Mesra closed the folder containing the proposal.
“What do you mean?” Rixken asked.
“I mean exactly what I said. Yes. I approve your plan.”
Rixken stared at the steel faced First Mother.
That… was easy. No arguing, no pleading, no impassioned speeches required. She had just read through the papers and accepted it.
Mesra leaned back in her chair and returned his look with narrowed eyes.
“I will rephrase, Preparer. I am not stupid. My agents tell me Orlin is assembling at least twenty-thousand anchors to come at us with, backed by sixty-thousand PA troopers and any number of bush infantry. I will accept the seventy-five-thousand Okendan militia you just offered to me.”
Twenty…thousand… That was three full armies. MORE than three full armies. Where was Orlin getting all that from? Certainly the Empire and the various warlords had far more, well over ten times that much, but most of it was permanently tied down keeping borders safe. Rixken thought of the continent dissolving in warfare again like it had during the Great Reunification a century before and felt sick.
He nodded. He had a hard time imagining anyone who would face such forces and turn down help.
Mesra looked back to the folder, pulled out a pen, and began making notations on the cover.
“Whatever anyone may have told you, I am not about to hand the land my mothers have watched over for two-centuries to your stick-brained brother because I am so trapped in my dislike of males that I won’t receive any help from them. ‘Traditions be damned’ has been a byword for Zdar Army in desperate times ever since Karlyne Shastalli decided to keep the people of Emprin alive through the winter.”
She paused in her writing, tapped the pen on the folder, then dotted in an outline framework. Shot a sharp glance at him.
“Do not think I like the idea of handing out military weapons to males. It feels like trouble. Accordingly, as a condition of my approving this plan, you will give a speech telling the men of this province to continue to submit to Warsister authority. In the same speech, you will also tell them they will follow our commands in battle, train in the ways we set, and not lay a hand on any of my women.”
A speech? He’d had the training, but he could count the number of those he’d given outside a classroom on one hand.
“You don’t trust them to do all that, and you think me telling them will help?”
“I do trust them. The people of this province have paid their taxes with little complaint, kept good order, and given obedience for as long as we’ve ruled. I just don’t want the males getting any ideas once they have real weapons again. And you are the Preparer. I know what that means to them, even if you seem to be doubting it.”
Rixken felt the heat of her rebuke burning on his face.
She started filling in the outline.
“I’ll tell the militia commanders to start the selection matches for the anchor pilots and PA troops in two days. We’ll hold the first round of sim-fire trials in the arena two days after that. You should record your speech by then, as you’ll be leaving soon after.”
“Of course. We can’t rely on the previous numbers. Some of the best pilots might not have been taking the matches seriously. But that’s not your concern. I’ll send you a message with the expectations I have for the Emprin Militia. You can build your speech around that. Also, I want you to explicitly order the men to respect the Okendan women who will be fighting with them. Those women may be a bunch of cryheart civilians, but from the performance numbers in this proposal they will probably win a significant portion of the powered armor and about a quarter of the anchors.”
She scribbled in a few more entries.
“I will provide trainers and advisors for the women. My sisters may be harsh with them, but they won’t be hateful. You will lend your mercenaries to the male militia to help them with organizing until you leave. After that… “
Mesra wrinkled her brow. A moment later she drew a line to the side and added a list.
“I will provide a few top-level advisors to help the male commanders stay on track. Make it clear to the commanders that I will be very harsh if they are mistreated.”
She stopped writing and looked at him. Her eyes narrowed again.
“Will you give your people those commands?”
Rixken gripped the arms of his chair.
Help me Aihay. Give me wisdom.
No escaping. If the militia was going to work, then two very different groups of people would have to cooperate. Imagining the civilians and the Warsisters mixing, he could see any number of complaints the Ankadarul would have. He had them too. But the Warsisters had, in fact, governed fairly as far as he could see, and as far as any of the kevas, commanders, mayors, or other officials he’d talked to had indicated to him. There were horrible things they did among themselves, but nothing more than many of the abominations he had heard of in some of the official provinces. And they had shown a tendency to listen and compromise over the years.
“If the Warsisters will agree to continue in the legal understanding they have already established with the civilians of Emprin, then I will command them as Preparer to honor your people as the government of this province.”
“Done,” Mesra said.
“With one addition,” he added. “Simply a request that the respect of persons go both ways.”
Mesra’s lips thinned and she sat up straighter.
Rixken held up his hands.
“Some of the women at the party were… very forward. To an extent that, honestly, any faithful Ankadarul will find horrifying. Such interactions will not lend themselves to discipline in the militia, or to long term peace with your subjects.”
Mesra gave him a long, weighing look.
“They chased you all over the room, didn’t they? Now I wish I’d been there.”
“No. I see. Every single First Mother has had kevas come here complaining about broken marriages and young men led into sin. Karlyne herself left her successors a letter on the subject.” She flipped the pen in her fingers for a moment. “Very well. For your sake, Preparer, because you have been so respectful, I will tell my women that they will be held accountable for a serious breach of discipline in any pursuit they start in either branch of the militia. I trust you will demand the same of the militia commanders.
“Good. Then that settles it. I’ll send you a message with all my requirements for the speech.” She finished the outline and put the pen away. “Now, tell me what you’re planning to do with Aysha Theron.”
Rixken jerked at the sudden question.
“Do you want her back?”
Mesra’s hesitated for a moment. A blink.
Then shook her head.
“Tradition forbids it. Maybe after she has fought for you for a time someone will sponsor her back in.”
“What happened to, ‘tradition be damned’?”
“That’s only in the extremes. There’s only so much change we’ll countenance in ourselves outside of that. Losing a champion won’t kill us.”
Rixken saw her eyes glimmer with wet as she said that. Or maybe it was his imagination.
“I intend to keep her as a bodyguard,” he said. “I suppose as the commander of my bodyguard now that she has a pack of your redhairs helping her. If I get more forces and we work well together, I’ll probably give her a full command, though it will be hard finding Okendan soldiers who will serve under a woman. But I have to get off the mainland before any of that matters.”
He noted the intent look in her eyes as he talked. It wasn’t his imagination. She was worried about her former champion.
“I promise that I will treat Aysha as my own sister outside of combat and see that she has a place wherever I end up. You can rest in that.”
Mesra looked away. When she looked back, her eyes were cold and clear again.
“I have my blackhairs working on your best options for getting off Okend. Send your Neralene to work with them. They’ll have information ready for a full planning session in three days. Be ready.”
She stood up from her chair and walked toward her desk.
Rixken took that as a dismissal. What had brought it on so suddenly? The talk of Aysha? He decided it best not to pursue the issue. He had plenty of preparations to make and no time to risk antagonizing her.
The planning session was lead by a new face, the blackhair caste mother, Iriel Kossaila. Older than Mesra, possibly, though Rixken had yet to see a Warsister who actually looked older than ‘weathered’. Did they kill them, or did Warsisters not age?
It couldn’t be the second. That defied reason.
Iriel sat at one end of a round holotable, lithe, pretty, and utterly forgettable, watching the others arrive over folded hands while a cup of hax steamed at one elbow and a tablet glowed at the other. With her shoulder-length black hair pulled back in a crown-braid, an Okendan hairstyle that defied the short styles worn by every other Warsister, and her pale skin, she looked like she might have come from one of the old underkingdom tribes.
A perfectly ordinary cavefarmer’s wife.
She noticed his study and gave him the splay-fingered handwave that people in the Capital-basin underkingdoms used to greet each other. She knew exactly what she looked like. On another day, perhaps it would be different.
Rixken sat opposite Iriel. Zem at his right, Aysha beyond her, and Daneth on his left with Krisga. A goldhair sat to Iriel’s left, acting as her secretary, and a copperhair to the seat further left, possibly as tech support. On Iriel’s right was another blackhair, this one with black-tipped white hair, and at her side a redhair, who kept shooting curious glances at Aysha from across the table.
That was all the seats that were there. Daneth and Krisga arrived last, but not late, and laid out their tablets and some extra readers. As soon as they were settled, Iriel turned on the holotable, bringing up a three-dimensional map of the mostly gray and brown Akati landmass, the surrounding ocean, and Emprin. Rixken looked down at the Emprin Isthmus, located just in front of him so that East and Akati were toward Iriel, and noticed that it was a very good map, with detailed features that all looked quite recent. In fact, that was probably the base right about… there.
He touched it and the hologram fuzzed around his fingers. It also scrolled slightly. He made a spreading motion with his fingers and it zoomed in on the location. It was the base. And there was the arena. He zoomed again…
There were the hangars for the anchors.
And there was the camp for the Kerchaxes out in the open fields, with all their anchors lined up near the deployed maintenance scaffolds.
“This is an impressive map,” Daneth said.
“Yes it is.” Iriel returned it to its original setting with a command tapped in at her end. She waited for everyone to look up from the show on the table.
“I’ll get right to it, your Majesty,” she said as soon as she had everyone’s attention. “After consulting with Agent NerMagten and checking reports from our mainland sources, it’s clear that leaving Emprin for anywhere on the mainland is suicide. Further, our navy is insufficient to break through the Imperial blockade to the South, and sea travel to the North will have to pass through Ambril’s super-artillery. This leaves a port somewhere in Akati as your only option. There you’ll have to acquire a ship that can transport you and your mercenaries to someplace not under Imperial control. Agent NerMagten has proposed the Koltan Isles as a destination, and I agree that it would be a good one, though where you go will depend on where you acquire a ship and which directions are open to you at that time.”
She entered another command into the table and a series of ports located all along the coast of Akati glowed yellow.
“Akati used to have thirty separate deep-water ports, but only ten have been rebuilt so far, mostly to ship resources from reopened mines, materials scavenged from the less-radioactive ruins, and fish packaged at a number of refurbished canneries. A resource freighter from one of those ports would do the job, and security wouldn’t be very high. However, Akati’s coasts are overseen by the Pirate King of Talat, Ardis PirGevgen, and he will notice if one of those ships goes missing. Those freighters have no defenses, and are fairly slow, so they won’t be able to run a blockade. You might be able to pay one of the captains to smuggle you instead, but you will not escape Ardis’ or Orlin’s notice as long as you have half a battallion with you. Possibly if you leave your mercenaries behind. Is that an option?”
Rixken had already received a polite warning from the Warsisters that bounty notices for himself and every one of the Kerchaxes were circulating throughout the region surrounding Emprin. The mercenaries who had helped him needed to get off of Okend just as much as he did. Perhaps they could sneak if they left the equipment… all seven-hundred of them. But then they would just be defenseless if they were caught somewhere. No. Leaving the Kerchaxes or their equipment was not an option.
Rixken saw Daneth opening his mouth, but shook his head.
“In that case, you really only have two good options.”
Iriel knit her hands together and regarded him over her knuckles.
“The first is simple: make a deal with Ardis PirGevgen. Something better than whatever your brother has offered him. Much in your favor is the fact that Ardis does not like the Empire. He is a pirate, and while the Imperial Navy mostly leaves his ships alone in the open oceans as long as he pays them off, they still place limits on what he can and cannot do. All of the Southeastern coast is off limits to him, and your brother has been leaning heavily on support from the warlords of the central provinces for funding and military aid. The coastal warlords are the richest, and they want even stricter pursuit of piracy to strengthen trade with Jedrem, Lokat, and Kolt. He must honor them, which limits the deals he can make with Ardis.”
“What can I offer Ardis?”
“Two things. Your survival, which will cause a full civil war and draw the attention of the Imperial Navy away from his actions, allowing him to grab more territory and power, and a promise that any navy of yours will not interfere with his actions.”
Rixken winced at the thought of that. Give a pirate free reign…
“Why doesn’t Orlin just give Ardis official status as a warlord?” Kris asked. “Award him Talat and trade rights? Maybe even Akati?”
Iriel inclined her head toward Kris.
“He could. But our analysis indicates Ardis doesn’t want that. Although his family runs Talat and keeps that island in good order, they have gained immense wealth from pirating all over the Sunrise and Northern oceans. If he went legitimate, that piracy would be considered an act of war which would reflect poorly on Orlin and work against his plans to reunite the Empire. Ardis would have to stop, giving up free goods and slaves that his people have come to expect. He would also have certain expectations placed on him, such as taxes. The best he can really hope for with Orlin is a steady deterioration of his current state.”
“The PirGevgens enjoy bein’ criminals, darra,” Zemril added.
“So that’s option one,” Rixken said. “What’s my second?”
Iriel unfolded her hands and crossed her arms flat on the edge of the holotable.
“It’s very dangerous.”
“Not dangerous,” Zemril said. “It’s insane.”
Rixken glanced at Zemril, then back to Iriel.
“What is it?”
“Steal the Pirate King’s flagship and shoot your way to Kolt through anything that tries to stop you.” Iriel tapped a command into the table. The map disappeared and a 3D schematic of a large ship replaced it. Gigantic, in fact. A four-hundred-meter-long inverted-bow trimaran with a low top, slope-armored sides, seven huge railrifle turrets, any number of smaller turrets, and countless interdiction mounts.
“The battlecarrier Vorrendrayg,” Rixken whispered. “The flagship of the Empire before the Storms.”
“An’ now the flagship of the Pirate King of the Eastern Oceans,” Zemril said.
“Every Far-winter Ardis tours the coast of Akati in his flagship, collecting tribute and sampling the goods of each of the port cities.” Iriel pulled up several photos on her tablet and transferred them to the holotable. Rixken saw a man he presumed was Ardis, surrounded by guards and moving through the streets of various cities. “He spends a few days at each, reminding them of how powerful he is by roughing up the locals, hunting down a few people his agents have identified as complaining too much, and collecting any women he finds attractive.”
The schematic of the ship vanished and was replaced by the map again. Iriel zoomed it in on the coastal cities.
“Right now he is here,” she pointed at one of the cities located on the northern peninsula, “at Seftin. In a week we estimate he’ll have rounded the peninsula and be at the point closest to Talat. You would want to hit him shortly after that, here in Mirik Bay, which is large enough that Ardis lets his crew have full liberty in it and where you’ll have an open course out to Kolt. We don’t know when he’ll make it there, but we do have agents in Akati who will be able to get that information to you.”
“Knowing where he’ll be is fine.” Daneth leaned forward, studying the ground around Mirik Bay. “How exactly do you think we’ll have a chance of taking the ship?”
Iriel addressed her answer to Rixken.
“You will need to do three things. First, acquire the trust of the people of Akati. This will allow you to move around with more freedom, without every single person running to report what you do to Ardis or local raiders. Also, it will allow you to set the kevas to looking for a freighter owner who will be willing to smuggle you out.”
“I thought we weren’t going that route,” Daneth said.
“Ardis and Orlin don’t need to know that. Looking for the freighter will distract them from the real goal, and make preparations easier.”
Daneth nodded and settled back in his chair.
“Alright, so getting the trust of the Coastal cities opens Akati up for the rest of the plan,” Rixken said. “How do I convince them to trust me?”
“We have some ideas on that, but we’re still working on it. Mainly, you’ll be fixing some problems for them with the local raiders.” She paused and took a sip of hax, then glanced at him and raised an eyebrow, inviting further question.
He motioned for her to go on.
“Your second big task will be to get the codes to one of the networked systems on the ship from a crewmember,” Iriel said. “It doesn’t have to be a major system, so it doesn’t have to be an important crewmember. Once you have the code, Agent NerMagten and a few of our agents can infiltrate the ship and begin taking over the systems using her Imperial overrides. Preferably the same night you get the codes.”
Rixken looked at Zemril. She was staring at her hands with her ears laid tight and back.
“Can you do it?”
“Of course I can.”
“Are you sure?”
She looked up at him and glared.
“It’s halfway ta impossible, your Majesty, but there’s nothing on the list I don’t have the skills for. An’ I’ll have help.”
Rixken held her gaze for a moment longer, then looked back to Iriel, who was sipping hax again. Her cup made a click when she set it down.
“Last, you’ll need to take the ship while most of the crew are in the city,” Iriel said. “Zemril and our agents can activate the internal security measures and use them to disable most of those who remain behind, but she will need help clearing any that escape, which could be as many as several hundred, all of them armed. This will necessitate a two-pronged approach, with one force getting between the battlecarrier and the crew on shore while the other enters the ship and assists Agent NerMagten and our agents. Packleader Theron, accompanied by her pack and a force of Kerchax PA troopers, should be able to do the second, while the main Kerchax force does the first.”
“Aysha is an anchor pilot,” Rixken said, with a glance at his new bodyguard, who had remained quiet so far. “Shouldn’t she be with the armored force in the city?”
The redhair sitting to Iriel’s far left leaned forward.
“There won’t be time to waste. You want your best clearing that ship before anyone on it can figure out how to reactivate the guns and fire on your forces in the city. Aysha started out in powered armor like every Warsister anchor pilot, has never stopped cross-training in it, and still has one of the highest match rankings of any close-quarters soldier on this base. Get her and her pack on that ship, and they will murder Ardis’ crew. Your mercenaries will spend most of their time watching.”
Aysha gave a nod to the other redhair, who looked away instead of returning it. Aysha tensed at that, but smoothed her face when she noticed Rixken watching her.
“So, Aysha and a PA force take the ship while everyone else fights in the city,” Rixken said. “Assuming we succeed, how do we get the ship moving?”
“If you take this route, we’ll put together a crew for you and send them after you,” Iriel said. “There are enough freighters stuck in port from the blockade that we should be able to assemble a reliable skeleton crew that can get the Vorrendrayg to Kolt. Most of the systems can be automated for the few days of your journey, so you’ll have plenty of defenses. You just need to decide if this is the option you want. I’ll say again that it’s very dangerous, but if you do get the Vorrendrayg, I’m certain you can make it to Kolt.”
Rixken leaned back in his chair. Heard in full, the second option sounded possible, but risky. If word got out to Orlin or Ardis, the plan would fail. If Zemril and the agents got caught on the ship, the plan would fail. If Zemril couldn’t disable the ship when they attacked, the plan would fail. If Aysha and her force couldn’t clear the ship in time, the plan would fail. If Ardis had more forces in the city than they were expecting, the plan would fail.
“Is there no way to sneak out on a freighter?”
Iriel shook her head.
“You will get caught by Orlin without Ardis’ help. Your brother has patrols in all the waters around Akati, and plenty of agents in the ports and elsewhere. Ardis might just let that happen, or he might catch you himself, at which point you’ll be forced to make a deal from a weaker position.”
Fight or deal, then. He felt the deal pulling at him as he stared at the cities along the coast and sank under the weight of everything else that could go wrong while crossing five-hundred kilometers of irradiated raider-infested ruins, even before going after the Vorrendrayg. A few calls, a promise, and a guaranteed freighter ride would be so much easier than making war across Akati. The deal wouldn’t put his people in a tenth the danger, either, and then he would finally be able to focus on whatever he was going to do about his brother.
And yet… he would be making promises to a pirate. A pirate whose family had been terrorizing half the oceans of Dankar for two-hundred years. Who was, at that very moment, slaving in the coastal cities of Akati. A pirate whose power would only grow if Rixken made it away, let alone if Rixken made a deal with him.
But how could he hope to fight that pirate head on?
And what would happen to Okend if he got killed doing it?
Aihay, please help me. Give me wisdom. Give me courage! This is Ardis PirGevgen, the Pirate King. He has his own navy and army. And I… I… What am I supposed to do?
A word gleamed in Rixken’s mind. A flaw in his thinking.
He was not ‘I’.
He was the Preparer.
A long forgotten conversation with Overkeva Ikgen TirNallan from Rixken’s days serving under HarBergan flowed into his mind.
“According to the Teachings, what is the Preparer supposed to do?” Ikgen asked.
“Follow Aihay,” Rixken replied.
“Wrong. Aihay does call the Preparer and every man to follow. But consider these words: ‘You will be a preparer to the people, a man given over to me, to show them my ways. You will see that they hear my teachings, and will stand for the weak and against all that is evil.’ What phrase heads each of the sentences?”
“’You will be.’”
“Is that a command, or a promise?”
“And what is the context? What does Aihay command Ankad to do just before giving that promise?”
“‘Believe in me, in my Sacrifice that I have given for you, and the Name that shall come to you.’”
“What, then, should the Preparer do?”
“Believe,” Rixken whispered.
He returned to the present and looked at the people surrounding the table. All of them were watching him, waiting. His gaze stopped on Zemril. Her green eyes were wide, and she shivered as she returned his look. She shook her head.
“You should make a deal,” she whispered. “Get ta Kolt, get an army, then fight whatever ya haveta fight.”
Everything that he would have to do, that his people would have to do, bit at him, and he felt cold thinking of it. Those wide green eyes filling his vision would be going into danger. Aysha would be going into danger. Daneth and his men, as well. Rixken himself, because he could not ask all of them to risk so much and hide back with the baggage.
Was there any other way to see it than as insanity?
There was no way they could succeed.
It was utter madness to even think that he… especially that he… not after Natlen…
Memories of tears he had caused filled his mind. The bruises of a failed stand against his brother ached again.
Rixken drew the sword, causing Daneth to dodge away from the tip. He fixed his eyes on the blade and saw it wobble as his arm trembled. He tried to still it, but the muscles felt weak. All of him felt weak.
Help me, Aihay. Give me truth.
“I have seen three impossible things,” he said.
“A man sent to kill me has sworn to defend my life instead.”
Daneth bowed his head and blushed.
“The sworn enemies of my people have delivered me from death.”
Iriel raised an eyebrow.
“And I have triumphed over a matchless opponent with nothing but my incompetence and my faith in Kai.”
Aysha twitched and stared straight at him.
Help me believe.
“I believe that Aihay has done these things, and not me. Further, I believe that Aihay is just, that he is merciful, and that he is mighty. If these things are insane to believe, then let me be a madman.”
The trembling in his arm had stilled.
He drew in a breath, held it, let it out slow. Thoughts of the people of Akati filled his mind, of the women of the coastal cities being carried off right then, of the thousands of people around the world being dragged into slavery, robbed, or murdered by Ardis’ fleets.
Suddenly he knew there was another way to see it all, if he believed.
There was a murdering pirate king on the shores of Akati.
And that pirate king was within the Preparer’s reach.
He laid the sword on the table, pointing at Mirik Bay. The whole map distorted around it and all eyes focused on the golden letters set in the blade, which sparkled in the light from the disrupted hologram.
“We are taking the Vorrendrayg, and Ardis PirGevgen with it.”
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.