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 the actions of such a one less heroic just because he or she is not flawless?
No matter, of one of these I do not care to boast.
I'll take Captain Alex Row -
We all have seen him, in the pantomime,
Waiting in shadows, biding his time.
Chapter 1: Suspended
Anatoray Military Academy
Vanship Maintenance Hanger
Annual Autumn War Games
15 Octovrios, 3026
"Ensign Row, get your contrary butt in here," shouted Junior Lieutenant Kori Kosta, a tall, lean cadet, whose silky black hair fell around her angular face in feathery, curly wisps, despite her best efforts to contain it under a mechanic's kepi. "You have your orders."
Alex Row ignored Kosta. Instead, he remained outside the maintenance hanger watching the Anatoray Military Academy's Annual Autumnal War Games extravaganza. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he watched the western sky, attempting to catch a glimpse of the fighting. Two ships carried on maneuvers; the Indefatigable and the Valiant. They had just completed the First Foray, a procedure prescribed by the Guild, which required that each ship open their facing side bays so rows of foot soldiers could shoot at each other with steam muskets. Now each ship's crew rushed to count and then 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. Alex knew exactly how to defeat the Valiant, despite the fact that her crew had amassed an enormous lead. 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!"
Alex frowned at the junior lieutenant, wondering why the cadets of Barracks H always got stuck with clean up and maintenance duty. But he complied with her order, twirling his wrench like a drumstick as he trudged back into the hangar which housed the silver vanship he had been assigned to repair.
"Don't look at me like that; we have our orders, Ensign Row. When the fighting is over, there will be an inspection, and our due diligence will be assessed. We may even help our team win."
"Team Indefatigable will lose, and no amount of points for diligence will help."
"Ensign Row, are you insane? Since you are a first year, I will give you a heads up; don't let your fellow teammates hear you. They will beat the crap out of you."
"Let them try."
"What is the matter with you? You're usually so tightlipped."
"I despise losing," growled Alex, removing his Team Indefatigable armband.
"Ensign, what do you think you are doing?" asked the cadet in charge, Junior Lieutenant Aquila Caelus.
"Are you blind as well as stupid?" demanded Alex. Astonished, Junior Lieutenant Kosta stared at him.
"Put your armband back on, Ensign whatever-your-name-is."
"I shall not!" Alex answered with a glare so menacing that it drove Junior Lieutenant Caelus to step back.
The Barracks H cadets, who all knew with absolute certainty that the H stood for Hades, stopped working and drew closer to the altercation. It was a rare treat when one of their ranks 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 rested on their families' noble titles and wealth.
"What is your name?" demanded Caelus from a safe distance.
"What is yours?" smirked Alex.
"If you do not answer, I'll have you thrown in the brig – disobedience is a serious offense during a war game."
"What is your name, Ensign?"
"I need not identify myself to you, unless you identify yourself first."
"I am your commanding officer, Junior Lieutenant Aquila Caelus, and refer to me as sir. Now! Who are you?"
"Ensign Alex Row."
"Ah, Row, no wonder," said Caelus, his words dripping with condescension.
"Sir?" asked Alex, lacing that little word with a great deal of sarcasm.
"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 angry disapproval. His beady blue-gray eyes darting nervously back and forth, Junior Lieutenant Caelus 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'll sound the alert for the provost and his men-at-arms if you don't back down."
"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."
"What about Row?"
"He was just about to replace his armband, while he apologized 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. Though Wolf followed the rules to the letter, Alex had found his actions fair and advice reliable. He regretted having to give in to this twit, Caelus; 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."
The cadets did as ordered, while Caelus inspected the hangar, giving Wolf further instructions. When Caelus finally departed, the members of the Barracks H clique known as the wolf pack watched while one of their group, Ensign Julian Whelan, pranced around silently imitating Junior Lieutenant Caelus' superior manner and bowlegged walk. 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.
As soon as their commanding officer was completely out of sight, the wolf pack surrounded Alex, slapping him on the back. They had taken note of Alex Row, and had tried to get him to commit to their clique. Alex, however, was not a pack animal.
"Hey, Row, that was pretty ballsy. What's up?" asked Junior Lieutenant Edouard Pelletier, the wolf pack's alpha male.
Alex ignored him, crossing the hangar to resume vanship maintenance. Undeterred, Pelletier followed him.
"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, casually.
"So what? We never get to fight."
"What if we could get Team Valiant to surrender?"
"You mean to us – Barracks H?" asked Pelletier with obvious interest.
"What have demerits got to do with it?"
"Not just demerits, possible suspension."
"I could use a vacation, if for nothing more than a bath. But why such a severe punishment?"
"What I have planned breaks the chivalric rules of engagement."
"I'm in, but what about the rest of the cadets?"
"We don't need them; in fact I can do this myself. But I could use your help pushing a vanship out the side door. And maybe you could start it for me."
"Can't I come with you?"
"But what will you do?"
Alex and Pelletier shoved a silver vanship through the hangar's side gate, after which the two cadets rushed through a check list to prepare the ship for flight. While Pelletier made minor adjustments, Alex returned to the hangar, a feeling of exaltation radiating through his body as he contemplated the serious damage he would inflict on Team Valient. He found a messenger bag and slipped it over his shoulder while making his way to the war games munitions cabinet. There he loaded up with training ordnance, including grappling hooks, explosives and a side arm.
"Row, let me help." Pelletier stood behind him watching intently as Alex packed away enough ammunition to take out a fleet.
"I'm good with explosives."
"No, act like you don't know anything."
"But I want to get suspended too."
"No you don't. Now, let's move."
Leaping into the navi's seat, Alex 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. Then he climbed onto the ship's nose, and he slid to the drive shaft where he inserted a hand crank. Whistling a jaunty tune, he waited for Alex' signal.
"Ready," said Alex, lowering himself into the pilot's seat.
"Aren't you going to wear your seatbelt?" asked Pelletier.
"Alright," replied Pelletier doubtfully, as he turned the hand crank, starting the engine. His work done, he slid gracefully down the vanship's side, and landing lightly, quickly turned and saluted. Alex could not suppress a smile as he saluted back.
Rising two meters into the air, 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 from the west. The Indefatigable moved on the east side of the Valiant, the two ships fighting parallel to each other, both bows facing the north. Alex knew that the Valiant's' officers would not be expecting any problems from the west. There was also the fact that the clock had just struck eighteen hundred hours, so he had the benefit of the blinding glare from the setting sun behind him, rendering him almost invisible. However, the judges and guests who rode in a ship above the action would have a clear view of his activities.
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 called the butt crack. Moving quickly, he leaped out of the vanship and fastened it to the Valiant with grappling hooks. Then he found his way to a maintenance hatchway further aft, where he lowered himself into an empty mechanic's duty station. Cautiously opening the door and finding no one about, he made his way to the engine room. There he set the explosives, wiring them to a timer set for ten minutes.
Alex had a distinct advantage; 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 fools. Why was it that not a single cadet had been stationed in the engine room?
With bombs armed, he 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.
Alex navigated the narrow, stifling, dimly lit passageway with difficulty, falling over the leg of an auxiliary power station and striking his head. He cursed under his breath, wishing he'd had the foresight to bring an electric torch. Standing, he wiped sweat from brow, quickly realizing it had the hot, sticky feel of blood. Finally, a use for his Team Indefatigable armband, which he ripped from his sleeve and tied to his forehead with a piece of electrical wire 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 the main power lever and switched it off. He wasn't sure what he'd shut off, but he was pretty sure it would hurt.
Knowing the explosives in the engine room were about to detonate, Alex risked running, in spite of the increased possibility of detection. When he reached the bridge he hid in the maintenance compartment beside the communications station, where he could clearly hear a heated debate on the bridge.
"Sir, I suggest we board them," said one of the officers.
"Board them? We would lose points for a breach of the chivalric rules of engagement, Junior Lieutenant Zouves. That is a ridiculous suggestion."
Alex recognized the voice of Ensign Reid Scott, with whom he took classes. He wondered why such an inexperienced and, in truth, fatuous cadet had been chosen for one of the two commander positions. Truly, the plutocratic machinations of the academy escaped Alex. Perhaps Scott's family had bought it for him. But no matter; this 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 in the loud explosions, which, though they did no real damage, had by the rules of the game rendered the Valiant immobile. With his gun at the ready, Alex took the bridge and seized the commander. The two other bridge officers watched Alex with bemused surprise as he held Ensign Scott at gun point.
"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 them," 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," said Ensign Piero Sforza.
"Perhaps that isn't such 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 very 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 hypocrisy is breathtaking," said Alex, as he threw the cadet 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 mechanic who seems to be bleeding profusely."
With the Valiant's surrender, the provost and his military police unit, made up entirely of elite cadets, immediately 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.
"You! Ensign!" said Commandant Campbell, pointing a palsied hand at Alex. "What is your name?"
"Ensign Alex Row."
"You have made a mockery of these games, bringing shame on the officers of this school, who have dedicated themselves to upholding the chivalric 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 in contempt.
"Stand at attention when you address me! Now where was I…"
"Our benefactors, the Guild, Sir," offered Alex, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
"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 Alex Row."
"Well, damn it, why did you tell me it 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 it was you, for decking young Vespasian. Not that that idiot doesn't deserve a good throttling."
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 Hazlitt," said Commandant Campbell. "Arrest this miscreant. Commander Moody, escort them to my office. I'll be there within the hour."
"Yes, Sir," said Commander Moody, "Provost, take Ensign Row to my transport, and wait for me there."
Provost Hazlitt ordered his cadets to hold Alex while he cuffed the prisoner's hands behind his back. With Alex firmly secured, two burly MPs flanked him, and, grabbing his upper arms, led him down a long hallway. Once free of his superiors' scrutiny, Provost Hazlitt kicked his detainee's knee with such force that Alex fell. The provost must have hit a nerve for the excruciating pain spread up Alex spine, and he bit his lip to keep from crying out. Managing to regain his footing, Alex continued on, but, when his limp slowed progress, the MPs dragged him the rest of the way, throwing him into the cargo area of Moody's heavy transport which waited where Alex' vanship had been. The provost followed Alex inside.
"You fucking bastard," shouted the incensed provost, 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."
"You are the scum," said Alex, as dark red fury seized him. The angry prisoner rolled onto his back, bringing his knees to his chest and then shoving his feet into the provost's scrotum. Hazlitt stared at Alex, his eyes crossing as he fell to his knees. The poor provost turned an interesting shade of blue, and then let out a long, loud wail that sounded like a feral creature in heat. While the cadets stood gawking, Alex curled into a ball, snaking his arms under him so his cuffed his hands were now in front.
Reviving quickly, Hazlitt's MPs leaped into the transport. One grabbed Alex by the hair and pulled him into a kneeling position as another punched him. Ignoring the pain, Alex fell back, bringing his elbow down on the hair puller's toes. The cadet screamed and fell to floor along with a fistful of his attacker's black hair.
"What in bloody Hades is going on here?" shouted Commander Moody.
"Sir," whispered the very pale provost, "the prisoner's resisting arrest."
"The truth, Provost, 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 un-cuff Ensign Row."
"Do as I say."
Smirking, Alex sat up, holding his arms out to the provost who nodded to his pocket indicating that one his men-at-arms should retrieve the key. Once free Alex held his hands to his aching head, realizing his wound had reopened. He tried to stand up, but slipped back 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 passed my class on the chivalric code."
"Help Ensign Row," moaned Hazlitt.
Two cadets pulled Alex to his feet and steadied him as he 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."
"Yes, Sir," shouted the men-at-arms in unison.
"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."
"What about that eye?"
"I'm not sure when that happened."
"I suppose you will not give me any details."
"You realize they will claim you started it."
"I don't care, Sir."
"You should report the truth of the incident; otherwise they'll do this to someone else."
Alex laughed. These elite cadets would never be punished for their transgressions. No matter what was said in his defense, or what proof there was to support his innocence, Alex would bear the blame. But there was a benefit to 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 rules.
"What's so funny?" demanded Moody.
The medics arrived and, after dressing Alex' wounds, gave their diagnoses to Commander Moody: two bruised, possibly fractured ribs and a likely 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 as soon as possible. Then he helped Alex down the stairs to Commander Campbell's third floor office; where the two took seats before the commandant's desk and waited.
"Ensign Row, I have sent for Lady Hippolyte. No doubt you will be suspended and grounded, and 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, and then 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?"
"It's a land tactic. Why use it in air battles?"
"Because it is the First Foray as prescribed by Guild in the Chivalric Code."
"It's a pointless bloodbath."
"Hm…alright, I won't argue that point. 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 for the games."
"You're a clever young man, but why did you fight alone?"
"I didn't want to implicate any of my fellow 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."
With that, the door swung open and Commandant Campbell hobbled into his office, catching his cape in the door as 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.
"Ensign Alex 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 this great country of Anatoray when this lot takes the reigns of leadership…" A knock on the door interrupted the angry 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 himming and hawing! Get to the bloody point."
"Of course, Commander 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 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."
Commander 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, his eyebrow arched skeptically, as he shook his head. Perhaps the medication that the medics had given Alex had finally taken effect, or maybe he'd 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'd 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."
"That is good point. Well, Moody, what do you suggest?"
"It would be most prudent to expedite the ensign's case so he can take his leave."
"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 stand at attention, 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.
With Moody on one side and Wolf on the other, Alex limped from the commandant's office, his head reeling.
"I think I'm going 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.
"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?"
"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, Sir," said Alex, and then he laughed hysterically. "That was pretty funny; don't you think so, Wuffy."
"Get him horizontal," said Commander Moody. "Maybe he'll pass out, and we'll be spared the corny jokes."
"Corny? I prefer rubadagas, Sir," said Alex. "Er…rugadabas."
Commander Moody shook his head, "Ensign Row, you may not speak."
"Yes, Sir, Coddamnder Booby."
"That's twenty demerits," said the commander, retreating down the stairs, as Wolf helped Alex to Moody's office.
"That's a bit severe. Don't you think, Wuffy?"
"I swear, Row, you cause more trouble then any cadet in entire history of the academy."
"Do I, Wuffy?"
"Indeed, but today was awesome. What gave you the idea to land a vanship in the Valiant's butt crack?"
"Brilliance, Wuffy, sheer brilliance."
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 the lights '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 had gotten up and 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 team: 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.
"Really, cause you look like hell. What happened to you? 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 refusing to obey him. "Help, please."
"The provost and his men-at-arms beat the crap out of him. He's got a concussion and two cracked ribs," said Wolf, helping Alex to his feet, and holding him up.
"Yeah, but the provost will be singing soprano for the rest of his life," said Alex with a dumb grin.
"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 not like Row to be so talkative," said Kosta. "Is he on something?"
"Be quiet!" said Wolf. "We're supposed to be protecting him."
"I don't feel well, Wuffy," said Alex.
"I'm not surprised. Packard, take him into the bathroom and keep him there."
"Sure, Wuffy, Sir," said Ensign Roland Packard, a tall, hulking, baby-faced cadet.
"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. He had only one day left before his return to the academy, and he would make it a good one. His great-grandmother, Lady Hippolyte, stating that he had suffered enough, had not punished him for getting suspended from school, but she had insisted he recuperate 'properly,' which meant five days in bed and one more confined to his room.
Yesterday, she had pronounced him fully recovered, saying he could do what he wished until his return to the academy, which was, unfortunately, too soon. He'd tried every possible argument to get her to relent on their bargain, but she insisted that he keep his promise to remain enrolled at the academy for at least one year. After that he could leave if he wished. Damn it! She could be so stubborn. The regimented life oppressed Alex; he craved the freedom.
But he wouldn't think of it today, for he had better things to contemplate. Autumn had reached the higher elevations of Kuramasu Island, 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.
Turning right, 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 a voice 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, he sat down to wait for her, pulling a notebook from his pack and writing down the melody that kept running through his head.
"Lexi," called a musical voice.
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, loving the way she responded to his touch. Maybe they'd go to the little shrine nearby instead. It had been three long months since the last time they'd been together.
"Lexi," she said, pushing a strand of her shinning black hair behind her ear.
"Don't call me that. I'm sixteen."
She looked hurt. "Master Alexander."
"Alex will do. Don't be angry with 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 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 a beautiful, 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."
"I have no future here."
"Yes, you do. Marry me."
"I cannot be with you, Alex. You will be married off - probably to Euris."
"I'll never marry Euris or anyone like her. You don't understand how it is, Yukino. I'd hoped…we could…"
"I shall never marry. I'm faithless, Lexi, forget me."
"I'll never forget you; don't say that," shouted Alex, his face crimson with anger. Turning his back on her, he walked away, gathering his composure. "I thought you as eager to see me as I you, but I miscalculated. I'll walk you down the mountain."
"No, my love. 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 be 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."
"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 I wish to accomplish. I must uncover my true identity, and why my mother did what she did. Besides, your feelings for Euris are transparent; I don't understand why you don't go after her."
"I've caused Euris too much injury. I am not an appropriate husband for her. Besides she's…"
"What, Alex? What is she? Better than us?"
"Yes. Anatoray is not like Kuramasu Island: it's is a harsh country where merit has no place. It's complicated, but based solely on who bore her, Euris is better than us. This is what I've learned the hard way at the academy."
"You accept this?"
"No, but I live with it. People despise me just because my last name is Row."
"How would they treat someone without a last name?"
"They obsessively follow ancestry, and they torment bastards. It's like being in a hell realm."
"My poor Lexi…"
"Wait for me, here. 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."
"Tell me what they say."
"They say when two people share a bond such as ours it's absurd to indulge in petty arguments. Let's go swimming."
Alex smiled at her. "But first, a side trip?" he said, leading her to the little shrine.
22 Octovrios, 3026
Waiting for its last passenger to board, 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 its 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 would insist they leave with or without a proper farewell.
Alex smiled, remembering what they'd done while they made up. Yukino did indeed share the same interests as he, but it was the way she always gave him her complete attention that utterly charmed him. She read his latest stories and poems, commenting on them in detail. He in turn did the same with her work.
They had both hauled their violins up the mountain, and they spent time 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, when they settled down in front of the fire, they held each other and made up stories of lost children and pirate kings.
They'd over-nighted in the little cabin at the hot springs where they made love for hours. On his fifteenth birthday, she had guided him to the sanctuary where ecstasy resides, and he had been hers ever since. At times he wondered where Yukino had gained such skill; she was only two years older than him. But being a gentleman 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 complete happiness. 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 Alex would not be deterred.
At the academy Alex had overheard his fellow cadets gossiping about their romantic adventures, and he realized that he and Yukino had something out of the ordinary. Alex had been taught manners so he never discussed his romantic encounters; 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, think of another.
"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 looked at her with a wicked smile. "No, you look and act half his age." And he spoke the truth, because, though Lady Hippolyte neared seventy, 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, my dear boy. That is how a young gentleman should speak with a lady."
"It was not meant to flatter you. It happens to be true."
"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 if I let you go to her room. No doubt your goodbye would take days."
"I promise; I'll come right back."
"No, but we'll wait 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 stone building, he climbed the three flights to Yukino's rooms, two stairs at a time. When he reached the third story landing, he took the corridor to the left following it until he stood beside her door where he caught his breathe, 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, noting their emptiness. He made for her closet where 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 he'd lost her; she had hurt him so many times, but she had never left him. He held his head in his hand as hot tears fell while scenarios from their past together marched before his mind's eye. They'd been playmates as children, and it seemed as if he'd always loved her.
Getting up, he shuffled across the room to take his leave; his great-grandmother must be looking for him. 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 gone 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, Alex. 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 of panic and fear. "Really? She's had the same training as all Yokujin's."
"Let's not jump to conclusions. Antiope, search for her. Alex, 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."
Lady Hippolyte gave orders to Antiope, and then she climbed into the transport with Alex reluctantly following 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 sat on the floor in the cargo area.
"You will take a proper seat, Alex," 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 roiling eastern sea, he gave into 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 such an unspeakable act. 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 another, something, which for reasons I do not understand, you choose to ignore.
After my naming ceremony, I shall send you my key insignia so you can see me if 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 lovely 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 its 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 heavy bands of pain grow and tighten around his heart, constricting his breath as he thought of her 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?"
"Yukino is…well Yukino. 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, she and Euris were thick as thieves, but I don't believe Hestia is very rational when it comes to you. Alex, you cannot write 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 anytime 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 learn just how much."
The introductory poem is based on the first stanza from Canto the First of "Don Juan" by Lord Byron.