[x] Be truthful, and inform your team of an approaching team that includes Penelope's squadmate Wendy.

For better or for worse, this isn't the sort of lie that's easy to cover up; all it would take is someone being a bit faster or more inquisitive than you'd like. Nor, frankly, are you a particularly good liar. It helps that you're shy all the time, and it helps that - whether you've ever intended to exploit this or not - people have always found you young and small and adorable enough to forgive, but there's no point in expending this good faith and goodwill on something that's probably incredibly minor.

Quietly, you withdraw from the treeline and back to your campfire. Under normal circumstances, you may not have eluded the attention of the two aseri in their group - what with the superior senses of hearing and smell they have - but these are the woodlands, and you blend in well with your native ground. At a brisk pace, you quickly return to where the rest of your teammates are.

"T-T-There's another group coming in," you explain as soon as you return to the puzzled look of your teammates. "I think they followed our smoke." As the other three adopt a more tense mood, you hesitantly turn towards Penelope, not quite meeting her glare, and add, "I s-saw Wendy."

Penelope regards you for a moment with surprise and no small amount of suspicion. You really wish she doesn't assume the worst of you all the time. Aphelia, for her part, reacts instantly: "Defensive positions. We'll talk with them, but don't let them ambush us."

The four of you move away from the campfire and into the trees, which act as both cover and concealment as you await the approach of the other team. They do not take terribly long; although they move stealthily, it's easier to spot their silhouettes skulking through the trees once you know they're coming and from which direction. The human you recognize among them eventually comes close enough for Penelope to risk calling out, "Wendy?"

Wendy's head twitches in Penelope's direction even as her team - perhaps would-be ambushers - adopt defensive combat positions upon realizing that they've been discovered, and she's quick to call out, "Wait, wait!" And as soon as the initial shock of the encounter wears out in seconds, Wendy steps out from the trees and explains, "It's someone from my squad."

Both teams emerge from concealment, and the defensiveness evaporates once it's clear who's on the other side, for Penelope and Wendy aren't the only ones to be recognized. Given her social profile here at the Academy, Lucille is easily recognizable, but she isn't alone in waving cheerily at your team's elf. One of the two aseri from the other team - the one carrying a spear - is quite loud in her greeting: "Oh, hey, Aphelia!"

Although the two of you have never really interacted in any truly meaningful way, it's difficult to forget that Mia Honette was one of the girls whom you saw during your first day at the Faulkren Academy. Yes, part of it is because she and Lucille were the ones who greeted you directly when you first started making friends in the Great Hall of Faulkren Academy. But it's also in large part because she's somewhat loud. Well, "loud" is perhaps an uncharitable word; although it's true that Mia has some problems when it comes to indoor voices - one may well wonder how her team has remained undetected all this time - it's perhaps better to characterize her as "boisterous". Although not really a troublemaker, Mia has clearly established a reputation as a happy and excitable girl with an almost infectiously life-of-the-party personality, a bit of a class clown. And although she's not highborn, Mia does hail from a very well-to-do merchant family that puts her in the loose social orbit of Aphelia and Lucille, all while being on good terms with most other apprentices in the Academy. At the very least, you know Mia by reputation if nothing else.

The same cannot be said for the other aseri who keeps a step behind everyone else in general and Lucille in particular. Although there are a bit more than a hundred apprentices here in Faulkren, you still at least recognize the uniquely white-haired aseri to be Melanie Aster, an apprentice also from a good merchant family like Mia. Her conspicuous lack of an obvious weapon means she's probably a mage...and that's really all you know about her. She's clearly shy; even if you missed her general tendency to not speak or make eye contact, or even her perpetual air of mild embarrassment, you recognize this inexplicable feeling of kinship, the feeling that you're not the only sane one, and silently wonder if she's feeling the same.

The two of you accidentally meet glances, and with flustered embarrassment and mild panic, both of you blush and quickly bow your heads to each other in polite - and almost apologetic - greeting.

"What are the odds?" sings Mia, waving enthusiastically, momentarily ignoring the fact that Penelope and Wendy - the latter of which fires off a glare in your specific direction but otherwise opts to pretend you aren't there - have detached themselves from the larger group to have their own private conversation.

"As soon as we started cooking?" Aphelia dryly answers. "Even. I'm just surprised we didn't hear you coming from kilometers away." Gesturing towards the smoke coming from the dying embers of your campfire, she adds, "Looking for a quick meal?"

Lucille grins in a slightly guilty manner. Although not as loud as Mia, the elf can be pretty talkative too, given how involved she is with the social scene at Faulkren. "What can I say? It smelled really good. Besides, you sure were ready for us creeping up on you."

"Neianne saw you coming."

"Neianne?" blinks Mia. You're not surprised she hasn't linked the name to you; you're not exactly a very high-profile apprentice. Still, once Vesna points in your direction, she recognizes you as a dryad - there are only ten-or-so of you at Faulkren anyways - and she nods, "Ah, no wonder Melanie and I didn't smell her!"

The more logical part of your brain tells you that Mia is simply referring to the aseri's superior sense of smell and the natural ability for dryads to blend in with the woodlands, especially when being sought by novice trackers. The rest of your brain, however, takes a very different interpretation of Mia's words, and you blush furiously at the thought as you struggle in vain to come up with some kind of protest.

"It's not like that!" Mia laughs good-naturedly, which is almost as loud as Melanie panickedly exclaiming the exact same thing, albeit with a strong stutter and a blush just as horrible as yours. Wide-eyed at her outburst and the fact that she was in sync with Mia, Melanie averts her gaze in embarrassment even as Mia laughs again and cheerily slaps the fellow aseri on the back, reassuring you, "Besides, I'm sure you smell good!"

That is not helping. At all.

Bouncing up to Melanie, Lucille hugs her shoulders - slightly difficult, given Melanie is not at all short, whereas Lucille as a tad below average - as she jokingly accuses the rowdy aseri, "You're awful, Mia."

Similarly, Vesna has suddenly appears by your side, grabbing your arm in what you suspect is supposed to be a show of solidarity. At least, insomuch solidarity as you can expect from Vesna's tone of voice as she similarly playfully joins Lucille's choir and declares, "You shouldn't be teasing our Neianne so hard!"

Needless to say, you and Melanie continue to blush.

"Sorry, sorry!" laughs Mia, not really sounding that apologetic, but she sounds too good-natured for anyone to really mind. She instead turns expectantly towards Aphelia before - with an expression like a puppy waiting for treats - pointing to the boar meat and quipping, "So, um. Food?"

Aphelia crosses her arms and raises an eyebrow, but she doesn't look nearly as standoffish as she sounds as she inquires, "Shouldn't you have hunted for your own food?"

It's Lucille's turn to sound sheepishly apologetic. "I tried, but animals keep running away from me."

Still holding onto your arm, Vesna readily and cheerily quips to Aphelia, "Well, we're not going to be able to finish this all by ourselves even with three days anyways, right?"

Aphelia sighs, but relents very quickly after. "Very well. But we share map pieces in return. Deal?"

A growling sound that rumbles through the quiet of the forests provides all the answer anyone ever needs. "Well," Mia laughs sheepishly, "there's no arguing with the stomach!"

Fortunately, Aphelia hasn't started freezing the meat, so although the fire is out, the others can easily start digging in. Wendy, too, joins in on the meal soon when she returns to the group with Penelope, while you and your team help yourselves to the map pieces that the other team makes available to you.

"You're very nice to your friends," Vesna observes happily to Aphelia.

"Or," Aphelia lightheartedly offers an alternative, "I think our stealth would be better served if Mia spends more time eating than talking."

"Did someone say something about me?" Mia asks in between bites as she stuffs her mouth with food. Aphelia elects to ignore her.

Given the actual size of the piece of paper you've all been given, you can't help but wonder if - rather than cutting a map into more than a hundred pieces - the apprentices have been given copies of the same map. Otherwise, it's hard to imagine the idea of more than a hundred apprentices somehow coming together to fit a map with more than a hundred pieces together. It's not like four more pieces to the map would actually really help the four pieces your team has started out with.

"Oh," Vesna pipes up excitedly, pointing, "look at this piece." Her attention isn't unwarranted. One of the pieces has a thick double-border running close to the empty edge, which suggests that it's a piece from the very outside of the map which thus represents the furthest borders of the Roldharen Forest. Even better, not only is there a map symbol of a mountain on that piece, there's also an unmistakable symbol of a flag located it its base.

"It looks like it's on the northern side," Aphelia declares, a hypothesis based on the fact that the peak of the mountain symbol on the paper is pointing towards the thick double-border. Unless your instructors are deliberately playing tricks on the map-reading skills of the apprentices, it looks like this particular piece of paper represents the northern edge of Roldharen.

"Looks like the plan still works," Penelope declares, her voice thick with satisfaction.

"You girls have a plan?" asks Mia again, surprising Penelope into a displeased scowl. Aseri ears are really quite sharp.

Penelope is in no hurry to volunteer an explanation, but Vesna - perhaps to the other human's chagrin - readily answers, "We're getting close to where the dryads warned us about the bears to see if we can find any flags there. Everyone else will probably try to avoid that area. So as long as we don't stray further north than the dryad hunters who are supposed to turn us back, we should be safe and undisturbed."

"Hey, that's not a bad idea at all!" Lucille exclaims approvingly. The others don't seem to disagree, with the exception of Melanie, who keeps her expression guarded. That, or she's just too timid.

"It was Penelope's idea," Vesna smiles readily, causing a slightly complicated expression to cross Penelope's face even as Wendy gently punches her in the shoulder in a comradely manner.

"Shall we get going, then?" Mia suggests readily in between bites of boar.

Aphelia raises an eyebrow at her and inquires, "Aren't you supposed to have your own plans?"

"Aw," laughs Mia, slinging an arm around a sighing Aphelia's shoulders, "you don't need to be so cold!"

"It's highly unlikely that we'll find enough flags for seven squads," Penelope points out, a bit of a protest coming back to her tone. She clearly thought that this was something that was supposed to be shared only with your team and Wendy, not the rest of the other team as well.

"We probably can't stop them from coming along if they want to, though," Aphelia shrugs, a gesture of resignation which also serves to shove off Mia's overly familiar arm.

Penelope doesn't stay annoyed with Aphelia for long, although not voluntarily. Sounds of clashes begin ringing out in the forest again. And if Aphelia's explanations about the sounds of combat hold true, this conflict sounds like it's between different teams, not with an instructor. "That sounds like it's coming from pretty close by," Wendy observes, sounding a little concerned.

Aphelia is already marching northwards before anyone has a chance to start speculating on their situation. "We'd better move, then."

The trek northwards, in theory, puts you apart from the potential intense competition that the other teams are going through to acquire flags. Assuming that the flags are set relatively evenly apart from each other, that gives you a lot of room to wander around unnoticed in your search, so long as other teams don't get the same idea, and so long as you don't attract attention.

For better or for worse, Mia seems to have missed that memo as she pounces you and Vesna from behind, slinging an arm around both of your shoulders with surprising friendliness that makes you squeak in mild alarm, first at her sudden motion, then at her unexpected closeness. "Has Aphelia been running you girls ragged yet?" she laughs.

"Neianne, maybe," Vesna smiles, looking a little uncertain about Mia's boisterous approach but not actually upset about it. "I'm totally just sort of lazing behind in case anyone gets hurt."

"Oh, yeah, you had to take down that boar, right?"

Vesna points to you. "Neianne did that."

Regarding you with a bit of surprise, Mia nevertheless grins, presses her palms together, and bows in playful gratitude as she declares, "Thank you for the meal!"

"Y-You're...welcome?" you answer, uncertain of whether you should feel grateful or embarrassed. Perhaps both.

"Do you know Lady Aphelia well?" asks Vesna.

"Oh, yeah, well enough, I guess? House Treiser rules Arnheim, practically the gateway into Elspar. So my family does a lot of business and trade with them." She grins mischievously. "She's a bit of a stick in the mud, but I've known her long enough to get away with teasing her."

From the rear of the group, Aphelia - despite being a slight distance away as she walks alongside Lucille - wryly remarks, "Talking behind someone's back generally works better when that someone can't hear you."

"I wasn't talking behind your back!" chimes Mia cheerfully right back. Indeed, it seems hard to do so given the volume of her speech.

"Well, you are speaking loud enough for half the forest to hear you," counters Aphelia, but she doesn't sound seriously annoyed or irritated. "Please shut up." If anything, this sounds like familiar banter between old friends.

"They're no fun," Mia sticks her tongue playfully at out Aphelia. Turning back to you and Vesna, she laughs, "Bet you can't wait to get back to your squad, huh?"

Looking apologetically at you, Vesna notes in your stead, "Lady Sieglinde and Lady Elizabeth are in her squad."

Mia regards you with wide eyes before making an awkward, sympathetic laugh while clapping you on the back. "Oh, wow, you really can't catch a break."

"Do you know them as well?"

"No, not really. Sieglinde, Elizabeth, and I are all from Lindholm, but my family doesn't really do that much business with Houses Ravenhill or Zabanya." That's a tiny bit surprising, seeing how people from Lindholm are stereotypically considered to be conservative, traditional, and a bit stiff. You can see that in Sieglinde and a bit of Elizabeth; it's hard to imagine Mia fitting the stereotypical Lindholm archetype. "We occasionally meet at a party or ball, but...well, it's not like Sieglinde or Elizabeth are the most sociable people ever. They don't show up more often than not. So I know them by reputation and hearsay, that's really it, but wow they have reputations." She pauses, looking at Vesna for a moment. "That being said, have we met before at some party or another?"

"Maybe in passing," Vesna laughs awkwardly. "My family are merchants too, yes, but we're a lot more small-time than you. I can probably count my attendance at one of those 'parties' on one hand."

"It seems like you know everyone..." you murmur, quietly impressed nonetheless.

"Melanie is too!" Mia grins and hops over to the other aseri in question, eliciting a surprised squeak from the white-haired girl by clapping her on the shoulders. "She's from here, though. Apaloft, I mean. So she gets to work a lot with Lucille."

"J-J-Just a little," Melanie explains hesitantly as she realizes that attention has fallen on her. You're actually surprised by the fact that she stammers and stutters harder than you, but you feel that she certainly compensates for this with her willowy stature and graceful gait, so she at least doesn't look like she's going to hide behind the nearest rock. "My f-family helps House Celestia m-manage their trade revenue, s-so..."

"We've been friends since we were children," calls out Lucille from behind, something that makes Melanie fidget awkwardly. She's still a bit of a distance away from you, walking alongside Aphelia, seemingly holding a conversation of their own, but Mia's loud enough for that not to matter all that much.

"Well," Mia shrugs whimsically, "the way things are, our families are pretty intertwined in one way or another. Pretty much every student from an aseri merchant family has rubbed shoulders at some point with nobles." She tilts her head in the direction of Aphelia and Lucille for emphasis, and you wonder if there's an unspoken "elven" in that descriptor, or if that's just a statistical coincidence.

"Is that...n-normal?"

Mia raises her eyebrows. "I guess? I mean, the aseri have a history of being the best traders around. At least until classical times, aseri tribes lived nomadic lifestyles that involved hunting, foraging, and trading. The elves - and later the humans, I guess - have always counted on us to move goods around." She shrugs and laughs again. "Well, that was a long time ago, anyways. There are a few aseri families that still live on-the-road, but that's mostly something in the past now. Most aseri have settled down, although I guess cultural inertia means we're expected, on some level, to be good on the road."

You already know bits and snippets of that on an abstract level, but it's nice for Mia to put all of that together comprehensively. Looking at Mia, though, you point out, "Y-You're here, though."

Laughing in the manner of someone being caught doing something a mite bit embarrassing, Mia admits, "Well, I guess it's going to be harder to do trade if the Tennies bring down Caldrein, so..."

"You'd do well not to say anything that'd jinx us," sighs Aphelia, but there is a hard tone to her voice that suggests this is not something that she's compromising on.

It's difficult to tell how seriously Mia takes that as she laughs, "Sorry, sorry." But she does drop the subject, at least. "But it's, like...I don't even like the idea of Tenny rule, and I'm supposed to be from a merchant family."

"Because they're supposed to follow the gold?" Vesna asks, doubtlessly referring to the near-universal stereotype of being willing to stomach anything so long as they make a profit.

Thinking of some of the conversations you've sat through with Sieglinde - most specifically about how she perceives Caldrein's weaknesses - you ask, "I-I thought Caldran merchants don't do much foreign..." you slowly trail off as your eyes widen in horror, realizing you have spoken up on a surprisingly weighty subject without intending to, and your last belated word comes out as a timid squeak, ""

Mia seems surprised at your reaction before laughing, "Neianne is right. Most of our family's business dealings are domestic, done among the regions of the Confederacy, and we'd like to keep it that way."

"Because we can't compete?" asks Vesna again.

"Those are fighting words," quips Mia jokingly. Then she relents, "Well, it's true that the Confederacy doesn't really have that much to trade. All things considered, although we're not swimming in an abundance of riches, Caldrein has a surprisingly decent spread of resources that the five regions are pretty self-sufficient as long as we band together. We don't export crops or steel, but neither do we need to import them from elsewhere."

"That's a shame," murmurs Vesna. Then, upon realizing the puzzled looks directed at her, she quickly explains, "I mean, maybe we'd have more friends and allies if we had better trade relations."

"Trade's no substitute for friendship, just some extra spice. Besides, we've been neutral for centuries. No reason to stop now."

"Maybe the war is a reason," snorts Penelope from the head of the group. Like Aphelia and Lucille, although she and Wendy have largely been absorbed in their own conversation, Mia is loud enough that no one feels particularly awkward interjecting in a conversation they previously were not entirely part of. "We should've been bribing Ornthalia to fight on our side."

"Ornthalia is too far away for anything but bulk trade to be profitable, but we don't have enough to do bulk trade. And my family wouldn't have traded with the Tennies even if we weren't at war."

"Are you sure that isn't just the war coloring your perspective?" Lucille asks, amused. "It's not like we didn't have diplomatic relations with Tenereia before the war, for all their rhetoric and bluster."

Mia blinks. "That's a surprisingly bold statement, especially coming from you." Then, with a teasing grin, "Are you sure you're on the right side?"

"I'm a Celestia," Lucille rolls her eyes, "which means I'll be among the first under the axe should the Confederacy fall." There is very little optimism about what will happen to the families of the five Caldran Countesses in the event of defeat, then. "Trust me, I'm pretty sure I'm on the right side."

"There's that," laughs Mia. "Well, despite how it looks, I'm not really the kind of person who'd break bread with someone who says we belong to them because Caldrein was an imperial province four hundred years ago. So I guess this is my way of sticking it to them."

"Mia's patriotic path to become a Caldran mercenary," Aphelia declares in a deadpan tone. "Powered by spite."

"Better than Melanie's path," grins Mia in a manner that makes it sound like it's just a joke.

"Mia!" Lucille snaps disapprovingly. The boisterous aseri's clueless but startled reaction - followed by everyone looking awkwardly at Melanie - certainly lends credence to the idea that the previous statement was unintentional and without malice.

Realizing that the situation has just gotten awkward, Melanie stammers after a long, awkward moment, "I-I-It's okay! I-It's nothing...p-private. Stephanie, my e-elder sister, is a Caldran mercenary."

"R-Really?" you ask with shared surprise and a bit of admiration too, glossing over the fact that Melanie's sister shares the same name with your roommate.

"Of the Llyneyth warband, too," Lucille beams with what almost seems to be a hint of pride, as if it's her sister that she's talking about instead of Melanie's. Although given that Lucille and Melanie have apparently been friends since they were children, it's not hard to understand why; Faulkren is no slouch when it comes to standards, history, and prestige, but Llyneyth is the foremost and best-known Caldran mercenary academy, the first ever to be founded and generally regarded as a leader among equals.

Given the news that you've read at the beginning of the semester, however, you connect the dots and come to a somewhat worrying realization: "D-Doesn't that mean she's at Halissen now?"

"M-My eldest sister, too," nods Melanie, "C-Cirillia."

There is a bit of staring from those who are not familiar with Melanie's family. "Both your sisters are Caldran mercenaries?" Vesna gasps.

"N-N-No," Melanie is quick to correct, " Cirillia is with H-House Celestia."

"Cirillia is the quartermaster for House Celestia's military contingent to Halissen," Lucille explains. This would put a member of the Aster family at the head of House Celestia's logistical and supply situation, an army position that is by no means a paltry post. Your instructors have pounded the importance of logistics into all of you hard enough that you do not underestimate its importance...and also, thus, the importance of the Asters under House Celestia.

It is with this in mind that you quietly ask, "Are you t-trying to live up to your sisters?"

There is a long pause from Melanie, who seems to struggle to come up with a clear answer even as attention focuses on her. It's only after this pause that she says with a surprising lack of certainty, "I would l-like to be of use to my f-family. A-And the Confederacy."

Mia smiles and pats Melanie on the back, sighing, "No pressure at all."

As the conversation drifts on, you quietly put a polite bit of distance between yourself and the others to catch your breath, letting them march ahead a little. Mia is friendly and there isn't anything particular unpleasant about her as far as you can see, but you're not quite accustomed to being around someone so animated, never mind someone who happily slings an arm around you or claps your shoulder or pounces you. Falling back a little gives you a bit more of the peace and quiet that you're accustomed to, at least until soft voices from behind you serve as a reminder that you're now in eavesdropping distance of Aphelia and Lucille, who have put even more distance between themselves and the larger group as they speak in soft voices.

"Have you heard anything from Halissen?" asks Lucille somberly.

"My family isn't part of the defense," comes Aphelia's cool answer. "We have some...lingering issues with the Nornfels, so Countess Cenoryn has tasked us with maintaining the supply lines for the battle to come."

"Yeah, well. You've heard something, right?"

There is an elven sigh. "No. Mother has apparently forbade the family from writing to me about Halissen for fear of distracting me from my training."

"Oh." A pause. "Are you worried?"

Aphelia's answer is just a hair late that you're not sure she is entirely convinced when she replies, "I try not to. I prefer to think we will hold the line. Ainellan and Cherlith bore the brunt of the Tenereian offensive, and we were unprepared at Wynholm. We have subsequently spent years fortifying Halissen for this day, and these preparations began long ago in Arnheim as well, long before I left for Faulkren. We've lured the Tenereians deeper into Elspar, stretching them far from their powerbase. Mercenaries under the Llyneyth warband are fighting harder than ever before. Reinforcements are coming in from every region of the Confederacy." Aphelia inhales deeply. "I prefer to think we will hold the line."


"House Celestia is among those at Halissen, are they not? I'd have thought you know more than I."

"No," snorts Lucille bitterly, "I'm not close to that aunt. Besides, no one actually tells me anything important. At best, no one thinks it'll do any good keeping me in-the-know. At worst, I'm stupid enough to slip that information to the Tennies."

"You do like to talk," Aphelia remarks wryly, but there is no malice in her tone. "Although not as much, I suppose, as Mia."

Lucille chuckles. "That's not a high standard at all."

The two of them fall into silence, and you feel a little guilty about accidentally eavesdropping on their conversation. You are about to march back towards Vesna and the others for a bit, but you do catch the tail end of the conversation between the two elves as Aphelia says, "Lucille."


"You're not that stupid."

Without looking back, you can tell Lucille is rolling her eyes just from the way she chuckles. "We need to work on how you comfort people."

Night eventually falls. The two teams have made made good progress in spite of your slow, cautious advance, and when the eight of you come to a stop at the foot of another large hill, it is with the hope that this is the northern end of the valley. With the oncoming darkness blanketing the woodlands in shadow, it is decided that continuing the hunt is a task best left for tomorrow morning.

A nice rock formation at the base of the hill provides shelter from the cold night winds as well as concealment from anyone passing by. Your team wastes little time settling in, hoping to get as much sleep as possible in the darkness. Four two-person shifts are established, with Aphelia designating you and Vesna for the first watch. Rather notably, she also ensures that Penelope and Wendy are not only placed on different shifts, but that they stand watch with Aphelia and Mia respectively. The long awaited question of "who put you in charge" from Penelope is asked, with moral support from Wendy, but with no one else objecting to Aphelia's suggestions, nor support from anyone else for Penelope and Wendy's protests, the matter is settled to the chagrin of the two humans.

The other six waste no time going to sleep, hoping for an early start at first light. You and Vesna end up sitting atop one of the boulders just high enough to provide a good view of the immediate surrounding landscape, obscured by the foliage though it may be. A half moon is out tonight, providing no small amount of light across trees and hills, while hundreds of stars glitter in the darkness above.

"It's beautiful out here," breathes Vesna contentedly beside you, her gaze alternating between the calm woodlands and the twinkling stars above. "Was this what it was like growing up for you?"

"Yes," you nod, rather at ease with your surroundings. "The woodlands in which I was born was not a valley with so many mountains, but this is still...familiar." You even manage a small smile. "Comforting."

Vesna stretches before happily lying back down onto the boulder, setting her staff to the side before folding her hands as a pillow behind her head. "It must've been nice to live out there," she murmurs, gazing at the heavens now. "To lie out here and stare at the stars." Her smile turns a little wistful. "Maybe I'm a little jealous."

"Are you a city girl?"

"Something like that. I know the woods have their own dangers - we hunted a boar earlier today, and we were warned about bears - but I don't think I would ever have experienced something like this had I not come to Faulkren."

You nod agreeably, even though you're a little confused now. "I...t-thought your family were traveling merchants," you say after a long moment of hesitation.

"Oh, we are!" Vesna exclaims. "It's just..." she lets the moment hang for a while before shrugging in an almost helpless manner, "...well, I'm an only child, so my family always thinks it's better to just keep me indoors or in a wagon and away from harm." She makes a tiny, almost silent laugh. "Maybe that's part of why I tried so hard to get into Faulkren Academy. I had to get on my knees and beg my father to let me come."

"You want to see the world," you nod, knowing that feeling all too well. It's not exactly identical your own reason for coming here, but one can easily argue that the root causes are quite similar.

Vesna smiles apologetically. "It's a silly reason for becoming a mercenary, isn't it?"

It is your turn to exclaim as your hurriedly cry, "N-No, it isn't!" You cringe and remain silent for a moment, fearing that you may have woken the others up, but when there is no hint of the others stirring, no one hissing at you to be quiet, you drop your voice back down to a whisper as you blush and explain, "I...I-I don't have a better reason myself."

"What is it?"

This is still not something you're entirely comfortable admitting, but having discussed this previously with Sieglinde, you feel a bit more confident than you otherwise would've. "I-I want," you murmur, your finger awkwardly poking the boulder you sit on to work out your feelings of embarrassment as you do so. "I w-want to be...bolder. Better. More sure of myself."

Your fears about Vesna being judgmental about it largely fade as she simply smiles and declares, "That's good."

Clinging onto what little insecurity that remains in your mind, you stammer, "I-It sounds selfish, doesn't it? A-After everyone else talked about how they want to help the country..."

"Does it?" questions the human, tilting her head slightly to the side, a curious motion given the fact that she's still lying face-up on the boulder. "I don't think it a less worthy goal. It's a hard one, too, something not everyone can do, no matter how much they want to."

"I-Is it?"

Vesna makes a thoughtful humming noise, but you can't shake the feeling that it's a forced show of whim. "I don't think people like Aphelia, Lucille, or Melanie are really in a position to change even if they want to," she finally allows, "or at least how they want to."

"Oh..." you intone, thinking about how the three aforementioned apprentices are all constrained by the expectations they are beholden to, the families they are part of, the social standings they occupy. You contrast this against yourself: A daughter of a freeholder family who has - compared to some of the members of your team - an extraordinary amount of personal freedom within your family's decent socioeconomic means. A bitter part of yourself wants to demand just what you have done with this freedom...but that's why you're here, aren't you?

"Maybe that's at the heart of why I'm here," Vesna sighs wistfully, snapping you out of your reverie.

"I thought you joined because you w-wanted to help people."

"Maybe that's the way I want to change," giggles Vesna. "Become someone other than the girl in a wagon. Maybe it's why I read novels like The Adventures of the Silver Princess." She gives a small little sigh. "It's not that I'm not of any help to the people around me. They always assure me that I am. It's just...always in a more abstract sense. The fact that I'm there instead of anything I do." Her expression becomes a touch more serious as she murmurs, "I want it to be otherwise." She trails off into silence for a long moment before laughing sheepishly, "I must be sounding silly."

"N-No," you reassure Vesna, trying to comfort her with a confidence you don't really feel. "I...think I understand." You're not sure you do - to borrow a phrase from Vesna, it's all somewhat abstract - but you do at least want to believe that you understand the broad strokes of it.

"Ah," added Vesna with a smile as she sits back up, "and please don't tell the others about this, alright?" She winks playfully at you. "It'll be our little secret."

The remainder of your watch passes uneventfully. Two hours are over before you know it, and you wake Aphelia and Penelope up for their watch before settling yourself on a soft patch of grass in between the boulders. You give your conversation with Vesna a bit more thought, but soon they escape you, and you drift off into a peaceful slumber.

"This looks far enough north," Lucille opines.

It's morning once again. The night turned out to be uneventful, and after washing up using some of the water that you've collected in canteens, the eight of you marched up the hill to get a better view of your surroundings. Although there is a slightly heavy morning mist, you can certainly see what you suspect are the confines of this field exercise from atop the hill. The woodlands of the Roldharen Forest looks like it stretches out for another two or three kilometers northwards from where you are now, but there are no further hills in that direction. Rather, the line of hills that form the northern boundaries of this valley seems to be running both east and west from the hill you're perched on.

"We head west, then," Aphelia declares to no opposition, not even Penelope's or Wendy's. After all, westwards shall put you closer to the aforementioned bear sightings, the dryad hunters who will turn you away, and the furthest distance you'll get from everyone else. With any luck, this will allow all of you to search for your flags in peace. "This map piece shows that the flag is set at the bottom of a mountain or near it. We don't know which one," she points to the silhouettes of the two hills you can see through the mist, "but we'll circle around those two hills first and try our luck. Agreed?" Again, there is no opposition, a decent sign of unanimous agreement.

"The weather isn't great," Lucille points out, looking out at the invisible horizon lost to the morning fog. "We'll probably cover more ground if we split into teams."

"Teams of two, then?" Vesna asks. It's certainly not a bad idea; four groups will be able to cover decently large stretches of ground, a thought that seems to occur to everyone else as well. Given that no one from Squad Four is here, you are afforded the chance decide who you want to pair up with for this search. It'll take some time for you to cover two hills anyways, and you're likely going to be left in peace, so there's no harm in trying to get to know someone here better.

You choose to pair up with...

[x] ...Aphelia Meredith Treiser.
[x] ...Lucille Lorraine Celestia.
[x] ...Melanie Aster.
[x] ...Mia Honette.
[x] ...Penelope.
[x] ...Wendy.
[x] ...Vesna Rainer.
[x] ...whoever is left over.


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