The World Ablaze (6.3)

12th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Nocht Federation Republic of Rhinea Citadel Nocht

6 Days Before Generalplan Suden Zero Hour

A dull ache settled across Princess Salvatrice’s cheeks.

She made a gargantuan effort to continue smiling throughout the trip.

To wear that much falsity on her face for so long was nerve-wracking agony.

Since landing in Citadel Nocht’s National Airport on the 6th, the Queen and Princess had been honored guests of the Libertaires, the party currently in control of the presidency and bicameral legislature of the Nocht Federation. A jovial diplomat met them at the airport, and he ferried them through the gentle snowfall via a sleek private car.

They cruised deep into the city, where buildings rose like otherworldly spires, black skyward features of glass and metal with an imposing, polished, faceless appearance.

Led into the maw of one such monument, they escaped the snowfall into a vibrant palatial suite. Dinner was served in the suite’s dining room; six courses with colorful vegetables, succulent meat, silky soup, and festive desserts. It was a feast almost more for the eyes than the mouth. Salva felt like she was defacing art when she tasted a cut of meat, peeled a slice of oily beet from a salad plate, or forked a piece of chocolate cake.

“Unfortunately, Herr Präsident will be unable to join us tonight,” said the diplomat, Herr Svend, seated at the opposite end of the table from the Queen. He was a lanky man with slick black hair and blunt facial features, older than Salvatrice by at least a decade, yet someone who was still young. “He looks forward to your meeting tomorrow.”

Everyone spoke Nochtish, a rough and aggressive language over which the Princess held limited command. She had tried to offer thanks to the driver of their car, a duty beneath her mother, but she had tied her tongue in a knot trying. Lubon was a flowing, elegant tongue, a language of romance and poetry, of lyrical beauty – or so she had been taught.

To her ear, Nochtish was like the wailing of a beast.

She had been actively afraid of those voices as a child, and as an adult she admitted to a little apprehension still. She could not tell anger from joy in the Nochtish tongue.

Her mother had an almost divine gift with it, of course, and she spoke perfectly.

“How unfortunate. I would have wanted Salvatrice to meet him in a more relaxing setting than a military policy discussion. He and his wife are lovely people.” Queen Vittoria said. She even smiled at Svend, who nodded graciously back. In this kind of setting, the Queen was at her most relaxed. Salva noticed her own princessly manner in her mother, delicately cheerful and youthful. Here it was acceptable for her to relax the Queenly mask.

Whether she truly was enjoying herself, Salva could not know.

“Yes, it is a dire circumstance indeed that has kept him away, milady.” Svend said. He acted at all times with a calm and inviting demeanor of his own, a gentleman who had to present his country as warmly as possible. “He would not pass up any opportunity to dine with such lovely guests as yourselves, but these were truly inescapable matters.”

“His loss has become your fortune.” Princess Salvatrice said. She smiled, partly at her own athletic pronunciation. She had pronounced every word with only a hint of accent.

The Queen allowed herself a tiny chuckle behind a delicately raised hand.

“Oh indeed! Indeed!” Svend laughed, and raised his wine glass to honor Salvatrice.

“Indeed. Though, I am concerned for Herr Präsident. I became appraised of the leaks concerning the Generalplan and was told there would be nothing to worry about.” Queen Vittoria said. “Should I be cautious of these developments, Herr Svend?”

“Oh no, not at all.” Svend quickly said. “We found the source; we’re taking measures to insure that the public consumes this information in a proper context. Only one newspaper took an antagonistic role, and they’ve changed their minds since those stories; after we gave them access to new information they broadened their views. The press is very reasonable.”

“I am glad to hear it.” Queen Vittoria raised her own glass. “To the free press!”

“We could not live without it!” Svend laughed heartily, raising his own glass.

Princess Salvatrice smiled meekly and said nothing.

Though both Svend and the Queen spoke in the tone of tearoom gossip, chuckling and smiling like old friends, Salva could not help but think that there was a sinister undertone to everything they said. In Lubon’s papers and radio programs very little of it was discussed: the distance was too great. But as a student at a prestigious university, Salva had access to papers like The National and The Federal Review to keep abreast of Nochtish news. She had read about the fallout of the past few weeks. It was not such a laughing matter.

Salva would’ve spoken, but Princess Salvatrice could not.

After dinner Svend offered them gifts of soft mink coats and hats, winter-wear greatly in vogue with the high-class ladies around Rhinea. Princess Salvatrice found ocassion to wear her coat immediately: the party was headed out of the warm suite for a tour of Citadel Nocht, the nerve-center of high class culture and of the Federation’s government.

From the windows of their car and through the gentle drift of snow Salva saw the broad roads, teeming with motor cars and trolleys. They constituted the bloodstream of the City of Steel. This stronghold in the northern reaches of the Federation controlled the rest of the continent. Most of the people here were either high class diplomats, technocrats, politicians, and their aides or low class service work that catered to their every need.

There was a starkness to the divide that could even be seen in the crowds.

Those with mink, jewels, polished shoes; those with boots, overalls, thick jackets.

“Take us to the park, I want Salvatrice to see it.” Queen Vittoria said.

“Gladly, milady. We still have plenty of time.” Svend replied. He signaled the driver.

Minutes later they arrived at the Industrial Park, a vast indoor plaza like a glass cube in the middle of the city, where the machinery of capitalism was almost worshiped. The Princess saw numerous exhibitions of engines and cars and planes on public display, severed in half so that one could see the inner workings in the metal flesh.

She strode through mock-ups of factories, bronze autamata representing the workers that churned out the machines in conveyor belts and across shipyards and automobile factories, in joyous cooperation with the capitalists and industrialists who secured them the materials to do their work and awarded them fair wages driven by the market.

Pretty women in fitting costumes, such as airline crew wear and worker’s overalls, led children and families on tours of the facility, explaining to them the History of Industry.

They walked across the plaza in a little guarded entourage. Two Knights that had accompanied them on the plane had left their own car and walked alongside the Princess and Queen. They did not carry long arms, but they had pistols under their gold-trimmed blue coats. Their ears were very sharp, like her mothers’, and it made Salva a little anxious about comparisons. She was the only Lubonin in the entire plaza without long ears.

And people were indeed looking their way: with Svend and a tour woman at the head of their procession, and two Nochtish guards at the back, the Queen and the Princess and their entourage of knights stood out to all the visitors, and heads turned whenever they joined an existing tour group at an exhibition. It soon felt to Salva that she and her mother were becoming as much a part of the exhibitions that day as the machines.

Salvatrice felt the stares. They made her feel illegitimate.

In many ways, she felt that she was, right down to the flesh.

“Don’t shy away.” Queen Vittoria said. “Bask in their awe. You deserve it.”

Salva wondered bitterly what had happened overnight that led her to deserve awe.

In earnest the tour continued, with Svend growing more energetic as they went, clearly invested in the attractions. He seemed more genuine than anyone else in the party. And indeed he felt more genuine than many of the exhibitions he slavishly explained.

Salvatrice was a little perturbed by the surroundings.

All of the trees inside the plaza were false, for example.

They were machines with a textured exterior and plastic leaves. From afar they fit the profile of a tree, but after passing by enough of them Salva could see the welded seams where the machine’s plates had come together under the bark texture. “In the future, we can have air purifiers masquerade as trees,” explained a tour guide, “these machines are display models, and have a limited range, but they are able to take in the air near them and clean it. In the future, one tree will remove smog from a whole city block.”

“Real trees grow poorly in Citadel Nocht, I’m afraid.” Svend commented.

Queen Vittoria laughed delicately. Princess Salvatrice smiled.

She smiled mostly to cover up how disturbing it all felt.

Falseness within falseness, lies after lies.

When they had thoroughly exhausted the exhibitions in the History of Industry, Svend’s face grew rosy and he led them to his favorite area of the plaza.

They passed through an archway into another half of the glass cube. An exhibition proudly displayed “The New Age of Warfare” to all comers of all ages.  Clockwork automaton soldiers in gray uniforms, wearing the tall Stalhhelm of the Nochtish armed forces, strode in pre-determined paths across the exhibition, saluting, running with their rifles, jabbing bayonets, taking aim at the walls and ceiling as though in real combat.

Here the attractions were a little more guarded.

None of the vehicles had visible cross-sections as in the History of Industry exhibition.

There was an enormous Fatherland tank, the first tank Nocht ever developed and a copy of the Lubonin Remus, hardly more than a set of massive tracks with machine guns on sponson mounts. This led to the first turreted tank, the M1 Warrior, essentially a smaller metal box on tracks with a cubical turret atop housing two machine guns.

“We have an M3 and M4 now, but the exhibition for the public ends with the M2.” Svend explained, gesturing toward the M2 Ranger. Larger than the Warrior, boasting a complex rounded turret housing a real cannon (albeit a small, 37mm gun), the M2 looked a lot more like the tanks Salvatrice had seen in pictures and newspapers and in the military parades at home. Below the M2’s pedestal, a golden plaque read, THIS MACHINE GUARDS YOUR FREEDOM. Salva found that ironic, considering the tank was obsolete.

“This is your favorite spot?” Salvatrice asked, pronouncing the words slowly.

“Quite! I helped oversee its construction! I financed some of the pieces.”

Svend looked fondly upon the Fatherland tank. “But it is incomplete!”

“Incomplete?” Salva asked. She thought she mistook the word for another.

“I have tried to convince your mother to send us a Remus for the exhibitions here, but ah, it is a difficult thing to arrange.” He said. Queen Vittoria laughed. “Perhaps when you are Queen, my dear, you’ll allow us to enshrine one here with its sibling?”

Princess Salvatrice did not know how to respond other than to close her eyes and affect a slightly wider smile, as though she were so amused at the thought of being Queen.

In reality, it was such a scary thing to consider it shocked her near senseless, and all of her Nochtish seemed suddenly to escape her. She merely smiled and hoped that she would be written off as an airhead and left alone to simmer quietly in her agony.

“The Remus is our history.” Queen Vittoria interjected. “And we have few left.”

“For a military boy like me, it just feels incomplete here.” Svend lamented.

Salva kept quiet the rest of the trip, as they looked at some aircraft bombs, inert of course, and then visited an industrial-looking cafeteria and gift shop on the way out. The Queen showed a little more of that youthful idiosyncrasy she allowed private company to enjoy by buying a sandwich from the cafeteria, where the staff became clearly awestruck.

She did not end up eating the sandwich.

Her performance, was simply the Queen of a foreign country dropping in on cafeteria workers and receiving their compliments and adulation. Nobody seemed to offer the same to the Princess, except vaguely, in association, the same way they treated Svend. How could they? Until days ago she had been a half-known phantom to politics at large.

How could anyone in Nocht be supposed to know her and treat her like a Queen?

After the plaza, they drove north of the city, to the harbor.

All of the water was frozen over, and only icebreakers could plow through to the piers.

In the distance, a tall statue stood just a few miles off the harbor, in its own little island.

This was the Mother of Industry, a symbol for Nocht. It had been commissioned and built by a rich man to represent Nocht’s values, or so Salva had read in her studies.

For the Nochtish people, anything was possible with hard work. Industry, then, was the key that united and liberated them all, and they were thankful for it.

Salvatrice wondered what people from different countries would think seeing that statue. It was snowy out, and hard to make out the shape in the distance. All Salva knew, in her first time seeing The Mother of Industry, was what significance other people gave it in the books she read. They were soon off again in the car, the snow picking up, and Salva never got to see the actual shape of the statue. She wondered what kind of face it had.

Winds picked up, and the snowfall thickened.

A blizzard cut their happy afternoon short, and they returned to the suite. Salvatrice had her own guest bedroom, itself the size of a small apartment. It had a washroom with a bath and a shower, and its own couch and coffee-table seating area. Her bed was large enough to fit three of her, and a plate of snacks and a wine bottle rested bedside.

Servants from the hotel were ready to take care of her the instant she arrived, pulling off her coat and working on the dress cords behind her back. She nearly yelled, but retained her composure and simply waved them all away. She didn’t want them to see her.

Once alone in her room, she undressed herself and stood in the shower, under warm water for several minutes, until a cloud of white steam filled the enclosure. She donned a complimentary robe and fell asleep in it, dead tired. Her back hurt, as did her feet from wearing raised slippers throughout the trip: but what hurt most was her face, her cheeks, the area around her eye sockets. They had made the greatest effort that day.

13th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Nocht Federation Republic of Rhinea Citadel Nocht

5 Days Before Generalplan Suden Zero Hour

After a lavish breakfast, Salvatrice found herself in a private car once again.

Along with the Queen, she was driven past the spires of the inner city, and up a tall hill to a large, black, dome-shaped building, surrounded by defenses. Honeycomb-like etchings glowed across its surface. She was given no warnings, no impression of what her role would be; her mother trusted that she simply knew by instinct not to embarrass her.

All Salvatrice knew was that they were headed to the Citadel itself, the fortress after which the city had been named, in order to participate in a military policy meeting.

At the top of the hill the car drove behind the dome-shaped structure, and the guards led them from a private parking space hidden behind the dome into an elevator, and up to the highest level of the building. They stepped out onto a lobby, and from there walked to the meeting room, where a round table held a map of the world for all to see.

Ayvarta was prominent on the map. Though called the southern nation, it fell between several worldly metrics, ambiguous, part south, part north, part centered, part east.

Lights played tricks in this room. Illumination was widely dispersed, and all of it was coming from low along the walls and from the map on the table, so that a gloom seemed to settle over people’s faces. They were like the ghosts children pretended to be, flashing lights under their chins to appear frightening to others in the dark.

It was an eerie place in which to set a meeting.

Queen Vittoria and Princess Salvatrice took their places around the table.

Across from them, Nocht’s President, Achim Lehner, welcomed the royals.

He was a sleek, handsome, and younger-seeming man than Salvatrice had expected. He had a high nose bridge and low cheekbones, smooth blonde hair short on the sides but gelled back over the top, and deep set blue eyes. He had a confident and complex look.

Salvatrice was wary of him already.

“Vittoria! I am so happy to see you.” President Lehner said. “And your daughter is lovely, I am glad she is here. I had thought I would be meeting Clarissa again today, but I am pleasantly surprised. You should let Salvatrice out more often, your majesty!”

The Queen’s smile visibly dropped, but she gave no reply.

Salvatrice lowered her head.

“You must be pleased to finally meet more royal blood in the flesh, hmm?”

President Lehner jokingly addressed a young woman who stood next to him.

She was not his wife, a beautiful actress and model who Salva had seen in the papers several times. No, this was a different lady altogether. She had a dark brown complexion, a small, flat nose and black hair that was collected into twin braids across the sides of her head, connecting into an ornate bun at the back of her head. Her eyes were a sharp green, like Salvatrice’s own, and she was as lavishly dressed as anyone in the room with a long and well-fitted glittering black dress. No one would have mistaken her for Nochtish.

Salvatrice recognized her: she was Sarahastra, Empress-In-Exile of Ayvarta.

Salva corrected her own train of thought quickly: the woman had changed her name, to “Mary Trueday,” taking a Messianic-sounding name when she fled to Nocht.

She wanted to be respectful of this change, of course, and hoped she would not get the name wrong. But it was hard not to think of her as Sarahastra. Her presence in Nocht had always been well publicized, and she had become something of an iconic victim of Ayvarta’s Communist regime over the years. Salvatrice had not seen very many Ayvartans in her lifetime, and found herself a bit captivated by Empress Trueday. She had a lovely and unique appearance in Salva’s eyes. But her expression was dour and reserved.

“I am pleased to make the acquaintance of the revered Queen Vittoria and her daughter.” Mary Trueday said, bowing her head lightly and gracefully. “It is my hope this day that we will successfully embark to liberate my country from a brutal tyranny.”

“Oh, my dear, not business, not quite yet. We’ve guests still to arrive.” Lehner said.

Mary Trueday responded with a deferring nod of the head to the President.

Hanwa’s own delegation, the final piece of the puzzle, arrived soon after.

An older man, bronze-skinned and with an angular look to his eyes, a foreigner among foreigners, entered the room. He was Salvatrice’s height, shorter than Lehner, but certainly better built, muscular and broad shouldered. He was dressed in a beige and red uniform. A symbol of a white sun over a red field prominently covered his shoulder-guards, and he wore a long and ortnate sword with a gently curved blade hidden in a decorated sheathe.

Salvatrice thought he could not be a civil leader, that he must have been a general. But he was quickly introduced by President Lehner as the Shogun of Hanwa, its de-facto leader. While Hanwa had a royal line, much the same as Lubon, the Emperor of Hanwa was a figurehead, unlike Queen Vittoria, who had an active hand in all the policy of her land.

Ohayou-gozaimasu, Kagutsuchi-sama.” President Lehner said, bowing stiffly.

Shogun Kagu, as he was known among his people for short, looked amused.

“We are arrived. Skip the pleasantries. We gathered to plan a war.” He replied.

“Oh, it’s already planned, mostly.” President Lehner said. “I had my boys take a crack at it, you know? Past few months we’ve been running the numbers, building up, wondering among ourselves, ‘hey, can we do this?’ And we found that: yeah, we can.”

He clapped his hands and the table upturned, its face spinning like a reversible tile. What appeared in place of the world map when the device had settled again was a specific map of Ayvarta, its surface marred with lines and arrows and numbers everywhere.

There were dates, routes of advance, strategically important holdings, resource-rich areas. In the north-center of Ayvarta, across its great Red Desert, was Solstice, the capital, and the place where all the lines, all the arrows, and the final dates all intersected.

Across the top and bottom of the map were the words Generalplan Suden. Nocht forces deployed out of Cissea and Mamlakha, and moved quickly up the continent. According to the dates Salvatrice was reading, they planned to take Solstice by the end of the Postill’s Dew: in just 180 days. Lubon forces would drop from the Northwest and Hanwan attacks from the sea would target the Northeast and Far East corners of the great southern continent. They would surround the communists completely, from all sides.

“Nice strategic table, isn’t it?” Lehner said in a joking tone to his guests. “I’m glad I didn’t invite the Svechthans here. It would have been awkward if the table had ended up being taller than them.” He chuckled and grinned. Mary Trueday giggled.

Salvatrice covered her mouth a little in shock. She was a comparatively sheltered girl, she knew, but it was a bit shocking to hear such an insensitive joke in this setting.

“I hope, Mr. President, that you have a real plan somewhere not on this table. Because this table looks like a child’s imaginings more than a strategy.” Shogun Kagu said.

“‘Course I do! You’ll get copies. I’ve got plenty. But the map says a lot, doesn’t it?”

“About your ego, perhaps. But I will not stake my armies on your mathematicians alone. My country is already fighting a war to subdue the savages in Yu-Kitan and claim the land that is Hanwa’s birthright. I expect you to support that endeavor as well.”

“Oh I do, believe me.” President Lehner said, smiling. “Yu-Kitan is another playground for the commies. You can bet you’ll have help from our Panzers down there as soon as we can muster it, Kagu-sama. Can’t have them running the Jade Land.”

“Is Svechtha on the agenda as well then?” Queen Vittoria asked. “They are communists and frankly have been a thorn in all our sides throughout their entire history.”

“‘Fraid not, milady.” President Lehner said. He seemed to be in his element around this crowd, talking fast, gesturing as though he was staging a play. He had been an actor once. “Svechtha will collapse when Ayvarta stops sending the pipsqueaks food, so don’t worry about them. A direct assault on them is just too costly and the rock they live on is just too worthless for the numbers to add up right. But trust me: you’ll get ’em.”

Queen Vittoria seemed greatly dissatisfied by this answer. But she did not press it.

“The Svechthans are a pitiful, weak people.” Kagu-sama interjected, closing his fist as though to symbolize crushing the Svechthans as a whole in his palm. “They can hardly squeeze a grain of wheat from that dead land they inhabit, and they are built like children. Aid me in Yu-Kitan, Faery Queen, and I promise you upon my honor that Hanwa will deliver to you that icy rock next. Who knows; you may not need to lift a finger.”

“I will hold you to that.” Queen Vittoria said, unflinching toward the outdated title.

Salvatrice found it odd, seeing her mother in this setting.

She had thought her mother invincible, a goddess on Aer. Everything should have been mutable in her grasp. And yet, here she stood with other people of equivalent power.

She accepted their terms and did not set her own.

Salvatrice was seeing the fallibility of her living parent for the first time.

In a way, it emboldened her personally: but she also knew that if she ever took this office, she too may find herself a weak link within a pack of wolves if that was indeed what was happening in this room. Nobody’s thoughts here were open or obvious to her. She could only infer. But she had a sense Lubon was the weakest party negotiating here.

“Okay, well that was a weird old-timey exchange there, anyway,” President Lehner chuckled, “Anyway, eyes on me please. I’m going to run you through exactly how we’ll end the threat of Communism once and for all, and return my dear friend Lady Trueday to her rightful place in Ayvarta. I’ll also explain our casus belli: that one is simple. Communism is an ideology of chaos and destruction and must be eliminated.”

Mary Trueday nodded her head and smiled a little.

President Lehner clapped his hands and the map turned anew.

“You know how I do that? I have people under the reversible table changing the maps. A magician is not supposed to explain his trick, but I can’t help it. It’s such a neat trick. Anyway, feast your eyes on all those beautiful divisions.”

Across the bottom of this new map, 20 military divisions in Cissea and 30 military divisions in Mamlakha, a total of well over half a million fighting men, were positioned along the border, and arrows indicated their initial movements. Salva was not a military mind, but it seemed like a massive amount of soldiers to her. Their guard for the trip consisted of maybe 10 Knights at best. However, she noticed that the Ayvartan opposition had no divisions listed anywhere on the map. She chose not to inquire about this.

President Lehner went on to list the Nochtish strengths: 1200 aircraft, nearly 2000 tanks, 550,000 men, countless heavy weapons, 4000 artillery guns divided into howitzers and anti-air, and a small reserve of Mamlakhan troops, as well as a small reserve formation of expatriate Ayvartan volunteers based out of Mamlakha, that were referred to in the map as the “Kaiserin Trueday” Panzergrenadier Korps. This was labeled “First Wave.”

“That’s what I’m bringing to the table, ladies and gentlemen. Intelligence informed me that the commies disbanded countless formations, so the ‘Ten Million Men’ of the old Empire are no more. Their army is around 1.5 million, at best, and they are scattered around the ten dominances of the Solstice Dominion in groups of 100,000. These troops are poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly motivated. No match for our Landsers. My plan is to roll over them as fast as possible with elite formations backed by best training and equipment that the civilized, free world has to offer. We will destroy half their standing army in a little over three weeks from the initial projections. Anyone have questions?”

Shogun Kagu and Queen Vittoria held their breath for a moment.

“I must first know the status of the coastal supergun in Chayat.” Shogun Kagu said. “In order for the Imperial Navy to succeed in an invasion of Ayvarta by sea, Chayat must be immediately taken. That supergun would give us great pause, however.”

“Our intelligence suggests it was never completed. Y’know, weak commie industry failing at the top. However, in the event that it was active you could easily outrange it with your naval aviation. Work with me here, Shogun, I am counting on the greatest navy in the world for this plan.” President Lehner said, spreading his arms and laughing a little nervously. “Your honorable seamen must choke off Ayvarta in the east.”

“All of our naval aviation is committed to the fighting in Yu-Kitan,” the Shogun explained, taking an aggravated tone suddenly, “I will need 30 days to redeploy a small reserve, and I will not risk the fleet and launch an attack, until they are ready.”

President Lehner grinned nervously. “Chief, you’re kinda breaking my balls here.”

“In order for the necessary build-up to be completed, I too must abstain from the initial attacks.” Queen Vittoria said, speaking over both of the men. “Our forces had been pared down from conflict levels and must be hastily reassembled to join this endeavor.”

“So,” President Lehner flapped his coat a little, “So, both of you, 30 days?”

“Don’t know about the Faery Queen, but it will be 30 days for me.” Shogun Kagu said.

“Closer to 25 in my case, but might as well make it 30.” Queen Vittoria replied.

“That was not the plan, people.” President Lehner said. “We kinda had a plan going.”

“Due to your secrecy, I have not yet seen this plan except for vague suppositions.” Queen Vittoria snapped back. “And it has proven pointless! Your intentions were leaked to the public. You should have brought us into the formal planning long ago.”

Throughout the debate, Mary Trueday said nothing. Salvatrice could not even read the expression on her face. She just looked blank, like a doll standing beside the President. Even as he moved or shouted emphatically, she stayed still and perfectly collected.

“I suppressed all the leaks. There’s no problem there. Only problem here? You two!”

President Lehner pointed a finger at the Shogun and the Queen.

Shogun Kagu grinned and laughed. “Thirty days, President, or you get nothing at all.”

“Thirty days or you go it alone.” Queen Vittoria added.

“Alright. Ok. You can delay your parts for thirty days. But I can’t delay my part.”

“That is your choice.” Queen Vittoria said.

Princess Salvatrice felt like hiding under the table. The leaders were suddenly tense and aggravated. They looked at each other with intense, hateful eyes.

Soon all parties called the meeting off with grumbling words, and aides delivered to everyone the (now mostly obsolete) Generalplan Suden, 2/3 of which would have to be delayed for thirty days. President Lehner and Mary Trueday stayed in the meeting room and watched everyone leave. Shogun Kagu stomped his way out the door.

There were no jovial goodbyes: just a tenuous promise between these great powers, bound only by the thought of favors and spoils. Salvatrice did not even know what her own country got out of it, other than remaining Nocht’s ally and perhaps Hanwa’s too.

Queen Vittoria pored over the documents in the private car on the way back to the airport. Salvatrice had never thought of her mother as a military mind, but she seemed to understand everything in the plan far better than Salvatrice ever could.

Reading her own copy of the plans, Salvatrice could hardly understand the Nochtish military jargon scrawled across blurry photos and old maps and intelligence communiques.

Glossing over most of it, she put it down and sat with her head bowed and her hands across her lap. She and her mother had not spoken for hours. All Salvatrice understood was that soon, it seemed the whole world would be at war, much of it with Ayvarta.

Nothing seemed to contradict this basic fact.

She felt the stress of it weigh on her shoulders. Trapped inside the car, trapped inside this world, trapped beside her mother, and likely, trapped by a new title and by the grave responsibility that awaited a future leader of Lubon, a country at war.

“Mother, what happened to Clarissa? Why isn’t she with you here, instead of me?”

She had to know whether she was Princess or First Princess.

She had to know if the fallout of this conflict may affect her as a future queen, or if it would treat her as an unrelated royal, hidden away for all her life.

Queen Vittoria closed the Generalplan Suden documents.

She did not smile this time as she looked over her daughter with that powerful countenance and those awe-inspiring green eyes. That motherly mask was replaced by a look of indifference, a blank callous stare of a sort that Vittoria might reserve for a servant or even a pack animal. Those eyes had never looked at Salva in that way.

“I have confined Clarissa to the Convent of Saint Anastasia. She was indiscreet and allowed a man to take advantage of her. She is a sister there. You are forbidden to see her.”

Her words were like a blow to Salva’s stomach.

She had seen little of Clarissa in her life. She did not even have a desire to see her, prior to hearing this. But now she wanted more than anything to rip her from wherever she was locked. It was stunning to think that a mother could speak so coldly of her child and the abuse she was committing against her.

And in a deep, dark place in Salva’s heart and mind she considered that such a fate could just as easily befall her now. With Clarissa gone, she was indeed the First Princess, the Heiress to the throne. Whichever way this ‘Solstice War’ went she would have to be deeply embedded in it. All of the suffering of Lubon would become her own, inextricable.


“Not one more word about it.” Queen Vittoria said, sharply and dangerously.

Salvatrice flinched.

Queen Vittoria sighed openly and suddenly controlled her own voice again.

“Clarissa admitted her mistake and acceded gracefully to this demand.” She said. She took Salvatrice gently by the shoulders. “She will repay her sins. In her place, you must be the light of Lubon. I understand that you may not be ready for this, but I promise you, I will make you ready. I will make you stronger and more powerful even than your sister. I will not commit the same mistakes. You will expand Lubon, its glory, its prestige, its history. I know that you have the potential. And I know you will accept the responsibility.”

Salvatrice was nearly in tears right in her mother’s face, but she fought them, harder than she had ever fought anything. This was the greatest of all the falsities she would ever have to commit, to keep this contrived strength, to hold shut the hole dug into her heart.

There was only one thing she could say, right now, to her Mother’s piercing eyes.

“Yes, mother. I am overjoyed to be chosen to succeed you. Viva Lubon.”

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