“Now, listen up, and listen well. I’m only doing this to give you a chance to repay me.”
“Of course. I have no illusions otherwise, my fair lady.”
“Okay. I am going to take your arm now. Don’t mistake it for anything serious.”
“Absolutely. I am all yours– in a non-serious, purely transactional way of course.”
Dominika clung close to Sameera’s arm while they walked.
“And I’ll have you know, I truly won’t accept being taken somewhere corny.”
“What about somewhere trendy?”
“Trendy is acceptable.”
“Phew! I almost had to turn us right back around.”
“That’s– don’t be silly. I’m just saying– after all the trouble, I expect to be treated nicely.”
Sameera al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun was all smiles, while her date Dominika Rybolovskaya had a mix of disgruntled expression and needy body language that must have confused onlookers. In fact, to everyone else, they must have looked like a strange couple.
Sameera was tall and gallant with dexterous limbs, a solid trunk and an ample bosom, a pretty face with sharp eyes and a sleek jaw, long silky brown hair tied into a ponytail; but she was difficult to place, always ambiguous. Clearly a woman, but with a style and swagger that seemed more solidly masculine; her ears and tail marking her as a Shimii or perhaps a Loup– yet never more than ‘perhaps’ either; with a city-girl style and yet a rural easiness.
Meanwhile, Dominika was clearly a Katarran, and yet shorter and more waifish than her companion. Her long, voluminous red hair had brown streaks, both colors dyed, and interspersed inside it were black-striped red strands that were actually long, thin fins coming down the sides and back of her head, rather than hair. Her skin was a flat pink color, and visible on exposed parts of her body were bumps that looked slightly inflamed — but which were actually photophores, bioluminescent structures on her skin. Her eyes were also quite striking, bright pink irises with a blue limbal ring, falling sharply upon any target of her gaze.
A Katarran was an uncommon sight, but a Katarran being so openly Katarran?
Clinging to a Shimii/Loup of some kind like lovers?
“So, what’s the big surprise?” Dominika asked.
“You’ll see soon.” Sameera said, smiling gently. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing extravagant.”
“It wouldn’t make a difference. We’ll stick out like albino fish in the school regardless.”
“Well then. I promise it won’t be corny.”
“Oh enough. I’m just trying to make you aware. I’m not so easily pleased.”
“I know that for a fact, milady. And yet, I can’t run away from a challenge.”
Both of them were wearing clothes they had brought in from the Union.
Their fits were not especially fancy and were generic enough to betray nothing of their origin, while still communicating their styles. Sameera wore a simple black tanktop that exposed a bit of her well-defined midriff, along with workout pants and a green jacket. Dominika wore a backless, sleeveless dark red dress that was rendered a bit less revealing by a long blue jacket. Her jacket had diamond cutouts on the sides and sleeves that unveiled several photophores on her skin. It was too bright in C-block for them to glow, however.
“I can almost feel the staring. If any of them linger for too long and cause a problem–”
“It’s fine. We have our IDs– and you look stunning. Anyone would look.” Sameera said.
“You’re a bit more of a showoff than I took you for.” Dominika said. “Proud of your abs?”
“What’s the point in working so hard if I can’t show off every once in a while?”
Sameera winked, and Dominika averted her gaze, a bit redder in the face than before.
“You look– worthy of my company.” She said. “I’m not embarrassed to be seen with you.”
Sameera wagged her tail and acknowledged the compliment silently.
She was a bit surprised that her invitation wasn’t turned down entirely.
An invitation to a date at a mystery location, so that the crux of the afternoon would be a pleasant surprise. To find herself with Dominika clinging to her arm and playing the needy femme, walking together flanked by two-story plastic buildings along a fake cobblestone road, under the sunlamps and grey steel sky of Kreuzung. It had been a longshot.
Thankfully, Dominika accepted the framing that it was a gift, to repay her for all the worry.
Sameera was elated. She really wanted to go out with Dominika; the hard-to-get act only made her more curious and excited about the soft underbelly of her squadmate.
Some part of her suspected, however, that Dominika really wanted to be spoiled a bit.
So she had the perfect idea of where to take the acerbic Katarran on a date.
“What do you think of this district? Oddly quaint isn’t it?” Sameera asked.
“It’s all too fake. I see the defects too clearly to appreciate the effort.” Dominika replied.
Sameera was trying to immerse herself in the little fantasy of the place– but she guessed Dominika was simply less of a romantic than she was. Not that she would ever begrudge her the difficulty. Those plastic buildings all around them were gussied up with fake brick textures and false slanted ceilings of curved tiles, the cobblestone beneath them too smooth to be real, the sky above too unconvincing with its flat and even LED cluster placements. It was trying to cultivate an old-world appeal, but the artifice was too evident.
She wondered if perhaps, a version of this that was closer to the truth existed in a more affluent place. After all, this was still only C-block, the second-largest block in the core station in terms of space, but still a middling place in terms of wealth and exclusivity. Perhaps up in A-block there was real brick, real cobblestone, a real blue sky– maybe even a captive sun, performing an ancient dance in the sky for the rich inhabitants. Who knew?
Someone like her was born inexorably barred from such sights.
“Hey, prince charming? You okay? What’s got you grimacing?”
Sameera looked down at Dominika clinging even tighter to her side. She smiled.
“Ah, I was just thinking that I prefer the kitschy fakeness of all of this.”
Sameera glanced up at briefly at the ceiling, shading her eyes.
Up above them, far above, was the affluent A-block of Kreuzung. She nodded towards it.
“I think it’d be too absurd to see the real thing. I’d question why it’s even there.” She said.
Dominika blinked, in her eyes a gently dawning realization. “Huh. You’ve got a point.”
“But hey. Less socially conscious talk. We’re greedy mercs after all.”
“I’m not a greedy merc.” Dominika said. “I’m a ravishing young beauty out on the town.”
Sameera got a sense of whiplash from how quickly Dominika’s moods seemed to shift.
But that only excited her even more.
“Then I will play the part of your gentleman without fail.”
After twenty or thirty minutes of walking from the elevator that dropped them off on the block, Sameera and Dominika rounded a corner into a circular street in which there were several shops with colorful signs. All the fake old world brick gave away to trendy, minimalist storefronts with geometric color patterns and simple facades. Unlike the sparsely populated outer street, these cafes and shops were well-traveled, with their outdoor tables beginning to fill up with brunch guests as the pair arrived. While some of the pedestrians were casually dressed like Sameera and Dominika, most of the guests wore uniforms of various sorts, either the grey business suits that constituted the corporate uniform, or the coats of police, nurses, the fireproof jackets of guild unionized maintenance workers, and so forth.
Teeming with middle class clientele, the street cast a stronger contrast against them.
“Here we are, what shop do you want to go to? I was thinking the Patisserie there.”
For a moment, Dominika looked taken aback by all the people, and the cutesy vibes.
“Wow. Can we afford this? I thought we were going to a park or something.”
“I checked the prices, everything is reasonably within my Marks stipend.”
“Hmm. Well, if it’s your treat, let’s start with the Patisserie then.” Dominika said.
“Anything that my ravishing young beauty desires.” Sameera cooed.
All of the little café tables with their green umbrellas were taken up, so the young couple navigated past them and into the shop itself to take up a booth seat, turning heads all throughout. Whether it was their beauty or their ethnicities, Sameera wasn’t about to question. As long as their attention remained confined to gazing from afar, Sameera could enjoy the obvious curiosity of the Imbrians around them. They sat amid the simple and warm salmon pink interior of the shop, their booth across from several long counters with ritzy gold and glass displays filled with a rainbow of sweets, cakes, cookies and breads.
Sameera thought they would sit across from each other, but Dominika surprised her yet again by following her into the same half of the booth. She continued to cling close to her, a piece of arm candy more delectable than any of the sweets the shop had on display.
Inside the windowless shop, the lights were dimmer than outside. Pressed together in their booth seat, Sameera could see the little charming bumps on Dominika’s body glowing a gentle green. The design of her dress played well with these features, her halter plunging into a deep vee that exposed a humble bit of cleavage, and a line of evenly spaced photophores like a little arrow between her collarbones and breasts. Her jacket was starting to fall from her shoulders and did very little now to cover her bioluminescence.
Or the captivating softness of her round shoulders; the striking curve of her collarbones–
“What are you so keen on, Miss Gentleman?” Dominika met Sameera’s wandering eyes.
Her voice was a tiny bit teasing, but her expression was as surly as ever.
What kind of signals are you sending to me, milady? Much to consider, there…
Sameera laughed it off. “I’ve just never seen you glow like this. It’s appealing.”
Dominika averted her gaze, not with a sharp huff, but slowly, with a little grin.
Was she softening up, or just a different kind of harsh? Either way, it was titillating.
On their table, there were little pink and gold plastic booklets that had the menu items with pictures, and ordering was done on a touchscreen through a very spartan graphical interface that conflicted with the cheery pink aura of the shop. There were several dozen menu items.
Up front and with the largest picture in the booklet, was the shop’s special Baumkuchen, a cake composed of three circular, stacked layers of dough completely drowned in chocolate that was then allowed to set. Various colorful syrup drizzles could be ordered, and patterns could be designed around the cake to make it showier and more picturesque. There was also an entire section of the menu devoted to Bossches, large dough balls covered in chocolate that had different sweet, creamy fillings. On the simpler side, they had baked or fried dough items like Franzbrots, which were simply dusted with powdered sugar or cinnamon.
Ultimately, what caught Sameera’s attention the most was a section titled Exotic Delights.
In this section, the booklet had a layout with colorful geometric patterns that Sameera thought she recognized as Shimii in origin, or at least inspired by the Shimii’s art. She thought she saw similar patterns on the colors of the shop buildings too. At the top of a two-page spread a note let the reader know these were featured in a trendy Imbrian TV show.
Central within the spread was a multicolored array of flavored Halwas, a soft dessert with a base of sesame paste, mixed with sweeteners, fruits, other nuts and set. Rashidun halwas were often simple shapes, like crumbly squares that were topped simply. However, the shop’s centerpiece halwa, bright orange, looser in consistency, heavily garnished and spread in the shape of a crescent, was much more Mahdist in nature. There were also numerous Sahlab on offer, a creamy pudding that could also be colorfully decorated. It seemed that the colors and decorations were part of the draw of these Shimii-inspired desserts.
And part of the business plan.
These exotic desserts carried the highest prices on the menu by far.
Dubbed “Parsa’s Delight” by the shop, the Mahdist Halwa was 30 marks a serving.
Her fingers gripped the booklet tighter as she ran down the offerings and their prices.
She grit her teeth and her muscles tensed up. Her heartbeat hammered in her chest.
“So we’re not wanted here, but our food is a trendy treat.”
Looking at them made Sameera furious. She shot a nasty sidelong glance at the counter.
“Hmm? Are you looking? What are you thinking of getting?”
From her side, Sameera noticed Dominika looking at her again.
Her expression was soft and nonchalant. She looked a bit less standoffish than before.
Sameera’s muscles loosened up, her fists unclenched.
She restrained her tone of voice.
This is her day. Don’t fuck it up, gentleman.
“Still looking.” Sameera said. “They have a lot of weird little variations of fried dough.”
It was pointless to get too angry. She wanted Dominika to make some good memories.
Eyes on the prize. Let the revolutionary fervor out some other day.
“Honestly, I’m tempted to be boring and just get a coffee.” Dominika said.
“Ah, yeah, they do beverages too, don’t they?” Sameera replied.
“Coffee, milkshakes with syrups– they have these pudding things in mugs too.”
“Hmm. That alters the calculus a little bit.”
“It makes the dryer desserts more appealing if you can get a nice beverage.”
“How strategic. I thought you were a meathead that just rushed into things?”
Dominika cracked a little grin. Sameera laughed.
“You’re right! What was I thinking? Baumkuchen it is.”
“That’s a lot of cake! I’m not going to help you eat it, you know.”
“Oh you’re eating the cake, milady.”
“You need to treat yourself! I demand to spoil you! We’re getting two Baumkuchens!”
“Two Baumkuchens with all kinds of syrup, and I’m spoon-feeding you too.”
“Don’t push your luck!”
“I’m going to push a slice of delicious cake past your pouty lips until you smile.”
In the end, after Sameera had satisfied herself making sport of Dominika, to the point that Dominika even ended up giggling just a tiny bit herself from the absurdity of it all.
Together, they decided on smaller but more indulgent patisserie orders than getting a giant chocolate cake. Dominika had been correct that Sameera preferred the straightforward solutions, and so she got something easy from the very first page: a simple Bismarcken donut ball filled half with chocolate and half with cream, along with a hot mug of cinnamon milk.
Dominika meanwhile ordered a bright plate of macarons in a variety of flavors, arrayed in rainbow-hued little pyramid that almost rivaled the color combinations of the booklet’s halwa spreads. Along with the macarons, she did get her coffee, and she got it Vienna-style, covered in whipped cream and with the espresso mixed with a bit of whipped cream as well.
“Here. Have a taste. There’s too many.”
Dominika lifted a little pink and red macaron from the plate and raised it to Sameera’s face.
Sameera briefly stared at the macaron before realizing it was she who was being fed.
Then, without warning, she took the entire dessert into her mouth in one bite.
Her lips briefly brushed the tips of Dominika’s fingers, who then jerked them back.
“Tasty. Really cute colors too. Almost like taking a bite out of you.”
Sameera could complete the intended ‘don’t push your luck’ left in Dominika’s lips.
Accompanied by the low background noise of romantic Imbrian soft rock coming from the shop’s audio system, the two of them slowly enjoyed their treats. Sameera’s donut was soft and chewy and sweet, and because of the two-tone filling it was quite moist, even without the creamy milk. Every so often she pilfered a macaron from Dominika’s plate, which her Katarran beauty did not dispute. They were quiet at first, but gradually got to talking.
Surprisingly, Dominika brought opened conversation first.
“Sameera– you said you were a Leviathan hunter.”
Dominika leaned much closer than before and whispered.
“Where were you stationed?”
Sameera enjoyed the brief brush of their bodies together.
She whispered back. “Haryana.”
Haryana was an agri-complex in Lyser. Not a name that should be said aloud in the Empire.
“How many did you see?” Dominika asked.
She was neither whispering nor speaking aloud.
That private tone would continue throughout the rest of their conversation.
“I killed a few, but nothing that impressive.”
“But was it dangerous? I have no idea how often is too often with Leviathan sightings.”
“It wasn’t like we saw Leviathans every day. It’s just that Agrispheres are really important so they get their own hunter guard. Nothing gets left up to chance and no expense is spared to keep them safe. So most of the time I would just sortie for patrols or for training, or if a buoy picked up some life signs. I was really eager to prove myself, so I’d take like, every mission.”
“Did you get to cook your own fresh food in a big plaza surrounded by trees?”
Dominika referenced a quite old Union propaganda poster about Agri-sphere living.
“Nope. My accommodations were decidedly military.” Sameera said with a chuckle.
“Did you meet a lot of bright-eyed young farmer’s girls looking innocent of the world?”
Another old propaganda poster about Lyser. Promoting starting a family in an Agri-sphere.
Sameera responded a bit awkwardly. “That’s classified information.”
Dominika grinned a little, as if satisfied at successfully poking at Sameera.
“Okay, my turn to ask about you. What was the ice frontier like?” Sameera asked.
“Cold.” Dominika said dismissively.
“Milady.” Sameera smiled dangerously. “I’m going to steal your macarons.”
“Hey! Stop! I was just kidding. Anyway. I mainly have bad memories of it, honestly.” Dominika shut her eyes and shuddered, perhaps remembering what it was like. “We were always doing maintenance and repairs, everyone was on edge, food shipments got delayed all the time so our rations kept changing. Climate control could barely keep up with the cold–”
“Ah, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to dig up bad memories.” Sameera interrupted.
“It’s fine. Nobody ever asks me about it. There’s a lot I could say, I guess.”
“If I can poke you for one more thing– why did you decide to go to the ice frontier?”
“Why did you decide to become a Leviathan Hunter?” Dominika shot back.
She sounded suddenly annoyed. That was the last thing Sameera wanted.
Sameera replied in a gentle, patient voice.
“I just kinda wanted to get out in the world and fill up an unwanted job. Do the dirty work nobody else did. I wanted to feel like I was important somewhere.” She said.
Dominika looked contrite about the turn in her attitude.
Perhaps Sameera’s honesty and earnestness had gotten through to her.
She averted her gaze, but she responded.
“I wanted to be alone. Nobody wants to work on the ice frontier. So I thought I would have a lot of space to myself, and be more self-directed. I was right; but I regretted it pretty fast.”
“Well. If you ever need a friend. You’re not alone anymore.”
From observing Dominika, Sameera thought she might draw a rebuke if she volunteered.
But she got the gist of what she wanted to say across. It was implied.
“Thanks.” Dominika whispered simply.
She reached out for a macaron and shoved it whole into her mouth.
Sameera lifted her cup of milk to her lips. That was the end of that conversation.
She liked the small talk, but it was also nice just to be able to sit beside Dominika.
Back when she had first seen her in the hangar– She was cute, and she was a little withdrawn– maybe she could use a friend? Maybe she was up for some fun? Katarrans were always less stuck up than others, or so Sameera had thought at the time. It was silly to admit it to herself, but she had a crush. If Dominika ended up hating her, at least she wanted to have some fun along the way. She was even cuter when she was all flustered. Maybe Sameera had a chance? For all her swagger– it felt like she always ended up cast aside.
Always outside the worlds of others.
But maybe this time– maybe she wouldn’t be overlooked–
maybe she would be needed—
“Sameera. I have something to tell you. It’s important.”
Dominika spoke up after a long silence, and her lupine, feline prince glanced to her side.
“I’m all ears.” Sameera said. She playfully folded then raised her ears.
She was so curious. What would Dominika say?
Dominika gathered her breath after a brief pause. Shutting her eyes.
Dominika withered under Sameera’s gaze. She looked like she would break a sweat.
“I– I wouldn’t be here without you. I don’t know– I don’t get what compelled you to risk your life for me. It’s hard to accept that you decided to take such risks for my sake. I think– it was reckless, and stupid of you. But– I’m alive now. I’m here, thanks to you. I can’t deny that– Ugh. God damn it. I’ve been trying to think of what to say for weeks. So there you go.”
She stared down at the plate of macarons in front of her, hands balled into fists at her sides.
Elated to hear those anxious words, her prince responded with a rapturous smile.
Sameera leaned a bit closer to Dominika and quickly laid an indulgent kiss on her cheek.
Dominika’s entire body quivered, her hair fins standing suddenly up and shining brighter.
“That’s all I needed in return. Non-seriously and transactionally, of course.”
Dominika’s hand absently reached up to rub her own cheek, her photophores strobing.
Once she regained her composure, she sighed and stuffed her mouth with another macaron.
Sameera, meanwhile, tried to hide her giddy, girlish exuberance and finish her donut.
That taste of Dominika’s cheek had been sweeter even than the offerings of the Patisserie.
“I need to tell you one more thing.” Dominika said, still rubbing her cheek.
“Always listening, milady.” Sameera replied.
“This is serious. Back then, when you collapsed in the hangar, and then when we were almost attacked by that demonic Diver, I was terrified for you. I– I really don’t want you to be so reckless again. I mean it. You can’t just– I don’t want– you to throw your life away.”
However she worded it, all Sameera heard, was that Dominika cared about her living.
For once she felt like she did not have perfectly recited words to say in response.
Her heart was hot and pounding hard in response.
“I’ll try. I guess I’ve never been too good at taking care of myself.” Sameera said.
“Well–” Dominika looked down at her plate, searching for the words–
She then leaned again, laying her head on Sameera’s shoulder. “You’re not alone either.”
In a part of C-block a few streets away from Dominika and Sameera’s sweet shop, the road curved around a small park, and there was a library building and a public school. In the park, library, school and the streets connecting them, a variety of kiosks, tents and other pop-up shops had gone up overnight. It was the seasonal market, a one-week open air festival of small batch textiles and handcrafts; rare collectibles like real, bound books; and fresh food made right on-site; and much more. It was a truly a focal point of station culture.
“Ahead lies our destiny, gamer–! I mean, Alex! Feast your eyes upon the sum of human endeavor! Treasures heretofore unseen arrayed for us to covet, and if our coin prove sufficient, we may yet lay claim to a king’s ransom of rare finery and culture goods–”
“–Thanks for calling me Alex every once in a while.”
Alexandra Geninov couldn’t help but feel blessed by this turn of events, however.
Her companion, Fernanda Santapena-De-La-Rosa, looked so excited to be here.
Even if she wasn’t necessarily excited to be with Alex, she hadn’t refused the offer.
This was clear sign of progress. Alex only wished she could make a save file.
Out on the town, the two perennial night-shifters of the Pandora’s Box had dressed up in their best, and only, personal outfits for shore leave. Their styles clashed quite sharply.
Fernanda had dolled herself up, the shiny purple streaks going through her long, blond hair even more pronounced than before, and the purple lipstick and eyeshadow on her delicate face sparkling with a hint of glitter. Her light figure was wrapped in a black and dark purple synthetic dress, skin-tight from the neck to its long sleeves and filigreed bodice. Diamond-shaped sheer sections on the upper chest and belly whose tips met just under the breasts, added a tasteful amount of risqué flair. Those sheer sections composed of two diamonds of tight mesh fabric, meeting end to end, were also mirrored on Fernanda’s back, on her arms, as well as in the leggings that went with the dress. On the sections of the dress that were not partially see-through, silver faux-occult patterns had been laid over the fabric. These were also present in the dress’ short, flared skirt, worn over as a bottom piece.
Simply put– she was so fucking hot that it was driving Alex low-key insane.
Alex was nowhere near the level of Fernanda’s gothic chic. Nevertheless, as she walked the streets, she started to put on a bit of swagger. She liked to think she must have looked handsome, with her tall and gallant figure, wide-shouldered, long-limbed, slender; easily a head over Fernanda; as well as her mysteriously, exotically mixed race skin tone and silky brown hair, messily stuck up in the back of her head with a single claw hair clip.
Her fashion was near completely thrown together– just things that felt comfortable if she ever had to wear something other than a uniform. She had a pair of tight blue pants with a few rips on the knees and thighs, and a blue zip-up hoodie with a little 16-bit pixel art model of a ship on the back. She wore her hoodie half-unzipped and well off-shoulder; showing off some cleavage in addition by wearing an over-size, deeply plunging white v-neck underneath the hoodie, also falling off her nice shoulders and exposing tantalizing black bra straps.
“Is there anything specific you’d like to see?”
“I shall strategize once I have laid closer look to the goods. What about thine own interest?”
“Just browsing. But honestly, I just thought you’d like a place like this.”
“Oh ho! Perhaps a dew-drop of high culture has fallen upon the brows of this gamer?”
Fernanda made a smug little face and a dramatic little gesture with her hands.
At first Alex was a little repelled by Fern. She wasn’t going to lie to herself and think she always liked her. When she first saw her she thought she was a weirdo, and their first few shifts were tense. But the more she got to know her, working those long nights on the bridge, she started to think, Fern is kinda cute. Then, they started to live together, saw more of each other outside the bridge, and Alex thought, Fern is kinda hot.
Truly, Alex’s imagination had been very limited those few weeks ago.
Fernanda, as she stood on this day, was like, geothermal event levels hot.
Alex was hitting herself for fantasizing about everyone but her!
On the way to the market, in addition to trying to work up a bit of confidence in her own body language, Alex’s eyes examined the way Fern’s dress clung to her every contour and she felt like she had to say something. Everyone loved compliments, right?
And damn– Fernada was earning every second of Alex’s lascivious gaze.
As far as Alex was concerned, today her life was not a shoot-em-up or simulator, it was a storytelling game– clearly, she was locked into the “Fern” route. This event was her chance to make some moves and score some points with the roomie to turn things romantic.
She had to nut up and take the initiative. No coward strats— big dick moves only.
“You look h– I like your dress.”
Afraid of the commit, Alex cancelled into a much safer move, like a huge coward.
Fernanda looked her up and down with a neutral but appraising expression on her face.
Was it just Alex’s imagination or did Fern’s eyes just linger on her tits?
“Much appreciated– you have–” Fernanda paused. “You possess a rather easy presence.”
With twice as many words she said about as much of a compliment as Alex had.
Not much of one at all. They averted their gazes and got to walking.
Despite the awkwardness, the two of them headed into the market with smiling faces.
Fake stone paths dotted with a few synthetic trees made up the park, the turf grass easily exposed by the lack of quality lighting to maintain the illusions. None of the architecture was very impressive, despite its attempts to put on airs. False stucco on the library façade and the false colonnades fading into the walls of the school building, it all failed to impress.
It was the streets around these landmarks that now brimmed with life.
Hundreds of sellers had arrayed themselves in every open spot along the streets. Some had large tents filled with goods, others were selling out of the trunks of small electric vehicles, yet more had carts or simple plastic table-stands with their goods on offer.
There were all kinds of people selling, young and old, men and women.
All of them were Imbrian though– nobody had even as much skin tone on them as Alex.
“Gamer– I mean, Alex, prithee, accompany me first to the purveyors of textiles.”
“None of these strike me as erotic novel type stuff.” Alex said teasingly.
“I shall prove your insolence wrong in due time! But I wish to see everything on offer!”
Rather than ignore Alex’s lagging behind, Fernanda grabbed her suddenly by the arm and pulled her toward several stands and tents were shirts, carpets, sheets, and other such goods were on sale. Alex wasn’t just being surly for the sake of it: she had noticed common themes among the textiles on sale that clashed heavily with both her own sense of fashion and quite definitely with Fernanda’s fashion. It seemed the order of the day was geometric patterns, like diamond-shaped waves and squares within circles, or even fractal patterns.
All of which had either bright flat colors, or psychedelic arrays of many colors at once.
Upon looking at these tie-dye explosions up close, Fernanda barely restrained a grimace.
“Looking for a new welcome mat to lighten up your hallway? Or maybe a cute scarf or a drape to add flair to a new look?” A seller called out to them. “Our textiles all have super chic Shimii-inspired patterns! Teen girls love these nowadays! You would be on the cutting edge of the hip new styles no matter how old you are now! C’mon, take a closer look for yourself!”
Alex wasn’t sure she’d ever seen Shimii textiles with such garish colors before.
Fernanda and her both ignored the seller and continued walking.
“Dunno about you, but I’m not that interested in what teens are doing here.” Alex said.
“Concurred.” Fernanda said with a small sigh.
There was a decent amount of foot traffic along the streets and into and out of the school and library; a variety of food vendors around the street market were taking advantage of this. Alex kept an eye out for them, as she had begun to feel slightly peckish.
However, almost all of them were selling some kind of processed meat.
Hamburg steaks, chicken wings, candied bacon; there was meat to eat everywhere she turned, but nothing like Minardo’s cooking. Strictly speaking, they weren’t forbidden from eating meat, but they had been raised to find it wasteful, so it felt odd to do so.
Both of them stopped in front of a cart with a few things for sale they had never heard of.
“Pray tell, what form of comestible is ceg kofta?” Fernanda asked.
From behind the cart, the young woman scooped up a mass of red paste flecked with white and green bits and showed it to the two of them. It smelled strong and herbal, but upon seeing it, there was no denying that it was just meat. “This is raw lamb mashed with onion, garlic, green leek and spices. It’s a Shimii specialty, it’s becoming super popular. Ten marks per, want some? I’ll throw in some rose petal lemonade on the side for free!”
“Huh? It’s raw?” Alex frowned. “Won’t that just make us sick?”
The young kofta seller narrowed her eyes. “Of course not! Shimii eat this every day!”
“Then it shall be left with them, or your impression of them. Let’s depart, gam– Alex.”
Fernanda tugged Alex’s arm and led her away from the cart quickly.
She had a grossed-out look on her face.
Alex was beginning to fear the date venue had been a miscalculation on their part, but it started to turn around when she pointed out the jewelry vendors to Fernanda. Her eyes finally twinkled with delight. There were finally goods that came in purple and black and were much more her style. Hairpins shaped like raven’s feathers, necklaces with star-shaped purple gemstones of both ferristitched and slightly more authentic varieties, brooches and wristlets and earrings in sharp and wicked shapes and designs.
It was a bit more romantic than rainbow scarves and raw meat.
Fernanda drifted from seller to seller, smiling exuberantly at the pieces on display.
She looked so exceptionally beautiful when she was happy.
Alex had a corny, stupid, gay thought– she wanted to make Fern happier more often.
Maybe it’d do everyone some good to see that smile on the regular.
If I could save right here and just come back to this moment whenever I wanted.
It was time– Alex had been too passive. She needed to make a gamer move.
There was an opportunity, and she wasn’t about to let it pass unanswered.
“Hey, Fern, come look. I found something; try this on. I think it’ll suit you.”
Working up her courage, Alex picked up a little something from the table of a compliant vendor– a choker, with a lacy, partially see-through black band and a purple decoration in front that was the shape of a broken heart. As soon as she saw the piece, Alex knew she had to grab it. When Fernanda turned to look, she paused and stared, transfixed, at the object.
Alex thought she saw a bit of a blush on Fernanda’s cheek, and quietly undid the clip in the back of the choker, and presented it, as if to say, ‘want me to put it on you?’
“I’m surprised,” Fernanda said, after some hesitation. “You– You get it, gamer.”
“Hmm? I get it?” Alex grinned.
“I– I mean to suggest, you have demonstrated a refinement in taste hitherto unseen.”
A few moments’ hesitation, and she lifted her blond hair, shut her eyes and moved closer.
Alex’s heart began to thrash.
She had never seen Fernanda make herself so– vulnerable?
Basking in the unforeseen triumph, Alex neared, leaned forward, and slowly and gently wound the choker around Fernanda’s slim neck with the utmost care and tenderness and respect. She clipped the choker on the back and adjusted it. Her hands brushed against the soft skin of Fern’s shoulders and neck, felt the silky texture of her hair, and she was close enough to smell the darkly sensuous perfume that her witch had applied for the occasion.
She could have pounced on her– oh god. Dangerous thoughts. Reel them back in.
“Oh yeah. I’m buying it.” Alex said to the vendor. She handed them a few bills.
Fernanda looked she was going to scoff out of habit at this unasked for favor–
–but she caught sight of herself in the vendor’s mirror and paused to take it in.
“It– it does look– it flatters my countenance to an acceptable degree. I will wear it.”
“It’s amazing on you. You’re amazing, Fern.”
Without thinking, she had found herself saying something far more blatant than before.
For a moment Alex expected Fern to flinch and kick her shin in disgust, or something.
“Hah. Never was it in doubt. My nymph-like beauty is without equal among mortals.”
Instead, Fernanda turned a conceited smile on Alex and walked away with a haughty air.
There was a second where Alex felt kind of stupid. Like she had been tricked somehow.
Then her heart felt lighter. She was happy; she was satisfied.
She loved seeing Fern like this. It wasn’t a contest– it wasn’t a competitive game.
Fernanda was smiling. She was smiling too. It was nice– it wasn’t perfect, but it was nice.
They were having a good time, all things considered.
Three months ago, this would have been unthinkable. But they had been through a lot.
And now, Alex really felt like– she wanted Fernanda to like her– she felt that–
there was no one else she wanted to take those night shifts with than Fernanda.
Even if all they did was argue about dumb, pointless stuff. It was fine; if it was with her.
But does she like me back? She’s been acting pretty flirty if I think about it.
Maybe Alex just had to be the sexy biracial gamer chick of her dreams!
Maybe it was that easy!
Alex waved goodbye to the vendor out of sheer personal exuberance and followed along behind Fernanda with a renewed energy. She had never felt this way about anyone, and she thought she liked it. Whatever status ailment she had been inflicted with, she hoped it wouldn’t go away soon. Everything felt so easy now, and she was no longer so anxious about displeasing Fernanda. She thought a successful date was essentially already locked in.
“Do you think they have any video games here?” Alex asked, with a big, cheery smile.
Fernanda glanced over her shoulder at her. “Mayhaps you’ll find the rare handicrafted memory card of a departed old matron, boasting bespoke digital entertainments heretofore unseen, lovingly stitched pixel by pixel over a centenary of teacups and porridge bowls.”
Her voice was thick with sarcasm, and Alex loved it too. Berate me more, princess!
And what was that she saw? Was that a little smile playing on Fernada’s purple lips?
There you go! You’re winning, Alexandra Geninov! You’re finally winning!
Closer to the school and library, there were bigger tents with exactly what Fernanda was looking for. Shelves upon shelves of books– of course, none of them were real hardcover books. Instead, they had very thin screens within a smooth plastic shell containing a microcomputer wafer smaller than an ID card and similar in weight.
All it could do was display the book in its attached memory card. Single purpose reader devices were uncommon in the Union; almost all books in the Union were just library files that the station computer served to portables or room computers. In the Imbrium, however, books were bought and sold as limited, physical goods, hence the hardware.
Alex and Fernanda walked into a big tent, big enough to have a dozen shelves inside.
Each shelf was marked with the genre of books it contained, and in no time, Fernanda had shuffled over to the “Dark Romance” shelf. Because the books were so thin, there were hundreds and hundreds of them in each shelf. They were poorly labeled on the shelf itself, most of them unmarked, requiring that the book be picked up and booted up with the tiny buttons on the case, to determine what it was. Fernanda began looking through them.
“So, any steamy lesbian sex?” Alex asked, peering over Fernanda’s shoulder.
No immediate response.
And there she went– Fernanda’s eyes scanned across the lines of text one after another.
Her slender fingers swiped across the screen, turning page after page.
After a few moments, a slightly hoarse laugh escaped her lips.
Alex smiled and stood by, eventually picking up a random book herself.
Perhaps seeing her disengaging, Fernanda’s gaze lifted from her book for a brief moment.
“Gamer– Alex. You cannot reduce this literary juggernaut to such simplicity. Dark romance works are obsessed with the sadomasochistic relationships that can develop between the same sex. They are characterized by brooding protagonists, dark acts of sexuality, and bitter endings. Indeed, there is the unveiling of the sapphic flesh, but this is hardly the only appeal of these works. In the Union, these works are still largely the domain of enthusiast writing, but they appear to have been broadcast more widely in the Empire.” Fernanda said.
Indeed, after a few pages into the book Alex had picked up, there was already lesbian sex. A special agent who was infiltrating a Solceanos convent into order to sneak out the woman that she loved, who had been forced to hide there due to her political rivals; and she just couldn’t help but pause and get knuckle deep inside her girl before their escape–
Fernanda peered at Alex’s book, shut off her own reader and picked up a second sheet.
“You have come into possession of a future volume of ‘The Death of The Umbran Lilly’.” Fernanda said. “If you desire to assist me, help me collect the rest. I desire to obtain as many volumes as they have available. You’ll be pleased to hear I will allow you to carry them.”
“Uh huh. Or I guess I should say ‘as thou wisheth, o dark mistress’.”
Alex shut off the reader in her hands and started flipping through others.
Due to the lack of good labeling the two of them kept taking and putting back volumes as they looked. It was easy for Alex to think of this as some kind of mission and put her whole head into it. From what Fernanda gathered there were fifteen volumes.
“So lesbians aside, what kind of stuff do you look for in a series? Why this one?”
“Hah! To ask such a simplistic question of me. Of course, what else could I desire but to peer into the deepest depths of human desire and community? To explore the darkest and most enshadowed recesses of the spirit and expose the most turbulent angst contained therein?”
“I’m sorry but all that still sounds like you just want lesbians in it.”
“Hmph. Pray tell, what do you seek from your little video games, gamer?”
“Well, first priority is good gamefeel, like slick controls and mechanics.”
“Pah! Gamefeel. And you pretend my words mean nothing?”
Fernanda broke out into laughter. For a second Alex felt rebuked again.
But Fernanda seemed to be smiling still.
Alex started to become invested in finding all twenty-something volumes of ‘The Death of the Umbran Lilly’ in order to appease Fernanda, and quickly became absorbed in the task.
She would only tear her eyes from a book or shelf if she found one.
To the point that she did not notice a third individual making their way into the shelf.
And while being particularly dramatic with snatching a book from the shelf, elbowed them somewhere, and knocked the book they were reading right out of their hands. It felt like the noise of that book hitting ground was louder than any other sound in the entire station, overwhelmingly loud, drowning out Alex’s breathing, heartbeat, thoughts. She was immediately, completely embarrassed to have hit someone else, and crouched to pick up the book without a second to spare. Thankfully, the portable readers had padded corners.
“Agh! Oh, I’m such an oaf, I’ll get it for you–”
Crouching on the ground, picking up the portable that had fallen–
In front of a pair of thick, black boots, out of which long black tights emerged.
Alex’s eyes followed the tights up a pair of long and well-defined legs.
To black skirt and coat, worn over a black shirt. Long sleeves with red armbands.
One emblazoned with a stylized black sun, another with an eagle-like dragon.
Dark brown eyes looked down at her on the floor.
A bushy tail swung leisurely behind the figure.
Peeking out from around a beret were two tall, furry ears.
“Ah. Thank you. I was surprised too.”
She reached down a hand. Black gloves with a cuff bearing that same strange sun motif.
Alex recognized the symbols. The Commissar had made sure everyone knew them.
The Sonnenrad, a symbol of esoteric fascism; and the Reichsadler, imperial heraldry.
Judging by the armband, this woman–
–was an officer of the Volkisch Movement!
Alex had stricken a fascist officer!
I fucked up! I fucked everything up! You did it again you fucking loser Alex Geninov!
Shocked stupid, not knowing what to do, Alex took her gloved hand.
That woman easily pulled Alex back up to a stand, her grip confident and strong.
She was a Loup, Alex thought– shorter than her, with long, brown hair with neat, blunt bangs, fluffy ears and a bushy, bristly tail that wagged easily behind her. Her eyes were a dark, deep blue. She had an affable expression, but her gaze was so intense–
“I’m– I’m really sorry about all this! Really! It won’t happen again!” Alex said.
She stared straight into that cutting gaze, feeling eviscerated by its depth.
This woman, whose hand she was holding, could finish everything Alex cared about.
Her life; the mission; and– the love of her life–
“Please forgive us.” Alex mumbled.
At her side, Fernanda froze up, staring wide-eyed with her hands clutching a book.
“Oh, it’s nothing. Fellow enthusiasts of taboo literature, right?”
The Volkisch officer smiled and reached out a hand again, this time for a shake.
Alex, still dumbstruck and anxious, shook it, perhaps a bit too vigorously.
“Um. Alex.” She said, by way of introduction.
“My name is Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Alex handed her back the book that had been dropped.
It visibly shook in her nervous grip.
Aatto caught on and wagged a finger.
“Oh I’m so sorry. I understand– please don’t worry. I’m just a paper pusher, I’m not here for the ‘zeal and glory of the National Proletariat.’” She said the slogan in a deeper, mocking voice. “Just pretend like I’m anyone else here. You’ve got a bunch of ‘Umbran Lilly’ right? I can recommend it. Though I prefer stories that have kingdom-building elements.”
She reached across from Alex and picked up another book from the shelf.
It was the last volume they were looking for.
Aatto handed it to a demure Fernanda.
“Of course, there’s not much to spoil, the name of the series says it all. Nevertheless, it is a truly intriguing little tale.” Aatto says. “I think the imagination on display can excite both dabbler and connoisseur alike with its audacity. Even though our heroine must die for the sake of the morality laws– her journey takes some incredible turns. I only wish that women such as these were allowed to live out their conquests to the fullest. Anyway. Enjoy it.”
Alex and Fernanda speechlessly took the books.
Aatto meanwhile turned back to the shelf and picked up a different book to peruse.
While periodically staring at Aatto as if she would pounce if they ignored her for too long, they grabbed one of the bags left in the aisles for prospective customers, put all their books in it, and bid silent leave from the Volkisch officer. The entire time Alex was around her, she waited for the other shoe to drop. Would there be someone in one of the shelves closer to the front of the tent, ready to tackle them to the ground? Would there be a tactical team outside that would immediately fill them with lead for buying perverted books?
Outside the tent, the pair found themselves unmolested in the middle of the street.
Except by the amount of money it cost to buy 20 volumes of lesbian erotica.
They both looked back over their shoulders into the tent, to see if Aatto was watching.
Nothing. She must have still been perusing the dirty books in the back.
Fernanda and Alex heaved a sigh of relief, leaning into each other.
“We should seize the march.” Fernanda said. “Before we bequeath opportunities to fate.”
She thrust the bag of books into Alex’s chest, urging her to carry it.
They left the open air market, Alex’s breathing still troubled by the fright in the book tent. After stealing away into the wide open streets of C-block, putting several corners between them and the open-air market, the two of them slowly began to take lighter steps.
There were no snipers or barricades or armored cars.
Alex was the first one to laugh, but Fernanda soon joined her.
“She was just a paper pusher– dressed like that? What kind of department has a ‘judge, jury and executioner’ style dress code?” Alex said. “And she’s into gay porn? I can’t deal with it.”
“Envision joining a sapphic reading group only to find that in your meetings.” Fern said.
Both of them guffawed openly on the street for a moment.
“God. I’m starving. We should find a place we can actually eat at.” Alex finally said.
“I’m afraid I must concur. Without replenishment, you’ll soon have to carry me too.”
Fernanda glanced at Alex as if looking for a response– and smiled when Alex laughed.
Farther down the street, they found about the only place where they were guaranteed to get something vegetarian– a fruit bar, serving a variety of smoothies and drinks. Rather than actual fresh fruit, which would have been prohibitively expensive, the venue was dominated by several rows displaying different cartridges of stitcher material to mix together.
Fruits were processed toward the creation of flavor bases, syrups, creams, and fibers, contained in small transparent cylinders that would be fed into the smoothie machine. Guests could choose any combination, for different flavors, colors and textures.
This was a shop after Alex’s own heart.
In the Union, fresh fruit was exceedingly hard to get. Fresh food was so precious it was the main perk of farming– getting to have any fresh fruit and veggies at all was a highly desirable perk. Every unit of food grown in the Union that was bound for cafeterias, schools, workplaces and community pantries, was immediately processed into a product that would last longer and be transportable. Everything was dried, milled, pulped or pickled; only a few whole fruits were frozen for consumption in near-original form, and these were rare goods often bound for the navy or as some kind of prize or bonus for outstanding citizens.
Alex was quite used to eating stuff like this– smoothies made by stitcher machines.
It was easy to eat, pretty tasty, and it conferred a hit of sugar for a late night gaming boost.
There were some unfamiliar fruits on offer, however. One of the perks of Empire.
“What are you getting?” Alex asked Fern.
Fern grinned to herself. “I aspire to compose a drink that evokes the midnight shadow.”
“You’re getting purple stuff. Got it.”
Alex was throwing stones from a glass house, as her drink was essentially “green stuff.”
Because of all the shelves, there was no indoor seating in the fruit bar, but the establishment had put up a few tables and chairs in an adjacent alleyway for customers to leave the street. The pair sat down under a white umbrella and sipped their smoothies in disposable plastic mugs, taking in the somewhat stale air of the district and catching their breath.
Fern’s drink did look surprisingly tempting with its deep purple hue and swirl of a brighter purple syrup. Alex’s was monotonously green and somewhat fibrous, but the strongest flavor was a sweet berry syrup that had been run through the drink along with cream.
Fernanda extended her hand toward Alex, the smoothie cup in her thin fingers.
“Perchance a sip, gamer? You’ve been eyeing it constantly.”
Alex leaned forward and took a sip from the plastic straw.
This prompted an explosion of sweetness onto her tongue she was not really prepared for.
She could vaguely taste something starchy, maybe beet? And something like grapes?
“Wow.” She said. “It’s really purple.” She cocked a grin.
Fernanda retracted her hand. She looked down at her drink.
There was a brief moment of hesitation before she put her lips on the straw and continued to drink as she had been. Alex thought nothing whatsoever of this moment.
She did think, seated across from Fernanda, that they hadn’t really gotten a chance to really sit down and talk about things that were not work related. She felt really curious–
she knew all these things that Fernanda liked and did–
–but how much did she know about Fernanda herself?
“Hey, Fern, where are you from?” Alex asked. “I don’t think you’ve ever said.”
Fernanda narrowed her eyes at Alex and sipped more from her drink.
“Is it security stuff? You can answer a bit quiet can’t you? No one’s listening.” Alex said.
“It’s not that.” Fernanda put down her drink. “It is simply neither pertinent nor interesting.”
“I’m interested.” Alex said. “I mean, if you wanna talk boring, I’m just from Mt. Raja.”
Fernanda’s eyes drifted away from Alex. Her body language noticeably softened.
“Sevastopol.” She said simply. “I was raised in Sevastopol. Then I joined the navy.”
“Couldn’t find a way to make that sound fancy?” Alex said in jest.
“My life simply wasn’t fancy.” Fernanda replied seriously.
Alex noticed the shift in her behavior and tone and felt slightly alarmed by it.
It was uncharacteristic– she felt like she was fumbling the run at the last second and needed to recover to post a good score. Like before, she thought she needed to appease Fern again.
“Oh. Sorry. I mean– I don’t think you need to be self-conscious. I’m just a huge loser, you know? I wasn’t the smartest kid, my parents didn’t like me, like– if we compare childhoods, I’m probably way more embarrassing. But– I think anything you say is probably really interesting! So you don’t have to worry! I’m just a gamer after all, I won’t judge you!”
She smiled and shrugged and tried to look like she was sounding funny when she wasn’t.
She was just motor mouthing without aim and sounding pathetic. And yet she continued.
“Sevastopol is a big shipbuilding station isn’t it? Did that make you want to go Navy?”
Fernanda’s averted gaze slowly drifted back toward Alex– and softened slightly.
“I just wanted an adventure.” Fernanda said. “Sevastopol was too straightforward.”
“Yeah. I kinda wanted that too.” Alex said. “I guess more like. An escape, maybe.”
“Yes. Life could use more adventure, don’t you think? More romance; more mystery.”
“Oh, for sure, for sure. You know, you got that mysterious girl stuff down real good.”
“You think so? Well– I’m not displeased to hear it, I suppose.”
Fernanda averted her gaze again, resting her chin on the back of her hand.
Alex started drinking from her smoothie again to keep herself from talking any more.
Shit did I fumble everything like this? At the finish line?!
Both of them were silent for several minutes while their cups started to drain.
Fernanda broke the silence. Twiddling her fingers. Eyes avoiding contact.
She cleared her throat.
When she began speaking again, she had returned to her previous tone of voice. “You were a most amusing traveling companion on this excursion. It would not trouble me if, perhaps, were we to trod upon a new shore– if we could reprise this kind of event.”
Alex couldn’t help but beam brilliantly in response. “Of course, my mistress of the dark.”
“However, I must insist upon one oath from you.” She said.
“Um, sure,” Alex blinked, confused.
Fernanda put down her cup and looked at Alex in the eyes.
“Self-effacing ill becomes you. Making sport of you is my exclusive domain.” She said.
Alex stared, momentarily dumbfounded.
Once she understood the meaning of Fernanda’s words– she almost wanted to cry.
“Ah, yeah.” She replied, feeling bashful and stupid and elated. Everything was mixed up.
I’m being such an idiot, but– God she’s so fucking cute.
Alex thought, there was no sugar-coating it anymore.
She really was in love with Fernanda, huh?
No changing routes now, gamer– she really was seeing this one through to the end.
As anxiety-inducing and weird and kinda cringey as everything felt to her–
–it also felt amazing.
“We’re going to drink. They have plenty of beers here. Order some. I’ll cover it.”
Khadija explained the situation serious and unsmiling in their private booth.
Sieglinde Castille stared at her from across the table. She blinked several times.
“It’s Khadija. Don’t ma’am me. And don’t dare call me the Lion of Cascabel.”
“I wasn’t going to–”
“I’m not drinking alone. I’ve drank alone enough. If I’m drinking, you’re drinking.”
“We were just going to play Mahjong?”
Khadija leaned in closer, a smile playing across her glossy, fuchsia-colored lips.
“It’s a game bar. We’re playing a game, and drinking. Order up.”
Her diction was slow and threatening, her expression belabored in spelling each word.
“One of us should remain sober.” Sieglinde said. Her voice trembled.
“I’m not letting you be more sober than me.”
“This is ridiculous.”
“You’re ridiculous. Everything about you is ridiculous. You want to talk to me? Drink.”
“Isn’t it against your religion?”
“I’m good over here. I won’t be having wine. Neither will you. Now pick a drink.”
“I’ve– I’ve been trying to remain sober.” Sieglinde said. She averted her eyes.
Khadija put on a sadistic smile. “Whatever streak you had going, it’s broken. Drink.”
Sieglinde Castille looked finally defeated.
How could she object?
How dare she even think, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’
She knew full well what she had done to deserve it. In her own mind, Khadija was sure she could heap any kind of abuse upon Sieglinde and it would be justified in the final calculus of their lives. Making her drink didn’t even rank among the punishments Khadija thought to subject the former Red Baron to for the terrors she had caused. Condemning her to be less morose for one night? Giving her a bit of liquid courage to help her discuss her sins? Hell– God forbid, maybe they might even get so fucked up as to have some fun.
Woe be upon her– she could endure this much.
“Fine. Fine.” Sieglinde sighed. “I’ll have a Katzbalger. Or– a few, I suppose.”
“What a proletarian choice! I think I’ll start with some rum punch.” Khadija said.
Ever since Sieglinde’s defection, Khadija had not known what to do with herself.
There was something deeply perverse about her old enemy switching sides.
She didn’t blame captain Korabiskaya for being merciful. If Khadija had wanted Sieglinde dead, she had her chance, and she did not take it. In the middle of battle, Khadija had decided that she did not deserve to die. On some level, that had to mean burying her grudge, but she was not able to do so. She continued to nurse an animosity toward her.
It was easy to keep carrying on as she had been.
Things that were easy to carry on doing weren’t always right, however.
There was no avoiding it forever. She wasn’t a little kid with a playground rivalry. There was no teacher who was going to sit them down and make them hash things out. Khadija needed to confront what kind of woman Sieglinde Castille had become in A.D. 979. Not twenty years ago, but now, when they were both old and Khadija had settled their affair. Sieglinde had defected, and even given opportunity, she was not using it as a pretext to escape.
She was demure and compliant. She was abundantly courteous. She seemed sincere.
Khadija had won their brawl out at sea, and she was being graceful in victory.
She would give Sieglinde something of a chance. To determine how they would live.
So– what better way to break the ice than to have a drink and play some Mahjong?
Whether in the Empire or Union, it was not hard to find bars like the one they were in.
As soon as they walked through the door, it was a long hall with individual rooms, and somewhere in the back there was a kitchen. Each room had plush booth seats and a convertible table. This particular bar encouraged guests to play games while they drank and ate light snacks– but it also probably didn’t mind them doing other things too. An inexorable part of living in a station was that most people had a very small amount of personal space, and it was difficult to be private with someone without inviting them into that personal space. Venues where two persons could be private without necessarily being personal were a necessary middle place for people like Khadija. Access to alcohol didn’t hurt either.
Aside from the red upholstery of the seats, the room was pretty spartan and sparsely decorated. Grey walls, white lights, a table with multiple folding ends. There was a touchpad on the wall that could change the color of the lights, the climate of the room, and play music. Khadija chose to play a channel of gentle acoustic guitar tracks, though every so often the computer threw in some other similar music unasked for. Under the booth seats, there were boxes that contained cards and game pieces for a variety of games.
Khadija withdrew the boxed set of pieces for mahjong, a rather deep game of colorful tiles.
“How much do you know about mahjong?” Khadija said.
“I’ve played it before. It’s from the Far East, isn’t it?” Sieglinde replied.
“Right. In the Imbrium, the game made its way to us from Hanwa, after the border wars.” Khadija said. She showed Sieglinde the pieces, which, in this Imbrian set, all had alphanumeric characters, rather than High Hanwan. “It’s an old game with many variants. Hanwa may have got it when they conquered Yu. It’s something that has been transferred, regrettably, through the violence of conquest, assimilation, and rivalry between empires.”
An uncanny prop for their dispute– but Khadija only chose it because she was bored of cards.
Khadija began to look through the tiles, checking to see if the set was actually complete.
“I learned about it in the army. I guess that figures.” Sieglinde said in a glum voice.
“Are you good at it?” Khadija asked.
Sieglinde shook her head. “Not at all.”
“Hah! Well. Of myself, I would say, I’m good enough for how I like to play.”
Low stakes gambling among drunk acquaintances, was the piece left unspoken.
While Khadija was going through the tiles, someone rapped on the door.
Through a slot, they had brought the first round of drinks. Sieglinde’s Katzbalger was a lightly decorated can of cheap beer with a cartoon of a dead cat on it, advertised as a low brow drink for salt of the earth Imbrian men. Khadija had been a little surprised that Sieglinde would order it. Meanwhile, her own can of rum punch was as bright and fruity as the contents were, garishly blue with a smiling, possibly drunk strawberry mascot.
Neither of them had dressed up for the occasion. They both wore the same teal half-jacket, and sleeveless button-down white shirt that characterized Treasure Box Transports. Sieglinde wore the uniform pants, while Khadija had a skirt and black tights. Wearing the same thing heightened the contrasts between them. Sieglinde was taller, broad-shouldered, her long mane of golden hair falling over her shoulders and back, almost down below the waist. Her sleek cheekbones and soft, slightly rounded nose gave her a slightly more traditional beauty. Khadija meanwhile was smaller, leaner, wiry, and her facial features were slightly sharper. She was perfectly manicured, lips wine-red, eyes perfectly shadowed the same color, lashes done, toner on her skin, where Sieglinde was unadorned. Khadija’s long hair was a shade of gold as well, but still different in texture and darker in tone.
And of course, Khadija’s fluffy ears, as perfectly manicured as the rest of her appearance.
Her bushy tail gently waved behind her, a sign of how calm she was.
“Here, this sheet has all the scoring rules and the hands on it.” Khadija said.
She set the sheet down off to the side of their play area, where both could reference it.
Then, she cracked open her can of rum punch, and stared expectantly at Sieglinde.
Looking glumly down at her can, Sieglinde popped the top as well. She took it in hand.
“A toast?” She proposed.
Khadija grinned. “Oh? I’d love to! You read my mind!”
They tapped their cans together, and then sipped from them.
Sieglinde took a much longer drink than Khadija, surprising the older Shimii.
When she put down her can again, the former noblewoman shut her eyes and groaned.
“What did we toast to?” Khadija asked.
Sieglinde lifted her can from the table again. “To peace.”
“Bah, childish and wishy-washy.” Khadija lifted her own can. “To struggle!”
She leaned across the table and tapped her can against Sieglinde’s a second time.
Then she downed the rest, as if to show Sieglinde how to really crush a can of liquor.
Meeting the silent challenge, the ex-baron downed the rest of her can on her next draught.
“There we go! That’s the spirit! Khoroshego!” Khadija laughed, raising her empty can.
Soon, the second round arrived, but this one was not so immediately thrown down.
“I thought Shimii were all very reserved and sober. Especially the women.” Sieglinde said.
“I’m a communist and communists can drink.” Khadija said. She watched Sieglinde’s dumbfounded expression and laughed out loud. “Look, there are many things I am supposed to avoid. But I’m not an ascetic. I’m a soldier with my vices. I still pray, I still fast. I do the things I grew up doing. And I fight like hell for others– if my soul ends up in the abyss for some drinking, I hope the many more souls I saved can live less broken lives than I.”
“I apologize for my impudent questioning. Yours a noble outlook.” Sieglinde said.
“No it isn’t. It’s not about ‘being noble.’ I’m fighting for my convictions.” Khadija said.
She felt immediately annoyed at Sieglinde’s reaction and started to shuffle tiles.
“To say you are ‘good’ or you are ‘noble’,” Khadija began, “it’s facile. You aren’t fighting for your soul. Your soul doesn’t matter to the world. Identify your enemy, call them for what they are, and fight what they do. Fascists, imperialists, they take the homes of people, starve them, and enrich themselves off their endless toil. I don’t fight them because it is ‘noble.’”
Sieglinde averted her gaze as if scolded and took another long sip of beer.
Khadija turned away from her again and started arranging the tile walls to begin.
“I don’t know what to say.” Sieglinde said. “I know what I did was evil.”
“You can start by not moralizing it.” Khadija grunted. “I don’t think you’re ‘evil’. Don’t make me stand up for you, for fuck’s sake.” She knew more than she let on. She had spied on Sieglinde weeping in the brig and knew exactly why she had been forced to fight in the war. But she couldn’t say that. “You were not evil, you were probably just young and ignorant.”
“I can’t excuse it anymore by saying I was just young and ignorant.” Sieglinde said. “I want to be better than that, Khadija. There were many times where I thought of running away, of refusing to serve, of doing anything– I never took them. I can’t see that as anything but evil. I willfully inflicted pain and furthered injustice, because it was easier than rebelling.”
“You want to be better? Why?” Khadija asked. “To save your immortal soul?”
“No!” Sieglinde cried out. “I just– I know I was doing wrong. I can’t carry on like that.”
“So it’s that simple? You realized you were ‘doing wrong,’ so now you must ‘do right’?”
“No. It’s– It’s more than that.” Sieglinde looked helpless to put it into words, however.
Khadija sighed, trying to reel back her own frustration. She was being too aggressive.
“Forget it. I’m done setting up the game. Take a sip and draw. Snacks will be here soon.”
Along with their drinks, a tray with a spartan assortment of snacks slid into the room through the same slot on the door. There was tough black bread, mixed pickled veggies and some hard cheeses. A final section had a dollop of coarse mustard and a dollop of sour cream, along with some empty space where perhaps sausages or other meat was supposed to be.
Khadija drew her hand of tiles. There was very little to work with. She was unlucky.
A mishmash of stuff. Maybe I get lucky and make a few sequences.
Neither of them spoke much as the game progressed.
Both of them were keeping dutifully closed hands, and discarding many tiles.
Khadija looked at Sieglinde between every play, but Sieglinde seemed to avoid her gaze.
Almost without interacting with each other, they came close to finishing their first hands.
“Taking it really seriously aren’t you? Relax. We haven’t even put down any bets.”
Sieglinde nodded her head with a wan expression. “Alright.”
“Poor start.” Khadija replied.
The former noblewoman reached for her latest beer and took a long drink.
She then set the can on the table with a bit of a strike.
“Khadija, what do you want from me? What can I do?” Sieglinde said, raising her voice.
“Play out this round.” Khadija replied simply, looking down at her concealed tiles.
Grunting, Sieglinde picked up her final tile and laid down her hand.
She had collected an entire hand of oak tree suit tiles, numbering one through nine.
Khadija revealed her own hand: still a mishmash of tiles that didn’t come together.
“You let me win?” Sieglinde asked.
“No. Don’t be so full of yourself. I got unlucky. It happens.” Khadija said.
Sieglinde Castille was a stupid and earnest girl with a lot of hurt in her heart. Khadija knew that already and it was evident to see, right in front of her tired old eyes. She knew Sieglinde was a 36 year old woman who had been shackled by a cruel and corrupting duty, in an evil place that never allowed her to learn otherwise, or to feel like she could possibly rebel.
But now she recognized it. There was no point in brutalizing her or punishing her.
Nothing Khadija did to Sieglinde would bring back the people she killed.
And she was already being crushed by that exact same idea herself.
In their fated clash at Goryk’s Gorge, Khadija killed Sieglinde von Castille, the Red Baron. Sieglinde Castille, the gloomy woman in front of her, was a shadow of that grand villain. She had the fight snuffed out of her, and now belonged to nowhere in the world, lost, broken and isolated. Maybe she didn’t know what she wanted; she certainly didn’t know what to do.
Khadija picked up the fifth bottle of rum punch and took a short sip.
She set it down on the table as hard as Sieglinde had set down her beer before.
“You want to know what I want from you? I’ll tell you then, but only this once! I want you to actually think about the kind of woman you want to be from now on! Not about whether you are ‘good’ or ‘evil’, whether you are doing ‘right’ or ‘wrong’! Think, concretely, about what you will do, what actions you will take, what kind of world you believe in. Believe in something and work towards that!” Khadija’s voice rose to a shout. “Stop living in the past! Neither of us can turn back the pages of what we’ve done! Start writing your story from today! If you become someone I detest, I promise I’ll strike you stone dead! But if you become someone worthy of praise, I will equally yield to it! That is what I want from you!”
Sieglinde’s eyes drew wide in front of Khadija, struck dumb by her shouted words.
Tears started to collect in those sad eyes.
Stupid woman; act your age for once.
That was the cruel thought in her head because it was too odious to accept her simpering demands that Khadija lead her by the nose to redemption. Absolutely not, no way; make something of yourself first and impress those around you with those deeds. Impress me— that’s what Khadija wanted. Show me, how you have changed, show me that you can create a new legend for yourself. As someone who will fight rather than protect the oppressor.
Khadija wanted so strongly to believe that was possible.
She wanted to believe she had killed that Red Baron and freed Sieglinde from her.
But the directionless woman in front of her, begging for salvation– was not promising.
After a minute of silence, Khadija lifted her can of rum punch to her lips and emptied it.
She then started to shuffle the tiles again.
“Ya allah! Collect yourself. I won’t stand you winning one round and then leaving.”
Her gut was starting to burn from the booze, but she did not want things to stop just yet.
Sieglinde nodded her head and started to help with the shuffling.
“Are there any other games you know? Backgammon? Go? Poker?”
“I know a little bit of each. I’m not very good at any.” Sieglinde whimpered in reply.
“Ugh. You’re so boring. We must endeavor to change that.” Khadija replied, smiling a bit.
A shy little smile worked its way to Sieglinde’s face too.
“You’ve been scaring my customers all day. Got any good news to make up for it?”
“Heh. Yes. That last package has come and gone without incident. Off the grid.”
“Okay. Thank heavens. Past few months have been brutal. I’m glad she’s okay.”
In that same tent that Alex and Fernanda purchased a queen’s ransom of erotic lesbian literature, the nondescript older man who owned the same tent made to look at his remaining stock at the end of the first day of the market. In the back shelves, away from prying eyes, awaited Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather, a Rottenfuhrer of the Sicherheitsdienst, Volkisch Intelligence. Odd was the Loup that sat behind a desk, and did not fight on the frontlines, but odd also was the Loup that did not flee to the Royal Alliance instead of remaining with Rhinea. Aatto was willing to remain behind that desk in a new uniform.
And so, Aatto stayed behind the same desk as when she was a part of the liberal Rhinean Navy, and nobody had yet to dispute this. The Volkisch needed all the specialists they could get to keep the state running, whether or not they were part of the Imbrian privileged class.
“What do the Liberals plan to do now?” Aatto asked. “Are they gearing up to fight?”
“You don’t need to know that. Thank you for your work, but– you don’t need to know.”
Even this man was terrified of her.
An informant who had helped smuggle out liberal politicians in danger of being purged by the Volkisch, and whom Aatto had assisted greatly in this endeavor. She had forged documents, faked dispatches, leaked communiques and staff orders, contacted mercenaries and faked ship inspections– but she was still despised for the uniform of a Rottenfuhrer.
She didn’t care one whit about that. She didn’t care what anyone thought of her.
But she needed to know. Was someone finally going to challenge the Volkisch?
Was the fated battle to resolve the contradictions of Rhinea finally at hand?
“If they will fight, I will gladly assist. In any capacity. Please let me know.” Aatto said.
All she wanted to know was whether the Liberals could light the Flame of History.
Whether they were strong enough to fully seize power on the pyre of their enemy’s bodies.
For a moment the man stared at her quizzically. He then turned his entire head away.
“Are you crazy? No. They can’t challenge the Volkisch. They’re just gonna lay low.”
Aatto’s eyes narrowed, her tail straightened, her ears folded, with great displeasure.
It was as if a trance, a delusion she had been under, suddenly shattered in front of her.
As if the entire weight of reality was forcing itself back through her head.
Unworthy. All of them are unworthy. The liberals, the Volkisch, the Imbrian Empire. All of them will recede into the shadow of history with nary a cry. Disgusting. Worthless. Pathetic. Where is the grand trial in which we will finally determine the course of history? Must we continue to limp along in fruitless detente? Feckless cowards watching the clock freeze from afar–
The shopkeeper caught a glimpse of the sheer hatred on her face from the side of his eyes–
But clearly, when he turned to look, she had the same little grin that she always did.
Utterly collected and calm, her expression betraying little emotion.
“Then I’m afraid that will be the end of my services. I see no point in risking my life for others any further if the opportunity will lead to nothing. We must part ways now.” She said.
“What? I mean– fine. I can’t begrudge you that. Thank you. You saved many lives, Aatto.”
Aatto grunted and shoved past him and out of the tent, gritting her teeth.
Saving lives? I couldn’t care less. I thought all of you had some god damn spine.
Where was it now? Her grand spark, her glorious conflagration? Her end of history?
Where can I find someone with the potential to create a new world?
Or even– someone who could even see the possibility of a new world before their eyes.
Her true and worthy King to set the world on its rightful course.
Would the currents lead her to the one she desired to serve?