The Battle of Rangda III (55.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Rangda University Campus

“Lay down suppressing fire overhead! We’re storming the Research Library!”

Sergeant Chadgura shouted out to her troops, her dull voice achieving an air of strength.

Rushing up from University Avenue, she and her forces were poised to lay siege. Sniper bullets struck around their cover and stray machine gun fire swept the street, but it did not slow their advance. Smoke cover went up, elements reorganized and the attack pressed.

Machine gunners from Green and Yellow squadrons rushed uphill along the edge of the snaking road, making use of a brief smokescreen to cover their advance. Before the cloud fully thinned, they dropped on their bellies on the streetside green, using the curve of the hill to partially shield them from gunfire. Laying their Danavas down on their bipods, the gunners opened fire at angle on the upper floor windows of a massive square building overlooking the streets, raking every second floor aperture. Continuous gunfire danced between the windows, pitting the stucco exterior. Across the street an allied group of machine gunners performed the same maneuver on a second, opposite building.

Snipers and machine gunners, once commanding the terrain from inside the red brick buildings, quickly ducked away from the windows. They gave up their advantage for safety.

This was the best chance Sergeant Chadgura would get to invade the building and gain a powerful foothold in the University District. She steeled herself; she would seize it.

“Second Platoon will take the building at nine o’ clock, and we are going at three o’ clock! Move quickly; blocking group peels on contact, while the maneuver group keeps running!”

As she shouted this order, Chadgura stood up from behind a bus stop bench and rain shield and held her pistol into the air. Wind swept up her short, silver-white hair, and beads of sweat glistened over her dark skin. On her face was a stoic, unaffected expression, with easy eyes and neutral lips. She looked like a brave hero from a military poster.

Her gallantry was not lost on her troops. A group of twelve riflemen and women from her Green Squadron immediately left their cover in the vicinity of the fighting and joined her as she rushed uphill and past her deployed machine gunners. They ran without question.

Chadgura ran the fastest and hardest and it showed. She ran with abandon, her sense of pain and exhaustion and fear blunted, so that the palpitations of her heart and the raggedness of her breathing and the struggling of the muscles in her limbs felt distant and disassociated. She ran from the fog in her head and ran headlong into the fray instead.

“For Corporal Kajari! Charge!” She shouted, feeling a desperate pang in her heart.

“Oorah!” her comrades shouted back. She could almost feel their own rising spirits too.

Unbeknown to them the Sergeant was not sweating from mere heat and not screaming with h0t-blooded spirit. She was wracked with pain and stress not evident in her voice or mannerisms. She was conditioned to fight on regardless of this; and so she fought on.

Soon as her feet hit the top of the hill she aimed her pistol and laid down fire mid-run, smashing the glass panels of a long basement level window sinking into the lawn at the building’s far wall. Rifle shots rang out between the volleys of her allied machine guns. Tracers swept past her from the door to the Research Library and struck the turf.

There were riflemen stationed at the building’s ground floor doorway, leaning out of the cover of the doorway to fire on her. She felt chips of earth and concrete come flying at her legs and feet as snap shots struck the ground around her as she ran. She did not retaliate.

She was part of the maneuver group, and so she bounded forward. Others would cover her.

Behind her, three riflemen peeled from her group, took a knee atop the hill and engaged the enemy, shooting into the hallway partially concealed behind the glass panels and wooden frames of the doors. Well-timed long rifle shots on the door kept the enemy in the hallway from leaning out to fight, temporarily silencing the ground floor’s gunfire.

Machine gun fire flashed out from behind the hill and struck the second floor overhead, sending bits of the masonry and spent lead raining down over the maneuver group. Both the snipers and the ground floor defenders offered only scattered resistance, unable to deny the movements of their advancing enemies. Chadgura raised a fist in the air.

Her covering group saw the gesture and got ready for their new task.

“You saw her! We’re assaulting the front! Grenade out!” a man shouted behind her.

A safety pin clicked off. A can-shaped grenade went flying and rolling over stairway handrails in front of the building. It slipped in between half-open doors into the Library.

Chadgura heard the explosion go off to her side as she made it to the window she shot out. Six of her troops hurried past her, coming in from the hilltop she had left behind. They shouldered their rifles, stacking at the door with pistols, grenades and machetes in hand.

Half her squadron followed her to the corner of the building and crouched with her on the edge of the lawn. Chadgura and three soldiers guarded the broken basement window, while three others crouched and slid inside. From the sounds of it, they had a rough landing. It was an actual drop, from the ground roof to the floor of the basement level. Chadgura could not make out what was directly under them below, and had only a few dozen centimeters-wide glimpse at the long rows of book shelves and ceiling lights.

After a few seconds of low mumbling and groaning the entry team regrouped.

“There’s a table down here that’ll break your fall!” one woman shouted up.

She sounded mildly irritated, and likely still in much pain.

Chadgura unceremoniously ducked under the window and rolled inside herself.

Misjudging the height, she slammed side-first into the aforementioned table.

Very real pain shot through her whole body, and she felt the wind go out of her.

Her face contorted subtly, and her movements were sluggish, shaken.

None of her own self would allow her to really emote, to cry out or gnash her teeth.

Instead, stone-faced, she struggled to her feet, silently shaking.

Partially standing from the table, she raised her hands and clapped them softly.

Behind her, the two remaining soldiers dropped clumsily inside and landed hard on the tiled floor behind the table, missing the mark altogether. Neither recovered very quickly.

They had all landed in a small reading area surrounded by the basement’s shelves.

There was little time to take in the surroundings. Becoming stuck in here would spell death. Upstairs, they heard the sounds of individual shots fired, audible beneath the cacophony of the machine guns and snipers dueling outside. That must have been the ground floor team, engaging the enemy. Chadgura had no rifle, and ordered those who did to either shoulder it or affix bayonets. One woman had a submachine gun. Everyone else switched to their pistols — the bundu was too long to wield in confined spaces.

Chadgura withdrew a machete from her belt.

She wielded it one hand with an automatic pistol in the other.

Raising it like a cavalry sword, she ordered her fire team to hug the basement wall and follow it through the shelves. Two soldiers with bayonets led the team, followed by the submachine gunner, and Chadgura near the rear with the rest of the team. On one side they had a stark white wall, and on the other the long lines of black shelves filled with labeled books. At any point an enemy with an automatic weapon could have turned that cramped lane into a killing field, but none did. Chadgura’s group followed the wall down to a corner, and turned into another reading area that was also empty. There was a recess with a staircase inside, as well as an elevator. Chadgura did not trust the latter to be safe.

“Up the stairs. Private Ngebe, you first.”

She nodded to the submachine gunner, who nodded back. Ngebe was a bright-eyed, curly-haired girl that seemed ill at ease, but she was as trained as anyone there. Despite the perplexed look on her face, Ngebe carried out her duties well. Stepping carefully toward the recess, the submachine gunner stacked against the outer wall, quickly leaned in with her weapon to scout the room, and then proceeded inside carefully. Chadgura and the rest of the team followed, keeping out of sight of the staircase steps until Private Ngebe had taken a step and raised her weapon to the next landing. She raised her hand and urged them forward. Carefully, the team ascended the steps, keeping watchful eyes overhead.

An automatic weapon was vital to command access to obstacles like staircases.

But it seemed the enemy had not thought to defend the basement at all.

No sentries, no mines or traps, not even a locked door.

At the top of the stairs, Ngebe and Chadgura simply burst through an unlocked door and immediately joined the ground floor battle from directly behind the enemy defenses.

They entered a square lobby connecting the front hallway to the building proper. Behind a desk reinforced with sandbags a Khroda machine gun blasted the hallway and forced the entry team to duck behind the narrow strip of brick supporting the interior doorway. Already the door itself had been shredded. Three enemies crouched behind the reinforced desk, and a fourth man well inside the room directed the gunfire from within a stairwell.

Chadgura raised her pistol and shot this last man first, striking the side of his head.

He had barely hit the ground dead when Private Ngebe turned her gun on the desk.

She winced anxiously as she held down the trigger and hosed the defenders down.

Nothing that could be called battle unfolded from this — stricken by a hail of automatic gunfire at their backs, circumventing all of their protections, the defenders collapsed suddenly, their bodies riddled with bullets. Blood pooled over the sandbags and splashed the interior of the Khroda’s metal shield. In an instant the room grew dead silent.

The Sergeant wasted no time contemplating the scene.

“Entry team, form up!” Chadgura ordered.

From the hallway, the entry team crossed inside over the bits of door debris.

Now Chadgura had her whole squadron back, and without casualties.

She picked out one man and urged him out the door. “Go outside and signal for the rest to move in. We’ll advance upstairs to the main library.” Nodding, the man hurried out to do as he was told. Chadgura turned her attention to the rest of the squadron. “Reserves will sweep and hold the ground floor, while we secure the rest of the building. Move out.”

Clapping her hands — for effect rather than anxiety — Chadgura and her squadron inspected the stairways up to the second floor with the same caution that they approached the ones from the basement to the ground floor. Submachine gunners approached first, poised as they were to defend themselves from ambush with automatic gunfire. There were two staircases from the lobby, on opposite sides. Chadgura split her squadron into two fire teams and then she accompanied her original team up the leftmost stairway.

Quietly and carefully as they could, the squadron climbed each step without incident.

At the top, Chadgura and Private Ngebe left the stairwell first.

Soon as Chadgura set foot on the second floor landing a bullet struck the wall just a centimeter off from her cheek. She felt the force of the impact and winced. Though the mental shock was muted, the response from her body was visibly the same as anyone’s.

Chadgura ducked blindly behind the frame of stairwell opening to avoid the attack.

Several more rifle rounds flew past her. She heard a wet choking sound follow.

“Throw a grenade!” She ordered.

Some suppressed portion of her brain wanted to turn that into a visceral, echoing scream, but the words came out as a dull, slightly higher pitched cry that was still typical to her.

Nevertheless, she heard that grenade go flying out, thrown from the stairwell.

There was a deafening blast several dozen meters outside.

Chadgura waited a few seconds before leaning out and firing her pistol into the room.

Through the thinning smoke she caught a glimpse of where they were.

Ahead of them stretched a vast and broad room that seemed to encompass the entire floor. There were hundreds of shelves full of books to either side of a broad central space with tables and lamps. Many tables had been flipped over for cover. Several that had been stacked close to form a barricade in the center of the room had been blown to pieces by the grenade, killing and exposing the riflemen hidden behind them. There were men behind the tables, men hiding among the shelves, and a few men running between positions.

Behind her, one of her own men had been shot and was dragged downstairs. There was little room to hide or maneuver in the stairwell; most of her squadron was hidden down the steps. Private Ngebe was hiding behind the stairwell doorframe on the side opposite Chadgura’s own. This was the only place she could fit into and only one person could fit.

Chadgura could almost make out her remaining squadron on the far side of the room.

There were fewer positions opposing them than those opposing her.

Flipping on her radio pack, she called out, “Section, attack the central defenses!”

She waved to Private Ngebe, and reloaded her pistol.

At her signal, both of them leaned out and engaged the central defenses. Chadgura’s pistol was automatic, and the same caliber pistol round as Private Ngebe’s submachine gun, but its rate of fire was much lesser. Her fire flew in fits and starts, striking tables and floors and bookshelves inaccurately; Private Ngebe’s gunfire was continuous and accurate, fired from the shoulder, sweeping over the enemy’s cover and along its edges and forcing the defenders of the central position to cower in fear of being stricken wherever could be seen.

Cower they did, but only momentarily.

Seconds into Chadgura’s attack, from behind the defenders the second fireteam started shooting. A second submachine gun burned its ammunition, and this one had little to contend with and a likely unintruded view of the enemy’s backs. Pistols joined the volley and the volume of gunfire saturated the area. Suddenly the enemy found themselves enfiladed, caught between two pincers of brutal automatic fire. Chadgura could not see through the tables facing her, but she saw small holes punctured in the wooden cover; she heard the screams and shouts; she saw blood spatter, and saw wounded men trying to run.

Private Ngebe’s gun clicked empty, and she ducked behind the doorframe to reload.

Chadgura ducked behind as well.

Out in the library the gunfire did not abate.

Over the radio, Chadgura heard a man cry, “Grenade out! Take cover!”

This was soon followed by a blast in the middle of the room.

When Chadgura peeked out of the doorframe again, she found the barricade of upturned tables scattered in pieces, blown apart into bullet-riddled debris over isolated corpses and spreading pools of blood. There was not a living man still deluded enough to take cover in the mess. All of them had dispersed into the ranks of shelves, putting anything between themselves and the omnidirectional killing field the center of the library had become.

Chadgura grabbed hold of her microphone and shouted, as much as she could, “All units advance and clear the room! Shoot through the shelves! Don’t let them regroup!”

From behind her, the soldiers ducking down the steps came charging out.

Raising her pistol, Chadgura rushed out with them, and Ngebe followed.

Dispersing across the width of the room the column advanced. Pistols flashed repeatedly, shooting diagonally through the ranks of shelving units to avoid hitting their counterparts across the room. Lines of red tracers punched through books and wooden shelves and sent paper flying into the air. There was no resistance. Two submachine guns and a half-dozen automatic pistols systematically laid waste to the room, cutting a swathe across what seemed like a hundred rows of shelves each towering over the bloodshed. Rifle-caliber fire from the bayonet-bearing bundu punched through several shelves at once with each shot.

Within moments the last shot was fired and there were no sounds of resistance.

Checking between each row they found blood and bodies, some dead, many wounded.

Pleas of surrender went out from those still alive enough to know their plight

Papers soared and glided through the air like a cloud of white and yellow butterflies, stacking on the floor wherever they fell, turning crimson where there was blood. Several damaged shelves collapsed spontaneously as if awaiting the end of the violence. There was a partial domino effect on one end of the room, a dozen shelves falling over and crushing several men beneath their bulk; Chadgura’s forces steered clear of this as they marched.

Regrouping in the center of the room, Green Squadron exchanged clear reports.

Once sure that the situation was well in hand, Chadgura called over the radio.

“Second floor clear. Ground team, what’s your status?”

“Ground looks clear so far Sergeant. Should we join up?” one of the men responded.

“Send four of you. Everyone else barricade the basement and guard the lobby.”

After clearing the room, Chadgura completed her picture of its layout. She found the accursed second floor windows that she was being shot from earlier, vacant, at least one abandoned machine gun left lying there. And she found the next set of stairs, and once more stacked up at the stairwell. Ngebe took the lead again, and again Chadgura followed her up. Six fresh soldiers including four from the ground team followed behind her.

This time they were more cautious, and peered into the upper floor before fully climbing up the stairs. Nobody was shooting at the landing. In fact nobody was out in the open in the third floor. There was only a long hallway with closed doors to a dozen rooms. Austere brown carpets and beige walls, windowless showed no sign of tampering. Still, Chadgura was not going to take any chances. She called the ground floor and had a package brought.

On the closest and farthest doors explosives were quietly affixed.

Wire was drawn back to the stairwell.

Chadgura and her team hid, counted, and electrically set off the bombs.

In quick succession four blasts blew through the room.

Doors blew off their hinges and walls partially crumbled. Fires danced over splintered wooden supports and burnt carpet. Smoke swept across the hallway and into the rooms. Dust sifted from the cracked roof shimmering with the rays of the rising morning sun outside, while splintered walls unveiled the clouded remains of reading rooms.

“Clear the rooms.” Chadgura ordered.

Nodding heads; her soldiers donned gas masks and quickly spread among the doors and through the holes in the walls. Chadgura donned her mask and followed Ngebe into one of the nearest doors, pistol on hand. Behind the smashed doorway she found a room full of injured men and women, their weapons discarded or broken, coughing and choking with every wound conceivable from broken bones to missing fingers and limbs and cuts and bruises of all kinds, disoriented and mildly burned and concussed and dazed by the blasts. They crawled under upturned tables, behind fallen shelves and smashed file cabinets.

Across the floor, Chadgura heard the cries of “Clear!” come echoing from every corner.

She wandered through the debris and bodies, feeling nothing for them.

Her heart was always a little dull; today it was absent entirely.

It was somewhere else, with another person, one who needed it more.

“All clear.” She called on the radio. “Send medics up. We’ve got a lot of enemy wounded in grave need of treatment. Tell the ambulance and supply trucks it’s okay to move in.”

University Avenue was conquered, and now they had a castle from which to guard the Main Street. They were only a step from Muhimu Shimba. It felt like they had been fighting for days, but in reality a handful of hours passed. It was not even the proper time for lunch.

Chadgura started out of the building posthaste.

She feared that if she stopped moving, she would have gone back to her.

And though she wanted nothing more to stare at Gulab, to see her rest angelic and to suffer with her every second that she was not awake and aware among them, Chadgura knew that Gulab would not be safe until Muhimu Shimba was taken. She had to move.

“Orange squadron and Purple squadron move up, with me. We’re on the attack.”


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The Battle of Rangda I (53.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks

After the Colonel’s speech on the loudspeakers it was clear that the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment was going to battle, and it was clear against whom it was. What was not immediately clear was how they would go about the endeavor; there had never been, in all of their training in Rangda, any focus on strategy. It had all been about real time tactics.

Tactical units and officers thus stood in quiet contemplation, waiting for the Majors.

Once the speech concluded, the Colonel summoned her battalion commanders for an emergency meeting. It was the first time they would see the Colonel since the current events. They convened in an unusual location: a curtained-off corner of the base infirmary, around Madiha Nakar’s bed. She sat against several pillows stacked in front of the raised backrest of her bed, the lower half of her body covered in a medical blanket. On her lap, a small, heavily bandaged pet drake lay, curled up and asleep, purring softly.

Before her, the recently promoted Majors arrived together. Marion Burundi stood in the middle like an obsidian pillar, dark, strong, with his face lit by a bemused grin. He positioned himself front and center. At his sides were Shayma El-Amin, a sharp-featured woman maybe a year Madiha’s junior with short cropped hair under her peaked cap and sandy skin; and Nizar Jakan, a lanky, blunt-faced man with a sleepy expression.

“Ma’am, it is good to see you back. Consider me fully at your disposal.” Burundi said first.

“All tank crews are at full combat readiness, Colonel. Just say the word.” El-Amin added.

Jakan contributed nothing to the greetings. He seemed almost to want to hide in the back.

Despite her many visibly bandaged wounds, the Colonel had a fire in her eyes and spoke with a candor unhindered by exhaustion or medication. At her side, Chief Warrant Officer Parinita Maharani had pinned a map of the city on a board. Already there were several different markings on it. Neater ones could be attributed to C.W.O Maharani’s careful writing, while the more chaotic lines and scribblings in black were likely the Colonel’s.

“I am pleased with how you have handled yourselves in my absence. It was prescient to put the base on high alert and to build up combat readiness. You have vindicated my faith in your abilities a hundredfold. But the real battle begins now.” Colonel Nakar said.

Clearly her will to fight had not been diminished by her experiences. Nobody in the room knew what thoughts were swirling in the Colonel’s head, but all of them knew, quite clearly now, that her health was deteriorated. Some among them could ignore it or brush it aside, especially hearing her speak with such force. But one among them had concerns.

“Colonel, if it’s not much to ask, I’d like to inquire as to your condition.” Burundi said.

El-Amin glared sharply at him. Jakan again made no move. Across from them, Parinita averted her eyes from the group. Burundi was friendly, outgoing — perhaps too much. Whether he was being comradely or intrusive didn’t matter to the room. It was just taboo.

His inquiry did not appear to offend the Colonel, however, and she responded neutrally.

“To call what I suffered the past night anything but torture would be putting it too lightly. I do not wish to say any more than that, Major. Despite the torment I went through, I acquired useful information. With your aid, I am ready to exploit it.” She calmly said.

“Very well. I am glad you’ve got eyes forward, Colonel.” Burundi said with a soft smile.

El-Amin spoke so quickly and with such a strong voice she almost cut off Burundi.

“Colonel, my forces stand ready to shove aside the Federation sympathizers.” She said. “Merely say the word, and the cannons of the 3rd Tank Battalion will crush them!”

Where Burundi was easygoing, El-Amin was serious and intense. She had proven herself in the forest fighting of the Kalu, where she whipped into shape meager Goblin-armed tank companies into vicious and brave ambush groups that devastated the vaunted Panzer forces of the Federation. Her spirit and focus were unmatched among their peers, and she had a particular single-minded loyalty to the Colonel that was visible and indisputable.

Madiha smiled at her and treated her like a friend.

“Your zeal is always appreciated, Shayma.” She said.

El-Amin’s cheeks turned a touch redder but her stony expression was unchanged.

The Colonel then turned her eyes toward her even more faithful, ever-present aide.

“Parinita, explain the situation on the board.”

“Yes ma’am!” Parinita said. She turned to everyone else. “As you well know, we’re going to launch offensive operations against the 8th Ram Rifle Division. Our goal is no less than the complete destruction of the division, and the capitulation of Rangda’s government.”

Burundi’s eyes drew wide. El-Amin grinned with delight. Jakan nodded off a little.

“Complete destruction sounds like a bit much with our numbers.” Burundi said.

“Well I’ve crunched the numbers, and the disparity is not as great as you may believe.” Parinita said sharply. “Please allow me to explain, and have faith in the Colonel.”

Burundi frowned and shrugged but maintained his calm.

The Chief Warrant Officer picked up the corkboard map from the wall and set it on a tripod easel that was closer to the bed. Producing a telescopic pointer from her jacket, Parinita pointed at three separate locations marked with blue circles — Rangda University in the north, Ocean Road in the center, and Forest Park in the eastern city limits.

“Elements of the 8th Division in the city of Rangda number an estimated four to six thousand personnel, with the remaining quantities of their men and matériel expected to arrive between today and tomorrow. There are three key areas for the 8th Division in the city. Their strongest forces, the Lion Battalion, are located in Rangda University, and would likely make up the vanguard of any encirclement assault on our positions. Forest Park is a necessary entry point into the city for arriving forces, and Ocean Road is a necessary transportation route that bisects the city and connects all points.”

Parinita spoke clearly and concisely, with a warm, excitable smile on her face she pointed to the three locations and to three chits stationed in their base on the map. She stretched her arm and took one from the corkboard and stuck it on Forest Park, a second on Ocean Road and a third on Rangda University. Once she had the chits in their proper places, she addressed the room again as a whole, with her pointer swiping at the chits in turns.

“These will be our initial objectives. Our attacks will benefit from surprise, but not for long. And because of our current resources, we can only black out the communications of the Lion Battalion and the Council. So the rest of the 8th Division in Ocean Road and Forest Park will be able to talk with each other, but not with them. One greater advantage that we enjoy is numerical parity — you might be skeptical, but our ability to concentrate our forces means we will outnumber the 8th Division in critical areas at the start of the battle. They have to defend all of Rangda; we’re hitting three specific locations.”

Having taken her part in the briefing, Parinita ceded the floor to the Colonel with a smile.

Madiha took up the deliberations from there. “Jakan, 2nd Battalion will attack Forest Park, avoiding Ocean Road and carving a pathway through the urban center. This will be a diversionary attack disguised as our main thrust. You will attack ahead of all other units and at first without additional support, drawing in 8th Division units from other positions. The 8th Division knows that they require the rest of their forces to decisively defeat us, and that those forces are slowly arriving. By securing Forest Park, we have a stronghold from which we can fight their arriving units piecemeal at Rangda’s city limits, negating the advantage of their numbers. They will place a lot of importance in sealing up the city limits, so you should expect heavy resistance. Your goal is to tie them up.”

Jakan nodded his head silently. Shayma and Burundi glanced sidelong at him and sighed.

“El-Amin.” Madiha continued, setting her gaze on the tank battalion commander. “Once the attack in the center is underway and we know the enemy is recommitting their forces to defend or to take back Forest Park, your 3rd Battalion will form the right wing of our attack by moving on Ocean Road. Yours will be our most decisive thrust. I want you to hit the enemy with excessive force. Your goal will be to cut the 8th Division off from Council and to divide it into two pockets of resistance, stuck on either side of Ocean Road.”

“They’ll scream under the weight of our tracks, Commander.” El-Amin said. She had a wide, vicious beaming expression as she spoke. She must have been delighted to have had the Colonel’s trust and attention and to be tasked with delivering a decisive thrust.

Madiha then turned to Burundi, who saluted amicably in response, awaiting his orders.

“Burundi, your attack starts after Jakan’s breakout to the east. You will break through to the Lion Battalion’s stronghold in Rangda University and destroy it, preventing Lion from relieving Forest Park’s defenders. Lion is the only force available that could potentially disrupt Jakan’s takeover of the Park. They threaten his flank all throughout the urban center, and they are loyal veterans of the 2026 mutiny. Right now they are likely the unit in Rangda with the best equipment and largest numbers. You must break them.”

“I like the sound of that.” Burundi replied. “Matumaini is on it, Commander.”

Of all the newly-promoted personnel, Burundi was the least officer-like of the bunch. He had started the war a platoon sergeant on the border with Cissea, and exhibited great leadership qualities throughout the retreat. He practically acted as a Captain when several went AWOL during the organization phase of the battle of Bada Aso. After great personal bravery during the Matumaini defense, his battalion was granted the street as a moniker.

“Once Lion is routed, Ocean Road is ours, and Forest Park is held, we will decapitate the government by launching an attack on Council, and force the 8th to stand down.”

Parinita crouched by the corkboard and withdrew a pen, drawing lines connecting the circles and chits and various numbers and other markings on the map. As Madiha spoke, she drew. All of them swept east and north toward the exterior of the city, and then finally slammed back onto Council. Whether with overwhelming force or as a final desperate measure it remained to be seen. Judging by the excitable look on Col. Nakar’s face as she explained her plan, she seemed confident in what the outcome could be.

Once the drawing was done, the Chief Warrant Officer stood at the Colonel’s side with a confident smile that mimicked the Commander’s own, holding a clipboard to her chest.

“Any questions?” Parinita asked warmly.

At this, Jakan raised his hand stiffly into the air.

“Go ahead.” Madiha said.

Jakan cleared his throat roughly.

“Ma’am, may I humbly suggest that the Light Self-Propelled Gun Battalion and the Motorcycle Recon Company launch an attack between mine and Burundi’s thrusts? They can support a small push against displaced elements from both areas, while being available for artillery support for both of us. I would find that comforting.” He said.

His voice was nasally, froggish, and a little grim, but he made perfect sense.

Madiha smiled and nodded her head. “An excellent suggestion. I will consider it.”

Jakan bowed his head.

Unlike Shayma and Burundi, Jakan had already been a commissioned officer for a time.

He was the kind of officer who outlasted demilitarization, and he was one of the very few Captains of Battlegroup Ox who did not disappear when the going got tough. His forces held the Umaiha river with great bravery until the weather swept most of them away. His new battalion was named Umaiha in commemoration of their sacrifice. Though he was a bit of an eccentric, he had Madiha’s trust. And she had entrusted him the toughest task.

“Thank you, Commander. I will diligently seek the objective.” He said.

El-Amin gave him a look of begrudging respect. Burundi laughed.

Thus the strategy was set forth, and the seed for the battles to come planted.

“I can’t move from here right now, but I will keep an eye on your progress.” Madiha said.

One by one, the battalion commanders bowed in respect, and left the infirmary.

“With that kind of plan, they can definitely win.” Parinita said, almost as if to herself.

Madiha merely grinned, and settled back against the bed to rest.


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Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XIV

This chapter contains violence.


50th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Ikrea — Convent of St. Anastasia

As the night’s shadow stretched thin in the face of the morning sun, black boots emerged to trample across the gardens of St. Anastasia. For much of its history the Convent had been a refuge for women seeking to escape the duties forced by the kingdom upon sisters and daughters and wives, by serving Lord instead of lord. Now men patrolled the periphery day by day, armed and uniformed and turning the refuge into a prison.

Amid the lush forests of Lubon’s verdant Ikrean valley, Saint Anastasia was an austere sight that called back to centuries past, a stately palace of ornate stonework and stained glass, spread into two great wings attached to a central temple with a great dome. Cosseted between the arms of this great horseshoe-shaped castle was a large inner garden and an old bell tower that rose high over the surrounding forest. Though it might have once seemed extravagant and vivacious, time had worn the convent down. Ivy crawled along the walls, and there were cracks in the graying white masonry. Half the rooms were empty, cobwebbed, left for history to keep. Visible and unsightly exterior supports kept the central dome in its place. Within the long outer halls lone, distant prayers echoed.

Surrounded by the wood and a spear-tipped fence, the convent was well isolated.

Though it could have easily borne a thousand women, Saint Anastasia was home to maybe a hundred across its vast and deep halls — and a fraction of watchful legionnaires.

It had become routine now. Every morning when the first bell tolled, the men would take up their arms, avoid the women as they were instructed, and patrol the gardens, the exterior green, the cobblestone paths, and the nearby woods for signs of trouble.

The Ikrean bread basket was guarded by the 34th Blackshirt Legion, and owing to an important, permanent guest, St. Anastasia had become a routine post for a half-dozen men of its 78th Signals Battalion. Though originally trained radio operators and intelligence desk paper pushers, they had been drafted into the Convent guard in order to keep the circle of trust surrounding “Priorita: Rosa” as small and tight as possible.

What more was necessary to make a man a guard, than a gun and a ward?

For over a month the men had walked their well-practiced routes through the convent without issue. They had never needed their guns. They had never needed their cumbersome backpack radios to communicate with one another. Over time they became more concerned with finding some way to bond with the beautiful girls in the convent than with their patrols.

And so the guns were left behind so as not to scare the saintly women.

And so the backpack radios remained hung on racks for personal comfort.

And so when Byanca Geta spied her first target, he was quite outmatched.

Tall and thin with shining, slick hair and a cheerful grin, he carried himself more like a ballroom dandy than a soldier, despite legionary uniform. He patrolled the rear of the convent, behind the back of the church bell tower. From atop the branches of a tall oak, high enough to cast a shadow over the fence spears, Byanca watched him as she had watched the past two days. None of the women took their strolls this far away from the convent proper. This man had another vice in mind.

Against the old cracked stone of the tower the man leaned his back, spread open his coat and withdrew a pipe and a bushel of ragged-looking herb.

As he partook of his ganja, and his attention left him, Byanca pounced.

She threw a pack over the walls and took a deep breath.

Leaping from her branch and clear over the spears and fence, she hit the ground and tumbled forward. Her shoulder and side took the brunt; startled, the guard was slow to react. In one fluid movement Byanca was back on her feet, and she battered the guard against the stone tower.

Disoriented, he threw a wild swing, striking her in the shoulder.

Byanca reared back through the pain and butted him between the eyes.

He fell aback, and through a fleeting daze she drove him to the floor.

Struggling to a dominant position, his arms pinned under her, Byanca beat the guard’s face black, blue and red before he could utter any plea for help.

He was bruised and bloody and unconscious, but not dead.

She did not want to kill them; there was only one man she wanted dead.

Standing from over the body, she ran back to the wall and seized her pack where it fell. She pulled out the state of the art Nochtish portable radio, shaped like the thin and long box a jewel necklace might have come in, but thicker, made of green metal. It was cushioned within a wad of newspapers inside the bag. She tested it, praying that it survived. There was a tone, and she could change the frequencies and hear sounds. It was alive.

She put it in her bandoleer and searched the bag again.

From underneath the newspapers, she withdrew a weapon, metal grey and seemingly made of a pipe with a metal loop for a stock. To casual observers it might have seemed some kind of odd tool were it not for the long, thin magazine that stuck out from the side and the thin trigger guard beneath it.

Thus armed, Byanca handcuffed the unconscious man and hurled him into a nearby berry bush. He only needed to be concealed for less than an hour.

Once he was taken care of, she raised the radio to her ear.

“Tower’s clear.” She said.

There were only two people she could communicate with this kind of radio.

And all of them had to be relatively close, owing to its range.

Replies came quickly.

“West wall is clear, infiltrating now.” She heard a masculine voice say.

“Still waiting on an opportunity on the east wall.” Added a feminine voice. “There’s two too many congregating here. But they’re not mobile. We may be able to get by them.”

“Worse comes to worse, use the blister gas.” Byanca replied.

“Yes ma’am!”

Her recruits were doing better than she expected.

She was trained to work in units of eight or ten, but in Borelia there were never enough soldiers to go around. So a three-man unit suited her fine for this. She had two others waiting just off of the forest road with a getaway vehicle. All that was left now was to execute and hope for the best. They had planned as much as their resources allowed.

“Torvald, don’t be seen.” Byanca said.

“Yes ma’am.” Replied the man with the masculine radio voice.

Satisfied, Byanca started on her way.

Sneaking around the bell tower she stole into the central garden. On all sides it was surrounded by the rising convent buildings. Pristine tiled paths cut through raised plots of black earth fenced-in by off-white stone. Each plot was bursting with lily bushes and hedge plants. It was like a maze, and the open-air hallways on the buildings stood overwatch on the veiled and robed women traveling hand-in-hand through the paths.

Byanca crouched low and made use of the garden to avoid detection. She walked against the bushes and hedges, and kept an ear out for footsteps. It was a quiet morning, and she could hear anyone coming from far. She could see people walking on the second stories of each of the surrounding buildings, casually ambling down the halls, but they did not seem interested in the garden below. Byanca was dressed all in green, and wore a cap and a half-face mask with thick glasses to conceal her identity. She was as concealed as she could be.

“–Visions 6:17, have you given it any more thought?”

“Nay sister, I’ve been so exhausted lately.”

“I found it very inspirational. I think the Messiah would approve of–”

Upon hearing the girls Byanca threw herself into a nearby bush.

Hiding among the branches, still as she could be, she spotted the pair coming around the corner. There were two spindly elven girls coming, in modest blue and white robes, long-sleeved, with covering shawls and long hems and rustic boots, their veils bearing gold-lined holes for their long, sharp ears. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed and barely into adulthood, they walked the garden paths, holding hands and sharing their thoughts on scripture.

Byanca held her breath.

Along the left-side bushes, across the tile path from her hiding place, they stopped.

One girl looked around with a wary expression.

“Is something the matter, sister?”

Her companion tugged gently on her sleeve.

Byanca gulped. She gripped her submachine gun tightly.

Turning around, the wary girl faced her.

Unprompted, she advanced toward Byanca’s bush.

The Centurion felt panic stealing her breath and tensing her muscles.

Her mind raced with possible solutions. Shooting was out of the question, how could she ever live with herself if she murdered a pair of teenage nuns; she could perhaps club the girls unconscious if they started raising hell. Carefully enough and she could subdue them without causing injury beyond repair. She could chase them down and force submission–

Around her the leaves on the bush shook.

So close did the wary girl come to her bush, that she cast a shadow over Byanca.

Looming over, the girl stared over Byanca’s head and examined the bush quizzically.

Byanca readied to pounce in an instant.

Suddenly the girl extended her hand and plucked a flower.

Turning on her heel, she cheerfully returned to her companion and arranged the lily in her hair and veil. Both girls laughed and held hands and shared quick glances before flouncing away as cheerful and obliviously as they had come. Sweating, out of breath, shaking from the tension, Byanca waited for their footsteps to grow farther, before moving on again.

Slowly she wound her way through the garden, giving a wide berth to the rare few nuns traveling the gardens at this hour. She made her way to the western wing of the convent, avoiding the steps into the exterior hall. Instead she made her way through the hedges and bushes as near as she could to the wall, and climbed through an arch-shaped window.

Inside the building, she quickly made her way to the second floor, and deeper into the interior halls. It was lonesome place, the convent interior. Images of the Messiah, a nondescript younger man, almost faceless and inexpressive, stared pleadingly at her around whatever corner she turned. When the Messiah bore an expression, it was one of torment, bleeding and dying at the site of his execution by some ancient heathens. Apart from his image the convent was all bare hall, dusty walls, worn-away floor tiles. There were endless doors — this was once a dormitory wing. But there were no occupants. It was like a palace shared only with ghosts and cobwebs. No nuns came here. No nuns could.

Though they were allowed to walk the exterior, this wing was a prison not for them.

Having had access to Priorita: Rosa files, Byanca knew more or less where the target was located. A second floor interior room, windowless, abandoned; she was a pearl in the rough, buried within the last place anyone would look. Hall after endless hall, any pursuer would have given the place up as a site forgotten by time. But Byanca knew where to look.

She knew that the labyrinth was repurposed both to protect and punish her target.

Clarissa Vittoria would be trapped in the dead center.

Where she could not see the sun or smell the outside air.

“Situation report?” Byanca called, while sneaking through the halls.

“Radio room neutralized.” Torvald replied. “All guards silently subdued.”

“Good, get out of there. Giuseppa?”

“Still staring down a bunch of clowns congregating by the wall.”

“Throw the blister gas and get out of there. I’m almost out.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Byanca shut off the radio and raised her firearm.

Rounding a final corner, she found herself at a dead end leading to a pair of palatial double doors now stuck with a rod through their handles. In front of the door, a man in a legion outfit sat, staring at the ground. He looked up unconcernedly at first, as if he expected to see another nun or maybe one of his own peers relieving him. His eyes drew slowly wider.

He reached for a gun set on a table in front of him alongside a deck of cards.

Byanca fired a quick spray on the table, perforating it and knocking the gun off.

Outmatched the guard raised his hands.

Though the gunfire resounded across the halls, she was so deep into such an empty place she did not fear discovery. At any rate, she was at her destination. Objective complete.

Byanca pointed her gun on the door.

Alarmed, the guard nearly jumped. He only spoke once he was sure she would not shoot.

“No keys!” He shouted. “Just the rod. It was never meant to lock.”

Nodding, Byanca tossed him a pair of handcuffs.

“Behind your back.”

She grunted the words in a deep, fake voice she hoped was unlike her own.

Compliant, the guard handcuffed his hands behind his back.

“Kick away the gun and stand back.”

Once more the guard did as instructed.

Byanca approached the door and withdrew the rod from the handles.

Briefly she turned around and swiped the rod across the guard’s expectant face.

He fell to the ground, instantly out. Byanca opened the door.

As the halves of the grand door swung open toward her, Byanca found herself with a nun’s veil right at her feet. It had been hurled across the room, perhaps. Clearly it was discarded.

On a plain bed in a plain room, staring at a plain wall, was Clarissa Vittoria.

She must have heard the gunshots, but her face bore no expression.

All around her there were markings on the floor showing where a much larger, grander set of furniture had once stood. There was nothing left of them but one plain armoire.

Framed in these outlines, the exiled princess stood out all the more.

Byanca was taken in by her beauty and by its obvious source. She was almost a perfect image of Passionale Vittoria. Perfect olive skin, strong green eyes, high cheekbones, slim, elegant features, long locks of luxuriant, subtly waving golden hair. She had the slender but rounded figure of a noblewoman. Clearly she had not been left wanting for the finer things in life. But her body had also been manipulated into its shape, sculpted by hardship into the perfection of a Vittoria. Salvatrice had some of that air as well, in different ways.

Despite wearing the plain habit of a nun, Clarissa still glided over the floor as if in a silk dress. She turned on her heel to face the door, and performed a modest curtsy.

Standing before her, the Centurion was momentarily smitten speechless.

She, who had dreamed forever of a beautiful princess worth fighting for, was given pause at the gentle expression of the captive Clarissa, upon whom the situation dawned quickly.

“You’re here for me.” She said, covering her delicate lips with subtle delight.

But Byanca was not a knight; she was a baleful dragon who was here to trick the Princess.

“Do you know where he is?” Byanca said. She hoped she would have to say no more.

Clarissa gasped slightly. After briefly hesitating, she replied, “I have some idea.”

“Good. I can’t take you all the way.” Byanca said.

“I know.” Clarissa said, a small, sad smile playing across her face.

In her conspiratorial heart, Byanca felt incredible relief.

Had Clarissa been any less certain of her lover’s dedication to her, had she not thought it fact that he would one day rescue her, the entire plan might have crumbled immediately.

It could very well still crumble.

“Follow me. Pretend to be my hostage.” Byanca said.

She raised the gun on Clarissa.

Such a thing, even from a supposed ally, would startle anyone; but not Clarissa Vittoria. With an impish grin on her face, she play acted raising her hands and put on a bereaved expression, in part genuine, in part obviously play-acted, as if delighting in the falsity. She was so sure, so fearless. Was this all her; or was it the power of Cesare Regal?

“How far are we going?” She casually asked.

“We’ll take you out of the vicinity here. You’ll have to do the rest.”

Clarissa smiled. “I see. So you’re the local cell.”

Byanca said nothing. To say anything might invite skepticism.

“You are bold, to take on the Legion here. I will see you greatly rewarded.”

Did she still think she would become Queen? After all of this?

Again, however, Byanca said nothing.

Breaking in here, leading her out; all of this was the easy part.

Cesare Regale still lay in waiting somewhere.


 

Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

 

 

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XIII

This chapter contains mild sexual content.


43rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Town of Palladi

Though the town of Palladi had grown dramatically in the shadow of the nearby Academy, the crying of roosters still heralded the morning, just as it had done when farmland dominated the landscape. Moments before the sun began to rise over the old province, dozens of stout birds presiding over several family coops kept on the town’s outlying lands stood under the clearing sky and competed in voice to bring in the dawn. Regardless of the electric lights in the town square or even the old mechanical clock tower in the northern urbanization, the roosters would cry across town.

It was with the roosters that the old townies woke. No more than six kilometers from the ultramodern home where Salvatrice and Carmela partook of each other, a small cafe opened its doors, admitting the single customer that the shop owner had always come to expect. However, they soon found, together, that the man was not alone. He had been followed.

Byanca Geta approached from behind the older man and the cafe owner just as the door opened. She slipped in with them, ignoring the icy glare from the owner, a woman older than her but younger than him. Though she gave Byanca a long, wary and appraising glare, she would not dare close her establishment to a legionnaire who had yet to speak. Meanwhile the old man, a certain Giovanni, merely glanced at her without a word.

Inside, the cafe was small and homely. There were potted plants near every table and corner, and the tables were small and circular with high chairs. There were eight tables, and a few seats on the counter, behind which the owner stood and took to staring at Byanca some more. Byanca paid her no mind. She waited a moment for the old man to take his seat, and then promptly moved to the end of the front row of tables, set behind the long front window of the cafe, and sat right across from him.

“Giovanni Martino?” Byanca said.

“Doubtless you already know.” He replied.

From the center of the table he picked up a rolled-up newspaper, freed it from a paper ribbon around its center, and unfurled it. He started to read, and his view of Byanca was completely blocked. She was unfazed by this. She expected he would try to shut her out. Cooperation with the Legion had always been low among the civilians, and it was an all-time low now.

“I bear you no ill will, nor do I come to detain or question you on behalf of the Blackshirt Legion. I’m here as a private person.”  Byanca said.

“Your uniform says otherwise.” Giovanni casually said.

“I have nothing else decent to wear.”

“No. You could get clothes. I got clothes when I came back. But the uniform is convenient, isn’t it? It starts to feel like your good skin.”

He turned the page as if he had said nothing much at all.

Byanca blanked for a moment on how to reply.

There was nobody outside the window, nobody walking the streets. Aside from the owner there was nobody there but them. She felt that coaxing Giovanni into the subject would not work. Byanca still had to be careful, but she could partake in a mild indiscretion to bring him out of hiding.

“I’m here because of Salvatrice Vittoria.” Byanca said in a low, calm voice.

It was a name both of them knew; one with many portents attached.

Giovanni promptly laid the newspaper down on the table.

He adjusted his hat and turned on Byanca a sharp glare.

“I’m not keen to threaten neither women nor kids; but little girl, if you intend to march upon the young Vittoria, we are going to have problems.”

His own tone of voice matched hers, save for the threat.

While he spoke, his fingers snatched the fork and spoon on the table and began to toy with them, twirling them around. It was perhaps a nervous tic, though it could also be a display. She got the impression that were he to reach for a knife or gun he would be even more dexterous than with the utensils. Certainly if it came down to a draw she thought he could draw much faster than her. Giovanni’s every movement spoke of an intensity often unseen in his age. He was very deliberate in every turn of the hand.

And yet his face betrayed no emotion in its hewn and worn features.

Byanca raised a hand in her own defense. It contained her identification.

“I intend no such thing. I am her new bodyguard. Centurion Byanca Geta.”

Giovanni’s expression was unchanged. He still regarded her coldly.

“I see. I was informed about your presence, though were never introduced formally. In fact I put it out of my mind; I never thought that we would have cause to meet. Your business and mine ought to remain separate.”

“Salvatrice cannot afford that. Not with the danger she faces.”

“It is precisely because of the danger that you should be away from me, and alongside her instead. I work for that child from afar. She trusts me with her correspondence and I deliver it. No more.” Giovanni said.

Byanca smiled. “How did you chance upon such a golden opportunity?”

Giovanni shook his head, seeming more disappointed than offended.

“You mistake me and the Princess both if you think this role is lucrative.”

Byanca did not need much convincing of that. After all, she had served the Princess for some time now and all she had come away with was injury. It did not pay to serve Salvatrice Vittoria. It could only be done out of love.

“I need to know how you met and why you serve her.” Byanca said.

“Nothing in your reports about that?” Giovanni asked.

“No.” Byanca replied. She felt for a moment like she had come under attack from him. It was the same disdain Salvatrice had shown her before. Both were justified in their anger. She had too much information at her disposal and too much reason to employ it — none of it was right.

But like her attitude in this conversation, she found it necessary.

“Salvatrice has told me about you, much like she has told you about me.” She said. “But I still have no reason to trust you. I would like to dispel my doubts. Please enlighten me as to how you came to serve Salvatrice.”

“All I will say is I traveled with her for a time and grew attached”

Giovanni pulled open his coat and withdrew a cigarette and lighter.

“Care for one?” He asked.

It was the almost instinctual courtesy of an old gentleman, nothing more.

Byanca was well aware that he still kept her at arm’s length.

This was perhaps even a ploy to quiet her for a time.

“I don’t smoke.” Byanca said.

Shrugging, Giovanni lit his own cigarette and took a drag.

Behind the counter the owner watched the two of them talk. She did not come to take their orders or otherwise make any overtures. It was clear they had this time to themselves. Byanca was simultaneously glad for a touch of privacy, but also annoyed at how little the legionnaire badge and shirt was worth. It was that annoyance in part that brought her here.

After blowing a cloud of smoke, Giovanni turned to Byanca once more.

“I will not answer any more questions, Ms. Geta, until you state your intentions clearly. Have some respect for an old man’s fading time.”

“I was planning to come clean now anyway.”

Byanca leaned forward.

“I am looking for recruits.”

Giovanni raised an eyebrow. “For the blackshirt legion?”

“No!” Byanca said, shaking her head. “To serve the princess as we do.”

For a moment the old man’s eyes seemed to soften on her.

“I’m listening.” He said.

“The Princess is in grave danger every single day.” Byanca said. “Both the Legion and the anarchists have become her antagonists. There is no side that she can join. Salvatrice has to become her player in this game. I want to create a group that answers only to her and that does only her bidding.”

“You mean you wish to raise mercenaries to protect the Princess?”

Giovanni seemed at once intrigued and outraged by the proposal.

“Plenty of nobles have bought extra bodyguards. It is only fair Salvatrice do so as well. I’m not ambitious; even one man would suffice right now.”

She put an obvious inflection on her last few words.

“So that is why you’ve come to me then? I’m your man?” He said.

She had his attention now. She could tell; he was emoting more now.

Byanca turned a smile on him and tried to engage him with more charm. “You served in Borelia, didn’t you, Giovanni? You were a soldier. You left the colonial forces due to your principles. And the Princess trusts you.”

Giovanni crossed his arms. He looked her over with a wary gaze.

“I’m sure the Princess would love to have you as part of her defense.” Byanca continued. “We will no longer rely on the Legion. After this affair I’m turning in my black shirt for a red coat. Would you help me, Giovanni?”

There was no longer anything to hide. Byanca spoke earnestly and honestly. She could only throw herself on his mercy and hope that he saw beyond the shirt at the desperate fallen knight who longed for her princess. Or at the very least, hope that he saw a dragon who loved her.

In return, Giovanni snorted. He looked out to the street, away from her.

“A reference to the uniform of the old imperial guard does not sway me. I do not romanticize it. That being said, I know a few soldiers younger than me who could use the work. I will send them to you. You’d best have the coin for them, however. Mercenaries do not hold your pretty ideals.”

Perhaps he had seen neither knight nor dragon, but a desperate girl.

Despite this, he had given her some hope.

Byanca smiled. “We have more dinari than we know what to do with.”

At the moment it was not necessarily true, but it soon would be.

“Hmm. Redcoats, huh? What will the Queen think of this, I wonder.”

Giovanni grew pensive. Byanca gave a fiery retort. “To hell with her.”

To her surprise, it was well-received. For the first time, Giovanni grinned.


43rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Town of Palladi — Sabbadin Homestead

Atop the brick wall surrounding the rear portion of the Sabbadin estate, a questing rooster paused momentarily to peer at the dawning sun and give its characteristic cry. Through the upper hallway, and into the heiress’ bedroom the cry wound its way, until it reached a pair of blunt elven ears.

Salvatrice Vittoria slowly awoke, sitting up against the bedrest.

There were all kinds of scents and sights in the room around her.

She found herself giddily immersed in the sensations.

At her side she found Carmela asleep, snoring softly, pushed against her. Her chest rose and fell splendidly, and she glistened with a layer of sweat. Salvatrice felt a delectable shiver in her skin as her hip touched Carmela’s back. Her lover groaned slightly in protest, smiled and shifted her weight.

As she did so, Carmela pulled the blank off both of them.

Finding her breasts suddenly bared, Salvatrice pulled the blanket back.

She could not pull it over her chest and soon gave up the tug of war.

Carmela remained asleep, arms spread, her naked body fully in view.

Her lipstick was smeared, her pigments running, her hair frayed. Her voluminous dress was in parts all over the bed, her skirt and leggings hanging over a column, bodice thrown at their feet, her lingerie dangling off her ankle. Her warm olive skin was still red in the places that had been sucked or smacked or squeezed or otherwise performed upon in love.

Salvatrice glanced askance at one of the mirrors in the room and smiled.

She also looked as if she had a wild night. Her hair was tossed around, her nice dress was wrinkled and discarded like a rag, and she was still feeling stiff between the legs. All of her once brownish skin was an off-red color from the heat in her blood. Most notably her makeup was a fine mess.

From the first seizing of lips she shared with Carmela she had become smeared in lipstick. As her lover aggressively explored more of her body the red marks spread like a haphazard tattoo. She had bright red marks on her small breasts, on her buttocks and thighs, and in places between. Her own lipstick had smeared as well when her turn came to kiss and tongue where she desired, but the color was subtler than Carmela’s bright red.

In the mirror, Salvatrice resembled a horny clown. She started to giggle.

“What’s so funny?” Carmela said, her voice a luscious little purr.

Her eyes half-opened. She had a naughty look on her face.

“We’re completely disheveled.” Salvatrice said.

“We don’t have to clean up for anyone, do we?”

Carmela sat up in bed and tossed her wavy golden hair with a coquettish grin. She did not care to cover herself with the blanket, and her breasts seemed to rumble right before Salvatrice’s eyes. She exuded a confidence in her own body that sent another jolt right between Salvatrice’s legs.

“Well, not right now. But I must soon be going.” Salvatrice said.

“Will you at least stay for breakfast?” Carmela asked.

“Yes, I promised that much.” Salvatrice said.

Carmela’s impish grin returned. “It is a two-course meal.”

After that cryptic whisper she pounced on Salvatrice.

Salvatrice barely had time to moan in pleasure.

Perhaps an hour later, disheveled ever more, the two finally left the bed.

Laughing, Carmela pushed Salvatrice out of the room and down the halls, barely wrapped in sheets pilfered from the bed. Thankfully there were no servants there to witness the two naked, giggling young women cavorting sensually down the hall and into the bathroom. There was a grand and dire bath tub in the center, like an obsidian coffin. Soon it filled from the hot water faucet, and Carmela and Salvatrice lay down side by side within.

All of their pigments and oils washed into the water and danced on the surface, coloring and obscuring the shapes of their bodies below.

Carmela leaned her head on Salvatrice’s shoulder.

“How are you finding the accommodations so far?” She asked.

“Quite stimulating.” Salvatrice replied.

Carmela looked up at Salvatrice, craned her head and kissed her.

“Salva, I love you.” She said.

“I love you.” Salvatrice said.

Turning her head again, the heiress gazed into their obscure reflections on the water. She smiled, swirling her finger over her own face in the surface.

“I am incredibly happy that we could meet and touch and delight one another. But I want you to know if I could only love you through letters and at a distance for the rest of my life, I would be happy.” Carmela said.

“I’m glad to hear that.” Salvatrice replied. She was a little taken aback.

She had never thought of it in that way before. Certainly she had imagined she would lose Carmella, on that fateful day when the responsibilities of the kingdom finally snatched her free life from her. But she never thought their romance could potentially continue even if from afar. To Salvatrice, the exchange of letters had simply staunched a wound until she could have a fleeting glimpse of her beloved, as a stitch to stop the bleeding.

“I love everything about you, Salva. What I first fell in love with was that sharp tongue you turned on unsavory guests at the few parties where we could arrange to meet; what I next fell in love with was that sharp intellect and the kindness and vulnerability behind it. When I learned about your body I loved that as well. But I will always love you; it might be a different love than what the commonfolk share, but it will be love, at any distance.”

Salvatrice herself felt compelled to lay her own head on Carmella then.

“I’m so happy to hear it.” She said. She felt the warmth of those words in her chest and across her cheeks. She knew it was not the bath that did it.

Carmela bowed her head, smiling with eyes averted like a shy schoolgirl.

“Whenever I craft a letter to you, and receive one back, I feel so relieved. Because I know my feelings reached you and perhaps brought you a smile. I send you my strength and my love in each stroke of that pen, Salvatrice. It’s the one place in the world just for us. We can do anything there.”

Guilty thoughts started to bubble under the warm and happy surface of her mind. She never realized how powerful were the feelings contained in those letters. For stretches of time she neglected them, thinking that Carmela would worry but ultimately understand. Now that she thought of it, those letters were a hand stretched from across a lonely darkness. Carmela had nothing to truly love in between each letter. She had said it before: Salvatrice was the first and only person she had ever really loved.

To Salvatrice they had been letters, a bridge to communicate and keep in touch with Carmela and plot until they could truly love again; but to Carmela each of those letters was an act of love and devotion the same as holding in hands in public or kissing or maybe even sharing a bed.

No matter the distance; even if they never saw each other’s faces.

Carmela could still love her.

In a way, it heartened Salvatrice. She could love her back too, then.

No matter the distance. So long as there was pen, paper and ink.

“I will write more. I can also call on the telephone.” Salvatrice said.

Carmela’s eyes drew wide. “Are you sure? It won’t be dangerous?”

“I’ll insure that it isn’t. Even if we can’t trade kisses in ink, you will hear my voice. We will never be apart. I promise you.” Salvatrice said.

No matter the distance; it was still love. It could still be shared.

Once their skin started to wrinkle with water, the pair rose from the bath, and scarcely dried, returned to the bedroom and donned their disguises. Carmela was once more the lovely, curvy young maid; Salvatrice was the slender, angular young courier or paper boy in a cap, shirt and pants.

There was one part of their promised meal they had not yet eaten.

This one they would not have as a breakfast in bed.

Down in the kitchen, the two of them set together to the task. Carmela withdrew various items from cabinets and drawers and boxes. She cut cheeses and tomatoes, while Salvatrice assembled plates of pre-cut hard breads, and skinned tangerines with her fingers. They set a pot of tea on the stove and waited for it to whistle. Many a time they bumped into each other in the kitchen with a giggle as they set about their work.

From the back garden they plucked plump grapes and gathered flowers, and soon they sat together on a brown wooden table under the mid-morning sun and picked at their spread while basking in the glow of this delightful domesticity. To the outside world they would be commoners: it was not unheard of for a salacious maid to invite a local boy for a tryst while the mistress was nowhere to be seen. Salvatrice enjoyed the fantasy.

They were not commonfolk; love for them was more difficult than the archetypes of bawdy romances. Last night was a dream world that had taken time and planning to construct. They would be unlikely to see each other again, let alone have sex, for quite some time. Love was a struggle.

But not impossible. Over the wires, over the surface of stationary.

Just as she dropped a grape into Carmela’s mouth over the table.

Just as they traded sweet little kisses between bites of glazed ham.

They would have that love no matter where they went.

With this in mind, Salvatrice was heartened for what she had to do.

“Carmela, I will confide in you what I am planning.” She said at last.

Those words would set everything into motion. She was ready now.

To her own raging battlefield she could now depart without regrets.


Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

 

 

 

 

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XII

This chapter contains non-graphic sexual content.


42nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Night

Under the calm autumn night, a school guardsman patroled the streets of the Academy’s northern campus. He walked down the middle of the road, avoiding the dim light of the decades old, flickering street lamps. He was hardly visible in the dark, save for the light of his hand-held torch that seemed to sway in rhythm with the swinging of his club, dangling from his hands by a noisy chain loop. His footsteps and a whistling ditty were audible a block away, and alerted would-be hooligans to a presence in the lonely streets.

Hearing him from afar, Salvatrice ducked behind a long hedge and deftly avoided the torchlight. She crouched and carefully followed the man. Overhead a white beam periodically scanned the landscape, brushing over the flat green surface of the hedges, settling for several seconds at a time on the empty space between hedges, and briefly inspecting each garbage can and fire hydrant installed on the street corners.

Salvatrice held on to her cap with one hand, knelt down, and carefully scuttled behind the hedge. On both sides of the street there were long green stretches leading to small parks, benches, kiosks abandoned in the night, and old, distant buildings, their facades like melting faces in the deep dark. There was plenty to hide behind and plenty more to draw away the attention of anybody. She kept hoping the guard would turn a different corner, but he seemed keen on patrolling the exact path she planned to take that night.

Nobody was around that could see her but him. He was the only visible obstacle.

His obstinacy was frustrating given the emptiness of the Academy on that night.

Pallas Messianic Academy had instituted a strict curfew due to recent events. Facilities emptied out at eight o’ clock, on the hour. Streets were to be clear by nine o’ clock. Doors were to be locked by ten. Nearing midnight nobody was allowed on the street save the guards that delivered a swift beating to anyone caught. Curfew was both a blessing and curse. There were no prying eyes, no crowds heading for the bars in town, no drunkards. She felt safe. But she was alone with the guards. They grew more alert.

She could not wait for a better night to escape. She had to get away. It had to be then.

At a distant corner near the chemistry building, the guard’s light hovered over a fence and then trailed up the road. Salvatrice dashed for the fence and ducked behind a metal garbage bin, careful not to upset the chain links in the fence and cause noise. She waited for the guard to wander farther down the road, and then cut toward the building. Though the doors into the building had been locked tight, there was an open-air hallway lined with pillar supports. She hid behind each of them, moving progressively closer to the side of the building and an adjoining road leading out of campus. She closed in on it.

Salvatrice heard a rustling noise and stood with her back tight against the pillar.

There was a waist-tall hedgerow on the edge of the street, a few meters away.

In the space between her pillar and the next she saw a white glow.

She watched as the beam moved into the hallway and up a wall, and heard steps.

Swallowing hard, she pressed tighter and tighter against the wall as if trying to shrink.

Suddenly the beam slashed across the wall.

It repositioned out of the hallway and across the adjacent green.

“Halt! Stop right there you hooligan!”

Harsh and fast steps; the guard took off shouting, probably after someone else.

Salvatrice breathed a deep, troubled sigh. She peered out of the pillar and watched the guard go. Building a mental map of her location, she thought about where the guard would go, and how long it would take him to return to his route if he failed to catch anyone. She was sure this was her best chance to make a final escape for the night.

Feeling a shiver throughout her body as she committed herself, Salvatrice ran out of cover and into the street, heading north toward the edge of the campus grounds. She ran as fast as her legs would allow, and felt a deep fatigue as she rushed into the woods. She saw no other guards and nobody following her. From the edge of the wood she made for the old campgrounds, at the edge of which she hid her personal carriage.

From inside a bush, she pulled a sleek black bicycle, with curled handlebars and thick, sturdy wheels. It was this humble vehicle that would carry her the rest of the way to the town of Palladi, and which was responsible for many of her previous escapades. She arrived rather tired after riding it anywhere; but walking to Palladi would have killed her instead, never mind how late she would have been to any party she dared to attend.

Her health had been relatively stable of late, so she did not fear the thirty minute ride.

There were several paths between the Messianic Academy and the Town of Palladi. Most people took the train. Though it went on a relatively circuitous path through the countryside, its speed meant that it reached the town in a few minutes. Cars usually took the Palladium road that circled from the eastern part of the Academy, avoided the wood entirely and led them on level, well-paved ground to the town. Any reasonable car or even a carriage could arrive at the town in ten to fifteen minutes via the Palladium.

Neither of these routes could be walked, however, at least not without hassle and waste.

Cutting through the Pallas woods was the more direct route, and the only route that was easily accessible under human power, taking a person perhaps two hours on foot, or a half-hour of furious cycling. But the old dirt roads through the wood were imposing, especially in the dark. There was a lot of superstition about them, and the Academy dissuaded guests and students from venturing into the wood. Salvatrice was well acquainted with this route, however. She had pedaled through it many times before, hurtling downhill under the thick forest canopy, her wheels rolling over uneven ground.

She felt every shock as she pedaled down the old roads. Muscle memory corrected every hit to the wheels, and she lost little speed and traction to the shocks and holes. Many early escapades had been aborted by a bad fall, but each failure to meet with her beloved Carmela built a frustration and desire that made her next ride much more efficient. Salvatrice now had her downhill ride through the woods down to a science. Her brow broke out in sweat, and her lungs and legs felt raw with the effort, but she maintained 20 km/h and the thick green and brown around her flew by in the dark.

She bowed her head against the handlebars and focused on her pedaling.

It was a stark transition, from thick forest out into a broad green field open on all sides. Ahead and down a gentle slope she saw the distant lights of the town of Palladi, spread out like a wedge driven between a small lake and the broad hilly countryside. Large stretches of terraced town-houses were broken up by the square plots of land belonging to larger, solitary estates, and both were surrounded by small, humble village houses. The Palladium road and the main Pallas train tracks split the town in pieces, and the more affluent neighborhoods boasted cobblestone streets and electric street-lamps.

However, the first several blocks that Salvatrice had to bike through were those closest to the wood, and they were connected by dirt roads with nary a streetlight or power pole in sight. There were lights coming out from the houses that partially lit the street, and on cloudy nights Salvatrice navigated by their dim illumination. She assumed these townies had electricity from somewhere, but in truth she had no idea. She always biked quickly through the outer edges of town and into the denser, richer interior past the train station.

The Sabbadin estate was not on the lakefront, but Salvatrice thought she could see water far downhill over the shoulder of the property. It was a cube-like house with a complicated facade and arch windows, three stories tall. Though the property was flanked by terraced houses, the Sabbadin’s was detached, occupying its own plot of several acres atop a gentle hill. Brick walls separated the Sabbadin’s land from the rest of Palladi, topped with spear tips of black steel that prevented climbing over. An imposing gate barred the way into the pearl-tiled gardens of bright, round rose and lilly bushes leading to the door.

Salvatrice walked her bicycle to the gate, panting heavily for breath. Riding to Palladi always sapped her strength. She had to admit, however, that she felt less drained tonight than on most nights. When her body became particularly rebellious she would become nauseous and dizzy after an activity. Tonight she felt merely exhausted from it.

Having arrived at the Sabbadin’s townhouse, Salvatrice briefly dropped her guard, but she quickly stood on tiptoes and erect when she found someone waiting for her at the gate.

Behind the metal bars, humming a little tune, stood a dowdy-looking maid with a heavy shawl over her apron and dress, and a rather large white cap over her hair. She kept a lazy watch over the estate driveway, frequently turning her back on the road and leaning on the wall or crouching near the flowers or pacing along the front of the town-house.

Salvatrice hid behind the wall at first, but she did not have much time to waste.

And she refused to turn back. Not on this night; not at the peak of her longing.

“Excuse me ma’am, I’m here about your subscription!” Salvatrice murmured, coming as close to the gate as she dared. This was the best she could come with to approach. She did look like a courier or newspaper boy. She at least possessed the hat for the job.

Behind the gate the maid took note of her and her request and stared at her.

Salvatrice’s heart practically stopped for a moment. Then the maid burst out laughing.

Oh ho ho ho! We’re going to have to work out a better system than this one!”

She raised a delicate hand to her lips. Salvatrice’s mouth hung open.

“Don’t just stand there! Come in, Salva!”

Carmela approached and opened the gate and allowed Salvatrice through the irons.

Covered so heavily in the maid’s clothes, she had seemed a stranger.

But her eyes and face were so radiant on closer inspection that they gave her away.

Salvatrice hid her bicycle from the sight of the gate behind one of the rose bushes.

“I thought something had gone wrong.” Salvatrice said. Carmela’s cheerful demeanor and laugh and the humorously burdensome look of her maid’s clothes brought a great warmth to her heart. She had missed so much being in physical proximity to her lover.

“You underestimate me! I have everything well in hand. All of my servants have today and tomorrow off. No one would mind if I borrowed their clothes and guarded the gate.”

“I suppose it would be unseemly and dangerous for a lady to wait outside her home.”

“Especially wearing the luxurious dress I set aside for tonight. Wait until you see it!”

Both of them giggled with delight. Slowly it dawned on them that they were together.

Together in the flesh; and alone, deliciously alone! No prying eyes to judge them.

For a moment they merely stared at one another, apart by the length of an arm.

Slowly, Carmela spread her arms open, wearing an inviting smile.

Salvatrice practically jumped atop her.

Under the moonless night the two of them tightly embraced.

Arms entwined and with eyes locked together, protected in public by their disguises and the locked gate keeping out the world, they hovered closer with lips parted by warm breaths, and gently kissed. At first their mouths merely touched, but then their lips parted, seized, pulled. Such passion began to build that their hands started to travel.

Realizing where this rhythm was leading them, the two abruptly paused.

When their lips drew apart they instead touched their foreheads together.

“I’m so glad to see you.” Salvatrice said, her face warm and flushed.

“It almost feels like a dream. May I have you before the dawn, milady?”

Carmela parted from their embrace and offered her hand instead.

Fingers twined, she and Carmela then proceeded through the path, up to the front door and into the foyer of the Sabbadin’s Palladi estate. The interior of the townhouse was clean and modern. Beneath their feet the floor was composed of polished tiles of a naturally murky off-white color. These tiles also seemed to compose the roof. Around them the smooth walls were painted a rich, dense, and mysterious shade of jet-blue.

Though she had visited some other properties belonging to the Sabbadins before, this was Salvatrice’s first visit to the headquarters, so to speak. It was quite impressive.

Carmela’s foyer was modest and sparsely furnished for the overall size and luxury of the townhouse. There were no enormous chandeliers of gold and silver like those found in the Previte estate, and no gilded doorknobs and hand-rails and busts. On the walls hung paintings of cats and horses in various settings. Freshly-picked flowers rested on resplendent vases boasting futuristic blended colors and geometric shapes. There were a pair of coat-racks that looked like spires with sharp arms, and bench seats like cubes of several subdued shades melted together. Carmela hung her shawl and cap on one of the spires. Salvatrice dispensed with her jacket and paused to admire the surroundings.

When they spoke their voices seemed to slightly echo. There was clearly nobody home.

“So, what do you think?”

Carmela pulled her long, luxurious blond hair free of a bun, and shook her head. Salva wondered whether she was asking about herself or the house. The Princess was quite taken with her lover’s bouncy mane, the subtle waves that curled at the ends, the locks over her ears, the casual but orderly bangs, and the rich yellow-gold color of it all.

“It’s a feast for the eyes.” She replied, more about her lover than her home.

“Why, thank you. My parents are almost never home so I’ve taken some liberties with it. It used to be such a boring place, you know; all bright and showy and flat. I like stark angles and dark colors better. I especially like colors that blend together with different shades, like you see on the vases and the walls. It’s a coloring technique that’s catching on. It’s more modern. There’s more character to it. It’s not cheap, pearly fairy tale crap.”

When she wanted to, Carmela could be quite a cutting personality.

“Such a bourgeois disdain for the whimsical.” Salvatrice chuckled.

“Better to aspire to that than to the fluffery of the royals.” Carmela cheekily replied.

Directly before the women two long sets of staircases curled up toward the next story, and beneath them two hallways led further into the ground floor. Carmela led Salva by the arm with a smile on her face, urging her to get excited for a big surprise that she had for them. Upstairs the hallways were tight compared to the royal palace and the Previte estate — it was after all a town-house — and there were many doors leading to rooms and closets. Salvatrice felt that they were rounding the exterior of the house, and she realized this was so when she saw the lake out of a hallway window. Right across from the glass, Carmela threw open a pair of somber wooden doors into her own bedroom.

This one room could almost make up the space in Salvatrice’s whole apartment. Like the rest of the house, it was furnished to Carmela’s modern tastes. There was a tea table of pentagonal glass that sat atop a cube, and the chairs around it were also cubes. Off on a corner of the room Carmela had a personal piano that had the typical shape, but the chair in front of the instrument was an inverted black step pyramid, chunky and angular.

Her small bed-side dresser was a semi-circular black shape with curved shelves, and her tall clothes chest was a similar object, standing like a strange giant off to one side of the room. Her bed was a rather flat-looking black mattress on a polished wooden frame that emphasized the angles of its corners and seemed almost to hold the mattress aloft without touching it. There were no columns and no awning unlike most grandiose royal beds. Salvatrice hoped it was not some fancy water bed. She heard sex was awful on those.

“Wait right there, I’ll fetch tonight’s first surprise. I hope I got your measurements right.”

Salvatrice could not risk carrying around a fancy dress while she snuck out, so she usually relied on Carmela to acquire something proper for her to wear and to sneak it to her during her escapades. She had found her lover’s sense of her princessly taste to be quite trustworthy, and waited with bated breath to see what she brought today. Carmela disappeared into a door on the side of the room, probably a closet like the one set aside for her at the royal palace. When she returned, the heiress was suddenly well dressed, having shed her costume. She came out in a gown, herding a spire-like rack on wheels, while holding two matching pairs of heels in her fingers, to replace their work shoes.

“Tell me about mine in a moment, but for now, take a look at yours!”

She shoved the rack toward Salvatrice. It came to a stop just in front of her.

“I sprung for something regal but form-fitting for you. What do you think?”

As always she had impeccable taste; Salvatrice’s dress was a wine-red, silver-trimmed gown, high-necked and short-sleeved, with a long skirt angled tight against the hips and split at the thighs and a form-fitting bodice that accented the chest — what little of it Salvatrice had to offer the gown, anyway. Her arms, back, hips and shoulders and some of her upper chest was open to the air by angular cuts in the fabric that resembled arrowheads. It gave what was otherwise a simple form-fitting dress a more modern and daring touch. A pair of matching elbow gloves and stockings formed a set with the gown.

However, she could hardly remained stunned with her dress with Carmela in the room.

Her lover was absolutely gorgeous, and Salvatrice could not peel her eyes from her.

Carmela’s own dress was bolder than what she picked for the princess. She had worn a purple and gold gown cut off just over her breasts. Her shoulders and much of her chest were bared by the design. When she turned around the ribbed bodice seemed extra tight around the back to account for Carmela’s endowments in front. A white line with crossed gold laces along its length stretched from between her breasts all the way down to the hem.

Her skirt was like a work of art, a matching purple on gold with layers of sharp, angular twists around sections of smooth fabric, flowing around Carmela’s curves like waves broken on stone. Sections of the dress were diaphanous, made up of sheer black fabric in a pattern of squares, flashing a suggestion of olive skin beneath. There were see-through cuts in the dress like this along her flanks, over her hips, and behind her back.

Like Salva’s dress, Carmela’s had a pair of matching long gloves and stockings. She had a gold choker around her neck that almost reached up to her jaw and down to her collarbones. She had applied a modest layer of cosmetics. Just a touch of powder on her cheeks, a bit of shadow over her eyes and a dab of red on her lips. She had not brushed her hair but after its release from the bun it had already settled into a long, casual look that suited her well.

She was a beauty between the classical and modern.

Salvatrice would’ve called her a princess.

“Absolutely stunning.” Salvatrice replied, standing entranced.

“Mine or yours? You’re staring so intently.” Carmela replied, smiling bashfully.

“Both.” Salvatrice said. Her own dress was lovely; but Carmela was so perfect.

“I’m glad you like it. Come here and let me help you into it!” Carmela said.

“How did you change so quickly?” Salvatrice interjected.

“Oh ho! How did I? Perhaps I was wearing it all along?”

“Oh. So you only applied the cosmetics? You had on two dresses?”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not! Some of it must remain a trade secret.”

Carmela took Salvatrice by the hand again and sat her on one of the geometric chairs. She was practically skipping on her tip-toes with excitement as she descended upon the princess and unbuttoned her vest and shirt and helped pull down her long pants.

Despite her typically coquettish, lusty attitude in private, Carmela was quick and efficient about this endeavor. She stripped Salva, leaving only her bottom undergarments, and then practically swept her into the gown without a moment’s pause. It tied at the back, lacing up just over her buttocks and under her neck with an arrow gap between — without a servant or lover at her back the Princess could never have gotten into the dress.

“You look gorgeous, Salvatrice! Your face is film star material!” Carmela said.

Pulling a wheeled mirror close, Carmela showed Salvatrice her appearance.

She looked at the woman in the mirror and it was not the beauty that she focused on immediately, but the glow of health and comfort that she exuded. In light of everything that had transpired the past few weeks, it was hard for Salva to believe she was staring at her own smiling face in the mirror. She was beautiful, perhaps; but more than that, she was happy. She did not fear an attack, and she did not feel shame or worry about her body or her identity. Tonight she could put her worries aside and simply exist in the world.

It had been so long since Salvatrice had truly experienced comfort. It was healing.


Dressed for an indulgent evening, Salvatrice and Carmela returned downstairs and crossed a hallway under one of the staircases in the foyer. There were many doors at their sides, most of them closed. All were nondescript, unlabeled, inscrutable. Carmela strode confidently past all of them, her head held up high, her heels clicking on the floor.

“Where are we headed?” Salvatrice asked.

“You’ll see!”

Ahead there was one pair of doors that was open and through which shone dim light. Salvatrice thought it was their destination, but Carmela walked right past it as she had every other door. The Princess glanced through the doors and saw a long, table lit by lamps that seemed like black, square kites surrounding small torches. But she had to keep pace with her lover, and crossed the doors too quickly to tell if food was served.

Exacerbating matters, she was unused to walking in heels. Carmela had thankfully picked somewhat low heels, but Salvatrice was nonetheless perpetually behind her lover, who walked gracefully and with her head held up high despite the impediment.

Devoid of servants or any guests but the two of them, the town-house felt cavernous, and there was an eerie atmosphere about the place. Salvatrice felt this most acutely within the long connecting halls lined with closed doors. There were so many rooms and she was tempted to visualize what was behind each locked door. Did the Sabbadins have a few dozen empty rooms in their house? Were some of those doors closets and game rooms and libraries, or just beautifully tiled floors bereft of objects or occupants?

Her own apartment was small but aggressively lived-in. She had to use every corner!

“Carmela, how many servants do you employ? You’ve said a couple names in your letters, but this house seems like it would require a fleet of maids to maintain it.”

“Oh it’s no great number. I have two personal maids, and there’s a small grounds staff on payroll. Cleaning is the only taxing issue, and we try to keep on top of it. When I want to do renovations I hire people for any one job and then they’re gone. Anyone I’ve mentioned by name has most likely gone, I’m afraid; we have turnover each season.”

“Turnover? How odd. I can’t imagine my dear Cannelle leaving me.”

“Ah, well, you have a relationship with her, Salva! My maids are just employees. Those come and go with the times, especially in these particular times. I’ve had women leave here to become teachers or nurses, or to get married. Better than dealing with me, I suppose, and institutional pay is likely better, though the accommodations are worse.”

“To be honest, I never learned how exactly Cannelle is compensated.”

“Well, she works for the Queen.” Carmela said.

Her lover was ignorant of how little that meant; Salvatrice held her tongue then.

“Carmela, without the help, who is going to prepare our evening?”

“Oh my; so that is your worry? You ought to relax. You’re under my care, darling.”

Carmela looked over her shoulder with a wry little smile.

They finally arrived at a pristine white kitchen, fully stocked with luxurious appliances.

One half of the room consisted of sprawling countertops with wall-mounted racks, cupboards and cabinets hovering over. A dozen chefs could have operated comfortably in such a space. In place of wood-fired stoves or grills was a very large electric cooker set, comprising a steel box on legs with a broad flat top and three sets of doors, its burners and ovens white and silver, polished like mirrors. Across the room from this appliance there was a big white box with a locking door. Salvatrice felt a chill coming from it.

“It’s an electric ice box. We had all our old appliances replaced, you see.” Carmela said. She patted her hand on the box like it was a lovable family pet. “These electric ones are so much safer, Salva. You won’t ever be burned trying to fire up an electric oven! And you don’t need to cart heavy ice into the electric box. It has a tank of freezing gas.”

“That doesn’t sound much safer, to be honest.” Salvatrice said, giggling.

Following the countertops and islands to the very end of the kitchen, Carmela opened a nondescript door and bowed, ushering Salvatrice outside. There was a path of stones, lit by a line of covered candles, that led from the back of the house out to a gazebo surrounded by red lily bushes. There was a gentle perfume in the air, perhaps coming from the candles. Under the gazebo Carmela had prepared a round wooden table for two. This was perhaps the only traditional piece of furniture Salvatrice had seen all night.

There was a candle in the middle of the table, but nothing else.

“Wait here a moment Salva. I will be right back!” Carmela said.

She took Salvatrice’s hand and sat her at the table, and quickly departed.

Salvatrice waited calmly, looking around the Sabbadin’s back yard. Such a simple word ill suited the space. There was a green almost the size of a few tennis courts between the townhouse and the rear wall. On a small hill near the edge of the wall an apple tree grew atop a bump in the terrain, with its surface roots like gnarled fingers crawling out of the dirt. There was a wreath strung around it — it was an imitation of the Father-Tree.

There was no sound but that of distant insects and the whispered fuming of the wicks.

Taking a deep breath, Salvatrice felt strangely at peace with the night. She did not feel unsafe or vulnerable. She did not feel watched or pursued. Her heart was so at ease.

Not even the sound of whining wheels behind her could startle the Princess.

Looking over her shoulder, she watched Carmelaa pushing a wheeled cart up to the Gazebo. Atop the cart there was yet another scented, shielded candle, along with a bottle of wine, two glasses, and a plate of snacks. Carmela wheeled the cart closer, and Salvatrice admired the food. There was a vast array of cheeses in a tasting spread on an oak board, surrounded cured meats, tomato slices, honey and figs, a handful of truffles, and caviar on a series of smaller plates suspended from the oak board by various wooden arms. On the label, the wine bottle boasted proudly of its 1975 vintage.

“I may not be learned in haute cuisine, but I can set a tasting platter without a maid.”

Carmela popped the cork on the bottle and served Salvatrice the first glass.

Raising the glass to her lover, Salvatrice took a sip. It was quite strong and rich.

“Does it suit you?”

“It is lovely. Was 1975 a good year?”

“I wouldn’t know! Too far before my time.”

For a moment, it almost stung not to know. Salva thought herself a good student.

She would not allow such concerns to upset her, however, not on this night.

Instead she focused on her lover. It was almost magical, to see her, to watch her move independently, to stare into her honey-colored eyes and realize that she was real, that they were together, that they could touch and talk without pen and paper between. At times it almost felt like the magic of cinema, a puppet or an automaton or a model.

Then she caught a scent, and she felt the warmth as they brushed close or held hands.

Carmela was there. She poured herself a glass and lifted the snack set to the table.

“Take anything you want! You’ve never expressed a preference, so I brought a lot.”

Salvatrice procured a toothpick and speared a bit of prosciutto and a bit of Parmigiano.

She delicately brought the food between her painted lips and slid the toothpick off.

“A classic pairing, isn’t it?” Carmela asked.

Salvatrice nodded her head silently. It was delicious, practically melting on her tongue.

“You must try the truffles, they cost me quite a pence!” Carmela said.

On their own little bowl were a few rotund chunks of black truffle. Salvatrice delicately picked one and popped it into her mouth. They had a musky scent and tasted of nuts and garlic, quite heavily earthen in texture and flavor. Out of all the delights in Carmela’s platter, Salvatrice was the least fond of the truffle. But it was indeed very expensive.

She tried not to show her distaste on her face, and forced the mushroom down.

“It’s also an aphrodisiac, I’m told.” Carmela said. She turned bedroom eyes on Salva.

“Oh my.”

Both of them reared back with laughter, and a touch of embarrassment.

Carmela started picking her own snacks, and quickly emptied her glass of wine and poured a second. She began to chat, and Salvatrice listened and interjected, and they carried on like gabbing friends did. There was a lot of casual energy between them and it felt great for Salvatrice to just talk to her. Because of their letter-writing, the two of them had little catching-up to do. It did not feel as if they had been apart for weeks; they could pick up from wherever they desired. Salvatrice felt comfortable speaking with Carmela, without preparation, without formality. They simply glided from topic to topic as they ate.

“Say, how have your clandestine endeavors been?” Carmela said, half-jokingly.

“I’ve been learning to shoot.” Salvatrice casually replied.

“Oh ho! My big strong princess, ready to put a bullet in any who threatens me?”

“I would put a bullet in the wall near them, at least.”

“It is the thought that counts.”

“Not in that situation. We would probably die, Carmela.”

“In that case, you tried, and I admire that.”

Both of them chuckled together.

“What kind of gun do you have?” Carmela asked, sounding fascinated with the subject.

“It’s an old zwitscherer pistol from Nocht.”

“Does it make a dreadful noise when it shoots? How does it feel in your hands?”

“It is very noisy, and it does kick back a little.”

“I’ve never shot a gun. I did a little fencing, but never a fox hunt or any such sport.”

“I participated in a fox hunt once, but I shot nothing then. I never really thought much about guns until recently. I figure I am physically weak, but a pistol evens the odds.”

“And you truly bought one?”

“Yes, but on the sly. I know someone who knows someone.”

“Was this sold to Salvatrice or to Sylvano?”

“Sylvano, obviously.”

“Well. I feel some peace of mind knowing you can defend yourself.”

“Let’s not get carried away here.”

Both of them chuckled again.

“At least if some anarchist had run up to us in the Previte estate, you could have shot them point blank.” Carmela said, making a gesture with her fingers like a gun shooting.

“You know, I never asked what happened after I left the dance that night.”

“Nothing much at all. Police came. Launched an investigation, supposedly, but they hardly talked to anyone or held anyone for questioning. It was feeble.” Carmela said.

“Did you stay with the Previte sisters for long?”

“Until dawn. They insisted, for my safety. My father was none too pleased.”

“How are the Previte sisters doing now?” Salvatrice asked.

“They have a new gate. Fancier too. They will be fine. They’re already planning another party. Normally they frequent other person’s homes, but my scheme lit a fire in them.”

“They seemed like delicate girls. I hope the shock does not linger in them.”

Carmela lifted fingers to her lips and giggled.

“Delicate? Those two are animals, Salvatrice. Were you paying attention to them?”

Salvatrice had felt an inkling of that. “I suppose you’re right.”

“They’re a two-girl pack of hyenas. Nothing can keep them from debauchery for long.”

“Well then. Do you know if the police told them anything after what happened?”

“Nothing at all. They are very sour about it.”

Salvatrice supposed if there was no investigation then the Queen might have already been plotting to give the anarchists a false victory even back then. She dimly wondered just how far back and far ahead in time her Mother’s mind was operating. But she pushed those thoughts aside. This was her night with Carmela. To hell with the Queen.

“Given that result, they ultimately took matters into their own hands.” Carmela said.

“In what way?”

“They furnished weapons for their guards. Hired some ex-military types. Now they have round-the-clock security on their premises, and at least one bodyguard. They found a retired lady knight, for propriety’s sake. So they’re doing fine for themselves right now.”

“I see.”

Carmela picked up the spoon from the bowl of caviar and stared idly at it.

“Say, what do you think of the caviar? I sprung for the most expensive bottle.”

“It is rather briny.”

Carmela stared at it.”I suppose price does not always equal quality.”

“Oh no!” Salvatrice quickly replied. “It tastes fine enough. Caviar is just, briny.”

“True. To be honest, I’m not fond of the stuff. I’m not fond of the sea at all lately.”

Salvatrice blinked fast and stared at her.

“Not fond of the sea?”

Carmela nodded. She spoke in a bombastic tone of voice suddenly.

“I used to love it, but lately, I’ve had it with the ocean. It is a dreadful place!”

“Dreadful?” Salvatrice feigned being taken aback, playing along.

“Dreadful! Full of fish and salt, eternally battering against the soil! Just dreadful!”

“Oh my; will I never see you in one of those daring two-piece swimsuits then?”

Salvatrice made her own bedroom eyes at her lover, who laughed mischievously.

Carmela responded in kind, giving her own lewd stare and bending a little too forward.

Her gown’s low chest cut was not quite meant for the maneuver.

“Ah, but remember the lakeside, Salvatrice Vittoria! Lakes are not the sea at all. We can meet in the lake for a freshwater rendezvous — I can wear whatever you desire then.”

“Interesting proposition, but I must say, I think the beach is more romantic!”

“Romantic? How so?” Carmela drew back from her lewd pose, crossing her arms.

“Lakes are enclosed and private, while a beach is open and free. You are unbound at the beach, while you are hidden around the lake. It is bolder to kiss on the beach.”

“That is quite a bold mentality. Too bold for this country, I’m afraid!”

Carmela covered her mouth to delicately stifle a laugh. Salvatrice had a dark chuckle.

“Ah.” Carmela sighed fondly and stared sidelong at the caviar. “My father is obsessed with drawing fuel from the sea, Salvatrice. I’ve heard so much about the ocean lately that I would never want to see it. All of his letters, his phone calls, any time we briefly meet, it is always the ocean this year. Papa sincerely believes there are massive fuel deposits off-shore. He has this plan for a man-made island to drill them up from.” Carmela said.

“Can he do it? What would you even use to make a false island?” Salvatrice asked.

“I am not sure. He has rambled about it before, but my mind has been elsewhere.”

“Does he intend to do this in a time of war? Surely the sea will become dangerous.”

Salvatrice recalled that during the Unification War, Frank and Nocht submarines destroyed each other’s ships indiscriminately at sea to support the land war. Elven vessels were caught in the crossfire, and inspired national outrage. Whether Ayvarta had a fleet of submarines, Salvatrice did not know. She had to assume they did, and that they would use them in a similar fashion. Carmela’s father could well be in danger.

“Papa will not be dissuaded. He believes the Regia Marina will support him.”

“What would you do in his stead?”

She was curious; Carmela often talked of the company as if it was a problem outside of her hands. But she was the heiress to Antioch Fuels. It would someday be hers to run.

“I would probably sell the damned company. It is such a pain.” Carmela said bluntly.

Salvatrice was taken by surprise. That was the last answer she expected.

“Oh, truly?”

“Truly. One less obstacle between you and me. I’d definitely give up the sea for you.”

Carmela beamed with a radiant passion. She really did love her. It was evident in her voice, in her expression. She was so visibly happy to be here and to be with her.

Salvatrice turned bashful in response. She partially averted her eyes.

“You shouldn’t. You need something more than me.” She said suddenly.

“Oh, come now Salva. I do not at all. I would be happy just being with you.”

“Carmela, I am plotting to do something very dangerous.” Salvatrice confessed.

She expected Carmela to balk at this, but the heiress took it in stride, smiling fondly.

“Are you going to cross-dress and sneak out at night for a homosexual tryst?”

That quip forced a chuckle out of Salvatrice, much as she wanted to avoid laughing.

When she next spoke her expression was slightly smiling but her words were bitter.

“I’m headed down an ugly road, Carmela. When I went to the palace, my mother essentially conscripted me into helping her draw out the anarchists in Palladi. I don’t want to play the part of the bait for her schemes. I want to do something under my own power. Whether or not I want to fight them, there will be people targeting me for who I am. And whether or not I consent, my mother is willing to use me against them. So I decided to make the first move. I’ve acquired some personnel and I am hatching a plot.”

“Will you tell me what it is?” Carmela asked.

Salvatrice knew the question was coming but it still hit like a hammer to the chest.

“I don’t want you to be endangered on my account.” She said.

“What if I told you I do not care about that danger?”

“I am still compelled to protect you from it.”

“How thick-headed.”

“You’re being thick-headed too.”

Carmela smiled again at her.

She reached out over the table and brushed Salvatrice’s cheek with her hand.

“I love you, Salvatrice. I was living a shell of a life until you came into it. I was such a cold person, so removed from everyone. I had few friends and no desire to love. Until I meet the lonely girl overlooked by everyone; until that girl noticed me and I her.”

Salvatrice raised a hand to Carmela’s and felt the smoothness of her glove on her skin.

“I realized that I was not meant to lead a sham life until I could become the wealth of some powdered-up nobleman. I found the doors to a new world of love thrown open.”

“Carmela–”

Across the table her lover raised a finger to her lips and urged quiet.

“Listen: I love you and I trust you Salvatrice. I respect your decision. But I want to be part of your life. Queen be damned, Antioch Fuels be damned. Please. I do not ask that you bring me to wherever your journey takes you. But at least allow me to do something. So I can feel that I was at your side when you needed me. Even if it is only in banknotes.”

Her hand trailed down Salvatrice’s cheek, shoulder, and to her arm.

She held Salvatrice’s opposite hand quite tightly, a gentle smile on her face.

“I want to support you. You can decide how. Just let me do this.”

Salvatrice nodded her head. “I will consider it.”

“No; tell me you will do it. Please. Anything at all.”

Salvatrice felt the anxiety and tension of the previous moment washing away.

She felt a little coy toward her lover once more. Carmela’s gentle demeanor helped.

“Does it count if I just say, ‘let me be by your side tonight’?” Salvatrice cheekily said.

“No, because I was planning on doing that.” Carmela replied.

“Then I will have you write a bank note. Would you accept that?”

“Finally, something I am good at. Perhaps we can retire to my room, where I left my bank-book, and we can talk about this note of yours, and a proposition of my own.”

Carmela took her own turn to be coy.

Salvatrice did not have to ponder whether to accept.

Leaving the food out for the birds and the stoats, Salvatrice and Carmela quickly retreated to Carmela’s bedroom. They locked the doors to the outside, and shuffled barefoot through the house, back the way they came, holding up their skirts and heels and snatching glances at each other between bouts of girlish giggling. It was like a race.

Carmela easily beat Salvatrice to the bedroom. The Princess offered no competition.

“Go lie down. I’ll climb atop in a moment.” Carmela said. She winked.

Salvatrice felt a delightful little shiver down her back.

She supposed taking the lead was the prize for her little victory.

There was a conspiratorial air about them, and the thought of what they both wanted to do caused them some mild embarrassment. It was not the first time they had been intimate, though it was the first time they had this much liberty to do what they pleased. They had kissed and touched in many places, but never in a bed in a bedroom that was theirs and would be theirs for as long as they desired it. Much of this was new to them.

Salvatrice sat on the edge of Carmela’s bed, while her lover poured wine into their cups, taken in from outside. She felt the bed under her, firm and plush and comfortable. It was thankfully not a water bed. She shuddered to think of how that would have held up to them. She jumped up and down a little, and reached behind her back for the gown’s laces.

“Have a drink first.” Carmela said, offering a cup.

Salvatrice had already had a few cups of wine, but the alcohol did not quite pull on her brain just yet, so she happily obliged her lover. She took the cup, and as if to make Carmela certain of her intent, she drank all of it in one continuous sip. With a grin on her face, Carmela raised her cup, swirled the wine inside it, and emptied it in one draught.

Taken in by the moment, she hurled the cup over her shoulder.

It shattered on a wall and startled both of them.

“Oh no!” Salvatrice laughed. There was glass all over the top of the dresser.

Hurtling forward without comment, Carmela pounced on Salvatrice. She drove the princess onto the bed, her hips between the heiress’ legs, and leaned over. A heated breath that smelled of grapes wafted over Salva’s face as Carmela loomed over her.

“Are you comfortable?” Carmela asked.

Salvatrice nodded.

“What do you want to do?”

“Everything.”

“Can I touch down there too? Would you be okay with that?”

Salvatrice felt a brief moment of concern.

“You already know that I’m different–”

“And you know that I’m fine with it, Salvatrice.”

She cut her off so fast that all her worries evaporated.

In fact, her desire to be touched flared in response.

“Then It’s all yours.” Salvatrice smiled.

“Thank you.”

Her grip immediately tightened.

Carmela descended and hungrily seized Salva’s lips into her own, pulling and sucking.

Salvatrice’s hands struggled with the laces at her back, giving in completely to the passion. Carmela’s own hands traveled over her shoulders, under her arms, and over her chest, squeezing into her palms what pliable flesh Salvatrice had to offer. Once she had her handful, she withdrew abruptly from Salvatrice’s face. Her hands went behind her own back. Down came half her gown; Salvatrice pulled off the top of her own.

“Stay the morning with me.” Carmela said, coming back down atop Salvatrice.

Now the princess’ own hands were free to explore. She lifted Carmela’s skirt.

She had not intended to stay so long. She had wanted to disappear before dawn.

As her hands gripped Carmela’s flesh, as their lips joined and split, as their bodies pressed together and their dresses fell away, Salvatrice knew she could not leave.

It was so intense, so comforting, so emotional. She felt like she was becoming one flesh with Carmela, like all of her burdens, all of her passions, all of her worries and injuries and sins, all of it was being passed between beings, diluted, ameliorated. She had never felt so safe, so free. Carmela accepted her so fully and powerfully, accepted every part of her without hesitation. This, too, had to be part of her healing, she decided. She would regret every second she did not spend on this bed with this incredible woman. Especially if everything after this went wrong. She wanted– no, she needed this so badly now.

“I will stay to noon.” Salvatrice moaned, before Carmela’s lips silenced her anew.


Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

Coup De Cœur (47.1)

This scene contains mild sexual content and social coercion.


51st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council Building

At the turn of midnight the Rangdan Council building was abuzz with activity.

The Governor’s Office was particularly busy. There were civil servants elbow to elbow on the carpet and along the walls, and so much chatter that no one voice seemed to rise over the rest. There were drinks on hand, and many toasts called to seemingly nothing in particular. Arthur Mansa presided over the extravagant gathering, seated as if on a throne, behind the governor’s desk that should have belonged to his then-missing son.

Despite the chatter, the thrust of this spirited discussion felt impossible to follow.

As far as Chakrani Walters knew she was in a meeting to decide a course of action following the flagrant abuses of military power exhibited by the 1st Regiment during the events of the preceding days. It was very late at night, but Chakrani was not tired. She was accustomed to the night life, and indeed night was when she was most active. As a hostess, as a dedicated party-goer and as a lover, she was at her most vivid and alert in the night.

And yet, the tone of the conversation in Mansa’s office was inscrutable to her.

She felt drowsy trying to read the mood and to follow the discussion. There was nothing concrete being said. Mansa was laughing, drinking and carrying himself as if hosting a party. His closest officials were acting more like room decor. These men gained life only when prompted and only for the barest hint of agreement, a nodding of the head, a quick clap of the hands. There was no mention of Madiha or Solstice for the longest time.

Not that Chakrani was especially keen to think about Madiha these days, but it was necessary to put aside grudges for the good of the people, and she had to be ready.

Whether anyone else even cared about her feelings was another story entirely.

The scene reminded Chakrani of exoticized portraits of the old Imperial court. Had Mansa’s fingers been covered in golden rings and a crown been set upon his scalp, he could have been a king surrounded by smiling courtiers immortalized in acrylics.

Chakrani felt isolated. She sat on a padded chair, one in a line of several extending along a corner of the room parallel to Mansa’s desk, at once too near and too apart from his court. Everyone was dressed too well for the occasion, she thought. Though she had her ringlets done as pretty as ever, her attire was a drab skirt suit, her only good one, which had received quite a workout over the week. Meanwhile there were men in tuxes and fine coats and shiny shoes, and the occasional lady in a bright dress come to bring drinks.

Every other tongue was flapping, but she did not speak, for she knew not what she could say. Though she had prepared some notes, they felt irrelevant in the current climate. Nobody here seemed interested in the summary from her discussion with a trio of Adjar’s remaining Council members — three only because the rest had given up their posts. It did not seem like the time or place to talk about refugees, about food and work assistance.

“Ms. Walters.”

She heard Mansa’s commanding voice and turned on her chair to address him.

“Yes sir?”

“How do you like your wine? Red, white– palm, perhaps?”

Several sets of eyes turned at once to face her.

Chakrani contained a scoff. What a ridiculous question to be asked! She was not much of a wine drinker. She preferred mixed local drinks with a fleeting edge of hard liquor to them. Ayvarta was not a country of grapes. And what did it have to do with anything?

“I drink palm wine, but not often.” Chakrani wearily replied.

Mansa smiled, and beckoned someone close.

Through the doorway, a woman in a bright, elegant dress approached. She was tall and dark and very pretty, with a swinging figure and a heaving bosom and a large bottle of palm wine. She approached with a grin on her face and performed an almost lascivious curtsy for Chakrani, exposing some chest. Pulling up a chair, the woman sat beside her and poured her a drink. She remained at her side, laying a too-playful hand over Chakrani’s lap. Her body gave off a strong scent of mixed sweat and perfume and a hint of booze.

Once the drink was served Mansa gave Chakrani a smirk that sent her shivering.

He was as smugly satisfied as if he had done her a favor. She felt insulted.

Soon as he had brought her company, Mansa turned his attention elsewhere.

Perhaps she had been too quick to judge, but she had thought him a serious and committed person when they had met on and off the past week. Chakrani was aware of his strong track record in Solstice politics, thought of as an eternal incumbent with an invulnerable base of support and a grand diplomatic air. Not only that, but she knew him distantly through his father — the two of them had spoken and met and done business before the dire time of Akjer. She had thought of him as a man of leadership and scruples. Was this evening characteristic of how he carried out his vaunted diplomacy?

As the night went the strange procession continued. At her side the woman tried to make polite conversation. Mansa turned to her several times and asked about her days as a hostess, about her family life and upbringing; and each time he cut her off with his own tales of days past. He talked to her about his days as a patron of business. He talked about old Rangda, and he talked about the old Regional Court. It was stifling. She almost wanted to weep. She barely got a word in except to the lady he had provided for her company, who nodded and laughed and cooed at her, perhaps drunkenly.

Gradually Chakrani noticed the courtiers peeling off from the crowd and the room starting to thin out. Mansa grew more reserved; at her side, the woman in the dress, whose name Chakrani had not been able to coax out at all, clung closer to her and drank the remaining wine out of Chakrani’s glass. Chakrani thought this was her own cue to leave. But when she stood, the woman threw her arms around her and Mansa raised his hand.

“No, Ms. Walters, as a serious woman of politics, I expect you to stay.” He said.

Another ridiculous notion!

Chakrani blinked and settled back down on her chair. She peeled the drunk woman’s arms away from her waist, trying to get her to sort herself out in her own damned chair–

And doing so, she spotted a small handgun clipped to her suddenly exposed upper thigh.

She tried to show no incongruous changes in expression, but it was difficult.

Chakrani had only ever seen a gun up-close once when she took off Madiha’s belt.

She was clearly unused to the particular world of politics that she had stepped into.

“Ah, good, good!”

Preoccupied as she was with whether the woman at her side was fictionally drunk or factually capable of operating a firearm, Chakrani did not immediately notice a new set of men coming discreetly through the door. Mansa clapped his hands once for the arrivals, and this caused Chakrani to turn her head. He in turn acknowledged her once more.

“Chakrani, meet the loyal men of Rangda’s own 8th Ram Rifle Division. They will help us take care of our little Nakar problem, as well as help your people regain their strength.”

Chakrani went along with it. Mansa said something else, about confronting Madiha, about how these men would protect her from Madiha; she nodded affirmatively at his every word and said her ‘yes’es and ‘thank you’s. She was not paying him the proper attention, examining the army men and beginning to fear for her own position in this discussion.

There were several ordinary men of some rank or other; but there was one man who drew her attention the most. He was fairly tall, athletic and slim, with a rugged, handsome appearance, tanned, with a hooked nose, and a hint of slick blond hair under his cap.

His chest was decorated with many medals. He had more decorations than she had ever seen, though her only point of comparison was Madiha’s chest, years ago.

When he spoke his name at Mansa’s command, Chakrani stifled a gasp.

Brigadier General Gaul Von Drachen.

She was immediately sure no such person truly existed in Rangda’s armed forces.

And the looks of anxiety on the faces of the rest of the men seemed to confirm this.

Though they would not say it, these men were being dragged into something.

She, too, was being dragged into something.

Mansa, however, was delighted to have the man here. He welcomed him jovially.

“Our greatest asset arrives! Well, Let us speak discretely for now, General Drachen–”

Von Drachen, my good man. You see, Drachen alone, does not convey–”

General Von Drachen,” Mansa correct himself, cutting off the Brigadier, “I take it that your preparations are complete and you will be ready to assist me by the agreed date.”

“It should take my gruppen no later than the 54th to arrive. My jagers are here with me.”

Chakrani felt her face go white at the sound of Nochtish words, confirming her fears.

Mansa’s expression briefly darkened. “I believe I was clear that the date was the 53rd.”

“We could potentially make the 53rd, but I am being realistic. You never know what will happen in the field of battle, especially where deception is concerned. I believe in leaving some leg-room available when making predictions.” Von Drachen replied.

“You talk much to say very little, General.” Mansa replied.

“You could stand to talk a little more, Sir.” Von Drachen said, smiling.

For a moment the two men appraised each other in silence.

Mansa steepled his fingers and proceeded with the conversation. “I believe some of us in the room share a mutual acquaintance who is noticeably absent from this discussion.”

“Hmm?” Von Drachen made a noise and stared blankly.

“Ms. Walters, I should very much like for our misguided friend Madiha Nakar to come and sit with us soon. Would it be possible for you to fetch her for us?” Mansa said.

Chakrani felt her insides constrict with dread. All throughout she had been feeling like a hostage trapped in a dangerous situation, and she had been right. This Von Drachen was a man from Nocht and Mansa was plotting something. This was what they wanted her for; they just wanted to get to Madiha and she was the way that they settled on. Her eyes glanced over to the woman at her side, who was still clinging sleepily to her.

Would acknowledging any of this put her in undue danger? Chakrani was not some soldier or spy. She was a young woman under the stars who liked to drink and carouse and make love to women. That she put together these clues was no great feat, she thought. Anyone in this situation would have thought the same. But her sense of self-preservation, more developed than that of a reckless hero, screamed for her to quiet.

In this situation her blood chilled and her heart slowed. She helplessly complied.

“I could certainly try, sir. But would not an official missive be more appropriate?”

She thought the more respectful she acted, the safer she would be.

Mansa smiled. “I’m afraid she has become too unstable for official contact. At this pivotal time in our diplomacy, we cannot afford to let her run rampant. Surely you understand. You know her, after all; she has hurt you before. She cannot be swayed by the law.”

Chakrani felt her tongue grow heavy. Just hearing others speaking about that woman set off a chain reaction of conflicting emotions in Chakrani’s head and heart that she buckled under almost as badly as she did under the anxiety she felt at this predicament.

“Madiha Nakar is difficult sir, but I think if you take a peaceable solution–”

Across the room General Von Drachen’s face lit up with child-like glee.

“Councilman, do you mean to say Sergeant Nakar of Bada Aso fame, is here?” He said.

“Colonel; but yes. She leads the 1st. Regiment her in Rangda. Though I tried to integrate her into our affairs I have found she leans too far from us to be of assistance, as she is now. But I desire to convince her; I’m sure that I can, given time and opportunity.” Mansa said. His voice was taking on a hint of disdain for the General he had so seemingly prized moments ago.

“I’m afraid convincing is out of the question.” Von Drachen clapped his hands. “If you are a man who wishes to neutralize the threat of her, I’m afraid only murder will suffice.”

Chakrani sat up tighter against the backrest of her seat in shock.

Mansa sighed. “We’re not going to murder her.”

“Oh, but you must! She will dismantle any well-laid plans you have with ruthless alacrity unless you let me dislodge her brains into a nearby wall post-haste, my good man!”

Mansa brought his hands up against his face.

“Councilman, what is he talking about?” Chakrani shouted. Some part of her brain simply could not suppress all of the scandal in this room enough to pretend that everything was still fine. In such a complicated situation even her desire to lay low and leave the room unscathed and out of bondage was overwhelmed by her sense of right.

Madiha Nakar was a killer, she had killed before, and she told herself her killing was right; that was the image Chakrani fought to hold in her mind. There were other images, some less grave, some distressingly fond, all of which battled in her mind and rendered her final perception volatile and erratic; but this unified picture was the one she thought she wanted to see. Madiha Nakar was a killer, her father’s killer. And yet, Chakrani would never agree to simply shoot her like an animal behind a shed. In any civilized world she could have been challenged and defeated and tried for her injustice.

That was what Chakrani wanted. She wanted justice! She wanted to be heard!

She wanted to have her suffering redressed! She wanted relief!

She did not want to have Madiha killed!

Every conviction she held screamed now that she had to oppose this meeting.

And yet she was the least of the powers in the room.

Her body remained frozen as the men continued to stare each other down.

Mansa remained speechless. Chakrani almost hoped he was not fully corrupted.

Meanwhile the gleeful Nochtish man seemed confident in his position.

Von Drachen ignored Chakrani’s outburst. “I will tell it to you plainly, Councilman.”

“I do not want to hear it!” Mansa shouted, standing up from his desk.

“You brought me here for a reason–”

“Yes, we have a deal and part of that deal is you listen to me, Cissean!”

Mansa was growing irate; while Von Drachen’s smirking expression never changed.

“We can do nothing about this ‘1st Regiment’ if Madiha Nakar is leading it. You brought me here to help check their power in your city, did you not? You want to remain capable of independent operation? You want to maneuver to power? Well you cannot do any of that effectively unless something is swiftly done about Madiha Nakar’s command.”

“Something will be done!” Mansa replied. “At my discretion, with my methods!”

Chakrani channeled her anxiety into a final surge of bravery. She shouted desperately.

“I have no connection to Madiha Nakar anymore, Councilman! I cannot help you!”

She stood up from her seat and started toward the door.

Click.

Chakrani felt the gun at the nape of her neck and raised her hands.

Behind her, the woman in the dress seemed almost disappointed to have to hold her up.

She was not drunk, nor sleepy; her sexualized act was replaced by cold stoicism.

Chakrani was sure that this woman would shoot. She froze completely.

Mansa sighed ever more deeply. He rubbed his hands over his face again.

“I am so upset right now. I expected all of this to transpire so much more cleanly. Mark my words, Cissean, your superiors will know my displeasure.” He calmly said.

Von Drachen shrugged childishly in response.

“It seems I am doomed never to be listened to.” He cryptically said.

After addressing the General, Mansa turned a stoic eye on Chakrani.

“Child, you will pen a missive and meet Madiha Nakar at a specified location. One of our agents will then persuade her to meet with our Council and make a peace. We will not harm either of you. I am merely answering her obstinacy with my own. A diplomat needs an opportunity to speak. I am merely seizing an opportunity to speak: with Madiha, with Rangda, and ultimately, with Solstice, and with Nocht. I am making my stage here. While the rest of the world devolves to madness, I will make Rangda a pillar of order. Alone, or not.”

Chakrani started to weep. She could not believe that she would come away unharmed from a request made at gunpoint. She had foolishly walked into something awful now. Not even Mansa’s calm and stoic words could assuage her. In fact, the calm with which he spoke made his words even more frightening. He was the most dangerous one here.

What kind of peace would he make with Madiha, when he was already preparing military force against her? What kind of peace could be made with Nocht other than giving up this city to their mercy? He might not kill anyone; but there would be blood nonetheless.

But she was helpless, and could say nothing more than “yes sir,” in a choked voice.

Mansa nodded his head, and raised his hand.

At Chakrani’s back, the woman laid down her weapon.

Mansa’s sweet, almost fatherly demeanor returned as he sat back down.

“I knew you would understand, Ms. Walters. Madiha will listen to you. I’m sure of it. Bring her here, and I will speak a truth to her that will change her outlook.” He said, smiling.


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The Coming Storm (44.1)


48th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Under a sky lit by fireworks and stars, a surging ocean sent a boat careening past the harbor of the Shining Port and smashing through the stone barriers around Tambwe’s upper waters. Pieces of the old fisher washed up along the meter-thin, sandy stretches of beach beneath the cliffs north of Rangda. Puzzled and alarmed by the vessel, Rangdan law enforcement quickly put together a rescue group. Careful to avoid the same fate as the unknowing fisher, Rangdan boats searched carefully along the rocky depths and hidden shallows, while climbing teams dropped down from the cliffs and onto the beaches to comb the debris.

While the rescuers would have rather been drinking and partying under the falling colors of the pyrotechnics displays, they did not openly complain about fulfilling their duties. Rangda was a coastal town, and these people could be fisherfolk and traders that keep the city supplied. Electric torches in hand, the rescuers searched along the beaches, examining the chunks of the boat that had washed up, and keeping an eye out for signs of life. They found pieces of the prow collecting all along the rocks, and identified the boat from one.

It was a Higwean fishing boat, named the Banteng. Judging by all the pieces, it was around ten meters long and not particularly seaworthy. Any expert eye would have found it inconceivable that such a vessel could sail so far from home. Curiously, no net was found, though the boat had its equipment set up for fishing. Having seen this kind of crash occur to larger vessels, the rescuers thought the boat must have been hurled against the rocks by the violent tides and smashed to pieces. There was a slim chance someone survived.

Despite this, for several hours the operation continued.

Though they searched out at sea and beneath the cliffs, all they found was the wreckage. No bodies were found, no personal effects, no signs that the boat had any particular direction. It was as if a ghost fisher had sailed endless days from the Higwe islands just to crash in this lonely strip of rock. Standard procedure dictated the rescue operation would continue where possible until dawn, allowing the sun to shed light on the situation.

Rescuers, however, were more than willing to let this become nothing but a mystery.

To the rescuers, at least for a few hours after dawn, it would remain so.

At the Shining Port, however, a sleepy morning patrolman from the port security found a connected mystery in the form of a pair of unidentified people climbing the port seawall onto one of the warehouse blocks. Spotting them from afar, he at first assumed nothing about the boat crash or security risks, and instead thought they must be port workers or fishers who fell into the water on accident. He ambled over to offer help; then, close enough to get a better look, he saw black leather waterproof cases strapped to their backs.

“Stop!” he shouted, “what are you doing with those? Stop right now!”

He waved his electric torch, the only piece of equipment he was given.

One of the two arrivals then produced a weapon.

At the sight, the port patrolman felt he had died right there in spirit. His whole body tensed, and he took no further step to close the fifty meter gap between him and them.

However, the mysterious man with the waterproof cases put down his gun.

He raised his hands.

He said something in a language the patrolman did not know and kicked the firearm.

It rolled some distance between them.

Confused, the patrolman followed his first instinct and picked up the weapon.

He looked up from the ground as he bent to take the gun.

Neither of the two mysterious port climbers made a move.

Both of them looked rather young.

What were they up to? It was impossible for the patrolman to imagine.

He had heard stories, years ago, of migrants from other nations who tried to take boats illegally into Ayvarta. They were often fleeing the consequences of political actions taken abroad. But these people took boats here. They ended up on the ports and in the beaches. They did not climb sea walls onto the ports. And they did not carry weapons and goods with them! Of course, all of that happened in peacetime, however.

“Easy now,” he said, raising his voice and pointing his newfound zwitcherer pistol at its former owners. He swept his hands toward himself, urging them to follow. They did not appear to share a language with him at all, and so he used his body language to try to communicate. Thankfully, the two strangers, hands up, began to walk as instructed.

Soon he got them to a phone, and called the police. And for a translator. When asked what language he needed to interpret, the patrolman did not know. He had never met an elf or one of the northern barbarians or a hanwan or anything like that; he had no frame of reference. He practically begged the policemen on the line to just take this burden off him.

After he hung up, the wheels of Ayvartan law, lulled to sleep by their distance from battle and by the levity of the last week, began to spin with a sudden, terrifying realization.

By noon, the fate of the Banteng begged more questions than it answered.


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