Two Flashes in the Night

(Followed on from Kingdom of Innocents)

“No domestic insurrection has ever succeeded in toppling a Cryrian government.

Oh, to be sure, politicians have come and gone, administrations have been replaced. But the structures have persisted, subject to change only through the measured and stable succession of the ballot box, rather than by blood on the streets. The Sorrows could not tear down the House of Leidensen, nor did the Anarchy bring an end to Karsholm’s reign. Not once in a thousand years of history has violent revolution prevailed upon our shores. These are the benefits of true democracy, a dynamism of the Cryrian people guided by the ageless hand of our institutions and united beneath the continuity of the Crown.

It is true that contrary to what one might expect of a man in my profession, I have the utmost faith in the will and desires of our society. The true threat, as ever, lies not in the Isles but upon the horizon. This fair Kingdom of ours is no stranger to hostile flags, nor have we ever deigned to yield to them. But we now stand in a new and insidious world, one where the enemy is driven not by the cold logic of kings and conquerors but by a bloodstained ideology of revolution and chaos that will brook the likes of us neither quarter nor life. Our end is spelled in manifestos scribed by mad prophets, and what they cannot prevail upon through force of arms they shall win by corruption, like a parasite sprouted in the brain of the everyman, driving him forth to propagate its lineage till all is devoured.

Today, we have seen this plague bring the might of Volscina to its knees and into the throes of civil war. An empire that has stood for centuries condemned to ruin, separatism, and national humiliation. With it shall depart a bulwark we have relied upon since the Great War. Indeed, it is no small thing when I say that we stand in a new world, for it is one in which we may only survive by holding a knife to its throat.”

  • Edgar Evert, speaking at a private gathering, 2002

(Post taken from and reworked, mostly because I rather liked it)


Sirens were wailing in the distance, their sounds audible even from within Marlberg’s war room. The electoral maps from the day before were still hanging on the walls and spread on the tables, though the figures now seated within were a far cry from the usual bright-eyed campaign staffers. Reitz, at least, seemed well at ease, lying across a sofa to the far side and idly examining a brochure.

For a Better Tomorrow, read the cheerful headline, as if pleasantly unaware of the bleak history behind such a phrase.

More sirens from out in the city.

“You hear that?” Marlberg said, a humorless smile on his face as pushed himself off an armchair, “That’s us winning. Fucking beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Most of the city’s peaceful,” that was Brenner, the National Police Director, sitting with his arms crossed, “Just the odd looting incident for now, and you picked an absolutely shit part of town for a campaign headquarters. People feel the shortages coming, almost a fifth of the stuff sailing into the Port of Leidenstad at least passed through Volscina. It could take months, years even, for everything to sort itself now. The local departments should have the rowdiness in hand far sooner. Mostly the usual rabble getting in a twist. Imported labor, nonhumans, what can you do… Let them have their fun for a few more hours, it will make things easier if the outgoing administration eats the blame.”

Some Riksdag Minister Reitz hardly recognized walked in from the other room, phone in hand.

“The Defence is flying troops onto Talvere,” he said in a hushed voice, “Tanks, missiles… they’re practically gearing for a new Great War there. What the hell are the General Staff thinking?”

“They’re thinking about the black hole that just opened up under us,” came Evert’s voice from beside Brenner, “The simple reality is, West Novaris may as well have gone dark. We have no idea what could come flying at us from the muck tomorrow.”

All throughout, Marlberg seemed as amused as ever. Reitz couldn’t begrudge the man, in a way. Just weeks ago, it seemed all but certain that the Social Democrats would win the snap elections they themselves had called. And now, Marlberg’s Conservatives sat atop instead, borne on a tide of fear. Fear that the red flags were spreading across the Mainland, fear from watching the Leidenstad Exchange crash alongside Volscina. Little wonder he reveled in the chaos, the man had just played it perfectly.

A knock came from down the hall, followed by the sounds of one of the remaining staffers opening the door.

“Who is it?” rasped the panicky MP, while Marlberg just shook his head. In came a dark haired fellow, who seemed to have gotten the least sleep of anyone present.

“Well, the gang’s all early eh?” Persson remarked, “NP, CID, come now, surely you wouldn’t leave the SÄPO out of a putsch?”

“You’ll get our heads on a spike with that talk,” Brenner snapped, “Shut the fuck up, and sit the fuck down. Marlberg’s been voted in, he takes office tomorrow. We agreed to brief him rather than the bloody watermelons who led us into this mess. Half the Socialists are probably adding communards to their fucking speed-dial as we speak.”

“Dramatic as ever,” the SÄPO Director sighed, tossing his coat onto a hanger, “This is why the Police leave counterintelligence to my people. Traffic was hell on the way here, you know. You should go do something about it.”

Reitz cackled at that.

“And I’m sorry,” Brenner hissed, pointing at her, “But why, is she here?”

“Easy now, gentlemen,” Marlberg finally spoke, and the room fell quiet, “We are gathered here to lead in crisis. If we lose our heads, then little wonder the ones outside do so as well.”

“Minister Reitz will be remaining in her post as Foreign Minister for now. I have… been advised against replacing key diplomatic personnel the night before such an occasion. It seems the General Staff are unable to join us tonight, I suggest we proceed with our discussion.”

“Of course they can’t join,” Evert grunted, “You’re not in the chain-of-command yet, and they’ve got bigger problems to look at. Intelligence gathering and domestic security is likely our biggest concern at the moment regardless. An economic crash always brings problems. But shortages - real shortages that are hitting people in the bellies? Every miscreant the world over’s going to be showing up to have their say in this - I have it on good authority that the General Staff even ordered an alert in Ellesborg last night, and heaven’s know they don’t like to touch that place at all.”

“Miscreants?” Reitz almost laughed again, “All the miscreants have nuclear weapons now! And between you and me, they won’t need much to have their say. Every bit of hardware the Empire ever built is in the wild now. Southwest Gondwana if every warlord had the equivalent of a first rate army. Ademar’s blood, at least I got our people out of there.”

“I’ve half a mind to break out of Latency just for this,” Marlberg suddenly sounded serious, “What is it, six months to a working device?”

“If you’re feeling optimistic, sure,” Evert responded grimly, “Though heaven’s know why you would be at this point.”

“Make inquiries, be discreet,” Marlberg ordered, “We should have plausible deniability at the very least. As soon as His Majesty swears me in, I’ll need Special Materials on the line to explore our options. Helena, have you heard anything from your Volscine counterparts?”

Reitz slid her legs down the side of the sofa and sat up wearily, “All respects Minister, of course not. Half of them are probably trying to figure out which government they even represent at this point. Personally, I think we’re a little low on their list of priorities.”

“Right,” Marlberg stated, “You and I will regroup to finalize our positions. We need a clearer idea of what’s happening down there first, too many actors involved right now. Work with Evert on that, after a century of good-neighborliness I would hope that someone down there still cares enough to return our calls. But our real priority’s the domestic situation. I have a helicopter ready to get me to Tvillingblom Palace by the stroke of midnight, Brenner, Parsson, I want the capital to look fucking perfect the minute I’m sworn in. You both have your lists of usual suspects, get ready to start crossing off names. I ran on stability, best I deliver now. Once I’m in Karsholm I can start sorting out the economic mess and get the General Staff talking.”

He paused, “Ah, fuck, there’s going to be refugees, aren’t there?”

Tvillingblom Palace

In all his twenty years of service, Lars had never witnessed anything like it - Tvillingblom Palace, once again serving its true purpose. For over three centuries the Leidensens had placed themselves not only above the masses but beyond their reach. Here in the middle of Lake Lasi, they stood apart from the tumult of the capital and the demands of its population, sheltered against all but the most violent revolt. How many Kings and Queens had slipped away to these walled gardens to command from afar when the many factions of Leidenstad devoured themselves? What must it have been like to look out into the night and know there was but one island of peace amidst the sea of chaos?

Lars Tornquist knew now.

A deathly pall had descended over the castle in the past weeks. News from the south had grown ever more grim, brought now not by desperate couriers or hurried telegrams but by ever more nervous-looking newscasters and grim telephone calls from Karsholm. A quiet sense of unease grew ever more strained as fears of shortages mounted. An election had been held, and a Government swept from power in a wave of anger and panic that had left it all but paralyzed in its last days. Tonight, Lars knew, the National Police would finally begin mobilizing in force on streets around the country, and the SÄPO would not be far behind. If all went well, both would be little more than a cursory presence, a gentle reminder that law and order still held and that even if all was not well, all would remain calm.

And if things go badly… It will be like scenes from the Anarchy.

The Securitate had reformed from the days of old, or so the country was assured. They did not carry their firearms in public and they put on a friendly face. But the Protocol-Captain knew that there would always be an undercurrent of darkness there. It was inherent to their purpose, and despite all that he wished them all the luck they would sorely need.

“Leidenstad has confirmed that Marlberg is en route,” Lars stated, “He is expected to land within the hour.”

The Greathall felt at once both crowded yet empty. A pair of snow tigers stood frozen mid-pace, glassy eyes staring back at him as they flanked the pale, twisting hulk of the Drifting Throne - Taxidermied relics of Royal hunts. Between them sat the man himself - Ludvig of the House of Leidensen, King of All Cryria, and many other things besides. Yet for all that was embodied within the man, ensconced within the imposing edifice he seemed…

Diminished, Lars thought to himself. Though indeed, it was impossible to say whether that was due to the spectacle of the Throne, or simply because he had seen the things that happened upon the Royal yachts. Such thoughts, truly, were not good for a Protocol-Captain to have, and Lars delivered a mental reprimand unto himself. Yet it could not be said that the King did not seem drained tonight. His head rested on one hand, fingers running through curls of red hair. His beard was neatly trimmed, but the disheveled state of his suit told the tale. Whether it was merely from watching the economic fallout hit his own pocketbooks or a genuine worry for the state of affairs, the King was, at least, paying attention.

Ludvig sat up straight at the mention of Marlberg’s name, a new light in his eyes.

“Excellent,” the King’s satisfaction was clear to hear, “See that he attends to me at once. Is all prepared, Captain?”

Lars offered a stiff nod, “The normal ceremonies have been dispensed with per your commands. I have prepared the Letter Patent which will grant Marlberg the full authority of Prime Minister once it is bestowed upon him. I would advise a public statement of acceptance as well, but that can wait until tomorrow - We will, however, keep a video of the confirmation as a record of last resort.”

The King had affixed his seal to the Letter last night, already a breach of tradition which demanded it be done the day of. It was little surprise that Ludvig was eager to see the man in office however - The Monarchy was not to openly take sides in political matters, but its support mattered all the same. Marlberg had always been His Majesty’s pick even when the man’s victory had seemed unlikely, and now with things coming to a head a great deal was riding on that decision.

A servant slipped into the hall.

“He’s here,” she signed in Silence. The little system of hand signals used by the Leidensens and their confidants was a tradition that dated back to the time of Vesterholm, but Lars found it more of a nuisance than anything. It was good for conveying simple messages without the entire Court knowing… but the days of such romanticized intrigues had long since passed. The King, however, responded in kind.

“Send him in.”

Marlberg looked like he hadn’t slept in a while - Then again, Lars doubted anyone else was looking much better. The Prime Minister-to-be offered a respectful bow to the King.

“Your Majesty,” he began,” I am pleased to inform you that-”

“We may skip the formalities for now, Minister,” Ludvig interjected. Marlberg frowned at the interruption but said nothing. An outspoken Monarch could herald trouble, but tonight the King was quite right. They did not have time for tradition, and there was no audience to play to regardless.

“Protocol-Captain,” the King commanded, holding out one hand. Lars strode over to his side, reaching into his coat as he did to produce an envelope.

“Minister Charles Marlberg,” Ludvig grunted, “We find ourselves faced with something of a precipice, do we not? I am told that there is trouble mounting in the streets of Leidenstad, enough so that you came by air rather than car. ”

Marlberg hesitated to answer. This was becoming dangerously close to a policy discussion with the Throne.

“The situation is tense,” he finally said, “But Your Grace may have every confidence that the new Government is prepared to stabilize it. Circumstances in Leidenstad have been exaggerated - An unhappy result of the elections. Rest assured that there is no risk of civil unrest. The supply shortages we face are very real, but so too are the measures the Kingdom has taken to deal with precisely these circumstances. I will look forward to providing Your Majesty a more thorough update.”

“And I will look forward to receiving it,” Ludvig’s gaze sharpened, “It is good to know that we have measures in place to handle such unpredictable times. I hope the same might be said with regards to the foreign instability we are witnessing. I trust that the Government will use every means at its disposal to secure the Kingdom’s safety from both within and without.”

There it was. As close to an order as a King could ever give. Marlberg simply bowed again, and Ludvig extended the Letter Patent. The twinflower-and-falcon seal of the Leidensens was visibly emblazoned at the bottom.

“Minister Charles Marlberg,” he began, “By this writ I hereby appoint you as my Prime Minister and further transfer to you the titles, powers, and duties of the Lord Protector of the Realm for the duration of your post.”

“I believe you know the oath.”

… The National Police has announced an end to overnight civil unrest in Leidenstad and proclaimed the capital’s streets secure. While the precise cause of the riots remains uncertain, it appears that they were centered around the Torvieska Workers Barracks which house hundreds of guest workers.

Experts have warned that these low-wage workers are the most at risk from the rapidly climbing food prices of the past weeks, particularly as regular social safety nets are unavailable to them.

The National Police report indicates that only light injuries were sustained by rioters with no officers hurt. Over a hundred arrests have thus far been recorded, with active searches continuing throughout the city.

“We regret to say that in last night’s operation to restore safety and security to the streets of Leidenstad, the National Police was forced to deploy malodorant compounds against violent groups in the Torvieska District. Any miscreants who partook in the destabilization of our fair city will be easily noticeable for several days and as such we urge all citizens to provide any information on sightings or the whereabouts of criminal suspects at our non-emergency 311 line,” a police spokesperson said in this morning’s press release, “The National Police understands that many of our citizens are facing difficult times, but we must further reiterate our that destabilizing and antisocial actions not be tolerated, and perpetrators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

In light of the events at the barracks, Councilmember Aidyn Iliyasov, who represents the Torvieska District, has taken up calls for direct government aid to guest workers residing in the city.

“We must come to terms with the reality that today, many of the essential functions in this city rely upon poorly paid workers who frequently struggle to make ends meet. That they are unable to even afford to eat is unacceptable, and enforcement actions alone cannot restore stability so long as people remain hungry,” Iliyasov said in an address to the Leidenstad Council.

  • CNN Broadcast on September 30, 2002

Karsholm Palace, Leidenstad

Helena felt half-dead on her feet by the time she arrived at the Cabinet Lounge, and she knew the worst part of her day was just about to begin.

It was perhaps a bit ironic that for a place where cabinet members were meant to relax, she found this the least relaxing place in the entire palace. The regular cabinet meetings - Those were structured, recorded, carefully planned to the minute. On good days you knew exactly what everyone would say before they even opened their mouths, and everyone knew they were on the job.

But in here? There was none of that, and the snakes could play freely. Alas, the games they played required that she be here as well - It was never good to be absent from these discussions. Tonight though? Tonight she was truly required to be present.

It was Bekännelsekväll.

“Ah, Minister Reitz,” Marlberg said pleasantly from an armchair by the coffee table. He waved her over to an empty one beside him, “Please, do sit, you seem like you could use it.”

It would have been rude to decline, and for all that her appointment remained a matter of pure convenience, she still needed the Prime Minister’s goodwill - as much as he could muster anyways. Reitz took the seat.

“You are not wrong,” she offered a humorless smile, “I have been working, you see.”

“As have we all, surely,” Marburg responded. He glanced around the lounge, where other Ministers were arriving in their ones and twos.

“Aye, no doubt. But for me it is a more direct case of life or death,” Helena said drily, “We still have expatriates caught in Charlottesborg, and the Duchy has had its border sealed for weeks now.”

“The Duchess is your sister, is she not?” Marlberg asked meaningfully.

For that, Helena had to scoff, “If you are looking for familial love to win the day, Prime Minister, I fear you may be disappointed. But I have spoken to Louisa - It’s what worries me. She’s slipping, I think. Fears a coup brewing in the Ducal Guard, and personally, I don’t think she’s entirely wrong.”

It felt wretched to speak of family like this, but that came with the job. Even so, Helena had to lower her voice as she continued.

“I worry she might seek to shore up her position by demanding concessions from us in exchange for getting our people out.”

“That is a hostage situation,” Marlberg’s eyes narrowed, “It would be unacceptable to acquiesce.”

“Deeply so,” Helena agreed, “She may again not be entirely wrong though. There are… connected people stuck down there. The University of Charlottesborg has had exchange programs with our own institutions for over a century now, and the Duchy has always been a popular destination for expatriates.”

“Shit,” Marlberg muttered, “How connected?”

“Erik Palme, Turlan Tynam, Adeline Widfross… do I need to go on?” Helena demanded, “There are apparently a great many families who know exactly which number to call to reach my office and I have been hearing from them damn near hourly at this point.”

“That’s plenty,” the Prime Minister grimaced, “Bloody hells Reitz, these should have been the first people to get out. We should have gotten them out.”

“You think I do not know this?” Helena snapped, loudly enough to turn some heads. She composed herself, and continued, “Some did not wish to come - Charlottesborg may as well be home, and more than that everyone assumed it was a safe place regardless. Others had family without citizenship - Oh, yes, are you unaware that the Foreign Ministry cannot arrange the evacuation of non-citizens without the immigration ministry’s approval? Something I have been requesting for weeks now without any bloody response because apparently everyone’s too busy shitting themselves silly over an imagined refugee crisis? And personally, I don’t know who more fucking braindead at this point, the ones who decided to stick around on the mainland or us for not having a goddamned-”

“Minister,” Marlberg said calmly, raising a hand to stop her, “I have every confidence that you are doing your utmost to protect our citizens. Aleardo has just now taken up his post at the Immigration Ministry, and he will see to it that you get everything you need. I will request this of him myself… Isn’t that right Aleardo?” the Prime Minster asked aloud.

“It is my highest priority,” the Immigration Minister responded from across the room, “Everything will be in place for you by tomorrow, Minister.”

Helena nodded stiffly as Marlberg settled back in his seat, clearly pleased at the response.

“There, you see? It will be done,” he said, “Do what you can to convince the Duchess to open her borders for us. We can’t allow ourselves to be abused in this manner - I’ll speak to her myself if you need someone to play the bad cop. I’m more worried that the CID has not informed me of trouble among the Ducal Guard.”

“I’m sure they will in good time,” Helena said, “I have contacts they do not - This is very nearly my homeland, after all.”

And that is why I am still kept around, is it not?

“That it is,” Marlberg agreed, “We will speak more of this in private. Problems there mean problems here.”

The last stragglers had arrived in the lounge, and one other followed in their footsteps. A flurry of dark robes and light glinting off a reflective mask - A priest of Ademar. In his hands, a basket.

Marlberg clapped his hands and stood, “Well, ladies and gentlemen,” he said pleasantly, “It is Bekännelsekväll. I trust you will all be kind!”

So saying, he retreated to the other end of the room and busied himself with a coffee machine.

Bekännelsekväll - A tradition far older than the Cabinet itself. The Kingdom too, by all accounts. In the days of old sailors would be given one night to speak their minds to a priest who would later repeat their words in anonymity for Captain and crew to hear. It was perhaps one of the few truly honest accountings any leader would receive, without fear of reprisal by the speaker. The tradition persisted in Karsholm, where each newly appointed Government held the ceremony once after its initiation.

The priest was making his way around the room, collecting written notes. Suddenly, the basket was thrust in front of her, and Helena looked up to see her distorted reflection in the expressionless face of Ademar Himself. Her note slipped through her fingers to join the others.

Almost immediately she regretted it - It was not a wise thing she had written, but rather one born out of the fear and frustration that came from weeks of howling into the void of the Immigration Ministry or consoling panicked families.

Or discovering my sister’s found her calling as a fucking warlord.

It was too late now though. Marlberg returned to the circle, and the priest began his reading. Hers first.

“None of you are nearly as frightened as you should be.”

…and unfortunately we must concur with the Foreign Ministry’s assessment that the situation in Charlottesborg is reaching a critical juncture. Thus far Duchess Louisa has attempted to maintain a neutral stance, which though internally popular has left her bereft of external allies. Without the support of the larger factions in the civil war the Charlottesborger economy has been completely derailed in a manner that makes our own troubles seem comparatively minor. Thus it is only a matter of time before the populace’s support for neutrality wanes.

Immediate instability is unlikely to arise in the form of a general popular revolt, however. The Directorate has ascertained that the Ducal Guard has become the center of an ongoing ethnic power struggle between its Cryrian and Volscine-speaking elements which favor the Duchess and the remnants of the Confederation respectively. Of particular note here is the 73rd Infantry Brigade which has strong Confederation leanings and is commanded by Brigadgeneral Auro Panariello. The economic crisis has exacerbated tensions between Cryrian and Volscine groups within the Duchy, particularly as the former has received favorable treatment amidst ongoing shortages. It is generally believed that as the highest ranking Volscine officer in the Ducal Guard, Panariello may prove to be a popular rallying point for Volscine-speakers in the Duchy.

The Duchess has not been blind to this threat and has already moved to recall Panariello from his posting at the General Ohlssen Barracks. Thus far the Brigadgeneral appears to be ignoring the order, a serious first step towards a coup if it is indeed a deliberate one. Loyalist elements are known to have received new orders to defend against such an eventuality and may move to directly disarm the 73rd in the coming weeks. Panariello is no doubt aware of this as well, and will understand that his position grows stronger as discontent among the Volscine population rises. Equally, he cannot ignore that as the Duchess’ power declines it will become increasingly necessary for her to act before she becomes unable to do so. It remains difficult to judge what the ultimate outcome of an open conflict would be - While on paper the Duchess retains the loyalty of most of the Guard, she relies heavily on conscripts, and the exit ban indicates that not all may be willing or motivated particularly as the Guard’s payroll has faltered. The 73rd represents roughly half of the Guard’s professional ground forces, and the loyalists are further hamstrung by the need to maintain order throughout the increasingly unruly hinterlands and along the Duchy’s borders.

The potential for an ethnic conflict in Charlottesborg places Cryrian citizens in the Duchy at serious risk. At present there remain over three-hundred citizens in Charlottesborg - Some simply elected not to evacuate, while others refused to abandon local family members who were impacted by the Duchy’s exit ban. Negotiations around the latter have been further complicated by bureaucratic inadequacies within our own Immigration Ministry, and it is paramount that they are brought to safety immediately. Duchess Louisa has also made a clear choice to use the threat posed to Cryrian lives as a bargaining chip to win previously denied military aid from the Kingdom, something which is both unacceptable but also revealing of her precarious position. This report concurs with the Foreign Ministry’s decision to offer humanitarian support in exchange for an end to the exit ban.

Finally, there remains the staff of the Cryrian consulate in Charlottesborg, which is the last Cryrian diplomatic outpost in Volscina. While the consular presence has proven to be invaluable for both gathering intelligence and conducting sensitive negotiations with the Duchess, its diplomatic status is unlikely to protect it if conflict reaches the city. As such it is this report’s further recommendation that the Consular staff be removed as soon as the civilian evacuation is completed.

  • CID report on October 7, 2002

CDF Simrasa, Lielsta March

The Highlands were a grim place, but beautiful all the same - Snow-capped mountains bathed in alpenglow, towns and cities clustered into river valleys or atop the plateaus, and all the rugged wilderness to remind a man that these Isles were not quite so tamed as one would think.

CDF Simrasa was just grim. Built into the side of the mountain, the underground headquarters of the Special Materials Division was in some ways reminiscent of the naval base at Magnusholm, save that it was far smaller and far more isolated. Step out of Magnusholm and it was an easy trip to Leidenstad, or anywhere else in the Kongsbukta. Simrasa though, was in the middle of nowhere.

In one sense Marlberg could understand the reasons for it. The division was charged with securing dangerous things - nuclear materials mainly, chemical weapons too back when they’d had them. These were not often stored anyplace nice.

The Prime Minister had a harder time accepting the reasons he had to be up here in person. The trip was a distraction from his other duties in Leidenstad at a dangerous time. But the Director had strongly advised him that the sensitive matters they were to be discussed were best done someplace other than the halls of Karsholm.

Now that’s a worrying thought if there ever was one.

Certainly, it would be no great secret that the Prime Minister had come up here in person, and the conclusions drawn would be the obvious ones. No, the real secrets were in the details, and in the answers to the question Marlberg had come here to ask.

“How long will it take for the Kingdom to develop a credible deterrent?”

The Generalmajor paused mid-sip of tea and set her glass down carefully.

“It is a complicated question, Prime Minister,” she said, grimacing as she did so, “One which many of your predecessors were quick to pose in times of crisis.”

That much, Marlberg could believe. Lina Hagström had been in her post for longer than he cared to remember, and in that time she had grayed and withered and gained the air of someone who had been asked altogether far too many stupid things.

But today they both knew this was no idle query.

“Now, on paper, I can tell you that we have stockpiled considerable amounts of material from our civilian energy programs and have the independent capability to both mine and enrich as needed. The moment we had more than a few kilograms of plutonium the Kingdom had a nuclear deterrent in all but name. Today we have over twenty tons in varying forms and degrees of usefulness, and over a half-ton of uranium besides. With our resources and technical capabilities, we could produce a working device in as little as six months if all goes well. Perhaps as much as two years given serious opposition - And by that, I mean reticence from within the Government and external efforts to pressure us into reconsidering,” a humorless smile crossed her face, “If someone starts sending bombs through my window, all bets are off.”
“So that’s it, then?” Marlberg asked mildly, “Six months?”

“To a functioning test device, aye,” the Generalmajor nodded, “But you asked for a credible deterrent. The General Staff defines this as a capability that is sufficient to raise the possibility of nuclear retaliation in the minds of hostile parties, but we are not mind readers, so I find this to be vague and unhelpful. Special Materials considers it to be the ability to deliver a nuclear payload in a manner that is reasonably likely to bypass a hostile party’s countermeasures, and in sufficient quantities to cripple or destroy designated hostile parties. I could speak at length as to what this actually means, but in brief, it would at a minimum call for the ability to fit warheads to ballistic or cruise missiles of either intermediate or intercontinental range… though given the proximity of the particular problem that is keeping us all awake these nights, something more limited may still do.”

“Then again,” Lina added wryly, “Perhaps not. The problem with a nuclear arsenal potentially winding up in the wild is that the people who get ahold of it are precisely the sort who don’t care about mutually assured destruction.”

“I am given to understand that there are also programs in place to ease the development of delivery systems,” Marlberg said carefully.

“Oh, certainly Prime Minister. We have the space program, in theory once you can send something up it should not be that difficult to send it back down. And you did a very good job to support budgeting for the Kraken-class’ cruise missile capabilities. But in this matter we would truly be in uncharted territory. For all the complexities involved, simply getting a bomb is a well-trod route, one which we very nearly completed half a century ago. The full suite of modern capabilities is quite another.”

Marlberg nodded slowly and emptied his teacup, “Well, I appreciate your candor, General,” he said, “I suppose I should ask then, what your suggestion would be? For decades your Division existed for the sole purpose of maintaining our latency doctrine in the expectation of a moment like this one. Is this the moment to fulfill that purpose?”

Lina returned a calculating look, “Tell me Prime Minister. Why is it you wished to speak to me privately instead of at a more official assembly of the General Staff?”

“Because I wish to know what answers you will give when the time comes,” Marlberg said truthfully.

“Hm. Spoken like a man who’s already made up his mind then,” Lina remarked, “No offense intended, of course. But that is what the others will think when they know you spoke to me before them.”

Marlberg shrugged, “I won’t lie, I already have my leanings,” he said, “But I would not have asked if I did not want an honest answer. This is your office, and a secure one as you have assured me. You may speak as freely as you will here.”

“Freely then,” Lina sipped at her own tea, “One - No matter the decision you make, it must be made soon. Many supply lines have been disrupted, our own included. No, there is no issue at the moment, but I cannot say if that will be true two years from now. Our program relies on a great deal of sophisticated components and technologies, not all of them locally sourced. The longer you wait, the less likely it is that I can give you what you seek.”

“Two,” she continued, “I think you are painfully clueless as to what it is you do seek. I would say that you are uniquely so, but I sadly doubt that. The Special Materials Division deals in weapons of mass destruction. These are not ordinary tools of policy, as you seem to view them. They sure as hell are not a security blanket to clutch at when things become unfavorable. Should the Kingdom obtain its own nuclear deterrence, it will surely solve a great many issues - Just as it will create new ones. I will not lecture you on responsibility, but I will advise you to consider the positions you might find yourself in should you proceed. You will be breaking the rules we have thus far followed and will be seeking to rejoin the game under new ones - That of a nuclear power. There will come a moment between these two where we are protected by no rules at all. Do I need to describe to you what that could mean, Prime Minister?”

“Generalmajor,” Marlberg said sharply, “The rules, if you have not yet noticed, have already failed. We already exist within this twilight zone of yours. Through which direction would you have us exit it?”

That at least brought a silence to the General’s office. Finally she spoke.

“The only way out is forward, Prime Minister. We shall need to speak more often in the coming months.”

… as such the General Staff confirms its understanding that Ademar’s Gate is to proceed with all available haste. Though we must again restate our reservations regarding this project, we are prepared to provide the Special Materials Division and the Atomic Commission our full support and will be coordinating closely with both entities as they proceed.

  • General Staff minutes on October 14, 2002

Karsholm Palace, Leidenstad

“I suppose I should begin with an apology on behalf of my Ministry.”

It was the sort of start that Helena liked to hear, and Anselmo Aleardo was certainly doing a good job of making it sound genuine. Even so, she was well past the point of politeness now.

“Apologies are nice, Minister,” Helena said sharply, “Getting what I want is better. Do you plan to give it to me?”

“It’s done,” the Immigration Minister said. For all that the man sounded shockingly grim, and he slid into the chair opposite Helena without invitation, “My people are getting the paperwork to you people as we speak, but it is done. The Foreign Ministry is free to evacuate both the immediate and extended Volscine family members of Cryrian citizens.”

“Well done, Minister,” Helena drawled, “It should have been done weeks ago, but well done all the same. Now I need only convince the Duchess to lift her ban.”

She picked up the pot she’d just made for herself, “Tea? It seems like you are planning to occupy my office for a while yet.”

Aleardo gave a brief shake of his head. “You know,” he said pensively, “There are those who would consider it inappropriate for you to be conducting negotiations with an immediate family member.”

“Highly inappropriate. Welcome to my world, Minister,” Helena said drily, “When I was given this post Louisa was just the adopted heir apparent of a Volscine administrative district. A questionable mark on my record perhaps, but no more a problem than any of the little trips to Ellesborg our coworkers indulge in. But today, she is a problem. In any reasonable world Marlberg would have ejected me already, and in all likelihood I would have offered him my resignation first. Heavens know, I do not like the man to begin with. But this is no longer a reasonable world, and Marlberg’s decided to gamble that I will be able to handle the mess in Charlottesborg all the better for my connections to it, and that I am uniquely well suited to take the fall if things go poorly. The rest of us will have to take this gamble as well.”

The Immigration Minister grunted in agreement, “Here’s to that.”

Helena paused a moment as if expecting the man to add something else. Finally, she broke the silence.

“Will there be anything else, Minister?”

“At the Bekännelsekväll,” Aleardo finally said, “Yours was the first, wasn’t it?”

“Come now Minister,” Helena remarked, “The entire point is to not know.”

The Immigration Minister shrugged, “Fine then, don’t tell. But hypothetically, if it were yours - I worry that you may be correct. As Immigration Minister, I am directly involved in the planning for a potential refugee wave - one beyond your evacuations, that is. It does not look well.”

Helena sighed internally, “How bad?”

Aleardo shrugged again, “Shelves are emptying in Leidenstad. We’re breaking open disaster relief stockpiles of food and medicine meant for a nuclear war scenario. How badly do you think?”

Helena grimaced. Bad, then, but not much worse than she already knew.

“Why tell me this?”

“Marlberg wanted me to,” Aleardo offered a humorless smile, “Thought it better to let me be the one who puts this into words - The Duchess’ exit ban? Don’t push too hard for it to be entirely lifted. Get our nationals out, their families too if you can. But don’t open up a wave of desperate Cryrian-speakers trying to escape across the ocean.”

“It would be unacceptable to turn them away, wouldn’t it?” Helena said scathingly, “So better they stay put. You do realize that Louisa will try to use this as leverage as soon as she finds out, yes?”

“Perhaps. She needs the young and able-bodied to fill out her little army, and those are the ones who are most likely to flee if given the chance. Everyone else though… yes, she might try to offload them on us. You’ll need to walk a fine line.”

It took everything the Foreign Minister had to not scoff.

“I’m not sure what’s more insulting - That Marlberg thought I was enough of a bleeding heart to invite the entire population of Charlottesborg over, or that he sent you down here to warn me off instead of coming himself.”

Aleardo just tilted his head apologetically, “It is what I was asked to do,” he said, “In truth, I do not care for it at all. We two are the only cabinet ministers with personal ties to the Mainland. But we have our duties here too.”

“Do remind Marlberg of that last point the next time he decides to hide behind you,” Helena said coldly, “Will there be anything else, Minister?”

Aleardo just shook his head, and a few moments later Helena was left alone in her office to think.

“At present, it is clear that the Kingdom faces nuclear threats whose existence is certain but whose precise nature is ill-defined - In short, we can say with some certainty that the risk of rogue actors acquiring atomic weapons from the carcass to the south is high, but we cannot say who these actors will be. It is thus the General Staff’s preferred policy that should the Kingdom pursue an independent deterrent, it should equally maintain a policy of ambiguity regarding its existence - One intended to be broken should a specific opponent materialize. In this manner the potential political fallout of an independent deterrent can be limited, though it is a benefit that must be weighed against the costs of maintaining secrecy through development and testing.”

  • General Staff minutes on October 21, 2002

Karsholm Palace, Leidenstad

You could not pick your family. Helena sometimes wished this were not so, today more than ever.

“I am not looking to threaten you, Duchess Reitz,” she said patiently, “But I must also have you understand that you cannot do the same to me.”

“And yet you cannot even use my name?”

Louisa was fraying, Helena could hear that much in her sister’s voice. Just getting in contact with the woman had been difficult - Indeed, it might have been impossible without the efforts of those brave lads at the consulate.

“We are both officials among our respective governments, Duchess,” Helena said, fighting for her patience as she did, “We must act as such.”

“You have abandoned your family as well as your home then?” Louisa demanded from the other end.

“I was born and raised in Cryria,” Helena observed, “As were you. Do you wish to return home? I can arrange it for you. Ease the exit ban for us and you’ll be on the first flight out - Anyone you wish to bring as well. You do not need to fight in this war, Louisa.”

A bitter laugh from the other end of the line.

“I hold to my duties, dear sister, though I never asked for them,” Louisa sighed, and Helena could hear the abject despair in her, “If only dear old Aunt Miriam had chosen someone else… but it is no matter now. I play the cards I am dealt.”

“Louisa,” Helena tried to steer the conversation back on topic, “Cryrian citizens are trapped within your borders. I am authorized to offer you a measure of assistance - nonlethal assistance, in exchange for safe passage out for both them and their families. We know you are suffering from shortages of food for the guard, there’s already been riots in Sargos. We can help you.”

“Sargos… a family of three, caught hoarding by the Guard. They shot them, and hung the boy’s corpse upon the door as warning. I did not give the order…”

“Louisa, that is not…” Helena tried to interject, only to be cut off again.

“I did not give the order, but it was done in my name. All things are done in MY NAME.”

“The exit ban is in your name as well,” Helena snapped, “Lift it, before something happens that you cannot walk away from. You want to talk about your duty? I am offering you what your people need. Take it from me!”

“There is no walking away now, dear sister. Neither for me, nor them.”

A cold sense of dread filled Helena as she struggled to keep her voice calm, “Louisa… what is happening over there?”

“I did not ask for any of this,” Louisa said sadly, “It is too late now. Panariello is moving. There is fighting at the airport already, and all I can hear is the shelling… I will go now. Till better times, Helena.”

A click, and then silence. The Foreign Minister slammed the phone down hard enough to crack its casing.

“So much for personal diplomacy,” she hissed. It had been worth the effort, that much she could tell herself. A last-ditch attempt after other means had failed. Useless now though, and far too late.

“Kent!” she shouted for her aide, “Get me the PM, whatever problem he has, this one’s bigger.”

Citizens of Charlottesborg.

It is with deepest regrets and a heavy heart that I must take it upon myself to inform you of the dire circumstances that now befall our homeland. Many of you who know me, know me Brigadgeneral Auro Panariello. But today I speak not as an officer of the Guard or a soldier, but as one loyal son of Volscina among many. In these past weeks we have seen our country rent apart by division, war, and treachery. We may even have lost our shared nationhood. We were to be led through this maelstrom by none other than Louisa Reitz, a woman who claims a right to rule by blood and blood alone.

What has Louisa Reitz brought us, in these past weeks? Division, hunger, and repression. In Sargos, families go hungry and are shot for the privilege. Our children are drafted into the ranks of the Guard while our elderly are denied escape. Our own Duchess courts her Cryrian masters as she seeks to return us all to the embrace of Queen Katharine’s cursed line. Louisa Reitz has betrayed the Confederation and it has now become incumbent upon the Volscine people to see justice done and order restored. As of this broadcast, the men and women of the 73rd Infantry Brigade no longer recognize Louisa Reitz as the legitimate ruler of Charlottesborg and will proceed to enact her lawfully mandated arrest. We call upon all soldiers and civilians of Charlottesborg to recall their oaths and shared nationhood in this trying moment and to stand firm against this treason that is leveled against us.

Per Sempre Vittorioso!

-Brigadgeneral Auro Panariello of the 73rd Infantry Brigade

Karsholm Palace, Leidenstad

Sometimes Marlberg wished he’d lost.

Hell, sometimes he wished he’d never fought at all.

There were so many roads not taken in his career, and the Prime Minister liked to imagine that at least some of them would not have led him here - Sitting in this empty room with the portents of doom all around him.

The National Security Committee meeting had concluded some time ago, and its participants had shuffled off and returned to their far more important tasks. Marlberg had put on a calm face, as always, but now that he finally had a few moments alone, he could not bring himself to stir.

He had to give them all credit, things had gone down almost the way they’d predicted. Panariello was launching his coup in Charlottesborg, and only Ademar knew where it would end. There were small blessings - The Brigadgeneral had chosen to drape himself in memories of the Confederation instead of delivering an ethnic message. No doubt he felt that summoning the legitimacy of even a dead Volscine state would garner more support than the alternative. But blood was being spilled all the same now - The Duchess may have been having a breakdown if what Helena said was true, but her supporters at least had been ready. Panariello had sent battalions of his men into Charlottesborg, perhaps expecting his opponents to lose their nerve at the critical moment. Instead they’d been met with elements of the 1st Brigade, and now an orgy of violence consumed the city’s outskirts.

Marlberg wasn’t a military man by any means, but the flickering map was still projected up on the wall. None of it looked good. Panariello’s bases of support at Sargos and the Ohlssen Barracks controlled the center of the Duchy, and Reitz’s loyalists were still fragmented. And then there was the real curse - Charlottesborg International Airport. The Korkova Special Operations Group had swept in on their helicopters and seized it with scarcely a shot fired in anger. That one, the Security Committee had not anticipated, and now the route of escape for hundreds of Cryrian citizens and their families was well and truly sealed.

They’d be flocking to the consulate now, he imagined. The little building would not be able to take them all, and the only protections it offered were that of civilized diplomacy in a land where civilization had already shattered into base madness. It took no more than a glance at the map to show how near the fighting was to the place. Brutal, destructive, messy, the legacy of a superpower tearing itself to shreds. And amidst it all, Marlberg could feel the crushing pressure coming up from the Riksdag, to do something to protect their citizens and co-nationals - As if the major factions on the Asciec Peninsula could not each send the RCRN to the bottom if it left its bastions.

Marlberg exhaled heavily and aimlessly shuffled around the scattered papers left in front of him. There was nothing there he did not know already - Prices still skyrocketing for everything from food to luxuries. The Zavital Autonomy renewing its maritime claims once again. The Älemsi were almost certainly catching wind of Ademar’s Gate by now, and who could say whether Amrakh Gazarv would reel in its belligerent province as it had in the past? Desperate times, and the desperate measures to address them.

All things I should attend to.

The world would move on, with or without him. But as he called in the SPS men, one of them approached him with those words he now dreaded.

“Apologies, Prime Minister,” he said, “We received word while the Committee was in session. There is a problem…”

The Älemsi people are wholly aware of the Kingdom’s security concerns, but the Cryrian people should be equally cognizant that their present course risks destabilizing the Loopian Sea region. Such a destabilization will prove deleterious to the security of both Cryria and Älemsi Negdel. If the Kingdom does not address our concerns then we equally cannot be held responsible for the disruptions that will follow.

  • Private communique from Ambassador Ile Tseren of Älemsi Negdel to Foreign Minister Helena Reitz regarding the Ademar’s Gate project on 28 October, 2002

Mejlgård, Leidenstad

“General Panariello. General Panariello? Can you hear me?”

No answer.

Helena glanced up at Evert to find that the CID Director was murmuring into another phone. Moments passed before he hung up and turned back to her.

“It’s done,” he said simply.

Helena nodded, sinking slightly in her chair.

“The Guard is reporting a successful strike,” the Director went on, “Though it will take some time to confirm Panariello’s death. But your part, Minister, is done. I’m sure your sister will be pleased”

Her part. It had been small enough, and familiar too - All she’d had to do was lie. Lie to Panariello, invite him for another round of extended negotiations. How had the CID discovered the Brigadgeneral’s exact location from that? Helena could not say for sure, and Evert had been quick to repeat his oft-quoted adage that means and methods were the only real secrets in Mejlgård. Perhaps even now there was a Cryrian SIGINT unit in Charlottesborg, tracing the signal from Panariello’s satellite phone back to its source. Perhaps the rebel general had simply let slip his position over the course of the discussions in some way even Helena could not determine. Every word she’d said had been carefully thoroughly scripted by the CID, and that could not have been without reason.

Evert is not as blind in Volscina as he claimed, she considered, and perhaps by now the CDF itself was directly assisting with his operations there. It should have been a relief to know, but somehow it was not. The Securitate was most dangerous when it chose to keep secrets from the Government.

Whatever the case, the line was dead, and perhaps the man on the other end was as well.

“I’m sure she will be,” Helena agreed quietly. She had not spoken to Louisa since that last panicked phone call. By all accounts the Duchess had suffered from a nervous breakdown on the first day of the conflict, and was only now beginning to issue public statements again. Helena wasn’t sure what she might have done had she turned on the television today to witness Louisa’s execution at the hands of the Mutiny. Heavens knew, there was little enough any of them could do even as it was.

“A pleasure working with you, Minister,” Evert said, offering her a hand. The Foreign Minister stood and shook it. It was clearly time for her to go.

Even after all this, the fighting would rage on in the streets of Charlottesborg and the burning nation beyond it. Enough blood to drown a whale, and Louisa was going to spill her fair share of it if she wanted to survive.

Helena did not know if she had just killed a man today, but she prayed it was as close as she’d ever come.

“To allow this atrocity to go unanswered would be the greatest Cryrian humiliation since the Flaying of Vesterholm.”

-Minister Osvald Buhl on the Charlottesborg Consulate Massacre

The Low Bar, near Leidenstad Military Academy

“Dammit Hadi, get me some aragh, I know you’ve got some back there!”

The heavyset orc looked over the woman at the bar.

“Nah, you’ve had enough,” he grunted.

Saga Tynam scowled back at the man, “Damn right, I’ve had enough of this- shit!” she exclaimed, as a clumsy gesture sent her mug toppling over, its contents spilling across the counter.

“Ayssht, that’s on me,” Saga muttered. Hadi hurried to wipe away the mess, and she returned to nursing a black eye and trying to drown out the chatter.

The lack of chatter, rather. The Low Bar had always been a polite establishment - Most of its patrons came from the Military Academy and knew that rambunctiousness could bring some real punishment. But it had always been cheerful as well.

Today the mood was as dark as an Älemsi winter. Those few present had their attention fixed on the small television, eyes filled with grief, rage, or confusion. Saga didn’t want to look at the screen though, and she didn’t need to - It had been the same for hours now. Images of the burned-out consulate, furious parliamentarians, sleepless analysts… The consulate again.

Oh Siban…

She hadn’t been able to believe it when the notice came. Unaccounted for were the words, though Saga found she did not have it in her to hope that her brother had somehow departed the consulate before the attack. It was all the worse to not know if a body would ever be returned. No cremation, no last rites. Just a soul doomed to suffer in a rotting corpse till the stars grew cold. Perhaps Alessia and little baby Eva too, not that she’d ever gotten to meet either.

Not for the first time that night, Saga felt the overwhelming urge to vomit.

“Now you have definitely had enough,” Hadi said firmly as the last of the spill vanished, “Go sleep it off Tynam, unless you feel like starting another argument.”

“Hm,” Saga grimaced. The argument. She couldn’t even remember what the fellow had said before they’d been swinging at each other. It probably hadn’t mattered either - They’d both been angry, and it was a night for anger, “You should have seen the other guy.”

“I did. He beat the shit out of you,” Hadi laughed, “You’re active duty now, you should know better - First real fight I’ve seen in this place. I’d toss you out if I didn’t know this was a bad night for you.”

“Then give me some fucking aragh, asshole,” Saga retorted.

“Don’t have any,” Hadi shrugged, “Imports from Älemsi dropped off. Guess the old spat’s brewing again, fine time for it.”

Damn right it is, Saga thought sourly. The Legion had been so kind as to volunteer her for a liaison posting up there just as things were going to shit, and now she was stuck on a stupid layover in the middle of a national emergency.

“You don’t buy good aragh, you brew it.”

“That’s illegal.”

“So are you.”

The moment the words passed her lips, Saga wished she could eat them back, and the expression on the orc’s face left her wishing she could eat her tongue as well.

“I’ll go,” she muttered, a terrible sense of shame coming over her.

A few moments later Saga was staggering out into the cold Leidenstad streets, her only company the text on her phone she’d been ignoring all night.

>Pls pick up
>You should come home
>Your flight lands at GIA right?

For fucking what? She thought bitterly. Return to Tynam and mourn? Watch her parents try to look each other in the eye for the first time in a decade? Feel the combined weight of how much they’d all completely fucked up? Gods only could count all the madness that had left Siben stranded in that deathtrap. He should have been home, or she should have been with him, instead of being shipped off in the wrong direction.

A few hours later, Saga awoke to receive headaches and orders. Orders to return.

Not to Tynam, but Trauer.

“There are no doubt those who will insist that direct action would violate the Cryrian traditions of neutrality and military noninvolvement. I would remind them that justice is an older tradition still, one which we have held to since the Vydhaszi came to Vesterholm and the Veiled King to Leidenstad…”

  • Sir Richard Markussen, speaking to the Upper Chamber of the Riksdag in the aftermath of the Consulate Massacre

The Glaspalatset, Leidenstad

Rikard Widfross could feel the eyes boring into the back of his chair, but had no response to offer them. His pen frenetically scratched its way across the newspaper, though he had since ceased to pay much attention to what it was writing. In truth, he had never much cared for crosswords, but a love for puzzles had once taken him through a career in Naval Intelligence and now it was a welcome distraction from bitter truths.

The Palace of Glass was in uproar, bellowing all the sound and fury of a wounded beast.

An old, tired beast.

Widfross knew that better than most. Doubtless even now admirals and generals were sitting in Magnusholm and watching with growing horror as the politicians piled on their demands. What did they have to meet these calls? The weakest Cryrian fleet since the Sorrows? No, they’d get  the remaining expatriates out, and the CID men in Mejlgård would spend the next decade sharpening knives and smuggling bombs until everyone unfortunate enough to be named in association with this mess was either dead or buried so deep they might as well be.

But there would be no displays of might from here, only desperation.

An old, tired beast, back to the wall.

Gods, how the world had come undone…

A shrill ring from Widfross’ phone filled the Glaspalatset’s little canteen. He didn’t need to look at it to see who it was. Svea had been calling near hourly, and he was out of answers to give.

Did they say anything about Adi?

No, of course they haven’t.

What more was there to say? The consulate had burned, his wife with it. All that remained was to piece together the corpses, if any even remained.

So he let the phone ring on and hoped his sister would think him busy.

“They want to know if you plan to speak.”

Widfross looked up to see Markussen hovering over his table.

And if anyone’s giving the admirals and generals headaches…

The problem with the Upper Chamber, was that it was full of gits, and some of them had ideas, Markussen was certainly one of them.

“I think you have said plenty, Sir,” Widfross said tersely.

“It might be helpful to hear from you,” Markussen pressed on meaningfully, “Given your loss. You have a seat here as well, Count Widfross, and a voice.”

Widfross suddenly felt the overwhelming urge to strike the man. Instead he crumpled up his crossword with enough violence to make him step back in surprise.

“I think I’ve said everything I need to, Sir Markussen.”

“Citizens of Cryria.”

“In the past hours you may have heard reports regarding the grave situation in Charlottesborg where our consulate has been subjected to a planned and deliberate attack and more than sixty of our fellow citizens have been killed in cold blood. It is my regret to verify the truth of these reports.”

“On the day of October 22nd, 2002, mutinous forces in Charlottesborg launched an unprovoked and deadly assault on our civilians. The victims were diplomats, expatriates, exchange students, and dozens of others who had come to Charlottesborg in a time of peace only to be caught there in a time of war. They were targeted for no reason save for the rabidity of the terrorist movement which has seen fit to tear apart a peaceful territory in order to achieve its own ambitions. Our first thoughts must go to the families of those lost in this senseless act of violence.”

“This criminal action has not only struck at the Kingdom but also at the heart of the international norms of diplomacy which all nations rely upon. We as such call upon the international community’s support in our efforts to bring the perpetrators of this indiscriminate violation to justice.”

“With the clear collapse of governance throughout the former Volscine Confederation, it now falls to this Government to utilize all diplomatic and if necessary military means at its disposal to ensure the safety of Cryrian citizens who remain caught in the conflict. There are no doubt many among you who even now still anxiously await news of friends and loved ones. Is the unfortunate nature of my position that I can only assure you that their safe return remains our highest priority.”

“You may hear many things in the days to come as the situation on the ground evolves and we commit ourselves towards the protection of Cryrian lives abroad and continue to grapple with the impacts of the conflict at home. In these difficult times I call upon the steadfast and orderly spirit that has held our nation together in its darkest moments. Today we face the test of our time, but it is an old test, one in which we have prevailed time and again through our strength and faith. Today we are shocked but composed, mourning but determined. Cryria shall rise to this challenge as she rose for a thousand others.”

“En Eveight Till!”

  • Prime Minister Charles Marlberg, 22 October, 2002

Karsholm Palace, Leidenstad

The image was still projected up on the wall, but it needn’t have been. The sight of the burning consulate had seared itself into Helena’s mind, along with that awful thought she could not shake.

We did this.

Her eyes tracked across the room. The whole Committee was here, from the Prime Minister to the Securitate to the Chief of the General Staff to everyone in between. Some watched stony-faced, some with shock, or anger. Helena lingered on Evert for a moment - He alone seemed to be at ease, though she could not tell if it was an act or not.

We did this.

Gods, the things they did for family. When Evert had come to her that had been Helena’s first thought. If she alone could bring Panariello into opening that fateful dialogue with Leidenstad, then she alone could see to his demise. And Louisa and everyone else with the last name of Reitz might not find themselves in front of a firing squad.

But there had been no moment of victory after the Brigadgeneral’s death. Only a new sort of chaos and madness.

Now they were here, at the end of the line. The Prime Minister had spoken of military force as a last resort in his speech, but in truth everyone in this room knew that it was the only resort left. All that remained to be known was its nature and its costs.

“Minister Reitz,” Marburg suddenly cut through Helena’s reverie, “What of your discussions with the Civil War factions?”

Helena cleared her throat, “With the assistance of the CID, we have maintained a level of dialogue with both remnants of the Volscine Confederation and the newly formed Volscine Empire, despite the removal of our formal diplomatic presence in Volscina. While the short timetable provided to the Foreign Ministry makes it difficult to hold any significant dialogue about a potential intervention into Charlottesborg, I think it is safe to say at this stage that the remaining elements of the Volscine Confederation will not look fondly on us for acting in what they still consider to be their sovereign territory - I imagine Panariello’s early decision to declare his loyalty to the Confederation has paid some dividends there as well. The Empire, on the other hand, is more amenable.”

“As they ought to be,” Evert grunted, “Costs them nothing at this stage.”

“And they are not the recognized government in any case,” Helena agreed.

“Perhaps we should look into changing that,” Marburg stated, “The Confederation has demonstrated that it can no longer exercise authority over its territory. If the Empire becomes the legitimate government and approves of our actions, then our actions too hold legitimacy.”

“”We would, of course, also make a powerful enemy,” Holgerssen, the General Staff chief, said softly, “Particularly if the Confederacy should stabilize itself for the long term. The Foreign Minister said it herself, they consider this to be a violation of their sovereignty. And we would now be declaring their government wholly illegitimate. I need not remind you that there are still considerable forces available to the Volscine factions of this conflict, and they will not remain occupied with each other forever. We could face serious retaliation in the future.”

“All the more reason to keep Ademar’s Gate on track,” responded Fältskog, the Defense Minister, “That is our only real guarantor at the end of the day. The world has proven that much in these past months.”

“On that topic,” Helena interjected, “I trust you have all read the Foreign Ministry brief on the situation around Älemsi Negdel?”

“Least of our fucking problems right now,” Marlberg muttered, “Have they said what they actually want yet?”

“They have not,” Helena said, “Doubtless, they themselves do not know for certain. The Northern Waters Dispute has always been complex, which is why it has also always been in everyone’s interest to ignore it… till now. But the Älemsi have gained an inkling of what we intend, and they know their chance to settle matters favorably may soon be lost for good.”

“Ah, these fuckers,” Marlberg rubbed his face, “Fine, get them to state an actual position. And make sure the relevant Autonomies agree with the national government this time, we don’t want the usual mess around that… Though heavens know it’s not like we can afford to make many concessions at this stage without looking even weaker than we already do.”

Helena nodded, and Marlberg turned his attention back to Holgerssen, “Well, General. I believe you were about to discuss the plans for this… Operation Caroline?”

Holgerssen nodded, and a map sprang up on the screen.

And now the guns will do the talking.

Sustaining a deployment at Charlottesborg International will become increasingly difficult with time, particularly as Volscine elements begin to inevitably desire either our withdrawal or our more favorable involvement. It is the General Staff’s belief that a one-week deployment would be ideal, and anything beyond two weeks would become highly risky.

  • General Staff report on Operation Caroline

Charlottesborg International Airport

The machine grumbled, then spurted its black liquid out into the waiting cup. Saga reached for it, then hissed in irritation as a few scalding drops splashed out onto her shaking hand.


All the world had been a turgid dream since she’d left Leidenstad - Or perhaps more like a movie, to be watched in helpless third person. In a way, Saga was grateful for the automatic, inexorable nature of it all. The Kingdom had rolled out the machine of war, and as one cog in it all she needed to do now was turn. A cog could feel no grief, bitterness, or fear. It could not be crushed beneath the knowledge that lives had been placed beneath her.

The dream was over now, and the dreamer was awakened even before the scalding coffee struck. Reinforcements from Trauer had arrived that morning, and though they remained grievously overstretched holding the airport, there was now a moment of respite.

Worse yet, a moment to think.

Charlottesborg International’s terminal had been beyond transformed. Two days ago it had been a sight for fire and fury when the Flygbasjägarna had brought down their wrath. Here and there one could still see the bullet holes and old bloodstains where the rebels had made their stands. Now it was as silent as a grave, the groups of patrolling soldiers its keepers. Only the food court in any way resembled its original purpose, as groups of fatigued soldiers from the first wave collected beneath the proud sign of the Royal Rodokan Coffee Company and almost casually took to making use of its facilities. Here and there Saga could see faces that she ought to recognize more easily - It had all been so rushed since her assignment to the Legion, though, and now nothing was as it should be.

After all, she should not be here, the airport should be full of vacationers, and Siban should be safely completing his studies at the University.

Stupid and stupid.

Saga heard footsteps behind her and turned to find one of the local Guards soldiers approaching. The flash of annoyance she’d felt was almost instinctive - The Ducal Guard had almost been worse than useless throughout this entire ordeal. She privately wished that they’d expelled the lot of them from the airport at this point, consequences be damned.

“Is it no longer customary among the Cryrian Army to salute a foreign officer?” the woman asked drily. Immediately, Saga recognized this one, Kapten’s strips and all. She’d been there when Favale had assaulted the Överste. Somewhere, back in that dream again, Saga could recall drawing her weapon on the Charlottesborger commander and his staff in turn.

All of it stupid.

She’d been ordered to forget the incident entirely, but that did not stop Saga from merely tilting her head with the barest hint of contempt at the woman’s question. The Kapten merely snorted in response.

“Well, I suppose it is not as if we are considered real soldiers, are we,” she muttered, “For that we would need a country.”

And a modicum of fucking professionalism, Saga wanted to say. She held back the retort however, and not merely for the sake of relations between the two forces. The woman’s eyes were heavy with a familiar sort of exhaustion. This one had likely watched her nation eviscerate itself into a blood-soaked warzone, and now her own home had torn itself asunder. Perhaps she was one of the few real soldiers, a scion of what had once been the greatest military in Novaris. Perhaps she was just some unlucky territorial pulled into this catastrophe, left to guard an airport while guessing at how many of her friends and family were dead now. The uniform was certainly ill-fitting.

Another one who should not ever have been here.

Saga sighed quietly, and as the Kapten made for the coffee machine she instead offered her own as-of-yet untouched cup.

“It’s probably shit,” she said, holding it out, “But what isn’t?”

The woman hesitated a moment, and then accepted it. She took a sip, then coughed and burst into laughter.

“What isn’t?”

Our observation confirms that the Kapan Autonomous Militia has indeed begun a general mobilization. It should be again noted that unlike lesser Autonomous Militias within Älemsi Negdel, the KAM is trained to a standard within reach of the regular Älemsi National Army. Although the KAM remains a largely light infantry force without the air and naval support arms needed to present a credible threat to Cryrian territorial integrity within the Tynam Archipelago, this should nonetheless be understood as a deliberate show of force by the Kapan Autonomy.

It is further evident that the Älemsi National Military is remaining in its bases for the time being. In one sense this should prove heartening and is further a demonstration that there will be no large-scale military action taken against the Tynam Archipelago. Simultaneously however, this along with the lack of public or private statements from Amrakh Gazarv also suggests that the National Government will not intercede to calm tensions as it has done in the past. Should this lax attitude towards the Kapan Autonomy persist, we may begin to see the KAM begin violating Cryrian maritime boundaries with patrol vessels and armed trawlers as it has done in the past, or potentially even go so far as to attempt a landing on Yeralik. As such it will fall to both the RCRN and the RCRAF to adjust their patrolling of the region accordingly to accommodate this new reality…

  • Cryrian General Staff Report to the Prime Minister, October 25, 2002

The Glaspalatset, Leidenstad 

“God, was the food here always this shit?”

Helena affixed the Prime Minister with a sharp look, and the man at least had the decency to look embarrassed, “Right, sorry,” he muttered. Either the climbing costs of food had started to hit the dining hall at the Glaspalatset, or more likely someone had been smart enough to realize the poor optics of Riksdag members eating far too well while grocery shelves were still running dry on the regular.

“Do you remember what you said, at the Bekännelsekväll?” Marlberg asked suddenly, “What was it…. ‘None of you are nearly as frightened as you should be?’”

“Prime Minister,” Helena said softly, “Bekännelsekväll statements are…”

“Anonymous, I know,” Marlberg said wryly, “Don’t worry, I have not broken that confidence. But I do know only one person who would have written such a thing. It was you, was it not?”

The Foreign Minister found no point in denying the obvious, and so merely nodded.

“Good, else I’d have looked like even more of an idiot,” Marlberg laughed, and then stopped. His expression grew grim, “I think I am now as frightened as I can be, Minister Reitz.”

“I wrote in haste at the Bekännelsekväll-”

“You wrote truthfully, which was the point,” Marlberg interrupted, “Look, Helena, very shortly we are going to walk into the Andra Kammaren and hold a vote to effectively end our recognition of the greatest power in Novaris all while our troops are sitting on their territory.”

“The Confederation was once the greatest power,” Helena murmured.

“And from where I’m sitting it’s still pretty damned great,” Marlberg responded, “We’ve talked about this, and I understand the necessity. Our hopes ride with the Empire now. But we are now truly in the dark, and we cannot know where our road will lead. Perhaps a year from now, we will discover that we spat in the face of the victors. Perhaps we might not even need to wait that long. Minister… We could die if we’re wrong. We are all but endorsing the Confederation’s destruction and they might kill us for it someday.”

“Aye, no doubt about it,” Helena agreed, “We could just as easily die if we are right. It is what we are born to do, after all. But this is, as you say, our necessary course. Perhaps pray that Special Materials earns its keep and delivers your nuclear deterrent. The idea did comfort you so once, did it not?”

Almost immediately, Helena wished she could take that back, but Marlberg was already nodding.

“It did, once,” he said, “And perhaps there is still some salvation to be found in the force of arms, should all else fail. But Ademar’s Gate would not have helped us avoid what happened in Charlottesborg, it has probably created our issues with Älemsi, and it will not solve any of the thousand other problems we face. All its completion will mean is… one less thing to keep us up at night.”

“That is life,” the Foreign Minister said simply.

Marlberg just shook his head, and then smiled, “I will admit, Minister. I had my doubts about retaining you on the Cabinet. Still do. But you’ve never been anything less than honest with me. For that I thank you.”

“I take it the other responses at the Bekännelsekväll were uninspiring?”

The Prime Minister snorted, “Positively insipid.”

“Hm. I have one more hard truth for you Prime Minister, if you would like it.”

Marlberg waited patiently and motioned for her to continue.

“There will always be a little more for you to fear.”

“As with all military matters, the first and greatest obstacles we will face in executing Operation Caroline will be logistical ones. As planned, the Operation will rely on the CDF’s airlift capabilities to deploy our forces, deliver their supplies, conduct the evacuation, and complete our bargain with the Duchess. Those same capabilities are however inherently limited with around two-dozen fixed-wing transports of sufficient size currently operable. Airlift capacity may become further strained if escalations in the Northern Waters Dispute force the CDF to conduct a rapid redeployment of our rapid response forces to Tynam. Altogether it is the General Staff’s opinion that the CDF lacks the immediate capability to sustain this operation with the assets currently at its disposal. There remains an opportunity to rectify this through the Mobilization Act, which would allow for the temporary requisition of aircraft and crews from Cryrian-based civilian airfleets. Even this pool is limited however, and brings with it certain disruptions across the Kingdom’s air travel and transportation network. To ensure the swiftest compliance and easiest integration, we recommend that any such mobilization begin with the Royal Cryrian Airways. The General Staff’s estimates are as follows…”

  • Cryrian General Staff report prior to Operation Caroline

Gustav International Airport, Tynam

Tynam. Sista Paus. The Last Stop. Once the final friendly port for Cryrian vessels voyaging into the unknowns of the Far North, and the first welcoming beacon for those returning, draped in their success.

Joacim Palme was returning, but he carried only failure.

Well, perhaps that was a bit of a silly notion. What responsibility could some junior diplomat bear for the spat that was now unfolding between Leidenstad and Amrakh Gazarv? Heavens knew, officially he didn’t even have a clue why the consulate had been shut down - Though unofficially it might as well have been broadcasted over the television by now. The Kingdom was enacting many great gambles for its survival, it had only been a matter of time before it sought a nuclear hedge to those bets. The Älemsi, who had just a month ago smelled blood in these cold waters, now feared they would not have a chance to get their pound of flesh.

And speaking of what was on the television…

Palme’s eyes were drawn to one of the screens lining the terminal walls. All about Charlottesborg, of course. Now there was a name to make a man’s heart grow heavy in these dark times. There was still not a word of news about Erik, and Palme did not imagine they would ever get one now. His cousin had doubtless joined the dozens of others immolated in the consulate, and he had to wonder if that might have been his own eventual fate, had his own posting in Zavital Khümüüs remained open. The way the Kapans were talking, they might as well already be at war… and Palme had not one doubt that they were the ones behind Amrakh’s decision to begin expelling Cryrian diplomats.

“Good heavens, is that Tynam’s kid?” Anja suddenly asked. Palme hadn’t noticed the eagle-eyed cultural attaché’s arrival, but now she was seated next to him, pointing back to the television.

“Yes,” Palme mused, “I suppose it is.”

The first images of Charlottesborg International were reaching the world - Crowds of civilians rushing to the airport gates in the hopes of an evacuation, soldiers patrolling the perimeter. Some Defense Ministry-approved photographs of the secured terminal, and… ah, there it was. A woman Palme might have dismissed as another Älemsi soldier in the Legion offering a cup of coffee to some Volscine officer as though they were on a bloody date. Palme could not claim to know Saga Tynam any better than he knew most of the Kingdom’s aristocratic circles, but even in footage taken from some surviving security camera, she looked half dead on her feet.

“They left the faces unblurred,” Anja observed, “Defense Ministry wants to put this one in the history books.”

Palme had to nod. Captured as it was, he could almost believe the display was unstaged.

“There’s usually a delay on these releases,” Anja mused, “I’d say, taken a day after the initial landing perhaps…”

“What are you,” Palmed laughed, “An intelligence attaché now?”

Anja’s lips twitched, but she said nothing. Palme supposed he should have known better than to ask. Practically every posting had at least one, of course, and he’d always assumed that Anja’s was theirs. Knowing this was not a comforting thought at all - Now that she was flying home as well, they might well be nearly blind in the Kapan Autonomy.

Which, of course, is what the bastards probably wanted…

Oh, trouble was brewing up here alright, even as all eyes were on Charlottesborg.

An announcement echoed across the terminal.

“Due to unstable weather conditions above Tynam, all arriving and departing flights have been placed on hold. We apologize for any inconvenience.”

“Bullshit,” Anja breathed, “Something’s wrong.” Palme didn’t have to look at the clear skies outside to agree with her. All eyes turned to the FIDS screen as a pair of words scrolled down each airline’s column.


November 1, 2002

Cryrian, Älemsi Air Forces Exchange Hundreds of Warning Shots

Cryrian Örn 39 Gripen fighter jet conducting cold weather trials in Tynam

Tynam— Royal Cryrian Air Force fighters exchanged over three-hundred Älemsi warplanes that entered Tynami airspace on Thursday morning, according to the Ministry of Defense.

Interceptions within the Cryrian Air Defense Identification Zone(CADIZ) are common as the Älemsi government contests both the legality of CADIZ restrictions and Cryrian maritime claims in northern Tynam. However, serious intrusions have not taken place since the 1960s, and this is the first time recognized Cryrian airspace has been violated by Älemsi aircraft.

The incident could reignite old conflicts within the region. Despite decades of improving ties between the two CAC members, Älemsi Negdel has recently reaffirmed its claim to the uninhabited Yeralik island which holds religious significance to both the Kapan People of eastern Älemsi and the Ay People of northern Tynam. Yeralik’s surrounding waters are also seen as economically important to both groups.

Successive Cryrian governments have maintained that Yeralik’s status as Cryrian territory was settled by the Chauşam Agreement, which saw the status of the island’s populated neighbors determined by popular referendums. Two days ago the Älemsi government expelled several Cryrian diplomats from the embassy in Amrakh Gazarv and closed the Cryrian consulate in Zavital Khümüüs. Khagan Ashighemur Mukhali of the Kapan Autonomy recently demanded the return of Yeralik and the Adya Shrine Temples “To the Kapan People and the Älemsi nation by any means necessary.” Local officials have announced large-scale exercises by the Kapan Autonomous Militia, although the Älemsi National Armed Forces are not said to be taking part in these maneuvers.

According to the Cryrian Ministry of Defense, the past month has seen an escalating number of CADIZ incursions by the Älemsi National Air Force. On Thursday, an Älemsi fighter jet overflew Yeralik island before being intercepted and escorted away by Cryrian aircraft. Soon afterwards, another group of four Älemsi warplanes ignored Cryrian hails and entered the Tynam Straits. This time Cryrian aircraft fired in warning, and the Älemsi jets responded in kind.

The Älemsi Defense Ministry said that its aircraft had made a planned flight but denied any deliberate violation and claimed that they were forced into Tynami airspace by “Reckless maneuvers” from the Cryrian pilots. It made no mention of the incident over Yeralik.

“This is not the first time that the Cryrian Air Force has unsuccessfully attempted to prevent Älemsi aircraft from operating over the Loopian Sea,” the Ministry said, before reiterating that it did not recognize the CADIZ.

The incidents led to a brief halt in traffic to and from several airports in Tynam, including Gustav International. The Älemsi National Air Force utilized Cryrian-built Örn 37 Viggen fighters which had been sold during the 1990s as relations with Amrakh Gazarv warmed and the RCRAF sought to retire the aging aircraft. This latest escalation has led to calls among the Riksdag for Örn AB to cease providing maintenance and support for the aircraft, although many parts are now license-built in Älemsi Negdel itself.

The Cryrian Foreign Ministry has summoned Älemsi Ambassador Boroghul Tugan to lodge a complaint.

While the Kapan Autonomous Militia is unlikely to pose anything beyond a nuisance-level threat, the balance of forces around Tynam has become increasingly concerning. The RCRAF and RCRN presence in the Duchy has been heavily diminished to safeguard the Cryrian Isles from a potential spillover from the Volscine Civil War, or worse, a deliberate retaliation in the aftermath of recent actions and decisions. While the 7th Fighter Wing continues to present a formidable force, most of the air defense network has been stripped from the region. The Fleet presence has similarly been reduced to coastal combatants and patrol vessels. Further, most of the rapid response units the CDF would use to reinforce the Duchy are presently occupied in Charlottesborg.

Faced with the reality that any conflict in Tynam will rely primarily on air and naval power, we must also acknowledge that the CDF now operates at a marked disadvantage should the Älemsi National Military choose to mobilize its strength for a violent seizure of territory. Conversely, any diversion of the needed naval and aviation assets to Tynam would undermine Cryrian posture in the south. Should current projections hold, an open conflict would likely force the CDF to abandon much of Northern Tynam and instead consolidate within a more defensible perimeter around Baltu and the Peninsula. While such an invasion remains unlikely and Amrakh Gazarv appears to be aware of the heavy tolls it would bring upon their own forces and economy, the General Staff will undertake the following adjustments…

  • Cryrian General Staff report, November 2, 2002

Karsholm Palace, Leidenstad

Leidenstad was choking.

The thought brought no particular joy to Boroghul Tugan. In his time here he had come to appreciate the gentle elegance of the Cryrian capital. A poet could not have done justice to the sight of the seasmoke lifting from the canals and unveiling the ancient maze of islands, bridges, and palaces where history had once been forged. When Tugan had first witnessed the sight, he had almost felt the old imperial core smirking at him from behind her white veil. The Kingdom had ever borne the faintest sense of arrogance, etched upon the faces of its leaders and citizens alike. A demeanor borne of self-assured invulnerability, untarnished by history. What was the old saying? ‘An island in troubled waters.’

Once, the thought of seeing Leidenstad brought low might have elicited some satisfaction from the Älemsi Ambassador. But watching it in truth was almost… heartbreaking. Oh, to be sure, things were stable - Tugan was by now convinced that there was nothing in this world short of the travails of the Great War which could bring a Cryrian population to riot. But he could practically taste the strain in the air. Fear of the sort the Shrouded City had not felt since the Scouring.

Perhaps for the first time in its history, the Kingdom of Cryria had come to fear tomorrow.

And they are not the only ones, Tugan mused even as he traded barbed formalities with the Cryrian Foreign Minister. These were frightening times, and even more frighteningly there were those who did not seem to recognize this. Already, there were too many voices among the Grand Mazhilis who did not recognize that display above Tynam as the carefully crafted ploy it was, but instead saw a demonstration of an Älemsi military superiority that did not exist. Perhaps most worrying of all, the Kapan were no longer the only loud voices with these ideas.

“Well Ambassador,” Reitz finally said, “Allow me to cut to the point. What exactly do you people think you’re doing? Because from where I’m sitting, Amrakh Gazarv has decided to start another Yeralik Crisis and set our relations back by over half a century.”

And already we are off to a good start…

He couldn’t blame the Foreign Minister - Well, that wasn’t true, he very much could. Reitz and the rest of her government had been given more than their fair share of chances to take Älemsi concerns seriously. They were, as ever, far too comfortable to do so however, until now when Leidenstad’s hand had finally been forced. All the same, Tugan could not muster any particular ill will towards Reitz. She was merely the present representative of the twisted, tangled mess Cryrian imperial dreams had left behind in the Far North.

“Over the past two days Älemsi aircraft and patrol vessels have undertaken a systemic campaign of harassment and boundary violations against Cryrian waters and airspace,” Reitz continued unabated, “And your stunt above Tynam Airport very nearly caused lives! I could understand if the Kapan Autonomy was slipping its leash again, but this is your national military actively creating dozens of separate incidents. Explain yourself.”

Ah, now those words did bring forth some ire in Tugan. But the Ambassador was skilled in quashing such things, and when he spoke he was again the picture of diplomacy.

“Minister,” he began, “I must object to your description of the Kapan Autonomy as anything other than an integral part of the Negdel whose actions have and will always enjoy the fullest Älemsi support. This extends to the claim on Yeralik Island, which has been integral Älemsi territory since the Khaghanate and remains a cultural centerpoint for the Kapan People. Its status as such was confirmed by the Chauşam Agreement and though your government continues an illicit occupation of the Island, it cannot be said that we have committed any such violations when we have only entered our own rightful air and maritime spaces. The incident above Tynam was regrettable but equally an inevitable result of your government’s continued intransigence on the topic of settling the Northern Waters Dispute. You have refused my entreaties regarding this subject and I have warned time and again that the Älemsi People cannot be eternally ignored on matters of their territorial sovereignty or national security.”

Tugan liked to think his own words had raised some anger in the Cryrian woman, but if they had she too did well to conceal it.

“Ambassador,” Reitz replied, “I could stand here and reiterate how the Agreement made no reference to Yeralik, how it has been Tynami for centuries and how it holds equal importance to the Ay People after they were driven out from their own home by the Kapan. But you have no doubt heard all of this. Everyone has. We’ve been playing this game for decades now.”

She tapped her fingers atop her desk, as though in thought, “I understand,” the Cryrian went on, “What many in your Grand Mazhilis say of my nation’s present circumstances. Yet I believe you, Ambassador, must equally know that those words and these actions would inevitably force the Kingdom into a response that would benefit neither of us. Our preoccupations with the Mainland last only so long as it remains the greatest threat to Cryrian lives, and you are fast beginning to give the Volscine Civil War a run for its money in that regard. Already, there is talk in the Riksdag of economic measures.”

Of that, Tugan had no doubt. A trade war would hurt the Cryrians of course, quite badly even. Worse than they could currently afford, perhaps. But it would be disastrous in the Negdel, and all the development efforts since the 1990s would go up in smoke. To say nothing of what might happen if the two nations actually came to blows…

And yet, this was a negotiation, and one which required more bluster than truths.

“Forgive me, Minister,” Tugan said, in a voice not at all apologetic, “But it seems to me that economic measures have already been implemented, in truth if not yet on paper. My government invested heavily into the CDU reactors at Amrakh Gazarv, only for all construction to cease mid-way. Your airlines greatly disrupted travel within our own borders in their effort to meet your military’s requisitions. And at every turn, we have not been consulted and our complaints have been ignored. I am beginning to think that Cryria takes its relationship with Älemsi Negdel for granted.”

“Do not be unreasonable Ambassador,” Reitz said sharply, “The disruptions posed by the conflict on the Mainland are very much out of my government’s hands, and you are very much aware of that. If your actions stem from some broken contracts and some rock in the Rotantic, then you are completely out of line. Cryria has never seen the Negdel as anything less than an equal partner, which is why I am telling you now that your government has now driven the stakes far too high. We are at risk of a serious miscalculation here if you will not be honest with me.”

A rock in the Rotantic…

Just like that, Reitz had said the quiet part out loud. It was indeed no doubt just a rock in the Rotantic for her, and likely every other person in this building. Protecting Yeralik was no more than a means by which to win votes in northern Tynam, and for a brief moment Tugan wished he could instead speak to one of those Tynami politicians who at least held Yeralik dear.

This was, of course, not something he could say aloud.

“You speak of dishonesty causing miscalculations, Minister,” Tugan said drily, “I wonder if this extends to the continued disingenuity surrounding your government’s reactivated nuclear program.”

Gods, at least have the decency to look surprised.

That Reitz apparently had no such thing all but confirmed it. She’d known that he’d known, and yet she’d been willing to lie to his face about it all the same until now.

“The Kingdom has always been forthright about its activities in the Rotantic Circle,” Helena said carefully, “But it also remains our position that activities undertaken elsewhere to ensure our security should not be Amrakh Gazarv’s concern.”

Tugan scoffed, “Surely you can see how a Cryrian nuclear arsenal would be detrimental to our interests. You have already stonewalled for decades on Yeralik, am I to expect that once the island is under a nuclear umbrella you will somehow be more inclined to discuss its future? Or that of the Northern Waters as a whole? Do you think this is something I can tell my government?”

The Ambassador shook his head, “Look, Minister,” he said, “I can understand the position you are in presently. Truly, I do. It is an unenviable one. I also believe that it is not necessarily in the interests of the Negdel to prevent you from establishing your deterrent… provided that the Kingdom proves willing to guarantee certain interests of our own. Despite recent events it has been and still is my desire to see that we can help one another.”

“And how do you propose to do this?” Reitz asked coldly.

Tugan clasped his hands on the table, “Very simply, Minister. I think we can both agree that the development of Cryrian nuclear capabilities may not go unremarked on by the world at large. I think it can also be said that it would be very difficult for anyone to accuse the Cryrian state of acting in a destabilizing manner if its largest neighbor should state its support for such a development. Equally, we must both agree that Älemsi security and territorial integrity must be assured. Thus, before any Cryrian program can be completed, the Kingdom must cede to us Yeralik Island and its contested maritime spaces. The Kingdom must further provide assurances that it will not seek to develop anything beyond a minimal deterrence arsenal consisting of gravity bombs only, and it must further commit to the permanent denuclearization of the Duchy of Tynam, with an allowance for Älemsi observers to that effect. My government would further demand hard limits on the total number of Cryrian devices, which at present remain open to discussion.”

About half an hour later, Tugan’s vehicle was once again making its way through the snowswept streets of Leidenstad. Reitz’s final words still circulated in his mind.

“I thank you for your candor Ambassador. I will see to it that the Prime Minister is made aware of your concerns and your proposal.”

It was almost as good as nothing. Oh, they’d finally made the Cryrians sit down and have a serious discussion, but it was clear that Leidenstad still considered itself to be above making concessions. Given enough time and effort, Tugan was certain that could be changed - But time was not on anyone’s side. Älemsi leverage would rapidly vanish once the Cryrian program reached its completion, and more importantly his own government had tapped into an unstable mix of ideology by reigniting this old conflict. The Kapan and their allies would hear of what had happened today, and would see that a show of force had made their old overlords pay attention.

And their conclusions would be as simple as they were dangerous.

“Mister Markussen’s insinuations regarding the loyalty of any member of the Defense do not merit any consideration or response.”

“So you believe that Sir Markussen is incorrect to question the loyalty of Älemsi soldiers in the Foreign Legion in the event of a conflict in Tynam?"

“I advise Mister Markussen to elevate his thinking.”

  • CNN interview with former Army Chief of Staff Kasper Mouritsen


‘There will come a day when the last pebble is washed into the sea.’

That was the old Cryrian sailor’s prophecy. The oldest one, perhaps.

If all the world was condemned to the deep, then Trauer was ahead of the curve today. The waves lashed at the rocky shoreline with a cold fury, and gray skies stretched on into infinity. The wind was like a scythe atop the sheer cliffs that defined the island’s southern coast, cutting through even the heavy army coat that Saga hugged tightly around herself.

“You brought enough to share or what?”

Iturgen drained the last drop and then peered down the bottle’s neck.

“Nope!” he said pleasantly, and sent it flipping end over end into the ocean far below. Saga watched it go.

“Someone’ll have your head for that.”

Iturgen just grinned and sat down beside her, kicking his legs off the side of the drop, “If they can find it down there, they’re welcome to my head and more!”

For that, Saga could only grunt in agreement.

“So this is where you take your leave, eh?” the man laughed, “At least it’s warm!”

Leave. That was what they were calling it, she supposed. Heavens knew they’d certainly earned as much. But if the nastier things Saga had heard were true, it was just as likely that the Foreign Legion had far too many Älemsi citizens in it, and nobody wanted them near the guns… but she wasn’t stupid enough to voice these thoughts out loud, and she certainly didn’t have the heart to break that news to Iturgen. Not while she could still tell herself it was all just more silly rumors from a frightened country.

So instead she just shrugged, “You’re here too, aren’t you?”

“Hah, only until noon. Then it’s the ferry for me. I’m going to catch a train to Lielsta,” he said proudly.

“Lielsta?” Saga scoffed, “You choose that shithole? Might as well just stay here on the cliffs with me!”

“Says the rich girl,” Iturgen snorted, “The mountains are said to be very nice right now. Cheap too, no Volscines taking their ski vacations for some reason.”

“You could have just stayed in Älemsi if you wanted to see snow,” Saga remarked. The wind had picked up, and they were practically shouting to make themselves heard.

“But I’ve already seen that snow! This is different snow!”

Saga nodded quietly and then turned to face the man with all seriousness, “Be careful up there, yeah?” she warned, “People are acting all sorts of crazy right now. And Lielsta’s always been…”

She trailed off, trying to remember the correct Älemsi word for it, and then settled on one.

“Full of bad air.”

Iturgen just laughed again, “The Kapan are causing problems. I’m Amrakhii,” he said, as though it made all the difference in the world.

Oh Itu. Gods bless your heart. Saga doubted that anything would befall the absolute mountain of a cavalryman, but she had been to Lielsta before. The oxygen in that city always felt charged, as though it were just waiting for an excuse to explode. Too much history there - None of it Älemsi, but when had that ever meant anything?

Saga just shook her head, “You are a hopeless case, Itu. Next time ask me, I’ll show you someplace worth a damn.”

“Ah, maybe you can get me a proper tour of Charlottesborg,” Iturgen said cheekily, “Bit of a shame they didn’t send the Cavalry, we’d have gotten that place sorted. I saw you made a friend though. Nice photo op, MoD ate it right up. Real war hero stuff right there.”

He paused dramatically, and then proclaimed in a voice that could have been on the Älemsi National Broadcasting Service, “‘A demonstration of the long and harmonious friendship between the Cryrian and Volscine peoples in the pursuit of justice and order!’”

“Fuck you.”

Iturgen raised his hands in apology, “No, really though, did she make it out alright?”

The wind was dying down again, but her whisper was still inaudible.

“I don’t know.”

In truth, she hadn’t spoken to the Volscine Captain again after their brief encounter. Life at Charlottesborg International had once again descended back into a mechanical process. Get this unloaded, get that on a plane, try not to hear the pleas from the mob outside and hope that a desperate mother didn’t try to throw their child over the gates again…

But she had seen the bitter looks of betrayal in the eyes of the Territorials when they’d been ordered out of the airport without the ticket to safety they had hoped for. The Captain had surely been among them, and now on this distant rock Saga could only hope that she was still safe, somewhere. To hope for any sort of forgiveness would be far too much.

One more thing to forget.

Thoughts of Charlottesborg inevitably led to thoughts of Alessia and Eva.

Was it silly perhaps, to worry so much more about a sister-in-law and a niece she’d never even met?

Heavens knew, she prayed that they at least had been on a flight out. But Saga feared that she might never know, and trying to convince her parents to do anything to help was like screaming into the void at this point…

“Ey, Tynam?” Iturgen had turned to her, realizing he’d heard no response.

… Perhaps they were dead too, or stuck in that hellhole. Or rotting in some refugee camp on Talvere, forgotten…

“Turi? Hello?” Iturgen snapped his fingers in front of her face, but hearing her Älemsi name brought Saga back to reality.

“I think I’ll go to Valngi,” she said suddenly.

“Eh?” Iturgen asked bemusedly, “The place is overrun with refugees, you know?”

Saga was already nodding to herself, “Yeah, it’s warm, it’s nice, they’ve got good food. I’ll go to Valngi. When’s the next ferry, do you know?”

“In an hour, I think…:

“Good, plenty of time for you to go get me a drink before I leave,” Saga smirked, “War hero privileges, don’t you know?”

“The Cryrians and their Tynami satraps built an empire through the theft of Älemsi blood and Älemsi wealth. Today they persist in the theft of Älemsi land and Älemsi history.”

“But it is not good to speak ill of the dying.”

  • Khagan Ashighemur Mukhali speaking to soldiers of the Kapan Autonomous Militia

Karsholm Palace, Leidenstad

The sugar cube sank into Helena’s teacup and was soon followed by another. The Foreign Minister sighed, and settled into one of the overlarge armchairs that crowded the Cabinet Lounge. She hadn’t so much as stepped in here since the Bekännelsekväll - Admittedly a mistake for any cabinet minister who wanted to last long. It was important to make friends, doubly so for a holdover from the last government like her. And there were important things said in this room, things that would not be said at any official meeting.

But Helena Reitz was tired. Desperately tired. The professional diplomats were handling talks with the Älemsi now, thank Ademar, but yesterday there had been another grueling phone conference with her counterpart in Amrakh. The demands were growing more specific and more aggressive, and it had been followed by yet another National Security Committee meeting on the matter. Then there had been a long, Cabinet briefing on the economic situation whose projected return to some semblance of stability might have been heartening had it not immediately been followed by a longer, harder talk on the refugee situation. Southern Talvere was getting pushed to its breaking point.

And who isn’t, at this point?

Then today she’d enjoyed lunch with that snake Evert, which ought to qualify anyone for a fucking knighthood. All the while the ghosts of Charlottesborg seemed to haunt her every step, whether in the form of periodic reports coming in from the Duchy or the odd personal communication from her few surviving contacts down there.

Helena’s eyes wandered over to the newspaper on the coffee table, and, of course…

53 of 64 Bodies Returned from Charlottesborg Consulate, Only 27 Identified

Helena was hardly a religious individual, and she liked to think that the past months had somewhat inoculated her to the bitter realities of life. But this heading was enough to send a chill along any good Cryrian spine. Proper last rites had always been owed to even the worst of humanity churned out of the bitterest of battles on the Isles. Perhaps the rest would be found in the burnt out remains of the city, but somehow Helena doubted it was the Duchy’s priority at the moment.

“You know, sometimes I worry that the worst part of me is almost happy that it happened.”

Helena almost dropped her tea when she heard the voice behind her. Marlberg - She hadn’t heard the man enter.

“Prime Minister,” she nodded politely.

The man moved into view and gestured to the chair across from her, “May I join you?”

“You may,” Helena replied, “If only to explain that PR-disaster of a statement you just blurted out.”

Marlberg chuckled softly, and took a seat, “Aye, it was a stupid thing to say, but the thought arises all the same. Charlottesborg was a wakeup call. We were practically comatose beforehand, paralyzed by crisis.”

“We’re still paralyzed by fucking crisis,” Helena said harshly, “Charlottesborg just gave us a new one we could actually solve. Or pretend to anyways.”

Marlberg nodded grimly, “That it did,” he agreed, “It’s restored confidence. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed it. Everyone has seen now that we are capable of action. The Riksdag is united, people feel protected.”

“We didn’t protect shit,” the Foreign Minister snapped, “The dead are still dead.”

“And the living are alive,” Marlberg countered, “Let’s not forget that thousands made it out of the Duchy in the end thanks to our intervention.”

Absolutely no thanks to you, were the words she could not say. Marlberg had always wanted to limit the evacuation to Cryrian citizens and their immediate families. But the groundswell of support for expanding the mission had been too much to ignore, and if nothing else the Prime Minister always knew how to catch the wind in his sails.

So instead of arguing, Helena just took a sip of her tea. It was scalding.

“And all signs show that Charlottesborg is stabilizing quite magnificently too,” Marlberg went on, “As much as one can hope, at any rate. Have you spoken to your sister lately?”

“All that’s in the hands of the CID these days. You know that,” Helena said, “Not that my personal touch did much to help the situation to begin with.”

In truth, she wasn’t sure she ever wanted to hear from Louisa again. Their last conversation had been in the moments when the Mutiny had begun, but every report that came across her desk these days painted a grim picture of what was happening in the Duchy. Her sister had inherited an impossible situation, it was true, but she’d turned it into a bloodbath.

Oh Louisa, whatever got into you?

War. It was nothing more than one desperate choice after another on the road to damnation. The Duchess had certainly learned this, and thinking back Helena could not think of a single thing she could have done differently. Well, perhaps that was not wholly true.

She could have fled.

Would that have been cowardly, to abdicate and escape while responsibility fell upon the consciences of others? Perhaps, but Helena did not think that courage had committed her sister to this fight. One line had reverberated all throughout Cryrian history, and no doubt at some point Louisa had taken it to heart.

‘Power makes for a fine funeral shroud.’

For those who ruled, it was better to die on a throne than to live without one.

“It did enough, when we needed it most,” Marlberg was saying, “That is all that matters in the end.”

Ademar’s blood, to have ever thought she’d hear words of comfort from this man… These truly were strange times.

“Thank you, Prime Minister,” Helena said with a wan smile, “Though I sometimes worry there is no end to it all. We are out of the frying pan, and into the fire now.”

Marlberg gave a dismissive wave of his hand, “Better than staying in the pan all the same,” he said, “I understand we are getting somewhere with the Älemsi too now?”

“If by getting somewhere you mean that we have a very good idea of what they want and how much they want it, yes.”

“Well, it’s better than what we’ve usually gotten,” Marlberg muttered, “The absolute bastards. We should have seen this coming.”

“Amrakh Gazarv was one of our closest partners in Novaris until three months ago,” Helena reminded.

“And so were the fucking Volscines, but where are they all now,” the Prime Minister scowled, “Evert had a point, you know? Hold a knife to the world’s throat. It’s already holding one to yours.”

“The same line of thought probably brought the Älemsi into this situation too,” Helena observed, “They’ve spent a long time trying to establish themselves as equal players in the region since the Yeralik Crisis, and on the whole they’ve been pretty polite about it. But now they’re seeing us try to roll out the atomics. It’s practically cheating, in their eyes, and I can’t blame them - Hell, they’re probably terrified we’ll use them to cement our own dominance. This is going to change how people look at us, you realize?”

“It’s a bloody bonus if it does,” Marlberg growled, “These people have sunk the knife into us at every moment of weakness. During the Anarchy, White November, and now… To hell with them all. Let them come down from the mountains, they’d have done so anyways the moment they smelled blood.”

Helena couldn’t help it. She burst out laughing.

“I… sorry… I’m…” she composed herself at Marlberg’s bemused expression, “It just occurred to me, that somewhere in Amrakh Speaker Nayan and Foreign Minister Battsetseg are probably having this exact same conversation and listing off all the ways they think we’ve screwed them and all the ways we’re going to screw them again.”

“And?” Marlberg demanded, “It’s a poor time to be showing any sympathy for them, Reitz.”

“Call it empathy then, Prime Minister,” Helena responded, “One way or another, we are going to have to set them at ease, and they’re going to need to do the same for us. Because if Charlottesborg was a wakeup call? Then a fight with the Älemsi?”

“That’ll be a bucket of fucking ice.”

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“The expulsion of much of our personnel in the Kapan Autonomy has badly damaged our capabilities, but even more troubling is the growing intransigence on the part of our contacts in Gazny Khot. It may be that Governor Chīrén is seeking to distance himself from Leidenstad in light of an increasingly anti-Cryrian atmosphere in Älemsi Negdel. The more concerning possibility is that the Gazny Autonomy may choose to throw its support behind this latest round of revanchism, in which case we will likely witness a rare moment of unity between all the major Älemsi factions. In this scenario, the National Government would inevitably take up an increasingly aggressive stance on the Northern Waters Dispute, perhaps up to and including military action.”

  • CID Director Evert during a National Security Committee meeting

Gazny Khot

The day was as warm as it ever got in an Älemsi winter, but Gazny Khot offered only the chilliest reception to its honored guest.

Zamira had watched the General’s progress through the city’s ice-encrusted streets. The small convoy of vehicles had wound its way lazily through Gazny Khot’s seaside cluster of rough, blocky buildings before finally reaching the Governor’s mansion. There, as in here, she had been relegated to the grating role of a quiet spectator, but that was certainly better than no role at all. Zamira had recognized the General upon his entry, though only vaguely - Amrakh Yerzhan, a tough-eyed young man who almost certainly knew the danger he had been sent into here. It was not unheard of for Amrakh Gazarv’s dictates to be poorly received by the Autonomies. Though Speaker Nayan had certainly known what he was doing by sending her grandfather’s old friend, such was not an alliance of blood.

They were all assembled in Taishu Square now, all the notables and powerbrokers of the Gazny Family present to greet their visitor. There were rows of uniformed militia, dull midday light gleaming off their bayonets as they stood at attention. Gaggles of officials and clan leaders here to pay their respects. And of course, her grandfather.

Even in his old age, Gazny Chīrén still knew how to cut an image as a warlord of old - And Zamira knew it was certainly an image that was well-earned. The Governor was wreathed in a traditional gold-green shapan and had an effortless air of impatience about him.

“Yerzhan’s taking his time,” Timour muttered as soon as she arrived. They were both standing atop the stairs overlooking the plaza, well out of earshot. Even so, Zamira shot her brother an icy glare.

Finally, the line of trucks and cars that had made its way from Choigol Air Base arrived, and the General stepped out.

“They sent a military man,” Timour was talking again, “It will be a mobilization then, surely?”

This time, Zamira slowly nodded. There was little military sense in calling upon the Gazny Autonomous Militia for a fight in the far west, to be sure. No, this was Amrakh demanding a show of loyalty.

The two men were now exchanging formalities, though she could not hear any of them. Still, she could practically feel the tension crackling out from them. It had taken Zamira a long time to understand the twisted web that had grown from her aunt’s happenstance of a romance with the Tynami Duke, and just how precarious their situation had become because of it. Gazny Khot had always looked more favorably upon the Cryrians than the rest - After all, Leidenstad was a most distant power here, and distant powers were most often polite ones as well. But the accidental alliance that emerged through that marriage? That had never been part of anyone’s plan.

What was that old saying of her Grandfather’s?

‘It is better to seem evil than impotent.’

A clan whose children ran off with foreigners was weak, but a clan that formed an alliance with Tynam through marriage was merely audacious.

“Novsh gej,” Timour cursed under his breath, “Then Amrakh expects a war. Have you heard anything from Turyana?”

Zamira shook her head now. Their Tynami cousin had not replied to any of her letters, not since they’d heard of Siban’s passing. The next she’d seen Turi was on the television in Charlottesborg Airport, of all the cursed places to appear.

“Grandfather will not do anything if it puts Auntie Nurai in danger,” Timour warned, “Or Turi.”

Despite herself, Zamira briefly displayed a flicker of amusement at the hint of jealousy in her brother’s voice. Gazny Chīrén had made no secret of having favorites among his grandchildren. Despite all that, it was hard for Zamira to deny holding some fondness for that capricious child she had once taught to ride on the Khöldsön Jaed.

“That’s the point,” Zamira finally said, her breath misting in front of her. She did not need to speak any further for Timour to understand her meaning. No matter what happened with the Cryrians, the Kapan, the Amrakhii, and all the rest would seek their excuse to bring Gazny Khot to heel. Yeralik was merely a useful tool to an ends.

“This will go badly for us.”

Zamira spared a glance at her brother and saw the worry etched on his face. This weighed upon him, and she could find no fault in that. But any words of comfort she might have had were quashed when the Governor and the General began their procession down to the mansion’s gates.

What was to come now rested in the hands of Gazny Chīrén alone.

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