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 Parzifal started inviting him over to join Ariadne, Reynald, and others during meals, so she didn't even have to feel bad about leaving him to eat alone again.
Although he would have deserved it, as all of her discomfort for the past days could be explained as 'his fault'.
By Monday afternoon however, her menstrual cramps had lessened enough for her to effectively concentrate on other things. Kaede only missed dinner due to being completely engrossed in her book on Weichsel's history:
Today's National Day was actually the 505th year anniversary of Weichsel's founding, declared the night after the Battle of Königsfeld in 61:Faith. The previous Kingdom of Amudaria -- a legacy name of their nomadic past -- had always been a loyal protectorate of the Imperium of the Inner Sea, which declared its 'Holiness' only sixty-one years prior, marking the beginning for the Age of Faith. But when religious unrest turned into the War of Cataliyan Independence and drew all available legions south, the Holy Imperium could spare nothing as a fresh Northmen invasion shattered Amudaria.
With the king dead and the capital burned, it was House von Drachenlanzen who took up the banner, rallying nobles and commoners alike by enacting the Writ of Universal Conscription. In a single decisive engagement, the future King Ferdinand I, the Great, the Crusader, the Saint, etcetera etcetera, crushed the invaders and founded a new realm. It also established Weichsel's tradition of military aristocracy, ever vigilant and periodically tested by raids and invasions from the North Sea.
The von Drachenlanzen dynasty still ruled Weichsel today. With their name 'Dragonlance' a very literal reminder of their proud ancestry from the Dragon-Demon War of millenniums ago, Kaede found it hard not to feel awed as she read their noble history...
...Until the door opened and the scent of mouthwatering wiener schnitzel wafted in.
Except Pascal wasn't carrying anything as he strode into view.
"You are being invited to dinner, sort of. Ariadne is just outside the door."
His broad shoulders gave a noncommittal shrug, followed by a silent reminder:
"You should get dressed properly first."
According to Pascal, Ariadne had mostly put away their past after her epic -- and publicly humiliating -- slap. But not hating his guts wasn't the same as being on good terms.
Kaede nodded back and rushed to put on her white 'uniform', a task far simpler than with any of those dresses. She also stuffed her hot water pads into its enchanted belt pouch.
Pascal then stopped her before she could walk out, taking care to make sure her appearance was immaculate and wouldn't embarrass him before the noblest of ladies.
Two of them, as it turned out.
"Good evening Kaede. Thought you could use a little chat and company after two days," Ariadne's angelic smile radiated from just beyond the room's doorway, with a food tray hovering above one palm and the other hand waving at her. "My friend Cecylia just returned from holiday. Would you be interested in joining us?"
"Pleased to meet your acquaintance," the petite girl who stood beside Ariadne's pink cascade beamed and waved energetically.
Kaede wasn't exactly in a mood to meet new people tonight, but this wasn't an offer she could refuse politely.
"The pleasure is mine," she curtsied in return.
Cecylia was slightly taller than Kaede at about one-sixty-four (5'4"), with fine, glossy black hair trimmed short and pull back by a white ribbon. Standing next to the mature and elegant Ariadne, she seemed almost fragile with her petite and thin figure, which only enhanced her undeniably cute appearance. Her small nose and lips lay under a pair of vibrant, dark-ruby eyes that held something odd about them, giving off a mysteriously alluring light. Her skin was fair to the point of being nearly a translucent silky sheen, accentuated by the standard crimson-on-black uniform worn by officer cadets, except with a long, wide skirt instead of the usual trousers.
As Kaede neared the doorway, she gasped and nearly tripped into the wiener schnitzel tray and its steaming bowl of vegetable soup as she realized what that 'something odd' was:
Inside a round black pupil within her deep-red iris, Cecylia's eyes held tiny scarlet-red crosses.
The new girl's hands gently steadied Kaede as she looked back up, her gaze drawn unerringly into the depth of those eyes before she could pull back and glance away:
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to stare."
"Hehe, don't worry about it," Cecylia giggled in her schoolgirl soprano. "I'll explain when we get back to my room."
She then turned towards Pascal while reaching for the doorknob:
"See you later Pascal! Don't worry, we'll take good care of her!"
Her cheery voice gave Kaede bit of a surprise, who mentally asked in curiosity:
"Made a new friend already?"
"Good night," Pascal bid before sending back a somewhat wistful response:
"No, we spoke quite a bit before I fell out with Ariadne, then until today she mostly avoided me. Cecylia Renata von Falkenhausen is the third child of General Wiktor von Falkenhausen, father's second-in-command. Since we are the same age, our fathers had us meet when we were six. She is actually the one who introduced me to Ariadne."
Bet your breakup came as a personal embarrassment for her then, Kaede thought as Cecylia took her hand and began pulling her down the hall with Ariadne following behind.
"Be careful though. She likes to drag others to her pace before turning it back on them."
But rather than cautionary, Pascal sounded almost... admiring.
So Kaede wrote down another name on her mental list of people that Pascal actually respected.
The third-year girls' dorms were just one floor above, and Cecylia's room turned out very... feminine.
It was bright scarlet, white, and pink, with an abundance of lace and frills. Frames of natural scenery on watercolor canvas decorated the walls, while a baby grand piano lay against the far corner.
The room of a highborn lady.
Even before the door closed behind them, Kaede found herself greeted by a plump cat with lush white and gray fur. It laid down before Kaede and gazed at her through teal eyes before giving an adorable purr.
She knelt down to pet and stroke its wonderfully soft coat.
"Kaede you might want to finish your dinner before getting too friendly with Ania," Ariadne suggested as she took the tray to the writing desk by the window. "She loves to steal food, and it's hard to keep watch on all of them."
"All of them?"
"Ania is a matryoshka cat from Samara," Cecylia watched with an amused grin. "She's also my familiar."
Kaede stood back up, puzzled:
Even as Kaede asked, Ania looked up, and another feline face, identical but slightly smaller, emerged from below her furry stomach. The smaller cat soon pulled herself out, laid down next to the larger Ania, and the process repeated itself.
Kaede soon found herself wide-eyed and speechless, surrounded by nine purring cats of decreasing size and plumpness.
"Are they... separate...?" she struggled to find the right words.
"They share the same psyche, as far as we know," Cecylia explained. "Matryoshka cats use shadow magic to make duplicates of themselves to scout for predators and trap prey. The largest one is always the main body, even though tapping its senses always feel like the smallest one is the primary."
"Speaking of eyes and ears, are you..."
"Not since I got annoyed with him and told him to stop. Pascal did promise not to intrude upon my senses without permission," Kaede answered, wondering how many times she would have to explain this to people.
"Good!" Cecylia grinned. "Not that he's the voyeur type, but we don't need him to catch an eye-full during girls' night."
This must be the 'slumber party' guys are so intrigued over.
Kaede began to fidget just inside the entrance. Her cheeks heated up and her eyes glanced away as Cecylia wasted no time before starting to undress, a set of black velvet pajamas with pink frills laid out on the bed before her.
Ariadne was quick to notice as usual, soon commenting in her peaceful smile from the other side of the room:
"Cecylia, you're making our guest uncomfortable."
"Our rules -- sleepwear only! No stupid layers of formality on girls' night!"
"I think changing in front of someone you recently met goes far beyond mere 'casual'."
"Hehe well, we'll just get familiar that much faster then!"
Before Kaede knew it, Cecylia had finished changing and bounced back. Her first thought was that Cecylia's exposed shoulders above her camisole easily had the smoothest, pearly skin she had ever seen, even with modern cosmetics and skincare products. In fact, it seemed almost unnatural.
Backed into the wall, Kaede yelped in surprise as Cecylia's delicate fingers snaked in and started undoing her buttons with swift precision.
She turned towards Ariadne, her glassy eyes pleading. The noble lady then tilted her head with a 'darn it' look before walking over and pulling the overenthusiastic Cecylia off by the wrist.
"At least give Kaede some room before you drive her off. She's already getting tears in her eyes."
"Awww but I wanna see! Pascal has pretty good tastes you know!"
With her shirt open and halfway down her shoulders, Kaede hugged her small chest and pressed herself against the wall. She could feel her cheeks blushing furiously, her exposed skin reddening as they met the warm indoor air again. Oddly enough, she found this far more embarrassing than wearing the same thing in front of Pascal.
Girls by themselves are way too scary...
"Oh Sylv is going to have so much fun with her!"
Cecylia kept her brightly lit eyes fixated on Kaede, as though savoring an alluring piece of artwork.
Trying to defuse the situation, Ariadne herself began to undress and change to her sleepwear, beginning by revealing a bright-red bustier that tightly hugged her ample bosoms.
It didn't have quite the intended effect. Kaede merely looked for more inconspicuous objects to fascinate over.
"You still haven't introduced like you promised," Kaede grumbled before she leaned over the bedside counter and bit into another slice of wiener schnitzel.
The delicious food -- veal especially -- always made her feel better about things.
She even stopped obsessing over the fact that she wore nothing more than white lingerie as the three of them sat on Cecylia's king-sized four-poster bed 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 bared shoulders, pinning her arms on each side. Hot breaths tickled her exposed collarbone as two deep-red eyes leaned in. Already quivering with trepidation, Kaede shook uselessly against Cecylia's unyielding grasp, cringing as she felt the Dhampir's moist lips touched her skin... and kissed her gently.
Cecylia then leaned back with the broad smile of a joke well played.
"Y-you're horrible," Kaede muttered in her wispy, shaky voice as she wiped the tears from her glaring eyes.
"Hehe sorry. You're just too cute that I couldn't resist teasing a teeny bit extra."
Her playful words didn't harbor the slightest drop of apology.
Meanwhile, her nine cats returned to the center of the bed, forming a full circle around her while each playfully chased the swaying tail of the kitten before them.
"Don't worry though, we only take from the partners we marry," Cecylia announced proudly. "Dhampirs lack the regenerative vitality of vampires, so drinking blood has become a rather private issue -- diseases and all that."
So... Dhampir are dead afraid of STDs.
Still trying to calm down her heartbeat, Kaede sent a note to her future self that the next time a dhampir threatens to bite her, she should just warn them of syphilis.
"Although we no longer need it, consuming fresh human blood does make us appear younger. You should see my father, one-sixty-eight years old and still drawing the attention of every lady across the hall like a stud beefcake. Mother gets jealous all the time, even though he's never cheated on her once after a century of marriage. We Dhampirs tend to be rather devoted in matrimony, blood of our cherished mate flowing through us and all."
With hands still brushing her long flowing pink tresses, Ariadne had watched the entire exchange with a serene smile, completely unperturbed. Now she finally reentered the conversation:
"That's pretty rare among us. Most noble lords have at least one affair during their youth. It's almost something of a 'proud' achievement among them. The Trinitian church may require monogamy, but aristocratic culture always tend to turn a blind eye toward mistresses."
"Well, neither us nor Rhin-Lotharingie completely shrugged off the old pagan traditions of concubines equaling prestige. But here complains the girl whose beloved suitor has eyes only for her."
Cecylia's sigh was almost longing, but Ariadne had no intention of playing into it:
"You've got how many boys chasing after you? Including both Reynald and Gerd, I might add."
"Reynald flirts with half of everything female and walking on two legs, plus I prefer someone taller than me," Cecylia almost laughed. "Gerd is a real diligent worker. Sweet, definitely the romantic type, not to mention that perfect chest the last time he wrestled with Reynald."
Her Dhampir eyes had that 'hungry' look again...
"But... if I court him he'd expect me to become a housewife or something. Nope!"
Cecylia retrieved a tennis-sized ball of red yarn and tossed it onto the bed, where the nine Anias began to juggle and bounce it around like some kind of feline volleyball game.
"Finding the ideal man is overrated. It's far better to help a boy with potential reach his manly peak. That, is where true and lasting love lay."
Ariadne's calm response sounded more like a profession of wisdom. But with Pascal's rooftop apology to Parzifal only days past, Kaede quickly realized that the lady was speaking from personal experience.
Love relationships with a man...
It was hardly a topic that she felt comfortable discussing, especially not if they lingered and the two girls grew interested in 'her tastes'.
"What are you aiming for? Professionally?"
Kaede took the opportunity to change topics as she ate her last two slices of veal. She could swear at least four slices were missing, although that was still an acceptable price to pay for the adorable kittens whose furry tails continued to brush by every few seconds.
"I'm on the intelligence track -- public security, information control, and counter-espionage, shooting straight for the King's Black Eagles!"
"She's also a foreign culture expert. I could have sworn her crosses turned into glittering stars when I first told her about you Kaede," Ariadne joked.
"It's not like I live in Samara. How often do I get to meet someone from another world?" Cecylia said as she scurried forward playfully until her knees almost touched Kaede's. "Soooooo... how similar is your world compared to ours? Other than the no magic part?"
"Ehhhh... extremely? in fact. Hyperion is like my world if neither the Roman Empire -- who conquered most of the Western World like your Inner Sea Imperium -- nor its Catholic Church underwent schism. So instead of a long, slow decline, our version of the Imperium collapsed within a few centuries and lead to the Dark Ages."
In later hindsight, Kaede was surprised by how easily her words rushed out, even though this was their first meeting. But after being nearly stripped and bitten by Cecylia, delving into deep conversational discussions felt almost... casual.
"Let me start closer to home here and run nation by nation: Weichsel is pretty much Prussia from my old world. Although not counting martial rule by the Teutonic Order during the Baltic Crusade, Prussia didn't establish a strong military state to power play in continental politics until after the prevalence of muskets..."
Cecylia cut her off almost instantly, a tribute to the girl's sheer mental processing speed even as she absorbed information that was literally out-of-this-world.
"Weapons that use black powder to propel a small metal ball at high speed."
"Black powder? That stuff used for mining? We've had it for centuries, just not so much for military use. Only elite and specialist troops equip grenades and the likes."
Kaede furrowed her brows as she grew confused. Even the most conservative of nations didn't take long to realize the potential of gunpowder in Earth history. Those who refused were too quickly shown the error of their ways.
Cecylia answered like it was the most obvious thing:
"Can you imagine infantry carrying that stuff when a Fireball or Lightning strikes? Legion Resistance spells won't save them when the soldiers themselves start exploding from the smallest spark. A single platoon of Knights Phantom, or even Noble Reiters will tear through an entire battle line. That doesn't even include how vulnerable logistics would be to supply such combustible ammunition, or what a few raindrops could do."
It was the first time Kaede truly realized that the existence of magic did more than just replace aspects of technology. It completely altered the advancement paths of civilization itself.
----- * * * -----
"How did your night go?" Pascal asked Kaede at brunch the next day as she sat down next to him.
Kaede and Cecylia ended up comparing the cultural and geopolitical evolution of the two worlds late into the night. They eventually concluded that the prevalence of magical communications and transportation must be the key reasons why Hyperion empires not only grew larger than those of Europe, but also lasted longer. After all, the improved accessibility of information led directly to a corresponding increase in administrative power.
Even with the Dhampir's earlier behavior lingering in her mind, Kaede found herself quickly warming up to Cecylia thanks to their mutual interests.
In the end, it was Ariadne who Kaede apologized to this morning. The lady who epitomized nobility spoke little most of the night and simply kept up her flawless smile. Engrossed in their discussion, Kaede did not notice until after the fact.
Ariadne's response this morning had been a truly affectionate "I'm glad you enjoyed yourself. You needed it after the last few days."
It made Kaede feel unworthy of befriending such a wonderful person.
Parzifal's friendly call brought her back to her thoughts.
"Hello Parzifal. Clearly, I must have missed something big if the Runelord is sitting next to you."
"The Holy Father does his work in mysterious ways," Parzifal smiled back. "Pascal I don't need to introduce. This is Kaede..."
"The famous familiar girl, I recognized."
Gerd nodded towards Pascal while giving Kaede a slight bow:
"I'm Gerd Kessler. Pleasure to meet you."
Wearing the black-on-burning-red uniform of the Knights Phantom, Gerd stood over meter-eight-five (6'1"). His short, straight hair was black, his firm eyes an ash-blue. Below them, his hard, chiseled chin and a slightly tall, Balkan nose dominated his image. But even covered by his uniform, it was clear that his body held an incredibly firm musculature. Tough and well-built, but no steroids monster either.
"Ah... nice to meet you as well."
Kaede faltered when she heard his surname, which if her etymology memory served, meant some kind of smith -- definitely not noble.
"You are the sponsored cadet," Pascal noted plainly.
Which Gerd completely misread as his cold eyes hardened:
"Yes. My parents are yeomen commoners. Parzifal was the one who sponsored my coming here. You have a problem with it?"
"Your grades are sixth in our class. Why would I?"
"Would it hurt you to show your admiration a little more in your public voice?" Kaede prodded over telepathy, which Pascal utterly ignored.
Gerd shrugged, his blank expression seemingly not caring:
"You do have a reputation, and most nobles here only put up with me thanks to Parzifal and Ariadne."
"I hate incompetent people," Pascal clarified as his turquoise gaze swept the dining hall. "Standing, race, prestige, none of those matter. Intellect, resolve, and the skills it bring are what counts."
Other than Kaede herself and Cecylia, everyone looked back at Pascal with some shade of surprise.
"In fact, I was just talking to my father the other day about the 'Imperial Examination System' that Kaede spoke of from her memories, which could elevate the poorest civilian to important officials. The performance bottleneck to our army's Mobility Doctrine has always been a limit of capable officers. Father told me to draft him a formal proposal on how we could apply a standardized testing and scholarship system for promising cadets, military or civilian."
By the end of Pascal's little speech, Gerd stood awed with a his mouth ajar.
"The Marshal is interested in this?" he asked, almost in disbelief.
Pascal nodded back, his stiff gaze confirming:
"Why is this a surprise? The military aristocracy is meritocratic."
"Only when one of sufficiently exalted rank highlights the achievements, and there's quite a noble preference," Gerd countered in a flat voice. "Still, better some opportunity than none... you really must let me contribute to this."
He pulled out a seat right across from Pascal and sat down.
It was the prodigy's turn for raised brows and querying looks.
Then Parzifal explained, his words filled with mixed emotions as he stared at his friend:
"Gerd had wanted to command infantry so he could lead other commoners into opportunities, but Reynald persuaded him to switch to the Knights Phantom instead."
"Faster promotions and more chances for battle honors; far more visible too," the redhead jumped in. "Earn yourself a noble title, and you'll have the resources to help others aplenty. Wayyy more efficient, so long as you have the skills for it."
"Assuming you don't get yourself killed," Parzifal added wistfully.
Gerd seemed like he wanted to retort, only to hold back at the last moment and look away, as though he just couldn't say it to Parzifal.
Meanwhile, Pascal was examining Reynald with an odd stare:
"Why do you not use some of that intellect in your studies? Outside of combat and horsemanship, your grades are barely passing."
Reynald answered in three simple words just before stuffing a large chunk of ham into his mouth:
"I hate reading."
----- * * * -----
Surrounded by other acquaintances, Parzifal's group broke to separate conversations as they enjoyed their meal. Classes did not restart until the afternoon, so they all took their last few hours to relax.
Kaede was introduced to nearly two dozen other noble acquaintances who sat nearby, although none of them spoke another word to her afterwards. She quickly realized that Gerd's situation was milder but somewhat similar to hers, aristocratic sponsorship or not.
In the eyes of most highborns, the two of them were seen as little more than servants who shadowed their master's footsteps.
Unfortunately, Kaede did not receive much of a chance to consult her senior. Gerd spent almost the entire meal digging details out of Pascal, much to the annoyance of other nearby nobles who saw an easy opportunity to approach the Runelord.
It soon became apparent that most of the other peers who surrounded Parzifal were not like-minded individuals. His affable demeanor and generous personality did make him easy to befriend, but Kaede was fairly certain that Parzifal's family heritage probably wasn't any lower than that of Ariadne's.
Personal politics and alliance-building worked the same way no matter where one went, especially among junior aristocrats. This was particularly true for those sociable enough to begin a snowball effect: the more acquaintances a high society circle gathered, the harder it became to refuse or ignore them.
Kaede was still observing the group when a fourth-year student ran in from the hallway.
"WAR! WAR!" He yelled at the top of his lungs before stopping just inside the entrance to catch his breath.
All chatter in the dining hall died instantly as everyone awaited his explanation:
"THE CATALIYA CALIPHATE HAS DECLARED HOLY WAR AGAINST THE EMPIRE OF RHIN-LOTHARINGIE! Their armies have already crossed the border!"
Given the defensive military alliance between Weichsel and Rhin-Lotharingie, everyone instantly knew what it meant.
The entire dining hall erupted back into loud, chaotic conversations. Some voices were worried, others anxious, and a few just plain scared.
Pascal was one of the few who completely kept his cool.
"Well, at least this answers the riddle of why the Holy Imperium suddenly wants me dead."
Most of Parzifal's close friends nodded back in agreement, their expressions varying between alarm and apprehension.
None of them appreciated the frightening implications of being simultaneously hostile to the two largest powers of the Western World.
The only exception was Gerd:
"Okay seriously you're all scaring me. What in Holy Father's name did I miss?"
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