Story:ROAD TRIP! (Warhammer High)/Part Three
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- 1 Alex's Dilemma
- 2 A High Note
- 3 Farther Up and Farther In
Jake leaned against a support pole in a tent in the markets, his back shaking a bit. Remilia was at his side, worried. “Jake?” she asked quietly.
“It’s just the gravity. I’m still a bit short of breath from those damn anticoncussives,” Jake said. “I’m all right.”
Remilia nodded, stepping back. Venus was at the counter in the tent, signing an autograph and paying for a vox cozy with the Skarokk city-state emblem on it. “Thanks, your Highness, you are most kind,” the vendor praised her, before her tone turned low. “My apologies for the hassle the other night. Please do not judge us all by our most embittered neighbors.”
“I don’t,” Venus said. “Farewell.” She walked back over to the others, sliding the cozy on with a *click*.
“This is so cool. There’s a little hatch for the charge cord,” she said excitedly. Jake straightened up, smiling at the trinket. Venus read a message from the governor she had received on her vox since she had checked it last and switched it off.
“You want to stop for a drink? You look extra pale,” Venus observed.
“I do, actually,” Jake said gratefully. “The anticoncussives are getting to me in this gravity.”
“Sure thing,” Venus said, eyes settling on a small drink cart at the end of the market row. Nocturneans, wise in the ways of their world, were never without a source of hydration in public, it seemed. Jake sank onto a bench on the roadside beyond the market row and Remilia bought drinks for the three of them. They settled onto the bench and sipped, as Jake checked his vox clock.
“Wow. It’s much earlier than it feels.”
“You’re still tired,” Remilia observed.
“What exactly did they do to me at the hospital?” Jake asked.
Remilia explained. “Dug some glass out of your head and stitched you back up with protein cord, gave you some triethyl mono-submorozin to prevent brain damage, gave you some anticoncussives for good measure, and sealed it up. Minus the glass, it’s the same thing they did to me after I shattered the fuck out of my leg four years back in practice,” Remilia said. She rolled one pant leg up until a tracery of faded white scars that stretched clean around her left thigh were plainly visible under the red sun.
“Yow,” Jake said. “How did you manage that?”
“The ball went left, my torso went backwards, my leg went right, my foot went forward,” Remilia recited. She smirked at his shudder. “Spent a week in the hospital after they figured I cracked my head on the fall, too.”
“You and Alex both have good sports catastrophe stories,” Jake chuckled. “I’ll stick with sitting behind a nice, safe desk, drawing things.”
“Paper cuts certainly heal faster than compound fractures, even mine,” Remilia guessed.
“Yep.” Jake sat back and held an ice cube on his tongue, cooling his mouth off. Venus stood and dropped her empty drink cup in a nearby recycling bin, leaving her bag behind.
“You guys mind if I go drop off a message?” she asked, as a passing Techmarine, the same one that had caught Freya and Alex’s eye, clomped up the road towards the public tram station.
“Go ahead,” Remilia said as Jake nodded. Venus walked up to the Techmarine and asked him to halt, discussing something with him.
Jake let the ice melt and swallowed. “Even here, it’s hot enough to fry soylens on the pavement.”
“Yeah. Apparently the whole city freezes solid in the Time of Trial when the glaciers up the mountain freeze,” Remilia said idly.
Venus returned from the Techmarine. “Tech-Brother Corensia said that he would be happy to pass along our acceptance to a dinner with the Governor before we depart and where the hell is my stuff?” she suddenly asked.
“What?” Jake sat up.
“My bag. I left it on the ground next to the bench. Where is it?” she asked, pointing. Sure enough, her bag was gone.
Remilia swore and vaulted up off the bench. The bag wasn’t in the hands of any of the nearby people, and somehow it had been snatched out from under even her senses. “Fuck!”
“What the hell is wrong with this city?!” Venus snarled.
A serf materialized behind them. “Is this yours, Princess Venus?” he asked, her bag in his hands.
“Yes! What happened?” Venus asked, snatching it up and rifling through it.
“The perpetrator dropped it on top of a trash barrel in the alley behind us, your Highness, with this,” the serf said, passing her a note. She grabbed it and read it aloud.
“‘I wouldn’t have taken it if I had known it was yours, Princess,’” Venus said. Her hand shook with suppressed anger as she handed the note back to the serf, who pocketed it. “My city fills with vermin and I can do nothing without ruining the trip any more than it already has been,” she snarled. She turned to the serf, eyes glaring through her shades. “Put the Enforcers on it.”
“Yes, your Highness,” the serf said, then turned away to speak into his collar.
“Would someone like to tell me how this lift went unobserved?” Venus asked a few shamefaced serfs that had appeared behind her.
“No clue, your Highness, whoever this was, they were hellacious fast,” one volunteered.
Venus’ stomach tightened in frustration. “I see.” Jake moved to set his hand on her shoulder and paused. She sensed his movement, though, and sighed through her teeth. “Fine. Fine. I’m heading back to the markets for one last thing, then we’re out of here,” she said tightly. She walked off without a word as the serfs melted into the crowd.
Tomorrow, the Weather Will Be Different
Alex stomped up the ramp to his father’s shuttle, the Invisible Hand. The ship was a massively modified Imperial Navy transport, all lines, angles, planes, and gilding. Alex hated the damn thing.
A figure at the top of the ramp greeted him. The man was drawn, skinny, and always looked a bit confused, but he was also nearly the only person on Carlin’s crew that Alex liked. “Heeeey, kid, how’s life treating you?” he asked, lazily flicking some ash off of his cigar.
“It’s been a wild vacation, Big Al,” Alex admitted, shaking the much shorter man’s hand. “Yours?”
“Man, it’s hot as hell up here,” Big Al said, puffing on the cigar, which Alex suspected the diminutive Astropath rolled himself. “Radio says it’s something like forty C at the spaceport…but who lives at the spaceport?”
“You’re in the spaceport, Big Al,” Alex said.
“Oh, hey.” The psyker blinked. “Didn’t know.”
Alex sighed, his dark mood lifting. “Where’s the old guy?”
“Which? There’s around eight in there,” Big Al said lazily. “Oh! The really old one is waiting for you in the bar.”
“Great. Thanks.” Alex walked past him onto a carpet that had to be two inches deep. He grimaced at the opulence of his surroundings. Tasteless artwork of his own family, other famous Imperials, and a few notable politicians decorated the bulkheads of the ship as he marched through it. He knew for a fact that they could be slid behind panels and new ones rotated to replace them.
The rugby player, in his thermoreflective clothing and dusty boots, couldn’t have looked less like the man waiting for him at the bar two decks up from the hatch. Where Alex was muscled and thick, the man in the Rogue Trader’s gilding and exotic purple cloak was thin and tall. Where Alex’s hair was a dark brown and straight, his father’s was dirty blond and wavy. Alex shaved his facial hair like it was a personal grudge, and his father had a luxurious, pointed beard.
Still, the resemblance did cover one thing: the voice. Alex and his father sounded so alike they were mistaken for each other on the vox, something that horrified Alex and delighted his father. Kimball-Carlin had made his fortune as a trader of pre-Crusade antiquities and treasures of artifice. Not weapons or technology, but trinkets and household goods. The O’Neill clock on Horus Lupercal’s desk was a purchase from Kimball-Carlin. He had sold ancient artifacts that had been nothing more than junk when they had been made to collectors across the breadth and span of the galaxy, turning his own father’s Writ of Trade into a trading empire.
Alex came to a halt at the bar. “Hello, Dad,” he said.
“Hello, Alex. Good to see you, kid,” Joseph said. “How’s your vacation been?”
“As of two days ago, awful,” Alex said coldly.
“Yeah? What happened?”
“My friend, Jake, got mauled in a bar fight,” Alex replied, glaring at the bar in which he they were standing.
Joseph cocked an eyebrow, his rough voice at odds with his appearance. “That a fact? That sucks. Is he gonna be alright?”
“Eventually.” Alex looked back at his father, trying to find the embers of resentment Big Al had tried to extinguish. He wondered bitterly if his father had had the psyker he knew Alex liked be the one to greet him on purpose. “What’s this I hear about generator problems on the Star?”
“We found some Diaspora-era animals in cryo-suspension and were hauling them to a Mechanicus facility on Gaviox for gene-sequencing,” Joseph explained. “One slipped its tank and tried to nest in the generator’s wiring.”
“Anyone hurt?” Alex asked.
“Just the critter.” Joseph sighed. “Kiddo, I can hear the resentment coming off of you.”
“Dad, I SPECIFICALLY asked you not to come find us while we were on the road trip!” Alex exploded. “And here you are!”
Joseph straightened up and glared up at his son. “I can’t help when my cargo attacks my ship’s wiring!”
“Dad…you could have just stayed in Clymene and asked me to come see you! But instead you came to the city you KNEW I was in, and called me to let me KNOW that you had, not even giving me a choice! For a change,” Alex added darkly.
Remilia looked over the small selection of formalwear in the shop they had chosen, impressed despite herself. Even the most remote of Nocturnean cities, it seemed, possessed master craftsmen. She ran her fingers along the sleeve of a formal blouse, doing some quick mental math. It was well within her budget. Venus waited outside, having already decided that her full formal uniform, sans the crown, would do for the formal dinner tonight. Jake stood nervously beside her. “Venus, I’m a bit worried about tonight,” he admitted.
“How come? Does your head hurt?” Venus asked.
“No, it’s just…what am I going to do? Everybody there is either going to ignore me or ask forgiveness of me the whole night,” Jake said. “And what will I wear? I don’t have anything more formal than a collared short-sleeve polo and cargo pants,” he pointed out. “Don’t get me wrong, I want to go, but I’ll stand out.”
“Well, the obsequiousness I can’t help with, but I can help with clothes,” Venus said.
Remilia emerged from the shop, shirt draped over her arm. “Let me,” she said.
“Pardon?” Jake asked.
“When we started out, we agreed I would cover your clothes, right?” Remilia pointed out. She passed him a credit card. “That’s a pre-paid. Get something nice and keep the change,” she said.
“Keep the…” Jake stared at the card. It was worth fifty thousand credits. His father didn’t earn fifty thousand credits in a year.
“It’s mostly spent, actually,” Remilia said, noting his expression. “Seriously, go get good clothes.”
“Thanks, Remilia,” Jake said, taken completely aback. “Really, this…well. I’ll…uh, I’ll see you both tonight, then?” he asked.
“If you want. See you at the dinner,” Venus said, pecking him on the cheek. “Bye,” she added. She and Remilia departed with the majority of the plainclothes unobtrusively drifting along with them.
Jake walked into the shop Remilia had used and started his browsing, selecting a deep gray jacket and black pants that looked a bit old-fashioned to his taste, but fit comfortably within the card’s lingering funds, and at least fitted him perfectly.
As he paid, his eyes went up as he saw the money left on the card. Five thousand credits cold. “Remilia, you’re making me blush,” he said under his breath. With a glance at the jeweler’s across the street, he decided that Venus would probably want to make any jewelry the two of them would wear, and slid the card into his pocket. Gathering his purchases, he trudged up the rampway to the castle, already wondering how he would explain the day’s activity to the governor. From what he had heard, he was the easily intimidated type.
Alex sat at the bar, clenching and unclenching his fist. His father remained standing. “Alex, that’s not fair.”
“How the hell is it unfair? You came here when I told you not to, and you waited to tell me you were already here so that I couldn’t ask you not to come. It’s plenty fair of me to call you on it.” Alex glared at the man.
“It’s not all right for me to want to know how you’re doing?” Joseph asked.
“Of course it is! It’s NOT okay for you to completely disregard my explicit instructions!” Alex slammed his hand on the marble bar. “Damn it, Dad, this isn’t even the first time! And what about Venus?!”
“What ABOUT Her Highness?” Joseph asked coldly.
“This is HER FUCKING PLANET! Did you even ask her if it was alright of you to borrow me for a day? Or whatever you’re here for?” Alex stood, fists clenched. “Is this about the dinner with the Governor tonight?”
“I was invited to dine with the Governor and over a hundred other planetary nobles and Salamander representatives,” Joseph said angrily. “I didn’t even know you were coming!”
“If I go into my room on this ship right now, will I find a formal uniform of the Carlin Trade Fleet?” Alex asked frigidly.
His father grimaced. “Yes, because you left it there after last time!”
“That was a year ago. I’m two sizes bigger now. Let’s see if it fits,” Alex said, stomping off to the cabin.
As soon as he walked in, he groaned. “Not even subtle,” he said, glaring at the uniform. He didn’t even have to put it on to know it was bigger than his old one.
The uniform was a gaudier version of the white formalwear Imperial Navy dress shirt, with purple stripes running from right hip to left shoulder across the chest and silver epaulets, with ceremonial miniaturized laspistols on both hips. The uniform was cinched with a black belt and gold-chased black boots.
Alex hated it.
“Alex, it’s not like I don’t get a say in this,” his father said coldly from behind him. “You’re my son. And whether you accept that it’s there or not, you have a responsibility to the family. You think Venus likes every part of her duty, since you brought her up?”
“You leave her out of this,” Alex warned his father. “This is YOUR fault, not Vulkan’s.”
“Alex, if you don’t want to attend the dinner tonight as a representative of the Carlin family, fine, I can deal with that, but the very least you could do is look presentable,” Joseph said, switching tracks. “Do you want to show up in front of your friends wearing that?” he asked, pointing at Alex’s thermo kit. “The dinner’s in two hours.”
Alex glared at his father, but he had been outmaneuvered, and he knew it. “Fine. Damn it. Get out so I can change,” he snarled.
Joseph withdrew, having obtained what he had been there to obtain. Alex pulled his clothes off, stepping into the little cabin’s steam shower to rinse off. “Arrogant bastard,” he muttered under his breath.
Everybody All Neat and Pretty?
Remilia turned slowly in front of her mirror, checking to see how she looked. To her satisfaction, the blouse and formalwear pants she had selected – she hated dresses – were nicely matched, and covered her forearms neatly.
Jake stuck his head in. “Hey. Are you ready to head out?”
“Just about,” Remilia said, grabbing a small silver bracelet and affixing it. “What did you pick?”
“You tell me,” Jake joked, walking into her bedroom. The outfit would have looked a bit old in the gilded halls of Terra, but by Nocturnean standards, looked quite presentable indeed.
“You look very handsome,” Remilia said, pausing to admire the golden watch Venus had made, which Jake had decided to switch to the chain setting for the evening. “Nice touch.”
“Thanks. This seemed like as good a time as any to use it.” He glanced back into the halls. “Alex didn’t come back,” he said.
“He’s not picking up his vox, either,” Remilia noted with some concern. “I’m sure he’s fine, though, he had a platoon of guards with him.”
“Oh, sure,” Jake said, waving their concerns away. “Hey, you’re looking pretty sharp yourself. Is that the blouse you got today?”
“Yep, brought the pants from home.” Remilia had selected a dark theme herself, and aside from the bracelet, was wearing no jewelry or makeup.
“Are you the only one of your cousins who didn’t pierce their ears?” Jake asked.
“Hah! No, they’re pierced, I just never wear earrings,” she admitted.
“All right, I was just curious.” Jake tugged his collar a bit, adjusting his lemon-colored silk tie. “So, hey, do you know if there will be any Astartes there tonight?”
“Present company excepted, you mean?” Remilia asked coyly.
“A few. Several Techmarines and Apothecaries base their operations out of the city, but only the Chaplains and company-level officers really make an effort to be seen in public. Why?” she asked.
“No reason, really.” Jake sat down in the chair by the door and looked at her carefully. “Can I ask you something?”
“Do you really think of yourself as a Marine? No offense, but Freya and Venus think of themselves as Astartes through and through; you never even mention the Fists, let alone Inwit.”
Remilia paused to give the question its due reflection. “I think that’s more a relic of something you’re all too familiar with. I’m comfortable with who and what I am.”
“Okay. Thanks.” Jake stood. “Well…voxes set to vibrate, nervous flutters suppressed, jewelry fastened securely…I think we’re both set to head out.” She smiled at her friend. “Lead the way.”
Venus set the crown back in the box, deciding that she wouldn’t need it. She powered her weapons on to check their charge levels, and nodded in satisfaction when they both beeped full. Her cape brushed against the drake leather of her uniform pants as she leaned over. She had already decided to go for the full effect of her uniform, to give the occasion its proper due, but she wasn’t trying to make a political statement. The crown stayed. She clasped her gloves to her belt and pulled her hands free, donning the bloodstone ring she had made. She started to snug it onto the ring finger of her hand and paused. She didn’t want to make that mistake again. She attached it to her index finger instead with a smile. Let people wonder if she had a digital weapon on.
Jake’s footsteps from the other room drew her attention. She straightened up and turned around, the cape swirling around her legs. Jake stood in the doorframe with Remilia and Freya behind him. “You know, every time I see you in that outfit, I find myself wondering if I’m supposed to take a knee,” he joked.
“What can I say? It’s growing on me,” Venus said. She slid one necklace on, and secured a second tiny gold chain between the clasps of the cape. It ticked against her breastplate. “Alex a no-show?”
“Won’t even pick up the vox,” Freya said. She was by far the least formally dressed, at first glance, but the nicely cut sky blue V-neck velvet shirt and jet-black formal pants she was wearing lent themselves capably to her enviable figure. Over the bare wedge of pale skin, she wore a silver necklace – a gift from Farah – inviting gazes to look and linger on the dark blue sapphire in the middle.
“I’m sure he’s just off arguing with his father,” Venus said.
“What?” Freya jerked her head back. “What about his father? He’s not here.”
“Oh, yes he is,” Venus said. “His name was on the guest list for party that the governor sent me.”
“Aw, hell,” Freya muttered.
Jake shrugged. “I still don’t see the issue. He’s supposed to be a dickbag, sure, but he won’t try to upstage you, will he?”
“Me? No chance. The Governor? Without even breaking a sweat,” Venus said coldly. She quite deliberately rested a hand on the hilt of her Power Rapier. “And the Governor’s going to be over the coals today anyway.”
Remilia cocked her head. She regarded her shorter cousin with caution. “Is that a fact?”
“This crime spree nearly broke me, and nearly killed Jake.” Her eyes flashed brilliant red, like drops of blood in sunlight. “No more. Forget Dad’s warnings, Sralah gets punished tonight.”
An inkling of how much the recent crimes had truly bothered Venus appeared in Jake’s mind as he watched his girlfriend holster her pistol. “Venus…you’re not going to kill the man, are you?”
Venus shook her head. Her unusual haircut swept over her armor. “I won’t need to. Just remind him that I can, without consequence, any time I want.” Her teeth glimmered in the red and yellow lights of the room. “He’ll find himself motivated after that, I’m sure.”
Alex stood in front of the mirror of his room on the shuttle and straightened his collar. The tiny guns he had abandoned, a mute act of defiance towards his father’s controlling side. The rest, though, he did wear, and he would try to look like he didn’t resent it.
“Appreciated or not, you pull it off, Alex,” his father said from the open hatch.
“I think so,” Alex said. He grabbed a bag from the closet, where he had several stashed, and stuffed his things into it, guns and their gunbelt included. He paused to extract the vox and its battery, sliding it into its place.
“Why aren’t you wearing the guns?” Joseph asked.
“Because people who carry guns without training are asking for trouble, and I don’t want to look like a pretentious asshole at a dinner with my girlfriend attending,” Alex said shortly. He turned the vox on and groaned to himself.
“Speaking of, how is Freya?” Joseph asked.
“She’s doing great, and apparently wondering where I am.” He groaned again. “What do I even say? Damn it,” he said, cutting his father’s suggestion off. “That was rhetorical.”
The vox buzzed. Alex answered it instantly, discreetly tapping the speakerphone button as he did. “Hello?”
“Alex! Where the hell are you? The dinner’s in fifteen minutes and we’re halfway there!” Freya’s voice said.
“I’m getting dressed, on Dad’s shuttle,” Alex said.
“WHAT? He’s here? Oh for…didn’t you specifically say he shouldn’t show his face?” Freya demanded.
“Fucking…fine. Get over here, we can bail early if he’s his usual self,” Freya said coldly.
“Sounds good. See you there, baby. Bye,” Alex said, thumbing the vox off.
“‘Usual self?’” Joseph asked coldly.
“Yeah.” Alex picked up the bag and stuffed a few odds and ends into it from the drawers and closets of the room. “I forgot half of this shit was even here,” he muttered.
“What have you told her, exactly?” Joseph pressed.
Alex quirked an eyebrow. “What do you mean? What did I tell her to make her say that? Nothing, Dad, actions speak louder than words. After all, you totally got invited to this party before you arrived in-system,” he said, pushing past his father into the corridor.
Joseph grabbed his taller son’s shoulder. “Alex, I don’t know what Freya does or doesn’t think about me, but if I’ve taught you anything, it’s that you never talk about people behind their backs,” he said tightly.
“Dad, Freya’s met you before. Remember graduation? I sure do,” Alex shot back. He turned his back to his father and walked down the corridor and the stairs at the end.
Big Al was waiting at the hatch again. Alex wondered if he had even moved in the two hours he had been there. “Heeeey, kiddo, you’re looking sharp,” the psyker said. He had somehow acquired a frilly drink, complete with straw and mango slice, since Alex had seem him, and was contentedly slurping away.
“Thanks, Big Al,” Alex said, pausing to chat with his favorite crewman of his father’s. “Big soiree tonight. Governors and Astartes and such. Think this is good?” he asked, displaying the clothes.
“Man, if you’re with the Space Marines, you gotta look like you’re in control of yourself,” the Astropath bemoaned. “You don’t even have a big hat on! That works for the Navy guys I met back in the day.”
“Okay, the hat I’ll give you, but how about the rest?” Alex pressed.
“Look like you stepped off a recruiting poster, kid, I should know, I fell for one once,” Big Al sighed.
“Back when you enlisted?” Alex asked, hefting the bag.
“Naw, naw, this was later.” Big Al took a long drag on his drink. “Best-looking girl I ever saw.”
Alex threw his head back and laughed. “I’ve missed you, Big Al.”
“Man, you’ll see me again, man, you go have fun,” Big Al said. “And say hi to that foxy redhead you’re with sometimes for me.”
“I sure will, my man, but never call her a fox to her face, or she’ll go feral on you,” Alex cautioned.
The diminutive psyker nodded slowly. “I don’t know that I’d mind, really, man,” he said.
Alex chuckled. “Careful, Big Al, she’s Leman Russ’ daughter.”
“Aw yeah? Good for you, kiddo, you’re in good shape,” the psyker said. “You go have dinner. I’m gonna finish this and check my messages.”
“You do that. See you later, Big Al,” Alex said, shaking his hand and grabbing his bag. He walked down the ramp, waving jauntily to the laid-back psyker. His father was already waiting in a gaudy groundcar at the foot of the ramp, and Alex scrambled in, dropping his bag in the foot well.
“You always did like Big Al,” Joseph said from the back.
Alex grinned from the front passenger seat. “How a man like him survived soul-stripping, I’ll never know. Love him, though, he’s a cool dude.”
Jake puffed out an uncomfortable breath. The back of the aircar was stiflingly hot.
“May I?” Venus asked. Jake blinked at her. “Your handkerchief,” she said. He glanced down at his breast pocket. She reached over and grabbed the kerchief, yanking it out and stuffing it into his side pocket. “Nobody does that in real life.”
“Damn it…see, this is why I was worried. I’m going to stand out, because I have no idea what the hell is going on,” Jake said.
“Jake, believe me, NOBODY in that room is going to know how Terran nobles act,” Venus assured him.
Jake grinned wryly. “So rather than set a bad impression, I’ll just set a low standard?”
“Exactly, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“Good.” Jake sighed as his mind drifted to the call with Alex. “So…do we try and keep Alex and his father separate?”
“Alex is a big boy, trust me, he can handle this himself,” Freya said coldly. “And, so we’re clear, I will handle it if he can’t.”
Jake nodded. “You bet, Freya, sorry.”
“No problem. But he’s scared of me, and he secretly wants Alex’s approval, and one plus one equals ‘he’s fucked.’” Freya offered up a confident grin as the aircar sank to the ground outside the Governor’s Estate mansion. “Have some trust in me.”
George Seager listened to Vulkan describe the attack on Jake, torn between an alien rage and helpless fear. “Will he recover?” he asked tightly.
“Fully,” Vulkan assured him. He had invited the Seagers over to share the news he had received in his latest dispatch from Venus. “Fear not, Skarokk medicae are very, very good. He’ll be just fine. I suspect he’s up and about right now,” Vulkan added.
“Damn it all,” George muttered. Sandra was holding her hand over her mouth, sick to her stomach. “I thought he’d be at more risk from animals than from drunks,” he said darkly.
“He is, actually. And really, drunks are animals,” Vulkan noted. He leaned forward. “If it’s any consolation, the usual Nocturnean punishment for this sort of dishonorable attempted murder is ‘lock him up and make him watch you melt down the key,’” he said.
“Good,” George growled. “My son gets his head caved in on a road trip to his girlfriend’s homeworld…damn it all. And of course, now he gets to have the trip ruined by a trial,” he observed bitterly.
“What trial?” Vulkan asked.
Sandra blinked. “Won’t there be a trial?”
Misja shook her head. The two were sitting across from the Seagers in a conversation area in the greatroom of the Forgefather’s mansion. “Nocturnean law doesn’t require the accused to face the accuser, or the reverse. Jake can leave the charges standing and depart, whenever he wants. On the other hand, the standards of burden of proof are much higher, to prevent frivolous cases. I think a room full of witnesses, some of them Salamander serfs, is more than enough. Especially since he confessed.”
“Oh…well, that’s a relief,” Sandra said.
“It is.” Vulkan leaned forward, narrowing his eyes to prevent the Seagers from being blinded. “Sieur, Madam Seager, I owe you a distinct and genuine apology.”
“I don’t-” George started. Vulkan gently interrupted.
“George. Your son was nearly murdered by one of my citizens, in vengeance for a crime my Enforcers failed to prevent. It is my fault, however indirectly. To that end, I offer you my heartfelt apology, and offer my assurances that I will endeavor to make my world safe again. For my daughter, and for your son.”
“I…I understand.” George looked aside at his wife. Sandra nodded, pale but resolute. “We accept, of course.”
“Thank you.” Vulkan leaned back. “I asked my Regent, No’dan, for an update of the world’s status before I allowed my daughter and her friends to travel to Nocturne on this venture. He assured me that the crime rates were unusually high, but that no outstanding threat to Venus’ safety existed. I can only hope he included any threats to her boyfriend, cousins, and schoolmate in that assessment.”
“I think he would have…at least tried to be helpful,” George said awkwardly.
“No doubt.” Vulkan smiled at last. “In any event, I feel I must say: your son impresses me. Will to live after his mangling aside, Venus has never been happier than she is when discussing him.”
Sandra smiled too, finally relaxing. “That’s good to hear. When Jake’s cell vox was broken, he used to hang over the apartment vox like a carrion bird, so he didn’t miss any calls from her.”
Vulkan chuckled. “Good to know.” He tapped one finger on his chin, remembering. “Do you recall when they met? Venus has recounted it to me a few times.”
“At school, from what I understand,” George said. “A mutual friend introduced them, I think.”
Misja nodded. “Farah Manus. Ferrus’ daughter. Venus’ best friend since before they could talk,” she said.
“Ferrus…Manus?” George asked. He slowly shook his head. “I do apologize, but I’m still not quite used to walking in such…privileged company. I don’t know how Jake is.”
“I imagine having gym class with their daughters for four years probably helped,” Misja noted drily.
Sandra couldn’t suppress a snort of laughter. “I would think so, certainly.”
“You know, she told me once that the first thing Jake did when he met her was make eye contact,” Vulkan joked. “Guess how often that happens in this house.”
“…Not very,” George allowed, after taking a moment to figure whether it was meant as a joke.
Misja rolled her own, normal eyes. She was quite used to her husband’s theatrics. “She was afraid that he would be just another sycophant. But he stuck out a hand to shake, asked her a few questions, told a joke. He was nervous, of course, but he wanted to know who the pretty girl with the obsidian skin was. My daughter could have done far worse,” she said.
Both Seagers grinned at the implied compliment. “Well, thanks, La…Misja.” Sandra corrected herself. “Dare I ask what Farah was thinking?”
“What, introducing them? That Venus would like him, I assume.” Vulkan nodded. “I think…even if they had not become something more, they would still have been fast friends.”
“I sure hope so,” George said. He turning his head aside, remembering how Jake had been when he had first come home from Imperator. He hadn’t met any of the Primarchs’ daughters until he was in second semester of first year, when several of them had been in his biology class. “I think he would have been, too. I remember…when he first met…it must have been Lady Hana he met first, she was assigned to be his partner in a biology lab.”
“First…of my nieces?” Vulkan asked.
“Yes, indeed…he reported being intimidated, naturally enough,” George said. “I think he simply didn’t know how to act around nobility in that setting.”
“To be fair, most of the people in that school were pretty closed to him,” Sandra said. George nodded.
“True. Several of them had no doubt been warned about associating with hivers by their parents. Even…well,” he suddenly paused as he realized he had been about to discuss one of those nieces in front of their uncle.
“Oh, let me guess. A few students made mention of his ignoble background?” Vulkan asked flatly.
“They did,” George said. “Mostly just kids’ stuff, I know, but it still bothered him a bit.”
“He was wise not to let that get to him too much,” Vulkan said. “Why did you decide to send him to a surface school?”
Sandra shrugged uncomfortably. “Well, hive schools are more like factories than places of learning. And George got his education on Mars, so he knew the value of an outside education on Terra. Mostly, though, he got a scholarship, and he snatched it up.”
“Oh, did he?” Misja leaned back. “What was it?”
“The ‘Hab 19889 Prestigious Academic Achievement Award,’” George said. “Basically, a private school voucher.”
“Good for him. How did he earn it?” Misja asked.
George smiled tightly. “Blackmail.”
Vulkan blinked. “What?”
George sat back against his seat, thinking it over. “Jake was more than qualified for the award, of course. And only…what, sixty people out of his class of seventeen thousand students even applied for it? That sounds right. He won it fair and square. But, the number of vouchers was finite, only six would get them. Jake and five other people from his class, and six from a magnet school in another hive.”
“What’s blackmailing about that?” Vulkan asked, confused.
“Jake’s middle school was selected for it because the school administrator blackmailed the search committee into selecting his school,” George said. “By the time the news broke, the school had already handed out the vouchers.” He noted Misja’s shocked expression. “This happens around our cube pretty often. You get used to it.”
Vulkan leaned forward again, gauging his guests. “Why do you want to live in such a place?”
“To be frank, Lord, that’s our business,” George said. “I will say that it wasn’t entirely my father’s intention and that is the end of it.”
“Very well,” Vulkan said, somewhat taken aback by George’s sudden emotion, but not showing it at all. “Then may I ask if Jake intends to live in the hives upon graduation, whether he and Venus remain together or not?”
“I haven’t asked.” Sandra looked sideways at her husband, but didn’t say anything. George continued. “My son’s a bright kid, and he genuinely likes the people he knew from the hive. I trust him to make his own choice. What your daughter has to say on the subject, I can’t imagine.”
“Her mind is made. For Jake’s presence or absence, she will live on Nocturne,” Vulkan said. “College changes things, of course, but that is her intent.”
Abruptly, the door rattled on its hinges. The Seagers started. Vulkan, however, smiled. “Ah. I was wondering if she had been BCCed into the message.”
The door opened as Farah Manus launched into the room. Her hair, as ever, was tucked back under her bandana, and her face was flushed. “Uncle Vulkan, I just got the message!”
“Hello, Farah. George and Sandra Seager, Farah Manus,” Vulkan said drily, gesturing at the panting girl with the bionic hands standing behind them.
“We’ve met, sir. Hello, Lady Manus,” Sandra said, rising to her feet.
“Hi, Missus Seager. Did you get the message too?” she hurriedly asked.
“We were invited over to discuss it,” Sandra said. “Jake will be fine, apparently.”
“I got that part, but I was back in town for a stopover on my vacation and I wanted to hear what’s going to happen next,” Farah said breathlessly. “What about Venus? Is there gonna be a trial?”
“She’s fine, and no,” Vulkan said. “Farah, sit down.”
Farah sat, still panting. “I was so surprised! I thought things had never been safer on Nocturne!” she said. She blinked at the implications of her words. “Uh, I don’t mean-”
Vulkan chuckled. “Farah, there’s a volcano in my backyard on Nocturne. No offense was intended, none was taken. That said, so did I. Clearly, this crime spree must be dealt with.” Vulkan clenched one fist the size of a rugby ball and looked terrifying for a moment, something at which he was quite skilled. “I owe my people that much.” He relaxed again, and the Drake King was an indulgent uncle once more. “So, Farah…your own trip. When does it begin?”
“I’m on Earth another forty days, then off to see Mom on Medusa.” Farah was clearly trying not to worry about Venus and company, and clearly not managing it. Sandra found it endearing. “I hate to ask, but is there anything we can do for them?”
“No. Not without going in person. Which I won’t.” Vulkan leaned forward, his expression softening a bit. “Farah, listen. Jake will be fine. They’ll be back on Earth in less than two months.”
“Right.” Farah sighed tightly. “All right. I guess she’ll write when things are resolved.”
“She will, I’m certain,” Vulkan said. “When I send a response, do you want me to bundle one from you?”
“I would, thanks,” Farah said. She sighed some of her tension away. “Well. Thanks. I should go,” she said, standing again. She sadly smiled at the Seagers. “I’m sorry Jake got hurt.”
Sandra’s response was heavy and tired. “Us too.”
Jake stood before his seat, watching Venus lead a small ceremony at the dinner table. The rows of Salamander serfs, local bureaucrats, politicos and merchants, and PDF officers were standing as well, and listening to Venus race through the pleasantries and pageantry. As she concluded, she motioned for her people to sit, and they did. A muted buzz of conversation began as the food was brought out by servitors and serfs. Venus was sitting at the head of the table, naturally, with nearly sixty people up and down its length, and a man Jake didn’t know at the opposite end. He was sitting at Venus’ right hand, with the Governor at her left, and the others of their party were scattered throughout.
As they sat, the Governor, Sralah, leaned across the table, his face grave. “Lord Seager, I must reiterate my apologies for what happened to you. I am deeply sorry.”
“Good. I just hope it doesn’t happen again,” Jake said. “I was out for over a day.”
“I’m sure it won’t,” Sralah said awkwardly.
“Good.” Jake glanced to his side to see how the man to his right was acting and aped him.
Venus’ eyes lit upon Sralah. “Governor. I thank you for your invitation.” She switched languages. “May we speak in Nocturnean?”
“I’m afraid I’m not conversational,” the Governor replied.
“Pity,” Venus said. She switched back to Gothic. “I wonder if my father’s messages would imply a nearing return visit on his part,” she said casually. “I hope so. He needs to see his people again.”
“We would be overjoyed to have our King back with us, of course, your Highness,” Sralah said. He lifted his hands as the servitor replaced his drink. “What are these messages?”
Venus explained. “We send messages back to Terra every so often. Status reports, you know.”
The Governor nodded. His robe of office glimmered against the deep yellow and red lights of the ceremonial hall. “I understand. How is King Vulkan? What is he doing on Terra?”
“His role is to induct new members of the Terran wings of the Legions,” Venus said. “He keeps quite busy, as you’d imagine.”
“Indeed,” Sralah said. “We tested his tank prototype on the plains of the Delta today. Remarkable weapon.”
Venus sipped her drink, taking in the room at a glance. It was clearly meant to accommodate the table. The room had the exact proportions of width and length as the table itself, leaving comfortable space behind the seats. The table itself was stone, grey marble, flecked with tiny gold quartz impurities.
“Governor, under what circumstances did Lord Trader Kimball-Carlin come to be in this system?” Jake suddenly asked.
“Oh, an accident aboard his ship,” Sralah said. “I invited him to the dinner when he stopped in Clymene for parts.”
“I see.” Jake tore into some bread, sensing Alex’s bitter glare on his neck. He couldn’t tell if it was his friend’s anger he was feeling or if Alex was just resenting life itself at that point, but Jake was feeling the awkwardness.
Down the table, Alex was eating as fast as he decently could. Freya was sitting a few chairs down on the opposite side, trying not to laugh at Alex’s discomfort. Political Officer Haarlan, who had come down from the ship to attend the dinner for some reason – probably the tank – was chatting with Remilia, catching up.
Alex’s father, meanwhile, was busily talking shop with a number of local merchants. Two of them looked like administrators from the local crafthalls. Alex himself was wondering if he could make a break for it when the food was done, and the mingling part began. For the time being, his father’s capricious sense of humor was keeping the burden of conversation off of him. At that moment, Joseph was telling some complicated joke about how curses were pronounced on different planets, so it was working well.
Venus was going back to speaking with the governor. “What measures are being taken against this crime wave, precisely, Governor?” she pointedly inquired.
“Well, we’ve already instructed the Enforcers to begin increasing patrol coverage in the areas below the mining tunnels,” the Governor explained. “We’ve also begun increasing Customs presence at the ports, to prevent the smugglers from arriving in the first place.”
“And what is being done to address the rise in violence from and against Terran tourists and gangsters?” Venus asked.
“Well, short of racial profiling, there’s really not much we can do,” the Governor hedged. “Most of them are here under legitimate visas. We can only hope to catch them in the act and surveillance is in place to that end.” Sralah looked pained for a moment. “I know that doesn’t sound like enough. Do you have any suggestions?”
“No, it doesn’t sound like enough.” Venus’ eyes glimmered. “I’d encourage you to confer with your counterparts from the other Sanctuaries to see what measures they’ve put in place.”
“I assure you, we have, Princess,” the Governor said.
Jake coughed. “Er, Governor, if I may, Terra has a number of novel solutions to this problem; certainly it happens in the hives all the time. Gangs, smuggling, attempted murder…”
The entire end of the table looked over to him. “What do you mean, Lord Seager?” Sralah asked.
“Well, on Terra, the problem stems from the gargantuan populations of immigrants from other planets that arrive on-planet and make no attempt to integrate with the local populations,” Jake nervously explained. The attention was discomforting. “Of course, you know, there’s only so much you can do about that…but the way the Praetors handled it back home was to install motion-sensitive floodlights at street corners so people couldn’t hide in the shadows. Then, they installed Doppler triangulators to measure the distance of any given microphone from the sound of gunshots, and put a few million of those around. Then they put surveillance cameras on every outdoor ATM and intersection.”
“That sounds rather invasive,” the Governor noted.
Jake shrugged. “Welcome to the Hives.”
“Did it work?” an Enforcer officer at the table asked.
“It did. Violent crime dropped by a significant degree,” Jake reported.
“Hmm. Well, it’s worth considering,” the Enforcer said, digging back in to her goulash. “I suppose the people protested?”
“Well, I have no idea. This happened thousands of years ago, and of course the only thing the historians recorded was that it worked,” Jake said cynically. He softened the remark with a joke. “Certainly nobody cared if the criminals disliked it.”
Venus smiled. “See, this the other reason I keep you around,” she gently teased.
Jake shot a nervous glance at her, as if he couldn’t tell she was joking. She winked at him and turned back to her own food.
Alex, down the row, finished off his food and tensed, his hands on the armrests of his chair. His father was turning to a topic he had hoped Joseph would avoid: Alex’s own college plans. “Well, Alex said he wanted to go to college to play, of course,” Joseph noted.
“Were it only that Nocturne could entertain such a standard of living,” one of the local merchants observed.
“So, Lord Carlin…er, the younger, that is. What sport do you play?” the other asked, finally turning to Alex in person.
“Rugby, midfielder,” Alex said. “Imperator High Varsity, Division one.”
“Athletic division, not the military kind,” Alex said. “There’s so many schools that they get assigned to leagues of equivalent budgets and team sizes and such.”
“I can’t imagine living on a world with so many people,” the first merchant said.
Alex shrugged. “I had it better than most. The underground hives are much more densely populated. My hometown, Startseite, is actually less densely populated than, say, Themis.”
“Truly?” the second merchant asked. “Interesting. Do you have any aspirations towards joining your father’s Trader fleet?”
Alex paused. “I don’t know. I want to see how far my sports career takes me, and I want to get my degree. Those take priority.”
“I see.” The second merchant looked like he was about to say more, when Venus stood at the head of the table.
“Well, Governor, thank you for the excellent meal,” she said, her red gaze sweeping the room. “Shall we adjourn to the ballroom?”
“Indeed, your Highness,” Sralah said. He stood as well, as did the rest of the group. Jake took the opportunity to glance at the others of their group, noting with grim humor that Alex looked about ready to run for the door. As the group parted to allow Venus to lead them into the nearby room, Alex faded into the shadows of a large, black marble column, and stayed there.
Jake sighed. His own father had never intimidated or enraged him that much. He meandered over to where his friends was lurking. “If you want to head out, man, feel free,” Jake said, sotto voce.
“I will, trust me,” Alex muttered. “At the dinner, we had to stay in place, at least. No such safeguards here.”
“What’s with the tin soldier costume?” Jake asked, glancing over the purple, white, and black outfit.
“My father’s colorblind,” Alex said tightly. Jake put his hands up. Alex sighed. “Sorry.”
“Go, man. No reason to stick around. You came on your own, Freya can find her own way back or leave with us,” Jake pointed out.
“Yeah.” Alex glanced over at where Venus was holding court. Soft music was starting up from the speakers on the pillars and columns of the room. “I just might.”
Freya spotted them scheming near the door and chuckled. She trotted over, a grin on her face. “Well, there you are. You trying to escape?”
“I sure am,” Alex said, looking around for his father. Joseph was bedazzling the Governor with some tale or another, his attention firmly drawn away. “Why? You trying to duck out too?”
“Nope, I want to stay and mingle a while,” Freya said.
Alex grimaced. “All right. I’ll see you tonight,” he said, sidling towards the door.
“Alex, come on. Stick around for a while. Your father’s fucking about with the Governor, you’re safe,” Freya said gesturing over to an expansive dessert table. “At least stay for some wine and schmoozing?”
Alex sighed, tightly and impatiently. “Fine. Not a second longer than the time it takes for Dad to get bored. I know, I know,” he said, catching his friends’ irritated looks. “I sound like a preacher, here, but trust me, Dad WILL fuck this.”
Venus was deep in conversation with one of the local PDF officers when Jake walked by her on his way from Alex. “Colonel, that’s not really the point. The distribution of Mechanicus blueprints to the city manufactoriae is important, obviously, but that means they get to pick production oversight methods. And the means they have selected are both quite direct,” Venus said. “That’s the price we paid.”
“I know that, your Highness, but it’s cutting into their resources and our time,” the officer said. “The unlikelihood of an attack on a Legionary homeworld aside, some of our gear is five generations old. We’re still using the Mark Ten Leman Russ Demolisher, for goodness’ sakes. They’re overseeing our production, so they have to know how old some of it is. And of course, meanwhile the Salamanders just get copies of the blueprints to make as many of their designs as they wish.”
Venus’ eyes narrowed in silence. The officer paused as his words caught up to him. “Astartes’ needs would be greater, of course, your Highness, but the point stands. Why would the Mechanicus insist on babysitting us and then make their own jobs harder?”
“Who knows?” Venus asked. She caught Jake’s eye as he approached. “Jake, this is Colonel Kacmen, the local PDF quartermaster. Colonel, this is Jake Seager."
“Colonel,” Jake said, shaking the proffered hand.
“Sieur.” The colonel turned back to Venus. “Would you be able to assist us, your Highness?”
“Perhaps, if I was going anywhere near a Forge World at any point in the next five years,” Venus said. “I’m heading straight off to college, Colonel.”
“Oh. I didn’t know that,” the Colonel admitted. “Whereabouts, your Highness?”
“Kouthry Technical Institute, New Arks Hive, Terra,” Jake said. Kacmen glanced over at him.
“Are you a student there, sir?” the Colonel asked.
“I was accepted in the same class as Venus,” Jake said. “We’re rooming.”
“Rooming? I don’t know what that means,” Kacmen said.
“It means we’re moving into the same room. Sharing an apartment, Colonel,” Jake said.
Kacmen stared. “Oh. I…colleges on Nocturne don’t have those arrangements, you see,” he said. “Does this mean that you two are Bonded, your Highness?” he awkwardly asked.
“Nope,” Venus replied. “Just very close.” Jake smiled to himself, reflecting on his earlier plans, but kept quiet.
“Oh…” Kacmen trailed off, clearly wrong-footed, but pressed on. “Well, then…what program will you undertake at this college, then, your Highness?”
“I’ll be going for Inorganic Chemistry,” Venus said. “Jake’s going for Industrial Design.”
“Something that annoys and terrifies me,” Jake said with a laugh.
“Why take classes that frighten you?” Kacmen asked.
“No, no, not my program, Venus’. Inorganic? That stuff is a mystery to me. I loved my Chemistry classes at high school, but I’ve seen Venus’ textbooks, and they baffle me.” Jake smiled. “Design, now, that’s nice and simple, comparatively.”
“‘Simple,’ sure,” Venus scoffed. “Man, I’ve built anti-tank weapons from scratch in my basement and I can’t do what you do with a pencil.” Jake allowed a modest shrug.
Remilia, meanwhile, was browsing the dessert table when a familiar voice spoke up. “Well…this is a pleasant surprise.” Her eyes tracked the sound –
“Lieutenant Kines?” Remilia asked in surprise. “Wow, how are you? What are you doing ashside?
The officer shrugged, offering her his hand. “Someone needed to fly Haarlan back to the spaceport after he gets drunk,” he said quietly.
Remilia gaped. “What?”
“Did I say that? I actually meant that I really wanted to see you. Wait, that sounds creepy. How about ‘I volunteered to retrieve the data on the Punisher test from the Governor’s office, and also generously offered myself as the loyal martyr who got stuck in the room full of politicians while the other junior officers descend on Skarokk’s bars like a flock of vultures.’” Kines thought for a moment. “At least three of those are true.”
The deep red and yellow lights of the room vanished into the white and grey uniform he was wearing, which was notably bereft of pins, ribbons, medals, and so on. Then again, he was an O-2 Lieutenant. Remilia smiled. “Well, I’m glad to see you too. How has your month been?”
“Boring. Very much so. We weren’t allowed to leave the ship except in groups so we didn’t overwhelm the planet’s limited facilities,” Kines said.
“We only saw a few crew while we were down here,” Remilia remembered.
“Well, ma’am, I’d like to think you stayed close to the upper crust, such as it is, as opposed to what my shipmates have probably been doing,” Kines said.
“What’s that?” Remilia asked.
“Going on hunting expeditions and getting eaten, getting riotously drunk, discovering Nocturnean food poisoning, and making all the local prostitutes very, very rich,” Kines listed.
The Imperial Fists heiress laughed aloud at his refreshing frankness. “Well, that’s certainly a long way from what we’ve been up to, all right,” she said. “Have you seen the others?”
“Sadly not, ma’am…Remilia,” he corrected. “I actually only arrived after the dinner.”
“Oh.” Remilia glanced around, seeing Jake and Venus still holding court with some PDF, Alex standing clean on the opposite side of the room from them, conspicuously close to a door, and Freya only a few paces away. “Freya, look who’s here.”
Freya glanced up. “Oh, hi Lieutenant! How’s things?” she asked, brushing her fingers on a napkin and walking over, a plate of desserts balanced precariously on one hand.
“Quite well, thanks,” Kines said, shaking her hand. “I suppose this is about the end of your sojourn, isn’t it?”
“Sadly,” Freya sighed. “But then we get to go to my home, and I am completely psyched.” She grinned at the thought, and her fangs glinted in the red light.
Kines, now inured to them, nodded politely. “Well, it’s good to see that you enjoyed your stay.”
“Well, not so much, really,” Remilia said glumly. “Did you hear about what happened to Jake?”
“’Fraid not, what happened to him?” Kines asked, glancing over at where the hiver was chatting with a young noble from a local family.
“He got brained by a drunk in a bar and nearly died,” Remilia said matter-of-factly. Kines started.
“Holy…wow, that’s awful!” He looked closer at the younger man and noted where the hair on the back of his head was shorn close. “Well, he’s okay, right?” he asked.
“He’ll be just fine,” Remilia assured him. Freya noted the pheromones that preceded Remilia’s next question with distinct interest. “How much longer are you ashside?”
Kines, lacking her ultra-refined senses, shrugged obliviously. “A few more hours. No more.” He half-smiled. “But we’re going to be the ones carrying you to Fenris, right?”
Remilia didn’t blush. Freya noted that that had taken conscious effort. “Right, of course. Well. Let’s avail ourselves of the time we have, then,” she said. Freya smiled to herself and decided to give her cousin a bit of privacy. She drifted over to where Jake was cheerfully trading banter with a local noble his own age.
“Well, barfights aside, sure, it’s been a fascinating and enjoyable trip,” Jake said to the much darker man. A boy, really, he looked younger even than Jake.
Freya walked up behind them as the other boy replied. “I’m glad to hear it,” he said. He turned as he saw Freya approach. “Ah, Lady Freya. A pleasure. I’m Avin Kel’ro,” he said, extending a hand.
She took the hand and shook it, smiling as if she had the vaguest idea who that was supposed to be. The lad seemed to wilt a bit as he realized that she had the same lack of knowledge that Jake had apparently displayed. Before he could expound upon it, however, an altercation from where Alex was standing caught her ear.
She was only fifteen paces from them, but even if she hadn’t been, and if she hadn’t had her hearing, she probably could have heard them. Alex was glaring at his stone-faced father, hand pointing as if in accusation. “NOT an option,” Alex snarled, and he turned on his heel to storm off.
“We’ll see,” his father said coldly. Alex’s gait paused – his fists tightened – his teeth clenched…with an act of will, he resumed his exit, all but slamming the door behind him.
Freya walked up behind where Carlin was standing in a crowd of now-silent locals, all of whom were quietly looking somewhere else. “What just happened?” Freya asked.
Carlin glanced over his shoulder. “Hello, Freya.”
“What just happened?” Freya repeated, staring at the door.
The Rogue Trader looked away. “Alex decided he doesn’t want to be a part of the future, apparently,” Joseph said curtly.
Freya stepped around him and glared into his eyes. “What did you just do?”
“Nothing I hadn’t told him I would do years ago,” Joseph bit off. “Madam, this is not your business.”
“Is it your business?” Freya asked.
“A shame. Because I thought a Rogue Trader’s business was in their Writ of Trade,” Freya said flatly. Carlin’s eyes snapped up. “And if I find out that the thing Alex has been afraid of you doing since the moment you arrived in-system, and which has been hanging over our vacation like a strategic bomber, has just occurred, your Writ will be revoked before you can say ‘Graverobber,’” Freya whispered harshly. Before Carlin could recover, she turned to follow his son through the door.
Venus watched them go as Remilia and Kines slowly made their way over. Jake and his new friend stared from a few feet away. “Venus, what did he say?” Jake asked.
“That’s Alex’s story,” Venus said sadly. “Let Freya handle it.” She turned her gaze on her friends and family, her eyes dimming. “Please?”
“Sure,” Jake said after a moment’s contemplation. Kines swallowed, the professionally romantic evening he had been planning evaporating. Remilia looked down at her shoes, sighing heavily.
“Anyway. Governor,” Venus said, turning back to her shell-shocked subordinate. “What were you asking?”
Alex stormed past the guards of the room, his face burning with shame. His father had said it. He had finally said what he had known the old bastard would say since the moment he had heard the Star had arrived in-system. He was done.
He nearly ran towards the car park outside, and all but jumped into the diplomatic car they had taken. “To the castle, quickly, then come back and wait for the others,” he said to the servitor.
The automaton lifted the car up, then paused. Alex glared at it in seething anger. “What?!” The door swung open as Freya caught up. “Oh…damn it all,” Alex groaned as his girlfriend climbed in. “Freya-”
“Hush,” she said. “We’re not going to talk, it’s okay. We’re just going to drive back to the Castle and get ready for bed,” she soothed.
Alex snorted angrily, but couldn’t say a word. Freya. She had been right, the entire time. The only one he could trust. She had been there every single time he had needed her, and now she was the only family he had.
The servitor guided them over the city to the Castle, setting them down on the pad. Alex launched out of the aircar and headed for the entrance to the castle, blowing past the startled serfs at the door without a word. He climbed the two flights to their room and ripped the door open, yanking his uniform shirt over his head and throwing it in the corner. “DAMN HIM!” he yelled to the empty room.
Freya walked in behind him, silent and hesitant. Her heart ached for her boyfriend, but she knew it was better to let him vent. Alex slammed the door of the bathroom as she took a few steps toward him. She heard him moving about and rambling to himself, and she sighed, her eyes watering.
Alex emerged into the room to find the lights dimmed, but not extinguished, and Freya leaning on the doorframe of the bathroom. “Alex, get in bed,” she said softly. “I’ll be right with you, I promise,” she said.
“Yeah,” Alex rumbled. Freya squeezed his shoulder and slid into the bathroom to begin her own routine.
While she did, Alex ripped off the suddenly unbearable uniform and threw it in the same corner, boots and all. He dropped onto a pillow and bunched his hand in it, trying to choke its life out.
His eyes were hot. He blinked, trying to clear them, but it wasn’t going away. Damn it.
The lights died completely. A moment later, he felt Freya’s warmth slide into bed alongside him. She didn’t say a word for nearly two agonizing minutes. Finally, he heard her faint voice. “I’m not looking.”
“What?” Alex bit off.
“I promise, I’m not looking.”
Alex was about to snap something back when the heat in his eyes overwhelmed him. A tear fell out of each, staining the pillow. Before he could address that, his whole chest shook with a sob. “D-damn it, you’re…” he managed. He sobbed again, and the dam was open. He wept, the heat spilling out of his eyes. Freya silently passed him a hand towel from the bathroom, and he buried his face in it, crying uncontrollably.
Freya turned to face his back, her own eyes leaking now. “Alex, baby…let it out,” she whispered.
“The son of a bitch,” Alex moaned. “He really did it.”
“What did he do, love?” she asked.
“He said that…that…” Alex coughed around his tightening throat. “H-he said that I had to choose between inheriting the Fleet and going to college. So, basically, my family or my ambition.” He wiped his eyes on the towel, coughing again. “I loathe him so much,” Alex whispered bitterly.
Freya’s tears slid down her face as she listened to Alex suffer. His internals were a mess, she could hear. His heart rate and blood pressure were all over the place, and his stomach was clenching and unclenching so bad he sounded like he was on the verge of a vomiting spell. Her every instinct as his partner screamed at her to try and make him better. Her instincts as a Russ called her in a different, but similar direction.
“Alex…” she whispered. “I’m so sorry…”
“Don’t be, Freya, this is a good thing,” he snarled into the towel. “Now we can stay together after summer. Let the bastard die alone. Goodness knows driving Mom away wasn’t enough.” He started crying again. “Damn it all…damn it…” he sobbed.
Freya buried her face in his bare back, wetting his skin with her tears. Alex’s own weeping faltered.
“Freya, please don’t…don’t cry, I’m sorry, you…you didn’t do anything wrong,” he said feebly. “You’re all I have left at this point,” he continued. “Come on, pull, pull yourself together,” he said, before he curled up in a ball as the enormity of the moment hit him. “Oh my god, how am I even going to be able to GO to college if he’s not covering it?” he whispered as the full extent of his choice dawned.
Freya heaved, her natural empathy overwhelming her. “Alex…please…” she whispered tremulously.
Alex sagged into the mattress, reeling. Freya gingerly pulled at his shoulder, rolling him onto his back. His face was a mask of tears over an expression of shock, abandonment, and seething rage. Freya sniffed, looking down on her agonized lover. “Please…” she whispered again. “…please hold still.”
Alex stared blindly up at the ceiling, his mind firing on all cylinders. Freya allowed her instincts to take hold, and she gently nuzzled his neck, planting tiny kisses around his jawline. She gradually worked her way across to his cheek, rubbing it gently, her very human emotions and canine instincts merging.
“Freya…”Alex whispered brokenly. She ignored him, settling her body against his, trying to comfort him. She starting crying again, almost silently. Distantly, Alex heard a faint, persistent, animal whimper from the back of her throat, one she probably wasn’t even aware of. Alex’s eyes screwed up. She gently moved up to his ear, running her lips along it, trying to make him feel better. She slid both hands over his chest to his other side and held him tight, desperately trying to soothe his hurt.
He reached out with his free hand and held her still for a long moment. He turned his head to look at her, not that he could see in the total darkness of the room. She could, and hopelessly looked into his eyes, searching for some vague sign that it was working.
Alex slowly shifted to lie parallel to her. “Freya…thanks,” he said faintly. He was still a mess inside, but seeing how much distress he was causing her had brought him some clarity. “Thanks…for being here for me,” he whispered.
She nodded against her bunched-up hair. “Forever,” she murmured, tears still pouring from her eyes. She nipped his ear. The familiar gesture nearly started Alex off again, but he held it in check with an effort. He gently pulled her upper leg over his own and slid himself flush with her, and she snuggled up against him, still trying to ease his pain.
“Freya…I don’t say it often enough.” Alex sniffed again. “I love you. I really do.”
Freya nodded against his chest, wrapping both arms around him. “I know you do, Alex, and I love you,” she said, her voice shaking. He closed his eyes and held her tight, trying to calm his raging emotions. “You’re still hurting,” she whispered. “God, I can HEAR you hurting.” She turned miserable eyes on him. “I want to make it all better, but I just don’t know how.”
Alex sighed, exhaustion pulling at him. “I’m sorry.”
“Would…we could have sex,” she whispered. “Would that make you feel better?”
“Thanks, sweetheart, but…I’m too tired. I wouldn’t enjoy it.”
“Just a thought,” Freya said, chagrined.
He squeezed his arm across her braids. “But, really, baby…thanks. Just…be here, okay? I don’t…I don’t know, I’m…going to try to sleep, think this over in the morning.”
Freya nodded against his chest, hearing his heart finally start to slow. “Okay.” She cradled herself up to him, letting her warmth soak into his body. “I’m so sorry you’re hurting,” she said faintly.
“I am too, baby,” he said thickly. He leaned into her hair and sighed. “But you’re here.”
“I’m here,” she responded. She closed her eyes and listened carefully as he drifted off to an uneasy sleep.
Anger and Hope
Venus walked out of the Governor’s mansion and straight up to Carlin’s car as the party started to break up. She was only waiting a minute before Carlin emerged. “Lord Carlin. What was that altercation with your son earlier?” she asked.
Carlin moved to pass her. “An internal matter of the Kimball-Carlin trade fleet,” he said.
Venus’ hand shot out and grabbed his elbow. “I beg to differ,” she said coldly. “Because tonight, you made it our business too.”
Carlin tried to pull his arm away and found it locked in a death grip. “This does not concern you, your Highness,” he grated. He tugged at his arm, and this time Venus squeezed, as hard as her super-human anatomy would allow. Carlin gasped in surprise and sudden discomfort.
“Wrong,” Venus bit off. Her eyes flared to a frightening red. “Listen carefully, Carlin, because I don’t feel like repeating myself. Your unwanted presence in MY star system has been hanging over this entire trip, and Alex has been resenting every second of it, thoroughly torpedoing an effort that I had hoped would make a good endcap to a very, very shitty Senior Year of high school.” Her grip creaked on his arm. “So if you are still present in this system, or, if you’re an even bigger idiot than you look, the Fenris system when next I check, I will personally approve your internment by the Legion, for as long as I care to. Is that anything other than crystal clear?”
Carlin snarled, but even enraged he knew not to defy a Lady Primarch. “No…your Highness.”
Venus tossed his arm aside with casual disgust, and reached into the opening door of the car to extract Alex’s bag of possessions. As she emerged, she skewered the seething Rogue Trader with a withering glare. “I mean it, Carlin. This was supposed to be a chance for Alex to relax and get away from home, and he specifically told you so before he left. Make tracks, or learn to like prison food.”
Without another word, she tossed the bag over her shoulder and walked up to where the Governor was nervously waiting. Seeing the burning anger in her eyes, he immediately dropped to one knee. “Your Highness, I must offer my apologies for the behavior of my guest. If I had known he had been instructed not to be here, I would have not have invited him,” he said, contrition and apology etched on his face. “And for these crimes to have further spoiled your time…I am profoundly sorry.”
Venus drew herself up, eyes flashing. “Governor, I would have you implement my boyfriend’s suggestions, regarding the reduction of this crime spree. As for the behavior of Lord Trader Carlin, his faults have been addressed by my own hand, and he will not trouble us again if he wishes to breathe clean air.” She glared down at Sralah. “However, with incident after incident intruding on our time on this world, I am beginning to wonder if perhaps I should have spent the trip elsewhere, which is the LAST feeling I wished to have on this venture. Need I go into detail?”
“Certainly not, your Highness!” the Governor said, scrambling to his feet, and paling a bit. “How may I rectify it?”
Venus scoffed. “Right now, it’s probably too late to implement new measures in time for the rest of the trip. I suspect we will simply make a point of visiting only those areas of the city and its environment that are deemed secure by the Enforcers, however few that may be.” She added the final barb with a chilling directness. “Until then…farewell.” She turned on her heel and walked back to where the diplomatic car had returned, leaving the Governor staring at her cape.
Kines and Remilia were standing beside the car already, and Venus slowed to grant them a moment’s quiet. “Well, Remilia, I’m sorry things took a turn for the sour,” Kines said ruefully.
Remilia nodded in agreement, her face glum. “Me too.” She looked up at him, shrugging. “Well, I’m sure things will calm down on the ship.” She smiled slightly. “So…which of the four things wasn’t true?”
“Back when I saw you after you arrived. Which of the four wasn’t true?” Remilia asked.
Kines thought back. “Uh, the part about having to drive Haarlan back to the starport,” he said. The obvious implication, that he really wanted to see her again, brought a hint of pink to her cheeks.
“Well…that’s nice of you,” she said, feeling a funny sensation she hadn’t felt in a while running through her. Kines, obviously, noticed. He nervously grinned. Venus’ eyes followed them back and forth, her eyebrows slowly rising in mirth.
“I…suspect we won’t see each other until you’re ready to depart for Fenris, ma’am…Remilia, so for now, at least, goodbye,” he said. She reached over and squeezed his hand, then quickly turned it into an awkward hug.
Venus bit her lip. Kines flushed deep red and took a step back. “In case Haarlan’s watching, let’s pretend you just fell,” he said nervously.
“R-right,” she said. She slid into the car. “Uh, goodnight, Lieutenant.”
“Good night, ma’am,” Kines said. He stared at her a moment longer before turning and nearly bumping into Venus. “Oh! Sorry, ma’am, didn’t see you there,” he quickly apologized.
Venus offered up a sly, encouraging little smile. “It’s nice to see Remilia happy again,” she said off-handedly, as Jake climbed into the car too.
“Well, I’d…hmm.” Kines shrugged awkwardly. “I suppose it is,” he said.
Venus winked. “Uh huh. You keep yourself out of trouble, now, Lieutenant,” she said, following Jake into the car.
Remilia was cradling her hand where she had shaken Kines’, staring out the window into the setting red sun. Venus closed the door and the car took off. Jake managed to keep his mouth shut. Venus didn’t.
She turned her head to look at her cousin, apprehensive. “That was adorable,” Venus continued.
“Shush,” Remilia grumbled. She suddenly looked upright. “Oh man, you don’t think Haarlan was really watching, do you? I don’t want him to get in trouble.”
“Haarlan was already in his car,” Jake said. “I think you’re good.”
Remilia sighed. “All right.” She sat back in her seat, looking for some safer topic. “So…what do we have planned for the rest of the trip?” she asked.
“Nothing, we can do whatever,” Venus said. She clenched a fist. “But after that scumbag Carlin…I think I’m going to call in a favor, really go all-out with you guys. We deserve SOMETHING good in this city,” she said darkly.
“A favor? With who? You’ve never been to Skarokk before,” Jake pointed out.
“Not personally.” She leaned forward. “You guys will love it. Trust me.”
Freya’s eye snapped open at the sound of Venus’ voice in the hall. She very slowly disentangled herself from Alex and padded over to the door, opening it a crack. “Guys?” she whispered.
Venus turned to look at her and passed her Alex’s bag. “Alex’s stuff.”
Freya nodded. “Carlin?”
“Gone by sunrise if he doesn’t want to get arrested,” Venus replied under her breath. Freya nodded.
“Good. See you when…” she glanced over at Alex. “When he’s ready.”
“Take good care of him, now,” Venus whispered solemnly. “No plans for tomorrow. Take as long as he needs.”
“I will,” Freya promised with a sad little smile. How fitting that people who were little more than aliens to most humans could care for Alex more than his own blood relatives, she thought.
Venus mouthed ‘good night’ and made into her room, with Jake and Remilia dispersing as well. Freya closed the door and set the bag down. As she did, however, the battery in his vox beeped to signify its dying charge, and Alex awoke.
“Whu?” he asked. Freya was at his side in an instant, gently kissing his forehead.
“Shhh, baby, it’s just the others coming back from the party.”
“Mmm.” Alex settled back down as Freya curled up next to him. He shifted partway, leaning over her. “Freya…do you think I’m…stupid?” he asked blearily.
“Of course not, why would I do that?” she asked softly.
“Because I am…I went and saw the bastard this afternoon…after I promised myself…that I wouldn’t,” he muttered. “Asshole probably planned this entire thing…preyed on my…wanting him to…to…” he trailed off as he choked up again.
Freya squeezed her eyes shut to ward off bitter tears. “Alex, I love you, and your mother loves you, and Venus and Jake and Remilia love you. That’s good too, right?” she asked, her voice shaking.
Alex sighed in her ear. “Mom’s flat broke in Startseite…after he cut her off.” He was quiet for a moment. “But…yeah. You guys are great.” He slid his hand over her arm, pulling her into a spoon. “Hey…I’m tired,” he managed. “You mind if I just…sleep through whatever, tomorrow?”
She snuggled her back against him, letting his arm drape over her breasts in a comforting hug. “For as long as you want, Alex,” she whispered.
“Mmm.” He sighed, resting his head on the pile of her braids that spilled out from behind her head. “I love you, Freya.”
She clasped his hand with both of her own, letting her warmth lull him to sleep once more. “I love you too, Alex,” she murmured.
A High Note
Waking Up Again
Jake yawned, feeling the day’s exertions take their toll. Venus was busily unequipping her armor and unloading her weapons in the corner. “I’m just gonna turn in, unless you want to keep watching that movie,” he said, referring to the flick they had started that morning after breakfast. The slight wobble in his gait was now more pronounced, driving home a reminder that he was recovering from his own trial.
“Sure thing. Or we could put it on the slate and watch it in bed,” Venus said.
“Let’s do that, we can watch something else on the ship,” Jake said. He grabbed his slate and tapped the appropriate runes as Venus finished her undressing and bathroom rituals. “Is Alex going to be all right?” he asked as she returned.
“I have no idea,” Venus confessed. She slid her sleeping clothes on; a very thick undershirt and cotton panties so she didn’t accidentally overheat Jake. “Damn it. I feel like I owe him an apology for not putting my foot down on Kimball-Carlin when I had the chance.”
“Screw that, anyone who disowns his son in front of a crowd is going to be a shithead no matter how many Royal Family members are in the room,” Jake said.
“But this trip has been fine until four days ago, when it’s gone tits-up, and I feel like I could have prevented it all,” Venus pressed. She dropped into the bed, slamming her fist on the bedspread. “I mean, the thing in the bar was horrible…and then I get purse-snatched and Alex gets fucking disowned. What a fucking nightmare. I thought the worst thing we’d have to deal with on Nocturne would be the damn dragons,” she said.
Jake shrugged, passing her the slate. “Not your fault, baby, and I don’t want to have to tell you that over and over. We just got here.”
As he finished his own bathroom prep, Venus stared at the black ceiling, thinking. What could she ask of her host tomorrow? She had been planning something like it since Hesiod, but this was her first real opportunity.
Jake slid into bed beside her, waving down the heat and turning the slate to her. She cuddled up on his flank, resting her head on his shoulder and narrowing her eyes so she didn’t drown out the screen. “Well…at least it’s almost over,” she sighed.
“Hey now, don’t think like that,” Jake said. “Nocturne is an amazing place. We’ve just seen some bad along with the good. Compared to the shit in the hives, this has been a resort trip for me.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Venus asked. “Jake…I’m sorry, but I feel like this is my fault.”
Jake sighed again. He paused the slate and looked down at her head. “Stop. Here,” he said, setting the slate aside and rolling her onto her stomach. He dug his fingers into her tensed back. “You had no way of knowing that any of this would happen,” he soothed. He gently massaged her hot flesh, working the tension away.
“I guess.” She chuckled after another minute or two of his silent rubs. “I can’t stay mad when you’re in physical therapist mode.” Jake grinned to himself, remembering the result of his first administration, and the joyous few weeks that had kicked off. “Speaking of,” she asked. “How’s your head?”
“Better. Much better.” Jake squeezed her shoulders, digging his thumbs in deep. She sighed into the pillow. “My legs are better too, that was just a little soreness. I’m gonna be okay,” he said.
“Good.” She slowly adjusted her sleep shirt, pulling it up to her armpits so he could reach her lower back, mindful of her burn scar. “Hey…as long as we have it out, want to send a letter home?”
“Sure,” Jake said, moving his hands down her side. “In a minute.”
“Okay,” she said with lazy contentment, her resentment melting away under his cool hands. After a while longer, she languidly stretched, flexing the beautiful swimmer’s back Jake admired. “All right,” she yawned. “Much better.” She slid the sleep-shirt back down and gave him a grateful little kiss. “What do you want to say?”
“Depends,” Jake said, settling down beside her. “Do we mention Alex?”
“Hmm.” She sighed. “Let’s not. We can mention he had a shit day, but let’s leave the details to him.”
“Sure.” Jake grabbed the slate and tapped the recording system’s Advanced Options menu, opening the two-source system. “Transcribe Two,” he said, starting the dual-channel recording. He waited a moment. “Hi, everyone. I’m calling you from sunny Skarokk,” he started. Venus sniggered. “My head’s all better, in case anyone was, like, worried, or whatever.” He thought for a moment. “It’s been a weird few days. Pickpocketings, formal dinners, barfights, and more sunburn than I’ve received in the past sixteen years.”
Vulkan read further. “Now, Venus. ‘Not that it’s not been interesting. Jake’s thick skull is knitting together. Dad, I’ve included the medic’s name, in case you wanted to know it. We reward our friends.’ Seems fair. ‘I spoke with Governor Sralah, and’ – italics – ‘‘convinced’ him to impose tough new crime measures. I know you said leave it to you, but I feel like I have to after today. I was robbed in broad daylight…’ WHAT?” he snarled. Misja recoiled in surprise. “‘Someone snatched my purse then returned it when they realized whose it was. Fucker got away, too.’”
“Watch your mouth, young lady,” Misja muttered.
Vulkan glared at the dataslate, his own anger building. “Now Jake again. ‘The dinner this evening was interrupted by Alex getting some absolutely miserable news from home. I’ll let him tell it when he gets up tomorrow if he really wants, but it was bad. Other than that, we met up with some familiar faces from the Tide and we should be ready to go soon.’”
Misja shook her head. “A robbery. What the hell is Skarokk coming to?”
“A swift and ghastly blood-letting, when I’m done with it,” Vulkan said darkly. “Venus, now. ‘You two, if you get this before George and Sandra, please let them know that Jake is up, ready, and willing to continue the trip to Fenris. Freya is in bed right now or she’d tell you all about it, but I’m looking forward to it.’”
His wife glanced over the message’s timestamp. “Nope. They haven’t got it yet, there’s no reception ticket.”
“Hmm.” Vulkan scrolled down to the bottom of the message. “Jake now. ‘Mom, Dad, I’m all good, and I have taken the requisite pictures of my honorable war wounds. I mean, it’s just bare skin and hair, even in the photo, but you can use your imaginations.’ Nice to know getting mauled by a drunk wasn’t enough to keep that boy down,” Vulkan said with approval.
“I wonder if he’s going to propose to Venus when the trip ends,” Misja wondered aloud.
Vulkan looked up. “You think he might?”
“After something like that only made them closer? I think it’s possible,” Misja said.
“Could be,” Vulkan said. He thought for a moment. “I can’t say I would protest much, even if he is a little too young by Terran standards. On Nocturne, they’d have been Bonded by now.”
“Anything else in the message?” Misja asked.
Vulkan shook his head. “Nope, just goodbyes.”
Back on Nocturne, and nearly a day in the past, Venus set down the slate after a few small fixes in the transcriptor. Jake lay down on the mattress, wrapping his arm under Venus’ head and shoulders. She snuggled up against him, her mind wandering. “Jake…would you like to go see one of the Salamander galleries tomorrow?” she asked.
Jake looked over at her dark head on his arm. “Aren’t those sealed to the public?”
“Yes, but I can get us in.”
“Didn’t you say that the Salamanders wouldn’t like us being there?” Jake cautiously asked.
Venus shrugged. “Yeah, but so far, all you’ve seen of Skarokk are the parts I’m ashamed of…”
Jake grimaced. “Damn it, baby…”
“I’m not being morose now, I promise, I’m just thinking aloud.” Venus looked up at him, her eyes bathing his face in light. “I think, given what’s happened, they would let us in.”
Jake was quiet as he thought it over. “Hmm. Well, if it feels like we’re unwelcome, we can just leave, right?”
“All right, we can give it a shot,” Jake said.
Closed to the Public
As Freya awoke the next morning, she noted with some relief that Alex was still quietly snoozing away behind her. She took a moment to savor the feeling of his body behaving the way it was supposed to; as opposed to the way it had been the previous night. Eyes still shut, she relaxed into his unconscious embrace. He had been so tired that he had fallen asleep with his arm still slung across her chest. After a while, she slid silently free, letting his hand fall to the bed, and moved in silence to begin her pre-workout bathroom routine…then paused. She looked back to him, wondering. She reached out and switched the alarm off, so he wouldn’t have awoken in an hour and a half like he had planned.
Outside, Venus and Remilia were already dressed and ready to head to the modest serf’s gym in the castle when Freya stuck her head out the door. “Hey, you two, go ahead, I’m going to stay here,” she said. Her freshly-washed hair glimmered red from Venus’ eyes as her cousin tilted her head.
“Are you all right?” Remilia asked for the two of them.
“Alex needs me, today, I think,” Freya said. She looked at them both. “Or am I being paranoid?”
“Just come run for a while, then shower off and get back in bed,” Venus counseled. “Let him wake up to you, if you think it will matter.”
Freya nodded. “All right, I’ll do that.”
Several hours later, Jake wobbled out of bed, feeling his back ache a bit, but otherwise feeling as good as new. He glanced at the clock at the side of the table, noting that he had actually woken before the alarm went off. “Oh well,” he said, making for the showers.
As he emerged in the gym, he noted Freya’s and Alex’s absences with a resigned sigh. He wasn’t surprised to find them absent.
Alex fell onto his back as he awoke, jolting him awake. He lay in the darkness for a few minutes, staring at the ceiling as the previous night’s misadventure returned to him. “What am I going to do?” he whispered hoarsely.
“Shhh,” Freya whispered from beside him. “Go back to sleep.” He started. She was never there when he woke up.
“What…what time is it?” he asked, searching for a clock. He couldn’t see one.
“Middle of the night,” Freya lied to him. She had covered the little red clock with a shirt. “Sleep. I’ll be here when you need to get up,” she promised.
Alex lay in silence for a moment, his emotions returning to him with lucidity. “All right.” He sighed in guilt as the night came back fully. “Thanks for being there when I needed you to be,” he whispered into the darkness.
Freya silently shifted. A warm, soft weight descended onto his chest as she leaned on him, pressing her bare skin to his, and captured his lips in a loving kiss. “Shhh. Sleep. I told Venus to let you sleep in, we’ve got the whole day to do whatever you want. Work out, explore…stay in bed,” she added coyly. “Rest.”
Alex smiled and let his eyes shut. “All right, baby.” She squeezed his shoulder, settling back down beside him. “What did I do right to get you?” he asked of the room.
“As I recall? Compliment my ass after a wrestling meet,” Freya noted. “You’re lucky I didn’t rip your arm off.”
“I’m glad you didn’t.”
“Me too.” She rolled over to face him in the dark. “Now…shush. Sleep.”
He obeyed, closing his eyes and settling back into the mattress, his brief emotional turmoil evaporating. Freya nodded at her successful deception. “Job well done,” she muttered.
Jake stared in absolute awe at the magnificent sculpture on the pedestal before him. “It’s…breathtaking,” he said.
The Assault Marine that had volunteered to lead the unusual group through the catacombs beneath the city nodded. “Isn’t it? One of our Chaplains made it, about four hundred years ago.”
“It’s beautiful,” Jake said, taking in the twisted metal column. Visible hammer marks on its sides were the only marring of an otherwise symmetrical five-sided pyramid, which had been beaten into the middle of an iron column, with only a slender strand of metal keeping the precarious-looking upper half of the column stable. “I wish my grandfather could see what his students made,” he said quietly.
“I beg your pardon?” the Marine asked.
“My grandfather, Carmine Seager, taught in the same seminary on Mars where most of the Legionary Techmarines trained,” Jake explained, slowly circling the structure. The entire granite hallway was completely lined with magnificent pieces of technology, art, and design that could have found a home in any up-scale Terran, Macraggian, or maybe even Martian gallery.
“Ah, I see. He had an artistic side himself, then?” the Marine asked.
“He was a very talented designer of the Adeptus Mechanicus Artisan’s Order,” Jake explained. He smiled at their towering host. “I got my own love of design and artifice from him, as did my father.”
“Truly? Good on you. Here on Nocturne, metalworking is one of the oldest and most sacred professions,” the Marine said, spurred to explanation by the open confidence of his guest. “Our greatest tribal lords before the coming of King Vulkan were those who could best balance metalcrafting and politics.”
“A wise combination for a leader,” Jake said, leaning to examine the statue more closely.
“Indeed,” the Marine replied.
Venus and Remilia were a pace back, looking at a tiny block sculpture. It looked like it had been made from rock turned liquid, tapped with mallets into a certain shape, then left to cool just so. An impressive feat, given that rock was so much more brittle than metal.
“I wonder how many tries that took?” Remilia murmured.
“As many as needed,” Venus replied. She glanced at the row of similar sculptures beside it, noting that though they had all seemingly been made by the same person, none were signed or stamped. “They wouldn’t just give up if it didn’t come out right.”
Jake had moved on to examine a large, nearly hollow ball of volcanic glass, held aloft by iron rods. “Now that’s impressive,” he said, leaning as close as he dared. “How in the world did they get the rods to bend inside the shafts?”
“I do not know,” the Marine confessed.
“Must have run a current through it while shaping the glass,” Jake muttered. “It’s a nice design. How do you get the larger ones into the gallery? This is bigger than the door.”
“There’s a crane we can use in the ceiling,” the Marine said, pointing into the inky blackness above them.
“Very cool.” Jake’s eyes drifted to a Power Sword hanging on studs from a wall. “And…just to pose the question, why don’t the Salamanders actually use the weapons they make here?”
The Marine’s voice carried a hint of amusement. “We do. These are the weapons of warriors who make spares to keep in practice.”
Jake processed that. “Ah. That’s, ah…a hell of a hobby,” he quipped. The Marine grinned behind his helmet.
Physical Therapy and Other Euphemisms
Alex awoke again. Freya had removed the shirt from the clock and flicked the lights on already, and was sitting in the corner of the room, reading a slate. She noted his rising breath and smiled at him. “Good morning.”
“Morning,” Alex grunted, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. “Wow, it’s local eleven? I’ve never slept in that late,” he said.
Freya pulled the shirt on, letting it hang to her thighs. “You feeling better?”
“A bit.” He sighed. “I guess I can just go and-”
“Bup bup bup, no gloom and doom,” she said, waving a stern finger. “Go see what the day’s schedule is.”
Alex blinked. “Schedule? What?”
Freya passed him on her way to the bathroom, waving him to follow. Bewildered, Alex rose and followed her into the room. She was posing by the bathtub, smiling seductively. Alex noted with interest that the lights were now a dim red, and the empty tub was ringed with, of all things, scented candles she had acquired somewhere. “…Interesting,” he said.
“Isn’t it?” she asked playfully, sauntering up to him and slowly sliding her arms around his waist. “I felt bad for making you miss the workout this morning, so I figured we could just have a workout here, instead,” she explained, running her hands down his back. “Nice…thorough…deep-muscle workout…” Alex struggled to keep a grin from breaking out on his face and failed.
“I see. Any…particular reason…the tub struck your fancy?” he asked, as he ran his own hands up her rock-solid frontside to lift the shirt away.
She snickered. “Well, we’re going to be spending so much time here today, I wouldn’t want to gross out the chambermaid…and goodness, you’re just going to be a hot mess when I’m finished with you, may as well not have to go too far to clean up,” she whispered, guiding him back to the lip of the tub.
As lunchtime arrived, Jake proposed the group make a point of returning to the nearly abandoned café they had used the previous day, which they at least knew would be nice and quiet. As they arrived and placed their orders, Remilia spoke up. “Venus, that was amazing. That gallery…and the Salamanders just MAKE that stuff?”
“Mountains of it,” Venus replied. “The seven Sanctuaries and Prometheus station, the Reclusiae of the larger ships, the temples in the deserts…they all look like those. Most are actually bigger than this one,” she said. “This is the smallest Sanctuary.”
“Absolutely incredible. My hands were itching when we went through the hall with all the wall-mounted sculptures. I felt like a shoplifter,” Jake said.
“Well, you didn’t take anything, and nobody seemed to resent their Princess admiring their work, so I think it went all-good,” Venus said happily. “And that one Battle Brother was pretty impressed with your little spiel.”
Jake winced. “Sorry about that, I didn’t mean to go off on a tangent.”
Venus chuckled. “I think he was more amused and maybe relieved, really. I think he was afraid we wouldn’t understand any of that stuff.”
“Well, I did, and it was amazing. That large ceramite block carving, the one with the silver face mask set into its surface? You could fetch sixty million credits on Terra for that, without breaking a sweat,” Jake said. “Sixty mil, cold. More at auction.”
“Wow. How do you know that?” Remilia asked as their drinks arrived.
“Remember when I said my grandfather designed watches? He sold the prototypes at auction. I’ve been to several,” Jake explained. “Amazing places.”
“Cool. Want to stop by an auction house tomorrow?” Venus asked. “See how Nocturneans barter?”
“I’d love that!” Jake exclaimed.
Alex let the frothing, soapy water rise to his chin before gesturing the faucet to switch off. He was so tired, even that took a few tries. Freya’s promised workout had finally concluded after two hours, and as the candles burned themselves out around him, and the fans cleared the air, he felt, for the first time since his father had left the Star for Clymene several days before, at absolute peace.
He was leaning back on the sloped side of the tub, feet splayed out before him. Freya was straddling his legs, resting her entire front against him from the stomach up, her own legs drawn back outside his. She had been in that position for nearly ten minutes at that point, since her final round of energetic lovemaking had sapped the last of his strength, and seemed content to stay put. She was resting her chin on his shoulder and had both arms wrapped around his neck. She hadn’t moved as the water rose up their bodies, and had remained still as he turned it off.
The sound of the fan was the only thing in the room as they rested. He had worked her pretty red hair free of its braids in an idle moment some time before, and it fanned out in the water, turning the water under the red lights of the room into a deep, bloody crimson.
She was listening carefully. The sounds of his body attempting to recover from its exertion were familiar, and primally relaxing. Tuning her own sounds out, she listened contentedly to his muscle chill and contract as the water washed over it, and heard the blood in his neck pulse and flow as she rested her head beside his.
Though she would have been lying to say that the motive behind her workout had been completely altruistic, and in hindsight could have picked a more comfortable pose, he was in no shape to complain. The fans clicked off as the ambient water and heat in the air dropped down to near-normal levels, leaving only the sound of their faint, labored breathing.
Finally, he stirred. “Freya…thank you,” he whispered.
“Any time,” she murmured. “Well. Maybe not any time, those candles are expensive, but on special occasions,” she corrected.
His chest budged a fraction as he tried to laugh. “…Still.” He very gradually slid his arms around her waist under the suds. “I feel…” he trailed off. They both closed their eyes and let the moment stretch on. It had been sex, sure, but somehow, they both wanted it to be more than that, too. It was a mutual desire, easily granted. Freya leaned her head sideways a fraction, pressing it against his sweaty hair. “Alex…I love you too. You know that, right?”
Alex’s eyes didn’t move. “I do,” he whispered.
“Good.” She let out a long, relieved breath. “Just making sure.” She kissed the bare flesh of his shoulder, which was sun-scarred from their stay on hellish Nocturne. “I may check again, later. To…err on the side of caution,” she informed him.
“Feel free,” he said. He slid his hands down to her legs and squeezed her calves. “Mmm…hey, let me up,” he said.
“I gotta wash my hair,” he slurred.
She grabbed a shampoo bottle and poured some on his head, then worked some tub water into it with her hands. “Let me,” she said.
He closed his eyes again as she went to work, all business. She scooted another few inches up his torso as she did, and he felt her breasts knock into his face. He had to stifle a loopy giggle, as his brain chemistry was still out of whack, and for some reason, it was the funniest thing he had ever felt.
As she rinsed him clean at length, he opened his eyes again, looking up at her with a tired grin. He lifted his hands slightly, beckoning her to turn around. As she did, he grabbed the same bottle and returned the gesture, squirting some of the chilly substance into her luxurious red hair. As she sank back onto him, he slowly massaged the red mass with his hands. “So…aside from…playing doctor, then playing dress-up…what do you have in mind for today?” he asked.
She rose up a bit more against him, until her head and his were level again. “Mmm…a lazy afternoon watching shitty movies…poker with the guys after a take-out dinner…then falling asleep in your arms after writing home.”
“Sounds good.” Alex ran some water through her hair, washing the shampoo away, and leaving it glistening under the red room light. He slid his hands over her stomach and down to her waist, leaving them to rest against the aching muscle. “Did I strain you?”
“No, I’m just a little sore from overuse,” she reported. She slid back down his front a little and splayed her hands over his. “Ahhh…I regret nothing,” she dreamily said. She grinned as she reviewed the past two hours in her eidetic memory. “Healthy, growing boys need their exercise.”
Alex smiled. “So do athletic, growing girls, it seems,” he said.
“Yup.” She snuggled back into his arms with a sigh.
The two teens enjoyed their blissful soak for a while longer. When, at last, Alex found the strength to stand, and regretfully reported that further activity at that point would have been agony, they dried off and staggered into the bedroom, sinking into the bed in front of the holoscreen. Venus had rigged all of their holos to play off of slates as soon as she had arrived, and Freya started a random movie on the screen before curling up on Alex’s flank. After less than ten minutes, he had drifted into a doze, and she switched the holo off. She lay in silence next to his muscular frame, listening. He was relaxed, wonderfully so. She indulged in her loving audio surveillance for a few minutes before tugging a blanket out of the pile of spares on the dresser and draping it over his bare body. She then gestured the heat down and cuddled up next to him, keeping them both warm. She let her own eyes close and drifted off into a peaceful nap.
A knock on the door roused her, around an hour later. She blinked sleep away as she quickly donned a shirt and peeked out the hole. Discovering her visitor to be a chambermaid, she opened the door a hair and smiled apologetically. “Sorry, but we’re staying in today,” she whispered.
The serf sighed at the irregular occurrence, but nodded assent and moved on to Venus’ room. Freya slid the door shut and padded over to where Alex was still fast asleep, pulling the shirt back off. She leaned over him and nipped his ear, rousing him. “Hey. Wake up. It’s local afternoon. If we sleep much more, you’ll be awake all night,” she said.
Alex shifted a bit, rising onto his arms. He looked up at his girlfriend, admiring the way her hair draped down over her chest and shoulders. “If you say so…”
A Natural Confidant
She sat down next to him and reached to turn the holo back on. Before she could, he spoke up. “Wait.”
Freya looked over at him. He was sitting cross-legged on the mattress. “This…isn’t going to get easier if we put it off,” he said.
She frowned, but stilled her hand. “All right…what do you want to do about it?” she asked.
Alex looked down at his feet. “You know…did you actually hear what he said last night?”
Freya shook her head, scattering her hair over her shirt. “No. I was talking to Jake.”
“All right.” Alex closed his eyes. “What he said was…hell, it wasn’t even to me, he was talking to the guy next to me…he said, ‘Alex knows that the Fleet and college are mutually exclusive.’ I said ‘Dad, what does that mean?’ He looked square at me and said ‘you can’t have both.’” Alex looked over at Freya, pained. “Damn it…he probably waited until we were in front of a crowd so I couldn’t back out.” He laughed, a bitter, tired bark. “Guess he underestimated how petty I am.”
“Oh, Alex,” Freya sighed. She leaned forward, squeezing his leg. “It’s not petty to want to live the way that makes you happiest!”
“No, but storming out of Venus’ gala was,” he said flatly. “I must have looked like a petulant child…something else that probably suited him.”
Freya’s eyes narrowed as she watched the pain return. “Alex…baby, come on,” she said, squeezing him again. She leaned forward, piercing his eyes with her bright green stare. “I don’t think you’re petulant! And Venus told me that she told your Dad to make tracks, he won’t bother us any more!”
“Really?” he asked, finally looking surprised. “What did she say?”
Freya shook her head. “It was after I left, but she said last night that she told him to fuck off or get arrested,” she said.
“Good.” Alex leaned back against the headboard, smiling sadly at her. “Listen…you know what this will mean after we get home, right?”
Freya shook her head. “I don’t know.”
He looked down again, studying the little marks she had left on his arms in her unguarded moments before. “It…well, the good news is that I can’t go bugger off with the Fleet…so maybe we can stay together.” He looked up at her again. “The bad news is that this means I won’t be able to afford to go to college with you, not without you going to one of the schools that I got offers from for free-ride scholarships.”
Freya considered that, rocking back on her heels. “I see.” She crawled forward on hands and knees until she was next to him, then sat down beside him against the headboard. “Well…I did get accepted to New Cyprine and Albiona College…did you get offers from either of them?”
“Cyprine,” Alex breathed, the tension in his heart fading considerably. This didn’t mean they had to break up.
She looked up at him and smiled. “So…this isn’t the end. Not yet.”
“Not yet.” He relaxed, letting his eyes sag shut. “Good news.” He slid his hand over her cheek, smiling at her through hooded lids. “Thanks.”
She caught his hand, her own looking petite by comparison. He slid a finger across her ear, and she giggled at the tickling feeling. “Now…let’s get dressed and order food so it’s here when the others get back,” he said. Freya held his hand still and leaned against it, enjoying its warmth.
Alex slid his hand off of her face and managed a laugh. “Did I ever tell you how my family earned a Writ?”
Freya thought for a moment. “No.”
“My grandfather earned it for Imperial service. He found an STC blueprint for a combat knife that had never been discovered,” Alex said.
“Wow, I bet the Mechanicus loved him after that,” Freya said, rocking back on her haunches.
“Hell yeah. Gave him a ship, badgered the Emperor into giving him a Royal Writ, the highest kind, and cut him loose.” Alex sat back again, remembering. “He knew all the right people from when he was in the Navy, so he had all the contacts he needed to set up a trading business. His Writ, a Warrant signed by the Emperor after the Arlema Conquest…hard to believe that was only a hundred years ago…anyway, it let him trade anywhere he wanted, so long as he visited Arlema’s capital to make sure it was still Imperial-held every so often.”
“So how did your father get it?” Freya asked.
“Oh, the old-fashioned way. He inherited it. Grandpa was the only child of only children, so was my dad, so was my mom. So it wasn’t a hard decision. Hell, I am too.”
Freya nodded. “My mother didn’t have any siblings, either. I have eighteen,” she added with a smile.
“Well…Dad shut down parts of Grandpa’s empire. Now he sends the ships of the fleet to small-scale agri-colonies built over dead, pre-Age of Strife human settlements. They go to the cities, and rob the grave offerings and pawn shops, since the rest is probably picked over.” Alex smiled tightly. “You know that twenty thousand year old clock on Warmaster Horus’ desk? Dad stole it from a tomb on Moribar. Funny little galaxy, isn’t it?”
“How macabre,” Freya said darkly.
“Welcome to my life,” Alex said, levering out of the bed with a groan. “Now…where’s that menu?”
Freya sank back down on the bed, spread-eagled. “Mmm…hang on,” she said as Alex rooted around.
“Yeah?” he asked.
“C’mere,” she said, beckoning him over. He obligingly sat back down next to her on the bed.
She rolled onto her side and propped herself up on one elbow beside him. “Are you sure you’re feeling better?”
“Much,” Alex said. He managed a smile. “Bit sore, but that seems a small price to pay.”
“Good.” She lay back down and caught on of his hands between hers, idly rubbing his palm. “You know you can share anything with me, right?”
“Yeah…yeah, baby, I do,” he said, lacing his fingers with hers. Despite her awe-inspiring strength, she felt positively slender to him. He smiled at the look of dreamy contentment on her face as she reveled in the sensation. “How about you?”
She let her eyes slide shut. Freya slowly brought his hand to her lips. “I’m feeling better because you’re feeling better,” she said. “So…don’t worry any more, all right? It makes me feel really panicked to see you suffer like that.”
“You’re a sweet girl,” he murmured. He felt a wave of hot air on his hand as she breathed over his fingers, nuzzling the back of it. “And…well.”
“What?” she asked, cracking one green eye open.
He leaned down and rested his forehead on hers. “You’re really good at making me feel better,” he whispered, all serious business.
She laughed under her breath. “So you told me…a few times…” she said back in the same tone.
Jake rapped on their door a few hours later. “Hello? You guys in there? And decent?”
“When am I EVER decent?” Freya called back. Jake pushed the door open to see them sitting around a table in the sitting room, wearing ludicrous numbers of clothes, glaring at each other over a pile of potato chips and playing cards…not his, Jake noted.
“What the hell are you two doing?” Jake asked.
“Anti-strip poker,” Freya said. “When you lose you have to put on clothes.”
“We didn’t want to borrow yours,” Alex replied, sounding somewhat overheated.
Jake blinked. “…’Kay. Well, anyway…how are you feeling?” he asked, walking into the room.
“Much, much better,” Alex said, starting to peel off his clothes. “Yourself?”
“Good as new,” Jake said, dropping into a chair. Freya swept the chips into the trash and rubbed the plastic cards clean on the sleeve of a shirt. As the two of them stripped off extraneous clothes, Alex paused to produce a steaming tray of food from the next room.
“Oooh, sauroch cheese and pasta,” Venus said. “Good call.” The other two girls appeared at the door, following Jake into the room. “Did you two hear the good news, by the by?”
“Hmm?” Freya looked up from her glowing pile of discarded laundry. “What news?”
“Julius made it to Seadelant on his way to Ultramar,” Remilia provided.
“Oh, cool. How long is he going to be there?” Freya asked.
“He didn’t say, but not long, I wouldn’t think.” Venus grabbed a bottle of water from the table and popped it open. “That region’s pretty placid.”
“Good.” Alex opened his pasta bowl and dug in. He hadn’t eaten since dinner the previous night, and he was completely famished.
After they finished their meal, and Jake’s half-honest suggestion of anti-anti-strip poker was rejected, he led them into the master suite and opened his case of cards and chips, passing the latter around. “So, tomorrow, we’re visiting an auction house in the top level, to see what it’s like. The day after, we pack up and head back to the Tide, then we spend one day traveling out-system, then off to the Fang.”
“I will admit to some…trepidation,” Freya confessed. She fingered the lid of her water bottle. “It’s…I mean, I think it will be awesome, and there’s all kinds of things for...you know, me to do. But, uh…it’s not Terra or Nocturne. Not a whole lot to do for you guys. I don’t want you to be bored. I mean, we’re probably not even going to leave the Fang.”
“Well, it’s the size of a hive, so I’m sure we can find the interesting parts,” Jake said. He cut the cards and dealt.
“Yeah, but…” Freya trailed off, staring at the melting ice in her cup. “I suppose.”
“Freya, trust me, a building full of Space Wolves is always interesting, I’ve been to Leman’s parties,” Remilia said drily. She sipped at her gin and tonic, chucking a few chips into the pot. “We’ll find ourselves enjoying three weeks.”
Freya smiled. “I guess so.” She downed her drink and flipped a chip into the pile. “We’ll see.”
The following day, as the boys and Remilia visited a Nocturnean auction house, and Jake was impressed by its scale and lack of backstabbing, Freya and Venus delivered their last bundle of messages to the Astropathic temple in Aethonion via slate and started packing. Venus finally permitted a quick barrage of news interviews on their last full day, while the others descended to the shoreline, far below, and boggled at the spectacle of water crashing on the obsidian sand, sometimes in plumes over thirty feet high. Jake, spellbound by the sight, exhausted the battery on his camera taking pictures of the water.
As the last day arrived, the group made their way to the spaceport with their mountains of cargo and bags, and climbed aboard a small shuttle to ferry them all back to Prometheus. Though Venus didn’t want them to attend the ritual she was going to undertake any more than she had wanted them to attend the first, the rest of group had decided that they might need the final day to adjust to the lower gravity and pressure of the Tide. They spent the day recording their final messages home from the station.
As Venus completed her final responsibility, though in reality it was partially unnecessary since she hadn’t carried her Icon at any point in the trip, she made sure to inform No’dan that Vulkan’s replied indicated that he intended to return to Nocturne at some point in the near future. “Lord Regent, though it would please us both to see my father come home, I fear the subject of his trip will be an…uncomfortable one,” she said in Old Nocturnean, once more kneeling before the Circle.
“So I have been led to believe,” the ancient Drake said. He leaned forward, gesturing his Princess to rise. “The fellow who was injured…your friend. He is well?”
“As good as new,” Venus said. The armor she wore was far less impressive than the formal version she had worn so many times below, but no less well-crafted for it. “I hold it that the Governors will enact anti-crime legislations, perhaps even enforce them…but I confess: I wanted my trip to be less violent.”
“I suspect so,” No’dan sighed. “What would you have us do?”
“The Salamanders are even now greatly revered by the common Nocturneans, and justly so, so I think it would be best if you largely stayed out of it,” Venus said. “No act of control of a population is well-received…and truly, this was a Terran idea to begin with. If not a Terran problem. An attempted pickpocketing that was aborted when the target was identified is hardly worse than attempted murder,” Venus said. When No’dan’s face didn’t change, Venus cocked her head. “Oh, yes, he’s still in Skarokk Castle, isn’t he? Do whatever you want to him, I care not.”
“What was his motivation?” No’dan asked.
“Vengeance. I care not,” Venus repeated. “For the worst few seconds of my life, I thought he had killed Jake.”
No’dan finally nodded. “Very well, he will be turned over to the Arbites representative on the Mechanicum station in the Oort cloud for sentencing. Let him be judged by Imperial law.”
“Very well.” Venus smiled again, rising to her feet and standing at a respectful ease. “On a lighter note…beyond the incidents we’ve discussed, Nocturne has awed me. Truly…I come away inspired,” she said.
“I hoped you would.” No’dan raised one massive Terminator gauntlet. “Tell me…what lingered?”
Venus thought that one over. “I do not feel that I should list them, for I would be here forever,” she said after a time. “But if I had to pick one…seeing Deathfire up close, then getting to work in it. That was astonishing, truly astonishing.”
No’dan leaned back in his seat. “I’m glad to hear it. Did you have a chance to visit any of the galleries?”
“I did. As did Remilia and Jake,” Venus said. No’dan raised an eyebrow.
“Oh? They were allowed entry?”
“Nobody seemed to mind,” Venus said with a shrug. “And Jake at least thought it was mesmerizing. He and the Marine that showed us around spent a while discussing design, which seemed to surprise our host considerably,” she added.
“Ah.” No’dan rose from his marble throne, gazing down at her. “Princess Venus, it did us all good to see you here, even if your visit was fraught with…tumult. Regardless, you have been most welcome,” he said inclining his head.
“Thank you, Lord Regent,” Venus said. She crossed her arm over her chest and tapped her hand to her heart, bowing low. “I shall take my leave, knowing the Salamanders are stronger for your guidance. And please, bid farewell to Captain Ir’Sem when you see him next, our shuttle schedules simply did not align,” she said, rising again.
No’dan looked up for a moment. “I fear he has already departed for the greenskin fronts, Princess. I’m certain he would have wanted to say goodbye in person.”
Venus’ face fell. “Oh.” She sighed under her breath. “Yes, I’m sure.” She held her hands apart, waist high. “Then I take my leave, Venerable Master. I shall pass along your regards to my father.”
“Please do, Princess. Farewell,” No’dan said. Venus turned on her heel and made for the exit, cape snapping behind her.
Freya sat on top of a pile of suitcases, staring at the bulk of the approaching cargo hauler. “I suppose we did buy a shitton of stuff down there, but did we really get so much that we need a hauler to move it?” she asked.
Cargomaster Jeorne, down on the deck below, waved his hand. “No, your Ladyship, it’s for the ship’s protein blocks. You’re going on the Aquila,” he said, pointing to a Navy shuttle on the other side of the dock.
“Oh, good,” Freya said, leaping down to the deck. She landed next to Alex, who was staring at the decking beneath his feet. He didn’t even flinch when the red, blue, and pink meteor nearly slammed into him. “Hey, you ready to head out?” she asked.
Alex nodded, coming back to reality. “Yeah, I’m ready to get out of here,” he said. He swallowed a few times to get the taste of bile out of his throat. “You?”
“I’m going back home! I can’t wait!” Freya beamed, somehow missing his rising anger. “I’d get out and push the Tide if I could!”
Remilia grinned at her cousin’s open anticipation. “How old were you when you made it home last?”
“I was seven, and it was a summer break,” Freya said. “I miss it so much! I remember this tiny little village in the Fang’s shadow that I visited with a serf, out looking for some…I don’t even remember, some trinket. The snow was shoulder-height in some of the drifts; I hid in one and watched the people go by.” She grinned from ear to ear. “Nocturne was a lot of fun, sure, and I’ll miss all this retail stuff…but man, there’s no place like home!”
Alex closed his eyes in bitter regret at Freya’s inadvertent reminder that he didn’t have one anymore. Remilia noticed and winced. Freya was done, though. Venus marched up behind them, her armor clacking. “Hey, guys,” she said brightly. Jake turned and eyed her armor.
“What happened to the cloak and cannon outfit?” he joked.
“Oh, I’m bringing it with me, but this is the one I wear when there’s no public around,” Venus said. “No’dan had it made special when he heard I was coming, along with the other one.”
“Promise me that you’ll wear one or the other to Orientation Week at Kouthry, all right?” Jake asked.
“Nope. Bloodpaint and nothing else,” Venus said.
Jake blinked. “…I’m trying to protest, but I really can’t.” Freya sniggered.
“Aaaanyway,” Venus segued, “the guns and the other armor, and the crown, are in a lockbox in this pile somewhere,” she said, pointing to the luggage with a gloved finger. “Have you guys got all your stuff?”
“We do,” Jake said, hefting one of his own bags.
“Oh…hey, Venus, thanks for getting my shit out of Joe’s car the other night,” Alex suddenly said. “I never did go back for it.”
“You’re welcome, Alex,” Venus said, squeezing his shoulder as she detected his mood. “You look tired.”
“Completely exhausted,” Alex muttered.
“It’s a two-hour ride to the Tide, you can nap on the shuttle,” Jake pointed out.
“Yeah.” Alex shuffled his day bag. “I think I will.”
Farewell, Dear Hellscape
The ride on the Aquila was relatively quiet, compared to the Thunderhawk they used to travel from city to city on the surface. Venus stood at the rear hatch as her world shrank invisibly behind her, feeling a happy tear building in her eye. “Nocturne…I’ll miss you,” she said softly. Jake walked up behind her and slid an arm across her shoulders, gently pulling her into him. She looked up at him and smiled, the brilliant glow in her eyes from Nocturne’s sun still strong, for now. Jake smiled back, pecking her on the forehead. She set her head on his shoulder, and the two stood still for a moment, just enjoying it.
Jake felt a drop of water soak his shirt and reached across his front to grab Venus’ nearer hand, gently squeezing it. “It’s a beautiful world,” he said, soft and respectful.
“It’s a forge…a crucible. My people are tempered…some strengthen, some break. But they are ALL mine, good and bad, strong and weak.” Venus sighed with contentment and pride. “I love them, Jake, so much.”
Jake kissed the top of her head. “Except that one guy, fuck ‘im.”
“Yeah, he can go jump in a magma tributary.” Venus closed her eyes, dimming the compartment. “I’m glad you’re all right,” she murmured. “And…I’m glad you liked my home. Despite everything.”
Freya smiled at her friends’ backs, but didn’t speak up. She elected to let them have some privacy, and walked up to the front of the cabin and dropped into a chair, digging her slate out. Remilia curled up on a crash couch with her earplugs in, trying to grab some shut-eye. Alex closed his eyes, but sleep didn’t come.
Jake heard the others occupying themselves in the passenger compartment behind him. He turned to face Venus, moving his hand free. “Do you feel the effect of the radiation leaving, yet?”
Venus slowly shook her head. Her braid slid across her back. “No. It’ll be slow, gradual. I won’t even feel it go.”
“Good.” Jake sat down on one of the plain metal benches that lined the ramp. The crates of cargo were the only other things in the compartment. She sat down beside him, staring at the deckplates. “So…what did you think of your homeworld’s amenities?” he asked.
“You mean food and stuff?” she asked. “Surprising. Dad’s stories were always about how desperate people could feel, and how much the world was an enemy as well as a home.” She leaned back against the bench, lost in thought. “I guess…he remembers it the way it was long ago. When he arrived, it was barely more than Iron Age technology on most of the planet. Even the richest tribal kings were still wearing scale armor into battle. Of course, things have improved since then, but still. I guess I just didn’t really know what to expect.” She glanced sideways at him. “I mean, beyond the basics. How about you?”
“Excellent,” Jake said. “Real food, water that doesn’t taste like filters…of course, I have low standards. Maybe we can come back here sometime, between college semesters. See it for months at a time.”
“Would you want to?” she asked. She idly rubbed her gloved fingers together. “I mean…I would, but…”
“Of course I would, if you were here.”
Venus felt herself flush a bit at his statement. Of course, he couldn’t see; it was one of her appearance’s few saving graces.
The two of them sat in silence for a while. Venus wiped her tear from her eye and slid off her gloves, clipping them to her belt. As she did, she looked up at him. When she spoke, her voice was carefully conversational. “May I ask you something, Jake?”
He shrugged. “Sure.”
“Um.” She fidgeted a little before pushing onwards. “I…asked one of the Apothecaries on Prometheus to run a test before we left.” She straightened up in her seat, looking for words. “I didn’t know whether or not to tell you until we got home; but if you’re talking about…well, whatever.” She sighed. “Look…the test was for a genetic baseline comparison.”
“Against what?” Jake asked, confused.
“Nobody specific. Just the Terran genetic gestalt.” Venus felt her stomach tighten as words became hard to find. “The test was negative. We’re not genetically compatible.”
Jake went quiet. He slowly leaned back in his seat, thinking that over. “I see.”
“The thing I wanted to ask was…will that be a problem?” Venus asked. She closed her eyes before Jake could say anything. “It…just occurred to me that maybe I should have waited until we were already at school before asking, but I don’t want this to hang over you either.”
Something cool touched her hand. She opened her eyes to see him sliding over to sit next to her. “No, Venus, it’s not a problem. Not for me,” he said. “I mean…we’re seventeen. I’m in no hurry to be having kids.”
“But this will mean we never could,” she pressed.
“And I’ve sort of been expecting that,” he said. “It doesn’t surprise me.”
She looked over at him, vaguely surprised herself. “Really?”
Jake pushed down some negativity of his own. “Really. I mean…the Emperor would have made the Primarchs capable of having children if he had wanted them to. It doesn’t surprise me that you’re not, either.” He put a hand up. “I mean, no offense.”
She looked down at where he had put his other hand over hers. “None taken.” She sighed. “All right, then.”
“So…did you think there was a chance I would say yes?” Jake asked.
“Not a real one.” She grinned at him, relief easing her nerves. “And it’s not irreversible. There’s treatments…you’ll find out, if you need to.”
Jake nodded. “All right.” His toned turned playful. “Say, if you’re thinking of kids, you are thinking ahead,” he said.
She shrugged, playing along. “Well, who knows? If nothing else, I can stop taking Cycridine.”
“Mmm, no more rubber prison,” Jake said lasciviously. He raised his eyebrows. “But seriously, did you think it would happen? Compatibility being an issue? I know we talked about it before, too…”
Venus shrugged again, this time distractedly. “Yeah. But it’s better than not knowing, right?”
“Yes, it is.” He hugged her again, and lingered. “But don’t worry. This doesn’t change our plans.”
“I didn’t think you were the type to give up that easily,” she said drily. She stood and walked into the passenger cabin, pausing at the threshold. “All right. Let’s get some sleep.”
Unto the Fires of War
Officer Haarlan was awaiting them as they shuffled, yawning, from the Aquila. “Welcome back to the Iron Tide, my Lords and Ladies Primarch,” he said, sketching a bow. “And Lady Venus, welcome back to your ship,” he said formally. “Is that a Salamander formal uniform?” he asked.
“No, this is my duty uniform,” Venus said as she walked down the ramp. “Like it?”
“It’s radiant, my Lady,” Haarlan said. “May I pass along a few messages? The Captain and his senior staff await your leisure in the Hall, along with a representative of the Salamanders Legion,” he said.
“Very well, Officer, please lead the way,” Venus said. “May I direct our luggage to our rooms? Some items are rather fragile.”
“I will have the servitors take the proper care,” Haarlan said, gesturing to the techpriest overseeing them. The red and white-robed woman nodded once and tapped a few runes on her slate. “Now…this way,” he said, turning to go.
The group followed him up the lifts to the Captain’s Hall, where Roemer and his staff were indeed awaiting them. Isaac and a few other serfs were present, as were the psyker from before and a fighter group commander. “My Lady Venus, my Lords and Ladies Primarch, welcome back,” Roemer said. “How was your trip?”
“Fascinating, dangerous, memorable, satisfying, and insightful,” Venus said. “In no particular order.”
Roemer smiled slightly. “I am glad.” He noted Jake’s healed injury and missing hair as the younger man turned to set down his bag. He didn’t say a word, but Jake noticed his stare as he turned back around.
“The dangerous part,” Jake noted.
“Ah.” Roemer decided not to press.
As the group sat down to speak, Roemer leaned forward over the table. “My Lady, I have invited you here to pass along some important news. Warmaster Horus has instructed that the Salamander Eightieth through Ninety Ninth Expeditionary Groups, and Fourth Grand Fleet, be mobilized alongside the Space Wolf Thirteenth Grand Fleet and Death Guard Second Grand Fleet. They will be mobilized to support the Imperial Fist Phalanx Group in a thorough, end-to-end purge of the entire Void Walks trade lane. Any new worlds found within the region will be colonized, any non-Eldar holdings will be razed to cinder, and the persistent green menace within pushed back to their Orkholds and crushed,” Roemer said flatly. Jake and Alex’s eyes went wide at the clipped, professional pronouncement of death.
Venus nodded, her eyes focused closely on the aging Captain. “So it shall be, then. If you wish my leave to take your ship to the battle, then naturally you have it. Does this mean we will need new transport?”
“Certainly not, your Highness,” Isaac said. “But it means we get to test the tank in live-fire combat,” he said with the ghost of a smile. “We will return to Fenris in time to ferry you to Terra.”
“Indeed, Sieur Isaac is correct.” Roemer sat back. “This does, however, disrupt our own plans. We will not be in station-keeping above the Fang. We won’t be in the system at all, while you are.”
“Well…” Venus nodded, digesting the news. She slowly stood and offered the Captain her gloved hand. He rose and took it. “Unto the anvil, Captain,” she said, looking into his eyes. He nodded solemnly, releasing her hand. “Until then…we have a journey ahead of us,” Venus added.
“We certainly do.” Roemer sat back down, looking up at Venus with a hint of fresh respect. “Might I inquire how Nocturne’s gravity and air pressure felt? It may take time to adjust to Terran standard now.”
“I feel light as a feather, even with all this armor on,” Venus said, smiling down at the ceramite and adamantium plating and link on her leather uniform. “Lord Regent No’dan passes along his regards, by the by, and his thanks for ferrying us to our destinations,” she said, gesturing to the room.
“It was our honor, Princess,” Roemer answered for the group. He raised one hand slightly, beckoning her to continue. “So…tell me. What did you learn of your home?”
Venus thought back. “Well,” she began, sitting back down. “It was certainly an adjustment, seeing that the entire world was open to the air. Even when I lived in Startseite; the Palace and the Hives were always there, closed off, keeping their occupants in.” She tilted her head down in deference to the Captain’s own history. “Was it the same way for you when you set foot on a planet for the first time? I recall you telling me that you’re void-born.”
“So I am indeed, and yes, it was quite a shock,” Roemer said. He lifted a goblet of wine and passed the decanter around. “Would anyone care for a drink to see us off?” he asked.
Alex nodded and silently accepted a cup, as did Freya, while the others passed. “You know, I turned drinking age down on Nocturne, and somehow it doesn’t feel like an achievement,” Jake joked.
“Not a social drinker, Sieur Seager?” Isaac asked with a chuckle.
“Well, maybe it’ll grow on me at college,” Jake said modestly.
Alex sipped his wine, eyes boring a hole in the table. His mind was racing. The flight to Fenris wouldn’t be so bad…but what the hell was he going to do when he went home?
His father would cut off his college fund. He could tell that much about the ornery old bastard. If he accepted the scholarship from Cyprine, as soon as he could, then he could stay with Freya, which was great, sure, but it wasn’t a career choice, it was a personal one.
He set his wine goblet down, his guts tightening in helpless rancor. The depth of his father’s hubris astounded him. To come all the way to Nocturne just to give him an ultimatum…
Freya tapped the back of his hand with one finger. Alex started and looked over to where she was sitting. She glared into his brown eyes with a hint of recrimination dancing in her own, animal green ones. He nodded apologetically.
She nodded back, relaxing. She discreetly pushed the wine bottle his way and he topped off his drink as Roemer chatted with Venus, discussing their trip. Alex smiled in self-reproach. “Sorry,” he said under his breath. He knew she could hear him.
“I think the most unexpected part was when we were in Aethonion. The Museum was amazing, and I didn’t even know it existed,” Venus said. “That was a nice surprise.”
“Given the rest of the Legion’s lack of hesitation to use Librarians, is it that unexpected to see a Museum devoted to the ancient tribes?” Isaac reasoned. “They still teach some of the same skills to Librarians today that they taught to the Earth Shamans in the times before the King.”
“Right, but I was expecting there to be one for each tribe, in each city,” Venus said.
Isaac nodded. “Yes, that would have also made some sense, but I think that would have been interpreted as an invitation to competition,” he reasoned.
Remilia sat back in her own seat, listening with half an ear. She idly wondered if her latest message had arrived at the Dorn manor. Certainly, there hadn’t been many replies to her messages, not like the ones Venus had been getting, within one to three days of sending them to Terra. Then again, Vulkan wrote to Nocturne all the time anyway. Was it wrong of her to assume some reluctance to engage directly was still in play with her father?
She drank from her own wine, then set the cup down, done with it. In fairness, her father probably wasn’t just not trying to contact her. He was a busy man, she supposed. She glanced down the table and grinned to herself as she saw Alex clearly laboring under parental issues too. Misery loved company.
Venus took note of their discomfort. “Well, Captain, thank you for your warm welcome,” she said. “However, my companions and I are exhausted and I suspect a bit of R&R is in order.” She rose to her feet, inviting all the others at the table to rise with a wordless glance. “I look forward to the flight to Fenris, Captain Roemer,” she said, reaching out to grasp his hand.
“You honor me, Princess,” Roemer said, bowing over her hand. She grasped his and shook it. “Welcome back aboard. Our official Estimated Time of Arrival is nine days,” he added.
“Excellent. Good evening, Captain,” she said, nodding respectfully. The others dutifully grabbed their bags and filed out as she winked a farewell to Isaac and took her leave.
Remilia waited outside the lift to the cabins, wondering if she could make a discreet exit. Venus lightly coughed, sensing her dilemma. Remilia flinched and glanced over at her armored cousin, who smiled mysteriously.
Freya, whose senses had alerted her to Remilia’s distress before she had even arrived, was a bit more direct. “Go.”
“All right,” Remilia muttered, flushing a bit.
“Can I have your room key, though? I’ll need to deposit things there,” Venus said.
“Oh…sure,” Remilia said, digging a scrap of plastic out of her pocket. “Here.”
Venus accepted the card and stepped onto the lift. “Now…Jake, if you don’t mind, I think I need to curl up in bed and watch something stupid.”
“Sounds good,” Jake said, yawning. “You guys turning in too?” he asked.
“I think I want to write my mother,” Alex suddenly said. “I’ve been pretty quiet to her lately. She has to be wondering how I am.”
“I think I’ll pop into the gym first, burn off some cramps,” Freya said. “Sitting in a shuttle all afternoon? Boring.”
Remilia muttered something about having a drink first, then quickly made her escape as the lift paused on the O-Club’s deck. She walked swiftly down the corridor, pausing at the threshold of the O-Club and settling her breath.
Kines had his back turned, grabbing something from beneath the mirrors behind the bar. The sudden gasps and murmurs from his patrons alerted him to the arrival of someone important. No grumbling, so it wasn’t Haarlan. No red glow, so it wasn’t Princess Venus. No vengeful laugh from Chief Simmons, so it wasn’t Freya, and the Royal Consorts wouldn’t have alarmed the officers like that. Which left…
He smiled to himself, his stomach tightening a bit. “Lady Dorn, Remilia, welcome back to the Tide,” he said, rising smoothly to his feet, already holding up a bottle of the orange soda he knew she liked.
Remilia smiled from her stool. “Heard me coming, did you?”
“No,” Kines said honestly, sliding her the bottle. “How are you?”
“All right, thanks,” she said, hiding her nervous smile in a sip from the bottle. “Yourself?”
“Bit tired. Looking to get off shift,” he said, shrugging with forced nonchalance. She nodded, her own casual air equally feigned.
“So I imagine. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you anywhere but behind that counter. What time does your shift start, anyway?” Remilia asked, looking for something to fill the air.
Kines grabbed a brew for a pilot who had arrived after Remilia did. “I don’t have a duty rotation like most officers, I just get up when the bar opens in the lounge and turn in immediately after. It’s ten hours, or thereabouts,” he said.
“Huh. Good to know,” she said idly. They both inwardly cringed at the implied innuendo, but neither remarked on it.
Freya stretched languidly on the bed, sprawling over a pile of unsorted laundry like an indolent cat. Alex fiddled with his slate, sending a message to the ship’s Astropath. He was accepting the scholarship from Cyprine. The note to his mother had been succinct and completely without revelation. He didn’t want her to worry about him while he was on his trip. She had enough on her mind.
“You wanna go hit the gym?” Freya asked, rolling a clean pair of workout panties through her hands, wondering if it would even be open after dinner.
“Sure, just let me…send the damn message,” Alex grumbled distractedly. “There, sent. The Astropath will send the messages to Terra as soon as possible.”
“Good.” Freya slid out of her clothes and into her workout kit as Alex did the same. “So…how adorable is Remilia?”
“What?” Alex asked, his hand halfway through tying his laces. He glanced over at her. “What do you mean?”
“Oh come on, even a mortal’s nose can smell the vibes between her and…” her eyes widened. “You didn’t see those two before?”
“Who?” Alex asked, confused.
“Wow…well, let me put it this way,” Freya giggled. “We’re going to give Remilia plenty of privacy over the next few days.”
Alex shook his head. “She has eyes for someone?”
“Kines! The bartender, remember?” Freya prompted, slinging her towel.
“Oh.” Alex thought that over. “…Really? He can’t be a day over twenty.”
“He submitted his candidacy at fifteen, bought a two-year degree on Corum, boom, officer,” Freya said. “And Remilia needs it. I say let it slide,” she said coyly.
Alex snorted. “Can’t deny that,” he said with a chuckle.
Jake dug through his day bag, extracting his borrowed slate. “What do you want to watch?”
“Something riotously stupid. LaffTrax would be good, too,” Venus said, pawing through the bag as well.
“What are you looking for?” Jake asked.
“Throwing out something we don’t need, forget it,” Venus said dismissively. Jake shrugged, dropping onto the bed with the slate.
“All right, ‘Armored Eyes,’ coming up,” Jake said, paging through his library of flicks. Venus headed for the hatch as he did so. “Going somewhere?” he asked.
“Just dropping something off with Remilia,” Venus said, not looking back.
Far below, Remilia checked her watch with an apprehensive flutter of her stomach. “Well…all right, Lieutenant. It’s been fun, but I need to retire,” she said, placing the slightest emphasis on ‘retire.’
Kines nodded, all business. “Then I’ll see you later, Remilia,” he said.
Remilia set down her empty bottle and walked off, feeling his eyes on her back the whole way. As soon as she was safe in the corridor, she sighed, wondering if she had been too opaque. She glanced back, anxiously thinking whether or not to go back and clarify. As she saw the crowd around the bar lessen in size, however, she decided against it. With another flutter of nerves, she rode the lifts up to her deck.
A few hours later, having checked and re-checked the schedule for the ship’s operations in her mind, she slowly paced in her room, nerves wracking her stomach. She had debated putting something more provocative on, but the marks on her arms would have ruined that. She bemoaned her own short-sightedness in carving herself up like that, wondering if makeup would hide them.
She pushed the hatch over to the small bathroom open and quickly pawed through the bags there, looking for something she could use to cover up her forearms. Sadly, it seemed that there was nothing to be found.
The hatch to her room rapped. She jumped a mile. Coughing to dispel nerves, she answered it, cracking it open. Kines was waiting outside, his own face a composed mask. “Hi,” she said.
He smiled slightly. “Hi.”
“I was wondering if maybe I had been too indirect before…guess not,” she admitted with a nervous laugh.
He raised his eyebrows a bit. “No…it was pretty clear.” He glanced side-to-side. “So…this is a nice corridor,” he said blandly.
“Oh! Right, come in, come in,” she said, beckoning him into the cabin. He walked past her and noted the expansive accommodations.
“Wow. This is a hell of a lot better than a bunkroom,” Kines said, taking in the sight. His eyes travelled over the pile of bags that the crew had deposited, over the neat bed, to the nightstand-
His eyes froze, and his cheeks flushed so deeply red that for an instant, she wondered if he was ill. She followed his gaze, and spotted the box of condoms Venus had deposited there.
She slowly slid her hands over her face, dying of embarrassment. “Venus, I’m going to shoot you,” she whispered.
Kines, of course, had no idea of Venus’ involvement, and pretended to have seen nothing. “Well…My Lady…er, Remilia, sorry. I suppose…” he went silent, frantically looking for words. “Hah! You know, I came in here with the most suave lines I could think of or steal, and suddenly there’s nothing,” he admitted, finally letting his anxious nerves overwhelm him.
“I know what you mean,” Remilia muttered. He turned to look her over, and nearly laughed at the absolutely complete flush she had, from pale collarbone to hairline to ears. She glared at him. “Something funny, Chuck?” she asked coolly.
“Not at all, I’m just struck by the novelty,” he said, sitting at the foot of the bed. He smiled up at her. “So…what fantasy scenario did you have cooked up? We’re still hewing pretty close to mine.”
She flushed even deeper, brushing a bead of sweat off of her brow. “Well…to be honest, I didn’t really have one,” she said. “This doesn’t happen to me all that often.”
He actually managed a laugh. “Really? Travelling to far-away planets, discovering exotic locales and men?”
“This is kind of my first venture, in both regards,” she admitted.
He didn’t seem to catch her drift. “Well it’s certainly making my day,” he said, kicking his shoes off. “I hope yours is improving, too,” he added, a hint of his confidence returning.
“It’s getting there,” she allowed. She sat down next to him, slowly running her hands over her arms, unconsciously hiding her scars. She finally managed a nervous smile. “I’m glad you, at least, seem to know what you’re doing.”
Kines laughed shortly. “Rule number two of being a Second Lieutenant: Always Look Like You Know What You’re Doing in Front of a Superior Officer.”
Remilia giggled. “What’s rule one?”
“‘Never Use the Word ‘Experience,’’” he explained. “Nothing bothers the senior guys more than a guy under twenty using the word ‘experience.’”
“I bet.” She let the humor of the moment work its way through her stomach, settling the butterflies down a bit. The silence dragged on for a moment, prompting him to look at her sideways.
“Are you all right?” he asked, a note of concern in his voice.
“Oh! Yeah, I’m, yeah, it’s all good,” she said. She swallowed a bit as he nodded and started working the buttons on his duty shirt, tugging them free. “Just…you know. Like you said, novelty.”
He smiled as he removed his outermost garments. “It’s certainly novel…oh.” He paused, hand on his undershirt, slowly looking up at her. “…How novel, exactly?” he asked cautiously.
She shrugged, another bead of sweat working its way down her back. “Completely.”
Kines nodded as that news set off all kinds of new bells and alarms in his head. His own temperature worked its way back up a few degrees. “Well…that’s actually really touching,” he said at last.
“How?” she asked nervously.
“Well…I mean, do you even know my middle name?” he asked. His eyes flew apart. “Not to send the wrong message,” he hastily corrected. “I’m just, you know, flattered.”
“You have a middle name?” Remilia asked, nervously unlooping her belt. She was already barefoot, fortunately.
“Well, no, but I just meant…” he looked down and flushed again. “Sorry. I was sort of operating under the assumption that you had done this before.”
“Well…no, is that a problem?” she asked, her heart seizing a bit.
“Certainly not,” he said, a bit more confidence returning, rushing in behind a wave of well-concealed glee. He smiled at her, as easily as he could contrive. “Call me presumptuous, but I thought a beautiful girl like you would be beating the guys off with a stick.”
She snorted under her breath. “In a class occupied by my cousins, all of whom are prettier and less fucked-up than me?”
He scoffed. “You’re not fucked up.” She mutely held her bare arms up. He hesitated, his words catching. “I don’t think you’re fucked up. And Remilia…” he slid his hand over her waist, gently pushing her other hand away. “You ARE beautiful,” he said softly.
She tightened, quite involuntarily. “Thanks, Chuck, that’s nice to hear,” she said. He smiled, gently easing her loose jeans down to the floor to join her belt and running his hand over her muscular stomach. She shivered.
“You know what, just keep doing that,” she said, each gentle stroke feeling as hot as a brush with a curling iron.
He smiled broadly. “If you’d like. Lie down, okay?” he asked. She hurriedly scooted farther back on the bed, looking up at him with her eyes wide. He found it quite endearing.
“You’re so cute,” he said softly, sliding his hand up to tug her bra free. He took in the sight with a smile that was half nerves and half satisfaction. He leaned down and traced his lips along one little circle.
“Thanks,” she croaked. She cleared her throat and tried to settle her nerves. “That’s…” she paused as he continued, sliding his other hand over to give her other side some attention. “…actually pretty relaxing,” she admitted, feeling a squirming feeling building up just below her stomach. He smiled against her pale skin.
“Actually wait, shit,” she suddenly said. He lifted his head up, surprised. She scrambled over to the bedside table, snatching up the box and returning. “Nearly forgot,” she said. He smiled.
“Good call,” he said, sliding the rest of his clothes off, to her unhidden approval. He flashed a grin at her unusual tan lines. “Someone went sunbathing on Nocturne,” he observed.
She nodded, pulling her underwear off too. He basked in the sight for a moment, before accepting the box from her with an unsteady hand. “I mean it, you know. Look at you,” he said, gently guiding her back down and applying her offering. She gulped and licked dry lips.
“Well…if tall and pale goes for you,” she said nervously.
He slid his hand down between her legs and gently pushed, eliciting a moan. “Hush. You’re too cute for half-ass compliments,” he muttered, putting his hands back to work.
Minutes later, Remilia mentally checked one more item off the list of things to do before summer ended, as she offered him her virginity, and he reverently took it.
Venus smiled to herself as she lay in bed with Jake, digging a pair of little foam buds out of a box on her nightstand. The sounds from the next cabin over were faint, but intensifying. “Time to see if these work,” she muttered.
The Morning After
Some time later – neither paused to check – Remilia lay flat on the bed, listening to Kines fall asleep. At that range, she could hear quite a bit. “So that’s what Freya’s listening to in there,” she muttered under her breath. She decided she liked it.
Once he was out cold, she reached over to the nightstand for her earplugs by instinct. Instead of finding the little container, however, her fingers brushed paper. Curious, she lifted it and flipped the lights up to their lowest setting. In the dim light, she squinted to make out the words.
Thought I’d trade. Hope you don’t mind. Be safe and have fun! -Venus.
Remilia smiled to herself, flipping the lights back down. “Your execution is postponed.” She settled back down on the mattress, the alien sensations she was feeling all over starting to fade. All except the sounds and warmth from her right flank. After a moment’s consideration, she scooted a bit closer, letting the slightly taller body next to hers warm her up a bit. She closed her eyes and tried to relax, and a deep, contented sleep was fast in arriving.
The next morning, she woke up feeling groggy and a bit sluggish. The lights were out, and she flicked her hand at the clock. The little lights came on, revealing that it was less than a minute before her alarm was supposed to go off.
“Shit,” she muttered, gingerly moving over to the clock. She scrambled in the dark to find the off-switch for the alarm, but just as she found it, it started blaring. “Shit!” she growled, finally pressing the button.
Kines stirred behind her anyway. “Mgh.”
She sighed in frustration. “Aw damn it.”
“What’s going on,” he muttered blearily. “The hell is it so dark?”
“Sorry, Chuck, sorry,” she soothed, sliding out of bed. “Go back to sleep, I was just going to work out.”
“…It’s not even 0530,” he said, focusing on the clock with an effort.
“I don’t sleep much.” She slid some workout clothes in the dark. “Seriously, sleep. When do you need to be up?”
“Uh…’bout four hours,” he muttered. “Bar opens late.”
“Well, I’ll see you then,” she said. She quickly walked over to his side of them bed and leaned over, speaking softly. “Thanks, by the way. Turns out you actually did know what you were doing,” she purred.
“Thanks for shopping,” he slurred. He ran a hand up her spandex-clad thigh. “Haarlan is going to have me flogged. I dunno, I think it was worth it.”
“He won’t touch you if he wants to keep his position,” Remilia promised.
“Good.” Kines rolled back over. “Later,” he yawned.
Remilia pushed the hatch open and froze. Venus and Freya were both leaning against the far bulkhead, smiling wanly. She slowly closed the hatch and stood facing them, shifting her weight slightly. “Uh…morning.”
“Good night,” Freya said. She raised her hand to her mouth in mock surprise at her ‘slip.’ “I mean…good morning.”
“Oh hush,” Remilia grumbled, blushing slightly.
“Thanks for letting me borrow the ear plugs,” Venus snarked.
“Yeah, well…thanks for the trade, it came in handy,” Remilia muttered, starting down the corridor. Venus and Freya followed, with wry grins for each other en route.
“Good thing Alex was all worn out himself from the gym, else you kids might have kept him up,” Freya said innocently.
“Both of you knock it off, all right?” Remilia threatened.
“Aww, but our little ice queen melted!” Venus giggled.
“I mean it,” Remilia snarled.
Freya leaned over and playfully nipped her ear as they waited for the lift. “We’re just kidding. I’m secretly happy for you,” she confided in a stage whisper.
Remilia pushed her cousin away, then turned to glare at Venus as the black-skinned girl gave her a quick squeeze herself. “Both of you, quit it,” she half-heartedly growled.
The hatch slid open. Just as Remilia started to board and escape, Haarlan emerged. “My ladies. There you are,” he said, a note of sternness in his voice.
“Morning, Officer Haarlan,” Venus said brightly.
“Good morning. Lady Primarch Remilia, did you happen to…see Second Lieutenant Charles Kines last night?” Haarlan asked curtly.
“What do you mean?” Remilia asked.
“I mean I saw him leave the O-Club and head straight for the commissary last night, and he emerged looking rather secretive. He then took a lift to your deck and when I called the lift car back to my deck, it was empty,” Haarlan said flatly.
“What of it?” Remilia asked, her good mood evaporating.
“Ma’am, he is now guilty of, if I have not missed my guess, statutory rape,” Haarlan said curtly. “And possibly a count of fraternization with a superior officer.”
“He’s less than three years older than me, so no statch, and-” Remilia said angrily.
“Political Officer Haarlan, your dedication to your duties is admirable, and duly noted,” Venus suddenly said loudly. “You are hereby, to that effect, relieved of the responsibility of Vessel Disciplinary Officer until such time that you forget that last night’s unspecified events allegedly happened. Understood?” she asked.
The other three people in the group stared. “P-Princess?” Haarlan asked, astonished.
“I don’t like repeating myself,” Venus said mildly.
“Yes…your Highness,” Haarlan finally said. He turned to face Remilia. “Er…my apologies, my Lady, I was…”
“Yes. Doing your job.” Remilia tapped the button for the gym, and the car descended in an uncomfortable silence.
Haarlan stayed aboard as the car arrived and the girls got off. As he dropped away into the depths of the ship, Venus looked sideways at Remilia, wondering if she would need to talk.
She didn’t. “Thanks,” she said, and to Venus’ relief, she was actually smiling. “Well. That’s that taken care of.”
“He’ll have to be more discreet next time,” Freya opined.
“Yeah, he will,” Remilia said primly. The two girls exchanged another smile behind her back.
Far above, Alex rolled to his feet and snatched up his slate as it suddenly buzzed. He had set it to make a certain tone when the Astropath aboard sent him a message, and he had. His mother had bundled a reply with the latest words from the Seagers, the Dorns, and Vulkan’s household. No messages from the Russes, which was odd, but then, they would be at the Fang soon.
He skimmed the message briefly, cringing at his mother’s obvious surprise at his abbreviated message. He re-read it in greater depth, pausing as he reached the end, where she had mentioned offhandedly that she was looking at properties in the upper spires of Hive Ceorlic, on the far side of the Albiona city block. He grimaced. “Mom…don’t give up,” he muttered under his breath. He snorted his impatience away. “Fuck. If I’m up this early, I may as well head out,” he said to the empty room.
He wandered into the gym a while later, noting that it was Freya and Venus’ turn for sparring today. Venus had elected to forego bloodpaint this time, since it was just a friendly bout. Whatever advantage her star had given her seemed to be fading, since Freya was easily coming out on top. Alex wandered over to where Remilia was browsing free weights. “Morning,” he said with a yawn.
She straightened up. “Hey! You’re up early!” she said, taking in his appearance with some surprise. “Didn’t you stay up late in the gym last night too?”
“Yeah, but I’d feel self-conscious on Fenris if I wasn’t ripped,” he joked. “Plus, I got some mail from home this morning.”
“Oh, cool.” Remilia lifted a weight, testing its heft. “Wait…”
“Home, as in my mother,” Alex said.
Remilia looked at him sideways. “How is she?”
“She’s thinking of selling her house and moving into the hives,” Alex said, a little bitterly. “Which…I guess she needs the money, but it kinda leaves me high and dry.”
Remilia winced. “Did you pick a college? You could just live on campus,” she said.
“New Cyprine,” Alex said. “Freya and I will both be there.”
“That’s good,” Remilia said. She started lifting the weight, deciding to do so while standing.
“How about you?”
“I picked Alanaster, and I’m thinking a two-year there, then I take a break to decide if I just go get a job or more school,” she said.
“Cool. That’s a good school.” Alex smirked. “So, did that possibility we discussed in the market come to pass?”
“Sure did,” Remilia said. “Can you be discreet?”
“My lips are sealed,” Alex promised.
Venus slumped against the ropes, panting, trying to keep her guard up. Freya rocked back on her heels, a grim smile curling her lips. “Had enough?”
Her red-eyed cousin grimaced and stood back up, hands clenched. “Not yet,” she snarled. She advanced on Freya again, trying to find a way past her cousin’s ludicrous speed.
Freya side-stepped Venus’ attack with contemptuous ease, eyes narrowed. “You’re exhausted. Stand down or this is gonna sting,” she taunted.
Venus swung low, hammering her fists into Freya’s low guard and stomach. Freya absorbed most of them, turning the last few into a counterattack that sent Venus to one knee.
Finally, Venus sighed, tapping out. Freya bounced over and hauled her cousin up into a hug. “Not bad,” she allowed.
“Relatively speaking,” Venus said blearily. “At least I didn’t black out today.”
Freya snorted, vaulting the ropes and landing on the bare metal floor. “All right…hey, Alex! When did you get here?” she asked.
“Just arrived.” Alex noted her bloodied knuckles. “Tough bout?”
“Yeah, Venus is getting good,” Freya said. She rested her hands on her hips and looked him over. “You get a letter from home?”
“Just a quick note. Mom’s probably going to move into the hives,” Alex said, shaking his head. “I don’t blame her, but…”
“Yeah, that sucks.” Had Jake been there, she might have been a bit less blunt, but it was an honest assessment. “How is she feeling?”
“Better. The proceedings are over, she’s found some part-time work,” Alex said. He hefted a twenty-kilo plate and tacked it onto a barbell. “Spot?”
“Sure.” Freya stood behind the bar that Alex was using and slid a hand under. “Set.”
Alex started lifting, a bit slowly. Clearly, his mind was on far-off Terra.
Farther Up and Farther In
Jake's Growing Up
As lunch rolled around, the group assembled in the Captain’s Hall, where the usual flustered glances at their sparring injuries were made, and the Captain and Venus made their traditional small talk. While recounting more of their adventure on Nocturne, however, the ship’s Astropath suddenly departed without a word. Freya, the most Warp-seasoned of the five teens, provided a rational explanation: the ship was receiving a high-priority message.
“That would be likely,” Roemer said. As he turned back to his food, however, the Astropath burst back in, rushing to his side. Though the Captain flinched when the eyeless psyker leaned over to him, his discomfort vanished as the man started to urgently whisper. “…I see. Well, I’m afraid all we can do is hope we get dispatched,” he said back.
“As you say, Captain,” the Astropath said, ignoring his half-eaten sandwich and heading back out the door.
“May I ask?” Venus posed, all politeness.
“A distress call from a world along the Void Walks trade lane. A Space Hulk has emerged in-system, and the Merchant fleets are cut off,” Roemer said. “We’re a long way out, however, so I expect we won’t be called up.” He lifted his cutlery again. “Sorry to disrupt,” he said.
“Certainly not, I would be more displeased if you didn’t let urgent news disrupt a meal,” Venus said.
Almost as soon as the meal was over, Remilia excused herself and made for the O-Club. Just as she arrived, however, she paused with her hand on the hatch frame. After Haarlan’s observation the previous night, did she really want to be seen hovering around Kines? A simple recording of her sparring was one thing, an affair was entirely another.
She hesitated. Closing her eyes in thought, she weighed her options. After a moment, she decided to postpone a reunion until she could be seen to do so with the others. She sighed heavily, turned away from the inviting room, and went back up to her cabin.
As she arrived, she swung the hatch open, glancing over the vacant chamber. Clearly, Kines had made his escape while she had been at lunch. She hoped he had managed to arrive at the bar without raising suspicions, for both their sakes.
Footsteps down the corridor behind her snapped her attention up. She looked back to see Venus and Jake returning to their own cabin. “Hey, Remilia, you up for another game tonight?” Jake asked as they drew closer.
“Uh…possibly, I don’t know if I’m in the mood for more poker,” she confessed.
“We can try something else. Ratscrew, euchre, ascendency, your call,” he said.
“You know, actually, I think I just want to turn in a bit early,” Remilia said evasively.
Jake grinned patiently. “Mm hmm. If you say so…” he said, opening his own hatch.
That evening, Jake sat down in front of the small group of officers that had gathered around his table in the O-Club. “Gentlemen, welcome,” he said. He opened the leather case, passing out some chips. “Values are on the chips. Opening ante is one credit, we max at four hundred.”
The officers nodded, taking their chips. Jake glanced around the room, noting the absence of Remilia. Shaking his head, he stood. “All right, gents, I’m just going to grab a drink, then we can start.” He walked up to the bar, grabbing the ice water Kines had already put out for him. The Lieutenant was in high spirits, clearly. “Thanks, Chuck,” Jake said. He leaned forward conspiratorially as the Lieutenant opened his mouth for a greeting. “I think she just wants to avoid scheming political officers,” he whispered.
Kines stared, flushing a bit, but nodded as if nothing of import had been said. “I’ll be back several hundred credits richer,” Jake said a bit louder, walking back to his table. Freya was hovering next to his seat as he returned.
“Sure you don’t want to be learning the trade?” she asked slyly. “There’s plenty of room on the dartboard.”
“There’ll be plenty of time for that later, my audience awaits,” he replied, dealing the first hand.
Venus paged through the terse message from home. She had received it only a few minutes before, with an urgent tag from the Astropath.
“Under attack, huh.” She swore under her breath in Old Nocturnean. “Naturally. We’re vacationing on Death Worlds, and he’s the one who gets attacked by Orks.” She read a bit more, shaking her head. “He’s a tough kid, but…well. He’ll be fine,” she said to herself, rising to her feet in the empty cabin. She checked the message’s send list. Roemer had already received it. “Good. Wouldn’t want the Astropath cutting corners.” She dropped the slate on the bed and thought their options over. Fenris was only seventeen light-years from the Void Walks. From there, if they pressed the Warp Drives flat-out, they could be at Seadelant in four days. If she had to, she could use her authority as a Lady Primarch to just requisition a ship to take them back to Terra, though she suspected that Freya would be the one doing it.
She lay back on the bed, thinking. How would it be wisest to handle this? Pius could watch his own ass, of course, and with the whole Fourth Grand Fleet mobilized, it’s not like there were other reinforcements to send.
After nearly five minutes of silent contemplation, she let out a shaky breath. “There’s nothing. I can do…literally nothing.” Venus closed her eyes and slowly massaged them. “…I need a drink.”
She leaned up in her seat and turned the slate off. She slid her sandals on and walked out of her hatch, head hung low. She nearly bumped into Remilia coming out of her own cabin. “Oh. Hey,” she said distractedly.
“Hi. Something wrong?” Remilia asked.
“Seadelant, the world where Julius Pius stopped over on his way to Macragge, is under siege by an Ork Waaagh,” Venus said simply.
Remilia stared. “…Fuck. Did he make it out?”
“No.” Venus shrugged. “Nothing we can do but hope.”
Her blond cousin looked down at the deckplates. “It’s getting worse out there, isn’t it?”
“It is.” Venus sighed again. “Want to go get a drink?”
“Well…I’m worried that if I go down there too often, I might get Chuck in trouble,” Remilia confessed.
“As opposed to the first leg of the trip, where we went every day?” Venus pointed out.
“You were there. Haarlan saw us.” Remilia shuffled a foot. “I’m just nervous.”
Venus nodded patiently. “It doesn’t have to be something you do every night, you know.”
Remilia looked up at her in surprise. “Really? You and Jake aren’t…I mean…”
“Oh my god, every night? I’d break in half!” Venus giggled. “Trust me, it’s fine. If you’re worried, just go chat with him.”
“All right.” Remilia smiled awkwardly. “Let’s go.”
Jake watched another officer plod away in defeat, grinning to himself. “All right, who’s in?” he asked.
“Eh, I’ll cut my losses,” one of the two remaining officers said, pushing his chips away and taking his money out of the pot. The last one looked a bit doubtful, but stayed in the game.
“I’ll keep going,” he said, chipping in.
“All right.” Jake anted up and dealt. His hand was horrible. Two, five, seven, ten, ace, all four suites. He kept his face impassive.
“I’ll check,” the lieutenant said.
“Check,” Jake said, tossing in the two, five, and seven. He dealt the other man a few cards and picked up his own. A six, a nine, and another ace. Excellent.
The other man reached for his chips, but paused. Jake raised an eyebrow. Was he losing his nerve?
Venus’ warm hands slid over his shoulders. “Hey. How’s the game going?”
“Swimmingly,” Jake pointed out, gesturing at his pile of chips. No wonder the lieutenant had hesitated. Seeing a Primarch’s Daughter was probably pretty new to him. “You want to play in the next game?”
“No thanks, I just need a drink.” Venus kissed the crown of his head and walked up to the bar.
Jake turned back to the lieutenant, who was staring at his girlfriend with a mixture of awe and attraction that put a smile on Jake’s face. “You in?” he asked. The lieutenant shook himself and threw his cards away. “All right,” Jake said, sweeping up the pot.
Remilia sat at the bar, smiling at Kines. “Hello, Lieutenant.”
“Hi, Remilia. Just water?”
“The mildest whiskey you’ve got, actually,” Remilia said.
Kines winced. “Oooh…sorry, ma’am, but this is a Navy ship. No drinking under eighteen. Not even for you.”
Remilia frowned. “Oh. Right.” She shrugged. “Lemonade then.”
“Fresh out, sorry. Orange soda again?” he asked apologetically.
“Sure.” She caught the bottle, noting that he was acting completely nonchalant. Was he not interested in another night? She wondered how to ask discreetly. Before she could, however, he swept his hand across the bar to mop up some condensate and quite deliberately brushed her hand. She left it where it was and he did it again, this time accompanying it with the slightest shake of the head, and a cheerful wink.
She smiled to herself. He was interested, but unavailable. That was fine.
“Lieutenant, do you have any matches?” Jake called over from his nearby table.
“Matches, sir? To light a cigarette?” Kines asked. “Sorry, we don’t allow smoking here.”
“No, not to smoke. Just to try something,” Jake said, scooping up the last of his money. The final officer sat back in his chair, miserable.
“Uh…yes,” Kines said slowly. He grabbed a book of paper matches.
Jake finished packing up his poker set and walked over, cash in his bulging pockets. “No, no, I mean wood matches. Stick matches.”
“Maybe, why?” Kines asked. Jake grabbed the cardboard box of kitchen stick matches from him and pulled one out.
With the eyes of the surrounding crowd firmly affixed to him, Jake struck the match and immediately pressed it to the side of his hand. He held his hand flat, slowly dragging the match along the underside of his palm, and pulled it out the other side. He puffed the match out and showed his hand to the viewers with a taunting grin. He was completely unscathed.
Venus blinked. “Okay…I’m partially fireproofed, how did YOU do it?” she asked as the crowd made various noises of disbelief and appreciation.
“I learned this trick from my father, who insisted we have a box of them in the apartment even though we didn’t have a gas stove. Where he got them, I’ll never know,” Jake said, pulling another match out. He struck it again and dragged it along his hand once more, and again he pulled it back unscathed. “Anyone want to try to figure it out?” he asked.
Remilia smiled into her soda. He had certainly gained quite a bit of confidence since the road trip had started. It looked good on him. Kines took advantage of the distraction to lean over and catch her eye. “Haarlan’s on my case. Does he know?”
“Yes. He’s been ordered not to do anything,” Remilia whispered back.
“OW!” A lieutenant beside the bar lurched back, cradling his hand.
Kines closed his eyes. “Damn the Munitorum.”
“Chuck, we can still meet. Just don’t go to the commissary,” Remilia whispered. “I have more…you know.”
“Okay. Not tonight. Tomorrow?” he whispered.
“I’ll be there,” she finished with a coy grin.
“How do you DO it?” the injured officer said, staring at Jake’s hand.
“Like so,” Jake said. He lit a third match, placing it to his hand. “Fast. Don’t give it time to heat up. Move constantly, don’t pause,” he said, doing so. “Then pull it away immediately. Move it along the lifeline on your palm, follow the crease,” he said. He pulled it away and blew it out. “Easy.”
“Where do you learn all this shit, Lord Seager?” the officer asked.
Jake smiled. “From my father and friends in middle school. We got up to all kinds of crazy stuff in Tetra.”
“Tetra? You mean Terra?” the officer asked, putting an ice cube on his hand.
“No, Hive Tetra, on Terra,” Jake corrected, sitting down at the bar.
“Oh…” the officer trailed off.
Jake resignedly shook his head. “How about you? Where are you from, Lieutenant?” he asked Kines.
“Oh, I’m from Totnis, a completely irrelevant little agri-world out in the middle of Solar, about ninety light years from Terra,” Kines replied. “Joined up to see the galaxy and get away from the homestead, you know.”
Alex wandered over from the dartboard. “Did you get to pick which Legion you served?”
“Nope, you pick which career path you want and they assign you to a ship.” Kines wiped down the bar and took the matches back. “I like the Tide, though.”
Alex sat down too, swigging his drink. “Ever seen combat?”
“Nope. And, frankly, if the bartender’s actually fighting someone, we’re all boned,” Kines said with a laugh.
Quiet In the Library
As the group retired – with lingering looks for a few – Alex took a detour to the ship’s tiny library, citing the need to get something new to read before bed. As he arrived at the deserted little room, he settled down in a seat by the back bulkhead and stretched out. He was hoping Freya wouldn’t have been here, and she wasn’t. As much as he appreciated her company, he needed to think this one through alone.
The faint ticking of his wristwatch was the only sound. He tilted his head back and thought over his mother’s latest message. He still hadn’t told her about the argument with his father. He wanted that to be something she didn’t worry over while he was off on the trip. He would have to tell her eventually, of course. That wasn’t even open to debate. Beyond the obvious, he would be living with her between college semesters, unless his living situation with Freya drastically changed. That wasn’t unappealing of course, but then, he was in a cynical mood.
Alex pulled a scrap of plastic out of his pocket. It was a small data chip, containing the address to which his mother was going to be moving once the old house sold. She had taken great pains to assure him that his possessions would go with her, and he could keep or sell them at his leisure when he got back to Earth.
Hive living. THAT would take some getting used to. He craned his head back, his heart clenching. Even the most luxurious and spacious home in the hives cost less than a home in the surface cities, of course. Hell, the new place might actually be nicer. But the fact remained: she was going to be living in the hives.
Jake was living proof that that wasn’t inherently bad, of course. Jake also came from a large, loving, supportive family with connections to the Mechanicus and several prestigious colleges. Alex’s mother had none of that.
Alex groaned in the darkness of the room. What choices did he have? Aside from the money in his pockets, which of course he had spent dry on Nocturne, he had nothing. A few small accounts on Terra in his name instead of his father’s, maybe, but the hundreds of millions of credits in his accounts in his father’s name were effectively gone, now. Not to mention the billions of credits in his father’s empire. He hadn’t intended to become his father, certainly. He didn’t want to become a grave robber. If he had taken control of the business, he might have even sold the writ for tens of billions of credits and lived like a god on any world of his choosing. With Freya, without her, a life of infinite luxury either way. He grinned bitterly. Now he was going to be stuck playing rugby forever, without a credit to his name, unless Freya…
Well. As much as the idea of spending a very great deal more time with her was becoming more and more appealing, he couldn’t impose on her like that. Leman Russ may have been one of the richest people in the galaxy, but Freya was the penny-pinching sort. Until a few days prior, that had been an advantage.
He leaned forward in his chair, staring at the deck. “What the hell, Dad…” he whispered.
Alex surged upright. Remilia was standing in the hatch. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt,” she said, backing out.
“Wait,” he said. She paused. “You can come in. Looking for some light reading?” he asked with a forced grin.
“I was. I’m out of movies and games on my slate.” She walked over to him and glanced over the row of books beside him. “I didn’t know you were into architecture.”
“Uh, I was just sitting here,” Alex said. “I wasn’t reading those.”
“Oh, okay.” She hesitated. “…Do you want to be alone?”
“Not any more,” he said. She sat down next to him. “Can I ask you something about what you talked about with me before?” he asked evasively.
“What was that?”
“How…I mean, what are you going to say to your father when you see him again?” he asked. “I didn’t want to pry, but it looks like Dad and I are going to have a bit of a slugging match over the accounts he opened in my name when I was a kid. If I know him, anyway.”
“Oh. I’m sorry, Alex, money problems are a pain,” Remilia sympathized, as if the daughter of the fifth richest being in the known universe could talk. Alex ignored the bitter sense of irony. “If it helps, I think Dad and I are going to be able to talk when we get home…what do you want to know?”
“Well…what’s your mother like? I’ve never met her,” Alex said.
“She sits on about a dozen boards. Charities, companies, a housing concern. She’s never home, really, and considering her job, she has the worst sense of time prioritization I’ve ever seen,” Remilia said. “But…I wasn’t really fair to her before I left, either. I should make a point of talking to her directly before we head off to school,” she noted under her breath. “What about your mother?”
“Before they divorced, Mom was a paper-shuffler in his businesses.” Alex sighed. “She found work as a paralegal on Terra, but without the interest from Dad’s accounts keeping her afloat, she’s basically going to have to sell it all and move into the hives.”
“Oh.” Remilia rubbed her hands idly. “Well…is that so terrible? The uppermost spires are pretty comfortable…and if she could paralegal for firms on the surface, she could work at any firm in the hives, I’m sure…”
“Not the point. You know they only divorced two years ago?” Alex snorted. “I don’t even remember a specific argument. They just fell apart. Dad didn’t blame me, and I don’t think Mom did, but she resented that I spent so much of my time away from them both.”
Remilia looked down. “I’m sorry.”
“Why? It’s not your fault. Hell, Dad was buying and selling arm candy like it was going out of style. It’s his fault. Mom couldn’t tolerate his infidelity, he thought she was a stifling old bat.” He shook his head. “Can I ask how your parents act around each other?”
“They love each other. More than me, or at least it feels that way.” Remilia squeezed her hands. “We’re a matched set, aren’t we?”
“We are.” Alex finally smiled. “If this were a trashy romance holo, we’d be falling into each other’s arms right now, solving our problems with musical scenes.”
Remilia laughed. “And then babies and horrible sequels ever after.”
Alex laughed too, and the mingled sounds were a catharsis for both. “Speaking of…hey, on a nicer subject. It’s good to see you smiling again,” Alex said.
Remilia flushed a bit. “I’m worried.”
“What? About Kines? He’ll be fine, if Venus told Haarlan to back off. Did she?”
Alex shrugged. “Problem solved.”
“Yeah, but I kinda want this to be more than a summer thing, you know?” Remilia asked uncomfortably.
“But it can’t be. If you got him transferred, it’d destroy you in the press, right?” Alex asked reasonably. “Just enjoy the time you have.”
“I guess…but it’s disappointing,” Remilia confessed.
“Freya wasn’t my first girlfriend, I wasn’t her first boyfriend. Finding the right combination of person and timing takes a few tries,” Alex counseled. “Venus was the lucky one. Most people don’t get it right the first time.”
Remilia looked up at him. “So just use this as a springboard for the next one? That’s a little callous, isn’t it?”
“Not at all. You’re going to a great liberal arts school for four years. Plenty of time to find someone right for you,” Alex said.
She stared at him, before looking away and thinking it over. “I guess you’re right.”
Alex stood. “Well. Thanks. I feel a little better. Have you written home since we got aboard?”
“No, and I don’t think I will unless something changes, since I think Mom is taking off for some conference and Dad is taking the Phalanx out to New Damascus to sortie the fleet. Not that you heard that from me,” she said drily. “No point in writing to an empty house.”
“I’m writing home tonight,” Alex said. He looked around at the stacks. “Might as well find something good as long as I’m here, though,” he added.
“What do you like to read?” Remilia asked, rising to her feet.
“I like old speculative fictions. You know, the ones that tried to guess what the galaxy would look like when the Crusade was over.” Alex grinned as he paged through some titles. “They’re all so hilariously wrong. How about you?”
“I was just here to see what caught my fancy.” Remilia glanced through the romance section and chuckled. “The fact that the number of trashy skin books is larger than the non-fiction section on a mixed-sex crew is distinctly amusing. I don’t know why.”
Alex selected a tome and made for the hatch. “All right…I’ll see you tomorrow, Remilia,” he said.
“Night, Alex,” Remilia said, still browsing.
The next few days passed quickly as they made their way through the Warp. Sure enough, Haarlan didn’t seem to be pressing his case, and what he thought of the situation nobody asked. Kines’ fears proved unfounded.
As they traveled on, both teens found their time spent as much with just talking as anything physical. To Remilia’s distinct surprise, she found herself looking forward to it. One late night, the two of them turned to a topic Remilia had had in her mind since before Nocturne.
Remilia was lounging in a chair in the corner of her cabin, listening to Kines describe his own family. “Lotta ex-military, you know. SDF mostly. Nobody important, but we were there,” Kines said, lying on his back on the bed. He was staring at the overhead and thinking aloud. “I was drafted up to the Navy against my will.”
“Really? Conscripted in peacetime?” Remilia asked.
“Yep. It’s a ten-year tour, too.” Kines shrugged. “It sucks, but it’s good money, and the Navy paid for my degree, so I’ll land on my feet when I’m out. Eighteen-month accounting degree,” he explained.
Remilia smiled at him over crossed knees. “Was college fun?”
“No. They rush us through so fast. It was really annoying. No time to enjoy anything.” He peered at her, upside-down. “You’ll get to take your time.”
She looked at his inverted face. “Do you ever think about staying in?”
“Never. I’m going to go home and get back on my feet. Family, business, whatever. Don’t get me wrong, I like my job, but this isn’t the life I chose.”
Remilia nodded, bracing herself for her next question. “Can I ask about your sister?”
Kines hesitated. “Well…I guess. She was...seventeen months younger than me. She was a lonely sort, her whole life. I thought she just liked solitude, but it was more than that. She was just so…scared all the time. She never told anybody…didn’t want to be a bother.” Pain crossed his face as the memories came back. “Damn it…her name was Sophia. We were close enough together that she wasn’t really a ‘little’ sister, but…”
“You don’t have to tell me,” Remilia said softly.
Kines shook his head. “No…I should say it. Kept it under a lid for years.” He looked up at her again. “How long have you been…I mean…”
“I stopped, Chuck. I haven’t touched it in months,” Remilia said.
“I believe you.” He looked away from her at the overhead again. Why did the Navy hate putting central lights in VIP cabins? It made no sense.
“But…I started when I was ten,” she confessed. His eyes went wide.
“Is that odd?”
“It’s…Sophia was fourteen. I was just surprised. That seems…young.” He sighed. “But what do I know?”
Remilia crossed the cabin to sit down next to him. “I was so confused. It hurt, but…part of me loved it. The part that’s…not really human,” she admitted.
He looked up at her. His face was impassive. “What do you mean?”
“I’m not human, Chuck. Simple as that. Part of an Astartes’ DNA is in me. And he was a…bit of a masochist.” She turned to meet his eyes. “I’m not ashamed of it.”
Kines looked away. “I didn’t know.”
Remilia ran her hands over her arms. “I can remember them. Each one. I have an eidetic memory, we all do.”
“Then why do it more than once?” he asked.
“I guess there’s…nothing like the moment.” She rubbed her hands over her arms again, idly. “I suspect that’s true for most things.”
He propped himself up on his elbows. “Did it help, at all?”
“Well…believe it or not, I thought it did.” She smiled faintly as she remembered her impetus for stopping. “Then Magnus the Red, Lord of Prospero, Arch-Mage of the Scholastica Psykana, and doting uncle, scared the living shit out of me with the knowledge of what my future would look like if I didn’t stop.”
“Your family’s pretty good at that, I bet,” Kines said.
She lay down beside him and rested her head on his shoulder. “He told me what I was doing, and he scared me straight. I owe him a lot.”
“What did he say?” Kines asked.
Remilia closed her eyes. “That’s for him to say.”
She hesitated. Magnus had told her that the fate that people who gave in to such self-torment suffered was a horrific one, in the Warp. The afterlife. Kines’ sister had killed herself.
“I’m sorry, Chuck. I don’t want to share that. It’s not for me to say. I don’t even understand all of it,” she said, which was at least partially true.
He glared at her from a few inches away. She looked back, sad but resolute. He finally relented. “I guess it’s too late to matter,” he grumbled. “Anyway. My parents…they didn’t understand. They thought she did it for attention. The doctor said she was just so scared of everything…she thought it was a way out.”
Remilia hugged him sideways. “You don’t have to say anything more about that. What’s the rest of your family like?”
“My dad’s ex-SDF. Patrol boat officer. My mother was a farmer, so was dad after he retired.” Kines looked over at her again. “How about you? Any other siblings?”
“Well…” That brought her up short. He didn’t know about her unique family? “I’m an only child, but my cousins have been there since the very beginning. I’m closer to some than others, of course,” she said. She rolled off of his arm and sat up against the bed, cradling his head in her lap. “Do you want to know about them?”
“Sure, I’d love to.”
Remilia thought about the lengthy roster and smiled. “Well, Freya and Venus you’ve met. Let’s see…besides them, I think I’m probably closest to Roberta. She’s Roboute Guilliman’s daughter. She’s the bookworm where I’m the athlete, but other than that, we’re pretty alike.”
Kines pondered that. “Any you don’t get along with?”
“Well…I used to be on pretty rough terms with Hana. She’s the one the tabloids love,” she added drily. “You know, the one with the leather and welts on her hands?”
“Ah yeah, she’s hard to miss,” Kines chuckled.
“She was a bit of bully when she was younger, but she’s a lot more mature now.” Remilia pondered the others. “Farah Manus. She’s a lot of fun. She’s the one who can pull off the bubbly and energetic without being annoying bit.”
“Are her hands really augmetic?” Kines asked.
“Yeah. I think you’d like Angela, too, she’s the one with the wings,” Remilia said.
“Wait, those are real?” Kines asked.
“…You’ve never seen a picture of Sanguinius?” Remilia asked.
“Well, yeah, but I thought they were part of his armor,” Kines said, staring up at her. “They’re real wings?”
“Yeah, they’re real. He can actually fly. She can’t, not without a jetpack.”
“That is so cool,” Kines said. “Are any of them psykers?” he asked.
Remilia paused. “That’s kinda personal, you know? I mean…I can’t imagine one of them would mind, though. Miranda. She’s Magnus’ daughter. She’s a psyker, an amazing one.”
“That’s cool too.” Kines hesitated. “I had an uncle who was a psyker. The black ships came when he was eleven. My mother never saw him again.”
“Yeah…well, Miranda was already on Terra, so she just stayed there to train. She barely needed it, though, her control was so fine already.”
“Hmm.” He met her eyes. “Are you a psyker?”
“Oh hell no, I’m no psyker,” she laughed. “None of the three of us you’ve met have any psychic power at all.”
“Me neither.” He narrowed his eyes. “So...any others you don’t get along with?”
“Sort of, but I don’t want to badmouth them behind their backs, you know.”
“Can I ask a bit more about life on Terra?” he asked her from her lap.
“Sure. What do you want to know?”
“Did it ever just…hit you? Just the idea that ‘Oh fuck, I’m the granddaughter of the most important person in galactic history?’” Kines asked.
Remilia chuckled. “Sure. Once or twice. Then you go to a high school as one of a class of a thousand, and suddenly I had to work for everything I did. Not that I hadn’t before, but the tutors and teachers we had as kids kinda coddled us.” She shook her head. “I don’t really blame them, but it made high school sort of a slap in the face.
She squeezed his hands under his head. “So, are we living up to your preconceived notions?”
Kines laughed. “Better.”
“Yeah. You’re people, not just pictures. That’s better.”
She blushed a bit and squeezed his hands again. “I rarely get to ask. How exactly does the average solider of the Imperium see us?”
“I dunno, I’m a sailor.” He flinched as she swatted his ear. “Ow! Okay, fine. For the most part, people are kinda nervous about you, really. In person, anyway. Nobody knows how to act around you. You’re so far above us in rank that people really can’t reconcile your age with your power, you know?” he said.
“Yeah, I noticed. I meant when we’re not around,” Remilia patiently explained.
“Ah. Well…the policy against unauthorized holos is pretty severe, so for a few of you, we don’t even know what you look like. There’s always the tabloids, but still. Not gonna lie, the weeks after Lady Morticia was shot were pretty wild, with all the news coming in.”
“That’s sweet.” She smirked. “Did you pick favorites?”
Kines froze. “Wow, there’s a loaded question.”
“Hahah! I’m not judging.” She stage-whispered her next words. “I already won.”
Kines chuckled. “Well…sure we did.”
“Oooh, who did you all pick?” Remilia eagerly demanded.
“Lady Isis, most of the time. Those eyes…mmm. Man could get lost in those. And, believe it or not, Lady Furia. What can I say, the guys feel they have to show some backbone,” Kines chuckled. “Me, I honestly don’t remember picking a favorite.” He smiled up at her again. “And like you said, you won.”
“Yeah. Well, Isis is pretty spoken for,” Remilia said, feeling a bit of a pang as she thought of Julius, still trapped in the path of an Ork horde. No word had come from Seadelant for a while. “Furia’s actually spoken for a few times over,” she joked to fill the air. “Your crewmates are shit out of luck.”
“Ah, well. No ring on your finger,” Kines said in satisfaction.
“Very true.” She hesitated. “You know, we’re probably not going to be able to see each other after summer.”
“I know. It’s a bum deal, but that’s life in the Navy. It’ll be worth it, as long as Haarlan doesn’t throw me out an airlock the moment Venus is off the ship,” Kines said.
“He won’t, don’t worry,” Remilia said. “He won’t disobey her.”
“He’s honestly not so terrible, he just has a rulebook up his ass,” Kines sighed.
“So I’ve observed.” They sat in silence a bit longer, before Kines finally sat up.
“Thanks, Remilia.” He stood from the bed, stretching.
“You’re going back to your bunk?” Remilia asked.
Kines sighed. “I think so. Sorry, but after talking about Sophia, I’m just not…well, you know.”
She winced. “Sure. But I think I’d prefer it if you stayed here,” she said.
He looked over at her. “Really?”
“Yeah. Just spend the night.” She smiled up at him. “If you want.”
He paused. “Well…sure, why not? You’re more comfortable than a bunk,” he said slyly.
“I’d hope so!” she giggled. She started getting undressed as Kines wandered into the bathroom. “Do you have to share a bay with the other Lieutenants?” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s a pain. At least the male ones, female officers get their own bay.”
“How do you keep from getting each other pregnant on the ship?” Remilia asked.
“We don’t, basically. More future crewers,” Kines said through the open door.
She stared through the door as he started on his teeth. “Are you for real?”
“Sure.” He tilted his head back to look at her. “That surprises you? Some of our tours last twenty years, with up to a full year in the Warp at a time.”
“Yeah, but…wow, that’s kinda mercenary, isn’t it?” she asked.
“It’s not like anyone’s being coerced,” he reasoned.
She shuddered. “I’m so glad I’m not in the Navy, then.”
He smiled as they switched places. “It takes some getting used to.”
“Any little Charles’ running around?” Remilia asked, not joking in the slightest.
“Hah! Nope, not one,” Kines said.
Remilia shook her head. “That’s quite a relief.”
He laughed as he stripped his outer clothes off. “You and me both.” He slid into bed, dimming the lights, and felt her warmth join him a moment later. “All right. Good night, Remilia.”
She pecked him on the cheek. “Night, Chuck. See you tomorrow afternoon.”
Hail the Fang!
As the ship emerged on the outermost edge of the Fenris system, Freya was already fidgeting. She paced her cabin, grinning broadly, as Alex watched from the chair, amused. “I know I’ll have a ton of shit to do, ceremonies to undertake, who knows what else…but fuck! I just want to throw myself in a snowbank!” she said.
Alex laughed. Her good mood was infectious. “I admit, I want to see what it looks like.”
“It’s beautiful! Forests the size of continents, animals so big you can ride them around! And the FOOD!” she squealed. “Sauroch was great and all, but until you rip a chunk off a mammoth bull and roast it over a fire, you haven’t had real steak.”
“I’ll pass, thanks,” Alex said. “I’m glad you’re so fired up.”
“Argh, seventeen hours before we land!” she moaned. “I’m going to be half-dead by then!”
“No, you’re not,” Alex chided. “Go burn off some vibes in the gym, or write a letter to whoever’s in charge over there to let them know we’re coming.”
“Oh, yeah, good call, I don’t even know which Lord is running the show right now, with all these deployments,” Freya said, snatching up a slate. She quickly turned it on and brought up her messages. “Nothing?! Argh, do they not know we’re here?” she huffed.
“I’m sure they knew. You should write the presiding Wolf Lord and let him know the situation,” Alex pressured.
She grumbled at the perceived waste of time, but obeyed. She dropped into a seat and started talking the moment the slate was ready.
“Hail the Fang. I am Blood Princess Freya Russ, aboard the Salamander Legionary Fleet Vessel Iron Tide out of Nocturne. I would address the Wolf Lord who reigns,” she said, the rough Juvjk flowing naturally from her lips. Alex listened carefully. He had never heard her speak it for more than a word at a time. “I await your word…and I am eager to be back amongst my Wolf Brothers.” She tapped the transcriptor and sent it off, making sure to have had the right language selected first.
As soon as the message was sent, she sprang back to her feet and resumed her pacing. Alex shook his head. “Baby, that was supposed to calm you down.”
“But now I’m waiting for a message too!” she said, wringing her hands.
Alex sighed. “Hey, Freya…what did you say in Fenrisian before?”
“Oh, I said hail, it’s Freya, who’s running the show, it’s good to be back…simple stuff, nothing vital,” she said. “And the language’s proper name is Juvjk.”
“Where do you speak it? I never hear more than one word or so from you,” Alex said.
“Oh, that’s what Mom and I speak at home,” Freya said. “Dad speaks it, of course, but he spends so much more time around people who aren’t Fenrisian, he just speaks Gothic most of the time.” She smiled, surprisingly shyly. “Did you like it?”
“Well…yeah, I just couldn’t tell what you were saying,” he said. She nodded happily.
“I could teach you a few words, but it’s a complex language. You’d have to study for a while to be fluent.” She bounded over to him and perched on the armrest of his seat. “You’re going to love this! I’ve been waiting to be back for seven years!” she declared.
“How many times have you been here?” Alex asked.
“Four, counting this one. When I was born, when I saw seven, and when I was ten,” Freya supplied. She drew up her shoulders with an eager squeal. “I can’t wait!”
Alex grinned. She was ecstatic. Her enthusiasm was lifting his own ennui a bit, too. “Freya, baby, if you’re that impatient, go round up the others and tell them what you told me. Tell them about the Fang or something.”
“I should, shouldn’t I?” she asked. She clapped her hands together. “Right. Yes. This.” She sprang up from his armrest once more. “Oh, and um…Alex,” she said, suddenly a bit bashful. “How do I put this…”
“What?” Alex asked, leaning forward.
“The, um…the Wolf Brothers will…I suspect they’ll like you, but if you don’t want to get barracked a bit…we may have to restrain ourselves,” she admitted.
“I figured,” Alex chuckled. “Ah, well.”
“Nope, I was wondering how to overcome several thousand Space Wolf noses on the way here and gave up,” Alex resignedly said.
She pecked him on the lips. “You’re my hero.” She straightened up and nearly skipped over to the door. “Be right back.”
Minutes later, the other teens were sitting in the room, watching Freya pace and gesticulate. “First things first, don’t call them Space Wolves. Call them The Rout, or Sons of Fenris if you want to sound pretentious, or the Vlka Fenryka if you know the language,” she said. She paused for a deep breath. “I still haven’t heard back so I have no bleeding idea who’s in charge, but the correct form of address is ‘Wolf Lord’ whatever, not Brother-Captain like it was on Nocturne and Terra. I suspect that you’ll all be invited to dine at the Grand Table when the time comes, and you’re more than welcome to do so, but it would even scare me a bit if I hadn’t done it a million times before, so if you want to eat somewhere more private you can. In fact, I think maybe you should. The older guys will appreciate you being there, but the younger Brothers might think you’re intruding on what’s supposed to be the most comradely and personal part of the daily routine aside from the actual prayers at the start of the day, and…” she paused again for a breath.
“Freya, Freya, it’s okay, chill out,” Remilia urged.
“Right, sorry.” She blew out an anxious breath. “Sorry, I’m just so amped up!” she groaned. “This is something I’ve wanted for seven years! I can’t WAIT to show you guys everything!”
“Well, you’ll have twenty seven days, so take your time,” Jake pointed out.
“Didn’t you say you were worried that we’d have nothing to do?” Venus asked.
“Well…true, after the first week or so…” she deflated. “Shit. I think we should probably have all of our stuff transferred down to our rooms, just in case.”
“We were going to do that anyway, Freya, the Tide is leaving to go stomp Orks, remember?” Venus pointed out.
“Right.” She rubbed her forehead. “Hah. I should ask if Fenris’ star has a supercharging effect like Nocturne’s does,” she muttered.
Venus chuckled. “Maybe, but I kinda doubt it.”
“Oh yeah…how are you feeling?” Freya asked, glad for the distraction.
“Oh, I’m fine, it wore off days ago, I barely even noticed,” Venus shrugged. “I just woke up normal. How about you? All brushed up on your Juvjk?” she asked with a smirk. She knew Freya was fluent.
“Hah! ‘I’m just fine, Princess Venus, how’s your Nocturnean?’” Freya asked in Juvjk.
“Great, thanks,” Venus said in Gothic.
Freya started. “You understood what I said?” she asked in astonishment.
“Nope, it was just a guess,” Venus confessed, as Remilia rolled her eyes. “Hard to imagine both languages started on Earth. They’re so different.”
“Yeah. I’m sure all of the Rout you speak to on Fenris will be fluent in Juvjk and Gothic, though, so no worries,” Freya said. “One thing, though, I should warn you about the meals. Everything has a side of alcohol with it, as much for ritual as anything else; it takes a lot to get a Wolf drunk. So don’t drink anything that isn’t water.”
“And test the water to make sure it’s not vodka?” Alex drily asked.
“Bah, real connoisseurs like alcohol with flavor to it,” Freya scoffed. “Now, one last thing before we arrive, don’t talk about the other Legions unless you’re asked. The Rout doesn’t take to some of them as well as others, and I don’t want you guys getting dragged into Legion politics. If you’re not sure, let me field it, all right?” she asked.
“Who do the Wolves…Rout not like?” Jake asked, confused. “I never see you arguing with any other Royal Daughter.”
“That’s sweet, Jake, but we’re not our fathers. Magnus and Dad can’t stand each other, and Lion and Perturabo both get under his skin like crazy, the old dingus,” Freya muttered. “So…just stay respectful of the other Legions and don’t talk shop, and I’m sure you guys will feel right at home.”
“Freya, you sound almost worried,” Venus said quietly.
She shrugged. “Well…the Rout dislikes their barbaric reputation amongst the other Legions, but I’d be lying if I said they were as…welcoming as the Salamanders were. The people here are proud and competitive, and I think it’d be wrong of the Wolves not to try to welcome you, but they won’t be too receptive of you guys making a vacation out of this. Venus and Remilia, you two might be called upon to do some small ceremonies as long as you’re here. Nothing huge, but other Primarchs don’t come to Fenris much; depending on which Lord is running the show, they may want to do a thing.”
“Well, that’s fine with me as long as we get to see the side of Fenris that you look forward to so much; goodness knows I made you guys sit through some crap back home,” Venus said.
“I’m not really the ceremonial type,” Remilia admitted. “What are you talking about, exactly?”
“Well…I’ll be called upon to address the Wolf Lords in residence, of course, but you won’t be there for that. You’ll be there more or less as a representative of the Emperor if you’re called upon at all,” Freya said.
“What? Freya, I didn’t know we were going to be told to be representing someone!” Remilia exclaimed.
“No, no, not like a Senator or anything, you’ll just sit and be talked to, you won’t have to say much at all,” Freya soothed. “I mean, on the other times I’ve been here they skipped the ceremony entirely a few times. Seriously, I’ll make it very clear you’re here for yourselves, not a Legion or Grandpa.”
Her cousin glared, clearly unconvinced. Venus looked from one to the other, her eyes muted and thoughtful. “This doesn’t feel fair,” Remilia grumbled. “You promise we won’t have to do anything political?”
“I swear. If it’s really a problem, I can insist you be left out, though I don’t know how well they’ll take it.”
Remilia shook her head. “Fine. Whatever. I didn’t bring anything more formal than what I wore to the dinner, though,” she said.
“That’s more than enough, trust me. Venus won’t even have to wear that drake outfit,” Freya said.
Venus snapped her fingers. “Damn.”