Even on a Sunday, Ariadne's morning began at 6AM. For an early winter day, that was before daybreak.
Taking advantage of a fresh mind, she always started with an hour of studying. On the second day of the weekend, this meant a quick read through next week's materials in preparation.
After that was a full set of warm-ups, from squats to sit-ups, while she watched the dawning light permeate the horizon in grapefruit red. It was followed by an hour of sword practice, slashing away at illusory opponents provided by the academy's drill hall.
Manteuffel clan swords were heavy and difficult to handle. Though longer than a bastard sword, their blades were narrower and thicker. The handle matched the wielder's arm in length and included a sidebar near the guard, while a second, shorter blade could eject from the rear end. The result could be interchangeably used as a greatsword, spear, or two-bladed sword; not to mention the entire weapon could magically enlarge into a heavy lance thrice the height of man, tipped by a frightful long blade.
Those swords symbolized the family's customs and pride: adaptable to circumstances, creative in its use, mastered only through diligence, and deadly beyond all doubt in action.
Ariadne was the fourth child in a branch family, the only daughter behind three older brothers. In a life where everyone expected her every step to be overshadowed by more prestigious clansmen, she managed to come out with her head held high and her name near the top.
With her morning routine finished and an off-day ahead, Ariadne indulged her impeccable horsemanship by taking her pegasus familiar Edelweiss out on a ride.
Soaring across the castle perimeter from ten stories up, she noticed another girl practicing early in the morning. It was Pascal's familiar, shooting arrows across the roof again with a massive bow, the design of which she had never seen.
"Good morning, Miss Suvorsky!" Ariadne called out as she guided Edelweiss into a flawless landing atop the dormitory keep. Having only spoken to her once before, Ariadne had to tap her memory necklace -- which she used as a diary -- for a reminder on names.
"Good morning, uh, milady." The same could not be said for the other girl as she stood uncertain.
"Ariadne is fine," her ever-gentle smile radiated as she walked up.
The smaller girl finally pulled out from her loading stance, her long cream-white hair swaying in the rooftop breeze.
"In that case, please call me Kaede as well."
"I take it that's a bow from your world?"
Ariadne tested the waters, still not entirely believing the 'otherworld' story. But Kaede dispelled Ariadne's lingering suspicions in an instant as her pensive mood cast a gloom over her entire figure:
"Yes... I practiced with it on most mornings back in my world. It's a meditative activity, and keeping up the routine helps when everything else has changed so much."
"So how are you managing? Has that self-centered prick been treating you alright?"
"I have a sturdy roof to live under, hearty food to enjoy, and a comfy bed to sleep in. Other than my lack of purpose here, and the unusual... changes, I guess I really should be grateful... since it could've been so much worse. Pascal isn't really a bad person. The summoning is his fault, sure, but I can't do anything about what's already done. I just wish he stopped treating me like he owned me."
Not a bad person? He's a walking insult to everyone around him!
Ariadne still remembered the night when he shattered their relationship by listing everything she did that he resented.
Nobody treats me like that and walks away with it.
"That prick does that with everyone. He acts like he's the crown prince or something, that anyone who isn't a superior must come under his unrelenting judgment and degradation. He's so condescending that he doesn't even respect most nobles like people, and outright ignores commoners."
It might amaze others that such bitter words could emerge from a sunny smile. But Kaede's surprised, raised brows soon transformed into a sympathetic grin of her own.
"Well, if he gives you any trouble, please feel free to confide in me about it." Ariadne left the other half of her thoughts unsaid: A real scandal will send enough evil glares his way that even he'll flinch.
For a moment, Kaede's parted lips seemed eager to take up her offer, but all that eventually came out was: "Thanks, I'll keep that in mind."
Ariadne shrugged off her rising disappointment. Don't be greedy, she silently scolded herself.
If there was one thing Ariadne enjoyed more than riding, and wanted more than a renowned career in the Knights Phantom, it was the trust, recognition, and admiration of everyone around her. This went doubly so for the closest person to one of her few enemies -- those who had dared to scorn her. Based on how the younger girl's gaze had been rooted on her this entire time, she held no doubts that Kaede was steadily growing on all three aspects.
Her beloved Parzifal once joked, amicably of course, that 'vanity' should have been her middle name. Her response was to ask him: "What's wrong with that?"
"So what's your impression of our world?"
"Fantastic, decadent, and liberal for its time." Kaede shrugged again: "I haven't left the castle though, so I can't really say."
"To nobility, decadence is an expression of prestige, and as for liberal... Weichsel does pride itself for being one of the most forward-thinking of the Hyperion nations. I'm glad you like it."
The smaller girl's response was a somewhat wry smile under her morning-chilled rosy cheeks.
"Is there anything you need? Like I mentioned before, don't hesitate to ask. There's no way a guy could anticipate everything a girl needs, even if he was the caretaker type." Ariadne didn't even need to append which that self-centered prick certainly isn't.
Looking thoughtful for a minute, Kaede then glanced down at her blizzard-blue dress and pushed against its petticoat layers with her leg, bare except for snow-white stockings.
"Well... Pascal's clothes for me are all dresses. This is rather improper, but... could you help me get some pants?"
"Trousers for women are only worn as a part of military uniforms," Ariadne's answer came straightforward. "Outside that, it's considered religious impropriety. So no, I can't get you a set, sorry."
"What about a shorter skirt then?" The smaller girl eyed the hi-low short skirt that Ariadne wore, with its mid-thigh height front hem, exposing the tight leggings underneath that hugged her beautiful long legs.
The noblewoman in Ariadne felt scandalized, before she reminded herself again: She's from another world; different norms and customs and all.
"In our world, it's proper modesty for a girl to keep both legs fully covered. Although -- let me think on that; I might be able to arrange something."
Kaede beamed; a cute smile that truly lit up her doll-like appearance.
In the moment, Ariadne thought it was kind of a shame: "do ladies in your world mostly wear pants?"
She actually felt relieved when the smaller girl shook her head.
The two made comparisons between their worlds for a good hour, until Ariadne saw Parzifal on his daily run around the grounds and left to join him.
She still didn't believe that another realm, without the aid of magic, could advance to a more technological level of civilization. Sure, traders often boasted of engineering marvels from the Grand Republic of Samara and even brought back gadgets of non-magical construction to prove it. But Samarans merely looked human and held unfair advantages: longevity rivaling the healthiest mages, and memories of 'past lives'... more like fiendish witchcraft and whispers of the devil.
----- * * * -----
It wasn't until near midday when Pascal telepathically called Kaede down to the dining hall for brunch, followed by dragging her off to the library.
"You can read those tomes on your time all you want," he explained after sitting her down at a table with both ends piled high with books. "But while the sun is still up, you are going to help me research for this."
From his chair facing her from the other side, Pascal slapped a piece of parchment down on the table.
"Victory through ordered chaos and destruction of organizational, logistical, and political assets to inflict total system paralysis - Pandemonium Doctrine," Kaede read, before quickly scanning through the rest of the perfect-graded research proposal. Calling upon unknown military treatises from this world as well as the names of battles from recent wars, it suggested a recompilation of operational guidelines with an emphasis on speed, mobility, and fluidity to guide multiple simultaneous thrusts deep into enemy territory.
Blitzkrieg...? Not quite; this sounds more like something from the Eurasian Steppes. But...
"You're writing a new military doctrine?" She asked, her mind barely grasping the reality of the parchment in her hands. He's only nineteen!
"Many of the basic concepts my father already employed during the War of Imperial Succession fifteen years ago, the same war that earned him a hero's fame and the title Landgrave of Nordkreuz."
Pascal actually had enough humility for a faint blush for once.
"But I need as many field examples as possible. Since you are into reading all those boring history books, finding the right battle records for me to examine will be your task!"
Kaede didn't mind studying. But sweeping across the table with dozens of dusty tomes piled in thick columns, her eyes were beginning to feel tired already.
----- * * * -----
With three knocks on the thick mahogany door, Professor Albert opened it and led the two inside.
Kaede first met Professor Albert von Marienfeld five minutes ago. With balding gray hair above onyx eyes as sharp as an eagle's, he had an imposing set of well-trimmed long mustaches. His build was lean with just a bit of belly, his thick arms a remnant of wrestling days long passed. One didn't even need to see him in uniform, impeccable and proudly decorated with medals including the Knight's Cross, to recognize that he was no mere scholar.
He also glanced over Kaede with just one look and never bothered to introduce himself. His key words that ensured Pascal's attention were: "The headmaster has returned and wishes to see you, now."
Which brought them all to this room, as large as the White House's Oval Office and furnished similarly: massive office table backed against huge windows, with intricate chairs and comfy couches atop rich rugs that covered the room's center. The hour was dusk, and the entire office was currently bathed in sunset orange.
Not satisfied with his face being shadowed by the light from the windows, the headmaster also wore a bucket helmet on top of his gray robes. His outfit exposed not a patch of skin; even his hands were covered by black gloves.
Kaede found it a novel experience, to say the least.
"Sir von Moltewitz, welcome."
The raspy voice emerged from behind the steel faceplate, like the sound of a man with an incurable throat disease.
"Firstly, allow me to extend a belated congratulations for your recent promotion and knighthood."
"Thank you, Sir."
"Nevertheless, it distresses me to hear that you have freely altered the sacred familiar summoning ceremony beyond acceptable boundaries and called forth a foreign girl as a familiar."
"There is a first time for everything, Sir." Pascal reported back in military posture: hands back and chest high. "Our ancestors did not pioneer the art of familiars through tradition."
"Right you are. However, I hope you planned to face the same scrutiny and examination that they did."
"What kind of examination, Sir?" Pascal couldn't sound less thrilled.
"We will need to assess the humanity of your familiar, to determine that she brings no health risks or magical dangers from faraway lands, and to tag her for periodic checks to monitor the resulting long-term effects."
"I understand, Sir. But I can do that myself." His tone was on the verge of protesting.
Kaede loved how they were talking about her -- not just in third person, but as though an experimental specimen -- when she stood within this very room:
"Headmaster Sir, don't I have rights as a human being for any say in this?"
The helmet leaned forward, and Kaede envisioned a skeletal lich behind it as a voice far colder than any human responded:
"No, Miss Familiar. You are neither a citizen of this country nor a holder of lawfully issued identification. Furthermore, you were summoned by a mage through his contractual ritual. In the eyes of our national laws, you are a non-entity that is only recognized as part of his responsibility. You are not property, but due to the lack of legal precedence, you are not far above it, either."
Kaede felt like a trap door just opened below her. Her mind stopped all thinking as an impenetrable horror overwhelmed it.
Sitting back, the headmaster continued:
"As for you, Sir von Moltewitz, the answer is no. A third-party validation is required per academic procedure."
Pascal cast a worried glance her way, before turning back to the shadowy grille that hid the headmaster's expression:
"I neither need nor care for academic recognition for this, Sir. In fact, I invoke my rights as a feudal noble to assert that she is my right and responsibility, Sir!"
For a minute, all signs of passing time stopped as the room froze in the wake of his challenge. Then, it was Professor Albert who cleared his throat from a rear corner of the room:
"Sir von Moltewitz, I suggest you reconsider. As you are still, in the eyes of the law, one year short of maturity, any repercussions for your actions will therefore fall under the responsibility of your father the Landgrave."
Pascal visibly flinched as his father was mentioned.
"I understand, Sir. But I must also take responsibility for my ward, to my ward, for what I have done to her." Pascal's unwavering tone snapped Kaede out of her daze, now staring at him with a gaping expression plastered on. "Having witnessed the procedures allowed on prisoners-of-war, I cannot allow the same to be forced upon her in good conscience!"
After being raised from the depths of despair, Kaede suddenly felt her sight becoming glassy and her emotions stirred. Sure, it was completely his fault that she was stuck in such a situation in the first place. Yet, not only was Pascal backing his promise to the full before her, he was also, in his roundabout way, finally admitting and apologizing for the injustice he committed.
Shock and hopelessness may have passed away to reason, but she was now too relieved to feel angry, even if that relief was still premature.
Surprisingly, it was Professor Albert who followed up in the contest of will between Pascal and the headmaster:
"With your permission, Sir, I would like to advise Sir von Moltewitz in performing the proper checks to ensure that no disaster befall us. I shall also shoulder any responsibility from his errors under my oversight."
Silence fell upon the room again, and Kaede could almost feel the shifting air pressure as two invisible forces dueled one another for supremacy. In the end, it was the headmaster who gave in first:
"Very well," he finalized in his raspy voice. "See to it that history does not repeat itself."
Once back in the hallway, Pascal asked his adviser with lingering disbelief still dangling from his words:
"Sir, this is the first time you have supported an independent action of mine in... anything!"
"Well, this is the first time you've shown a willingness to make amends for your own foolishness." Professor Albert sounded a touch surprised himself.
"What does the headmaster mean by history not repeating itself?"
"See, if you had done your research in human-to-human binding, you would have known that there is an unspoken taboo on pact magic between Hyperiens and Samarans," began the Professor. "Because five hundred years ago, a successful Inner Sea trading magnate and his Samaran partner signed a binding magical contract, which somehow unleashed the epidemic known as the Great Eldritch Plague. The pandemic spread from mage to mage by mere proximity of spell auras, and killed a third of the noblemen across Hyperion before a cure was developed."
"--You know as well as I do that taboo or not, the profit margins will continue to entice merchants in exploring reliable business between the east and west," Professor Albert continued after cutting Pascal off. "No sweeping plagues have shown themselves for four centuries, so that one precedence must have been an act of God or freak occurrence. Headmaster Sir von Bloomberg mostly just wants an excuse to force his way into cutting-edge arcane research, which he can easily take credit for since you're both a minor and a student. Remember to do your homework thoroughly next time so you don't give someone else the opportunity to interfere."
"Yes Sir. Thank you, Sir." Pascal answered, followed by a still-overwhelmed Kaede mirroring his gratitude.
The professor, however, never so much looked at her. After a nod of acknowledgment to Pascal, he walked off:
"I expect your preliminary report by tomorrow morning, Sir von Moltewitz. Assume nothing, confirm! And don't forget your first research project checkpoint next Friday!"
----- * * * -----
Dinner included a gourmet shepherd's pie and chicken soup, which Kaede desperately ate to warm her soul back up.
It wasn't until after they returned to his dorms when she regained the energy to breach the topic again:
"Was that your first time meeting the headmaster?"
"No. I have met him quite a few times... for various things." Pascal didn't seem interested in explaining.
"Why does he wear all that in his office?" Sitting on the bed, Kaede shivered as she remembered that cold, raspy voice informing her that she had no more rights than mere property.
"Headmaster Sir von Bloomberg has not shown his face in years. Rumors have it that he caught leprosy from some magical experiment and was forced to retired from the army's research division."
"Still... uh, Pascal?"
"Yes?" He asked without looking at Kaede, as he continued to rush about the room, either collecting or setting up various pieces of equipment.
"Thank you for what you did. I really mean it... even if the whole thing was your fault to begin with." Her wispy voice rose into a huff as she continued: "Seriously, what the heck were you thinking, forging a familiar contract with another person without even doing your homework properly?"
"I figured nobody else had ever tried making another person a familiar..."
Kaede was surprised Pascal managed to say that with a straight face. History always offered a precedence, similar in circumstances if not the same.
"--Besides, you may want to hold onto that gratitude until after I run through all the checks, which will involve prodding some private places."
As soon as Kaede realized what he meant, she looked away in embarrassment.
"Don't get full of yourself either. Your help is still a long way from canceling out your misdeeds."
She meant every word, but her complexion still made her look shy about it.
Pascal knelt down on one knee before her. Gently taking her left hand and folding back her sleeve, he raised what looked like a small syringe before readying it against her skin. The needle entered her arm with a sting, and he soon began to draw blood from her.
What came out was a crystal clear liquid, tinged only by a shade of pink.
Unlike her, Pascal calmly finished the procedure and pulled out the needle before he froze.
Both of them stared at the syringe that held transparent blood the color of cotton candy.
"W-what does this mean?" Kaede heard her own voice from far away.
"It means that you really are Samaran, or at least your body is. Only they have transparent blood. The color is supposed to be a crystal light red, but this is not far from the expected spectrum."
"And w-what does that mean?"
After laying the syringe on a bedside table, Pascal leaned forward and clasped Kaede on both shoulders. His turquoise gaze pulled her rose-quartz eyes up, before his blank expression continued with earnest words:
"The Samarans believe in reincarnation, born in this life after their last passed away. I cannot confirm or deny since I am not one of them, but they all claim to retain shards, fragments, images and memories of past lives. Some even claim that those memories are often not of this world."
Her mind stood still even at the green light, refusing to process the implications of his words.
"A-and that means...?"
"If what they claim is correct, then Kaede, I did not turn you into a girl. Rather than transform, my familiar spell may have created a humanoid form which hijacked a soul departing from another world. Kaede, it is likely that -- in that other world, you died."
That can't be... no!
Kaede could only shake her head slowly, her mind overwhelmed by torrents of denial, her eyes pointing but not seeing.
"I am sorry to tell you this, Kaede. But it is a truth that we must face. It would certainly explain why your soul was naturalized anew in our world, rather than coming here in an alien body. Perhaps it was part of the Holy Father's plans all along. Perhaps you were meant to live as a girl."
By that point, her gaping expression had already stilled into a delicate statue.
Pascal figured this was as good a time to begin as any, even as a faint grin tugged at his lips.
Fifteen minutes and an unknown number of observations and measurements later, her head finally started cranking again:
"That can't be right! I don't just remember fragments; I have all my prior memories. Besides, that doesn't explain how my bow and clothes got through!"
Pascal shrugged as he stirred a potion vial that included several strands of her hair.
"Don't jump to a conclusion just because it removes blame from you!" Kaede glared, seething. Being told that she had died was another shock she could have gone without this day.
After piling so much weight in the past few hours onto an already overburdened mind, annoyance and anger remained as her only barriers against another teary outburst.
"I did not say that is what happened. I merely said it was a likely scenario." His focus was still concentrated on the vial, his poker face impenetrable.
Kaede huffed and collapsed back into the bed:
"Great, now I can't even be sure whether my parents think I'm missing or just dead. Not that there's anything I can do about it outside of useless worrying."
Yet despite her tempered comment, she held no doubt that many sleepless hours would be spent precisely over this 'useless worrying'.
It was impossible not to, perhaps even inhuman, which was an odd thought because she really wasn't 'human' any more.
"Do not bother getting too comfortable. I need a urine sample from you soon," Pascal noted, only to receive a groan in response.
After sitting back up and chasing the evil thoughts away, Kaede pouted towards the corner closet door that held the heavy chamber pot. Leaning against the wall next to it, there was now a pile of treated wood, packed cotton, and velvet fabrics.
"Materials for fabricating a bed? Yes. I retrieved it from the quartermaster this morning," Pascal commented as he scrutinized the vial's color change. "Although, since you have taken all my free time, and I have a busy week ahead, especially with the project checkpoint on Friday..." he looked over with a Cheshire grin: "I think you should just get used to warming my bed."
If looks could kill, the one Pascal received wouldn't have left even a speck of dust. Instead the only damage he took was from a flying pillow, which splashed the vial's contents across his cheeks, now magically dyed a glowing blue.
Kaede realized that perhaps the greatest struggle of her new life was wrestling with the daily urge to beat him senseless.
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