This chapter contains mild sexual content.
43rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Town of Palladi
Though the town of Palladi had grown dramatically in the shadow of the nearby Academy, the crying of roosters still heralded the morning, just as it had done when farmland dominated the landscape. Moments before the sun began to rise over the old province, dozens of stout birds presiding over several family coops kept on the town’s outlying lands stood under the clearing sky and competed in voice to bring in the dawn. Regardless of the electric lights in the town square or even the old mechanical clock tower in the northern urbanization, the roosters would cry across town.
It was with the roosters that the old townies woke. No more than six kilometers from the ultramodern home where Salvatrice and Carmela partook of each other, a small cafe opened its doors, admitting the single customer that the shop owner had always come to expect. However, they soon found, together, that the man was not alone. He had been followed.
Byanca Geta approached from behind the older man and the cafe owner just as the door opened. She slipped in with them, ignoring the icy glare from the owner, a woman older than her but younger than him. Though she gave Byanca a long, wary and appraising glare, she would not dare close her establishment to a legionnaire who had yet to speak. Meanwhile the old man, a certain Giovanni, merely glanced at her without a word.
Inside, the cafe was small and homely. There were potted plants near every table and corner, and the tables were small and circular with high chairs. There were eight tables, and a few seats on the counter, behind which the owner stood and took to staring at Byanca some more. Byanca paid her no mind. She waited a moment for the old man to take his seat, and then promptly moved to the end of the front row of tables, set behind the long front window of the cafe, and sat right across from him.
“Giovanni Martino?” Byanca said.
“Doubtless you already know.” He replied.
From the center of the table he picked up a rolled-up newspaper, freed it from a paper ribbon around its center, and unfurled it. He started to read, and his view of Byanca was completely blocked. She was unfazed by this. She expected he would try to shut her out. Cooperation with the Legion had always been low among the civilians, and it was an all-time low now.
“I bear you no ill will, nor do I come to detain or question you on behalf of the Blackshirt Legion. I’m here as a private person.” Byanca said.
“Your uniform says otherwise.” Giovanni casually said.
“I have nothing else decent to wear.”
“No. You could get clothes. I got clothes when I came back. But the uniform is convenient, isn’t it? It starts to feel like your good skin.”
He turned the page as if he had said nothing much at all.
Byanca blanked for a moment on how to reply.
There was nobody outside the window, nobody walking the streets. Aside from the owner there was nobody there but them. She felt that coaxing Giovanni into the subject would not work. Byanca still had to be careful, but she could partake in a mild indiscretion to bring him out of hiding.
“I’m here because of Salvatrice Vittoria.” Byanca said in a low, calm voice.
It was a name both of them knew; one with many portents attached.
Giovanni promptly laid the newspaper down on the table.
He adjusted his hat and turned on Byanca a sharp glare.
“I’m not keen to threaten neither women nor kids; but little girl, if you intend to march upon the young Vittoria, we are going to have problems.”
His own tone of voice matched hers, save for the threat.
While he spoke, his fingers snatched the fork and spoon on the table and began to toy with them, twirling them around. It was perhaps a nervous tic, though it could also be a display. She got the impression that were he to reach for a knife or gun he would be even more dexterous than with the utensils. Certainly if it came down to a draw she thought he could draw much faster than her. Giovanni’s every movement spoke of an intensity often unseen in his age. He was very deliberate in every turn of the hand.
And yet his face betrayed no emotion in its hewn and worn features.
Byanca raised a hand in her own defense. It contained her identification.
“I intend no such thing. I am her new bodyguard. Centurion Byanca Geta.”
Giovanni’s expression was unchanged. He still regarded her coldly.
“I see. I was informed about your presence, though were never introduced formally. In fact I put it out of my mind; I never thought that we would have cause to meet. Your business and mine ought to remain separate.”
“Salvatrice cannot afford that. Not with the danger she faces.”
“It is precisely because of the danger that you should be away from me, and alongside her instead. I work for that child from afar. She trusts me with her correspondence and I deliver it. No more.” Giovanni said.
Byanca smiled. “How did you chance upon such a golden opportunity?”
Giovanni shook his head, seeming more disappointed than offended.
“You mistake me and the Princess both if you think this role is lucrative.”
Byanca did not need much convincing of that. After all, she had served the Princess for some time now and all she had come away with was injury. It did not pay to serve Salvatrice Vittoria. It could only be done out of love.
“I need to know how you met and why you serve her.” Byanca said.
“Nothing in your reports about that?” Giovanni asked.
“No.” Byanca replied. She felt for a moment like she had come under attack from him. It was the same disdain Salvatrice had shown her before. Both were justified in their anger. She had too much information at her disposal and too much reason to employ it — none of it was right.
But like her attitude in this conversation, she found it necessary.
“Salvatrice has told me about you, much like she has told you about me.” She said. “But I still have no reason to trust you. I would like to dispel my doubts. Please enlighten me as to how you came to serve Salvatrice.”
“All I will say is I traveled with her for a time and grew attached”
Giovanni pulled open his coat and withdrew a cigarette and lighter.
“Care for one?” He asked.
It was the almost instinctual courtesy of an old gentleman, nothing more.
Byanca was well aware that he still kept her at arm’s length.
This was perhaps even a ploy to quiet her for a time.
“I don’t smoke.” Byanca said.
Shrugging, Giovanni lit his own cigarette and took a drag.
Behind the counter the owner watched the two of them talk. She did not come to take their orders or otherwise make any overtures. It was clear they had this time to themselves. Byanca was simultaneously glad for a touch of privacy, but also annoyed at how little the legionnaire badge and shirt was worth. It was that annoyance in part that brought her here.
After blowing a cloud of smoke, Giovanni turned to Byanca once more.
“I will not answer any more questions, Ms. Geta, until you state your intentions clearly. Have some respect for an old man’s fading time.”
“I was planning to come clean now anyway.”
Byanca leaned forward.
“I am looking for recruits.”
Giovanni raised an eyebrow. “For the blackshirt legion?”
“No!” Byanca said, shaking her head. “To serve the princess as we do.”
For a moment the old man’s eyes seemed to soften on her.
“I’m listening.” He said.
“The Princess is in grave danger every single day.” Byanca said. “Both the Legion and the anarchists have become her antagonists. There is no side that she can join. Salvatrice has to become her player in this game. I want to create a group that answers only to her and that does only her bidding.”
“You mean you wish to raise mercenaries to protect the Princess?”
Giovanni seemed at once intrigued and outraged by the proposal.
“Plenty of nobles have bought extra bodyguards. It is only fair Salvatrice do so as well. I’m not ambitious; even one man would suffice right now.”
She put an obvious inflection on her last few words.
“So that is why you’ve come to me then? I’m your man?” He said.
She had his attention now. She could tell; he was emoting more now.
Byanca turned a smile on him and tried to engage him with more charm. “You served in Borelia, didn’t you, Giovanni? You were a soldier. You left the colonial forces due to your principles. And the Princess trusts you.”
Giovanni crossed his arms. He looked her over with a wary gaze.
“I’m sure the Princess would love to have you as part of her defense.” Byanca continued. “We will no longer rely on the Legion. After this affair I’m turning in my black shirt for a red coat. Would you help me, Giovanni?”
There was no longer anything to hide. Byanca spoke earnestly and honestly. She could only throw herself on his mercy and hope that he saw beyond the shirt at the desperate fallen knight who longed for her princess. Or at the very least, hope that he saw a dragon who loved her.
In return, Giovanni snorted. He looked out to the street, away from her.
“A reference to the uniform of the old imperial guard does not sway me. I do not romanticize it. That being said, I know a few soldiers younger than me who could use the work. I will send them to you. You’d best have the coin for them, however. Mercenaries do not hold your pretty ideals.”
Perhaps he had seen neither knight nor dragon, but a desperate girl.
Despite this, he had given her some hope.
Byanca smiled. “We have more dinari than we know what to do with.”
At the moment it was not necessarily true, but it soon would be.
“Hmm. Redcoats, huh? What will the Queen think of this, I wonder.”
Giovanni grew pensive. Byanca gave a fiery retort. “To hell with her.”
To her surprise, it was well-received. For the first time, Giovanni grinned.
43rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Town of Palladi — Sabbadin Homestead
Atop the brick wall surrounding the rear portion of the Sabbadin estate, a questing rooster paused momentarily to peer at the dawning sun and give its characteristic cry. Through the upper hallway, and into the heiress’ bedroom the cry wound its way, until it reached a pair of blunt elven ears.
Salvatrice Vittoria slowly awoke, sitting up against the bedrest.
There were all kinds of scents and sights in the room around her.
She found herself giddily immersed in the sensations.
At her side she found Carmela asleep, snoring softly, pushed against her. Her chest rose and fell splendidly, and she glistened with a layer of sweat. Salvatrice felt a delectable shiver in her skin as her hip touched Carmela’s back. Her lover groaned slightly in protest, smiled and shifted her weight.
As she did so, Carmela pulled the blank off both of them.
Finding her breasts suddenly bared, Salvatrice pulled the blanket back.
She could not pull it over her chest and soon gave up the tug of war.
Carmela remained asleep, arms spread, her naked body fully in view.
Her lipstick was smeared, her pigments running, her hair frayed. Her voluminous dress was in parts all over the bed, her skirt and leggings hanging over a column, bodice thrown at their feet, her lingerie dangling off her ankle. Her warm olive skin was still red in the places that had been sucked or smacked or squeezed or otherwise performed upon in love.
Salvatrice glanced askance at one of the mirrors in the room and smiled.
She also looked as if she had a wild night. Her hair was tossed around, her nice dress was wrinkled and discarded like a rag, and she was still feeling stiff between the legs. All of her once brownish skin was an off-red color from the heat in her blood. Most notably her makeup was a fine mess.
From the first seizing of lips she shared with Carmela she had become smeared in lipstick. As her lover aggressively explored more of her body the red marks spread like a haphazard tattoo. She had bright red marks on her small breasts, on her buttocks and thighs, and in places between. Her own lipstick had smeared as well when her turn came to kiss and tongue where she desired, but the color was subtler than Carmela’s bright red.
In the mirror, Salvatrice resembled a horny clown. She started to giggle.
“What’s so funny?” Carmela said, her voice a luscious little purr.
Her eyes half-opened. She had a naughty look on her face.
“We’re completely disheveled.” Salvatrice said.
“We don’t have to clean up for anyone, do we?”
Carmela sat up in bed and tossed her wavy golden hair with a coquettish grin. She did not care to cover herself with the blanket, and her breasts seemed to rumble right before Salvatrice’s eyes. She exuded a confidence in her own body that sent another jolt right between Salvatrice’s legs.
“Well, not right now. But I must soon be going.” Salvatrice said.
“Will you at least stay for breakfast?” Carmela asked.
“Yes, I promised that much.” Salvatrice said.
Carmela’s impish grin returned. “It is a two-course meal.”
After that cryptic whisper she pounced on Salvatrice.
Salvatrice barely had time to moan in pleasure.
Perhaps an hour later, disheveled ever more, the two finally left the bed.
Laughing, Carmela pushed Salvatrice out of the room and down the halls, barely wrapped in sheets pilfered from the bed. Thankfully there were no servants there to witness the two naked, giggling young women cavorting sensually down the hall and into the bathroom. There was a grand and dire bath tub in the center, like an obsidian coffin. Soon it filled from the hot water faucet, and Carmela and Salvatrice lay down side by side within.
All of their pigments and oils washed into the water and danced on the surface, coloring and obscuring the shapes of their bodies below.
Carmela leaned her head on Salvatrice’s shoulder.
“How are you finding the accommodations so far?” She asked.
“Quite stimulating.” Salvatrice replied.
Carmela looked up at Salvatrice, craned her head and kissed her.
“Salva, I love you.” She said.
“I love you.” Salvatrice said.
Turning her head again, the heiress gazed into their obscure reflections on the water. She smiled, swirling her finger over her own face in the surface.
“I am incredibly happy that we could meet and touch and delight one another. But I want you to know if I could only love you through letters and at a distance for the rest of my life, I would be happy.” Carmela said.
“I’m glad to hear that.” Salvatrice replied. She was a little taken aback.
She had never thought of it in that way before. Certainly she had imagined she would lose Carmella, on that fateful day when the responsibilities of the kingdom finally snatched her free life from her. But she never thought their romance could potentially continue even if from afar. To Salvatrice, the exchange of letters had simply staunched a wound until she could have a fleeting glimpse of her beloved, as a stitch to stop the bleeding.
“I love everything about you, Salva. What I first fell in love with was that sharp tongue you turned on unsavory guests at the few parties where we could arrange to meet; what I next fell in love with was that sharp intellect and the kindness and vulnerability behind it. When I learned about your body I loved that as well. But I will always love you; it might be a different love than what the commonfolk share, but it will be love, at any distance.”
Salvatrice herself felt compelled to lay her own head on Carmella then.
“I’m so happy to hear it.” She said. She felt the warmth of those words in her chest and across her cheeks. She knew it was not the bath that did it.
Carmela bowed her head, smiling with eyes averted like a shy schoolgirl.
“Whenever I craft a letter to you, and receive one back, I feel so relieved. Because I know my feelings reached you and perhaps brought you a smile. I send you my strength and my love in each stroke of that pen, Salvatrice. It’s the one place in the world just for us. We can do anything there.”
Guilty thoughts started to bubble under the warm and happy surface of her mind. She never realized how powerful were the feelings contained in those letters. For stretches of time she neglected them, thinking that Carmela would worry but ultimately understand. Now that she thought of it, those letters were a hand stretched from across a lonely darkness. Carmela had nothing to truly love in between each letter. She had said it before: Salvatrice was the first and only person she had ever really loved.
To Salvatrice they had been letters, a bridge to communicate and keep in touch with Carmela and plot until they could truly love again; but to Carmela each of those letters was an act of love and devotion the same as holding in hands in public or kissing or maybe even sharing a bed.
No matter the distance; even if they never saw each other’s faces.
Carmela could still love her.
In a way, it heartened Salvatrice. She could love her back too, then.
No matter the distance. So long as there was pen, paper and ink.
“I will write more. I can also call on the telephone.” Salvatrice said.
Carmela’s eyes drew wide. “Are you sure? It won’t be dangerous?”
“I’ll insure that it isn’t. Even if we can’t trade kisses in ink, you will hear my voice. We will never be apart. I promise you.” Salvatrice said.
No matter the distance; it was still love. It could still be shared.
Once their skin started to wrinkle with water, the pair rose from the bath, and scarcely dried, returned to the bedroom and donned their disguises. Carmela was once more the lovely, curvy young maid; Salvatrice was the slender, angular young courier or paper boy in a cap, shirt and pants.
There was one part of their promised meal they had not yet eaten.
This one they would not have as a breakfast in bed.
Down in the kitchen, the two of them set together to the task. Carmela withdrew various items from cabinets and drawers and boxes. She cut cheeses and tomatoes, while Salvatrice assembled plates of pre-cut hard breads, and skinned tangerines with her fingers. They set a pot of tea on the stove and waited for it to whistle. Many a time they bumped into each other in the kitchen with a giggle as they set about their work.
From the back garden they plucked plump grapes and gathered flowers, and soon they sat together on a brown wooden table under the mid-morning sun and picked at their spread while basking in the glow of this delightful domesticity. To the outside world they would be commoners: it was not unheard of for a salacious maid to invite a local boy for a tryst while the mistress was nowhere to be seen. Salvatrice enjoyed the fantasy.
They were not commonfolk; love for them was more difficult than the archetypes of bawdy romances. Last night was a dream world that had taken time and planning to construct. They would be unlikely to see each other again, let alone have sex, for quite some time. Love was a struggle.
But not impossible. Over the wires, over the surface of stationary.
Just as she dropped a grape into Carmela’s mouth over the table.
Just as they traded sweet little kisses between bites of glazed ham.
They would have that love no matter where they went.
With this in mind, Salvatrice was heartened for what she had to do.
“Carmela, I will confide in you what I am planning.” She said at last.
Those words would set everything into motion. She was ready now.
To her own raging battlefield she could now depart without regrets.