Dusk had fallen by the time they left the library.
Following behind Pascal, Kaede balanced four massive tomes in her small hands. With her concentration focused on the heels to prevent any missteps, she couldn't help but start to fall behind as her thin arms held up what felt like a boulder's weight.
Her body was also bothering her with another pressure... and it was becoming harder to ignore by the second.
"W-wait!" she called out, her breath already starting to fall short. These books may be heavy but they should have been manageable; this body is such a pain.
Already ten paces ahead, Pascal sent a backwards glance. Sighing, he swiveled around, marched right up to her, and pulled all four tomes out of her hands.
Wow, he's voluntarily helping!
Kaede never thought she could be so amazed by something so minor.
"Come on." he started walking towards the dormitories again, his pace slower with books in hand. "You really had to check out all these old history tomes? Not something more substantial like a book on geography or magical treatise? How is a collection of past events, dates, and dead people going to help you?"
"Don't look down on history," she snapped back. "History is the foundation of all culture and geopolitical relations. It's so much more than just a timeline of events and people. It illustrates how entire societies think, act, and relate to each other."
"Seriously, it's annoying how most schools treat something so important as just a bunch of dates, names, and all those useless details. It makes people lose respect for history." Kaede launched straight into an impromptu rant. "The what is only worth a third of the attention given to any event. Instead of focusing on useless details, they should spend more time discussing why it happened and how it affected the flow of civilization, exploring what could have happened had a different choice been made, et cetera. Here is a record of people succeeding and failing, with world-altering implications, for thousands of years! From how policies affected social trends to how arsenals decided battles! And instead of analyzing and referencing it for their own use, most people just shrug it off as useless! Seriously!"
Now really short of breath, Kaede finally noticed that Pascal was examining her with an odd expression: lopsided smile, single raised eyebrow, and amusement dancing in his eyes. "History professor or scholar?" he asked.
"I wanted to be," she replied in a low, somber whisper filled with nostalgia. "Not teach in the traditional sense, but to become the historical advisor to a media studio. Only scholars delve deep into academic books. Spreading the wisdom of history would require the use of games, serializations, movies, that kind of stuff."
"How is a game supposed to teach history?" Pascal was growing more and more intrigued as he turned into one of the dormitory keep's spiraling tower staircases. "And what is a movie?"
"In my world we have tools capable of running a display screen -- kind of similar to those illusion projectors in the library. Games running on those tools can be made to simulate a variety of circumstances, from managing a business to fighting a battle to even leading an entire country. Of course, it's far simpler than the real thing and made to entertain by stimulating people's need for an intellectual challenge. Movies are similar, except instead of being a simulation, it merely shows a recording of actors portraying a scripted story."
"Sounds like commoners in your world are considerably more intelligent than those of this realm," his wistful comment came out more like a complaint.
"It's called 'standardized education'," Kaede spoked the term with pride. "It doesn't mean everyone will be wise enough to seek knowledge, but it encourages people to and ensures those who do are capable of finding it."
"A fine system for any meritocracy. We will have to discuss the idea with father at some point," Pascal concluded. "Weichsel may not have the logistics or resources to 'standardize' a good education, but providing free opportunities for those who seek it would significantly increase the size of our government staffs and officer corps."
Coming up to his dorm room, he waved his hand with a term for Unlock, and the door clicked open.
Kaede stared at the lock as they walked inside.
"Can anyone open it with just a spell like that?"
"No, there is an ether identifier installed on the lock," he said while placing the tomes onto a nearby table. Another wave, wordlessly this time, and the crystal orb mounted on the ceiling filled the room with bright light.
"It recognizes my magical power. I will make you a ring with the Unlock cantrip later tonight, and you should be able to use my ether to open the door. But come now, we are late for dinner."
"W-wait!" she called out as he started to leave. The pressure below her waist was beginning to push her limits, forcing distress to overcome her embarrassment.
She had hoped she would have found one by now...
"W-where do I find a bathroom or toilet room or whatever-you-call-it around here?"
"Bath-room? Why do you want a bath before dinner? And what is a toilet?" Pascal stared back.
Kaede's eyes widened, horrified by what he was implying.
"Come on, we are already running late," he turned his back towards her again.
Stopping again, Pascal looked quizzically at the stuttering Kaede with growing impatience: "just say it already."
With cheeks glowing like charcoals, Kaede forced out a bare whisper with her eyes shut:
"I-I need to pee!"
"Oh." Pascal closed the door again. He moved to a corner and pulled open a small closet, then took out something large, heavy, and porcelain before setting it down on the carpet.
You can't be joking!
But Pascal looked completely casual as he looked back at her:
"Just use that."
What sat on the ground could only be described as a tall, fancy chamber pot, complete with a wide rim for sitting and a shield on one side for catching urine.
I barely know how to do it in this body! Stop making things even more needlessly complicated!
Kaede felt like she wanted to cry, to scream, to break and wreck and just somehow dump out all this mounting frustration at once.
"Please hurry up, we really are running late."
"Then get out," she whispered, her eyes overcast.
"Excuse me?" Pascal narrowed his own, disbelieving what he just heard.
"Please get out," she repeated, louder this time.
"This is my room, you know..."
"Fine," Kaede stepped over the porcelain pot and began fumbling with her maid outfit.
"What... are you doing?"
Without much luck in shedding its frill and petticoat underlays, Kaede simply pulled the entire skirt up and reached in for her underwear.
"What does it look like I'm doing?" She snapped back. "Now would you leave the room? Or are you that anxious to watch a girl take a piss?"
Eyes widening and face reddening, Pascal spun around and rushed towards the door. "I'll wait outside," he muttered before shutting it.
Unfortunately, Pascal had never slept in the same bedroom or even the same suite as another person before. The soldiers in the barracks -- especially the men -- were perfectly content doing it with just their backs turned.
----- * * * -----
"Oh Holy Father, we thank you for your blessings in this wonderful meal and the bountiful harvest this year, and we praise you for your grace in the swift victories that returned peace to our fatherland. May your light of guidance continue to show us the path of the devoted, the faithful, and the righteous. In your heavenly name, noblesse oblige."
"Noblesse oblige," repeated the entire dining hall, before the senior student who led the prayers sat back down.
The nightly feast then began with the clattering of plates and utensils.
Once again, Kaede was sitting next to Pascal near a corner of the dining hall, isolated from everyone else. The grand hall had more than enough capacity, and the nearest other people were five seats down -- a clique of gossiping girls that sent a steady stream of glances their way. Another group that occupied the adjacent table did exactly the same.
Based on the words that drifted through the air, Kaede had the distinct feeling that these were Pascal's admiring 'fans'. Unfortunately, many of them were also taking some verbal jabs at her:
"...Who does she think she is, sitting at the same table as nobles?"
"Does it matter? She's still just a commoner, and a domestic servant as that."
"You know what noble men tend to do with servants that are a little cute...."
The 'fan group' started snickering.
Pascal and Kaede had arrived just in time for prayers, but their dinner -- which the chefs prepared based on the day's theme and each student's known preferences -- had yet to be delivered. With nothing to do and already becoming a target for 'female politics', Kaede's discomfort was steadily growing into annoyance again.
"Ignore those idiots too," Pascal sent over the telepathic channel while he sat with eyes closed and arms folded, as though in deep contemplation.
"Aren't those girls your fans?"
"They are vultures who console themselves with the failure of others. If they have a problem with you sitting here, they can take it up with me."
On one hand, Kaede felt assured by his words. On the other, she wasn't about to forget that this was all his fault, in multiple ways.
She was also beginning to question if Pascal had any friends at all, or even acquaintances.
"What about the ones who did approach you?" she asked, curious.
"I told most of them I was not interested in the relationship they sought. As for the rest... they did not end up working out."
"Pascal the lady-killer, court him one week and he'll give you his everlasting gift... of death."
"That is really not funny."
Pascal was sounding wistful again, and Kaede wondered just how many others suffered a fate similar to Ariadne.
No wonder why everyone is keeping their distance. Actually, it's surprising there are still girls who like this guy.
Kaede didn't think she would ever understand the 'bad boy appeal'... or in this case, arrogant prick appeal.
"By the way... you did not actually pray to the Holy Father, did you?"
Pascal's interrogation hit her spot on just as two servants brought in their meals. He gave no awareness to their presence again, and she hurriedly returned a nod of gratitude.
Kaede had pretended to pray to show respect, but reciting words that she didn't believe in seemed... wrong.
"How could you not pray to the Holy Father?"
Having spent a dozen years in Central Russia, Kaede did attend several Eastern Orthodox services, but she never really converted and stayed an agnostic-deist like her mother. Plus, she considered her religious flexibility to be a major advantage when studying foreign history and culture, so when it came to the religiously adamant...
"Hey, I already follow the Flying Spaghetti God, so please respect my faith," Kaede retorted. "Besides, you told me the Samarans don't worship him either!"
"And the Samarans are seen as heretics! Do you wish to be singled out by the church inquisition!?"
She shut up immediately, remembering the agonizing deaths people used to give nonbelievers.
Please don't burn me at the stake...
"Honestly, I do not care what deity you worship. Who knows if your world even lies within the same divine jurisdiction. But since you are here, you will pray to the Holy Father. With all the religious unrest across the continent these days, the Papal Inquisition has escaped its reins and grown into an independent threat. I will not have father caught up in some heresy investigation. Is that clear?"
Resounding deep into her mind, his voice was as adamant as polished steel. For the first time Kaede felt herself shiver under the cold pressure of his words.
She did not notice until later that for once, Pascal protectively raised the well-being of another above his own pedestal.
"Good, now let us eat."
He then dug into his dinner, laden with several steaming slices of fresh pork roast as the main meal, surrounded by sides of boiled asparagus, potato salad, gourmet bread, and a thick, cheesy broth that smelled faintly of beer.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Kaede found herself looking at half-sized portions of the same dinner, minus the alcoholic soup.
She wasn't complaining. The meal was not exactly modern, but it still tasted like bliss.
Pascal spent most of dinner asking Kaede about her limited martial arts background, her archery practice in the morning, and the role they played in her home world. Intrigued and periodically commenting on the differences between the two world's styles, he nevertheless expressed that "projectile weapons are the inferior tools of untalented commoners, below the dignity of aristocratic arcane heritage."
He admitted that he only studied the conceptual basics because levied archers were used to supplement the limited numbers of aristocratic artillery-mages on the field.
It wasn't until they were leaving that Kaede remembered to ask:
"Do you want me to convert to the Holy Father's grace?"
"Of course! Not that I have to try, with you being a scholar of history. The Holy Father's grace may be mysterious at times, but with millenniums of timeline in sight, his influence becomes as clear as day and night. I am certain you will come around in due time and embrace the one true faith of this world..."
Kaede sighed, any interest in the local theology already evaporating.
"...Although, does your world really pray to airborne pasta?"
Pascal's single raised eyebrow betrayed a hint of bewilderment on a totally-serious face.
"Only when the polar ice caps are melting due to a lack of pirate caretakers."
----- * * * -----
Leaning back against the plush chair in front of his table, Pascal casually juggled multiple sorceries at once. Between his hands hovered a turquoise gem that he was cutting and affixing onto a platinum ring using the Fabricate spell, while simultaneously imbuing it with the Lock/Unlock and Sigil cantrips. The result would be a spell-activation focus that Kaede could use to open doors and sign for academy resources using his ether signature.
It was a task most apprentice artificers divided into two parts, allocating full concentration on each one; yet Pascal treated it like a side-job while mentally chatting with someone over a thousand kilopaces away -- his fiancée, Crown Princess Sylviane Etiennette de Gaetane of the Rhin-Lotharingie Empire -- through an ongoing Farspeak spell.
"...And that is how she came to be. I cannot wait to show her to you over the holidays, Sylv. Not only is she a walking encyclopedia filled with interesting details of her fantastic otherworld -- it is a miracle they even managed to function, with neither the convenience of sorcery nor the establishment of noblesse oblige graced upon us by the Holy Father. But she looks absolutely adorable, a dainty figure caped by silky cream-white hair, not to mention the rose-quartz eyes that I have never even heard of."
"Sounds like quite a fantasy that you conjured there."
Enraptured by his own enthusiasm, Pascal missed the trace of biting sarcasm and, as a result, completely misinterpreted her humored tone.
All he remembered were past scenes where his fiancée would hug and drape herself over cute girls with ecstatic delight, rubbing her cheeks against their long hair in a display that violated all noble protocol.
"Indeed, and by complete accident. I did not even know summoning could work that way!"
"You know, Pascal, when I allowed you to have dalliances during your academy years, I do not remember giving you the permission to bind another girl with a contract of 'till death do us part', officially no less. Our betrothal may be political, but it is still a committed one."
Until then, Pascal hadn't even considered summoning a familiar to have any relation to their betrothal. Stunned by the explosive landmine he had just stepped on, his mind quickly backtracked for help. But Sylviane never gave him the chance:
"The next few weeks are about to get busy for me, with all the trouble brewing in the south. I will see you over the holidays."
She hung up without a second's wait.
"Crap," Pascal uttered an uncharacteristic curse, finally realizing the severity of the trouble he was in.
He had been so caught up telling Sylviane his story that he hadn't asked about her problems. Normally, she would confide in him about whatever geopolitical problems was currently troubling her in the Rhin-Lotharingie court, often seeking his input and occasionally his sympathy.
But today, she hung up without even giving him a hint, and then called for a temporary break to their weekly chats.
She really is angry; royally angry, literally...
Pascal hoped this would not cause any political issues. Neither Sylviane nor her father Geoffroi the Great had any tendency to start diplomatic squabbles over personal grudges. But if Sylviane found her royal honor insulted, she might break tradition.
Oh dear Holy Father, have mercy...
Putting aside the mostly finished ring, Pascal prayed, fast and hard, that he did not open any personal rifts with Sylviane -- his friend ever since those days spent idling beside the Cross Lake of the Nordkreuz estate.
He wasn't sure if he could handle that.
He turned to look at Kaede, who sat in his bed with her stockinged legs tucked in. Her small hands propped open a massive leather-bound book, while her fatigued, half-open eyes stared blankly at him, faint perplexity bubbling over their familiar bond.
Her breakdown this morning was still fresh on his mind. Her wailing image was forever burnt into his memory, not to mention the crushing despair and sorrow that followed as a tidal wave of emotional distress breached the last barrier and opened their empathic tunnel.
He spent much of the morning being annoyed at himself as a result. But after mostly enjoying himself in the afternoon, Pascal had recovered too quickly.
Sylviane's shortened call only restarted the hammering on the last nail.
...More like all the nails, at once, with one great big resounding mallet.
After making the biggest, most idiotic, ill-conceived, poorly planned, carelessly rushed, and altogether feebleminded mistake of his entire life, Pascal felt like a moron who just stupidly certified himself by taking a pilgrimage to the apex of moronia.
"So... when am I getting my bed?" Kaede chimed in, finally breaking the silence.
"I would have ordered lumber from the quartermaster this morning," he spouted back, disgruntled.
Annoyance was bubbling across the bond again.
I need some winter air, Pascal decided as he strode towards the door.
"Go to sleep," he ordered, before dimming the ceiling light to a faint glow with a wave of his hand. Swinging open the door, he looked back to Kaede and felt her glaring at him from the shadows.
"Please," he sighed, before closing the door behind him.
Discontent over the empathic link returned to her early perplexity, now with a side of irritation.
"Why does magic not have a fix-everything spell?" the genius grumbled.
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