Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XI

42nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Morning

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Arsia Wood

Soft-pink skies high along the forest horizon preceded the dawning of the sun over the Arsia. As the morning light started to climb the weathered walls of the Agnelli Estate, its doors quietly opened onto the vastness of the forest. Under the gloom of the ancient trees a pair of stout horses soon set out through the underbrush and dirt, ferrying a pair of young women. They crossed a low wooden gate and immersed themselves in the wood.

Within the forest the breezing air was crisp and cool, and it blew the rider’s hair gently as they marched deeper in. The Arsia was a feast for the senses. Light played through the gaps in the canopy, across the dew-strewn bush and over the puddles on the forest floor, illuminating flowers and fruit and leaves with brilliant color. There were smells sensuously sweet from every corner. And as the riders navigated the brush they heard the peaceful sounds of the forest between each strike of the hooves and rattling of their packs. Chirping insects, singing birds, dripping dew and whistling winds sang for the sun.

Passing paths of stones stamped into the earth, and through natural gardens of berries and mushrooms, beneath trees filled with wild fruit, the riders entered a clearing.

Golden sunlight shone across a field of short green grasses slashed across by extravagant streaks of blood-red poppies. On all sides the field was enclosed by thick-trunked and tall trees. As the horses strode into the clearing swarms of insects peeled off the underbrush and paraded skyward. There were butterflies and bees and green katydids, brilliantly colored beetles, and gaudy purple dragonflies. It was as if a living rainbow rose out of the ground to herald their every step. Birds joined the procession, and beneath them ermines and foxes fled into the wood or into holes in the earth. At once the clearing quieted.

Byanca Geta took a deep breath of the fresh morning air and sighed contentedly.

“Shall we put the blankets down here?”

Behind her, Rosalia gracefully dismounted her horse without waiting for an answer. Byanca smiled. Her lover was clad in a wonderful silk sundress, sleeveless, soft yellow with thin straps and baring an exquisite bit of skin around the shoulders and upper chest. She had her hair up in a braided bun with a stag-horn ornament. Dressed in such a way, Byanca could see the lines along her skin hinting at wiry muscle on her slim arms and shoulders.

She was a stunningly elegant and a rugged woman all at once, a natural beauty.

For her part, Byanca was dressed in a traditional long shepherd’s woolen shirt and dark pants with long suspenders. Rosalia’s clothes did not fit her build too well, which was a little wider and denser in key places. Her departed brother’s clothing on the other hand fit better, albeit still a little tight in places due to the differences in a woman’s figure. Rosalia seemed to enjoy the sight. Her eyes lingered mischievously on Byanca as the centurion dismounted her own horse and took charge of unpacking their intricate picnic assortment.

“My, my,” she said, covering her mouth to stifle bouts of giggling.

“Judging by your reaction, at least I know I’m not too plain in these.” Byanca said.

“Your arse looks amazing in those trousers.” Rosalia finally said, giggling some more.

“Well then. In that case, let me flex my muscles for your viewing pleasure.”

Rosalia stepped aside. Byanca lifted a few rolls of blankets off the horses, followed by baskets of food, and a parasol large enough for two. She unfurled and then set the blankets over the grass, overlapping at their edges to give them ample room to lay their spread. From the baskets she withdrew bread and preserves, fresh fruits and honey, slices of meat wrapped in paper, containers of cheese and vegetables suspended in dressing and a bottle of wine with two rustic old cups. Byanca laid out all of the food, bending down to her knees.

She then felt a light slap on her rear and heard laughing from Rosalia behind her.

After the kind of night they had, it was a wonder that she settled for such tame flirting.

Certainly she had become very well acquainted with Byanca’s arse already.

She felt like she would carry the whip-marks on there for a week at least.

Rosalia pushed open the parasol by its handle and set it down on a wooden stand. Beneath the shade, they prepared the food, spreading preserves and honey on bread and cheese and smoky slices of prosciutto, mixing salads of fruit, cheese and veggies with the dressing in which they had been canned, and pouring wine into their glasses.

“A toast, to more than friendship!” Rosalia said.

They tapped their glasses together and took a sip. Byanca’s sip drained her glass.

“That was good. More please,” she said.

“You will have to learn to pace yourself.” Rosalia replied, withholding the bottle.

Byanca smiled innocently and tried to keep that in mind as she ate.

Everything was fresh and delicious. There was such a world of difference from the dry rations she had consumed for years. It was enough to give pause to her habit of eating everything as fast as possible, a habit picked up owing to a need to swallow bland food very quickly to energize herself for training that was only minutes away from lunch. She had to stop to taste the tart, salty cheese and the sharp, tangy dressing on the vegetables, the sweet, deep flavor of the preserves and the dense texture of the bread.

“Is it sour?” Rosalia asked.

“No! It is wonderful.” Byanca replied.

“Your eyes kept closing, and you kept wrinkling your face.”

“I was overwhelmed! I’m not used to strong tastes. Army food is very bland.”

“You should consider retiring to the countryside once all of this is over.”

Byanca blinked with surprise. She thought Rosalia averse to commitment, but this did not feel like a joking invitation. Though, she did have an impish little grin saying it.

“I’ll think about it.” Byanca said, flashing her own little grin.

Once enough of the food had been made to disappear, they set aside the rest, plated and under paper towels to keep the bugs away, and laid down beneath the shade of the parasol together, hand-in-hand. As they watched the clouds pass by over the horizon, their bodies grew closer, until they laid as they had in bed, Rosalia nestled against Byanca’s chest, and Byanca’s strong arms wrapped around her. It was warm; they started to sweat.

Both enjoyed spooning so much that they did not move despite this.

“Are you afraid, Rosalia?” Byanca asked.

“Not especially. Should I be?”

“Nobles are being targeted, you know?”

“I know. But I am not being targeted.”

Byanca held her a little closer in response.

She felt guilty again; she felt like she was using Rosalia to comfort herself. There was somebody else whom she wanted to hold too. She thought her feelings for that person, or even for the idea of being with that person, were much stronger. She had a fantasy. She was treating Rosalia like a proxy, or consolation. It wasn’t fair. And yet she couldn’t stop. Whenever she hurt, she knew this was the only realistic place to come heal.

She knew that Rosalia didn’t mind. In fact she knew Rosalia felt comfortable with this arrangement because she could not agree to any more. That was her nature too.

And yet it was not fair to her, nonetheless. Byanca felt she could have offered her more.

“Whoever chooses to attack me must attack this forest as well.” Rosalia said.

“I suppose so.”

“And besides, the Agnelli family has lived through many regimes without impediment. We do not care whether the guardian of the tree rises or falls. We do not own the Arsia; it cannot be taken from us. It is our real caregiver, our real king and queen.” Rosalia replied.

She shifted her back, perhaps relishing in pressing herself against Byanca’s breasts.

“These anarchists are different. They’re specifically here to attack the aristocracy.”

“Queen Vittoria did plenty of that as well. She overlooked us. They always do.”

“Rosalia, if you need anything, if you feel any kind of discomfort or distress, I want to know that you would put aside your pride and tell me. Can you promise me that?”

Byanca felt Rosalia shifting again, and she opened her eyes, and found herself staring deep into Rosalia’s own contented face. Their hands lay between each other’s chests, the fingers clasped together. Rosalia tipped forward, and laid a kiss on Byanca’s lips.

“Were I ever to commit to someone, it could only be you, Byanca.” She said cryptically.

Byanca blinked. Those were not words she thought she would hear out of Rosalia.

The Lady Agnelli did not allow her time to contemplate. After the kiss she stood up, and returned to her own horse, and from another bag hanging at its side, she withdrew paints, brushes, a hand-held palette, a slender easel, and a slice of canvas stretched on a thin board. She set up her easel outside the parasol, in the sun, and stood behind it.

“Byanca, could you sit down in the sun for a little while? I want to paint you.” She said.

“I’m honored to be your subject!” Byanca replied. She felt her face turning red-hot.

She stood from under the parasol and sat in a patch of poppies. Rosalia instructed her on her posture — she should sit like a princess, with her hands on her lap, her legs together and turned to the side, and her back straight. It was an arduous position, especially under the sun. Rosalia was dissatisfied with Byanca’s ponytail, and she pulled off the woman’s band and redid her dirty-blond hair with the tail starting further up her head.

Finally Rosalia returned to her easel, took up a thick pencil and made a quick drawing. After that she picked up her palette and brushes and laid the pencil aside to paint.

Her painting was the gentlest and most thoughtful series of physical actions Byanca had ever seen a human being perform. Whenever she saw a hand raised Byanca connected this to a strike; but Rosalia’s hands never slashed down or thrust forward, and instead hovered, and fluttered over the canvas, and back to the palette. She looked over her colors, mixed them, and painted. She re-examined Byanca from afar several times. It was as if the painting was a child that she was doting heavily upon; petted, clad and fed by hand.

After what seemed like almost an hour under the sun, a very rosy-cheeked Byanca was finally called to see behind the easel. She was astonished by the quality of the painting. It certainly looked like her, and it was very softly colored. Her contours were gently captured. Thin layers of color gave everything a very soft and subdued texture so that it almost seemed like a colored drawing on paper or a photo more than a painting for a wall.

“It was hasty, and I did not have my best materials.” Rosalia said.

“It is beautiful, Rosalia! And I never thought I would say that about myself!”

“Oh, but you are beautiful, Byanca. This painting captures a fraction of your beauty.”

Byanca smiled and rubbed the back of her own head.

Rosalia turned to the painting with a mildly wistful expression.

“Are you sure you cannot stay another night?”

“I’ve got some pressing business.” Byanca said sadly.

“Will you be back?” Rosalia asked, still staring at the painting as it dried.

“Of course I will! I will visit right after the matter is settled.”

“I don’t mean to sound selfish but– I’d like it if you visited more regularly.”

Byanca smiled at her again. She felt a mixture of hurt and joy in her heart.

“I won’t go to Borelia again or anything like that. I’ll be here if you need me.” She said.

Rosalia nodded her head. “I’m so very relieved to hear that.”

Hand in hand once more, the odd noblewoman of the wood and her failed knight returned to their picnic. They ate the remainder of the food, emptied the bottle of wine, picked flowers, frolicked under the sun, examined the Agnelli dogs, and all the while until the carriage came around those fingers did not separate. Even after she left, Byanca continued to feel her touch. It was an eerie sensation, welcome but hard to place.

For a time, she suppressed the guilt and sadness that she felt for the majestic antler-woman of the wood who simply could not be the princess of her childish dreams.

She wanted to feel happiness, for the unique connection they shared — for their love.

Despite everything, however she could not deny that she felt drawn back to Salvatrice.

No matter what the mind told the heart, she continued to nurture that strange and empowering childhood fantasy of being the knight whom the Princess elevates above all. For a girl who felt little value toward herself, this was the height of comforting fantasy.

Kingdom of Lubon — Pallas Messianic Academy

“Announce yourself before you’re set to arrive, Ms. Geta!”

Canelle screamed and waved a gun at the doorway, nearly in tears.

Salvatrice pressed her hand against her chest, trying to control her breathing.

Though she was almost ready to welcome her Centurion back with open arms, as usual something quickly interrupted to turn Salvatrice’s affection, almost alchemy-like, into disdain for the Blackshirt. Byanca Geta had arrived later than expected and completely unannounced, and so she scared everyone in the apartment witless once more with her brutish knocking on the door. Canelle retreated from the doorway looking quite flustered.

To add insult to this fresh injury, Byanca arrived with some unusual company.

This is the gift you come bearing?” Salvatrice snapped with indignation.

Salvatrice glared at the doorway, a look of disgust starting to twist her features the instant Byanca passed through, nonchalantly pulling a dog on a red leash and allowing the beast into the apartment. Her princely and princessly heart skipped a beat with every step of the monster’s paws. Though the creature was as comely as a dog could be, clean and cinnamon-smelling and covered in shiny, brushed golden-brown fur; and though it had an elegant, streamlined profile with a slender body, a long snout and small, intelligent eyes; Salvatrice could still not help but withdraw from its presence. It was still, despite all of this, a dog.

“Good to see you too, princess.” Byanca said, a small smile on her face.

Her expression was almost enough to make Salvatrice feel guilty at her own response.

And yet, not quite, owing to the presence of a dog.

Especially as the Centurion closed in to within a meter of her couch.

“What compelled you to bring this thing here?” Salvatrice said.

Salvatrice started shooing the dog away before it could even get a look at the food that was set on the tea table. There was a spread of cheeses and tomatoes, cured ham and baguettes, and a large pitcher of lemonade comprising the ladies’ light lunch. Surely it attracted the monster’s nose and insatiable appetite, even if it had no immediate response.

Byanca raised her hand to her face and sighed deeply into it.

“That is not an adequate response, Centurion! When did I ever permit such a thing?”

Laying lazily down on the carpet, the dog put on an apathetic expression.

Sensing movement from the beast, the Princess grew ever more alert.

“You don’t have to react so bluntly to it.” Byanca said.

“This is my apartment, and decide how to react to intrusion!” Salvatrice shouted.

Cannelle drew back from the dog herself, drawing out a little gasp. She turned to face the princess with growing concern. “Salvatrice, you’re not allergic to dogs, are you?”

On its face the dog had what seemed an almost dismissive expression now.

“No!” Salvatrice replied. “But a Lady’s domicile is not the place for a dog!”

“Funny, because I got this dog from a Lady. It’s been very well trained.”

Byanca gave an amicable glance at the dog and patted its long, slim head.

An unfriendly, toothy frown warped the creature’s snout. Byanca drew her hand back.

“Well-trained or no! Dogs are too pushy and messy!” Salvatrice replied.

“Maybe some of them, but this one is of good breeding!” Byanca insisted.

“It can be the most quiet and sagacious dog on Aer, and it will still be a dog the way that the most quiet and gentle gun in the world is still a gun that shoots!” Salvatrice shrieked.

She realized it was not a fashionable look for her. After all, dog was “man’s best friend” supposedly, but she could not help it. Dogs mortified her; she found them disgustingly greedy creatures. Everywhere she went the aristocracy harbored these beasts, that pushed and prodded and forced their presences into every particle of the world around them, that slobbered and smelled and soiled the ground wherever they traveled. On more than one occasion she shared a dinner table with a horrid dog! It was madness!

Dogs and dog culture got her hackles up in a visceral way. She couldn’t help it.

“Princess, that is not fair!” Byanca replied. “Look at Terry, she’s not doing anything.”

Terry and the Princess briefly locked eyes and averted their glances almost at once.

Salvatrice petulantly crossed her arms. “I will not suffer such indecent company!”

“Did a dog bite you as a kid?” Byanca asked, looking at her with concern, like Canelle.

“Whether a dog bit me or not is none of your business! I just don’t like them!”

Again Byanca sighed, but not with defeat. She remained rooted in place with the dog.

“Princess, I’m sorry, but the dog is a tactical asset. I need her for security reasons.”

“I can’t believe you! Next you’ll bring a gorilla out of the zoo as a ‘tactical asset’!”

Byanca turned a sad expression on the princess. “You hate gorillas too?”

“Listen to me for one second!” Salvatrice said, feeling a tightness in her head from holding the same indignant expression for so long. “I do not hate these creatures! I do not deign to hate them! There is no value in hating them! But I do not associate with gorillas, or with magpies, or with drakes, or with dogs. I do not want them in my home!”

“Is there an animal you don’t hate?” Byanca asked, crossing her own arms.

She turned a pitying expression on the princess that Salvatrice deeply resented.

Salvatrice was too invested in this childish tussle to see her own petulance anymore.

“I told you I don’t hate them! But fine: cats! Cats are a most noble creature!”

“You know that cats just manipulate you to get food, right?” Byanca said.

Salvatrice’s eyes drew wide. “Take that back! You barbarian! Cats have more than love for us, they have respect! They respect our time and our space and our property!”

Byanca put on a sour expression and seemed to be getting invested in the argument.

“Princess, dogs actually go up to you and show their affection! Cats don’t care at all!”

“I don’t want a filthy dog’s ignorant invasions against my person! Cats know their place!”

“Dogs can track things and hunt and protect you! Cats are just lazy and selfish!”

“Dogs just destroy your furniture! Cats get rid of vermin, and they clean themselves!”

“Name one other animal you like beside cats!” Byanca childishly challenged her.

“Fish! I love Fish! So as you can see I am an animal lover!” Salvatrice shouted back.

“Princess you’re just lazy! You don’t want any animals that take any effort to care for!”.

Behind them a series of sharp little noises diffused the ridiculous tension that had built.

“What’s so funny?” Salvatrice asked, whipping around.

She found Canelle holding her own mouth shut, giggling and snorting in recurring fits.

“Oh, Princess, I’m so sorry! But after all this cat-and-dog fighting, I’ve just imagined miss Geta as a big dopey pooch, and you as a prissy little puss! And it just fits too well!”

Canelle burst out into fresh laughter the second she finished the thought.

Salvatrice made a skeptical, perhaps feline expression that prompted further laughter.

Byanca stifled a laugh herself.

“Alright, Princess, you win.” the Centurion said, a light-hearted smile on her face.

With regal disdain, Salvatrice regarded the dog and turned the other cheek.

Terry seemed to turn almost the exact expression back on her.

Canelle covered her mouth once more, her cheeks puffing up with subdued laughter.

There was an eerie silence in the room for over a minute.

Salvatrice glanced around the corner of her eye at Byanca, who stood pitifully still.

She was waiting for a reaction, perhaps anxiously.

Suddenly the atmosphere in the room made Salva feel a little foolish.

The Princess made a few discontented noises before turning back around.

“Fine. Fine! You can keep the dog, and it can stay, today.” Salvatrice said. “Henceforth, that dog is your responsibility, Byanca, since you love it so much. It lives with you, it eats with you, and it bathes with you, and it stays out of my apartment. I warn you that anything it soils, you will pay for, and everything in this apartment is very expensive!”

Byanca smiled and bowed her head in deference. “Thank you, your highness.”

Salvatrice turned again and hissed. “Hmph! It’s not like I wanted to placate you or anything.”

Soon the episode was forgiven and forgotten by all parties, perhaps except Canelle, who continued to laugh at her imagined adventures of Salva-Cat and Geta-Dog throughout the hour. Salvatrice elegantly partook of her tomatoes and cheese, drank her sweet lemonade and tried to ignore the presence of the dog sitting calmly at Byanca’s side, likely waiting for scraps. However, she was soon drawn again into acknowledging the beast.

“Don’t feed it people food.” Salvatrice preemptively said.

“I won’t. It’d spoil her. Her tongue’s been dyed.” Byanca said.

“What does that mean?” the Princess asked.

“It’s an indelicate tradition.” Byanca turned suddenly nervous.

“Do I look like I have a fainting couch in here? Don’t treat me like a child.”

Byanca sighed.

“Fine. Terry primarily hunts and kills for food and eats in cold blood, and she has tasted human blood in a controlled environment. It’s a traditional way to rear hunting dogs.”

Salvatrice stared at the dog and found it with its mouth open and its tongue lolling.

For a moment she actually did feel rather faint in the little monster’s presence.

Even Canelle was staring at it with incredulous eyes. Her good humor swiftly subsided.

“It won’t hurt you or anyone here!” Byanca quickly said. “I promise! Terry’s a good dog!”

As if prompted, Terry jumped up on the couch, laid down and stared at them all sideways.

“I am going to make an effort to forget all of this.” Salvatrice said, rubbing her forehead.

That night was not to be one made for forgetting.

After tea-time, Byanca withdrew with her new pet back to her room, and Salvatrice went about her day. She read her books on socialism, ate another light meal, took her hormones and helped Canelle fold clothes. Overhead the sun traveled across the sky only to wind back down into the horizon and disappear from view. Everything was soon dark. Canelle turned off all the lamps, served a little booster shot of warm honey-lemon tea to help everyone ward off the seasonal cold, and retreated to her own room after kissing Salva on the cheek.

“Good night, Princess! I will see you on the ‘morrow, whenever that may be.”

She winked her eye.

Salvatrice smiled back at her as the doors to her room shut.

Turning sharply around she set about enacting her plan.

She seized a bundle from under her bed, and pulled off and discarded her night-gown.

In its place, she donned the short pants, button-down shirt and large cap of a newsboy.

Owing to light pollution, Salvatrice could not see stars in the sky when she snuck out.

From her balcony all she could see were the myriad lights of the academy.

And far in the distance, the town of Palladi, where her love was waiting.

Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

Lehner’s Greed (23.4)


This story segment contains sexual content.

44th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Nocht Federation, Republic of Rhinea — City of Junzien

Chocolate prices were becoming outrageous these days; Cecilia Foss grumbled silently to herself as the sweet shop owner fussed with her gift wrap behind the counter.

She couldn’t believe it was fifteen marks just for chocolate hearts in a gift box.

“It’s because you import it, right?” Cecilia asked. “From Kabau. So it jacks up the price.”

Her Frankish accent was noticeable regardless of how much played it down, and it drew the man’s attention for a moment. But he made no point of it except perhaps in his own mind.

“Yes ma’am. Shipping’s bad, you know? With the war and all.” He replied.

“I’m sorry, fifteen marks is just a lot more than I had intended to spend.” Cecilia said.

“It’ll be worth it once you and your gentleman crack this open.” He said cheekily.

Cecilia had no response for that. She drew the paper marks from her wallet and laid them on the counter, and the man pushed her red, heart-shaped, gift-wrapped box toward her.

“Come back after we’ve beaten the communists; Ayvarta’s prime chocolate-growing land. I bet you prices’ll go down and business will boom once we win, yessiree ma’am.”

The secretary deposited her chocolates in a paper bag and left the shop to wait for the trolley.

She dropped a 5-mark into a homeless man’s hat before boarding; he waved; she didn’t see.

Gentle snowfall dusted over the trolley as it descended the hill down Constitution street, toward the Hotel Reich. Cecilia held on to a bar overhead, standing between several commuters. She slipped the brown bag into her coat, and dropped off into the street while the trolley was still going, joining the crowds. Around the corner, the Hotel Reich extended into the gray sky.

In the lobby, Cecilia stopped by a pair of men in black suits and hats who were making full use of a refreshments table set out for potential guests. She showed them her government ID.

“She’s up on the Presidential.” One said. “Y’can’t miss it Miss F.”

“I’ll be staying for a while as we have business we need to hash out.”

“Don’t concern me none, Miss F. You take your time.”

Cecilia waved with the tips of her fingers and left their side, taking the elevator. Reich was a fancy locale, but it didn’t make any impression on her now. Gilded handles and knobs, glossy wood floors, silk curtains, every surface intricately tiled and carved and etched; she had seen this before. Ostentatious decoration lost its effect the hundredth time; or far earlier.

The Presidential Suite was its own floor. From the elevator, there was a landing hall with a bench and a water dispenser, where two Schwartzkopf sat around reading and listening to a baseball game on the radio. She approached them, and they waved; they were familiar faces. Eintz and Schapel did not require anything from her, they knew her to be trustworthy.

“By the way, do not disturb; I’ve some important work with the first lady.” Cecilia said.

“S’already done Miss F.” Eintz said. “Mrs. A told us she’d throw us out the window if we set foot in the room without her explicit permission. We know good ’nuff to believe ‘er.”

Cecilia smiled and nodded, and did the same little finger wave for the men before departing.

Past the little hall, a set of wooden double doors lead into a large foyer with a chandelier, flanked by fish tanks. There was a tea room, a living room, a kitchen, a hot indoor bath, all in their own branches of the suite. Cecilia produced her chocolates, held them behind her back and cut straight to the bedroom door. She knocked on it exactly six times before waiting.

It unlocked; the knob turned and the door opened. Behind it appeared a buxom woman in a bathrobe with a bored-looking expression. Her robe was out of order, exposing some of a breast, some of her pleasantly curved hip, a bit of belly, a plump thigh; her bouncy, wavy, golden hair was collected behind her head, and her lips sported a recent coat of crimson.

“Ta-dah!” Cecilia thrust out the chocolate gift box toward the woman with a smile.

“Chocolates?” Agatha Lehner said dimly. “Are you a teenage boy or a grown woman?”

Cecilia chucked the box over Agatha. It landed on her drawer, knocking things off it.

“Teenage boy then.” Agatha turned her back, marched back to bed, and dropped face-down.

Tu m’as démasqué.” Cecilia said. She was mildly amused, mildly aggravated.

“Why are you here, Cece?” She moaned. “Doesn’t my husband have a big speech to give?”

“Mary Trueday is returning from Ayvarta, so I am a third wheel.” Cecilia said.

“And you weren’t a third wheel before that? You’re more of a fourth wheel now.”

Cecilia approached the bed, and delivered a firm slap on Agatha’s exposed buttocks.

Agatha jerked forward and groaned softly. She slowly turned herself over in bed, lying on her back and facing the secretary, her face flushing, her robe spread almost completely open.

“Mary is special; the way I see it, I’ve collected both the Lehners now, so it doesn’t count when it’s just us around. It’s different when I’m around her and Achim though.” Cecilia said.

Cecilia threw off her coat and started to pull off her bow tie with one hand while crawling onto the bed. She loomed over the actress, unbuttoning her own vest and shirt with one hand and tracing Agatha’s thigh and up to her belly with the other. In a fit of emotion she descended, sucked the woman’s lips greedily into her own, and then pulled back, whipping her ponytail.

“Don’t do that hair thing, you look ridiculous.” Agatha said softly. “It turns me off.”

Cecilia moved her hand down Agatha’s belly and clutched between her legs.

Agatha moaned, her hips bucked, her back straightened out. She gripped the bedsheets.

“Subtle enough? Cecilia said, grinning, nose to nose with the President’s wife.

“Enough to make me feel a little guilty.” Agatha said, between soft moans and gasps.

Cecilia licked her lips, glancing across the woman with an impish, hungry grin.

“Don’t be. Take it from me; we’re all sinners in this circle, but none more than he.”

* * *

Lehner checked his watch and then the tracks. Despite the old Junzien station expanding its services, that familiar scene, standing on the platform with bated breath, always seemed to recur. There were many trains coming and going, but it was never quite the train he was waiting for — the train that was carrying her to the city for one of those rare visits.

He was flanked by two of his black-hatted Schwartzkopf agents, keeping an eye out.

When the train finally pulled up to the station, they opened the door for him, and ushered him into the silver car, just like when he was a kid. They departed to their own train and left him to his devices. Inside the Presidential car, it was the same as before: the kitchenette, the couches, the table for four. But Sultzer wasn’t there and neither was Nore this time. They couldn’t be, anymore. Instead a lovely woman with earth-tone skin and bright green eyes awaited him.

Kaiserin Mary Trueday; known as Sarahastra Ayvarta II before her conversion.

She looked absolutely stunning — her long, green dress had a sleek silhouette, boasting a complex, bustled skirt and a form-fitting bodice shaped like numerous fronds over her breasts, and delicately baring her slim, brown shoulders. Her black hair had been collected on the sides of her head into braids that met at the back. A dab of pigments on her lean, striking face and lips accentuated her features. She smiled placidly when he arrived and waved at him.

Lehner sat across the table from her. “Hey, is that thing here? Tell her to go.”

He waved dismissively toward Mary’s solid black shadow on the couch.

In an instant it became noticeably thinner. He didn’t catch where it went exactly.

“She’s out now.” Mary said. “She’s got better things to be doing anyway.”

“Good. Creeps me out. I prefer good old fashioned, solid, fleshy murderous goons.”

Mary performed an exaggerated shrug. “You must admit she’s been useful.”

Lehner shrugged too. “Didn’t see her around two years ago when I needed knees capped!”

Mary smiled. “How disrespectful. You should think of her as a mother to us.”

“Ugh. Nobody wants their mother in the room when they’re fooling around.”

He leaned over the table and kissed her, briefly but passionately. Theirs was a long courting, and these brief tastes were enough to sate them until greater privacy could be afforded. They had gotten it down to a science over years of scarce meetings. Things had escalated when the old man and the old woman finally left the picture — but they didn’t want to push it too much. After all, Mary had a reputation to maintain; and Lehner had a lovely wife to placate.

“So, how was home?” Lehner asked. “Everything you thought it’d be?”

“I’m afraid Mamlakha is not exactly what I consider home.” Mary said.

“I’m glad, because we promised that bit of the continent its independence and all.”

Mary laughed delicately. “You look energetic Achim. I’m glad to see you.”

“I can’t be anything but energetic with you.” He said. He dropped the act, for her. He didn’t need to affect his voice. He didn’t need to be snappy and quick with her. She would see through it. She saw through a lot of things. For her, he was happy to drop every pretense.

“I’m glad. I don’t want a partner in crime who is anything less than energetic.”

She was dropping her own act too. She was a lot more wicked than people thought — almost as much as he. Put together, their corrupting influence on each other was simply delightful.

He reached out his hand and took hers over the table, stroking her gently.

“Is your speech prepared for tomorrow?” She said.

“Yeah. Cecilia helped write it. That woman is incredible.” Lehner said.

“In more than one way?” Mary giggled.

Lehner laughed. This was not a shameful thing to them. It was casual. They barely had to comment on it. Both of them lived rather lively existences. They were the hungry sort.

“Hard to believe this is really happening though.” He said. “We used to fantasize about being prince and princess in the South; we’re finally returning to the beginning.”

“I like to see it more in terms of the future, but I agree.” She replied. “I knew my throne would be returned to me eventually. So far I have seen nothing to contradict this.

“Good. Both of us get to have what we want; the big chair, your gold vaults, everything.”

Mary cocked an eyebrow at him. “Oh, is the big chair really all you want?”

“I could settle for it.” Lehner said teasingly.

“That’s not the wanton man I know.” Mary said sternly.

She sidled across the semi-circular couch surrounding the table, until she was right next to Lehner, and she climbed on him, and pressed her forehead to his. He rubbed against her.

“Mary, I love you. I want you to know that. You’re– you’re really important to me.”

Lehner put his arms around her and pulled her into a mutual embrace, arm over back, cheek to cheek, chest to chest. He felt her presence on him, felt her weight, her warmth.

“There is nobody else with whom I would commit these sins.” Mary said, stroking his hair.

It made everything stand on end, but he controlled it. From her, he just wanted this touch.

He was wanton and hedonistic. He hoarded life’s pleasures, he consumed and devoured. Sex was fine; but in a way, it was being able to hold her like this that he truly desired. To hold her without the judgment of Nore or Makemba between them; to walk hand in hand with her regardless of status, of morality or ethics. Money was great; power was delectable; there was certainly an allure to his status. But he told himself, this was what he wanted.

He wanted this; he wanted her. He wanted it all. Nothing was stopping him now.


45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Nocht Federation, Republic of Rhinea — City of Junzien, Audible Hall

President Lehner’s State of the Northern Federation Address

Free peoples of the Federation of Northern States.

I am honored to speak with you today.

The State of the Northern Federation is strong, and growing stronger. Through swift, judicious action we have averted the economic gloom that seemed inevitable four years ago.

When I took office, I promised I would revolutionize the way our government works. No more abstractions; no more guesswork; no more arcana. My administration faced reality: we gathered data, conducted inquiries, performed scientific research. We didn’t look at a cloudy sky and pray for rain. We went to the source, found the water, and brought it to the field.

That’s what we promised and what we delivered, economically, militarily, and socially.

Today, our prospects as a nation have never looked brighter.

Financial and regulatory reforms have made available money and material to industries that are creating thousands of new jobs and turning out absolutely necessary equipment.

I am proud to say that Nocht is home to the most advanced industries on the planet. Our medicine, our machinery, our transportation, are second to none, and growing.

Our focus on our heavy industry has paid off, with new factories sprouting all across the Federation, linked by rail and ports and roads that facilitate the flow of our nation’s lifeblood.

Our military is stronger than ever. Two years ago, I foresaw how dangerous the world was becoming and I committed to improving our military, opening more military jobs, improving military industry. We now have one of the largest, and definitely the strongest, army in the world. Our air force is not too far behind, and the Bundesmarine is rapidly improving.

Growing our military is a commitment to protecting our future. I am proud of our men in uniform, and I am proud of the civilians who support and supply them.

All of them keep us safe. They keep the prosperity of the Federation well guarded.

Prosperity that we can expect to last for a long time.

We have made it easier than ever to access all the fine things in life. Record numbers of people are owning homes, buying cars, taking out loans to start their own businesses. Never before have so many opportunities been given to hard-working men and women to get an education, a job, and reap the rewards. You put in the sweat, Jack, and I’ll always have your back.

I talk often about mathematics: here the mathematics are simple. By cutting red tape, lowering taxes, expanding private industries and giving them incentives to conduct efficient work, we have reached new levels of production and economic prosperity.

The numbers are there. You can even go look at them.

And yet, despite our internal prosperity, we are still part of a wider world, and we cannot look at ourselves alone. We have been blessed with resources that make us a leader among nations, and those resources are now being called to complete a crucial task.

There are events transpiring in the world that deserve your attention. Until now my lips were sealed on these events overseas, to protect our men in uniform. It was never my intention to mislead you, but when you sit in the big chair, well, there are considerations.

Here are the facts you’ve been waiting for as to the events of the past three weeks.

On the 18th of the Aster’s Gloom we coordinated with our allies to launch a series of military actions against the Socialist Dominances of Solstice with an aim to liberate its territories and establish a new popular government with Mary Trueday as one of the heads of state.

We started the fight with a limited deployment. Reinforcements are now on the way.

We hit the communists hard with new techniques and new equipment that has helped to minimize our casualties while rapidly advancing and overwhelming the enemy.

Over the course of the next two weeks we liberated vast swathes of territory.

I dare say, folks, we’ll be sweeping the place up in a year.

Already we have liberated the massive lands of Adjar and Shaila in the south of Ayvarta.

There is dancing on the streets in Bada Aso, in Knyskna, in Dori Dobo!

Freedom reigns in Ayvarta for the first time in decades!

Even as we speak, the White Army of civil war fame reassembles in the liberated lands to take back their homeland from the communists. In the territories freed from the tyranny of the communists, a fervor for freedom rises that will sweep the red despots well away! People are organizing freely, finally able to exercise freedom of speech, assembly, expression!

They are grateful to us, and they are willing to join our fight. It is a fight for their very lives.

Just like we back our own people when they are hurting, we must support the people of this once-great nation, who have been suffering under the yoke of totalitarian communism.

Over the course of the Ayvartan Great Terror of 2008 to 2014, these men and women; young professionals, clergy, politicians, scientists, even children, were driven from their homes for resisting the communist encroachment on their lives and livelihoods. Those who remained did so under a dogmatic government that threatened their liberties if they dared oppose it.

Tyrants like Daksha Kansal killed millions for their crooked ideology!

Communism has the blood of untold millions on its hands!

We committed, during the civil war, to fighting this! To backing a legitimate government!

We did not fulfill this commitment at the time, when we well should have.

When we hosted Empress Mary Trueday, and thousands of refugees during those heinous events over twenty years ago, I believe we also committed to doing right by them when the opportunity asserted itself. As Ayvarta grew more militant against its neighbors, operations in Cissea and Mamlakha were launched in 2026 through 2029, first by President Kantor, and then finished by myself. Ayvarta proved itself a threat to peace and freedom.

We recognized the Socialist Dominances of Solstice under President Kieselman. This was nothing less than a mistake, a grave mistake. The Socialist Dominances of Solstice is a rogue state. We should not have negotiated with these terrorists. We should have isolated them. President Kantor began to take measures; and I greatly accelerated them.

We let people come to harm by our inaction; and I refuse to allow that to happen again.

The Federation of Northern States is done biding its time in the face of terror!

The Hydras are a massive destabilizing force in our world. They have launched cowardly terror attacks on us and on our allies. They condemn our form of government and laugh at our civil liberties. They hate us for the fact that we are free and thriving without their ideology.

And they subject their own unwilling people to their cruel and inhuman discipline.

We’re putting the brakes on that nonsense.

We will not fear the Ayvartan terror any more.

The Nocht Federation is a force for good in the world. We will take a multifaceted approach to isolating, overrunning, and ultimately defeating Ayvarta. Nothing less will do.

You may feel trepidation at the thought of another war, when our country had hit such a high point in this brief period of peace. I understand your fears. In the coming week, we will launch a campaign in the home front to build trust and support, and friendship with our allies.

It is my hope that once you have all the information in your hands, you will understand my position. You will understand that the time has come to rid the world of a great evil.

There are sacrifices that will have to be made to succeed. But I promise you that this deployment is being handled with the utmost care. We have our best troops, armed with the latest equipment, and meticulously planned strategy. Not a single mark will go to waste.

Militarily, we will defeat the Red Terrorism that has taken root in Ayvarta; and in the diplomatic, humanitarian realm, we will support and carry out the repatriation of all of the proud people that were displaced by the communists, so that their country may once again flourish in the international stage under their guidance, as it well should.

We have allies from two major nations who have committed to joining the fight.

We do not stand alone! Praise the Allied Powers of Hanwa and Lubon!

They are our brothers and sisters in this fight! They see the justice in our cause!

We are committed to the independence of Mamlakha, and the membership of Cissea into our Federation. We will fight today, so that we can reap the benefits of a more stable world tomorrow. We will fight today, so that tomorrow our children do not have to fear that they will be killed on the streets by anarchists and reds. We will fight today, so that all of the nations of the world can look to tomorrow in a spirit of cooperation and not animosity.

We will fight today, for a victory tomorrow! For a freer, more peaceful world!

Victory for Nocht! Put your fist to your heart, my patriots, and shout it with me!

Sieg für Nocht! Sieg für Nocht! SIEG FÜR NOCHT!

* * *

The Secretary smiled at her handiwork. “Ohh, it sent shivers down my spine, Achim.”

The Television was an enormous wooden apparatus on the opposite side of the room from the bed, just beside the doorway. It was as big as a jukebox, though the screen was about the size of an adult’s head. In its somewhat foggy cathode-ray tube they watched Lehner deliver his big speech in one of the three programming channels available, and the only one with regular programming, running communiques produced by the government. Neither of them had slept over for this, but it was a nice touch to wake up in time for the noon address.

It certainly beat watching optical illusions and other nonsense on the experimental channels run by the electric company, while they waited to cool off between their sessions.

Cecilia stretched her arm and smacked a wired panel on the wall, shutting the set off.

She sat up in bed, breasts bared, rubbing her eyes; she was naked, but there was nobody to see save for Agatha, lying beside her with her back to a pillow and a cigarette in her lips. She was just as naked. They had spent over twenty hours sharing this state of being.

“I wrote almost all of that myself.” Cecilia bragged. “Achim’s delivery completed it.”

“Congratulations.” Agatha said sarcastically.

“God, is there any time you’re not giving cheek? What did you think of it?”

“I’m not convinced by a word my husband says anymore, but I’m not the average voter.” Agatha said, blowing a little cloud. “I might be bias in that regard, you could say.”

Despite the air conditioning Cecilia was covered in cold sweat. Her blond ponytail had been ripped free, and her hair now hung long, and messy. She shook her head to clear the fog.

“I should go downstairs or something. I stayed overnight. It might look weird to them.”

“Who cares?” Agatha said. “Achim knows about this, doesn’t he? What can they do?”

Cecilia smiled. “I’ve not exactly made an effort to let him know. He probably doesn’t care.”

Agatha sighed deeply. “You and I are both the third wheels here. He already has his love.”

Cecilia snatched the cigarette from Agatha’s finger and took a drag herself.

“Don’t let it mortify you, Agatha. You were always more my type than him anyway.”

She made to stand up from the bed, but barely turned over the side when Agatha nearly jumped at her, pulling her back, marking her neck with a kiss. “Stay with me a little, Cece.”

“If you insist, Aggie.” replied the secretary. Agatha’s hands interlocked just over her chest. She raised her own hands, and squeezed Agatha’s fingers. She smiled. “Achim can wait a bit.”

* * *

Read The Next Chapter || Read The Previous Part

Lehner’s Greed (23.3)

This story segment contains death and some strong language.

23rd of the Postill’s Dew, 2014 D.C.E

Nocht Federation — Republic of Rhinea, City of Junzien

16 years before the Solstice War.

It was a new year at the Seminary of Saint Romagna, but the same old intrusions.

His father and Makemba had sent Sarahastra to a Messianic seminary to complete her education. They tried to be diplomatic about it, telling them they could see each other on holidays. Over time both their guardians had grown weary of the orchestrated rendezvous that the two teenagers had every few weeks or months or whenever an opportunity arose. Really this course of action had been taken entirely because they thought it would limit them further.

They were utterly mistaken. Nore had clearly forgotten two things 1) the Von Fiegelman inheritance from his wife’s side of the family had all gone to Achim, by her own wishes, and 2) that marks could solve any problem. Achim dropped a few notes at the seminary gate and he had the run of the place. It was a dismal little college on the southern countryside of Junzien.

A broad open field split the campus. A few gabled dormitory buildings stood to one side, and the square school buildings stood to the other. At the end of a long trail downhill there was a barnyard, stacks of hay, grazing cows and clucking hens near a rushing little brook.

It felt confining. It was apart from civilization. It was like a little prison for young girls.

That was part of it too; a prison. Because President Kieselman and the Congress had recognized the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. Nore wanted Sarahastra to give up on her claims now.

But Achim knew she was not giving up on that, and she was not giving up on him either.

Just before the dawn they met near one of the barns, the gate guard having agreed to look the other way. Achim took Sarahastra in his arms and kissed her, briefly but passionately.

Sarahastra smiled at him charmingly. If he knew her, then that preternatural intuition of hers had prepared her for this. Who knows; perhaps she could even taste the kiss ahead of time.

“You naughty boy; you’ll never be president if you sneak around like this.” She said.

“I’m sure plenty of presidents have done worse than this.” Achim replied.

They both laughed together. Standing behind the barn wall, they held each other closely. This is what they had to do; theirs was a secret love. It felt romantic, and there was never a dearth of excitement — every time they saw each other’s faces after a few weeks or months, the ensuing kiss felt like the very first. They had greater impulses, sometimes; but they were patient.

They walked around the side of the barn, down a little hill toward the brook, watching the chickens and cows. Sarahastra was modestly dressed, with a cream-colored shawl and a long blouse and skirt. Her hair was tied into a simple braid. He jokingly compared her to a nun.

“You say that, but there are women here looking to become nuns.” She said.

“By their own will?”

“You’d be surprised.”

“Have you given it any thought, my virtuous maiden?” Achim asked teasingly.

“I’m too much of a sinner for that.” Sarahastra replied, waving her hand dismissively. “But I might change my name. It might help my prospects in the future.”

Achim promptly changed the subject. “So what are you studying here?”

“General things. Arithmetic, literature appropriate for girls. Poetry. Bird-watching.”



They looked at each other and chuckled at the absurdity of it.

“This is really more of a place to seclude your rebellious daughter until you’re ready to cart her off to some rich boy, than it is a school. Some girls here have very sad stories.”

Achim shook his head. Had he been able to knock down the walls and take her out he would have. He couldn’t, not right now, but he would someday. He knew that he would.

“So that’s what Makemba wants you to do now? Give up the throne, find a husband?”

“Perhaps. She’s got a storm coming if she thinks that will happen.” Sarahastra said.

“My father keeps pushing me to go into law. I have barely any motivation to do it.” Achim said. “This is all his ideas; I don’t really care about it. I don’t know what to do, to be honest.”

“Didn’t you want to be President, like him?”

“That’s just the dreaming of a foolish boy. How does one even become President?”

“From what I’ve studied so far, it’s a combination of charm and money.”

Achim chuckled, a bit bitterly. “I guess I’m set then.”

“Also a little ruthlessness.”

“That’s more Dietrich than me.”

“You could stand to have a little more. It’s appealing in a way.”

“Unlike him, I’ve got nothing to be ruthless about.”

Sarahastra stepped out in front of him suddenly and they almost bumped their faces together. She had her hands behind her back and a solemn look on her face. She stared directly into her eyes. He could see himself in the green, they were so close. His golden hair, pink-pale skin, sharp and angular features — he was almost like the opposite of her in form.

“I had a vision again, Achim.” She said solemnly.

He blinked. “What did you see?”

She leaned in and kissed him, taking his lips into her own.

He felt her tongue enter his mouth, and he stood transfixed, holding her by the waist.

They kissed until the breath left them, and they parted.

She raised her hands to his shoulders, and stared deep into his eyes.

“I saw a great hunger in you, Achim. Ambition and power and strength. You’ll be surrounded, beloved, revered even. You might not see this in yourself now. But you will.”

Achim smiled at her, staring fondly into her eyes. To him those voracious portents sounded sweet and affirming. Sarahastra had a way with abstractions and metaphor.

“What about you, Sarahastra? Did you see anything about yourself?”

“I did. I’ll be right there with you, Achim. Just as voracious and indomitable.”

He would not foresee the chain of casual events that would spawn from that point; of growth, of change, each instant natural by itself but secretly interlocking in a wrought iron chain lashed across the entire world. He could not foresee in just the way those words would unfold.

To him, it was just her encouragement, the words that gave him the courage to climb that tree as a child, the words that gave him the courage to go against his father’s wishes.

45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2025 D.C.E

Nocht Federation — Republic of Rhinea, City of Junzien

5 Years Before The Solstice War

“Whoa, jeez, now I know why they call you people movie stars!” He said excitedly.

Agatha looked him over, an eyebrow raised. “Oh, and why do you say that?”

Achim Lehner smiled at her. “You’re shining so bright I’m going blind over here.”

Agatha burst out laughing. Everything from his delivery to the way his lips curled into a little grin after speaking, suggested that he was deadly serious. This was him turning up the charm. She giggled girlishly in his presence, and he was thoroughly unfazed by it. He continued to smile and his eyes were looking her over confidently. None of his facade was shaken.

“Thanks, thank you! I only play big venues; but I’d do your birthday, doll.” He continued.

“You have quite a poker face.” Agatha replied. She raised her hand delicately over her lips.

“Not too shabby about the cards part either; I tend to win.” He replied.

“And do you think you’ve won here yet, Mr. Lehner?” She pressed him.

“Well, I don’t consider this a game, not with my eyesight on the line.”

Agatha nearly burst into laughter again. “I see. You’re persistent.”

“Oh, don’t get the wrong idea, you want me gone, I’ll leave. I don’t want to burn up; I’ve got long term plans for these peepers, let me tell ya. Would be mighty inconvenient.”

She giggled again. She couldn’t believe how much she wanted him around at the moment.

Perhaps he was that good; or perhaps he was just lucky. They were at a social to celebrate a new film, and he was the only interesting face in the crowd. Her fellow actresses and some of the crew were the only other young faces in a small crowd composed mostly of investors and industry big-shots with grey hair. Lehner was the youngest-looking man in the crowd. She knew him a little; he was one of the financiers for the film, because he was interested in talkies. He was interested in the technology behind it, being able to have a movie with voices.

So he dropped a lot of money; enough money he got to walk on the set and look at the cameras, and he got to shake everyone’s hands, including her own, and talk to them briefly.

Now the film was done, and everyone was celebrating. Of course he would be here too. He had a lot of money to his name, and he had put that money, and his name, on this film.

When she started to notice him, she realized that, silly lines aside, she found him handsome. Slicked-back golden hair, interesting and angular features, bright eyes, and a dimpled smile. He had a lean and attractive build. He didn’t look athletic, but he took care of himself. He was older than her, maybe by five or six years, and she was barely twenty-five herself. She thought him kind of slippery, like a gangster in a movie, a flashy smile and a covered knife. His name vaguely reminded her of something, but she didn’t know; she started filling in blanks.

Perhaps he was that good; or perhaps it was just her fancy. But she didn’t recoil from him.

Agatha smiled at him. “I will contain my incandescence near you, Mr. Lehner.”

Lehner mockingly wiped sweat from his forehead and chuckled lightly at himself.

She rolled her eyes visibly at him, but she didn’t ditch him quite yet.

“So what brings you into my orbit, Enyalio?” Agatha said. She was smarter and better read than the girls he tried his stupid lines on — and she wanted him to know that up front.

“Well, I noticed you’re both alone and not drinking, and I can relate.” Lehner replied.

Again, he was thoroughly unfazed. He treated her very casually still.

“Well, I am unafraid of being by myself; and my family wasn’t the drinking type.”

“Ha ha! My family were like goddamn monks; it was exhausting.”

Agatha prodded his chest with her index finger. “Are you an obedient boy then?”

“I’ve done my dad so many behind his back, I figure I should be good sometimes.”

“Indeed. My whole career is like that; so I have a lot to make up for.” Agatha said.

More people started to arrive, but compared to Lehner they felt like the same old. Hand-in-hand they navigated the party, soaking in all the jokes, the boasts from the financiers and the actresses, the declarations that this film would practically shake the theater-goers for their extra pennies. They navigated it all right out of the apartment the party was held in and to a balcony, under a light snowfall, overlooking the streets of Junzien. At night, the world below them was a succession of tiny, colored lights, and shadows flitting about beneath them.

Unprompted, Lehner removed his coat and draped it over her shoulders. She shot him a look, but he was already staring over the guard rails and smiling at nothing in the distance.

He looked dreamily out into the distance, as if entranced by something. “It looks perfect, like you carved it out of a rock. It looks powerful; brutal. Look at how it’s grown, goddamn. Makes you wonder about yourself. How have the buildings gotten so huge, and you haven’t?”

“Probably because I don’t have a crew of burly men putting cement around me.”

“Hah! True, too true! People are built up a lot more haphazardly than a skyscraper.”

“I can see what you’re saying, however.” She searched the coat he had dropped over her, and hit the jackpot, as she expected — his lighter and his cigarettes. They were even mint-flavored. “A distance like this evokes feelings in the extreme. So I try to keep from staring too hard.”

“Indeed.” Lehner looked sobered up, brought down from his imaginings. “And behind that dark beauty, the city’s not doing so well these days. Neither is the country for that matter.”

Agatha looked on. She was pretty connected with the news on most days. She always read the paper and listened to the radio when she could, just to have something to talk to with all the people she was expected to meet with. Though she wanted to disagree with Lehner, she couldn’t find a way to make the outlook sunnier. There had been bombings, and big union strikes and lockouts, and there was tension with Ayvarta over the independence of Cissea and Mamlakha, wherever those countries were. Outside the world of film, things looked dark.

Still, her natural instinct with people like Lehner was to be charmingly disagreeable.

“Have you room to talk, hun? What have you done for the world lately?” She said.

Lehner laughed. “You’re right, I haven’t done much. But I’ve got big dreams.”

She grinned. “I hope your ambitions are loftier than just producer credits.”

“You like your men ambitious?” Lehner asked, grinning back like a fox.

“I think men are a waste if they aren’t.” Agatha said saucily, admitting to nothing.

Lehner laughed. “Good call; hey, how’s this sound. I’m gonna run for President.”

Agatha burst out laughing. “Will you woo the nation with your pick-up lines?”

He faced her and looked her seriously in the eyes. She raised her head defiantly to meet his.

“I’ve got a trade secret; but you can stick around and find out, doll.” He said.

His fingers tapped on her shoulder childishly. She thought he might lean in to a steal a kiss, but he did nothing. Nothing but lock with her eyes and grin right in her face. She grinned back in retaliation, broke off from him, and settled against the guard-rail on the balcony.

Lighting one of his cigarettes, blowing a cloud into the cold, Agatha Lubitsch smirked.

“I just might take you up on that, Lehner. I feel a little more rebellious than normal.”

Maybe everyone else was too boring that night; or maybe she really believed him somehow.

She accompanied him to his door and then his bed. There was certainly something there.

10th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2027 D.C.E

Nocht Federation — Republic of Rhinea, City of Junzien, Hotel Reich

2 Weeks Before 2027 Federal Elections

3 Years Before The Solstice War

“I’m begging you pops, don’t do this to him. Don’t do this now for messiah’s sakes.”

“I’m doing what I should have done and instilling a tougher discipline on a wanton child.”

Dietrich stood on the far end of the room. He was dressed in his grey jacket, his peaked cap, his iron eagle, ring cross and General’s pins prominently on his chest. Around him the suite was very dimly lit, and the seemingly perpetual snowdrift of Rhinea battered against the windows and darkened the night sky. Though unbowed, Dietrich’s had a grim expression; his hands were closed into helpless fists at his sides; drops of melted snow shook off his heavy shoulders.

At the window, Nore Lehner gazed down at the snowy streets, packed with people. Taxi cabs came and went to the Reich, dropping men and women of high society who had come to hear the elder statesman give his presidential endorsement. Nore remained where he stood; the only thing he deigned to show Dietrich was the bald spot on the back of his head, ringed by thinning gray hair. He was only half-ready for the big night ahead, his tie still discarded, his shoes on the floor, his shirt and vest unbuttoned and wrinkled. Dietrich had practically ambushed him.

“Why did you even come here Dietrich? Shouldn’t you be in the islands?” Nore casually asked.

“I returned because I got wind of what you were going to do.” Dietrich said.

Nore shook his head. He lifted a cigar to his lips and lit it up. His reflection flashed briefly in the darkened window. When he spoke he seemed to muse to himself. “Ah yes, Mary, betraying me again. Despite all that I have done for her, that girl has never respected my wishes. Was Achim with her when she told you this? By any chance did you catch them in bed?”

“You’re going way too fucking far with this.” Dietrich said. “They might be afraid of standing up to you but I’m not. I’m not your child. I’ve watched you disrespect them enough already.”

Nore scoffed. Respect? His aimless and disgraceful child deserved no such thing. He had gone behind his back in every possible way. He had betrayed every confidence that had been given to him and now he expected everyone to be silent about his behavior? He could use his mother’s inheritance and his movie stocks to bludgeon others. Not his own father. He had forsaken his career in law, he had married some floozy actress on a whim, all the while taking Mary as well against his wishes. Every disgrace he could think of, that boy had committed.

“Stand up to me how, Dietrich? Will you beat me up like Achim’s men beat up Schlegger for digging too deep? Will you dig up dirt on me like he did to the bishop so he could have him by the sleeve? Will you try to buy my endorsement like Achim’s so-called organizers do in churches and colleges? I’m just an old man now, Dietrich. Your tricks don’t work on me.”

Dietrich’s fists started to shake. “God damn it pops, you can’t do this! After all this time you want to be the first one to put a dagger behind his back? What do you think this solves?”

“I feel death coming, Dietrich. My child needs to be taught a lesson before I am taken.”

“Taught a lesson in what? How much he failed to become exactly like you? That’s the problem, isn’t it? You kept barring him from everything he wanted; now that he’s realizing it–”

“Achim’s ambitions are a disgrace to this country.” Nore said, raising his voice. He sounded sore, but his sore voice was ready to carry his justice forward. He was not turning around. He did not deign to give Dietrich a look at his wizened, weather-beaten face. “Dietrich, you are blind to him because you love him, but he is my son. I know his barbarism. Achim is a wanton beast with no respect, nothing but naked greed. He is not fit for this office and he never has been. I will not let him ride my surname to power to satisfy his frivolous desires.”

“Then I hope part of your speech involves taking responsibility for him.” Dietrich said coldly.

“He strayed from being my son of his own will just as he has strayed from this country’s ideals of his own will. All he believes in are marks and guns. He is a thief, a liar and a gangster. Our country will never recover from the poison he is seeping into our politics unless he is–”

“Look around you.” Dietrich said. He hadn’t moved a step from door of the hotel suite. “None of this happened overnight you old fool. You think Achim is only doing this to piss you off? He smells the blood in the water, everyone does. Our country is falling. We are dragging out wars, throwing away money and losing respect in the world. Achim knows it is because of men like Kantor who have no ambition, who think everything will resolve itself if you close your eyes–”

“Do not speak this disrespect, boy.” Nore shouted, interrupting Dietritch. He finally turned around, and he raised his arm and pointed sharply at the younger man as though his jabbing index finger would fly across the room and stab him. “You serve under President Kantor. Or did you just join the army in the hopes of being Achim’s dog one day? Has he brainwashed you so thoroughly that you cannot see the blind, deathly hunger behind his every action?”

Dietrich smiled suddenly. He laughed. He shook his head. “He has what you never did; ambition. And that’s what scares you. You always rolled over. Achim claws at his cage.”

“You are hopeless.” Nore said. “I do not wish to speak you, now, or ever again. Soon I will leave the world behind and I will never have to consider how great my failures here have been.”

Dietrich shook his head. “Then I only hope you leave the world soon.”

Nore narrowed his eyes at him. Dietrich turned around and promptly left the room.

Then came a wrenching pain, almost as soon as the door swung shut.

Around the room the shadows deepened. His vision swam. He felt as if something was burrowing through his chest. Heaving for breath, unable to stand, the ex-President fell to the ground. He flailed his arms and tried to crawl, clawing at the carpet while gasping for air.


From the outside the door locked. As his senses left him, Nore heard several pairs of footsteps. Were Eintz and Schapel in on this too? Everything was fading. Shadows everywhere.

Achim, he thought, as the shadows overcame him.

When did you stop listening? Why?

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Lehner’s Greed (23.1)


This story segment contains strong language.

44th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Nocht Federation, Republic of Rhinea — City of Junzien, Hotel Reich

“I barely ever get to see you anymore. I don’t even have a copy of your current schedule!”

Agatha was shouting into the phone. It was hard not to. She felt as though shouting would make her more real to him — that it would remind him that she was a flesh and blood human being, his wife, that she was not just another voice on the phone that Cecilia patched through to him. She was not just a signal crawling through wires from the Presidential Suite of the luxurious Reich hotel. She was the real woman laying on the double bed, her light pink flesh and fluffy white bath robes a sharp contrast on the red sheets, like a lone polkadot in a vast expanse. There was space enough for two of him in that bed, but she was alone.

He provided little comfort. “Honey, honey, it’s been hard, okay? This is hard too. I want to be with you. I was planning to be with you, but things are just turning out complicated, I’m having to be involved a lot. This has taken me by complete surprise, and I’m trying to–”

“Only because you’re a control freak who can’t delegate anything! You need to leave these matters to the people you hired and appointed! You’re not as perfect as you think you are Achim. For all you know, you could be making things worse for Cecilia and the others.”

“I’m trying to make time, okay? You know how I am, but I am making time for you.”

“On my end you don’t look to be making an effort at all to be brutally honest!”

She felt frustrated with his voice. He was doing that “pitching voice” of his — he would talk fast, he would add an affect like a salesman trying to sound more excited about a new children’s toy so that the bored parents on the line might perk up and buy it. She was not one of his customers. She was his goddamned wife. She reminded him by becoming ever more irate — the stronger her voice, the more threatening her own affect, the less he could keep pretending to be happy and perky. He would look ridiculous; he was ridiculous. Neglecting her, Agatha Lubitsch, who just today had a spot on the paper as the prettiest face in cinema!

“There’s some mountains even I can’t move!” He replied, trying to placate her with a sweet voice. “To win in Ayvarta we’re all gonna have to make some sacrifices.”

“Why did you even start this war? I can’t understand what we gain from this!”

She knew his reasons but she didn’t want to admit them. She felt that they could not be.

His tone of voice changed very slightly. He was becoming aggravated.

“Hey, how’s this sound; I want to win so your hotel doesn’t get fucking bombed by communists. So we don’t live in fear. You remember that day in the limo when the bombs went off? That was good times wasn’t it? I don’t know about you but I don’t want to experience that again!”

“Stop being so fucking sarcastic!” She shouted back at him. “I didn’t want to remember that.”

There was a heavy sigh on the line. “I’m sorry, doll, okay, I’m sorry. I’m really stressed out. I think I might have been given some real bad advice throughout all this and I promise you a few heads will roll, and then we can be together more, ok? Dietrich is already heading out there.”

She had to admit, that made her feel a little calmer. He was always serious when he sent Dietrich somewhere — it meant he was going to personally keep away from it and entrust everything to him. She felt both relieved and foolish. He had promised so many things. He was always promising. And yet she kept listening. Sometimes his promises came through, and it was almost like magic. These past four years with him certainly had more highs than lows. She’d remember all the beautiful things, and it seemed like his mistakes were mostly clustered in the recent past and could still be changed. They weren’t set into stone.

“Alright.” She replied. “Alright Achim. I believe you. I’ve got to hang up. I miss you.”

“You’ll see me on TV and the radio tomorrow, if you tune in. Wish me luck.”

“Goodbye, Achim.” She hung up. He didn’t even say ‘i miss you too.”

It didn’t even cross his mind.

She threw away the telephone receiver and lay back on the bed, stretching her arms.

Agatha Lehner pulled away her bright gold hair band and her wavy locks of blond hair fell over her face. Her whole body was still weary, her feet hurt from the pumps she wore, her eyes were cloudy without the spectacles she never wore while filming. When she closed her eyes she could see dancing lights from the cameras and the studio lighting, and hear the whining of the audio equipment, a tinnitus. She started turning Achim over in her head again, trying to probe him like a distant phantom, trying to find the driving force behind him. She still didn’t get it.

From the time she met him to the time she married him to the present; what was the end of his ambitions? What was it that kept him from just being by her side? What made a lawyer from Junzien college who had picked her up and bedded her on the first date after a bad pickup line and a completely sober evening become the president of the country? What made him lock himself in that office and dream of planes bombing another country into pieces?

And then, what drew her to him? Why did she want him so much back then; why did she still want him so badly? Where they just married on a whim? Did he just see her as a trophy?

She rolled over on her side and reached for a small, open bottle of wine, 2007 vintage, that was set on the dresser next to her bed. She thought of his betrayals and her own betrayals. She thought about need and want; about drive. Was there a point where everything went awry?

She raised the bottle of her red lips and drank right out of it. After a long pull of her lips on the end of the bottle, so much that it burned her throat, she fell on her back again.

Staring helplessly at the roof she turned over the question, turned it over and over and over. Agatha was bright, but the real answers to her questions were too raw to contemplate.


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