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  1. #21
    Wolves Haven, Commonwealth of Altoris

    The Ivory Lioness Hotel

    The victory parade, as hollow as the victory had been, had thankfully gone off without a hitch. Prime Minister Monroe wasn't happy with the blatant Imperial propaganda adorning the grounds, arch, and the whole procession itself, but it wasn't something that could be changed. He would save his energy for the coming battles during the negotiations. He knew they would be brutal, a war in their own right, though one of words, economics, and paperwork. A war of wills that thankfully wouldn't be attended directly by the Empress, because he would lose. Diplomats and politicians though, he could handle. After the parade the Empress and he had had a quick and private meeting before she had gone off to personally speak with her generals. After years of dealing with those generals, Monroe had found her to be rather amicable, even if he had been a bit...strong-willed when speaking to her. He was fairly sure she had found it amusing, a pitiful human who had come into his position merely because his boss had had a heart-attack, who's very civilization could now be compared in size and population to one of the dozens of sectors that made up her empire. She certainly had a way of humbling, humiliating, and enraging a person all at the same time. But behind the gaze of steel and amusement, Monroe thought that he might have seen something approaching sympathy. Monroe knew about the Federation of Mankind, in the past fifteen years much of the Commonwealths 'ancient' history had been revealed. Everyone had known they had come from somewhere else, certainly, but their forefathers had seen fit to rebuild their civilization and culture, cutting out the histories from before. And the Federation of Man was as alien to the Commonwealth as the Sidhe were from what he had read, both from Imperial reports and the reports of Commonwealth agents as well. Perhaps the Empress had been saddened by the near-annihilation of perhaps the only segments of humanity who held themselves to their morals and ideals?

    Monroe dismissed the thought from his mind however. He would never know the thoughts of the Empress, he wasn't too prideful to admit that she was above him in just about every way he could think of. Before her he might as well have been a city councilman. He couldn't help but smile a little as he looked around at the grand ballroom of the Ivory Lion Hotel however. He would have one triumph over the Imperial military at least. He had been allowed to choose the location of the ball and reception that was planned to take place after the triumph parade, and he had selected a place where the smug bastards wouldn't be allowed to come with their power-armor. The furniture in the Ivory Lioness was as old as the Commonwealth was, from back when it had just been Altoris even, and while it was sturdy it wouldn't hold up to the weight of a Sidh in armor. So the ball was strictly cloth uniform, the only exception being the Empress' personal guards, of course. He would be sure to relish seeing Drax and that pompous prick Malkar out of their comfort zones, certainly. There would be a considerable amount of important people attending, obviously, so he was overseeing the final touches on preparations. As per his own governments rationing laws, the servings would be fairly small, even if it was comprised of more high-end and exotic foods. The staff looked envious as they had unloaded the supplies, but Monroe had made sure to have a few extra crates brought in for the staff to enjoy afterwards. It wasn't much but he had his own moral and lawful obligations to follow, Prime Minister or not.

    The Ivory Lioness Hotel had been an obvious choice to host this little party at, being one of the few buildings as grand as it was still left standing in Wolves Haven, if not in the entire Commonwealth. Its' history stretched back almost as far as that of Altoris itself, having been established in the early days of colonization and building. It names came from the large ivory statue inside the grand foyer of a large lioness snarling and poised to pounce on those who walked through the front doors. And from that grand statue everything else followed. On either side of the magnificently carved base to the statue was a large half-spiral staircase, with the steps and banister being a dark-reddish form of wood that Monroe couldn't place. The center of the stairs were covered with a fine carpet, another dark-red color with designs done in beige. Above and behind the lioness was a large chandelier that, along with the rest of the lighting, cast the foyer in a bright but not harsh light. Smartly dressed staff stood behind the counter waiting to check in guests or otherwise render assistance, though guests were infrequent now, and most of the rooms were being used as a make-shift, though elegant, hospital.

    Monroe pulled out his pocket-watch and checked the time. No doubt people would be arriving soon, and he decided to give the place one more walk around before he would retire to a small room until all the guests had arrived, with the plan being that the Empress and he being announced at the same time. In traditional society that would be a sign that he was escorting her, though in reality it was simply because they were both heads of state. Monroe settled in to the small room, more of a broom closet than an office, that the hotel had graciously offered him while he waited for the Empress to arrive. He kept the door half-opened and listened as people started to arrive. He took a cigar from one of the pockets inside his dinner jacket and struck a match, sitting back in the fine chair and taking a moment to finally relax after what seemed like, and most likely was, years.


    General Sir Richard Greyhem frowned as he gave himself one more look-over in the mirror. If there is one thing he had never quite liked in his time among the highest ranks it was the requirement to attend things such as balls. Formal dinners he understood, and usually they were a good place to connect with fellow ranking officers, discuss tactics and new innovations, and otherwise enjoy the company of men and women who understood the burden of command. But these balls and receptions packed with politicians and other civilians never sat well with him. He wasn't shy or concerned about committing some social faux pas, no he was simply uncomfortable because people approached him and praised him as a hero, the man who turned the tide against the Free States Alliance, the man who had held the line against the Sidhe and brought one of their legions to the brink of defeat, and now as one of the people vital in having halted the Skargh. He did not like being seen as a hero, he viewed himself more as a man who facilitated the deaths of real heroes, both the extraordinary whose names would be remembered for centuries and the far more common ones who had died in droves every single day.

    The clack of heels snapped him out of his thoughts and he straightened his jacket again for the hundredth time. He turned and watched as his wife Morgan entered into the room, attaching an earring with a look of annoyance. She had been born into Altoris and Commonwealth high society, had had an easy life, probably had more pull and influence then Greyhem, but she had given that up when she had married Richard, at the time a simple Senior Lieutenant, and had settled into the life of the modern camp follower, following Richards basin assignments or otherwise taking command of the families farming estate. She probably hated these grand balls more then Greyhem. She wore a simple yet elegant dark green dress that reached down to her mid-shins, with clearly expensive earrings and a necklace, with the only other jewelry being her wedding band. He wore the bands twin.

    “You look wonderful, Morgan.” He said with a smile, righting his tie a bit and turning to face her. She gave him a skeptical look as her hip jutted out to one side as if to say 'Really?' before she shook her head and walked over to him. She gave him a small kiss on the cheek and then stepped back to look him up and down. “As do you, dear. Stop fussing.” She said with a bemused grin, taking his hand into hers. “Come along now, I want to arrive early to scope out the best corner to hide from the politicians in.” She said, gently pulling him along. He shook his head but grinned, grabbing his cap and greatcoat as they exited the modest house that came with his rank. His chauffeur had the car waiting and was standing by the door. He smiled as they came down the steps.

    “Misses Greyhem, General.” He said with a nod and opened the door for them. “Thank you, Henry dear.” Morgan said, patting him on the shoulder as she crouched down into the staff car. Greyhem nodded to the man. He slid into the car and the door closed firmly but gently behind him, Henry getting into the drivers seat and they headed off. The trip was short and silent except for the engine of the car. The streets had little traffic on them, they had been pretty vacant since the war came to Altoris and since then most of the traffic had been construction and supply convoys, but tonight it seemed like everyone was taking a break, not that he minded that. Everyone needed downtime after all. His mind drifted back to the parade and his mood turned slightly sour. He hadn't been a fan of the statue of him of course, he thought it was ridiculous for any of them. The arch, while magnificent, was a clear attempt of skewing history. The Commonwealth hadn't begged for the Imperiums help, or sought their damned Emperors Word or whatever other nonsense they seemed to think, they had reached an agreement with the Empress of mutual benefit, but he supposed the Sidh had never bothered to hide their contempt. He knew Malkar had thought to slight him by having him lead the parade, knew that to the Sidh the most important individuals came last. The bastard was still sore about losing it seemed. But how many millions of Commonwealth soldiers had he sacrificed to cover for a Sidh Legion? How many mass graves had bought the time for so many of the damned aliens to retreat, or evacuate a planet because it was the option that had made the most sense? The sooner Monroe requested that the Imperium remove it's military presence the better. The question than would be if they would follow the agreements already set in place or simply refuse. It had been his job over the past few months to reorganize the surviving units of the Commonwealth military, but also to devise 'Last Stand' plans for if the Imperium became hostile. There were plans in place to inflict as many casualties as possible on the Sidh forces before the Commonwealth was wiped out. The plans were all suicidal of course, but it was always better to have a plan in place for a situation.

    The staff car pulled up to the Ivory Lioness and Henry parked, hoped out, and opened the door for them. Again Richard nodded at the man. “Take the rest of the night off, Henry. I'll have the motor pool send a car around when we head home.” He told the man. Henry nodded and smiled. “Thank you, Sir. I'll be sure the be at the motor poll when that call comes through.” He said, pitching it as a joke, but Greyhem knew it may very well not be. He nodded again and taking Morgans arm in his they walked up the front steps and into the hotel. A bellhop came over and took their coats and his cap, offering them a few niceties and directing them to the ballroom, though they had both been her enough times in the past. True to Morgans desires the room was almost entirely empty save for the staff. The announced perked up but Morgan held her hand up.

    “Thank you, but there isn't anyone to announce too.” She said with a smile and the man looked slightly deflated. They walked past him and onto the open floor, passing over and heading to the tables. There wasn't any assigned seating so Morgan lead the charge towards a table in the back corner, taking the chair closest to the wall and Richard settled in beside her. There they waited and made small talk as people started to arrive, the announcers voice reaching every corner of the large room. “You know we'll have to get up and dance and socialize eventually, don't you?” Richard said to Morgan with a smile. “Key word being eventually, dear.” Morgan said with a grin.


    William O'Conners' head had been spinning all day, and half the time he was sure it was all some fever dream and he was dying somewhere, or had really fallen off the wagon as he drank. Kristanna had been the only thing that grounded him. She hadn't stopped smiling all day. He was a Strategos now, decreed by the Empress herself. And he was still a human. He was elated and terrified at the same time. He had seen the inner-workings of the upper ranks of the Imperium military for years now, and humans did not rank highly in their minds, and for most the Auxiliary force was seen as little more then cannon fodder, disposable units that would save their own soldiers. Some officers, not many but some, were always delighted by the casualty counts from the Auxiliary and the Commonwealth as well. His promotion was more akin to entering a vipers nest than anything else, but the Empress commanded it and so it was. He took a look in the mirror at his brown hair, because he was pretty sure it would start going gray before too long in this new post.

    William turned from the mirror and fiddled with the cuffs of his shirt, unable to help himself from reaching up to his collar and feeling the pinned insignia of his new rank, the thought coming crashing down upon him once again for the hundredth time of the day. He was a Strategos. Kristanna had all but carried him up to their apartment, her delight at his promotion was more than enough for both of them. She didn't seem to fully understand his hesitance and moments of disbelief, and she dismissed his doubts by simply stating 'The Empress knows best, and Emperor help any Sidhe who tries to interfere with this plan of hers, because She will not!'. Too Kristanna it was that simple, and he imagined for most Sidh it was that simple. They didn't have to like it, but they had to acknowledge it, and respect both it and the authority of the rank he now held. Of course the other, and more mild, sense of dread was that he would most likely be working very closely with Archoness Blackwater, and while they didn't exactly have history they were both outsiders, their actions watched and documented by their enemies and allies alike, to be held up as proof of their failures or held up as proof of their success. Elizabeth Blackwater would certainly be driving him to make the Auxiliary a concrete part of the Imperium military, and she would no doubt become personally involved as much as she could.

    Kristanna, sitting on the other side of the room and touching up a few spots of her makeup, spoke up. “Archoness Blackwater seems like a fine woman, stop fretting over it.” She said, as if picking up on his thoughts. William scoffed. “She's a traitor two times over. At least I'm only a traitor once over!” He declared, though only half heatedly. Her actions on Draitous were what he held against her, cooperating with the enemy, helping the Imperium in its campaign there. The full extent of her cooperation with the Imperium wasn't public record, but he knew more or less the full extent. If the general public had known they probably would have lynched her. Kristanna turned and gave him a bemused, lopsided look, crossing her arms over her chest and cocking her head to the side.

    “True, and I am very thankful that you are. If only I could meet the soldier who blew a chunk out of you, I'd give them a kiss in thanks!” Kristanna said, her grin growing. William shot her a look that made her laugh. She pushed off the presser and walked over to him, wrapping her arms around him in an embrace and looking down at him. “Because if they hadn't, I'd have never met you William, and that would truly be terrible. And I would never have been the wife of a Strategos, and while it is a secondary consideration, I do find the idea thrilling.” She chuckled and gave him a wink. William rolled his eyes and sighed, but couldn't help but grin anyway. “Why do I get the feeling that the moment I'm cleared for strenuous physical activity you're going to put me right back onto the light duty list?” He asked. Kristanna smirked. “Well my dear, it has been five very long years.” She said, biting her lower lip and winking. William laughed and shook his head, pushing her away, though really he knew she was the one volunteering to be pushed back. “Away with you, she-beast!” With his lover suitable banished to the other side of the room, he resumed fusing over his uniform. They finished preparing and then walked to the Ivory Lioness, their own hotel not too far away from it. It really was a grand hotel, William recalled dozens of movies that had been filmed here. Kristanna took a few moments to take in the gran lioness of ivory in the lobby, tilting her head as she circled it.

    “What a lovely statue.” She said when she returned. William nodded. “Aye, it's about as old as the Commonwealth too. She's a national treasure, no doubt about it.” He said, before nodding down the hallway towards the ballroom. Kristanna smiled and took his arm, leading the way. Most men he knew wouldn't like being lead by a woman, except the lot who found Altmarker wives or girlfriends, but even as a new strategos O'Conner really didn't mind, Kristanna was an UrbSec officer of course, and her take-charge attitude had always been something he liked and admired. She wouldn't hesitate to bull-rush an armed mob or an intoxicated or otherwise unruly Sidhe soldier in full armor. She wouldn't suffer not being at the head of the charge, and he wouldn't want to deprive her of that either. The entered the ballroom and her eyes went wide though, dazzled by the display no doubt, a completely different type of class then what she was used to, elegant but not morbid like so much of the Imperium seemed to be. O'Conner quickly cut the announcer off, not wanting to be announced. Elizabeth Blackwater may have been a traitor twice over, but that didn't make him any less of a traitor in the eyes of the Commonwealth officials and officers assembled here tonight. Hopefully his fellow...countrymen, he supposed, would be decent enough company for the night.

  2. #22
    Wolves Haven

    Outside "Ivory Lioness"

    "How do I look?" Drax inquired, examining himself in the small mirror that his assistant D'Anna held up for him. The two were sitting inside Drax's personal APC, outwardly no different from the regular military model, save for a pair of small Alpha Legion flags flying from the vehicle's radio antenas to signify that a VIP was aboard. Strategoi of lesser caliber might have rented a luxury limousine for the occasion, but not Drax - being very image-conscious, the old archistrategos would not stand for anything that could possibly conflict with his meticulously-cultivated "gruff and tough" public persona.

    "Impeccable as usual, sir," D'Anna remarked, reaching out to straighten a wrinkle on her mentor's uniform.

    "It's been ages since I last put this uniform on..." Drax commented, adjusting the high collar of his uniform that was embroidered with golden Imperial Aquilas and oak leaves, "I bet that insolent prick Monroe selected this particular venue on purpose, to make us look ridiculous without our armor!"

    "It's just diplomatic protocol. The Prime Minister is hosting this reception on Commonwealth soil, so it is only fitting and proper that we follow the customs of his country in it. Look at it from the bright side, sir," D'Anna was more optimistic, "At least this way we can put our parade uniforms to better use than collecting dust on a shelf."

    "Easy for you to say," Drax grumbled, "After everything I've had to go through to make our outfit presentable by the ridiculous standards of these cunt-borns and their so-called "high society", that's hardly a comfort!"

    "Well, it was kind of amusing to see you dance..." D'Anna smiled.

    Drax didn't dignify that with a response, his irate grumble indicating all that needed to be said on the matter.

    A week ago, while the construction of the war memorial was still in full swing, the Sidh legions on Altoris were undertaking equally intensive preparations for the coming event. Pub attendance and corresponding drunken brawls and other disciplinary infractions had plummeted sharply, as the rank-and-file troops were kept busy drilling for the coming parade literally from dawn to dusk. Officers would push their men harshly with constant inspections, and likewise cut themselves no slack - everyone from highest to lowest had to look perfect before the Empress when the time to appear before her would come.

    The staff officers of the Sidh expeditionary force who would attend the state banquet in the evening after the parade were likewise faced with an unusual predicament when the location and the list of expected activities was disclosed to them. The no-armor rule was frankly the least of their concerns, though it too understandably upset people who were habitually wearing their armor to the point of it being like a second skin. Much more worrying was the lack of understanding of the expected etiquette.

    It wasn't that the Sidh officers were uncouth brutes - the basics of etiquette in Sidh and Commonwealth cultures were similar enough. However, for most Sidhae, their grasp of etiquette never extended beyond these common basics, so when things came down to high society matters like proper usage of specialized cutlery or ballroom dancing, it was a completely blank picture for most. Asides from a few self-professed epicureans who deliberately cultivated old-fashioned aristocratic refinement, most Sidhae simply deemed such activities strange and pointless. Every proper Sidh knew that martial arts were a much more practical way to develop flexibility and coordination than dancing, and that oysters and other edible clams were supposed to be cracked open with a proper combat knife or, absent that, one's bare hands rather than some exotic vaguely knife-like contraption that the humans insisted on using.

    Consequently, this posed a major challenge, as the cream of Commonwealth and Altmark high society would be attending the event as well. While the Sidh commanders didn't much care about the opinions of some snobbish stuck-up humans with delusions of importance, they did care about how their conduct would reflect on their Empress. The average Sidh officer couldn't have cared less if some human noble called him a barbarous brute behind his back, or even to his face, but if his Empress was being derided as the queen of brutes, that was a whole different matter.

    Faced with such a predicament, the Sidhae would as always tackle the problem head-on. After thoroughly examining the evening plan and realising that most of his staff officers believed polonaise to be a kind of mayonnaise, Drax recognized the acute necessity to improve the proficiency of his staff in matters of high culture.

    The steps taken to address the problem were characteristically Sidh in their scale, heavy-handedness and brutal efficiency. Mere hours later, Sidh military patrols were in the streets all across Wolves Haven with complete personnel lists on hand, rounding up every terrified dancing teacher and etiquette instructor they could find. Drax had invoked an obscure clause of the Imperium-Commonwealth alliance treaty that authorized Imperial forces to conscript Commonwealth civilians for non-combat duties, and even though the war was over, the treaty was still formally in effect. Naturally, the local citizens and the authorities were none too pleased, since the Sidh troops in the streets weren't in the habit of explaining themselves to civilians and expected immediate and unquestioning obedience, but most found the situation and the effort the Sidhae put into it at least somewhat amusing after learning of the reasons.

    When the patrols reported in by evening, their round-up had procured 24 very intimidated ballroom dancing teachers and 7 etiquette instructors who stood before the imposing archistrategos trembling like raw recruits before the most vicious drill instructor. Drax wasted no time to divide them into shifts and assign them to different tasks, doing the same with every officer from the joint staff under his command that had received an invite. While quite a few had at first questioned the necessity for these upcoming studies, dissenters quickly relented after Drax made it clear that he would personally neuter anyone who disgraced him before the Empress by committing some faux-pas. Since Drax was known for making good on his threats, none were willing to try his patience and see if his threat of emasculation was merely a figure of speech.

    The officers appointed to oversee the practical instruction process applied methodology of military instruction to the task, setting up a simulated ballroom by exercising their still-valid right of requisition. Some of the necessary articles could be procured from among the Sidhae themselves, Grand Admiral Creed being a particular contributor, the rest being requisitioned from affluent citizens of Wolves Haven. In the meantime, the instructors appointed to handle the theoretical part of the instruction were pressed to work in shifts until a complete manual of Commonwealth etiquette and protocol was compiled. Each guest was to memorize this manual and upload a copy to his mnemonic chip for emergency reference. Drax also empowered the human instructors with the same disciplinary authority as his own military drill instructors, a couple of actual drill instructors being appointed to assist them in case someone thought to make light of their authority. Admittedly, their services never really became necessary - as the human instructors themselves would later attest, the Sidhae placed under their tutelage turned out to be exceptionally organized, disciplined and attentive students. Whether their diligence was motivated by their own desire to look good before the Empress, the looming threat of Drax's hammer-like fist applied to their groin, or both, remained an open question.

    By the afternoon of the next day, everything was set up for practice. Training groups would rotate between a dance floor and the simulated dining room, with a third room in between serving as a middle ground where trainees could practice small talk and socializing as a way of resting between exercise sessions. Sidh officers of both sexes, some of them grey-haired veterans of a hundred campaigns, stood at attention in their finest attire that they would be wearing for the event.

    As a strategos, Drax had attended diplomatic receptions many times before, and so had a rough grasp of the protocol. However, the Fed humans had rarely bothered with fineries, conducting these receptions much like business meetings, not having the patience or desire to treat the Sidh dignitaries to the finer points of receptions and knowing that the Sidhae didn't appreciate elaborate formalities either. Although he was better-versed than most of his officers in ceremony and protocol as a result, this was still a learning experience for him as well, so he attended the training course along with his men.

    The first problems weren't long in the making. It turned out that the majority of invited Sidh guests were men, so around one third of those present on the dance floor found themselves short of dancing partners. Drax, who was using D'Anna for the purpose, was quick to resolve the matter by proclaiming that that's what the men had each other for. Any grumbling was quickly silenced by his irate: "Move it, sweethearts!" And so the dancing lessons would commence, with several couples of huge dour-faced burly men practicing the steps of traditional ballroom dances to the nervous commands of very intimidated Commonwealth instructors who would jump whenever their appointed drill instructor assistants motivated the less-attentive and the clumsy in their accustomed military way. It was perhaps fortunate that the conscripted civilian instructors didn't speak Sidh for most part, much of the salt and venom of these expletive-laden motivational shouts being lost on them. Drax himself led by example, even swapping places with some of the men who were short of female dancing partners on occasion so that none could say he had dodged any of the hardship and humiliation of the ordeal.

    After two hours, the groups rotated, the one which Drax had chosen to accompany now entering the "talk room" to practice socializing that involved lots of small talk and flattery - an affair more challenging than it would seem to the Sidh officers who were for most part direct and blunt almost to the point of rudeness. Exchanging a few phrases of politeness for the sake of good form was easy enough, but engaging in an extended conversation with what would mostly be human civilians proved somewhat challenging, particularly where it came to finding appropriate topics of conversation. As the human instructors discovered, the majority of the Sidh officers placed under their tutelage had little experience with life outside the military and few if any interests that didn't somehow involve warfare. Since they were dealing mainly with senior officers, many of whom were born during the Age of War, created to be soldiers and having been soldiers for their entire lives, it came as unsurprising that the lot of them didn't function well in peacetime and a civilian setting. Hence it took some effort to impress upon them that the fineries of war-mechs and main battle tanks of different nations or graphic accounts of one's latest battlefield exploits were not necessarily appropriate subjects to entertain a lady with. After some consultation with Drax later in the week, it was determined that it would be most practical for most to just let their companions of the evening to do the talking - a decision that the attending officers were very pleased with, always having been better listeners than conversationists.

    After the next rotation, the group would enter the simulated dining room, featuring an elaborately-served dining table in an otherwise expressionless bland immitation room of plywood borrowed from an urban warfare training set. Neatly served army MREs simulated the fine foods that would be served at the real reception and also doubled as lunch for the attendees. Although the exact menu in the upcoming banquet was unknown at the time, for the sake of practice it was presumed that oysters would be served among other things. Since actual oysters were a deficit commodity right now, the attendees were served with 3D-printed plastic oysters to practice opening cleanly and ellegantly instead. Asides from proper "ellegant" use of eating utensils, proper toasting was among the things rehearsed, the main point that needed to be impressed upon the Sidhae was that shouting "HA-OOH!" and praises to their Emperor whenever a toast was called was not the proper way in the Commonwealth. After dining room practice, the men rotated back to the dance floor and went through another full circle during the day.

    After four days of intense exercise, Drax consulted the civilian instructors who were by now much more comfortable around their imposing charges, and came to the verdict that their performance was satisfactory. Dancing instructors were the only ones who were not satisfied.

    "General, your men's dancing is terrible!" one Frenchman complained, "Their technique is almost perfect for such a short time of practice, but they dance like machines without soul! Mechanical, repetitive moves, no passion, no imagination!"

    "I'm afraid that will just have to do for now," Drax responded. Soulless but technically flawless was good enough - he wasn't looking to make ballroom dancers out of his officers, but merely to avoid embarassment before the Empress.


    "It wasn't so bad after all," D'Anna stated, recollecting the last week's events, "Even you learned something new, sir."

    "Yeah, something useless that every proper Sidh would find to be complete bull!" Drax grumbled, examining the impressive rack of medals pinned to his chest to see that nothing was misaligned. The ribbon bars alone covered the better part of the right side of his chest, only a handful of the most prestigious decorations being pinned on in full - if Drax was to try wearing his entire decoration set, he would have been encased in medals like a suit of armor, having to pin them even on his pants all the way down to ankles.

    "Come on," his assistant smiled, "Even Darius seemed to enjoy himself!"

    Drax's hulking bodyguard who loomed further inside the APC only grumbled something from behind the wrathful scowl of the ceramite mask that concealed his disfigured face.

    "We better not sit around and talk until the Empress arrives," Drax stated, "Let's go!"


    Drax wasn't the only Sidh leader to arrive around this time. An armored luxury limousine was waiting in the long line of guest cars just ahead of Drax's APC, flying the colours of the 235th Mechanized legion and the Archonal banner of Persean Expanse. The limousine was Elizabeth's, flown here all the way from Imperium partly at her husband's insistence. Having a taste for finer things of life, Malkar felt that a bit more comfort and bling was in order for him than his rival Drax would ever deem appropriate.

    Same as inside the imposing APC behind them, Elizabeth and Malkar went over a last-minute inspection of their attire before disembarking. As opposed to Drax's black-and-gold uniform, Malkar wore a grey-and-silver one of the regular Army legions, albeit too draped in the gold-trimmed crimson mantle of an Archistrategos. Elizabeth in turn had opted to dress modestly, wearing a simple black velvet evening dress, form-fitting but not revealing much. She had likewise been modest in her choice of jewelry, only wearing a pair of pearl earrings and the heirloom necklace of diamonds and the extremely-rare and exotic gemstone that had once commanded the price of a Commonwealth dreadnought. Elizabeth always felt amused at the thought, having since her conversion learned that the Sidhae knew how to produce this gem synthetically, making it of no great value to them.

    "So, how did your men respond to Drax's dancing classes?" she smiled slyly while adjusting her husband's tie.

    "Same way you would respond to being ordered by the Empress to shovel shit on a farm," Malkar spoke, "With shock, displeasure, annoyance and dutiful obedience." Having had to accompany Elizabeth on social events with the local human nobility in the past, and generally being less averse to high society conventions than most Sidhae, Malkar himself had been spared the compulsory attendance, but his less-refined staff officers had not, as the newly-made Archistrategos was equally keen on avoiding any embarassments in the presence of the Empress.

    "I've never really understood why the Sidh officers in particular seem so hostile to... what any gentleman of class should know," Elizabeth spoke.

    "That's because we're soldiers," Malkar grumbled, "We are meant to fight and kill, not socialize - something that the local brass seems to forget every time. Knowledge of refined manners and ballroom dances contributes nothing to our ability to do our jobs, and knowledge of how to properly use an oyster knife certainly doesn't. If the local officers had spent half the time studying the art of war as they've wasted on learning how to eat with a spoon, we wouldn't have had this damn war in the first place!"

    "Now, now, husband..." Elizabeth calmed him, "What about Greyhem? He is a very refined gentleman but also a fine soldier, as you of all people can attest."

    "Greyhem? Feh...! If he had done his job right, neither of us would have gotten off Draitous alive!" Malkar scoffed, "He's a tough old bastard, I'll give him that, but the simple fact that both of us are here today is proof of why the Commonwealth could have never stood up to either us or the Skargh."

    "He seems to have managed reasonably well in the past five years," Elizabeth countered, "And he did manage to get the better of you as well on Draitous."

    "If Greyhem had been a Sidh, he'd have been relieved of command and court-martialed for Draitous for a kill-to-loss ratio like that regardless of the outcome!" Malkar grumbled, "Even acknowledging my own mistakes and oversights, the fact that he managed to defeat me is nothing short of a miracle, and he squandered even that victory by letting me and the majority of my force to withdraw. The past five years have been little different, and his sort still has the gall to accuse us Sidhae of barbarity and ungentlemanly warfare as if war was some kind of fucking sports game."

    "I cannot say I wholly disagree with them, dear," Elizabeth objected, "The Sidh way of waging war is... much harsher than what the people here are accustomed to."

    "Then they should get the hell out of way if they don't have the stomach for it and let those who do handle the fighting!" Malkar growled, "And now that we've done most of the dirty work, these sanctimonious cunt-born hypocrites have the audacity to suggest that our ways of waging war and even our manners are too crude for their liking."

    "Now, darling," Elizabeth pecked a quick kiss on his cheek to calm him, "Surely you know the saying that "ingratitude is the reward of the world". I too am no stranger to what you are feeling, dealing with insolent and arrogant nobles who smile to my face and call me a gold-digging turncoat whore behind my back despite everything I have done to enable them to continue living their pampered, sheltered lives of privilege and indulgence, and with disgruntled Sidh subordinates who say nothing aloud but whose faces clearly say the same thing whenever they see me despite everything I do to improve their standing as my new people. Let us put aside such concerns about those unworthy of our attention now, and instead focus on ourselves. Think of your new rank whenever someone's arrogance is about to get the better of you - you are now an Archistrategos, a lion among men, more powerful than any of those self-righteous pricks will ever be!"

    Riling up Malkar's ego was a tried and proven way of calming his temper whenever he was in a foul mood, this Elizabeth had discovered already in the first months of their relationship.

    "Right," Malkar nodded, straightening out his collar for the last time as their limousine rolled up to the red carpet leading to the entrance. One of the butlers appointed for the job opened the door for them, Malkar stepping out and taking Elizabeth on his right hand, as was customary in diplomatic banquets. The tradition was believed to come from the times when every gentleman would carry a sword to defend his person and honour with, ladies holding on to the gentlemen's right to stay their hand should any heated disputes break out.

    The area around the hotel was cordoned off by a mix of Metropolitan Police, Urban Security, MilSec and Imperial Guard troops, only thorougly vetted journalists and camera crews being allowed anywhere near the red carpet where the Sidh dignitaries would appear. Commonwealth officials were somewhat rightly paranoid about some disgruntled civilian or member of the military assaulting a ranking Sidh, or God forbid, the Empress herself - such an affront could in the very least cause the coming negotiations to start from a very unfavourable position. This concern was made especially actual a few days before, when the head of the Empress's security detail had come to inspect the site of the banquet, meeting personally with the Prime Minister and expressing his concern about "certain high-ranking Commonwealth officers having voiced openly hostile and anti-Sidh sentiments" being present in the city. Prime Minister Monroe was keenly aware which officers the Sidh had meant, and surprised and irritated in equal measure that the Sidh knew about it to begin with. Consequently, extra precautions were taken as to which people would be admitted anywhere near the event and the following negotiations. A certain Colonel Oakland whose views on the Sidhae were no secret was consequently sent on an assignment well outside the city along with a handful of other like-minded officers, and security was redoubled throughout Wolves Haven. Still, the Sidhae did not seem content, as Monroe would witness when the Empress's battalion-sized security detail arrived in full force, complete with mechwalkers and tanks on street corners and several gunships circling in the sky 24/7 wherever the Empress went. Their argument that this was just standard security was hardly reassuring, as was the Empress's mighty dreadnought looming high in the sky over the city, evidently kept there deliberately as a reminder of her might and the wrath to be visited upon those who cross her.

    It was in this tight security that Malkar and Elizabeth stepped on the red carpet, the Archoness smiling and waving to the photographers while her Archistrategos husband walked with his usual proud, nonchalant expression of a royalty amidst peasants. Some booing and shouting could be heard from the fenced-off "free speech" zone further down the street, the closest place where spectators and any potential protestors would be allowed.

    "I wonder who my designated date for the evening will be," Elizabeth spoke, referring to the custom of assigning one's date by drawing lots, "Don't you, dear?"

    "When I was younger, we would select whores this way," Malkar grinned, "Kept us boys from starting drunken brawls over the prettiest girls!"

    Elizabeth sighed, not sure whether to be upset or laugh at his grouchy comment. Apparently speaking with the softness of a hammer wasn't something peculiar to just some Sidhae.
    Last edited by CyberWar; December 9th, 2018 at 08:35 PM.

  3. #23
    The Ivory Lioness

    Sir Richard Greyhem stood beside his wife in the large anteroom to the grand ballroom. Most everyone was milling around and waiting. It was common practice in most social events like this for arriving pairs to be separated, with each ladies name being pulled at random by a gentlemen, who would then be responsible for escorting the lady that evening. It was a way to encourage conversation and socializing between people and groups that would normally not even give each other the time of day. The system was certainly going to be put to the test today, Greyhem couldn't help but think as he saw the first Sidh arriving. William O'Conner was a man known to him, and several other officers of course. Most considered him a traitor, and in some regards Greyhem did as well of course, but really the man had seen the best possible chance for a life after sustaining a crippling injury and had taken it, and by all accounts it had paid off for him. A human Strategos was certainly something that would be the talk of the town for some time. A human Strategos from the Commonwealth, a man who by all accounts Greyhem had heard had been a decent NCO, was going to be a legend. It was yet to be seen if that legend would be good or ill, but time would tell as it always did.

    O'Conner entered into the anteroom with a tall, good looking, and very solidly built woman leading him. She looked enthralled by the culture and grandeur on display. Morgan chuckled lightly beside him. “They seem like a very happy couple.” She said, sipping at a glass of wine and raising an eyebrow. “How easily do you think she could break him?” She asked grinning. Greyhem held in a sigh but have Morgan a look that only made her grin wider. “Come now dear, I'm not going to be cruel to them. It's just so refreshing to see subjects of the Imperium who actually look happy.” She said with a coy grin. Richard found it hard to disagree, and he had more experience with the Sidh then most people in the Commonwealth and finding any that looked genuinely happy had been a rarity. Plenty of smug looks though. Morgan wrapped her arm around his and headed forward. He fell into step rather then be seen as being dragged over and put on a neutral, if friendly, face.

    “Mister O'Conner!” Morgan said as they got closer. William jumped, he was clearly on edge and Richard couldn't blame him, but the Sidh woman turned to look at Morgan with an inquisitive look but still with that smile on her lips. O'Conner turned and his eyes went a bit wide when he saw Richard, but he held his back upright and put on a smile. Morgan stopped before the two and held out a hand.

    “Morgan Greyhem, nice to meet you. I'm sure you know my husband, Strategos. And who might your lovely companion be?” Morgan began, her voice and gestures genuine. Richard understood now, Morgan was inviting two very out of place people and making it seen that she welcomed them. It wasn't as if any snobbish wolves would be prowling tonight, Monroe had made sure of that with a sternly worded letter to all the Commonwealth attendees, but if Morgan Greyhem had been seen speaking to them they would get much less sidelong glances and potential smugness.

    “You may call me Kristanna.” The tall Sidh woman said, reaching out with a smile and gently shaking Morgan's hand. “I'm with the Urban Security detachment sent to keep the more brutish of our kind in line.” Kristanna said. Morgan gave a polite chuckle as she returned her hand to her side.

    “Oh, then we are quite happy to have you here. Don't get us wrong, we would be dead without the military help and now the relief efforts, but it seems most of your compatriots act more like conquerors then allies.” Morgan said. Richard felt the need to steer the conversation in the other direction, but Kristanna nodded and frowned a bit.

    “I can't apologize on their behalf, ma'am, but I find their behavior to be ill-suited to the situation as well. They've bled and died beside your own soldiers and civilians alike, and now act so badly that we've had to bring in thousands of UrbSec officers just for Wolves Haven alone. I assure you that my officers will not be treating any malcontents with a soft touch.” Kristanna said, sounding almost like she was making a vow. As the two women started getting into conversation both Richard and William uncoupled their arms and walked a few feet away, letting them chat. There was an awkward silence between the two, for obvious reasons. A footman came by and Richard ordered two whiskys. He returned shortly and handed one to each man.

    “Is this where I get scolded for being a traitor?” William said, swirling his drink around lightly. He had a small grin on his lips, but it was more a nervous one then impish. Richard took a sip and shrugged.

    “Not particularly. I'm far too tired after the last years to really care, truth be told. And perhaps in the future I'll get to work with you instead of Drax, and that would be...a significant improvement of attitude.” Richard said, and William let out a small burst of laughter.

    “No doubt about that.” William chuckled. “He is a miserable old bastard, no doubt about that. But he is also one of the best. Did you know that the Human Auxiliary was his idea? Well maybe not his idea, but he backed it. Gruff but practical.” O'Conner finished as he took a sip of his drink.

    “And now you're the first human Strategos by the decree of the Empress herself. I feel that you've stepped into a vipers nest, my boy. I think I'll take my pleasure of seeing you working with Elizabeth Blackwater as revenge for your treason.” Greyhem couldn't help but smile a bit at the look of obvious discomfort on William's face.

    “She is indeed a most tiresome woman.” A familiar gruff voice said from behind the pair. Years of front-line service kept Greyhem from startling, and instead he turned and took in the sight of Arch-Strategos Drax. He looked much less imposing without his armor, and he didn't tower quite as much as he usually did. Richard was going to make a comment but William beat him to it.

    “You're God damned sneaky when you aren't thudding around in your armor, sir. I nearly dropped my drink.” William said, the look on his features showing he wasn't sure if he should address Drax like that, but his nerves made him less reserved then normal it seemed. And surprisingly Drax actually seemed to grin. It wasn't so much as an actual grin as the slightest movement at the corner of his mouth, but in Richards book the man might as well have smiled enough to show his teeth.

    “There is a time and place for being a thudding armor clad brute, Strategos O'Conner, and Prime Minister Monroe has made it clear that this is not one of them.” D'Anna, standing beside Drax, said with a smile. Their focus was on O'Conner. “Congratulations on your appointment. May you serve the Empress well in your new position. I look forward to seeing what you make the Auxiliary into.”

    “Indeed, congratulations are in order, O'Conner. Your promotion at least helped to dim the aura coming off Malkar, the pompous showman.” Drax grumbled slightly. “The man leads an unauthorized invasion against an unknown enemy, gets beaten by technologically inferior humans, and allows himself to get roped in my Elizabeth Blackwater, whose inside information led us into the fiasco of conquering the FSA, which in turn led us into this war. He's left a bloody swath behind his rise, no doubt.” Drax rumbled. He looked at Greyhem and added. “No offense, General.” Greyhem wasn't sure if he meant it or was just being polite, though he wouldn't have disagreed with the assessment. Of all the Sidhe commanders he had any dealings with, Malkar seemed the most personally ambitious and showy of the lot, as the parade ceremonies had shown. Even now Malkar was a controversial figure in the Commonwealth, as it was a well founded theory that the increased presence of the Imperium and its wars in this sector of space had drawn the Skargh here at all, and since he had lead the first charge the last several years could in some regards, be traced back to the man. Greyhem certainly hoped the Empress would see that and send the man far enough away from the Commonwealth to keep things civil. He imagined he new rank would certainly see him deployed elsewhere, even if his wife controlled the nearest sector of the Imperium, but Elizabeth Blackwater was someone that could be worked with.

    “None taken, Arch-Strategos.” Greyhem said and took another sip of his drink as he looked around. There was a fairly large crowd gathered now, so no doubt they would be announcing the pairings for the evening.

    Alexandra Invictus stepped out of the car before the Ivory Lioness Hotel with an easily placed smile on her lips. There were members of the press present, though few cameras, politely if insistently trying to get interviews, have questions answered, and the few with cameras snapping a few pictures here and there of the more high-profile people heading into the hotel. In the Federation these press hounds would be looking for gossip and celebrity drama, but here most seemed to be looking for answers to actually important questions. When would the negotiations begin? What were the Imperiums terms so far? Would the garrison forces become and occupation force until such a time when the Imperiums demands were met?

    No, these people didn't miss a beat, that was for sure. The Imperium had been comrades in arms just a few months ago, and while most people hadn't turned ungrateful for the support it still provided, they reckoned it was more about the Imperium leading with the carrot instead of the stick, and had no real disillusion that it could change in a moment if the Empress so commanded. But when someone recognized Alexandra she did become bombarded by the press and there was a flash of several cameras. She was a quickly rising darling among the Commonwealth press, and in the Commonwealth in general, and she had only been here for a few weeks. Of course Monroe had something to do with that, his office had been praising her efforts and trying to paint a nice bright future for the Commonwealth. Alexandra was unused to serious media attention, but she sort of liked it.

    She had done her best to appear modest for the ball, wearing a modest red dress, though with a figure like hers it was difficult to really be modest unless she wanted to dress in something that would be totally inappropriate for the occasion. She had donned little makeup, not really needing any thanks to her healthy, near glowing skin. She flashed her smile for the pictures and gave the assembled media a wave and a nod before she walked past and into the hotel. A few heads immediately turned to see who the new arrival was, and a fair few turned back to their conversations after a moment, but some lingered. She couldn't help but grin a small self-satisfied grin. She was a beautiful woman and she knew it. As the saying went, it wasn't arrogance if it was true. Before traveling further into the room she stopped and submitted her name, where she would be randomly paired up with a man for the evening, if there were enough for equal pairings of course.

    Once she had written her name she gracefully waded into the buzz of conversations. She spotted the obvious discomfort of her fellow Sidh from being out of their armor, and knew the feeling of vulnerability all to well. It had been a hard adjustment from military to civilian life, and it was no doubt even harder for the people assembled here, each being a career soldier whereas she had simply served a few tours and got out. She also noted that very few of the bubbles of conversation were mixed, most being Sidh talking to Sidh and human talking to human, with a few groups being mingled. Arch Strategos Drax was speaking with the human Auxiliary commander and General Greyhem, with three women conversing close by. Alexandra vaguely remembered the one woman as Drax's assistant, the scars on her back on full, unashamed display. Alexandra had gotten out of the military without any real scars that even the logistical elements of the Imperium seemed to have. She knew some elements considered that a sign of cowardice or of an officer who had delegated everything to their troops and sat in a cushy office. But she had been under fire a few times, suffered losses under her command, and had killed Federation soldiers. Was it really her fault if she was smarter and more cautious then most and valued not catching a round or energy-blade?

    A waitress passed by carrying a tray of wine and Alexandra reached out and gracefully grabbed a glass. She spotted Elizabeth Blackwater and her newly promoted husband off to one side, the new Arch Strategos being swarmed by other Sidh officers expressing their congratulations and maybe even their admiration. The man was certainly loving the attention.

    “You're about the only comfortable Sidh that I've seen all night.” A familiar voice said from beside her. Alexandra half turned and smiled as Prime Minister Johnathon Monroe. He was well dressed and seemed at ease, probably happy now that the parade and all the headaches it had caused was over and done with, even if a colossus of the treaty work was on the horizon. Alexandra took a sip of her wine before replying.

    “The benefits of having the sense to get out of the military. I will be the first to admit that I do adore my cushy little life style, Mister Monroe, but I hope by now you've realized that it does not mean I am a particularly soft person.” She said. Plenty of former associates had made that mistake, and it always ended up costing them. Monroe scoffed.

    “You could be as soft as teddy bear for all I care. You get results when you say you will, and that is all I care about. As grateful as I am for the continued assistance of the Imperium, their assistance is doing little more then keeping the Commonwealth obedient. I couldn't even tell you how many times I requested that even a sliver of the resources going to building that damned parade ground was sent to worlds where we could expand our agricultural industries to try and start getting on track to not starving. But no, Malkar wanted his moment of glory, and he damned well got it.” Monroe went off on a little tirade. Alexandra couldn't help but smile a little.

    “Well, profits and market shares do wonders to motivate me, Mister Monroe. I very un-Sidh in the aspect of my greed. The government keeps people and businesses from getting to large, lest we become a mirror image of the Federation and its mega-corporations. Ironic that I see it as a reasonable limitation and yet desire to have so much more. I suppose that makes me a hypocrite.” Alexandra mused with a small grin. Maybe that's why the Empress was trying to send her off and embed her here in the Commonwealth? Other then a very subtle way of soft control, anyway.

    Monroe was about to continue when an orderly came up and whispered something to him. Monroe nodded and righted up a bit more as he turned towards the entrance. Alexandra raised a brow and turned as well, just in time to see two hulking suits of power armored Sidh enter. The markings made it instantly clear that they were the Empresses guards, no doubt the only exceptions to the power armor ban in the hotel. Two more entered and the four of them spread out along the wall, doing a quick scan before the Empress herself walked in.

    Alexandra had never been this close to the Empress, hell she had only seen the woman in person once and that had been earlier in the day, so being this close was certainly a highlight of her life. For however un-Sidh like she may have considered herself, this was still the Empress. She was a small woman, average size for a human, and Alexandra utterly dwarfed her, yet she was the Empress. She had an aura that made one seem...insignificant. The Empress spotted them, or more likely spotted Monroe, and walked over, a single towering guard following her. Alexandra bowed as she approached.

    “Prime Minister Monroe, Miss Invictus.” The Empress said. Alexandra was honestly stunned that the Empress even knew who she was. She had figured her summons here had been from someone in her inner circle or retinue, but if it had been from the Empress herself? Well that made things far grander then she had ever thought.

    “Thank you for attending, your Majesty.” Monroe said with a slight bow of the head. He may have been a head of state, but they were clearly not equals and he wasn't so stubborn as to refuse to see that.

    “It would have been most rude for me to not, Prime Minister. I do realize most of your interactions with Sidhe have been with soldiers, and soldiers who may not hold you and your species in high regard at that, but I assure you that the Imperium does not forget those who they shed blood with, nor do I look down upon the Commonwealth as I know some of my officers do. Rest assured I will be seeing to their redeployment at the earliest possibility.” The Empress said, voice radiant and commanding. It was there that Alexandra saw first-hand at the sheer power this woman could wield with words alone. It seemed an invisible weight had been lifted from Monroes' shoulders.

    “I am quite glad to hear that. Not that we are ungrateful, of course, as I was telling Miss Invictus here just a moment ago.” Monroe seemed to want to say more but another orderly came up, sheepishly interrupting with another whispered message. “If you'll excuse me, ladies.” Monroe said to them both, bowed slightly, and walked away. Alexandra was at a loss for what to do on her own, here before her Empress. Thankfully the Empress started first.

    “So I hear you intend to renounce your loyalty to the Imperium and myself, Alexandra Invictus.” The Empress said, her tone more...amused then anything. Alexandra felt her eyes go a bit wide at that, wondering if she would be politely informed at how bad that would be for her health, and also wondering just how the Empress knew about that little tidbit. The short woman smiled slightly and looked up at Alexandra's towering form, their eyes finding each others. In those eyes Alexandra saw a depth of wisdom and confidence as she had never seen.

    “I don't have spies in the government, if that is what you are thinking. The Prime Ministers personal clerk enjoys his drink a bit too much, and was rather vocal about some 'Sidh bimbo business woman' and her dealings with the Prime Minister. One of my security agents just happened to be in the same pub.” The Empress looked Alexandra up and down, and her grin became slightly mischievous. “And while you have the body for it, Alexandra, I know you are far too intelligent to fall into that definition.”

    Alexandra blinked and frowned. Had the Empress, the unchallenged and all powerful ruler of the Imperium, just said she had the body of a bimbo? Was the Empress joking with her? “Uh..well thank you, your Majesty. I think? And I won't deny I made those promises to Monroe, but it was necessary to begin my operations.” The Empress just smiled a little more.

    “And that is why I asked for you to come here to Altoris, Miss Invictus. Needless to say, you've certainly passed my initial tests on your ability and willingness. I see in you a means to steer the Commonwealth in the direction I would like it to go. I could simply force a puppet government into power and be done with it, certainly, but I find I would like a friendly government that wasn't just doing as I wanted it too. We will talk more about it later and more in-depth, but come. I believe with my arrival they are going to be pairing us off.” The Empress said, walking past Alexandra. Her towering guard seemed to allow Alexandra fall into step behind the Empress before following along as well.

  4. #24
    The Ivory Lioness

    "Ladies and gentlemen, your attention, please!" the announcer proclaimed from next to a table where four trays of cards with names were placed. Two sides represented the Imperium and the Commonwealth, each being divided into ladies and gentlemen respectively. The idea was to match ladies and gentlemen from different nations and encourage socialization.

    "Those named, please stand together on the side!" the man instructed, drawing the first two cards. The cards with Monroe's ellegant handwriting and the Empress's monogram were set aside to be matched first, seeing how they were the host and guest of honour requiring special consideration.

    "The first pairing of the evening obviously goes to our most esteemed guest of honour, Her Majesty the Empress of Sidhae! The honour of accompanying Her Majesty tonight falls to... Sir Henry de Winters!"

    "Your Majesty," an elderly gentleman with a golden monocle, neatly trimmed beard and ellegantly curled imperial mustache left the ranks of men, kissing the Empress's hand as he introduced himself, "It is my honour."

    "The honour is mine, Sir Henry," the Empress graciously nodded, letting her companion lead her aside.

    "The next on the list is our honourable host, His Excellency Prime Minister Jonathon Monroe, whose companion today will be... Centurion D'Anna van Halen of Alpha Legion!"

    The blonde centurion who stood visibly taller than her assigned date took Monroe's hand with a grace befitting of a queen. As she followed him, many especially among the Commonwealth ladies quietly gawked at the many white scars on her back that the low cut of her black evening dress exposed. Many of them were too regular in shape and pattern to be random battlefield injuries, and were evidently left there under extended torture, leading many to wonder what this poor young woman had endured in her life.

    "Next we have our fiercest champion and stalwart ally, Archistrategos Arcadius Drax of the Alpha Legion, and... Mrs. Morgan Greyhem!"

    When Drax approached Morgan to offer his hand, she was at first overwhelmed, having never seen such a huge man up close. Granted, just about every one of the Sidh guests and their Altmark kin was considerably taller than her or even most of the Commonwealth men, but Drax stood out even among them as massive. Morgan's hand disappeared entirely inside Drax's giant palm, and she wondered how a man with such hands could handle things like pens or eating utensils. Although her husband had somewhat fairly characterized him as a brute and a grouch, if a highly-capable and fearless one, Drax soon proved to be quite a gentleman.

    "So, we meet in person at last, Lady Greyhem," he said, his words rumbling out as if from the depths of a volcano.

    "Call me Morgan, Archistrategos," she said, "That my husband bears a knightly title does not make me a Lady, and I am not much fond of titles."

    "Yet it would not be proper to call the wife of a knighted gentleman anything else than Lady," Drax retorted with a slight grin.

    Somewhat ironically, General Greyhem himself was matched with Elizabeth Blackwater-Malkar, leading to no small amount of hushed murmur among the audience. Back during Draitous campaign, Greyhem had been the most outspoken denouncer of her as an arch-traitoress. How these two would get along now would no doubt be the point of interest for many this evening.

    The next on the list was Malkar, who was matched with General Claudia Steiner, commander-in-chief of the Altmark ground forces. Although the newly-made Archistrategos had probably hoped for a more youthful and attractive companion, he comforted himself with the knowledge that at least now he would not have to endure Elizabeth's irritated frowns over his real or perceived flirting. Besides, it was not like Steiner would make for an unpleasant company - in the very least, the old hag had plenty of interesting war stories going all the way back to Draitous and probably long before that.

    Archistrategos Mercred Kanto, the stern and majestic commander of the Sigma Legion who was reputed to be almost as ruthless as Drax and furthermore rumored to have bizarre sadistic inclinations, found himself matched with General Inge Hausser, another prominent Altmark commander. Whispers in the crowd guessed if Kanto would manage to annoy Hausser to the point of her challenging him to a duel with unrepentant and boastful accounts of atrocities inflicted at his command. Those in the know, however, would say that reports of Kanto's brutality were highly exaggerated, part of a deliberately cultivated public image rather than having any genuine basis - or at least any greater than for the average commander of a Sidh elite legion.

    Admiral Chadda found a very fitting match in Grand Admiral Creed, and onlookers had little doubt that the two would be spending much of the evening discussing naval war stories dating back to their youth along with ongoing issues in their respective navies and plans for the future.

    O'Conner, the first human Strategos who was all the talk on both sides these days, found himself at the side of a certain Virginia de Segonzac, a billionaire heiress and socialite of a somewhat scandalous reputation. Daughter of a prominent industrialist, the now-deceased Jean-Luc de Segonzac, Virginia was a controversial figure for a number of reasons, her father's separatist affiliation during the civil war against the Free Systems Alliance being the main one along with her numerous love affairs with prominent public figures, some of them married and/or female. Those who knew her had little doubt she would try her luck with O'Conner as well tonight at an opportune moment. While Virginia's personal reputation was questionable, her financial and industrial contribution to the war effort, however, was not, leading her to secure an invitation to this banquet.

    Alexandra Invictus found her date to be right to her liking, a young, handsome and tall Commonwealth Navy captain going by the name of Jake Lonergan. By his own admission, the man was taken straight from naval academy and shoehorned in command of a destroyer as acting captain despite only holding the rank of 2nd Lieutenant - such had been the shortage of qualified officers during the Siege of Altoris. Mostly by luck, he had survived the war and even managed to take down a Skargh ship in combat, leading to his permanent commission as a captain. Depending on how things went from here on, Alexandra was already considering whether to invite this young gentleman over for some coffee afterwards.

    Kristanna's date was Lieutenant John de Winters, a young artillery officer and nephew of Henry de Winters. Reputedly a dependable soldier out in the field, but extremely shy around women. Word was that his uncle had brought him along to get the poor lad to socialize with the opposite sex and learn to overcome his shyness. Despite his best efforts to maintain composure, the poor chap's hands were shaking when he approached Kristanna as if she was a raging Skargh berserker, to the point that Kristanna felt compelled to take initiative and hold onto his arm by herself, quietly reassuring the young lieutenant that she does not intent to bite him. The disappointed frown from his uncle indicated Sir Henry was evidently not pleased with the lack of progress his nephew was making.

    Perhaps the biggest stir, however, was caused by the match between an unimposing Altmark lieutenant and by far the largest guest, Drax's bodyguard and retainer Darius, who towered above the crowd and even his imposing boss and friend. From the moment Darius entered, he attracted the gazes of all both with his massive stature and the wrathfully-scowling ceramite mask covering his face. Some younger human gentlemen, mostly junior officers, chuckled amongst themselves that the big guy must have evidently mistaken this for a masquerade ball, but quickly fell silent at the disapproving gazes of their seniors who had seen enough faces disfigured by war to last a lifetime. The Altmarker, tall for a human female yet shorter than average for her kind, looked downright tiny and puny next to the hulking Sidh and seemed somewhat confused. Darius did little to alleviate confusion by drawing a notebook from his chest pocket and writing something before tearing out the page and handing it to the girl. She read the note and looked up, nodding in understanding before writing something of her own and handing it back. Darius nodded, and the two went on to join the matched guests. Those in the know guessed it probably pertained to the difficulty of speaking loudly that Darius had because of his many old injuries - in his armor suit, a vocal synthesizer could emulate normal speech for him, but without one and apparently lacking such an implant, he couldn't speak above a loud whisper that sounded more like a snarl, and consequently chose to remain silent most of the time.

    Finally, after all guests were matched, the ballroom doors opened, and Monroe led the guests inside with the Empress at his side, temporarily having taken her from Henry de Winters who walked behind them with D'Anna on his arm.


    Ramsbridge District

    It was getting late when Anthony and Savitri were wandering about in the streets. In honour of the Empress's visit, Brother Malachiel had in a rare display of generosity granted the younger acolytes two days off. The aspiring Word Bearers used their newfound free time differently - some went about exploring the city, some further immersed themselves in study and meditation, and others took the rare opportunity to visit a bar for some refreshing sin. The Word did not, after all, forbid one from occasionally enjoying a stronger drink in moderation.

    A passerby would have great difficulty recognizing a Commonwealth colonel's errant son in the young man clad in the red robes of a Sidh monastic, complete with an Aquila pendant and a set of rosary beads hanging from his belt. For all the air of maturity and seriousness he was striving to put on, however, it was still obvious to a keen observer that he was still but a teenager, yet lacking the genuine sombre dignity of the older Sidh brothers and sisters. Same could be said about his companion, still quite obviously a teen who wasn't above occasional mischief befitting her age despite her serious religious commitment.

    " when he started his sermon, all the gathered faithful found it hard to stay serious as they saw his shining-black teeth. He made us all do penance for a whole week afterwards, but seeing his face in front of the mirror alone was worth it," Savitri spoke and laughed, recounting an incident where she and some other acolytes had played a prank on the humorless Brother Malachiel by pouring ink into his morning coffee. Anthony laughed as well, both at the thought of Malachiel's ink-stained teeth and the simple joy of seeing Savitri laugh. Most of the time she strived to be humble and serious, probably because their stern tutors were constantly around, but this evening was different - Savitri seemed unusually relaxed and open, sharing stories such as this with Anthony.

    "What is the best prank you have ever played?" she asked.

    "Well," Anthony grinned, "There was this occasion where I put itch powder in my brother's boots on the day they were rehearsing for his school's military drill team. Imagine him trying to stand at attention with a handful of itch powder in each of his boots! He got kicked off the team, and I had to go around with a black eye for a month when he first came home after that."

    "How mean of you! Did you at least apologize afterwards?" Savitri scolded him much to his surprise. Anthony had somehow expected the Sidh to appreciate the rough humour in cruel pranks such as this, yet Savitri clearly seemed not to.

    "Didn't have to," Anthony wasn't sure how to best respond, "We're brothers, after all. It's what brothers do to each other all the time. You probably wouldn't understand..."

    "I may be a Sidh, a creature without concept of family or kinship, little more than a machine by your standards," Savitri spoke, visibly offended, "But I understand more than you think. Such as that what I did was a harmless prank, whereas what you did caused harm to your brother, forced him out of doing what he enjoyed to do!"

    "Maybe men like my father think of you that way, but I don't," Anthony said with equal seriousness.

    "What do you think me of as, then?" the Sidh girl asked.

    "I think of you as a girl," Anthony answered straightforwardly.

    Savitri's shining eyes seemed to shine slightly brighter than usual even as she did not respond with words.

    "For the record, my brother got back at me about a month later when he sprinkled some pepper spray in my underwear while I was sleeping. When I got dressed in the morning, they could probably have heard me on the other side of Wolves Haven..." Anthony added, "But yes, I admit what I did was cruel and mean." Suddenly the thought of his brother getting punished because of his prank didn't seem so amusing after all.

    "What is it like to have a family?" Savitri suddenly asked, "I mean, a... "family" family, the kind that humans have?"

    "Well, as I said before, it's difficult to understand if you've never had one," Anthony spoke, "We spend a lot of time together. We argue a lot, sometimes do mean things to each other like me and my brothers used to, but we also always stand up for each other, and that is what matters, what makes family a family."

    "But what about your father?" Savitri asked, "Since you joined us, he hasn't even shown interest in how you are doing."

    "Ahh, father..." Anthony sighed, "I suppose he's just trying to do what he thinks is best for me, hoping some time away from the comforts of home will be enough to change my mind. He will obviously never admit it, if only for his prejudice against your people, but I think deep down he doesn't really want me to come back. Not because he would hate me, but because he wants me to be like himself - a man of his word and principle. If I did go home, I think deep down he would think less of me than if I stayed with you."

    "Like the exalted Emperor, when He decided to unify Mankind at any cost, even if it took killing one half to unite the other," Savitri was quick to find a religious analogy, "Not because He hated humanity or sought power for himself, but because He wanted to deliver it from certain destruction at the hands of the xenos. True love must sometimes be expressed in the harshest of terms."

    "I do not suppose my father and his tough love quite compares to the exalted Emperor," Anthony grinned, "I think it is equal measures of tough love and his own pride and stubbornness. He thinks I know and understand nothing about your kind because I wasn't at Draitous like him. But I have eyes and ears too. For all the terrible and bad things some Sidhae may have done, others have done many more noble and kind things, as this war has amply proven. I think my father is also just too proud to admit that his opinions might not be entirely accurate."

    "I'm sure he will come to accept your choice to stay with us eventually," Savitri said, "But until then, keep faith and stay true to your heart."

    "I speak His Word - it is better to be hated for what you are, than loved for what you are not," Anthony agreed with a quote from the Word.

    "Ave Imperator!" Savitri smiled as she made the customary response, "You are learning quickly, young brother Antonius."

    "I'm only learning from the best," he smiled back at her. For a moment, the gazes of the two youths remained locked at each other, clearly betraying more than just shared religious beliefs, before Savitri averted her eyes and humbly lowered her gaze. Even in the darkness, it was obvious she was brightly blushed right now inasmuch her olive-brown skin would allow.

    "Please, don't look at me like that..." she uttered, "It makes me feel... uncomfortable."

    "Sorry... I didn't mean anything by it!" Anthony apologized, having blushed brightly himself.

    For a while, the two youths went on in silence, keeping at an arm's reach distance from each other before closing in on each other again.

    "It's getting dark," Savitri said in an effort to break the awkward silence, "We should get back to our compound."

    "Why don't we go to the Memorial while we're at it? I never got to see it up close," Anthony proposed.

    "But it is a good way off-route," his companion objected, "It's at least an hour's walk from here."

    "It's not like we have anywhere to hurry, do we? Come one, how often does Brother Malachiel let us off on our own for anything?" Anthony urged her on.

    "Fine," Savitri finally relented, "Let's go. Just be careful, it's very dark and there's still a lot of rubble in the streets."

    "I trust you will spot any hazards for me," Anthony shrugged, referring to Savitri's augmented eyes that could see at night, since neither of them had thought of bringing along a flashlight.

    "Frankly it is not the rubble I am worried about..." the girl answered. The power supply in the city was very limited, directed mostly to vital facilities like pumping stations, water treatment plants, hospitals and government buildings, wealthy districts whose residents could afford to pay premium rates for 24-hour power supply, and Sidh military bases where most of the power was generated in any case. The rest of the citizens had to make do with a strictly-rationed power supply, most civilian districts only receiving a few hours of electric power according to a weekly schedule. Consequently, the absence of street lighting was conducive to all sorts of unsavoury characters carrying out their illicit acts, further aggravated by the fact that police presence was thin throughout the city even with the Urban Security reinforcements. There would be reports of hold-ups and murders every day, people getting beaten or killed for their ration cards or as little as a few packs of MREs, while the Metropolitan Police generally seemed more concerned with reining in drunk and disorderly Sidh troops, who admittedly rarely caused more harm than a few windows and furniture pieces smashed during brawls. As a result, Sidh authorities had issued cautionary warning to all non-military personnel doing business in Wolves Haven to avoid the regular civilian districts at night. While nobody would dare to assault Sidh soldiers who rarely went anywhere without armor or alone in any case, same wasn't necessarily true about Sidh civilians who would likely be perceived as acceptably-dangerous targets by ill-intentioned individuals with little to lose.

    As if affirming Savitri's concerns, two shady-looking characters exited a dark alley and began to follow the pair at some distance. Wary to attract their attention, Savitri subtly nudged Anthony with her elbow.

    "Relax, it's probably just some guys going to a pub," Anthony dismissed her concern. The appearance of another three men at the opposing end of the street and a taunting whistle clearly directed at them, however, soon proved the validity of those concerns. The fact that one of them wielded what appeared to be a cricket bat carelessly slung over his shoulder did little to reduce the suspicions.

    "Just keep going, they won't dare to do anything to us," Anthony encouraged his companion, though only half-heartedly believed in his words. There were, after all, many more men like his father out there, hating the Sidhae like the plague.

    "Oi, tankies! Yeah, you there... Where are you two lovebirds headed this late?" the man with the cricket bat shouted, "Oi, I'm talkin' to you!"

    "We are going for a walk, good sir," Anthony responded confidently, "And we would much like to be left to our business, if you wouldn't mind."

    "Oi, but I do mind! Don't you two know there's a toll of passage here on this street?" the man with the bat, clearly the gang's ringleader, stood in their way.

    "On whose authority?" Anthony demanded to know.

    "10th Street Butcher Boys," the thug retorted, "Now, I believe you've got something for me..."

    "Look, sir, we do not want any trouble..." Savitri spoke, but the thug interrupted her rudely.

    "I ain't talkin' to you, broad! I'll get to you..." the man barked, when Anthony stood in his way.

    "Don't you call her a broad...!" he barked, trying to look as menacing as he could, but to no avail as the thug shoved him to the ground, leaned into his face and growled.


    Next instant, he was himself shoved away by Savitri who stood between the thugs and Anthony.

    "Leave him alone!" the girl shouted, her eyes glaring brightly.

    "Oh, look at that, the tankie boy hiding behind the back of his broad!" the scoundrels laughed, "And we thought you Sidh types were supposed to be all tough!"

    "I'm the son of Colonel Robert Oakland! For your own sake, you better back off!" Anthony could come up with no better idea than to invoke his family ties as he struggled to his feet.

    "Yeah, and I'm the Emperor of Sidhae!" the ringleader laughed, "As if Colonel Oakland would let his boy run around with tankies... Everyone in town knows what ol' Oakland thinks of your sort!"

    "Hey, boss," one of the men pointed out, "Maybe the lad ain't shittin' us, he ain't got no shiny eyes like his little bitch here or all the rest o'em!"

    "Well, I'll be damned... The kid is indeed a human!" the ringleader agreed, pulling a struggling Anthony in by the collar and noticing his absence of shining eyes while the other men shoved away a protesting Savitri, "But no matter - even if you are what you say, you're still a fucking race traitor by my book, mingling with these coghead freaks! And we really don't take kindly to race traitors here in our district! Show him what we do with race traitors, boys!"

    With that, he shoved Anthony down to be set upon by the jeering gang. An instant later, however, he found himself knocked on his backside with a hard kick, as Savitri suddenly sprang to action.

    "Run, Tony!" she shouted to Anthony as the thugs set upon her. One staggered back with a broken nose, and another reeled over from a kick to the groin, but fit and strong as she was, the young and inexperienced Savitri ultimately proved no match for five hardened criminals. The one with the broken nose set after Anthony, pulling the boy down on the ground and proceeding to beat him up, while the rest teamed up on Savitri, the ringleader stunning her with a blow of his bat to the stomach while the rest seized and pinned her down on the ground.

    "Take that! And that!" the thug who had been kicked in the groin limped over to Anthony and joined the beatdown, kicking him in the head and stomach. Anthony tried to kick one of his two tormentors away and get up, but only earned a more violent beating for his efforts. His face was covered in blood and swollen when the two finally decided he had had enough and dragged him over deeper into the ruins, where their three buddies were still beating a struggling and screaming Savitri.

    "That's how we welcome race traitors on our street!" the gang leader announced, turning a malicious gaze towards the Sidh girl.

    "Say, this one's got quite a piece of ass for a tankie! I wonder if she's got anything else interesting under that skirt..."

    Realizing his intentions as he set aside his bat and knelt down, Savitri started to scream and struggle with redoubled effort before the thugs silenced her with a punch to her face and stuffed her mouth with some of her own robe. The ringleader pulled up her robe and tore away her undergarments before forcing her legs apart.

    "NO! NO! DON'T YOU DARE, GODLESS BASTARDS!" Anthony screamed at the top of his lungs, trying to struggle out of the thugs' grasp to the girl's aid, when a kick to the back of his head almost knocked him out and one of his captors twisted his hands on the back almost to the point of dislocating. The other operatively drew a switchblade, pulled up Anthony's own robe and slashed his pants open, exposing his backside.

    "I haven't had any pussy in a long time, and I don't have the patience to wait until the boys finish with your little friend there," the thug explained as he began to unzip his pants, delighted at Anthony's struggles and horror about what was about to happen, "You wanna be a tankie, you gotta know what tankies to do to pretty little boys like you. I know, I was on Colline Fleurs when they invaded. Here, let me show you..."

    He never finished or got to business when some unseen force lifted him from the ground and slammed him into the nearby ruined wall that collapsed from the impact. The thug who was holding Anthony down looked back to see what the commotion was about only to turn right in a swing of stun stick that obliterated his face and knocked him out with a loud electric crack, sending him flying.

    "Fuck! It's the fuzz!" one of the men tormenting Savitri cried out, immediately taking off. His buddies followed the suit, their leader high-tailing it the last as he struggled to pull up his pants while running. His struggle didn't last long as a stun bolt fired from a handblaster struck him in the back right between the shoulder blades, throwing the man forwards and down were he remained, groaning and twitching as arcs of electricity coursed all across his body. The remaining two didn't make it far before suffering a similar fate.

    Anthony looked up to see a Metropolitan Police officer towering over him along with two hulking Urban Security troopers in their armor suits.

    "Metropolitan Police, inspector Jacob Hunter!" the man identified himself, "Are you hurt, lad? Did they..."

    "No, they only roughed me up," Anthony struggled to his feet dazed and looking around frantically, "Where's Savitri!? Is she alright?!"

    "Your friend? She's right here," inspector Hunter said, pointing at the girl who had stood up and now proceeded to vent her righteous fury on the paralyzed gang leader, kicking him in the groin repeatedly before being restrained by the Sidh patrolmen.

    "Identify yourself, citizen!" one of them demanded, the grating, metallic voice from the external speaker of his helmet making him even more intimidating than he already appeared. This aggressive approach rather than first calming and comforting the victim earned a slight frown from the human officers, but as a Sidh Savitri was familiar enough with the procedure and obediently presented her right arm for scanning without question. After scanning her codex, the Sidh turned to Anthony.

    "Identify yourself, citizen!"

    "Aren't you gonna do anything about my friend? Don't you see she's terrified!" Anthony protested, uncertain what was expected of him.

    "Identify! Now!" the Sidh demanded even more sternly, Anthony uncertainly extending his hand like he had seen Savitri do.

    "Where's your Codex?!"

    "I... I don't have one... Look, officer..." Anthony struggled to explain.

    "You are human!" the Sidh seemed surprised in no small degree, "Why are you wearing Word Bearer acolyte robes?"

    "Because... Because I am an acolyte, with the community at the crossing of Tavington and Burghaven streets," Anthony responded, "My name is Anthony Oakland, son of Colonel Robert Oakland."

    "You're old Rob Oakland's boy?" inspector Hunter was even more surprised than the Sidh at the discovery of Anthony's humanity, "You are lucky we happened nearby when we did, or those scumbags would have done only God knows what to you both. Does your father know what you've been doing out here?"

    "No, sir," Anthony said, "I've had a bit of a... falling out with my father lately. I would appreciate if you did not notify him of what happened here tonight."

    "Thank you, decurion Severus, this young lad falls solely under our jurisdiction," Hunter dismissed the Sidh, evidently happy to take the boy off his hands, "I'm afraid we'll have to bring you and your Sidh friend to the station. You both need medical attention, and a detailed testimony will be required from you once you feel a little better. Besides, if you are truly who you say you are, I can't let you take your chances in the streets again."

    "What about those degenerates, Inspector?" the Sidh pointed at the thugs who were presently being cuffed and lined up, his voice evidently seething with barely restrained anger, "They assaulted and tried to rape an Imperial citizen, and a Word Bearer acolyte, no less..."

    "You know the agreement, Decurion! Sidh offenders fall under your laws, Commonwealth offenders under ours," inspector Hunter said sternly but then added, "That being said, my conditions are that they make it to the station alive and in one piece to stand trial. Other than that, they're all yours."

    "Much appreciated, Inspector..." the Sidh nodded in gratitude, the malicious grin on his face being obvious even from beneath the helmet, before turning to the criminals. His fellow Sidh were already preparing their stun sticks.

    "Are we under arrest, officer?" Savitri humbly asked while being led to the patrol truck as the thugs began to scream and plead in the background, it now being their turn to be helpless victims of violence.

    "No, Miss, you aren't. You both need medical attention, not to mention that assault and attempted rape are very serious crimes, and we will require a detailed statement from you both once you feel better. You'll spend the night in the station for your own safety, and we'll sort this out in the morning."

    "As you say, officer..." the girl averted her gaze even more humbly. Inspector Hunter noted that a similar reaction was universal among Sidhae when dealing with authority figures that they recognized. Even drunk and belligerent soldiers in powered armor usually complied with Urban Security troops without much resistence or protest, civilians showing an even more unquestioning deference and obedience. The beatdown of a liftetime that the thugs back in the ruins were currently getting was probably one of the reasons why.

    "Inspector, may I ask you not to notify my father of this incident? We are not exactly on the best of terms as it is..." Anthony requested.

    "How old are you, son?"

    "17. Will be 18 in a few weeks."

    "Now that is a problem. You are still a minor, which means that by law I have to notify your father. Besides, how bad could it be between the two of you?"

    "You don't know my father very well, sir. He kicked me out of home simply for helping the Word Bearers hand out aid packages, told me not to come back until I've come to my senses..."

    "And judging by your current attire, I take that you haven't so far... Well, it's obviously not my place to judge. The law is the law, unfortunately, and we will have to call in your father tomorrow. But until then, I would suggest you rest and clear your head. We will need your statement tomorrow to bring those lowlifes to justice."


    Malkar residence
    Downtown Wolves Haven

    "I can't bear this any longer!" Ayana grumbled frustratedly as she paced back and forth around the room, "I'm going out!"

    "Mother told us to wait until she comes back with father," her brother Hamilkar objected, sitting on the couch and reading through a book on Commonwealth history.

    "And when is that going to happen?! I'll be dead from boredom by then... What kind of a dump is this country to begin with - they don't even have TVs to watch!"

    "The Commonwealth never adopted television as a form of mass entertainment for cultural reasons..." the boy explained, having recently read about it in his book.

    "Look, baby brother, I really don't CARE!" Ayana barked, "You bookworm can sit here with your book all you want, but I am BORED SENSELESS, and I intend to do something about it!"

    "Fine, but don't say I didn't warn you when mother comes back and you get grounded," Hamilkar shrugged, returning to his book, "Besides, it's not like Mr. Focht or the servants will let you leave unattended."

    "The servants can try!" Ayana almost snarled, "As for Mr. Focht, I am way ahead of you, brother! You probably were too busy with that book to notice the emergency exit stairs on our way here."

    "Good luck with that," Hamilkar shrugged, "Just don't expect me to cover up for you when mother and father comes back."

    "I'll be long back by the time they return, silly! Nobody will even know! Well, not unless you rat out on me. You won't rat out on me, will you?" Ayana retorted, "I swear, if you act like a snitching little shit and rat me out..."

    "What's in it for me?" her brother grinned slyly.

    "Well, for starters I promise I won't kick your ass and be nice to you while we stay here," Ayana grinned, "And I promise I will buy you a big box of your favourite snacks when we get home!"

    "Swear on the Emperor's blood!" Hamilkar wasn't entirely convinced, demanding that his sister invoke the most terrible oath that his young mind could conceive.

    "Yes, I swear on the Emperor's blood that I will buy you one big box..." Ayana spoke impatiently, holding her hands in an Aquila sign.

    "Make that two!" Hamilkar added with an almost malicious joy.

    "...fine, two boxes of Cassius' Beef Chips back home, and be nice to you for the duration of our stay on Altoris, so help me Emperor! Satisfied?!"

    "Perfectly. Have fun, sister! If anyone asks, I haven't seen you," Hamilkar nodded and returned to his book.

    Having ensured the silence of her young brother, Ayana left the apartment, quietly opening the door and looking around. The hallway was empty. Mr. Focht was probably inside his assigned quarters, and the servants were downstairs. Quietly, she snuck to the emergency exit door and tried it to see if it was open. The door opened to her touch much louder than Ayana desired in her current situation. Having made sure that the noise had attracted no attention, she entered the staircase. The glass wall encasing it revealed a scenic view of this part of the downtown district, namely the park in which the old military compound where the joint Commonwealth/Imperial HQ that her father worked at was located. The place was surrounded by high-rise buildings, some of which towered well over a mile high. In better days, they were probably brightly illuminated at night, but because of the electricity rationing, only the apartments and offices currently occupied by someone important were lit. Some buildings were visibly damaged, partly collapsed top floors and gaping holes revealing twisted and bent frameworks of girders. Others were encased in scaffolds and cranes, in the process of being repaired, the process going on day and night as workers still moved about and worked in these buildings that were the only ones to be lit brightly. The HQ itself was surrounded by makeshift fortification and brightly illuminated by floodlights, revealing the many military vehicles parked near and around it and soldiers going about on their business. Although the staircase's window panes up here were intact, a breeze of chilling wind coming from below indicated that at least some had been shattered during the war and were not yet repaired.

    "Here I come, Wolves Haven," Ayana quietly said to herself, "I hope you aren't as boring as this hotel, or whatever it's supposed to be..."

  5. #25
    The Ivory Lioness Hotel

    Prime Minister Monroe had taken the Empresses arm as she had offered it, a momentary escort of the two heads of state into the large and grand hall. They walked several feet ahead of their own respective pair of partners for the evening, far enough away to have some private words in low voices if they felt like it.

    “You seem tense, Prime Minister.” The Empress said as they walked through a pair of double doors. It was traditional that when two people of such import were present they would escort each other to the middle of the hall and then return to their partners.

    “Wouldn't you be if your arm was linked with you executioner?” Monroe replied dryly, though he did make himself try to relax a little bit. He didn't have personal animosity towards the Empress like he did with Drax and other Sidh officers, but that didn't negate that this was the woman who stood above them all in the food-chain.

    The Empress was silent for a few seconds. “Is that how you see me? Unavoidable I suppose, and I doubt there is much I can say to change that opinion.” She asked, her voice the same cool but pleasant tone she always seemed to have.

    “Should I not see you in that regard? I freely admit that I was adamantly against my predecessors plans of approaching the Imperium for help against the Skargh, I was very much against Archstrategos Drax being giving command of all combat formations, and as I'm sure you know I despise the man in general, though I'm sure the feeling is mutual. And now, Your Majesty, you've sacrificed considerable resources in this endeavor, weakened the security of your Imperium in the process, are still spending considerable resources here, and have more forces on garrison duty then we have in our entire military. I have very little doubt that you'll take whatever you want in these coming negotiations to try and make something back at least. Not that there is much left to take, of course.” Monroe said with a slight air of indifference, as there was literally nothing he could do in the situation.

    They reached the center of the hall and Monroe slipped his arm from the Empresses before she could respond. He gave her a respectful bow, as Sir de Winters did the same with D'Anna behind them, before the pairs rejoined with their proper partners. D'Anna was at least a familiar presence to Monroe, certainly not a friend, but the ever present mediator between himself and Drax, though he was of half a mind that it was all an act, Drax taking the exact opposite position that Monroe would have, knowing neither would budge, and then D'Anna would swoop in with a compromise and get what Drax really had wanted. The man was a brute, but not dumb. Though at the same time Drax also didn't seem like he would play such games. Malkar certainly would have but the Commonwealth, even Monroe's predecessor, wouldn't have agreed to putting Malkar in overall command of the war.

    Monroe stood there with D'Anna and watched for a moment as the various couples for the evening seemed to debate on where they wanted to go. Naturally the Sidhe wanted to be with their own kind, and the Commonwealthers and ladies of Altmark wanted to stick together, and now that they all had partners of the opposite nation it made forming groups of conversation a tad more difficult, especially when the other side was so vastly different compared to the other. He spotted Drax, something that was hard not to do, gently escorting Morgan Greyhem like some kind of giant guard dog and seemed to be allowing Morgan lead the way, and Monroe grinned slightly as he noted she seemed to be heading right towards the bar. Normally on such a night Monroe might like to avoid Drax, though being paired with D'Anna made that unlikely, but he also had something he needed to give the man.

    “I suppose we should go say hello to Drax and Misses Greyhem.” He said, and D'Anna turned and have him a suspicious look. “I don't want you being bored all night talking to all the boring people I'll most likely be talking too. Besides, he's at the bar.” Monroe said as way of explanation. D'Anna nodded and they turned to walk to the bar, where Morgan had just handed a drink to Drax.

    “Thank you, Mister Prime Minister. I don't imagine you'll miss us once we are redeployed, and I doubt Drax will miss you as well. But it has interesting experience for myself, and for Drax I imagine. It may not be a cherished memory, but it will be a memory that sticks out.” D'Anna said with a slight smile as they reached the bar. Drax was looking at his drink thoughtfully, perhaps with the slightest of pleased looks.

    “Lady Greyhem, I admit you have a fine taste for mixing alcohols. I may have to requisition a few crates of the required drinks for this, if you wouldn't mind giving me the mixture, of course.” Drax said before taking another sip. He looked at Monroe and nodded. “Mister Prime Minister.” He grumbled. D'Anna seemed curious as to the drink he had and turned to Morgan, who was still at the bar sipping her own drink. “May I have one, Lady Greyhem? Anything that impresses Drax is something impressive indeed.” D'Anna asked. Drax gave a small huff of annoyance but Morgan just smiled. “Only if you stop addressing me as Lady Greyhem, sure.” She said, and turned back to the bartender and nodded, the young man going to mix another drink. D'Anna uncoupled from Monroe's arm and went to join Morgan a few feet away, leaving Drax and Monroe beside one another.

    Monroe reached into his coat and pulled something from one of the inner pockets. “Archistrategos.” Monroe said before holding out his hand. Drax looked at him and then held out his own hand, palm up, where Monroe placed a small box before he went over to retrieve an offered drink from Morgan. The box was made of a finely cured dark-red wood. Drax raised a brow very slightly and set his glass on the bar before opening the box. Inside was a fine silk handkerchief dyed in the colors of the Commonwealth flag. Drax unfolded the top layers and stopped, peering at what laid within the handkerchief. It was a expertly made bronze pocket watch, the front etched with the motto 'Nemo Me Impune Lacessit' in a fine script, and under the inscription was the etched emblem of the head of a snarling wolf from the side, though where the eye would be was a small, deep blue gem of some kind. A chain of bronze with a clasp would be used to fasten it to a pocket. The inside was less decorated, but the inner workings were finely made. Drax studied it for a few moments, turning it slowly over in his hand. He was going to ask Monroe what it was for, but saw that the man had been occupied by several people coming over to talk.

    With a drink in her hand Morgan returned to her escort, raising a brow as she spotted what was in Drax's hand. He looked down at her with a questioning look. “I don't suppose you know what this is about?” He asked, looking the pocket watch over again. Morgan nodded and smiled. “It's a sign of appreciation, showing that the person who has it has done some deed or act that was a benefit to the Commonwealth. These aren't handed out lightly, that's for sure.” She said, taking a sip of her drink.

    Drax furrowed his brow slightly. “And here I thought Monroe despised me.” He muttered, making Morgan laugh a little. “I imagine you are not his favorite person, Archistrategos, but personal liking isn't brought into the equation. We mere Commonwealth folk are more then able to dislike someone, or a group of people, and still recognize the services they've done for the Commonwealth.” Morgan said dryly with a slight smile. It wasn't a secret that the Sidh though of humans as lesser beings, even those that had been their comrades in arms for the past five years and Morgan certainly wasn't above reminding her escort of that fact, even if it was mostly in jest. Drax didn't reply as he looked over the watch again.

    Alexandra Invictus smiled her most winning smile, and it was actually genuine. She wasn't sure what she would come to regard the night as, and while the pairing tradition was a bit odd to her she wasn't going to complain. Captain Jake Lonergan was certainly a handsome man, and had a natural charisma that seemed to rub off on even the Sidh naval officers they shared brief conversation with as he escorted her around the room. She was still a bit taller then him of course, but he didn't seem put off by it. Her mind was multitasking this night, an implanted memory chip saving any mental notes she was making about the high society she was coming into contact with, mostly on the Commonwealth side of things though. These would be the people she would be working with, and also against, in the coming years.

    She had especially noted the de Winters, both the more stately Henry de Winters and his more socially bumbling and nervous nephew John de Winters. The UrbSec officer he had been paired with seemed to have gotten past the nervous bit, though Alexandra mused that if she had been John de Winters she might have been intimidated as well. The officer, Kristanna if Alexandra recalled correctly, was a tall Sidh woman, built like a tank even with her feminine curves. She and Lonergan passed by the pair, along with a few other pairs, and heard a conversation about the merits of artillery, and John de Winters seemed to be in his element, civilly debating with a female Sidh army colonel. John de Winters was pointing out the weakness of Sidh artillery, citing both Draitous, the FSA war, and the past five years as evidence for his argument. The female colonel was arguing that the fast paced maneuver warfare, along with the shock and awe strategy, the Sidh tended to employ was enough to make up for the lack in other areas, while de Winter simply pointed out that the last several wars the Sidh had fought, at least in this sector of the galaxy, had proven that that was incorrect. Only total naval supremacy and turn-coats had ensured the FSA campaign ended in victory for the Imperium. Kristanna for her part paid close attention. It wasn't as if UrbSec had need of artillery, but she wasn't going to stand there and be decoration.

    “This is a lovely hotel.” Alexandra said as they walked past the group, looking around the large room. Jake nodded. “Old Altoris style, built to last and look pretty.” He said, waving at a man who had called out to him.

    “Maybe I'll rent out a few floors when it returns to normal operation.” Alexandra mused. Jake looked up at her, a brow slightly raised. “Rent a few floors? Aren't the Sidh redeploying soon? I had heard only a small force was remaining behind to help root out any Skargh holdouts.” He said, a tinge of suspicion on his voice. Alexandra laugh lightly, patting his forearm reassuringly.

    “I'm here as a civilian, dear captain, if the lack of uniform wasn't a give away. I did my years of service for the Imperium and got out of that mess without even a scar to show for it!” She grinned, though she knew well enough that plenty of other Sidh, especially the military types, thought less of her for it, as if not having had part of her ripped apart, burned, or ripped off and replaced with mechanical augments was a slight! “No, I'm here for business you might say, and by extension to help the Commonwealth rebuild.”

    Jake looked at her and nodded, his winning smile slowly spreading across his face. “Well, I'm sure the Commonwealth will be the better for it, Miss Invictus.” He said. And that's when Alexandra knew she was on her way of having him. Sure he wasn't an idiot, in fact he seemed pretty sharp, and his short but notable record was proof of that, but people were people after all. A fling with him, along with the efforts that she was sincerely planning for the rebuilding of the Commonwealth, and he would be open to her, and with how decimated the Commonwealth navy was he would no doubt be an admiral before long, and that meant he would some level of power over navy contracts. Of all the Commonwealth military branches the navy had been the most decimated in terms of assets remaining, and it also helped that the navy needed a total overhaul if it was going to be a contender in the future. If her plans went ahead as she hoped they would in the next few years she would be in a decent position to get into that game.

    “Flatterer.” Alexandra said and they both laughed lightly, before the Empress and Henry de Winters came before them. They stopped and Alexandra bowed while Jake came to attention though didn't salute. The Empress' eyes fell on the two, and the smile on her lips went a little wider. “Ah, Miss Invictus, Captain Lonergan, nice to see you two getting along. Mister de Winters here was just listening to me dither on about the economy of the Imperium.” She said, and Henry de Winters guffawed lightly with a shake of his head.

    “I would hardly call it dithering, Your Majesty! My life has been industry and economy, and learning more in-depth how our new neighbors work theirs is beyond insightful. If anything I dare say I've been poor company! I don't have exciting tales of valor and heroism during war. I dare say we had a fairly peaceful time of it back in my youth.” Henry said, but the Empress smiled a genuine but mournful smile.

    “I think I prefer the memories and tales of peace these days, Mister de Winters.” The Empress said, and a somber mood fell across the small group. Jake nodded. “And hopefully we'll have many more of them in the years to come!” He said, getting a 'Hear hear!' From Henry. The Empress smiled and nodded. “We can certainly hope it will be for the Commonwealth, gentlemen.” She said, but her eyes settled on Alexandra, as if saying they would speak later. Alexandra nodded, feeling a shiver run down her back. “Indeed, peace and profits!” She said with a smile, and de Winters gave another 'Hear hear!' this time with a chuckle.

    “Now if you'll excuse us, I should go make sure my soldiers are behaving themselves.” The Empress said with a smile, and Jake bowed his head with Alexandra, and the Empress and Henry de Winters strode past, picking up their conversation from before. “Peace and profits, eh?” Captain Lonergan asked when they were out of earshot. Alexandra grinned slyly. “I'm not a charity, captain, but that doesn't mean I intend to be a profiteer.” She said, her grin growing. “How about I tell you about some of my plans over coffee after this little party wraps up?” She asked, leaning against the captain in what could be considered a scandalous way, but the captain himself blocked her actions from the view of any onlookers. Rather then looking offended Captain Lonergan grinned a little himself, though his face flushed lightly.

    “Well, it would be quite rude of me to refuse such a kind offer, Miss Invictus.” He said. Alexandra winked and leaned back from him. “Good. And please, just call me Alexandra.” She said, leading the way to a bubble of conversation.

    William O'Conner had avoided the bar tonight, too the barely contained annoyance of his partner for the evening, Virginia de Segonzac. He had known about her, hell he had had a few pin-ups of her, before he had been taken as a POW and then sent to life in the Imperium. She was an attractive woman for sure, and possessed a charm that he had no doubt was the reason as to her reputation. He would have happily played along with her flirting, even taken her to bed potentially, if it weren't for his relationship with Kristanna. And his nerves. Virginia had ceased her flirting after Kristanna had come over with John de Winters and made it clear that William was hers, and Virginia seemed to enjoy having her bones intact and had quickly scaled back, but not totally abandoned, her flirting. And she had seemed happy enough to simply find a table and sit down with William, sending a waiter to fetch her whatever drink or snack she desired.

    “You're more nervous then a virgin.” Virginia said out of nowhere. William took a moment to blink and then look over at her, her smile wide as she leaned back in her chair. “Oh come on, I'm not some idiot who just spreads her legs for celebrities and the wealthy. You're on edge, and that's why you've been avoiding the bar. Don't want to get drunk and embarrass yourself or do something you'll regret.” She scoffed. William nodded.

    “Aye, I am. I find myself elevated to a position I'm not sure I deserve and with the attention of a pack of predators now waiting for me to make a mistake before they rip me apart.” He admitted surprisingly easily. Virginia nodded and sipped her drink again. “And on top of seeing your home destroyed and being a traitor.” She said, looking over to a group where laughter had just picked up. O'Conner felt a tinge of anger before she cut off any reply. “It's not exactly a secret, Strategos. And I'm not judging you. I don't know how much you know about what happened after Draitous, but there was quite an uproar about Commonwealth and FSA POWs being sent off, never to be seen again...until the Conquest and this whole ugly affair.” She finished.

    William frowned though, not having realized he was so visible to high society. Sure he had expected the sneers and remarks he got from Commonwealth officers, they weren't as bad as some he got from Sidh officers, but he had expected those too. But for socialites and politicians? He hadn't expected that. “I certainly wasn't ever expecting to be back, truth be told. I was happy living the frontier life before Sidh officials started going around and requesting our service for the FSA campaign.” He said, remembering the day the Sidh admin officer had landed in their settlement with a few aides. He had gone right to O'Conners quaint little pub and started the process of finding volunteers to act as adviser to Sidh forces. The offered pay was nice, and the thrown in offer of expedited conversion had swayed plenty of folks, and that was the reason William had taken it. He had wanted to be a proper match for Kristanna, so the newer arrivals to the frontier world would stop shunning her. She hadn't cared though, dismissing those sneering new arrivals as easily as she would dismiss a mote of dust.

    “Is that where you met her?” Virginia asked, looking over at Kristanna halfway across the room. William nodded. “Yeah, she was the commander of the first small Urban Security detachment arrived to make sure the influx of Sidh settlers remained civil, not that we faced much discrimination from them there. Us lowly humans held most of the businesses and farm land. Plus it takes a different sort of Sidh to want to go and settle with humans. Not that your average day Sidh hates humans in particular. They're just...snobs, usually.” William said with a shrug and Virginia laughed suddenly, placing a hand on her bosom to calm herself.

    She took a moment to compose herself before speaking again. “I suppose at least the Skargh got rid of most of ours, hm? I suppose that leaves me as the queen of high society.” Virginia said with a sarcastic smile. William was a bit surprised to find out what she was like in person, and it must have shown. “Let me guess, you were expecting me to be an aloof idiot who only knew how to look pretty, right? It's amazing what the papers and news reels can do to a persons reputation, and how easy it is to just play it up. It certainly got me ahead in life.” She mused, downing the rest of her drink. “So my advice, O'Conner, is to ignore it. You'll rarely change peoples actual opinions of you, regardless of whatever else you do. Open a charity for veterans? You'll still be the lady who slummed it with some director for a scene in a picture. Fund massive housing projects for the displaced people of Draitous after so many left once the war was over? Still the vain floozy who likes to throw her money around. Jokes on them though, now I have billions and billions of a nearly useless currency, and most of them are dead.” Virginia half smiled and stood up. “Come on, I'm going to the bar.” She said, and being a gentleman O'Conner stood up and took her arm, escorting her to the bar, finding his nerves had calmed. Maybe he would have a drink after all.

  6. #26
    Ivory Lioness Hotel

    Prime Minister Monroe seemed outwardly relaxed, enjoying his drink and the company of D'Anna, but if anything, he was observing his guests like a hawk. There were a lot of people in this banquet who hated each other with a passion and were now forced to smile and act courteously, but Monroe knew from bitter experience how quickly things could sour even in upscale events among his own kind. Normally, he would be especially wary about the Sidh guests who came from a much more violent culture and had comparably lower tolerance for real or perceived slights, but it was not the Sidhae that worried Monroe this evening. He knew enough that with their Empress present, none of them would dare to fall out of line. It was his own compatriots that concerned the Prime Minister much more. Fortunately, everyone seemed to be getting along well so far, or at least did a good job feigning it.

    "Are you expecting trouble, Mr. Monroe?" his evening's companion asked, noticing his gaze scanning the guests.

    "Your are very perceptive, Miss van Halen," Monroe answered briefly, "Though base quarrels should be beneath people of such high class as the current company, I have seen way too many gloves dropped even in banquets like this over a careless word to feel comfortable."

    "You can safely rule out my compatriots, Prime Minister. Certainly with Her Majesty and the Archistrategos present. And please, it's just D'Anna," the Sidhwoman at his side smiled, "Nobody calls me by my last name. Even in my legion most do not even know my last name."

    "Neither would I, had you not written it down on the card at the lobby, Miss... D'Anna," Monroe grinned lightly, "Very beautiful handwriting, by the way."

    "Why, thank you! Calligraphy is an art still appreciated by my people, if only because it is rare in this age of digital literature," D'Anna smiled, "While there are quite a few data packs on calligraphy available for download, it is difficult to find custom-made ones crafted by true masters of the art."

    "Is that how Sidhae learn all new skills? Just find the appropriate software and download it?" Monroe spoke, his voice betraying something of a disappointment at the revelation.

    "Only partly. Software lets us grasp the basics and learn things much quicker, but like humans, we still need plenty of practice to really become good at something. Muscle memory is unfortunately something even we must build gradually, including those of us who have little actual muscle remaining in our bodies," D'Anna explained, "Downloading a data pack is not much different from attending a theoretical training course or memorizing the contents of a book, except that it takes seconds rather than weeks to memorize. One might know all the theory there is to know about a craft, science or language, but it still takes time to make sense of all that new knowledge, and without regular practice, that knowledge is all but useless. Data packs merely cut down on the training time and let us move immediately to the practical side of studying a skill."

    "Such a technology would be of great use to the Commonwealth in the coming years..." Monroe sighed, the mere thought about the monumental task of rebuilding that laid ahead numbing his mind.

    "I'm afraid conversion would be the only way for it to be any use to you," D'Anna stated, "It would be impossible to apply to anyone without the right neural augmentations, and it takes an overhaul of one's entire body on a molecular level for that degree of neural augs to even be possible. A central nervous system augmented to our standards requires accordingly enhanced cellular metabolism, and the oxygen and nutrient uptake capacity required to feed it, not to mention various neural interface ports to allow a two-way information feed. In other words, very extensive augmentation is necessary before that technology becomes practical."

    "I can't say I understood much of that. Augmetics and synthetic biology have never been my fortes. That said, I have always wondered just how much of your people is machine, and how much is still... human," Monroe spoke, taking a small swig from his champagne glass.

    "There is no simple, easy way to explain what we are," D'Anna spoke, "Some would call us cyborgs, but we have long moved past crude cyber-augmetics, certainly as a baseline feature defining our species. Neither are we synthetics, a good part of us being natural, organic. But even that part has been heavily enhanced by genetic engineering, so we are not fundamentally natural organic beings either. I suppose we are something in between those three. Yet it is not the augs that define us, but our mentality, our way of life. Being a Sidh is as much an idea as it is a certain physical state of body augmentation."

    "I suppose the same could be said about us Commonwealth folk - that being a Commonwealther is as much an idea as it is a matter of citizenship."

    "Yes, I suppose you could describe it that way..."

    "So... I understand you too have partaken in many battles along Drax's side, in a capacity other than personal assistant?" Monroe spoke after taking note of another bywalking junior officer and his escort staring at D'Anna's scarred back, proudly put on display by her low-cut dress. The Navy lieutenant had just given him a convenient way of discreetly indulging his own curiousity about what was presumably a sensitive matter.

    "Mr. Monroe, I'm afraid most of the story written on my back would not be anywhere near as glorious as one would hope," D'Anna immediately responded, unfailingly picking up what he was getting at again. No wonder Drax had selected a woman this perceptive to serve as his retainer.

    "Some of my scars I have indeed earned on the field of glory, but most were inflicted to rob me of dignity," D'Anna spoke, her expression changing to slightly sad for a moment as the memories were evidently painful, "But I bear them with pride nonetheless - to demonstrate that my tormentors failed in their purpose."

    "Apologies, I must have brought up a very sensitive matter... It must have been absolutely horrifying, to suffer at the hands of those foul reptilian savages!"

    "The Skargh weren't the ones to mark me," D'Anna pointed out, "Most of my scars were made by human hands. Believe it or not, Mr. Monroe, ending up in the Skargh hands isn't always the worst possible fate, certainly not for a girl. Adept as they are at torture, biological differences still prevent the Skargh from exercising certain forms of it that men are capable and most fond of."

    "Oh, my... I sincerely apologize for bringing this up, if you feel like changing the subject..."

    "Oh, no need... Avoiding bad memories does nothing to help them go away. I would know better than most, and I do not mind speaking about it at all. Yes, it was agony beyond any words. But I am still alive, I am still sane, and I even got to have a measure of revenge, which is already more than most in my former predicament can say about themselves. My scars aren't just reminders of what I've been through - they are proof of what I can endure, proof of my resilience in the face of adversity, which is what being a Sidh is all about. So I carry them with pride," D'Anna explained and smiled slyly, "Besides, I enjoy the attention of men they bring me. And women as well on occasion..."

    "I've heard about your people being partial to scars," Monroe responded, not sure what to make of that last remark, "I guess it's natural for such martial folk as yourselves."

    "From the number of interested stares I've been getting thus far, I would say it's not just my own people that get interested... We are a race of survivors, Mr. Monroe," D'Anna explained, "Our scars demonstrate what each of us can survive. They tell our friends that we have not shyed away from danger in the past and can be relied to have their backs in the future. And they tell our enemies that we are no pushovers and warn them against getting any ideas. What doesn't kill us, makes us stronger. Any potential suitor that might be out here tonight will know my strength and worth from first glance."

    "I do not imagine many would dare to try their luck, knowing how close you are with Drax and all," Monroe noted, intentionally bringing up D'Anna's close relationship with the Archistrategos in hopes to find out if the rumors about them were true.

    "Mr. Monroe, I don't know what you may have heard about us, but I would presume a man of your class and station to be above believing in base gossip. The Archistrategos is like a father to me, and I am the closest thing to a daughter that he will ever have, our kinship formed not by blood, but by steel tempered in the fires of war. He came after me when nobody else would, delivered me from my suffering, and granted me my revenge. He has treated me like a beloved daughter ever since, and I have in turn served him like a loving daughter should. The Archistrategos would never befoul our special bond with base lust like certain rumours would suggest, even as he would need but to ask. He believes that lust and romantic affections are fickle and fleeting, nothing like the true bonds of brotherhood only forged at war, useless distractions at best but more often dangerous liabilities," D'Anna explained, her tone showing immense respect for her mentor.

    "Do you share his beliefs?" Monroe asked.

    "Not all of them," D'Anna smiled lightly, "I am just a lowly centurion. I can afford certain liberties that the Archistrategos cannot. Such as occasionally indulging my baser desires."

    As she spoke, her gaze had wandered to an Altmark captain currently conversing with her Sigma Legion lochagos escort, and it wasn't clear which of them she was eyeing more. That base desires had a lot to do with her looking at them was pretty obvious.


    Alexandra in the meanwhile was loitering near the bar. Her companion Captain Lonergan had excused himself to use the amenities, so she found herself short of company for now.

    "I trust that all is going well, Miss Invictus?" the rumbling voice of Drax almost startled her. She had never met the man in person before, but wasn't surprised that he recognized her - men like Drax would likely have made a point to study and memorize the dossiers of every person of importance attending the banquet.

    "Absolutely! It is a pleasure to finally meet you in person, Archistrategos," Alexandra stated, graciously extending her hand. The tall Sidhwoman that she was, Alexandra was only slightly shorter than Drax, yet she still appeared lightly-built next to his massive frame.

    "I see that you've already made friend of Captain Lonergan," Drax spoke, his rumbling voice reminding Alexandra of a volcano.

    "I have," she stated, "Having friends in the Navy will be vital if I am to succeed with what I came here for."

    "It certainly is. Still, it would comfort me to know that you would keep your future... friendships strictly professional," Drax stated.

    "What are you getting at, Archistrategos?" Alexandra became cautious.

    "Well, from the way you two have been interacting for the past 30 minutes, it is pretty obvious that at least your interests towards Mr. Lonergan clearly go beyond professional," Drax spoke with his trademark bluntness.

    "Excuse me," Alexandra was shocked and offended by his directness, "I fail to see how that would be any business of yours, Archistrategos!"

    "Oh, but it is," Drax said, "Until Her Majesty commands otherwise, I am the first and foremost representative of Imperial interests in the Commonwealth. Anything that might see those interests compromised is very much my business."

    "Then I would suggest you attend to those interests instead of my personal business, Archistrategos," Alexandra responded with no small amount of venom even as she put on a courteously smiling face.

    Drax's cheek below his good eye twitched in anger, but he retained his aristocratic nonchalant manner.

    "Miss Invictus, you are mistaken if you think I care whom you invite in your bed as long as you do it with reasonable discretion, but doing it as obviously as you did a few minutes ago in here of all places clearly puts it in the realm of my concerns."

    "And you are mistaken if you think I care about your opinions about me or my personal affairs, Archistrategos," Alexandra retorted without the courteous smile ever leaving her face.

    Drax grinned. "Miss Invictus, I am not your enemy here. I have been made aware of your plans, and while they might not be in my style of doing things, I do wish for you to succeed as it is clearly in the Imperium's best interests. However, for that to happen, you will need to be a lot more mindful of your personal reputation than ever before. You may be a capable businesswoman, but you are about to enter the world of big politics now. A lot of things that might have been overlooked or forgiven in the business world they won't forget or forgive you here. Each and every careless word and expression, each and every indiscretion like the one you just made - all of it is going to give your enemies ammunition to use against you, deployed as a rule when you least expect it. So you would do yourself a big favour by taking care not to arm your enemies."

    "I can understand your concern if you put it like that, Archistrategos, but rest assured, I didn't get where I am without exercising reasonable discretion," Alexandra responded, "I can take care of my personal affairs well enough on my own."

    "Can you?" Drax grumbled, "You have been granted an opportunity unprecedented in Imperial history, Miss Invictus. I would hate to see it go to waste one day because of a careless dally many years back that you might not even remember anymore. You won't remember - but your foes will."

    Before Alexandra could respond, the argument was interrupted by the return of Captain Jake Lonergan.

    "Archistrategos, it is an honour to finally meet you," he smiled, exchanging handshakes with Drax and wincing lighty in pain when Drax's handshake proved too hearty for his hand, "I heard you were just awarded with the Honorary Watch. Fine job saving Altoris indeed, though I would have expected nothing less with a ship like yours."

    "The Fenrir?" Drax's good eye shined visibly brighter in pride at the mere mention of his command dreadnought, "Finest beast to ever sail among the stars she is! Reduced half of Trenton to plate glass with only a couple shots and cracked the surface of Wallendale open like a ripe watermelon!"

    A moment of awkward silence ensued. As Alexandra had already learned from Jake earlier this evening, he was from Wallendale, one of the worlds obliterated under Omega Protocol during the war at Drax's own command.

    "Pity that it had to be your homeworld, Captain," Drax added to soften his statement, having guessed as much from Lonergan's and Alexandra's expressions, if not already aware of the fact, "But such is war. If that is any consolation, I too have seen my homeworld burnt to ashes back in my youth, so know I did not make that decision lightly."

    "I am sure you did not, Archistrategos," Lonergan nodded, though his face betrayed mixed feelings, "Though it is a weak consolation indeed for a Wallendaler."

    "I understand that you are currently in command of a destroyer, Captain?" Drax said to change the uncomfortable subject, "The Ladyhawke, I believe?"

    "Aye, the Ladyhawke," captain Lonergan was the one to brighten up now, "She might not look like much next to Imperial ships, but she punches well above her weight, as one crew of the damn lizards found out the hard way."

    Alexandra sighed in frustration as the two military men started to brag about their respective ships and wondered if Drax was doing this deliberately to sabotage her plans for after the banquet. He was admittedly right about her having been a little too obvious about her intentions, as well as the company here being a bit too prudish to appreciate such obviousness. Still, she was angry about him making a point to bring it up, even if Drax had a reputation of speaking his mind with the softness of a hammer. Still, the old grouch could not be disregarded, that much was obvious. Besides, his current conversation with Lonergan also served to reveal more about the personality of her newfound "friend".


    "You certainly seem to have set up well, Lady Blackwater," General Greyhem remarked, "Or should I say, Lady Malkar."

    For the past half-hour, Elizabeth had been recounting her past 15 years of life in the Imperium. She probably did it for the sole purpose to appear courteous and polite, and Greyhem feigned interest for the same end. Had she not been an Imperial citizen now, he would gladly have had her arrested and charged with treason, but that was sadly out of question especially in the present circumstances. Greyhem had reluctantly accepted that the countless victims of her treachery would never have their justice, a concept that didn't seem to bother Sidhae too much. In their world, right was whatever served the Imperium best. Greyhem consoled himself with the small hope that someday this arch-traitoress would grow too ambitious for her own good and commit some trespass that would lead to her fall from grace along with everything that it entailed, and only pitied that he would most likely not live to see that.

    "Either way is fine, General," Elizabeth responded, "I find it somewhat convenient to have two family names now. My own family name means little in the Imperium, but that of my husband carries significant weight, especially now that he is an archistrategos. The opposite is true here, where my husband's name I often hear uttered as if it were a word of abuse, while my own still carries importance, even if I find it somewhat diminished these days."

    "I'm afraid you have only yourself to blame for that, my lady," Greyhem stated in the most polite of terms.

    "General, I sincerely appreciate your way of calling me a "gold-digging turncoat whore" in such an inoffensive manner," Elizabeth smirked bitterly, "No need to pretend you did not think that. I make no excuses for myself, nor do I have any regrets. I only ask you to consider that even in my betrayal I and I alone am responsible for staying my husband's hand where he otherwise wouldn't have. My information helped end the war against FSA years in advance, saving tens of millions of lives on all sides, and I have since rid this region of space from the bane of slavery that started that war in the first place."

    "Yet you were once an avowed separatist and the third largest slaveholder in the FSA before turning on them after you had turned on the Commonwealth. I'm afraid that does not speak highly of you, Lady Malkar," Greyhem argued, doing his best to hide his disgust for the woman who spoke of her treachery with pride.

    "I am an opportunist, General. You have always known that, and I have never hidden or denied that," Elizabeth said, "People live only once, and intend to make the best out of my limited time in this world. So I will always look out to advance my station and protect what I already have, and if one side can offer me no more opportunities to do that, I will turned to the side that will unashamed and free of guilt. Many will call me a traitor and other vile names for that, but the only thing a person can truly betray is oneself, and that I am yet to betray."

    "Then you have picked a bad side to exploit for your gain and betray as fancy takes you, Lady Malkar," Greyhem pointed out, "Turn your back on the Sidhae like you did on Draitous, and they will hunt you to the edge of the Universe if they have to."

    "Then it would not be very smart of me to turn my back on them like I did on Draitous, would it?" Elizabeth grinned, "As for my allegiance, I am in no danger of running short of challenge and opportunity to fulfill my ambitions with anytime soon in my current position."

    It sincerely shames me to acknowledge how blind and ignorant we were about the galaxy beyond our comfy little corner of space before the rude awakening at Draitous. I have the Sidhae and my husband in particular to thank for opening my eyes. His arrival showed me there was much more to the galaxy than our little civil war and petty bickering of noble houses over a handful of backwater planets. To you they were merely a new enemy to deal with, but to me my future husband and his people were the first heralds of progress in our stagnant little pond. I recognized there and then that whatever they had was the future that was here to stay whether we liked it or not. So I chose to embrace the future and everything that it had to offer rather than resist it like you and others. Someone would have inevitably been the first - I merely made sure that someone who changed history was me. And as you can see today, it has worked out rather fine for me, and by extension the rest of the Commonwealth as well."

    For a moment there, Greyhem almost felt like decking the woman, clenching his fists and teeth and mustering all his willpower to suppress the urge.

    "Have you no decency left whatsoever?! How can you possibly claim that things have worked out fine for the Commonwealth when it is reduced to THIS!?" he almost shouted out loud, his raised voice attracting the gazes of many around, "How can you possibly watch the nation your ancestors helped to build burnt to ground and reduced to subsisting at the mercy of aliens and call THAT progress!? Why do you hate your own people so much, Lady Malkar!?"

    "For a start, you are still alive. You still control a number of worlds on which to rebuild. And most importantly, you have the patronage of the most powerful empire in the galaxy that is both capable and interested to see that you do rebuild," Elizabeth said sternly, "That is already more than many others out there could say about themselves, were they still alive and able to rebuild. The war that you fought out alongside my husband and many other fine gentlemen and ladies present here is the price of progress that the people of the Commonwealth had to pay for the mistakes of their predecessors who thought that cutting all ties with their past and isolating themselves from the broader galaxy would somehow protect them from the dark horrors that lurk between the stars. Now the price has been paid, by members of my family among countless others, and the Commonwealth will rebuild stronger than ever."

    "I can drink to that!" Monroe loudly announced while raising his glass of champagne to defuse the brewing conflict.

    "Hear, hear!" many other voices affirmed.

    "I suppose there is reason in your words, Lady Malkar, even if I disagree with them," Greyhem reluctantly conceded, if only to maintain civility and avoid making a belligerent fool of himself, "Make no mistake, I truly hope you are right and I am wrong in this respect, but as a general, it is my duty to expect the worst even if I hope for the best."

    "Then let us argue no more, General," Elizabeth graciously suggested, raising her own glass, "This is not the place for such arguments which belong in the halls of the Parliament. Today we celebrate our joint victory and honour the fallen regardless of side."

    Greyhem nodded and raised his glass. "I concur, Lady Malkar. Now is not the time for quarreling, and I apologize for my earlier outburst. Even though I still disagree with you strongly, it was unbecoming of me to act out like that."

    "And I apologize for stating my opinion in the harsh terms that I did," Elizabeth was quick to return the courtesy, if only to avoid appearing the unrepentant quarreler, "I know you of all people have made sacrifices that no leader should ever have to make, and this is a very sensitive matter to you, so I should have chosen my words with more care."

    "It is settled then! To the Commonwealth, rebuilt stronger than ever!" the Empress's regal voice rang across the hall as she raised her glass as well.

    "To the Commonwealth, rebuilt stronger than ever!" the rest of the guests called out regardless of their affiliation.

    With the potential quarrel successfuly defused, Monroe breathed out a sigh of relief. Hopefully this would be the closest that things would come to a diplomatic incident this evening.


    "...and then Qw'onos fired off her particle lance, sliced Descent of Fury clean in half. Not sideways, but lengthwise - gutted her like a fish! Two thousand ratings and officers lost in an instant, just like that..." Aurelia Creed snapped her fingers to illustrate the ease with which one of the Skargh dreadnoughts had obliterated one of her strike cruisers.

    "Remind me, Grand Admiral, wasn't the Descent of Fury the same ship that crashed into our main pharmaceutical complex?" General Steiner asked. She, Creed and their respective escorts Chadda and Malkar had formed their own small circle to recount the Battle of Altmark. Although Malkar and his legion had been fighting on Altoris at the time, the newly-promoted Archistrategos was still keen on hearing how his fellow co-belligerents had been doing on other fronts.

    "No, that was the Descent of Wrath that crashed outside Eisenburg," Creed explained, "Lost all engine power after trading broadsides with a Skargh heavy cruiser, the Berethrax, if I recall, dropped out from orbit like a rock after that. Thank the Emperor, all the remaining crew managed to bail out before she broke apart and crashed!"

    "It was most fortunate that Kanto and his men arrived when they did after that," Steiner remarked, "I had each and every one of my girls on the ground stimmed up from the moment those damn lizards landed on Altmark. Once that cruiser smashed our main supplier to dirt, it was largely a matter of time until we would have lost, many girls especially among the junior ranks starting to get bad cases of withdrawal, being more trouble than they were worth."

    "Pray, why did you have all your stims manufactured in one place to begin with?" Malkar asked, "One orbital strike was all it would have taken the Skargh to cripple your supply, had they known where to strike."

    "Mainly because we never had such need for these stims before," Steiner explained, "Before the war, when it was still just "volunteers" against you in the FSA, what the laboratories in clandestine military installations could produce was enough. But after the lizards struck, that just didn't cut it anymore. At first we supplied just the elites, then the frontline troops, and finally everyone so that even the support troops could carry on with their duties for 96 hours straight. The Dorestadt Pharmaceuticals was the only facility on Altmark with the equipment, expertise and capacity to manufacture enough for everyone."

    "I see," Malkar nodded, "I must profess, I find the potency of these stims quite impressive, and that is not something I say lightly. I've seen myself what you ladies can do while on the stuff. I can also think of quite a few industrialists in the Imperium who would pay a fortune for the recipe..."

    "Archistrategos, are you suggesting what I think you are?" Steiner looked at him skeptically.

    "That would depend on what you think I am suggesting, General," Malkar smiled, "Fact of the matter is - were the recipe for your stims to be delivered in the right hands by somebody, that person would become richer than the top three Altmark oligarchs combined. We Sidhae are a belligerent people, as you very well know, Madame - we will reward generously whoever gives us an edge over our foes."

    "I...will take that into consideration, Archistrategos," Steiner nodded politely.

    Although Malkar had proven a lot more charming in person than his notorious reputation would suggest, Steiner was still reserved about him for now. The atrocities of his men against Altmarkers on Draitous were, after all, still fresh in her memory. Granted, Malkar had never expressly authorized these crimes, many of the perpetrators had been severely punished afterwards, and the rest were dead by now - only 5% of the troops in his legion who had fought on Draitous were said to be still alive today. The resentment, however, still lingered even as the majority of Altmarkers hailed the Sidhae as heroes, welcoming them in their cities and homes, and more often than not also in their beds. For all their reservations about the rough and brutish Sidhae, Steiner and many of her fellow commanders felt more embittered against their Commonwealth kin. So many good girls had lost their lives holding the line for Commonwealth planets to evacuate, for Commonwealth troops to regroup, yet Steiner could count on her fingers the occasions where the opposite was true, where Commonwealth troops had bought time for her kindred. As much as she loathed the thought, she consistently found Sidhae giving up their lives for her kind more often than their so-called allies.

    For now, she dismissed the thought as a dangerous heresy, yet it lingered in the back of her mind and would no doubt come back to haunt her later.

    "Admiral Chadda, you mentioned your duel with a Skargh battleship during the same battle, the Khilrah Doz, if I recall?" she said out loud, "I understand that turned out rather well?"

    "Oh, it certainly did..." Chadda spoke, "At first we traded long-range fire over the southern hemisphere, but then the bugger shifted to higher orbit and tried to get the drop on us, knowing that his every miss would hit something planetside. Thankfully, a squadron of Thunderhawks from Mrs. Creed's Hel here forced him to reconsider. While the bastard was busy fighting off Hel's Thunderhawks, two of my Hurricanes managed to slip through the defenses and drop mines on the hull like Mrs. Creed's advisors had taught my men earlier. Once the mines got his attention, that evened out the fight somewhat, and my gunners managed to take out two of their main turrets. They tried to gun for the bridge as well, but one of the railguns jammed, and their shields proved too much to overwhelm. After the torpedoes struck, however, the lizards turned their tails and ran, jumping out of the fight. Admittedly, the Stalwart took a severe beating from the buggers as well. At one point, I considered ordering an emergency jump myself, but figured it would be bad for morale and decided to stay around, come what may."

    "Aye, I recall she still looked quite battered back in the fleet parade," Creed was quick to note, "Not that it is a bad thing, to let the people see the things that your ship has survived. If you would approve, Admiral, I could see to Stalwart being renovated in one of the Imperium's shipyards in the Persean Expanse. I could even procure some significant upgrades to it, as a stop-gap measure until the new generations of Commonwealth ships can be manufactured in numbers."

    Chadda paused to think. Who could know what the old Sidhwoman had in mind with such generous offer. This much he knew, the Sidhae never made offers without expectation to have the favour returned somehow.

    "Your offer is most generous, Grand Admiral," he spoke out, "I am not at liberty to approve without first consulting the government, unfortunately."

    "Well, all of your government is present right here, Admiral," Creed smiled widely, "As is mine, for that matter, at least the only part of it that matters. Talk to them, and I will talk to mine. I will have a definitive answer for you before this evening is over. While I'm at it, I could also mention lend-leasing a few more mobile shipyards, so that you can get the Commonwealth Navy back in business sooner."

    The conversation was interrupted by the announcement of the Master of Ceremonies, the gentle tune of classical music starting to play in the background by the orchestra hired to play live music for the event. After much deliberation by both sides, a mixed orcherstra of human and Sidh musicians had been formed, the Sidh part coming from the Symphonic Orchestra of 27th Battlefleet, Grand Admiral Creed's personal beneficiaries. Whatever prejudices might have existed on either side were easily overcome by shared love for music, so this ad-hoc joint orchestra was performing flawlessly so far.

    "Ladies and gentlemen, please, attend to the dance floor! The first dance of the evening falls to our honoured heads of state, Her Majesty the Empress of Sidhae and His Excellency the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Altoris, Jonathon Monroe!"


    "The Blue Danube... One of my favourite classics," the Empress smiled widely, circling the dance floor with Monroe while other couples joined them.

    "To my embarassment, I am not familiar with the tune," Monroe professed, "I heard the musicians who compiled the evening's playlist say that many of their selections pre-date even your Imperium."

    "It was written by Johann Strauss of Old Terra, also known as the King of Waltz," the Empress spoke, "I have heard some of his other melodies are performed under different names by your compatriots."

    "If I may ask, Your Majesty, who authored that most grand piece your subjects performed at the opening of the War Memorial? I would have never thought it possible to use artillery pieces as musical instruments..." Monroe spoke. He felt somewhat awkward holding his hand on the waist of the galaxy's most powerful woman.

    "Peter Tchaikovsky, also of Old Terra," she answered with a wide smile, "Russians have always had a knack for epic music."

    "How is your friend Dr. Prokopenkov doing, if you don't mind me asking, Majesty?"

    "He's been keeping himself busy testing his latest theories in simulated environments. I had to upgrade the mainframe of the Dies Irae well ahead of schedule to meet his needs. Last we spoke, he said he would be viewing the victory parade through a thousand different drones. I have little reason to doubt he kept his promise. His opinions about you opening the Black Era vaults is still somewhat... negative, to put it mildly."

    "Surely Your Majesty will understand that our nation will need advanced technology now more than ever before..."

    "True. Yet a lot of that tech was stashed away in impregnable vaults for a reason. Not everything you will find there will be helpful, and quite more than a few things will be outright dangerous. We can provide you with technology both safe and reliable."

    "The gesture is much appreciated, but surely Your Majesty will understand that we do not wish to burden the noble Imperium more than is absolutely necessary with our needs."

    "Fair enough. It is only commendable that you commit to pulling your own weight this early after the war."


    The rest of the banquet was somewhat uneventful. A few more dances, the grand meal which was rather modest compared to the ones served here before the war. Toasts drinked in honour of the fallen, and in honour of the war's victories. As the Sidh guests sat down to eat, all would notice Drax eyeing especially his staff officers like a hawk to make sure nobody committed some faux pas at the table. Thankfully, no food was served that required special skills or etiquette considerations to eat.

    Shortly after the meal, the Empress excused herself, citing urgent stately matters requiring her attention. She left along with her retinue of bodyguards after the customary lengthy exchange of parting pleasantries.

    "Well, that lightened up the room a little," Virginia de Segonzac remarked quietly to O'Conner after the Empress had left, "I mean no disrespect towards your monarch, obviously, but those huge scary bodyguards of hers lining the walls like statues were rather scary."

    "Oh, you should have seen them in action," O'Conner grinned, "I've seen mere squads of them smash through a raging Skargh horde like hot knives through butter, seen some of them do things that seem to defy the very laws of physics. They are a sight not easily forgotten."

    "I'm glad I haven't, Mr. O'Conner," Virginia honestly admitted, "I am not much for war and violence, and would probably find such sights too terrifying to stomach."

    With the Empress having left, the banquet was nearing the end, the guests gradually starting to set out for home. Given the lengthy parting rituals involved, it would take at least another two hours before the banquet was over for good. Among the early leavers were Malkar and Elizabeth, who were no doubt eager to make up for the five years of separation back home. Malkar himself was doubly motivated by the desire to see his children for the first time in 5 years as well.


    Downtown Wolves' Haven

    Ayana was wandering the nightly streets, mentally comparing the architecture of Altoris to that of the Imperium. She found the absence of pointed arches, flying buttresses, stained-glass windows and reliefs somewhat unusual - even in the Persean Expanse where the majority of residents were Altorisian, the Sidh overlords were quick to erect whole urban districts built to their liking. Ayana had spent most of her young life in these areas, so the crass departure from the familiar architectural style was still new for her.

    Much to her disappointment, the only activity in the streets centered around pubs which were filled with a mostly-Sidh military clientele. Ayana walked past several, all having a "No entry in powered armor" sign on the door. The troops seemed to have adjusted to the new rules well, even having towed armoring stations to some of the establishments, where Sidh patrons could leave their armor before entering. One or two Sidh patrons in armor were posted outside to guard the station and see to it that the establishment's no-armor rules were complied with. Some of the pubs had also set up makeshift tables and seats outside for those who felt too uncomfortable without armor, these patrons being served their booze outside. Although it was cold outside, the armored Sidhae didn't mind much, sheltered in their climate-controlled shells. Ayana saw the pub areas being rather intensely patrolled by mixed patrols of Commonwealth Metropolitan Police and Sidh Urban Security, the armored brutes of the latter no doubt serving as muscle to intimidate any uncooperative Sidh miscreants into compliance.

    Being too young to attend such establishments, and not particularly interested in mingling with the lower classes in any case, Ayana paid the pubs no heed and moved along. She was starting to regret leaving the boredom of home for this equally dull city where the only form of entertainment seemed to be getting drunk in the company of soldiers. Lost in thought, she paid no heed to her heading until painfully walking into what felt like a wall of solid metal, the impact knocking Ayana on her backside.

    "Watch where you're going, kid!" an irritated voice grumbled far above. Ayana looked up to see a pair of armored soldiers towering over her, one of whom she had just run into. She recognized the emblem of her father's legion on their armor.

    "No, watch where YOU'RE going!" she barked back, "You almost trampled me, you big oaf!"

    "Oh, the pup bares its teeth...!" the other soldier chuckled, "Your father never teach you not to call people twice your size names?"

    "Mind your tone, soldier! My father is Hanno Malkar, your Archistrategos!" Ayana snapped at him. Accustomed to the deference and humility of domestic servants, she found the irreverent attitude of these two rather irritating.

    "Yeah, right, and mine is the Emperor!" the soldier seemed entirely unimpressed, "As if old Malkar would allow his cubs to run around in the streets at night in this dump! Now run along before we whoop your scrawny little ass!"

    "You better take those words back, or my father will hear of this!" Ayana tried to sound as intimidating as possible, only to fail miserably.

    "Aye, he will, and if you truly are Malkar's girl, he's going to whoop your ass himself for wandering about at night alone in this place!"

    "Maybe we should bring her back to wherever she came from?" the other soldier suggested, "If she's really Malkar's girl, the strategos will be pissed if anything happens to her and we did nothing about it when we could."

    "I don't want to go back!" Ayana exclaimed, "I only went out because it was boring at home! Isn't there anything to do around here?"

    "Not unless you're interested in drinking and whoring there isn't," the first soldier stated bluntly, firmly grabbing Ayana's hand, "Since you definitely ain't old enough for either, home you go!"

    "No, no, no, no! Please, please, don't take me home!" Ayana started to beg, "My parents are gonna kill me if they find out! Please, I'll tell my father you two were very helpful and protected me from danger!"

    "Well, there is a cinema a few blocks from here that's open this late," the other soldier suggested, "We could take you there if you promise to head straight back home with us afterwards."

    "Deal!" Ayana was quick to agree. Although she would not be at liberty to wander the town where she pleased anymore, she would have two bodyguards who knew their way around the city, which seemed like an acceptable tradeoff.


    The cinema the two soldiers had referred to had once been an upscale establishment catering mainly to the wealthy residents of downtown Wolves Haven. Nowadays, the majority of patrons were the regular citizenry and the Sidh military who came here to watch newsreels and briefly escape reality in comedies or romantic fiction.

    "They're running Mr. Otter's Arctic Adventures in fifteen. The guys said it's real funny," one of Ayana's newfound companions was examining the cinema's schedule. On their way here, she had learned that the two went by names of Alaric and Gundobad.

    "We could wait for an hour and go to Honeymoon on Hildagard instead," Alaric suggested.

    "Sounds boring. No fighting, no fucking, and probably not even much to laugh about either," Gundobad frowned, pointing at the description section saying "romance".

    "I vote Mr. Otter's Adventures," Ayana spoke out.

    "You heard that? The little princess wants to see Mr. Otter," Alaric chuckled at her insistent tone, "Mr. Otter it is then..."

    "Two tickets to Mr. Otter, please!" Gundobad spoke as he approached the ticket booth. Ayana could have sworn she had seen corpses with more life in them than the blank-expressioned grey-faced man in the ticket booth who looked like half-asleep all the time.

    "Hey, there's three of us!" Ayana objected.

    "What, you want us to pay your way now, little lady?" Gundobad frowned, "That was not the deal!"

    "How much for a ticket, mister?" Ayana turned to the man in the booth.

    "150 pounds. Or 10 aurons..." he spoke monotonously and yawned.

    "I don't have any money with me," the girl grumbled, "Look, mister, I am the daughter of Archistrategos Hanno Malkar and Archoness Elizabeth Blackwater-Malkar! Where I come from, those names can open a lot of doors for me."

    "And where I come from, people of such exalted ancestry have no difficulty paying 10 aurons for their ticket," the booth operator wasn't impressed in the least, leaving Ayana to groan in frustration.

    "Fine, I'll pay for your ticket," Gundobad finally relented, "And here I was thinking the Blackwaters were shitting money..."

    "Don't talk about my mother that way!" Ayana protested.

    "Why? She doesn't seem to have bothered with giving you any allowance to spend, has she?"

    "That's because she doesn't know I'm out here, remember!?"

    "And whose fault is that, I wonder? Now stop whining, little princess!"

    "You're an asshole!"

    "Oh, quite the mouth on this one... And you are a spoiled brat! Now stove it and let's go see that damn film!"

    Ayana wanted to say something back, but decided it more prudent not to irritate her two companions any further. Gundobad had, after all, paid her way in, and she wasn't keen on having these two tell her parents of her unsanctioned late-night escapade, which would no doubt happen if she annoyed them much further.


    The movie, a children's cartoon featuring a very learned and gentlemanly otter and his motley crew of other intrepid explorer animals, was every bit as funny as the fellow soldiers of Alaric and Gundobad had reported. Ayana found it somewhat curious that the better part of the audience were big, brawny Sidh soldiers made even bigger and brawnier by their armor - this cinema apparently catered to the desires of armored Sidhae, having even expanded and reinforced the seating to accomodate them. They proved a very attentive audience - whenever someone said anything at half-voice, others immediately hushed the speaker angrily, so that not a single word of the movie's characters was lost on them. They likewise laughed heartily at the many jokes in the film, which the screenwriter had admittedly made in a very good taste and placement. Eventually Mr. Otter and his crew overcame their hilariously-incompetent pirate adversaries that consisted of a grizzled polar bear captain, foul-mouthed pipe-smoking walrus first mate and an assortment of dim-witted seals and other Arctic animals, some of which were evidently native to Commonwealth worlds as Ayana was not familiar with them. Everyone sincerely applauded when Mr. Otter kissed his love interest, Ms. Sea Otter near the end during their wedding that was attended by the other protagonist creatures.

    "So, you liked it, little princess?" Gundobad asked Ayana on the way back from theater.

    "Don't call me that...!" Ayana protested.

    "Why? You're half my size and you have the attitude of a princess, so that makes you the little princess," Gundobad chuckled, evidently enjoying teasing the edgy teenager.

    "I don't care! I have a name!" Ayana grumbled and added, "But yes, I liked it."

    "It's time for us to part now, our barracks are that way," Alaric spoke, the trio stopping at an intersection within sight of the building the Malkars were quartered in, "I trust you'll find your way home from here safely, girl. And no further escapades in the streets - remember that we had a deal, and a Sidh always keeps his word!"

    "I'm not a Sidh yet," Ayana argued, mostly for the sake of argument.

    "But you want to be, don't you?" Alaric countered, "Might as well start acting like one already."

    "I do..." she spoke, "Goodbye, I guess. And thanks for the ticket!"

    Having parted with her escorts, Ayana made towards home in haste, having no mind towards further escapades - her parents could be returning home any time now. As she passed through the small park separating her home building from the main street, the girl groaned as she saw the familiar armoured limousine of her mother already in the parking lot out in front of the building.

    "Oh, shit... Mom's gonna kill me now..." she muttered to herself.

    Sneaking in through the emergency exit door she had deliberately left slightly ajar, jamming it with a rag upon leaving so that she'd have the stealthy way back in upon return, Ayana made haste back upstairs. Taking care not to make any noise, she made her way back to her room, hoping that her parents were too busy shagging each other in their room to have noticed her absence.

    As she opened the door, that hope went up in smoke.

    "Mother... Father..." Ayana greeted her parents, doing her best to feign royal dignity and pretend nothing had happened.

    "I didn't tell them anything..." her brother Hamilkar was quick to blurt out before falling silent from the vicious gaze of their mother.

    "Young lady, YOU are in big trouble," Elizabeth announced, her eyes shooting daggers.

    "Mr. Focht, please inform the search party that young Miss Malkar has returned unharmed on her own, and their services are no longer necessary," Malkar instructed a visibly-irate Mr. Focht without ever changing his trademark nonchalant expression or tone.

    While Focht got on his tacticom telling Malkar's retainers to lay off the search, Elizabeth was about to embark on an angry lecture. Malkar, however, silenced her with but a raised hand and approached his daughter who stood before him, guilty and spiteful in equal measure.

    "We will discuss your little escapade in the morning," he said, pulling the girl in his embrace, "You have grown so much, baby girl! I left a weedy little girl, and came back to find a beautiful young woman!"

    "Papa!" Ayana returned the hug, breaking down in tears of joy, "I'm sorry I wasn't here to meet you when you came home!"

    "Come now! Although the hour is late, let's go downstairs to eat something together like a family! I'm hungry - what they served at that banquet couldn't fill the belly of a hamster!" Malkar spoke. Elizabeth said nothing, not wanting to ruin the reunion, although the frown on her brow clearly told Ayana there would be consequences for her unsanctioned adventure tomorrow.

  7. #27
    Altoris, 30 kilometers north of Wolves Haven city limits, Wolfs Ridge, Hill House, current command center for Commonwealth intelligence services

    The Wolfs Ridge hills were a long range of rolling, forested hills only sparsely populated with small villages and hamlets, with the occasional mansion dotting the hill-sides, both in regular use and those solely used by the rich and powerful as a means of get-aways from the city. The war hadn't touched the region in terms of destruction and violence, but those mansions had been commandeered by the military and government to serve as hospitals and recovery areas for both Commonwealth and allied soldiers, with the addition of Sidh forces being much to the annoyance of the various intelligence services that had been folded together during the war and now had their headquarters in the well known but highly secretive location commonly known as Hill House, though its proper name was Summit House. It was more of a complex of houses and buildings rather then one large house, and had for three generations been the main operating center for Commonwealth Army Intelligence. When the Skargh War had started, for the sake of centralizing the resources and efforts of a large portion of Commonwealth intelligence services, both Commonwealth Internal and External Intelligence ministries had been folded into Army Intelligence, headed by General Alexander Albor, a seasoned veteran of both combat and the more secretive services. During the war their primary task had been directed against the Skargh for obvious reason, though a dedicated section had been tasked with dealing with potential Sidh infiltration as well.

    General Alexander Albor slowly released his breath, exhaling a cloud of cigarette smoke into the chilly, fog-ridden air in one of the many courtyards of Hill House. The complex of houses and out buildings were surrounded by a large wall and several rings of advanced sensors and guards. A vintage gramophone played the recording of a bombastic orchestra into the otherwise empty courtyard, minus himself and two guards posted by the door. Alexander wasn't a man who stood out much on his own, in the later years of middle age with slightly graying hair, and of average height and build. Although he was a full general on active service he generally dressed in a suit rather then his military uniform. He checked his watch as he took another drag on his cigarette. The whole complex was abuzz with activity, the end of a serious operation potentially coming to a swift close, but the waiting was a killer even for people who planned operations spanning years or even decades. Albor heard the echo of footsteps coming from the door and turned. One of his senior staff popped out of the door and looked to him, the man smiling slowly.

    “Al, we've got them.” The man said, using Albors nickname. A rush of excitement flowed through Alexander and he exhaled the cigarette smoke while flicking the still burning cig to the ground, snuffing out the flame under his shoe before he eagerly walked back into the compound. Behind him the two soldiers would pack up the gramophone and secure the door while Albor walked through the wide and mildly busy halls. The man who had fetched him, a long time friend, walked beside him, but they shared no words until they reached a large metal bulk-head. The guards posted at the door saluted and one opened the door, with both men stepping through into a large, well-lit, though slightly smokey, room. The door clanged behind them as they walked to a large oak table that dominated the room, itself in a small room on it's own, with a full wall around it, made of a frosty, sound proofed synthetic glass, the panels also able to be cleared or fully shaded as needed.. Around the room at various desks and tables were men and women seated behind their stations, papers and the rare data-slate being passed too and fro. This was the nerve center for Summit House, and thus the Commonwealths combined intelligence services. Inside the smaller secondary room there were maybe a dozen individuals, some in military uniforms and some in regular civilian clothes. A door clicked open and hissed as it was sealed behind Albor and his companion, the panels shifting to blackout, though those inside still able to see out of them.

    “What have we got?” Alexander asked as he stood at the head of the table, those assembled turning to face him. There was a hint of excitement on most of their faces, the grins of hunters about to take the killing shot on others.

    “Bloody well everything, Al.” His companion before, Maddox Cooper, said as he settled into a chair on the right side of the table. Alexander took a moment to take that in, looking a bit skeptical and raising a brow. Maddox held up a hand and turned his gaze to a woman across the table, in a smart female suit.

    “We tailed the Sidh agents that were spying on Oaklands detachment. After some covert rooting around, that gave us the break we needed.” The woman said and handed over a leather bound folder. Albor took it and unwound the small red string and flipped it open. Inside was a sheet of heavy, off-white paper, with a list of names on it. He quickly scanned the list, and then noticed there was a second page. “How bloody many...” He began saying.

    “One hundred and eleven.” The woman said crisply, but the satisfaction was heavy in her tone. “I've taken the liberty of separating actual Sidh agents from their local contacts. Most are Commonwealth citizens, but thirty-two are proper Sidh, Word Bearers, a few undefined 'drifters' and even five proper uniformed Sidh military officers.”

    Albor looked up sharply. “Basilisk?” He asked, not daring to hope. The faces of everyone turned to disappointment for a moment. “While we know it leads to him, we don't have enough evidence to support it, and thus the treaty wouldn't allow for us to move against him.” The woman said, sounding a bit dejected. Albor swore internally but simply nodded. He had been sparring with Basilisk, the code-name given to what was essentially his Sidh counterpart, since he had been leading troops and establishing spy cells in the FSA during the last war. He had been one of the more senior officers to volunteer to 'go rouge', and had lead a hard-hitting force of elite infantry against the Sidh, that had been so effective that he had heard there was an actual bounty placed on him and his troops. Basilisk had entered the picture when his own espionage cells and efforts clashed with his own, sparking a war of daggers and explosives in the already raging fire-storm around them. Then the Skargh War had come, and those had been set on hold. Since the 'end' of the most recent war Albor had reconnected with several of his FSA contacts, who in the years since had been building their own cells and rings, which was pleasing to see. No doubt Basilisk would have been working to root them out in those months as well, while also establishing her cells and rings in the Commonwealth. And that was what Albor was about to break apart, even if he couldn't get Basilisk.

    “This will set the Sidh back years, Al, now that we aren't as vulnerable to infiltration and with Sidh legions being prepped to be sent off.” Maddox said with a grin. The jovial mood returned and Albor allowed himself a small smile.

    “Yes, that will do nicely. I can't believe they fell for Oakland though, I had thought it a touch too obvious.” Alexander said, sitting down, the rest of those assembled sitting after him. Commonwealth Intel had known that the Sidh were watching Colonel Robert Oakland for some time now, a well known, staunch, and quite vocal critic of the Imperium. Commonwealth Intel had thought to use that to their advantage, and had had Oakland and his regiment assigned to Operation Sundering, the Commonwealths Dooms-day scenario for the upcoming negotiations and talks. It was feared that the Imperium, if they became dissatisfied with the talks, would try to use their immense local military might to simply take what the want and absorb the Commonwealth, which did not have the military strength left to offer much resistance, and so Prime Minister Monroe had approved Operation Equalizer, the hiding of several large scale WMDs across the remaining Commonwealth worlds, though especially on Altoris. It was ever so slightly obvious to Imperium intel and their higher ranks, but it was supposed to be, an equalizer. If the Imperium tried to take what they wanted they risked a large number of elite legions being wiped out as the WMDs were detonated and essentially shattered the planet, but if they quickly withdrew their legions from the Commonwealth they would lose the local threat of violence in the negotiations, essentially making them as equal as they would ever be.

    Oakland had been tasked with some of the more minor parts of the operation, but several other contingents had done most of the heavy lifting, but Oakland had been brought in purely as a means to try and lure out parts of the Sidh spy ring, and it had worked. Oakland was almost too obvious a target to tail, but someone on the Sidh side of things had gotten curious. Alexander was about to let himself smile when Maddox spoke up again.

    “They'll scatter the minute Drax sees that list. He won't confirm or deny any of them, but no doubt his has some sort of augment where he can just take a picture and send it to the relevant people. He doesn't have authority over any Judicator assets anyway. Hell, he might not even know a few of his officers are tied up in any espionage business.” Maddox said about to light a cigarette, giving Alexander a look, and getting a nod in approval. Alexander himself reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his own silver cigarette case, lighting one and sticking it in his mouth. Several other individuals followed suit, most of the smoke being drawn from the room from silent vent fans. The room was silent for a moment before Albor spoke.

    “We'll have to arrest them all in one shot, while I'm presenting the list to Drax.” He said, taking a drag and letting it out slowly. Maddox raised a brow and nodded. “One hundred and eleven arrests, taking place at the same time, across much of the Wolves Haven urban limits, including five uniformed Imperium officers on their bases, surrounded by their soldiers...I suppose we've pulled off harder in the past few years.” Maddox said with a shrug.

    Albor nodded. “Everyone dismissed, get teams ready. I want the Sidh we're going to be picking up to be top priority. Deploy army units, including power-armored teams to support the chaps going after those officers. If they run or resist arrest...” Albor paused for a moment, considering his next order very carefully. “If any of these people run or resist arrest beyond what can be subdued have them shot. Make sure every individual on these teams is carrying a copy of the warrants, and the treaty clause granting this authority.” He said. There was surprise on some of the faces, but most took it well, no doubt already having expected such an order. With a final nod from Alexander everyone got up and dismissed themselves to go and prepare the appropriate teams, leaving Albor and Maddox alone in the room.

    They sat in silence smoking for several moments before Maddox stubbed out the butt of his cigarette. “Well go ahead, Al. It can't be all that bad.” Maddox said, leaning back in his chair. Alexander took another few moments before he leaned back in his chair as well.

    “After we arrest these people...have them interrogated for any intelligence we can get from them...and then have them all shot.” Albor said and took a deep breath. Maddox showed no real sign of emotion, neither approval or disgust, just took a moment to digest the order and then nodded. “Grill them while the wonderful bureaucracy does it's work, and before they can be released, well, those Sidh certainly do like their escape attempts, hm?” Cooper said, and allowed himself to smile. Albor couldn't help but chuckle and nod.

    “Let me know when everything is ready and I'll go talk to Drax. And lets hope we don't start a war.” Albor said. Maddox nodded. “It'd be one hell of a quick war.” He said simply and stood up, walking out of the room.

    It took half a day to get everything ready, including moving five companies of Commonwealth Army troops into position to move in and arrest the Sidh officers. Squads of police, platoons of soldiers and marines, and dozens of plain-clothed Intelligence agents and officers had all been brought together and brilliantly coordinated. Alexander sat in the back of a staff car as it rolled through the main Sidh camp, the headquarters of Arch Strategos Drax just down the road. Albor counted a few more seconds and then sent a signal to Maddox, who in turn would start the arrests on all suspects. If they timed it well enough, Drax would be handed the list after most of the arrests had been made and before he could send out any sort of warning. The staff car pulled up to the headquarters and one of his guards opened the door for him. Alexander had decided on his civilian clothes still, and he stopped to light a cigarette and take a few pulls before he walked into the headquarters. He wasn't particularly nervous, Drax might have intimidated others but not Albor, at least not to the point where he was worried. Drax was one of the most highly ranked Sidh that Alexnader knew of, but for all that rank and glory he was still a dog on a leash, like most military men were, and he wasn't meeting Drax on a battlefield, well not one where Drax would trounce him anyway. No, the only real nervousness was the bit of deception Albor had had to pull to even get a meeting, using a borrowed seal from the Prime Ministers office to make it seem like a request for an official visit from Monroe's staff, no doubt Drax thought just some minister meant to go over a few details about this or that.

    Alexander walked into the headquarters and was instantly greeted with stares. He wasn't one of the usual ministers or officers to be here, after all, and he had two armed guards. He walked up to a counter with several Sidh behind it. “Alexander Albor to see Arch Strategos Drax.” He said simply. The officer looked him over with a barely disguised look of annoyance, maybe hatred, but gestured for an fully armor clad Sidh to come over. Without a word he was ushered away, going up two flights of stairs to the top floor. He had to wait two minutes until the door to Drax's office was opened and he was gestured to enter. Drax sat atop his throne like chair, as usual, with his trusted confidant D'Anna next to him.

    “Minister Albor, was it? I don't think I've hea-” Drax began in an already annoyed tone, but Albor cut him off.

    “General, actually. I'm the head of Commonwealth Intelligence Services. I'd apologize for the deception, but I'm not to terribly sorry about it. I do have urgent business to discuss though” Albor said, not sitting at the offered chair. Drax had a split second of emotion on his face, annoyance and anger at being cut off and lied to, but a hint of curiosity.

    “Well, I suppose you had best tell us what this urgent business.” Drax said, back to his usual impassive self, his tone even more of a growl. Albor turned to one of his guards and was handed a heavy leather bound folder, and Albor in turn handed it to Drax. Inside was a copy of the names of the Sidh agents, as well as the treaty clause that gave authorization to arrest them.

    “These individuals have been identified as acting Sidh covert agents, seeking to disrupt the process of law and order in the Commonwealth. As per the treaty agreement, clause twenty-three, section three a, we are within out full right to arrest them at once and hold them until your own authorities on the issue can confirm our findings and evidence.” Albor explained as Drax looked over the list and the clause copy.

    “I'm aware of the clause, General Albor.” Drax said. “I cannot confirm nor deny the prescence of any intelligence operations or operatives, either MilInt or Judicator.” He said, and then handed the folder to D'Anna. Albor smiled slightly. “As I said, we don't need you to confirm or deny them, we're just being courteous and following the treaty stipulations of informing Sidh authorities about the arrests, and since several of those named are Sidh military officers, we thought it best to come directly to you.” Albor said.

    Drax was about to say something else when there was an urgent knock at the door. Drax didn't break eye contact from Albor. “Come in.” He said, and the door opened. An armored Sidh quickly walked up to Drax, casting a glance at Albor, and then bent in to speak something to Drax privately. Drax did a mighty job of not letting his facade break this time, except around his eyes. The gaze grew sharper and a bit more anger filled. The new arrival backed away and saluted before quickly departing. Drax was silent for a few moments before he sat back.

    “Well played, General Albor.” Drax finally said, and nodded once. Albor grinned just a little. “I'll leave you to get all the bureaucratic non-sense started, Arch Strategos.” Albor said and turned, leaving the room. He broke into a full genuine grin once out the door and had it all the way back down to the car. They had finally gotten one over on the high and mighty Sidh, and Albor imagined that it wouldn't sit well with any of them...especially when all those arrested were shot 'trying to escape'. There had been some fear that such an action would cause an incident, but that had been brushed aside with the fact that the embarrassment and potential bad press about the spy ring would stay the Imperiums hand, that and the possibility of losing millions more soldiers Operation Sundering and put the entire Imperium at risk from its enemies.

    As Alexander lit another cigarette he couldn't help but think that the day was particularly nice, even with the ever present dark clouds over head.

    Altoris, Brownstone District of Wolves Haven
    Wolves Haven Metropolitan Police Force patrol sector B-2

    Kristanna smiled as she walked down the street, two other armored UrbSec officers tagging along with her usual human patrol. She was going to miss these humans once she was rotated out, having already decided to leave with William whenever the auxiliary was moved back to the Persian Expanse. She had already forwarded a request for a posting in the Expanse, and preferably on a world where William would be going to form the permanent Auxiliary force. Today was something of a special day, as the group was patrolling around a large gathering of humans and Sidh as several groups of Word Bearers had come together for something of a joint sermon, handing out extra ration packs. As usual some humans simply came, got the packs, and went on their way, but Kristanna noticed that over the weeks more had been actually staying. Maybe it was a form of entertainment for the citizens of a bombed out city, or maybe the Word called to them, either way it was nice to see.

    Constable Hunter seemed to disagree. He tried his best not to let his annoyance show around Kristanna, it was her nations 'religion' after all, but he had told her once before that it was like seeing his home being bombed by another sort of weapon, the Word Bearers coming down offering food to a nearly starved population and spreading their 'Sidh bullshite' as he had put it. Kristanna didn't blame him though, had even laughed when he had said it. She understood better then most, she liked to think anyway, about humans and their ways. She had been policing them for decades after all. Hunter wasn't very tense today, but the entire group Kristanna included snapped to alertness when several vehicles pulled down the road. They quickly pulled over and a large contingent of officers, some even armed, dismounted from the trucks and cars. Lead by a few people in plain clothes, they stormed up to where the Word Bearers and their followers were. Kristanna and the others were already moving when there was more movement and shouts from the crowd. The Sidh in the crowd were storming forward.

    Kristanna and the two other UrbSec officers sprinted forward, stun-batons pulled and ready, when a series of gun-shots stopped everything. She cleared the front of the crowd and saw what was going on. Two Word Bearers were on the ground, bloodied and with several uniformed police officer on top of each, batons out. Other officers and Sidh were on the ground, bloodied and bruised, with some obviously broken bones, but thankfully no one seemed to be dead. A line of off duty Sidh soldiers had several pistols and rifles aimed at them, and a plain clothed man held a pistol in the air, no doubt the man who had fired off the shots. Kristanna pointed at the off-duty Sidh and her two officers moved in to corral them, while she moved forward, only to find a rifle quickly aimed at her. She stopped and was about to say something when Hunter and the others finally pushed through the crowd. Hunter saw what was happening and quickly walked up.

    “You'd best be pointing that rifle somewhere else, Perkins. For fucks sake, you know Kristanna!” Hunter said to the officer pointing the rifle at her. Perkins, for his part, did look mortified. “Course I do! We've got orders though. Sir, senior constable wants a word?” Perkins said over his shoulder, lowering his rifle and giving Kristanna a sorry look. The man with the raised pistol looked over and walked over, tucking his pistol into a shoulder holster.

    “You wanted a word?” He asked brusquely, and to his credit Hunter didn't back down. “More then one, if I can. What the bleeding hell is all this about? You're about to cause a riot in my sector and I'll be none to pleased.” He said in return, squaring off with the man. There was a tense silence for a moment before the man smiled a bit. He reached into his coat and pulled out some papers.

    “These fellows have been identified as spies and we're arresting them.” He said, handing over the papers to Hunter, who took a few steps back to show them to Kristanna. She looked them over quickly, knowing that Hunter didn't know the ins-and-outs of the formal treaty. He looked up at her and she nodded. “Everything checks out. We can't view the evidence, but if that's not for us to see.” She confirmed, and looked at the scene. It could still very easily get out of hand.

    “I think it would be best if you took your prizes and left, sir. I'll call for backup to handle any situations that may arise.” Kristanna said towards the human. “Thank you for your permission, tankie.” The man said in a clearly sarcastic tone. There were a few words said by the Sidh, but the insult didn't phase Kristanna and she simply stared at the man. He turned and the group swiftly cuffed the Word Bearers, with put some extra restraints on them, picked up their own scuffed up officers, and as a group they moved back towards their vehicles, the armed officers always facing the off-duty Sidh and ready to fire. They all mounted up and quickly pulled away.

    “Well, this week just got more interesting.” Hunter said from behind her, and Kristanna found that she agreed, though she doubted it would be a good kind of interesting.
    Last edited by Seg; July 21st, 2019 at 02:04 AM.

  8. #28
    Malkar family residence
    Downtown Wolves Haven

    "So, baby girl, about yesterday..."

    "Yes, papa, I'm sorry, I won't do that again..." Ayana reluctantly grumbled.

    The family was having their first breakfast together for the first time in five years. Malkar, the ever-absent father, was finally home, and for all their grudge of his absence, his two children rejoiced in it. Normally, it would be the servants who cooked their meals, but for the first time in a long while, it was cooked personally by their mother, and the fact that their father had lent a hand with tips of how to get the bacon just right made the meal all the more special.

    "Ayana," Malkar looked his daughter in the eyes firmly, "I understand why you want to go around and explore, but in the future, do not do so without an escort! You could have asked for Mr. Focht to accompany you, and I'm sure he wouldn't have minded, especially if I had allowed it."

    "Aye," Mr. Focht's gruff voice rang from the far end of the table. Being a Sidh and a veteran warrior of some renown as well as an esteemed tutor of Malkar children, Focht was the only household staff member to eat with the family, since Malkar would not insult a fellow Sidh and warrior by relegating him to eat with the human servants, and Focht would have likely accepted nothing less either.

    "Papa, that's the whole point," Ayana protested weakly, "It is always either mother or you who decides where I and brother get to go and why! I want to go out and see things on my own!"

    "It is for a reason, dear daughter!" Malkar opposed, "Not every person out there is a friend of our kind, especially out here. I don't mind you going out to explore the world, Ayana, I just want you to be safe. If only to put your dear mother at ease."

    For a moment, Elizabeth looked like protesting, but elected to remain silent. As a mother, she was fiercely protective of her children, even though it went against the harsh Sidh teachings, that everyone who called onself a Sidh should earn that name through danger, pain and hardship.

    "Yes, papa..." Ayana sighed resignedly.

    "Children," Elizabeth spoke up, "We should say our graces now that your father is here, shouldn't we?"

    The family held hands around and over the table and began to recite "Far Beneath the Distant Stars", the Imperial anthem.

    Far beneath the distant stars
    Emperor's light shall guide us
    We are warriors divine
    We have come to sanctify

    Let the banners fly in wind
    Let the fires be now lit
    We have come to purify
    We have come to sanctify
    Far beneath the distant stars
    Emperor's light shall guide us
    We are doom and we are faith
    Marching for our glorious race
    He is God of our kind
    He is wisdom, He is light
    We are prophets of His will
    And His wishes we fulfill

    The joint thanksgiving was interrupted by the arrival of a concerned butler. Ever since Elizabeth's old butler Mr. Grey had died at a venerable age, having served three generations of Blackwaters, the family had gone through a succession of a number of replacements, none keeping the job for more than a few years at most. Not because Elizabeth would have been an overly demanding mistress - with Malkar being away fighting his wars, hiring household staff was her prerogative - but rather because she was getting a bit paranoid about security since her elevation to archonship. Any Sidh would consider the mere notion of working as someone's domestic servant insulting, androids were prone to hacking, and humans from within the Imperium's ghettoes mostly ill-qualified for the job, so Elizabeth would always look out to hire an Altorisian butler, but that obviously came with it's own security risks. While finding sufficiently-qualified gentlemen especially among the numerous war refugees arriving across the border within her domain had been easy enough, there was always a possibility of some being disguised spies, and Elizabeth wasn't naive enough to believe the Commonwealth had ceased their spy operations in Persean Expanse just because the Imperium was now a nominal ally against the Skargh. Consequently, she would make frequent changes in the household staff as a security measure.

    "Lord Strategos, a messenger from Her Majesty has arrived! He says your presence is urgently required!" the butler humbly bowed and spoke to Malkar. Elizabeth personally fancied this one, a proper old-fashioned Altorisian gentleman who was quick to learn the habits and quirks of his employers, and carried out his more delicate duties with praiseworthy discretion.

    "How urgently?" Malkar spoke, visibly displeased at the intrusion, even though the simple fact of the Empress having sent a messenger rather than had one of her secretaries call him attested the urgency and the need of secrecy.

    "Absolutely urgently, my lord! I am afraid Her Majesty will not take kindly to any delays," the man spoke, evidently being familiar enough with the caprices of Sidh lords and ladies enough to judge.

    "My apologies, dear children," Malkar spoke to his offspring who were visibly saddened by his departure, "Your godmother evidently requires my presence, and you know I'm in no position to refuse."

    "Can't it wait even until we finish breakfast?!" Elizabeth exclaimed in disappointment.

    "Dear wife, you know as well as I do that our Empress would not call upon me in this hour absent good reason, much less with a messenger," Malkar spoke and turned to the butler.

    His wife and children sighed but said nothing. If the Empress demanded the presence of their father and husband, then that was it, and there was no discussion or question about her will.

    "Let us continue, children," Elizabeth spoke as if nothing had happened. Ayana and Hamilkar sighed and reluctantly continued with their graces.


    Aboard superdreadnought Dies Irae
    Low orbit of Altoris

    Nowadays the perpetual shroud of dust and soot over Altoris made glimpses of clear sky evermore rarer. On those rare occasions when the sky did open up briefly for the rare beams of sunlight, the view was often marred by the Sidh dreadnoughts looming high in the sky as an ever-present reminder of their military might and presence in the heart of the Commonwealth.

    Inside the bowels of the mightiest of these dreadnoughts, the Dies Irae, an emergency meeting was underway. It was a special conference room inside the most protected area of the ship that was off-limits even to the ship's commander and senior officers, only open personally for the Empress and whoever she invited there.

    The room itself was spacious, big enough to accomodate a significant number of people, but had hardly any of the grandeur seen elsewhere thoroughout the Empress's palace-ship. If anything, it appeared small, almost claustrophobic compared to the vast halls aboard this same dreadnought were more open receptions were usually held. There was no display of might and opulence bordering on the ludicrous here, the only license being taken with reliefed panels lining the walls. The reliefs featured scenes from the earliest days of Sidhkind - the Great Pilgrimage, early settlements, and the Skargh Wars. An Imperial Aquila spread its wings over two hemispheres of Terra at the far end of the room, a reminder of Sidh origins to any visitors. The center of the room was dominated by a large oblong table of polished redwood, carved in a simple and practical style without the usual elaborate decoes. The middle of the table was cut out to make room for a large holo-projector. The forty or fifty chairs lining both sides of the table were likewise made of redwood, simple and practical, their only distinctive feature being their extraordinary size meant to accomodate users of powered armor. The Empress's chair was at the far end of the table, beneath the Aquila and the map of Terra, distinguished only by being taller than all others and having a silver rim along with the ubiquitous Aquila emblem inlaid in silver near the top. The table and the chairs were said to be cut from the wood of General Sherman, the last and the greatest of Old Terra's once-mighty Pacific redwood trees. The seeds of General Sherman and others of its long-extinct kind had since sprouted to a new life in the parks of Imperial Spire and dozens of other Imperial worlds, though it would still be many centuries before groves of the mighty Pacific redwood would again bloom beneath the stars in their full size and glory.

    For today's conference, only about a dozen people had assembled in this most secret and sacred of rooms where the Emperor himself had once held council. Several of them who could not come to attend in time were instead represented by holographic avatars projected into their seats, connected to the conference via live QEC feed from their own command ships or facilities.

    In personal attendance were Archistrategoi Drax and Malkar along with a handful of their topmost staff officers, some three senior MILINT agents and two Judicators. Holographic avatars represented Grand Admiral Creed and Archistrategos Kanto, who were currently at Altmark, and Grand Master von Manteuffel of the Order of Judicators, who was joining the session from a secret location, most probably a Judicator compound somewhere in the Imperium. In attendance were also some Imperial Guard commanders and personal retainers of the Empress, the latter remaining standing behind her as opposed to sitting with the other participants.

    "Shall we begin?" the Empress spoke, sitting down after quietly checking if everyone required was present, "Deputy Director Callidus, please explain everyone the reason for this emergency meeting."

    "Majesty," the aforementioned, an unassuming middle-aged Sidh in a black business suit that starkly contrasted with the elaborate armor of the attending military men, acknowledged and stood up to speak.

    "To those of you who do not yet know, a few hours ago, the Commonwealth intelligence services launched a nation-wide crackdown on our intelligence efforts here. 111 assets were identified and captured in total. Most are native informers and sources, but 32 are Imperial citizens, five of the military officers of some prominence. Their fate is currently unknown, but they are presumed to be held in detention for interrogation. This unprecedented attack against our intelligence assets here hasn't only severely diminished our capabilities in the Commonwealth sector, but is also likely to cause severe political and public relations repercussions."

    The room was abuzz with angry murmur as the deputy director continued, listing captured Sidh assets and their importance to the Imperial intelligence.

    "Let me get this straight, Deputy Director," Drax finally interrupted him, red with barely contained rage, "You currently mean to tell me that your agents went behind my back to recruit two of my officers, who are now rotting locked-up devil knows where because of your incompetence?!"

    "Archistrategos," Director Callidus firmly protested, "While I understand your sentiment, let's not get overly emotional and look at the facts first..."

    "EMOTIONAL?!" Drax almost exploded, startling almost everyone by slamming down his huge armored fist on the table, "When you feel this fist going up your ass, that's when you'll know I'm getting emotional! This morning I had to dispatch an entire extra cohort of MilSec out in the streets to keep my men from starting a riot and fucking up every Commonwealther cop and official they could get their hands on after word spread that they are now snatching Sidh officers from their own bases! How do you think this makes me look in their eyes?!"

    "Archistrategos, please," the Empress intervened gently but firmly, "Now is not the time! Please, continue, Deputy Director!"

    "Best information we currently have is that a group of agents tailing a certain Colonel Robert Oakland, a known and outspoken anti-Sidh element in the Commonwealth military, was compromised and captured, leading to the exposure and eventual capture of the other assets in what was apparently a well-planned and carefully-orchestrated effort," Callidus continued, "Worse still, this has put in jeopardy our entire intelligence effort on the so-called Operation Sundering."

    "So the reports are true?" Malkar spoke out, "The Commonwealth is indeed preparing some sort of doomsday plan against us?"

    "They are," Callidus confirmed in an almost matter-of-factly manner, "Unfortunately, we did not have enough intel to confirm them with certainty until fairly recently, and now our knowledge of this operation has been compromised."

    The deputy director fiddled a bit with his tacticom, the conference room darkening and the holo-display in the center of the table humming to life, showing a star map of the Commonwealth and marking off several dozen worlds, most of which encompassed the still-inhabitable and undamaged part of the nation.

    "Operation Sundering is essentially the Commonwealth variant of our Omega Protocol - a planned destruction of an entire planet in the face of imminent fall to hostile forces," Callidus explained, "The main difference is that Sundering is intended as a national doomsday plan rather than merely a measure of attrition as used by our forces, effectively a national suicide plan for the eventuality of us attempting to seize power now that the mutual war with the Skargh is over. Since the Commonwealth Navy lacks the capabilities of proper planetary destruction, and its scattered remnants would not last for more than a few hours against our Navy in their present state, Commonwealth military and intelligence operatives have instead resorted to a ground-based solution, roughly similar to our Omega-Seven protocol."

    Callidus flipped a key on his tacticom and the image shifted to a holographic representation of Altoris, marking down several dozen orange dots in various locations across the planet.

    "Just like most variants of our Omega Protocol, Operation Sundering intends to destabilize the crust of target planets - in this case, specifically Omega-Seven, via application of ground-based high-yield fusion bombs at pre-determined points along tectonic fault lines. The resulting seismic shockwaves would interfere at an exacting pattern, inducing resonance in planetary crust and effectively shaking it apart. Asides from the sheer destruction by the blast effects themselves, any survivors would have to contend with colossal earthquakes, tsunamis hundreds of meters high, violent storms and massive volcanic activity. Any who would survive that would eventually starve or freeze to death as clouds of radioactive fallout, soot and volcanic ash would envelop the planet."

    "Do they even have the technology for that?" one of Malkar's staff officers inquired.

    "They do now, unfortunately," Callidus explained, "They are using our own Mk.714 "planet busters" that we kindly provided for the destruction of Dawnsbridge, and their reverse-engineered copies. Inferior in quality, but still several orders of magnitude more powerful than anything they had before.

    "Ungrateful cunt-born scum!" Archistrategos Kanto snarled furiously, his whole avatar flickering as if to convey his anger, "We should have wiped them out when we still had the chance!"

    "I'm afraid we never quite did, Archistrategos," Callidus stated, "They started to set up for this already years back, first as a contingency plan in case our joint forces failed to stop the Skargh on Altoris and Altmark. Now that the Skargh are no longer an immediate concern, that leaves them with us as their likeliest foe. Considering how our current military presence outnumbers theirs by 20-to-1 just here on Altoris, their very capitol world, I can easily see why that has them concerned. So while our allies are no doubt grateful for the invaluable help we have given to liberating them from the Skargh, they are also being smart and preparing for the possibility that we, their liberators, might just forget to go home now that the war has been won and numbers are firmly on our side."

    "For such a FUBAR situation as this, you sure seem much less concerned than I would be, Deputy Director," Drax growled from his seat, "I sense there's a but coming after you are done detailing this whole disgraceful mess!"

    "Although the setback is indeed significant, it was certainly not without its own benefits. In a joint effort with the Order of Judicators, my agents were able to trace the preparations for Operation Sundering on a total of 27 worlds, most of which are located in the least-affected parts of the Commonwealth, but also on affected worlds of major importance, such as Altoris and Altmark. Now, Judicator Segovax and Judicatrix Dannica here might correct me if I am mistaken, but the joint forces of MILINT and the Order were able to track down and pinpoint 60% of the doomsday devices currently deployed, allowing us to make fairly accurate calculations for locations of the remainder, before some of my agents got too careless and blew their cover. Now the said devices are likely being removed and relocated to new locations as we speak, and our current capabilities of retracing them are severely limited because of this recent setback. Needless to say, Her Majesty was immediately informed and promptly called this meeting to decide on further course of action."

    "How many field operatives can be deployed between MILINT and the Order at the time?" the Empress asked.

    "MILINT still has 32 agents in the field, but given the situation, all are presumed compromised and under orders to exfiltrate immediately," Callidus stated.

    "I currently have 14 Judicators including the two present operating on Commonwealth soil along with their disciples, but the majority has been ordered to exfil or go undercover as well," Grand Master von Manteuffel explained.

    "In all of the Commonwealth?" the Empress sighed, "And how many bombs there are?"

    "68. Just here on Altoris. And that's just the one's we know about, presuming they haven't already been relocated," Callidus looked visibly distressed when he called out the number.

    "We could try precision bombardment from orbit, take out at least the known sites," Kanto was quick to suggest.

    "And commit an open act of war, prompting them to detonate the remainder," Creed immediately objected, "A single Mk.714 can yield a blast of up to 296 gigatons at maximum setting, enough to leave a hole the size of a small continent. Even if we managed to take out every single one of the known sites, the remainder would still inflict unacceptable casualties!"

    "What are the projected Sidh casualties in the best-case scenario?" Empress questioned.

    "Our analysts did some quick math and estimated 30% of our current contingent," Callidus stated, "Which I think the commanders here will agree is absolutely unacceptable."

    "How fast could you evacuate our planetside troops at least to orbit?" the Empress turned to her commanders.

    "All of them?" Drax asked and chuckled gruffly, "It took us five years to bring our current contingent here up to present size. Even if the Navy committed their entire transport capacity in this sector to the task along with requisitioning every civilian vessel within jump range, it would still take 5 weeks just to withdraw the Alpha Legion from Altoris."

    "Seven weeks," Malkar spoke, "My legion would take at least seven, assuming we don't want to leave behind assets like superheavy walkers and mobile war factories."

    "Seven would be about right," Kanto agreed, "Not to mention all the other legions planetside elsewhere, and the fact that much of their transports are busy running supplies."

    "In short, evacuation is out of question, and even if we did set a new record, it would mean we'd have forefeited our positions on the ground, which is exactly what they want." Drax grumbled, "A loss of even 30% of our current contingent would weaken us severely on other fronts, and from what I hear, the Feds are already getting uncomfortably bold at the Orion Nebula and Terminus Line after having caught wind of the extended absence of so many legions."

    "Yes, the Federation has made 8 minor incursions into Imperial space in the said sectors over the past two months, all thankfully on worlds of only marginal strategic value - which I would say is no big deal any other day, were it not for the fact that it is more than they've launched in the past two years combined," the Empress affirmed, "They have no doubt already picked up on our current predicament and will not hesitate to use it, so we will invariably have to pull significant forces from the Commonwealth in the shortest possible time. The hard part will be to do it without seriously weakening our positions here, or more importantly, without showing weakness to our local friends here and giving them further ideas. We cannot afford to weaken our case in the coming talks by appearing in the least bit intimidated or deterred by their threats!"

    "It is not all bad news, though," Judicator Segovax spoke, "While the Commonwealth has indeed outplayed us here on Altoris and the nearby worlds, I still have assets on Altmark, and from what they tell me, not everybody there would be quite as enthusiastic about going out with a bang for the Commonwealth. Even here, the common people are generally much better-disposed towards our forces and nation than their government."

    "Thank you, Lord Judicator, I was about to get to that," Callidus affirmed, "As Grand Admiral Creed and Archistrategos Kanto here can no doubt confirm, the recent wartime experiences and also the current supply distribution priorities have significantly weakened the popularity of the Commonwealth government among Altmarkers. I would suggest using that to leverage things back in our favour."

    "Are the Altmarkers aware of this plan being implemented on their soil?" the Empress inquired.

    "Not that we know of," Judicator Segovax explained, "While I'm certain that the top officials may have at least some knowledge of the operation, given the general sentiments of Altmark population lately, informing even the top officers of Altmark military would be ill-advised on Commonwealth intelligence service part."

    "Then we should make sure the general public on Altmark learns about it," the Empress spoke after a brief pause to think, "The Commonwealth general public should know about it as well. If our troops here are truly as well-regarded as Judicator Segovax is suggesting, which other reports seem to confirm, then I would see the current government's popularity ratings take serious dip. They would be forced to discard the plan entirely and dismiss those responsible for implementing it, or risk a public uproar. They would have riots and possibly even separatist movements to deal with, since, as good Judicator pointed out, not every citizen would be as enthusiastic about going out with a bang for their government on the odd chance that their only friends and allies who spend trillion aurons a day rebuilding their country suddenly decided to turn on them."

    "If we go public with our current intel, the Commonwealth authorities will just dismiss it as fabricated lies. Their admittedly clever policy on suppressing mass media technologies means that Commonwealth people will only get to hear the official side of the story," Callidus objected, "We need solid proof, one that nobody could refute."

    "Then we secure one of the bomb sites on Altmark soil," the Empress spoke, "Get real, tangible, irrefutable proof of the Commonwealth planting doomsday devices on Altmark. With the local population already sympathetic to our forces, the scandal it would cause would likely force the Commonwealth authorities to scrap the whole operation, or at least abort it in Altmark space - or risk a separatist movement or even a civil war that they could only hope to contain with our aid, rendering their self-destruct plan moot in any case. Either way, the Imperium would stand to gain."

    "The Commonwealth authorities could still dismiss that as Imperium's ploy," Judicator Segovax argued, "We did provide them with a small number of Mk.714's during the war. They could just claim we're showing one of our own bombs, and moreover turn our attempt to discredit them against us, use it as evidence of the Imperium's efforts to subvert a lawful government."

    "Then we make sure everyone who matters on Altmark sees it and knows nobody but the Commonwealth intelligence could have planted it there," the Empress spoke, "I trust that Deputy Director Callidus has knowledge of locations suitable for such an arrangement?"

    "I believe it can be arranged for, Majesty," Callidus affirmed, "But that still leaves the problem of spreading the information to Commonwealth public."

    "They don't need to hear it first. Word will spread eventually. Once the word is out, even if dismissed by the authorities as blatant lies, it will linger on and creep into peoples minds as a rumor whispered over and over again in dark alleys, shady pubs and the privacy of homes. And like a poisonous weed, this rumor will grow, creep far and wide, and poison the people's minds with the singular question gnawing at their souls - what if it's right? What if the government is lying to us? What if they really plan to destroy what's left of our nation because of the paranoid insecurities of some generals and government suits, who will most likely live through it in some remote fallout bunker anyway?" the Empress explained, "Eventually, they will start to ask too many questions, and the authorities will either have to come out in the open with it, or mercilessly suppress these rumors - and in doing so discredit themselves as nothing better than a thinly-veiled military junta under the trappings of democracy."

    "Your Majesty proposes a sound plan. But who do we send for such a mission?" Judicatrix Dannica questioned, "With the majority of MILINT assets compromised, MILINT is out of question, and Brother Segovax's assets on Altmark are only limited to two of his disciples with some local associates who aren't even aware of whom they are working for. It should be someone whom the Commonwealth intel will never expect to enter the picture, someone with whom the local authorities would sympathize and who couldn't be just dismissed as a MILINT or Judicator plant."

    "I have quite a few capable soldiers with the necessary skills, familiar with the local circumstances and ever ready to give their lives for the Imperium if need be," Kanto spoke out, "With Your Majesty's permission, I could have any number of them ready for this mission on short notice."

    "I have no doubt about the capabilities of the men of the Sigma Legion, Archistrategos," the Empress spoke, "But I would prefer that knowledge of this plan does not leave this room until the time is right. If everything the good Deputy Director just told about the crackdown on our intelligence assets is 100% accurate, I already suspect the Commonwealth may have a mole in our ranks for them to be able to carry out such an operation on so short a notice. The fewer people know about this, the better!"

    "Your Majesty, if I may..." a grating metallic voice rumbled from behind the Empress's seat. Everyone turned to see one of her ever-present titanic bodyguards step forward. The warrior's armor suit's helmet disengaged and retracted, revealing the wizened face of a woman much to everyone's surprise. Though she looked like somewhere in her mid-30's, her face had that same indescribable ancient look as the Empress that marked her as a very old Sidh.

    "With your permission, I would like to volunteer for this mission," the woman spoke in a pleasant alto now that the helmet's external loudspeaker no longer distorted her voice. Her eyes shined a blazing green, but not subtly like the Empress's - the original gelatinous orbs that were said to be the mirrors of one's soul were long gone, replaced by menacingly-glaring, inhuman cyber-implants, lending the woman an otherworldly, machine-like look. As if aware of her distressing appearance, the woman briefly closed her eyes, opening them again to have more natural-looking eyes gaze back at the onlookers. The cosmetic filters that now concealed her intimidating optical implants gave the woman a pair of very natural, slightly sad-looking hazel eyes leaning more towards blue - probably the colour of her long-gone original eyes - with only the characteristic mild luminiscent shine that betrayed the owner a Sidh.

    "Do you think you could do this, Sidonia?" the Empress spoke to her.

    "I did not become Your Majesty's retainer for my good looks," the bodyguard spoke in a humble and serious tone even as her words expressed a tint of sarcasm, "Of those present in this room, I am certainly best-qualified for the job within your specified parameters, Your Majesty. I am neither part of MILINT nor the Order, few people outside this room know me, and I am among the few privileged to hear this information and have the necessary skillset to take the required action. Which is why I volunteer for this mission, if Your Majesty will allow it."

    "And you are...?" Deputy Director Callidus inquired sceptically. Few people outside the Imperial Guard ever knew the identities of the towering warriors accompanying the Empress wherever she went. Traditionally they were presumed to be the Twelve, the commanders of the Imperial Guard legions, even though it was obvious that the actual Guard archistrategoi only performed that duty on the most formal ceremonies, and most of the time the role of protectors and honour guards was fulfilled by rank-and-file Imperial Guard troops.

    "Cohortarch Sidonia Mallus, Her Majesty's personal retainer and bodyguard," the woman introduced herself in a matter-of-factly tone, "As for my qualifications, I think my current duties speak for themselves."


    Few Sidhae outside the Imperial Guard knew that name, but within the Guard itself Sidonia Mallus was a household name as the holder of a coveted and envied position that only a chosen few ever attained - a permanent member of the Empress's retinue.

    Like many older members of the Imperial Guard, Sidonia was a living record of Imperial history. A Gen-Five, meaning she belonged to only the fifth generation of Sidhae bred within the eugenics program, Sidonia was over six hundred years old and by far the oldest person besides the Empress currently present in the room. Her early days in service of the Imperium took place during the Skargh Wars, in a time when starships still had rotating gravity decks and journeys between star systems would take many months even with the most powerful star drives, with no guarantee of ending up in the right system. By the time Emperor breathed his last before his assassins, she was already a venerable warrior - one of the officers of the small detachment of marines aboard frigate Luminon that would enter history and legend by bringing the Empress back to New Aedun from the outer systems to rally her supporters for war against the Traitor Clans. By the time Luminon arrived at New Aedun, having braved blockades and ambushes and eluded many pursuers, the contingent of marines aboard had dwindled to a third of its original size, with Sidonia remaining as their sole officer. When the Empress offered a reward for their faithful service afterwards, all that Sidonia and her marines had requested was a place at the Empress's side, so that they could carry on fighting the righteous fight they had taken up.

    Many centuries had passed since that day. Sidonia had never left the Empress's side since, protecting her queen, representing her as an envoy on occasions, and acting as her personal enforcer on others. She was one of the Empress's guardian angels and attack dogs, but also a friend and confidante. As every Guardsman of comparable age, Sidonia had over the centuries accumulated sufficient augmentation and experience to be a one-woman army - for all practical means and purposes a superheroine even comapred to fellow Sidh. Yet barely anyone outside the Guard besides history buffs knew her name or accomplishments. For all her legendary feats, Sidonia did not crave publicity or recognition - such things were simply beneath her. There was no place for glory hounds in the Guard - the perpetual vigil in service of the Imperium that began the day she first put on the black-and-platinum armor of the Imperial Guard was all that mattered.

    Unlike many Sidhae of latter day, Sidonia still firmly held true to the Emperor's true Word, the one she had heard spoken by His own mouth, not recited from the heavily-redacted compilation of His words and teachings that was being passed off for the true Word these days. At times, her convictions conflicted even with those of the Empress in this respect, but Sidonia was smart enough to understand that most of the time, the Empress's deviations from the teachings and doctrines of her father were dictated by pragmatic issues, and that as a head of an ever-embattled nation and the leader of trillions, the Empress simply didn't have the luxury to have strongly-held principles.

    "Well, the Guardswoman is right about her being an unknown to the Commonwealth intelligence," Drax spoke, observing Sidonia with what could almost pass for mild curiosity. Being old enough to have fought in many of the same battles as her, Drax had certainly heard the name and knew she was one of the Empress's retainers, but had never pinned her down to any one individual in particular or seen her face before. "If she is as good as people say, the 'Wealthers won't even know what hit them if push comes to shove. I think it is worth a shot."

    "But what if they choose to detonate once they realize their last-resort plan is blown?" Malkar objected.

    "They won't," Drax waved his concerns off, "If there's anything I've learned about Commonwealthers these years, it's that they are as proud and stubborn bastards as they ever come - but not even they will blow up what's left of their nation if it can be avoided. As long as our fleets aren't raining death on every remaining Commonwealth world and slaughtering what's left of their armies, we have nothing to worry about immediately. The current problem merely removes the Army presence as a leverage factor in the upcoming negotiations rather than presenting an immediate existential threat to our forces."

    "Then it is decided," the Empress said, "I want MILINT and the Order to mobilize all their remaining assets on Altmark and recover one of these Commonwealth doomsday devices intact at any cost before they can be dismantled and relocated. Sidonia will join this mission as my personal representative and see that the job is done, whatever it takes."

    "I happen to have just the man in mind for that task, Your Majesty," Deputy Director Callidus responded, "I will send one of my best agents, codename Basilisk. He was behind the entire Commonwealth operation, so his local expertise should prove invaluable."

    "Thank you, Deputy Director, but I prefer to work alone. I doubt I would have much use of a man whose failures and oversights are the reason we are assembled here in the first place," Sidonia sarcastically remarked.

    Callidus didn't dignify that with a response beyond giving the Guardswoman an irate look.

    "This is not the time for pride, Sidonia," the Empress gave her retainer a stern look, "Your task will be to ensure that our MILINT and Order operatives make through whatever the Commonwealth intelligence might throw their way. You have my personal authorization to use any means necessary to ensure the success of this mission, including lethal force. As a last-resort measure, obviously."

    "As you command, Majesty," Sidonia humbly nodded.

    "Good then," Callidus agreed, "This mission will be a great opportunity for my senior agent to atone for his earlier mistakes."

    "Archistrategos Drax, I trust you will be able to keep the troops in line and prevent further damage to our relations. Deploy more MilSec, confine the men to bases, carry out some... uh, disciplinary actions if necessary, but keep the unrest among the troops pacified. If, however, things on Altmark take turn for the worst, I want you to keep an elite strike team ready just in case. Have your legion's intelligence section keep an eye on every Commonwealth government official, especially the Prime Minister and General Albor. And make it obvious, so that they know their every step is being watched." the Empress turned to Drax.

    "A decapitation strike?" Drax growled, "Surely they have predicted such a response and installed some fail-deadly measure against it."

    "Most likely," the Empress agreed, "Which is why we won't ever actually launch one - what we need is to make them think we are preparing for one, keep them on the edge. With their attention focused on anticipating this decapitation strike here on Altoris, they will be much less attentive to Altmark."

    "Consider it done, Majesty!" the old strategos nodded, "I'll have them think they're one step away from a surprise attack."

    "Archistrategos Malkar, I understand your wife Lady Elizabeth has some Commonwealth spies in DomSec custody back home in her sector - contact General Albor or the Prime Minister and see if an exchange of prisoners can be arranged," the Empress continued, "Also, prepare a public statement that the Sidh individuals in question were arrested over issues unrelated to espionage and with the full consent and approval of Imperial authorities. Spin whatever lies you need to sound plausible. Grand Admiral Creed, Archistrategos Kanto - your job will be to use your contacts and influence within the Altmark military and political circles. First probe the sentiments of key leaders and officials towards the Commonwealth, so we know which individuals to focus on later, also collect more intel on the popular sentiments from your troops who mingle regularly with the local citizens. I expect the first reports to be on my desk by the time Sidonia reaches Altmark."


    Augmentarium of Dies Irae

    an hour later

    The augmentation shop, or "augmentarium" in proper Sidh, was one of several attached to the infirmaries within the vast bowels of the Empress's dreadnought. The city-sized warship was so huge one could spend one's entire service in one section without ever seeing other parts of the ship, each section having everything needed to perform it's functions including its own augmentarium. This one that Sidonia was about to attend was located deep in the ship's internal armored citadel, not far from the area that housed the dreadnought's vital QEC hub through which perfectly secure contact could be established to every Imperium's battlefleet and legion as well as worlds of importance.

    The facility lacked the gilded and sombre splendor seen elsewhere over much of the dreadnought, only the medical servo-skulls hovering about their business reminding of the dark Sidh aesthetic conventions and tastes. As would befit a medical facility, the augmentarium was plain, utilitarian and sterile-white. In truth, augmentariums were at least as much mechanical workshops as they were hospitals, given the nature of their patients, so various machines and tools one would expect in a hi-tech workshop were to be seen around alongside medical instruments.

    Currently, nobody was inside to be seen besides a handful of the aforementioned servo-skulls. Much of the facility was automated, and although there always were some Sidh doctors and augmeticists available, the augmentarium's AI and its myriad of robotic minions could handle most cases without their assistance.

    Without further ado, Sidonia approached the nearest armoring station and stepped on the platform. The machine immediately hummed to life, robotic arms extending down from the ceiling and walls, and swiftly unfastening bolts that held Sidonia's armor suit securely sealed. With a pneumatic hiss, the back of her suit finally opened, and she stepped out for the first time in a long while, rubbing the neural interface ports on her hands, shoulders and the back of her head that felt itchy after being hooked up for so long. Sidonia sat down and reclined in the medical chair in front of the armoring station and examined her hulking armor suit, a customized Mk.VI Paladin. It was only a minute outside her armor and she was already feeling completely naked and vulnerable. Technically she was completely naked, though the heavy augmentation had certain advantages of making further clothing unnecessary. An onlooker could easily mistake Sidonia in her present state as wearing a set of black lingerie consisting of a body corset, stockings and shoulder-length gloves, only a closer examination revealing that what passed for feminine undergarments were in fact part of her body. The synthetic material closely mimicked the pattern of natural musculature, with ornate patterns being carved along the edges. Silvery metal tubing and armature shined here and there at the joints.

    "This will be more uncomfortable than I thought..." Sidonia sighed at the thought of having to spend the coming weeks without her armor that had felt like her own skin.

    "ID: Cohortarch Mallus, Sidonia, XIII Guard Legion, Special Detachment 1, serial number 5-2091-3003-Epsilon-Delta-80772! Integrity status -100%. Operational status - 100%. All vitals stable. Welcome, Cohortarch! Please state the reason of your visit."
    the synthetic voice of the augmentarium's AI announced after running a preliminary scan on Sidonia.

    "I require a reconfiguration of my body," she responded, "Mission type - infiltration, light or no powered armor, probable hostiles - human, Altorisian, probable enemy equipment - small arms, possibly man-portable support weapons and powered armor. Hostile presence - unknown."

    A holographic terminal immediately popped up next to her, depicting a large selection of options. She browsed through them for a while, checking her selections every now and then.

    "AugmeTek C-1500-series endoskeletal arms look nice," she spoke, "Anything specific I should know about them?"

    "C-1500 series support a wide variety of modular add-ons rated Tier 5 and above," the AI explained, "As you can see in the statistics chart, they are designed for speed and dexterity rather than brute strength, their maximum lifting power being rated at only 5800 kilograms. However, in combination with the optical sensor package, target acquisition software and synaptic catalysts that you currently have installed, their average reaction time could be as little as 0.1 millisecond under optimal add-on configuration."

    "Quick enough to catch a bullet," Sidonia spoke, "I think I'll go with these. Fit them with a set of high-speed servos and myomer bundles to meet the 0.1 millisecond reaction time. I will also require a finger-mounted integral laser cutter for my right arm, and integrated auxiliary weapons and a variable-lethality contact stun system for both."

    "Warning: the current power settings of your cybercore are invalid for this kind of configuration. Proceeding with their installation will require invasive readjustment of your core power systems," the AI warned.

    "Re-route what is necessary," Sidonia confirmed, "I'll have a Rumsfeld P31 Caustic for my left arm, and a BioRail 32SR-9 Modified for my right. I will also be replacing my legs, and my current body armor to subdermal plating, something less conspicuous. What would be the optimum match with my new arms for a high-speed low-observability configuration?"

    "General Augmetics SpeedLegs M245/E3 with high-speed medium-endurance servo package, or Aratek TMP-5 v.245 tactical mobility platform."

    "What about this new TMP-5 v.251b?" Sidonia pointed at an article on the display.

    "The v.251b offers a 15% reduction in reaction time, a 10% increase in linear top speed, and 13% increase in average stationary jump height over the v.245 at only 5% increase in power consumption. Warning: this is a prototype model in beta testing stage, still pending certification by Imperial Healthcare and Augmetics Association. Installing this augmentation will require your signature of an informed consent form for participating in beta testing, and a waiver relinquishing the manufacturer from any liability over potential injury or death directly or indirectly caused by accidental malfunctions or glitches," the AI warned again.

    "Define the likelihood of accidental malfunctions and glitches," Sidonia was concerned. Tempting as it was to try out something new, she couldn't risk a mission, much less one she had volunteered for rather than appointed to.

    "Aratek assures that the likelihood of catastrophic failure for all their augmetic products under normal-intensity uses is 0.000003% within the first 5 years after installation, which is considerably below the maximum permitted standard. However, there's a 0.1% chance of experiencing sudden mild to moderate drops in performance during high-intensity use. Seeing how this augmentation is intended primarily for military customers and given the likely nature of their high-intensity activities, this represents a small but not statistically-insignificant risk of injury or premature death directly or indirectly caused by a potential glitch."

    "I'll take them," Sidonia stated, "If this aug is as good as the specs say it should be, a temporary minor drop in performance shouldn't do much to impede me."

    "Your signature is required for the informed consent form and the legal waiver," the AI spoke, presenting the appropriate documents on the display.

    "I am Cohortarch Sidonia Mallus, XIII Guard Legion, Special Detachment 1, and I consent to these terms," Sidonia spoke out as was the protocol, presenting the Codex on her right hand for scanning. Her recorded statement along with her Codex scan was added to the documents to be transmitted back to Aratek, a copy of them being stored in her Codex for future reference.

    "Do you require any specifics add-ons for your legs?"

    "High-speed medium-strength servo package, and extendable metatarsals if possible."

    "Warning: Extendable metatarsals may interfere with your configuration's low-observability parameter."

    "Proceed. They are for emergency use only."

    "Your current auxiliary body armor is rated Class V for kinetic protection, and Class IV-B for thermal and directed energy protection. Switching to subdermal plating will considerably reduce your protection rating to Class III in all categories."

    "Proceed. I will require Class III-rated cellular liquid polymer armoring, and light hyper-alloy plating over my cybercore, along with fully-tacticle synthskin covering, full body."

    "Affirmative, confirming your selection and preparing to fabricate and install. The process will require approximately 6 hours to complete. Will you require a sedative or neuro-sim for the duration of the procedure?"

    "Yes, give me the usual,"Sidonia confirmed.

    "Affirmative. Preparing neurointeractive simulation... Initiating full-body reconfiguration procedure... Please remain static for the duration of the procedure. Warning: removal and reconfiguration of cybercore may cause some physical and emotional discomfort."

    "Yes, yes, I know the drill... Just get on with it," Sidonia said impatiently. Full-body reconfigurations were something one learned to tolerate over the years, but never quite grew accustomed to.

    Rigid cuffs automatically secured her legs and arms to prevent any involuntary twitches and movements, and robotic arms reached down from the array mounted on the ceiling along with a trio of servo-skulls which arrived to assist with a gentle electric hum. Tubing was inserted into two sockets implanted right under her collar bones, beginning to pump out blood for purification as was normal for a routine maintenance cycle in someone so heavily augmented. More tubes were attached to her arms and legs via similar sockets that doubled as neural interface ports, draining them of synth-blood and lubricants as well. Two of the servo-skulls proceeded to unfasten a series of bolts along Sidonia's shoulder and hip line, until finally, the robotic graspers detached her arms and legs completely, leaving only a limbless torso in the chair. The process however wasn't done, another robotic arm reaching down from above, leaning Sidonia forwards and attaching to her exposed back between the shoulders, where a line of vertebral implants protruded from her skin from the back of the head where the primary neural interface port prominently stood all the way down to her buttocks, only the front up to collar height and the sides being fully covered by the corset of flexible armor plating. Full replacement of the spine was yet another major aug that Sidonia had undertaken in the past, a pre-requisite for many of the higher-tier augmentations that required an overhaul of one's musculo-skeletal system.

    The procedure wasn't done yet, however, the servo-skulls and robot arms nimbly continuing to unfasten bolts that secured the armored corset to Sidonia's torso. She winced in discomfort as several large ones were undone around the artificial equivalent of her sacrum bone, and the corset detached with a pneumatic hiss. The appendage attached to her spine now began to lift what remained of her out of the armoring. Finally what was left stood there, held up a meter above the procedure chair by the robotic arms in a gruesome display.

    What used to be Sidonia's stomach cavity was now little more than a bag of pink pulsating partly-synthetic viscera wrapped in semi-transparent layers of synthetic muscle with numerous plastic and metallic sockets protruding here and there, only the very lower parts around hips and genitals still retaining a normal human appearance. Her back appeared more natural, even retaining a tattoo of the 13th Guard Legion emblem on her left shoulder blade, though the skin here was still broken by spinal implants and more interface sockets. Sidonia's upper torso appeared more natural, endowed with a pair of voluminous breasts, the left of which had an Imperial Aquila tattooed roughly over where the heart would be. Several old white scars marred what remained of her original skin, evidently kept as a reminder of past mistakes that had led to them.

    Even in this state, the procedure wasn't quite complete yet, as the robot arms plugged more wires and tubes into the sockets along her abdomen and spine, while the servo-skulls engaged their surgical lasers and began to cut along the skin line. Sidonia grunted in discomfort as a particularly large tube was unceremoniously forced up her backside. Moments later, the entire lower part of her torso was detached, sealed off from the rest of environment by a series of implanted valves and kept on life support through the many tubes and wires. The upper half of Sidonia's torso finally revealed what the Sidhae called their "cybercore" - a semi-synthetic collection of vital organs encased in an armor-plated ribcage, with a length of artificial spine dangling below and still moving like a gruesome sort of tail. Inside the ribcage beat a synthetic heart, a smaller auxiliary heart, two pairs of heavily enhanced lungs, and a series of natural and artificial glands, all arrayed around a power core attached to the inside of the artifical spine. The latter would power the more energy-intensive augs that power obtained through digesting nutrition would be insufficient for.

    There was a reason why there were no mirrors in augmentariums - even amongst the most battle-hardened Sidhae, few were able to withstand the distress of seeing themselves in such a dismantled and vulnerable state. Like most of her kind, Sidonia hated this part of reconfiguration procedure like few other things, and frankly envied her less-augmented kin who were still by and large organic. The herculean might of high-tier Sidhae came for a price, one that was by no means light. Right now she felt about as naked and exposed as one possibly ever could - unsurprisingly, considering how her very beating heart was exposed to the eye at the moment.

    Finally, the neuro-sim was done booting. Sidonia's eyes widened as she gasped in pained discomfort as another robotic appendage reached to the back of her head and connected to her primary neural interface. The procedure wasn't so much painful as psychologically distressing - having a cold pencil-sized probe pushed all the way into one's brain wasn't exactly a feeling even an old-timer like her would ever truly get accustomed to.

    Closing her eyes that had gone blank and motionless now, Sidonia relaxed as the simulation initiated. She could spend the next six hours in the bliss of virtual reality while her dismantled body was subjected to a major overhaul.

    "Let's see if I can win Battle of Kursk for the Nazis this time..." she said quietly to herself.
    Last edited by CyberWar; July 31st, 2019 at 05:42 PM.

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