Main #6: The Oath and the Curse

The young elven Lord Aniseth Whitemeadow is sent as the newest of Kowloon nobility to terraform and colonize planet Heled in Rarjuni System. The Lord and his men are untested and are to be conditioned by the mercenaries of the Uial Lug Free Company, led by the elven Lady, Aleksasha Bloodtree. Politics, cultural misunderstandings and tensions rise as the groups seek to tame the new planet and face the dangers within and without the city walls.
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Mike
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Main #6: The Oath and the Curse

Post by Mike » Thu Jul 05, 2018 5:25 pm

4th of the 2nd Month
Secluded Valley
Heled

*WHACK*

The gavel struck ancient wood podium as Isao, having snuck down to the surface, stood at the head of the the leading men and women of the Liang remnants. He'd gone down without Ilona's aid and far without Aniseth's hint of idea, this was Isao's final gamble to return to his light.

He spoke with an assuring tone, despite the worries burrowed in his throat, "I've called this meeting today to say one thing, as a former scout and now Master of this band," he neglected to ever use the title given to him, "to assuage the fears presented today. Liang has fallen, that is no mystery. The previous Captain's stance on this topic differed little from Captain Sho, but you have placed your loyalty to me. Despite what I will say, I am still a soldier of Liang and Liang blood runs through my veins."

The already tense "Shogun" of Liang looked down on his Second and his personal Yeoman with an even more stern face. The audience in front of him seemed to show concern but was silent. The only sound besides Isao's voice was the errant cry of the babe being clutched to the mother's bosom towards the far end of the room.

"While the previous Captain and the Captain before him decided it best to hide from the universe, the universe moved on regardless. We landed here, on this planet, with peaceful intention of making it a colony to survive until we were strong and then meld back into society. Captain Sho wanted to keep us Liang, and what I have brought will keep us Liang." Isao looked to his Yeoman and nodded in signal. He walked out of the room behind him and disappeared. "Not all of Liang's Masters have fallen. The House Arleigh and the rising House Whitemeadow have laid claim to this planet. They are headed by Liang Elves, and they are the successor of the Empire of Liang, not us," he swallowed as he looked amongst the crowd of his troops and their families.

The Liang soldiers seemed to shuffle, the handful of men that had been deadly loyal to Sho began to whisper and the women and children were as restless as the others, fearful of being run out of their ramshackle homes below a banner of Tai Pan or some other empire. The Yeoman had returned holding a folded Nobori of House Whitemeadow which he laid behind Isao in the doorway of which he came. He turned to the "Shogun" after looking to the crowd and spoke quietly, "I fear you may lose some of your flock, but the rest have no other life but to follow you, sir."

Isao nodded, simply replying, "I know." He gripped the edges of the podium and addressed the crowd again. "I know it is not what the previous Captain would have wanted of us, and Captain Sho would have been cautious though would have done what is best--"

Isao was interrupted by one of the zealots of isolation, "And we are doing what is best! We can't fly our banner out there!" There were mumbles of agreement rising in the crowd.

Another barked out, "But he claims that we are not the true successors of Liang, what if he is right? Can't we march behind the banner of our successors?" There was, in Isao's case, much more of an agreeing mumble from the crowd this time. It was only after a few moments that he'd noticed that the voice was of one of the other scouts of his age, Keito.

The zealots stood up and looked at Isao, "We refuse." Most of the zealots of isolation stood up with the exception of three, who looked at the others with disgust. The zealots stepped out of the tent, and a handful of soldiers seemed to look to be discussing whether to leave. Isao took his chance to strike home.

"Soldiers of Liang, you all swore to defend your masters, he who walks out of this meeting does not stand with me, but stands with the zealots, the cowards, and the defeatists who decide it is better to hide until we starve or are overrun by the legitimate forces of this planet, Heled." Isao took the banner of the House he was sworn to and unfurled it, placing it to his left, and the Yeoman placed the Kowloon flag opposite of it.

Fortunately, this gamble worked. No soldier left formation, the families stood equal to their husbands and wives. Only the families of the zealots had left, which was only one. Isao felt a resounding cry want to rise in his chest but he held it. He looked to the House Whitemeadow banner and then looked to his soldiers. "You are not soldiers of Liang anymore, you are soldiers of House Whitemeadow, in fealty to Lord Aniseth Whitemeadow of House Whitemeadow. I am not a Shogun of Liang," he hesitated, knowing that his position was muddled, he had no idea whether he was still the Chief Retainer, but he was a retainer nonetheless. "I am a Retainer of House Whitemeadow, and you are my Band, my troops."

Every one of the soldiers gave the ancient salute of the Liang Guard and kneeled in front of Isao. To them, he was still a general, even if he was just a retainer. Isao nodded in acceptance and spoke, "We have a long march ahead of us, we must muster and strike camp. I cannot guarantee the status of the Puraido as a fortress or a home, but you will have a home. I cannot march with you, as I must attend to the rest of my forces. I wish you luck, and may the Word guide you."

He turned to his Second and Yeoman. He spoke first to his Second, "You must lead them, the coordinates to the City of Glass are here," He handed him a small datapad and then turned to his Yeoman, "I need forty-seven suits of armor from the reserve to take to my men, you will come with me as I will need you to bring a message to Lord Whitemeadow along with this," he handed him a letter stamped with a wax seal of Isao's ancient and long-fallen clan. The Yeoman was confused, but took the letter as ordered.

Isao looked to both of them and nodded, "Go, our people need us." As the both bowed and left, Isao returned to the quarters given to him, took all of his valuables, and silently left to rejoin the Avern Liad in orbit in stealth.

---------------------

Aniseth and Aleksasha had spoken about the letter, and about the number of troops that had been moving towards Glass.

They were speaking again now, though Aniseth had taken a longer shower than he usually might have, and seemed disinclined to do so. It had been days since their talk at the ruined manor house, and each day had been stranger than the last. Some of it was that they spent more time together, with more honesty. Children were a terrible way to repair a marriage, but that seemed incidental; near-death experiences were just as good, and they had been given an epiphany, of sorts. Every day seemed like a step towards healing, and weaving together something new and beautiful.

And yet, there was the letter. He had opened it and read it, and then discarded it in favor of brooding. Aleksasha had been forewarned of the letter - of course, she knew about it before it was written.

It lay open on the crystal desk near the broad - but bulletproofed - window that opened one side of their lavish hotel to a breathtaking view of Glass City. The suite had an office, where Aleksasha had been working diligently away unifying their House forces, and Aniseth had been repairing the damage to Glass City’s mercantile guild system. He had chosen not to scrap it, after all.

Aniseth watched Aleksasha at their desk as he dried his hair, marveling at the way the crimson sun, filtered through the reddish dust of their homeworld, cast her features in softer shades of pinkish shadow and lighter mauve. Her hair, in particular, glittered brilliantly. She seemed so serious when she worked, and it seemed like everything, for her, was some type of work.

He knew they would need to speak about this, and not being able to come up with something to say that didn’t feel hostile, he wanted her to start.

“We need to assimilate those lost children into our forces. I fear, that requires you to allow him back. I doubt they will follow another and I would prefer to not murder useful troops,” Aleksasha softly commented as she looked up from her plans. “We could use them. We are too young a force. Too few of the militia hold any military experience.” She made no motion to touch the letter.

“Ilona says he sincerely wishes to mend his broken honor and move forward for the good of the house. How do you feel about this development?” She drew up and stretched, the aches that accompanied her condition had started settling in.

Aniseth settled the towel around his shoulders and sat in one of the politely decorated office chairs across from his wife, and he wondered at how he felt, himself. It took him a while, sitting there and drying in the suite’s cool, filtered air. He watched her, as well, looking for some indication that she might not believe what she said, and not finding it. Did he want to forgive the man?

He looked down after a while and picked up the letter, folding his legs together and opening it again on his bare thigh, and looking at it. The words didn’t register to him. He had read them before, but he stared at them unfocused.

The words were written, but all he could hear at that moment, the voice that echoed in his head, was Parson’s voice, warning him about this army, about his wife, and about his country. He fingered the edges of the crease and folded it up, unable to help frowning. He didn’t look at her, because some primal sense told him that she would know what it was he thought, even if he didn’t say it out loud or give any hint of it.

“It frightens me,” he told her, honestly, because he had no reason, nor any desire, to lie to her. He half surprised himself, and he felt like continuing but didn’t. Instead, he let his eyes focus on the folded letter and waited.

“They are trained, seasoned and have been living on the frontier- they know this terrain as it has been evolving. We could use this meeting as a ruse to slaughter all of them- we would run the risk of killing families as well. This could devolve into a blood feud or give our people cause to turn against us,” she spoke of slaughter casually, it was hard to determine the amount of sincerity in the suggestion.

“Or, we use them, and him, and pull everyone under one banner. I fear, the House cannot take a civil war. The galaxy is dangerous enough without oppressing the population. We know their base location, it wouldn’t be too difficult to see them from orbit, even with the sand storms, and eliminate the threat. We would destroy every one of them in an instant or, kill most and maim the rest. Could you bear that outcome?” Her voice maintained its neutrality as she watched him for his answer.

He couldn’t help looking up at her, again. In profile, she looked so studious. Smart. Beautiful. He thought he had glimpsed her heart, touched it for a few moments as they sat on a ruined bench in a ruined house. And yet, this letter picked at a wound he had just barely stitched closed and stirred his doubt up and onto the top of it.

“No,” he admitted, softly. Aleksasha was a better leader than he was, and he knew that, but it was difficult to trust what he had only just begun to think he knew. “I do not wish to kill them, but I do not want him here.”

“He does not need to have his base beside your office. The planet is large, it would be prudent to not have all of our forces centrally located in one place. Though the forces will be unified under one command, we can distribute them in a fashion that makes more sense. The response to the fire was too fractured. We had responders pulled by different strings and tangled. I would not see that happen again. Those people are lost. They seek legitimacy and a cause. We can provide them more sense in life than in death. Speak to him and let him keep his peace away from you,” she gestured to the map she was making notes on.

She smoothed the paper under her hands. “We’ll need to rotate out planetary and orbital patrols to avoid fatigue and keep proficiency. It will also help to keep anyone from feeling disenfranchised from us… I do not want to give people cause to feel abandoned and turn to… outside forces to improve their lot. There is much that we can provide them, but they have to feel like the door is open and we are listening. I know this isn’t the best situation but, you value the lives of these people who will populate this city.” Her tone held a question, though her statement had not been phrased as one.

“I do not want a man like that under arms in my service,” Aniseth said, meaning a handful of things at once. He could have picked from any one of them. I don’t want someone half my age to treat me like a child, was one. I don’t want someone willing to embarass me like he did with you, was another thought, bubbling like hot oil.

But under some of that was another thought, a thought that he had just begun to touch on, and it was the suspicion that somehow, in some way, the man was a better leader than he was. Aleksasha was certainly better; there was a reason that Aniseth set in the chair in front of the desk where all the terminals were, today, instead of in it. Managing guilds, he had men of business, old and gray or brilliant and talented younger entrepreneurs who still respected him as a tradesman, to do the minutiae of enacting his will and governance - Aniseth certainly couldn’t be everywhere. He enjoyed watching their alacrity, seeing them work. Money moved Aniseth’s world. Money, craft, and care.

But this was a military matter; people who thought in marching lines, with uniforms and plumes. People who were willing to live and die, not for money or the love of a craft - his noble wife exempted - but for some sort of cause, and the truth was that Aniseth did not understand it. He stared at his wife, and he listened to her, and the words certainly made sense individually, but when he put them together they didn’t. Why would he hire people who didn’t like him? Why would he empower someone who wouldn’t respect him?

In the business world, those sorts of people were regulated down, not up.

“Why would he feel abandoned, after what he has done? And, why should I employ people who will undermine me, mock me, and destabilize us?” He toweled off his face. “He will listen to you, certainly, but you and he - of course, he will do whatever you ask. Isn’t that why he gave me his dagger,” he continued, not quite knowing the right word for that blade he had been given but pressing on regardless, “because you told him to do so?”

“I did not advise him on what to say to you or do. He gave you the partner to his katana on his own,” her hand lightly brushed the hilt of her own sword at her hip. “Our weapons are a reflection of our work, our souls. A true warrior would not willing part from a fragment of their soul unless the action had meaning to them. Weapons like that pass from generation to generation and are not separated from the family. He broke the line of succession. Which means that he recognizes no heirs.”

“It loses meaning outside of a warrior culture but placing that dagger in your hand was saying he is offering you his legacy and his bloodline. It also means he must makes amends even if it costs him his life, in your service. I meant it, break the blade or keep it with the intent to use it or bury it in his heart. You must chose something. Just sending him away does not resolve anything. We do not always like those that serve us but everyone serves a purpose in the end,” a weary smile crossed her lips for a moment. “You think I am still seeing him, talking to him outside of issuing brief orders then? You can check the history of my movements on the gauntlet if you wish. Pull up every outgoing call I have made in the past several months… if you truly wish to press it- I can show you my memories. I have not lied to you. I have not broken oath to you. I still draw breath, that should be evidence enough.”

“I’m not concerned with what you do,” he responded, his pride nicked, “I’m concerned with what he does.”

She was right, but Aniseth didn’t feel like rolling over for it, not this time, and not on the subject of this man. That still ached. What she had done, what he had done, and why they had done it, had ruined something innocent and young inside of Aniseth. It was the part of him that had believed in fairy tales, and the gentle upbringing about chivalry and honor and chastity that had been so comforting to him as a ward of the Liang nobility. They had taken that from him, without realizing it - and it hurt.

“I don’t want to check up on you,” Aniseth told her honestly, a bit of frustration bleeding into his voice. “I want to trust you. I’m your husband, not your master. You want me to bring him back, and you’ve got a good reason - at least, I think it’s a good reason - but I don’t want to look at his face. It hurts my heart, Alek, and I am not as good a leader as you are.”

“You are better than you realize. You care. You hold a high standard and expectation, but on this, you need to bend or see the forces break. The response to your capture was fractured and too many leaders were giving conflicting orders. You do not have to look at him or speak to him. Delegate this to me or give me someone else to lead this army. I cannot lead from the front pregnant. There is trouble coming this way and like it or not, it’ll destroy us unless we have every able bodied military person on our side. Then there will be no point to any of this.” She straightened to her full height and looked out of the window.

“Being a leader means you have to give up fragments that you would not normally surrender. In the fire, I had to delay coming to get you to save the people within the manor. If I had tipped my hand that I knew where you were, they would have rendered it impossible for me to find you again. I was willing to execute your entire militia for standing in my way. That one Sargent yet draws breathe. If this were a different time, she would be parted from her tongue but, we are civilized.” Her gaze returned to Aniseth and fixed firmly on him. “If you hold someone of equivalent experience in your guilds that would be better suited, then present him. I would not leave the defense of our planet in the hands of Du Rochon, he’s unreliable and an addict.”

“No,” Aniseth agreed, folding his head into his hand and closing his eyes, “Not Rochon.” He rubbed at his temples. “I also understand that some of the militia were bought off, and are still being weeded out.” Aleksasha folded her arms and settled with her back to the window. Aniseth tried not to look at her over-long. “I’d say you should choose the incumbent - but you keep choosing him! Is there no other man that suits, on this entire planet?”

“Ozzie was ineffective. Mathis and Jory would be suitable but they have been mine for years. I need someone that is willing to walk into the sun for you that is competent. There are too few that devoted to you that are willing to step up into this role.”

Aniseth stared at her, because he couldn’t help himself. And he couldn’t help the tone in his voice when he said, “He’s devoted to you, Alek, not me. Why say anything else?”

“Everyone seems to think I need to be rescued. That I am trapped,” she cracked her knuckles in irritation. “They feed those lies to my people to turn them. People who have been in my company for years. Perhaps, they assume that by his absence I am pining for some lost love when I do not love him. There is no specter of romance looming over me for that man. No one really asked me why or what I actually felt about any of this but it doesn’t matter.”

“It matters to him,” Aniseth pointed out, standing up and wrapping the towel around himself. He felt naked enough in front of his wife, and it was about time he dressed against it. “It matters to me. I know… why you did that. You have told me. I think I can understand. But does he know?”

“I should be the last one on his mind. He is a widower but he is taken up with Ilona, who knows him from the army. I doubt he quite understands himself, it’s easy to get lost in touching something you thought you lost. But I have not spoken to him since his banishment. Ilona has been keeping me updated on their movements and unit status.” She paused and sighed, “People attach a lot of emotion to physical intimacy, fleeting moments become eternity. A single spark of passion is a roaring bonfire. It’s a touch of vanity to think someone loves you completely if they share your bed. And sadly, many people let their desires control them.

“You accused me of being a harlot at one point, I wonder, how many you think I’ve been with since Makarios died? Would you believe me if I said only two?”

“And you say I should not attribute anything to it,” Aniseth responded, exasperated. He stood across the desk from her, and couldn’t help the flush of warm indignity. “After your one, true love, only two men have shared your bed - I the one, and he the other. And you think I should attribute nothing to it. That is simply ludicrous.”

“I had to see if I would lose him. Believe me or don’t, you want my honesty. You could be Makarios if he had grown his hair long. I can see it sometimes in your eyes when you smile, it’s like he’s here again but you are you, which is something beautiful in itself.” Her posture shifted again as she leaned back against the window. “I’ve been looking for his shadow for so long. I wanted to know before I remarried if anyone could stand in that light again.” She closed her eyes with a soft thunk against the glass. “It makes me wonder if the Empress realized the resemblance when she ordered me to accompany you. I will also admit, I was jealous when I saw Cherish in your chambers after the betrothal order. But my decisions and actions are my own. It’s hard to create new truths when you live in falsehoods.”

“I haven’t slept with Cherish.” He had trouble with the next words, because the first had come so quickly. He looked down at the desk, straightened one of the stylus holders so that it lined with the edge of the desk. Silhouetted against the evening in the City of Glass, he did not want to linger over-long on the way his wife could rob him, somehow, of himself. “I value… it. I do not wish to be a shadow, but it’s as it is. You are my wife. I resemble your former husband. Ilona is your body double, Alek. I cannot control those things. But I should be able to say that I do not want that man near me, or you, ever again - and be respected - but I can’t be, because he is apparently the only man you feel can do anything.”

“He has the total number of men equal to our combined forces. If you want us to go to war, then I can accommodate. If you want me to cut his throat, then fine. You are not my Makarios and I don't want you to be. You are my husband and I want to be here with you. I want you safe and alive. Those people have a claim. We have to enforce our sovereignty and they recognize him as their leader. That is why he is the one that has to do. It has nothing to do with my desires. There are no other free companies available to defer to. There are no Shield and I do not know who in our ranks I can truly trust on this right now. We haven't found all of those that were turned. So what if he might have feelings for me? It doesn’t matter. What matters is Heled. These people.” Her hand grazed the jewel on her gauntlet.

A full 360 volumetric projection covered the office. The hotel faded away to the images of Aniseth’s workshop portrayed in minute detail. Everything was pristine as it was before the fire. The woven tapestries held all the loving detail of the weavers. “We can hold onto memories of the recent past.”

The edges of the tapestries caught fire, the room filled with thick rolling black smoke. The silhouette of the armored suit became solid and with its flame thrower as it spread the fire. It stood over the charred remains of a person about Aniseth’s size. The sound of the wood crackling filled the silence. “Or let this become our future. We stand together or we will all burn.”

He stared at it, unnerved at seeing it all burn. He sat back down, slowly, and only realized he had done so when he felt the cool metal against his naked skin. It was too much, too close, and something he wished to see, if possible, even less than the face of the man who had been his wife’s ‘test bedding’.

“Fine,” he admitted, grudgingly, hiding his face away with his hand, no longer willing to continue in any sense of the word. “Summon him back.”

Aleksasha didn’t smile. These were her memories of the workshop, and she disliked the smells that came with the recollection. She dismissed the images with the wave of her hand, letting the office return to normal. “I’ll send word.”

----

Had it been another time, they would have waited for Isao on the field on horseback in full regalia. But, instead, Aleksasha stood in her grey Tianshi with her helmet tucked under her arm before her forces. The crimson of her hair was elaborately braided but pulled back out of the way behind her back. She had summoned the combined forces which she had dubbed, the “Meadow Wings” to stand in formation in their mixed kit of mechanized armor and regular body armor. All of their men were properly armed and uncertain of what they were waiting for. House Whitemeadow banners fluttered in the cool spring breeze.

The terraforming that had occurred gave them a beautiful backdrop, if not an entirely familiar one. Heled had been a red planet, dry and reasonably barren, but capable of sustaining life. At first they had settled Glass, and a few other cities after it had done well - but now the terraformers, mostly gartagens who had gone out with their strangely named dust-trout that churned the earth looking for the minerals far beneath, had loosened the soil for the seeds that had been spread.

Trees, not yet quite full grown, lined the great, industrial-sized causeways that linked the settlements. They bloomed gold in the pale sunlight, and the bark glittered like the sheen on the young Lord’s armor as the cavalcade stood at the crossways.

This town had sprung up as a waystation, at first a transportation hub, between the several settlements at the outskirts of town - one of those settlements being Isao’s. Where the government of Heled overlooked, mercantilism and the guilds had stepped in to make sure that trade stepped in to fill the gap. Aniseth had been surprised to realize that the trade Guilds he had established already knew about the men who had been camping there. It was a detail that had been lost, misplaced, or forgotten, in the investigations that had followed his kidnapping. Here, at the crossroads, they would meet them.

Aleksasha had talked Aniseth into wearing something that looked like what a fairy tale knight would wear on a snow white steed, or at least if that steed were cybernetic. She had called it a “Paladin” and it was too elaborately painted in blue and silver to be truly meant for combat but it was promised to be the new armor of the Shield, if they could get the funding to put every one of their men into a suit and train them. The sapphire blue cloak caught in the breeze and whipped dramatically behind him. The Sutauto family dagger sat on one of his hips in its sheath secured with a white sword belt.

The wind carried the distant sound of marching stallions and boots. What first appeared to them was the blood red banners, tattered from age and long faded from their royal colors. The forty-seven soldiers marched four-abreast down the road towards them. Immediately behind them was a caravan of mixed vehicles, from the horse-drawn carriage to a cargo lifter modified to go the speed of the Ronin’s march. Besides the collection of vehicles were the families, mostly small children running around but the few older ones walked alongside their mothers and fathers’ carriages. At the head of the formation, in the blood red armor and helmet given to him by his Yeoman and a small Whitemeadow banner mounted on his shoulders, the banished knight rode a pale grey horse on a simple leather saddle. His face solem as he led his flock, his eyes immediately fell on Aniseth.

Isao was armed, as was his now total of one hundred and seven soldiers, but the stark gold bind tied around his handguard and his men’s signified they meant peace. Isao raised a closed fist at the distance of fifteen meters from Aniseth and his forces. As Isao stepped off of his saddle, his Second and Yeoman both did the same, standing to his left and right respectively. Isao did not want a prolonged stage of silence, he felt it would only stir things. “You sent for me, m’lord.”

Aniseth looked at Aleksasha, which lasted a fair time longer than must have been polite before he looked back at Isao. He did not look happy. He was not. But the frown was light, and his expression was fixed long before.

“I did. I understand you now command these men behind you.”

Isao nodded, “Yes.” His eyes did not move from Aniseth’s, thought his right hand moved to signal his Yeoman. He stepped close enough to offer a rolled scroll as Isao spoke. “Forty Seven of them are just like me, all former members of the Liang Emperor’s House Guard, the remainder have the training I gave them which is all but equal.”

Aniseth looked them over. It seemed cursory, at first, but he still looked as long at them as he had looked at his lady-wife, though he kept his peace as he looked over the women, the children, and the soldiers of Liang-that-was if he disliked them. Perhaps his expression softened, but his storm-blue eyes held clouds.

“Will they swear to the service of my house, from now until the last star’s dying, to the protection of this planet, and to me, as their liege-lord?”

The Yeoman looked confused and just tucked the letter back into his belt and scampered back into formation. “They swore to me, and therefore you, m’lord.” Isao’s voice was tense, he was making his last gamble.

“Ilona.” Aniseth had been told the woman’s name by Aleksasha, and he picked her out of the crowd and motioned her forward.

The platinum haired woman stepped forward. She was clothed in a combination of the Wyvern uniform and Isao’s red. Pale, cloudy eyes looked up at her Lord and she nodded. The loose cloth hid her figure but she was equal in height to Aleksasha. “Yes, my Lord?” Her voice was soft like velvet but carried well across the distance as she drew near. She offered a smile to Isao as she passed him before she returned to attention to Aniseth. She knew when she directly before him, tiny before the Paladin armor. In his normal garb, Aniseth could hardly be counted imposing; he no longer looked effeminate, but the long robes that had replaced his former attire gave him the appearance of a more studious clerk. Black, or dark blue, and somber. Chased in white, he did not look like a martial elf in daily life. But on horseback in armor, he seemed as aloof as any general, and annoyed to have been bothered.

The armor did a lot for that. His hair had been woven back in braids which kept the long, raven-black mass out of his face quite neatly. He looked like a painting.

And he said, “You will lend your magic to my wife’s to make this true for all his fighting men.”

Ilona looked back at Isao and the men who swore to him before she looked back up at Aniseth. “Yes, my Lord.” Her eyes glanced to Aleksasha questionly. “When Lady Whitemeadow is ready, and those to be oath sworn?”

Aniseth then stretched his hand out for the letter that the Yeoman, who had retreated some ways away, had carried. He waited without looking at the man; instead, he looked at Isao. If a look could have weight to it, Isao might as well have been tied to an anchor and dropped off a pier. The letter bore the sigil of Isao’s long-dead House, a eagle stretched wide which seemed to be on fire, though it could and most likely was just faults in the press. The letter was long and written in Isao’s script. He broke the seal and finally looked away. In essence, it described the company of soldiers behind him, gave the location of the downed Taipanese Deployment Cruiser they had rode in on, and finally a description of the entire group, non-combatants and all.

Isao held Aniseth’s glare as he held up his hand and rotated it along his wrist. The company of soldiers took a handful of steps forward and shifted to all be facing the Lord, the two mages, and Isao while moving into a three rank deep line. They then took a similar stance and then knelt almost in unison.

Aleksasha was beside Ilona and took her friend's hand in her armored one. “We should be enough, Ilona. When you are ready, husband.”

Ilona rose and moved opposite of Aleksasha, circling to the other side of the group. “My lady, we might reach the minya hinya that dwells in the heart of Heled.”

Still holding the letter in his hand, Lord Aniseth Whitemeadow folded his power armor’s gauntlets on the pommel of his mechanical beast’s saddle. That had been Aleksasha’s touch - she had once rode a mechanical dragon at a whim..

“Kneel and swear to my House, to the protection of my person, to upholding the laws of the Solar Empire of Kowloon, of the province of Heled, and to do your duty as soldiers of the City of Glass under my banner and my command, in the service of the her Majesty the Empress, Bhelith Arleigh. Swear it by the First Children. Swear it until the last star’s dying light.”

Isao knelt as he and his troops responded in monotone unison, “We swear, with the gods as our witness, until the last star fades.” It was only when he knelt did Isao break sight with his sworn lord, and all out of sheer respect.

Aleksasha’s and Ilona’s eyes glowed a brilliant shade of blue as they moved slowly in a circle around the oathsworn. They reached out in unison to touch the threads of life that connected them to the universe. A warmth spread over the warriors and the Lord, submerging them in the depths of their new bond. When it claimed them completely, the world became a kaleidoscope of color tied together by rainbow strands of thread.

The Ronin forces felt the earth tremble, a hand grasp their shoulders, and watched as crimson feathers scattered in the air above them. The wind carried the scent of winter roses as a long shadow passed over the sun and then, as soon as it had began, the world chilled as the warmth drained from them. The real world with its muted colors came back into focus and revealed that the two mages had fallen to their knees. Sweat glistened on the women’s brows as they attempted to catch their breath.

Some had heard rumors of such magic that would bind people into service, but many had considered the rumors to just be dark fairy tales that had no place in an age where space travel were possible. And yet, they felt the electricity in the air, saw the strange lights that can encircled and entangled the Ronin to a singular point, their Lord Aniseth Whitemeadow. The Meadow Wing were frozen as they bore silence witness to the ancient arcane ritual.

No birds sang, no living thing moved, even the hum of the engines were inaudible. Heled was silent. The Lady Whitemeadow held them all spellbound. Her soft voice rolled like thunder and reverberated through the air, “The minya hini hear you and bind you in service until the last star’s last dying. Protect these hini and this planet.”

Isao and his men responded out of unison which resembled a variation of, “I will.”

Isao stood back up and silently returned an emotionless yet content look at Aniseth, “These men and their families will need homes, they’ve lived in shacks and the hull of a derelict warship for too long. They are your garrison now, and so am I. The Avern Liad is not the ideal place to begin a family.”

The mechanical horse strode forward, almost at a thought from its white and blue armored rider, and Isao found himself looking up at a more severe angle to his liege-Lord. Lord Whitemeadow extended his hand. “I accept your service. Give me your sword.”

Isao hesitated, and did so for a fair amount of time. He wanted to deny it, to keep the sword that wasn’t just given to him, but inherited. He didn’t say a word, but a couple of the more experienced swordsmen behind him murmured. He finally pulled his sword, sheath and all, from his belt and held it with open palms. Aniseth grasped it by the hilt, and, setting the letter aside, he drew the glittering sword from its sheath and held it up to the red dawn’s light.

Aleksasha stopped her path beside Ilona and caught the woman as she fainted. She murmured soothingly and looked up at Aniseth expectantly. She did not know, perhaps, what he might do with it - only what she had told him he could do.

Aniseth looked out over the entire gathering. Though it seemed there were fighting men, it seemed too that more still were families and children. He turned his horse, carrying Isao’s sword and riding slowly down the line, watching them.

“You have traveled a long way from Liang,” he stated, stopping where he could address them all without yelling. He need not have worried - the suit seemed to gather his intention, and his voice became magnified through the neck-guard. The elven Lord’s voice carried. “My people, I understand, have asked a great deal of you. You may have thought that the nobility of our fair homeland have betrayed you, and that is not a feeling that I am a stranger too. I was raised by the Council of those who remained, an exile even to my own family, and the last of my line.

“What Heled is, is a chance to make a new path in a new country, where my people and yours, where we tatya hini can be free alongside the races of men, and others, a place where we can be free together.”

He worked his fist around the hilt of the sword, the katana that had been Isao’s. No, the Katana that was Isao, according to his Lady-Wife.

Isao stood motionless for the span of five seconds before walking over to Ilona and crouching down. He averted his gaze from Alek’s eyes, he dared not meet them. Aleksasha passed Ilona to Isao and moved away once the blonde was secure in his arms. Ilona breathed softly, looking feverish.

Meanwhile, the Ronin devoted their full attention to Aniseth and, to them, their leader’s sword. The Lady returned to stand alongside Aniseth, sweat rolled down her face though the morning was cool. She watched him as the others did.

Anseth took a second look at the blade he carried. For a moment, the expression on his face broke its cool, calm, slightly dismissive neutrality and showed real hatred unlike any had seen upon his countenance before. For a moment it seemed like he would snap the sword or dash it to pieces on the asphalt causeway, there in front of everyone, their loyalty and their trust and Isao’s soul broken like so much metal and laminate.

But he didn’t.

The look passed, though not swiftly, and the grip loosened. When he sheathed the sword again, only a very few who were nearby could tell that that hilt had cracked beneath the powered armor’s grasp. He took a few deep breaths, and that seemed to steady him for what he said next, furious though he seemed.

“While you serve my House and my name, you will find succor there. You will merge with my Wife’s most valiant soldiers, in a new effort to unify this planet’s forces, and your officers will be integrated. Those of you who practice trades will be welcome as merchants and guildsmen. Those of you who wish to enter service when the time comes will be trained.”

He turned the horse slowly, regarding them once more before the slow, methodical plodding of the hooves brought him back to Isao. A blind man could have seen that this was the man Aniseth was wroth with. Anyone with ears would have known that Aniseth had shot him in a duel. And anyone with half a shred of wisdom would have never mentioned what had come before, not half a year ago, when they had landed on this planet.

But Aniseth held out the man’s sword and waited for him to take it, though his eyes were blue fire and his jaw had turned white around its fine edges.

Isao hesitated once more as he shifted the unconscious Ilona around to one arm while grasping the hilt with the other.

“Husband, there has been a call from the crown. We have to mobilize our forces for the defense of Kowloon,” Aleksasha spoke softly and her own suit delivered the message. “We face invasion from xenos, Atraxians.” Her gaze shifted from Aniseth to the forces gathered behind him. “By your leave, war is coming, we must prepare.”

She grasped the saddle horn of her own mechanical beast and hoisted herself on top of the horse. Aleksasha turned the horse and waited for Aniseth to give her orders.

Aniseth didn't look at her. He stared at Isao, and quietly, so that the only few in earshot were himself, his wife, Isao, and Ilona, he began to speak privately with the amplifier off.

“By your oath I curse you. I wish you to be nowhere near my wife, or my children, for as long as you live. Bound by these two to the magic of my people and yours, if you betray me, my trust, or my family again - if any of you or your spawn so much as brush a hair on the head of myself, my wife, or my children - it is not me who you will answer to, but the gods themselves moved by my wrath. I swear it by every minya hini remembered and forgotten and they shall hear my oath.”

So spoken, the blue armored Lord straightened in his saddle, and wheeled the horse.

“You will be under my wife's command. Array your people and prepare for war.”

“Sir Isao, marry Ilona before you depart this planet. You may not have the chance again. Devote what time you have to that woman who reciprocates your love,” Aleksasha spoke but did not look at him. Her back was to Isao as her gaze was fixed on Aniseth. “My husband, you are the authority in this matter for marrying our citizens. I will prepare the men.”

But nothing more was forthcoming from the armored Lord. He did one more pass and review before turning his horse’s head and beginning the long ride back to town at the head of the blue-and-red banners and columns of his house’s unified forces. And though he granted Isao and Illona permission to marry, it was a clark who did the ceremony and other men who smiled and laughed with their joy.

The words of a vile curse were the last that Aniseth of Whitemeadow spoke willingly to Isao of Liang.

---

The Lady Whitemeadow traversed the front line of her forces and appraised them. Aleksasha would have been aptly suited in power armor pitched black like midnight but it was a crisp light grey, almost white, a solitary ray of light that disrupted the darkness of her powerfully built steed. Its eyes mirrored the fiery resolve of its rider as it waited for her command. “There is work to do, there is no time for any of this and yet here we are,” she whispered to no one. Her grip on the reigns tightened as she rode along the column, her jaw tightened as she drew her sword from its sheath on her back. The zweihander’s hilt was elaborately detailed with the golden wyvern of the Uial Lug free company and the long blade glittered like onyx as energy along its edges.

She raised her voice and finally addressed the men before her, “You have no doubt heard the reports on the attacks on the other settlements by now. How they have fallen under the gun and blade of the emerald violence of the Atraxians. Men and women of Heled, our Empress calls upon the banners of Whitemeadow to defend our nation from the Green hordes that threaten the safety of our people. Today, we stand united under a single banner as one country, one people for the purpose of protecting our homes, our livelihoods and our families from all those that seek to destroy what we’ve built,” her words boomed across the crossroads.

“We were tested and we’ve risen from the smolders of the recent past stronger than ever.” Her eyes swept the faces of the crowd, momentarily meeting their gaze as she continued. She saw the uncertainty in them, the concern, the fear. Her heart rose into her throat as she roared, “We are the phoenix rising up to rejoin the Heavens. Fire destroys and it purifies, we are the fire that will cauterize the infection that blights our kingdom, the Atraxians will not destroy us as they have the Alliance outposts! The path before us is covered with blood but we will survive. We will win. Lieutenants, take control of your companies and make ready for war.” Her horse reared up as it cantered along the front column.

Isao, face covered both by a mask and his blood-red helmet, silently turned his head to his company of red knights. Above his back was a Whitemeadow sashimono and a red pennant tied to the top of its staff to identify him. He moved his thumb to rub at the backside of his wedding band, its feeling alien to him for having been without it for so long. HIs sword laid dormant in its sheath, a mismatched companion sat just underneath.

He held up a open hand, his entire company snapping to attention as his hand stopped on high. His eyes looked to his left and right flank before he spoke in his northern accented Liangese, long held dormant and nearly hidden when he spoke in the Trade language. “Sons of Liang! Today we prove our worth. For the Empress, For Lord Whitemeadow, and For Heled!” His soldiers responded in a cadence of “Rah,” their hands clenched in fists and beating their chests before abruptly halting and moving back to attention. Isao turned back front and held up a clenched fist to signal that his company was ready. His eyes looked to Lady Whitemeadow for a moment, long enough for her to at least notice his signal before lowering his hands and waiting for the march signal.



Intra

They marched.

The war itself, fought on several fronts, did not last as long as many might have guessed it would, though its results surprised Kowloon’s neighbors. Gartagen automation and technology imbued with just a little bit of Elvish magic, made a tiny tributary of the Tai Pan its own Empire in truth as well as name, enough to worry the empire’s suzerain to the north. Historians would cite the recovery of Gor Gozen to be the turning point in the war, and elsewhere there were a few heroes who achieved the spotlight and became Heralds of the Empress. New ships were produced, using artificial intelligences patterned off of a young gartagen named Sura, and the Paladin armors became more widely known beside their autonomous Golem counterparts.

But so too did the men, flesh and blood, who held the line without the benefit of such automations gain glory.

The Duchy of Heled expanded to several planets, seized in war or colonized from military necessity, and the House of Whitemeadow rose in rank to claim them. The Duke and his wife, in large part, became important members of the Empress’s war cabinet. Some would say that this entire experience, from start to finish, had been the cause of Duke Aniseth’s sudden flourishing. Even so, the people closest to him noticed that for all the prestige he had gained as a ruler and a merchant lord, he had grown away from the soft compassionate dressmaker into a resolute and taciturn man, and had become worryingly hard to approach.

As heavily as Isao was bound to the Duke’s household, the Duke was similarly bound, and could not avoid rewarding him. Isao and Ilona were granted land to govern, and Isao became a Lord in his own right even as he became a father to two daughters as lovely as they were welcome, followed five years later with another daughter and another five a son. The Duchess visited, on occasion, with Isao’s wife, the Lady Ilona, but they took care not to touch even in passing and Isao could never be present.

Twenty years passed with little change, save that men grow older, and there would always be conflict in the great star ocean. And yet, something else changed as well, stirring in the depths of Heled, enough to rouse the slumbering rivalry and make it new again.



To Be Continued...
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