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This chapter contains sexual content, strong language, and death.
44th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Nocht Federation, Republic of Rhinea — City of Junzien, Hotel Reich
“I barely ever get to see you anymore. I don’t even have a copy of your current schedule!”
Agatha was shouting into the phone. It was hard not to. She felt as though shouting would make her more real to him — that it would remind him that she was a flesh and blood human being, his wife, that she was not just another voice on the phone that Cecilia patched through to him. She was not just a signal crawling through wires from the Presidential Suite of the luxurious Reich hotel. She was the real woman laying on the double bed, her light pink flesh and fluffy white bath robes a sharp contrast on the red sheets, like a lone polkadot in a vast expanse. There was space enough for two of him in that bed, but she was alone.
He provided little comfort. “Honey, honey, it’s been hard, okay? This is hard too. I want to be with you. I was planning to be with you, but things are just turning out complicated, I’m having to be involved a lot. This has taken me by complete surprise, and I’m trying to–“
“Only because you’re a control freak who can’t delegate anything! You need to leave these matters to the people you hired and appointed! You’re not as perfect as you think you are Achim. For all you know, you could be making things worse for Cecilia and the others.”
“I’m trying to make time, okay? You know how I am, but I am making time for you.”
“On my end you don’t look to be making an effort at all to be brutally honest!”
She felt frustrated with his voice. He was doing that “pitching voice” of his — he would talk fast, he would add an affect like a salesman trying to sound more excited about a new children’s toy so that the bored parents on the line might perk up and buy it. She was not one of his customers. She was his goddamned wife. She reminded him by becoming ever more irate — the stronger her voice, the more threatening her own affect, the less he could keep pretending to be happy and perky. He would look ridiculous; he was ridiculous. Neglecting her, Agatha Lubitsch, who just today had a spot on the paper as the prettiest face in cinema!
“There’s some mountains even I can’t move!” He replied, trying to placate her with a sweet voice. “To win in Ayvarta we’re all gonna have to make some sacrifices.”
“Why did you even start this war? I can’t understand what we gain from this!”
She knew his reasons but she didn’t want to admit them. She felt that they could not be.
His tone of voice changed very slightly. He was becoming aggravated.
“Hey, how’s this sound; I want to win so your hotel doesn’t get fucking bombed by communists. So we don’t live in fear. You remember that day in the limo when the bombs went off? That was good times wasn’t it? I don’t know about you but I don’t want to experience that again!”
“Stop being so fucking sarcastic!” She shouted back at him. “I didn’t want to remember that.”
There was a heavy sigh on the line. “I’m sorry, doll, okay, I’m sorry. I’m really stressed out. I think I might have been given some real bad advice throughout all this and I promise you a few heads will roll, and then we can be together more, ok? Dietrich is already heading out there.”
She had to admit, that made her feel a little calmer. He was always serious when he sent Dietrich somewhere — it meant he was going to personally keep away from it and entrust everything to him. She felt both relieved and foolish. He had promised so many things. He was always promising. And yet she kept listening. Sometimes his promises came through, and it was almost like magic. These past four years with him certainly had more highs than lows. She’d remember all the beautiful things, and it seemed like his mistakes were mostly clustered in the recent past and could still be changed. They weren’t set into stone.
“Alright.” She replied. “Alright Achim. I believe you. I’ve got to hang up. I miss you.”
“You’ll see me on TV and the radio tomorrow, if you tune in. Wish me luck.”
“Goodbye, Achim.” She hung up. He didn’t even say ‘i miss you too.”
It didn’t even cross his mind.
She threw away the telephone receiver and lay back on the bed, stretching her arms.
Agatha Lehner pulled away her bright gold hair band and her wavy locks of blond hair fell over her face. Her whole body was still weary, her feet hurt from the pumps she wore, her eyes were cloudy without the spectacles she never wore while filming. When she closed her eyes she could see dancing lights from the cameras and the studio lighting, and hear the whining of the audio equipment, a tinnitus. She started turning Achim over in her head again, trying to probe him like a distant phantom, trying to find the driving force behind him. She still didn’t get it.
From the time she met him to the time she married him to the present; what was the end of his ambitions? What was it that kept him from just being by her side? What made a lawyer from Junzien college who had picked her up and bedded her on the first date after a bad pickup line and a completely sober evening become the president of the country? What made him lock himself in that office and dream of planes bombing another country into pieces?
And then, what drew her to him? Why did she want him so much back then; why did she still want him so badly? Where they just married on a whim? Did he just see her as a trophy?
She rolled over on her side and reached for a small, open bottle of wine, 2007 vintage, that was set on the dresser next to her bed. She thought of his betrayals and her own betrayals. She thought about need and want; about drive. Was there a point where everything went awry?
She raised the bottle of her red lips and drank right out of it. After a long pull of her lips on the end of the bottle, so much that it burned her throat, she fell on her back again.
Staring helplessly at the roof she turned over the question, turned it over and over and over. Agatha was bright, but the real answers to her questions were too raw to contemplate.
37th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2008 D.C.E.
Nocht Federation — Republic of Rhinea, City of Junzien
22 years before the Solstice War.
Achim Lehner stood by his father’s side and waited for the number thirteen train from Junzien to Citadel Nocht, the seat of the presidency and his current home. It had been his home for the past four years and he had waited for that train and its special silver car many times before. He was familiar with the raised platform of the train station, with the man in the ticket booth and his curly mustache, with the posters on the walls exalting the iron eagle and the tricolor flag.
On this familiar picture intruded the rifle-armed soldiers patrolling the station, and the crews of the anti-balloon pom pom heavy machine guns stationed on purposefully unused tracks. As Achim and his father arrived they saw men replacing the old water jackets around the 30mm gun barrels with new ones. One man kept a long scope pointed to the sky at all times.
Having no escort, and having spent much of the week isolated from the war, the Lehners had become a touch disconnected as to the latest events in Junzien. Achim figured that whatever had happened to necessitate this had happened in quite a snap; these preparations weren’t here a few days ago. Achim did not feel unsettled by them; he had a young boy’s fervent confidence in the actions of his Fatherland, and in this particular case, in those of his own father.
After all he traveled with Nocht’s own president — Nore Lehner glanced calmly over the men and the equipment. He tapped Achim on the shoulder, and together they approached a stray landser patrolling the platform. President Lehner spoked up. “Soldier; are we expecting an attack? I’m afraid I have not been appraised of such news quite yet, which worries me.”
Astonished by the appearance of the commander-in-chief, the soldier saluted stiffly, and he replied as though speaking to a drill sergeant. “Sir no sir! Just precautions sir! There were recent rumors of Frank attack balloons in the east sir! We want to be ready if true, sir!”
President Lehner smiled and patted the boy’s shoulder. For an older man, the President had sharp features, youthful for his age, and he looked strong and assertive. But his touch was gentle and his words slow and soothing. “At ease my boy. You needn’t be so tense.”
“Sorry,” replied the soldier, putting down his hand from over his forehead.
“No need to apologize, you have carried yourself wonderfully. What is your name?”
“Private Anschel sir. Rudolf Anschel,” replied the soldier. He was bright-eyed, clean-shaven, round-jawed, like the soldiers in the posters. Achim was impressed by his effects: grey uniform, ammo pouches, his pickelhaube helm with a stubby spike, and his full-length combat rifle.
“Private Anschel, I have the utmost confidence that if the Franks try anything sneaky you will send them crying back to the kingdom.” President Lehner said, looking him in the eye.
There was a spark in the Landser’s eyes. “Yes sir! We sure will! We’ll keep everyone safe.”
Nore Lehner patted the soldier on the shoulder once more as he and Achim walked past and stood again at the end of the platform. He watched them leave with fresh admiration.
In the distance they heard their train coming. Its gleaming silver cars pulled up to the station, dragged along by a big black and gray locomotive. In front of them the doors opened. The interior of the car was like a small dining room, with a booth table surrounded by a plush couch in a square frame, and a kitchenette where a young woman tended to some coffee.
An austere, bespectacled, gray-haired man sat on the booth, awaiting the President.
He nodded to the side of the table opposite him. Nore and Achim sat down with him.
Nobody talked until the train whistled got going again. The young lady set down coffee and soft bread for everyone, and sat in the kitchenette area away from them. Their cups vibrated gently on the table. Achim did not like coffee; nonetheless he took respectful sips of it every so often, swallowing the bitter draught. His father and the old man did not touch their cups at all.
“Something has happened for you to be here, Senator. I want to know.” said the President.
Senator Sultzer sat back on the table and sighed. He set his hands on the table and interlinked the fingers. He flicked his wrists, his square face implacable throughout the process.
“Nore, the congress is preparing a motion to midterm you. I believe that it will pass.”
Achim contained a gasp with a mouthful of hot, disgusting coffee in his cheeks.
President Lehner nodded his head to the Senator. “I understand Sultzer. Proceed.”
“Yes. I knew you would respond this way. In a way, I am grateful, though it also pains me.” Senator Sultzer cleared his throat, and began to speak in a higher, more official voice. Perhaps the woman in the kitchenette was meant to be a witness. “As a Senator of the 58th Congress of the Federation of Northern States, I am tasked with delivering to you, President Nore Lehner, both written and verbal notice of the motion to challenge your second term, and your rights with regard to this motion as the highest executive in the land and commander-in-chief.”
President Lehner nodded his head. Achim stared at him. His expression was stony.
“You will have 120 days to campaign against your opponent, August Kieselman. You are required to engage in at least one formal debate to be held three weeks before the election, and may hold other witnessed and recorded debates, as established by mutual agreement between you. You will continue to uphold the duties of the Presidency; if you are defeated in the contest you will remain in Office until the 50th of the Aster’s Gloom, where a transition period will begin that will end by the 30th of the Hazel’s Frost, when the new President shall be sworn in.”
“I understand and acknowledge. Thank you, Senator Sultzer.” replied the President.
Thank you? Achim was speechless. Here he was, under attack, and yet– thank you?
Senator Sultzer spread open his coat and drew a letter from the pocket. He handed it to the President. Tipping his hat solemnly, he and the young woman took their leave of the first family, and departed to the next car in the train. When the door shut, Achim felt rudely awakened by the sound. Everything that had transpired felt unreal, as though it had been performed by puppets and not men with fire in their souls and blood in their veins.
Achim tugged on his father’s sleeve, drawing his attention away from the empty table.
“Father, why didn’t you say anything? These men have declared war on you!” He said.
“No, they haven’t.” Nore said sternly. “They are performing their civic duty, Achim.”
“Their civic duty to make stuff up against you while you were out of town? Out of town talking to the people, making them comfortable! How dare they do this, Father?”
“You are overreacting.” Nore said. “What just transpired is the people voicing their discontent, as they should rightly be able to. We live in a democracy, these are legitimate procedures.”
Achim couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It was purely absurd to him. “That man isn’t the people! People, real people, touched your hand, and told you they loved you and believed in you! You told them you would keep them safe from the Franks and the Lachy and they applauded you! This happened just hours ago! You need to fight this, Father!”
Nore shook his head. He sighed. He turned around on the table and took Achim gently by his shoulders and looked directly into his eyes. “Achim, you are still young, and someday you will understand, but I implore you to listen. You have no right to be angry about this. This is our country working the way it should. I cannot fight it; I do not want to fight it. Because it is our country that I would be fighting. This is law, it is sacred; all of us will abide by the decision the people take on the Aster’s Gloom. Should they want me, I will know, and I will stay.”
Achim averted his eyes. He did not want to hear these words, he found them cowardly.
“Do you understand, Achim? In elected office we put the country above our own needs. We must preserve the values that make us Nocht, no matter what. This is a part of that.”
Though he nodded his head in acknowledgment, the boy secretly resented the idea.
“We must restrain ourselves. We must make sacrifices. That is what this office means. Should you ever aspire to any elected office, as I hope you will, you need to understand this.”
“Yes father.” Achim said. Truly, he didn’t understand it. His father had power and influence. He had money. Why was he letting these wicked men push him around? It just made no sense.
* * *
The Presidential Estate was a beautiful white villa a few kilometers from Citadel Nocht, set into the wintry forests to Rhinea’s north. It boasted a cylindrical main building three stories high and two long, rectangular two-story wings, fully encircled by four meter high perimeter fences. In the gloomy forest paths, the lights coming from the villa could be seen from quite a distance.
From the train station the first family took a private car north, first toward and then past the black, rocky hill upon which the eponymous Nocht Citadel was built, and through the wooded paths on the edge of the massive icy peaks of the Jotun mountain range. They drove leisurely through the woods, until Achim could see the dancing lights in the distance. They crossed thick, dark lines of trees, and a guard at the gates personally opened the way through the fence.
It was dark out; almost pitch black. In Rhinea the gloom was additive. Days were gray, and nights turned pitch black. Most of the estate lights were out, but the Foyer shone brightly.
The car rounded the unadorned front green of the estate and stopped at the steps leading into the foyer. Achim and Nore dismounted and quickly climbed the steps. Cold wind blew against them, snaking its way through any unprotected surface and chilling the flesh beneath.
At the top of the stairway the President opened their own door and he locked it behind them without assistance. Inside the broad and open foyer two older women waited for them with their heads bowed a dozen meters from the door; and an unfamiliar face waited with them. Beside their servants was a woman Achim did not know. She stood with the maids in the middle of the atrium, one hand behind her back, another extended before her.
Without hesitation his father approached the group. Achim followed, brow furrowed.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” President Lehner asked. He smiled fondly at the woman. He took her hand and kissed it. She smiled back, and bowed her head to him with respect.
Achim blinked. She was dressed in modest but fine clothes, a shawl made of fur, a long dress with plenty of embroidery. She had visible wrinkles, and thick streaks of white hair amid luxuriantly curled black locks; but what was most curious about her in his eyes was the dark color of her skin. She looked almost a glistening dark blue under the chandelier light.
“I’m afraid it is tragedy that brings about our meeting, Mr. President.” She replied. She spoke perfect Nochtish, same as anyone Achim had ever heard — there was not a hint of an accent.
Nore bowed his own head. He still held the woman’s hand. He raised his other hand in order to hold her with both at once. “My sincerest condolences; what is the status of the Empire?”
She sighed with grief, and she replied heavily, her words clipped halfway and almost blurted out through her teeth from then on. “The Imperial Authority has fallen, Mr. President.”
Achim looked to his father, and found the man’s eyes drawn farther than ever before. He saw the surprise and fear, the fallibility, of his father in a way that he could not remember ever having seen before. It made him afraid too, though he little understood the issues here.
“Makemba,” he drew closer to her and raised his hand to her shoulder to comfort her, “what do you mean by this? What has become of the family? What has happened to the state?”
Though tears did not escape Makemba’s eyes, Achim thought she was all but crying nonetheless. She was crying while dry of tears; her breathing quickened, she blinked her eyes rapidly, she wiped them, though they were dry. Soft sobbing interrupted her speech.
“The Imperial Family was slaughtered in their palace, Mr. President, and the state has collapsed. There is open rebellion in the Dominances, with a clear north against south divide. The Zaidi hold the greatest strength, including Solstice — and they committed the greatest atrocities to achieve that position. They murdered everyone but little Sarahastra.”
Makemba turned and gestured toward a side room. There was a door, cracked slightly ajar. It fully opened — from it strode a small, beautiful girl in long golden gown with a purple sash across her shoulders. She approached them with a neutral expression on her face. Achim’s eyes fixed on her and followed her every step from the door toward the middle of the atrium.
For a moment there was no sound in the room but the steps of her gilded, cloth shoes.
When she reached her servant’s side she raised her head. Her bright green eyes looked too keenly aware of the surroundings, as though she were examining everyone and everything. Her face stared straight ahead, but her eyes turned from corner to corner, from face to face. Everyone was staring at her suddenly but she seemed to have no reaction to this.
Next to the tall and stately Makemba, Sarahastra looked delicate enough to break with the wind. Her skin was a lighter shade of brown, and her features soft, her face round, her lips and nose thinner. Her black hair was tied into a circular, braided bun behind the back of her head, decorated with a golden chain studded with gems. She had a gem-studded choker and bracelets clipped around the sleeves of her dress, right over the wrists. Achim would have placed her in her early teens, his own age. Maybe 12 or 13; maybe younger, but he couldn’t tell with folks like her, he had never seen her kind much before. He could’ve told if she was Nochtish.
Nore descended to his knees, and he looked Sarahastra in her innocent eyes. He comforted her as well, rubbing her shoulders gently. At first he seemed to be in disbelief as to whether he was even touching her, whether she was really there. He stared at his own hands briefly as if caressing a phantom. When he finally spoke Achim was sure he heard a slight stutter at first.
“You are a strong girl, Sarahastra.” The President said. “I’m so sorry for what you have had to go through. No child should have to suffer that; and especially no child of your standing. I will do everything in my power to have justice for you, Sarahastra. But that is for the grown-ups to worry about. Me and Makemba have a lot to discuss; you should go with my son, Achim.”
The President looked over his shoulder, and bid Achim to come closer. The boy stepped forward without thinking, and he felt a little jolt when his father took Sarahastra’s hand and entrusted her to him, entwining their little fingers together. “Achim, play with her for a bit, show her around. This will be her home for a time; until some decisions are made.”
He gingerly pushed the children in their own direction, and urged them to depart for the east wing. Meanwhile he took Makemba’s hand, comforted her one last time and led her arm-in-arm to the opposite wing with the maids in tow. When the doors slammed shut behind them, they left a sudden silence, as if all of the air in the room had stormed out with them.
Achim and Sarahastra were left holding hands in the middle of the atrium, and for a moment Achim stood still, feeling the warmth in her hand, and fearing to look directly at her. She was a princess wasn’t she? He felt that same jolt down his spine whenever the word recurred in his mind, and whenever he recognized again that warmth from her hand — a princess.
“Gosh, I really hope Dietrich is here, and awake.” Achim said nervously, aloud, to himself.
He quickly noticed that the words coming out of him could be heard. In an unthinking snap he turned his gaze on Sarahastra, and met her bright, blinking eyes. He resisted the urge to evade again; he tried to smile. But there was just something disconcerting about being left alone holding the hand of an imperial princess. What was the proper etiquette here? He was stunned. This sort of thing did not happen in real life, this was all storybook material. Achim thought, who even had princesses anymore? He supposed the Franks did, but they were all awful!
“Um, hey, let’s go to the reading room. Ok?” He said. He grew tired of his own thoughts.
Sarahastra did not offer a peep to him in return and instead looking him up and down.
Achim felt stupid; she was from another country. She might not know Nochtish at all, even though her attendant could speak it. What did they speak in her country? What even was her country? He searched his head for it. Judging by her looks, maybe Occiden? No, it wasn’t–
“Bestätigend,” the girl suddenly said. Achim nearly jumped, but he held on to her.
So she could speak Nochtish! “Oh, well, ok then. That’s a weird word choice, you could have just said ‘ok’ or something, y’know? Do you understand me, um, Sarahastra?”
“I do. I speak your tongue.” She said. Her voice sounded rather sweet, but her pronunciation was just a little slow. “I am sorry I did not reply sooner. I was taken by your suit.”
“Um, thank you. It’s my Seventhday suit. It’s sharp.” Achim said. “Can you walk with me?”
Sarahastra nodded. Achim led her by the hand out the big doors to the eastern wing of the estate. Across dark hallways, flanked by snow-battered windows, through long lines of doors, and up a flight of stairs, the children traveled the eastern wing. Achim finally stopped in front of a door in the middle of the foremost hall in the wing’s second floor. He knocked on it.
“Dietrich, are you in there? Dietrich you must be! Open up, it’s Achim! I have company!”
In a minute the doors cracked, and a boy with bright hazel eyes and short brown hair peeked his head around it. When he opened the door all the way Dietrich stood perplexed at the threshold, holding a gigantic book under his right arm. He was a tall boy, just like his father, the estate guardsman. Normally he looked a little askew compared to Achim, but today it was like he had dressed for church, all cleaned up with a vest, long pants and a blazer.
Suddenly feeling the heat from the reading room chimney, Achim removed his coat and he tied the arms around his waist. He took Sarahastra’s hand and led her past Dietrich.
“I like her bracelets. Who is she?” Dietrich asked, following them.
“You’ve been here all day and you didn’t see her come in?” Achim asked.
Dietrich rolled his eyes. “Yes, because I’ve been here all day.”
“You didn’t notice how you got all those nice clothes? There was probably a reason.”
“I bet there was but I just didn’t really care. She looks sick though.”
Sarahastra briefly spoke up. “I am not sick, but thank you for your concern.”
“Do you need to lie down though? You’re lookin’ kind of gloomy.” Dietrich asked.
“Don’t be rude to her Dietrich!” Achim whispered in a fit of emotion.
“I am fine.” Sarahastra dispassionately interjected again.
Dietrich shrugged comically. “She says she is fine Achim.”
“You know who needs to sit down though? I do.” Achim said, sighing.
Though it was called a reading room, the room’s broad floor space, wide walls and tall ceiling contained only one sizable bookshelf. Since the Lehners moved in it was mostly a play-room for the kids. A large and open area had been set aside that was full of toys. There were tops to spin, airplanes that could be thrown and would fly a small distance, simple balls and sticks, pedal cars to run around in, little logs to build with, a chest of board games.
There were a few tables that played host to model trains and even to terrain that one could use to play toy soldiers — one of these tables could not be touched under any circumstances, as Dietrich had spent a long time setting up a big cavalry battle there and did not want anyone to mess it up. Achim led Sarahastra past this little monument, and pulled up a few large chairs with big fluffy cushions. Everyone sat down in a little circle. Achim let out a long breath.
“Dietrich, she’s a princess, her name is Sarahastra. Her country’s in trouble.”
“You’re the worst fibber, Achim, just look at you.” Dietrich replied.
“I’m not fibbing! It’s true! I could hardly believe it myself but it’s true!”
Dietrich looked at Sarahastra as if silently demanding an explanation.
“I think I am the Empress now. Everyone else has passed on.” Sarahastra said sadly.
Dietrich’s mouth hung. He shivered suddenly. “Messiah defend! Princess, I, I, uh–“
“Oh god,” Achim reached out and took Sarahastra’s hands. “I’m, I’m so sorry–“
She shook her head. “It is fine. I did not know my Father well. I was the daughter of his third wife. Mother died a long time ago. She did not have to see any of the deaths like I did.”
Dietrich and Achim froze up. Neither of them could think of anything to say that might possibly soothe the girl or even so much as enliven her. They simply took her hands and tried to silently comfort her, and to look concerned with her troubles. They squeezed her fingers in their own.
She smiled at them and squeezed their hands back. Neither of them knew how to take it. For a long and awkward stretch of time they were silent, staring at each other. She did not stop smiling. Something about it felt contrived to Achim, but at least she didn’t look so miserable.
“Um, well, I am Dietrich Haus. I, um, I like soldiers and maps and things.” Dietrich said.
“I am Achim Lehner. I’m the son of the President. I like planes a lot.” Achim added.
The Empress nodded her head. “I am Sarahastra Ayvarta II. I like to read stories.”
“What kind of stories?” Achim said. “We have all kinds of books here if you want to read.”
“I like stories about princesses and princes and knights; perhaps that’s inappropriate now.”
“W-Well, if you like those,” Achim stammered a little, “you’ll find a lot on the shelves.”
Sarahastra stared at them closely. She seemed amused by something. She held a finger to her lips and her eyes went up and down Dietrich and up and down Achim once again.
“Dietrich, I must say, you do look like a knight; and Achim looks like a prince.”
Achim was left speechless again. This time he did not quite recover from it.
* * *
Eventually the maids reappeared and broke up the children’s little circle. Dietrich, Achim and Sarahastra went their separate ways. Achim laid awake in his pajamas all night, staring at the ceiling and at the snow falling out the window. Before he had never heard another child say any word related to death, except perhaps in an emphatic, playful way — hunters killing drakes, wolves killing pigs, that sort of thing. When Dietrich killed him he just caught him and knocked him down in the snow when they played hunters and drakes. That was all it was.
He knew what it was like to lose people. He had lost his mother. But that was a long time ago and it was peaceful. He was a really little kid back then. He still believed, in that way one thoroughly believed anything one was told when young enough, that she was in heaven. That it was angels that had taken her, softly and gently, from the pain and illness of this world.
Sarahastra had seen someone die; her own family. And she just talked about it. It was scary. It was the intrusion of something too real into his world of make-believe, into his unending days playing with the guardsman’s boy and going out into town when his father wanted to.
To her it was like any other thing, she said it as easily as she complimented his good suit.
She even smiled! What kind of smile was that? It looked genuine enough. Was she really ok?
And she called him a prince. Was she just nervous? Was her mouth just spitting out words?
He rolled in bed, thinking about her; she was so strange, and yet, he felt like she had to be incredibly strong, incredibly smart, incredibly tough; he was mystified with her. She was not like any child he had met. She was incredible, in every sense of the word. She was important. He felt like a fairy had come and touched him and shown him magic in his mundane world.
Before he knew it, the sun was out again in the clearing. It was still gloomy — it was always gloomy at the estate. Over the forest the sky was always gray. But the bright white piles of snow everywhere made up for it. He could see that icy wonderland from his window even while lying on his bed. He had not slept at all that he could remember, but he did not feel tired.
In fact, he felt like playing, and he quite felt like playing with someone specifically.
He pulled a coat over his pajamas and put on a pair of boots without socks. Wrapped up, he ran out of his room. He had an idea of where they could be keeping Sarahastra. In a few minutes he was downstairs and running past a few of the guest rooms. He crouched and looked under each one, and found one door where the floor mat had been disturbed. He allowed himself in.
Like his own bedroom the guest room was sizable and Sarahastra looked very small in the middle of the adult bed there. She was sitting up against the backboard, wrapped up in blankets. Her hair was down — it was long and a little wavy. She smiled again at him. Her expression was nicer this time. She did not look so tired. Unlike him she appeared to have slept the night, and perhaps she had gained some more distance from her own terrors now.
“Hey, let’s go out and play.” Achim said. He climbed on the bed with her, and pulled the blankets off her head, like taking down the hood of a cloak. He tried to smile at her.
Sarahastra looked sternly at him. “I am supposed to stay here Mr. Lehner.” She said.
“Mr. Lehner? Ew. That’s my dad; call me Achim.” He pronounced it slowly. “Ah-kim.”
Sarahastra nodded. “Ah-kim.” She said. “I would like to go see the snow, Achim, but I do not know if I am allowed to do so. I think the adults would rather I stay indoors today.”
“Aw, to heck with ‘em.” Achim said. “What are they gonna do? You’re their boss now.”
“I am their boss? Really?” Sarahastra crossed her arms and tipped her head to one side.
“You are! You said it yourself, you’re the Empress. That’s even more important than my dad, he’s just the President. People can just vote him out; heck they’re already doing that.”
“They are? That is dreadful; he seems like a very nice man.” Sarahastra said.
Achim felt a little aggravated with the idea. “Sometimes not enough, sometimes too much.”
He took Sarahastra’s hands again. “Come on, lets go play. We just need a coat.”
“Well, if you say so; I am trusting you with this, Achim, because you seem reliable.”
“I don’t think you’re a good judge of that, to be totally honest.”
“Oh, but I am. I meant everything that I said about you. I can just feel it.”
She followed him off the bed. Once all the blankets were off her he found she was dressed in a set of pajamas much like his own, with long sleeves and long pants. Good. All she needed was a coat, and they found an ill-fitting one in the guest room closet. Bundled tight, the princess followed the president’s son down the halls and out through a side a door. A trio of big stone steps led into an ocean of snow. Sarahastra was hesitant at first, but plunged in after Achim.
“It is cold out here!” She said, shivering, but with a smile. Achim laughed with delight.
“That’s what’s great about it though!” He said. “It really wakes you up!”
They trudged through the snow and around the back of the estate, Achim promising Sarahastra that she would get used to the cold and that it would be fun once they found Dietrich. He knew where he would be on a sunny, snow-covered day. Like the front of the Estate, the back was mostly featureless aside from a statue of Gunther Von Nocht and a few trees that were allowed inside the fenced perimeter on its edges. Near one of those few trees they found a large pile of snow with a slit carved through it, and a pair of eyes peering out at them from inside.
“I made a pillbox.” Dietrich shouted. He was always up earlier than anyone else. He got up when his dad started his shift, and his dad was up with the sun since he was the guardsman.
Achim crouched, gathered up snow into a ball, and tossed it at Dietrich’s little fortress.
“Not gonna do anything with that, you’re gonna need a 5 cm gun or bigger.” Dietrich said.
Sarahastra crouched, gathered up her own snowball and threw it at the fort as well. Dietrich’s slit collapsed from the strike, forcing him to stand up and break through the roof of his little mound. He laughed and threw his own snowball, falling short of Sarahastra’s shoes.
“You’re gonna need to brush up on that aim soldier!” Achim replied, laughing also.
Conspiratorial grins adorned every face; the children crouched, gathered up snow and started an impromptu snowball war. Sarahastra was pelted in her hair, Achim took two balls at once to the chest, and within moments Dietrich was almost buried again in the remains of his fort. Running and jumping and ducking projectiles, taking cover wherever they could, the children laughed and protested jokingly whenever hit and pretended to keel over when tired. They their arms in the snow, making shapes. They dug into the powder like snakes or worms.
Soon everyone was covered in snow, it was on their coats and shoes and in their hair.
They laid on the ground together, holding hands, breathing heavy between bouts of laughter, and Achim felt a great comfort in seeing Sarahastra smiling and laughing. He thought to himself that whatever happened next, maybe there was a way he could come out smiling.
“Strange. I no longer feel so cold!” Sarahastra said, beaming cheerfully at the boys.
She picked up a big clump of snow and tossed it overhead and it rained down on them.
“I told you!” Achim said. “After a while you just get used to it. It becomes natural.”
She smiled at him, and she raised her hands to his shoulders, and sidled closer. She touched her forehead to his own. Achim was stunned; his cheeks and ears turned a bright red.
“Thank you for your kindness to me Achim. I thought I would never see another happy child again. I felt like there could not have been a place without misery left in the world.”
She remained there, embracing him, and he embraced her back while Dietrich stared.
“N-No problem. I am glad you feel happy. H-Hey um, um, want to climb the big tree?”
Sarahastra backed a few centimeters away from him, their eyes meeting, still close.
“I would love to.” She said. She got up before him, and helped him to stand.
The three of them approached the big tree closer to the fence. There were planks nailed to its trunk, and a few nailed between its branches, just under its thick canopy of snow-covered marcescent leaves, where the kids could sit. Dietrich climbed up first, showing everyone where to step. Achim went second, and he urged Sarahastra to stick close to him so he might reach down if she fell; but she had no trouble. She deftly took the handholds, and pulled herself up to the plank with the boys. She whistled; they had a great view of the lawns from 5 meters up.
“Never seen a girl climb that well. You’re not scared at all?” Dietrich asked, swinging his legs in mid-air. Achim started to reprimand him but the princess interjected too quickly.
“No. I could have told beforehand if I was going to be hurt.” Sarahastra replied.
She swung her legs happily on the tree while Dietrich and Achim stared in bewilderment.
“What is that object up there?” She asked, pointing up into the canopy.
Achim looked up. He saw a thin wooden toy stuck in the branches.
“Oh, that’s one of my gliders. I threw it from the roof and it just coasted down there.”
“You should get it back.” Sarahastra said.
“No way, it’s hard enough getting up here.” Dietrich said.
“He will not be hurt, I promise you.” Sarahastra said.
Achim peered overhead. There were a few good branches to step on, but they had never laid any handholds that far up, so he would have to grab and pull himself up by the tree.
“You really think I can get it?” He asked.
“I know you will get it.” Sarahastra said.
The boy craned his head toward the canopy once more, and carefully he stood up on the plank. Dietrich shook his head and waved his arms as if to signal him back to the ground, but Achim lifted his leg onto a branch and reached overhead. He started to climb but froze up; he had one leg on a branch, two hands holding higher branches, and one dangling in mid-air.
“Do not stop! You will reach the top and you will not be hurt, trust me!”
Sarahastra’s voice compelled him forward. He saw his plane just a few meters up.
Achim pulled himself up, standing on the higher branch he reached.
He saw no other branches near him that he could use — so he jumped.
His chest hit a branch and he curled his arms around it.
Pulling himself up, he stood on that one, and seized another set just above him.
Finally he was on the level of the plane. He reached out to the leafy little branches holding it, and he took the object in one hand and pulled it close. Then he sat back against the tree, in awe. He had his plane back, and he was high enough up that he could see on the roof of the estate’s central structure, and he could look out over the fence spears and into the gloomy forest.
Triumphantly, he threw his plane and he watched it fly on the cold winds, down from the tree, in a circle around the back yard, and coming to land right in front of the statue.
Dietrich stared up from the planks in awe. Sarahastra waved. Had she really known so certainly? Achim was so high up that he felt like he was flying. He stretched out his arms and he laughed. To think that this seemed so daunting and impossible just a few minutes ago.
Then he saw a maid in the window; she pointed; she shouted.
* * *
“What were you thinking, Achim? I thought I taught you sense, boy!”
There was a massive portrait in the room of Lenore Von Fiegelmann, dearly departed wife and mother. She looked like she was watching the family drama disapprovingly. Only Achim looked her in the eyes. Nore paced and paced as if he wanted to distract himself from her sight.
“You could have been hurt! Sarahastra could have been hurt!”
Nore’s office was massive; there used to be a lot of portraits there, but now there was only one hung. She had left the world when Achim was very small. All he had left of her were pictures, and vast sums of money that she had declared to be exclusively his. Innocent that he was he never thought about why his mother might have denied his father any of her wealth.
Innocent that he was, he listened whenever his father told him about restraint, about covetousness, about keeping those vaults sealed up and living judiciously, on his own means. He didn’t think that perhaps it was a way his father tried to take back control. Instead, like now, he bowed his head, and he watched his father pace the room, stern, but with a gentle voice that made him appear amicable. He took his father’s advice to heart, on most days.
“I understand your desire to include her in your activities, but she is a special child, Achim. Your generosity cannot reach her. You are only troubling her. You may visit her briefly and wish her well but I insist that you give her distance. Are we clear about this?”
But he felt angry in that instant. Behind his back, he closed his fists. Achim didn’t know why his father was denying him this. He just could not understand. Everything else made sense, but was playing with another kid so wrong? He liked Sarahastra. He wanted to be with her more. She had a way with words; she was interesting! She made him feel really good.
“You are a good child, Achim. Please behave; please think about your actions. Moderation is important. It is paramount. Hold your indulgences back, or they will overcome you.”
He started to hate it when his father became like this. There was a nascent anger, building and building. Little statements that tasted like vinegar flooded his mind. He denies me everything; he’s always like this; he’s such a spoil-sport; he doesn’t understand anything.
Nore patted him on the shoulder and stroked his hair. He sent the boy on his way.
Achim hardly listened to his praises. Head down, he kept tasting the vinegar.
Whether or not Nore wanted him to, Achim was going to see Sarahastra again. He owed her that, he thought. She was so nice, and it was not fair to keep her holed up after all she went through. Whatever Father said; whatever her Guardian said; he wanted to play with her again.
23rd of the Postill’s Dew, 2014 D.C.E
Nocht Federation — Republic of Rhinea, City of Junzien
16 years before the Solstice War.
It was a new year at the Seminary of Saint Romagna, but the same old intrusions.
His father and Makemba had sent Sarahastra to a Messianic seminary to complete her education. They tried to be diplomatic about it, telling them they could see each other on holidays. Over time both their guardians had grown weary of the orchestrated rendezvous that the two teenagers had every few weeks or months or whenever an opportunity arose. Really this course of action had been taken entirely because they thought it would limit them further.
They were utterly mistaken. Nore had clearly forgotten two things 1) the Von Fiegelman inheritance from his wife’s side of the family had all gone to Achim, by her own wishes, and 2) that marks could solve any problem. Achim dropped a few notes at the seminary gate and he had the run of the place. It was a dismal little college on the southern countryside of Junzien.
A broad open field split the campus. A few gabled dormitory buildings stood to one side, and the square school buildings stood to the other. At the end of a long trail downhill there was a barnyard, stacks of hay, grazing cows and clucking hens near a rushing little brook.
It felt confining. It was apart from civilization. It was like a little prison for young girls.
That was part of it too; a prison. Because President Kieselman and the Congress had recognized the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. Nore wanted Sarahastra to give up on her claims now.
But Achim knew she was not giving up on that, and she was not giving up on him either.
Just before the dawn they met near one of the barns, the gate guard having agreed to look the other way. Achim took Sarahastra in his arms and kissed her, briefly but passionately.
Sarahastra smiled at him charmingly. If he knew her, then that preternatural intuition of hers had prepared her for this. Who knows; perhaps she could even taste the kiss ahead of time.
“You naughty boy; you’ll never be president if you sneak around like this.” She said.
“I’m sure plenty of presidents have done worse than this.” Achim replied.
They both laughed together. Standing behind the barn wall, they held each other closely. This is what they had to do; theirs was a secret love. It felt romantic, and there was never a dearth of excitement — every time they saw each other’s faces after a few weeks or months, the ensuing kiss felt like the very first. They had greater impulses, sometimes; but they were patient.
They walked around the side of the barn, down a little hill toward the brook, watching the chickens and cows. Sarahastra was modestly dressed, with a cream-colored shawl and a long blouse and skirt. Her hair was tied into a simple braid. He jokingly compared her to a nun.
“You say that, but there are women here looking to become nuns.” She said.
“By their own will?”
“You’d be surprised.”
“Have you given it any thought, my virtuous maiden?” Achim asked teasingly.
“I’m too much of a sinner for that.” Sarahastra replied, waving her hand dismissively. “But I might change my name. It might help my prospects in the future.”
Achim promptly changed the subject. “So what are you studying here?”
“General things. Arithmetic, literature appropriate for girls. Poetry. Bird-watching.”
They looked at each other and chuckled at the absurdity of it.
“This is really more of a place to seclude your rebellious daughter until you’re ready to cart her off to some rich boy, than it is a school. Some girls here have very sad stories.”
Achim shook his head. Had he been able to knock down the walls and take her out he would have. He couldn’t, not right now, but he would someday. He knew that he would.
“So that’s what Makemba wants you to do now? Give up the throne, find a husband?”
“Perhaps. She’s got a storm coming if she thinks that will happen.” Sarahastra said.
“My father keeps pushing me to go into law. I have barely any motivation to do it.” Achim said. “This is all his ideas; I don’t really care about it. I don’t know what to do, to be honest.”
“Didn’t you want to be President, like him?”
“That’s just the dreaming of a foolish boy. How does one even become President?”
“From what I’ve studied so far, it’s a combination of charm and money.”
Achim chuckled, a bit bitterly. “I guess I’m set then.”
“Also a little ruthlessness.”
“That’s more Dietrich than me.”
“You could stand to have a little more. It’s appealing in a way.”
“Unlike him, I’ve got nothing to be ruthless about.”
Sarahastra stepped out in front of him suddenly and they almost bumped their faces together. She had her hands behind her back and a solemn look on her face. She stared directly into her eyes. He could see himself in the green, they were so close. His golden hair, pink-pale skin, sharp and angular features — he was almost like the opposite of her in form.
“I had a vision again, Achim.” She said solemnly.
He blinked. “What did you see?”
She leaned in and kissed him, taking his lips into her own.
He felt her tongue enter his mouth, and he stood transfixed, holding her by the waist.
They kissed until the breath left them, and they parted.
She raised her hands to his shoulders, and stared deep into his eyes.
“I saw a great hunger in you, Achim. Ambition and power and strength. You’ll be surrounded, beloved, revered even. You might not see this in yourself now. But you will.”
Achim smiled at her, staring fondly into her eyes. To him those voracious portents sounded sweet and affirming. Sarahastra had a way with abstractions and metaphor.
“What about you, Sarahastra? Did you see anything about yourself?”
“I did. I’ll be right there with you, Achim. Just as voracious and indomitable.”
He would not foresee the chain of casual events that would spawn from that point; of growth, of change, each instant natural by itself but secretly interlocking in a wrought iron chain lashed across the entire world. He could not foresee in just the way those words would unfold.
To him, it was just her encouragement, the words that gave him the courage to climb that tree as a child, the words that gave him the courage to go against his father’s wishes.
45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2025 D.C.E
Nocht Federation — Republic of Rhinea, City of Junzien
5 Years Before The Solstice War
“Whoa, jeez, now I know why they call you people movie stars!” He said excitedly.
Agatha looked him over, an eyebrow raised. “Oh, and why do you say that?”
Achim Lehner smiled at her. “You’re shining so bright I’m going blind over here.”
Agatha burst out laughing. Everything from his delivery to the way his lips curled into a little grin after speaking, suggested that he was deadly serious. This was him turning up the charm. She giggled girlishly in his presence, and he was thoroughly unfazed by it. He continued to smile and his eyes were looking her over confidently. None of his facade was shaken.
“Thanks, thank you! I only play big venues; but I’d do your birthday, doll.” He continued.
“You have quite a poker face.” Agatha replied. She raised her hand delicately over her lips.
“Not too shabby about the cards part either; I tend to win.” He replied.
“And do you think you’ve won here yet, Mr. Lehner?” She pressed him.
“Well, I don’t consider this a game, not with my eyesight on the line.”
Agatha nearly burst into laughter again. “I see. You’re persistent.”
“Oh, don’t get the wrong idea, you want me gone, I’ll leave. I don’t want to burn up; I’ve got long term plans for these peepers, let me tell ya. Would be mighty inconvenient.”
She giggled again. She couldn’t believe how much she wanted him around at the moment.
Perhaps he was that good; or perhaps he was just lucky. They were at a social to celebrate a new film, and he was the only interesting face in the crowd. Her fellow actresses and some of the crew were the only other young faces in a small crowd composed mostly of investors and industry big-shots with grey hair. Lehner was the youngest-looking man in the crowd. She knew him a little; he was one of the financiers for the film, because he was interested in talkies. He was interested in the technology behind it, being able to have a movie with voices.
So he dropped a lot of money; enough money he got to walk on the set and look at the cameras, and he got to shake everyone’s hands, including her own, and talk to them briefly.
Now the film was done, and everyone was celebrating. Of course he would be here too. He had a lot of money to his name, and he had put that money, and his name, on this film.
When she started to notice him, she realized that, silly lines aside, she found him handsome. Slicked-back golden hair, interesting and angular features, bright eyes, and a dimpled smile. He had a lean and attractive build. He didn’t look athletic, but he took care of himself. He was older than her, maybe by five or six years, and she was barely twenty-five herself. She thought him kind of slippery, like a gangster in a movie, a flashy smile and a covered knife. His name vaguely reminded her of something, but she didn’t know; she started filling in blanks.
Perhaps he was that good; or perhaps it was just her fancy. But she didn’t recoil from him.
Agatha smiled at him. “I will contain my incandescence near you, Mr. Lehner.”
Lehner mockingly wiped sweat from his forehead and chuckled lightly at himself.
She rolled her eyes visibly at him, but she didn’t ditch him quite yet.
“So what brings you into my orbit, Enyalio?” Agatha said. She was smarter and better read than the girls he tried his stupid lines on — and she wanted him to know that up front.
“Well, I noticed you’re both alone and not drinking, and I can relate.” Lehner replied.
Again, he was thoroughly unfazed. He treated her very casually still.
“Well, I am unafraid of being by myself; and my family wasn’t the drinking type.”
“Ha ha! My family were like goddamn monks; it was exhausting.”
Agatha prodded his chest with her index finger. “Are you an obedient boy then?”
“I’ve done my dad so many behind his back, I figure I should be good sometimes.”
“Indeed. My whole career is like that; so I have a lot to make up for.” Agatha said.
More people started to arrive, but compared to Lehner they felt like the same old. Hand-in-hand they navigated the party, soaking in all the jokes, the boasts from the financiers and the actresses, the declarations that this film would practically shake the theater-goers for their extra pennies. They navigated it all right out of the apartment the party was held in and to a balcony, under a light snowfall, overlooking the streets of Junzien. At night, the world below them was a succession of tiny, colored lights, and shadows flitting about beneath them.
Unprompted, Lehner removed his coat and draped it over her shoulders. She shot him a look, but he was already staring over the guard rails and smiling at nothing in the distance.
He looked dreamily out into the distance, as if entranced by something. “It looks perfect, like you carved it out of a rock. It looks powerful; brutal. Look at how it’s grown, goddamn. Makes you wonder about yourself. How have the buildings gotten so huge, and you haven’t?”
“Probably because I don’t have a crew of burly men putting cement around me.”
“Hah! True, too true! People are built up a lot more haphazardly than a skyscraper.”
“I can see what you’re saying, however.” She searched the coat he had dropped over her, and hit the jackpot, as she expected — his lighter and his cigarettes. They were even mint-flavored. “A distance like this evokes feelings in the extreme. So I try to keep from staring too hard.”
“Indeed.” Lehner looked sobered up, brought down from his imaginings. “And behind that dark beauty, the city’s not doing so well these days. Neither is the country for that matter.”
Agatha looked on. She was pretty connected with the news on most days. She always read the paper and listened to the radio when she could, just to have something to talk to with all the people she was expected to meet with. Though she wanted to disagree with Lehner, she couldn’t find a way to make the outlook sunnier. There had been bombings, and big union strikes and lockouts, and there was tension with Ayvarta over the independence of Cissea and Mamlakha, wherever those countries were. Outside the world of film, things looked dark.
Still, her natural instinct with people like Lehner was to be charmingly disagreeable.
“Have you room to talk, hun? What have you done for the world lately?” She said.
Lehner laughed. “You’re right, I haven’t done much. But I’ve got big dreams.”
She grinned. “I hope your ambitions are loftier than just producer credits.”
“You like your men ambitious?” Lehner asked, grinning back like a fox.
“I think men are a waste if they aren’t.” Agatha said saucily, admitting to nothing.
Lehner laughed. “Good call; hey, how’s this sound. I’m gonna run for President.”
Agatha burst out laughing. “Will you woo the nation with your pick-up lines?”
He faced her and looked her seriously in the eyes. She raised her head defiantly to meet his.
“I’ve got a trade secret; but you can stick around and find out, doll.” He said.
His fingers tapped on her shoulder childishly. She thought he might lean in to a steal a kiss, but he did nothing. Nothing but lock with her eyes and grin right in her face. She grinned back in retaliation, broke off from him, and settled against the guard-rail on the balcony.
Lighting one of his cigarettes, blowing a cloud into the cold, Agatha Lubitsch smirked.
“I just might take you up on that, Lehner. I feel a little more rebellious than normal.”
Maybe everyone else was too boring that night; or maybe she really believed him somehow.
She accompanied him to his door and then his bed. There was certainly something there.
10th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2028 D.C.E
Nocht Federation — Republic of Rhinea, City of Junzien, Hotel Reich
2 Weeks Before 2028 Federal Elections
2 Years Before The Solstice War
“I’m begging you pops, don’t do this to him. Don’t do this now for messiah’s sakes.”
“I’m doing what I should have done and instilling a tougher discipline on a wanton child.”
Dietrich stood on the far end of the room. He was dressed in his grey jacket, his peaked cap, his iron eagle, ring cross and General’s pins prominently on his chest. Around him the suite was very dimly lit, and the seemingly perpetual snowdrift of Rhinea battered against the windows and darkened the night sky. Though unbowed, Dietrich’s had a grim expression; his hands were closed into helpless fists at his sides; drops of melted snow shook off his heavy shoulders.
At the window, Nore Lehner gazed down at the snowy streets, packed with people. Taxi cabs came and went to the Reich, dropping men and women of high society who had come to hear the elder statesman give his presidential endorsement. Nore remained where he stood; the only thing he deigned to show Dietrich was the bald spot on the back of his head, ringed by thinning gray hair. He was only half-ready for the big night ahead, his tie still discarded, his shoes on the floor, his shirt and vest unbuttoned and wrinkled. Dietrich had practically ambushed him.
“Why did you even come here Dietrich? Shouldn’t you be in the islands?” Nore casually asked.
“I returned because I got wind of what you were going to do.” Dietrich said.
Nore shook his head. He lifted a cigar to his lips and lit it up. His reflection flashed briefly in the darkened window. When he spoke he seemed to muse to himself. “Ah yes, Mary, betraying me again. Despite all that I have done for her, that girl has never respected my wishes. Was Achim with her when she told you this? By any chance did you catch them in bed?”
“You’re going way too fucking far with this.” Dietrich said. “They might be afraid of standing up to you but I’m not. I’m not your child. I’ve watched you disrespect them enough already.”
Nore scoffed. Respect? His aimless and disgraceful child deserved no such thing. He had gone behind his back in every possible way. He had betrayed every confidence that had been given to him and now he expected everyone to be silent about his behavior? He could use his mother’s inheritance and his movie stocks to bludgeon others. Not his own father. He had forsaken his career in law, he had married some floozy actress on a whim, all the while taking Mary as well against his wishes. Every disgrace he could think of, that boy had committed.
“Stand up to me how, Dietrich? Will you beat me up like Achim’s men beat up Schlegger for digging too deep? Will you dig up dirt on me like he did to the bishop so he could have him by the sleeve? Will you try to buy my endorsement like Achim’s so-called organizers do in churches and colleges? I’m just an old man now, Dietrich. Your tricks don’t work on me.”
Dietrich’s fists started to shake. “God damn it pops, you can’t do this! After all this time you want to be the first one to put a dagger behind his back? What do you think this solves?”
“I feel death coming, Dietrich. My child needs to be taught a lesson before I am taken.”
“Taught a lesson in what? How much he failed to become exactly like you? That’s the problem, isn’t it? You kept barring him from everything he wanted; now that he’s realizing it–“
“Achim’s ambitions are a disgrace to this country.” Nore said, raising his voice. He sounded sore, but his sore voice was ready to carry his justice forward. He was not turning around. He did not deign to give Dietrich a look at his wizened, weather-beaten face. “Dietrich, you are blind to him because you love him, but he is my son. I know his barbarism. Achim is a wanton beast with no respect, nothing but naked greed. He is not fit for this office and he never has been. I will not let him ride my surname to power to satisfy his frivolous desires.”
“Then I hope part of your speech involves taking responsibility for him.” Dietrich said coldly.
“He strayed from being my son of his own will just as he has strayed from this country’s ideals of his own will. All he believes in are marks and guns. He is a thief, a liar and a gangster. Our country will never recover from the poison he is seeping into our politics unless he is–“
“Look around you.” Dietrich said. He hadn’t moved a step from door of the hotel suite. “None of this happened overnight you old fool. You think Achim is only doing this to piss you off? He smells the blood in the water, everyone does. Our country is falling. We are dragging out wars, throwing away money and losing respect in the world. Achim knows it is because of men like Kantor who have no ambition, who think everything will resolve itself if you close your eyes–“
“Do not speak this disrespect, boy.” Nore shouted, interrupting Dietritch. He finally turned around, and he raised his arm and pointed sharply at the younger man as though his jabbing index finger would fly across the room and stab him. “You serve under President Kantor. Or did you just join the army in the hopes of being Achim’s dog one day? Has he brainwashed you so thoroughly that you cannot see the blind, deathly hunger behind his every action?”
Dietrich smiled suddenly. He laughed. He shook his head. “He has what you never did; ambition. And that’s what scares you. You always rolled over. Achim claws at his cage.”
“You are hopeless.” Nore said. “I do not wish to speak you, now, or ever again. Soon I will leave the world behind and I will never have to consider how great my failures here have been.”
Dietrich shook his head. “Then I only hope you leave the world soon.”
Nore narrowed his eyes at him. Dietrich turned around and promptly left the room.
Then came a wrenching pain, almost as soon as the door swung shut.
Around the room the shadows deepened. His vision swam. He felt as if something was burrowing through his chest. Heaving for breath, unable to stand, the ex-President fell to the ground. He flailed his arms and tried to crawl, clawing at the carpet while gasping for air.
From the outside the door locked. As his senses left him, Nore heard several pairs of footsteps. Were Eintz and Schapel in on this too? Everything was fading. Shadows everywhere.
Achim, he thought, as the shadows overcame him.
When did you stop listening? Why?
44th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Nocht Federation, Republic of Rhinea — City of Junzien
Chocolate prices were becoming outrageous these days; Cecilia Foss grumbled silently to herself as the sweet shop owner fussed with her gift wrap behind the counter.
She couldn’t believe it was fifteen marks just for chocolate hearts in a gift box.
“It’s because you import it, right?” Cecilia asked. “From Kabau. So it jacks up the price.”
Her Frankish accent was noticeable regardless of how much played it down, and it drew the man’s attention for a moment. But he made no point of it except perhaps in his own mind.
“Yes ma’am. Shipping’s bad, you know? With the war and all.” He replied.
“I’m sorry, fifteen marks is just a lot more than I had intended to spend.” Cecilia said.
“It’ll be worth it once you and your gentleman crack this open.” He said cheekily.
Cecilia had no response for that. She drew the paper marks from her wallet and laid them on the counter, and the man pushed her red, heart-shaped, gift-wrapped box toward her.
“Come back after we’ve beaten the communists; Ayvarta’s prime chocolate-growing land. I bet you prices’ll go down and business will boom once we win, yessiree ma’am.”
The secretary deposited her chocolates in a paper bag and left the shop to wait for the trolley.
She dropped a 5-mark into a homeless man’s hat before boarding; he waved; she didn’t see.
Gentle snowfall dusted over the trolley as it descended the hill down Constitution street, toward the Hotel Reich. Cecilia held on to a bar overhead, standing between several commuters. She slipped the brown bag into her coat, and dropped off into the street while the trolley was still going, joining the crowds. Around the corner, the Hotel Reich extended into the gray sky.
In the lobby, Cecilia stopped by a pair of men in black suits and hats who were making full use of a refreshments table set out for potential guests. She showed them her government ID.
“She’s up on the Presidential.” One said. “Y’can’t miss it Miss F.”
“I’ll be staying for a while as we have business we need to hash out.”
“Don’t concern me none, Miss F. You take your time.”
Cecilia waved with the tips of her fingers and left their side, taking the elevator. Reich was a fancy locale, but it didn’t make any impression on her now. Gilded handles and knobs, glossy wood floors, silk curtains, every surface intricately tiled and carved and etched; she had seen this before. Ostentatious decoration lost its effect the hundredth time; or far earlier.
The Presidential Suite was its own floor. From the elevator, there was a landing hall with a bench and a water dispenser, where two Schwartzkopf sat around reading and listening to a baseball game on the radio. She approached them, and they waved; they were familiar faces. Eintz and Schapel did not require anything from her, they knew her to be trustworthy.
“By the way, do not disturb; I’ve some important work with the first lady.” Cecilia said.
“S’already done Miss F.” Eintz said. “Mrs. A told us she’d throw us out the window if we set foot in the room without her explicit permission. We know good ’nuff to believe ‘er.”
Cecilia smiled and nodded, and did the same little finger wave for the men before departing.
Past the little hall, a set of wooden double doors lead into a large foyer with a chandelier, flanked by fish tanks. There was a tea room, a living room, a kitchen, a hot indoor bath, all in their own branches of the suite. Cecilia produced her chocolates, held them behind her back and cut straight to the bedroom door. She knocked on it exactly six times before waiting.
It unlocked; the knob turned and the door opened. Behind it appeared a buxom woman in a bathrobe with a bored-looking expression. Her robe was out of order, exposing some of a breast, some of her pleasantly curved hip, a bit of belly, a plump thigh; her bouncy, wavy, golden hair was collected behind her head, and her lips sported a recent coat of crimson.
“Ta-dah!” Cecilia thrust out the chocolate gift box toward the woman with a smile.
“Chocolates?” Agatha Lehner said dimly. “Are you a teenage boy or a grown woman?”
Cecilia chucked the box over Agatha. It landed on her drawer, knocking things off it.
“Teenage boy then.” Agatha turned her back, marched back to bed, and dropped face-down.
“Tu m’as démasqué.” Cecilia said. She was mildly amused, mildly aggravated.
“Why are you here, Cece?” She moaned. “Doesn’t my husband have a big speech to give?”
“Mary Trueday is returning from Ayvarta, so I am a third wheel.” Cecilia said.
“And you weren’t a third wheel before that? You’re more of a fourth wheel now.”
Cecilia approached the bed, and delivered a firm slap on Agatha’s exposed buttocks.
Agatha jerked forward and groaned softly. She slowly turned herself over in bed, lying on her back and facing the secretary, her face flushing, her robe spread almost completely open.
“Mary is special; the way I see it, I’ve collected both the Lehners now, so it doesn’t count when it’s just us around. It’s different when I’m around her and Achim though.” Cecilia said.
Cecilia threw off her coat and started to pull off her bow tie with one hand while crawling onto the bed. She loomed over the actress, unbuttoning her own vest and shirt with one hand and tracing Agatha’s thigh and up to her belly with the other. In a fit of emotion she descended, sucked the woman’s lips greedily into her own, and then pulled back, whipping her ponytail.
“Don’t do that hair thing, you look ridiculous.” Agatha said softly. “It turns me off.”
Cecilia moved her hand down Agatha’s belly and clutched between her legs.
Agatha moaned, her hips bucked, her back straightened out. She gripped the bedsheets.
“Subtle enough? Cecilia said, grinning, nose to nose with the President’s wife.
“Enough to make me feel a little guilty.” Agatha said, between soft moans and gasps.
Cecilia licked her lips, glancing across the woman with an impish, hungry grin.
“Don’t be. Take it from me; we’re all sinners in this circle, but none more than he.”
* * *
Lehner checked his watch and then the tracks. Despite the old Junzien station expanding its services, that familiar scene, standing on the platform with bated breath, always seemed to recur. There were many trains coming and going, but it was never quite the train he was waiting for — the train that was carrying her to the city for one of those rare visits.
He was flanked by two of his black-hatted Schwartzkopf agents, keeping an eye out.
When the train finally pulled up to the station, they opened the door for him, and ushered him into the silver car, just like when he was a kid. They departed to their own train and left him to his devices. Inside the Presidential car, it was the same as before: the kitchenette, the couches, the table for four. But Sultzer wasn’t there and neither was Nore this time. They couldn’t be, anymore. Instead a lovely woman with earth-tone skin and bright green eyes awaited him.
Kaiserin Mary Trueday; known as Sarahastra Ayvarta II before her conversion.
She looked absolutely stunning — her long, green dress had a sleek silhouette, boasting a complex, bustled skirt and a form-fitting bodice shaped like numerous fronds over her breasts, and delicately baring her slim, brown shoulders. Her black hair had been collected on the sides of her head into braids that met at the back. A dab of pigments on her lean, striking face and lips accentuated her features. She smiled placidly when he arrived and waved at him.
Lehner sat across the table from her. “Hey, is that thing here? Tell her to go.”
He waved dismissively toward Mary’s solid black shadow on the couch.
In an instant it became noticeably thinner. He didn’t catch where it went exactly.
“She’s out now.” Mary said. “She’s got better things to be doing anyway.”
“Good. Creeps me out. I prefer good old fashioned, solid, fleshy murderous goons.”
Mary performed an exaggerated shrug. “You must admit she’s been useful.”
Lehner shrugged too. “Didn’t see her around two years ago when I needed knees capped!”
Mary smiled. “How disrespectful. You should think of her as a mother to us.”
“Ugh. Nobody wants their mother in the room when they’re fooling around.”
He leaned over the table and kissed her, briefly but passionately. Theirs was a long courting, and these brief tastes were enough to sate them until greater privacy could be afforded. They had gotten it down to a science over years of scarce meetings. Things had escalated when the old man and the old woman finally left the picture — but they didn’t want to push it too much. After all, Mary had a reputation to maintain; and Lehner had a lovely wife to placate.
“So, how was home?” Lehner asked. “Everything you thought it’d be?”
“I’m afraid Mamlakha is not exactly what I consider home.” Mary said.
“I’m glad, because we promised that bit of the continent its independence and all.”
Mary laughed delicately. “You look energetic Achim. I’m glad to see you.”
“I can’t be anything but energetic with you.” He said. He dropped the act, for her. He didn’t need to affect his voice. He didn’t need to be snappy and quick with her. She would see through it. She saw through a lot of things. For her, he was happy to drop every pretense.
“I’m glad. I don’t want a partner in crime who is anything less than energetic.”
She was dropping her own act too. She was a lot more wicked than people thought — almost as much as he. Put together, their corrupting influence on each other was simply delightful.
He reached out his hand and took hers over the table, stroking her gently.
“Is your speech prepared for tomorrow?” She said.
“Yeah. Cecilia helped write it. That woman is incredible.” Lehner said.
“In more than one way?” Mary giggled.
Lehner laughed. This was not a shameful thing to them. It was casual. They barely had to comment on it. Both of them lived rather lively existences. They were the hungry sort.
“Hard to believe this is really happening though.” He said. “We used to fantasize about being prince and princess in the South; we’re finally returning to the beginning.”
“I like to see it more in terms of the future, but I agree.” She replied. “I knew my throne would be returned to me eventually. So far I have seen nothing to contradict this.
“Good. Both of us get to have what we want; the big chair, your gold vaults, everything.”
Mary cocked an eyebrow at him. “Oh, is the big chair really all you want?”
“I could settle for it.” Lehner said teasingly.
“That’s not the wanton man I know.” Mary said sternly.
She sidled across the semi-circular couch surrounding the table, until she was right next to Lehner, and she climbed on him, and pressed her forehead to his. He rubbed against her.
“Mary, I love you. I want you to know that. You’re– you’re really important to me.”
Lehner put his arms around her and pulled her into a mutual embrace, arm over back, cheek to cheek, chest to chest. He felt her presence on him, felt her weight, her warmth.
“There is nobody else with whom I would commit these sins.” Mary said, stroking his hair.
It made everything stand on end, but he controlled it. From her, he just wanted this touch.
He was wanton and hedonistic. He hoarded life’s pleasures, he consumed and devoured. Sex was fine; but in a way, it was being able to hold her like this that he truly desired. To hold her without the judgment of Nore or Makemba between them; to walk hand in hand with her regardless of status, of morality or ethics. Money was great; power was delectable; there was certainly an allure to his status. But he told himself, this was what he wanted.
He wanted this; he wanted her. He wanted it all. Nothing was stopping him now.
45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Nocht Federation, Republic of Rhinea — City of Junzien, Audible Hall
President Lehner’s State of the Northern Federation Address
Free peoples of the Federation of Northern States.
I am honored to speak with you today.
The State of the Northern Federation is strong, and growing stronger. Through swift, judicious action we have averted the economic gloom that seemed inevitable four years ago.
When I took office, I promised I would revolutionize the way our government works. No more abstractions; no more guesswork; no more arcana. My administration faced reality: we gathered data, conducted inquiries, performed scientific research. We didn’t look at a cloudy sky and pray for rain. We went to the source, found the water, and brought it to the field.
That’s what we promised and what we delivered, economically, militarily, and socially.
Today, our prospects as a nation have never looked brighter.
Financial and regulatory reforms have made available money and material to industries that are creating thousands of new jobs and turning out absolutely necessary equipment.
I am proud to say that Nocht is home to the most advanced industries on the planet. Our medicine, our machinery, our transportation, are second to none, and growing.
Our focus on our heavy industry has paid off, with new factories sprouting all across the Federation, linked by rail and ports and roads that facilitate the flow of our nation’s lifeblood.
Our military is stronger than ever. Two years ago, I foresaw how dangerous the world was becoming and I committed to improving our military, opening more military jobs, improving military industry. We now have one of the largest, and definitely the strongest, army in the world. Our air force is not too far behind, and the Bundesmarine is rapidly improving.
Growing our military is a commitment to protecting our future. I am proud of our men in uniform, and I am proud of the civilians who support and supply them.
All of them keep us safe. They keep the prosperity of the Federation well guarded.
Prosperity that we can expect to last for a long time.
We have made it easier than ever to access all the fine things in life. Record numbers of people are owning homes, buying cars, taking out loans to start their own businesses. Never before have so many opportunities been given to hard-working men and women to get an education, a job, and reap the rewards. You put in the sweat, Jack, and I’ll always have your back.
I talk often about mathematics: here the mathematics are simple. By cutting red tape, lowering taxes, expanding private industries and giving them incentives to conduct efficient work, we have reached new levels of production and economic prosperity.
The numbers are there. You can even go look at them.
And yet, despite our internal prosperity, we are still part of a wider world, and we cannot look at ourselves alone. We have been blessed with resources that make us a leader among nations, and those resources are now being called to complete a crucial task.
There are events transpiring in the world that deserve your attention. Until now my lips were sealed on these events overseas, to protect our men in uniform. It was never my intention to mislead you, but when you sit in the big chair, well, there are considerations.
Here are the facts you’ve been waiting for as to the events of the past three weeks.
On the 18th of the Aster’s Gloom we coordinated with our allies to launch a series of military actions against the Socialist Dominances of Solstice with an aim to liberate its territories and establish a new popular government with Mary Trueday as one of the heads of state.
We started the fight with a limited deployment. Reinforcements are now on the way.
We hit the communists hard with new techniques and new equipment that has helped to minimize our casualties while rapidly advancing and overwhelming the enemy.
Over the course of the next two weeks we liberated vast swathes of territory.
I dare say, folks, we’ll be sweeping the place up in a year.
Already we have liberated the massive lands of Adjar and Shaila in the south of Ayvarta.
There is dancing on the streets in Bada Aso, in Knyskna, in Dori Dobo!
Freedom reigns in Ayvarta for the first time in decades!
Even as we speak, the White Army of civil war fame reassembles in the liberated lands to take back their homeland from the communists. In the territories freed from the tyranny of the communists, a fervor for freedom rises that will sweep the red despots well away! People are organizing freely, finally able to exercise freedom of speech, assembly, expression!
They are grateful to us, and they are willing to join our fight. It is a fight for their very lives.
Just like we back our own people when they are hurting, we must support the people of this once-great nation, who have been suffering under the yoke of totalitarian communism.
Over the course of the Ayvartan Great Terror of 2008 to 2014, these men and women; young professionals, clergy, politicians, scientists, even children, were driven from their homes for resisting the communist encroachment on their lives and livelihoods. Those who remained did so under a dogmatic government that threatened their liberties if they dared oppose it.
Tyrants like Daksha Kansal killed millions for their crooked ideology!
Communism has the blood of untold millions on its hands!
We committed, during the civil war, to fighting this! To backing a legitimate government!
We did not fulfill this commitment at the time, when we well should have.
When we hosted Empress Mary Trueday, and thousands of refugees during those heinous events over twenty years ago, I believe we also committed to doing right by them when the opportunity asserted itself. As Ayvarta grew more militant against its neighbors, operations in Cissea and Mamlakha were launched in 2026 through 2029, first by President Kantor, and then finished by myself. Ayvarta proved itself a threat to peace and freedom.
We recognized the Socialist Dominances of Solstice under President Kieselman. This was nothing less than a mistake, a grave mistake. The Socialist Dominances of Solstice is a rogue state. We should not have negotiated with these terrorists. We should have isolated them. President Kantor began to take measures; and I greatly accelerated them.
We let people come to harm by our inaction; and I refuse to allow that to happen again.
The Federation of Northern States is done biding its time in the face of terror!
The Hydras are a massive destabilizing force in our world. They have launched cowardly terror attacks on us and on our allies. They condemn our form of government and laugh at our civil liberties. They hate us for the fact that we are free and thriving without their ideology.
And they subject their own unwilling people to their cruel and inhuman discipline.
We’re putting the brakes on that nonsense.
We will not fear the Ayvartan terror any more.
The Nocht Federation is a force for good in the world. We will take a multifaceted approach to isolating, overrunning, and ultimately defeating Ayvarta. Nothing less will do.
You may feel trepidation at the thought of another war, when our country had hit such a high point in this brief period of peace. I understand your fears. In the coming week, we will launch a campaign in the home front to build trust and support, and friendship with our allies.
It is my hope that once you have all the information in your hands, you will understand my position. You will understand that the time has come to rid the world of a great evil.
There are sacrifices that will have to be made to succeed. But I promise you that this deployment is being handled with the utmost care. We have our best troops, armed with the latest equipment, and meticulously planned strategy. Not a single mark will go to waste.
Militarily, we will defeat the Red Terrorism that has taken root in Ayvarta; and in the diplomatic, humanitarian realm, we will support and carry out the repatriation of all of the proud people that were displaced by the communists, so that their country may once again flourish in the international stage under their guidance, as it well should.
We have allies from two major nations who have committed to joining the fight.
We do not stand alone! Praise the Allied Powers of Hanwa and Lubon!
They are our brothers and sisters in this fight! They see the justice in our cause!
We are committed to the independence of Mamlakha, and the membership of Cissea into our Federation. We will fight today, so that we can reap the benefits of a more stable world tomorrow. We will fight today, so that tomorrow our children do not have to fear that they will be killed on the streets by anarchists and reds. We will fight today, so that all of the nations of the world can look to tomorrow in a spirit of cooperation and not animosity.
We will fight today, for a victory tomorrow! For a freer, more peaceful world!
Victory for Nocht! Put your fist to your heart, my patriots, and shout it with me!
Sieg für Nocht! Sieg für Nocht! SIEG FÜR NOCHT!
* * *
The Secretary smiled at her handiwork. “Ohh, it sent shivers down my spine, Achim.”
The Television was an enormous wooden apparatus on the opposite side of the room from the bed, just beside the doorway. It was as big as a jukebox, though the screen was about the size of an adult’s head. In its somewhat foggy cathode-ray tube they watched Lehner deliver his big speech in one of the three programming channels available, and the only one with regular programming, running communiques produced by the government. Neither of them had slept over for this, but it was a nice touch to wake up in time for the noon address.
It certainly beat watching optical illusions and other nonsense on the experimental channels run by the electric company, while they waited to cool off between their sessions.
Cecilia stretched her arm and smacked a wired panel on the wall, shutting the set off.
She sat up in bed, breasts bared, rubbing her eyes; she was naked, but there was nobody to see save for Agatha, lying beside her with her back to a pillow and a cigarette in her lips. She was just as naked. They had spent over twenty hours sharing this state of being.
“I wrote almost all of that myself.” Cecilia bragged. “Achim’s delivery completed it.”
“Congratulations.” Agatha said sarcastically.
“God, is there any time you’re not giving cheek? What did you think of it?”
“I’m not convinced by a word my husband says anymore, but I’m not the average voter.” Agatha said, blowing a little cloud. “I might be bias in that regard, you could say.”
Despite the air conditioning Cecilia was covered in cold sweat. Her blond ponytail had been ripped free, and her hair now hung long, and messy. She shook her head to clear the fog.
“I should go downstairs or something. I stayed overnight. It might look weird to them.”
“Who cares?” Agatha said. “Achim knows about this, doesn’t he? What can they do?”
Cecilia smiled. “I’ve not exactly made an effort to let him know. He probably doesn’t care.”
Agatha sighed deeply. “You and I are both the third wheels here. He already has his love.”
Cecilia snatched the cigarette from Agatha’s finger and took a drag herself.
“Don’t let it mortify you, Agatha. You were always more my type than him anyway.”
She made to stand up from the bed, but barely turned over the side when Agatha nearly jumped at her, pulling her back, marking her neck with a kiss. “Stay with me a little, Cece.”
“If you insist, Aggie.” replied the secretary. Agatha’s hands interlocked just over her chest. She raised her own hands, and squeezed Agatha’s fingers. She smiled. “Achim can wait a bit.”
* * *
NEXT chapter in Generalplan Suden — Kansal’s Ambition