After a short journey from western Sverland, the Irmingard class dreadnought Iron Lady made it to Serrano Station in the south and was cleared for a double berth in the lower docks. The absolutely massive craft required delicate and patient handling to enter its berth gently, without smashing into the confines of it from any retained momentum or striking any of the vast quantity of ships sailing around them. For what seemed like fifteen minutes the vessel inched its way parallel to the berth walls. With its skilled crew and experienced Captain, there was no danger.
Once it was secured and drained, the crew received a transmission from Station Security.
Such was the urgency of Serrano’s authorities that they requested to speak to Gertrude Lichtenberg as soon as possible on the matter for which they had called her and requested to bring their prisoner to her; and such was their indelicacy that they left her waiting for hours even after requesting she descend alone. And so a sullen young woman in uniform stood aimlessly in the docks, crossing her arms, tapping her feet, glaring furiously at the guardhouse in the distance. Sometimes she walked to and fro. Halfway through her vigil, food and water was sent down to her.
Nevertheless, she spent an insulting number of hours simply waiting, by herself.
Official business was usually beset with setbacks. Gertrude was not unused to waiting for a contact.
But she hated that she was given time to think of where she was and what she was doing.
Serrano was preceded by what felt like an interminable chaos after the fall of Vogelheim.
There was so much discord raging across the Empire that Gertrude’s Inquisition reeled in its attempts to get a hold of any of it. Several states made explicit declarations of both disregard for the central authority of the Empire, and willingness to take violent action against one another. The Inquisition was ultimately not a military authority, it did not have the power to go to war. It had impressive weapons, which were used to pursue and prosecute criminals in the Empire ranging from anarchists springing up on college campuses, scheming nobles with private security forces, and katarran bandits who snuck into the Empire armed to the teeth and pushing guns and drugs.
As a Grand Inquisitor, Gertrude made a careful statement that her loyalty to Imperial rule of law had not changed. She had hoped to remain neutral, and to do her best to continue to protect the common people from opportunists during the unfolding conflict, but the rival political factions immediately came to treat the Inquisition as part of Erich von Fueller’s camp. She was explicitly not allowed to operate in their territories by the new governments of Rhinea, Bosporus, and Skarsgaard, so after leaving the Imbrium to help quell banditry in the weakened southern Sverland, she found herself “stuck” in the Nectaris Ocean. Unless she took her chances through Rhinea, or snuck through the Khaybar Pass, she could no longer return home to the Palatinate to link up with the Prince and his forces.
Even in Sverland, she was friendless, as in the Emperor’s absence the national parliament, the Council of Lords, had joined the Royal Alliance. What could she do when the basis of the law she followed was also just heedlessly throwing itself into partisan war? Not that it mattered. Gertrude was merely filling her time to avoid thinking and feeling. When she told Prince Erich of what happened to Elena, he had no sympathy to show. She hated his cold, pragmatic reaction, and could not support him, not wholeheartedly. The Volkisch were animals and freaks, braying for violence. She wanted them all dead. And the rest? The so-called Royal Alliance, the “Vekan Empire,” the anarchists, all a farce.
Gertrude was moving, in mind and body, purely because stopping brought back the pain.
In reality, she felt lost. Her body was driven only by the tiniest, most demented of hopes.
Everything she held dear, everything she wanted to nurture and protect, was destroyed. Hunting bandits at least prevented innocent people from becoming prey. It was just something to do while she struggled with what she really wanted to do: whether a hopeless search or a bloody, screaming vengeance. Could Elena really be out there? And if not, could Gertrude avenge her?
Now, however, she was drawn back into the fulcrum of the Empire’s new age of strife. She had been called to Serrano to deal with a “sensitive prisoner” at the Station. As the only vestige of the central Imperial government left in the area, Gertrude accepted. It was her duty. And so her ordeal in Serrano stretched on, her lonely, aggravating ordeal. Waiting, alone and unstimulated.
She contemplated returning to the ship. Her mind was starting to wander her many wounds.
Then a lorry painted white and blue arrived just around the corner and deposited several official-looking men and a few uniformed guards. At the head of the group was the Serrano Defense Commissioner, Arberth Hoffman, who had contacted her when the Iron Lady berthed. As his entourage approached her Gertrude wanted to give them an earful. However, she was given pause by the figure in their escort, and the state in which they dragged her along.
She was a tall woman, taller than her captors, long-limbed and lithe. Her shining blond hair trailed behind her, tied into a voluminous ponytail. She rarely lifted her sorrowful, tear-stained blue eyes from the ground. Her perfectly proportioned figure was well dressed in a black naval uniform with long pants and a sleek, fitted coat decorated heavily with awards which the guards had not stripped from her. Crosses and roses and oak leaves all rendered in gold.
Her facial features were partially hidden behind a Loup muzzle, but she was not a Loup. Her hands and feet were also shackled, and the chains met with each other, and then attached to a shackle around her neck.
Gertrude recognized this woman immediately. Anyone in the military would have.
“Baron Sieglinde von Castille.” Gertrude muttered to herself.
Her shock would have been forgiven but nonetheless, she hid her feelings behind a mask.
An Inquisitor’s unreadable, taciturn expression to meet Sieglinde’s sad, frustrated eyes.
What did you do? Gertrude wondered silently. How had this war hero ended up here?
And more importantly: what did they want Gertrude to do to her?
Rather than waiting even more for these people to walk to her, Gertrude met them halfway.
She reached out a hand to the Commissioner and they shook. Everything was cordial despite Gertrude’s personal displeasure toward the group. The Commissioner was sweating and had a friendless look to his face that made him look much smaller and more pathetic than his pristine uniform would normally suggest.
“Inquisitor, apologies for the delay in meeting you.”
“I’m sure you’re quite busy, Commissioner. I’m curious why you have a member of the nobility under your custody, and in such a humiliating position. Frankly, it makes me quite upset.”
She pointed past the Commissioner at his entourage of guards and their captive.
“Milady, it was all we could do to pacify her, I’m afraid. You don’t know her strength, nor her resolve to escape from us. I’m afraid we have all had good reason to fear her these past days.”
Gertrude’s expression darkened. Her annoyance with this man was boiling over to hatred.
“I know her strength perfectly well, Commissioner. She’s a decorated and exemplary war hero and more importantly bears a peer title. It is disrespectful and dehumanizing to have her in such restraints. Maybe you’ve forgotten such things with the times. Before any further discussion, I demand that you release her from those horrible bonds and treat her with dignity.” She raised her voice such that Sieglinde might hear her. In the background, the men guarding her became startled, and Sieglinde’s eyes looked up from the ground for the first time since she had appeared.
For a moment, the Commissioner seemed to silently weigh his options, but the growing petulance in his expression belied his helplessness in this matter. Gertrude had all the power in this situation. Never mind that she had the power and access to military assets needed to potentially seize him by force for any grave offense he caused her; she could also just leave. He called her because he needed her, and therefore he needed to follow her terms so she would help him.
He turned to his subordinates and nodded his head in Sieglinde’s direction.
Two men behind her back with electric prods stepped back, while two other men undid the shackles on her hands and feet. They disconnected the chains which connected these shackles to her neck shackle, and undid her mask, but she would not allow them to remove the shackle around her neck completely. Or at least, she gave them a very stern look when they returned to her orbit to try to touch the nape of her neck. So this particular shackle simply remained as part of her look.
When the mask came off, it unveiled a youthful, strikingly beautiful face even for the brooding, petulant expression upon it. For someone who fought in the Colonial War, Sieglinde looked remarkably like she could be Gertrude’s age, and with only the barest hint of makeup. Her soft nose and sleek cheekbones gave her a royal appearance, and along with her blue eyes and golden hair, she was the ideal of Imbrian aesthetics. Moreso than the dark-haired, swarthy-skinned Gertrude — not that she was envious. Nobles worth their salt were simply unmatched in beauty.
Nowadays most nobles were not worth their salt.
“You are Baron Sieglinde von Castille, correct?”
Gertrude shouted past the Commissioner so the captive would hear.
Sieglinde responded simply, in a deep and rich voice. She was rubbing her wrists each in turn where she shackles had been and stretching her arms. All of the guards gave her a wide berth as if they feared being slapped away by accident for being near her as she moved. It was quite a ridiculous scene. One woman surrounded by armed men who were all terrified of her every move.
“Then I humbly request you join us, Baron.” Gertrude said.
The Commissioner sighed heavily as Sieglinde stepped forward and stood at his side.
She glared at him sidelong before turning her full attention to Gertrude.
“Commissioner, did you catch the Baron in an act of wrongdoing? Are there witnesses?”
It was then the Commissioner’s turn to glare sidelong and up at the taller Sieglinde.
“I did not, and we have no direct witnesses. Allow me to explain the matter–”
“You’ll be allowed. But first, I have to say, even common criminals deserve a chance to prove their innocence if they have been accused without witnesses. Why was she restrained?”
Sieglinde spoke up. Gertrude turned to face her with sudden interest.
The Commissioner cleared his throat.
“To elaborate, she confessed to the murder of the entire bridge crew of the cruiser Oathkeeper.” The Commissioner waited for Gertrude to have any response to this, but she was using all her power of concentration to avoid having a reaction to such a ludicrous scenario, and so said nothing while studying Sieglinde’s unshaken expression. While the Inquisitor silently questioned the brooding Baron, the Commissioner continued. “It is my understanding that Oathkeeper was ordered by the Grand Western Fleet to serve as part of the Rhinean Defense Forces in case the Republic’s forces penetrated the defenses at the Great Ayre Reach. According to the Baron, the bridge crew hatched a plot to defect to the Volkisch Movement forces in Rhinea. She ambushed and killed them in a melee and commanded sailors to sail the ship to Sverland where she hoped to turn herself in to the Royal Alliance. Clearly, she’s no helmsman — she was wildly off course, never made it to the Yucatan gulf, and we caught her here instead.”
Sieglinde closed her eyes and set her jaw, clearly bothered to be spoken about like this.
“Where is the Oathkeeper now?” Gertrude asked.
“It’s berthed in Ajillo substation with the rest of the Southern Fleet’s inoperable craft.”
“When she surrendered, we struck its jets and towed it. We couldn’t take any risks.”
“But you confirmed the deaths of the crew?”
The Commissioner nodded his head. “We found the bodies in the ship morgue and no attempt was made to clean the Bridge. All of their wounds were consistent with a chaotic brawl. You can review the evidence yourself, but everything ultimately matches the Baron’s own testimony. She did not hide anything from us, Inquisitor; however, she believes her monstrous act is justified. Several times after we took her into custody, she attempted to escape judgment, once she realized we would not simply agree with her that an entire Bridge crew had to be slaughtered.”
Sieglinde scoffed loudly.
“I misjudged you as men of honor, when you are clearly the same type of rats as the Volkisch.”
“Baron, you will keep silent for now. You’re in enough trouble.” Gertrude said.
The Commissioner took a step to the side, creating more room between himself and the Baron. He then addressed Gertrude once more. “Inquisitor, we would like to transfer this prisoner to your judgment. She surrendered herself to us, but as you are well aware, we can’t render the appropriate punishments because of her circumstances. Furthermore having custody of her puts us in a difficult position with regards to the current events. I hope you understand the situation.”
Gertrude was keenly aware of the Commissioner’s problem.
When the duchies rebelled and declared their intention to separate from the central Imperial government, it had a profound effect on the aristocracy. Every duchy had long lineages of noble families, and differing attitudes toward them. In Rhinea, a highly capitalistic and industrial state, the aristocrats were just old money. They were not seen as special or remarkable individuals. The disparate Volkisch movement had several anti-noble factions. Similarly, the anarchists in the duchy of Bosporus and the communists in Buren were united in their hatred for the nobles.
Veka’s nobles were largely bankrupt save for the ruling ducal family, and easily cowed into submission.
Skarsgaard’s nobles had small institutional power compared to the might of the church, despite their coffers.
Erich von Fueller expressed no interest in retaining a relationship with the aristocrats writ large. He had not declared himself Emperor and had not called for the aristocracy to join with him against the usurpers. He had already carefully cultivated his personal allies and was extending no other hands. Some aristocrats even accused him of fomenting the attack on Vogelheim to kill their heirs.
The Imbrium Empire had codified rights and privileges for the aristocrats, but many had wasted their wealth, fallen into debt, and failed to adapt to the economy of the modern Imbrium. In many states, there had been a mass transfer of wealth from the aristocracy to an industrial class of rich “new money” capitalists. Access to capital, workers, industries, and innovations trumped the privilege of one’s title or the worth of one’s ancient holdings, particularly when the real value within those duchies had become the protected, private property of the capitalists and not the nobles.
All of this led to the creation of an additional faction in the civil war: The Royal Alliance, formed by the coming together of like-minded aristocrats from across the Empire who wanted to preserve and even expand the privilege and power of the aristocracy. Or who simply needed a place to hide from the persecution in their home duchies. Taking all the assets they could run away with and leaning on their old money siblings and cousins who had achieved high positions in the old Imperial Navies; they gathered and began to build a resistance in the Yucatan Gulf to the northwest.
Sverland, which was still essentially an underdeveloped colony and had little autonomy from the central Imperial government, became the chosen ground for their own movement, as it had no ability to defend itself from them.
Knowing these developments it was easy to see how Sieglinde was a problem for Serrano.
As a noble and a war hero, Sieglinde would be highly valuable to the Royal Alliance. As a killer of men who swore themselves to Rhinea, the Volkisch would want her dead. Both these factions were descending on Sverland. Serrano had no means to oppose either of these factions and could not simply assume they would have reasonable reactions to Sieglinde’s presence there. More than likely, it would give each side an excuse to act more punitively.
By transferring Sieglinde, they would have a simpler position toward whoever appeared.
“What is the status of the Southern Border Fleet?” Gertrude asked.
“Essentially disbanded.” Said the Commissioner. “Lord Admiral Gottwald started the year with maybe a hundred functional ships. A quarter of the fleet was already just stuck in Ajillo and Pepadew awaiting a fleet overhaul that never came to pass due to the Emperor’s passing. After the death of Lord Groessen, and Lord Gottwald’s failed punitive expedition, only a handful of ships returned. Some incorporated into our patrol fleet; but we also lack supplies to maintain readiness.”
“So if the Volkisch Movement invaded southern Sverland, what would be your plan?”
“Surrender, obviously. But you see, the Baron’s presence could complicate that process.”
“Understood. I will take the Baron into custody. Do not expect any further assistance from me. If you’re not looking to fight, then I will be organizing some of those men for my own purposes. Erich von Fueller pays a damn sight better than you lot do, at this point, so it shouldn’t be hard. I expect to receive the patrol roster before I depart.”
“Very well. You have our support to do as you please with, Lady Lichtenberg. Good luck.”
The Commissioner had a truly bitter look. At his side, Sieglinde almost looked a bit smug.
He and his entourage departed with their heads hanging low. Their future was bleak.
Gertrude did not envy them. She escorted Sieglinde back to the Iron lady and stopped her just before the cargo elevator. Gertrude was quite tall for an Imbrian, man or woman, but Sieglinde was almost 190 centimeters. To lock eyes with her meant looking up at her, and this was foreign to Gertrude. She suppressed a hint of bitterness toward the tall, perfect noble who was constantly giving her such a childish, petulant expression, as if caught drinking underage and scolded. She looked like– like a princess pouting when things did not go her way. An ignorant demeanor.
“You are incredibly lucky to have the protection of your family title.” Gertrude said.
Her hand reached out, and she jabbed Sieglinde in the chest sharply. Sharper than intended.
Gertrude’s aggression toward the noblewoman was starting to boil over too rapidly.
To think, while certain others were dead through no fault of their own, this fool was–
“I won’t accept pity for my family circumstances. Try me as you would any other.”
Sieglinde spoke up, cutting off Gertrude’s train of thought. She found her words offensive.
“You led a massacre on your own ship! I’m not unsympathetic to your reasons, but if you were any normal person Serrano’s guards would have simply killed you where they found you! But you’re the last scion of a noble title. Whether you like it or not, your adopted name is why we are talking. You need to have some perspective here, Baron. Your conduct has been erratic and naïve, and that childish face you’re making belies your foolishness.”
“Inquisitor, I do not care what you make of my character. So what will you do to me?”
“I guarantee the fullest extent of the law will be carried out upon you.”
“Then mete out justice however the law says you should. When I drew a weapon on those scoundrels, I was prepared to face any torment that befell me for it. That is the righteous thing–”
Gertrude slapped Sieglinde across the face. Her anger had swelled for a tragic instant.
“These are not righteous times, you imbecile! Are you just throwing away your life?”
Tears welled up in Sieglinde’s eyes. Her cheek red where she had been struck.
She raised a hand to hold down the reddening flesh that was once so pearlescent.
Gertrude realized how far she had gone and felt horrified with herself.
Not as a matter of privileges; Sieglinde’s privilege did not matter to her.
But as a matter of humanity. Since when had she become someone who abuses her charges?
Sieglinde looked to all the world like that hand had cut across her very soul.
Weeping openly, teeth grit with frustration. A woman nearly ten years Gertrude’s senior.
“What is it about my face that invites so much abuse?” She whimpered, sobbing openly.
“Baron, I’m so sorry.” Gertrude said. “I was frustrated, and I got out of hand with you.”
She raised her hand gently but lowered it immediately when she saw the Baron flinch.
“I will accept my punishment, Inquisitor. But if you think you will earn my respect and cooperation by beating me, no one has, and many have tried.” She grit her teeth. “If you presume to lecture me, then put away your hands! Otherwise, you will have to shackle and muzzle me again, like an animal, because you will turn me into an animal. Send down your damned elevator when you’re ready, but do not speak to me until your pointless anger abates!”
Sieglinde stormed off toward the Iron Lady’s cargo elevator without awaiting a response.
Gertrude watched her go, silent, ashamed of herself.
Her eyes went down to her feet and her fists were at her sides. Everything was in pieces. She felt suddenly that she was deluding herself. What authority did she even have? There was no law that could try Sieglinde. And maybe Sieglinde’s was the right attitude. In this horrifying maelstrom, Sieglinde did what she could to fight back. Even if it cost her life; her life was cheap. All their lives were cheap. What was Gertrude judging her for? That she lived when Elena didn’t?
Gertrude was the one who had failed.
Standing alone in the lowest docks of a backwater southern port, unable to affect anything in her life. She was unable to save the person she loved when it mattered. She had no power to save the citizens of the Empire from the civil war that was brewing around them. She could barely keep them from the depredations of bandits and opportunists. An Inquisitor who served a Justice that had fully collapsed, who struggled for a life she had lost in the span of a night. Leader of a crew that was adrift, far from home, without a master to serve or any ability to return.
Maybe Sieglinde still stood for something. And maybe in this era that had become naïve.
At that moment Gertrude wanted to raise her head to the steel sky and scream.
Then her eyes met with the eyes of a stranger, stealing away on a cargo elevator.
Ascending into the belly of a nondescript old cargo vessel, like a pearl lost in the sand.
For a moment, the world stopped moving. For an instant, Gertrude was transfixed, frozen.
Her time had stopped. It stopped the moment she randomly, fatefully, met those eyes.
She felt as if she had glanced into a broken seam that once stood between her lived reality and an impossible otherworld. Her eyes pored over the figure in that cargo elevator that was slowly, slowly disappearing, and with a ravenous hunger snatched every single detail about her that they could. Was it really her? Could it possibly be her despite everything that had happened?
They saw each other. Gertrude knew that her longing gaze had been reciprocated.
Those bright indigo eyes, full of intellect, magnificence, regality. Her skin, pearlescent and untouched, her features nymph-like, delicate, with soft lips and cheeks. That perfectly silken hair that fell down her back like a cascade, luxurious even when painted black. That lithe, ethereal figure, fairy thin even with her small shoulders draped beneath a sleek business-like suit.
It couldn’t be.
Gertrude’s eyes drew wider. Her breath caught. Her heart stopped. Obsessively, feeling insane, her eyes followed that woman until she disappeared. It couldn’t be. Elena was gone. Gertrude had lost her. Gertrude had failed her. Gertrude, the tragic fool, the puppet of fate, who had dared to surpass her station and taste the forbidden fruit. Who had dared to love an Imperial princess condemned to a beautiful bird cage in Vogelheim. In those eyes, in the soft skin of her hands, in the delicate flesh between her legs, Gertrude found heaven. But God had cast her down from that heaven. It just could not be Elena; it was insane to think so, because Elena had to be gone.
She had to be gone for Gertrude to suffer, for Gertrude to be punished forevermore.
This was some random woman she was obsessing over– but those eyes! Those indigo eyes!
Gertrude, whose fate had been defined by those gorgeous indigo eyes, could not turn away.
She recalled the maids, those survivors of Vogelheim who said a strange woman took her.
Did she dare dream? What would Dreschner or Ingrid say to these wild fantasies? How could she possibly prove that woman was Elena? How could she even prove Elena was still alive to begin with? How did she survive the tragedy that Gertrude had brought upon her? There was so much against her, so much of her logic was strained, but Gertrude wanted– needed to believe. She needed an inkling of hope so she could take a step forward in any direction.
Dumbfounded, she watched for what seemed like an eternity, until the ship began to move.
Her entire body shook with fear and frustration and elation and madness, sheer madness.
“Dreschner,” Gertrude tapped her ear, breath ragged. “Call the tower– the cargo ship– the one there–”
She couldn’t speak as she watched that ship of fate disembarking from the port.
Elena was alive. Someone had taken her to this ship. Elena was on board.
That ship was leaving the port with Elena in it!
How could they have taken her? Was Vogelheim entirely a plot to steal Elena?
Were they working with the Volkisch? Where were they taking her?
“I’m sorry, Lady Lichtenberg, you may be breaking up?” Dreschner replied.
Gertrude watched with wide open eyes, moving as if in slow motion, suspended as if in the water outside of the station, cold and crushed with the pressure of what was happening. That cargo ship transferred through its berth and started on its way. Where could it possibly be going? Whoever took Elena from Vogelheim, they already had a chance to deliver her to the Volkisch or to the Royal Alliance if they were in Sverland. But they bypassed Rhinea and the Yucatan Gulf and traveled this far south. If they were in Serrano, what places could they possibly take her to–
Those words rose to her lips like hot bile. Could it be the Vekans?
Was it– was it anything to do with Victoria? Victoria who had become van Veka?
Gertrude had confirmed that Sawyer was present at Vogelheim. So then, could it be–
Her head was racing, but a terrible clarity emerged to tie together disparate pieces.
As if all of the naivety of their childhood had resulted in this evil time they were living in.
“Dreschner, I want Schicksal to gather as much information as she can on that ship, that cargo ship that just left from the berth next to us! I believe they have a VIP hostage! We must prepare to depart right away and go after it! We’ll need boarding parties, Divers, cutters– we have to catch up and detain them! Understood?”
Anxiety brimmed under her skin like electric bolts as she awaited Dreschner’s response.
“Of course Inquisitor, it shall be arranged right away.”
He did not question her. Of course, Dreschner would never question her.
She was Grand Inquisitor Lichtenberg and nobody on the Iron Lady would question her.
Even as she descended with all of her fury on some cargo ship, purely out of wild emotion.
“I’m insane. I’m going insane.” She mumbled to herself as soon as she was off the line.
With a trembling jaw and tearful eyes she looked over to the cargo elevator.
Sieglinde had her back to her, head bowed, awaiting her fate.
Gertrude drew in a breath, purged her face of emotion, set her jaw, straightened her back.
Maybe she was going insane. But she was driven by an inkling of the radiance she had pursued all her life and thought lost forever. For the warmth of that light, she would do anything.
More than justice, it was that light which held the meaning of her life.