This chapter contains non-explicit sexual content.
Every soldier dreamed about their beloved on long, lonely voyages.
Gertrude dreamt silently of her feelings for Elena for years.
She expected nothing, knowing the impossible social positions they occupied.
And yet, despite everything, on this one insane, false nightfall in this forgotten island–
Was it actually a dream? Would she wake up in the Iron Lady, alone again?
Gertrude scolded herself internally.
No fantasy could ever measure up to the feeling of lying in bed, holding Elena in her arms, squeezing the princess’ back against her chest. Skin to skin, with nothing between them. Sweating profusely despite the best efforts of the climate control system. Shivering when touched, still tender and sensitive. Gertrude could have never imagined the Princess would have sought her out not just for emotional support but physical pleasure.
She much less imagined that the Princess would reciprocate!
It was a sight, that indigo head of hair enthusiastically exploring between Gertrude’s legs, clumsily returning the affection that Gertrude had given without expecting anything back. The memory would last her a few more years at sea, though hopefully it would not be so long. It could have never been a dream; Gertrude would not have let herself dream it.
Agitated, a little weakened, facing away from Gertrude, the Princess’ voice rose up.
“You’re leaving soon, aren’t you? You’re not staying the night.”
Gertrude held her even tighter.
Elena felt almost diaphanous in her hands. Like she was made of silk.
She had her strengths. She didn’t see herself as weak.
But she was frail, delicate, precious.
In the times that they lived in now she was more vulnerable than ever before.
“I have to go. But I will stay until the very last second I can.”
“Just– just hold me for a bit. If you do that, I’ll last a few more years too, like you said.”
Elena giggled a little. Gertrude was surprised to hear it.
She turned around in Gertrude’s arms, locking eyes with her.
“I’m glad you were my first time.”
She craned her head and kissed Gertrude softly on the lips.
Gertrude laid a hand on Elena’s hair and pulled her head into her chest.
“I’ll let you in on a secret. You were my first too, Princess.”
“Those two remind you of yourself and Leda. That’s why you let her into Vogelheim.”
“Shut up. Don’t bring that up. The Prince made his decision, and so I made mine.”
“So then, it’s true. After all, if you wanted to, you could have stopped her–”
Bethany struck Marina’s bare back with her palm. Marina nearly jumped.
“You don’t get to be cheeky, you whimpering little spoon. Be glad I’m this kind to you.”
Marina backed into Bethany suddenly.
“Fine, fine. Be tender with me! I can’t ask this of just anyone I seduce, you know?”
“God, I feel so special right now.”
Save for a few indiscretions over the years, Bethany’s sex life was nonexistent.
So, she could not help but actually feel a bit special about Marina.
Not that she would tell the fucking spy those honest feelings.
Moreso than just sex, as good as the sex had been, Marina wanted to be held and comforted, and in a way, that comforted Bethany as well. It had been even longer since she had a lover who stayed the night, who stayed in her bed, with whom she could share a bit of warmth. A lover whose hair she could smell, whose sweat she could taste as she nuzzled her neck. In the same way that Marina could not ask this “of just anyone,” Bethany was also restricted in whom she could have this kind of affection with. This was the sort of simulacra of love that required a shared history to maintain the illusion. Anyone else whom Bethany could love like this was already dead.
Marina and Bethany had a connection: revolving around a third woman they had loved.
A colossus of a woman who was going to shake the entire world, and certainly shook theirs.
A dead woman that both of them failed in their own ways, and then abandoned.
These two women lay in a big, ornate bed together like royalty, one holding the other.
Bethany rubbed Marina’s back briefly. As she suspected, Marina had artificially hidden her scars. It felt like there were even new ones.
Her only visible scar was the one Leda put on her chest; so Bethany would recall it.
Were you tortured? What have you been doing? Why are you Marina now?
Why didn’t you return to the Republic when the plot failed?
Those were the questions she wanted to ask. But that just wasn’t their relationship.
“Might I hope for a massage tonight? Dare I dream of such luxury?”
“Maybe. You’re so pathetic that I’m considering it.”
“Do you have a smoke around?”
“No. Your lungs will thank you for it.”
“I could really go for one.”
Bethany sighed. Marina laughed a little bit.
All of this was far too nostalgic and idyllic for Bethany.
She knew that the world was a bleak place where people used and abused each other.
“Marina, why are you here? You didn’t come to Vogelheim just for me.” She said.
She felt Marina tense a little in her arms.
“I told you, completely honestly, I wanted to reconnect. It’s our last chance for that.”
Marina was not lying. Bethany knew that. But she was not telling the whole truth.
“You want to take Elena away. Tell me why.” Bethany said.
There was no other possible reason.
Had it been anyone else, she might have said ‘You want to kill Elena.’
But she knew that, even for the G.I.A., this particular spy would not do such a thing.
“She just looks so much like her mother. I can’t help myself.”
“Don’t joke about that.”
“Yeah, I was grossed out by myself the moment I said it. I apologize.”
“Apologize by telling me the truth.”
Bethany started to rub Marina’s back, working her way up to her stiff shoulders.
Marina was quiet for a few moments, taking in the touch.
She still quivered, every so often, when there was a new movement she was not used to.
It was obvious that she had been hurt. She had been hurt really badly.
“I’m taking Elena to the Union.”
“The Union? Are you insane?”
Bethany was quite scandalized. Even someone like her, who had been part of subversive plots in the Empire, and who held quite a few grudges against her government, still nursed the Empire’s prejudice against the vicious communists to the South. What was the G.I.A. doing?
“We’re allies. The Union and the Republic; right now, the communists are our only remaining military power in the Western oceans. We can depend on them. They’re more reliable than you think.”
“Marina, I could understand taking her to the Republic, but–”
“How? The Empire is occupying the Ayre Reach. If we take Elena to the Union she can be safe until the Republic’s counteroffensive opens a route to get her to Alayze. That’s my plan. Listen, Bethany, I got some new contacts. I have some assets I can rely on to smuggle me and Elena into the Union. This is incumbent on us moving quickly. I can have her in the Union in a week.”
Bethany sighed into Marina’s back. She squeezed her shoulders a bit harder than before.
“I’ve done unthinkable things for Elena’s safety. And yet, this is giving me pause.”
“Bethany, this location won’t be safe anymore. Erich leaked it for a reason. It’s his way of telling you that he will not protect Elena anymore. They are not blood related, and she has no place in his Empire. I don’t know what kind of resources you have or what sort of deal you had with him, but it’s done now. He invited a bunch of nobles to meet him here, then he stood you all up. That’s his signal. Those people are on the chopping block and so is this entire island now.”
Bethany turned Marina around to face her.
For a moment, Marina struggled. She turned a pair of blank, panicked eyes on Bethany.
“Solceanos defend, I thought you wanted to garrote me or something!”
“Sorry, sorry. I’m running an anxiety high here.”
Marina sighed. Bethany looked into her eyes.
She was tired, weary. Spent, even. Why was she doing all of this?
“It’s incredibly lame for a spy to keep telling me how fucked up she is.”
“It’s all part of my play, darling.”
“Marina tell me what you know. Do you have information on a plot against Elena?”
Bethany looked Marina dead in eyes. Not with anger, but with hope.
Hope for some kind of cooperation. To break the barrier that made them lie to each other.
Marina looked back at her. Again, her eyes were completely weary.
“I don’t have anything on an actual plot, but I can surmise one will happen. Vogelheim’s location has made it outside the ring of nobles invited to this meeting. I know because the info was sold to me. Ever since the Web network expanded to encompass the Empire instead of individual station LANs, it’s become huge in the underworld. Elena’s location is spreading, Bethany.”
“I’m not so savvy about this interweb stuff. But I get the point. Vogelheim is not secret anymore. So you’re afraid that Elena can’t stay here because someone could possibly target her.”
Marina sighed, as if it were worse than Bethany described.
“Erich told the nobles that he invited to Vogelheim that he would be meeting them here. You know this. If one of those nobles leaked that information then they leaked his presence too.”
At that point, the real danger of the situation finally hit Bethany.
She had been so stupid! She had been so stupid about everything!
It was not just that Elena was here. It was not in fact about Elena at all.
Outside entities had information that led them to believe that Erich was in a vulnerable location. He was not among his invincible, all-conquering fleet, he was hiding in a backwater station. He had gone to Vogelheim, a place that was now known to be important, to those who sought such information, to celebrate his sister’s birthday with a coterie of close aristocrats.
To know about Vogelheim was one thing. To know Erich would be there was much more.
For all of his rivals, it would seem a perfect chance to squash him and any alliances he was hoping to build within the aristocracy. Elena and Vogelheim would just be collateral damage.
“Solceanos protect us.”
“No, I will protect her. You have to let me take her, Bethany.”
Bethany was stunned speechless.
All those years ago, she had promised Leda that she would protect Elena.
She had stood by Elena’s side through her teenage and adult life.
Under the guise of teaching her, seeing to her, being the servant every noblewoman needed to have at hand to succeed in high society. Bethany also protected her. Marina was right when she said Bethany could have refused Gertrude entrance to Vogelheim. She had that right; that power. It was not only Erich who had granted it. Bethany had prepared defenses and contingencies.
She had never prepared for Erich himself to betray Elena. It was impossible to prepare for such a thing. It was like preparing against the wrath of God. Like trying to stop heaven from falling.
“I can protect her, Bethany.”
Marina looked into her eyes again. There was suddenly conviction, behind them.
Bethany, feeling suddenly weak, embraced Marina strongly.
“Tomorrow. Please. Let her have this for tonight. Let– let me have this.”
Marina was stunned. She made no verbal response.
She returned Bethany’s embrace. Slowly; probing, as if fleetingly afraid of the touch.
The Iron Lady was the seventh ship of the Irmingard class of dreadnoughts designed in the 970s, and she was the latest to launch.
Her profile was a work of art: a rounded, “spoon”-shaped prow concealed a forward heavy coilgun battery alongside a pair of torpedo tubes and extra sensory equipment. From the “spoon,” the Iron Lady had a thick “neck” that then expanded into the bulk of the curvaceous hull, 300 meters long and bedecked with dozens of emplacements, six light coilguns and a second heavy coilgun set. It had a magnificent silhouette, unlike the utilitarian, boxy ships of the Republic. Its design signified the majesty of the Empire.
Alongside the lead ship of the class and the first to launch, Prince Erich von Fueller’s Irmingard, the Iron Lady had been specifically outfitted to carry additional divers: it could deploy four at a time and carry six. Unlike the lead ship, the Iron Lady retained a gunmetal gray factory color at the behest of its commander, instead of adopting the livery of a territory or a noble sponsor.
At the present, the Iron Lady represented something of a burden to the port of Vogelheim, which was designed at best to carry a few Frigates. It occupied two frigate-size docks and was being held in place by the leftmost docking clamps of one dock and the rightmost of another. An engineering ship had removed the middle clamps and would have to replace them. But this was a small thing to prepare at the behest of the Imperial Princess, for her best lady Lichtenberg.
Overnight, Gertrude Lichtenberg had spent as much time as she could with her lady.
Unfortunately, she could not wait until morning. As much as it pained her to have to leave.
Gertrude had not intended to stay the night. But her crew was loyal, and she had a lot of resources, so she was able to make things to work. She would have to thank Ingrid for that.
She made her needs clear to Elena in the afterglow of their encounter.
And she spent what time they had to comfort her and assure her.
For hours, she held the Princess in her arms, telling herself, that she had to leave. Soon.
Past midnight, into the waning hours, tempting the dawn.
Finally, she made herself go. Elena accepted it; they parted on wonderful terms.
Gertrude had to return to the ocean so she could make damn sure that Elena would be protected in the events that were likely about to unfold. Prince Erich’s recent behavior and movements had her worried, as well as the demeanor of the Duchess Veka and the ambitions of the Pontiff Millenia Skarsgaard II of the Solceanos church in Skarsgaard, among other characters in the ensuing drama of the Emperor’s death and the question of the royal succession. Gertrude hoped that there would be a peaceful transition of power, and the Inquisition behind her would fight for that.
So, deep into the night, she stepped back through the docking chute into her ship.
Her ship security officer came to meet her at the door and saluted her arrival.
“You look happy.” He said casually, in contrast to the stiff military pose that he had struck.
Gertrude winked at him.
“I had a good time tonight. Did the lads enjoy their brief shore leave?”
“I’m surprised more of them didn’t go. I think some of them were just caught off-guard by this whole situation. A big group did go to the orchard and to the beach. I ended up going with them, just to make sure they didn’t trouble anyone. Fresh apples taste rather strange ma’am. Nothing like the applesauce we get on the ship. To be honest, it was a huge disappointment.”
“Applesauce has a sugary syrup mixed in. Natural apples can’t really compete.”
“I suppose so. Some of the lads snuck off to try to get girls, but they ran into Ingrid. If I didn’t know better I’d have thought Ingrid was also out trying to get girls too. But she wasn’t none too pleased to see the lads making passes at women in the countryside, and she let ‘em have it.”
“Oh, unfortunate for them! So Ingrid left the ship? Did she have fun, you think?”
“I dunno that anyone can yell that much at the sailors without having fun with it.”
Gertrude grinned. “I hope they don’t hate her too much for it. She has a temper.”
“Hate? No. I think they just as afraid of her as they’ve always been though.”
Chief of Security Karl Vogt was a heavyset boy, with a serious, no-nonsense face, who carried himself stiffly, as if it took a lot of effort to move those big muscles around. His blond hair was cropped short, and he wore no accoutrements he did not need. However, he had a good sort of demeanor, where he was able to talk to Gertrude like he did to anyone else.
After a day of being called “the lady,” “lady Lichtenberg,” and even “master Lichtenberg” it was refreshing.
“Well, I’m glad you had a good time yourself. Welcome back aboard, Inquisitor.”
He gestured for her to go first, and she got started through the Iron Lady’s corridors.
How comfortable an Imperial ship was depended entirely on its size. Cutters were spartan and cramped places where eight men a room slept in bags, some on top of the torpedo racks. It was miserable, but it was the path out of poverty for a lot of people. Frigates and Cruisers could feel like homes. Serving on a dreadnought, however, was for the best of the best. Either the elite, the privileged or the lucky. If a Cruiser could be a home, then a Dreadnought could be a palace. Corridors just spacious enough to avoid being oppressive. Quarters where at most three men or women shared: for the whole crew, even the sailors. Grand decorations and filigree. Portraits on the walls, music in the halls. It was a warship, and the men were engaged in their work. But their environments were not actively hostile to them, and this was highly valued by Imperial sailors.
Food and entertainment were limited, but there was a gym that could fit fifty men all working out at once and listening to music, and you would not find a gym in a Cutter or a Frigate. Gertrude had come to take this for granted, and after coming in from the open spaces of Vogelheim she could feel herself canned in, with metal all around her. She acclimated quickly, of course.
Now that she was back aboard, she had to pay an official visit to the Captain first.
Then she could visit Ingrid. Hopefully without Vogt in tow.
“I can take it from here.” Gertrude said, once they crossed the neck of the Iron Lady.
“Yes ma’am. I think I’ll hit the gym. Haven’t done anything but walk around all day.”
“Sure. Work those arms a bit.”
Vogt nodded, turned around and left the way he came.
Sighing a little, with relief at finally being alone enough with her thoughts, Gertrude moved forward to the command pod of the Iron Lady. She was the ship’s commander and led its forces, but she was an Inquisitor, and the function of the Captain was served by another officer. She had ultimate decision-making authority, but her Captain and his First Officer handled routine command of the ship. It was his role to apply her broad instructions and ensure the crew fulfilled their duties.
She found him where she expected, on the palatial bridge of the Iron Lady.
Imperial bridges were wide and cylindrical. The Captain and any VIPs and trusted assistants sat in an island in the middle of the bridge, while around there were circular layers of computer stations for all the remaining essential tasks. Closest to the Captain’s island were the communications and sensor stations as well as the helmsman, while gunners sat farther out. A grandiose throne-like seat was reserved for the ship’s ultimate authority. In this case, it was empty since Gertrude was not sitting on it. Only the Captain and his Officer were present at this hour.
“Welcome back, Lady Lichtenberg. Did you settle matters to your satisfaction?”
“You could say that! We can get underway again as soon as everyone’s ready.”
Her Captain, Einz Dreschner, was a severe-looking man with high, gaunt cheekbones and a strong jaw, his hair cut down to bare whisps that were hidden beneath his peaked cap. He wore his uniform to regulation, and somehow, he always looked he had a fresh one, as if someone were ironing his clothes as he wore them throughout the day. He was almost twice Gertrude’s age.
“How was your friend?” Dreschner asked.
Even his casual questions had a strict sort of tone to them. Gertrude smiled.
“She’s going through a rough patch, I think, but I’m happy I was able to be there for her.”
“I think, if she’s a sensible girl, she’ll appreciate the Inquisitor’s gestures of kindness.”
“Oh, she does, I’m pretty certain of it.” Gertrude laughed nervously. “She appreciated it.”
“Fear not. We will return, maybe even soon. Thirty years ago, my wife waited a decade to marry me when I deployed, first to the Western borderland, then Ayre, then for the Rebellion–”
Gertrude did not bring up that Dreschner was divorced.
She appreciated his attempts to comfort her. Like Vogt, Gertrude had something of a friendly rapport with Dreschner.
“What about you Karen, how are you doing?”
“I– I’m– I’m fine thank you!”
That stiff, instantaneous reply was characteristic of Karen Schicksal, a bespectacled girl with big glasses and mousy hair who served as Dreschner’s First Officer. She was older than Gertrude but only by a few years, still young, and due to her short stature, young-looking. Her rosy cheeks and nose were mildly pockmarked, and she had a frenetic, nervous energy to her. There was something cute about her, like a yappy little dog, so Gertrude could never be too hard on her.
“How prepared do you think we are to set off?”
“Prepared? Well.” Schicksal paused to think for a second, tapping her feet very loudly.
“Schicksal.” Dreschner said.
She instantly stopped her foot tapping. “Ah, sorry! Sorry, force of habit.”
“Oh right, the question!” Schicksal gesticulated wildly. “Well we only need the Helmsman and a few comms officers on the bridge for a quick departure! We can re-staff gradually– I’d say we could have her ready in twenty minutes if we can just get the Helmsman back from his room!”
The First Officer spoke with frantic energy, but everything she said was correct.
“Could you go fetch him?” Gertrude asked.
“Oh! Yes! Yes ma’am!”
Schicksal instantly bolted out of the bridge as fast as her legs could carry her.
Dreschner shook his head.
“She’s technically competent, but she has no confidence. It’ll hold her back.”
“I’m sure she’ll be fine.” Gertrude said. “You should praise her more often. Build her up.”
Dreschner turned a narrow-eyed, skeptical glare over to Gertrude.
He was thoroughly unconvinced. Gertrude laughed gently.
“Now that we’ve gotten the crew back in motion, I will retreat to my quarters.” Gertrude said. “I know you’ll have everything under control, but don’t hesitate to call on me if needed.”
“Of course, milady, but as a friend I will err on the side of letting you rest.”
“I had a feeling you would say that.”
Dreschner cracked a tiny smile. Gertrude returned one twice as wide before departing.
She actually had one more destination before hitting the hay.
Aside from Elena, Gertrude had managed to make one other unlikely friend in the world.
Gertrude strode past the mess, where even at this hour there was a cook on duty who was boiling up some sausage and buckwheat grits for a small group of patrolmen, all of whom waved at Gertrude as she went. She waved back. Beyond the mess, she found the officer’s quarters. Opposite her own room was one door, decorated with a badge that read ‘K9’ affixed by magnet.
“Gertrude? That you staring at the door? You smell funny.”
That shouting voice brought a smile to Gertrude’s face.
“Can I come in?” She asked. “Are you decent?”
“I’m always decent.”
Gertrude slid the door open just enough to get herself inside and closed it behind her.
As she expected, Ingrid was only really “decent” by her own definition.
She was dressed in nothing more than a pair of underwear shorts and a tanktop pulled up enough that it barely concealed her breasts. Her tail wagged incessantly when she saw Gertrude, though her expression was an antagonistic smirk. She laid in bed beside a plate of sausages and pickled onion, holding open a thick comic book anthology.
‘Johannes Jager;’ stories about a ridiculous-looking vigilante.
“You look like you’re having a good time.” Gertrude said.
“You smell like you did.” Ingrid said, grinning even more broadly.
Gertrude should have imagined that was coming.
She did perfume herself before she left–
Ingrid suddenly started sniffing.
Before Gertrude could get a word in, she started to brag.
“So there’s all the perfume, that’s a cute trick, but I’m not stupid, you don’t wear that fruity kind of perfume, you wear colognes like a fucking rich boy. I’ve smelled them because you wear it for promotion ceremonies. Similarly, I know how you smell when you’re sweaty at the gym. Furthermore, from my own vast personal experience I know what fucking a girl smells like–”
Gertrude cried out in defense. “Okay! I’ll take a shower! I just wanted to see you first!”
“Such consideration! I’m no princess, you know. I’m not dainty enough for your attention.”
She made eyes at Gertrude mockingly. Gertrude took the mockery in stride.
“Yes, you’ll unfortunately always be second place in my heart.”
Ingrid looked at her for a moment, stuck in between offense, confusion, and amusement.
She then sighed openly, finally put down her comic book, and laid back in bed.
“Well I’m glad you got outside for once, lady knight.” Ingrid sighed again. She had a distant look on her face, as if it were laborious to speak. “Look, joking aside, I know you love to see her. I don’t really give a shit one way or another what happens to her, but I like it when you’re cheerful. After the last battle you’ve been crazy sullen, so I hope you’ll stop being so depressing now.”
Gertrude pulled a seat out from the wall near Ingrid’s bed and sat beside her.
She sighed deeply, trying to relax. Her shoulders felt incredibly tense.
“I’m happy you care so much. I’ll try to take better care of myself.”
“I bet you ate like a queen over there. Wish I could have some.” Ingrid said.
She picked up a wan looking piece of sausage and had a sad little bite of it.
Gertrude smiled at her. She was trying to change the subject after being too emotional.
“As a matter of fact–”
Gertrude withdrew a tiny bottle from her coat. It was bright pink, and bubbly inside.
“I couldn’t bring you soggy bread and cold meatballs. I figured you’d like this better.”
“Huh! Well, thanks, I guess. Smells like booze.”
Ingrid took the bottle and stared at it curiously. It was unlabeled; it was bottled for the villa and the servants of the villa knew what it was, but it was not ever intended that Elena or anyone important would have to read it, and it was not a commercial product. As such, the bottle itself had intricate patterns, but there were no brands, no nutritional information, nothing on it.
“I think it’s like a rose wine of some kind.” Gertrude said.
She had picked up the bottle from a table. It was one of the drinks served to guests.
Using only sheer brute force, Ingrid snapped the stopper off the bottle.
She gave it a gentle sniff, and then took a long draught.
“Awoo! This is amazing!”
She gave a cheerful little cry, her tail wagging and her ears twitching.
“I feel like I can taste the fruits. It’s so sweet. I’ve never drank booze like this.”
Ingrid stuck out the bottle for Gertrude. The lady politely refused this offering.
“I’ve had more than enough luxury tonight. This is all for you, friend.”
“You spoil me! I’ll make you regret that someday.”
Ingrid tipped her head back and tipped the bottle into her lips.
In one long gulp, she downed the entire thing.
Afterwards, she exhaled with great pleasure, shutting her eyes hard.
“Ah! It’s boozier than I thought when I tasted it. But it’s so smooth. Incredible.”
For a moment, her friend merely sat, eyes closed, tail wagging incessantly.
Ingrid then suddenly closed in on Gertrude in a swift movement and whispered.
“I wanna know about all these luxuries you’ve had. I know you fucked her.”
Gertrude nearly jumped. Both from having Ingrid at her cheek, and the question.
“From the smell, I even know it went on a while–”
“Oh my god, Ingrid–”
“I’m imagining it now, ‘Oh Gertrude, be gentle with me!’ How loud was she?”
For all that Ingrid joked about Gertrude’s boyishness, this lad talk from her was too much.
“We are not going down this path.” Gertrude laughed, turning brightly red.
“Funny you say that because I can tell a certain someone went down tonight–”
Gertrude both looked mortified but was still unable to stop laughing. “Ingrid, stop it!”
Ingrid joined her, cackling. “Do you regret not getting a muzzle for me?” She asked.
That particular joke had an edge to it that made Gertrude suddenly self-conscious.
“Ingrid of course not!” She answered earnestly. Her friend saw her worried face and sighed.
Unique among the members of the Iron Lady’s crew, Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong was ethnically a Loup. Most prominently, Ingrid’s large, erect brown dog ears and long, bushy-furred tail indicated her Loup blood. Like the distantly related Shimii, there was no fur anywhere but her ears and tail, and she was like any other person in every other respect. As a result of both heritage and hard work, she stood quite tall and was very physically fit, with short, messy dark hair and rich brown skin. Gertrude thought she had a distinctive beauty, but Ingrid ignored appearances entirely, save for basic hygiene. Her hair was in its natural state; no cosmetics touched her face.
Her face, with a strong, slim, attractive appearance often marred by a mocking grin.
“You’re telling me you haven’t thought about it, even a little?” Ingrid said.
“Ingrid, please stop. I told you it will never be like that between us.” Gertrude pleaded.
“Don’t take it so seriously!” Ingrid said. “You’re so dull. You know I just joke about it.”
For Gertrude, who told herself she would help Elena change the Empire, it was serious.
When it came to the Loup, and perhaps even more tragically with the Shimii, the darker side of the Empire, its elitism and ingrained cruelty, was fully on display. Gertrude, daughter of the land that she was, could not herself make the leap to the word “racism,” but it was racism that defined the Empire’s attitude to the Loup. Ingrid’s mocking face could indeed have been quieted with a muzzle: a symbol of the Empire’s attitude toward the Loup. Bite our enemies, but never bark at us; do not believe you can be equals to us. You’ll be put in your place as animals.
“Jeez, you got me out of the K-9, you know? I’d wear a fucking muzzle for you.”
“I’d never allow that! I respect you too much to see you like that.”
Loup normally served in “K-9” units that acted as a sort of vanguard or scouting role for the Imperial Navy. Loup were often packed into boarding torpedoes. They did dirty jobs. In those sorts of roles, Ingrid had achieved the rank of Sotnyk, a unique Loup officer rank. But Gertrude wanted no part in that cycle of abuse. To her, Ingrid was a full crew member, not K-9.
“You’re such a self-righteous dork. Let me worry about muzzles, ok?”
Sometimes, however, Gertrude tried far too hard.
Ingrid was too headstrong for it.
She threw herself back on the bed, groaning with exasperation.
Gertrude sighed. Sometimes it was like this between them. “I apologize.”
“Don’t walk on eggshells around me, I hate that shit. Just be normal to me.”
“I won’t patronize you. I’m sorry. Do you forgive me?”
Ingrid stared at her, suddenly grinning at her again.
“So did she get you off? Did the princess go down on you?”
“Stop that! That’s between her and I what happened.”
“Yeah, it’s between you, her and me. You always tell me your secrets.”
“Not this one!”
Gertrude was once again laughing.
Ingrid really knew how to change the mood.
“This conversation has been too one-sided! I believe I’ve told you enough–”
“You haven’t told me shit though!” Ingrid whined.
“–So you tell me about your adventures today.” Gertrude deflected. “You went out, right?”
Ingrid crossed her arms. “I was just stretching my legs a bit. This place sucks though. It’s just all bullshit. There’s nothing to do; nobody lives here. It’s like a movie set with no movie. So what was I gonna do anyway? I basically just took out my frustration on the corny fuckin’ sailors.”
“My sources indicate you gave them just the right amount of grief.”
“There’s more where that came from. Anyway, I ate some apples and read comic books.”
“People really hype up having sex, but you sound like you had a really nice day.”
“Ok, let’s trade then.”
Almost every time Gertrude visited Ingrid, she thought she would drop in and drop out. Instead they talked like a pair of teenagers for hours and hours in this same fashion, trading banter, insults and anecdotes, commiserating about the upcoming voyage, even as the ship got underway.
In the tumult of sleep, Elena found herself once again walking the long, lonely halls of the Luxembourg Academy for Girls. In her dream the school had none of the color it had in life, and it was as empty in her imagination as she had felt when she attended in the flesh. Her loneliness and estrangement became long shadows and vacant classrooms in the prison of her mind.
There was one scene, which she was helpless to change.
Gertrude stood in the hall facing at Elena such that the Princess could see her expression.
She was not looking at Elena. She did not even know Elena was there.
Partially obscuring her, was another young woman of their mutual acquaintance.
Her back was to Elena. So she could not see her face; nor the contents of her heart.
She could not have called it “friendship.” Not anymore and maybe even not back then.
Everyone was on the cusp of a parting. It could be felt as a tension in the air.
Words were exchanged.
Gertrude’s eyes drew open in fury, a fire burning in them.
Bigger and stronger than any of the girls, when Gertrude drew her hand and slapped Victoria across the face, the younger woman tipped over immediately, falling to the ground and staring up in helpless rage at the one who had struck her down. She struggled to get back up, shaking, teeth grit. She turned and walked away in shame, and when she did so, she took the corner where Elena had been standing, watching from afar with no ability to stop them from fighting.
Elena called her name, but it was no use. Victoria looked at her, and for the first time, Elena saw tears in the eyes of that cold, collected cat-girl who had fallen into her orbit. She never saw her again, except in dreams. Except in this scene. While the scene itself was short, to Elena it encompassed the whole of her sleep. Victoria’s face, red in the cheek where Gertrude had beaten her, tears freely flowing in a way they never had and maybe never would again. Her fists helplessly balled up into instruments still too soft to ever cause any harm to the woman Elena truly loved.
She never truly understood why Victoria and Gertrude fought that day.
She never knew why it had to be that her group of school friends shattered irreparably.
There were no answers to be found in dreams.
There was only the anxious, agonizing repetition of things half understood.
“Let’s meet again, Elena.” She said, never once turning her head to face her.
Elena stood dumbfounded. Victoria was going away. Her little group was broken up.
She did not even notice there was one more standing behind her.
“You’re really hard to love, Elena, you know that? And worse your presence, it like…it demands love. There’s no way for people spellbound by you to turn away. Until it hurts them.”
There was no need to move to know the owner of that voice.
Second tallest behind Gertrude. Long brown hair, elegant but also tomboyish.
Direct. Blunt. Impassioned.
Perhaps the only one of them who had hurt Elena and remained her friend despite this.
“It’s tough. It’s been tough for all of us. We’re all too hardheaded. You most of all.”
Elena closed her hands into fists. She wanted to cry and to shut out that voice.
But Sawyer’s voice came from everywhere. There was no escape in a dream–
–In a nightmare,
“Gertrude made herself into someone who would walk on a bed of nails for you. Because that’s what you want. Victoria can’t be that and hates herself for it. As for me, I am not able to love you. You know that. I thought I could use you…maybe Victoria thought that too?”
She felt a hand patting her shoulder, in pity, in mockery.
“You’ll always have Gertrude. And maybe someday I’ll come back too. Maybe soon.”
In an instant, the shadows crept off the walls and swallowed her like ocean water.
“We’ll all meet back up, and we’ll look back on today, thinking of how stupid we were.”
Elena sat up in shock. Soaked in sweat, heart exploding, mind gripped in sudden panic.
She was awake. She was undressed, in bed. Gertrude had gone. Dawn crept up slowly.
Her dress, her mother’s beautiful dress, had been carefully folded atop the dresser.
A gentle breeze blew through the room that carried the scent of the woods.
“I need to get out of here for a bit.” Elena said to herself. “I’m going to go insane.”
She did not want to think about how Gertrude was gone for god knows how long.
Her body quivered slightly when she remembered what they had done last night.
She had finally consummated her relationship. She’d– She’d had sex! With ‘Trude!
And yet, there was something missing. Well, of course. It was ‘Trude herself.
In the moment, the act of sex had been consuming, overwhelming, incredible.
Her love for Gertrude was so intense that it hurt.
Elena had woken up scared, cold and alone with nobody to comfort her.
She felt bitter. No matter how good it felt, she only had the memory.
She was lonely.
For how much longer would things go on like this?
Why was she thinking so much about her school days too?
Victoria, Sawyer, Gertrude– maybe she felt like she was now left with nobody.
And she hated having to remember Sawyer’s last words to her.
Was she really that selfish? Was her presence that horrible?
Had she really done all those things?
Was this due to her station? Or was she just a horrible person?
Did her mother have to suffer like this too?
Elena sobbed. She had no answers to the questions flooding her head.
But it was a new day. Life had to go on somehow.
She would talk to Bethany about her mother. Maybe that strange woman from the party would visit, too. There was always some sort of thing to keep her mind occupied, she supposed. But for Gertrude to leave and Vogelheim to remain as it is, felt eerie to her. Nothing was the same.
Elena told herself she would sneak out for a walk out of the grounds.
Fresh air would do her good.
Despite the objections of her computerized dresser, she donned a simple, long-sleeved blue dress and a pair of shorts, leaving the ballroom dress where it sat. When she snuck out of the room, she found no maids around to yell at her. It was early, very early, but the sun was out. She supposed they were all working behind the scenes or simply worked too hard or partied too hard. Elena thought they all deserved the rest.
It wasn’t her choice to work them as hard as they did.
She found little resistance as she walked out the back of the villa onto the flower garden.
A strong breeze blew against her, whipping her hair behind her. She took a deep breath.
All of the flowers, despite their many beautiful colors and shapes, smelled the same.
It may well have been, that they were the same flower, with only slight differences in DNA.
Elena knew a little bit about that. Just enough to ruin the fantasy, nothing more.
Deeply sighing, she continued to walk. Negativity clung to her the whole way.
There was nothing to see in Vogelheim. There was nobody to meet.
Elena simply wandered through the flowers until she was at the edge of the forest.
For the horse it was a few minutes gallop, but it took Elena fifteen or twenty minutes.
Throughout she focused on the mechanical act of walking to empty her mind.
She took a deep breath of the forest air and sighed just as deeply.
While the scents were pleasant, it was not the same simply walking through alone.
Without anyone to accompany her, the artificiality of Vogelheim served to torment her. It was too quiet, there was no movement. Soon the silence felt oppressive. Elena realized why she barely ever went out. Everything was so beautiful but so purposeless. That fallen world, the surface far, far overhead, it had been a living place.
Vogelheim was practically a grave for that world.
It induced mourning.
“Solceanos defend. What is wrong with my head today?”
She was bitter. Too bitter. She tried to put the negativity behind her.
That required something to focus on instead, however. And she had nothing.
Whimsically, she thought she might find the clearing that she and Gertrude had sat in.
She was still at the edge of the forest, however. She had not gone far enough in.
And without the assistance of Glanz, she felt anchored to the edge of the forest.
“I can’t do anything myself. I’m such a god, damned, loser!”
Elena stamped her foot in frustration, shutting her eyes to shed a few tears.
“I’m just stuck here. I can’t do anything.” She balled up her fists.
In her mind she saw her brother’s face, and she hated him.
She hated him for doing this to her, to “protect” her, and then abandoning her.
Teeth grit, eyes shut hard, foot stamping in frustration, his face shattering with each blow.
Elena felt pathetic. She felt lost. But more than that she felt angry, furious, full of hate.
“To hell with this place. I wish it would just drown in the fucking Imbrium.”
“Such a taboo thought. It ill befits the Imperial Princess.”
Elena’s eyes drew open and wide at the sound of another human voice.
A familiar voice.
When she opened her eyes the harsh grimace of her brother had been replaced with the soft, olive-skinned, inexpressive face of a young woman in an ornate, off-shoulder blue romper worn over a long-sleeved white blouse. Her chestnut brown hair was arranged into pigtails that curled slightly at the ends, a little white cap on her head resting between two fluffy, erect cat ears.
The name escaped Elena’s lips like a gasp.
The Princess could hardly believe it. She was sure that it must have been a delusion.
Her mind must have finally snapped from all the stress.
Her tail swaying gently behind her. Standing at the edge of the forest, alone.
“Happy belated birthday.” Victoria said. Her voice was as cold and detached as ever.
Elena shut her eyes hard, dumbfounded. She opened them. Victoria was still there.
She could not imagine a single logical thing to say in return.
“I apologize for not coming to your party. I wanted to avoid Lichtenberg.”
“You wanted– you wanted to avoid Gertrude?”
Elena knew this woman as Victoria Bretagne. That was her ‘Imbrian name’ that her family adopted in order to remain ennobled during the Imperial “reconciliation” of the Shimii. That was before Elena’s time, but it was something she knew from the history books. Regardless, she had never known her under any other name. This was Victoria; it was her friend Victoria in the flesh.
“I– I don’t know what to say.” Elena tried to smile. “I’m so– I’m surprised! I just, I never expected to,” she was clearly stammering, “I never thought I’d– you’re really Victoria, right?”
Victoria nodded her head. “I am Victoria van Veka now.”
For a moment, Elena’s mind unraveled in time once more. Had she said van Veka?
Victoria had been a minor noble of the house Bretagne. She was not entitled any honorific. Those words, van Veka— they meant a lot to Elena. They said a lot; they meant that Victoria’s life had certainly changed since they last met. However, they also implied something Elena did not fully understand, something a bit scandalous. Had Victoria been adopted into the Veka household she would be von Veka. For her to be van Veka; was that honorific not reserved for things like, concubines? Illegitimate couplings and wedlock? For her to have been made a van Veka it must have meant–
“Victoria, did Veka– did Veka do something to you?” Elena said, her face turning pale.
“Mistress Veka helped me see my true strength.”
Her face was cold but determined, and around her eyes shone bright, eerie red rings.
“I need you to come with me. You’re not safe here anymore.”
Vogelheim was a station of the Imbrian Palatinate, one of the Grand Duchies of the Empire. After the time of upheaval, the Palatinate became a sacred land that housed the Royal Family. So as much as Vogelheim was a backwater station, its location within the Palatinate still made it important enough to be tended by a substantial patrol fleet and various defense systems.
Whenever a ship approached Vogelheim at common depths, the Patrol fleet would know quite ahead of time, barring the invader having perfect knowledge of the security systems. So when a flotilla of eight ships was detected in the outskirts of Vogelheim, the Patrol fleet quickly dispensed with the formalities. It was clear this flotilla was not a scheduled visitor to the site.
Twenty cutters of the Patrol Fleet assembled a kilometer away from Vogelheim as a shield and awaited the approach of the fleet with their weapon systems armed for combat. Though they could not see the enemy fleet visually, algorithmic prediction based on sonar and laser imaging had been mostly accurate in the composition and line of approach. It confirmed all of the patrolmen’s worst fears. This was a heavily armed flotilla, headed to the station at full speed.
Four gun-frigates, two ten-launcher missile frigates, a cruiser and an engineering vessel made up the “enemy” fleet. They were arrayed in an arrowhead formation, with the cruiser front and center, and the standard gun frigates screening for the missile frigates and the engineering ship heading up the rear. All of the ships had been painted with a black livery and a logo: a black eagle made of simple shapes, in a white sunburst itself within a red circle. Though the men fancied their chances of defending Vogelheim from just the Frigates, it was the Cruiser that gave them pause.
This was a brand new and imposing Ritter class Cruiser. This class had an iconic sword-like profile with sleek, modern designs for its fins, conning tower and jets. Artistic as it was in aesthetics, the Cruiser also bristled with retractable weaponry, including a double-barreled heavy coilgun emplacement and multiple defensive gas gun turrets.
Armed only with light coilguns and one light torpedo tube each, the Cutters would have a tough time engaging such a ship.
When this lead ship hailed them, the Cutters were inclined to try to come to terms.
“Attention, Vogelheim Patrol Fleet! We are not here to fight you! We are giving you a chance to join the people’s justice! We are here only for the tyrant Erich von Fueller, who has betrayed the people to foreign enemies! Interfere with us, and you become the enemy of the national proletariat! We ask that you join us! Join the uprising of the national proletariat!”
At first the hail was simply voice data over the acoustic protocol, but when the patrolmen picked up laser communications, they saw a tall, strong, brown-haired young woman in a black and silver uniform bedecked with awards and medals not of naval standard. She had a severe expression that befitted her firebrand speech. It was clear she would not back down.
“My name is Heidelinde Sawyer, I hold the rank of Sturmbannführer within the Volkisch Movement. The national proletariat demands the immediate surrender of Erich von Fueller! Join us, patrol fleet, or we will open fire!”
After many years, the stage was finally set for Elena’s class reunion.