This chapter contains mild sexual content.
39th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Consider this a formal written request for leave on the 41st. I am traveling to meet a friend in the countryside for a night, and may even return bearing gifts! After insuring security is as it should be, I will be gone for the afternoon and evening of the 41st, to return on the afternoon of the 42nd. I would encourage you to confine yourself then for added security.
39th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Enjoy your time off.
I do not plan to go anywhere the next few days.
40th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Pallas Messianic Academy
Rhythmic gunfire sounded from a rotting booth at the far end of the old shooting range. Every shot echoed seemingly dozens of times, the only sound audible in the wood. Repeated muzzle flashes very briefly cast a tall, slender shadow against the decaying structures, right as the bullet flew across the fifty meters to the targets. It was too early; the dawn light hardly penetrated over the hills and trees that ringed the abandoned camp.
There were not even birds to wake. It was a lonesome place, forgotten.
Much like him.
There were few targets standing, and they were far out of date. Rather than the modern, shadowy black targets showing faces and necks and torsos with the appropriate shapes and sizes, this range boasted only crude round wooden targets from the age of the musket or the repeater. It felt almost like darts would be a more appropriate projectile against them.
Sylvano D’Amore had instead brought a Nochtish zwitcherer pistol, a popular gun the world over. It was easy to acquire, especially for a young man in a good vest and pants. Had, say, a Salvatrice Vittoria gone to purchase a weapon, she might have at best been given a target plinking little rifle for afternoons on the field. Likely they would have told her that such things were barbarous for a delicate, pretty girl. Sylvano found no such barrier.
In this desolate place, he joined the ghosts of colonial soldiers who would not come back from the conquest of Borelia, and he shot at the targets that ill represented the humans they would be fighting. A week ago he could barely hold the pistol. He went to the library, studied hunting manuals from decades long past, and found the right ways. He held his weapon in two hands, settled into the correct posture, and he used his sights.
He pressed the trigger, and felt the power his fingers could barely contain.
After a quick flash the bullet released and his body relaxed anew.
Now he was hitting the targets. Sometimes he hit near the center, sometimes he hit the outer edges. It was still luck; he still couldn’t really aim predictably. He could not account for the forces that would take hold of his shot once it was released. Sometimes he tried aiming higher or lower or off to the side, but powers he barely understood still held sway.
It was enough to kill a man up close, he told himself.
Through the dawn and into the morning, he put round after round through a pistol.
At his feet, there were small boxes of ammunition, all branded with the Nochtish eagle.
Unlike military issue pistols nowadays, the zwitcherer fed through clips, not magazines. This was a boon for practice. Rather than having to spend time filling ten or twenty magazines, Sylvano could push stripper clips by the dozens through the weapon with little pause. His fingers had turned a little red and raw from the effort, but it was fine.
In this way Sylvano wound down the mortal clock that he felt ticking for him.
His arms were growing tired, his muscles ached, and he felt hungry.
But he did not want to stop. He reached down for another clip, and kept firing.
He put rounds through the gun as though they would fly from the booth into his enemies.
For the first time in his life he felt that it was dangerous to be Salvatrice Vittoria.
Beforehand, it was inconvenient and difficult. It was bittersweet, to hold Carmilla’s hands and go to grand balls and wear beautiful dresses while the world at large ignored or scorned her presence. She felt tense and embarrassed in the presence of nobles who knew enough of her to treat her like a falsity in their midst, and felt disgusted with the idle flattery of those who thought they might improve their rotten luck by her hand.
Now Salvatrice Vittoria felt a sense of mortal peril out in public.
She felt that every eye that settled on her back could be aiming a gun or a knife.
She felt watched and vulnerable and aware of her weakness in a way she never was.
But she also felt a renewed sense of power with a gun in her hands.
She only wished that she could be Salvatrice while shooting here.
“Back here again? You better not be procrastinatin’ on the princess’ errands!”
Sylvano leaned out of the booth. Approaching from the other end of the abandoned training camp was older man in a hat, sharp-faced, with a gray mustache and slicked-back silver hair. He was tall and long-limbed, his skin baked from the sun, his black pants held over his shoulders by suspenders, and his blue-gray shirt tucked in and buttoned all the way to the neck. This was Giovanni, Salvatrice’s go-to gentleman.
“I’m not procrastinating! She’s given me nothing today. Good morning.” Sylvano said.
“It’s nearly afternoon, my boy.” Giovanni replied.
“Oh, well. Time certainly flies when you’re occupied.”
“Maybe too occupied.”
Giovanni walked slowly to the booth, minding a slight limp in his left leg.
He peered inside the old wooden walls and shook his head at the preponderance of spent shell casings and fresh ammunition clips that were laying everywhere inside.
“Fixin’ to fight a war?” Giovanni asked.
“I want to learn to shoot, and fast.” Sylvano said.
“Then I reckon you’re meaning to fight a duel, perhaps?”
Giovanni rubbed his chin. Sylvano smiled awkwardly.
“It’s just for sport.” He said.
“Oh, you’re really growing out your hair too.”
Sylvano pulled absentmindedly on his own growing ponytail, sighing a little.
Salvatrice’s hair was starting to get rather long. It was closing in on her shoulders. But she couldn’t cut it in a style to better suit Sylvano. She very much liked how it looked on the pretty princess — splitting the difference between her two personas was growing difficult. She thought a ponytail would work well enough for Sylvano’s pretty-boy image.
“So, she a nice girl?” Giovanni asked.
“You can’t hide it from me, young man. I was your age once. You’re trying to impress a young lady. No rich boy ever picked up a gun and grew out his hair just for nothin’.”
“You caught me.” Sylvano replied, playing along. He chuckled and raised his hands in defense, one still holding the gun. Giovanni looked at him quite seriously in the eyes.
“Now,” Giovanni poked a finger in the air, “if you’re meaning to be after the princess, I’m afraid I’ll have to dissuade you from that. And if you’re meaning to be after the princess’ lady friend, then for your own benefit I’m going to have to turn you around right this second. But if it’s a nice college girl with no attachments, I can give you some advice.”
“It’s a nice college girl with no attachments.” Sylvano replied nervously.
He almost wanted to laugh. It was nice to see Giovanni cared so much.
“Here’s my advice then. Put that gun back in the box. No marriage oath was ever sealed at a range. Especially not this range. Then get her some flowers, and chocolates, and talk to her, and listen to what she says, and do this enough, then tell her your intentions.”
Sylvano smiled. “Thanks, Giovanni. But I do want to learn to shoot nonetheless.”
Giovanni nodded his head. “Here’s my advice for that. There ain’t never been a fight in the streets of Palladi that got solved by marksmanship. Here’s what you should be learning instead.” In the next instant, Giovanni made as if to straighten out his jacket, and instead, in a flash, drew a small revolver, presumably from one of the pockets.
Reflexively Sylvano raised his own hands high and quivered at the sight.
Raising the barrel to the air, Giovanni then stowed his gun back in his pocket.
“Sylvano, if someone’s really after you, and they’re good at it, you ain’t going to see them until they want you to. You’ll only have a few seconds, and you can’t hesitate. It won’t be about aiming. It’ll be about whether you can shoot first, or at all.” He said grimly. “And it’ll be about whether you’ve got some mates to back you up too. Remember that.”
Bowing his head and tipping his hat, Giovanni turned around and deposited an envelope on the bench inside the shooting booth. There was a kiss mark on it and a wax seal.
“Lady Carmela gives her regards.”
Quiet and serious, he walked away from the camp, lighting a cigarette along the way.
Sylvano stood wondering whether and how much Giovanni really knew.
Not just about himself and herself, but about this rotten country and rotten life.
39th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
I was informed by your man of confidence that you would not be able to answer my letters for a time, but I have decided to continue sending them, so that perhaps you will be overwhelmed by warm sentiment. I long to see you again, Salvatrice. Our world is becoming a very scary place. Have you heard the news of Ayvartan and Svechthan submarines around our waters? Or of the mysterious Nochtish defeat in the south?
I feel as though I can see chaos looming, chaos that will rip you from me.
I want us to be brave for each other, even if these are circumstances that we cannot change. As things grow foggier, I fear the distance between us more and more. I want to do something for you, to give you strength, to protect you from evil. Were I able to have it my way, why I would trample your mother and her army to take you away from all of this. We could go to Helvetia or Occiden and start anew. We could become like the mysterious spinsters, who live together unwed where nobody can suspect their love!
When you can reply to this letter, please, tell me whether you desire to meet. I will move heaven and land to make it possible. I will spend any amount of money to take any level of precautions so that you can come to me. Just one day is all I ask of you. Breakfast, tea, supper, and evening out in the garden, and a night in your arms. I feel so desperate, and it is unbecoming, and it is selfish, I know! But I fear so much that I might lose you!
There is no other woman in the world who I can love even if I love women! There is no other man in the world who can I love even if I love men! I did not know love until you helped me to feel love, Salvatrice. Without you my heart will grow cold, and I know it.
Please, let me feel that warmth even if it is only one final time. I want to cherish it!
Your worshipful beloved,
41st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Agnelli Estate
At the edge of the Arsia woods there stood a humble estate, an ivy-covered manor, its colors weathered. There was a peaked central building with an unassuming facade. Two small wings noticeably squatter than the main house sprouted from its sides. Wooden shutters closed off every window, and the massive front doors stood like sentinels barring entry. Unremarkable by itself, the estate took much of its character from the surrounding woodland that straddled it like a cloak, stretching for several kilometers from the shoulders of the manse. High wooden fences encircled the back of the property. Broad, empty fields rose and fell gently before the manor, dotted with the remnants of an entry plaza.
It had all seen better days.
A flat dirt road stretched between the unwatched gates, through the field, and toward the manor, winding around an empty fountain carrying a statue of a woman with the horns of a ram, scandalously naked, boasting large, erect breasts that immediately drew attention. Its inviting pose contradicted its purpose. In this now messianic land, the presence of a female, quasi-pagan symbol stood forbidding toward the closed-minded new god.
Such things befit the forest country, and, Byanca knew, befit the ruler of this place too.
In the rush of the present events, she had almost forgotten this place, and the place that she had here, behind these sinful walls. She had been blinded to it, by the name Grazia, by the name Salvatrice, by those old promises; much like she had been blinded to it before by the rush to prove herself in Borelia. Now she was back on the surface of Aer, fallen temporarily from her fantasies; and again this place was here to pick up her pieces.
Already she felt a growing guilt in her heart as she approached the manor.
At the door, there was no immediate recognition of her presence. No maids or grounds keepers kept a watch. When she knocked the embedded hammer against the wood of the door, she was making a sound for the Lady herself, scion of the Agnelli family. This was almost unheard of among the nobility, but the Agnelli family was itself almost unheard of.
She spent a few minutes, knocking intermittently, until finally, the door opened.
Through a tiny crack, a brilliant hazel eye looked her over.
“Good evening. You are a bit late to hunt ermines.” the Lady casually said.
“I desire only one. It will be brief.” Byanca said, bowing her head.
“Can you describe this specific ermine?” said the lady.
Byanca smiled. “She’s golden-haired, a bit delicate, with a nice firm tail.”
An impish grin formed on the lady’s pretty lips. “Intriguing. Do come in.”
She left the door, and Byanca pulled it open, walked in and closed it behind her.
Past the threshold the Agnelli estate seemed better suited as a hunting lodge than the manor of a lord or lady. On the walls and ceiling, across the floors and every surface, the dominant color was a varnished, bloody brown like old flesh. Aside from the merest suggestion of the lady’s delicate shoulders beneath her fox-fur coat, there was not a curve or rounded surface in sight, everything was corners and sharp edges in wood or steel. Where there was pottery, it was placed only to store machetes and arrows and javelins. Where there were cases and pedestals, they displayed guns and grizzly trophies.
Even the racks had a hint of the bestial, holding hats and coats on horns and claws.
Though there was art befitting a lordly estate, nearly all of it depicted the local game in their unkilled forms, and it felt more macabre than majestic considering the rest of the decoration. There was one intimidating portrait of a man, on a wall beside the entryway. He was sharp-nosed, with gaunt cheeks and a serious, heavy-lidded, strong-browed expression. His suit and ascot and toupee seemed almost forced on him — the old lord Agnelli looked like he would be more at home skinning a wolf than standing in his sunday blazer.
From the foyer, a rigid staircase led to the second story hallways, the landing overlooked at all times by the preserved head of a stag so massive it could have butted heads with a battle tank. No carpet covered the unpainted wooden floors save for strategically placed furs and leathers, some quite clearly ripped from bears and boars with half the head still attached.
“Just as I remember it.” Byanca said.
“Seasons change, but the Agnelli remain the same.”
The Lady recited the house motto with a smile on her face. She pointed a riding crop that she tended to carry with her, and patted Byanca on the shoulder with it like a knighting sword from a princess. Then, with a flighty twirl, she walked deeper into the halls.
Following the lady Agnelli around the stairs and through a gloomy connecting hallway, Byanca entered a torch-lit room, the light and shadow playing about the walls, dancing with the flame. It was a square room, the walls a mess of hunting trophies, between which there were plush couches covered in a pattern like the stripes of big cats.
“Please, make yourself comfortable.” said the Lady.
Byanca dipped her head in a little nod, and took a spot on one of the couches.
“If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I will return with refreshments.”
Another quick spin put the Lady’s back to Byanca, and she disappeared from the room. Any other woman of her stature would have certainly clapped her hands and summoned a veritable fleet of servants to tend to her. In her absence, the room was dead silent, almost eerie. Byanca could hear the shutters creaking in the wind. Minutes later the Lady returned with a porcelain plate of jerky, dried apricots and cheese, along with glasses and a clear pitcher full of some kind of fruit juice. She set the plate down on a chair in front of them and pulled it close, and gently filled each glass full of the warm pink-orange juice.
“Help yourself to whatever you desire, Byanca. It must have been a long trip.”
The Lady then sat next to her and laid her free hand on her thigh, patting her softly.
Hyper-aware of this attention, Byanca stiffly reached out and shoved two strips of jerky whole into her mouth, washing them down with juice after an intense bit of chewing. All of the flavors mingled in her mouth, sweet and spicy and salty in equal measure.
“Still quite a savage eater!” the Lady said, smiling broadly.
“I’ve eaten under fire, you know! It’s hard to take it slow after that.” Byanca replied.
The Lady’s second hand left her own lap and pinched Byanca’s belly.
She looked surprised at what she found. “Oh! It’s like a sheet of lead there!”
Byanca bit into a hunk of salty goat cheese. “It’s all the sit-ups, I guess.” She mumbled.
“I see!” the Lady covered her mouth, stifling a delicate laugh.
Raising her gaze from the food, Byanca smiled and laughed with her lovely hostess.
Rosalia Agnelli, scion of the Agnelli family; she was at first appearances a dainty-looking, regal girl, with high cheekbones, a sharp nose, long ears, bright hazel eyes and delicate olive skin. Her golden hair was gathered into a partially braided bun behind her head, framed with two antler-shape ornaments that joined in a band atop her head. Bright red pigment colored her lips and surrounded her eyes. Beneath her fur coat she wore a figure-hugging white under-dress that dragged on the floor. This was one’s first inkling into the other side of the Agnelli scion — an impression of her streamlined, wiry, athletic figure beneath the filmy silk.
In her own way, she was quite a savage eater herself.
Periodically, after gentle pat on her thigh Byanca felt a firm, hungry grip and pinch.
“When I woke today I never would have imagined we would be reunited.” Rosalia said. “I thought you would be stuck in Borelia for much longer. When did you get back?”
Byanca felt distractingly conscious of the Lady’s touch and her presence. Rosalia smelled strongly of linseed oil paints, barely covered by a touch of cinnamon scent. Her firm fingers and bright face caused the Centurion’s blood to simmer just under her cheeks. Had it not been for the circumstances, Byanca would have probably come to this place much sooner.
She felt a hint of guilt over choosing to be trampled by the princess instead.
“I’ve been here a week or two. I’ve been so busy, I only just now found an opening.”
“I’m so pleased that you found the time to come.” Rosalia said.
“I needed a place to relax. Everything’s been chaos lately.”
“Refugees have always called the Arsia home. I’d love to have you.”
Byanca felt a surge of giddiness. Here she was, staying with Rosalia again.
“How have you been? It’s been years; I’m so surprised! Everything is still standing the way it was when I left. It’s almost like the house was preserved in a jar.” Byanca said.
Rosalia smiled. “I’ve whiled away my days the same as I usually do. Trophy hunting, painting wildlife, preparing furs. Seasons change, but the Agnelli manor does not.”
“It looks like you’re running out of wall space for it all.” Byanca said with a grin.
“I’ve been slowly replacing my father’s trophies with my own.” Rosalia said.
“Ah, I see. So that’s why the Agnelli manor never changes.”
All of them were bears and stags and wolves; Byanca could not tell new trophies from the old. She knew Rosalia to be an avid hunter. She could take her at her word on this.
“Enough of my hobbies.” Rosalia said. She raised her hand from Byanca’s thigh and put both on her shoulders instead. Byanca felt the crop at her back, hanging by a loop from the tips of Rosalia’s finger. It made her shiver a little. Rosalia’s empty hand squeezed her shoulder, feeling the muscle. “You’ve gotten so much tougher! How was Borelia?”
“Um. Sandy?” Byanca awkward replied, wilting a little under the Lady’s attentions.
“I hear the place is rather arid. It boggles the mind; an arid island?” Rosalia said.
“Well, the northern parts are nice. It’s the southern parts that are desert-like.”
“It must have been awful, but look at you, a chiseled legionnaire! Those are handsome shoulders, and I feel your back has broadened some too. And your arms; my, oh my!” Rosalia traced her fingers down from Byanca’s shoulder, and pressed at various points along the Centurion’s arm. Her crop hand felt various places along Byanca’s scapula and spine. Certainly Byanca had achieved some definition, but she thought the Lady exaggerated the gains. She tried to talk and deflect the sensations being brought to the fore.
“I did a lot of exercising in the barracks. There wasn’t much else to do. And if you did all your push-ups the C.O. would let you mess around during training time.” Byanca said. Her voice quivered here and there, whenever Rosalia pressed somewhere sensitive.
“Did you meet anyone interesting? Had any adventures?” Rosalia asked.
“Nobody notable. I scarce remember a soul.” Byanca said.
Rosalia seemed to finish her inspection of Byanca’s body, and drew back expectantly.
Byanca offered no reply; she was not inclined to tell war stories, even to her.
There was a stretch of silence.
Without a voice in the room the halls felt larger and emptier than ever.
“I can’t help but notice how quiet this place has gotten, Rosalia.” Byanca finally said.
Rosalia nodded gently. “I’ve grown used to isolation. But I still get my fair share of visitors, some more engaging than others. You needn’t worry about me, Byanca.”
“I feel like it is the nature of our relationship for me to be designated worrier. What happened to the maids and the groundskeepers and all? I remember more hands around.”
She turned the conversation around, away from Borelia. She hoped it stuck.
“After you left for Borelia, I dismissed them all. I couldn’t trust them anymore, and I did not want to take any more chances. Save for some discrete acquaintances, I wanted to withdraw from public life. Clearly I just was not meant to be a social butterfly.” Rosalia replied.
Her voice gave no hint of bitterness. This was just the way things were.
Byanca felt ever more guilty. Perhaps lingering on Borelia would’ve made for nicer talk.
Especially because she knew she returned here only for selfish reasons.
“How do you keep the place running alone?” She asked.
“I hire people to clean and work on a contract basis. Then they leave.”
“Sounds more expensive than retaining a few.”
“It is, but I make do. I’ve learned to do much by myself.”
“Forgive my forwardness here, but what are you doing for money, Rosalia?” Byanca said. It felt like a ridiculous question — she was talking to a landed noble after all. Rosalia’s estate was incredibly valuable. And yet, her apparent isolation and idleness, and the visible decay of the manor’s exterior, gave Byanca some cause to worry for her old friend.
Back when they first met, years ago, the Agnelli family estate was much more lively, in various ways. There were servants and there were intrigues — such intrigues were what brought the two women together at first. Byanca was meant to investigate Rosalia. When it came to nobles and the wealthy, it was part of their privilege that the Queen’s blackshirt legion settled their disputes away from the public eyes and records of the police.
For a few weeks, Byanca spent time around the estate, gathering clues.
There were charges against her from a jilted suitor of minor wealth, who had sought marital alliance with her. Accusations of sodomy and paganism and drug trafficking and all kinds of things — many of which were true to a point. But Byanca quickly found she had no desire to prosecute Rosalia. She dismissed the charges. It was a simple thing that even Legatus Marcel agreed with. All one had to do was weigh the wealth to see who won.
Now, however, that wealth seemed visibly reduced. Such a feat might not be reproduced. She supposed Rosalia herself knew this; it must have been part of why she chose to remove herself from the high life she once tried to lead. Even with Byanca’s aid, she was vulnerable.
And in these tough times, land alone was not all it used to be.
Thankfully Rosalia did not appear offended by the probe and responded conversationally.
“I will admit, my purse had been a little pinched after your departure. My fortunes have been swinging back of late. I have insinuated myself in the fashion of furs. Fashionable ladies are in love with ermine lately. To think, I once viewed them as amusing rats. I have also sold wildlife paintings under a pseudonym, and I brew for local distribution.”
“Oh! What kind of brew?” Byanca said, suddenly hoping for a sample.
Satisfied now, she tried to steer the proceedings away from all this doom and gloom.
Rosalia flashed a cheeky grin. “All manner of things. Allow me to treat you.”
Byanca followed the lady from the sitting room to a rustic and well-equipped kitchen. There was a large charcoal oven, old and blackened, alongside a newer gas oven and a sink, pantry and an ice box. There were no electric appliances in the kitchen, though the house got some power through the use of ground-wires, Byanca knew. From the kitchen windows, Byanca could see a stretch of cleared yard behind the house, fenced off and surrounded by forest. A pair of small stables housed several resting horses there.
A door on one end of the kitchen led to a dry, warm storage room, and this was where Rosalia led Byanca. There were shelves inside lined with hundreds of bottles of various sizes. Rosalia plucked a bottle near the ground that possessed a short handle and a stout body. She walked Byanca back out into the kitchen. Standing beside a counter, she filled two glasses with an orange-yellow beverage that smelled like fruit and flowers.
“This is my own recipe for honey-wine. Let me know what you think.” Rosalia said.
She tapped her glass against Byanca’s and took a confident sip.
Byanca’s own sip was much less delicate. She drank practically half the glass in one sitting — she was far too used to eating quickly in cramped canteens, and anything one put in her hands she almost reflexively made disappear. Despite practically slamming the glass into her mouth she still quite appreciated the beverage. She tasted notes of apple, tea, and of course, the sweetness of honey. It was nothing like the simple beers that Byanca usually drank. It was almost like drinking a slightly alcoholic honey candy.
“It is very sweet, I’m surprised.” She said. “Lot of flavors too. Is it selling?”
“It is popular among women. Perhaps not so much with big, strong legionnaires.”
Rosalia eyed Byanca up and down, her eyes rolling over every seam of the uniform.
“No, no! I’m definitely enjoying it.” Byanca said. “It’s not what I usually drink.”
“I chose mead because I was intrigued by its aphrodisiac properties.”
Rosalia put on a coquettish little smile. Byanca choked up a little.
“Wow, um, I’m not sure you needed something like that!” She said.
“Oh ho ho!” Rosalia covered her mouth and grinned. “Perhaps not.”
“What’s in the smaller bottles you’ve got in storage?” Byanca asked.
“Tinctures and other elixirs. There’s a honey shop in town that sells them.”
“Do you get all your own honey or do you buy it in town?” Byanca asked.
“I rented some of my land to establish a honey farm. It satisfies my needs. And the bees are incredibly useful. All of my fruits and flowers are pollinated by honeybees.”
“Huh. Wow. And I thought you said the Agnellis never change.” Byanca said.
“Are you that surprised that I am not merely idle?”
“Well, you looked idle a lot. I was just a little worried, is all.”
Rosalia looked around the kitchen, a playful smile on her lips.
“You came at an inopportune time. I’m not much of a night hostess anymore.”
“I’m surprised to hear that.” Byanca chuckled.
The Lady then started to lead her on, her nakedly wry expressions giving her away.
“Perhaps a tour of the mansion, before you go?”
“Oh, we can have the tour tomorrow.” Byanca replied.
“Ah, I see! So then you intend to stay the night, you rascal?”
Rosalia smacked the end of her riding crop against her open hand with a devilish grin.
Byanca felt a shudder down her spine. “Only if you’ll have me around.”
“I wonder; I wonder. I could just kick you out unceremoniously.”
“Never, your punishments are much more elaborate than that.”
“Hmmph. You still know me well, Centurion.”
“Well, your motto is quite literally that you never change.”
“Oh ho ho! Indeed!”
Rosalia approached, swinging her hips, a wry grin on her face.
She circled around Byanca, raising the crop to her and tracing around her neck with it.
Once around her, she stood back to back with the Centurion.
Rosalia’s body rested against hers; the riding crop pressed against her thigh.
Her other hand then curled around Byanca’s own and squeezed it tightly.
Neither could see the other, but the connection was still strongly felt.
“Emotions have always been tricky for me; but I am happy to see you, Byanca.”
“I can’t help but feel like the distance to Borelia is still between us.” Byanca said.
There was a foreboding silence between them as they pondered the question.
Rosalia raised her head. Byanca felt it against her back. It was a bittersweet touch.
“It is because I cannot be the lady a Knight desires or deserves.” Rosalia said.
“Well, I’m not much of a Knight. But I’m still out chasing fantasies.” Byanca replied.
Both of them sighed wistfully. There was a brief agony in remembering their positions.
Rosalia squeezed her hand. “We can still enjoy each other’s company, of course.”
“I want that.” Byanca said softly, unable to raise her voice, but hoping to be heard.
Almost in tandem, the two turned and locked eyes.
Two broken storybook heroines, Byanca thought, neither able to fully reach out to the other, but intermittently united in the pursuit of dreams and fantasies their world disdained.
She felt a great guilt; maybe in another world, Rosalia could have been her Lady.
Maybe they would have both been better off this way.
But Byanca failed to be a Knight; and Rosalia could not live the life of a Lady.
All they had left was the fantasies.
Slowly their hands unwound, but there was still a thread tied between them in the air.
Byanca took comfort in that she still had that. She always would.
“Aside from catching up, I have a favor to ask too.” Byanca said.
Rosalia lit up with a beaming smile.
“Well then.” Rosalia said. “Let us first take care of what the Agnelli family can do for you. Perhaps after, we can take care of what I, personally, can do for you. Follow me.”
Her soft countenance became once more regal and austere, but with a hint of mischief.
Setting aside the bottle of honey-wine, the pair turned around back to the foyer and climbed the steps, walking under the gigantic stag head on the wall and reconvening inside a sparsely furnished, windowless room on the second floor. There was a large, crude wooden rack on one end of the room, perhaps once for hanging hides; a stack of furs near a burning fireplace seemed like it would have made a bed for an ancient cavern dweller. On one end of the room there was a tea table and a pair of lounge chairs. There was no other furniture.
“Remember this room?” Rosalia asked.
“It’s coming back.” Byanca grinned, eyeing the rack.
They sat on opposing lounge chairs. Rosalia poured lukewarm tea from a set laid on the table into a pair of small wooden cups, and handed one to Byanca. In one gulp, the Centurion emptied the cup. It tasted stale; perhaps it had been sitting out a while already.
“Have you actually come for some ermines?” Rosalia joked.
“I need something a little bigger.” Byanca replied.
“Oh? I’m listening.”
“I’m not going to mince words. I need a war dog, and one that has tasted blood.”
Any other dog breeder would have found it dire indeed to receive such a request from a blackshirt legionnaire. Private raising of war dogs was illegal in Lubon; and dyeing a dog’s tongue red was a tradition left to the barbarous pagans, ill fitting messianic society. Only here in the forgotten Arsia could such traditions still be found. And only here, in the presence of the Lady Agnelli, could such a request be spoken without a question asked.
“You know I can furnish such creatures, but you also know my stock is limited.”
“Anything you got, I’ll take.”
“Well, what kind of dog do you most desire?”
Rosalia crossed her arms and appeared to be in thought. Byanca continued.
“It needs to be smart, but discrete. I don’t want a mastiff or something that looks like a fighting dog. I know you have some long-faced herder dogs that fit this description.”
“Ah, I see; so you want Terry. You should have just said so instead of being so circumspect. I’m not opposed to lending her. I knew she left an impression on you!”
“An impression, and some soiled shoes.”
“She’s a difficult one, indeed.”
“Well, I was hoping maybe Terry had a litter that has grown.”
“I’m afraid not. And even if she had one, they wouldn’t know blood yet.”
Byanca suppressed a disappointed sigh. Terry was a temperamental old dog.
“I’ll borrow Terry if necessary. At least she knows me.” Byanca said.
“She will do her job if I command it, even if she does not respect you.”
Again Byanca was rather thankful for Rosalia. She did not ask what kind of job needed doing. She was always very discrete and private. More than that, she was trusting, and in turn trustworthy. In no other woman’s presence did Byanca feel so free of judgment. For her, Rosalia would easily part with anything, save her own independence, without interrogation.
“Is that all the business you had?” Rosalia asked.
Byanca nodded. “Have you heard anything about anarchists?”
“Only what is on the papers and radio. Useless prattle.”
“Should it become necessary to hide someone, could I come here?”
“You are always welcome here, for any reason. I would be displeased if any anarchists came to knock on my door, but that would be their fault, not yours for coming.”
Byanca nodded again. “Then that’s all the business.”
Rosalia stood from her own chair and sat down beside Byanca.
“Just so we’re clear: you’re staying the night?” She asked.
“I am.” Byanca said simply.
“In the usual fashion?” Rosalia said.
“Please.” Byanca said.
“Our watch word is Trophy — you’ll remember it?”
“Oh good; then that should be yes, mistress.” Rosalia cooed.
Byanca felt the riding crop discreetly strike, and shuddered with elation.
41st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
I would be the luckiest princess under the heavens to be able to see you.
Make your preparations. Whatever the time and circumstances; I will come to you.
I must tell you in person what would have otherwise been in this letter.
Forever your prince and princess,