Hidden 20 days ago Post by Syrenrei
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"Your grace," Solae breathed in greeting, just as shocked as Rene at the appearance of arguably the most powerful woman in the known universe. Her parents had never really prepared her for meeting the empress; because they had chosen to raise their child on a world other than Capella, the opportunity was unlikely to arise, and should it ever come to pass they had planned counsel her once the need was apparent. Obviously neither had anticipated their untimely deaths preceding their daughter having such a fortunate encounter. It was far too late to observe proper etiquette. The marquise was disheveled, her lover was bleeding, and both were still wearing their mercenary soldier disguises.

This sudden turn of events brought unbidden tears to the edges of the diplomat's eyes. No matter how her optimistic her fiance was about the recent past, the last week had been a struggle. Solae strongly suspected that they had both been clinging to the last shreds of hope as they strove against impossible odds to make it to the embassy and access the highly guarded communication device. After seeing her closest friend die, hearing second-hand of the deaths of her mother and father, watching her ex-suitor's mansion crumble, nearly being abducted by slavers, almost dying fleeing New Concordia with enemies at their heels, threading a landing through a hurricane, saving Rene when he had been captured, and breaching a building filled with hostile forces, she had started to disbelieve they would succeed. It had been a soft voice in the back of mind warning her to brace for the likelihood of failure. Scraping by as they had could not continue indefinitely.

"I only wish we had met under better circumstances," she said with a bow before shifting her attention briefly to Alric de Quentain, giving him a polite nod of acknowledgment before continuing. The overwhelming surge of relief still choked her words though not sufficiently that it was a social faux pas. Solae was not the first nor would she be the last to be overcome with emotions while in the presence of the empress. "Duke Tan launched a coordinated strike on the imperial stations on New Concordia. As far as I am aware there is no surviving nobility besides myself, and none except Rene," she said with a motion of her hand, "escaped the assault on the Imperial Marine base."

"And he pursues you," Mercedez Vilentrae observed with a shrewd cunning.

"He does," Solae admitted. "A very sizeable bounty has been put on my head but with the stipulation I am returned to him alive. It is our belief that he has secured a PEA but he is unable to operate it without a diplomat of sufficient clearance to grant him access. We've evaded him thus far but I am not sure for how much longer."

"Reinforcements will be dispatched retrieve you," the empress said with an unflappable confidence that made it sound as if were the most simple of operations, "as well as assess the situation more fully. Do you know which planets are currently within Duke Tan's control?" she inquired. Behind her eyes burned a keen intellect that was doing mental calculations of which squadrons could be spared and would be the most effective. Her resources were not as endless as she lead her subjects to believe and, with the civil unrest and coup on the prime world itself, she had to be judicious with whom and how many could be deployed.

"If I may be so bold, your eminence, I would like to make a request," Solae ventured diplomatically serenely. Her heart was beating out of her chest and she was inwardly anxious that at any moment Bhast might begin shooting through Rene's haphazardly created barricade. Not only was time of the essence, their lives were in imminent danger, and she was about to ask a favor of the highest authority she knew. No one, not the most highly esteemed duke, or the most composed handmaiden, would not have some apprehension.

Mercedez Vilentrae raised a single elegantly groomed brow as an indication she may proceed.

"It is my understanding that the program through which one might enter the marines is both to repay Stellar Empire in service and prove one's loyalty. Rene Quentain rescued me from two of Tan's soldiers before he even knew who I was and, despite everything that has been offered to him over the last week, including most recently enough wealth to purchase his own planet, he had been steadfast in his dedication and convictions. Many lesser men would have capitulated long before now, your highness. In light of his valor and fealty, I would ask for your consideration in having his service time lifted or removed, and allow him to be assigned as my personal bodyguard for the time being. I have faith he is uniquely positioned to keep me safe until your agents arrive," she said with a bow at the waist to help emphasize her sincerity.

"That is quite an unusual request," the empress commented slowly as the considered the consequences of agreeing to such a pardon.

"I personally vow that, should you so us such mercy, we will prove ourselves worthy of your generosity. I believe in Mr. Quentain's innocence and will strive to unveil the murderer who yet runs free, I will take Mr. Quentain into my own house rather than impose on his father, and I hope to compel others to oppose Duke Tan and commit themselves to our cause." Solae remained bent at the waist in an almost uncomfortable display of prostration. It was not strictly necessary but it helped to display her fervent desire.

Behind her she could tell that Rene was shell-shocked at her proclamation. Solae had expressed before that she would seek a pardon, to marry him, and to clear his name. Hearing it fall from her lips shortly after her greeting, with the empress in audience, was undoubtedly surreal to the man who had resigned himself to his fate. Again and again he had tried to impart that he had made peace with his exile. Hearing a compelling argument for his reinstatement into society, though absent his title until any official wedding took place, gave even the requestor palpitations. For once things were going right and there was potential for a dazzling, blissful, happy future on the horizon.
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The Empress appeared to consider it for a long moment and then her image reached forward to touch something just out of the range of the hologram pickups. Turning her head she spoke a few words to Alric who gave a curt nod and then his lips blured as the privacy mask intervened to protect the speaker from lip reading as well as audio eavesdropping. The communications suite at the Summer House was state of the art in all respects. Mercedez gave the older man a nod and then turned back to face the hologram pick up. Nothing showed on her face to hint at the import of the concealed conversation.

“We have maybe thirty seconds before they breach!” Rene yelled from his improvised cover. The sight of his Father’s face stung him but he couldn’t afford to look for more than a moment. He slapped the visor of his helmet down and turned on the anti-shock filters that were built into the unit, using a squad leader function to engage the same function on Solae’s helmet, even though she wasn’t currently wearing it. The faceplate blanked as a polarizing field altered it to resist the effect of breaching munitions, and the audio pickups began to broadcast a subsonic damping field to protect his hearing. It wasn’t perfect protection against the concussion, flash and disorientation of a breaching grenade but it was what he had to work with.

“I am unwilling to commute Mr Quentain’s term of enlistment,” Mercedez Vilentrae declared flatly, holding up a finger to forestall any objection.

“The question of his guilt or innocence, as well as that of his family affiliation will be revisited at another time. I will, however, promote him to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and assign him to you as your chief of security and military liaison. As of this moment you are the new Duchess of the Eastern Cross, all rights and privileges formerly assigned to Alexis Tan fall to you, until such time as the situation is resolved.”

The import of the short statement was stunning for both Rene and Solae. Marine officers were not drawn from the same pool of murderers and other miscreants that made up the ranks and were not subject to the same strictures. While the Empress decree forbade Rene from simply resigning his new found commission, his status as a felony in the process of being pardoned for service had been lifted. The rank of Lieutenant Colonel was stratospheric when viewed from his previous lowly position and normally the height of attainment for any officer who was not on a command track. For Solae the implications were even vaster. At a stroke she had been made the pre-eminent noble within the Eastern Cross, the titular liege of all of the lesser nobility and one of the seventeen electors who would convene to determine the Imperial Succession should Mercedez perish without naming an heir.

“I fear, Duchess, that few in your new realm will accept you unquestioningly, but I charge you to defend it as best you can until my forces can reach you,” Mercedez added as though reading Rene’s mind. Of course that didn’t really matter if they were killed or captured within the next few moments.

“Renard,” Alric spoke aloud for the first time since the call had began. Rene whipped his head away from the door for a moment to watch his father's unreadable place.

“I am pleased to hear of your engagement to a worthy woman,” he said with the slightest ghost of Rene’s own easy smile. There was a whir as a sophisticated printer produced a rosette, a diplomatic document that served as the official credentials. It was palm sized and made of dense synthetic crystal. The black and red design indicated it had been issued under the authority of the House of Vilentrae, while a golden circlet ringing the Imperial Sigil showed it had been issued by the Empress herself.

“Is there anything more we can do for you?” Alric asked, a military man recognizing the appalling tactical situation and perhaps as a father concerned for his son.

“Father I…” Rene began and then paused, clear thought forcing its way through the fog of injury and the drugs allowing him to continue functioning through it. He was moving before his mind could have articulated what he was doing, leaping up the stairs three at a time.

“Yes, keep the call running,” he called, grabbing Solae’s helmet and slipping it back on her head, concealing her beautiful face behind the polarized shield.

“Up against the wall,” he yelled, half directing half carrying Solae back down the short steps.

“Mia can you hear me?” he snapped into his helmet.

“Yes Colonel Quentain,” the AI responded in a particularly sultry voice, demonstrating that she had been keeping track of events.

“I need you to take control of my helmet, disengage all external sensors, and reconstruct a simulation from my sensor data,” he commanded. Almost immediately the world went black and then sprang back into wire-frame relief, a computer generated composite of his video recorders and the returns from the LIDAR and RADAR returns the helmet used to peer through smoke and darkness. None of it was real, but the internal compass meant that so long as nothing had changed since he had seen it, the representation was as good as reality.

“I need total exterior sensory deprivation,” Rene told Mia, “radio from Solae only.” All the sounds of the outside world cut off abruptly, the background of humming computers, the clink of metal on metal and the rattle of equipment much more noticeable for their absence. He pressed Solae into a corner, shielding her body with his own. Slinging his carbine he pulled two breaching grenades from his belt. For a moment there was nothing but silence and then the door exploded inwards as Bhast’s breaching charge cut through the armored door. Rene couldn’t hear it but he felt the shock of the blast as well as the rain of debris that pattered across his armored back and shoulders. A heart beat later the breaching grenades went off, bright enough that the actinic discharge was visible at the seam where his helmet joined his throat armor. Though Rene could neither see nor hear it stunner fire poured through the door, aimed at the pair of figures on the PEA dais. The images of Alric and Mercedez were, or course unaffected by the spray of electrical darts, but they fit the mental picture of what the attackers expected to see. Rene leaned back and tossed a breaching grenade through the shattered door and then flicked the other one towards the dais. Both went off within a half second of each other with syncopating booms that he felt through the soles of his feet. Attackers were screaming in confusion and fear but in the silence of helmet Rene merely grabbed hold of Solae and ran through the shattered doors.

“Mia drop the..” the AI anticipated his command by a fraction of a second and his face shield depolarized. The stunned rearguard had dropped his weapon and was clutching at his eyes while the shouts of confusion and the snarl of gunfire filled the PEA chamber. Rene pulled his pistol from his belt with his off hand and shot the disoriented soldier in the chest, the plasma bolt liberating its energy with a subsonic whoomp. The gout of vaporized ceramic and plasteel pitched the unfortunate soldier back into the wall with enough force to crack his spine if he hadn’t been wearing armor.

“I surrender!” Rene heard his father call from the room behind them, doing his best to add to the ruse. Rene pulled the final grenade from his belt, a standard high explosive frag and tossed it back through the doors before leading Solae down the corridor at a sprint. The bomb went off with a crump and was followed by screams of pain. Rene doubted it would kill Bhast but he supposed he had already had enough luck for one day. They turned a corner and pounded into a stairwell that spiraled down towards the ground floor.

“AI system D1124.3 online, system recognizes the authority of Duchess Sola Falia as senior Imperial Official on site. Please instruct.” Decimal’s monotone voice declared as the AI came back online. Bhast’s people had been able to reboot the system, but they couldn’t keep it down forever, the program existed in too many redundant nodes. Judging from the lack of even the rudimentary personality Decimal had exhibited, they had, accidentally or not, resorted it to its factory standard.


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"Decimal, deny any and all requests from anyone except myself and Lieutenant Colonel Rene Quentain, this gentleman with me. Can you confirm that your self-defense mechanisms are online?" she asked as she slipped an arm under Rene's shoulders and started to guide him to the steps. Though he had been taking the initiative thus far with strategizing their combat, she recognized he was wounded, and his situation had probably worsened in the last few minutes. He had shielded her and dragged her along when she was too stunned and confused to make sense of her surroundings. Just as he had supported her and kept her safe, now she had to do the same, even if it was only from exacerbating the injuries he had sustained.

"Confirmed that only orders from Duchess Solae Falia and Lieutenant Colonel Rene Quentain are being followed. How may I be of further assistance?" the program asked in an almost comically monotone voice. It was such a sharp deviation from the inappropriate undertones of Mia that could stand to have slightly less personality at times that it gave the freshly promoted aristocrat pause. The artificial sentience was asking a simple enough question- but the delivery lacked any pretense of congenial service.

"I'm enacting a password for all approaching vehicles," Solae added as she continued to help Rene down the stairs as rapidly was realistically possible given his state. None of their achievements would matter if he bled out during their escape because the strong cocktail of drugs he had administered to himself made him oblivious to his physical trauma. "The password is Marlene. If any vehicle approaches without the proper password you are to use the self-defense artillery to eliminate the threat with extreme prejudice. Does this facility have containment doors?"

"Yes, Duchess Solae Falia," Decimal replied with absolutely no elaboration. It was the same infuriating lack of detail they had encountered earlier. Despite herself Solae rolled her eyes in frustration at this concise statement.

"After further consideration, fire upon any and all vehicles in the area that do not provide you with the password within thirty seconds," she decided. The embassy, as an official imperial building, was equipped with ballista that could be utilized to defend against invaders. On most planets this protocol was not necessary. There had been enough attempted coups within the last two hundred years, however, that the throne had elected to err on the side of caution. They had implemented requirements that there be sufficient weaponry to take on insurrections, including that of soldiers with military-grade equipment. Solae was only fighting for her own self-preservation, and she taking advantage of the resources at her disposal for exactly the purpose they were intended, but she felt slightly ill at the revelation she'd be the direct cause of the insurgents' deaths.

Taking a deep breath to brace herself for the next ruthless command she forced herself to blot out any consideration for those trying to take them captive and/or kill them as the case may be. The nobility did not tolerate weakness. Summoning the willpower to ensure their mutual survival she cleared her throat. "Decimal, chart a path for us to the exit. Lower all containment doors that do not obstruct our path," she declared with all the authority she held. "Once we cross the threshold of a containment door you will lower it behind us. Do you understand?"

"The containment doors will remain locked for a minimum of two hours after engagement. Is this within acceptable parameters, Duchess Solae Falia?" Decimal responded. "I require verbal confirmation prior to deployment per operating procedure guidelines."

"Yes, Decimal, please proceed immediately," she affirmed with a grimace. Containment doors were meant for exactly what their name implied. The reinforced composite was impervious to both types of fire, whether flame or the handheld variety that was standard issue. It was constructed of a material very similar to what was used for landing pads. The theory behind the design was to provide a suppressive tactic that would isolate troops that had breached imperial offices, provide an air-tight seal to starve conflagrations and keep them from spreading down a hallway with a large supply of oxygen fuel, and even potentially shield citizens from a highly contagious epidemic. The largest drawback to the doors was that they had locking mechanisms that would not let anyone, whether it be Decimal or a Duchess or even the Empress herself, open them until the duration had expired. Understandably they were seldom employed. Solae was reluctant to take these extreme measures but their circumstances were dire.

"Mia, can you hear me?" the diplomat queried as they reached a landing of the stairwell.

"Yes, Lady Solae," Mia purred seductively as if she yearned for nothing more than a kind word from her mistress.

"Contact Ten and tell him I need an armored vehicle for extraction with full medical for Rene. The embassy's AI will ask him for a password for safe passage- inform him the password is Marlene. I've activated the embassy's defenses so his team should have little difficulty landing and retreating with minimal risk." She could tell that some of her fiance's strength was beginning to dwindle. Fortunately they did not have much farther to travel.

As they inched their way along a corridor they heard the thudding of containment doors quickly and firmly sliding shut on the floors above them as well as the ground floor onto which they had descended less than a minute prior. With this merciless symphony came a disconcerting silence. While they were not manufactured for sound absorption, the thick material of which they were constructed passively muffled noise with extreme efficiency, which was eerie when there was yelling and screaming moments before. "Shutter the windows as well, Decimal, unless they are so heavily damaged that the mechanisms are no longer intact."

"Understood, Duchess Solae Falia," Decimal said as there were a clattering noise of metal barricades being lowered accordingly. When Tan and Ralch's men had opened fire on one another none of them had a sufficiently high appointment to lock down the embassy like a fortress. The linguist had not anticipated needing them truthfully- she had been so focused on getting in that she had spent much less time dwelling on her options for getting out. Guilt still gnawed on the back of her conscience but she steeled herself. They had been very nearly killed multiple times over the last half hour without a pause for compassion. It was foolish for her to empathize with murderers and mercenaries.

A few minutes later they had made it to the courtyard. The armaments on the roof pivoted, whirled, and clicked as they shot a large caliber bullet or missile- Solae honestly could not discern the difference, into the sky in the opposite direction. There was a thundering boom as the hurtling projectile struck its target and detonated. There was no flying debris or danger of any kind in proximity, but the newly-crowned duchess crouched instinctively and pulled Rene with her to a bench that had avoided destruction thus far. The Zatis embassy was a veritable war zone.

"I am guiding Sir Ten to your coordinates," Mia interrupted with breathless anticipation.

They did not wait long. Just as Solae's anxiety rose into her throat their heavily armored chariot arrived, hovering a few feet above the ground before landing. There was no landing pad available that was not housing the charred and smoldering remains of their adversaries' transport. Ten's team had to improve and destroy a portion of walkway that melted under the heat but did not combust into flames like the carefully landscaped greenery would have.

"What a relief," Solae sighed as she saw the hatch hiss and slide open. As she moved to stand her legs finally buckled under her weight as her overwhelmed psyche conceded defeat. The elegant woman crumpled, not due to any mortal affliction, but because she had pushed well past her personal limits. Exhausted from being confused, terrified, and subjected to a seemingly endless supply of stress, with no training that would build her endurance for such intense scenarios, it was not all that surprising she collapsed. New recruits to the armed services were prone to being dazed despite their preparation when they met with an actual, authentic attack. It was the sight of their rescuers climbing through the portal that signaled to the flaxen-haired dignitary she could be granted her respite.
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Rene managed to catch Solae as she crumpled, though taking her weight, and that of her armor sent a stab of red hot pain up his side. A pair of hard faced men leaped from the armored air car and grabbed the pair hauling them through the hatch and into the rear compartment of the vehicle. The hatch hissed shut sealing away the crackle of burning APCs and the din of alarms set off by the discharge of the buildings high energy defensive weapons. Rene’s vision had become curiously monotone and the sound of fans and voices merged into a meaningless warble. Ten’s face appeared in his vision, pulling his helmet away but though his lips were moving Rene could make no sense of the words coming from his lips. He had the curious feeling that his tutors would be angry at him if he couldn’t relay Ten’s words to them. The kingpin turned and spoke to one of his men but by the time he turned back Rene had already slipped into unconsciousness.

Zatis - Day 23

“...needs a hospital… lost a lot of … pressurize…” Rene’s eyes fluttered open to reveal nothing but a blinding overhead light. The taste of antisceptic filled his throat and cold fluid pumped into his right arm with a steady pulse like rhythm. He tried to sit up but some kind of bracing around his chest prevented him from doing so, though it didn’t prevent a stab of pain and the blaring alarms of several monitoring system. A face appeared above him, silhouetted against the bright light.

“Mr Quentain, you need to relax, don’t try to move,” a familiar voice told him. Rene tried to summon up the name of Ten’s doctor but the woman’s name seemed to have vanished from his foggy mind.

“Solae…” he croaked, his voice dry and cracked.

“She is ok, in better shape than you that is for sure,” the doctor replied. Rene felt himself relax either from some modification to the drugs he was being treated with, or simply the knowledge that Solae was safe.

“Good..” he whispered.

“You were shot,” the doctor said in an accusatory tone. Cristeta, that was her name, Rene recalled.

“Occ...occupational hazard,” he managed. Something moist was pressed into his mouth and he sucked on it instinctively, water coating his parched throat.

“You would be surprised how often I hear that,” Cristeta responded somewhat sourly.

“A piece of your armor fractured inwards and penetrated your liver,” the doctor went on somewhat more clinically.

“It’s a miracle it didn’t lacerate an artery while you were running around all hopped up n that awful cocktail,” Cristeta marveled. The kind of combat drugs used by soldiers in the field were not well thought off in the medical community, a doctor wanted a drug that was safe and stable, a soldier wanted whatever it took to keep them on their feet.

“Any one you walk away from doc,” Rene responded, his voice strengthening, “but thank you for saving my life.” Cristeta grunted in acknowledgement a certain professional pride showing on her face.

“I need to see Solae,” he said after a moment. The doctor glared at him.

“What you need to do is rest and heal,” she countered. Rene shook his head.

“No time,” he explained, “Bhast and her men will be out by now and… wait how long have I been out?”

“Almost 30 hours I’m supposed to let Ten know as…”

“As soon as he wakes up yes,” Ten interjected, stepping through the door into the room. Rene forced himself up onto his elbows. The room must have been intended to be an elegant sitting room but it had been stripped of furniture and covered with semi-transparent plastic sheeting. A variety of surgical equipment including life support monitors and a synthetic blood transfusion set were spaced more or less equidistant around the bed in which he lay.

“I need to talk to Solae,” Rene insisted, forcing himself slowly to sit up and swinging his legs over the edge of the bed.

“What would I know, Im just a doctor,” Cristeta muttered after a glance at Ten to make sure the kingpin would not insist on her behalf.

“Has the Decameron already lifted?” Rene asked. Ten nodded.

“There was no point in trying to prevent it, Antigony Bhast could certainly have sent the news on any one of a hundred indepentent transports, perhaps you will get lucky and the Decameron will come apart when it tries to jump. It would have been a smarter move to blow the building with her inside,” Ten said with a total lack of emotion.

“Destroying a PEA worth more than the rest of this planet combined,” Rene added a touch sourly. Cristeta hurridley produced a wheel chair and Rene sank gratefully into it. His body was healing rapidly but there were few safe ways to combat exhaustion other than actually resting.

“It might have been worth it, to keep Tan in the dark,” Ten countered. Rene shook his head.

“Even if the Decameron wasn’t monitoring the communications net, which they certainly were, the Captain would have to be an idiot not to assume the worst and report it to Duke Tan.”

Ten shrugged, not conceding the point, but unwilling to keep arguing it.

“I will take you to the Marquessa, and you can discuss your next move,” he told Rene, moving behind him to guide the wheel chair out of the improvised operating room.

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The former marquise, now duchess, was seated at the desk in the otherwise vacant suite that had been set aside for hers and Rene's use. Her long hair had been piled atop her head and loosely and pinned into place with a variety of decorative butterfly barrettes that briefly gave the illusion of the flaxen-haired beauty being a princess of the forest rather than an aristocrat on a seedy criminal world. Solae's dress was a flowing gossamer gown tied at the waist but allowing a free range of movement. One hand was on a screen set into the table while the other was poised on another attached to the wall. The topic of research was obscured by records scrolling by in a language foreign to all present except the diplomat herself.

"You should be resting!" she objected as she heard the wheelchair enter the room. The sound had made her jump to her feet not in alarm, as she knew she was safe within the walls of the fortified dwelling, but because she was outraged at this apparent lack of concern for her fiance's health. "You should have sent word you were awake and stayed with the doctor," she clarified, not wanting to sound ungrateful or annoyed by her paramour's presence, "until she confirms you ought to be out and about."

"I think he deserves to know what you've been planning," Ten replied casually with a slight hint of disapproval peeking through his more reserved demeanor.

"No need to be so sensationalist," she said with a good-natured roll of the eyes as she gestured for Rene to be wheeled to the desk. Despite the apparent disagreement between the illicit broker and linguist, their words belied a level of respect, one that had developed naturally during their time spent on Zatis. Solae appreciated the risk that Ten took in forming an allegiance with them and throwing his weight behind the loyalists, however quietly, because he was not obligated to offer any assistance. Ten admired (though he would not admit it aloud) that Solae was incorruptible in an age when everyone else he knew could be convinced to abandon their morals with the correct incentive. Someone as fastidiously loyal as the couple was exceedingly rare.

"It occurred to me that our ship had a crew of four originally and it can support more than you and I," the duchess explained as she motioned to the foreign text. Realizing it was indecipherable to her audience she called up a schematic of the Bonaventure and pointed to the unoccupied crew's quarters. She and Rene had cleaned the room out briefly but otherwise not been using it even for storage. There were four beds within if memory served, and though it was tight quarters to be comfortable for month-long journeys, it was a decent enough accommodation if one had free reign of the rest of the vessel.

"Specifically she was hoping to procure additional members of an entourage," Ten remarked dryly.

"I don't want to see Rene more hurt than necessary, and it's madness not to attempt to recruit a few more individuals that could help guarantee our survival," she said, more trying to convince the older mastermind than her beau herself, but she quickly returned her gaze back to the latter. "I have every right, as a duchess, to have more than one bodyguard. If we can find a couple trustworthy souls to protect us we won't be in as much danger as we were at the embassy. Just two more would significantly strengthen us."

"You're leaving out the critical information, my dear," Ten said as he crossed his arms.

"I want to recruit a couple Syshin," Solae said without apology for the extremely unconventional notion. Syshin were relegated to the role of labourers only; it was unheard of for them to do anything more elevated than being a domestic servant at the highest rank. To provide them armor and weaponry would be madness for anyone else. Almost every human in the empire thought the subjugated race was not intelligent enough, not capable enough, and would lash out at their superiors given the opportunity to do so. That Solae spoke to them so kindly was a breach of etiquette. There was no law forbidding the duchess- especially with her station- in appointing whomever she chose for her security detail, but it would raise the brows of the most liberal minds.

"Duke Tan would never try to appeal to them," she elaborated, "and that makes them inherently a better choice than a man or woman whom he'd have the means to persuade to join the coup. He'll try to kill them certainly, but he wouldn't lower himself to bribe a slave, what he thinks is slightly better than a beast. They'll listen to you, Rene," she promised, "and be eager to follow any training you give them. It's a rare chance to show the Stellar Empire that they are worthy of more rights. Additionally," she added, her eyes drifting to Ten, "we could more easily appeal to other races if we can prove we are open-minded when it comes to allies."

"If you'd consider a human rather than a Syshin I could provide recommendations," Ten suggested. "Not my best men, as I need them for myself, but men that would follow you and not be Syshin."

"I've been looking through the records of the Syshin already here on Zatis to try to determine the best candidates, and from that pool who we'd need to... liberate," she said as she pressed a few keys to make the text display in a common tongue. Besides the Syshin brothels there were also a few fighting rings for the visitors that got their figurative jollies from watching violent battles, a couple factories that utilized them for raw strength and endurance, and a few owners that 'rented' them for a variety of tasks that were 'beneath' an imperial citizen.
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If Ten expected Rene to leap to his feet and raise an outraged objection to the plan he was disappointed. For one thing Rene did not share the common prejudices against the race, his only experience with them being their kindness back on New Concordia and for another, he really didn’t think he could have leapt to his feet.

“I’m alright,” he assured Solae.

“He most certainly isn’t alright,” Criestia interjected fussily as she followed them into the room fussily adjusting something on her data pad.

“He was very lucky not to be killed!”

“Well here I sit still alive,” Rene rejoined, “And I don't have time to spend a month in a surgical ward.” Criestia threw up her hands in defeat. Rene found it difficult to keep his eyes off Solae in her gossamer gown. She was heart stopping lovely and seemed like a Fairy Queen out of fable rather than a mortal woman. He felt ridiculously out of place in the simple hospital gown that he was wearing. He cleared his throat when he realised that silence had stretched.

“You can’t seriously think that recruiting Syshin is a goo…” Ten began but Rene held up his hand to silence the man.

“What I think doesn't really matter compared to the Duchess’ wish,” he said with a quiet sternness to his voice. Ten had been a help, but he was getting somewhat above himself in so openly questioning Solae’s orders.

“But for what it is worth, no Syshin has ever fired a weapon at me or tried to drag Solae off into slavery, unlike a rather large number of humans at this point.”

“I’m also afraid that General Bhast hasn’t departed with her ship, she is currently hiring local mercenaries to track you down. I don’t know if you have time to go shopping through the local slave markets…”

“I can help you,” came a voice from the doorway. All eyes swiveled to the the door, though Rene’s side tightened painfully and he had to turn his chair in order to see the speaker. Rosaria stood in the doorway dressed in a sober black jumpsuit that wasn’t quite skin tight. Swirls of patterned embroidery broke up the lines of her body and gave the impression she was wearing several layers. The bruises on her body were not visible which, now that Rene thought about it, was probably the point.

“Mistress Rosaria…,” Ten began but she held up a hand in unconscious imitation of Rene a few moments before.

“I have extensive knowledge of Mistress Thorne’s operations, she showed them to me herself,” the girl elaborated. She made a slight curtsey towards Solae in a fair imitation of Imperial Court fashion.

“I have decided not to return to her, and she will not be pleased. If you agree to take me with you, I am willing to help you find the slaves you desire.”

“The people,” Rene corrected. Rosaria looked up with a hint of irritation on her face, but quickly smoothed it over.

“The people you desire then,” she amended.
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"I am happy to have your help," Solae began after it was clear that both Ten and Rene were waiting for her to make a judicious decision on whether or not to accept this proposal, "But I am no slaver, not of Syshin nor of young women. We will take you if you wish to come with no obligations, no strings attached, no demands. The Lieutenant Colonel and I," she continued with a smile that belied how much she enjoyed stating Rene's new title as often as possible, "are surrounded by danger. If you can accept that and the risk of traveling with the coup's largest targets, we will do our best to find you a new life and place to live."

The parallel drawn by the duchess between the situation of Rosaria, who had been Thorne's subordinate, plaything, and slave, to the plight of the captive Syshin did not go unnoticed by the shrewd teen. She was not yet willing to give the alien race as much respect mentally or socially as the heroic couple evidently did, but it did soften her bias slightly, and make her ever so minimally more willing to see them as more than bipedal beasts. She could not claim that she was all that different. Her home was perhaps nicer, but she had still been caged, restricted, and forced into a role she would have chosen for herself otherwise. A difference in the means of torture did not elevate her status. The girl knew better than to try to argue nuances with the diplomat with the golden hair; it had already been made clear to her that the aristocrat was well-educated, highly intelligent, and could talk circles around her.

What was more curious than this defense of the Syshin, however, was how generous the noblewoman was. Rosaria could not help but stare at her for a long moment in suspicion of this virtue. Alayla Thorne was many things but kind was not one of them. Ten was a calculated, cunning businessman who had no pretense of overflowing benevolence. Silently she searched Solae's expression for any hint she might be patronizing the youth, but she found none. There was a pervasive charitable grace that seeped into her eyes. Being around the duchess almost made her uncomfortable. Seeing such extraordinary character only made her aware how jarringly different their personalities were and, though it was never anyone's intention, made her feel a touch inadequate.

"Ten," Solae said, rounding on their host with an amicable tone, "do you think between yourself and Rene you could find a sidearm for Rosaria?"

"Just to make sure I understand," the criminal mastermind began slowly, "you want to find and/or modify weaponry for Syshin and a teenager?" He was incredulous but not overtly defiant. In the courts a duchess could have compelled obedience; she was light years above Ten in stature. On Zatis, however, it was their alliance and friendship (as much as a merchant of sin could ever afford) that made him acquiesce. Given the almost blasphemous requests she was making his raised brows was a mild reaction.

"You're always welcome to join me yourself, Ten," Solae joked, not bothered by what could have been construed as minor insubordination. "You could be a dashing knight in shining armor to the right men on distant planets," she teased further. "But if you don't want to expand your horizons, then I suppose we'll have to go with Syshin and this teenager. Perhaps we'll start with something that merely stuns?"

Ten let out a resigned sigh and shrugged his shoulders. It was not a battle of wills he wished to partake in this day and so he relented. If Rosaria or the Syshin betrayed Solae, as he very much expected, it was her judgment that led to her damnation. He was also rather certain that if he did not assist she would find another manner, one in which she ingratiated herself to someone else and would result in a loss of favor, but achieve the same goal. Above all else he did not want to lose her favor. Having earned the personal gratitude of a duchess would ensure him into his old age; he had been content with a marquise, and he was greedy for the protection her new title held.

"Very well," he conceded, "I will evaluate our selection with Rene."

"As soon as we can for Rosaria in particular," Solae ventured more gingerly. "Until the doctor clears Rene for action- and I want to hear it from her lips directly- he's on bed rest." She gave her lover a stern look that warned him against trying to protest his health. He was lucky already she not sent him to bed or refused to share her plan until he was further in his recovery. The linguist was aware how long he had been unconscious and that he had awoken an hour ago at best.
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“Remarkable, maybe it's true what the peasants say about you nobles being supermen,” Criestia said as she looked over a set of readings. Rene had been changed into a pair of his loose fitting fatigue pants and a white silk shirt that had been left open to allow the physician to monitor his wounds. She slid a sensor pack over his wounded abdomen, the cold gel chiling Rene. She didn’t look away from a holographic read out that evidently showed the subdermal injury. Ten had taken Rosaria away to find her a weapon and left Rene and Solae to their planning. Criestia, greatly encouraged by Solae’s support of forcing Rene not to move around, had compromised by bringing the medical cot into the sitting room Solae was using as her headquarters. The contrast with the rooms tasteful decor was a little ridiculous but that was a small price to pay for not being separated from Solae.

“I produce a lot of healing factors,” Rene admitted, “useful for a Marine.” Like all of the aristocracy he had the habit of keeping the exact nature of his genetic alterations quiet, especially around outsiders. The aristocrats feared that the common people might claim they were a different species, and though that was a gross exaggeration, it was the sort of thing that might catch on amongst rabble rousers.

“Well you are still going to have to lay still while you heal,” Criestia added somewhat pettishly. Rene resisted the urge to roll his eyes, he wasn’t going to prevail with Solae backing the woman up. He did wish that Criestia would find somewhere else to be as he wanted to be alone with his fiancee, but he supposed her orders would prevent him from doing what he really wanted to do in any case.

“Don’t you have one of those regeneration chambers, like the one I used on New Concordia?” he asked, thinking of how good he had felt after the battle at the plantation. Criestia clicked her tongue to the roof of her mouth.

“That kind of things isn’t available on worlds that aren’t under direct Imperial rule. You probably wouldn’t have been able to find it on New Concordia either if you weren't at the embassy,” Criestia explained. Rene didn’t bother to correct the doctor, as it was likely that the owner of the Plantation had smuggled it in with the aid of someone with official power. Such medicine was expensive but, under the right circumstances, less so than questions at an official hospital.

“I can’t believe that you are a Duchess now,” Rene said, turning his attention away from the probing fussing physician. Such an elevation would have been among the dizziest day dreams of Solae’s parents, a result possible only from a marriage to Duke Tan or one of the other Sector Dukes. Rene couldn’t remember if Tan himself was married, not that it mattered, if found innocent of Treason the woman in question would certainly divorce Tan and return to her own family in order to escape the worst of the scandal. At worst she might be pensioned off as a dowager, allowed to live comfortably but removed from official power due to the taint of her husband's actions.

“And I’m probably the youngest and least decorated Colonel in the history of the Marines,” he added with a chuckle. A Lieutenant-Colonel would normally command a battalion of three to eight hundred men depending on its balance of specialists. The irony of a Duchess without a Duchy and a Colonel without a battalion was not lost on him. The Empress had little she could give them at the moment so she had given them what she could, authority and legitimacy. Rene suspected that the fact that his father was sheltering her during whatever attempted coup was taking place on Capella played a large role in her generosity, though it made his legal situation considerably more complex. It wasn’t lost on him that the rank was probably the lowest that could be bestowed that would lend any air of propriety to a match between he and Solae, or at least Marquessa Falia, as a Duchess she had just become one of the most eligible women in the galaxy. His memory of what had happened in the PEA center was somewhat fragmented by the wounds he had suffered and the drugs he had taken but he supposed there would be time to get a full accounting from Solae when they were able to be alone.

“I am honored to be of service of course, though I suppose you are within your rights to request a more senior officer,” he said with a wink.

“Do you think we can trust Rosaria?” Rene asked frankly. He did not for a moment doubt that she could provide useful information, or at least access to where that information could be found but her motives were unclear. It was possible she planned to return herself to Thorne’s good graces by betraying them though Rene was inclined to take her at her word, having seen the bruises she had suffered in the course of her ‘lessons’.
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"I hadn't really thought about the possibility of being made a duchess," Solae conceded. Truthfully she ought to have anticipated that she would escalate in stature for her proven loyalty, but she had expected nothing more than social recognition for her deeds, and a reputation that placed her upon reproach for her unusual compassion. Perhaps it was because she had so narrowly focused on reaching the PEA, sending the message, jockeying for Syshin rights, and clearing the good name of her fiance, that she had forgotten all else except these goals. The rat race that made the aristocracy claw for any opportunity to advance had been left behind years ago. The former marquise had not considered that she would inherit lands or title, though in retrospect it had been a natural choice as Duke Tan could obviously no longer be recognized as such by the Stellar Empire in light of his coup. Her parents would be aghast that she did not think of more lofty prizes than a happy marriage, justice served, and peace. Then again, she suspected they would not be surprised given that she had not once voiced any desire for engaging to a man that might have brought her more wealth or fame.

"It is ironic, because I've never wanted power, and would have happily accepted a lower rank to marry you," she said, putting a voice to a concern that might have grown in his heart. "Being a marquise was never that important and yet I've risen, while the man that has hungered for more has lost his position." Solae shook her head with a slight twinge of pity for Duke Tan. He was a despicable man who was evidently never satisfied, thirsting for more, willing to kill for more. That he never appreciated all that he had was tragic despite the circumstances. The empress may have crowned her duchess in no small part because she was not ambitious for a throne. In tumultuous times, the loyal and steadfast was priceless.

"As for Rosaria, I don't know," she admitted as she sank back down into her chair now the doctor was keeping Rene from exerting himself physically. The screens had faded into a series of artfully taken photographs flickering past. The actual work of pouring through Syshin records was now moot. With Thorne's protege turned to their side, hopefully, she would not need to spend so much time trying to analyze the data and gleam the information she needed for locating and liberating possible allies.

"I want to give her a chance," Solae sighed, shaking her head. "Her desire to work against Thorne I think is sincere. Once you have a taste of freedom it's hard to go back into a cage you were put into unwillingly. Whether or not she turns into a better woman I do not know... but she won't have any chance to choose for herself if we don't give it to her." There was a hint of sadness in her tone. Both of them had led a privileged life but not without limitations. There were hobbies they were allowed and ones not, professions encouraged and forbidden, dalliances permitted and others forced into dissolution. Solae had enjoyed more control than most over her destiny but she did not have the world as her figurative oyster- being a pilot and mechanic, for example, was "inappropriate" career path for a Falia.

"And you're not the least decorated," she objected, "unless you can name me even a colonel who saved the last noble able to send a warning via PEA to the empress to warn her of treason and rebellion. No? Surely you can name one who was very literally offered enough credit to buy his own planet and refused outright. Still no? How about one that was personally appointed by the empress from your former military rank. Hmmm, well I suppose that gives you an unconventional decoration, but one that will be the envy of many," she said with a bemused smile and raised brow. He might not be able to fully escape the charges of murder in his past but he would make most of the imperial forces vibrate with jealousy. His sentence was not commuted but the inherent praise in his reward could not be ignored.

"Do you want a battalion of your own?" she then asked more seriously. "If we could procure a bigger ship..," the golden-haired beauty mused aloud as she was lost in her thoughts, seized upon by a notion that was wild but exciting. "Tell me more about what you can do as a Lieutenant-Colonel. Can you recruit your own soldiers and appoint them yourself, or would you need to go through a superior officer? Or could they be assigned to you through other channels?" Obviously the duchess was already scheming a long-term solution to their security issue if they could thread through some loopholes. The largest obstacle, though, was a ship. The Bonaventure was for a small smuggling crew and cargo only. They could house some bodyguards, Rosaria, and themselves, but not an army.

"Criestia, in your medical opinion, how soon do you anticipate a full recovery and return to duties given the rate of healing you have observed? And what activities could Rene safely participate in without a risk to his progress? For example, do you think he could sit at a desk for a while, or should he remain in bed for the time being?" she inquired diligently. Rene might be certain he was fit for minor action but she trusted the doctor more- especially since they had been so dangerously close to losing her lover for more than two days.
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