The 1st Regimental Headquarters (37.1)

This story segment contains violence and some frightening imagery.

45th of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, Red Banner Apartments

Madiha woke in the middle of the night in a bleary, dream-like haze where every angle became soft and everything except the edges of her vision was a rolling blur. Her shirt clung to her back and breast, cold and wet with a midnight sweat, and she felt a terrible headache and stomachache, borne of stress and lack of restful sleep. When she moved her fingers, hands, feet, they felt too heavy and too limp, alternating at a moment’s notice.

She heard something heavy hit the windowsill and it reverberated in her skull.

Alarmed, Madiha stumbled upright, and nearly hit her set of drawers as she made toward the open window. Her vision warped, tilted, came in and out, until it settled.

Framed in the moonlight, Kali stood guard at the windowsill, growling softly.

Half-closing her eyes, squinting to see, Madiha approached. Holding herself up by the curtains, she leaned half out of the window and scanned the street and the road.

Her eyes were aimless at first, but were then drawn in by the mask.

Across the street, the standing thing was shorter than an adult human.

It wore a fully white mask, featureless save for an inset gold face the size of a nose.

This small face on the mask had its own dull impression of a nose and tiny slitted eyes that moved haphazardly around like spinning billiard balls when stricken by the cue.

When they stopped moving they focused on her briefly. She felt their weight even from this far. Then they would roll again like a slot machine, moving inside and out of their sockets.

Everything of the creature’s face was obscured by the mask saved for a red chin and mouth, lips broken, a faint impression of white teeth. Around the edges of the mask was the black line formed by a thick hood that covered the being’s entire body save for its five long, dangling limbs that would occasionally thrash and dance like flailing noodles.

Nothing of the creature was congruous — every limb a different size, one shoulder lower than the other, one leg taller, and its visible mouth slanted to one side.

“Majini.” Madiha whispered to herself.

Her drawing of breath alerted the creature. Under its hood its thick legs stirred. It turned from the street to the window, and the little gold face on its white mask sniffed the air.

Jagged teeth burst through from between the creature’s lips in every direction.

Madiha’s recently recovered life flashed in her mind.

She felt those arms closing around her neck, a little neck, a child’s neck.

She felt the kicking and screaming, and the crunching of the mask as a brick struck the face in the middle and drew copious, filthy-smelling blood and shrieking screams.

“I killed you all.” Madiha’s jaw quivered. “I thought–”

A click-clacking, gurgling scream interrupted her.

Red spittle flew from the creature’s gnashing jaws. Hands flailing as if pulling on the air, the monsters twitched from one place to the next, hurtling toward the window. It moved like a cheetah on a full sprint, but it accelerated to a charge from a standing position in a second flat, and in an instant it tumbled from the street over the flower beds flanking the steps to the apartment building’s stairs, and slammed a pair of fists into the brick.

Its neck cracked as it craned its head to stare at the window.

Around the edges of its lips the teeth turned as if spinning on a wheel.

Madiha reached into her undershirt instinctively, but it was not her tunic, it did not have her holster. All of that was back at the foot of her bed, discarded. She drew back.

Raising a hand to her temple, she drew on the fire, the primordial fire.

Her eyes burnt, and the edges of her sight went red.

Every second the red was expanding, and smoke covered her vision.

All other Majini had perished in the heat of this ancient flame.

This one would join them.

“Kali, run!” Madiha cried out, her legs buckling as she struggled to kindle the flame.

Kali did not retreat as instructed.

It reared back on the window and drew air into its mouth.

In front of the window the creature appeared for a split second in mid-leap.

Kali breathed out the window, launching a blurring cone of barely-visible force.

Madiha could not hear the sound, but she felt it inside her head and in her gut.

Outside the window the Majini fell to the ground with a thud and let out its own cry.

At once Madiha’s concentration broke, and the flame she nursed was snuffed out.

Night’s colors returned to her surroundings, and all of the red was gone.

In its place there was only a sting and a nosebleed.

Madiha hurried to the window and found the creature’s mask shattered into bloody pieces. Its limbs were snapped and twisted by the strength of Kali’s breath, and its hood caved in at the center. Soon it began to die the Majini’s death — it disappeared slowly. As the body and cloak melted away like wax and sank through the earth itself, Madiha saw the impression of a sewn-up face flash briefly from behind the shards of white porcelain.

It was gone as if it had never existed.

Madiha gingerly reached a finger to her blood-soaked upper lip.

The pain of her own brains burning felt very real, but nothing else did.

A thin shaft of light expanded across Madiha’s window to encompass much of her room as the apartment bore the full brunt of Rangda’s dawn. At pace with the light a small, dragon-shape shadow extended across the room, the bed, and over Madiha’s face.

Madiha opened her eyes, facing the ceiling. She turned her head to face the window.

Last night felt like a dream. Some parts she could confirm, but others were ephemeral.

She touched her thin nose, and removed a pair of bloody tissue papers from it.

No more blood drew from her nostrils. And the psychic sting in her brain had passed.

She sighed. As a child she could throw several flares before feeling anything.

It seemed she would not have to start over from scratch.

As she sat up by the side of her bed, eyeing her uniform and hazily piecing back together her plans for the day, someone knocked on the door twice quickly.

The door then opened a crack, and Parinita peeked her head in cheerfully.

“I come bearing gifts!” She shouted, holding a paper bag in her hand.

Seeing Madiha sweaty and in her underwear, a little gasp escaped her glossy pink lips.

“Sorry! I shouldn’t have barged in. Should I go?”

Madiha shook her head, gently waving about her black hair, nearer to shoulder length after almost a month of new growth, and messy from her tumultuous sleep. She stood up off the bed, leaned back, raised her arms, pushed her chest forward and let out a yawn. Glistening sweat delineated the lines of lean muscle on her bare limbs, and trickled down the brown skin of her slim, toned body. She felt no hint of awkwardness.

“It’s perfectly fine.” She said, through a long exhalation. “So long as it’s just you.”

Parinita laughed, delicately covering her mouth with her hand while ogling.

“I suppose it’s alright anyway since we’re both girls–”

At the window, Kali groaned audibly and slammed its tail on the wall.

“Eep! It still doesn’t like me.” Parinita moaned, retreating further behind the door.

Madiha shot Kali a frowning look.

“It’ll have to warm up to you eventually.” She said, in the tone of a command.

Kali blew a little air from the nostrils at the edge of its beak.

Madiha shook her head at it. “Come in Parinita, don’t stay by the doorway.”

Parinita nodded. She entered, her hair pulled into a ponytail, wearing a fresh skirt and dress uniform. A light dusting of cosmetics gave her lightly bronzed skin a bit of a blush, and the reading spectacles perched on her nose made her look more a secretary than ever. She wore a skirt uniform and a pair of classy flat shoes in green to match. Though fairly fit, Parinita was slightly rounder and softer than Madiha in form, and at least ten centimeters shorter.

Examining her, Madiha felt a little thrill in her chest. She was always a lovely sight.

Closing the door behind herself, Parinita tottered up to Madiha, and put her hands on the woman’s head. Madiha felt a cooling touch seep in through her cheeks and smiled as a wonderful, relaxing feeling spread through her, touching her strained body and her too-hot heart and head. She locked eyes with her secretary as the eldritch fires invisibly dispersed.

“You are far too hot this morning, Colonel.” Parinita said, smiling faintly.

Her hands were still on Madiha’s face. Madiha reached her own hand up to touch hers.

“I’m still unsure exactly how it happened.” Madiha said. It played into the little entendre Parinita might have been setting up, but it was also true. Her memory of the past night was a fading blur. She recognized something happened, but it felt too unreal to be true.

“Just be careful with it.” Parinita said. “I might not always be around catch sight of it.”

“Someday I’m going to have to interrogate you about that.” Madiha said, smiling.

“I owe you the conversation.” Parinita replied. “But we’d need more time than we have.”

Madiha nodded. Like her, Parinita had her own illogical secrets, and she probably yearned to share them. Madiha was perhaps the only soul who could relate to the alien things Parinita must have known. But life always pulled them harshly in certain directions, and they hadn’t yet found enough peace to fully confess to one another. Each of them held pieces of the other’s puzzle; everything was strewn on the floor without interlocking.

And yet it felt like both of them could still see a lot of the picture nevertheless.

Their day would come sooner or later, but Madiha felt that they had an unspoken understanding on this matter regardless. Each was drawn to the other, sharing a kinship in and out of battle since the day they were thrust, violently, into each other’s orbit.

It was rushed, and strange, and perhaps dysfunctional. And yet it felt natural.

Had not Aer and its Moon been bound together by a cosmic disaster? That was the last science Madiha read on the subject. The two were inseparable now. It felt quite right.

Contented, Madiha replied, “I’m not worried. We’ll discuss everything when it’s right.”

Parinita nodded her head, tufts of strawberry hair bouncing just over her forehead.

In a way, Madiha felt like she already knew everything. Such was their bond now.

After lingering for several moments, their eyes, so tightly locked before, finally parted, and they set about preparing for the day. Madiha entered the adjacent bathroom to wash her face and teeth, and Parinita returned to the door, and took from a hanger outside the apartment a fresh uniform and a bundle of needed sundries that had been left for the Colonel, and set it down on the bed for her. When Madiha returned, she sat at the edge of the bed and set apart all the layers of her uniform to begin dressing up.

“What’s on the agenda today?” Madiha asked while picking out her socks. She quickly found that she had been given were women’s long stockings, which she never wore.

Sighing, she pulled them up along her long legs.

Parinita giggled at the sight. “Hopefully we can get the headquarters ready by today, I’m thinking that will take the bulk of the afternoon to do. We also need to go over our table of organization and draft some simple training programs our troops can start on soon.”

As she listened, Madiha mechanically donned a white shirt, hastily buttoned the collar, and started doing her long red tie in a simple knot; seeing this, Parinita reached suddenly down, pushed her hands aside, and finished tying it herself. Madiha was surprised.

“I know how to tie it.” She said, as her secretary’s skillful hands completed the knot.

“Think so? Give it a quick look.” Parinita cheekily said.

Madiha pulled her tie up and stared at the knot. Somehow the red and gold lines of the tie formed a complicated pattern. Parinita had managed to divide the knot into neat little quadrants. It was a much more eyecatching knot than anything Madiha knew how to do.

“Oh ho ho! You see? It’s called a lover’s knot, because it’s hard to tie it for yourself.”

Parinita stuck out her chest, satisfied with herself, while Madiha turned a little red.

Once the Colonel was fully in uniform once more, Parinita combed her hair as best as she could, and the two of them left the building side by side to get a start on the day. Parinita handed her some candied fruit and a bread roll from the bag she had brought into the room, and they ate as they went. A fuller breakfast could wait. Madiha expected to relocate to the base quickly. She started thinking about hailing a cab to take them.

Directly outside, a sleek black soft-top car with its canopy pulled back awaited them.

Behind the wheel of the car, reading a newspaper, Logia Minardo leaned back on the chair. Her uniform looked as crisp as ever, and her cheeks and lips were delicately touched with pigments, but her hair wasn’t collected into a bun. It hung down to her shoulders, a little messy, looking recently wet. Perched on her nose were a pair of shaded glasses.

The Staff Sergeant had a pen and paper in hand and was plotting out the daily crossword puzzle on the driver’s seat. When the door to the apartments opened and shut, Minardo turned her head, spotted her superiors, and waved her pen to greet them.

She pointed at the newspaper.

“Do either of you know an eight-letter word for ‘used to make instrument strings?'”

Madiha blinked hard at her, still bewildered by the vehicle, while Parinita smiled.

“Drakegut!” Parinita cheerfully replied, after less than a second’s hesitation.

At the open window to Madiha’s room, Kali shuddered violently and bowed its head.

Minardo looked down at the paper, counted the spaces, and wrote it down.

“Perfect! As a token of my gratitude, you get a free ride.” She said, winking.

Madiha tipped her head with confusion. She still could not place the car. Her companion was much more energized by the prospect. Cheering, Parinita took Madiha by the hand and led her to the vehicle, pushing her into the back seat and making a big show of sitting near her.

“We have our own chauffeur Madiha!” She chirped. “Now we’re VIPs!”

Instead of metal seats like the scout cars, this civilian model car had plush wool-stuffed seats. The back seat was especially bouncy and comfortable, with a tall, rounded backrest. A roomy interior accommodated the two passengers well, with sizable legroom. Even the floor was snazzy, softly carpeted in a gray color that complimented the shiny black exterior.

All of this was posh, but the most stunning piece on the car was the dashboard radio.

It was set into the middle of the car’s front, extending the instruments panel.

Separating the driver’s and the front passengers’ legroom was the radio’s thick box, with a printed meter and needle in a white plate on the front. A piece of paper taped to the dashboard contained a list of civilian frequencies, scribbled in Minardo’s compact and neat writing. Aware of everyone’s attention on this item, Minardo turned it up. Immediately a steady drum beat, energetic shakers and quick strings played from the large speakers.

“Wonderful, isn’t it? Very dancey!” Minardo shouted over the radio.

Parinita’s face lit up, and she clapped her hands and nodded along to the music.

“Minardo, where did you get this? How did you get this?” Madiha snapped.

Unconcerned, Minardo turned down the volume on the radio, until the drums became background noise, “It’s a M.A.W. Bijali 2030! It’s brand new, fresh out of the depots.”

She sounded quite excited, but this information only made everything more puzzling.

“That does not answer my question at all!” Madiha replied.

On the rear-view mirror, Minardo winked again. “To some people, I’m a VIP, Colonel.”

“Neither does that! What do you even mean?” Madiha demanded.

In lieu of an answer, Minardo hit the clutch, pulled the stick back, and started to gently slide out from the side of the street and onto the road. She crept little by little onto the asphalt and then corrected the nose of the car, and with the gentlest little step on the acceleration pedal, she started them forward at about fifteen kilometers per hour.

There were no other vehicles in the immediate vicinity, and few people on the streets.

Structures and pedestrians scrolled leisurely by as the car inched forward.

“Just relax, Colonel! You’re looking too high strung this morning!” Minardo said.

Madiha let go of a deep breath and dropped against the seat, defeated.

There was a bump behind them. Kali dropped onto the back of the car and laid on the rolled back canvas frame of the vehicle’s soft canopy. It yawned and purred at them.

“It better not scratch the paint!” Minardo cried out.

Kali growled lightly and made a show of retracting its claws.

Madiha said nothing.

After several minutes, Minardo finally shifted to second gear, and accelerated to a relaxing thirty kilometers per hour. They did not go the direct route to the base. Instead, Minardo seemed to delight in taking them for a very leisurely little stroll around the corner from the apartment and farther north into the urban heart of Rangda.

It felt more like riding a horse-drawn carriage than a brand new car.

“Don’t just stare ahead!” She instructed. “Give your necks some exercise! Rangda has a lot of scenery. Our ratty old base won’t go anywhere. Try to enjoy the town for a bit!”

Madiha grumbled inaudibly, annoyed at the distraction. She turned her head away.

On the adjacent street, a teenage girl, perhaps training for a dash, bolted past their car.

“Minardo, you could stand to go a little faster.” Parinita said, her enthusiasm deflated.

Up front, their driver adjusted her rearview mirror so she could see them and scowl.

“Why, I never! I’m with child! If I have an accident, what would become of my baby?”

Parinita looked puzzled, but she kept quiet, perhaps seeing as how she had already stepped on her own tongue around Minardo once before on this very subject.  She sighed.

“Well, there are better services for orphans now than ever in Ayvarta’s history.”

Madiha spoke up nonchalantly, holding her head up with a fist against her cheek and an elbow on the car door, staring at the street. She thought she sounded perfectly logical, but from the startled way that Parinita turned to stare at her, she surmised she had done wrong.

Minardo practically growled. “There wouldn’t be an orphan born at all if I was hurt badly!”

“Oh.” Madiha said. Somehow those dots had not connected fully for her before.

From her tunic, Parinita withdrew an army code booklet and tapped Madiha in the head with the book’s spine. Madiha took her scolding with as much dignity as she could muster.

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Gloom On The Shining Port (36.1)

This story segment contains brief violence.

42nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Core Ocean — West Ayvartan Waters

At noon, amid the deep blue of the ocean, the Heavy Cruiser Revenant launched a floatplane patrol. Near the bow of the ship, the Revenant’s two catapults were turned northward and Remora float planes hurled to begin their journey. Each would cover hundreds of kilometers of sea and return within hours, reporting via radio any contacts with enemy ships.

From the operations deck, at the fore of the massive, armored citadel of the ship’s forward superstructure, Captain-At-Sea Monashir stood with her hands behind her back, staring seriously at their operational map of the West Ayvartan Naval Sector, as they knew it in their strategic planning. Her chief concern now was the Bundesmarine of Nocht.

At her flanks, the Selkie class frigates and the Aircraft Carrier Admiral Qote were getting ready to depart and rejoin the East Ayvartan Fleet as a potential defense against Hanwa, whose role in the conflict everyone suspected, but no one knew for certain. In any conflict with Hanwa, their first strike would definitely be an assault on the nation’s Navy, and likely a first-strike against their naval command. Chayat was sure to become a target.

Admiral Qote would certainly be needed in such a situation. Not so much the Revenant.

As such it would be up to the Revenant to escort the Charybdis back to Rangda in Tambwe, while the Admiral Qote was relocated, and the Selkies covered it in transit.

Captain Monashir was used to acting alone or on limited resources. Nevertheless it paid to be cautious and use everything at her disposal. Before her support ships departed, Captain Monashir had requested enough time for a full reconnaissance patrol. The Admiral Qote had gracefully acquiesced to her request and delayed its departure a few hours.

She waited with her breath held in her chest, surrounded by radio and navigation equipment, viewing the ocean through slit windows at the front of the compartment.

Though she loved the view of the sea, it was no longer important to the crew.

In this new age of warfare, what she saw with her senses hardly mattered to the fight. A battle might be decided far before she even knew a battle was imminent. Seaplane recon was the best Monashir could hope for at the moment. The Revenant had an underwater sound detection system, and while the navy was intrigued by the ARG-2’s capabilities in Bada Aso, there was no time currently to install such a thing on the Revenant.

She watched her float monoplanes launched, and could not quite see them fly away.

Radio reports came in every fifteen minutes from both planes.

No contacts; clear seas; etc, for the first few hours.

Then a report came in: “Remora-3 has sighted a heavy cruiser. Looks like a Lubon Gloucester judging by all the big guns strapped to it ma’am. I don’t see any supporting ships, and it seems westbound. It’s far from home. I can’t imagine what it’s up to.”

That’s what it took; in this age of aircraft and signals, those words were worth more than the sharpest eyes on the deck of any ship. She had her contacts, hundreds of kilometers away.

Quickly the crew began to work on triangulation, while their aircraft shadowed the enemy. Soon they worked out a possible course for the Gloucester, as well as a potential combat area. Such an action begged the question: would they engage the Gloucester?

They couldn’t reach it on the surface. But passing this information to the Admiral Qote would allow them to deploy some of the 62 aircraft on-board. Though the Qote would have flushed at the request — 14 of its aircraft had been lost in Bada Aso, 10 to landing accidents, rendering the crew gun-shy — they might have ultimately agreed to do it.

Garuda and Roc aircraft could have attacked the Gloucester within the hour.

This would be an easy fight for them, and would eliminate a royal navy heavy-hitter. No resources would have to be diverted other than the planes and a few travel delays.

However, they were only two days out from Rangda, and the stray ship did not seem to be headed for their land. Though it had no business in these waters in war-time, and though Lubon was certainly Nocht’s crony in this war, Ayvarta and Lubon had not yet engaged in shooting. This attack would mean the Ayvartans shed first blood on the Elves.

It was all well to destroy this one ship. Captain Monashir, however, saw further risks.

“Let the Gloucester go. All Seaplanes return to base. We speed to Rangda.”

Captain Monashir knew she had lost her nerve. She had been confronted with a situation and turned her head from it. Bitterly she recalled her first impression of Madiha Nakar before her own battle — a battle the Captain had seen as reckless and unnecessary. Nakar had achieved an incredible result. But the thought of going out of her way now to destroy this Elven ship, while tempting, still felt reckless and unnecessary.

Monashir was not Nakar, and the sea was not Bada Aso.

Operations in the western Ayvartan waters were thus concluded. Admiral Qote broke off, and met new escorts. Captain Monashir sailed for Rangda. She was sure of her choice.

44th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Core Ocean, Ayvartan Waters — Heavy Cruiser Revenant, around Tambwe.

Easterly winds carried cold from the Kucha over the little dominance of Tambwe across the lower northwest coast. Under the hot noon sun blaring over the ocean, the cold turned into a fresh breeze. But much of the deck was vacant, and there were few around to savor the air. On their final approach to the city of Rangda, only several hundred kilometers from harbor, the cruiser Revenant and its crew took a deserved break for lunch belowdecks.

Floating on the opportune breeze, a certain creature found the empty deck suitable.

And weary of the ship’s confines, a certain Warrant Officer found the creature in turn.

Hidden behind one of the lifeboats on the ship starboard, Parinita Maharani peered out onto the raised prow, near the forward gun turret housing the massive 300mm double cannons, where she found this beast bathing in the sun. Her eyes drew wide open and she pushed a hand against her own lips to stifle all the little noises her mouth spontaneously generated.

This was a Drake, one of the many large, reptilian animals in Ayvarta. In the continent’s vast wilds, the Drake in its various forms was a fairly common form of solitary predator.

However, this was a most uncommon form of drake.

Slender and the size of a big cat, it was much smaller than its siblings. Instead of a snout, like other drakes, it possessed a hard, beak-like mouth with a jagged interior. Instead of scales, the creature was covered in fuzzy down, like a baby bird. Though it lacked true wings, and had quite developed front and back limbs with stubby claws and strong muscles, there were fleshy, earth-tone membranes extending between its front legs and flanks, that amassed into folds while it lay in repose. What drew Parinita’s gaze the most was the gaudy purple-and-teal coloration of the creature’s fuzz, that shifted with one’s eyes and the position of the sun’s light as though the creature were encrusted with a gradient of gems.

“A Kite Dragon!” She squealed to herself, staring at the creature from afar.

Though still a Drake, its ability to “fly” on the wind lent this creature its name.

And a legendary reputation. Parinita’s head filled with little girlish fantasies.

The Kite Dragon raised its head and stared lazily around itself, awoken. Parinita feared that it might take off, but it did not. It raised one of its front legs over its head, and with this motion it stretched taut the flap of beautifully colored skin that made up its “wing.” Bending its head it nibbled on its own skin, likely to relieve an itch, and then laid again under the sun, unconcerned with the surrounding machinery of this giant modern warship.

Such a shocking sight; the futuristic grey meeting the regal purple of the past.

Watching this living treasure, Parinita could hardly contain her excitement. She hesitated to approach it. She was awed, seeing the history of the world that she had been taught, the mythical history, a part of it at least, confirmed before her eyes. Though on the one hand she had hated her grandmother, those stories she told had become quite a part of her the past month. Those ideas that she kept alive, those things only she knew.

To see them in flesh, to interact with them, made her proud. It made her special.

In her mind, she did not even question where this being came from. It was fated to come.

But what pure maiden did it seek? Perhaps; could it be? Herself? Parinita was giddy.

“Chief Warrant Officer, I have safely removed the rat from your bed quarters–”

Parinita turned around and sharply shushed the person coming in behind her, snapping instantly out of her pleasurable reverie. It was Sergeant Agni, whom she had tasked with removing a pest from her room. It had been a hasty compact. Parinita had run screaming out of her room and found Agni outside the door by sheer coincidence. Seeing a familiar face, she hid behind Agni for several minutes and then shoved her into the room, shut the door and ran way. Informal, unspoken; as one does with these sorts of things.

Standing out in the open, Agni turned her head from Parinita and toward the deck and finally seemed to notice the Drake. There was no change in her disinterested expression upon spotting the majestic being laying on their ship. She blinked, and stared, dead-eyed. Agni never emoted, and the sight of the Kite Dragon had no visible effect on her.

“What is that?” She asked simply.

“It’s a Kite Dragon.” Parinita triumphantly said.

“What is it?” Agni reiterated with no change in tone.

“Haven’t you heard the stories?”

“No.” Agni dryly replied.

Of course she hadn’t. Barely anybody did anymore.

As a child, whenever her grandmother deigned to pay her attention, Parinita received a thorough instruction on Ayvartan mythology. Her family, she had been told, where once faith healers and spirit priests, highly valued by their people in supernatural matters. They were also keepers of the histories of tribes and ancestral, nascent nations. She knew all about Kite Dragons, and as she spoke, she carried herself quite proudly for this.

“Kite Dragons are the highest order among dragonkind that is left in the world. Drakes cannot fly, but Kite Dragons have achieved such a status, that they needn’t fly. They merely trick the wind into ferrying them, like a kite. It is said that the regal Kite Dragon moves under its own power only in the presence of pure maidens, such as princesses and saints and songstresses, whom it takes very kindly to. It is said that an ancient King once followed a Kite Dragon for days to find a beautiful bride in Dbagbo, suited for queenship.”

Parinita finished with a flourish of her hands, awaiting a response from her audience.

“What a lazy little Drake; it sounds quite ridiculous.” Agni said, touched not by the tale.

“What? Ridiculous? It’s amazing. This is an extremely rare, majestic being!”

“Can it breathe fire?”

Parinita threw her hands up. “No!”

Agni shrugged. “I’m not interested then. I’m not a pure maiden anyway.”

“You’re damn right you aren’t! Not with this attitude!” Parinita said.

Agni opened her pouch, and pulled up a black, furry thing from it.

“Here’s your rat, by the way.”

Parinita drew back.


Agni shuddered. The Kite Dragon crooked an eyebrow at the sudden screech.

Parinita bolted up the nearby lifeboat hoist, finding a strength hitherto unknown to her. In two lightning-fast hand-holds she made it onto the life raft and threw herself under its covering tarp, crying aloud. Agni must have lost her mind! That rat was at least 100 cm!

“Agni, kill it! Shoot it! Throw it in the ocean! It’s a rat! A rat!” Parinita cried.

She peered out from under the tarp and found Agni staring at her with those same blank eyes, mindlessly petting the rat’s head as its plump body dangled from her fingers. She felt a skin-tingling disgust with the little beast, it’s pink fleshy little limbs, its stringy tail. She could see it in her mind creeping around, teeny-tiny, festering in people’s garbage!

“It’s harmless.” Agni said, holding up the little fiend and shaking him dismissively.

“Rats bite you and scratch you and carry diseases!”

From under the tarp Parinita flailed her arms helplessly.

On the deck, the engineer seemed to finally realize her officer’s disgust, and nodded her head solemnly. She averted her gaze, looking almost remorseful of her current conduct.

“I’m sorry; I did not understand just how much they affected you. I shall rectify this.”

Agni withdrew her pistol from her hip and put it to the rat’s pathetic round head.

She locked eyes with the rat as Agni prepared to finish it.

Parinita groaned sharply as if deflating. “No! No! Ok! Don’t do that!”

“Should I just let it go then? There’s really nowhere else for it–”

“Fine! Fine! Let it go! You barbarian! Let it go!”

Instead of shooting, Agni nodded, put down the rat and released her hands.

Parinita watched in horror as the furry devil scurried away.

Freed, the beast flounced up the deck, crawled over a fire extinguisher box, leaped to the prow, and was then snatched in mid-air by a sudden lunge from the Kite Dragon.

Clacking its beak, the creature tossed the rat into the air and swallowed it whole. A gross bulge formed on the creature’s throat as its meal went down. Uncharismatic noises issued from its beak and nostrils; once its meal had fallen far enough, the dragon relaxed, laid back and stretched out on the deck, its belly glinting royal purple in the sunlight.

“It ate the rat.” Agni said, sounding very lightly puzzled.

“It ate the rat.” Parinita mimed in a much more anguished tone.

She climbed back down from the life rafts and set foot on the deck once more.

Seizing Agni by the shoulders, she shook up the engineer, gritting her teeth in frustration.

“I blame you! I blame you!” Parinita shouted as Agni’s head bobbed.

“Did something happen up here?”

One of the side doors from the conning tower opened, and Colonel Madiha Nakar emerged.

Tall and fit, and quite well-dressed in her black, red and gold KVW uniform, the Colonel managed quite a presence. There was a look of consternation on the normally soft features of the Colonel’s brown face, her dark eyes locked onto Parinita’s hands as the guilty secretary manhandled Sergeant Agni. Parinita withdrew her hands and fidgeted, looping some of her strawberry hair around her finger and laughing perhaps a little too girlishly.

For her part, Agni seemed unaffected by the gentle thrashing.

“That happened,” She said, pointing out onto the prow.

Madiha turned her head to look and stared at the creature, narrowing her eyes.

She raised a hand atop the gentle bridge of her nose to shield her eyes from the sun.

Her lips curled into a serious expression.

“That thing is in the way and needs to get off the deck promptly.” Madiha said.

She started toward the prow before Parinita could relate to her the myths she told Agni.

Parinita watched as the Colonel approached the Kite Dragon and started shooing it.

She was in distress, waiting for the creature to lunge angrily at the impure Colonel.

The Drake opened its double-lidded green eyes, and raised its head in consternation.

Madiha tapped her feet hard near it, and nudged it brusquely with her shoes.

Spotting her, the creature narrowed its eyes and sniffed. Parinita was ready to cry out.

Suddenly it sprang up onto Madiha’s chest and curled its tail around her in embrace.

“Parinita!” Madiha cried. “Why is this strange bird attacking me!”

Parinita’s jaw dropped in response. She wasn’t being attacked; the Kite Dragon had just acknowledged her as a pure maiden. Perhaps the purest it had ever seen judging by how it nudged its head lovingly over Madiha’s breast, and curled its tail around her waist. It seemed almost positively in love with her, hooting and clacking its beak, its down standing on end.

“I think it likes you.” Agni said dully.

“It does!” Parinita said. She made a little squeeing noise. This was a once-in-a-lifetime sight! She almost wanted to rush belowdecks and get the cameras. “It really likes you!”

Madiha stood still and stared in dismay at the gently stirring creature.

“Gross.” Madiha moaned.

Nonchalantly Madiha pushed on the Kite Dragon. It unfurled and fell back on the deck.

Like a strange cat, it bounced back against Madiha’s legs, rubbing its flank on her.

Madiha sighed. “I don’t want this.”

Parinita gasped. She was in disbelief at everyone’s sheer lack of curiosity. Even if they knew nothing, this made no sense! “Madiha, look at it! It’s beautiful! It’s such a rare, majestic–”

“It eats rats.” Agni interjected.

At once Madiha looked down again at the creature and seemed to have new eyes for it. She knelt, picked it up by its front legs, and raised it to her face. She gently spread its gliding flaps, and blinked at the colorful display of its bejeweled fuzz once exposed to sunlight. Eyes closed, contented, the creature lifted its long gradient colored tail and slipped it beneath Madiha’s neck-length hair, lifting several tufts of her messy bob.

Nonchalantly, she deposited the creature back onto the deck and walked away.

“I will reassess its utility, I suppose.” She said without affect.

Parinita raised her hands to her face, shaking her head and muttering to herself.

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The One Who Will Die (35.1)

53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Shebelle Outskirts, 8th Panzer Division FOB

Schicksal grit her teeth and held her tongue long enough to watch the tanks leave the camp. She kept her eyes on one tank in particular, staring with a deathly glare. Once the unit had gone, she turned sharply around, brimming with adrenaline, and stomped from the edge of the camp into Dreschner’s tent. Staff ducked away like she was an incoming shell.

“General, how could you let him treat you like that in front of everyone!”

She went in shouting, but Schicksal quickly found that the General was not alone. At his side on the strategic table she found a man wearing a black bowler hat with his grey infantry uniform. There was a blue and white armband around his arm. He looked up from a document he was filling out briefly, and returned to it almost immediately.

“Settle down, Signals Officer.” Dreschner said, his tone apathetic.

Schicksal blinked. That man at the table was a Schwarzkopf policeman. They were part of the special investigative units in the fatherland. He was a gendarme, judging by his armband and uniform, but the black bowler hat set him quite apart. What was he doing?

“Is everything alright, miss?” He asked, still writing on the page.

“She’s fine. We’re all high-strung here.” Dreschner interceded.

“I understand.” the Schwarzkopf said, delicately writing a ß.

In the Gendarme’s presence, the last thing she wanted to do was cause a furor. Schicksal took a seat by the radios and waited for their business to conclude. Dreschner and the man spoke briefly among themselves, traded photographs and file folders, and once all the papers were filled, the gendarme gathered the materials into a file folder wrapped with a plastic tie. He tipped his hat to Schicksal, and vanished behind the tent flaps.

“General, who was that man after?” Schicksal asked. “Did someone–”

She stopped herself, recalling her own reason for coming here.

Of course; that gendarme must have been here for Reiniger.

Dreschner looked up from the table, over his own steepled fingers.

“You came to ask why I allowed Reiniger to go?” He said. He did not shift from his position, leaning into the table. “Well. Would you rather I beat him into the floor again in front of Captain Skoniec, and in front of Ms. Von Bletzen? Teach him with a fist?”

“No, but.” Schicksal paused and averted her eyes. “I don’t know.”

There was an oppressive, expanding gloom inside the war room tent. A lamp hanging overhead provided the only reliable light source, but its own shields dispersed the color of its flame, such that dire shadows covered half of everyone’s face and half of every surface. Outside the grey sky was darkening and the rhythm of the gently drizzling rain slowed down. Schicksal felt exhausted now that the flame of her anger was snuffed.

She had always felt trepidation around Reiniger. She tolerated him for the value that she thought other people saw in him. She looked at the tables of organization and knew that one less experienced lieutenant meant something to the mathematics that kept all of them alive in this war. So she filtered every thought of him through that. He had to stick around, and he had to get better. But now she was just left with the disgust of him.

Schicksal hated that she was in his presence and felt intimidated by him.

She started to wish that she could have delivered that fist to his nose and drawn blood.

She stood up from her seat and approached the table.

“Honestly,” Schicksal spoke up suddenly, “yes, punch him. Break his teeth. Throw him on the ground and step on him until he vomits his own tongue. I’m sick to death of him.”

“That’s no good.” Dreschner said. “Don’t let that gendarme hear about it.”

“Sorry.” Schicksal said. She felt embarrassed, as suddenly as she had felt angry.

“As long as it doesn’t become a habit. I’d hate to lose your level-headed personality.”

Schicksal felt a mix of shame and frustration, a cocktail that seemed to bubble hot in her chest. This must have been how Dreschner felt on the night of Kunze’s funeral. She wondered, had she been in this mood, in this position, back then, would she have beaten Reiniger? Would that have accomplished anything? What had level-headedness gotten her so far? Finally the cocktail seemed to reach her tongue, and she spoke virulently.

“He was a jackal. He thought he was stronger than all of us and he acted like we only existed because he allowed us to. I don’t want to have to put up with people like that.”

“We’re not putting up with it; that’s what the gentleman was for.” Dreschner said calmly.

Schicksal balled up her hands into fists. “That’s not enough! He needs it seared into his bones! You said it yourself, he doesn’t listen. He’s even come close to hitting me too!”

“It is already seared into his bones. That is the source of the problem.”

“I can’t believe you’re taking this tack now!”

“I agree. But one of us has to.” Dreschner replied.

Schicksal raised her hands to her reddening face.

Dreschner gently continued.

“But I also agreed with you, back then. When you said you thought I had what it takes to fix anything. This is part of that. At the end of the day if I punch Reiniger and accept him among my ranks I am condoning his behavior. That must stop.” Dreschner said.

Red mist started to lift from the world, and Schicksal took a deep breath.

“I got carried away.” She said.

“I can’t judge you for that.” replied the General.

“I feel so powerless.” Schicksal sighed. “Before Knyskna I only barely interacted with these people. You gave me more responsibilities and recognized me, General, and I felt like I had to live up to that, but I failed. And now I feel like I should have done more of, something– I don’t know! I don’t know. I should have done something to stop him.”

It reminded her too much of home.

Both her mother and her father, and her brothers, everything.

She always thought, if she had just taken one bottle away from one hand.

Then everything would have been settled. Everyone would have straightened out.

That was never how it worked out there.

But she thought that was the power Dreschner was giving her.

“I’m sorry sir. This is stupid.” She said.

Dreschner looked at her in the eyes.

“No matter your rank you will never have the power to correct anyone’s history. Neither your words nor your fists, or my fists, can change what a person is dead set on doing. I’m telling you this not because I’m a saint but because I’ve learned this the hard way. You can try, and you will try; you’ll try your damnedest. But you can’t let it consume you.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m the only one here to blame, for all of this. And I’m sorry enough.”

Her head was swimming a little. She wondered if it was still the alcohol or just exhaustion. She felt all the more ashamed for having drank the night before. It felt like such a weak thing to do, such a stupid thing to give into. Just like the rest of the Schicksals.

She grunted weakly. “So whether he succeeds or not, it’s a courts martial, huh.”

Dreschner straightened out in his seat. He gazed wearily at the flapping tent entrance.

He grunted too. “Solitary confinement or the lash. That’s what this hero has earned.”

Their words hung in the air for a moment.

“I don’t think he would have made it.” Schicksal said. Her brain was scattershot.

“Made what?” Dreschner asked.

She shook her head, tossing her hair around. She clutched her forehead.

“Kunze’s shot. That 2000 meter shot. When it counted. Reiniger wouldn’t have made it.”

Dreschner shook his head. He sighed deeply. “Kunze made that shot to save another tanker. Reiniger has never acknowledged this because he would never take a shot like that. Kunze had run his unit out into the open. He’d made a mistake. He was afraid he would lose his men and fail his mission. He fell back. Everyone retreated, but one crew stuck it out fighting out in front of the unit. He was bound to get killed until Kunze made that miracle shot.”

Schicksal blinked. That was a side of the story she didn’t know. “Who was in that tank?”

“Corporal Jorg Reiniger.” Dreschner said.

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This scene contains violence and death.

47th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Sandari River Crossing

“Shit! Shit! Is that an eighty-five? Messiah defend; they’re pulling up an eighty-five!”

The arriving Ayvartan gun attacked them much sooner than anyone thought.

Several hundred meters ahead a pillar of fire rose from the back of an M4 tank, its engine compartment bursting open. Fire belched out of its open hatches, and the closed top hatch slammed up and flew into the air. Rainfall turned the flames into a cloud of grey smoke that obscured the wreck. Everyone inside was still surely cooked dead.

All of its platoon mates scattered at the sight, M4 and M5 tanks veering behind trees and rocks and into bushes. The 8th Panzer Division’s breakout was instantly blunted.

“We’ve got an eighty-five! Eighty-five, it’s almost two klicks ahead, Messiah defend!”

Ayvartan Goblin tanks could hardly scratch an M4 tank except at close ranges; but the Ayvartans were far from defenseless against tanks. Their Anti-Aircraft 85mm gun could destroy an M4 tank from the front at practically any range — and much to the misfortune of Kampfgruppe R, the Ayvartans pushing against the Sandari had brought just such a weapon to bear upon their defensive lines. Soon as it was deployed, it scored a kill.

Reiniger scowled, his own tank camouflaged inside a bush just off of the river’s edge.

“Repeat distance! Accurately this time!” Reiniger shouted into his microphone.

A second 85mm shell flew in between two positions, past the camp, and struck a thick old tree ten meters behind Reiniger’s tank. Reiniger heard the dispersion of debris against the back of his turret armor when the explosives in the AP-HE shell went off.

“Gun’s 1.7 kilometers away exactly!” one of Reiniger’s observers replied on the radio.

Reiniger grit his teeth and squeezed his hands against the hand-holds on his cupola.

The 8th Panzer Division’s beachhead across the western Sandari was barely reinforced, largely because there was nothing to reinforce it with. He had the manpower but he did not have the sandbags. He had no construction materials, in fact, and he hadn’t been able to get so much as a measly anti-tank gun across the river. His defensive line was a hundred men in groups of five or ten huddling in disordered foxhole trenches. All the artillery they had to count on were tanks hiding in bushes and behind rocks and trees.

Third shell; it went right through a bush, hit and exploded, lighting the vegetation on fire.

Moments later a tank frantically backed out of the bush, a sizable dent in its glacis plate. Judging by the fact that it was backing away, it must not have been severely damaged. A hit by an 85mm gun either killed an M4 or it didn’t, there was rarely anything between.

On the radio the commander of the miracle tank hyperventilated violently.

“Holy shit. Holy shit, Lieutenant; premature detonation; it– holy shit–”

Reiniger pressed on his microphone in a rage. “Shut up and get back you moron!”

As fast as the reverse gear allowed, the M4 sought another hiding spot. Backing away from the burning bush, veering to avoid the gun tracking, it slid sideways behind a nearby boulder. Only the top of the turret cupola was visible over the rock. In that position the M4 could not shoot back, only hide from fire. Reiniger grit his teeth.

“Not there! God damn it! Find a position you can fight from!” He shouted.

His own tank shook suddenly; fire flashed through the glass slits on his cupola.

Debris fell over Reiniger’s M4 as a shell hit a few meters in front of the bush.

Reiniger heard dozens of tiny clanks against the front of his turret.

“Mortars! We’ve got one-twenties deploying from the trucks!”

“Enemy riflemen moving up! Looks like a whole company, sir!”

All of Reiniger’s observers seemed to have bad news to report.

Reiniger dropped from his cupola, a small niche at the top of the turret where he could sit and look out of vision slits, as well as have quick access to the hatch. He took the gunner’s position, pushed the loader out of the way and looked down the gun sight. Unlike his vision slits, the gun sight had magnification. He spied the enemy position.

Kampfgruppe R’s portion of the Sandari battle meant holding on to a small strip of riverside land directly adjacent to a hidden pontoon bridge in a portion of the river about 3 meters deep and ten meters wide. Except for the edges of the river, delineated on both sides by meter-tall bumps of terrain, much of the ground was flat sandry brown intermittently covered in grass, sparse on vegetation, and dotted with boulders.

Several hundred meters ahead, Ayvartan trucks had arrived on one of the dirt roads from Shebelle. One of the trucks was a novel conversion — an anti-aircraft truck carrying an 85mm gun on its bed, mounted on a rotating plate. All of the other dozen trucks were loaded with men and women. Mortars deployed, the Ayvartans charged with rifles and bayonets, grouped in thick ranks as the shells began to fall over the Nochtish camp.

Norgler machine guns retaliated against the charging Ayvartans at first, claiming several victims at the start of the charge. Behind the infantry attack, rose the first mortar shells.

A dozen blasts pounded the foxholes, while 85mm shells ripped over them.

The Panzergrenadiers bowed their heads into their holes and the Ayvartans ran free.

Reiniger put the 85mm firmly in his cross-hairs. He held a breath; it felt like eternity.

Kunze had made this shot before. That rat bastard; he’d hit it from a world away.

That was what had made him. Other than that shot he had nothing going for him.

Reiniger could make this shot. He could make it right. Kunze had nothing but luck.

From behind him his nervous loader slid a shell into position.

“Firing HE!” Reiniger shouted, striking the gun’s footpad trigger.

His 50mm shell sailed out of the end of the cannon, hurtled toward the truck, and sailed on. Overflying the right side of the truck bed, it vanished from sight. Almost immediately the 85mm gun turned on its base. Smoke danced from the thick bushes around him; and the bright flash of his gun had given him away completely to the enemy.

At once Reiniger ordered his driver to pull back.

With a roar of the engine the M4 retreated sideways from the bush.

Turning a lever, Reiniger rotated the turret to match the tank’s movements.

He could make this shot; Kunze had made it, god damn it. He could make it too!

“Reload HE!”

Beside him the loader stuck a fresh round into the breech.

There was a flash far across the way.

Reiniger smashed his face on the gun sight as the tank violently rattled.

A piece of metal from the side armor snapped; like a swarm of flying razors, screws and bits of flaked metal blew inward and up from the lower left. Reiniger heard a scream and a gurgling noise, and he felt something bite into his leg. Disoriented from hitting his head on the scope, Reiniger sat, doubled over, feeling nauseous and short of breath.

He turned his head and found his loader lying dead behind him. He had fallen from his seat and came to lie face down in front of the ammo rack. The M4 Sentinel’s turret was cramped enough, and the turret floor still intact enough, that his body had nowhere to fall. It was as if someone had just shoved him off his seat on the turret’s left side.

Most of the spall that had come flying had become embedded in him.

There were holes in the turret floor, and a deformity on the side of the turret ring.

His armor had been partially cratered from an angled 85mm impact.

The enemy shell didn’t explode as it should have — it was a dud.

Reiniger tried the turret lever. He pulled on it, heard a click and a cry.

It was stuck.

He shook his head and called out on his radio as if nothing had transpired.

“I want shells on that fucking eighty-five! Everyone shoot it now! I don’t care where–”

His engine cut.

He stopped breathing. He heard it sputter and turn quiet; felt the seat shake when the tank came to a sudden stop, its injured side still fully exposed to the enemy, stranded in the middle of the camp. Looking through his sight, his gun had been frozen just a few degrees off of a possible shot at the enemy. Meanwhile the enemy gun turned, slowly, cruelly. It was going to pick him off. None of his men seemed to heed his orders.

Reiniger crouched; through the screen on the lower turret ring he saw his driver slumped over the brake lever, a bright red splotch across the small of his back.

Breathing heavily again, he rose back to his gun and spied through the sights.

The 85mm gun settled, elevated slightly. He saw movement around it.

“All guns on the eighty-five! Right fucking now!” He shouted.

Nobody took a shot.

Reiniger’s heart seemed to stop. There was no sound in his tank.

From the sky came a loud buzzing.

Something dropped onto the Ayvartan truck and engulfed it in a column of flames.

Automatic fire flew from all sides as his tanks emerged, coaxial guns blazing.

Charging Ayvartans started dropping mid-run. Mortar fire abated completely.

Reiniger stood on the turret floor, climbed onto the flip-down seat for the Commander and stood up and out of his top hatch. Overhead a dozen Archer planes cut through sky, soaring past his sector. They were dropping bombs on targets of opportunity and swooping down with their machine guns at unseen lines of infantry several kilometers away from him. He saw smoke rising in the far-away distance, and the figures of the planes turning slowly into indistinct dots against the grey, pouring heavens overhead.

It finally happened: he got to see a plane take out the enemy. Front row seats too.

He lowered his gaze from the heavens, and found a hundred corpses stretched across the suddenly quiet kilometer stretch before him. Most were Ayvartans, killed in their charge. But many were his own men, blow up in their foxholes by vicious mortar fire.

On the road, a cloud of thick smoke covered the ruined Ayvartan truck and its artillery.

To think that everything could turn so dramatically in that one fiery instant.

It was too abrupt; it felt unreal, like a jerky old movie that was missing reels.

All Reiniger felt, watching this mess unfold, was frustration.

He picked his helmet off his head and threw it on the turret floor below him.

Climbing out his turret, he spotted the closest tank, charged at it, climbed again.

He threw open the hatch and seized the commander by his jacket.

“Why the fuck did you defy my orders soldier? Why was nobody shooting!”

His face was covered in sweat and rain, contorted with his rage, his eyes twitching.

Cowering, the tank commander replied, “We received no orders sir!”

Reiniger let him go — the man dropped clumsily off his seat and onto the turret floor.

That last 85mm impact must have damaged the radio system too.

He felt momentarily foolish.

“At ease.” He said half-heartedly. He dropped down from the tank and walked away.

Everything always had to be so difficult. Nothing could go as planned for him.

Nothing could be simple and correct, no matter how hard he tried.

Everything always spiraled out of his control. No matter how much he shouted, how much he thrashed and clawed and bit and fought; it always ended up going sideways. Cissea went sideways, Knyskna went sideways. Everything he tried ended in failure where others somehow found success. What was missing from him; what did they have?

Reiniger ambled around the Sandari camp as if in a stupor. He made it to one of the blasted foxholes and sat down quietly at the edge, staring down the flat horizon.

Schicksal would be mad at him for not reporting soon. Not that it mattered.

There was nothing important to report, because he had not made the shot.

Back then, back in Cissea, Kunze had made that shot. Everyone knew he had.

When you made a shot like that, you reported immediately. That was how you got ahead. There was no reason to report a kill you didn’t make. Let the airmen report that.

Kunze reported a shot, and his loader reported with him, and his tank commander backed him up. That was how he got ahead. He had something to report. Something went right.

Not because he was good; not because he had an advantage. He just somehow did it.

And it made no sense. It had never made sense. Reiniger wanted to scream for it.

Why was it Kunze, that time? Both times? Why had he been praised, given the spotlight, and elevated to lieutenant so quickly, so easily, as if by the hand of god himself; and then why had he been smashed to pieces by that very hand so shortly thereafter? Now they buried Kunze, now they remembered him. They couldn’t praise nor berate him anymore.

Reiniger had struggled, had thrashed his way from a car-driving private, a nobody, to tank loader, to tank gunner, to tank commander. To Lieutenant — to one of General Dreschner’s right-hand men. And before that: from the streets of Mutz, the cold, cracked concrete of the youth hostel, to the hard-top of the training camp as soon as he was of age, to the warm dirt, bright grass and the open sky of a Cissea at war with itself.

From the child so unwanted that he was outright abandoned at the steps; to the hated, hopeless teenager who fought with everyone on the street, because fuck them that’s why; to the boot camp fuckup, shouted at in the ears by the sergeant over and over.

Every step of the way he fought. Every step of the way he fell. His face tasted the mud and pavement, sometimes so intimately that they tasted of his blood. That was his life.

Reiniger made himself in the mud and the gore. He couldn’t ever seem to escape it.

Kunze had leaped clean over the whole process with one good shot.

He wasn’t even a reliable shot like Noel! He had never replicated the feat!

He had no fundamentals. Just one measly lucky shot, a few photo opportunities.

Why did the world pick that man over him?

How? How did that skittish slab of butter manage to rise so high?

And how did he fall so hard? How did he break upon the stone without standing again?

It confounded him; it vexed him. Because even after he vanished from the face of Aer, Reiniger still could not beat him. He would never exorcise the phantom of what Kunze was, what he represented. He still couldn’t overcome the clawing, the struggle, the bestial melee of his life. Nothing ever went right. He was not Dreschner or Noel; or Kunze.

He was the mud and the gore and the screaming and the fury. It was all he had.

There would never be a hand that would pick him up. He always had to fight for it.

It became so common now that Reiniger didn’t wait to fight. He just fought always.

He wasn’t irreverent. He was at war, with everyone, with himself. For everything.

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Pebbles In The Path (33.1)

This story segment contains violence and death. If you enjoy the story, click here to vote.

53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance, Town of Benghu — Chanda General School

Shells crashed, cannons roared, rifles cracked, men shouted; meanwhile Aarya sang.

Soon as her hands linked behind Zaheer’s little back, and his head settled against her chest, and she felt his vulnerable little breaths, she began to sing. She paused only to gather the briefest of breaths. She had offered him a song, and she mustered all of her strength to make it a song that could outlast the hostilities. Her singing was continuous.

At first she sang the traditional songs that she remembered, hitting the notes and overturning the lyrics with her tongue as she had been taught, but as the noises grew louder, closer, and more determined she found herself unable to compete. While she held Zaheer against her chest her songs became indistinct syllables riding simple melodies.

She found herself straining to crescendo in the wake of several close blasts, and falling almost to a whimper when there was peace around her. LA LA LA LA LA; la la la la la. She felt the ground rumble from the impacts of artillery, from the striking of stray tank shells. These forces crawled through her wounded hip every time, finding their way through the ground and into her flesh, sending sharp pangs of pain across her body.

Through every sudden stab of agony Aarya strained to continue singing.

In this little island rocking amid the storm she had lost all track of time.

Aarya did not know whether there were winners or losers yet in this conflict.

But the noises came from seemingly everywhere now; it was not one-sided anymore.

One way or another she felt that her fate would be decided very soon.

She looked down, feeling her stomach turn over with a sudden anxiety.

No, she thought; it was not just her fate alone, not anymore.

Zaheer was quiet and still against her chest. When she looked at him his eyes were eerily blank. He was overwhelmed by everything. He had a condition — she did not know what it was, but she knew that he dealt with things differently than other children. Whenever the world became too loud or too bright or too fast for him, he would withdraw. He had never fled the way he did; but everything about today was unique.

She still cursed herself for not paying him better attention. They could have both been safe in the supply depot with the rest of the children and the adults; with Darshan. With the soldiers to protect them. But it was not to be; at least now she could comfort him.

Though she wanted to tell him that she would take care of him, keep him safe, that she would never forget him again, she instead continued to sing. Outside the noise intensified.

“Are they gonna stop soon Ms. Balarayu?” Zaheer said, shutting his eyes.

She did not answer; she continued to sing. She pulled him closer, laying her head over his shoulder and rocking him in her arms a little. He squeezed her harder in response.

Aarya heard a clanging of metal on metal directly behind her.

She turned her head to face the shutters.

There was a ladder, a metal, extendable ladder, outside the window. It had hit the open shutters when going up. Aarya became paralyzed in her little corner, holding Zaheer, her head turned over her shoulder. She felt a quivering in the center of her chest. She stopped singing. He noticed, looked up at her. He tugged on her shirt a little.

“Ms. Balarayu? Are you ok?”

Clanging footsteps on the metal; one, two, one, two.

“Ms. Balarayu? Say something, please!”

“Zaheer, show me how you hid under the desks like you did before.”

She looked down at him with a false smile on her face, as if it was a game.

Zaheer knew it wasn’t; his expression was deadly serious. But he nodded his head, crawled off her lap, and slipped under the stack of desks in the corner of the room.

Aarya stood and made for the broom closet.

She ripped open the closet and withdrew the classroom broom.

Clang, clang, one, two, one two. Footsteps on metal. Handholds.

Aarya snuck up on the window.

She saw the hands first, seizing the handholds just over the window.

On one gloved, grey-sleeved hand, she saw a pistol and nearly shrieked; and on the other hand a pair of cutters big enough to snap the individual shutters in two big bites.

She saw the peak of the helmet, and she waited briefly for the face.

It was not an Ayvartan face; it was not the face of a rescuer. A young face, a blue-eyed, blond face, a pale-pink face; perhaps in another circumstance, a lovely face. But in this circumstance it was a grim face, covered in dirt and smelling of death, and when the lips parted the man shouted words she did not understand, like fearful eldritch curses.

Aarya drew in a breath and threw herself blindly forward.

Holding the broom by the handle with both hands close to the bristled bottom end, she shoved the handle out between the shutters, pulling back and thrusting in furious stabbing motions, slashing across the shutter with fearful sweeps, striking her everywhere she could. She smashed the man in the eye, then his his teeth, his nose. There was blood that burst from him over the open shutters, splashing them brown.

Her hip felt like it had torn open but she swiped and thrust and smashed through the pain without thinking, swallowing every sound she thought she would make.

Groaning unintelligibly, the man dropped his tools then fell backward off the ladder.

He landed at an angle, his head rocking violently as he hit the floor. Stiff and unresponsive he rolled down the muddy slide that Chanda’s hill had become. Ferried there by the mud, he came to lie at the foot of the hill, curled up like a newborn.

Aarya’s stomach churned. She clamped her hands over her mouth, feeling bile rise.

He was dead, a soldier was dead. She killed one of the imperialists; killed a person.

Aarya stared at where the body had fallen. More people ran into her field of view. They had guns and they were crowding at the bottom of the staircase, looking incredulously skyward. She thought she felt their eyes lock with hers, and she stepped back.

Gunfire sounded from below. Aarya dropped the broom and fell to the ground, hitting her hip again. She curled on her side, hugging herself and gritting her teeth with pain.

Helplessly she stared up from the floor; but she saw nothing hit the shutters. No bullets flew past, nothing ricocheted against the panes. They were not shooting at her.

She crawled to the window and helped herself up. She saw the carnage outside.

Several tanks lay smoking. One tank, painted a dark coat of green, moved into the field opposing the enemy, and it swung its turret wildly and cast long bursts of machine gun bullets across the slope and the buildings. Men fled from it, leaving behind the ladder and rushing downhill into the grass. More enemy tanks moved to fight off the green tank with the hexagonal turret. She watched, transfixed, as the machines hurtled toward each other, as they wove around, as they clashed. Aarya winced at the cannon blasts, as if she felt the muzzle flashes and the howls of each shot as if beside her own head.

In rapt attention she watched as the green tank outfought all of the grey ones.

Zaheer appeared at her side. She felt his hand take hers, but she couldn’t look away.

Nocht fled; trucks hitched away their evil guns; cars rushed out of sight as fast as their wheels could take them; men careened across the field and jumped into the backs of moving vehicles seconds before they set off. Only one tank had survived the green tank and it fled with a perforated turret and a dozen men huddling for cover atop its hull.

Atop the green tank, standing wounded but triumphant in the middle of the meadow, a hatch opened. People arrived and helped pull someone up from inside the tank, and they produced an object from a medical bag and stuck her with it. She seized up, and writhed, and she heard the woman shout. Her posture soon softened, however, and people started to carry her toward the school. They carried her around the slope.

Soon as they brought her around the Auxiliary building, Aarya saw her face.

She brought her hands up to her mouth and she started to weep uncontrollably.

She recognized her; with her sporty cheek-length black hair, her locks messy, blunt ended, longer on the sides and shorter on the back; her deep brown skin and slightly round face, her lips, the upper thinner than the lower, the long bridge of her nose–

That was her; Naya Oueddai had come here. She had come and saved them all.

Nocht’s retreat from the meadow left a palpable silence in Chanda, but most of its defenders heard an irregular tinnitus in their ears even in the absence of gunfire. It took a bit of time for the base even to realize that it had been relieved at all. At first the defenders in the campus proper believed the slackening of the enemy attack signaled only a calm before the storm — the enemy would reorganize, and push back harder.

Everyone clung to their positions, never once believing that the fight could end quickly or decisively. Lone submachine guns puttered here and there as jumpy shuja believed they had seen a sign of the enemy. Captain Agrawal continued to transmit orders to hold. Eyes peeled on their doors, windows and corners, the defenders maintained a shaky discipline. Fear of the enemy was the bond that kept them fixed in place and fighting.

Then they heard from the tanker in the field: a new ally had suddenly entered the fight.

Almost as soon as this was transmitted the fight was over. Impromptu scouts probed the campus and reported no sign of active enemy combatants. Defenders emerged from their buildings and ambled to the field in a daze. There were corpses everywhere, men burnt to a crisp, perforated by fragments, crushed under overturned vehicles or lying in the smashed wrecks of others. Shell craters a meter or more wide dotted the landscape, forming pools of mud and water and blood. Several wrecked enemy tanks lay near one another close to the center of the meadow, surrounding the hunters they fell prey to.

Men and women raised their faces skyward, washing blood and filth from their faces and rubbing the rain on their eyes. But when they turned to the field again the apparitions had not gone — there were two tanks there that nobody on campus could identify. Their crews exited the vehicles and tended to one another in their own little world. One tank was quickly verified to belong to the comrade responsible for most of the carnage, while the much larger one had arrived later and mostly spooked the already fleeing enemy.

In the administration building, Dr. Agrawal’s radio came alive again with a new voice.

“This is unit Vijaya. Hang tight, Chanda. We’re coming to help with your evacuation.”

Dr. Agrawal had not ordered an evacuation, but it was an idea with immediate appeal.

From the back of the school the recon troops’ cars and the ambulance truck wheeled out, and they were soon joined by the half-tracks of Camp Vijaya. Commanders from both sides exchanged handshakes and thanks; Dr. Agrawal thought that without the aid of this Captain Rajagopal and her troops she would have certainly died this day.

After a brief conversation in sign language, they set about coordinating the work.

Wounded from Chanda were looked after, woken up or carried out, and then gingerly loaded onto the vehicles. Vijaya and Chanda’s tractors, half-track trucks and cars formed a convoy that could bear about 50 people back to the Benghu train station at a time. More or less people could be loaded depending on how well they (or their injuries) responded to riding in a cramped space with ten to twenty other people.

Injured personnel were taken first in order of severity; after them, it would be the turn of children and noncombatants, and then finally the rest. Moving at the speed of its slowest components, and having forewarned all involved parties of the action through the radio, the convoy managed to travel to the train station, unload, and return to Chanda within thirty to forty minutes. Two trips and then a final one-way trip were scheduled.

While the first group of evacuees traveled out, Chanda’s freshly injured defenders lined up to receive first aid for their battle wounds and then await their turn on the convoy.

Meanwhile, anyone healthy enough for labor was gathered and organized to form cleanup details. These small groups varied in how sanitary their work would be. Under the rain they ran through the halls and combed through the courtyard and field.

Nochtish corpses were piled up, with their dog tags visible on them so they could be identified. It was clear to everyone that this place would be given up to Nocht. They could find their dead there and do with them what they wished after that.

Ayvartan corpses were bagged up; if the convoy had the time and the space, they would be evacuated last. It was miserable work, but there was no shortage of volunteers willing to do it. Nobody wanted to leave their comrades behind — even in death.

Lists were printed and copied quickly while there was still power to the campus, and everyone who left was marked off, until they were completely certain nobody had been left behind. A bonfire was started in every office, and all documents that were not necessary or crucial were burnt. Everything else was boxed and taken out.

Soldiers threw grenades into the supply room and cooked off any remaining ammunition that could not be taken. Grenades were also employed to great effect against facilities and items that the enemy could use, such as medical equipment, the diesel-guzzling power generator in the back of the school, and any radios too heavy to take.

Chanda was stripped as bare as it could be. About all that was left behind were the desks upon which children wrote and drew and spread open their books, and the detritus of the battle. Spent shell casings, chipped wood and cement, grime and blood and glass. As the evening neared there was not a soul wandering the gloomy halls.

Amid the retreat, however, a few wavering souls managed to find support.

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Salva’s Taboo Exchanges VII

This chapter contains themes of abandonment, emotional and social distress, and manipulation.

36th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Pallas Academy

A timer rang in the kitchen. Sweet smells drifted into the apartment’s main space. Cinnamon and mint tingled Salvatrice’s nose but did not draw her attention away from the paper in her hands. Canelle returned; when she set down the sweet rolls and mint tea on the table in front of Salvatrice’s couch, the princess began to read the short letter for the umpteenth time as if there was some hidden meaning she could divine from it.

Her servant sat in the couch across from her and took a delighted sip of tea.

“Yum! Certainly the best cup I’ve ever made. You should give it a taste, Princess.”

She extended the cup as if to bewitch the princess with the smell of it.

Salvatrice lifted her own cup, blew on it and then set it slowly back down.

A perfunctory, distracted action from a woman with more on her mind.

She had the letter in her hands still. Turning over the words, the green ink.

Rubbing her chin, scratching her hair; nothing, she could not make sense of it. Why her; why now? Salvatrice threw down the letter in frustration. She covered her face with her hands, rubbing her fingers against her forehead, burying her thumbs into her temples. Canelle reached out a hand and laid it down on her shoulder, squeezing gently.

“Were this a truly dire circumstance I’m sure Her Highness would have spared more than eight words for you, Princess. Please calm down and eat. Take your medicine. Relax yourself. I’m sure you’ll go to Palladi and back without consequence.”

“My mother never spares words. She just gives commands.” Salvatrice replied. She gave Canelle a sharp glance that forced the latter to cower and withdraw her gaze. “My mother considers me such a lowly creature she needn’t explain what she requires of me, she calls me to her like a dog or a horse and knows I must blindly obey the whistle!”

Staring at the couch cushions at her side, Canelle replied in a conciliatory, almost frightened tone of voice, “I’m sure Her Highness has her reasons. A mother would not–”

Furiously, Salvatrice interrupted. “She has already jailed one of her daughters! My mother is mother last, Canelle, and above that she is a tyrant, a gaoler, a murderer!”

“No, Princess, stop, that is wrong, please.” Canelle pleaded in distressed whispers, her voice choppy. “Do not say these wrong things, Princess. You do not under–”

Salvatrice crossed her arms and breathed harshly. “I’m sorry. You’re not to blame nor to suffer for any of this. But please see it from my perspective, Canelle. For years I’ve had such limited contact with mother. She extends her arms to me to tell me she has jailed my sister and given me her position. Then she abandons me again; now this! Tell me, were you in my position could you see this as anything but another incoming betrayal?”

“Your circumstances are of an extraordinary nature Princess.” Canelle said gently.

“So you cannot speak of it? You cannot relate to it at all?” Salvatrice said.

“I am an un-extraordinary person.” Canelle replied, casting glances at the floor.

Salvatrice turned her cheek at this answer. It was frustrating, but wherever the Queen was concerned Canelle would become uselessly demure in an instant. Whether she feared or respected her or a twisted combination of the two, Salvatrice did not know.

Canelle kept all of her secrets, and took care of her, and Salvatrice wanted to think her loyalty resulted from warm feelings, from friendship and empathy and a relationship.

But whenever discussion shifted to the Queen, it brought to Salvatrice’s mind the ugly thought that perhaps Canelle just did it out of an antiquated sense of a peasant’s obligation to royalty. She kept her secrets because a peasant girl did not betray a noble-born woman; she helped Salvatrice because a peasant girl did not refuse aid to a noble-born woman. And she treated the Queen’s name as if that of a God because peasants did not take the liege’s name in vain. Perhaps it was not love at all, just awe of her.

It made Salvatrice feel lonely and isolated. She turned her head and wiped Canelle from her sight. In so doing all she had was walls; just a room bereft of anyone’s sentiment.

As she scanned around the room Salvatrice saw the door open abruptly as if by itself.

Centurion Byanca Geta casually let herself into the room, dangling a keyring in her index finger and whistling a little song as she went. She closed and locked the door behind herself, and ambled toward the couches, coming to a stop near the princess.

“Where did you get that?” Salvatrice said. Her voice rose to an aggressive tone.

“Good morning to you too, Your Majesty.” Byanca had on an apathetic expression.

“I categorically refuse to allow you to let yourself in here. Give me those keys.”

Salvatrice extended her hand at almost the same time as Byanca withdrew her own.

“They’re the old custodian set. I was allowed to have them for security reasons.”

She was being cheeky lately; much more than Salvatrice was comfortable with. The Princess tried not to lose herself in front of the Centurion, but she could not help it. When she next spoke her demeanor had devolved from imperious to rancorous.

“Give me your copy of my key then! Keep the rest if you need them so badly!”

Salvatrice thrust her hands out again and swiped at Byanca in passing.

The Centurion stepped away from her reach, walking around the table.

“They are a security asset now and I cannot release them to a civilian. Apologies.”

Byanca gave a little mocking bow. Salvatrice gripped the skirt of her dress in anger.

Canelle raised her tea cup. “Joining us for tea and cinnamon rolls, Centurion?”

Salvatrice cried out in a suddenly petulant voice. “Canelle! Don’t offer her tea!”

Almost at the same time Byanca bowed her head. “I would love to be your guest.”

“Geta! Don’t accept her tea!” Salvatrice whined. Nobody listened to a word of it.

Canelle smiled and sidled toward the couch armrest to make room at her side.

Byanca dropped brusquely on the couch beside Canelle and snatched a roll from the table. She took a bite out of it, and took a sip of the tea shortly after. Cup in one hand, roll in the other; not much in the way of tea table manners at all. Something about that sloppy display resonated with Salvatrice. She felt an odd sense of nostalgia from it.

In the face of her current frustration she found no comfort in those pangs of feeling.

Grunting a little, Salvatrice thrust the letter over the table to hand it to her Centurion.

“I take it since you’re here, you know what this is about. So explain yourself.”

Byanca cast a few deliberate glances between the letter and Salvatrice’s eyes.

She paused and pushed the remainder of the roll into her mouth.

“I have no idea.” She said through a mouthful of half-chewed food.

She swallowed, and sucked the slick sugary glaze left on each of her fingers. Once cleaned she extended her hand and plucked the letterhead from Salvatrice’s fingers. After a quick glance she slid the letter down the table toward the princess, and pushed her teacup up against her face, tipping down the rest of the tea in one big gulp.

Canelle and Salvatrice watched her as one would a misbehaving child. Salvatrice almost expected ructus and flatulence to follow after the rest of this slovenly show.

Thankfully Byanca merely set down her cup outside her saucer and sat back.

“I came to inform you that all Rossa surveillance measures have been revoked. Phone wiretapping, mail interception, transaction controls; it’s all done henceforth. From now on your security, and any accountability for your movements, begins and ends with me.”

Salvatrice was taken aback. At the mention of all of this spying she felt anger rising in her chest. She had suspected that she was being watched, in the discrete ways that the Legion could watch her. Hearing the extent of it spoken so casually stoked the embers already lit by her present circumstances. There was no relief in knowing that these violations had been curtailed. She was sure now that the future held much worse.

Meanwhile Canelle beamed, ecstatic, and clapped her hands together several times.

“You hear that, Princess? I told you that your mother had your interests in mind!”

“This is all part of a scheme.” Salvatrice said. She sighed. “She’s plotting something.”

“I agree. Her Royal Highness would not tear down the collar she’s got around your neck just to be a good mother. She has something planned for you.” Byanca replied.

Canelle glared at Byanca with sudden disdain. Her mouth hung slightly open.

“Do not fill the Princess’ head with evil ideas, Centurion!” She shouted.

Salvatrice crossed her arms and grinned cheekily. “Finally someone in this land of the blind sees things my way; and ironically of all people it is the Blackshirt Centurion.”

“I told you before, but I am on your side, Princess. No one else’s.” Byanca said.

“Yes, so you say. I don’t know why a Blackshirt would say it, but you do.”

“In any case,” the centurion began, at a lower, deflated tone of voice, “you should prepare to leave for the palace soon. I’ll be accompanying you on the journey.”

Salvatrice leaned forward toward Byanca, holding her head on her hands.

There were so many faces over the years. Salvatrice had stayed in a Messianic monastery, she certainly remembered that. It was dedicated to trying to revive divine magic. But she had stayed in the duke’s vineyard until the duke mysteriously passed, and she had stayed in a girl’s school for a time, and she had stayed with a General of the army Regolare until his own passing; and in each of those places there had been children, whom she played with and grew up around for certain short periods of her life. Save for one, for whom she reserved all of her feeling, she had forgotten all of these acquaintances. In her mind they were so transitory they were not worth recalling.

In front of her this Centurion insisted that she and Salvatrice had a connection.

And her presence was starting to insist remembrance from Salvatrice’s mind.

Was she worth remembering? Was that memory valuable enough to become trust?

“Why did you become a Blackshirt?” Salvatrice asked. “Did you really do such a thing to try to be ‘on my side’? You must understand how implausible that sounds to me.”

Byanca breathed out a sigh. She rubbed her hands down her face, and clapped them together as they slid off her chin. She stared at the ceiling, flicking her wrists.

This was a question that hurt to answer. This was a hurt person in front of her; that was the impression Salvatrice got. It made her uncomfortable to think she was causing her such hardship, but several little voices continued to assure her that she was justified.

Canelle looked between the two of them, discomforted by the sudden silence.

“I wanted to become a Knight.” Byanca finally said. She continued to speak, pausing from time to time, staring at her hands to avoid eye contact. “Knights who ascend to the rank of Maggiore can present themselves before a Lady of noble blood to ask for a wish from her, anything desired. This was a rule that passed down from the time of Magic, where miracles were real. He needed only swear his loyalty in the eyes of God, and she would indulge him in order to strengthen her family’s position. Ever since the rule of Passionale Vittoria began, women have been able to become Knights too. So a woman Knight can still ask a wish from a Lady. I wanted to make use of this ancient law.”

Her face sank again into her hands after she was done speaking. She didn’t look up for a time. Salvatrice did not know what to make of the shame with which she admitted this. This was something she desired so much; why would she speak of it with such trepidation? She looked almost disgusted with herself. Salva didn’t understand it at all. She didn’t understand why Byanca would seek after wishes in a time where Magic was now dead; and she did not understand why this dream tore her up so much now.

“What was your wish?” Salvatrice asked. “And whom would you present it to?”

Byanca raised her head. She had on a bitter, cynical grin, quite different in tone from the cheeky expression she bore when flipping the keyring in her fingers minutes ago. A little laughter escaped her as she spoke; to whom it was directed, Salvatrice didn’t know.

“I staked everything on it, Princess, but I failed to become a Knight. I became a Blackshirt to avoid the depths of my failure. That is the undramatic truth of the matter, whether you believe it or not. I was sent to Borelia, where I trudged through miserable wilderness to kill men who threw grenades from bushes and laid mines along the roads. What was my wish? I don’t know anymore. It doesn’t matter. I’m not that girl anymore.”

Now it was Salvatrice’s turn to avert her eyes. She did not want to lock with that sudden, mournful gaze cast toward her by the Centurion. She was afraid and felt guilty.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pried into this. I’m just being nosy, and it’s unbecoming.”

“You deserve to know. I wanted to sit down and explain all of this sooner anyway.”

Salvatrice plotted something eloquent to say, but her lips moved before her mind.

“Byanca, I have no power to grant any wish to anyone.” Salvatrice said to her.

“Blackshirts do not get wishes. We’re unworthy of them.” Byanca replied quickly.

“Then what do you want? Why did you accept this mission? Why are you on my side?”

The Princess and the Centurion locked gazes again. Byanca smiled softly.

“You deserve to have someone on your side. That answers all those questions.”

Salvatrice stood up from the couch and turned her back. She walked out toward the bookshelves surrounding the door to her room, pacing them with her hands behind her back. She looked wistfully around, seeking anything to grab her attention and break the tension that she felt around the room. But her mind was so scrambled that she saw the letters on the books shifting and warping before her eyes. Everything was twisted now. She ran an idle hand through her hair and sucked her lips in, tasting the red pigment.

Without turning back to the couches, stifling a groan, Salvatrice gave her answer.

“Centurion Geta, the one thing the 1st Princess of Lubon can grant you is trust, so she will grant you trust. Treasure it, for nothing will replace that gift should you squander it.”

Salvatrice pulled a book from the shelf, taking an object she had hidden behind it.

Her head held high, she returned to the couch and held out Byanca’s Picea pistol.

Their hands briefly brushed as the Centurion took back her weapon.

“God save our gracious Queen. Long live our noble Queen.” Byanca sang softly.

She returned the weapon to its holster with a demure little smile on her face.

Salvatrice shook her head, exasperated. “To hell with the Queen.”

37th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Before, when the Queen summoned Salvatrice, a private car appeared out of the blue in front of the Aquinas building. Canelle urged her to dress nicely and slide into the back seat without question. A driver behind bulletproof tinted glass, likely sworn to have no interaction with her, drove her wordlessly to wherever the Queen wished to meet her. That was the expected procedure, the control that the Queen had over her life before.

But there was no private car, even two days after Salvatrice received the letter. In fact it was the first time that a royal summons had been delivered to her like this. She knew that she could not tempt fate for much longer. One or two days could be chalked up to the whims of the postal system. Any more might draw the Queen’s ire. So on the morning of the 37th, Salvatrice made preparations to leave for the royal capital.

Canelle was practically jumping off the walls with enthusiasm. She picked out a regal green dress, that had been designed to match one the Queen had worn several months prior at an important function. It was form-fitting, though Salvatrice felt she had precious little form for the dress to fit, as she was a fairly slight lady; the tight, long skirt evoked petals curling around with her body as the flower’s core, and the high neck and long sleeves gave it a sleek modesty. There was a green gemstone shining on her chest.

“You are the image of your mother; I wish others would see that!” Canelle said.

Salvatrice posed in front of the mirror as Canelle fussed with her hair. Aside from a green and red ribbon, her straight, shoulder-length, evenly-distributed red-yellow hair remained the same. A touch of red lipstick accentuated her thin lips, and a dab of purple shadow lent a bit of complexity to her face and complimented her green eyes. Powders and blush gave her slightly brown skin a somewhat lighter look than it normally had.

Two pieces of wing-like jewelry extended the size of her ears by a few millimeters.

Canelle turned her around before the mirror, admiring her handiwork. “You look beautiful, Salvatrice! Of course, you always do, but you look your best when your clothes shine as bright as the rest of you, I think! Artifice accentuates nature.”

“In my case I think the medicine is more to thank than nature.” Salvatrice said.

“Oh come now, don’t say that, your beauty is inherent,” Canelle said awkwardly.

Salvatrice felt a little thrill running through her body as she looked in the mirror. She was dressed up now, in costume. There was a strange, elated, perhaps even somewhat arousing sensation to it. In the same way that she felt she became a man, Sylvano D’Amore, with the proper preparations, now she had become a woman to the world. It was comforting, like a mask, it covered up the bare, naked Salvatrice within it.

Whatever that was; at times Salvatrice felt there was nothing underneath one costume or the other. She didn’t even know which one was the more natural form for her. She loved both; she loved being both. But she felt there was something apart from them too.

With her “costume” done up, and a little luggage prepared, Salvatrice took a light, careful breakfast, pumped a little estrogen into her system, and made ready to depart.

Outside the apartment door she found Byanca waiting in her dress uniform.

She looked at Salvatrice and appeared momentarily shocked. Salvatrice was a little taken aback in turn, but she had much more practice with holding her composure.

“What, Centurion; do I not ordinarily look like this to your eyes?” Salvatrice said.

“N-No, Princess, just, you look,” Byanca tripped over her words, “gorgeous.”

Salvatrice grinned. “And then I ask again, am I not gorgeous all of the time?”

“Well this is a different kind of gorgeous! There are gradients!” Byanca replied.

Byanca was looking rather more polished than normal. She had no makeup, for the service allowed her none, but her pure black uniform was rather dashing, her jacket decorated with all of her medals and patches, including the centurion’s armband, and a thin blue sash across her chest and waist. She wore her hair collected in a bun, very professional, and donned her feathered bersaglieri cap, black with a silver emblem. Her uniform accentuated the trained, toned slimness of her. She looked martial and strong. Knightly, one could even say. Though the Princess restrained her compliments.

“You look exceptionally fit to guard me, Geta.” Salvatrice said in a haughty tone.

The Centurion took those words as Salvatrice meant them and blushed immediately.

“Don’t stand there looking bashful, Geta! Lead the way for your charge. Escort me.”

“Y-Yes, Princess.” Byanca nodded her head, took the Princess’ luggage in her hands, and then started down the stairs. Salvatrice delicately followed the Blackshirt down. Canelle trailed behind them with an ecstatic look, bouncing as she went along.

Outside the Aquinas building, Byanca hailed a fancy black town car with a long sloping nose and a leather-covered interior with two sets of windows on either side. She opened the door for Salvatrice, who gave her a quizzical look before accepting the invitation. Tinted glass separated the cab from the passenger’s roomy black leather seating. Everything smelled strangely fresh inside as if the car was new from the factory.

The Centurion loaded her luggage in the back, tapped on the front glass and alerted the driver, and got inside, seated beside the Salvatrice — with a healthy bit of room between them. Together they bid Canelle farewell while she stood off the side of the road in amazement. Once the car was started and pulling away, Salvatrice turned to Byanca.

“What is this supposed to be? Where is my ordinary driver?” She asked.

“He’s fine; we’re just using this today. It is Legatus Tarkus’ staff car.” Byanca said.

“Staff car? He drives this? For work purposes?” Salvatrice whispered in surprise.

“No, it has practically never left the garage. But it’s bulletproof and safe. There’s a machine gun under the seat and everything. He vigorously approved of its use.”

Salvatrice grunted. “Who is the driver? Someone you know? Can you truly trust him?”

Byanca cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted. “He can’t hear you!”

“Alright, fine, he can’t, answer the question.” Salvatrice said aloud. She looked at the tinted glass and could make out an outline of a fairly tall man in a newsboy hat.

“You can trust him about as far as you can throw him. I can throw him a meter I think.” Byanca grinned. She laid back. “There is no way that he will interfere with anything.”

Salvatrice crossed her arms. She looked out the window at the scrolling landscape.

“Fine then. I trust you. How long will it take until we reach the Royal Territory?”

Byanca looked suddenly peppy. “A few hours; hey, let us sing a road song!”

“Don’t push your luck.” Salvatrice replied imperiously, keeping her gaze from Geta.

Once the car got going in earnest, the driver first circled around the Aquinas building and took a circuitous route out of the Academy, moving through neighboring vineyards and greenhouses. Clear of the campus, he rounded the rural roads, where there was nary another motor vehicle in their way. He skipped the nearby town of Juth; Salvatrice watched it pass them by, a kilometer out at their side as they advanced into the country. Over and around several green hills the car traveled with ease, the ride smooth and relatively noiseless. Palladi, a central Province of Lubon, was ringed by mountainous terrain. Complex, hilly turf was common to it, woodland thick and sparse dotted the landscape.

North of Palladi the hills opened into an expanse of broad, flat descending terrain sliced through by the vacillating Radice river and its branches. As the car glided down the hills Salvatrice could see the white palace in the distance, its walls extending around a dense, red-roofed town like protecting arms. She could almost see the crown of the Father Tree behind the gleaming towers of the castle. Vittoria’s Palazzo, the ancient town of Pallas, and the surrounding farmland was the nation-within-a-nation known as the Royal Territory of Pallas. Fifteen miles across and ten long, Pallas, farmlands and all, was the size of a city and much less densely populated than Torto or Cartha or other modern elven holdings. But the town itself was only a fraction of the territory’s total size.

Over a series of bridges, the car crossed the many arms of the Radice river that traced through the land at irregular intervals like the roots of the First Tree dug into the soil. Everything between the hills and the palace was farmland and homesteads that served the White Palace. They passed by orchards and vineyards, fields of purple Cyrn that gave bountiful cereals in the spring. Peasant families shepherded the farmlands and plucked nature’s fruits both for themselves and to present to the Queen each season.

“Ten green bottles of wine on the wall, ten green bottles hanging on the wall–”

Byanca sang and sang various drinking songs, mostly to herself, but loud enough to hear. She had already counted bottles several times, and sang Bevilo Tutto. It seemed all the songs she knew or at least the ones she felt like singing were drinking songs.

Salvatrice was quiet as the Queen’s lands scrolled past her eyes. She had frozen into a casual pose, with a hand on her cheek and another on her lap, staring out the closed window.

At first they were content to sit beside each other with a healthy gap between them, but after a few minutes inside the Royal Territory, Byanca started glancing Salvatrice’s way.

“Something wrong, Princess?” She asked. Her enthusiasm was mildly off-putting.

“Do soldiers only sing drinking songs?” Salvatrice said, glancing sidelong at Byanca.

“I used to be in choir, but you’d just get laughed at singing religious songs in a tank.”

“I suppose so.” Salvatrice looked out the window again, counting the electric poles.

“Let’s get this open, Princess! Take a whiff of the country air. It’ll cheer you up.”

From her side, Byanca leaned clumsily over, laying hands on the window lever. Salvatrice raised her hands in surprise. Byanca turned the lever and rolled down the window, then retreated with her own hands raised to mirror Salvatrice’s pose.

A gentle breeze blew into the passenger compartment, blowing Salvatrice’s hair.

She took in a deep breath; there was a sweet smell that she could not place.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it? And it smells great. I feel so at ease here.” Byanca said. Her ponytail swayed gently and she looked so girlishly delighted with everything.

Salvatrice smiled a little. She did not want to be the one to ruin the mood for now.

Byanca was happy because she saw nothing but the surface of the elven holy land.

For the First Princess, who would take up the mantle of Queen Vittoria, Pallas represented a birth-right, its people and lands owned absolutely by the Queen, to the point that the statutes of the Parliament did not matter within its limits. But Salvatrice had not grown in Pallas, groomed to succeed the throne. Clarissa had been the face of the Vittoria lineage up until recently. The streets of Pallas, the walls of the Palazzo, all of it was her childhood home. Clarissa was the one known and loved in the Royal Territory.

Salvatrice was like an invader; a foreign presence made to force her way inside.

This was the position that her mother had thrust her into. Salvatrice would have been content with obscurity. She had never wanted to rule. She had no aspirations to power or influence. Seclusion had nurtured modest goals. Peaceful tea-times, an education, a semblance of a social life, love; as ordinary a life as a royal-born girl could dream of.

She was not welcome here. Her trajectory in life was not meant to intersect with this.

Past several kilometers of farmland the car stopped before the green gates in the middle of the forward wall. Blackshirt guards wordlessly checked Byanca’s credentials. They offered no words for Salvatrice; they barely even glanced her way. It was as if she did not exist. In her situation, Salvatrice couldn’t tell if this was out of duty or disdain.

As quietly as they approached and as silently as they deliberated the guards returned Byanca’s papers and the vehicle’s registration, and ushered them through the gate.

Inside the green gates they found themselves on the perfectly flat, spotless grey roads of Pallas town, flanked on either side by rows of buildings with quaint-looking gabled red roofs. They traveled the main thoroughfare, under curling green street-lights like drooping flowers, their car trailing behind trolleys and work buses. Throngs of people in suits and uniforms crowded both sides of the street, coming and going from their work. Pallas was old but under Vittoria it was never antiquated. Fashionable clothing hung on trendy storefronts; modern restaurants catered to the middle class workers that now inhabited the town. Telephone lines and electric cabling hung high over every street.

At the end of the thoroughfare the middle wall divided the town of Pallas and the Mound of the Father-Tree — a beautiful, gently rising green hill walled in on all sides with polished white rock, and bearing at its peak the palace of Passionale Vittoria. A richly decorated structure, its corners were four equidistant towers surrounding a thick, central spire. Its walls projected backward beyond the living space and enclosed the plot of land that bore the Father-Tree. One could not see it through the height of Vittoria’s central tower. It had been built hundreds of years ago precisely to obscure the Father-Tree from commoners.

There were no paved roads outside of the town, and no telephone or electric poles projecting out from the earth. Their car was stopped beyond the gate by blackshirt guards and they were directed to park in a garage at the foot of the Mound alongside a dozen other liaison cars. Once the car parked, Byanca rushed out of her own door, swung around the back and opened the right-side passenger door for Salvatrice.

She ushered the Princess out onto the gravel with a gentlemanly bow of the head.

“Don’t push your luck.” Salvatrice said again. Byanca chuckled a little to herself.

“Shall I take your luggage?” the Centurion asked.

“No. He can do it.” Salvatrice pointed at the driver, who looked her way in confusion.

Nearly swallowing his cigarette, the man rushed to his work while the women left.

The Mound was gentle enough a climb for most people, and the climb was required for anyone who wanted to visit the Palazzo. No vehicles or horses were allowed to climb the Mound — only the feet of human beings. Salvatrice and Byanca followed a makeshift path up the slope, delineated by perfectly-trimmed bushes with gilded sashes around them. It was a ten minute walk under the noon sun, and Salvatrice felt herself sweat a little.

Before the palace doors they were again stopped, and again it was only Byanca whom the guards seemed concerned with. For the third time she displayed her rank before them; once again she was allowed forward, while Salvatrice received no word from anyone. Through the double doors of reinforced glass they entered a vast lobby with four large fountains, an indoor garden filled with lilies of all manner of colors, like a rainbow grown from the soil, and couches beside tables full of brochures for visitors.

Salvatrice was ready to be insulted that her mother would leave her at the reception.

Then a set of doors opened at the end of the lobby and a woman approached, flanked by a pair of guards. She wore an afternoon uniform, a conservative black dress worn under a white apron, with long black sleeves and hands covered in white gloves. Her half-white, half-blond hair was pulled up into a bun, and she wore an elaborate cap.

Salvatrice took note of her because she had seen her before, though they had not formally met, not that Salvatrice remembered. But this must have been her mother’s maid — Canelle’s counterpart in the castle. Unlike Canelle, this maid had a foxy, canny sort of expression, a slight grin with piercing blue eyes behind a pair of thin spectacles. Hers was not a gentle expression. Salvatrice would’ve even called it a violent one.

“Princess, it is a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance. My name is Lillith Mariel.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Mariel.” Salvatrice said. She forced a softer, girlish sounding tone of voice and a graceful smile. Her cheeks already tingled from the effort.

Lillith bowed her head, and she reached out her hands, palms up. Salvatrice touched her with both of her own, palm against palm, and the servant had room again to speak. And speak she did; in a dulcet tone of voice she indulged in a lengthy introduction.

“You would not remember me, but long have I been keeper of your mother’s skin and silk. I have been with your mother since before you were born — in fact, I helped her through labor with you. I was the first to hold you aloft, and to wipe your mother’s blood from your body. I was, even, the first to breast-feed you; I had to take a drug for it.”

“Well; it appears I came to meet one mother and found a second.” Salvatrice said.

Lillith giggled girlishly; at her side the guards looked visibly uncomfortable with this.

Through her affable facade Salvatrice felt a sudden surge of hatred for Mrs. Mariel.

There was no reason for her to say anything; like the guards, she could have just led her where she needed to go without undue words. She could not have been sentimentally attached to the Princess — this was a reason Salvatrice always threw out immediately where it concerned her mother’s people. She knew that none of them cared. By process of elimination Salvatrice realized that this was Lillith either taunting her or flaunting her freedom of speech. Unlike the other servants she had a measure of status in Pallas.

“History aside; your true mother awaits, Princess. Follow the guards up to the peak of the central spire. I shall take your dashing companion on a tour of the Palace, and your driver will be given instructions on what to do with your lullage. Worry not.” Lillith said.

After one additional bow, Lillith whipped around and marched down the hall, perhaps expecting that Byanca would immediately follow. Likewise, the guards turned around and started away from Salvatrice, and stood in front of an elevator door waiting for it.

“Princess, be careful.” Byanca said. Out of sight of the guards, she took Salva’s hand and squeezed it. It was definitely an overreach on her part — but it didn’t feel awful.

Salvatrice cocked a little grin at her and let her go. “Like I said, don’t push your luck.”

Royal Territory of Pallas — Palazzo Di Vittoria

At the top of the tower the guards opened the door to the spire’s main chamber and ushered Salvatrice in. They then turned around, shut the doors behind her and left the spire without setting foot inside. Salvatrice heard their footsteps, growing distant.

Inside the chamber there was nothing material on display, no obvious purpose. It was empty of furnishings, enclosed by unadorned walls, and there were no treasures on display. On the floor, a spiral green and brown pattern resembled vines or roots crawling along the tile. Overhead, the rising pyramidal shape of the roof, and its visible supports, untouched. At her side there was a wide open balcony with a commanding view of the green-glowing foliage of the Father-Free. A cool breeze blew into the chamber from several arch-shaped windows in the corners — they were standing high above Pallas.

In the center of the room, looking out to the balcony, stood Queen Regnant Passionale Vittoria. Her stoic beauty still struck the Princess; every time she saw her, those imperious green eyes, her fair skin, perfectly flowing locks of blond hair and features untouched by time, her figure, ample but also sleek, wrapped exquisitely in a sleeveless, ornate silk dress with a large green emerald set between her breasts. Salvatrice had scarcely seen her mother in the flesh, and every time she seemed more like a figure crafted, as though given life through the artifice of a legend like a Galathea statue.

She turned her head to her daughter, framed by the door several meters away.

She smiled; very slightly, a mere tipping of the lips, but her mother smiled at her.

“You look ravishing, Salvatrice. You have a beauty hitherto unknown to this land.”

“Thank you, Mother. You are as stunning as the Goddesses of our myths.”

Salvatrice replied graciously, and curtsied before her mother. Her compliments grated on the princess, however. Salvatrice was not “a beauty akin” to her mother, or even simply a “beauty.” She was a foreign, alien beauty; reddish hair, light brown skin, blunt ears. All of her features that were different from the norm seemed drawn into stark relief.

They each stood in their places. Vittoria turned fully to greet her, skirts trailing on the floor. Salvatrice remained at the edge of the room, standing with her hands clapped before her and set against her skirt. Neither made a move to draw near, to link hands or hug or even, in their places, to show any undue affections. Just smiles and distance.

“Did I ever tell you the story of how I became Queen, Salvatrice?” Vittoria said.


What a ridiculous question; of course you didn’t, Salvatrice’s mind screamed. You were never there! When on Aer would you have had time to tell me a story? It took all her moderation to continue smiling neutrally when her mind and soul seethed so strongly.

To Vittoria there was no contradiction in this, no acknowledgment of the absurdity of it. In all earnestness, she stretched her arms, gesturing to the breadth of the chamber around them. She looked up, at the roof, and around herself. She turned around.

“This room is quite nostalgic. It is here where my journey as a Queen truly began.”

Salvatrice looked around. This was alarming; there was significance in the air here. If this room meant anything to Vittoria then it was ominous that Salvatrice now stood in it.

“Was it empty at that time, Mother? Were you made to view the Father-Tree?”

Vittoria paced; Salvatrice heard the tapping of her heels under her voluminous skirt.

“I was a mere twenty years of age. This room was very different. It was surrounded by mirrors. You could not escape the sight of yourself in this room. It was known as the Chamber of Selection. All truths were laid bare before the Chamber of Selection.”

At her mother’s words the princess found her gaze wandering, scrolling across the walls, lingering on the floors. She saw the bolt-holes, where the mirrors would have once been screwed into place. A room full of mirrors, where one could not evade oneself — Salvatrice could imagine it. In her mind it was a macabre place. The way her Mother stared at the walls almost seemed to mirror this. Salvatrice could have sworn she saw a hint of disgust or trepidation in her mother’s countenance as she recalled the surroundings.

Again the Queen began to speak, and this time her tale was longer, and Salvatrice listened without interruption, swallowing all emotion but the facade of a smiling face.

“Once upon a time, my daughter, there was a young King, whose father passed, having spent his life unsuccessfully clinging to an Empire in decline. This young King wanted little responsibility, and longed only for domesticity; he was a shy king, fond of quiet.”

“Upon the eve of his coronation, his older, proper female relatives took it upon themselves, as is the ancient custom of this land, to seek a woman who could inspire his passion and improve upon his bloodline, which was much intermixed within the close-knit circles of the high aristocrats. They settled on three candidates, but two were problematic, for one crossed the King’s bloodline several times, and the other was thought too low-born to be appropriate. Nevertheless, all were brought here, to this room, one by one.”

“Surrounded on all sides by mirrors, the women were stripped of their clothes, and thoroughly examined. Width of the hips, size of the skull, physiognomy, length of limbs, body fat, and of course, virginity. The King’s grandmothers and aunts and older sisters, this assortment of the most proper ladies; they found, after their inspection, that there was only one woman who had the character and health to support the kingdom.”

Vittoria turned her head over her shoulder, staring sidelong at Salvatrice.

“I hated what they did to me, how they saw me that day; it disgusts me to this day.”

There was vitriol in her voice. Salvatrice felt a thump in her chest as she listened.

“Our traditions, by and large, disgust and repel me. Years later I would take my bloody revenge on the King’s nonni for that slight. With these two hands, Salvatrice, I closed the circle those crones began on the eve when they selected me as wife to their King.”

She turned fully around, and wore a suddenly darkened expression. Her eyes downturned, her lips curled in a stoic displeasure, her hands held behind her back.

“When you were born, doctors took you from me and deliberated about you as if you were an anomaly or a myth. They said explicitly they did not know whether I had chosen a correct name for you. It disturbed me. It reminded of that time in the elector council. People being treated like lumps of meat.”

Vittoria stretched one of her hands back out from behind herself, and though there was nothing in it, she did it with such quickness that Salvatrice nearly jumped back with fright. She always thought Vittoria would smack her from across the room somehow.

“I purged every doctor who had anything to do with that unneeded panic at your birth, and I sought out doctors on the cutting edge of science, young and with open minds. I did not want doctors with knives who viewed you as a creature. Nobody deserves that.”

Lies, lies, lies. Salvatrice fought back the urge to shout. You killed those doctors because they hurt your ego, not because they wanted to hurt your child; though the result was the same Salvatrice knew that the origin was different. This was not love.

“Whenever we met during your childhood, I saw you growing and growing into a fine princess. And I saw your enthusiasm to be a princess. I sought every resource available to make you the best princess that you could possibly be, the healthiest, best educated, least poisoned by bureaucratic indulgence. I only wish I could have been there more for you during that time.”

Salvatrice closed her hands into fists at her side. This was all embellishment. As a child Salvatrice only called herself what other people called her; what her mother called her. She didn’t know anything back then. She didn’t really know much now. Though she was happy enough with the result of all these years, all these doctors and medicines and treatments, these examinations, all the things taboo to medicine that she was and was made to be; that chaos and confusion was not a calculated, loving decision by her mother. It was the result of neglect and receiving only what Vittoria wanted to give. She could have been Sylvano or Salvatrice. She had accepted both, in a sense. That was not Vittoria’s doing!

“But Salvatrice, I already knew it when I held you as a child. What I saw then was unambiguous. I knew who my daughter was and I knew what she truly wanted and what it was her birthright to become in the end. From the moment you were born, I knew that it was you who needed the utmost protection, who needed to be sheltered from the melee that was unfolding in these walls. Not Clarissa; you. Always you, Salvatrice.”

Her words nearly drew tears from Salvatrice’s eyes. She wished she had a broader skirt so that her knees could quiver openly. Salvatrice felt as though there was a skin under her own and a creature ready to lunge from it for the Queen’s throat. She was furious.

Vittoria was painting her own picture of Salva’s life, and all of the paint came from her own ego, her own untouchable ego. She had never done anything wrong, never abandoned her — in her own mind she was always the winner. And she said those horrible words, those erasing words, those words that spat on Salvatrice’s entire life as she had lived it; Queen Vittoria said them with such stoic ease and perfect delivery that it hammered at Salva’s mind.

She had not abandoned Salvatrice because of her dangerous illegitimacy, fathered by a foreign diplomat, and born ambiguous and unplaceable in a binary world; in Vittoria’s mind she had protected her and groomed her in a unique way! Oh how convenient for the Queen!

“One princess, grown among her people; the other, raised amid the repulsive ideological debauch of this Pallas and its squabbling, incompetent nobles and knights.” Queen Vittoria raised one hand, and then other, one palm-up, one palm-down. Salvatrice didn’t know which hand was supposed to represent her. They went up both at once.

Teeth clenched, hidden behind her lips, Salvatrice stilled her ragged breath as best as she could to deliver a short, crucial line. “Mother, how am I meant to serve on this day?”

She needed to cut her off this subject. She needed to do anything to reassert herself, to reassert that her version of the events was the real one. Salvatrice needed to be anything but this unique, uniquely loved, uniquely trained model daughter; she needed again to be the abandoned and reclaimed tool of a callous, monstrous despot. Otherwise her mother’s words would truly dig into her brain as if the unvarnished truth, erasing her own life.

“Salvatrice, I must confess to you, that I have lied, though I have done it to protect you, and I believe the lie a white one for the most part.” Vittoria said. She turned her back on Salvatrice again and paced to the end of the room, where she picked something up from a window.

“In what sense, Mother?” Salvatrice asked, her voice a little choked.

Vittoria flicked something her way — Salvatrice caught it against her chest.

It was a cardboard envelope, and inside there were photographs of a man, hair gelled back, a fine beard across his soft features, a boyishly handsome sort of person. There were also photographs of this man and a woman, a delicate little blond– Clarissa.

“It was never about Clarissa being indiscreet, for I do not care how many men she claims her own as long as she does so cautiously and uses them properly. Her indiscretion was the man she chose and what she chose to do with that man.”

Vittoria glided across the floor, and stood face to face with Salvatrice.

“That man is the leader of an anarchist cell known as New Humanity. His nom de guerre is Cesare Regal. He is connected to the attacks that have been transpiring across the country, but he is not a foreigner: he is an elf, born of this land, educated here, wealthy, and ambitious. He tapped into the ego that this environment cultivated in your sister. She plotted against me; now he plots against you in revenge for her.”

Salvatrice felt her mother’s fingers tip her chin up. They locked eyes.

Seeing deep into those callous green eyes Salvatrice could hold her tongue no longer.

“You used me as bait! All this time! To draw this man out!” Salvatrice shouted. She shouted each set of words as the revelation reverberated inside of her mind. That was why the surveillance was ended; going farther back, that was why Salvatrice was allowed to return to her studies after the trip to Nocht. Clarissa was removed, to provoke this man.

Salvatrice was promoted, and she was made vulnerable, to provoke him!

Vittoria grinned; she shook her head at her daughter, both amused and disappointed.

“No.” Vittoria said. She savored every word. “You are not bait, Salvatrice. You are the future Queen of Lubon. And you will show me the Power of a Queen by destroying this man and everything of his. You will do it because your past, present and future depend on it.”

She set her hands on Salvatrice’s shoulders and the Princess felt a sudden weight.

It was almost enough to make her collapse, and she did not know whose strength she borrowed to remain standing throughout that exchange, and to keep her eyes open. She felt like the hands of her mother were here to finally sink her into the earth where she belonged.

The Queen’s striking green eyes were no longer stoic and indifferent; they had been set ablaze by a malignant fire that illuminated a purpose reserved only for Salvatrice.

Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter