“Watch me,” Rebekah strikes forward, her open palm cracking against the padded soldier. A sound like thunder erupts as her palm connects. The soldier staggers backwards, having been in full padding, it must have been a rather hard hit.
I’ve been training every day for months now. Four hours each day. So far she has only started training me in unarmed combat, getting the basics down. When she first challenged one of the House Guardsmen to a brawling duel, I was astonished. I had wondered how she thought she could beat a trained soldier.
He didn’t last forty seconds.
She had attacked his nerves, breaking the soldier down, destroying teh defneses, and ending it with a swift jab in the sternum. He hadn’t gotten to take a full swing at her.
“Everything begins with the body. Your form, your footwork, how well you know your own limits. Understand all of that, and then you’ll be ready to learn how to handle a proper weapon.” Rebekah’s teaching drones into my head.
I step up after her, ready to practice on the poor soldier, but Rebekah claps her hands, “You have practiced with padding and defenseless opponents enough. But now it’s time to see what you can do when facing a real opponent.”
My stomach twists. A real opponent? I’m not ready for that. I look around nervously, seeing the crowd of soldiers, all with decades of experience and training. All veterans of the Imperium’s war with the Universal Collective. My eyes dart among them, wondering which one she will call up to fight me.
“You’re fighting me, Risa.” Rebelah’s voice is soft and soothing, but fighting her frightens me even more. She steps away from me onto the opposite end of the training mat. She bows low to me like a duellist. I awkwardly copy her. When she steps up, she positions her body in a defensive stance. Her arms bent at the elbow, held up just before eye-level. Her body swivelled, but facing words, knees bent, heels lifting of the floor as she prepares to spring as it begins.
Again, I try to copy, but the stance that looks so elegant and perfected on her seems awkward and jarring for myself. It’s been months, yet my body still feels like it stretches awkwardly, as if it isn’t natural for it to be like this.
An arbiter stands in the center, she holds her hands out, palms facing each of us.
“Begin,” She steps back.
Like a bullet shot from a rifle, Rebekah shoots forward. She carries teh distance in two leaping strides.
I see her foot lash out, going for a high swing to my face. I dodge back, but not quick enough, her foot snaps back just before it connects with my face.
“Lost.” She says, continuing her onslaught. I strike for her face, but she bats away my hand and twists, her fist going for my chest.
Again, she curbs her blow before it lands.
“Lost,” she repeats, dancing backwards.
She hops forward like a deranged ballerina, I eye her wearily, shuffling so that I’m always facing her.
Just before my foot shuffles back, she goes forward, her left arm flinching out as if to strike. She feints, but I haven’t trained my mind to control my reflexes yet and I halt in the middle of changing my position to try to block.
I’m off balance.
She’s beside me, her right leg behind mine. Her hand closes around my throat and she pushes me back.
I tumble, crying out as I lose my footing. I close my eyes, waiting for the hard-matted ground to slam against my head.
But then I feel her hand around the back of my head and I am gently laid against the ground.
“Lost,” she finishes, a smile on her face.
“Lady Rebekah is the victor,” The woman gives her verdict.
“Your footwork was fine at the start, but sloppy near the middle. You allowed yourself to get distracted, you were rooted on the spot. You were not fluid, graceful. You must be water, not stone. Each time you’re about to strike, you bob your head forward half a second before, it’s a dead give-away and in a real fight will get you killed.” She chastises me, but I nod, promising to do better.
“But,” she continues, “You’ve definitely improved. There is no shame in learning, you must remember that everyone here has done this for years. Most of us have been training all our lives, do not feel sorrowful for needing practice, we all started where you are now.”
I’m about to reply, but the sound of boots snapping together alerts me to someone elses presence.
“Rebekah, with me. Now.” Cersey says from the door of the training room. Rebekah and I hurry from the room, I can see the concern on her face, but when notices my eyes she smiles, the apprehension immediately being hidden behind a stone mask of impeccable confidence.
She leads me to her father’s study on board the yacht. As we stride up teh stairs, the austere appearance of the lower deck changes drastically. Golden chandeliers, twinkling with silver lights and candles. Beautiful, lush red carpet, flanked by a mirage of paintings on either side, showing glorious battles or great moments with Cersian family history. At the very end of the hall is a painting of Euranius Cersey crowning Emperor Erali Theswyn. Rebekah had told me that that man was also the one who betrayed Erali’s son first and aided Athris Malcarn in usurping the Throne. The House of Cersey has a black past.
Two guards stand to attention before a large marble door. As Rebekah nears, it slides away, revealing Calliar Cersey’s office. The earlier ostentatiousness melts away immediately to bare ashwood floors and a sparse room with a single bookshelf. He stands in the centre of the room, mulling over paper reports in his hands. He has refused to receive reports on his private terminal, so every report is scanned through the public console, scanned again, then has the data disorganised and dispersed, before it is finally printed and handed to him personally.
Too much fear in these Nobles. Though, can he really be blamed after what happened with Kaldratos?
Rebekah salutes her father, acting as if it is a time of war. “Lord Father, you summoned me?”
He nods to her, “Yes, and only you.” He looks at me pointedly, but then waves his hand, dismissing it.
“We’ll be landing on the planet of Urena in a few days, and I want you prepared.” Rebekah sighs at his words.
“It will just be more of the same, won’t it? You’ll leave me in the ship while you leave to have a secret meeting with various Lords.” She rolls her eyes, “I hardly see how I need to be prepared.”
He leans back, placing the report down. “You need to be prepared in case I die. In the case that I am killed while in one of these meetings. It is not an unlikely event. Her Majesty’s Order of Cinder will find and exterminate any dissent it can, and if that isn’t enough, my enemies want me dead more than ever. They smell blood and they want to devour me, after that fiasco on Capitallium.”
Rebekah stares up at her father, “You’re not going to die, father.”
He laughs at her, “We all die. I will die eventually. I’ve received a report from the Viscui, my meetings have worked. The Populist movement will convene on Urena. That is what my meeting is about.”
Rebekah’s eyes go wide as I stand off to a corner, having nothing to contribute.
“You mean that you will decide whether or not to enact the second phase?”
Calliar’s eyes dart to me, but then he nods. “Yes, our futures will be decided in the next few days, as will the fate of the Imperium. When I am away, you will stay on this ship. If I do not return within forty-eight hours, you will leave. You will make for Heraea. Then, and only then, will you begin the Final Plan. Understood?”
For a few moments, she holds his gaze steady, but then lowers her head. “As you command, father.” He dismisses her with a wave of his hand, turning back to his report.
When we leave, Rebekah is angry. She is quiet, her face taut as she thinks over what was said.
“He’s been like that ever since she died,” She whispers, though it seems more to herself than me.
I don’t know what she’s talking about. She gestures for us to walk, and she shakes her head, smiling to herself. “I was borne from the union of two of the most powerful Houses in the Imperium. Cersey and Cavantale. My mother was Emilia Cavantale,” She smiles slightly, “Yes, she was one of them. A member of that great warrior family. She loved my father very much. They met when they were much younger, when they were going through the Initiation, at the ages of eight. Apparently they fell in love during their time at the Noble Academy of Forlin, and the Cavantales protected my father during the ArenGarla Folly, and in the purge that followed. You see, my father, and my mother, both supported Pellores.”
She sees my blank expression and explains. “He was the real man behind the ArenGarla Folly. ArenGarla was a former friend of Pellores, but he could not accept his vision of destroying the Nobility for equal rights. My father, mother, ArenGarla and Pellores were inseparable, the closest of friends the stories say. So, when Pellores began his rebellion, my father and mother were suspected supporters. My mother’s family gave my father asylum and shelter.” She shivers, “So, when the Justiciars came, and wanted to take my father away for ‘questioning’ the Cavantales stood firm and refused to allow any harm to come to him. Apparently the two married that very same day, with a small ceremony of the Cavantales.”
“He despises the Cavantales, he blames them for her death, nearly as much as he blames himself.” Her eyes are a well of sadness, but I can’t stop myself from asking.
“How did your mother die?” The question catches her off guard, but then she starts to speak.
“I was three years old when it happened. My father took me away for a vacation. We went to the hill valleys of Corrilin. It’s a beautiful place, and in the hills there are little towns and villages. Full of people who can live their whole lives without ever seeing a Noble. When I was there, I was treated differently than I normally was. We were people, not Gods. Not something to be bowed to or worshipped, just someone. I remember it so clearly, holding out my small little hand to a nice old man. He laughed and I giggled as I shook his pinkie finger.” She chuckles to herself, but her hands tightly grip the hem of her training-robe. She is feigning her own happiness so I don’t see the pain? But, why?
“My mother and siblings were off visiting her father. My parents had five children before me. Their involvement with Pellores had not been forgotten, and so when Lacaius rebelled and created his Universal Collective, my parents were prime targets for the purge. Luckily, they escaped that through my father’s genius and manipulation of his opponents. But, it still kept them as prime suspects. One of my father’s closest friends betrayed him and told Emperor Kauldian that my father and mother were plotting to rebel and join the Universal Collective.” She scoffs at the absurdity of it.
“And then they came. They gunned my mother down, right in the Cavantale country estate. My two sisters, my brothers. All were killed. We escaped due to being in such a remote area. They couldn’t find us, and when they did, my father was already back on Heraea.” She sighs, and a shiver wracks her body, “My father has never forgiven the Cavantales for that act of betrayal in their failure to protect her. But he supports them publicly so that our enemies see a unified front of political acumen and sheer brutal strength.”
I am about to speak, but I hear someone behind me. Calliar Cersey looks down from the top of the stares, his face a contorted mixture of sorrow and anger.
“You dare talk about her? With an outsider?” He seems to flow down the stares, like a graceful storm.
I shove her to the side, pushing her out of the way of her father in his violent outburst.
I feel a strong grip around my neck and I’m swung against the wall like a rag doll. I gag as I feel my breath hold in my windpipe, cut off as Calliar Cersey presses his hand against my throat.
I strike out like Rebekah taught me, but he dodges the strike before it’s even half way to him, it’s as if he can see trhe moves I make before I make them.
He looks down on me, his grey eyes filled with something I have seen so often down on the Surface. The absence of hope, the utter despair that one carries when they have lost everything.
He blinks and releases me, stepping back.
“I’m sor-” He doesn’t get to finish the sentence, he dodges a right hook from Rebekah, skidding away from us.
She doesn’t relent, she strikes with punches, kicks and jabs.
I step back, fear bursting through my veins as I see the true strength of the Nobles. Cersey refuses to fight his daughter, or maybe he can’t, he blocks her blows a mili-second before they collide with his body.
Rebekah dodges to the side, her knee smashes into her father’s stomach, but she doesn’t stop there; she continues with the momentum, driving him over knee, flipping him over.
She pins him to the ground, her elbow jammed to his throat
“You do not strike at my Maiden.” She hisses like a viper, her body rigid in her rage. She sighs to herself, digging her elbow deeper into his throat.
“We can’t just pretend that mother never existed, that they never lived. We’re doing all this for them, aren’t we?” She eases the pressure, but she doesn’t kill the move completely. “I won’t let you shut the memory of her away.”
She gets up and steps away from her father. The halls are clear, not a soul saw what happened aside from me. Lord Sovereign Cersey doesn’t even look at me as I bow as my head as he strides away.
Rebekah leads me away, gently pulling me along until we sit down in a lounge, silent as the grave.
She gently tips my head up, observing my throat and checking to see if there will be any bruising. She leaves for a moment and brings back some ice.
“Are you alright?” She asks gently, “I’m sorry, I should have intervened quicker.” Her eyes darken, “He loved my mother dearly, and it pains him that she is no longer alive. I said that he blamed the Cavantales, but above all he blames himself.” She shakes her head, a forlorn expression crossing her lips.
She then looks back, a smile bursting on her face. “Come on! We can’t skip you’re studies!”
A loud thunder clap wakes me from my sleep. I clutch against the blanket, still terrified of the sound the ship makes when it lands.
When I turn my attention to the room, I realise that Calliar Cersey is already there, looking out ahead of me through the cockpit’s window. I his pulseblade strapped to his waist, he is dressed in full armour. Rebekah told me that it is ReacArmour, a lesser variant of the fluid-looking armour that I saw on Kaldratos Vixiua.
He nods his greeting to me, before addressing Fenris. “Double the guard today, and extend the perimeter by half a kilometre. Gillian doesn’t much like me, so I want to be warned if anything goes wrong.”
“Ah, sir, she’s just never met you. I’m sure she’d love you if she just talked to you.” Calliar laughs at this.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence. Still, I’m going to be cautious here.” He smiles, and then turns as Rebekah enters.
“You’ll be staying with the ship today, the Demons will be staying too.” It was his pet name for his Guards, the Cersian Household Guard. “I won’t be taking them with me today.” Rebekah looks worried at that, but does not voice her fears. She settles next to me, staying silent.
The light of one of the Sector’s two stars shines on the ship, signalling dawn. Calliar checks his wrist, seeing the time. He nods to himself, and I see his eyes flicker to Rebekah. For just a moment I see uncertainty, and fear. The wish to say something that has been kept dark for too long.
“I’ll see you all soon,” he flashes a smile. And heads for the landing ramp. Rebekah watches as he leaves, but then turns away once his silhouette is out of the cockpit door.
“There’s something he’s not telling me.” She muses, but then shakes her head, dismissing it.
Fenris swivels in his seat. “It’s probably nothing, my lady. You know how he is.” He rolls his eyes, allowing a smile.
He is not a young-looking man, he looks around the same age as Lord Cersey. I wonder when the two had met, and I save that mental note for somewhere down the line.
“I’m sure you’re right, Fenris.” She nods, appreciative of his support. We turn as a man walks behind us. He salutes Rebekah and then looks towards her. He is Lacomus, Captain of the Cersian Household Guard, and head of House Cersey’s security forces.
“My lady, the perimeter is being set now. His Lordship informed me that you are not to venture beyond it, but are allowed to walk outside so long as it is in the vicinity of the perimeter.” He looks apologetic, but his words sound hard like iron.
Rebekah sighs, but nods, and a second later a beaming smile emits from her. “Thank you graciously, Captain.” She stands, turning to me. “Will you accompany me, Risa?” I nod, and take her outstretched hand.
I take her hand and we stroll out of the ship. As we go, I notice that the soldiers stand to attention as soon as she appears. Not out of forced ceremony, but with genuine respect and admiration in their gaze.
When we step out of the ship, I hear Rebekah breath in deeply. She closes her eyes, taking in the smells around her, the feel of the world. She does this every place she goes, intent on feeling the world. I’ve always found it a bit weird, but I don’t say anything.
I take the time to look around me. We’re on a landing platform. A private one, as evident by the complete lack of ships or other people around us. I look down, and see a bustling city below, far below. Towering sky scrapers dwarf other, smaller buildings. I can see a distinct cut between the rich and the poor. Shimmering glass towers, side by side with rickety houses. Nearer on, I see a guard station near a bridge, stopping undesirables from entering the area of the rich.
“Even here, on a world that is built upon the populous, there is a great oppression of the poor. Not like on Capitallium. They don’t systematically murder entire cities here. But, they aren’t allowed out of certain areas unless they have a card stating that their Birth Rank allows them to. It’s insane.”
Personally, I think they have it pretty good. After what I’ve seen. She notices my look, and looks sheepish. “I’m sorry, Risa. I know my own thoughts of this must be biased, and I’ve had rather limited experience at being impoverished…” She smiles lightly at her little joke, but I can’t stop thinking about all the times I had to run from the Lower Guard Taskforce. Those screens they put up, they constantly told us that the LGT was there to protect us, to safe guard us from lawlessness and harm. But whenever they rarely tried to give us food, water or supplies, the gangs would come. And then the LGT would kill everyone in the general vicinity with Pyron bombs. The stupidity of a few criminals killed us all. Either because the LGT saw no use in handing out food to people who would just try to kill them, or because they saw us as cockroaches that needed to be exterminated.
“Come on, let’s go into town.” Rebekah grabs my hand and tugs me along.
“But… We’re not allowed to go out of the perimeter. And yesterday you said that the next forty-eight hours could be dangerous!” Rebekah stops in her tracks, and turns back to me.
“You’re right. If you don’t want to go, I’m not going to force you. But I do want to go, to explore and visit places. And…” She looks behind her, to see where the guards are. But then shakes her head.
I hesitate, for just a moment. But then I nod, and I follow her. We walk for a few minutes, talking about Rebekah’s childhood and my own, the fun she had with her father, even after her mother had died.
When we’ve gone a little way, a small beep comes from her wrist. A second later, three soldiers in black armour with demonic masks appear from nowhere, deactivating their InvisCloaks.
“My lady,” the tone that flows from the helmet is robotic and frightening. “Our orders are to keep you safe in the perimeter.”
“And I’m deciding to go outside of it, at least for a little while.”
The man looks to his comrades. “My lady, we will escort you.” Rebekah sighs, but nods.
“Fine, but with InvisCloaks, and at a distance. Understood?” She rolls her eyes to me, but the three troopers salute.
We start walking again.
Rebekah leans closer to me. “The next few days could be very dangerous. Yes. Honestly, if things go badly, my family could be purged, and every single person you’ve talked to over the last few months could die.” She says this lightly, as if this happens often. She notices my strangled look, and smiles lightly.
“This is the life of a Noble. Plots, schemes, and constant fear of death.” She shakes her head. “And, luxury. A lot of luxury.”
I snort, “You have it pretty easy, my lady.”
“Oh hell, please don’t call me that.” Rebekah smiles.
“I have been assigned as your Maiden. It is the custom to call you My Lady, or My ladyship, yes? You taught me that.” I hear her mutter under her breath, but she smiles again.
“Only in public events and places, for the sake of appearance. But, when we’re alone –“ She glances behind her. “Well, you know. When it is supposedly just us, you don’t need to. Everyone calls my father Lord, but only because he’s head of the House.”
She shakes her head, taking a serious look again. “Anyway, what I said earlier wasn’t a joke. We really could all be dead in the next day or two. I’ve seen you looking at the charts. You know we haven’t gone anywhere near Heraea. We’ve been going to varying planets and systems, then stuck in a ship for a day while missing out on all the beautiful scenery.” We come to the end of the platform, and there is a solid elevator waiting for us.
“Take the next one!” She calls back to her guards, as we step on to it and the door slides closed. “My father has been meeting with various Nobles and influential Patricians. My mother and father were friends of ArenGarla and Pellores. Pellores was a very gifted young man, he was a member of the Lower Nobility, and was looked down on in the Institution and the Academy. It was seen as unseemly that he did so well, when some of the Upper Nobles failed compared to him. My parents believed in him, though, in his dream. My father always wanted to change how they were treated. But, my mother was always more adamant that change must come. That it isn’t good enough for their rights to be better. The people should be equal. She didn’t want to abolish the Nobility, just to make certain that there were certain privileges available to all. They disagreed on this for most of their marriage, my father just saw no way of retaining the Nobility, and hence the Imperium, in such a system. But, after my mother died, he changed. He took on my mother’s dream and made it his own. That is why we are here. That is why it is dangerous, because here is the start of a Revolution.”
She looks hesitant for a moment, but then squeezes my arm. “I’m sorry that you’re caught up in this. If we fail, then you will most likely die with us.”
I shake my head, enthralled by the idea of fighting alongside a revolution. From what I had seen of Calliar and Rebekah, I believe it may just be possible. “I’m a Surface Dweller. From what I’ve read, my life expectancy is between the ages of nine and twenty-three. So, I’m not losing much anyway.” Rebekah clicks her fingers and turns to me.
“How old are you, anyway?”
“Uh, I honestly have no idea. Sorry.” Rebekah looks shocked as I speak, and then promises that we’ll find out as soon as we’re back at the ship. I smile, and then drift my eyes out to the scene ahead of me. The elevator is taking us to the edge of the richest part of the town. Opulence decors the entire area. Sparkling water fountains, dancing dolphins and water that changes colour depending on the mood of anyone who goes in it.
“This is the first time we can explore. So, I want to show you everything.” She laughs heartily, and then thinks to herself. “The museum! It’s beautiful here, so we should go there first and then I can just tell father that this was a learning experience as well as exploration. Which, might calm him down a little bit.”
We walk through the beautiful decor, the glamorous parks that sparkle with so much wealth I’m almost afraid to be here. But I stop when I see something I recognise, a large rectangular screen on the side of a building. What it plays is the live feed of a fuel.
There is a boy, he looks as young as I. But the screen shows him killing men and women. Three of them come for him, but he dodges and weaves through their attacks, cutting them down with his scythe, what Rebekah said was a pulsescythe when listing the different versions of a pulseblade that existed. He stabs forward, skewing one of the fighters and tearing his chest open as he gracefully dances to teh side, dodging a swing from his left and parrying a blow from the right, following it with a stab to the knees of his attacker. He moves elegantly, but brutally, he uses the pommel of the staff to beat the head of one of his enemies, before cutting him in half.
The last contestant is a female, she looks to be twice his age, she holds herself in a venomous stance, ready to kill. When she charges forward he goes to meet her, a dashing smile crossing cruel lips. His scythe spins, and he lops off both her arms at the elbow before spinning and planting the blade straight through her neck. She sinks forward, her head carving in two as it passes through the blade. A loud cheer erupts from all those around him, his name being chanted at the top of everyone’s lungs.
“That is Torvold Cavantale,” Rebekah informs me. “He’s the newest hearthrob and attention of the media. Some say he’s as good as Vixiua, others say he’s even better. I’ve heard that he challenged one of the Principaic Knights for their position and was only saved from execution by his mother’s intervention.” She shakes her head, “He’s an idiot if he thinks he’s worthy of being a Principaic. It isn’t about the ability to kill, but loyalty and decency as well.” She scoffs, “Someday he’ll step over the line, and it will be his death.”
I nod. Torvold Cavantale. The thought of him fighting frightened me. I had never seen such a blatant disregard of life, even by the LGT. He took such joy in the killing, like he’s insane.
Rebekah must have noticed my look, because she steps in front of me. “Some say the Cavantales take this neurosis drug. It boosts their physical capbilities through mental enhancement. Better reflexes, better vision, they’re stronger. Consistently the Cavantales have been brutal and heartless for generations. But, that boy is not the worst of them, not by far. His elder sister, Marilyn Cavantale, murders families on a regular basis.” She sighs, “The only difference is that she does it on direct orders from Her Majesty. Legal slaughter.”
She shakes her head, “Bloodyhell, sorry for being so dour. Come on!”
For the next four hours, Rebekah drags me around the town. She drags me from museums, to cafes, to parks where trees intertwine and fairy-looking creatures – I’d watched a few cartoons on our travels – prance in the trees, creating glowing snowflakes in the middle of summer. I see children playing and running. Laughing and enjoying life. Parents walking and smiling, laughing at their happiness. A couple lying in the grass and warmth, embracing each other as the twin-stars comes up after their night of watching the darkness.
But, the beauty and grandeur is lost when the world turns dark. I twist my head down every alley way. The smell of the city is fresh, clean. Happy. The air brushes against my cheek softly, and the temperature is mild. Not too cold, not too warm.
Everything here is ideal. It’s too different from my own life.
We are walking when we come across one of the large holo-screens around the city. But this screen shows a woman, standing proud, with half a dozen men and women in military uniforms standing beside her. Her speech fills me with dread.
“Citizens of the Delcato Sector and the Imperium. Today is a great day for our Empire! A group of conspirators and plotters have been seized. Those who wish to terrorise Her Majesty’s people-“ She salutes – “and cause unrest and turmoil amidst our great nation. These foul criminals believe that it is right for the Commoners to have equal rights as the Nobles. They wish to topple the Imperium! To cut us from our roots and break us apart! But that will not happen! As Her Majesty’s Servant, I have apprehended these criminals, and within twenty-four hours, each and every single one of them will be executed for High Treason. Long Live Her Majesty! Long Live the Imperium!”