Hidden 1 mo ago 1 mo ago Post by Syrenrei
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"I am beginning to even more deeply regret that I didn't know you back when you were on Capella," Solae mused with a coy smile on her lips. "Not that I mind the military fatigues, as most ladies appreciate a man in uniform even if they are unwilling to admit it aloud, but I can only imagine how dashing you looked in those fashions. You had best prepare yourself for what my demands will be once I have you at the altar," she teased as she kissed his cheek.

The marquise was not entirely joking. She did have regrets they had not met earlier in life, prior to the false accusations lobbied against him, and his subsequent fall to grace. There was a pivotal part of his past with which she could never be as intimately acquainted as she would have liked. It was hard not to speculate how differently their paths would have twisted and turned had they met as younger versions of themselves. Perhaps she would have caught his eye rather than the handmaiden that claimed his heart. Admittedly such courtship could have culminated in her murder instead of Amellia's if the true motive behind the slaying was to displace Rene, but her lingering petty jealousy for the deceased woman persisted, as well as a yearning for the impossibility of being entwined with his prior nobility while it was still sparkling in innocent brilliance.

Ten had left a few items for Solae to choose from for her disguise. A small treasure trove of cosmetics had been delivered to their suite and left on an antique vanity where she could properly apply them. The alleged criminal had proven his wisdom in not trying to select brands or shades for his noble guest; despite all the trends set by titled ladies, it was exceedingly rare for any two individuals to have precisely the same taste. It might strike Rene as odd to being worried about concealer and lipstick in their circumstances, but it would bring more attention for her to be dressed well and be absent touches of a brush, since very few females believed their genetic enhancements elevated them to perfection. Both genders were vain, critical, and insecure when it came to aesthetics.

"I've never been a brunette," she mused aloud. Two wigs had been hung from the opposite sides of the vanity's mirror. One was a short, darker, stylish bob with a slanted bang that was modern couture among the central sector. The other was a timeless elegance lace-front in honeyed brown that had soft curls from the shoulders to just above the bust. Solae pulled the second option into her lap as she sat down and began to hold a locket against powders and pencils to find an exact match. Once she was satisfied with a gel instrument she leaned forward, still nude, and drew on her blonde eyebrows to artificially darken them. It was not nearly as fetching a hue as her natural prized golden, but the darker tint drew more attention to the brilliant color of her eyes.

"Would you like to pick the dress while I'm pre-occupied?" she offered. Three had been carefully arranged for her review. Once again Ten did not presume her style. He had made a very educated guess, to be certain, but he erred on the side of caution and did not leave her without some choice. Right now Solae was indebted to the merchant and broker for the assistance he was providing, but he had made his intentions clear to create a lasting alliance, one that was mutually beneficial. It was in his best interests to please Solae than antagonize her simply because he had the opportunity to do so. Ten was nothing if not a shrewd businessman. All three dresses were sleeveless and had skirts that ended just above the knee. The first was of a lilac suiting material with a belt and a slit that exposed a pleated silk underskirt. Her second was black and grey, utilizing color blocks to accentuate an hourglass figure, and of a slightly stretchable material that would be snug on the body. The last was a deep sapphire blue wrap accentuated with a dyed animal skin tie around the waist.

"Are you anxious?" Solae inquired more softly. "If this vault exists there is a very real possibility that something about your family might be there." It was a thought that kept consuming her. She still held doubt despite Ten's absolute confidence that her parents were the keeper of potent secrets. No matter her reservations, however, it gave her hope they might find some advantage against Duke Tan and keeping themselves alive. Solae had to know the truth, and for Rene's sake she couldn't turn her back on what could finally set him free.
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Hidden 1 mo ago Post by Penny
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"I ...," Rene hesitated, his heart thumping at the thought they might really be married and his crotch, more practical, tightening at the prolonged view of her naked rump. As such things went, Rene possessed a great deal of self control, but by the stars she was beautiful. A moment ago he would have said that the only thing that made him nervous was the risk to her, but now, faced with the possibility that their might be some piece of information that would unlock the future they both wanted together, he found that he was afraid to have his hopes dashed.

"I guess I am nervous," he admitted and reached for the black dress telling himself it wasn't just his hormonally charged state that drove him to the selection. The lilac would stand out more in the generally muted colors of Zatis, and the visible pleat might give the impression of a wound to any would be predators despite being purely cosmetic. The sapphire would have suited Solae's natural hair color better but the animal skin gave it a violence that Rene felt was at odds with the woman, and might make the woman herself look somewhat muted with her new brunette hair. Whatever else they owed Ten, a good quality wig might be the difference between life and death when it concealed that dazzling golden hair. The black was sexy, dangerous, just the thought of thing any noblewoman 'slumming it' on a world like this, and with a bodyguard to keep her safe would go for. Courtiers instincts didn't go away just because you hadn't used them in a few years.

“I don’t know what could be in the vault that might change things, but I can’t help but hope that there will be something that would make me…” he paused, knowing that the words would come out wrong but confident she would understand. Something that would make him worthy of her, she was afterall a noblewoman, and whatever his birth, his current station would make their match a source of ridicule for her.

“Something that would make a difference,” he concluded somewhat lamely.
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Hidden 29 days ago Post by Syrenrei
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"I can see you're already thinking ahead to being married," she teased with a bemused grin that forced her to briefly pause applying a liquid pen to the edges of her eyelids. The dark color was a stark contrast to her complexion and helped draw attention to the vivid blue of her eyes even more than the wig could accomplish alone. "Wisely choosing a better ending to a sentence so that your beloved will not chastise you."

It wasn't an entirely empty threat. Solae understood his fears and trepidation in moving forward with legalizing their relationship formally, but she was not worried about the consequences. Many aristocrats would balk at the notion that love's importance superseded reputation in the courts. The marquise, however, was willing to sacrifice a great many things more than being held in high regard if she was able to come home to someone who genuinely loved her. For some becoming a duchess was their greatest dream; hers were not nearly as narrow. Even if she and Rene parted ways at some juncture she would still probably become a social pariah if she began to advocate for the rights of the subjugated Syshin.

"If there truly is a vault it will change things," she said firmly as she stood up and strolled over to the armchair over which her undergarments had been draped. How Ten had so accurately determined the sizing was a mystery she would leave forever unexplored. Her paramour had probably also been both amazed and disturbed that his were so precisely fitted. "Think of all the implications," she continued as she stepped into one and clasped on the other casually. "We might not uncover a murderer instantly but we will have leverage on people here, but also on people allied with Duke Tan, and those that might have information vital to our goals. Just because some intelligence isn't actionable to the Empress doesn't mean we couldn't use it to convince people to help us."

With a smile she took the dress from Rene's hands and stepped into it, then wiggled it into place with a practiced ease. Once it had been zipped close she curled up her hair and quickly pulled on the wig. It was quite the transformation. None of her facial features had been changed by prosthetics but the cosmetics, wigs, and attire gave the illusion of her being an entirely different person. Had Rene not seen her put on the disguise he could have very well passed her on the street more than once before feeling more than a fleeting, and easily dismissed, moment of familiarity.

There was a rap at the door. "If you're ready the car is waiting for us," Ten called out through the closed portal. "If are quick we'll be able to leave the bank and get back here in time for breakfast with no one the wiser. Ah, and you are welcome to keep all three dresses if you approve, Solae. I do not have a use for women's designer clothing and none of my staff has your sizing. I'll have them hung up for you while we are gone if you like."

"That is very kind of you," Solae replied with a wink to Rene. She was far more interested in how much he liked the dresses on her than how much she liked them on herself. Given his reactions thus far she had half a mind to see what else she could find to provide temptation. It was strange. She hadn't really worried over what prior suitors thought of her appearance, but she was quite invested in Rene's perception, and found herself sincerely enjoying when he couldn't keep his eyes off of her. Her mother would have been exasperated; perhaps she was sighing from the afterlife if there was such a thing.
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Hidden 25 days ago 25 days ago Post by Penny
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Rene nodded politely to Ten, his emotions swaying between gratitude for the temporary safe haven and irritation at the interruption of a private and intimate moment. It reasonable, he had a duty to the Stellar Empire both as a marine and as the noble he was, in his soul if not in his current position, but time alone with Solae had been so rare and precious that he resented its loss none the less.

“Lets be about it,” he said shortly allowing Ten and Solae to precede him. Tactically the position allowed Ten to take the lead, but if he planned on killing them he would have done it by now. It also had the practical advantage of allowing him to continue to watch Solae in all her glory. It occurred to him that this was the first time he had truly seen her in her element, a noble woman of the Stellar Empire. He had been smitten with her even in the bloodied rags he had first met her in, but now she seemed to shine like the sun and it was difficult to keep his eyes off her.

The moved through the complex to the garage where an aircar waited, fans idling. It was a different vehicle from the previous day, a sleek black four place vehicle built in sleek sporting lines. The very thing one would expect a minor noblewoman to use. Ten was dressed in a variation of the suit Rene wore, though a little plainer and more practical, suggesting a chauffeur rather than a bodyguard the look completing the disguise. A cynical part of Rene’s mind wondered why the man was really coming along, did he not trust the operation to his underlings? Or was it, like his desire to be in the drivers seat, a marker of a man who refused to give up control.

Doing his best to push such uncharitable thoughts towards their host aside, Rene opened the door to the rear passenger compartment and handed Solae in, then circled around the rear of the vehicle and climbed into the opposite door. The interior was modern and immaculate with holo projectors built into both rear seats in case the passengers wanted to work while in transit. In the console between the two seats, where ordinarily a bar or refreshment compartment might be situated, was a submachine gun in a butt stock clip. Rene mechanically retrieved the weapon and checked the load before replacing it in the clip. Noticing that both Solae and Ten were watching him he shrugged, the action so ingrained by training that he had only been partially aware of it. He thought about Solae and what she had gone through in the past few weeks, and how well she had handled it. Perhaps the glittering life of a noble wasn’t really her element, at least not solely her element. Both of them were more than they had once been.

The aircar lifted smoothly and rose out of the holographic camouflage with hardly a whisper of its powerful fans audible. Like most cities Zatis never truly slept, men and women stumbled from bars, forlorn looking prostitutes displayed their questionable wares, here and there a few aircars banked and curved, but as Ten had suggested it was probably the quietest time of day. They flew over the blazing neon signs and enormous holographic advertisements to a more sober looking distinct. Here, towards the center of the city, the apex of the dome allowed for more vertical construction, though it was still fairly squat compared to cities under the open sky.

The bank was on the edge of the central cluster of buildings. It was opulent without being showy, mirrored black synthetic with a slight taper from its base to the sixth story peak. Predictably there was no sign or advertising, no one walked in off the street to do business in a place like this. Ten touched a control on the dashboard and took his hands of the controls. The air car began to descend, its controls slaved to an automatic pilot program from the building, one that allowed the bank to guide its customers in.

“Remember,” Ten said, turning to look over his shoulder at Solae, “You are Lady Svetlana Carrow, its one of your family ciphers, it should allow you to get to the vault you need without flagging that you are here on Zatis to the Duke.” They both nodded, recalling the plans they had made the previous evening. Rene had in his pocket an id chip that identified him as Roland Diaz, an independent security consultant from New Concordia, Ten doubted that a bodyguard would attract enough attention for that to matter, but in the event Rene was familiar enough with the world to bluff.

They sank to the level of the second floor and had almost reached the glass before the armored panel retracted to admit them, the car sliding smoothly into the building as the portal sealed behind them. The interior of the building seemed more like the entrance to a luxury hotel than a bank. The car set down on a polished plate of what appeared to be a gold veined white marble, but must have been some kind of armored composite judging by the way the weight of the vehicle failed to disfigure it. A large desk, flanked by stone columns dominated the east wall and blocked of access deeper into the building. A bank employee, a handsome man with sandy hair and an expensive suit stood behind the desk, flanked by a pair of men whose heavy musculature and loose cut suits marked them as security. Several slightly discolored panels concealed what might be sensors, but might just as easily be automated turrets or riot suppression equipment. On a planet renowned for mercenaries and criminals, deterring robbery was clearly a serious concern.

“I will remain with the car,” Ten explained calmly, “Good luck Mistress Carrow.”
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Hidden 24 days ago 24 days ago Post by Syrenrei
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"Here goes nothing," Solae whispered more for her own benefit than either of her companions. She inhaled deeply, held her breath for a moment, and pushed the button to release the soft seal on her door as she exhaled slowly. The immaculate hatch swung open in silent obedience. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Rene following her lead as he too exited albeit on the other side. The marquise swung her legs to the side, heels echoing with a soft tap as they met the polished smooth flooring and she stood. Already gone was the humble disposition that Rene had come to love, that had enchanted the Syshin, that had compelled a little girl to put down her branch club. For the sake of their goals she could not simply act like a noblewoman. Solae had to become Svetlana Carrow to suceed.

Without sparing a glance for her 'bodyguard,' as must trust he'd be at her side soon enough, the woman strode towards the desk with an arrogantly rigid posture. Instead of looking directly at the sandy-haired stranger that waited for her patiently at his station as she approached, she kept her face titled slightly upright so that she was looking down upon him despite their differences in height. It was a subtle nod to the self-importance even minor aristocrats held for others, including their peers and superiors. Additionally, a simple attendant such as this was treated barely better than a servant in the best of social circles. Solae knew she was expected to be polite but cold, haughty, and distant, without a shred of congeniality or empathy for the person beneath the tailored suit. He was beneath her. This charade made her heart ache in protest.

She had tried to warn Rene of this dramatic shift in her presence. Utilizing a cipher helped to to disguise her identity, as well as the garments, cosmetics, and wig, but she could not be her unusually compassionate self until they were alone again or with people whom they deeply trusted. Duke Tan undoubtedly would comb through her history and deduce some of her more unusual personality traits. The appearance and alias could do most of the work for her, but if she was oozing warmth and appreciation for the workers of Zatis it would draw a great deal of attention on account of how rare these qualities were in anyone of stature, and it would not be long until an agent of the self-styled emperor had picked up her trail.

"I'd like to access my box," Solae said as she reached the counter as if she expected them to know her name and immediately wave her through.

"Your name?" the clerk inquired evenly. She was not the first nor the worst of the customers an establishment such as this attracted. Criminals were surprisingly enough kinder to the employees. Because Solae was conducting herself with a sense of righteous entitlement he had already surmised she was not of the illicit element.

"Lady Svetlana Carrow," she intoned with an emphasis on her title.

"Thank you. Will you need an escort or do you need you know how to locate your box?" the man asked after clearing his name with those recorded in his system. The screen his fingers flew across was covered in a protective film that prevented wandering eyes from glimpsing any confidential data. Only an individual looking at it straight-on would not be be prevented from being subjected to an amber opaque sheen.

"I require my privacy," Solae said dismissively and moved towards a door that had neither a reader for a card nor a handle. She was beginning to regret this show of assurance, doubting everything she had just done, when a metallic panel shifted backward two inches and then receded into the floor. Eager to depart her audience the diplomat stepped over the last inch of sinking shield and proceeded into a long hallway. In a facility such as this there would be cameras to monitor them for acts of violence or vandalism, but there would be no audio, as there were limits what patrons would endure in the name of passive preventative measures before taking their business elsewhere.

"From what we were told there should be small identical alcoves up ahead. I will step into one," she recalled aloud, using her hair to obscure her lips so that it could not be transcribed later from security footage. "Make certain you're right behind me because we'll be sealed in once I initiate the tests. Once I pass the pod will transport us through the internal system to a room in which we can receive the box and whatever contents there are inside. I thought Ten might be mistaken about this," Solae admitted, "but they had the name he gave. It's hard to imagine either of my parents in a place like this," she added somberly. "I thought... I really thought I knew them, but I'm not sure I did."

"Are you absolutely certain you're ready for this? While I imagine my parents would have prepared for the possibility of dying in tragic manner, and had contingencies in place, I can't absolutely guarantee that I won't have an issue with the rapid-fire questions that they inputted. I'll understand if you wish to remain behind," she added though her tongue was sluggish in her mouth as an unspoken objection to this course of action. Rene's unwavering support in her had carried her through more than one crisis. She'd be lying to herself if she claimed everything she had learned since they had met Ten had not made her question her world as she knew it, made her feel emotionally adrift, and confused about whether parts of her childhood were fantastical illusions.
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Hidden 23 days ago Post by Penny
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Reyne refrained from breathing a sigh of relief as they passed through the security cordon. There was little doubt that the pair of them were being scanned with visual and biometric sensors and it wasn’t unlikely that they were monitoring their heart rates and other statistics. Such devices were common among the nobility, the sort of thing that Mia used to monitor her guests back in Lord Armond’s manor and to a lesser extent aboard the Bonaventure, and so Rene had received some training in how to keep his readings steady.

“Where you go, I go,” he responded simply to Solae’s question, the honest conviction in the statement more powerful than any flowery rhetoric might have been. He wanted very badly to take her hand and squeeze it, but such a gesture would be out of place for a bodyguard and his employer and might be remarked upon by the security team.

The hallway rounded a corner and opened onto a large chamber with three transport pods standing on small pedestal. A security checkpoint with a scanning frame blocked their advance and was manned by two security guards in non descript suits. Both men carried miniaturized sub-machine guns on patrol slings and looked like they knew how to use them.

Solae walked through the frame without slowing and one of the guards glanced down at the readout. Rene followed suit and the scanner made a low pinging sound as it registered his sidearm. Again the guard glanced at the read out but didn’t make a comment as Rene followed Solae toward the central transport pod. They evidently were not concerned about weaponry as prosaic as a plasma pistol that posed little threat to the armored vaults they protected. If Rene had been shown to be carrying detonite or some other explosive, he expected the result would have been different and probably lethal.

The door to the pod opened smoothly revealing a plush bench and a small computer terminal. Solae stepped inside and Rene followed without hesitation, standing and bracing himself while she seated herself on the bench.

“Welcome Lady Carrow,” a pleasant contralto voice without dicernable sex announced. It was the first AI Rene had encountered on Zatis.

“Are you ready to depart?”

Solae nodded and the pod slid shut. There was a slight hum as the pod began to move, but gravitational dampers functioned so expertly that there was no sensation of movement as the pod sank into the armored vaults beneath the bank. Rene did squeeze Solae’s hand now, giving her as much encouragement as he dared. Though the AI might see the gesture, he hoped that it wouldn’t be taken as anything more than a noblewoman who entertained herself with a bodyguard.

The pod door opened to reveal a new room. This one a simple sterile room with a small kiosk at one end. Holographic windows were fitted to the walls, giving a pleasnt view of a simulated beach on some world other than Zatis.

“Do you understand the security protocol Lady Carrow?” the AI asked as they stepped towards the kiosk.

“I do,” Solae responded shortly, eyes fixed on the vault and whatever secrets her parents had kept from her.

“If you choose to have your bodyguard present, he may not speak, any attempt to communicate once the test begins will constitute a failure and meet with dire consequences,” the computer cautioned.
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Hidden 23 days ago Post by Syrenrei
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"I understand," Solae said with a glance to Rene. While they were still being monitored by the artificial intelligence, who was polite but far less endearing than Mia, she felt confident that this tier of the process was not being actively recorded and watched by employees of the bank. No elite businessman, shrewd criminal, or paranoid aristocrat would want the confidential data they used to authenticate their identity being reviewed. It not only would be a breach of privacy it would compromise the integrity of their system by letting staff learn the answers to the fourth exam: rapid fire questions.

"Please approach and hold up your hand of choice," the computer ordered simply.

The marquise raised her right hand. Out of the wall extended a robotic arm covered in a porcelain polymer casing. It neared Solae and placed a round knob at the tip of the mechanism against her middle finger. Before either of them could question the machine's intentions a needle too small to perceive had pricked her flesh, drawn blood, and gathered its specimen. There was a soft hiss as an antiseptic was administered to clean the minuscule wound before the a temporary sealant was applied. In Solae's opinion this was the very definition of excess but she could appreciate how a person with more wealth than they knew how to spend would be insistent at 'treatment' for this test.

"Thank you for your compliance. Please place both hands in the blue circles you see on the screen before you," the computer ordered as the robotic arm retracted and retreated back into the wall for presumed analysis against their records. The kiosk's large blank screen was illuminated by two large digitally drawn circles equidistant from each other and the edges of the surface. She drew in a deep breath and lowered both hands as directly. This made her much more nervous than the blood draw. Solae couldn't quite conceive how her parents might have been able to discreetly obtain a scan of the unique ridges, lines, and grooves of her hands for vault access. Just as she was started to feel a tug of doubt the blue rings turned a pleasant shade of green indicative of a match.

"Thank you for your compliance," the computer stated again. Again Solae glanced at Rene. This must be a statement that passively acknowledged she had not failed yet. As encouraging to have a more direct reassurance that they weren't about to be forcibly detained or ejected, she had no choice but to accept these were circumstances she could not change. "Please remove your hands from the apparatus and remain still while the body scan is initiated. This will take approximately two minutes to complete."

The next one-hundred-twenty seconds seemed to stretch on for an eternity. They had far worse time crunches with their lives on the line and longer periods in space with nothing to do except sleep and stare at the stars, but it was knowing how much was on the line that had Solae on constant edge. The truth of her parents, of herself, and even Rene's past and future lay beyond whatever kernel of knowledge she'd be given to lead her to her parent's personal vault. Ten had offered her liquor the night prior to calm her nerves and she had declined. It was a decision she now regretted deeply.

"Thank you for your compliance. We will proceed with the verbal verification via questionnaire. You will have ten seconds in which to answer five security questions chosen for the box registered to your name. Please confirm you are ready to continue."

"I'm ready," Solae said firmly. There was no sense in delaying the inevitable she reasoned. Either she had all the answers already or she did not; there would be no epiphany if she procrastinated.

"Question 1: What is the name the favorite song of Alyosha Falia?" the computer commanded.

"The Truth of the Sun," Solae quickly answered. Her late father had several he counted among his favorites but this one in particular he said reminded him of her and her mother. It was a tune well over a century old have had two separate refrains with metaphors that very nearly described the color of her and her mother's hair.

"Question 2: How many miscarriages did Selene Falia have before successfully carrying Solae Falia to term?"

"Two," the marquise answered more softly. Science, medicine, and technology as a whole had made numerous magnificent leaps over the last millennia. Commoners often believed that anything they could imagine was possible now especially if one was affluent enough to make dreams become reality. There were no absolutes and guarantees for even the imperial line. Noblewoman could be implanted with fertilized embryos and still lose their children; not even the most accomplished specialist could promise success. The universe had not yielded all its secrets. Needless to say, miscarriages were never disclosed to anyone not in the immediate family who needed to know.

"Question 3: What is Selene Falia's favorite color?"

"Red," Solae replied feeling buoyed. Her mother had always worn white even in the courts unless dress etiquette required otherwise. She had never explicitly told her daughter why she always wore white over red, but her excuse was that red was herself and white was what she chose to show; it would be foolish to be overly honest with society. On another occasion she claimed only a marquise or duchess could keep so many garments impeccably pristine white like freshly fallen snow.

"Question 4: Who was the first suitor proposed for Solae Falia when she was six months old?"

"Glenn Lande," was the slower answer. Her parents had joked about this. Unfortunately Glenn Lande was not of an appropriate status for their consideration, and they had no intentions of betrothing their infant to another. The Viscount that had made the offer was severely disappointed he could not use a long engagement and eventual marriage to climb a few rungs of the aristocracy.

"Question 5: What was Alyosha Falia's first pet?"

"A potted plant," Solae ventured, unsure of what the type of plant was as it had never been described to her.

"Thank you for your cooperation. Your identity has been authenticated," the computer announced with a programmed lift in tone so as to sound mildly congratulatory. "Here is your security box," it declared as a slot opened in the floor and a box no more than twelve inches by twelve inches and six inches thick was lifted upwards onto a small oval-shaped table that formed underneath from similarly hidden components.

Solae paused as she stared at the ornate golden container. There was no lock of any code but she was frozen in anticipation of what may be awaiting her. Irrationally afraid that the computer would declare they had a limited amount of time to spend in the room, she swung back the top hinge quickly. A small hand-written ledger titled 'Falia' and nothing more was tucked inside. This is what Ten had predicted. He had maintained that her parents would not have entrusted her inheritance in any bank, no matter how acclaimed, and instead they would find a clue leading them to the destination they truly sought. He was right. "We should wait to read this when we get back," she whispered as she stared at it but did not reach in much less flip through the pages to see what might be inscribed between the thick bindings.
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Hidden 19 days ago Post by Penny
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“We need the room!” Antigony Bhast’s voice cracked like a gunshot. The darkened bed chamber erupted with the sound of two seperate female screams and a male curse that would have curdled milk. The lights flicked on to reveal an oppulent boudir of vast proportions, walls hung with expensive hand woven tapestries, each one of which might have been a craftsman’s masterwork. The centerpiece of the room was a large bed covered with luxurious Quantiri velvet. Atop the bed were three naked figures in various states of shock. One was the Countessa of Chandrapore, her pale white hair still piled in a fashionable beehive, was on all fours, naked, save for an expensive necklace with a vast silver-white star crystal that swung ponderously back and forth like a metronome before her impressive breasts. Behind her, paused in mid thrust, was the muscular form of Alexius Tan, his face mottled in rage, confusion and stymied lust. A second woman, a red head, of great beauty but more common stock and with more of an innate sense of modesty, was snatching up a pillow to cover her own considerable charms.

“We need the room,” Bhast repeated, her tone much altered from a heart beat before. She paused in the doorway, blocking the advance of the squad of soldiers behind her in order to maintain her Emperor’s dignity. The Contessa straightened, glaring daggers at Bhast for interrupting her rendezvous. Though the general was a seasoned enough politician not to show anything other than steely calm, she was woman enough that her loins tightened at the view of the naked and furious aristocrat.

“Out,” Tan commanded both women, his hand sliding off the Contessa’s sculpted rump as she straightened and stalked towards a side door. The redhead, less poised, bolted for a similar door on the other side of the chamber, leaving the general and the self styled Emperor alone in the bed chamber.

“This,” the Duke began in a cold dry voice, “Had better be good Antigony.” His voice was measured and cultured, the kind of voice one imagines issuing orders to execute all prisoners and then goes on to order from the wine list. Bhast braced herself to attention, a subconscious reaction developed over a career of being dressed down by superior officers rather than a conscious choice of her own.

“We found her my lord,” Bhast declared without preamble. The Duke reached for a garment of shimmering cloth that lay discarded by the bed. As he placed it to his body, the fabric seemed to flow and mould itself around his body, resolving into trousers of a vaguely military cut. Intelligent fabric was extremely expensive, its form fed to it by an AI to adjust to any circumstances, in this case the Dukes present need for modesty.

“Marquessa Falia?” The Duke asked, nodding Bhast into the room. She entered but made a gesture to the troops in the hallway beyond to hold their positions.

“I wouldn’t disturb your eminence for anyone else,” Bhast agreed, she tapped a command on her wrist unit. A holographic projection sprang to life, still images of Solae leaving the Bonaventure, followed by a similar shot of Rene. A later video, grainy and shaky, showed an unknown assailant firing at Solae before she was whisked away by unknown allies.

“These are recent?” he asked pulling on a shirt even as he spoke, the excitement evident in his voice.

“Twenty six hours ago, on Zatis,” Bhast replied, gesturing with a fingertip to the timestamp which glowed in response to the indicator.

“The courier ship we sent to investigate our friends got lucky and picked it up of the local net, they landed their personnel and made back here at best speed,” Bhast explained. That was a fast run, even for courier ship rigged for speed, but the captain had correctly judged the urgency of the situation. The vessel itself had sustained damage from the strain, but he had bought the urgent intelligence that was worth a hundred ships.

“Our advance element has their ship locked down, I want to take a company there immediately,” Bhast explained, nodding over her shoulder at the soldiers lining the corridor.

“It wont be comfortable but if we cram aboard the courier ship we can be there in thirty standard.” A thirty hour jump with men crammed into the hallways of a small starship was no ones idea of comfortable, particularly with weapons and gear stowed, but it couldn’t be helped.

“Do it,” the Duke declared then paused.

“And take control of the PEA the moment you hit the ground, this is clearly their goal.”

Bhast bowed.

“It shall be as you command your eminence.”
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Hidden 17 days ago Post by Syrenrei
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"That is a considerable amount of precautionary measures," Ten remarked, stating the obvious. Solae politely ignored the undertone of disappointment but Rene let the hint of a frown reach his features. The alliance of the engaged couple with the criminal mastermind was only as strong as the benefit it afforded in both parties. As a marquise of the Falia line there were places that she could go that Ten could not and never would, but he wasn't foolish to ignore the opportunity to seize her vault himself might outweigh this mutually beneficial relationship.

Of course there was an even larger payoff that Ten was hoping would come to fruition. Should Solae survive this war, which was a large presumption given the advantages Duke Tan currently had working in his favor, she would undoubtedly earn herself the favor of the empress herself. The noblewoman would become a hero, an imperial favorite, and would be passively if not explicitly elevated socially. It was always a boon to have people in higher places and he could not imagine a scenario in which he'd have the access and ear of someone that was personally praised by the throne. Aristocrats could be criticized, scorned, and ostracized, but to do so to someone who was lauded a hero, a paradigm of virtue, and a manifestation of fealty to the Stelllar Empire would only mar the reputation of the one with loose lips. That was not to say Solae would be unable to do wrong, but that she would be given much more latitude, and it would take a serious, violent, horrifying offense to strip her of the positive recognition.

"There are a lot of precautionary measures," Solae conceded as she flipped through the pages. There were over thirty hand-written pages detailing the security systems for the vaults. Only blood members of the Falia lineage could enter any of the vaults. This wouldn't have been possible centuries ago, but in the current day and age it was a guarantee someone that shared DNA markers that identified a Falia would be living. Solae's mother had miscarriages, but she could have employed surrogates, and there were multitudes of embryos besides the success of the current marquise that were still in cold storage should something occur. Even after having the correct genetics required by the system, only one person could enter a time, and there was a lengthy and difficult process to make each location recognize a new family member. If her cousins were not already added it would take literal years for them to set foot in any of the referenced places.

"You want to go now?" Ten asked with raised eyebrows.

"If my parents left this ledger for me to find in the event of their death, I'm sure they took similar measures to confirm I was added to at least the Zatis's vault's list of approved Falia members," she pointed out. "Time is of the essence as we all know. I think it is worth the risk. Nothing in the book tells me what's in any of the vaults, so we can't be certain until I investigate them individually, but I'm willing to wager there is information that we could use to persuade some of Ralch's supporters to stand aside." While the first portion of the written records concerned procedures for access, the rest was a listing of vault locations by date of establishment. The fading of the ink and changes in handwriting was indicative of multiple generations making additions as needed. There were over twenty, each on a different planet and with a separate set of directions for both the point of entry and the method of transport.

"We won't have a way to reach you once you're inside," Ten mused aloud, "so we'd have to wait for you outside." His eyes flickered to Rene. This was the most danger of their endeavor. Soon enough someone would realize who had taken the marquise and her paramour under their wing and provided them shelter, and that would result in an assault. The vault might be the only chance they had to reduce the numbers of the Tan loyalists and mercenaries, but until then they'd be vulnerable, and he knew the soldier would make that same analysis. The hulking machinery in the center of the vehicle may see some use yet.

"I'll need a list of Ralch's..." Solae started, struggling for the most politically correct description.

"Lackeys," Ten finished dryly. "I'll make you a list," he confirmed as he set coordinates into the auto-pilot, engaged the feature, and fished for a writing implement in his pocket. This was improvisation in planning at its finest.

"The Zatis vault is only accessible by a tube," Solae said as she showed Rene the relevant page in the letter. The back seat was wide enough that she could share from the opposite corner of the rear of the car without difficulty, but she had curled up on the luxurious seating directly next to him. Her arm brushed against his as she ran a finger down the text. "There should be an engraved circle on the ground that, once I step on it, will descend and encapsulate me in a much more compact cousin of the pods in the bank." That was to say that the circular floor in question was only three feet in diameter so it was physically impossible to fit two adults in the space. "Once my identity is verified it will take me to the vault where I'll be able to search for the information we need."

She paused and let out a long sigh. "I understand why it was made this way, but I wish you could go with me," she said to Rene as she laid her head on his shoulder. Quietly she wished that they had more time in Ten's private suite. Perhaps when this was all over she'd wed Rene and take an excessively long honeymoon to not just celebrate but to try to recuperate from all the stress they had endure together. They had been jumping from one crisis to another. It was hard to imagine what they would be like if there was only peace, serenity, and relaxation for more than a scant few hours between mortal threats.
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Hidden 16 days ago Post by Penny
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The air car aced back over the city scape below. It was the day cycle now, though the only discernible difference was a slight lightening to the grey drizzle of rain on the dome above. Rene found that the rain was oddly soothing, even though he couldn’t have heard its fall above the bustle of the city. It reminded him of time spent at the hunting lodge at the Summer House, a somewhat inaccurate name for the several thousand acre property in the hills of northern Capella, on which he had spent four months of the year as a child. His family Swordmistress, a taciturn woman named Chaipon, had taken the young Renard on long excursions there, hunting for food and sleeping rough. His mother had objected to the practice but his father had overruled her with his normal curt decisiveness. The sound of the rain, whether it be on a tiled roof or a canopy of braided leaves was a balm to him.It was unlikely that even if he survived the rebellion that he would ever be able to take Solae to The Summer House, but the fantasy was an attractive one.

“Sir Rene,” A voice sounded in his head, startling him. Solae tensed beside him her hand frozen mid way through turning one of the pages. Ten had engaged the autopilot of the air car and was busily compiling a list, presumable of Ralch’s allies or people whom he was blackmailing him, evidently unaware of any disruption. The voice was a radio communication on his integral microphone. A fingernail sized transceiver that was surgically installed in his mastoid bone as part of Marine basic training. It wasn't particularly powerful, having been intended as a last ditch method for troops who for whatever reason had no communications gear with them. Most often it was used for emergency recalls from shore leave and other such minor emergencies.

“Reporting, Mia is that you?” Rene sub vocalized, his throat moving but not producing audible sound. While it was possible this might be some kind of trap, there was only one person who called him Sir Rene, well person was perhaps stretching the point somewhat.

“Yes Sir Rene, I apologize for reaching you this way.” Even through the com distortion of the mastoid implants limited bandwidth it sounded like a declaration of ‘I’ve been a naughty girl’ which was better confirmation of the transmission origin than any challenge question Rene could have come up with.

“Its fine Mia, go ahead,” he sub vocalized again. Solae arched an eyebrow but he made a small calming gesture with his right hand. Her eyes flicked forward towards Ten for a moment and then she returned to reading, or at least appeared to, her diplomats instincts correctly reading the situation.

“A hostile program has infiltrated the Bonaventure’s computer systems, my sensors also indicate physical surveillance,” Mia went on. Rene’s mind provided the breathless edge that the limited communication couldn’t.

“Are you… I mean are you in any danger?” Rene asked.

“I am not,” Mia returned, “I am a non standard addition and the intruder is not very sophisticated, I do not believe it is aware of my presence.” Rene didn’t know anything about computer intrusion, but he was willing to trust Mia’s assessment. An AI designed for a manor would be sufficiently weird to a standard intrusion program that it would be dismissed as junk or corruption. How Mia had managed to hijack radio equipment to contact him he couldn’t imagine but it wasnt important in the present moment.

“Can you eject the intruder Mia?” Rene asked, his mind whirling. A combined digital and physical intrusion almost certainly meant Duke Tan and his intelligence section. It also meant that though they had found their trail, they didn’t yet know precisely where they were, otherwise they would have no need to stake out the ship.

“Easily,” Mia replied with a hint of contempt, “Shall I do so.”

“Negative,” Rene responded quickly, “Just be ready to do so if we ask.”

“Will there be anything else Sir Rene?” Mia asked stretching the word anything out invitingly.

“Just keep us apprised if anything changes. Quentain out,” Rene responded, the words cutting the transmission.

“Trouble?” Solae whispered. Rene nodded before smiling tightly.

“What else is new,” he added before reaching forward to touch Ten on the shoulder. The criminal started and whirled, looking none to pleased to be touched. After a moment he smoothed out the expression.

“Change course,” Rene directed, “we can't go back to the house.”

“Why not?” Ten asked a little irritable, glancing between Solae and Rene as though he might discover something by their interplay.

“Our ship is under surveillance,” Rene explained to both Solae and Ten.

“That means your house might be also.”

“You can’t think that I…” Ten began to protest, as though a criminal selling them to the highest bidder was an unthinkable state of affairs.

“No, If you had tipped them off they wouldn’t bother watching the ship,” Rene explained, “But they might have tracked us to your house by now.” Rene didn’t think that likely, but nor was he willing to risk Solae’s life on an unnecessary gamble. Marine evasion training stressed that you should always imagine your enemy knew more than you suspected.

“We should ditch the car also, in case they…”

“I have protocols for this sort of thing,” Ten interupted, touching the control yoke and disengaging the autopilot.

The cruised apparently at random for another ten minutes, during which time Rene filled Solae and Ten in on the details of the situation, though he made no overt mention of Mia or his mastoid implant. The news that they could trust that Ten wasn’t or wasn’t yet in league with the Duke was welcome, but it would have been foolish to divulge any more information than he needed to. Ten was wise enough not to press for any further information. After a series of short cryptic radio transmissions Ten guided them down towards a large building bedecked in holographic displays of unsurpassed gaudiness.

“We are going to a casino?” Solae asked as they approached a large hangar in which a half dozen luxury air cars could be seen.

“The Twin Star is one of the finest casinos on all Zatis and it has absolutely no connection to me I regret to say.” The air car descended to a private landing pad set off from the main entrance by high wall designed for the privacy and protection of particularly paranoid visitors.

“Be ready to dismount promptly,” Ten advised as he set the car down with the finesse of a falling feather. The moment the skirts touched the pad a door opened in the wall and a trio of figures emerged. One was a woman dressed in the same dress as Solae, the second in a body guard suit and the third was a dead ringer for Ten. As Rene and Solae climbed from the car, their apparent doubles climbed in without exchanging a word. As the stepped through the doors the car lifted back into the sky headed out into the city with any following eyes none the wiser.

“Slick,” Rene complimented their host as he led them to a private elevator.

“I’m so glad you approve,” Ten simpered. “I have rooms booked here, well I paid to buy some existing bookings. Nothing connects to me, we should be safe until Mistress Solae is ready to make the next move.”

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Hidden 14 days ago Post by Syrenrei
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"Since we have the luxury of a bit more time," Solae ventured, "I think we should take as much advantage as is reasonable. Ten, while you are working on your list, would it be possible for us to order a meal?" she inquired as they stepped into the private elevator. Her mind was already whirling with possibilities of what they could do with these borrowed moments. Eventually their duplicates would be discovered to be imposters, but considering they did not have an active tail when they did the switch, the marquise estimated they had hours before there was any real risk to being tracked down to anywhere (much less the casino itself).

"I could arrange that, yes," Ten agreed if only because he was hungry at well. Despite what they might have assumed about the daily schedule of a criminal mastermind, he was not typically up before dawn. There was little reason to be up as such an hour when most of his illegal activity involved coordination of services and forging contracts. Polite endeavors of negotiation were arranged over a brunch at the earliest, not in the middle of the night and not when half the universe was still asleep, regardless of what myths pulp fiction tried to propagate. Breaking the law was not limited to evenings.

"I have another request," Solae added slowly. The elevator had hummed quietly as the digital marker indicated they were ascending to the upper floors of the building. The walls were a garish imitation of gold and the floor a dark composite meant to mimic marble without actually having its weight or hefty price tag. It was hard to imagine nobility looked fondly upon the design, but then again they probably were also not horribly concerned about aesthetics if they were coming to meet their mistress or gamble away a small fortune on a whim.

"Yes?" Ten asked as he continued to scribble on the piece of paper on which he was fixated. He had barely registered the prolonged pause she had taken to wait until they arrived at their floor. The door slid upon silently to allow them entry into a lavish hall than Solae or Rene had expected.

"Do you have an attorney that you can trust?" she asked quietly as they walked towards the suites Ten indicated he had acquired. The older man briefly halted his long stride to cast her a sidelong glance at this unusual query. Rene was more openly puzzled though he was understandably more concerned about the room and securing their next location. Being a marine suited him more than he realized. Perhaps other soldiers lacked his moral convictions, but he was a man that took pride in protecting others, and had an innate sense of how to shield that couldn't be taught at any academy.

"I do," Ten answered slowly. "More than one depending on the matter at hand. Why do you ask?"

"I need someone that specializes in wills," Solae stated assertively. Ten had just waved a card in front of the door to unlock it- a rudimentary system from ages past but one that still lent itself to clientele who desired anonymity and easy access- and motioned for his companions to join him inside.

"Wills?" Ten repeated with a raised brow as he closed the door to the suite behind them. They were lingering now in the entry hall for the purchased rooms as both men, who were surprised by this declaration, were sufficiently stunned they did not think to take a seat further inward.

"Who do you want?" Solae asked cryptically. "Secure me an attorney to meet me here and draft a legally binding will to my specifications. I'll need witnesses as well to authenticate my signature. If you can do that for me I'll search the vault for the person you want the most. It doesn't need to be anyone connected to Ralch, just someone over whom you need leverage, the person that is most vexing to your enterprise."

"You want to write a will for yourself?" Ten clarified. It wasn't impossible. Licensed lawyers were not as reputable on Zatis as on Capella, where they were retainers for the most powerful and prestigious, but that did not mean they were unqualified or inexperienced with nuanced needs and matters. Occasionally a duke or duchess would need to maneuver themselves or others away from the prying eyes of the courts, and there were few better places than Zatis for discretion. On a more practical note, even with very few regulations enforced on Zatis, as citizens of the empire the residents did have rights, disputes, and lives that were not limited to the bio domes alone.

"I do," Solae confirmed. "I have no heirs and Rene and I are not legally married. Since I doubt Rene would prefer to elope, I'd like to have a will drafted that will bequeath all my assets to him upon my death rather than my cousins. If necessary it could be distributed only after he's relieved of his duties as an enlisted man."

Ten was a shrewd man. Her reasons were more emotional than pragmatic, but it was not without its benefit to him. These cousins to which she alluded were unlikely to be as understanding with him as the diplomat was, nor were they indebted to him, and he doubted they would be moved by his assistance in keeping Solae alive through these trials. It was wiser to bet on the known than the unknown. Rene was not a lifelong friend of Ten nor would he ever be, but he was a man obviously in love, and he honorable enough to follow the spirit and wishes of his fiancee no matter how ardently he disagreed with her judgment.

"Anyone I want?" he asked before Rene could interject a protest.

"According to the ledger, information is categorized and stored in the vault that is closest in proximity to the transaction or event that took place. If the person you're after lives on Zatis and stays here, then this vault will be the one that has information relating to him if there is any to be found," Solae explained. "So with that understanding of the parameters, yes, anyone you want."
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Hidden 6 days ago Post by Penny
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Rene made no attempt to dissuade Solae from changing her will. He was after all, technically a commoner, and the business of the Great Houses were not his. She also knew, as well as he did, that enforcing such a will would be a difficult and dangerous process as Solae’s cousins would go to any length to prevent it from being enforced. It was unlikely that a peniles soldier would be able to win a protracted legal battle in Imperial courts but there was no point in belaboring the obvious. It was further complicated by the fact that Rene Quentain, in an Imperial legal sense, wouldn’t offically be a person until his tour in the Marines was up.

A smart looking human of middle middle age and androguyns sex arrived within a quarter hour and took Solae into one of the casino’s glass doored meeting rooms. The spoke for perhaps a half hour before the attorney closed the expensive electronic data case they held and stood, shaking Solae’s hand. The attorney looked a little wild eyed as well they might. Solae Falia was easily the most important person on Zatis and almost certainly the most important the Attorney had ever met. As they stepped out of the door Ten, flanked by a pair of guards, appeared in the hallway. The attorney looked startled but Ten smiled calmingly.

“Im afraid I am going to need to insist on you remaining my guest Tanzen,” he said smoothly. Tanzen must have been the attorney’s name, though Rene hadn’t caught it in the initial pleasantries. Solae gave Ten an arch look but he held up his palms in a placating guesture.

“No harm will come to Tanzen Lady Falia,” Ten said with a shark like smile. Rene too had been worried that Ten might simply have the lawyer killed. Afterall he knew exactly who Solae was having worked on her will.

“As you intimated, it is in my own interest to have this will circulate should the worst happen. If I were unable to produce the man who wrote it, it would only serve to weaken that case.”

Rene nodded and everyone, including Tanzen seemed to relax a little and the lawyer allowed themselves to be led away without further incident.

It had been hours since the light breakfast they had so Rene and Solae took a luxurious elevator to up into the casino. The bar they entered probably wasn’t physically located at the roof of the casino, but it had been elaborately prepared with holographic projectors to make it appear as though they were on the peak of the building, though, impossibly, beyond the dome. Gray clouds of lightning swept gas spread in all directions, with the glittering dome spread out beneath more pristine than it must have been on the day of its construction. There was a central kiosk with a circular bar ringing it with a dozen tables radiating out from it, each commanding a view across the vastness of Zatis’ untamed landscape. Each of the tables was at a slightly different height, raised up by subtle series of steps which muted conversations between them. Rene offered Solae his arm and an attractive server saw them to their table, arrangements having already been made courtesy of Ten’s meticulous planning.

Rene drew out a chair for Solae and then seated himself across the small table from her. The soft murmur of harp music competed for space with the gentle sound of synthesized wind. The menu was old fashioned paper, though it had been elaborately decorated with embossing and scroll work. Rene turned it over in his hand smiling slightly.

“What is it?” Solae asked. Rene set the menu down and smiled at his beloved.

“It is strange to have a moment to spend with you doing something so…” he waved a hand at the restaurant around them.

“Normal,” he concluded wrly.

“Its wonderful, but strange,” he concluded reaching across to grip her hand in his own.

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Hidden 4 days ago 4 days ago Post by Syrenrei
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"I'm sorry I sprang the will on you," Solae apologized as she took his hand and gave it a firm squeeze. Rene opened his mouth as if to protest the need for such to say such a thing but the marquise shook her head before any words left his lips. "We're a team so I should have at least warned you," she explained. "My cousins aren't bad people but I know that they have fundamental philosophical differences from me. They certainly aren't Syshin sympathizers. I know I can't control everything that happens but I want to at least try to leave the universe better than I entered it. I trust you more than either of them and... it's the least I can do if we aren't able to clear your name."

She leaned back in her chair and wrinkled her nose. "Not the best date conversation is it? I think we've been doing things a little backwards," the linguist laughed as she pulled her gaze away from Rene and back down to the menu in an attempt to not be thinking about him instead of food. As much as he had enjoyed seeing her in the dress he had selected, she had been similarly quite attracted to the vision of him in a finely tailored suit. "I hear that most couples have dates before they get engaged," she elaborated.

They made small talk until the waiter came back for their orders. Though they had quite a bit of privacy given the arrangement of the room, Solae was reluctant to discuss any sensitive matters when their server might be approaching and overhear a confidential topic. On New Concordia she had a very regimented diet meant to maximize nutrition with a low caloric intake. The death of her parents, being on the run, and being in disguise her a large amount of freedom over her meal. She didn't order any of the standard selection for ladies neurotic over their waistlines. The noblewoman requested a plate offering with prime cuts of meat, a vegetable side, a side that unabashedly had carbohydrates, and a desert for two.

Rene didn't comment or look surprised. Solae couldn't be sure if this was because he was comfortable with the choices she made, because he wanted her to eat more, because he knew as well as she this might be their last indulgence for some time, or if he simply didn't care about her preferences so long as they didn't make her sick. Their waiter couldn't hide his disbelief. He had spent years catering to wealthy members of both genders quizzing him about ways to trim down an entree to make it more 'healthy.' The paranoia about maintaining a physique was normal. He repeated Solae's order back to her twice as if certain he had gotten it wrong.

"Do I need to speak with the management?" the marquise finally snapped. She was putting on airs that were faithful to her attire: a cold indignation, a sharp tongue, and an expectation that anyone with her material means ought to be treated like royalty by establishments in the service industry. It was fine acting but she was also sincerely annoyed. The last thing Solae wanted was to have this nice time with Rene ruined because someone wanted to passively question and criticize the first time she ordered a meal she wanted to have rather than the one she ought to have out of societal obligation.

"I can take my business elsewhere," she threatened.

"My apologies, miss," the waiter capitulated before he had to explain to his employers why he had lost a customer. They would be shocked by the order as well, but so long as it made the aristocrat and her companion happy it wasn't worth jeopardizing business over. He bowed to emphasize his remorse and took Rene's order much more quickly, without any judgment, eager to get away from mistake. Ten would be displeased they had drawn attention to themselves, however minor, but it was almost a certainty that the desert would now be compensated.

"I don't envy you being a marine," Solae whispered once she was certain no one else was within earshot, "but I have to admit sometimes I get a little jealous that you're not obligated to follow the same absurd rules I'm supposed to even when we're not even being ourselves."

After a moment's thought she frowned to herself. "Maybe I should have requested two deserts. If I was going to be met with resistance no matter what I chose I should have been especially gluttonous." It was Solae's frustration speaking. The view was beautiful and the music carrying through the space pleasant but she couldn't pretend the enormity of their quest wasn't still weighing down upon her constantly. The only time she truly forgot about it was when Rene pulled her into his arms and they expressed their love physically in such intensity the world itself bled away. She yearned for the days when her largest source of stress was her unwed status.
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