This chapter contains violence, graphic violence, death and slurs.
52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Kingdom of Lubon, Vicaria — Saint Orrea’s Hope
At the gate barring the way into the old stones of Saint Orrea’s Hope a pair of guards spotted an unmarked civilian truck approaching. Though they shouted warnings and drew weapons the truck climbed the hill with steady purpose. Soon as the truck crested the hill, it accelerated, and the guards began to shoot, but it was too late. Both doors swung open, men leaped from the cab, and the runaway vehicle overran the guards and struck the gate.
As the nose of the car crumpled against the iron-supported wooden gates, a cache of explosives in the back detonated with a resounding thunder and a bright red flash. Sheer crushing pressure blew the wooden gate apart and left smoldering chunks of wood and a twisted hulk in the path. Around this bonfire charged the men of the legion, and at their head, Byanca Geta shouted directions, and put her plan into motion. It was now or never.
“Minimus, take your group around the side of the monastery and climb to the peak, they’ve got to have their radios there! We can’t jam them forever. Crowley, your group will swing around the southern rise and take the hill! I’ll plunge right into the front!”
No man could argue against a plan that put the lead officer in the most dangerous position and her subordinates in relative advantage. Their flames kindled by Byanca’s bravery and passion, the Legionnaires took up their weapons and charged. As a unified column they stormed past the gate, charged to the front gardens of the temple. Saint Orrea was nestled into the mountainside on a complex territory. Beyond the trees and the greenhouses and the great rosehedge-lined plaza was the temple, on raised ground, a massive compound with a great central courtyard, two long wings of dormitories and prayer spaces, and the tower, deep in its heart, where Salvatrice had to reside. To the south, a steep climb overlooked the entire battlefield, and in the north, was the path directly to the peak.
“Charge, men! For Princess and country!” Byanca shouted, raising a fist into the air.
Byanca charged with the men, at the head of the column. She controlled her speed so that they could keep up with them. Halfway to the gardens, on the open stretch of mountainous dirt path, the column broke up into the three groups. Minimus reluctantly took his men north, Crowley south; dead ahead, Byanca saw the dark, masked figures of the illuminati, appearing from behind the concrete balustrades atop the great and many stone steps bridging the dozen meter climb from garden up to the level of the temple.
One masked man swung his arm, beckoning, and a machine gun bipod slammed atop the balustrades with a clank that felt ominously audible even amid the tramping of boots.
“Keep moving!” Byanca shouted. Several of her men were hesitating.
Mid-run, Byanca withdrew a flare gun, and popped a quick, unaimed shot into the air.
Roughly over the machine gunner as he began to shoot.
A wild spray of gunfire flew over the charging men as the gunner swept his weapon to try to cover the breadth of the column. Byanca felt shots graze past her, and heard men fall behind her, but she urged everyone to move to the gardens only dozens of meters ahead. More of the Illuminati soldiers began to join the machine gunner, using smaller arms to try to pick off more of Byanca’s men as the charge neared the cover of the gardens.
Byanca heard the first shell go whistling past and she smiled to herself.
“Take cover in the gardens, hunker down and wait for my signal!”
Ahead of her, the first mortar strike nearly drowned out her commands.
Her first shell exploded just short of the balustrade protecting the machine gunner, kicking up a cloud of smoke and fragments into the air from the steps below. Immediately the Illuminati’s suppressing gunfire halted; that first shell was followed quickly by a dozen more, falling randomly and suddenly at haphazard intervals. Columns of smoke and ripped concrete and fleeting fireballs rose and fell across the steps and atop them and along the front of the temple. Balustrade rails blew forward and with them Illuminati soldiers went flying from their positions. A direct shell hit crushed the machine gunner like a hammer blow fallen from the sky. Overhead, tracer trails lined the heavens.
Under the cover of her artillery, the forward assault group made it to the gardens and took cover behind the hedges, among the trees, and around the greenhouses. They waited, heads down, while mortar attacks rocked the enemy line, inaccurate but persistent.
Though Byanca’s centuriae could not drag heavy artillery out to the mountains, they brought plenty of pack mortars, easily assembled from portable parts, as well as a few towable heavy mortars. In all she deployed nine pieces and significant amounts of ammunition, all safely firing from positions outside the gates and along the path.
However, her men lacked the training to make coordinated attacks. They would likely respond poorly and without coordination to requests via radio against anything but the pre-sited and pre-calculated positions along the temple’s face and the step balustrades. All they could do was open up a surge of shellfire and hope to kill by sheer volume.
It was enough for Byanca. She just needed an opening, a way in, and now she had it.
As the balustrades overlooking the garden endured the shelling, Byanca crept closer, moving from cover to cover. At her flanks, a few dozen soldiers followed her example. She counted down the minutes as the shells fell and the gunfire paused, and she wove from bush to tree to rose hedge to greenhouse, creeping closer to the steps and the raised area of the temple grounds. When the shelling paused, and the smoke started to billow away with the mountain winds, Byanca was at the foot of the fateful steps where she met Salva.
“Bayonets ready! Charge into them while they’re dazed! Conserve ammunition!”
Byanca shouted, waved over her own head, and charged with her rifle drawn.
There was a great clamor as her men shouted with her, and they charged the steps, and climbed up the walls and clambered over the mounds of debris and the remains of the balustrades. Making it onto the raised temple grounds from the lower garden, Byanca found herself faced with the great gilded and stained glass face of Saint Orrea’s Hope, and the dazed, wounded and struggling Illuminatus that stood guarding the structure.
At once, her own men descended upon the fallen Illuminati, their tormentors and oppressors in the weeks past, and there was a brutal slaughter that Byanca would not dare to try to step. Kicking and trampling and stabbing, dozens of her soldiers brutalized the fallen illuminati, and took their heavy weapons and grenades and began to roam the temple exterior like an angry mob, while she made with whoever was still rational to the doors of the church. Everything was happening fast. She heard gunfire nearby, but saw no shots flying toward her. She had to make for the center of the compound with haste.
She stuck a bundle of grenades against the iron-barred door, and hid behind the pillars.
Seconds later the bundle blew a hole between the halves of the door and they slid open.
Byanca placed her feathered bersaglieri cap atop her bayonet and stuck it out of cover.
Automatic gunfire flew out from between the half-open doors and perforated the cap.
“Grenades out! Down the entry hall of the church!” Byanca called out.
Six men remained at her side, and they nodded and complied. One by one they threw their grenades. Byanca could not see into the church, hiding behind the pillars beside the door, but she heard the blasts go off one after another, and she raised her rifle and leaned out to peer quickly into the church. Through the dissipating smoke she found a few more of the Illuminati, battered and broken against the decorated pillars of the entry hallway.
Had she any faith in God left she might have felt remorse for killing in his house.
Now all she wondered, briefly, was why the Illuminati were putting up such a disorganized fight. She had caught them by surprise, sure; but why were they this badly out of sorts? She heard the gunfire flying all around the outside, near and distant, and she was almost sure that her men were meeting the challenge of the dug-in cultists without desperation. Was this why they needed the anarchists? Because their own ranks were so poor in battle?
She recalled the brief battle in the forest, and the fighting in the makeshift prison.
Were the Illuminati losing their faculties? In both instances they had exhibited very basic tactics, such as the deployment of heavy weaponry and use of cover. But their maneuver was poor. Did they lack the will to fight beyond simple entrenchment and charge attacks? Surely if they were legion soldiers before, they should still have their training in mind.
So what was in their minds then? What had happened to them?
Was their command that weak? Perhaps Tarkus wasn’t meant to give orders then.
As she walked into the church, and crossed the blood-stained red carpet, past the entry hallway, past the pews, around the altar, and out the back, to the inner courtyard, Byanca faced no resistance. She ordered her men to fall in behind her and to cover her, and she left the primary temple building, and ran out into the pearl-tiled courtyard, surrounded by hedge walls, encompassing four fountains, a few great big trees, and amid it all, the tower.
Salvatrice had to be there. She could not be in the middle of all this carnage.
The Illuminati– no, Tarkus Marcel, would have brought her there.
Because it was pragmatic, but also because there was a significance to it; Byanca felt it in her gut. Seeing the gleaming white tower that was once part of the old dormitory, and that now stood alone on the new courtyard, Byanca remembered that fateful time of her life that she spent with the princess, and knew in her heart that she would now set her free.
Beyond the hedges on either side of her, hundreds of meters, she saw gunfire, and plumes of smoke, and heard men shouting and raging. She ran as fast as her legs could take her through the open center of the courtyard, making for the door to the tower steps.
She waved her hand mid-run and beckoned her men to run with her from the church.
As she turned to meet their eyes, she felt something fast and dense rush past her.
Her men exited the church in single file, but something struck over their heads.
In an instant the columns and the awning of the white rear portico came crashing down.
All of her men disappeared beneath a mound of rubble that blocked the rear of the church.
Byanca stopped cold, and faced the tower again.
Her enemy left the shadow of the steps.
Standing across from her was Legatus Tarkus Marcel. She could not see his eyes, or the expression on his face. He was clad in silver-white segmented armor, and a covering, snout-like helmet, and gauntlets bedecked in black crystal with strange devices affixed to the cuffs. He had a cape that billowed behind him, and affixed to his arm and braced at his hip was a boyes anti-tank rifle with its distinctive top-loading magazine against his elbow.
Byanca raised her rifle and took aim.
The Legatus raised his arm.
She felt something then, a noise like the space around her crying, budging, ripping.
There was a droning noise that seemed to issue from the Legatus.
And the glass and steel jewelry on his cuffs lit a bright green.
Before Byanca could react, or discern what was happening, she felt a gust carry her off.
Flung from her feet, Byanca rolled along the ground like a kickball.
She came to a stop near the bloody rubble pile that was once her loyal squadron.
All of the world was spinning, and that infernal noise recurred in her brain.
Tarkus Marcel, almost mournfully, addressed her.
“Centurion Byanca Geta. You should not have come here.”
Salvatrice sat on the tower’s grandiose couch, cradling Carmela in her arms and staring grimly at the doorway and the stained glass windows. She heard the rumble of artillery explosions in the distance, and the ceaseless cracking of rifles and machine guns closer to the courtyard. Something had come to Saint Orrea’s, and it was not moving slowly.
Canelle sat at the table, hiding a broken wine bottle below the table. Salvatrice had twice warned her not to pursue some foolish act of bravery, but she knew if this situation went on longer her maid would snap and charge into an Illuminati’s gun. Whether for her own sake or for Salvatrice’s; at this point Canelle looked hopeless enough just to do it.
“Are you feeling better?” Salvatrice asked.
Against her chest, Carmela nestled her head closer, and raised her arms to the princess’ shoulders. Tears were building in her eyes, but she forced them down with a sniffle.
“We can’t stay here Salva.” She said. “We’re leverage as long as we’re in this tower.”
Salvatrice bowed her head to tighten herself around Carmela, embracing her warmly.
She wished she could have had more moments like this with here, when they counted.
“I don’t want to risk you getting hurt.” Salvatrice said.
“We will all be hurt if we stay here. You know it’s true.” Carmela said.
She looked up at Salvatrice’s eyes and clutched the princely garb her lover had been given.
“Salvatrice, if your love for me kills you, I could never forgive myself. And if it kills all of us, I cannot see that as anything but a mocking tragedy. I want to live — with you.”
Salvatrice knew she would eventually say something like that.
Knowing also what her lover would say next, Salvatrice interrupted her.
“I’ll go. I have an idea.”
Carmela seemed to have predicted what would happen as well.
She looked resigned, and pulled herself away from Salvatrice.
Eventually a small smile crept its way on her expression.
“You’re always so quick to defend me. I wish you were that quick to defend yourself.”
“I think this time I’m doing both.” Salvatrice said.
Carmela nodded. She held Salvatrice’s hands in her own.
Salvatrice leaned forward and kissed her.
It was brief, but heartbreakingly sweet. Salvatrice would be satisfied with it as a final kiss.
She stood from the couch, and made her way past the table and toward the door.
“Canelle, guard Carmela with your life, for me; okay?” She said.
Truly she did not want Canelle to do any such thing.
However, upon receiving such a dire order, Canelle stayed in place like a good guard dog.
Had she been told nothing she would have tried to stop Salvatrice from leaving.
“Yes ma’am. Please be careful.” She said.
Salvatrice nodded and made for the door.
It was unlocked.
She pushed open the double wooden doors. Directly outside was a landing hall with the steps down the tower lying frustratingly close by; but they were guarded by two armed guards, wearing the Illuminati uniform and mask. Soon as she opened the door they turned to face her, but they did not approach and did not raise their weapons to her.
Salvatrice felt a lump in her throat, and her heart was thrashing with anxiety.
She stood her ground in front of the guards, and tried to project a sense of majesty.
Arms crossed, chin up, with a sneer of royal disdain copied from her mother.
“Is your revered Caesar not standing before you?” She said.
In response the guards quickly saluted with their weapons.
“Ave Caesar!” they shouted.
Though sickened by the behavior she had to exhibit, and the sources that taught her to behave in such a way, Salvatrice continued to posture. She had nurtured a hope that the Illuminati’s reverence of her was not just an act, but something that was deeply ingrained in them. She had hoped beyond hope that by acknowledging the Caesar they all saw, she could manipulate them. It appeared to be working. But there might still be grave limits.
“That’s better.” She said. “I desire to survey my troops in this fateful time. Escort me.”
Both Illuminati turned to face each other briefly, exchanging a silent understanding.
“Caesar, with all due respect, it is simply too dangerous out there. Armed men have assaulted the compound. The Legatus wishes for you to remain here where you are safe.”
“What kind of pitiful king,” Salvatrice nearly choked upon saying that last, dreadful word, but through a brief struggle she continued almost naturally. “Waits in the rear while the loyal men of the guard die in battle? I must fight alongside them. Do you not desire to achieve glory alongside your revered king? You will be highly decorated, made heroes!”
Salvatrice raised her voice, and tried to evoke the deep tone she associated with a king.
It almost hurt to put on this show. It was not at all what she wanted to be.
And it was grotesque how easily it came to her.
Upon hearing her renewed demands, the two guards’ rigid stances seemed to falter. She saw a quiver winding its way through their shaking hands. Their jaws set. It was if they were struggling against invisible bonds that forced them tight. Salvatrice pushed more.
She asked them the most fateful question of all.
“Do your loyalties lie with the Legatus or your king?” She asked.
This line of attack, the Illuminati could not ignore. At once, it was as if she had sliced through the chains the Legatus had used to bind them, and they raised their weapons, but not to her. They pointed them down the steps, and took a maneuver stance. Beckoning with their hands, they made ready to escort her down the steps and out to the battlefield.
Salvatrice, quiet and nearly shaking herself from the tension of the moment, followed behind them, still carrying herself as she believed a king would. Her proud steps and stone expression hid a conflict inside her, an energy and emotion both incredibly nervous and eerily intoxicated. Was this the power of a King? Did she really have a power inside her?
Tarkus Marcel would know. She had to ask him so much.
Why did he bring her to this desolate place?
Why did he make her this army?
Why did he make her a King?
Byanca rolled behind a piece of debris, hoping to avoid a shot that never sounded.
She did not feel the strangeness around her that came with Tarkus’ previous efforts, nor did she hear the more corporeal effect of his anti-tank rifle firing. She did hear his greaves, the metal sliding as he took slow, deliberate steps forward from the door of the tower. Byanca, reeling from the attack, and partly disoriented, withdrew her pistol from its holster and with shaking hands pulled out her magazine, counted the rounds, and pushed it back into place. Cocking back the hammer, putting her back to the rubble, she waited.
Amid the dust and the chunks of concrete and stone she heard a low, buzzing noise.
She saw, embedded in the rubble, a radio box, and the grizzly arm of one of her soldiers.
Covering her mouth and nose, she crouched forward, and stealthily procured the handset.
She heard a broadcast going out among her radio troops, steeped with the sound of battle.
“We’re facing fierce resistance here! We need some forces diverted, post-haste!”
It was Minimus, with the assault team tasked with taking the Illuminati radio down.
“These Illuminati are dug-in hard! They’ve got control of the peak and they’re bringing in more equipment to overpower our signal jamming. We can’t press them much longer–”
Byanca heard a sharp noise and a gushing, horrific sound and dropped the handset.
She scurried back to cover, and realized that time was running shorter than she thought.
Her lofty plans would have to be redrawn. She might not stop the Illuminati at all.
But at least she could save the Princess. She could do this one selfish thing. She had to.
“Tarkus Marcel, release Princess Salvatrice at once!” Byanca shouted.
Her skin bristled, every fine, invisible hair on her neck, her back, her legs, all standing.
Something was building in strength and coming toward her.
She leaped, almost instinctively, out of cover and behind an chunk of collapsed pillar.
Behind her, something struck the rubble she had been using for cover.
Chunks of rock flew everywhere. Byanca cowered in her new hiding place.
Her whole body was shaking incessantly and uncontrollably, from her heart to her muscles, a nervous, manic spasm, mixed courage and terror. She had no clue what Tarkus had done in his previous assault. That force that she felt was not anything she had ever felt. It was not a turbine, certainly wind had nothing to do with it. There had been no fire or fragments or metal, so it was not a projectile. It was as if the world had shifted around her and flung her from its surface. It was a force of some kind. That was all she understood.
For a child who grew up in Saint Orrea, as part of a project to return Magic to the world, Magic was the last thing on her mind. Even when confronted with such an eerie sight, such an unplaceable object; she had seen the failure of Magic! She knew Magic was dead.
So what was that power if not magic? She could not understand it.
All she could do was to fight back to the best of her ability. She had made it this far.
Byanca stood suddenly from behind the rubble and fired off several shots from her pistol.
Tarkus recoiled as the bullets struck his breastplate and helmet.
He drew a step back, fell down to one knee, but he took a deep, audible breath.
Byanca thought she could see the pebbles on the ground around him shaking suddenly.
She took off from behind the collapsed pillar and made for one of the fountains.
Tarkus extended his hand, and the strange devices on his cuff emitted droning noises.
Behind her, an inaudible explosion blew apart the pillar moments after she left it.
There was no sense of power, no explosion, no sound, no rush of air pressure.
This was not a conventional weapon, not a shell or a bullet, or anything she knew.
It was perhaps even not something of Aer. It felt too alien, eerie, too lacking in presence.
Byanca rolled behind the raised wall of the fountain basin and crouched for cover.
“Tarkus, why are you working with the anarchists? Where do your loyalties lie?”
She found herself shouting this, secretly hoping Tarkus would answer.
Any answer would have him made seem more vulnerable and human.
In a moment the clanking of the greaves stopped, and the droning ceased.
“Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for the King who will restore our Empire.”
“Stop calling her that! Salvatrice is a princess of Lubon!” Byanca shouted.
She had to stop herself from saying ‘my princess of Lubon’.
“Caesar is whatever they decide to be. Caesar is a special child.” Tarkus said.
Byanca peered over the fountain, very briefly, and found Tarkus facing her.
It was almost like staring down a tank. His anti-tank rifle was up, attached to his left arm and connected to what must have been an ammunition feed system on his back.
However, Byanca knew the most dangerous thing about him were those cuff devices.
“Tarkus, I’m leaving with the Princess. I don’t– I don’t even care what happens to the Queen or the monarchy. But I cannot let you have her. You– you want to change her.”
Byanca found it difficult to speak. She stuttered; it was a struggle to admit even this.
Even this tiny sliver of what she truly felt about Salvatrice.
“I want Caesar to take their rightful place. It can only be He.” Tarkus said.
She heard the clanks of his armor once more. He was approaching.
“You fear these dying machines of a world forgotten, Centurion, but this is a fraction of the power boiling within Caesar’s blood. They will soon vanish. Caesar will be eternal.”
Byanca heard the droning noise again, and once more she leapt to her feet and ran.
Behind her, the fountain spontaneously, silently, eerily exploded.
She saw bits of the whimsical mermaid on the fountain go flying past, a severed stone head, flakes of crystalline scale from the finishing work. Water rose into the air and came drizzling down through the courtyard. Byanca turned her pistol aside and fired blindly on Tarkus as she made for the next nearest object, a concrete planter with a dead tree.
“Centurion, all I have done, I have done to grant Caesar the power of a King. I made him an army. I will awaken his voice. And I will now grant him the throne.” Tarkus shouted.
He was speaking as if in a dangerous passion. Byanca felt a sudden terror at his words.
“We are at a crossroads of history. There is no time for half measures. In a thousand years time, the Earth, the Air, the Water, and the Flame, will all be dead, as Magic now is. To survive, we need a leader almost divine, someone who can make us rally, force us to change. We need a unifying, singular purpose to grow, to strengthen ourselves, and save our star.”
Byanca heard the devices spinning up their infernal noise and knew she could not run.
“You do not understand it, but it has to be Caesar. It cannot be anyone else.”
She stood up from cover, raised her pistol, and took aim.
Tarkus thrust his fists forward and Byanca felt their power crackling over her skin.
She pressed the trigger, three times in quick succession, before the force flung her back.
Tarkus jerked back his arm in pain, and blood dribbled from under the armor.
From his cuffs, the droning noise grew out of control.
Byanca hit the ground hard and flat like a dropped brick, but she had succeeded.
On the Legatus’ left arm, there was both blood, and sparks, and fire.
He ripped the cuff device from his gauntlet as if peeling off a wristwatch and hurled it.
It landed on the floor between them like a ball of tin foil.
Byanca could hardly believe that tiny machine had produced such power.
Looking at its remains on the floor it seemed almost a false thing.
“Centurion, you’ve interfered enough!”
Clanking and crunching, quick and sudden; Byanca struggled to stand, but in an instant it seemed, Tarkus was upon her, and he seized her effortlessly from the ground, and took her up by the neck and squeezed. He lifted her, and she hung. He seemed impossibly tall, like a colossus, daunting in his armor. She could not see into the helmet. He moved so quickly for his frame that she thought perhaps there was nothing in the armor, but a phantom.
His free, unwounded arm raised her higher, and squeezed tighter. Byanca felt dizzy.
“I had dreamed of a world where you could have been the King’s right hand, Geta. That is why I gave you this assignment. You were a step above the rest, in your skill, in your loyalty, in your determination. But you took all the wrong turns. I wish you would have stayed in your prison cell. After the fact, I’m sure the King would have loved to have you.”
Byanca delivered a kick to Tarkus’ breastplate that did nothing but clang.
Tarkus squeezed harder, and she kicked, and kicked, and kicked.
Her steel-toed and -taloned boots delivered deadly kicks, but not armor-piercing ones.
“Those legs were made for running, not fighting, bersaglieri.”
Her body started to demand air; she could hold her breath over a minute, while running, while swimming or diving. She could run the whole Legion training course without breathing. But she was human, and her allotted time had run out. Her world wavered.
She looked down at Tarkus, hateful, angry, and she kicked again.
On his chest, she spotted a ding, where the armor had been dented.
No, it was not her kicks alone. She had shot the breastplate before.
The bullet hole?
Her kicking must have further collapsed the hole made in the breastplate.
She had shot the gauntlets too; and she had shot his helmet.
Tarkus shook her, trying to her remaining life from her.
Her quivering hand reached for her knife.
With the last of her strength she drove the blade through a bullet-hole on Tarkus’ helmet.
Like his cuffs, like the breastplate, the armor gave way like tin foil, as if it had lost its resistance like a balloon loses air once punctured in any way. Whether it was magic or metal that had given this armor and Tarkus his strength, all of it seemed to wane.
His fingers unwound, and he stumbled back.
Byanca fell to the floor, gasping for air.
“Only,” she struggled to stand, shaking, angry, “only one person is allowed to choke me!”
She swung forward and delivered a clumsy kick, full of resurgent passion.
Her steel-toed boot struck his neck, and Tarkus fell on his back.
Stepping over his fallen body, Byanca ran toward the tower.
In the distance she saw smoke rising from beyond the hedges. She craned her head up, and saw along the distant path to the mountain’s peak, lengths of it higher up the temple grounds. There were brief flashes of tracer fire and perhaps grenade detonations. Not once during her skirmish with the Legatus had the gunfire let up, not for even a second.
Byanca made it almost to the tower, when she saw a figure emerging from the doorway.
Expecting more Illuminati, she raised her pistol.
Then the face she saw made her drop her weapon, and nearly drew tears from her.
Dressed in a regal coat and pants, with a cold expression on her face, flanked by two Illuminati guards, was Salvatrice herself. She looked every bit the King that Tarkus had said she would become. Had she not had the same pale red rosey hair, and the same eyes and features on her face, and that lithe and unassuming figure, Byanca would have said, this could not have been Salvatrice, but truly it was Caesar. And that terrified her.
“Princess?” Byanca asked. She prayed that there would be an answer.
In response, Salvatrice, not Caesar, sighed, and put a hand to her hip, and shook her head.
“Of course it was you, doing all of this. No one else is so eager to get killed for me.”
She glanced askance at the eerily obedient Illuminati men at her side.
“Except perhaps these two. Byanca, are you alright?” Salvatrice said.
Byanca hugged herself, and started to sob, and to cry.
“Are you hurt? I’m going to need you to be able to control all of this, you know.”
Salvatrice smiled a small, wry little smile, and Byanca only cried all the harder.
Her princess was still there, still alive, still unchanged. Still the same difficult girl.
“Listen, I’m sorry. I was just. I was being cheeky. I appreciate you–”
From behind them all sounded a great roar, and there was a rumbling in the air.
Tarkus could hardly lift his gun anymore, and collapsed back down to one knee.
Byanca turned in time for the anti-tank shell to fly past her.
Salvatrice stood frozen in time for a second, smiling, unknowing, beautiful, perfect.
Somewhere, too close, so distant, in a horrifying liminal space, there was a blast.
When Byanca whipped around again, the damage had already been done. The Boyes shell soared past her and sailed toward Salvatrice. One of the Illuminati, standing in defense, had his head demolished, and the shell detonated as it would having passed the armor plating of a tank, and the fragments and fire, flew out, and Salvatrice was struck.
Her right eye vanished with a splash of blood and flesh, and she collapsed.
Aer was a shadow-shrouded world enkindled by a dying flame.
Fuel and fire; it was an infinite cycle. People died and the flame burnt brighter for those who lived. But the natural order was distorted. Too much death, too much desolation, and the fire grew bountiful, and then waned, and only the shadow would ultimately remain. Great cycles of violence followed by the whisper-quiet peace of the dead. Periods of bright flames that cast scorching hot light on the evolution of humankind; followed by dark eras of stagnation where the world, burnt to red-hot ash, did nothing but rest and rebuild.
There was a great war, yes, but a scant few embers left to kindle a good burn.
Soon the fire would go out, and the shadow would prevail.
And yet, she saw differently.
She saw the world flame go out, and she saw the death of Magic.
She was illuminated.
The waning of the Flame and the end of the cycle and the death of Magic and the World brought out not darkness, but a great, flashing, warm, beautiful light. For what did Fire truly bring? It was not shadow that it cast, but smoke. Without fire, without smoke, there would again be Light! She saw, with great elation, that none were tethered to these ancient precepts any more. There was a great power awakening within humanity, a beautiful light.
Bathed in the light, she reached out to the ancient boundaries, and she pushed them away.
Byanca stared, dumb-struck, at the corpse of Salvatrice Vittoria.
She could not fathom this being the end, but something in her own physicality knew, and it mourned before her intellect did. Her knees buckled, and her eyes teared up, her nose burnt, her throat caught, and her whole body was shaking. But she could not comprehend the image of Salvatrice, lying on the ground in a pool of blood forming from her head.
That was an impossible image. It simply could not be.
At Salvatrice’s side the remaining Illuminati guard was breaking down. He collapsed to his knees, and he ripped his mask from his face, and he raised his hands over his eyes. To Byanca’s confusion, she saw him digging his fingers into his own eyes and did not understand for a good, long time the extent of the damage he was inflicting then. He, too, passed, out of her sight, out of her understanding, ripped from the world. She blinked.
“Salva.” Byanca said. Her voice was quivering.
Why wasn’t the Princess answering anymore? Could an adult please explain?
Byanca’s slow march to mourning was quickly, brutally interrupted.
She heard an unearthly roar coming from behind her.
Undergoing what seemed like a gargantuan effort, Tarkus Marcel lifted himself, up on one foot, up on the other, up from his knees. He detached his anti-tank gun, and bleeding from the head, from the chest, from the arm, breathing hoarse and heavy, he began to take pulverizing steps toward Byanca. Slow and deliberate, each one seemed to build on the rest, and Tarkus began to pick up speed, and as he ran, his helmet wept blood.
He let out an anguished cry as his charge took him within meters of Byanca.
Still in shock from the events that had transpired, Byanca did not move.
In the next instant, the massive bulk of Tarkus and his armor collided with Byanca.
She was thrown bodily, and stricken with a fist. Tarkus descended upon her.
His arms tightened around her throat, and he slammed her into the ground.
“You worthless bitch! Look at what you’ve done! What you’ve done to me!”
He slammed her head against the ground. She reeled, unarmed, helpless.
She had dropped her pistol and her knife and could not use them against him.
Blood frothed and bubbled from the edges of the closed mouthpiece on the helmet.
From the knife, still protruding from Tarkus’ head, came a trickle of blood.
“Everything we spent years conspiring towards, everything we sacrificed lives for, you have undone! You have destroyed this nation! You have destroyed this world!”
He lifted Byanca and slammed her again into the ground. Her consciousness wavered.
“You killed him! You killed him! You made me kill him!” Tarkus shouted in madness. “We will never escape our fates on this cursed rock because you killed our glorious Caesar!”
Caesar was what he called Salvatrice, was it not? Did he mean– she killed– Salvatrice–?
Tarkus’ entire form began to swim in and out of focus, as if distorted by a curtain of water.
Byanca suddenly, and too clearly, understood what had happened.
Her whole body grew limp save for one arm, which carried out her dreadful purpose.
From her ammunition pouch, Byanca withdrew a grenade. One last piece of kit.
She lifted it — pin off, ready to blow — to Tarkus’ face, as if handing it like a gift.
Tarkus froze in the middle of his fury. In less than seconds, it would detonate.
Byanca wept, keeping a cold, resigned, inexpressive face on Tarkus’ eyeholes.
She had nothing left anymore but to take him with her.
She felt the dreadful device in her hands ready itself, and awaited her final moment.
Like a golf ball, the grenade suddenly pitched away into the air.
From off Byanca’s hand, the bomb soared away and detonated in the sky.
Pushed away by some kind of power.
Tarkus drew back from Byanca, dropping the injured woman on the floor.
He craned his head, and shook, and froze up.
Byanca tried to turn to see what he was seeing, but her whole body was giving up.
She had suffered so much abuse, that it was pure agony moving even a centimeter.
She struggled for several seconds to turn herself, and finally dropped onto her side.
She came to stare at the tower, at the foot of which she saw Salvatrice, standing.
Her face was caked in blood. She stood on unsteady legs. Her hand was out.
Her eyes seemed to glow; bright, emerald green, and flickering as if with flame.
“Tarkus. You will stop.”
Salvatrice spoke in a ragged voice. She outstretched her hand.
Tarkus was forced down to the ground instantly, his knees audibly snapping.
“Tarkus, you will stop. You will stop.”
The Legatus raised a shaking arm, fighting as if against gravity itself.
His remaining gauntlet cuff made its last, weak droning racket, crying out.
Byanca thought she saw the force, the rippling effect of Tarkus’ strange attack.
Something flew out at Salvatrice, soundless and relentless, but like a wave upon a rock, it split, and slammed uselessly into the tower. Salvatrice pushed her hand out once more.
Held up before him in defense, Tarkus’ gauntlet cracked, and split, and shattered.
His entire arm seemed to detonate as if its own grenade. Blood, bone and gore flew out.
“You will stop, forever, Tarkus. Forever.” Salvatrice gasped.
On the messy remains of the gauntlet, the black-purple crystals adorning it cracked.
Through the cracks, something rippled out, like bolts of visible electricity.
“Your King orders you to cease, Tarkus. To cease. Now.” Salvatrice cried out.
Tarkus looked up at Salvatrice, and his helmet cracked and split from her power.
Beneath the metal, Tarkus was smiling, reverent, overjoyed. He wept in pitiful cheer.
“Ave Caesar!” He cried out.
There was a flash of unlight, of pure blackness that consumed the air itself.
From the gauntlets, from those foul black crystals, something immense was unleashed.
Legatus Tarkus Marcel suddenly disappeared beneath a black orb, trapped inside an effect akin to a void on the world, a place that was simply bereft matter. When the eerie, alien energy had consumed itself, it vanished as if it had never been, and left behind a perfect circle of consumed earth on the ground next to Byanca. A bare crater, perfectly smooth.
There was no smoke, no heat, nothing. Everything in the orb was just gone.
Tarkus was gone, perfectly removed, forever.
Salvatrice fell down to one knee, and raised her hand to her own face.
“All of you will stop!” She cried out. “All of this has got to stop! Now! Right now!”
She bowed her head, blood dribbling down the hand covering her gouged eye.
Along the ground, something even more immense than the gargantuan powers previously flung coursed its way through the world. Byanca felt the heat wash over her suddenly, and she burnt for an instant, enough to know she had hurt but with no lasting agony. She flinched, and she squirmed on the ground, and then there was eerie silence all around.
Not one more gunshot, not one more mortar round. All of the fighting had ceased.
Salvatrice, holding her bloody face in her hand, became wreathed in fire.
Emerald green fire burned beneath the blood pouring from the wound on her face.
The Princess silently dropped onto the ground.
Byanca summoned the last of her strength and darted from the ground.
She ran as she never had before.
Throwing herself in the final stretch of her arduous journey, Byanca caught Salvatrice.
It was not romantic, it was not gallant or graceful.
Awkwardly, the two wounded women became entangled and fell together and collapsed.
Neither was conscious, neither understood then what one had done for the other.
Amid mingling blood from many wounds, the two lay on the ground of Saint Orrea, where their journey had begun so long ago, and now, where it ended anew, or anew began.
13th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E.
Kingdom of Lubon, Pallas — Royal Palace Grounds
On the execution grounds, the condemned were paraded out in rags, covered in visible wounds from the torments delivered to them for their crimes. A dozen legionnaires in royal purple and red uniforms, gaudy, ceremonial, forced prisoners toward the courtyard wall with bayonets and swords. Beneath this raised inner rampart they were arrayed; upon that wall, the royal spectators and their esteemed guests would watch them die. The VIPs were seated atop the very wall against which the traitors would be thrown up. It was a true royal privilege. Nobody but the Queen and her esteemed entourage was allowed to see this.
“There are at least fifty people here. Goodness. However will this mess unfold now?”
Maid Lillith Mariel chuckled heartily, seated next to the Queen herself as if in the position of a wife to a King. She was dressed like a maid still, cap and all, but her apron had some filligree to it, and her sleeves and skirt were longer, more regal. Passionale Vittoria was herself, dressed at the height of Queenly fashion, in a bold emerald gown with the neck and much of the shoulder cut out and bare. She coldly regarded the traitors, offering not even a smirk of amusement for their plight. She looked upon them with as much interest and pity as she would look upon a wall, or the ground. She sipped wine, and she waited.
“Are they really going to shoot them one by one?” asked Byanca Geta. She felt her stomach turning at this grizzly thought, and the scars of her now weeks-old wounds, felt strangely itchy with discomfort under the heat of the noon sun, high in the sky. She was uncomfortable in her legion dress uniform, a bevy of medals gleaming in the light.
“Of course not. That would be madness. They must have prepared special arrangements.”
Salvatrice Vittoria replied with an expression as cold and uncaring as her mother’s own.
Despite everything that had transpired, the Princess looked more regal than she ever had. She was dressed in a most astounding gown, rose-gold like her own hair, form-fitting, hugging her breast, with a tight, high neck, long sleeves. It fit over her like a glittering glove, and it was tantalizingly filmy in places, revealing something of the skin beneath. High fashion, ultra-modern, chic. She wore her hair to the shoulder, and Cannelle had seen to her cosmetics, lending her a mature air. Her red eyepatch was adorned with a rose.
Her wheelchair had been lifted up to the rampart for this special occasion.
“Is it just the Illuminati among them? Or were the anarchist officers finally found?”
At Salvatrice’s side, mirroring the position of the Maid relative to the Queen, was Carmela Sabbadin. This one time, Salvatrice had outdone her in regal femininity. Perhaps she had allowed this course of events to transpire, as her outfit seemed very deliberate. Carmela was dressed almost as if for business, in a pencil skirt and a coat, with leggings and high heels. She was all black and white and gold, and her wavy hair was luxuriantly long.
She was Salvatrice’s choice for a guest to invite to this festivity. When she gave Salvatrice a longing look, and touched her hand, she seemed overjoyed. However, when regarding the prisoners, she was just as cold as everyone else in attendance. This was all catharsis.
“Tarkus Marcel had maintained detailed records of the anarchist contacts he duped and exploited, and many of the bases he had uncovered. Through these leads, we found many of these traitors.” Vittoria said. “Almost all of the men before you are anarchists. Tarkus’ cult is buried in a mass unmarked grave in the mountains. They are beneath even this.”
Byanca suppressed a sigh. She could have gotten behind shooting the Illuminati.
This, however, was just petty and pointless.
“Are we ready?” Vittoria called out.
On the execution grounds, one of the legionnaire officers saluted.
Out from behind him, two men produced a crate, and set it on a table.
Taking out the contents, they slowly and deliberately pieced together before the chained-up anarchists a Nochtish model Norgler machine gun. They set it on the table, bipod out, and again, with overdramatic care and attention, they loaded the weapon. Once the ammo belt was affixed, and the gun properly ranged, the two men stepped aside, and the officer, given the Honor of the Shot, took his place behind the machine gun and signaled.
Lillith Mariel produced a small, golden treasure box, and opened it for her Queen.
From inside it, Vittoria produced a flare gun wrapped in a silken handkerchief.
She withdrew the weapon, and popped off the shot. It detonated in mid-air like fireworks.
At once, the officer casually knelt close to the gun and held down the trigger.
Suddenly the quiet execution grounds were filled with screams muffled by sawing noise.
As the officer swept the execution ground with streams of gunfire, catching every man in the mass before him, many of Lillith’s subordinate maids appeared with delicate plates of snacks in hand. There was cheese, olives, wine, and all kinds of delectable things. Salvatrice and Carmela nibbled and chatted. Lillith seized one of the plates for herself, and she cheerfully hand-fed Vittoria her favorite bruschetta with tomatoes, basil and oil.
Byanca watched the execution with wide eyes and could not bear to eat through it.
After the last droplet of blood hit the dirt, and masked corpse detail legionnaires arrived, Byanca stood, and made to take Salvatrice’s wheelchair to lead her back to her room. She immediately found that her hand reached for the handle at the same time as the Queen’s had, and she very nearly touched Her Majesty. She recoiled, as if shocked with electricity.
Vittoria’s face had no expression. She regarded Byanca with seemingly little emotion.
“I will take my daughter for a moment, Centurion. Despite my age I am most capable of pushing a chair. Please escort Ms. Sabbadin to the Princess’ quarters, and wait.”
Vittoria took hold of Salvatrice’s wheelchair. The Princess gave Byanca a weary glance.
“I’ll see you later.” She said. She put up a small smile for her Centurion and a much more lively one for her lover, and she waved as her mother wheeled her around off the ramparts.
Soon as they were out of sight, she dropped the facade, and breathed a deep sigh.
Salvatrice was exhausted. Her whole body was in constant pain. She had lost an eye, and what was under the eyepatch was a quite unseemly wound. Canelle had made her a pretty eyepatch that hid it and accented her beauty, but it was frustrating. Her depth perception was shot, making daily tasks more difficult to do. And not only had that eye spilled out of her head, it seemed as if some of her brains had as well. She had only recently regained any sort of motor function, and thus she had only just started physical rehabilitation.
During her first therapy she exhibited the miraculous ability to stand, and to move her arms and legs, and proved that she was not paralyzed. However it was inadvisable that she stand often or for long periods, according to her doctors. They said, maybe in a year, she would be able to walk painlessly for a few hours at a time. Her wheelchair had become a new companion, and people she loved took turns wheeling her around the palace grounds.
This was the first time her mother had decided to be the one to do so.
She took Salvatrice around the back of the Palace, and to the inner courtyard garden.
There, they walked under the shade of the massive Father-Tree, or, in reality, its close kin.
“You knew about Tarkus and the anarchists. You used me as bait.” Salvatrice said.
She had no reason to be pleasant to her mother, not when removed from polite company.
She had no desire to make familial small talk. She had issues to bring up.
Queen Vittoria answered, in her typical way. “I knew there were plans in motion.”
“You used me.”
“Tarkus was the one responsible for lowering security at the College and for the fake arrests and the broadcast and all of that nonsense. He was tasked only with helping you accomplish the task I had given you. I hoped he would be discrete enough to make you confident in your own power and ability. I am not displeased with the results, ultimately.”
“I’m crippled. Clarissa is dead. People died. And there’s no 17th Legion now.”
“Immaterial. You carried yourself wonderfully and that is what matters.” Vittoria said.
Salvatrice raised her hand in a fury and pushed on a nearby pedestal.
There was a bust of an elven king, and in the next instant there was not.
An invisible force battered away the object, sending it flying like a bullet into the Tree.
Upon striking the sacred, ancient bark, it burst into a hundred pieces.
“That could be your head.” Salvatrice said coldly.
Vittoria was unfazed. “I already gave you permission to kill me if you want to.”
Vittoria ignored that outburst. “Besides–”
The Queen bent down over the wheelchair, her head beside Salvatrice’s.
She extended her own arm.
Salvatrice felt the push.
It was weaker than her own, and yet, somehow, it felt more efficient. Practiced.
Vittoria pushed on another bust of another Elven King, and flung it toward the tree.
Its trajectory was much more stable, even if far less brutal and fast.
In the instant before striking the tree, the bust stopped in mid-air, and gently descended.
“I’m familiar with that trick.” Vittoria said. “I am happy to finally see your rendition.”
Salvatrice was momentarily speechless. Vittoria walked around the wheelchair.
She stood in front of her daughter, and she knelt down, and looked her in the eyes.
In Vittoria’s face, this close, Salvatrice saw so much of her own. Too much of it.
“I knew someday, that the child of that man and myself, would exhibit a power greater than both of ours combined. Others knew, but those men are all dead. I killed them, little by little, while keeping you safe, and secluded, and unaware. Tarkus was the last of those snakes because he was my snake. Now that he’s dead, I beg you not to show off too much.”
Salvatrice could have crushed her mother’s head like a watermelon.
She knew she had the ability to do that now. It would hurt. It would hurt tremendously.
She might not be able to stand for days after doing such a thing.
But she could do it.
She did not, because she was not ready for the consequences.
But she told herself she could do it. At any time. This woman was powerless.
That made it much easier to smile warmly and laugh at her mother’s display.
Like a good child.
“I will take care with it, dear Mother.”
Byanca waited outside the hall. At her side was Terry the dog, the only official survivor of the ill-fated Redcoats other than herself. All the troops brought to the mountain to fight the Illuminati had perished. After Salvatrice went out of control, everyone who had been shooting simply, stopped. They stopped forever. Salvatrice did not know everything that had happened, and in fact, Byanca herself was unsure if this was all fanciful dreaming.
So to say that Salvatrice killed hundreds of people in the blink of an eye was a bit much.
She knew Salvatrice could do things now, things that felt different than the things Tarkus did that Byanca, also, did not understand. Salvatrice knew too. They tried to keep it quiet.
For better or worse, it seemed as if the Illuminati, Tarkus, and all of those conspiracies and secrets, would just die on that mountain, or in this palace. There would be no parting of the curtain that would make everything neat and tidy. Life simply did not work that way. There was too much wound up in it. Each of those people was a universe of contradictions, of strings tying them to a hundred others. To unearth it all would take a lifetime.
At least Byanca was alive and Salvatrice was alive. That was a good base to work from.
They had a lifetime at all now, and for that, Byanca was grateful.
Byanca waited, pacing the halls. Soon she had a companion in her pacing. Peeling off from a group of maids that included the cheeky Lillith Mariel, who had been teaching her a thing or three, was Canelle, Salvatrice’s maid. She was dressed like a palace maid herself, owing to the Princess’ relocation to Pallas proper. She seemed ecstatic to live the Palace life now.
Full of energy, Canelle was constantly in maid-mode, and would inspect every gilded surface on the Palace halls for imperfections that she would cheerfully rectify there.
This time, it was a spot on a table next to Byanca. She wiped it gleefully clean.
“Good afternoon Centurion!” She said, while working on the spot.
“Hello.” Byanca replied. “Feeling peppy?”
“Most certainly! Tell me, what did you think of the Princess’ attire?”
“It was amazing.” Byanca said.
“I could scream! I’m so happy! I have access to so many materials and facilities here. You may not believe me, but I designed and made that dress myself. It was my dream!”
Canelle hugged herself and jumped up and down with joy.
It was good that a least one person was unequivocally satisfied with all of this.
“I never knew you had it in you. You should leave Pallas and start a couture place.”
“No! Never!” Canelle said, suddenly serious. “Only the Princess shall wear my treasures!”
Behind the two of them, a pair of exquisitely-dressed visitors had arrived.
Byanca and Canelle both turned to find Vittoria and Salvatrice waiting for them to notice.
Canelle was immediately distraught, and fumbled to take Salvatrice’s chair from Vittoria.
She seemed driven both mad with anxiety about being in the presence of the Queen, and then also mad with anxiety at the honor of wheeling the Princess around once more.
“Please calm down.” Vittoria said.
“Yes, your majesty!” Canelle said, quite extremely uncalm.
Vittoria silently stared at her, and then at Byanca in turn.
“Take care of my daughter.” Vittoria said tersely.
The Queen then turned and promptly left their side. Byanca blinked again, confused.
“Ignore her.” Salvatrice said.
Inside the Princess’ grand suite, Carmela Sabbadin waited beside the bed, staring out the window. When Salvatrice wheeled in through the door, she stood up immediately, and took the wheelchair from Canelle, who was not entirely eager to give up, but deferred when the Princess insisted. Byanca watched the whole thing unfold, as it had unfolded a dozen times already since Salvatrice began recovering, and she shook her head.
In due time, the Princess was dressed in more casual, comfortable clothing, and finally installed in her bed. Canelle bounced away to make tea and cakes, and Carmela sat beside the bed, and held hands with Salvatrice. Byanca stood guard, saying nothing much.
“Salvatrice, I spoke with the Queen’s maid, and she has agreed I can come visit any time.”
Carmela seemed so relieved to be able to say those words. Salvatrice smirked lightly.
“Maid? She’s more like her girlfriend. Anyway, it was never a problem, you know.”
“Do I? I honestly felt like your mother hated me.” Carmela said.
“She hates everyone but Lillith. It’s fine. I’m glad you can visit, at any rate.”
Carmela held Salvatrice’s hand in both of her own, rubbing her fingers and palm.
“I bought a chic new apartment in Pallas. I’ll never be apart from you.”
Salvatrice looked at her with wide eyes. “Carmela, you shouldn’t have–”
“Money is no object when it comes to my beloved. I can transplant my life anywhere that you are. And who knows? There’s no greater land of opportunity than Pallas. Under the shadow of the Palace, maybe I can make a fortune through my cunning and skill.”
Carmela grinned devilishly and Salvatrice seemed rather worried about all of this.
“Just watch Salvatrice. I’ve already appeared before your mother as your esteemed friend, and I’m now aware of your mother’s own predilections. We can make this work out!”
Byanca felt rather awkward, listening to Carmela gossip with such a glint in her eyes.
“You’re putting the cart cities ahead of the horse.” Salvatrice said weakly.
There was no dimming Carmela’s enthusiasm however. She was brimming with energy.
“Nonetheless– I should leave you to rest. You’ll need your strength for a date out on the town soon! I’m going to make all sorts of wonderful arrangements. There’s so much happening in Pallas, you know? It’s nothing like sleepy Palladi. I’ll be in touch.”
Carmela leaned forward, and she and the Princess kissed for what seemed like minutes.
Byanca modestly averted her eyes.
“I love you.” Salvatrice said.
“I love you too.”
Once their little exchange was done, Carmela turned and strode confidently past Byanca.
She paused for a moment, and smacked Byanca on the shoulder cheerfully.
“Keep up the good work!”
Carmela saluted back with a grin on her face, and finally left the room.
“She’s so excited. This city has its claws sunk deep into her. She’s truly a big city girl.” Salvatrice said, sounding exhausted. “I’m so ill, I just can’t party like she does.”
“Help, I’ve partied and I can’t get up.” Byanca said mockingly.
Salvatrice shot her the patented look of princessly disdain she had cultivated for so long.
“A little familiar, aren’t you, Centurion?”
Byanca stood stiffer, and saluted.
Salvatrice laid back in bed with a huff. “Oh stop that already.”
“How are you feeling?” Byanca asked.
“I’m constantly in pain and this room is too stuffy and fake-smelling.”
Salvatrice casually swiped her hand at a window, and the glass slid suddenly open by itself.
Byanca shivered. She always shivered when Salvatrice used her trick.
Especially because she thought she saw a fiery aura overtake the Princess when she did it.
Whenever she drew close, it disappeared. She did not understand why.
Because it came and went, it was not a problem. But it was still strange to get used to.
Byanca shook her head.
“I mean, how are you actually feeling Salvatrice? A lot has transpired, hasn’t it?”
Salvatrice shook her head. “Too much to process.”
She looked out the window. Outside, the sun was setting over the Father-Tree.
“We’ll have to process it at some point.”
“You’re right, unfortunately.”
“Well then. What do you intend to do next?” Byanca asked.
“That’s such an exhausting question.” Salvatrice sighed.
“I’m just nervous.” Byanca replied.
Salvatrice looked at her, a small, tired smile on her lips.
“Right now, I’m going to enjoy a life on the town with my social butterfly girlfriend, and spend a year trying to walk again, and maybe cross-dress in my spare time. Is that ok?”
Byanca nodded. “It’s fine. I was just thinking. In case anything else happens, perhaps I should be back on the street, trying to recruit a new independent guard corps for you.”
Salvatrice turned her face to the window again. “Carmela would probably approve.”
“She was rather fond of bankrolling the last bunch of mercenaries we fielded.”
“She is too adventurous for her own good.” Salvatrice sighed again.
“Would you approve?” Byanca asked.
“I think I can find some use for you and more of your armed thugs.” Salvatrice said.
Byanca smiled. At least, despite everything that happened, the Princess was still the Princess, complicated moods and bad personality and all. It was familiar, even if their surroundings were too new, and their circumstances and challenges far too new. She had been nervous that her presence was unnecessary, that the Princess would have no new ambitions, and no need of her. Now Byanca knew that, as much as Carmela and Canelle, she was a part of the Princess’ vision as well. She still had a place in this strange world.
She would take armed thug for now. It was a base they could work things out from.
“I was thinking we could call it a proper Princess Guard. Inspire some professionalism.”
In fact, Byanca had many ideas for a new organization. She was a soldier, after all.
Given the failure of the Blackshirt Legion, she was hungry for a legitimate alternative, as much as she was hungry for a chance to serve the Princess and continue to prove herself.
Salvatrice, however, seemed to have her own ideas as well. She gave Byanca a little laugh.
Her face turned into a cold, self-assured smirk that Byanca thought she had seen before.
“These days, Centurion, I think I’m drawn more toward calling them the Illuminati.”
There was a little green glint in Salvatrice’s eyes that betrayed something different.