After just one week, life in the new world was already starting to fit into a schedule. As usual on Saturday, Kaede went to the roof to meditate and build her arm strength through archery; and just like any other weekend morning, Ariadne was taking a self-rewarding joyride on her pegasus.
Spotting the latter, Kaede hesitated for a moment, but decided to wave down the angelic rider.
Her reasons were mostly split between I don't want to become a shut-in and she's as true as nobility gets. Although if Kaede examined her decision tree, she's absolutely gorgeous also ranked top five on the list.
It was hard not to feel attraction towards a gracious lady so stunningly beautiful.
After the usual pleasantries, Ariadne happily dropped what Kaede considered a bombshell question:
"I'm going into town for an errand today. Would you be interested in joining me? We can shop for your clothes while we're there."
Calm down, calm down! Kaede's thoughts scrambled, her cheeks instantly glowing. You're a girl now. There's nothing unusual about this! Stop jumping ahead because she is certainly not probing your interests or anything!
Ariadne's smile only seemed to grow wider as Kaede took a moment to cool.
"Of course I'm interested! Although... I'd better ask Pascal first." Kaede left out the or there'll be hell to pay.
"Of course, but please remind that self-centered prick that we are shopping to give his cute familiar a makeover. Oh, and tell him that my beloved Parzifal is coming along--"
Kaede was pretty sure hearts bubbled off Ariadne when she accentuated 'beloved' in a proud and flirtatious voice.
"--since we're meeting an old friend dropping by. We leave in an hour, so please meet us at the inner wall gates before then."
Was that display meant for Pascal as well?
He may have stopped freely using Kaede as an extra sensory organ, but to everyone else, she was still his familiar, his 'eyes and ears'.
Kaede wasn't certain, yet she couldn't help but feel rather put off after hearing it.
I guess that other than my physical gender, not even my interests have changed much.
----- * * * -----
The indecisive look did not fit Pascal at all.
"Please? Please please? Pretty please?" Kaede begged, no longer uncertain about the universal expressiveness of hands in prayer.
"Fine," Pascal gave in at last, before turning to rummage through a drawer. "At least with that borejob Parzifal going, she will not do anything unexpected. Here," he tossed her a small pouch. "Make sure you pay correctly for what you buy. The infinite layers of the Abyss will freeze solid before I owe Ariadne anything else."
Being a girl does come in handy at times, Kaede grinned back. She was almost tempted to give him a hug.
"Also, I want you back by fourteen hundred. We have a ton of work to go through this weekend. I received another project yesterday -- and reading up on spell research will be a good opportunity for you to get acquainted with our sorcery," he noted, his expression reflecting her eager smile.
...Or, maybe not. Her urge died instantly as she replied with a deadpan "Yes Sir."
----- * * * -----
Given Ariadne's breathtaking charm, Parzifal didn't turn out nearly as outstanding as Kaede imagined. He was still handsome in an above average way, with short brown hair above pretty aquamarine eyes, a wide nose, and a strong jaw. Nearly one-eighty-two (6'0") in height, he had a lean musculature that emphasized powerful legs in particular, yet his steps were soft, almost silent.
He wore the same black uniform as Pascal and most cadets, except adorned with white lines instead of crimson patches. Against Ariadne's burning-red outfit -- which few other students had -- it only distinguished her further from the crowd.
Perhaps his most unusual quality was the quiet, cool but unassuming personality.
"Hello, Miss Suvorsky," he barely nodded, not all that pleased to see her. "I'm Parzifal Sigismund von Seydlitz der Chevallerie."
Seriously, if they get married, their kids' names are going to break the word limit, Kaede thought as she gave an inexperienced curtsy in her blizzard-blue dress, still rough around the edges as Pascal only taught her three days ago.
She still found it suspicious that Pascal could do it perfectly.
"It's a pleasure to meet you milord. I'm honored by Ariadne's invitation to come along."
Parzifal's attempt to hide the lemon taste made it obvious he was anything but glad. Yet he swiftly plastered a grin across his expression as Ariadne turned towards him.
Can't really blame him; I am kind of ruining their time alone.
"Just call him Parzifal; the formality will kill the mood," Ariadne said as she grasped his hand, intertwined their fingers, and took a few seconds to snuggle into his chest.
Kaede thought it best to just smile and wait out the intimate moment. Then, still leaning against him, Ariadne turned them around and led them out of the inner gate. If the people of this society looked down upon public displays of affection, Ariadne was completely unabashed in showing it off to the world.
"Morning, Ariadne! Morning, Parzifal!"
"Going for another outing?"
"...Trip to the town? Say hello to Lukas for me."
Almost every person the couple came across greeted them with a friendly face; noble or commoner, staff or servant, it didn't seem to matter. Their network of acquaintances and friends appeared to cover the entire academy.
It was a world of difference compared to how Pascal was treated. Sure, he also stood in the center of attention; but few bothered to talk to him, most either half-admiring or half-mocking from afar.
"Good morning, Gerd. Exciting plans this weekend?"
Perhaps the greatest surprise to Kaede was how genial Parzifal was. His greetings lacked Ariadne's energy, but his smile was always gentle and delightful. Not once did he show another the distaste he revealed to Kaede.
I am seriously getting sick of starting on people's bad side because of that prick, she concluded.
It wasn't until they left the outer walls before Kaede finally spoke up:
"Ummm, pardon me, but how are we getting there?"
"Once outside the Lockdown ward, we're teleporting," Ariadne answered. "I'm not a wayfarer, so I'm limited by a ten-kilopace jump even with his help, which is just far enough."
The prospect of being broken down into tiny pieces and reassembling at the target -- at least, that was how the scientific explanation went -- did not thrill Kaede.
"Uh, what happens if we wind up overlapping with a passerby, or something like that, when teleporting?"
"There are precautions built into the Astral Teleport spell itself to prevent that; you just bounce and get shunted off to the side. Towns also have beacons to guide the teleportation into a sparse area. Otherwise it's always possible to bounce off a warded home and land in a weird alley, or wind up inside a commoner's shop since warding is expensive. Fortified cities and military installations, on the other hand, are often entirely warded."
Of course. Any convenience must also be defended against. Nice to see that humanity remains the same wherever you go.
The pair then turned halfway around as Ariadne extended her delicate fingers:
"Alright, we're out. Grab my hand and hold on."
Kaede took up her offer and, despite her anxieties, struggled to keep her eyes wide open. Reality was about to be bent, and she had no intention of missing it.
However, both aristocrats did close their eyes as they chanted in unison through Ancient Draconic words:
"Merge Targeting... Beacon Lock... Environment Set. Chain, Astral Teleport!"
Kaede braced herself, but it proved impossible to prepare for. It felt as if her entire body was suddenly enveloped by ice, then sublimated in gas and scattered in the air. Her consciousness was pulled through a tiny hole in the fabric of space that materialized before her eyes, while her surroundings dissolved into it like scenery flushed down a drain. Then, as quick as it came, everything popped back out and returned to normal. Except her body still felt like it was reconnecting itself while her vision swapped -- they now stood in a stone-paved square just outside a small town.
If this was only ten kilopaces, Kaede was glad she was unconscious when Pascal summoned her across world boundaries.
"Should we bring the little miss to 'Midnight Crescent' and let them take care of her? It wouldn't do to drag her with us to meet Eckhart." Parzifal spoke this time. His polite words may have phrased a question, but his unwavering tone left little room for negotiation.
"Sure," Ariadne answered without a second thought.
Merely two lines of exchange quickly rewrote the balance of their relationship in Kaede's eyes.
It's not that Parzifal has no charisma; he's just fine with Ariadne making the choices and staying happy, until there's something he really wants.
----- * * * -----
Kluis proved to be a hybrid between a sleepy rural town and a trade stop that supplied the Königsfeld Academy. Other than the local church and tavern, the only large building was a supply depot under the jurisdiction of the academy quartermaster. The market square lay next to it, connected to the only stone-paved road that ran through the town -- the same path that left the academy gates, barely wide enough to fit two passing cars.
What Kaede found most surprising was how remarkably clean Kluis was compared to the medieval towns of Earth. There were no exposed sewage, no muddied paths, not even any aired garbage outside the usual litter. It was as though the injection of magic into a culture also encouraged better sanitation than its European equivalent.
In the end, Kaede was left behind in Ariadne's recommended 'Midnight Crescent' tailor shop while the couple went off to meet their guest and enjoy the day. She couldn't really complain; it was their day after all.
Besides, the owner, Krista, an elderly lady in her late fifties, was very enthusiastic. With both a keen eye and a creative sense of fashion, she quickly put together several designs based on Kaede's tastes. This included both spiffy uniform-like dresses that were easier to move around in and combination outfits that wore leggings below a shorter skirt -- although Krista admitted worriedly that it was very unorthodox and barely meeting dress decorum, if at all. The designs were mostly black or white or some mix thereof as Kaede preferred, with sewn borders and lace trims in carnation-pink to bring out the color of her eyes.
Unfortunately, for all her talents, Krista wasn't a mage, so her designs had to be sent elsewhere for manufacture and enchantment in the highest quality nobles expected. Nevertheless, Ariadne had remarked that the store was a popular shop for the academy's students and earned good money for their ideas.
By one o'clock, Ariadne returned by herself to pick up and send Kaede back. Apparently the meeting was taking far longer than anticipated.
"Sorry about this, even though I invited you," the lady apologized. "Parzifal is usually friendly to everyone, but he dislikes your prick of a master in particular. I was hoping he'd treat you differently, but I guess that was asking a bit much."
Kaede didn't even hesitate:
"What did Pascal do this time?"
Ariadne left behind her ever-present smile for a faint scowl as she continued:
"Parzifal is on the administrative track and the healer's program, since his dream is to become the Surgeon-General of Weichsel. But in a military academy, he always felt out-shined by the officer cadets. When I had the fight with that arrogant prick two years ago, Parzifal tried to interfere on my side, only to get brushed off and called 'Bore-ziful' in return. It's a really childish thing, but it struck a personal complex where it really hurt."
Bore-ziful? Really, Pascal? What were you, seven?
"That idiot," Kaede voiced. Probably explains why she flaunts their relationship so much. What is she, the perfect girlfriend? Talk about missing out on Pascal's part.
Whether it was from a male or female perspective, Kaede couldn't help but feel envious of Ariadne and Parzifal.
----- * * * -----
"You are late!" Pascal growled.
"Sorry! It's hard to run in these heels, and there was a long way." Kaede looked at the clock. "I'm barely two minutes late!"
"The enemy will not wait a single second for you. Late is still late! Come on, we are off to the library. That will be the only break you get this weekend," Pascal decreed as he took her wrist and dragged her out the door. His tight grip was painful and his quick stride almost made her trip several times.
Sheesh, I'm not a stress ball. Don't take your irritation out on me!
----- * * * -----
Once the rising pearl of the Inner Sea region, the coastal metropolis of Arcadia had since fallen into decadence and slow decline. As the Capital of the Holy Imperium, the city was still ringed by high walls and dotted by garish palaces, but the fluidity and nonstop expansion of its harbors and marketplaces had given way to territorial oligopolies of urban guilds and corporations. Market control discouraged competitiveness and brought stagnation, widening the class divide through the reduction of opportunities. The result was social stratification, rising crime, and economic recession as the bright, the motivated, and the daring left to seek new frontiers.
What remained was a city of servants and courtiers, plebeians who slaved day and night for the Senators and their wealthy patrician supporters. Here, the beating heart of the Imperium lay sickened by centuries of decadent cholesterol. The legislature had long stopped being a representation of the people, its subcommittees now fraught with corruption and lobbyists' interests.
The executive throne did no better.
Generations of adoptive sons taking the crown -- many of them wise and just -- nevertheless laid a disastrous precedence to the line of Imperial Succession. Theodosius III, the previous Emperor of the Holy Imperium, died sixteen years ago from sudden cerebral hemorrhage, leaving both a biological and an adoptive son. The ensuing civil war scorched the Holy Imperium with flames for six years. Known as the 'War of Imperial Succession', it quickly engulfed the entire continent, as the Imperium's neighbors and enemies took advantage of the chaos to slice off and annex border states.
With the help of the patricians' bottomless funding and the Legions once loyal to his late birth father, the adopted Gaudentius Aurelius brought an end to the bloodshed by seizing the laurels. Yet even in his moment of triumph, he looked towards the northern horizon with bloodied eyes, never forgetting the treachery of nations that should have been his allies against the infidels of the south.
It took ten years to consolidate his power, ten years to rebuild the Legions to full strength, ten years to bribe and negotiate and wrangle for all the arrangements.
"What is our status, Stilius?" The Holy Emperor asked as he strolled down the shadowy halls, followed only by his most trusted servant -- the foreigner who 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 Trait Bridge by the thousands every day as they march towards the Rhin-Lotharingie border. Regardless of whether they believed our emissaries' promises, the Caliphate now stands committed. It is only a matter of time before they declare Holy War against the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie."
"Good, and the Pope?"
"His Holiness, Pope Vigilius has long harbored a hatred for Emperor Geoffroi of Rhin-Lotharingie for his revocation of Papal Investiture within the Empire. Neither has the Holy See forgotten Geoffroi's swift eagerness to take advantage of the civil war by stripping us of our western territories instead of intervening against the Caliphate's invasion. The Papal Legates assure that if Geoffroi folds before the infidel invasion and pulls back his border armies, His Holiness will have a more-than-long-enough list of transgressions to have him excommunicated."
In a game of thrones, machinations involving the church had never been about piety. Here, Holy Emperor Gaudentius proved it yet again as he discussed his plot to maneuver the infidels against fellow rulers of the same faith.
"Excellent." His deep voice rang pleased against the dark halls. "Even without aid from those petty Lotharin nobles, that alone should be enough to fracture the Empire during its most critical hour. It will also strip Geoffroi of any right to call upon crusaders' aid. What of their ally, that upstart Kingdom of Weichsel?"
"Imperator, during the War of Imperial Succession, Weichsel not only doubled their landmass by stealing our northern territories, but also struck fear into the heart of Rhin-Lotharingie before the two states could forge a defensive treaty against Imperial retaliation. It is not wise to..."
Old companions or not, the Holy Emperor cut off his foremost general without a moment of hesitance:
"When we want your sermons, Stilius, we will ask for it. Continue, or must we repeat ourselves?"
"Yes, Imperator." The General bowed his head in servitude. "As you already know, the Jarls of Västergötland, desperate after the epidemic that scythed through their herds and blinded by their eagerness for our gold, launched their invasion before the Caliph was ready. Weichsel Marshal von Moltewitz handed them a series of disastrous defeats before winter could embrace the Northern Sea. By now, it is fair to assume that our efforts in Västergötland have been wasted, and the Greater Jarldom of Skagen stands unwilling to commit without their pagan allies."
The Emperor cared nothing for the barbaric Northmen who still worshipped pagan gods. He wouldn't bat an eye if their entire civilization ceased from starvation. However, their presence was necessary to occupy the Imperium's northern foes -- once again of the same faith.
"A great shame. We can only pray that tensions at their northern border will at least pull Weichsel's armies away. What of our own forces?"
"The Northern Legions stand ready under Gaius Aetius. They're assembled near the Weichsel-Lotharin border, poised to apply pressure against either military. The Western Legions were officially furloughed by Marcus Belisarius; but his forces have merely broken down into organized labor units and can swiftly regroup once the time is right. The Southern Legions have been recalled home under my personal command to remove their presence from the borders, so that the Caliph may focus on waging his war."
The Emperor nodded thoughtfully. With geopolitics always being a game of balance, great powers with capable rulers did not wage war unless they could guarantee the noninterference of their neighbors. However, even wiser rulers did not reveal their fangs until their foes were battered and ripe for the taking.
"You have done well, Stilius." The Emperor gave his praise as though gifting a cold, wintry wind. "Once the Caliphate and Rhin-Lotharingie maul each other to exhaustion, we shall have the perfect opportunity to seek permission for a new Crusade. Then, I shall become the first Emperor in five centuries to reclaim lands lost by the Holy Imperium, and maybe even reconquer Lotharingie itself. The patricians will be pleased by the wealth new conquests shall bring, while your name will rise above Marius himself, immortalized as the most celebrated general in Imperial history."
"You are most generous, Imperator." Stilius bowed, suppressing the urge to warn his liege of counting chickens before they hatch.
"The Grand Republic will adhere to their policy of non-interference unless they feel threatened, and the Shahdom of Chorasmia is currently fighting off an invasion from further east. Our only known threat at the moment remains the Kingdom of Weichsel." The Emperor turned towards his general with raised fingers: "I want that alliance fractured if not broken, Stilius; be discrete, but otherwise do whatever it takes."
"Yes, Imperator. I have already dispatched three of my best Mantis Blade squads north. It should not be long before one of my plans bears fruit."
Holy Emperor Gaudentius nodded. Stilius was a first rate general who had never failed him before. But it was precisely that flawless record which made protocols of authority ever more important -- for if the master did not command the servant, the servant would surely rise to become a new master.
"See to it, Magister Militum," he ordered in a deep, stern tone, weighed to fit for a true Imperator.
He hardly cared if it they rang dark and sinister against the shadowy halls. After all, history was written by the victor. Villainy was not a trademark of evil, merely foolish incompetence and stupidity.
...And he was no fool.
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