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.

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Stelle Cadenti (59.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — University Ave.

Inside the medical tent the entry curtains stirred and spread at her behest, and behind them, Corporal Gulab Kajari found a familiar pale-haired, dark-skinned girl with a very blank expression, sitting alongside a nurse. Gulab smiled and stretched her arms wide.

“Hey! Guess who’s back? Gimme a hug!” Gulab called out amicably.

Charvi Chadgura almost leaped from atop the stretcher and seized upon Gulab, resting her head on the woman’s chest and surprising her with her energy. Despite the empty look to her eyes and the neutral setting of her lips, Charvi’s affection and relief was evident in the dead-tight grip she had on Gulab’s chest, and in her gentle, almost purr-like stirring.

“Well, it works, but it feels more like you’re clinging than hugging.” Gulab said.

“I want to cling.” Charvi replied. Her unaffected monotone remained the same too.

Gulab giggled.

She closed her arms around Charvi’s shoulders and back and nestled with her.

“See, I’m perfectly ok.” Gulab said.

“I was still worried. You nearly died.”

“Hmph! Nearly nothin’! If a Rock Bear can’t kill me, nothing can!”

“I will still worry.”

“That’s fair.”

Behind them, the nurse watched with a patient, smiling face.

Gulab caught sight of her over Charvi’s shoulder and felt self-conscious for a moment.

“Anyway, you should get yourself fixed up.”

She gently separated herself from Charvi, who looked at her in the eyes and blinked.

“Nothing is wrong with me.” Charvi said.

Interjecting, the nurse raised her hand with a concerned expression.

“Actually comrade, you have a fragment wound in your leg that should be cared for.”

Looking down, Gulab found torn cloth and seeping blood near Charvi’s knee.

“You should get that taken care of.” Gulab insisted.

“It’s fine.” Charvi said. “I don’t feel pain.”

“Infection respects no hero, comrade.” replied the nurse. “I must clean it at least.”

Gulab chuckled at Charvi’s casual obstinancy. She clearly wanted to spend time with her now that there was a hard-won instant of calm after all they had gone through. Gulab appreciated it; she wanted to be by Charvi’s side too, even if they did nothing more than sit down and sleep against each other’s shoulders in the back of a truck back to base.

“Nurse, would it be okay if I just stayed here?” Gulab asked.

“I don’t see why not!” said the nurse, smiling.

“Well then.” Gulab nodded to the nurse. “Charvi, I’ll be right here, so get patched up.”

Charvi clapped her hands gently.

“If you say so.”

The Nurse found Gulab a seat, and she sat back to watch the nurse snip away part of Charvi’s pants leg and dab her wound gently with a saline solution to clean it. Gulab watched the procedure with a placid smile, but her mind was mostly empty of thought. She was coming down from the rush and panic of the previous battle. She felt an eerie sense of satisfaction. A lot had gone wrong — she had been hurt, Charvi had been hurt, and many of their comrades suffered worse. However, they managed to pull through.

They protected so many others, and worked together to defeat an enemy that was vicious, numerous and ostensibly prepared for battle. Despite everything, they had won.

Gulab herself had hunted a giant; almost in the way that her ancestors always had.

Though she hated her interaction with that tradition, she realized that sometimes the giants were hunted because they could kill the people you love, and not for its own sake. She felt that she would fight any enemy to safeguard the people she cared about. For her comrades; for people like Adesh and the kids, or Caelia and Danielle; for Charvi. Anyone who would hurt them, who would hurt innocents; if she could hunt them then she would.

She felt a burden start to lift in that regard. Maybe even that side of her was not indelibly her father’s, not indelibly owned by men. Maybe it could be a part of her as a woman too.

Maybe it didn’t all have to end up like it did with her grandfather.

“All done! You were a swell patient, Sergeant.”

Charvi stood up from the stretcher and waved a hand at the nurse as a quiet thanks.

Her knee was wrapped in a big patch with a red blotch on it, but she could walk.

Gulab stood from her seat, and stretched her arms. She felt a hint of drowsiness.

“I think we’ve earned a bite and a long, quiet truck ride to the barracks, no?” She said.

“We have. I can go see how my stamp book is doing.” Charvi said.

“Where did you leave it?”

“I left it with the company commissary, back at the base. They have waterproof lockers.”

“Someday I’m going to make you a case for that thing.”

“A case?”

“Yup! You wouldn’t know it, but I’m pretty handy with leather.”

Chatting idly, they walked outside the tent and down the road.

The University and its surroundings felt like they had completely transformed.

After the fall of Muhimu Shimba the Lion Battalion was quickly mopped up. Lion’s remaining troops overwhelmingly surrendered outright; though they had no way of knowing their commander had been defeated, the presence of enemy forces in Muhimu Shimba was enough to break their faith. It became clear that at Lion’s last stand only a fraction of the battalion’s remaining troops were present. Had the entire battalion rallied the battle would have been bloodier; had the Jotun remained in place, it might have become a temporary rout. In the heat of the moment, everything had become hectic and improvisational but they managed to win out regardless. Now the location was theirs.

University Avenue had become the nerve center of the 2nd Battalion’s operations. Its logistics train back to Colonel Nakar’s HQ was solidified and trucks were coming and going unmolested, carrying troops and support personnel to and fro. Tents for the medics and signals personnel and computer support teams had begun to sprout, many hidden within or between buildings for some cover from enemy spotters. Burundi’s organic artillery support had begun to arrive too. Gulab spotted the light howitzers, towed in by truck, setting up in groups of three in a little sitting park along the way down from the medical tent. Broken-down buildings, damaged in the fighting, were used to conceal ammunition.

There was a lot of hustle and bustle. Not everyone could breathe as easy as she yet.

Though the battle raged on in spirit, it was no longer Gulab’s battle to fight now.

It was expected that Gulab and Charvi and their comrades would be rotated out for fresher troops. She had been given to understand that she could expect to fight much longer battles in the future, but to survive today against the 8th’s numerical advantages they needed troops to maintain a “high combat quality.” So rotations for rest were necessary. This was especially necessary for prized veterans like herself, who were invaluable.

Gulab had puffed up her chest quite a bit upon hearing such accolades.

But the promise of sleep and food was much more important at the moment.

Quietly basking in each other’s orbit, the pair sidled up to a fresh truck, newly arrived and with an empty bed, and climbed up onto the back, maneuvering around a machine gun on a mount grafted to the center of the bed, no doubt in haste. They sat with their backs to metal and their rumps on the cold floor. Gulab felt a little sleepy as soon as she took her body weight off her legs. Everything she had done in the past few hours seemed to have finally caught up to her, now that she had allowed it. She leaned against Chadgura.

“Hey, if you’re awake, lemme know when we get back to base.”


“I wanna grab some hot lentils before they’re out a batch, you know?”

“I will keep my eyes open.”

“Oh no, you should sleep too! I just mean, if you happen to be awake.”

Chadgura clapped her hands softly.

They waited in the truck, while more people arrived from around the block with their weapons and remaining ammunition in tow, sitting in whatever truck was closest or fancied them best. Gulab began to nod off. Whenever she blinked, she held her eyes in darkness longer each time, and felt she could see more and more of a dream each time.

Each glimpse of the horizon, briefer and briefer, put into stark relief a group of shadows.

They could have been specks of dust, so distant were they, or mere tricks of the light and the dreaming dark upon Gulab’s eyes. But their movement was predictable and relentless in the way only physical things could achieve, utterly lacking the whimsy of a fantasy. As they came closer and closer, as the mite-like shadows gained definite form and began to issue noise and part the clouds they sailed through, the drowsy Gulab started to realize she was seeing something materially real; and that she was not the only witness.

Slowly, across one street and then another, heads began to turn, eyes began to climb.

Everyone measured the sky and found objects fast approaching.

Visions of Bada Aso returned unbidden to the collective unconscious of the Regiment.

At first stupefied, the various units around University were joined under a singular call:

“AIRCRAFT APPROACHING! Sound the air raid sirens and find shelter!”

This call came not from a Major or a Lieutenant but a Sergeant in charge of a spool of telephone wire. Nonetheless, everyone was all too eager to comply, despite the lack of an air raid siren or any formal shelter — this was not Bada Aso. Soon Gulab found the truck around her emptying suddenly, and similar trucks as well. There was a mad rush away from open space and into the buildings. Doors to places left inviolate after the fighting, were finally kicked to the floor; everyone dispersed into the shops and galleries.

Gulab finally snapped from her half-awake stupor. Aircraft. Air Raid.

“Charvi!” She cried out.

At her side, Charvi had stood upright and was looking over the walls of the truck.

“Excuse me,” she said aloud, trying to get the attention of running passersby.

Nobody answered her, and the dispersing troops made every effort to get as far away as they could from the sight of the aircraft during their brief moment of leaderlessness.

Gulab grabbed her belt and helped herself to stand.

“What are you doing?” She asked.

Charvi looked at her, blank-faced as usual.

“Wondering what our orders will be now.” She said.

To her seeming confusion, nobody appeared to have orders to give as the aircraft overflew their skies with relative impunity. Gulab watched her comrades dispersing, and having never been under the bombs in Bada Aso, she wondered what she could now do.

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Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XVIII

This chapter contains violence and death and mild misogyny.

??nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, ???? Province of — ????

Byanca Geta awakened in a thick darkness reminiscent of sleep.

She could feel the movement of her body. She was sure of her own weight in space.

Everything was so dark, however, that she felt like a mind floating in the ether. Had she been blinded? What had even happened? She felt a sharp pain in the back of her head as she tried to move, and it confirmed to her that she was awake and alive somewhere.

A cold terror swept across her body. She did not know her condition or space.

Byanca patted herself down. She felt her uniform. Her arms, her chest, her belly, her hips and legs and feet; everything was in its place and as clothed as it was before. Her pockets were empty, and she had no holsters or weapons. Her belt was still there. She was sitting, and she felt the hard, stone-like perch upon which she sat. She raised her arms, and she stretched them. She stretched her legs. She touched walls, cold walls, on all sides.

When she tried to stand, she found that she could, but she felt her ponytail brush against the ceiling when fully upright. She was in a box, a cold stone box, unmoving, with a perch to sit on and enough room that she could stand, and that her arms could just barely not outstretch, and her legs could just barely fail to draw out to their full length.

Touching the walls she found nothing that suggested a doorway or even a slot for food.

She drew in a deep breath. This was not a cement burial; there was too much room.

Trying not to panic, she told herself this was probably a solitary confinement and sensory deprivation box in a prison complex somewhere. If they wanted to starve her to death they would have just buried her alive. And if they wanted to kill her they would have shot her. She reasoned that they wanted her alive and just needed to keep her isolated until she cracked. It was torture, not torture to death. She had to believe that for her own sake.

For Salvatrice’s sake. The Princess was in the hands of the Legatus and his deranged conspirators and who knew what they would have her do; or what they would do to her?

Byanca breathed in deep. She did not feel light-headed, so there was enough air coming in from somewhere that it could sustain her breathing. So there had to be a gap somewhere.

She could still be blind, and that was a frightening thought. She looked around the box, trying to get a feel that she was facing where her arms were touching, and trying to find a gap anywhere that could filter in even the smallest of lights. But there was nothing. Every surface was perfectly smooth and seemed to fit perfectly well. She pulled off her gloves and started to touch, where corners met, where a lid or a door might be placed.

Overhead, she found she could slip a fingernail and a bit of the flesh of her index finger through a gap. So it was not a perfect crate. It had a lid that could come off the top.

So if there was no light coming in, then it was still night, or the lid was further covered, with a tarp or a second lid or something that blocked the outside world but not air tight.

Byanca sat back on the perch and heaved a heavy sigh.

Her head hurt. Sharply at first, but the pain dulled over an unknown length of time.

She was cold and sweating colder still.

At this point, Byanca was almost positive that she was not buried alive in cement, a torture that she greatly feared, and as such had temporarily calmed a bubbling panic in her heart. However, she was also sure she could not extricate herself from her predicament and might still in some other fashion die or be killed, either in this box or its proximity.

And any more time wasted could be horrific for Salvatrice, and for Lubon.

Knowing no other solution Byanca maneuvered her body such that she could kneel with her hands on her sitting perch. She bowed her head and entwined her fingers in prayer.

As a child she had lived in Saint Orrea’s Hope, a monastery dedicated to the Messiah, as they all were, but also to the restoration of magic. She was a choir girl, and a servant, and in her teens she had been something of a nun. During those days, she prayed; she prayed almost on reflex, in the morning, before every meal, at night. When she left St. Orrea, she stopped praying eventually. It was hard to pray while homeless on the street. It was hard to pray while fighting in the Borelian brush. It was hard to pray even here in Lubon.

Saint Orrea’s Hope was that miracles were real and the faith could be materially rewarded.

It was hard to imagine such a thing in the kind of world they inhabited now. It was hard to believe in Gods and Miracles when there was discontent, poverty, homelessness; war and death and devastation; when every authority and order that professed to give security and solace to the people preyed on and destroyed them instead. Byanca would not have called herself an atheist, but she couldn’t understand a God who would allow a world like this.

But having nothing else, knowing nothing else, Byanca prostrated herself and prayed.


In the ancient tongue of the elves, as she had been taught, she beseeched the God Of Many Names and his earth-bound martyred form, The Messiah, for succor, for strength. She extolled his virtues. Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem caeli et terrae. For he was a God who demanded acknowledgment before considering mercy. Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, sanctam Ecclesiam aelfia, sanctorum communionem, remissionem peccatorum, carnis resurrectionem, vitam aeternam. For her was a God of many powers, and whose powers had to be respected and feared before they could ever be called upon by the humble.

Having humiliated herself as a lowly human before his great power, she could now beg.

“Please grant me the power to save her. I would die if that’s what it took.”

She craned her head skyward, at the great yawning dark she felt just overhead.

“Please. I love her; I loved her as a child, and I love her still. I know it’s stupid. She doesn’t remember me. She doesn’t remember that she promised me a pony and that I’d be a knight and that she would have big tea parties with me in the castle. But she was the light that shone on my soul in Saint Orrea; stranded in a place where I was nothing, no family, no ambitions, no future. I don’t even need to be something to her anymore; I just need her to be okay. I just want her to live and find happiness. Please, if I can do that, I will–”

Dust sifted from overhead, and a thin beam of light shone into the enclosure.

It was the dim, eerie light of a part-dawning sun as earth shifted above and unveiled a sky.

In place of an angel, however, was a short, sturdy fellow in a black uniform.

He had lifted the ceiling of the enclosure and revealed its true position in the ground.

“Geta, take my hand!” He whispered, leaning down into the cell.

Much to her surprise, Byanca found herself raising her arms to take Legionnaire Minimus’ hand, and furthermore found herself being pulled up from her prison by this man. Minimus, whom she had so often wronged before. He was the last person she had ever thought she would see. Especially not standing over her concrete grave plot.

“We have to be quick. Here, I brought you a stovepipe.” He said.

From a bag in his hands, he produced a small submachine gun and a magazine.

She took the weapon, loaded it quickly, and found it to be startlingly real.

This was not some kind of trick; Minimus was really here to help her.

“We don’t have time to be surprised. We have to move.” He said sternly.

He had not changed at all since they first met several years ago. He was a stocky and a round lad with a shaved head and big hands. He wore a white armband over his black uniform that marked him as a medic. She found herself looking for signs of the bruise she left him in their scuffle years ago, but of course, it would have long since healed by then.

Byanca shook her head and took a step back in defense.

“I need answers Minimus. What happened here and why are you helping me?”

Minimus shook his head and waved his hands.

“Listen, I need answers too, but we’ll talk while we move. It’s crucial we go now.”

Byanca cast a quick glance around herself. It just as quickly became more deliberate.

They were in the middle of a stretch of green grass out by a pair of power generating stations. There were several other concrete-lidded plots nearby. Near each of the plots there lay a grass camouflaged tarp that had been pulled aside. A line of decorative trees blocked the view of the unsightly power station from what was clearly a Legionnaire garrison’s administrative building. It was a familiar one — the headquarters of the 17th Blackshirt Legion. Byanca’s legion; Legatus Tarkus’ legion; the traitorous legion.

“What about those cells? Did a man and a woman with me get thrown in those?”

Minimus sighed. “Yes, they did. Are they as good as you? We need to travel light.”

Byanca was almost shocked to hear the casual compliment.

“They’re competent. Help me get them out. They were very expensive.”

“Mercenaries? Good lord.”

Despite his reticence, Minimus helped Byanca to slowly undo the catches holding the concrete lids in place, and lift them from two of the tombs. Inside, she found Torvald praying and Giuseppa sleeping. Both of them had been roughed about as much as she had been, and neither had trouble accepting her hand and climbing out of the enclosures.

“How are you holding up?” Byanca asked.

Giuseppa shook her head. “You did not pay me enough to be buried alive.”

“You weren’t, quit being a baby.”

Torvald crossed his arms. “I’m with her. We’re gonna unionize against this kind of shit.”

Byanca grinned. Her redcoats grinned back at her.

Minimus snorted. “We can catch up while we run away from here. Soon the next shift of guards will be headed this way, and I don’t want to start a firefight this quickly.”

“But you do want to start one.” Byanca said.

“We’ve got to. I’ll explain as we go. Follow me to the detainment building.”

Minimus bowed himself and snuck out along the row of trees.

Byanca nodded her head to her subordinates, and they followed after.

She caught up and moved with Minimus, as close and quietly as possible.

Judging by the way he moved, he had been practicing for this kind of moment.

He knew his route. He knew where to hide and from what vantages. He had a plan.

Together they stole from behind the administrative building and around a trimmed, tree-studded green grounds toward a place Byanca remembered not as a detainment facility but as the warehouses where trucks brought food and fuel and ammunition and stockpiled everything the Legion’s Headquarters staff along with its training and security garrisons would need. The Legion Headquarters was not a base for combat troops, but a logistics and training center first and foremost. They had a small brig for troublemakers but nothing worthy of being called a “detainment facility” had ever been part of the base.

Much had changed under the mysterious new administration, it seemed.


“I’m doing this because it’s right.”

As they inched toward the warehouse facilities, Minimus answered very suddenly.

“You asked why I was helping you; because it’s right. I’ve only been saving my own skin until now and I can’t live like that. I can’t keep ignoring what’s happening here. I told myself the first opportunity I get, I’m going to put a hole in their dam. And there’s no bigger hole than the one you’re capable of making, Centurion, if I sprung you out.”

“Did you know that they would be capturing me?”

“Not specifically, but they threw damn near everyone else into containment, so.”

“You sound more confident in me than even I am.”

“You throw a mean punch.”

Byanca felt a little grin forming on her lips.

“Okay. Great. So what is happening here Minimus? Who are the Illuminati?”

She remembered them all too clearly from the forest; and from her wounds.

Minimus seemed to feel a chill then in mid-run.

They paused behind a brick enclosure around an outdoor water pump. Enough distance had been put between them and the administrative building that they could make the gamble of facing its vantage to hide from their new destination. It was now in their sights.

Beyond their hiding place, a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire separated the old warehouses from the rest of the 17th Legion’s grounds. There was a gate, guarded; several rows of tall buildings with locked shutter doors made up the fenced-in facilities. Judging by the flashlight beams in the distance there were several guards. From a distance, she spotted a literal ammunition dump. There were stacked-up crates, maybe of howitzer shells, out in the open. Likely emptied from the warehouse when it became a prison.

Minimus shook his head and sighed again.

“Hearing you say the word is a little startling, even though you had to have seen them. It’s still hard to believe this is all real. The Illuminati are a bunch of traitors. I don’t really get it; and I’m technically with them. The Legatus has some kind of influence over them.”

Byanca blinked. “You’re with them? Are they from the 17th Legion then?” She asked.

“Almost all of them. Some outside guys, but it’s mostly legionnaires that the Legatus convinced to join his coup movement. Listen: I’d suspected there was something going on but I figured the Legatus and his croneys just had a secret privileged boy’s club with a first pick of the secretaries to fuck.” His crass behavior had already earned him a strike from Byanca before, but Minimus would be Minimus regardless. Byanca contained herself as the Legionnaire continued his tale, and figured she would save the punching for peace time.

“Then a while back,” Minimus continued, with a look of dread on his face, “when they announced we’d gotten all the anarchists, which we very much did not, people started being transferred from the active Maniples to the 4th Reserve Maniple. At first this was just standard demobilization paperwork that you do when a years-long operation is ending. But then the people they targeted started being recalled here to train as part of that Reserve Maniple, which we have never done before. And then they started not being allowed back out. Those are the guys in the warehouses. Then the guys in the masks started showing up at night. And if thought they could use you, you got sent on an isolating errand, so those guys could get to you, and then you got read the ultimatum.”

“Join us or die?”

“Pledge yourself to elven supremacy under the future Caesar, or stagnation in a pit.”

“Amazing. They’re quite full of themselves. But what are they exactly, Minimus?”

“Well, I don’t know everything. I joined them because I was scared, but Tarkus is a 25-karat paranoid and he and his goons won’t tell you anything going on in their heads. But if you listen for it you can learn a lot. Especially if you’re a medic who is writing their prescriptions. What I know: they’re planning a coup; and they have a puppet ruler lined up that they call The Caesar. They think this Caesar is something real special, and I can’t imagine why. All of the inner circle are from the Legatus’ signals battalion. He thinks they can control people’s minds over the radio or something. It’s insane. It’s like a cult, Geta.”

Byanca remembered how they saluted and shouted in unison in the forest.

It was indeed like a cult. But when had its dogma been laid down?

Judging by the situation, even a week ago, the Legatus already had plans for Salvatrice.

How long ago had he started to plot? Had he really groomed Salvatrice all of this time?

That was not possible; Byanca knew that was just arrogant bluster from Tarkus Marcel.

He would say anything to render Salvatrice vulnerable to his demands.

He needed to cultivate that sense of inevitability and omnipotence. All of this time he had more control over Salvatrice’s life and environment than any other person in the world. He didn’t just need her to acquiesce to being his puppet. He wanted, he needed, for her to accept the strings as a part of her. To use her as a ruler, nothing short of that would do.

Maybe that was the magic of the radio, the magic of surveillance. To scare people into believing it controlled the world around them. To make them acknowledge it as a God.

Byanca grit her teeth. Salvatrice did not deserve this abuse. It was abominable.

And to stop it she would have to depend on every ally she could immediately attain.

“Legatus Tarkus ambushed myself and the princess. He has her captive now.”

Byanca said it abruptly. Minimus suddenly looked over his shoulder, his eyes wide.

“Well, fuck. I figured it had to be something like that, but good lord.”

He then put on a little grin just as suddenly. Perhaps it was his idea of being reassuring.

“Luckily, I happen to know where the Legatus is keeping himself these days.”

Byanca gave him a critical look. “Do you know, or are you guessing?”

“I’ll tell you my evidence once we’ve got the army you’ll need to get through him.”

When Giuseppa and Torvald stacked up with them behind the brick walls, Minimus led them down a little hill into a ditch running alongside one stretch of the wall. There was loose earth beneath parts of the fence, and he pulled up a sizable chunk, creating enough space for them to crawl under. Ahead of them were the backs of several of the lower warehouse buildings and no guards in the vicinity. They rushed to the warehouse walls.

“There’s shutter doors on the other side.” Minimus said.

He opened his bag once again and withdrew a second submachine gun, for himself.

“Do you have a knife?” Byanca asked.

Minimus searched his pockets and found a scalpel and shrugged.

“I’m a doctor!” He whispered.

Byanca took the scalpel. It would do.

She handed her submachine gun to Giuseppa and crept around the corner.

Listening for footsteps, watching for the beam of light.

Moving along the side of the building and between the two rows of warehouses, she caught a glimpse of a guard, masked, with the familiar uniform from the forest. Byanca rushed him, seized him and pulled him around the corner in a lighting-quick ambush. She forced the scalpel into his throat and covered his mouth as she dragged him away, butchering his neck until his hands ceased to thrash against her own and his body went slowly limp.

Blood cascaded from the wound, staining her hands slick and dark.

She felt momentarily a little sick.

Were these the hands of a knight who rescued princesses?

In that instant the guard’s flashlight rolled off his fingers.

Byanca felt a moment of panic.

But from behind her a hand seized the flashlight. It was Legionnaire Minimus.

“Be more careful!” He whispered, his own voice growing strained with worry.

Byanca sighed deeply and nodded her head. She pulled the corpse back around the corner.

With the guard gone, there was at least one row of warehouses that could be accessed.

Everyone quickly reconvened before the series of shutter doors.

Minimus drew a lock cutter from his bag and started snapping the prisons open.

Byanca pushed open one of the shutters.

Dozens of eyes seemed to turn her direction at once.

Behind the shutter the warehouse had been emptied of goods and crammed with men, who huddled together making use of any available amount of space. They were weary, sitting back to back and side to side without even room to stretch their legs. It almost seemed like they would fall out in a cascade into the space created by opening the door. There were maybe fifty men all crammed into a storage space meant for a few crates.

“Stand up slowly, and come out.” Byanca urged them.

Incredulous at first, not one man allowed himself even to flinch in their presence.

“We’re not with the black masks. We’re here to fight them. To free you.” She added.

Given that piece of information, they were quicker to move. One by one the haggard faces lit up, and the men helped themselves to stand and walked out of the warehouse as if they were being freed from prison after years instead of days. They looked worn, but freedom seemed to urge them on. Minimus went through the shutters, unlocking each prison. Meanwhile the freed men started immediately to arm themselves. Stray bricks, drainage pipes, chains and chunks of wood. Byanca handed Torvald the pistol from the dead guard.

“I am Centurion Byanca Geta.” She said aloud. “Those black masks are conspiring to–”

There were few among the crowd paying her any attention. Though they did not show her any outright hostility, it was clear that they were– they had to be– suspicious of anyone in the Legion, given their own former comrades had become their jailers. Most of the men were still disoriented. Those who were arming themselves seem to do so out of reflex. Nobody was organizing, nobody was speaking. Some part of them was spoiling for a fight, but imprisonment could beat the strategic mind out of any soldier. They were half-awake.

At this point, it struck Byanca that they were in no condition to be led except by example.

“Minimus, on me. We’re taking the remaining cells by storm.” She said.

“Well. Okay. Fine. Ugh. Geta, I expected a more measured approach.”

“Being measured right now is a half-measure. These men need to see carnage.”

Minimus raised a finger in protest but Byanca started moving, with or without him.

Minimus heaved a heavy, exasperated sigh, and he had an uneasy grip on his submachine gun as he ran, but he followed behind her nonetheless as she turned the corner around the back of the next row of warehouses. Surprisingly, a trickle of the prisoners, armed with whatever loose debris they could find, seemed to slowly follow behind her as well.

When the expected patrol rounded the corner ahead, Byanca aimed for the light.

With a strong pull of the trigger she loosed a hailstorm of automatic fire.

Through the warehouse rows there echoed the tinny rap-rap-rap-rap of the gun.

Wet gurgling and choked screams followed in its wake.

Flashlight beams that once pointed in her direction swung wildly and then rolled along the ground, falling with the crumpling, shredded bodies of the guards holding them. Their corpses made more promising sounds than simple thudding. Among their equipment was a new pair of submachine guns. Byanca handed one gun to Giuseppa, and she waved another toward the prisoners that had been aware enough to follow in her wake.

“I am Centurion Byanca Geta! Follow my lead and stamp out these traitors!”

She slid the submachine gun along the ground, and one man set out a boot to catch it.

He picked up the weapon, handed it to an empty-handed prisoner, and took up a pipe club.

“We of the Maniple swore to follow the Centuria to death!” He cried out. “Forward!”

At once, the rest of the prisoners revitalized and charged suddenly past Byanca.

As another disparate group of guards arrived to survey the disturbance, they were instantly mobbed. Their black masks were ripped from their faces and they were pummeled into the ground, kicked, clubbed, stabbed with glass. More guns were freed from them and passed around. Byanca ran ahead to the group; leaning around the corner, she opened fire down the warehouse row, and forced another pair of guards into hiding.

Covering her men in this way, she gave them opportunity to run to the warehouse shutters and cut and smash free more prisoners. Giuseppa and Torvald rushed past her to the corner across from her own, and covered a different approach. Minimus seemed to stand behind her in awe, as the flashing gunfire flew over the heads of an ever-enlarging mob of angry, haggard, rampaging men hungering to mutilate anyone wearing a black mask.

“He’s taken her to Saint Orrea.” Minimus said suddenly amid the carnage.

Byanca looked over her shoulder at him, incredulous.

“How do you know?” She asked.

From around the corner a string of fiery blue tracers hurtled past, forcing her to cover.

Minimus covered his ears momentarily, but kept speaking as loud as he could muster.

“He had his medicines sent there. Morphine. Pervitin. Cholesterol Testosterone.”


Byanca put her back to the wall and raised her submachine gun to her chest.

“We need to hurry then.” She said. She leaned out of the corner and opened fire.

Alarms and searchlights came alive. It was starting. Now it was a fight.

But she had a swelling mass of wrathful legionnaires, and a heart lit with holy fire.

She knew no matter the odds she overcame, she could never be a Knight. Not now.

But if she was doomed to be an evil dragon, then that fire would burn her enemies away.

Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XIII

This chapter contains mild sexual content.

43rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Town of Palladi

Though the town of Palladi had grown dramatically in the shadow of the nearby Academy, the crying of roosters still heralded the morning, just as it had done when farmland dominated the landscape. Moments before the sun began to rise over the old province, dozens of stout birds presiding over several family coops kept on the town’s outlying lands stood under the clearing sky and competed in voice to bring in the dawn. Regardless of the electric lights in the town square or even the old mechanical clock tower in the northern urbanization, the roosters would cry across town.

It was with the roosters that the old townies woke. No more than six kilometers from the ultramodern home where Salvatrice and Carmela partook of each other, a small cafe opened its doors, admitting the single customer that the shop owner had always come to expect. However, they soon found, together, that the man was not alone. He had been followed.

Byanca Geta approached from behind the older man and the cafe owner just as the door opened. She slipped in with them, ignoring the icy glare from the owner, a woman older than her but younger than him. Though she gave Byanca a long, wary and appraising glare, she would not dare close her establishment to a legionnaire who had yet to speak. Meanwhile the old man, a certain Giovanni, merely glanced at her without a word.

Inside, the cafe was small and homely. There were potted plants near every table and corner, and the tables were small and circular with high chairs. There were eight tables, and a few seats on the counter, behind which the owner stood and took to staring at Byanca some more. Byanca paid her no mind. She waited a moment for the old man to take his seat, and then promptly moved to the end of the front row of tables, set behind the long front window of the cafe, and sat right across from him.

“Giovanni Martino?” Byanca said.

“Doubtless you already know.” He replied.

From the center of the table he picked up a rolled-up newspaper, freed it from a paper ribbon around its center, and unfurled it. He started to read, and his view of Byanca was completely blocked. She was unfazed by this. She expected he would try to shut her out. Cooperation with the Legion had always been low among the civilians, and it was an all-time low now.

“I bear you no ill will, nor do I come to detain or question you on behalf of the Blackshirt Legion. I’m here as a private person.”  Byanca said.

“Your uniform says otherwise.” Giovanni casually said.

“I have nothing else decent to wear.”

“No. You could get clothes. I got clothes when I came back. But the uniform is convenient, isn’t it? It starts to feel like your good skin.”

He turned the page as if he had said nothing much at all.

Byanca blanked for a moment on how to reply.

There was nobody outside the window, nobody walking the streets. Aside from the owner there was nobody there but them. She felt that coaxing Giovanni into the subject would not work. Byanca still had to be careful, but she could partake in a mild indiscretion to bring him out of hiding.

“I’m here because of Salvatrice Vittoria.” Byanca said in a low, calm voice.

It was a name both of them knew; one with many portents attached.

Giovanni promptly laid the newspaper down on the table.

He adjusted his hat and turned on Byanca a sharp glare.

“I’m not keen to threaten neither women nor kids; but little girl, if you intend to march upon the young Vittoria, we are going to have problems.”

His own tone of voice matched hers, save for the threat.

While he spoke, his fingers snatched the fork and spoon on the table and began to toy with them, twirling them around. It was perhaps a nervous tic, though it could also be a display. She got the impression that were he to reach for a knife or gun he would be even more dexterous than with the utensils. Certainly if it came down to a draw she thought he could draw much faster than her. Giovanni’s every movement spoke of an intensity often unseen in his age. He was very deliberate in every turn of the hand.

And yet his face betrayed no emotion in its hewn and worn features.

Byanca raised a hand in her own defense. It contained her identification.

“I intend no such thing. I am her new bodyguard. Centurion Byanca Geta.”

Giovanni’s expression was unchanged. He still regarded her coldly.

“I see. I was informed about your presence, though were never introduced formally. In fact I put it out of my mind; I never thought that we would have cause to meet. Your business and mine ought to remain separate.”

“Salvatrice cannot afford that. Not with the danger she faces.”

“It is precisely because of the danger that you should be away from me, and alongside her instead. I work for that child from afar. She trusts me with her correspondence and I deliver it. No more.” Giovanni said.

Byanca smiled. “How did you chance upon such a golden opportunity?”

Giovanni shook his head, seeming more disappointed than offended.

“You mistake me and the Princess both if you think this role is lucrative.”

Byanca did not need much convincing of that. After all, she had served the Princess for some time now and all she had come away with was injury. It did not pay to serve Salvatrice Vittoria. It could only be done out of love.

“I need to know how you met and why you serve her.” Byanca said.

“Nothing in your reports about that?” Giovanni asked.

“No.” Byanca replied. She felt for a moment like she had come under attack from him. It was the same disdain Salvatrice had shown her before. Both were justified in their anger. She had too much information at her disposal and too much reason to employ it — none of it was right.

But like her attitude in this conversation, she found it necessary.

“Salvatrice has told me about you, much like she has told you about me.” She said. “But I still have no reason to trust you. I would like to dispel my doubts. Please enlighten me as to how you came to serve Salvatrice.”

“All I will say is I traveled with her for a time and grew attached”

Giovanni pulled open his coat and withdrew a cigarette and lighter.

“Care for one?” He asked.

It was the almost instinctual courtesy of an old gentleman, nothing more.

Byanca was well aware that he still kept her at arm’s length.

This was perhaps even a ploy to quiet her for a time.

“I don’t smoke.” Byanca said.

Shrugging, Giovanni lit his own cigarette and took a drag.

Behind the counter the owner watched the two of them talk. She did not come to take their orders or otherwise make any overtures. It was clear they had this time to themselves. Byanca was simultaneously glad for a touch of privacy, but also annoyed at how little the legionnaire badge and shirt was worth. It was that annoyance in part that brought her here.

After blowing a cloud of smoke, Giovanni turned to Byanca once more.

“I will not answer any more questions, Ms. Geta, until you state your intentions clearly. Have some respect for an old man’s fading time.”

“I was planning to come clean now anyway.”

Byanca leaned forward.

“I am looking for recruits.”

Giovanni raised an eyebrow. “For the blackshirt legion?”

“No!” Byanca said, shaking her head. “To serve the princess as we do.”

For a moment the old man’s eyes seemed to soften on her.

“I’m listening.” He said.

“The Princess is in grave danger every single day.” Byanca said. “Both the Legion and the anarchists have become her antagonists. There is no side that she can join. Salvatrice has to become her player in this game. I want to create a group that answers only to her and that does only her bidding.”

“You mean you wish to raise mercenaries to protect the Princess?”

Giovanni seemed at once intrigued and outraged by the proposal.

“Plenty of nobles have bought extra bodyguards. It is only fair Salvatrice do so as well. I’m not ambitious; even one man would suffice right now.”

She put an obvious inflection on her last few words.

“So that is why you’ve come to me then? I’m your man?” He said.

She had his attention now. She could tell; he was emoting more now.

Byanca turned a smile on him and tried to engage him with more charm. “You served in Borelia, didn’t you, Giovanni? You were a soldier. You left the colonial forces due to your principles. And the Princess trusts you.”

Giovanni crossed his arms. He looked her over with a wary gaze.

“I’m sure the Princess would love to have you as part of her defense.” Byanca continued. “We will no longer rely on the Legion. After this affair I’m turning in my black shirt for a red coat. Would you help me, Giovanni?”

There was no longer anything to hide. Byanca spoke earnestly and honestly. She could only throw herself on his mercy and hope that he saw beyond the shirt at the desperate fallen knight who longed for her princess. Or at the very least, hope that he saw a dragon who loved her.

In return, Giovanni snorted. He looked out to the street, away from her.

“A reference to the uniform of the old imperial guard does not sway me. I do not romanticize it. That being said, I know a few soldiers younger than me who could use the work. I will send them to you. You’d best have the coin for them, however. Mercenaries do not hold your pretty ideals.”

Perhaps he had seen neither knight nor dragon, but a desperate girl.

Despite this, he had given her some hope.

Byanca smiled. “We have more dinari than we know what to do with.”

At the moment it was not necessarily true, but it soon would be.

“Hmm. Redcoats, huh? What will the Queen think of this, I wonder.”

Giovanni grew pensive. Byanca gave a fiery retort. “To hell with her.”

To her surprise, it was well-received. For the first time, Giovanni grinned.

43rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Town of Palladi — Sabbadin Homestead

Atop the brick wall surrounding the rear portion of the Sabbadin estate, a questing rooster paused momentarily to peer at the dawning sun and give its characteristic cry. Through the upper hallway, and into the heiress’ bedroom the cry wound its way, until it reached a pair of blunt elven ears.

Salvatrice Vittoria slowly awoke, sitting up against the bedrest.

There were all kinds of scents and sights in the room around her.

She found herself giddily immersed in the sensations.

At her side she found Carmela asleep, snoring softly, pushed against her. Her chest rose and fell splendidly, and she glistened with a layer of sweat. Salvatrice felt a delectable shiver in her skin as her hip touched Carmela’s back. Her lover groaned slightly in protest, smiled and shifted her weight.

As she did so, Carmela pulled the blank off both of them.

Finding her breasts suddenly bared, Salvatrice pulled the blanket back.

She could not pull it over her chest and soon gave up the tug of war.

Carmela remained asleep, arms spread, her naked body fully in view.

Her lipstick was smeared, her pigments running, her hair frayed. Her voluminous dress was in parts all over the bed, her skirt and leggings hanging over a column, bodice thrown at their feet, her lingerie dangling off her ankle. Her warm olive skin was still red in the places that had been sucked or smacked or squeezed or otherwise performed upon in love.

Salvatrice glanced askance at one of the mirrors in the room and smiled.

She also looked as if she had a wild night. Her hair was tossed around, her nice dress was wrinkled and discarded like a rag, and she was still feeling stiff between the legs. All of her once brownish skin was an off-red color from the heat in her blood. Most notably her makeup was a fine mess.

From the first seizing of lips she shared with Carmela she had become smeared in lipstick. As her lover aggressively explored more of her body the red marks spread like a haphazard tattoo. She had bright red marks on her small breasts, on her buttocks and thighs, and in places between. Her own lipstick had smeared as well when her turn came to kiss and tongue where she desired, but the color was subtler than Carmela’s bright red.

In the mirror, Salvatrice resembled a horny clown. She started to giggle.

“What’s so funny?” Carmela said, her voice a luscious little purr.

Her eyes half-opened. She had a naughty look on her face.

“We’re completely disheveled.” Salvatrice said.

“We don’t have to clean up for anyone, do we?”

Carmela sat up in bed and tossed her wavy golden hair with a coquettish grin. She did not care to cover herself with the blanket, and her breasts seemed to rumble right before Salvatrice’s eyes. She exuded a confidence in her own body that sent another jolt right between Salvatrice’s legs.

“Well, not right now. But I must soon be going.” Salvatrice said.

“Will you at least stay for breakfast?” Carmela asked.

“Yes, I promised that much.” Salvatrice said.

Carmela’s impish grin returned. “It is a two-course meal.”

After that cryptic whisper she pounced on Salvatrice.

Salvatrice barely had time to moan in pleasure.

Perhaps an hour later, disheveled ever more, the two finally left the bed.

Laughing, Carmela pushed Salvatrice out of the room and down the halls, barely wrapped in sheets pilfered from the bed. Thankfully there were no servants there to witness the two naked, giggling young women cavorting sensually down the hall and into the bathroom. There was a grand and dire bath tub in the center, like an obsidian coffin. Soon it filled from the hot water faucet, and Carmela and Salvatrice lay down side by side within.

All of their pigments and oils washed into the water and danced on the surface, coloring and obscuring the shapes of their bodies below.

Carmela leaned her head on Salvatrice’s shoulder.

“How are you finding the accommodations so far?” She asked.

“Quite stimulating.” Salvatrice replied.

Carmela looked up at Salvatrice, craned her head and kissed her.

“Salva, I love you.” She said.

“I love you.” Salvatrice said.

Turning her head again, the heiress gazed into their obscure reflections on the water. She smiled, swirling her finger over her own face in the surface.

“I am incredibly happy that we could meet and touch and delight one another. But I want you to know if I could only love you through letters and at a distance for the rest of my life, I would be happy.” Carmela said.

“I’m glad to hear that.” Salvatrice replied. She was a little taken aback.

She had never thought of it in that way before. Certainly she had imagined she would lose Carmella, on that fateful day when the responsibilities of the kingdom finally snatched her free life from her. But she never thought their romance could potentially continue even if from afar. To Salvatrice, the exchange of letters had simply staunched a wound until she could have a fleeting glimpse of her beloved, as a stitch to stop the bleeding.

“I love everything about you, Salva. What I first fell in love with was that sharp tongue you turned on unsavory guests at the few parties where we could arrange to meet; what I next fell in love with was that sharp intellect and the kindness and vulnerability behind it. When I learned about your body I loved that as well. But I will always love you; it might be a different love than what the commonfolk share, but it will be love, at any distance.”

Salvatrice herself felt compelled to lay her own head on Carmella then.

“I’m so happy to hear it.” She said. She felt the warmth of those words in her chest and across her cheeks. She knew it was not the bath that did it.

Carmela bowed her head, smiling with eyes averted like a shy schoolgirl.

“Whenever I craft a letter to you, and receive one back, I feel so relieved. Because I know my feelings reached you and perhaps brought you a smile. I send you my strength and my love in each stroke of that pen, Salvatrice. It’s the one place in the world just for us. We can do anything there.”

Guilty thoughts started to bubble under the warm and happy surface of her mind. She never realized how powerful were the feelings contained in those letters. For stretches of time she neglected them, thinking that Carmela would worry but ultimately understand. Now that she thought of it, those letters were a hand stretched from across a lonely darkness. Carmela had nothing to truly love in between each letter. She had said it before: Salvatrice was the first and only person she had ever really loved.

To Salvatrice they had been letters, a bridge to communicate and keep in touch with Carmela and plot until they could truly love again; but to Carmela each of those letters was an act of love and devotion the same as holding in hands in public or kissing or maybe even sharing a bed.

No matter the distance; even if they never saw each other’s faces.

Carmela could still love her.

In a way, it heartened Salvatrice. She could love her back too, then.

No matter the distance. So long as there was pen, paper and ink.

“I will write more. I can also call on the telephone.” Salvatrice said.

Carmela’s eyes drew wide. “Are you sure? It won’t be dangerous?”

“I’ll insure that it isn’t. Even if we can’t trade kisses in ink, you will hear my voice. We will never be apart. I promise you.” Salvatrice said.

No matter the distance; it was still love. It could still be shared.

Once their skin started to wrinkle with water, the pair rose from the bath, and scarcely dried, returned to the bedroom and donned their disguises. Carmela was once more the lovely, curvy young maid; Salvatrice was the slender, angular young courier or paper boy in a cap, shirt and pants.

There was one part of their promised meal they had not yet eaten.

This one they would not have as a breakfast in bed.

Down in the kitchen, the two of them set together to the task. Carmela withdrew various items from cabinets and drawers and boxes. She cut cheeses and tomatoes, while Salvatrice assembled plates of pre-cut hard breads, and skinned tangerines with her fingers. They set a pot of tea on the stove and waited for it to whistle. Many a time they bumped into each other in the kitchen with a giggle as they set about their work.

From the back garden they plucked plump grapes and gathered flowers, and soon they sat together on a brown wooden table under the mid-morning sun and picked at their spread while basking in the glow of this delightful domesticity. To the outside world they would be commoners: it was not unheard of for a salacious maid to invite a local boy for a tryst while the mistress was nowhere to be seen. Salvatrice enjoyed the fantasy.

They were not commonfolk; love for them was more difficult than the archetypes of bawdy romances. Last night was a dream world that had taken time and planning to construct. They would be unlikely to see each other again, let alone have sex, for quite some time. Love was a struggle.

But not impossible. Over the wires, over the surface of stationary.

Just as she dropped a grape into Carmela’s mouth over the table.

Just as they traded sweet little kisses between bites of glazed ham.

They would have that love no matter where they went.

With this in mind, Salvatrice was heartened for what she had to do.

“Carmela, I will confide in you what I am planning.” She said at last.

Those words would set everything into motion. She was ready now.

To her own raging battlefield she could now depart without regrets.

Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter





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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