50th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Ikrea
Byanca could not believe how quickly everything was moving.
Walking out of the convent with a firearm trained on Princess Clarissa Vittoria was a surreal experience. Byanca marched step by step with a heart squeezed by tension, as the gallant young woman three steps ahead strode past ranks of her fellow sisters frozen with terror. Any of those women could have lunged for them and set afire the whole scheme; had the whole mob managed to come together they could have killed Byanca, certainly.
Through the gardens, through the hallways, across the outer wing. Every corner, every balcony, every higher story, suddenly teemed with onlookers watching them in disbelief.
Despite their every advantage, none of them were convinced of their own power.
No woman took any step closer to the two of them. They walked as if between a fence laid down with habits and crosses and skirts, rather than amid a teeming human mass.
Clarissa had her head up high and an almost smug expression on her face.
“Mice.” She said to herself aloud, as she stared at the women and girls around her.
She was amused enough to indulge in the slightest, cruel little giggle.
Byanca pushed her gun forward like a real kidnapper would have.
They passed through the arched main gate of the convent. At the side of the cobblestone path stood the Convent Mother, her tall, gaunt, long-limbed form draped in the most covering and ornate habit Byanca had yet seen. Even in the monastery she had never seen a sister so over-dressed. All of her hair was captured in her habit, and not even a hint of neck or bare hands could be seen through her dress, which was richly embroidered. Her only visible flesh was that of her face, taut and pockmarked, void of readable emotion.
“Clarissa, if you leave with these people, you will not return. I assure you. They will use you and bury you somewhere lost and deep, and you will never see heaven.” She said.
Only threats. No greetings, no prayers, no honorifics. No respect whatsoever.
Clarissa, her hands held up in feigned captivity, scarcely spared the woman a glance.
“If you’re a keeper of heaven, no such thing can exist. Out of my way.”
She started walking again even before Byanca did.
They were no longer captive and captor; it was clear who was in control, and Byanca had lost any pretense to it, even as she held a fully-loaded, automatic firearm in her arms. Even with the ability to put a bullet through her breast and end her at any time, she felt powerless in the face of Clarissa’s strength. She was as immovable as a statue and with a similar stoic beauty. Bullets would surely ricochet against that ramrod straight stance.
Byanca contemplated pointing her gun at the Mother, but did not do so. She did not even stare at her. Like a phantom, the woman merely left the world as Byanca averted her eyes.
Past the gates, there was a long dirt road, seemingly endless, raised up with sand and stone against the shallow ditches flanking it. Dense woodlands stretched high to both sides of the road. Thick-trunked trees with great crowns formed a mantle that cast deep shadows. Compared to this gloom, the road between seemed gilded, a thread of light.
Farther down the road, a green truck lay conspicuously in wait.
And from the forest, Byanca’s subordinates soon stepped carefully into view.
Though they had only recently made her acquaintance, Byanca did not have the time to be properly paranoid of Torvald and Giuseppa. She had a good first impression of both, and they came recommended by a certain Signore Giovanni. Torvald was a stocky sort with a sharp face and overgrown, slightly unkempt blond hair; he had a twisted smile and clearly did not care for himself too much, if at all anymore. Giuseppa was a tall, long-haired, dark-skinned, middle-aged woman with ears almost like a rabbit’s — an indigenous Borelian who had served with the colonial authority for a time. She had an incisive voice.
Both seemed like the sort of people unsuited to elaborate personal schemes.
Dinari and the promise of a rifle in hand was alone what sang to them.
They made good subordinates and minions were all Byanca desired at the moment.
Coming out of the wood they looked focused on their mission, dressed in camouflaged greens (a red uniform for Byanca’s redcoats seemed counterproductive for the moment) and with steel gazes that did not linger on the Princess for long. Soon as they appeared and Byanca acknowledged them, the three of them quickly headed down the road for the truck. Two more of Byanca’s cadre waited inside the truck’s cabin, and they primed the engine the moment she reappeared. Byanca led the Princess around to the vehicle’s bed.
Inside waited Terry the dog, its tail quite unwagging, and a brooding, effete young man with a delicate face and ruddy-brown hair in a short ponytail. He was the only one without military garb, dressed instead in a vest, shirt and dress pants, black tie and all. Byanca would have called him the ringleader; he looked the part. There was a glimmer in his eyes as Byanca helped Clarissa up into the bed of the truck. He looked as if he wanted to say something, but he did not. On his subtly curving hip was a small Nochtish pistol.
There were more guns in the truck. They had one Contracarro Boyes rifle, a large, long piece with a thick stock and a recoil buffer; and one Myrta light machine gun, already loaded with a thick, unwieldy 30-round magazine sticking out of the gun’s side. But the centerpiece was lying on its bipod, in a corner of the bed. One Nochtish Norgler machine gun and its ammunition belts. These were rare and prized in the Kingdom of Lubon.
“My, you’re better prepared than I expected.” Clarissa said, glancing at the weapons.
“We’ve been busy.” said Sylvano D’Amore. His voice was conspicuously gentle.
“Indeed you have. I thank you for your service. It will be rewarded.” She said.
She did not mince words. There was only a limited use in saying more to commoners.
While Clarissa stood tall everyone else seemed to buckle.
Sylvano’s eyes shied away from contact. Torvald and Giuseppa sat on the side of the bed, while Byanca sat beside Terry, who maintained a subtle, restrained growl at the sight of Clarissa. Sylvano sat on her other side, quiet. All of them seemed beneath the notice of the confident Princess, who was already turning from thoughts of escape and to her future.
“Run your plan by me. What has been happening around here?” She asked. “How is Cesare? How are his cadres? Last I knew he was being relentlessly hunted.”
“We’re just a cell; we do not know about our counterparts.” Sylvano said.
Byanca would have rather he not say anything, but it wasn’t too damaging at least.
Clarissa did not seem to have any change in attitude.
“Princess, the Blackshirt Legion has pulled out of Palladi, but they’re still thick in Ikrea.” Byanca interjected. “For safety reasons, we will drive you to a noticeable landmark of your choice, somewhere you know you can navigate. We’ll give you civilian clothes and money and you’ll have to make it to a safe base area by yourself. Can you do this for us?”
Clarissa held a hand up to her mouth. She was still standing in the middle of the bed.
She loomed over them, like a giantess. She radiated sheer power in an eerie way.
“What will you do then?” She asked.
“We will disperse, to regroup when an opportunity presents itself.” Byanca said.
Perhaps Clarissa was asking genuinely, and perhaps she was testing their knowledge of anarchist operational art. Byanca could not be sure. She was confident that she knew enough, having destroyed several rebel cells in Borelia, to understand their tactics and organization. Even here in Lubon, they had sympathetic “base areas” in rural villages that either tolerated or outright supported them. From those areas they sewed independent “cells” like seeds cast into the wind. These were less solid formations and more fluid groupings of people aware of each other’s presence and role in an operational area. They came together when there was an opportunity, and were strangers the rest of their days.
Ikrea was the root of their strength. It was here that they had launched their deadliest attack, and it was here that they were most hunted. But knowing men like Cesare, Byanca knew that he would not abandon the site of his greatest victory. Ikrea teemed with enemies for the anarchists, but it was also confused and weak in the knees after his last blow. Palladi would mean starting all over from scratch. Cesare was still in Ikrea, because he could never abandon the irreplaceable things he built here: allies, and reputation.
And Clarissa seemed to know it as well. Her response was unsurprising to the group.
“Take me to Cuvenen Forest.” She said.
A secluded, forgotten place no soul should have been near.
There were many such places in old Ikrea, but now they had narrowed it to one.
Everyone nodded in recognition. Clarissa smiled at them.
Delicately, she lifted the hem of her skirts and sat against the side wall of the truck bed.
Byanca banged her fist on the rear of the bed, and the truck began to move.
Soon the trees were flying past them as they picked up speed.
Wind blowing through the gaps in the truck’s bed armor whipped everyone’s hair.
Sylvano had a look of disquiet on his face.
“Princess, how,” he paused for a moment, sighing slightly, “how have you been?”
“Captive.” Clarissa replied, with a small smile full of subtle viciousness.
Byanca felt a temptation to force Sylvano to shut up, but in a way that would have been incredibly cruel. This was the first time the person who was both Sylvano and Salvatrice Vittoria would meet their long-lost sibling. Byanca could not have imagined what was going on in their mind at the moment. Certainly it must have been heart-wrenching.
Despite the danger, her compassion won out. She allowed Sylvano this moment.
“I apologize, Cl– Princess. We could have attempted this much sooner.”
Clarissa’s devilish countenance softened somewhat.
“I do not need your apology.”
“I– We forgot you.”
“Rebels never forget their comrades. You were being pragmatic.”
“So you never lost hope?”
“No. I lost hope very quickly. But I adapted just quickly to losing hope. I wrote some letters that went nowhere, tried to escape a few times. I thrashed and fought and made a mess of myself, I cried copiously. Then I settled in. I’m nothing if not stout-hearted. It was fine. ”
Clarissa spoke as if merely telling a story. As if she had no connection to those events.
Sylvano looked hurt by those words.
“None of that needed to happen.” He said, his hands shaking, balled into fists.
“That’s her wretched Majesty for you.” Clarissa said, in the tone of a gossip, still smiling, still flighty in manner. “She will soon get what she deserves. I’m sure Cesare is ready.”
Sylvano lifted his eyes from the floor and locked them on Clarissa.
“I thought Cesare loved you. Shouldn’t he have done anything to free you?”
Byanca felt a growing sense of alarm, but she restrained herself. It was not as dire a situation as she feared. Clarissa did not seem offended or suspicious. She was curious, drawn in, perhaps endeared even. Her entire stance and countenance was softening, and she allowed herself more emotion toward Sylvano than she had previously shown.
“Revolution is his wife. I am only his mistress. For what he promised to do for me, that was enough. I love him, yes. But I love him in the context of this state of affairs.”
Sylvano shook his head. “I don’t understand at all.”
Clarissa giggled suddenly. “I’ve led many lives, peasant; of them, the life I shared with Cesare, briefly, was the one where I felt most alive. In the palace, I have always been dead. And in the nunnery, I was merely frozen, asleep. I was not suffering there, you see. I suffer only under the claws of my harpy of a mother. Elsewhere, in comparison, I am at peace.”
She leaned forward and with her fingers, pushed up Sylvano’s chin.
“Your friends have given me hope that I may yet live again. That I can be free of Lubon’s cursed crown and lead my own life. For that, I will always remember you and be grateful.”
Sylvano seemed to shiver at the touch, his eyes wide with bafflement and emotion.
“I may be only his mistress, only one of the women in his bed, but Cesare would kill a Queen for me, and that is more than he would do for any other woman.” Clarissa said.
Giuseppa and Torvald turned their eyes away. The Princess was becoming quite animate in this conversation and sounded almost like a member of a cult whenever she spoke.
Byanca wondered what Clarissa even knew about anarchist ideology to think this. In ignorance, Byanca might have accepted it too; but she knew better now what they stood for. To them, Clarissa was a visible part of the state that they hated, a prissy and privileged woman who had been pampered her whole life on the sweat of others. It might have been pretty convenient for Cesare to be able to taste royal flesh in the course of his goals, but as an organization with an ideology, anarchists would sooner flay Clarissa than free her.
Was Cesare that convincing? Was she that foolish? It was such a confusing situation.
Sylvano seemed reduced to mumbling, and any rate, Clarissa stopped paying him attention. For the rest of the ride through the countryside the truck was dead quiet. Byanca instructed the driver to stick to back roads and to keep an eye out for patrols. Whenever they entered a populated area a tarp was thrown over the back of the truck before passing through. But there were no Legion patrols, no convoy of police vehicles headed to the Convent. Byanca had the radios destroyed and phone lines cut back there.
So it gave them a pretty sizable head-start on their pursuers, if any materialized.
Ikrea was a province of mostly woodland and farmland arrayed around a few waypoints of civilization. Towns in open places served as hubs to receive the produce of the small villages in the thick woods and amid the vast fields. Ikrea’s handful of cities procured this produce from the towns in turn and delivered it to the industrial places of the north after eating their fill. Those farming the land received the least benefit of their efforts.
It was this state of affairs that led to Ikrea becoming a nest for insurgency.
Byanca could not challenge this root cause; she could only ameliorate the symptoms.
Watching the world travel past the back of the truck bed was an eerie sensation. It felt like being flung through a tunnel, like falling forwards down a stretch of trunks and green crowns and wispy white clouds of dirt. It was isolating, even with people at her side. This was a different world with different sensibilities from Palladi. It was more like Borelia.
It was like invading the villages in the Borelian outskirts all over again, trampling over grass not one’s own and waiting for the next grenade to fly out of a roadside bush.
But nothing happened. There was no antagonist; the way was open, a way to nowhere.
Between much of Palladi and Ikrea stretched a great silver lake, and it was in the southern, Ikrean portion of the lake that a stretch of woodland, seemingly no different from the rest of the great forest, was historically acknowledged to be the Cuvenen. Known by some as the First Forest, the Cuvenen was important to elven history, but only marginally important to the folklore known to most. Elves had been said to have entered the world from the Cuvenen; but that they left it behind said enough about its importance to them.
Byanca had been taught that Elves reveled in exploration and expansion. That the whole world was the forest they would chart, nurture and ultimately protect. They were destined to have an Empire, and in the Cuvenen, they would have never built one. Places like Cuvenen were meant to be forgotten, and under Vittoria’s shadow, they easily were.
The truck arrived at the Cuvenen just before sundown. Descending a shallow ditch, the Redcoats hid as best as they could from the lakeside road, and straddled the wood until they reached the maw of the woodland. Everyone vacated the truck bed to give Clarissa some privacy. When she emerged, she was dressed in a jacket, long pants, boots and a newsboy cap. Byanca was reminded of disguises she found a certain other princess wore.
“Do you know how to use this?”
Byanca approached Clarissa with a pistol in hand.
“I do not.” Clarissa replied.
Byanca put the gun in her hands and stood behind her, showing her how to use it.
“Trigger, safety, slide,” she said, showing her the parts, “pull this to get ready; bullets come out of here when you press here. Keep your finger off here until you’re ready to shoot. You’ll feel a bit of pushing force back on you each shot. Aim like this.”
While Giuseppa, Torvald and Sylvano stood guard, Byanca quickly trained Clarissa.
After a few minutes of instruction, Clarissa aimed into the wood and pulled the trigger.
When the gun went off, she let out a little screech, at first, but quickly calmed.
A little smile played about her face. “Oh, my. I think I liked that.” Clarissa said.
“It’s not a toy.” Byanca said. “Be very careful with it. Now, you should be going. We’ll wait fifteen minutes to see that nobody follows you closely and then we’ll turn around.”
“Understood. Thank you for taking me this far, comrade.”
Byanca’s eyes nearly twitched hearing that word out of this woman’s mouth.
“I hope for your sake you find someone in there, or you’ll starve otherwise.”
Clarissa silently nodded her head and tipped her newsboy cap with a grin on her face.
She turned her back on the group and ambled casually toward the wood with her hands in her pockets, one bulging with the firearm inside. She moved with the confidence of one practiced in clandestine activity — it was casual to her, another escapade, another little adventure. For all of her life she had been immune to consequences for her actions. Byanca had to wonder whether the dealings with Cesare were her only past sins.
Sylvano stared helplessly into the forest, watching the Princess disappear.
Once she was far enough away, and enough time had passed, Byanca climbed into the back of the truck. There she found Clarissa’s discarded clothing in a pile. There were no extraordinary effects — just her habit, dress, and shoes, along with a crucifix she left behind. Her dress didn’t even have pockets, so she couldn’t have taken anything. Everything Clarissa carried with her now, they had given. Less unknowns to worry about.
Satisfied with her inspection, Byanca seized Clarissa’s habit and thrust it into Terry’s snout. The dog sat stoically in a corner of the truck. When given the habit she snarled for a moment before begrudgingly sniffing the piece as she had been trained to do. After sniffing the habit, Byanca let Terry loose on the pile, taking in all of Clarissa’s scent from her full attire. Steeped in the Princess’ various odors, Terry would be able to track her.
“Follow her very quietly, Terry. Attack only to defend yourself.” Byanca said.
She pointed into the forest. Terry hopped off the back of the truck, and thrust its long snout into the soft, damp dirt of the forest path. Navigating by nose more than eyes, the dog started off into the ever-darkening wood with its tail up high and its legs tense, moving with a restrained, careful gait that seemed unnatural to its species.
“So that was your plan all along? Following this dog?” Sylvano said.
His voice was struggling. It was lapsing with emotion, back to its princessly state.
“Well, we don’t really have any other choice. We can’t go in with Clarissa, because we’re not really anarchists. And if we try to make Cesare come to us, his people will have made preparations and contingencies. So we have to let her return to them alone, in their base area, and then we need a way to follow her that won’t arouse suspicion. That’s Terry.”
Byanca had gone through various possibilities in her head. This was the best way. Any rebel cell that had survived this long would have measures against bugs or spies, but nobody ever really prepared to counter dogs because the Legion never employed any. Dog tracking was an ancient, low tech solution overlooked in a high tech world. It satisfied the condition of finding the anarchists. But to truly infiltrate them, to render them vulnerable, they needed someone that the anarchists trusted or needed. Clarissa was hopefully both, but she was at least the latter. She was valued; she knew how to contact them and knew their secret base. They would accept her even if only to dispose of her or to close the informational loop. Clarissa had gone to them of her own accord in the past, if the Queen’s intelligence services could be trusted. Clarissa could therefore lead the Redcoats to Cesare.
“How do we know Clarissa can find these people?” Sylvano groaned.
“Well, she picked to come to Cuvenen of all places. There’s no reason to do that unless she wanted to die alone in the woods, or she knew that she could find help in this place.”
“What if she can’t find anything? What if she’s just trying to run away?” Sylvano said.
“Then she picked a terrible spot to run away in. Listen, if you want this to work then you have to trust me. We have no leads except this one. We will make it work somehow.”
“Somehow?” Sylvano sighed. He crossed his arms. “Fine. Just make me one promise.”
“Okay?” Byanca asked, blinking her eyes in confusion.
Sylvano rubbed his hand over his mouth and chin, and he sighed again.
“Please try to keep her safe, whatever happens.”
In Sylvano’s eyes, Byanca could see the princess that she loved so inconveniently much.
“I will keep her safe.”
To see that princess-like smile, Byanca would say even the blackest, vilest lies.
It remained to be seen whether this would be one such lie, or an honor upheld.