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The Harbinger of Freedom

The Harbinger of Freedom

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The Harbinger of Freedom

Lunghezza:
1.184 pagine
15 ore
Pubblicato:
29 ago 2021
ISBN:
9791220084062
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

In the millenary world of Taenand, the continent of Empiria is oppressed by a fifty year lasting military dictatorship perpetrated by the Army of the Harpy, the leader of which is the young General of aristocratic descent Ludwig Maximilian Eckhale who inherited the throne and became the second Emperor of his Era.

In these challenging times, Valerius Raleigh, a young noble as the Emperor himself, takes on the mission to inspire his country to break its chains and free itself from the ever more raging tyranny, first becoming a symbol and a messenger of freedom, then building an army whose purpose is to take down the reign of terror and injustice which threatens to spread all over Taenand due to the ruthless ruler’s strategic mindset and powerful alliances.

The Harbinger of Freedom is the first act of the Falling Feathers Series, a crazy mix of blood, sex, drugs, hacking, cybernetic augmentations, shamanism, fantasy creatures, artificial life and an overall retrofuturistic and cyberpunkish aesthetic. In this vast, complex world, liberty and self-determination play a pivotal role in the search for balance and justice for all, while the diverse characters are pawns in a gritty game of power, intrigues and violence in which there is no place for surrender or subjugation.

Pubblicato:
29 ago 2021
ISBN:
9791220084062
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

Proud human slave of three former stray cats, Non-Binary person (she/her-he/him pronouns) and Norse pagan, hopeless nerd and big fan of any kind of fantasy media, Freddie A. Clark is a cyberpunk geek influenced not only by the works of William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and Pat Cadigan among many others, but also by manga masterpieces as Akira and Ghost in The Shell. Freddie is also a synthwave music enthusiast and a devoted fan of 80s aesthetic, movies and pop culture.She can type more than 4,000 words in a few hours, but don’t ask her to do it without drinking a strong italian espresso first. Alternately, you can offer her a well-made gin tonic and the results would be impressive as well.


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Anteprima del libro

The Harbinger of Freedom - Freddie A. Clark

The Falling Feathers Series, Act I

The Harbinger of Freedom

Freddie A. Clark

Copyright © 2021 Freddie A. Clark

www.freddieaclark.com

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by law.

ISBN: 9791220084062

Cover Art by Katerina Belikova aka NinjaJo

This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to living and dead people, groups and organisations, historical events that occurred in real life, places and religious beliefs is entirely coincidental.

In addition to this, the author does not promote any use of drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, or weapons and does not condone the acts of violence depicted in this story. His opinion on cool cybernetic augmentations might be different, but as long as current technology is not that advanced this topic is mere speculation and should be reserved for a hypothetical cyberpunk future.

CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

Please be mindful this story includes content that may be troubling to some readers, including, but not limited to, violence, depictions of violent death, physical, emotional and psychological abuse, mutilation, medical procedures, self-harm, social hatred, childhood trauma, substance addiction, prostitution, spiders, PTSD, warfare. Discretion is advised.

For my beloved friend Ignazio,

who will lose The Game when he reads this dedication.

CLASSIFIED INFORMATION

Unauthorised access is strictly forbidden by Article 41 of the Imperial Judicial Code.

Every attempt at disclosure will be considered a cyber violation crime. With regard to Article 56 of the Military Regulation of the Army of the Harpy, it will authorize the Imperial Information Security Corps to execute your digital identity immediately.

Connecting...

Processing...

>Alright, that was to be expected.

>Welcome to Taenand, stranger. You’re new here, and I suppose you’d love to know your location from time to time. A map might be helpful, right?

>We have a small dictatorship problem here in Empiria, you know. They keep all information for themselves.

Qr code Description automatically generated >You need some help, I can tell. I’m here to help.

>By following the path I opened for you, you’ll never get lost. It’s an incomplete map of our world, but it contains enough information that might come in handy during your journey.

>Have fun, stranger. We are the fire that will burn the black feathers!

>Cheers

>_C R A C K T R O_

Disconnecting...

The Harbinger of Freedom

1

Your insubordination brings me shame, Lord Raleigh. Your rejection of Imperial protocols is illogical.

Valerius looked down to suffocate the impudent smirk that would have slipped through his lips, as happened every time principal Lowthien summoned him in his office to blame his actions. He could never help himself, and even that day he wasn’t able to. Illogical, he whispered to himself, closing his eyes to shake his head while he chuckled.

You find it funny? asked the man leaning towards the sharp-edged desk painted in black and rimmed in magenta lights, upon which he clasped his hands. That day the principal wore a woollen yellow blazer with red stripes and padded shoulders that widened his already stocky figure, now silhouetted in front of a bookcase outlined by cyan lights and full of storage drives.

Valerius’ emerald eyes, perceptive and sharp, yet big and glaring from underneath his expressive light brown eyebrows, turned assertive towards those cloaked by the teardrop lenses of the principal’s shaded glasses. I find your impatience funny, sir, he replied, You are so excited to succumb to the Educators Corps’ enlistment. Are you aware you’ll have to wear a uniform every single day and that the Inspectorate will examine every step you take until it finds the pettiest reason to drag you to the gallows?

The principal improvised a rigid smile, that bent his reddish moustache upwards. I’m not afraid of the Inspectorate, he asserted, nor am I afraid to be executed, since I’m sure it won’t happen. I rather fear the shame I’ll feel when the Imperial Vigilantes will come to get you for your subversive mindset. You’re the best, he admitted sighing and pulling back the lock of hair that fell on his pale, freckled face. You are the best teacher this institute could ask for. At the same time, your behaviour is unacceptable. Our students must perform the Imperial salute.

Valerius wrinkled his snow-white face in an irritated grimace. They’re children, he protested, filled with disgruntlement, Instilling politics in their immature minds goes against every preceptor’s moral value. I’m supposed to be working in a school, but it feels like I’m in a military base. Keep on supporting a tyrant’s whim, I’m not forced to do the same.

You are, lord Raleigh, claimed the principal, grasping the ashtray on the left side of his desk. He snorted seeing that the cigarette it contained was nearly extinguished, before crushing the cigarette butt to put it out. You think you’re ahead of your time, but you’re not. Give in or I’ll be obliged to charge you, he demanded, settling his glasses on his nose with a finger. You’re free to go. Oh, I was forgetting, do not come in tomorrow if you haven’t cut your hair. Agents from the Inspectorate are visiting us and will expect some decency.

Valerius picked up the briefcase and the black gabardine raincoat that he had put at his feet during the conversation and, tossing a surly glance at the principal, he walked towards the door that would return him to the vast corridors of the Children’s Institute of Athala, where he had taught for the last five years.

Valerius Raleigh was twenty-seven years old, and he lived in the most privileged district of Helbell, capital of the state of Danesya and the continent of Empiria, a former federal republic dominated by the military dictatorship perpetrated by the ferocious Army of the Harpy.

Once guided by the Emperor Franzin Jalethorn, esteemed former Secretary-General of the political movement known as the Pitch Feathers and whose captainship of the rebel troops of the then unified Empirian Republic’s Armed Forces had caused the most violent coup Empiria had ever witnessed, the Army of the Harpy enforced order through a dogmatic moral belief based on the pure concept of discipline and ethical duty, proclaimed unbearably through the ceaseless propaganda broadcast to holographic screens overlapping upon the skyscrapers of every city, each one a metropolis populated by millions of citizens.

In each inhabited area, every form of entertainment not approved by the Inspectorate of Culture and Doctrine established by the General Elias Nilam of Bentis, responsible for the propaganda in arts and culture for the entire continent, was severely forbidden, as was every form of emotional expression in public, to not outrage public decency.

In a wider sense, every form of expression discording with the Imperial vision and with that of the Church of Absironian Rebuilders, keepers of the state religion and moral judges sometimes stricter than the regime itself, was illegal. Furthermore, the control set by the Army of the Harpy featured a night-time lockdown, the infringement of which foresaw conditions for execution on site.

To reinforce the message, a system of public executions had been established in which thousands of people died every day under the gunfire of armour-piercing bullets and in front of the shouts and applause of their fellow citizens, forced to rejoice at the sight of death to appease a dictator's ego.

The Army had ruled over Empiria for the past fifty years, an atrocious historical period known as the Harpy Era, during which Valerius had grown up.

Nonetheless, even though the ancient system of social classes on which Empirian society had based a big part of its existence had been essentially wiped out, the aristocracy had found a way to avoid the constant mutations of that millenary land and remained confined to districts exonerated from some oppressive laws thanks to previous political agreements.

Nobles considered themselves the favourites of the Empire, particularly since the new Emperor, successor to the recently deceased Franzin Jalethorn, was an aristocrat himself. Valerius did not agree; he believed the noble districts were in fact enclaves, and nobles like him were unaware slaves deprived of their free will as much as any other. What was about to happen to his institute was conclusive proof of his theory, and Valerius couldn’t tolerate the idea he was one of the few who had realised.

Crossing the institute’s front doors, protected like any other by a biometric scanner aimed at recognizing those who entered and exited, Valerius pulled away his hair tie freeing his long, straight hair.

He had all that was required to become a successful man, he lived in Athala, he was educated enough to aim for a prominent role among the revered Imperial bureaucrats and he was more attractive than many models who acted as testimonials for propagandistic advertisements.

Upon seeing his stunning oval face and his sculpted cheekbones, his small and straight nose, his thin pinkish lips, and eyes that were so brilliant and complex they hearkened back to the spectacular detail of a painting, everyone would have listened to any message associated with such charm; however, Valerius refused the idea of becoming the herald of the doctrine of a despotic and belligerent government.

With the coming of dusk and the warm, reddish colours of the last rays of sunshine, Athala was painted with shades full of seeming vitality. Blinding volumetric projections and overpowering holographic propagandistic images piled up frantically upon the glazed skyscrapers and austere buildings of afthartium[1] and nanotube arrays, the rigorousness of which was softened only by the bioluminescent fronds of the lab-created palms adorning the avenue that the institute overlooked.

A breath-taking view, spoiled not only by the flying drones that filled the skies but especially by the patrolling Vigilantes in their tactical uniforms, embracing their ordnance Executioner BR95 assault rifles, shining bullpup weapons with ambidextrous grip and selective fire, charged by armour-piercing bullets, with an automatic aiming system and capable of firing nine hundred rounds per minute. Valerius avoided making eye contact with these terrifying patrols and searched a pocket in his midnight blue suit for a pair of shades with a plastic upper frame, a silver bridge, and a lower metal frame. With his eyes hidden, he steeled himself with some Tianaan, the most diffuse natural alkaloid in Taenand, albeit the only one that was legal, to which he was far too addicted.

As he lit the white cigarette and his throat flooded with the grey smoke he inhaled, Valerius savoured the pungent and slightly bitter taste soured by the harmful additives that kept it together.

That noxious tarry combustion gifted him with a craved moment of peace despite the propaganda’s cacophonic uproar, in which he recognized a ridiculous advertisement. The only safe augmentations are legal implants, the slogan said, as the silent volumetric projection of a young man smiled, digging its fingernails into its arm and peeling away the hyper-realistic synthetic skin to show a shiny cybernetic augmentation. Request your implant by joining the Register of Imperial Regulation for Cybernetic Prostheses. Protect yourself, protect your loved ones. Transparency is a moral duty.

Are you going to stay there all night, or are you taking a ride with us? he heard suddenly, and the cheerful and familiar voice encouraged him to part his lips in a placid smile.

Empirian nobles were still accustomed to employ attendants from other districts, and Valerius did not shrink from that tradition even though he reinterpreted it his way. The attendant who worked for him was his same age and came from the humblest part of Axtaris, the most varied district of Helbell. His name was Vincent, a young man whose verve bordered on the brassy exuberance of a teenaged boy. A handsome chap with gleaming olive skin and an extravagant backcombed black mane, short on top and long down to the shoulders, as current fashion expected.

Vincent Jackam was a biker distinguished by a garish multicoloured attire and by his unconditioned love for Wanderer, a custom motorcycle that with its aggressive lines, visible iridescent afthartium frame and the high and wide chromed handlebar was an emblem of those rare models fabricated by the far-famed Tanngrisnir Motors, a motorcycle manufacturer based in the frozen Nordic state of Holt.

Valerius spotted him on Wanderer near the sidewalk opposite where he stood, and he wasn’t alone. By his side, riding a similar bike but painted a plain pastel pink, two girls were also waiting for Valerius to join them.

The second rider was also a noble, a red-haired young woman who always kept her hair in an updo and was so disgusted by her social status as to reject her title of Marchioness, preferring the definition of Marchionex, whatever that meant. Iulia Dower, twenty-six, was a quiet and sophisticated lady who wore boxy jackets with padded shoulders, highlighted by bright colours that represented the only display of rebellion that could still be considered legal. She had a small, rounded face, tiny thin lips often painted in red lipstick, and a blaze of freckles that speckled her white skin lit by a vague apricot undertone. Her wide-set green eyes were hidden behind the sharp mirrored shades she wore on her upturned nose, and they were coloured a shimmering magenta like the big oval earrings hanging from her lobes.

Her passenger could be defined as an intruder because she was neither an aristocrat nor a hired citizen living in Athala for job-related reasons. Her name was Rita, but Valerius had never learnt her surname, although he considered it irrelevant information. A caring girl, cheery as few others when someone gained her trust, Rita had the umber skin typical of the insular state of Lapewati, that remained independent from the Empire due to its location in the Vestral Archipelago[2]; however, she was the great-granddaughter of Lapewatian people who moved to Empiria during the libertarian Rational Era, which ended in Year 1 of the Harpy Era, and as many Empirians of non-aristocratic descent she had never been allowed to learn more about her native culture or visit those lands to experience their autonomy. Nonetheless, she was proud of her natural thick curls, which she embellished even more by dyeing a lock of hair a different colour once every four months.

Currently, Rita’s tuft was platinum blonde, and it stood out from the tight pink hood of the hoodie she wore under a large, plump jacket tightened by cyan bands at the wrists and the waist. Her full lips were jasper-coloured, her wide nose adorned by a silver ring on a nostril, and her thick black eyebrows topped her bright black eyes highlighted in indigo eyeshadow.

She was the first to lift from her seat and wave a hand in the air while Valerius crossed the road to reach them, and she was the first to talk when, having thrown his half-smoked cigarette, Valerius climbed to sit behind Vincent. Did your day suck again, today? she asked chuckling and wrapping her arms around Iulia’s hips to give her a loving hug.

More than ever, to be fair, he replied, grasping the handhold placed under the elevated passenger seat. My life could end tomorrow, and I need a distraction.

So, we’re getting wasted in Delham tonight? asked Iulia, her lips turned upwards in a witty grin.

Valerius nodded with a radiant smile. Of course we’re getting wasted.

Hearing this, Vincent turned the knob and revved Wanderer’s engine before whizzing over the asphalt and popping a spectacular wheelie. Iulia mirrored him, instantly going full throttle, pushing Rita to an amused scream followed by an excited laugh.

Vincent rode those highways and their curves like roaring pitch tides inhabited by monsters that were too slow to grab him. Valerius was accustomed to the sensation and pleased by the rush of the getaway, a fast-paced spark of freedom, looked up to the sky while the speed-boosted wind whipped and enraged his long hair in a hectic dance, ruffling and tangling it into stretched ropes, before caressing and softening it once again.

Like a reckless warrior of the road, Vincent drove Wanderer up to Athala’s borders and then headed to Axtaris, where he merged with the stream of two and four-wheeled vehicles that crowded the streets. He weaved between them even overtaking some Imperial vehicles that quickly took an interest in him and Iulia.

She was as skilled as Vincent and familiar with escaping from Imperial Centaurs, the motorcycle-riding unit of the Army of the Harpy; hardworking soldiers and bold pilots in their form-fitting black suits and full-face helmets adorned with glowing white streaks, identical to those decorating their narrowing sport bikes, with polymer windshields and powered by impressive electromagnetic engines supported by flaming thrusters.

It wasn’t long before three Centaurs gave chase, therefore Vincent turned left and revved the engine again to do another wheelie after which Wanderer regained its stability and thrilling speed.

For a moment Valerius felt like he was about to faint, sure he was going to fall, but taking advantage of an isolated glimpse of deceleration, the baron reinforced his grip on the handholds, gasping and stretching himself towards the exalted biker.

The Centaurs, however, weren’t willing to give up. Vincent carried on, weaving through the immense commercial avenue of the district to confuse them.

Only one chaser was able to approach them, and the Centaur who was riding it came at Wanderer, ramming it to make it swerve.

Exploiting that sudden hardship, Vincent took an empty street that turned towards the core of the Army of the Harpy, the influential district of Rivet. We’re close, Vincent, shouted Valerius. Turn right, come on!

Trailed by Iulia, Vincent heeded the advice and entered the direction that would bring them to the entrance of Delham, the notorious independent district of Helbell.

Delham was considered sacred land by the continent’s insurgents since none of the cities had ever succeeded to replicate a similar place within their walls. Every day in that district of the capital, a million people lived their lives in the light of day and enjoyed the freedom to roam the streets throughout the night.

It was said that anything could happen, and nobody would ever remember any of the excesses under Helbell’s dark skies, because the morning would wipe out any trace; alternately, those guilty would disappear before dawn.

All this was possible thanks to the Brotherhood, a shady association that held the monopoly on all illegal trafficking in the area, presided over prostitution and gambling, and controlled the finances of nearly all the individual commercial activities, from whom the Brotherhood extorted as much as thirty percent of their weekly profit. The Brotherhood was a horrid gang of criminals; however, it was seen by the district’s inhabitants as a lesser evil, far more acceptable than the dictatorship.

The entrance to Delham was protected by them, particularly by soldiers loyal to SkullBabe, a merciless cyborg woman who maintained order in the district and ensured its preservation by preventing any attempt of Imperial incursion.

The watchtowers placed at the sides of the entrance were filled with snipers and rocketeers, and the pathway was guarded by two ExoMechs, men controlling towering robotic exoskeletons covered in shining golden-chromed metal and whose enormous arms could be reconfigured quickly into rocket launchers or brutal chainsaws, as necessary. On their shoulders, the ExoMechs contained two lethal laser cannons, that often forced the Imperial soldiers to retreat. They divided to allow passage as Vincent and Iulia’s motorcycles reached the entrance at speed, ending their flight with a hard brake when they had surpassed the barricade.

Dressed in their elegant black and gold suits, the colours imposed by their organisation, SkullBabe’s soldiers surrounded and urged them to take off their shades and hold out their right arm. All Empirians were required to carry within their forearm a microchip that reduced their identities to sixteen-digit serial numbers, archived in the Army’s vast database. The chip was named Identity Device, shortened to ID, and as one of Delham’s citizens Rita was the only one in the group who didn’t carry one.

The Brotherhood’s men scanned their faces via hologloves, portable all-in-one terminals featuring an armband which generated a holographic interface, and slid hand-held cylindrical scanners on the visitors’ forearms to determine their identities.

Get in, said a deep and snarling voice as the checks ended successfully. It was the voice of a Harimau, the second most widespread species in the vast Empirian lands.

Heavy built and graceful at the same time, Harimau were humanoid felines, almost two meters tall and from a faraway land[3], distinguished by their assorted coats, unique to each individual, and for the straight manes growing from the middle of their elongated heads.

Refined by a black and blond-striped silver coat and by his remarkable jade irises, slimmed by the dilated vertical pupils, the Harimau thrust out a large, clawed hand towards the lights behind him, inciting the new arrivals to carry on quickly aboard their vehicles.

Suddenly, the city changed shape and came to life. Delham wasn’t just the dark side of Helbell, but the cradle of its vitality, the vessel of its vigour and its unspoken hope. The deteriorated streets were a receptacle of colours, holograms, and volumetric projections, other than a polyhedric crowd obstructing its main road, a stream of passers-by, motorcycles, food trucks and cheap junk stands.

Painted in the most vivid shades of purple, red, cyan, and magenta, Delham was a masterless unceasing creature that lived at its fullest rather than surviving asleep, despite the oppressive Imperial regulations.

Here Valerius felt at ease, absorbed by an irrational sense of peace. He quietly closed his eyes listening to the gurgles of the trucks’ cauldron pots, smelling the synthetic slops and the smokable drugs. Hearing the traders’ shouts and the laughter of reckless youngsters who roamed the street, he finally felt home.

2

So, what happened? asked Vincent, taking advantage of an empty side of the street to fasten Wanderer’s decelerated stride.

Valerius looked to his right, offering his attention to the flirtatious look of a cyborg woman with purple curled hair and tapered cybernetic legs adorned in glowing silvery lines, who wore a pair of maculated high-waisted shorts and a tight studded jacket made of cerise synthetic leather. She was standing against a wall near the window of one of the several clubs that filled the way, the mile-long Riverfront Street, a cesspit occupied by entities of any kind and at that time of the evening overcrowded by passers-by on their way to start the umpteenth night of recreation, excesses, and in certain cases even of business.

It seems like the Empire decided to take control of Athala’s institutes as well, he replied, now looking at Vincent. Tomorrow all teachers will be interrogated by the Inspectorate’s agents. Lowthien even ordered me to cut my hair, or not show up. He chuckled after his last statement.

Vincent burst in a louder laugh. Imagine the officer who will list your crimes on the gallows and the look on his face, he cackled, "Charge of hairstyle non-compliant to the Inspectorate’s guidelines" he proclaimed, miming the solemn tone of an Army’s soldier.

In case I end up on the gallows, I’d prefer to do it for a less silly reason stated Valerius giggling.

You won’t end up on the gallows if you move to Delham, said Vincent, parking Wanderer near a dirty sidewalk. "I mean if we move. I’d come with you."

You really can’t live without me, can you? asked Valerius, following him with his eyes while he got down from Wanderer’s seat.

Not in the way you mean, answered Vincent with a big smile that turned his full lips, of a natural redwood colour, upwards. He had a beautiful beard stubble, and that night his brown eyes looked brighter than ever. In any case, you’re the one who can’t live without me.

Just because I can’t drive, argued Valerius in a mocking tone, before getting off the vehicle as well.

Out of the blue, he was thrown off balance by Rita, who threw herself on Valerius with a hop and squeezed him into a hug with her overwhelming energy. I missed you so much she exclaimed, moving away from him to stroke his face with her hands and then shaking it after pinching his cheeks.

Valerius blinked puzzled, always surprised by her disorienting displays of affection. We came here just three days ago, he pointed out, sharpening his gaze.

Rita knitted her brows. I missed you anyway, she replied, before giving him a small kiss on the tip of his nose. Come on, let’s get inside, she said afterwards, taking Vincent by the arm, I’m curious to know what happened to you.

As they crossed the entrance of the Toxin, a bar where the group went nearly every time they set foot in Delham, Valerius slowly shook his head blinking with a slight smirk on his face.

Forget it, he heard to his right, "she’s my socket [4]."

Valerius turned the same smile towards Iulia, who stared at him with pretended annoyance. You’re lucky, he said, You’re incredibly lucky I have no desire to hit on her.

Valerius snickered when he noticed that her hostility was becoming more serious. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders to guide her towards the entrance; Iulia reacted with a snort and a half-smile, after which she wrapped her arm around his waist. Remind me why I’ve never told you to piss off.

Because you’re fond of me, he asserted, grasping the long vertical handle of the bar’s glass door to open it.

Sadly, she admitted, walking through the door with him.

The Toxin was a small place, not so busy and flaunting the rough facade expected by a dive that only demanded enough profits for the manager to survive. The dominant light was intentionally red, not only to recreate a sinister and aggressive atmosphere that could attract the right customers but also to allow them to keep a low profile in case their clothes were bloodstained. No light was cast by the perimetric lanterns, these were kept off. Instead, the pervading red glow came from the massive round lamp that hung from the uncovered ceiling, floating among dangling, twirled cables, and the rectangular spotlights on the walls, as well as a bright strip running along the edge of the counter.

The walls were decorated with fluorescent scrawls and holographic luminaries matching the thousands of framed pictures and illustrations whose brutal subjects were of blatant subversive nature.

The bartender and manager named Samira Bellamy, also known as Sam, was a thirty-four-year-old cyborg with cybernetic arms, shiny and extravagant as much as they were strong and efficient, wreathed by a twine of cables, and by the brilliant yellow retinal augmentations that made her irises appear like two refulgent lights. A descendant of immigrants from the desertic land of Jabreten, located in the far south of Empiria, her skin was a shadowy sepia and her face was characterized by squared and angular features, peculiar and pronounced.

She was a gorgeous woman, and her eye shape was sharp and captivating; though her face’s skin was marked by the scars caused by her implant’s graft, the tiny mole embellishing her left cheek remained unscathed.

Dressed in her usual studded vest made of leather and spotted inserts, and with her puffed, slicked-back, orange-dyed hair, Sam left on their table four boosted synthetic drinks, strengthened by a homogeneous mix of synthetic psychostimulant drugs.

Many bartenders had tried to steal that idea in the past, getting catastrophic results and an impressive number of unwanted victims. Sam knew her job better than anyone else, thus she was the only one in Delham who was able to prepare them properly. The first drink is on the house, she declared, looking at each of them while keeping the serving dish underarm, except for his, she added, casting a glance at Valerius before walking away.

Valerius took that hit with a scornful sneer, and he bowed his head, scratching his forehead with the thumb knuckle of the hand that now held a cigarette. Vincent coughed the smoke of his own cigarette, nearly choked by the laughter he burst into. Valerius glared at him, although Iulia was giggling as well.

She’s still angry at you, guessed Rita after a surprised hiccup.

Valerius shook his head and took the first sip, which burned and immediately dazed him, as expected for a Delham drink. Can we change the subject, please?

You talk as if you care, Iulia scolded him, glaring at him after she exhaled two plumes of smoke from her nostrils. You were a total dick to her, Valerius.

It happened more than a year ago, he claimed, before bringing the filter to his lips with two fingers. I was a dick to nearly everyone back then.

She was in love and you broke her heart, countered Iulia, with an elbow leaned against the table and two fingers holding her cigarette. I know you’re a different man now, but I can’t blame her to be honest. Anyway, she sighed afterwards, You can’t stay in Athala. This Inspectorate affair is the first step towards forced enlistment of teachers. You’ll be a literal Imperial soldier, to Ludwig’s joy. It will pave the way to the draft of aristocratic sixteen-year-olds and soon after to a full application of the most oppressive laws afflicting the rest of Helbell’s citizens. You must not go to the Institute tomorrow, she suggested before taking a nervous puff, Therefore, you should spend the night in Delham.

Valerius exhaled some smoke. We suspected it would be a matter of time, he said worried. I know you’re right, but I can’t run away either. I must be there, he declared distressed, swallowing the lump that was about to seal his throat. I’m sure they will interrogate my students too, and in my absence, none of my colleagues will be eager to look after them.

I’m aware that’s not what you want to hear, said Vincent, putting down his half-empty glass, but once you speak up for them, you’ll be arrested, and when the soldiers take you away there won’t be anyone to protect your pupils anyway.

So, should I only care about myself and leave them to their own devices? Valerius asked irritated. No way. Protecting those children and opening their minds is the reason why I pursued my profession, he said upset, full of pride and shaking with rage as well as with fear; normally, he would’ve never admitted that last part. If what I’ve taught them until now has paid off, my arrest will show them the regime is wrong and that I’m not afraid of it, as they shouldn’t be.

Alternatively, you’ll scare them to death and leave them with the traumatic memory of their favourite teacher’s arrest, noted Iulia, putting out her cigarette on the ashtray placed between them on the table. I understand what you mean, and I agree with you. I’m serious, I really do, she stated in a saddened tone. At the same time, you can’t risk your freedom and your life in such a foolish way. It’s not fair for your students to be robbed of your support, but it’s not right for you to die or end up enlisted. Believe me when I tell you I don’t know which outcome is worse, and in either case, I’d grieve for you.

Valerius, in turn, squeezed the cigarette butt to put it off in a tense manner. He was angry, desperate, and at the same time discouraged by the realisation that Iulia and Vincent could be right. I can’t abandon them, he announced finally, They count on me. If this means I have to sacrifice myself to inspire them to rebel against the tyranny, so be it.

Iulia had no chance to reply since someone approached them and captured their attention with her muscular figure and fascinating aesthetic. She was a white-coated Harimau woman, whose curled mane was held up by a kerchief and who wore a fitted leather coat with a lowered hood. She was carrying weapons, two semi-automatic pistols hanging from belts tied to her waist. Iulia Dower? she asked. Iulia answered furrowing her brow with an unsure nod. "There’s a key for you. Be at the Pit in twenty minutes, alone."

With that said, the woman turned tail and strode towards the entrance, crossing it to get on her sportbike and start its engine. Valerius looked at her suspiciously and then turned to Iulia, who put stunned a hand over her mouth, her eyes wide open. "That was the Scarlet Hunt, she babbled in a faltering voice, They’ve accepted me."

That led to an excited squeal coming from Rita, who grabbed Iulia’s head to turn her face towards her. She gave her a string of pecks on her lips, returned by Iulia with an astonished look and eyes full of joyful tears.

Valerius smiled sorrowfully because although glad that his dearest friend achieved her goal and was close to leaving Athala forever to join the biggest rebel association of the continent, and whose Danesian headquarters was located in Delham, his destiny would not be bright in the same way. Cutting their night short, he gave Vincent a strong meaningful look, and in a gesture of wordless understanding, Vincent stood up finishing his cocktail in one gulp.

Promise me you won’t get arrested, said Iulia when Valerius got up, and promise me you won’t get enlisted. I’ll do everything I can to save you from this fate. She lent him her hand. Valerius grasped and then caressed it with his thumb, his heart leaping into his throat. He was terrified, like never before. You won’t have to save me, he tried to reassure her, Good luck, Iulia. Show them who you are.

Iulia nodded hesitantly, her face overwhelmed by concern. Even though Valerius suspected it would be their last conversation, he chose not to treat it as a farewell. He accepted Rita’s loving hug when she got up to hold him, and then he left reluctantly to return to Athala.

Although confused by the belatedly arisen effects of his enhanced drink, Vincent got back on Wanderer to take Valerius through the surveilled streets of Axtaris, where his pace increased, and he was forced to wear the mirrored goggles that had hung from his neck until then. It was already dark, therefore nightly lockdown had been in force for several hours and the Centaurs were again hot on their trail.

The trio of motorcycles already following them was joined by two squad cars and two further Centaurs paired up with armed passengers. Upon seeing them, the thrill of escape left Valerius, his lack of preparation and a growing burst of panic taking over. Besides, he guessed Vincent couldn’t currently distinguish excitement from fear, experiencing them merged in a uniform mix of perceptions, a single sensation, a sole instinct. It was this instinct that forced him to brake to change direction, a sudden manoeuvre that drew a wide circle on the asphalt.

Valerius’ mind was able to define a single word that his polished elocution would’ve prohibited him to utter freely in any other situation, but it came out on impulse in that dreadful moment. Fuck he whispered. Dazed by concern as he should’ve been after one of Sam’s drinks, Valerius hit his friend’s back with a swift succession of pats, coming back to his senses just when he could speak again. Run, run, run! he yelled, hearing, at last, the high-pitched rumble from the motorbike.

Vincent didn’t know Rivet well enough to traverse its streets with confidence, yet he tried his luck, hitting a dead-end alley located between two towering buildings. Coming to the end of that improvised path, Wanderer slowed down until it stopped. Its evermore surrendering rider tore the goggles from his face and collapsed to the ground, on the dark and damp tarmac.

Valerius jumped down the motorcycle and crouched down, grabbing him by the shoulder to pick him up. Vincent, he gasped distressed, Look at me. All that Vincent could do was curl up to the ground, his face hidden behind his hands. He was shaking terrified, and he was even sobbing. Vincent, I beg you, said Valerius, pervaded by his anguish. Pull yourself together.

It all happened faster than they could imagine. Once down from their vehicles, the seven Centaurs surrounded them steadfastly, menacing while hidden by their full-face helmets. The most muscular, clearly a Harimau, took his large hand away from his rifle’s handguard and typed a fast succession of commands at the holographic interface of his hologlove, from which a brief registration was reproduced.

"By the authority vested in me by Article 39 of the Military Regulation of the Army of the Harpy, you are under arrest for Lockdown Infringement. Every claim and illicit act performed during capture will be considered as resisting arrest, and it will authorize the Imperial Surveillance Corps to execute you immediately."

Valerius got up slowly and raised his hands in surrender.

My name is Valerius Sigwald Raleigh-Herrin, ID 3211-5555-6189-3030. As a member of the aristocratic class, I invoke procedural law and request to be interrogated.

The Vigilantes looked at each other, unprepared for such promptness or to meet a noble in that district of the capital. One of them, carrying a semi-automatic, unfastened the clasps holding his jacket to reach down and grab an ID reader.

Valerius lowered his right arm and, apparently impassive, held it out for inspection. Absorbed in his thoughts, Valerius looked down to the ground and the nothingness. He closed his eyes, refusing to see and hear more.

When the Vigilantes threw him to the ground to handcuff him, Valerius didn’t oppose and didn’t say a word. He didn’t speak when he re-opened his eyes to look at Vincent, dull and disoriented, prone at his side and ruined by the trauma, devastated by his pain. If he could, Valerius would have screamed and let that suffering consume him in the same way it was already killing him inside. Yet, he didn’t do anything. He sighed shocked because even though alive they could both consider themselves dead.

3

At the time of Franzin Jalethorn’s rise to power, there wasn’t a single building capable of embodying the unbounded glory of his ascent, or more precisely the immensity of his ego.

During his first gathering, the first Emperor had commissioned the architect Anton Kassidy to build his outstanding palace, a massive skyscraper erected above the ashes of the ancient Parliament Palace. Forged in metal and settled in stone, thirty stories tall and standing in the centre of the unmoving district of Rivet, the palace served not only as the Emperor’s residence but also as the Army’s headquarters and primary department for its bureaucrats.

Upon Franzin Jalethorn’s specific demand, Kassidy made sure that the fourteenth floor of that towering palace housed its most important wing, known as the Great Hall of the War Council. Extended in a four hundred and twenty square metres area on a rectangular plan, the Great Hall was the manifest expression of severity and magnificence, solidly sustained by a well-balanced alternation of black and white, representation of the bright pureness of integrity and the dark ruthlessness of discipline.

Enclosed within the complex energy-based windows spawned by pulse generators installed around the frames, the Great Hall, a triumph of balance and rigorous geometry, was supported by two parallel colonnades made of twenty-two columns carved in platinum grey marble, the same used to coat the magnificent, embossed ceiling decorated with frescoed strips that depicted scenes of ancient wars dating back to the Great Cults Era, the second of the four Empirian Eras in chronological order. Encircled by long white banners displaying the austere Army’s emblem, namely the harpy with an eye patch, the Hall was also bordered by bright white perimetral lights.

On the black, white-striped marble floor, a long table was placed with thirty-five ergonomic seats framed in polymeric material and refined synthetic leather upholstery. The seat located on the north side was reserved for the assembly's illustrious host, a burdening role that laid heavily for the first time, that morning, on the ruling Emperor’s shoulders.

He was the first heir of a new succession, herald of the stability of a revived monarchy, the poetic expression of a ferocious stratocratic regime that under the wise guidance of a soldier foretold its unending persistence. Dressed in his pointy black uniform and the shiny black silk of his expensive dress shirt, Ludwig grabbed the visor of his peaked cap and took it off to rest it on the backlit surface of his side of the table. If the officers seated all around the table could plumb his eyes’ abyssal intensity, hidden by the usual, terrifying white contact lenses, they would’ve found an unexpected trepidation.

Ludwig Maximilian Eckhale was thirty-nine, the last twenty-two spent at first obeying the orders of his cocky superiors, then commanding them when they became his subordinates. The life of an Imperial soldier gravitated around the virtuous concept of observance, that same deference Ludwig had refused during his youth and over which he bent when, opposing his father’s expectations, he had decided to make history as the first aristocrat to join the eminent ranks of the Army of the Harpy.

In those years, Ludwig had become a recruit, a soldier, a Second Lieutenant, First Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Colonel, Major General, Lieutenant General, then General. He had graduated with such rapidity and with such a thirst for power to become legend, and then inherit a supremacy he was unaware of at the time. That vicious cycle of slavery and command was broken when Franzin Jalethorn took his last breath and, in the end, made Ludwig a free man.

That morning and during that meeting, Ludwig looked at each of the fourteen Generals, their Lieutenant Generals and the guest sitting in the first seat to his right. Those people, once his peers, were all subjected to his will, as his servants and his property. Such power made him euphoric, proud, and pleased, though concerned.

Still, one of the main reasons for his success was his sublime expertise in hiding his own emotions, enriched by unfailing self-control, that allowed him to shine even in this situation.

Cold-blooded and calculating, Emperor Eckhale raised his right hand and made a gesture that led the forty soldiers guarding the Hall to bear their Executioners against the surprised officers, who put an end to their lively debate and looked around astonished. All of them, except for one.

Flawless in her black uniform, Eva Bergen, General of the state of Danesya, grabbed her double-breasted jacket’s lapels and pulled it tighter as she was protecting herself from a flash of cold. Standing out beneath thin eyebrows, her sharp blue eyes didn’t need to be disguised, since inert and merciless, cold as the rocklike stare of a pale statue. Symmetrical as only the outcome of a meticulous sculptor’s hard work could be and beautified by thin garnet-tinted lips, her squared face was framed by a jet-black bob, and a short fringe lay on her white forehead, reminiscent of the iconic Imperial symbology, the hard-hearted Harpy, of which she was often defined as the undisputed embodiment. Eva Bergen was the most influential woman on Empiria and the most ruthless among the officers, cruel and cold as a Morozostri snowstorm, lethal as a ferocious bite from a krert[5], the terrifying guard reptiles and fighting beasts of the Reptile Unit.

Eva was fascinating, masterful and heartless; reflective and laconic, she was the ruler of the most relevant state in the continent and the person Ludwig thought was the most comparable to himself. That was the reason why he wasn’t surprised by her lack of concern, on the opposite he cherished it by congratulating her with the barely perceptible hint of a smile.

I’m afraid I must remind you all of the origin and nature of the Council, began Ludwig, A solemn, respectable gathering, represented by the most prestigious personalities of the continent so they can discuss and decide its fate. When the departed Emperor constituted it, he determined its majority would be represented by his officers, therefore their discipline would ensure exemplary behaviour. This is the difference between an Army and a mere political congress, what in my opinion we can’t allow ourselves to become. That said, Ludwig gave the signal to his soldiers to lower their rifles. General Nilam, he went on, addressing to the ambiguous General of Bentis, present your concerns, please.

In order of service, Elias Nilam was the youngest General of the Council. Ludwig’s equal in age, elected in Year 47 of the Harpy Era, he was known among his despotic peers for his manifest hesitation, although Bentis and its capital Weissblum had reached their peak exclusively under his command.

The thin Elias was an enthusiast of the arts, patron of national culture and clever advocate for the most trivial part of the propaganda, in his opinion the most efficient. The influence of literature and art was diminished by his fellow officers’ belligerent minds, but he was confident that force, alone, wouldn’t be enough to settle the Imperial message in Empirian consciousness without the subtle help of entertainment. Luckily for him, his methods were subject of fervent approval by Franzin Jalethorn, and in the same way, Ludwig had understood his reasons, making them his own.

Consulted by the latter, Elias opened his small black eyes wide and settled his oval-shaped glasses on his protruding nose. With all due respect, Your Highness, I’m not puzzled by the election of a fifteenth General, he stated after standing up, It’s the choice of who will take on this role. Each state is governed by a soldier toughened by at least ten years of experience in the Imperial troops, pure citizens of Empiria blossomed in the flourishing moral field of the Army and educated according to the upstanding ethics of the first Emperor. Etheiros deserves an Empirian General who could shape it with accuracy until its perfect integration.

You’re a man of culture, General Nilam, responded Ludwig, "therefore you’ll certainly know that geographically speaking Etheiros has been a part of Empiria since the dawn of time. The same can’t be said from an anthropological perspective. Do you really think the elitist Jadugara[6]’s high class would entrust a man coming from a foreign background with the care of their land’s government? Currently, Etheiros is the sole state on Empiria lacking an Imperial government and Surveillance unit. To the eyes of Taenand, the Army appears afraid, scared by the Devishewa’s cult and bent to the will of the Turinath. This condition must change, and it won’t happen if we use force. From any point of view, it will end in defeat."

In which case, we’re really scared, participated Nakaya Taumahri, General of the state of Vehrtum. She was an old Harimau lady, magnified by her thick grey coat and by the profound coldness of her cobalt blue eyes. Quiet and relentless, Nakaya was pragmatic, so blunt as to manifest an insolence she didn’t possess at all. She never admitted defeat, and that’s what made her one of the most efficient officers in the Army of the Harpy as well as one of its most experienced veterans. Such behaviour is so diplomatic it’s removed from the military field and reduces itself to mere social slavishness. That’s not conceivable as part of the scope of conquest, Your Highness. It’s vulgar politics.

It’s strategy, General Taumahri, rectified Ludwig, "I’m surprised that you above all are unable to grasp its effectiveness. We’re not discussing a savage land like Sangita. While rooted in tradition, Etheiros is modern, revered, and powerful. Declaring war against such an influential state would be foolish, equal to a conflict against Cybernetica. Besides, Turinath itself made the step towards us, tired of the secular armistice and inclined to pursue real inclusion in our continent. We are the continent, officers. It’s our duty to unify it, as well as make it stable and uniform."

Welcome them to subjugate them, pondered one of the most famous Danesian officers. To the right of Eva Bergen sat Lieutenant General Amnon Miles, forty-two years old, a mature yet attractive man with a strong aquiline nose and pearl-coloured skin, who looked graceful thanks to his proud teal eyes and his appealing sturdiness. Despotic and full of himself, Amnon was the most violent and heinous officer who ever set foot among the Army’s troops, enough to gain the role of inquirer during notorious prisoners’ interrogations. A restless sycophant and deceitful integralist, he was known for being idle and excessive, but fruitful in the eyes of the Church of the Rebuilders, born from the ashes of the ancient Cult of Absiron and supported by the deceased Franzin Jalethorn, a zealous condisciple[7] as well as the Lieutenant-General. As usual, Amnon sided with the regent ruler, though Ludwig was aware of his phoney adulation. It makes sense. I only hope the Turinath didn’t have the same idea.

"Prior to making this choice, I consulted the Confessor, who approved my decision. Do you question the word of Absiron’s representative in the mortal world?" proclaimed Ludwig, gesturing with one hand towards the woman sitting to his right.

Dimmed by the long black veil descending from her white triangular headgear, the Confessor nodded in a slow and deferent manner, as she was making a regardful curtsy. The tense tone with which the Great Hall was rife was mitigated by the coldness of surprise and by the humble silence of shame. Pleased by it, Ludwig curved his lips in a soft smile. Sinister, but above all victorious. If we have nothing else to discuss, the Council is dismissed, he announced, replacing the peaked cap that hid his vaporous yet discreet military haircut, shaved on the sides and the back of his head. Moved by the same vigour, the participants rose from their seats and imitated Ludwig as he crossed his arms on his chest in an iconic gesture, keeping his hands straight and open over his shoulders. "For the Glory of the Harpy."

"May it fly eternally" they all replied, pridefully completing the renowned Imperial salute.

I’m impressed, Your Highness, said the Confessor, the only one other than Ludwig who settled back at the table after paying her respects to the dismissed officers. Your first Council as the Emperor has been a success. Franzin would have never been able to achieve this victory. During the first Council, history tells that three Generals died.

Three hopeless dissenters, if I’m not mistaken, responded Ludwig, sitting in a more comfortable pose. "Luckily, I inherited the most united group of Generals of the Era. I know those officers like I know myself, Confessor, and beyond their differences and their flaws, they’re remarkable soldiers. I must deduce that your Vicar Mentors[8] differ from this description, considering your astonishment."

The Confessor narrowed her already thin brown eyes. Her headpiece was embroidered with the symbol of the Church of the Rebuilders, a diamond shape made of four right-angled triangles of which two were white on a black background and two black on a white background, inscribed in two concentric circles. The diamond shape, a symbol of eternity. The right-angled triangles, the drift from equilibrium restored by the harmony of geometric union. The concentric circles, two faces of mortality, the two dominant forces that moved the world. The white cross that in the end originated from it, representation of nature’s dynamism and divine transcendency. Absironian condisciples were so delighted by that interpretation that they even identified as that perfect diamond, and their religious gesture, beginning and ending of all their prayers, consisted in tracing with the index and middle fingers two concentric circles around their faces.

According to Ludwig, that symbol and that gesture were the expression of the egocentricity of a surpassed religion, eager to regain the favour it had dramatically lost and continued to lose and therefore clinging on to institutional support as its only hope of survival. The highest rank in the Church’s chain of command was a political ambassador, a figure far removed from the ferocious Archdeacon, commander of the Cult of Absiron during the Great Cults Era, a segregationist religious monarch and relentless military strategist.

The regent Confessor since Year 1 of the Harpy Era was Patritia IV, also known as The Lightbringer, an everlasting flatterer much like the condisciple Amnon Miles.

Ludwig noticed a sad irony behind that parallelism. He was sure that in proper hands the Confessoracy would stand out through innovation and value and would awaken his personal interest towards a faith he pretended to embrace for mere convenience but secretly had never really joined.

My Vicar Mentors are too high-minded to surrender to dissent’s sorrow, Your Highness, she replied, Even though they were subjugated by it, the defence of a state doesn’t figure among their duties. Her grin stretched out her sharp and protuberant nose, that lightly touched her translucent veil.

She was a tall woman, dressed in a white velvet tunic full of enchanting embroideries and alternated by two tight black sleeves made of synthetic leather. Her knotty fingers, covered in rings, nervously held seventy prayer beads bound by a white gold chain.

I doubt Vicar Mentor Iliathorn Miles and Vicar Mentor Zebulon Costar would agree with your statement, Confessor, said Ludwig groaning distracted, The mission to convert the Desert Strip loaded them with immense responsibility, so much that Darshaen Pajaarut and Kalima Shaqib, my Generals, are glad to help them whenever they must make a governmental decision. From what I perceive, their influence authorises them to not inform you regarding what happens in Sangita and Jabreten. Please don’t misinterpret my words, because I’m pleasantly surprised. The Army of the Harpy and the Church of the Rebuilders needs men like them.

The Confessor pulled her head backwards, with her eyes wide open. Ludwig didn’t react in any way, restricting himself to stare at her and wait for a response that, even if stuttered, came promptly. Vicar Mentors commanding the mission of conversion report periodically anything that happens, so I’m informed about the implications of their strategy. What I intend to say is that they are spiritual leaders, not politicians, nor are they soldiers.

Of course, Ludwig smiled sceptical, in any case, I want you to know that the ancient Cathedral of Delham has been the seat of reprehensible circumstances for too long. When the Army restores its control on that area of the capital, you’ll have the right and duty to consecrate it to the Church of the Rebuilders. Although the annexation of Jadugara culture worries my Generals, I want to prove that the cult of the Rebuilders won’t lose its religious exclusivity in Imperial lands. I have great plans for Etheiros too.

I don’t know how to thank you enough, Your Highness, she replied, bending her head with regard, You’re a gift from Absiron.

I’m a warlord, Confessor, snorted Ludwig, We both know Absiron is an ancient and obsolete creation. I’m not Franzin Jalethorn and you have no need to lie to me. Actually, there’s another thing we’re both aware of.

Though shocked, the Confessor kept for herself any reply that could deny Ludwig’s words and laced her fingers on the table’s surface, after placing upon it her prayer beads. Please enlighten me, Your Highness.

Ludwig threw a glance at those skeletal, wrinkled fingers, speckled by old age and by a web of unappealing purple veins. They were shaking, trembling because of a sudden anxiety. He thought to himself that the one further act of heresy would be enough to kill the Confessor, even a false declaration of detachment. However, he was too classy and cunning to dare. "The Church needs the Empire, and the Empire needs the Church. Think about General Nilam and his propagandistic mindset, which is basically my own. Much like mass culture, religion is a seed that once planted is destined to grow unstoppable. It sinks its roots so deeply it becomes impossible to eradicate. It dominates, fills the soil, and makes it infertile to any ideology differing from

its own. If handled well it becomes eternal, and of course valuable."

I agree with you, Your Highness, said the Confessor, The ancient Cult of Absiron’s mistake was its acknowledged extremism. Still, that faith didn’t wilt. After two years of absence, it’s reborn in our shape. Same deity, same tenets, same wish for domination. Nonetheless, our prudence and our rhetoric spared us any opponents. Except for one, if I may say so.

At first bored, Ludwig tensed up. He straightened his back, and his face whitened by the greasepaint was wrinkled by terrifying indignation. You may not, Confessor, he asserted, I’m perfectly aware to whom you’re referring. General Bergen never proclaimed any inappropriate statement against the Church, and I can’t punish her for her atheism nor for getting married to a man you don’t approve of.

Her declared scepticism isn’t beneficial for either party, exclaimed the woman, lowering her eyes. "She’s married to an apostate, only comparable to the Scourge[9]. That man even asserted to bear resemblance to one of its shapes, deriding our saintly institution. That’s unacceptable."

The apostate you’re talking about is a citizen of Cybernetica and one of the most prominent figures on Empiria. General Bergen legally acquired Cybernanian citizenship thanks to their marriage, he clarified, In the same way as Etheiros, Cybernetica is a precious and inalienable ally. Never, ever dare to disgrace the good name of Baaldair Magnicast again, or I shall be forced to reconsider my alliances.

The Confessor felt silent and drew back from the table. I beg your forgiveness, Your Highness, she said, clutching the armrests of her seat.

Ludwig sighed annoyed and rose from his seat, lending a hand to the Confessor to help her stand. I’ll speak with General Bergen if you wish, he said, but I can’t promise you anything will change. If that’s the case, you mustn’t take a stance against Mr Magnicast and you won’t speak to me about him in the same way you did it today. Is that clear?

Very clear, Your Highness, she replied, crossing her arms to salute.

For the Glory of the Harpy, said Ludwig, making the same gesture.

May it fly eternally, said the Confessor. After grabbing two flaps of her tunic, she lifted it a bit to allow her feet to move towards the doors and leave the Great Hall of the War Council.

Ludwig was left alone with his trusted soldiers and with Zade Rodshen, his attentive bodyguard who until then had stayed silent behind him. What do you think, Rodshen? asked Ludwig, taking off his hat and ruffling the longest locks of his black hair with the other hand.

Zade turned his blue eyes towards the table, where the Confessors’ prayer beads remained. He was half Empirian, half Jadugara, and he inherited his deep-set, extremely narrow and sharp-angled eyes from his Jadugara mother, along with the high cheekbones, the medium-broad nose, and his lucent black hair; the colour of his eyes and the muscular build were instead paternal traits, much like the white skin and rose undertone. Tall as a Harimau, Zade was a menacing figure who followed Ludwig around like a shadow, and like a shadow, he was silent, mysterious, and omnipresent. I think she’s so devoted she forgot her blessed necklace, Your Highness, he replied, It’s a…necklace, isn’t it?

Ludwig scrutinized Zade, whose rigid and irreproachable face began to shape into an uncertain smile, the preamble of a choked laugh.

Hence, Ludwig chuckled graciously and abandoned himself to the only moment of humanity he was granted during that rough day.

4

Athala was the seat of one of the main Surveillance stations in Helbell, located about four hundred metres away

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