In the ocean of her memories a scene percolated to the surface.
She was warm, protected, encouraged. Someone was holding her.
Up above there was a great, massive firmament filled with stars.
At the very center of that sky, that stretched as vast and high as anyone could possibly see, was a circular, glowing blue presence that shone down upon them. It was beautiful and reassuring. It filled her with awe.
“That’s the moon, Elena.”
She was in a woman’s arms.
That woman pointed her toward that infinite sky.
“Someday, you’ll be able to see it, and the stars too. With your own eyes.”
“I can see them now, mommy! I can see them! You’re so silly!”
Elena smiled and laughed.
Her mother looked down at the ground around them.
A chill, an indescribable coldness and dread, entered the scene quite suddenly.
It had no form, but Elena felt gripped by it.
A shadow swept the kind woman away, and it shattered the beautiful sky overhead.
A shadow, bristling with devices to kill people, shining a bright red eye upon her.
Elena anxiety made her toss in just the right way to expose herself and end her dream.
White light crept in through the open window, climbing her bed across the span of a few hours until she finally turned her cheek into it.
On the windowsill, a bird pecked at breadcrumbs that had been carelessly left over from last night’s snack. It ignored a wide glass of wine that had been left alongside the crumbs.
When the bird was done with the crumbs, it chirped as if in protest.
Her slumber was disturbed just enough to annoy her; Elena launched a stuffed fish toy from the bed at the window as if it were the true culprit for her disordered sleep. Though the projectile fell just short of its perch, the bird fled nonetheless. Its protests upon departing were far louder than its contented chirping, and finally shook the sleeping woman completely from her reverie.
Elena slowly pushed herself up to a sitting position on her bed.
She absentmindedly brought her hands up to her chest, soaked with sweat.
Chiffon clung to her skin. It was almost see-through. She felt embarrassed.
“Was I really sweating this much?”
It was not just the heat. She had the climate adjusted the night before.
No matter what she did, she was haunted at night.
She was beset by anxious dreams that she forgot as soon as her eyes opened.
“They’re probably about father.”
She sighed deeply.
She was clearly affected by his passing. No matter how much she denied it.
And yet she didn’t know even how she should feel about it.
Her culture and station mandated a period of mourning.
But what kind of mourning was there, for a woman who was isolated already, and could not even witness the death of the father she was meant to mourn? There were stipulations, like wearing black and avoiding public appearances– total nonsense. No one could see her or her choice of attire, and she was already strictly prohibited from “appearing” anywhere.
She brought her hands up to her eyes.
If she were going to cry, it would have been over the injustice of it all.
“I only ever really saw him in dreams; and now I suppose I can only mourn him in them.”
There was a sudden, startling knock on the door.
“I can hear you mumbling. It’s 10:00 AM! Young ladies have already started their day. It is not good for beauty nor character to make a habit of sleeping in.”
“I’ll be right out.” Elena said half-heartedly.
“The lady Lichtenberg sent an acoustic message an hour ago! You need to get ready!”
At the mention of that surname, the young lady sat bolt upright.
She leaped out of bed with newfound energy.
Her gallant knight was coming!
“Why didn’t you say that first?” She cried out.
There was a deep sigh from the door.
“Because I hoped you would be more responsible of your own accord!”
That nagging voice belonged to the head maid, Bethany Skoll, a moody, dark-haired, over-dressed woman many years Elena’s senior, with eyes hiding behind her spectacles. Like the rest of the maids on Vogelheim, she was tasked not only with serving the princess but ensuring that she carried herself as a proper lady. So she always barking orders and complaints.
Elena put her out of her mind quickly; after all, Gertrude Lichtenberg was visiting!
Elena practically launched herself from bed and ran to the opposite wall. Her bedroom was spacious, and high up in the villa’s main building, so a fresh breeze was blowing through. It felt like an absolutely perfect day, and she wanted to dress for perfection. There was a discrete console attached to the wall that opened the door to her wardrobe. This was, itself, another large room.
There were massive glass containers on either side of her which contained long lines of dresses, blouses, skirts, shorts; another set contained full bodysuits, part bodysuits, swimsuits, sheer bodystockings, along with all manner of brassieres and undergarments. There was an entire display rack at the back that was filled with shoes. At the touch of a button, specific shoes moved down the rack to within arm’s reach. Her dressers also moved on a conveyor, handing her any garment she desired. It could do everything except dressing her up itself, which she preferred.
As she stood amid all her clothes, a series of mirrors and cameras captured a snapshot of her, displayed diagrams of her body on the various surfaces of the wardrobe, and began to calculate “vital data” about her weight, height and other changes. It started openly speaking to her in a robotic voice about perceived changes and dietary suggestions, as well as suggesting outfits to her.
Across every mirrored surface was the same image of a young, slender and slight woman, fair-skinned, with long lilac colored hair and bright indigo eyes. When she stared at this depiction, she saw a baby-faced girl who probably seemed as flighty and frivolous as a fairy at first glance, despite her 25 years and what she considered a series of personal hardships. She frowned at it.
“You can stop with that nonsense!” She called out to the wardrobe program, as if the computer could hear her disdain. “I don’t need you to take care of me. Just shut down already.”
Despite her protests, the data continued to churn.
Elena sighed and returned to her business.
She had all manner of clothes of various different fabrics. While some were synthetic, they were the highest quality. Her chiffon was actual silk, and she almost felt bad for how much she had been sweating in it. She only owned a handful of garments made with real silk. She pondered what she would wear for Gertrude, actively ignoring the computer’s suggestion to don a fluffy gown or a conservative habit. Maybe she would appreciate something slightly sporty today.
“I’ll take her out to the forest and the fields. Yeah; let’s do that!”
From the shoe racks she pulled out a pair of sturdy boots. She set them aside and found a white two-piece bodysuit to wear under a short-sleeved, knee-length blue dress. It was the perfect attire for an active day, she thought. Once dressed, Elana ran out of her room, giggling happily.
In passing, the computer in the closet rated her outfit selection as “unacceptable.”
At that point Elena was no longer listening to it.
She had a single destination in mind.
Every hall in the villa was broad and wide and filled with incredible treasures. The columns, walls and handrail joints had lavish carvings and etchings, depicting creatures and legends, and the mighty sun, Solceanos, who breathed warmth and life into the Ocean. There were beautiful paintings on the walls of landscapes that seemed almost to come from a world of dreams.
On the floor, the tiles formed intricate patterns that were mirrored on the vaulted roofs, which were several meters above. Everything was the warm brown color of real wood while boasting the clean, mirror sheen of polished steel. As she made her way from the second-floor staircase, she saw a variety of young women below in black and white uniforms and black bodysuits, ferrying laundry, cleaning up the lobby area and pushing carts with dishes for lunch.
Giving them no heed, Elena charged past the women with a broad, beaming smile.
“Milady! Please don’t run in the halls!”
Bethany called out to her, but Elana practically glided across the lobby, laughing.
None of the maids were offended. A few even clapped for the lady of the house.
With this beautiful, sealed-off world behind her, Elena pushed on toward freedom.
Through the double wooden doors, Elana exited the villa out into a bright, lush world far broader and grander than even the great halls of Vogelheim Villa. Far overhead, the heavens were clear and blue, with the sun shining almost directly in the middle of the sky. A gentle but delightfully cool breeze blew her hair and tickled her face. She giggled and spread her arms.
Even if it was all made by machine, the effect was so comforting, so human.
From the villa, a stone path split in half a vast field of red and yellow flowers that stretched the entire circumference of the hill that the villa was built upon. Farther afield, Elana could make out the edge of Vogelheim’s beachside resort town to the east, and to the west, the farms and forest. Directly in front of her, the path led to a circular clearing surrounded by pillars, like a ritual site.
Elena hurried to the center of the clearing.
She put her hands on one of the stone pillars, summoning a computer screen into the air.
On the screen, a diagram showed that entry had been made into the lower levels.
And something was coming up the elevator.
Excited, Elana dismissed the screen and stepped back.
Moments later, a warning sounded, and the ground in the center of the clearing split in half. Rather than dust, it was revealed to be a metal hatch, leading down into a corridor of blue LED lined walls with a massive freight elevator in between. This elevator, distinctly mechanical in stark contrast to the rest of the landscape, raised one person and a few drones ferrying crates of goods. They had all come up from a dreadnought that had arrived surreptitiously at the port: the Inquisitorial flagship, The Iron Lady.
Elena’s eyes drew wide, in awe of the visitor who had come for her.
She could not contain her smile.
Nor could she contain the spring in her step.
With an uproarious laugh, she leaped forward and threw her arms around the visitor.
“Gertrude! Oh Gertrude it’s been so long! I’m so happy to see you!”
In return, the visitor returned Elena’s embrace.
“It is a joy to see you as well, Princess.” She said.
Her voice was deep and rich.
“Ah, stop with the formalities. Come here, come here!”
Elana hugged her even tighter.
She drew back only briefly, taking a good look at her friend.
“It’s amazing, Gertrude. You keep going to war, and you come back looking ever more beautiful than you left. What’s your secret? Do you drink the blood of your fallen enemies?”
Gertrude flinched slightly.
“Compared to you, I’m nothing but a homely country girl.”
Elena disagreed strongly.
Gertrude was beautiful. That was part of her charm: her knightly, gallant aesthetic. Gertrude had always been much taller than Elena. She was older by three or four years, so as kids it was always natural for Gertrude to be bigger, but Elena never caught up. Gertrude was tall, strong, long-limbed. She was not particularly gifted with curves. Under her gold and black uniform, with its ornamented shoulders and long cape, and the tall, straight ceremonial hat that she wore, she looked even more physically “boyish.” And yet, she had a naturally regal countenance. Her aquiline nose, swarthy olive-tan skin and green eyes were striking. She had her dark hair tied up in a ponytail, bangs parted to either side, framing her face.
“Stop it with the modesty! Oh I could kiss your face Gertrude! I’m so happy!”
In a spur of emotion, Elena did hurl herself once more at her friend and kissed her cheek.
Gertrude paused for a second and rubbed the site of the kiss with a demure hand.
“Does it taste like blood, Princess?” She winked, trying to play it off coolly.
Elena huffed. “I’m serious, you know! I’ve been so lonely here! Come on, come on!”
She grabbed Gertrude’s hand, and led her off the elevator platform, toward the villa.
Gertrude did not resist for an instant. She laughed, a bit nervously, as the two of them ran.
Inside the villa, the maids led them around the lobby, past the kitchen and to a private table on a raised deck, overlooking the gardens in the rear of the villa and the vast stretches of flowers on the hill beyond the villa grounds. Gertrude and Elena took seats across from one another on the circular table. Bethany then arrived with a pot of tea and a tray of tiny cinnamon rolls.
“Lunch will be ready soon. In the meantime, please enjoy the tea, Grand Inquisitor.”
Gertrude smiled politely. Elena could tell that her countenance darkened ever slightly, when the too-formal maid referred to her title. It was something she and Elena rarely brought up.
“That would be lovely. Thank you for taking such good care of Elena.” Gertrude said.
“She’s a handful, you know; you should visit more often, it brings her spirits up.”
Elena groaned. “Hey, what are you saying? I’m right here you know. I can hear you.”
Gertrude giggled. Her laugh was the most girlish sound Elena heard her make.
Bethany took her leave, at Elena’s insistence. The two women looked out over the flowers. Then their eyes locked together, and they barely touched their tea. In the silence, Elena had time to think about what it was that she would say and do with Gertrude, what she wanted to talk about. A lot had happened since they last met one another. Elena was happy, boundlessly happy, to see her again. But she was also unprepared. Her head still felt quite scrambled recently.
Trying to buy collect her disparate emotions, Elena asked, “How is soldiery treating you?”
As soon as those words left her lips, they sounded ridiculous.
What a thing to ask a soldier! As if Gertrude was still in the conservatory or cadet school!
Elena’s cheeks turned a little red with this realization.
Gertrude smiled and sat back in her chair, her fingers rubbing on the handle of her teacup.
“Well, the voyages are always long. And I did actually see combat recently.”
“You saw combat?”
Elena was brought back to the moment where she pulled Gertrude’s arm.
She was being playful, dragging Gertrude around.
Had she seen Gertrude flinch at that time?
“Oh Gertrude, you’re hurt aren’t you?”
Elena almost stood up, but Gertrude waved her back down.
“It’s really nothing.” She said. As if to demonstrate she patted her hand over her chest.
Misjudging her own strength, perhaps, she induced herself to flinch a little bit.
“Oh no, Gertrude! What happened?”
A stark terror of a sort Elena never really experienced, entered her life just then.
She knew, intellectually, that soldiers put their lives in danger. As an Inquisitor, Gertrude was a special kind of soldier, whose work was even more abstract to Elena than usual. She was not so naïve as to not understand what it meant. Firing weapons, enduring the attacks of enemies; there had been a massive battle in Ayre recently, too! Her brother was supposed to be there.
Elena knew these things; she had learned them through books and videos.
And yet, nothing brought the danger so close and so real than her friend being injured.
“I wasn’t at the Ayre Reach if that’s what you think. So please don’t worry so much. An Inquisitor wouldn’t be the first choice for frontline troops anyway. I’m not in so much danger.”
Gertrude smiled, but Elena felt she was being coddled and did not like the response.
“So what were you doing then? Please tell me. I deserve to know.”
Elena almost let out the entire contents of her heart right then, to explain why she deserved to know. Gertrude for her part was not resistant. Elena could always turn her with a simple pout.
“I wouldn’t hold it back from you.” Gertrude said. “I was in Bosporus. We had a problem in a university. A group of students stole weapons and took over a building. They were organizing against the curriculum bans that the Central Directorate imposed. So I had to lead my tactical squad to disperse their occupation. We had conflicting directives from the University and the City Government and the Regional Government, so it took us a long time to get anything done and we couldn’t even negotiate. I was hoping we could try to flush them out of the building with flashbangs and a few stun baton strikes. But we had given the enemy a lot of time to dig in, and they had weapons. It got chaotic. Even with my shield, a bullet got me in the ribs.”
She seemed hesitant to say the last sentence. And it had a dramatic effect on Elena.
“What!” Elena shouted. Her eyes started to water. “You were shot Gertrude?”
“It wasn’t a penetrator!” Gertrude said. “It was just a rubber bullet. It was all blunt force.”
“Just a rubber bullet? Blunt force? So, the difference between dead and limping around?”
“I’m not limping around. I’m fine.” Gertrude seemed more amused than anything. That attitude was really starting to rub Elena, who found this all terribly serious, quite the wrong way.
Elena wiped the few tears that had built up in her eyes. She sighed deeply.
“I wish you had chosen to do anything but go into the military, you know.”
“If I hadn’t gone into the military, I would be a peon who could never see you again.”
Gertrude sounded just a little bitter for the very first time in the conversation.
“I’m sorry.” Elena said. “I’m glad you’re safe. Let’s focus on the positive! Drink up!”
The princess took a sip from her tea. Her beloved inquisitor happily followed suit.
“It’s interesting. What a complex flavor. Nothing like the tea powder we get on ships.”
“I think Bethany’s put a bunch of herbs in it again to try to ‘improve my mood’.”
Elena eyed the teacup suspiciously.
Gertrude let out another laugh.
Looking at her reflection in the clean, clear tea, Elena found herself smiling suddenly.
“I’m so glad you came for my birthday.” Elena said.
She reached out a hand to Gertrude and Gertrude took it.
Though neither of them could change the positions they occupied in the world, at least, in these kinds of moments, they could cherish the bonds they had nurtured against all odds. A soldier whose duty was to fight her own people; a princess that nobody wanted to see.
Elena felt in her heart that she could put her worries behind her and go back to enjoying the beautiful day she had planned, with her most favorite person in the vast, unknown world beyond Vogelheim.