A new crown

Eindhoven, Capital of Michelsland
The Imperial Palace – 05.30 PM

As soon as the valet had left the room, closing the large door behind his back, Argail Ivograd poured some wine into his glass, then carefully tasted its yield flavor before actually sipping it. After he had emptied the glass, he smiled warmly at the three men and at the woman in front of him.

«Chardonnay, coming from my vineyards in the south… which leads me straight to the subject of this… informal meeting»

«That’s an interesting definition, Argail… above all considering your messengers have come stressing it’s a matter of extreme urgency directly related to our own national security. And forgive my insolence, Lord Chamberlain…» replied dryly Malcom Loescher, commander in chief of the Michelsland military «…but I really cannot see the link between your wines and the Empire security»

Glancing straight at the middle aged man, Argail grinned, then poured himself another glass of wine, but this time he simply observed its golden transparency without even grabbing the glass. Lord Chamberlain… that reference was definitely amusing, considering what he was going to propose to his guests. The ancient, official title was definitely out-of-date… but there were high chances it would have soon be used fairly often pretty soon. Just as a lot of almost forgotten titles and procedures and ceremonies… in a word, a pile of useless medieval-mimicking rubbish their nation had been able to get rid of some… how long ago? A century? A century and an half? Well… it didn’t really matter, as it seemed they had no other choice.

«Well… there is a link, Malcom. Because when I say ‘my vineyards in the south’… well, I mean exactly what I’m saying. The south… the valleys bordering Playstation Portable»

As the General immediately stiffened, Argail nodded with satisfaction, noticing the immediate flash of comprehension in the others’ eyes.

«Valleys which should be under our control… but which are actually slipping out of our hands, lately. At least… well, that’s the impression of mine, general. I wonder if anyone in this little gathering has a different perception of it»

As nobody came to his help, the General moved uncomfortably on his chair.

«The situation in the south… it’s still… developing. Our forces are trying to…»

«Are you aware of the http://z1.invisionfree.com/forums/The_East_Pacific/index.php?showtopic=5101&view=findpost&p=5155240, Argail? An above all… are you trying to say us you do not know we have to thank them, if we can still define ourselves as the owners of those territories?»

«I do not…»

«Let’s face the truth, Malcom. The Empire is losing its grip on its own lands. After the Emperor’s sudden death last year… well, the whole structure is going down. Our Western provinces have already seceded… at least de facto: they’ve stopped sending us taxes and tributes, they’re appointing their own officers and so on… no matter if they still formally bow in front of the central authority. The truth is they’re gone… and the situation in the south is even worse. Anarchists and fuss-makers coming from Playstation Portable…»

«There’s still no evidence they’re…»

«Oh… damn, Malcom. You’re perfectly aware they are, even if we’ve not yet been able to prove it. But we’re going off-topic. Well… let’s say there is an incredibly high activity of unknown groups which are challenging our authority in the area. They’re trouble-makers… and they’re winning. Our troops… that’s not a fault of yours, my friend, but they’re… lacking, at best. We fund the army… but the real problem is we’re not a warmongering nation. We’re merchants, scientists, artists… whatever you want, but sure as hell we’re not born to be soldiers»

Amusedly smiling at the General’s uneasiness, Alexandra Torvaen, Minister of Internal Affairs and aunt of the former Emperor, glanced straight at the Prime Minister.

«Which is your point, Argail? What are you trying to tell us?»

«I’m saying we need help, Alexandra… an help to survive with our lifestyle, if not as a nation. And… we have someone who could help us. The New Iremians… they’ve exactly what we need. A powerful and trained army… and a natural drive towards battles. If we could…»

«Are you proposing us to… offer them our nation, just as the state-cities of Caergoth and Solanthus have done some three months ago? Losing our independence to…»

«No, Alexandra… not exactly, at least. We’re not Caergoth… nor Solanthus. We’re a damned Empire… even bigger than the whole Grand Duchy. That’s not what I had in mind. My idea… it’s slightly different»

Eindhoven – Capital of Michelsland – The Imperial Palace
The morning after – 11:20 AM

Silently entering the large office, Alexandra Torvaen sat on a comfy armchair, amused by the fact the young girl was so busy with her phone call she had not even noticed her entrance. Smiling warmly, the Minister of internal Affairs observed her nephew. At 26, Katrine was a beautiful girl. Probably not a striking one, but definitely a girl able to turn many glances. The peculiar hazel hue of her shoulders-long curly hair was definitely the best proof of her Imperial lineage, while the crystal azure of her eyes was a nice gift coming straight from her defunct mother’s family. Frowning a bit, the woman noticed the wonderful bronze tanning of her skin was beginning to wane, mainly due to the too many hours the girl was spending buried inside the Palace halls, trying to cope with her responsibilities.

Sighing, Alexandra thought once again the Emperor’s sudden disappearance had been a tragedy for the whole nation, but the young girl in front of her was definitely the one who had and will have suffered the most because of it. And that was before Argail’s proposal. Suddenly, Alexandra’s attention was drawn back to the real world.

«Aunt! When did you… oh… I’m so sorry! I’ve not heard you coming in at all! It’s because… oh well… who cares!» giggled the girl, hurrying at Alexandra’s side and hugging her, a solar smile on her face.

«It’s a pleasure to see you, my dear one» smiled Alexandra, returning her niece’s hug «But tell me… have I heard well enough? I mean… was that phone call about what I think?»

Nodding enthusiastically, Katrine grabbed her aunt’s hand, dragging her towards the desktop and showing her the multi-colored graphs on the LCD screen.

«Look… they’ve been forwarded to me this morning. Would you have ever believed it? The overall efficiency of our emergency rooms has raised of 37.5% during the last two months… which means our healthcare system is now almost in-line with those of the most advanced East Pacific countries. Not too bad, considering there is room for further improvement… and considering the level of it when we started the updating process»

Nodding appreciatively, Alexandra acknowledged the girl was right. The whole thing was definitely impressive… a further proof of the girl’s natural predisposition to be a leader. In the end, she had done nothing else but gathering all the top medics of the country, explaining them what seemed to be wrong, and when they had chuckled, persuaded she was a just a girl wanting to play with a new toy she would have soon grown bored of, she had surprised them with a small number of proposal, which were now proving to be extremely effective. When she smiled at her niece, Alexandra thanked the fact her enthusiasm had prevented her from noticing the shadow of sadness on her face.

«And that’s not all. I’ve just received an e-mail from the High Justice… he seems extremely interested in my remarks. The grumbling old one says my proposal is so full of loopholes and flaws he’ll be resting in his grave when we’ll finally come out with something decent enough to be really enforced… but you know I’m a stubborn girl, when I need to» Katrine winked.

Nodding, Alexandra couldn’t avoid an amused smile. On that, there were no doubts. The young Empress was definitely one of the most stubborn persons she had ever met, but 90% of the times such stubbornness was the immediate consequence of a deep self-confidence, wisely mixed with an unquestionable love for her country and an incredible amount of time spent to work out her own ideas before actually wording them. Yes… she was a natural leader, able to persuade he interlocutors with both the charm of her smile and the keenness of her reasoning. Had the times been different… but they weren’t. In the end, there was no other choice.

«Aunt… are you alright? You seem a bit pale»

«Katrine… sit down, my beloved one. There is something you have to know»

Eindhoven, Capital of Michelsland
The Imperial Palace – Katrine’s room – 02:38 PM

«You know… I suppose you’re right, Rollo. There is nothing I can really do, and therefore I’m simply wasting my time, staying here whining like a child… and chatting with a rag teddy bear» smiled the young Princess, hugging the doll before leaving the bed she had been sitting onto for the last two hours.

Walking in front of the large window, she glanced at the lawns of the Imperial Palace Gardens, then sighed sadly. The worst part of the whole thing was that, deep inside her soul, she was aware her aunt was right. Despite her efforts, she was simply too young. She had proven everyone she could have been a wonderful Empress, if only… and it was that if only which was ruining everything. Her father… he was a terrific monarch. After his disappearance, almost everyone had felt to be entitled to say something about how the country should have been ruled… and in the meanwhile, the provinces far from the Capital had started behaving as if there was no more central power to rule them. In the end, it wasn’t really a matter of military incapacity. The real truth was that nobody wanted to be ruled by a woman… above all if that woman had not even reached her thirties. They respected her, liked her… but nothing more.

Leaning to the marble windowsill, she sighed again. She was being requested something Michelslandian women had forgot centuries ago, when they had finally been able to win their battle for equality of the sexes. But in the end, she was not a regular woman. She was the Empress of Michelsland, and Alexandra had been right: when she had received the Imperial crown, she had taken an oath to serve her country, whichever the costs. Honestly, she would have never imagined those costs could have been of that kind… but that was life. If almost everyone in her Council seemed persuaded her sacrifice could have helped saving the country… well, she would have done it. Probably it was an useless attempt, and she would have simply wasted her life… but she had to try.

Moving at her desktop and sitting on her working chair, she threw a last glance at the puppet bear on the bed. As he remained perfectly still as all the rag teddy bears of the whole world would have done in such a situation, the young Empress dialed her aunt’s phone number. When the answer came, she smiled sadly.

«I’ll do it» she said, putting the receiver down immediately after.

The Northern Grand Duchy – New Irem – The Prime Minister’s Offices
A week after – 10.10 AM

When the guard closed the door behind the back of the last Michelslandian Ambassador, Kadras Lordameer sighed. At the age of eighty, he had hoped not to be forced to handle such kind of issues anymore. After a whole life dedicated to policies and international diplomacy, he was growing really tired, as it was beginning to be clear things would have never changed: whenever you were fairly convinced things were going to improve, another difficulty was ready to show up. And that was exactly what had just happened. Sighing, he shook his head, hating himself for not having had the chance to simply send the foreign Ambassadors to hell, despite he had badly wished it. Their proposal… there was no chance for Reziel not to be hurt by it. And not only Reziel, above all.

Taking a deep breath, the old New Iremian Prime Minister dialed his aide’s number, waiting for him to answer.

«Andrew, please, I need a couple of phone calls. First of all, I’d like to host Lady De Corde for lunch and… no, Andrew. This is not a proposal. I need to have her here as soon as possible. Do not be demanding, but be sure to arrange the lunch. After that… yes, Andrew. An informal lunch inside my rooms. After that… no, Andrew, no specific requests: an informal lunch, everything will be fine. Now, if you can please let me go on, after that I’ll need to meet Reziel. Let’s say… uhm… this afternoon. This time, feel free to be as demanding as you need. Questions?»

As usual, there weren’t. Smiling ruefully, he put down the receiver, then glanced outside the window, hoping to find an inspiration. He was perfectly aware there was no chance to avoid Ileana the shock, but he owed her an attempt to be as kind and delicate as possible. For a brief moment, the old man wished one of his youth’s aerial battles hadn’t gone so well.

New Irem – The Fortress – The Council of the Five
The day after

When his fist thundered against the thick wood of the oak table, Lachdanan’s eyes were those of a caged tiger. Furious… and harmless despite that same fury. And that appearance was more than justified, because the man was nothing else, as he was perfectly aware. Heir of a crumbled Empire as old as history itself, unchallenged leader of the New Iremian Army, despite his attempt he was a mere spectator of what was going on in that room. On the contrary, both Reziel’s and Ileana’s eyes were those of someone who had just had a blank night… and full of an unnatural fatalism. Because even if they were the main actors, neither they could do anything to change things. Or at least that was what they felt… and that feeling was exactly what the younger Prince was yelling against.

«The worst part of this utter nonsense is that you’ve seen the consequences of your blind abandonment of this destiny of self-sacrifice you see for yourself, Reziel! That’s exactly why you’ve moved against Zigan! You thought you had no choice… and that thoughts has come out to be one of the worst choices in the whole Iremian history! And now… and now, despite what you’ve seen… despite what we all have suffered, you bow once again to…»

«Young one… hold your tongue. You’ve been informed because you were entitled to be… but this meeting won’t become a mud-throwing against the Duke» Kadras’ tone was plain, but both the Prince and the Duke himself couldn’t help remembering the old days when the old man had been their life trainer.

«Don’t worry, Kadras. I’m used to such…»

«To the hell! Do not dare assuming the martyr role with me, Reziel! You know perfectly well what I’m trying to say… don’t play the deaf. Take your own damned responsib…»

«My responsibilities? Responsibilities? You come to me blathering of responsibilities… what else should I do, in your opinion? I’m doing it for the sake of…»

«That’s exactly what I do not want you to do! For once in your life, stop thinking about everyone else. Just think about Reziel… think about yourself and do what it is right and not what you believe the protocol requires you to do! Do not waste your chance once again»

«What do you mean?» Reziel’s glance became as sharp as an icy blade.

«Exactly what I’ve told… do not waste your chance, Reziel. Send the Michelslandians Ambassadors back to their country. Marry Ileana. Love her in the sunlight just as you’ve silently loved her for years»

Sighing quietly, Ileana De Corde gently shook her head. When she smiled, it was a sad smile. Full of comprehension for the young man rage, but conscious of the fact Lachdanan’s proposal had no chance to be accepted. The problem wasn’t Reziel. Nor it was herself. They loved each other… that wasn’t a mystery for anyone. But… they couldn’t. He was the Grand Duke. She was the widow of one of his lieutenants, died tragically during a minor skirmish. A widow re-marrying was something the Iremian society wouldn’t have considered too well… but the marriage between a widow and the one who was the ultimate responsible for her husband’s death was simply unimaginable. The rumors, the critics… no. Despite it was her greatest wish, she was aware it could have never been anything else but a dream.

«Lachdanan… quiet yourself. Ki’jo knows if I do not appreciate what you’re doing… but we both know it cannot be»

«Ileana, there’s nothing which cannot be. Just want it and…»

«I want it with all myself, Lach. But I’m aware I cannot have it. Please… stop torturing the two of us with something which can never happen»

Almost ready to reply, Lachdnanan glanced straight at the woman. She had been the mother he had never had. Intelligent, stubborn, sweet, caring… and strong. So strong that he could barely believe that sad and resigned woman was the Ileana he loved. But at the same time, he couldn’t go on adding to her obvious sufferance. Silently, he lowered his glance and stood silent.

Western Terasu - En route towards the Rezielan camp
Three days after

Lothar De Corde was perplexed. The message he had received was definitely an order, and it had followed the standard Archangels’ procedure. It came straight from the HQ, standard encryption, usual format… but the signature wasn’t the one he would have expected to see. In the end, according to the recent re-organization of the State, the Prime Minister had no right to command the Archangels. That was a privilege of the Duke… and nobody’s else.

The strangeness of the situation was even increased by the tone of the message. What could have the old man had in mind? Why couldn’t he simply give the details of this mission? Why the mystery? Shaking his head, the Count grabbed his encrypted mobile and dialed a number. Waiting for the answer, he thought in the end it wasn’t too bad. The situation in Terasu had definitely improved, and it was time for him to report such developments to New Irem. But despite that, something in the depth of his brain was saying there was something wrong. A voice dragged him back from his own thoughts.

«Uh… oh, yes, sorry. Phantom’s speaking. Prepare the copter. We leave Terasu tomorrow in the morning. Our final destination… Eindhoven, Michelslandian Empire. We… yes, take care of everything with the Terasians. I’m sure there shouldn’t be… no, no more details. It seems someone will be waiting for us in… no, I do not have the slightest idea, so… roger. Phantom out»

Putting the phone away, the Major scratched his own head. Yes… something wrong. Definitely.

Western Terasu
Later that night

Despite even the old pines of the forest were bowing to the strength of the winds whose fury had suddenly started some one hour before, the ageless lady was advancing undisturbed on the path, her long black dress barely fluttering in the hurricane surrounding her. She wasn’t pleased. The whole thing was a complete nonsense and her intervention shouldn’t have been needed at all. One would have thought he had understood… but then, it was obvious he hadn’t. At all. Sighing with a mix of resignation and incredulity, she entered the small glade.

There, the fury of the winds was incredible. The pines were ready to break and very soon even the very rocks would have been eradicated. Shaking her head, she observed the man. He was just standing there, wearing his old knightly armor which seemed to shine even in the utter darkness of that moonless night. Someone would have expected to see him waving his hands and muttering or even screaming strange and ancient words of power, but the woman knew him too well. He didn’t like useless shows. Understatement, if such a concept could have reasonably applied. Smiling at the thought, she didn’t have to say anything to draw his attention. He simply turned, looking towards her. The fury of the winds seemed to placate a bit… but it was an irrelevant bit. The man didn’t say anything.

«Greetings, Lord of Thunder» she hailed.

«This is not a business of yours. I won’t allow it to happen. They do not deserve it. They’ve already suffered too much… and I won’t allow it to happen again and again»

«Straight to the point, as always. But you know that’s nonsense. According to your own command, you have no right to interfere. I could be here to remember you that same command»

«Could?» as the knight raised an eyebrow under his full helm, the winds began to placate. This time, it was a significant decrease. Not yet enough, but a good starting point anyhow.

«Yes. Taking inspirations from my own Master, I won’t command you. On the contrary, I’ll leave you that precious freewill you’ve always recognized to your brethrens. And to this purpose… well, I’ll ask you a question. A very simple one. Be honest in your answer… and then decide accordingly»

«Let’s hear»

«Well… my question is this, Lord of Thunder. Looking behind at your own past… and at the past of your people, do you think you’re a good judge? Have your predictions been… accurate? Or haven’t you found yourself more than once whining if only I hadn’t…?»

When the man’s eyes flashed under the helm and the winds began to blow stronger again, the woman wondered for a brief moment if she hadn’t stretched the rope a bit too much.

«To my eyes, the consequences are clear enough. That copter won’t take off. Not today… nor tomorrow. I’ll keep him there for the whole damned eternity, if it will be needed. This time… it’s different»

«It always is. It has always been, Lord of Thunder. Each single time. Suppose there’s no need for me to remember you that the consequences of your first this-time-it’s-different intervention are still cursing them all» grinned the woman.

Again, the storm began to lose its impetus as the man hesitated. The woman had a point. A good point. A too good point. Slowly, the winds decreased and in the end the pines were released for the grasp.

«I… I do not want to see them all…»

«They’re stronger than what you think, Lord of Thunder. Far stronger. Give them a chance»

As the man gravely nodded, the woman smiled warmly. In the end, he was such a nice guy, she thought. Walking slowly, she crossed the glade to reach the knight and offered him her arm.

«It’s time to go back home, Master»

A single moment after, the glade was desert once again.

Empire of Michelsland – Eindhoven International
07:57 AM

When Lothar De Corde saw the man who had just arrived with the jeep, his bad feeling got a bit worse. It had begun the day before, with that strange change to his mission profile. Eindhoven wasn’t definitely the place he had thought to go. And then that strange storm coming out of nowhere… and just as abruptly fading away, as if nature had realized the hurricane would have been a nonsense. A lucky thing, because a flight in those conditions would have been a suicide. But strange things hadn’t stopped. What was the ducal plane doing, there? Why had they sent him and his pack of Archangels, if the Duke himself was there? Were they running that short of men, in New Irem? What were they supposed to do? Escort the Duke? It couldn’t be. They were operatives… definitely not in the mood of official displays. And now… smiling, he nodded to his old friend. Who was simply perfect in his high uniform, as always. His blonde hair were… hey. Why was Eldemar Valenstar wearing the high uniform? What the hell was going on, there?

«Nice to see you again, Lothar. I realize you’re a bit surprised… and I suppose you’re fully entitled to. I’ll exlain you everything… but we do not have too much time. Your men can go back to the capital at their earliest convenience and…»

«Wait a minute, Eld! I receive a message which urges me to move in Eindhoven as if the very hell was breaking loose… and now you say my guys can go back home? What…»

«The message required your presence in Eindhoven, Lothar. Not your men’s. But follow me. As I’ve just told you, I’ll give all the explanations you need… but we’re in a hurry»

Empire of Michelsland – Eindhoven – The Imperial Palace
08:58 AM

When the door of the large room opened and the two men came in, the Michelslandian Imperial Princess turned slowly towards them and smiled just mild-warmly. After all, she had to be polite… but nothing on earth would have forced her to show joy where it wasn’t. A worry to be polite one of the two men didn’t share with her, she immediately thought.

It was the one on the left. Impeccable in his dark blue and silver uniform just as his companion, the man’s face didn’t left any room to doubts of sort. The man was angry, and it was obvious his presence in that room was a forced one. When he slightly bowed, Katrine was able to feel the effort the man was doing to keep his composure.

«My Lady, I am Count Lothar De Corde form the Grand Duchy of Reziel, and this man at my side is Count Eldemar Valenstar»

Nodding, the young Princess stifled a smile. Nothing else. A simple statement. The man had just declined their generalities, without adding fake pleasantries. That would have made things a bit simpler, as it seemed there would have been no stupid minuet of formalities. Those men were soldiers, obviously. And she was their mission. Not a person, not a friend. Just a mission. Just the same for her. She didn’t want to follow those men. But she had to. That was her mission.

«I suppose you’ve already been welcomed warmly enough by my attendants, Sirs… attendants who are now probably taking care of my things. Therefore… well, I think we can go. At your earliest convenience, of course… and only if and when you’ll be ready»

When Lothar’s eyes flamed, Katrine slightly grinned. That man was prideful, and her simple insinuation had been enough to irritate him. Knowing he had such a temper would have been an interesting information to exploit. After all, she had bowed to her destiny… not to them. No. She will have never bowed to them… as they’ll have soon found out.

«We’re always ready, my Lady. We can go» replied the Archangel.

Silently, Katrine nodded. The man was interesting. He wouldn’t have been easily tamed.

Empire of Michelsland – Eindhoven
Two hours later

«Listen what we’ll do, Gabriel. You’ll find Storm and you’ll tell him that next time he wants to play the saboteur role, he’ll put his own face under the whole thing and not mine. I’m confident… no, Gabriel. I don’t and I do not want to understand anything. We both know there’s nothing wrong there in New Irem. And we both know it has been me the one who has been forced to behave like a fool. Therefore, tomorrow morning we’ll receive a call, we’ll receive adequate apologizes and the clearance to take off. And when we’ll reach New Irem, we’ll find a proper welcome committee. And Gabriel – that’s not an option. Feel free to tell it to Storm. I understand we’re not forced to like the situation, but we won’t cover ourselves of both shame and ridiculous behaving like children. We are not forced to love her, but our own honor bonds us to show her the respect she’s entitled to»

When he put down the phone, Lothar’s glance was as dark as the clouds just before a thunderstorm. Shaking his head in complete anger, he thought the worst part had yet to come, as he now had to explain the situation to the Imperial Princess… who’ll surely have found something to laugh at him for. What the Archangel major didn’t know was she was already aware of the phone call. A phone call which had definitely surprised her, above all because of the Major’s own reaction.

New Irem – The Fortress – Reziel’s Rooms
Later that day – 11:57 PM

Pacing restlessly, the Grand Duke knew he wouldn’t have find the peace he was looking for: nor the sleep nor the insomnia could have helped. Even Lachdanan’s foolish behavior hadn’t done anything else but postponing the inevitable. Lothar De Corde was right. Tomorrow in the morning, the plane would have taken off. No more games. The young Empress would have reached New Irem… and the two of them would have met their destiny.

Sighing, Elistar Reziel stopped in front of the window, looking the city preparing to fall asleep at the feet of the Hill the fortress was built onto. New Irem. A dream which had become real. A new homeland for a people which had lost everything. The last year had been a memorable one. The most part of the territories near the new capital had requested to be annexed in the Grand Duchy. The economy was now burgeoning, thanks to the joint efforts of all the citizens. A true democracy was moving its first steps, with the newly elected Constitutional Assembly making its moves towards a new equilibrium. In a word, the nation was flourishing. Investors from foreign countries had followed the first diplomatic missions, and day after day the reputation of the Grand Duchy had improved. Even the Airbusian mess had turned out to be a little better than the tragedy they had imagined in the very beginning.

Yes… things were getting better. But they still lacked many things. Due to the Michelslandian weakness, their Southern border wasn’t safe. Moreover, the tiny Grand Duchy desperately needed the infrastructures and the workforce of its larger neighbor. So… once again, the nation was requesting a sacrifice. And once again, it was requesting such sacrifice to him. The happiness of a single man against the one of a whole nation. It was…

When someone knocked at the door, the Grand Duke stared. Who could have been? Who could have been, considering it was as clear as the sun he didn’t want to be bothered by anyone? His face darkening, he opened the door… and stared.

Ileana was there, right in the middle of the hallway. Her eyes were those of someone who had just finished crying.


Shaking his head, the Iremain countess gently placed a finger over the Grand Duke’s mouth.

«Don’t speak, Elistar. Don’t say anything, or I’ll lose my courage. Just… just let me enter. Let me enter and love me, this night. Just… just the two of us and nothing else… and nobody else. No Grand Dukes, no nations to rule, no fates to face. You and me… together. As we should have been before… as we’ll never be again»

New Irem International
The morning after

As soon as she exited the aircraft and had the possibility to see the landing strip, Katrine von Eindhoven stopped, freezing in complete awe. The welcome committee was something she wasn’t prepared to see. She had obviously heard rumors, but what she was seeing went far beyond any imagination. Two horses were standing there, right in the middle of the tarmac strip, perfectly still just as the knights mounting them: two parallel lines of men and beasts, shining in their perfectly polished armors, the fluttering banners being the only spots of color in that cold sea of merciless steel.

It couldn’t honestly be. Those knights were an anachronism coming straight from the past. Their own presence was an utter absurdity… one which was freezing the blood inside her veins. The young Princess knew there was no reason in such a reaction, but she couldn’t avoid it. It was just as if an ancient and incontrollable terror was taking control. Irrational and stupid, but incredibly strong anyhow. Those men… they weren’t actors wearing old costumes. They were born inside those armors. They were part of the ancient world they seemed to come. You could have well teleported them eight or nine centuries in the past, and nothing would have changed. Those men were their own ancestors. Ancestors who had fought their own way through the world. Ancestors who had wielded those same swords, sinking them in the bodies of countless enemies. Those knights…

«They say there’s nothing more scary than a platoon of knights ready to wage war. Seeing such a display you can understand why dozens of battles have been won just because the other army has routed, frightened by the mere presence of the knights»

Observing Lothar, Katrine slightly frowned. The Archangel hadn’t told anything special, and his tone had been just the same as always. But at the same time, she knew he had just tried to be of help. He had somehow sensed her unrest… and he had done something to break the spell which was trapping her. He… he could have done nothing, letting her cover herself of ridiculous in front of the knights. He hadn’t. For a brief moment, the young Princess wondered why, but then she simply smiled.

«I had heard of them»

«The talons… yes, I can imagine, my Lady. But I suppose seeing them is slightly different»

Katrine was right on the point to answer when he simply offered her his own arm, beginning to descend the staircase. Silently, she moved at his side. Strangely enough, when her hand touched his, she felt a bit safer.

New Irem – The Fortress – The Council Hall
Three hours later

«With that, I suppose I have nothing more to say. Now, my Lady, unless you feel you have something to add, I’d like to be excused. Many things require my full attention»

Katrine stared, unable to speak. The Grand Duke’s sentence had been nothing else but a polite formality, but his tone was clearly stating he wouldn’t have listened to anything else and he hadn’t the slightest intention to further prolong the meeting. In the end, he wouldn’t have heard anything, given the fact she hadn’t spoken at all during the last ten minutes… the time the Grand Duke seemed to have destined to the young Empress.

«Very well. I thank you, my Lady. I’m sure Count De Corde will be at your full disposal for any needs of yours»

Slightly bowing, the Duke left the room, closing the door behind his back. They were alone Just her and the man who seemed to have just been appointed as her bodyguard. Who seemed almost as embarrassed and shocked as her.

«I would just say Lord Reziel didn’t…»

«Major… Count or whatever you want me to call you… there’s no need to arrange something polite to say. Lord Reziel did actually mean both what he has said… and what he has implicitly told me. He doesn’t like this thing… just as I don’t. But there’s nothing we can do to prevent it to happen. We’ll live with our fates… but we’ll not waste our time pretending we’re happy. So…»

«Just Lothar will work»

«What?» asked Katrine, interrogatively raising an eyebrow.

«You can call me just Lothar, my Lady. Probably it’s unnecessary and not completely appropriate… but well, I’m not too used to titles. Nobody calls me Count, anyhow. And I’m not trained to answer at Major, considering we Archangels do not use the rank references too often. Therefore… Lothar will work»

Frowning, Katrine nodded hesitantly. What was that? An embarrassed way to say her he would have tried to do something to alleviate her situation? It didn’t make sense at all… but in the end, that man was the only one who was trying. The meeting with the Duke had been ice-cold… and the man named Lachdanan had done nothing to hide the simple fact he already hated her. After all, a kind person seemed a rare thing, in the city. Smiling, the Empress sighed.

«So… where’s this castle the Duke was talking about?»

The Northern Grand Duchy – 55 miles SE of Caergoth
Ten days after

Castle Raelis wasn’t a castle at all, but considering the Seventeenth-century villa had been built over the medieval ruins of a former military structure the old name had survived the devastations of the centuries. Nobody would have described it as ‘magnificent’ or ‘really splendid’ or the similar. But whoever had lived in it for more than a single day would have agreed saying it was… quiet. Lost in the countryside and surrounded by grassy hills and thick forest, during the decades the place had mainly been either the hunting palace of the area’s leaders or far more simply a place where to enjoy a bit of rest. And that was exactly the reason which had convinced Grand Duke Elistar Reziel to accept it as an homage by the city of Caergoth when its citizens had requested to be annexed in the Northern Grand Duchy. Now, Caergoth itself was the most important city of the nation, with its thriving economy, its multiple banks, insurances and affairs. But for Duke Reziel, Caergoth was just the city near his own country-house… a country-house he now seemed to have lost.

«You know… I could even think the De Cordes are the only friendly people round here, Lothar» smiled the young Empress, leaning against the marble railing of the large terrace, her glance wandering all around the panorama.

«Has someone been misbehaved with you, my Lady?» asked the Archangel Major, slightly frowning.

Chuckling, she shook her head.

«No… of course. Everyone is kind and ready to help… but nobody really cares. They’ve received their orders, and they’re executing them without the slightest hesitation. But… nothing else. I almost feel… transparent. You and your mother seem to be the only exceptions. Ileana… she’s an incredible woman. I’d like to have had a mother like her»

«I… didn’t know she had come here to visit you, my Lady»

«She has… a couple of days ago. She was going to Caergoth… you know, the opening of the FPSian Embassy. She has thought it would have been kind… and it has. Obviously, Prince Lachdanan wasn’t happy at all. Man… he hates me. It’s not just he’s not happy. I think he would be happy to…»

«My Lady, Storm is a busy man and sometimes…»


«Uhm… Lachdanan. ‘Storm’ being his Archangel battle-name. I’m… we’ve grown up together, but I’m not really used to his ‘civil’ name. It’s…»

«Sure… Archangels. You seem some kind of secret brotherhood, sometimes. With your ceremonials, your comradeship, your…»

«We are, to a point. The other Archangels actually are our brothers. That’s something they hammer in throughout our whole training… a training which never really ends. When… when you spit your blood with the same persons from the age of five or so… well, I think there’s nothing you can do to avoid thinking about them in terms of relatives» smiled the man.

«I suppose you’re right» chuckled the Empress «So… now you’ll stay, won’t you?»

«At least for a while. I have to organize the surveillance, double-check the surroundings, be sure…»

«… that nothing will happen to your precious Empress» Katrine added bitterly.

«That’s it, my Lady»

The Northern Grand Duchy - Castle Raelis
Eight days after

«Well… let me say just one more thing, guys. She’s definitely better than what I had imagined. I mean… I won’t say she’s Tiger, of course…» chuckled the Archangels. ‘Tiger’ was the nickname the Iremian elites had given to Marilyn Janus, Ambassadress of Kangarawa in New Irem «… but she’s nice anyhow. She’s kind, respectful… and I’m beginning to think that slightly arrogant attitude of hers was just a pose»

Many soldiers nodded. That was something they had already noticed. When they had been assigned to the surveillance of the young Empress, many had complained, thinking it would have meant spending days and nights watching over a childish and annoying girl… but then, it had come out that wasn’t the situation. Katrine was anything but a blue-blood aristocrat looking at them from the heights of her nobility. Many of them had already had some chances to chat with her… in the beginning, with a bit of suspicion. Now, the ice seemed to have definitely melted, and the elites were beginning to honestly appreciate her. Obviously, nobody had yet gone that far to say it wouldn’t have such a pity to see her at the Duke’s side… but the initial diffidence had disappeared, at least.

«You know, Lizard… probably it wasn’t arrogance. Probably she was just on the defensive. I mean… men, she’s been forced to leave her home to come here and…»

«She’s not exactly been sent her to work as a slave inside a coal mine, Buffalo»

«Oh… shut up, Fox. You know what I mean. Ki’jo… she’s… twenty-seven? Twenty-five? And I’m pretty sure Dragonhunter hasn’t been too kind with her. Everyone here has experienced at least one eye-to-eye harsh discussion with him… and we can agree he can well be unpleasing, when he wants to»

This time, everyone nodded.

«And… come on… do we honestly believe he has been peace-and-love, during the short talk they’ve had back in NI? I mean… we all know that, if the Duke was planning to make such a step… well… it would have been another one, the chosen woman»

Once again, everyone nodded, their eyes instinctively moving on Lothar De Corde, who had been strangely silent, without taking part to the discussion anyhow. As he didn’t reply, Archangel Lieutenant Bruce ‘Buffalo’ MacAlister slightly frowned. He had been an Archangel for almost thirty years… and he was good enough at sensing one of his men was bothered. Technically, Major De Corde wasn’t one of his men,as he happened to be the commander in chief of the mission… other than number four of all the Iremian Archangels. But then, Buffalo had known the man since he was a brat. He has seen him climbing the command ladder, becoming the natural leader and the incredibly good soldier he was right now. Yes… no chances for him to be wrong. Phantom was upset… and that wasn’t good news at all. The older Lieutenant will have had to chat with his young commander as soon as possible.

The Northern Grand Duchy - Castle Raelis
Three days after

«I would have been happy to discuss this idea with you, Major De Corde… had I had the chance to get in touch with you at all, during the last five days. But considering you’ve always been either busy or away, I honestly think your remarks are definitely inappropriate. Therefore…»

«With all due respect…»

«No respect is needed, Major, be it due or undue. I will reach Solanthus International, with or without you. That is your only call. And please note I’m almost late, so I ask you to take your decision as quick as possible. Otherwise, I’ll be glad to hear it when I’ll have come back!» cried the Empress, her face becoming red of both anger and irritation.

Biting his own tongue, Lothar De Corde nodded and rigidly bowed. Without even answering, he walked towards the door, turning on his comm link.

«Phantom. Lady Eindhoven has to be escorted at Solanthus International. Standard route… make sure everyone is contacted. We’re expecting a plane from Michelsland… ETA 10:45. Yes… we’re in a hurry. No, we do not have a code to identify the…»

«E-N-D-1-7-8-Z» stated a voice behind his back. When the Archangel turned, trying to incinerate her with a glance, Katrine ironically smiled. «Had you asked…»

«Uh… yes, we do have the code. END178Z. Full clearance… and make sure they’ll be able to arrange a suitable… I do not care how!»

When the man left the room slamming the door, Katrine chuckled. He was so funny, sometimes.

The Northern Grand Duchy - Castle Raelis
Later that evening

Ready to enter her room, Alexandra Torvaen stopped, turning towards the Archangel who was escorting her.

«Lord De Corde… be patient with me just as you’d be with an old aunt… and allow me a confidence»

«You’re anything but old, my Lady»

Smiling amusedly, Alexandra gently shook her head.

«I’m old enough to have been around for a while… and to have seen a lot of things, Lord De Corde. According to Katrine’s tale, my story and my position are very similar to your mother’s… a woman I’ll have to meet as soon as possible. However… Count, Katrine is different» ignoring the Archangel’s perplexed glance, the Michelslandian Lady went on «Sometimes she behaves like a child… and we’ve seen it at least a couple of times, today. But don’t be fooled. She’s not. Just give her a chance»

«Lady Torvaen, I’m just the commander of her escort. I’m not supposed to give chances to anyone. I have a job to do… I’ll do my best to do it. If there’s something wrong with the way I do it, Lady Katrine will just have to complain and I’ll be immediately replaced. As you can see, there’s no chances problem, here»

Grinning, the woman nodded. The man had rose to the bait. She honestly thought it would have been far more difficult. As she had suspected, there was a problem.

The Northern grand Duchy – Solanthus
The countryside behind Castle Raelis – Two months later

Enjoying the crackling sound of the leaves they were walking onto, Lachdanan thought Reziel was indeed right: the Archangels back at the castle had been seemed not only surprised to see the two Commanders, but even… well, it wasn’t easy to describe. Embarrassed, however, would have probably been a fairly correct word. The strange things was it didn’t make any sense. Theirs wasn’t an official visit. They were just passing by after having had a short meeting with the civilian security forces in Solanthus. They had no other purpose but to meet Lothar… and, incidentally, the young Empress.

When Reziel’s mobile rang, breaking the sensation of muffled silence, the young Prince thought he would have been indeed happy to see his brother-in-arms again. It hadn’t been easy to stay without him for two whole months. Without the person he had spent his whole military life with… a person who was now forced to waste his time and his skills to be the watchdog of a young girl come out of Michelsland just… just to bother and be a disturbance. A disturbance who now seemed to be in need of learning how to ride a horse. Ironic. Lothar De Corde, one of the best officers of the Corp, spending his days teaching someone how to ride. Completely useless, above all when his skills would have been greatly needed… well, everywhere. In Port Jennifer, for example. Or in Caergoth, to train the local militia. Or in the south-east, to take care of the anarchists as he was doing before that foolishness had begun.

But no… here he was, following the evolutions of the young Amazon. Paying non attention to Reziel’s phone call, the Colonel observed the horse following the uncertain orders of its rider. Well… no, it was a bit too ungenerous. She wasn’t too bad. She was years from being a perfect knight, but her level was indeed more than acceptable. Right now, the horse was following her commands, moving right near the instructor. Smiling, he observed Lothar patting the side of the animal, saying something to the young Princess.

Grinning, Lachdanan allowed himself a smile, because he knew pretty well what his brother was probably saying. After all, Lothar was a perfectionist, and sure has hell he was pointing at tons of errors the woman had obviously made. He himself could remember… suddenly, he stared. Still mounting, Katrine von Eindhoven had leant forward towards Lothar and…

When the kiss came, Lachdanan hoped for a brief moment that the phone call was important enough to get Reziel’s whole attention. But when he turned towards the Duke, he immediately understood it wasn’t the case.

The Northern Grand Duchy – New Irem
Lothar De Corde’s rooms – Two days after

Lachdanan’s face was red of rage… or probably, red of a mix of different feelings: rage, bemusement, astonishment, incredulity and a number of others. On the contrary, the other man was there, sitting on the windowsill and looking outside the window.

«She was Reziel’s woman, Lothar! You couldn’t…» cried the New Iremian Colonel.

«No, Lachdanan. Not his woman. His promised bride, probably… but not his woman. He doesn’t love her, just as she doesn’t love him. I understand…»

«Don’t play with words, Lothar! Don’t play… because verbal acrobatics won’t be of help… of any help, when you’ll…»

«I’m not looking for excuses, Lachdanan. I’m definitely aware of…»

«Aware?!? Aware, Lothar? What the hell are you aware of? Aware of the fact Reziel is entitled to accuse you of treason? Aware of the fact this is probably the one crime which can bring you straight to a death sentence? Aware of the fact I am the First Blade of Irem… the man who’ll have to vibrate the blow against you? Or are you aware of the shame you’ve brought on your name… on your mother, on your brother?»


«Lachdanan the hell, Lothar! You’ve not only been a fool: you’ve been so selfish I can barely believe we’re talking about you! You’ve… you’ve acted as… Lothar-centric. Nobody else. Just Lothar»

«Lothar and Katrine, my brother. Not just me. I love her»

«Crap, Lothar! Just crap! You’ve met her… how long ago? Three months? Do not play the two of us around… this is not love. This is…»

«How much time have you needed to understand you loved Mare, Lachdanan?» There was no derision, in Lothar De Corde’s eyes. The Archangel Colonel stared, understanding his friend’s point. He was right. Definitely right. He had understood what he was feeling for the Kangarawan diplomat in the very moment he had met her, some one year ago. Sighing, he leant against the wall, rage and anger disappearing from his face, replaced by a deep sadness.

«Lothar… I’ll do whatever in my power to…»

«Lachdanan… I know you love me. And I know Reziel does, too. What I’ve done… I’m really aware of its implications. I just couldn’t avoid it. Mainly because I’ve not wanted it. Katrine is the best thing I’ve had in my whole life, aside the Archangels. I cannot imagine… Lach, I’m not looking for forgiveness. I’m ready to bear the burden of my choices»

The New Iremian prince nodded gravely. He knew that. But at the same time he knew that many other people weren’t. Not Lothar’s mother, not Katrine, not Arian… probably not even Reziel. Sure as hell, not he himself.

The Northern Grand Duchy – New Irem
Kadras’ rooms – Later that day

Observing the translucency of the crystal glass, Kadras Lordameer seemed to lose himself in the rainbow iridescences for a while, but despite that the Grand Duke stood silent, being aware his old mentor’s mind was working fast even if his appearance seemed to say just the contrary. In the end, the old man raised with fatigue and moved in front of the window. Reziel tensed. That was what Kadras usually did when he was going to give bad news.

«My friend, I cannot»

Raising an eyebrow, the Grand Duke lanced interrogatively ay Kadras’ back, but didn’t say anything. His possible counter-question was so obvious there was no doubt the answer was already on its way. And indeed…

«Do not misunderstand me. I’m not washing my hands leaving you alone to handle the issue. Not at all… but this is something you have to solve yourself. You cannot look for advice, nor you can ask for counsels. We aren’t in your shoes, Reziel. Our analysis… any analysis, would give you our viewpoints. But this things is so personal each of us do see it under a different perspective. Your own drama is that it’s you the one who’ll have to make up his mind… it’s you the one who’ll have to speak for or against Lothar De Corde»

«Kadras… I love him. But this… this is something…»

«I’m aware, my old pupil. I’m aware, and that’s why I do not envy you at all. Whichever your decision, someone will criticize you. There’s no chance to avoid it. But in the end… that’ not your main problem. Your main problem is the conflict which is boiling inside you. The man versus the Archangel»

«He has betrayed…»

«Reziel… there’s no need for you to convince me. I see the reasons of the man… and I see the reasons of the Archangel. It’s you the one you have to convince»