ʞ / fiction / Spirals /

Strange Bedfellows

from a serial by Lexi Summer Hale

“Her Valiance the Dame-Colonel to see you, milady.”

Dove sighs, delicately setting down her quill pen. She glances at the justiciar sitting across from her, who nods.

“Send her in.”

The butler curtseys and shuts the door behind her, leaving the two women momentarily alone again in the little study. The justiciar reaches out and gently takes Dove by the hand.

“Are you ready for this?”

Dove purses her lips. “Are you, Peri?”

Peregrine squeezes her hand, offering her a thin smile. “A justiciar is always ready.”

“I envy you that.”

The door opens again and the butler steps back into the study. “H-her Valiance Dame-Colonel Condor Stillglade, Guardswoman of her Imperial Radiance the Sixth Empress,” she announces, fidgeting nervously as the woman strides past her. “Daughter of her Esteemed Vigilance Stork th-the Countess Stillglade of Orbital Circuit Nine at Bashful Nightshade upon the Apex of Heaven’s Garde—”

“Thank you, Thrush; that will be all.” Dove waves the butler away, fixing her eyes on Condor. The guardswoman is tall, even for a Zyahua pureblood, arrayed in richly woven robes, a beautifully-crafted dueling sword pinned at her waist. Her body is bulky with muscle, striking a sharp contrast to Dove’s almost emaciated frame. Her bare shoulders are impressively scarred.

Condor stands in the center of the room, hands clasped behind her back, glancing about with ill-concealed contempt. “You… summoned me, your Serenity?” she asks in voice that sounds as though it should be shouting orders on a battlefield.

“I did, Dame Stillglade. Please sit.”

Condor narrows her eyes but complies, taking a seat next to the justiciar. “I hope this is an important matter, your Serenity,” she says, eyes boring into Dove’s. “Every moment I squander in this palace is one stolen from my duty to the Empire.”

“Yes, your duty.” Dove leans back in her chair, tapping her desk with a fingernail. “Precisely what duty is that, your ‘Valiance?’”

Condor looks affronted. “Are we not at war? Even at this very moment are not the women of the Guard sacrificing their lives to repel the barbarian invader and quash the peasant upstart? My duty is to the holy dominion of our beloved Empress, as, I might remind you, is yours. It is our blood that spills so you might retain your title, your holdings, your authority, your soft beds, and—”

“‘Our blood.’ That’s an interesting way to phrase it.” Dove eyes the dame-colonel coldly. “Blood spills aplenty in my streets but none of it is yours, your Valiance. There are no barbarians here for you to repel. And yet here you remain.”

“Here we remain, your Serenity, that we might frustrate the barbarian’s passage of the Diamond Range.” Condor grits her teeth. “Should this city fall, the tide of war might turn in an instant. Surely the strategic importance of Kiteroost has not escaped you?”

The Duchess steeples her fingers. “It has not escaped me. Nor did it escape the previous four generations of my ancestresses. Surely you have noticed the Highwall? The gun emplacements? The watchtowers and missile platforms? The militia we maintain even in times of peace?”

Condor scoffs. “Do you seriously mean to equate your rabble of toy soldiers to the might of her Radiance’s Imperial Guard?”

“No, dame. I mean to ask you what service, precisely, you are performing for my city when there is no enemy here for you to fight.”

“Do you think the enemy will not come?” Condor growls. “Her Supremacy has seen fit to garrison your city with the mightiest warriors Haven has ever known. Your peers to the east beg for such potent protection; you should be grateful for our presence!”

Dove takes a deep breath. “I do not object to a garrison in my city, dame. But we are well-defended against the socialist menace. If we feared these barbarians as much as the other marcher cities do, we would I think accept the price of your presence in turn for the security it bought us. But for a city under no threat of subjugation, that price has become too high. That is why I have summoned you.”

“What price?” Condor looks baffled. “We levy no taxes. We take no conscripts. All the Guard asks of Kiteroost is room and board for our legion, which is inconsequential to so large a city and so wealthy a house.”

“That is not true, dame,” says Peregrine softly. “Your soldiers abuse our population. They misuse their status to flout the highest of her Radiance’s law. And this cannot continue.”

“‘Abuse?’ What in Haven are you talking about, woman?”

“I have made repeated complaints to your office,” Peregrine replies. “I have watched so many young women and men break down crying in my office when I tell them I cannot prosecute your soldiers for violating their bodies. That I can do nothing to stop it from happening to them again and again and again; that I am as helpless to protect them as they are to resist a Guardswoman’s mighty hand around their throat. And you pay no heed.”

“…this? This is your quarrel with the legion? God within, justiciar; a woman has needs!” Condor heaves a sigh of exasperation. “You cannot possibly begrudge a soldier her comfort in time of war?”

“I have needs as well, and yet I do not rape those under my power,” Dove returns coldly.

“Your people should feel honored to be bedded by a warrior of the Empress.”

“Honored!?” Peregrine cries out in disbelief. “Honored!? To have their womanly virtue so cruelly assaulted? To be bruised and bloodied and broken by their sworn protectors?”

“They bring it upon themselves!” Condor growls. “In all the lands of holy Carnelian noble and commoner alike plead to know the gift of our embrace. To refuse the touch of a Guardswoman is to refuse the Empress, by whose divine will our sacred bodies from fire and iron are wrought. You—”

“Enough.” Dove interrupts, her voice quivering with anger. “I stood by and did nothing as your people thieved and raped and maimed and killed. I stood by like a coward as you robbed my city of its peace and prosperity, as the civilians who trusted me begged on their knees for justice against your cruelty and rapacious appetites. And now my family has paid the price for my craven inaction. Now my own daughter has suffered the same violation as so many innocent women and men at the hands of your wretched thugs, who dare hide from justice behind the name of the Empress. And I will watch silently no more.”

“From this moment forward,” Peregrine says, “your soldiers are subject to the jurisdiction of the Justicariat. You will carry out whatever discipline I so order against your command, up to and including execution of rapists. Furthermore, the Guard contingent is hereafter forbidden from leaving its barracks except to patrol the walls or defend the city from attackers.”

“Your legion will either comply with these terms or leave Kiteroost immediately. That is our ultimatum,” Dove concludes, glowering at Condor. “That is the price of raping my daughter.”

For a moment, the only sound in the study is the crackle of wood in the fireplace.

Slowly, Condor stands. Her fists are balled and her expression is furious. “How dare you,” she says quietly. “I should have you burned for treason.”

“A peer of the Realm and a sworn justiciar?” asks Dove softly. “Even the Empress does not have that authority.”

Condor shakes her head. “We will remain in Kiteroost for as long as the General commands it, and we will take from your ungrateful city what we require, as is our right. Don’t ever try to meddle in the affairs of the Guard again; I will not show such restraint in the future. We’re done here.”

With that, she storms out of the study, slamming the door behind her.

Dove takes a deep breath. “I… I hoped…”

“As did I,” Peregrine says gently. “And… I think we both knew it would have to end this way.”

“Goddammit.” Dove pulls a flask from her desk, taking a quick swig of whiskey. She passes it to Peregrine, who after a moment’s hesitation, takes a sip as well.

“I’m with you, Dove,” she says, handing the flask back. “Let’s finish this.”

Dove closes her eyes, and nods. “Thrush!” she calls after a moment, her voice shaky. “Send them in.”

Two people follow the butler into the room, a Zyahua man in militia fatigues and a Khmai woman in a camouflage-patterned tunic. Thrush curtseys to the Duchess and slips out behind the others, pulling the door shut behind her. Peregrine touches Dove’s hand encouragingly.

“Colonel,” says Dove quietly, “it’s time.”

“That bitch Condor ain’t feeling cooperative, I take it?”

“She is not.” Dove shakes her head. “I want her alive if possible, but one way or another, she cannot be permitted to return to the barracks.”

“It will be done, milady.” The colonel bows. “Just know that… whatever happens, the militia’s got your back as long as we draw breath. Your family’s always done right by us. High time to return the favor, you ask me.”

Dove smiles, her gaze dropping. “I don’t deserve that loyalty. But thank you.”

The Khmai woman glances between them, raising an eyebrow. “What exactly is happening, Lady Blackthorn?”

Dove nods at the colonel, who withdraws, shutting the door gently behind him. “Call me Dove, Mistress Iris. One way or another, the title isn’t going to matter much longer.”

“Dove, then. What is going on?”

Dove looks up at her, and Iris sees tears in her eyes. “I would like to negotiate my terms of surrender.”

Iris stares at her for a moment. “I’m… sorry, what are you saying exactly?”

“You have an army nearby. I will open the gates for it, cede Kiteroost to the Commonwealth, put our militia at your disposal, and surrender my person to the mercy of the Collectivization Authority. I just need… guarantees.”

“…this is why you brought me to Kiteroost?”

Dove nods.

“Wh-why?” Iris blurts out, visibly stunned. “Forgive me, La— er, Dove, I don’t mean to look a gift pien şai in the dorsal cavity, but— what could possibly compel you to surrender the Empire’s most fortified city to your worst enemy, without a single shot fired? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Dove looks away. Peregrine squeezes her hand gently. “I— an Imperial Guard legion has been garrisoned here. They are… hurting people. I couldn’t even keep my own daughter safe.”

“Your… daughter?” Iris falters. “Is Mistress Falcon— is she alright? I haven’t seen her in—”

“Falcon is alive, if that’s what you’re asking.” Tears are streaming down Dove’s cheeks. “She was raped by a Guardswoman last night. So I can’t wait any longer. Mistress Iris, I pray that you never see someone you love so broken and so violated.”

For the first time, the look Iris gives the Duchess is one of compassion. “I’m… so sorry, Dove.”

“I can’t— I can’t let them hurt anyone else. This has to stop. And there’s nothing I can do. The Guard is above my authority. Even if I had the military might to expel them from Kiteroost, they’d s-simply be back in force and I’d be burned alive as a traitor and God alone knows what would happen to the rest of my family. They’d probably be sold as slaves. If I was very, very lucky.” She looks back up. “But you— you h-have Greens fighting for you. You can defeat the Guard, run them out of town. The Militia will fight alongside you. Drive out those feral pien şai and Kiteroost is yours. My money, my holdings, my body, all of it is yours to do with as you please. I only ask that you treat my people well.”

Slowly, Iris sits down, tugging a blank sheet of paper out from under the Duchess’ fingers and dipping her quill in the inkpot. “Alright, Dove,” she says softly. “What are your terms?”

“Is it true you have… wise men skilled in the healing of the spirit and the heart?”

“We do, yes. The Society has trained them in those arts.”

“Then my terms are this. My children must be kept safe. Take care of them.” Dove wipes her cheeks with a handkerchief. “You can do whatever you want to me. Lock me up, kill me, beat me, sell me into slavery, ransom me, deport me to a gulag, use me as leverage or for pleasure, I don’t care; just… see that no more harm comes to her. Help my daughter. Help her come back from what they did to her.”

Iris scratches a few notes in Khmai. “I don’t think that will be a problem. Anything else?”

“I need to speak to my son before I open the gates. I need to hear his voice so I can know you haven’t harmed him.”

“Of course. As soon as the sun sets we’ll be able to reach the Commonwealth by skywave. Is that all?”

Dove looks up at Peregrine. Their eyes meet, and Dove takes her hand in both of hers. “If… if there’s any way you could… Peregrine is a good woman, Mistress Iris. She’s a true justiciar, not some venal blackrobe. She always does what’s right, not just what the nobles want; she doesn’t take bribes. She lives humbly, keeps to her vows. She doesn’t… doesn’t have people killed or tortured or sent to the camps for sedition or selling opium or for… doing what they have to to survive.”

“Dove—” Peregrine begins, but Dove cuts her off.

“There’s a— a Daughters of the Flame cell here, I know they’re a Pact faction.” She laughs unsteadily. “Oh, I used to hate them. I fought them, tried so hard to hurt them, imprison them, and drive them out of the city. So, so many times. They were always causing trouble. But Peri never let any harm come to them. Ask them if you don’t believe me. She got them out of lockup again and again, found excuses to find them innocent every time. So just— do what you want to me, it doesn’t matter, but please— look after Peregrine, will you? She can help you, she—”

Iris raises a hand. “I can see you care a lot about this woman,” she says gently. “The city leaders will all be investigated individually. Her decisions will be reviewed and she’ll have a chance to speak for herself. We try to salvage everyone we can; we don’t just send everyone who isn’t completely perfect away to a gulag. Is that acceptable?”

“It’s more than enough,” says Peregrine hurriedly. “Really, Dove, you don’t need to look after me—”

Dove clutches her hands. “I can’t— I can’t let anything happen to you. God, Peri, I can’t, I—”

“Shh.” Peregrine kisses her palms gently. “It’ll be alright.”

Dove looks back at Iris. “You have to guarantee Peregrine won’t be hurt. You have to. It’s the only way I’ll… go through with this.”

Iris gazes at the two of them for a moment, fingers to her lips. “How about this. If the Daughters of the Flame don't dispute what you’ve told me about her, she will be granted provisional Commonwealth citizenship and will be unconditionally protected from execution, torture, deportation, or punitive labor. Is that an acceptable compromise?”

Dove exhales. “Yes. Yes, thank you.”

Peregrine stands, walks behind Dove’s desk, and pulls her gently to her feet. She embraces her tenderly, caressing her bare back, and the duchess practically crumples in her arms.

“Peri?”

“Yes, Dove?”

“Will you… look after my kids?”

There are tears now in Peregrine’s eyes. “Of course I will, Dove.”

Iris clears her throat. “I don’t know what stories and rumors you may have heard about the Commonwealth, Dove,” she interjects, “but we’re not going to just… have you taken out and shot or anything like that. Our primary concern will be taking control of Kiteroost and tending to its people, not meting out vengeance. And you’re surrendering to us of your own free will. We respect that.”

Dove wipes her face on a sleeve, and looks back up at Iris. “I… thank you. You are… kinder than I anticipated.”

“The Commonwealth has no use for cruelty.” Iris folds up her notes, slips the sheet into her purse. “Since you’re satisfied with the terms, we should begin planning for the operation itself—”

“Of course, of course.” Dove nods. “I’ll assemble a council. But first… I need to speak with my daughter.”