By Monday afternoon, Kaede was starting to feel burnt out. Not actually being a bookworm, there was only so much reading she could stand before the task started draining her health. Over a week of almost nothing but research pushed even her focus.
Pascal's sour mood all 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?"
"Yes. Most of the staff lives around the nearby town of Kluis and goes back home during the weekend," Marina explained as her hands continued to rearrange and wipe the tabletops. "But just enough of us are left to keep the kitchen and dining hall running. I'm not from this area -- came up here two years ago in search of a job -- so I also work during most of the weekends and holidays."
"Wow, that must be tough. Two years without a single break."
Kaede couldn't imagine doing that herself. With her modern standards, she would lose control from sheer stress alone.
"Where did you live before?"
"I was an orphan raised on the western 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, uncomfortable after breaching such a topic. But Marina merely shook her head and gave an angelic smile before returning to work.
----- * * * -----
In an unusual turn of events, Kaede found herself waking up late at night. She felt feeble -- weaker than usual these days -- and 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.
With his back against a chair and 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 eleven hours since she last checked the time.
Has he been watching over me the entire 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 silver goblet that sat on the bedside table, which could be infused with ether to conjure clean, refreshing water out of thin air by summoning it from underground water tables.
Pascal nodded as he traced 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, and chatted with Marina during her cleaning visit. It was just like most other weekdays since she had been here.
"...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 knew 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, and 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.
I can't even gauge my own health anymore! Seriously this is so annoying...
----- * * * -----
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 -- at least until after breakfast, when the cadets 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 veal sausages 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 Hyperien humans. They had the same organ functions, similar biological cycles, and even suffered the same ill effects for nutritional unbalance.
The only major difference lay in their blood, as 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 of diseases within a day. Furthermore, their blood enhanced healing magic, could be transfused into any humanoid race without rejection, as well as put a gradual stop to bleeding when applied to another's wound.
Scholars believed that the blood was the source of their longevity. Few Samarans were innately capable of sorcery, yet all of them shared the same lifespan as the healthiest of human mages. Upon reaching the prime years of early adulthood, it took twice as long for them to decline in health and youthfulness, living for up to two centuries.
Given the fact that infusions of it actually did treat diseases and improve health, Samaran blood was a highly-sought commodity for as long as history remembered. After waging dozens of wars and funding centuries of black operations against the 'blood traders', the Grand Republic finally gave in and made their fluid of life a national export, managed officially by the Blood Bank of Samara as a diplomatic trade good. As a result, adult Samarans within the Grand Republic paid a very literal 'blood tax'. In return for keeping the blood market's supplies up and profit margins down, they discouraged any illegal sourcing and smuggling of Samaran blood to a manageable state. Threats of embargo, war, and active special operations further helped to deter adventurous individuals and nations alike.
Nevertheless, no less than three layers of security zones and checkpoints covered the Grand Republic's borders, and trade was inspected to near stifling ends for smuggling. Samarans outside the Grand Republic guarded themselves carefully, as human traffickers would pay extravagantly for a living Samaran body with a crushed will.
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.
After packing up several cultural books plus a tome on the history of familiars into the extra-dimensional messenger bag Pascal gave her, Kaede 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 that could only be described as a massive blob of silken tofu the size of a small car. Standing next to it was Parzifal, 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 again, Parzifal" she called out as she approached Ariadne's beloved.
"Oh, it's you," Parzifal 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 Northern Lotharingie Mountains."
Parzifal's casual explanation almost sent Kaede's head into spontaneous meltdown, but 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," Parzifal 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, Parzifal 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!" called out a short boy with flaming-red hair.
"Already used to it," Parzifal sighed. "Seriously, Reynald, just because your friends don't hand out military punishments doesn't mean you should keep us waiting. What took you an extra half hour?"
Small and skinny, Reynald was barely one-sixty-three (5'4") and virtually bounced across the distance with his overflowing energy. Underneath his red hair were a pair of spring-green eyes, a narrow, almost-feminine 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, he wore an outfit colored in the same burning-red as Ariadne's, which Pascal explained yesterday as the uniform for aspiring cadets of the Knights Phantom -- an elite order within the Weichsel military.
"Sorry sorry," Reynald waved in apology before stepping up with a large tin bucket in hand. "Gerd wouldn't admit defeat from our early team match and challenged me to a duel right before the end of class."
Oh right, he's that guy Pascal complained about for being too good at dueling, Kaede remembered.
"Well well, if it isn't the Runelords familiar -- the commoner who walloped the princeling." Reynald 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 Reynald. But as he spiraled close to her, her gut instincts began to knot themselves in discomfort.
"Miss, you are way too precious to be a decoration for that noble jerk." He bowed lightly before extending his hand. "Please, allow me to take you home instead and treat you like the warm and tasty muffin that you are."
Are you f'ing serious...?
Kaede's brows twitched twice in irritation. Then, her face flushed red 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, Reynald'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 poised to stab the runes on her forearm just in case. But Parzifal interjected and stepped in to face the shorter boy:
"Control yourself, Reynald. Just because she's not a noblewoman doesn't mean you can blatantly insult her like this."
Reynald scowled. No, pouted was a better description.
"Sheesh, you're never any fun, Parzifal. Fine fine," he then walked towards the white pudding and, with one scoop, filled his bucket with a chunk of the giant tofu.
"Thanks as always bro!" Reynald began to walk off, backwards. "Nice to meet you as well, Muffin! 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," Parzifal apologized in his deep, sincere voice. "Reynald 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 Parzifal 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..."
Parzifal scratched his head. But his eyes focused within an instant, revealing the concentration of an apprentice physician who took his job with utmost seriousness:
"But if you don't mind some blood testing, come with me to the healers' chapel and maybe we can find something out. 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 Reynald want with a chunk of... uh, white pudding?"
"He has a baby skywhale familiar that's barely old enough to cut milk. White pudding's ease of eating and digesting 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 now 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, as well as a dozen transparent quartz crystals the size of tablet computers.
Parzifal 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," Parzifal noted as he put the quartz screen back onto his lap. "You need to come outside more often."
"Well... people haven't exactly been welcoming to me."
A barely noticeable cringe went through Parzifal 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 perfect, and there are plenty of possible reasons for losing consciousness over some condition we either overlooked or simply can't detect, but..." his gaze turned from contemplative to warning. "Not for ten plus hours; 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 Parzifal 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?" Parzifal asked.
"Pascal said the Detection spells came out clean. How reliable is that?"
"Reliable enough for everything conventional," Parzifal simply shrugged. "But healers aren't in the subterfuge or poison business, and that spell is old, ancient. One of the first things they teach 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 Parzifal'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 guy."
The shadow of guilt that entered his almost bashful expression 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 strive towards good expectations, she thought as she waved to Parzifal 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 outsider entry 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? And if this is poison, it's far too low grade... almost like an immature prank.
Kaede knew that history was abundant with cases where the agents of nobles 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 his irritable mood for several days now.
It began late last Friday when he tried to contact Sylviane again, only to be rejected without a single word.
The Farspeak spell opened the most reliable communication channel using ungrounded telepathy, 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 during weekend nights; but in the past, even when she attended 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 hanging up his calls on both Saturday and Sunday nights. Pascal had no wish to further irritate his fiancée by pestering her nonstop, but 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.
On Tuesday morning, a noble who unwisely spoke ill of Rhin-Lotharingie'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; 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 look into some method of how I can get back?"
Sighing, Pascal put down the ink stone that he used to channel words straight onto parchment. He turned back around to face the familiar girl. Sitting 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 cream-white hair draped across her bare back and shoulders, pooling into a pile besides her.
"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 von Grimm -- he teaches teleportation -- to cast the ancient planar banishment spell on those clothes that came with you; it did not work on them either. Even if we knew exactly which world you came from out of the infinite numbers out there among the multiverse, the magic of the worldwalkers is a tale of old legends and folklore, 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 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. So 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 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 the urge of pulling into a theological discussion.
"Anyhow, since there are stories of visiting other worlds..."
"Yes, from millennia ago when fiends, archons, 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 a pretty wish. 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 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.
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