Rasalhague October 24, 3028
My bloodchit was utterly useless, but I couldn’t resist checking it periodically. I was desperate for information. Every avenue was closed off. Everything surrounding Capellan nobility was now classified. The war dominated the news, and there was no mention of the Incendio name, my planet, or even the Chens. Not for the first time, I was relieved I hadn’t put the betrothal in writing – Arthur was a dweeb, sure, but I didn’t want him to die for misplaced infatuation.
I drummed my fingers on the table. Liao would never let me keep my Baron title, that much was certain. How quickly they revoked it depended on the pencil pushers, who were likely focused more on the war. The war gave me time to plan. If I lost my title, then Victarion –
‘Damn.’ I hadn’t considered the chance that Victarion would inherit the head of house. Persephone was still legally dead in the eyes of the government. Only Scorched Earth, Victarion, and Arthur knew she was still alive. Unless the Maskirovka tortured it out of one – or both - of them, then Sephy was safe. Father would be rolling in his grave at the thought of the family name relying on Victarion to lead it, but titles could always be reinstated. Unless…
What had Hanse’s exact words been? “You will keep your lands and titles?” or “You will keep your ‘current’ lands and titles?” I couldn’t remember what the silver haired Davion had promised. The defection wasn’t official yet, as Hanse claimed to want to accept when the time was right. If my title was revoked, would I still be a Baron under a Davion banner? Would he instead negotiate with Victarion as he’d legally hold my planet if I was disgraced? He couldn’t. The Fox may have a reputation of being too clever for his own good, but he had to honor our agreement. There was too much at risk for me if he didn’t.
A chill ran down my spine. I had already been on thin ice with Liao - rejecting the council’s bribe and keeping claim to my planet, bringing in the Triad to my doorstep, helping bring Melissa Blakedamn Steiner to Davion. Victarion had tried to warn me by noting that they had stopped by to question our family’s loyalty, cautioning that the attention of secret police wasn’t making the Triad happy, and I still waltzed home like nothing was wrong. Our escape meant that Scorched Earth had made the Maskirovka look bad. Questioning me wouldn’t be enough now. They’d want to make an example of me.
….I needed a drink.
I found Johnny in the common area, smoking a nearly finished cigar. He raised his drink in greeting as I passed to make my own. Timmy was few tables away, chatting and eating crumb cake with Persephone. It looked nothing more than friendly, but they had been spending most of their time together lately. I sat down across from Johnny and threw back my drink in one gulp.
“I think Timmy…” I tilted my head towards the two.
“Are you going to try to sell her off to him now?” Johnny asked.
“What? I never – “
A sharp bark of laughter burst out of him, loud enough that the two teenagers in question looked up at us. Persephone started to stand, but I motioned for her to stay. I didn’t want her to hear me asking for advice from Johnny, of all people. She needed to see me as the head of our house, not just as her sister, and I couldn’t do that if I didn’t keep some things close to the chest.
Johnny’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “You tried to marry her off to Arthur Chen less than a month ago.” He brushed off a piece of ash from his once-white shirt. “How can she trust you?”
“I would have let her make the final decision.”
“Does she know that?”
My retort died in my throat as I glanced back at Persephone. She was smiling broadly at Timmy, handing him a napkin to brush crumbs off his face and laughing when the next bite caused even more to land on his cheek. Had she known? Ostavar’s attack had been over six years ago, and I’d been off-planet for a good chunk of time prior to that, but she had to know I wouldn’t throw her into a marriage she hated…right?
With a sigh, Johnny took a swig of his drink. “Kids these days.”
“How do I --?”
“Leave it,” he said bluntly. “They’re friends.”
“Look. Whatever you would normally do, do the opposite.” His expression turned serious as he glared at me. “Don’t waste your time on this when we have a WAR going on.”
We located a small hotel willing to sell three rooms without asking questions about our baggage. I claimed a room, leaving the others to divvy the remaining rooms and take up the crates.
Voices rose and fell around me as I shouldered my way past the crowd. Police in Kuritian uniforms were interspersed with the native Rasalhaguians – while I’d never call a Kuritan casual, the officer’s patrol held an air of routine and repetitiveness. Polite suspicion hung in the air, but there didn’t seem to be any malice. The police had patrolled yesterday, they were making their rounds today, and tomorrow there would be more of the same as they kicked aside rocks in their path while betting on when the pothole in the road would be fixed. Despite the situation, I found myself fighting a smile. Bureaucracy was the same no matter where you were, it seemed.
I adjusted my cloak, resisting the urge to fiddle with the black cloth obscuring my bionic eye. The incident with the Maskirovka had its perks – even through the thick hooding, I had been able to make out rough shapes with the cybernetics. Normal fabric barely impacted my vision. Between the makeshift bandage and the gloves, I kept the bionics hidden from the casual observer. While none of us were as recognizable as Sven in these circles, I wasn’t willing to gamble being noticed considering how often we’d been televised, and my prosthetics were advanced enough to catch attention even without the fame.
‘You lot will handle supplies and defense.’ The Steiner officer had been gruff when handing out orders. Faint scars around his chin, coupled with a nose that looked like it had been broken multiple times, made it clear he wasn’t a stranger to combat. ‘We need to win this planet. Scorched Earth will try to sway the resistance, resupply them. Bring the defenses down and we’ll be able to bring in the ships. Fail and we’ll all be shot to hell.’
Johnny was already at the rendezvous point, a small bar tucked far enough away from the main road to be discrete but moderately busy. After ordering a drink I snagged the seat across from him.
“Patrol rounds are about 15 minutes,” I said quietly. “You?”
“Found some.” Johnny had overseen locating escape routes in case the meeting with the contact turned sour. The dual scars on his cheek caught the dim light. He looked bored, but his eyes flicked around the room as he drank. I waited for a moment, but the Davion knight didn’t offer any additional information. The others soon joined, murmuring their findings quietly before we fell into small talk, mimicking the other patrons. Sven hadn’t noted any unusual encrypted chatter, and there were no abnormalities in the crowds that Luke had noticed. All in all it was a generic little town that could have been in any system.
Shortly, Luke met my gaze and fluidly motioned to the door, the movement looking like a natural gesture save for his intense seriousness. Johnny stood and casually moved over to the bar, ordering another drink and nodding at the man who had just entered.
‘Here’s your passphrase. If it’s not your contact, they’ll think you’re just making conversation. If it’s the rebellion, they’ll respond with their passphrase. We’ll also send word to our contacts in the Rasalhague clans and have a meeting set up three days after you arrive. Coordinates will be provided prior to departure from the ship.’
Whoever he was, he’d answered correctly. Johnny bought him a drink and the two returned to the table. Sandy hair fell across light blue eyes, and he beamed at the group. He didn’t look like he’d ever seen a punch thrown, much less taken one, but the intel had been right so far.
“Glad to see you,” he said enthusiastically. “Good help is hard to find. But how do I know you’re on the level?”
Wordlessly, Sven pulled down the cloth covering the lower half of his face. The young man’s grin grew.
“Sven? SVEN MOREKAI?”
“Keep it down,” Sven muttered. He replaced his disguise and leaned back.
“Right, right. Having you here, the governor will have to listen to us.”
At the questioning looks from Scorched Earth, Sven sighed. “My father.”
Sven’s presence was invaluable, adding weight to his claim. Within minutes the rebel had agreed to lead us to their HQ the next night. Johnny bought him a second drink before he left, and we were left to decide if we trusted the cheerful Rasalhaguian.
“We could ponzi, bring the Yakuza in,” Johnny suggested after a short silence. “We take out a pro-Kurtian Rasalhague leader- “
I grinned. “Frame the bastards.”
“Exactly. Politicians blame them, Yakuza get pissed, they fight among themselves.”
Trevor shrugged and downed a cup of the local mead. “I picked up some methods from the Triad we could use. Decapitation, severed fingers – “
“There’s little, if any, Yakuza presence here,” Sven interrupted. “Besides, I can’t let you do that. Family is everything here. If people start messing with that, especially as outsiders, you’ll lose any support you’d otherwise have.”
I swear his face would crack if he so much as smiled. “Well, barring that, we could play the hostage angle with you,” I said. “Or the martyr. Luke, think we could spin that?”
Luke nodded thoughtfully, a glint in his eye. At Sven’s scowl I blew the grumpy hacker a kiss. “Last resort, love.”
We disbanded for the night. As the most conspicuous, Sven and I headed to our rooms immediately. The others sought out more drinks and recon. I checked my Noteputer – still nothing. All war propaganda. I rubbed my temple, feeling twinges of a migraine. Knowing the revocation of my title was a minor thought in comparison to the 4th succession war didn’t make the uncertainty any easier to stomach. How the hell could I fulfill Father’s wishes if I lost my title, much less risking our family’s rank entirely?
A loud knock at the door shook me out of my reverie. Cautiously, I peeked through the peephole. Johnny stood in the hall, looking annoyed. The second the door was opened, he pushed through and looked blearily at the room. “Two beds?”
“You almost sound disappointed.”
He glanced me over before shrugging and heading to the far bed. Within seconds of laying down his snores filled the room. Seems I had a roommate for the night, though why he hadn’t roomed with Luke was beyond me. Shrugging, I re-locked the door and turned in for the night.
The next morning I woke up to see Johnny walking out of the bathroom, a towel draped over his shoulders. Only his shoulders. Fire raced up my cheeks as I scrambled to find somewhere, anywhere else to look as he got dressed. “Shower’s free,” he quipped cheerfully, winking.
I briefly weighed the pros and cons of shooting him.
Downstairs, we met the others and grabbed a quick breakfast. The newscast caught my eye – Maximillian Liao himself was on the screen, raving about the assault on Paladaine and the bravery of the defending 27th legion before his daughter Romano gently ushered him off the stage. I paused mid-bite. Paladaine bordered Marik, not Davion. The 27th legion had been disbanded before I was even born. Either Marik was taking advantage of the flurry of confusion and claiming territories, or the Chancellor was sinking further into insanity. The grim possibility of both was sobering. We spent a few hours prepping our weapons and gear before heading out of the hotel.
We took the crates and rented a local truck, a Ühaül. The owner claimed it was a joke based off an old Terran company, though he seemed disappointed at our blank stares as he handed over the keys. Sven drove as Luke navigated. Johnny sat in the back, weapon in hand as a backup. We arrived at the coordinates to find an empty looking storage center, and within minutes a figure jogged up to the driver’s side of the truck. A hushed conversation with Sven led to a unit opening up.
Inside we found a small group with guns pointed at the truck. At a gesture from the same man who spoke with Sven, they lowered them as the unit door shut. We brought out our gear and handed over several bags to the rebels.
“Well damn, the Lyrans are serious about backing us.” A dark-haired man pulled out a rifle from the bag and held it to the light in admiration. “Didn’t skimp on costs either.”
A young woman in a tattered sweatshirt grinned at us. “I like these new friends.”
“Best friends,” Trevor prompted.
Her grin widened. “Best indeed. We’ll give the Kuritans hell.”
True to the Steiner officer’s word, Sven had an audience with representatives of the clans. Elevated rows of seating with long stretches of desks circled a small stage,
Sven stood tall in the front of the room. “This planet has been our home for centuries,” he said, the words slow and deliberate. “We shaped the very surface to reflect our values, our culture, our people. With our first steps our traditions were born.”
A few murmurs of agreement rose from the crowd. Sven strode to the sides of the room, looking every listener in the eye as he emphasized his words with his steps. “While we built our culture, Kurita looked on in fear. They knew people of our ilk would design, create, succeed. Anything we put our minds to, we excelled in refining it to a level only we could bring out.”
“Here, here!” A voice called out.
“When they saw our capabilities Kurita quaked in terror at the thought of what we could – what we would – accomplish. They couldn’t stomach another culture outperforming them in the arts, in culture, in war.” His voice rose as the murmurs grew more enthused. “Despite our disinclination towards conquest, Kurita feared us. They knew our brilliance was second only to our love and loyalty to our families.”
His voice softened. “How many of our loved ones have fallen to Kuritan blades? How many have been broken and bruised under the mantle of their rule? Children are born and die under the wrongful occupation we suffer.” As he paused, the burden of the occupation seemed to weigh on his shoulders before he straightened up, fists clenched. “Like cowards the Kuritans seek to destroy anything that threatened to eclipse their so-called empire. They try to crush us beneath their heels because they know they hardly compare.”
A figure stood and slammed their fist on a table. “Your father supports Kurita. How can you preach your devotion and love when you clash against your own blood?”
Sven waited for voices to die down. “I stand not against my father, but with Rasalhague.” When the man who interrupted started to speak again, Sven continued. “Rasalhague has a right to return to an independent state. I love my family. I will fight for the blood of my blood. More than that, I will fight and die for Rasalhague at any cost. I will do what is right for Rasalhague even as it pains me to stand against my father’s stance, even if I must stand against my father as he is blinded by Kuritan lies.”
“I stand with Sven.” A bearded man in dark robes stood up. “For Rasalhague!”
“As do I!” Another woman stood.
“And I!” “I stand!” “For independence!” A majority of the audience stood standing, with only a handful of dissenters staying stubbornly in their chairs. The floor erupted into passionate conversations and debates, everyone buzzing to bring their opinion to the crowd.
A nobleman leapt onto a desk. “The Kuritans are evil, yes yes yes, we know that. But we have an important item we forgot.” At everyone’s confused look, he continued, “Honningbrew mead is the one and only Rasalhague mead!”
“Rafael, you must be drunk already,” a voice admonished. “For any true blooded Rasalahaguian knows that Black-Briar mead is best!”
In sheer seconds the debate turned to a hearty argument of which mean was best. Sven wove his way through the crowd to rejoin us.
“We have their support,” he said calmly, as the debates grew raucous. “Ready for the next step?”
The Steiner officer’s gruff voice came to mind. ‘After you sway the public or remove the opposition, you’ll need to infiltrate the military base at these coordinates. There’s a generator, mobile planetary guns, and two target positioning towers. One or all of these need to be taken out of commission, else our ships will be torn to shreds and we won’t make landing.’
I clapped Sven on the shoulder. “Time to do some sightseeing.”