1.5: Pretenders

This chapter contains strong and suggestive language, violence and  xenophobia.


Aside from buses there weren’t that many cars around the National. Few people owned their own car anymore. There were a few students in scooters and motorbikes; but Phillip’s sports car was the only one on the road. By herself in the backseat, with the window rolled down and the wind tunneling through, Milla felt herself drifting. On the front seats, Cheryl and Phillip flirted and laughed and got handsy with each other.

Milla leaned against the side of the car, staring out the open window, her eyes heavy.

Didn’t VIPs ride in the backs of fancy cars? She couldn’t even muster a little fantasy.

Outside the streetlights and the lights from the fronts of buildings melded together, a mess of color sweeping past her eyes. Her eyes would close, and the lights would dance inside her eyelids, and briefly she would open them again and see the world nearly unchanged. She felt the night as the combined weight of the day, bearing down on her.

Even here, just sitting, just being driven somewhere, she wasn’t relaxed. She felt like the whole world wanted her in chains. All she had were obligations and uncertainties. Her thoughts were all fragmented. Ever since– why couldn’t she– maybe if I had just died–

“Milla, you know anything about Minerva Orizaga?” Phillip asked.

Milla looked up from the backseat at the rearview mirror and saw Phillip’s eyes.

“Not to sound pessimistic but you probably aren’t getting out of that apprenticeship.”

“I don’t know shit.” Milla replied in a grumpy tone of voice. Phillip paid it no mind.

“She came here recently, kinda like you.” Phillip said. “Right Cheryl?”

“She wasn’t here last year, yeah.” Cheryl said. “I dunno, I think she’s cool.”

“My old man hates her guts.” Phillip said. “Thinks its a bad look for the school.”

“Why would he think that?” Milla said.

“Because he’s a fucking asshole.” Cheryl replied, before Phillip could answer.

Phillip didn’t seem to mind his girlfriend trashing his dad, though he also didn’t overtly agree. Instead he answered as if nothing else had been said. “Minerva’s an Alwi, Milla. Maybe you don’t have ’em up in Moroz but down here it’s kind of a big deal she’s here.”

“I know they’re a group of people, we’re not so insular in the north, you know.” Milla said. “I just don’t know why it would make anyone upset that she’s a Magician.”

“Lot of Otrarians don’t think they should be.” Phillip said. “See, a lot of them came in from the South illegally. They came from the Theocracy of Uttara and from Harazad. None of them ever did magic. Over decades they practically made their own city in Otraria, called Alwaz; it was basically a huge ghetto on the edge of the capital.”

“What does any of this matter?” Milla said.

Cheryl looked between Milla and Phillip as if she didn’t get why they were talking at all.

“It burnt down.” Phillip said. “Like 20 years ago. They say the Alwi picked up on magic little by little, but they destroyed most of Alwaz. They caused some kind of disaster.”

“Did that have anything to do with your government collapsing?” Milla said.

She was supposed to be a history major, after all. Milla wasn’t the most well-versed in ancient history, but she knew enough about current events. Everyone would have heard about it, growing up anywhere in the world. Otraria’s powerful government, all mages of great skill, were overthrown and killed in 1980. Since then instead of the Greater Otrarian Republic it had been known as the Democratic Union of Otraria.

“It played a part.” Phillip said, a little more brusquely than before.

“Why are you two so intense all of a sudden? Who cares? That’s all ancient history.”

“Well, I’m just telling Milla, she ought to be careful around Minerva Orizaga.”

“Why? Ms. Orizaga’s fine.” Cheryl insisted.

“Even if she’s totally harmless babe,” Phillip said, “she’s drawn a lot of attention.”

“It’ll be fine, because I’m not going to be anyone’s apprentice.” Milla said forcefully.

What was his problem all of a sudden? Cheryl was right. Minerva was fine.

Whatever; it wasn’t her problem. It wouldn’t be.

A landscape dominated by LED light and concrete shadow melted away around them. A dirt road led them on their abrupt transition from the Academy’s cityscape to the surrounding wilderness. Trees replaced building, their jagged shadows creeping up their flanks and slowly forming a net overhead. Through the gaps Milla could see the lake, the moonlight glistening off the surface of the water. Though the car’s headlights were on, the beams of light seemed unable to part the thick empty darkness ahead of them.

“Almost there,” Phillip said. “We’ll get out and walk to the site.”

Phillip pulled over on the side of the dirt road. He shut off the car and with it the headlights; the forest felt like a pitch black room to Milla, unable to tell its dimensions or where she was in it anymore. She reached for her wrist, pulling off the screen from her homunculus unit and using it as a flashlight. She exited the car herself.

“Come on Milla, don’t get left behind! The faeries will take you!”

Cheryl laughed.

She walked hand in hand with Phillip and Milla followed a car-length behind, playing with her hair bobbles. She spun one set of them around the associated twintail, sighing.

Everything was quiet. Milla couldn’t even hear animals crying. One would think a frog or a cicada might have said something, but even they seemed to fear to speak on that night.

The environment was disgusting, lukewarm and moist. Every step Milla took, she felt as if she was standing on dung, the soft earth giving away under her feet. She was back on the farm in spirit, and she hated it at all. She could not imagine how anyone would want to make out or push boundaries in this kind of atmosphere. It even smelled disgusting.

They left the road behind and climbed over a little hill into the woods.

Coming down the hill they came upon a clearing of broken earth and overturned trees.

It was as if the statue in the center of had exploded out from under the terrain.

Or as if it had been exploded out, like in dynamite mining.

Milla knew Baphomet was a horned, cow-headed creature, and this statue was similar. However it did not sport the large, bare breasts Milla had also seen in many drawings of the idol; it was instead big bellied, and it had its arms raised. The creature’s bottom half was not very detailed at all in the statue. It was essentially a pillar with a large opening.

“Yes! There it is!” Cheryl laughed, delivering a couple light smacks on Phillip’s back.

Everyone walked down from the hill and onto the clearing, ducking under roots and climbing over splintered trunks from fallen trees. There were beer bottles and bags of potato chips and other snacks strewn about. Milla thought she saw condom wrappers, and maybe even the genuine article. Certainly the place had seen a party or three.

There was no one else around when they arrived, however.

“I thought it’d be livelier.” Milla said, looking upon the statue from afar.

“Yeah, where’s everyone at? I thought Amber and Jenn had gotten ahead of us.”

“I dunno.” Phillip said. “Trent and Arnes were supposed to be with them too.”

“They better not be fuckin’ around here somewhere. Gross.”

A sharp crack reverberated across the forest, metal on metal, as if in answer.

In front of them the opening to the statue burst into flame.

Cheryl screamed and jumped back, and Milla felt a shock run through her body.

Two slender shadows began to move in from the forest.

“You fucking bitches!” Cheryl shouted. “I hate you! I hate you!”

Cheryl assumed it was Amber and Jenn, and she was right.

They weren’t playing a prank.

Her two friends stepped out into the light of the fire, their hands clapped in irons.

Their mouths were gagged, and they were chained together around the legs.

Tears ran down their eyes.

“What the–”

Amber and Jenn seemed to plead to them to run.

From the darkness a chain flew out and wrapped around Cheryl’s leg like a snake.

She lurched forward, scrabbling at the earth.

Phillip started to move, but he was mouth agape, dumbfounded, and shifting in his spot.

Milla reacted; from her jacket she withdrew a small book and swiped it in front of her.

“Pherkhan’s Shattering!”

Her homunculus responded with noises and lights, and a wave of force blasted out of the swept-open pages of her grimoire and tore the chains from around Cheryl, freeing her.

Cheryl scrambled back to her feet and ran behind Phillip.

“What the hell is going on!” She screamed.

Milla thought to cast the same spell to free Amber and Jenn, but she saw more shadows.

She raised her grimoire in front of her, holding it half-open by the spine.

She held her hand over the pages, ready to swipe it across and cast.

From behind the statue two men appeared. They were wearing black coats and what seemed like sports helmets, with visors and mouth grilles. They had metal bars attached to chains on their hands, whether clubs or as casting tools Milla didn’t know. Tellingly, they possessed homunculi on their wrists. They walked slowly out, tentatively, as if they feared too. Milla could tell by the light of the fire that they were shaken up. They didn’t seem to know where to put their hands and they seemed to try to hide their gazes.

There was another presence alongside theirs.

He came down from the forest too; he appeared to leap down from somewhere high.

He landed atop the statue, standing on its raised arms. He was dressed in what seemed like a suit of armor, less improvised than the thick coats on the two other men, and his helmet was much less improvised as well. It bore the head of a dragon, and its horns. Instead of a short metal club, he had a long bar across his back like a staff or spear.

His homunculus looked much more ornate than those of the other men. Bigger too.

Cheryl cowered behind Phillip, while Milla tried to keep everyone in her sights. Her heart was pounding and her lungs working themselves raw. She smelled the smoke from inside the statue. That was not an illusion; that was a real fire in the clearing now.

“What the fuck is going on?” Cheryl cried in a shrill voice.

Phillip didn’t seem to move to console her. Instead he stared up at the man on the statue. He was standing as if he was ready to dive back at any moment, to twist around and run for his life, but something kept him anchored to the scene. He was pale, quivering.

“What the hell is going on?” He shouted. “This wasn’t– this isn’t what we agreed!”

Milla turned her head sharply toward Phillip. “Agreed? Agreed to fucking what?”

She thought she saw one of the men make a move and turned back to him.

He took a sudden step back, as if he expected to be shot at.

He was staring at her grimoire with fear.

Complete fucking coward, Milla thought. She could at least take one down.

To find herself in this situation again, in the supposedly safe and civilized Otraria–

It was infuriating, as much as it was horrifying.

She had never dealt with ghosts or monsters but she had certainly dealt with men.

At least you could kill those.

Whenever the man in the horned helmet spoke, his voice was concealed, distorted.

“Yes, Phillip, it wasn’t what we agreed. But you were the one who broke our compact.”

His voice was affable. This all sounded casual, just another day for him.

“Shit.” Phillip turned sharply, pleadingly toward Cheryl.

Cheryl looked at Phillip with horror and pushed him away.

Her own strength pushed her back closer to Milla, and she stumbled, on shaking knees, and fell near the other girl. She crawled back, staring at Phillip with tears in her eyes.

“What the fuck is he talking about Phillip? What is he talking about?” She shouted.

Milla took a step forward to stand in defense of Cheryl.

“So much money and so little sense.” remarked the helmeted man. “I don’t know what compelled you to bring that girl, or these, when I asked for only you and the girl. Had it not been for the fact that your boys report to me, it might’ve become a real mess.”

He waved his hands in front of him, as if pointing to Amber and Jenn below.

Phillip’s hands were shaking, even curled into fists. He grit his teeth.

“I knew you were going to do something awful to Cheryl.” He said, weeping, his voice breaking. “I thought, if I brought other girls then, you would leave her alone.”

Atop the statue the helmeted man slammed his foot on the horned head.

“No, that’s not how it works. You want our power, you follow our instructions. Just like your friends did before you. How could you ask them to sacrifice when you do not?”

Both of the men, presumably Trent and Arnes, kept quiet and anxiously still.

Phillip looked defeated. “Fuck, man, I didn’t know you guys were–”

At once the helmeted man raised his voice, sharply, horribly. “That was your mistake.”

Milla saw something move rapidly; but she just as quickly realized it was not for her.

She made no move to defend Phillip as the helmeted man’s staff whipped out at him like it was suddenly made of flexible leather and not stiff steel. It struck Phillip across the face, an iron slap to the jaw that smashed his nose like a bubble of blood. It retracted, and was almost instantly back in the man’s hands as if it had never been altered.

This was metal-element magic. Much like the chains that tried to catch Cheryl.

“Do not worry. I can fix your pretty face up. I need it. I also needed you to learn respect. We are all around you Phillip. You thought I would approach you without insurance? You are surrounded by my men because I sought you out. Because I want you in my ranks.”

Cheryl redoubled her screaming, horrified at what had happened to Phillip.

She clung to Milla’s leg, and Milla had to stifle her instinct to kick her off.

In a street fight, bawling and stupid shit like that got you killed. But Cheryl was a friend.

“Hey, shut the fuck up and let us go!” Milla shouted up at the helmeted man.

He turned from Phillip to her.

“Girl,”

Milla saw a glint of a red eye through the sleek, sharp, dragon-like mask.

He stomped his feet once more on the head of the statue.

Immediately after he started to bloviate in a high-and-mighty tone of voice.

“You’ve no business here. Neither do these two. I feel gracious tonight. Take them and leave. I only need that one.” He pointed idly toward Cheryl. “And the boy with no face. You can leave with your life, and you can even tell anyone your story of this night; I don’t care at all. I cannot be touched by you. I just don’t want anymore interference here.”

Amber and Jenn started to scream and jump in place, begging Milla.

“Fuck you.” Milla replied. “I’m taking ’em all, except that shithead. You can have him.”

Atop the statue the dragon helmet shook from side to side.

“Big-hearted of you. Kill her.”

Beneath him, the two henchmen approached. They had their clubs and chains ready.

Their legs, however, were visibly shaking. And she knew they were focused on her book.

“Hey, Amber and Jenn, those two were your boyfriends right?”

She winked at the girls to try to convey her intent.

Both girls shut their eyes and leaped aside, taking the hint.

Milla threw her grimoire gently overhead.

She reached into her coat, withdrew two of her hidden knives and launched them.

“That’s some shit taste you both got!”

She caught the boys clearly unprepared to defend against a physical attack.

One knife went into one’s shoulder and the other into a knee.

Both men shouted and grit their teeth and stumbled.

Milla caught her grimoire coming back down.

“Pherkhan’s Magnetism!”

Milla swept across her grimoire and the pages whirled with power.

In an instant the knives pulled both men screaming into one another.

They bashed into each other.

Milla then swept her hand across the other way, turning the pages back and forth.

“Pherkhan’s Shock!”

Neither man seemed able to tell where the bolt was aimed, and even though only stuck together by a relatively weak magnetic force neither of them seemed able to escape.

In reality, it struck the trailing chain held by one henchman and trod upon by the other.

Striking the metal, the bolt trailed up like a snake and shocked the two of them at once.

It was something on the order of twenty milliamps, and it hurt.

Both men fell screaming and choking, holding their own bodies, twitching.

It was grotesque and Milla was undisturbed by it.

She had her eyes up to the helmeted man and ready to cast another spell.

He clapped, unperturbed, and stomped his feet on this statue’s head once more.

“I am Centurion Ajax, of the organization Iron Flag.” He said.

She thought she had heard of that. It certainly sounded familiar.

Milla showed him no emotion. “Lyudmilla Kholodova. I’m not afraid of you punks.”

She thought she saw the helmet contort into a smile.

“Of course.” He said.

He raised a hand to the helmet, stroking its chin.

“Of course. Kholodova? I should’ve realized. Of course. Pherkhan, the great late Rus archmagus.” He said. “You do have the eyes of a Moroz savage. How disgusting. You northerners have always been the same. Brute force, all numbers and no finesse.”

He turned from her to Phillip.

She gazed out the corner of her eye as Phillip lunged at her.

“Good man.” He said.

Milla ducked.

Phillip, his broken face contorted in horrified desperation, swung over her.

She could’ve drawn a knife and stabbed him.

Instead, she closed her book, swung her arms around and struck him in the face.

Fresh blood drew from the gaping wound where his nose had been.

He tumbled backwards, and squirmed in pain on the muddy soil.

Centurion Ajax stomped his feet on the statue again, and laughed.

“Pitiful. I thought you wanted to escape your father’s shadow.” the Centurion said. He taunted them. “You don’t deserve it. If you didn’t have a sizable inheritance I would leave you here without a nose. Now If only I could feed that Moroz mongrel to the hearth; but it only accepts children, and that Kholodova is simply too old. Only little Cheryl will do.”

Milla grit her teeth. She was 21 years old; that must’ve been what he meant, if he knew.

She also knew that Cheryl was only 19. But what then did he mean by a hearth?

She realized then, all that time. Baphomet’s statue, the flaming gap in it.

“Amber, Jenn, get away from that statue!” Milla shouted.

She wished she knew a good water spell; but Pherkhan only traded in metal and fire!

“Pherkhan’s Shattering!”

She was still at the level where shouting names and making casting gestures was her only personal mnemonic. She wished dearly she could have cast faster and quieter.

Milla swept the pages back once more, and Amber and Jenn’s bonds burst apart.

She had the space to cast one spell and she had cast it to save the girls.

Unperturbed, her enemy made his move.

Centurion Ajax reached down from his perch and snatched something from the statue.

There was a gap in its head from where he ripped a chunk of its stonework out.

It was the thing he had been stomping on this entire time.

He crushed it in his hands, and the earth slipped from his fingers to reveal a red orb.

“You could’ve struck me down, Moroz, but you fell for taunts and wasted your chance.”

At once the fire in the statue’s stomach erupted. Amber and Jenn scrambled away.

“In a battle between mages every word, every step, has meaning! You’re still green.”

But the fire seemed to suck in, like a giant drawing in huge breaths.

Centurion Ajax reveled in it all. “Awaken for your feast, Lord Moloch!”


Minerva felt something hot and quivering. She was awoken in the middle of the night as Vorra tore suddenly away from her arms, rushing so quickly to the window that she sent the blanket they were sharing flying into the air. Minerva, bleary-eyed, stared from bed at her girlfriend’s naked human form clawing bestially at the window, bathed in moonlight. She shimmered, red lines tracing lean muscle as her aura became agitated.

Recognizing how exposed they both were, Minerva grabbed the blanket and ran to the window, and quickly threw it over both of them. She looked out upon the lake, confused.

“Livorra, what is the matter with you?” She said, briefly compelled to use her full name.

Her partner raised her hand to the window. Her eyes were bloodshot and dilated.

“Milord, I sense the foulness of a pretender God in those woods. I smell the kindling.”

Minerva blinked and stared past the lake at the dark, distant, nondescript woods.

Her own eyes started to warm up, and she thought she could smell something burn.


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1.3: Domestic Dragon

This chapter contains some slightly sexually suggestive content.


The National was drowning, and it drowned those who lived and labored within its halls.

A Magician alone with her thoughts could sense the despairingly cold, despairingly thick aura of Water magic that permeated the surroundings. Water was colorless, faceless, it was dark, it was concealing. Water was secrets, water was an agenda that moved with an unfathomable purpose, rolling waves and building storms that swept, swallowed and destroyed. Water was natural, was it not? Water existed and moved unchallenged.

There was no aura more fitting for the National. Otrarian Magicians lead their lives around this institution, and it was natural that they rolled, natural that they swept and natural that they destroyed. Magic itself was the moon that turned their tides. Discovery.

Humanity was fire and metal. Towns and cities full of life and full of passion, pleasure and despair, an air thick with dreams and labors and discoveries. Metal was what humanity made and surrounded itself with and coveted; Fire was what dwelled within their hearts and minds. Minerva could with some effort render her own aura visible and she would see it, burning red with the faintest streaks of grey-black. Fire and Metal.

Where Humanity ceded space to the wild, one would feel the element of Earth, the fading ruler of the primordial Tierra, at peace in its remaining domains. In the mountains and up in the sky, the element of Air dominated, wild and free, a vagrant magic unrestrained by the logic of the world. In the places humans could easily touch, Water was a secret and sequestered magic, existing in small pockets cut into the land. Its domain was the ocean, the last frontier of land-bound humanity, and it guarded it violently, jealously.

That the National reeked of Water so thoroughly and awfully was very deliberate.

Nobody ever felt ‘ok’ at the National. Living there, working there, was a great effort in itself, a draining labor that never seemed to ease. That was the existence of humans in a web of water that drained their air and squelched their fire. That was the sacrifice. This discomfort was the price of power. Those who couldn’t stand it weren’t worthy of it.

It was an ancient law that carried itself out well beyond anyone who supported it.

Minerva shut her eyes, her head dipping against the window of the bus. She could feel it.

That was the esoteric world of the National, the metaphysical atmosphere of it.

Physically, the Otrarian National Academy For The Esoteric Arts was a vast, sprawling entity, a city onto itself. Deep in the center was the Old Campus, where Anthropology and its quietly irrelevant ilk had their old, red-brick buildings that were square and stoic, with grim facades and faded stone streets. There was a splash of living color offered by Turrington plaza and its park, on all sides flanked by vast rainbow beds of flowers.

North of the Old Campus the vast Main Street of the National dominated the new campus, with its dynamic architecture, glass facades and modern flair. Rather than a square plan, the new campus seemed to sprawl off the main street in long veins, buildings sprouting everywhere they could. Classroom facilities, housing complexes, businesses of all kinds of sizes, hospitals, service plazas, fitness centers, laboratories, everything one could think of could be found somewhere in the city’s sinews.

There were buildings like modern art pieces, with domes and planispheres and pyramids coexisting with utilitarian structures. Square buses shared the road with sleek prototype cars that ran on agartheum and other esoteric matter. Holographic and alternate reality billboards appeared along the road beside overbearing state propaganda and a variety of pinned-up flyers and signs advertising political meetings on both ends of the spectrum. On the street Minerva saw high fashion, casual dress, the business-like uniforms of the students, and the austere garb of wizened old magicians all in the same places.

Minerva watched the crowds around the Main Street, trying not to doze off in the bus. She, too, was a citizen of this odd city. She wondered how many were students, how many did magic; there were tons of people here to support the students and teachers and each other and not to do magic. Not every nurse or policeman or food worker did magic.

Maybe they cast a spell or two, but they didn’t do magic. You didn’t really need it.

Outside the National and a few other little oasis, Magic was starting to fall by the wayside. Humanity was a species defined by Metal: technology now rendered the service of physical transportation, digital communication and even the transformation and improvement of the human body. War was waged with effective, rational weapons. Human ingenuity and technology built the cities, the skyscrapers. All without the fickle whims of the esoteric and the years of commitment and unique psychology and physiology required to truly master it. Similar magical abilities to the car, the plane, the telephone, the scalpel and bandage, and even the firearm, were growing rarer and rarer.

Magic had to innovate as technology had in order to reassert itself. And it simply hadn’t.

Like the precious Water that shielded their elite, the magical societies and their arts were consigned to small, exclusive places, dotting the landscape but no longer owning it.

There was one place where Magicians were still very strongly represented, however.

It wasn’t like it was before the Upheaval, over a decade ago. Nothing was like that.

But Magicians still largely governed Otraria, just as they did during that scarring time.

Minerva’s bus took her out of this organ of conspiracy and into the green hills skirting the edge of the Whispering Woods. Here there was green country, thick with trees, and the great Lake Bratten, a blue slice taken out of the earth that seemed to shimmer distantly behind every pine. It was a popular destination for Academy-goers looking to get away from the tension. Here the Water aura quietly receded. Even at the lake, the magic was overwhelmingly of Earth — this suited Minerva fine, and so, she made it home.

Among the final stops for this particular bus was a three-story wooden building on a small wooded hill with a breath-taking view of the lake. This was Wurmbacht Rent House, a housing complex about 45 minutes from Anthropology and Turrington plaza. Tacking on nearly an hour commute both ways wasn’t a problem for Minerva when the rent was manageable, with perks. She could go to the lake whenever she wanted, she had a private and comfortable third-floor apartment, and she could breathe easily here.

They even had Wi-Fi, and the connection was basically fine. Not much more to ask!

At the top of a small set of stone steps, Minerva withdrew her resident’s card and slid it through the card reader on the front door to open it. She slipped quickly inside and closed the door behind her. She was always a little on edge opening card reader doors.

From the door there was a short hallway that branched, leading to the kitchen, to the staircase up to the second floor, and to the back of the first floor where the landlord and his daughter lived. There were some vending machines installed along the hall and a carpet. Just off off the door was a glass panel with a slot, a window into a little office that mostly went unused. When Minerva walked past it this time, however, she found a young girl sitting on the chair, playing with a computer tablet on the front desk.

“Do I need to check in, Laksha?” Minerva asked sweetly.

Laksha looked up from her tablet and smiled. She was swinging her legs under the desk.

“Hi Minnie!” She said. “I’m at the desk today!”

“You are! Here’s my card.”

“No! You don’t need to! I know you live here!”

“Ah, well, thank you!”

Minerva turned around and walked over to the vending machine. She slid a bill into the cash slot and input the number for a candy bar. She brought the bar back to the desk, and with a sweet smile she offered it to Laksha through the slot in the glass panel.

Laksha looked up again from her tablet and beamed brighter than the sun.

“Thank you!” She said, unwrapping the candy bar. “You’re the best, Minnie!”

“I know I am.” Minerva said. “How was school today?”

“It was fun! I learned to do this!”

With her free hand, Laksha withdrew a little silver-lined safety wand from the pocket of her jeans and raised it to the glass. On her wrist, a small provisional homunculus began to whirr and make a little noise. She whirled her wand about, and then dropped it, and it started to float around by itself. Wordlessly, Laksha moved the wand around her head like a toy plane, and at one point slipped it through the neck of her turtleneck sweater. It came out again from one of her sleeves, all the while she casually munched on her bar.

“Isn’t it great? Teacher said it was an example of ‘Applied Energetics’.”

“It’s impressive!” Minerva replied, clapping her hands.

Minerva was a grouch most of the day because she had to save up all her kindness to spend on Laksha. She was a terrifically sweet child, and as a fellow Alwi Minerva felt a sense of protectiveness toward her. She reminded Minerva of herself, and it was more than just skin color and hair color that bound them, but a sense of hope. Laksha was being raised in a world where she was breaking a boundary without knowing it.

“Oh, your girlfriend got a lot of packages today Minnie.” Laksha pointed out.

“My girlfriend did what.” Minerva replied. Her heart rate must have tripled then.

“She got a few deliveries. I was home most of today and saw it. She looked really happy!”

“Well, I, need to go to talk to her!” Minerva said hurriedly. “Keep practicing!”

“Someday I’ll be as good at it as you, Minnie!” Laksha said, waving her wand goodbye.

“You’ll be better.” Minerva said.

She then turned around and took off up the stairs to her floor.

Her apartment was on the third floor, facing the lake, so she had to go up the stairs and round two corners before finding her door. Her skin brimmed and her lungs struggled with the urgency of the situation. She imagined something awful must have happened! She withdrew her key so fast she nearly threw it at the roof, and she practically burst through her own door, into a small, square apartment with a big window, a single room that was bedroom, kitchen and living space all in one, and a small adjoining bathroom.

“Vorra, you had better not–!”

In the middle of the room on a futon set atop a small carpet, Minerva found her partner reclined atop a stack of magazines and biting down on what seemed to be raw steak. There were a few other meats lying around her little hoard: a few links of sausage, a pack of bacon, some more steak, what seemed to be a loaf of white pork fat, and more.

Her partner swallowed up the rest of the steak with disturbing haste and smiled.

“Ah, goodness! You return, milord!”

“Don’t call me that! What are you doing?”

“I am preparing my body to become one worthy of a ‘Wyrmqueen’.”

Minerva realized her room was exposed and quickly closed the door behind her.

It would’ve been quite a sight for anyone out in the hall. Not just the mess but the woman carelessly in the middle of it. Vorra was a looker, with a lithe, long-limbed body, ruddy brown skin, and bright green eyes. Her neck length hair was tidy, and her swept bangs gave her a more elegant appearance than she cultivated otherwise. She was dressed exclusively in one of Minerva’s shirts, barely-buttoned, barely covering her. Minerva was horrified to think that she had met a delivery man this afternoon dressed in this way.

Though she certainly looked like a comely human, Vorra had a few things off about her.

Most distressingly, a pair of horns curled back around her head from just over her ears.

She had a tail to match, thick, half as long as her legs, and covered in golden scales.

“Where did you get all this? I told you we don’t have the money for red meat every day!”

Vorra sat up on her hoard of magazines, all of which she acquired as free samples. Dragons needed to maintain a collection of some sort for proper psychological health. Minerva wished it could’ve been something like stamps or postcards, and not a pile of papers. Still, Minerva expressed her willingness to stand on equal terms with her partner by approaching the pile of magazines and sitting down on it along with a joyful Vorra.

“Milord, I am both aware and understanding of your currency situation, which is why I researched alternative avenues for acquiring meat, after you also forbid me to hunt.”

“I feel like you’re accusing me here! You were eating dogs.” Minerva said disdainfully.

“All lesser beasts are possessed of the same flesh and blood.”

“No they aren’t; some are possessed of pet flesh and pet blood.”

Vorra waved her hand dismissively. “Regardless I paid not one coin for this meat.”

“Okay, then how did you get it?” Minerva asked.

‘Paying not one coin’ seemed to rule out both using Minerva’s money and also stealing money from other people to pay for it, both things Vorra was quite capable of doing given her general disdain for law as applied to herself. It was only Minerva’s words and commands that she heeded or respected, but she found loopholes where she wanted.

“Milord,” she began again, despite Minerva’s distaste for it, “I became aware, through perusing the World Wide Web, of various Web Sites that specialized in delivering boxes of assorted food and goods to the houses of their customers. I felt that these services were my most convenient avenue to acquire the meat I needed, but I lacked the currency to make use of them. So defeated, I decided to recline and listen to some ‘Pod Casts’.”

Minerva used to be puzzled by Vorra’s vernacular but was by now used to it. This was the normal tone of their conversations. Clearly she was into buying junk online now. Minerva had gotten her a tablet so she could listen to music and play around on the internet and convinced her to stay in the apartment as much as possible. While Vorra could disguise her draconic features easily, she was very socially conspicuous.

“I’m with you so far. So how did you get all this stuff for free then?” Minerva said.

Before continuing her story, Vorra’s lips curled up into a grin that was full of pride.

“I thought I would soothe my disappointment with the buffoonery of the brothers three, but instead I was made aware of a powerful passphrase that I could deploy to my purpose. It came to light that a way to bend the will of the online meat automatons was available, and thus upon wielding the words ‘My Brother’ against them, they were forced to bequeath to me a box of their delicious meats absolutely free.” Vorra said.

She clapped her hands and broke into a delicate laugh, clearly feeling herself superior.

Minerva covered her own face with her hands. “You got a free sample from a podcast.”

“Not merely one free sample milord. For I circumvented the limit of one delivery of goods per person by requesting the aid of the human child, and thus received–”

“You took advantage of Laksha for your scheme!” Minerva shouted.

Vorra shrugged. “She does not consume meat and so I saw no harm in her giving me the box that is her unwanted birthright. It meant I would have twice as much meat.”

“Okay, whatever.” Minerva said. “It’s fine. I’m fine with it. I was just worried.”

“Milord’s concern for me makes my heart flutter like a growing flame.”

“Why are you so adamant on eating red meat anyway?”

Vorra’s face flushed a little red and she looked fondly at Minerva.

She reached out a hand and scratched across Minerva’s palm, kind of like a cat.

“I require substantial protein to transform my body, you know?”

Vorra spread her arms (and with them her shirt) as if to show Minerva her progress.

She had indeed changed a little bit since Minerva had come upon her. Vorra was a young dragon, and so her forms both human-like and not had a lot of elasticity. She had been just a little bulkier, just a little harder; she was now softer, lighter. Her hips and chest had begun to change as well. Her hair was a little longer than before too. Her voice was still as rich as ever, however. And surely her lizard-like dragon form would have changed since Minerva last saw, too.

“Do Dragons really do this sort of thing for– umm, their mates, I guess?”

Vorra could easily tell Minerva’s discomfort; they had talked like this before.

“Nothing I’m doing is irreversible if I don’t like the end result. I am very pleased with everything and as I stated in our covenant, your role in it is not coercive whatsoever. This is simply how partnerships between Dragons work. One of us must manage this responsibility.”

Minerva was not entirely well versed on dragon customs, and she had been hesitant to research it for fear of finding some terrible thing about Vorra and her kind and the ‘covenant’ they made. Talking about the fact that Vorra was trying to become Minerva’s “Queen” was a little awkward and a little unsettling, but also sweet in a strange way.

“Beside which, I’m not doing it just for you! I merely had no reason to change prior.”

“Does it hurt?” Minerva asked sheepishly. “Changing your body like that, I mean.”

There was something about the concept of a dragon having to eat a lot of meat to reconfigure her fat and bones and organs little by little that felt just a bit, extreme.

Vorra smiled and rubbed her head against Minerva’s. “Did it hurt for you?”

Minerva sighed. She felt talked down to. “I mean– some stuff hurts.”

“Like what?”

“Well, if you can call them that, my tits can definitely hurt.”

“Then you’ve experienced this before, you shouldn’t worry.” Vorra said, laughing gently.

“I’m experiencing it right now.” Minerva mumbled, patting down her chest.

For Minerva, perhaps this discussion shouldn’t have been so strange and uncomfortable. She certainly had experience in changing her body, but her changes felt much more controlled and gradual and natural (despite the medical source for them). In a way, she feared that she had tricked or forced Vorra into mutating herself out of shape through the use of magic. It was perhaps a grievous misunderstanding, borne of the magical origin separating them. Vorra kept saying she wanted it; so maybe it was all fine.

Minerva thought, perhaps she should endeavor to trust Vorra more about this.

“I’m humbled to receive your concern, milord. But it is misplaced.” Vorra said. “I am a being of great and ancient power and I was born to become a majestic wyrmqueen.”

In a way, just as she helped Vorra become something, Vorra had helped Minerva to accept in a healthy way a very dark and dangerous thing that she was becoming too.

Minerva smiled, and dropped back onto the pile of magazines, looking up at her ‘mate’.

“I suppose when a Dragon gets to be that age, the urgency to make nest starts to–”

Vorra blew a little smoke from her human nostrils in response to Minerva’s teasing.

“I’ll have you know, Milord, I’m within several decades of my prime, thank you.”

Minerva supposed there were worse things for the school to find out about her than that she was the possessor of the Tyrant Wyrm and that she was shacking up with a Dragon.

They could discover that she was a communist spy instead.

“Now then, with the misunderstandings sorted, how about a steak, milord?”

Vorra lifted a floppy piece of meat from the edge of the magazine pile, took a deep breath, and blew a puff of fire and smoke at it that seemed to instantly char it black.

“I’ll pass.” Minerva replied. “By the way, I need you to deliver something.”

“I shall endeavor to treat milord’s mission as my own.” Vorra replied.

Minerva grimaced for a moment, thinking of potential fallout.

“Don’t eat any dogs along the way.” She said.

Vorra smiled and pushed the charred steak into her human mouth, to swallow whole.


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1.2: Performance Reviews


Homunculus: the little man inside your head. Modern homunculi are portable digital devices that assist spellcasting by properly stimulating the brain through vibrations, sound, and visual noise. Hooked into the biometrics of the spellcaster, homunculi perform the subconscious cognitive work of magic so the spellcaster can focus on execution. 


A small windowless office was oppressive enough, but when a flyover portrait of the Old College took up most of the wall, it added an additional eerie quality to the space. Every moment she spent in the Department Head’s office Minerva felt like she would be kicked off a helicopter or a plane and fall to her death at the feet of the Lord Turrington statue in the Plaza, a sacrifice to the National and its endless history. She felt suffocated there.

Even more so because most of the free air in the room was now heavily in use.

“I don’t know what to do with you anymore, Beatrix! I have professionally and personally given you so much space and chance and yet, here I am, once again!”

Beatrix nodded politely along with each repetitive scolding and talking-down-to she received from the department head of the college of Anthropology, Miriam Hirsch.

“It feels like it was last week that I gave you a warning and yet here you are, the focus of complaints, complaints and more complaints! From faculty, students, from parents!”

Beatrix behaved ironically like a student sat down before a school principal. She had a childishly contrite expression, her head bowed, nodding silently each time Ms. Hirch raised her voice one twist higher on the volume knob. At her side, Minerva sucked on a straw attached to a grey foil packet, drinking a salty-sweet brown fluid to restore all the vitality she lost to negative energy sickness — in this case, to stomping on a ghost.

A ghost that, as Miriam Hirch rightly pointed out, was summoned through Beatrix’s negligence and nearly allowed to attack students, which violated this and that code; and which was summoned because of Beatrix’s unauthorized ‘raiding’ of the Anthropology Department’s Esoteric Assets stores, which, she pointed out, was quite ‘frowned upon’.

And so on and so on.

Minerva, too, had her head bowed low but mostly out of embarrassment.

At least Beatrix had acquiesced to wearing Minerva’s coat, so she would look decent.

It would be salt on the wound to look thrown about while being thrown about.

“Just because you work for the Department doesn’t mean everything here is your toy! Do you have a child’s concept of ownership? There’s a process!” She shook her hands as though she wanted to wring Beatrix’s neck from afar, as she spelled out p-r-o-c–e-s-s. “Process! You get class materials signed! I would’ve done it! And we could’ve made sure that wand you were supposed to have been working on since a month ago wasn’t cursed when you decided to let your students work out your backlog! I am bewildered, Bea!”

Miriam had practically made a hole in the ground from circling around the couch in front of her desk so many times, as she waylaid Beatrix from all directions. When she finally sat down, her shoulders slumped and it seemed almost that she would deflate like a balloon right in front of them, utterly emptied of hot air. Minerva looked up from her juice pack and caught Miriam looking her way, exhausted. Miriam was an older lady, older than Beatrix, whom Minerva placed in her thirties; definitely older than Minerva’s fresh, spry 25 years on Tierra. Out of all of them she was the most corporate-looking: black blazer, red shirt, pencil skirt, sleek glasses. She looked like her own secretary and like her own boss at the same time. Her black-and-white hair was tied up in a bun far more tidy and professional than Minerva’s “stick a pin in it, call it done up” affair.

“I don’t know what to do with her, Minerva.” Miriam said. “Did you know she could’ve been Department Head? Once upon a time she was practically in the chair.”

Minerva briefly glanced at Beatrix and then back at Miriam. She just couldn’t see it.

“Years ago, Beatrix was a historical prospect! On skill alone!” Miriam shouted.

She seemed almost personally offended at Beatrix’s current state. Minerva, meanwhile, wondered if the ‘skill alone’ fragment was meant to separate it from Minerva’s historical prospect, and from there she became hyperaware of the situation. She was in the office of the Department Head on a reprimand. And she was not like any other T.A. in this seat.

Beatrix, meanwhile, smiled just a touch, as if only allowed a few humble millimeters to display joviality. “Yes, but instead I married my girlfriend and live my days casually.”

“Why are you dressed like that?” Miriam shouted, her head resting on steepled hands.

This was such a sudden turn in the conversation even Beatrix seemed bewildered.

She absentmindedly fingered the plunging neckline of her tanktop, just over her chest.

“Well, the flower crown helps align my aura with Earth magic, which I need a lot of for the piece I wanted to work on. And me and the wifey do yoga every morning, but then–”

“I don’t care anymore, Beatrix.” Miriam cut her off, waving a hand dismissively. “Listen well, you wannabe bohemian, you’re a tenured Professor of the most prestigious university on the continent. People like Minerva can be held up to different standards–”

Minerva snapped her head up. “Excuse me–?”

“–She’s a teaching assistant, after all–”

“Oh–”

This one time, Minerva was glad her objection was ignored as usual. She quieted again.

“–but you, Beatrix, must act like the professional you are!”

Miriam pushed herself to a stand by her arms, but quickly lost her energy and sat again.

“Honestly, if it weren’t for the value your research has brought, Beatrix, if it weren’t for the history, and not just the history you’ve uncovered, but our history, and just. Ugh!”

The Department Head pushed herself against the back of her chair, gritting her teeth.

She sighed with a kind of grave finality, fanning herself with her hand.

“We bleed money every year to things like Quantum Effects and Applied Energetics. It’s only our routinely excellent scholarship and high student performance that keeps us alive here, you two. And yet it seems like the good Professor just takes her teaching job for granted when she is not handing it off entirely to her freshman Teaching Assistant.”

“Minerva is a cut above any T.A. I have ever worked with.” Beatrix said.

“She reminds me of you and that’s ultimately what worries me most.” Miriam said.

Miriam turned from Beatrix and back to Minerva, staring at her with a dull expression. She wasn’t mad at her, but she seemed tired of having to talk, or maybe displeased with having to talk to her now. Her voice was dispassionate, as gray-sounding as her coat. She felt exhausted looking at that woman and exhausted for being looked at by her too.

“Minerva, the Department thanks you for making sure no students saw harm from Beatrix’s little stunt. Everything regarding that incident will be fine, I will see to it, it’s too much of a nuisance not to sweep under the rug for us, however; you yourself were also called here for a purpose. Seeing as how you are basically teaching Beatrix’s classes right now, aside from her foolishness, I must speak to you about your performance.”

From behind her desk came a sliding noise, wood on metal. Miriam pulled open a drawer and pulled out a folder, and she spread it open on the desk. Minerva could not see the contents of it from the couch, but she grew a little nervous now that she was being addressed directly. This was not the first time she had met with Miriam, but those times had been social and courtesy occasions, educational committees, things like that.

A performance review was ominous. Performance was an ominous word.

Minerva had a monumental pressure placed on herself to excel.

She had a unique pressure on her to succeed.

“Beatrix’s class averages have been declining for the past few years by an expected one or two percent, given her, well, unique teaching style. However, Minerva, the average for her classes under your tutelage is declining by a staggering 12%.” Miriam said dryly.

“Well, new students come in and they need time. It’s only been a few weeks.”

Minerva tried to temper her defensiveness and the passion with which she wanted to decry this injustice. Those averages could have been easily upset at any point by a below average freshman class. Magic and especially Magic scholarship was not exactly drawing the cream of the crop from society anymore. Minerva had apparently gotten unlucky and the year she was finally accepted as a teacher was a year with some black sheep in it.

And yet, it was absolutely being used against her now! It felt like a terrible injustice.

She had to wonder whether there were ulterior motives for bringing up this topic.

“I understand, and I do not hold it against you. I am just saying, I expect great things from you and from the class of 1998, as I do every year. And having had a few incidents with this class this year, I was inclined to review its performance, and I saw this pattern.”

“I feel I have gone above and beyond to do what I can for my students.” Minerva replied, trying to keep herself cool and professional. “I have more office hours than any of my colleagues, and Professor Kolsa and I have developed a very student-friendly unit plan.”

Beatrix smiled and waved as if asked to. Miriam grunted at her as if to preempt her.

“I recognize and applaud that. Believe me, I am not holding you to a different standard.” Miriam said. “In fact, I too have gone above and beyond and identified the predominant cause of this trend. You have one student in particular, who is troubled and troubling.”

She handed Minerva a folder and Minerva took it and opened it, to find a photograph of a young woman with purple-streaked twintails, pearly-pink skin, amber eyes, dressed just a bit messily. It was Lyudmilla Kholodova, a recent immigrant from Rus-Moroz according to her file. Minerva knew her grades were not good, but she expected her to swing up soon. It felt just a little harsh to judge her like this so early on in the semester.

“She transferred here with a special status, along with a few other refugees.” Miriam said. “It was good P.R., but now it’s on us to make sure she doesn’t just coast by. It’s regrettable but she seems to be setting herself up for failure. She needs supervision.”

“That’s a little harsh.” Beatrix said suddenly, airing Minerva’s thoughts. “This girl is a student like any other. And this is a University, we’re all adults here. I think Lyudmilla ill deserves this treatment. If I didn’t know you so well, I’d think you were being bias, Mir.”

Miriam glared at Beatrix. “It’s your fault predominantly that she is not acclimating well! So be quiet. We keep tabs on special students. This is a prestigious institution with a strong reputation, I’ve told you this before. She will succeed at her classes, and you will make sure of that, Beatrix. Or I guess, effectively, Minerva will make sure. I trust her.”

Beatrix gave a sympathetic look toward poor Minerva, who did not respond in kind.

The Department Head very deliberately took back all the files and stowed them away.

“I didn’t just do this at random. Minerva and Lyudmilla may be worlds apart in many respects, but I feel they can bond over some common experiences. Minerva is the best mentor for this young, troubled girl. I am sure of it, and I am sure it’s for the best.”

Minerva sighed. At the end of the day, it was all indeed about her race and status.

Unlike Miriam and Beatrix, who could well pass to anyone as simply “white Otrarians,” Minerva was one of the Alwi. Her mixed race was engraved in the color of her skin, the slightly fussy texture and behavior of her hair, among other things. There were other, more sensitive reasons that made her different, but this was the obvious one. Before she was a woman, before she was an Otrarian, before she was a magician, she would always be an Alwi. And it was even more obvious in the National than it was anywhere else.

“Be proud! The First Alwi Magician of the Otrarian National Academy, will take on the first Alwi-taught Apprentice! It would be historical if I wasn’t trying to keep it low-key.”

Miriam smiled and stretched a hand out over the desk and Minerva shook it dejectedly.

“All of the paperwork is in the process of being done.” She said. “You will all be notified.”

Beatrix clapped a little and mumbled a little ‘yay!’ and Miriam scowled at her in return.

Minerva and Beatrix then left the anthropology department side by side, having both essentially gotten slapped on the wrist given the sheer nonsense that Beatrix had decided to do. In the grand scheme of things they were unscathed, but Minerva was troubled by this idea of apprenticeship, of being a mentor. Ambling out of the old building and into the wide open plaza across the street, they were both silent, Minerva having become absorbed in thinking about her own situation. It was not until Professor Kolsa patted her on the shoulder and back that she realized she had walked past the statue of Turrington.

Ahead of her, a bus came to a stop, picked up and dropped off no students, and then went on its way once again. Far in the distance, the yellow line of the sun split the heavens from the tops of the various National campus buildings encircling the park.

“Oh right. I think– no, that was not my bus.” Minerva said. “But we do part ways here.”

Minerva waved a half-hearted goodbye and made to sit down on the bench nearby.

Beatrix reached out a hand to stop her, wearing a nervous smile on her face.

“I apologize, Minerva. I had no idea she would respond like this.” Beatrix said.

“It’s fine.” Minerva said. “I’ve accepted you’re some force of nature I can’t control.”

“Aww, I think you’re very energetic too. Thank you.” Beatrix replied cheekily.

Minerva grumbled, but reciprocated the friendly pat on the shoulder that Beatrix had given her before. Beatrix in response took both of Minerva’s hands in her own, and Minerva did not break the touch or shrug her off. She smiled back just a little.

“Regardless of everything, you did splendidly today.” Beatrix said. “And though I may not seem like I would, I hope you know that I will do my very best to support you in all this.”

“I know you would.” Minerva said. “Though I question what you’d do to support me.”

“I’d go to great lengths. You’re a magnificent assistant. Plus, I’ve been a mentor before.”

“Well, thank you.” Minerva said. “For reference though, random stunts don’t help me.”

Beatrix’s smile turned into a fiendish grin.

“Well, well. You should know that like Miriam Hirch, I don’t do things randomly.”

She took off Minerva’s coat, and produced from the pocket a little booklet.

That had not been there when Minerva handed her the coat.

She handed the book to Minerva, who, sensing what it could be, did not open it.

“Tell your commanders it’s a little cheat sheet. They’ll understand the contents.”

Beatrix winked.

Comrade.

Minerva blinked, looked down at the booklet, and sighed, stowing it away.

“I see you can be real tricky when you want to.” Minerva said. “Was it this morning?

“Trade secret. Listen: I don’t do this for just anyone.” Beatrix said, sticking her chest out.

Minerva grinned a little herself. Amazingly enough, she felt glad for Beatrix right then.


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The 3rd Superweapon (69.2)

This scene contains violence.


48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — East Wall Defensive Line

“All guns, site the enemy tank and open fire on approach!”

Ferried across the desert by four tank transporters, the massive steel crate dropped its front door open like a ramp onto the sand, and from the aperture escaped an enormous tank, easily larger than any tank Madiha Nakar had ever seen. It was wider and thicker than an Ogre or a Giant, with a track that must’ve reached twelve wheels in length.

Its front surface was sloped and seemed thick, and it carried an additional steel plate of bulldozer blades. in the middle of the glacis, a thick round mount surrounded a short-barreled howitzer or mortar that must have been at least 150mm bore. There were several structures on its flat, long upper surface that seemed like cupola, but only one was centralized and likely to be used for command. All of the others were located on the corners and it was possible to make out tiny barrels sticking out of them: machine guns.

Painted black all over, its designation was emblazoned on its side: the “Vishap.”

Cutting in between the hilly dunes that had kept it out of sight of the wall, the beast revealed itself in full to the defenders, and made clear its intentions. At the highest speed the gargantuan tank could muster with its weight on the treacherous sand, it was making  ponderously for the Conqueror’s Way. Men in Cissean and Nochtish uniforms charged alongside it, rifles in hand, barely keeping pace with the grinding march of the machine.

Atop the walls, the rampart gunners hurried back to their posts, and found the Vishap on their direct-fire optics. Madiha Nakar and Parinita Maharani surveyed the proceedings as the crews began turning wheels and pulling levers to get the guns moved. By adjusting the height of the gun mounting itself, they could make up for the lack of negative elevation on the 76mm all-purpose gun, and fire over the wall at targets far below.

At the General’s order, a dozen 76mm guns on the ramparts opened fire on the Vishap. Each impact was near invisibly distant and sounded dull and almost unreal, as if the artillery of a battle a world away. Smoke obscured the machine after the first red-hot tracer impacted the hull and exploded. Shells fell around it a dozen every few seconds, throwing sand into the air, billowing dust and fire; it was impossible to confirm any hits.

However, in the light of the rising afternoon sun it was possible to see the shadow, continuing to lumber, and once the last shell had exploded, the sound of the roaring, grinding engine was still perfectly audible. From the cloud of dust and sand, the Vishap crawled out, undaunted. Its front surface was pitted and pockmarked and in places cracked, and one of the bulldozer blades had been blasted off. Some of the front track guard and the armored skirt covering its wheels had been damaged, but not too badly.

“Madiha, take a closer a look at it, I think there’s something odd about its armor.”

Parinita handed Madiha the binoculars, and set down a radio unit, hidden behind the rampart stones. She took up a radio headset and began to make calls to Solstice for support, while the General honed in on the Vishap’s front and surveyed the damage.

Over, around and between the bulldozer blades, the armor plate was the thickest, and insignificant damage seemed to have been dealt to it. However, the form that damaged took was confounding. There were deep, uneven cracks, and dusty bruises, and no deformation from the heat whatsoever. Armor this dense could crack, but not in the way this material was cracking. It looked like a brick wall that had been suddenly hit with a sledgehammer, not a sheet of metal that had deformed under intense, prolonged heat.

“It’s concrete. It’s got to be. They put a layer of concrete armor over the tank.”

Madiha was perplexed, but it made sense. Anti-tank shells were designed specifically to defeat metal armor that would resist the pointed nose of the shell, and deform around the packed-in explosive charge, in very specific ways. It was meant to go through 50 to 70 millimeters of metal armor, not through a centimeter or more of concrete cement.

“Do we have anti-bunker or anti-concrete available for the 76mm?” Madiha asked.

Parinita shook her head despondently, waving to the city behind them.

“No, we’re not stocked with those. Those are special-assignment for assault troops.”

Madiha looked over her shoulder. She was so focused on the battle ahead, that she hardly had taken any time to look at what she was protecting. Always, behind her every shout, her every shot, Solstice waited at her back. It was a vast city, its few tall buildings visible in the distance, but mostly composed of small, flat-roofed brown buildings, either made of clay or textured to look like it. All kinds of colorful awnings hung over porches and balconies to help the inhabitants get some air while beating the oppressive heat. Winding roads and numerous labyrinthine alleyways characterized a city that grew, organically and haphazardly, for thousands of years. It was beautiful; and most of her troops were there. They awaited orders to counterattack a sizable divisional force.

“Focus artillery fire on the supporting infantry!” Madiha turned back around and shouted at her rampart gunners, and they began to coordinate among themselves and to lob shells at the encroaching enemy battalion. She then turned back to Parinita, and to the desert ahead. “Let the Vishap come. How’s our air support? That flat roof is the weakest part of the whole thing, it has to be. We can order a strike from Vulture.”

Parinita shook her head, pulling off her headset and hitting a switch on the radio. “That’s what I thought so too, but I just got off the airwaves with Air Command. Vulture and the other air units are split between supporting the western defenses, interdicting incoming raids on Solstice, and launching their own long-range air attacks. It’s mostly Elves who are trying to come after us at this point, with token Nochtish support, but if we can break through these attacks, we may be able to inflict some damage on the Elven navy.”

“So the air force gets to launch a counteroffensive, but the Army has to sit and wait.”

Madiha grumbled. Parinita shrugged and rationally replied, “There’s no Lines in the sky.”

“We’ll have to make do then. Release the vanguard rifle battalion onto the bridge to fight. I’ll come up with a battle plan as we go.” Madiha said. “Get the drawbridge gate open.”

“Roger. Contacting the drawbridge engineers and the 7th Battalion now.” Parinita said.

Minutes later, the Eastern gate of Solstice began to drop, accompanied by the chunky sound of a motor. It was a drawbridge door that no longer presided over a gap in the bridge, perhaps thirty meters tall and a little less wide, now powered by diesel motors and held by heavy anchor chains and gears. Behind the door waited nearly a thousand ready soldiers of the 7th Battalion, who had deployed all along the road inside the city as a rapid response force. Slowly the door began to angle, and a crack developed at the top where the light of the desert peered into the structure of the Solstice gate threshold.

There was an abrupt crash, and the slackening chains went rigid and tense.

Smoke began to spread from the gatehouse out into the threshold tunnel.

Between the booming of the rampart guns, Madiha heard the gears grind down below.

She peered carefully over the rampart and found the gate at a steep angle.

“Parinita, what is happening?” Madiha asked.

Parinita turned from the radio box and faced Madiha, alarmed.

“Something’s happened to the gate mechanism. It’s stuck part of the way.” She said.

Madiha blinked hard and covered her face with her hands.

It was always something!

“Sergeant Agni is asking permission to blow off the chains and–”

“Absolutely not.” Madiha said. “Should that gate fall Nocht will not give us a respite to properly repair it. We can’t afford for any of the gates to stay open unnecessarily.”

“Then what do we do?” Parinita asked, pulling off the radio headset.

Madiha looked down over the ramparts as the Vishap’s tracks hit stone for the first time.

“I’m calling the bridge by field telephone. Tell Agni to get the engineers and some of the Svecthans with Mountain training ready to go over the wall. As soon as possible!”

Parinita nodded her head and returned to the radio box.

Meanwhile, the General produced the field telephone from behind one of the ramparts. Cable had been laid down to the bridge long ago, and much of it had survived the bombings. She picked up the handset, hit a switch, and immediately called down.

“Sergeant Kajari, listen closely to me.”


Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Conqueror’s Way Approach

Brigadier General Gaul Von Drachen watched the Vishap go with a sense of minor, quiet amusement. After the machine trundled out of its carriage, he ordered a company of his lead men to chase after it. Rifles in hand, sweating profusely, the riflemen followed his orders and charged after the machine. They had been following it for what seemed like weeks, out in the brutal heat of the Solstice desert, and now they trampled over the sand and made to move ahead of it. There were no words of protest or complaint from them.

“You don’t want to hear it, but I’m taking full credit for this delivery.” Von Drachen said.

At his side, Major General Rodrick Von Fennec scoffed and stamped past him. He was a square-shaped man, with a brick of a head, beefy limbs, but an older, stiffer, and bowing stature than that of the younger, more limber Von Drachen. His remaining eye glanced at Von Drachen with disdain; the other was patched up but likely sported similar scorn. Somewhere under his thick white beard, Fennec’s lips were probably turned up as well. For a louplander, his tail was very stubby and short, and it barely wagged; his ears, poking out from under his desert helmet, were also blunt, and just barely fuzzy.

Von Drachen thought they could commiserate over using fake names, but Von Fennec was instantly hostile to him, even though he went along with Von Drachen’s genius plan.

“Yes, yes, to be frank, only you could have been crazy enough to suggest such a course of action. I will give you full credit for the penetration of the enemy line through the unguarded desert sector; also responsibility for the 100 men who died along the way.”

Von Fennec snorted and put on a confident grin as though he had crushed Von Drachen.

Von Drachen, in turn, shrugged his shoulders. “They knew what they signed up for. I care about the living and I will achieve victory for the dead. All of my men know about this.”

At this callousness, or perhaps more at Von Drachen’s lack of reaction to what should have been a harsh indictment, Von Fennec turned his cheek and grumbled inaudibly.

As the Generals amicably conversed, all of the unit’s strength rallied around the Vishap. All that could be taken along the Vishap on the desert trek, was a light rifle battalion and some stray elements of tank and motor units. Behind Von Drachen, the camouflaged tank transporters, unburdened of the tank’s weight, retreated back behind the dunes, tugging behind them the massive crate-like object that once housed the Vishap inside it.

A few token escort tanks, “Rick Hunter” pattern with 76mm guns, drove past, crawling their way out of the hilly dunes separating them from the battlespace, using the last of their fuel and the last endurance of their tracks and suspensions to make it within visual range of the wall and bridge. Divided into platoons of 50 men, the Vishap’s infantry escort formed an arrowhead with the machine and a few men at the head of the pack.

“So Von Fennec, what’s preventing this operation from being bombed to pieces?”

Von Drachen glanced at Von Fennec from the corner of his eyes.

Von Fennec snorted and laughed.

“Take a gander at that sand dune over there, and feast your eyes.”

Von Drachen looked over his shoulder, half-interested. Atop a nearby boulder, to which the sand dunes formed a neat little ramp, a trio of tanks with extensive modications raised twin anti-aircraft guns into the air from open-top turrets. All of them were likely based on the new Rick Hunter light tank types, which were just barely nudging the “medium” category in armor and weight, but had great speed. Open-top turrets allowed the the new M3A3s to mount much larger weapons than the old M3s and M5s, and despite lessened survivability they grew to replace the little sluggers in large numbers.

“We call it the M8 R-K Peacekeeper. Any Ayvartan ground attack craft that closes in to the Vishap will be shredded by 18 rounds a second of high-explosive anti-aircraft fire.”

“I see.” Von Drachen said. “So what prevents those things from being bombed?”

“Shut up, Von Drachen. Do something with yourself. Go talk to Aatto or something.”

“Oh, I plan to. Not talk to Aatto; she’s nice, but I have business with a lady at the front.”

“Excuse me?”

At this point, as if on cue, a utility car pulled up behind them. It was driven by the old Cissean colonel, Gutierrez, who looked exhausted behind the wheel, and on its bed, was carrying air tanks and flexible suits, rope and hooks, and other seemingly random pieces of equipment for some nondescript purpose. A squadron of fifteen men sat around on the back of the truck, squeezed between the equipment and looking most unhappy.

“You’re about to fall for Nakar’s trap and I’m about to get you out of it.” Von Drachen said.

Von Fennec looked livid. “What do you mean? There is nothing Madiha Nakar can do now! Our only difficulty was getting the Vishap here. It is going to walk right through the Conqueror’s Way, and cut a path for us! Reinforcements can follow the desert behind us; once the gate is breached, the battle in the northeast can be ignored for this purpose.”

Von Drachen shook his head. He could see where all this was going. He had been there before. “Here is what will happen. Madiha Nakar will put up a stiff resistance that will endanger the Vishap and cause you to commit more forces to push the Vishap forward. This will force you to consolidate your troops into a large, dense formation. She will retreat, and you will think you’ve won, and you’ll charge your big, dense attack group deeper into the bridge. Then, she will surround it and find some way to destroy it, inflicting disproportionate casualties on you because of the density of your unit.”

“Absolutely not! There’s no way to surround anything on that bridge!” Von Fennec said. His face was red and his tail was standing on end. His nose was starting to wet with anger. “It’s a completely narrow path with nowhere to hide except behind rubble. The Vishap will clear all the rubble, mortar through every fallen gate, and mortar the main gate. You think you know better than me, child? I’m a veteran of countless battles! That is why I was entrusted with a superweapon, and you’re just relegated to recon! Shut up!”

Von Drachen shrugged. “I’m going to the front where it’s friendlier. We’ll meet there.”

Nonchalantly, he began to walk away, knowing full well that Von Fennec was not going anywhere near the front. Von Fennec, meanwhile, stood dumbfounded, his old cavalry brain grinding to a halt at the bizarre idea that a General would go join his men to fight.

“How the hell you intend to get there anyway? You’re gonna walk?” Von Fennec shouted.

Still walking away from the Major General, Von Drachen stretched out his arms in glory.

“I’ve evolved since last me and Nakar fought. I’ve finally overcome my one weakness on the battlefield, Von Fennec!” He sounded triumphant. “I have emerged, like a beautiful butterfly from my cocoon! Molted into a force of nature! I have learned how to swim!”

He continued to laugh as he followed the utility truck out into the open desert.


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

Rumbling Hearts (42.1)


47th of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, 8th Division Garrison HQ

As the sun rose to keep its noon-time appointments, the door to the temporary Regimental Headquarters slammed suddenly open. Logia Minardo wandered nonchalantly inside, singing a little tune to herself. Despite her visible pregnancy, she was as sprightly as a teenage girl, swinging her hips, tossing her shoulder-length hair, taking little dancing steps into the building. From her fingers swung a cloth bag that she used as a prop in her act.

Her feet thudded on the floor as she neared her desk, adding percussion to her voice.

Coming out of a quick spin, she set down her bag and snapped her fingers with a flourish.

Behind the main desk, Colonel Madiha Nakar and her pet dragon glared the Staff Sergeant’s way, both taking the same guarded posture and wearing exactly the same sour expression toward her. Neither of them seemed amused with Minardo’s antics. Kali was even growling. Fully uniformed, even wearing her officer’s cap, Madiha looked likewise unapproachable.

Minardo smiled and waved her hand at the pair. She spoke in a flighty tone of voice.

“Oh my, I don’t know if it’s pet influencing owner or owner influencing pet anymore.”

Madiha’s sour expression grew concertedly sour. Kali then mimicked her.

In the Colonel’s mind, a reservoir of good will toward Minardo was rapidly emptying.

“I am wondering why you failed to pick me up this morning, and why you are here so late in the day with that nonchalant expression on your face. Furthermore, I’m curious to see if you know the answers to those questions with regards to my assistant.” Madiha said.

Across the room, the staff sergeant quizzically panned her head around. Her gaze settled on each desk and table in the room, and it dawned on her what Madiha had known for hours now. Parinita had failed to show up for work; she hadn’t even taken a minute to tell Madiha where she was going, despite them living in the same building. It was the shock of a lonely morning and a lonely walk from her lodgings to the base, that had Madiha quite on edge.

That, and her building disdain for Minardo’s roguish sense of humor.

“Oh no! Perhaps she was kidnapped.” Minardo said, putting on a face of mock fright.

“Don’t joke about that.” Madiha said brusquely.

Minardo raised her hands defensively. “I’m sorry. I don’t think anything bad could have happened to her. She might have gone to the shops to get an outfit to wear to the festival.”

“She didn’t have any money. None of us do.” Madiha said.

“There are more ways to acquire goods than through money.” Minardo said.

She blew a little kiss at Madiha, who discovered then that what she hated more than Minardo’s roguish sense of humor was her coquettish sense of humor.

“Don’t joke about that, either!” Madiha snapped loudly, pushing herself to an irate stand, and Kali joined in with tinny growls, stretching up on the desk as if ready to pounce.

Minardo shrugged. “My, my, this is a tough crowd.” She then sighed heavily. “Anyway, I lent her some money, okay? I’m sure she is only out on the town. It is fine, Colonel.”

“And where did you get this money you lent her from? Are you suddenly a bank?”

“I just had it tucked away, and I decided to be kind. What do you want from me?”

Madiha grumbled. She irrationally bitter that Parinita had turned to Minardo for funds.

Even though she knew that she wouldn’t have been able to help at all in that arena.

“Fine. I’ll accept that. Go busy yourself for now.” Madiha ordered.

Minardo nodded her head and turned around to her desk.

Aside from Madiha and now Minardo, the room was empty. The Colonel dismissed Bhishma early; without Parinita around she had no idea what work she could even have Bhishma do. Padmaja had come fluttering in early in the morning, and took a few radio calls, and organized every desk. Then, having run out of things to do, Madiha had her go on errands.

For a few hours after, the Colonel was alone in the office.

Despite this, Minardo’s presence was not exactly welcomed.

Ever since they met, Madiha felt like her image of the Staff Sergeant was deteriorating.

She knew that she was on edge, and that her condition was heightening her low-key disdain for Minardo’s flighty but harmless antics. The Staff Sergeant was useful and could be more useful in the future; but in the present, Madiha wanted to be angry at her, and indulged that anger more openly than she had in the past. Her emotions bubbled beneath her skin.

If the Staff Sergeant sensed any danger, she hid that intuition well.

Minardo sat behind her desk, and for a moment she pretended to do some work. At a glance she seemed to busy herself, picking up papers, tapping them against the desktop, setting them down, and going over them. However, all of those papers were taken from a stack of blank requisition sheets, so there was nothing to read. And Minardo was constantly glancing over at Madiha’s desk. Despite meeting the Colonel’s disapproving gaze several times this way, Minardo did not cease her little facade until the Colonel called her out.

“What do you want, Minardo?” Madiha asked, exasperated.

“I am wondering if you have any hobbies, Colonel.”

Madiha frowned back, irritated and glum.

“I–”

Suddenly Minardo interrupted. “No military stuff!”

She felt like replying with ‘go to hell’ but restrained herself.

Madiha gave a throaway answer. “Kali.” She said.

At her side, the dragon’s eyes drew wide open and it kneaded its legs happily.

“I happen to have an affinity for puzzles.” Minardo replied.

“What’s your point? Do you want to show me a puzzle?”

Minardo smiled and stood up from her desk. “Since we have nothing better to do.”

She withdrew a box from her bag, and set it down on Madiha’s desk.

“I was thinking,” she continued, “we could take up a little challenge.”

It was a chess board from Solstice Toys & Games, updated to match the sensibilities of the time. Pawns were laborers, Knights were revolutionaries, bishops Commissars, and so on. At the very top of the hierarchy of pieces was the Premier, or Central Committee Head; in this edition the piece was a small, ivory Lena Ulyanova. It was a rather cute board all told.

“Chess?” Madiha asked. Her demeanor softened just a little.

“I prefer crossword puzzles to keep my mind sharp, but this works for two.”

Kali drew close to the chess set, sniffed the box, and recoiled, snarling.

“Does it smell like me?” Minardo asked, leaning close to the dragon.

Kali blew a puff of white smoke into Minardo’s face.

Drawing back again from the desk, Minardo sighed audibly.

“Anyway, would you like to have a match, Colonel?” Minardo asked.

Madiha knew that the excuse of ‘I have work to do’ had all dried up. She had hardly the capacity to work in this office, and other than yelling at various suppliers to hurry up with her orders, she had little administrative work to do. And what little she could do, she needed Parinita to record and organize. Doing anything without her secretary would have led to confusion later, as both wondered what parts of the work were done or not.

So in those circumstances, the idea of besting Minardo sounded palatable.

“I wanted to go over the table of organization, but fine. We can play one game.”

Nodding her head contentedly, Minardo pulled up the top of the game box, and set up the board atop Madiha’s empty desk, putting all the pieces in their places. “Black or white?”

“Black.” Madiha replied.

Minardo flipped the board, and put her hand on a pawn.

“That means I go first.” She said, winking.

Madiha acknolwedged, and watched as Minardo made a simple opening move.

Out of the front ranks, a white pawn moved.

Figuring there was no better move at the time, Madiha mirrored her opponent.

She thought she could already see a game unfolding here.

Pawns drew out, and then knights started moving. Madiha thought it would become a pitched battle, and her mind was racing to plot out the moves that she would make. She viewed the knights as tanks, able to move around obstacles. Pawns were small but vicious infantry who could hold key positions. And then there was the Queen, most powerful of all.

She viewed it as the war of mobility that had been swirling in her mind for days now.

Her imagination got the better of her.

Despite this exertion of brainpower, Minardo was soon laughing in Madiha’s face.

Though in her head many moves had been made, in reality, only pawns had set out.

Two moves worth of pawns from both sides. White, black, white, black–

Win.

A white Queen came creeping out of her phalanx for a surprise victory.

“I can’t believe this! You fell for the fool’s mate! Are you eight years old?”

Minardo continued to laugh while Madiha surveyed the board in confusion.

She could imagine all she wanted, but she had never actually played chess.

As such, her play was apparently incredibly weak.

“I feel so cruel to have won this way! But I couldn’t resist trying it.” Minardo boasted.

Madiha rubbed her chin, quietly staring at the board.

Her sour expression returned.

Kali swiped its tail at the board, scattering the pieces on the desktop.

“Hey!” Minardo said, frowning childishly. “Don’t break my set!”

Feeling rather sour, Madiha did notthing to restrain her rampant companion.

She turned her head away instead.

“You need to be a better sport than this, Colonel!” Minardo said, picking up her pieces.

Madiha grumbled.

“Were it not for the restrictions of this game I would’ve beaten you.” She said.

Minardo blinked. Now it was her turn to put on a sour face.

“It is quite ugly of you to act so petulantly!” She said. “Chess is a simulation of war, Colonel!”

Perhaps her actions had offended the Staff Sergeant, but Madiha found it hard to care at the time. She crossed her arms and averted her eyes, but continued to talk in a haughty tone, feeling somewhat empowered by her sudden ability to needle Minardo on this topic. In fact she resolved to push the issue further and see where her Staff Sergeant would snap again.

“You can gloat about your skills in a game all you want. Chess is nowhere near the reality of war. Combat does not move on grids or follow turns. Had we both been on a real battlefield I would have had you in ropes in a captive’s tent easily, Staff Sergeant.” Madiha said.

Again this attitude seemed to put her opponent quite off-balance.

“Those are loser’s words indeed!” Minardo said, raising her voice.

It was poor sport; Madiha was still disassatisfied with the game and with Minardo.

Even prodding her was not cathartic enough for the Colonel’s frustrations.

She would not dismiss or discipline Minardo. She felt that would hurt her too much.

Instead she resolved just to try to ignore her.

“Well, whatever; you’ve had your fun, now leave me be.” Madiha said.

Unfortunately her Staff Sergant never seemed to relent on any issue.

“Not so soon! I have a game you could try then, if you’re so high and mighty!”

Minardo stood up in a hurry, and withdrew a file folder from her bag.

She slapped it down onto the table.

It was a red folder with the insignia of the Solstice Officer’s School.

Madiha’s eyes darted down to the folder. It immediately captured her attention.

“Well, Colonel, if chess is too simple for you, how about a wargame? You’ve taken part in these exercises before, correct? Then, you should have no complaints in this arena.”

“What do you hope to accomplish with this?” Madiha asked.

Minardo smirked. That mischevious glint returned to her eyes.

“I am merely curious about the legend of this so-called ‘hero of the border’.”

Madiha bristled. She did not particularly like that epithet and the burden it carried when spoken. However, she also felt a building anger at how easily Minardo took the name in vain, at how conceited she was behaving. Though Madiha tried to present a friendly and approachable face, she was the Colonel, and Minardo was showing her too little respect.

Had she done such a thing to Kimani, she would have been slapped across the face.

Madiha stood up as quickly as Minardo had, a determined look on her face.

“Fine! You shall see that legend first-hand.” She said.

They sealed the challenge with a hand-shake, and cleared the desk.

Thankfully this was the compact version of the wargame, playable even in a barracks.

Atop the Colonel’s desktop they unfurled a long map, and began to deploy chits that represented various army units. It was a map of Vassaile, an area between the Frank Kingdom and the Nocht Federation, and the game was set in during the Unification War. It was a scenario that Madiha knew well; she knew every battle of these modern wars quite well, but this scenario was rather common in officer training across the world.

Played according to the rules of the Nochtish Kriegsspiel games, adapted for Ayvartan use, the scenario pitted the Frank 66th Army (Bluefor) against the Nochtish 11th Army (Redfor). In the battle of Vassaile, the 66th Army had crossed the border to Nocht in force, launching an offensive against Federation forces. Historically, the Nocht Federation retreated from Vassaile in disarray. It was the job of Bluefor to assail Nocht, and to achieve a victory better than history — the complete destruction of the 11th army. Meanwhile, Redfor had to attempt to keep the Nochtish lines straight while escaping from destruction. It was a scenario that helped prove the leadership qualities of the commanders on both sides.

Classically, it was a scenario that, when played well, had no victory for either side.

Redfor classically held on at the edges of Vassaile and prevented the Frank forces from entering too deep into Nocht; Bluefor classically took all of its objectives, but without destroying Redfor or managing to invade the Nochtish heartland past Vassaile.

“I’m calling Bluefor.” Minardo said, stamping her hand on a chit representing the 1st Chasseurs Division, light cavalry. Around her hand were dozens more Frank units. The Franks were noted for having the larger starting army, though Nocht had more reinforcements and reserves. Thus it was known Franz had an offensive advantage.

“Then I’m Redfor.” Madiha calmly replied.

It unsettled her slightly. In officer school she had played Bluefor and won the ahistorical victory, destroying the 11th Army completely through encirclement around Vassaile. She had not opted then to penetrate too deep into Nocht. Destroying the 11th Army was enough.

Likely, if Minardo brought this game here and called Bluefor, she intended to do the same.

“We’ve both played this game before, so let us settle things honorably.” Minardo said.

Madiha thought it certainly fit her roguish character to say such a thing.

She definitely intended to play Madiha’s game. That result was no secret among wargamers.

“I won’t kick up a storm; but you had best umpire it properly.” Madiha replied.

There was no use fighting it. Using good results from previous players was common.

Kali leaned over the map, flicking her tongue at the chits.

“No, settle down.” Madiha said. She wanted to see this game through.

Kali looked at her, and then curled in a corner of the table.

“This set is not my property, so let’s not ruin it.” Minardo said.

“Kali will behave.”

Madiha and Minardo shook hands over the table.

Thus the game began.

It was the 17th of the Lilac’s Bloom, and the Franks made the first move.

Minardo rattled off her orders.

“1st Division Chasseurs à cheval will move along the curve of Paix and Moltke on the Nochtish border, initiating hostilities against the 5th Grenadier Division. 5th Division Vernon Royal Hussars will ascend the Crux and Cateblanche line and attack the 10th Grenadier Division alongside the 1st Independent Scout Car battalion–”

Madiha acknowledged each move. These were standard openers. Madiha had performed all of them herself during her ahistorical winning game. 5th Grenadier and 10th Grenadier had historically arrived quite late, but early enough to be counted as standing units in the game. Unlike much of the Nochtish army at the time they lacked even minimal entrenchment along the border, and thus made prime targets for Franz’ few mobile units of the period.

As was standard, Nocht retreated both divisions, as they would be unable to stand and face the Chassuers and the Hussars in their early game condition. Even weak old horse cavalry was enough to burst these rushed Grenadier divisions. This created holes in the line that the standard Divisione D’Infanterie could then move through to attack Nocht entrenchments behind their lines. Madiha was forced into the standard early game retreat.

Beginning officers unused to the game would often muck about the border for several game periods, making for the impressive military fisticuffs that characterized the battle as it actually played out. But those with experience in the game always played it ahistorically, preserving their forces to try to game the system where they could do so later on.

Madiha began her retreat. Using a pointer, she pushed back her chits from the bulging Paix-Moltke curve at the Frank border, abandoning the Nochtish entrenchments and losing their defensive bonuses, but escaping what would have otherwise been an easy Frank trap and a sweeping early victory. This was all still standard; nobody had innovated at all yet.

She presumed that Minardo would not innovate; she waited for tell-tale signs of her own play, and soon found the first indication that Minardo was playing her old game to the letter. The 17th Royal Durst Pikers challenged the retreating Nochtish 19th Grenadier Division, an otherwise unassuming division that happened to hold Nocht’s only heavy mortars in the sector. Its destruction would greatly hamper defensive play for Redfor in the coming turns.

It was a move Madiha could not prevent, and she picked up the chit and discarded it.

All the while, Minardo laughed haughtily and grinned to herself.

“It’s interesting isn’t it?” She said, in a mock sweet voice.

Madiha could not disagree. She felt it was rather exhilirating to see this board again.

This was a bloodless battlefield where she had total control. Units could live or die only as necessary to achieve a victory. There was no complications, only pure strategy.

Madiha felt something close to elation, to entertainment, to purpose.

Her heart raced, and her skin brimmed with energy.

She felt the time had come for her first innovation.

“I will bypass the free entrenchment opportunity at the Lehner line. 11th Army will continue to retreat west. Let the umpire know I surrender the objective at Erfring.”

“Oh ho ho. So– You give up some points to me just like that?”

“Yes. You can have it.”

Minardo gleefully pushed her chits forward, and Madiha, though she kept a stony outward face was smiling inside. Someone who only read a list of Madiha’s winning moves or a summary of the scenario she played at the academy, would see this as a winning situation. In reality, it meant the entire nature of the scenario that Madiha played back then was fundamentally changed. Minardo’s memorized moves would no longer apply to the game.

Giving up the Lehner line forced Nocht dangerously close to a technical defeat.

After all, being kicked out of the battlefield almost entirely was a loss, in every sense.

Historically, Nocht had held on at the edge of Vassaile.

For Nocht to move too far past this line meant a total defeat regardless of objectives.

However, the way Madiha intended to play, this would not matter.

The 11th Army continued to retreat and finally took up its new positions in a strained, u-shaped curve straddling a forest and a large rural boom town called Schmelzdorf.

It lay behind the half-way point of a tactical map that began far on the right, near Franz.

Retreat beyond the forest would mean a loss for the 11th Army, opening Nocht to invasion.

It was the kind of bait no reckless player would let go.

Pressing her offensive advantage, Minardo launched several attacks with her 66th army.

She continued to move closer and closer on the map, bloodthirsty with victory after tactical victory. Madiha removed various chits, and shored up the line with reinforcements that had begun moving at the start of the game and only now reached the line, in time to plug it. Now Minardo was dubiously innovating. She was attacking much more than Madiha had been.

Perhaps she realized the game had changed; and this was her own original play now.

Regardless, Madiha had achieved her result, and now launched her coup.

“I’m calling for a rail movement.” She declared.

She indicated the length of the movement and the rail lines she would use.

Minardo nodded, and looked over the proposal.

Her eyes drew wide.

“You realize your rail point is behind my lines.”

Now it was Madiha’s turn to put on a fake sweet smile and a mock sweet voice.

“Did you cut the line? I did not seen any engineers moving.”

Minardo grumbled. “You’ll have to roll to move through enemy lines.”

So far, dice had not come into play, because most of the moves were easily agreeable.

Madiha picked up a pair of red arbitration dice, and cast them without looking.

Whatever the outcome did not matter to her.

She began to push chits through the rail line and behind Minardo’s group.

Then she repeated the movement, rolling the dice again.

And she repeated it again.

Finally, it dawned upon Minardo the shape that the battlefield was taking.

It was a cauldron.

Drawn into the sunken curve of the 11th Army’s long, tormented line, the 66th army fit inside the belly of the u-shape line as if it was always meant to go there. And now, 6 Divisions of Madiha’s Nochtish forces, having suffered some attrition from trying to rail through enemy lines but ultimately successful in doing so, were beginning to form a lid.

For the first time in the match, Madiha began to call her own attacks.

Attacks that hit by surprise from behind the battered, overstretched 66th Army, that had moved so quickly, so aggressively, against a constantly retreating army, that they were completely tired out. Madiha had baited them in, and now owned their strategic depth. Her “mobile” forces were cut off from supply behind the Frank lines, and their days were ultimately numbered in such a situation, but she did not care, because she was now winning.

Her play would end the game before the units engaged in deep battle ran out of supply.

Ignoring any strong units lagging behind Minardo’s advance, she struck her weak rear.

Seeing the events, Minardo started to stare at the board in the same way that Madiha had stared at the chess board before. Incredulous, rubbing her chin, twisting some of her hair around her index finger, she scanned every chit for some possibility. It was not only Madiha’s play that had stumped her. She had made some blunders too. For example, her cavalry and rudimentary early Unification War era cars were stuck in the center of the 66th Army, unable to move freely. Her front line was all Infantry, and her rear mostly artillery.

In several strokes, Madiha’s weak but cunning penetration units inflicted heavy damage. Minardo’s artillery blew up in her face. Her engineers division was slaughtered. Supply points were captured. To add insult to injury, a battered Grenadier Division parked itself on the Erfring objective, technically taking it back from the Franks. It was absolute mayhem.

Minardo picked up the folder and flipped through the rules.

“Oh good, you’ve got the manual out. If you have a second, Staff Sergeant: I don’t know the rules for capturing a Headquarters behind its own line. Please find them.” Madiha said.

Smiling as coyly as Minardo once did, Madiha brimmed with energy.

Minardo put down the folder, and sighing heavily she also put down her pointer stick.

She cast it atop the center of the map.

This was a sign of surrender.

“Alright, fine! Fine. It looks like I was wrong, Colonel. I apologize.”

Madiha stared at her, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

“I’m being genuine!” Minardo whined. “I am sorry. I got carried away.”

Madiha stretched out a hand, still smiling, high on the adrenaline of her dream war.

They shook. Minardo’s lips curled up a little.

“My, my, Colonel; you have such a beautiful smile. I’d love to see it more often.”

“I would smile more if you didn’t mortify me so much.”

“I said I was sorry! I was just trying to be friendly.”

“Trying to be friendly by bullying me?” Madiha said.

“My professional curiosity got the best of me. I told you I’m an awful gossip.”

“I’d advise you to stop gathering information on me.” Madiha replied.

“Will do!” Minardo said. “What say we let bygones be bygones?”

She withdrew her hand and saluted Madiha.

“Staff Sergeant Logia Minardo, at your service, ma’am! Pleased to serve under you!”

“You even manage to make that tick me off a bit.” Madiha said, grinning a little.

“Oh no, is your opinion of me irrevocably damaged?”

“It will need time to recover.”

Minardo’s whole body seemed to wilt, comically glum.

Ignoring her, Madiha poked the end of the map, and it rolled a little bit closed.

“Did you really memorize all of my play in this game?” She idly asked.

Minardo rubbed her index fingers together, putting on a bashful face.

“Ah, well. Once upon a time, I was shooting for an officer’s commission, and this game came up as a way. I had it in mind to impress someone; but they saw through the ruse.”

“Did you think it would work now?” Madiha asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Truth be told, I was hoping to be humiliated again.” Minardo said.

Sensing the game was over, Kali reared up to claw at the map, and knock it off.

“No!” Madiha said, raising her index finger. “Bad.”

Kali stared bitterly at Minardo and curled into a ball at the far edge of the desk.

Shaking her head, Madiha turned back to her Staff Sergeant. “Anything else?”

Minardo crossed her arms. “Just remember, we’ve only hit a draw right now. Someday soon, Colonel, I’ll make it 2-1! I’d advise you to polish up your Mancala skills!”

As quickly as it went, her wry, foxy little smile reappeared.

Madiha heaved a long sigh.


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Salva’s Taboo Exchanges II

This chapter contains some mild sexual content.

 


22nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon — Palladi Province, Previti Estate

On the outskirts of the royal province of Palladi, a great many hectares of beautiful rural countryside were fenced off by brick wall into the individual estates of a few nobles and nouveau rich. The Previti Estate had grown into the most developed of these clusters. Its walls were like ramparts, and the main gate was an archway leading to a roofed landing. On the night of the 22nd, the gates were open, and through them, past the lobby, one could see into the gardens, where a sensuous torch-lit path led up to the manor house. Guards blocked the approach, and a young woman in a modest black dress and apron ushered young, fashionable couples past the archway after checking them from a list. She was all smiles for every guest that checked in with her, but soon become particularly taken with one new arrival.

A tall, slim, and beautiful stranger, dark-skinned by Lubonin standards but green-eyed, smooth-featured, graceful, brown hair pinned up, stood before the guards at the entrance to the Estate. He dressed in a fine tuxedo suit, with golden cuffs, a visible pocket-watch chain, a black tie, understated but glossy shoes. Like the other guests he had come covered, a peacock-feathered mask covering his delicate nose and the upper half of his face.

He had been dropped off by a taxi around a corner road from the estate, and walked to the gate. No one at the archway could quite tell whether it was a fancy cab or a cheap one.

“Good evening.” He said. He had a pleasant voice. “Sylvano D’Amore.”

Gently and gracefully he lifted the maid’s hand, his fingers travelling along the underside of her arm in the lightest brushing touch until they lifted it by the palm. His lips graced her between knuckle and wrist. Her face flushed — none of the other guests had paid her these attentions.

“Ah, of course. You’re expected.” She said. Her voice developed a light tremble.

She allowed him past the guards, though in reality his name was known to no one. She watched him leave with a delirious expression, almost forgetting the next guests arriving.

Carrying himself with an easy confidence, Sylvano passed through the roofed archway landing, and from there to the ivory-tiled pathway through the gardens. Flanked by shaped hedges and gilded fountains and beds of roses, the young man walked discreetly alongside the throngs of fashionable men and women headed for the estate. Where eyes lingered on him, he received pleasantries, which he softly returned. But he received no greater volume of attention than any other beautiful stranger making a social debut that night. He was not a name that one knew to seek out — no one knew a Sylvano D’Amore. Nobody even knew to ask for it.

He had no friends to whom he owed honors, so he passed people by with a smile and a gentle bow of the head, and he did not pause along the fountains or smell the roses with other idle lords and ladies. At his own pace, he made his way directly to the main villa. His destination, the same as everyone, was the ballroom hall atop the manor house. From the gardens one could see the vast ballroom balcony, a gentle curve along the mansion house facade, framed in silver curtains and shining windows. There was a young lady waiting for his hand inside.

Everywhere he turned he saw masks; animal masks, humanoid masks, plain masks, masks over whole faces, some covering halves, masks with fur, with feathers, with scales.

Perhaps had the right eyes lingered on him, they might have seen through the peacock-feathered mask, and peered right into Sylvano’s regal green eyes. They might have noticed in his gentle lips and features, in the tone of his skin, and in the blunt half-elfin ears, a similarity to a certain Salvatrice Vittoria, one of the Princesses of Lubon. But few of the important nobles and the high bourgeois had ever interacted in any depth with her, or knew much about her status save her age and parentage. She was as outside their thoughts as he was on that night.

As such every vestige of the dual person walking among them was well guarded.

Sylvano was a disguise Salva had dreamed up for some time now; but now, she was him.

And she felt both excitement and trepidation at the prospect.

She had a thought in her mind constantly, as she ambled down the path, past the singles and couples bedecked in finery, taking in the view, that this youth was supposed to be a man. Behind the black pants and coat, the formal shirt and the black tie, the golden cuff links and buttons; behind all the accouterments of the finer class, Sylvano was not Salvatrice.

She could not afford to be seen through him after all this effort.

With the help of her personal maid, who even now was covering for her in the Academy as best she could, she had become Sylvano. She had bound her breasts flat, not much of an endeavor, and over time she had practiced a slightly deeper, more ambiguous voice. Her figure came largely flattened already, so the suit fit her slender frame well. She had even worn men’s underwear, and dyed her hair brown for the occasion. Appearance was not a problem.

It was all about attitude; but what was the right attitude expected out of a gentleman?

She put it out of her mind, pushing it deep down. She had a lady to meet for a dance.

Walking through the Previti estate was exhausting. Salvatrice, and in turn Sylvano, were not so delicate, but one of them had to expend a lot of energy to be the other. She had to costume herself, escape the Academy, and make it to the estate. Now she had to cross the gardens. Her constitution had never been too stout, and the preparations and acting took a lot out of her. But she had to be graceful — she could not simply stop and stand wherever.

Thankfully the Previti sisters stationed rabbit-masked maids in white dresses all along the fountains and gazebos with aperitifs and drinks in small glasses atop shimmering platters.

Near a hedge that was cut to the shape of a cavalry knight, one of the pretty rabbits offered her a drink, and Sylvano paused. He approached the woman and accepted the wine glass with an unreserved smile. Standing in the shadow of the green knight, against the red torch-light, gave Salvatrice a chance to rest and catch her breath while chatting up the maid.

“A lovely drink, thank you.” Sylvano said, after one careful sip. “Very full-bodied.”

“Thanks milord. It is a product of our own vineyards. While it is a comparatively young wine, it boasts taste beyond its years, like our fair ladies,” the maid replied. She was well spoken, and had either practiced her lines well, or developed a skillful way with words.

“Will both ladies Previti grace us with their wit and charm this night?” Sylvano asked.

“Yes milord. In fact it is they who planned everything from attendance to the masks to the decorations, and attire,” chirped the maid. “All is a product of their impeccable taste. Certainly they will attend the party — I believe they will even play for us all on the piano.”

Sylvano finished the remainder of the wine in a few delicate sips. He smiled to the lovely maid.

“I would not want to miss it; so I will make my way. I must say it has been a pleasure.”

She bowed to him, while perfectly balancing the food and drink on the platter in her hand.

Sylvano resumed his walk to the estate. The Previti Manor soon loomed over him, a monumental edifice to anyone staring it face to face. Red and gold carpet stretched down close to a hundred steps of staircase that led to the ornate double doors of the manor. Golden light filtered out of the doors and even through the closed curtains on the ground floor windows. Men and women, some alone, some in groups of friends, others coupled hand in hand, climbed the stairs with a casual admiration of the surroundings.

Salvatrice felt her strength waning again every dozen steps. Halfway up, she saw something that invigorated her, and Sylvano conquered the remaining steps in strength.

At the top of the staircase waited Carmela Sabbadin, heiress to the Antioch Fuels fortune.

Sylvano approached and took her hands, and she looked up with sudden recognition.

“I hope you did not wait long.” He said. Carmela saw Salvatrice right away.

“I’ve waited weeks. I can endure a few hours.” She said. She laughed delicately.

“I apologize for all of it.” Sylvano said. They squeezed each other’s hands for a moment.

Carmela was beautiful, always, Salvatrice knew no one in the world whose every aspect she loved as much as she loved Carmela. Her long, golden hair, and the way it curled a little at the ends; her honey-orange eyes and the way she blinked like a cat with a little grin on her face when she was satisfied; the way that she stood just a few centimeters shorter than Salvatrice, and tipped her head just a little to lock eyes; her ears, not as long or as sharp as some, but enough for the tips to peer charmingly out from under her hair; her soft lips with a little dab of red, and the laugh from them that was delicate and a little haughty; the perfect olive tone of her skin, her slender form evenly caressed by the sun. Salvatrice could have basked in her presence all night.

To the ball she wore her hair simply, and made up for it with the regal indigo dress she wore, with a long, ornate skirt but a bold bodice cut just above the breast, strapless and sleeveless, bound tight at her back. She wore a pair of matching indigo gloves, with black ribbon, and her mask was an indigo raven, covering half her face as Sylvano’s mask did. Around her neck she wore a gold chain with a purple amethyst that Salvatrice had given to her long ago.

People moved around them, but this was their moment. They didn’t exist anymore.

“My, my, mister,” Carmela sidled up to Sylvano almost nose to nose, “Filling your eyes before your hands,” she started to whisper, “or perhaps your mouth? Will I receive any satisfaction for the feast I’m offering your senses?” She traced a slim index finger down Sylvano’s chest.

“I am not Sylvano D’Amore for nothing.” Salvatrice replied, lips curled in an awkward smile.

Carmela backed a step from her, opening a little paper fan in front of her mouth.

“I hope Sylvano knows the ballroom responsibility of the one in the suit and pants.”

She flapped the paper fan across Salvatrice’s face teasingly, and extended her hand to her. Sylvano choked down the kind of giggle that such a gesture would have drawn from Salvatrice, and instead entwined her fingers through Carmela’s, and escorted her into the mansion.

Every hall of the Previti Estate was brightly lit by faux torches, the flame electric and surrounded in glass. Red and gold were common colors on carpets, banners, curtains. Scented candles added mystique and a decadent feeling to the environment. Hand in hand, Carmela and Sylvano climbed a spiral staircase to the second floor, and made their way to the ballroom the next wing over. Along the halls they found portraits of beast-headed men in suits, bird-headed women in dresses. There were stone busts of beast-headed people with savage expressions, in place of the statues of great artists that would normally decorate such a fine house. All these works of dubious art seemed to stare hungrily at them as they passed.

Male servants in the mansion wore wolf’s masks, while the female servants were all rabbits. They ushered the passing guests toward the massive ballroom. Alongside Carmela and Sylvano strode dozens other people in suits and ornate dresses. Everyone had a mask, but certain peer groups identified themselves quickly and reformed, and soon they moved together in their inseparable cliques and entourages. Sylvano could hear the women giggling at the decor, and a few more delicate among them expressing disgust or discomfort with it.

Enough about the Previti Estate had been rendered exotic and mysterious to satisfy the occasion, and yet enough remained familiar for an upper class youth to feel refined and unchallenged. Perhaps dimming the lights, perhaps earthier colors, perhaps a few aphrodisiacs on the platters, perhaps less sharp dress on the servants, less artifice in the decorations; such things might have added a more lusty and savage touch to this purported masquerade ball. But perhaps the purpose of the masks was never to titillate, to add danger — perhaps like in Salvatrice’s case, they were meant to keep everyone safer than they would be.

The Previti’s ballroom was enormous, containing a small stage offset a dance floor larger than the gymnasium at Salvatrice’s academy, a high roof with a chandelier that was decorated to seem a ghastly floating crown of thorns, bearing several faux torches. There was a gorgeous view of the property through the balcony, and several couples were already taking advantage of it. There were no tables for drinks or food. Servants carried everything. They flawlessly weaved through the guests to present their complimentary morsels. There was not yet any dancing — musicians on violin, flute and piano and were setting up and warming up.

“Come, Sylvano,” Carmela spoke the name teasingly, letting it roll slowly off her tongue, “I must dutifully report to the ladies of the house. I’m sure they’ll love to meet you.”

“Yes, I remember you saying they’re good friends of yours.” Sylvano said.

“I’ve only known them all my life.” Carmela said, giggling. “You could say they are.”

Carmela led Salvatrice now, and she beseeched a wolf-headed man to give them audience with the ladies Previti. Acknowledging Carmela, the man took a very formal tone with her, and treated her as if she too were a lady of the house, whose commands were to be followed. Dutifully he led Carmela and Sylvano through a side room, and into a tea room with several plush couches, a record player, a large radio, and even a television set, surrounding tables where cakes and cookies and tea had been set and sat seemingly untouched.

Sitting placidly in the middle were the Previti Twins, two women identical save for the way they styled their hair. Both had ivory-white skin, blue eyes and flowing black hair, sharp lubonin ears that curled very slightly at the ends. Both of them wore very similar red and gold dresses, modestly covering and yet quite ornate, bedecked with frills, with only a flash of the upper torso through a circular window in the bodice, lined with glittering little gems. One sister had her hair up with a bright red ribbon; the second wore long, tight ringlet curls.

The twins greeted them all at once, and their voices sounded exactly the same.

“Good evening, Lady Caramel!”

Carmela approached each sister, and embraced them a little from her standing position, exchanging kisses on the cheek. Then she returned to the side of her date, taking his arm and waving. Sylvano smiled, a little nervously, and dipped her head in a bow. Salvatrice thought she was the only one who called Carmela that nickname, but she guessed it must have been a common thing among her and familiar girls. The Previti Twins knew her longer than Salva.

“You look divine! You always wore the royal purple better than royalty!”

“And the way your hair curls into little twists at the end, oh, I’m so jealous.”

“It takes us an hour with a maid to get that effect. You’re a golden goddess!”

“Indeed! Indeed! It’s no wonder you were able to charm our good man here.”

“We were wondering when we would meet your handsome stranger!”

“And also whether he would make a good God for this goddess! Indeed!”

They giggled at once, and again there was no distinction between them.

“Oh, he’s perfectly ordinary.” Carmela said, giggling herself. “This is Sylvano D’Amore. He is the son of an architect; though he is more devoted to the study of people than structures.”

Salvatrice played along. She had no plans for a backstory, but of course, one was necessary. “I’m a sociology student. I hope to go into politics someday.” There was a pause between the two clauses, perhaps a clumsy one, but she committed in the end. This was a half-truth, more than an outright lie. The Previti Sisters looked over him with fond, amused expressions.

“You have a captivating voice, Mr. D’amore.” Said the ribbons sister.

“It is wasted on speeches!” laughed the ringlets sister. “You should take to the stage!”

“You can call me Sylvano. Mr. D’amore is so labored out of such pretty lips.” Sylvano said.

Again the twins giggled, covering their mouths delicately with the backs of their hands.

Carmela clung to Salva’s waist. “Aren’t you spreading admiration a little too far, Sylvano?”

“No, no! Don’t let this forceful evil girl quiet you!” Ringlets Previti said.

“Compliment us more please. Don’t leave us begging!” Ribbon Previti said.

“I’m sure Carmela would agree you are both stunning ladies.” Sylvano said.

Salvatrice wondered if Carmela was really jealous, but she was laughing along with them.

She gave Sylvano a look and a smile that said it was all fine. Salvatrice was not the best at picking up social cues, but she was at least capable enough not to panic from them. With that matter silently resolved they sat a table of sweets and tea across from the sisters, who took the time to introduce themselves. They stood momentarily and curtsied.

The young lady with the ringlets went first. “I’m Capricia Previti, younger by a few minutes.”

“And I’m Agostina Previti, older by a few minutes,” added the young lady with the ribbon.

They sat, and donned their masks in front of the couple — half-face masks covered in red and gold dyed feathers with little gold beak noses, like phoenixes.

“Full credit to this idea should really go to our lady Caramel. She cheered us on to do this.”

“Her own parents are so stuffy, otherwise I’m sure she would have done it, right Caramel?”

“Indeed.” Carmela said. “But I don’t think I would have managed such a colorful atmosphere.”

“It really is, isn’t it?” Capricia said. “It really gets the blood flowing. I especially like the masks I chose for the servants. Wolves and rabbits, it gives a sinister kind of atmosphere together, doesn’t it? Makes you think, ‘oh what strange things must go on the Previti house,’ no?”

“I didn’t quite want to imply depredation within our own house in such a way.” Agostina said. “But I allowed my little sister’s fancies to take flight, perturbed as I am by their content.”

Capricia gave Agostina a look, and the latter opened up a paper fan over her face.

“Agostina was in charge of boring things, like invitations and drinks, that take care of themselves.” Capricia said, her tone taking a hint of viciousness.

“One of your dear rabbits allowed me in despite the list.” Sylvano said. “I hope that will not be a black mark upon her character. I understand that you crafted a guest list and my attendance was a little last minute.” He looked at Carmela, who also covered her face with her paper fan.

“Oh you’re so considerate Sylvano.” Agostina said. “I knew when I created a guest list that it would be a little troublesome for our servants to keep it. So many fashionable people yearn for a chance to attend truly high class parties, it is the same way whenever any of us hosts anything. But we also know our servants are cautious enough to keep any riff-raff out. If someone charms one of our rabbits, surely they will charm us as well. You have proven it.”

Sylvano tried not to flush in the face. That might have been seen as a little too delicate for him.

“Hands off.” Carmela said. All the girls shared another synchronized bout of laughter.

“She’s very forceful Sylvano! You see this? We don’t blame you if you allow her reign over you!”

It was becoming increasingly difficult not to flush or wither under this sort of attention.

Thankfully the subject changed. Carmela and the twins started catching up on things, and Sylvano sort of faded into the background, an accessory to the conversation, offering nods and smiles, blowing the steam from Carmela’s tea for her, and listening to the women.

The Previti Twins were heiresses of a monumental shipping and trading dynasty founded on the ashes of old national industries, once belonging to coastal lords who fell from grace during the ascension of Queen Vittoria. It was a time of tumult, and many lords were destroyed for their opposition or opportunism — their positions were occupied by nouveau rich and petites-bourgeois, whose own opportunism was rewarded, forming a new class of nobility that was born not out of blue blood, but out of gold and silver bullion, and the favor of the Queen.

But the Previti family was dissatisfied with current events. Who wouldn’t be? There was a war on the horizon. Four days after the fact, the papers acknowledged the invasion of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice by the Nocht Federation. Swift victories were reported, and the strength of Nocht touted to all, but only the journalists took the news energetically. For most, it just added to their troubles. Almost the first thing touched upon after the sisters explained their positions to Sylvano, was a slight change in their fortunes.

“It’s been a little hard on father lately. A month ago we stopped being able to trade with the Ayvartans, and now with the Royal Navy refitting, there is low priority on helping us expand our shipping capacity and our fleet’s ability to sail farther out to Helvetia or northern Nocht.” Agostina explained. “And that is the most significant limit on our fortunes at the moment. More ships, bigger facilities; at the present we’re maxed out on profit-making if we can’t access the commerce on Ayvarta. It’s closer by, and they had a lot of product we wanted.”

“They were also communists, so this was bound to happen.” Capricia said, shrugging.

“Communists with abundant, cheap food and ore and fuel.” Agostina said sternly.

“Well, it is out of our hands, really.” Sylvano said. Salvatrice really did not know much about the communists, or even what they stood for. It was a problem she hoped to correct soon. As a student it drove her mad to feel such a hole in her pool of knowledge — particularly now that her country and its allies went to war with them. Ignorance was inexcusable.

So, in the absence of knowledge, she played Sylvano as a noncommittal party.

“I suppose it is. How has your papa been affected by the news, Caramel?” Agostina asked.

“So far, nothing’s really different. Far as I know, demand for fuel is growing but our fuel plants in Ricca have been more than able to meet it. Papa and I don’t talk much.” She replied.

“I’m sure the war will drive demand up. At least someone’s getting something out of it!” Capricia said, accompanied by a delicate laugh. Agostina seemed to cringe, and Carmela did not reply. Salvatrice found the statement rather sinister. Capricia did not seem to notice.

“On a lighter note, now that we’ve all got going; Carmela, dear, I don’t mean to impose, but I’ve been dying to know how you two met.” Agostina said. “In the most respectful of ways, this came as a surprise to me! I did not expect you to have a paramour so suddenly.”

“Paramour? Oh Agi, you’re romanticizing things too much.” Carmela said gently.

Sylvano looked between Carmela and Agostina with a somewhat helpless expression.

“Perhaps, but forgive me, I assume your father doesn’t approve.” Agostina said.

“He never approves of anyone!” Capricia replied. “He doesn’t even want us around.”

“Oh, come now Capri, he’s never said that at all.” Carmela replied.

“He doesn’t have to say it to mean it.” Capricia replied, wielding her own paper fan now.

Carmela sighed. “We just met at a little party one day, didn’t we Sylvano?”

“Indeed.” Sylvano replied. Salvatrice’s mind raced to flesh out the details in a way the twins would readily accept. She figured out quickly to play to their sense of dramatic grandeur. “I was there accompanying my father, who had done some work for Antioch Fuels. It was a small celebration in honor of a new facility. We saw each other from across the floor of the plant. I remember it like it was yesterday — we locked eyes, drinks in hand, distracted from the adult’s conversations. We kept each other company while our the company men and women entertained one another, and there was just something special. We both knew it then.”

Both sisters clapped their hands together and beamed. “Simply marvelous!”

“He remembers it far better than I. I just remember a boring company party.” Carmela said, clinging again to Sylvano’s side. She looked at him with curious amusement.

“I figured that it must have been related to your company in some way.” Agostina said.

“To think you’d meet someone under forty years like that. Or did you just age well, Sylvano?”

Sylvano smiled. “I’m afraid the men of my family don’t age gracefully. Enjoy while you can.”

The Previti sisters burst out laughing, and had to raise their hands to their mouths.

Carmela quirked an eyebrow and gazed quizzically at her suitor. She shook her head.

“After that we decided to keep in touch, and then to deepen that touch.” Carmela said.

“Of course.” Capri smiled back. “I assume a lot of furtive letter-writing followed.”

“You’re so well acquainted with courtship. Hiding anything from me?” Carmela said.

She looked at them like a viper, as though she’d found a flash of neck to bite.

“Oh dear, have I spoken out of turn?” Capri said, wearing an expression of contrived shock.

“Nothing so dramatic I’m afraid. She is simply very well read in romance.” Agostina replied.

“No, do not cover for me sister. I have a suitor to whom I send letters.” Capricia said, her voice taking a haughty tone. “It is true! Carmela read me, I’m afraid. I have been unveiled to all.”

There was a moment of awkward silence as Capricia puffed herself up before them.

“You might think him a suitor, but his own self-concept is up for debate.” Agostina said.

Both sisters eyed one another with evil intentions, then turned the other cheek at once.

Sylvano stayed quiet and tried to purge himself of expression. More than a conversation it almost seemed like a competition between everyone, humorous as it appeared. Salvatrice did not know whether it was lighthearted or not. She supposed this was the kind of thing long-time girl friends got up to. With the few friends she had made at the academy the topics were always books, and the conversation always slow and quiet. This was all quite new.

Thankfully she had a good sense with words to improvise her way through it.

After a half hour more of talking, they exhausted topics both soft and heavy. Then the Previti Sisters stood from the tea room couches and announced it was time they made their appearance. Carmela offered each of them a hug and a kiss on the cheek again, while Sylvano bowed to the two of them. Thus the couple left the room first, and rejoined the guests in the ballroom, before the Previti sisters entered from the stage door, behind the musicians. There was a round of applause in the room for the two hostesses, to which they bowed.

“Thank you! We hope you have been enjoying the refreshments.” Agostina said.

“But of course, you did not come here to drink, but to dance!” Capri added. “Gather up your courage, men, and seek the hand of a lady for the ball! Come on, you did not dress up to drink in a corner! Couple with another mysterious stranger. You’ve nothing to lose!”

“Our hands will of course be available as well.” Agostina said, winking coquettishly.

They walked down from the stage, and the musicians started to play. Around the room what looked to Salvatrice like hundreds of guests began to form couples for the dance. Salvatrice took Carmela’s hand, and with one arm around her waist, led her to the dance floor. Music played; the piano reigned over the other instruments, and the player was very skilled. He started slowly, and his violin and flute followed him loyally, but the tempo gradually rose as if with the emotion of the couples on the floor. But Salvatrice did not try anything daring. She was not even thinking much of her feet, and the movement on the ballroom was perfunctory.

It was not a dance to them. It was not technical. It was a chance to be together — to share in each other’s space, to be physical, to touch, to move in orbit. It was a standing bed. Fingers bit down on flesh like the teeth that longed to; eyes locked together like the lips that could not. A hand squeezed a hip or outer thigh, and the owner felt tempted to grip elsewhere.

Dancing only made Salvatrice feel suspended in the air. She felt as though in a freefall with her beloved, the gentle turns, the steps, all the traversal was a backdrop to the timeless space they shared. She made only one contrived dance move. When she sensed the artists were about to close one melody and transition, Salvatrice twirled Carmela and pulled her suddenly close, holding her tight. They held the pose, sharing in each other’s warm, agitated breath. There were no accolades for the twist, no spotlight on the lovers. They were still alone in their microcosm, in the middle of a hundred others perhaps thinking with the same restrained lust.

“I was about to beg you for something like that.” Carmela whispered.

Salvatrice smiled. Normally it was Carmela who took the lead. But, appearances, and all.

One performance melded into the next, until the music became an accompaniment to the gasping of their breath. Chandelier light played across flesh glistening with sweat. Salvatrice and Carmela held fast to one another. Gradually their lips brushed, their hands crept to where desired, and piecemeal their desires played out, across three dances, four, through centimeters of cloth, across exposed neck, over glossy lipstick, moistening hair, and glittering masks.

Carmela stopped first — she squeezed Salvatrice suddenly close, so she felt a bump against her bound breasts. She whispered, “Allow me a moment and a drink to recover.”

“Of course.” Sylvano said. Salvatrice restored his composure immediately.

For the first time since they met that night the couple broke. Carmela met with the Previti sisters again, who, from the impeccable state of their clothing and hair, seemed to have had lesser fortunes than Carmela on this night. Sylvano picked up a pair of wine glasses from a wolf across the room, and brought them back, weaving through the crowd in the middle of a song’s climax. When the two reunited minutes later, they proposed a toast, drank peacefully, and made small talk with the twins on the variety of dresses among the ladies — most of the men looked rather homogeneous and went uncommented on.

“Well, it’s about time we took the stage again.” Agostina said.

“You needn’t remain, Carmela — why not lead dear Sylvano on a little tour. You’re probably bored of our playing already, you’ve heard it so much.” Capricia winked at her.

The Previti Sisters took their leave, and in that instant Carmela took Salvatrice by the hand and led her out of the ballroom. She did not object or ask, she simply followed, through the hall straddling the ballroom, to a corner room. Carmela opened a door, and ushered her into a little gallery. Couches encircled a series of display stands, holding models of the Previti company’s famous vessels. Salvatrice barely got a glimpse at them, when Carmela pushed her against the wall, and kissed her. She pulled away, and Salvatrice felt her leg, the knee coming between Salvatrice’s thighs. Her heart was racing, and her breath choppy.

“What if we became just a little lost here, in the backrooms of the Previti Estate, just for a bit? Perhaps we drank too much. Perhaps in exactly 58 minutes, the sisters and their servants might pay heed and come look for us, and find us in an ordinary state here?”

Carmela pulled Salvatrice close to her, faces a millimeter away, brushing lips, exchanging sweet breaths. She wrapped her hands around Salva’s shoulders and nape.

“What do you say, Sylvano D’Amore?” She had a hungry-looking grin on her face.

Salvatrice inched forward, seizing Carmela’s lips into her own.

It was an arduous kiss, sucking, tasting. Salva’s hands traveled down Carmela’s breasts, pressing firmly, and slid down to her waist to her skirt. Carmela seized Salva’s groin.

Their heads withdrew for just a second, tongues tip to tip, basking in each other’s glow.

The walls brightened, and they became framed by light; there was an entirely different glow.

There were screams and a massive roaring of flame.

Over their shoulders the lovers watched the fireball erupting from afar.

Salvatrice and Carmela stood transfixed by the light.

A massive bomb, it had to be; and it had to have gone off right in the archway entrance.

“Messiah defend us.” Carmela whispered. Salvatrice seized her arm, and pulled her out the door. They hurried down the hallway and saw people rushing out of the ballroom.

There were guards coming up the stairs, pushing their way through the panicking crowd, but they looked utterly bewildered and helpless, pistols out but nothing and no one to shoot, and no direction in the screaming horde. Ladies tripped over their skirts trying to run, and men minutes ago dancing with them now left them behind in their rush to save themselves. Maids and servants were pushed out of the way and huddled in corners and locked themselves in rooms, in fear of both the crowd and the destruction visited upon the estate.

Salvatrice clung close to Carmela, and the two of them shoving and waded through the crowd against all instinct. They didn’t see the hostesses among the escaping masses.

They finally forced their way through to the double doors into the ballroom. Inside they found the place littered with broken glass and discarded food stuffs, smears of cake, platters flung against the nearest surface in the rush. They could see the fires from the balcony windows, but not the archway gate — it was gone.  A massive hole had been blown in the wall. Carmela found the Previti sisters hiding behind the piano and she and Sylvano joined them. Agostina and Capricia were on the verge of tears, and shaking as though in a freezing shower. Sylvano wrapped his coat over the two of them as best as he could arrange.

Guards entered the ballroom, gasping for breath, bent down and supporting themselves by their knees. Pistols in hand, they scanned the room though nothing relevant could be there.

“What is happening?” Sylvano asked. “We heard an explosion.”

“There was an explosion! It was at the gate! It was enormous!” Agostina said.

“Messiah protect us, could it be an attack? Like the massacre in Ikrea?” Capricia said.

“Shut up!” Agostina shouted, pushing Capricia against the wall. “Don’t say that!”

Sylvano and Carmela broke them apart. They looked about to swing at one another.

They huddled behind the piano while the guards rushed out to the balcony’s balustrade and hid behind it for cover. Brandishing their pistols they peered frequently over the edge.

Frightful minutes passed without another sign; no explosions, no gunfire.

There would be no massacre that night. It would not turn out like Ikrea. This bomb was not followed by a masked throng armed to the teeth and out for blood. It was only followed by enough silence for everyone to shrink back in fear of themselves and others.

But Sylvano knew that the Blackshirts would appear soon nonetheless.

“Carmela, I can’t stay any longer.” Sylvano whispered. “Blackshirts.”

Carmela looked him in the eyes. She was momentarily stunned, and a few tears drew from her eyes. But she wiped them off with her glove. She understood. This was not a night out with Sylvano D’Amore, an ordinary gentleman who could come and go as he pleased, talk to whoever he wanted, talk however he wanted, and stay by her side. Salvatrice Vittoria could do none of those things, not freely, not without consequence. She had to run from prying eyes to do anything. They shared on quick, final kiss, for anything more involved would’ve forced Salvatrice to stay; and Sylvano stood, and leaving his coat behind he started to leave.

“Where is he going?” Capricia asked.

“He needs to see things for himself. He wants us to stay here, where it’s safe.” Carmela said.

“How gallant.” Agostina said. Salvatrice could not tell whether it was sincere or sarcasm.

Outside the fire was brilliant, and the force of the bomb had put out many of the garden torches. Salvatrice joined the throng of people the servants were escorting out through the side gates onto the adjacent properties. The Blackshirts were not yet on the scene, but Salvatrice hurried nonetheless to escape whatever cordon they might set. Her mother could not know. The Queen would not harm her — but she would make life impossible to live. More impossible than it already was. She had already done so to one Princess and surely in that pragmatic regal mind there was space to punish the other for an indiscretion such as this.


 

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