[x] ...Sieglinde.

Despite being surprised by the glance she sent in your direction previously, you admit to being at least a little intrigued by the cool, aloof girl sitting by herself at her table. Taking advantage of the fact that the throng of apprentices around you are still distracted by the latest news to come out of the war, you quietly slip out of the crowd and back towards the tables. You are largely unnoticed as you step through everyone's blind spots; the only two people who are in a position to see you move are Sieglinde herself and the elf who's still dozing off - cutely, in fact - to the side.

You step up to and stop at her table, at which point Sieglinde finally looks up from her book with the barest hint of surprise on her otherwise expressionless face. Although absent of the fashionable flourishes that are popular amongst richer Caldran girls - evident on Aphelia's attire, for example - Sieglinde's fairly plain dark robes are clearly of good quality. Up close, you can see why she seems a little intimidating to approach; framed by long, raven black hair, her pale features are sharp but far from unattractive, even though she projects a blase air of aloofness. "H-Hello," you greet hesitantly. "I'm Neianne."

"Sieglinde," she greets with a small nod of her head, her words quiet but confident. She seems a touch guarded and her tone bland, but her demeanor is not unfriendly, even as she gestures to a chair, inviting you to sit down beside her. "A pleasure."

This is followed soon afterwards by an awkward moment of silence. Well, awkward for you, mostly. Sieglinde reaches over to her cup to take a drink as if nothing in particular is amiss. You don't think that this is her way of asking you to leave - especially not so soon after she invited you to sit - but she doesn't seem to be in a hurry to rush to a conversation, though. Neither are you, really, but the wordlessness makes you feel increasingly self-conscious.

Struggling to find something - anything - to talk about, you catch Sieglinde flipping a page in her book, and you immediately blurt, "W-W-What are you reading?"

Honestly, you could've asked about the weather for all that it matters. Both probably feel as desperate and embarrassing to ask. But it's the most obvious object in Sieglinde's possession, and you had to point out something.

But Sieglinde seems unbothered by your inquiry. "A treatise on the history and politics of Ornthalia," she explains. "A little dated, but I've been told that it's still relevant."

You blink, looking at the cover of the book. It actually looks fairly new, not anything like the rough and worn books you would expect to have sat on the library bookshelf for a long, long time. "It d-doesn't look very dated," you observe honestly.

You may be mistaken, but you think you see a hint of a ghost of a smile on Sieglinde's lips at that observation. "This was reproduced on a printing press. The original treatise was written by hand ninety years ago by Baroness Leandra."

That...sounds impressive, if nothing else, even if the intricacies of Sieglinde's explanation feel like they're flying over your head. "I-It's an important book, then...?" you venture, trying to make an intelligent remark despite not feeling very intelligent at all right now.

"It remains the most credible text on the intricacies of the Imperial Republic written by Caldran hands. No one since has written on the subject nearly as extensively."

"Oh," you murmur blankly, settling into a moment of silence. It's not that you don't comprehend the quiet words coming out of Sieglinde's mouth, but it does feel like you're missing some important context that makes actual understanding possible. "Is that...n-normal?"

"It depends," Sieglinde shrugs. Perhaps she meant to leave it at that, but she gives you a glance a moment later, observing that her answer is probably intensely unsatisfying for you. Taking a small breath, she snaps the book shut in her hand before elaborating, "We are trading partners, and there are diplomatic missions every now and then. But courting favor with one of the two superpowers on Iuryis is difficult, certainly with our paltry trade volume. It is not helped by our uncritical adoption of political and cultural mores that surely must work out for us because they made Ornthalia powerful. Nor is it helped by a superficial understanding of the social and political complexities of the Imperial Republics that starts and ends at 'they can protect us from Tenereia'. And even if most of our learned diplomats and merchants manage to acquaint themselves deeply enough with the powers-that-be within Ornthalia, they would prefer to write short reports and little notes back home rather than an entire treatise from which a new generation may learn." A pause. Then, with a hint of dry wryness, she adds, "Assuming these people are any good at penmanship." There's something about her tone that suggests she very much assumes otherwise.

Despite all the information provided, you still feel like Sieglinde has not actually answered your question. "I-I'm sorry, I'm still not sure i-if that's...normal."

Sieglinde sighs a little this time, although not irritably as much as it merely seems resigned. It still doesn't stop you from feeling like you've offended someone who really should not be offended, but her voice is still calm and patient when she concludes, "By the standards of any other country with a degree of sanity, no, it's absolutely abnormal and inexcusable to have such lapses in diplomatic effort. But by the standards of a country as self-absorbed as Caldrein?" Under a more liberal definition, the sharp exhale that escapes her nose can almost be classified as a snort. "Yes, it is all too tragically normal."

You take a moment to digest this, allowing it to fit into the jigsaw puzzle of impressions, slowly understanding what Sieglinde is talking about. It's a lot to digest, and if you didn't feel it before, you certainly feel like you're having a discussion with someone who - despite being two or three years older than you at most - seems like she's in a completely different league where intellect is concerned. With little better to say, you inject a tone into your voice that sounds just a touch defensive as you murmur, "You d-don't seem to like Caldrein very much."

This observation, however, evokes the first real smile from Sieglinde, wry and humored. It's still very small, but it's actually indisputably a smile instead of something you end up having to wonder if you just imagined it. "Do I give off that impression?" she chuckles. "It would be very inconvenient for me to dislike Caldrein as a daughter of House Ravenhill, I think."

With a start, you realize with a small sense of muted horror that you have been speaking so openly - and perhaps, more importantly, so brazenly - with a lady of a noble house. The name, when Vesna mentioned it in passing, really should've been an indication, but Sieglinde talked so openly with you, and that detail slipped your mind. "M-Milady," you quickly bow your head. "F-F-Forgive me, that was..."

The first signs of muted displeasure and impatience - barely perceptible as they are - appear on Sieglinde's features as she waves a hand to cut you off. "I prefer the way you treated me before," she says, her voice taking on a bit of sternness. "Whether I was born a princess or a pauper matters little in these halls." Her slightly annoyed expression turns slightly wry. "I shall have to toil and sweat and bleed and become a disheveled mess beside you all the same." She shrugs. "I'd rather you forget my lineage, if that's all the same to you. 'Sieglinde' sounds better than 'milady', I would think."

You're not sure how much you trust that statement, nor do you feel entirely comfortable with the deliberate shunting of decorum. Still, you give it your best effort as you murmur, "I-If you say so...S-Sieglinde."

Looking both slightly amused and a hair exasperated at the same time, Sieglinde nonetheless leans back against her own seat as she closes her eyes. "That I must serve Caldrein means I must be wary of its weaknesses and shortcomings. No matter how well we are trained, mercenaries alone cannot turn aside an enemy so many times our number. It is to Ornthalia that we must seek some measure of aid..." her eyes open again, and the gaze she fixes upon you carries a hint of wryness, " endeavor that would be easier, I suspect, had the Confederacy not neglected its diplomacy. The Caldran people have been far too enamored with its mercenaries and its neutrality, and are too bull-headed to realize otherwise."

You're no more comfortable with Sieglinde speaking so critically of her own people, but you don't quite find it within yourself to be as defensive as you were in regards to that, barely managing to allow, "I-I...wouldn't know, mi..." you catch yourself mid-sentence, amend, "...S-Sieglinde."

Sieglinde regards you for a moment with a stoic look before she gives a small little sigh and shakes her head a little. "When did your family urbanize?" she finally asks a moment later.

You blink for a moment, blanking out before hurriedly answering, "A-About ten years...or th-thereabouts." The word Sieglinde decided to use, "urbanize", is certainly most curious. Most people describe your family's move from the woodlands to the plainstowns as "immigration", as if the forests in Caldrein aren't actually part of Caldrein itself, as if they are some other political entity, as if you have moved across borders. While it is true that many dryads with Caldrein's borders consider themselves to be a separate social entity distinct from the Confederacy, they have also not objected to being labeled as part of the Caldran people for as long as the term has existed.

"How do you think your birthplace compares with the Caldrein of now?"

"I...d-don't remember much," you admit. "I was v-very young when I...urbanized."

"That's a shame," quips Sieglinde as many others have quipped before on this topic about how it's a "shame" to have "lost her roots". At least, that is what you think, until Sieglinde adds, "It would be useful to understand the strengths and shortcomings of both societies."

Well, it does sound a bit like a shame when she puts it that way, doesn't it? Perhaps more importantly, she doesn't seem to "take pity on you" as much as she's pragmatically weighing benefits and drawbacks. It's this, you suppose, that makes you blurt, perhaps against your better judgment, "M-My parents say that the dryads of the woodlands r-respect space and privacy, and p-plainsfolk are gossipy and invasive."

Ignoring how furiously you blush upon registering your outburst, Sieglinde instead breaks into a tiny smile that shows some amusement and no offense. "No doubt the plainsfolk think the dryads of the woodlands insular and backwards," she remarks, humored. Then, a small nod in your direction: "Thank you all the same." A pause, then, wryly, "Do you agree with them?"

You suddenly are acutely aware that there is only one other dryad in the immediate vicinity, and you are - and will be - otherwise be surrounded by plainsfolk for the next three years. "M-Maybe a little?" you fidget timidly, again against your better judgment.

The small hint of amusement does not leave Sieglinde's lips as she concludes, "Well, I shall endeavor to be neither gossipy nor invasive." Another pause. "And I shall prove this by asking how educated you are."

"I-I know to read and write, and th-there was a school in the v-village I came from, tended to b-by a shrine sister, but..." You trail off, not sure how to continue, nor that any elaboration is necessary at this point.

Sieglinde nods. "The instruction of the Academy will likely be new to you then. How ready do you think you are?"

"U-Um. I h-hope I am?" It's not as if you are aware ahead of time of the curriculum you're expected to tackle over the next three years. But you also realize that it's hardly a reassuring answer for someone who has actually been accepted by one of Caldrein's academies. So, mustering what courage you have, you take a deep breath and manage, "I-I mean, y-yes, I think I'm ready."

Again, Sieglinde nods in acknowledgement. "Caldran mercenaries have a rich history of being well-informed and creative, and thinking out of the box. Being learned is of great importance in our trade and indispensable should you wish to become one of Caldrein's finest...but do take care that you are not confined by it as well."

You tilt your head slightly to the side. "C-Confined by it?"

"A trivial piece of philosophy. Or epistemology, really. That which we learn, or perhaps even the art of learning itself, is a means by which we interact with reality, not a substitute for reality itself." Either she realizes that her explanation is too long or your expression nakedly betrays your confusion, for she chuckles and amends, "The short version, then: Don't doubt yourself when the time calls for it."

Which is as far as she gets before her gaze flicks upwards over your head, and you turn around to see an approaching group. Recognizing them as the first, largest group you set sight on when you first entered the Great Hall, you shrink a little bit in your seat, knowing that they're most likely for Sieglinde instead of you. Immediately, you spot Lucille and Aphelia at the head of their group, with the former looking friendly and the latter looking as effortlessly regal as ever.

"Ravenhill," greets Aphelia with natural dignity and a polite incline of her head. Noticing your presence a moment later, she regards you too with a nod, albeit one noticeably smaller.

"Treiser," acknowledges Sieglinde in return, although her own nod seems more blase and detached. "Celestia."

Lucille smiles at both of you, although it's clear that she's really here to talk to Sieglinde. "We're thinking about going into town for some shopping," she explains.

"Shall you come along with us?" asks Aphelia.

"Thank you," the tall, pale girl shakes her head, "but I have nothing to buy." Then, almost as an afterthought, as if it is only by happenstance that she remembers it's a proper thing to say: "Have fun."

"Aw," Lucille pouts, but she doesn't seem too dispirited. "That's too bad." But she smiles and waves in parting, suggesting, "Maybe next time."

"Farewell," Aphelia offers with another cut nod before walking away with Lucille, and the others in their group quickly follow. Watching the group walk away, it occurs to you that Sieglinde was perhaps not invited to actually shop, but to form a more permanent relationship with fellow ladies Aphelia and Lucille. Did Sieglinde have this in mind when she politely rejected the invitation, or was it just simply something else?

You don't give voice to your curiosity, though, not when Sieglinde is already asking you a question a moment later, ignoring how awkward you felt about being otherwise nonexistent in the previous conversation. "Might I suppose you're a freeholder?" inquires the older girl. And when you nod, she remarks, "There must be an interesting reason why you've chosen to come here, then."

It may seem silly for someone of your character to have a clear motivation for joining the ranks of the Caldran mercenaries, but you actually do have a reason, even if it's one that you do not easily share. You've come here...

[x] ...for the paycheck. A freeholder you may be, but no one, certainly not your family, has ever objected to increasing your household's financial security or spending ability.
[x] ...for the challenge. Your sense of personal achievement wants to validate your own existence, to show that you are one of the deadliest and most competent warriors alive.
[x] ...for the adventure. You only live once, and becoming a Caldran mercenary is a chance to see the world, to live the most exciting stories, and to explore all its wonders.
[x] ...for the Confederacy. The enemy takes more and more Caldran land each passing day, and it is your obligation as a citizen of the Confederacy to defend her and her people.
[x] Write-in.

Time passes as your conversation with Sieglinde continues. Unlike your previous conversation with Emilie, Nikki, and Vesna, however, you are mildly surprised - at least in hindsight - to realize that you have actually been doing a fair amount of talking. Perhaps Sieglinde's a good listener, or she just has the way of making you feel like sharing things with her. Regardless, it's only after the two of you part ways that you realize that you haven't exactly managed to ask any significant questions about her, nor did she voluntarily share, so you still know remarkably little about Sieglinde.

At the end of the day, you don't suppose that you've actually become close...but, at the very least, you've established a decent basis for further interactions in the future. For a prodigy whom no one seems to be in a hurry to talk to, that's about a good a sign as any.

In fact, you are so preoccupied with the aftermath of your conversation with Sieglinde that by the time you return to your dorm room, you have forgotten about the fact that you're supposed to have a roommate who checked in already, and thus find yourself a little surprised when you end up staring blankly at an athletic-looking aseri in your room.

"Oh," blinks the aseri in mild surprise before she walks up to you, sticking out a hand in introduction. "Hi. Stephanie."

Caught off guard by the handshake, your hand shoots out a little abruptly - after closing the door a bit too hard - to take Stephanie's hand into your own. "H-Hello," you manage, trying not to blush at having accidentally slammed the door behind you. "I'm Neianne. You...are my r-roommate, yes?"

"Looks like it," nods Stephanie. Your apparent roommate sports black hair that goes down to her shoulder blades, with her ears and tail possessing matching colors, and an attire that suggests that both of you are broadly in the same socioeconomic range. Although she hardly seems genuinely unfriendly, Stephanie doesn't smile, and you get the impression that it's not something she does naturally. It doesn't stop her from looking you up and down with a mild sense of curiosity as she murmurs, "Wow, a dryad." You nod, resigning yourself to the hypothesis that this observation is going to be something you'll simply have to get accustomed to here at Faulkren. "Did you just come in?"

"I a-arrived early in the day. Your bag was on the b-bed when I arrived."

"Oh, right. I went into town to shop with some people I met." She blinks again, then clarifies, "Well, by 'shopping', I mean 'window-shopping'. I didn't exactly come in with a fortune, and it's not like Faulkren is big enough a town to carry really interesting goods."

"O-Oh," you intone blankly, not sure what to actually say to that. It certainly doesn't look like she actually brought anything back, judging by the absence of extra bags in the room. "I...h-hope you had a good time, at least?"

Stephanie shrugs, "Yeah, something like that."

There is an awkward moment of silence as both you and Stephanie desperately try - and fail - to hide the fact that neither of you are actually sure what to say next, or how to elegantly segue this conversation onto its next topic.

"So..." tries Stephanie, clearing her throat in an attempt to pass it off, "...I don't suppose you've ever done anything like this before, have you?"

"N-No," you answer truthfully. Then, realizing that this may make you sound inadequate or unprepared, you quickly add, "I-I mean, they said that they'd a-accept even apprentices who've never t-trained before, and I was...surprised that they a-accepted me at all, but..."

Stephanie gives a small hum in acknowledgment of your words, falls into a moment of thoughtful quiet, then hums again: "Well, I guess we all have to start somewhere."

"D-Do you already have experience?"

"Sort of. My, um, parents have done their share of soldiering, so I know how to use a sword, at least."

That sounds reasonably impressive. It also makes you feel like you're already falling behind, so you flail around mentally for some kind of background you can try to sell as "experience". "U-Um, I...had a h-huntress in the town I lived in who used a bow," you point out. Then, truthfully, and with a voice that slowly and steadily trails off, "Um, I-I didn't actually learn anything from her, though, and, well..."

"...Oh," blinks Stephanie. "That's...too bad."

And then there is another moment of self-conscious silence.

"U-U-Um," you stammer, trying to be the one who breaks the quiet this time. "So...your parents are fighting in the war?"

"Not...really." Stephanie shuffles a little awkwardly despite her attempts to mask it. "It's a bit complicated back home."

"Oh," you mouth, recognizing when it is a good time to not press. Which, of course, leads you to more of that frustrating quiet, so you desperately blurt out, "Well, u-um." You blush. "I-I have a sister."

You continue to be horrible at trying to start actual conversations.

But Stephanie responds, either actually genuinely interested or at least humoring your attempt to revitalize your dialogue, which you suppose will have to be good enough. "Older or younger?"

"Younger. B-By six years. She was a-actually born in the plains."

"You mean in Caldrein?" Stephanie blinks.

Given that Sieglinde was the exception when it comes to using the term "urbanized" instead of "immigrated" or some other term, you suppose you aren't terribly surprised that the next person you talk to doesn't really seem to instinctively consider the dryads of the woods to actually be Caldran. "Yes," you say, not sounding terribly resigned. It's just one of the facts of life about being a second-generation dryad "immigrant". It doesn't bother you as much as other things are likely to bother members of other races.

"Six years is a long time to have a second child."

For non-dryads it is. In fact, with the partial exception of elves, aseri and humans seem to have a lot of children, although you suppose this is compensating for the fact that not many of them survive childhood. "I-I don't think dryad families have many children. In...ways, i-it's easier for us to be self-sufficient, b-but having less children just seems...e-easier to manage, maybe?" You're not exactly sure, and you feel embarrassed for theorizing out loud; it's not like you're actually a parent.

Although she nods, Stephanie looks like she's still sort of trying to process all of this in the back of her head, trying to contextualize the information she has just been given. "Are you close, even with six years?" she asks, probably something that she has been meaning to focus on anyways.

"I...g-guess?" you allow hesitantly. "Dryads live...n-not as long as elves, but l-longer than aseri and humans. So s-six years...isn't supposed to be much, I-I think." Then, realizing that you're not really tackling the meat of the question, you quickly add, "I-I mean, we get along." You blush again and shake your head. "S-Sorry, it must all seem very...silly to you."

"Hardly. I have a half-sister."

"...O-Oh," you manage blankly, even as Stephanie shifts awkwardly again, as if realizing what has just left her lips and thinking in hindsight that maybe this is not something she should've said. And then there is more awkward quiet.

Unlike Emilie, Nikki, and Vesna - who always seem to have something on hand to chatter about - or Sieglinde - who seems to be perpetually engaged in deep and complex thoughts - it is getting ridiculously difficult for both of you to come up with something workable to talk about. Honestly, you have no idea why this is taking as long as it has and being as troublesome as it is.

"So..." Stephanie cleared her throat again; it's her turn to try to kick the halting conversation back to life. "I'm guessing we're going to be rooming together for the next three years,," she gives an attempt at a smile that looks more like a grimace, "I'm hoping we'll get along fine."

You give a small, dainty bow to complete the "semi-formal" greeting. "I-I'll try my best," you promise.

The ritualistic parts of socialization complete, Stephanie actually waits for a moment before cautiously asking, "Just to get it out of the way so we're clear, you...don't have any weird habits, do you?"

"W-Weird habits...?"

"Um, I don't know," admits Stephanie with a shrug. Then, helplessly, "Growing roots in your sleep? Shedding leaves from your head? Sunbathing naked?"

Eyes wide, it takes a few false starts for you to even squeak out a stammer, "I-I-I don't sunbathe naked!"

Stephanie gives you a look of mild concern as she takes notice of you denying only this specific thing.

"O-O-Or any of the other things!"

In hindsight, maybe it isn't such a great idea to shriek these things out loud in a dormitory building.

In the end, although you don't quite hit off with Stephanie in the same way you did with the others in the Great Hall, the two of you get along well enough upon first meeting each other. Stephanie doesn't have the natural talkativeness of Emilie or Vesna, nor does she have the sort of calm thoughtfulness that marks Sieglinde's conversational temperament with you, but she tries, and you suppose that'll have to be enough. You are roommates now, but only time will tell what kind of roommates the two of you will end up becoming.

And if anyone actually did hear you shriek about not sunbathing naked...well, at least no one has come up to profess disappointment to your face yet.

And so the few days that lead up to the formal start of the school year pass in the blink of an eye. From the corner of the Academy's social circle, you begin to better understand the apprentices and characters at this establishment, although you still spend time with Emilie, Nikki, and Vesna. Sieglinde, too, although only a bit; you're never entirely sure what is or isn't the right time to approach her. Stephanie is still a bit difficult to really get a handle on as well, but you at least have the benefit of being roommates and getting used to each other.

This lull in your life ends with a final feast in the Great Hall of Faulkren Academy over the weekend, with virtually all of the hundred-or-so apprentices having finally arrived. As you expected, the meals to commemorate the start of your apprenticeship here is rich, complete with several helpings of meats, vegetables, cheeses, desserts, and other foods. You are certain that they are not quite as rich as what typically ends up on a noble's table, but they are certainly not inferior to what is served on a good tavern's palette.

It is in the middle of the meal that a quiet hush begins to descend gradually amongst the tables of the Great Hall, and heads swivel and turn, gazes directed towards an aseri woman who appears behind the podium at the end of the hall where the instructors and lecturers and weaponmasters are seated. Though her hair grays and her skin wrinkles at the corners, this is no matronly woman, but a stern-looking taskmaster whose lips are devoid of smiles as she regards with a sharp gaze the silent attention that slowly settles upon the Great Hall's occupants.

"Good evening," the woman finally announces once the quiet consolidates itself in the chamber, "and welcome to Faulkren Academy. I am Cornelia Rastangard, your headmistress." She gives the apprentices gathered in the Great Hall a moment to let them register who she is before continuing, "That you are here means you know of the history, prestige, and exceptionalism of mercenaries here in our Confederacy, at least as it is passed down from story to story. What you may not know is how we are different." She pauses for effect, even as the apprentices quietly murmur at the prospect of a headmistress getting straight to the point without fancy speeches. "Your average Tenereian conscript is plucked out of her village and pressed into a march. She learns war by being beaten by her officers, learning how to say 'yes, ma'am' without question, learning in which direction she needs to hold a spear, and learning how not to run away. This lasts for as long as it takes for her to reach her battlefield. How long are they trained on average before being thrown into war? One month, with most of that time taken up by marching."

A few giggles break out across the hall, perhaps in contemptuous mockery of the sorry lot of the Confederacy's enemies.

"Your average Caldran regular fares better. She is the workhorse of the army, and broadly understands the duties she is responsible for beyond 'stand and point your spear that way'. She fights in formation, and is drilled in it by their sergeants in groups of dozens at every opportunity until she is 'ready'. Average time of training: Two to three months.

"Sergeants need to command the regulars beneath her, and report to and advise her officers. She needs to be the toughest bitch on the scene, able to outfight those she commands, able to train those under her charge. Some are promoted from those proven in the rank and file, others are groomed for the role. Including the training she receives as a regular? Average time of training: Five to six months, not accounting for what could easily be years of actual war experience.

"Specialists take all this and apply it to specific combat roles in the army that separate them from the rank and file. This includes cavalry, sharpshooters, mages, so on and so forth. Many of them are officers, or have powers not unlike those of a sergeant. They are some of the most elite forces the civilizations of Iuryis have in their armies. Average time of training: A year or more.

"Compared to them, you will be here for three years." An excited murmur flutters through the Great Hall, but the headmistress continues unabated. "You will be trained as nobles are trained: From a young age, in small groups under the watchful eyes of instructors and weaponmasters, taught how to fight and lead, how to utilize weapons and soldiers and tactics at your disposal in great detail and with much care. When it is your time to step onto the battlefield, you will not be a disposable conscript or a cog in the machine, but an instrument of war, trained and ready with the expectations of what is to come, warriors who will give even Tenereian paladins and Ornthalian cavaliers pause. And you will become the best of the Caldran people, heirs to our traditions and culture and way of life, especially at a time when they are threatened by a neighboring tyrant."

Once more, the headmistresses pauses, and she waits for the whispers to die down this time. When quiet descends upon the hall again, she concludes, "I will expect great things out of you over the next three years, and then the years to come."

That is as far as formality goes. Headmistress Rastangard leaves the podium, leaving you free to enjoy the rest of your meal and discuss what the previous speech means with those at your table. It is thus with a heavy stomach and energy expended that you eventually return with Stephanie to your shared room hours later, as the day ends and candles are blown out to accommodate the darkness. You are tired and full enough that you don't take long at all to fall asleep once your head hits the pillow.

Your school year starts when you wake.

You were perhaps not entirely sure what to expect out of an academy for Caldran mercenaries. You have heard stories of the closest analogies, tales of soldiers reporting to the Caldran armies and consequently drilled to within an inch of their lives. There was the worry that you will be roused from your sleep by a horn blasting through the West Wing, followed immediately afterwards by screaming instructors bursting into your rooms and screeching insults about your ancestors into your ears and pouring buckets of water into your faces until you assembled in the courtyard outside.

But when morning comes, nothing of the sort happens. A horn does sound, but it is distant - as if blown from one of the fortress' turrets as opposed to outside your door - and it actually plays a fairly upbeat tune. No one bursts into your room, and you are left to wake and rise on your own devices. There is no cacophony or the chaos that involves dozens of confused apprentices running up and down the corridors. Academy staff advise you to wear clothes suited for morning calisthenics, and that spare clothes will be provided if you have no such articles.

"Morning calisthenics" is also surprisingly mild, a calm affair that largely consists of stretches and a somewhat lengthy but otherwise semi-leisurely jog around the fortress walls. Everyone is expected to show up on time, complete with a roll call, but there is once again no screaming or swearing for anyone to fall in line. The pace of the jog isn't particularly difficult, and although some of the apprentices do end up panting at the end, it doesn't seem like anyone's really being pushed to the limit. The only anomaly to this is that several students who consider the pace to be too slow are allowed to jog ahead of their peers and finish early, where they are given leave to attend to their morning affairs before all others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, you see Sieglinde among them.

Morning affairs largely consists of washing up, changing into more presentable clothes, and eating a carefully prepared breakfast of specific foods before several hours of "classes". Those who are inclined to also make use of the Academy's chapel, adorned with an obelisk at the altar, a symbol of non-denominational worship. Although certain quarters of Caldran society favor one religion over another, the Confederacy as a whole has no official religion and remains institutionally tolerant of different faiths. Shrines with obelisks, a symbol associated with no mainstream faith in Caldrein, have thus been erected by different interests to accommodate the spiritual needs of worshipers without offending anyone. It is to no one's surprise, then, that a very significant percentage of the apprentice population starts their day with a prayer to their deities. The major faiths in Caldrein include Primordiality, the Confederacy's largest religion which worships the metaphorical well of symbiotic, all-encompassing arcane energy that is the Sacred Spring, a faith shared with Ornthalia; Conceptualism, which believes that nameless deities rule over the domains of concepts and ideas rather than tangible lands or objects, a belief descended from the shared folklore of Caldrein and Tenereia; Indigenism, which believes that geographic locales are the domain of small, local deities, whether they be fae or spirits or otherwise; and Gaianism, the traditional umbrella faith of the dryads that believe that the world itself is a divine, trans-sapient, self-designing deity maintaining the order and course of the natural world.

Afterwards, it's hours of classes. You are, in fact, surprised at how mild everything seems thus far, even though the lecturers make clear that the knowledge they are imparting is of vital importance, and you will be tested on it. Throughout the next three years, you will be studying the history of warfare in general and of the Caldran mercenaries in particular, the strategies and tactics of famous wars and battles, treatises on war theory and fieldcraft, standard strategies and tactics of both Tenereia and Ornthalia today, and other subjects that you would have thought remained in the domain of officers and generals. If nothing else, it does reinforce the impression that - in the words of Headmistress Rastangard - "you won't be a disposable conscript or a cog in the machine".

Following classes all through the morning is a two-hour lunch break, which again consists of a carefully-tailored meal in accordance to nutritional needs. It's after this that your curriculum finally begins to fall a bit closer in line to what most people probably expected.

In the two hours after you've had time to eat and digest, the apprentices of Faulkren Academy are subjected to calisthenics and a workout regimen that is completely different from the "light" set that was performed earlier in the morning as a "warm-up". After going through a series of stretches, you are divided into large groups under a cadre of instructors who then begin the process of training apprentices in assembling in formation, marching in formation, making combat maneuvers in formation. It is a process of listening of orders, being aware of the apprentices next to you, being aware of the terrain you are navigating. Your instructors make it clear that Caldran mercenaries are not meant to be mindless, witless soldiers capable of only following orders blindly with "bullshit brain-dead discipline" characteristic of the regular army, but that you are expected to react competently, professionally, calmly, and in the interest of the group.

After a few hours of such drills - and with the promise that there will be months more of this as you learn increasingly complex formations and maneuvers - you are then divided into smaller groups and made to do sets of calisthenics in small groups. These are also interlaced with a few jogs and sprints, as well as a "light" obstacle course. Apprentices are quietly shuffled around between groups, and it doesn't take long for you to realize that they're dividing everyone by individual physical capabilities. Some are simply more physically fit than others, a consideration that is compounded by the race of every apprentice. You're not at the top of the pecking order where physical capabilities are concerned, but you are at least relieved that you're far from the worst, if only by the virtue of your dryad strength.

Of course, this doesn't actually stop the instructors and trainers from pushing you hard, although there seems to be a detailed methodology to their madness. They make you go through most sets of exercises slowly, and short breaks are both frequent and well-timed; every time you feel like you're starting to get a little fazed, the instructors tell you to stop and take a short breather before making you go at it again. If you have to guess, rather than push all of you to your limits as quickly as possible, the instructors are going through a regimen focused on building endurance, making sure all of you exert yourselves for as long as possible by reducing the intensity of sets, for hours on end, with only short pauses in between. Your muscles are burning and you're sweating buckets, not helped by pitchers of water that are never far away. These exercises eventually finish an hour before dinner so everyone has a chance to wash up and regain their appetite, but attendance is somewhat incomplete; many of the apprentices have chosen to collapse in their bed on their first day.

At the very least, it becomes clear why studying and academics are scheduled for mornings: Most people would never have the energy to stay awake and attentive in these classes otherwise.

Certainly, you feel sore after all that exercise and training on your first day, but curiously, despite the amount of physical strain that you have gone through, the fact that muscle exhaustion has been carefully managed certainly helps reduce how awful your muscles feel the next day, which is further aided when the second day's worth of calisthenics focuses on a different set of muscles, and then a different set the day after that. Otherwise, though, the daily schedule for the first week - and then the week after that, and then the weeks after that - is similar: Academics and studying in the morning, formations and physical training in the afternoon. And in all this time, you haven't even touched a weapon.

Academic projects and group exercises become the default in your curriculum, and you soon learn that you have been split into squads in accordance to your dorm arrangements, and that these squads will dictate the circumstances of your training over the next three years. This means that Stephanie, being your roommate, will be working closely with you through your entire stay at Faulkren. Fortunately, she actually seems to be fit and competent, even if her temperament is sometimes a touch dour; she's not unkind or even unnecessarily unfriendly, but it does seem that the awkwardness that dictated the tone of your introductions was not a coincidence.

But you are part of a four-person outfit, meaning your squad consists of the two others who live right next door. They include...

[x] ...Emilie...
[x] ...Nikki...
[x] ...Sieglinde Corrina Ravenhill...
[x] ...Vesna Rainer...


[x] ...someone from the group with Aphelia Meredith Treiser and Lucille Lorraine Celestia.
[x] ...Azalea Cherilyn Charmaine or Wilhelmina Adelaide Marienberg.
[x] ...someone from the group of two humans on your first day at Faulkren Academy.
[x] ...the elven girl napping in the Great Hall on your first day at Faulkren Academy.


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