This chapter contains scenes of violence, social stress, and references to medical conditions.
54th of the Yarrow’s Sun, 2018 D.C.E
Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Vicaria — Monastery of Saint Orrea’s Hope
Vicaria was a country of orchards and farms. Vast stretches of low-lying black soil, supporting trees and fields and rustic houses, half encircled by mountains that impeded the cold northern air. It had a unique climate for Lubon, and was spoken of in reverent tongues, as if a paradise, like heaven, to retire to when one had peace. Settled on the side of Mount Hadex, the Monastery of Saint Orrea had a commanding view of the province. From the peak, a careful eye could trace the blue rivers and yellow fields and massive green orchards as though viewing a pastel painting, running one’s fingers across the air over this awe-inspiring abstraction.
Pairs of columns along the mountain led the half-track up the monastery path. In the distant past each of these would have been a barred gate, held by legionnaires who fought off barbarians and protected the holy mountain of flames out of which the Messiah would resurrect. But those traditions were visibly eroded with the stone of the columns and with the shattered remnants of the gate bars. Saint Orrea’s Judgment had become Saint Orrea’s Hope, an ecclesiastical campus half orphanage and half hermetic retreat for devoted students.
It was said that perhaps in this place, miracles and magic could be made alive again.
No such thing had been accomplished, and the Legionnaires now riding their gas-powered steed to the place had no interest in proving the works of the Lord or restoring to the world the healing hands of the old clerics. Saint Orrea was forgotten and that was good for the girl. It was out of the way, overlooked; there would be no discoveries made there.
Past the final gate the Legion half-track climbed over the shelf that bore the monastery buildings, ringed by trees and backed into the shoulder of the mountain, a collection of irregular towers and building storeys that looked as though made by a child with blocks. Built and rebuilt over generations it had a mishmash of architectural touches. A brutal facade in soft orange tones with smooth domes existed alongside wings with gentle mansard roofs. The structure extended arms of weathered old stone and flat, low ramparts around the edges of the mountain, as though to embrace those who crossed the gates.
At the foot of the steps leading up to the main building the Legionnaires were greeted by an old bearded priest and a nun so covered that little could be discerned of her. The Half-Track, engine still running, opened its doors. Exiting the vehicle, a tall, swarthy man in a black uniform, accented with a pair of golden eagles, opened the back door. His blunt, grim face momentarily softened for the child, gently coaxing the little one out of the vehicle by the hand.
The Legionnaire’s quarry was a skinny child, short-haired, round-faced, somewhat androgynous, finely dressed in what was certainly pure white silk. A long white dress with silver buttons and cuffs made the child shine under the afternoon sun directly over the mountain.
Both the priest and the nun clasped their hands before their faces and bowed humbly.
“My son, thank you for gracing us at this humble place,” began the Priest, “I am Magus Aldus Sextus, of the church’s Thaumaturgical Observation Group. I received news that the Legion would be visiting, but not the details of your mission. Let me assure you that Pallas has all of the resources of Saint Orrea at its disposal.” He reached and shook hands with the legionnaire.
“My name is Centurion Tarkus Marcel, I’m with the 17th Blackshirt Legion,” said the legionnaire, his grim expression returning, “This girl is of noble birth and she will be a guest and student here for the next year. Her stay here is a guarded secret. You do not need to know her name.” Tarkus knelt down next to the child, swept her hair gently from her face, and looked into her eyes. He smiled, paternally. “They don’t need to know your name; understand, bambina?”
“Yes sir,” the girl replied in a low voice, her pitch irregular. She nodded rapidly to show that she understood, her hands clasped innocently behind her back, her feet shifting nervously.
Tarkus stood again and addressed the priest and nun once more. “You do not touch her; she knows how to bathe herself and change her own clothes. None of you is to have any physical contact with her. You are to give her the utmost privacy. Funds will be provided for her accommodation — and whatever is left over you can use for what you please.”
Neither the priest nor the nun made known any protest toward this arrangement.
“Money is no object, my son.” Aldus replied. “However, and I do not mean to sound as if I extract tribute, but; am I to take it that the entrusting of this errand to myself, demonstrates an acknowledgement of my loyalty and competence, and perhaps, suitability for Primacy?”
“Perhaps.” Tarkus replied. He looked upon the old priest with suspicion.
Aldus smiled amicably and bowed his head again. “My son, please relay to the Queen that I would spare nothing, not even my own blood, to insure that her own blood remain secure.”
Tarkus closed his fist with muted agitation. The girl looked at the adults with worry.
“I will relay your kind wishes, Aldus, and put in a realistic assessment of the situation to my superiors at the end of the child’s term here.” Tarkus said in a dangerous tone of voice.
Magus Aldus bowed his head, smiling, triumphant. For the first time he looked over the little girl, and he knelt down near her. “Like one of the Lord’s little angels. Do you know the word of God my daughter? Have you been read the scriptures, and glimpsed with Awe at his Grace?”
Tarkus rolled his eyes. Beside him the little girl held his hand and shook her head.
“Do not worry, you have a lifetime ahead of you to devote yourself to Him.” Magus Aldus said. He reached out his hand and the little girl looked at it with trepidation. “I will call you Grazia while you are here, little one, and this place will be elevated by your presence.”
“Go with him, it will be fine. I promise.” Tarkus said. He let the girl’s hand go.
She stared at Aldus’ hand again, and before she could come to a decision, the party heard a high-pitched noise and sudden trampling on the steps. Someone came down from the monastery. Both the priest and nun turned around and found another child prostrated before them on the landing, down on her knees. She was dressed in a nun’s robe that was faded and dusty, and she was very small, with her hair collected into a little ponytail. She looked up from the ground with tears in her eyes. She was missing a tooth, and her face was very dirty.
“Father Aldus I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” She shouted. “I know you told me not to go further up the mountain, and I did it, and I lost my crucifix in the ashes, and I’m so sorry–”
“Geta, calm down. This is not the time.” Aldus said, picking the girl up from the floor and standing her up and dusting off her robes. “We have guests here. Please calm down.”
For a moment “Grazia” thought to turn back and run into the half-track. But while Tarkus was sometimes comforting he was always imposing, and he had told her to stay. So she had to stay. She knew this was something Tarkus had decided to do and there was no undoing it.
“I will be leaving now.” Tarkus said. “Remember well what I told you, Magus.”
A Legionnaire stepped out from the car and unloaded a suitcase with clothes and things that had been prepared for “Grazia” and left them by the side of the steps. With a last, firm nod to the girl, Tarkus vanished into the vehicle, and it drove away the way it came, leaving her behind.
Grazia watched the vehicle until she could no more. She felt dispirited, but not sad enough to outright cry. After all, Tarkus was an ambivalent figure, devoid of love but also hate; her mother was an ambivalent figure, devoid of presence but not quite neglectful. “Grazia” was sure that this monastery would not be a place of happiness, but it would be devoid of misery.
Behind her, the other little girl looked up expectantly at Magus Aldus awaiting her fate.
The Magus rubbed behind his back with his hand while staring at the suitcase intently.
“Geta, I am ready to forgive your mistakes, because you have confessed to them in the eyes of God, but I will more readily forgive them if you pick up that luggage for me.” Aldus said.
Not another tear shed from the child’s eyes. Geta instantly perked up, and rushed past “Grazia” and took the suitcase. She failed to lift it by its handle, but by picking it up with both arms, hugging it against her chest like a newborn, she could clumsily heave it around.
Grazia followed the Magus, the nun and Geta up the long set of steps to the monastery. At the top they crossed another pair of pillars and walked through a walled garden filled with flowers. Moss grew over the rocks, and the irrigation system drew from a little man-made river cutting through the stones. Inside the monastery the walls felt tight and the ceiling low, and there were portraits of saints and priests on the walls that seemed to look down judgmentally.
“Geta, show her to the tower room. She will live there from now on. Nobody will be able to bother her there. Show her the way.” Aldus put a key atop the suitcase, and took his leave. With the quiet nun in tow, the Magus departed through an adjoining hall. He gave no more thought to the little royal girl — either he trusted Geta a lot, or he simply did not care. It would not be the first time an adult wanted to be rid of her when their purposes were fully served.
“Alright, father!” Geta said. A rather delayed reaction — Aldus was nowhere near anymore. She shifted uneasily on her feet, turning the suitcase around to face Grazia. Her arms were shaking, but she held on to the luggage for dear life. “If I drop the key please pick it up!”
“Ok.” Grazia replied. “Can you really carry that? It looks very heavy.”
“I can carry it! I’m a tough girl! Just keep an eye on that key, ok?” Geta said.
Grazia nodded. Geta looked like she was a little bit older than her, but perhaps not much.
Together they followed the hallway out to the west wing and climbed a tall stone staircase. It seemed like a thousand steps to the little girls. Several times, Geta dropped the key, and Grazia picked it up and put it back atop the suitcase where it could, and would, fall again. After what seemed like an eternity of steps, Geta dropped the luggage in front of a wooden door, and she sat next to it and breathed harshly. “Messiah defend! Lazy old man!” She cried out.
Grazia took the key, and she stood on her tiptoes and shoved it into the hole. She opened the wooden door behind Geta. The room on the other side was old and dusty, but it had a very long and wide bed, and several drawers. She had a faucet, connected to a pipe coming in from outside the tower. There was a bookshelf full of books, and a few stools and chairs knocked down in various places. Grazia righted one and sat on it. She sat facing Geta and watched her.
“Are you bringing in the luggage soon servant? I need my luggage.” Grazia said.
“Servant? Hey, I’m only supposed to serve the Lord!” Geta said.
“Ok, I understand. But I need my suitcase. All my things are in there.”
Geta stood up from the floor, dusted off her robe, and slid the suitcase inside.
“There you go, it’s inside.” Geta said, smiling mischievously.
“It’s maybe a meter inside! That’s not inside! Slide it over to my bed.”
Grazia protested. Geta made a show of sighing, and shoved the suitcase in fits and starts until it fell beside the king-size bed at the end of the room. She then sat on it, catching her breath. Grazia turned her stool around and faced Geta, staring at her. It was the first time she had really interacted with another child. She thought Geta might be a new servant, like the maids at the old duke’s house. She thought she would need new servants now that the duke was dead.
“What is your name? Is it just Geta? Or are you, a Sister, or a Magoo?” Grazia said.
“It’s Magus. And I’m just Geta. That’s my last name. My first name is Byanca.”
“That’s a pretty name.” Grazia replied. She was finding it easier to talk to Geta than she thought. Talking to Tarkus or to other adults was frightening. They never really listened — it was like they knew what she was going to say before she said it. Then they chose to do whatever they wanted or to reply to her like she had not said anything at all. With Geta it felt like she was talking to someone like herself, who listened to words and responded jovially.
It made Grazia want to talk to her; to tell her all the things she would normally just tell to the walls or to a mirror or to cats or to dolls. Geta could carry a conversation better.
“What’s your name anyway? Who are you? Are you rich? Can I have some money?” Geta said. She held out her hand as though begging, and stretched it out insistently a few times.
“I think I’m rich but I don’t think I have money to be quite honest.” Grazia said.
“Nobody ever has money in this place.” Geta said, crossing her arms, disappointed.
“Ok, listen, I’m gonna tell you my name but you have to promise not to tell anyone. Its really important and a secret and you have to pinky swear you won’t tell anyone.”
Geta held out her pinky, and intertwined her fingers with the little royal girl.
“I’m Princess Salvatrice Vittoria,” whispered the girl. “I think I’ll be Queen someday.”
Geta blinked. “Wow.” She said. She sounded quite genuinely surprised to hear this.
“I don’t have any money. I kind of just go from place to place a lot. But listen, if you keep that a secret and you’re nice to me I will get you a white pony someday. My mommy has a lot.”
“I don’t want a pony. I want cold hard cash.” Geta said. She stretched out her hand again.
Salvatrice stood up from her bench and sat down on her bed. It was big and fluffy and bouncy, and it looked a lot less dusty than the walls and the bookshelf. Perhaps it had been prepared beforehand, though nothing else in the room had been. She bounced around a little on it.
“I’ll make you a knight. You’ll get a gun, I think. And a horse.” Salvatrice said.
Geta retracted her hand. “Ok, I’ll take it. Your secret is safe with me, princess.”
“No don’t call me that. Call me Grazia unless you’re sure we’re alone.” Salvatrice said.
“Why do you have to keep it a secret? If I was a Princess I’d want everyone to know.”
“I have to stay here for my mommy’s sake, and I have to do what she says. And she doesn’t want anyone to know so it’s really important that I obey her. That’s what a good girl would do.”
Geta stroked her chin as though this was a philosophical concept that was quite far out of her league. “My mommy’s not here and neither is my daddy so I don’t really know about that.”
Salvatrice was too innocent to contemplate the implications of that. Where Geta’s parents had done or what it meant for them to be gone did not register in her mind. She tried to explain why she had come here as best as she could — in reality she did not even really know herself.
“My mommy is the Queen, but I just make trouble for her, and I make it hard for her to do her job of telling everyone in the kingdom what they have to do; so Tarkus took me away. I’ve gone to a lot of places but I’ve kept causing trouble so he takes me farther and farther away.”
“Tarkus; that big guy? Huh. I don’t get it. What kind of trouble do you cause anyway?”
“I don’t know. I never get to see my mommy and I live in different places all the time. So I think it’s because I cause trouble. But I don’t know what I’m doing wrong or how to stop.”
“That’s strange. I cause trouble but all the time but I always just get away with it.”
Salvatrice sighed and laid down. “Maybe I’m getting away with it and I just don’t know.”
Geta looked at her, and scratched her hair nervously. She sighed too.
“Now I’m really confused. Anyway, do you want to go look for my crucifix in the ashes?”
Salvatrice sat up and crossed her arms. “My dress will get all sooty and dirty if I do that.”
“Aww, come on, that’s what’s fun about the ash cauldron. Let’s go up the mountain!”
“What about the bearded man? Won’t he see us? Won’t he be angry at us?”
“Not at all, Father Aldus is always distracted, plus I’m real good at sneaking out. Let’s go!”
Geta took Salvatrice’s hand, and gently pulled her off the bed and led her back down the stairs. They hurried down the stairs, Geta laughing and cheering, Salvatrice struggling to keep up. The Princess felt a sense of trepidation but also a strange thrill. It was the first time she ever really played with a child near to her own age — and one of the few times she might even go outside. Playing under the sun and in the wind; perhaps her stay would be happy after all.
28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Pallas Messianic Academy
At 8 AM the bells on Salvatrice’s alarm clock rang harshly beside her bed.
Bleary-eyed, she saw the figure of her maid moving about, opening the curtains and windows, letting in a breeze; shutting off the alarm; arranging clothes and cosmetics and tools.
“Morning,” Salvatrice said, yawning and stretching her arms.
“Good day, milady. Your car is ready whenever; let us get you fixed up.”
“Ah yes, I did say I was going out today?” She said, in the tone of a question.
“Milady did indeed express her desire to visit the grand library today.”
“Yes. Of course. Thank you for making the arrangements.”
“No problem, milady. I hope you will have a pleasant time. I’m glad to see you out and about in the daylight. It’s not healthy for a young woman to be locked up.”
Locked up was quite a choice of words. Salvatrice had been a guest of the Pallas Messianic Academy for several years. At her mother’s urging she had sought higher education after coming of age. Atop a little hill overlooking much of the school facilities, the Aquinas building served the Academy’s board of directors, containing the offices and records libraries out of which accounting and administration were performed. Her suite was at the very top of the building, and included several rooms, its own bathroom and even a little kitchen and dining area. Her bedroom window overlooked an orchard and the nearby forest.
Originally, the suite housed special guests of the Academy, bankrollers or lecturers.
When the royal arrangements were made, it became Salvatrice’s new hideaway.
Her mother had visited exactly once to ask her whether the accommodation was suitable.
Salvatrice felt that everything was quite ordinary and pleasing and replied in the affirmative.
She invited her mother on a little tour, and held her breath throughout the proceedings.
Her mother had tea with her in their little living room. From there they walked out to the little balcony, where she could see out to the grand plaza and all the school buildings. Salva showed the Queen her humble 30 square meters bedroom, and the adjacent room which had become a large closet for Salva’s many clothes — her costumes had been hidden that day.
The Queen replied to the tour only by saying, “Fair enough,” and emphasizing the importance of diligent studying and acquiring a broader, more worldly wisdom through academics.
After that, Salvatrice did not even get another glimpse of her mother for two years.
Before the current mess in the world, her maid had been closest to a mother in her life.
Cannelle was her only servant, and one of her few friends. She was older than Salva, but only by a decade. And she was a student too. Taking care of Salva paid for her lectures.
Morning, noon, evening and night, it was always just Cannelle and her in the suite.
In her homely apron and dress, with her brown hair pulled back into a bun, and her long, sharp ears raised up, long enough they seemed almost like a rabbit’s, Cannelle helped Salvatrice out of bed and out of her night clothes. She averted her eyes while Salvatrice changed into new underwear, and then helped her with her dress. For the morning of the 25th, the maid had picked out a practical mahogany brown dress with a high neck, long sleeves, and a form-fitting, conservatively-designed bodice and skirt. There were no frills, no ribbons, no lace.
It might not have been exactly academic, but it straddled that line and away from lavish.
Salvatrice did not like lavish things — they felt unreasonably exposing and hubristic.
Cannelle pulled the dress over Salvatrice’s skin, helping her arms into the sleeves, buttoning up the back, flattening any folds. They sat down together. Cannelle applied a dusting of cosmetic powder over Salvatrice’s delicate features, and she then turned hear round and brushed her hair, leaving it more symmetrical than she found it, hanging above shoulder, framing her face. She took her time, brushing gently, lifting Salvatrice’s smooth chin to keep her head still.
She had quite a magic touch. Salvatrice felt awkward. This was something that her culture insisted she must do, as someone of her station. But in all other ways her station was meaningless. And yet, in ways she kept guarded, she appreciated someone who looked at her body every day and did not judge her. To Cannelle, Salvatrice’s skin was not too dark, her hair was not too red, her figure was not too flat. She would never think of her as out of place.
In front of a mirror, Salvatrice smiled, and Cannelle ushered her to turn around twice.
“You look beautiful, Milady.” She said, smiling and clapping her hands.
Salvatrice could look in that mirror and think that she was. She was beautiful, all of her was. It was a blessing that despite everything else, she got to start the morning this way.
“Thank you, Cannelle. You may take the day off, if you please. I fancy picking up a meal outside to take to the library with me today. You need not spend any undue efforts.”
“Milady, no effort for you is undue! Please allow me to serve you light breakfast, at least.”
Outside her bedroom was a small connecting room with bookshelves on either side, empty save for a carpet across the floor. Up a small set of steps they climbed to the a raised tea area, fenced off by an ornate balustrade, a few meters higher than the rest of the floor. It was like dining on a stage. Salvatrice sat on a stool chair, while Cannelle walked ahead to the kitchen.
Minutes later the maid returned, a pitcher of lemonade in one hand and a perfectly balanced plate of snacks on the other. There were tomatoes and cheese drizzled with a thin vinaigrette and sprinkled with herbs; crackers topped with sea salt and freshly cracked pepper; the lemonade had a touch of honey. Salvatrice ate delicately, raising little bites to her mouth with a fork. Cannelle watched more than she ate. This was usually the case with their breakfasts.
“Everything to your satisfaction?” Cannelle asked.
“It always is.” Salvatrice replied.
She could not fault the service at all. Cannelle was the only servant she needed.
After breakfast, Cannelle dropped a little pink pill onto the empty plates.
“Your treatment for the day, milady. May it bring you much health.”
Salvatrice took the hormone pill and drank it with a little lemonade. It went down quite easily.
“How do you feel?” Cannelle asked. She looked a little worried. A few days back Salvatrice had confided in her that she felt the beginnings of another awful spell, and may grow sick.
“I feel fine.” Salvatrice said. She smiled quite genuinely. “Exuberant, even. I don’t think any fatigue and flashes will plague me for the time being, so do not worry about me.”
“I’m so glad. Seeing milady suffering while having to go about her tasks as if nothing was happening — it has felt like such an injustice. I hope this medicine will end that for good.”
“Everything is fine, Cannelle. I should be off; don’t want to leave the driver waiting.”
Salvatrice felt energy coursing to her feet, and while Canelle cleaned up the table she made to take her leave and go out in the sun, bursting with the desire to appear before the world.
Then, in the midst of this, they heard a knock on the door, and another.
Both Princess and maid paused abruptly and stared with confusion at the door.
“Are we supposed to have guests?” Salvatrice asked.
Knock knock. Silence again. Someone was still out there.
“No.” Cannelle said. Keeping her eyes to the door, she backed up to a nearby bookshelf and pulled a fake book from it. She spread it open — there was a pistol inside.
She loaded a magazine into the pistol and took it with her.
Knock knock knock. It was growing more forceful now.
Salvatrice’s eyes drew wide. Cannelle was just a maid, not a bodyguard. Her hands trembled on the weapon. She kept it behind her back as she slowly approached the door. She turned her head over her shoulder and mouthed to Salvatrice, who read her lips, “stay back.”
The Princess knelt near the steps to the little raised tea area, using the balustrade around it for cover. “Coming!” Cannelle called out with faux innocence. She took the door handle.
Slowly the maid opened the door. Her gun remained firmly behind her back.
She breathed out with relief, and immediately confronted the new arrival at the door.
“You’re supposed to tell us if you’re coming! You nearly scared us half to death!”
Cannelle shouted, visibly furious. She pointed sharply at the person’s breast with her free hand.
“It was a very last minute assignment, I had just got back from Reserve. I’m sorry.”
A reply; Salvatrice heard a somewhat rough but feminine-sounding voice outside that door.
Cannelle opened the door all the way and allowed in a young woman in a blackshirt legionnaire uniform, but with a strange black garrison cap, adorned with black feathers pinned by a metal emblem. She was just a little taller than Salvatrice and Cannelle, slim, broad-shouldered. Her skin was a pale olive, with blue eyes, and dirty blond hair in a ponytail coming down from behind her cap. Her elfin ears were short, like Salvatrice’s, but sharp and clearly Lubonin in nature.
Pinned to her breast was a metallic “XVII” — the identifier of the 17th Blackshirt Legion.
Salvatrice came out of hiding, and strode as tall and composed as she could muster out to the entryway. Seeing her, the legionnaire bent down to one knee to receive her. She bowed her head. The Princess struggled with all her might to resist kicking the woman in the neck. Instead she took a duster that was nearby and touched the legionnaire in the shoulder, indicating, as per the ridiculous royal traditions, that it was fine for her to look at the princess.
The Legionnaire looked up at her. Perhaps in any other uniform Salvatrice would have thought her features handsome, but legionnaires filled her with nothing but rage and disgust.
“What does the 17th Blackshirt Legion want with me?” Salvatrice asked.
Again the woman bowed her head. She took a deep breath. She was nervous.
“I am Centurion Byanca Geta. Henceforth I am to be your bodyguard.” She said.
Salvatrice suddenly lifted her foot and kicked her square in the belly, knocking her back.
On the floor Byanca clutched her stomach in pain and looked up with shock, gasping.
“I don’t need a bodyguard, and especially not you. You can go away now.” Salvatrice said.
“I cannot go,” Byanca said. Her voice sounded choked. Salva had knocked the wind from her.
“Did my mother send you? I’ve never had to deal with such a thing before but I am putting my foot down — in whatever part of you it catches when I kick, if necessary. Go away!”
“Milady,” Byanca said, pausing to cough a little, “I understand this is sudden, but you are in danger from the killers that have been targeting nobles in Palladi and Ikrea.”
“I don’t believe you. Why would they target me?” Salvatrice said.
“We have credible evidence; and I am here to protect you if the need arises.”
Salvatrice felt a growing knot of anxiety in her stomach, but she was adamant.
“I will endure this danger with my own wits. Leave my sight now, legionnaire.”
Byanca rose to her knees again and got back up on her feet. No one offered help. She stood straight, and saluted. “I wish I could acquiesce, Princess, but you need protection and I am the only person qualified to offer it. It would be indecent for a man to do so, and I am the only woman who has qualified for the Bersaglieri in the 17th Legion, under whose jurisdiction–”
Salvatrice felt a rising, sharp burst of fresh wrath. Jurisdiction? They treated her like a thing!
“I don’t care how many push-ups you can do! You are intruding into my home and defying a blooded member of the royal family of Lubon. Get out before I have my maid shoot you!”
Cannelle nearly jumped; but for Salvatrice’s sake, she kept the gun behind her back.
Salvatrice’s expression was hard as stone. She wanted this legionnaire gone right away.
But Byanca did not push any more. She offered no undue resistance other than her continued presence — a presence that made no demands. She looked almost dejected, hurt even.
“You do not remember me at all, do you Salvatrice?” She said. Her saluting hand shook.
These words scarcely registered in Salvatrice’s mind. It was almost as if she heard someone speaking gibberish rather than the Lubonin tongue. This was completely nonsensical.
“Who are you that I should remember, Legionnaire?” Salvatrice said. It was perhaps the most vicious thing she had ever said to someone. She put all the contempt that she felt into those words. In her soft voice the title sounded like the most derogatory slur possible. She wanted Byanca to be thrown back by those words, to crush whatever delusions she was under.
Byanca closed her eyes. She looked a little shaken indeed, but she was not moving.
“Then you must have Cannelle shoot me, Salvatrice, because I am not leaving.”
“I am not shooting anyone!” Cannelle finally said. “Salvatrice, please, be reasonable. This is most unlike you! Should it be true that someone is plotting against you, I cannot protect you!”
Something snapped; this was the final straw for Salvatrice. She stomped her feet.
“Nobody is plotting against me!” Salvatrice shouted. “The Blackshirt Legion sent this lackey here to spy on me against my will and that is the only and entire plot and I will not have it!”
Salvatrice pushed past Byanca and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
She charged downstairs before anyone could stop her and took the elevator to the lobby. Outside the main doors, her private car, an elegant little blue vehicle, was parked close. Her driver opened the back door, and she quickly took her seat and urged him to drive. As they rounded out of the parking spots, she saw Byanca cross the threshold of the Aquinas building. She waved and shouted as the car sped away from her and downhill to the main campus.
Too late she realized she had forgotten to check for a letter from Carmella in the usual spot, but that was too dangerous at the moment anyway. She sighed. She knew someday her mother would become more forceful. Perhaps this was it; the end of what little freedom she had.
Pallas Messianic Academy was like its own city in the heart of Lubon just off of the city of Pallas, the capital of the kingdom. At the center of the campus was the Grand Plaza, a broad field paved over with cobblestone paths connecting beautiful gardens and gazebos, fountains, and pavilion structures with restaurants and entertainment and arts showcases and other temptations for students. The growing popularity of cars led to the clearing of a tight road lane through the Plaza. Whenever she had a lecture, Salvatrice drove through the campus.
At several points the Grand Plaza branched, serving as the main access into the grounds of various colleges, each boasting a complex with classrooms and warehouses or depots for their needed supplies. Prominent among them were the colleges of engineering and medicine, each of which had vast, modern grounds at opposite ends of the Grand Plaza. Philosophy was contained in the oldest building, its chalky white bricks still standing. Sociology was not as old nor as small, and the building, a boxy red brick face with a thick balcony brow and a long glass entryway mouth, stood just off the rail station in the northern side of the campus.
As such, usually Salvatrice had to listen to lecturers compete with the arriving trains.
Today her driver veered off to the west, to the palatial Grand Library with its complicated facade full of expansive arches and its many marble domes. Once it had been a palace, serving a Lord who endeavored to bring many men of culture to settle and study and enrich his lands with their skills. Over time, power centralized, and that Lord was Lord no longer. His lands became the Academy, and his Palace, known for its Library, became only a Library.
At the foot of the vast steps leading to the cavernous archway entrance, Salva’s car parked, and her driver, Erardo, stepped out, opened her door, and helped her out by the hand. He was an older gentleman, with a thick mustache in a quite extravagant style, and little hair under his white driver’s cap. On the passenger seat he had some bread, a coffee thermos, and a paper.
“You needn’t wait here, my friend,” Salvatrice said, “I intend to while away the hours.”
“In that case, I shall find a more scenic place to park, but I do not intend to go far. I shall return before the sunset nonetheless. I would not want milady to step out with no company.”
Salvatrice nodded. “Thank you. That will be fine. Enjoy your coffee, Erardo.”
Erardo tipped his cap, and drove back out to the plaza and out of Salvatrice’s sight.
She was quite blessed to have servants who had known her for so long and were amicable.
Sunset would be fine; she expected there would be a lot of exploring ahead. In truth she had hardly ever visited the Grand Library. She gave her reading lists to Erardo or Cannelle or to some other helpful agent and had them deliver the goods to her door. But now there were things outside the reading lists she had to know, and the Sociology department’s library had too little access to international works that she desired. Basic readers on Ayvartan society were useless. She needed to search through works written by Ayvartans or travelers to Ayvarta, deep in the library. Salvatrice set her shoulders, took a deep breath, and composed herself.
She turned around to climb the steps; and she found Byanca sitting despondently atop.
There were a few people coming and going from the library, walking down and up the steps, taking the path across the front courtyard, driving past the building altogether; they made quite a crowd and Salva did not want to cause a scene by objecting to Byanca’s presence before all their eyes. Walking around by herself, few people would think she was anyone out of the ordinary. Fighting with a blackshirt legionnaire would draw more unwanted attention.
That was the last thing Salva needed. She walked past Byanca as though the Centurion was not sitting there — the woman noticed, and stood and picked up after her as though she had been implicitly invited on a walk. The Princess did not protest. Not in any obvious way. But she pushed through the door and let it smash against Byanca; and she walked at her own pace with no consideration for her. Neither of these things seemed to dissuade the legionnaire.
Past the lobby, Salvatrice climbed a grand set of curling stairs to the second floor. She took the steps calmly and gracefully. Byanca quickly caught up and climbed by her side.
“Princess, I apologize for following you, but I swear I am only doing so out of concern for you. This is not about the Legion, I swear, if I could help you in any other way I would.”
Salvatrice gave her no reply, not even a change of facial expression. She was but empty air.
“This is a lot to bear with, and I wish a warning had been given to you, but it is sudden for me as well. I just got back from my colonial tour in Borelia and I found out about this mission. I know the Blackshirt Legion has acted intrusively toward you, and I cannot abide by that, but my own actions have always been for the good of the royal family, so I accepted this task for you.”
“Why do you speak to me with such familiarity?” Salvatrice said. She did not turn to deliver the question. This legionnaire was not worth turning to. She simply said as if to the air.
“We played together a lot at Saint Orea’s, when we were small. Don’t you remember?”
“I don’t remember any such thing.” Salvatrice said. She vaguely remembered staying at a monastery for some time, to be kept away from squabbling nobles, but she stayed in a lot of different places as a child and they were all vague blurs to her, as were the people in them. The Queen had her sheltered wherever convenient for years. How could she remember one girl?
“I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have presumed that you would. It was a long time ago.”
No response at all. Byanca was growing more emphatic but Salva gave her nothing back.
They walked up to the landing and down a hallway that opened up into a room that seemed thirty meters tall and perhaps a hundred wide, filled with row after row of massively tall shelves. Byanca quieted her pleas but continued to tail Salvatrice closely every step of the way.
Salvatrice pulled a wheeled staircase over to a shelf and began to climb. Byanca dutifully grabbed the staircase and kept it steady. As much as possible Salvatrice wanted to ignore her. She did not want to confront the fact that this woman was following her everywhere and was probably taking notes for Legatus Marcel and his other cronies. This was just a visit to the library — she could return home after it and there would be nothing changed in her life.
From a staircase in front of her she pulled a book, and checked the table of contents. It was an old book, about a hundred years old, and it suited her purposes perfectly. Writing on the Ayvartans from before communism would likely give a much less biased account of their culture and history. Something would be missing of course, but she believed an independent study about the nature of communism, coupled together with a better idea of Ayvarta’s history, would serve her better than modern, propagandist accounts of the state from all sides.
At the bottom of the stairs Byanca reached out her hand, offering to hold Salva’s books — the princess slapped her hand away and walked past her. This did not dissuade the legionnaire.
“What kinds of books are those?” Byanca said. She sounded nervous again, but making an effort to seem friendly and gregarious. “I read that you were studying sociology, but–”
“Read?” Salvatrice asked. Again she did not look at her; it was as if talking to nobody.
“On the way here I was given a dossier to get acquainted with the current events–”
Salvatrice walked faster suddenly, taking Byanca by surprise. She took long and angry strides at a hurried pace, gritting her teeth, pushing past bewildered library staffers.
Byanca hurried after her, perhaps dimly aware of all the missteps she was making.
“I’m sorry! Nothing sensitive was in there, just basic stuff, age, studies, allergies–”
Her pleas went unheard. From the west wing of the library, Salvatrice shoved past a little group in a connecting hallway and crowded into an elevator. Before Byanca could reach her the doors closed. Finally she was rid of her again. She rode the elevator down to the basement level, where they kept the bulky microfilm punchcard archives of old newspapers and public documents. Two floors down, the elevator opened and Salva hurried out alone.
With the legionnaire out of the way she stepped off the elevator and into the gloomy basement halls. She wanted to read about the things said 23 years ago in the papers. This was a time of great upheaval throughout the world. Her mother was nearly assassinated, just three years before she was born, and nearly fought a civil war to consolidate power. In Nocht, the Frank and Lachy nations that shared a continent with the Federation went to war with it (or it with them) — what Nocht has since referred to as the Unification War, based on its outcome.
And in Ayvarta, the communists’ coup annihilated the imperial family. That was all she knew.
Back then, what were these people’s ideas of each other? Of the conflicts?
How had that changed over time? She was curious if it reflected on reporting done now.
She found a few punchcards of newspaper and magazine editions from the appropriate dates, and slid them into place on the magnifying devices, each of which was large as a desk. Pages were projected onto the machine’s screen, and could be zoomed on for easier reading. Salvatrice’s grasp of Nochtish was just enough to read the first paper she got, Der Betrachter.
Of course, the headline was a battle in the Unification War, with the Frank royalists driving back Federation forces in Le Amelie; but there was a small bit of writing acknowledging internal turmoil in Ayvarta. She supposed news of the Empire would have been difficult to report to Nocht in those days. Didn’t they have the radio-telephone back then though?
Salvatrice was absorbed in her reading. She took a punch card from an errant hand and loaded it, thanking the person for helping her; and found Byanca looking over her shoulder.
“Listen, I know that I started off really wrong, and I’m an idiot, and I’m just going to–”
Salvatrice turned around and buried her head in the monitor, reading the words closely.
Byanca quieted and stood off to the side, staring down at her own hobnailed jackboots.
While she stewed nearby, Salvatrice tried to continue working but she had already suffered so many disruptions she could not concentrate. This image continued to intrude into her mind; there was a legionnaire there, closer than ever before, standing, watching. She knew too much, already, too much; and the way she couched all of her speech in platitudes to sound like a fool was eerie and suspicious and unsettling. Who was this person; did Salvatrice really ever know her? Or was it a trick to manipulate her? Legatus Tarkus surely had better men for the task, Bersaglieri or no. The name echoed hauntingly in her mind. Byanca Geta. Who was she?
Again Salvatrice felt helpless. There was knowledge that she was not privy to. There were plots, alive out in the world, conspirators chuckling behind everyone’s backs with their secret information, and there was nothing Salvatrice could do. She was too isolated, too marginalized.
Byanca raised her hands to gesture, and she smiled and tried to offer another icebreaker.
“If I may say so, Princess, I think you have turned out quite stunning, as beautiful as your mother. I was a bit boyish too as a kid and I thought you might’ve turned out –”
Salvatrice turned around shoved her box of punchcards against Byanca’s chest. She hoped that it hurt, in an angry and petty way, even though the woman caught the box easily in her arms.
“Have the decency to stop mortifying me! Follow quietly as a spy should!” Salva shouted.
She stormed out of the microfilm-reader room but this time Byanca was hot on her heels, and they climbed the steps at less than a meter’s worth of distance, but Salvatrice put distance when they got back into the crowds in the hallways connecting to the lobby. Salvatrice was done — she would go outside and walk back home if she needed to, or find some way to call Erardo, anything to be away. She could endure no more of having Byanca at her heels.
Blinded with rage she scarcely paid attention to her surroundings. In her haste to leave the lobby she shoved past a lady in a bright dress with a lot of ringlet curls and nearly knocked her to the floor. She pushed past and started out the door when she heard her cry out in anger.
“Watch where you’re going. Ugh!” She shouted, raising her fist at Salvatrice.
Salvatrice paid her no mind. She was probably just another spoiled noble brat.
She paid even less attention to a man in a hat and sunglasses crossing the door behind her just as she passed through the threshold and out the building. Such a combination of exhausting and frustration and misery — she was laid low. Feeling the weight of everything too acutely now to continue, she gathered up her skirt and sat at the edge of the steps. There were a handful of people on the steps and door. Thinking of their gazes on her made her feel foolish.
To hell with them. She started to weep. Oh, dearest Carmela; why was nothing easy?
Then in the midst of working down the urge to shout, she heard a loud crack behind her.
It was a gunshot. Someone was shooting in the lobby just a few meters away from her.
Unbidden, Byanca came to mind — she was back there; was she in the middle of this?
Suddenly the doors opened, and she saw the same man running past. His hat flew off his head and his shades fell in the hurry, as he shoved his way past a pair of bystanders. He was young, blond-haired, blue-eyed, sharp-eared. He had a long beige jacket and pants. He was Lubonin, he was ordinary. Nobody would have thought he was anything more than another student coming in for a book. But he had a gun in those hands. And judging by the screams, he had killed.
As he exited the building and found people around him he swung his gun wildly about.
“Nobody move! Don’t move god damn it! Just stay out of my way!” He shouted.
Everyone around the steps dropped to the ground and held up their hands. He was clearly distressed, and he had no control. He was looking every which way like a wild animal.
Salvatrice started to shake and sidle away helplessly. At any moment he could turn to her–
He twisted around and raised his hand, shooting into the glass pane on the lobby doors.
“Stay away or I’ll kill you!” He shouted. He shot wildly again, taking no time to aim.
A familiar voice replied, “I just want to talk to you, ok? You don’t have to do this.”
Byanca walked over the shattered glass, slowly going through the door, hands raised.
“Fuck you! Stop right there if you want to live, Blackshirt. If you weren’t a woman–”
Byanca stepped forward once more, smiling. “Hey now, come on, calm down here.”
Provoked, he stretched out his gun arm to her and she seized it, drawing the gun away from herself. In the next instant Byanca punched him in the face with such force that his head bobbed back and forth. His nose burst with blood, and his upper lip was blaring red.
Lightning quick, Byanca followed by snatching the gun from his limp hand. She pointed it back at him. He reeled away from her in intense pain, and knowing he was helpless, he fell to the ground writhing, like a fish ripped from water. He cried and he screamed and cursed.
One of the mildest things out of his rapidly swelling mouth was “royalist piece of shit.”
From the door a pair of guards appeared, bewildered, clubs shaking in their hands. They cast eyes around the scene. Byanca handed them the gun, and they grabbed hold of the injured gunman, shoving him face-first against a wall as they handcuffed him. Through the broken glass on the door Salvatrice saw the woman with the curls on the floor in a pool of her own blood.
Had she been targeted? Was she just the first person in sight of this man?
Byanca left the doorway and knelt beside Salvatrice, holding her shoulders, wide in the eyes.
“Are you hurt?” Byanca asked. She was breathing heavy, and suddenly red in the face.
“I don’t think so.” Salvatrice said, still sitting on the steps, unable to move or turn away.
“We should go, Salva,” Byanca urged. Without thinking, Salvatrice stood and followed her away from the library and downhill to the Grand Plaza. She felt like her mind had been left behind inside the lobby. Her mind was shocked blank, but her body was shaking and anxious.
They waited a few hours, and Erardo finally drove by and spotted them off the side of the road in the Grand Plaza. He apologized profusely, but Salvatrice held no ill will toward him. She amicably accepted his apologies and told him that they had a guest, who would sit in the back with her. She also told him to raise the soundproof pane between hers and driver’s side compartment. Such a thing was installed in all of the royal cars for privacy.
Erardo understood and promptly raised the thick black glass between himself and the princess’ plush red and gold seating in the back. Byanca got in the car, and Salvatrice followed.
Driving back to the Aquinas building, Salvatrice collected her thoughts and confronted Byanca.
“Was that supposed to happen?” She said sharply. “Did you know about that?”
“No! I had no idea. All the information I saw added up to the potential of an attack on the school and an attack on you; there’s been suspicious activity and sightings of subversive persons and strange radio traffic, but I couldn’t imagine that anyone would move this quickly.”
“Do you think that man is connected to the killings of nobles that have been happening?”
“I don’t know. He could have been disturbed, or specifically targeting that woman.”
“Well, I did pretty clearly hear him say ‘royalist piece of shit’ to you.” Salvatrice said.
Byanca averted her eyes. “Don’t tell anyone that. You’d be pulled into it as a witness.”
Salvatrice looked at her critically. She had not expected that response out of a legionnaire.
“I do not know what to think right now, Centurion Geta, about you or any of this.”
Byanca turned around and abruptly took Salvatrice’s hands into her own and locked eyes.
“Princess, I know that at large the Blackshirt Legion has earned your ire. I know that Legatus Tarkus is tasked with spying on you. But this isn’t about him. I want to earn your trust.”
“You’ve gone about it in an awful roundabout way.” Salvatrice said sarcastically. She pulled away her hands as though she touched something filthy. Some vicious part of her still wanted to cut Byanca, perhaps with good reason. “For starters, joining the Blackshirt Legion.”
“I tried out for the Knights and failed.” Byanca admitted, hands clasped together, staring down at her shoes again. She looked ashamed, as if she couldn’t face Salvatrice while saying that.
Salvatrice exhaled in a deep, weary sigh. Was she starting to feel sympathetic toward her?
“Listen, I know you think you and I have some connection, but we do not. I do not remember anything about you. I’m sorry if you thought this was your chance to show off to a Princess–”
Byanca raised her head and interrupted her. “I know I sound foolish; but I am not here to spy on you, I want to protect you. You are in danger and I do not want you to be hurt, or worse!”
She stared deep into Salvatrice’s eyes and her expression was pathetic, pleading. She raised her hand to her forehead in a salute, her eyes turning moist. A crying Blackshirt? Messiah defend. The Princess rubbed her temples and grit her teeth. The Blackshirt Legion were her mother’s loyal guard, her enforcers, an army more her own than the Knights or the Regulars. Whenever Salva thought herself free these were the people who reminded her she was not. They read her mail, they taped her phone calls, they sent people to track her if she was not seen in school, to fetch her if her mother needed to appear in person to pretend that she cared.
She was sure they would do worse if they found out anything more than they knew.
And yet, Salvatrice was afraid and frustrated. There were things happening in her country that she had no knowledge of and no way of influencing. She could have been killed once already. Had the terrorists known the princess of Lubon was in attendance at the Previte’s party, more than just the front gate would have been blasted open and there would have been nothing she could have done about it. She was not ready then — but she could be ready in the future.
Centurion Geta could protect her, perhaps. But more importantly she could be the gateway to something. Salvatrice slowly convinced herself. Perhaps if she could use Byanca–
“Give me your word right now,” Salvatrice said, before she was even done thinking over the situation, “that you will swear yourself to my service. I am Princess Salvatrice Vittoria, first in line to the throne. You knew that, didn’t you, Blackshirt? You know about Clarissa.”
Byanca put down her saluting hand and paid attention. “I discovered it all recently. Before today I did not even really know your location or status. But I’ve read a lot about Clarissa.”
Salvatrice paid no attention to those words or their implications, just to the confirmation.
“Then you know next to my mother I have the highest authority in this land. Someday I will be your Queen. Even if I am trapped in this school, stuck here right now; my birthright cannot be denied to me. So you will swear right now that you will work primarily for me. You report what I want you to, and you do as I say.” She felt furious just having to say those words.
Byanca was unmoved. She had the same brought-low, brokenhearted sort of strange expression that she had on before. “If it is the only way to gain your trust then I will swear it.”
“I don’t want to hear those equivocations!” Salvatrice said. “Have you no honor?”
Byanca looked foolish again. “I swear upon my honor to serve you alone, Princess.”
“What is it with you and these weak oaths? Who do you think you are you cretin? You have confirmed you have no honor, you slime, you lackey, you filth! Swear upon something valuable to you!” Salvatrice shouted. “Swear upon more than your life, right now!”
“I swear upon you, Princess Salvatrice Vittoria. To serve you alone.” Byanca said.
There was silence in the back of the car. Sealing their strange covenant both parties averted their eyes to their respective windows. Salvatrice wracked her brain. Byanca Geta. She still couldn’t figure out who this was. So many homes, so many faces; her life had been such chaos. It still was chaos right now in its own bizarre way. How could anyone remember any of it?