1648-8-24 Lord Alarick Croan Rosenthal Manor 1200 Rosenthal Street Croan
We write to ask for your prompt support for the people of House Dalris preceding the inevitable threat of Northern assault upon our lands. Our spies have confirmed that Arthur Kothlin, Reina Young, and Melodia Lapseus have issued official declarations of war and are beginning preparations for marching. Furthermore, it is almost certain they will march on House Dalris first. Cassandra has declared a state of emergency for the counties of Neril, Turing, Winston, Marches, and Cleris. We’re beginning evacuation procedures to the territories of House Aureolin and Immolis.
House Dalris’s current standing force is in no way prepared to deal with an onslaught from Kothlin’s forces. Our spies report that he has over five times the amount of trained men and women at the ready, with another several thousand on the way.
We understand that, as always, you have your own House to manage and lead. However, please consider sending either reinforcements or evacuation assistance as soon as you can.
Sincerely, Alfonse Dalris & Cassandra Dalris
Alfonse has never been the best at conveying his feelings. Please, consider this request not only from a house lord, but from a friend. We need your help.
The addressee of the Lord and Lady’s pleas snorted, crumpled the letters into a ball, and threw them over his shoulder into the half-full wastebasket in the corner. Alarick Croan, Lord, priest, and probably the most important man in the southern half of Croania lit a cigarette with his gate and drew in a deep breath.
“Damn fools. Who do they think they are…” he murmured to the empty study before leaning back in his chair and resting his boots on the mahogany desk.
After all the trouble House Dalris had caused him last year, they just expected him to acquiesce and send troops? For what? To fend off a rebellion that would collapse under its own weight in half a year?
No, House Croan had better things to be doing. There was that matter with House Aureolin’s papers, and of course the question of House Pachel’s successor after the Northern dogs had unceremoniously executed Jevin.
He absentmindedly tugged at the grey hairs on his chin before yanking out a stray stand and setting it ablaze. Harper had always complained about this tic. She said it “scuffled his pores,” whatever those damned words meant. He pulled out another hair and ignited it.
“Gonna have to send a messenger to the Pachels, maybe suss out the best man for the job.” He was talking to himself again. Another habit Harper hated. “Or woman. Alana, maybe? I know Her Holiness was considering it…”
The letter from House Dalris crossed his mind once more.
“Agh, stonge it all. Maybe dealing with some fighting would do those two some good. I’m not thinking about this anymore.”
He snapped his fingers and lit the wastebasket’s contents on fire, then took another puff of his cigarette before jamming it into his ashtray. The dark smoke from the letter rose gently up through its makeshift chimney before dispersing into the morning sky.
“...But before anything else… he was my friend. To Elias.”
Arthur Kothlin raised his glass and downed its contents, the harsh taste of strong liquor burning his throat. Damn Elias. Why did his favorite drink have to taste like motor oil and hand sanitizer?
The rest of the funeral goers did the same, upending their glasses in memory. Kothlin was a little pleased to see more than a few choked when the liquid hit their lips.
It wasn’t easy, preparing for a war. Papers to sign, routes to confirm, inspections to maintain–Kothlin had felt his energy draining steadily in the week following the declaration at Harrow’s. It took all he could to carve out enough time to arrange a funeral for his advisor.
The evening breeze blew his hair into his eyes. He reached up and adjusted his glasses. Even these had been a gift from Elias.
Damn. He wasn’t ever going to move on like this.
He cast a gaze around the rest of the attendees. It was a small affair, set on the peak of a small hill outside Redline’s city bounds–just a mile away from where Elias had grown up. The noonday sun was nearly entirely blotted out by the clouds of smoke and fog rising from the city. Only a few rays made their way to the graveyard, grasping at the grass like tendrils.
His eyes made their way across the faces of those gathered–friends, family, and a few bodyguards in powersuits. The ranks of his guard were populated by those similar to himself–unmarried, disconnected men and women of his army. It made it easier on everyone involved. No spouses to console, no children to throw into the system of foster care. Still, there was the occasional member who still remained somewhat involved with their family. Elias had been one of those. Kothlin spotted Elias’s mother and younger sister in the small crowd. Mark, Elias’s older brother and one of Kothlin’s senior advisors, was still mired in paperwork back in the war room.
Hania tapped on his shoulder, breaking him out of his contemplative silence. He turned instinctively, then flicked his eyes away. It was still hard to make eye contact with her–the damage to her face done by the bomb hadn’t healed. It probably never would. The doctors had said something strange infected the wounds. Hania would likely carry the scars for the rest of her life. He’d offered to send her to House Lapseus for extended care, but she’d refused. For now, she was wearing a silver mask over her bandages.
“I can’t serve you if I’m in an ICU, my lord. And right now, what you need most is my support,” she’d said.
Well, she was certainly right about that. He’d probably have keeled over sideways if it wasn’t for her help this past week.
“...My lord? Is everything alright? You’ve gone silent.”
Kothlin blinked, then realized she was addressing him.
“I’m fine. I was just… thinking.” He sighed. “When I spoke to Mel- I mean, Lady Lapseus, she said something that’s been keeping me up at night.”
“Your eye bags are looking rather dark recently.”
“Are they really? Agh, that’s not befitting of a leader. Oyel will have my head. ‘Lesson six: a ruler must present the perfect image to his subjects.’” He imitated the sallow man’s enunciation, then stood in silence. Hania simply stood next to him, scanning the horizon.
After a minute, he spoke once more, turning to face her. “Lady Lapseus… she told me, ‘Human life is a resource. How many will you sacrifice?’”
Hania shifted in her boots, not meeting his eyes.
He continued, “I didn’t answer her, back then. I still… I still don’t have an answer. I don’t know how many I can sacrifice. Does that mean… I’m not suited to lead this war? When I don’t know what I’m willing to put on the line, what I’m willing to pay, what I would give for victory? I certainly talked the talk, but can I deliver on my claims? If every death, every man and woman, means something like this? A funeral? A grave? Can I ask that of my people? Can I ask that of my men? …Can I ask that of you?”
She met his eyes this time, her gaze burning. “My lord. I would give my everything, my life, my soul, anything–”
“I know you would. I’m wondering if… if I have the right to receive it.”
Hania didn’t respond.
“Let’s go, Hania. We have a war to fight.” He turned away and shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
Alistair flicked the switch, then fell into step behind her as she stepped into the evening sun. They’d calculated it perfectly–the rays were at the optimal angle to strike a golden chord across the city square.
Reina was giving the speech from the third floor balcony window of Young Enterprises. Unlike many other lords, who often lived in estates built away from the bustle of daily life, House Young lived in a multi-floor suite right in the heart of their capital city, Coeus. The Young Enterprises building was 49 stories tall, the tallest building in Croania, with the Young residences taking the top 3 floors.
A crowd several thousand strong milled about in the square, all staring up expectantly at their lord. Reina had made sure to send out invitations to all the minor nobility and important investors, who watched from special seats in the surrounding buildings. All in all, an excellent turnout.
Six microphones. Two cameras. Thousands and thousands of eyes. Reina took a deep breath, then stepped up to the podium.
“My dear citizens, compatriots, friends. Thank you for attending on this fine fall evening.” She took another deep breath, then continued. “We are gathered here today, not only those in person, but those watching at home, in bars, on the street looking at public screens–we are gathered here today because of one reason: the future. House Young has always looked towards the future. We push the boundaries of what humans can achieve, we create miracles nobody 100 years ago could even dream of, and we do it together. We set our eyes on it because it is the right thing to do–for our friends, for our children, and for our community. But most of all, we do it because we can. ‘For the Young.’ Our house motto. For the future generations, for our country, for ourselves. We innovate. We hypothesize. We succeed.” Reina raised a fist towards the air. Cheers erupted from the crowd, but something… was off. She continued with the speech nonetheless.
“Last week, I, alongside several other representatives from House Kothlin and House Lapseus, tried to negotiate with the Southern houses. We tried to push for reform, change, we tried to show them that the future is what this country must work towards. And yet, despite all our efforts, as you may have heard, those peaceful negotiations were shattered–by Southern pride, by their unwillingness to give notice to their own shortcomings, and by their sheer disrespect for all that peaceful negotiations stand for. The attack by the South was deliberate. There was a clear plan to sabotage the talks. But they failed. They were too incompetent to carry out their plan in its entirety. Several of our own died, but they missed their key targets. And as a result, they have made a grave mistake. House Young will not stand for this blatant attack upon our integrity, on our work, and on our people. Effective immediately, House Young declares war upon the Mage Queen!”
Reina’s proclamation rang out clearly and confidently. However, the crowd reacted not with jubilant cheers, like she expected, but with waves of murmurs and whispering, like the hissing of a steam engine.
“The Crown has ignored the plight of its peoples far too long! They sit complacent, ignorant of the suffering below their ivory towers! The lords are out of touch, thinking only of their own whims! It comes to us, House Young, alongside Houses Kothlin and Lapseus, to drag those stuck in the past towards the future!” she raised her arms outward, towards the sky. “You are strong, you are intelligent, you are wise. You are the future! For the Young!”
Reina lowered her arms. Applause and cheering broke out–but not enough. A quick count only indicated about half the crowd was participating. The rest mostly seemed to just talk with their neighbors.
As she stepped down from the podium, the curtains closing behind her, Reina snapped her fingers at a nearby aide carrying a tablet. “Quick. What’re the people saying about the speech?”
The advisor’s face was grim. “55% approval from a quick survey by Stoll Broadcasting. Sample size 600. Most are complaining that we don’t have the resources to go to war, or that you’re just as disconnected from reality as the South.”
“What? That can’t be right, send it out again.”
“Another poll, my lady! This one’s by Leichton Radio.” A woman stepped forward with another tablet. “48% approval. Same complaints.”
“You must be joking. Arthur and Mel issued their statements just a couple days ago, and they were at least in the eighties!”
The room was silent.
“It’s too late now,” Alistair said in Reina’s ear. “We can’t retract a statement that large.”
“I wasn’t even considering it,” she replied. That wasn’t a lie–there was no way she’d ever pull out from the declaration–but only fifty percent?! “This just… brings about a whole new set of worries.”
The sharp screech of steel on steel rang out in the overgrown courtyard of the rotting family home as Rathas and Tobias traded lightning-quick blows. The two broke momentarily, then lunged forward at the same time. A quick three-strike exchange sent Rathas to the ground, Tobias’s sword at her throat.
“You’ve improved remarkably over the last week.” Tobias withdrew his sword, then offered her a gloved hand.
“Not enough,” she said, not moving from her position. He hesitated, then sat down on the packed earth of the dueling ring next to her.
“Your offense is superb,” he said quietly, so much so that Rathas thought she’d misheard him.
“That’s the first straight compliment I’ve heard all week outta your mouth.”
“Your defensive footwork is lacking. I was able to knock you over without so much as a sweat.”
“Ah. Yep. There’s the follow-up.” She sat up, then met his eyes. Dark. Brooding. Boring. Other words that began with B.
“What? Something on my face?” He looked away.
“Nah, I was just thinking that it’s a shame you’re not prettier. You coulda just married into a higher ranking. Wouldn’t have to deal with all this training crap.”
Tobias sputtered over his words. “I- You- I assure you, I maintain myself perfectly-”
“Nah, nah, you can’t fix what you’ve been born with, I get it,” she said. “I’ve seen plenty of ugly men. Comes with the whole ‘street urchin’ schtick. We make do.”
“I’m certainly more- more… better looking than those pirates you tarried with!”
“Yeah, but at least they had senses of humor.”
Ugh, what was she doing? Dissing the men she practically owed her life to behind their backs? Was that what she was stooping to?
It wasn’t all that bad, right? She’d managed to convince Tobias to discreetly land them all short sentences, as a precondition for her own cooperation. They’d spend a year or three in prison, tops, and maybe get their act together a little as a result. Kinda like herself, really. Nothing that bad could happen to them there, right? Tobias had even gotten them into a nicer cell block. The wonders of a noble name, even if that name was coughing its intestines onto the gilded floor on its last legs.
Honestly, what was she even here for? What was the point, working so hard to save a house that had made her life a living hell all those years ago? To stick it to her father? Or would it blemish his legacy more to let House Graves fall to ruin?
“What do you think of the Graves breeding program?”
“The– that’s certainly out of nowhere.”
Rathas had told Tobias and Elina about her history in detail after he executed her father–about the eugenics program, about the hellish training, the enhancement drugs illegally imported from House Lapseus. They’d sat in silence the entire time. By the end, Elina was sobbing.
“Tobias. What do you think?” Rathas sneered a bit at his hesitation.
“I think… Well, it’s a practice that many houses partake in. Not the–the training side, but the act of marrying in order to produce stronger gates in one's heirs…” He shuffled from asscheek to the other.
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“I really don’t have anything to say. I personally wouldn’t do it.”
“Yeah, you’d have to have a good gate to even consider it.”
He winced. “Well, there’s no denying that I don’t have the option. But even if I did, I don’t think it’d be very morally sound. Magusism focuses on power, yes, but also the responsibility that comes with it. Breeding children doesn’t seem very responsible to me. Also, it’s technically illegal. Code 13.11.13911a: “the act of specific selection for desirable genetic traits is outlawed.”
Rathas snorted. “Sure. Illegal.”
“Well, just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean people won’t do it. I’m sure you have plenty of experience with breaking the law.”
“Oooh, stick in the mud has splinters, huh?”
“I am simply repaying you for your earlier comment.”
“Yeah, okay, I’ll take it back. You have a little something there.” Rathas shrugged. “We’ll work on it.”
“Hey, are you two done trying to kill each other?” Elina stepped into the courtyard, carrying the hem of her dress a few centimeters above the packed earth. She was wearing green today. “‘Cause I’ve got news. Some good and some bad.”
The two combatants got to their feet. “Bad news first,” Rathas said.
“Alright. The bad news is that so far, nobody’s responded to the letters I wrote. Nobody was interested in anything we had to offer. Not a single branch house wants our assistance in anything. None even wanted us as vassals.”
The group of three stepped into the parlor, setting the practice weapons by the door. Jill, the maid, handed Tobias and Rathas towels.
“Thank you, Jill,” Tobias said. “Elina, what’s the good news?”
“Well, okay, I lied. There is no good news. This one is just slightly less bad. Good-bad, I guess. The only two candidates vying for the title of House Pachel proper are Alana Pachel and Otto Barnes.”
Rathas cocked an eyebrow. She knew Alana Pachel–hell, pretty much everyone did, but she sure as hell didn’t know this other contender. The emergency political lessons she’d been taking with Elina hadn’t covered him, whoever he was.
Sensing her confusion, Elina quickly explained. “House Barnes is, well, to put it simply, the least warlike of the House Pachel subfamilies. They've been more concerned with the economic side of war throughout history, making and selling weapons, supply lines, et cetera.”
Tobias frowned. “Odd, considering we very well might have a war on our hands soon. I would think them better off in a support role, not leading the entirety of House Pachel.” He kicked off his boots.
“The two of you should clean up after you spar. We can talk more over dinner.”
Dinner wasn’t anything special. Steamed vegetables and rice.
“There’s a chronic lack of salt in the house, Toby. Are you sure we can’t get any more?”
“Okay! Okay, I’m just a little worn out, you know?”
Rathas cleaned the last of her plate. She was always the first to finish, even back on the Ironmaw. Old habits from her time on the streets–you never knew who was waiting to swipe your last few chunks of hard-earned bread.
“Okay. Toby, Rath, let’s consider our positions. What do we have that other houses don’t?”
“Uhh… optimism?” Rathas gave a cheeky smile. “I mean, what other house would be trying so hard to save a sinking ship?”
“Haha. Very funny.” Tobias’s expression indicated that it was anything but.
“We have Rath!” Elina pointed her fork at her.
“Yes, and what good will I do?
“Well…” Elina thought to herself. “Toby brought you on because you were the key to stopping Peloston from running us down any further, right? What else can we make use of?”
“Her Northern background, perhaps?” Tobias mused.
“Wait, hold on, I thought you brought me on to become a Southern lord. How’s my history on the streets gonna help?”
“Wait, wait, I think Toby’s onto something.” Elina stuffed a bell pepper into her mouth, continuing to talk while chewing. “Let’s consider this. Is anyone else in House Pachel like, actually concerned about the North right now?”
Tobias leaned back in his chair. “Unlikely. Alana’s running on a platform of continuing the dominant power of her late husband, even though she curses his name. And Otto… just says he’ll do better. I don’t think he’s solidified it fully yet.”
“Rath, do you think we should be concerned about the North? If blows come to blows.”
“I… don’t know. I wasn’t really in-the-know on politics. But if I had to hazard a guess, it doesn’t seem like House Pachel is prepared to fight. And with House Lapseus to our North, I wouldn’t exactly be optimistic about…” Rathas trailed off. An idea was beginning to form in the back of her mind. “Tobias. What’s the closest military station to House Lapseus?”
“That’ll be Brickshead Fort, near the Valley of Rest,” he replied automatically.
“We’re going. Tomorrow, or the day after”
“What?” Tobias did a double take. “Why so suddenly?”
“I have an idea. A barest hint of an idea. But if it works out, I think we have a lot to gain.”
“Not another word!” Reason shook off the binding chains of paperwork and threw open the door to his study. “I can’t possibly stand another week without Tina!”
“My lord, it’s only been six–”
“I said, not another word! Who knows what that dastardly devilish demon woman is doing to my beloved! I can’t believe it! I simply must see her!” He stopped in his tracks, so suddenly that his pursuing attendants crashed right into his back. “Well, I suppose I can’t exactly see her…”
“You’ve made that joke six times today, milord.”
“And yet it doesn’t lose its humor, does it? Nay! No! Nada! Nyet! And other forms of negative expression! I must be her knight in fur armor, and deliver her from the devil’s maw!” Reason took off at a run unbefitting of a blind man in a floor-length cape and tailored suit.
To his attendants’ dismay, as their house lord burst from the front door, they could see a newfangled northern horseless carriage waiting at the gate. When had he the time to call for one?
Reason practically dived into the backseat and slammed the door closed. Within a second, the car’s engine roared, scaring birds into the sky. The tires screeched, the window rolled down, and Reason waved goodbye to his attendants as the car sped away.
“I’ll be back soon! Don’t let the House collapse!” he shouted from the window before disappearing into the horizon.
“How many times must I ask you to keep your little pups in line Antonio.” The high-pitched sardonic soprano sang out. Melodia’s cold gaze lingered, unblinking, and set unshakable upon the tanned forest eyed tower of a man. The noble’s nostrils flared as she huffed, her eyes lazily coming to a close as she turned back to the man’s desk.
“Ya’ can’t expect me t’ do this by myself, boss. The other families cannibalizing now that th’ war has set off. Not t’ mention we lost about a hunned good men when we set off for th’ border.” Antonio Ascanio muttered back, his tone reserved into a hush as the small pale girl happily occupied his throne. His brown hair fell just past his eyes, and stuck along the brow as beads of sweat began to trickle down.
“None of those men and women were of your blood— by my name, I recall you actually requested I send some of Paolo’s forces. [We are too busy fortifying the coast. You wouldn’t want to lose your precious marine research facility, would you boss?] or am I misremembering in my old age?” Melodia’s toxic tone amplified just a bit. If her prior statement was the knife’s lunge, this would be the twist of steel in Antonio’s stomach. A smile spread across her face and pinned itself at each of her ears, squinted eyes remained upon the don as her hands clasped together to support Melodia’s chin.
“Right, so whada ya’ want me t’ do, boss?” Antonio’s low grumble stirred in his throat, the flattened frown pressed tightly as teeth clamped down on his tongue behind the lips.
“Spinone, is he still here in the city?” Melodia asked, still beaming her Cheshire smile.
“You keep my fuckin’ son out of your games, monster.” Antonio broke from his calm, the truth finally showing in his expression as his brown knitted and his teeth flashed out. Like an angry dog backed into a corner.
“My-my-my, you’ve always been the quickest to bite amongst the pack.. Watch your tongue, don’t forget what happened to the snake who used to sit in this chair. The Maggiatore crest remains carved onto this chair for a reason, and I’ve a fondness for Spinone and Gregio. They’re far more loyal than you are— but which of them will take tour seat when you die I wonder?” The noblewoman’s expression softened, a genuine sadness seeming to overtake the cruel mask she wore. Upturned corners of her lips dropped into a deep frown as she looked upon Antonio and dipped her head.
“Do you doubt me, Antonio? The one who helped you climb the mountain of corpses that landed you here. The one who paved the streets outside your estate. The one who defended you when the Bardo sought to relinquish your family’s claim. Where would you be— where would your wife be?”
The mention of Phoebe extinguished the flames of anger in the man as images of his dying wife comes to mind. His chest swells as oxygen is drawn in and broad shoulders sink as he slowly exhales the embers of resistance. He was completely indebted to Melodia, and as much as he knew that sending his son out on this mission would put him in danger.. what else could he do?
“Spinone has been bartending at Wise Guy’s for some time now, he actually intends t’ distance himself from th’ families. But— you know how that one is. Not a patriot, not a soldier, but he is loyal to ya’ because of what you did for his mother.”
“Unlike you, he knows the merit in settling debts. But, he is aware that if he separates from the families he loses financial support from the house?”
“He intends ta’ travel. With the war starting, he figured now is the best time to see the world for what it truly is.”
“I am mistaken then. Spinone may be talented, but he is a fool.”
Antonio paced towards the desk where Melodia sat. His breathing slowed into a sigh and he leaned forward to rest his elbows on the smooth oaken surface of the desk. “He takes after, which is why I’m worried about whatever it is ya’ have in store for ‘em.”
“He is an asset to Lapseus, and I don’t let those go to waste so easily— now I have other matters to attend to. See to it that he meets with Minora.”
“Aight, but ‘f anything happens to him!”
“If anything we’re to happen to him. I’ll—“ Melodia pauses to contemplate her offer. Her hands unclasp and fall to the surface of the desk as she pressed herself up and off the large wooden chair behind it. The ghostly girl steps away, the clack of her small boots against the floorboards matching the rhythm of her hum as she dwelled on that thought.
“What is a son’s life worth? Of course, you could have the head of my Chief Executioner.. but that would only remedy the pain in short term.” Her advance brought her around Antonio’s back, and there she stopped only to lean a bit closer to the towering man.
“Ovid’s Library, and claim to the red orchid on the territory surrounding it. A loss for Lapseus, and a gain for your family itself— is that enough?”
Antonio busts out into laughter, but does not turn to regard Melodia behind him. Instead he cackles with his green eyes aimed straight onto the serpent symbol etched on the large wooden chair before him. “With an offer like that, I’m sure he’ll be safe. He’ll meet your lab rat by sundown tomorrow, wolf’s honor.”
Melodia spins on the toes of her boots and stomps off towards the door without a word as she takes her leave.
A few days later… Notoria (Lapseus) Evening Widow’s Wharf
“We need to move quickly, their patrols head dockside at sunrise. How many canisters do we have left?” A husky northern man with long bronze hair falling past his shoulders barked out. He was a sailor of some sort with the smell of the ocean cling to every inch of him. His hands were marred from shop work and his brown and silver beard was messy.
“Yes cap’n.” A unanimous answer roared back from the men and women operating the [Nightchaser].
The ship was a trade vessel typically intended to carry goods to the other northern territories. And on this night it would display much the same, or at least it would be perceived that way. The strongmen of the crew hoisted large metallic barrels with a blue line of paint striped across their tops. They were mixed with the typical wooden crates and plastic wrapped pallets that sat out in the open for onlookers to see.
“Captain Wily..” A gruff female’s voice shouted out.
Wily turned on his waterlogged boots to face his first mate. The woman was a goliath standing a good foot taller than the grizzled captain. Scars decorated her face, split her browsed and an especially gruesome one bisected through her nose and down her top lip. At her side was an ornate tuck with a polished violet gem sitting decoratively in the pommel. She was a former soldier, and a seasoned one at that.
“Gerdy, welcome back to Widow. What’re the orders from the house?” The captain asked.
“We’re expecting three more imports before we set off. One of the twins spiders, a scientist, and a member of one of the families.” The first mate responded back, standing at attention the moment she reached Wily’s side.
“By the tits of a siren, WE HAVE A JOB TO DO! Faaaaa! Are we taking them across the border?” Wily’s anger flared up and burned out within a few moments.
“We’re to set them off before our mission sets off, they’ll be equipped with diving gear. They will only be out responsibility for a short while, captain.” Gerdy chimed back, her smile was warm but strained— the muted happiness one might expect from someone like her.
“Right then, when will they get here?” The captain sighed out.
“They’re already here, someone will bring them down to the wharf once we have finished loading the cargo.” Gerdy replied with a cackle.
They had been trekking through the mountainous pass for a couple of hours at that point with not a sound passed between them, and then the quiet was broken by a low pitched and steady voice.
"It's just over the ridge, My Lady."
A nod of acknowledgement, and then silence settled over the group once more. "No less than five," were Melodia's conditions for the Pachel observation. Five they were, counting the stoic Lapsean Lord. A technicality, yes, but an operation like this was one she could have handled herself truth be told. Still, it was war, and though Rhythmia was confident she was not stupid. After briefing the Naval generals of the situation at hand she'd collected a few officers that caught her eye before beginning the journey to the border of Lapseus.
When they arrived at the precipice, the group set their equipment down and deposited themselves onto any stone seats they could find. Rhythmia knelt at the cliff and looked out over the land in front of them. It was a sweeping valley, and what lay in the shadow of Lapsean mountain was barren and dry. It wasn't until miles away from the penumbra that greenery began to grow, simple grasses that were eventually joined by flowers, bushes, and scrub the further one looked.
An older man with hair long grayed came to join her. He held a telescope to his eye and swept it across the fields. After a few moments he grunted. "Clear," he said. Rhythmia nodded.
"Ma'am~" came a tinny voice in reply. "Spies say Pachel ain't in no shape for fighting back. Wouldn't be nothing to torch the whole place and move in."
Rhythmia breathed out slowly through her nose. It was not the answer she wanted, but it was expected. The hatred of the South ran blood deep in Lapsean citizens. Though like any House there would be those in Pachel unwilling to fight and die in the coming conflict, and if they could avoid putting the entire population to death that would be ideal. Rhythmia's gaze shifted to the young man who'd moved beside her. He was pale and wiry, and the small grin that graced his face told her that he was one of the many that subscribed to the saying 'There are no innocent among the Mageborn.' That would prove as interesting as it was troublesome, she was sure.
"..." She said not a word, but the man's expression gradually changed into a more serious one as her gaze continued to focus on him. He coughed lightly into his hand before speaking again.
"There's two main contenders to take over ruling the House Pachel. Neither's much to worry about."
"Pachel's widow being one of them, yeah?" The gray haired man chimed in.
"Mhm~ the other's a family of arms dealers, more or less. There's a few others but from the information we got, none have as much support as those two."
"Hn. What else?" Rhythmia looked to the third of those she'd brought along, a tall woman with furry ears and horns that curled skyward on either side of her head. The Akeshan perked up and cleared her throat.
"Before us is The Valley of Rest. If we descend the mountain then we will, officially, be in Pachel. There are a few towns around there, and a fortress just beyond the Valley too. It's manned, but with their lord's death they haven't sent for reinforcements. Too preoccupied with fighting themselves than us I guess, like Vina said."
Rhythmia nodded. Everything they'd said was about as much as she expected. A little more reconnaissance was in order, but after that... well, one way or another they would take control of Pachel. She had a plan in mind, and a back-up, but it wouldn't come into fruition just yet.
She turned her gaze on the last of their group, a girl with a hood pulled over her head and a grim expression on her face. She did not hesitate to meet the eerie crimson glow of Rhythmia's bionic eye. For several moments neither of them said anything. The other three glanced between each other and the two women. Then the younger spoke, her voice rough, and young.
"What?" she asked. She had nothing to report, they both knew. Rhythmia's stare turned pointed.
"Your... strategy?" Rhythmia inquired, tilting her head just slightly. The girl sighed and closed her eyes. He brows pulled together and she frowned.
"Occupying the area will cut off Seler from the rest of the South. Once both Houses are dealt with it'd give you a useful foothold to help your... compatriots from." As she spoke her tone darkened with distaste, but she went on. "I would back the Lady Pachel. She would have the most support of her people I think, and be desperate enough to take Technologist help in keeping her seat in power."
She crossed her arms in front of her and cracked open one eye. Rhythmia stared at her in that uncomfortable way she often did. Then the Lapsean Lord nodded once.
"Good." She approved of that line of thinking. A half-smile almost formed on the girl's face. "But we won't... support Alana Pachel."
"Let the two... wear each other down. When one... triumphs, we will step in."
Behind them, the pale man snickered, "hopefully by force."
"Get... yourselves ready. We will move in... and learn more about... the situation... before we... take any action."
A trio of affirmative answers sounded. The group went about checking and collecting their equipment. Everything from weapons to bedrolls, prepared to spend a few nights in Pachel territory. With luck, what Rhythmia told them would turn out to be the case. Wasting energy and resources arguing against each other would leave the Southern House in such disarray that Lapseus could swoop in and force cooperation. Or failing that, just take over - whether going full scorched earth or not. However, there were few things that Rhythmia believed in less than 'luck.'
"Kenzie, take point... as we descend."
"Yes, Lady Rhythmia!" The Akeshan woman said, snapping to attention. The group of five would soon be on the move again. The hooded girl pressed her lips into a thin line and gripped her pack a little tighter.
"Oh oh oh... maybe you should rethink this, hm, doctor?"
A man, gangly and scruffy faced, paced up and down a a dingy alley way.
"It's been a few years, sure, but last time you were tossed out of the estate on your arse. Y'remember that?"
His bushy black hair was tied loosely behind his head, and an overstuffed bag was slung around his shoulder. His footsteps echoed loudly in the cramped space. Whenever she stepped through a puddle his face contorted in an odd expression, but he never went out of his way to avoid the shallow pools of water that dotted the cobblestone path. He was, also, completely alone.
"Buuuut you've really got something going for you now. Something interesting, very interesting, very useful..."
Every now and then he would stop his pacing and peek out of the alleyway, looking in the direction of one of the city's wharfs. He did it again now, breathing heavily. The one sided conversation he'd been having with himself out loud shifted internally. He might have already said too much. This was a coastal city in Lapseus - in other words, a complete hell hole where any man, woman, or child would stick you without so much as a second thought if you had something they needed. And he had something useful, but it was locked up in his brain. He'd really hate to be killed for something his murderer wouldn't even be able to get.
As for what the man needed, it was one of two things. Passage up the river to Gohetia where he'd bend his knee at the twin Lords' door, or a mage's body. Ideally both, if he could convince himself to get on with it. A few long minutes later and an ugly smile split the doctor's face. He reached around to pat himself on the back for a job well done, apparently satisfied with the outcome of the argument he was having inside his head. Straightening his back and passing a hand over his scalp, the man barred his teeth and scurried off toward the water to catch a ride.