First Blood (52.1)

This scene contains violence and death.

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks

“G-1 this is Thunder actual, report.”

Behind the sandbag wall guarding the approach to the base gate, a soldier of the 8th Division’s “Lion Battalion” answered the radio. His response was swift: there had been no activity from the 1st Motor Rifles all night. He had at times seen flickers of movement, shades in the dark, but for all he knew it was his eyes tricking him. His enemy was invisible to him.

Across the street from his position there was a brick wall about five meters tall topped with metal spears. Barbed wire wound between each spear and barred entry to prospective climbers. These walls fully encircled the base save for a pair of gates: the one before him, and one facing north. They were strong steel-barred gates topped with barbed wire. Past the gate stood a pair of concrete structures for the gate guards, and then a road that wound down in the base proper. Quite distantly, if he squinted, the radio officer could see nondescript buildings, bereft of people.

“G-1, maintain a high alert. We’re reinforcing your position soon.”

With those words, the platoon commander became silent anew.

This was only the second set of orders G-1 had been given.

The radio-man felt like they were all being sacrificed to give an early warning of 1st Regiment activity. He looked around himself for support.

At his side, a young woman grabbed hold of the padded handles on the sides of a Khroda water-cooled machine gun, keeping the gun raised on the gate barring them from their old barracks. She was tense; her grip on the handles was stiff and rigid. Crouching behind the sandbags were eight riflemen, armed with a single grenade and a Bundu rifle with 100 rounds. In the middle of the night two men and two women had run in from around the corner carrying a light mortar in three pieces. It had been assembled just behind the bus bench, and they crouched around it.

“We may be getting reinforcements soon.” said the radio man.

“Thank the ancestors for that!” replied the machine gunner, exasperated.

“No matter how many reinforcements we get there’s still thousands of people in there.” one of the mortar crew said, pointing into the base.

“It’s fine, they haven’t moved.” said the radio man. “Once the governor gives the go-ahead we’ll surround them and that’ll be the end of it. They had their chance to attack and they didn’t all night. We’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, these folk ain’t Nocht.” said one of the riflemen.

Everyone went silent then. The rifleman’s clumsy implication was that the 1st Regiment was full of weak Ayvartans like themselves who had been bested by Nocht before. But that was not entirely true. For one, the 1st Regiment had defeated Nocht before. And most importantly, the 8th Division was, in a way, affiliated with Nocht. They were like Nocht, now.

Like them in allegiance, in whom they fought against; not in experience or equipment or in numbers, but in the dark deeds they committed.

But the fact was that there was nowhere for them to go but that sandbag wall overlooking the gate. It was either that or a stay in a prison camp, Nochtish or Ayvartan. Or worse. They had thrown their lot in with their own comrades over comrades in the broader sense. Without the mutual support of their dire pact they were nothing, and so, they remained.

So thought the radio man, until the machine gunner stomped her boot.

“Something’s happening!” She called out, holding her gun steady.

Across the road and behind the gate, a thin white mist had begun to spread. At first it the haze was barely noticeable, as thin as a cloud of smoke coming from the tip of a cigarette, blowing away in a gentle wind. Within minutes it had thickened into fog as thick as in a lowland swamp. Behind the bars there was no longer a road or gatehouses, only smoke.

“What do we do? What do we do?” shouted the machine gunner.

Forming a firing line to both sides of her, the riflemen aimed for the gate. Behind them the mortar crew scrambled to rip open the crates for their rounds, which they had not thought to unpack and lay out for use earlier. The radio officer thought his heart would climb out of his throat, so hard was it beating and thrashing in his chest. He mustered the will to speak.

“I’ll call it in.” He shouted back. “Calm down and don’t shoot.”

He lifted the handset to his mouth and switched on broadcasting–

From the speaker in his ear he heard a sharp, horrendous thrashing noise.

Wincing, he put down the handset and grabbed his head in pain.

But the noise was still there, distant, boring in his head. Was it a tinnitus?

He strained to raise eyes toward the gate, and found a black shape moving toward them within the smoke, tall as an elephant and just as broad.

In a split second’s glance the radio man noticed the gate had opened.

Everyone around him was paralyzed with fear.

At the edge of the cloud the black figure paused and shifted its weight.

There was a great thunderous cry and a bright flash that parted smoke.

From the edge of the street a 152mm round cut the distance to the sandbag wall in an instant. Detonating just over the sandbag wall it sent men and sandbags alike flying every which way. Metal sprayed in the faces of the riflemen, blinding and killing them; the machine gunner was flung back from her gun and died from the shock before hitting the floor again.

Surviving the first shot with only deafness and disorientation to account for it, the mortar crew rose from the ground and abandoned the position and their weapon, holding their heads low while hurtling down the street.

Lying on the ground, his stomach speared by an enormous chunk of shell casing, the radio man watched them go. He prayed for their escape with his last breaths; but in his final moments, he saw as a massive vehicle, with a turret like a destroyer’s mounting an absolutely enormous gun.

He did not see the vehicle shoot again.

Instead, seemingly a dozen men and women clinging to the tank’s rear and turret opened fire on the retreating mortar crew and picked them off before they could escape. In his final moments the radio man witnessed the birth of a new kind of Ayvartan warfare, and realized that nobody would know of his death, and that Nakar had dealt first blood.

She was throwing her iron fist right into the gut of the Lion battalion.

On the ground, at his side, the radio was still emitting alien noise.


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Salva’s Taboo Exchanges IX

This chapter contains bigoted words used in a fit of self-loathing by a character, against herself; it also contains violence, and familial abuse and manipulation. 

37th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Royal Territory of Pallas — Palazzo Di Vittoria

After an agonizingly tense dinner with the queen and her maiden, Salvatrice retreated to a room set aside far in advance. It was a room that she had perhaps been meant to stay in several times, but those visits never came to pass. Decorated pastel pink, it was larger than her apartment at the academy, containing a bedroom, a living room, and a small study.

In place of the kitchen there was a massive wardrobe.

Salvatrice ran her fingers across the hundreds of outfits in her size that hung from the long racks across the musty wooden room. There were plaques with her name emblazoned on them everywhere. Their presence disturbed her. ‘Salvatrice’s shoes;’ Salvatrice’s hats.’ It was eerie, like staring at a not-quite-right reflection in the mirror; or another world.

Was there a Salvatrice somewhere who had been enjoying these goods?

There were dresses, beautiful, ornate, gilded and silver in the same fashion as her mother’s clothing. They made her fine silks look humble. There were all manner of sporting outfits befitting an active young woman. A rider’s uniform with a crop; a duelist’s coat and pants, paired with a crystalline blue sabre; a modern tennis uniform with a skirt. There were fur coats, so many that it almost seemed like a zoo had been depopulated to furnish them.

Hats, seemingly hundreds, in every conceivable style and every acceptable color.

Enough shoes to equip every fashionable girl at the Academy, lined the walls.

Salvatrice picked up one of the uniforms and pressed it against her chest. It seemed surprisingly well tailored to her slender and petite shape, as well as her height and the length of her limbs. She reasoned that she could put on any of these and it would fit.

She also reasoned that the spying she suffered was more intrusive than she thought.

Behind her, Byanca Geta panned across the room in silent awe, staring at all the coats and the various hats, the numerous shawls and fox-tail scarves and other accessories.

She picked up the sword and examined it briefly. “Do you know how to use this?”

“I took lessons as a teenager. But that was some time ago.” Salvatrice replied.

“Ms. Mariel told me the Queen practices every night. I guess she wanted to share her hobby with you; maybe you can spar with her some time.” Byanca amicably said.

This remark Salvatrice ignored. She examined the furs along the rack instead.

“Salva, how many paychecks do I have to save to get a place like this?” Byanca asked.

Salvatrice shook her head. She was too absorbed in the room to take offense at her bodyguard’s familiarity. “Infinite paychecks. You can’t buy something like this. It’s something that can only be granted or stolen. It’s a privilege of power.” She said bitterly.

She spread her fingers and allowed a beautiful mink shawl to fall to the floor. It was despicable, to think that through all her sufferings the Queen was collecting all of these expensive things in this room. What was the purpose of it? Did stocking Salvatrice’s future room provide enough stimulation to replace Salvatrice’s actual presence in it? Did she consider herself a great providing mother for stuffing an unused closet full of silk?

Salvatrice stormed out of the wardrobe in disgust, slamming the door behind her.

Byanca then opened the door again, letting herself out, and slammed it behind her.

Every room was lavishly furnished. It felt like a crime to sit in the plush living room seats, gathered around a television set the size of a bed and with just as much wood around its screen, along with a radio set and jukebox loaded with a massive stack of shellac records. There was a pearl coffee table upon which a jade tea set had been left. Salvatrice absent-mindedly touched the pot, and recoiled; it was still hot, and there was warm tea inside.

“For all the trouble they went through, they didn’t leave any biscuits.” Byanca said.

Salvatrice shot her a dirty look, and Byanca sank into her couch in response.

“What are we going to do now?” asked the Centurion.

“I do not know.” Salvatrice said. “I was not planning to stay more than a few days.”

“But it feels like we’re trapped, doesn’t it? There’s an oppressive atmosphere.”

The princess deeply shared her Centurion’s feelings. She thought she felt them much more acutely. These walls felt as if built to keep her trapped. This was not a cage for Byanca.

From the first brick these walls had been made to contain Princess Salvatrice Vittoria, the future Queen Vittoria II. However much Byanca must have felt her freedom curtailed by the etiquette, the stuffy atmosphere, the imbalance of power between the royals and herself, a lowly soldier in the Palazzo; Salvatrice felt those bonds strangling her with tenfold strength. Byanca was beneath their notice; but all their covetous eyes were on Salvatrice.

In this palace her wings were destined to be clipped.

But she was also keenly aware of her mother’s designs.

For the moment, they guaranteed some measure of freedom.

“She will release us. She needs me outside the walls to complete her plot.”

“Plot?” Byanca asked.

Salvatrice felt her breathing momentarily quicken.

Just thinking about the near future gave her terrible anxiety.

“I’ve become bait, to lure out the leader of the so-called anarchists.” She said.

Byanca opened her eyes wide and sat up straighter.

“THAT’S what you two talked about?”

Salvatrice bowed her head, her shaking fingers tightly gripping her skirt. “My sister was exiled to a nunnery for participating in a plot to kill my mother and usurp her. That is the reason why I’m the First Princess now. Her co-conspirator can no longer get to my mother, now that my sister’s intentions are in the open. But he can get to me.”

She could see her bodyguard’s heart sinking. Her torment was plain on her face.

“I thought I was prepared to hear something unpleasant, but this is too much.”

Salvatrice almost felt comforted by Byanca’s sympathy. Were it not for the string of torments she suffered the past day she would have felt tender enough for an embrace.

“Salva, this is too dangerous. You must protest this! Not only does it put you in peril, it could turn the academy itself into a battleground! These people have bombed buildings before, they’ve driven trucks through gates, they’ve shot up police stations midday. They will not bat an eyelash at gunning down the academy to get to you. Your mother has gone mad!”

In her despair, this was an angle that Salvatrice had not considered. She had been focused inward; on the danger to herself, now that her mother relaxed her security and revealed her intentions. Everyone suspected she would be a target, and she believed it now; but her surroundings would be just as much a target on any attack targeted at her.

She envisioned a car bomb going off at the Academy gate, the same as on that night at the Previte estate, pursuing its vengeance regardless of who might become involved.

How many innocent young women would die alongside her then? Women like the late Lady Mina, gunned down mere meters away fom her? She felt a wave of helplessness, like a cascade rushing down her shoulders and weighing her down on the couch.

She licked her lips absentmindedly, having no words to offer.

“Princess, let’s go after the Queen right now! We can’t just give up!”0

Byanca stood up to punctuate her insistence.

Salvatrice, however, felt only weariness.

“Please stop being so loud.” Salvatrice moaned. “Turn on the radio.”

The Centurion stared as the princess gave a dismissive wave of the hand.

Defeated, Byanca bowed her head and ambled stiffly to the radio, turning the knob. From the speakers blared crackling noise and a chaotic mixture of voices, changing with every millimeter turn of the frequency switch. Once Byanca let go of the knob the wailing settled into the calm, baritone voice of a popular opera singer.

She returned to her chair and took a sip of tea. Under the heart-wrenching melodies of betrayal and bitter destiny that characterized this opera, Byanca drank in silence, alone. Salvatrice did not touch her tea. Cozzi was such a horrible thing to have to listen to; Salvatrice almost wanted to throw her cup of tea at the radio in the hopes of a short-circuit. But she felt so weak and beaten that she did not manage to do anything.

In his handsome voice, the male lead sang of the two sisters, both beautiful and wealthy. Though his courtship should have been directed at the eldest, his eyes wandered to the youngest, and there was all manner of acrimony as lust destroyed them.

A despicable tale of women swooning and dying, and rapacious, pathetic men.

Not the type of man nor the type of woman Salvatrice would ever want to be.

“Could you change the frequency? Put it on Cybelle.” She said.

Nodding her head, Byanca put down her cup, stood, and twisted the knob again.

For a second the voices mixed again before settling on the awkward speech of an older woman, slowly enunciating the winning numbers for a small lottery. After this, she began to discuss the local weather for the week. Though far less dramatic, Cybelle was a reliable news station with round-the-clock programming. It was a sweet background nothingness. But the sting of Cozzi’s warring sisters lingered in her mind. It made her think.

Salvatrice wondered whether, trapped in that nunnery, her sister hated her.

She wondered whether things could have been different had Clarissa succeeded.

Had her sister taken power, what would have become of Salvatrice Vittoria? They were only half-related by blood, each created by vastly different fathers. They had little contact over the intervening years. Certainly no familiarity bound them to each other. Would she have gotten rid of Salvatrice? Would she have hid her like an embarassment, in the way her mother did? Would she have set her free after taking her mother’s head?

Shaking her head, Salvatrice brought herself out of her thoughts in time for the news.

“At the top of the hour, we’ve got an update on a breaking story from earlier in the day. Agents of the Queen’s Coorte 17th Legion have reportedly carried out a wave of highly successful arrests aimed at suspected terrorists around the Palladi region.”

Byanca raised her head from the tea. Salvatrice felt her body tense.

“This operation became possible after a Coorte agent captured an insurgent after a shooting at the Pallas Academy where one student was killed and several injured. The 17th Legion took the man into custody and extracted information which then led to several more arrests in and around the Palladi region. The 17th Legion has also confirmed that they have captured the ringleader responsible for planning the attack on the Previte estate, the grenade attacks in Ikrea and the shooting at the Academy, along with numerous cohorts.”

Though a more credulous person would have felt relief, Salvatrice immediately thought that something had to be wrong here. She turned to Byanca, silently demanding an explanation.

“It’s impossible; a minion like him wouldn’t have known any important anarchists.” Byanca said. “I interrogated him myself. He was in hysterics. Nothing from him is credible.”

Salvatrice turned again to the radio as the news-woman continued to speak.

“The 17th Legion has published a list of names of those arrested. Should you have any further information on these men, you are advised to visit the legionary office immediately.”

Calmly the woman began to read the names on the air.

Byanca’s eyes drew wide and her jaw hung, her lips spread. Her fingers shook.

Each name seemed to knock her words further down the throat.

Only once the full list had been read did Byanca find the strength to speak again.

“Those are all people connected to my investigation.” She said, her voice quivering.

“Why would they be arrested?” Salvatrice demanded.

“I don’t know! They’re all pub crawlers and poets and beatniks. Some of them might write bawdy lyrics about the Queen but none of them have the spine to throw a bomb!”

“So then you’re telling me that everyone who testified that they were friends with the shooter has been falsely rounded up as an anarchist?” Salvatrice shouted back.

Byanca clenched her fists. She bowed her head in disgust.

“Not just those who testified. There are names on there that I just got from people, but never managed to interview. It’s practically everyone who had any tenuous link.”

Salvatrice covered her mouth with her hand, not knowing what to think or feel.

Over their silence the broadcast continued in a cheery tone.

“17th Legion Legatus Marcel has gone on record as saying that owing to the swift capture of the perpetrators, enhanced security around the Palladi region will be relaxed. To quote him: ‘citizens of Lubon should sleep soundly and walk proudly, knowing their land is now safe.'”

That was it; the final piece slid into place. She was bait and this was the lure shaking in the water. Now that the anarchists had been “caught” everyone could rest easily.

Especially the real anarchists, who would soon catch on to the fabricated blunder.

Innocents sacrificed to enable the princess’ own sacrifice. God save the Queen.

Her heart burning with rage, Salvatrice thrust to a stand and stormed away from the couch and into the hated wardrobe, so fast Byanca nearly tripped with surprise trying to follow her. Inside the wardrobe she ripped the duelist’s uniform from the racks and drew the saber from its sheathe. She swung it once, testing its weight and her own strength.

Laying eyes on the weapon, Byanca held out a shaking hand in defense.

“Princesss, please calm down.” She pleaded.

Over her shoulder, Salvatrice laid a fiery gaze on the Centurion.

“Help me out of this dress.” She ordered.

Perhaps it was a ballroom on certain nights, with a chandelier like a blossom of glass hanging over the dancers. Certainly the piano was still in the corner, and could have been played. On the wooden floor the tapping steps struck with quick sounds that then echoed across the high ceiling and broad walls. Tonight, however, Queen Vittoria was not dancing.

Instead her steps took her closer and father from an invisible opponent, a shadow, that she fought with an ornate saber. Quick lunges and careless sweeps sliced the air. A subtle rush of noise accompanied each swing. In her dueling uniform the Queen had an entirely different air from the tantalizing, extravagant clothing she often wore.

She was covered up to her neck in a purple jacket, and dark pants. Her hair was collected in a simple ponytail. As she swung and stepped, practicing her stances, the Queen looked almost rugged. Alone in this grand stage, the Queen seemed to be in her own far-off world. There were no guards, no servants, just the fairy queen, and the swirling air around her.

Salvatrice spied her from afar as she traversed the long connecting hallway.

She was almost a mirror to her mother then, dressed in a duelist’s jacket and pants herself. Her own hair, shorter than her mother’s, was instead clipped behind her head.

Nevertheless, she thought they must have looked keenly alike. Perhaps everything in that wardrobe was meant to make her more a picture of her mother, in all her forms.

Even when dressed in a more masculine fashion.

Bloodthirst as ancient as the uniform and blade directed the Princess then.

Saber in hand, Salvatrice made to walk into the room, when a hand seized her shoulder.

Behind her, Lillith Mariel appeared suddenly and seemingly without a door.

At her side there were only paintings and stone.

Salvatrice did not see her coming.

She had perhaps been waiting in ambush in a niche, like a counter-assassin.

“Your mother does not wish to be disturbed.” She said sternly. “I will not ask why you take a weapon to her presence if you surrender it to me and turn back around now.”

Salvatrice glanced side-long at the maid with a snarl on her face.

She did not stop walking, and she had no intention to surrender anything.

“Byanca, get her out of my way.” She commanded.

From farther down the hall, the dutiful servant dashed into action.

In a moment, the Centurion approached and quickly seized the older maid by the arms, ripping her from Salvatrice’s presence and pulling her kicking and cursing back into the long hall behind them. The Princess strode confidently into the ballroom, her saber swaying casually in the air as she walked, her steps light, imperious, entering the Queen’s stage.

Behind her the maid and Centurion struggled in each other’s arms.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Mariel, but please stay out of this!” Byanca gently said, trying to hold down the Queen’s maid. Though the woman periodically thrashed, the Centurion seemed to have her well in hand, maneuvering behind and then taking her by the shoulders.

“You’re the one who will be sorry.” Lillith replied.

Though Byanca was well younger, Lillith was a woman not yet old in spirit.

Byanca seemed to take note of the woman’s zeal far too late.

She threw herself back suddenly, butting Byanca’s nose with the back of her head. In shock, the Centurion released the maid, who followed the assault with a sweep of her feet that knocked Byanca to the floor. Spinning around, the maid started down the hall, but Byanca had presence enough to leap after her shoes, seizing her and bringing her to the floor too.

Salvatrice ignored the scuffle and approached the center of the room.

Ringed by the gilded lines on the floor and by the chandelier above, the Princess stopped, and unsheathed her sword. The sliding of metal finally caught the Queen’s attention.

As if awakening to reality, the Queen half-turned to meet the new arrival.

She stared incredulously at her daughter.

There was one instant of panic on her face before her composure returned.

“Surprised?” Salvatrice said, a savage grin on her face.

“I arranged for the lessons, so I’m not completely surprised.” Vittoria said.

Perhaps for a moment she had thought this an assassination, but she no longer seemed to fear. Salvatrice was perplexed; did she not consider her a threat? What was going through her head now? Salvatrice had a weapon in hand, and they were all alone in here.

“Before I departed, I thought I’d show you the fruit of that labor.” She said.

Vittoria shook her head. “I am not in the habit of sparring at my age.”

“Do you fear twisting something tender, mother?” Salvatrice cockily replied.

“Yes. But something of yours rather, not mine.” The Queen calmly said.

Her demeanor was infuriating. Salvatrice wanted the panic in her eyes back.

“So you’ll deign to strike this misbehaving child then?” Salvatrice shouted.

“I will not strike you, Salvatrice.” Vittoria said, ignoring the outburst.

Salvatrice held up her blade and sized up her opponent. Her mother had her children young. Salvatrice was only a few years older than Clarissa, and only just pushed into her twenties. Vittoria was hardly of age when she first bore a child. Even though she saw both her children come of age, the Queen had not yet reached her fifties. She was sprightly and healthy and youthful not just for a woman her age but for a woman in general.

Still, that was only the skin. There was more to the body than that.

Salvatrice was less than half her age, and though her own constitution was poor, she was decently rested, and she felt the adrenaline and anger course through her veins. It might have been the fire of youth, but she thought she had an advantage on her mother.

She might not best the Queen but she could hurt her; and she so terribly desired to inflict pain on her mother at that moment. All she wanted was to lay sword on the Queen, whatever she hit, whatever it took. Whether it cut a cheek or sliced an eye, whether it grazed or killed. Salvatrice was seeing so red that any outcome would feel just.

Soon as Vittoria began to raise her sword, Salvatrice lunged forward.

Hoping to disarm her mother while her blade was still low and off-balance, she struck down upon the body of the opposing weapon with all of her strength. She felt her blow deflect off the flat of the Queen’s saber, hastily turned and held firm against the attack.

After the contact the blades suddenly separated, and the Queen stepped back and fully formed her guard. Salvatrice brought up her own blade to defend as well.

For the Queen to have avoided dropping that sword, she must have had a monstrous wrist. Salvatrice already felt an aching across her arms and back after only one swing.

“I take up the saber to relieve stress. There is no point in this for me.” Vittoria said.

“It is a relief for me!” shouted the Princess. “Hitting you is a great relief!”

Salvatrice stepped forward and swung her arms in a fury, striking her mother’s raised blade over and over. She felt as if striking glass, as if battering down an effigy. She pounded her saber against her mother’s guard, driving the Queen back step by step.

Mindlessly Salvatrice beat at the blade until her arms were raw from the savage outburst. Looking up she found her mother’s calm visage behind the blade and grit her teeth.

“I hate you!” Salvatrice shouted at her. She swung her sword again, smashing the blade like a metal bar against the iron wall before her. “I hate you!” She shouted, dividing the words among blows, repeated again and again, while her arms shook and her face glistened. She tasted fluid salt seeping down her lips from her brow, from her eyes.

With a mad grimace, the raging Princess switched from a battering downward swing to a sudden sideways sweep. Blood drew from the Queen’s hand as she was surprised by the new attack. Her blade fell to the ground, and she staggered back, holding her injured hand. Now there was not only red in Salvatrice’s eyes, but in the air and on the floor.

Gasping for breath, trapped in the throes of sadness and hate, Salvatrice threw her own blade to the floor and charged her mother with her arms out and brought her to the ground. They grappled beside the fallen swords, Vittoria pushing her away but never shoving, nor kicking, or putting up much fight. Salvatrice quickly gained an advantage.

With a closed fist she struck her mother in the eye and pinned her face-up on the floor.

Laying over the Queen, Salvatrice dug her fingers into her mother’s neck and squeezed.

“What do you think of me now?” She shouted. “What do you think of your half-elf androgyne freak child? Are you happy now to be getting rid of me once and for all?”

The Queen’s stony expression resisted admirably the physical pain she must have felt.

Tears drew from the Princess’ eyes as she savaged her mother.

“What do you hide behind that mask of yours? Tell me you hate me already!”

Salvatrice lifted her mother’s head and thrust her down against the hard floor.

Vittoria briefly winced. Her own eyes reddened, and voicelessly, she wept.

But her expression did not change. Beyond the merest and most basically necessary expressions of pain, the Queen had no emotion for Salvatrice, no dramatic reaction to her attack. She merely lay, weeping, coughing and choking, as though prepared to die.

Staring deep into those moist, bleak green eyes Salvatrice felt her grip slacken.

Failing to draw any reciprocal reaction, the fire in her breast burnt out.

Her curled fingers shook and shrank back from the marks left on the Queen’s flesh.

Salvatrice stood from the floor, stunned, shaking. Without the rage driving her, she was bereft of mind and memory. For a moment she almost wondered where she was, but it all hit her again in the next instant. She felt a fear that shuddered in her chest like a crawling worm, sinking deeper in. She doubled over suddenly, sick to her stomach.

She had failed again; she had done nothing that mattered.

In front of her, Queen Vittoria stood. Her eyes were still stained red, bloodshot and tearful, but the empty expression on her lips remained. Fluid dribbled from her nose, and she coughed periodically, struggling to regain her breath after Salvatrice’s attack.

“I do not hate you.” Vittoria slowly said, as her voice returned.

Her voice was so imperious that Salvatrice was again left speechless in her presence.

“You are the child I chose, Salvatrice.” She continued. Her words sounded almost heartfelt. “I could never hate you. Even if you hate me; even if you kill me.”

Salvatrice’s lip quivered. She reached for words, and found, hearing her mother’s voice, another brief burst of violence inside her. “Shut up! How could I ever believe that? I was treating as nothing but an embarrassment to you! You kept Clarissa and discarded me!”

Vittoria shook her head. “Clarissa was but an imposition of this place! I am your Mother, more than I am anyone else’s Mother! Your birth sex does not and has never mattered to me. Your blood does not and has never mattered to me. From the moment you were born, you were my treasure. In unfavorable circumstances I did everything for your better–”

“Shut up! Shut up!” Salvatrice shouted. Her own voice was losing its power. “You say all these things to get into my head! I know you mean none of them! You’re just using me!”

“We are both being used to further this Crown.” Vittoria said. “Because without it, I cannot survive, and neither can you. I am doing all of this so we can survive. You might not understand my methods, but you must believe my motive.” She took a step.

Extending her bloody hand, Vittoria caressed Salvatrice’s cheek.

Upon it she left a spatter of red upon the light brown flesh.

“You are my beautiful daughter, the most beautiful, wonderful, special child that any mother in this land could have. Everything I have done, I have done for you.”

Salvatrice drew back, her expression blank save for a nervous twitch along her cheek. She was shaking, though her back was ramrod straight. Where the blood had spattered her jaw shuddered and ached. Her mind was in chaos, and she knew not what to do.

In front of her, Vittoria knelt down and picked up Salvatrice’s saber.

“I respect you, Salvatrice, more than you know. It is because I respect you, because I believe in you, that I am pushing you to take charge of our current predicaments. However, if your ambitions have grown this much, I am willing to step aside. Here, my daughter.”

She pointed the blade between her breasts and pushed the handle toward Salvatrice.

“Under this crown, everything you hold dear will be in jeopardy. If you believe you can resist it better than I, and that you can shoulder this cursed Kingdom, slay me and take it. Nobody will retaliate against you. I will make your designs reality if you desire them. But be forewarned: the moment I draw my last breath, so will you. Salvatrice Vittoria will die and this crown will take her place. No matter how much I struggled against it, I am nothing but this crown in the end. It will always win. Over you and over me. I pray that the legends about your third sex are true: that you possess the will of a woman with the endurance of a man.”

Again she pushed forward, blade against breast, the handle out to the Princess.

“You will not be punished for ambition as Clarissa was. If you hate me, then kill me.”

Vittoria took another step, and once more Salvatrice drew back from her, horrified.

“Whether today or within decades, you are going to carry this weight.” She said. “Because I love you, because I respect you; I will honor whatever you decide, my daughter.”

Weight; the word echoed within all of Salvatrice’s being, tearing her apart from inside.

Salvatrice reached for the handle, seized it– and threw the sword down on the ground.

There was a sudden and agonizing lapse in her murderous desires, and just as sudden an all-encompassing fear of the gravity surrounding her mother’s presence. As if witnessing a walking ghost, Salvatrice turned from the Queen and fled blindly back down the hall, past the brawling Centurion and maid, past a pair of confused guards, past torches and doorways and stone and banners, not knowing where she was headed, running without end.

Into the labyrinth of the palace, and her own mind, she fled screaming.

38th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Royal Territory of Pallas — Palazzo Di Vittoria

“How is the tea?”

“It is fair, dear mother.”

“Only fair? It appears Lillith will never enter your heart as she did mine.”

“Oh ho ho! I have no designs to that extent. I’ve a royal already.”

“Of course. I would not tolerate my dear maid stolen from me.”

“I would never steal from my own mother. It would mean falling quite low.”

Byanca stared quietly at the trio with a skeptical expression.

Salvatrice drank her black tea in delicate sips with a demure expression. Her depature dress was a bit more extravagant than those of the past two days, with pink lace that nearly matched the color of her hair, and an open back. She had been surprised to find it among her things in the morning. Byanca supposed Canelle packed it a bit too well. A pity she could not have worn it to the dinner instead, the better to match her mother’s fashion.

She looked quite flashy. Her face was fully made up, with a brush of light gold pigment on her lips, and red shadow over her eyes. Her light figure was well represented.

Across the table, Vittoria was, in turn, rather modestly dressed. Her long sleeves and shaped skirt showed no skin save for her neck and some collarbone. Scrunchy lace and frills decorated the end of a fluffy shawl. A lacy white choker matched the bandage around her black eye and over her injured hand. It covered the marks Salvatrice had left on her neck.

Like her daughter, she was nicely made-up and appeared in decent spirits. A small smile played over her lips as she and her maid made polite chatter. Byanca could have confused her for a gentle, doting older mother, had she not had so much prior cause for skepticism.

There was quite a spread on the table. Tea, biscuits, grapes, honey cheeses, in beautifully garnished plates. The Centurion tasted the food and was nearly moved to tears. Byanca turned to Lillith with a special regret, in light of how delicious the honey cheese turned out.

There were visible marks on the maid’s exposed neck and shoulders, and a scratch across her cheek, all where Byanca had beaten and banged and otherwise manhandled her. It had been all she could do to keep the woman trapped in melee and a way from the royals. That maid had proven too tough an opponent the night before. Had she decided to fight instead of trying to run, Byanca was sure she would have been beaten to a pulp by her.

Lillith seemed to notice the attention, and shook her head with a smile on her face.

“You look tense, Centurion. Drink your tea and take in the lightness of things.”

Byanca couldn’t understand how after everything that happened the night before, they could gather in the morning for tea as if they were a family. She was sure, though perhaps it had all been a dream, that Salvatrice had tried to kill the Queen last night. She remembered returning to Salvatrice’s room and finding it locked, after she had run away. Only God knew; perhaps the Queen had just tripped and hurt herself. Maybe Salvatrice wasn’t screaming her lungs off all night. Who knew; who knew? Byanca sighed helplessly and sipped her tea.

At around noon, the Princess and her Centurion had gathered their things and were once more ready to depart the grand Palazzo. At the outer gates, back into the city, the Queen herself rode out on a sleek white horse to bid her daughter adieu. From inside the car, Salvatrice waved her goodbyes to her mother, and their driver took them into the city and out into the country once more. Back to the familiar setting of the Messianic Academy.

Salvatrice stared glumly out the windows, holding her head up by one hand. Though the landscape scrolled by them as beautiful as it always was, she seemed as if she were staring through it or past it, into a world for her eyes only. She was not taking in the sights.

Byanca sat back in the car, feeling restless from the silence.

“Got anything in mind, Princess?” She asked.

Salvatrice shook her head. “I’m going to take care of some things first, to clear my head. Then we will take care of all of this. I’m going to need your help more than ever.”

The Centurion nodded her head, satisfied with the response.

In fact, she felt a bit happy that the Princess was going to rely on her.

But she could not keep her mind off the past night’s events. She had to speak.

“Salva, about your mother–”

“That never happened.” Salvatrice replied.

Byanca nodded her head again. At least it was some kind of acknowledgment.

“Do you really hate her?” She asked.

Without turning her head, Salvatrice spoke in a dull tone of voice.

“I hate her. But right now, I need her. I will find a solution.”

For the rest of the journey, the Princess was silent, staring out the window.

However, Byanca felt no tension from her. She was either determined, or resigned.

Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

The 1st Day Of Training (38.1)

46th of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, 8th Division Garrison, Training Field

“Welcome, noble and brave soldiers of the Bada Aso Regiment! I am Inspector General Chinedu Kimani, and henceforth I will personally oversee your training!”

Underneath the searing eye of Rangda’s noon sky there was a mass movement of people in the 8th Division Garrison, the likes of which the empty plots of land on the base’s northern side had not seen since before the Demilitarization act. Assembled between foundation outlines hidden in sparsely grassy land, standing unknowingly over floor plans that had been smashed, and now reclaimed by the soft brown dirt, several hundreds of soldiers stood in rapt attention as a tall woman in a flashy red and black uniform hailed them.

“The Battle of Bada Aso is over! We were victorious; my precious comrades, you have accomplished many feats! However, we must wipe that slate clean! There are new, greater victories to reap, and to do so, we must all take hard steps beyond Adjar’s border.”

Many a fighter had glanced at or heard of Kimani in the past, but for most this was their first time coming face to face with one of the major commanding voices in their unit. She was an impressive sight — taller than any of them, black skinned, with dark, curly hair to mid-neck level and sleek, striking features. A hint of crow’s feet around her eyes was rendered visible only by the glistening of sweat crawling down her forehead, cheek and jaw under the hot Rangdan sun. She had an air of strength and exuded professionalism; a real soldier.

“Doubtless many of you have received basic training in your firearms and grenades, in first aid, in rudimentary battle tactics. Doubtless, all of you survived Bada Aso, and have seen and fought our enemy first-hand. Yet, regardless of your ranks, and your merits, for the next week, every man and woman in front of me is once more a green Private!” She said.

Behind her a fleet of nurses, construction workers, and computers labored to set up examination tents, establish medical stations and assemble tables behind which documents of all kinds would be handed out and filled for the records staff to archive. Preliminary tests would be conducted, and information collated to help Colonel Nakar and Inspector General Kimani understand just who it was that they would lead to battle.

“Nobody can diminish your struggles, nor the sacrifices you and your comrades have made. Your past has honed you into a blade. That you stand before me, means you have been drawn from your sheathe to do battle. But right now, though you desire to cut the enemy, your edge must labor to draw their blood. It is my duty to start sharpening you, so the same cuts you dealt in Bada Aso will do more than draw blood. They will slice Nocht to pieces!”

She spoke in a strong and serious voice, and even when she raised her pitch, her affect was subtle. The Inspector General always seemed to speak in a tone both calm and intense.

Her declarations moved through the hundreds of men and women in the crowd like a wave. Everyone stood straighter and tighter when they felt her eyes over them and quivered when they heard her her voice. In their green uniforms, stripped of whatever rank markings they earned in Bada Aso, the troops of the 1st Battalion of the Askari Motor Rifle Regiment “Bada Aso” watched her every move with tense attention, and a brimming of unused energy.

In the same field where the 8th Division would perform marching drills before the war, the troops of the Bada Aso Regiment prepared for a week of short training courses.

Though the Regimental command couldn’t offer them extensive training quite yet, they would not allow them to sit around. Everyone had already lounged too much at sea. Bada Aso felt distant; but the war wasn’t over. Command wanted to keep them on their feet.

Kimani explained. “From now to the month’s end, with a break for the festival on the 48th, you will clock in 100 hours of training in infantry combat, tank-infantry cooperation, signals discipline, and much more. My staff will give you a crash course on modern combat to give you an idea of the multifaceted duties, skills and responsibilities of a soldier in maneuver warfare! I hope that you enjoyed the peaceful voyage here — because I will make you sweat here in Rangda, comrades! And it will be an inkling of what awaits you in Solstice!”

For an instant, the Inspector General flashed a little smile at the crowd of soldiers.

There was a collective gulp in response. That was a lot of hours worth of training. It appeared command counted their days at sea as a vacation, but they had not had much of an opportunity to de-stress while crammed into a troopship or a cruiser. In whispers, the crowd started to lament being driven so hard after the chaos in Bada Aso. At least some of them, however, were excited for an opportunity to learn some new fighting skills.

One such person was Gulab Kajari, standing off to the side and back of the crowd with stars in her eyes. She looked around the field and through the fence to the base, catching glimpses of tanks and guns and other equipment being brought in or serviced, perhaps to participate in the exercises. She fantasized about this training both as an opportunity to show off her energetic strengths, and to be able to brag about her elite skills later on.

Already she was a military hero! Now she could rise to the level of a battlefield legend!

“Charvi, do you know anything about this? Do you know what we’ll be doing?”

Gulab nudged her constant companion, Charvi Chadgura, but the Sergeant was nearly inanimate. On a good day, Charvi was still emotionless, but at least a little sprightly. Yesterday the two of them had helped out at the headquarters, walked around the whole base, and been yelled at by a variety of guards about where they should and shouldn’t be. Through all of that, Charvi had the same face, but her demeanor at least felt lively.

Today she slumped forward, mumbling to herself in that dry, affect-less voice of hers.

She barely seemed to pay Kimani any attention. She was mostly staring at her feet.

Acknowledging Gulab, she clapped her hands twice, softly, in quick succession, but she said nothing. Her eyes seemed fixed on her own feet, and her shoulders drooped low.

“Are you ok? Do you have heatstroke?” Gulab asked. Charvi clapped to relieve stress.

“I want to go to the post office.” Charvi replied in a barely audible voice.

Gulab crooked an eyebrow. She had not seen a post office anywhere, but she had also not seen much of the city in general — she and Charvi were bused in on the 44th along with fifty other soldiers from the port, and dropped off at the base. All they had time for (and all they were allowed to do) was registration, two meals, equipment check-in, and bunking. The day after that, on the 45th, they still weren’t allowed off-base, and took a tour of the facilities.

That must have been it; after yesterday’s tour, Charvi must have realized that the base had no available post office, and it must have made her a little depressed. Her precious hobby was stamp collecting, and being in Rangda there was an opportunity to collect new pieces. Putting all of this together, Gulab thought she had an idea of how to cheer Charvi on.

“Hey, look, we have the festival day off! You can go to the post office then.” She said.

Charvi bolted upright suddenly. She stood at attention, staring forward inexpressively.

Her head turned stiffly toward Gulab. “Are you sure? Will we really be allowed out?”

“Positive!” Gulab replied. “She said we had a break on the festival day, right? Obviously that break is for the soldiers to go out and join the festivities, otherwise what’s the point?”

Charvi pressed her hands against her cheeks. “You’re correct. You must be.”

“Trust me! We’ll have a party at the post office on that day. Just cheer up a bit, ok?”

“Yes. I admit that I felt and still feel restless, but I will be fine now. Thank you.”

When it came to Charvi, emotion was never written on her face, but it could be evident in the air around her. Her words hinted at a renewed intensity of feeling. Charvi turned her head again, and stood straighter, her legs set, her back erect, her chest out.

“I must live until that precious day.” She said.

“I don’t see why you wouldn’t live until then, but ok.”

“You never know. I must try extra hard to live until then.”

Her deadpan expression made Gulab smile. She raised a thumbs-up.

“As long as you’re feeling chipper! I’ll help out.”

Gulab petted Charvi on the shoulders and turned back around with a grin on her face.

At the conclusion of the Inspector General’s motivational speech, the soldiers were divided into several groups and pointed toward the newly-raised tents far behind them. They were big green field tents. Many of them had the telephone symbol, a handset in a black circle. A soldier who saw it was supposed to interpret that as a communications, liaison or headquarters tent, but there were a dozen strung up. So then, what did it mean?

“What the heck are those?” Gulab asked in whispers.

Charvi shrugged. “I think they’re conducting some sort of test there.”

Gulab soon found herself in a line stretching out from one of these impromptu offices.

She felt her heart thumping as everyone started to move forward into it. She could not see anyone inside, but she could see a light shining briefly through the canvas as someone exited out the back of the tent and let in sunlight. There was a little bit of chatter inside. Gulab could make out words like “official” and “documentation” and felt anxious.

“I think they’re checking papers in there.” Gulab said, looking behind herself at Charvi, who had been a step behind Gulab in the press of bodies that formed their waiting line.

“Well, they’re out of luck, because I don’t have mine.” Charvi said.

It was easy to see how those could have been lost given the events of the month.

As someone from the Kucha, where Solstice’s reach was weak, Gulab had no official papers to begin with. Her only documentation was her army sign-up forms from years ago, which she was told would be, cryptically, “good enough for anything.” She had no birth documents. This was a blessing, because it meant nobody could contradict her on anything about her identity but her family, who were far away; but might become a curse. She didn’t know.

Her mind filled with nightmares in miniature, playing and replaying before her eyes as the line pushed her toward the tent flaps under the muggy heat of a Rangdan morning.

Soon Gulab stood in front of the tent flaps and heard a female clerk calling out, “Next!”

Looking over her shoulder at Charvi, Gulab wiggled her fingers in the air as a little wave. Swallowing with a gulp, she closed her eyes briefly and stepped through the tent flaps.

When she opened her eyes, the place was a little gloomy, but uncrowded and neat.

Gulab took seat at a little table, one of six. Across from her sat a dark-skinned clerk in a pristine uniform. Her frizzy hair was styled big and round, and her friendly blue eyes were heavily magnified by the lenses on her thick glasses. With a big smile on her lips, the clerk pulled a form letter from a box and set it in front of Gulab along with a loaded ink pen.

“Good morning, comrade! I’m Warrant Officer Keisha Tamsi, and I just need a little moment of your time to insure we get a good form we can file for the Regiment.” She said.

Her tone of voice was pleasantly deep. Gulab’s anxiety at being seated in such an official-looking tent, with such official-looking person, very slightly diminished. She felt less scared and more sheepish at being in front of a nice stranger on this strange errand.

“Now, before we begin, I’d just like to know your home region. Can you tell me?”

“I come from the Kucha mountains.” Gulab said.

“I see! So that means you have no official papers. Am I right?”

Gulab felt an icy stiffness going through her chest. “Yes, sorry. I have none.”

“No birth certificate or anything like that, right?”

“My birth was handled fairly sloppily. I don’t even know my exact age.”

Gulab’s voice trembled. She expected to be told to pack her bags and leave the army.

Comrade Tamsi nodded her head in response and smiled.

“I understand. It’s perfectly fine, comrade. Your army sign-up forms, and any forms we fill today, can be used as your official papers henceforth. So don’t worry about it!”

“Oh, good.” Gulab sighed with relief. That had been easy; she had worried over nothing.

“There are many villages and unincorporated territories that have less than stellar documentation. So over time, we’ve learned not to be sticklers for stamped papers.”

From the box, Tamsi withdrew a few additional forms, stacked them neatly together, and pushed the stack forward. Gulab picked up the top form. It had basic things like name, date of birth, gender. That last one gave her a fresh shot of little anxieties, but she figured she could put anything on it and that nobody would check it or care. She was right.

“Answer with anything you want for any of the fields and we will consider it wholly official with the state’s blessing — if you want to change your name even, go for it! As far as The Socialist Dominances of Solstice is concerned, everything you write there today is your official paper information as valid as anything a doctor writes at the side of a birth table.”

Comrade Tamsi sounded almost excited for Gulab to invent herself in this little tent.

Gulab, however, was not feeling terribly creative. Though she could have chosen a more feminine name, perhaps, she was rather fond of Gulab. And while she hated her father and brother, her beloved grandfather had been a Kajari, and her fun and helpful cousins were all Kajaris too, so she had nothing against her maiden name either. Thus she made her decision.

Atop the form, she proudly wrote “Gulab Kajari” and beside it, “24”, her best guess for her age, and “M” for “Mwanamke” or woman. Her hand shook a little after that. She set her birthday as the 23rd of the Lilac’s Bloom, the date she came down from the mountain.

There were other fields, such as any conditions she had, or any levels of schooling earned.

“I don’t remember exactly what I wrote on my army sign-up forms. Is that ok?”

She knew back then she had signed up as a woman too. She had made the decision to live that way a long time before she came down from the mountain. However, she still felt a little scared that the two forms would be cross-referenced in other ways. Again she overestimated the importance of the forms and the bureaucracy’s level of efforts here.

“Not at all! As a matter of fact we don’t even have access to those! They were probably burnt in Adjar to keep them from Nocht. Write anything with confidence.” Tamsi replied.

Gulab realized how perfunctory all of this was, and her heart and stomach finally settled.

No one was trying to kick her out of the army. In fact they seemed to be making every effort to keep her, and everyone in the regiment, in the army. That was reassuring. She had nowhere else to go — though she could have settled down anywhere, that meant she would not have been able to fight alongside her comrades. Alongside Charvi; she was glad to stay.

Smiling, she started scribbling down whatever came to mind for the rest of the papers.

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