Kaede shivered as she stepped out from her assigned tent and closed its flaps behind her. A cold breeze blew down between the rows of tents and cabins, unevenly distributed in the barren winter forest.
The skies were still black, with thick clouds obscuring much of the huge indigo 'moon'. Yet even then, the celestial body stretched across a third of the heavens, adding to the illumination of campfires and lanterns as she made her way through the encampment.
Her footsteps took her towards a hill at the northern edge of the army encampment, which overlooked the surrounding forests just inland from the coast. There, rangers from her understrengthed company kept a watch through the night, divided into three shifts...
Kaede gave off a tiny sneeze as yet another wintry draft blew up her skirt, chilling her exposed thighs between stockings and underwear. Her magical clothing might have kept her body warm, but they didn't stop her exposed skin from feeling like they were growing ice crystals.
Stupid Pascal, she rubbed her small nose. Even a pair of tights would have served better for the heating-enchantment than his choice of undergarments.
I'm their commanding officer, she had to remind herself. It's my responsibility to check up on them...
Although that wasn't the only reason.
Kaede had woken up an hour ago, after yet another terrible nightmare. Its details had faded from her mind too quickly to remember. But it left her with a terrible anxiety, a feeling that something awful had happened.
Unable to fall asleep again, she spent the hour twisting and turning, until she grew tired of lying about. Her mind couldn't stop wandering from one concern to another -- some about the war, but just as many involved what came afterwards.
Sylviane could apologize with the utmost sincerity, but that didn't change the fact that she was Pascal's envious fiancée. Worse yet, she was an envious Empress-to-be, with all stressful responsibilities and abusable powers that the title entails.
The Chinese once said that 'to accompany one's sovereign was like accompanying a tiger' -- one never knew when it might grow temperamental and hungry. The fact that Kaede's very existence was an intrusion upon this tigress' hunting grounds only exacerbated the problem.
Sure, Kaede could leave. She had been thinking about it ever since she received the immigration documents from Captain Markov. She was sure Pascal would give her some money, even though most of his funds had been sunk into this war. But what then? She was stuck in a world where none of her skills were particularly marketable, in a body unfit for manual labor. Kaede knew that even her high school chemistry held no comparison against practical Hyperion alchemy -- she couldn't even list what compounds to mix for building mortar, let alone industrial reagents like 'Prussic Acid'.
The Grand Republic of Samara was an mercantile oligarchy, not a European Union welfare state. She would have to rebuild her life from nothing. For a girl in this era with neither training nor trade, that meant she would most likely wind up as a domestic servant, subject to the whims of yet another master and mistress.
Is such a gamble really worth it?
Kaede had no doubt that her 'easy' life since coming to this world had been Pascal's blessing. Apart from the war, she had traveled back several centuries and maintained more or less the same standard of living, which could only be achieved by wealth. Furthermore, Pascal respected her opinions, and Sylviane was... if not friendly, then at least cordial half of the time. There was no guarantee that another throw of the dice would return any better results.
Besides, there was also something else. A feeling of reluctance that she hadn't quite wrapped her thoughts around yet...
I really hate risk-taking don't I? She climbed the hill's slopes with a sigh. At least, when I'm not being impulsive about it.
"Morning Sir. You're up early," waved Sergeant Gaspard, her reconnaissance squad leader who held the third and final watch. He was a lanky, freckled young yeoman, with ginger hair and a bright-green gaze.
Two other men also huddled around the campfire. They resembled each other just enough to be brothers, though she knew neither by name. Both of them yawned back with muttered greetings -- a sign of Rhin-Lotharingie's lax military discipline. If this was Weichsel, they would have at least stood up and saluted to greet an officer.
"Couldn't sleep," Kaede suppressed the contagious yawn, before her eyes fell on the fourth and last figure.
The woman seemed to be in her late thirties, with long brown locks flowing freely down her shoulders. Her ankle-length dress was a simple green and white, with a thick wool shawl wrapped around her arms. Even with Rhin-Lotharingie's lack of proper military uniforms, it was apparent that she was no combatant.
"Who are you?"
"Her name 's Gwen, a local," Gaspard introduced.
"I'm the resident alchemist and herbalist for the nearby villages," Gwen smiled back as she presented a covered straw basket in her arms. "Was collecting herbs in the forest before coming across your folks."
"At this hour?" Kaede frowned as she looked around the hill. They were surrounded by dark, barren forests, hauntingly illuminated by only the dim purple light of the 'moon'.
No way I'd ever come out here alone.
She brushed her skirt down and sat on a nearby rock -- a motion that became second nature after several months here.
Gaspard had to translate back. Courtesy of the linguistics magic Pascal worked into their familiar bond, Kaede could speak a perfect Imperial. But it seemed Gwen had a limited understanding of the language and spoke only in Brython -- one of the three main languages of Rhin-Lotharingie. And while Kaede could understand Brython thanks to the translation magic on her earrings, she couldn't speak it. Thankfully, the sergeant was multilingual, which in Hyperion meant he had at least a middle class education.
"There are several herbs best picked in the early hours before daybreak," Gwen explained.
"And we spotted her in the woods and asked her to join us for a chat," Gaspard added, with a subtle nod that he had already verified that Gwen was telling the truth.
"Well, you did," one of the men grumbled. Clearly, the sergeant wasn't always in the mood to translate.
Kaede wasn't sure what to make of Gwen, but the stranger seemed to harbor no ill intent. She shrugged it off after another moment of scrutiny. It was, after all, hard to lie to a Ranger about knowledge of the wild.
"Aren't you a little far from Weichsel?" the woman asked, her eyes scanning Kaede's pseudo-uniform and especially the Knight's Cross.
"Allies have journeyed further to support a war."
"Is it true that you're the familiar to a Weichsel duke?" one of the rangers curiously joined.
"...And also Lady Vivienne's twin sister?" the second followed.
Kaede's eyebrows shot up. Guess I should've expected that from the rumor mill.
She reached towards the campfire as she mentally turned up her undergarments' magical heating. The wind chill was worse on the hill, and her light skirt certainly wasn't helping.
"No, I'm not related to Lady Vivienne at all. I just... look like her for some reason."
Kaede still hadn't talked to Pascal about that yet. But she could certainly see how it had happened. Vivienne's mysterious past might make Pascal uncomfortable, but there was no denying her adorable cuteness. Her close relationship with Sylviane also meant that he had plenty of opportunity to see the young girl.
Although that has to be weird... fantasizing about your fiancée's girlfriend.
Don't tell me Pascal is jealous.
Kaede almost chuckled aloud before she pulled her thoughts back to the current conversation:
"...But I am the familiar of His Grace, the Landgrave of Nordkreuz."
"I've never understood the nobles' convention," replied one of the soldiers. "I mean, it has to be weird if you call him 'Your Grace' all the time."
Kaede was still considering her answer when Gaspard finished translating for Gwen, and the older woman immediately took on a catty smile:
"Especially when you're doing it with him."
Gaspard coughed and nearly choked while Kaede stared back with her eyes bulging.
We've barely met for two minutes and you're discussing... THAT!?
Meanwhile, the other two soldiers looked between them in confusion, realizing they had just missed something important.
"Hey, what did she say?" one pestered the sergeant.
"I do NOT sleep with him... in that way!" Kaede hissed.
She instinctively corrected her statement mid-sentence, since... well, she did sleep with him.
Kaede felt as though her cheeks were about to start glowing.
"You don't?" the youngest of the soldiers asked, before Gaspard slapped him in the back of the head.
"No!" Kaede almost shouted. "Why does everyone just assumed that I... do that!?"
"Why else would a young nobleman go through the trouble of summoning a pretty girl for his familiar?" Gwen explained. "You can't really say 'no' if he's your master."
"It's because he didn't have any friends!" Kaede blurted out. "And for your information, I don't call him by either, just 'Pascal'!"
The awkwardness was only increased when Gaspard had to act as interpreter.
"Ah, so he's the immature kind who just wants to play house."
"He's not that either!"
Gwen chuckled, clearly having fun at the younger girl's expense.
"You're certainly close enough to follow him to war," Gaspard added in a straight tone, trying to redirect the topic onto something he could explain more comfortably.
"Well... after all our time together, he has become family," Kaede calmed down a little as she picked up a stick to poke at the fire. "We've gone through life-and-death together even before the war began."
The three men nodded in understanding. Aiding family members was a universal concept that anyone could grasp, especially longtime soldiers who had bonded with their units as a second tribe.
"Besides..." Kaede thought deeper. "For someone like me, it would be hard to simply walk away from this."
"Why is that?" The sergeant asked, curious. "If you're not a Lotharin, it's hardly your obligation to fight our war. The Caliphate hardly poses a threat to Weichsel."
"A religiously-motivated militant empire like the Caliphate eventually poses a threat to anyone who isn't Tauheed," she replied in serious.
After all, just like the Abrahamic religions of Earth, the Tauheed worship of the Caliphate saw all other faiths as either infidels or heathens. Such views always brought about an active desire to convert other, 'morally inferior' societies, often times by force.
"But, that's not your reason," Gwen observed.
Kaede stared into the fire. Sure, part of the reason she couldn't leave Pascal was a materialistic concern. But there was another part, a feeling she hadn't been able to put into words until this moment:
"You see, I'm a scholar of history. I've spent so many years reading about great people, the great turning points that changed the course of the world. But I've always been an observer, a thinker in hindsight... until now..."
She fed a few nearby branches into the campfire, her gloved hands reaching out as they sought its warmth. Yet through its embers her mind saw a different furnace -- the crucible of this exotic but wondrous world.
Hyperion was filled with marvels of human ingenuity: from the industrialized and weaponized magic to domesticated skywhales serving as aircraft carriers, from maps of the growing Polarity Rail to her chart of Skagen's oversea colonies.
But they haven't come together to form a new brand of civilization. Not yet.
"You see, Hyperion is a continent on the cusp of something historic, something that will shape the future for centuries to come," Kaede tried to explain. "And for once, I'm not just a passive spectator to the events of the world. Instead, I stand right next to some of the great actors who will shape the continent, a unique position to not just witness but also influence the turning pages of history itself.
"How can I not take advantage of that? To help make this world a better place?"
Kaede looked back up to find the three rangers looking thoughtful, while Gwen grinned back from the other side of the campfire.
"It took me many years to learn and appreciate that," the older woman stated. "You're well ahead of your time."
"Of course, as a herbalist, I'm sure you change the lives of people around you on a daily basis."
"Even if I did, it wouldn't be nearly as much as you," Gwen added with a nostalgic sigh.
It took another moment before Kaede realized that Gaspard hadn't translated either of her recent statements, which meant Gwen hardly needed an interpreter to understand her.
"Who are you... really?"
"A local. Who is -- or at least wants to be -- on your side," Gwen smiled as she stood up with her basket. "And that's all you need to know."
Wants to be? Kaede puzzled. "Then why can't you?"
"Because I have to remain neutral, at least for now."
Kaede had only sensed a faint magical aura coming from Gwen, far less than those of trained noble mages. Of course, it was possible that Gwen masked it, since Kaede's intuition was increasingly convinced that Gwen was an eccentric lady from the Kingdom of Ceredigion. Her need for neutrality did not seem a lie, and the only reason Kaede could think of for that was 'regional politics'.
The familiar was still staring back, as speechless as the others, when Gwen walked away and began to descend the hill.
"Wait..." Kaede rose and rushed after her. If she is indeed a Lady of Ceredigion, then...
Standing next to a birch tree on the slopes, Gwen turned to face Kaede with a gentle, moonlit smile:
"I have one piece of advice for you, Miss Familiar," she spoke in lightly-accented Imperial this time. "If you truly wish to render the world a better place, then cherish your time and do all that you can in the coming years. Because if my guess about your master is right, then you'll only have so long before the freedom to change the world as you see fit escapes you."
"What are you-- why do you say that?" Kaede sat perplexed. She had absolute no idea just what this woman was trying to warn her of. "And why have you been watching us?"
This was clearly not the first time.
"Your master and mistress lead the army that protects Ceredigion's interests. Why wouldn't I watch?" Gwen explained as though it was obvious. "As for the former... you'll understand as you grow older. Because the higher you rise and the more influence you accrue, the more your hands will be constrained by the rules. Once you have come as far as I have..."
Gwen's smile turned wry.
With one hand on the birch tree, Gwen's magical aura flared as she activated a silent spell. For a brief second, Kaede could see the woman's outline shimmering with power. It was magnitudes stronger than any mage she had ever met, and the familiar girl took a step back as her body tensed.
But before Kaede could say anything else, Gwen walked straight into the tree. No, she didn't crash into it. Instead, the woman simply stepped into the trunk like some bizarre phenomenon of quantum physics and vanished.
For several minutes, Kaede continued to stare at the tree and the vaguely purple forest that surrounded them. But there wasn't even a trace of Gwen's presence remaining, only a renewed wintry breeze.
"Just what was that about anyway?" A soldier's voice came from behind her.
"I have no clue..." Sergeant Gaspard answered. "But I'd heard that treewalking is an old druidic magic. Only a few Faekissed still practice that nowadays."
His statement prompted Kaede to swivel around:
"Does Ceredigion have an archmage?"
The two rangers shook their heads, while Gaspard replied:
"Not that I've heard of... But then, I'd never heard about Lady Vivienne either, until just a few days ago.
He shrugged with a sour look.
"War seems to bring out all the hidden talents, even jerks who make me translate for no reason."