This story segment contains death and some strong language.
23rd of the Postill’s Dew, 2014 D.C.E
Nocht Federation — Republic of Rhinea, City of Junzien
16 years before the Solstice War.
It was a new year at the Seminary of Saint Romagna, but the same old intrusions.
His father and Makemba had sent Sarahastra to a Messianic seminary to complete her education. They tried to be diplomatic about it, telling them they could see each other on holidays. Over time both their guardians had grown weary of the orchestrated rendezvous that the two teenagers had every few weeks or months or whenever an opportunity arose. Really this course of action had been taken entirely because they thought it would limit them further.
They were utterly mistaken. Nore had clearly forgotten two things 1) the Von Fiegelman inheritance from his wife’s side of the family had all gone to Achim, by her own wishes, and 2) that marks could solve any problem. Achim dropped a few notes at the seminary gate and he had the run of the place. It was a dismal little college on the southern countryside of Junzien.
A broad open field split the campus. A few gabled dormitory buildings stood to one side, and the square school buildings stood to the other. At the end of a long trail downhill there was a barnyard, stacks of hay, grazing cows and clucking hens near a rushing little brook.
It felt confining. It was apart from civilization. It was like a little prison for young girls.
That was part of it too; a prison. Because President Kieselman and the Congress had recognized the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. Nore wanted Sarahastra to give up on her claims now.
But Achim knew she was not giving up on that, and she was not giving up on him either.
Just before the dawn they met near one of the barns, the gate guard having agreed to look the other way. Achim took Sarahastra in his arms and kissed her, briefly but passionately.
Sarahastra smiled at him charmingly. If he knew her, then that preternatural intuition of hers had prepared her for this. Who knows; perhaps she could even taste the kiss ahead of time.
“You naughty boy; you’ll never be president if you sneak around like this.” She said.
“I’m sure plenty of presidents have done worse than this.” Achim replied.
They both laughed together. Standing behind the barn wall, they held each other closely. This is what they had to do; theirs was a secret love. It felt romantic, and there was never a dearth of excitement — every time they saw each other’s faces after a few weeks or months, the ensuing kiss felt like the very first. They had greater impulses, sometimes; but they were patient.
They walked around the side of the barn, down a little hill toward the brook, watching the chickens and cows. Sarahastra was modestly dressed, with a cream-colored shawl and a long blouse and skirt. Her hair was tied into a simple braid. He jokingly compared her to a nun.
“You say that, but there are women here looking to become nuns.” She said.
“By their own will?”
“You’d be surprised.”
“Have you given it any thought, my virtuous maiden?” Achim asked teasingly.
“I’m too much of a sinner for that.” Sarahastra replied, waving her hand dismissively. “But I might change my name. It might help my prospects in the future.”
Achim promptly changed the subject. “So what are you studying here?”
“General things. Arithmetic, literature appropriate for girls. Poetry. Bird-watching.”
They looked at each other and chuckled at the absurdity of it.
“This is really more of a place to seclude your rebellious daughter until you’re ready to cart her off to some rich boy, than it is a school. Some girls here have very sad stories.”
Achim shook his head. Had he been able to knock down the walls and take her out he would have. He couldn’t, not right now, but he would someday. He knew that he would.
“So that’s what Makemba wants you to do now? Give up the throne, find a husband?”
“Perhaps. She’s got a storm coming if she thinks that will happen.” Sarahastra said.
“My father keeps pushing me to go into law. I have barely any motivation to do it.” Achim said. “This is all his ideas; I don’t really care about it. I don’t know what to do, to be honest.”
“Didn’t you want to be President, like him?”
“That’s just the dreaming of a foolish boy. How does one even become President?”
“From what I’ve studied so far, it’s a combination of charm and money.”
Achim chuckled, a bit bitterly. “I guess I’m set then.”
“Also a little ruthlessness.”
“That’s more Dietrich than me.”
“You could stand to have a little more. It’s appealing in a way.”
“Unlike him, I’ve got nothing to be ruthless about.”
Sarahastra stepped out in front of him suddenly and they almost bumped their faces together. She had her hands behind her back and a solemn look on her face. She stared directly into her eyes. He could see himself in the green, they were so close. His golden hair, pink-pale skin, sharp and angular features — he was almost like the opposite of her in form.
“I had a vision again, Achim.” She said solemnly.
He blinked. “What did you see?”
She leaned in and kissed him, taking his lips into her own.
He felt her tongue enter his mouth, and he stood transfixed, holding her by the waist.
They kissed until the breath left them, and they parted.
She raised her hands to his shoulders, and stared deep into his eyes.
“I saw a great hunger in you, Achim. Ambition and power and strength. You’ll be surrounded, beloved, revered even. You might not see this in yourself now. But you will.”
Achim smiled at her, staring fondly into her eyes. To him those voracious portents sounded sweet and affirming. Sarahastra had a way with abstractions and metaphor.
“What about you, Sarahastra? Did you see anything about yourself?”
“I did. I’ll be right there with you, Achim. Just as voracious and indomitable.”
He would not foresee the chain of casual events that would spawn from that point; of growth, of change, each instant natural by itself but secretly interlocking in a wrought iron chain lashed across the entire world. He could not foresee in just the way those words would unfold.
To him, it was just her encouragement, the words that gave him the courage to climb that tree as a child, the words that gave him the courage to go against his father’s wishes.
45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2025 D.C.E
Nocht Federation — Republic of Rhinea, City of Junzien
5 Years Before The Solstice War
“Whoa, jeez, now I know why they call you people movie stars!” He said excitedly.
Agatha looked him over, an eyebrow raised. “Oh, and why do you say that?”
Achim Lehner smiled at her. “You’re shining so bright I’m going blind over here.”
Agatha burst out laughing. Everything from his delivery to the way his lips curled into a little grin after speaking, suggested that he was deadly serious. This was him turning up the charm. She giggled girlishly in his presence, and he was thoroughly unfazed by it. He continued to smile and his eyes were looking her over confidently. None of his facade was shaken.
“Thanks, thank you! I only play big venues; but I’d do your birthday, doll.” He continued.
“You have quite a poker face.” Agatha replied. She raised her hand delicately over her lips.
“Not too shabby about the cards part either; I tend to win.” He replied.
“And do you think you’ve won here yet, Mr. Lehner?” She pressed him.
“Well, I don’t consider this a game, not with my eyesight on the line.”
Agatha nearly burst into laughter again. “I see. You’re persistent.”
“Oh, don’t get the wrong idea, you want me gone, I’ll leave. I don’t want to burn up; I’ve got long term plans for these peepers, let me tell ya. Would be mighty inconvenient.”
She giggled again. She couldn’t believe how much she wanted him around at the moment.
Perhaps he was that good; or perhaps he was just lucky. They were at a social to celebrate a new film, and he was the only interesting face in the crowd. Her fellow actresses and some of the crew were the only other young faces in a small crowd composed mostly of investors and industry big-shots with grey hair. Lehner was the youngest-looking man in the crowd. She knew him a little; he was one of the financiers for the film, because he was interested in talkies. He was interested in the technology behind it, being able to have a movie with voices.
So he dropped a lot of money; enough money he got to walk on the set and look at the cameras, and he got to shake everyone’s hands, including her own, and talk to them briefly.
Now the film was done, and everyone was celebrating. Of course he would be here too. He had a lot of money to his name, and he had put that money, and his name, on this film.
When she started to notice him, she realized that, silly lines aside, she found him handsome. Slicked-back golden hair, interesting and angular features, bright eyes, and a dimpled smile. He had a lean and attractive build. He didn’t look athletic, but he took care of himself. He was older than her, maybe by five or six years, and she was barely twenty-five herself. She thought him kind of slippery, like a gangster in a movie, a flashy smile and a covered knife. His name vaguely reminded her of something, but she didn’t know; she started filling in blanks.
Perhaps he was that good; or perhaps it was just her fancy. But she didn’t recoil from him.
Agatha smiled at him. “I will contain my incandescence near you, Mr. Lehner.”
Lehner mockingly wiped sweat from his forehead and chuckled lightly at himself.
She rolled her eyes visibly at him, but she didn’t ditch him quite yet.
“So what brings you into my orbit, Enyalio?” Agatha said. She was smarter and better read than the girls he tried his stupid lines on — and she wanted him to know that up front.
“Well, I noticed you’re both alone and not drinking, and I can relate.” Lehner replied.
Again, he was thoroughly unfazed. He treated her very casually still.
“Well, I am unafraid of being by myself; and my family wasn’t the drinking type.”
“Ha ha! My family were like goddamn monks; it was exhausting.”
Agatha prodded his chest with her index finger. “Are you an obedient boy then?”
“I’ve done my dad so many behind his back, I figure I should be good sometimes.”
“Indeed. My whole career is like that; so I have a lot to make up for.” Agatha said.
More people started to arrive, but compared to Lehner they felt like the same old. Hand-in-hand they navigated the party, soaking in all the jokes, the boasts from the financiers and the actresses, the declarations that this film would practically shake the theater-goers for their extra pennies. They navigated it all right out of the apartment the party was held in and to a balcony, under a light snowfall, overlooking the streets of Junzien. At night, the world below them was a succession of tiny, colored lights, and shadows flitting about beneath them.
Unprompted, Lehner removed his coat and draped it over her shoulders. She shot him a look, but he was already staring over the guard rails and smiling at nothing in the distance.
He looked dreamily out into the distance, as if entranced by something. “It looks perfect, like you carved it out of a rock. It looks powerful; brutal. Look at how it’s grown, goddamn. Makes you wonder about yourself. How have the buildings gotten so huge, and you haven’t?”
“Probably because I don’t have a crew of burly men putting cement around me.”
“Hah! True, too true! People are built up a lot more haphazardly than a skyscraper.”
“I can see what you’re saying, however.” She searched the coat he had dropped over her, and hit the jackpot, as she expected — his lighter and his cigarettes. They were even mint-flavored. “A distance like this evokes feelings in the extreme. So I try to keep from staring too hard.”
“Indeed.” Lehner looked sobered up, brought down from his imaginings. “And behind that dark beauty, the city’s not doing so well these days. Neither is the country for that matter.”
Agatha looked on. She was pretty connected with the news on most days. She always read the paper and listened to the radio when she could, just to have something to talk to with all the people she was expected to meet with. Though she wanted to disagree with Lehner, she couldn’t find a way to make the outlook sunnier. There had been bombings, and big union strikes and lockouts, and there was tension with Ayvarta over the independence of Cissea and Mamlakha, wherever those countries were. Outside the world of film, things looked dark.
Still, her natural instinct with people like Lehner was to be charmingly disagreeable.
“Have you room to talk, hun? What have you done for the world lately?” She said.
Lehner laughed. “You’re right, I haven’t done much. But I’ve got big dreams.”
She grinned. “I hope your ambitions are loftier than just producer credits.”
“You like your men ambitious?” Lehner asked, grinning back like a fox.
“I think men are a waste if they aren’t.” Agatha said saucily, admitting to nothing.
Lehner laughed. “Good call; hey, how’s this sound. I’m gonna run for President.”
Agatha burst out laughing. “Will you woo the nation with your pick-up lines?”
He faced her and looked her seriously in the eyes. She raised her head defiantly to meet his.
“I’ve got a trade secret; but you can stick around and find out, doll.” He said.
His fingers tapped on her shoulder childishly. She thought he might lean in to a steal a kiss, but he did nothing. Nothing but lock with her eyes and grin right in her face. She grinned back in retaliation, broke off from him, and settled against the guard-rail on the balcony.
Lighting one of his cigarettes, blowing a cloud into the cold, Agatha Lubitsch smirked.
“I just might take you up on that, Lehner. I feel a little more rebellious than normal.”
Maybe everyone else was too boring that night; or maybe she really believed him somehow.
She accompanied him to his door and then his bed. There was certainly something there.
10th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2028 D.C.E
Nocht Federation — Republic of Rhinea, City of Junzien, Hotel Reich
2 Weeks Before 2028 Federal Elections
2 Years Before The Solstice War
“I’m begging you pops, don’t do this to him. Don’t do this now for messiah’s sakes.”
“I’m doing what I should have done and instilling a tougher discipline on a wanton child.”
Dietrich stood on the far end of the room. He was dressed in his grey jacket, his peaked cap, his iron eagle, ring cross and General’s pins prominently on his chest. Around him the suite was very dimly lit, and the seemingly perpetual snowdrift of Rhinea battered against the windows and darkened the night sky. Though unbowed, Dietrich’s had a grim expression; his hands were closed into helpless fists at his sides; drops of melted snow shook off his heavy shoulders.
At the window, Nore Lehner gazed down at the snowy streets, packed with people. Taxi cabs came and went to the Reich, dropping men and women of high society who had come to hear the elder statesman give his presidential endorsement. Nore remained where he stood; the only thing he deigned to show Dietrich was the bald spot on the back of his head, ringed by thinning gray hair. He was only half-ready for the big night ahead, his tie still discarded, his shoes on the floor, his shirt and vest unbuttoned and wrinkled. Dietrich had practically ambushed him.
“Why did you even come here Dietrich? Shouldn’t you be in the islands?” Nore casually asked.
“I returned because I got wind of what you were going to do.” Dietrich said.
Nore shook his head. He lifted a cigar to his lips and lit it up. His reflection flashed briefly in the darkened window. When he spoke he seemed to muse to himself. “Ah yes, Mary, betraying me again. Despite all that I have done for her, that girl has never respected my wishes. Was Achim with her when she told you this? By any chance did you catch them in bed?”
“You’re going way too fucking far with this.” Dietrich said. “They might be afraid of standing up to you but I’m not. I’m not your child. I’ve watched you disrespect them enough already.”
Nore scoffed. Respect? His aimless and disgraceful child deserved no such thing. He had gone behind his back in every possible way. He had betrayed every confidence that had been given to him and now he expected everyone to be silent about his behavior? He could use his mother’s inheritance and his movie stocks to bludgeon others. Not his own father. He had forsaken his career in law, he had married some floozy actress on a whim, all the while taking Mary as well against his wishes. Every disgrace he could think of, that boy had committed.
“Stand up to me how, Dietrich? Will you beat me up like Achim’s men beat up Schlegger for digging too deep? Will you dig up dirt on me like he did to the bishop so he could have him by the sleeve? Will you try to buy my endorsement like Achim’s so-called organizers do in churches and colleges? I’m just an old man now, Dietrich. Your tricks don’t work on me.”
Dietrich’s fists started to shake. “God damn it pops, you can’t do this! After all this time you want to be the first one to put a dagger behind his back? What do you think this solves?”
“I feel death coming, Dietrich. My child needs to be taught a lesson before I am taken.”
“Taught a lesson in what? How much he failed to become exactly like you? That’s the problem, isn’t it? You kept barring him from everything he wanted; now that he’s realizing it–”
“Achim’s ambitions are a disgrace to this country.” Nore said, raising his voice. He sounded sore, but his sore voice was ready to carry his justice forward. He was not turning around. He did not deign to give Dietrich a look at his wizened, weather-beaten face. “Dietrich, you are blind to him because you love him, but he is my son. I know his barbarism. Achim is a wanton beast with no respect, nothing but naked greed. He is not fit for this office and he never has been. I will not let him ride my surname to power to satisfy his frivolous desires.”
“Then I hope part of your speech involves taking responsibility for him.” Dietrich said coldly.
“He strayed from being my son of his own will just as he has strayed from this country’s ideals of his own will. All he believes in are marks and guns. He is a thief, a liar and a gangster. Our country will never recover from the poison he is seeping into our politics unless he is–”
“Look around you.” Dietrich said. He hadn’t moved a step from door of the hotel suite. “None of this happened overnight you old fool. You think Achim is only doing this to piss you off? He smells the blood in the water, everyone does. Our country is falling. We are dragging out wars, throwing away money and losing respect in the world. Achim knows it is because of men like Kantor who have no ambition, who think everything will resolve itself if you close your eyes–”
“Do not speak this disrespect, boy.” Nore shouted, interrupting Dietritch. He finally turned around, and he raised his arm and pointed sharply at the younger man as though his jabbing index finger would fly across the room and stab him. “You serve under President Kantor. Or did you just join the army in the hopes of being Achim’s dog one day? Has he brainwashed you so thoroughly that you cannot see the blind, deathly hunger behind his every action?”
Dietrich smiled suddenly. He laughed. He shook his head. “He has what you never did; ambition. And that’s what scares you. You always rolled over. Achim claws at his cage.”
“You are hopeless.” Nore said. “I do not wish to speak you, now, or ever again. Soon I will leave the world behind and I will never have to consider how great my failures here have been.”
Dietrich shook his head. “Then I only hope you leave the world soon.”
Nore narrowed his eyes at him. Dietrich turned around and promptly left the room.
Then came a wrenching pain, almost as soon as the door swung shut.
Around the room the shadows deepened. His vision swam. He felt as if something was burrowing through his chest. Heaving for breath, unable to stand, the ex-President fell to the ground. He flailed his arms and tried to crawl, clawing at the carpet while gasping for air.
From the outside the door locked. As his senses left him, Nore heard several pairs of footsteps. Were Eintz and Schapel in on this too? Everything was fading. Shadows everywhere.
Achim, he thought, as the shadows overcame him.
When did you stop listening? Why?