent refused the general retreat order. His proud, multi-layered concentric castle boasted the strongest fortification in Southern Rhin-Lotharingie. However, the Cataliyan vanguard forces simply bypassed his castle. Rear army units then surrounded the fortress and bombarded it nonstop for three days, followed by a nineteen-hour relentless assault which seized the citadel from its exhausted defenders. In the end, the Duke's bravado and 'glorious death' not only failed to halt or even significantly slow the invasion, but cost the Rhin-Lotharingie three thousand precious seasoned troops and an entire stockpile of army grain.
----- * * * -----
"I have never seen someone so bad on a horse."
Kaede lay flat on the ground as she ignored Pascal's scathing remark. This was her third practice session with a mount, and she still almost fell off twice during a prolonged canter. Then the white war steed went into a full gallop, and only Pascal's Air Cushion spell kept her from injuring her back.
Among Kaede's kendo friends back on Earth, Kaede's coordination and reflexes had been mediocre at best. It was yet another reason why he preferred the meditative and procedural movements of archery over the rapid assaults and reactionary parries of swordplay. Coming to Hyperion and adapting to a new, smaller body hadn't helped her in attaining better control over her muscles... or lack thereof.
At least her period had ended. The first practice session had far less pleasant results.
"She's not that bad. You should have seen Gerard when he first learned how to ride. That guy was a true sack of potatoes. It makes one appreciate how far he's come."
Perceval tried to encourage Kaede every time he came by to see Ariadne, who offered Kaede what pointers she could. Unsurprisingly, the pegasus knight was an exceptional rider. The Manteuffels weren't literally raised in the saddle like their nomadic ancestors. However as Ariadne first learned to ride a pony since she was four, it wasn't far from the truth either.
"Excuse me for not being born noble." Kaede retorted to Pascal as she stood back up, rubbing her painful behind.
The Air Cushion softened the landing enough to prevent injuries, but there was still some impact. Combined with all the ups and downs in the saddle, it made Kaede's butt hurt, which was not a place used to it given the wonders of modern vehicle suspension.
The horsemanship problem was hardly a new one. Even during the pre-industrial eras of Earth, cavalry was predominantly a noble occupation. Only the wealthy could afford to grow up accustomed to a proper war steed. Farmers had horses and mules as well, but a docile, plow-towing animal was far different from one bred for battle.
As for Kaede? She had never even petted a pony before, let alone ride a galloping stallion.
"Again?" she asked, watching Pascal whistle the horse back around.
"No. Dinner is almost upon us, and that was your fourth try this session. Give your backside a rest already."
Kaede quickly put her hands away. She wasn't aware it had been that obvious.
"Nobody is going to become good in just a few days. Only a prodigy would be foolish enough to expect that, even though your own horsemanship is hardly worth bragging about..."
Ariadne's words were cutting, yet they still came with a smile. She walked over from the wall Perceval and her had been leaning against. Her delicate fingers extended back to cup her waist-length hair, which swayed in the courtyard's strong crosswinds like a pink waterfall.
"Besides, isn't hanging onto a canter enough? Not like she's going to join a thundering charge, even in the very unlikely scenario that you did."
With the reins back in his hands, Pascal's turquoise gaze was still examining Kaede as he began his reply:
"I was hoping she could act as my courier should the opportunity arise. The telepathic link grounded in our familiar bond would allow me to communicate with anyone directly through her. It is exceedingly useful given how normal Telepathy spells cannot function in a battlefield full of clashing mana and Farspeak spells require concentration to maintain. It would be a good reason for her to come with me."
"I thought mages often brought their familiars along?" Kaede puzzled.
Her own hair was long enough that she stuffed its other end into her belt pouch. With most of her time spent reading, Kaede rarely minded the sheer length of her snowy-white hair, which reached all the way down to her thighs. In fact, she rather enjoyed how soft and comfortable it was. Though it was also annoying on windy days when she came outside.
"Yes. In most other cases, I would not worry about it." Pascal answered. "But bringing a girl from my household does raise questions, and not the kind good for army morale."
At the same time, Perceval strode up from behind Ariadne and put his arm around her shoulders with a smile. His hands carefully brushed her hair back into place. After receiving an appreciative smile from her, he turned his gaze towards Pascal:
"Speaking of armies, are you planning to leave for Weichsel? I know Aria is leaving tomorrow morning. And she tells me you've been offered the command of a Noble Reiter company."
'Reiter' was one of the few military terms Kaede knew from German history: one of the first cavalry in Europe who raised firearms to the status of primary weapons. The fact her familiar bond's 'translation' feature picked this word in specific meant that the magic actually tried to match Weichsel's language to her specific knowledge.
It was a rather appropriate choice too. Unlike the professional 'Weichsel Cavalry' which used a combination of polearms, projectiles, and spells, the entirely aristocratic Noble Reiters were cavalrymen who served only as artillery-mages. Their lack of proper combat training reflected in their poor ability to hold out in close combat.
"I am not actually sure yet. I would like to go to Alis Avern and find out what is going on at the front lines. Study the war as it progresses. May even make a suggestion or two. The company hardly needs me to march into Rhin-Lotharingie." Pascal frowned. "But..."
"A Captain who does not march with his men cannot command his men in battle." Ariadne noted, which led to a sigh from Pascal.
"Basically what my father said. So yes, I think I will be departing with her tomorrow. What about you?" Pascal then looked at Perceval. "Are you planning to stay here while there is a war on?"
"No." Perceval declared without a moment of hesitation. "I can't just stay here pretending to be a healer, while there are thousands of dying soldiers on the frontlines who are in desperate need of one. However, I think it'd be better if I join an organization instead of act alone. Except I don't know what to join yet, or whom to join, if I am to go with the troops of a lord."
"You could join my company." Pascal proposed without a second thought. "We will be assembling in Nordkreuz, the same place as Ariadne's unit. And I promise you that once we reach the front, I will always go where we are needed most."
"Are you sure? You don't think I'm too Lotharin and boring?"
Perceval glanced away at the last second, and Kaede wondered if he regretted impulsively scratching that old wound the moment those words left his mouth.
"Command does not mind outsiders for a healer, since there are never enough for them to go around." Pascal stated. "And I would be honored if you would join me."
The two men looked at one another, before each of them nodded in silent recognition with a slight smirk.
"I think I also have an answer on how to bring your familiar without any problems."
Both Pascal and Kaede stared at Perceval for several moments. Neither could figure out the meaning behind his words before the two of them spoke at once:
"Easy," the healer's eyes almost sparkled under his brown bangs. "Medical supplies."
Oh right, walking Blood Bank of Samara, Kaede remembered. As she faced the grinning Perceval and the giggling Ariadne, her wispy response came out completely flat.
"Oh ha-ha. Very funny."
Meanwhile, Pascal looked even less amused than his familiar:
"Fair warning: if she faints, I am holding you responsible."
After returning the horse to the stablemaster, Kaede followed Pascal back to the dorms because he wanted to "deal with something first."
Thus she sat down on the bed and took out a tome to read while he finished whatever errand he had.
Except he just stood there staring at her.
"What is it?"
"I received something from the postmaster for you today."
Pascal spoke with a not-serious, not-joyous, not-angry, but oddly peaceful and gentle expression as he handed her a wrapped parchment scroll. He then turned the chair at his work desk around to face her before sitting down on it.
Who would send something to me?
Kaede frowned as she took the scroll. Rolling it over, her eyes widened at the black dragon crest of Weichsel on its official wax seal. Her small hands almost fumbled in their rush to unwrap it. She pulled it open before her gaze to scan through...
All speculative trains of thoughts came to crashing halts as she registered its impossible content.
Kaede had always avoided thinking about it. But despite trying her best to forget it, her memories would never let go of that dreadful first meeting with the headmaster, or even the exact words his horribly raspy voice used to announced her fate in this world:
"No, Miss Familiar. You are neither a citizen of Rhin-Lotharingie nor Weichsel. You are not even a holder of any 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."
She couldn't even begin to count the number of times those words, spoken in that exact same voice, returned to haunt her as she laid awake in bed into the depth of the night.
Returning to the beginning of the scroll, Kaede carefully read each line and every word. She took care to ascertain its reality, that she wasn't merely misinterpreting through wishful thinking:
By the powers invested in me by His Majesty King Leopold Karl-Wilhelm von Drachenlanzen, I hereby recognize and certify Miss Kaede Nikita Konstantinovich Suvorsky, member to the noble household of Sir Karl August von Moltewitz, Landgrave of Nordkreuz, as a resident of the Kingdom of Weichsel, with all the rights, privileges, and duties of...
She couldn't continue anymore as moisture invaded her eyes and blurred her sight.
I can't believe it.
"This... this is..." her dry voice choked out.
For a pre-modern society, 'household' simply saw her as a servant to the Landgrave's family. But this was nevertheless infinitely better than mere 'property'.
"It is an official certification of residency in the Kingdom of Weichsel, personally signed by the Department Chief of Immigration from the Ministry of the Interior. As long as you abide by our laws, this residency will turn into lawful citizenship after ten years of either living within Weichsel's domains or serving the interests of Weichsel on foreign soil, which will certainly be the case when you're with me."
Residency... it's been only... a month since I came to this world!
Kaede had never applied for citizenship herself. But even she knew that such changes in status usually took years, months at the very least. She had already resigned herself for being completely without rights and reliant upon his protection for the foreseeable future...
"How did you get this so--"
"The process normally takes at least two years. But since high government positions are mostly filled by military officers who retired into the reserves, my family has plenty of contacts within the ministries..."
Pascal was totally unabashed. To him, using back-doors for personal affairs like this was his right.
"Some bribery also paved the way, of course. But I saw how shocked you were over this when the headmaster first mentioned it. Given that particular worry, expediency became an urgent need."
Even so, he must have started the weekend after I came...
Kaede felt her tears' wet warmth streak down her cheeks. Her glassy eyes continued to gaze upon the scroll. Her fingers were almost shaking as she slowly closed the thick parchment back into a roll.
She finally let out the breath she had been unknowingly holding. Her hands brought the certificate close to her chest, protectively clutching what was easily the most precious item Pascal had given her since coming to this fantasy realm.
Yet in hindsight, it wasn't his best present to her. More precisely, it was merely a representation of the rest:
In a land where she had absolutely nothing to her name, he had given her a warm and secure place to call home.
It was easy, so easy to consider this his obligation, as Pascal was the one who tore Kaede away from her past life by summoning her into this world. But she also knew that few individuals placed in such circumstances would have taken the same position or invested the same effort for her sake.
It might be his responsibility, but it was a responsibility he took in full measure and upheld even without being asked.
Kaede smiled back at Pascal through her blurry gaze. Her hand reached up to wipe away the tears, but even then she had trouble clearly making out his countenance.
"I can't even begin to describe... but... this really, really means a lot to me. Everything..."
The water in her eyes wouldn't stop coming out. It formed a small yet steady stream that her hands kept clearing away.
Throughout her entire life, Kaede almost never lost control of her emotions this way. Yet this was already her second time since coming to Hyperion.
A small corner of her mind couldn't help but wonder if having the hormone imbalance of a teenage girl had something to do with it. There was also the fact that female brains were wired very differently from male brains, or how neurotransmitter roles varied between genders, or...
Perhaps shedding a few more tears were the least of her self-adapting changes since arriving in this new world.
"I know I should at least give you a hug or something in gratitude over this. Yet I can't even stop crying here..."
Thinking back, Kaede had never felt more glad that she picked his side. She had never been more assured that she made the right decision when she joined the assassination scheme against him for his protection. Yet she couldn't help but feel a pang of guilt over her brief indecision. Even back then, when she chose whether or not to partake in his murder, he had already started his work to help her feel at ease.
I could have done so much wrong...
Wordlessly, Pascal stood up from his chair, walked over to the bed, and wrapped both of his arms around her thin shoulders.
She could feel his protective warmth as he pulled her into his firm chest.
"The hugs are free." He said in that odd joking tone of his.
Still buried in his chest, Kaede couldn't help but crack an unseen smile:
Such inappropriate timing...
She didn't even have the urge to hit him this time.
After nearly a minute, Pascal pulled back just enough to look down into her glassy eyes. His fingers reached up to carefully wipe them away.
"As much as I enjoy how huggable you are, we really should go down for the feast. Otherwise, Ariadne and the rest are going to believe I am chastising you over today's practice."
Kaede couldn't help but smile back at him. Her rose-quartz eyes were still swollen red:
"Then you better help me clean this up first. Otherwise, they'll know you've been bullying me."
----- * * * -----
As Kaede followed Pascal into the main keep, they found Professor Albert waiting for him with a stern, almost grim expression.
"Sir Pascal, please come with me for a moment. There is something private I must inform you of."
Kaede tilted her head slightly as she looked at Pascal, whose poker face went on instantly.
"Go join Perceval and the rest in the dining hall. I will be there shortly." He told her before following his advisor into the dark hallways of the stone keep.
She hesitated for a minute before leaving. Something about Pascal, about the entire situation just didn't feel right. Yet at the same time, it didn't do her any good to wait there.
This turned out to be the first time Kaede walked into the great dining hall by herself.
Today was December 25th, exactly one month since Kaede came to this world. It was the day of the Winter Solstice in Hyperion. Yet despite being a day of feasting, the halls remained plain and the tables half-empty. Over a third of the students have either left to go join the military, or departed for home to seek safety. Apart from the whiff of sumptuous food, there wasn't the slightest air of celebration in the dining hall.
Nevertheless, Kaede received plenty of odd stares on her way to her seat. Some were merely curious, presumably over where her master was. Meanwhile others held her in contempt, disgusted over how the familiar could be allowed to stride unescorted across noble grounds in her proud bearing, as though she deserved to eat there.
Thankfully, nobody approached or stopped her. She walked up to Perceval's diminished group, where Ariadne saw her and wondered aloud:
"Professor Albert stopped him along the way to tell him something."
Kaede sat down and waited. Her eyes kept peeled at the entrance.
Several minutes later, she watched as Professor Albert entered the hall. But there was no sign of Pascal following him.
As Albert sat down at the staff table, he looked over to a Lotharin professor and they had an exchange. Kaede did not know the lady's name. However it seems that ever since Duke Gaston, the combat and art instructor, left to join the war, she had been elevated to the role of the senior professor. For a moment Albert and her jousted verbally. Then, with an obvious sigh, the lady stood up and her gloved hand cupped her throat for a second before she spoke out:
"May I have your attention please."
Despite the polite words, her magically amplified voice did not speak them in the tone of a request, but as an order.
Under her commanding presence, the entire dining hall quieted down within seconds. Even the nobles fell silent in respect and courtesy.
"Before we offer our prayers to the Holy Father, I have two announcements to make. I ask you all to brace yourselves, for neither of them bear pleasant news."
Kaede's stomach twisted itself in knots as she anxiously awaited the bad news that almost undoubtedly involved Pascal.
"First, His Holiness Pope Vigilius has recognized the late Duke Guy of Avro-Calent, as a martyr of the faith and canonized him as a saint..."
It was an obvious backhanded slap towards the Emperor of Rhin-Lotharingie, who gave the order for a general retreat from the Lotharin-Cataliyan borders. But what came next was far, far worse as the lady professor continued in her grim voice with rising disgust, as though the very contents she read were revolting garbage:
"His Holiness is distressed by the loss of the helpless and the faithful to infidel hands, made possible only by... what he accuses as 'cowardice' on the part of our Emperor Geoffroi, who 'performed no deeds in the eyes of the Church, yet basked in greed over the past decades against the pious and good people of the Holy Imperium'... this is absolutely drivel!" She spat out as she could bear it no more.
"Since when has 'His Holiness' ever tended to his flock among the Lotharins? Since when has 'His Holiness' ever shielded us against the Imperium?" The lady professor shook the parchment in her hands as many of the students nodded in agreement. "And now this pope is excommunicating our Emperor from the Trinitian faith. It is nothing but a stab in the back in our time of crisis!"
Hushed murmurs began across the hall as students asked about what would happen now. That was when Professor Albert stood up and applied the same sorcery to his throat and voice.
"Second, I regret to inform you all that tragedy has befell the Kingdom of Weichsel." He declared to the students. "On this morning, during a trip out to inspect the troops rallying outside the capital of Königsfeld, Field Marshal Sir Karl August von Moltewitz..."
Kaede could feel the hammer that knocked the air out from her lungs.
"--Commanding Officer of the Weichsel Army and the Landgrave of Nordkreuz, plus twenty-eight staff members and bodyguards, were cowardly ambushed by Imperial assassins. Reinforcements from Königsfeld did not arrive in time to intercede, and the entire group has been confirmed dead."
This time people didn't even try to stay silent. Conversations erupted across the dining hall like wildfire. Several students even stood up and shouted at Professor Albert:
"Will Weichsel still join us?"
"Will your King honor his word and obligations?"
But Kaede had already stopped paying attention.
She only waited long enough not to be an embarrassment to Pascal in the eyes of the gathered nobles. He would need his dignity more than ever in the coming days. But the moment Professor Albert finished and the hall erupted into chaos, she pushed back her chair and began striding towards the entrance.
There was no way Pascal was coming here.
In the back of her mind, Kaede also realized...
This was the first time Pascal broke his word.
Pascal was not in his dorm room.
Kaede thought it was unfair that he could always figure out where she was, but not the other way around. Only then did she finally remember the telepathy channel. She had been subconsciously avoiding it. In this kind of situation, its use felt like cheating.
But it was still better than not being there.
"<Where are you?>"
She didn't even bother to ask 'are you alright'. That would have been purely insensitive. There was no way he could be fine after his father's death. Whatever odd 'daddy issues' Pascal had, there was also no doubt that he only spoke the word 'father' with reverence and respect.
"<On the roof.>"
Pascal's mental voice could not be any more monotoned.
Kaede climbed up three more flights of stairs, before she emerged onto the rooftop to find Pascal standing in the middle of the gently falling snow. His hardened turquoise gaze did not turn. He continued to watch the far-side battlements and the indigo gas giant draped over the horizon.
A noticeable layer of snowflakes had already accumulated on his broad, uniformed shoulders. It felt almost like the morning after she came to this world, had their roles been reversed.
Kaede tentatively took her first step towards Pascal. She was uncertain of what she should do, what she could do.
"You don't need to apologize." She stopped his dry words.
Kaede knew perfectly well why he did not join her at the dining hall. Once he entered it, there was no way for him to leave with dignity until he finished his meal. It would be an entire hour spent under the gaze of hundreds, whose eyes were pitying at best and accusing at worst. He would have to spend a full dinner listening to people's sympathies, regardless of whether they sincerely bared their hearts or merely paid lip service before voicing their demands for Weichsel's action...
Neither of those would be something Pascal's pride could handle, not in this delicate moment when his mask was most brittle.
"I am fine, rea..."
"You don't have to hold it in." Her soft voice interrupted him again.
Silence returned to the rooftop once more, disrupted only by her quiet footsteps as his statue continued to gaze upon the distant planet. His stilled, half-turned eyes reflected the dim light of the heavens as hardened turquoise softened into glass.
Then, as Kaede took her last step behind him, she reached around with both of her thin arms and wrapped them across his lower chest. At that moment, Pascal's deep, anguished voice finally shattered the last vestige of peace:
"I warned him..."
Kaede kept her silence as she leaned her head into him. She hoped, prayed that their bond, the empathic link she cursed so many times, would give Pascal the emotional support he badly needed.
"Given what Reynaud said about the Mantis Blades, I told him, TOLD HIM, that after their attempt on my head, he was in serious, grave danger as the logical next target. That IN NO UNCERTAIN TERMS he should immediately discontinue his habitual personal visits to individual army camps for the coming months, at least until the Weichsel army is fully engaged in the war and the Imperium has missed its window of opportunity... but when does he EVER listen to me...!?"
It wasn't entirely fair. Kaede stood certain that had Pascal received a similar warning in that same position, he probably would not have altered his habits either. Generals did not succumb to fear over the mere likelihood of danger. They certainly did not alter schedules and change routines with ease -- which would clearly announce their fright to their soldiers.
Besides, had the elder von Moltewitz stopped his visits, how long must he cower under the threat of assassins? As the Marshal of Weichsel, every enemy of the state wanted him dead on a daily basis.
The thin line between courage in the face of danger and recklessness could only be seen in hindsight. Yet it was the willingness of commanders brave enough to tip that line that gained them the trust, admiration, and loyalty of their troops.
But this was no time for Kaede to wax philosophy.
She could only hold back her thoughts as Pascal's voice grew hoarse:
"--NO! Of course not! I am just the immature son whom he did not entrust with an independent command and sent off to Rhin-Lotharingie!"
Pascal did not cry out when she knocked out two of his teeth and broke three of his ribs on this spot. He did not complain once about pain after his left arm was mangled by assassins, a feat even Reynaud respected in the redhead's exaggerated storytelling. Nor did he flinch when he faced the most humiliating moments of his life, apologizing to Perceval and Ariadne over years of regret on this very rooftop.
It wasn't even a matter of masculine pride. The man was born and raised to be a soldier, a commander, a leader.
He was simply not allowed to falter, to ever show weakness.
He must be confident and assured at all times, never to reveal a single doubt towards the inevitability of victory.
Yet under the distant glittering starlight, basked in the glow from the indigo planet, Kaede watched as a shining stream of tears slid down his half-turned cheeks.
But his next words --spoken as unforgiving as the arctic cold-- almost made her own heart freeze:
"I should have returned in person earlier! I should have joined him personally!"
Survivor's guilt was renowned enough that she recognized it instantly.
"Don't be ridiculous Pascal. Your father undoubtedly took some of his best bodyguards. They must have faced at least several Mantis Blade squads, if not additional mercenaries. How could you have done what they couldn't!?"
Kaede knew that she was no psychiatrist, but Pascal was also a bastion of logic and willful integrity. She did not need to debate such points with him.
All she needed to do was point out the obvious, then let him argue it out with himself.
"But... he was... the only family I had left..."
Kaede could feel Pascal's tears streaming down through his broken voice.
She didn't say anything. She didn't even know what to say. All she did was bury her own tear-stained cheeks into his back and tighten her arms around his chest.
She knew his mother had died early. But in hindsight, if Pascal had been raised by servants, then his extended family must have been lacking as well.
Her borrowed genealogy references did mention that Pascal's father Karl was also an only son. His parents, or Pascal's paternal grandparents, were minor gentry displaced by political fallout from the Rhin-Lotharingie Independence War and fallen to yeomanry. The name 'Moltewitz' was Karl's own creation, by merging a family surname prefix to the clan name suffix of his Weichsel bride.
Pascal and Kaede had a brief discussion over it once. But he never mentioned his mother's side, even though plenty of his maternal relations should still be alive...
"Y-your mother's family?" Kaede was almost afraid to ask.
Pascal didn't answer.
He only began after his voice finally regained a fragment of its composure:
"Father's relationship with Mother's side of the family deteriorated after she died. A Northmen invasion after that laid waste to my maternal grandparents' estate, and everyone blamed him for not sending reinforcements fast enough. They accused father of delaying aid over a personal grudge, even though half the coast was under attack and he couldn't just blatantly favor his own family..."
There was no need to explain what happened after that.
Everyone always expected leaders to be accomplished in everything, to be perfect and superhuman, to flawlessly address every need. In turn, those with responsibility were blamed and accused and reviled and criticized over every cent of error, even as they juggled the pros and cons of every decision, agonized over every sacrifice they made for a strategic victory -- for the 'greater good'.
After all, there was no point to winning the battle and losing the war. Yet in sacrificing a pawn to assure victory across the board, a leader could only cut off a part of themselves.
For some, that meant their flesh and blood.
For others, their heart and soul.
Perhaps that was part of why history had precious few enlightened absolutists, overshadowed by hordes of greedy and cruel tyrants who had lost their humanity. Contrary to popular claims, what didn't kill us didn't necessarily make us stronger. It merely stripped the 'soft' part of humanity from us.
Nevertheless, Pascal was doomed to face the worst of it, for nothing accentuated the contradiction in human decision-making more than the realm of military strategy.
In that moment under the sky, the stars, and the gas giant 'moon', Kaede finally realized the core of Pascal's being:
Why he was confident, arrogant, and intolerant.
Why he expected the best from everyone, only to lay scorn upon those who could not meet his demands.
It was because he expected the same qualities from himself.
It was his wish to be 'perfect' in his worldly role. To not merely rise beyond the renown of his father, but to achieve what his father could not.
Losses may be inevitable in war, but he would at least seek to win them without 'sacrifice'.
Yet no floor was smooth from the cut of a single tile. No rope could hold from the strength of only one strand. And just the same, no general could win 'perfect' victories without staffers, lieutenants, and even soldiers of the highest quality.
In seeking his 'perfection', Pascal inadvertently created his greatest flaw: even though he had the charisma to persuade and intimidate, his social skills were abysmal.
It was why he summoned her. For without friends, no leader could stay in the light. Not even an aspiring one.
Kaede's decision turned out to be remarkably easy.
It was less than an hour ago when she read her certificate of residency. Now, it felt as though a lifetime had passed. But within it was one line of words she would never forget:
"Kaede Nikita Konstantinovich Suvorsky, member to the noble household of Sir Karl August von Moltewitz..."
That household now belonged to Pascal.
"You're wrong about one thing, Pascal."
Still embracing him tightly, Kaede's wispy voice came muffled by the proximity of his uniform jacket. It was barely more than a whisper, yet its content rang clearly in the silence between them:
"No one will ever replace your father, but he's not the only family you have left."
Pascal didn't say a word as he brought his own arms up, covering her small, chilled hands with the warmth of his palms as she continued.
"I'm sure the people of your estate, those who watched you grow up and raised you, all consider you part of the same family."
She also thought of his fiancée Sylviane. But having never met the other side of their political betrothal, she couldn't be sure of the princess' intentions. Not to mention that for the first time, she felt... odd, to bring up the name of his betrothed.
Kaede paused for a few more seconds as she reviewed her decision. She knew exactly how critical this moment was, and she would neither tarnish it with false promises, nor soil it with ambiguous misunderstandings.
"Even more than that, you have me... I can't promise I'll always be here. I can't swear I won't dream of my old life and world. But I will always be your familiar. I will always be your family. And so long as I remain on this world, I will support you to the best of my abilities..."
This was her declaration, her solemn pledge.
Families could still separate, grow apart. But even in the unlikely chance Kaede ever discovered how to return to her world, they would still be master and familiar, still try to remain part of each others' lives.
Hyperion was no longer merely an endless dream or nightmare. She would finally, truly embrace it as her reality.
"You have my oath."
Pascal's large hands wrapped around her own, and gripped hers with firm determination. His gaze, however, never left the distant horizon.
"Thank you. That is more than I could ever ask for."
----- * * * -----
Two hours later, as Pascal laid down next to Kaede and pulled up the bedcovers as usual...
The overhead light was still on as he turned towards her. His gaze pulled in her rose-quartz eyes as she did likewise.
"What is it?" Kaede smiled back at him.
Her countenance was serene. Her visage was beautiful. From her long silky hair, to the thinly-curled lashes above caring eyes still tinged with a trace of worry, to her small nose and cute lips...
She was angelic.
Pascal was sure, for the second time, and he was staring at his personal guardian angel.
How else could all the changes to his life in the past few weeks be explained?
Yet never before has he needed the blessing of another as much as tonight:
"I once told you that I would never touch you while sleeping without consent, but... may I hold on to you while we sleep?"
Her flawless white skin immediately flushed seven shades of scarlet.
Pascal knew he was being unfair to ask on such a night, especially after what just happened. But Kaede voiced none of her reluctance. Shyly pulling the covers up a little further, she returned two small but firm nods.
She's just way too cute.
He carefully wrapped his arms around her before slowly pulling her closer, as though afraid to break a delicate gem.
He could almost feel her heartbeat quicken and her cheeks burning as he held her soft body against the firm musculature of his arms and chest. His right hand then reach behind her head, gently stroking her silky long hair as he tried to calm her back down.
...Too huggable as well.
Pascal closed the last remaining distance between them, and placed a tender kiss on her forehead.
"Thank you, and good night."
She never resisted, never recoiled, never even voiced the slightest sound of objection.
Pascal held onto Kaede until her breathing evened out, until she had drifted away under the rhythmic stroking of her long hair. It was the first time he noticed her falling asleep before him.
It was her way of expressing how truly she had accepted him.
After his loneliness finally subsided, Pascal couldn't help but feel somewhat guilty for forcing her into it. He carefully --with a bit of magical help-- extracted his arms from her, and settled for just holding onto her hand.
It was not until hours later, late into the night, when a still-wide-awake Pascal felt the pinging sensation of an incoming Farspeak spell.
Farspeak calls had a range and reliability unmatched by conventional Telepathy. But it also had glaring weaknesses: each person may only join one such link, and both users must concentrate to keep the channel open. Furthermore, the spell not only took minutes to cast but could also be easily missed if one wasn't paying attention.
Pascal's mind soon visualized the source: it was from his fiancée. The first time in weeks that she was willing to speak to him.
He rushed, mentally of course, to open up the channel from his receiving end. Yet for nearly a minute, silence reigned across the channel as neither he nor Sylviane spoke.
Pascal was anxious. However it was common courtesy to allow the caller to speak first, especially after they had already spent minutes casting the spell.
Then, her message began with only three sorrowful words:
"<Pascal. I'm sorry.>"
It was the one opening that Pascal did not know how to respond to. Should he offer to take the blame for their last call, or should he accept her sympathy?
He was about to choose option one --better safe than sorry-- when a second line soon arrived on the heels of the first:
"<I've just returned to the palace in Alis Avern today. I've been busy with official business but... I want to see you tomorrow. I want to talk to you...>"
"<Of course. I will come.>"
Pascal was a fast thinker when he needed to be, but he was still not quick enough. Before he could even expand his phrase into a proper response, she had slipped him a quiet, third communique:
"<I missed you.>"
Then the link cut off.
Even if it didn't, it would have taken Pascal at least a moment to recover from that.
Three simple words, spoken in a shy, almost embarrassed voice, yet drowned in a mixture of exhaustion and longing that Sylviane had never expressed.
He always believed that at least part of his interest towards her was because their personalities were peas from the same pod, even if she was far more approachable and friendly. However his fiancée made one error in judgment.
After the news of recent days, Pascal knew exactly why she had returned to Alis Avern. She was now the crown heir of an empire at war, an empire now endangered by the potential abandonment of their only ally.
Pascal's first order of business upon daybreak now stood clear: he must travel to Alis Avern and join his betrothed. He must show solidity with her as the new Landgrave of Nordkreuz. Their alliance was his father's greatest legacy, and he would fight tooth and nail to see it fulfilled.
History might only remember the Caliphate's declaration of Holy War from days ago as the ignition point for the chaos that would sweep the continent. But for Pascal Kay Lennart von Moltewitz, it was tonight when the war truly began.
And it would not stop until all of Hyperion lay changed.