This chapter contains violence.
50th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Ikrea — Convent of St. Anastasia
As the night’s shadow stretched thin in the face of the morning sun, black boots emerged to trample across the gardens of St. Anastasia. For much of its history the Convent had been a refuge for women seeking to escape the duties forced by the kingdom upon sisters and daughters and wives, by serving Lord instead of lord. Now men patrolled the periphery day by day, armed and uniformed and turning the refuge into a prison.
Amid the lush forests of Lubon’s verdant Ikrean valley, Saint Anastasia was an austere sight that called back to centuries past, a stately palace of ornate stonework and stained glass, spread into two great wings attached to a central temple with a great dome. Cosseted between the arms of this great horseshoe-shaped castle was a large inner garden and an old bell tower that rose high over the surrounding forest. Though it might have once seemed extravagant and vivacious, time had worn the convent down. Ivy crawled along the walls, and there were cracks in the graying white masonry. Half the rooms were empty, cobwebbed, left for history to keep. Visible and unsightly exterior supports kept the central dome in its place. Within the long outer halls lone, distant prayers echoed.
Surrounded by the wood and a spear-tipped fence, the convent was well isolated.
Though it could have easily borne a thousand women, Saint Anastasia was home to maybe a hundred across its vast and deep halls — and a fraction of watchful legionnaires.
It had become routine now. Every morning when the first bell tolled, the men would take up their arms, avoid the women as they were instructed, and patrol the gardens, the exterior green, the cobblestone paths, and the nearby woods for signs of trouble.
The Ikrean bread basket was guarded by the 34th Blackshirt Legion, and owing to an important, permanent guest, St. Anastasia had become a routine post for a half-dozen men of its 78th Signals Battalion. Though originally trained radio operators and intelligence desk paper pushers, they had been drafted into the Convent guard in order to keep the circle of trust surrounding “Priorita: Rosa” as small and tight as possible.
What more was necessary to make a man a guard, than a gun and a ward?
For over a month the men had walked their well-practiced routes through the convent without issue. They had never needed their guns. They had never needed their cumbersome backpack radios to communicate with one another. Over time they became more concerned with finding some way to bond with the beautiful girls in the convent than with their patrols.
And so the guns were left behind so as not to scare the saintly women.
And so the backpack radios remained hung on racks for personal comfort.
And so when Byanca Geta spied her first target, he was quite outmatched.
Tall and thin with shining, slick hair and a cheerful grin, he carried himself more like a ballroom dandy than a soldier, despite legionary uniform. He patrolled the rear of the convent, behind the back of the church bell tower. From atop the branches of a tall oak, high enough to cast a shadow over the fence spears, Byanca watched him as she had watched the past two days. None of the women took their strolls this far away from the convent proper. This man had another vice in mind.
Against the old cracked stone of the tower the man leaned his back, spread open his coat and withdrew a pipe and a bushel of ragged-looking herb.
As he partook of his ganja, and his attention left him, Byanca pounced.
She threw a pack over the walls and took a deep breath.
Leaping from her branch and clear over the spears and fence, she hit the ground and tumbled forward. Her shoulder and side took the brunt; startled, the guard was slow to react. In one fluid movement Byanca was back on her feet, and she battered the guard against the stone tower.
Disoriented, he threw a wild swing, striking her in the shoulder.
Byanca reared back through the pain and butted him between the eyes.
He fell aback, and through a fleeting daze she drove him to the floor.
Struggling to a dominant position, his arms pinned under her, Byanca beat the guard’s face black, blue and red before he could utter any plea for help.
He was bruised and bloody and unconscious, but not dead.
She did not want to kill them; there was only one man she wanted dead.
Standing from over the body, she ran back to the wall and seized her pack where it fell. She pulled out the state of the art Nochtish portable radio, shaped like the thin and long box a jewel necklace might have come in, but thicker, made of green metal. It was cushioned within a wad of newspapers inside the bag. She tested it, praying that it survived. There was a tone, and she could change the frequencies and hear sounds. It was alive.
She put it in her bandoleer and searched the bag again.
From underneath the newspapers, she withdrew a weapon, metal grey and seemingly made of a pipe with a metal loop for a stock. To casual observers it might have seemed some kind of odd tool were it not for the long, thin magazine that stuck out from the side and the thin trigger guard beneath it.
Thus armed, Byanca handcuffed the unconscious man and hurled him into a nearby berry bush. He only needed to be concealed for less than an hour.
Once he was taken care of, she raised the radio to her ear.
“Tower’s clear.” She said.
There were only two people she could communicate with this kind of radio.
And all of them had to be relatively close, owing to its range.
Replies came quickly.
“West wall is clear, infiltrating now.” She heard a masculine voice say.
“Still waiting on an opportunity on the east wall.” Added a feminine voice. “There’s two too many congregating here. But they’re not mobile. We may be able to get by them.”
“Worse comes to worse, use the blister gas.” Byanca replied.
Her recruits were doing better than she expected.
She was trained to work in units of eight or ten, but in Borelia there were never enough soldiers to go around. So a three-man unit suited her fine for this. She had two others waiting just off of the forest road with a getaway vehicle. All that was left now was to execute and hope for the best. They had planned as much as their resources allowed.
“Torvald, don’t be seen.” Byanca said.
“Yes ma’am.” Replied the man with the masculine radio voice.
Satisfied, Byanca started on her way.
Sneaking around the bell tower she stole into the central garden. On all sides it was surrounded by the rising convent buildings. Pristine tiled paths cut through raised plots of black earth fenced-in by off-white stone. Each plot was bursting with lily bushes and hedge plants. It was like a maze, and the open-air hallways on the buildings stood overwatch on the veiled and robed women traveling hand-in-hand through the paths.
Byanca crouched low and made use of the garden to avoid detection. She walked against the bushes and hedges, and kept an ear out for footsteps. It was a quiet morning, and she could hear anyone coming from far. She could see people walking on the second stories of each of the surrounding buildings, casually ambling down the halls, but they did not seem interested in the garden below. Byanca was dressed all in green, and wore a cap and a half-face mask with thick glasses to conceal her identity. She was as concealed as she could be.
“–Visions 6:17, have you given it any more thought?”
“Nay sister, I’ve been so exhausted lately.”
“I found it very inspirational. I think the Messiah would approve of–”
Upon hearing the girls Byanca threw herself into a nearby bush.
Hiding among the branches, still as she could be, she spotted the pair coming around the corner. There were two spindly elven girls coming, in modest blue and white robes, long-sleeved, with covering shawls and long hems and rustic boots, their veils bearing gold-lined holes for their long, sharp ears. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed and barely into adulthood, they walked the garden paths, holding hands and sharing their thoughts on scripture.
Byanca held her breath.
Along the left-side bushes, across the tile path from her hiding place, they stopped.
One girl looked around with a wary expression.
“Is something the matter, sister?”
Her companion tugged gently on her sleeve.
Byanca gulped. She gripped her submachine gun tightly.
Turning around, the wary girl faced her.
Unprompted, she advanced toward Byanca’s bush.
The Centurion felt panic stealing her breath and tensing her muscles.
Her mind raced with possible solutions. Shooting was out of the question, how could she ever live with herself if she murdered a pair of teenage nuns; she could perhaps club the girls unconscious if they started raising hell. Carefully enough and she could subdue them without causing injury beyond repair. She could chase them down and force submission–
Around her the leaves on the bush shook.
So close did the wary girl come to her bush, that she cast a shadow over Byanca.
Looming over, the girl stared over Byanca’s head and examined the bush quizzically.
Byanca readied to pounce in an instant.
Suddenly the girl extended her hand and plucked a flower.
Turning on her heel, she cheerfully returned to her companion and arranged the lily in her hair and veil. Both girls laughed and held hands and shared quick glances before flouncing away as cheerful and obliviously as they had come. Sweating, out of breath, shaking from the tension, Byanca waited for their footsteps to grow farther, before moving on again.
Slowly she wound her way through the garden, giving a wide berth to the rare few nuns traveling the gardens at this hour. She made her way to the western wing of the convent, avoiding the steps into the exterior hall. Instead she made her way through the hedges and bushes as near as she could to the wall, and climbed through an arch-shaped window.
Inside the building, she quickly made her way to the second floor, and deeper into the interior halls. It was lonesome place, the convent interior. Images of the Messiah, a nondescript younger man, almost faceless and inexpressive, stared pleadingly at her around whatever corner she turned. When the Messiah bore an expression, it was one of torment, bleeding and dying at the site of his execution by some ancient heathens. Apart from his image the convent was all bare hall, dusty walls, worn-away floor tiles. There were endless doors — this was once a dormitory wing. But there were no occupants. It was like a palace shared only with ghosts and cobwebs. No nuns came here. No nuns could.
Though they were allowed to walk the exterior, this wing was a prison not for them.
Having had access to Priorita: Rosa files, Byanca knew more or less where the target was located. A second floor interior room, windowless, abandoned; she was a pearl in the rough, buried within the last place anyone would look. Hall after endless hall, any pursuer would have given the place up as a site forgotten by time. But Byanca knew where to look.
She knew that the labyrinth was repurposed both to protect and punish her target.
Clarissa Vittoria would be trapped in the dead center.
Where she could not see the sun or smell the outside air.
“Situation report?” Byanca called, while sneaking through the halls.
“Radio room neutralized.” Torvald replied. “All guards silently subdued.”
“Good, get out of there. Giuseppa?”
“Still staring down a bunch of clowns congregating by the wall.”
“Throw the blister gas and get out of there. I’m almost out.”
Byanca shut off the radio and raised her firearm.
Rounding a final corner, she found herself at a dead end leading to a pair of palatial double doors now stuck with a rod through their handles. In front of the door, a man in a legion outfit sat, staring at the ground. He looked up unconcernedly at first, as if he expected to see another nun or maybe one of his own peers relieving him. His eyes drew slowly wider.
He reached for a gun set on a table in front of him alongside a deck of cards.
Byanca fired a quick spray on the table, perforating it and knocking the gun off.
Outmatched the guard raised his hands.
Though the gunfire resounded across the halls, she was so deep into such an empty place she did not fear discovery. At any rate, she was at her destination. Objective complete.
Byanca pointed her gun on the door.
Alarmed, the guard nearly jumped. He only spoke once he was sure she would not shoot.
“No keys!” He shouted. “Just the rod. It was never meant to lock.”
Nodding, Byanca tossed him a pair of handcuffs.
“Behind your back.”
She grunted the words in a deep, fake voice she hoped was unlike her own.
Compliant, the guard handcuffed his hands behind his back.
“Kick away the gun and stand back.”
Once more the guard did as instructed.
Byanca approached the door and withdrew the rod from the handles.
Briefly she turned around and swiped the rod across the guard’s expectant face.
He fell to the ground, instantly out. Byanca opened the door.
As the halves of the grand door swung open toward her, Byanca found herself with a nun’s veil right at her feet. It had been hurled across the room, perhaps. Clearly it was discarded.
On a plain bed in a plain room, staring at a plain wall, was Clarissa Vittoria.
She must have heard the gunshots, but her face bore no expression.
All around her there were markings on the floor showing where a much larger, grander set of furniture had once stood. There was nothing left of them but one plain armoire.
Framed in these outlines, the exiled princess stood out all the more.
Byanca was taken in by her beauty and by its obvious source. She was almost a perfect image of Passionale Vittoria. Perfect olive skin, strong green eyes, high cheekbones, slim, elegant features, long locks of luxuriant, subtly waving golden hair. She had the slender but rounded figure of a noblewoman. Clearly she had not been left wanting for the finer things in life. But her body had also been manipulated into its shape, sculpted by hardship into the perfection of a Vittoria. Salvatrice had some of that air as well, in different ways.
Despite wearing the plain habit of a nun, Clarissa still glided over the floor as if in a silk dress. She turned on her heel to face the door, and performed a modest curtsy.
Standing before her, the Centurion was momentarily smitten speechless.
She, who had dreamed forever of a beautiful princess worth fighting for, was given pause at the gentle expression of the captive Clarissa, upon whom the situation dawned quickly.
“You’re here for me.” She said, covering her delicate lips with subtle delight.
But Byanca was not a knight; she was a baleful dragon who was here to trick the Princess.
“Do you know where he is?” Byanca said. She hoped she would have to say no more.
Clarissa gasped slightly. After briefly hesitating, she replied, “I have some idea.”
“Good. I can’t take you all the way.” Byanca said.
“I know.” Clarissa said, a small, sad smile playing across her face.
In her conspiratorial heart, Byanca felt incredible relief.
Had Clarissa been any less certain of her lover’s dedication to her, had she not thought it fact that he would one day rescue her, the entire plan might have crumbled immediately.
It could very well still crumble.
“Follow me. Pretend to be my hostage.” Byanca said.
She raised the gun on Clarissa.
Such a thing, even from a supposed ally, would startle anyone; but not Clarissa Vittoria. With an impish grin on her face, she play acted raising her hands and put on a bereaved expression, in part genuine, in part obviously play-acted, as if delighting in the falsity. She was so sure, so fearless. Was this all her; or was it the power of Cesare Regal?
“How far are we going?” She casually asked.
“We’ll take you out of the vicinity here. You’ll have to do the rest.”
Clarissa smiled. “I see. So you’re the local cell.”
Byanca said nothing. To say anything might invite skepticism.
“You are bold, to take on the Legion here. I will see you greatly rewarded.”
Did she still think she would become Queen? After all of this?
Again, however, Byanca said nothing.
Breaking in here, leading her out; all of this was the easy part.
Cesare Regale still lay in waiting somewhere.