Chapter 5: faraway clouds
"Enjoy today to the fullest, for you never know what tomorrow will bring" - attributed to prince Olivert Reise Arnor, possibly apocryphal

Laura S. Arseid always prided herself for her willingness to meet any challenge head on. That attitude had served her well in her swordsmanship, but also in her daily life. Failure was not something to be feared, but an occasion to learn, even though it could be a harsh teacher. In the same way, unfamiliar experiences were to be seen as a prime opportunity to widen her horizons.

That was what she constantly repeated herself when she hesitantly grabbed a teacup, trying not to feel self-conscious about the multiple gazes fixated on her.

The invitation for an informal gathering between students from both years, sent by a few members of class I and II, should have come as no surprise. Such occurrences were customary among noble families, as a way to foster ties, and when possible, good relations with each other. Having a few second years of noble birth invite several junior girls to welcome them at Thors was but an extension of that idea. So here she was, at the top floor of the student union building, in the salons reserved to the upper class students, a last reminder of the time the school was a noble-only institution.

The place certainly gave a luxurious feel, from the imperial red silk curtains to the finely crafted wooden tables and chairs, each of them made in a pre-orbal revolution style, though the blue-haired swordswoman was unable to tell whether they were antiques or simply well-made replicas. The walls proudly displayed several coat-of-arm shields, the emblem of the imperial stallion and Thors horned lion surrounded by the symbols of Erebonia's main noble houses. A carpet displaying scenes from the Septian testaments and a couple of ceremonial armors standing in the corners of the room made for the rest of the decoration. Everywhere Laura looked, signs of the Empire's ancient history were on display, a celebration of ancient traditions, and through them, of the aristocratic class that had led the country through centuries. She couldn't help but wonder how much of that display was made in reaction to the rising of the commoner class as a driving force in the Empire's political life. Laura supposed she couldn't argue with the aesthetics, and it certainly made for a pleasant cadre. However that did little to assuage her awkwardness at being in this situation.

First was the fact that while a dozen girls were attending this meeting, it soon became apparent that she was to be the center of the attention. Her father, as a mere viscount, might have been of relatively minor rank among nobility, especially compared to some of the older families, yet his reputation as Erebonia's most famed blade carried some weight, and made his daughter an object of curiosity. As if that wasn't enough, she was the sole warer of a red jacket amidst a sea of white uniforms, making her really stand apart.

Which led to Laura's second problem: her utter unfamiliarity with such meetings.

Her father's domain, Legram, was on the fringes of Erebonia, and he never showed any particular interest in breaking that relative isolation and mingling more often with his peers. As such, Laura had had little opportunities to interact with other teenagers of her rank, aside from the occasional visitor. And while she didn't lack friends in her home town, be it among her father's students or the local population, her relations with them were usually a lot less official than the current gathering. Sword training classes weren't a place where lineage mattered, and in a place as small as Legram, familiarity went a long way to bridge the distance created by differences in social status. She had her fair share of admirers – mostly females, for some reason – but even with them it was always possible to exchange casual greetings or to go for a swim in lake Ebel.

Here, though, Laura felt as if the slightest movement she made was to be scrutinized, appraised and analyzed at a later date. She tried not to fiddle with her teacup handle, instead taking a sip of the beverage to give herself some semblance of composure. Still, hoping her discomfort had gone unnoticed was but a pipe dream.

"No need to be so tense. This meeting is simply to help us know each other better, and provide help if we can. You'd better save your stress for the next set of exams, don't you think?"

The comforting words came from the girl directly facing her across the table, a second-year student with piercing purple eyes and long-flowing blonde hair falling back below her shoulders. She had introduced herself earlier as Friedel, and had apparently been one of the instigators of this gathering. Laura offered a self-depreciating smile in return.

"Apologies. I'm afraid this is all rather new to me. I can't say there were many opportunities for social gatherings at home."

"I know exactly what you mean," answered another second-year, giving her a comprehensive look. "I spent all my childhood on the western coast, and then suddenly I'm at Thors surrounded by peers... it was exhausting at first!"

"You seem to have managed eventually, though?" Friedel gently teased.

"Eventually, yeah!" the other chestnut haired girl – Augusta, if Laura wasn't mistaken - replied. "But that wasn't easy, let me tell you. Anyway, the point is, there's no need to walk around eggshells here. There's no parent hovering above our shoulders so we don't bring dishonor to the family, and since none of us is from one of the Four, I think we can agree to say it doesn't matter if one is the daughter of a baron or a viscount, or whatever."

Laura couldn't quite suppress a chuckle, alongside a few other first years. That was awfully direct, but not unpleasant. It seemed the banter was enough to settle a few nerves around the table, which had probably been the intended effect.

"Speaking of the Four," another second-year, this time with grey-ish, almost green hair and blue eyes, interjected. "No-one thought to invite Angelica?"

"Of course not!" Augusta protested. "You know perfectly well how this meeting would have turned out to be if we did bring her. I'd rather have our juniors not be traumatized after only two weeks."

"Oh, she's not so bad," the other girl answered with a coy smile. "You have to admit, she does make things interesting."

"Ugh, you're hopeless."

Well. Laura no idea who this Angelica was, but she certainly seemed like a handful. Still, with the room in a more relaxed mood, a few first years were now ready to join the conversation.

"I hear there's two members of the great houses among the first years this time around?" said a girl with orange-blonde hair and emerald eyes – Bridget, Laura recalled. "Hyarms and Albarea, right?"

Ferris, a class I student with flowing purple hair and amber eyes, let out a long sight. "Patrick, yes. He's... a handful. And I don't think he likes class VII very much. No offense intended," she quickly added while glancing at Laura.

"None taken," she was quick to answer. "And yes, Jusis Albarea is indeed one of my classmates. He seems quite respectful and hard-working, as far as I can tell. Though he does lock horns with Machias Regnitz a little too often."

Truth be told, she didn't know Jusis all that well yet. The Albarea scion had been courteous enough, but remained aloof, apparently finding little interest in social mingling. So far Laura had respected his boundaries, but she could admit being a little bit curious. Hopefully the two of them would have an opportunity to spar soon.

Right now however, the other noblewomen seemed more interested in the Albarea-Regnitz feud. "Yes, I imagine this might be difficult. Whose bright idea was it to make nobles and commoners mingle, anyway?" asked Ferris, a note of outrage in her voice.

"I think it's an interesting idea, though," protested Bridget, a small frown on her face. "Keeping the classes separate made sense a few decades ago, but maybe it'd be time to try something new?"

"But we're not just talking about any noble and any commoner, though," a third first year interrupted. "It's Albarea and Regnitz. Of course they'd be at each others throats! Right, Laura?"

The class VII representative only answered with a noncommital hum, while taking another sip of her tea. 'Of course', was it? She couldn't deny they had been at each others throats from day one, and it was true their respective families made a clash of opinions likely, but she found the idea that the two of them had been destined to hate each other rather sad.

"I suppose having together the son of a figurehead of the Noble Alliance and one from the chancellor's close circle was asking for trouble," Bridget admitted. "Is Regnitz treating you well, Laura? I hear he almost got in a fight with a second year from class II. It seems he really dislike us nobles, from what I hear."

Laura felt compelled to defend her absent classmate. "I really cannot complain about Machias Regnitz's actions. I won't pretend we are close friends, but he has been nothing but cordial in our few conversations."

It had been a pleasant surprise too. After his initial outburst toward the Albarea heir, she had braced herself for some hostility being thrown her way too. But while he had been a bit awkward in their conversations, he never got downright hostile, which was good enough for her. She didn't know what were the roots of his dislike for nobility, but it seemed he was at least willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

"Still, to think someone that closely linked to Osborne would be here..."

"Some are already talking about him starting a war with Calvard. Surely things won't go that far?"

"Then again, I hear that there are saboteurs in the country now. So who knows?"

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conversation turned toward the Blood and Iron chancellor. It was hard to have a sustained exchange without him coming up at least once, these days. Reformist hero for some, bloodthirsty soon-to-become-tyrant for others, no man in Erebonia inspired so much admiration and hatred in equal measure. Giliath Osborne, from commoner to general to the Emperor's right-hand man. Known for his political savvy, his ruthlessness, his expansionist policies and his repeated conflicts with the heads of the four great houses, to the point that his so-called Reformist faction allowed his most staunch opponents to rally around the newly created 'noble alliance' to act as its counter, extolling a stricter adherence to the Empire's century-old traditions, according to them the only guarantee for its continued power and stability. Albeit the movement was far from having an unanimous support even among aristocratic families, it had become a powerful voice, and the heart of the opposition to the hated chancellor.

Yet Laura couldn't help but think they were the symptoms of something more: fear. All across Zemuria, nobility seemed in the process of becoming a relic of the past. The neighbouring kingdom of Liberl saw its aristocracy drastically diminish in importance, while Calvard, admittedly the only superpower able to rival Erebonia, had become a full-fledged republic. The Erebonian Empire was maybe the last country where nobility managed to maintain its predominance despite the societal changes brought by the orbal revolution, but how long could that last? Even for those who were willing to admit that reforms were sorely needed, the prospect of falling into irrelevance made many wary of changes, especially when they were pushed by a character as controversial as Osborne.

Laura wasn't particularly worried for herself of her family. They were knights before they were nobles, the Eisenritter that had followed the legendary Lianne Sandlot into battle during the War of the Lions, as she supported Dreichel Reise Arnor during the civil war, playing a major role in his final victory. While the death of the Lance Maiden led the Arseid family to inherit her lands, their most prized possession remained their sword style, which had basically become a staple in modern Erebonia's fencing. Even without a noble title, Laura was confident the Arseid school would endure.

But ultimately, the Arseid had been nobles for a mere two hundred and fifty years. For older lineages, sometimes tracing back to the Dark Ages, nobility had become an intrinsic part of their names. What would happen to those families in a world where aristocracy would weaken, or even vanish altogether? Many were too afraid to find out. And it was easier to blame it all on one man than to accept that maybe a page of Erebonia's history was turning.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Friedel knocking her spoon against her cup. "Must we really talk politics now? I know it's an almost unavoidable topic these days, but I was hoping for more light-hearted banter for this gathering."

The remark drew a chorus of approval around the table. Laura supposed that most of them had enough of those talks at home. Goddess, she could scarcely imagine what Jusis had to go through, given his family's involvement.

"For instance," Friedel continued, "given your family's history, am I right to hope that you might join our fencing club soon?"

Once more the focus of attention, Laura straightened a little. "Ah. I ended up going for the swimming club instead."

"Is that so?" Her senior kept a serene smile, but couldn't quite hide the note of disappointment in her tone. "Ah well. I suppose it was wrong of me to assume your interests would be dictated solely by family tradition."

The Arseid heiress shook her head. "I assure you, the path of the blade is my life. Which is why I'm trying to widen my horizons a little. Father once told me, 'there are things about the sword we can only learn by stepping outside of its shadow'. I'm simply trying to put those words in practice."

Friedel nodded. "Advice given by the Radiant Blademaster is certainly something worth considering. It's too bad though, I was looking forward to your presence."

"Don't let her guilt-trip you," Augusta jumped in. "She'd have the whole school in her club if it was up to her. Aren't you pleased with the guys you got already?"

"Oh, very much so!" Friedel answered with a beaming smile. "We got some pretty lively first years this time around. In fact, that Patrick Hyarms you mentioned earlier already got into a fight with Alan. It's great to see people in such good spirits, don't you think?"

The other girls watched her as if she had grown a second head, though a few second years simply let out a resigned sigh. Yet somehow Laura felt like she could understand where her senior was coming from. Ideally, sparring should be done between people with no ill-will toward each other, yet the Arseid school student would be lying if she pretended like no quarrel had been settled with blows inside her father's hall of arms. And somehow, she often felt that the best way to get to know someone was to cross blades with them. Words could be deceiving, but the way someone fought was harder to fake.

Though exceptions existed, she reminded herself, the image of Fie Claussel flashing through her mind. The training bout they had a few days ago taught her remarkably little about the younger girl, and left the Arseid heiress a bit frustrated, as if someone had deprived her of an honest contest. It was a bit childish of Laura to think that way, but she nonetheless hoped she'd have another chance later.

Shaking her head, she joined the conversation once again. "I would be delighted to drop by one of these days. If you would have me."

Friedel still appeared to be the picture of serenity, but Laura could have sworn her eyes shined at these words. "By all means, you are more than welcome."

Interesting. If what she suspected was right, she might have just found a kindred spirit. That alone would be enough to make this meeting worth it in her opinion. She was still thinking how to answer when they heard three short knocks on the door, right before Jusis Albarea entered the room, a somewhat disgruntled expression on his face.

"My apologies for disturbing you all. Instructor Valestein is requesting everyone in class VII near the old schoolhouse. I was told to get you, since we couldn't contact you via ARCUS."

That would explain his apparent annoyance. "Sorry, I turned it off for this gathering. I'll follow you right now."

A short round of goodbyes and apologies for her rushed departure later, she was walking down the stairs side-by-side with the Albarea heir.

"Is everyone already there?"

"Claussel is still missing," her blonde classmate answered. "Apparently this is a regular occurrence. Instructor Valestein went to get her, hopefully she'll have an easy time of it."

They left the student union, and started walking down the path leading to the woods in silence. Strangely enough, Laura felt as if Jusis was hesitant about something, and would rather remain quiet than potentially embarrass himself. For the first time, she wondered how much of his natural aloofness was actually intended as a way to protect himself. Eventually though, he seemed to find his words.

"So, how did that meeting go?"

Laura blinked at the seemingly random question. Where did that come from? "It went well enough, I suppose," she answered, leaving aside the fact she was interrupted just as it seemed she found someone with similar interests as her. "Why do you ask?"

Jusis shrugged. "Just idle curiosity, nothing more. Think nothing of it."

Except now Laura was thinking of it. The nobleman didn't strike her as someone doing small talk. "Weren't you invited to a similar event?" she decided to try out. "I hear that more than a few students were eager to meet you."

Her companion simply scoffed. "Even if I had been invited, I most likely would have refused," he paused, as if choosing his words carefully. "I understand things might be different for you, but in my experience, people seeking me out rarely do without ulterior motives."

"That sounds lonely." Laura wasn't so naive as to think that her name never played a role in some people's initial interest toward her, but she thought herself lucky enough to say the friendships she formed in Legram were genuine. However, she imagined things might be different when one's name was Albarea.

"It is what it is. I never came to Thors to make friends anyway. But the less time spent around sycophants, the better. Even Regnitz, with his open scorn toward me, is better than that," he hesitated, apparently just now noticing his words. "Don't tell him I said that."

The Arseid heiress nodded, smiling. Despite his protests about not making friends, Jusis was in an unusual chatty mood, it seemed. She had to wonder just how much of his trademark aloofness was genuine, and how much was simply a shield.

"Perhaps you should give the people here a chance," she simply said. "They might surprise you."

"Perhaps," he answered in a somewhat doubtful tone. "Still, I see little point in those kind of social gatherings. Would you claim to have made any meaningful connection in so little time?"

Laura thought back about her time with the other noblewomen. Obviously she couldn't claim to have any deep understanding of the girls she talked with, and even claiming friendship so soon would be somewhat premature. Yet, as she remembered the fire in Friedel's eyes, she knew what her answer would be.

Laura smiled, just as they entered the clearing where the rest of class VII was waiting. "Yes, I believe I would make that claim."

Trista's pawn shop was something of an overlooked place. Most students had no need for it, instead gathering around the more prestigious stores on the central plaza like Le Sage boutique or Keynes bookstore, who were almost perpetually crammed with customers. Compared to that, the small rundown house on the outskirts of the town with barely a signboard was often neglected; in fact, most Thors students probably didn't even know it existed, and even among the locals, few were those with a need for it.

It had almost instantly become Fie Claussel's favourite place, and it was with an almost uncharacteristic enthusiasm that she pushed its doors open.

"Hey Micht. Got my order ?"

From across the counter, a gruff voice answered. "Tch, mind your manners, shortstuff. The least you could do is say hello after kicking my door down."

Fie rolled her eyes. "You know I love you too."

Micht, no last name given, was the owner and sole worker of the place, a sixty-something man with grey hair and eyes and a stubble giving him a perpetually unkempt look. Fie knew nothing of his past, and he wasn't the sharing type - something that she could definitely respect – but it wasn't hard to guess he had a colourful past. Some of things Fie had managed to get from him certainly weren't the kind of stuff an ordinary senior citizen of a small, peaceful town would have.

"Yeah, it just came in. Didn't have the time to assemble it yet, so you'll have to wait a few minutes."

"Not a problem," the silver-haired girl answered. "I can do it myself if you want."

"And then I have to explain to Sara how you blew yourself up?" Micht snorted. "Not happening. Wait here, it won't take long."

Fie shrugged. The lack of faith in her own skills was annoying – she had been taught very well on that front, thank you very much – but she didn't mind waiting here. Micht's shop was akin to a treasure trove, with new curiosities always showing up in its shelves. But first, she watched the older man opening up a small package, the unmistakable smell of gunpowder reaching her nose.

The alchemical mixture had fallen into disuse since the orbal revolution. Gunpowder weaponry was once believed to be the future of warfare, until orbments provided stronger, cleaner and more versatile devices, powering up a new generation of weapons that far outclassed anything that came before it. By now, orbal guns, tanks and planes were mass-produced all across Zemuria, while black powder was hard to come by due to the lack of demand. The sole exception to that disinterest, however, was the black market.

While orbal power sources were all but the monopoly of the few corporations with the technical know-how to produce them, it was possible for a well-read chemist to produce gunpowder of decent quality. The appeal of explosive devices whose origins were almost impossible to trace back wasn't lost on the continent's more unsavory groups. As a combat school student, Fie had of course her own battle orbment, and her gunswords were orbal-powered as well, but in her experience it never hurt to have backups. Plus, you never knew when a girl might want to blow a door open.

Moving to his workbench, Micht began to unpack every article. Grenades, plastic explosives, flashbangs... Cool, everything seemed to be there. Soon enough, the grizzled man began his work.

"Is it safe to do it in the room where you keep most of your stuff?" Fie asked with a raised eyebrow.

"It's that or in my bedroom," Micht grumbled while assembling a detonator. "I don't know if you noticed, but this house don't exactly have a lot of rooms."

"Maybe you should look for a better-paying job than selling weapons to little girls, then."

"Ah, ah. You're a riot."

Stepping aside, Fie bean to look across the room for interesting discoveries. There had been a telescope in the corner last time. That was pretty cool. Seems it was gone now, though. Pity.

"By the way," Micht called, "You better make those last. It's getting harder for my suppliers in Crossbell to send me their merchandises these days. You know how it is, with Calvard and Erebonia at each other's throats, and Crossbell right in the middle, they're tightening their borders."

Hm. The merchant-city of Crossbell was a hub for a lot of merchandises, legal or otherwise. With both Erebonia and Calvard eyeing the place like a piece of meat these days, only kept in check by each other, it made sense for the citizens there to be wary about weaponry leaving the country for foreign lands.

"Plus, now we got terrorists running around. I guess our good chancellor is pissing people off enough that they're willing to set bombs now."

That was news to Fie. "Terrorists?"

"Yeah, it has been kept on the down low so far, but apparently a couple of military depots got raided and bombed in early spring," Micht explained. "In protest of Osborne's policies, from what I hear. Up until now, the perpetrators only acted on the Empire's outskirts, so not many have heard of them, but the Railway Military Police is kicking up a storm going after them."

The class VII student simply hummed. What mattered to her is that she wasn't at risk of running low for the foreseeable future. Terrorists were of no particular concern to her as long as they stayed away from Tho- oh hey, was that a water clock? Where did Micht even find one of those?

"Also, some jaeger corps are moving into Erebonia, though nobody knows why," Fie's ears perked up. "No word on Zephyr though." She lost interest again.

For a few minutes, they both remained quiet, the silence only broken by Micht's work, or Fie rummaging around. She was playing with an armillary sphere when the shop owner spoke once more.

"By the way, how's school? You doing okay?"

"It's fine."

The laconic answer didn't seem to satisfy him. "Made any friends?"

"Don't know. Emma began to help me with my work, does that count?" Thinking back about the strongest impression left by her classmates, one episode seemed to stuck out. "Also, Laura hit me on the head."

The man grunted. "Knowing you, you probably deserved it."

Fie thought back about that day. "Yeah, I probably did," she eventually admitted.

Truth be told, Fie wasn't sure how to go about this whole 'friend' thing. Emma was nice, Elliot was adorable, Machias just gave the best reactions when teased, Rean was weird but in probably a good kind of way, and she was pretty intrigued by Laura, but she had no idea what she was supposed to do with all that.

By most standards, the students of class VII weren't exactly your typical teenager. Some carried pretty big names in the Empire, and she could guess a few of them had some juicy secrets; she already found out Alisa's, in fact. How cute. Yet despite that, they all felt so... ordinary, compared to her.

She didn't mean that in bad way. Ordinary was good. Ordinary meant having a birthday, knowing how to make friends, and having a family that didn't disappear in the middle of the night with no reason.

Apparently, ordinary also meant 'not booby-trapping your dorm's door just in case', according to a slightly charred Sara. So now she wasn't doing that. Somehow that didn't make her feel more normal, only more stressed.

But the point was, she had no idea how to connect to her classmates other than by teasing them, which was a great way to put them on the defensive and avoid having to talk about herself. Deflection and avoidance, she had mastered. Hiding your true self had been a basic survival tactic back in the day, and despite Sara's assurance that this wasn't needed any more, Fie didn't want to take that risk. She was a coward at heart, after all. Maybe that's why her family dropped her without even a goodbye.

Some of her thoughts must have showed on her face, because Micht had paused in his work, looking at her instead with an expression she couldn't quite decipher. "Is it me or did you lose some weight? Are you eating properly? You're skinny enough as it is."

Fie sighed. "Of course." In fact, Thors' cuisine was probably the best she ever had, in quantity and quality. "I'm even attending cooking lessons just in case. Wanna see?"

She opened up her satchel before producing the meal she made yesterday, carefully wrapped in a towel. Micht looked at her work with obvious suspicion, his work momentarily forgotten.

"What even is that thing?"

"A cookie, obviously."

"Aidios above, this thing is hard as stone! How do you intend to even eat that?!"

"Eh, I figured I could always let it soak for a while," she shrugged. "If worst come to worst, I bet it can do decent damage if I chuck it hard enough at a monster, or something." She considered that her backup backup plan.

"And if its dumb enough, it might choke by trying to eat it," Micht grumbled, returning to his work. "You need to get better at this kind of stuff."

Fie huffed. She knew how to cook, she was just used to more basic recipes. Nothing particularly tasty or fancy, just enough to keep going when there wasn't anything else. Her first attempt at something more fancy was a work in progress, she could admit. Still, she hated wasting anything, be it food or potential weaponry. Though it was kind of worrying she still wasn't sure in which capacity her creation would be more useful.

Still, she was grateful for his concern. She just knew by now she couldn't take him for granted.

For the next few minutes, Fie rummaged through a pile of old books taking dust in a corner of the room, skimming through one at random. Huh, a steamy vampire novel. Ew.

"You're a bit young for that kind of read, pipsqueak," the shop owner called as he put away an assembled grenade and began working on the next one.

"I'm fifteen, not dumb," Fie retorted, making a point of flicking through a few more pages. Like this was anything new to her. Her old family might have done their best to keep their own intercourses away from her eyes and ears – mainly because the Boss would have killed them if they didn't – but she still saw things she couldn't unsee. Also spent more than one night kept awake by groans coming from nearby tents. Not a pleasant experience, that.

"Makes me think, apparently one of your classmates is into that."

Fie raised an eyebrow. "One of them came here?"

"Yeah, Ren, or something like that"

"Oh, Rean."

"Yeah, that's the one," Micht answered distractedly, still focusing on his craft. "Polite kid, unlike some."

The young girl huffed at the implication. "He's okay. A bit weird, but nice. What did he want?"

"Nothing in particular. I think he found this place on accident while running across town." With a loud click, he finished assembling another device. "Never saw someone that happy to find a book. Been looking everywhere for that one, apparently."

Huh. Random, but okay. Apparently Rean was really into reading. Or just into vampire smut. But hey, she wouldn't judge. Aloud.

Pft, as if, I'm definitely bringing that up next time I see him.

Several more minutes passed before a thought struck her. "By the way, do you have any grain in there?"

That made the older man pause from his task. "Grain?"

"Yeah," Fie spoke as if it was obvious. "For flowers."

"Of course I don't have any! Does this look like a damn gardening shop?" Micht protested. "Why do you even need those for?"

It wasn't like this place looked like somewhere one could find illegal explosive either, though. "I decided to join the gardening club, and they asked us to pick something up," she explained.

"You. In a gardening club," the shop-owner didn't bother to hide his scepticism. "What on earth gave you that idea?"

"Dunno," Fie shrugged the question away. "I just felt like it." Truth be told, she wasn't sure herself why she decided to pick that club, beside idle curiosity. But somehow watching the club captain Edel speaking with fire in her eyes of her passion made Fie curious. And Sara had seemed unusually happy when her student gave her the news, so that meant she must have done something right?

Then again, what Sara thought was a good idea tended to differ from what the rest of the world believed, so maybe not.

"Anyway, there is a gardening shop in Trista, you know. You should probably go there for a change instead of relying on me for everything."

Ugh, more interactions with strangers. That seemed exhausting. She didn't comment on it though, instead spending the next minutes continuing the pawn shop's search, until Micht's satisfied exclamation told her he was finished. Soon enough, Fie was busy making the inventory of her new toys, while the older man was counting the money she gave him.

"Where did you even find the mira for this?" Micht asked her after confirming the payment.

"Sara got me a scholarship, apparently," she answered, strapping a flashbang to her upper leg. Thank Aidios for skirts being part of the school uniform, it made hiding items under them so easy. "Don't know how she did that."

"And does she know how you're using that scholarship?"

"Heh, we have an agreement," Fie answered with a smug smile. "I can keep the stuff as long as I don't flash it right under her nose."

Micht pinched his nose. "Goddess above, this woman is the worst teacher ever."

"Hey now, that's a bit harsh," a new voice exclaimed. "I'm sure there are worse ones out there somewhere. Probably."

Speaking of the devil. Sara Valestein sauntered through the door, her trademark blue coat fluttering behind her. She let out a relieved sigh when she saw her student.

"Oh good, you're here. I think I was running out of places to look out for you. Would it kill you to turn on your ARCUS once in a while? They're made to keep in touch!"

The fifteen-year old simply shrugged. "Yeah, not doing that. Last time, you woke me from my nap just to see if it was working right."

"It was just that one time, give it a rest!" Sara protested, before noticing the now empty metal boxes, the faint smell of gunpowder, and Micht putting away the mira coins Fie just paid him. "All right, what did you get this time?" she asked, a resigned expression on her face.

Fie didn't skip a beat. "Feminine products."

"Uh uh. Well I hope your 'feminine products' will at least be useful soon, class VII is having a little outing together," her instructor answered, before turning turning to the shop owner. "Sorry Micht, not staying this time. We're still on for tomorrow's night, right?"

"You bet we're still on," the man growled. "I'll have a few things to say about the way you take care of this girl."

"It's not me, it's her!" Sara protested, a betrayed expression on her face. "And has she been talking behind my back? Why, after all the things I've done for her!"

"Still in the room," Fie reminded them. "And don't worry, I spoke nothing but the truth."

"I didn't raise you to be this sarcastic, young lady!"

"You didn't raise me at all."

"Ah! See what I have to deal with, Micht?"

The old man simply shook his head, clearly unimpressed by their banter. "Whatever. Just get out of my shop."

The two women obeyed each of them giving their host a suspiciously similar lazy salute. Great, Sara's rubbing on me.

"So, where are we going?" the student asked as her teacher led her through the streets of Trista.

"That's a surprise!" Sara smiled in that childish way of her. Fie couldn't hold back a sigh.

"I suppose there's no time for a nap on the way?"

"Not a chance!"

It took them fifteen minutes to reach their intended destination, namely the old schoolhouse. That promised to be interesting at least, Fie thought. The rest of class VII was already there, and apparently waiting for a while, judging by the bored expressions that some of them sported. A few had even started a game of blades, playing the cards on the building doorstep. The current round was quickly forgotten when they took notice of the approaching pair.

"Alright, seems like we're finally all here!" Sara said, looking pleased with herself. "Now I suppose you're all wondering why you're here. I trust you remember this place?"

"You mean the place filled with monsters?" Rean answered with a raised eyebrow.

"Or the trap door you dropped us through?" Jusis added with a cold glare.

"The labyrinth where we almost died?" Elliot gulped.

"While you didn't even lift a finger when that monster almost tore us apart?" Machias managed to say through gritted teeth.

"Without even telling us we had a way to contact each other all along?" Alisa continued with a deceptively sweet smile.

"What, you're all still on about that?" Sara protested while giving her best puppy eye imitation. "Come on, didn't you have some good times? It was a precious bonding experience for all of you, from which was born an unbreakable friendship!"

Her declaration was met by a deafening silence. Fie thought back at the feud between Jusis and Machias, at the tensions between Alisa and Rean, or even her own solitary behavior. Yeah, unbreakable friendship wasn't really in the cards right now.

"Well, too bad," their teacher continued, not letting the lack of support get to her. "Because you're all going back in. Class VII, move out!"

As most of her comrades let out resigned groans, Fie couldn't help but smile. There was a lot of things she had to say about Sara, but she really could respect her teacher's dedication to a good punchline.

Notes: Well, that will do for a part 1 of sort. The set-up was perhaps a bit long, and not a lot happened so far, but I feel it was important to establish the characters and begin to lay the foundations for their relationships with each other. Also, hinting at the plot, I guess. I'll take the occasion to reiterate my thanks to those who are following this, I hope you'll continue to have fun reading what I have in store next! And if you have suggestions that you feel might improve things, I'm all ears.

Next time: terrorists, in my capital? It's more likely than you'd think.