Brigands [3.1]

“Ferris, the iron wall of the Union. Oh how you sacrifice for us, to this very day.”

Looking out of a false window in her shuttle, an LCD with a feed of their surroundings, Premier Bhavani Jayasankar mused on the region farthest from her direct influence. A rocky, mountainous, grey place, hundreds of meters beneath the Ocean and any sign of surface light. While the political center of the Union lay in Solstice, its military heart was the border of Ferris.

This austere place was where their truest warriors were born and lived.

Soldiers from all around the Union mustered at Ferris to defend the border.

Amid this mobilization, the Premier herself was also summoned.

Beyond just speeches and reassurances, she wanted to see Ferris for herself. She would give nobody the excuse of saying she hid in Solstice while the border turned hot. Three days had passed since the battle, and she had made the journey as soon as she could. Her trip was public knowledge and there were a lot of appearances she planned to make with military and civilians.

There were also a few private matters she needed to take care of.

“Nagavanshi always gets out ahead of me somehow.” She said to herself.

Her reflection in the glass began to wane.

In the distance, the center of human life in Ferris took her place in the murky picture.

Thassal Station stood like a deformed pillar rising high above rolling hills of pockmarked stone and stripped out ore quarries. Reinforced titanium modules and the occasional glass hexagon made up the habitats, berths and weapons stations that stuck out all around the central rock formation, at once grafted upon the surface but also upholding it. In the center of the mound, a Core Pylon served as a foundation, shouldering the lives built up over the rock, tethering everything, and hiding the Agarthicite reactors. It was their purple glow that made this life possible.

“And there’s my first destination.”

Sitting on the rock next to Thassal Station was a massive structure. Like a bubble of glass and metal, resting atop a massive base laden with berths, to which dozens of ships were docked. Premier Jayasankar recalled the glowing report she gave at the start of the year about the expansion of agriculture in Lyser, and how this structure represented it. Now it was going to be used for war.

It was in this Agri-Sphere that she would decide the Union’s next military actions.

Dragged in from Lyser, this sphere now served as “Hammer-1,” temporary base of the expanded Ferris fleet. Thousands of personnel had arrived at Hammer-1 to organize logistics and supply, to run maintenance and to build stockpiles. As it was originally intended for agriculture, both hydroponic and with treated soil mediums, Hammer-1 was divided into flat, broad stories with rows of adjustable space and a lot of lamps. All of it was now taken up by cranes, Divers, shipping containers and makeshift warehousing. People were hard at work to make it war worthy.

Amid this build-up, Premier Jayasankar’s shuttle arrived at Hammer-1.

Alone, without bodyguards or attendants, she headed into the depths of the structure.

As far as anyone knew, she was much too early for her first public appearance.

She was right on time for Nagavanshi’s secretive little meeting.

A meeting that could decide the fate of the Union, she had said.

Arriving in a dark room, she became part of a troika of powerful interests in the Union. Gathered around a large table equipped with a touchscreen surface, they were there to discuss the direction of the Union in the face of imminent war with the Empire. At Nagavanshi’s behalf, they would examine all of the intelligence they had on the Empire’s direction and formulate a plan.

Vain as it was, Bhavani believed herself foremost among the attendants. She was a vision of self-control and professionalism, casually confident in expression, her face only lightly weathered with experience despite her years. Tall and athletic, with her hair in a bun and wearing a black synthetic suit with dark tinted glasses, she resembled her own bodyguard more than she did a desk worker. She was the people’s Premier. She walked among them easily and casually.

Her reflection on the table was magnificent, and she felt in command of everything.

“Commissar-General, and Grand Admiral” Jayasankar bowed her head lightly toward her two counterparts. “We last met to discuss what a good year it had been for shipbuilding. I can’t help but wonder if we are all being punished for the barest hint of complacency at the moment. Our shipbuilding is far too slow for our predicament, and now our agricultural plans are also on hold. Nevertheless, I want it to be clear that I believe in us. Let’s not be too doom and gloom.”

Grand Admiral Sorokin Klasnikov was the only man in attendance. He was a tall, bronzed gentleman with a full beard, pristinely in uniform. His beard was quite long and flowed with a greater breadth even than the hair on his head. He kept his hands behind his back and stood firmly.

“Premier, it is good to see you in cheerful spirits, despite everything,” began the Admiral, soft spoken, “I don’t believe Eloah is so merciless as to fault us for merely being optimistic.”

Commissar-General Nagavanshi meanwhile looked the youngest in the room. She had suggested they hold this meeting but hid her feelings about it behind a careful, neutral expression.

“Well, Admiral, I don’t believe in any Gods, as this Union is beyond such mysticism.”

Nagavanshi had a talent for sounding both polite and openly contemptuous.

Her face lacked even the subtle crow’s feet evident around Jayasankar’s eyes and lips, and she was very obviously of a nearer vintage than the pockmarked old Klasnikov. Her hair flowed freely from under her peaked cap, adorned with a golden serpent, and her rich brown skin had an even sheen as if it had been laid over body uniformly, unmarred by light or touch.

Her golden eyes seemed bottomless, like they might devour what they viewed.

“Everything that is happening is a result of material forces that are well understood.”

She spoke quite casually, and Klasnikov looked ready to snap at her.

“Now, now,”

Premier Jayasankar interrupted before anyone could continue that particular topic.

“Religion is something best not discussed among friends.”

She swiped her fingers over the computer screen set into the middle of the table.

A map of the Nectaris and Imbrium Oceans appeared on the screen. The Premier touched closer to the north Imbrium sea, where the Occultis continental line separated the North Imbrium, ruled mostly by the Empire, with the northwestern end of the Cognitum Ocean: waters that the mighty Republic shared with a few other states. The Great Ayre Reach, an expanse of calm water, with simple geography at shockingly low depth, separated the Empire and the Republic.

Ayre could have been a powerful economic asset for the Republic, but instead it had been the stage of the Republic’s righteous aggression against the Empire for what seemed like hundreds of years. Every few decades there was a terrifying campaign over the Great Ayre Reach that ended in crushing Republic defeats, allowing the Empire to occupy the Reach and block the Republic’s access to the Imbrium Ocean, until the next time the mighty foes exchanged it. A communist scholar, Mordecai, once believed that the Empire and the Republic did battle over the Reach in order to destroy surplus production of goods and stymie political and social progress.

That was neither here nor there, but it was on Jayasankar’s mind as she surveyed the map.

“Anyone have the early score from the latest Empire vs. Republic game?” She asked.

Nagavanshi glanced over to Klasnikov, with a bored look on her face.

Klasnikov gave her a critical look back. He cleared his throat loudly.

“Our intelligence indicates that the Republic brought 800 ships divided into five fleets to the Ayre Reach. The Empire brought the Grand Western Fleet. The latest estimated strength for that formation was 1000 ships divided in seven fleets. It is our understanding the Empire won.”

“Of course they did.” Nagavanshi said.

“We should not act as if this was all foretold.” Klasnikov said. “It was not merely numbers that sealed the fate of the Ayre Reach. From information we gathered over the past few days, the Republic made major strategic missteps. They feared being too outnumbered, so they adopted a wide formation to try to cover Imperial flanking attacks. This allowed the Imperials to use their numbers in a different way. Instead of matching the breadth of the Republic deployment, they concentrated their attack and crushed the Republic center, isolating the wings of the formation.”

Nagavanshi scoffed. “At that point, the Republic should have swung a trap around them.”

“We can say what we want from the comfort of this chamber.” Klasnikov said. He seemed almost to pity the Republic forces. “Perhaps if they had fought on, they could have used the wings of the formation to inflict bitter damage on the Imperials. But that would have been asking troops to sacrifice their lives when they had come prepared to fight on even terms. You can’t pretend you were laying bait for the enemy just because it becomes convenient; preparing bait means that the bait was prepared for its role. For the Republic forces, they saw hundreds of their ships and thousands of their comrades killed in front of them. I can’t fault them for escaping at that point.”

“I can.” Nagavanshi said. “Because the ones picking up the pieces could soon be us. Some allies the Republic have turned out to be! Don’t give that look Klasnikov — I read the same acoustic messages you did. I don’t need explanations.” She raised an accusatory finger at the Admiral. “The Republic had a center of 200 ships and wings of 300 ships a piece. They snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by fleeing instead of pressing into Fueller’s flank and crushing him.”

“As far as the Republic’s politics are concerned, they don’t win from just killing the Prince if they have to sacrifice 800 ships to do so.” Klasnikov said. “They aren’t like you, Nagavanshi. You can isolate and kill an individual with your spies and thugs, but you can’t do it with a fleet.”

Nagavanshi narrowed her eyes at Klasnikov.

Jayasankar then raised her hand like a student in a classroom, smiling.

“Everyone is getting so spirited but let us move beyond the hypotheticals. The Republic has suffered another defeat and the Empire will again occupy the breadth of the Ayre Reach. They would still need to cross the North Occultis canal to advance, so the Republic will be fine. In fact they probably won’t even try to move farther than Ayre Reach. My concern is that if this battle did not hurt the Empire too, too much, we will be the next target. Am I correct in my assumption?”

“You very well could be.” Klasnikov said.

“No, you are absolutely wrong.”

Nagavanshi procured a series of documents and slid them across the table.

This was a symbolic gesture more than anything, because the table itself scanned the documents as they crossed and was able to project all of their data on tabbed windows close to the other meeting participants. By the time the papers’ momentum stopped just short of Jayasankar she was already reading what had been scanned. She brought her hand up to her hair to fidget.

Should the information in those papers prove correct then yes, Jayasankar’s assumption might be very wrong. It was not in her character to get giddy over every piece of idle speculation that came her way, however. So after reading the information, she turned her gaze on the head of the Ashura security and intelligence forces, Nagavanashi, who clearly knew more than she let on.

It had been her all along who suggested this meeting, after all.

Klasnikov, meanwhile, was reaching for the papers themselves as if he could not trust the scanner to have gotten the information correct. He flipped through all the papers, brow furrowing.

“Parvati, your most prominent source is this girl from the wreck of the Strasser. I assume you corroborated this news with other survivors from the Imperial fleet, and you’ve got your own tricks for finding information far afield. I want to know what other sources you have that you aren’t writing about on the record, and what information you’ve learned beyond this one event.”

Despite Jayasankar’s tact in describing it, this event was no small matter.

Nagavanshi did not convene meetings unless her information was explosive.

According to the documents, rescue teams found a survivor from the Imperial Fleet, who had connections among the nobility and military. In exchange for her life, not knowing that the Union intended to imprison rather than execute her, she attested to the Emperor having fallen with a terminal illness and being pronounced all but officially dead. The Grand Duchies, the major states that made up the Empire’s territory, were eager to back their own claimants to the throne. All of this, while Prince Erich von Fueller, the heir apparent, was off in the Great Ayre Reach fighting the Republic. According to the source, the reason for the Southern Border Fleet’s attack on the Union was the ambition of Admiral Gottwald to form his own faction in the coming strife.

For as little as the Premier made it seem in her casual speech, this was earthshaking news. Upon the eve of his coup, Konstantin von Fueller had dared the aristocracy to move against him. For fifty years they slumbered under his control. Now he was dead: and now, they would awaken.

“Mere imperial troops would not have had access to that kind of information. That would have only been known to Admirals and their associates, as they freely cavort with the aristocracy in a way that none below their rank are truly able to. So there was no need to interrogate the lower ranking survivors. Simply put, I trust the girl’s information. I believe we should act on it. By the time more overt signs of its veracity manifest themselves we may be too late to take advantage.”

Nagavanshi was prepared for the questioning. After all, she did not get to her own position without being meticulously confident in her words. As necessary as intelligence agents and internal security were for the Union, the power invested in them meant that not just anybody could be given the position. Her predecessors had each been politically purged after a year in office.

Jayasankar grinned. “Good answer. But I know that there is more being left unsaid.”

Nagavanshi said nothing. Her expression was purely neutral. She was hiding something.

“You used the ELF, didn’t you? I know you contacted someone with it.”

No response from the Commissar-General. In her place the Admiral was confounded.

“ELF is only for emergencies.” Klasnikov said. “And it can only contact ships.”

“Absolutely.” Jayasankar turned her gaze from the Admiral and back to the Commissar-General, putting her hands on her hips, still smiling. “Nagavanshi communicated with a ship.”

Klasnikov blinked. “Which one of our ships is going into Imperial waters?”

“Before we tightened our shipbuilding program, we supplied militarized civilian ships to Campos Mountain that were equipped with our ELF.” Nagavanashi finally said. Klasnikov stared at her in confusion. “I acquired such a ship and transferred it to an important asset. Satisfied?”

Jayasankar crossed her arms, grinning. She’d gotten her; of course she did.

The Premier had already won this exchange before they even entered the room.

“You thought I wouldn’t find out?” She asked.

“I had ultimate oversight over Extremely Low Frequency comms.” Nagavanshi said.

“You’re not the only one with agents everywhere, Parvati.”

Fiddling around with her pocket, Jayasankar produced a vaporizer and nonchalantly took a sweet drag from it that smelled of strawberries. She had hoped to see Nagavanshi wither in the silence, but unfortunately, the Commissar-General was simply too strong, too well-kept together.

“Your predecessors were purged for this sort of behavior, you know?”

She pointed the vaporizer at the Commissar-General.

Nagavanshi did not stir. Though she was caught out, she was never cornered.

“I was acting for the greater good of this nation. I came prepared today to divulge a lot of information and make the case for my methods. Foreign intelligence is an absolute necessity for modern warfare. Without the assets I have put into place, we will become increasingly blind to events in the Empire. I shall accept whatever decision our esteemed Premier makes, of course.”

Her voice was sweet as honey. She had really turned up the charm for that declaration.

Despite how much of a fucking bitch she was, Jayasankar admired Nagavanshi’s drive.

Being stricken from the communist party was not something that would bother her.

She was a purely material person who did not care one bit about appearances.

It was certain that if she were shut out of official power she would find power elsewhere.

At least she’s my little tyrant, Jayasankar told herself.

Those other Commissar-Generals served under other Premiers anyway.

“You can contact your agent via ELF. How did you get information back?”

Jayasankar stabbed her little vaporizer into the air for dramatic effect as her interrogation continued. Nagavanshi continued to betray no emotion over being put on the spot in this way.

“That’s true,” Klasnikov realized. “You can’t open laser or acoustic contact with the Empire.”

“And she’s had nowhere near enough time for an agent to physically travel back here.”

Come on, Parvati, fess up, the Premier was certain that Nagavanshi had more to unveil.

Nagavanshi withdrew something from her pocket and connected it to a serial port in the table computer. After the table had read the contents of the diskette and found it to contain nothing dangerous, it gave the attendants access to the contents. The Commissar-General drew everyone’s attention to one specific item, which was displayed on the table as a floating holographic diagram of what looked like a coilgun shell, albeit a very strange one. No warhead; only a transmitter.

Once the diagram was available, Nagavanshi explained its significance.

“I’ve been putting serious research consideration into our operational capacity behind enemy lines. We’re too sentimental about ‘revolutionary warfare’, but guerilla war is a viable path for us if we consider communications and logistics. This transmitter shell allows us to fire a radio out to the surface, where we can use waves through the air transmit information. We’ve installed a buoy in the calm water over Lyser. While the surface corruption over most of the Imbrium will damage the transmitter, it will be active long enough to send a message to our buoy.”

She swiped from the diagram of the transmitter to a diagram of the buoy.

“Information from the buoy is transmitted back to us in the aphotic zone via cable. Due to animal activity, and the surface’s corruption, even in the calm waters at Lyser it is likely that the buoy will be severed or destroyed, but we can replace it if needed. At any rate: I contacted my agent via ELF to tell her to deploy a radio-flare with the most up to date information she had.”

“Did you come prepared to divulge this information?” the Premier asked her.

“It was going to be part of my overall proposal.”

Klasnikov had been staring at her with eyes wide open.

“So, to summarize. You gave a ship, and experimental technology, to somebody out in the Empire and they have confirmed to you, via these circumspect methods, that the Emperor is dead?”

“They’ve confirmed a lot more than that, but yes.” Nagavanshi said.

“Premier, this is rather outrageous, wouldn’t you say?” Klasnikov said.

Jayasankar ignored that remark. “How trustworthy is your source?”

“She is a hero to this country. She is prepared to give her life for me, and I for her.”

Both Jayasankar and Klasnikov were stunned.

That was highly uncharacteristic of how the Commissar-General ever spoke.

And as far as Jayasankar knew, it was the sort of thing Nagavanshi didn’t believe in.

There was no denying the expression on her face, however. Gone was the peerless calm.

It looked almost as if Nagavanshi herself could not believe what she had said.

She had the face of someone who knew they had committed a youthful indiscretion.

And done so amid her venerated, powerful elders.

Jayasankar sighed heavily. For her, the expert political operator who had come prepared and plotted everything meticulously, this was the first truly unpredictable event of the day. She almost wanted to ask if Nagavanshi and her agent had ever fucked. It was an open question now in her mind. And what kind of powers did it take to chisel through the rock to Nagavanshi’s heart?

Nagavanshi knew precisely that the only way forward was for her to bare some of her soul.

And for that, Jayasankar could only think she was an even more manipulative piece of shit than she had previously imagined. To have honesty and vulnerability become your trump cards–

“You’re horrible, Nagavanshi, but I am impressed. I think at this point, you should just tell us what you convened us for and lay out your plans. This gathering has become too messy.”

Nagavanshi let out a breath with visible relief.

Klasnikov shook his head solemnly. “Let us move forward with honesty.”

He sounded as if he himself could not hope for such a rosey outcome.

“I will be blunt then. I propose we launch an operation to infiltrate the Empire. Then we will make contact with dissident forces in the eastern end of the Nectaris and Imbrium Oceans.”

At Nagavanshi’s behest, the diagrams of the buoys and radio-flares disappeared.

In their place there was a diagram of a ship.

Then, in the next moment, that diagram became a camera feed of the actual ship.

It was, at that very second, docked in a VIP berth in Thassal.

“You probably find this ship’s exterior unimpressive. We used old hauler hulls to make it seem civilian. However, inside, it is a radical new design. This ship is intended to carry and support Divers in battle. It can hold up to 18 Divers. Its name is the Brigand, and I have classified it as an Assault Carrier. It will carry out a long-term mission to contact and organize Imperial dissidents.”

The Brigand was a two-tiered ship, its silhouette wide and broad, almost diamond shaped due to the angle at which the two planes of the top deck and along the keel met in the centerline, with a thick, flat prow. It was not impressive: it did look like an old hauler, down to the rusty color. Its shape was poorly hydrodynamic, and it looked heavy. The conning tower was thick and square with an additional triangular surface atop. There appeared to be no weapons along its surface.

“The Ashura put this together?” Jayasankar asked. It was not beyond the realm of possibility. They were a military force. It was still impressive that they kept it so close to the chest.

“We had help from the shipbuilder’s union at Central Yard.” Nagavanshi said.

That would explain it. The Yard was the strongest labor union in Solstice.

“And your intention,” Klasnikov interrupted, “is for this ship to sail into the Empire and make contact with dissident groups? What will it do when it reaches them? If by Eloah’s mercy it manages to reach any group, without being destroyed or captured by the Empire along the way?”

Nagavanshi scoffed. “Soon the Empire will be plunged into civil war. Its defenses will be porous. The Brigand is a state-of-the-art vessel, like I told you, don’t judge it by its appearances. It is fast, survivable, and has systems in place for stealth or escape. Not only that, in addition to its Diver capacity it also has a cargo hull that we will fill with more weapons and goods for our foreign comrades. It is my intention that we will supply weaponry to insurgent groups. However, our true objective is to advance one major resistance movement and prime the Empire for a revolution.”

Jayasankar crossed her arms. Nagavanshi’s true motives were unexpected.

It was true that the Union was in a difficult situation. Militarily, their combat power was maybe 1/5th of the total Imperial power. Divided across its Grand Duchies, the Empire had thousands of ships, while the Union’s total Navy was just over 1000. The Republic slammed 800 ships into the Empire, barely made a dent and lost. Conventional warfare would eventually see the Union being overwhelmed and destroyed. However, if indeed the Grand Duchies turned against the central government at Rhinea, and there was a power struggle between Prince Fueller and several other factions, that gave the Union a board with entirely different rules to play with.

Jayasankar ran the options as she saw them in her own head.

One potential reaction would be to launch a Union invasion of the Southern Empire. Such an open attack, however, could potentially unite multiple Duchies into a mutual defense pact which would lead to the Union being overwhelmed or outflanked, and which would distract the Imperial nobles from Erich Fueller, who might gain the upper hand while this Noble Alliance is distracted.

They could attempt to contact and ally with Erich Fueller, to parlay support for time or legitimacy. However, Erich was in the best position of anyone, with the strongest and most loyal military forces and civilian subjects. He was pragmatic, inheriting none of his father’s eccentricity. He was born under the uncertainty of his father’s coup. He was always ready to fight for the throne.

Allying with any one Grand Duchy was impossible ideologically. All of the Imperial boyars shared a great hatred of the Union, and the Union was held together in part by its fear and hatred of the Empire. For the Union to “upset the game,” it would need to build and deploy power entirely differently than the Empire. It could not count on traditional measures against them.

By tapping into its own history of armed, worker-led revolution; that was Nagavanshi’s idea for the Union response. While Jayasankar could definitely complain about the instruments carrying out the Commissar’s will, it was an ambitious plot. There was a lot of discontent among the lower and middle classes of the Empire, and due to its size the Empire had difficulty policing thoroughly its various territories. That the Union existed at all was a testament to the power of imperial dissident movements. The Union’s states were initially settled as penal colonies.

“Ultimately, your idea is to gather a dissident army in one place and spark a rebellion. So what movements can you contact, and in which territories?” Jayasankar asked Nagavanshi.

“We have a list.” Nagavanshi said. “And as circumstances permit we want the Brigand to meet all of them. However, our major ally in the region will be the National Front of Buren.”

“Not Bosporus?” Jayasankar asked.

Bosporus was supposed to be special, Jayasankar thought.

Historians could easily say the Union was born in Bosporus.

Even after the revolution, the two states shared a connection that was greater than merely one of historical population movements. Goods, people, currency and secrets flowed out of the far north, crossing the poles and arriving in the southern oceans of the Union. In return, Union influence spread into the Empire through the underbelly of Bosporus. Dissidents from the Empire always sought asylum within the mordecist experiment of the Union. Bosporus would be the Premier’s choice, if she had to make a decision as to where to grow Imperial dissidence.

Nagavanshi shook her head. “It is true that Bosporus is the most ideologically developed of the Imperial states in its intellectual dissidence, and the secessionists there have a leftist character that I did take into account. But Bosporus is a hotbed for communalist ideology. It would create another place like Campos Mountain, and be an ineffective partner for us. The Bureni nationalists have vanguardist organization, militancy, a leader, and mordecist leanings.”

“I don’t like this.” Klasnikov said. “This is a suicide mission, Bhavani.”

“With our current naval power, can we win militarily against the Empire?”

Jayasankar asked Klasnikov this. The Admiral was reticent to answer.

“Not now, but we can build toward the future if we don’t send this prototype ship out to die in Imperial waters. I believe we should keep it here and augment our frontline power with it.”

Jayasankar smiled. She was sympathetic to that.

But more and more she realized it was not their reality.

“Hope springs eternal.” She said cryptically. Klasnikov furrowed his brows.

“The Brigand is useless in a defensive war! Its characteristics are purposely designed for guerilla warfare. It has less direct combat weapons than any cruiser its size and it was designed purely for endurance. I refuse to assign it to meaningless fleet tasks.” Nagavanshi replied.

“Right now, Sorokin, if we keep waiting, I feel the situation will only worsen for us.”

Jayasankar stared the Admiral in the eye, calling him by his name.

“Bhavani, I know you trust this woman, but I don’t, and I can’t agree to this.”

Klasnikov stared back. Nagavanshi held her peace in the middle, between the two.

“She has already violated our trust several times.”

His eyes were almost pleading. Jayasankar was not moved.

She did not get to her own position by being fully honest with everybody.

Even in the Union, a state that was a mother to its people, politics was still played.

“Sorokin, Parvati is correct here. At the moment, if we wait and engage in conventional tactics we will lose everything. But we can take a gamble; and though we may sacrifice a few souls in so doing, we stand to fundamentally alter the world.” Jayasankar said. “You know why it has to be the Duchy of Buren. If Buren has a revolution, it will cripple Imperial Agarthicite production.”

“I understand that perfectly. However this counterveils every hard-fought lesson we know about war. How will the Brigand be supplied? How will it remain in contact? How would we even know that it is alive or dead in the waters at any given moment? After we launch it, we’ve lost control of the situation, and furthermore, have no way to aid it inside of Imperial territory.”

Nagavanshi brought up a map on the table computer.

It was a map of the broader Empire, with the Nectaris and Imbrium both represented. There were several spots on the map, tracing a potential route. She pointed at three different spots where the route brought the Brigand back to Nectaris. At other times, it was deep in the Imperial core.

“We can have it take a circuitous route that brings it close to the borders of Campos Mountain and Solstice at certain points. That will allow us to check back in with it. As for the rest, they will rely on their wits. I’m putting together a crew of people with many different skills. And in addition, if we clue in the Republic, they will use their own networks to help us also.”

“Just a few minutes ago you were attacking the Republic as a weak ally.” Klasnikov said.

“Weak, but useful and willing. If there’s anything good about them it’s their intelligence.”

“Will we see a crew roster?” Jayasankar said.

“I’ll share one when it is ready.” Nagavanshi replied.

“You really are a terrible girl. You think you can do anything you want.”

Jayasankar scolded her, but it was almost more motherly than authoritarian.

“It’s time to move quickly.” Nagavanshi said. “Do you accept my proposal?”

On the table, dozens of windows appeared with additional information.

All of it was at first shaded, but with a quick swipe of her hand, Nagavanshi dramatically decrypted every document. Names and faces, vast sheets of logistics math, numerous tables. The work of years of secretive planning, thousands of communications, all of it laid bare. Again the Admiral and the Premier were left speechless at the apparatus that Nagavanshi had constructed. Her Ashura, the serpents tasked with keeping order, had built a ship, and plotted a revolution.

“I’ve laid out everything I’ve planned, and everything that is available to me. There are no more secrets, only work that lies ahead of us. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done to make sure nothing compromises our purpose. Without taking revolutionary action, our revolution will be destroyed.”

Jayasankar crossed her arms, smiling. She took a long drag of her vaporizer. “Well, we can’t very well just dump all this effort in the sea, can we?” She finally said.


Previous ~ Next

The Third Battle of Thassalid Trench [2.1]

The Imperial Southern Border Fleet had an impressive advantage in numbers over the Union defenders at Thassal. With over 70 vessels to around 30 combat-ready Union ships, even with basic barrage tactics they would have easily routed the Union vessels. But Fleet Admiral Gottwald wanted more than a rout. He would accept no less than the Union’s total destruction.

 In his view, the way to achieve this was to preemptively split into two fleets in a strategy to trap the Union forces amid a barrage from two sides. Kampfgruppe Kosz, commanded by the Admiral’s most trusted officers, remained on course for Thassal. He expected the battle would be joined in the broad, open plain just before the trench fissure itself. He would command the rest of the fleet personally, carefully maneuvering through a series of rocky highlands known to the Union as Konev’s Mountain, and then descending on the Union flank once they were out in the open.

Admiral Gottwald was convinced of the genius of his strategy. Had those Union thugs even conceived of a flanking maneuver? Did they even post scouts? They would fall to the Imperial art of war perfected over generations. He would win; he was already planning his next move.

It was not the Union that concerned him most. He’d make worse enemies soon.

Taming the barbarians was just a steppingstone to his rise.

“I’ll have to give my thanks to that moron Groessen in hell. If there was one man in this Navy who would shoot first no matter the cost to himself, it would be the good old Duke.”

In the vast, throne room-like command pod of his flagship, the Strasser, Admiral Gottwald stood above his command staff, whose stations were recessed below his own and arrayed around him. All of them had been well taught to mind their own business. There was one voice of sheepish dissent that came from his secretary. She clutched a circular medallion on a chain and mumbled.

“Sir, with all due respect, is it truly proper to slander this man in death?”

“Who’s to say it is slander? You?”

Had it not been her niece, he certainly would have treated her far worse. Instead, he found it amusing to argue with her. As a devout Solceanist she was an easy target for logical argument.

“We don’t know what happened sir–”

“What happened is immaterial. We’re already set on our course.”

Once upon a time, Duke Groessen had been the nobleman in charge of a large portion of the Thassalid territory. Upon the Union uprising, his stature vastly diminished. All Dukes had to perform military duties for the Emperor. Groessen’s domain shrunk to such an extent that all he could do was patrol a strip of border and wait with his hands on his lap, cursing his fortunes.

He was easy prey for Gottwald’s machinations. All he needed was a mission to die for.

With his death, there was immediate cause to reprimand and suppress the Union, but that was less important. There was also no legitimate claim to much of Union territory anymore.

Lands, and vassals to tap into, would soon play a major role in Imperial politics.

Gottwald was not a noble. He was pure military. He had no domains of his own, either to govern nor to exploit for advantage. However, in the coming storm, blood would only go so far. If he could capture the materials and industry of the Union, he would be a Duke in all but name.

“That old bastard will soon perish. There are already significant factions marshalling all of their resources. With Prince Erich deployed to the Ayre Reach, this will be our only chance for us to secure a potential base of power. The Southern Border Fleet is the weakest fleet in the Empire. But with the resources of Ferris at our disposal, we will be undoubtedly relevant to the outcome.”

There was a dawning realization upon the gentle eyes of his niece. As a God-fearing woman, the Lèse-majesté would not have upset her, for the Solceanists believed in the Light-Giver above the surface and placed their faith in him over their imperial duty. Perhaps, however, the scope of current events had finally struck her as an everyday citizen amid the coming chaos.

She made no comment about the state of the Empire. But her expression was troubled.

“Can the Southern Border Fleet truly overturn the Union sir? After all these years?”

Admiral Gottwald smiled.

“We have never seriously tried. They are mere gnats. If it were not for the Republic putting pressure on us, we would have crushed them already. It was the hope that Prince Erich could bloody the Republic enough for a ceasefire, allowing us to march on the Union freely. But that’s a future that’s not worth speaking of, except for this: the Union stands no chance against us.”

On a computer screen hovering just in front of his chair, was a map of the Union territories, with projected enemy deployment and the projected pace of both of his fleets. Soon the pincer would wrap around the enemy’s forces, and their total defeat would inevitably follow. Admiral Gottwald would cease to merely be the Empire’s lookout on the wild frontier. In his own right, perhaps, he could become a king. Or he might just settle for being among those to crown the next.

“Besides, we don’t need to conquer all the Union. If Ferris falls, those cowards will simply hide in the fortresses at Solstice and wait for better tides. We need only cow them into obedience. They were slaves once. A sufficient drubbing from their masters will render them docile.”

Admiral Gottwald sat back on his chair and silently bid his niece to stand at his side.

Obedient, yet sheepishly clutching her little sun icon, she joined him.

“All stations report. We should be seeing the enemy, and our allies.”

There was a generalized murmur among the specialists charged with sonar detection.

On the Admiral’s minicomputer, the sonar readings and their interpretation appeared.

Admiral Gottwald stared at it, dumbfounded.         

His hands were shaking. He could not accept what he saw.


Previous ~ Next

Life In The Besieged City (74.1)

This scene contains alcohol abuse and mild sexual content.


24th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E.

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kuwba Oasis Resort

As the sun began to fall, and the sky turned red, the rings were exchanged.

It was not a massive ceremony nor a state ceremony. There was no roaring crowd, no band, no feast, no media. They had no diamond-studded rings and no bouquet to fling. Few people knew of the occasion; fewer attended. Kuwba was their silent witness.

Curtained off with bamboo dividers, the waterside was reserved for the brides and a handful of guests. Standing at the edge of the stone ring around the oasis, framed by the trees in the background, the women held hands and looked at each other fondly, close to tears with joy. Mayor Mazibe said some words, and linked the bride’s hands together, and then stepped aside for them to recite their vows. They were brief vows. Those women, who had fallen in love exiled to a deserted island for anti-goverment activities, knew each other’s vows by heart. They had already been living those vows for years.

“Daksha.”

“Kremina.”

They were dressed as bride and groom. Daksha in a sharp black suit, and Kremina in a silver-blue dress. Daksha wore her hair gathered up in a bun, while Kremina had a flowing ponytail ringed with flowers and covered by a lacy veil. Neither one looked her forties and fifties in this scene, in this attire. Both looked like young, romantic girls, openly weeping and trembling with emotion as they held hands and stared longingly at one another. Even before the Mayor started talking, and even after he stopped, the tears would not leave their faces, but neither would their smiles. Under the falling sun, they glowed with a sublime beauty. When they drew in to kiss, even their guests wept.

Parinita Maharani was weeping most loudly, sobbing, covering her mouth with a handkerchief to snort, her makeup starting to run a little around her eyes. She felt small, like a woman struck dumb by the sublime, belittled by a grandeur that shocked her to tears. She was standing in the shadows of giants and she felt completely unworthy.

Madiha Nakar was not weeping, but she admitted to herself that she was near to it. She felt almost nothing coherent at all. She did not have the greatest grasp on her emotions.

Daksha and Kremina broke their matrimonial kiss, held their hands up to each other’s faces, and kissed again. They put their foreheads together and sobbed and smiled. They were laughing, closer than anyone had ever seen them. There was a subdued applause.

“By the power invested in me by the office of the Solstice mayorship, I declare thee both joined in official matrimony!” shouted Mayor Mazibe, so excited by the whole ceremony that he completely mixed his secular, religious, ancient and modern speech together. Everyone was too busy with the bride and the suit-bride, to truly pay him attention.

After the declaration, Charvi Chadgura and Gulab Kajari raised rifles into the air and fired into the distance. They were dressed in matching suits, acting as designated wedding shooters. It was allowed by the resort — they fired toward the empty oasis.

All of it was merely traditional. For Ayvartans the ceremony was truly nothing so grand. It was no joining of a King and Queen. Only the dress and the people stood out.

Two women in love got to have a vulnerable, touching moment beneath a falling sun.

That was all they wanted, and by all accounts, it seemed as wonderful as they dreamed.

After a loving relationship of over 20 years, Admiral Kremina Qote and Premier Daksha Kansal were finally, officially married on the 24th of the Hazel’s Frost of 2030 D.C.E.

Madiha Nakar watched everything with muted emotion, not quite knowing how to behave appropriately or what to say that would be profound. She knew that everything was beautiful and happy, and she knew that she herself felt the swelling of emotion when the brides kissed, and she felt that she wanted something like this for herself.

But it was hard to communicate it in a way that didn’t seem trite, so she mostly kept to herself and Parinita, on the periphery of the ceremony, holding hands and trembling.

“I want a ceremony just like this.” Parinita said. “I want a cozy little venue by the water with a pretty background, a beautiful dress, and a funny little man as the notary.”

Madiha put on a little smile. “We should book this place today, so we’ll get it in a year.”

Anyone could book the hotel now, and so, it was booked very far ahead of time.

“We’ll do it.” Parinita said. Her eyes teared up again. “We’ll live and we’ll shine like this.”

She tightened her grip on Madiha’s hand and Madiha gripped tightly backed.

Their hearts were full of emotion that they could scarcely identify or handle.


Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kuwba Oasis Hotel

“Madiha Nakar! It’s been far too long.”

Kremina Qote extended a hand to Madiha and she shook it, and Kremina laughed in return. Madiha did not know why, and thought perhaps she made some kind of embarrassing etiquette blunder. Maybe she was supposed to kiss her hand?

“Don’t break my bride’s arm, please.” Daksha joked.

Madiha laughed a little herself then, and at her side, Parinita giggled with her.

“I remember when she was just a little courier girl.” Kremina said. “To think she would grow a head taller than me and nearly rip my arm off at my own wedding day.”

“She doesn’t know her own strength.” Parinita said, trying to play along.

“I didn’t pull that hard.” Madiha said, averting her gaze awkwardly.

Kremina patted her on the arm. “Just having fun! Come now, let’s have some drinks.”

Madiha turned to Parinita, who nodded pointedly.

“Come on, of course you’ll drink. It’s practically contractual.” Kremina said.

“Take her up on that or she’ll drink it all herself.” Daksha said. “I’d prefer her a bit sober.”

After the ceremony, Kremina and Daksha relocated to the resort’s Principal suite, their best accommodation, for a short honeymoon stay before resuming their duties. Madiha and Parinita were invited for a meeting before the two lovebirds secluded themselves.

It was a palatial establishment they were given: almost a whole floor of the hotel for themselves, with a kitchen, a hot bath, a game room with pool, darts and shuffleboard, and a bedroom that was passionately red, candle-lit and smelled of sweet incense.

They caught up with Daksha at the foyer, and she took them on a little tour while Kremina dug into the alcohol cabinet, as was her wont. They soon rendezvoused at the dining room, a cozy affair, small and square with the walls decorated with paintings of things like fruits baskets, wine bottles and whole hams. Kremina put out several different bottles of champagne, rice beers, sugarcane wine, and grape wine.

There was also a bit of a spread. Fresh, crunchy vegetables in little cups; small flatbreads; and various spiced dips like lentils, chickpeas, and chutneys.

“Cheers!”

Before anyone else even reached for a glass, Kremina downed a shot of sugarcane wine.

“You only live once!” She said, slamming the glass down on the table with a satisfied grin.

In no time, she was already pouring herself a second.

Regardless of her drinking manner, Kremina looked stunning at the head of the table. Her face was bright and immaculate, the lines from her eyes giving her a stately beauty that was as well aged as the drinks being served. Her ponytail, already silvery in the past, took well to growing grayer and the flowers around it were fresh. She was well made up, with blue eyeshadow and lipstick that suited her sleek, tidy blue dress. Her shoulders were free, her bust raised up by the bodice. It looked to Madiha as if made of a futuristic metal rather than cloth because the skirt was shiny and unruffled. Madiha was used to big dresses at the very few western-style weddings she had attended in her life.

“I know I can’t stop you, but I can try to empty the bottle before you.” Daksha said.

She seized the offending item from her bride’s hand, and drank directly from it.

“That’s unfair! Well, there’s always the rice beer.” Kremina said, popping a different cork.

Truly they seemed a couple made for one another.

Though Kremina was definitely a sublime beauty, Daksha was no slouch herself. She was reminiscent of her gangster days, sans her iconic fedora, now in Madiha’s possession. Her hair was turning grayer in places, but the gradient-like effect when collected into a bun was attractive; the little lines around her lips and eyes added a regal gallantry to her overall appearance. She wore just a touch of powder on her skin. Her wedding suit was well tailored, with a black coat that accentuated her shoulders, a buttoned vest that was loose enough for her chest but well fitted, and pants that made her legs look perfectly straight. Though she was not quite the wiry brawler that she had been in the past, the Premier was still dashing and handsome enough to match the beauty of her bride.

“Madiha, we have to put up a fight!” Parinita whispered to her.

She picked up the bottle of grape wine and poured Madiha a little glass.

“Social drinking is a contest of wills. We are representing our generation!”

Madiha did not understand the collective madness of the room. Despite this, she drank dispassionately, tipping the contents into her mouth and swallowing, hoping it would please everyone involved. Parinita stared at her critically, until Madiha extended her glass out as if to ask for another pour. This brought a prize-winning smile to her girlfriend’s face, quite a match for those on the giddy brides. She happily complied.

Though it was impossible for them to outshine a pair of experienced wives on their wedding day, Madiha and Parinita certainly tried their best. Madiha herself was wearing a suit, as she was known to do. Her hair, which had gotten long enough again, was tied up in a little ponytail. She had left her coat elsewhere and dressed down to her vest and shirt, which were rather plain, but she thought her height and stature and the gentle smoothness of her face lent her a good mix of boyish-girlish charm. Daksha’s fedora also helped a little to make her stand out. Parinita, however, was the bridal guests’ trump card, in a colorful, traditional Ayvartan garb. She was draped in a purple and gold sari over a matching dress, with a plunging neck and an open midriff. Her strawberry hair was flowing and decorated with flowers, and her gold makeup was immaculate.

There were numerous cheers around the table, and with each cheer, the girls drank.

“To health!”

“To sapphism!”

“To socialism!”

In appearance, as a relatively young couple Madiha and Parinita could hold their own, but it was quickly becoming clear they were amateurs at drinking. Madiha quickly developed a headache, and Parinita was drinking shamefully slowly, trying to mask that she was a lightweight. Meanwhile, between the two, Daksha and Kremina had nearly disposed of the rice beer and sugarcane wine, and taken notice of the snacks too.

“This is too hectic.” Madiha said. “I need water.”

Parinita drooped her head and put down the bottle. “I submit also. They’re too strong.”

“Like the…second act villain?” Madiha whimpered.

“If you’re going to steal my lines, you’ll need to do better.” Parinita said weakly.

Across from them, Daksha and Kremina were giggling, chatting half-sentences and interrupting each other, the alcohol clearly starting to unwind their brains.

“Ah, if only, if only, Anatoly, Anatoly right? He was the guy?” Kremina said.

“It wasn’t Anatoly. I killed Anatoly. He was a rat.” Daksha replied.

“Okay, not him. There was a guy. A guy who drank well, remember?”

“Kremina, we knew a lot of guys.” Daksha said.

“I wish Anatoly, was here. I’d drink him to shame, that rat. I’m invincible at drinking.”

“I told you it wasn’t Anatoly who did anything. You wouldn’t drink with Anatoly.”

“We knew a lot of guys, you say. None of them here at our wedding! How rude!”

Daksha looked at the floor for a second, shaking the bottle of wine, stirring the remnants.

“A lot of them– well, they can’t help it. A lot of them died. They can’t help it.”

Kremina held up a glass. It was empty. She put it to her lips like it was full.

“To the dead!”

Daksha, her head bowed still, lifted her bottle. “To the dead.” She said, much less eagerly.

“You know who was a good drinker? Lena Ulyanova. Fantastic drinker.”

“She was.”

“Such a tiny body, could hold so much alcohol. It was death-defying. I was still better.”

Daksha shook her head. “If Lena Ulyanova was, if she was–”

“‘scuse me?”

“I said if Lena Ulyanova was alive, things would be different.”

“Yes, they would be.” Kremina poured a shot, half on the table. “She wouldn’t be dead.”

“That would be big indeed. But I think she would know get people to do things right.”

“We’re doing things right. We got married finally. We stopped living in sin.”

“I mean, things of the state.” Daksha said. She held up a bottle. “To Lena!”

“To Lena!” Kremina drank her shot.

“Bah!” Daksha put the bottle down, and it toppled over on the table and would have spilled had any decent amount of liquid remained in it. “I’m a lousy cheerer, Kremina. Lousy at drinking, lousy at cheering, lousy at everything. Lena was a genius. I’m lousy.”

Kremina patted Daksha on the shoulder, and with amazing technique, managed to leverage the gesture into a grab, taking the back of her head and pulling her down into a kiss. It was very sloppy, given she was juggling a mouthful of beer as well as her wife’s tongue, but somehow Kremina managed it, and a shocked Daksha played well along.

When their lips parted, Kremina put her forehead to Daksha’s chest.

“You don’t have to be a genius. I don’t want a genius! I want someone like me who understands being trampled and overlooked. I think the people, they want someone like that too. I think these kids need that too.” She turned to look at Parinita and Madiha.

Groggily, the two girls had been watching the exchange, without input.

At the mention of them, they snapped to attention.

“All the geniuses went and died in their lofty dreams. We’re normal people who are making a world for us. That’s our job now. And we’re doing it well.” Kremina said.

Daksha rested her own head against that of her wife. “I hope you’re right.”

They held each other there, weeping lightly, for seemingly as long as they had drank and rambled before. Madiha and Parinita did not know what to say. So they said nothing.

“To the kids!” Kremina let out an anguished cheer, launching her glass overhead.

Everyone scurried for cover. Everyone agreed to stop drinking after that.

Madiha and Parinita left the table less drunk than the brides, but also less confident.


On the foyer there was an old matchlock rifle hung up on the wall.

Madiha had to train with one of those so-called classics in the Academy, for purposes of procession duty. She despised it. Temperamental, slow-firing. Powder was easily ruined, the bullets were old and deformed and sometimes the barrel interior deformed too.

“I know you hate everything old, because your head’s poisoned by efficiency.”

Daksha stood beside Madiha and stared up at the rifle on the wall.

Parinita had gone to look after Kremina, who was, for what she claimed was the first time in her life, taking her drinking poorly and laid up in bed. Madiha wondered if it was time to consider the wedding ruined and perhaps plan a makeup, but she did not voice her concern. She had walked idly around the suite, trying to shake off the alcohol in her own head, when she was taken in by the curious token in the foyer. Then Daksha had caught up. They had been wanting to speak for a long time, Madiha knew this, she knew this desire was shared. However, there had been no good opportunity until now.

“Well, we have better rifles now.” Madiha said. “We could use those for procession.”

“These are historic. They remind us of something.” Daksha said.

“They remind me of how poor these old rifles were.”

“You can be such a child sometimes.” Daksha laughed.

“What is the message supposed to be then?”

Daksha looked up at the rifle with a weary expression.

“For the Empire, these rifles represented pride. For us, they represent sin. You wield those rifles in procession to remind you to be respectful of the tools your predecessors used to commit evil. You toil with them so you understand that even with those weapons they slaughtered countless people, and that you must not just look at it as a mere tool.”

Madiha averted her gaze. She already thought of that quite often.

She just did not think of it during procession at school.

“We should consider a lecture element to procession then.” She said demurely.

“We should.” Daksha sighed.

She contemplated the rifle and crossed her arms, and began her own impromptu lecture.

“That style of rifle was imported by the Ayvartan Empire from the Elves. The Empire claimed all of the territorial Ayvartan continent for itself, including the south, like Adjar, Cissea, and Mamlakha. But they didn’t have the power to back it up, until they exercised one strength that nation-states have over tribes and villages. They engaged in diplomacy with an equal nation, a nation that taught them armed conquest the likes of which the world had never seen before. And just as the Elves spread over Afarland, Borelia, Nort, Helvetia, Mauricia, and so on, the ethnic Arjun of Solstice spread across Ayvarta.”

She referenced two historical ethnicities in Ayvarta. Down South, it used to be the Umma, and in the North, it used to be the Arjun. It was different now. There were all kinds of people everywhere. There was a third catch-all category, created for the Imperial census, called “Zungu,” people who were mixed with ‘white’ or ‘foreign’ people. There were various other ethnicities often unacknowledged. The Hudim, for example, who practiced their own unique religion and were considered an ethnic group; the Zigan nomads; various Barbar tribes in the desert; the Mamlakhs themselves, the Cisseans, and so on.

All of those peoples and territories were beyond the grasp of Solstice once again.

This time it was not an Arjun empire that conquered them, nor was it by their own hand that they were made separate from the rest of Ayvarta. It was the Nocht Federation.

“A lot was done to the Southern peoples, hundreds of years ago. Socialist Solstice has tried to make up for it here and there. We teach what we have of the Umma language, we incorporated it into the Socialist Language Standard. I named the KVW that way, a lot of the Unions, to pay homage to their language group as best as I can. And we also let the South practice self-governance as a bloc. A lot of things were overlooked that way, but it’s what the people wanted there. It’s the least we could do to make up for the past.”

Madiha found questions of ethnicity difficult to answer, but she understood, as one trying to make up for her own past, the need to fulfill those sorts of reparations. She did not hate anyone nor did she think she oppressed anyone for their ethnicity and as a good socialist she tried to be conscious of all kinds of social positions and relations, such as those of class and race and sex. But she remembered Mansa; she hated him completely, and she despised the things that he stood for, and all that he did to her and to Ayvarta.

However, the growth of his power independent of Solstice made sense when one considered the history of ethnicities in Ayvarta. His people looked up to him as a strongman who wielded Umma power in a majority Arjun world. They loved him because he positioned himself against an Arjun orthodoxy that was seen as ineffective and untrustworthy. Even if it had been the Ayvartan Empire who committed the sin in the first place, Solstice in general was tainted by it, and Solstice’s socialist project, as the successor state, had to be the one to make amends. Perhaps they didn’t do enough.

It was all such a mess.

“I really don’t know what to say that.” Madiha finally admitted.

Daksha cracked a little smile.

“I guess it’s unfair for me to act like we’re both complicit. I’ve always thought of you as an Arjun because of your physical appearance. But I honestly can’t know. And at any rate, it isn’t your place to do anything about it. I was the one who was supposed to save everybody from the tyranny of the Empire. I feel like I ended up failing at that.” She said.

The tyranny of the Empire, she said–

It jogged Madiha’s memory. She thought of how her birth was something of a mystery.

And Mansa, too, being on her mind at the same time–

“I am really sorry for everything Madiha.” Daksha said. “We used you. I struggle every day thinking of the backs we built this country on. You were just a child, and I ask myself, is all of this really worth all the desperate measures that I took to build it–”

Quite suddenly, Madiha turned to face Daksha with serious eyes.

“Am I Empress Ayvarta II, Daksha?”

She almost expected to be shot at that moment, in some dark, lurid corner of her mind. Certainly it was a shocking question to ask, and at such a moment too. At least it allowed her to dodge thinking about the question of ethnicities, which was always fearful and puzzling. And it had been on her mind for far too long now, her status. She had been afraid since hearing the insinuations from the villains she came across in Rangda, and since remembering her role in the chaos of the Revolution. She had been afraid that if she was actually some long lost noble child, she was undermining socialism by living.

So, thinking all of that, she expected Daksha to dispose of her, to end the royal line.

Instead, Daksha grinned and shook her head. She looked like she had tears in her eyes.

“On the census, you keep putting down Madiha Nakar every few years. If you want to change your name, you can do it without saying scandalous shit like that.” Daksha said.

She smiled, but there was indeed a glistening of tears she was fighting off.

Madiha chuckled. “I guess you’re unbothered by the whole thing, huh?”

“Did you expect differently? Madiha, I think of you like a daughter. I don’t know where you really came from and I never checked. To me, that doesn’t matter. Didn’t we want to erase class, sex, ethnic discrimination and all of that? Isn’t that socialism? Hell I don’t know my own ethnicity really. I was born in the South. I might be some quarter Umma or something, who cares? I never had the privilege of my ethnicity but I identify as an Arjun to make amends to people who were far more oppressed than me for far longer.”

Daksha turned to her and put both hands on her shoulders, looking into her eyes.

“You’re what you decide to make of yourself. No matter who your parents were. Even if you end up being the long lost Empress, you killed your father. There’s no Empire now. On the census, I could put Umma or Arjun. I decided which and why. You can too.”

Madiha nodded her head solemnly. There was a lot on her mind still. This was not such a liberatory thing to be told. After all, even knowing all of this, and being given a choice, she still did not know what she truly wanted to become or what she could become at all. She just knew what she was good at, and what she was interested (or obsessed with).

She supposed that she had no choice right now but to fight this war.

So she could defer thinking about everything else when there was peace.

“At any rate, why am I being so gloomy on my wedding day?”

Daksha shook her head and picked up the matchlock from its place of honor.

“You know how to use this, of course.”

Madiha nodded. She could use any weapon by touching it. Ever since she was a child.

“Lets have a little contest then.” Daksha said.

Under the matchlock there had been a stack of plates, and a pair of boxes.

One contained charges, the other contained balls. It was a shooting kit.

“I never miss.” Madiha said apologetically. “So, I cannot lose.”

“Bah, don’t be so full of yourself.” Daksha replied. “If I can’t win, I’ll tie you.”

Madiha laughed.

“It would be a moral victory.” She said.

“It will be!” Daksha corrected her.

They went to the roof and twenty plates later, Madiha handily won.

She was not even able to throw the game for the bride’s sake.

Madiha was just not capable of throwing games.


“I’m truly growing old. My youth has absolutely left me. I’m decrepit — a crone!”

Kremina Qote bemoaned her misfortunes in the grand bedroom arrayed for her and Daksha’s honeymoon night. Dressed in full wedding regalia, she lay against the pillows with a hand over her face, tossing and turning, the blood drained from her face. She had drank too much and it made her sick. She claimed this was an unnatural occasion, an ill omen. Parinita did not know that she and Daksha had met because Kremina had fallen dead drunk and essentially got them captured by the Imperial police. She believed in Kremina’s fierce drinking reputation and told herself it was a pity that everyone aged.

“Here, drink this. Drink all of it, Mrs. Kansal. Even if you dislike the taste.”

Parinita came back from the kitchen with a mug of honey-ginger tea and a big piece of salty breaded paneer, fried quickly in ghee. She dropped the cheese plate on the dresser beside the bed, and handed Kremina the mug. “It’s a traditional cure. I vouch for it.”

Her patient moaned and protested, but eventually started drinking the tea.

“It’s awful! It’s got too much ginger!” Kremina said, recoiling from it.

“Trust me, my grandmother knew a dozen hangover cures, but this is what she did when she was hungover herself. That’s how you know it’s the real one.” Parinita said.

Kremina frowned, staring down into the mug. She took another belabored sip.

Parinita pulled a chair up to the side of the bed and sat down. She did not need to read Kremina’s aura to understand how badly the bride must have been feeling. She looked quite worse for wear. Parinita felt like saying ‘it wasn’t even that much alcohol’, but she was playing the role of the healer. Wounding her patient even further would be cruel.

“Ugh, what a way to start my honeymoon.”

Once more, Parinita’s more vicious side wished to retort with ‘you did this to yourself.’

Instead she said, “I come from a family of faith healers! You’re in good hands.”

“Well, it turns out I don’t have faith in healers!” Kremina moaned.

She took another drink of the mug and shut her eyes hard, and clenched her teeth.

For a moment Parinita felt like the bereaved heroine of some comedy flick, caring for her whining mother in the first act to establish a dysfunctional family relation and her drive to escape into a bawdy adventure. Then the hero would arrive and sweep her away.

Unfortunately for her, Madiha was in the other room, already arrived, and unhelpful.

Still, even her current attitude couldn’t mar Kremina’s newlywed radiance. Parinita was stuck by how majestic the two of them looked. This must have been such a massive relief for them, and such a long time coming. Surrounded by tragedy and with the weight of the nation on their shoulders, they finally found the opportunity and courage to make themselves eternal to one another. Their auras had been so brilliant at the wedding that Parinita cried, overwhelmed by their beauty. Truly it was the power of love at work.

It was almost like film. Perfectly shot and directed, beautifully acted. A real fantasy.

Parinita’s fantasy; not that seeing it in the flesh made it feel any more achievable.

After all, Kremina could look like an actress, but Parinita was always her boring old self.

Still, she was quite moved by the day’s events. She was smiling like a bashful little girl.

“Ma’am, I’ve been wanting to congratulate you personally. I was so moved by the ceremony. I really want to know how you two made it so special. There was something in the air, everything was charged with electricity! It was like film, it was perfect.”

In truth there was a part of Parinita that really wanted to have a girly talk session with someone like Kremina, an elegant, sapphic bride to a strong and constantly engaged woman. She wanted to compare notes, almost, to share experiences in loving women and being loved and having a relationship that could lead to a wedding. She had never been able to talk to her grandmother and certainly not to her mother, and the closest other confidant she’d ever had was Logia Minardo — a regrettable person for that role.

Kremina looked upon her with renewed interest and cocked a little grin.

“It’s all the resort, it’s very lovely. You should put in your reservation soon. It’s very popular, and they really only do weddings now that there’s no tourism.” She said.

Her piercing gaze put Parinita quite on edge.

“Well, I’m not getting married–” She said.

Kremina leaned forward with a conspiratorial expression on her face.

“Trust me, you two should not wait. There’s no sense in waiting.”

“Us two?”

Suddenly, Parinita remembered that she could have no such discussion with her.

Parinita and Madiha were not fully open with their relationship, mostly because it was scarcely a month old and they were in the military, and in the same unit. In fact, Madiha was technically Parinita’s boss, which made the whole thing look even worse to outside observation. While it was almost an open secret, people who suspected said nothing, and people who knew, like Logia Minardo, were on their side and not keen to expose them.

So it behooved Parinita then to act dumb when Kremina pressed her.

Though the Admiral and the Premier were like family to Madiha, Parinita did not know how strict they were on her. They might not see the relationship as fully appropriate.

Her own parents would have definitely tried to scare Madiha away!

So she thought, she had to keep this as hidden as she could from Madiha’s ‘parents.’

However, her beet-red face and awkward, averted gaze made everything too clear.

Kremina quickly tried to disabuse her of any fearful notions.

“I see right through the two of you.”

Parinita was so stunned she couldn’t think of what to say.

“Whatever do you mean–”

“Why would she invite you here? Madiha always goes to parties alone, if she goes.”

“She’s not that anti-social–”

“Madiha’s never had a lot of party-going friends. She’s a private sort of person.”

Parinita briefly choked up. “Well– how do you know she–”

Kremina raised a finger to Parinita’s lips, quieting her.

“I know she’s a sapphist. She had a girlfriend before. Perhaps she has another.”

Parinita mumbled nervously. “She has friends, we’re just very good friends–”

She found herself denying everything out of impulse.

Meanwhile, Kremina seemed to be living this moment to its fullest.

“Hey, why don’t you two stay the night? There’s a guest bedroom.”

Kremina rapidly changing the subject threw Parinita entirely off-course.

Staying the night with Madiha in this gorgeous hotel full of silks and wines and candles, in a relatively private room all the way across from the brides, where nobody would bother them. An entire night just to themselves in the most sinfully lavish luxury–

Parinita blinked, quivering. “Why of course, we can’t turn down such generosity–”

“You’ll share one bed, you know. It’s only got one bed.”

Parinita started to shake, and clenched her fingers on her skirts, her face red hot.

“I suppose it can’t be helped–”

“We don’t really have a change of clothes either, so you’ll be a bit exposed.”

Parinita fanned herself. “We’re both girls, it’s okay–”

“Why it’s like your very own honeymoon night, if you were like that of course.”

“It really isn’t–”

“Just you and her, one bed, nothing but robes, warm incense, anything could happen.”

Now she was truly the heroine in a bawdy romance comedy, exposed to the audience in a moment of pure farce. Defeated, revealed to be impure, and laughed at by all.

“You win.” Parinita was shaking with embarrassment at the salacious thought of taking Madiha bedding her in the brides’ guest room. “Are you teasing me or really offering?”

She raised her hands to her face, wearing a crooked, demonic smile.

Kremina reached out and played with one of Parinita’s long locks of strawberry hair.

“Madiha is very lucky! You’re pretty, funny, and passionate.”

Parinita wanted to sink into the earth, but could not truly deny any of that.

At least the latter part of it. She almost thought Kremina would say perverted.

“Oh come on, why are you shaking so much?” Kremina said. “You don’t have to be afraid of me. Daksha and I are both in the military too and nobody will object to it. You should probably keep the secret from your subordinates, in an official capacity, so that you set a good example for them. But you don’t have to keep it from me. I do want to help you.”

She reached into the drawer on the bedside dresser, and produced a key.

“Help yourself.”

She flicked the key over to Parinita. Then she picked up the paneer and took a bite.

“Now this is good stuff. This tea tastes like motor oil, but paneer can’t be done wrong.”

Parinita smiled and faked a little curtsy. “Even someone as useless as me can do it.”

She pocketed the key and felt a little cloud starting to loom over her head.

She felt ridiculous and inadequate. It had all been in good fun for the brides, the drinking and the teasing, but Parinita, she thought if any of it had been serious, then yes, she would not have kept up. She was a bad drinker, a bad liar, a foolhardy girlfriend. She looked fine in a dress, maybe a touch too chubby to really pull it off, but that was it.

“Why are you all gloomy now?” Kremina asked through a mouthful of cheese.

Parinita took a deep breath. “Madiha isn’t lucky, I’m lucky she pays me any attention.”

“What’s this all about?” Kremina asked. “Are you feeling well? Do you want tea?”

She swallowed her cheese and tried to push the mug of tea back to Parinita.

“It’s just difficult standing among titans sometimes. I feel unworthy.”

Parinita pushed the mug back toward her with a sigh.

Kremina smiled warmly and laid back on the bed, looking up at the ceiling.

“And you think I don’t? I’ve never been half the woman Daksha was.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Weren’t you listening when we were all drinking? We shared some wisdom then.”

Had she known Kremina possessed similar insecurities, Parinita would’ve said nothing.

“I’m being gloomy on your wedding day, it really isn’t right.” Parinita said.

“Weddings are beautiful and cheerful, but they are also gloomy too. Thinking about the future is gloomy. And after all the glitz and glamour, you wake up in bed with another person and you have to think about your life together, about all the rest of your life.”

Kremina sighed deeply, but then she sat back up, and she took Parinita’s hand.

“Listen, how you feel about yourself doesn’t reflect how your lover feels. She loves you. To you, she’s your Madiha and you’re her Parinita, and that’s what matters. I should know. I’m a mediocre Admiral who is now married to one of the most powerful women in the world. And Daksha thinks she’s mediocre and foolish and all that too. I make her feel different. She makes me feel different. I bet Madiha thinks that you are wonderful and she is a slug. I bet she doesn’t understand why a beautiful woman looks at her at all.”

Kremina caressed Parinita’s cheek and put on a warm, motherly smile for her.

Parinita smiled a little back. Under that smile, however, she was still worried. These were words that were easy to hear and be comforted by now, but to truly believe them, to deprogram years of living as someone who had to make herself verifiably ‘valuable’ to others in order to live with herself. It felt like fooling herself, like living a terrible lie.

She loved Madiha with all her heart. From that fateful day, when the war started, it was almost like insanity. All the world went insane and she went insane also, and she came to obsessively love a warrior with the world’s strongest, strictest, most insane sense of justice. Someone who stared madness in the face and made miracles happen, not for herself, but for those around her who couldn’t. She grew close to her and discovered her vulnerable side, her charming side, the little moments of sarcasm and levity that could be extracted from her, and the naive wonder with which she beheld certain things.

She grew to love her even more, to want to know everything about her, to want to know her as a person and not an idol, and to want to be by her side forever to see the world that her dark eyes envisioned. She wanted to quell the fire that was killing Madiha from the inside; to save her. But in the back of her head, she told herself, ‘I must get stronger for her, I must be useful to her.’ She could not live in Madiha’s world without strength.

Because she loved Madiha and wanted to remain at her side, to see the justice in those fiery eyes and to love the tender shadow cast by that pyre, she had to reach her level.

Perhaps, instead of being gloomy, she could at least try to be determined instead.

“Thank you, ma’am. I’ll take your words to heart.” She said.

It was a sincere as she could sound then.

Kremina laid back on the bed and put a handkerchief over her face.

“Good. Just remember three things. Let her win sometimes; pretend she’s in the right sometimes; and let her be on top if she wants to. That’s my time-tested wife advise.”

Parinita’s hand clutched the little key Kremina gave her, and she averted her gaze again.

“I’m going to do my best too. Even if I’m drunk and sick, this is my honeymoon.”

Kremina put the mug on the dresser.

“But I’m not drinking that. I’m sorry.”

Parinita giggled.

“What if I told you the tea is what has made you so lucid these past few minutes?”

She hoped to get one over on Kremina at least once.

Kremina shook her head. “Fine. I’ll let you have this one.”

She reached over the dresser and took the mug back with a heavy sigh.


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Declaration (66.1)

This scene briefly contains sexual content.


42nd of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Nocht — Rhinea

“Ugh.”

She awakened to an atmosphere of heat and sweat, but also cold, clinging to her skin. Once the haze of pleasure had blown out of the room with the central air, it left behind the staid reality that followed a fantasy. She was back in the world, a person once more inhibited, and she could hardly stand the disappointment and tedium she felt then.

It was the least delectable part of the transgression: dealing with the consequences.

“Why do I keep doing this to myself?”

Cecilia Foss mumbled to herself as she stared into the placid face of the very nude woman in front of her, peeling the woman’s legs off her waist while at the same time gently extricating herself from the arms of her sleeping boyfriend, just behind her. It had become almost a talent, a series of acrobatics, to retrieve herself in such situations. Making sure not to awaken anyone, she slowly left her bedmates, gently stirring behind her.

Surveying the scene, there were a lot of cigarettes, a lot of drinks, a lot of discarded rubber. This was a hotel room made for thrashing, thank God; she was certainly not going to pay any fees for it. She recalled all too clearly the reason for all this. She wished she didn’t; in short it was stress, greed, hunger and neediness and loneliness. Perhaps not so short.

It was an important date, too! And she had blown it off to fuck a computer and her boy.

“Ugh. I’m the worst. God damn it. She’s waiting; Agatha’s going to be waiting.”

She found her leggings, her heels, her skirt and blazer, and the rest of it, strewn about the room. Her brassiere was nowhere to be found; Cecilia glanced over the bed with misty eyes, shook her head, and stubbornly dressed without it. God knows she needed it, but life wasn’t always so forgiving. She dressed, patted everything down, took a quick trip to the restroom to wash her face and apply a coat of lipstick– and the moment she turned around again, making to leave the bathroom, there she was at the door. Cecilia sighed.

“It’s so like you to hit me and run like this, Lia. This must be the millionth time.”

Gretchen had on a fake, coquettish pouting face, her short, curly brown locks greatly disturbed, her body wrapped in her partner’s discarded button-down shirt. Dangling from her fingers was Cecilia’s brassiere. Seeing it again, Cecilia kind of wanted it back; it was big, lacy and cute and firm and having walked a few meters without it she dearly missed it.

“I’m losing my touch. I didn’t expect you to be awake.” Cecilia said.

“No, trust me, you’ve still got your touch.” Gretchen said, winking at her.

Cecilia averted her gaze. “Usually I’m enough for the women I’m seeing.”

Gretchen scoffed and rolled her eyes. “So you can fuck everyone, but everyone has to–.”

“Yes, it’s not fair but it’s how things work around here.” Cecilia interrupted with a grin.

She could not help but feel a little bit jealous of the rings on their fingers; just a little.

Not because she wanted the same; she just didn’t want people in her life to leave her out.

Though judging by the current events, she would not have to worry about that too much.

Gretchen flicked the bra at her, and Cecilia caught it.

Casually, she started to undress again so as to put it on.

“Where are you off to now? Three-timing me?”

“You can’t really call it that? At any rate, I’m meeting a friend.”

“Just a friend?”

“She’s a special friend, but yes. She’s married.”

“Wow. Do you realize what you just said?”

“I know.”

She was married in a way nobody else Cecilia slept with was “married.” Even these two.

It was commonly said by the conservatives that Nocht had lost god, had lost marriage, had lost itself in the frenzy of power and industrialism. Its institutions were a shambles as were its ethics. For the state was only war and killing, the sex of machines; for the treasury, there was only plunder and privation, the sex of economy; and for individual people, whatever indulgence was their sex. Cecilia was not the average Nochtish citizen.

She had never had a faith in anything to begin with.

She told herself, she was a simple person. She just wanted to have fun, pure, easy fun, with whatever pleasure she set her sights on. She found things and took them because she wanted them and because she could. Difficult things to get, became games to be won.

But in the end even the difficult things remained simple.

Or so she thought; but the way her stomach churned and her heart trembled when she thought of meeting Agatha Lehner, after all she had done, after all that had been done to her, to both of them. It was not simple at all. It was the most complicated thing for her.

Achim never made her feel that way.

She thought he would; but he never did. He was simple, just like her.

Simple and comforting in his simplicity, which is what she liked about him.

She had known Agatha longer; and she only became more complicated with time.

“I’m still here, you know.”

Cecilia tried to move to the door, lost in thought.

She was nearly face to face with Gretchen.

Gretchen was complicated too, but in a simple way.

“I’m not going to let you dine and dash this time.” Gretchen said.

Cecilia smiled.

She leaned forward, pulled Gretchen in by the tie around her neck, pilfered from her man.

She took her sloppily painted lips into her own luscious red embrace.

“I’ll see you later. Alone.”

She spoke as her tongue parted her lover’s, and she walked off at the same time too.

Gretchen made no argument.


Nocht Federation — Windsbach, Haupt Radar Center

High atop the mountains separating Windsbach from the northernmost Republics, was a snow unlike anyone had ever seen, even in the mountain villages. However, the signals technicians at the Windsbach Haupt Radar Center did not see this snow fall, silver and swirling like ribbons from the clouds. Since the war began they were on long, rotating shifts that did not end until one was sure, with perfect certainty, to be replaced for at least twelve hours with another restless soul awaiting the slaughter come out from the sky.

All of them had been reared as adults on the nihilism of “the bomber will always get through.” And yet, their job was to stand defiant against it. Should the bomber come, they had to know when, from where, and what it sought. They had to deliver the unspoken retribution that nearly always came to the bomber that “got through.” Scrambling fighters, summoning air defense. These were part of their responsibilities. They had to protect the civilians too, by sounding the air raid sirens and alerting the fire brigades.

Like diviners from ancient times, they had only their scrying glasses: the massive FREIJA radar arrays, top of the line technology, hooked up to glowing green displays that pulsed with eldritch life inside the cold steel bunkers. While Ayvarta slowly toyed with short ranged mobile ground radars hiding in puny trucks, Nocht gambled its money on colossal stationary radars with incredible range and power. Untold amounts of energy flowed into the FREIJA arrays, and their signals could cover vast quadrants of Nocht’s sky and coast.

Inside the FREIJA bunkers, the technicians watched the green light pulse, and they waited.

For the long-timers, the magic had worn off. Their own planes showed up on the radar too, though nowadays, practices had evolved such that advanced warning was given to them to prevent panic and disarray. Seeing those blips made the possibility of an enemy blip far less mythical. Those were hunks of metal in the sky too. Newcomers were glued to their cathode-ray tubes, as interested in them as children had become with Television.

On that fateful winter day of the 42nd, radar technician Helmut Weigel sat in front of his CRT and saw nothing. He waited for hours, he ate his lunch at his desk, he read a book, nervously peeking at his station radar between pages to the point it almost became a character in stories. He looked over the energy output, checked the temperature and atmospheric pressure readings, and pored over various other gauges every thirty minutes.

His shift passed; he declared his intention to stand so as not to startle anyone.

From the upper floors where the military officers congregated, a young woman in uniform came down and urged him to stay in his seat. His replacement had an accident.

“You will have to stay here.”She said. “We’ll procure food and a chance of clothes, and I can stay here for fifteen minutes while you wash up. But you must come back to work.”

Helmut did not protest. What had he to go back to? He lived on his own in the village.

“What kind of food can I get?”

That was his only question, to which the young woman did not reply. She urged him out.

Once he was clean and had on a fresh shirt, coat and a change of pants, he sat back down.

Until a replacement could be found, he was on shift. He would keep working.

He stared at his screen, and saw a dozen blips all clustered together.

On his desk, just below all the gauges, he turned a page on his book. He was almost done with it, but he had another in his suitcase. Helmut loved fantasy adventures, with brave heroes and nasty goblins and mysterious dames. He put one back in his suitcase, retrieved another, and spread it open right in front of his monitor. He saw the blaring blips again.

Helmut put down his book, and he stared dumbfounded at the screen.

Coming in from the east were dozens of bombers.

Hundreds of them.

Helmut stared until the green glow burned in his retinas.

He reached for the telephone at his side.

“Hello? My CRT is broken. Can you send someone down here?”

Procedure dictated he describe the problem in detail–

But on the other end, an engineer too cheerful to have work simply said, “Sure!”

And then they hung up on him.

Helmut stared back at the screen. They were not going away.

Those blips were moving.

He ripped a piece of paper from the side of his workstation and found the numbers for his counterparts in various other stations. Every week they performed a comprehensive data corroboration drill, where Helmut and all of his colleagues in Windbach would call their doppelgangers in Junzien or Tauta or Ciel, and compare readings where their signals met.

“Hello, this is Helmut Weigel, station #13 Windbach. My station’s catching a large concentration of enemy aircraft coming in east-southeast at latitude–”

Helmut described everything he needed to and while he did, he heard an eerie echo from every station around him. People rattling off coordinates and latitudes on the phone, the sharp twisting of the rotary dials, the incredulous chatter between every stations.

“I’m afraid I don’t see anything on my end Helmut. I think you’ve got an ACS fault.”

Automatic control system, the mechanical network that kept the gauges running and regulated the current between stations and dishes, and so on. To so casually say that the entire FREIJA system in Windbach was broken to so fundamental a point put Helmut greatly at ease. Around the room, there was a great heaving sigh of relief as more information came in. No other overlapping stations saw the cluster. It was just ACS.

“Radar techs can go home! We’ll request patrol flights to cover the gap.”

That same girl from earlier, who told Helmut to stay, was now ordering everyone to go.

People grabbed their coats, lined up at the door, and made their way out.

Until the stations were fixed there was no use keeping extraneous staff around.

Outside though, the radar technicians paused all at once, considering the landscape.

Blowing in the wind, all around them, was a snow of silver ribbons mixed in with white.

Helmut held out his hand, and he caught strands, like Hollyday tinsel.

He wanted to report it, right away. But at the door to the bunker, he met with disdain.

“Just go and don’t cause any trouble.”

Helmut was speechless.

Aluminum. He wanted to say that word.

It had a radar signature. They had to know, right?

Why was aluminum falling from the sky?


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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?

HEADHUNTERS (63.1)

this scene contains violence and death


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — North Rangda

Lydia braced her LMG atop a mound of debris, wedging it between the rocks.

The bipod had broken, and she needed to stabilize it.

“Lydia, watch out!”

Gwendolyn’s voice forewarned her, and Lydia ducked her head.

Gunshots struck the rock and chipped dust and fragments that flew in her face.

Gritting her teeth, shutting her eyes, she held the trigger and pressed down the gun.

The Myrta unleashed a volley of gunfire, a hitching, stopping-and-starting barrage that was forcing the gun up and back. Lydia struggled with the recoil, unable to see the enemy or even to peek her head out to look. She felt movement. Individual sharp snaps joined the repeating chunk chunk chunk of the light machine gun. Her fellow knights had joined her.

Lydia spread a tearful eye open, irritated by the dust.

She saw Gwendolyn standing tall beside her, holding her rifle up, aiming and firing.

She appeared to Lydia so gallant and powerful in that glimpse, her hair waving in the wind, her armor glistening, droplets of sweat falling from her face onto steel. Undaunted in the fire, with a steely gaze. Like a valkyrie of northern myths; she was so beautiful.

“Lydia, get up, we cleared the position!”

Gwendolyn’s voice was forceful, and Lydia felt an arm on her shoulder.

She let go of the light machine gun, wiped her face, and stood up from the ground.

Though the metal breastplate was decent at stopping pistol rounds, it was heavy and burdensome and drained one’s stamina. Lydia was already running on fumes, and having to stand and crouch and move around in the breastplate, symbol of her status, made it worse. Regardless, the helping hand of Gwendolyn was enough to right her, and she rose.

Ahead of them a sandbag emplacement was ripped and pitted and splashed with blood.

There were Ayvartan corpses around the defensive line, and an abandoned anti-tank gun wedged between sandbags, its operator laying dead behind the unshielded cannon. It was a lone, roadblock position with ten people, a few of them unarmed. Beyond them was a series of industrial buildings. Gwendolyn crouched beside a girl with a radio box, stolen from Ayvartans of the 8th Division, and took the handset and raised it to her ear.

“Paladin, we have cleared the anti-tank position. Patriarchs will be moving up.” She said.

Behind them, Lydia saw the tanks moving in from around the corner. Because of their thin armor, they were worried about the anti-tank gun. Lydia, Gwendolyn and a squadron of their knights had taken the decisive lead in the assault, and now the tanks shrugged off the sandbags in front of them, and opened the way. Farther ahead was the heart of the broken 8th Division. Once scattered to the winds, the elves would dominate North Rangda.

Gwendolyn set down the radio handset and waved to Lydia.

“Lady Paladin, Lord Arsenica ordered us to take out an artillery position.” Gwendolyn said.

“Breaking off from the main force, huh?” Lydia said.

“Orders are orders.”

Lydia smiled. Gwendolyn turned her head sheepishly away.

Though Lydia was nominally the vanguard, Gwendolyn had taken charge too.

Gwendolyn had transitioned so seamlessly to the front of the pack. It was almost as if it was in her blood, just a fact of nature that Gwendolyn was meant to be followed. Ever since they touched down in this forsaken continent, Gwendolyn’s meek voice had gained a measure of weight, and the people around her were listening. Lydia was listening.

She turned to the rest of the women of their squadron, and beckoned them.

Rifles in hand, breastplates yet untouched by gunfire, the women of the Knight’s corps fell in behind Lydia and Gwendolyn, and together, the unit broke off from the Patriarch tanks and the men in universal carrier APCs trailing behind them, and tore off into a nearby alleyway, cutting through the urban jungle. In the distance, as they moved farther away, the group heard gunfire as the tanks engaged the 8th Division in the industrial district.

“Let us hope they will be enough.” Lydia said.

“They must be.” Gwendolyn said.

They moved through the alleys in a column, Lydia and Gwen at the head, and the rest of the girls behind them. There were two light machine guns among them, Lydia holding one. Most of the girls had rifles; one had a scoped rifle for distance shooting. Two girls had submachine guns for added close-quarters automatic gunfire. They were shabby pieces from the old war, over a decade prior to these hostilities. But they still fired when needed.

Every girl carried two grenades. One anti-personnel frag, and one smoke grenade.

“Arsenica said it was an artillery position, right? Where is it?” Lydia asked.

“In a park just outside these alleys. And it’s Lady Paladin Lord Arsenica, Lydia.”

Lydia was not entirely thrilled to be reminded of Arsenica’s many honorifics.

In the midst of this maddening operation, a hand-fed, pampered noblewoman like Arsenica only took command because she got lucky and did the least amount of fighting. While she and Gwendolyn had been destroying Ayvartan anti-air positions and fighting the 8th Division head-on, outnumbered and in enemy territory, Arsenica had simply happened to land where the enemy radios were. Everyone deferred to her authority because she had come into possession of the crucial intelligence needed to win.

It did not sit right with Lydia. Arsenica was unworthy of leading them.

Someone like Gwendolyn was better suited. Gwendolyn was better suited.

Still, Gwen had made a demand of her and she would answer it.

“Yes, Lady Paladin Lord Arsenica it shall be, Lady Paladin Vittoria.”

“Ugh.” Gwendolyn grumbled, without even turning to meet her eyes.

Lydia laughed.

She accelerated her pace to catch up with Gwendolyn, and laid a hand on her shoulder.

“How are you holding up?” She whispered.

“I’m fine.” Gwen said.

“Are you really? I’m supposed to be in charge, but you’ve almost broke into a run ahead.”

Gwendolyn paused for a second to allow Lydia to walk a step past her.

“I apologize.”

“Gwen, you do not have to be formal with me.”

“I know. But appearances are important.”

“Gwen–”

“I’m fine, Lydia. As fine as I can be in this place.”

She did not sound fine. Lydia sighed.

“Gwen–”

Again, Gwendolyn interrupted. This time, she shot Lydia a fiery gaze.

“Lydia, I was sent here to die. And if they want me dead, I’ll die fighting.”

Lydia felt a sense of alarm.

“There’s no need to be so reckless. We can outlast this, Gwendolyn.”

“The Queen wants to be rid of me. I can never outlast that. But I’m foolish, Lydia. You know I don’t overthink things. I’m tired of sitting meekly around. That’s what I decided.”

Lydia squeezed harder on Gwendolyn’s shoulder.

“If you’re just doing it for me, you can stop with this act already.” Lydia said.

Gwendolyn blinked. Her expression turned briefly meek. Then she turned her head.

She marched at the head of the column once more. Lydia sighed.

“I’m doing it for me too.” Gwen whimpered.

Clear of the alleys, the group exited into a broader street. There was a cable car track occupying one lane of the road, and some of the cable cars lay abandoned along various points. Adjacent to it was a lane for cars, this one empty all the way up and down as far as Lydia could see. Along the concrete streets there were several tall, square, homogenous houses that probably served as rented flats (Lydia knew not how Ayvartans distributed their housing; did they have rent?). It was thick, dense terrain. Between the cable cars and the daunting wall of houses ahead of them there was a lot of cover for the enemy.

Hesitant to step out among these sights, the knights grouped in the alleyway.

“How much farther to the gun battery?” asked one of the girls.

Lydia looked around, squinting her eyes. She looked skyward. No trails; nothing.

“I don’t see any evidence of shooting. And I don’t hear anything near.”

There was always some kind of sound of gunfire in Rangda. There was a war going on. Rifles and machine guns could be heard continuously in the far off distance, reduced to a sound akin to the snapping of a door lock. Every so often there would be a far-away blast as a shell dropped, and to Lydia these distant explosions sounded like an overzealous oven burner upon its first lighting, a fizzing, gaseous sound bereft the rumble of proximity.

Despite all of this a gun firing in their vicinity would have been unmistakable.

They would have seen the trail, felt it in the ground and in their stomachs, and heard it.

“They wouldn’t keep a battery in a place like this. We should find more open ground.”

After delivering this advice, Gwendolyn then broke the huddle without warning.

She dashed out onto the road, and put her back behind an old, riveted steel mailbox.

Lydia almost wanted to shout, but her beloved 3rd Princess made it to cover safely.

Sighing with relief, she quietly signaled the next girl out by tapping her shoulder, pointing at her own eyes to tell her that she would be covered, and then pointing sharply out to the road. She would run past Gwendolyn’s mailbox and stack up behind one of the cable cars.

Nodding her head, the girl raised her rifle diagonally against her chest and breathed in.

She rushed out of the alleyway, passed the street and stepped down onto the road.

Lydia turned from her, and pointed to the next girl in the same way.

When the second girl ran out, the first one was almost to the cable cars.

Lydia watched them, her light machine gun trained on the road.

Her eyes squinted, reflexively. Tears drew from them. She caught a sharp glint of light.

This disturbance drew her gaze up to the roof of a nearby apartment building.

“Take cover!” Lydia shouted.

Just as she spoke the first shot rang out.

A rifle round perforated the neck of the first runner.

She fell to the ground, clutching her neck as if her head would fall off.

A second shot struck the ground near Gwendolyn and she pulled her legs up.

Horrified, Lydia raised her gun skyward, still catching the glint of the sniper’s scope.

They had made a mistake and positioned themselves clumsily. By the glint of the scope in the sun, she tracked the enemy down to the correct roof, and immediately laid a withering hail of automatic fire against them. She braced the gun against her shoulder and her back against the brick wall of the alley buildings. Because of its top-mounted magazine the myrta was difficult to aim and had a terrible balance, but with its trigger held down it performed as any machine gun would. Dozens of rounds chipped away at the concrete parapet and dozens more sailed over them. Her remaining squadron joined her, firing from around the corner edge of the alleyway at the rooftop. The enemy hid away.

Behind the mailbox, Gwendolyn withdrew a rifle grenade from her satchel and loaded it.

Rising from cover, she fired on the rooftop.

There was a flash and a burst of smoke from her muzzle, and the rifle grenade soared over the parapet and detonated with a sharp, sudden crack like a heavy whip. Their sniper rose over the parapet once more, but there was no glint from their rifle. Disoriented and wounded, the sniper stumbled over the edge of the building and fell to their death below.

Lydia lowered her myrta, its barrel shroud smoking, red and hot.

From her side, one of the girls ran out, screaming and crying, dropping her rifle.

Lydia and Gwendolyn both shouted a warning that went unheeded.

“Silica, no!”

Silica dropped to her knees beside the knight slain on the road, her pants soaking up blood from the ground. Her partner, the victim, was still holding her neck, gurgling incomprehensible words that bubbled with blood. Everything had happened so fast that though it felt like an eternity, only seconds seem to have flown, and the girl was still dreadfully alive in her agony. Silica bent over the fallen knight, her head on the dying girl’s breastplate, and started to cry and shout. “Jasmine! Jasmine no! No please!”

“Get back here!” Lydia shouted. She was exposed in the middle of the street.

Her screaming could draw the enemy to them!

Gwendolyn removed the spent rifle-grenade cup from her rifle, punched out the blank, loaded a real magazine, and charged out to the road, perhaps aiming to drag Parthia back.

Watching all this transpire, Lydia hastily snapped off the spent top-loading magazine from her Myrta, and one of her companions shakily withdrew and loaded a new magazine.

As Gwendolyn cleared the street, a burst of gunfire went off.

Silica froze, shook, leaned, like a pillar struck with a sledgehammer.

Perforated in a dozen places by machine gun fire, she fell, forming a bloody heap along with Jasmine. Neither of them would gibber again. Cheek to cheek, they died then.

Lydia stood frozen for a second. Gwendolyn too.

But the world did not stop for anyone else.

From farther up the road a second burst of machine gun fire trailed the ground in front of Gwendolyn. She fell back, startled, and Lydia saw her last moments flash before her eyes. Riddled with bullets like a training dummy, her golden hair and peachy skin caked with blackening, clotting blood, a gorey fountain of it, and then the fall, twitching, ungainly–

Lydia underestimated her partner. Gwendolyn surged forward, and with an acrobatic tumble fit for the olympic stage, she soared over the corpses in their deathly embrace, hitting the ground hard, and taking a sudden roll to hide behind the elusive cable car.

Machine gun fire struck the corner of the alleyway, and Lydia hid again.

Her squadron followed, cowering against the bricks.

“What the hell is going on!” Lydia shouted.

She peered quickly around the corner and saw the muzzle flash of the Ayvartan machine gun. It was entrenched in one of the cable cars along the road farther ahead, near the top of a gently sloping hill. Lydia grit her teeth. Bracing the machine gun against the corner of the alley, she pivoted just enough to bring the barrel to bear on the enemy emplacement.

Her fingers rapped the trigger to fire a controlled burst.

Crack!

Suddenly the trigger was stuck fast, and the bolt caught, and nothing fed.

Her myrta was jammed.

She felt ice cold despair gripping her heart.

Just across the street from her, Gwendolyn crouched behind the cable car as a storm of gunfire flew all around her. Dozens of holes formed on the surface of the car, every window shattered, the doors unhinged, the front falling off, as it absorbed nearly endless gunfire from farther up the hill. Lydia stared between Gwendolyn and the hill and the corpses of Silica and Jasmine. Would that be them? Was that their fate all along?

Arsenica had led them to this fate.

Lydia grit her teeth, despair turning to anger.

Arsenica, 4th in line to the throne, had commanded brave Paladin Vittoria, 3rd in line, to hunt for an artillery position in this sector. Dutiful Arsenica, who had full control over 8th Division Ayvartan radio and full intelligence on its positions from the Council that once fully controlled and commanded these armies. How had this slipped from her grasp?

“Everyone throw smokes! We’re retreating!”

Lydia had hardly shouted this, when her own smoke grenade went out.

In the middle of the street, where the mailbox was, the gas cloud started to spread.

At her side, more of her comrades joined her, throwing their smoke grenades out.

Soon the entire street was covered by the cloud.

Within the cloud the red tracers flew erratically, like fireflies buzzing by.

Lydia drew in a deep breath, and ran out.

She could not see where she was going, and she felt the pressure build in her chest and head as she tried not to breathe the smoke. She nearly stumbled as she blindly cleared the street and stepped down into the gutter, and then onto the black. Her boots stamped something wet and grisly; she nearly tripped on the corpses she could only presume to have been lovers, and she grit her teeth, and she felt bile rising in her throat, and she hoped to God that they could be happy in heaven now, hoping not to join them soon.

Ahead of her she saw the outline of Gwendolyn in the smoke.

All around her, the machine gun tracers flew.

“Gwendolyn!”

She breathed in smoke, coughed.

Lydia took the final plunge, and ran straight into a bullet.

A rifle round struck the welding seam directly over her sternum.

It was like the force of a cannonball. Her chest felt like it would cave-in.

Her breastplate dented, her left breast quivered with agony.

Lydia, choked up, screaming, collapsed just short of the cable car.

Weeping with agony, she thought for sure that she was now dead.

Then she felt the hands, the desperate tugging and the gentle grasp on her hair.

Gwendolyn pulled her behind the cable car, and laid her on her lap.

“Lydia!”

She opened her eyes and amid the smoke saw her beloved’s radiant face.

She was dirty from the smoke, and the sweat.

There was blood on her forehead.

“Gwendolyn.” Lydia mumbled weakly. “Are you hurt?”

“I was grazed. You could’ve been killed! You should’ve retreated!”

“No. Not without you.” Lydia said.

She glanced back at the road.

Gwendolyn seized her head by the cheeks and pulled her gaze away from that.

“Stop it! Just. Don’t look at them.”

She winced as a fresh round of automatic fire flew past them.

Lydia coughed. Her chest was screaming with pain.

“Arsenica is trying to kill you.”

Gwendolyn looked over her shoulder as if she would see anything but the battered cable car at their backs. Perhaps as if she could see that artillery battery they had been sent to claim. This was maybe the most despair-inducing event that could occur to a soldier. To know that one’s commander, in whom one entrusts her very life, whose good faith is absolutely necessary to succeed in an operation, is sending you to death deliberately.

Though Gwendolyn did not cry for Lydia’s wounds, she was crying now.

Lydia almost wanted to smile. Gwendolyn was much more of a soldier than she knew.

She was a perfectly mannered lady, a skilled ballet dancer, a gymnast, a singer, the best hostess she ever knew, and a wonderful lover. But she had trained, for longer and harder than anyone gave her credit for. They all had; but for Gwendolyn it felt extraordinary.

“Gwendolyn, I love you. And I’m happy to die like this than live–”

Lydia cringed reflexively, and Gwendolyn grit her teeth and shut her eyes, as something with a lot of force sailed suddenly past them, parting smoke, very close and extremely fast.

There was an explosion in the near distance.

Lydia heard footsteps, and she heard the grinding turn of tank tracks.

Behind them, a Patriarch I tank of the airborne forces advanced past the cable car.

Several men moved up to the car, putting the tank between them and the enemy.

They crouched near the two knights and offered assistance.

“You two ok? You wounded? This is an 8th Division roadblock up ahead!”

Medics moved up. A Universal Carrier, an odd-looking little armored tractor, arrived.

Gwendolyn wiped away her tears.

“I love you too, Lydia.” She whispered, as the men arrived to take care of them.


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