51st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Ikrea — Cuvenen
Byanca shouted out to her, but the princess ran faster than she had ever seen her run.
In a panic, the Legionnaire withdrew the signal flare from her coat and fired it.
At this point she knew not ally from enemy, but she needed a distraction to move.
Soon as the flare erupted into light overhead, Giuseppa opened fire into the camp.
Byanca could only hope and pray Giuseppa was competent enough to survive all of this.
Following Salvatrice’s long lead, Byanca dropped down from the tree and ran after.
All around her there was gunfire and men fighting tooth and nail, grenades going off, smoke billowing in, tracers darting through the air like fireflies. Byanca ducked her head and threw herself forward into the forest. She could hardly see a meter in front of her, but almost naturally she seemed to follow a path disturbed by prior passage, of broken branches and parted shrubs and shreds of cloth. She heard a gunshot in the distance ahead but she did not think of it, because it blended so well into the distance far behind.
So many bullets in so many directions; how could she have known that one dire blow?
Suddenly, Byanca crossed an invisible threshold and found herself outside the thickness of the wood, standing in a clear area near a river. There was blood on the ground, and men with weapons, and a tall, familiar man was with them. He prostrated himself before a fallen, clearly distraught Salvatrice, and made an almost pathetic display of his adulation.
At the sight of him his men seemed to do the same.
“Legatus!” Byanca cried out. It was a reflex, coming from a place of terror and confusion.
Though she wanted to say she was glad to see him there; but she felt a sense of dread at his presence. He was not there to rescue her. He was not there by coincidence.
Presumably hearing her cry, Legatus Tarkus Aurielus Marcel of the 17th Blackshirt Legion stood from the ground. He was a tall man that seemed built from bronze, whose uniform was richly decorated. Broad-shouldered, sharp-chinned, blunt-faced, with a peaked cap and thick black boots, Legatus Marcel was a man whose entire presence evoked nothing soft nor elvishly fanciful. His grim expression was surprisingly gentle for Salvatrice. It seemed unchanged for Byanca, but his tone of voice to her sounded almost dismissive.
“Centurion! Fancy meeting you in this patch of wood.” He said.
Byanca felt a shiver down the back of her neck. “What are you doing here?”
“I should ask the same! You have pursued an interesting path, haven’t you?”
He raised his fist, and then pointed a finger just over Byanca’s shoulder.
She turned around. From the forest behind her Giuseppa and Torvald walked out with their hands up, looking mildly roughed up. Pointing guns at their backs, several masked men in black uniforms led them into the clearing. They beat them down to their knees and held the weapons to the backs of their heads. Byanca turned sharply back to the Legatus.
“Mind explaining why you are hiring dishonorable discharges off the street?” He asked.
“I needed more resources to protect the princess and you would not give a dinarius to me, so I sought outside aid.” Byanca said. She felt defiant. “Charge us or release us, Legatus.”
Legatus Marcel shook his head. “I have long since chosen a third option, Centurion.”
At his feet, Salvatrice seemed almost catatonic. She was not acknowledging the situation around her. Tears streamed from her eyes, and her hands shook, her fingers spreading and closing over the soft black earth near the Legatus’ boots. Her lips quivered, but if they formed words Byanca could not understand them. Her appearance broke Byanca’s heart. The Centurion would have done anything to prevent this sight from coming to pass.
Though she did not see the event take place, she could guess at what had happened.
There was only one thing that could have transpired to hurt her in such a way.
Nevertheless, Byanca asked as if she did not have her suspicions.
“Where is Princess Clarissa?” She asked aloud.
At the mention of her sister, Salvatrice broke into fresh sobs and covered her face.
“Disposed of.” Legatus Marcel promptly replied.
Byanca tried to remain stone-faced in spite of the shock and fear she felt.
Surrounded by men with guns, men ostensibly her allies, led by her own superior.
And yet, everything was wrong.
“How did you follow us here, Legatus?” Byanca asked.
Legatus Marcel grinned at her. “You ascribe too much importance to yourself, Centurion. It is mere coincidence that we meet tonight. I had planned to come this way, on this exact date, weeks ago. There were vermin here that were slated to die; you merely picked an inopportune time to make their company. However, I must thank you for your intrusion.”
He gestured toward Princess Salvatrice, and gently, briefly, stroked her hair.
“Had you not brought the Princess here, I would have had to go fetch her myself, and likely in a much more defiant state than she is now. You’ve done well, Centurion.”
He made a mock bow with his head and hands and bending briefly on one knee.
Byanca grit her teeth.
At her sides, the mystery legionnaires raised their weapons. Submachine guns with long magazines ready to drill her full of holes at a moment’s notice. She was trapped.
Legatus Marcel began reciting as if from Byanca’s official file.
“Byanca Geta, abandoned at Vicaria at a young age, exact details unknown. Parentage, unknown. Raised in a monastery dedicated to the revival of magic. Left as soon as she came of age, to try out for the knights. Failed, by a hair’s breadth, to become part of that organization. Wandered; homeless, hungry, penniless, forgotten. Joined the Legion, the Queen’s own Coorte, and excelled in the killing of insurgents in the quarrelsome Borelia.”
He clapped his hands once, perhaps for her, perhaps only to break up his speech.
“Always, always thinking, thinking and writing, of a princess, her princess, a princess who gave her heart to her when both were too small to understand.” Legatus Marcel said.
Byanca bared her fangs. Her stomach churned and her heart shuddered with rage.
“I knew you would be the perfect black knight to guard our nation’s treasure, until it could be properly unlocked, Centurion. Perhaps not a black knight, however; maybe a dragon, would be best. A covetous dragon dreaming of piles of gold. I knew your passions plainly from the moment I read your file as a legion cadet. I chose you very well.”
Byanca balled up her fists hard, her arms shaking. “What are you talking about?”
Legatus Marcel grinned, and turned her attentions from her back to Salvatrice.
“I was always your mother’s favored Legate, Princess. She tasked me with safeguarding you during a period of turmoil. You were her one weakness. Sequestered away, you made her free to kill at her leisure to secure her own power. This was her second and bloodiest purge. And my role in it was instrumental, and of course, it was well acknowledged.”
Salvatrice gave no response. She continued to stare at the floor.
Going down on a knee, the Legatus met her eyes, and raised her chin with his hand.
Byanca took a step forward, her ire suddenly provoked by this touch.
Guns cocked; and she stayed her feet and hands, shaking with fury and frustration.
Legatus Marcel was unmoved. He continued to speak, directly to Salvatrice’s blank face.
“I was her favored, the first and foremost of her loyal soldiers, her real white knight. But as you know, even in such matters, her favor comes not with rewards, but with curses as if delivered by a blighted witch. I have struggled greatly, Princess. To protect you, to position you the way you are now, I have done unmentionable things. All, for you; for Lubon.”
He raised his head toward Byanca again, this time with a neutral expression.
“You could not hope to be what I am to Salvatrice, Centurion Geta. In this modern age, there exist the tools to completely control the path of a person’s life. I have shaped everything you’ve seen. Through the telephone, through the postal service, through the radio, through schedules and chauffeurs and caterers and bankers. The 67th Signals Battalion controls this part of the world. And we have come together tonight, to make an offering, a blood sacrifice, to grant Salvatrice not only a fragment, but the whole.”
He stood from the floor, and performed a strange salute, with one hand raised overhead, arm fully outstretched, with the wrist twisted, the palm facing inward, toward the face.
“AVE CAESAR! AVE IMPERIUM! VIVAT ILLUMINATUS!” He cried out suddenly.
“AVE CAESAR! AVE CAESAR!” cried out the masked men in unison.
Byanca could not fully believe what she was seeing and hearing. It was absurd. Ridiculous. She could not make sense of it. Surrounded in this forest by masked legionnaires all screaming for a caesar. To whom did they call for? Amid all of this madness Princess Salvatrice bent forward, her head to the dirt, on her hands and knees, sobbing gently. Having been corralled all of her life, used, maybe even shaped; for this moment? For what?
All of it had to be lies. Salvatrice had those letters. She had her secrets.
Tarkus did not know them, did he?
His claim to her life and experiences had to be false. Nobody had that much power.
“Salvatrice don’t listen to him!” Byanca shouted out. “Legatus, you monster–”
Tarkus Marcel paid her no more heed. He turned his back and turned to his men.
“In our midst, we have not a princess, but the Emperor of our glorious future. Raise your heads high, legionnaires, for tomorrow begins a new day for the Legion and the world!”
It struck her then what madness Tarkus Marcel truly intended to fulfill.
“You’re planning a coup, you madman! You’re betraying the Queen!” Byanca shouted.
These words seemed to strike a dissonant cord with the Legatus.
He swung around to face her, and stomped up to her, nearly nose to nose.
“The Queen betrayed the dream of Lubon.” Tarkus shouted back, sounding finally impassioned by something. “She betrayed the promise of power that she made to us; she betrayed the dream of a world led to enlightenment by the blessed children of this very wood. Guardians of nature; masters of scholarship; lords of warfare! An Elven Empire that extends to the four corners. It was within our grasp, and we failed to seize it. Now our territories cast us off, and the depraved run freely in our shadows. While the Queen laps at the feet of the Nocht Federation, the power of the Elves falters. And we say, no more!”
“No more!” cried the men surrounding them in the wood.
“Salvatrice; Caesar.” said the Legatus. “Our emperor; raised in the shadow of the corruption and opulence of the Kingdom of Lubon. You can be free of all of this, my Emperor. Your faithful Illuminatus await the word, and we will destroy this wretched edifice, this cage of filth that keeps you from the light that is yours, from the world flame that you will stoke to grant the Elven people dominion over the lands. Ave Caesar!”
Byanca thought she had to be dreaming. What did they see in Salvatrice that gave them such passion? Were they just using her, just trying to batter her emotions and rationality into surrendering to them? Or did they really believe she was some kind of fated Emperor?
Whether they were a conspiracy or a cult, it was bewildering to witness them.
It did not seem possible that any of this was happening.
However, their words were having an effect.
Salvatrice suddenly raised her head from the ground, her eyes drawn wide, blank.
“I want to be free.” She mumbled.
Legatus Marcel grinned vividly, and he clapped his hands together.
Around him the men’s chanting grew ever louder. The Legatus bowed to one knee, putting himself closer to Salvatrice on the ground. She, perhaps still in uncomprehending shock, merely stared at him with dead eyes and quivering lips. The Legatus bowed his head and he spoke aloud to her with a voice that was serious and confident and eerily reverent.
“My Emperor, our machinations are nearly ready to be set to motion. Shall I explain?”
Salvatrice, tears in her eyes, jaw slightly hanging, mumbled, “I want to be free.”
Tarkus Marcel seemed to take that to mean she agreed. He began to explain his plot.
“My Emperor, as we speak, the anarchist columns are prepared for a major operation. In the absence of the 9th, 10th and 11th armies, which once protected the core region of Palladi, there is an opportunity. The Queen thinks her power in Palladi is so solid that the outlying regions are the only ones in need of defensive forces. Through the fabrication of Cesare Regale, we manipulated the anarchists into mobilizing for, frankly, suicidal attacks against the headquarters, barracks and supply depots of the 1st, 5th and 8th armies. Using this diversion my Shadow Regiment will infiltrate and assaulting the palace, overthrowing the Queen and placing you in her throne. All that is necessary now is for us to send the general signal that the anarchists are waiting for, in the guise of their mythical leader.”
There was no recognition in the Princess’ eyes. She was still outside of the moment.
Byanca started to shout, but she felt a heavy, metallic blow at once to the small of her back and the back of her head, and she was forced down to her knees. Her mind began to waver in defeat, lost in the dark, thick layers of the forest green around her. Her consciousness remained for only long enough it seemed, to listen to the princess’ dead-voiced reply.
Seemingly without thought, Salvatrice mumbled again, “I want to be free.”
All at once the forest erupted with the cries of the zealots.
“AVE CAESAR! VIVAT ILLUMINATUS!”
“And so it will be!” Legatus Marcel shouted.
A third and final blow sent Byanca toppling to the ground, and she saw no more.