The Rangda Tank War (62.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council

Outside the Council Building the brutalized lawn, littered with spent cases, pitted by artillery fire and clouded in the smoke from mortars and guns, suffered a final indignity as an enormous gliding aircraft crashed onto its turf. Chunks of manicured green topsoil went flying as the craft dug into the earth and skidded to a stop just off the street.

Once it settled, the craft’s entire front section lifted, and from inside, a tank growled to life. It trundled gingerly off the glider and onto the Rangdan ground, and made its way toward the edge of Council street, anticipating some kind of defensive action. All around the city, in places near, far and disparate, several more gliders and their cargo would drop onto Rangda, and the crews emerging from them began their singular, vague mission to support the parachute troops. Tanks, tracked Universal Carriers, and scout cars, all landed inside the bellies of a hundred or so of the thousand aircraft cutting the skies over Rangda.

Most common among these were the 50 or so Patriarch tanks dropped in stray groups across the city, and the lone example now defending the occupied Council Building.

Owing to the strict take-off weight limits of the elven gliders, the Patriarch was a light tank weighing at just around 30 tons, boasting a compact form factor of flat, boxy surfaces. Four large road wheels turned the track, without need of a visible forward sprocket or a return roller. Mounted in front of a gently curved turret with thin, flat, slightly angled sides, was the ubiquitous 2-pounder anti-tank gun, along with a coaxial machine gun.

Von Drachen had never seen its like before, but he found it inferior to even the obsolete M5 Ranger of the Nochtish forces and as such he struck the thing from his mind.

All of this information he pieced together from both the blathering of “Lady” Arsenica but more importantly also from the radio reports frantically coming in from betrayed 8th Division forces across the city. With the capitol occupied, and several Council staff cooperating with the occupation, the invading Elven enemy had unfettered access to all 8th Division communications. The already hobbled Division was now fully and thoroughly compromised. It was only the Elves’ inability to cobble back together their distantly landed troops that gave the 8th Division any kind of lease on life. They were done for.

As he watched the tank land on the Council lawn, Von Drachen realized that the 8th Division was not the only force that was done for. There would be another casualty.

“Attention Elven forces across the target city of Rangda!”

Using the Ayvartan emergency voice-projection system, headquartered in the Council building, Knight Lady Arsenica hailed everyone in the city, though she specifically addressed only the Elves, as if she had a choice of whom to speak to. She gesticulated with sweeping motions and wore a haughty, manic grin on her face, luxuriating in her moment. Von Drachen watched her from across the communications center with a quizzical look.

“This is Paladin Arsenica Livia Varus, fourth in line to the throne of the Kingdom of Lubon!” This particular line she delivered with an almost orgasmic zeal. “I have captured the Ayvartan’s command center, and am placing myself in overall command of royal army ground operations, by virtue of my rank, noble blood and access to communications equipment! My orders to you are as follows. All Elven units are to regroup, forming battle groups around our armored vehicles, and then move westward, toward the port of Rangda, to capture its naval defenses and docking apparatus for the use of the Royal Navy!”

She then left the emergency communications system and sat down on a metal chair near a desk with a heavy-duty telephone terminus and radio system, which she could attempt to use contact those elves who had personal radios or who had stolen 8th Division radio. Von Drachen was mildly aware of such things happening. He had been listening attentively to unencrypted 8th Division communications for a while, as a personal project that he had convinced Paladin Varus was actually her own project and done for her own good.

“Drachen, I require your cooperation in contacting specific units with instructions.”

Von Drachen (though he would not labor this point again) nodded his head.

He sat down beside her, and donned a headset to assist her in radio operation.

She was not quick to broadcast any instructions. Instead, she looked at him for a moment.

“You seem a shrewd man, Drachen.” She said. “Your eyes betray hidden depths.”

Von Drachen smiled. “I am but a humble person who tries his best; mediocre of late.”

“Well, if you say so.” She frowned slightly. “This situation has been twisting and turning in inscrutable ways for the past few days, I take it. What do you think of everything?”

“You are doing everything you can to lose this battle, and it is admirable in an odd way.”

Arsenica grumbled. That was clearly not the answer she wanted. That this little dictator did not have him shot for such things spoke to the level at which she was drawn to him. Perhaps she was coming to believe he was more than he professed to be (on both occasions he professed to be something) or perhaps independently of such obvious high-minded analysis she had found him and his situation interesting. Nonethless, she was tolerating him like she tolerated nobody else. Von Drachen did not care; he treated her as he treated everybody. Few people in Von Drachen’s eyes deserved a ginger hand less than Arsenica.

“I’m not a fool Drachen. I know that this mission is incredibly risky; and that by themselves the airborne troops of the kingdom, quality as they are, may not be able to take this city outright. But the Kingdom of Lubon fights with the ancient Elven art of war. We may lose battles but we will win wars. Boldness and gallantry inevitably pay off.”

Von Drachen made no outward expression in response. He found her answer typical of the prideful Elven noble-warrior who achieved combat command through birthright.

“You can lose battles to win wars; if your logistics are much better, or if you have strong reinforcements waiting to re-engage quickly,or if an enemy’s strength could collapse from attrition, and so on. Yes, there are many scenarios where a certain loss is still the right course of action in an overall strategy, but you cannot do so here. Even if you met all of the other conditions, your strategy has a fundamental flaw. You see, there will be no battle.”

Arsenica raised her eyebrows, surprised but quickly skeptical. “What makes you say that?”

Von Drachen crossed his arms and fixed Arsenica with a suddenly serious look.

“You think because you have broken the enemy’s defenses and fomented disorganization in their ranks, that they will see it as a natural disadvantage and wish it seized from you. But Madiha Nakar will not respond to this situation by reforming her battle line for you to engage in classical pitched combat. You are probably hoping she attempts to restore her defense and regroup her forces, wasting time while you fight your losing battle against her, and therefore tying her up until your Navy wins your war. Ultimately, you are wrong.”

He raised his hands and made a cutting motion with one just in front of Arsenica.

“She will not duel you. She’ll behead you and then walk past the twitching corpse.”

Arsenica seemed taken aback, disgusted by the imagery. She embraced herself and shuddered as if the thought of her own headless body had intruded in her psyche.

“How could you know? What makes you speak so boldly and certainly?” She snapped.

Von Drachen grinned viciously. “Because it’s what I would do.”

Granted, Von Drachen was planning to do something very different at that moment.

But it wasn’t the same situation and though Madiha was almost as good as he was at this little game they called war, she was her own animal, and he could truly only speculate.

Still, Arsenica needed to know none of that.

“I believe I ordered you to take on a task, Von Drachen!” Arsenica cried out.

Nodding amicably, Von Drachen returned his attention to the radios.

“Actually, wait!”

Arsenica lashed out and seized the headset from Von Drachen, placing it on her own head.

“You and your unit will go reinforce our defense outside. I’ll take care of this personally.”

She gave Von Drachen a vulnerable, uncomfortable look. He returned a vicious grin.

“I longed for such an assignment, my liege.”

Von Drachen gave a mock bow. Arsenica seemed to feel a jolt down her body. She shook.

Before she had a chance to reconsider, if she was considering such a thing, Von Drachen stood from the chair and ambled out the door in good humor. He truly had wished to be assigned the role of cannon fodder for the Elves. He knew, if he made himself both useful and pestilent enough that they would think they were consigning him to death.

In reality, there was no bigger coffin than any Council building Arsenica hid herself in.

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Scornful Steel (Apocalypse 2030)


12th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Territory of Pelagis — Iron Isle

Slowly the object of her hate came together before her eyes once more.

As she slid the plate into place, and her coworkers began to weld the side-panel armor covering the ammunition rack on the side, the vehicle began to take its shape. Its rounded body seemed almost friendly when she first saw it. People jokingly referred to the turrets as melons because of how round they were; this was funny for the first shift of her first day, before the downward-sloping rear armor had to be welded on and the bogeys bolted into place and the tracks, welded closed and tight around the drive wheels. Before the turret had to be dropped onto the ring, and the interior hydraulics and controls had to be wired and prepared by a specialized technician. Before all that, sure, it was amusing.

Once every bit of the machine was affixed, however, it had a shape only for killing.

She worked nervously on it, with shaking hands. They were held to an exacting standard, and the factory was run like a military base in a lot of ways. Certainly in its discipline.

On her first day the track had gone on too slack, and earned her a slap across the face.

“You’re not building a toy! Work to specification or get out!” shouted the Overseer.

She still heard his shrill voice in her head, every day she worked at the plant.

A lot had changed since then.

Her hands had grown used to the work and its precision; only the product was the same.

It was an M4 Sentinel, and its kin had killed more people than she had ever known.

One of the casualties was the very land under Marit Hale’s oil-stained shoes.

Iron Isle used to have a name, a beautiful, melodic name, but it was taken from it, and could not be spoken of again; and with it went the oil trees and the sweet tree plantations, and the clear skies and the fragrance of the wilds. Those could not be spoken of again as well. Smokestacks went up, blacktops spread out. Iron Isle was closer to the Nochtish war zones than all of its other territories. Once a minuscule line item in the agricultural department’s accounting of Pelagis province, once it became clear that Nocht would prosecute war across the vastness of the sea, Iron Isle transformed overnight to suit the needs of battles that could not be won with sugar and flowers and vacation homes.

At Plant #13 on the broad side of Iron Isle mostly older women worked, and there was only one exception. This was Marit, the tomboy of the Hale family whose many sons were taken for the war. She was an islander girl through and through; messy black hair, a complexion the color of baked clay, and a round, soft face unlike that of the sharp and pale featured Nochtish secretaries and overseers. She was an islander girl; she was not thought of as a woman. Only recently had she exchanged mud and sand in her sandals and fingers with soot and grease. She was thrust through the threshold of adulthood and went from school days and beach nights to four marks an hour for ten hours a day, six days a week.

Ten hours a day; and there was a promised commission for every tenth tank produced.

She had never seen that commission, and many tenth tanks had come and gone.

As the only healthy member of her family left on the island, Marit worked, alongside the mothers and grandmothers and the widows and wives. She showed up at the Plant campus every morning, striding past a half-dozen buildings on a square blacktop amid what was once farmland to reach a tin-walled and tin-roofed assembly building, baking under a hot, cloudless sky. A cool breeze blew in over the open plain beyond the blacktop, in certain places, at certain times in her morning walk, Marit heard the sound of rushing water from the nearby river as it turned the plant’s old water wheel, a holdover from the old farm.

“Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!”

Though less than enthusiastic about work, Marit kept a bright face and a broad smile and made herself good company. She walked out in front of the warehouse, where a chow line formed every morning for a free breakfast of hot oatmeal porridge and coffee. She slid into the line of women and seemed to slot seamlessly into conversations about news, food, weather, and work, greeting everyone around her as she waited for a tray of sweet slop.

“How’s your mother doing, Marit?”

“She’s recovering. Thank you for your concern.”

“Messiah bless her.”

“What about you Marit? Taking care of yourself? You look thin.”

“Oh, I always look thin to the lot of you!”

Marit had a flat, spindly sort of form factor, thin, long-limbed. Though she ate well she always looked partially starved. It was almost vexing. Her attire was shabby. She wore pants handed down from her brothers and a shirt and vest of the same origin. They had stitched holes and mismatched colors where other clothing was cannibalized to fix them.

Unimpressive, but it was all getting covered in grease and smoke anyway.

“Hey, you old bags quit chatting and eat!”

From behind the line, the factory Overseer appeared with a rolled up newspaper.

He struck a woman in the back of the line, for seemingly no reason.

All around him, people started to move faster. There was no longer gossip and loitering.

A line that had moved maybe one person every other minute was now going quickly.

“Nobody pays you to chat and eat!” He shouted. “Get your gruel and get moving!”

After this display, he left their side, and the women collectively comforted the one poor old woman struck by the beastly Overseer, and assured her that there was no reason for it and that she would be fine, that they would help her. Marit saw all of this from afar and didn’t really think much of it. It happened frequently. She wondered if real soldiers got beat around by their officers as much as the workers in this military factory got beaten.

There was grumbling and resentment, but everyone ate and made for their stations.

Marit, however, took a little bit of time to go somewhere more pleasant.

After grabbing her oatmeal and coffee, Marit sat down on a concrete speed bump along the edge of the factory, in the executive parking lot, her back to the chain link fence. There were no cars, because there were no executives present. There almost never were.

It was a place where she could eat in peace, listening to the lonely winds whistling over the blacktop. Almost like the old forest, where she would spend endless hours just sitting around and listening to all the sounds. Only the wind was left, but even it alone helped her to prepare herself mentally for the long hours with the sizzling welding torch, the click-clacking torque wrenches, the crashing hammers, the grinding of the lathes.

As she drank the last of her coffee she heard a clinking noise more than she did the wind.

Behind her, someone was climbing over the fence.

It was a woman (maybe more a girl like her), Marit was certain of that. She made it up to the top of the fence with anxious hand-holds, and produced a tool from her pocket that she used to cut the barbed wire, and to pull the sliced halves to either side to open a gap. She leaned back, and then threw herself up in one sudden effort, making it up and over.

It was there that she lost her footing and her fingers slipped.

Marit bolted upright and threw herself forward.

She caught the girl in her arms and together they crashed onto the blacktop.

Marit hit the ground on her left arm, with a lot of the girl’s weight on falling on her.

She flinched, and shut her eyes tight and grit her teeth.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry!” said the girl. Marit felt warm hands rubbing against her arm.

She found herself responding in Nochtish. “It’s fine, it’s fine.”

Her command of the language of her tormentors was almost impeccable.

When she opened her eyes, she saw a soft pink face looking down at her with blue eyes, and framed by lengths of wavy, luxurious blond hair. A dab of pink colored pursed lips, and a pair of hands held her own. Now that they were touching skin instead of cloth, the hands felt a little rough, calloused, almost incongruent to the angelic picture formed by the rest.

Marit pulled back her hand and crawled out from under the Nochtish girl.

“I’m fine!” She cried out. “But what are you doing? This is private property!”

She bolted onto her feet; was this an industrial spy? She had overhead the Overseer once talking about people paid to infiltrate factories and steal secrets and sabotage production.

Marit had been taught by some of the older women that in Nocht, there were a few big companies always competing to make new products for the army. Those who could make the most acceptable products for the cheapest price won the contracts. Companies like General Auto, who owned this factory, made money by spending the least they could on workers and production. Setbacks like the ones spies cost could dig deep into profits.

And that would mean they would have to dig deep into the workers to make up the rest.

However, the friendly smile put on by this girl did not seem like it could come from a spy.

“I’m Alicia Kolt.” She said, stretching out a hand. “I’m an engineer.”

She was dressed in an almost workmanlike garb, with a big leather apron over a button-down shirt, and a leather cap over her blond hair. She had toolbelts over her waist with numerous pouches and multiple little cutters and drivers and other knickknacks hanging.

Judging by her hands, she must have been doing some work, but her body did not appear affected as much. Marit was skinny and lean from all the back-breaking torture of factory work; but this girl was rounder and softer everywhere that Marit was flat and angular.

And of course, Marit had never heard of a female engineer. Their factory was mostly women, but all they did was put fabricated parts together. When it came time to wire radios and install hydraulics, they had technicians there from the Rescholdt-Kolt firm, men who knew machines. She had no idea what they would let a girl like this do in an engineering firm other than answer the phone and file papers and reply to letters.

Not that she thought it was impossible, she just knew rich men were bastards like that.

Nevertheless, Marit kept her doubts to herself and returned the handshake.

“I’m Marit Hale. So could you please tell me what you are up to?”

Alicia smiled brightly. “You work here, don’t you?”

Marit averted her eyes slightly. This girl had a very fetching smile.

“I do.” Marit said. “I’m in primary, intermediate and final assembly.”

“Goodness! How do you know which one you’re doing on any day then?”

“I don’t. They treat me like a kid and just have me fill in whatever’s needed.”

“I can relate!” Alicia said. “How old are you? Around eighteen I guess? I’m twenty years old and everybody treats me like I learned to walk yesterday. It’s very frustrating!”

“I’m nineteen. And yes, that is all pretty relatable.”

Marit found herself conversing and almost forgot to suspect Alicia of industrial espionage.

“But hey; Hey! Tell me what you’re up to already. I don’t want to get into trouble.”

Looking over her shoulder guardedly, Marit was relieved to find nobody coming in from the main factory grounds or from the office nearby, and the gate guard was in his booth and not paying any attention to his surroundings now that the workers had all checked in. So at least, the danger of being discovered accidentally was lessened, but she still worried.

Alicia flashed her that heart-stirring smile of hers, and winked one bright blue eye.

“I just want to take a tiny peek at something. And besides, look at this, it’ll be fine.”

She opened one of her pouched and produced a company-issued ID card.

It had the large, golden block letters R-K, for Rescholdt-Kolt, the engineering firm responsible for a lot of the complicated technology behind the factory’s products. General Auto had the raw industrial muscle, but the brains that came up with the blueprints and that put the finishing touches on the tanks, all of that came from Rescholdt-Kolt.

And wait; had she not said her name was Alicia Kolt?

Marit looked up from the card and at Alicia’s self-satisfied little grin.

“You’re getting it now huh?” She raised a hand to her chest and patted over her breast. “I’m the younger sister of Maximillian Kolt, the second partner in Rescholdt-Kolt.”

“Oh! Why didn’t you say so? You don’t have to sneak around then!” Marit replied.

She was less impressed with the connection, and more relieved there wouldn’t be trouble.

Alicia did not seem convinced.

Stepping forward, the young engineer put her warm, soft hands on Marit’s shoulders.

Her big blue eyes and invitingly painted lips were only the length of their noses away.

“Marit, I need your help.” She said.

“You really don’t!” Marit replied, suddenly nervous, excited, aroused(?) far too suddenly.

Alicia sighed. Marit smelled a sweet scent from her and averted her eyes again.

She felt the engineer’s hands squeeze gently with determination.

“Marit, If I just show up, they’ll give me a boring tour of the facilities and use me like a piece of decoration! Listen: there’s something I want to take a quick peek at. I searched around the exterior of the factory, but I can’t tell where to go. When I saw you, I knew that luck was on my side! I just need your help for a teeny-tiny moment, okay? then I’ll be out of your hair for good. Nobody will get in trouble. Trust me; I’m really good at this stuff.”

Marit felt a sudden thrill in her chest, followed by a sinking feeling.

“Pretty please?” Alicia asked again.

She could send her off on her own, go work, and go about her day like any other.

However, Alicia’s presence had suddenly reawakened a fire in Marit’s heart that she thought long since put out. That childish feeling of adventure, of making every day a truly different one, of doing more with oneself than one’s lot allowed. That feeling of defiance, of a child who saw rules and flaunted them, who saw challenges and conquered them, who felt that anything could be possible. That child who wanted to be her own person.

Marit felt suddenly that she had been conforming too much.

After all, what was in it for her if she obeyed the factory boss?

She would still get beaten if she made a mistake. She would still get paid poorly.

Alicia, however, was the promise of something a little different. Even if only for a day.

Besides, she was curious what kind of thing an Alicia Kolt could want with this place.

“I’ll help you.” Marit said. “But we have to be quick. I’ll be yelled at for being late.”

“Oh thank you! Thank you!”

Alicia pulled her into an embrace and kissed her suddenly on the cheek.

Marit felt her head would explode if a pressure valve wasn’t released soon.

“Is there any place where something important might be kept?”

That was Alicia’s only interest and clue, and Marit only really had one answer. There was a specialty workshop on the other side of the factory grounds that was padlocked. She had asked some of the other women if they ever worked there and none of them ever had, so it was not a place for regular assembly. One morning, she was feeling sick, and gave away her coffee to an engineer she found who was driving a crane-pulley tractor in the cold.

“Thanks, kid!” He’d said, “Hey, let me tell you something fun in exchange eh? Sit down.”

Marit had sat in the tractor with him, and heard him brag about how he was part of a team working on new ultra-dense heat-treated steel. There was no facility in the factory Marit had ever seen that could do something like that, so she figured that such things were going on behind the padlock in that specialty workshop. Experimental stuff. That was probably what Alicia wanted to see. If she was treated like a toy at the R-K firm, then maybe she was not allowed to see experimental projects, and it must have vexed her.

“Follow me very closely and keep your head down, okay?” Marit said.

Alicia nodded cheerfully. “Don’t worry, I’m an expert at sneaking.”

As she said this, Alicia carelessly kicked a discarded bolt and sent it rattling around.

Marit snapped her head toward her; Alicia held up her hands defensively, smiling.


“Shut up!”

Marit grabbed hold of Alicia’s hand and together they ran across the outer edge of the factory, along the fence, for several dozen meters, and hid behind a stack of discarded wooden pallets. From afar, they watched as a guard with a rifle and a cruel-looking bayonet came from around the corner, to where the bolt had hit a factory wall.

He looked down at the bolt, looked around himself, and kept on patrolling.

“Phew,” Marit sighed, “be careful.”

“Marit! That was a Panzergrenadier! Look at his helmet and coat!”

Marit blinked. She had no idea what Alicia was talking about. He looked like any other soldier to Marit. He had a grey coat, and a gun, and a helmet. Just another Nochtish man.

“To have Panzergrenadiers here– and oh my god, I think that insignia on his shoulder is for the Leibgarde Achim Lehner regiment, elite Presidential guard!” Alicia said.

She covered her mouth and seemed like she wanted to yell with excitement.

“Please calm down. You’ll get us caught.” Marit said.

They stole away around the factory ground, avoiding the guards, with Marit having to gently calm Alicia’s enthusiastic gasps whenever she saw something or other that piqued her interest, whether a model of tractor, or a brief glimpse of a tank being worked on inside one of the warehouses, or more of those soldiers with their strange insignia. Soon they made it to the side wall of the specialty workshop. Unlike the tin buildings around it, this one was concrete and closed. Only the specialty workshop and offices were concrete.

“How do we sneak in?” Alicia asked.

“From the top. There’s a ventilation system connected to the air conditioning.”

“Good! I’m an excellent climber!” Alicia said.

Marit looked at her skeptically and then smiled.

Once more they snuck away around the wall of the workshop and found a garbage bin at the back. Marit gave Alicia a boost onto it, and Alicia helped her climb up. In this way, they also made it from atop the garbage can and onto the roof. There, a series of ventilation grates led down into the workshop itself. Marit kneeled beside one of them and tried to pull it open, but she found it quite stubborn. After a second attempt, she saw the screws.

“Alicia, could you unscrew this for me?”

“I’m extremely good at that. One moment.”

With an inordinately proud look in her eyes, Alicia withdrew a screwdriver of the correct size from her belt and undid the screws locking the vent cover in place. Marit crawled headfirst down the vent, Alicia holding her legs for support, and she found herself at the bottom of the vent shaft quite quickly. Alicia threw down the screwdriver, and Marit opened another vent cover, and squeezed slowly out of the aluminum shafts.

And into open air, with little in the way of support.

Coming out of the vent, Marit fell a few meters down to a stack of asbestos sheets.

“Are you alright?” Alicia called down.

Marit took a few seconds to regain her senses. “Yes! Be careful coming down!”

She had hardly given the warning when Alicia came tumbling down out of the vent and crashed onto the stack of Asbestos sheets as well. She raised her arms and gave a little cheer before standing, and seemed more energized than hurt by the drop. Marit sighed.

“Where are we?”

Marit looked around. They were in a gloomy room, a small section of the shop compared to the exterior size. They were surrounded by stacks of materials along the walls. There were metal plates and the asbestos sheets and a stack of metal tubes. There was something large and covered up in the center of the room. One door led out of the room, and in the back there were a set of double doors that emanated a gentle heat. That was probably the furnace room, and the double doors were probably strongly insulated. No going there.

Alicia produced an electric torch from her belt and pointed the beam at the covered object.

“Marit, help me pull this tarp off it!”

Together, the girls grabbed opposite corners of the tarp and tugged on it several times.

Once the tarp was off, they found a tank under it.

“It’s just an M4 Sentinel.” Marit said. She felt a measure of scorn for the thing.

Alicia’s face lit up.

“It’s not just any old M4!”

She started going over all the things different. She pointed out the tracks, which were separated further for rough terrain coverage necessary for combat in the Ayvartan forests and hills and in the red desert of Solstice; and the circular armor extensions on the sides of the turret, which, in Alicia’s words, could defeat “delayed-action AP-HE.” She showed Marit the gun barrel, which was longer and of a wider bore than normal. She claimed it was a “75mm KwK 31” instead of the “typical” gun, the “50mm KwK 28.” Compared to the smooth, rounded bodies of other M4s, this one was a bit more angular and robust.

“I think the armor thickness has increased from 50 mm to 62 or even 70 mm!”

Alicia climbed up on the track, stepping on the bogeys, and then onto the tank itself.

“It’s amazing! Look at it! So much power! Isn’t it scary, Marit? It’s so scary!”

While she rooted around the top of the tank like a mouse searching for crumbs, Marit moved closer to the side of the tank and read aloud the block text painted on the side.

“M4A4 ‘Rick Sentinel’ Prototype GA-31.” She said.

“It’s not ‘Rick’ Sentinel, you’re verbalizing the R-K. That’s just the R-K mark.”

Alicia bent down from atop the tank to make eye contact with Marit while explaining.

“Rick Sentinel sounds like it has more personality.” Marit said.

“Hmm. I suppose so! It has plenty of personality already though!”

“So this is what you wanted to see?”

Marit looked up at Alicia, who was acting as if she was standing atop the world and not just a tank. She was inordinately pleased with her discovery, jumping up and down, clapping her hands and laughing as she surveyed the metal monster she had unshackled here.

“Yes, it was! I knew my brother was coming up with a big new project, and I wanted to see it with my own eyes. All of these changes are completely elementary: judging by designs coming out of Helvetia and Lubon, the 75mm cannons widely deployed in light artillery units are the natural evolution of the comparatively smaller guns on tanks. To defeat the problem of recoil, the counterweight on the back of the turret was added! Ingenious!”

Alicia sat on said counterweight, stretching from the back of the turret, which was otherwise the round, “melon” turret that Marit was used to. She kicked her legs.

Her unrestrained cheer and the way she spoke about it gave Marit discomforting chills.

“So this is what you wanted to see? Just this?” She asked again.

“Yes it was! Thank you for giving me the opportunity Marit–”

“And what will you do now?” Marit asked. “What is your goal here?”

Alicia smiled. “I’m going to draw up something even more visionary. Knowing that this is possible, that counterweights potentially solve the recoil problem, that we can go above 25 tons, and so on; I can write a spec that will blow this one out of the water. Then they will have to acknowledge my abilities at the firm. Even if it’s not accepted, just the design–”

Marit clenched her fist at her side. “So you want to make a tank that can kill even better?”

“Um.” Alicia seemed taken aback suddenly. She stopped rocking her legs.

That savage hatred that Marit felt for the M4 was crashing over her like a cold wave.

“The M4 Sentinels that we make here are already so fearsome and murderous, and you want them to be bigger? To have bigger guns? To shoot more and faster? To be even harder to stop? You see this thing and you want to make one even more frightening than that?”

“Um, hey, Marit, I’m–”

“These things are the reason the island changed! The reason we can’t be free!”


Alicia tried to speak but Marit staring at her so intensely that she could not continue.

“You asked me if it looks scary? It looks scary. But you’re scarier, Alicia! You’re an even bigger monster than that thing is! You look at it and laugh and want to make it worse!”

Marit’s tone of voice rose to shouting, and she raised her clenched fists in anger.

Alicia shouted back, weeping. “Marit, please, you’re scaring me–”

“No more than you’re scaring me–!”

In the middle of the shouting match, the doors behind them swung open.

Light entered the room suddenly, framing a pair of figures in a white glare.

Both of the shadows darted forward.

Marit felt something hard strike her in the forehead and knock her down.

“Please stop! She didn’t do anything wrong!”

Alicia’s voice protested, but immediately grew muffled and desperate.

She was already wavering, but when a kick to her stomach knocked all the air out of her, Marit felt like something had unplugged her brain. She went out, and the world with her.

13th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Territory of Pelagis — Iron Isle

Night had fallen, and Marit was still working. She was working under guard.

Outside the assembly building were two men with guns, smoking.

Inside it was the Overseer, tormenting her.

At first some of the women had stayed with her and tried to help her, but eventually everyone was thrown out, until there was only Marit, the guards and the Overseer.

Though they cursed the man and his cruelty, all her coworkers could do was to leave.

And all she could do was to keep working.

Marit felt the heavy throb of her wound on her forehead. Every little movement she made seemed to exacerbate the pain. And yet, here she was. Kneeling on the cold floor of the workshop, slick with grease and oil and sweat, her arms shaking, her teeth chattering. She moved mechanically. Her humanity had slipped away from her somewhere after the fifth hour of forced overtime labor and the second time the Overseer shouted in her ear.

She was a machine; she was truly doing first, intermediate and final assembly now.

All at once.

“We’re going to break a record here, Hale!” Shouted the overseer. “You’ll put together an entire tank by yourself! That’ll teach you to snoop around where you’re not wanted!”

Marit’s eyes welled up with tears involuntarily, her fingers looked like gnarled claws, bruised and spent and curled roughly as she struggled to get her shaking hands to stretch the track around the front and back gears, the rollers and under the bogeys. She stood, unsteadily, nearly falling, walked to the other end of the workshop. Grasping in the dark, she found the welding torch and came back to seal the track. With that accomplished she had only one more job to do — she had to lower the turret onto the turret ring.

Behind her, like a mocking imp, the Overseer watched from a folding chair.

“Obviously I don’t expect a moron like you to install the hydraulics and electric system. Just set the turret down on the ring, we’ll pretend it was finished, and you’ll be done. Free to go. Doesn’t it feel great to make amends? To work off your debt like a real citizen?”

Marit did not respond. She was not capable of response. Her mind was obliterated by exhaustion and pain. She shambled toward the chains attached to the crane pulley and tugged the crane along its supports on the roof, feeling like she would fall over dead with every effort. Once the crane was close enough, she attached the chain to the turret, and revved up a generator to start the lifting motor. She lifted the heavy turret, welded all by herself, every last part of it from the cheek to the hatch to the gun assembly.

Finally, the turret dropped onto the ring, a little unsteadily, but in its place.

“Congratulations Hale! You’ve made idiot history. Now get the fuck out of my face.”

The Overseer pointed her out the workshop door.

Marit, dirty, exhausted, wounded everywhere, with big empty eyes, shambled out of the shop, almost without recognizing what she was doing or what time it even was.

She was escorted by the guards outside the factory grounds and turned out onto the road.

Staring at the moon like a lost calf in the forest, Marit got walking home.

“Marit! Marit!”

There was a long light coming from the edge of the pavement.

Marit flinched when she heard the chugging noise coming closer.

At her side, a motorized bike stopped, cut engine, and someone left it.

“Marit, oh my god!”

She felt someone take her in arms. Sweet scent, golden hair.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! This was all my fault!”

Marit barely recognized Alicia’s voice.

“What time is it?” She asked.

Alicia pulled back from her, to look her in the eyes, still holding her by the shoulder.

“It’s past midnight, Marit.” She said.

“I have to sleep.” Marit said. “I can sleep maybe three hours if I get home in one.”

“I can get you home.” Alicia said. “But you shouldn’t work tomorrow! You’re hurt!”

“I have to.” Marit said. “If I’m absent now after all this, I’ll be beaten and thrown out the next time I show my face. I can’t stop working. My family needs me.”

She couldn’t muster any emotion, love or hate, for Alicia. She couldn’t muster anything.

Her unsteady legs started to shake. Marit felt like her feet would slip out from under her.

They almost did; Marit nearly fell, but Alicia caught her.

“I’ll give you money. It’s the least I can do.” Alicia said.

“Can you keep giving me money?” Marit mumbled. “If I lose my job–”

Alicia hung her head. Her bright and shining smile was nowhere to be found.

“I’ll drive you home. I’m sorry Marit. I’m sorry about everything. I’ve been stupid and preumptuous and naive and I hurt you so much with my foolishness. I’m so sorry.”

Without response, Marit stumbled onto the passenger car on the motorbike.

Visibly weeping, Alicia put on a helmet, and got on the bike herself.

Marit felt the earth start to move, and the surroundings blur in twilight.

Though she had hoped that a few hours of sleep would undo all the damage, it hardly seemed to change things, save to allow her mind to more fully understand her predicament. When she next woke, it was sunset, and Marit was hurting all over, her bandaged forehead feeling as if freshly broken over by a rifle butt. Alicia was sleeping in a chair next to her bed. Her father was passed out drunk in the kitchen. Her mother was still gone, god knows where in town, doing god knows what. It was all the usual.

“Alicia, wake up!”

Marit shoved the blond girl’s shoulder, and prodded her from sleep.

“Marit? Are you feeling better?” She asked.

“No. I need a ride to work.”

Alicia looked like she would cry again. “You shouldn’t.”

“I have to.”

There was no more protesting. Alicia must have learned would get her nowhere.

Marit changed into fresher clothes, also shabby hand-me-downs from her brothers, and she took a loaf of bread from the pantry, the last one they had. She practically shoved it into her mouth along with a glass of milk and honey. She would not make it in time to stand in line for breakfast today. Even with Alicia’s bike it would probably take a while.

Outside, Marit took one last look at her family’s decaying, shabby A-frame cabin as she mounted Alicia’s bike. It looked ever more empty and forlorn on a hurting head.

“Drive.” Marit said.

“Marit, I’m sorry–”

“You’re forgiven, drive.”

She said it brusquely enough that Alicia seemed to get the hint.

It took them thirty minutes to drive from Marit’s house down to the factory around the other side of the island. Marit normally caught a bus for workers, but to catch it, she had to get on before the sun, and she had not today. Alicia probably did not know the significance of the bus and did not wake her for it. Or maybe Alicia was as tired and asleep and also slept through it. Marit did not know if Alicia had been punished for what happened.

Certainly it can’t have been as severe as what Marit faced.

Once they got to the factory, Marit practically jumped off the sidecar, and she ignored Alicia’s protests as she ran through the front gate. Already the chow line had dissolved and people were at their stations. Marit ran through the factory grounds, and stopped at the assembly building. She turned about face, took a deep breath, and tried to walk as casually as she could into the tin building, hoping to not attract any attention–

“You’re late, Hale!”

Immediately she was pounced on by the Overseer.

Without regard for her wound, he rolled his newspaper and struck her in the head.

“That tank you made yesterday was shabby work! And now you’re late too? Get over there and start tightening drive wheels. You’ll be doing every assembly at least once today!”

Marit turned from him to go where assigned, but she stumbled and fell.

No sooner had she hit the floor that she felt the Overseer kick her in the hip.

“Get up, Hale! You’re not feigning sick with me again! I know that trick too well!”

She could hardly believe his words. He was the same man who had yesterday overseen her as she nearly killed herself putting together a whole tank all day and all night, with a head wound. Did he think her a monster, with unlimited power in her limbs? Did he think her darker skin and darker hair conferred him some natural savagery that could withstand this? She could not even move from the floor. Collapsed face-first, she struggled terribly.

“Stop that!”

From inside the assembly building there was a general murmur.

All of the women working on the tanks had stopped and were staring at the Overseer and at Marit. Many of them had stood up from their stations, and started to shout.

“This is monstrous! Leave that girl alone!”

“Can’t you see she’s hurt?”

“You’ve worked her to the bone, you animal! Leave her alone!”

As more people shouted, more people felt emboldened to shout and to shout louder. People started to refer to their own grievances with the Overseer, rather than just what he had done to Marit. Women started to leave their stations and to gather and walk over to the man and to mob. The Overseer swatted in front of him with his newspaper.

“Get back to work! All of you! If you don’t I’m calling the guards!”

Marit turned over on her side, trying to get up.

“And you, I said, up! Now!”

He delivered another kick to her, this time in the stomach, and she cried out.

It was this that triggered the mob of women to stampede.

Marit could not understand how he had gotten the confidence to do what he did. How in the face of everything, he kept attacking her, he kept provoking them. Did he not see them? Did he not see a hundred women, old and tall and tough with skin like baked leather and big meaty arms and fingers and bellies that had borne a half dozen children each?

He started to understand, perhaps, when the first thrown wheels struck him, when the first hurled cans of pain and oil spilled over him, when the first wrench blows knocked him to the ground. When the women kicked him as he had kicked Marit and when they found it in themselves not to stop kicking, when they found bigger things to kick him with, when they found things to stab with and things to crush with and maybe, as the light left him, he understood when they ruined and defaced his body in every achievable way.

After minutes of escalating violence the Overseer was barely recognizable as human.

Then the women took their bloodied weapons and charged the two guards who appeared, alerted by the cries and the commotion, and they beat them down, but they did not murder them as they had the Overseer. They struck them and pushed them and disarmed them and sent them scurrying away from the factory. Marit had barely managed to get back up on her feet, when the women started to chant, and to roar. They called out Marit’s name.

Blinking, incredulous of the events around her, Marit watched as the women charged toward the office, and the specialty workshop, and as more women from the other assembly buildings came out as well, and they shouted and cried and made commotion. Every woman seemed to shout her grievances aloud at once. There were chants for peace, to bring the boys back home; chants to work less hours, to work for more pay, to have the commissions they were promised for good work, to have new bosses or no bosses.

Soon the entire population of the factory was out on the grounds making mess.

Marit had hardly shambled out of the assembly building, when a siren went off.

In front of the specialty workshop, a metal shutter door started going up.

Marit’s heart sank, and she tried to shout, knowing what was coming.

From the workshop, something flew out with thunderous violence.

Over the heads of the women a projectile detonated and cast fire and metal down.

At once the spontaneous crowd started to break apart and disperse.

The M4A4 “R-K Sentinel” emerged from the building, and people scrambled away from it to avoid being crushed. From its front plate, sporadic machine gun fire sailed out over the crowds, flying between the assembled women, grazing many, striking some, hitting pavement and tin walls and causing a panic to unfold suddenly. Atop the turret, the guard commander for the factory stood half out of the cupola with a pistol in hand, screaming.

“All of you will cease this demonstration at once, or you will be hung as traitors to the Federation of Northern States!” He shouted, firing his pistol off into the air. “We hold fire only because of a sense of decency you all lack! Your ransacking of a military installation is high treason! But we will show mercy if you disarm and disperse immediately!”

His own voice made him sound nervous, though he put up a strong front. Clearly he was in a panic too, his every action and word belied that panic, and he had done something extreme that could not be taken back now, in the hopes of disarming a situation likely to kill him. One tank against hundreds of workers at very close range, even older women, would not end well for him either. Like Alicia had before, they could climb onto the tank, and maybe force the hatch. He was trying to scare them off. It was all going crazy.

Many women retreated, collapsed, wounded or unwounded; but a core was forming around the assembly building that continued to show some defiance, and they gathered together.

Callously, hungry for blood, the Sentinel’s turret descended its gun toward them.

Marit ran out of the building.

With one first and final burst of manic energy, she stood between the crowd and gun.

She spread her arms, shaking all over.

“It was my fault! I’ll take responsibility! Please stop this!” She shouted.

Her eyes filled with tears. Her entire being hurt. Her body, her mind, her soul.

Everything was out of control and she couldn’t help but think it was all her fault.

Had she been better, worked harder–

Had she not lost control around Alicia and berated her–

Had anything gone different, had her parents not broken down, had everything–

Her mind was choppy, thoughts cutting each other off, sensations twisted.

She was shaking, shaking violently in front of the women she sought to defend.

“Get out of the way brat! This is not about you! Disperse now! All of you!”

She heard a clicking from inside the barrel. She was so close to the gun.

It must have been the breech. She had done breech assembly before.

Someone inside had loaded a shell that would go right through her.

Marit swallowed hard. Even if she wanted to move, she could not have. She was out of strength. Everything was lost to her. She had given the last of her to stand with these women and to stand before them, to try to protect them, to try to make amends.

Now she was spent. She couldn’t obey the guard commander.

“I warned you!” He shouted. His own voice sounded as desperate as hers.

Marit closed her eyes.


Marit reopened her eyes in disbelief.

Standing in front of her, even closer to the gun barrel, was Alicia.

“You can shoot her if you want! But you’ll also kill Alicia Kolt if you do! And I’m not moving no matter what! If you really want to end this, call the Governor instead!”

She was shaking too. Her voice quavered perhaps even worse than Marit’s had.

But she was standing, and she was not moving.

Marit felt herself going forward, and falling onto Alicia’s back.

She held on to her waist, resting her head on Alicia’s shoulders.

“I’m sorry.” Alicia whimpered.

“You’re forgiven.” Marit said, this time much more sincerely.

Behind them, the crowd of women took steps forward, and joined Marit and Alicia.

In response, the R-K Sentinel backed down. It reversed into the specialty workshop, shut itself inside again, and made no more noise and caused no more damage until the police arrived, and the governor arrived, and cooler heads seemed more willing to talk.

18th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Territory of Pelagis — Iron Isle

Ever since the factory closed down, Marit’s mother and father seemed to have disappeared entirely. As a result of their vanishing near-completely into drink and dance, perhaps too distraught at the loss of the income from their sons and now the income from their daughter too, Marit got to keep her final paycheck. It was a pretty fat sum too — she had finally been given all her unpaid commissions for her good work. Despite this, she could not live very large. Had anything in her been broken it would have obliterated even this precious lifeline. But things had worked out well enough, she was healthy and she was free, and now she could use this last bit of money to leave behind her fallen home.

She would move to the Nochtish mainland and seek opportunity there.

It hurt her heart, but it was all she could do now. She had nothing left on Iron Isle.

Nocht, and Nocht’s war, had destroyed her family, her homeland.

With a hundred and fifty marks in hand, all she could do was to go on, to survive.

She packed up a few things, put the money in with her bag, and left the house.

She hoped to catch the bus, and then a ferry to Pelago, and then maybe a plane or a bigger boat to Nocht. She had never had to think about this, so she had no concrete plans.

Outside, however, she heard a distinctive chugging on the road.

“Marit! Hey, Marit!”

On her motor bike again was Alicia Kolt.

“Where are you going, Marit?” She asked, smiling.

Marit felt a strange softness in her heart and averted her eyes a little from the road.

“I don’t know! Anywhere but here, to be honest!” Marit said.

“Coincidentally, I’m headed the same way.” Alicia replied.

She patted her hand on her sidecar.

Sighing, Marit headed for it, and climbed in.

“Why are you helping me?” Marit asked.

“Why did you help me that day?” Alicia asked in turn.

She thought back to it. It seemed petty. There was no life-changing revelation to be had. She had seen a pretty girl who had made her swoon a little and who needed help, and she wanted the sense of adventure, she wanted to do something interest. She did not think it over too much. Her actions could not truly be justified. It was almost completely random.

Unwilling to answer that maybe she had wanted a kiss, Marit instead shrugged.

“Because it was different.” She said.

“Would you accept that as my answer too?” Alicia said.

“Absolutely not. You can do better than that.” Marit said, grinning in jest.

“You’re right. Let me come up with something better.”

Alicia leaned in from the driver’s seat and kissed Marit in the cheek.

Marit flinched and rubbed her own cheek and felt her heart jumping in her chest.

“How’s that? If you want it verbally: it’s because you’re so different.”

“I don’t think I am, but okay.” Marit replied, still rubbing her cheek.

“Trust me, I’m extremely good at these things. You made think a lot, you know.”

Alicia looked out over the road and down the hilly way from Marit’s house.

“I want to do something that a person like you would admire, not despise. If someone as brave and strong and selfless as you thinks it’s wrong– I can’t carry on with it.”

“Hey,” Marit said, suddenly alarmed, “I’m sorry about what I said to you. It was nasty and you didn’t deserve it. You shouldn’t just do whatever I say, who am I to dictate your life?”

Alicia smiled. “It’s okay. I’ve made up my mind. I might still make weapons, you know. But if I do, it wont be for Rescholdt-Kolt. It wont be so they can be used against you.”

She reached out and held Marit’s hand.

“Marit, I don’t know what to do right now, but I know I don’t want to leave you behind, whatever it is that happens. I know this sounds silly, because we just met a while ago, and because I was doing things to assuage my guilt. But I really want to stay with you.”

Marit smiled back. She laid her other hand on Alicia’s too. She liked the feeling of both their worn, callused hands, a little rough and spent, holding each other so closely.

“Whatever happened to wanting to one-up your brother’s designs, huh?” Marit asked.

“Oh, I’ll beat him. I’ll become a better person than him in every way. I’ll build things that will save people and protect people. Things you can be proud of and love, Marit.” Alicia said. “I’ll trample his scornful steel with the power of love. You can count on that.”

Marit burst out laughing. “Oh my god; what a queer bunch of ideas.”

Alicia worked the bike’s ignition and revved up the engine.

“I’m extremely good at this, remember? Anyway, where do you want to go?”

Marit leaned against the backrest, and breathed out. For once, she felt relaxed.

“I want to go with you, Alicia.” She said.

<< APOCALYPSE 2030 >>

Alea Iacta Est II (60.1)

This scene contains violence and death.

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Ocean Road

Harmony charged out of the alleyway to reclaim the street, and found itself alone.

At the sight of the air raid, it seemed everyone had fled into cover. And even when the guns started shooting back at the sky, no comrades emerged into the street to capitalize.

She was truly alone. And more painfully, she felt she had engineered this for herself.

Not the planes; not the fleeing; but the fact that she was alone. She shouldn’t have been.

But she couldn’t become mired in that guilt. Losing hope now would surely kill her.

Gunnerless, Harmony’s only defense was the DNV light machine gun tenuously attached by an improvised mount beneath the open front hatch. Far down the street, the remains of the elven bomber had split pilot Danielle Santos from her (beloved) partner Caelia Suessen. Rescuing her became Danielle’s singular priority as she leaped into her tank in a panic.

Seeing the hulk, however, sowed distress in Danielle’s breast. Fallen near-intact save its wings, Danielle was sure such a heavy, large bomber wouldn’t be dented by her 45mm gun.

Breathing quickly and intermittently, Danielle felt overwhelmed by the situation. She felt a tingling in the front of her head, a weight, as if a swarm of ants were crawling over her brain. Her hands were shaking wildly, one deftly twitching between the two control sticks and the other gripping handle and guiding the swivel on the removable DNV machine gun.

She leaned forward and put her head through the hatch. Gradually the sky had become a chaotic palette of red, blue, black and white. Every few seconds a shell went off, or an aircraft exploded or crashed, and the reek of smoke and metal started to fall from the heavens and come down to the city. Several aircraft seemed to deliberately be crashing into the city. There was noise and violence everywhere above — and it was spreading.

There were no enemies on the ground that she could see.

But Danielle soon found more white in the sky than just the wind-battered clouds.

Strings of parachutes started descending from the airborne no-man’s land at an alarming pace. Hundreds of troops were falling on the city. Automatic fire consumed many immediately, but more and more began to drop after them. As she leaned out of her Kobold tank she saw a dozen parachute troops coming closer to her, only a few hundred feet away, and even saw a few disappear behind distant buildings. She dove back inside.

From the pilot’s seat, she put both hands on the machine gun, and aimed high.

Drawing in a breath, putting the reticle on a cloudy white parachute, she hit the trigger.

From the front of the Kobold a stream of automatic fire launched skyward. Danielle, unable to aim for the small figures, instead aimed to clip the parachutes wherever she could get them. She could hardly see through the muzzle flash and the gun itself, blocking her hatch. But between three-shot bursts she spied parachutes precipitously dropping from holes punched in them, parachutes holding hanging men who seemed not to move.

She popped out a pan magazine from atop the gun, discarded it, attached a new one.

Rapping the trigger, pressing for a second or two and depressing for burst fire, reloading quickly from magazines she had dropped at her side, she sent hundreds of rounds sailing.

Soon she could see no more parachutes between her gunfire.

Satisfied with what little hindrance she caused the flow of men onto Rangda, Danielle pushed the control sticks forward and started Harmony down the road toward the bomber. She crossed a few blocks, and parked the tank several dozen meters from the obstacle. Now that she was closer to it, the fallen fuselage seemed ever larger and more daunting.

It had fallen in just about the worst place it could have. Rammed between opposing alleyways attached to buildings with ruined, blocked off entrances, the bomber fuselage could not be easily walked around. Previous fighting had taken its toll on Ocean Road. Caelia could have run into the alleys on her own side, but there was no telling where a parachutist had landed, or where debris, new or old, might bar the way forward again.

Danielle had no idea what Caelia might decide to do. If only she could signal her–

She remembered, from back in training camp. They had a signal. Tankers had flare guns with yellow smoke. Infantry had red smoke and white smoke. Maybe if Caelia remembered this detail she would know that Danielle was on the other side. Maybe she would hold on.

It was not just a matter of keeping her safe. To survive, both needed to be in this tank.

They had learned long ago they did exceptionally better together than apart.

Without each other, it was doubtful they would have even gotten to where they were now.

Caelia, an exceptional gunner, but a clueless driver. Danielle, a worthless commander, but a pilot who could make a tank glide over any terrain as if centimeters above the ground. They had known something of each other before all of that, but it was in the metal confines of a tank, separated by the turret ring, blind to each other and communicating exclusively over radio, that they found each other’s true selves, and maybe even their own.

Unglamorous as it was, they had achieved this goal together. Full-fledged tankers. From out of nothing, from everything they had left behind, from everything holding them back.

Danielle grit her teeth. She couldn’t believe how easily she had let petty jealousy root itself in her heart before. She should have known better. Caelia was special to her and she was special to Caelia. They had all of this; more importantly, they had always had it together. No matter where it was, what they did, it was always a medium for them, together.

Danielle had to trust her. She would hate herself forever if she lost Caelia for lack of trust.

Seizing the flare gun from the emergency kit, she reached her arm out the front hatch.

She pulled the trigger, and the flare launched right over the bomber fuselage.

It detonated over the barrier between them in a bright yellow flash and yellow smoke.

Caelia must have seen it. She must have — and she must have understood what it meant.

Now, however, she had to get that fuselage out of the way, some way or another.

Clumsily, she left the sticks and climbed up into Caelia’s seat, a place she never had occasion to see. A tank’s gun was probably the sturdiest part of the whole design. Engines and tracks and suspensions were under constant stress and frequently wore out during operations. Correctly mounted, the gun could last extremely long, and it was the one part that Danielle was not certified to repair. It required heavy equipment and a crew.

This was Caelia’s domain, walled off during operations. Danielle had her own space.

Now, however, she was gone and the gun was needed.

She was immediately struck with something she did not expect to see.

Sitting down on Caelia’s seat, she immediately spotted two photographs clipped to the gun sight. One had a large, friendly-looking black cat, staring inquisitively at the camera.

Another was of Danielle, sitting atop their old Goblin. Caelia herself had taken that one.

Shaking her head and stifling tears, Danielle reached into the rack for a 45mm AP round.

They had hardly been restocked. There were maybe a dozen fresh rounds available and a handful of leftovers from earlier in the day. Danielle grit her teeth. Even if she could penetrate the armor on the bomber’s hull, a small round would just poke a hole through it, and would get her no closer to removing it from the way. She felt helpless and trapped.

Sighing, praying for a miracle, she closed her eyes, she loaded the round, and looked down the sights. There was no need to aim. Her target was massive and it was very close.

Remembering how the gun operated, from her short-lived career as a gunner in training camp, Danielle shouted to no one in particular that she was firing an armor piercing shell.

There was a boom and a crack and a sharp, striking ding on metal.

Looking through the sight again, she found the bomber’s armor penetrated by a fist-sized hole. Moreover, she found something rather astonishing about the hole itself.

Danielle pushed open the top hatch and leaned out to look upon the wound she inflicted.

Her eyes were not deceiving her. This was not a well-armored bomber plane.

It was a ramshackle wooden plane with a layer of silver foil on the exterior.

How it survived the fall with any remaining integrity of form, Danielle did not know.

But she felt her heart soar suddenly. She felt a combination of foolishness and euphoria.

All of this time, that great impenetrable obstacle, forever separating her from Caelia; it was all in her mind. There was no invincible steel barrier isolating her. Caelia and her were separated by little more than a dozen millimeters of wooden skin with foil glued over it. She had been drowning in a glass of water. Danielle laughed, a bit bitterly, but relieved.

Perhaps this was not the only barrier that she had completely imagined.

Climbing back down to the driver’s seat, Danielle took the Danava machine gun mount off the front, backed the tank several dozen meters more into the street and lined herself up with the side hatch on the bomber plane. She shut her own front hatch, and then thrust the sticks as far forward as she would go, accelerating downhill at the plane with abandon.

“I’m coming, Caelia!”

Caelia Suessen found herself whistling, alone in the middle of the street.

Around her there was an uproarious battle happening between sky and earth.

She did not think about it, not at first. She was fixated on the way forward.

In front of her, in a scene that seemed fake, as if it had been staged for a production, stood the fuselage of a bomber plane. It had fallen from the sky, and in an instant, barred the way higher up Ocean Road. Behind her, a similar hulk had also fallen out of the sky, trapping her in a block of ruined buildings. Danielle was somewhere on the other side; she had ran out of their meeting in clear distress, and Caelia, deeply worried, had ran after.

But she was too late running, and not fast enough to make up the difference.

Danielle had been offended or hurt, that much she knew. Whether it had been Shayma’s effusive praise, or her own fault in overlooking Danielle, or something else entirely. Those were not the steps of an unwounded woman. She could imagine what happened, though she did not want to presume, lest she risk hurting her feelings even more. Danielle was soft in ways Caelia was not as much; or at least in ways Caelia did not let on as readily.

Now, though, they were in a situation where she could be killed.

Losing Danielle, never again having her in her life–

Caelia was not fond of mental time travel, but that was a future she had to prevent.

She was still processing what would happen next, and what to do.

She spontaneously whistled a song from a play. It was near and dear to her.

Though it was not necessarily calming, it was an outlet for her nerves.

Mustering her resolve, and shaking her head hard to relieve the dazedness she felt, Caelia started searching her surroundings. There seemed to be nobody around. Most of the buildings around her had collapsed, either in earlier fighting or because of the falling aircraft and aircraft debris. She was blocked off on all sides it seemed. She had her pistol in her possession, and she drew it and made sure it was loaded. She had no other weapons, no grenades, not even a knife. She had left much of her kit behind with the tank.

Any kind of fighting in this state would be pointless. She didn’t even have spare ammo.

Caelia thought of trying to climb the unsteady rubble and jump over the plane.

Suddenly she heard a loud buzzing overhead and raised her eyes to the sky.

She was ripped from her reverie, and forced to confront the wider world.

Flying low, a plane with a long and rounded fuselage, trailing smoke from its twin engines, swooped over Caelia, over Ocean Road, and crashed somewhere close by. Caelia could feel the impact, diffusing through the earth itself, and the vibration in her gut unsettled her.

But the plane mattered less than what followed it. High in the sky, and descending much more gently than their transport, a line of parachutes blossomed on high, popping from their packs and spreading like hard clouds against the smoke and fire in the blue.

Everywhere, it seemed, there were parachutes dropping, and planes falling.

One pack was closest and closing in. Any kind of wind would drop them right on her head.

“Almost a full platoon.” She whispered to herself. She immediately began to whistle.

There was nowhere really to hide, and if they landed close enough, they could dispatch her easily. They had rifles, numbers, and time was on their side. She had a pistol and music.

And she barely had music, and barely had a pistol in any way that counted.

Her hands shook with the futility of it, but she raised her pistol to the sky to fight back–

Soon as she pulled the trigger, a stream of tracers went flying overhead into the enemy.

Caelia watched as a succession of quick, bright red volleys went flying into the platoon, cutting parachutes, striking men. There were dozens of rounds going out in practiced bursts, and anywhere they struck would be tragic for the vulnerable paratroopers. Parachutes with holes in them or missing strings struggled to stay aloft but quickly and ultimately collapsed and sent the wearers plummeting to their deaths. Several surviving parachutes spilled blood onto the ground, carrying corpses. All the remaining living Parachutists struggled to influence the direction of their drop away from the gunfire.

Then, coming from behind her, Caelia saw the yellow flare and the smoke.

She knew immediately who it was. Danielle had come to her defense, to pick her up.

She had no way to signal back, but she knew it was a tanker, a tanker who was stuck on the other side of this fuselage. A tanker who was trying to get to this side. It had to be Danielle. She was trying to find a way through. Despite everything, she had turned around and sought her out. Caelia, briefly elated, moved to the side of the street, hiding behind a pile of rubble, and she drew in a breath. She heard shots, sounds of struggle. She felt the fuselage shake. But nobody was coming through yet. She still had some time to wait.

Caelia started to whistle again. She thought of what she could even say to Danielle now.

Whistling, music; though she had given them up, those were things she was good at.

Being forward with her partner was not something that came as naturally to her.

I love you, was a set of words that eluded her tongue. For one reason or another.

Even then, they were perhaps not fitting for their situation anyway.

She felt her heat beat faster as she thought of Danielle, of how to mend things.

If things needed mending; if they could be mended at all.

Caelia drew in a breath. She began to whistle again–

Soon as the first notes drew from her lips, she was interrupted.

A rifle bullet struck the fuselage near to her, forcing her to duck farther behind the rubble.

She peered briefly into the street, just in time for a handful of paratroopers to drop from out of nowhere, silently yet solidly. Blue-uniformed elves with sharp ears, long, blond hair, and piercing green eyes. They dropped, stumbling onto the pavement and quickly rising, and threw off the bulk of their parachutes. Four rifles pointed her way.

She had been concentrating on hiding and waiting, and Danielle had probably been concentrating on trying to break through to her. Neither of them realized that the parachutes were still dropping. That they would continue dropping, for who knew how long. Rangda was under siege from the sky. Caelia felt foolish for feeling a little safe.

Desistere!” they shouted, jabbing their bayonets into the air in front of them.

Her song wouldn’t last many more notes. Caelia paused to sigh and breathe.

Across from her the elves responded to the lack of compliance by opening fire.

Caelia crawled tighter behind the rubble. She heard the bullets striking the fuselage, and felt the hot lead bouncing off the surface and coming suddenly down on her back.

All they had to do was run forward and stab. Caelia wanted to cry. Though she had a hard time grappling with emotion, Caelia knew then and there who’s name she would cry.


Behind her the fuselage gave a great shudder that no rifle could have caused.

Chunks of wood burst from it, and a great metal thing thundered past as if through a door.

Caelia watched as Harmony hurtled through the fuselage toward the riflemen.

Surprised and speechless, the men did not move fast enough to avoid their fate.

Harmony trundled through them, crushing whatever of them it caught underfoot.

Two men it mashed to bits beneath its tracks. One man rolled out of the way, and a second attempted to evade far too late, and he dropped to the floor and lost his legs to the tank.

Harmony ground to a halt.

Caelia drew in a breath and stepped out from cover.

Standing to full height, she held her pistol up.

Across from her, the man with the rifle dropped his weapon, broke, and ran.

She did not fire after him. He disappeared, panicked, into the buildings.

Was this their foe?

Caelia shook her head. It didn’t matter. Not now. There was someone more important.

Whistling again, scarcely believing all that transpired, she ran swiftly past the corpses and around to the front hatch of the tank, where Danielle sat, stupefied, with her front hatch swung open. She was the same Danielle, with her brown skin and messy, curly black hair and her glasses, unharmed, just as she had been left. Her Danielle; her Danielle.

“Hey,” Caelia said, leaning into the hatch. She stifled a hint of tears of her own.

Inside, Danielle was shaking, and weeping, holding the tank’s sticks with a deathly grip.

“H-Hello.” Danielle said.

They looked into each other’s eyes, both shaking from toe to top, teeth slightly chattering, hair on end, sweating, breathing heavily. Exhausted; having both fought, both killed, and yet, both still surrounded by the enemy nonetheless. Both having suffered some shocks. Caelia’s eyes began to water as she reached a hand down to Danielle and wiped the tears from her partner’s eyes. A little sob escaped her, and briefly interrupted her whistling.

“I’m sorry I made such a big show in the tent. I was an idiot.” Danielle stammered.

“It’s okay.” Caelia said simply.

And for the moment, perhaps everything was simply okay for them.

Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XII

This chapter contains non-graphic sexual content.

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

Under the calm autumn night, a school guardsman patroled the streets of the Academy’s northern campus. He walked down the middle of the road, avoiding the dim light of the decades old, flickering street lamps. He was hardly visible in the dark, save for the light of his hand-held torch that seemed to sway in rhythm with the swinging of his club, dangling from his hands by a noisy chain loop. His footsteps and a whistling ditty were audible a block away, and alerted would-be hooligans to a presence in the lonely streets.

Hearing him from afar, Salvatrice ducked behind a long hedge and deftly avoided the torchlight. She crouched and carefully followed the man. Overhead a white beam periodically scanned the landscape, brushing over the flat green surface of the hedges, settling for several seconds at a time on the empty space between hedges, and briefly inspecting each garbage can and fire hydrant installed on the street corners.

Salvatrice held on to her cap with one hand, knelt down, and carefully scuttled behind the hedge. On both sides of the street there were long green stretches leading to small parks, benches, kiosks abandoned in the night, and old, distant buildings, their facades like melting faces in the deep dark. There was plenty to hide behind and plenty more to draw away the attention of anybody. She kept hoping the guard would turn a different corner, but he seemed keen on patrolling the exact path she planned to take that night.

Nobody was around that could see her but him. He was the only visible obstacle.

His obstinacy was frustrating given the emptiness of the Academy on that night.

Pallas Messianic Academy had instituted a strict curfew due to recent events. Facilities emptied out at eight o’ clock, on the hour. Streets were to be clear by nine o’ clock. Doors were to be locked by ten. Nearing midnight nobody was allowed on the street save the guards that delivered a swift beating to anyone caught. Curfew was both a blessing and curse. There were no prying eyes, no crowds heading for the bars in town, no drunkards. She felt safe. But she was alone with the guards. They grew more alert.

She could not wait for a better night to escape. She had to get away. It had to be then.

At a distant corner near the chemistry building, the guard’s light hovered over a fence and then trailed up the road. Salvatrice dashed for the fence and ducked behind a metal garbage bin, careful not to upset the chain links in the fence and cause noise. She waited for the guard to wander farther down the road, and then cut toward the building. Though the doors into the building had been locked tight, there was an open-air hallway lined with pillar supports. She hid behind each of them, moving progressively closer to the side of the building and an adjoining road leading out of campus. She closed in on it.

Salvatrice heard a rustling noise and stood with her back tight against the pillar.

There was a waist-tall hedgerow on the edge of the street, a few meters away.

In the space between her pillar and the next she saw a white glow.

She watched as the beam moved into the hallway and up a wall, and heard steps.

Swallowing hard, she pressed tighter and tighter against the wall as if trying to shrink.

Suddenly the beam slashed across the wall.

It repositioned out of the hallway and across the adjacent green.

“Halt! Stop right there you hooligan!”

Harsh and fast steps; the guard took off shouting, probably after someone else.

Salvatrice breathed a deep, troubled sigh. She peered out of the pillar and watched the guard go. Building a mental map of her location, she thought about where the guard would go, and how long it would take him to return to his route if he failed to catch anyone. She was sure this was her best chance to make a final escape for the night.

Feeling a shiver throughout her body as she committed herself, Salvatrice ran out of cover and into the street, heading north toward the edge of the campus grounds. She ran as fast as her legs would allow, and felt a deep fatigue as she rushed into the woods. She saw no other guards and nobody following her. From the edge of the wood she made for the old campgrounds, at the edge of which she hid her personal carriage.

From inside a bush, she pulled a sleek black bicycle, with curled handlebars and thick, sturdy wheels. It was this humble vehicle that would carry her the rest of the way to the town of Palladi, and which was responsible for many of her previous escapades. She arrived rather tired after riding it anywhere; but walking to Palladi would have killed her instead, never mind how late she would have been to any party she dared to attend.

Her health had been relatively stable of late, so she did not fear the thirty minute ride.

There were several paths between the Messianic Academy and the Town of Palladi. Most people took the train. Though it went on a relatively circuitous path through the countryside, its speed meant that it reached the town in a few minutes. Cars usually took the Palladium road that circled from the eastern part of the Academy, avoided the wood entirely and led them on level, well-paved ground to the town. Any reasonable car or even a carriage could arrive at the town in ten to fifteen minutes via the Palladium.

Neither of these routes could be walked, however, at least not without hassle and waste.

Cutting through the Pallas woods was the more direct route, and the only route that was easily accessible under human power, taking a person perhaps two hours on foot, or a half-hour of furious cycling. But the old dirt roads through the wood were imposing, especially in the dark. There was a lot of superstition about them, and the Academy dissuaded guests and students from venturing into the wood. Salvatrice was well acquainted with this route, however. She had pedaled through it many times before, hurtling downhill under the thick forest canopy, her wheels rolling over uneven ground.

She felt every shock as she pedaled down the old roads. Muscle memory corrected every hit to the wheels, and she lost little speed and traction to the shocks and holes. Many early escapades had been aborted by a bad fall, but each failure to meet with her beloved Carmela built a frustration and desire that made her next ride much more efficient. Salvatrice now had her downhill ride through the woods down to a science. Her brow broke out in sweat, and her lungs and legs felt raw with the effort, but she maintained 20 km/h and the thick green and brown around her flew by in the dark.

She bowed her head against the handlebars and focused on her pedaling.

It was a stark transition, from thick forest out into a broad green field open on all sides. Ahead and down a gentle slope she saw the distant lights of the town of Palladi, spread out like a wedge driven between a small lake and the broad hilly countryside. Large stretches of terraced town-houses were broken up by the square plots of land belonging to larger, solitary estates, and both were surrounded by small, humble village houses. The Palladium road and the main Pallas train tracks split the town in pieces, and the more affluent neighborhoods boasted cobblestone streets and electric street-lamps.

However, the first several blocks that Salvatrice had to bike through were those closest to the wood, and they were connected by dirt roads with nary a streetlight or power pole in sight. There were lights coming out from the houses that partially lit the street, and on cloudy nights Salvatrice navigated by their dim illumination. She assumed these townies had electricity from somewhere, but in truth she had no idea. She always biked quickly through the outer edges of town and into the denser, richer interior past the train station.

The Sabbadin estate was not on the lakefront, but Salvatrice thought she could see water far downhill over the shoulder of the property. It was a cube-like house with a complicated facade and arch windows, three stories tall. Though the property was flanked by terraced houses, the Sabbadin’s was detached, occupying its own plot of several acres atop a gentle hill. Brick walls separated the Sabbadin’s land from the rest of Palladi, topped with spear tips of black steel that prevented climbing over. An imposing gate barred the way into the pearl-tiled gardens of bright, round rose and lilly bushes leading to the door.

Salvatrice walked her bicycle to the gate, panting heavily for breath. Riding to Palladi always sapped her strength. She had to admit, however, that she felt less drained tonight than on most nights. When her body became particularly rebellious she would become nauseous and dizzy after an activity. Tonight she felt merely exhausted from it.

Having arrived at the Sabbadin’s townhouse, Salvatrice briefly dropped her guard, but she quickly stood on tiptoes and erect when she found someone waiting for her at the gate.

Behind the metal bars, humming a little tune, stood a dowdy-looking maid with a heavy shawl over her apron and dress, and a rather large white cap over her hair. She kept a lazy watch over the estate driveway, frequently turning her back on the road and leaning on the wall or crouching near the flowers or pacing along the front of the town-house.

Salvatrice hid behind the wall at first, but she did not have much time to waste.

And she refused to turn back. Not on this night; not at the peak of her longing.

“Excuse me ma’am, I’m here about your subscription!” Salvatrice murmured, coming as close to the gate as she dared. This was the best she could come with to approach. She did look like a courier or newspaper boy. She at least possessed the hat for the job.

Behind the gate the maid took note of her and her request and stared at her.

Salvatrice’s heart practically stopped for a moment. Then the maid burst out laughing.

Oh ho ho ho! We’re going to have to work out a better system than this one!”

She raised a delicate hand to her lips. Salvatrice’s mouth hung open.

“Don’t just stand there! Come in, Salva!”

Carmela approached and opened the gate and allowed Salvatrice through the irons.

Covered so heavily in the maid’s clothes, she had seemed a stranger.

But her eyes and face were so radiant on closer inspection that they gave her away.

Salvatrice hid her bicycle from the sight of the gate behind one of the rose bushes.

“I thought something had gone wrong.” Salvatrice said. Carmela’s cheerful demeanor and laugh and the humorously burdensome look of her maid’s clothes brought a great warmth to her heart. She had missed so much being in physical proximity to her lover.

“You underestimate me! I have everything well in hand. All of my servants have today and tomorrow off. No one would mind if I borrowed their clothes and guarded the gate.”

“I suppose it would be unseemly and dangerous for a lady to wait outside her home.”

“Especially wearing the luxurious dress I set aside for tonight. Wait until you see it!”

Both of them giggled with delight. Slowly it dawned on them that they were together.

Together in the flesh; and alone, deliciously alone! No prying eyes to judge them.

For a moment they merely stared at one another, apart by the length of an arm.

Slowly, Carmela spread her arms open, wearing an inviting smile.

Salvatrice practically jumped atop her.

Under the moonless night the two of them tightly embraced.

Arms entwined and with eyes locked together, protected in public by their disguises and the locked gate keeping out the world, they hovered closer with lips parted by warm breaths, and gently kissed. At first their mouths merely touched, but then their lips parted, seized, pulled. Such passion began to build that their hands started to travel.

Realizing where this rhythm was leading them, the two abruptly paused.

When their lips drew apart they instead touched their foreheads together.

“I’m so glad to see you.” Salvatrice said, her face warm and flushed.

“It almost feels like a dream. May I have you before the dawn, milady?”

Carmela parted from their embrace and offered her hand instead.

Fingers twined, she and Carmela then proceeded through the path, up to the front door and into the foyer of the Sabbadin’s Palladi estate. The interior of the townhouse was clean and modern. Beneath their feet the floor was composed of polished tiles of a naturally murky off-white color. These tiles also seemed to compose the roof. Around them the smooth walls were painted a rich, dense, and mysterious shade of jet-blue.

Though she had visited some other properties belonging to the Sabbadins before, this was Salvatrice’s first visit to the headquarters, so to speak. It was quite impressive.

Carmela’s foyer was modest and sparsely furnished for the overall size and luxury of the townhouse. There were no enormous chandeliers of gold and silver like those found in the Previte estate, and no gilded doorknobs and hand-rails and busts. On the walls hung paintings of cats and horses in various settings. Freshly-picked flowers rested on resplendent vases boasting futuristic blended colors and geometric shapes. There were a pair of coat-racks that looked like spires with sharp arms, and bench seats like cubes of several subdued shades melted together. Carmela hung her shawl and cap on one of the spires. Salvatrice dispensed with her jacket and paused to admire the surroundings.

When they spoke their voices seemed to slightly echo. There was clearly nobody home.

“So, what do you think?”

Carmela pulled her long, luxurious blond hair free of a bun, and shook her head. Salva wondered whether she was asking about herself or the house. The Princess was quite taken with her lover’s bouncy mane, the subtle waves that curled at the ends, the locks over her ears, the casual but orderly bangs, and the rich yellow-gold color of it all.

“It’s a feast for the eyes.” She replied, more about her lover than her home.

“Why, thank you. My parents are almost never home so I’ve taken some liberties with it. It used to be such a boring place, you know; all bright and showy and flat. I like stark angles and dark colors better. I especially like colors that blend together with different shades, like you see on the vases and the walls. It’s a coloring technique that’s catching on. It’s more modern. There’s more character to it. It’s not cheap, pearly fairy tale crap.”

When she wanted to, Carmela could be quite a cutting personality.

“Such a bourgeois disdain for the whimsical.” Salvatrice chuckled.

“Better to aspire to that than to the fluffery of the royals.” Carmela cheekily replied.

Directly before the women two long sets of staircases curled up toward the next story, and beneath them two hallways led further into the ground floor. Carmela led Salva by the arm with a smile on her face, urging her to get excited for a big surprise that she had for them. Upstairs the hallways were tight compared to the royal palace and the Previte estate — it was after all a town-house — and there were many doors leading to rooms and closets. Salvatrice felt that they were rounding the exterior of the house, and she realized this was so when she saw the lake out of a hallway window. Right across from the glass, Carmela threw open a pair of somber wooden doors into her own bedroom.

This one room could almost make up the space in Salvatrice’s whole apartment. Like the rest of the house, it was furnished to Carmela’s modern tastes. There was a tea table of pentagonal glass that sat atop a cube, and the chairs around it were also cubes. Off on a corner of the room Carmela had a personal piano that had the typical shape, but the chair in front of the instrument was an inverted black step pyramid, chunky and angular.

Her small bed-side dresser was a semi-circular black shape with curved shelves, and her tall clothes chest was a similar object, standing like a strange giant off to one side of the room. Her bed was a rather flat-looking black mattress on a polished wooden frame that emphasized the angles of its corners and seemed almost to hold the mattress aloft without touching it. There were no columns and no awning unlike most grandiose royal beds. Salvatrice hoped it was not some fancy water bed. She heard sex was awful on those.

“Wait right there, I’ll fetch tonight’s first surprise. I hope I got your measurements right.”

Salvatrice could not risk carrying around a fancy dress while she snuck out, so she usually relied on Carmela to acquire something proper for her to wear and to sneak it to her during her escapades. She had found her lover’s sense of her princessly taste to be quite trustworthy, and waited with bated breath to see what she brought today. Carmela disappeared into a door on the side of the room, probably a closet like the one set aside for her at the royal palace. When she returned, the heiress was suddenly well dressed, having shed her costume. She came out in a gown, herding a spire-like rack on wheels, while holding two matching pairs of heels in her fingers, to replace their work shoes.

“Tell me about mine in a moment, but for now, take a look at yours!”

She shoved the rack toward Salvatrice. It came to a stop just in front of her.

“I sprung for something regal but form-fitting for you. What do you think?”

As always she had impeccable taste; Salvatrice’s dress was a wine-red, silver-trimmed gown, high-necked and short-sleeved, with a long skirt angled tight against the hips and split at the thighs and a form-fitting bodice that accented the chest — what little of it Salvatrice had to offer the gown, anyway. Her arms, back, hips and shoulders and some of her upper chest was open to the air by angular cuts in the fabric that resembled arrowheads. It gave what was otherwise a simple form-fitting dress a more modern and daring touch. A pair of matching elbow gloves and stockings formed a set with the gown.

However, she could hardly remained stunned with her dress with Carmela in the room.

Her lover was absolutely gorgeous, and Salvatrice could not peel her eyes from her.

Carmela’s own dress was bolder than what she picked for the princess. She had worn a purple and gold gown cut off just over her breasts. Her shoulders and much of her chest were bared by the design. When she turned around the ribbed bodice seemed extra tight around the back to account for Carmela’s endowments in front. A white line with crossed gold laces along its length stretched from between her breasts all the way down to the hem.

Her skirt was like a work of art, a matching purple on gold with layers of sharp, angular twists around sections of smooth fabric, flowing around Carmela’s curves like waves broken on stone. Sections of the dress were diaphanous, made up of sheer black fabric in a pattern of squares, flashing a suggestion of olive skin beneath. There were see-through cuts in the dress like this along her flanks, over her hips, and behind her back.

Like Salva’s dress, Carmela’s had a pair of matching long gloves and stockings. She had a gold choker around her neck that almost reached up to her jaw and down to her collarbones. She had applied a modest layer of cosmetics. Just a touch of powder on her cheeks, a bit of shadow over her eyes and a dab of red on her lips. She had not brushed her hair but after its release from the bun it had already settled into a long, casual look that suited her well.

She was a beauty between the classical and modern.

Salvatrice would’ve called her a princess.

“Absolutely stunning.” Salvatrice replied, standing entranced.

“Mine or yours? You’re staring so intently.” Carmela replied, smiling bashfully.

“Both.” Salvatrice said. Her own dress was lovely; but Carmela was so perfect.

“I’m glad you like it. Come here and let me help you into it!” Carmela said.

“How did you change so quickly?” Salvatrice interjected.

“Oh ho! How did I? Perhaps I was wearing it all along?”

“Oh. So you only applied the cosmetics? You had on two dresses?”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not! Some of it must remain a trade secret.”

Carmela took Salvatrice by the hand again and sat her on one of the geometric chairs. She was practically skipping on her tip-toes with excitement as she descended upon the princess and unbuttoned her vest and shirt and helped pull down her long pants.

Despite her typically coquettish, lusty attitude in private, Carmela was quick and efficient about this endeavor. She stripped Salva, leaving only her bottom undergarments, and then practically swept her into the gown without a moment’s pause. It tied at the back, lacing up just over her buttocks and under her neck with an arrow gap between — without a servant or lover at her back the Princess could never have gotten into the dress.

“You look gorgeous, Salvatrice! Your face is film star material!” Carmela said.

Pulling a wheeled mirror close, Carmela showed Salvatrice her appearance.

She looked at the woman in the mirror and it was not the beauty that she focused on immediately, but the glow of health and comfort that she exuded. In light of everything that had transpired the past few weeks, it was hard for Salva to believe she was staring at her own smiling face in the mirror. She was beautiful, perhaps; but more than that, she was happy. She did not fear an attack, and she did not feel shame or worry about her body or her identity. Tonight she could put her worries aside and simply exist in the world.

It had been so long since Salvatrice had truly experienced comfort. It was healing.

Dressed for an indulgent evening, Salvatrice and Carmela returned downstairs and crossed a hallway under one of the staircases in the foyer. There were many doors at their sides, most of them closed. All were nondescript, unlabeled, inscrutable. Carmela strode confidently past all of them, her head held up high, her heels clicking on the floor.

“Where are we headed?” Salvatrice asked.

“You’ll see!”

Ahead there was one pair of doors that was open and through which shone dim light. Salvatrice thought it was their destination, but Carmela walked right past it as she had every other door. The Princess glanced through the doors and saw a long, table lit by lamps that seemed like black, square kites surrounding small torches. But she had to keep pace with her lover, and crossed the doors too quickly to tell if food was served.

Exacerbating matters, she was unused to walking in heels. Carmela had thankfully picked somewhat low heels, but Salvatrice was nonetheless perpetually behind her lover, who walked gracefully and with her head held up high despite the impediment.

Devoid of servants or any guests but the two of them, the town-house felt cavernous, and there was an eerie atmosphere about the place. Salvatrice felt this most acutely within the long connecting halls lined with closed doors. There were so many rooms and she was tempted to visualize what was behind each locked door. Did the Sabbadins have a few dozen empty rooms in their house? Were some of those doors closets and game rooms and libraries, or just beautifully tiled floors bereft of objects or occupants?

Her own apartment was small but aggressively lived-in. She had to use every corner!

“Carmela, how many servants do you employ? You’ve said a couple names in your letters, but this house seems like it would require a fleet of maids to maintain it.”

“Oh it’s no great number. I have two personal maids, and there’s a small grounds staff on payroll. Cleaning is the only taxing issue, and we try to keep on top of it. When I want to do renovations I hire people for any one job and then they’re gone. Anyone I’ve mentioned by name has most likely gone, I’m afraid; we have turnover each season.”

“Turnover? How odd. I can’t imagine my dear Cannelle leaving me.”

“Ah, well, you have a relationship with her, Salva! My maids are just employees. Those come and go with the times, especially in these particular times. I’ve had women leave here to become teachers or nurses, or to get married. Better than dealing with me, I suppose, and institutional pay is likely better, though the accommodations are worse.”

“To be honest, I never learned how exactly Cannelle is compensated.”

“Well, she works for the Queen.” Carmela said.

Her lover was ignorant of how little that meant; Salvatrice held her tongue then.

“Carmela, without the help, who is going to prepare our evening?”

“Oh my; so that is your worry? You ought to relax. You’re under my care, darling.”

Carmela looked over her shoulder with a wry little smile.

They finally arrived at a pristine white kitchen, fully stocked with luxurious appliances.

One half of the room consisted of sprawling countertops with wall-mounted racks, cupboards and cabinets hovering over. A dozen chefs could have operated comfortably in such a space. In place of wood-fired stoves or grills was a very large electric cooker set, comprising a steel box on legs with a broad flat top and three sets of doors, its burners and ovens white and silver, polished like mirrors. Across the room from this appliance there was a big white box with a locking door. Salvatrice felt a chill coming from it.

“It’s an electric ice box. We had all our old appliances replaced, you see.” Carmela said. She patted her hand on the box like it was a lovable family pet. “These electric ones are so much safer, Salva. You won’t ever be burned trying to fire up an electric oven! And you don’t need to cart heavy ice into the electric box. It has a tank of freezing gas.”

“That doesn’t sound much safer, to be honest.” Salvatrice said, giggling.

Following the countertops and islands to the very end of the kitchen, Carmela opened a nondescript door and bowed, ushering Salvatrice outside. There was a path of stones, lit by a line of covered candles, that led from the back of the house out to a gazebo surrounded by red lily bushes. There was a gentle perfume in the air, perhaps coming from the candles. Under the gazebo Carmela had prepared a round wooden table for two. This was perhaps the only traditional piece of furniture Salvatrice had seen all night.

There was a candle in the middle of the table, but nothing else.

“Wait here a moment Salva. I will be right back!” Carmela said.

She took Salvatrice’s hand and sat her at the table, and quickly departed.

Salvatrice waited calmly, looking around the Sabbadin’s back yard. Such a simple word ill suited the space. There was a green almost the size of a few tennis courts between the townhouse and the rear wall. On a small hill near the edge of the wall an apple tree grew atop a bump in the terrain, with its surface roots like gnarled fingers crawling out of the dirt. There was a wreath strung around it — it was an imitation of the Father-Tree.

There was no sound but that of distant insects and the whispered fuming of the wicks.

Taking a deep breath, Salvatrice felt strangely at peace with the night. She did not feel unsafe or vulnerable. She did not feel watched or pursued. Her heart was so at ease.

Not even the sound of whining wheels behind her could startle the Princess.

Looking over her shoulder, she watched Carmelaa pushing a wheeled cart up to the Gazebo. Atop the cart there was yet another scented, shielded candle, along with a bottle of wine, two glasses, and a plate of snacks. Carmela wheeled the cart closer, and Salvatrice admired the food. There was a vast array of cheeses in a tasting spread on an oak board, surrounded cured meats, tomato slices, honey and figs, a handful of truffles, and caviar on a series of smaller plates suspended from the oak board by various wooden arms. On the label, the wine bottle boasted proudly of its 1975 vintage.

“I may not be learned in haute cuisine, but I can set a tasting platter without a maid.”

Carmela popped the cork on the bottle and served Salvatrice the first glass.

Raising the glass to her lover, Salvatrice took a sip. It was quite strong and rich.

“Does it suit you?”

“It is lovely. Was 1975 a good year?”

“I wouldn’t know! Too far before my time.”

For a moment, it almost stung not to know. Salva thought herself a good student.

She would not allow such concerns to upset her, however, not on this night.

Instead she focused on her lover. It was almost magical, to see her, to watch her move independently, to stare into her honey-colored eyes and realize that she was real, that they were together, that they could touch and talk without pen and paper between. At times it almost felt like the magic of cinema, a puppet or an automaton or a model.

Then she caught a scent, and she felt the warmth as they brushed close or held hands.

Carmela was there. She poured herself a glass and lifted the snack set to the table.

“Take anything you want! You’ve never expressed a preference, so I brought a lot.”

Salvatrice procured a toothpick and speared a bit of prosciutto and a bit of Parmigiano.

She delicately brought the food between her painted lips and slid the toothpick off.

“A classic pairing, isn’t it?” Carmela asked.

Salvatrice nodded her head silently. It was delicious, practically melting on her tongue.

“You must try the truffles, they cost me quite a pence!” Carmela said.

On their own little bowl were a few rotund chunks of black truffle. Salvatrice delicately picked one and popped it into her mouth. They had a musky scent and tasted of nuts and garlic, quite heavily earthen in texture and flavor. Out of all the delights in Carmela’s platter, Salvatrice was the least fond of the truffle. But it was indeed very expensive.

She tried not to show her distaste on her face, and forced the mushroom down.

“It’s also an aphrodisiac, I’m told.” Carmela said. She turned bedroom eyes on Salva.

“Oh my.”

Both of them reared back with laughter, and a touch of embarrassment.

Carmela started picking her own snacks, and quickly emptied her glass of wine and poured a second. She began to chat, and Salvatrice listened and interjected, and they carried on like gabbing friends did. There was a lot of casual energy between them and it felt great for Salvatrice to just talk to her. Because of their letter-writing, the two of them had little catching-up to do. It did not feel as if they had been apart for weeks; they could pick up from wherever they desired. Salvatrice felt comfortable speaking with Carmela, without preparation, without formality. They simply glided from topic to topic as they ate.

“Say, how have your clandestine endeavors been?” Carmela said, half-jokingly.

“I’ve been learning to shoot.” Salvatrice casually replied.

“Oh ho! My big strong princess, ready to put a bullet in any who threatens me?”

“I would put a bullet in the wall near them, at least.”

“It is the thought that counts.”

“Not in that situation. We would probably die, Carmela.”

“In that case, you tried, and I admire that.”

Both of them chuckled together.

“What kind of gun do you have?” Carmela asked, sounding fascinated with the subject.

“It’s an old zwitscherer pistol from Nocht.”

“Does it make a dreadful noise when it shoots? How does it feel in your hands?”

“It is very noisy, and it does kick back a little.”

“I’ve never shot a gun. I did a little fencing, but never a fox hunt or any such sport.”

“I participated in a fox hunt once, but I shot nothing then. I never really thought much about guns until recently. I figure I am physically weak, but a pistol evens the odds.”

“And you truly bought one?”

“Yes, but on the sly. I know someone who knows someone.”

“Was this sold to Salvatrice or to Sylvano?”

“Sylvano, obviously.”

“Well. I feel some peace of mind knowing you can defend yourself.”

“Let’s not get carried away here.”

Both of them chuckled again.

“At least if some anarchist had run up to us in the Previte estate, you could have shot them point blank.” Carmela said, making a gesture with her fingers like a gun shooting.

“You know, I never asked what happened after I left the dance that night.”

“Nothing much at all. Police came. Launched an investigation, supposedly, but they hardly talked to anyone or held anyone for questioning. It was feeble.” Carmela said.

“Did you stay with the Previte sisters for long?”

“Until dawn. They insisted, for my safety. My father was none too pleased.”

“How are the Previte sisters doing now?” Salvatrice asked.

“They have a new gate. Fancier too. They will be fine. They’re already planning another party. Normally they frequent other person’s homes, but my scheme lit a fire in them.”

“They seemed like delicate girls. I hope the shock does not linger in them.”

Carmela lifted fingers to her lips and giggled.

“Delicate? Those two are animals, Salvatrice. Were you paying attention to them?”

Salvatrice had felt an inkling of that. “I suppose you’re right.”

“They’re a two-girl pack of hyenas. Nothing can keep them from debauchery for long.”

“Well then. Do you know if the police told them anything after what happened?”

“Nothing at all. They are very sour about it.”

Salvatrice supposed if there was no investigation then the Queen might have already been plotting to give the anarchists a false victory even back then. She dimly wondered just how far back and far ahead in time her Mother’s mind was operating. But she pushed those thoughts aside. This was her night with Carmela. To hell with the Queen.

“Given that result, they ultimately took matters into their own hands.” Carmela said.

“In what way?”

“They furnished weapons for their guards. Hired some ex-military types. Now they have round-the-clock security on their premises, and at least one bodyguard. They found a retired lady knight, for propriety’s sake. So they’re doing fine for themselves right now.”

“I see.”

Carmela picked up the spoon from the bowl of caviar and stared idly at it.

“Say, what do you think of the caviar? I sprung for the most expensive bottle.”

“It is rather briny.”

Carmela stared at it.”I suppose price does not always equal quality.”

“Oh no!” Salvatrice quickly replied. “It tastes fine enough. Caviar is just, briny.”

“True. To be honest, I’m not fond of the stuff. I’m not fond of the sea at all lately.”

Salvatrice blinked fast and stared at her.

“Not fond of the sea?”

Carmela nodded. She spoke in a bombastic tone of voice suddenly.

“I used to love it, but lately, I’ve had it with the ocean. It is a dreadful place!”

“Dreadful?” Salvatrice feigned being taken aback, playing along.

“Dreadful! Full of fish and salt, eternally battering against the soil! Just dreadful!”

“Oh my; will I never see you in one of those daring two-piece swimsuits then?”

Salvatrice made her own bedroom eyes at her lover, who laughed mischievously.

Carmela responded in kind, giving her own lewd stare and bending a little too forward.

Her gown’s low chest cut was not quite meant for the maneuver.

“Ah, but remember the lakeside, Salvatrice Vittoria! Lakes are not the sea at all. We can meet in the lake for a freshwater rendezvous — I can wear whatever you desire then.”

“Interesting proposition, but I must say, I think the beach is more romantic!”

“Romantic? How so?” Carmela drew back from her lewd pose, crossing her arms.

“Lakes are enclosed and private, while a beach is open and free. You are unbound at the beach, while you are hidden around the lake. It is bolder to kiss on the beach.”

“That is quite a bold mentality. Too bold for this country, I’m afraid!”

Carmela covered her mouth to delicately stifle a laugh. Salvatrice had a dark chuckle.

“Ah.” Carmela sighed fondly and stared sidelong at the caviar. “My father is obsessed with drawing fuel from the sea, Salvatrice. I’ve heard so much about the ocean lately that I would never want to see it. All of his letters, his phone calls, any time we briefly meet, it is always the ocean this year. Papa sincerely believes there are massive fuel deposits off-shore. He has this plan for a man-made island to drill them up from.” Carmela said.

“Can he do it? What would you even use to make a false island?” Salvatrice asked.

“I am not sure. He has rambled about it before, but my mind has been elsewhere.”

“Does he intend to do this in a time of war? Surely the sea will become dangerous.”

Salvatrice recalled that during the Unification War, Frank and Nocht submarines destroyed each other’s ships indiscriminately at sea to support the land war. Elven vessels were caught in the crossfire, and inspired national outrage. Whether Ayvarta had a fleet of submarines, Salvatrice did not know. She had to assume they did, and that they would use them in a similar fashion. Carmela’s father could well be in danger.

“Papa will not be dissuaded. He believes the Regia Marina will support him.”

“What would you do in his stead?”

She was curious; Carmela often talked of the company as if it was a problem outside of her hands. But she was the heiress to Antioch Fuels. It would someday be hers to run.

“I would probably sell the damned company. It is such a pain.” Carmela said bluntly.

Salvatrice was taken by surprise. That was the last answer she expected.

“Oh, truly?”

“Truly. One less obstacle between you and me. I’d definitely give up the sea for you.”

Carmela beamed with a radiant passion. She really did love her. It was evident in her voice, in her expression. She was so visibly happy to be here and to be with her.

Salvatrice turned bashful in response. She partially averted her eyes.

“You shouldn’t. You need something more than me.” She said suddenly.

“Oh, come now Salva. I do not at all. I would be happy just being with you.”

“Carmela, I am plotting to do something very dangerous.” Salvatrice confessed.

She expected Carmela to balk at this, but the heiress took it in stride, smiling fondly.

“Are you going to cross-dress and sneak out at night for a homosexual tryst?”

That quip forced a chuckle out of Salvatrice, much as she wanted to avoid laughing.

When she next spoke her expression was slightly smiling but her words were bitter.

“I’m headed down an ugly road, Carmela. When I went to the palace, my mother essentially conscripted me into helping her draw out the anarchists in Palladi. I don’t want to play the part of the bait for her schemes. I want to do something under my own power. Whether or not I want to fight them, there will be people targeting me for who I am. And whether or not I consent, my mother is willing to use me against them. So I decided to make the first move. I’ve acquired some personnel and I am hatching a plot.”

“Will you tell me what it is?” Carmela asked.

Salvatrice knew the question was coming but it still hit like a hammer to the chest.

“I don’t want you to be endangered on my account.” She said.

“What if I told you I do not care about that danger?”

“I am still compelled to protect you from it.”

“How thick-headed.”

“You’re being thick-headed too.”

Carmela smiled again at her.

She reached out over the table and brushed Salvatrice’s cheek with her hand.

“I love you, Salvatrice. I was living a shell of a life until you came into it. I was such a cold person, so removed from everyone. I had few friends and no desire to love. Until I meet the lonely girl overlooked by everyone; until that girl noticed me and I her.”

Salvatrice raised a hand to Carmela’s and felt the smoothness of her glove on her skin.

“I realized that I was not meant to lead a sham life until I could become the wealth of some powdered-up nobleman. I found the doors to a new world of love thrown open.”


Across the table her lover raised a finger to her lips and urged quiet.

“Listen: I love you and I trust you Salvatrice. I respect your decision. But I want to be part of your life. Queen be damned, Antioch Fuels be damned. Please. I do not ask that you bring me to wherever your journey takes you. But at least allow me to do something. So I can feel that I was at your side when you needed me. Even if it is only in banknotes.”

Her hand trailed down Salvatrice’s cheek, shoulder, and to her arm.

She held Salvatrice’s opposite hand quite tightly, a gentle smile on her face.

“I want to support you. You can decide how. Just let me do this.”

Salvatrice nodded her head. “I will consider it.”

“No; tell me you will do it. Please. Anything at all.”

Salvatrice felt the anxiety and tension of the previous moment washing away.

She felt a little coy toward her lover once more. Carmela’s gentle demeanor helped.

“Does it count if I just say, ‘let me be by your side tonight’?” Salvatrice cheekily said.

“No, because I was planning on doing that.” Carmela replied.

“Then I will have you write a bank note. Would you accept that?”

“Finally, something I am good at. Perhaps we can retire to my room, where I left my bank-book, and we can talk about this note of yours, and a proposition of my own.”

Carmela took her own turn to be coy.

Salvatrice did not have to ponder whether to accept.

Leaving the food out for the birds and the stoats, Salvatrice and Carmela quickly retreated to Carmela’s bedroom. They locked the doors to the outside, and shuffled barefoot through the house, back the way they came, holding up their skirts and heels and snatching glances at each other between bouts of girlish giggling. It was like a race.

Carmela easily beat Salvatrice to the bedroom. The Princess offered no competition.

“Go lie down. I’ll climb atop in a moment.” Carmela said. She winked.

Salvatrice felt a delightful little shiver down her back.

She supposed taking the lead was the prize for her little victory.

There was a conspiratorial air about them, and the thought of what they both wanted to do caused them some mild embarrassment. It was not the first time they had been intimate, though it was the first time they had this much liberty to do what they pleased. They had kissed and touched in many places, but never in a bed in a bedroom that was theirs and would be theirs for as long as they desired it. Much of this was new to them.

Salvatrice sat on the edge of Carmela’s bed, while her lover poured wine into their cups, taken in from outside. She felt the bed under her, firm and plush and comfortable. It was thankfully not a water bed. She shuddered to think of how that would have held up to them. She jumped up and down a little, and reached behind her back for the gown’s laces.

“Have a drink first.” Carmela said, offering a cup.

Salvatrice had already had a few cups of wine, but the alcohol did not quite pull on her brain just yet, so she happily obliged her lover. She took the cup, and as if to make Carmela certain of her intent, she drank all of it in one continuous sip. With a grin on her face, Carmela raised her cup, swirled the wine inside it, and emptied it in one draught.

Taken in by the moment, she hurled the cup over her shoulder.

It shattered on a wall and startled both of them.

“Oh no!” Salvatrice laughed. There was glass all over the top of the dresser.

Hurtling forward without comment, Carmela pounced on Salvatrice. She drove the princess onto the bed, her hips between the heiress’ legs, and leaned over. A heated breath that smelled of grapes wafted over Salva’s face as Carmela loomed over her.

“Are you comfortable?” Carmela asked.

Salvatrice nodded.

“What do you want to do?”


“Can I touch down there too? Would you be okay with that?”

Salvatrice felt a brief moment of concern.

“You already know that I’m different–”

“And you know that I’m fine with it, Salvatrice.”

She cut her off so fast that all her worries evaporated.

In fact, her desire to be touched flared in response.

“Then It’s all yours.” Salvatrice smiled.

“Thank you.”

Her grip immediately tightened.

Carmela descended and hungrily seized Salva’s lips into her own, pulling and sucking.

Salvatrice’s hands struggled with the laces at her back, giving in completely to the passion. Carmela’s own hands traveled over her shoulders, under her arms, and over her chest, squeezing into her palms what pliable flesh Salvatrice had to offer. Once she had her handful, she withdrew abruptly from Salvatrice’s face. Her hands went behind her own back. Down came half her gown; Salvatrice pulled off the top of her own.

“Stay the morning with me.” Carmela said, coming back down atop Salvatrice.

Now the princess’ own hands were free to explore. She lifted Carmela’s skirt.

She had not intended to stay so long. She had wanted to disappear before dawn.

As her hands gripped Carmela’s flesh, as their lips joined and split, as their bodies pressed together and their dresses fell away, Salvatrice knew she could not leave.

It was so intense, so comforting, so emotional. She felt like she was becoming one flesh with Carmela, like all of her burdens, all of her passions, all of her worries and injuries and sins, all of it was being passed between beings, diluted, ameliorated. She had never felt so safe, so free. Carmela accepted her so fully and powerfully, accepted every part of her without hesitation. This, too, had to be part of her healing, she decided. She would regret every second she did not spend on this bed with this incredible woman. Especially if everything after this went wrong. She wanted– no, she needed this so badly now.

“I will stay to noon.” Salvatrice moaned, before Carmela’s lips silenced her anew.

Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

Coup De Cœur (47.1)

This scene contains mild sexual content and social coercion.

51st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council Building

At the turn of midnight the Rangdan Council building was abuzz with activity.

The Governor’s Office was particularly busy. There were civil servants elbow to elbow on the carpet and along the walls, and so much chatter that no one voice seemed to rise over the rest. There were drinks on hand, and many toasts called to seemingly nothing in particular. Arthur Mansa presided over the extravagant gathering, seated as if on a throne, behind the governor’s desk that should have belonged to his then-missing son.

Despite the chatter, the thrust of this spirited discussion felt impossible to follow.

As far as Chakrani Walters knew she was in a meeting to decide a course of action following the flagrant abuses of military power exhibited by the 1st Regiment during the events of the preceding days. It was very late at night, but Chakrani was not tired. She was accustomed to the night life, and indeed night was when she was most active. As a hostess, as a dedicated party-goer and as a lover, she was at her most vivid and alert in the night.

And yet, the tone of the conversation in Mansa’s office was inscrutable to her.

She felt drowsy trying to read the mood and to follow the discussion. There was nothing concrete being said. Mansa was laughing, drinking and carrying himself as if hosting a party. His closest officials were acting more like room decor. These men gained life only when prompted and only for the barest hint of agreement, a nodding of the head, a quick clap of the hands. There was no mention of Madiha or Solstice for the longest time.

Not that Chakrani was especially keen to think about Madiha these days, but it was necessary to put aside grudges for the good of the people, and she had to be ready.

Whether anyone else even cared about her feelings was another story entirely.

The scene reminded Chakrani of exoticized portraits of the old Imperial court. Had Mansa’s fingers been covered in golden rings and a crown been set upon his scalp, he could have been a king surrounded by smiling courtiers immortalized in acrylics.

Chakrani felt isolated. She sat on a padded chair, one in a line of several extending along a corner of the room parallel to Mansa’s desk, at once too near and too apart from his court. Everyone was dressed too well for the occasion, she thought. Though she had her ringlets done as pretty as ever, her attire was a drab skirt suit, her only good one, which had received quite a workout over the week. Meanwhile there were men in tuxes and fine coats and shiny shoes, and the occasional lady in a bright dress come to bring drinks.

Every other tongue was flapping, but she did not speak, for she knew not what she could say. Though she had prepared some notes, they felt irrelevant in the current climate. Nobody here seemed interested in the summary from her discussion with a trio of Adjar’s remaining Council members — three only because the rest had given up their posts. It did not seem like the time or place to talk about refugees, about food and work assistance.

“Ms. Walters.”

She heard Mansa’s commanding voice and turned on her chair to address him.

“Yes sir?”

“How do you like your wine? Red, white– palm, perhaps?”

Several sets of eyes turned at once to face her.

Chakrani contained a scoff. What a ridiculous question to be asked! She was not much of a wine drinker. She preferred mixed local drinks with a fleeting edge of hard liquor to them. Ayvarta was not a country of grapes. And what did it have to do with anything?

“I drink palm wine, but not often.” Chakrani wearily replied.

Mansa smiled, and beckoned someone close.

Through the doorway, a woman in a bright, elegant dress approached. She was tall and dark and very pretty, with a swinging figure and a heaving bosom and a large bottle of palm wine. She approached with a grin on her face and performed an almost lascivious curtsy for Chakrani, exposing some chest. Pulling up a chair, the woman sat beside her and poured her a drink. She remained at her side, laying a too-playful hand over Chakrani’s lap. Her body gave off a strong scent of mixed sweat and perfume and a hint of booze.

Once the drink was served Mansa gave Chakrani a smirk that sent her shivering.

He was as smugly satisfied as if he had done her a favor. She felt insulted.

Soon as he had brought her company, Mansa turned his attention elsewhere.

Perhaps she had been too quick to judge, but she had thought him a serious and committed person when they had met on and off the past week. Chakrani was aware of his strong track record in Solstice politics, thought of as an eternal incumbent with an invulnerable base of support and a grand diplomatic air. Not only that, but she knew him distantly through his father — the two of them had spoken and met and done business before the dire time of Akjer. She had thought of him as a man of leadership and scruples. Was this evening characteristic of how he carried out his vaunted diplomacy?

As the night went the strange procession continued. At her side the woman tried to make polite conversation. Mansa turned to her several times and asked about her days as a hostess, about her family life and upbringing; and each time he cut her off with his own tales of days past. He talked to her about his days as a patron of business. He talked about old Rangda, and he talked about the old Regional Court. It was stifling. She almost wanted to weep. She barely got a word in except to the lady he had provided for her company, who nodded and laughed and cooed at her, perhaps drunkenly.

Gradually Chakrani noticed the courtiers peeling off from the crowd and the room starting to thin out. Mansa grew more reserved; at her side, the woman in the dress, whose name Chakrani had not been able to coax out at all, clung closer to her and drank the remaining wine out of Chakrani’s glass. Chakrani thought this was her own cue to leave. But when she stood, the woman threw her arms around her and Mansa raised his hand.

“No, Ms. Walters, as a serious woman of politics, I expect you to stay.” He said.

Another ridiculous notion!

Chakrani blinked and settled back down on her chair. She peeled the drunk woman’s arms away from her waist, trying to get her to sort herself out in her own damned chair–

And doing so, she spotted a small handgun clipped to her suddenly exposed upper thigh.

She tried to show no incongruous changes in expression, but it was difficult.

Chakrani had only ever seen a gun up-close once when she took off Madiha’s belt.

She was clearly unused to the particular world of politics that she had stepped into.

“Ah, good, good!”

Preoccupied as she was with whether the woman at her side was fictionally drunk or factually capable of operating a firearm, Chakrani did not immediately notice a new set of men coming discreetly through the door. Mansa clapped his hands once for the arrivals, and this caused Chakrani to turn her head. He in turn acknowledged her once more.

“Chakrani, meet the loyal men of Rangda’s own 8th Ram Rifle Division. They will help us take care of our little Nakar problem, as well as help your people regain their strength.”

Chakrani went along with it. Mansa said something else, about confronting Madiha, about how these men would protect her from Madiha; she nodded affirmatively at his every word and said her ‘yes’es and ‘thank you’s. She was not paying him the proper attention, examining the army men and beginning to fear for her own position in this discussion.

There were several ordinary men of some rank or other; but there was one man who drew her attention the most. He was fairly tall, athletic and slim, with a rugged, handsome appearance, tanned, with a hooked nose, and a hint of slick blond hair under his cap.

His chest was decorated with many medals. He had more decorations than she had ever seen, though her only point of comparison was Madiha’s chest, years ago.

When he spoke his name at Mansa’s command, Chakrani stifled a gasp.

Brigadier General Gaul Von Drachen.

She was immediately sure no such person truly existed in Rangda’s armed forces.

And the looks of anxiety on the faces of the rest of the men seemed to confirm this.

Though they would not say it, these men were being dragged into something.

She, too, was being dragged into something.

Mansa, however, was delighted to have the man here. He welcomed him jovially.

“Our greatest asset arrives! Well, Let us speak discretely for now, General Drachen–”

Von Drachen, my good man. You see, Drachen alone, does not convey–”

General Von Drachen,” Mansa correct himself, cutting off the Brigadier, “I take it that your preparations are complete and you will be ready to assist me by the agreed date.”

“It should take my gruppen no later than the 54th to arrive. My jagers are here with me.”

Chakrani felt her face go white at the sound of Nochtish words, confirming her fears.

Mansa’s expression briefly darkened. “I believe I was clear that the date was the 53rd.”

“We could potentially make the 53rd, but I am being realistic. You never know what will happen in the field of battle, especially where deception is concerned. I believe in leaving some leg-room available when making predictions.” Von Drachen replied.

“You talk much to say very little, General.” Mansa replied.

“You could stand to talk a little more, Sir.” Von Drachen said, smiling.

For a moment the two men appraised each other in silence.

Mansa steepled his fingers and proceeded with the conversation. “I believe some of us in the room share a mutual acquaintance who is noticeably absent from this discussion.”

“Hmm?” Von Drachen made a noise and stared blankly.

“Ms. Walters, I should very much like for our misguided friend Madiha Nakar to come and sit with us soon. Would it be possible for you to fetch her for us?” Mansa said.

Chakrani felt her insides constrict with dread. All throughout she had been feeling like a hostage trapped in a dangerous situation, and she had been right. This Von Drachen was a man from Nocht and Mansa was plotting something. This was what they wanted her for; they just wanted to get to Madiha and she was the way that they settled on. Her eyes glanced over to the woman at her side, who was still clinging sleepily to her.

Would acknowledging any of this put her in undue danger? Chakrani was not some soldier or spy. She was a young woman under the stars who liked to drink and carouse and make love to women. That she put together these clues was no great feat, she thought. Anyone in this situation would have thought the same. But her sense of self-preservation, more developed than that of a reckless hero, screamed for her to quiet.

In this situation her blood chilled and her heart slowed. She helplessly complied.

“I could certainly try, sir. But would not an official missive be more appropriate?”

She thought the more respectful she acted, the safer she would be.

Mansa smiled. “I’m afraid she has become too unstable for official contact. At this pivotal time in our diplomacy, we cannot afford to let her run rampant. Surely you understand. You know her, after all; she has hurt you before. She cannot be swayed by the law.”

Chakrani felt her tongue grow heavy. Just hearing others speaking about that woman set off a chain reaction of conflicting emotions in Chakrani’s head and heart that she buckled under almost as badly as she did under the anxiety she felt at this predicament.

“Madiha Nakar is difficult sir, but I think if you take a peaceable solution–”

Across the room General Von Drachen’s face lit up with child-like glee.

“Councilman, do you mean to say Sergeant Nakar of Bada Aso fame, is here?” He said.

“Colonel; but yes. She leads the 1st. Regiment her in Rangda. Though I tried to integrate her into our affairs I have found she leans too far from us to be of assistance, as she is now. But I desire to convince her; I’m sure that I can, given time and opportunity.” Mansa said. His voice was taking on a hint of disdain for the General he had so seemingly prized moments ago.

“I’m afraid convincing is out of the question.” Von Drachen clapped his hands. “If you are a man who wishes to neutralize the threat of her, I’m afraid only murder will suffice.”

Chakrani sat up tighter against the backrest of her seat in shock.

Mansa sighed. “We’re not going to murder her.”

“Oh, but you must! She will dismantle any well-laid plans you have with ruthless alacrity unless you let me dislodge her brains into a nearby wall post-haste, my good man!”

Mansa brought his hands up against his face.

“Councilman, what is he talking about?” Chakrani shouted. Some part of her brain simply could not suppress all of the scandal in this room enough to pretend that everything was still fine. In such a complicated situation even her desire to lay low and leave the room unscathed and out of bondage was overwhelmed by her sense of right.

Madiha Nakar was a killer, she had killed before, and she told herself her killing was right; that was the image Chakrani fought to hold in her mind. There were other images, some less grave, some distressingly fond, all of which battled in her mind and rendered her final perception volatile and erratic; but this unified picture was the one she thought she wanted to see. Madiha Nakar was a killer, her father’s killer. And yet, Chakrani would never agree to simply shoot her like an animal behind a shed. In any civilized world she could have been challenged and defeated and tried for her injustice.

That was what Chakrani wanted. She wanted justice! She wanted to be heard!

She wanted to have her suffering redressed! She wanted relief!

She did not want to have Madiha killed!

Every conviction she held screamed now that she had to oppose this meeting.

And yet she was the least of the powers in the room.

Her body remained frozen as the men continued to stare each other down.

Mansa remained speechless. Chakrani almost hoped he was not fully corrupted.

Meanwhile the gleeful Nochtish man seemed confident in his position.

Von Drachen ignored Chakrani’s outburst. “I will tell it to you plainly, Councilman.”

“I do not want to hear it!” Mansa shouted, standing up from his desk.

“You brought me here for a reason–”

“Yes, we have a deal and part of that deal is you listen to me, Cissean!”

Mansa was growing irate; while Von Drachen’s smirking expression never changed.

“We can do nothing about this ‘1st Regiment’ if Madiha Nakar is leading it. You brought me here to help check their power in your city, did you not? You want to remain capable of independent operation? You want to maneuver to power? Well you cannot do any of that effectively unless something is swiftly done about Madiha Nakar’s command.”

“Something will be done!” Mansa replied. “At my discretion, with my methods!”

Chakrani channeled her anxiety into a final surge of bravery. She shouted desperately.

“I have no connection to Madiha Nakar anymore, Councilman! I cannot help you!”

She stood up from her seat and started toward the door.


Chakrani felt the gun at the nape of her neck and raised her hands.

Behind her, the woman in the dress seemed almost disappointed to have to hold her up.

She was not drunk, nor sleepy; her sexualized act was replaced by cold stoicism.

Chakrani was sure that this woman would shoot. She froze completely.

Mansa sighed ever more deeply. He rubbed his hands over his face again.

“I am so upset right now. I expected all of this to transpire so much more cleanly. Mark my words, Cissean, your superiors will know my displeasure.” He calmly said.

Von Drachen shrugged childishly in response.

“It seems I am doomed never to be listened to.” He cryptically said.

After addressing the General, Mansa turned a stoic eye on Chakrani.

“Child, you will pen a missive and meet Madiha Nakar at a specified location. One of our agents will then persuade her to meet with our Council and make a peace. We will not harm either of you. I am merely answering her obstinacy with my own. A diplomat needs an opportunity to speak. I am merely seizing an opportunity to speak: with Madiha, with Rangda, and ultimately, with Solstice, and with Nocht. I am making my stage here. While the rest of the world devolves to madness, I will make Rangda a pillar of order. Alone, or not.”

Chakrani started to weep. She could not believe that she would come away unharmed from a request made at gunpoint. She had foolishly walked into something awful now. Not even Mansa’s calm and stoic words could assuage her. In fact, the calm with which he spoke made his words even more frightening. He was the most dangerous one here.

What kind of peace would he make with Madiha, when he was already preparing military force against her? What kind of peace could be made with Nocht other than giving up this city to their mercy? He might not kill anyone; but there would be blood nonetheless.

But she was helpless, and could say nothing more than “yes sir,” in a choked voice.

Mansa nodded his head, and raised his hand.

At Chakrani’s back, the woman laid down her weapon.

Mansa’s sweet, almost fatherly demeanor returned as he sat back down.

“I knew you would understand, Ms. Walters. Madiha will listen to you. I’m sure of it. Bring her here, and I will speak a truth to her that will change her outlook.” He said, smiling.

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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.

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