Greetings, and Happy New Year! Well, I wasn't too happy with how the story was sounding, and the more I tried to save it, the more I stalled. I deeply apologize for the inconvenience of the rewrite, but it was sorely needed. When I started, I had only a vague idea of what direction I wanted to go, but I think the fog has lifted. The fire is back and I shall rewrite all and hopefully continue on a more regular schedule, God willing. What you will read may sound similar to what I had before, with the same basic idea but much improved, or so I hope. Enjoy!
Pumpkin Scissors-Poetic Justice
Nearly a year later…
The old saying still rings true: the more things change, the more they stay the same. It was the collective decision between Captain Hunks and the rest of Section III to take on lighter missions while Lieutenant Alice Lee Malvin healed and recovered her strength. One might think that meant less work, but it was actually the opposite. When Marquis Paolo's war-relief funds started pouring in, the team had to scramble to use that money before it was seized by the government or anyone else due to any loopholes or technicalities. Naturally, that was enough to keep everyone very busy diverting the funds to good causes as quickly as possible.
An unlikely ally appeared to aid them in their quest. Master Schultz fulfilled his promise to Alice by learning more about her cause and what Section III's goals were. While he was unqualified for the army due to his physical health (such as being allergic to gunpowder and frequent panic attacks) he insisted on being a "financial consultant" and proved to be quite useful in that regard. When he heard of the recent danger that Alice and the team went through, he was dismayed that he couldn't do more. However both Alice and Cpt. Hunks assured him he was doing more than enough. After a while, Hunk asked Master Schultz to stay on and assist with investigating Marquis Hoost.
As time passed, weeks dragged on into months and the capital city of the Empire slowly but surely took on a semblance of its old self. The railways were cleared and fixed, bridges were rebuilt, power lines were reestablished, and the post office was able to distribute months of backlogged mail, returning to a normal schedule. Overall, these steps created hundreds of jobs, which meant new homes were being built and new shops emerged. It was a big step, but far from enough. While the city was well on its way to normalcy, the rest of the Empire had far to go, even as the Empire continued to create more state farms and the like.
On top of all that, Alice still had an engagement to worry about. She threw herself into her work, avoiding both the issue and Master Lionel Taylor alike. When her sisters Ellis and Solice broached the subject, she kept pushing back the wedding, making excuses about her health and so on, but she knew she had to face them all soon and be firm. Normally, she would tell Lionel outright, but after the incident at WinterShadow, her confidence had been badly shaken. She couldn't trust her sense of judgment anymore. She didn't love him, but then love wasn't all that important in an arranged marriage, which was more like a business transaction than anything. The fact that he was assertive in his ardor for her was reason enough for many. She just couldn't come up with a good enough reason to say no, other than she just didn't want to.
Of course you'll marry him, her father had said shortly after she was discharged from the hospital, his tone reasonable. Everything has been arranged and paid for.
Something's not right, she told him.
All right, he'd said. So what is it? Is he ignoring you? Has he mistreated you in any way?
She shook her head.
Has he been unfaithful?
She shook her head again.
Has he shown you any reason to not trust him?
She thought long and hard about that one, but at last had to shake her head once more.
But I still don't trust him, Father, she said. I can't place why.
You're acting more like a spoiled, little girl. A respectable noble should be far more articulate than that.
Neither he nor her sisters, Elis and Solice, could figure out what the problem was. They felt that perhaps it was the trauma of almost losing her life that made her so overcautious. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Lord Taylor was a very patient man, saying he would wait as long as it took.
"Absence makes the heart grow ever fonder, my dove of a princess," he said one day, kissing her hand.
In the end, they all reluctantly decided it was best if they left her alone to do what she loved: war-relief.
Section III kept things light and happy as possible for Alice, but everyone guessed the underlying reason for the sadness in her eyes: Randel Oland. Things just weren't the same without him, and everyone missed him terribly. They were also quite worried. They tried searching a few times for him, but with no success. It was like he had vanished off the face of the earth.
"It's only logical he should be in Rodelia," Martis suggested to Hunks one day, "that's where his lantern was stolen."
"If that is the case," Hunks said, "then it's possible the Rodelians are harboring terrorists. Problem is, how can we find out whether or not they're doing it on purpose?"
Hunks didn't show it, but he was more worried about Oland than anyone else, even Alice. Shortly after others in the army noticed he was gone, the team announced that the Corporal was on temporary leave. Almost immediately, Hunks was approached by Dr. Muze Caplan herself. The conversation that followed proved his suspicions that Caplan had a network of eyes and ears.
"What happened to my sweet boy?" she asked Hunks, but there was nothing sweet in her tone. "I doubt he is on vacation, Captain. Is he dead?"
Hunks eyed her warily. He couldn't trust her, but she knew things about Oland that Hunks did not. He decided to come clean. "An unfortunate, gross misunderstanding, I'm afraid. We're trying to track him down."
"Oh, so he's just MIA, then. Oh well. Is it true then, that his lantern has been…misplaced?"
"And just how did you know that?"
"It's my job to know my patients, Captain," Dr. Caplan smiled.
"You mean test subjects, don't you?" Hunks drawled. Dr. Caplan smiled serenely and said nothing.
He sighed and continued. "Good, if you know him so well, then perhaps you can tell me where he is!" he said, throwing up his hands.
Caplan laughed. "If I knew that, Captain, I wouldn't need you at all, now would I?"
"Well…" he said slyly, "you said…"
"I know my patients," she said, with emphasis on patients, "but that doesn't mean I know where they will go or what they will do. Most scientists don't like having so many unknown variables, but I'm quite fond of them, actually. However, in my poor boy's case, I do hope you find him soon, for his sake."
"Let's just say…he's due for a check-up. I'll send my assistant over if and when you find anything."
Hunks rapped his pipe on his desk sharply. "If I find you're harming him by withholding information from me, I will take you out, Doctor. I promise you that."
"Threats are quite unbecoming of you, Captain."
"That's why I don't make them unless I mean it, Doc."
Days later, Sergeant-Major Lily Stecchin rushed in with the day's mail. She was waving a letter over her head like a flag.
"Wow, you guys won't believe it!" she squealed, "It's an invitation! From Rodelia!"
Everyone started. Alice was so shocked she nearly fell out of her chair. Even Hunks held his breath for a moment. Then his rationale took over.
"What kind of invitation, Lily?" he asked.
"Oh, didn't I say?" Stecchin panted, "Sorry! I mean to say it's a royal invitation! It's for a masquerade ball in honor of All Hallow's Eve!"
Alice took the letter from Stecchin and read it aloud:
"To the esteemed members of the Imperial State Section III-Pumpkin Scissors,
It is my honor and privilege to invite you to our annual All Hallow's Eve Masquerade Ball in thanks to your noble, fearless efforts in protecting the people of Cavern City, as well as your outstanding efforts in reviving your capital. It is my understanding your military continues to refuse any acknowledgement of the WinterShadow incident. I find this quite distressing, and thus have resolved to honor you in my own way by inviting you all as my special guests. I will spare no expense to ensure your comfort. Please be ready at the station on Oct. 25th, at 0700 hours. Do not worry about bringing a proper costume. I shall have a tailor for each of you. Be prompt, and I will receive you with joy.
Her Royal Highness, Princess Septieme
P.S. I would but one request make: please allow Sub-Lieutenant Martis to escort me on the night of the ball. I can think of no other officer more qualified to keep good company."
Alice put the letter down and sighed. Oreldo couldn't help but chuckle.
"I think a certain royal has her eye on you," he told Martis in a singsong voice.
Martis blushed. "More like a royal pain," he muttered, "If Webner finds out, I'll never hear the end of it!"
"Does that mean I get to go, too?" Stecchin asked Hunks. When he smiled and nodded in response, she squealed for joy.
"Ooh, I've never been to a ball!" she cried, "I wonder if it will be just like Cinderella? Oh, what am I gonna wear?"
"That's enough!" Alice said. She turned to Captain Hunks. "Captain, we must decline this immediately. We've got too much work to do!"
Martis looked equally troubled and relieved, but Stecchin and Oreldo protested loudly. Hunks held up a hand while he sipped his coffee and waited for the din to die down. He looked Alice in the eye.
"Of course you're going," he drawled. Alice's eyes widened with fear, and he knew his hunch had been right. "Unfortunately, I have too much to manage here, so I have to stay. You however, have all worked hard and deserve a reward.
"Oh, but sir!" Stecchin said, suddenly flustered, "Are you sure you don't need me to stay here? How will you manage?"
Hunks chuckled. "Don't worry about me, Lily. I'll be fine. This is a very generous thing for the Princess to do. Besides, while you're there, you can investigate other things as well."
"I don't want to," Alice mumbled involuntarily, then clapped her hand over her mouth and blushed.
"Suck it up, Lieutenant," Hunks said, his tone gentle but firm, "I've gone easy on you for a while, but now it's time to get back on the horse. Understand?"
"Yes, sir," she replied, chastised.
He turned to Martis. "If you think she has the maturity to handle it, ask the Princess about the 906 paratroopers. If she doesn't know about them yet, you can warn her in advance."
"Yes, sir!" Martis replied.
"And I'm going to go ahead and say this out loud. We've been walking on eggshells for too long! See if anyone has any information on him. Exhaust all your sources. He's got to be there somewhere! Find out how the Shadowers are doing, too. That's a good place to start."
"Yes, sir!" Oreldo, Martis and Stecchin said. Alice fidgeted.
"Sir?" she asked. "What if…we find him?"
"What if, Lieutenant?"
"What if…he doesn't want to be found? What if he doesn't want to see us? What if he doesn't want to come back?"
"Then at least we know he's safe and happy, wherever he is," Hunks replied softly. "We all miss him, Lieutenant. You're selfish in blaming yourself for so long."
Alice's eyes widened with surprise and anger. After a moment, she realized he was right.
"My apologies, Captain. I have been selfish."
"You've had a lot on your mind, Lieutenant. It's only human. But enough is enough! Right?"
"Yes, sir!" Alice saluted, then turned to her team. "Section III, you are hereby dismissed to pack your suitcases! Move out!"