“Every battle is won before it’s ever fought.”
– Wu Changqing, 1st Sun General, Dawn Imperium
“Ready?” Konstantin asked the moment Luna closed the door to his room.
“Yes,” the young girl turned to face him. “Alisa said she would cover for me until I return.”
Konstantin returned the nod. Luna’s kindness to others really helped in moments like this, and today was a rare opportunity as the steward had left the manor and wouldn’t return until nightfall. Vitomir’s official reason was that he needed to settle some personal business in town. His real reason, Konstantin suspected, was to report to Count Nikola. The Count must be growing impatient with the young baron’s unwillingness to make a public appearance, and thus dispel the rumors that he had been assassinated on the Grand Prince’s orders.
Nevertheless, Vitomir wasn’t the Count’s only eyes in Konstantin’s manor. There were the guardsmen, not to mention the new maid they just hired who could be an informant as well. As such, it was important for Konstantin to have a good reason to not be disturbed for the next five or six hours as they took a much-needed trip to Anton’s encampment.
“What did you tell her?” The young lord asked again with one brow raised in curiosity.
“That Your Lordship was stressed out and needed ‘male relief’.”
Konstantin chuckled as the snowy-haired maid spoke with a remarkably flat tone and calm expression. However, even she could not stop a mild, pink flush from coloring her pale cheeks, as Luna knew exactly what her words had just implied.
“Well, since we’re supposed to be going at it like rabbits for the next few hours, I better leave behind a figment for accompaniment.”
A playful grin stretched from ear to ear as Konstantin pulled out four runestones from his pockets. He closed his eyes to concentrate as he adjusted their magic. It took him a minute to outline the complex behavior he wanted and export it through his imagination. Upon completion, he lifted his bed’s comforter at each of its four corners, slipped one of the runestones underneath, and then tapped it with his enchanted emerald signet ring.
As the fourth runestone activated with a glow, he lowered the comforter to cover it. Four lines of green mana, each the same hue as his eyes, shot up straight from the fabric that covered the stones. They reached up to eye level before turning a perfect right angle, tracing through the air until a rectangular box formed on top of his four-poster bed. The box shimmered as the magic conjured its image piece by piece, and Konstantin received an eyeful of his own naked rear before the rest of his illusory self came into place.
“This is surreal,” Konstantin whistled as the illusion finished its startup process. He was now watching a naked version of himself pumping into an unclothed figment of Luna with deep groans. Her flushed skin was shades healthier than how he remembered her naked form from four years ago, but otherwise neither her height nor her body had really changed.
“You’re telling me.”
Konstantin turned to Luna, and almost snorted in laughter as he saw the expression on his maid’s face. She had turned away from the lascivious illusion, her entire face burning scarlet while her hands clutched the top of her skirt as though protecting her maidenhood. Her eyes had glued itself to a far corner of the room, and she winced every time she heard the illusion mimic a meaty sound.
The real Luna’s lips then quivered as she heard a soft, feminine moan in her own voice emerge from the illusion. Her crystal-blue gaze snapped up to meet Konstantin’s as she blurted out:
“I do not make sounds like that!”
“You don’t think so? I’m an excellent lov…”
Konstantin was grinning and in the midst of making another joke before he caught sight of the water in her aggrieved eyes. Luna had grown accustomed to many indecent sights and conversations over the years, but clearly this breached the boundaries of what she could tolerate.
“Nevermind,” he focused his concentration on the illusion again. The two figment copies of themselves stopped trying to reproduce and crawled under illusory bed covers. The fake Luna laid against Konstantin’s arm, while he played with a strand of her silky white hair and occasionally kissed the nape of her neck. Then, to test his programming of the illusion’s behavior, the real Konstantin walked to the door entrance and waved where someone’s head would be if they peaked inside.
“What are you doing!” The illusory Konstantin instantly turned his head to shout as the real man rushed to reduce the volume. “OUT!”
“Ow, that looks painful,” The real Konstantin remarked before he concentrated to adjust how his imagined self looked with the head turned. “That should suffice,” he commented again, satisfied, before resetting the audio and returning to the still-clothed version of his maid.
There was a good chance that none of this would even be required, since Luna had already asked the youngest maid Alisa to keep the others away. But Konstantin was not someone who operated without contingencies. He had not kept his cover intact for so long by relying upon only a single layer of deception.
Meanwhile, Luna continued to avert her gaze, as though the mere sight of her illusory self would curse her to oblivion.
“Those two will resume once we leave, and they’ll alternate between resting and making love until we return.”
“Is that what you think about when you look at me?” Luna grumbled in a faint voice just loud enough to hear.
“It’s just an illusion, Luna,” Konstantin shrugged casually. “I needed something convincing enough to deter a close examination, yet so shocking that it would knock any intruder off balance and leave as soon as they’re yelled at. The illusion must also be audible to an eavesdropper, and has limited interactions with the environment to avoid raising suspicion.
“This,” he added with a playful smirk, “meets all four conditions.”
Yet as Konstantin tried to maintain his smiling gaze as one of earnesty, he couldn’t help but admire the curvature of Luna’s thin neck or the translucent pink of her cheeks. Even the single unshed tear in her blue eyes appealed to him.
He doubted Luna was convinced. However she also didn’t begrudge him further. She merely left the faint pout in her expression before replying in a low deadpan:
“I’m thrilled you put so much thought and effort into it, master of debauched erotica.”
Konstantin chortled with a snort. He couldn’t even stop the spit that flew out of his nose. The idea of him spending days and nights practicing how to craft the most sensual imagery…
“You know– I could probably make a fortune from this. I’m sure there’s a market. Be a great source of funding for the war effort.” He joked with a beaming grin.
“Please don’t,” Luna was shivering again as she muttered. Her soft, shaky voice betrayed a genuine fear.
Even the prospect of becoming known throughout Polisia as the female model in a set of erotic illusion runes terrified her.
“Sorry, I went too far,” Konstantin’s smile vanished into an inward scowl as he berated himself. “This was actually made using a standard Mirage Figment spell. It’s one that I’ve had plenty of practice with.”
“Or you’re just a conspicuously promiscuous sphincter,” Luna retorted, her disinterested gaze unimpressed by his explanation.
Konstantin sighed as he recognized that final word. It was an insult that she only used when she was truly annoyed at him. It was clear that trying to explain didn’t do him any good. Awkward silence fell upon the two for a moment, before Luna asked:
“May we leave now?”
Konstantin returned to the magical array that he had traced across the floor with emerald dust. The circular pattern had two rings, one inside the other, with runes in old Draconic script inscribed in between. The emerald dust was used to anchor his mana, holding it together just long enough so it does not evaporate back into the world as ether. Once the spell activated, the mana of the runic circle would link with that of his body, drawing an array through his nerve pathways that would create the supernatural effect. The consumption of the mana as fuel would dissolve the last crystals of the emerald dust, leaving no traces visible to the naked eye to find.
The young baron stepped into the center of the magical array, which immediately began to glow with the brilliant green hue of his mana.
“Get in and hold tight onto me,” Konstantin ordered. His stern words left no room for reinterpretation. He soon felt Luna clutch onto his side while her arms wrapped around his chest in a squeeze.
Konstantin raised the fist bearing his signet ring. The enchanted and personally attuned item served as the focus to activating his spells. The two circles beneath him slowly rose from the floor and began to rotate in opposite directions. Threads of green mana began to materialize in midair between him and the two spinning circles. Some of them wrapped around Luna and bound her to his body as the spell entered its final stage.
The young lord then cleared his mind and envisioned the stone marker he had left half-buried during his previous visit to the encampment. It had been a night-time trip, and his view of the surroundings had been sorely lacking even with the torches they lit. But at least Konstantin could remember the exact position of every cabin and storage shed that surrounded the anchor stone. Such details were essential to guarantee that his Astral Teleport spell would send him to the intended location and not somewhere else.
“Hold on, this spell can get rough,” Konstantin warned.
Astral Teleport was one of the most difficult spells, even for an expert mage. It was a reverse-conjuration spell that would create a fold in the spatial dimensions of reality before launching the caster through it. Even with a personalized, mana-infused anchor at the destination to help pull him towards it, accuracy and safety only extended up to a hundred kilopaces at most. Overextension using this spell was suicide, as a miss of even a few paces could make the transported individuals emerge inside a wall or below ground, which would result in instantaneous death.
The spell normally required a mage to have several decades of spellcraft experience before attempting to learn. Konstantin however had a natural aptitude for spells of its discipline. Nevertheless, this was his first attempt to bring another passenger with him. He would have to focus every bit of his concentration to ensure there were no mishaps.
As the rotating mana circle reached the level of his waist, Konstantin braced himself for the final activation of the spell. It felt as though his entire body was suddenly enveloped by ice, then sublimated to gas and scattered into the air. His muscles burned as though his insides were on fire, as the mana consumed by the spell overexcited his nervous system to painful levels. Konstantin gritted his teeth as his consciousness was pulled through a hole in the fabric of space that materialized in the direction of his signet ring. Meanwhile, his surroundings dissolved into it like molten wax flushed down a water drain.
Then, as quickly as it came, everything popped back out and returned to normal, except at the small clearing on the edge of a modest lumber camp. The first external sensation he felt was the tight hold Luna still had on his torso and her small bosom pressing into his lower ribs. She was trembling as this was the first time she had ever experienced such extreme disorientation.
“We’re here.” He retracted his outstretched right arm and rubbed her snowy hair. Her head finally extracted itself out of his chest and peeked up to confirm.
For a brief second, the frightened little girl in Luna –the same girl that had been escorted to Konstantin’s room four years ago– revealed herself once again. It took a moment before she recovered her composure, stepped away from him, and straightened her garments.
The calm, unperturbed maid was back, weathered by years of experience and tragedy.
We really are similar, Konstantin couldn’t help but appreciate.
—— * * * ——
“As Your Lordship can see, the camp is up and running well.”
Luna followed behind Konstantin and Anton as the gruff-looking Druzhina Captain gestured towards the wooden structures to their left. The druzhina named Drazhan also walked alongside her, and together, the four of them strode down a dirt trail just inside the camp’s eastern fence, towards a small wooden bridge that crossed the nearby creek.
“We’ve received a total of one thousand and sixty eight recruits, though I’m sure that number will fall back to three digits by the New Year. There are always some deserters among the fresh greens.” Anton spoke as though accepting the inevitable, before he half-turned towards the young officer behind him. “Drazhan really came through for us, Your Lordship. Nearly five hundred from the villages by the river delta alone. Mikhail the priest helped me in gathering the rest.”
“Nicely done,” Konstantin praised before turning towards Drazhan.
The young druzhina couldn’t have been older than twenty-five at most if the he was a commoner. Nevertheless, as a mage blessed by magic, this meant Drazhan’s actual age could be anywhere between twenty and sixty years old. His narrow face and sharp, prominent chin weren’t exactly handsome by Polisian standards. His height and build were both average as well. However, his wavy brown hair and trimmed goatee seemed downright exotic compared to the typical Polisian male fashion of thick beards or shaven cheeks.
His flamboyant wardrobe also set him apart from the rest, as the young druzhina changed outfits daily. Today he wore a bright yellow and red that matched freshly fallen autumn leaves, which didn’t even serve as camouflage as the leaves on the ground had faded after weeks.
“I promised if you could recruit a battalion, I’d let you lead, didn’t I?” Konstantin gave the younger druzhina a congratulatory smile before patting his puffed shoulders. “Drazhan Ivanovich Samoylov, I hereby name you commander of the second Death Battalion. I’m also increasing your pay to that of a Captain, with further promotion depending on your unit’s successful training. Keep up the good work.”
“Yes, Your Lordship,” Drazhan saluted with a wide, boyish grin; his right arm bent over his chest before he stretched it straight to his front.
Luna knew the salute well from the Inner Sea Imperium’s garrisons. The Polisian mercenaries that served the legions must have brought the custom back to the Federation.
“What is the status of the camp and provisions?” Konstantin asked next as the four of them crossed a small, wooden bridge.
They passed by a watermill that was still under construction. There Luna met the gazes of Father Mikhail’s two younger apprentices. She gave them a dainty wave and a friendly smile. The older of the two blushed before returning. They also nodded in courtesy towards Konstantin and Anton but did not otherwise stop their work.
Meanwhile Konstantin’s party continued to follow the trail into the forest.
“As of this Monday, we have completed enough housing for twelve hundred capacity, though only facilities for eighty are outside the woods.” Anton replied. “The rest are all hidden deep inside the forest, including the training grounds and archery ranges. Cabins are divided into rooms of three each, one room per section of soldiers to help build their camaraderie. Companies are established by area of recruitment, allowing those who lived in the same village to train and fight together. Furthermore, we have already stockpiled enough grain to last through the winter. And thanks to Mikhail and his idea on building a smokehouse — we’ve also had the pleasure of storing hunted rabbit, venison, and even some bear meat for winter storage.”
“One of the cooks I recruited has promised us a proper bear meat stew for tonight,” Drazhan added with enthusiasm.
Luna could tell from his tone that his mouth was already watering.
“Just be sure to control your appetite tonight,” Anton remarked before he turned to the young lord. “This kid will swallow an ox if you let him. It’s a wonder how he stays a log and not a balloon.”
“I’ll roll back into bed either way,” Drazhan grinned as though he was proud of it.
The first log cabins emerged into view from between the trees. They were of simple construction, each with two elongated rooms placed side-by-side and a double stone furnace between them that rose into a single chimney. The outside walls were padded with compacted dirt for added insulation, while a steep, thatched roof protected the inhabitants from the elements. Altogether, the efficient design that Anton devised both reduced material costs and would improve the shelters’ performance during winter. The only downside was the tiny windows used to light the interior due to their shortage of glass.
Conserve resources, hasten schedule, and improve performance, all at once! Luna reflected upon how Anton managed to achieve the ‘impossible triangle’ simply by modifying the cabin’s designs. He really is a natural organizer.
“Are the men happy with their accommodations?” Konstantin asked as they passed by a squad of recruits.
The soldiers nodded towards Anton and Drazhan with the greeting “commander”. However, none of them seemed to know who Konstantin was.
As they passed just beyond conventional earshot, Luna could hear as one of them spoke:
“Who’s that? He dresses like some noble.”
“He’s even got a maid following him! And what a looker she is!”
“I heard he’s our patron, some rich merchant.”
“Well let’s hope Mister Moneybags doesn’t interfere too often…”
Luna frowned as the conversation left even her keen hearing. It was clear that these men were not from the town of Bohopil where Konstantin personally went to recruit. Unfortunately, it seemed that due to his absence from the camp’s day-to-day running thus far, Konstantin’s standing among these recruits was… virtual nonexistent.
This would be an occurrence that would repeat itself several times throughout the day as well.
“The cabins are dequate,” Luna listened as Anton answer Konstantin at the same time. “Most of these men are simple farmers. They don’t ask for much beyond a solid roof, a warm fire, and a straw bed. However many of them did have to sleep in the open from time to time before their cabins could be finished. Felling trees and processing them into usable pieces was even more labor intensive than I thought. Though it did make good exercise for the new recruits.”
“Especially the tree chopping,” Drazhan grinned. “Perfect practice dummies. It’s become an initiation rite and a morning routine among the men. Even with construction almost finished, we still need firewood to last the winter.”
Konstantin nodded in response, just before Anton turned to another dirt trail and beckoned the others to follow him. The party of four soon arrived at a clearing in the woods, where around a hundred men were currently being drilled with practice staves in hand. Each time they thrusted the blunt tips they shouted in unison. It was a very simple and repetitive exercise.
“Considering the Eastlings field fully-mounted armies, we figured everyone should at least learn the spear,” Anton noted. “Nothing breaks a cavalry charge better than a wall of spikes. The horses simply refuse to gallop to their own deaths.”
“Thrusting a spear is easy.” Konstantin remarked as he watched the men. “The hard part is changing formations during the heat of battle and holding firm even as the enemy is raining arrows at you. The nomads are famous for their archery and mounted maneuverability. The real risks are not frontal assaults, but flank charges and the undermining of morale.”
“I agree,” Anton nodded. “Nevertheless the basics come first. Even the simplest of actions become difficult under the stress of combat. The goal of these drills is not to teach, but to familiarize and then condition the men to stabbing and piercing as a reflexive response. Drazhan does have ideas on their next phrase of training though.”
“Oh?” Konstantin turned to the younger officer.
“Me and the other Druzhina are going to shoot arrows at them while they stand in line,” Drazhan explained with a smirk, clearly pleased with himself for the idea. “Most will be intentional misses. However we’ve made blunt, resin arrows to give them a real scare. Some will even carry enchanted runes to knock them out. They’ll hurt, but they won’t kill. It’s not the same as the real thing, but it should at least help.”
“That’s brilliant!” Konstantin exclaimed, eliciting a proud grin from Drazhan.
Though Luna was pretty sure Konstantin exaggerated his enthusiasm just to stroke the latter’s ego.
“Could we do something similar for holding the line against cavalry charges?”
“That’s… much harder,” Drazhan admitted. “Easy for someone to get injured or killed in the process, especially if they fall and get trampled by a horse. But I… we are trying to come up with some ideas.”
“As long as we can minimize deaths,” Konstantin pushed. “I’d much rather the soldiers receive bruises and cracked ribs, than have them killed on the battlefield because they weren’t ready.”
Luna did not miss Anton’s ferocious smirk as the four of them turned about to depart the training area. It was clear that the old veteran totally agreed with Konstantin’s remark.
“Where’s Father Mikhail?”
Konstantin asked next, though not before sending a glance at the maid following behind him. Luna returned a smile as she had been wondering exactly that. Nevertheless, it wasn’t exactly appropriate for her to jump into a conversation between the commanding officers.
“He went to trade with the local village. Seems like he’s built up some rapport there already,” Drazhan answered, before posing a question of his own. “If I might ask, Your Lordship, why the obsession with three in the battalion structure’s plans? Three man a section, three sections a squad — can’t be just a favorite number?”
“You know how the Lotharins in the west fought a centuries long guerrilla war against the Inner Sea Imperium?” Konstantin replied, but that only made Drazhan more confused.
“Sorry Your Lordship, I’m not much for history… or studying in general.”
“Drazhan is illiterate, Your Lordship,” Anton chimed in. “I keep telling him to learn. But the kid’s too lazy.”
A bewildered Konstantin looked at the younger man in surprise. It was rare to meet a mage, even a yeomen, who couldn’t read at all. However, Drazhan wasn’t even embarrassed as he protested:
“The letters always swim around on parchment. It gives me a headache just to look at the stupid thing!”
I’ve heard of a condition like this, Luna thought. She recalled her father telling her that some people were naturally word-blind and therefore prone to make accounting errors, but she couldn’t remember any more details than that.
“How did you learn to be an officer if you can’t read?” Konstantin puzzled aloud.
“I’m a natural at it.” Drazhan returned a smirk that bordered on bragging. “First time I saw a battle map, knew exactly what goes where and how to use it!”
“Except he delivered the orders to the wrong unit,” Anton scoffed. “The kid needs icons, not numerals and letters.”
For a moment Konstantin said nothing. Then, after rubbing his smooth chin with his thumb, he remarked:
“Wouldn’t be a bad idea to give every battalion their own banner. Easier for the troops to locate their unit when the chaotic melee ensues. The first Imperator of the Inner Sea once wrote in his diary that in one battle, when his soldiers were afraid of disembarking from their ships against a strong opposition on the coast, his Legion’s Aquilifer –bearer of the eagle standard– leaped down onto the shores by himself. It was only then that the rest of the Legion followed, unwilling to see their sacred icon fall into the hands of the enemy.”
“It’s a good idea,” Anton thoughtfully nodded. “Though for the banner to mean something… maybe the men could design it themselves?”
“We might even have a contest,” Konstantin pondered aloud with a smile. “But as to your question, Drazhan: the Lotharins are a tribal people — dozens, even hundreds of tribes that live on the wooded Lotharingie Plains in the continent’s western third. They fought the Inner Sea Imperium for several centuries. Yet while the Lotharins lost almost all the major battles, the Imperium simply couldn’t stamp out local resistance. Even today the region remains contested, with the Imperium occupying the major cities while they struggle to control the countryside.”
“But what does that have to do with the threefold system?” Drazhan asked.
“Because the Lotharins were the ones who first discovered, through centuries of experience, that three is the number of men who formed the closest bonds,” Konstantin answered. “The men would live and fight together until they saw each other as brothers of the same womb, at which point they would rather die than to betray one another. Thus we have three men per section, not to mention a trio of officers at every level. Even if say, a company’s command was wiped out, the three platoon leaders would still seek to protect each others’ flanks.”
“Discipline and cohesion are excellent, but nothing beats brotherhood,” Anton commented with a wry, melancholic tone before he exhaled a deep sigh. “It’s what separates the good formations from the very best.”
Luna could feel her sympathies rising as she looked upon the old man’s mismatched blue and gray eyes. There was a sorrow in them that she knew all too well: one of irreplaceable personal loss.
The party of four soon reached their next destination: an archery range. Though calling it a range might be too generous, as the location wasn’t even deforested and the straw targets were scattered rather than standing in line. Nevertheless, several squads were currently practicing their aim. A few of them used bows, but the majority of them held light crossbows in their hands.
“As Your Lordship can see, the training on ranged weapons is rather mixed,” Anton began to explain. “We give every recruit a test upon their arrival. Anyone with the strength to pull a composite recurve bow to near full draw receives one. Everyone else uses crossbows for training. A few months of drilling time is simply not enough to build up the arm strength necessary to pull a bow from scratch — certainly not for a few dozen consecutive shots.”
“Can’t be helped,” Konstantin nodded as though he already knew this. “Why are the targets placed that way?”
“The basic range is on the north side. This is for advanced marksmanship,” Anton replied. “After a hit, each archer will proceed to the next target. With a different distance to each target and some obscured by foliage, they’ll have to adjust their aim to compensate.”
Luna noticed that there were even a few targets hanging from trees. They would start swaying every time an arrow landed on them.
“I’d never have thought of that,” Konstantin approved with a hint of genuine awe. “That leaves only mounted training, which we’ve agreed to delay until later to save on fodder.”
“Yes, Your Lordship,” Anton replied. “We still need to procure feed and build stables. Though I would say that accumulating a comfortable stock of firewood is higher priority. The weather will drop below freezing in another week and warmth for the soldiers must be guaranteed.”
“I’ll leave that to your decision then,” Konstantin nodded. “There’s just one last thing: wards.”
“We ringed the entire forest with an Alarm spell, which extends to the exterior camp as well.” Anton described. “Each commander is also responsible for setting up Veil spells over their own quarters, to ensure that no sensitive information can be eavesdropped or scryed upon by those outside. However…”
“There’s no way we can maintain a Lockdown ward,” Drazhan announced the bad news. “We don’t have enough MCOs to afford the mana upkeep. Nor do we have a local ley line. And even if we did, we don’t have a Geomancer to tap it.”
It was a reminder that while the gift of magic brought conveniences, it also created more headaches. The possibilities offered by teleportation meant that civilization must also defend against it. Lockdown wards were designed to bounce incoming teleportation and redirect the transported individuals to the nearest unwarded area or a specified security zone. However, such wards were also expensive to set up and required mana to maintain. Therefore, most towns, cities, and fortresses were built on ley lines — a magical geological phenomenon that could be siphoned to power devices and area spells.
Luna knew that even Konstantin’s manor had a Lockdown ward. If he had not activated an enchanted item in his room to temporarily suppress it, they would not be able to teleport back inside.
“I guess we’ll have to rely on secrecy as our best security measure,” Konstantin thought out loud. “Nevertheless, good work, Anton Mikhailovich. I knew my faith in you was not misplaced.”
For the first time, Konstantin had called Anton by not only his first name, but also his patronymic as a sign of their growing, mutual respect. The veteran druzhina did not miss this, and his ferocious, bandit-like grin lit up again in appreciation as he bowed in return.
“Thank you, Your Lordship.”
As the four departed the archery range and headed back in the direction they came from, Luna was puzzled why one topic — a subject of great importance in her opinion — had been wholly absent from their review.
“What about sanitation and hygiene?” She asked in her soft voice as silence lingered between the men.
“We do have a few steam houses planned, but we haven’t gotten to them yet. And as for wastes,” Anton shrugged. “The men are simple folks. Most of them are fine just digging an isolated pit.”
Luna was appalled. Hadn’t Anton been there when she specifically warned against this sort of behavior during their visit to Bohopil?
“A thousand men packed in close proximity for months. Are you begging for an outbreak of cholera, or dysentery, or typhoid fever!?”
Anton looked at Drazhan, who shrugged himself in response. “It’s what we’ve always done?”
“That’s why armies and disease go hand in hand!” Luna retorted. “Build proper latrines! Keep wastes covered and make sure to disposed of them downstream! Dig wells and use groundwater for drinking instead of simply pulling from the creek! If you don’t maintain proper sanitation, half the army will be downed by pestilence before you even march out in Spring!”
Konstantin chuckled as his usually quiet maid finished her impromptu rant.
“You heard her. Make that a top priority.” He ordered. “Luna will inspect the sanitation when we move in.”
“Of course, Your Lordship.” Anton replied before he sighed and muttered under his breath. “Women.”
It has nothing to do with being female! Luna retorted in her thoughts.
Meanwhile, Drazhan eagerly latched onto the phrase that Konstantin just dropped:
“Will you be joining us in camp soon, Your Lordship?”
“Yes, I think, possibly within the week,” Konstantin pondered aloud. “In fact, I came up to talk to all of you about that today. I think it’s about time I dropped out of Count Nikola’s sight completely.”
“Tired of maintaining the facade?” Drazhan asked.
“No. Well, maybe. But that’s not the reason,” Konstantin admitted before gesturing with an open hand. “The real issue is simply that staying at the manor has become more of a liability.”
The young lord then raised an open, left hand and began gesturing. It was a habit from his training in public speaking.
“It’s been almost been a month, and Nikola has to be frustrated with my refusal to go public and quash the rumors of my demise. However, doing so would break my agreement with Prince Kirill and the conservative-wing isolationists. While not doing so eventually make Grand Prince Mstislav suspect that I really am colluding with his enemies, at which point he might simply decide to order my death.
“Obviously,” he placed his palm against his chest, “I don’t want to stay that long. However, even if I go out again, Count Nikola and my steward will insist that I be accompanied by guards — who’d no doubt follow my every move. Meanwhile rejecting those guards would run counter to my cowardly image after I’d almost been killed.”
Konstantin then sighed and turned his palms upwards into the air.
“It’s an impasse. There’s no good way out of it. Except to end this long charade by vanishing myself!”
And if Count Nikola can’t bring you to public, the rumors will continue to undermine Mstislav, Luna added in her own thoughts. Are you not concerned that this is the straw that breaks Mstislav’s back and bring the army a catastrophic defeat?
However, she also knew that she would not undermine him by bringing it up, not when neither of the two druzhina made the same connection. She would have to remember it and ask him in private later.
“That’s what I need to work out with all of you,” Konstantin concluded in the meantime. “Before the end of this week, I need enough of you to come down to the manor and help me smuggle out all of the gold and weapons I still have in storage. And I won’t be able to give too much of an advanced warning. It’ll all depend on opportunity.”
“Understood, Your Lordship,” Anton acknowledged. “I can assemble a team that would be ready to depart within ten minutes’ notice.”
“Great! Oh, and also,” Konstantin added as though he almost forgot. “I need a decent cottage built for Luna and myself, with a spare servant’s room for my bookkeeper.”
The young lord did not see it as he walked ahead. However Luna could not have missed the incredulous look exchanged between Anton and Drazhan at the nobleman’s request.
“Your Lordship,” one of the junior druzhina accosted Konstantin and Anton before saluting. “Mikhail has returned from the village. He requested to see you most urgently.”
Konstantin and Anton exchanged a puzzled glance.
“Lead on,” the Druzhina Captain ordered.
The group of four, plus the messenger, weren’t far from the camp’s entrance. They soon crossed the bridge and saw Mikhail’s wagon, where a squad of men were unloading sacks of wool, presumably for the soldiers’ bedding. It seems as though everything went about normal, except then Konstantin suddenly froze in his steps, followed by an exasperated remark as Anton stopped as well.
“Terrific,” the veteran’s voice was stinging with sarcasm.
Standing behind three taller men, Luna couldn’t get a good view to see why, until she heard a feminine soprano cry out:
Luna leaned to the side just in time to see a young, aristocratic girl jump off her winged horse. Her tiered skirt billowed behind her as she ran like the wind across a dirt trail. The girl barely even slowed down before she wrapped her arms around Konstantin in a great big hug. Her impact would have toppled him had he not tried to sidestep her, but she grabbed onto him anyways and her momentum pivoted him about. As a result her body swung off the ground and slammed into Luna, almost knocking the thin girl down.
“Sorry.” The energetic girl then steadied herself and released Konstantin before turning to face the Samaran girl. “You must be Luna!” She offered the latter an unapologetic, yet nevertheless brilliant smile completely free of ill will.
Still stunned by the unexpected encounter, Luna blinked back like a fish with her small lips slightly open. She didn’t even notice when both Anton and Drazhan bowed in a display of courtesy.
The newcomer was as young as Luna herself and was striking in appearance. She was of average height for a girl, about a hand’s width taller than Luna. Her light-caramel hair was partially swept back by a bejeweled, silver hairband and pulled under a braid that wrapped behind her head. Nevertheless the loose, wavy strands were so ridiculously long they formed a curtain that reached the back of her thighs. Her large eyes were a bright turquoise, with long, thin lashes below neatly-trimmed bangs. Underneath them lay a gentle nose and fair cheeks on her almond-shaped face.
The girl’s slim build was made apparent by the brown leather corset over her velvet dress. It reached mid-calf on her sides and back but reached just past the knee in front. With her dress dyed in sky-blue and wrapped by a white cloak, her wardrobe shared the colors of the Polisian uniform and flag.
Yet perhaps the oddest sight was the harness she wore over her dress and her leather corseted waist. It wrapped tightly around her thin shoulders as well as above and below her mediocre chest. The number of buckles and attachment points revealed it was clearly meant for something absent. The only item that came to Luna’s mind was protective armor.
“Katya,” Konstantin finally spoke after he recovered from the surprise. “What are you doing here?”
“What am I doing here?” The girl looked taken abackd. “I haven’t seen you for almost eight years, and that’s all you have to say!?”
That means they haven’t seen each other since the Streltsy Revolt, Luna realized.
“I’m glad to see you, of course,” Konstantin added with a warm, familiar smile before he returned her hug. “Not that we haven’t talked plenty. But I thought you were still touring the Inner Sea?”
“I rushed back when I heard about the Eastling invasion. But Papa still wouldn’t let me join the army, and my brothers all left me behind,” the girl called ‘Katya’ pouted yet did not otherwise break in her rapid-fire speech. “I overheard Grandpa and Papa talking about you before they left. They said you’re raising a force near the village of Lysiivka. So I left home and rode down here to join!”
“Katya,” Konstantin exhaled a loud sigh. “This is not a game.”
“Of course not,” the aristocratic girl replied as she took a step back and pressed both fists against her waist. “War is never a game. I know that! I’m a Tuchkov!”
“Then how in Freyja’s name are we supported to fit you in? You’re a…”
Konstantin trailed off into a sigh before he could finish.
“I’m also worth ten of you in a fight,” Katya replied confidently. “Why is it that everyone seems to have forgotten that when our ancestors arrived in these lands, they had shieldmaidens among them?”
The fact they drew the attention of every nearby recruit did not escape Konstantin’s notice. The young lord raised his hands between them and waved in a gesture of peace.
“I do not want to have this argument right now!” He declared with a begrudging tone as though he already knew he couldn’t win. He then turned towards the other girl who had almost been knocked aside: “Oh, and Luna, this is Katsiaryna Vladislavna Tuchkova, Sachka’s younger sister. The three of us grew up together.”
Clearly, neither Anton nor Drazhan needed an introduction. Both of them were druzhina in service of the Tuchkov family to begin with.
Luna, however, did not entirely forget her manners as she offered a belated curtsy. “Your Ladyship.”
Katsiaryna replied with a smile and a wink before pivoting back to Konstantin. It left Luna perplexed as she pondered what was that supposed to mean?
“You forgot to introduce me as your betrothed.”
“That was annulled years ago, Katya,” Konstantin countered.
“Only because Grandpa switched sides on the surface,” Katsiaryna argued. “But we both know the truth.”
“We’ll… talk about this later,” the exasperated nobleman slumped his shoulders.
“So? You going to let me join? Or do I have to humiliate you in front of everyone?”
Katsiaryna’s hand, which was gloved in white silk, reached down to her own weapon — a shortsword that hung behind her waist atop the A-line skirt. A small, round buckler covered the scabbard, while what looked like an undersized crossbow swayed over the left side of her dress. Lastly, the girl wore a leather bracer with steel frame on her left forearm, which had special attachment slots for her equipment.
She’s not even joking! Luna’s eyes swelled in disbelief. The Polisian aristocracy had strong warrior traditions from their Hyperborean background. To be beaten in front of the men would seriously undermine Konstantin’s already-problematic authority!
“Defeating me in a duel doesn’t mean you get to join!” Konstantin answered. “What kind of tribal barbarians would we be if anyone who wins can get what they want?”
Nevertheless, his feet took a half-step back. It was a sign that he knew her words were no mere threat.
“Oh come on! You need all the magic-capable officers you can get, right?” Katsiaryna waved her hands up and down with a clear pout. “Every druzhina, streltsy, hussar, and shturmovik that could be spared has already been sent to the front. You won’t find anyone even close to being as qualified as me!”
Konstantin raised his eyebrows. But before he could even ask, Katsiaryna puffed her chest and began to speak as if she was gloating:
“I did just spend three years touring the Inner Sea Imperium as a member of the Mantis Blades. I even made deputy commander of my squad before I left.”
Luna’s eyes swelled alongside that of Konstantin’s. The Mantis Blades were an elite order of operatives in the Inner Sea Imperium who answered only to Imperial governors and above. They often hired mercenaries to take care of business that required either political deniability, or simply a more subtle approach that Imperial agents couldn’t offer.
…At least, those were the rumors that she heard from her father.
It also wasn’t too difficult to believe that Katsiaryna would serve as a specialist. The Imperium did have a legacy of hiring elite mercenaries from their Polisian allies. The renowned Tagmata Varrangoi in particular were Polisians hand-picked to serve as the personal bodyguard of the Imperator Augustus.
“Besides, I’m a girl of many talents,” Katsiaryna laid a hand on her own chest as she proudly proclaimed. “I can enchant arms and accessories. I can even design a new uniform for your troops. Plus,” she reached one arm back and gave a wavy, long hair a wide brush. “Having a girl as exquisite as me in the camp would surely boost morale!”
You just called yourself ‘exquisite’. Luna could almost feel her eyes rolling by themselves.
“No it doesn’t!” Konstantin retorted. “It’s a distraction for the men! There are reasons why armies don’t accept women even if mercenaries or assassins are willing to make exceptions!”
“Well it’s a good thing you’re not part of the official Polisian army then.” Katsiaryna countered with a wide grin as if she had already won.
The young nobleman sighed before he turned around to look at Anton, as though asking for the veteran to back him up.
“It’s your decision, Your Lordship,” Anton threw him to the wolves without any expression, except for the briefest hint of a smile that Luna saw at the corner of his lips.
Meanwhile Drazhan nodded along, also abandoning Konstantin to fight this battle alone. The young lord’s emerald gaze glared back in response, as though berating them ‘some help you two are!’
“I give up,” Konstantin sighed. “You can join. But you have to follow orders! That includes mine!”
“Of course!” Katsiaryna grinned.
However Konstantin simply sighed and rolled his eyes in response. His thoughts were clear to Luna even without words:
She never does as she’s told.
It wasn’t until later that night, after they returned to Konstantin’s manor, that Luna had a chance to ask:
“You didn’t seem very happy to see your once-betrothed?”
“Honestly?” Konstantin hesitated for a moment before continuing. “I was relieved when Marshal Tuchkov canceled our betrothal.”
Luna gave him a surprised look. But before she could speak any further, the young lord stopped her with a raised hand.
“Don’t get me wrong. Katya is like a little sister to me. I would risk my life to help if she were in trouble.” Konstantin declared without any doubt in his deep-emerald eyes. “But she’s also the only daughter out of five siblings, and the youngest to boot, and she had a difficult infancy and almost didn’t make it. The rest of the Tuchkov family spoiled her rotten as a result. Her dress, her jewelry, her armor, her weapons — almost everything she has is specially designed and custom made. Her parents probably spent more on her than the four brothers combined!
“Try to be nice to her though,” he then added as an afterthought. “She can be exceptionally vain when it comes to appearances. Meanwhile you’re…”
“Brutally honest?” Luna finished for him.
“I was trying to pick a more refined phrase than that.”
“I prefer to focus on an individual’s virtues over their flaws, and Her Ladyship seems like a perfectly approachable person,” Luna reassured him. “I’m surprised she served for years as a mercenary though.”
Luna didn’t want to say ‘assassin’, which was synonymous in her book to ‘murderer’. After all, she still had no idea of exactly what kind of jobs Katsiaryna had taken.
“Oh don’t let the innocent girl appearance fool you,” Konstantin warned. “She’s one of the best duelists I know. Only the second brother, Pavel, is a match for her within the family. And he once won fourth place in a federal competition! Plus despite her young age, her favorite pastime is researching weird spells. She’d be perfect if she would simply listen to others, or even common sense, instead of running off on her own delusions!”
Konstantin then shook his head in disbelief.
“But her? As a wife? She’d be insufferable.”
- Aquilifer: The eagle standard bearer that jumped down from his ship in order to inspire his fellow soldiers is from Julius Caesar’s diaries.
- Three-man bonds: It is possible an ancient civilization knew this but didn’t leave records. However modern sources generally credit the discovery to the Chinese Communist Party, whose extensive experience and skill in guerrilla warfare was legendary. It was perfected into the Three-Three System light infantry doctrine, one of the major factors that allowed the underequipped Chinese army to drive back the Americans during the Korean War.
- In Russian culture, to use a combination of given name + patronymic (but not family name) when addressing someone is a sign of showing courtesy and individual respect. In modern times, it is also a way of remarking, particularly during a heated debate: “don’t take it personally; I respect you, this is purely professional.”
- Tagmata Varrangoi: ‘Tagmata’ generally refer to the elite military formations of the late Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. ‘Varrangoi’ is the name of the famous Varangian Guard, who were mercenaries from the Rus’ who served as personal bodyguards of the Byzantine Emperors.
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