The Solstice War’s 2nd Anniversary!

On October 7th, 2013, almost on a whim, I published the first, mostly unedited full-length version of Operation Monsoon on the site. Because the response was better than expected I continued to work on it, and have been delivering two chapters a month plus side-content, without fail, for the past two years. While writing the prologue chapter, I thought I would never get a single person outside my immediate friend group to look at my writing — it was too niche and too weird, and yet, perhaps too traditional for the kind of niche, weird people who might otherwise gravitate to it. For “queer art” or “indie fiction” it was just too square; and yet for “mainstream art” or “genre fiction” it was just too unconventional.

Or so I thought. And yet, I was pushed by people I know to give it a swing, so I did.

Over the past two years I’ve done much more than I ever dreamed of doing as I typed out an outline of that fateful first chapter. I’ve got 20 people on my Patreon paying money to support the story, a feat I never thought I would accomplish in my wildest dreams. I’ve got a core group of regular readers who love the story and talk to me about it and talk to others about it. I’ve got a logo and art and even a book cover contributed by some great folks.

I did not even really know what serial fiction was at the time! Now I’m doing it.

It’s been an incredible journey, these past two years. My life has gone through some huge ups and downs. Sometimes I’ve been too depressed to work; but at other times the words have cascaded out of me so powerfully that I almost buckle and cry at the force of it. I have delivered my chapters every month without fail. I’ve met some awesome fans of the story, done a lot of neat research and cooked up some great chapters and arcs with characters I thoroughly enjoy writing and hitting on themes I’ve always been interested in. Now whenever someone asks me what kind of writing I want to do, what I want to see in the world, I have something huge to point toward. I have a weird little body of work here.

Thank you all so much for sticking with me through these years. Thank you for enjoying the story; thank you for criticizing the story; thank you for your support, be it on social media or the patreon; and thank you to the superfans who make life a joy for me everyday.

Here’s to another year of grand strategic adventure in The Solstice War! If you want to celebrate with me, post a comment below, and share your thoughts on the past two years! What brought you into the story? What moments struck a chord with you? What do you want to see more of? I’d love to hear from you today, on this momentous occasion!

Conspiracy City (46.1)

50th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Base, HQ

“Let them in.”

At the Colonel’s exasperated command, the machine gunners guarding entry into the headquarters stood aside. Kajari and Chadgura stepped away from the interior doorway and held their rifles with their bayonets and barrels staring at the ceiling. Outside, the guards inspected the arriving car while its occupants cross the threshold into the HQ.

Parinita Maharani recognized the escort, but she was more surprised at the woman.

“Please identify yourselves.” Madiha said. It was a formality. She knew both of them too.

Haughtily, the woman with the ringlets and skirt suit crossed her arms and grumbled.

“Chakrani Walters, representative of the Adjar Civil Council.” She said.

Madiha nodded her head. “Padmaja, have her sign in, please.”

“Yes ma’am.”

From a corner, Feng Padmaja quietly and meekly procured a ring-bound book and presented a page and a pen to Chakrani. Normally the junior staffer was chirpy and energetic, but the gravity in the room seemed to have tripled for her, and she moved very slowly and deliberately. Chakrani stared at her with disdain as she approached, and begrudgingly signed the book before shoving the pen brusquely back into Padmaja’s hands. Stunned by the outburst, Padmaja stowed the pen between the locks of hair at the edge of one of her covered double buns, and walked sadly and stiffly back to her table.

“Can we talk now?” Chakrani asked. Her tone was turning downright bratty.

Madiha quietly nodded her head toward the man at Chakrani’s side.

“Identify yourself.” She demanded.

“I don’t feel like it.” He said.

“I will not ask again.”

Parinita averted her gaze. She felt the tension in the room constricting her chest.

Despite their previous liaison, Chakrani did not seem touched in any way by Madiha’s visible injuries. She seemed quite ready to treat Madiha as just somebody that had to be spoken to. Her posture was intimidating — Parinita thought Chakrani looked like a cat poised to lunge. Her crossed arms shook very slightly with pent-up energy. Her tapping feet hit the ground sharply and with a quick rhythm. Her gaze was cutting as her eyes slowly looked over the room, settling on every face she found. Her smoldering stare shook Bhishma and Padmaja.

She was such a contrast to Madiha; opposites truly did attract sometimes.

Madiha’s face was void of emotion. Parinita met her eyes from across the room, trying her best to silently communicate her support in this obviously painful situation. In response the Colonel’s expression and stance were neutral. Her voice, when she first spoke, sounded tired and vulnerable. But when she questioned the arrivals, she took a sterner tone. While Chakrani had come before them with fire in her chest, Madiha just seemed hollow.

“Just do it already.” Chakrani said, elbowing her escort.

At her side, the young curly-haired man in the disheveled uniform stared at the wall.

“Private Jota, mobility support.” He said. His tone was dismissive.

“I need your full name and unit. You can sign it in.” Madiha calmly ordered.

Padmaja stood up from the floor and approached cautiously with the ring-bound book.

Jota spat on the floor in front of her. “Nah. Find it out yourself, Colonel.”

Padmaja shrank away.

“Kajari, remove him.” Madiha said.

From the doorway, Corporal Kajari approached with her rifle in her hands.

Jota, visibly taller than her, half-turned and raised his hands.

“You don’t want to do that.” He said dangerously.

Kajari turned the bayonet on his neck and left a scratch.

“You can leave by yourself or in a bag, your choice.” Kajari said.

Chadgura stepped forward as well.

Jota sighed deeply. He turned carefully and left the room, rubbing his neck.

All throughout Chakrani stared with a mix of horror and rage.

“You’re on a power trip, Colonel! He is my official escort!” She shouted.

Madiha was unmoved.

“Anyone who enters this building and shows even a shred of antagonism,” She said, her tone suddenly dangerous and deliberate, “is a threat to myself, to my staff, and to the security of highly sensitive materials in this base. I am not playing a game here.”

Parinita shuddered a little at the response, but she knew Madiha was right.

Especially in the condition she was in, and after recent events.

One’s outlook on security changes when one is nearly beaten to death in a “safe place.”

“I’m absolutely sick to death of you! Your actions from the moment you received a command have been nothing short of savage!” Chakrani shouted. “I’m filing a complaint!”

“Is this the Adjar Government-In-Exile talking still, or just you?” Madiha asked.

At the sound of the Colonel’s words, Chakrani stood suddenly quiet and still, and seemed cowed with shame. Chakrani then quickly composed herself, standing straight and to full height, taking a deep breath and clearly making an effort to calm her voice. Her hands were still shaking and Parinita thought she could see some moistness in her eyes.

“Colonel Nakar, let us cut the acrimony short — I’ll talk, and you’ll listen. Alright?”

“That is amenable. You have the floor, Councilor.”

Parinita wondered what was going in Madiha’s mind and heart at the moment too. She knew Madiha was skilled in compartmentalizing her emotions and pushing through difficult situations. She had already been put on this spot with Chakrani before in Bada Aso, and she was under greater pressure then and did not buckle. But she must have felt something, to be seeing Chakrani again, and in this kind of position and situation.

Though the thought felt childish and self-centered, Parinita wondered if Madiha felt strengthened by their affection, by their moonlit and dawnlit oaths. She wondered if the image of Parinita at her side helped to support her and drown away Chakrani’s voice.

Chakrani’s inner war was visible and plain. Madiha’s seemed completely suppressed.

Nevertheless, Chakrani took the role of Councilwoman Walters and delivered a speech so thorough that it seemed as though read out of paper on an invisible podium. Judging by her own expressions before, this dry, official language did not seem to be her words.

“Colonel Nakar, the Council of the occupied Adjar Dominance is deeply concerned about your continued independent usage of arms, armor and personnel taken from the Adjar Battlegroup Ox without any attempt at communication or information-sharing with either the Tambwe Civil Council or the Adjar Government-In-Exile here in Rangda.”

Madiha interrupted briefly. “My isolation was not wholly of my own design.”

“Information given to the Adjar Government-In-Exile says otherwise.”

Her continued insistence on referring to this “Adjar Government-In-Exile” was confusing. Parinita had not once heard of such an entity existing within Rangda, and she did her best to keep up with the political goings-on despite their limited resources. She knew the Adjar Council had evacuated to Tambwe; Madiha had ordered the move and executed it just hours after first meeting with them in Bada Aso. It made sense that they would end up in Rangda, as it was Tambwe’s most important city that was also relatively farthest from the fighting at the time. However, the concept of a continuing Adjar government baffled her.

“Let me guess: Mansa put you people up to this today.” Madiha calmly said.

“Councilman Mansa helped us organize here and informed us that you have been acting independently, including recently detaining prisoners and withholding information.”

Chakrani was starting to verge on anger again. She had a frustrated expression.

Madiha drummed her good fingers on her desk throughout Chakrani’s explanations. She spoke up in a stronger tone of voice afterward. “I am acting independently because the Adjar Dominance does not exist, and you have no authority over anything anymore.”

“I beg to differ.” Chakrani replied. “Currently we are working with local authorities to help relocate 50,000 refugees from the Adjar Dominance. We are getting them houses and food and union jobs instead of sending them to the desert. What have you done lately?”

That was it then, Parinita knew; Chakrani’s loyalty came in exchange for Mansa’s help in integrating some of her people back into normal lives. There were millions of Adjar refugees, but any number of people resettled and happy was a good number. However, most refugees were heading farther out to Solstice because Dbagbo and Tambwe were already embroiled in combat themselves. Parinita did not dare say it out loud, but in her rush to accept Tambwe’s help for these people, Chakrani was likely only endangering them.

Madiha stared at her without expression and then delivered her own quick speech.

“What we have done is destroy multiple elite corps of the invading army, delay their assault on Tambwe and their march into North Solstice by weeks instead of days, so that you can come here and berate us in the stead of your nonexistent government instead of being dragged into a camp and shot by Nocht as a ‘terrorist leader.'” She said.

On the receiving end, Chakrani grew more furious with every word spoken.

“You can be as dismissive as you like once you’re back under the stead of the government to which you belong! Listen to me before you open your trap again Colonel: rehousing refugees is not our only project. We’re aware that this country is tenuous too. So we have plans to raise a force of people from Adjar to help protect our new home in Tambwe and rebuild Ox’s strength. We need you to cooperate for everyone’s good.” Chakrani said.

“Ox has been disbanded and I do not need it to return. It is useless to everyone.”

Chakrani charged headlong into her next point, ignoring Madiha’s response.

“We’re talking past each other then so I’ll get to my main point. We’ve given to believe you have a prisoner from Nocht in your hands and are restricting access to them. You can ignore our other requests if you like; but we demand to be able to speak to them. They are not under your jurisdiction. We wish to see what information they can give us about the occupation, so we might adequately prepare for our resistance. Can you spare at least that?”

“No.” Madiha said immediately. “I have already gotten as much relevant information as can be expected from the foreigners. They are under the protection of the KVW now.”

“You can easily correct your wide overreach of your authority by simply letting us talk to the prisoner, or by sharing any information you got from them.” Chakrani said. Her tone of voice and the construction of her words sounded threatening, as if she was ready to indict them.

Parinita turned her head from the scene, and stepped closer to the desk with the original Generalplan Suden files. She should have realized that was their objective all along.

“None of it is easy or simple. Further harassment of our guests is not productive and could be downright dangerous. So no, you will not be allowed to speak with them.”

“Your unwillingness to submit to lawful authority is what’s dangerous here!”

“Lawful authority? You mean Mansa’s crooked council, and the eternally lame duck council that are using you as their puppet to retain some form of political relevance?”

“Whether you like it or not, Tambwe and Adjar have legitimate governments that–”

Madiha raised her good hand, and stood up from her desk, stopping the Councilwoman.

“I am not here for Tambwe or for Adjar, Chakrani. I am here for the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. I am here for the Ayvartan people. I am here for what will be a long war. It is disturbing to me how you stridently you fail to see the bigger picture here.”

Chakrani’s face turned chalk-white and her expression contorted with disgust.

She shouted back louder than any voice heard during the entire discussion.

“Don’t you fucking dare say my name again! I will not suffer you for a second longer you animal! Everything you do, everything you touch– You cannot save a single thing, you miserable wraith! Mark my words! hope I never see your despicable face again, Colonel, but you will hear from Adjar again. We will do whatever it takes to save our nation.”

She turned sharply around and stomped her way out of the building, pushing Kajari and Chadgura away from the door as she went. Everyone inside and outside the building seemed to have heard the outburst, and there were heads turning everywhere. Even the Hobgoblin turned its turret as if judging her. Chakrani Walters, as quickly and suddenly as she came, returned to the car with Jota and the pair sped off back out of the base.

Parinita breathed a loud sigh of relief. Everyone else was silent and still for a moment.

“She really does not like the Colonel.” Padmaja meekly said, cutting the silence.

“She has reason not to.” Madiha said, her head sinking against her desk.

Parinita shook her head. She supposed that was the answer to her previous fears.

Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

MAJINI (45.1)

Warning: this scene contains violence and death, including violence to a child, as well as depictions of fire and burning and disturbing imagery.

30th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2007 D.C.E

Ayvartan Empire, Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso

“Leave me alone! Leave me alone!”

Desperate panting and crying broke the silence of the midnight streets.

Hurtling through empty alleys and desolate roads, a small girl fled from phantoms.

All of her instincts screamed for her to run and hide.

Her every step was dogged by a creeping, malevolent cold and shadow.

In hurting, she had experience far beyond her years. She had a keen sense of danger.

She sought glimpses of the enemy over her shoulder, above her head, and in every clay brick wall surrounding her in the tight streets of Bada Aso’s old quarter. She could see nothing. There was almost no light. With the moon clouded over, the only illumination came from beams between cracks in old doors and dim candlelight from bedroom windows.

Despite what her eyes told her, she felt the creature’s evil presence everywhere.

Like eyes watching her, the burden of a gaze, the bearing of a hateful judgment.

Closer and closer it came and she felt the weight shaking her legs and bowing her back.

Through the nondescript streets Madiha Nakar dashed, her location and bearing unknown, clutching her satchel against her chest. Though she felt chills across her skin she knew the night to be warm and moist and without breeze. Her white beret would have flown from her head otherwise. It was the creature that made it cold. A lanky figure, all arms, covered in a tattered cloak, its face covered by an eerie mask. It wasn’t human — it wasn’t anything.

Taking a blind corner she found a trash bin in an alley leading to the old plaza. Mustering all of her strength, she seized it by one of its handles and pushed it, spilling the contents behind her in a crashing of bottles, a rustling of old paper. She resumed her flight; moments later she heard, briefly, the crunching of glass and the stirring of paper once more.

It was still there.

A spectre made half-substantial, or perhaps, flesh trapped between worlds.


Madiha charged out of the alley and ran toward the center of the old plaza. A wide, empty green field housing the skeletal remains of a stone temple, it was said the plaza had been the site of the first brick laid on the first building made by the ancient Adjar culture. Now it was utterly forgotten — there was not even a plaque to commemorate the deteriorating rock. Madiha rushed behind a crude waist-high rock wall and crouched.

She was surrounded by ranks of rocky pillars in varying states of decay.

More importantly, there was an old torch affixed to one of the stones.

Holding her breath and fighting back her tears, she laid down her satchel.

From it she withdrew the revolver Daksha had given her.

Five rounds; she hadn’t looked in some time, but she just knew.

A cold and airless breeze blew her way, stirring nothing but the fire inside her.

She felt the ghastly presence draw nearer, clutching at her heart.

Scratching on the grass; sifting dust as the creature stepped over the old rock.

Shuffling of fabric as beast shifted its hideous, emaciated form under its cloak.

Sucking noise as the monster sniffed into what long-decayed organ passed for its nostrils.

Closer, and closer, she felt the creature’s weight in the surroundings.

Her shivering worsened, the cold was stifling, she wanted to scream.

Madiha leaped to her feet and swiped her hand at the torch.

In an instant the fire inside her lit the dead fire in the wax and rags.

Amid the old temple the shadows retreated, leaving only one in their midst.

Stunned by the torch, the Majini retched, raising its arms and drawing back, its upper body bending away from the flame directly overhead while its lower body remained abominably rooted into place. Ashes from the sudden fire fell on the creature’s cloak and burned through it leaving tiny red rings that bled finger-width columns of black gas.

Unleashing a primal, soundless roar, the creature righted its ragged sock-like body and hurled itself toward Madiha, arms thrashing around it as if attached to a spinning wheel.

She felt the scream not by any perceivable noise but by a shuddering in her chest.

Reeling, Madiha retaliated with a shot that grazed the Majini’s barely extant shoulder.

She missed; she never missed.

Leaping over the wall it swiped, one of its arms grabbing her by the neck and scooping her off the floor with primal strength. Madiha thought her head would pop off her body, and she felt an intense pain; almost reflexively, within the next instant, she used what she knew of her abilities to push herself and remain balanced in the creature’s grip, preventing her body from swinging opposite her neck. Another hand then quickly seized her waist and belly.

Like the unhinging jaws of a snake, the creature’s black, emaciated hands extended and expanded and looped around her as if custom-fit to throttle her neck and body specifically.

From under the cloak one final arm extended behind the monster’s back.

It seized her satchel, and withdrew a letter.

Its neck snapped, and its face descended to her own.

In the middle of its mask was a smaller, fist-sized depiction of a silver face.

She saw the eyes on this tiny face moving. The larger eyes on the mask did not.

She saw its nostrils flare and felt a force pulling on her.

Her arms hung limp, still holding the gun. Did it understand the danger of it?

Did it just not fear?

It surveyed her, stretching its neck to look her up and down.

She felt colder than ever, a chill penetrating through her skin wherever it touched.

Her mind was growing hazy and numb.

Bending its limbs and head in unnatural ways, the Majini raised the letter over its shoulder.

Guttural noises issued from its neck as if it was trying to read the name.

Madiha remembered the address and directions.

She heard Daksha’s voice in her head. Deliver this to Lena. It is vital for us.

Would she ever make good on that promise?

She was just a child? What could she do?

As the Majini tightened its grip, she felt as if her soul was leaking from her mouth.

Cold and alone in this abandoned place; would she die here?

It simply could not be.

More than anything she didn’t want to fail; she wasn’t just some stupid kid.

She wanted to be a Zaidi. She wanted to be a socialist. She wanted them to win.

She felt the fire spark inside her.

Madiha unleashed her own soundless, primal cry.

Thinking fast she exerted her mind’s secrets and pushed on the Majini’s hands and both of them tore to pieces that flew in every direction, as if blown from within by a grenade. The Majini’s twisted form instantly righted itself and lifted its arms and its head to the heavens, screeching, now with sound, recognizing the agony that had been inflicted upon it.

Madiha landed clumsily on the floor and drew on the fire rather than the pushing.

Red lines flashed briefly from under her clothes, and sparks flew out of her fingertips.

From the palm of her hand a long red dart flew into the center of the Majini’s cloak.

Soon as it touched the monster its entire thrashing body caught fire.

From its remaining limb, Madiha snatched the letter, grabbed her satchel, and took off.

Behind her the burning creature wailed and screamed with mortal agony.

Madiha vanished into the night, running for her life without ever looking back.

She vanished into the concealing gloom of the underworld, but she knew deep inside her quivering little heart that her war with these living shadows was only beginning.

Throughout her quest to free the Ayvartans from tyranny, they would dog her every step.

Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges X

This chapter contains mild sexual content.

39th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E


Consider this a formal written request for leave on the 41st. I am traveling to meet a friend in the countryside for a night, and may even return bearing gifts! After insuring security is as it should be, I will be gone for the afternoon and evening of the 41st, to return on the afternoon of the 42nd. I would encourage you to confine yourself then for added security.

-Centurion Geta

39th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E


Enjoy your time off.

I do not plan to go anywhere the next few days.


40th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Pallas Messianic Academy

Rhythmic gunfire sounded from a rotting booth at the far end of the old shooting range. Every shot echoed seemingly dozens of times, the only sound audible in the wood. Repeated muzzle flashes very briefly cast a tall, slender shadow against the decaying structures, right as the bullet flew across the fifty meters to the targets. It was too early; the dawn light hardly penetrated over the hills and trees that ringed the abandoned camp.

There were not even birds to wake. It was a lonesome place, forgotten.

Much like him.

There were few targets standing, and they were far out of date. Rather than the modern, shadowy black targets showing faces and necks and torsos with the appropriate shapes and sizes, this range boasted only crude round wooden targets from the age of the musket or the repeater. It felt almost like darts would be a more appropriate projectile against them.

Sylvano D’Amore had instead brought a Nochtish zwitcherer pistol, a popular gun the world over. It was easy to acquire, especially for a young man in a good vest and pants. Had, say, a Salvatrice Vittoria gone to purchase a weapon, she might have at best been given a target plinking little rifle for afternoons on the field. Likely they would have told her that such things were barbarous for a delicate, pretty girl. Sylvano found no such barrier.

In this desolate place, he joined the ghosts of colonial soldiers who would not come back from the conquest of Borelia, and he shot at the targets that ill represented the humans they would be fighting. A week ago he could barely hold the pistol. He went to the library, studied hunting manuals from decades long past, and found the right ways. He held his weapon in two hands, settled into the correct posture, and he used his sights.

He pressed the trigger, and felt the power his fingers could barely contain.

After a quick flash the bullet released and his body relaxed anew.

Now he was hitting the targets. Sometimes he hit near the center, sometimes he hit the outer edges. It was still luck; he still couldn’t really aim predictably. He could not account for the forces that would take hold of his shot once it was released. Sometimes he tried aiming higher or lower or off to the side, but powers he barely understood still held sway.

It was enough to kill a man up close, he told himself.

Through the dawn and into the morning, he put round after round through a pistol.

At his feet, there were small boxes of ammunition, all branded with the Nochtish eagle.

Unlike military issue pistols nowadays, the zwitcherer fed through clips, not magazines. This was a boon for practice. Rather than having to spend time filling ten or twenty magazines, Sylvano could push stripper clips by the dozens through the weapon with little pause. His fingers had turned a little red and raw from the effort, but it was fine.

In this way Sylvano wound down the mortal clock that he felt ticking for him.

His arms were growing tired, his muscles ached, and he felt hungry.

But he did not want to stop. He reached down for another clip, and kept firing.

He put rounds through the gun as though they would fly from the booth into his enemies.

For the first time in his life he felt that it was dangerous to be Salvatrice Vittoria.

Beforehand, it was inconvenient and difficult. It was bittersweet, to hold Carmilla’s hands and go to grand balls and wear beautiful dresses while the world at large ignored or scorned her presence. She felt tense and embarrassed in the presence of nobles who knew enough of her to treat her like a falsity in their midst, and felt disgusted with the idle flattery of those who thought they might improve their rotten luck by her hand.

Now Salvatrice Vittoria felt a sense of mortal peril out in public.

She felt that every eye that settled on her back could be aiming a gun or a knife.

She felt watched and vulnerable and aware of her weakness in a way she never was.

But she also felt a renewed sense of power with a gun in her hands.

She only wished that she could be Salvatrice while shooting here.

“Back here again? You better not be procrastinatin’ on the princess’ errands!”

Sylvano leaned out of the booth. Approaching from the other end of the abandoned training camp was older man in a hat, sharp-faced, with a gray mustache and slicked-back silver hair. He was tall and long-limbed, his skin baked from the sun, his black pants held over his shoulders by suspenders, and his blue-gray shirt tucked in and buttoned all the way to the neck. This was Giovanni, Salvatrice’s go-to gentleman.

“I’m not procrastinating! She’s given me nothing today. Good morning.” Sylvano said.

“It’s nearly afternoon, my boy.” Giovanni replied.

“Oh, well. Time certainly flies when you’re occupied.”

“Maybe too occupied.”

Giovanni walked slowly to the booth, minding a slight limp in his left leg.

He peered inside the old wooden walls and shook his head at the preponderance of spent shell casings and fresh ammunition clips that were laying everywhere inside.

“Fixin’ to fight a war?” Giovanni asked.

“I want to learn to shoot, and fast.” Sylvano said.

“Then I reckon you’re meaning to fight a duel, perhaps?”

Giovanni rubbed his chin. Sylvano smiled awkwardly.

“It’s just for sport.” He said.

“Oh, you’re really growing out your hair too.”

Sylvano pulled absentmindedly on his own growing ponytail, sighing a little.

Salvatrice’s hair was starting to get rather long. It was closing in on her shoulders. But she couldn’t cut it in a style to better suit Sylvano. She very much liked how it looked on the pretty princess — splitting the difference between her two personas was growing difficult. She thought a ponytail would work well enough for Sylvano’s pretty-boy image.

“So, she a nice girl?” Giovanni asked.

“Excuse me?”

“You can’t hide it from me, young man. I was your age once. You’re trying to impress a young lady. No rich boy ever picked up a gun and grew out his hair just for nothin’.”

“You caught me.” Sylvano replied, playing along. He chuckled and raised his hands in defense, one still holding the gun. Giovanni looked at him quite seriously in the eyes.

“Now,” Giovanni poked a finger in the air, “if you’re meaning to be after the princess, I’m afraid I’ll have to dissuade you from that. And if you’re meaning to be after the princess’ lady friend, then for your own benefit I’m going to have to turn you around right this second. But if it’s a nice college girl with no attachments, I can give you some advice.”

“It’s a nice college girl with no attachments.” Sylvano replied nervously.

He almost wanted to laugh. It was nice to see Giovanni cared so much.

“Here’s my advice then. Put that gun back in the box. No marriage oath was ever sealed at a range. Especially not this range. Then get her some flowers, and chocolates, and talk to her, and listen to what she says, and do this enough, then tell her your intentions.”

Sylvano smiled. “Thanks, Giovanni. But I do want to learn to shoot nonetheless.”

Giovanni nodded his head. “Here’s my advice for that. There ain’t never been a fight in the streets of Palladi that got solved by marksmanship. Here’s what you should be learning instead.” In the next instant, Giovanni made as if to straighten out his jacket, and instead, in a flash, drew a small revolver, presumably from one of the pockets.

Reflexively Sylvano raised his own hands high and quivered at the sight.

Raising the barrel to the air, Giovanni then stowed his gun back in his pocket.

“Sylvano, if someone’s really after you, and they’re good at it, you ain’t going to see them until they want you to. You’ll only have a few seconds, and you can’t hesitate. It won’t be about aiming. It’ll be about whether you can shoot first, or at all.” He said grimly. “And it’ll be about whether you’ve got some mates to back you up too. Remember that.”

Bowing his head and tipping his hat, Giovanni turned around and deposited an envelope on the bench inside the shooting booth. There was a kiss mark on it and a wax seal.

“Lady Carmela gives her regards.”

Quiet and serious, he walked away from the camp, lighting a cigarette along the way.

Sylvano stood wondering whether and how much Giovanni really knew.

Not just about himself and herself, but about this rotten country and rotten life.

39th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Gracious Salva,

I was informed by your man of confidence that you would not be able to answer my letters for a time, but I have decided to continue sending them, so that perhaps you will be overwhelmed by warm sentiment. I long to see you again, Salvatrice. Our world is becoming a very scary place. Have you heard the news of Ayvartan and Svechthan submarines around our waters? Or of the mysterious Nochtish defeat in the south?

I feel as though I can see chaos looming, chaos that will rip you from me.

I want us to be brave for each other, even if these are circumstances that we cannot change. As things grow foggier, I fear the distance between us more and more. I want to do something for you, to give you strength, to protect you from evil. Were I able to have it my way, why I would trample your mother and her army to take you away from all of this. We could go to Helvetia or Occiden and start anew. We could become like the mysterious spinsters, who live together unwed where nobody can suspect their love!

When you can reply to this letter, please, tell me whether you desire to meet. I will move heaven and land to make it possible. I will spend any amount of money to take any level of precautions so that you can come to me. Just one day is all I ask of you. Breakfast, tea, supper, and evening out in the garden, and a night in your arms. I feel so desperate, and it is unbecoming, and it is selfish, I know! But I fear so much that I might lose you!

There is no other woman in the world who I can love even if I love women! There is no other man in the world who can I love even if I love men! I did not know love until you helped me to feel love, Salvatrice. Without you my heart will grow cold, and I know it.

Please, let me feel that warmth even if it is only one final time. I want to cherish it!

Your worshipful beloved,

Carmela Sabaddin

41st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Agnelli Estate

At the edge of the Arsia woods there stood a humble estate, an ivy-covered manor, its colors weathered. There was a peaked central building with an unassuming facade. Two small wings noticeably squatter than the main house sprouted from its sides. Wooden shutters closed off every window, and the massive front doors stood like sentinels barring entry. Unremarkable by itself, the estate took much of its character from the surrounding woodland that straddled it like a cloak, stretching for several kilometers from the shoulders of the manse. High wooden fences encircled the back of the property. Broad, empty fields rose and fell gently before the manor, dotted with the remnants of an entry plaza.

It had all seen better days.

A flat dirt road stretched between the unwatched gates, through the field, and toward the manor, winding around an empty fountain carrying a statue of a woman with the horns of a ram, scandalously naked, boasting large, erect breasts that immediately drew attention. Its inviting pose contradicted its purpose. In this now messianic land, the presence of a female, quasi-pagan symbol stood forbidding toward the closed-minded new god.

Such things befit the forest country, and, Byanca knew, befit the ruler of this place too.

In the rush of the present events, she had almost forgotten this place, and the place that she had here, behind these sinful walls. She had been blinded to it, by the name Grazia, by the name Salvatrice, by those old promises; much like she had been blinded to it before by the rush to prove herself in Borelia. Now she was back on the surface of Aer, fallen temporarily from her fantasies; and again this place was here to pick up her pieces.

Already she felt a growing guilt in her heart as she approached the manor.

At the door, there was no immediate recognition of her presence. No maids or grounds keepers kept a watch. When she knocked the embedded hammer against the wood of the door, she was making a sound for the Lady herself, scion of the Agnelli family. This was almost unheard of among the nobility, but the Agnelli family was itself almost unheard of.

She spent a few minutes, knocking intermittently, until finally, the door opened.

Through a tiny crack, a brilliant hazel eye looked her over.

“Good evening. You are a bit late to hunt ermines.” the Lady casually said.

“I desire only one. It will be brief.” Byanca said, bowing her head.

“Can you describe this specific ermine?” said the lady.

Byanca smiled. “She’s golden-haired, a bit delicate, with a nice firm tail.”

An impish grin formed on the lady’s pretty lips. “Intriguing. Do come in.”

She left the door, and Byanca pulled it open, walked in and closed it behind her.

Past the threshold the Agnelli estate seemed better suited as a hunting lodge than the manor of a lord or lady. On the walls and ceiling, across the floors and every surface, the dominant color was a varnished, bloody brown like old flesh. Aside from the merest suggestion of the lady’s delicate shoulders beneath her fox-fur coat, there was not a curve or rounded surface in sight, everything was corners and sharp edges in wood or steel. Where there was pottery, it was placed only to store machetes and arrows and javelins. Where there were cases and pedestals, they displayed guns and grizzly trophies.

Even the racks had a hint of the bestial, holding hats and coats on horns and claws.

Though there was art befitting a lordly estate, nearly all of it depicted the local game in their unkilled forms, and it felt more macabre than majestic considering the rest of the decoration. There was one intimidating portrait of a man, on a wall beside the entryway. He was sharp-nosed, with gaunt cheeks and a serious, heavy-lidded, strong-browed expression. His suit and ascot and toupee seemed almost forced on him — the old lord Agnelli looked like he would be more at home skinning a wolf than standing in his sunday blazer.

From the foyer, a rigid staircase led to the second story hallways, the landing overlooked at all times by the preserved head of a stag so massive it could have butted heads with a battle tank. No carpet covered the unpainted wooden floors save for strategically placed furs and leathers, some quite clearly ripped from bears and boars with half the head still attached.

“Just as I remember it.” Byanca said.

“Seasons change, but the Agnelli remain the same.”

The Lady recited the house motto with a smile on her face. She pointed a riding crop that she tended to carry with her, and patted Byanca on the shoulder with it like a knighting sword from a princess. Then, with a flighty twirl, she walked deeper into the halls.

Following the lady Agnelli around the stairs and through a gloomy connecting hallway, Byanca entered a torch-lit room, the light and shadow playing about the walls, dancing with the flame. It was a square room, the walls a mess of hunting trophies, between which there were plush couches covered in a pattern like the stripes of big cats.

“Please, make yourself comfortable.” said the Lady.

Byanca dipped her head in a little nod, and took a spot on one of the couches.

“If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I will return with refreshments.”

Another quick spin put the Lady’s back to Byanca, and she disappeared from the room. Any other woman of her stature would have certainly clapped her hands and summoned a veritable fleet of servants to tend to her. In her absence, the room was dead silent, almost eerie. Byanca could hear the shutters creaking in the wind. Minutes later the Lady returned with a porcelain plate of jerky, dried apricots and cheese, along with glasses and a clear pitcher full of some kind of fruit juice. She set the plate down on a chair in front of them and pulled it close, and gently filled each glass full of the warm pink-orange juice.

“Help yourself to whatever you desire, Byanca. It must have been a long trip.”

The Lady then sat next to her and laid her free hand on her thigh, patting her softly.

Hyper-aware of this attention, Byanca stiffly reached out and shoved two strips of jerky whole into her mouth, washing them down with juice after an intense bit of chewing. All of the flavors mingled in her mouth, sweet and spicy and salty in equal measure.

“Still quite a savage eater!” the Lady said, smiling broadly.

“I’ve eaten under fire, you know! It’s hard to take it slow after that.” Byanca replied.

“My, my,”

The Lady’s second hand left her own lap and pinched Byanca’s belly.

She looked surprised at what she found. “Oh! It’s like a sheet of lead there!”

Byanca bit into a hunk of salty goat cheese. “It’s all the sit-ups, I guess.” She mumbled.

“I see!” the Lady covered her mouth, stifling a delicate laugh.

Raising her gaze from the food, Byanca smiled and laughed with her lovely hostess.

Rosalia Agnelli, scion of the Agnelli family; she was at first appearances a dainty-looking, regal girl, with high cheekbones, a sharp nose, long ears, bright hazel eyes and delicate olive skin. Her golden hair was gathered into a partially braided bun behind her head, framed with two antler-shape ornaments that joined in a band atop her head. Bright red pigment colored her lips and surrounded her eyes. Beneath her fur coat she wore a figure-hugging white under-dress that dragged on the floor. This was one’s first inkling into the other side of the Agnelli scion — an impression of her streamlined, wiry, athletic figure beneath the filmy silk.

In her own way, she was quite a savage eater herself.

Periodically, after gentle pat on her thigh Byanca felt a firm, hungry grip and pinch.

“When I woke today I never would have imagined we would be reunited.” Rosalia said. “I thought you would be stuck in Borelia for much longer. When did you get back?”

Byanca felt distractingly conscious of the Lady’s touch and her presence. Rosalia smelled strongly of linseed oil paints, barely covered by a touch of cinnamon scent. Her firm fingers and bright face caused the Centurion’s blood to simmer just under her cheeks. Had it not been for the circumstances, Byanca would have probably come to this place much sooner.

She felt a hint of guilt over choosing to be trampled by the princess instead.

“I’ve been here a week or two. I’ve been so busy, I only just now found an opening.”

“I’m so pleased that you found the time to come.” Rosalia said.

“I needed a place to relax. Everything’s been chaos lately.”

“Refugees have always called the Arsia home. I’d love to have you.”

Byanca felt a surge of giddiness. Here she was, staying with Rosalia again.

“How have you been? It’s been years; I’m so surprised! Everything is still standing the way it was when I left. It’s almost like the house was preserved in a jar.” Byanca said.

Rosalia smiled. “I’ve whiled away my days the same as I usually do. Trophy hunting, painting wildlife, preparing furs. Seasons change, but the Agnelli manor does not.”

“It looks like you’re running out of wall space for it all.” Byanca said with a grin.

“I’ve been slowly replacing my father’s trophies with my own.” Rosalia said.

“Ah, I see. So that’s why the Agnelli manor never changes.”

All of them were bears and stags and wolves; Byanca could not tell new trophies from the old. She knew Rosalia to be an avid hunter. She could take her at her word on this.

“Enough of my hobbies.” Rosalia said. She raised her hand from Byanca’s thigh and put both on her shoulders instead. Byanca felt the crop at her back, hanging by a loop from the tips of Rosalia’s finger. It made her shiver a little. Rosalia’s empty hand squeezed her shoulder, feeling the muscle. “You’ve gotten so much tougher! How was Borelia?”

“Um. Sandy?” Byanca awkward replied, wilting a little under the Lady’s attentions.

“I hear the place is rather arid. It boggles the mind; an arid island?” Rosalia said.

“Well, the northern parts are nice. It’s the southern parts that are desert-like.”

“It must have been awful, but look at you, a chiseled legionnaire! Those are handsome shoulders, and I feel your back has broadened some too. And your arms; my, oh my!” Rosalia traced her fingers down from Byanca’s shoulder, and pressed at various points along the Centurion’s arm. Her crop hand felt various places along Byanca’s scapula and spine. Certainly Byanca had achieved some definition, but she thought the Lady exaggerated the gains. She tried to talk and deflect the sensations being brought to the fore.

“I did a lot of exercising in the barracks. There wasn’t much else to do. And if you did all your push-ups the C.O. would let you mess around during training time.” Byanca said. Her voice quivered here and there, whenever Rosalia pressed somewhere sensitive.

“Did you meet anyone interesting? Had any adventures?” Rosalia asked.

“Nobody notable. I scarce remember a soul.” Byanca said.

Rosalia seemed to finish her inspection of Byanca’s body, and drew back expectantly.

Byanca offered no reply; she was not inclined to tell war stories, even to her.

There was a stretch of silence.

Without a voice in the room the halls felt larger and emptier than ever.

“I can’t help but notice how quiet this place has gotten, Rosalia.” Byanca finally said.

Rosalia nodded gently. “I’ve grown used to isolation. But I still get my fair share of visitors, some more engaging than others. You needn’t worry about me, Byanca.”

“I feel like it is the nature of our relationship for me to be designated worrier. What happened to the maids and the groundskeepers and all? I remember more hands around.”

She turned the conversation around, away from Borelia. She hoped it stuck.

“After you left for Borelia, I dismissed them all. I couldn’t trust them anymore, and I did not want to take any more chances. Save for some discrete acquaintances, I wanted to withdraw from public life. Clearly I just was not meant to be a social butterfly.” Rosalia replied.

Her voice gave no hint of bitterness. This was just the way things were.

Byanca felt ever more guilty. Perhaps lingering on Borelia would’ve made for nicer talk.

Especially because she knew she returned here only for selfish reasons.

“How do you keep the place running alone?” She asked.

“I hire people to clean and work on a contract basis. Then they leave.”

“Sounds more expensive than retaining a few.”

“It is, but I make do. I’ve learned to do much by myself.”

“Forgive my forwardness here, but what are you doing for money, Rosalia?” Byanca said. It felt like a ridiculous question — she was talking to a landed noble after all. Rosalia’s estate was incredibly valuable. And yet, her apparent isolation and idleness, and the visible decay of the manor’s exterior, gave Byanca some cause to worry for her old friend.

Back when they first met, years ago, the Agnelli family estate was much more lively, in various ways. There were servants and there were intrigues — such intrigues were what brought the two women together at first. Byanca was meant to investigate Rosalia. When it came to nobles and the wealthy, it was part of their privilege that the Queen’s blackshirt legion settled their disputes away from the public eyes and records of the police.

For a few weeks, Byanca spent time around the estate, gathering clues.

There were charges against her from a jilted suitor of minor wealth, who had sought marital alliance with her. Accusations of sodomy and paganism and drug trafficking and all kinds of things — many of which were true to a point. But Byanca quickly found she had no desire to prosecute Rosalia. She dismissed the charges. It was a simple thing that even Legatus Marcel agreed with. All one had to do was weigh the wealth to see who won.

Now, however, that wealth seemed visibly reduced. Such a feat might not be reproduced. She supposed Rosalia herself knew this; it must have been part of why she chose to remove herself from the high life she once tried to lead. Even with Byanca’s aid, she was vulnerable.

And in these tough times, land alone was not all it used to be.

Thankfully Rosalia did not appear offended by the probe and responded conversationally.

“I will admit, my purse had been a little pinched after your departure. My fortunes have been swinging back of late. I have insinuated myself in the fashion of furs. Fashionable ladies are in love with ermine lately. To think, I once viewed them as amusing rats. I have also sold wildlife paintings under a pseudonym, and I brew for local distribution.”

“Oh! What kind of brew?” Byanca said, suddenly hoping for a sample.

Satisfied now, she tried to steer the proceedings away from all this doom and gloom.

Rosalia flashed a cheeky grin. “All manner of things. Allow me to treat you.”

Byanca followed the lady from the sitting room to a rustic and well-equipped kitchen. There was a large charcoal oven, old and blackened, alongside a newer gas oven and a sink, pantry and an ice box. There were no electric appliances in the kitchen, though the house got some power through the use of ground-wires, Byanca knew. From the kitchen windows, Byanca could see a stretch of cleared yard behind the house, fenced off and surrounded by forest. A pair of small stables housed several resting horses there.

A door on one end of the kitchen led to a dry, warm storage room, and this was where Rosalia led Byanca. There were shelves inside lined with hundreds of bottles of various sizes. Rosalia plucked a bottle near the ground that possessed a short handle and a stout body. She walked Byanca back out into the kitchen. Standing beside a counter, she filled two glasses with an orange-yellow beverage that smelled like fruit and flowers.

“This is my own recipe for honey-wine. Let me know what you think.” Rosalia said.

She tapped her glass against Byanca’s and took a confident sip.

Byanca’s own sip was much less delicate. She drank practically half the glass in one sitting — she was far too used to eating quickly in cramped canteens, and anything one put in her hands she almost reflexively made disappear. Despite practically slamming the glass into her mouth she still quite appreciated the beverage. She tasted notes of apple, tea, and of course, the sweetness of honey. It was nothing like the simple beers that Byanca usually drank. It was almost like drinking a slightly alcoholic honey candy.

“It is very sweet, I’m surprised.” She said. “Lot of flavors too. Is it selling?”

“It is popular among women. Perhaps not so much with big, strong legionnaires.”

Rosalia eyed Byanca up and down, her eyes rolling over every seam of the uniform.

“No, no! I’m definitely enjoying it.” Byanca said. “It’s not what I usually drink.”

“I chose mead because I was intrigued by its aphrodisiac properties.”

Rosalia put on a coquettish little smile. Byanca choked up a little.

“Wow, um, I’m not sure you needed something like that!” She said.

“Oh ho ho!” Rosalia covered her mouth and grinned. “Perhaps not.”

“What’s in the smaller bottles you’ve got in storage?” Byanca asked.

“Tinctures and other elixirs. There’s a honey shop in town that sells them.”

“Do you get all your own honey or do you buy it in town?” Byanca asked.

“I rented some of my land to establish a honey farm. It satisfies my needs. And the bees are incredibly useful. All of my fruits and flowers are pollinated by honeybees.”

“Huh. Wow. And I thought you said the Agnellis never change.” Byanca said.

“Are you that surprised that I am not merely idle?”

“Well, you looked idle a lot. I was just a little worried, is all.”

Rosalia looked around the kitchen, a playful smile on her lips.

“You came at an inopportune time. I’m not much of a night hostess anymore.”

“I’m surprised to hear that.” Byanca chuckled.

The Lady then started to lead her on, her nakedly wry expressions giving her away.

“Perhaps a tour of the mansion, before you go?”

“Oh, we can have the tour tomorrow.” Byanca replied.

“Ah, I see! So then you intend to stay the night, you rascal?”

Rosalia smacked the end of her riding crop against her open hand with a devilish grin.

Byanca felt a shudder down her spine. “Only if you’ll have me around.”

“I wonder; I wonder. I could just kick you out unceremoniously.”

“Never, your punishments are much more elaborate than that.”

“Hmmph. You still know me well, Centurion.”

“Well, your motto is quite literally that you never change.”

“Oh ho ho! Indeed!”

Rosalia approached, swinging her hips, a wry grin on her face.

She circled around Byanca, raising the crop to her and tracing around her neck with it.

Once around her, she stood back to back with the Centurion.

Rosalia’s body rested against hers; the riding crop pressed against her thigh.

Her other hand then curled around Byanca’s own and squeezed it tightly.

Neither could see the other, but the connection was still strongly felt.

“Emotions have always been tricky for me; but I am happy to see you, Byanca.”

“I can’t help but feel like the distance to Borelia is still between us.” Byanca said.

There was a foreboding silence between them as they pondered the question.

Rosalia raised her head. Byanca felt it against her back. It was a bittersweet touch.

“It is because I cannot be the lady a Knight desires or deserves.” Rosalia said.

“Well, I’m not much of a Knight. But I’m still out chasing fantasies.” Byanca replied.

Both of them sighed wistfully. There was a brief agony in remembering their positions.

Rosalia squeezed her hand. “We can still enjoy each other’s company, of course.”

“I want that.” Byanca said softly, unable to raise her voice, but hoping to be heard.

Almost in tandem, the two turned and locked eyes.

Two broken storybook heroines, Byanca thought, neither able to fully reach out to the other, but intermittently united in the pursuit of dreams and fantasies their world disdained.

She felt a great guilt; maybe in another world, Rosalia could have been her Lady.

Maybe they would have both been better off this way.

But Byanca failed to be a Knight; and Rosalia could not live the life of a Lady.

All they had left was the fantasies.

Slowly their hands unwound, but there was still a thread tied between them in the air.

Byanca took comfort in that she still had that. She always would.

“Aside from catching up, I have a favor to ask too.” Byanca said.

Rosalia lit up with a beaming smile.

“Well then.” Rosalia said. “Let us first take care of what the Agnelli family can do for you. Perhaps after, we can take care of what I, personally, can do for you. Follow me.”

Her soft countenance became once more regal and austere, but with a hint of mischief.

Setting aside the bottle of honey-wine, the pair turned around back to the foyer and climbed the steps, walking under the gigantic stag head on the wall and reconvening inside a sparsely furnished, windowless room on the second floor. There was a large, crude wooden rack on one end of the room, perhaps once for hanging hides; a stack of furs near a burning fireplace seemed like it would have made a bed for an ancient cavern dweller. On one end of the room there was a tea table and a pair of lounge chairs. There was no other furniture.

“Remember this room?” Rosalia asked.

“It’s coming back.” Byanca grinned, eyeing the rack.

They sat on opposing lounge chairs. Rosalia poured lukewarm tea from a set laid on the table into a pair of small wooden cups, and handed one to Byanca. In one gulp, the Centurion emptied the cup. It tasted stale; perhaps it had been sitting out a while already.

“Have you actually come for some ermines?” Rosalia joked.

“I need something a little bigger.” Byanca replied.

“Oh? I’m listening.”

“I’m not going to mince words. I need a war dog, and one that has tasted blood.”

Any other dog breeder would have found it dire indeed to receive such a request from a blackshirt legionnaire. Private raising of war dogs was illegal in Lubon; and dyeing a dog’s tongue red was a tradition left to the barbarous pagans, ill fitting messianic society. Only here in the forgotten Arsia could such traditions still be found. And only here, in the presence of the Lady Agnelli, could such a request be spoken without a question asked.

“You know I can furnish such creatures, but you also know my stock is limited.”

“Anything you got, I’ll take.”

“Well, what kind of dog do you most desire?”

Rosalia crossed her arms and appeared to be in thought. Byanca continued.

“It needs to be smart, but discrete. I don’t want a mastiff or something that looks like a fighting dog. I know you have some long-faced herder dogs that fit this description.”

“Ah, I see; so you want Terry. You should have just said so instead of being so circumspect. I’m not opposed to lending her. I knew she left an impression on you!”

“An impression, and some soiled shoes.”

“She’s a difficult one, indeed.”

“Well, I was hoping maybe Terry had a litter that has grown.”

“I’m afraid not. And even if she had one, they wouldn’t know blood yet.”

Byanca suppressed a disappointed sigh. Terry was a temperamental old dog.

“I’ll borrow Terry if necessary. At least she knows me.” Byanca said.

“She will do her job if I command it, even if she does not respect you.”

Again Byanca was rather thankful for Rosalia. She did not ask what kind of job needed doing. She was always very discrete and private. More than that, she was trusting, and in turn trustworthy. In no other woman’s presence did Byanca feel so free of judgment. For her, Rosalia would easily part with anything, save her own independence, without interrogation.

“Is that all the business you had?” Rosalia asked.

Byanca nodded. “Have you heard anything about anarchists?”

“Only what is on the papers and radio. Useless prattle.”

“Should it become necessary to hide someone, could I come here?”

“You are always welcome here, for any reason. I would be displeased if any anarchists came to knock on my door, but that would be their fault, not yours for coming.”

Byanca nodded again. “Then that’s all the business.”

“Oh, good.”

Rosalia stood from her own chair and sat down beside Byanca.

“Just so we’re clear: you’re staying the night?” She asked.

“I am.” Byanca said simply.

“In the usual fashion?” Rosalia said.

“Please.” Byanca said.

“Our watch word is Trophy — you’ll remember it?”


“Oh good; then that should be yesmistress.” Rosalia cooed.

Byanca felt the riding crop discreetly strike, and shuddered with elation.

“Yes, mistress.”

41st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Beloved Carmela,

I would be the luckiest princess under the heavens to be able to see you.

Make your preparations. Whatever the time and circumstances; I will come to you.

I must tell you in person what would have otherwise been in this letter.

Forever your prince and princess,

— Salva

Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

The Coming Storm (44.1)

48th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

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

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

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

Despite this, for several hours the operation continued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the two arrivals then produced a weapon.

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

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

He raised his hands.

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

It rolled some distance between them.

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

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

Neither of the two mysterious port climbers made a move.

Both of them looked rather young.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

Operation Monsoon (0.0)

This scene and much of the story as a whole, contains scenes of violence and death, as well as descriptions of weapons and their effects. Please be advised when reading.

Under a brutal northern snowfall the old Federation capital of Junzien was alive with the fire of history. It was a day when every thread of Nocht’s timeline would tragically collide.

Cheering crowds gathered along the streets as the Presidential motorcade departed the Hotel Reich and made its way toward the Foundation Stone at the site of the former capitol building. Alongside the motorcade the crowd marched as a procession, throwing roses and lighting snapping sticks, hoping to catch a glimpse when the President finally lit the ceremonial fireworks that symbolized the old fortress cannons, their heavy shells striking down the approaching monarchist enemy in the name of independence.

Clad in their thickest winter coats the citizens braved the cold drift to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Federation of Northern States. To the northern people, it was still better known as the Nocht Federation, for the man who first lit the matches that sounded the fateful cannons. But that ancient name was not the one sung on this triumphant day.

President Achim Lehner leaned back in his seat, arms behind his head, listening to the crowd as they chanted his name and recited several of his campaign slogans. He cast a sly smile toward his radiant wife, dolled up in pigments and shiny hair, mink and silk, sitting with one limousine seat between them, hoping she would join the festivities. She coldly and immediately shrugged off his attentions, staring out the window with her head held up on a closed fist. He could see her half-closed, bored eyes reflected in the tinted glass.

No matter; he was riding too high to care. Whatever embittered her this time would soon pass. Chuckling to himself, he leaned forward from his seat, rubbing his hands.

Across from him, his lovely secretary leaned to meet him, and handed him papers.

“Revised copies of the speech, as requested.” She said.

“Cecilia, doll, you never cease to impress.” He replied.

Scanning the lines, he was elated to find his most recent successes were all featured on the pages. He could reveal to the world, even before the press, the capitulation of the Cissean rebellion, and the establishment of Nocht’s newest ally in the global south. He had finally put that war to bed as he had promised. He was almost assured an eight-year term now.

And where were the pundits now? Lehner laughed aloud. This was too good.

Turning out of the hotel avenue, the motorcade drove deep into the urban heart of Junzien, through roads flanked with buildings wedged one between the other, gray, gloomy cement and glass monuments to the city’s endurance. Lehner much preferred the new capital further up Rhinea, a larger, more modern place, sleek and efficient and artful, but Junzien was his people’s heart. So he begrudgingly made space for it in his own.

“We have to start moving quick after this. Build Cissea up.” Lehner said.

“Unfortunately, the island campaigns have sapped the strength of the Bundesmarine.” Cecilia quickly replied. “Our capacity to ship to Cissea is currently very limited.”

“Work on that, darlin’. It’s nothin’ that can’t be be fixed. You gotta find the problems and the solutions and you move heaven and earth — that’s what all of you are here for.”

“We can start on it; but in this case we need to move an ocean.” Cecilia said.

Lehner burst out laughing, slapping his knees. “God. I keep remembering why I hired you. And I just think to myself ‘damn, Lehner, good move, my man, good move.'”

Cecilia pushed up her glasses, her face reflecting his own impish grin.

At Lehner’s side, his wife’s expression soured ever so slightly more.

Outside the snowfall thickened, but the people struggled all the more to keep up. Everyone was used to the conditions of this venerable celebration. It had been this cold on that fateful day, and yet the rebel soldiers fought on nonetheless. Lehner waved through the tinted glass at the marchers, men, women, and children, cheering and running. They were separated from the motorcade by marching policemen in dress uniform.

Slowly the motorcade was poised to escape the tightest confines of Junzien.

Lehner picked a glass of wine from the side of his limousine seat.

There was a flash and a crack from up ahead.

At once the limousine came to a stop sudden enough to shake President Lehner.

Red wine spilled on his shirt and coat.

Lehner threw his hands up in anger. “Fuck! What the hell–”

Red blood sprayed on the window beside him, and there was a thud on the glass as one of the police escorts hit the limousine, falling dead with shells through his chest.

Muzzles flashed skyward, and gunfire rang out from inside the crowd.

Police drew their pistols in a split-second response and fired into the streets.

Panicked marchers ran every which way to escape the carnage.

Grenades flew out from the throngs and detonated among the motorcade.

Glass windshields shattered on police cars and motorcycles. Fuel tanks went up in columns of flame, sending shards of metal screaming through the crowd and roasting special agents and foot police inside their vehicles. Policemen fighting on the streets were grazed or clipped by metal shards and many fell. Amid the massacre the limousine stood unharmed, explosive fragments bouncing off its sloped, disguised armor plating.

From the rapidly thinning crowd, an assailant in a covering trenchcoat and hat opened fire into the window of the limousine. Twin wounds marred the glass, each composed of dozens of concentric circles with a cap lodged between. His gun failed to penetrate.

Agatha Lehner nevertheless screamed and ducked against her husband in fear.

President Lehner grit his teeth.

“Cecilia.” He said, more aggravated than anxious.

Shaking with nervousness, Cecilia slammed her heeled shoe on the floor, and dug out from under a sliding panel a sleek, fully automatic Norgler machine gun, top of the line.

She clumsily pulled up the cover on the feed tray, slid the ammunition belt into it, locked it in place, and pulled back the charging handle to ready the weapon. It fed with a satisfying click, just like they had practiced. She held the gun aloft, her shoulders shaking.

Outside the assailants concentrated their gunfire on the limousine.

Bulletproof glass absorbed a dozen rounds of punishment.

It was getting hard to see the fight.

Lehner nodded his head with determination and Cecilia nodded back. She dropped between the rows of seats in the back of the limousine, sidling close to the door with the Norgler in hand. She pushed it up to the door. Lehner leaned down, holding his wife close, both their heads down under the level of the windows for safety. He pulled a catch.

On the door a panel just large enough for the Norgler opened.

Cecilia pushed the gun through the slot and slipped a slender finger over the trigger.

Swinging the weapon from side to side she opened fire indiscriminately.

At once a noise like an automatic saw overwhelmed the sounds of battle.

Casings dropped to the floor of the limousine by the dozens every second as Cecilia held down the trigger on the Norgler, barely controlling its overwhelming fire. She closed her eyes and held on to the weapon as bursts of automatic fire swept from the side of the limousine. Lehner peered over the window and watched as best as he could through the marred glass as the weapon rained lead on the streets. He strained his eyes and saw the trenchcoat men as they were brutally cut down with barely a struggle.

Another sharp click and the Norgler ejected its last casing.

Once the noise of the automatic fire died down, the street was empty and silent.

Lehner waited in the limousine, stroking his wife’s shoulders and pulling her head to his chest, her tears soaking into the wine-stained coat and shirt. He sighed deeply.

Cecilia stood up from the floor, sweating, breathing heavily.

“It’s a hell of a gun.” She said, her voice trembling.

After several minutes, a surviving police officer knocked on the window.

President Lehner stepped out of his battered limousine and inspected the carnage.

His weary eyes rolled over the blood and viscera, the bodies of innocents, of officers, of assailants alike, the burning wrecks, the bullet casings littered all over the ground, all of the madness that had unfolded on his streets in mere moments on this historic day.

Only one detail burned in his mind at that instant.

All of the weapons he saw gripped in the death-frozen fingers of the soon-to-be infamous Federation Day Terrorists, were of Ayvartan make. Their grenades, their firearms, all of their arsenal had been manufactured in the Socialist Dominances of Solstice.

“That’s damning.” He told himself under a cold breath. “And useful.”

Read The Next Part || Return To The Index