This chapter contains a scene with uniquely graphic violence. Discretion is advised.
“What do you know about Norn von Fueller?”
Before they boarded the Antenora, Gertrude Lichtenberg had convened a private meeting with Sieglinde von Castille. It was not atypical to discuss conditions and protocol differences between ships when transferring personnel, to avoid committing any faux pas, and with someone as high profile as Norn von Fueller, it was an even greater necessity. The way Gertrude looked into Sieglinde’s eyes when she asked her about the Praetorian, however, spoke to a different and greater urgency than normal.
Sieglinde had not been too surprised to learn of their relationship.
There was a lot of gossip about the Praetorian after all.
But what was the truth? From someone who knew her more than passingly?
Seated around a meeting room table, the two of them conversed eye to eye.
With a locked door behind them, and all cameras and recording tools shut off.
“We worked together once.” Sieglinde said in response to the Inquisitor’s initial question.
“Are you at a liberty to describe in what capacity?”
Sieglinde found no need to hide anything from Gertrude. None of this was any secret.
“Lord von Fueller was dispatched by the Imperial Peership Office on behalf of the Emperor himself, upon the deaths of my parents, when I went on to inherit their assets.” Sieglinde said. “Because I am an only child, and involved in the military, and the Castille family possessed significant wealth, the Peership Office worried that there would be a feeding frenzy of lower nobles competing for Castille properties and holdings if I were to be killed in action as things stood.”
“I was not aware that Norn– I’m sorry, I meant Lord von Fueller–”
“You don’t have to correct yourself. I’m well aware of your familiarity with her.”
Gertrude seemed briefly at a loss at Sieglinde’s response.
“I had to learn the etiquette of the Imbrian nobility, but it’s all just for show. Please continue without interruption. I don’t want you to coddle my sensibilities. I am just a soldier on this ship.”
“Right. Then sure, I’ll call her Norn. At any rate, I was unaware she worked for the IPO.”
“Lord von Fueller was an enforcer, a bannerwoman; she managed whatever affairs the Fueller family needed her to manage. I’m sure that the many nobles she killed and dispossessed played some part in her wise and knowledgeable management of my case. Through her I was able to sell off extraneous possessions in an organized fashion and donate the money to charity, as well as develop a plan for my wealth to be donated or auctioned for charity in the event of my death.”
Gertrude looked downcast. “I suppose at this juncture, those plans are null and void.”
“Indeed. I had property in Rhinea, the Palatinate and Skaarsgaard. I assume it is all out of my hands, and that the Castille’s famous castles will go on to house soldiers for warring factions instead of needy women and children.” Sieglinde said. “Such things are out of my hands. I prefer to focus on what is directly ahead of us. So tell me, Inquisitor: what do I need to know about Lord von Fueller to work under her command? After that incident with Järveläinen, I don’t want any further conflict with her ranks.”
Gertrude told her a few brief and important lessons she learned about the Lord von Fueller.
Sieglinde would go on to confirm the Inquisitor’s account aboard the Antenora herself.
“The most crucial thing to understand about Norn is that there is nothing she hates more than liars. That doesn’t prevent her from lying, withholding information or speaking half-truths if she needs to, but she doesn’t really make a habit of lying. She’s blunt and straightforward in personality. She hates liars and she has a natural ability to detect lies. She doesn’t care about dishonesty, if you flatter her she will enjoy it, if you libel her she won’t care. But lying to conceal something will get you killed.”
“So if I have any ulterior motives then I would best tell them to her face.”
Sieglinde had said that with a note of sarcasm but Gertrude took it dead seriously.
“She would honestly appreciate it. She would not even consider you a threat.”
“How can you be so sure?”
Gertrude sighed. “You’re going to think I’m crazy; but please don’t judge me for what I’m about to tell you. You have to know, and you can be as skeptical as you want to, but I speak from my own experience. Norn helped me in an affair that demonstrated how powerful she is. What I’m about to say, I don’t say frivolously, and I don’t say it to aggrandize her. It’s the absolute truth.”
“After a delivery like that, I’m afraid I couldn’t judge you if I wanted to.”
What could she possibly be leading into with that dire expression?
“Norn has some kind of ability to control people. A supernatural ability.” Gertrude finally said. “It’s not just that she is intimidating or that she commands imperial authority. Everyone who succumbs to this ability becomes unnervingly loyal to Norn. They act mostly like normal people, but they will drop anything to follow Norn’s commands. A lot of the Antenora’s crew will be like this. Those who aren’t are people she can’t or doesn’t want to control this way. Maybe people she trusts; maybe people who are more useful outside her total control. I don’t know. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Sieglinde’s eyes drew wider as Gertrude spoke, with dire certitude, about literal magic.
“When she becomes angered enough to commit violence, Norn–“ Gertrude saw the look on Sieglinde’s eyes and paused for a moment, self-conscious of how this was all sounding, but she closed her eyes and continued. “Norn can move faster than can be seen by the naked eye. She can also manipulate objects from afar. There’s more but I will leave it that. Norn has some kind of power, I’ve seen it.”
“Next you will tell me that she is a Katarran too.” Sieglinde said.
“Like I said, you’re welcome to believe whatever you want. Just be on your best behavior.”
Her voice took a dark turn and her eyes bore a slight but growing malice.
“I apologize.” Sieglinde said, calmly and with poise. “I will– I will keep what you said in mind.”
Having been with Gertrude for several days, Sieglinde had characterized her as a woman of dark and fitful passions, whose moods seemed as errant as the tides. Sometimes she had to be managed carefully in order to work well with her. Sieglinde had her own storms, but she felt she could work with Gertrude by practicing a conciliatory attitude. Despite this, the turn in the conversation was difficult to navigate.
Although she had seen Gertrude be both a cursing fiend and a contrite maiden, Sieglinde had never seen her so superstitious. She knew Gertrude respected Norn von Fueller, but now she felt like Gertrude revered her. Like some kind of deity with whispered attestations to her great feats.
Or perhaps like the leader of a cult.
“Tell me more about the Antenora’s crew, Inquisitor.” Sieglinde said. “Those people she brought aboard. I’m curious about their relationship. They seemed like a motley group to follow someone as elite as Norn von Fueller, who could have had her pick of the Empire’s best soldiers to follow her. If we are pinning our hopes on them as our trump card to rescue lady von Fueller, I need to know.”
Gertrude smiled a little bit for the first time in the conversation.
“Those are the Empire’s best soldiers.” She said.
Sieglinde supposed enough people had died by now to pass on such a title to this crew.
But she had personally seen far greater heroes than these come and go.
“Say that I believe that. How were they assembled? How does one earn the Lord’s grace?”
“I believe Norn values people who demonstrate an ambition to attain power or to commit violence.” Gertrude said. It was a curious response that made Sieglinde raise an eyebrow, but the Inquisitor said it without hesitation. “It would not be a stretch to say she collects people who interest her. I am only guessing her criteria, but she took me under her wing, so I can’t fault her taste in companions.”
“Fair enough. I can’t say I would criticize her for wanting an Inquisitor on her side.”
Around the Empire, the ascension of Gertrude Lichtenberg some three or four years ago to the office of High Inquisitor had set off a firestorm of gossip in the private chambers of the nobles.
On the heels of a conflict between Norn von Fueller and the High Inquisitor Ludwig von Brauchitsch, Gertrude’s star began rising. Even as a noble with high standing in the army, Sieglinde had never learned the full details of what transpired. She simply put together the pieces. Brauchitsch and Norn butted heads publicly over a snap investigation into the Heitzing Officer Cadet School, and in the ensuing year, Brauchitsch would go on to lose a steady trickle of subordinates to undisclosed events, and with them went his standing in the court, culminating in the Emperor personally insulting him.
Along with the steady fall of Brauchitsch came the steady rise of Gertrude Lichtenberg, who would go on to briefly serve as a branch Commissioner of the Ministry of Justice in Heitzing before soaring in rank to the High Inquisitorship that Brauchitsch would go on to lose. Heitzing being the seat of power of the ruling Fueller Family and their esteemed Praetorian, it was easy for everyone to connect these events. However, the nobles had respect, and a certain exotic sexual fascination, with the swarthy and gallant Lichtenberg, perfect in etiquette, swift in justice, a child of the Imperial Guard whose parents died tragically defending the royal family. So the gossip around her was always glowing.
It was this history which accounted for Sieglinde’s earlier comment to Gertrude.
She understood quite well the nature of Gertrude’s relationship to the Fueller family.
In fact, Gertrude’s seeming obsession with Elena von Fueller filled a missing piece of the story.
Sieglinde felt she now understood in full, the dark passionate theater of Gertrude Lichtenberg.
“Is there anything else you would like to know? I don’t want you to be surprised.”
Gertrude interrupted Sieglinde’s train of thought.
For a moment, the Baron wished she could simply have tea with Gertrude.
Maybe give her advice from experience about duty and passion–
But Sieglinde was around Gertrude’s age when her own future became immovable.
“Where would we slot into the rank structure of the Antenora?” Sieglinde asked.
“Norn is something of an iconoclast. As such the organization of her ship is unorthodox. There are a lot of highly skilled people on the Antenora at any given time who would have some degree of friction with each other and the world at large if Norn didn’t manage them. Norn is the center, and her officers orbit her exclusively. I believe the two of us would simply be another of the powers that would be hers to command. Don’t expect a tidy chain of command in there. Just do what you are told.”
“Understood. That’s all I needed to know.”
Gertrude nodded her head. “Then as soon as the Grenadier is loaded in, we’ll depart.”
Sieglinde nodded back. “Am I dismissed?”
“I have one more thing I wish to say to you, in private, for our confidence only.”
“Speak your mind, Inquisitor.”
Gertrude gave her a suddenly grave look.
“After our affair here is resolved, I think you should go with Norn.” She said.
Those words caused the Baron’s heart to shudder with surprise and even a hint of fear.
Sieglinde crooked an eyebrow. “For what reason would I do such a thing?”
“Do you have any other place to go?” Gertrude said softly.
“Have I displeased you?”
“Of course not. This isn’t personal, you should know that!”
“Then please explain your reasoning, Inquisitor.” Sieglinde said.
“You and Norn may be more alike than you think.” Gertrude said. Her words were going from honey to vinegar quite quickly. “Baron, I don’t have a grand ambition. I am confident that Norn will find Elena and bring her back to me. Once she does, I just want to keep her safe and bide our time. You, meanwhile, are an incredible warrior searching for a cause. I saw the justice in your eyes when you confessed to killing those Volkisch turncoats. If you want to purge the Empire of this rot, Norn will crusade with you. Norn’s list of targets for her vengeance should neatly coincide with your own.”
“You really think that is all I need? Targets for vengeance?”
“You’re raising your voice to me. Are you offended?”
“You’re the one becoming upset. I just want you to mind your own affairs, Inquisitor.”
Sieglinde fixed a sharp look on the Inquisitor, and her words took a sharper tone as well.
Gertrude’s own eyes narrowed, her expression darkened. She scoffed, her passion fully aroused.
“Fine. Then– just shut up and don’t question Norn! Follow your orders so we can get Elena back.”
Her storming out of the room neatly tied up their final hours together on the Iron Lady.
Sieglinde did as she was instructed. She remained quiet.
When they transferred over to the Antenora, and in the days after, she kept to herself.
The Antenora was any other military ship. Sieglinde had been in practically dozens of Cruisers. Her last ill-fated ship had been a Ritter-class with a very similar interior plan. Food was much less fancy than on the Iron Lady, the living spaces were adequate, and there were a few recreational facilities like a gym, a media lounge with films, and a social area with game tables. Everything was just a bit more cramped than in the wildly spacious dreadnought, but livable. It was as much a home as any other metal hull.
Sieglinde kept to herself.
She went to the hangar when she was called to standby.
She ate her meals quickly and quietly and spent much of her time in her own room.
While making the rounds, she confirmed many of the things Gertrude told her.
At first, it was difficult to believe. But the crew was indeed acting just a bit odd. Sieglinde had been impressed by their professionalism, but it was an inhumanly unrelenting professionalism. The Antenora, Sieglinde realized, was like the hive of Norn the queen bee. Most of the crew would be unfailingly in the same places at the same times, day by day, to the point that they felt more like part of the equipment than people. There were perfect cycles of activity. Inhumanly perfect cycles.
Then, Norn had a bout with the mystery woman who worked in the hangar, Potomac.
Suddenly she bared the icy fangs of a power Sieglinde could hardly believe existed.
As instructed, she said nothing. She made no remark and did her best to show no reaction.
At the same time, it was impossible for her not to consider what it meant.
Were there more people with powers like this?
Did Norn have anyone outside this ship under her control to suit her purposes?
Their frequent rendezvous with mysterious engineering vessels caused her great concern.
What kind of conspiracy was Gertrude asking her to overlook?
One afternoon, Sieglinde was on standby alongside Yurii Samoylovych, a long-haired and well-manicured lady Loup in a pristine uniform who was the most frequent standby pilot for the Antenora. Usually the Antenora put either her or Sieglinde on standby, never both, but as they were nearing Goryk Gorge and expecting some kind of presence there, Norn put both of them on standby for the entire day. Sieglinde decided it was a good opportunity to pick the brain of someone else on the ship, since they were both standing around near their mecha on the hangar floor with no other officers around.
“Samoylovych, what is your opinion of the Lord von Fueller?”
“Nice to meet you too.” Samoylovych replied with a cocky voice.
These were the first words exchanged privately between the two of them.
Sieglinde knew that this was a provocation however and did not further play along.
“I’ve only a passing affair here. I just want to know what you think, in good faith.”
“Need I have an opinion?”
“I can’t imagine someone to whom this vessel seems normal in any way.”
“She is right in front of you.”
Samoylovych raised a hand to her chest as if to acknowledge herself.
She then settled back against the leg of her Jagd and winked at Sieglinde.
“Baron von Castille, we don’t all have the privilege of skepticism. For many of us, life itself is inexplicable and our answers are incomplete. The Loup of the Kashak host– hell, all Loup for that matter– are a deeply religious people. People who believe in a creator God who made this world the way it is. The Shimii, too, are deeply religious and superstitious. Even among the secular, there is a lot of superstition and magical thinking. There are stories about explorers who ventured into the hollows of the planet and returned with great treasures. The legends of Nocht the First, founder of this nation, are entwined in fantasy. And these are things recorded on computers just hundreds of years ago.”
“I understand your point.” Sieglinde said. “You needn’t elaborate any further.”
Samoylovych had referred to it as a privilege, and in some sense it was.
Sieglinde could be this skeptical because she had the comparatively secular life of a noble.
As one of the powerful, she could look down in disbelief at the fantasies of the masses.
And she did look down on it, reflexively, without self-awareness.
To think that a world confined to metal stations in the sea could host such blind mysticism!
Now, however, she was staring that mysticism in the face.
Something about it unnerved Sieglinde, clawed at her, tore gashes inside her brain.
These were not just orthodoxies of control, crafted to perpetuate authority.
Norn was not a metaphor, or a deified ruler like Nocht the First.
She was real; and she was really tearing reality apart right in front of Sieglinde’s eyes.
Her brain could not stop reading it as a conspiracy. As a great lie told boldly in front of her.
Every time she allowed herself to feel vulnerable about these events, a million feelings burst forth. All the violence Sieglinde had committed– was it for nothing? Was it for a hidden agenda? How did she know she was not under some thrall right now? What was the extent of Norn’s power? Were there people even more powerful than her? Why was the Imbrium now in complete chaos then?
What else was real? What was truly false?
Could she have any say in the matter?
“As long as I can look forward to a filling meal and a beautiful woman in my bed, I don’t need to ask any questions that might put my job prospects in jeopardy.” Samoylovych added, perhaps noticing how sullen Sieglinde had become after her last speech. “Speaking of– if you’re having trouble acclimating to the ship, I wouldn’t mind helping you relieve some stress. I do love women bigger than me. Makes the conquest all the more fulfilling.” She turned a lascivious grin on Sieglinde–
–and Sieglinde turned the other cheek to it, bodily rejecting the offer.
That idiotic, crass, offensive request brought Sieglinde back to her infuriating reality.
Samoylovych shrugged. “You can find my room easily whenever you feel antsy.”
The nerve of that woman! For someone who was always being waited on hand and foot, Samoylovych was acting rather forward and the offer embittered Sieglinde. She was nowhere near so desperate for a partner. The Baron had given very little consideration to ‘her type’ and it had been years since she last had sex, but Samoylovych certainly was not compatible. For one who had disowned the noble’s etiquette, she still felt quite a sore spot at being asked for something so personal so easily. No woman who devoured life so easily could understand her– several times Sieglinde had thought the only way she would marry was to someone she knew to be in as much pain as her, or worse.
An insane thought, perhaps, but it was her only response to the pressure to marry.
“I would never. I would never! How dare you? Who raised you to be like this? Learn some self control before someone is forced to teach you! Turn your libido on that simpering friend of yours!”
Sieglinde responded with a venomous screed, her fist closed hard.
Samoylovych laughed gently and jovially, slapping her own knees.
“Petra? Absolutely not! She’s like an annoying little sibling! No! You are awful, Baron!”
At that precise moment, red lights began to flash in the hangar, interrupting the scene.
Sieglinde could hardly believe the timing.
Adelheid van Mueller’s voice sounded over the intercom as if in response.
“All forces to combat alert! We’re intercepting the Pandora’s Box over Goryk!”
Sieglinde felt a sense of dread suddenly wash over her as the bearing monitors updated.
Pandora’s box. Gertrude’s mercenaries — and Elena von Fueller.
Given everything was on her mind, could she go out there again and fight?
She looked up at the Grenadier which had been entrusted to her.
For Lichtenberg’s evil passions– or Norn’s unknowable violence–
With the doubts lingering on her mind?
“Well, looks like I won’t get a chance to win you over. Take care, Baron!”
Samoylovych winked at her as the mechanics powered on her Jagd and the hatch opened.
“Baron von Castille milord, we’re powering on the Grenadier.”
At Sieglinde’s side, Norn’s brainwashed mechanics began to work on her Diver too.
A voice sounded, reverberating through the wickedest parts of Sieglinde’s own heart.
You’ve done as much killing for much less of a reason, Red Baron. You can’t atone for it now. Your future is decided, and the blood won’t wash from your hands even if you turn back now. You can’t escape this.
You can’t escape your own actions, much less those of Norn von Fueller.
Lips trembling, gulping through a dry throat, sweating, her skin brimming with anxiety–
Sieglinde von Castille slowly, silently, climbed inside the Diver and prepared for battle.
This was just another part of a destiny that seemed ever more inevitable, immovable.
Volleys of 20 mm gunfire from the Brigand repelled two dozen incoming missiles.
While the Brigand defended itself it also righted its course, pointing its armored prow toward the incoming Antenora. It was detected about three kilometers away from Goryk’s Gorge by its use of an active sonar pulse, likely in an attempt to image the surroundings of the gorge. Once the Brigand’s crew detected the sonar waves, the computer registered a high probability that they had been successfully imaged and identified, and the incoming missiles confirmed as much.
The Brigand responded with its own sonar pulse, which gave away its position.
But it also revealed the Antenora completely, leaving no doubt as to the ship’s class.
Ritter-class were the most modern Imperial Cruisers according to Union intelligence. They were sometimes referred to as the “sword-class” Cruisers because of their shape. Their pointed prows and long, angular hull, along with the scabbard-like fins and flared rear “winged” armor protecting the jets, made the ship silhouette resemble a sword. Its armament was top of the line, boasting a twin-barrel 150 mm turret, along with a suite of light coilguns and gas guns, and multiple launchers that could fire torpedoes and missiles. It had a complement of four Divers, with a fifth and sixth in storage. This was the Irmingard equivalent of Cruisers, a serious, state-of-the-art main combatant in any fleet.
“We’ve also got a Cruiser. If they want to slug it out, we can punch back just as hard.”
Ulyana Korabiskaya felt bolstered by the Brigand’s initial performance.
However, they had only surmounted a volley of unguided missiles.
There would be more in store, including the enemy’s Divers.
“Kamarik, set a course that takes us around the Antenora’s flank if necessary, but for now, just inch forward to communication range.” Ulyana ordered the helmsman. She then turned to her communications officer. “Semyonova, send an acoustic message to the Antenora. I want to talk to their commander. I would very much like to confirm whether it’s related to Lichtenberg at all.”
“Yes ma’am! I’ve also got Shalikova on for you! She’s preparing the Divers to sortie!”
Semyonova passed a video window from her station to the Captain’s terminal.
On it, Shalikova’s unmistakable indigo eyes were fiery and focused, her pale hair tied up.
She was dressed in her pilot suit and contacting the bridge from the hangar.
“Good readiness, Acting First Officer!” Ulyana said. “What’s the situation?”
“Khadija and Valya are deploying first ahead of us, so we have rapid response if needed. We’re affixing the anti-ship pack on the Strelkannon and I’ll deploy in the Cheka with it once it is ready. Sameera and Murati– well, you know. Aiden Ahwalia is apparently on his way here too.”
Ulyana nodded. Shalikova spoke with confidence, taking matters into her own hands. She didn’t even look tired. “I’m leaving all Diver-related decisions to you, Shalikova, make it work.”
“Then, ma’am, I have to add this. We have Marina McKennedy’s S.E.A.L ready as well.”
Beside Ulyana’s seat on the bridge, Marina stood with her back to the wall, one hand covering her eyes, breathing heavily. She was in no condition to fight. Upon hearing the name of the incoming ship, the Antenora, she began to babble a name, “Norn the Praetorian” and broke her composure entirely. It was the worst breakdown Ulyana had ever seen out of anyone in her command in a long time.
“Shalikova, I don’t think–”
“No. I heard everything captain. I’ll go. I can’t be here when you negotiate with her.”
Marina slowly stood herself up to full height and forced herself to salute Ulyana.
Ulyana wanted to say something. To stop her– to try to sympathize in any way.
There was clear pain behind the inexpressive face Marina turned to her.
Norn von Fueller had never personally participated in the Empire’s campaign against the Union twenty years ago. The Union had intelligence that she was an enforcer of the Fueller family, a sort of bodyguard and right-hand woman for the Emperor, but that was it. Intelligence about her skills and capabilities was vague. For Marina to react so adversely, they must have shared a dark past. In Ulyana’s mind, she had already formed a link between Marina and Lichtenberg, so if Marina had such a reaction to the Antenora, then Norn must be linked to the Inquisitor as well. This was all part of Lichtenberg’s chase.
This was all very bad news– but they could only play the hand they had been dealt.
Ulyana felt if she prevented Marina from going out to fight it would only insult her.
She had made a decision. Whether it was impulsive or not, Ulyana had to trust her.
“Marina, please take care of yourself out there and come back alive.” She said.
“Quit worrying about me. I’ve survived much worse than this.” Marina replied.
“I’m just glad to hear you have an intention to survive.” Ulyana said.
Marina smirked, just a little bit. “Like I said, you have nothing worry about. I’ll see you.”
She turned and left the room. Her running footsteps could be heard when the door shut.
Ulyana turned back to Shalikova, who had been hanging on the video call.
She could only pray that Marina would be okay.
Though she was a loud and offensive person, Ulyana had to protect everyone under her command.
Ulyana had already seen too many of her crews die in her lifetime.
Sometimes, however, all she could do was have confidence in them.
So she purged her doubts and put on a confident smile for her officers.
“Sorry about that, Shalikova. Marina is on her way.”
Shalikova nodded. “Ma’am, I’ll be sending Maryam Karahailos to the bridge when I deploy. I– I wanted her to be safe in the command pod, rather than down here where something could happen. If you will allow that I would be grateful. She absolutely won’t get in the way, I promise.”
“I’ll keep your girlfriend safe, don’t worry.” Ulyana responded with great delight.
The young pilot’s eyes shot wide open, and she raised her hands and flailed defensively.
“What?! No, it’s not like that–! You’re misunderstanding–!”
Ulyana cut off Shalikova, ending the call with a smirking expression.
Aaliyah stared her quizzically from the adjacent chair, having seen and heard it all.
“I’m happy she’s found someone worth coming back alive for.” Ulyana explained.
“We should all be so lucky as her.” Aaliyah said, shrugging, her cat-like ears twitching.
“Indeed. Commissar, let us once again walk into hell for this precious crew, hand in hand.”
“Of course, Captain.”
Aaliyah closed her eyes and nodded her head solemnly.
Ulyana knew that her Commissar understood at least some of the subtext of her words.
Despite the situation, her mood had livened just a little after Shalikova’s request.
When she saw how Maryam took to her, Ulyana’s romantic side started to hope.
To see that dour and standoffish girl living life after everything she had been through–
–It made Ulyana’s focus tighten. She had to surmount this. To give everyone a future.
Euphemia Rontgen waited for the Captain and Commissar to turn their attention back to the main screen before interrupting. At that moment she approached the captain’s chair and stood beside it opposite the Commissar, to Ulyana’s right. There was an additional seat there that could be pulled from the wall, and Euphemia sat down there, and wiped her hands over her lap as if clearing settled dust.
“I have dealt with the Fuellers before. I might be able to get us out of this.”
“If the person on the other end allows us to get out of it.” Ulyana said.
“Do you agree to my presence? My fate is tied to this ship now. I want to help you.”
“I suppose it couldn’t hurt.” Ulyana said. No reason to leave cards on the table now.
She looked over to Aaliyah for her opinion. Her Commissar seemed untroubled.
“You’re right, it couldn’t hurt. Maybe Solarflare LLC can pay for clemency.” Aaliyah said.
“Norn von Fueller, if it is her, won’t be swayed by money.” Euphemia said.
Ulyana blinked. “Then what would you even say to her?”
As far as she knew all Solarflare LLC really had going for it was money and supplies.
“We have history. I think I can appeal to her better nature.”
“What? The better nature of a Fueller? Well. I won’t hope for a miracle.” Ulyana said.
She would allow Euphemia to join but she had no illusions as to their situation.
In Ulyana’s mind all she could do was confirm the vehemence of their enemy.
Negotiating would be extremely difficult.
Moments later, Semyonova spun her chair around to face them again.
“Captain! The Antenora responded. They’re connecting to laser via the Goryk relay.”
“So they know about that, huh? We’ll connect too. Have Zachikova guard the network.”
“Put their commander on my screen when we have a connection.”
Ulyana waited, taking in a deep breath of stale smelling air, feeling acutely every little itch on her body, every hair out of place on her blond head. Talking to Lichtenberg had been touch and go, but this time she might be negotiating with the Imperial royal family, not just an overdressed thug. Those moments while her screen had nothing but connection diagnostics scrolling on them filled her with dread.
She feared as if there was something, anything more that she could do that she wasn’t, as if the seconds she spent staring at the screen could be dooming them all, the same way that the moments spent stuck in the substation had been enough for the enemy to catch up. The silence, punctuated by her officers working at their stations, was the tensest she had felt in years. She felt helpless, useless–
Deep breaths. She collected herself. Everyone was depending on Ulyana Korabiskaya.
After this was over, she could have a hearty cry in her own room.
She purged herself of emotions and waited until there was a picture on her screen.
“Greetings. Ulyana Korabiskaya, I presume?”
The woman on the other end had a fairly deep voice, but with smooth enunciation.
Her appearance was a bit more casual than Ulyana expected. A fair-skinned woman, with blond hair in a simple ponytail with short bangs and sidelocks that hid her ears. She wore what looked like a simple red camisole and pants, along with an open coat, half blue, and half green with gold trim, bearing, on the left, a series of gold embossed lines that seemed to mimic the circuitry on a semiconductor.
Her eyes were starkly red. Ulyana felt fixed into place by them, as if she was nervous to make any kind of movement that they could see. Though slight of figure, the presence of the blond woman on the other end of the call came through immediately and starkly, commanding all of her attention.
Ulyana felt as if there was an imperceptible weight around herself.
As if she had crossed into a room with a thick, palpable fog that resisted every movement.
Awash in some invisible scrutiny. She felt more conspicuous, more watched, more known.
For a moment, she thought she could understand the terror that Marina felt.
Norn von Fueller.
Her very gaze had a pressure that was indescribable.
“I am indeed Captain Korabiskaya. Your reputation precedes you mi–, milord.” Ulyana said.
That was one thing she did know– proper titles. She was almost caught right off the bat.
“Captain Korabiskaya, I am not one to dwell on pleasantries. Let me be clear and blunt, and get to the point quickly, out of respect for you and what you’ve already been through.” Norn said, raising a dismissive hand. “I feel that I have amply demonstrated that if I wanted to, I could take apart that overgrown can of sardines that you and your mercenaries are huddled in and extract just the one person I’m interested in while the rest of you die. I want you to surrender immediately.”
Ulyana felt something in the back of her head.
There was a sharp and sudden pain as if a nail was digging into her skull.
She couldn’t help it and flinched, unable to conceal it.
Just as quickly as it came, however, the pain was gone. Flinching was all she did.
“You’ll forgive me, Norn von Fueller, if I don’t find unguided missiles that impressive.”
Despite the pressure she felt, Ulyana managed to find a little humor to try to throw her off.
On the other end, Norn smiled. Not just a smirk or a little grin but a rosy, wondrous smile.
As if she had bore witness to something breathtakingly beautiful.
Ulyana could not place her sudden cheer.
She crossed her arms and sat back. Now she was grinning to herself.
“I can see why you gave Inquisitor Lichtenberg so much trouble. Yes, you are not just a baker’s dozen of mercenaries, or else you would not have been able to fend her off like you did. Very well. Let us not mince words, Captain Korabiskaya. I know you are holding the Imperial Princess Elena von Fueller on your ship. Whether you were contracted to take her by a third party, or she herself escaped to you for some reason– the story doesn’t matter to me. Work for me instead. Hand her over.”
There was nothing Ulyana could possibly say to something that sudden and that insane.
She had never been prepared to come to an arrangement with Norn von Fueller.
Because she believed that the target of Gertrude Lichtenberg’s hunt was Marina McKennedy, Ulyana knew that giving her up was impossible. Not only because of the relationship between the Republic and the Union, and not only because of the honor that a Captain owed the members of her precious crew. Where it pertained to an intelligence asset like Marina, it was impossible to believe that the Empire could act in good faith. She could never trust Norn’s word. That being said, the appearance of handing over Marina could have been used to gain an advantage, to lay a trap, to buy time or to sneak away.
Such plans were predicated on them having what the enemy wanted in the first place.
Ulyana felt an icy chill stab deep through her chest.
None of her plans could possibly work if the enemy believed that what they had on hand–
—was the Imperial Princess of the entire fucking Imbrian Empire!
Something like that was inconceivably urgent! There was no possible negotiation around it!
A nervous smile crept up on Ulyana’s lips. She could not conceal it. She tried to play it off.
“Milord, I believe I do not fully appreciate your humor.”
“You made verbal sport of my young, awkward subordinate, Captain, but I’m not like her.”
“I guarantee you I am not playing games. I am more serious than ever. You are mistaken.”
“My patience is running very thin, Korabiskaya. I will gladly pay triple, or even four times, whatever amount of funds you were promised, in any media that you desire. Gold, supplies, marks, bonds, fur rugs from real wild-grown bears from Thuringia’s eighth station. I have, Captain, a near infinite power to fulfill your wildest dreams, or kill you in the most brutal, painful, and evil ways that you could possibly imagine. I want your life, Captain, its up to you whether I own and cherish it, or crush it in my hand.”
Norn held out her palm and pointed a slender finger into the middle of it.
No matter how many gestures she made, however, Ulyana was unprepared for the situation.
“Of course, milord.” Ulyana said. “I’ll hand her over, if you–”
“Don’t lie to me, Ulyana Korabiskaya.” Norn raised her voice. “You can’t conspire against me.”
Ulyana found herself thrown off-balance.
Yes, she had indeed been conspiring.
She had to conspire– because it was impossible to surrender what she didn’t have!
“Norn von Fueller, we are innocent of the deeds that you unjustly ascribe to us. You have absolutely caught the wrong ship. It is ludicrous to think that a group such as ours could have possibly taken your Imperial Princess! It is my understanding that she was supposed to have perished in a collapse over two weeks ago! Isn’t that right? Have you any shred of evidence that we could have her?”
This was news that Aaliyah had learned from her time in Serrano station.
Marina had confirmed it too in one of their meetings about recent events.
Ulyana was taking an entirely different tack than she intended with Norn.
She was trying to tell the honest truth and swear the innocence of their crew.
And Norn was quite obviously unconvinced by it.
“You told Gertrude Lichtenberg you had her.”
“Gertrude Lichtenberg was speaking euphemisms. We have a VIP — she is no princess!”
“I know you have her, Captain, because I know that you spoke with her.”
“How could you possibly know that?”
“Her voice is reverberating among your surface thoughts as we speak.”
Ulyana was completely losing her cool. This was insane– farcically insane!
“Captain, allow me, please.”
From off to Ulyana’s right, Euphemia Rontgen suddenly peeked into the video call.
Norn began to stare intently as soon as she saw that hint of blue hair and teal eyes.
“Euphrates?” She asked suddenly.
“Euphrates?” Ulyana asked back.
“Quiet, Korabiskaya. Turn your monitor to face her, this instant.” Norn grunted.
Her voice took on a new urgency. She was rattled for the first time.
“Listen to her for now Captain.” Euphemia said.
Ulyana stared between Norn and Euphemia Rontgen with increasing confusion.
There was nothing she could do but play along.
She shifted her monitor– such that Euphemia could be seen but she was still in the picture.
That way she could continue to watch Norn.
At her side, she glanced to see Aaliyah’s reaction, but the Commissar shrugged helplessly.
This was moving out of their control quickly. Ulyana hoped Euphemia could do something.
“It is you.”
Norn put on a much different smile for Euphemia than she had for Ulyana before.
Cold, cruel, amused, arrogant.
For her part, Euphemia’s own softly smiling expression did not change upon meeting Norn. She had overcome even that briefest moment of concern Ulyana had seen in her eyes when she first heard the word Antenora. Having spoken to Norn now it was impossible to believe that Euphemia– Euphrates–? could possibly appeal to her “better nature.” Norn’s expression made this especially clear.
“It’s been a long time, Norn.”
“Incredible. It really is you. All of my troubles have ended up in the same ugly hauler.”
“Why are you after Elena von Fueller? Duty to your family?”
“Duty to my people, writ large.”
“So you don’t believe she died.”
“That’s neither here nor there, Euphrates.”
“Then I can’t confirm or deny the location of your princess, Norn. You’re right, it’s irrelevant.” Euphemia said calmly. “You see, these people are working for me now. Our existing agreements extend to them. I would offer to turn myself over to you in good faith, but I want to get my money’s worth out of them. So I would appreciate it if you ceased hostilities– if they do have the Imperial Princess aboard, which I highly doubt, I will do what I can to see her to safety when her business is concluded.”
Norn turned a sharp-toothed grin on her.
“We can all get what we want here, Norn.”
There went that name again! Ulyana felt frustrated. Rontgen was hiding far too much!
“Euphrates, Euphrates, Euphrates.” Norn shrugged mockingly, flashing a grin. “Seeing you among those hapless mercenaries confirms my suspicions. From the instant I saw you on this screen. Did you know that I met with not one, but two Sunlight Foundation vessels on the way here? Did you call for assistance when you became stranded? Why was I told to go to Goryk’s Abyss with no mention of rescuing you? Why didn’t an Alonso De Ojeda class come fetch you? I wonder, I wonder.”
Ulyana briefly glanced at the doctor to see if Norn had gotten under her skin.
She was not successful at first– but that changed very quickly as Norn spoke.
“Euphrates” looked surprised. As if there was a dawning realization on her face.
As Norn said more and more proper nouns known only between them.
“If you were sent to rescue me, then it is no longer necessary.” Euphrates said.
Her jaw was set. She was clenching her teeth.
“Rescue you? You’ve been abandoned, Euphrates. Face it. I’ve got you now.”
Norn smiled viciously.
“Norn, I’m pleading to the decency that I know you have, don’t do this–”
“This is the part where you beg for your life, Euphrates. See if it will move me.”
Ulyana sat in her chair staring at Norn and “Euphrates” in utter disbelief.
It was almost dreamlike what a sudden, inexplicable turn the negotiation had taken.
She felt like she was hearing a conversation in Shimii Fusha or in High Elvish.
To Ulyana these were all euphemisms, but Norn and Euphrates understood each other.
Euphrates let out a deeply held breath, her hands balling up into fists on her lap.
“Norn, if you’re set on revenge then go after me alone. Don’t involve these people.”
“I have all the power Euphrates, and I’m setting all the rules. I don’t hear you begging?”
Norn sat back in her chair, craning her head on one fist. Perfectly composed.
Euphrates fixed her with a smoldering stare.
A gaze full of desperation.
There was more emotion in those eyes than Ulyana saw her express since they met.
For a moment no words were exchanged. They were just two people staring at one another.
The Bridge fell so silent that the void in the sound itself felt palpable.
Ulyana was still trying to process what they were talking about previously–
Then Norn flinched on the screen, brought a hand up to her forehead clearly in pain.
Euphrates did the same–
–And the video cut out to a black screen. Sound off. Norn was gone.
Suddenly and without warning.
The Captain had scarcely called the name of her communications officer, when the bright blond girl whipped back around on her swiveling chair looking like she’d seen a ghost, pale as a sheet, her hands trembling. “I don’t know what happened, Captain! Everything was fine until now! I’m not seeing any disconnection requests logged on our end, but the channel just closed!”
Ulyana immediately suspected “Euphrates” had something to do with it.
Maybe a remote disconnection– with the implants–? She turned to accuse the woman of foul play, but when she did, she found “Euphrates” slumping forward, clutching her face. Blood trickled down her fingers. Her entire body was shaking. Ulyana laid a hand on her and there was no acknowledgment.
With one exchange of gazes she had fallen, unresponsive, and hemorrhaging.
“Call Kappel now! Right now!” Ulyana cried out.
Aaliyah shot up from her seat and rushed to Euphemia’s side as well.
Captain and Commissar grabbed hold of the doctor, peeled her hands from her face–
Immediately, blood, so much blood, from her nostrils, her mouth. Ulyana was speechless.
Euphemia shook as if freezing, her breathing was ragged, her eyes crawling into their sockets.
“Call Kappel for god’s sakes!” Ulyana shouted. “And tell Shalikova to deploy! Right now!”
Negotiations were over– and Ulyana could not possibly understand how and why.
Norn had both Euphrates and Ulyana Korabiskaya practically groveling in front of her.
She had been so excited — Euphrates! Euphrates had suddenly appeared before her!
Gertrude’s plight almost entirely vanished from her mind. This was the real prize!
Ever since Potomac had told her about Goryk’s Gorge, Norn had thought about this outcome as a distant possibility. Euphrates was always going after nests of abyssal denizens, and Potomac was no fighter. If she was sent anywhere near the Abyss of Goryk it would have been to report on the activities of someone like Euphrates to the Sovereign. Yangtze knew that Potomac was with Norn– so any mission she sent Potomac on would include Norn by default. Now Norn had a picture of the situation.
Either Yangtze was foolish enough to think Norn would just pass up an opportunity to get rid of Euphrates, or she was foolish enough to try to take advantage of Norn’s killer instinct to purge her. Norn had heard there was friction within the Immortals. Potomac being trusted as Yangtze’s right-hand woman was enough by itself to prove a rift between Euphrates and Yangtze. She never would have thought that this might lead to Euphrates falling so squarely, so helplessly into her grasp.
Norn had no intention of rescuing Euphrates. And she would not let her escape.
She would extract her from the Pandora’s Box and pop her head like a balloon.
A fitting first step in her vengeance. Unlike Potomac, Euphrates was unaffiliated with Eric.
She was alone, apart from all her defenses, out of communication with Yangtze.
In one moment, Norn was practically savoring her triumph–!
In the next, she found herself in some dark place full of swirling aether.
Without warning, without explanation, the Brigand and the Antenora vanished.
It happened faster than a blink of her eyes. Before the instant where her vision went dark as the eyes shut, and the instant where they reopened again, she had already seen the darkness creep at the corners of the visible world like a snapshot of paint streaming down a wall. She felt a pinprick of psionic shock that her prodigious psychic defense battered down– but before she could confidently say she had repelled it, she found herself dragged into the aetheric current and brought out of the material world.
She was more annoyed and confused than she was alarmed at first.
How did this happen? An Apostle was nearly immune to mental attacks.
Even Mehmed had failed to alter her behavior or corrupt her senses, so how did this–?
“It’s not an attack. I’m inviting you here to settle our differences.”
Before her appeared Euphrates. That blue hair, those blue eyes, her butch mode of dress. It was unmistakable. Norn wanted to think at first she had blinked into existence, but she came to realize that Euphrates had always been there. Euphrates, and the glass-like floor upon which they were both standing, amid the dim void surrounded by the current of dull colored aether like the eye of a storm. They had both been in this place, and in the material world. This was their minds meeting, nothing more.
Norn narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. “Good job Euphrates. I have hardly explored the currents, hardly ever seen this place. You’ve had many years of a head start on me in Clairvoyance. I commend you for exploiting this weakness and being a temporary inconvenience. There is nothing to discuss. I am going to return to the material world and kill you. You’ve only yourself to curse for this fate.”
Euphrates turned a look of gentle contrition on her that Norn despised immediately.
“All I want is to talk Norn. I don’t want to inflict any more violence on you.”
“When we last met, Euphrates, I still had hope in something. Twenty years ago. You have found me now at my most corrupted. I can think of nothing else than how much you’re responsible for this.”
“I know. I secretly hoped the Fueller Reformation would succeed and you would forget your vengeance.”
“Excuse me? I can’t believe you would even dare to say something so facile to me.”
“I know that simple contrition won’t suffice, Norn. That’s why I am here now.”
Her face was calm. Her expression toward Norn looked– resigned.
Her hand was trembling as she ran it through her hair.
Standing there in her white coat, her shirt and tie and dress pants.
“Norn, you’re right to hate me. I was the one who found you. So I’m the one responsible for everything you have suffered until now. I have regretted everything that happened between us for years. I know there is no way to expiate except to accept whatever punishment you desire, but I can’t let you endanger those people, not on my behalf, and not on Elena von Fueller’s. What you are now is not the result of their actions. I have brought you here to punish me, Norn. You can scar my soul in any way you need.”
“You’re lying.” Norn said.
Norn hated liars. Nothing infuriated her more.
Lying was an exercise of power. It belittled the recipient and aggrandized the speaker.
Everyone who knew about her powers assumed Norn could only read people psionically.
Nobody had ever realized that, perhaps, Norn knew a liar when she saw one, because of how much she had been lied to, abused, exploited. How much of her life was shaped by the lies told to her and how much proximity she had to liars. And in turn, how much those liars had belittled, underestimated, and humiliated her through the act of their lying. Liars were easy for her to spot. If she knew someone well enough she could always tell if they were lying. She could tell someone was lying through social cues, physical cues, information disparity– Norn wasn’t just reading Euphrates’ aura.
She knew that Euphrates was lying because of all these cues. Because–
“You did this to Mehmed.”
Over forty years ago, during Mehmed’s Jihad, Norn and the Immortals of the Sunlight Foundation had confronted him at the height of his power, when he was perhaps the most psionically gifted individual to have ever lived on Aer. Despite his power, skill, and unmatched understanding of psionics, in the end, Norn and Euphrates withstood him. It was Euphrates who stood by Norn in the final reckoning.
Norn felt her chest squeeze with the sudden, furious realization.
She had become Mehmed.
Euphrates had done something to her. Some kind of psionic trap in the aether current.
She could suppress people by casting them into the aether somehow–
This was how she weakened Mehmed enough for Norn to kill him.
Euphrates shut her eyes and bowed her head, her shame accepted and laid bare.
“You figured it out. I brought you into this space to keep you from hurting the Brigand. But I was not lying about my intentions. As I accepted a punishment from Mehmed, I accept a punishment from you.” Euphrates said. Her tone of voice was unnerving, infuriating. That sadness with which she spoke, that pity. “I cursed you with my knowledge and led you to be used by Yangtze, because I was too naïve. I didn’t see the Eighth for what she had become. The same thing happened to Mehmed, so I took–”
“Shut up! Shut up! You still don’t understand anything!”
Norn’s voice reverberated across the void.
The Praetorian trembled with fury, radiating her sheer seething anger.
Euphrates’ aura shrank as Norn’s furious cloud of black beset her like a tempest.
“You brought Mehmed here and he was killed Euphrates! He was killed, butchered, his body was used by Yangtze the Eighth for all manner of horrendous things, his blood begot a child who must now live with being born of a dead tyrant! You think letting him punish your soul in the aether makes up for that sin? Do you really, truly, believe that your affair with Mehmed was settled like this?”
All of that fake pity and self-aggrandizing grief faded from Euphrates’ eyes.
Panic, the panic that came with being bludgeoned by an unwanted truth.
That was what Norn wanted to see from her. To rattle her, to win the war of wills over her.
Mehmed could still move in the material world when Euphrates suppressed him. He had been slowed down, he had been clearly struggling under psionic attack. But as an Apostle, as the greatest of the Apostles, even at his weakest he was deadly strong. Norn had seen it face to face as she fought him to a standstill, as she brought him low. She could also escape from this trap.
When she escaped, she would give Euphrates the justice she had earned.
Euphrates was just using psionics. Her body could not withstand an infinite amount of the psionic feedback it would take to hold Norn down. As they spoke, Euphrates’ material form must have been suffering unimaginable pain to sustain the two of them in the Aether against their will. This was an incredible feat of mental power, but it had to have its limit. And when Norn escaped, she would command the Antenora’s attack, and Euphrates would cease to exist in any world.
In any psionic engagement, certitude was power, and doubt and fear created weakness.
“Norn– I– There’s nothing you want from me except my death, is there?”
Norn didn’t answer that pathetic whimper. Her silence spoke loud enough as a response.
Everything Euphrates had done to her could only be paid with her death.
“Death is the only thing I can’t give you, Norn.” Euphrates said, voice near bereft of breath.
That should have been a statement which was filled with defiance. Yet Euphrates looked at her with panicked eyes, the tears starting to stream down her cheeks. Her body was shaking, her gaze barely holding Norn’s own. So little composure, but the space had not yet broken down.
Norn could not place that reaction.
“How shameless can you be? Are you trying to stoke my sympathy?”
Euphrates hugged herself and fell to her knees in front of Norn.
“I can’t expiate with my death, Norn. I can’t be cleansed by death. I’ve replayed this encounter in my mind so many times, but death is the one thing I feared you most desire, but I can’t give you that, Norn. You can’t kill me. It’s been tearing me apart for years. I want so badly to release you from all of the pain that I have caused you, to allow you to lead the life you should have had. My interference ruined you and brought so much violence to this ocean; but I can’t do anything about it. I can’t satisfy you.”
“What the hell do you mean–? No– you can’t be serious–”
Norn stomped forward, grabbed Euphrates by her coat and lifted her up.
Euphrates made no attempt to resist, to struggle or fight back. Her feet weren’t kicking.
Her hands weren’t striking. Her eyes were barely meeting Norn’s own.
Norn had her completely under her power and yet the space was not breaking.
Why wasn’t she free of Euphrates’ power? She had broken her completely, and yet–
A bitter, skeptical laugh escaped from Norn’s lips.
Her mind was running over an extremely horrible and pathetic possibility.
She knew that Euphrates was ageless, but–
“No, no, no. You’re not seriously– you’re literally saying–”
Norn’s eyes went wild. Her thinking became fogged.
In a violent impulse she seized Euphrates’ head and twisted it with all her fury.
Brutal strength issued a horrific cracking sound–
Neck snapped, the whole vertebra, sinews, and muscle tore–
Euphrates fell limp and hit the false ground of the void–
–head hanging like a bag of meat where Norn’s hands tore it.
She watched the corpse speechless.
Everything blurred from the mind fog of unreality.
Euphrates was alive.
Glassy dead eyes staring far-gone but;
Psionic sight self-puppeteering;
Shaking arms rigid like a doll’s reaching;
Head snapped back into place like pushrod into hole;
Coughing breath reconnected to the windpipe like completed circuitry;
Blood spilling where neck muscle and bone tore and scarred refilling new skin;
Watching as the hands worked dead. Unable to accept–
To the colors of creation she had spilled red, brown, black and bile.
Euphrates was alive.
There was no believing what she had seen. And yet the truth came to her lips quite simple.
“You can’t die.” Norn said, her voice trembling.
She reached out a hand toward Euphrates’ shaking blood-soaked body and sent a psionic pulse through her that popped her organs in her chest like bubble wrap. One after the other psychic hands pinching her heart, lungs, kidneys, stomach into boiling blood. Her corpse rattled, gore and spit spilling from her mouth, flailing like firecrackers from the force of her insides liquifying. Norn thrust her hand forward again and again and again like she was feeling the recoil of a firearm and Euphrates’ battered body with its helpless expression of death accepted each and every cruel blow like she was nothing.
“You’re not resisting! Resist it goddamn you!”
Norn shouted herself hoarse as the blood pooled in the eye of the storm.
Euphrates came to fall on her side, her arms still capable of enough motion to hold herself.
Fetal, ruined remains curled up.
In moments, her chest was rising and falling.
Blood gurgled in her throat when breathing resumed.
There was a guttural noise escaping her windpipe along with a gulp of gorey vomit.
There were holes cut into her shirt where rib bone had shredded out at acute angles.
Norn watched them recede as if her violence was playing out in reverse.
“You won’t release me.” Norn realized. “Because holding me won’t kill you.”
The Founder of the Sunlight Foundation who relinquished her dream to Yangtze the First.
She was not only ageless.
Norn had underestimated her, gravely, vastly, underestimated her.
Euphrates could be uniquely certain of her fate. She could not die.
Certitude was power in the mind. Just as her soul would not die, her body could not.
“Mehmed could still act in the material world when you were doing this.”
Norn still had to be able to influence the material world. Mehmed had done it.
She waited for Euphrates’ body to heal enough for her to speak. She picked her up again.
“Say something.” Norn demanded.
Holding Euphrates by the throat which she had not seconds ago completely shredded.
“Our hearts want to connect, Norn. That’s why I can bring you here.”
Her voice was rough. Her blood-stained lips curled into a little smile.
“Ganges’ childish philosophy.”
Norn put a hand to Euphrates’ forehead, ignoring her weak, pleading gaze.
Frost began to creep across Euphrates’ skin, bruising her, turning her purple and ghost white. Every bit of sweat and blood on her was turned into a needle that drove into her skin and released more fluids for Norn to freeze. She was in her sinews, sending cold-burning agony into her core.
Her eyes crawled back up her head, choked sounds of pain animal and automatic–
She was not resisting.
Euphrates had truly given herself up for punishment. For anything Norn could do to her. She stood holding Euphrates’ once-dignified form now frozen stiff in her hands. The closest thing Euphrates had to a soul was in her grasp. She felt nothing hurting it. She could not possibly have been satisfied.
This was not any kind of vengeance. It was not any kind of closure.
There was great certitude in what Euphrates did. A complete, unimpeachable finality.
There had to be a way– there had to be a way to break free of it.
Norn pored over everything she knew about psionics, the mind, the aether.
“Our hearts want to connect, you said?”
Norn formed a conjecture in her mind. As soon as she did she tried to be certain of it.
She scanned around the void trying to thread the colors with her eyes, to follow the currents.
This was not a space in which only Euphrates had control.
Where she had brought her was a communal space, viewed in a way to unique to psychics.
Without vision, it still existed, in the back of everyone’s mind, in the core of everyone’s heart.
All of the colors around her represented the sum total of humanity.
Emotional footsteps which had left pain and elation imprinted onto the fabric of reality.
This was a unique place with unique possibility.
In this place, it was not only Norn and Euphrates who existed.
Their currents were the ones closest, most connected, but they were not alone.
“Ganges would have you told you. No matter where you go, you can never be alone.”
Norn focused her psionic vision to the fullest extent.
Inviting that hated swarm of aether that threatened to overwhelm her senses.
Inspecting with keen detail the feelings that swirled around her.
She felt the chains of her myriad connections that Euphrates represented–
Entwining her and Euphrates in thorns which had driven Norn for years and now bound her.
Mehmed had been trapped by these thorns too. He could still move despite this.
To the very end, Mehmed had resisted. Resistance was his strength. His certitude.
It led to his death.
Norn was not Mehmed. She had neither his prodigious ability nor his all-abiding ambition.
But just as Euphrates had something Norn lacked, Norn had an advantage Mehmed failed to accrue.
Taking a deep breath, focusing all of her might and power–
Driving away the fear that crept in her heart as she felt the upswell of humanity–
She let go.
She let go of the grudge that tied her to Euphrates.
She let go of her guardedness, of her reticence, of her insecurity, of her need to have control.
She looked upon those scars in her heart as past things, as flesh wounds closed.
She let go of position.
From standing upright and separate amid the stream of humanity.
Norn fell through the makeshift ground that held her and Euphrates level.
Falling into the current of all the sinews which bound her heart with others.
As certain as she could ever be that there was one heart that would accept her desire to heal.
Her desire to be free. A unique possibility in this realm.
And letting herself be filled with thoughts of a red-headed young woman’s childish grinning.
Of the look of understanding that those green eyes gave even to the darkest of Norn’s colors.
Adelheid van Mueller.
The woman to whom Norn had sworn her life.
Her gaze, her touch, her smell, the deepest depths of her being enveloped the falling Norn.
For the first time since she was introduced to the cruel Imbrium, she felt something close to bliss.