[x] Short.
[x] Straight and regal, waist-length.
[x] Red.
[x] Wholesome: Modest blouses, long skirts, and dresses iconic of the freeholder class in Caldrein.
[x] ...the second group of three, with the two humans and aseri.

Taking a deep breath and wishing you had another mirror to make sure your appearance is in order - that your waist-length red hair is still straight and not knotted, that your blouse isn't terribly wrinkled and your skirt hasn't been inexcusably dirtied from the road to Faulkren - you take your plate of food and walk in the direction of one of the tables. Specifically, the one with the second-largest group, comprising of the two humans and the aseri.

The more talkative human sees your approach and waves. "Oh, hi!" she greets, gesturing for you to sit down at their table, saving you the effort of asking if a seat is free. Her brown hair, framing pretty green eyes, is just a touch shorter than yours and tied into a low ponytail with a nice ribbon at shoulder-height. "Did you just come in?"

"Y-Yes," you answer, giving a quick curtsy to all three of them before taking up on the human's offer to sit down, to no one's objection. You even manage a small smile as you introduce yourself: "U-Um, I'm Neianne. I-It's nice to meet you."

Smiling warmly, the first human happily introduces herself: "I'm Vesna Rainer. This is Emilie," she adds, gesturing to the second human - with neat blond hair trimmed neatly at shoulder-length and wide blue eyes - who gives a friendly bow of her head, "and..."

"Nikki," greets the tall, slightly-tanned aseri promptly, raising a hand slightly as if to wave with minimal effort; her introduction is terse but not actually unfriendly, even as she brushes strands of her slightly-curly shoulder-length black hair out of the way of her brown eyes.

You try not to look too flustered as you again give polite bows of your head to all three of them. "H-How long have you been here?" you ask, cautiously giving voice to your ulterior concern that you've somehow dropped in on a clique of friends that has already formed in the previous days.

"I actually got in at the middle of the night," grins Vesna. "I hitched a ride on a wagon that stopped for the evening at a village two, three hours away. And I thought, 'Hey, I can just walk the rest of the way instead of staying the night.' So I did."

Emilie seems impressed at that. "Was there anyone there to check you in?" she gasps.

Snorting, Nikki answers in Vesna's stead: "I found her asleep at the foot of the gate when I arrived this morning."

Sticking out her tongue playfully at the aseri, Vesna points at Nikki and mutters with mock indignation, "She tried to draw something on my face, too."

"Did not."

"I came in last night just after supper," Emilie informs you quietly as Nikki and Vesna exchange a few playful verbal barbs, laying to rest your previous worries. "I'm from the region, so I didn't have to travel for too long. It still took me four days, though."

"I a-actually just arrived fifteen minutes ago," you admit.

"You haven't missed out on anything important, I think," Emilie reassures you before looking in the direction of the dignified-looking elf seated with the largest group. "I heard the first person to arrive is Lady Treiser, and that was two days ago."

So the elf is a highborn after all. Not that you doubted, but at least you have a name to match the face now. Although, now that you think about it, of the room's fifteen occupants, you are almost certain that at least a fifth of them - or maybe as many as two-fifths, including those you're not quite as sure about - are some form of nobility. "Th-There are a lot of ladies here," you murmur, thinking that of all the rooms you've ever seen, this one is least representative of the actual socioeconomic makeup of the Confederacy.

"All looking for a feather in their cap," snorts Nikki; she has disengaged from Vesna and thus returned to the broader conversation. "I do wonder how many of them will be staying on for all three years, having to actually move for a change."

"You're just jealous," teased Vesna good-naturedly. "But, yeah, that's Aphelia Meredith Treiser. And the other elf is Lucille Lorraine Celestia."

You blink, recognizing the family name. "House Celestia r-rules Apaloft," you whisper.

"That it does," confirms Vesna. So this is a daughter of the family that commands one of the five regions of the Confederacy, ruled by the countess in her seat of Arkenvale.

"Too many daughters?" guesses Nikki, although not so loud that anyone else outside the group can easily hear. One would think that a lady as important as a Caldran countess would not risk one of her daughters in the field of battle.

"I actually think Lucille isn't from the main family," Vesna thinks aloud, "but still from a major branch. A niece or something." Looking further down the room, her gaze finds the raven-haired girl sitting by herself, and her voice drops to a much quieter murmur. "She is Sieglinde Corrina Ravenhill, and rumors are that she's already a prodigy."

This is not an observation that surprises you. Even though she is literally just sitting there and reading her book, the first impression that she is not to be trifled with has not abated in any way. She's also rather tall for her age, even moreso than Nikki, and in that regard, you quietly observe, "She l-looks a bit older than m-most of us."

"And a bit...intimidating," Emilie admits nervously. And, of course, no sooner did the words leave her mouth that Sieglinde - without tilting her head back from the book - suddenly glances in your direction, causing the four of you to instantly turn around and determinedly look as innocent as possible by staring in every other direction that isn't hers.

"That's Wilhelmina Adelaide Marienberg," Vesna awkwardly laughs, trying to sell the impression of innocence by quickly moving onto the next group of highborn-looking girls, making a small gesture at the duo consisting of the human and the dryad, "and the dryad next to her is Azalea Cherilyn Charmaine."

"Do you know her?" Emilie suddenly asks you, her previous nervousness regarding Sieglinde suddenly replaced by an enthusiastic interest that takes you back a little. "Lady Azalea?"

"I-I know of House Charmaine," you allow, but no more than that.

Emilie looks mildly surprised and perhaps even a hair disappointed. "You've never met?"

Awkwardly, you give an apologetic smile as you politely answer, "N-Never." It's not as if the fact that you are both dryads grants you access to a lady of the nobility. That being said, it's not as if you don't know by reputation the only noble house of dryads in the Confederacy. New to Caldrein, dryads have not had sufficient history to squeeze into the upper social strata of the Confederacy, at least not until the progenitors of House Charmaine - having managed to run a successful merchant enterprise for about a century - reorganized and revitalized the agriculture of the region of Fulwaite during a famine a bit more than two decades ago. They won the gratitude of the region and of the regional countess, and the Charmaines - Azalea's parents, most likely - were given a barony in recognition for their services.

This also had the side effect of looking like a goodwill gesture, which convinced more dryads to leave the woodlands, to give the elves and the humans and the aseri a chance, to make the attempt of integrating into Confederate society.

"You know a lot about all these ladies," Nikki quips at Vesna, although she doesn't exactly sound impressed.

But Vesna merely smiles sweetly and replies, "I pay attention." Then, after looking you over, she murmurs, "So...dryad."

You blink; have you already offended Vesna so much that she's not referring to you by name? "P-Pardon?" you stammer.

"You're a real dryad, right?"

Nikki beats you to the response to a familiar question. "No," answers the aseri dryly, "she's a fake dryad. Those leaves are tied to her hair, and the marks on her skin are from where she slept in bed."

You aren't the only one who blushes at that answer. "I don't get to see dryads all that much, okay?" pouts Vesna...before turning back to you and asking, "You mostly live in the villages, right?"

You suppose that "you" is an acceptable substitute for "dryads who have immigrated to the Confederacy", even if it feels weird to be somehow considered representative of all dryads. "I th-think so," you allow uncertainly before giving the question some more thought. "I-I mean, all of our neighbors wh-where I come from are elven, human, and aseri, so I-I don't see many other dryads either. M-My parents know dryads from the old days b-before we moved to Confederacy, b-but I don't know them very well, and th-they only visit now and then. N-None of my friends are dryads either."

"So your parents are originally from the forests?" asks Emilie.

"Y-Yes. I was b-born there, but we moved to the C-Confederacy when I was very young, a few y-years after the Charmaines were granted a b-barony. I-I-I only remember a little about the woodlands."

"I hear that dryads don't like the cities very much," remarks Nikki.

"M-Maybe?" you offer hesitantly. "I think it's...d-difficult to get used to for people like my parents, who l-lived in the woodlands for m-many years for their lives. I'm...m-mostly okay with it, I think. I still r-remember growing up in the woodlands, but I d-don't think life out here is really b-bad."

"Aren't you just more...connected to the wilds?" presses Emilie. "House Charmaine was granted a barony for revitalizing farming in Fulwaite during the famine..."

"I-If that's true, I've never really f-felt it!" you exclaim. "I th-think some dryads are just more...s-sensitive to how plants and trees and crops grow, b-but maybe that's more...people who live their lives s-surrounded by all sorts of p-plants in the forest would p-probably be a bit more familiar with how things work? I-I-I would have had no idea how to save Fulwaite during the f-famine had it been me instead of House Charmaine that they looked for."

"No super special plant magic?" Nikki chuckled.

"I-I don't think so. Well, m-many dryads are good with m-magecraft, but aren't elves, too? I-I's not something that d-dryads are just born being able to do." Not to mention all the stories you've heard about dryads branching out - with much success - with other elements of magecraft. Dryads are sensitive to the ecological environment, at least to a degree, but the effect is never quite as exaggerated as the wildest stories.

"So you don't eat plants and flowers or tree bark either?" Emilie gasps.

"I thought dryads don't need to eat at all," Vesna opines, looking skeptically at your own plate of food.

"W-W-We do need to eat!" you insist. Then, a bit more calmly, "I-It's just...water and sunlight are...possible sources of s-sustenance for dryads. W-We can fall back on sunlight and water for m-much longer than humans, aseri, or elves. But n-n-not indefinitely. A-And it's definitely healthier to s-stick to a diet that's like everyone else's, e-especially while ch-children are still growing, e-even though I don't eat quite as much as e-everyone else."

There are quiet nods from the three listeners as they process the information you've given them in silence. Then - trying to fight back a grin - Vesna asks less-than-innocently, "So do dryads have to go to the bathroom?"

Your face thwacks the table in embarrassment even as Nikki's hand thwacks the back of Vesna's head in exasperation. You do feel a little relieved when the conversation finally turns away from you moments later in spite of the lingering curiosity. At least it wasn't Dorothy who was questioning you.

Emilie, as it turns out, comes from a family of tailors, something that doesn't really surprise you. Although her dress is cut of plainer cloths and isn't anything particularly fancy, you do not fail to observe the elegance in its simplicity of design, nor the colorful embroidery Emilie herself wove into the dress in intricate patterns. The second of two children, Emilie nonetheless faced resistance from her parents when she announced her desire to enroll in Faulkren Academy. "They insisted that the mercenary life isn't for me," Emilie explains sheepishly, "that I would do greater good with the needle and I should stay to help run the shop."

"You don't really look the type to join up," Nikki admits. You silently confess to yourself that you think the same, although given the similarities between you and Emilie in personality, that feels like a somewhat hypocritical statement.

Blushing, Emilie looks flustered as she admits, "Maybe not." Then, almost gushing, she adds, "But don't you think it's romantic? Traveling across the countryside with a sword in hand, fighting battles and righting wrongs?"

"What." This is Nikki flatly droning with an incredulous stare.

"The Adventures of the Silver Princess!" Vesna suddenly gushes.

"I know!" squeals Emilie excitedly.

"...What?" you echo Nikki, albeit with more confusion and less incredulity.

"They're a series of adventure novels from Ornthalia," explains Vesna happily. "About how an Ornthalian princess travels incognito across the land and goes on these grand adventures while masquerading as a mercenary or a knight-errant. The books are really famous, actually!" And then Emilie and Vesna begin to dreamily chatter over their shared interests in fiction, much to your continued confusion and a lingering suspicion that this is not exactly what the mercenary life will be like.

Nikki makes a long-suffering sigh reminiscent of someone who realizes that she's surrounded by idiots.

By contrast, Nikki's parents are blacksmiths from Sandria, which means that she saw her share of soldiers leaving for the Elsparian Front, a "sorry lot" rallied to hold the line against the Tenereians. She thus resolved to join the Caldran mercenary warbands instead of the Sandrian army if she was to fight for her homeland. The decision wasn't hard to make; unlike Emilie, Nikki - the third child of four - fully admits that she has none of her parents' talents in smithing. "I was a horrible blacksmith," she snickers in self-ridicule. "I never managed to get the fires on the forges right, my hammer never struck the anvil the right way. My mother tried her best and used to spend more hours trying to teach me over my sisters, but she just gave up in the end. So if I was going to be useless at home, I figured I may as well try my luck at one of Caldrein's largest mercenary academies and see if I can get in. Father wasn't too happy about it, but my mother was probably glad to get rid of someone so useless from the house."

"Your mother doesn't think you're useless!" insisted Emilie sadly, convincing herself that she's trying to cheer Nikki up. "I'm sure she loves you!"

"No," laughs Nikki, "I know she does loves me. And she thinks I'm useless." And the aseri's laughter only intensifies in satisfaction as she savors her sweet vengeance over Emilie's turn to be bewildered.

Although Vesna's parents technically qualify as merchants, they aren't precisely the rich sort with guilds and fleets of trade ships. In fact, they don't even have their own shop; rather, they sell goods from their own wagon, traveling from locale-to-locale in search of profit. This causes Nikki to wryly remark that Vesna's family is "more aseri than my family". You are surprised when Vesna reveals that she's an only child; the idea that parents would risk their single daughter in such a way strikes you as startlingly daring. "It turns out that it's hard to support a family when you're making tiny profits from trade while on the road," Vesna admits sheepishly. "Believe it or not, my life here is probably going to be more stable and safer than with my parents."

Although her reasons aren't quite as "romantic" as Emilie's, Vesna's motivation for joining ultimately comes down to wanting to be useful and self-reliant, a decidedly optimistic outlook. To hear her say it, the Huntress' War is the Confederacy's greatest call for aid, and even if the method in which she may do so in the future is still a nebulous, uncertain, and distant concept, Vesna clings onto the idea that she can eventually help someone: The people of Caldrein, if she is lucky, or at least just a village that may be spared the horrors of war.

"...Ah!" exclaims Vesna, as if realizing that she's getting ahead of herself. "But the honor and the pay is important too, yes!"

You consider sharing your own background, but any efforts you may have made in that regard are suddenly interrupted as a commotion stirs at the doors leading into the Great Hall. It doesn't take too long to see what's happening, even if you must crane your neck a little; some of the apprentices have noticed that documents are being pinned up on the notice board. While the cities are beginning to see an increased production of books and leaflets through the proliferation of the printing press, news being shared on notice boards across Caldrein is still a time-honored tradition, and absolutely vital to the remote countrysides where the influence of the printing press has not yet reached. The crowd - at least most of them - are eager to see what news has arrived here in Faulkren, and they rise from their seats to read the notices put up. Sieglinde doesn't bother getting up, though, and the elf who has dozed off doesn't seem to rouse from her nap either.

It takes you a few attempts to squeeze through the small gathering of apprentices to get a glimpse of the notices on the boards. Most of them simply detail information for newcomers here at Faulkren, but one particularly large piece of paper contains the latest news about - unsurprisingly - developments in the Huntress' War.

Tenereians Advance on Halissen, Battles Imminent

Tenereian scouting parties have been spotted in the area surrounding Halissen, Elspar, thus providing a strong indication that the Tenereian Union's next military target on the Elsparian Front will be the region's third largest city. Viscountess Dolores Hadea Nornfel of Halissen is expected to lead the defense with the blessings of Countess Katriona Mariabella Cenoryn of Wynholm, who commands the Elsparian war effort from the wartime capital of Arnheim.

Halissen has been the focal point of the Caldran defense since the Confederate armies abandoned the Berkena Borough last year after being outnumbered four-to-one, but at great cost to the Tenereian invaders. With the plains between Halissen and Berkena deemed indefensible, Halissen has been designated the next major defensive line in the Caldran strategy, a red line that must not be crossed.

In spite of the Confederate retreat, Caldran mercenaries have launched daring raids against Tenereian supply lines for more than half a year, significantly hindering Tenereia's ability to promptly resupply and regroup after their costly victory at Berkena. In particular, the efforts of the Llyneyth warband alone have delayed the Tenereian advance by at least three months, buying Caldrein precious time to reorganize the Confederate defense.

The importance of the defense of Halissen cannot be overstated. Over the past nine years, Elspar has suffered valiant defeats at the strongholds of Ainellen and Cherlith, and the regional capital of Wynholm. Should Halissen fall into enemy hands, then only Arnheim stands in the way of total Tenereian dominion over the region of Elspar.

Anxious murmurs sweep through the gathering of apprentices as they read and digest this piece of news. It is to be expected, of course; after Wynholm, Halissen and Arnheim are the only major cities in Elspar left. But stories of the miracles conjured by the Caldran mercenaries around the Berkena Borough - each retelling of their raids more fanciful than the last - sold the impression that this stalemate would last forever. Clearly, this is no longer the case.

"Do you think they stand a chance at Halissen?" whispers Emilie quietly, to no one and everyone in particular.

Nikki's grimacing answer is clearly a rhetorical question: "After being defeated at Wynholm, Ainellen, and Cherlith?"

"The Tenereians can't keep fighting forever," murmurs Vesna. "It's already been nine years. And we're not the only ones Tenereia is fighting, right? They have to run out of steam soon, especially with how we've been harassing them."

As you listen to their discussion absentmindedly, it occurs to you that - with almost everyone getting up, reading the notice board, and mingling together - you have a second chance to gracefully slip into other groups to meet more people without looking particularly obtrusive. You've just spent quite an amount of time getting to know Emilie, Nikki, and Vesna; given that you still don't know who your roommate will be or what groups you'll have to work with through your training, it's probably a good idea to build a decent amount of rapport with as many people as possible. The mood has become a bit more somber with grave news coming out of Elspar, but at least you won't have to worry about having little in the way of subjects to talk about. And so you join...

[x] ...the first group of five, with Aphelia, Lucille, the two humans, and the talkative aseri.
[x] ...the third group of two, with Azalea and Wilhelmina.
[x] ...the fourth group of two, with two humans.
[x] ...Sieglinde.
[x] ...the petite elf nodding off in her own corner.


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