Saving Captain Row
by Ivy Rangee
I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one.
Then, after filling every media outlet with sanctimonious drivel,
The age discovers this hero is not a true one.
Are actions less heroic if their doers are not flawless?
No matter, of these I do not care to boast.
I'll consider Captain Alexander Row -
We've all seen him, in the anime,
Waiting in the shadows, biding his time.*
Chapter 1: Trouble
Anatoray Military Academy
Vanship Maintenance Hanger
15 Octovrios, 3026
Annual Autumn War Games
"Ensign Row, get in here," called Junior Lieutenant Kori Kosta, a tall, lean cadet, whose mechanic's kepi failed to constrain her silky black hair which fell around her angular face in feathery, curly wisps. "You have your orders."
Ensign Alexander Row ignored Junior Lieutenant Kosta. Instead, he remained outside the maintenance hanger watching the Anatoray Military Academy's Annual Autumn War Games. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he observed the western sky where two ships carried on maneuvers. The crews of the Indefatigable and the Valiant had just completed the First Foray, which required each ship to open their facing side bays so rows of foot soldiers could shoot each other with steam muskets. Now each ship's crew rushed to count and remove the dead and wounded so that the bays could be closed in order to begin the Second Foray: shooting at each other with cannons. Both the actions and the order in which they occurred were mandated by the Guild in its handbook, The Rule of Law for Orderly War: Procedures, Chronologies and Canon. Deviations from any of the thousands of pronouncements within this thicktome were not allowed. Violations were, in fact, severely punished, both during academy simulations and bonafide warfare. The Guild's rules were so bizarre and barbaric that the only reasonable conclusion for their existence could never be spoken in public. Revealing that the Guild used their rules of warfare as a means of population control and power consolidation would land the speaker in prison or, more likely, in an early grave. In spite of these prohibitions, Alex wished to act. He knew of a simpler means by which to defeat the Valiant; no matter how many points her crew amassed. So it was, he closed his eyes and bowed his head, praying to Lord Ares - always a dangerous thing – and asking the powerful war god for a chance to fight.
"Hey, Row! Wake up!" said Kosta, waving her hand in front of his face. "Get to work! Tick-tock, tick- tock, times a'wasting."
Alex frowned at the junior lieutenant. Why were the cadets of Barracks H always so obedient? The elite cadets and even most of the instructors treated them like dirt. Life was so miserable for them that they had elaborated on the H that named their barracks, adding only a few letters to make it Hades. Worst of all they never got to participate in war games or any other soldierly task. Instead, they were always tapped for maintenance duty, whether it be repairing warships and weapons or cleaning up the mess left by their fellow cadets. However, in spite of this humiliation, Alex complied with Kosta's order; the situation was not her fault. Too, he liked her; she was smart, not to mention cute in a tomboyish sort of way. Thus, showing off a bit, he twirled his wrench like a drumstick, while he made his way to the heavy transport he had been assigned to repair and then load with supplies.
"Don't look at me like that; we have our orders, Ensign Row," said Kosta as he walked past her. "When the fighting is over, there will be an inspection, and our due diligence will be assessed. We may even help our team win."
"You're naive, Kosta. Team Indefatigable will lose, no how many points for due diligence we earn."
"Are you insane, Row? Never ever speak such heresy out loud."
"Why? It's true."
"Since you are a first year, I will not assign you extra duty. In return you will not, under any circumstances, tell any of your fellow teammates that we are about to lose. They will beat the crap out of you, and you will deserve it."
"Are you telling me to lie?"
"Lie? What is the matter with you? You're usually so tightlipped."
"I'm tired of losing...especially for such idiotic reasons," growled Alex, removing his Team Indefatigable armband.
"You there - mechanic, what do you think you are doing?" asked Junior Lieutenant Aquila Caelus, the cadet in charge of the maintenance hanger.
"Are you stupid?" demanded Alex. Junior Lieutenant Kosta stared at him. Her face betrayed a kaleidoscope of emotions: horror, fear, curiosity, admiration and finally awe.
"Put your armband back on, Ensign whatever-your-name-is."
"No!" Alex said, casting the armband to the floor. Junior Lieutenant Caelus took a step back as the cadets of Hades moved their work closer to the altercation. It was a rare treat when one of their own had the audacity to stand up to a cadet from Barracks A, the habitat of the academy's elite cadets whose sole claim to superiority rest with their families' noble titles and wealth.
"What is your name?" demanded Caelus from a safe distance.
"What's yours?" asked Alex.
"If you do not answer, I'll have you thrown in the brig – disobedience is a serious offense during a war game."
"Identify yourself, Ensign."
"I need not identify myself to you, unless you state your name, rank and barracks affiliation first."
"I am your commanding officer, Junior Lieutenant Aquila Caelus of Barracks A. Refer to me as sir. Now! Who are you?"
"Ensign Alexander Row. Barracks H. Sir."
"Ah, Row, no wonder," said Caelus.
"Sir?" asked Alex.
"I suppose this is the result of allowing the bastard offspring of inferior houses into our hallowed academy."
To the cadets of Hades this was a familiar insult; even so they regarded their temporary commander with obvious disapproval. Caelus's beady blue-gray eyes darted back and forth as he brought his hand to his command whistle.
"I see how things are," said Caelus, backing into the hanger's yawning entrance. "It only takes one mutinous cadet to bring out the barbarian in the rest of you. I will sound the alert for the provost and his men-at-arms if you don't return to your duties immediately."
"Junior Lieutenant Caelus," called the prefect of Barracks H, Junior Lieutenant Karl Wolf, a tall, handsome cadet with short, spiky blond hair. "There is no need for that; no one has committed an offense that calls for arrest."
"But this Row fellow!"
"He was just about to replace his armband, and apologize to you. Weren't you Ensign Row?"
Alex considered Wolf's words; he and his fellow first years had been under Wolf's tutelage since their arrival at Barracks H. Wolf followed the rules to the letter, but Alex found his actions fair and his advice reliable. He regretted having to give in to this twit; however, he realized it was time to deescalate the animosity before it ended in serious trouble for his barracks mates.
"I apologize, Junior Lieutenant Caelus," said Alex, replacing his armband.
"Accepted; however, you will not get off with just a simple apology, Ensign Row. Fifty demerits, and a week of extra duty," pronounced Caelus, taking out a small leather-bound notebook and scribbling in it. "Now get back to work, the lot of you."
"How many demerits do you have now?" asked Kosta. "And how much extra duty?"
"Unknown," said Alex.
"Thirty hours of extra duty and three hundred fifty-five and one half demerits," said Wolf, perusing a small notebook. "Hey Row, who gave you half a demerit?"
"That would be none of your business."
"It's all my business. I'm your prefect."
"Rumor has it that it was that cadet from Barracks A," said Kosta. "The one he was assigned to for extra duty. He tutors her for Rooney's class. One rumor says it was because he was a little too honest about her poetic abilities or lack thereof. "
"And the other?" asked Wolf.
"Claims he refused to kiss her."
"Well, Row, which is it?"
"Enough chit-chat," said Caelus. "Get back to work."
Under the watchful eye of Junior Lieutenant Caelus, the cadets of Barracks H turned their attention back to their duties. After a few minutes, Caelus called Wolf over to impart further instructions after which he finally departed. The wolf pack, a Barracks H clique, immediately stopped their work and watched while one of their members, Ensign Julian Whelan, silently imitated Junior Lieutenant Caelus' superior manner, raising his butt in the air and prancing around like a horse about to shit. He would occasionally pause and write with elaborate flourishes in an imaginary notebook. When Ensign Roland Packard guffawed, Caelus turned. Under observation, all of the denizens of Hades appeared to be working with due diligence. Still Caelus made a note in his little book before continuing on his way. The wolf pack in unison flipped him the bird; it was their trademark move and they did it with military precision.
As soon as Junior Lieutenant Caelus was completely out of sight, the wolf pack surrounded Alex, slapping him on the back. They had taken note of Alexander Row, and had tried numerous times to get him to commit to their organization. Alex, however, was not a pack animal.
"Hey, Row, that was pretty ballsy. What's up with you? Reach your limit?" asked Junior Lieutenant Edouard Pelletier, the wolf pack's alpha male.
Alex ignored him, crossing the hangar to resume maintenance on the heavy transport. Undeterred, Pelletier followed him.
"It happens to us all," said Pelletier.
"Yeah, that's how they break you."
"Why are you all so obedient?"
"We've all learned the hard way to bide our time."
"And when will our time come?"
"I'm pretty sure it's arrived. Come on, Row, I know you're up to something."
Alex stopped; Pelletier was a skilled mechanic – one of the best Alex had ever seen. He was a pretty good pilot too, and he could procure all kinds contraband. It made sense to befriend him.
"It depends on how you feel about demerits," said Alex.
"Obviously. So what? We always lose."
"That's because we never get to fight."
"You think the crew from Hades can fight? This is a pretty scruffy bunch. They can barely pay attention."
"Maybe so. But with a purpose and competent leadership…"
"What if we could get Team Valiant to surrender?"
"You mean to us – Barracks H?" asked Pelletier.
"What have demerits got to do with it?"
"Not just demerits, possible suspension, expulsion or even prison."
"I could use the downtime, if for nothing more than a bath. But why such severe punishments?"
"It would require breaking the Guild's rules of engagement."
"Excellent. I'm in, but what about the rest of the cadets?"
"We don't need them; in fact I can pull most of it off on my own. But I could use your help pushing a vanship out the side door. And I need someone to start it."
"Can I come with you?" asked Pelletier.
"What can one person do?"
"Are you sure you can pull this off?"
"They'll never see it coming."
Alex and Pelletier shoved an ancient vanship through the hangar's side gate, after which the two cadets rushed through a check list, preparing the ship for flight. Pelletier made minor adjustments while Alex returned to the hangar. He would show those Barracks A morons that a single member of Barracks H could force their surrender. Suck on that Anatoray Military Academy.
With absolutely confidence, Alex slipped a messenger bag over his shoulder and made his way the munitions cabinet. There he loaded up with training ordnance, including grappling hooks, explosives and a side arm.
"Row, let me help," said Pelletier, following Alex around as he packed away enough ammunition to take out a fleet.
"I'm good with explosives."
"Duly noted, but not today. It would be best for you to act like you don't know anything."
"But I want to get suspended too."
"No you don't. Now, let's move."
"You'll regret leaving me behind."
Alex leaped into the navigator's seat where he set the instruments so he could use them from the pilot's compartment. Meanwhile, Pelletier tied a Team Indefatigable flag to the front of the vanship, and then climbed onto the ship's nose. Whistling an ominous tune, he inserted a hand crank into the drive shaft and waited for Alex' signal.
"Ready," said Alex, lowering himself into the pilot's seat.
"Aren't you going to wear a seatbelt?" asked Pelletier.
"No," said Alex holding up the tattered end of what was once a safety harness.
"I hope you don't regret this."
"Just start the engine. Then get the others and go watch."
"Contact," said Pelletier, turning the crank. Alex pressed the starter and the engine came to life. His work done, Pelletier slid down the vanship's side, and, landing lightly, quickly turned and saluted. Alex could not suppress a smile as he saluted back.
The vanship rose a few meters into the air and then Alex gunned it, flying west behind a row of hangars that lined the south side of the airfield. When he passed the western most hangar, he banked northeast, soaring into the air at maximum velocity, as he approached the Valiant. The Indefatigable flew on the east side of the Valiant, the two ships fighting parallel to each other, both bows facing the north. Given this configuration the Valiant's officers would not expect an attack from the west. There was also the fact that the clock had just struck eighteen hundred hours, so Alex had the benefit of the blinding glare of the setting sun behind him, rendering him almost invisible. However, the judges and guests who rode in an observation ship above the maneuvers would have a clear view of Alex' actions.
A salvaged Disith warship, the Valiant did not have a vanship dock, so Alex landed on its stern, just above the engine room in what his fellow cadets termed the butt crack. Moving quickly, he leaped out of the vanship and fastened it to the Valiant with grappling hooks, afterward making his way to a maintenance hatchway further aft. There he lowered himself into a mechanic's duty station. Cautiously opening the door and finding no one about, he made his way to the engine room where he set explosives, wiring them to a timer set for ten minutes.
Alex had a distinct advantage over the Valiant's crew; he knew this ship well, having worked on it in preparation for the war game. And there was also the fact that the commander and his bridge officers seemed to be complete fools. Not a single cadet had been stationed in the engine room.
With the bombs armed, Alex embarked on the most difficult task: taking the bridge and capturing the commander. Getting on the Valiant's bridge unnoticed would be tricky; its circular design allowed for full view of all stations. Then too, only two or three officers need be in attendance, making a strange face notable. This is where his knowledge of the Disith ship paid off; returning to the mechanic's duty station, he climbed into a narrow maintenance shaft that connected to a doorway behind the communications officer's console on the bridge.
It was not safe to turn on the passage's auxiliary lighting, and Alex navigated the narrow, dark hallway with some difficulty. But he could not risk slowing down; the observation ship might notify the Valiant of his presence at any moment. In his haste, he tripped over the leg of an auxiliary power station and struck his head.
"Damn it! What an idiot." He should have grabbed an electric torch. Standing, he wiped sweat from brow, quickly realizing it had the hot, sticky feel of blood; finally, a use for the Team Indefatigable armband. Ripping it from his sleeve, he tied to his forehead with a piece of cord to staunch the bleeding.
Steadying himself, he moved on, but changed his mind, returning to the power station and examining it. He had some understanding of the Disith dialect from his previous work on this ship, though all translations of their instruction and maintenance manuals were incomprehensible. Still, he found the glyph for power beside a lever and switched it off. He wasn't sure what he'd shut off, but he was pretty sure it would help his cause.
With the explosives in the engine room about to detonate, Alex had no choice but to risk running, despite the increased possibility of detection. When he reached the bridge he hid behind the maintenance compartment beside the communications station. From there he could clearly hear a heated debate on the bridge.
"I suggest we board them, Captain," said one of the officers.
"Board them? That is a ridiculous suggestion. We would lose points for a breach of the Guild's rules of warfare, Junior Lieutenant Zouves."
"But we are already so far ahead," protested Zouves.
"I will have you thrown in the brig, if you do not stop questioning my orders."
Alex recognized the voice of Ensign Reid Scott, with whom he took classes. He wondered why such an inexperienced and, in truth, lowlife had been chosen for one of the two commander positions. Perhaps Scott's family had bought it for him. But no matter; this idiot made things easier.
"Sir, we have just received word from the judges that we have been boarded."
"You must have misunderstood the signal. Confirm the message."
"I have, Sir, twice."
"Do it again!"
"Commander, communications are down."
"Can't you do anything right? Let me…"
The comments of the Valiant's commander were lost as several explosions rattled the ship. Though they did no real damage, the bombs had by the rules of the game rendered the Valiant immobile. In the confusion, Alex took the bridge, seized the commander and held a gun to his head. The two other bridge officers watched Alex with bemused surprise.
"My, my what have we here?" said Ensign Piero Sforza, one of the bridge officers. "Seems someone has boarded us."
"Surrender your commander's insignia to me, Ensign Scott, or I'll have to shoot you," ordered Alex.
"I told you we should have boarded the Indefatigable," said Junior Lieutenant Nixi Zouves, crossing her arms and smirking at Scott. "We would have lost points, but we still would have won."
"Shut up and take him out," ordered Ensign Scott.
"How? We'd have to shoot right through you," laughed Ensign Sforza.
"That's not a bad idea," replied Zouves. "He's the worst commander I've ever had the misfortune to serve."
"As usual you are absolutely accurate in your appraisal, Zouves," said Sforza. "But we can't shoot our own Commander. That would be bad form."
Alex handed Scott a red flag which meant he was dead – killed by a member of Team Indefatigable.
"You bastards!" shouted Scott. "You let him shoot me."
"Shut up," said Zouves. "Silence is one of the advantages of your untimely demise."
"Yes, shut up," Alex added. "You're dead! Now, hand over your commander's insignia."
"I'll not; this isn't fair. You didn't play by the rules."
"Your lack of self-awareness is breathtaking," said Alex, as he threw Scott to the floor and seized the commander's insignia, which gave him absolute authority over all military personnel on the Valiant. It was the equivalent of a checkmate in chess. "Now, send up the white flag, and surrender to the Indefatigable."
"Fine, but you do realize you're in serious trouble," countered Zouves. "And what the blazes are you wearing on your head?"
"Well, Sforza, we'd better comply. It looks like we've been outsmarted by a mechanic."
With the Valiant's surrender, the provost and his military police unit, made up entirely of elite cadets, boarded. Following closely on their heels came the panel of war game judges, led by the Academy's ancient commandant, Commander Angus Australis Campbell. The group entered the bridge, surveying the damage.
"Who is responsible for this travesty?" asked Commandant Campbell, waving his cane in the air.
"Him," shouted Scott, getting to his feet.
"You! Ensign!" said Campbell, pointing a palsied hand at Alex. "What is your name?"
"Ensign Alexander Row."
"You have made a mockery of these games, bringing shame on the officers of this school, who have dedicated themselves to upholding the war code as handed down to us by our benefactors from the Guild," pontificated the commandant, his voice creaky with age.
"Yes, Sir," said Alex, bowing his head, so the Commandant Campbell would not see him roll his eyes.
"Stand at attention when you address me! Now where was I…"
"Our benefactors…the Guild, Sir," offered Alex.
"Er, yes the Guild… I've lost my train of thought and all because of your shenanigans, Ensign Ruff."
"What are you talking about? What has this got to do with rowing?"
"No, Sir, my name is Row."
"Are you correcting me, you smart aleck?
"Yes, Sir, that would be me, Ensign Alexander Row."
"Well, damn it, why did you tell me your name was Ruff? Hmm…Row? I believe I recognize that name. Weren't you in my office, yesterday, for fighting with an ensign from the elite barracks?"
"No, Sir," replied Alex.
"I clearly remember the name Row."
"I was definitely not in your office yesterday, Sir."
The old man glanced at Alex, "I could have sworn Row was the one who decked young Vespasian. Not that that idiot doesn't deserve a good throttling. He's an imbecile. All of the Vespasians are idiots."
Alex said nothing, hoping the Commandant would lose his train of thought again, and stop asking questions about the last time Alex had been sent to his office.
"You there, Provost Hazelnut," said Commandant Campbell. "Arrest this miscreant."
"It's Hazlitt, Sir."
"Do not talk back, Hazelnut."
"Commander Moody, escort the prisoner and his guards to my office," said Commandant Campbell. "I'll be there within the hour."
"As you wish, Sir," said Commander Moody, who had been one of the judges. "Provost Hazlitt, take Ensign Row to my transport, and wait for me there."
Provost Hazlitt ordered his cadets to hold the prisoner while he cuffed Alex' wrists behind his back. With Alex firmly secured, two burly MPs flanked him; they grabbed his upper arms, and pulled him down a long hallway. Once free of his superiors' scrutiny, Provost Hazlitt kicked Alex' knee with such force that he fell. The pain was excruciating: it spread up his spine, and he had to bite his lip to keep from crying out. Masking his discomfort, Alex regained his footing, and continued on. However, when his limp slowed progress, the MPs dragged him the rest of the way, throwing him into the cargo hold of Moody's heavy transport, which waited in the same butt crack where Alex' vanship had landed. The provost followed Alex inside.
"You fucking bastard," shouted Hazlitt, as he kicked Alex in the ribs. "Scum like you are not, I repeat are not, permitted to participate in the activities of your betters."
A deep red fury seized Alex; he rolled onto his back, brought knees to his chest and then shoved his feet into the provost's scrotum with all the force he could muster. Hazlitt stared at Alex; his eyes crossing as he fell to his knees. Everyone froze, watching the provost turned a deep shade of blue. It seemed he was about to suffocate. One of his MPs rushed into the transport and pounded the provost's chest, after which he let out a long, loud wail that sounded like a feral creature in heat. While the rest of the cadets gawked, Alex curled into a ball, snaking his arms under his legs so his cuffed wrists were now in front and leaping to his feet.
Coming to their senses, Hazlitt's MPs stormed the transport. One grabbed Alex by the hair and pulled him into a kneeling position as another punched him. Ignoring the pain, Alex continued forward with full force, bringing his elbow down on the hair puller's foot. The cadet screamed and fell to floor holding a fistful of Alex's hair. Furious, the other guard kicked Alex in the ribs.
"What in bloody Hades is going on here?" It was Commander Moody.
"Sir," whispered the very pale provost, "the prisoner's resisting arrest."
"That's hard to believe. He's in handcuffs and injured, Provost. Tell me the truth or you'll be on report for lying to a superior officer."
"Sir," croaked the provost. "I..."
"Send one of your cadets for a couple of medics, and have them un-cuff Ensign Row."
"But, Sir," moaned the provost.
"Do as I say."
With a smirk, Alex held his arms out to the provost who nodded to his pocket indicating that one his men should retrieve the key. Once free Alex held his hands to his aching head; he was bleeding again. He tried to stand, but fell to the floor.
"Provost Hazlitt, order your men to help Ensign Row to his feet, and bring him to me," said Moody, entering the heavy transport's seating area. "I should not have to explain this to you; you completed my class on the chivalric code."
"Help him," groaned Hazlitt.
Two cadets pulled Alex to his feet and steadied him as they made his way to Commander Moody.
"Sit down," said Moody, giving Alex a cloth to apply to his head. "The rest of you take your seats. We'll leave as soon as the medics are finished with our prisoner."
"What about Provost Hazlitt?" asked one of the men-at-arms. Everyone turned to the Provost who lay on his side clutching his crotch.
"After dropping us at the administration building you will be transport him to the infirmary. Hopefully he will recover with his fertility intact. Let this be a lesson to you all on the proper management of a prisoner. Now sit down and remain silent. Let me see that, Ensign Row," said Moody. Alex removed the cloth, and Moody examined him. "It will require three or four stitches, but from the look of you that's nothing new."
"Did these cadets do this to you?"
"No, I fell in the maintenance shaft of the Valiant."
"What about that eye?"
"Yes, you didn't notice?"
"I'm not sure when that happened."
"I suppose you will not give me any details."
"You realize they will claim you started it."
"So they will, Sir."
"You should report the truth of the incident; otherwise they'll do this to someone else."
"What's so funny?" demanded Moody.
There was no point in outing these elite cadets. They would never be punished for their transgressions. No matter what Alex said in his defense, or what proof there was to support his innocence, Alex would bear the blame. But there was benefit in playing the role of scapegoat. Since he was damned no matter what actions he took, he was free to do whatever he wished. And right now he wished to challenge the academy's presumptions.
The medics arrived, and, after dressing Alex' wounds, gave their diagnoses to Commander Moody: multiple contusions and abrasion, two bruised, possibly fractured ribs, possible cartilage damage to the knee, and a concussion with the added recommendation that Alex stay in the infirmary overnight for observation. Moody dismissed them and ordered the pilot to fly to the administration building.
On landing, the commander dismissed the provost and his men after instructing them to get Provost Hazlitt, who had gone green, to the infirmary. Then he helped Alex down the stairs to Commander Campbell's third floor office where the two took seats before the commandant's desk.
"Ensign Row, I have sent for Lady Hippolyte. I was surprised she did not attend."
"She had business at the capital."
"No doubt you will be suspended and grounded," said Commander Moody. "I believe it is best to get you away from the academy tonight. I doubt that Commander Campbell will agree to a stay in the infirmary, and if you spend the night in the brig, I fear you will suffer serious injury, though you seem to be able to defend yourself remarkably well."
"Thank you, Sir."
"I can't say I blame these cadets for their anger; you showed them up completely. The Indefatigable's loss seemed inevitable; then, out of nowhere, you swept in to defeat the Valiant singlehandedly."
"You planned this, yourself?"
"Yes, Sir. I was on my own - no accomplices."
"How did you start the vanship's engine on your own?"
"I managed, Sir."
"Ensign Row, though I do not approve of what you did, I have to say that was a masterful bit of flying and a clever plan."
"Thank you, Sir."
"Tell me exactly what you did."
Alex complied, explaining to Moody, that it had all started with the steam musket fire.
"Why did that bother you?" asked Moody.
"It's a land battle tactic. Why use it in air maneuvers?"
"Because it is the First Foray as prescribed by Guild in the Code of Warfare."
"It's a pointless bloodbath."
"I won't argue that. Go on."
Alex told him an edited version of the story.
"Interesting, you knew how to get around the ship because you had done maintenance on it."
"You're a clever young man, but why did you fight alone?"
"I didn't want to implicate any of my fellow Barracks H cadets."
"Even if they wanted to be implicated?"
"Are you saying I should have brought them into it?"
"An officer works with and through the military chain of command. It's a team effort; perhaps the judges would have let Team Indefatigable's win stand if you had acted in concert with your unit."
"You mean the Barracks H cadets?"
"I do, Ensign."
"Surely we would all be facing the brig."
"Possibly, but as a unit."
With that, the door swung open, and Commandant Campbell hobbled into his office. Catching his cape in the door, he attempted to shut it. Commander Moody jumped to his aid, steadying the elderly Campbell, while deftly removing the cloak from both the door and the commandant. Moody placed the cape on a coat rack, while Campbell meandered to his desk at the leisurely pace of a somnambulant turtle.
"Have my office moved to the first floor, Moody."
"I did, Sir, but you came here anyway, and then demanded to know who'd stolen your office furniture."
"Well do it again!"
"Of course, Sir."
"And this time keep me in the loop."
"Now, what the bloody hell do you want?" asked the cranky commandant, gradually lowering his ample posterior into his overstuffed chair. He seemed in great discomfort.
"Ensign Alexander Row is here to receive his punishment."
"What did he do?"
"Disrupted the war games."
"I thought that was Ensign Ruff."
"No, Sir, it was Ensign Row."
"Ah…well, what happened to him? He looks like hell."
"The provost and his men-at-arms gave him a sound beating."
"Well, he deserves it, the scoundrel. What in Hades are you teaching these juvenile delinquents, Moody? There a pack of ruffians. What will become of the great country of Anatoray when this lot takes the reins of leadership…" A knock on the door interrupted the commandant's tirade. "Shall I never get any peace? Come in whoever you are."
Junior Lieutenant Karl Wolf entered the room, walking immediately to Alex' side.
"Who are you? And what do you want? Hurry up, young man, I need to complete this business and get home so I can sit in a soothing bath. My hemorrhoids are on fire."
"Don't act like you've never heard of a hemorrhoid!"
"And don't waste my time with hemming and hawing! Get to the bloody point."
"Yes, sir. Of course, Commandant Campbell, I'm Junior Lieutenant Karl Wolf, prefect of Barracks H, at your service. Under Section D, Paragraph L of the Cadet's Code of Conduct, I wish to be present as a witness on Ensign Row's behalf when he receives his punishment."
"What are you talking about? What is he babbling about, Moody?"
"Under the Code of Conduct as Ensign Row's prefect, Junior Lieutenant Wolf has the right and duty to stand with his subordinate," explained Moody.
"Well, why was I never told of this? You must get me a copy of this so-called Code of Conduct pamphlet."
Moody walked to where the commandant sat and pulled a copy of said document from a pile that teetered on a corner of old man's desk.
"Here it is, Sir."
Commandant Campbell stared at the book for a moment and then began searching his pockets. "Where in Hades are my spectacles?"
Alex turned to Wolf with a quizzical look. The prefect smirked at him as he shook his head. Perhaps the medication that the medics had given Alex had finally taken effect, or maybe he'd just been able to relax a bit, but he could hardly contain his laughter. He put his head down and pretended to cough.
"What is wrong with you, Ensign Ruff? And why are you sitting there? Front and center! Stand at attention!" shouted the old curmudgeon.
"Yes, Sir," said Alex, standing, his head and side aching as he moved.
"Commandant Campbell, our medical personnel have diagnosed Ensign Row with a concussion and two fractured ribs," said Commander Moody. "They have asked that he be removed to the infirmary."
"The infirmary? I don't know what military you've been serving in, Moody. But in my day, this cadet would have been brought before a firing squad without the benefit of some namby pamby lawyer!"
"Sir, Junior Lieutenant Wolf is not a lawyer, and I believe we would be open to a lawsuit of unprecedented proportions if we executed Ensign Row for disobedience during a war game."
"I'm not a complete dolt, Moody; I haven't forgotten the Emperor's injunction against shooting our cadets. But here at the academy we do not mollycoddle brigands."
"It is important that he rest, Sir. A concussion is a serious injury that can result in seizures; his guardian might sue if there are complications resulting from the academy's negligence."
"Who is his guardian?"
"Lady Hippolyte Althea Martis Yokujin."
"Your point is well taken," said Commandant Campbell, obviously shaken. "No point in stirring up a bees' nest. Well, Moody, what do you suggest?"
"It would be most prudent to expedite the ensign's case so he can take his leave. I have contacted Lady Hippolyte and she will arrive shortly."
"Ensign Ruff, you are suspended from the academy for one week. You are grounded for six months, and may neither pilot nor navigate any type of ship. One hundred demerits will be applied immediately to your record. And when you return from suspension, you will perform extra duty in the kitchen for one month."
"Yes, Sir," said Alex, trying to maintain his balance, as little pink baby goats with polka dot wings flew around the room. Their constant flitting about made him ill.
"Take him to the Brig, Junior Lieutenant Wuffy," said the commandant.
"The infirmary, Sir," corrected Commander Moody.
"Whatever! Just get out of here."
"Yes, Sir," said Commander Moody and the two cadets in unison.
"Have Lady Hippolyte come to my quarters. Tell her to bring her usual medicinals."
"As you wish, Sir."
With Moody on one side and Wolf on the other, Alex limped from the commandant's office, his head reeling.
"I'm gonna to be sick," whispered Alex.
"Take Ensign Row to my office, I have a private bathroom. It's on the left, two doors down the hall; here is the key. Lock yourselves in, and do not answer the door for anyone but me. Do you understand, Junior Lieutenant Wolf?"
"How will I know it's you, Sir?"
"I'll use a pass code: ruff and wuffy."
"Sounds like a puppet show," said Alex, giggling. "The adventures of Ruff and Wuffy. Two scoundrels."
"He's giggling, Sir. I've known him for three months, and he's never done that once. He barely smiles. Are you sure the medics shouldn't see him again?"
"His great-grandmother's a doctor; she'll be here soon. I'm on my way to the airstrip to meet her. He can rest on my couch. Now move."
"She's a doctor not a vanship, Jim," said Alex, and then he laughed hysterically. "That was pretty funny; don't you think so, Wuffy?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about, Row," said Wolf. "whose Jim?"
"Get him horizontal," said Commander Moody. "Maybe he'll pass out, but make sure you wake him periodically. Medics' orders. At least we'll be spared the corny jokes for a little while."
"Corny? I prefer rubadagas, Sir," said Alex. "Er…rugadabas."
Commander Moody shook his head, "Ensign Row, you may not speak."
"Yes, Sir, Coddamnder Doody."
"That's twenty demerits," said the commander, retreating down the stairs, as Wolf helped Alex to Moody's office.
"That's a bit swevere. Don' you think, Wuffy?"
"I swear, Row, you caused more trouble today than any cadet in entire history of the academy."
"Did I, Wuffy? It's just my ruffy way." Alex cracked up.
"Today was awesome, Row. Thank you. We watched you fly to the Valiant, and then when the white flag went up we went nuts."
"It was my pressure to take those idiots down.'
"What gave you the idea to land a vanship in the Valiant's butt crack?"
"Brillence, Wuffy, sheer brillence."
Wolf leaned Alex against the wall and unlocked Moody's door, but, as he pulled Alex into the commander's office, he heard the approaching steps of several people.
"It's very dark, Wuffy, better find a light 'fore somebody gets hurt," said Alex, falling over a chair.
"Be quiet, Row, and don't touch the lights. Someone's coming."
Wolf helped Alex stand, and then dragged him to Commander Moody's couch.
"Lie down, and be quiet," he whispered. Obediently, Alex sat, as Wolf went back to the door, placing his ear against it and listening intently.
"Are we spying?" asked Alex, who now stood with his ear to the door, imitating Wolf.
"Ruff and Wuffy," whispered a low voice.
"Who goes there?" shouted Alex, losing his balance and sliding down the wall.
"Jeez, Row. What in Hades did they give you?" whispered Wolf.
"Let us in!"
Wolf opened the door to find Junior Lieutenant Kori Kosta and several members of the wolf pack. The five cadets slipped in silently, and spread out investigating the room like a black ops squad: two went immediately to the windows, stacking up on either side and peering through the blinds, one checked the closet, and another Moody's wash room.
"Kosta, what is going on?"
"Moody sent us; you can't be too careful, Wolf. You should know that."
"Team Valiant is hunting Row down. We started a rumor that he's in the infirmary, and sent the rest of Barracks H there. Whelan's impersonating Row."
"Whelan?" said Alex, gazing up at them. "Impersonating me? He doesn't have the gravitas."
"My point exactly," said Kosta, with a smirk. "It's only a matter of time before they realize Moody's protecting you."
"I can look after myself, Ma'am," said Alex, saluting her. "You're looking lovey tonight."
"Really, cause you look like hell. Since when do you hand out compliments? And why are you sitting on the floor?"
"Too many questions," said Alex, attempting to stand, but he couldn't get any traction, his body refused to obey him. "Help, please." He held out his hand, and Kosta pulled him to his feet. Alex thanked her with a kiss on the cheek.
"Jeez. Talk to me when you're sober, Romeo."
"The name's Ruff."
"And he's Wuffy," said Alex, pointing an unsteady finger at Wolf.
"What the hell is he talking about, Wolf?" asked Kosta
"Suffice it to say Commandant Campbell…."
"Ah, enough said. He renamed me Koaster."
"Campbell renamed that dumbass, Hazlitt," said Alex, leaning on Kosta's shoulder.
"What'd he call him?" asked Pelletier.
"Hazelnut. But Hazelnuts is better." Alex grabbed a hand full of Kosta's hair and ran his fingers through it. "You smell good."
"Knock it off, Row," said Kosta, pulling her hair from his grip.
"That's Ruff to you, miss can't take a copelment." Alex spun away from her in a seeming huff, and, losing his balance fell to the floor.
"A what, prince charming?"
"What the hell happened to him?" asked Pelletier. "Was he attacked on the Valiant?"
"The provost and his men-at-arms beat the crap out of him after the surrender. He's got a concussion and two cracked ribs," said Wolf, helping Alex to his feet, and holding him up.
"Yeah, but Prov'st Hazelnuts will be singing s'prano for the rest of his life," said Alex with a dumb grin.
"You did that?" asked Kosta with a grin.
"He had it coming."
"Looks like I win," said Junior Lieutenant Edouard Pelletier. "Pay up." Everyone groaned as they handed him their money. "I told you it was Row who put Hazlitt in the infirmary."
"It's Hazelnuts," corrected Alex.
"Sorry, Row. Hazelnuts it is."
"Who had it comin'?" shouted Ensign Roland Packard, a tall, hulking, baby-faced cadet.
"Hazelnuts,,,,Hazelnuts…Hazelnuts…" chanted the rest of the cadets.
"Quiet down!" said Wolf. "We're supposed to be protecting him."
"Guess the academy will have to finally give Hades its due," said Pelletier. "You sure showed the academy what we can do given half a chance, Row."
"I don't feel well, Wuffy," said Alex, resting his head on Kosta's shoulder.
"I'm not surprised. Packard, take him into the bathroom," said Wolf.
"Sure, Wuffy, Sir," said Packard.
"Don't call me Wuffy…"
Alex tried to walk, but couldn't, even with Packard's help. His vision dimmed and narrowed as though he looked through a pin hole, and then even that was gone.
A Mountain Trail
21 Octovrios, 3026
Alex climbed the narrow path that led to Jiguzagu Estate's hot springs. With only one day left before his return to the academy, he intended to make the most of it. His great-grandmother, Lady Hippolyte, had not punished him for getting suspended from school; she said he'd suffered enough. However, she had insisted he recuperate 'properly,' which meant five days in bed and one more confined to his room. No visitors except family.
This morning, she had pronounced him fully recovered, saying he could do what he wished until tomorrow. He'd tried every possible argument to make her to relent on their bargain, but she insisted he keep his promise to remain enrolled at the academy for at least two years. After that he could leave if he wished. She could be so stubborn; she refused to understand how oppressive academy life was for someone with the last name Row, or Pelletier or Kosta or Wolf. The regimented life as it was practiced at the academy crushed the most talented and awarded the most idiotic. Her answer: change it.
But he would put that out of his mind for today; he had better things to contemplate. Autumn had reached the higher elevations of Kuramasu Island. It had rained briefly that morning and the colorful foliage sparkled in the light of the clear, breezy day. Yukino had promised to meet him in the maple tree grove, located in a small valley on the eastern side of the mountain. From there, they would hike together to the most remote and difficult to reach hot spring which had the advantage of a small cottage where they would find privacy.
He took the trail to the center of the maple wood, hoping Yukino would be on time. Though it was mid-autumn, a warm wind blew from the south, and the rustling of the leaves sounded like voices whispering secrets. Unfortunately, he had no oracular abilities, but Yukino understood such things, and perhaps she would translate for him.
When he reached their meeting place, Alex sat down to wait for her, pulling a notebook from his pack and writing down the melody that obsessively played in his head.
"Lexi," called a musical voice.
"Yukino." Alex stood, searching the wood.
She swept through the trees, looking like a nymph from a Pre-Raphaelite painting, her deep purple velvet cape flowing behind her. As usual Yukino's choice of attire was completely inappropriate. It was one of the things he loved about her. In a moment she stood before him, her black eyes glinting in the sunlight. He pulled her into his arms and kissed her, relishing the way she reciprocated.
"Lexi," she said, pushing a strand of her shining black hair behind her ear.
"Don't call me that. I'm sixteen."
She looked hurt. "Master Alexander."
"Alex will do. Don't pick on me, Yukino; I only have one day to be with you."
"The last day for a long time."
"Why do you say that? I'll be home for Saturnalia."
"Perhaps I won't be here."
"Don't be an idiot. Where else would you go?" Alex looked into her eyes, but they betrayed nothing.
"I'm not an idiot, and there are plenty of places I could go." Her bow mouth fell into an angry pout.
"But this is your home – we are your family."
"No you are not. I am Lady Hippolyte's ward – a foundling. No one even knows my surname."
"Yuki, I don't understand."
"Don't call me Yuki. I'm even older than you."
"Yukino, what are you trying to say?"
"I have no future here."
"Yes, you do; be my wife. I've been asking you for years."
"I cannot be with you, Alex. You will be married off to someone of your rank."
"There is no need to worry about rank. No one of my rank will ever marry me."
"So you will settle for me?"
"No. I'd always hoped we could be together."
"I shall never marry. I'm faithless, Lexi. You know that; forget me."
"I'll never forget you; don't say that!" shouted Alex, his face turning crimson. Turning his back on her, he walked away. "I thought you as eager to see me as I you, but I miscalculated. I'll walk you down the mountain."
"No, Alexander. I'm sorry; I've missed you so much. The day you left for the academy, I felt abandoned. I knew I'd lost you."
"You have not lost me; even if I were forced to marry someone else, you would become my legally bound concubine."
"Concubine? Why don't you just say slave?"
"You know very well arranged marriages are for the convenience of the families. They are not about love."
"Your mother was a concubine, wasn't she? How did that work out for you and Hestia?"
"Why are you doing this? I'd marry you if you would say yes."
"I'll never marry anyone. I have things to accomplish. I must uncover my true identity, and why my mother did what she did. Besides, you're so handsome and accomplished, Alexander. You could have any woman you want."
"Why would you waste your time on me? What about that red haired girl? The one who played with Tia."
"Now you're trying to pawn me off on Tia's playmates."
"She's rich and her father is connected. You were pretty taken with her when we were kids. I was jealous."
"You needn't have been. I always return to you." Alex frowned at her; his face reddened.
"What's the matter?"
"Have you seen her?"
"She's at the academy."
"Well, there you go. Now's your chance."
"You don't understand how it is. I'm her tutor. She treats me like a slave. She's…"
"What, Alex? What is she? Better than us?"
"Yes. Anatoray is not like Kuramasu Island; it's is a harsh place where merit means nothing. The hierarchy is rigid and arcane. I must always watchI say, because everyone is everyone else's cousin. And, yes she is better than us; based solely on who sired her."
"And you accept this?" asked Yukino.
"Of course not, but I live with it. People despise me just because my name is Row."
"How would they treat someone without a last name?"
"They're obsessive about ancestry, and they torment bastards. It's like living in a hell realm."
"Poor Alexander," said Yukino, touching his cheek. "To me you are and will always be the best boy ever."
"Then wait for me, here, Yukino. When I've completed my obligation at the academy, I'll help you unravel the mystery of your past."
"You know I love you; I might have died but for you."
"And I love you; please, wait for me."
"Let's not speak of this anymore. The leaves are whispering to me."
"Are they telling you the wisdom of accepting my proposal?"
"They say when two people share a bond such as ours it's absurd to indulge in petty arguments."
Alex stared at the muddy earth; he seemed to have a penchant for stubborn women.
"No more doomy, gloomy frowns," said Yukino. "Let's go soak in the hot spring. I'll rub your back."
Alex smiled at her; she was right. They only had today. "But first, a side trip?" he said, leading her to a little teahouse in the center of the forest.
"It took you long enough; I wondered if I had lost my appeal."
"That will never happen."
"It's been such a long time since we've been alone together."
"Tell me about it."
22 Octovrios, 3026
Waiting for its last passenger, a deep blue heavy transport idled on the airfield. It bore the crest of House Yokujin, a maiden archer in shimmering silver paint. Alex paced in front of the entry, waiting for Yukino, who had promised to meet him for a farewell kiss. She had a tendency to tardiness, but he'd never known her to make him wait when he had a strict departure time. Any minute his great-grandmother, Lady Hippolyte, would insist they leave with or without a proper farewell.
Alex smiled, recalling their time together. Yukino shared many of the same interests that he did. But what he loved most was the way she always gave him her complete attention. She read his latest stories and poems, commenting on them in detail. What more could any writer ask for? In return, knowing the pleasure it gave, he did the same for her.
They had both hauled their violins up the mountain, and they'd spent several hours composing and playing music together, using the little melody Alex had written while he waited for her. Like Alex, Yukino played violin and piano, and she was one of the few people who could keep up with him on either instrument. Later that night, when they settled down in front of the fire, they held each other and made up a story about lost children and exiled pirates.
They'd slept overnight in the little cabin by the uppermost hot springs. The two had been intimate friends since childhood. But on his fifteenth birthday, Yukino had guided Alex through the intricacies of sex, and he had been hers ever since. At times he wondered where Yukino had gained such skill; she was only a couple of years older than him. But being naturally discreet he did not inquire, and he really didn't care. He loved getting lost in their shared rapture; it broke the hold of his restless mind, granting him some respite. When his great-grandmother found out about them, she'd moved Yukino from the main house to the guest quarters, forbidding any further intimacy. However, the cat was out of the bag, and neither Alex nor Yukino would be deterred.
At the academy Alex often overheard his fellow cadets gossiping about their romantic adventures, but he really did not understand gratuitous sex. He loved Yukino as she loved him; sex was a way of expressing this and as such it was nothing like that which his fellow cadets described. It had begun to dawn on him that he and Yukino shared something out of the ordinary. But he considered their relationship private, so he never discussed his romantic encounters with Yukino; the other young men took his silence for lack experience. Thus they constantly tried to match him with willing young women, but he had no desire for any other lover. He believed he would never achieve that exquisite state with anyone else; not that he had any basis for comparison. However, he did, at times wonder about other women.
"Alex, we cannot wait another minute," said his great-grandmother. "I don't wish to keep Commandant Campbell waiting. He's such an irritable old crank. Can you believe we are contemporaries?"
Alex flashed her a wicked grin. "He looks old enough to be your great-grandfather. The old fart."
"Alexander. Have you forgotten your manners?"
"But that's his nickname. Should I precede it with commandant?"
"Commandant Old Fart is as vulgar as it is appropriate."
"You know the penalty for swearing."
"But I didn't swear, so how can you punish me?"
"You have me on a technicality; that sort language is unacceptable."
"You know Polli, you look and act half his age." And, though he flattered her to draw her attention away from the subject at hand, he spoke the truth. Lady Hippolyte neared seventy, yet she retained a remarkable beauty. With perfect posture, she stood almost as tall as Alex, and she had the same black hair and hazel eyes. Though slender, she gave the impression of imposing physical strength, and her generous and charismatic personality drew others to her. She had taken in Alex and his sister, Hestia, when Alex was five, and he loved her like a mother.
"Well said, Alex. That is how a young gentleman should speak."
"It was not meant to flatter you," Alex lied. "It happens to be true." This time he did not lie.
"My dear boy," said Lady Hippolyte, touching his arm. "Ah, but we had better go. You'll see Yukino at Saturnalia."
"I'll go find her; she's probably in her quarters."
"No, we'll never get to the academy on time if I let you go to her room. No doubt your goodbye will take days."
"I promise; I'll come right back."
"We'll wait here five more minutes. Then you will board, and we'll leave."
Alex waited until Lady Hippolyte had reentered the transport before he sprinted across the airfield and up the stone steps to the guest quarters. Racing into the building, he climbed the three flights two stairs at a time. When he reached the third story landing, he followed a long corridor until he stood beside her door. He caught his breath, and then tapped lightly. When she did not respond, he knocked harder, finally trying the sliding door, which to his surprise, was not latched.
Alex called her name, and, when she did not answer, he searched her rooms. They were empty. He made for her closet where only a few clothes still hung. Searching the room for her pack and violin, he could not find any of her personal belongings; even her journals were gone. Sitting down on her bed, he knew she had made good on her threat. He held his head in his hand as hot tears fell. Scenarios from their past together marched before his mind's eye. They'd been together since childhood; it seemed as if she'd always been with him…as if he'd always loved her.
Getting up, he knew he had to leave; his great-grandmother had to be informed as soon as possible. As he made his way out the door he saw two message tubes on the entryway bench, one addressed to him, the other to Lady Hippolyte. Taking them, he ran. As he leapt down the stone stairs to the airstrip, he could see his great-grandmother getting out of the transport to converse with her assistant, Antiope, and he waved to get their attention.
"Alexander Pieter James Petros Row," shouted Lady Hippolyte. "Get your sorry butt over here."
Alex knew she must be really angry; she never said words like butt unless he'd pushed her too far.
"Hisabo," said Alex, when he stood before her. Her expression immediately softened. Alex rarely addressed her formally.
"Himago," relied Lady Hippolyte, returning the formality. "What's wrong?"
He held up the message tubes.
"What are those?"
"I found them in Yukino's quarters; she's gone."
"She's run away."
"Don't be so dramatic, Alexander. How could she run away?"
"I don't know, but she has."
"She could not get off the island without us noticing."
Alex laughed, trying to hide his real feelings. "Really? She's had the same training as all Yokujin's."
"Let's not jump to conclusions. Antiope, search for her. Alexander, we must go; but I'll find her, even if she's run away."
"Let me search for her too."
"No, you are due back at the academy."
"I'm sorry, dear boy, but I promise you I'll find her."
"But I must look for her."
"Remember our agreement."
Lady Hippolyte gave orders to Antiope, and then she climbed into the transport; Alex followed her. He handed her one of the message tubes, and then grabbing his messenger bag he stormed to the back of the transport, where he threw himself on the floor in the cargo area.
"You will take a proper seat, Alexander," said Lady Hippolyte. "And don't look at me like that. I am not the one who ran away."
Alex took a window seat, two rows behind Lady Hippolyte. Watching Kuramasu Island recede into the distance, he held the message tube, both curious and fearful regarding its contents. Once over the eastern sea, he gave in to his curiosity. Opening the tube, he removed a sheaf of rolled up papers, tied into a bundle with Yukino's feathered necklace. Slipping the beaded jewelry off, and unfurling the parchment, he read the top sheet.
22 Octovrios, 3026
When you receive this, I'll be out of your reach. I have indentured myself to the Desert Enclave to be trained as a musician and a courtesan. Please do not mourn for me, I do not deserve your tears; you are so superior to me.
My mother's spirit haunts me, and I can find no peace until I know why she took her life. She wore the bee sigil of the Desert Enclave, so that is where I shall start. And, when I have found the answers I seek, I'll have my revenge on those who drove her to despair. Perhaps I'll find my father's identity in the process.
You will always be my best and oldest friend. I had a wonderful time with you last night, but you know very well we cannot marry. You are meant for greater things, which for reasons I do not understand, you reject.
After my naming ceremony, I shall send you my key insignia so you can see me whenever you wish. In the meantime, please write to me. I do love you in my inconstant way. I cannot help the way I am; I was born a daughter of Aphrodite.
Love you always,
For Alex ~ Lyrics for your new melody ~
With you, I have skimmed the seas of imagination,
Unfurling sails made of tales and fables.
And at night under the lonely stars of my new harbor,
These will bear me through uncertain waters.
When darkness engulfs me, I'll just lay low,
Recalling our magic ship as it cut through uncharted oceans.
You, its captain, are now and forever master of the yarn.
All this I shall hold close for you, the best boy ever.
Alex crumpled the papers, holding them tightly to his heart. If she thought concubinage slavery, how could she even consider entering the Enclave? Staring at the floor, he felt leaden bands of pain grow and tighten around his heart. His breathing constricted as he thought of her all alone in that terrible world. In truth, for all of her sexual prowess, Yukino had the heart of an innocent. Fear and concern for her gripped him, as tears wet his hand. When he raised his head to stop them, he came face to face with Lady Hippolyte, who stood in the aisle, watching him; after a moment, she took the seat next to him.
"May I see what she wrote?"
"Please. You may read mine."
"Did she say which Enclave she entered?"
"The Desert Enclave. Can you buy her freedom?"
"I can try, but only if she agrees. She's eighteen now; she can do as she pleases."
"Please, Hisabo, get her out of that place."
"I'll do what I can; I promise you that."
"I'm thinking of the first night she stayed with us."
"I remember; you were six when you found her. I have never seen such a beautiful child, except for my own, of course. Did she say why?"
"She wants to find answers and to take revenge."
"Answers to what?"
"Here, read it." Alex gave Lady Hippolyte his letter. "But don't get angry."
Lady Hippolyte looked at him quizzically, and then read. "Ah so that's where you were last night. You might have left word."
"I did – with Tia."
"She failed to mention it."
"She never liked Yukino, did she?" said Alex.
"Yukino is…well Yukino," said Lady Hippolyte. "She is, as she says, a daughter of Aphrodite; she has a way with men."
"You. Hestia felt she took you away from her."
"But by the time Yukino arrived, Tia rarely played with me."
"That's true, Euris stayed with us often then. Tia and Euris were thick as thieves; as I recall they did cut you out of their play. But I don't believe Hestia is very rational when it comes to you."
"Their games were boring."
"Alex, you cannot mail anything to Yukino from the academy."
"There are rules against consorting with courtesans."
"But the elite cadets go to the floating world every weekend."
"That may be true, but officially such contact is banned. If you write her, go to Brace City and send it from there. You know, I believe she must have waited."
"Well, she could have left any time after her eighteenth birthday, but you had already entered the academy. She wanted to see you one more time."
Alex bowed his head and wept, as Lady Hippolyte put her arms around him.
"I love her, Hisabo; I would have married her."
"I know, dear boy, and she loves you. As the years go by she will come to understand how uncommon true love and friendship are."
* The introductory poem is based on the first stanza from Canto the First of "Don Juan" by Lord Byron.