I really do look like a man.
Zem studied herself in the mirror, taking in the disguise she had put on five days before and not removed since. Angular face, cropped brown hair, flat chest, broad shoulders. Most people who’d seen her so far had mistaken her for a boy, not a man, but still. Very male. For a moment she wondered what it would be like to keep this look forever. To be this look.
Imrien never would have asked a man to do this job.
Or any of the other jobs like it.
Rescue an emperor, yes. But not this. Who even would think to plan something like this in the middle of a civil war?
The head of the Neralenes, of course.
Damn that woman. Damn her and all the other conniving High Daughters before her. Damn them and their shadow games. Damn them for their constant grasping after control.
Damn them for taking her off the streets and only making her a different kind of prostitute.
No escaping it. She was what she was. A face and a body that every man wanted.
She reached up and ripped off the wig. Thick, ink black hair with the faintest amount of wave tumbled down to her shoulders. She raised the rag she had wetted at the sink and scrubbed at her face. When she stopped, her face no longer appeared angular and dull, but smooth and oval, with full lips and dark, arched brows, and just enough strength to be striking, without sacrificing an ounce of femininity. She finished by removing her contacts, changing average brown eyes to rare and vibrant green.
Hello Zem. There you are.
Next she unbuckled her armor, removing the articulated breastplate first and setting it aside, then loosening the tightener straps at wrist, elbows and knees, and finally undoing the front zipper and shucking the whole rig onto the floor. The stink of five days without bathing or changing clothes rose up and hit her in the nose. At least she didn’t smell like a princess.
Without the padded shoulders or waist of the armor, her true figure emerged. Narrow up top, thin in the middle, and hippy at the bottom. The only piece of disguise that remained was the compression top binding her chest down. That at least she was glad to get rid of. It was tight and made it a little harder to breathe. As she undid the straps that held it secure and pulled it off over her head, the final truth emerged.
Zemril NerMagten. Slim, busty, and wide-hipped, with long dark hair, long ears, and eyes that had caused more than one man to completely forget his loyalties. The perfect high-tree beauty.
She stood for a long moment in nothing but her undergarments, remembering about herself things she had almost forgotten for five glorious days.
She punched the mirror Zem right in the chest.
Whatever the mirror was made of, it denied her the satisfaction of shattering. It did really hurt her knuckles, though. She walked away to the bathroom shaking her hand. She would feel better after a shower.
Smell better, too.
Twenty minutes of hot water and scrubbing did fix the world for the most part. Washed, dried, and clean, Zem struggled into fresh undergarments and then pulled a long, absurdly expensive, two-part wrap and tunic dress out of her duffle. High-collared and very traditional, but this one was cut to provide subtle emphasis in all the right places without ever screaming whore. And it was red and gold temisilk. There was no beating temisilk.
Perfect for a party. Even one held by barbarians.
Dressed in this different kind of armor, she went to the mirror and put her hair up into a complex wrap most women needed a professional for. Hmmm. Too tight and controlled. She looked like a politician’s wife. Not tonight. She pulled it all loose, then redid her hair so it hung down on the left side. With some iridescent kerchax feathers braided into it she suddenly had both the singularity of asymmetry and the draw of bright colors without resorting to expensive jewelry.
Neralene had been wearing feathers when Ankad first romanced her. Zem’s copying that look was an intentional choice. Rixken was a traditionalist, after all. Even in the kind of woman he found attractive, if the limited reports were to be believed.
She added a good set of matching red footwear, boots because an agent never knew when she might have to run, and elbow-length fingerless gloves.
And, of course, a few small firearms and knives hidden in key locations where they wouldn’t show. She couldn’t quite manage a full size pistol, but the dress was made to help conceal anything smaller.
She opened a window so Bristi could get out if she had to, then turned around and locked eyes with the kerchax, who was curled up on the bed watching her.
Bristi kirped and closed her eyes.
Alright. That was everything. Time to go catch a future emperor.
The party was surprisingly civilized.
The Warsisters held it in a grand dining room that had obviously been made to old high-tree specifications by the original, Okendan, owners. Wood supports and rafters soared overhead, all set with intarsia designs depicting vines and flowers and tiny birds and animals, while the floor underneath, done with more intarsia sanded smooth and coated with a durable plastic finish, featured a detailed map of all Okend. Classic high-tree.
Rather than the draped fabrics and tapestries that Imperials preferred, the Warsisters decked the walls in realistic landscapes and pastorals, and covered the tables and sideboards with spectacular flower arrangements. Truly spectacular. It hurt to admit it, but Zem had never seen flower arranging taken to the height these people did. One of them, a layered arrangement of red and orange trumpet-shaped lellta flowers topped with sprays of tiny yellow and white nenti blossoms, looked so much like a living bonfire that Zem stared at it for at least a minute, wondering if she could somehow get warm from it.
The noise of a woman laughing woke her from her reverie. She remembered she was there to make a connection, not look at the flowers, and glanced around at the people.
The room was filled with tall, pale, platinum-haired women in exquisite dresses that merged some of the asymmetry and flow of classic Irtrallan fashion with much of the length and wrap of traditional Okendan. Despite being racy by Okendan standards, they didn’t show nearly as much skin as the full Irtrallan dresses Zem had seen in cultural texts. Perhaps the civilian dressmakers in Emprin hadn’t been willing to make dresses that only covered half a woman’s chest. Very quickly Zem came to the conclusion that she was the shortest person in the room. She wasn’t going to find Rixken by looking for him.
She perked her ears and listened instead, scanning through crowds of laughing women speaking Military Timlai and the occasional word or phrase of Imperial Hakat. Most of their laughter had an edge to it. They were uneasy.
Well of course. There was a big bunch of male Hakat speakers right… over… there.
Zem wove through the crowd, noting faces, bodies, and tones as she passed. Definitely uneasy, but their attention was focused somewhere, their ears and glances pointing toward some unseen presence in charge that they were deferring to. Mesra? Hmmm. The greatest amount of uneasiness came from the women with red, blue, the darker greens, purple, or copper in their hair. The women with gold in their hair were active, moving around and chatting people up, transferring them from one group to another. So were the women with spring green in their hair, who seemed to be at the center of the most uneasy groups calming them down.
She got close enough to see the mercenaries. She had expected them to be bunched together, but they were already diffusing into the crowds of Warsisters. And there were the goldhairs, grabbing off two men at a time and linking them with groups of the other hair colors, working them in with questions, jokes, and light conversation. Sometimes women, too, as the mercenaries apparently had a few of those along. Probably from their nursing and logistic staff.
Ack. Those goldhairs were expert socialites. All of them. Zem tried to remember the Warsister caste system but it wasn’t quite coming yet.
She moved closer to the mercenaries, expecting Rixken to be with them. There was Daneth KarLagren, his pale Jedremi skin and orange hair fading out against his military dress whites. Next to him was a slender high-tree woman, also in military dress whites, but with a knee-length skirt over her pants. That had to be Krisga HarRukora, finally seen outside the command tank. Were those two an item? She hung on Daneth’s arm and her stance toward the tall, attractive women surrounding them was politely hostile.
Hmmm. Maybe she just hated Warsisters.
Nope. That was an arm squeeze. That was a woman staking her claim.
And hating the Warsisters.
But where was Rixken?
Zem spotted him beside a flower laden table, receiving a drink.
At the same time, she realized she was not the best dressed woman at the ball. She was pretty sure that honor belonged to the elegant gold-haired Warsister that had her arm hooked in his. Her sleeveless, high-collared dress was pure black down to the waist, at which point the black became a stripe splitting a flowing white skirt decorated with black florals. Numerous gold bangles on her wrists matched her solid-gold hair and balanced it against the black and white. Every time she moved it was sparkling sunshine and black leaves falling in winter. And did she ever know how to move… her every gesture was an encyclopedia of polite comment.
Who was she?
Older, perhaps a little older than Mesra Trayl, the First Mother. Solid gold hair, when every other woman in the room with gold in her hair only had it on the tips. Zem searched her mind for the caste system again. Goldhairs were… the administrators. Staff, planning, logistics. All gold meant… that she was their caste mother. That explained the social skills. As their caste mother, she had probably organized this party and was serving as its hostess. Thus, the guest of honor was her responsibility.
Rushing in on a grandmaster of politesse in her own party could easily end up badly. It would be polite badness, delivered with utmost grace, but Zem couldn’t afford to spend the rest of the night tied into a party of engineers who would talk her ear off about their technical matters. She had to figure out her approach and make it right the first time.
Observation was in order.
Zem grabbed a drink and switched into invisible hovering mode. The fact that the mercenaries were starting to filter through the entire room helped. Big strange scary men apparently drew more attention than one little high-tree woman.
Where was he now…
Ah. Lady Gold was introducing him to a circle of Warsisters dominated by greenhairs. Medical? Had to be. One had treated Rixken’s neck after the duel. They were… scared and curious. No. More than curious. Plenty of surreptitious glances, but many of those glances roamed up and down. And lingered.
Zem moved closer and focused one ear.
Conversation was light. Questions about Imperial military medicine, what Rixken knew about medical schools in the central Empire. The man did know how to socialize. He turned the questions back on them fast and started asking his own. That got him more smiles. And a touch on the arm from a woman whose green was very dark.
“While you’re here you should stop by the hospital wing,” she said. “I’ll give you a tour of the facilities. Just ask for me at the front desk.”
Oh yeah, she was interested. She’d probably give him a tour of some other facilities, too.
Several other greenhairs agreed that they’d like him to stop by where they worked. Lady Gold took that as a cue to move him elsewhere before he got too attached to one group. Next she took him to a mixed group of orange and blue hairs. Engineers and… mechanics. Probably. Definitely. All they wanted to talk about was technical items. And some Imperial politics and religion. Okay, not one track minds.
Several of them were quite good at making technical comments into dirty double-entendres. Zem couldn’t tell if Rixken was ignoring them or just not getting the secondary meanings. They also expressed an interest in Rixken stopping by to see their workplaces while he was there.
Why were they so interested? Most of the Warsisters seemed scared of the mercenaries, or maybe disgusted, but Rixken… He wasn’t that handsome. Hmmm.
The group after them was all redhairs. Zem would have recognized them as the warrior caste even without the hair color. They averaged three centimeters taller than the other women in the room and every single one of them was built like a cage fighter.
They also didn’t look at Rixken like the other women.
Not disinterested. No. Just entirely open about admiring him. No surreptitious glances with these women. Their looks also held a speculative quality to them. All of them asked questions, but one was obviously in charge and did most of the talking. She grilled Rixken with questions about Imperial military doctrine, battlefield hypotheticals, his history fighting in the south under HarBergan, and more. Zem learned a lot about him while listening, including that he had a pretty sound strategic mind in his head. And that he loved military strategy.
It took him forever to get the questions onto them, at which point he pried into topics such as how the cell-form of the Warsister military worked compared to Imperial hierarchical structure, how they made the best use of their high-mobility tactics, and so on. He ended with a hypothetical battle in which he described how Imperial doctrine would handle it, then posited the Warsister response.
He was right.
Glances bounced between the redhairs. A few faint nods. The leader stepped close to Rixken with a piece of paper in her hand. Seen close together, she was a little taller than he was.
Zem had to strain to hear what she said next.
“These are our comm numbers. We’ve all been considering having a baby. If you’d like a tumble with any of us, or all of us, while you’re here, just call. No commitments.”
Zem put that with everything she knew about the Warsisters from reading and tried to process it. This group seemed to have adapted a variety of things from the locals in the province, but they should still… how did the mainland warriors choose mates?… men fought and challenged each other in order to be considered worthy to breed. Right. And Rixken had beaten their own champion. SO…
He was prime breeding stock.
Telmin’s curse, these people are gegged in their heads!
For a moment Zem thought her own ears were going to burn off. Rixken looked like his face had been painted with flame oil. The redhairs left as if their business had been concluded. Lady Gold made a comment about that being delightfully interesting and diverted Rixken with a question about his late mother while guiding him somewhere else.
Zem scanned the room anew, as if for the first time realizing how utterly foreign these women were. In that moment she also realized that not one of them was less than what she would consider “pretty”. Truly. Not…one. Most of them were at least beautiful, and a good quarter were stunning. And all that was after she took their pale skin and weird hair into account. And their black–coal black–irises. What was with that?
She remembered reading that the giant AI that had run Irtralla before the Storms had used a considerable amount of genetic tampering to make the Warsisters. Apparently making them universally appealing to men had been one of its goals as well. Nat.
However it had happened, it was now a fact that an entire room of beautiful women was after Rixken. Zem would have laughed herself silly if it weren’t for Imrien’s stupid orders, but as things stood her plan to grab Rixken off and start working her way into his head was somewhere between “crashed” and “on fire”. At least for the night. Even if one of them did drag him into bed, she doubted they wanted to keep him.
Oh, that they would. She would be spared this idiocy, and Orlin could fight through them to get rid of his brother.
Zem would have to change her plans. Honestly, the likelihood that any of the women here would actually succeed was very slim. She wouldn’t put it at zero percent, no matter what Imrien’s reports said about Rixken being genuinely chaste–He was a man! They were always after something!–but it was far more likely that being chased by a thousand beautiful women would just put him on the defensive.
She found him standing at an hors-d’oeuvres table in a deep conversation with Lady Gold. Probably about the exchange with the redhairs. He was still blushing.
Smart money was definitely on him going full defense.
So, since seduction would do nothing but put him off tonight, time to lay groundwork instead. She would run defense for him.
Zem eyed his glass. Empty. She cased the refreshment tables and acquired two glasses of light hax wine, one to nurse and one to resupply Rixken. The wine had the leafy smell of a green infusion, so it would probably have a strong energy boost along with the alcohol. Perfect. These slutty barbarians did know how to party.
She cut through the last few people in between her and Rixken and swapped his empty glass out for a full one before he knew what was happening.
“What?” He looked at the wine, then at her. “Uh… Thank you. Have we met?”
She smiled inside. She did enjoy moments like this.
“Of course we have, your Majesty.”
His eyes widened.
He stared a moment longer, then shook his head.
“That was a very good disguise.” He turned to Lady Gold, who was still standing near him. Zem watched his body language as he looked away. Relaxing. Good. He was recognizing her as an ally in a room full of predators.
“Mother Bralla, this is Field Agent Zemril Nermagten, of the Neralenes,” Rixken said. “She got me away from the border station and kept me alive.”
The head goldhair gave her a crisp, bright smile. It reached her eyes. This was a woman who lived for making new acquaintances. Fake like Imrien? Zem made polite greetings and looked deep in those dark eyes.
“So you’re the one who broke Rixken out of his cell?” Mother Bralla met her gaze bright eyed and dead on. “And got him all the way to Clisto ahead of an entire company of anchors? And then tortured two trained agents into submission? I’d love to hear your side of the story on this whole adventure.”
Not as fake. Not nearly.
Zem set her smile to “delighted”.
“I’d be happy ta tell you everything. Where would you like me ta start?”
Mother Bralla opened her mouth, then looked past Zem and fixed on something. Probably someone.
Her gaze bounced back and locked on Zem again.
“I’m sorry, but I just saw someone I’m certain both of you would love to meet, and he never stays long at things like this. I’ll just be a moment fetching him.” She stepped around Zem and vanished into the swirl of women.
Rixken watched her go with what might have been relief.
Zem stepped next to him and turned to watch with him, but very carefully left a handspan between his arm and hers. Took a sip of her haxwine. Good stuff.
Waited three breaths.
“Feeling like a piece of meat?”
“Merciful Kai, yes.”
“If it helps any, I think only the redhairs want ta make a baby with you. The rest are just after you for your body.”
“Please don’t make me laugh, Zemril. If I start I might end up crying.”
“After this I’m sleeping for two days and shooting the first person who knocks on my door.”
“Ahh. Drink your haxwine. It’s good stuff they’re serving.” Zem took another sip of hers.
“This is my third,” he said. “It’s also strong.”
He took a gulp anyway. Took a sip after that. Sighed.
She cocked an ear at him. Come on. Open up to me.
He started to say something.
Mother Bralla came back through the crowds with a high-tree man in a dashing black suit on her arm. She introduced him as Doctor Sundrin KarKannek. He was a missionary doctor originally trained at the Imperial Medical Academy’s central campus. He hadn’t been home in five years.
He had a ton of questions for Rixken about what was going on.
And plenty of answers on what was what with the Warsisters.
Three minutes into their conversation, Zem realized Rixken had already found his refuge from female predation for the rest of the night. She politely took Mother Bralla up on the offer of an introduction to some blackhairs that she would be sure to get along with.
The night was burned.
Zemril made it away from the blackhairs while she was still sober. Mostly. Maybe.
Conversation had, actually, been interesting. The blackhairs were responsible for Warsister psyops, which meant most of them were either picking apart the enemy’s brains from behind the lines, or out sneaking around causing havoc like Zem herself. Her kind of people. Obviously there had been all kinds of things they couldn’t share with each other, but means and methods and the odd story cleaned of identifying details had chewed up an hour. They also had a few ideas of she and the preparer might go after Emprin.
It was good, if only somewhat productive. Except for the part where they expressed their utmost respect for Zem’s sisters from the Daughters of Neralene’s Quiet Step and told her how they had killed every one of her kind to venture into Emprin for the past two-hundred years.
When she excused herself and went to find Rixken he had vanished somewhere with the Doctor.
Zem weighed her options in her head. She could go to bed and be lazy, a definite Zem approved solution right then but not Imrien friendly. She could try to find Rixken and the Doctor, a possibly fruitless endeavor and more likely to hurt her mission than advance it if she interrupted quality male bonding like a needy female. Or she could wait at his room and arrange a late-night conference to discuss their options for the future, one-on-one. And do a security check, while she was at it.
Option three won.
Zem showed up outside Rixken’s room, not too far from her own, with the light-headed brilliance of haxwine still dancing around inside her. She stopped at the door and checked the lock mechanism. Nothing fancy, just a keypad that she already had the code for, having listened when they gave it to Rixken. He hadn’t been there yet, or had a chance to rekey it, as he’d been stuck talking to the mercenaries, and then discussing some things with Mesra and a few of her commanders, almost until the party. She reached for the pad to punch in the code.
Stopped. Cocked an ear at the door instead.
Someone was inside.
Someone who was…
Zem pressed her ear all the way against the wood.
She stepped back, hiked up her dress, and pulled a fiber-optic camera out of a compact utility wrap she kept strapped around one thigh. The whiplike, extendable camera connected to her unicomm, which allowed her to see through it.
Poke the camera through the gap under the door, just a little. Work the controls that bent it for a look around.
Whoa, there! Naked Warsister on the bed.
Teary eyed, bare naked, with red-tipped hair, Warsister.
She didn’t even want to bother figuring this one out. But it was too crazy not to try. Hmmm. Why would a redhair be crying on Rixken’s bed?
Because he had already found time for a fling and she was crying over yielding herself so easily.
Okay… Because she had drawn the short straw and was the ritual sacrifice to a powerful visiting male.
Even more no.
Zem, yar brain really doesn’t work on alcohol.
She pulled her thoughts together and tried one more time.
Oh. Yes. Of course. This was Commander Theron, the woman who had lost. Zem couldn’t remember reading anything regarding the rules of Warsister deathmatches, but she did remember hearing the word, “forfeit” thrown around regarding the one Rixken had fought in, and there had been a touch of horror on the face of everyone who’d mentioned Commander Theron at the party. Though mostly they hadn’t.
Well. So. Rixken had won himself a night with the champion.
Or more likely, won himself a slave. A beautiful slave, well, strikingly handsome, who possibly thought it was her duty to offer up her body to the victor. Also, who would be traveling with them in all likelihood.
Like that wouldn’t put a roadblock in the way of Imrien’s plans.
This was something she should fix. Open the door, have a few words, send the crying woman back to her room or at least get her dressed. Clean up the mess before it became a problem and maybe messed up her own chances with Rixken.
But… In everything she had read, the Warsisters were crazy about honor and their traditions. Here was proof! If she got this woman cleaned up and sensible, she would probably still insist on coming along. The other Warsisters might insist that she had to. And, not having first met her naked and weeping and crazy, Rixken would probably think that was fine.
Alternatively, if Rixken did meet her crazy and weeping and naked, with her insisting that it was his privilege to do whatever he wanted with her, he might just decide he wanted crazy as far from himself as he could get it. At which point Zem could step in and arrange that.
Imrien’s plans really might go better if Zem left well enough alone.
What would Rixken do when he opened the door and found this?
He would probably catch on fire.
And, if the best outcome occurred, maybe this woman would go crazy and strangle him in a fit of psychotic rage. At least then Zem wouldn’t have to spread her legs for him. Imrien would not approve of that, but Zem really doubted it would happen. And anyway… Nat on Imrien. She was tired and wanted some amusement after spending the whole night with nothing going her way. Time to watch things sort themselves out.
She turned away from the door and looked for a place to hide.
Yeah. Bring on the fireworks.
This chapter is part of the in-progress serial web novel The Unbroken Blade, intended to be book one in The Shattered Empire trilogy, and features a mix of sci-fi and thematic elements reminiscent of near-future military fiction such as Gasaraki or Isaac Hooke’s Atlas series and sci-fi combat classics such as Mechwarrior/Battletech and Gundam. The story is rich with battle and conflicts of honor and conscience arising around a civil war on the forested world of Dankar, far from our own, but is primarily focused on how the main characters deal with the challenges they face, not their machines or their world. Follow this blog to receive each chapter as soon as it is released. Like and share to give me a shot of encouragement. Full chapter updates on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.