A note from meidogeometry

I have proofread and posted again~ >_<

A quick explanation: The "grape juice" joke is a reference to Japanese television broadcasting rules that frowns heavily upon the depiction of minors drinking alcohol. Such laws do not always apply outside television, so it gets awkward when the manga or light novel a televised anime is based on depicts teenagers going on drunk hijinks. So anime gets around this by very loudly proclaiming that this glass of reddish liquid is totally just grape juice, despite everyone getting drunk. (Other ways of legally getting minors drunk in anime is by eating chocolates with alcoholic content.)

The congregation of five, for better or for worse, isn't to last. "Lady Aphelia!" comes a voice, and heads turn towards what seems like a gathering of the lady-in-question's usual admirers, cheerfully moving towards her and - perhaps rather conveniently - largely ignoring you and Penelope's squad. "We've been looking all over for you!"

To that, Aphelia gives the tiniest of smiles - one that is quite similar to the sort of smile Sieglinde gives, but different in a strange quality you can't quite place - in their direction. "I was catching up with a few familiar faces," she admits, gesturing towards you and the others. There are a few polite greetings exchanged, although those involving Penelope and her squadmates seem strained; you can't help but notice that Penelope and her squad are suddenly very much in a hurry to leave, seeing themselves out as soon as attention is turned back to Aphelia, and they disappear quickly into the crowds.

At least you get a few extra looks at your stuffed wyvern.

"I suppose I shall be seeing you later, then?" Aphelia asks as she prepares to depart with her crowd. You're not entirely sure if she's dismissing you, or if she's sparing you from having to deal with an unfamiliar social group.

You do feel a little bit relieved; you're not so close to Aphelia yet that you feel like you'd fit in with her social circle. "Y-Yes," you reply with a small curtsy. "I h-hope you enjoy your time, L-Lady Aphelia."

The elf nods and leaves with her small crowd, and you are once again alone. Albeit with a small cup emptied of its contents. Specifically, down your throat. At least you feel warm.

Wandering around town amidst the lights, music, and festivities - and admittedly at times simply being swept up by a moving crowd - you find yourself moving from game stalls to a more nakedly mercantile area. Merchants sell their wares from makeshift stalls beside their wagons. Some of them are different preserved foods and treats from further afield, imported in from other regions of Caldrein; others sell fashions from the city, or trinkets and souvenirs. The crowd is clearly spending, as coin is passed from one hand to another. With Elizabeth having given you some coin and encouraged you to spend it, you find yourself wondering precisely what you might buy here. Your stuffed wyvern is great, but you didn't exactly buy it, and it's something that you'd rather give to your sister as a present rather than something you want to keep for yourself; it's cute and you like it quite a bit, but having a giant stuffed wyvern somehow doesn't seem like something that really fits the image of a Caldran mercenary.

You are early in the process of looking around the different stalls when you hear the call: "Neianne!" The voice is familiar, but it's hard trying to actually see who's greeting you. The wyvern is bigger than your head, with red and yellow buttons for eyes, and scales in a different and more striking coloration than the beast you actually encountered. Trying to see past it would not have ordinarily been particularly difficult, save for the fact that you're surrounded by a crowd populated by people who on average are taller than you, many of them holding different drinks and treats. A lot of twisting around and awkward shuffling was necessary to stop yourself from colliding with someone .

You do eventually succeed, however, and are relieved to greet the approaching Vesna: "H-Hello!"

Your hands touch, and Vesna smiles infectiously. "You came after all!" And, looking at your stuffed wyvern, she adds, "And you've already started shopping!"

"O-Oh," you quickly stammer a correction, "this i-isn't...I w-won this as a p-prize." Which, again, isn't strictly true; you technically cheated and so didn't win anything, but you got the stuffed wyvern because Penelope is good at extortion, apparently.

"Ooh, that sounds fun. I don't think I'd win, though."

The odds are indeed stacked against you, as you yourself have learned, although you seem to recall Vesna getting very lucky from time-to-time, such as during the Roldharen field exercise, like when she apparently managed to spot a squad really far away in the cover of trees by chance, and when she agreed with you about the direction of a stream that even you had no idea was there. But that is neither here nor there. "D-Did you come alone?"

"I came with my squad, but we've split up because we wanted to look at different things." She paused, before thoughtfully wondering, "Or maybe we just got lost in the crowd and decided we could just go around by ourselves?"

Whatever the reason, you're glad for her company. "Are you h-here to shop?"

"Oh, yes! I'm not looking for anything in particular, but I'm hoping to find a few souvenirs that are really nice. I'll know it when I see it. Probably nothing quite as grand as your wyvern, though. Are you going to use that as a pillow?"

"I-I think I'll give it to my sister as a g-gift," you admit, ignoring how ridiculous the idea of using a stuffed wyvern as a pillow sounds. Your own pillow in your room is quite fine.

Vesna looks interested. "Older sister?" she ventures. And when you shake your head, she asks, "How young is she?"

"Ten s-summers." This is becoming a bit of a familiar subject.

"Ooh," smiles the brunette, and although it seems innocent enough, the smile is growing almost forebodingly. "Is she as adorable as you?"

Flushing red in embarrassment, you attempt to coherently stammer a retort: "I-I-I'm is..." After several false starts and realizing you really don't have a good answer to a trap question, you exasperatedly change the subject: "D-Don't you have a sister?"

"Only child." Vesna smile almost seems wistful. "It'd be nice to have a sister, I think. My father isn't..." she pauses, seems to think better of whatever she was going to say, then amends, "...It may be a bit too late for me to have a sister." Then, clearly trying to change the topic onto a lighter note, she puffs proudly and declares, "But clearly I'd be the older sister if I had a sibling." Then, looking at you, she remarks, "I'm surprised that you aren't the younger sister, actually. Is she as shy as you?"

"N-No. She's more...o-outgoing."

"And you've always been shy?"

"I think so." Then you give her question and your answer a little more thought, then insist, "B-But I'm not th-that shy!" Somehow, even the denial sounds feeble.

"Well, less than you were," Vesna concedes with a smile that conceals hints of her skepticism. "Clearly, you should be aiming for Mia as a goal!"

You think this over for a moment. "W-Would you want t-two Mia's around?"

Vesna considers this before giving a small awkward laugh. "That...might be a little much for anyone to handle," she admits ruefully. "Not that she isn't a perfectly nice person. Because she really is! I like her. She just...knows how to fill a room." Despite the girl in question being a rather limber aseri, this is such an apt description of her that you can't help but giggle a little, not without a twinge of guilt, even if it seems doubtful that Mia would be particularly offended. "But I should think about getting my father a gift too, shouldn't I?"

"Wh-What do you think she'd like?"

"I don't know. She isn't really lacking in much, certainly not anything I could buy for her." You don't know how profitable the Rainer family business is, but it isn't difficult to imagine that Vesna's parents are doing well for themselves. "I know she'll appreciate anything I get her,'d be nice to find something special."

"M-Maybe something from the Academy?" you suggest. "S-Something to show that you've grown. That's s-something she can't buy anywhere."

"That'd be great," smiles Vesna with a hint of amusement, "but I don't think I can get an instructor to write her a letter about how well I'm doing here and call that a gift."

You nod sympathetically. "Melanie got a w-wyvern scale from the one we ran into at R-Roldharen," you suddenly remember, "and is wearing it as a p-pendant."

Vesna's eyes widen. "That's a great idea!" she gushes. Then, a little ruefully, "I should've thought of it. It's too late now, too."

"Th-There will be other opportunities!" you try to sound reassuring, although knowing yourself, you're probably falling short.

But if so, Vesna doesn't show it as she smiles and declares determinedly, "Yup, I'm sure there will be another chance to prove myself that isn't so life-threatening and terrifying!" The two of you share a laugh that's part happy, part relieved, part I-really-hope-it-doesn't-happen again.

"Vesna!" comes another call from another familiar voice, and your heads turn at a blond-haired, blue-eyed human just a few meters away, one you have not seen for a while. "Neianne!" Emilie adds, now that she can see you properly through the crowd, waving excitedly. She turns around for a moment to excuse herself from three other girls she's walking with - her squad, most likely - and rushes over as the three of you exchange quick hugs.

"Emilie!" Vesna smiles, pointing at the slight flush on her cheeks. "You've been drinking."

"Just a little," Emilie giggles. Then she looks at you and adds, "So have you, Neianne!"

"J-Just a little," you echo; you think you blush, but maybe it's just the grape juice.

Looking at your stuffed wyvern, she exclaims, "You've bought something too!"

You suspect that you will be having to clarify the origins of your newly-acquired souvenir for the rest of the evening. "Th-This was a prize."

"Ooh, what at?"

You feel a little uneasy about pointing out the game to Emilie, especially if it runs the risk of having to bring her back to a game stall that you've technically extorted a stuffed wyvern out of. "I-It was a," you manage lamely, quietly wondering if the vendor took Penelope's words to heart and packed up. You doubt the elf would've allowed the game to go on without weights in the bottles if there's a prized attached at the end. "I was a-actually just pulled along, so I'm not s-sure where it is now."

"That's too bad," Emilie opines, even though doesn't seem at all bothered about it. "But I'm not very physically gifted, so I don't think I'd win anyways."

You nod, vaguely reminded by fleeting impressions of Emilie with a staff. "You practice magecraft here, don't you?"

Vesna pops in cheerfully, posing in an exaggerated version of the classic mage's staff stance - at least that's what you think it is, not using a staff yourself - declaring, "We take the same classes!"

"Yeah," snorts a third new voice, "because the two of you are boring."

"Nikki!" the rest of you exclaim, recognizing the taller, tanner girl; your good cheer is momentarily interrupted, however, by a double-take upon actually laying eyes on her. The rest of your are dressed warmly for the winter with heavy dresses and coats, but Nikki looks like she's buried under multiple layers of coats, or at least a single large coat heavy enough for a dangerous expedition in the tundras of Northern Iuryis. Her pointed ears are hidden under a heavy hood, and only her bushy tail juts out from behind her, something that Nikki is keen to hold onto. Perhaps to keep her tail warm, or perhaps to let her tail keep the rest of her warm.

The outfit hides some of Nikki's more natural curves while also generating others, something that Emilie observes as she innocently opines, "You look like a dumpling."

Looking mildly irritated by the comparison, Nikki grouses almost defensively, "I'm not used to snow, alright?"

"D-Doesn't it snow in Sandria?" you ask. You're aware that it's the warmest of Caldrein's five regions, but whether or not it snows in the winter there is still beyond you.

"Nope," Nikki answers. "At most, winters are a bit chilly where I'm from, but it never snows. The region is mostly warm, although some summers can get stupidly hot. And we definitely eat and wear less than people up here."

You don't doubt it. Nikki has always been a little tanner than everyone else you've seen, and while she's a little tall, she also has a slim, acrobatic physique that is noticeable even under her multitude of coats.

"Where's your squad?" Emilie asks, looking around for any hint of them. Nikki doesn't seem to have recently detached herself from a squad in the same way Emilie did.

"They had an early start," explains the aseri. When she realizes that the explanation is somewhat less than entirely forthcoming, she sighs and elaborates, "Okay, it took me forever to put on these coats, and I told them to go on ahead first."

Now that the matter has been brought up, Vesna asks Emilie, "Shouldn't you be with your squad?" After all, wherever the three other members of Emilie's squad were when she came to greet you, they're gone now.

But Emilie waves it off and readily answers, "Oh, it's alright, we chat in each other's rooms all the time. It's been a while since I've really talked to any of you."

"This brings back memories, though, doesn't it?" Nikki observes, looking at the three of you in a somewhat satisfied manner. "I think this is the first time the four of us were together since we arrived at the Academy."

Smiling nostalgically, Vesna adds, "You three were the first people I ran into."

"S-Same," you reply, and a small smile also creeps up onto your lips. As was with Vesna - at least up until the Roldharen field exercise - you've mostly exchanged polite greetings with Emilie and Nikki, all of you being too caught up in academics and your own social circles to really have thorough conversations as you did when you all first met.

"I think I arrived the day before and had people to talk to," Emilie says, sounding almost apologetic. "Sorry."

"Traitor," Nikki sticks out her tongue at Emilie.

"Are we here to shop for souvenirs?" Vesna asks, looking eager to get a move on.

"Just window-shopping," answers the tan aseri, looking around at her surroundings. "Most of what's sold here is pretty garbage, anyways."

"They are?" Vesna blinks, surprised.

"Yeah, a lot of the stuff sold are useless. You know, souvenirs that you'll probably forget about after a month." You suspect you won't be forgetting about your wyvern anytime soon, though, even if it technically doesn't qualify as a souvenir. "Most of them are wares that peddlers want to get rid of, and Midwinter's Feast is a perfect time to sell to drunk, gullible partygoers with too much coin to spare." Pausing for a moment, Nikki asks, "I mean, your parents are traveling merchants, aren't they?"

"Not peddlers," Vesna replies quickly with spot of mild, mock indignation. "We don't do anything so underhanded."

Nikki snorts. "Or you think your parents don't do anything so underhanded." Vesna sticks her tongue out at Nikki, although neither show any hint of anything approaching anger. "Anyways, my parents didn't give me enough coin for frivolous shopping trips."

"That's a shame," Vesna replies, sounding like she means it. "I thought blacksmiths have profitable businesses."

The aseri makes a face. "It's not that we're not well-off?" she allows cautiously. "I won't deny that the war hasn't helped the business, and the jobs we're given are...well, they're pretty good. And our baroness ensures we're paid. But when the Confederacy's at war, there's an expectation that we're supposed to do our part, so while the jobs are large enough to help cover things, they aren't exactly what we'd call market price, even at bulk. Things are always a little risky now anyways. Like most blacksmiths, we get our raw metals from the mines in Elspar, and there's always the worry that the supply will stop coming in when the Tenny invasion takes them over. They've already taken some of them. And sure, we could eventually get new suppliers here in Apaloft or maybe further out in Lindholm, but that takes time and money, my mother or father would have to actually go over there, and we're already spending both keeping things running at home. Not to mention that there are larger smithing businesses compared to us, and they may gobble up the rest of the supply from fewer mines. My parents have been resisting the temptation of expanding the business. After all, what good are all the extra smithies once the war is over?"

Vesna nods, looking enraptured by the conversation, somber as it is. It reminds you of how much rides on being able to repel the Tenereian invaders, and what will happen to the Confederacy afterwards. Emilie, on the other hand, seems quite ready to put the subject back on a more cheerful track as she says, "My parents did give me coin for the occasion, fortunately. I'm just here for the food, though. They're giving some treats out for free, and I don't think there's much else I'd really like to buy right now." She pauses, then - with growing excitement - adds, "Unless someone here is carrying the latest installment of The Adventures of the Silver Princess..."

Emilie and Vesna once again share a delighted, excited squeal. Nikki makes a groan that indicates - once again - she's surrounded by idiots. She instead looks at your stuffed wyvern, Nikki quips, "I see Neianne has already gotten a head start, though."

"Oh," Vesna corrects, looking over, "she won that as a prize."

The aseri regards at you with a surprised reaction. "You can win prizes? I hate you already."

"I-I-I...I d-didn't..." you struggle to explain how you got this "prize" to begin with, ""

Looking just a hint exasperated - but not really very repentant - Nikki drones, "I'm joking, Neianne."

"...O-Oh," you intone lamely, trying not to blush harder than you already are, hoping that the flush on your face from your grape juice is intense enough to mask it, squeezing your stuffed wyvern a little. "It''s a gift for my y-younger sister."

Nikki sighs slightly. "Now you're just trying to make me look bad," she says, but without any actual heat. You decide to let it go, despite the apologetic protest already on the tip of your tongue.

"Do you have enough to spend on a few snacks, at least?" Emilie asks you in a sympathetic tone. She is perhaps aware that the three of them come households running some kind of business - blacksmith, tailor, merchant - while you come from an idyllic village with no real industry. Your mother is a woodworker, at least.

"O-Oh," you blink, hurriedly reaching into your pockets and ensuring your coinpurse is still there. "L-Lady Elizabeth gave me some coin to spend here, so..." You slowly trail off, partly because you don't think there's much more that needs to be said than that, but mostly because Emilie and Nikki - and, to a much lesser extent, Vesna - are staring at you.

"Lady Zabanya gave you coin to spend," Emilie says blankly, although it sounds more like a question.


"Elizabeth Irivich Zabanya gave you coin to spend," says Nikki this time, equally blankly, and equally inquisitive.


"Elizabeth Irivich Zabanya gave you coin and told you to spend it on food and souvenirs."

"...Y-Y-Yes...?" you squeak quietly, uncertainly this time. It does sound increasingly unbelievable with every repetition, now that you have a chance to think about it. Elizabeth doesn't exactly strike most people as the generous type.

With a grim face, Nikki turns to Emilie and Vesna, points towards you, and declares, "Someone check her for a collar."

"A collar?" you and Emilie echo in confusion. Vesna, however, looks like she's holding back a laugh.

"Yes, a collar," Nikki confirms. "One that reads 'private property'."

Emilie blushes at that, but you're still a little confused. Sympathetically, Vesna leans over and whispers a vague explanation into your ear and...

"I-I-I'm not wearing a collar!" you blurt heatedly, panicked, almost bouncing up rigidly in shock, something that would've slammed your head into Vesna's face. You're mercifully spared this indignity, but still positively feel like you want to curl up in a hole and hide forever, a feeling only enahcned when you realize people around are looking at you, surprised by your outburst, then begin laughing. Nikki herself is grinning mischievously. A more rational part of your head tells you that most people are probably drinking and will forget about a possibly drunk dryad girl making an odd declaration. The louder, less rational part of your head tells you you can't ever show your face in town again.

Thankfully, the incident is quickly past and forgotten, and the four of you are soon going from stall to stall, looking at what there is to buy. If nothing else, the souvenirs on display are quite pretty to look at, with the four of you excitedly chatting and comparing potential acquisitions. Emilie, as promised, finds herself munching on a few pastries cooked over a small, portable stone oven on the back of a wagon. Vesna ends up buying a cheap carved ivory necklace that Nikki insists is nonetheless overpriced. And Nikki adamantly refuses to buy an oak comb for her somewhat unruly hair that Emilie keeps trying to prod her into buying.

You, on the other hand, find yourself feeling indecisive about what you're going to buy, at least until you wander a little bit away from the others - different stalls and carts are attracting separate attentions, after all - and you accidentally find yourself drifting towards a stall stocked with the familiar sight of traditional dryad goods: A few toys, some decorative hangings, a few pieces of wooden ornaments, and - perhaps more interestingly for you - jars of what looks very familiarly like forest spice, reminding you of the conversation that you had not so long ago with the rest of your squad.

So enraptured is your attention by the familiar, almost nostalgic sight, in fact, that you almost don't realize that the stall is being crewed by a tall dryad who greets you: "The World's favor upon you, young one."

"O-Oh," you blink, startled, not only because you almost didn't notice her, but also simply because it has been years since anyone greeted you in a traditional Gaianist way, and your dulled childhood habits are slow to respond. "A-And you."

The woman looks you up and down in a reserved, dignified manner only woodland dryads can. This is not a dryad who has moved to the plains, but someone who very obviously hails from the communes. You can tell not only by the way she is dressed - she fits into traditional dryad garb in ways that you never seem to - but also her body language and her mannerisms. "I've not seen you before," she finally allows after a moment of observation. "Which commune are you from, and who are your parents?"

"U-Um, I'm not..." you struggle to find the words for your explanation, caught on awkward footing, "...I was born i-in Thionval, but m-my parents left for the plains years ago." Even were your parents merchants, your birthplace is a little too far away to justify making a trip to Thionval over Midwinter's Feast.

"Ah," the dryad says, and something about her shifts, as if a lever is pulled. She doesn't seem any less friendly in any way, but there's just something about the way she looks at you now that's just a touch different from how she looked at you a moment ago. As if she's suddenly talking to a slightly different person. "I suspected." She nods, pauses, looks at you more carefully, seems to hesitate. "Or perhaps I was wrong and have seen you before. Are you not the mercenary-apprentice that saved your fellows in that field exercise months ago at Roldharen?"

That feels like a bit of an exaggeration, and you can't help but remember Alexia's words about how stories have a tendency to inflate themselves. "I-I only helped one."

The dryad nods. "I thought you looked familiar. I passed your wagon when word first came out that a wyvern was there and we rushed to slay it. I am glad to see you have healed."

"Thank you. W-Was everything alright? I-In Roldharen?"

"It was not," the dryad replies bluntly, although nothing in her tone has particularly changed. "Several of my friends perished at the jaws of the wyvern. The commune was displeased, though your headmistress has done much to soothe tempers. Your Academy has been good friends to us, but we are loathe to be dragged into the conflicts of others. Especially when they come at the cost of lives."

You know it's not really your fault, nor is she blaming you for it, but it's all you can do to suppress a flinch and murmur, "I-I'm sorry." You are also momentarily reminded that not all woodland dryads see themselves as part of the broader Caldran community, and there are complex feelings shared between them and those who make for the plains.

The dryad shakes her head. "It's not of your doing. Nor, I suspect, the choice to move to the plains." She inhales subtly, quietly. "We all must go one day, I suspect. Perhaps I shall not live to see it."

"Oh," you intone. It's a weighty topic, one that, in a way, reflects the vestiges of a long-lost childhood life so many years ago. You aren't sure what to say to that.

A moment passes - one that feels awkward for you - until the dryad asks, "Did you wish to purchase something from my wagon?"

"Y-Yes," you stammer, remember what caught your attention in the first place. "Is that a b-blend of forest spice?"

The dryad looks at you in a way that almost seems to reflect mild confusion - an eyebrow raised only a hair - but she nods, "It is forest spice, yes. Would you like a jar? It shall be four marks."

"Please," you nod, and goods and coins are exchanged. Then, now that you think about the conversation from days before and remember that you could not tell your squadmates what spices go into forest spice, you inquire, "M-May I ask what is f-forest spice actually?"

Again, there is that mildly confused look from the dryad as she asks, "Pardon?"

"U-Um, what is f-forest spice made of? Cinnamon? Pepper? G-Ginger?"

There is the barely perceptible hint of amusement dancing across the older dryad's face as she explains, "Young one, forest spice is a spice, not a blend. I imagine dryads elsewhere with different spices from their forests may calls ours differently, but there is but one type of spice growing in these Caldran woodlands. I do not think it popular enough on the plains for the elves to give it their own name."

"...Oh," you intone blankly, suddenly feeling very idiotic, and wishing you were more curious as a child and asked your parents more questions so as to not ask stupid questions now. "Th-Thank you."

"Fare you well, young one," says the dryad stoically even as you walk away with your embarrassment.

Amidst the crowd, Emilie, Nikki, and Vesna have congregated again, you and Nikki being the last ones to join. "Is that spice?" asks Emilie as the four of you start walking towards a livelier part of town - or at least a livelier-sounding part of town, if the commotion is to be taken at face value - now that the shopping is done.

"Yes," you answer, deciding against trying to explain what forest spice is to your friends; clearly you are not the most informed on the subject.

"I wouldn't mind some more flavoring on my meat," Nikki grins, having returned with four cups held just a little precariously in both hands. "Midwinter's Feast is going to spoil me for the rest of the year. Now here," she declares, passing a cup to each of you. Unsurprisingly, it's full of grape juice.

In spite of your better judgment, you take the cup - it's impolite to refuse, after all - and so does Emilie, but Vesna smiles apologetically and says, "Sorry, I promised my father I wouldn't drink while here. She's worried I might do something silly."

"You are supposed to do something silly," Nikki rolls her eyes. "It's Midwinter's Feast. Besides, your father isn't here." But when all Vesna does is continue to smile apologetically, the aseri sighs. "Oh, fine, then, you spoilsport." Turning to you, she hands you the last cup and declares, "Here, Neianne, this is yours."

"M-Mine?" you hiccup in surprise. Part of you thinks a second cup of grape juice is perhaps not a great idea. Said part is getting quieter, though. And habit makes your hands refleixvely reach for the cup before you even realize what you're doing.

"Yes, you," says the aseri. "You need to loosen up already. Now drink up."

You hesitate, but Emilie and Nikki are already emptying the contents of their cup - Nikki faster than Emilie, not to your particular surprise - and you give in resignedly and start drinking. Besides, now that you've already had a few, it's admittedly getting easier to allow the liquid down your throat, and it doesn't burn quite as much. It's actually feeling quite good, resembling warm and fuzzy feelings.

"So," Nikki asks, long after she herself finished her own, "Zabanya aside, is your squad treating you alright? I mean, they all look so...broody."

"Th-They're not broody!" you protest. This is beginning to worryingly resemble the conversation you had with Mia just earlier tonight. "They're just...f-fine. Th-They're treating me fine." And you don't think you're lying. Sieglinde and Stephanie are hard to approach sometimes, but they are evidently kind in their own ways. Even Elizabeth doesn't seem all that bad sometimes.

"You'd be saying that if they weren't treating you fine," Nikki snorts just a touch dismissively, but doesn't seem inclined to press you much further.

Sticking her tongue out at Nikki, Vesna asks, "Would you be any different?"

"I'll complain about what needs to be complained about. But my squad's alright, I guess. I mean, Marienberg is kind of difficult to deal with, and the other two just sort of listen to her, but she's alright." You recognize that as Wilhelmina's family name, the childhood friend of Azalea and widely considered to be the best archer by far at Faulkren, known to be able to hit distant targets with uncanny accuracy on her longbow. "She's not unfair, and she knows what she's doing. She's almost certainly going to be squad leader when we get to our second year, but I can live with that, so she's not awful."

"You don't know that for sure," Vesna points out innocently. "That she'll become squad leader, I mean, not that she isn't awful."

To which Nikki gives a little snort. "She's elven, highborn, and probably the best combatant and the smartest out of the four of us. It's not going to be anyone else."

Emilie blinks before observing, "She really is alright, if you're saying nice things about her like that."

It's a topic that hasn't really been touched on extensively, now that you think of it. Yes, it was explained briefly early in your academics that things will be done differently in year two, with a greater variety in curriculum with an emphasis on specialization, more squad autonomy, and more self-guided learning. A more intimate change, however, will be the designation of a squad leader for the remaining two years, someone with broader authority over the rest of the squad. The setup, so it was explained, is meant to create a semblance of responsibility and a chain of command that will no doubt be part of your lives when all of you graduate and become true Caldran mercenaries.

"There's a baroness' daughter in my squad," Vesna notes. "She's nice, though, and I think we'd really be happy if she became squad leader."

Rolling her eyes, Nikki says without rancor, "You're too agreeable."

"I don't have any elven nobles on my squad," Emilie offers. "I honestly have no idea who would even be chosen as squad leader."

Nikki smirks. "Then clearly you will become squad leader."

"Wh-What?" Emilie blinks in bewilderment, shaking her head furiously. "No, that's impossible! I'd be a horrible leader."

"Hey," shrugs the aseri, "stranger things have happened. If no one else is qualified, it may as well be you. Like Neianne crawling between a wyvern's legs because no one else could."

"I didn't c-crawl between the wyvern's legs," you pout with a hiccup, feeling a little indignant, even as you finally manage to finish your first cup. "I crawled under the wyvern." It feels like it's an important distinction, although you're not entirely sure how. Your voice sounds a little bit heated than usual - and the mildly surprised looks on everyone else's faces seem to confirm this - but you decide it's probably just the heat in your throat from all the grape juice.

"Okay," Nikki blinks after a moment. The four of you are approaching one of the town's squares, and it's evident that there are dances happening as bards play cheerful, hopeful music to the side. Then, mischievously, the aseri suggests, "So...Neianne should be squad leader?"

You actually give that a moment of thought. A serious moment of serious thought. Then you quickly shake your head."No," you say emphatically. "N-No, that would not be a g-good idea."

"Why not?" Vesna asks. Somehow, you get the feeling that despite looking interested at your answering, she - and the other two - are not actually entirely interested specifically in your answer.

"Because," you hiccup, "I'd have to g-give orders to Lady Sieglinde and Lady E-Elizabeth." And they aren't the kind of people to be given orders, you want to say, but you can't quite think of a way that doesn't sound entirely silly to you.

"Some people would probably kill for that," grins Nikki in a way similar to how she was grinning when you reacted to her comment about looking for a collar on you.

You hiccup at that, but Nikki's words aren't really that shocking this time. Or maybe you're just not thinking that hard about it. "You're awful," you say nonetheless, to which the aseri merely smirks.

"Nikki!" comes a sudden call, and you see a girl waving on the other side of the street alongside two others. One of them, you recognize, is Wilhelmina, whose impassive expression with only the barest hint of a smile makes it hard to tell whether or not she's enjoying the festivities, but at least her body language seems relaxed.

Recognizing her squad, Nikki gives a bit of a small smile to the three of you and declares, "Well, that's my call. I'll talk to you girls next time, yeah?"

You exchange farewells as Nikki rejoins her squad. Emilie and Vesna, too, are soon enraptured by the sight of dancing in the square, and they both jump into the crowd after making sure you're fine with finishing your drink first, the second cup that Nikki had handed you, the one that is still half-full. You don't mind. Dancing doesn't seem to really be your thing...maybe. And you can't dance with a cup in your hands. Yet.

"...N-Neianne?" the question is speculative, uncertain, and entirely understandable, all considered. The person addressing you is, unsurprisingly in retrospect, none other than Melanie, who is eyeing your souvenir with a rather startled look on her face. "Th-That is very b-big!" she says. Then flushes at stating the obvious.

"I-It is!" you agree, shifting the wyvern from one arm to the other, so that you can see the other half of Melanie's face now. Feeling that this is an inadequate explanation, you add, "I won it in as a prize!"

Which, again, is technically not entirely true, but you have quickly learned in the last few hours that this is probably a detail you can spare Melanie and anyone else who asks.

"C-Congratulations!" Melanie says sincerely. She looks from side to side, and seems to spot something outside of your current field of view, tentatively taking hold of your sleeve to draw you in that direction. In short order, the two of you find yourselves seated on two large empty barrels at the edge of the crowd, the wyvern across your lap rather than in your eyes. This vantage point affords you a much more commanding view of the whole event, including the dance. Thankfully, you're still close enough to one of the fires that you aren't overly cold.

Or maybe it's the pleasant warmth you feel spreading outward from your chest after many cups of juice have you had now? Third cup? Fourth cup? It's hard to say. Counting is hard. You don't remember it being this hard before.

"Are you h-here by yourself?" you ask, looking around for any of the friends you met at the feast earlier. You can't immediately spot anyone.

"Oh, n-n-no!" Melanie says, quick to dispel this impression. "Lady Lucille and th-the others are in the d-d-dance."

You glance over to the spot she indicates. It's hard to tell, given the lighting and the abundance of people, but you think you possibly see a girl with Lucille's brown hair and short stature. Then again, that isn't precisely a rare description in Apaloft, and you're not even certain if the girl you're looking at is an elf.

"She's in the m-middle," Melanie corrects, seemingly following your line of sight. "W-W-With Ashlyn." You look at the couple in question: One of the pairs currently in the middle of the circle, spinning and laughing in time with the wild, festive beat. You can see it now that you're told...but admittedly, only because you've been told. It must be true, what they said about aseri senses. Or was it elves who were supposed to have particularly sharp eyes? Some of the stories you've heard about the various races are admittedly contradictory, and at the moment, for some reason, the details of each feel particularly fuzzy around the edges, and they evade you.

"Why are you over here b-by yourself?"

She fidgets, white tail flicking back and forth over the side of the barrel. In flickering orange firelight, she almost passes for a more common red-haired aseri. "It's...a l-lot of p-people. And I'm n-not a good dancer."

"Neither is she," you point out, extending a finger to indicate a distant pair of strangers in the middle of the circle. The taller of the two has very nearly fallen on top of the other, and they're both struggling to right themselves while nearly falling all over again from good-natured hilarity. You flush as you realize how blunt that sounded. It was hardly something you'd say out loud normally. Maybe it's just the excitement of the festival?

Melanie shrugs her shoulders self-consciously and appears to be trying to think of what to say to that when someone abruptly looms into your field of vision. You give a start and almost fall over backwards, only belatedly catching yourself on the edge of your barrel.

"Now here's a sad sight," the stranger says. She's tall - very tall - and broad-shouldered, grinning widely at you from beneath a wide-brimmed carter's cap. "Two girls sitting all alone, without anything at all to warm them up. I asked myself: Where would I find little Melanie Aster in all this? And here you are, somewhere quiet off to the sidelines." Her grin devolves into a smirk as she gives Melanie a very familiar ruffling of the top of her hair. "At least you have a friend for once."

"H-Hello, Indie," Melanie murmurs, hiding her face partway with her mug, aided partly by her slightly ruffled hair. She hesitates, spinning it around in her hands, before seeming to recall that introductions are in order. "Oh! Th-This is Neianne. She's also an a-apprentice. N-Neianne, this is Indie."

"I do a lot of work for her family," Indie explains, apparently taking mercy on Melanie, who seems rather put on the spot. Casually, she passes cups of grape juice to you and Melanie; you are much more ready for this new cup, while Melanie seems a little reluctant. "I'm technically independent; you're sitting right beside my wagon." The wagon behind you has indeed been converted to a makeshift booth, laden down with barrels similar to the ones you're sitting on. "I make a good deal of my living from transporting their freight, though."

"N-Nice to meet you," you say back, feeling a little bit more at ease with someone whom Melanie is actually familiar, as opposed to some weird stranger who just shoved drinks into your hands.

"A pleasure. It's good to make new friends," she adds this a little cryptically with an odd, encouraging look at Melanie. Then she takes a step back, declaring, "You girls enjoy the drinks. I'm glad I saw you, but I'll let you get back to your socializing."

"It was...g-good to see you t-too," Melanie whispers as Indie leaves, finally releasing a sigh and fidgeting when the older woman has put enough distance between you.

"You must know a lot of p-people through your family," you offer at length. It's easy to forget, with how quiet and unassuming Melanie is, that the Asters are one of the most prosperous merchant families in Apaloft, with connections or rivalries with almost all the smaller ones.

Melanie shrugs, still not looking entirely comfortable. "Indie is...kind. She used to bring me t-toys wh-when I was little. I think...I think she was just s-sorry for me, though. She thought I was l-lonely."

"Were you?" You lean forward slightly, nearly spilling your drink. Maybe you should drink it faster. You take another gulp, accidentally taking a bit more than you actually wanted to. It's hard keeping balance. But it's okay, you don't think you spilled any. Except down your throat, anyways.

Melanie glances around, seemingly trying to look everywhere else but at the dancing figures. "S-Sometimes. Maybe. I h-had some friends, and m-my younger sister."

"Lady Lucille said that..." you frown, the memory briefly alluding you, "...that you were childhood friends." Your cup is empty again, but a laughing group carrying a jug passes by, and one of them fixes the problem for you. "A-And she made you come down here, didn't she?"

"Sh-She didn't m-m-make me!" she protests. "And we're not...I wasn't..." she trails off, looking at you both helplessly and a little oddly. For some reason, she reaches out a hand and feels your forehead. "Are you a-alright?" she asks.

You actually feel great. The burning feeling from the grape juice seems to have spread through your entire body, making you feel cozy and comfortable. The crowd around you suddenly feels less like an overwhelming collections of scrutinizing individuals and more like a happy amorphous blob, while the noise around you blurs into pleasant thrum music. "I'm fine! No one made me come down here either," you continue, downing more juice. "But I wanted to be more...I think I should do more. Things."

"Th-Things?" Melanie looks at you nervously, like she thinks you might topple over at any moment.

"Things!" you explain, elaborately. " talking more, and doing things where people can see!" You seem to be waving your free hand for emphasis. Or, wait, that isn't your free hand; you hastily stop to prevent yourself from showering everyone around you with juice. Or you would've, but it's too late. Oh, well, they seem too caught up dancing and drinking to care too much. You suddenly give Melanie an uncharacteristically stern look. "We should dance," you decide aloud. Then, plopping your stuffed wyvern down on the barrel and calling over to the wagon behind you, you shout, "M-Miss Indie, p-please look after my wyvern!" You're not entirely sure Indie hears you, but that's not entirely important right now.

"Wh-What?" Melanie wails, but you're already on your feet somehow, slipping down from your barrel, and you're tugging her behind you. Maybe she isn't wrong to worry about you falling over. You're briefly dizzy, but you recover.

"You should do things too!" you tell her, approaching the circle. Where did you put your cup? It was empty anyway, you decide, as you very nearly push Melanie, blushing and stammering, into the circle.

Things get increasingly fuzzy from there. You can remember joining the circle, laughing and dancing along with the others, seeing Melanie wind up in the circle with a mercilessly cheerful Mia and then, later, Lucille. Your own dances are a bit of a blur, but you remember one in particular, looking up at your partner to see Lady Azalea, smiling with thrilled amusement, before she somehow spins you in a way that should have sent you crashing to the ground, but instead makes you think you can fly.

That feeling of weightlessness seems to follow you for the rest of the night, and your memory smears into a vague sense of light, color, and happy warmth.

Some terrible, awful person is poking your cheek. You make a sound that sounds vaguely like a protest, throwing a hand over your face and curling tighter in on yourself in your bed. Which is somehow harder than you last remembered it. There's someone talking now, and it sounds painfully loud, and you wish they'd just stop.

"L-Let me sleep," you mumble. "This is m-m-my room."

"No," you barely parse someone saying. "It's not." Which is silly. Why would you be sleeping in someone else's room?

The poking intensifies. Then, abruptly, turns into a hard pinch on your ear. You make a pitiful, betrayed cry, arms flailing, bolting upwards, eyes creaking open with sudden alarm.

"Is that really necessary?" a familiar voice asks; it sounds level and neutral, but you can make out just a hint of possible exasperation in it.

"She wasn't getting up," another familiar voice replies. Your vision takes a moment to clear, to understand your surroundings: Your dorm room, bathed in warm morning sunlight beaming evilly right into your face through the window.

Then you correct yourself. It is not, in fact, your dorm room. Nor are you actually in your bed. Or even in a bed.

Elizabeth crouches over you, like you're something strange and interesting she's discovered on the floor. Because you are on the floor. Nearby, perched on the edge of her bed, Sieglinde is brushing out her hair.

"Wh-Wh-What am I d-doing here?" you squeak, shooting upward at just a slight angle - vertigo kicks in just a second too late - and proceeding to bang your head on the wall. You were curled up in the corner, evidently.

"Sleeping," Elizabeth said simply. She seems remarkably unbothered by the mewling dryad clutching her head in pain in the corner. "It was cute at first. But you snore."

"I d-do?" you gasp, head spinning and vaguely horrified.

"You don't," Sieglinde informs you.

"You're no fun," Elizabeth tells her, without rancor.

Groggily, you realize that you're holding the wyvern, cuddling it in your arms like a pillow. The coat that you wore to town has apparently been used as a makeshift blanket. "Wh-Wh-Why am I here, though?" you press.

Elizabeth lets you flounder for a moment longer, before Sieglinde cuts in. "You had a bit too much grape juice," she explains. "You passed out, and some of the girls helped you back to your room."

"Then you got back up, said you could walk for yourself, went the wrong way, and then curled up in our corner," Elizabeth adds.

Head spinning and making small sounds of distress, you try to gather your thoughts. "I d-d-don't remember anything after the d-d-dance! Wh-What happened? D-Did I do anything...anything...?"

Elizabeth glances away thoughtfully, as if thinking. She straightens up, standing over you. You've perhaps never realized it, considering her height, but she's actually very good at standing over people. "Well," she says, "it was pretty funny."

You make an alarmed mewling sound, covering your face in mortification. "H-How bad?"

"I never knew you had that sort of thing in you!" Elizabeth lets that hang for a bit, as you cover your face and squeak, wondering if you can perhaps get away with hiding for the rest of the year without ever showing your face again and not get kicked out of the Academy. "Oh, don't worry," she sighs, patting your head like you really are a leafy puppy she just kicked. "It wasn't anything all that bad." You've only had a moment to relax when she adds: "Congratulations on your engagement, though."

Your reaction is so dramatic that she laughs out loud, the tinkly, merry sound making your face burn more than anything else.

"She's joking," Sieglinde says, taking mercy on you.

"Maybe," Elizabeth says lightly.


"Who can say what happened in such a night of revelry?"


She relents, rolling her eyes. "Oh, don't worry. Nothing completely ridiculous happened. Probably."

This, you understand, is likely the best you're going to get. You deflate, and curling your legs up against your chest, leaning back against the wall. "S-Sorry to be a bother," you murmur.

"Oh, don't worry," Elizabeth says, dismissively. "Thanks to you, I'm having a great morning." She moves away from you and over to a wooden box on her nightstand, retrieving a slice of decadent, seed-filled solstice cake layered with jam. She proceeds to take a bite of it, an approving expression coming over her face as she enjoys her dubiously healthy breakfast.

"We weren't using that corner for anything anyway," Sieglinde tells you. Which almost sounds like an absurd thing to say, but it's been a pretty absurd morning. "You should thank the girls who helped you back to the Academy."

"Oh." You hadn't quite thought about that. "Wh-Who were they?"

"The Aster girl," Elizabeth informs you. "And someone else. And I supervised, so make sure to thank me as well." She says this in a manner that implies she neither knows nor cares about the name of this second person.

"Wendy, I think," Sieglinde says, helpfully filling in the blanks.

"Oh. Th-Thank you, Lady Z-Zabanya," you add, automatically. You're surprised by the other two names though; it's a little odd to imagine, Melanie and Wendy carrying you between them all the way up here, although you suppose that it's specifically Penelope who Melanie doesn't get along with. It is certainly nice of Wendy, though; her leg is better now, and you aren't so heavy, but that still seems like it's pushing things a little.

Maybe, you decide, you're beginning to like Wendy.

You hate Wendy. So. Much.

You stare blankly into the cloudy sky and groan, lying face-up on the training ground, your body and mind a combination of dazed, sore, and frustrated. And cold, given that you're lying on the last vestiges of snow as winter begins to pass. On one side of your peripheral vision, Wendy twirls her practice spear in what is probably a triumphant, somewhat smug manner. On the other side, you see your aseri greatsword instructor begrudgingly pass a tenner to Wendy's elven polearm instructor.

Many weeks have passed since Midwinter's Feast, and non-stop academic studying has now been replaced by non-stop physical training. The instructors have ensured that you and Wendy have had changes to your dietary consumption while you were wounded, and you've also done some very light calisthenics, but ever since you've recovered, your instructors have been running you ragged with hours of working out and weapons training to help make up for the constitution you've lost.

And your training has been progressing at breakneck speed to make up for lost time. Within weeks, you've been burning through different stances with a greatsword, different tactics for different situations, how to fight in formation, how to fight multiple enemies at once, how to duel, how to defend yourself in narrow spaces even with a weapon as long as a greatsword. Half a year ago, you were a common village girl hoping to change yourself; now you fight with speed, precision, and purpose that you had never even seen before, let alone imagined yourself capable of unleashing.

Unfortunately, this has not helped you in terms of being able to beat Wendy in a sparring session under the watchful tutelage of your respective instructors.

Moving from the periphery of your vision to look down at you, your instructor smirks a little as she asks, "What have we learned this time?"

"...Th-That Wendy is a ch-cheat," you pout from where you are lying in the thin snow.

You know that you're not being entirely fair to Wendy. It's not exactly that she's truly cheating. But at the same time, you know that she's not necessarily better than you at arms, at least not in the way people like Sieglinde and Aphelia make you feel. You don't feel a particularly acute sense of pressure or danger when sparring against Wendy. She never really manages to press you in a corner, and when she does make a move, you generally manage to deal with it efficiently, something that you would never have expected when you first arrived at Faulkren.

Your aseri instructor nods with a slight hum, almost as if commiserating with you. Then: "How so?"

"She isn't f-fighting," you reply.

She raises an eyebrow. "Her spear connected with your shoulder pretty well. I think that's fighting."

You pout again. "Sh-She's just running."

"Running" is perhaps an exaggeration of what Wendy has been doing over the course of the last three sparring matches. What she has actually been doing is constantly backpedaling in circles. She'd stick to the defensive, making you chase her while she sparingly counters with her own weapon, which is only somewhat longer than your greatsword, not enough to make an extremely decisive difference, but it's still a difference nonetheless. Her primary concern seems to be keeping her distance, keeping you running, wearing you out until you are too tired to properly defend yourself. Then she goes for the knockout blow.

Clearly, your instructor thinks this is an entirely valid tactic, because she asks, "And why is that a problem?"

"She has b-better endurance than m-me," you admit reluctantly. Where your greatsword manages to make contact with Wendy's spear, your heavier weapon and superior strength forces her to stumble back. But you can't actually get a good hit on Wendy herself, and as a human, she can simply outlast you in a battle of attrition.

"Of course she does," your instructor agrees, finally extending a hand out to where you lie on the ground. "She's human. So why are you letting her lead you around by the nose?"

Taking her hand in yours and allowing her to pull you back up to your feet, you realize that you don't have a good answer to that. You've mostly been focused on chasing Wendy, trying to get close enough to land a good hit on her with all of your considerable, superior strength...but that just means she's dictating where the spar goes, how to lead you in circles, how to continue backpedaling safely until she's worn you out.

"So she can outlast you in endurance," your instructor nods as you dust yourself off. "So how do you defeat her?"

"...A-As quickly as p-possible?" you venture.

"Right. And how do you do that?"

"...G-Get close to her as s-soon as possible. A-And try to b-back her into a corner."

The aseri nods casually. "A good a plan as any," she concedes. "Be careful, though. You grew up in a nice, idyllic little village, but Wendy grew up in a far rougher neighborhood. She's focused on beating you, she knows to milk every advantage she can, and she may very well fight dirty."

Your eyes widens at the mention of "fight dirty". "I-Is she allowed to?" you stammer.

"She'd better be," your instructor snorts. "I will guarantee that your enemies will fight dirty when you're a real Caldran mercenary." She then grabs you by the shoulder and turns you around towards Wendy, who has been waiting for you to get ready for another bout. "Go on."

Exhaling deeply, you step forward towards Wendy once more, who herself was speaking with her own instructor, and is now being urged forward to go another round with you. She gives her spear an impressive twirl - not anything as impressive as what you've seen Sieglinde pull off, but still a pretty spectacle nonetheless - as she waits for your ready stance. You yourself take up an ox guard: Presenting your side to the opponent, the hilt of your sword raised on bent arms just above your rear shoulder, its blade pointed towards your opponent's head. It's not the most versatile of stances, with a limited number of attacks that flows naturally from it, but one of those attacks is a powerful thrust to the upper body, a decent counter to a spear.

Your instructor waits a moment to confirm that both of you are ready before declaring, "And...begin."

The spar starts out predictably as it has in previous ones: You advance, pausing once only to fend off a probing thrust from Wendy, the human extending her spear to its full length at you to check your approach before withdrawing it just as quickly, backpedalling to close off any avenues of reprisal. For a moment, you entertain the idea of simply keeping your own distance from Wendy, deliberately goading her to come to you instead of the other way around...but you are acutely aware that Wendy's spear is not only lighter but also longer; you trying to keep your distance would keep you in her striking range but keep her out of your reach.

So much like before, you advance, keeping in mind Wendy's strategy of simply wearing you out. When she tries to circle around you, you sidestep, cutting off an avenue of escape, before advancing once more, forcing her towards the castle walls of the Academy step by step. She thrusts, you parry, she swings, you block, she retreats, and you advance, but you know she's merely skirmishing. She isn't testing your defenses so much as she's buying time, but you are determined not to give her any this time.

You are beginning to corral her towards the corner of the walls when Wendy starts cluing in to what you're trying to do, that your aggressive advance is calculated rather than just a manifestation of your frustration at being unable to beat her thus far. The agitation in her body language gives it away, as does when she looks back to see the corner behind her and then narrows her eyes at you. You are beginning to make headway, beginning to work your way inside her guard - that sweet spot past your opponent's spearhead where the shaft becomes only so much weight against you and your length of steel - when...

Something flashes past your face, something faster than you initially register, and you end up stumbling back in shock and surprise. Not so much that you give Wendy an avenue of escape, but certainly enough of a moment to allow her to catch her breath. What was that? you wonder, even as the grip around the hilt of your greatsword tightens. It was almost as if Wendy suddenly lashed out with her spear faster than you could've expected...which doesn't make sense. You've already fought several bouts against her; you know what she's capable of. She isn't capable of this.

In front of you, Wendy has adopted a different stance, hands closer to the center of the shaft now, her posture lower, and you subconsciously perceive the fact that the human is no longer quite using a skirmishing strategy anymore.

Grimacing, you advance again, keeping a more stable guard this time as your greatsword makes contact with Wendy's spear, parrying it aside with the greatsword's heavier mass like brushing aside a twig, then pushing in for the kill...

You see it coming this time. The moment Wendy's spear is brushed aside by your parry, it twirls once in a cyclonic motion in front of you, maneuvering under and around your greatsword's guard, and its blunt practice spearhead is already on its way towards your shoulder before you can strike Wendy with the tip of your practice greatsword. The strike is fast - just as fast as the one that preceded it, and certainly much faster than when Wendy was just trying to wear you out - and comes much closer to striking you this time, forcing you back, causing you to lose balance as you clumsily abort your forward thrust for a backwards slide instead.

On the one hand, Wendy looks much more serious and aggressive this time, even as she approaches in an attempt to capitalize on managing to put you off-balance. It means you're doing better than you were before. On the other hand, you are also struck by the realization that Wendy was merely being cautious with her strategy of wearing you out earlier; she was fighting dirty, but now she's fighting fast.

Her steps aren't perfect; her advance isn't fast enough to slip under your guard, and you recover from your backwards stumble before she has a chance to strike you. Her movements aren't as graceful as Sieglinde's; her sidesteps to the left and right to maneuver around your guard are stilted and don't feel confident. Her blows aren't the kind of precision strikes you've come to associate with much more skilled apprentices like Aphelia; they are instead swings across broad arcs and wide thrusts that hope to connect. But the general objective of her tactics seems to be working, because Wendy is giving you a handful: She does not block or even parry your guard, but instead allows your own swings - your counterattacks with the greatsword - to either pass her by or to push her to the side where she can then attempt to counter your own counterattacks once your swings run out of momentum.

The human's moves are fast, while your own heavy greatsword feels unwieldy and cumbersome in even your dryad hands, even as you are quickly forced to parry and block in every direction to stave off Wendy's attacks, with each blow coming faster to outmaneuver your guard. You don't think either of you is significantly faster than the other, so this can only mean that your own greatsword is slowing you down relative to Wendy's spear.

One thrust starts to get under your guard faster than you can defend against it. The second out of that flurry misses, but barely. The third one strikes you painfully in the shoulder as you stagger backwards from the blow, rubbing your sore muscles. In front of you, Wendy steps back and twirls her spear a little once more, although she looks winded and no longer as confident as she was the last time.

Your instructor reluctantly passes another tenner to her increasingly smug counterpart.

You are still nursing your pride and your physical pain when your aseri instructor finally comes over. For someone that has lost her third tenner for the day, she actually seems calm and even as she asks, "Neianne, what is the most important part of your body when using a greatsword?"

The question sounds open-ended, but you're worried that your instructor will think you're giving her sass if you reply "the arms". Instead, you point at one of the muscles in your upper arm, the one that's most sore. "U-U-Um," you stammer, realizing that smarter people have actually categorized the different muscles in the body and named them, but you don't actually know what any of those names are, and must resort to pointing at literally the specific part of your arm. "Th-This muscle right here...?"

Your instructor gives another snort before gently bopping your forehead, causing you to squeak in surprise. "It's your head, dummy."

"...Oh," you reply, not sure if your instructor is being serious or giving you some kind of platitude.

But your thoughts must've shown on your face, because the aseri puts her hands on her hips and declares, "I'm serious. This isn't some kind of bland motivational statement about 'fighting with your head'. Look," she mutters, taking your training weapon out of your hand, turning slightly to the side and making a few swings, "greatswords are large and heavy, and they're not easy to swing around. Even you, as a dryad, have to manage its weight, its length, its balance." With that, she presses the weapon back into your hands. "With something like a longsword or a spear or, even better, a rapier?" She makes quick snapping motions with her arms as if they were holding a sword or spear. "You can get away with a lot using just reflexes and hand-eye coordination, because they'll snap to where you want it to go if you can react fast enough." She points back at the training weapon in your hands. "Greatswords? You'll lose in a contest of reflexes every single time."

This falls in line with what you've experienced against Wendy. When it comes down to it, the human isn't more skilled, nor is she necessarily faster. She is simply exploiting the fundamental weakness of you and your greatsword: That all the strength you have and the mass of your weapon doesn't matter if she simply outmaneuvers it. Until you can somehow overcome that gap, you don't really stand much of a chance at winning.

But your instructor advises, "Don't react. Anticipate. Never get pulled into a contest of reflexes. Use your head. Be three steps ahead of everyone, especially people with faster weapons..." she pauses, then shrugs, ", yeah, that basically means you need to be smarter than everyone. This isn't just a blunt instrument for you to swing mindlessly around, despite what it looks like. You can get away with using a better, larger, heavier weapon against Tenereian conscripts, but you're a Caldran mercenary, and beating Tenereian conscripts by just reacting won't cut it, especially not with a greatsword. You need to fight smarter than this. So don't just react." She holds out her arms as if there's a greatsword in her hands. "Always keep the length of the greatsword in mind; your means of offense is also a defense, certainly moreso than other types of swords. Always - always - think of how the enemy might attack you, how to defend against those attacks, how to counterattack, and how your own attacks can deny them their attack, before they even make the first swing."

Perhaps you have been guilty of simply relying on your strength and the greatsword's power, to the point where you are basically a blunt cudgel. You have committed to body and mind the forms of the greatsword; the different guards and the different stances; and the multitude of ways you can attack, defend, and counterattack from different positions. Yet perhaps you have not devoted as much time and attention to how this survives contact with an enemy that knows of your strengths and weaknesses, and how to plan accordingly. It'll take plenty of training and practice and time to adjust to this new paradigm you're introduced to - even though you have all the basics committed down to your very bones - but if that means being able to hold your own in combat, or at least beat Wendy in a spar, at the very least, then you'll do it. Using your head in combat isn't just about strategy and tactics after all.

"Now come on," mutters your instructor, waving you in the direction of Wendy for the last bout of the afternoon. "Stop losing my drinking money. Beat her this time or it's five laps around the Academy grounds for you."

You did better on the last round than you did in previous ones, you pressed Wendy hard, the duel was very close, and you think you've learned a lot.

You still end up running five laps around the Academy grounds while carrying your greatsword, though.


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