Four Times Lucky

Al-Salarqa Airport
July 18, 2022

“Twelfth-century, Aikkian make. Royal symbols, probably taken from the palace during the Sack of Highdrilian,” Saga glanced up, “Am I wrong, Your Grace?”

“You have a good eye, Duchess,” Ulrika said drily. The Protocol-Captain briefly intruded to place a platter of teacups on the table and regarded Tynam as one might a sleeping bear before respectfully retreating.

“Hardly,” Saga snorted. She pulled her eyes off the glass-encased engraved dagger that hung on the wall, “I have the rest of the set at home. It did have a lovely sword to match once, but alas… That has been gifted to a greater cause.”

“Returned to a deserving place, surely,” the Queen said lightly. Credit where it was due, Tynam had been willing enough to see the Aikkian Blades sent back to their rightful home. That the Duchess might now be calling in favors over that was less heartening.

“As you say,” Saga said politely. She carefully picked a steaming cup off its saucer and raised it to the blade, “This one, I think, is where it ought to be. A good-luck charm for travel, depicting the old spirits of the sky.”

‘Where it ought to be,’ as it turned out, was the Royal Flotilla aircraft that now sat comfortably ensconced in an airport hanger. Somehow Ulrika doubted this was what the Aikkian artisans ever had in mind when they’d forged the dagger, but in truth she had never paid it much mind before.

“Perhaps I should gift it to you, Duchess Tynam,” Ulrika said, “It seems you intend to be leaving us soon.”

“And yet it seems we will have a long goodbye,” Saga smirked, but it was clear that they were on to more serious matters now. For the first time in her life, Ulrika found herself wishing she had the white monstrosity of the Drifting Throne at her back. The chair had a way of diminishing any who sat in it, but the Queen would have very much liked the authority it projected.

The two had offered their well-wishes for the Emira’s health and slipped away after that embarrassing little display at the dinner. It seemed silly to return all the way to the royal aircraft just to continue a conversation, but these were, they both agreed, sensitive topics. For Ulrika, they were beginning to be urgent ones as well - She did not need to understand the intricacies of Leidenstad’s relationship with Bingol to be troubled by the knowledge that her Government had clearly known little of what had been transpiring in the halls of Tynam. This would in all likelihood be their last chance to get ahead of any news.’

“But aye,” the Duchess took a sip of her tea, “That is the long and short of it.”

Ulrika found idly herself dropping one sugarcube after another into her cup as she thought.

“I am beginning to wonder,” the Queen mused, “If you have merely a fondness for status or a willful blindness to danger.”

Saga seemed to consider the remark for a moment, “You wound me, Your Grace,” she said gravely, “I will admit, t’was but a game at first, but I am not wholly made of ice… or fire, for that matter. But I am given to understand that the Drifting Throne’s time is valuable, so if I may I will proceed to more practical matters than my romantic life.”

“It is the only practical matter in my view, Duchess Tynam,” Ulrika said sharply, “This is some appearance you have decided to make. I do not often expect to traverse half the globe to find Cryrian aristocracy engaging itself to foreign dictators!”

“Would that Count Wahlström bothers with an engagement next he visits Marago,” Saga muttered, and then shook her head, “With all respects, Your Grace, the Drifting Throne’s rights do not extend into my private life. But I will apologize for not informing you of my intention to attend the coronation. I, at times, consider myself to be clever, and frequently I am in error.”

The Queen would have liked to dismiss the apology as part of the polite facade, but felt it to be disappointingly genuine instead.

Brilliant. That means she wants things.

“The Drifting Throne’s rights extend to wherever you have entangled us, Duchess Tynam,” Ulrika pressed on, “You are Cryrian.”

Saga nodded, and the two watched each other silently. Both understood the way forward, but for once Ulrika wished to force the Duchess to speak.

“Then we must rectify this,” Saga said simply, “And see that you are… Adequately disentangled.”

“Citizenship is an oath, Saga Tynam,” Ulrika dropped one last cube in her cup and stirred, “What makes you think I will release you from yours?”

The corner of the Duchess’ mouth twitched in amusement.

“Because it is easier than doing otherwise.”

Ulrika grunted to herself. That, she could not argue with. The Queen raised the cup to her own lips and drank, though by now the tea had attained the consistency of a sweet syrup.

“Do you understand what this will mean?” she demanded, “You will no longer be one of us. Nor will you be protected.”

If that had hurt Tynam somewhere, she certainly did well to hide it, “Was I protected in Charlottesborg, Your Grace?” the Duchess asked darkly, “Or Gazny Khot? I am aware of the risks, and the consequences therein. I’ve lived a life full of both.”

Ulrika nodded, and looked out a darkened window thoughtfully.

“When will it be?” she finally asked.

“When all is done and settled,” Saga said, “There are yet matters I must attend to.”

“The Första Kammaren seat. The Tynam Egendom” Ulrika listed off aloud, “Titles.”

“The first will go to Eva,” Saga responded, “The other two can follow upon my departure from this mortal coil.”

Ulrika’s eyes narrowed, “You say you are disentangling yourself from our affairs. By what right will you dictate seat assignments in the Riksdag? To a related party you influence, no less?”

“Consider it a quid pro quo instead of a dictate, if you wish,” the Duchess said easily, “Your Ministries will no doubt be very concerned as to the future of the Tynam Egendom, and I shall cooperate with their concerns. But my House shall have its due, and what does not come with me shall go to them. That much, I owe.”

Saga paused for a moment, “And perhaps, consider it a gift. Tynam enjoys few voices in the Riksdag, it is good for everyone that it should have one it will respect.”

“I shall take it under advisement pending discussions with the Household Ministry,” Ulrika decided, though she knew the matter was as good as settled. Upper Chamber seats were not worth fighting over, not when it meant receiving assurances that Tynam’s holdings would not have their management disrupted by foreign influence.

Though when it all still lies within the same House…

Problems for more skilled individuals to deal with, the Queen decided. The bait to engage the Duchess on the specifics of Egendom politics was there, and once upon a time Ulrika might have taken it… But she now knew better than to seal agreements on things she knew nothing of.

One last thing.

“You know what people will say?” Ulrika asked.

“Only the ones who do not matter.”

“I am very much inclined to agree with them.”

Saga thought about that, “Yes,” she said, “I would suppose so.”

Karsholm Palace
July 19, 2022

“I’m sorry Ambassador Jenssen, but I was given to understand that it is normally the Foreign Ministry that informs the Throne, not the other way around.”

“And I am given to understand that surveilling the Crown Prince’s bedchamber would have been rather far outside my purview.”

Telephones, Maravel felt, were a wonderful piece of ingenuity lacking but one key feature - He could not reach through the receiver and slap the fellow on the other end.

It had been practically the middle of the night when the Queen’s dispatch had reached the Foreign Ministry, and it had not made its way up to him until the next morning. With the time difference to Bingol, he hadn’t been able to reach the Ambassador till later that evening. And now they sat in his office, himself, the Permanent Secretary, and Jenssen chirping through the speakerphone.

“Well, I think we can all agree that we were very clueless,” Agnes cut in with a voice as dry as the Älemsi steppe, “So let’s rectify that. What was happening, why was it happening, and how long has it been going on?”

Maravel nodded appreciatively to the Permanent Secretary, but it was Jennsen who spoke next.

“I believe I can answer your last question,” his voice crackled from across the world, “Duchess Tynam was invited to a private lunch with the Crown Prince at the C-PACK Conference in Gezer. That was last October.”

“And you thought nothing of this then?” the Foreign Minister demanded.

“I remarked upon it in my report at the time, but there was little to think of it. It was not the first time Tynam had met with foreign officials, and there was no reason to believe this was anything more than the same.”

Maravel tapped a finger contemplatively on his mahogany table, and then pointedly turned to Agnes, “I saw no such report.”

When the Permanent Secretary responded, it was with all the patient condescension of a career civil servant speaking to their Minister.

“If we placed every such report on your desk, it would break,” she said, “Though I would wish the Ambassador had followed up on the matter all the same. Did you not think to inquire as to the nature of the conversation afterward, Ambassador?”

“There was little opportunity to do so. I was on a flight to Leidenstad soon after.”

Cheap fucking excuse, the Foreign Minister thought sourly. He knew the Ambassador to be too competent to accidentally lose track of something like this. No doubt the man had been warned off, or perhaps Jenssen had simply decided he was better off not probing at all. The man’s cowardice was going to cost them, but there would be time for reprisal later.

The three took stock of this, and it was Agnes who spoke again.

“Well, there are at least three separate agencies that should be aware of when high-ranking Cryrian citizens begin entangling themselves with foreign governments in this manner,” the Permanent Secretary grimaced, “And as much as I hate to say it, we are one of them. But I do not think we are alone in this lapse, even if we are alone in having had the opportunity to avoid it.”

Which means the blame will come here.

“The what and the why are about to become questions for the Securitate to answer,” Maravel mused, “Though the Queen seems inclined to take the matter at face value. Tynam means to marry the Crown Prince.”

“No accounting for taste, I suppose,” Agnes muttered, “What’s possessed her?”

The Count of Grimvik sighed, and one hand idly set awhirl the globe that sat on his desk. Around and around it went - The massive purple blob that was Packilvania lazily hurtling by, and the little red speck of Tynam dancing madly about the north pole. A cold and bitter place even by the standards of Grimvik. He could remember the first time he’d ventured up to Synmingborg, as a passing Naval Infantry officer invited for Ademar’s Mass dinner by the old Duke. Somewhere in the back of Maravel’s mind, he recalled a face smirking at him through the Stone Gardens, soon followed by a snowball to the face and peals of childish laughter.

The more things change…

After a moment he realized that the Permanent Secretary’s question had been directed at him, and he had no good answer - Not ones that would not make him out to be a paranoiac, anyways. For some, all the world was a game and the Duchess had certainly shown that time and again.

“I think we will have long, hard discussions with Duchess Tynam on the subject as soon as the celebrations in Sayyed are over,” the Foreign Minister said instead, “We should know the moment she travels, or reenters the country. But this is getting too big for us alone… I did not think there would come a day when I would need to raise a citizen’s romantic life to the Cabinet, but here we apparently are.”

“Best do it quickly,” Agnes nodded, “If the House of Tynam is not already under surveillance as potential foreign agents, then it very much ought to be now. And if this is indeed happening, then there are bigger problems.”

“Tynam has assets and holdings that should not be allowed to fall under foreign management,” the Ambassador agreed.

“And it will take a small army to even begin scrutinizing all of that,” the Permanent Secretary concluded.

Maravel sighed, “Then we should see to assembling one. We have until the twenty-fifth to play catchup. Then the coronation ends and Tynam resurfaces.”

“Gjöl is still with the Queen,” Agnes added, “I have asked him to manage any future interaction with Tynam there and to report back to me directly - Though I will hope Her Majesty cooperates in this.”

“We must also account for what Bingol is hoping to gain from this,” Jenssen interjected.

“Yes,” said Maravel, “See what you can find from your end. Do be more vigilant this time, Ambassador.”

The Foreign Minister let the barb hang before continuing, “We should also prepare for the possibility of a public announcement soon. It is clear that this matter is not intended to be a secret for long now.”

“It could lead to unwelcome conclusions abroad if anyone should think the Government is supporting this union,” Agnes noted, “And trying too hard to distance the Kingdom from the Sultanate may in turn undo our own work in building that relationship.”

“And relations with Bingol work best when the electorate is not forced to pay too much attention to them,” Maravel rubbed his face, “Lundberg already had reservations… Alright, fine. This is a matter of the Duchess’ private life, the Government does not involve itself in peoples’ marital concerns. That will be our position, see to it that our people are primed on it.”

There was little left to discuss after that, and soon Jenssen had hung up, and the Permanent Secretary took her leave. The spinning globe gently came to a halt, and as Tynam vanished behind the Meridian ring, Maravel could hear the echoes of laughter.

Ambassadorial Residence, Cryrian Embassy Bingol
July 20, 2022

“Twenty years I’ve spent in this country. More before that studying it. In that time, I’ve learned the language, something of its customs, perhaps even its people. I might even go so far as to say I’ve come to like it.”

A sip of fine Volscine wine slid down Jenssen’s throat, “But the food? The food still makes me feel like I could shit through a screen door.”

The Serramali chuckled, and carefully picked up a caviar-slathered cracker, “Don’t tell me,” he said, “Great Sturgeon?”

“Straight from Talvere,” Jenssen responded with a hint of pride. The species was so protected these days that it was technically a minor offense to export the stuff for private consumption, but…

“An Ambassadorial budget comes with some privileges. You should know, I suppose.”

Asha Tavade was, after all, one of those rare few to have made a real career for himself in the Foreign Ministry despite his non-Cryrian roots. And from the looks of it, the private sector was suiting him just as well now.

“Yes, I suppose I should,” Tavade mused. The cracker vanished into his mouth, “And here you are spending it on me. I’m touched.”

“Don’t be,” Jenssen said humorlessly, “I expect to be leaving this posting before long. I might as well enjoy it with an old friend.”

“Oh? Now that I am sorry to hear,” Tavade remarked, though his lack of surprise all but confirmed Jenssen’s suspicions of his own future. For all that he might have departed the Ministry, Asha probably knew more about what happened in Leidenstad than any sitting Ambassador.

“But truly Ambassador, you should have told me sooner. I’d have at least seen that you had a proper Packilvanian dinner before you left,” Tavade’s lips twitched, “I know a lovely place in Gezer. Skydeck, I think is the name…”

Jenssen’s face hardened.

“… But I suppose you’re already familiar with the place,” Tavade concluded wryly, “Come now Stig, we’ve been dancing around it all night. Am I here as a friend? Or to answer for the Duchess?”

“VN Strategic Communications has been Tynam’s pet project for a decade now,” Jenssen shrugged, “And you’ve been very involved in forming their partnerships here. I thought it would be worthwhile to feel you out on the matter. As a friend… and a loyal subject of the Crown.”

And now I know you were aware of her activities here.

Tavade snorted, “VNSC is not a dating app, Ambassador. We have no involvement in this, and in truth Maravel chooses to be more worried about this than he should be. But as a friend… I would not worry about these things. Tynam found Prince Charming and is going to be Leidenstad’s brainworm of the week, but we should both know her sort get to walk away from these things. It is our kind who must deal with more practical matters.”

The Serramali picked up another cracker, “I do not think you leave this posting of your own will, am I wrong?”

Tavade bit into the cracker as he waited for a response.

“It is possible, to do everything right and still get burned,” Jenssen finally said, “I will admit, I am sorry to have to go. But it is, as you say, the way of things.

The Ambassador smirked, “Perhaps I’ll teach.”

“Well, those who can’t do…”

Tavade raised a hand, “But you most certainly can do, Ambassador. And for a man of your talents, I think we can do better.”

Jenssen gave no response. He could feel that this was about to become one of those conversations. The potentially incriminating kind.

But he didn’t stop the man either.

“You know, Ambassador,” Tavade went on, “The Duchess appreciated your discretion regarding the Conference. And VNSC would certainly value your experience. Perhaps more so than the Foreign Ministry currently does.”

“Stop. Stop right there,” Jenssen shook his head, “Else I’m going to have to fill out an awful lot of paperwork for being offered a bribe.”

“Is it a bribe, if you’ve already done everything that is needed of you?” Tavade grinned, “As I said, the Duchess appreciated your discretion.”

And he’d be damned if it wouldn’t be a tempting offer. Even without a number attached to it yet, Jenssen knew Tavade did not shortchange people - And having a number attached at this point very much would be a cause for concern. It was certainly much better than being discarded by the likes of Maravel. But even so…

“The Duchess’ feelings will not matter for long,” Jenssen said carefully, “Leidenstad will force her to dispose of her ownership in VNSC.”

Indeed, the matter was almost certainly at the top of the Foreign Ministry’s list. The company dealt with too many sensitive matters and hired too many important people for any other outcome to be acceptable.

“My offer is supported by Miss Westergren,” Tavade affirmed, “As I said, Tynam can vanish into the sunset, but the rest of us have more practical problems. Packilvania is an important market. Expertise is needed. It would be difficult for anyone to object.”

Jenssen considered the matter.

“The Foreign Ministry expects my cooperation in investigating Tynam’s activities,” he finally said, “And I mean to provide it. This cannot be compromised.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it Ambassador,” Tavade said gravely, “You are a man who knows when to ask questions, and when to say nothing. With such a skillset, I am sure your investigation will come to the correct and proper conclusion.”

The rotating tray held one last roe-covered cracker, and Tavade spun it around to Jenssen.

“We are all, naturally, loyal subjects of the Crown.”

Burei, Near Gazny Khot
July 1, 2022

“It’s like… ah, what’s that lovely term… the uncanny valley!”

“Gan, what the hells are you talking about?”

The two men trudged through the snow-covered courtyard, bundled up in their thick green-gold shapans. Gazny Nachin was sporting a lovely new fur hat, his grandmother had spent all winter making it just for him. It kept the cold off his head, but it sadly did not keep his companion’s incessant musings out of his ears.

“Uncanny valley,” Ganbold explained, “You know, like, ah… the robot they made in Leidenstad!”

“Gan, please…”

“No, shut up, I know you saw the bloody robot, you’re always getting those ridiculous magazines,” Ganbold pressed on, “Anyways, it’s when something not-really-human is just human enough to be creepy, you know?”

Nachin shook his head, “Gan, please don’t tell me you’re scared of Misha, she is in a lab on the other side of the continent…”

“What? No, yes I know that obviously… I mean, that’s usually how it starts, but anyways, it’s not about the robot,” Ganbold gestured at the sprawling manor behind them, “This, right here? This is the uncanny valley of architecture!”

Nachin sighed and looked back, his breath misting before his eyes. Burei was indeed a strange sort of thing. The gentle, curved roofs were reminiscent of the temples in Yul, the color scheme too. Outlying, cylinder-shaped buildings with conical tops all but mimicked the traditional yurts of Gazny Khot. But the way it sprawled out with wasteful abandon, and the overlarge courtyard and cobblestone pathways - That was all Cryrian.

And Burei was cold, in a way that no good Älemsi home ever was. From outside, the isolated mansion hardly resembled a residence. High perimeter walls topped with razorwire, armed soldiers bearing red Arna Group armbands manning watchtowers and patrolling the surrounding forests. Perhaps most of all, there was no real occupant here to give it life - The owner came and went as she pleased, and for most of the year Burei was little more than another asset on Tynam’s balance sheet.

No, Burei was a fortress, through and through. A redoubt conveniently beyond Cryrian jurisdictions, far from the public eye and deep within the friendly administration of Gazny Khot. The sort of place rich assholes could come and be unbothered.

Not that Nachin could complain. Arna paid better than the National Army, and usually involved less frostbite.

“It’s an homage,” he insisted.

“It’s a fucking eyesore,” Ganbold retorted, “Look at this place! Ugly as sin and pretending it isn’t. Money doesn’t buy taste.”

“It certainly buys me shutting the hell up about it,” Nachin grunted, “Now, where was this bloody ghost of yours?”

Last night’s snowstorm had been nothing special, by Älemsi standards. It was getting to be that time of the year now, when these things came by regularly even this far south. Usually that meant it was time to spend your time somewhere nice and warm, but Ganbold had insisted that he’d seen someone skulking through the courtyard on the security feed - As if the cameras could ever see shit in the snow, and as if anyone would be crazy enough to try navigating that freezing darkness all alone. But Gan knew how to make a fuss, and so here they were, crunching through the snow in this empty corner of the compound.

“Here,” Gan pointed ahead, “By the Weeping Woman statue. I tell you, the bastard knew how to stick to the shadows, but not from these eyes…”

Nachin just groaned inwardly, “You’re going to give me the rest of whatever shitty aragh you were drinking last night.”

The pair made their way over to the mournful statue, its stone hands clasped over its eyes. Now that was Cryrian alright, through and through. No sense of style at all.

No sign of anything else either.

“There, now what?” Nachin demanded, “Shall we ask her stone ladyship if she saw anything, hm? I…”

He trailed off, and his eyes settled on something.

“Was that always there?”

Gods, let it be so.

An unnatural mound stood out from the landscape. With one gloved hand, Nachin dusted off the snow until he met the fabric of the small, one-person tent buried beneath.

“Oi,” he said quietly, “Someone’s been sleeping here.”

“Who’d be mad enough to…”

For once, Gan didn’t have time to finish a thought as the men were soon barking warnings into their radio. A few moments later, the estate was alive with the shouts of the other guards and barking hounds. Further inspections would show the hidden structure to be identical to a series of multispectral camouflage sniper tents manufactured in Cryria for Rotantic warfare, though given their wide export across the Negdel this meant little. Nestled seamlessly into the snow as it was, there had been little chance of detecting it. Further queries regarding how such a thing had been brought past the layers of security outside the compound pointed fingers towards a maintenance team that had been rebuilding the damaged east wing of the complex. The group had departed from its latest visit earlier that day, and the contracted company reported that all the team members had unexpectedly resigned soon afterwards and vanished without collecting their final paychecks.

As all this and more transpired in the snowy hills outside Gazny Khot, a phone rang over the Arkian Sea.

Somewhere South of Talvere
July 2, 2022

A phone slammed down over the Arkian Sea.

“Tell me Jochi, where were you, when the Crisis started?”

The man paused to think back through the years. There was no need to ask which Crisis - For those who had lived through it, the word could only ever invoke one.

“In 2002, I was a part of Minister Tarasovich’s SPS detail,” he finally said, “After the Ellesborg Mafia whispered his name.”

“Didn’t they get him, in the end?”

Jochi raised his hands in a shrug, “Not while I was there.”

“I was in the Legion then. Charlottesborg,” Saga smirked, “Miserable place, but I think coming home was worse. Do you remember when the Älemsi started that little dustup over Yeralik?”

The Älemsi. It always felt strange to say, but she was careful to say it. Every good Tynami was. A subtle verbal distinction, as if to show that they were proper Cryrians, apart from their cousins in the Negdel.

“I remember,” Jochi said.

The aircraft’s hum filled the silence. Outside the window there was little to see, save for black skies and black seas. They would soon overfly the lights of Talvere, or so Saga estimated.

“Did they…”

“I was Kapan,” Jochi shrugged again.

‘Of course they had.’

“There were a lot of us in the Legion, of course,” Saga realized that she had slipped from Cryrian into an Älemsi dialect. That was fine - There were no prying ears on her aircraft, Jochi made sure of that for her. But this was a conversation for them alone, and only they would understand it no matter the language.

“Kapan, Gazny, Altani… Damn near every one of the Forty-Two, and Tynami as well,” the Duchess snorted, “Distinctions without a difference, as far as Leidenstad cared. I suppose I shouldn’t blame them-”

“I shouldn’t, but I can.”

Saga shot her aide a sharp, warning look, and then continued, “Well, we all got put on leave, of course. Recuperation after our little moment of heroism in Charlottesborg, apparently. We were all bloody heroes, you see.”

Drip any more sarcasm and she’d be able to swim in it.

“But that was a nice enough sort of fiction we could tell ourselves. Better than admitting our own commanders didn’t trust us worth a damn now that things were going bad with the Negdel,” the Duchess made no effort to hide the bitterness now, twenty years after the fact.

The plane shuddered through some passing turbulence, and the table between them rattled gently. Saga glanced out the window again. Her jetlagged eyes caught pinpricks of light glinting in the distance. Otede perhaps? Or else Valngi. Were it daytime the green landscape of the Garden Island would be spreading itself across the horizon now.

“Did you hear from Mister Taichu too?”

Jochi frowned, “I was reassigned to the training facility at Tarva. That was all, though.”

Saga grunted, “We must have been special then. A few of the lads from the Legion received notices that they were under investigation for espionage.”

“The Säkerhetspolisen does not send notices for that. Not unless it’s a boot through your door.”

The Duchess offered a humorless smile, “Of course not. No, see they were personally contacted by an intelligence attaché from the Älemsi embassy with warnings of an impending SÄPO arrest. He was willing to help them defect before that happened, you see.”

“Bullshit.”

“Most sting operations usually are,” Saga said acridly, “Taichu was a SÄPO man - Or the invention of one anyways. They wanted to see who would run.”

Jochi said something unrepeatable.

“Quite,” the Duchess agreed drily, “The General Staff was absolutely furious when they found out. Good careers went up in bloody flames. Centuries of trust built up within the Legion smashed to pieces thanks to some bright-eyed counterintelligence savant who thought they were being clever. But if you’ve already decided that someone’s a traitor, might as well make them commit treason and prove it, eh?”

The plane had stopped shaking, and the lights of Valngi were left in the distance. Saga picked up the phone again and let it hang limply from her hand. A dull tone played out.

“This here?” she said, “Same bullshit. Rattle the cage a little, make sure I find out. See if I do something stupid.”

“Only now, they’re doing it in my fucking house .”

In Burei, no less. Oh, they’d known how to make it sting - Grimstad, Evert, or whichever Securitate goon was doing Maravel’s hatchetwork today. Her little bastion in the snow would not be the same again.

Saga slammed the phone down again. This time the casing cracked, and received a baleful glare for its temerity. Being angry, she had learned, felt good. Angry got things done.

But for her, never the things that needed doing.

“There was never anything at Burei. Nothing that couldn’t be found more easily elsewhere, anyways,” the Duchess exhaled. Saga slumped back in her chair. Gods, she was tired. The sleep which had evaded her now hung like a heavy blanket.

“The bastards want to know how we react. Which secrets we try to hide. Make us do their damn jobs for them while they watch,” Saga finished, “Leidenstad needs me to make a mistake. Something to give them leverage. Well, to hells with them all.”

“This may not have been Leidenstad’s action,” Jochi observed.

Saga shrugged, “What does it change, even then? There is nothing to be done, but to stay the course.”

A moment passed, and then the Duchess laughed aloud, “They went all the way to Gazny Khot to do this. Zamira would bring me someone’s head if I asked.”

“The Governor would bring several heads, if she was asked nicely,” Jochi grimaced.

“But it would not be useful.”

“It might be a murder charge.”

Saga chuckled, “Yes. Yes, it might.”

The plane rumbled again in the air, and Saga suppressed a yawn.

Aysht , never could sleep on these flights,” she sighed, “And you learn to sleep through any damned thing in the… Ah, to hells with it, I’ve reminisced enough for one night,” Saga pushed herself off the armchair, “Call me if someone decides to shoot us down, yeah? I’ll have a few cutting remarks for them.”

Jochi grunted and turned his gaze back out the window. There across the unreachable distance, the towns of the Talveri coast gleamed like so many jewels in the darkness.

University of Tynam
July 3, 2022

The midnight bells rang, but the sun still did not set. Instead it hung low in the Tynami sky, a pallid orb that set the horizon afire as if the day had only just begun.

The final bell pealed through the campus, and the University returned to silence. Night had just become a new dawn. Soon the birds would begin to sing, but until then…

“If you keep doing that, you are going to fly away,” Evaline complained.

“Shut up, I’m cold!” Amish replied, a hint of desperation in his voice. The Serramali student furiously flapped his arms against the sides of his puffy snowjacket for warmth.

Eva burst out laughing at the sight of her Serramali friend trying to stay warm in the frigid Tynami weather. “Stay strong, O’rtoq ,” she grinned. “In two months, you’ll be in Talvere!”

“Storby,” he automatically corrected her. It was a small town just outside the southern city. Amish had received his offer there just months before his visa expired - Some small materials research firm. It wasn’t much, but they’d celebrated like he’d won the lottery anyways.

“Talvere is Talvere,” Evaline said dismissively, “Warm beaches and a sun that sets on time.”

Amish snorted in disbelief, “Warm beaches… Have you even seen the weather in that place? Thaer’s blood, you Tynami are all mad aren’t you?”

Eva smiled as they continued across the stone courtyard.

“And you,” Amish went on, “You’ll be in Leidenstad then?”

Evaline made a small sound of affirmation. The Leidestad School of Law - That had been confirmed months ago. But now… now she wondered what sort of reception she would find there. This was not something she would dampen her friend’s mood with, however.

“You will have to take the ferry sometime and visit me,” Amish chuckled. As they reached the entrance to the library. He fumbled with his access card before finally unlocking it.

“That I shall…” Eva trailed off when the door swung open to reveal the main hall. A familiar voice wound its way through the shelves and to her ears.

“Now, obviously even I can tell that academic discourse around northern Novaran, and particularly Älemsi culture and history, has been largely dominated by Cryrian views. But we will have to disagree on the effectiveness of these committees in…” Saga paused mid-sentence as Eva rounded the corner, then smiled and said, “Well, thank you for entertaining my ramblings at this late hour, Professor.”

Her aunt was seated at one of the study tables across from Timour Maulenev, one of the Älemsi Languages professors. Her ever present aide - Jochi or some such - Was leaning against a nearby shelf, looking half bored to death.

The academic took the hint, and stood up from his chair, “Some other time perhaps,” before departing with a nod to the two students. Saga waved lazily as he left before leaning back in her chair and turning to Eva.

“Cirina, this is some luck,” Saga said. Her tone was as patient and polite as ever, but she used Eva’s full Älemsi name, a sign of displeasure that made Eva feel like she was ten years old again and standing over the shards of that stupid antique vase.

“Wait…” Amish spoke up, startling Eva, “I recognize you… Lady from the portrait… You’re one of the trustees, aren’t you?”

“I suppose I am,” the Duchess said bemusedly. Eva couldn’t help but stifle a groan.

“Ah. Well, I suppose I’m honored!” Amish said with his painfully genuine enthusiasm.

“I suppose you would be,” Saga said thinly.

An awkward silence descended before Amish held up the book he’d been clutching, “Uh… I needed to return this… To the library.”

“Then you’d best hand it over, hadn’t you?” Saga holding out her palm.

“Right,” Amish muttered, doing just that. After a moment, he chuckled weakly. “Well, I guess I’ll see you in Storby?” he said to Eva before turning to leave.

“What’s in Storby?” Saga’s flinty voice cut in. Amish paused, “Oh, I got a job there,” he said.

Saga said nothing, and Eva just squeezed her eyes shut and mentally willed her friend to stop talking. This she’d seen a thousand times from her aunt - The painful, deliberate gaps in conversation that just waited for you to put something incriminating in them.

“At Miorne Industries,” Amish added.

“Ah,” Saga nodded, her smile widening into something eerily shark-like, “I understand they won the contract for the stealth corvette project?”

“Y-yes,” Amish stammered, suddenly looking nervous, “Apologies Miss, but I should run…”

“You should,” Saga said pleasantly, “Do give Mister Miorne my congratulations!”

Amish retreated without another word, and the Duchess scoffed softly. She turned the book over in her hands, “Introduction to Älemsi Languages,” she read aloud off the cover, “Man after my own heart… or someone’s anyways.”

“He was interested in learning,” Eva felt obligated to say.

“I can imagine,” Saga said drily, “Friend of yours?”

“After that display I’m sure he won’t be,” Eva said, unable to hide her irritation towards the Duchess.

“Hm,” Saga smirked, and waved the book at Jochi, “Do see that this gets put away. I’d hate to see the poor fellow get a fine.”

The man took the book and vanished into the maze of shelves, leaving the two alone at the table.

“At ease, soldier,” Saga drawled.

Eva let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, and Saga impatiently gestured to the empty chair. “What are you doing here?” Eva asked, moving around the table and taking the seat.

Saga arched a brow, “If you must know, I’m jetlagged as all hells, the sun wants to tell me it’s midday, and Professor Maulenev wanted to discuss his funding. But I had hoped to visit you in the morning. It has been some time.”

“Some time?” Eva demanded, “You vanish for three months with hardly a word! You… missed my own graduation!”

Saga regarded her as though she’d started to speak Tretridian, and by now Eva knew it was fruitless to complain about these things. Her aunt was the closest family she had left, but that had never made her an understanding woman.

“If you wanted a word, I have a phone,” the Duchess said evenly, “But good heavens child, when I was your age I heard from my mother scarcely once a year and could not have been more pleased for it.”

“Are you your mother now?” Eva sniped.

“Do I look like yours?” Saga’s voice had an edge to it now. She grimaced and made a dismissive gesture. Forget I said that, it seemed to say - As close to an apology Eva could expect.

Eva exhaled. “So. Is it true?”

For once Saga did not play coy. “I will hazard a guess and say that it is.”

Eva stared at the woman, “The Packilvanian? Are you mad or-” A warning look passed behind the Duchess’ eyes, and Eva lowered an accusatory finger, “Half this campus has been looking at me like I’m some kind of leper for the past week,” she hissed.

“Oh really?” Saga turned to where Amish had just been standing, and then back to her niece, “Who?”

“I… beg your pardon?” Eva asked.

“Names would be a good place to start,” Saga said severely, “Never let it be said that I allow an insult to stand.”

“You are mad,” Eva breathed, “Or… no, you just don’t care, is that it? How could you not tell me this was happening? The fucking SÄPO came by to ask me questions yesterday, you know?”

“Oh,” the Duchess’ face darkened, “Now I will have names. But I will grant you this, I have held my own confidence for far too long. I mean to rectify this.”

“You do?” Eva asked sarcastically.

Saga stood and thrust her hands into her pockets. Her eyes trailed around the library shelves, “It’s quite the thing we’ve got here, you know,” she said, “You should see some of the others in the Forsta Kammaren. Fossils, incompetents, irrelevant hangers-on of a bygone past,” the Duchess snorted, “Well, we in Tynam kept some of our teeth. Just the few.”

Saga turned back to Eva, “You will replace me here in full one day, Ciri. Sooner than we might expect now. I think it is time I begin to involve you in these matters.”

This time it was Eva’s turn to be silent. Then a laugh escaped her.

“My gods,” she burst out, “Has it ever occurred to you that I might want to do something more with my life than continue the bloody empire?”

Saga frowned, as if she’d just announced that two and two made five, “My dear,” she said gently, “You are that empire. You and I both. Without it we do not exist for long.”

“Oh, speak for yourself,” Eva snapped. Some part of her still whispered for caution, but she was too far gone for it now, “Do you want me to be some puppet to run things while you’re off in your desert? Is that it?”

She could hear the blood pumping in her ears now. “But I suppose this is just how this shit runs, doesn’t it?” Eva said venomously, “Vanish for a few months, come back to take me out of the cupboard like your shatar piece when you need me on the board? And if I tell you to stuff it, you’ll what? Disown me? Toss me on the streets? I’d really love to drop the illusion of choice here Turyana!”

The Duchess was stonefaced, but Eva could see the emotion behind her eyes. Before Saga could respond though, she scoffed and stormed off through the shelves, leaving her aunt behind.

“Apparently you need the kid’s library card to return his books,” Jochi said, “I suspect there’s already a fine on the account.”

Saga was sitting alone at the table with only a thoughtful expression for company when the aide returned.

Saga sat at the table, lost in thought, when her aide returned. “Sometimes, I used to imagine that Ciri was a miniature version of myself,” she said quietly. “I think I may have been right on that count.”

“I take it the conversation didn’t go well?” Jochi inquired.

The Duchess stood without answering and brushed past him. “You are a highly trained SPS agent earning a six-figure salary. Figure out how to return a library book,” she instructed. “I’ll call you when it’s time to leave.”

She paused at the spot the Serramali fellow had stood.

She paused where the Serramali man had been standing earlier. “Stealth corvettes…little shit was full of it,” she muttered before walking off.

University of Tynam
July 3

“You know, the first time I saw a midnight sun, I thought the world had gone mad,” Saga mused.

Eva had been aimlessly wandering the campus after their confrontation, not wanting to return to the dorms where Amish would surely be waiting for an explanation. But at this late hour, there was nowhere else to go, and even she was starting to feel the cold bite when she finally sat down on a lonely bench by the glassy pond, with no company except for her racing thoughts.

She wasn’t sure if the Duchess had followed her, or if she too had simply wandered there by happenstance.

“I spent my early years in Gazny Khot, as you know. The Khöldsön Jaed, where the steppe-”

“Where the steppe meets the sea, I know,” Eva said. She turned to look at her aunt with a wry smile, “I’ve heard the story.”

“I’m flattered that you remember it,” Saga smirked, “But aye, when I first returned to Tynam in midsummer, and saw this…” She waved to the pale sun still holding strong in the night sky, “It was like time itself had stopped.”

Eva exhaled, her breath misting before her face, “I grew up with it. The first I saw otherwise when I visited you in Leidenstad.”

“I remember. You were this tall,” Saga held her hand above the ground, “And still managed to empty my fridge in a week!”

“I was pleased to see you, was what I was,” Eva retorted. She could hear the edge in her voice again, “My gods, I practically begged to stay there. Anything would have been better than going back to Symningborg.”

For a brief moment, there was a chink in the armor, and a flicker of discomfort, then a return to the normal calm, “I was not well-suited to the situation at the time,” Saga said easily, “You would not have been fond of me for long, I think.”

“Do you think me fond of you now?” Eva asked harshly, “When you sent me back to the home you yourself fled?” Saga’s face hardened, but before she could respond Eva made an dismissive gesture, “Anyways. What do you want now?”

“May I sit?” the Duchess motioned to the bench. Eva shrugged, “It’s not my bench.”

Saga said nothing, and after a moment Eva scooted aside to make space. The Duchess sat down beside her and sighed. “I suppose I should be asking you that question now,” she said with a wan smile.

Eva stared at the Duchess for a moment, then looked away and scoffed. “What does it matter?” she said bitterly, “You mean to have your way. So make your threats and be done.”

This time, the Duchess did look wounded, and Eva felt a twinge of guilt that she did not think she deserved. “How low do you think I am,” Saga asked quietly, “That I would threaten you? Do you truly think I care so little?”

“You asked me to go back to Symningborg,” Eva observed, “To those jackals I was supposed to call my grandparents.”

“Yes,” Saga said simply, “I did. It was the best I could think of at the time - I will only regret that I did not think better of it.”

Eva snorted to herself, “Sure. And let’s say now I tell you that I want nothing more to do with the Egendom than to walk away from it?”

Now it was Saga’s turn to regard her. “I would worry for you,” she finally said, “None of us can walk nearly so far as we might think. I said that I intend for you to replace me when the time comes, and I would not want this if I did not think it was best for you. But should you wish it, I will turn to Allan, Mikael, the rest…” the corner of her mouth twitched, “All the vultures I must still call family. They will do as I command, for a time I think. But I will not be a factor forever, and I do not wish any of them to have a say in what comes after me.”

“Zamira-”

“Zamira, Timour, Dhunan and the others - They are my blood and they are dear to me,” Saga agreed, “But they are also of Gazny Khot. In this matter, they can do nothing.” The Duchess fixed Eva with a serious look, “I am asking you to keep your future in your own hands, Ciri,” she said, “And like it or not, your future will always be tied to that of this House, no less than my own was.”

“Well, you seem perfectly content to run off when the mood strikes,” Eva muttered, “Should I even ask why the Paxist?”

“Would you like to?” Saga asked.

“Not particularly,” Eva decided. A cold wind sent ripples across the point, and made her wrap her arms about herself to stop shivering, “SÄPO is asking me questions, remember?”

Saga’s nostrils flared, “Grimstad should better than to send his hatchetmen here. You’ll speak to a lawyer, and next time they call they’ll do the same,” the Duchess growled, and then stopped whatever she might have said next. “You are cold,” she noted, “We should get inside.”

Eva responded with an irritated gesture, “It is fine. I should probably go find Amish anyways.” Just as she stood to leave, Saga said, “You know he’s lying to you? About his job?”

Eva paused, and the Duchess went on with a sad sort of smile, “The new stealth corvettes are really something… So stealthy they don’t exist. Not that Miorne would have anything to do with them if they did. The entire company folded a year ago.”

Eva blinked in confusion, “But… then his visa…?”

“Is no doubt about to be rendered invalid,” Saga said gently. Eva had to marvel at the pointless bit of bravado that must have led the other student to hide that fact from her. Or was it just pride? She supposed she couldn’t fault him.

Eva just shook her head in bewilderment, but Saga continued, “Well, good heavens child, don’t sit there and look confused, do something about it if you give a damn!”

“And… what, strongarm the immigration ministry? Offer him… charity? How do you think that looks?” Eva demanded. For him to return to Serramal, she knew, was not an option at all.

The Duchess clicked her tongue and stood, hands thrust in her pockets, “There are easier ways to resolve these things. But fine, I’ll handle it. He need not know,” she said, “But you see, there is some value in having a say. A seat at the table. In being impossible to ignore.”

”I hope you will consider that.”

Evaline closed her eyes and puffed out her cheeks. She knew exactly what was being asked of her here. Asked, or demanded? Her aunt always made it so difficult to tell the difference, until they were one and the same.

“I have been accepted,” Eva said evasively, “To the University of Leidenstad. Law school.”

“So I have heard,” Saga nodded, “It should have happened long ago.” She raised her hands to clarify, “By that I mean, you deserve it. This is good. And I have no desire to interfere in it.”

The Duchess smirked, “Heavens know, you’re a good bit sharper than I ever was. But come, you have some months yet. Return home for a while with me.”

Saga took Eva by the arm and guided her down the cobblestone path. “We can talk more there,” she said. Eva allowed herself to be led, but then asked softly, “Say I take what you give me, and burn it all down. Say I choose to?”
Saga stopped and turned to face her niece, placing her hands on Eva’s shoulders. The Duchess’ face twisted into a grin, and Eva couldn’t help but wonder if her aunt had ever asked a similar question herself.

“I care not what burns when I am in the burial urn,” the Duchess said, as though reciting from some dead and forgotten poem, “Save that those I leave behind find some warmth in it.”

Somewhere in the heavens, a sun which had never set began to rise once more.

Margad Aspan, Gazny Khot
10 July, 2022

“Do you remember, when Grandfather said you could not keep a dog in the house?”

“I remember I was a child, and very disappointed.”

“You brought back a badger.”

Saga smiled faintly and stirred her drink. “I always did like that dog.”

“The badger made a mess of my room,” Zamira said crossly. They were interrupted by a waiter bringing steaming bowls of seafood. “I trust everything is to your satisfaction, Governor?” he asked. Zamira just nodded absently and waved him off.

“Thank you, Yerak,” Saga said on her cousin’s behalf, “Perhaps you should go see to the front.” The fellow returned the nod and departed.

“Ah, I remember it used to be an even chance that one of these would poison you here,” the Duchess prodded a fugu sliver. “Timour and I had a wager going, you know…”

The Governor snorted, “There is nothing my brother would not place a wager on, it seems. We’d have lost the entire Autonomy, if he had his way.”

“All the better then, that Grandfather left his position to you. This city has changed, Zamira.”

The city had changed. Twenty years ago it had been a blocky little pile of buildings clustered up by the sea. Now? It was the center of the eastern Negdel. Trains ground their way across thousand-kilometer tracks to bring innumerable tons of raw materials here for processing and loading onto the vast container ships that plied the seas. The nomads of the steppes had begun to settle, whether for good or ill few could agree. Now the maps of the world showed Gazny Khot, a little pinprick upon the Khöldsön Jaed, to be sure, but displayed nonetheless. These days even as Governor, Zamira had a hard time booking the private rooms at the Margad Aspan - And those rooms were quite unrecognizable too now, with their rich carpeting, decorative wall pieces, and blazingly heated and lit interiors which relegated the fireplaces to no more than atmospheric ornamentation.

In truth, she could almost miss those old days. Certainly, she envied her cousin - For all her remarks Zamira felt that Turi would never truly see Gazny Khot with anything other than those eternally fascinated eyes she’d once set upon the place. No more than Zamira could ever see the Duchess as any more than the roguish child who had once arrived at the manor gates.

“Grandfather will be pleased to see you,” Zamira changed the subject, “He at least has been spared the indignity of discovering your little surprise on Pigeon. Timour and Askar are both furious you didn’t tell them.”

“I will tell Timour and Askar something the day I want it spread across every lantern-house in Gazny Khot,” Saga grinned, “And I shall visit Grandfather. But I must of course pay my respects to you first, eh Governor?”

Still a child, Zamira thought critically of her. There were those who might have feared Tynam, but the Governor felt that she might be the only one who feared for her. Grandfather had only ever seen his favored child, himself writ small. Timour and all the rest had found a ringleader, quick to find trouble for them and quicker still to proudly take the blame. But for Zamira…

Tshk,” Saga’s noodles slid off her savkh sticks and back into the bowl with a splash. “You are making that face again. Well, out with it, I will not have troubles weighing on your mind. You invited me to dinner, I should hate to enjoy it alone.”

“You invited me,” Zamira said pointedly.

Aspan aspanı, are you my host or not, Governor?” Saga complained, “Speak your mind.”

Zamira put down her glass and clasped her hands. “I am worried for you, Turi. I - No, you’ll listen to me now!” the Governor snapped, irritation welling up inside her when amusement flickered across Saga’s face, “You think I cannot still box your ears? I may as well if you insist on acting like we are still children! My gods, Turyana, people rely on us now, and it’s a pretty little house of cards we’ve built here - The Egendom, Gazny Khot, Ellesborg. Do you really have no regard for any of it? Playing games like these, keeping secrets that might explode on the rest of us? I had Ciri call me in the middle of the night because some SÄPO tried to interrogate her, you think it goes uphill from there?”

Her words, which had begun so careful and steady, had turned into an avalanche of frustrations which finally collapsed down some great mountainside until there was only dust and silence. Saga picked up her glass and drained it empty, and when she finally spoke her voice was all steel.

“That is quite right of you to say, Governor.” the Duchess said, “We are not children anymore. We do not share our lives with each other, and I did as I thought best.”

She put down the glass, “Perhaps I should not have. I cannot say for certain, and have I not sought your judgment in all matters of uncertainty?” Saga’s face darkened, “But I will not have you accuse me of some grand indifference. I very nearly threw that same house of cards into the fire once for you, do not forget. I have my arrangement with the Queen, and there is no pride in the world which will keep me from making peace with the creatures in Leidenstad if it will assist Cirina. Though I would just as soon show them the lines they have crossed, and the consequences of doing so.”

The Duchess suddenly broke out into a wide grin, “But only you would purport to be worried about me, Zamira.” She laughed, but it did not hide her sincerity, “I am touched. Truly.”

“You shouldn’t be,” Zamira muttered, “You are walking into a tiger’s den.” It seemed impossible to remain irritated now though.

“Something I’ve done for far worse reasons in the past. Ask Timour about it if you wish,” Saga smirked, “But come, I did not wish to speak of myself all night. There are, as you say, matters which concern you too. Cirina will be my successor in Tynam, and I mean to guide her closely - But I trust she can look to you as well.”

“Always,” Zamira said unhesitatingly before Saga could go on. The Duchess nodded appreciatively, “Polstjärnan and the Tynam-Storlund estates will require some restructuring, but I am not worried about this. Arna Group is another matter - It is too engaged in Cryrian and Älemsi security policy, and there is my leverage with the gentlemen in Leidenstad, you see. I will divest myself of Arna at their direction, and they will remain out of our other affairs.”

“Most of Arna’s assets and personnel are based in Gazny Khot,” Zamira observed.

“And I’m sure you’ll find some way to take advantage of the situation,” the Duchess grinned wolfishly, “But I leave that to you, and we will discuss the details tomorrow. Now, can I trust that I have set your mind at ease for this evening at least? Because I am hungry,” Saga speared the fugu fish sliver again, “And a ten-note says this doesn’t kill me.”

“Play those games with Timour if you like,” Zamira barked out a laugh, “I know well enough that you are lucky four times over.”

“And yet, four is such an unlucky number,” Saga mused.

“Naturally. One must be unlucky to need luck.”

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