Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XX

Solstice War Book 1: Generalplan Suden is now on sale! Check it out!

This chapter contains violence, graphic violence, death and slurs.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Kingdom of Lubon, Vicaria — Saint Orrea’s Hope

At the gate barring the way into the old stones of Saint Orrea’s Hope a pair of guards spotted an unmarked civilian truck approaching. Though they shouted warnings and drew weapons the truck climbed the hill with steady purpose. Soon as the truck crested the hill, it accelerated, and the guards began to shoot, but it was too late. Both doors swung open, men leaped from the cab, and the runaway vehicle overran the guards and struck the gate.

As the nose of the car crumpled against the iron-supported wooden gates, a cache of explosives in the back detonated with a resounding thunder and a bright red flash. Sheer crushing pressure blew the wooden gate apart and left smoldering chunks of wood and a twisted hulk in the path. Around this bonfire charged the men of the legion, and at their head, Byanca Geta shouted directions, and put her plan into motion. It was now or never.

“Minimus, take your group around the side of the monastery and climb to the peak, they’ve got to have their radios there! We can’t jam them forever. Crowley, your group will swing around the southern rise and take the hill! I’ll plunge right into the front!”

No man could argue against a plan that put the lead officer in the most dangerous position and her subordinates in relative advantage. Their flames kindled by Byanca’s bravery and passion, the Legionnaires took up their weapons and charged. As a unified column they stormed past the gate, charged to the front gardens of the temple. Saint Orrea was nestled into the mountainside on a complex territory. Beyond the trees and the greenhouses and the great rosehedge-lined plaza was the temple, on raised ground, a massive compound with a great central courtyard, two long wings of dormitories and prayer spaces, and the tower, deep in its heart, where Salvatrice had to reside. To the south, a steep climb overlooked the entire battlefield, and in the north, was the path directly to the peak.

“Charge, men! For Princess and country!” Byanca shouted, raising a fist into the air.

Byanca charged with the men, at the head of the column. She controlled her speed so that they could keep up with them. Halfway to the gardens, on the open stretch of mountainous dirt path, the column broke up into the three groups. Minimus reluctantly took his men north, Crowley south; dead ahead, Byanca saw the dark, masked figures of the illuminati, appearing from behind the concrete balustrades atop the great and many stone steps bridging the dozen meter climb from garden up to the level of the temple.

One masked man swung his arm, beckoning, and a machine gun bipod slammed atop the balustrades with a clank that felt ominously audible even amid the tramping of boots.

“Keep moving!” Byanca shouted. Several of her men were hesitating.

Mid-run, Byanca withdrew a flare gun, and popped a quick, unaimed shot into the air.

Roughly over the machine gunner as he began to shoot.

A wild spray of gunfire flew over the charging men as the gunner swept his weapon to try to cover the breadth of the column. Byanca felt shots graze past her, and heard men fall behind her, but she urged everyone to move to the gardens only dozens of meters ahead. More of the Illuminati soldiers began to join the machine gunner, using smaller arms to try to pick off more of Byanca’s men as the charge neared the cover of the gardens.

Byanca heard the first shell go whistling past and she smiled to herself.

“Take cover in the gardens, hunker down and wait for my signal!”

Ahead of her, the first mortar strike nearly drowned out her commands.

Her first shell exploded just short of the balustrade protecting the machine gunner, kicking up a cloud of smoke and fragments into the air from the steps below. Immediately the Illuminati’s suppressing gunfire halted; that first shell was followed quickly by a dozen more, falling randomly and suddenly at haphazard intervals. Columns of smoke and ripped concrete and fleeting fireballs rose and fell across the steps and atop them and along the front of the temple. Balustrade rails blew forward and with them Illuminati soldiers went flying from their positions. A direct shell hit crushed the machine gunner like a hammer blow fallen from the sky. Overhead, tracer trails lined the heavens.

Under the cover of her artillery, the forward assault group made it to the gardens and took cover behind the hedges, among the trees, and around the greenhouses. They waited, heads down, while mortar attacks rocked the enemy line, inaccurate but persistent.

Though Byanca’s centuriae could not drag heavy artillery out to the mountains, they brought plenty of pack mortars, easily assembled from portable parts, as well as a few towable heavy mortars. In all she deployed nine pieces and significant amounts of ammunition, all safely firing from positions outside the gates and along the path.

However, her men lacked the training to make coordinated attacks. They would likely respond poorly and without coordination to requests via radio against anything but the pre-sited and pre-calculated positions along the temple’s face and the step balustrades. All they could do was open up a surge of shellfire and hope to kill by sheer volume.

It was enough for Byanca. She just needed an opening, a way in, and now she had it.

As the balustrades overlooking the garden endured the shelling, Byanca crept closer, moving from cover to cover. At her flanks, a few dozen soldiers followed her example. She counted down the minutes as the shells fell and the gunfire paused, and she wove from bush to tree to rose hedge to greenhouse, creeping closer to the steps and the raised area of the temple grounds. When the shelling paused, and the smoke started to billow away with the mountain winds, Byanca was at the foot of the fateful steps where she met Salva.

“Bayonets ready! Charge into them while they’re dazed! Conserve ammunition!”

Byanca shouted, waved over her own head, and charged with her rifle drawn.

There was a great clamor as her men shouted with her, and they charged the steps, and climbed up the walls and clambered over the mounds of debris and the remains of the balustrades. Making it onto the raised temple grounds from the lower garden, Byanca found herself faced with the great gilded and stained glass face of Saint Orrea’s Hope, and the dazed, wounded and struggling Illuminatus that stood guarding the structure.

At once, her own men descended upon the fallen Illuminati, their tormentors and oppressors in the weeks past, and there was a brutal slaughter that Byanca would not dare to try to step. Kicking and trampling and stabbing, dozens of her soldiers brutalized the fallen illuminati, and took their heavy weapons and grenades and began to roam the temple exterior like an angry mob, while she made with whoever was still rational to the doors of the church. Everything was happening fast. She heard gunfire nearby, but saw no shots flying toward her. She had to make for the center of the compound with haste.

She stuck a bundle of grenades against the iron-barred door, and hid behind the pillars.

Seconds later the bundle blew a hole between the halves of the door and they slid open.

Byanca placed her feathered bersaglieri cap atop her bayonet and stuck it out of cover.

Automatic gunfire flew out from between the half-open doors and perforated the cap.

“Grenades out! Down the entry hall of the church!” Byanca called out.

Six men remained at her side, and they nodded and complied. One by one they threw their grenades. Byanca could not see into the church, hiding behind the pillars beside the door, but she heard the blasts go off one after another, and she raised her rifle and leaned out to peer quickly into the church. Through the dissipating smoke she found a few more of the Illuminati, battered and broken against the decorated pillars of the entry hallway.

Had she any faith in God left she might have felt remorse for killing in his house.

Now all she wondered, briefly, was why the Illuminati were putting up such a disorganized fight. She had caught them by surprise, sure; but why were they this badly out of sorts? She heard the gunfire flying all around the outside, near and distant, and she was almost sure that her men were meeting the challenge of the dug-in cultists without desperation. Was this why they needed the anarchists? Because their own ranks were so poor in battle?

She recalled the brief battle in the forest, and the fighting in the makeshift prison.

Were the Illuminati losing their faculties? In both instances they had exhibited very basic tactics, such as the deployment of heavy weaponry and use of cover. But their maneuver was poor. Did they lack the will to fight beyond simple entrenchment and charge attacks? Surely if they were legion soldiers before, they should still have their training in mind.

So what was in their minds then? What had happened to them?

Was their command that weak? Perhaps Tarkus wasn’t meant to give orders then.

As she walked into the church, and crossed the blood-stained red carpet, past the entry hallway, past the pews, around the altar, and out the back, to the inner courtyard, Byanca faced no resistance. She ordered her men to fall in behind her and to cover her, and she left the primary temple building, and ran out into the pearl-tiled courtyard, surrounded by hedge walls, encompassing four fountains, a few great big trees, and amid it all, the tower.

Salvatrice had to be there. She could not be in the middle of all this carnage.

The Illuminati– no, Tarkus Marcel, would have brought her there.

Because it was pragmatic, but also because there was a significance to it; Byanca felt it in her gut. Seeing the gleaming white tower that was once part of the old dormitory, and that now stood alone on the new courtyard, Byanca remembered that fateful time of her life that she spent with the princess, and knew in her heart that she would now set her free.

Beyond the hedges on either side of her, hundreds of meters, she saw gunfire, and plumes of smoke, and heard men shouting and raging. She ran as fast as her legs could take her through the open center of the courtyard, making for the door to the tower steps.

She waved her hand mid-run and beckoned her men to run with her from the church.

As she turned to meet their eyes, she felt something fast and dense rush past her.

Her men exited the church in single file, but something struck over their heads.

In an instant the columns and the awning of the white rear portico came crashing down.

All of her men disappeared beneath a mound of rubble that blocked the rear of the church.

Byanca stopped cold, and faced the tower again.

Her enemy left the shadow of the steps.

Standing across from her was Legatus Tarkus Marcel. She could not see his eyes, or the expression on his face. He was clad in silver-white segmented armor, and a covering, snout-like helmet, and gauntlets bedecked in black crystal with strange devices affixed to the cuffs. He had a cape that billowed behind him, and affixed to his arm and braced at his hip was a boyes anti-tank rifle with its distinctive top-loading magazine against his elbow.

Byanca raised her rifle and took aim.

The Legatus raised his arm.

She felt something then, a noise like the space around her crying, budging, ripping.

There was a droning noise that seemed to issue from the Legatus.

And the glass and steel jewelry on his cuffs lit a bright green.

Before Byanca could react, or discern what was happening, she felt a gust carry her off.

Flung from her feet, Byanca rolled along the ground like a kickball.

She came to a stop near the bloody rubble pile that was once her loyal squadron.

All of the world was spinning, and that infernal noise recurred in her brain.

Tarkus Marcel, almost mournfully, addressed her.

“Centurion Byanca Geta. You should not have come here.”


Salvatrice sat on the tower’s grandiose couch, cradling Carmela in her arms and staring grimly at the doorway and the stained glass windows. She heard the rumble of artillery explosions in the distance, and the ceaseless cracking of rifles and machine guns closer to the courtyard. Something had come to Saint Orrea’s, and it was not moving slowly.

Canelle sat at the table, hiding a broken wine bottle below the table. Salvatrice had twice warned her not to pursue some foolish act of bravery, but she knew if this situation went on longer her maid would snap and charge into an Illuminati’s gun. Whether for her own sake or for Salvatrice’s; at this point Canelle looked hopeless enough just to do it.

“Are you feeling better?” Salvatrice asked.

Against her chest, Carmela nestled her head closer, and raised her arms to the princess’ shoulders. Tears were building in her eyes, but she forced them down with a sniffle.

“We can’t stay here Salva.” She said. “We’re leverage as long as we’re in this tower.”

Salvatrice bowed her head to tighten herself around Carmela, embracing her warmly.

She wished she could have had more moments like this with here, when they counted.

“I don’t want to risk you getting hurt.” Salvatrice said.

“We will all be hurt if we stay here. You know it’s true.” Carmela said.

She looked up at Salvatrice’s eyes and clutched the princely garb her lover had been given.

“Salvatrice, if your love for me kills you, I could never forgive myself. And if it kills all of us, I cannot see that as anything but a mocking tragedy. I want to live — with you.”

Salvatrice knew she would eventually say something like that.

Knowing also what her lover would say next, Salvatrice interrupted her.

“I’ll go. I have an idea.”

Carmela seemed to have predicted what would happen as well.

She looked resigned, and pulled herself away from Salvatrice.

Eventually a small smile crept its way on her expression.

“You’re always so quick to defend me. I wish you were that quick to defend yourself.”

“I think this time I’m doing both.” Salvatrice said.

Carmela nodded. She held Salvatrice’s hands in her own.

Salvatrice leaned forward and kissed her.

It was brief, but heartbreakingly sweet. Salvatrice would be satisfied with it as a final kiss.

She stood from the couch, and made her way past the table and toward the door.

“Canelle, guard Carmela with your life, for me; okay?” She said.

Truly she did not want Canelle to do any such thing.

However, upon receiving such a dire order, Canelle stayed in place like a good guard dog.

Had she been told nothing she would have tried to stop Salvatrice from leaving.

“Yes ma’am. Please be careful.” She said.

Salvatrice nodded and made for the door.

It was unlocked.

She pushed open the double wooden doors. Directly outside was a landing hall with the steps down the tower lying frustratingly close by; but they were guarded by two armed guards, wearing the Illuminati uniform and mask. Soon as she opened the door they turned to face her, but they did not approach and did not raise their weapons to her.

Salvatrice felt a lump in her throat, and her heart was thrashing with anxiety.

She stood her ground in front of the guards, and tried to project a sense of majesty.

Arms crossed, chin up, with a sneer of royal disdain copied from her mother.

“Is your revered Caesar not standing before you?” She said.

In response the guards quickly saluted with their weapons.

Ave Caesar!” they shouted.

Though sickened by the behavior she had to exhibit, and the sources that taught her to behave in such a way, Salvatrice continued to posture. She had nurtured a hope that the Illuminati’s reverence of her was not just an act, but something that was deeply ingrained in them. She had hoped beyond hope that by acknowledging the Caesar they all saw, she could manipulate them. It appeared to be working. But there might still be grave limits.

“That’s better.” She said. “I desire to survey my troops in this fateful time. Escort me.”

Both Illuminati turned to face each other briefly, exchanging a silent understanding.

“Caesar, with all due respect, it is simply too dangerous out there. Armed men have assaulted the compound. The Legatus wishes for you to remain here where you are safe.”

“What kind of pitiful king,” Salvatrice nearly choked upon saying that last, dreadful word, but through a brief struggle she continued almost naturally. “Waits in the rear while the loyal men of the guard die in battle? I must fight alongside them. Do you not desire to achieve glory alongside your revered king? You will be highly decorated, made heroes!”

Salvatrice raised her voice, and tried to evoke the deep tone she associated with a king.

It almost hurt to put on this show. It was not at all what she wanted to be.

And it was grotesque how easily it came to her.

Upon hearing her renewed demands, the two guards’ rigid stances seemed to falter. She saw a quiver winding its way through their shaking hands. Their jaws set. It was if they were struggling against invisible bonds that forced them tight. Salvatrice pushed more.

She asked them the most fateful question of all.

“Do your loyalties lie with the Legatus or your king?” She asked.

This line of attack, the Illuminati could not ignore. At once, it was as if she had sliced through the chains the Legatus had used to bind them, and they raised their weapons, but not to her. They pointed them down the steps, and took a maneuver stance. Beckoning with their hands, they made ready to escort her down the steps and out to the battlefield.

Salvatrice, quiet and nearly shaking herself from the tension of the moment, followed behind them, still carrying herself as she believed a king would. Her proud steps and stone expression hid a conflict inside her, an energy and emotion both incredibly nervous and eerily intoxicated. Was this the power of a King? Did she really have a power inside her?

Tarkus Marcel would know. She had to ask him so much.

Why did he bring her to this desolate place?

Why did he make her this army?

Why did he make her a King?


Byanca rolled behind a piece of debris, hoping to avoid a shot that never sounded.

She did not feel the strangeness around her that came with Tarkus’ previous efforts, nor did she hear the more corporeal effect of his anti-tank rifle firing. She did hear his greaves, the metal sliding as he took slow, deliberate steps forward from the door of the tower. Byanca, reeling from the attack, and partly disoriented, withdrew her pistol from its holster and with shaking hands pulled out her magazine, counted the rounds, and pushed it back into place. Cocking back the hammer, putting her back to the rubble, she waited.

Amid the dust and the chunks of concrete and stone she heard a low, buzzing noise.

She saw, embedded in the rubble, a radio box, and the grizzly arm of one of her soldiers.

Covering her mouth and nose, she crouched forward, and stealthily procured the handset.

She heard a broadcast going out among her radio troops, steeped with the sound of battle.

“We’re facing fierce resistance here! We need some forces diverted, post-haste!”

It was Minimus, with the assault team tasked with taking the Illuminati radio down.

“These Illuminati are dug-in hard! They’ve got control of the peak and they’re bringing in more equipment to overpower our signal jamming. We can’t press them much longer–”

Byanca heard a sharp noise and a gushing, horrific sound and dropped the handset.

She scurried back to cover, and realized that time was running shorter than she thought.

Her lofty plans would have to be redrawn. She might not stop the Illuminati at all.

But at least she could save the Princess. She could do this one selfish thing. She had to.

“Tarkus Marcel, release Princess Salvatrice at once!” Byanca shouted.

Her skin bristled, every fine, invisible hair on her neck, her back, her legs, all standing.

Something was building in strength and coming toward her.

She leaped, almost instinctively, out of cover and behind an chunk of collapsed pillar.

Behind her, something struck the rubble she had been using for cover.

Chunks of rock flew everywhere. Byanca cowered in her new hiding place.

Her whole body was shaking incessantly and uncontrollably, from her heart to her muscles, a nervous, manic spasm, mixed courage and terror. She had no clue what Tarkus had done in his previous assault. That force that she felt was not anything she had ever felt. It was not a turbine, certainly wind had nothing to do with it. There had been no fire or fragments or metal, so it was not a projectile. It was as if the world had shifted around her and flung her from its surface. It was a force of some kind. That was all she understood.

For a child who grew up in Saint Orrea, as part of a project to return Magic to the world, Magic was the last thing on her mind. Even when confronted with such an eerie sight, such an unplaceable object; she had seen the failure of Magic! She knew Magic was dead.

So what was that power if not magic? She could not understand it.

All she could do was to fight back to the best of her ability. She had made it this far.

Byanca stood suddenly from behind the rubble and fired off several shots from her pistol.

Tarkus recoiled as the bullets struck his breastplate and helmet.

He drew a step back, fell down to one knee, but he took a deep, audible breath.

Byanca thought she could see the pebbles on the ground around him shaking suddenly.

She took off from behind the collapsed pillar and made for one of the fountains.

Tarkus extended his hand, and the strange devices on his cuff emitted droning noises.

Behind her, an inaudible explosion blew apart the pillar moments after she left it.

There was no sense of power, no explosion, no sound, no rush of air pressure.

This was not a conventional weapon, not a shell or a bullet, or anything she knew.

It was perhaps even not something of Aer. It felt too alien, eerie, too lacking in presence.

Byanca rolled behind the raised wall of the fountain basin and crouched for cover.

“Tarkus, why are you working with the anarchists? Where do your loyalties lie?”

She found herself shouting this, secretly hoping Tarkus would answer.

Any answer would have him made seem more vulnerable and human.

In a moment the clanking of the greaves stopped, and the droning ceased.

“Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for the King who will restore our Empire.”

“Stop calling her that! Salvatrice is a princess of Lubon!” Byanca shouted.

She had to stop herself from saying ‘my princess of Lubon’.

“Caesar is whatever they decide to be. Caesar is a special child.” Tarkus said.

Byanca peered over the fountain, very briefly, and found Tarkus facing her.

It was almost like staring down a tank. His anti-tank rifle was up, attached to his left arm and connected to what must have been an ammunition feed system on his back.

However, Byanca knew the most dangerous thing about him were those cuff devices.

“Tarkus, I’m leaving with the Princess. I don’t– I don’t even care what happens to the Queen or the monarchy. But I cannot let you have her. You– you want to change her.”

Byanca found it difficult to speak. She stuttered; it was a struggle to admit even this.

Even this tiny sliver of what she truly felt about Salvatrice.

“I want Caesar to take their rightful place. It can only be He.” Tarkus said.

She heard the clanks of his armor once more. He was approaching.

“You fear these dying machines of a world forgotten, Centurion, but this is a fraction of the power boiling within Caesar’s blood. They will soon vanish. Caesar will be eternal.”

Byanca heard the droning noise again, and once more she leapt to her feet and ran.

Behind her, the fountain spontaneously, silently, eerily exploded.

She saw bits of the whimsical mermaid on the fountain go flying past, a severed stone head, flakes of crystalline scale from the finishing work. Water rose into the air and came drizzling down through the courtyard. Byanca turned her pistol aside and fired blindly on Tarkus as she made for the next nearest object, a concrete planter with a dead tree.

“Centurion, all I have done, I have done to grant Caesar the power of a King. I made him an army. I will awaken his voice. And I will now grant him the throne.” Tarkus shouted.

He was speaking as if in a dangerous passion. Byanca felt a sudden terror at his words.

“We are at a crossroads of history. There is no time for half measures. In a thousand years time, the Earth, the Air, the Water, and the Flame, will all be dead, as Magic now is. To survive, we need a leader almost divine, someone who can make us rally, force us to change. We need a unifying, singular purpose to grow, to strengthen ourselves, and save our star.”

Byanca heard the devices spinning up their infernal noise and knew she could not run.

“You do not understand it, but it has to be Caesar. It cannot be anyone else.”

She stood up from cover, raised her pistol, and took aim.

Tarkus thrust his fists forward and Byanca felt their power crackling over her skin.

She pressed the trigger, three times in quick succession, before the force flung her back.

Tarkus jerked back his arm in pain, and blood dribbled from under the armor.

From his cuffs, the droning noise grew out of control.

Byanca hit the ground hard and flat like a dropped brick, but she had succeeded.

On the Legatus’ left arm, there was both blood, and sparks, and fire.

He ripped the cuff device from his gauntlet as if peeling off a wristwatch and hurled it.

It landed on the floor between them like a ball of tin foil.

Byanca could hardly believe that tiny machine had produced such power.

Looking at its remains on the floor it seemed almost a false thing.

“Centurion, you’ve interfered enough!”

Clanking and crunching, quick and sudden; Byanca struggled to stand, but in an instant it seemed, Tarkus was upon her, and he seized her effortlessly from the ground, and took her up by the neck and squeezed. He lifted her, and she hung. He seemed impossibly tall, like a colossus, daunting in his armor. She could not see into the helmet. He moved so quickly for his frame that she thought perhaps there was nothing in the armor, but a phantom.

His free, unwounded arm raised her higher, and squeezed tighter. Byanca felt dizzy.

“I had dreamed of a world where you could have been the King’s right hand, Geta. That is why I gave you this assignment. You were a step above the rest, in your skill, in your loyalty, in your determination. But you took all the wrong turns. I wish you would have stayed in your prison cell. After the fact, I’m sure the King would have loved to have you.”

Byanca delivered a kick to Tarkus’ breastplate that did nothing but clang.

Tarkus squeezed harder, and she kicked, and kicked, and kicked.

Her steel-toed and -taloned boots delivered deadly kicks, but not armor-piercing ones.

“Those legs were made for running, not fighting, bersaglieri.”

Her body started to demand air; she could hold her breath over a minute, while running, while swimming or diving. She could run the whole Legion training course without breathing. But she was human, and her allotted time had run out. Her world wavered.

She looked down at Tarkus, hateful, angry, and she kicked again.

On his chest, she spotted a ding, where the armor had been dented.

Dented?

No, it was not her kicks alone. She had shot the breastplate before.

The bullet hole?

Her kicking must have further collapsed the hole made in the breastplate.

She had shot the gauntlets too; and she had shot his helmet.

Tarkus shook her, trying to her remaining life from her.

Her quivering hand reached for her knife.

With the last of her strength she drove the blade through a bullet-hole on Tarkus’ helmet.

Like his cuffs, like the breastplate, the armor gave way like tin foil, as if it had lost its resistance like a balloon loses air once punctured in any way. Whether it was magic or metal that had given this armor and Tarkus his strength, all of it seemed to wane.

His fingers unwound, and he stumbled back.

Byanca fell to the floor, gasping for air.

“Only,” she struggled to stand, shaking, angry, “only one person is allowed to choke me!”

She swung forward and delivered a clumsy kick, full of resurgent passion.

Her steel-toed boot struck his neck, and Tarkus fell on his back.

Stepping over his fallen body, Byanca ran toward the tower.

In the distance she saw smoke rising from beyond the hedges. She craned her head up, and saw along the distant path to the mountain’s peak, lengths of it higher up the temple grounds. There were brief flashes of tracer fire and perhaps grenade detonations. Not once during her skirmish with the Legatus had the gunfire let up, not for even a second.

Byanca made it almost to the tower, when she saw a figure emerging from the doorway.

Expecting more Illuminati, she raised her pistol.

Then the face she saw made her drop her weapon, and nearly drew tears from her.

Dressed in a regal coat and pants, with a cold expression on her face, flanked by two Illuminati guards, was Salvatrice herself. She looked every bit the King that Tarkus had said she would become. Had she not had the same pale red rosey hair, and the same eyes and features on her face, and that lithe and unassuming figure, Byanca would have said, this could not have been Salvatrice, but truly it was Caesar. And that terrified her.

“Princess?” Byanca asked. She prayed that there would be an answer.

In response, Salvatrice, not Caesar, sighed, and put a hand to her hip, and shook her head.

“Of course it was you, doing all of this. No one else is so eager to get killed for me.”

She glanced askance at the eerily obedient Illuminati men at her side.

“Except perhaps these two. Byanca, are you alright?” Salvatrice said.

Byanca hugged herself, and started to sob, and to cry.

“Are you hurt? I’m going to need you to be able to control all of this, you know.”

Salvatrice smiled a small, wry little smile, and Byanca only cried all the harder.

Her princess was still there, still alive, still unchanged. Still the same difficult girl.

“Listen, I’m sorry. I was just. I was being cheeky. I appreciate you–”

From behind them all sounded a great roar, and there was a rumbling in the air.

Tarkus could hardly lift his gun anymore, and collapsed back down to one knee.

Byanca turned in time for the anti-tank shell to fly past her.

Salvatrice stood frozen in time for a second, smiling, unknowing, beautiful, perfect.

Somewhere, too close, so distant, in a horrifying liminal space, there was a blast.

When Byanca whipped around again, the damage had already been done. The Boyes shell soared past her and sailed toward Salvatrice. One of the Illuminati, standing in defense, had his head demolished, and the shell detonated as it would having passed the armor plating of a tank, and the fragments and fire, flew out, and Salvatrice was struck.

Her right eye vanished with a splash of blood and flesh, and she collapsed.


Aer was a shadow-shrouded world enkindled by a dying flame.

Fuel and fire; it was an infinite cycle. People died and the flame burnt brighter for those who lived. But the natural order was distorted. Too much death, too much desolation, and the fire grew bountiful, and then waned, and only the shadow would ultimately remain. Great cycles of violence followed by the whisper-quiet peace of the dead. Periods of bright flames that cast scorching hot light on the evolution of humankind; followed by dark eras of stagnation where the world, burnt to red-hot ash, did nothing but rest and rebuild.

There was a great war, yes, but a scant few embers left to kindle a good burn.

Soon the fire would go out, and the shadow would prevail.

And yet, she saw differently.

She saw the world flame go out, and she saw the death of Magic.

She was illuminated.

The waning of the Flame and the end of the cycle and the death of Magic and the World brought out not darkness, but a great, flashing, warm, beautiful light. For what did Fire truly bring? It was not shadow that it cast, but smoke. Without fire, without smoke, there would again be Light! She saw, with great elation, that none were tethered to these ancient precepts any more. There was a great power awakening within humanity, a beautiful light.

Bathed in the light, she reached out to the ancient boundaries, and she pushed them away.


Byanca stared, dumb-struck, at the corpse of Salvatrice Vittoria.

She could not fathom this being the end, but something in her own physicality knew, and it mourned before her intellect did. Her knees buckled, and her eyes teared up, her nose burnt, her throat caught, and her whole body was shaking. But she could not comprehend the image of Salvatrice, lying on the ground in a pool of blood forming from her head.

That was an impossible image. It simply could not be.

At Salvatrice’s side the remaining Illuminati guard was breaking down. He collapsed to his knees, and he ripped his mask from his face, and he raised his hands over his eyes. To Byanca’s confusion, she saw him digging his fingers into his own eyes and did not understand for a good, long time the extent of the damage he was inflicting then. He, too, passed, out of her sight, out of her understanding, ripped from the world. She blinked.

“Salva.” Byanca said. Her voice was quivering.

Why wasn’t the Princess answering anymore? Could an adult please explain?

Byanca’s slow march to mourning was quickly, brutally interrupted.

She heard an unearthly roar coming from behind her.

Undergoing what seemed like a gargantuan effort, Tarkus Marcel lifted himself, up on one foot, up on the other, up from his knees. He detached his anti-tank gun, and bleeding from the head, from the chest, from the arm, breathing hoarse and heavy, he began to take pulverizing steps toward Byanca. Slow and deliberate, each one seemed to build on the rest, and Tarkus began to pick up speed, and as he ran, his helmet wept blood.

He let out an anguished cry as his charge took him within meters of Byanca.

Still in shock from the events that had transpired, Byanca did not move.

In the next instant, the massive bulk of Tarkus and his armor collided with Byanca.

She was thrown bodily, and stricken with a fist. Tarkus descended upon her.

His arms tightened around her throat, and he slammed her into the ground.

“You worthless bitch! Look at what you’ve done! What you’ve done to me!”

He slammed her head against the ground. She reeled, unarmed, helpless.

She had dropped her pistol and her knife and could not use them against him.

Blood frothed and bubbled from the edges of the closed mouthpiece on the helmet.

From the knife, still protruding from Tarkus’ head, came a trickle of blood.

“Everything we spent years conspiring towards, everything we sacrificed lives for, you have undone! You have destroyed this nation! You have destroyed this world!”

He lifted Byanca and slammed her again into the ground. Her consciousness wavered.

“You killed him! You killed him! You made me kill him!” Tarkus shouted in madness. “We will never escape our fates on this cursed rock because you killed our glorious Caesar!

Caesar was what he called Salvatrice, was it not? Did he mean– she killed– Salvatrice–?

Tarkus’ entire form began to swim in and out of focus, as if distorted by a curtain of water.

Byanca suddenly, and too clearly, understood what had happened.

Her whole body grew limp save for one arm, which carried out her dreadful purpose.

From her ammunition pouch, Byanca withdrew a grenade. One last piece of kit.

She lifted it — pin off, ready to blow — to Tarkus’ face, as if handing it like a gift.

Tarkus froze in the middle of his fury. In less than seconds, it would detonate.

Byanca wept, keeping a cold, resigned, inexpressive face on Tarkus’ eyeholes.

She had nothing left anymore but to take him with her.

She felt the dreadful device in her hands ready itself, and awaited her final moment.

Like a golf ball, the grenade suddenly pitched away into the air.

From off Byanca’s hand, the bomb soared away and detonated in the sky.

Pushed away by some kind of power.

Tarkus drew back from Byanca, dropping the injured woman on the floor.

“Tarkus, stop.”

He craned his head, and shook, and froze up.

Byanca tried to turn to see what he was seeing, but her whole body was giving up.

She had suffered so much abuse, that it was pure agony moving even a centimeter.

She struggled for several seconds to turn herself, and finally dropped onto her side.

She came to stare at the tower, at the foot of which she saw Salvatrice, standing.

Her face was caked in blood. She stood on unsteady legs. Her hand was out.

Her eyes seemed to glow; bright, emerald green, and flickering as if with flame.

“Tarkus. You will stop.”

Salvatrice spoke in a ragged voice. She outstretched her hand.

Tarkus was forced down to the ground instantly, his knees audibly snapping.

“Tarkus, you will stop. You will stop.”

The Legatus raised a shaking arm, fighting as if against gravity itself.

His remaining gauntlet cuff made its last, weak droning racket, crying out.

Byanca thought she saw the force, the rippling effect of Tarkus’ strange attack.

Something flew out at Salvatrice, soundless and relentless, but like a wave upon a rock, it split, and slammed uselessly into the tower. Salvatrice pushed her hand out once more.

Held up before him in defense, Tarkus’ gauntlet cracked, and split, and shattered.

His entire arm seemed to detonate as if its own grenade. Blood, bone and gore flew out.

“You will stop, forever, Tarkus. Forever.” Salvatrice gasped.

On the messy remains of the gauntlet, the black-purple crystals adorning it cracked.

Through the cracks, something rippled out, like bolts of visible electricity.

“Your King orders you to cease, Tarkus. To cease. Now.” Salvatrice cried out.

Tarkus looked up at Salvatrice, and his helmet cracked and split from her power.

Beneath the metal, Tarkus was smiling, reverent, overjoyed. He wept in pitiful cheer.

Ave Caesar!” He cried out.

There was a flash of unlight, of pure blackness that consumed the air itself.

From the gauntlets, from those foul black crystals, something immense was unleashed.

Legatus Tarkus Marcel suddenly disappeared beneath a black orb, trapped inside an effect akin to a void on the world, a place that was simply bereft matter. When the eerie, alien energy had consumed itself, it vanished as if it had never been, and left behind a perfect circle of consumed earth on the ground next to Byanca. A bare crater, perfectly smooth.

There was no smoke, no heat, nothing. Everything in the orb was just gone.

Tarkus was gone, perfectly removed, forever.

Salvatrice fell down to one knee, and raised her hand to her own face.

“All of you will stop!” She cried out. “All of this has got to stop! Now! Right now!”

She bowed her head, blood dribbling down the hand covering her gouged eye.

Along the ground, something even more immense than the gargantuan powers previously flung coursed its way through the world. Byanca felt the heat wash over her suddenly, and she burnt for an instant, enough to know she had hurt but with no lasting agony. She flinched, and she squirmed on the ground, and then there was eerie silence all around.

Not one more gunshot, not one more mortar round. All of the fighting had ceased.

Salvatrice, holding her bloody face in her hand, became wreathed in fire.

Emerald green fire burned beneath the blood pouring from the wound on her face.

The Princess silently dropped onto the ground.

Byanca summoned the last of her strength and darted from the ground.

She ran as she never had before.

Throwing herself in the final stretch of her arduous journey, Byanca caught Salvatrice.

It was not romantic, it was not gallant or graceful.

Awkwardly, the two wounded women became entangled and fell together and collapsed.

Neither was conscious, neither understood then what one had done for the other.

Amid mingling blood from many wounds, the two lay on the ground of Saint Orrea, where their journey had begun so long ago, and now, where it ended anew, or anew began.


13th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E.

Kingdom of Lubon, Pallas — Royal Palace Grounds

On the execution grounds, the condemned were paraded out in rags, covered in visible wounds from the torments delivered to them for their crimes. A dozen legionnaires in royal purple and red uniforms, gaudy, ceremonial, forced prisoners toward the courtyard wall with bayonets and swords. Beneath this raised inner rampart they were arrayed; upon that wall, the royal spectators and their esteemed guests would watch them die. The VIPs were seated atop the very wall against which the traitors would be thrown up. It was a true royal privilege. Nobody but the Queen and her esteemed entourage was allowed to see this.

“There are at least fifty people here. Goodness. However will this mess unfold now?”

Maid Lillith Mariel chuckled heartily, seated next to the Queen herself as if in the position of a wife to a King. She was dressed like a maid still, cap and all, but her apron had some filligree to it, and her sleeves and skirt were longer, more regal. Passionale Vittoria was herself, dressed at the height of Queenly fashion, in a bold emerald gown with the neck and much of the shoulder cut out and bare. She coldly regarded the traitors, offering not even a smirk of amusement for their plight. She looked upon them with as much interest and pity as she would look upon a wall, or the ground. She sipped wine, and she waited.

“Are they really going to shoot them one by one?” asked Byanca Geta. She felt her stomach turning at this grizzly thought, and the scars of her now weeks-old wounds, felt strangely itchy with discomfort under the heat of the noon sun, high in the sky. She was uncomfortable in her legion dress uniform, a bevy of medals gleaming in the light.

“Of course not. That would be madness. They must have prepared special arrangements.”

Salvatrice Vittoria replied with an expression as cold and uncaring as her mother’s own.

Despite everything that had transpired, the Princess looked more regal than she ever had. She was dressed in a most astounding gown, rose-gold like her own hair, form-fitting, hugging her breast, with a tight, high neck, long sleeves. It fit over her like a glittering glove, and it was tantalizingly filmy in places, revealing something of the skin beneath. High fashion, ultra-modern, chic. She wore her hair to the shoulder, and Cannelle had seen to her cosmetics, lending her a mature air. Her red eyepatch was adorned with a rose.

Her wheelchair had been lifted up to the rampart for this special occasion.

“Is it just the Illuminati among them? Or were the anarchist officers finally found?”

At Salvatrice’s side, mirroring the position of the Maid relative to the Queen, was Carmela Sabbadin. This one time, Salvatrice had outdone her in regal femininity. Perhaps she had allowed this course of events to transpire, as her outfit seemed very deliberate. Carmela was dressed almost as if for business, in a pencil skirt and a coat, with leggings and high heels. She was all black and white and gold, and her wavy hair was luxuriantly long.

She was Salvatrice’s choice for a guest to invite to this festivity. When she gave Salvatrice a longing look, and touched her hand, she seemed overjoyed. However, when regarding the prisoners, she was just as cold as everyone else in attendance. This was all catharsis.

“Tarkus Marcel had maintained detailed records of the anarchist contacts he duped and exploited, and many of the bases he had uncovered. Through these leads, we found many of these traitors.” Vittoria said. “Almost all of the men before you are anarchists. Tarkus’ cult is buried in a mass unmarked grave in the mountains. They are beneath even this.”

Byanca suppressed a sigh. She could have gotten behind shooting the Illuminati.

This, however, was just petty and pointless.

“Are we ready?” Vittoria called out.

On the execution grounds, one of the legionnaire officers saluted.

Out from behind him, two men produced a crate, and set it on a table.

Taking out the contents, they slowly and deliberately pieced together before the chained-up anarchists a Nochtish model Norgler machine gun. They set it on the table, bipod out, and again, with overdramatic care and attention, they loaded the weapon. Once the ammo belt was affixed, and the gun properly ranged, the two men stepped aside, and the officer, given the Honor of the Shot, took his place behind the machine gun and signaled.

Lillith Mariel produced a small, golden treasure box, and opened it for her Queen.

From inside it, Vittoria produced a flare gun wrapped in a silken handkerchief.

She withdrew the weapon, and popped off the shot. It detonated in mid-air like fireworks.

At once, the officer casually knelt close to the gun and held down the trigger.

Suddenly the quiet execution grounds were filled with screams muffled by sawing noise.

As the officer swept the execution ground with streams of gunfire, catching every man in the mass before him, many of Lillith’s subordinate maids appeared with delicate plates of snacks in hand. There was cheese, olives, wine, and all kinds of delectable things. Salvatrice and Carmela nibbled and chatted. Lillith seized one of the plates for herself, and she cheerfully hand-fed Vittoria her favorite bruschetta with tomatoes, basil and oil.

Byanca watched the execution with wide eyes and could not bear to eat through it.


After the last droplet of blood hit the dirt, and masked corpse detail legionnaires arrived, Byanca stood, and made to take Salvatrice’s wheelchair to lead her back to her room. She immediately found that her hand reached for the handle at the same time as the Queen’s had, and she very nearly touched Her Majesty. She recoiled, as if shocked with electricity.

Vittoria’s face had no expression. She regarded Byanca with seemingly little emotion.

“I will take my daughter for a moment, Centurion. Despite my age I am most capable of pushing a chair. Please escort Ms. Sabbadin to the Princess’ quarters, and wait.”

Vittoria took hold of Salvatrice’s wheelchair. The Princess gave Byanca a weary glance.

“I’ll see you later.” She said. She put up a small smile for her Centurion and a much more lively one for her lover, and she waved as her mother wheeled her around off the ramparts.

Soon as they were out of sight, she dropped the facade, and breathed a deep sigh.

Salvatrice was exhausted. Her whole body was in constant pain. She had lost an eye, and what was under the eyepatch was a quite unseemly wound. Canelle had made her a pretty eyepatch that hid it and accented her beauty, but it was frustrating. Her depth perception was shot, making daily tasks more difficult to do. And not only had that eye spilled out of her head, it seemed as if some of her brains had as well. She had only recently regained any sort of motor function, and thus she had only just started physical rehabilitation.

During her first therapy she exhibited the miraculous ability to stand, and to move her arms and legs, and proved that she was not paralyzed. However it was inadvisable that she stand often or for long periods, according to her doctors. They said, maybe in a year, she would be able to walk painlessly for a few hours at a time. Her wheelchair had become a new companion, and people she loved took turns wheeling her around the palace grounds.

This was the first time her mother had decided to be the one to do so.

She took Salvatrice around the back of the Palace, and to the inner courtyard garden.

There, they walked under the shade of the massive Father-Tree, or, in reality, its close kin.

“You knew about Tarkus and the anarchists. You used me as bait.” Salvatrice said.

She had no reason to be pleasant to her mother, not when removed from polite company.

She had no desire to make familial small talk. She had issues to bring up.

Queen Vittoria answered, in her typical way. “I knew there were plans in motion.”

“You used me.”

“Tarkus was the one responsible for lowering security at the College and for the fake arrests and the broadcast and all of that nonsense. He was tasked only with helping you accomplish the task I had given you. I hoped he would be discrete enough to make you confident in your own power and ability. I am not displeased with the results, ultimately.”

“I’m crippled. Clarissa is dead. People died. And there’s no 17th Legion now.”

“Immaterial. You carried yourself wonderfully and that is what matters.” Vittoria said.

Salvatrice raised her hand in a fury and pushed on a nearby pedestal.

There was a bust of an elven king, and in the next instant there was not.

An invisible force battered away the object, sending it flying like a bullet into the Tree.

Upon striking the sacred, ancient bark, it burst into a hundred pieces.

“That could be your head.” Salvatrice said coldly.

Vittoria was unfazed. “I already gave you permission to kill me if you want to.”

Fuck you.”

Vittoria ignored that outburst. “Besides–”

The Queen bent down over the wheelchair, her head beside Salvatrice’s.

She extended her own arm.

Salvatrice felt the push.

It was weaker than her own, and yet, somehow, it felt more efficient. Practiced.

Vittoria pushed on another bust of another Elven King, and flung it toward the tree.

Its trajectory was much more stable, even if far less brutal and fast.

In the instant before striking the tree, the bust stopped in mid-air, and gently descended.

“I’m familiar with that trick.” Vittoria said. “I am happy to finally see your rendition.”

Salvatrice was momentarily speechless. Vittoria walked around the wheelchair.

She stood in front of her daughter, and she knelt down, and looked her in the eyes.

In Vittoria’s face, this close, Salvatrice saw so much of her own. Too much of it.

“I knew someday, that the child of that man and myself, would exhibit a power greater than both of ours combined. Others knew, but those men are all dead. I killed them, little by little, while keeping you safe, and secluded, and unaware. Tarkus was the last of those snakes because he was my snake. Now that he’s dead, I beg you not to show off too much.”

Salvatrice could have crushed her mother’s head like a watermelon.

She knew she had the ability to do that now. It would hurt. It would hurt tremendously.

She might not be able to stand for days after doing such a thing.

But she could do it.

She did not, because she was not ready for the consequences.

But she told herself she could do it. At any time. This woman was powerless.

That made it much easier to smile warmly and laugh at her mother’s display.

Like a good child.

“I will take care with it, dear Mother.”


Byanca waited outside the hall. At her side was Terry the dog, the only official survivor of the ill-fated Redcoats other than herself. All the troops brought to the mountain to fight the Illuminati had perished. After Salvatrice went out of control, everyone who had been shooting simply, stopped. They stopped forever. Salvatrice did not know everything that had happened, and in fact, Byanca herself was unsure if this was all fanciful dreaming.

So to say that Salvatrice killed hundreds of people in the blink of an eye was a bit much.

She knew Salvatrice could do things now, things that felt different than the things Tarkus did that Byanca, also, did not understand. Salvatrice knew too. They tried to keep it quiet.

For better or worse, it seemed as if the Illuminati, Tarkus, and all of those conspiracies and secrets, would just die on that mountain, or in this palace. There would be no parting of the curtain that would make everything neat and tidy. Life simply did not work that way. There was too much wound up in it. Each of those people was a universe of contradictions, of strings tying them to a hundred others. To unearth it all would take a lifetime.

At least Byanca was alive and Salvatrice was alive. That was a good base to work from.

They had a lifetime at all now, and for that, Byanca was grateful.

Byanca waited, pacing the halls. Soon she had a companion in her pacing. Peeling off from a group of maids that included the cheeky Lillith Mariel, who had been teaching her a thing or three, was Canelle, Salvatrice’s maid. She was dressed like a palace maid herself, owing to the Princess’ relocation to Pallas proper. She seemed ecstatic to live the Palace life now.

Full of energy, Canelle was constantly in maid-mode, and would inspect every gilded surface on the Palace halls for imperfections that she would cheerfully rectify there.

This time, it was a spot on a table next to Byanca. She wiped it gleefully clean.

“Good afternoon Centurion!” She said, while working on the spot.

“Hello.” Byanca replied. “Feeling peppy?”

“Most certainly! Tell me, what did you think of the Princess’ attire?”

“It was amazing.” Byanca said.

“I could scream! I’m so happy! I have access to so many materials and facilities here. You may not believe me, but I designed and made that dress myself. It was my dream!”

Canelle hugged herself and jumped up and down with joy.

It was good that a least one person was unequivocally satisfied with all of this.

“I never knew you had it in you. You should leave Pallas and start a couture place.”

“No! Never!” Canelle said, suddenly serious. “Only the Princess shall wear my treasures!”

Byanca laughed.

“Ahem,”

Behind the two of them, a pair of exquisitely-dressed visitors had arrived.

Byanca and Canelle both turned to find Vittoria and Salvatrice waiting for them to notice.

Canelle was immediately distraught, and fumbled to take Salvatrice’s chair from Vittoria.

She seemed driven both mad with anxiety about being in the presence of the Queen, and then also mad with anxiety at the honor of wheeling the Princess around once more.

“Please calm down.” Vittoria said.

“Yes, your majesty!” Canelle said, quite extremely uncalm.

Vittoria silently stared at her, and then at Byanca in turn.

Byanca blinked.

“Take care of my daughter.” Vittoria said tersely.

The Queen then turned and promptly left their side. Byanca blinked again, confused.

“Ignore her.” Salvatrice said.

Inside the Princess’ grand suite, Carmela Sabbadin waited beside the bed, staring out the window. When Salvatrice wheeled in through the door, she stood up immediately, and took the wheelchair from Canelle, who was not entirely eager to give up, but deferred when the Princess insisted. Byanca watched the whole thing unfold, as it had unfolded a dozen times already since Salvatrice began recovering, and she shook her head.

In due time, the Princess was dressed in more casual, comfortable clothing, and finally installed in her bed. Canelle bounced away to make tea and cakes, and Carmela sat beside the bed, and held hands with Salvatrice. Byanca stood guard, saying nothing much.

“Salvatrice, I spoke with the Queen’s maid, and she has agreed I can come visit any time.”

Carmela seemed so relieved to be able to say those words. Salvatrice smirked lightly.

“Maid? She’s more like her girlfriend. Anyway, it was never a problem, you know.”

“Do I? I honestly felt like your mother hated me.” Carmela said.

“She hates everyone but Lillith. It’s fine. I’m glad you can visit, at any rate.”

Carmela held Salvatrice’s hand in both of her own, rubbing her fingers and palm.

“I bought a chic new apartment in Pallas. I’ll never be apart from you.”

Salvatrice looked at her with wide eyes. “Carmela, you shouldn’t have–”

“Money is no object when it comes to my beloved. I can transplant my life anywhere that you are. And who knows? There’s no greater land of opportunity than Pallas. Under the shadow of the Palace, maybe I can make a fortune through my cunning and skill.”

Carmela grinned devilishly and Salvatrice seemed rather worried about all of this.

“Just watch Salvatrice. I’ve already appeared before your mother as your esteemed friend, and I’m now aware of your mother’s own predilections. We can make this work out!”

Byanca felt rather awkward, listening to Carmela gossip with such a glint in her eyes.

“You’re putting the cart cities ahead of the horse.” Salvatrice said weakly.

There was no dimming Carmela’s enthusiasm however. She was brimming with energy.

“Nonetheless– I should leave you to rest. You’ll need your strength for a date out on the town soon! I’m going to make all sorts of wonderful arrangements. There’s so much happening in Pallas, you know? It’s nothing like sleepy Palladi. I’ll be in touch.”

Carmela leaned forward, and she and the Princess kissed for what seemed like minutes.

Byanca modestly averted her eyes.

“I love you.” Salvatrice said.

“I love you too.”

Once their little exchange was done, Carmela turned and strode confidently past Byanca.

She paused for a moment, and smacked Byanca on the shoulder cheerfully.

“Keep up the good work!”

Byanca saluted.

Carmela saluted back with a grin on her face, and finally left the room.

“She’s so excited. This city has its claws sunk deep into her. She’s truly a big city girl.” Salvatrice said, sounding exhausted. “I’m so ill, I just can’t party like she does.”

“Help, I’ve partied and I can’t get up.” Byanca said mockingly.

Salvatrice shot her the patented look of princessly disdain she had cultivated for so long.

“A little familiar, aren’t you, Centurion?”

Byanca stood stiffer, and saluted.

Salvatrice laid back in bed with a huff. “Oh stop that already.”

“How are you feeling?” Byanca asked.

“I’m constantly in pain and this room is too stuffy and fake-smelling.”

Salvatrice casually swiped her hand at a window, and the glass slid suddenly open by itself.

Byanca shivered. She always shivered when Salvatrice used her trick.

Especially because she thought she saw a fiery aura overtake the Princess when she did it.

Whenever she drew close, it disappeared. She did not understand why.

Because it came and went, it was not a problem. But it was still strange to get used to.

Byanca shook her head.

“I mean, how are you actually feeling Salvatrice? A lot has transpired, hasn’t it?”

Salvatrice shook her head. “Too much to process.”

She looked out the window. Outside, the sun was setting over the Father-Tree.

“We’ll have to process it at some point.”

“You’re right, unfortunately.”

“Well then. What do you intend to do next?” Byanca asked.

“That’s such an exhausting question.” Salvatrice sighed.

“I’m just nervous.” Byanca replied.

Salvatrice looked at her, a small, tired smile on her lips.

“Right now, I’m going to enjoy a life on the town with my social butterfly girlfriend, and spend a year trying to walk again, and maybe cross-dress in my spare time. Is that ok?”

Byanca nodded. “It’s fine. I was just thinking. In case anything else happens, perhaps I should be back on the street, trying to recruit a new independent guard corps for you.”

Salvatrice turned her face to the window again. “Carmela would probably approve.”

“She was rather fond of bankrolling the last bunch of mercenaries we fielded.”

“She is too adventurous for her own good.” Salvatrice sighed again.

“Would you approve?” Byanca asked.

“I think I can find some use for you and more of your armed thugs.” Salvatrice said.

Byanca smiled. At least, despite everything that happened, the Princess was still the Princess, complicated moods and bad personality and all. It was familiar, even if their surroundings were too new, and their circumstances and challenges far too new. She had been nervous that her presence was unnecessary, that the Princess would have no new ambitions, and no need of her. Now Byanca knew that, as much as Carmela and Canelle, she was a part of the Princess’ vision as well. She still had a place in this strange world.

She would take armed thug for now. It was a base they could work things out from.

“I was thinking we could call it a proper Princess Guard. Inspire some professionalism.”

In fact, Byanca had many ideas for a new organization. She was a soldier, after all.

Given the failure of the Blackshirt Legion, she was hungry for a legitimate alternative, as much as she was hungry for a chance to serve the Princess and continue to prove herself.

Salvatrice, however, seemed to have her own ideas as well. She gave Byanca a little laugh.

Her face turned into a cold, self-assured smirk that Byanca thought she had seen before.

“These days, Centurion, I think I’m drawn more toward calling them the Illuminati.

There was a little green glint in Salvatrice’s eyes that betrayed something different.


Last Chapter |~| Il Fine?

The End Of A Chivalrous Era

This story contains violence, death, graphic violence and death, animal death, and quick mention and intimation of suicide. Reader discretion is advised.


18th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2008 D.C.E

Kingdom of Franz, City of Calvado — Von Krupp Salient, XIII Corps Line

22 Years Before The Solstice War.

It was his first time stepping outside the soil of the fatherland.

Though he was still on the continent, the young man had charged from the Federation of Northern States to the Kingdom of Franz. God help him; he was in another country. He was the invader; it really was a war. To think he was at war with the renowned gentlemen of Franz. With the men who had devised everything he knew about war. God help him.

Before all of this he had thought men could settle their differences through rhetoric and rationality, finding common cause and understanding. He was no longer so sure of that.

XIII Corps had a prolific season in central Franz. While Army Group A in the North and Army Group C in the South had floundered spectacularly (C’s mission to invade both Franz’s south and Lachy’s northern border, dividing its forces, was especially disastrous), Army Group B had managed to create a bulge in the line, extending half-into the city of Calvado. It was able to use all of its forces without obstruction or diversion and as such had managed to deploy considerable combat power against its enemies in the year’s final campaign season. Franz’s hard drive against the fledging Nochtish Republic halted.

Dreschner felt a sense of dread in the air around little Calvado. Here the bulge created against the royalist lines was called the Von Krupp Salient after the general whose troops had sweated and bled to push it forward. Now that very General, under orders from President Lehner, called for a cessation of movement and a strategic reassessment. Winter was coming, and the ravages of the war had taken too hard a toll on the Republican forces.

Every corps started preparing its defensive positions for the cold. Oberkommando was confident that the heroic men of the salient, who had fought so well, could hold anything.

But the summer was over; Army Group B was not the force it was in the Yarrow’s Sun.

Private 1st Class Einschel Dreschner could see the evidence of that all around him.

His line was almost empty — only his loader was with him, staring nervously out into the street ahead. His commander was sleeping inside a nearby house and three riflemen were pacing up and down the edge of two foxholes they dug into the soft street. Dreschner and the men had been ordered to form a fighting position on the intersection of Loum street just a few blocks up from the city center. It was a bad place to be fighting defensively. Most of their platoon had been wiped out in the last offensive. Support was long awaited.

Dreschner sat around, fantasizing about leaving the wretched infantry.

He had longed, before the start of the war, to be a cavalryman. To ride fast, to feel the wind at his face and the whipping of the air as he sliced his saber into the enemy. To take them down from the flanks with his bayonet and his dragoon pistol. Infantry were mired in mud and trapped behind trenchlines. Dreschner had seen so much of that. Infantry were just useless, nothing more than fodder for large artillery formations. But the cavalry, they were yet untried, yet unsent into the fray. As he waited in this hole he wondered what victories, what gallant triumphs, could the cavalry score, if they were finally committed to war.

But he was not a cavalryman. He was assigned infantry, the wretched, dirty line infantry.

And he was silently despondent. He showed no inkling of his cynicism, but he was spent.

Should he die, however, he and his fellows would never see home again, let alone a horse.

Regardless of their condition the enemy was still out there. And so, they labored. To block their captured road they built a little barricade from scrap wood, bricks and sandbags. It was haphazard, like a spiked pillar toppled over between the height of the intersection and the broad, open park; nevertheless they set their machine gun behind it and they waited.

It had been a long day, a lonely one, since they set up. Hours in the sun changed their priorities rapidly. They had gone from waiting for the enemy, to waiting for support, to waiting for the food carriers and finally, to waiting, longingly, for the sundown. It was a humble wish, for the cold of night to banish the too-hot fall sun. It was all they had.

“Dreschner!”

At first he thought it was a horse, and was elated for a second, but it wasn’t.

He heard the distinctive rattle of a bicycle gear, and saw a man coming in behind him.

Could it be a food carrier? No; they were never as well decorated as this man.

Dreschner turned around and stood at attention for Major Walter Weddel from Battalion Recon command, riding on his big-wheeled courier bike. The Major seemed to have no time for the pleasantries, and he set aside the bike, and charged to the barricade. He pulled up a pair of binoculars and peered with frantic energy into the city center, looking past the park and the roads and the blown-out, crumbling town hall. He gasped for breath.

“Major? You shouldn’t be at the front! It is dangerous!” Dreschner said.

“You’d know far better than I, but I still can’t just sit around!”

Dreschner knew Weddel tangentially, from some previous engagements.

The Major had never been to the front before. For him to have to move, meant that the Battalion was truly, utterly exhausted. There could have been no available underlings.

Fearing the worst, Dreschner cast eyes down the road along with the Major.

He kneeled next to Weddel and waited for orders or information. Every movement he made brought his skin tightly into contact with his gray coat, and he felt a fleeting cold from the sweat at his back and on his chest. Despite the onset of winter, fighting under the sun, without even the smallest tree for protection, caused him to sweat like a pig on a spit. Noon seemed to have brought the sun directly over them like the eye of the devil.

“Dreschner, reconnaissance planes picked up on a column of Frank horses incoming.”

“Horses? How many?”

“Too many. They must have spotted the gap here. Where is your commanding officer?”

“Sleeping. Over there.”

Dreschner pointed to an abandoned house nearby, an ornate little Frank house with a second floor, a gabled roof and a wide balcony on its face. Like every other building it had been defaced by shells and bombs but it was only mildly damaged and stood freely on its own strength. Since he first saw it, Dreschner’s commander had claimed the house and gave strict orders not to be disturbed while his men worked outside to defend it.

Major Weddel looked upon the house with frustration.

“Dreschner, this place is nothing but a hole in the lines. You’ve got barely a squadron here and we have fifty or sixty horses coming. Your commander must have an auxiliary machine gun somewhere. You need to wake that slob up and get it set up, now!”

“Yes sir!”

Peeling off the line with his heart thrashing in his chest, Dreschner rushed into the house nearby. It was a fine little house, like a gable-topped cake, creamy white with wine-brown trim in the form of glossy wooden frames and doors. There were decadent halls leading upstairs and into the heart of the home, but their treasures had been shaken off their pedestals and out of their cases by the quaking shellfire of the previous week’s fighting. All along the sides of the halls were crumpled paintings and smashed glass and pottery. It was a miracle a shell had not blown open the roof or collapsed the walls. Most of the damage to the exterior and to the supporting structures was barely superficial.

In the drudgery of 2008 warfare, a house was a great prize. Being able to command from a house, or fight from a house. It was like heaven compared to a muddy trench-line.

No doubt, the commander was asleep on a fine bed somewhere. Dreschner hurried.

Upstairs, he called out for his commanding officer several times, hoping to wake him.

There was no response, and Dreschner ran from room to room seeking him out.

He turned around a corner and into a open door into a bedroom with a balcony.

He paused at the doorway; what he saw quenched all of his panicked energy.

Dreschner was forced to halt by the sight of his commanding officer, lying dead on a princely bed with a peaceful face, hands on his chest, eyes closed. At his side was a small girl, blond-haired, in a fur coat a size or two too large and little fur-trimmed boots and a dirty little dress. She had a pair of glasses on her face that were also a size too large.

Though he had seen terrible things in this war, this sight was incomprehensible. Not the dead soldier — soldiers died, even the officers did. It was the child that confounded him. How was she here? Why was she not taken? War was a place without children or animals or anything soft and vulnerable. It had to be. Dreschner had seen men drown in mudholes between trenches; he had seen artillery shells explode and vanish men from existence, taking even the dust of their bones so that nothing could be buried. He had heard the wails of gore-strewn soldiers caught in traps in the no-man’s-land, awaiting death.

Dreschner was a child himself, compared to the men around him.

But he was not this small. Something this small just couldn’t survive this carnage.

He was afraid for this girl, afraid for her mortality and afraid of how she reflected on him.

He was afraid of vulnerability and felt a drive to be strong for this girl.

And yet he did not quite know how to be tender or comforting or even whether to be. Could this child be an enemy? Could she have killed the C.O.? Those sounded like insane things. Things no man should dare indulge. But he had seen so much of this war that anything made sense now save for the existence of a simple innocent in these grand battlefields.

“Are you lost?” He asked.

It was the first sensible-sounding thing to land upon his tongue.

From the bed, the child raised her head and gave Dreschner a blank, tired stare.

“Je ne parle pas Noetais.” She said in Frank. Her voice was a little deeper than he expected, more of a woman’s voice than a child’s, but maybe that was all his shell-addled brain.

Dreschner knew a little Frank; possibly enough to speak to a child.

“What happened?” He asked. Que s’est-il passé?

“He drank. He drank from Mama and Papa’s special bottle.” She said in Frank.

Her Frank was easy to understand. Concentrating on it, he could hear in Nochtish.

She pointed to the bottle, lying on the ground amid a pile of other debris, books and clothes and other things, perhaps pulled out by soldiers hoping to find loot.

Dreschner raised his hands, hoping not to scare her by approaching.

She did not even look at him as he moved.

He picked up the bottle and raised it to his nose.

There was a strong scent of something dire and chemical.

In disgust he dropped the bottle and coughed. It was a fatal preparation.

Dreschner turned to the girl and was surprised to find her speaking again.

“On the radio the king said not to leave our houses. Mama and Papa were very scared of the bad people coming. They put something in that wine bottle to drink, in case the bad people came in. But then they heard shooting, and they ran away. They disobeyed the king and left all of their treasures behind, even me.” She said in a listless drone.

Dreschner blinked, stunned.

“I’m a good girl. I obeyed the king and stayed in the house. Like we should. But the stuff in the bottle smelled gross. So I didn’t drink it like Papa and Mama wanted, before they ran.”

“What is your name?” Dreschner asked, unable to bear the scene any longer.

She looked up at him, making direct eye contact for the first time.

“Cecilia Nouvelle.” She said.

Dreschner nodded. “Cecilia, please go to the basement and stay there. You’re right, for now, it is a good thing to stay in the house like the king said. But later, it may be time to leave. If I tell you it is time to leave, will you leave the house?” He asked, trembling.

Cecilia turned her head and stared at the ground, kicking her little feet softly.

“You’re one of the bad men. But I guess you won the big fight. So I’ll do what you say.”

Without another word, Cecilia dropped off the bed and tottered off to the basement.

Dreschner looked at the corpse of his commanding officer. She must have arranged him, closing his eyes, putting his arms on his chest. Maybe even even cleaning up his face.

He was astonished by this child, so much so he nearly forgot his own mission.

Rushing back down to the street, he called out to Weddel.

“No dice, we’ll have to hold with what we have!” He shouted.

“Are you serious?” Weddel shouted back.

Dreschner kneeled behind the machine gun, his bewildered loader mechanically putting another belt into the MG-99 while an additional rifleman supporter replaced the water jacket. Weddel pulled up his binoculars and stared out into the city before them.

“Dreschner, what happened?” Weddel asked.

His voice trembling, Dreschner replied, “You can go in and look if you want to.”

Walter Weddel seemed to have no desire to do that. Sighing, he resigned himself.

“May god have mercy on us.” He said.

“May god take our fucking side for once.” Dreschner added.

Dreschner took the handles of the machine gun and placed his fingers on the spade grip trigger behind them. He looked down the sights and breathed in, and waited, as he had been waiting. Without the artillery or the sound of shooting the air was still and the city too quiet, yet too noisy. Every pebble dropping from a mound of debris, every mechanical cry from his gun and its unlubricated components, every rustling of a man’s coat. Little sounds became incongruously large, too large, they made Dreschner very nervous. He tried to keep as still as possible hoping no one else would hear the sounds he was making.

He could hear the sounds of his spit going down his throat as he swallowed hard.

When the hoof-claps came it was a tidal wave of noise, ever approaching.

Then Dreschner saw the men in the distance, with their tall plumed helms, sabers, guns at their backs, gallantly clad in their glaringly patriotic red and blue uniforms, and riding on beastly brown horses that seemed like elephants as they rode en-masse. Dust blew in their wake, a dreadful cloud that seemed like it could rival the plumes of a shell-fall. They were a blunt arrowhead, charging without ceremony from an interior street and into the city center, charging the barricade. He had fought them before, but never like this.

They seemed so much more fearsome beyond the trench lines.

Dreschner had seen so much of this war and this sight stilled his heart nonetheless.

To close his eyes to the charge, however, would mean death.

“Engaging target! Free fire!” Dreschner shouted.

With three fingers he pulled the trigger and the bolt went wild.

His loader held up the belt of machine gun ammunition and the MG-99 sucked it up into its boxy shell and spat it out through the barrel. Dreschner heard the water in the barrel jacket bubble and sizzle and froth as a dozen rounds and then six dozen and then a hundred exploded out of the barrel. Steam and smoke blew from the tip of the gun.

It made a sound like a thousand hammers pounding nails in millisecond intervals.

It had an effect like a spear driven right into the heart of the horsemen.

From his fixed position, Dreschner’s gunfire struck the center of the enemy’s formation. In an instant the lead horse was crippled by fire and fell and was trampled. Several more horses tripped over the one falling before them, and the formation was forced to spread and to morph, with men at the flanks riding forward, men in the center halting their gallop to maneuver around corpses of horses and men, creating a generalized confusion.

Throughout all of this Dreschner did not stop shooting.

He traversed the gun from left to right, moving deliberately with steeled nerves, putting down hundreds of rounds that swept across the broad front imposed by his enemy. Long streaks of gunfire sliced the heads and shoulders and limbs off men and left them hanging dead from panicked horses; or struck horses in the center of their bulk like iron fists pounding a slab of ham, and causing the beasts to crumple as if on jelly legs; and in response the cavalry turned into an amorphous mass, groups of horses and men scrambling to avoid the eye of the MG-99, and many running into its fire in the attempt.

Major Walter Weddel stood up amid the cacophony of dying men and blazing fire.

“That’s over a dozen horses down already! We can do this men, stand and fight!”

Weddel produced his pistol and opened fire on the approaching cavalry.

At his sides, the spare riflemen picked up their rifles and joined him.

The Major and his men accounted for a pair of horses, while Dreschner’s gun clicked empty. Frantically his loader produced and fed in a new belt, while his third man replaced the red-hot water jacket, that was steaming and boiling and frothing madly. Beneath the jacket the gun barrel was red hot and smoking fiercely. Soon as the new water jacket was applied, it too began to bubble, the cold water inside cooking from the heat.

Within seconds Dreschner was pulling the trigger and resuming his intense barrage.

Those brilliant, gallant, galloping charges should have deflected the bullets, they were full of such glory that it seemed impossible they could be broken. Each burst of gunfire killed an impossible number, downing horse after horse. Cavalrymen reunited, amassed in new formations, and broke into charges toward the barricade, and died. Five-hundred meters; a group of three horses, their legs exploding and turning them to hanging hams rolling back over themselves. Three hundred meters; a column of horsemen, pistols out, shooting desperately past the barricade, over Dreschner’s own head, before being cut down.

Out a mere hundred meters; two horsemen jumped over a great hunk of concrete, and in mid-air the rifle and pistol and machine gun fire tore the blood and gore from them and sprayed it like fireworks in grizzly arcs and shapes. They fell, turned to meat, and stopped.

It was maddening. Dreschner almost wanted to lose this confrontation.

He imagined himself, a proud young lad on a beautiful stallion, riding to a great war.

And on the opposing end some filth-covered scoundrel in a hole with a machine gun.

He felt as if he was shooting down his dreams, shooting down the only beauty left in war.

Dreschner wept; he mumbled to himself to stop but his fingers felt otherwise.

His fingers, that had held seemingly nothing but guns the whole year.

They knew war, and they knew only to shoot. And so they shot, and they shot.

To say they died one by one is to understate the brutal carnage; men died in disparate groups and in glorious processions and in their lonesome and accompanied by such great burdens that even in death they could have never been alone. They died with horses and without them, they died with bodies whole or broken, they died among themselves and with their comrades and among the ghosts. Dreschner could not look out at what he had done. There was such a gruesome landscape before him that he could not take it.

He dried his tears, and he stood up, and he let his legs take him away.

“That’s the platoon! That’s the entire platoon!” Major Weddel celebrated. “Dreschner, you rabid dog, I am giving you a promotion, you will go places my boy, I guarantee–”

But he had no one to celebrate with, for Dreschner had abandoned the gun.

Everyone stared. Dreschner could feel the eyes like knives at his back.

He was abandoning his post, like a coward, filth among the filth of the infantry.

But they had already won. So what did it matter?

Perhaps understanding the situation back then, Major Weddel never charged him with any of the myriad penalties he could have faced for turning away from the battlefield.

Free from the shackles of the gun and the fight, Dreschner returned to the house, and behind the basement door, he found Cecilia, just where he hoped she would be.

She was seated on the stairs in the same way she had been seated on the bed.

She was holding her hands over her ears but seemed eerily calm despite this.

He tapped on her shoulder, and she turned around, and put her hands down.

“Can you leave the house?” He asked her.

“If you say so.” She replied. Her voice was listless, dead, inexpressive.

Dreschner took her hand, and they walked back out onto the street.

Her hand was so small, Dreschner thought, if he held it the way he held a gun, he would likely shatter it. He could not squeeze it. He could barely touch it. It was very eerie.

He dreaded what might happen when Cecilia saw the outside.

Nothing at all happened, however.

If Cecilia caught a glimpse of the field of corpses out in the park, she did not let anyone know. She made no sound, no protest, as Dreschner walked her away from the sight.

She was quiet, and followed along dutifully.

Dreschner led her somewhere, not even knowing where himself. His mind was adrift.

He thought, as he walked, of the cavalry, of the beautiful, ill-fated cavalry.

So that was why they did not fight before.

All of his notions, all of his dreams, had left him, and he was empty.

Empty of any optimism or hope but also empty of juvenile notions and illusions.

Perhaps, he thought, being empty was the better way.

Yet he found himself struck with an aberrant admiration of their bravery, their foolhardy resolve. They had been failed; they themselves had been victorious, but they were betrayed by their tools. Dreschner himself, no matter how gallant it would have been, would ever ride a horse into battle. That age was over. Had these men owned metal horses, perhaps the tide would have swung. Perhaps then, Dreschner would ride a horse into battle.

“What are your parent’s names?” Dreschner asked.

“I don’t think I have any now.” Cecilia said.

He marveled at how well she was taking becoming perhaps as empty as he.

Dreschner figured he must have cried more than Cecilia had this entire time.

Perhaps if he failed to win this war, her generation could do it.

Her generation would understand from the get-go that the chivalrous age was over.


General Einschel Dreschner awoke with a start.

He banged his head on the zeiss telescoping sight, and reared back, holding his face.

For a moment, everything hurt, but his breathing began to steady.

As he became aware of his surroundings he felt calm again.

He was not in a house or on a horse but inside the turret of his Sentinel command tank.

It was not 2008; it was 2030.

There was no Northern War; this was the Solstice War.

“Sir, are you alright? Are you hurt? I can get Eva–“

“It’s fine.”

At his side, Karla Schicksal stared at him with wide, almost child-like eyes.

“It’s fine, return to work.” Dreschner said.

Nodding her head innocently, she returned to the radio and put her headset back on.

Dreschner stared at the back of her head for a moment. He shook his own head.

He had been dreaming an anxious dream of a time annihilated from history.

There was no relevance to it now. Everything had completely changed. Hadn’t it?

“Schicksal, what are your thoughts on horse cavalry?” He asked.

Schicksal turned back to him from the radio, staring quizzically.

She opened and closed her mouth several times, ambushed by this strange question.

“Um, well, I’d guess they would be pretty useless when you have tanks and trucks.”

She sounded fairly certain of this fact when she finally spoke, despite her obvious anxiety.

Shrugging nervously, she then returned to the radio.

Not a shred of sentimentality for those bygone days of the war.

Of course not, she would not have known them.

Dreschner felt eerily satisfied with her generation. He laid back in his seat.


<< APOCALYPSE 2030 >>

Scornful Steel (Apocalypse 2030)

THIS STORY CONTAINS SCENES OF VIOLENCE, GRAPHIC INJURY AND DEATH.


12th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Territory of Pelagis — Iron Isle

Slowly the object of her hate came together before her eyes once more.

As she slid the plate into place, and her coworkers began to weld the side-panel armor covering the ammunition rack on the side, the vehicle began to take its shape. Its rounded body seemed almost friendly when she first saw it. People jokingly referred to the turrets as melons because of how round they were; this was funny for the first shift of her first day, before the downward-sloping rear armor had to be welded on and the bogeys bolted into place and the tracks, welded closed and tight around the drive wheels. Before the turret had to be dropped onto the ring, and the interior hydraulics and controls had to be wired and prepared by a specialized technician. Before all that, sure, it was amusing.

Once every bit of the machine was affixed, however, it had a shape only for killing.

She worked nervously on it, with shaking hands. They were held to an exacting standard, and the factory was run like a military base in a lot of ways. Certainly in its discipline.

On her first day the track had gone on too slack, and earned her a slap across the face.

“You’re not building a toy! Work to specification or get out!” shouted the Overseer.

She still heard his shrill voice in her head, every day she worked at the plant.

A lot had changed since then.

Her hands had grown used to the work and its precision; only the product was the same.

It was an M4 Sentinel, and its kin had killed more people than she had ever known.

One of the casualties was the very land under Marit Hale’s oil-stained shoes.


Iron Isle used to have a name, a beautiful, melodic name, but it was taken from it, and could not be spoken of again; and with it went the oil trees and the sweet tree plantations, and the clear skies and the fragrance of the wilds. Those could not be spoken of again as well. Smokestacks went up, blacktops spread out. Iron Isle was closer to the Nochtish war zones than all of its other territories. Once a minuscule line item in the agricultural department’s accounting of Pelagis province, once it became clear that Nocht would prosecute war across the vastness of the sea, Iron Isle transformed overnight to suit the needs of battles that could not be won with sugar and flowers and vacation homes.

At Plant #13 on the broad side of Iron Isle mostly older women worked, and there was only one exception. This was Marit, the tomboy of the Hale family whose many sons were taken for the war. She was an islander girl through and through; messy black hair, a complexion the color of baked clay, and a round, soft face unlike that of the sharp and pale featured Nochtish secretaries and overseers. She was an islander girl; she was not thought of as a woman. Only recently had she exchanged mud and sand in her sandals and fingers with soot and grease. She was thrust through the threshold of adulthood and went from school days and beach nights to four marks an hour for ten hours a day, six days a week.

Ten hours a day; and there was a promised commission for every tenth tank produced.

She had never seen that commission, and many tenth tanks had come and gone.

As the only healthy member of her family left on the island, Marit worked, alongside the mothers and grandmothers and the widows and wives. She showed up at the Plant campus every morning, striding past a half-dozen buildings on a square blacktop amid what was once farmland to reach a tin-walled and tin-roofed assembly building, baking under a hot, cloudless sky. A cool breeze blew in over the open plain beyond the blacktop, in certain places, at certain times in her morning walk, Marit heard the sound of rushing water from the nearby river as it turned the plant’s old water wheel, a holdover from the old farm.

“Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!”

Though less than enthusiastic about work, Marit kept a bright face and a broad smile and made herself good company. She walked out in front of the warehouse, where a chow line formed every morning for a free breakfast of hot oatmeal porridge and coffee. She slid into the line of women and seemed to slot seamlessly into conversations about news, food, weather, and work, greeting everyone around her as she waited for a tray of sweet slop.

“How’s your mother doing, Marit?”

“She’s recovering. Thank you for your concern.”

“Messiah bless her.”

“What about you Marit? Taking care of yourself? You look thin.”

“Oh, I always look thin to the lot of you!”

Marit had a flat, spindly sort of form factor, thin, long-limbed. Though she ate well she always looked partially starved. It was almost vexing. Her attire was shabby. She wore pants handed down from her brothers and a shirt and vest of the same origin. They had stitched holes and mismatched colors where other clothing was cannibalized to fix them.

Unimpressive, but it was all getting covered in grease and smoke anyway.

“Hey, you old bags quit chatting and eat!”

From behind the line, the factory Overseer appeared with a rolled up newspaper.

He struck a woman in the back of the line, for seemingly no reason.

All around him, people started to move faster. There was no longer gossip and loitering.

A line that had moved maybe one person every other minute was now going quickly.

“Nobody pays you to chat and eat!” He shouted. “Get your gruel and get moving!”

After this display, he left their side, and the women collectively comforted the one poor old woman struck by the beastly Overseer, and assured her that there was no reason for it and that she would be fine, that they would help her. Marit saw all of this from afar and didn’t really think much of it. It happened frequently. She wondered if real soldiers got beat around by their officers as much as the workers in this military factory got beaten.

There was grumbling and resentment, but everyone ate and made for their stations.

Marit, however, took a little bit of time to go somewhere more pleasant.

After grabbing her oatmeal and coffee, Marit sat down on a concrete speed bump along the edge of the factory, in the executive parking lot, her back to the chain link fence. There were no cars, because there were no executives present. There almost never were.

It was a place where she could eat in peace, listening to the lonely winds whistling over the blacktop. Almost like the old forest, where she would spend endless hours just sitting around and listening to all the sounds. Only the wind was left, but even it alone helped her to prepare herself mentally for the long hours with the sizzling welding torch, the click-clacking torque wrenches, the crashing hammers, the grinding of the lathes.

As she drank the last of her coffee she heard a clinking noise more than she did the wind.

Behind her, someone was climbing over the fence.

It was a woman (maybe more a girl like her), Marit was certain of that. She made it up to the top of the fence with anxious hand-holds, and produced a tool from her pocket that she used to cut the barbed wire, and to pull the sliced halves to either side to open a gap. She leaned back, and then threw herself up in one sudden effort, making it up and over.

It was there that she lost her footing and her fingers slipped.

Marit bolted upright and threw herself forward.

She caught the girl in her arms and together they crashed onto the blacktop.

Marit hit the ground on her left arm, with a lot of the girl’s weight on falling on her.

She flinched, and shut her eyes tight and grit her teeth.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry!” said the girl. Marit felt warm hands rubbing against her arm.

She found herself responding in Nochtish. “It’s fine, it’s fine.”

Her command of the language of her tormentors was almost impeccable.

When she opened her eyes, she saw a soft pink face looking down at her with blue eyes, and framed by lengths of wavy, luxurious blond hair. A dab of pink colored pursed lips, and a pair of hands held her own. Now that they were touching skin instead of cloth, the hands felt a little rough, calloused, almost incongruent to the angelic picture formed by the rest.

Marit pulled back her hand and crawled out from under the Nochtish girl.

“I’m fine!” She cried out. “But what are you doing? This is private property!”

She bolted onto her feet; was this an industrial spy? She had overhead the Overseer once talking about people paid to infiltrate factories and steal secrets and sabotage production.

Marit had been taught by some of the older women that in Nocht, there were a few big companies always competing to make new products for the army. Those who could make the most acceptable products for the cheapest price won the contracts. Companies like General Auto, who owned this factory, made money by spending the least they could on workers and production. Setbacks like the ones spies cost could dig deep into profits.

And that would mean they would have to dig deep into the workers to make up the rest.

However, the friendly smile put on by this girl did not seem like it could come from a spy.

“I’m Alicia Kolt.” She said, stretching out a hand. “I’m an engineer.”

She was dressed in an almost workmanlike garb, with a big leather apron over a button-down shirt, and a leather cap over her blond hair. She had toolbelts over her waist with numerous pouches and multiple little cutters and drivers and other knickknacks hanging.

Judging by her hands, she must have been doing some work, but her body did not appear affected as much. Marit was skinny and lean from all the back-breaking torture of factory work; but this girl was rounder and softer everywhere that Marit was flat and angular.

And of course, Marit had never heard of a female engineer. Their factory was mostly women, but all they did was put fabricated parts together. When it came time to wire radios and install hydraulics, they had technicians there from the Rescholdt-Kolt firm, men who knew machines. She had no idea what they would let a girl like this do in an engineering firm other than answer the phone and file papers and reply to letters.

Not that she thought it was impossible, she just knew rich men were bastards like that.

Nevertheless, Marit kept her doubts to herself and returned the handshake.

“I’m Marit Hale. So could you please tell me what you are up to?”

Alicia smiled brightly. “You work here, don’t you?”

Marit averted her eyes slightly. This girl had a very fetching smile.

“I do.” Marit said. “I’m in primary, intermediate and final assembly.”

“Goodness! How do you know which one you’re doing on any day then?”

“I don’t. They treat me like a kid and just have me fill in whatever’s needed.”

“I can relate!” Alicia said. “How old are you? Around eighteen I guess? I’m twenty years old and everybody treats me like I learned to walk yesterday. It’s very frustrating!”

“I’m nineteen. And yes, that is all pretty relatable.”

Marit found herself conversing and almost forgot to suspect Alicia of industrial espionage.

“But hey; Hey! Tell me what you’re up to already. I don’t want to get into trouble.”

Looking over her shoulder guardedly, Marit was relieved to find nobody coming in from the main factory grounds or from the office nearby, and the gate guard was in his booth and not paying any attention to his surroundings now that the workers had all checked in. So at least, the danger of being discovered accidentally was lessened, but she still worried.

Alicia flashed her that heart-stirring smile of hers, and winked one bright blue eye.

“I just want to take a tiny peek at something. And besides, look at this, it’ll be fine.”

She opened one of her pouched and produced a company-issued ID card.

It had the large, golden block letters R-K, for Rescholdt-Kolt, the engineering firm responsible for a lot of the complicated technology behind the factory’s products. General Auto had the raw industrial muscle, but the brains that came up with the blueprints and that put the finishing touches on the tanks, all of that came from Rescholdt-Kolt.

And wait; had she not said her name was Alicia Kolt?

Marit looked up from the card and at Alicia’s self-satisfied little grin.

“You’re getting it now huh?” She raised a hand to her chest and patted over her breast. “I’m the younger sister of Maximillian Kolt, the second partner in Rescholdt-Kolt.”

“Oh! Why didn’t you say so? You don’t have to sneak around then!” Marit replied.

She was less impressed with the connection, and more relieved there wouldn’t be trouble.

Alicia did not seem convinced.

Stepping forward, the young engineer put her warm, soft hands on Marit’s shoulders.

Her big blue eyes and invitingly painted lips were only the length of their noses away.

“Marit, I need your help.” She said.

“You really don’t!” Marit replied, suddenly nervous, excited, aroused(?) far too suddenly.

Alicia sighed. Marit smelled a sweet scent from her and averted her eyes again.

She felt the engineer’s hands squeeze gently with determination.

“Marit, If I just show up, they’ll give me a boring tour of the facilities and use me like a piece of decoration! Listen: there’s something I want to take a quick peek at. I searched around the exterior of the factory, but I can’t tell where to go. When I saw you, I knew that luck was on my side! I just need your help for a teeny-tiny moment, okay? then I’ll be out of your hair for good. Nobody will get in trouble. Trust me; I’m really good at this stuff.”

Marit felt a sudden thrill in her chest, followed by a sinking feeling.

“Pretty please?” Alicia asked again.

She could send her off on her own, go work, and go about her day like any other.

However, Alicia’s presence had suddenly reawakened a fire in Marit’s heart that she thought long since put out. That childish feeling of adventure, of making every day a truly different one, of doing more with oneself than one’s lot allowed. That feeling of defiance, of a child who saw rules and flaunted them, who saw challenges and conquered them, who felt that anything could be possible. That child who wanted to be her own person.

Marit felt suddenly that she had been conforming too much.

After all, what was in it for her if she obeyed the factory boss?

She would still get beaten if she made a mistake. She would still get paid poorly.

Alicia, however, was the promise of something a little different. Even if only for a day.

Besides, she was curious what kind of thing an Alicia Kolt could want with this place.

“I’ll help you.” Marit said. “But we have to be quick. I’ll be yelled at for being late.”

“Oh thank you! Thank you!”

Alicia pulled her into an embrace and kissed her suddenly on the cheek.

Marit felt her head would explode if a pressure valve wasn’t released soon.


“Is there any place where something important might be kept?”

That was Alicia’s only interest and clue, and Marit only really had one answer. There was a specialty workshop on the other side of the factory grounds that was padlocked. She had asked some of the other women if they ever worked there and none of them ever had, so it was not a place for regular assembly. One morning, she was feeling sick, and gave away her coffee to an engineer she found who was driving a crane-pulley tractor in the cold.

“Thanks, kid!” He’d said, “Hey, let me tell you something fun in exchange eh? Sit down.”

Marit had sat in the tractor with him, and heard him brag about how he was part of a team working on new ultra-dense heat-treated steel. There was no facility in the factory Marit had ever seen that could do something like that, so she figured that such things were going on behind the padlock in that specialty workshop. Experimental stuff. That was probably what Alicia wanted to see. If she was treated like a toy at the R-K firm, then maybe she was not allowed to see experimental projects, and it must have vexed her.

“Follow me very closely and keep your head down, okay?” Marit said.

Alicia nodded cheerfully. “Don’t worry, I’m an expert at sneaking.”

As she said this, Alicia carelessly kicked a discarded bolt and sent it rattling around.

Marit snapped her head toward her; Alicia held up her hands defensively, smiling.

“Sorry!”

“Shut up!”

Marit grabbed hold of Alicia’s hand and together they ran across the outer edge of the factory, along the fence, for several dozen meters, and hid behind a stack of discarded wooden pallets. From afar, they watched as a guard with a rifle and a cruel-looking bayonet came from around the corner, to where the bolt had hit a factory wall.

He looked down at the bolt, looked around himself, and kept on patrolling.

“Phew,” Marit sighed, “be careful.”

“Marit! That was a Panzergrenadier! Look at his helmet and coat!”

Marit blinked. She had no idea what Alicia was talking about. He looked like any other soldier to Marit. He had a grey coat, and a gun, and a helmet. Just another Nochtish man.

“To have Panzergrenadiers here– and oh my god, I think that insignia on his shoulder is for the Leibgarde Achim Lehner regiment, elite Presidential guard!” Alicia said.

She covered her mouth and seemed like she wanted to yell with excitement.

“Please calm down. You’ll get us caught.” Marit said.

They stole away around the factory ground, avoiding the guards, with Marit having to gently calm Alicia’s enthusiastic gasps whenever she saw something or other that piqued her interest, whether a model of tractor, or a brief glimpse of a tank being worked on inside one of the warehouses, or more of those soldiers with their strange insignia. Soon they made it to the side wall of the specialty workshop. Unlike the tin buildings around it, this one was concrete and closed. Only the specialty workshop and offices were concrete.

“How do we sneak in?” Alicia asked.

“From the top. There’s a ventilation system connected to the air conditioning.”

“Good! I’m an excellent climber!” Alicia said.

Marit looked at her skeptically and then smiled.

Once more they snuck away around the wall of the workshop and found a garbage bin at the back. Marit gave Alicia a boost onto it, and Alicia helped her climb up. In this way, they also made it from atop the garbage can and onto the roof. There, a series of ventilation grates led down into the workshop itself. Marit kneeled beside one of them and tried to pull it open, but she found it quite stubborn. After a second attempt, she saw the screws.

“Alicia, could you unscrew this for me?”

“I’m extremely good at that. One moment.”

With an inordinately proud look in her eyes, Alicia withdrew a screwdriver of the correct size from her belt and undid the screws locking the vent cover in place. Marit crawled headfirst down the vent, Alicia holding her legs for support, and she found herself at the bottom of the vent shaft quite quickly. Alicia threw down the screwdriver, and Marit opened another vent cover, and squeezed slowly out of the aluminum shafts.

And into open air, with little in the way of support.

Coming out of the vent, Marit fell a few meters down to a stack of asbestos sheets.

“Are you alright?” Alicia called down.

Marit took a few seconds to regain her senses. “Yes! Be careful coming down!”

She had hardly given the warning when Alicia came tumbling down out of the vent and crashed onto the stack of Asbestos sheets as well. She raised her arms and gave a little cheer before standing, and seemed more energized than hurt by the drop. Marit sighed.

“Where are we?”

Marit looked around. They were in a gloomy room, a small section of the shop compared to the exterior size. They were surrounded by stacks of materials along the walls. There were metal plates and the asbestos sheets and a stack of metal tubes. There was something large and covered up in the center of the room. One door led out of the room, and in the back there were a set of double doors that emanated a gentle heat. That was probably the furnace room, and the double doors were probably strongly insulated. No going there.

Alicia produced an electric torch from her belt and pointed the beam at the covered object.

“Marit, help me pull this tarp off it!”

Together, the girls grabbed opposite corners of the tarp and tugged on it several times.

Once the tarp was off, they found a tank under it.

“It’s just an M4 Sentinel.” Marit said. She felt a measure of scorn for the thing.

Alicia’s face lit up.

“It’s not just any old M4!”

She started going over all the things different. She pointed out the tracks, which were separated further for rough terrain coverage necessary for combat in the Ayvartan forests and hills and in the red desert of Solstice; and the circular armor extensions on the sides of the turret, which, in Alicia’s words, could defeat “delayed-action AP-HE.” She showed Marit the gun barrel, which was longer and of a wider bore than normal. She claimed it was a “75mm KwK 31” instead of the “typical” gun, the “50mm KwK 28.” Compared to the smooth, rounded bodies of other M4s, this one was a bit more angular and robust.

“I think the armor thickness has increased from 50 mm to 62 or even 70 mm!”

Alicia climbed up on the track, stepping on the bogeys, and then onto the tank itself.

“It’s amazing! Look at it! So much power! Isn’t it scary, Marit? It’s so scary!”

While she rooted around the top of the tank like a mouse searching for crumbs, Marit moved closer to the side of the tank and read aloud the block text painted on the side.

“M4A4 ‘Rick Sentinel’ Prototype GA-31.” She said.

“It’s not ‘Rick’ Sentinel, you’re verbalizing the R-K. That’s just the R-K mark.”

Alicia bent down from atop the tank to make eye contact with Marit while explaining.

“Rick Sentinel sounds like it has more personality.” Marit said.

“Hmm. I suppose so! It has plenty of personality already though!”

“So this is what you wanted to see?”

Marit looked up at Alicia, who was acting as if she was standing atop the world and not just a tank. She was inordinately pleased with her discovery, jumping up and down, clapping her hands and laughing as she surveyed the metal monster she had unshackled here.

“Yes, it was! I knew my brother was coming up with a big new project, and I wanted to see it with my own eyes. All of these changes are completely elementary: judging by designs coming out of Helvetia and Lubon, the 75mm cannons widely deployed in light artillery units are the natural evolution of the comparatively smaller guns on tanks. To defeat the problem of recoil, the counterweight on the back of the turret was added! Ingenious!”

Alicia sat on said counterweight, stretching from the back of the turret, which was otherwise the round, “melon” turret that Marit was used to. She kicked her legs.

Her unrestrained cheer and the way she spoke about it gave Marit discomforting chills.

“So this is what you wanted to see? Just this?” She asked again.

“Yes it was! Thank you for giving me the opportunity Marit–”

“And what will you do now?” Marit asked. “What is your goal here?”

Alicia smiled. “I’m going to draw up something even more visionary. Knowing that this is possible, that counterweights potentially solve the recoil problem, that we can go above 25 tons, and so on; I can write a spec that will blow this one out of the water. Then they will have to acknowledge my abilities at the firm. Even if it’s not accepted, just the design–”

Marit clenched her fist at her side. “So you want to make a tank that can kill even better?”

“Um.” Alicia seemed taken aback suddenly. She stopped rocking her legs.

That savage hatred that Marit felt for the M4 was crashing over her like a cold wave.

“The M4 Sentinels that we make here are already so fearsome and murderous, and you want them to be bigger? To have bigger guns? To shoot more and faster? To be even harder to stop? You see this thing and you want to make one even more frightening than that?”

“Um, hey, Marit, I’m–”

“These things are the reason the island changed! The reason we can’t be free!”

“Marit–”

Alicia tried to speak but Marit staring at her so intensely that she could not continue.

“You asked me if it looks scary? It looks scary. But you’re scarier, Alicia! You’re an even bigger monster than that thing is! You look at it and laugh and want to make it worse!”

Marit’s tone of voice rose to shouting, and she raised her clenched fists in anger.

Alicia shouted back, weeping. “Marit, please, you’re scaring me–”

“No more than you’re scaring me–!”

In the middle of the shouting match, the doors behind them swung open.

Light entered the room suddenly, framing a pair of figures in a white glare.

Both of the shadows darted forward.

Marit felt something hard strike her in the forehead and knock her down.

“Please stop! She didn’t do anything wrong!”

Alicia’s voice protested, but immediately grew muffled and desperate.

She was already wavering, but when a kick to her stomach knocked all the air out of her, Marit felt like something had unplugged her brain. She went out, and the world with her.


13th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Territory of Pelagis — Iron Isle

Night had fallen, and Marit was still working. She was working under guard.

Outside the assembly building were two men with guns, smoking.

Inside it was the Overseer, tormenting her.

At first some of the women had stayed with her and tried to help her, but eventually everyone was thrown out, until there was only Marit, the guards and the Overseer.

Though they cursed the man and his cruelty, all her coworkers could do was to leave.

And all she could do was to keep working.

Marit felt the heavy throb of her wound on her forehead. Every little movement she made seemed to exacerbate the pain. And yet, here she was. Kneeling on the cold floor of the workshop, slick with grease and oil and sweat, her arms shaking, her teeth chattering. She moved mechanically. Her humanity had slipped away from her somewhere after the fifth hour of forced overtime labor and the second time the Overseer shouted in her ear.

She was a machine; she was truly doing first, intermediate and final assembly now.

All at once.

“We’re going to break a record here, Hale!” Shouted the overseer. “You’ll put together an entire tank by yourself! That’ll teach you to snoop around where you’re not wanted!”

Marit’s eyes welled up with tears involuntarily, her fingers looked like gnarled claws, bruised and spent and curled roughly as she struggled to get her shaking hands to stretch the track around the front and back gears, the rollers and under the bogeys. She stood, unsteadily, nearly falling, walked to the other end of the workshop. Grasping in the dark, she found the welding torch and came back to seal the track. With that accomplished she had only one more job to do — she had to lower the turret onto the turret ring.

Behind her, like a mocking imp, the Overseer watched from a folding chair.

“Obviously I don’t expect a moron like you to install the hydraulics and electric system. Just set the turret down on the ring, we’ll pretend it was finished, and you’ll be done. Free to go. Doesn’t it feel great to make amends? To work off your debt like a real citizen?”

Marit did not respond. She was not capable of response. Her mind was obliterated by exhaustion and pain. She shambled toward the chains attached to the crane pulley and tugged the crane along its supports on the roof, feeling like she would fall over dead with every effort. Once the crane was close enough, she attached the chain to the turret, and revved up a generator to start the lifting motor. She lifted the heavy turret, welded all by herself, every last part of it from the cheek to the hatch to the gun assembly.

Finally, the turret dropped onto the ring, a little unsteadily, but in its place.

“Congratulations Hale! You’ve made idiot history. Now get the fuck out of my face.”

The Overseer pointed her out the workshop door.

Marit, dirty, exhausted, wounded everywhere, with big empty eyes, shambled out of the shop, almost without recognizing what she was doing or what time it even was.

She was escorted by the guards outside the factory grounds and turned out onto the road.

Staring at the moon like a lost calf in the forest, Marit got walking home.

“Marit! Marit!”

There was a long light coming from the edge of the pavement.

Marit flinched when she heard the chugging noise coming closer.

At her side, a motorized bike stopped, cut engine, and someone left it.

“Marit, oh my god!”

She felt someone take her in arms. Sweet scent, golden hair.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! This was all my fault!”

Marit barely recognized Alicia’s voice.

“What time is it?” She asked.

Alicia pulled back from her, to look her in the eyes, still holding her by the shoulder.

“It’s past midnight, Marit.” She said.

“I have to sleep.” Marit said. “I can sleep maybe three hours if I get home in one.”

“I can get you home.” Alicia said. “But you shouldn’t work tomorrow! You’re hurt!”

“I have to.” Marit said. “If I’m absent now after all this, I’ll be beaten and thrown out the next time I show my face. I can’t stop working. My family needs me.”

She couldn’t muster any emotion, love or hate, for Alicia. She couldn’t muster anything.

Her unsteady legs started to shake. Marit felt like her feet would slip out from under her.

They almost did; Marit nearly fell, but Alicia caught her.

“I’ll give you money. It’s the least I can do.” Alicia said.

“Can you keep giving me money?” Marit mumbled. “If I lose my job–”

Alicia hung her head. Her bright and shining smile was nowhere to be found.

“I’ll drive you home. I’m sorry Marit. I’m sorry about everything. I’ve been stupid and preumptuous and naive and I hurt you so much with my foolishness. I’m so sorry.”

Without response, Marit stumbled onto the passenger car on the motorbike.

Visibly weeping, Alicia put on a helmet, and got on the bike herself.

Marit felt the earth start to move, and the surroundings blur in twilight.


Though she had hoped that a few hours of sleep would undo all the damage, it hardly seemed to change things, save to allow her mind to more fully understand her predicament. When she next woke, it was sunset, and Marit was hurting all over, her bandaged forehead feeling as if freshly broken over by a rifle butt. Alicia was sleeping in a chair next to her bed. Her father was passed out drunk in the kitchen. Her mother was still gone, god knows where in town, doing god knows what. It was all the usual.

“Alicia, wake up!”

Marit shoved the blond girl’s shoulder, and prodded her from sleep.

“Marit? Are you feeling better?” She asked.

“No. I need a ride to work.”

Alicia looked like she would cry again. “You shouldn’t.”

“I have to.”

There was no more protesting. Alicia must have learned would get her nowhere.

Marit changed into fresher clothes, also shabby hand-me-downs from her brothers, and she took a loaf of bread from the pantry, the last one they had. She practically shoved it into her mouth along with a glass of milk and honey. She would not make it in time to stand in line for breakfast today. Even with Alicia’s bike it would probably take a while.

Outside, Marit took one last look at her family’s decaying, shabby A-frame cabin as she mounted Alicia’s bike. It looked ever more empty and forlorn on a hurting head.

“Drive.” Marit said.

“Marit, I’m sorry–”

“You’re forgiven, drive.”

She said it brusquely enough that Alicia seemed to get the hint.

It took them thirty minutes to drive from Marit’s house down to the factory around the other side of the island. Marit normally caught a bus for workers, but to catch it, she had to get on before the sun, and she had not today. Alicia probably did not know the significance of the bus and did not wake her for it. Or maybe Alicia was as tired and asleep and also slept through it. Marit did not know if Alicia had been punished for what happened.

Certainly it can’t have been as severe as what Marit faced.

Once they got to the factory, Marit practically jumped off the sidecar, and she ignored Alicia’s protests as she ran through the front gate. Already the chow line had dissolved and people were at their stations. Marit ran through the factory grounds, and stopped at the assembly building. She turned about face, took a deep breath, and tried to walk as casually as she could into the tin building, hoping to not attract any attention–

“You’re late, Hale!”

Immediately she was pounced on by the Overseer.

Without regard for her wound, he rolled his newspaper and struck her in the head.

“That tank you made yesterday was shabby work! And now you’re late too? Get over there and start tightening drive wheels. You’ll be doing every assembly at least once today!”

Marit turned from him to go where assigned, but she stumbled and fell.

No sooner had she hit the floor that she felt the Overseer kick her in the hip.

“Get up, Hale! You’re not feigning sick with me again! I know that trick too well!”

She could hardly believe his words. He was the same man who had yesterday overseen her as she nearly killed herself putting together a whole tank all day and all night, with a head wound. Did he think her a monster, with unlimited power in her limbs? Did he think her darker skin and darker hair conferred him some natural savagery that could withstand this? She could not even move from the floor. Collapsed face-first, she struggled terribly.

“Stop that!”

From inside the assembly building there was a general murmur.

All of the women working on the tanks had stopped and were staring at the Overseer and at Marit. Many of them had stood up from their stations, and started to shout.

“This is monstrous! Leave that girl alone!”

“Can’t you see she’s hurt?”

“You’ve worked her to the bone, you animal! Leave her alone!”

As more people shouted, more people felt emboldened to shout and to shout louder. People started to refer to their own grievances with the Overseer, rather than just what he had done to Marit. Women started to leave their stations and to gather and walk over to the man and to mob. The Overseer swatted in front of him with his newspaper.

“Get back to work! All of you! If you don’t I’m calling the guards!”

Marit turned over on her side, trying to get up.

“And you, I said, up! Now!”

He delivered another kick to her, this time in the stomach, and she cried out.

It was this that triggered the mob of women to stampede.

Marit could not understand how he had gotten the confidence to do what he did. How in the face of everything, he kept attacking her, he kept provoking them. Did he not see them? Did he not see a hundred women, old and tall and tough with skin like baked leather and big meaty arms and fingers and bellies that had borne a half dozen children each?

He started to understand, perhaps, when the first thrown wheels struck him, when the first hurled cans of pain and oil spilled over him, when the first wrench blows knocked him to the ground. When the women kicked him as he had kicked Marit and when they found it in themselves not to stop kicking, when they found bigger things to kick him with, when they found things to stab with and things to crush with and maybe, as the light left him, he understood when they ruined and defaced his body in every achievable way.

After minutes of escalating violence the Overseer was barely recognizable as human.

Then the women took their bloodied weapons and charged the two guards who appeared, alerted by the cries and the commotion, and they beat them down, but they did not murder them as they had the Overseer. They struck them and pushed them and disarmed them and sent them scurrying away from the factory. Marit had barely managed to get back up on her feet, when the women started to chant, and to roar. They called out Marit’s name.

Blinking, incredulous of the events around her, Marit watched as the women charged toward the office, and the specialty workshop, and as more women from the other assembly buildings came out as well, and they shouted and cried and made commotion. Every woman seemed to shout her grievances aloud at once. There were chants for peace, to bring the boys back home; chants to work less hours, to work for more pay, to have the commissions they were promised for good work, to have new bosses or no bosses.

Soon the entire population of the factory was out on the grounds making mess.

Marit had hardly shambled out of the assembly building, when a siren went off.

In front of the specialty workshop, a metal shutter door started going up.

Marit’s heart sank, and she tried to shout, knowing what was coming.

From the workshop, something flew out with thunderous violence.

Over the heads of the women a projectile detonated and cast fire and metal down.

At once the spontaneous crowd started to break apart and disperse.

The M4A4 “R-K Sentinel” emerged from the building, and people scrambled away from it to avoid being crushed. From its front plate, sporadic machine gun fire sailed out over the crowds, flying between the assembled women, grazing many, striking some, hitting pavement and tin walls and causing a panic to unfold suddenly. Atop the turret, the guard commander for the factory stood half out of the cupola with a pistol in hand, screaming.

“All of you will cease this demonstration at once, or you will be hung as traitors to the Federation of Northern States!” He shouted, firing his pistol off into the air. “We hold fire only because of a sense of decency you all lack! Your ransacking of a military installation is high treason! But we will show mercy if you disarm and disperse immediately!”

His own voice made him sound nervous, though he put up a strong front. Clearly he was in a panic too, his every action and word belied that panic, and he had done something extreme that could not be taken back now, in the hopes of disarming a situation likely to kill him. One tank against hundreds of workers at very close range, even older women, would not end well for him either. Like Alicia had before, they could climb onto the tank, and maybe force the hatch. He was trying to scare them off. It was all going crazy.

Many women retreated, collapsed, wounded or unwounded; but a core was forming around the assembly building that continued to show some defiance, and they gathered together.

Callously, hungry for blood, the Sentinel’s turret descended its gun toward them.

Marit ran out of the building.

With one first and final burst of manic energy, she stood between the crowd and gun.

She spread her arms, shaking all over.

“It was my fault! I’ll take responsibility! Please stop this!” She shouted.

Her eyes filled with tears. Her entire being hurt. Her body, her mind, her soul.

Everything was out of control and she couldn’t help but think it was all her fault.

Had she been better, worked harder–

Had she not lost control around Alicia and berated her–

Had anything gone different, had her parents not broken down, had everything–

Her mind was choppy, thoughts cutting each other off, sensations twisted.

She was shaking, shaking violently in front of the women she sought to defend.

“Get out of the way brat! This is not about you! Disperse now! All of you!”

She heard a clicking from inside the barrel. She was so close to the gun.

It must have been the breech. She had done breech assembly before.

Someone inside had loaded a shell that would go right through her.

Marit swallowed hard. Even if she wanted to move, she could not have. She was out of strength. Everything was lost to her. She had given the last of her to stand with these women and to stand before them, to try to protect them, to try to make amends.

Now she was spent. She couldn’t obey the guard commander.

“I warned you!” He shouted. His own voice sounded as desperate as hers.

Marit closed her eyes.

“Fire–HOLD FIRE. HOLD FIRE!”

Marit reopened her eyes in disbelief.

Standing in front of her, even closer to the gun barrel, was Alicia.

“You can shoot her if you want! But you’ll also kill Alicia Kolt if you do! And I’m not moving no matter what! If you really want to end this, call the Governor instead!”

She was shaking too. Her voice quavered perhaps even worse than Marit’s had.

But she was standing, and she was not moving.

Marit felt herself going forward, and falling onto Alicia’s back.

She held on to her waist, resting her head on Alicia’s shoulders.

“I’m sorry.” Alicia whimpered.

“You’re forgiven.” Marit said, this time much more sincerely.

Behind them, the crowd of women took steps forward, and joined Marit and Alicia.

In response, the R-K Sentinel backed down. It reversed into the specialty workshop, shut itself inside again, and made no more noise and caused no more damage until the police arrived, and the governor arrived, and cooler heads seemed more willing to talk.


18th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Territory of Pelagis — Iron Isle

Ever since the factory closed down, Marit’s mother and father seemed to have disappeared entirely. As a result of their vanishing near-completely into drink and dance, perhaps too distraught at the loss of the income from their sons and now the income from their daughter too, Marit got to keep her final paycheck. It was a pretty fat sum too — she had finally been given all her unpaid commissions for her good work. Despite this, she could not live very large. Had anything in her been broken it would have obliterated even this precious lifeline. But things had worked out well enough, she was healthy and she was free, and now she could use this last bit of money to leave behind her fallen home.

She would move to the Nochtish mainland and seek opportunity there.

It hurt her heart, but it was all she could do now. She had nothing left on Iron Isle.

Nocht, and Nocht’s war, had destroyed her family, her homeland.

With a hundred and fifty marks in hand, all she could do was to go on, to survive.

She packed up a few things, put the money in with her bag, and left the house.

She hoped to catch the bus, and then a ferry to Pelago, and then maybe a plane or a bigger boat to Nocht. She had never had to think about this, so she had no concrete plans.

Outside, however, she heard a distinctive chugging on the road.

“Marit! Hey, Marit!”

On her motor bike again was Alicia Kolt.

“Where are you going, Marit?” She asked, smiling.

Marit felt a strange softness in her heart and averted her eyes a little from the road.

“I don’t know! Anywhere but here, to be honest!” Marit said.

“Coincidentally, I’m headed the same way.” Alicia replied.

She patted her hand on her sidecar.

Sighing, Marit headed for it, and climbed in.

“Why are you helping me?” Marit asked.

“Why did you help me that day?” Alicia asked in turn.

She thought back to it. It seemed petty. There was no life-changing revelation to be had. She had seen a pretty girl who had made her swoon a little and who needed help, and she wanted the sense of adventure, she wanted to do something interest. She did not think it over too much. Her actions could not truly be justified. It was almost completely random.

Unwilling to answer that maybe she had wanted a kiss, Marit instead shrugged.

“Because it was different.” She said.

“Would you accept that as my answer too?” Alicia said.

“Absolutely not. You can do better than that.” Marit said, grinning in jest.

“You’re right. Let me come up with something better.”

Alicia leaned in from the driver’s seat and kissed Marit in the cheek.

Marit flinched and rubbed her own cheek and felt her heart jumping in her chest.

“How’s that? If you want it verbally: it’s because you’re so different.”

“I don’t think I am, but okay.” Marit replied, still rubbing her cheek.

“Trust me, I’m extremely good at these things. You made think a lot, you know.”

Alicia looked out over the road and down the hilly way from Marit’s house.

“I want to do something that a person like you would admire, not despise. If someone as brave and strong and selfless as you thinks it’s wrong– I can’t carry on with it.”

“Hey,” Marit said, suddenly alarmed, “I’m sorry about what I said to you. It was nasty and you didn’t deserve it. You shouldn’t just do whatever I say, who am I to dictate your life?”

Alicia smiled. “It’s okay. I’ve made up my mind. I might still make weapons, you know. But if I do, it wont be for Rescholdt-Kolt. It wont be so they can be used against you.”

She reached out and held Marit’s hand.

“Marit, I don’t know what to do right now, but I know I don’t want to leave you behind, whatever it is that happens. I know this sounds silly, because we just met a while ago, and because I was doing things to assuage my guilt. But I really want to stay with you.”

Marit smiled back. She laid her other hand on Alicia’s too. She liked the feeling of both their worn, callused hands, a little rough and spent, holding each other so closely.

“Whatever happened to wanting to one-up your brother’s designs, huh?” Marit asked.

“Oh, I’ll beat him. I’ll become a better person than him in every way. I’ll build things that will save people and protect people. Things you can be proud of and love, Marit.” Alicia said. “I’ll trample his scornful steel with the power of love. You can count on that.”

Marit burst out laughing. “Oh my god; what a queer bunch of ideas.”

Alicia worked the bike’s ignition and revved up the engine.

“I’m extremely good at this, remember? Anyway, where do you want to go?”

Marit leaned against the backrest, and breathed out. For once, she felt relaxed.

“I want to go with you, Alicia.” She said.


<< APOCALYPSE 2030 >>

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XVI

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.


50th of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Ikrea — Cuvenen

Upon leaving the road, the Redcoats found themselves overwhelmed in the forest gloom.

Terry the dog quickly became a beacon of light in the shadows of the Cuvenen.

Sylvano could readily understand why the elves left the ancient wood. It was incredibly dense, overgrown, hostile. There was not one spot free of the claustrophobic green. Vines crawled along the moist, sinking earth. Broad, massive trees stretched in haphazard directions and seemed to join at their crowns to form a second, closer sky that was eternally green and gloomy. Between them grew bushes and mosses and flowers and all manner of flora that seemed out of place — how did they grow so green with so little sun?

Around the party the air was thick with the scent of green matter. It made Sylvano gag, and he could have sworn that the smell was a tangible chemical making his eyes weep. It was an oppressive environment. Sylvano felt smothered despite being quite free to move.

Cuvenen was a labyrinth, a cage that enthralled and captured the unaware. It was one gigantic flytrap distributed among a great spread of hectares. There was visual beauty in its shamelessly colorful and fertile occupants, but every other sense was hammered by the surroundings. Somehow, Clarissa could navigate this forest. Perhaps that was part of her royal privilege. But for Sylvano and Salvatrice’s loyal redcoats, the wood was indistinct.

Terry, however, navigated the forest expertly. It was as if she could see a world that they did not. With her snout to the dirt, she confidently walked under the boughs, over the roots, around the trees, through the bushes. She had a straight line to something and she was following it without deviation. Sylvano could only hope it was Clarissa’s path too.

Still, a dog was a dog, and Sylvano, just like Salvatrice, could not fully trust it.

“How do we know she’s on the right track?” Sylvano asked.

At his side, Centurion Byanca Geta sighed loudly in exasperation. She had been having the same trouble as everyone else keeping up with the dog and following her through the wood. Byanca’s boots sank into the soft dirt and mud close to the trees and slipped on the wet, hard earth and stone that lay between them. Her clothing had more than once gotten caught on thorny thickets and on the grasping fingers of long, gnarled boughs.

“She’s a hunting dog, she’s tracked rabbits overland and caught them as they leaped out of their tunnels before! She’s leading us the right away, just have some faith in her.”

Sylvano crossed his arms and huffed but all of his ready arguments were too petty to say.

Nightfall seemed to thicken every meter of wood. Without an awareness of the gaps between every tree in the distance, the forest seemed a wall, with every step feeling like it should have been met with immovable force. Sylvano felt his breathing tighten. Byanca withdrew an electric torch, a military model with an adjustable power switch. She set it to the dimmest setting and pointed it to the floor to avoid exposing too much light.

It barely seemed to make a difference, so dense was the darkness that had fallen.

Ahead of them Terry slowed down, perhaps conscious of the limitations of her masters, and for once they caught up and walked directly alongside the dog through the forest.

Very soon, however, the dog came to a sudden and complete stop. It directed its snout up from the ground and toward a direction, and tensed its body, making no sound. Byanca urged quiet, and shut off her torch. Bowing low, she, Giuseppa and Torvald snuck through a wall of bushes that Terry had been pointing into. Sylvano moved behind them as stealthily as he could. He was practiced in sneaking around, but by no means an expert, and especially not in the woodland. Through the bush, he peered into the forest ahead.

There was a makeshift clearing, where trees had been felled but the canopy above was still so thick with the boughs and crowns of neighboring trees that the removal hardly changed the layout. In place of those trees there was a large camp, a series of tents and shacks built in and around the remaining trees. In the center of the camp there was a much larger tent with stacks of crates making up its walls. There were scattered foxholes forming defensive perimenters, many lazily abandoned, some lazily manned. There was a campfire burning in every other one.  Sylvano could not tell if the men were armed or not. He could only see silhouettes, both of the men sitting and those wandering about in meandering patrols.

In the distance he could hear rushing water. They were near a river, so they could get fresh water, and they could probably hunt and forage in the Cuvenen. It was a sustainable camp.

“Where is Clarissa?” Sylvano asked.

“She might be in a tent, being debriefed. We’ll have to get closer.” Byanca said.

“Can Terry lead us to her?”

Sylvano looked down at the dog. Terry gathered up her paws and laid on the floor.

Byanca shook her head. “She’s a dog, not a sneak thief. She’d just alert them.”

Sylvano sighed.

He had expected a much bigger presence, with tunnels and heavy weapons and light artillery and everything that he had been told the anarchists possessed and was to be feared. She did not expect a tent village for lightly armed, beggarly looking folk. It seemed as if their own little band of redcoats might be more heavily armed based solely on the Norgler Giuseppa carried slung behind her back. At Byanca’s urging, she withdrew the weapon, loaded it, and lay prone with it in the bushes on overwatch duty.

“Cover us. We’re going around the camp. We’ll shoot a flare if we need to escape.”

Giuseppa nodded her head in response and Byanca waved Torvald and Sylvano toward a low ditch that seemed to skirt much of the length of the camp starting where their bushes ended. Byanca crawled on her belly with a pistol in hand started to navigate the little trench. Sylvano thought she could not possibly be serious, but Torvald quickly got on his own stomach and started to move, hugging the wet, mossy wall of the selfsame trench.

Feeling an anxious thumping in her chest, Sylvano got on his own stomach and followed.

It was extremely dark. Light from the campfires danced over the trench but could hardly penetrate inside it. Ahead of him, Sylvano’s allies became indistinct shapes that blended with the dirt and the rock and the moss. Worms and bugs and creatures crawled among them in the natural ditch as they snuck through it, circumventing the outer ring of the anarchist defense. It was like swimming in mud. Sylvano pulled himself slowly with his forearms and hips and knees. Torvald’s boots were almost all he could see of the man.

In this way they crawled for several meters, unseen but incredibly vulnerable. There was no fighting position they could take from their current predicament that would help them. Being caught meant a swift death by bayoneting, sitting helpless like rats in a cage. All of them had pistols but lying on their bellies they would be unlikely to have the first shot.

Sylvano’s eyes drifted nervously from the foul-smelling earth to the rocky wall at his side.

Over the shallow trench the fire-light stirred suddenly.

Sylvano heard footsteps and froze up.

Ahead, Byanca raised her hand enough for Sylvano to see it in the dim illumination.

She then retracted it, and Sylvano saw no more of her. Torvald hugged the ground lower.

Sylvano quickly did the same.

He heard the footsteps come closer.

Overhead, he saw a shadow stretch, dividing the light that danced over the trench.

There was a sharp, sudden flash and a short fizzing noise.

Sylvano smelled smoke. Tobacco smoke.

Then the footsteps started to drift far once more.

Torvald started moving. Sylvano assumed Byanca was moving too, and followed closely.

As they crawled around the outer rim of the camp a pair of voices started to sound louder than the fire and footsteps and general chatter. Sylvano could not make them out at first. Following the trench, however, they came upon a thick, broad tree that blocked the camp’s sight to them. Covered in its shadow, Byanca stood from the trench, and stacked behind the tree. Torvald followed, and Sylvano left last and put his back to the tree with them. Now standing, he could peer around the bulk of the tree and see the men on patrol.

In the light of the campfire their rifle bayonets glinted; Sylvano swallowed hard.

“Byanca–”

“Sssh!”

Byanca lifted her finger to her lip. “Listen.”

Sylvano crawled closer to Byanca. Around the tree was a tent, strung from the branches. He tried to make out the speech coming from inside, and managed to catch a familiar voice speaking about familiar topics. Holding his breath intermittently, since even the slightest sound disturbed his understanding, Sylvano tried to put together as much as he could.

“–weapons will be arriving any moment now. Be patient.” a man was saying.

“Is Cesare delivering them personally?”

Clarissa was in this tent as well, talking with this man.

“He is bringing them to us, yes. We’re getting ready for a big play.”

“I don’t think weapons will make this cell ready for–”

Clarissa replied, but Sylvano had to breathe, and lost some of the meaning.

“We’re not in charge of operations. We’re stockpiling. Cesare wants–”

“I know that’s what he wants. And I trust him. But will the villagers fight if armed?”

“We’ve got a match we’re going to light. They’ll see their time has come–”

“How will you make contact?”

“We’re not cavemen anymore. The — helped us set up radio and taught us how to communicate safely with it to avoid decryption and–. We’re ready, Clara.”

Sylvano cursed his anxious heart and weak lungs. He was having trouble understanding.

“For all our sake’s I hope you are. So how do you take the Armory?”

“First our cells are going to make targeted attacks on barracks all around– This will be a diversion to force the Legion to deploy to Ikrea. Then the cells in — will rise up, and attack the Royal Armory, freeing weapons for the people. From there, we will march, rallying the villages around the Palace to assault castle and kill the Queen. It’s only a matter of–”

Clarissa seemed to snort. “How do you breach the walls?”

“Those walls are made of rock. We have anti-tank guns. We’ll tow them to the wall.”

“It is rather thick rock, but you know weapons better than I do.”

Next to Sylvano, Byanca finally reacted to the conversation by shaking her head.

“This is a suicide mission. It will never succeed.” Byanca whispered.

Syvalno took another deep breath and held it strongly in his chest.

“What happens after?” Clarissa then asked.

“We’ll bring the people’s war out from Pallas to the rest of the country. Our comrades in Borelia will also rise up. Our comrades in Iontano will also rise up. It’s time, Clara.”

“I am absolutely ready to stand behind you. But can you defeat the Regulars? Even if you stifle the Legion, mother still has an army that will still fight against rising proles.”

“Most of the Regulars are gone. You’ve been cut off from news, Clara. The 9th Army, 10th Army and 11th Army have been deployed to Ayvarta. They’ve long since passed the naval point of no return and are– Between Borelia, Iontano and Lubon, the remaining armies are overstretched to the point that several Divisions have but two Regiments in them.”

“You speak a lot of gibberish to me, but I believe in you.”

“Believe, comrade Clara. You have seen our power, and you know the decline of your mother’s own. Our time is now. All we need is our weapons, and the signal, which–”

Sylvano felt his heart pounding. Lubon was throwing its mightiest forces into the war in Ayvarta on Nocht’s behalf, and they would not be able to come back in time to stop a general rising of the anarchists, if such a thing was successfully accomplished. And with the Blackshirt Legion having lowered the alarm in Palladi as a result of the Queen’s mercurial whims toward Salvatrice, the anarchists had enjoyed free reign to carry out these plans. Not only that, but they were engaging with Clarissa Vittoria as if she was a friend or equal to them. They were sharing their plans with her, they were treating her well. She was not clapped in irons and beheaded. Clarissa really was one of them.

At the eruption of this civil war, Clarissa would be safe among her comrades but Salvatrice would be hated and endangered by every side of the battle. Treated as a thing by the royals and legions; treated as a monster in need of purging by the rising peasants. She would have even less of a place to live her meager life. Everything would crumble around her.

Carmela, too, would be ruined in this madness. Byanca would not be spared either.

As he listened to the anarchists deliberate, as he listened to Clarissa ask her questions as ‘Clara’, their comrade and equal, Sylvano could not help but sympathize with them and their ideals. They just wanted to be free to lead their lives, like he wanted. They too, were under the heel of the Queen, exploited to feed her armies and fuel her wars and conquests, and decimated when they expressed disagreement or voiced criticism. They were nothing but things to the Queen, like Salvatrice herself. Lubon could better if they succeeded.

But Salvatrice, and Sylvano, and everything they loved, would be in jeopardy.

“Byanca, can we stop them?” Sylvano asked in a low, careful voice.

“Depends on how many of them are delivering these weapons. We can probably light up the camp as it is right now with Giuseppa’s help but we can’t handle any reinforcements.” Byanca whispered. She palmed her face and sighed. “Don’t know if that will stop them.”

“He said there will be a signal. Do you think the signal is in this camp? Did you hear–”

Byanca sighed. “I know as much as you. We may have to wait for the delivery to be sure.”

Sylvano bowed his head and put a hand to his chest. He felt his constitution waning. He had never been in such a stressful situation in his life. Salvatrice confronting her mother was one thing. The Queen could do nothing so terrible to her as what these men might do if they caught her, a royal, in their midst. She was face to face with death in this wood.

“Salv– Sylvano, up.”

Byanca pointed up at the crown of the tree and cupped her hands.

“Excuse me?” Sylvano asked.

“You can climb it.” Byanca said.

Just overhead there was a thick bough that served as an adequate first step onto the procession of branches forming the crown of the tree. Thick and bushy green and very dark, it was unlikely the anarchist patrols would think to look for spies in there. Sylvano, however, was displeased at the idea of having to climb up on it, and was initially quite reluctant, despite Byanca holding out her cupped hand for what seemed like a minute.

He then heard a rustling noise, and more footsteps, and that gave him the push he needed.

Nearly stepping all over Byanca in the process, Sylvano used her boost and climbed up onto that first bough, and from there began to climb the rest. Byanca helped Torvald up, and Torvald reached out a hand and helped her climb — a service Sylvano was far too panicked to provide for his loyal bodyguard. Within moments they had safely sequestered themselves high above the camp. Clarissa was nowhere to be seen from this vantage. She was directly below them. They could keep a good eye on the patrols, however.

As they waited Sylvano was astonished with how quiet and sleepy the camp seemed. Were they not preparing for a historical moment? Though they talked about slaying the Queen, the anarchists were barely lifting a finger. It was more like a pleasant camping site than a military installation. Sylvano wondered if this was the way every major event was preceded. Not with an understanding of its significance, with a buzz of anxiety toward what was to come, but with resignation and peace and even a casual lack of concern.

Either the anarchists were sure of their victory or they were ignorant of the gravity.

For what seemed like hours, Sylvano and his supporters waited atop that tree, watching the anarchists trace the same routes along the camp by rote, periodically going to one of the fires to set up a teapot on metal bars, or getting a pack of some nondescript food item out of one of the crates in the center of the camp and munching on it. They could hear no more of the conversation with Clarissa, but judging by some of the patrols Sylvano had been watching, they would be in grave danger on the ground even hiding behind the tree.

“Byanca–”

Sylvano had been meaning to ask her to be careful starting her attack. He had wanted to confirm with her again that Clarissa would be safe, that they could rescue her from here.

Then he saw the lights shining in the woods.

And he heard the turning of loud tracks, and the grunting of an engine.

Though in a panic he envisioned a tank, it was something much more mundane.

From the edge of camp, a large tractor with a covered top trundled through the bush, towing a container on a tracked carriage. Several of the patrolling anarchists turned to face it but nobody seemed alarmed. It was a white tractor with a big cab and tight, tall tracks, of the kind any industrial farm would have used for a variety of purposes. Procuring such a vehicle would not have been hard for anyone, and it could navigate the wood fairly well.

Inching forward at barely above a human walking speed, the tractor dragged its cargo near the center of the camp and stopped. From below the tree, Sylvano spotted Clarissa and a man in what seemed like hiking gear, with thick gloves, long sleeves and leather overalls. Both walked toward the tractor and gathered near the cab, waiting on the driver.

“Hey, about time you got here! Where’s Cesare?” asked the man beside Clarissa.

When the door into the interior of the tractor opened, a corpse fell right out.

A gunshot flashed in the cabin and rang out. Beside Clarissa, the anarchist fell dead.

Sylvano felt a silence that seemed to last an eternity, between the thud of the falling corpse, and the gunshot, and then the gurgling death of the stricken anarchist.

Clarissa screamed and fled past the tractor in terror.

Far too quickly, the camp descended into chaos.

Panels on the sides of the weapon crate slid open, and weapon barrels peeked from inside.

Automatic fire began to spray in every compass direction.

Muzzle flashes lit from the surrounding forest, putting lead on the anarchist patrols.

It was an ambush.

Men in dark clothing and masks rushed into the camp from the exterior.

Anarchists all over the camp began to shoot wildly in every direction to combat them.

From a foxhole, a glass petrol bomb was lit and thrown toward the center of camp.

In an instant the tractor was up in flames, and the fires quickly spread over the cabin and the burning engine and into the crate. The mysterious attackers inside it had their ruse turned into a horrifying slaughter. With the camp fully engaged, however, the silence of the machine guns only allowed every other rifle and pistol to sound all the louder and drown out the screams of the burning, dying men trapped inside their trojan horse.

Despite the loss of their treacherous support weapon, the men invading the camp moved almost unopposed, trampling over the outer line of foxholes on the side of the camp opposite Sylvano’s group. Swords and bayonet flashed in the dark. Anarchists in the interior of the camp, many wounded from the machine gun crate, took up positions where they could and fired back with their own rifles, forcing the invaders to take cover in the foxholes they had invaded, huddling with the corpses of the men they had freshly killed.

Then, from behind the foxholes, a second rank of invaders opened fire with submachine guns. Every anarchist position lit up from dense volleys of blue tracers from the wood.

It was clear which side was the winning one.

None of this mattered anymore, none of it had consequence; only one thing did.

“Clarissa!”

Sylvano leaped down from the tree in an action quite unlike him.

It was not him anymore.

“Salvatrice, no!”

Byanca shouted after, but the Princess was running after her sister.

The Legionnaire’s voice was barely a whisper beneath the gunfire and Salva’s own mind.

She landed harshly on her feet, nearly hurting herself, but she took off into wood, passing by the enormous bonfire that had become of the weapons crate and the tractor towing it, running past the positions of dead anarchists struck first and too quickly by the hidden weapon, ignoring the pitched battle unfolding between the shadowy soldiers and the anarchists across the camp. She rushed into the wood, into the dark. She ran on instinct.

Clarissa, whom she had never got to know, whom she had so easily abandoned.

Who was this woman who joined the anarchists like this? Who wanted to kill their mother, to betray her royal heritage? Salvatrice needed to know and Sylvano simply could not. She would look upon Sylvano as a stranger, but Salvatrice– would she see Salvatrice as her blood, as her sister? Would she pity her and free her the way she wanted to free herself? Wracked with confusion and questions and regrets, that screamed in her brain louder and brighter than the incessant gunfire she left behind, Salvatrice was running and running.

She heard the sound of the river, and she followed it. Everything else was thick bush and treacherous undergrowth and slippery soil. She ran with abandon, striking with her hands the branches and bushes and clinging vines that were in her way and rushing with all her strength toward the sound of the river, and the voices she soon heard over the battle.

“–Lubon has no more need of you.”

Salvatrice rushed out of the wood and into the river clearing in time to watch a bullet go through one end of her sister’s beautiful head and exit out the other. In the darkness of the forest night she saw the flash and she saw the blood and she felt a pain greater than the fleeting instant Clarissa must have felt as she defiantly stood before the gun, and accepted the bullet, and fell, like an angel freed from burden, backward into the river.

Clarissa Vittoria washed away with the foam of the rushing water.

Though she wanted to scream, to cry, to gnash her teeth, Salvatrice could only stare.

Her eyes welled up with silent tears, and her legs gave away.

She sat on the floor, her fists on her knees, weeping.

She was not alone.

Across from where Clarissa had stood, attached to the gun that had killed her, was a man in a black uniform, tall, strong and well-built, with a peaked cap and an unsmiling face. Around her were three other men, masked, wielding assault weapons, staring solemnly.

This man approached Salvatrice, and kneeled in front of her.

Gently, he lifted her chin. He bowed his own head, closing his eyes, and saluted.

“Legatus Tarkus Aurelius Marcel, 67th Signals Battalion, at your service, milady.”

Behind him, the three men bowed, kneeled, and saluted.

At her sides, from ambush, more legionnaires bowed, kneeled, and saluted with them.

Tarkus, that distant memory from her childhood, lay before her, contriving his stance to be lower than hers despite her collapsed state. He looked up at her from his genuflection and he smiled, and he addressed her with a warm, alien cordiality, almost a reverence.

“We dedicate this night to you, Princess. You will be in your rightful place, soon.”


Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

 

 

 

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XV

50th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Ikrea

Byanca could not believe how quickly everything was moving.

Walking out of the convent with a firearm trained on Princess Clarissa Vittoria was a surreal experience. Byanca marched step by step with a heart squeezed by tension, as the gallant young woman three steps ahead strode past ranks of her fellow sisters frozen with terror. Any of those women could have lunged for them and set afire the whole scheme; had the whole mob managed to come together they could have killed Byanca, certainly.

Through the gardens, through the hallways, across the outer wing. Every corner, every balcony, every higher story, suddenly teemed with onlookers watching them in disbelief.

Despite their every advantage, none of them were convinced of their own power.

No woman took any step closer to the two of them. They walked as if between a fence laid down with habits and crosses and skirts, rather than amid a teeming human mass.

Clarissa had her head up high and an almost smug expression on her face.

“Mice.” She said to herself aloud, as she stared at the women and girls around her.

She was amused enough to indulge in the slightest, cruel little giggle.

Byanca pushed her gun forward like a real kidnapper would have.

They passed through the arched main gate of the convent. At the side of the cobblestone path stood the Convent Mother, her tall, gaunt, long-limbed form draped in the most covering and ornate habit Byanca had yet seen. Even in the monastery she had never seen a sister so over-dressed. All of her hair was captured in her habit, and not even a hint of neck or bare hands could be seen through her dress, which was richly embroidered. Her only visible flesh was that of her face, taut and pockmarked, void of readable emotion.

“Clarissa, if you leave with these people, you will not return. I assure you. They will use you and bury you somewhere lost and deep, and you will never see heaven.” She said.

Only threats. No greetings, no prayers, no honorifics. No respect whatsoever.

Clarissa, her hands held up in feigned captivity, scarcely spared the woman a glance.

“If you’re a keeper of heaven, no such thing can exist. Out of my way.”

She started walking again even before Byanca did.

They were no longer captive and captor; it was clear who was in control, and Byanca had lost any pretense to it, even as she held a fully-loaded, automatic firearm in her arms. Even with the ability to put a bullet through her breast and end her at any time, she felt powerless in the face of Clarissa’s strength. She was as immovable as a statue and with a similar stoic beauty. Bullets would surely ricochet against that ramrod straight stance.

Byanca contemplated pointing her gun at the Mother, but did not do so. She did not even stare at her. Like a phantom, the woman merely left the world as Byanca averted her eyes.

Past the gates, there was a long dirt road, seemingly endless, raised up with sand and stone against the shallow ditches flanking it. Dense woodlands stretched high to both sides of the road. Thick-trunked trees with great crowns formed a mantle that cast deep shadows. Compared to this gloom, the road between seemed gilded, a thread of light.

Farther down the road, a green truck lay conspicuously in wait.

And from the forest, Byanca’s subordinates soon stepped carefully into view.

Though they had only recently made her acquaintance, Byanca did not have the time to be properly paranoid of Torvald and Giuseppa. She had a good first impression of both, and they came recommended by a certain Signore Giovanni. Torvald was a stocky sort with a sharp face and overgrown, slightly unkempt blond hair; he had a twisted smile and clearly did not care for himself too much, if at all anymore. Giuseppa was a tall, long-haired, dark-skinned, middle-aged woman with ears almost like a rabbit’s — an indigenous Borelian who had served with the colonial authority for a time. She had an incisive voice.

Both seemed like the sort of people unsuited to elaborate personal schemes.

Dinari and the promise of a rifle in hand was alone what sang to them.

They made good subordinates and minions were all Byanca desired at the moment.

Coming out of the wood they looked focused on their mission, dressed in camouflaged greens (a red uniform for Byanca’s redcoats seemed counterproductive for the moment) and with steel gazes that did not linger on the Princess for long. Soon as they appeared and Byanca acknowledged them, the three of them quickly headed down the road for the truck. Two more of Byanca’s cadre waited inside the truck’s cabin, and they primed the engine the moment she reappeared. Byanca led the Princess around to the vehicle’s bed.

Inside waited Terry the dog, its tail quite unwagging, and a brooding, effete young man with a delicate face and ruddy-brown hair in a short ponytail. He was the only one without military garb, dressed instead in a vest, shirt and dress pants, black tie and all. Byanca would have called him the ringleader; he looked the part. There was a glimmer in his eyes as Byanca helped Clarissa up into the bed of the truck. He looked as if he wanted to say something, but he did not. On his subtly curving hip was a small Nochtish pistol.

There were more guns in the truck. They had one Contracarro Boyes rifle, a large, long piece with a thick stock and a recoil buffer; and one Myrta light machine gun, already loaded with a thick, unwieldy 30-round magazine sticking out of the gun’s side. But the centerpiece was lying on its bipod, in a corner of the bed. One Nochtish Norgler machine gun and its ammunition belts. These were rare and prized in the Kingdom of Lubon.

“My, you’re better prepared than I expected.” Clarissa said, glancing at the weapons.

“We’ve been busy.” said Sylvano D’Amore. His voice was conspicuously gentle.

“Indeed you have. I thank you for your service. It will be rewarded.” She said.

She did not mince words. There was only a limited use in saying more to commoners.

While Clarissa stood tall everyone else seemed to buckle.

Sylvano’s eyes shied away from contact. Torvald and Giuseppa sat on the side of the bed, while Byanca sat beside Terry, who maintained a subtle, restrained growl at the sight of Clarissa. Sylvano sat on her other side, quiet. All of them seemed beneath the notice of the confident Princess, who was already turning from thoughts of escape and to her future.

“Run your plan by me. What has been happening around here?” She asked. “How is Cesare? How are his cadres? Last I knew he was being relentlessly hunted.”

“We’re just a cell; we do not know about our counterparts.” Sylvano said.

Byanca would have rather he not say anything, but it wasn’t too damaging at least.

Clarissa did not seem to have any change in attitude.

“Princess, the Blackshirt Legion has pulled out of Palladi, but they’re still thick in Ikrea.” Byanca interjected. “For safety reasons, we will drive you to a noticeable landmark of your choice, somewhere you know you can navigate. We’ll give you civilian clothes and money and you’ll have to make it to a safe base area by yourself. Can you do this for us?”

Clarissa held a hand up to her mouth. She was still standing in the middle of the bed.

She loomed over them, like a giantess. She radiated sheer power in an eerie way.

“What will you do then?” She asked.

“We will disperse, to regroup when an opportunity presents itself.” Byanca said.

Perhaps Clarissa was asking genuinely, and perhaps she was testing their knowledge of anarchist operational art. Byanca could not be sure. She was confident that she knew enough, having destroyed several rebel cells in Borelia, to understand their tactics and organization. Even here in Lubon, they had sympathetic “base areas” in rural villages that either tolerated or outright supported them. From those areas they sewed independent “cells” like seeds cast into the wind. These were less solid formations and more fluid groupings of people aware of each other’s presence and role in an operational area. They came together when there was an opportunity, and were strangers the rest of their days.

Ikrea was the root of their strength. It was here that they had launched their deadliest attack, and it was here that they were most hunted. But knowing men like Cesare, Byanca knew that he would not abandon the site of his greatest victory. Ikrea teemed with enemies for the anarchists, but it was also confused and weak in the knees after his last blow. Palladi would mean starting all over from scratch. Cesare was still in Ikrea, because he could never abandon the irreplaceable things he built here: allies, and reputation.

And Clarissa seemed to know it as well. Her response was unsurprising to the group.

“Take me to Cuvenen Forest.” She said.

A secluded, forgotten place no soul should have been near.

There were many such places in old Ikrea, but now they had narrowed it to one.

Everyone nodded in recognition. Clarissa smiled at them.

Delicately, she lifted the hem of her skirts and sat against the side wall of the truck bed.

Byanca banged her fist on the rear of the bed, and the truck began to move.

Soon the trees were flying past them as they picked up speed.

Wind blowing through the gaps in the truck’s bed armor whipped everyone’s hair.

Sylvano had a look of disquiet on his face.

“Princess, how,” he paused for a moment, sighing slightly, “how have you been?”

“Captive.” Clarissa replied, with a small smile full of subtle viciousness.

Byanca felt a temptation to force Sylvano to shut up, but in a way that would have been incredibly cruel. This was the first time the person who was both Sylvano and Salvatrice Vittoria would meet their long-lost sibling. Byanca could not have imagined what was going on in their mind at the moment. Certainly it must have been heart-wrenching.

Despite the danger, her compassion won out. She allowed Sylvano this moment.

“I apologize, Cl– Princess. We could have attempted this much sooner.”

Clarissa’s devilish countenance softened somewhat.

“I do not need your apology.”

“I– We forgot you.”

“Rebels never forget their comrades. You were being pragmatic.”

“So you never lost hope?”

“No. I lost hope very quickly. But I adapted just quickly to losing hope. I wrote some letters that went nowhere, tried to escape a few times. I thrashed and fought and made a mess of myself, I cried copiously. Then I settled in. I’m nothing if not stout-hearted. It was fine. ”

Clarissa spoke as if merely telling a story. As if she had no connection to those events.

Sylvano looked hurt by those words.

“None of that needed to happen.” He said, his hands shaking, balled into fists.

“That’s her wretched Majesty for you.” Clarissa said, in the tone of a gossip, still smiling, still flighty in manner. “She will soon get what she deserves. I’m sure Cesare is ready.”

Sylvano lifted his eyes from the floor and locked them on Clarissa.

“I thought Cesare loved you. Shouldn’t he have done anything to free you?”

Byanca felt a growing sense of alarm, but she restrained herself. It was not as dire a situation as she feared. Clarissa did not seem offended or suspicious. She was curious, drawn in, perhaps endeared even. Her entire stance and countenance was softening, and she allowed herself more emotion toward Sylvano than she had previously shown.

“Revolution is his wife. I am only his mistress. For what he promised to do for me, that was enough. I love him, yes. But I love him in the context of this state of affairs.”

Sylvano shook his head. “I don’t understand at all.”

Clarissa giggled suddenly. “I’ve led many lives, peasant; of them, the life I shared with Cesare, briefly, was the one where I felt most alive. In the palace, I have always been dead. And in the nunnery, I was merely frozen, asleep. I was not suffering there, you see. I suffer only under the claws of my harpy of a mother. Elsewhere, in comparison, I am at peace.”

She leaned forward and with her fingers, pushed up Sylvano’s chin.

“Your friends have given me hope that I may yet live again. That I can be free of Lubon’s cursed crown and lead my own life. For that, I will always remember you and be grateful.”

Sylvano seemed to shiver at the touch, his eyes wide with bafflement and emotion.

“I may be only his mistress, only one of the women in his bed, but Cesare would kill a Queen for me, and that is more than he would do for any other woman.” Clarissa said.

Giuseppa and Torvald turned their eyes away. The Princess was becoming quite animate in this conversation and sounded almost like a member of a cult whenever she spoke.

Byanca wondered what Clarissa even knew about anarchist ideology to think this. In ignorance, Byanca might have accepted it too; but she knew better now what they stood for. To them, Clarissa was a visible part of the state that they hated, a prissy and privileged woman who had been pampered her whole life on the sweat of others. It might have been pretty convenient for Cesare to be able to taste royal flesh in the course of his goals, but as an organization with an ideology, anarchists would sooner flay Clarissa than free her.

Was Cesare that convincing? Was she that foolish? It was such a confusing situation.

Sylvano seemed reduced to mumbling, and any rate, Clarissa stopped paying him attention. For the rest of the ride through the countryside the truck was dead quiet. Byanca instructed the driver to stick to back roads and to keep an eye out for patrols. Whenever they entered a populated area a tarp was thrown over the back of the truck before passing through. But there were no Legion patrols, no convoy of police vehicles headed to the Convent. Byanca had the radios destroyed and phone lines cut back there.

So it gave them a pretty sizable head-start on their pursuers, if any materialized.

Ikrea was a province of mostly woodland and farmland arrayed around a few waypoints of civilization. Towns in open places served as hubs to receive the produce of the small villages in the thick woods and amid the vast fields. Ikrea’s handful of cities procured this produce from the towns in turn and delivered it to the industrial places of the north after eating their fill. Those farming the land received the least benefit of their efforts.

It was this state of affairs that led to Ikrea becoming a nest for insurgency.

Byanca could not challenge this root cause; she could only ameliorate the symptoms.

Watching the world travel past the back of the truck bed was an eerie sensation. It felt like being flung through a tunnel, like falling forwards down a stretch of trunks and green crowns and wispy white clouds of dirt. It was isolating, even with people at her side. This was a different world with different sensibilities from Palladi. It was more like Borelia.

It was like invading the villages in the Borelian outskirts all over again, trampling over grass not one’s own and waiting for the next grenade to fly out of a roadside bush.

But nothing happened. There was no antagonist; the way was open, a way to nowhere.

Between much of Palladi and Ikrea stretched a great silver lake, and it was in the southern, Ikrean portion of the lake that a stretch of woodland, seemingly no different from the rest of the great forest, was historically acknowledged to be the Cuvenen. Known by some as the First Forest, the Cuvenen was important to elven history, but only marginally important to the folklore known to most. Elves had been said to have entered the world from the Cuvenen; but that they left it behind said enough about its importance to them.

Byanca had been taught that Elves reveled in exploration and expansion. That the whole world was the forest they would chart, nurture and ultimately protect. They were destined to have an Empire, and in the Cuvenen, they would have never built one. Places like Cuvenen were meant to be forgotten, and under Vittoria’s shadow, they easily were.

The truck arrived at the Cuvenen just before sundown. Descending a shallow ditch, the Redcoats hid as best as they could from the lakeside road, and straddled the wood until they reached the maw of the woodland. Everyone vacated the truck bed to give Clarissa some privacy. When she emerged, she was dressed in a jacket, long pants, boots and a newsboy cap. Byanca was reminded of disguises she found a certain other princess wore.

“Do you know how to use this?”

Byanca approached Clarissa with a pistol in hand.

“I do not.” Clarissa replied.

Byanca put the gun in her hands and stood behind her, showing her how to use it.

“Trigger, safety, slide,” she said, showing her the parts, “pull this to get ready; bullets come out of here when you press here. Keep your finger off here until you’re ready to shoot. You’ll feel a bit of pushing force back on you each shot. Aim like this.”

While Giuseppa, Torvald and Sylvano stood guard, Byanca quickly trained Clarissa.

After a few minutes of instruction, Clarissa aimed into the wood and pulled the trigger.

When the gun went off, she let out a little screech, at first, but quickly calmed.

A little smile played about her face. “Oh, my. I think I liked that.” Clarissa said.

“It’s not a toy.” Byanca said. “Be very careful with it. Now, you should be going. We’ll wait fifteen minutes to see that nobody follows you closely and then we’ll turn around.”

“Understood. Thank you for taking me this far, comrade.”

Byanca’s eyes nearly twitched hearing that word out of this woman’s mouth.

“I hope for your sake you find someone in there, or you’ll starve otherwise.”

Clarissa silently nodded her head and tipped her newsboy cap with a grin on her face.

She turned her back on the group and ambled casually toward the wood with her hands in her pockets, one bulging with the firearm inside. She moved with the confidence of one practiced in clandestine activity — it was casual to her, another escapade, another little adventure. For all of her life she had been immune to consequences for her actions. Byanca had to wonder whether the dealings with Cesare were her only past sins.

Sylvano stared helplessly into the forest, watching the Princess disappear.

Once she was far enough away, and enough time had passed, Byanca climbed into the back of the truck. There she found Clarissa’s discarded clothing in a pile. There were no extraordinary effects — just her habit, dress, and shoes, along with a crucifix she left behind. Her dress didn’t even have pockets, so she couldn’t have taken anything. Everything Clarissa carried with her now, they had given. Less unknowns to worry about.

Satisfied with her inspection, Byanca seized Clarissa’s habit and thrust it into Terry’s snout. The dog sat stoically in a corner of the truck. When given the habit she snarled for a moment before begrudgingly sniffing the piece as she had been trained to do. After sniffing the habit, Byanca let Terry loose on the pile, taking in all of Clarissa’s scent from her full attire. Steeped in the Princess’ various odors, Terry would be able to track her.

“Follow her very quietly, Terry. Attack only to defend yourself.” Byanca said.

She pointed into the forest. Terry hopped off the back of the truck, and thrust its long snout into the soft, damp dirt of the forest path. Navigating by nose more than eyes, the dog started off into the ever-darkening wood with its tail up high and its legs tense, moving with a restrained, careful gait that seemed unnatural to its species.

“So that was your plan all along? Following this dog?” Sylvano said.

His voice was struggling. It was lapsing with emotion, back to its princessly state.

“Well, we don’t really have any other choice. We can’t go in with Clarissa, because we’re not really anarchists. And if we try to make Cesare come to us, his people will have made preparations and contingencies. So we have to let her return to them alone, in their base area, and then we need a way to follow her that won’t arouse suspicion. That’s Terry.”

Byanca had gone through various possibilities in her head. This was the best way. Any rebel cell that had survived this long would have measures against bugs or spies, but nobody ever really prepared to counter dogs because the Legion never employed any. Dog tracking was an ancient, low tech solution overlooked in a high tech world. It satisfied the condition of finding the anarchists. But to truly infiltrate them, to render them vulnerable, they needed someone that the anarchists trusted or needed. Clarissa was hopefully both, but she was at least the latter. She was valued; she knew how to contact them and knew their secret base. They would accept her even if only to dispose of her or to close the informational loop. Clarissa had gone to them of her own accord in the past, if the Queen’s intelligence services could be trusted. Clarissa could therefore lead the Redcoats to Cesare.

“How do we know Clarissa can find these people?” Sylvano groaned.

“Well, she picked to come to Cuvenen of all places. There’s no reason to do that unless she wanted to die alone in the woods, or she knew that she could find help in this place.”

“What if she can’t find anything? What if she’s just trying to run away?” Sylvano said.

“Then she picked a terrible spot to run away in. Listen, if you want this to work then you have to trust me. We have no leads except this one. We will make it work somehow.”

“Somehow?” Sylvano sighed. He crossed his arms. “Fine. Just make me one promise.”

“Okay?” Byanca asked, blinking her eyes in confusion.

Sylvano rubbed his hand over his mouth and chin, and he sighed again.

“Please try to keep her safe, whatever happens.”

In Sylvano’s eyes, Byanca could see the princess that she loved so inconveniently much.

“I will keep her safe.”

To see that princess-like smile, Byanca would say even the blackest, vilest lies.

It remained to be seen whether this would be one such lie, or an honor upheld.


Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XIII

This chapter contains mild sexual content.


43rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Town of Palladi

Though the town of Palladi had grown dramatically in the shadow of the nearby Academy, the crying of roosters still heralded the morning, just as it had done when farmland dominated the landscape. Moments before the sun began to rise over the old province, dozens of stout birds presiding over several family coops kept on the town’s outlying lands stood under the clearing sky and competed in voice to bring in the dawn. Regardless of the electric lights in the town square or even the old mechanical clock tower in the northern urbanization, the roosters would cry across town.

It was with the roosters that the old townies woke. No more than six kilometers from the ultramodern home where Salvatrice and Carmela partook of each other, a small cafe opened its doors, admitting the single customer that the shop owner had always come to expect. However, they soon found, together, that the man was not alone. He had been followed.

Byanca Geta approached from behind the older man and the cafe owner just as the door opened. She slipped in with them, ignoring the icy glare from the owner, a woman older than her but younger than him. Though she gave Byanca a long, wary and appraising glare, she would not dare close her establishment to a legionnaire who had yet to speak. Meanwhile the old man, a certain Giovanni, merely glanced at her without a word.

Inside, the cafe was small and homely. There were potted plants near every table and corner, and the tables were small and circular with high chairs. There were eight tables, and a few seats on the counter, behind which the owner stood and took to staring at Byanca some more. Byanca paid her no mind. She waited a moment for the old man to take his seat, and then promptly moved to the end of the front row of tables, set behind the long front window of the cafe, and sat right across from him.

“Giovanni Martino?” Byanca said.

“Doubtless you already know.” He replied.

From the center of the table he picked up a rolled-up newspaper, freed it from a paper ribbon around its center, and unfurled it. He started to read, and his view of Byanca was completely blocked. She was unfazed by this. She expected he would try to shut her out. Cooperation with the Legion had always been low among the civilians, and it was an all-time low now.

“I bear you no ill will, nor do I come to detain or question you on behalf of the Blackshirt Legion. I’m here as a private person.”  Byanca said.

“Your uniform says otherwise.” Giovanni casually said.

“I have nothing else decent to wear.”

“No. You could get clothes. I got clothes when I came back. But the uniform is convenient, isn’t it? It starts to feel like your good skin.”

He turned the page as if he had said nothing much at all.

Byanca blanked for a moment on how to reply.

There was nobody outside the window, nobody walking the streets. Aside from the owner there was nobody there but them. She felt that coaxing Giovanni into the subject would not work. Byanca still had to be careful, but she could partake in a mild indiscretion to bring him out of hiding.

“I’m here because of Salvatrice Vittoria.” Byanca said in a low, calm voice.

It was a name both of them knew; one with many portents attached.

Giovanni promptly laid the newspaper down on the table.

He adjusted his hat and turned on Byanca a sharp glare.

“I’m not keen to threaten neither women nor kids; but little girl, if you intend to march upon the young Vittoria, we are going to have problems.”

His own tone of voice matched hers, save for the threat.

While he spoke, his fingers snatched the fork and spoon on the table and began to toy with them, twirling them around. It was perhaps a nervous tic, though it could also be a display. She got the impression that were he to reach for a knife or gun he would be even more dexterous than with the utensils. Certainly if it came down to a draw she thought he could draw much faster than her. Giovanni’s every movement spoke of an intensity often unseen in his age. He was very deliberate in every turn of the hand.

And yet his face betrayed no emotion in its hewn and worn features.

Byanca raised a hand in her own defense. It contained her identification.

“I intend no such thing. I am her new bodyguard. Centurion Byanca Geta.”

Giovanni’s expression was unchanged. He still regarded her coldly.

“I see. I was informed about your presence, though were never introduced formally. In fact I put it out of my mind; I never thought that we would have cause to meet. Your business and mine ought to remain separate.”

“Salvatrice cannot afford that. Not with the danger she faces.”

“It is precisely because of the danger that you should be away from me, and alongside her instead. I work for that child from afar. She trusts me with her correspondence and I deliver it. No more.” Giovanni said.

Byanca smiled. “How did you chance upon such a golden opportunity?”

Giovanni shook his head, seeming more disappointed than offended.

“You mistake me and the Princess both if you think this role is lucrative.”

Byanca did not need much convincing of that. After all, she had served the Princess for some time now and all she had come away with was injury. It did not pay to serve Salvatrice Vittoria. It could only be done out of love.

“I need to know how you met and why you serve her.” Byanca said.

“Nothing in your reports about that?” Giovanni asked.

“No.” Byanca replied. She felt for a moment like she had come under attack from him. It was the same disdain Salvatrice had shown her before. Both were justified in their anger. She had too much information at her disposal and too much reason to employ it — none of it was right.

But like her attitude in this conversation, she found it necessary.

“Salvatrice has told me about you, much like she has told you about me.” She said. “But I still have no reason to trust you. I would like to dispel my doubts. Please enlighten me as to how you came to serve Salvatrice.”

“All I will say is I traveled with her for a time and grew attached”

Giovanni pulled open his coat and withdrew a cigarette and lighter.

“Care for one?” He asked.

It was the almost instinctual courtesy of an old gentleman, nothing more.

Byanca was well aware that he still kept her at arm’s length.

This was perhaps even a ploy to quiet her for a time.

“I don’t smoke.” Byanca said.

Shrugging, Giovanni lit his own cigarette and took a drag.

Behind the counter the owner watched the two of them talk. She did not come to take their orders or otherwise make any overtures. It was clear they had this time to themselves. Byanca was simultaneously glad for a touch of privacy, but also annoyed at how little the legionnaire badge and shirt was worth. It was that annoyance in part that brought her here.

After blowing a cloud of smoke, Giovanni turned to Byanca once more.

“I will not answer any more questions, Ms. Geta, until you state your intentions clearly. Have some respect for an old man’s fading time.”

“I was planning to come clean now anyway.”

Byanca leaned forward.

“I am looking for recruits.”

Giovanni raised an eyebrow. “For the blackshirt legion?”

“No!” Byanca said, shaking her head. “To serve the princess as we do.”

For a moment the old man’s eyes seemed to soften on her.

“I’m listening.” He said.

“The Princess is in grave danger every single day.” Byanca said. “Both the Legion and the anarchists have become her antagonists. There is no side that she can join. Salvatrice has to become her player in this game. I want to create a group that answers only to her and that does only her bidding.”

“You mean you wish to raise mercenaries to protect the Princess?”

Giovanni seemed at once intrigued and outraged by the proposal.

“Plenty of nobles have bought extra bodyguards. It is only fair Salvatrice do so as well. I’m not ambitious; even one man would suffice right now.”

She put an obvious inflection on her last few words.

“So that is why you’ve come to me then? I’m your man?” He said.

She had his attention now. She could tell; he was emoting more now.

Byanca turned a smile on him and tried to engage him with more charm. “You served in Borelia, didn’t you, Giovanni? You were a soldier. You left the colonial forces due to your principles. And the Princess trusts you.”

Giovanni crossed his arms. He looked her over with a wary gaze.

“I’m sure the Princess would love to have you as part of her defense.” Byanca continued. “We will no longer rely on the Legion. After this affair I’m turning in my black shirt for a red coat. Would you help me, Giovanni?”

There was no longer anything to hide. Byanca spoke earnestly and honestly. She could only throw herself on his mercy and hope that he saw beyond the shirt at the desperate fallen knight who longed for her princess. Or at the very least, hope that he saw a dragon who loved her.

In return, Giovanni snorted. He looked out to the street, away from her.

“A reference to the uniform of the old imperial guard does not sway me. I do not romanticize it. That being said, I know a few soldiers younger than me who could use the work. I will send them to you. You’d best have the coin for them, however. Mercenaries do not hold your pretty ideals.”

Perhaps he had seen neither knight nor dragon, but a desperate girl.

Despite this, he had given her some hope.

Byanca smiled. “We have more dinari than we know what to do with.”

At the moment it was not necessarily true, but it soon would be.

“Hmm. Redcoats, huh? What will the Queen think of this, I wonder.”

Giovanni grew pensive. Byanca gave a fiery retort. “To hell with her.”

To her surprise, it was well-received. For the first time, Giovanni grinned.


43rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Town of Palladi — Sabbadin Homestead

Atop the brick wall surrounding the rear portion of the Sabbadin estate, a questing rooster paused momentarily to peer at the dawning sun and give its characteristic cry. Through the upper hallway, and into the heiress’ bedroom the cry wound its way, until it reached a pair of blunt elven ears.

Salvatrice Vittoria slowly awoke, sitting up against the bedrest.

There were all kinds of scents and sights in the room around her.

She found herself giddily immersed in the sensations.

At her side she found Carmela asleep, snoring softly, pushed against her. Her chest rose and fell splendidly, and she glistened with a layer of sweat. Salvatrice felt a delectable shiver in her skin as her hip touched Carmela’s back. Her lover groaned slightly in protest, smiled and shifted her weight.

As she did so, Carmela pulled the blank off both of them.

Finding her breasts suddenly bared, Salvatrice pulled the blanket back.

She could not pull it over her chest and soon gave up the tug of war.

Carmela remained asleep, arms spread, her naked body fully in view.

Her lipstick was smeared, her pigments running, her hair frayed. Her voluminous dress was in parts all over the bed, her skirt and leggings hanging over a column, bodice thrown at their feet, her lingerie dangling off her ankle. Her warm olive skin was still red in the places that had been sucked or smacked or squeezed or otherwise performed upon in love.

Salvatrice glanced askance at one of the mirrors in the room and smiled.

She also looked as if she had a wild night. Her hair was tossed around, her nice dress was wrinkled and discarded like a rag, and she was still feeling stiff between the legs. All of her once brownish skin was an off-red color from the heat in her blood. Most notably her makeup was a fine mess.

From the first seizing of lips she shared with Carmela she had become smeared in lipstick. As her lover aggressively explored more of her body the red marks spread like a haphazard tattoo. She had bright red marks on her small breasts, on her buttocks and thighs, and in places between. Her own lipstick had smeared as well when her turn came to kiss and tongue where she desired, but the color was subtler than Carmela’s bright red.

In the mirror, Salvatrice resembled a horny clown. She started to giggle.

“What’s so funny?” Carmela said, her voice a luscious little purr.

Her eyes half-opened. She had a naughty look on her face.

“We’re completely disheveled.” Salvatrice said.

“We don’t have to clean up for anyone, do we?”

Carmela sat up in bed and tossed her wavy golden hair with a coquettish grin. She did not care to cover herself with the blanket, and her breasts seemed to rumble right before Salvatrice’s eyes. She exuded a confidence in her own body that sent another jolt right between Salvatrice’s legs.

“Well, not right now. But I must soon be going.” Salvatrice said.

“Will you at least stay for breakfast?” Carmela asked.

“Yes, I promised that much.” Salvatrice said.

Carmela’s impish grin returned. “It is a two-course meal.”

After that cryptic whisper she pounced on Salvatrice.

Salvatrice barely had time to moan in pleasure.

Perhaps an hour later, disheveled ever more, the two finally left the bed.

Laughing, Carmela pushed Salvatrice out of the room and down the halls, barely wrapped in sheets pilfered from the bed. Thankfully there were no servants there to witness the two naked, giggling young women cavorting sensually down the hall and into the bathroom. There was a grand and dire bath tub in the center, like an obsidian coffin. Soon it filled from the hot water faucet, and Carmela and Salvatrice lay down side by side within.

All of their pigments and oils washed into the water and danced on the surface, coloring and obscuring the shapes of their bodies below.

Carmela leaned her head on Salvatrice’s shoulder.

“How are you finding the accommodations so far?” She asked.

“Quite stimulating.” Salvatrice replied.

Carmela looked up at Salvatrice, craned her head and kissed her.

“Salva, I love you.” She said.

“I love you.” Salvatrice said.

Turning her head again, the heiress gazed into their obscure reflections on the water. She smiled, swirling her finger over her own face in the surface.

“I am incredibly happy that we could meet and touch and delight one another. But I want you to know if I could only love you through letters and at a distance for the rest of my life, I would be happy.” Carmela said.

“I’m glad to hear that.” Salvatrice replied. She was a little taken aback.

She had never thought of it in that way before. Certainly she had imagined she would lose Carmella, on that fateful day when the responsibilities of the kingdom finally snatched her free life from her. But she never thought their romance could potentially continue even if from afar. To Salvatrice, the exchange of letters had simply staunched a wound until she could have a fleeting glimpse of her beloved, as a stitch to stop the bleeding.

“I love everything about you, Salva. What I first fell in love with was that sharp tongue you turned on unsavory guests at the few parties where we could arrange to meet; what I next fell in love with was that sharp intellect and the kindness and vulnerability behind it. When I learned about your body I loved that as well. But I will always love you; it might be a different love than what the commonfolk share, but it will be love, at any distance.”

Salvatrice herself felt compelled to lay her own head on Carmella then.

“I’m so happy to hear it.” She said. She felt the warmth of those words in her chest and across her cheeks. She knew it was not the bath that did it.

Carmela bowed her head, smiling with eyes averted like a shy schoolgirl.

“Whenever I craft a letter to you, and receive one back, I feel so relieved. Because I know my feelings reached you and perhaps brought you a smile. I send you my strength and my love in each stroke of that pen, Salvatrice. It’s the one place in the world just for us. We can do anything there.”

Guilty thoughts started to bubble under the warm and happy surface of her mind. She never realized how powerful were the feelings contained in those letters. For stretches of time she neglected them, thinking that Carmela would worry but ultimately understand. Now that she thought of it, those letters were a hand stretched from across a lonely darkness. Carmela had nothing to truly love in between each letter. She had said it before: Salvatrice was the first and only person she had ever really loved.

To Salvatrice they had been letters, a bridge to communicate and keep in touch with Carmela and plot until they could truly love again; but to Carmela each of those letters was an act of love and devotion the same as holding in hands in public or kissing or maybe even sharing a bed.

No matter the distance; even if they never saw each other’s faces.

Carmela could still love her.

In a way, it heartened Salvatrice. She could love her back too, then.

No matter the distance. So long as there was pen, paper and ink.

“I will write more. I can also call on the telephone.” Salvatrice said.

Carmela’s eyes drew wide. “Are you sure? It won’t be dangerous?”

“I’ll insure that it isn’t. Even if we can’t trade kisses in ink, you will hear my voice. We will never be apart. I promise you.” Salvatrice said.

No matter the distance; it was still love. It could still be shared.

Once their skin started to wrinkle with water, the pair rose from the bath, and scarcely dried, returned to the bedroom and donned their disguises. Carmela was once more the lovely, curvy young maid; Salvatrice was the slender, angular young courier or paper boy in a cap, shirt and pants.

There was one part of their promised meal they had not yet eaten.

This one they would not have as a breakfast in bed.

Down in the kitchen, the two of them set together to the task. Carmela withdrew various items from cabinets and drawers and boxes. She cut cheeses and tomatoes, while Salvatrice assembled plates of pre-cut hard breads, and skinned tangerines with her fingers. They set a pot of tea on the stove and waited for it to whistle. Many a time they bumped into each other in the kitchen with a giggle as they set about their work.

From the back garden they plucked plump grapes and gathered flowers, and soon they sat together on a brown wooden table under the mid-morning sun and picked at their spread while basking in the glow of this delightful domesticity. To the outside world they would be commoners: it was not unheard of for a salacious maid to invite a local boy for a tryst while the mistress was nowhere to be seen. Salvatrice enjoyed the fantasy.

They were not commonfolk; love for them was more difficult than the archetypes of bawdy romances. Last night was a dream world that had taken time and planning to construct. They would be unlikely to see each other again, let alone have sex, for quite some time. Love was a struggle.

But not impossible. Over the wires, over the surface of stationary.

Just as she dropped a grape into Carmela’s mouth over the table.

Just as they traded sweet little kisses between bites of glazed ham.

They would have that love no matter where they went.

With this in mind, Salvatrice was heartened for what she had to do.

“Carmela, I will confide in you what I am planning.” She said at last.

Those words would set everything into motion. She was ready now.

To her own raging battlefield she could now depart without regrets.


Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter