North Ayvartan Sea — N.D.M. Imperatrix
There was not a plane in the sky over the Elven invasion fleet. The die had been cast.
For better or worse, it was Garzoni’s show to run. There was nothing to do but wait.
Knight Commandant Anna Marlborough removed herself to her quarters in the interior of the ship, feeling a measure of disgust after her encounter with craven Garzoni. Naturally a crowd began to form; the invasion was hectic and everyone sought her counsel, owing both to her aristocratic blood, and her bureaucratic position. But she dismissed all staffers and officers and waved away the men and women who simply wanted a look at her face.
Like many Knights, she was in a dual position, both Lady and War-maker, and as Knight Commandant, she was an Elite among Elites. She was the past and the present, her rank both traditional and new, archaic and yet, thrust into a painful modernity. On the ship, she was not as unapproachable as Garzoni, in his codified, regimented military role.
Anna Marlborough was a woman of her people. But she fought for the Queen’s justice.
That was the simplest way to describe her complicated position, and why in the wake of her cape, there would be supplicants even aboard this steel vessel of modern war.
Once alone, and in her quarters, Anna opened the metal door and found her Shieldmaiden waiting, as she expected. Anna, stone-faced, approached and bowed her head to the shorter woman. Their blue-green eyes met and their long ears twitched just a bit.
The Shieldmaiden craned her head, and Anna met her lips. Though deep and passionate, it was a quick kiss, barely more than a strike and a few seconds’ tug of war between the lovers’ lips; a hint of tongue on the final parting betrayed a repressed appetite behind it.
“How was the star of the show?” Marcia asked.
“A terrible imp, ill fit to swab the decks, much less command the swabbing.”
“You’re ruthless, Anna! So what of his plan?”
“Not much I can do but wait and pick up the pieces.”
Marcia raised a hand over her lips and laughed delicately. They were a study in contrasts.
Anna a tall, stoic, imposing woman with high cheekbones, striking features, long, free golden hair; a classical Elven goddess fit for a bust in the Pantheon. Marcia was a common, cheerful woman, shorter by a head, with mousy brown hair tied in an elegant braided bun. She had rounded features, and a more commonly rural and earthen beauty to her.
As a Shieldmaiden, Marcia did not wear the plate of the Knight. In its place, of course, she would have borne Anna’s shield, exemplifying their bond: the trust Anna placed in her, and Marcia’s support for Anna. Nowadays, for convenience, this only meant an armband in one arm, and a small buckler shield strapped to the other, rather than a tower shield.
“Oh, Anna, I can never tell with you whether you’re dissatisfied with the man or generally dissatisfied with everything around the man.” Marcia said, waving an amicable hand.
Anna blinked, betraying little emotion. “I called him a terrible imp.”
“Well, I suppose that does settle it!” Marcia laughed again.
“But you are correct. The Kingdom is not what it used to be. The Regulars aren’t.”
“No more glory in the office? All goin’ to pot eh?”
“We’re all falling from grace, yes.”
“Speak for yourself; I’m plenty graceful still.”
Marcia talked to her like nobody else did, and Anna loved her so much for it.
They were Knight Commandant and Shieldmaiden, but more important than the tradition, than the past, was their present; the two women who had long loved one another.
More important than the accouterments, was the kiss, and now, the holding of hands.
This was inappropriate, but it was not uncommon. Knights were segregated, and battle forged miraculous bonds; and Knights were once, and still many were, aristocratic. And many in their class would find no love from men. Elven Ladies were given and taken in loveless political arrangements. That had been the way for untold generations.
For them, the tradition gave them freedom and opportunity. Impropriety be damned.
Marcia gave her love; her husband an estate and a name and other dull, material things.
On Marcia’s part, she was unmarried, and gladly remained so. Her life was simpler.
“While you were away, I went over the rosters, and I wanted to ask you something.”
Anna sat down behind her desk, feeling the weight of the armor acutely as she did so.
Marcia sat across from her, and leaned forward, her head resting on her hands.
“Is there a reason you assigned the Lycenia girl to be with the Vittoria girl?”
Anna blinked. “They have been together since basic training, bunked together, trained together in tankery, parachute drops, coastal landing; every course. Why separate them?”
Marcia smiled. “How cold; I can’t believe you don’t see it.”
What on earth was she talking about? Of course, it was usually inevitable for the Knight Commandant to feel something for her Paladins. There were few Paladins among any unit of Knights. Paladins were more than officers; they were adept in every form of warfare. A Paladin could command tanks, could site artillery, could take a beach or cross a river. They were rigorously trained in everything their country could demand of them. And the Knight Commandant picked them and pulled at them personally until they were molded to shape.
She knew Lydia Lycenia, and she knew Gwendolyn Vittoria; what did she not see?
“Don’t they remind you of us?” Marcia asked.
“No. Not at all.” Anna replied.
Marcia was the romantic; Anna could indeed be a little cold, she recognized it.
“Aww. I thought you were trying to give the Vittoria girl a cool-headed, strong female protector that she could fall in love with and have grand adventures with.” Marcia said.
“What? No such thing. The Queen decreed she not be coddled. Front-line service, no protection. Lycenia was assigned to her to increase unit cohesion, nothing more.”
“So cold, chilling cold, like a blizzard.” Marcia replied.
“Don’t bully me.” Anna said.
Marcia looked around the room briefly, as if thinking over what to say next.
As was often the case, when around Anna, her tongue loosened a little far.
“Do you think the Queen wants her cousin to die in battle?”
Anna was quick to rebuke her.
“I think Her Highness desires Gwendolyn prove herself and attain her own glory, rather than coast on the Vittoria name. I think the Queen values our institutions.” Anna said.
Marcia got the hint, and started whistling a ditty as if nothing had happened.
What was worse than her glib attitude, however, was that she was right. Marcia correctly deduced what Anna deemed to be the Kingdom’s fall from grace, exemplified by this operation. Everyone was headed for Ayvartan soil to settle personal agendas and carry out their own plans, rather than to fight and win a war. Anna and Marcia; Gwendolyn and Lydia; even Garzoni, and Varus, and Scipio, and the rest, every Paladin, every General.
Even the Queen, who sent her well-trained but untested cousin to the thick of the enemy.
Ayvarta was not Anna’s triumphal grounds It was an expedient solution to other people’s ambitions. Maybe her own ambitions. Maybe not even a solution at all.
Perhaps that was enough.
It had to be.